Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Potluck cupcakes

We had a family classroom potluck last night. For the longest time, I debated what I was going to bring. We're the Screwbean Mesquite room (all the rooms are named after trees), so I joked that I was going to bring "screw beef" — beef shaped into a spiral. Aware that that was merely a pipe dream, I decided that I needed to settle on something people would actually eat. Cupcakes are always a safe bet, so cupcakes it was.

But what kind of cupcake? Chocolate? Black bottom? Lemon-frosted? It didn't help that the latest issue of Martha Stewart Living has an article featuring many varieties of cupcakes — making the decision process even more difficult.

Then, over at Vanilla Garlic, help arrived. It came in the form of a recipe for a carrot, cardamom, cashew, and bourbon cupcake. It's a mouthful to say — and a tasty mouthful at that. The cakes are moist, and the addition of bourbon and cardamom works really well here. The frosting was a little too sweet, but I think that's true in general of cream cheese frosting.

I made a few adjustments, first by making them into cupcakes "bites," using mini cupcake tin. This reduces the baking time to ten minutes per batch. I also cut the recipe in half, making three dozen mini cupcakes. Also, I omitted the cashews, as I work at a site that is nut-free.

They definitely were a hit. Next time, Petit Pois Muffins.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Pakora and other fried things

One of my favorite foods is anything fried: fried chicken, fried zucchini, fish and chips, fried won tons, and on and on. So, of course, I was very happy to find out that Indian street food included a delicious snack called pakora. Pakora is basically just about anything dipped in batter and fried — most commonly bread, paneer, and vegetables such as potatoes, cauliflower, or bell pepper. The pakora-walla ("pakora person") cooks up his tasty goods in bulk, then sets them out on newspaper to be sold. When it's time to be dished up, often the pakora or other fried foods are put back into hot oil to be reheated. Then again, sometimes they're not.

On the train to and from Shimla, we often hopped off when the train stopped to buy the fried goods that were on sale. At one stop, twenty rupees (about forty cents) got us two samosas with a generous squeeze of Indian ketchup. (One samosa at my local farmers' market is three dollars, so this was an exciting purchase for me!) Elsewhere, we had bread pakora — just plain white bread, battered and fried.

At the Amber Fort outside of Jaipur in Rajasthan, we had the best samosas I'd ever eaten. The food at the stall had been sitting out for who knows when, the flies were abuzz, and the samoses weren't reheated. But the crust was crisp and buttery, and the potato filling was nicely spiced. I was so glad we had eaten there, even though I joked that I was risking traveler's sickness for a pocket of tasty fried goodness.

Another fried food I discovered was at an expansive market in Delhi called Dilli Haat, which included goods and foods from every state in India. Lunch included momos, little deep fried dumplings filled with chicken. They were served with a bowl of steaming broth, which was quite bland but felt warm in the tummy. As recommended by the Anthropologist's friend, our guide through Dilli Haat, we made a mix of hot sauce and vinegar to dip our momos in. The wrapper crunched as I bit into it, and the sauce packed a much needed punch to the delicious but not particularly remarkable filling.

A word about street food and food in general in India: It's important to be careful when you're traveling abroad and eating food cooked in a stall or on the street. But don't let the fear of getting sick prevent you from having an amazing culinary experience. The truth is you are going to get sick. No matter how careful you are. I was fairly cautious, didn't drink the tap water (or use it to brush my teeth), avoided eating meat from street stalls — and I got mildly sick anyway. When you're in a country that's very different from yours, it's hard to avoid stomach bugs that your system isn't used to — unless you're determined to not eat anything that isn't from a three-star or above restaurant. Which would be too bad because you really would be missing out on a lot of new and wonderful foods.

Friday, January 23, 2009

For the love of shrimp

After writing about delicious Goan shrimp the other day, I decided it was high time I defrosted the shrimp I was saving in the freezer. I had gone to the farmers' market the day after I got back from India, with shrimp as a high priority on my grocery list. It was the wrong time of year to get shrimp caught off the Pacific coast, so instead, the shrimp available was caught off the coast Texas. Which was fine with me. It was still fresher and more beautifully ocean-scented than anything farmed in Thailand (which is where most frozen shrimp available in the States comes from — plus the farming practices are destroying the ecosystems there).

