Wednesday, June 28, 2006

A Pickle's Comeback

This is a short tale of how a humble, but spunky, pickle made a comeback, a bold emergence from obscurity to a prime supporting role.

I'm lucky to have a big lemon tree in my backyard in Berkeley, so I have plenty of lemons with which to experiment. In January 2005--over eighteen months ago--I made two batches of Indian lemon pickles, one from Dakshin by Chandra Padmanabhan (pictured), and one from Classic Indian Cooking by Julie Sahni. The foundation of each recipe was whole lemons (sliced or quartered), oil, and salt. Ground red chilies, mustard seeds and other spices add exciting flavors.

The Dakshin pickles went into the refrigerator immediately after cooking for a few days of aging, but the Sahni pickles required a lot more patience. Fifteen days of patience. Fifteen days with a daily mixing ritual of sterilizing a metal spoon in boiling water, letting the spoon cool, and then carefully stirring the big jar of lemon, spice, salt and oil to redistribute the pickling and flavoring agents. The end result was an intensely fragrant mixture of lemon slices, chilies, spices, salt and oil, with a beautiful blend of colors.

Although they were a pleasure to the nose and eyes, I at first didn't like eating either batch. The spice/oil/salt flavor was delicious, but the big chunks of lemon peel were a bit too much for me. So the pickles sat in the back of my refrigerator, mellowing and homogenizing.

About a month ago, the comeback began. I gave my neighbor a jar of the pickles and she repaid me a few days later with a valuable piece of advice: the lemon pickle is a great topping for cooked greens like kale, chard or collards. I tried it, and found that she was completely right--the sparkle and bite of the lemon is a perfect foil for the earthiness of the greens--and my pickles had been given another chance. Since the greens discovery, I put some chopped pickle on a rather plain pink lentil soup, and it created an bright contrast to the deep flavors of the lentils and vegetables. And a friend recently advised me that the pickle makes a great topping for baked tofu.

Some weeks ago, I had a pickling party, in which several of my friends and I made four batches of Indian pickles (two kinds of lemon pickles, cauliflower pickles, and carrot pickles). I took some pictures of the process, and I plan on writing more about making lemon pickles at Mental Masala or over at Eat Local Challenge in a few weeks.

Indexed under Ingredients, India
Technorati tags: Food : Cooking

Saturday, June 24, 2006

IMBB #27 - Soy Trilogy

During my Eat Local Challenge in May, I went without soy for an entire month (except for soy sauce), and during that month my I cooked several Japanese-style meals. So IMBB #27, with its "Joy of Soy" theme, comes at a perfect time. My contribution is a trilogy of soy in distinctly different forms: sauce, soup and slab.

Another Kind of Soy Sauce

One of the marvelous food transformations is the conversion of soy beans into bean curd, a.k.a. tofu. In the vegetarian kitchen, it shows up all over the place--in "cutlets", in scrambles, as a meat substitute in Thai curries. But until I went to a dinner featuring Japanese-food expert Elizabeth Andoh I had never seen tofu used as a sauce (or if I had, it didn't enter my memory bank). The Japanese name for this sauce is shira aé, and in her book Washoku, she recommends the sauce as a good way to use up extra pieces of tofu. The sauce is quite simple and contains just a few ingredients (two of which are based on soy). I put the shira aé on a mixture of konnyaku (a.k.a. devil's tongue, an elastic substance made from a powdered tuber and sometimes flavored with hijiki seaweed) and carrots that were cooked in konbu stock, soy sauce and sake, and cooled to room temperature before tossing with the sauce. Here's a recipe for the sauce:

Creamy Tofu Sauce (Shira Aé)

About 4 ounces silken or firm tofu
2 teaspoons white or Saikyo miso
A few drops of mirin (sweetened cooking sake)
A pinch of salt

A small saucepan
Colander or large strainer
A piece of cheesecloth (at least 8" by 8") or clean kitchen towel (non-terry cloth)
Food processor or food mill

  1. Prepare the work area: get out your food processor, drape the cheesecloth across the bottom of a colander in the sink, and fill a small saucepan with water.
  2. Bring the water to a boil.
  3. Carefully lower the tofu into the boiling water and let it cook for two minutes. Gently remove the tofu with a slotted spoon and place on the cheesecloth.
  4. When the tofu is cool enough to touch, gather the corners of the cheesecloth above the tofu to form a wrapper, then gently twist the gathered corners to squeeze water from the tofu. Don't worry about breaking the tofu block at this stage, as it will go into the food processor.
  5. Place the squeezed tofu in the food processor and pulse until smooth. Scrape the sides of the workbowl, add the miso, salt and mirin, and pulse again until smooth.
Adapted from Washoku, by Elizabeth Andoh.

