Thursday, November 24, 2011

Happy Thanksgiving. May it flow with spice!

Apple pie with mounds of fresh ground cinnamon and grandma's classic lard-vinegar crust. Pumpkin pie with fresh grated ginger and intense Jamaican allspice.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Avocado leaf salsa & creamy jalapeño garlic salsa

As promised, I have continued to experiment with the avocado leaves bought at Fiesta Mart last week. Pictured on the left is the avocado leaf salsa from Bajío I mentioned in my previous post. I found a recipe on Inside Mexico, which is full of problems, but gave me a good starting point for integrating the wonderfully anise-y notes of avocado leaf into a salsa. To begin with, the recipe calls for blending tomatillos, garlic, and a roasted avocado leaf without cooking the tomatillos beforehand. Pretty much impossible given the almost styrofoam-like texture of uncooked tomatillos. So I boiled them until soft, figuring that this is supposed to be a delicate salsa that might be ruined by the charred flavor of comal roasted ingredients. Two other problems: the scale of the recipe seems unnecessarily small to my mind and the flavor of the avocado leaf did not come through, so I fixed it. The final product was wonderful, fruity and lightly perfumed, with the subtle heat of the serrano chiles in the background. Recipe below. It's a good salsa for chips, but I think it would also be delicious with most white fish and with chicken, and probably with a good pork tenderloin as well.

On other fronts, the infused vodka experimentation has not been terribly successful. Avocado leaf infused vodka, on its own, lacks body. I tried it with carrot, thinking the sweetness of the carrot would add an interesting base note, but it tasted slightly wrong. My friend Neville suggested infusing it with figs, which I think is probably the solution. I will report the results as soon as I get my hands on some good figs. My other experiment, avocado-fruit infused vodka, was more successful. An absolutely unmistakable avocado flavor with a lightly creamy texture from the avocado fat. But I need to work on finding a way to prevent it from browning without denaturing the avocado flavor too much. I thought of adding a little bit of agave nectar and lime juice, which should cancel each other out acidity-wise, and hopefully enhance (not distract from) the avocado flavor. More on that soon!

Serrano chile and avocado leaf salsa

2 avocado leaves
4 serrano chiles, with seeds and veins removed
2 cloves garlic
15–20 tomatillos
2 Tbs vegetable oil
1/2 cup of finely chopped onion

Salt to taste

Boil the tomatillos in a pot of salted boiling water for three to five minutes. Blend one of the avocado leaves (roasted lightly on a comal for just a few seconds) along with the serranos, garlic and tomatillos in a blender until completely homogenous. Heat the vegetable oil in a sauce pan and add the second avocado leaf to the oil, followed quickly with the tomatillo mixture. Fry for 10 minutes. Remove the salsa from the stove, add the chopped onions and salt to taste. Cool and make sure to remove the avocado leaf as you would a bay leaf before serving.

If you don't have access to Fiesta Mart, you can buy avocado leaves online here and here. Don't try to pluck them from your garden. This is a variety of avocado only grown in Central America. Apparently the leaves from the California-grown varieties are (ever so) slightly toxic.

Creamy jalapeño salsa (pictured on the right)
This recipe represents a first attempt to duplicate the Doña salsa from Taco Deli, a local Austin favorite. Fairly successful on the whole but not as spicy as Taco Deli's version.

15+ jalapeños
1 bulb of garlic
1 T lime juice (or vinegar) + 1 T water
1 cup (or more) corn oil
salt to taste

Roast the jalapeños and all the cloves from one bulb of garlic on the comal. "Sweat" the jalapeños in a closed paper bag or ziplock baggie for ten minutes or so. Peel and remove the seeds and veins from the roasted jalapeños. Peel the garlic once it's cooled down enough to do so. Place all ingredients, except for the oil and salt, into a blender and blend until perfectly homogenous. Add more water if necessary to ensure a homogenous mixture. Then, as though you were making a mayonnaise or vinaigrette, add the oil very slowly while the blender is still running. Continue adding the oil until the mixture becomes creamy and thick to your liking. If the emulsion seems unstable you can cheat by adding a teaspoon (or less) of mayonnaise to stabilize it. Salt to taste.

