Saturday, October 27, 2012

The Lady of Shallots

Neither Suriani banana jelly nor Guatemalan banana jelly contain shallots. 
The choice of Burma by Naomi Duguid for my next book was poorly timed, as tackling two shallot-based cuisines in a row is sapping my cooking spirit. I just have to read the words "heaping cup of thinly sliced shallots" and my eyes start to sting. I need goggles.

Last week, I made the chicken salad from Burma,  which consists of chopped rotisserie chicken tossed with lime juice, sliced raw shallots, fried shallots, shallot oil, and toasted chickpea flour. It was great. Strewing toasted chickpea flour over a salad seemed bizarre, but made perfect sense after the first bite as the chickpea flour serves the role of a crouton, but a crouton that has been powdered and dispersed over every morsel of salad. In other words, a perfect crouton. The following day I ate leftover chicken salad in a sandwich with lettuce and mayonnaise and it was fantastic. Isabel ate the chicken salad wrapped in a cold flour tortilla. Big thumbs up for Burmese chicken salad. You can find the recipe here, although I would skip the chicken breasts and use a rotisserie chicken.

The next night I served Duguid's pork sliders (i.e. meatballs) which are flavored with garlic, lemongrass, ginger, tomato, and minced shallots. Recipe here. They were too pungent for me, but popular with the others. To accompany the sliders I made eggplant delight (mashed eggplants, minced shallot, and egg cooked in shallot oil) which was too eggplanty for the others, but popular with me. I have also  braised a pot of  Duguid's sweet-and-tart pork belly (pork, hibiscus flowers, a generous cup of  shallots) but we aren't going to eat that until tonight so I can't tell you anything about it except that it is murky and full of wilted purple hibiscus flowers.

Burma is wonderful and exotic, but I'm just not feeling energized. I think I need a palate cleanser between South Asian cuisines. Suggestions please! I have pre-ordered Smitten Kitchen, but that won't arrive until next week. I'm going to buy Jerusalem at the Omnivore Books event, but that's next week, too. What should I do in the meantime?

To try to answer that question I went to the library the other day and walked out with two books, neither of which is going to work for the blog:

-Fannie's Last Supper by Christopher Kimball is what book critics like to call a "slim volume," words I must have used 450 times in a national magazine, but somehow can't employ in my little blog without wincing. Why is that? The bok recounts Kimball's attempt to recreate a 12-course Victorian feast using Fannie Farmer's 1896 cookbook as his guide and it is hilarious and smart and eccentric. I started reading it before I fell asleep and finished when I woke up, which is the beauty of a slim volume. But there was not a single dish in its pages that I wanted to cook. I wanted to make the soup that involves boiling down a whole calf's head and garnishing it with "brainballs" least of all.

-I haven't read Michael Ruhlman's Twenty yet, so can't offer an opinion. Not that I would offer any but the most glowing opinion after stumbling across this thread. Ruhlman's rebuttal puts me off Twenty more than the review that inspired it. Later, I looked for more reviews of Twenty and found this delightful cookbook blog. She rambles so much less than some cookbook critics I could name who often seem to forget why they started a blog in the first place.

And on that note: The final dinner I cooked from The Suriani Kitchen by Lathika George was a thick stew of beef, coconut, shallots, and tapioca.
I had to make this dish because I had to try cooking fresh tapioca. I did not know that tapioca was the same foodstuff as yuca, the tasty spud-like starch I enjoyed when I was a high school exchange student in Costa Rica, but now I do. I liked tapioca/yuca then, I like it now, and I'm glad I had the experience of cooking it at least once in my life. Tapioca is cheap, easy to peel, easy to chop, and has the mild flavor and texture of a slightly fibrous potato. It is even less nutritious than a potato.

The other dish I knew I had to make before I closed the Suriani chapter was banana jelly, as I am a little bit hung up on bananas. To make Suriani banana jelly you briefly cook bananas in water, pour the mixture into a sieve and let the juice strain off overnight. (You mustn't press on the fruit, George warns, lest you release solids that will cloud the jelly.) The next day, cook this clear fluid down with sugar and eventually you end up with a delicate, translucent preserve that is very sweet and faintly banana flavored. We liked it. Didn't know quite what to do with it after enjoying a little on toast, but definitely liked it.