The Magic of Miso

Another important product derived from soybeans is miso, a paste made from soybeans (or a mixture of soybeans and rice or barley) that have been cooked, mashed, salted, mixed with a mold called koji, fermented and then aged (here is a great description of the miso making process). There are numerous varieties available (the venerable Berkeley Bowl Marketplace near my house has at least 20 different kinds), each with their own character. Red miso (akamiso), for example, is richly flavored and salty, while white miso (shiromiso) is sweeter and less salty. Miso is associated with Japanese cuisine, but other Asian cuisines also feature fermented soybean products (Chinese black bean paste, tempeh, Korean dwenjang).

Miso soup is an excellent and easy way to use this flavorful and nutritious product. A wide range of vegetables are appropriate, with mushrooms, sea vegetables, and green onions having a special affinity for miso. Tofu, either diced deep-fried or diced firm, can add textural interest and additionnutritionalnal value. Making the soup is relatively simple, and recipes are all over the place (and usually even on the miso package itself).

The May/June 1998 issue of Saveur had a wonderful story about miso making in Japan, and I just discovered that the full text and recipes (but not all of the pictures) are on-line. (The May/June 1998 issue is one of my favorites, as it also has two outstanding recipes: a cherry clafoutis and an Italian chard-feta torta)

Smooth as Silk

The third part of my trilogy is silken tofu topped with something savory. The rich flavor of oyster or shiitake mushrooms are a perfect foil for the smoothness of the tofu. To prepare a topping like the one pictured at left, saute sliced mushrooms in oil over high heat until they are lightly colored. Sprinkle in a little salt, then deglaze the pan with some sake. When the liquid is reduced, pour in a mixture of soy sauce, vegetable stock and mirin. Let the ingredients simmer for a few minutes, then add a pre-combined mixture of cool water and cornstarch to thicken the sauce.

Proper pre-treatment of the tofu will result in the best flavor and texture. Andoh recommends that the tofu should first be lightly pressed for an hour or two to reduce the moisture content. I usually place the tofu on a plastic cutting board, put another board on top, stack a bit of weight on the upper board, and then tilt the assembly slightly to allow the liquid to drain away (into the sink or another container). Another approach is to place the tofu under a weight in a colander in the sink.

If you want to eat the tofu in less than one or two hours, Andoh recommends a "zap and blot" procedure. First remove the tofu from its container, then blot it dry with a paper towel. Wrap it in fresh paper towels, place in a bowl, then microwave on high for 30 seconds. Pour off any liquid that was released, replace the wet towels with fresh ones, and repeat one or two times, until the tofu has firmed up. To heat the tofu for serving, Andoh suggests cooking it in the microwave for two minutes on the highest setting, and pouring off any liquid that the tofu releases before covering it with the topping.

Indexed under Japan, Events
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Saturday, June 10, 2006

Mexican Sopes - Step by Step

In Mexican cuisine, there is a large, popular, and delicious class of foods called antojitos ("little whims"). These whims include quesadillas, taquitos, tostadas, and one of my favorite appetizers: sopes. Sopes are little bowls of a corn-based dough that are baked on a griddle and then filled with spicy and savory toppings. They consist of a base (corn masa), filling (salsa, vegetables, meat), and garnishes (aged or fresh cheese, chopped cilantro, diced onion). Each of these elements can be prepared independently and then brought together at the time of the final cooking. Like many of the other antojitos, sopes are best eaten almost immediately after they are removed from the griddle.