Today's lunch featured both salsas: papas con chorizo, grilled Elgin sausage, migas, and homemade flour tortillas. About as Texan as it gets.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Avocado leaves / hojas de aguacate

Ok, not the best photo in the world but I must share. The pictured leaves, which look like they might be giant bay leaves, are actually avocado leaves. It's the first of hopefully many experiments with this exciting––and completely new to me––ingredient. Because the Day of the Dead was yesterday, an occasion during which people here prepare (among other things) tamales, mole, atole, coffee, tequila, and pan de muertos, Fiesta Mart started selling some of the harder-to-acquire ingredients that go into central Mexican moles and tamales, avocado leaves being one of them. They have a sharp anise-like aroma, somewhat like hoja santa, with a slightly bitter bay leaf-like substratum. I have read that Oaxacans oven roast lamb on a bed of avocado leaves, which, now that I've tasted this intense ingredient, I am certain is an exquisite lamb preparation. The above photo is a basic pot roast prepared with avocado leaves, cloves, and Tellicherry pepper as seasoning. Not pretty but a resounding success in the flavor department. Next, I'd like to try to duplicate a salsa from the menu of El Bajío, one of my favorite brunch spots in Mexico City, made with roasted avocado leaves, serrano chiles, and tomatillo. I'm also thinking I'll do a carrot and avocado leaf infused vodka, and perhaps an avocado fruit and avocado leaf infused vodka as well. The possibilities are endless. Happy Day of the Dead, y'all!

Saturday, October 29, 2011

The Dog's Breakfast

What better way to get your spice fix than through infused spirits? Especially during the holiday season. I still haven't figured out what to make this year but perhaps I will steal a recipe from my new favorite food blog, The Dog's Breakfast. These two Montrealers write and design beautifully. I burn with envy at their gorgeous page layouts and crisp appetizing photography. Better yet, their posts often feature spices from my favorite spice purveyor in the world, the Montreal-based Épices de Cru. Their infused vodka includes a blend of bird's eye chiles (a close relative of the Peri Peri), red Kampot pepper, red Szechuan pepper, and dried orange peel. The kind of vodka you could drink straight [chilled] to appreciate the intermingling of flavors. What are some of your favorite ways to infuse spirits?

Also, while I'm gushing about The Dog's Breakfast, check out this fantastic interview they did with Ethné and Philippe de Vienne.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Spice cake three times sweet with bourbon soaked raisins

You may have noticed. One of my favorite ways to eat spice is in sweets and baked goods. When it became fashionable to add chile to chocolate à la mode aztèque (and, soon thereafter, to all kinds of chocolate desserts), I jumped right on that bandwagon, and have remained on it ever since. Three of my very favorite desserts on this planet are spice cake, mince pie, and triple ginger cookies with white chocolate chips. Years ago, when I worked as a line cook for the B&O Bakery in Seattle, one of the bakers there made a garam masala spice cake with caramelized pears and chocolate ganache. I could have gone without the ganache, but the earthy perfume-y notes of the garam masala in contrast with the caramelized pears was a revelation I could not turn back from. I like my candy spicy too. Just a few months before creating this blog I made a pumpkin seed brittle with sea salt and pequin chile powder that became a quick household addiction. [I will reduplicate it for another seasonally-appropriate entry, soon].

This cake was the product of last-minute improvisation. Last night was the annual, obligatory, French and Italian department party, an occasion I always dread and always end up enjoying despite myself. I only read the invitation a few hours before the party and realized it was a potluck-style event. It seemed a nice occasion for a cake. I love showing up to parties with a cake. I mean, who makes cakes these days, anyhow? So it was decided. The only problem was, I only had 1/3 cup of sugar left in my pantry, not nearly enough to make a whole cake. Right next to it, though, I had a bottle of strong blackstrap molasses and a container of raw local honey my mom sent from Seattle. So it was decided; I would make the cake with sugar, molasses, and honey. Those three sweeteners together, with the inclusion of freshly ground cinnamon, Tellicherry black pepper, and clove––and brought just over the top with a layer of bourbon soaked raisins––filled my house with the most intoxicating smell that has ever emanated from my oven. The flavor and texture were great as well, and I received a ton of compliments at the party, but my memory of the cake is fixated almost exclusively on that smell. It smelled like everything I love: butter, caramel, spices, and bourbon. Taste-wise, the cake is not too sweet, pleasantly moist, and has just enough of a kick from the black pepper to make you wonder, "what spice is this?", but not so much that it tastes like a pepper mill. If you want to make a sweeter version, I might warm some honey, poke the cake with toothpick holes after it's been out of the oven for 10 minutes or so, and glaze it (no, soak it!) with the warm honey. 