This seemed like the moment to also try making the Guatemalan banana jelly from Copleand Marks's False Tongues and Sunday Bread, a recipe that caught my eye years ago. For this more primitive jelly you just boil bananas with sugar and orange juice for an hour or so until you have a cloudy preserve that resembles apple butter, but tastes like banana baby food. I love banana baby food, so I was pleased. Of the two, I would make the Guatemalan jelly again because of its more emphatic banana flavor, but probably won't because there is just no demand in this household for banana jelly. 

The only other sweet I made from The Suriani Kitchen was mango mousse, and it was probably my favorite recipe in the whole book. George doesn't call for whipping the cream, which I think is a mistake, and I added twice as much chopped mango as she called for and omitted the cinnamon which she uses as a garnish. This was absolutely delicious, almost worth the price of the book.

2 cups mango puree
1 cup Greek yogurt (or strained homemade)
1/2 cup cream, whipped
1/4 cup sugar syrup, cooled (boil together equal parts sugar and water and chill)
1 cup chopped mango

1. Mix together the first 4 ingredients and chill.
2. Fold in the chopped mango. Serves 4. 

And there you have it.  I made 23 recipes from The Suriani Kitchen:

worth the price of the book -- 0
great -- 9 (fish molee, mousse, toddy pancakes)
good -- 5
so-so -- 9
flat out bad -- 0

Clearly The Suriani Kitchen is not a shelf essential, but if you're ever in the Indira Gandhi Airport at 9 p.m. and have extra rupees to unload and happen to come across a copy. . .  

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Back into the Suriani Kitchen

a butte of puttu.

"Out of curiosity I asked a hundred Syrian Christians what their favorite food was, and it was no surprise that more than eighty of them said -- 'puttu!'" -- Lathika George, author of The Suriani Kitchen.

I knew I couldn't move on to a new cookbook until I had made puttu, which sounds like a dirty word but is just one of many pasty rice dishes in George's book and apparently the most special.

Only diehard cooks will find this fascinating, but here's the full puttu report:

To make puttu per George's recipe, you mix roasted rice flour with salt and water to form a crumbly dough which you then push through a sieve to work out any lumps. This takes an eon, after which you alternate layer of crumbs with spoonfuls of grated coconut in a cylindrical puttu kuti and steam your puttu. (Lacking a puttu kuti, lightly greased ramekins work.) In pictures on the internet, puttu appears to be pasty tubes of firm white carbohydrate, but my puttu immediately collapsed into a pile of crumbs. These crumbs were quite pleasant to eat, like couscous with the flavor of unseasoned rice, if you can imagine such a knockout dish. I was not convinced I had done puttu justice.

On Sunday, I tried again. This time I aimed for a wetter batter and I used coconut milk instead of water to provide the coconut flavor. I then omitted the grated coconut because I am tired of coconut whiskers in everything I eat. This second puttu steamed into a cohesive puck of bland starch, as you can see in the photograph at the top of the page. Perfectly edible, but I don't understand how something so innocuous could possibly be anyone's favorite dish. I suspect it's one of those comfort foods you just have to grow with to love, like grits or mashed potatoes or poi. 

Both times, I served the puttu with a spinach thoran and you don't have to grow up with spinach thoran to know that it is a delicious, easy, and unfattening way to get more leafy greens into your diet. 

Spinach thoran, barely adapted from The Suriani Kitchen by Lathika George.

1/ 2 cup unsweetened shredded coconut

1 serrano chili, sliced  (seeds removed if you don't want the dish to be too spicy)

1 teaspoon fresh ginger, chopped

2 cloves garlic
6 shallots, sliced
1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
4 cups spinach, chopped into 1/4-1/2 inch shreds
1 teaspoon oil (or slightly more -- but you really do just want a tiny amount)
1/2 teaspoon black mustard seeds
6 curry leaves
2 dried red chilies, torn in half

1. In a food processor or powerful spice grinder, grind the first 7 ingredient to a paste. Mix with the spinach, massaging it into the leaves with your hands.

2. In a big skillet, heat the oil. Add the mustard seeds and when they burst, add the curry leaves and chiles. Saute for a minute or two.

3. Add the spinach and sprinkle with a little water. (Very little. The first time I added too much and the dish was a bit soggy. The second time I added maybe a tablespoon and the dish was perfect.) Cover and cook for a few minutes, until the spinach is soft and hot. Serves 2.