The first step is to prepare the base, which is made from field corn that has been treated with lime, cooked, and then ground into a paste called masa. Freshly-made masa is the most flavorful, but can be hard to find. Even in cities with large Mexican populations it is sometimes available only on weekends (look for bags near the cash registers or in the tortilla section). Tortilla factories might have them all week long, and I have heard of restaurants selling masa to the public. Masa comes in two varieties: para tortillas (for tortillas) and para tamales (for tamales). The tortilla variety is much smoother, and preferable for this use. Masa freezes well, so when I buy a 3 lb. (~1.5 kg) bag, I divide what I'm not going to use that day into several packets and put them in the freezer for future use.

If you can't find fresh masa, the dried version (masa harina) is a decent replacement. It is sold in bags at a wider variety of stores, including many chain supermarkets. To make the dough, simply add warm water and mix until it is a smooth paste. I don't know the exact water-to-flour ratio; check the bag for guidance.

It is a good idea to have your fillings ready before you start on the sope base. In the summer, I love tomatillo or tomato salsa (it won't be long before tomatoes are in the farmers' markets again!). In other seasons, I need to think outside the tortilla, so to speak. Most of the year, the Farmers' Market is full of greens like chard and kale, and also fresh mushrooms. Shelf-stable items like dried chiles and sun-dried tomatoes can make a great salsa (see the Winter Salsa post).

The Method
After the dough is ready, form it into small balls, about 1-1.5" in diameter. One by one, take a ball and flatten it by hand or gently in the tortilla press. I find that the handle of the press is not necessary, and that the disk can be flattened simply by manipulating the top portion. The disk should be about 1/4" thick (6 mm). Remove the disk from the press, and place it on a ungreased heavy griddle or skillet that has been preheating over medium heat.

Ready to press a disk

The dough is baked in two stages. In the first stage (shown below), the dough disk spend a few minutes on each side in this stage, until each side is dry and speckled with brown spots (second photo below). As each disk finishes cooking, remove it to a plate to cool for a few minutes.

The first stage of baking

The next step is to make the edges which will hold the filling. When the disks are cool enough to handle (but still warm enough to be uncomfortable), grab the edge of a disk with your thumb and forefinger. Using your thumb, break through the crust and then pinch up a border. The height of the border should be at least a few mm, but its eventual height depends on the thickness of the disk, how deep your thumb went into the disk, and the heat resistance of your fingers.

Making the edges

The second stage of baking heats the fillings and crisps the bottom of the sope. Put the same skillet or griddle you used previously, over medium heat, and when it is hot, pour a tablespoon or more vegetable oil into it. When the oil is hot, carefully place the sopes into the oil, then fill them with whatever you made previously. Cook until the filling is warm and the bottom has turned golden brown and crispy. Remove to a plate covered with paper towels, top with garnishes and serve.

The second stage of baking

Blog History Note
A while ago I presented what I called "Boat Chaat", a small wheat-flour dough bowl that was filled with spiced Indian dal (whole urad dal, in this case) and cooked on a griddle. My inspiration for these boats was the sopes described above. Several commenters on my post noted that corn and corn flour are popular in Punjab, and that a similar filled snack called katori chaat is part of the Indian chaat menu (according to Divine Cuisines, a katori is a small bowl that is used on a serving tray).

Indexed under Appetizers, Mexico
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Sunday, June 04, 2006

Unusual Greens, Part 3 - Sweet Potato Leaves

I have probably seen the leaves of sweet potatoes (Ipomoea batatas) in various Farmers' Markets many times before, but was formally introduced to them by a fascinating (and quite challenging to shop for) book called Cooking with Asian Leaves. The book provides detailed descriptions of thirty herbs and leaves used in Asian cooking, and two recipes for each. There are many that you would expect--curry leaves, shiso, chrysanthemum, Thai basil--and many that are unheard of outside of Asia (or expatriate communities) like boxthorn leaves, agathi leaves (a.k.a. West Indian pea tree, white spinach), noni leaves (a.k.a. morinda, Indian mulberry), and ponnangani (a.k.a. sessile joyweed). I imagine that most of the leaves are available somewhere in the Bay Area, but have thus far not gone on a systematic leaf quest.

