Friday, July 28, 2006

Roasted Tomatillo Salsa

At long last, tomatillos have returned to the farmers' market, and now I can dive back into Mexican cooking again. In California, the tomatillo season is similar to tomato season, running from July through October. Tomatillos are slightly sour, sharp and fruity, a combination which is delicious counterpoint to the mellow, round flavors of a corn tortilla and the creaminess of a melting cheese like Monterey Jack. Roasting is an especially good treatment for these little green gems, as it draws out some of the natural sugars, then carmelizes them and adds a hint of smokiness.

I first used all of the tomatillos to make a thick, slightly chunky tomatillo salsa (recipe below). Then, later in the week, I took the remaining salsa, and converted it into a thin, smooth sauce to use in enchiladas verdes, the process for which I will describe below.

I used the salsa as the finishing touch on a plate of enfrijoladas (tortillas coated with pureed black beans) that were topped with roasted nopales (cactus paddles), zucchini, and grated melting cheese. A recipe from Rick Bayless' TV show served as my guide. Like enchiladas, the dish starts with a sauce---pureed black beans in this case. Then, one-by-one you set a hot tortilla onto the hot pureed beans, gently flip it over to complete the coating, put some grated cheese in one quadrant of the tortilla, fold it in half, and then fold once more to make a quarter circle. The image below shows the "tortilla origami."

Tortilla origami

A few days later, I took the remaining salsa and converted it into an enchilada sauce using the following procedure to adds complexity (pouring the sauce into hot oil lets the flavor forming Maillard reaction occur, for example):

  1. Heat a tablespoon or two of vegetable oil in a deep, heavy saucepan over medium-high heat

  2. When the oil is hot, carefully pour in the salsa (it might splatter). When it is safe to do so (a few seconds later), stir the mixture thoroughly.

  3. Reduce the heat to medium, and cook the salsa, stirring frequently, until it thickens to the consistency of tomato paste (about 10 minutes).

  4. Pour in some water or broth, enough to make the final mixture about as thick as tomato sauce. Puree the mixture using an immersion blender or countertop blender (being careful with the hot liquid in the blender).

  5. Keep the mixture warm over low heat until the tortillas are ready.

  6. Add salt to taste.

Roasted Tomatillo Salsa (Salsa Verde)

About 20 Tomatillos
1 to 4 green chiles (I prefer serrano)
3 to 9 cloves of garlic, unpeeled
1/4 to 3/4 bunch cilantro, chopped
1/4 to 1/2 white onion, diced
Lime juice

1) Turn on the broiler.

2) Place unpeeled garlic cloves and serrano chiles in a dry skillet over medium
heat. Cook, turning them occasionally, until the garlic is soft and the chiles are blackened, about 10-15 minutes. After they cool, peel the garlic and remove some of the seeds and membrane from the chiles (the membrane contains the chile's heat).

3) Peel husks from tomatillos, then wash them thoroughly. Put tomatillos on a baking sheet (use one with sides since there will be juices running)
Place under broiler. Broil until blackened on one side, then turn (they cook at different rates, so you might need to turn them at different times, and remove them as they finish cooking)

4) Put the chopped chiles and garlic into a blender jar. Add a few tomatillos. Blend until smooth. This step allows the garlic and chiles to be fully pureed.

5) Add the rest of the tomatillos, then blend lightly to break them up without making the mixture totally smooth.

6) Put the onion in a colander and put under running water for a few seconds to reduce the bite. Add onion to blender jar. Add salt to taste. Add chopped cilantro and lime juice to taste. Pour into a serving dish and stir to combine.

For a more precise description, check out Rick Bayless's Mexican Kitchenand Mexico: One Plate at a Time. Since tomatillo salsa/sauce is so important in Mexican cooking, Bayless frequently makes a version on his TV show. Alternatively, you could try one of the 23 versions at

Indexed under Sauces and Condiments, Mexico

Technorati tags: Food : Mexico

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Taking "Eating Local" a Bit Too Far

Readers of Mental Masala know that I am an advocate of eating locally. The story I'm about to share with you, however, shows that it is possible to go a bit too far.

Almost all refined sugar in the United States is made from sugar beets or sugarcane (about 60% from beets, 40% from sugarcane), with California contributing a small amount. Sugar beets are grown primarily in northern states (about 50% of the U.S. beet sugar production is from Minnesota and North Dakota. California contributes just 6%.). Sugarcane is grown in southern states and Hawaii (50% of the U.S. cane sugar is from Florida, 37% from Louisiana). (source: USDA Sugar and Sweeteners Briefing Room).

The main sweeteners produced in Northern California are fruit juice and honey. Fruit is everywhere this time of year, and local beekeepers sell their honey at the farmers' markets and various retail outlets (Berkeley Bowl has at least 5 honey types from local suppliers).

Photo of honeybees entering a hiveA Very Local Source of Sweetener
About 2 weeks ago, while preparing dinner after work, I noticed a few honeybees in the bay window above my kitchen sink. That's odd, I thought, I've never seen a honeybee in my apartment. I looked around, starting under the sink. There were a few bees down there too, and I spotted a ring of light around the sink's drainpipe. It was a gap between the drain pipe and walls that led all the way outside. A hive had started forming in the space between the outside wall and the back wall of my kitchen cupboards! How did they get there?