Monday, September 26, 2011

A week of meat

After a summer of semi-vegetarianism (which, in my household, means eating mostly veggies at home and meat at restaurants and dinner parties), and after eating a delicious stuffed pork tenderloin prepared by my friend Neville, and after learning that HEB now sells ground lamb in their regular meat section, I have declared this not-yet-autumnal last week of September, the week of meat! Allow me to share some photos.

The original inspiration for the week of meet. Neville's pork tenderloin stuffed with kale and pork sausage, wrapped in prosciutto and braised in a mixture of arak and apple cider, rosemary and fall apples. Phenomenal!

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Curry saves lives

Perhaps you've read the headlines?

Scientists have begun to study the properties of turmeric and have found it has anti-inflammatory properties that may offer new treatment possibilities for tendinitis (see the article here) and, even better, turmeric activates a cancer-killing mechanism in human saliva (see the article here) and may help boost treatments for people suffering head and neck malignancies. Marilene Wang, from UCLA's Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center, the senior author of the study, explains:
"This study shows that curcumin can work in the mouths of patients with head and neck malignancies and reduce activities that promote cancer growth," Wang said. "And it not only affected the cancer by inhibiting a critical cell signaling pathway, it also affected the saliva itself by reducing pro-inflammatory cytokines within the saliva."
Ok, so my headline is perhaps a bit hyperbolic. But I'll take any excuse to let the spice flow.

On the culinary side of things, I'm already wondering how I might use fresh turmeric root in a curry rather than the powder. Microplane it into a paste, same as ginger? Juice it? Dice it?

Thanks, Erin Goss, for bringing these articles to my attention. Now tell me, what other spices have curative properties? Should we start with chile peppers?

Monday, September 12, 2011

In lieu of a substantial post, photos...

I haven't posted in a few weeks; classes have started and suddenly there's no time. But I will not let this blog die. It has been a source of pleasure, consolation, and a great deal of narcissistic supplies.
I have been photographing my food, expecting to be able to find time to draft detailed posts. And my geographic inspiration has shifted a bit, from South Asia to Southeast Asia. There's lots to share. Failed and successful experiments. New and abiding spice obsessions. Reflections on budget cooking. Lots. For now, let me share some photos from the past few weeks. Don't look for narrative threads or underlying unity. And please understand that soup is difficult to photograph.

I went through a dosa making phase. Developed a taste for unfilled ghee-crisped dosas sprinkled with dosa masala powder.

I have been making Thai curries lately and serving them with Italian pastas. Here's a minted Thai green curry with chicken breast and penne.

I learned from reading a Thai food blog that you can bruise the lemongrass with a hammer and then tie it into knots so you can fish the lemongrass out of the soup more easily. Stringy mess otherwise.

Sweet potato spice muffins. Made with a pungent homemade spice mix of mace, cardamom, fenugrek, clove, cinnamon and tellicherry black pepper. Intense and a resounding success. I'll post the recipe soon.

Sweet potato spice muffins. My friend, Philip, who tried these right out of the oven said they taste like Christmas.
Shrimp tom yum soup. I learned that I prefer to make this soup with chicken or fish stock, even though most Thai people make it with water.

Strawberry rhubarb trifle. Made with leftover birthday cake, Mexican vanilla custard, Texas strawberry sauce, and rhubarb sauce made with rhubarb from my mom's yard in Seattle.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Jackfruit curry

Jackfruit curry à la Bhavya

Last week I got to enjoy one of the first tangible results of this blog in the form of a wonderful food gift. Bhavya Tiwari, a brilliant graduate student in Comparative Literature here at UT and reader of Let the Spice Flow, brought me a container of homemade Jackfruit curry from her kitchen. She tells me it's a delicacy in India, and after trying it I believe her. What fantastic textures and flavors! Texturally, it reminds me of the softest best part of an artichoke heart (what the French call the fond d'artichaut). Flavor-wise, it tastes starchy and fruity (like a green plantain, sort of) and neutral enough to be able to absorb any number of flavors. Bhavya prepared it with a delicate curry, blending notes of cinnamon and and turmeric over a base of mustard seeds, onions and tomatoes, and maybe just maybe a bit of jaggery. It was stupendous and now I am thrilled to have a new food project: investigate all the uses of this weird and beautiful starchy fruit and start experimenting with it. Does anyone have any Jackfruit stories to share?

