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.