When the bee colony grows too large for its hive, the hive's current queen and a few thousand worker bees fly away in a swarm (the next queen has not emerged yet). They seek temporary shelter (in a tree, for example), while scout bees fly around looking for a suitable home (a protected space with a volume of 20-40 liters). When the scouts find one, they tell the queen, and the swarm moves to its new place. The workers prepare the walls, and start to build honeycomb.

Convincing the Bees to Move
I like honeybees, but the kitchen wallspace is not a suitable place for a beehive, so they need to be moved out. Somehow the queen needs to be 'convinced' that a new home is needed. One way is to build a device that allows bees to leave, but not return. In theory, the worker bees will all depart, leaving the queen alone and hungry. When she gets tired of waiting for her food, she too would leave the hive, join the rest of the bees, and start looking for a new home.

We arranged for a bee expert to cover the hive entrance with a piece of wire screen that had been bent into a Frank Gehry-esque shape (shown below). As each bee left the hive in my wall, went through the screen maze, and later discovered that there was no way back in, she would gather together with her hive-mates in a swarm near the hive entrance. The photo below shows the bees about 1 hour after the screen was installed. Note the space between the bees and the wall---they are clinging to each other, not to the wall.

Photo of a newly formed swarm of honeybees
The swarm kept growing, and after a few more days it was about the size of large loaf of bread. At night and in the early morning, the bees are nearly motionless, waiting for the air to warm up. By late morning, they are very active, flying off to local nectar sources (One web page says that a bee can travel as much as three and one-half miles in a single flight, the equivalent of a five-foot tall human going 375 miles.) . Fortunately, they are quite calm, and I can stand within a few feet without worry of being attacked.

Photo of a swarm of honeybees
Although the formation of a swarm was a promising start to the hive's relocation, there has been a major change in the last few days: new honeycomb on the outside of the house. The photo below shows the new comb through a gap in the bee swarm. I'm no expert in bee behavior, but would guess that the bees are planning on staying. We'll see...

Photo of honeybees on new honeycomb

There are many websites about bees. Here are a few good ones I found:

Indexed under Nature
Technorati tags: Bees : Eat Local

Friday, July 14, 2006

A Tale of Morel-ity

The Story of the Morels
The Berkeley Farmers' markets include a mushroom grower (Solano Mushrooms in Vacaville, #15 in my map) who sells both cultivated and wild varieties. In a fit of splurging recently, I went for the morels. Morels are small, hollow wild mushrooms with a wonderful flavor (some photos). They are pricey, so I like to use them in simple preparations that emphasize their distinctive nature. I cooked three dishes with my morels: a quick pasta dish, a potato-morel gratin, and a morel souffle (pictured above).

Pasta with Morels
The pasta dish required the least amount of work (unless you make your own pasta, which I recommend for the best eating experience). I sauteed some sliced morels in butter over medium heat, added a little garlic and fresh thyme, then some half and half (heavy cream would be great too). I reduced the heat under the morels to low, then put the pasta into boiling salted water. When the pasta was cooked, I pulled it right out of the pot and piled it onto the morel-cream mixture, and combined. Seasoned with salt, pepper and grated Parmesan, it was a simple, delicious way to have a somewhat tangled morel lesson.

Potato-Morel Gratin
The second way I used the morels was in a gratin with potatoes, based on a recipe in Alice Waters' Chez Panisse Vegetables. I peeled and diced potatoes (Yukon Gold from the Ludwig Ave Farm in Santa Rosa, #8 in my map), then boiled them in salted water until almost tender. Meanwhile, I sauteed sliced morels in butter for a few minutes. Into a buttered shallow baking dish, I layered the potatoes and morels, topped it with some salt and pepper, and then poured in enough half and half to cover the vegetables. I baked it in a 375 F oven until the liquid was bubbling and the top showing spots of golden brown. Although the ingredients were few and the preparation uncomplicated, this gratin had a delightful complexity of flavor and texture, with the springiness of the morels, the tenderness of the potato, and the morel-infused cream.

Morel Souffle
My most elegent use of the morels was in single-serving souffles. I used Julia Child's master recipe for Cheese Souffle from The Way to Cook (one of my great bargain finds: a $60 list price book for only $2 at a library book sale!) as a guide. Souffles are relatively straightforward to make, but there are many things that can go wrong. In this case, for example, I was unsure about whether the morels would stay suspended in the souffle foam, or whether they would all sink to the bottom of the baking cup, forming a crust of sorts (as happened with a asparagus souffle in May). In this particular souffle experience, I did not suffer from "loose morels" and most of the pieces stayed suspended in the egg foam, diffusing the deep flavor throughout the light yet rich souffle base.

