Sunday, October 30, 2005

Edible Communities Newsletter

It's almost the end of October, therefore it is time to look at some of the October magazines that arrived at the beginning of the month. San Francisco Magazine is often filled with society fluff, but generally has a few good short pieces about the local food and art scene. October's issue reveals a new group of newsletters about locally produced food from Edible Communities. At this time, they have 17 regional newsletters, mostly concentrated on the coasts (list and map). I haven't seen an actual issue, but the concept is exciting and I'll keep my eyes open for the East Bay and San Francisco editions.

The Edible Communities Mission Statement:
Our mission is to transform the way communities shop for, cook, eat, and relate to the food that is grown and produced in their area.

Through our newsletters and web sites, we connect consumers with local growers, retailers, chefs, and food artisans, enabling those relationships to grow and thrive in a mutually beneficial, healthful, and economically viable way.

More resources about local eating :

Sustainable Table

USDA's Farmers Markets list

Locavores

Eat Local Challenge, August 2005 edition

Eat Feed's Food on the Homefront podcast

Northeast Regional Food Guide

(this list has a U.S. focus, but some of the sites probably have links to resources around the world)

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Friday, October 28, 2005

Bengali Pumpkin and Coconut

I'm not sure why the first book I pulled from my cookbook shelf was Bengali Cooking: Seasons and Festivals by Chitrita Banerji. I was looking for ideas for the second half of a pumpkin for Elise's Great Pumpkin Carve Up Cook Off (the first half was used in Pumpkin baked with onions, tomato and tomatillo-chipotle salsa). The book has very few recipes, with the bulk of it being a detailed, impressionistic description of how culture, weather and geography have influenced the cuisine of the Bengal region. It includes only about 20 recipes, and fortunately for this project, one of them features pumpkin.

Banerji writes that the pumpkin is such a common vegetable during the rainy season that many Bengalis consider it an indigenous vegetable. Although some gourds are endemic to South Asia, this is not the case for the pumpkin (member of the Cucurbitaceae family), which is indigenous to the Americas. It was probably introduced to Bengal by Portuguese traders in the 17th century. Other gourds, however, have been in India for so long that "...many carry Sanskrit names of considerable antiquity, which is probably explained, not necessarily by human intervention, but by the ability of these dried gourds to float across the seas from continent to continent without losing seed viability." [quote from A Historical Dictionary of Indian Food, by K.T. Achaya]

If you have a food processor to grate the pumpkin and a good source for high quality coconut (or the patience to peel and grate it yourself), the recipe is quite easy to prepare. As food from the Indian subcontinent goes, this dish is mild and subtle. It goes nicely with plain rice and something with a lot more spice and heat.

Coincidentally, I have recently clicked into two other recent mentions of pumpkin in Indian cuisine. The first was as part of an interview about the Portuguese influence on the Goa region of India which included a link to a recipe for pumpkin and channa dal on an EatFeed podcast called A Culinary Passage to India. Over at One Hot Stove, Nupur presents a recipe for gharge (sweet pumpkin puris) in the letter G installment of her incredible series "The A-Z of Marathi food."

Update (11/6): Another Indian use of pumpkin or squash is ericheri from My Dhaba.



Pumpkin and coconut with spices

Adapted from Bengali Cooking: Seasons and Festivals by Chitrita Banerji

2 lb. of pumpkin
1 1/2 cups grated coconut (high quality fresh or frozen)
1 1/2 teaspoons ground coriander seed
1 teaspoon ground cumin seed
1 teaspoon ground red pepper
2 teaspoons sugar
1/2 cup milk
3-4 bay leaves
1 teaspoon garam masala

Peel the pumpkin, then grate it (a food processor is nearly essential here).

Mix the coriander, cumin, red pepper, bay leaves and sugar with the milk. Set aside.

Heat oil in a large skillet or wok at medium-high heat, then add the pumpkin. Cook, stirring often, until the pumpkin is half-cooked, then add the coconut. When the coconut and pumpkin turn a few shades darker (light brown for the coconut, bits of brown on the pumpkin), add the milk mixture. Stir until the liquid is absorbed or evaporates. Add the garam masala and salt to taste.

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Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Giving Prunes Some X-appeal
























I don't have much experience cooking or baking with prunes. In fact, it's hard to remember the last time I bought prunes. But Prune Blogging Thursday was too hard to ignore, especially since it will only happen one time.