The sweet potato is one of the world's most cultivated crops, and is grown all over the world, but especially in Asia and the Pacific. The leaves are good forage for domestic animals, so consumption by humans is looked down upon in some places as the food of the poor. However, because some varieties of leaves are high in protein, they can serve an important place in a diet that is based on tubers and other grains. Chinese herbalist lore says that the leaves can improve the respiratory and renal system function.

Like spinach, chard and other greens, sweet potatoes leaves are highly versatile. Cooking with Asian Leaves has two recipes: sweet potato leaves in a coconut milk sauce, and stir-fried sweet potato leaves. Since it was still close to my Eat Local month, I used the second one as my inspiration. I found the leaves to be quite tasty: tender, a nicely balanced flavor, not even a hint of bitterness, and none of that strange astringency that greens like spinach and chard possess.

Here is my version of stir-fried sweet potato leaves:

One bunch of sweet potato leaves (volume of the untrimmed bunch was 6-10 Qt.)
1-2 hot dried red chilies
1-2 cloves of garlic
Salt, soy sauce, pepper to taste

  1. Fill a pot with water and put it on the stove over high heat. The pot should be large enough to hold the leaves, and there should be enough water to cover the leaves.
  2. Strip the leaves from the branches. The thin stems that attach the leaves to the branch are tender enough to eat, so there is no need to remove only the leaves. Wash and drain the leaves.
  3. Mince 1-2 cloves of garlic.
  4. Chop the chilies fine, and combine with the garlic.
  5. When the water comes to a boil, turn off the heat and carefully add the sweet potato leaves. After 2 minutes, remove and rinse with cold water. Chop the leaves. (This step was recommended by the cookbook to remove traces of natural slime from the leaves.)
  6. In a large skillet or wok, heat some vegetable oil over high heat. When it is hot, add the garlic and chilies. Cook for 30 seconds, stirring often.
  7. Add the greens, then stir-fry the mixture until the greens are tender, about 2 or 3 minutes. Add salt, pepper, soy sauce, or other flavorings to taste.

Note: Separating the leaves from stems for some bunches of leaves can be a tedious chore, but with this particular batch of sweet potato leaves, the leaves were attached to the tough branch by a long stem, and I was able to quickly strip them using a pair of scissors.

Indexed under Ingredients
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Friday, June 02, 2006

Unusual Greens, Part 2 - What One Farmer Called "Okra Leaves" (But That Aren't Okra)

Photo of jute leaves (Colichortus olitorius)(Updated 10/8/16: fixed broken links)

In the mass of bunched greens on one table at the Old Oakland Farmers' Market, I found a type of greens that I had never seen. I asked the farmer what it was, and she told me "okra leaves."

(Update: commenter beautdogs correctly points out that the plant in the photo is not okra. I think there was a translation problem or some misplaced nicknaming.  It turns out that these plants are actually jute, (Colichortus olitorius).  I explained more about this in a post in 2010.)

Okra (Abelmoschus esculentus, or perhaps Hibiscus esculentus) is native to Africa, and was brought to the Americas during the slave trade of the 18th and 19th century. Therefore, it is not surprising that the word okra comes from a West African language (Akan). Interestingly, in an Angolan language, the vegetable is called "gumbo," a word that is associated in the U.S. with a rich, spicy stew cooked in the American South (especially Louisiana).

There are a multitude of recipes and piles of information about the vegetable okra, but almost nothing about the leaves. Vegetables from Amaranth to Zucchini, by Elizabeth Schneider, has several pages about okra, including about ten recipes, but not a single mention of eating the leaves. The Oxford Companion to Food has an oblique reference, via a comment that okra is the only member of the mallow family (Malvaceae) for which the pods are eaten as a vegetable. The mallow family, it turns out, are "sometimes eaten as pot-herbs."

A web search came up with just a few mentions. One was a recipe from Australia for okra greens and corn (update, 10/8/2016: website is shuttered). Another was a funny tale from The Serendipitous Chef about using okra leaves in an eggplant-chickpea stew for flavor. And, as it turned out, quite a lot of thickening power: "First to goo. Then to glue. The okra leaves -– in my opinion -– have a stronger thickening effect than the okra pods."