Monday, October 15, 2012

A night on the town with Aida

a new low in photography
Thank you for the funny and poignant comments on the last post. I loved them all. My grandmother, who is 100, has always hated having her picture taken and when forced to endure a photograph, turns her face in profile because someone once told her that it's her most flattering angle. In pictures she is often gazing worshipfully up at the person beside her, no matter how unworthy of worship that person is, as in the photo above which I took on Saturday night. You might need a magnifying glass because the light is dim and my grandmother has become so small, but she is gazing adoringly at Owen. Vanity is ageless.

About a year ago a commenter on this blog recommended Cafe Rehoboth, an Ethiopian restaurant in San Jose. Owen, Isabel, and I made a date to take my grandmother to dinner there on Saturday and when we got to her house we rang the bell repeatedly, then I called on the phone, which no one answered, then we rang some more before she finally appeared at the door, tiny and dear. This is standard operating procedure. She was dressed in a gray skirt and sweater with a scarf and a barrette in her hair and she looked snappy, but she immediately said, "I feel so sick and tired! I don't know what is wrong with me. Suddenly I was getting dressed and I felt exhausted. I am so glad you are here because I thought I was going to faint."

I never know whether to take her seriously or cajole her. I said, "Why don't you sit down and I'll get you a glass of water."

Grandmother: "Maybe a little glass of rum? It is good for the heart."


I brought her a tablespoon of rum in a tiny crystal glass with an ice cube, the only way my grandmother drinks anything, including wine. She sat in her wing chair, took bird-like sips, fretted.

Grandmother: This might be my last day, you know.

Jennifer: Then let's make this the best day ever.

Owen: Maybe you should take her pulse.

Jennifer: Ok. . . oh no, I can't find it. She must be gone.

Ha ha ha.

She wanted me to write down the number of a specific ambulance company in case she fainted at the restaurant. She made me look in a drawer for the number, but the drawer was full of Christmas napkins.

Cafe Rehoboth sits in the middle of a half-abandoned street and the carpeted dining room, very humble and homey, is tucked behind a defunct bar. The hostess treated my grandmother like a queen, which made her happy. My grandmother is soft-spoken and gentle, but very regal; my grandfather used to say that her political leanings were "monarchist."

She was disappointed that the restaurant did not serve cocktails, so she ordered mango juice. It came in a pint glass without ice and this bothered her deeply. As I said, she likes to take liquid from dainty glasses, with ice and she could not stop talking about that enormous, stupid pint glass.
By the time the food came, she'd almost finished the juice.
The food was fantastic, spicy and rich, and the injera, made with teff, was tangy and spongy and all was exactly as it should be. My grandmother ate, ate, and ate, and was eating long after the rest of us were stuffed. Owen began teasing Isabel and doing irritating things with his feet under the table and the bickering started.

I hissed at Owen, "If you do that one more time you are going outside to wait for us on the street!"

My grandmother said, "He's just having fun. Be nice." Then she reached for another piece of injera and Owen started teasing Isabel again. It went on like this for about 20 minutes and I too wished that Cafe Rehoboth served cocktails.
beef, beef, chicken, cabbage, garbanzos, homemade cheese, salad
Eventually, my grandmother decided she'd eaten enough, I paid the bill (she asked how much it was and gasped -- standard operating procedure), and we drove away. "I didn't like that so much," she said. "It was not very delicious."

In the backseat, Isabel laughed. My grandmother always complains about restaurant food after she eats us all under the table and we wouldn't want it any other way.

To finish the evening, we went to Nirvanaah, an Indian ice cream shop I'd read about on Chowhound. If you are ever within 100 miles of Sunnyvale, California you need to come here. I ordered a scoop of thandai ice cream without knowing what it was. What it was: a wildly delicious fruity, nutty, aromatic dessert that I must eat again soon even if that means replicating it in my own kitchen. There were other seductive Indian flavors, but  my grandmother ordered a vanilla ice cream cone which she ate with relish. She seemed to have forgotten all about fainting and dying. 

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Does this pizza oven make me look fat?

Now those are some arms!
I looked stout in that photo in the last blog entry. I winced when I saw it, but posted it anyway. Monday night, a friend emailed me:

that is one impressive oven! unbelievable. not my favorite picture of you ever.