My simple idea was to use them instead of figs in filling for cookies. I used Nick Maglieri's "X cookies" contribution to Baking with Julia (which was a gift from an "ex", to add to the X-theme). The revised filling consisted of prunes (4 parts), apricot jam (1 part), golden raisins (1 part), dark chocolate (1 part), toasted almonds (2 parts), brandy (1 part), and cinnamon (about 1 t. per cup of prunes).

I combined the items for the filling in the bowl of a food processor and ground it to a rough paste. The wrapper for the filling was a rich, slightly sweet dough (called "pasta frolla") that contained lots of butter and eggs (and was also made in the food processor, thus simplifying clean up a little). To make the X shape, I formed a piece of dough into a long rectangle. Next, I rolled a piece of filling into a cylinder with the same length as the rectangle, placed on the rectangle, and sealed in the dough. I cut the filled cylinder into about five pieces, then sliced along part of the central axis and bent the cut sections to make an X shape. It is a complicated process, and I recommend that readers consult the original text---which has some useful photos---or watch the complete on-line video of Maglieri making the cookies with Julia Child. (Or just watch the video for the sake of seeing Julia Child in the kitchen again...)

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Monday, October 24, 2005

Pumpkin with Tomatoes, Tomatillos and Chipotle Chiles

Squash seeds dating to 9000 B.C. have been found in caves in the Americas, and Waverly Root writes that it is possible that the squash (the Cucurbitaceae family) was the very first vegetable to be cultivated by humans in the Americas.

Squash, including the pumpkin, have been eaten in Mexico for thousands of years. In one place or another, nearly the entire plant has been used: flesh, seeds, blossoms, and even the tender shoots. The flesh is used in soups, stews, as a taco filling, and even as a dessert (Nancy Zaslavsky's A Cook's Tour of Mexico has a recipe for pumpkin stewed in syrup, a favorite in Puebla). The seeds have high nutritive value and wide range of uses including as a thickening agent for sauces, such as the complex and elegant sauce called pipian or mole verde. The blossoms are used in quesadillas and soups (see Diana Kennedy's The Cuisines of Mexico for some recipes that use pumpkin blossoms). Kennedy writes that tender squash shoots are used in soup and stews in Oaxaca.

My "go to" Mexican cookbook is Rick Bayless's Mexican Kitchen. In it I found "Pumpkin braised in tomatillo/chipotle sauce" (my version of the recipe is below). The ingredients are a blend of Old and New World ingredients: garlic and onion from the Old World; pumpkin, tomatoes, tomatillos, and chiles from the New. One could almost call it "fusion food" (something that Mexico has been doing for centuries, as explained in Raymond Sokolov's Why We Eat What We Eat).

The result was ugly but delicious. A brownish-crimson mass with strange, irregular shapes, but a wonderful combination of smoky, sweet, sour, and hot flavors. The many steps required to make the sauce paid off in complexity. It would make a good "combination plate" with rice, beans and some tortillas or quesadillas. It could also be made into a great taco or burrito filling by lightly mashing everything after baking or cutting the pumpkin into smaller pieces.




Baked pumpkin with tomato-tomatillo-chipotle salsa
Adapted from Rick Bayless's Mexican Kitchen

Ingredients

For the Tomatillo-chipotle salsa
3 to 6 chipotle chiles (dry or canned)
3 unpeeled garlic cloves
8 ounces tomatillos, husked and washed

The Vegetables
3 to 5 medium tomatoes
1 medium white onion, thinly sliced
1/2 cup water
Salt to taste (about 1 teaspoon)
4 cups pumpkin, peeled, seeded and cut into 3/4" cubes, and placed in a shallow baking dish (like a 9 x 13 Pyrex dish)

Method

Make the salsa
  1. Turn on the broiler.
  2. Place unpeeled garlic cloves in a dry skillet over medium heat. Cook, turning them occasionally, until the garlic is soft, about 10-15 minutes. After they cool, peel the garlic and put in a blender jar.
  3. If using dried chiles, remove the stem and seeds, then soak them in hot water for about 30 minutes. Drain and put the chiles in the blender jar. Discard the soaking liquid. If using canned chiles, just put them in the blender jar. Chipotle chiles can be quite hot, so be careful if you don't like heat.
  4. Put tomatillos and tomatoes on different halves of a baking sheet, or on two pans (use a pan with sides since there will be juices running).
  5. Place under broiler, about 2 or 3 inches away from the heat. Broil until blackened on both sides (they cook at different rates, so you might need to turn them at different times, and remove some as they finish cooking). Put the tomatillos in the blender jar, and the tomatoes in a bowl.
  6. Blend the garlic, chiles, and tomatillos until smooth (you could also use a mocajete or mortar and pestle, and a lot of patience, to make the salsa).