Before deciding to defrost my ziptop bag of shrimp, I had actually been craving Chinese take-out. Once I determined that I ought to spend my hard-earned money on groceries instead of grease, I decided to make two of my favorite Vietnamese shrimp dishes: cabbage and shrimp soup, and shrimp simmered in a caramel sauce.

I've posted about the soup before, though this time for the broth, I used half water and half chicken broth (which was about to go bad). It was fine, though it didn't do any favors for the cabbage-shrimp flavor that makes this soup so good. It also smelled a little funny, but I realized that the intermingling scents of the shrimp and the cabbage were just playing off each other in an odd way. I happily ate it up despite that.

The other dish is one of my all-time favorite shrimp recipes — other than this one, of course. The very first time I ever made shrimp in caramel sauce, it was so good that I couldn't put my chopsticks down. Besides being delicious, it's ridiculously easy to make, once you've got the caramel sauce prepared. The recipe for caramel sauce makes quite a bit, and it's shelf-stable, so it keeps practically forever in a jar with a tight-fitting lid.

Truth be told, I haven't eaten a whole lot of Vietnamese food. When I was in grad school, there was a great Vietnamese restaurant around the corner, where I would order the "clay pot" (which contained chicken, shrimp, onions, and green beans in an amazing slightly sweet sauce, all over rice) and a Vietnamese coffee (which kept me awake and jittery for the rest of the day). I've also had the charcuterie that a Vietnamese friend brought to a dinner party — the soft pâté-like spread on slices of baguette was completely addictive. I guess my point is that when I make things from my Vietnamese cookbook, I don't have many taste experiences I can compare it to. Which isn't a problem, really. More of an observation.

I also want to add a small note here: Do not fear fish sauce. Fish sauce, the dark brown, salty, and yes, fishy condiment used in southeast Asia and the Philippines, adds a unique flavor that you can't get from adding, say, salt. It appears in both the soup and the caramel shrimp recipe. When I add to the pan while cooking, the fragrant smell of fermented fish always puts a smile on my face — because I've learned to appreciate what this sauce brings to the food I eat. Like salt, only a small amount is ever used to season any dish, so I'm not asking you to drown your meal in fish sauce. But do give fish sauce a chance. You'll be glad you did.

Shrimp simmered in caramel sauce (tôm kho)
(from Into the Vietnamese Kitchen by Andrea Nguyen)

1-1/2 pounds shrimp, peeled and deveined
1-1/2 tbsp fish sauce
2 tbsp caramel sauce (recipe follows)
1 small yellow onion, thinly sliced
1/2 tsp pepper
1-1/2 tbsp canola or other neutral oil
1 green onion, chopped

In a shallow pan, combine shrimp, fish sauce, caramel sauce, and 1/8 tsp salt and bring to a simmer over high heat. Add the onion and pepper and stir to distribute ingredients evenly. Continue cooking over high heat for another 10 to 14 minutes, or until the shrimp have turned an orange-brown.

As they cook, the shrimp will release their juices to combine with the other ingredients. Expect a strong boil throughout and turn shrimp occasionally with a spoon. If the pan appears dry, add a little water. The juices eventually concentrate into a mahogany-colored sauce. When the shrimp are done, there should only be a few tablespoons of sauce left. (When I make this recipe, the sauce often evaporates away, even though I only make two servings and use all two tablespoons of caramel sauce. I often add a little extra caramel sauce as well as water when this happens.)

Turn off the heat, add the oil, and stir to coat. Add pepper to taste. Transfer to a serving bowl and sprinkle with chopped green onion.

Serves 4.

Caramel sauce (nuoc mau)

3/4 c water
1 c sugar

Fill a large bowl with water so that it comes partway up the side of a small, heavy saucepan.

In the saucepan, put 1/4 c water and all the sugar and place over medium-low heat. Stir to ensure the sugar dissolves. After about 2 minutes, stop stirring and let the mixture cook undisturbed. About 7 minutes into cooking, bubbles with cover the entire surface and the mixture will be at a vigorous simmer.