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Uthappams (South Indian lentil pancakes)

I just learned that my all-time favorite vegetarian South Indian restaurant, Madras Saravana Bhavan, is a chain. A chain with locations in Singapore, London, Paris, Chennai, Dubai, Delhi, Kuala Lumpur, Atlanta, and New York, among other super-cosmopolitan locales. But a chain all the same. How to react? I've had amazing Sri Lankan cuisine in Paris. I've had lick-your-fingers-and-squeal-in-delight delicious Bhojpuri cuisine in London. But, seriously, the very best South Indian I've ever had was in Atlanta at Madras Saravana Bhavan. If they're opening restaurants worldwide I guess they must be doing something right. Right? Truth be told, I don't usually trust that logic. But I've not had better vegetarian South Indian anywhere, so perhaps this is a logic that works if you're part of the vegetarian Indian transnational jet set? I don't know. In any case, I have been missing Atlanta and dreaming about those dosas and uthappams for years. Also, my mom has been on a soak-your-grains-before-you-cook-them kick for a little while now, so I've been interested in recipes that involve soaking and fermentation, which happens to be a staple in South Indian (and more specifically, Tamil) cuisine. The soaking and fermentation process makes grains and pulses more digestible and somehow produces a greater variety of amino acids (vegetarians and gluten-haters, pay attention!). It also creates a much more complex, interesting, flavor. Think sourdough vs.Wonder bread.

Friday, July 29, 2011

More ways to use eggplant: lasagna

Eggplant spinach lasagna
Homemade pasta made with fresh duck eggs from the yard; eggplant from the garden; spicy bolognese made with the addition of fragrant sweet fennel, red pepper flakes, and extra bold Tellicherry black pepper; white and green layers of cheese mixture made with ricotta, mozzarella, "Italian cheese mix," spinach, duck eggs, and a subtle hint of nutmeg.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

South Indian style eggplant curry

YouTube is a great source of information for cooks wishing to learn techniques from other culinary traditions. After Camellia Panjabi's eminently user-friendly curry primer, I learned a great majority of the Indian/South Asian techniques I know by watching Indian and Indian-American home cooks and professionals demonstrate their methods on video. Among other things, I learned how to make naan bread, homemade paneer, flaky paratha, and (my favorite) Idlis, all on YouTube. Some of the videos are poorly edited, cheesy, or just plain weird, while others are quite polished. But as long as you get a good visual sense for each step involved and the textures you're supposed to aim for at each stage of the process, as well as any special hand or tool techniques involved, a video is still more valuable, in my opinion, than any cookbook. For one, videos tend to demystify cooking techniques while cookbooks tend to do the opposite (an unintentional byproduct of the linguistic encoding, in precise terms, of techniques that are traditionally transmitted in the kitchen, mother to daughter, cook to cook, etc., where language only has an ancillary function). This is especially true with any recipe involving a yeast dough, where it is critical to observe textural factors such as wetness, gluten-level-stickyness, oiliness, etc.

Anyhow, YouTube cooking manifesto aside, I wanted to share a recipe from one of my favorite online Indian chefs, Sanjay Thumma. First, read this nice feature on Thumma that appeared in The Hindu two years ago, and which explains why YouTube is particularly useful for Indian cooking. Then, check out his video recipe for eggplant tomato curry. I looked specifically to Thumma when my garden started producing more eggplants and tomatoes than I knew what to do with, and was pleased with what I found. The inclusion of freshly roasted and crushed peanuts and sesame seeds in this particular recipe is what sold me.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Spice Hunters source nutmeg in Grenada

Unfortunately, it turns out, I can't view the online episodes of Chasseurs d'épices because ARTV viewership is restricted to Canada. Does anyone know of a backdoor way to access Canadian TV online from an American computer? In the meantime, I will have to make do with YouTube clips.

Three locales have been featured so far, all of them places I'm dying to visit: Grenada, Oaxaca, Trinidad. The clip on Grenada is particularly moving, as we see the first nutmeg harvest in seven years after Hurricane Ivan destroyed nearly all of the spice plantations on the island. 