Prepare the vegetables

  1. Preheat the oven to 350 F.
  2. When the tomatoes are cool, core them, peel off the skin, roughly chop, then put into the already blended salsa. Do not blend after the tomatoes are added -- you want pieces of tomato, not a puree.
  3. Heat some oil in a large skillet over medium or medium-high heat. When hot, add the onions and cook, stirring frequently, until they are soft and starting to turn golden.
  4. Pour in the salsa-tomato mixture and cook for 10 minutes, or until it has thickened slightly.
  5. Add the water to the pan and stir to distribute the water through the sauce.
  6. Salt to taste (try about 1 teaspoon to start)
  7. Pour the contents of the skillet over the pumpkin cubes.
  8. Cover the pan with foil, then bake for 30-40 minutes.
  9. Remove the foil, and continue baking for 10 minutes.
Variations: top with queso anejo (aged white cheese) or queso fresco (fresh white cheese) after baking, use a different winter squash instead of pumpkin.




Prepared for Slashfood's Great Pumpkin Day and Elise's Great Pumpkin Carve Up Cook Off.

The photo below is the pumpkin with a bowl of black beans and roasted poblano chile quesadillas.










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Friday, October 21, 2005

SHF 13 - Yeasted Chocolate Cupcakes

It was pretty late when I started the Sugar High Friday # 13 - The Dark Side project (dark chocolate), so one of my criteria was that I would not need to use my KitchenAid mixer. I found something interesting in Pastries from the La Brea Bakery, by the amazing Nancy Silverton. Called "Crotin de Chocolat", these little chocolate muffins or cupcakes are leavened with yeast and eggs (note: the word crotin has a few meanings, and in this case I think it is a reference to French cheese that is pressed into a small disk). The dry ingredients are rich in cocoa and a good dose of chopped dark chocolate is mixed in at the end. I don't recall ever making a cupcake with yeast as the leavening agent, so these were something new and unusual for me.

My first impressions: interesting; rich and dense, yet not too heavy; a little messy when warm (not necessarily a bad thing); the yeast adds a subtle complexity and nice finish. Definitely worth another try someday...



Yeasted Chocolate Cupcakes
Adapted from Pastries from the La Brea Bakery

Ingredients
2 t. active dry yeast or instant yeast
1 cup plus 1/2 t. sugar
1/2 cup plus 2 T. lukewarm water
1 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1/2 cup plus 2 T. good quality cocoa powder
8 ounces unsalted butter, melted and cooled to room temperature
4 extra-large eggs, lightly beaten
1 cup coarsely chopped dark chocolate, or more to taste

Method

Prepare the yeasted base:
  • If using active dry yeast, mix the yeast and 1/2 t. sugar in a small bowl and then pour in the water. Wait a few minutes. Then stir in 3/4 cup of the flour, cover the bowl, and set aside until the mixture becomes bubbly (about one-half hour).
  • If using instant yeast, mix the yeast, 1/2 t. sugar, and 3/4 flour in a small bowl. Pour in the water, stir to mix, cover the bowl, and set aside until the mixture becomes bubbly (about one-half hour).

Place an oven rack in the middle of the oven. Preheat the oven to 350 F.

Butter a muffin tin with 12 wells with 1/2 cup capacity each. Alternatively, line the 12 wells with paper cupcake liners. (It was not easy to remove the cupcakes from unlined wells without damaging them.)

In a large bowl, sift together the cocoa, 3/4 cup flour, and 1 cup sugar.

When the yeasted mixture is ready, make a large well in the center of the dry ingredients. Pour in the butter, eggs, and yeast mixture. With a whisk, mix the liquids together, then gradually mix in the dry ingredients. Whisk until fully mixed. Stir in the chopped chocolate.

Pour or spoon the batter into the muffin tin.

Bake for 15 to 18 minutes, until the cakes are nearly firm to the touch (they might still look a little gooey in the middle, but will firm up out of the oven).