After about 15 minutes, the sugar will begin to caramelize and deepen in color. When smoke starts rising, around 20 minutes, remove the pan from the heat and slowly swirl it. The sauce will turn darker. When it is the color of black coffee or molasses, put the put into the bowl of water to stop the cooking. Add the remaining 1/2 cup water. After the dramatic bubble reaction ceases, return the pan to the stove over medium heat.

Heat the caramel, stirring until it dissolves into the water. Remove from heat and let cool for 10 minutes before puring into a small heatproof glass jar. Set aside to cool completely. Cover and store indefinitely in your kitchen cupboard.

Makes 1 cup.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Recreating Goa

I was excited when, while exploring a bookstore in Delhi, I found an Indian cookbook for only Rs. 250 (about five dollars). It included gorgeous photos, and by the end of the trip, I had eaten or had at least heard of many of the dishes featured in the book. I was happy about the idea of bringing the flavors I'd tasted in India home to my own kitchen.

Because I had loved it so much at the beachside hotel in Colva and at the restaurant with the poor service in Old Goa, I chose Goan fish curry as the first recipe I would make. I was hoping for a real winner of a meal; however, that was not meant to be.

The first thing I should have noticed, which would have told me the recipe was not going to turn out the way I expected, was that the curry in the book was a golden color. Every curry I'd eaten in Goa was red. I didn't really question this, though, and dutifully followed the directions, starting by sauteeing the onions and adding turmeric, ginger, cumin, and coriander to the pan.

It's the spices that make the curry, and the ones I named above are generally included in the "curry" spice mixes that one often finds at the local grocery store. (I also know this because I usually make my own curry spice mix, but that's another post.) Which should have also clued me in to the fact that I wasn't really making the Goan curry I knew and missed. It was really just curried fish.

And that would have been fine, too, but for some reason, it tasted pretty bland. So for dinner I had bland curried fish. Not really what I was hoping to sit down to.

I researched Goan fish curry recipes and discovered what my recipe was missing: tomato and tamarind, to be precise. In making the Goan curry the first time around, I also opted to omit the green chili, simply because I didn't have one on hand. Would three ingredients elevate the flavor to true Goan fish curry status?

Stay tuned for round two...

Monday, January 19, 2009

When I was in India...

Despite that all my posts this month have referenced India in some way or another, I have yet to actually regale you with tales of the food there. And there was certainly food to be had: Good, bad, and mediocre. Biryanis, naan, kulfi, and kebabs. Spicy, salty, sweet, and savory. India has all these things and more.

I will first tell you about the hands-down best food I ate during my five-week stint abroad.

You may be looking at the above photo and thinking, "That's not India." Because "India" probably conjures images of elephants and camels, crowds of people in bright clothing on the banks of the Ganges, or grandiose buildings like the Taj Mahal. But that photo right there was most certainly taken in India — the part of India that is tropical, hot and humid in December (when, despite what us Westerners might believe about India, it gets cold in the north), and has sparkling blue water, white sand, and palm trees galore.

Goa is a tiny little state on the western coast of the country. Originally colonized by the Portuguese and now a haven for both retired European tourists and hippies of all ages, it was different from anywhere else I went in India. It's laid-back, has beautiful sunsets, and has the freshest seafood I've ever eaten.

On our first night there, which was Christmas Eve, we found ourselves wandering the road that ran alongside the beach in Colva, the village just south of the village we were staying in, feeling rather hungry. As the sky darkened and we weren't quite sure where we were going, we came upon a hotel/restaurant called Sam's Crow's Nest. It was still fairly early for dinner, being that it was only 6:30 (the locals eat around 9pm), so the place was mostly empty, which generally gives me reason to pause and question what my culinary experience is going to be.

Our appetizer, however, was amazing. We ordered Sam's Golden Prawns, and they were the best battered and fried shrimp I have ever eaten in my entire life. I'm not kidding. The coating was light and crisp, and the shrimp inside was perfectly cooked and so — for lack of a better word — shrimpy. The freshest, most delicious shrimp taste a little bit like clean, clear ocean water, and that's exactly how these tasted. To top it all off, they came with a dipping sauce of mayonnaise blended with carrots. Simple? Yes. Crazy delicious? You bet.