Wild Mushroom Souffle

Adapted from Julia Child's master recipe for Cheese Souffle in The Way to Cook

The baking dishes

Small baking dishes with an combined capacity of 4 cups (I like to use 1/2 cup dishes)
2 T. finely grated Parmesan cheese

Butter the baking dishes, then coat the insides of the dishes with the cheese (spoon in a little bit, then roll the dish around to distribute the cheese)

Place your upper oven rack on the lower-third level, and set the oven to 400 F.

The mushrooms
3/4 cup morels or other wild mushrooms, finely chopped (about 5 mm on a side)

Saute the morels in butter over medium heat for a few minutes, then set aside.

The base
2 1/2 T. butter
3 T. flour
1 cup hot milk
1/2 t. salt, a few grinds of white pepper
4 egg yolks
5 egg whites
1/2 cup cheese (I used Fiscallini bandage wrapped cheddar)

Start by making a basic white sauce. Choose a heavy saucepan that is large enough to hold the base and beaten egg whites, and that will also provide enough room for the folding operation at the end. Melt the butter in the saucepan over medium heat, then add the flour. Cook, stirring constantly, for two minutes. Remove from heat, wait a few seconds, then pour in the hot milk. Whisk to combine. Return the pan to medium heat, and cook, stirring with a wooden spoon. Be sure to reach your spoon into the edges of the pan to prevent lumps. Cook until the sauce thickens, about three minutes. Remove from heat.

One at a time, whisk the egg yolks into the white sauce. Fold in the cooked mushrooms.

The egg whites and combining everything
Beat the egg whites to stiff peaks.

Add about 1/4 of the egg whites to the base, and thoroughly fold them in to lighten the mixture (see note below about technique). Scoop the remaining egg whites onto the base, and gently fold the mixture together with a large rubber spatula. Between folds of the spatula, sprinkle in the
grated cheese (Julia Child claims that this increases the souffle's lightness).

Scoop the mixture into the baking dishes, filling them all the way to the top for the most dramatic effect.

Set the baking dishes into the oven, and reduce the heat to 375 F. The souffles bake for about 10-15 minutes, until they have puffed up and the parts of the top are a rich golden brown.

For a video demonstration of impeccable egg white technique, visit Jacques Pepin's page on the Julia Child Lessons with Master Chefs series, then click on "Lobster Souffle a l'Americaine, Part 2" to launch the video of Julia and Jacques. To skip right to the addition of egg whites to the base, choose "Nice texture like this, I Can" from the drop-down menu below the video window and click "GO". With his remarkable technique, a copper bowl, and a balloon whisk, Chef Pepin is probably faster than my KitchenAid.

Indexed under Ingredients, Food with Recipes
Technorati tags: Food : Cooking

Saturday, July 08, 2006

Weekend Herb Blogging - Thai Basil

For Kalyn's Weekend Herb Blogging (hosted by Gabriella this week) I'm going to present another dish using Thai basil.

Eggplant and Thai basil are an exceptional combination, with the eggplant providing a sweet, earthy foundation for the bright, piercing flavor of the basil. My contribution evolved from the combination of quite a few eating experiences: Thai basil sprinkled on top of curries, delicious (but fat laden) eggplant dishes in various Chinese restaurants, a recipe for green beans in a pungent fermented black bean sauce in Sundays at Moosewood, and seeing thin eggplant and Thai basil together at the farmers' market (July to October in Northern California).

This dish makes liberal use of basil and binds it to the eggplant with a spicy garlic sauce. Preparation is quick and easy.

Eggplant with Thai Basil and Garlic


4 T. soy sauce, preferably a Thai variety like Healthy Boy
2 t. sugar or other sweetener
1 T. rice vinegar
1/2 cup water
Chili paste to taste (or garnish the finished dish with Asian chili sauce)

6-8 thin Chinese or Japanese eggplants (about 6 cups once chopped)
2 T. minced garlic

1 t. cornstarch
2 T. water

1/3 cup sliced Thai basil

(Unit conversion page)

Combine the first five ingredients in a bowl.

Trim the ends of the eggplant, then cut in half lengthwise. Slice the halves in 1" wide pieces, on the diagonal if you like. The last time I made this dish, I ended up with 6 cups of eggplant pieces.

Mix the cornstarch and water in a small bowl.

Cooking the eggplant
Heat a wok or large skillet for which you have a lid over high heat, then add some peanut oil (a tablespoon or two). Swirl the oil around, then add the garlic. Stir for about 30 second, until the garlic is just about ready to turn golden, then carefully pour in the eggplant. Stir fry for a few minutes, until the eggplant has started to soften. Pour in the sauce, mix well, then turn down the heat to medium and cover the wok or skillet. Cook for a few minutes, stirring now and then, until the eggplant is as soft as you like it. I usually add one-half of the basil after the first 2 minutes of the covered cooking to mellow its flavor a bit.

Add the cornstarch/water mixture, let it cook for a minute or so, then stir the mixture. Add the rest of the Thai basil, mix again, and serve.

Photo Note
If you like the photo, its quality is partially due to Joseph Holst and his Do it yourself lightbox instructions. I used his method to build a lightbox a while ago, and it works great.

Indexed under Ingredients, Events
Technorati tags: Food : Cooking