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IMBB #20 - A souffle that was years in the making

Many years ago I came across a beautiful set of prints of recipes written by Alice Waters in 1968. This was before she opened Chez Panisse (1971) and before she became Alice Waters. The printmaker was the masterful David Lance Goines, creator of posters for Chez Panisse's annual birthday celebration (posters for 1st, 2nd, 30th, 31st), a poster for Acme Bread, and Ravenswood's logo, for example. Of the thirty in the set, I chose four for archival framing: Moroccan Carrots, La Sauce Mayonnaise, Cherries Jubilee, and---the item relevant to IMBB #20---Apricot Souffle. They have graced my kitchen with their elegance ever since.

Despite the recipe's constant presence in my kitchen, I have never baked the souffle. The main reason is that the first instruction is horribly vague: "Add to one small jar of good quality apricot jam two egg yolks..." Were jars of jam sized S, M, L in 1968? They sure aren't these days, and the wide variety of jams at some of the local grocery stores only added to my confusion.

IMBB #20 inspired me to give it a try. If it failed, I could always fall back on the chocolate souffle with melted center from Gramercy Tavern that was published in the N.Y. Times Magazine (and is now behind the dollar wall), or experiment with a Indian-spiced vanilla souffle (steep cinnamon sticks, green cardamom pods, cloves, etc. in cream for the souffle base).

I took a somewhat wild guess at what "small jar" could mean and used 1/2 cup of Darbo All Natural brand (Austrian) for the jam. The results were excellent. The souffles (photos at the bottom of the post) had great oven spring, a lovely golden-orange color, deep apricot flavor, and bright notes from the amaretto. Finely chopped almonds sprinkled on the top before baking provided a little bit of crunch.


Apricot Souffle
Based on the 1968 recipe by Alice Waters

1/2 cup good quality, not too chunky apricot jam
2 egg yolks
1 T. amaretto, kirsch, or orange liqueur
6 egg whites
Ground or finely chopped almonds
8 ramekins with 1/2 cup capacity each, or a 1 quart souffle dish

  1. Preheat the oven to 400 F.
  2. Butter and sugar the baking dish(es).
  3. Combine the jam with the egg yolks and liqueur in a large bowl (the egg whites will be folded into this base). If the jam is very thick, pour it into a saucepan and gently warm it until it melts. Then stir in the egg yolks and liqueur.
  4. In a sparkling clean bowl, beat the egg whites until stiff but not dry (the bowl must be very clean because fat severly inhibits the formation of egg foam).
  5. Gently fold the egg whites into the jam/yolk base.
  6. Pour the mixture into the prepared dish(es). For the best visual effect, fill the dish(es) all the way to the top. Sprinkle the top with ground almonds.
  7. Place the ramekin(s) directly into the oven, or place on a baking sheet to prevent drips from falling onto the oven floor.
  8. Reduce the oven temperature to 375 F. For a large dish, bake for 20-25 minutes (until risen and golden on top). For the small ramekins, bake for 10-12 minutes (until risen and golden on top).

If you want a more thoroughly tested recipe for apricot souffle (i.e., tested more than once!), Chez Panisse Desserts has two versions, and I would guess that Chez Panisse Fruit also has a version or two.
























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Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Kingfisher World Curry Week

Running from October 16 to 22, Kingfisher World Curry Week® is a seven-day festival of the food and culture of the Indian subcontinent that has the additional goal of raising money for the international charity Action Against Hunger. Another excellent organization fighting hunger and poverty is Oxfam America.

The currently accepted definition of "curry" is quite broad, and seems to encompass any spiced mixture of meat or vegetables that is served with rice or bread (see my Curry Leaves post for background on the word). So even though the cookbook calls this a "sauce", in the spirit of Curry Week, I hereby declare my version to be a "curry".


South Indian Eggplant-Tomato-Tamarind Curry

Ingredients
3/4-inch diameter piece of tamarind pulp
1/2 cup hot water
1 t. black mustard seeds
1 t. cumin seeds
1 t. split urad dal
2 t. chopped garlic
1/2 t. tumeric
2 t. sambaar powder or curry powder
1 1/2 cups chopped onion
2 cups tomatoes. If fresh, cut into six wedge-pieces. If canned, chopped roughly
1 pound eggplant, cut into strips that are 1/2-inch by about 1 to 2 inches. Long, thin Japanese, Italian or Chinese would be best, but globe would be fine too.
3-12 hot green chiles, finely chopped (e.g., serrano)
8-10 fresh or dried kari (curry) leaves
2 T. flaked coconut
Salt to taste (about 1 teaspoon)

Method
In a glass or ceramic bowl, soak the tamarind bowl in the hot water for about 30 minutes. Use a strainer to separate the pulp from the seeds and strings. Set the liquid aside for use at the end of the process.