Our entree was a pomfret curry, which was not photoworthy because it was simply pieces of a local flat fish in a red Goan curry sauce. But it was amazingly good. I couldn't stop raving about the food at Sam's the entire time we were in Goa. And no matter how many times we ordered battered shrimp elsewhere, they never compared to Sam's Golden Prawns.

Even better, however, was our lunch the following day. To celebrate Christmas, we staked out two lounge chairs under an umbrella at a beach shack on Betalbatim beach, about a mile walk from our hotel. We had beers, we read, we collected shells along the water — and we couldn't believe it was actually Christmas. The day's fish and shellfish offerings were written on a large blackboard in the shack itself, and without inquiring about prices, I ordered the tiger prawns to share.

What arrived were the biggest prawns either of us had ever seen. The guidebook had noted that there were shrimp in Goa as big as your fist, and they weren't kidding. The prawns had been grilled, topped with a little butter, and served with a side of bright yellow fries.

They were fresh, tender, and tasted of the sea, almost like eating little lobster tails. I was so happy that all that needed to be done to them was grill them — because the prawns were already so good on their own. They most certainly had been caught just off the coast that very morning. With every bite, I couldn't stop exclaiming how fabulous they tasted. We ate every last morsel, and I was sad when we were done.

When we finally got around to actually looking at a menu, we discovered that our taste bud extravaganza cost 800 rupees — about 16 bucks. And sure, that's what you would expect to pay at a restaurant here in the States. But we'd been eating meals that cost that much (or less!) for two, including drinks and appetizers, so we were a little shocked at the expense of those lovely tiger prawns. In the end, though, we were glad we didn't know how much they cost in advance because we would have never tried them. And, after all, it was Christmas.

I still think about those prawns, both small and large. If I ever make it back to Goa someday, I fully intend to indulge on tiger prawns as often as my wallet allows — and to go back to Sam's and eat there as often as possible.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Making use of leftovers

To be honest, I'm not a fan of leftovers. When food sits in the cold for eight, twenty-four, or forty-eight hours, it changes the composition of what was once something edible and delicious. Rice and pasta get hard. Meats dry out. Veggies go limp. Flavors mutate.

But sometimes there are leftovers. In these hard economic times (and in general, really), it would be silly to waste such perfectly good — well, decent — food. After picking me up at the airport, my mom brought me back to her house for a turkey lunch. I ended up being sent to my own home with a ziptop bag of meat and a container of mashed potatoes.

Finding a way to use the leftovers was easy at first. I made a version of shepherds pie, with seasoned, chopped turkey and peas, topped with the potatoes mixed with Parmesan. I found other uses for the turkey meat, which I'm not remembering right now. But the rest of the mashed potatoes remained, in a little plastic tub that once held Smart Balance spread. (Thanks, Mom, for reusing containers.) After a few days, I knew I'd better find a use for them before it reached the point where they were too far gone to be eaten.

So they became potato soup. It's a fairly natural progression from mashed to soup: just add some more liquid and some flavor enhancers. There's no point in even posting a recipe because it was so simple and can be adjusted to your personal tastes. Basically, I sauteed some onions and garlic in a little olive oil, then added the potatoes to the pan with enough chicken broth and a little heavy cream to thin it out. I sprinkled in some dried thyme and seasoned it with pepper and salt (because my mom hadn't put in a lot of either into her potatoes). Then it was done. Once in the bowl, I threw on some sesame seeds and a drizzle of olive oil.

And there you have it: mashed potato soup. It made for a nice lunch with a salad to accompany it.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Satisfying my pasta cravings

While I enjoyed the food in India, there were lots of times that I missed eating foods from home: salads, Thai food, tuna sandwiches, hamburgers. I had a running mental list of things I would eat once I returned home.

In the first week that I was home, I made this recipe two nights in a row. That's how good it was. And really easy, too! I subscribe to the weekly newsletter, The Splendid Table, and last month, they included a recipe for "true fettuccine alfredo." Besides pasta, it consisted of three major ingredients: butter, cream, and Parmesan. That's it. I don't know why it never occurred to me how simple an alfredo sauce is — and to think of all those years in college when I would buy this kind of sauce in a jar!

