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. . .  


  1. ooh, as a suggestion for a cookbook to try, what about marc vetri's il viaggio de vetri? amazing italian cooking.. the brussel sprout recipe alone is worth the cost of the book.. since i rarely cook meat, a lot of the book is not something i'm going to make, but i'd love to read about your adventures in making them (like the spit roasted baby goat)..

  2. Hi Jennifer,

    I have been being force fed of late by a grandmother from Mumbai who is visiting her son and grandson down the hall and is quite bored and lonely when they are at school and work all day. I can't pass by their door without being dragged in and begged to eat something {I confess I don't fight back very hard.} Last week she fed me something called "sabudana," which is just like big pearls of tapioca and is called tapioca on the package, but is not what we know as tapioca. She said it is not yuca at all, but comes from the sap of a tree. I can't begin to describe how heavenly the texture was, nice and chewy and springy, and how delicious the bland little balls were when mixed with fresh chilis, peanuts, cumin, cardamom, and onion.
    I never thought I liked Indian food but you really don't know what a cuisine is all about until you taste the home cooking version, I guess.

  3. From a cooking tv program, I learned to put onions in the freezer for about 40 min. before I need to chop -- no tears. Maybe shallots would need only 25 min.

    Fantastic Book: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz -- I read it in one sitting and it's not that short! I heard the author reading a bit of it on Fresh Air. (I don't usually read fiction anymore; this was incredible!)

  4. One of my favorite soups, and something I always want when I'm feeling under the weather, is the Burmese Chicken Noodle Soup from a local restaurant. (Spice Island Tea House for any Pittsburghers out there.)

    This post has me wanting to hunker down with more Burmese comfort food, and a viewing of Anne of Green Gables. :)

  5. As an English lit major, I thank you for the post title...

  6. I am the Lady of Cumin. After cooking my 4th curry of the week (only 656 to go!) I am amazed that my family isn't curried out. I also cannot believe that Ruhlman responded to an Amazon review, much less his tone. I am at a loss for which cuisine/cookbook you should choose next...but I can't wait to find out what you decide.

  7. I have read several of Ruhlman's books (Twenty, Ratio) and while I enjoy his subject matter, his writing itself leaves me unmoved. Here is a post from my blog re: a few books I enjoyed (esp If Walls Could Talk).

    p.s. I love your book. It has led to all sorts of domestic empowerment.

  8. Bistro Cooking by Patricia Wells?
    Sunday Suppers at Lucques?
    New York Times Cookbook?
    Sweet Mexico?
    Crescent City Cooking by Susan Spicer?

  9. No suggestions for cookbooks, but the banana jelly night be nice swirled with some of your homemade goat's milk yogurt. Or! New thought! Chevre + banana jelly on baguette slices.

  10. In my excitement over the chevre/ banana thing I forgot to say that I thoroughly enjoyed Kimball's painstaking recreation of Fannie's dinner and, like you, had zero desire to actually cook any of that food. Also, I'm looking forward to your take on Smitten Kitchen. I find her overrated but that could just be because I find her blog writing overwrought and to me, she comes across as far too pleased with herself (Michael Ruhlman strikes me that way as well, honestly). But if you enjoy Perelman's cookbook I'll have to rethink my bias.

  11. I hate to tell you this, but I made a recipe from the Smitten Kitchen book tonight and it featured thinly sliced shallots. It was good, though! Roast chicken with grapes and olives. I would love to see you cook through Jerusalem. I haven't gotten the energy up for it yet. I heard the two of them speak in NY a few days ago and they were adorable.

  12. Bell peppers are in season and I've been experimenting with stuffed bell peppers the last few weeks (green, red and yellow). Cut them in half and fill them with stuff. I've done ground pork with different seasonings, veggies with pepperoni and cheeses, olive oil, balsamic vinegars (white and dark), bacon grease brushed inside before stuffing, seasoned diced chicken... the riffs on the theme are endless.

  13. FYI, the november Food and Wine has an article on Ethiopean food with a recipe for injera!

    I'm vastly interested in your pursuit of Burma.

  14. Just read Amy Tan's "Saving fish from drowning ". So Burma seems to be Myanmar now and very violent. Don't think there will be many good recipes coming out of there anytime soon. How about their neighbor Thailand?

  15. As a Fine Arts major (and a fan of both Waterhouse and Tennyson) I, too, loved your title.

    Funny someone should have mentioned Patricia Wells's Bistro book--I've been making ratatouille lately, and I credit her with the secret to a great ratatouille (cook each vegetable separately.) I own the book (as well as her Trattoria one and at least two others), though it's in a box in the garage along with most of my cookbooks, since I haven't installed bookshelves in my house yet :( But I remember it being simple and full of good, homey, unfussy French cooking. I raised my daughters on Patricia Wells!

  16. I received Smitten Kitchen the other day. Not a fan. There are a few interesting recipes for baked goods (maple bacon biscuits and smores cake), but none of the other recipes interest me. I like her site better for it's reviews of recipes than her "original" recipes. Also, her book is filled with uninteresting chatter, which would have been better left on the blog.

  17. Thanks for the link to the chicken salad. I've had it about four times since this post.

  18. This look yummy, colour is very nice. Thanks for sharing.

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