Combine the tomatoes, eggplant, chiles, kari leaves and coconut in a bowl.

Heat the oil in a heavy pot over medium-high heat. When it is very hot but not smoking, add the mustard seeds, keeping the lid nearby in case the seeds spatter too much. When the seeds stop popping, add the cumin and urad dal. Stir for about 30 seconds, then add the garlic, tumeric and sambaar powder. Stir a few times, then add the onions. Saute for a few minutes, then add the remaining ingredients except for the tamarind liquid.

Lower the heat to medium, and cook, stirring often for 6-8 minutes. Cover the pot, reduce heat to medium-low, and cook until the eggplant is tender. Then stir in the tamarind juice. Cook covered for another 10 minutes.

Adapted from Classic Indian Vegetarian and Grain Cooking, by Julie Sahni.

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Sunday, October 16, 2005

Adventures in the Asian Market

I felt like eating South Asian (e.g., China, Thailand, Malaysia, etc.) soup recently, and wanted to try something new. The first book I looked at was Thai Vegetarian Cooking, by Vatcharin Bhumichitr. In the past I have had tasty results with the Tom Yam Het soup (hot and sour soup with mushrooms) and a Tom Ka soup (this one with cauliflower, coconut milk, and galangal). This time, vermicelli soup caught my eye because it included an ingredient that has been siting in my pantry for a long time: bean curd skin. The vermicelli in the title were bean threads, which I like quite a bit, and are also intellectually interesting (Noodles from beans?).

Bean starch noodles, also called cellophane noodles, glass noodles and spring rain noodles (a literal translation of their Japanese name, harusame), are made from mung bean flour. They are eaten across Asia in salads, soups, or on their own with vegetables and meats. The noodles are sold dry in large packages or as pre-wrapped small portions. In the interest of avoiding excess packaging, I purchased the large size, which held four times the amount I needed that day. It turned out to be a messy and painful mistake: the noodles seemed to be a single strand that wrapped back and forth in the barely large enough bag, and it was difficult to break off what I needed. The noodles flew all over the counter while also scraping my hands and arms. Based on this experience, I recommend that you buy the packages that consist of many small bundles. For more information, see Asia Food's definition.

Bean curd skins are not pulled off of tofu after "harvest", but are a skin that forms on the surface of heated soymilk. It is carefully lifted off and then dried as a sheet (sort of like making a pudding skin). It is available fresh or fully dried. The fresh variety is highly perishable, and therefore hard to find outside of a tofu factory. It is sometimes in the freezer section of the Asian grocery. The fully dried type is shelf stable. See Asia Food's definition for more information. The fully-dried skin is usually broken into the desired size, soaked in warm water, drained, and then used.

Salted radish is a preserved form of daikon (also known as white radish) that appears in several places in my Thai cookbook. It is one of the base flavors of many versions of Pad Thai.

The resilience and flexibility of the bean curd skin contrasted with the springy texture of the bean threads and made for interesting mouthfeel, but the flavor was too one-dimensional for me. All I tasted was white pepper. (As an aside, with a lot more pepper this soup might be a decent representation of pre-Columbian Thai food. The capsicum (chile) was unknown in Asia until the 15th century, and until then pepper (Piper nigrum) was one of the main sources of heat in Asian cooking.) It lacked the wonderful blend of sour, hot, salty and sweet that is often found in Thai cooking. In addition, it was one of those soups that is "soup" for just a few hours, and soon turns into a thick mass as the noodles soak up all of the broth.

The next time that I feel like bean thread noodles, I'll probably make the Hot and Sour Vermicelli Salad, which includes mushrooms, shallot, lemon juice and chile to flavor the salad.

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Thursday, October 13, 2005

...and I'll take the instant noodles for my entree



A few weeks ago, the informative and nicely-varied radio show Good Food (produced by KCRW, Santa Monica; available for streaming and podcasting), had an interview with Toni Patrick, the author of 101 Things to Do with Raman Noodles. For example, how to use Raman as a foundation for more interesting dishes like Summer Picnic Salad, Ramen Fajitas, Beef Sukiyaki Ramen, Trail Mix, and 97 other recipes.