The one change I made from the original recipe was to not add salt at the end of cooking. I included the salt the first night, and it turned out to be too salty. Considering that the pasta cooks in salted water and then salty Parmesan is added, extra salt at the end is simply redundant — and far too much.

This is not the kind of dish that's going to help you lose those last five pounds. If that's your goal, you probably don't want to eat this two nights in a row. But, if you can risk the calories, you may just want to eat this as often as you can.

Pasta with alfredo sauce
(based on a recipe from The Splendid Table)

1/2 c dry pasta (I used bowties because I wasn't in the mood for the long shapes)
1 tbsp butter
1/3 c heavy cream
1/2 c grated Parmesan cheese

Boil pasta in well-salted water according to package directions.

Meanwhile, melt butter in a large pan. Set aside while pasta cooks.

When pasta is ready and drained, reheat butter, and add cream. Add pasta and stir to allow cream to absorb. Remove from heat, and add cheese. Stir. Add more cheese if desired. Season with ground pepper (and herbs if you like — I added herbes de Provence) to taste.

Serves one.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

New blog, old blog

I've known about my friend A's blog Foodie in Denial for a while now, but I only really took a good look at it yesterday. And now I'm here to say that everyone needs to read it. It is fabulously written and includes gorgeous food photographs. In fact, I'm extremely jealous of how wonderful a site it is, but I'm recommending it anyway because it deserves a larger readership. So go check it out. What are you waiting for?

In other news of the blog world: Around the time of my last post of 2008 (back in September), I learned about the death of a fellow blogger. We would read each other's blogs and swap comments, and it was really nice having a regular reader! Even though I didn't know her personally, I was incredibly saddened, and at first, my lack of posting was due to knowing that someone I had met through my blog had died. You can read the tribute and also look at all the yummy things she cooked and posted at her blog, What Did You Eat?

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Breakfast potatoes

While I was in India last month, one of the things I liked to order for breakfast was eggs and "finger chips." It was on almost every menu and was as simple as it sounds: a fried egg or two with a pile of piping hot French fries, accompanied by a bottle of Indian-style ketchup. There didn't seem to be much in the way of Indian food for breakfast (I gathered that breakfast was not the most important meal of the day there), as most of the breakfast items seemed to be created for Westerners: porridge, pancakes, omlettes.

On my last day there, the Anthropologist and I were going to have breakfast in Paharganj, the neighborhood where the hippies and backpackers hang out, so I could have some eggs and fries while I people-watched. It didn't end up happening, alas, and I returned home craving a plate of potatoes with ketchup. For breakfast the day after I got back, I made my own version of eggs and chips: one fried egg and a large helping of pan-crisped potatoes. With ketchup, of course.

I discovered this method of making home fries through trial and error. With the guidance of Dad's Own Coookbook, I'd made home fries several times, but every time, the potatoes ended up soft and not crispy at all — and if they did crisp a little, the good part would end up adhering to the bottom of the pan, breaking off from the rest of the potato, and burning. I eventually figured out what I was doing wrong: using a pan that was too small and that was not non-stick. I now make my potatoes in a non-stick griddle plan, which has lots of surface space for one or two portions. I also use plenty of olive oil, so that each side of the potato has some fat to fry up in.

Crispy potatoes
serves two

four to six Yukon Gold potatoes, depending on their size
olive oil
salt and pepper

Cut the potatoes into quarters (or sixths, if they're very large). Place in a pot of cold water and bring to a boil. Parboil for 10 min. Drain.

Heat a non-stick pan large enough for all the potatoes to have plenty of breathing room. Add a little oil, then the potatoes. Move each piece so that a flat side is resting on the pan, and leave until the potatoes turn golden on that side. Repeat with all remaining cut sides, adding a little more oil each time you turn the pieces. Move the potatoes around slightly so they don't stick and also so that they get coated in the oil.

When golden and crispy, season with salt and pepper and whatever spices you like: paprika, chili powder, or even cumin.