Friday, March 30, 2007

Memories of New York: Rhubarb-Strawberry Soup

Update: When the New York Times made their archives freely available, the article mentioned in my post became accessible. You can find it here (free registration might be required).

I have many fond memories of my first long trip to New York City. It was the mid-90s, I was in graduate school, and the week I spent there was an adventure: walking up and down the avenues, crosstown on the streets, my first trip to the original Balducci's, getting lost in Strand Books, gazing at the treasures in the Metropolitan museum, and seeing a Sondheim show on Broadway (Passion). I also cooked a meal for my cousin and one of her friends. I don't remember what I made for the salad or entree, but the dessert was memorable: rhubarb soup with caramel-nut-coated vanilla ice cream and strawberries. I found the recipe in a March 16, 1994 New York Times article about Chef Gray Kunz (formerly chef at Lespinasse, and currently cooking at Cafe Gray in the Time Warner Center).

The recipe below could easily be modified for different fruits in different seasons: berries or peaches in the summer, apples in the autumn, or dried fruit in the winter.

Rhubarb-Strawberry Soup with Praline-Encrusted Ice Cream
Adapted from "Collecting Secrets From Lespinasse" by Bryan Miller and Pierre Franey, New York Times, March 16, 1994.

Recipe Overview
The dessert requires several different preparations, so here is an outline to help you envision the process and be organized:
  1. Make the praline
  2. Make the rhubarb "stock" and chill it
  3. Prepare the fruit garnishes (strawberries and more rhubarb) while the rhubarb stock is cooking
  4. Assemble the dessert at the last minute

Non-Pantry Ingredient List (for 8 servings)
Because the ingredients are spread across several subrecipes, here are the ingredients that might not be in your pantry:
  • 15 cups fresh rhubarb
  • 1 pint vanilla ice cream
  • 1/2 cup fresh strawberries
  • 2 lemons
  • 1 vanilla bean
  • 1/2 cup nuts (hazelnuts and almonds, or your choice)

1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup toasted nuts, coarsely chopped. Hazelnuts and almonds are a good combination.

This version of praline is a mixture of caramel and nuts. To make it, a sugar-water mixture is cooked until the sugar caramelizes, and then toasted nuts are added for just a few seconds before the mixture is turned out onto foil or a Silpat mat. For detailed instructions, consult a dessert cookbook, one of my previous posts, or epicurious. A word of warning: Molten sugar is very hot and sticky, and therefore can cause horrible burns. Shuna of Eggbeater (a professional pastry chef) suggests that you keep a bowl of ice water nearby in case of any incidents.

Chop the praline into a fine pieces using a heavy knife (a food processor is not recommended because the resulting powder will be too fine). Place the praline in a shallow bowl (ice cream scoops will be dipped into the mixture as part of the dessert assembly).

Rhubarb stock
12 cups chopped fresh rhubarb stems, trimmed of leaves
1 vanilla bean, split lengthwise (or some vanilla extract)
2 cups sugar, or to taste
8 cups water

Combine the rhubarb, water, sugar and split vanilla bean in a heavy saucepan. If using vanilla extract, do not add it now. Turn the heat to medium-high, and bring the mixture to a boil. Reduce the heat to a simmer. If using a vanilla bean, pull the bean out of the pot after 15 minutes, let it cool briefly, then strip the vanilla seeds from the pod into the soup. Return the vanilla bean skin to the pot. Cook for 1 hour (for a total of 1 hour and 15 minutes). Pour the mixture through a fine sieve and let it drain naturally (do not press on the rhubarb). Chill thoroughly. Adjust the sweetness and sourness using sugar and lemon juice, if necessary.

3 cups fresh rhubarb stems, from the tender narrow end, sliced thinly on a bias
3 tablespoons sugar
3/4 cup water

Combine the ingredients in a pot, bring to a boil, and cook for a few minutes until the rhubarb is tender. Place the pot in a bowl of ice water, and stir gently to cool it quickly and stop the cooking.

Dice enough fresh strawberries to make 1/2 cup.

Divide the diced strawberry and rhubarb pieces into 8 bowls. Pour some of the rhubarb "stock" into each bowl.

Scoop a ball of ice cream and set it into the bowl of crushed praline. Cover the ice cream with the praline by rolling it around in the bowl and spooning the powder on top. Transfer the ice cream to the one of the bowls. Repeat until each bowl is topped.

Random link from the archive: Toor Dal with Squash and Kale (December 2005)

Technorati tags: Food

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Cocoa Wafers

Author's Note: My posting frequency at Mental Masala has been a bit lower than usual because I have been tied up writing a few guest posts for Ethicurean (a must-read blog if you care about sustainable and ethical food). One of the posts nearly swallowed me for a few weeks, as I became obsessed with finding out how much energy is required to grow and transport rice (read my post here). Although I don't know when another "rice obsession" will capture me, I will try to post more regularly. And now, on to the wafers...