In some parts of Malaysia, instant noodles have become part of the street food scene. Sometimes called Maggi mee goreng (literally: Maggi brand noodles stir-fried), the dish consists of the instant noodles stir-fried with spices, vegetables and other items. The Lonely Planet World Food Malaysia and Singapore guide has this to say about instant noodles in Malaysia and Singapore:
The variety of instant noodles available is astounding. You will find both wheat-flour and rice-flour varieties at most supermarkets, with flavours created to appeal to local palates. But the wackiest hawker dish around must be Maggi mee goreng -- instant noodles (Maggi is the preferred brand) softened in boiling water before being fried just like Indian mee goreng* and topped with an egg fried sunny-side-up. You'll find this dish at Indian stalls at suppertime. It has become so popular that there are even instant noodles packaged with mee goreng flavour sachets." [* Indian mee goreng is noodles wok-fried with Indian spices and vegetables. Recipes from Makan Time and from VegWeb]

When I visited Malaysia I did not have a chance to try Maggi mee (my "must try" list was very long, and Maggi mee was pretty far down the list). But I remember seeing some of the prep work in the open kitchen of Devi's Corner in the Bangsar section of Kuala Lumpur. While eating a hectic dinner of idli and other South Indian food, I watched a restaurant worker dumping package after package of instant noodles into a large plastic tub for later use. I'm surprised that Maggi doesn't sell a two kilo "restaurant pack". Perhaps the noodles age most ideally and reach their peak when stored in the single-serving container?

But I might get a chance to invent my own version. Without knowing exactly what they were, I impulsively bought some Air Dried Broad Noodles (mi kering kasar) from the local Thai market. It turns out that they are the healthy version of instant noodles. I guess that explains the low, low price...

Photo of instant noodles from dirkoneill's flickr collection, subject to a Creative Commons license.

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Tuesday, October 11, 2005

The Winter Melon - who named this thing?

I tend to make impulse purchases at Asian grocery stores. Most recently it was a 2 pound precut hunk of Winter Melon (Benincasa hispida, also called wax gourd, ash gourd, petha (India), and kundol (Philippines)). (another photo is here).

The species has been cultivated in China for over 2000 years, and is thought to have evolved in South Asia. The name "winter melon" is misleading, as it is neither winter-exclusive nor a melon. The appearance of the skin and the inner flesh have some similarity to melon (watermelon and honeydew, respectively), but the flavor and scent, however, are less melon-like and more reminiscent of cucumber or summer squash. It is actually a gourd that grows year round. The "winter" name might refer to the frosty bloom on the skin, or to its long shelf life (months if not cut open). In China they are considered to be a "cooling" food, and thus ideal for eating on hot and sticky days. In Vegetables from Amaranth to Zucchini, there is a description of the winter melon as a dessert in India, which is sweetened and crystalized, and "looked like the rectangular tan erasers we used in school."

Using a recipe from From the Earth (by Eileen Yin-Fei Lo), I made a winter melon soup. I prepared the melon by peeling it, then grating the flesh in my food processor. In a large saucepan, I sauteed some shallots in peanut oil for a few minutes, added some diced rehydrated shiitake mushrooms, stirred, then immediately added the winter melon. After a few stirs, I poured in vegetable stock, a little dry sherry, and a few big hunks of ginger. I cooked this mixture for 40 minutes, covered. At the last minute, I added roasted sesame oil and white pepper.

Winter melon doesn't have a lot of flavor, so the mushrooms and sesame oil dominated the soup, but the melon provided a pleasing background nonetheless. Using fresh shiitake mushrooms would have been a much better match to the subtle flavor of the winter melon.

Perhaps this winter I will give it another try. But next time maybe I'll call it ash gourd or wax gourd to get in the vegetable mood.

For more information, consult Vegetables from Amaranth to Zucchini, by Elizabeth Schneider.

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Monday, October 10, 2005

Arachno-lunch

At the end of today's lunch on the office patio, my colleague noticed a mysterious object on the frame of the picnic table umbrella. At first it looked like a leaf or empty seed pod, but on close inspection we saw what looked like two spiders joined at the legs. The top one appeared to be dried up and the bottom one was very pale. Perhaps it was two dead spiders.

But after a minute or two, the bottom part of the object moved a little, and we realized what we were seeing: a spider shedding its old exoskeleton (molting). Another minute later, the spider was free. It was quite pale, and slowly pulled itself up to the frame to rest. It was the same type of spider that has been making webs all over my garden and around the office patio. Through some web research, I'm guessing that is Araneus Diadematus, sometimes called 'garden spider.' Later in the day I stopped by to see if anything had changed, and the spider was still in the same place, resting and hiding.