I stripped the leaves from the stems, and noticed a little bit of slime. After reading about The Serendipitous Chef's gooey experience, I was a bit apprehensive about what might happen when I cooked the greens. After washing the greens, I drained them. In a large skillet, I heated some oil over high heat, tossed in a few minced cloves of garlic and a chopped dry red chili, let it sizzle for about 30 seconds, then added the drained leaves. With a pair of tongs, I turned the leaves for about a minute, then reduced the heat to medium, and covered the pan to let them finish cooking.

The greens were delicious and tender, and I didn't notice any slime--perhaps the slime is in the stems. They had a nice flavor, with a subtle hint of okra. The leaves were tender without any of the stringiness that other greens have. If I see them again, I will probably buy a bunch or two.

Next up: the final installment in this trilogy of greens, sweet potato leaves.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Bitter Melon Leaves (Unusual Greens, Part 1)

(Updated 10/8/16:  fixed broken links, changed title)

As my Eat Local Challenge wound down, I thought I would try something a little different: go to a market in Asia before work. Well, not exactly Asia, but an area in downtown Oakland that has a large population of people of Asian descent (some call it "Chinatown," but I think that "Asiatown" is more accurate, as a large fraction of the businesses are Vietnamese). On Friday mornings, from 8 to noon, the neighborhood has a Certified Farmers' Market, and it caters to the locals.

Tables were piled with bunches of ruffled greens, herbs I had never seen before, packages of bright pink salted eggs, thick bundles of lemongrass, and many other vegetables that don't appear in Berkeley's farmers' market or even the massive vegetable section at Berkeley Bowl. When I saw some pale green ruffled leaves with tendrils, I immediately thought "snow pea shoots", and I got a little bit excited because they are so delicious. I bought a bunch, a bunch of okra greens, and a bunch of sweet potato leaves, all from a farm in Lodi (57 miles away). Over the next three posts, I'll explain some of the origin and uses of these unusual greens.

A surprise was in store for me. When I started washing the ruffled leaves (the "snow pea shoots"), I was surprised to come across a baby vegetable attached to the stalk. It was a thin, pale green gourd with a deeply wrinkled skin: a baby bitter melon. Uh oh.

Bitter Melon Greens

Photo of bitter melon and bitter melon leavesThe bitter melon (Momordica charantia, also called bitter gourd) is popular across much of Asia. It also has some fans in the U.S.--the National Bitter Melon Council, for example, whose motto is "Better Living through Bitter Melon." According to their web site, the bitter melon has numerous beneficial medicinal properties, including stimulus of hypoglycemic activity (blood sugar lowering) and a possible anti-malarial effect (due to the high level of quinine).

Whoever named this vegetable is in absolutely no danger of a charge of false advertising. I have eaten it just twice before (once at home, and once at the New Pardes Bangladeshi restaurant in Los Angeles), and the memories of its bitterness are deeply ingrained in my mind. I don't think that I want to try it again.

But perhaps I'm being a bit hasty. I also have strong memories of my first taste of cilantro in 1986 in San Diego, and it was an unpleasant, soapy experience. These days, however, I enjoy a sprinkle in salsa or on a curry. I also used to be wary of chili-laden foods, but now I relish them. In Vegetables from Amaranth to Zucchini, Elizabeth Schneider writes
In 1982, when I wrote an article about New Mexican food, the test kitchen staff would hardly dare nibble the nasty hot peppers--now an American passion.

Bitter melon, like chilli, has a distinct flavor profile and, like the chilli, it seems to create a craving. Once enjoyed (few people chomp Jalapeno happily on the first sampling), the craving is satisfied by nothing else--because nothing else resembles it.
So perhaps someday I will be a bitter melon booster.

Since the Wikipedia entry said that the leaves were "not particularly bitter," I decided to use some of my greens in a vegetable soup. In a soup pot, I sauteed diced carrots and onion together, then added some sliced fresh shiitake mushrooms. When the vegetables were cooked, I added a few cups of vegetable stock and a tablespoon or so of soy sauce. About 5 minutes before I was ready to eat, I dropped in two handfuls of the washed leaves. The dark green leaves were beautiful against the background of the broth and vegetable pieces, and I had high hopes for a great soup. But it was not to be. The bitterness of the soup was so intense that I could hardly eat more than a few spoonfuls.

Next up: okra greens. Just the leaves. None of the slime.