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Smoky red salsa

I think the main reason I have always loved tortas with devotion I don't usually reserve for lunch fare is the smoky red chile sauce traditionally used as a condiment. Thanks to my genius foodie friend Igor, I have found wonderful Veracruz-style tortas right here in my own neighborhood. And their red chile salsa might be the best I've ever had in either country! So now I set out to reduplicate that salsa. Here is my first attempt: a complete failure as reduplications go, but a definite success, as delicious variations within a genre go. But first, an appetizing photo of a Veracruz-style torta. Notice the multiple meats, a symphony of pork products. 

Smoky red salsa
Add all destemmed chiles, except for 10 or so pequins, to boiling water and boil for 5 minutes or so. Meanwhile roast the unpeeled cloves of garlic and the tomato(es) on the comal. Peel the tomato(es) and garlic cloves once cool enough to do so. Strain the chiles, saving about a cup of water, and place in a blender along with the garlic, peeled tomato(es), and the rest of the piquin chiles. Blend until homogenous, adding just enough water to make a thick liquid, and fry in a sauce pan for a few good minutes. Then return the sauce to the blender, adding one or two Tbs of oil and blend until emulsified. This last step gives the sauce a creamier consistency. Salt to taste.

6 guajillo chiles
15 árbol chiles
25 piquin chiles
7 cloves of garlic
1 large tomato or 2 roma tomatoes
salt to taste

Bottled in La Norteñita crema mexicana jars.

Notes: The pequin chiles give the sauce its smoky taste, so I used a considerable amount. Boiling the chiles in water diminished their smokiness, so I added 10 or so uncooked pequins to the blender and that made a noticeable difference. Next time I won't boil any of the pequins at all and see what effect that has. The guajillos give the salsa a wonderful sweet tobacco-y body while the pequins add smoky, citrusy, nutty, notes. I love this combination of flavors but think it could be more subtle. Next time I might add a less distinct tasting chile –– cascabels or catarinas –– to give the salsa a solid neutral base with which to make the guajillo/pequin combination sing.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Sourdough molasses waffles

My mother's birthday gift, one of these, arrived in the mail yesterday and it works better than any home waffle maker I've ever used. Thanks, Mom! My first experiment was to make a batch of waffles using the yeast starter I keep in my fridge and haven't used much lately on account of the unspeakable heat. I didn't take precise measurements but did roughly the following: make a sponge using the starter (let sit 3-4 hours), add 2 eggs, 3 Tbs oil, 1 Tbs molasses, salt, 1 tsp baking powder, a dash of nutmeg, 1 tsp vanilla, 1/2 cup goat milk, and enough whole wheat flour to make an extremely wet dough somewhere between a batter and a brioche-type dough. Let the dough rise in the fridge overnight and then allow it to sit at room temperature for about an hour before making the waffles. Stir in 1/4 cup turbinado sugar immediately before you begin for a Belgian-style caramelization. Texturally, these came out like Belgian waffles, crispy and almost glossy on the outside, moist and dense on the inside. Their flavor was heartier with the inclusion of blackstrap molasses and whole wheat flour, how I imagine 19th century American baked goods might have tasted.

Monday, July 18, 2011

More salsa. This time, with photos.

As promised, here are some photos of my salsa-making process, a visual aid to the approximate recipe posted here.

I always gather the ingredients beforehand to get a visual sense of the proportions:

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Tomato curry with peri peri and kalonji

An improvised curry, marrying the citrusy burn of peri peri peppers with the inimitable fragrant-yet-bitter-nutty quality of kalonji seeds, made using a base of fresh garden tomatoes and local sweet onions.
I like to have a big jar of pre-made curry sauce in the fridge for those occasions when I'm not in the mood to cook. Throw half a bag of frozen peas and half a bag of frozen cubed potatoes into a pot with some pre-made curry, et voilà, a fresh batch of aloo mattar. Or use a bag of frozen mixed peas and carrots and I've got gajar mattar, and so on. If I have cooked meat or faux meat in the fridge, I might throw that in as well. One of the most memorable meals of the summer was leftover barbecue brisket from Franklin's (IMHO the best barbecue in Austin), chopped and warmed in a makhani masala that I had jarred a few days earlier. It was heaven on a plate I tell you.