Spiders have an exoskeleton that can't expand as the creature grows, so they periodically shed the exoskeleton and form a new one. The new exoskeleton is folded and somewhat flexible, allowing a burst of growth after the molt. But the flexibility brings vulnerability, so the spider might stay in hiding until the exoskeleton has reached full hardness.

Some excellent photographs of the molting process can be seen at the Photography by 'Pong. There is a more extensive description of the molting process at howstuffworks.

Some other links: Nick's Spiders, nwspiders, University of Paisley Biodiversity Reference, Animal Diversity Web.

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Sunday, October 09, 2005

Inspired by nature or a tube of paint?

In the post about the swooping crow in L.A., I mentioned the art of Ellsworth Kelly and how he might have been inspired by shapes in nature and the human-built environment. Roy Lichtenstein, however, thinks that Kelly's paintings are only about shape and color. In Michael Kimmelman's Portraits (highly recommended, BTW), Mr. Kimmelman concludes a walk around the Metropolitan Museum with Roy Lichtenstein in front of an Ellsworth Kelly sculpture and two paintings. One of the paintings is a single shade of blue (perhaps something like this?). Lichtenstein says
"...It's entirely about the relationship between color and shape. There's no modulation of color. ...there's no illusion, which turns the picture into a thing...It's like a sculpture that just happens to be on the wall....I know Ellsworth says it comes from nature. But I don't know why you'd want to say this, because art relates to perception, not nature. All abstract artists try to tell you that what they do comes from nature, and I'm always trying to tell you that what I do is completely abstract. We're both saying something we want to be true. I don't think artists like myself, or Ellsworth, have the faintest idea what we're doing, but we try to put it in words that sound logical. Actually...I think I do know what I'm doing. But no other artist does." (p. 96)

Was Kelly inspired by nature or by the color of his paint or the shape of the canvas? Does it even matter to a non-artist viewer? If I know the theory or logic behind the work, I might be able to think "OK, I get it, sometimes a painting is only about painting," which provides some intellectual satisfaction, but the viewing experience shouldn't stop there. My goal should be to think about what the painting does to me. I can't reproduce the artist's feelings or thoughts during the creation, I should listen to my own. When I visited LACMA a few weeks ago, there was a large Kelly painting in the 20th century collection, a blue geometric shape, about 6 feet wide, 4 feet high. From a distance, the color and shape were pleasing. Moving close enough so that the painting took up my entire field of vision created a new sensation in my mind, possibly because my visual processing units were a overloaded by the single color. I can't say if that was one of Kelly's motivations, but I found it to be intriguing.


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Saturday, October 08, 2005

Vegetarian Primeval

I hunch over an open flame, watching the crackling, blistering, blackening skin of what will be part of tonight's meal. Wisps of steam appear, accompanied by sharp hisses. Each turn releases smoky aromas. A little while later, I scrape the charred skin, revealing the tender flesh of my....

...eggplant. It took bit of looking at the Berkeley farmers' market to find the slender eggplant that I prefer. There were plenty of varieties that day: softball-sized white ones, baseball-sized green for Thai cooking, and all sizes and shapes of the classic purple hue. I was buying the eggplant to try more of the recipes in my latest acquisition: Indian Home Cooking by Suvir Saran and Stephanie Lyness. In the few weeks that I have owned it, I have cooked over 10 recipes, with 90% of them being excellent and the rest being good. However, I probably wouldn't recommend it to someone just learning how to cook Indian cuisine because the book lacks a sufficient glossary or ingredient identification guide. The ingredients in Indian food can be confusing and mysterious---the many types of similar looking dal, for example---so a book with an photographic ingredient guide might be an important feature for a beginner's book. But if you have been cooking Indian for a while and want a new perspective, this book could be for you.