The nerve! I fumed. I lost track of what was happening on Homeland and sat on the sofa pursuing a train of thought that belongs on another blog, but since this is the only blog I've got, I will hold forth very briefly before moving on to Suriani cuisine.

After I spent all of Sunday building, stoking, and tending a 1000+ degree fire in an oven I constructed from scratch and singlehandedly carried around loads of firewood, cleaned the house, and made appetizers, pizza, apple pie, and Greek yogurt gelato for eleven dinner guests, my neighbor took a snapshot of me wearing a floral apron and welding gloves and waiting for a pizza to cook. The heat had melted burned off a chunk of my bangs and I'm not at my skinniest. I was pretty sure I wasn't going to love the photo and I was right. I did not look smashing. I decided not to care. How thoroughly annoying that someone had to voice their agreement!

I am 46 and suspect that "favorite pictures" are going to be an ever scarcer commodity and I am going to have to be ok with that and so is everybody else. If we only show the world "favorite pictures" we will all eventually become invisible and when you are invisible you don't get credit for your achievements, and who doesn't want credit for building a weird earthen oven in her yard? There was a picture of me looking plain with the oven and there was a picture of the oven all by itself and I made an editorial decision. The correct editorial decision. Far from making me want to take the dumpy picture down, my friend's offhand remark (I am not holding a grudge!) made me glad I had posted it. I think Lena Dunham's outfits are often awkward and outlandish, but I'm completely down with what she's trying to do.

And without further ado, Syrian Christian food.

My children do not like fish, but I felt I had to make at least one fish recipe from The Suriani Kitchen, given how central seafood is to the Surriani diet. Here is Lathika George on Suriani fish cookery: "Tiny sardines are marinated in spices and fried crisp in coconut oil; chunks of kaalanji (a backwater salmon) simmer with chilli and coccum in earthenware pots over smoky wood fires; whole karimeen is wrapped in banana leaves and roasted in the glowing embers of the hearth; and shrimps are stir fried with slices of tender coconut, spices, and the omnipresent curry leaves."

Just reading this I gained 5 pounds. Not that I would ever care about something like that.

I chose to make fish molee, which George describes as a "creamy fish curry, probably influenced by travelers from Malaya." As Whole Foods did not have any kaalanji or karimeen, I bought cod filets. At home in a big skillet I fried onions, garlic, curry leaves, ginger, cloves and hot green peppers, then added coconut milk and the cod. Twenty minutes later we had a sumptuous stew of tender white fish poached in spicy coconut gravy. It was fabulous -- suave, white, rich, aromatic -- and unlike anything they serve at most Indian restaurants in the United States.

Unfortunately, the accompanying paalappams -- rice pancakes that are supposed to look like this -- failed. The batter stuck like a second skin to the skillet and we ended up with scrambled dough.

That was Tuesday. Last night I cooked a splendid dinner full of exotic delicacies, but an account will have to wait until later as I am all out of vim.

Tuesday, October 09, 2012

Enough about that blasted oven

You really do need big laborer's arms to build an oven like that.
Saturday, we (sister, brother-in-law, me) insulated the cob oven with mud and straw. Sunday, I lit a fire and let it burn slowly for a while and then I let it rage and then a lot of people (sister, brother-in-law, niece and nephew, neighbors Joan and Bill) came over and I pushed all the coals to the back and sides of the oven and we made pizza.

How was it? The crusts weren't as thin and crisp as they should have been and I complained a lot about that, but in fact the pizzas were very successful and the oven did its job admirably. I have some ideas about how to do better in the future and the oven is definitely getting another layer of insulation before I plaster it.

Also, I decided we need a picnic table in the backyard. Half the party was up in the kitchen and half the party was hovering around the oven and it was not exactly restful or communal for the hostess/pizzaiola. Running the pizzas through the bedroom and up the stairs and then down the stairs and then going back up for the welder's gloves and trying to balance a wine glass on the edge of plywood planter beds,  I felt like I was acting in a Marx Brothers movie, except not a very funny Marx Brothers movie.
I think I should have put the pizza in while there were still biggish flames.
I will now shut up about the oven for a while and give you two outstanding recipes.

Since I was using her book to make the pizza dough, I decided to try some new dishes from Nancy Silverton's Mozza. I chose these dishes because looked easy. They were unbelievably easy and unbelievably delicious.