Anyhow, I haven't made a curry in a few weeks mainly because I am out of Indian chiles. I used to have some reshampatti and gundu chiles in the pantry but they disappear quickly because my curries require megadoses. And since I haven't had time to shop at the Indian store in Austin, all I have at the moment is an assortment of Mexican chiles and some peri peris. The latter were introduced to me by a friend from Cape Town, who adds heat to his dishes using a deliciously smoky peri peri-infused whiskey. Just look how tiny and delicate they are but also take note of the heat level indicated on the bag, nine out of ten on Philippe de Vienne's heat scale:

Peri peri are singularly fruity and extremely spicy. I decided to base my curry on them. My second decision was to include kalonji (nigella sativa), which I thought would make a nice counterpoint to the peri peri with its inimitably fragrant-yet-bitter-nutty quality (imagine marrying a sesame seed, a caraway seed, and a shallot), so the curry recipe that follows is an improvisation on the marriage of peri peri and kalonji, made using a base of fresh garden tomatoes and local sweet onions. First, let me share a picture of the tomatoes. I just love their almost neon intensity.

Tomato curry (featuring peri peri and kalonji)
Heat a couple Tbsp of ghee in large sautee pan. Toast peri peri peppers and black mustard seeds lightly, then add fenugrek, cumin and coriander and toast for another 30 seconds or so. Next add chopped onions and slitted green chiles, sautee on medium heat until the onions become translucent and the chiles soften.

Monday, July 11, 2011

What's in the garden: cayenne peppers

The cayenne peppers in my garden have just begun to ripen. We should have a pound or two of peppers by the end of next week and the only thing to do with so many peppers is make hot sauce!

They ripen from the bottom up.

Today's harvest.

Mike's basic vinegar-based hot sauce

1 1/2 cup white vinegar
1 lb of cayenne peppers, seeded and chopped
1 West Indian Bay Leaf
1 tsp salt

Simmer all ingredients for 10 minutes. Let cool, remove bay leaf, and blend until homogenous. Preserve in a large glass jar and store in a cool dark place for 3 to 6 months (or longer, if you have the patience –– I plan on waiting until December, in case I want to gift it). Strain and bottle once you're ready. I'll post pictures of the bottling process in five months!

Note: The bay leaf is optional but adds a wonderful musty floral note to the sauce that really distinguishes it from other sauces in the genre. I recommend the West Indian bay leaf sold at Épices de Cru. The flavor is much more intense and peppery than the Mediterranean variety we are used to. 

Spiced peas

Warm 2 Tbsp of ghee in a sautee pan and toast 1 Tbsp each of black mustard seeds (rai) and ground fenugrek (methi). Add peas, sautee, then add 2 or 3 Tbsp of heavy cream and 1 Tbsp of tomato jam (or tomato paste and a tsp sugar, if you don't have any jam), which will reduce to a glossy coating on the peas. Salt to taste and hit with a generous dose of garam masala just before serving. I served it with jasmine rice and garnished it with tomato jam and fresh cilantro from the garden. This would be a great side for duck breast or pork tenderloin. If I make it again, I would include sliced almonds for texture.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Tostadas with smoked chicken salad

Served with sliced cucumbers, shredded jicama, and cilantro from the garden. Carrot escabeche and lime garnish.

What's in the fridge: salsa and more salsa

We always have a jar or two of homemade salsa in the fridge. Always. I can't think of a time when we haven't. It goes in nearly everything we eat in the Johnson-Mendez household. On tacos, tostadas, enchiladas, and migas, of course, but also [Chris, in particular, likes to put it on] mashed potatoes, chicken soup, meat loaf, turkey sandwiches, and pretty much anything else you can imagine, barring dessert. Next time I make salsa, I will be sure to post photos of the process (easy, easy, easy). In the meantime, let me show you what I have in the fridge at the moment. Two salsas: one more typical here in Texas, made with Roma tomatoes, onions, garlic, jalapeños, and cilantro; the other, more typical in Central Mexico, made with tomatillos, árbol chiles, garlic, avocado, toasted cumin, and cilantro.

Roma tomatoes to the left, tomatillos to the right.