The smoky eggplant dish is now one of my favorites. It has layers of flavor---spice, smoke from the eggplant, and acid and sweetness from the tomatoes---and a luscious texture. Here's my version:


Indian Smoked eggplant

Ingredients
3 thin Chinese, Japanese or Italian eggplant (or 1-2 large globe eggplant)
1-2 tablespoons of finely chopped fresh ginger
1 onion, finely chopped
Salt to taste (start with about 1 teaspoon)
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped, or pulverized in a mortar and pestle
1 tablespoon ground coriander, preferably fresh ground
1 teaspoon ground cumin, preferably fresh ground
1/2 teaspoon garam masala
1/4 teaspoon cayanne pepper
2 medium tomatoes, chopped
1/2 to 1 green chile (serrano, jalepano, anything small and hot)
2 tablespoons chopped cilantro
Juice of 1/2 lemon

Method
Roast the eggplant: Rinse the eggplant. If you have a gas stove, place them directly on the burner or on a grill device with the burner heat on medium. Turn often for about 10-15 minutes, until the skin is completely black and the eggplant are soft. If you have an electric stove, preheat it to 500 F then roast the eggplant on a cookie sheet until the skin is black, about 20 minutes.
After the eggplant are roasted, set them aside to cool. When cool, cut off and discard the stem, then use your fingers and/or a paring knife blade to scape and pull off the charred skin. Chop the eggplant coarsely, then put into a bowl and mash to a paste with a potato masher or other tool.

Cook the base: Heat some vegetable oil in a large frying pan over medium-high heat, then add the ginger and stir for about 30 seconds. Add the onion and salt and saute until the onion softens and gets a bit of brown around the edges. Add the garlic and stir for about 30 seconds. Next, add the spices, and cook for 1 minute stirring often to avoid burning the spices. Add a few tablespoons of water, and stir, then cook for another minute, stirring often.

Finishing: Add the chopped tomatoes and stir, then add the eggplant. Reduce the heat to medium and cook the mixture for about 5 minutes, stirring often to fully mix the ingredients. Scoop into a serving bowl, then mix in the chopped chile, lemon juice, and one-half of the cilantro. Sprinkle the remaining cilantro on top to garnish.

Based on Indian Home Cooking: A Fresh Introduction to Indian Food, with More Than 150 Recipes, by Suvir Saran



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Thursday, October 06, 2005

Symphonic cookies

The chocolate gingerbread cookie is a symphony of flavors. The molasses, cocoa and chocolate provide a deep bass line, with timpani-like booms when you bite into the chunks of chocolate. Nutmeg, cloves and cinnamon fill the middle range. And at the top is the inspired pairing of dry and fresh ginger, which also gives some 'resonance' through lingering flavor and sharpness. Each bite gives that outstanding structure of high, medium and low tones, and a sugar coating adds to the excitement. It's easy to see why this was "cookie of the year" in the Living magazine a few years ago. They are so good that I have a photocopy of the recipe pasted on my refrigerator.

Even if you have hundreds of cookie recipes in your cookbook collection, these cookies are worth trying soon (unless you have an aversion to spices or chocolate). The recipe is on the Martha Stewart Living website here.

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Monday, October 03, 2005

Three Great Cheeses from California

[Updated below]

I needed some good cheese last weekend, so I went to the Cheese Board and arbitrarily limited myself to cheese made in California. At the Cheese Board, you need a plan, since they stock over 300 cheeses.. In the last few years California has overtaken Wisconsin as the largest cheese producer in the United States. Most of that, of course, is undistinguished bulk cheese like part skim mozzerella produced in shiny industrial-scale plants. But all over the state cheesemakers are going back in time, so to speak, to traditional techniques. Here are the three cheeses that I selected, and highly recommend:

  • San Joaquin Gold, by Fiscalini Farms - straw colored, mildly crumbly, reminds me of Parmesan Reggiano, but a bit smoother and less salty. Their bandage wrapped cheddar is also superb.
  • Serena by Three Sisters - firm, smooth, straw colored, somewhat like a cross between gruyere and parmesan, with a lovely fruity finish.
  • Mt Tam by Cowgirl Creamery - a triple-cream washed-rind cheese that provides a variety of flavors in each piece. The inside is soft and rich, the outside piquant.

These cheeses have been well-reviewed in the food press, so more poetic and complete descriptions of the cheeses should be easy to find (at the SF Chronicle's Cheese Course column, for example). They might be available at specialty cheese shops, but are probably not too easy to find outside of California.

Note: histories of the Cheese Board can be found on their website, in an Eat Feed podcast, or in their cookbook.

Update on some recent Fiscalini encounters. I thought that Fiscalini cheese was distributed exclusively to specialty shops, but a visit to the El Cerrito, California Trader Joe's proved me wrong. They have wedges of the Fiscalini bandage wrapped cheddar in the cheese section. If you see it in your TJs, give it a try. Then, just a few days later, the agriculture news site Brownfield posted a 15 minute interview with the owners of Crave Cheese Company in Wisconsin and the owners of Fiscalini cheese in Modesto, California.


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