If you can still get figs where you live, make figs wrapped in pancetta right away. Writes Silverton: "I certainly didn't invent the idea of contrasting the sweetness of figs with something piggy and salty: figs and prosciutto is a classic."

That is true, but while I've eaten many tasty sweet/piggy/salty dishes before, this one was special.

fresh figs (they don't have to be soft and perfectly ripe; this recipe will redeem slightly firm figs)
thinly sliced pancetta
your most expensive balsamic vinegar.
wedge of Parmesan

1. Cut off any hard bit of stem and halve the figs lengthwise.
2. Wrap each fig half in a strip of pancetta.
3. Heat a cast iron skillet until very hot and sear the figs, flat side down, for 2 minutes. Turn the figs and sear on the other side for 2 minutes.
4. Arrange the figs on a plate and drizzle very sparingly with balsamic vinegar. Shave strips of parmesan cheese on top. Serve with toothpicks.

Note: Next time I will try putting a shard of Parmesan underneath the pancetta to let it melt a bit. The figs would be easier to eat and you'd be sure to get all the elements of the dish in each bite.

For dessert I made Silverton's Greek yogurt gelato expecting a slightly icy frozen yogurt. What I ended up with was a mountain of ethereal, velvety, tangy, snow-white gelato that I will be making again and again. Silverton says to mix all the ingredients in a bowl, but you can just put them straight into your ice cream machine and spare yourself the dishwashing. I did.

1 quart whole milk Greek yogurt (you can use well-strained homemade)
3/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons light corn syrup
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt

1. Scrape all the ingredients into your ice cream machine. Freeze. Serve immediately. Makes 1 quart.

Going forward, I'm wrapping up The Suriani Kitchen over the next week. I have a suspicion most people aren't too interested in this obscure cookbook or obscure cuisine, but I can't quit until I've tried a few more of these dishes, especially some of the rice pancakes and dumplings, the pickled limes and the banana jam. I would be disappointed in myself. After I close the Suriani chapter, I'm thinking Burma.

Friday, October 05, 2012

On fire

We're getting there.
I apologize for my absence. Our household seemed to be falling apart and I decided to devote 2 weeks to getting our lives in order and what that meant was very little cooking or blogging. I started volunteering at the middle school lunch counter, sawed down a small tree, bought earthquake insurance, finished our taxes, acquired a shredder, baked 2 birthday cakes, panned a novel that Janet Maslin loved, spent $40 on drawer organizers at the Container Store, organized drawers, paid delinquent bills, went to Naomi Duguid's talk at Omnivore Books (and bought her new book, Burma, which looks terrific), rewired 3 lamps, and "sold" my mother's car, which has languished in our driveway for the last 30 months. I waited so long to sell that sucker that Isabel grew up and in 65 days will be eligible for a driver's license so I am buying my sister out.

I also worked on our backyard oven. We left this riveting saga at the point where Owen and I had completed construction of a sturdy, well-insulated platform. Then we went to India. Then I went to Utah. Then I came back and, with the help of my neighbor Bill and his rock saw, built an elegant brick arch for the door.
Right about here, Owen lost all interest in the oven.
Once the mortar on the arch had set, I mounded damp sand behind it upon a layer of fire bricks.

harder than it looks
After collapsing repeatedly, the sand eventually held a dome shape. I did not enjoy this step and missed Owen's company.

The next day, I mixed a stiff dough of sand, clay, and, water to cover the sand dome. Mark helped with this part, as did Bill and his wife, Joan, and I am eternally grateful to the three of them because if I'd had to do this by myself, I might be in a wheelchair now. It was hard.
wet clay oven
Two days later, the clay dome felt firm to the touch, so I scooped out all the sand. The hollow dome dried some more. It cracked. I patched it up. It dried some more. This morning I built a fire inside and the dome grew fiercely hot and smoke (or steam?) started seeping out of hairline fissures. I'm not sure what to do about that, as the literature is vague on the topic. Cob oven literature is vague on many topics.

Tomorrow, I'm going to insulate the oven with a thick paste of clay and straw. After that: plaster. If all goes well,  I'll try to make pizza on Sunday. I sure hope it's delicious! Then I can cross this epic project off my to-do list and will really be caught up.