In the first salsa (pictured to the left) I roasted about 7 or 8 Roma tomatoes, 4 or 5 jalapeños (stems removed), one onion (sliced thickly), and 5 or 6 cloves of garlic (skin intact) on the comal until the tomatoes and onion slices are almost entirely blackened, the jalapeños lose their bright green color, and the garlic becomes gooey soft. Usually the garlic comes off first and the tomatoes last. Peel garlic, throw everything into a blender, and add one Tsp of peppercorns (I use extra bold Tellicherry) and a chopped bunch of cilantro before blending. You can jar the salsa at this point or do what many Mexican cooks do and "fry" the salsa, which kick starts the infusion of flavors and, with the addition of oil, counter-balances the acidity of the tomatoes and chiles. Mexican Foodie explains the process a bit here. Salt to taste carefully. It can be hard to gauge the salt-level in really spicy salsas when the salsa is still hot.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Horchata w/goat milk

Soak 1 1/2 cups of rice in 3 cups of water overnight or longer. Blend until smooth along with 2 or 3 sticks of cinnamon (depending on preference), 1/4 cup of sugar and one tsp of vanilla. Pour into a pitcher, or whatever you are going to serve/store it in, and add 1 cup of goat milk, water to bring it to the consistency you prefer (another 2 cups or so) and additional sugar to taste, depending on how sweet you prefer your horchata to be.

Notes: Horchata tastes best after it sits for a day or two when the cinnamon oils are fully infused and the uncooked rice begins to lose its chalky taste. Make it with brown rice and raw agave nectar for a healthier and nuttier tasting version (just be sure to soak it an extra day or two). A note on the inclusion of milk: I've had horchata with and without milk in it, in both the US and Mexico. People here in Texas tend to put tons of milk in their horchata and I find it too rich to be refreshing on a hot summer's day. I add a cup of goat milk to give it body but that can be left out. As for the vanilla, I am a fan of Mexican vanilla; it is made from a mix of water-based vanilla bean extract and vanillin (C8H8O3) in a candy-sweet solution of corn syrup and alcohol. The mix of fake and real gives it an exaggerated hyper-real quality, like the flavor equivalent of an HDR photo. 

Before blending

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Spice Hunters

I'm looking forward to watching the first episode of Chasseurs d'épices (Spice Hunters), a new show on French-language Canadian TV featuring the owners of my favorite spice store in the world. The documentary series follows Ethné and Philippe de Vienne in an expedition that spans five continents in search of the best spices in the world. Through personal encounters with the cultures of the spice-producing regions they visit, they discover how people use spices in their culinary traditions, and how this connects to their ways of life and artistic traditions. The first episode takes place in Trinidad (where Ethné hails from) and will air this Friday, July 8.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Documenting some recent meals

As I said, one purpose of this blog will be to document meals. Let me sketch out a few recent meals here, before I forget them. Mostly notes to self but hopefully also transferable/usable information. No photos this time around but now that I have a blog to be responsible to, I should be able to muster the discipline to pull out the camera before digging in next time.
•Mesquite smoked chicken, smoked on a bed of árbol chiles, sea salt, and bay leaves. 
Oil a cookie sheet and line to cover it with bay leaves and de-stemmed árbol chiles. Salt chicken halves generously and arrange skin-side down on the sheet. Get a slow smoke on on the grill and turn the flame low. Smoke for one to two hours. The oils from the chiles and bay leaves blend and give the chicken skin a deep, almost Szechuan flavor. I served it with garlic mashed potatoes and bbq grilled zucchini and eggplant.
•Coriander smoked duck breast.
Same preparation as above. Substitute whole coriander seeds. Tasted great with mesquite but would probably taste amazing with plum wood. I served this on homemade sourdough naan-bread with tomato jam (I made with tomatoes from Johnson's Garden) and green tomato raita (made with the green tomatoes in my yard). I'll post an entry on my sourdough naan technique some time in the near future. 
•Green tomato raita.
Fine dice one large green tomato, half of an onion and one bunch of cilantro. Toast one Tbsp of coriander seeds on the comal, ground and add to a quart-minus-one-cup of yoghurt. Mix all ingredients and salt to taste. 


Mom, somehow, always there at the beginning of everything.
Growing up in the northern suburbs of Seattle, when the city was less cosmopolitan than it is today, I did not appreciate my health pilgrim of a mother's fervent quest for the (in her words) "blood purifying" burn of chiles. I remember the comedy of projections sometimes played out in Thai restaurants in order to get the spiciest possible meal and enjoying the small transgression against suburban whiteness that our chile eating represented, although I couldn't have put it in these terms at the time. My mom, in a familiar scene:
–Thai hot, please.
I don't know. It's very hot. Are you sure? Four stars okay?
–No, Thai hot please. Six stars. As spicy as you can make it.
As an adult, having inherited my mother's obsession for spicy food, I've relived this scene and permutations of it I don't know how many times. Although much has changed. More Americans seem to appreciate spicy food now. More spicy cuisines seem to be available across the country than before. [Ethiopian, Korean, Indian, Caribbean, Mexican, Szechuan, etc.]. More information about how to cook spicy world cuisines has become accessible, along with access to previously difficult-to-find chiles and spices.
 This may only apply to big cities. Small town America is still a mystery to me, I admit.  I remember eating in a Thai restaurant in Champaign, IL, with my friend Larry, another chile junkie, who had lived in Northern Thailand and who reminisced often about the absurdly spicy nam tok he ate there, called "waterfall" in Thai for the painful tears it would cause. It took some cajoling to convince the owners he could handle the heat. Larry used his Thai, "Ow pet pet (I want it very spicy)," which elicited visible embarrassment and a strained compliment, "your Thai is very good." A comfortingly familiar scene. I was back in the 80s with my mom, except this time I had some philosophy and literary criticism under my belt, along with a vague grasp of postcolonial theory. The scene I had lived with my mom became newly legible. Misreadings, projections, shot both ways. The expectation that spicy = authentic and that authentic = good, in one direction, and the expectation (driven perhaps by a sensible fear of losing clientele) that white people do not like their food too spicy, in the other direction.
I recalled a similar scene, this time in Guadeloupe, where my desire for authenticity translated into a request for hot sauce. Unlike Jamaica, say, which is used to accommodating largely Anglo-American tourists who have a relatively high tolerance for spice, Guadeloupe's tourism industry is largely oriented to a French audience generally intolerant of any degree of chile heat. I say this with some authority, having lived in France for four years. To give you a concrete idea, Mild Pace Picante Sauce would be the spice threshold for the average Franco-French palate. Of course there are plenty of exceptions, including the French of North African and West African origins, travel junkies and adrenaline junkies, etc.. But let me make just one more unfair generalization about France: although wary of spicy foods, the French do tend seek out "authentic" (read: exotic, orientalizing) experiences when on vacation, certainly more so than the average American vacationer. So, accordingly, business-savvy Guadeloupean restaurateurs have learned to include wording on their menus that promotes the authenticity of their food ("aux saveurs exotiques des Antilles"), which is, of course, not at all what people eat at their homes. The spiciest dish may hit a fifty on the Scoville scale, and might not even register as spicy to an American. The meats and fish are upmarket, etc.. Anyhow, after spending a day at the market in Point-à-Pitre, and having tasted some beautiful local chiles and hot sauces, my travel buddy (and food blogger, Christian) and I found a nice restaurant recommended by Lonely Planet for its authentic dishes. I can't remember what I ordered. Probably some sort of seafood fritters, maybe something with bread fruit. I don't know. But I do remember asking for some "piment" (the word means both "hot pepper" and "anything that adds spice, figuratively or literally, to s/t") and getting a small plate with a single scotch bonnet pepper on it, the equivalent of a "fuck you" from the cook. I think my inner hippie girl wanted recognition from the cook in a quasi-erotic communication ("I am not like the other diners, I recognize and want the real you"). The chef, who now I realize was probably trained in Paris and likely belonged to a high-ish rung of the Island's micro class system, responded as he/she should have ("It is what it is. More thought was put into this dish than any home cooked meal you'll get on the island. So eat it or fuck off. Also, please project your quasi-erotic authenticity fantasies in a way that is legible to me. In the French way I know"). I realize I am reading a lot into a single hot pepper and that the chef was probably too slammed to formulate any of these thoughts. For all I know it was the waitress who put the chile on the plate. What matters, though, is the revelation. First, that authenticity is not an interesting or meaningful measure when it comes to good food. Second, that eating others' food is never as simple an act as it seems, especially when traveling. And third, that I must keep hot sauce on my person at all times.