When I wrote my list of favorite holiday cookies during the height of "cookie season 2005", I somehow missed the cocoa wafers from Alice Medrich's low-fat dessert book. Perhaps they didn't make the list because they are simple chocolate-colored disks that don't give off much holiday glow (cutting them in tree or star shapes might increase the glow).

Alice Medrich, chocolate expert and cookbook author, wrote "Chocolate and the Art of Low-Fat Desserts" during the height of the low-fat craze of the mid-90s. In the book, she tried to completely rethink her recipes to achieve deliciousness with fewer calories and less fat, instead of simply writing a pamphlet that consisted of a few instructions like "replace butter with applesauce." In the months after I bought the book, I baked quite a few of the recipes, primarily the cookies and bars, with good success. The cocoa wafers, however, are a "go to" cookie that I make regularly.

Here is the recipe, along with several things that I have learned through experience. These are refrigerator slice and bake cookies, so you need to plan ahead a little bit.

Cocoa Wafers
Adapted from "Chocolate and the Art of Low-Fat Desserts" by Alice Medrich

1 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon Dutch-processed cocoa (see note 1 below)
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon brown sugar
1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon sugar

6 tablespoons unsalted butter at room temperature (see note 2)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 egg white (see note 3)

Sift the flour, cocoa, baking soda and salt into a bowl. Combine the sugars in a bowl, pressing out any hard lumps of brown sugar. Beat the butter in a large bowl until creamy, then add the sugars and vanilla. Beat at high speed for about 1 minute then beat in the egg white. Add dry ingredients and mix on low speed until just combined.

Get a piece of parchment or waxed paper with length of about 16 inches. Lay it on a countertop. Gather the dough into a ball and roll it into a 9-10 inch log on the paper. Wrap the log with the paper, being careful to keep the ends flat. Chill for at least 45 minutes (or freeze for future use).

Place the racks in the upper and lower thirds of the oven and preheat to 350 F. Line 2 cookie sheets with parchment paper, a non-stick sheet (e.g., Silpat), or aluminum foil.

Remove the dough from the refrigerator (if frozen, let thaw until soft enough to cut). With a sharp knife, cut the chilled dough log into rounds a scant 1/4 inch thick. For crispier cookies, slice them thinner, down to 1/8 or 1/16 inch. Place slices 1 inch apart and bake for 10-14 minutes (or less if you sliced them very thinly). Rotate baking sheets about half way through from top to bottom and back to front.

Cool completely before storing or stacking.

Mint Chocolate Crisps - add 1/4 teaspoon mint extract with the butter.
Mexican Chocolate Cookies - add 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon (the flaky cinnamon sold in Mexican groceries is recommened), a generous pinch of black pepper, and a generous pinch of cayenne to the sugars. It might even be possible to replace the brown sugar with ground piloncillo (raw cane sugar) for even more Mexican flavor.
Double chocolate crisps - add a big handful of semi-sweet chocolate chips with the flours (about 1/2-1 cup). This makes the log a lot harder to slice, but gives the cookies an extra chocolate burst. You could also use

Make a double or triple batch and freeze the extra logs for a rainy day.

1) Dutch processed cocoa has a different pH (acidity level) than non-Dutched cocoa, so deviating from the type specified in a recipe can theoretically lead to unexpected results. I rarely follow the instruction for Dutch-processed cocoa and the results are always good. Perhaps this is an excuse to have a "test kitchen" match between Dutch processed and non-processed cocoa.
2) The original recipe called for 3 T. butter and 3 T. stick margarine. I never buy margarine, and don't want to eat it, so I always make the cookies with 100% butter.
3) I have had good luck using a single egg in a double batch instead two egg whites.

Random link from the archive: Three Mexican Sauces (February 2006)

Technorati tags: Chocolate : Food

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

There's Devil's Tongue in My Stew

There is a Japanese ingredient called devil's tongue jelly that is very distinctive. More frequently called Konnyaku, it is a phenomenally low calorie food: a 9 ounce (255 g) package has only 30 calories, just 0.12 calories per gram, compared with a carbohydrate's 4 calories per gram or a fat's 9 calories per gram. Consequently, it is more or less tasteless. Its purpose is as a filler and to provide an interesting texture to a stew or other dish.

Konnyaku is made from the root of the Amorphophallus konjac plant (photo at Wikipedia), which is peeled, boiled, and mashed, then a coagulant is added to cause the paste to set. Sometimes and sometimes hijiki (a sea vegetable) is added for flavor, nutrition (calcium) and color. The konnyaku in the photo to the left contains hijiki. This fifteen minute video shows the konnyaku-making process from beginning to end. Or at least that is my best guess, as the video is without narration and has only Japanese subtitles. And here's a cute picture of the konnyaku family at a Japanese web site.

Konnyaku is also sold in noodle form, which are known as shirataki (lit. "white waterfall"). The photo to the right shows a stew containing shirataki. Both konnyaku and shirataki can be found in the refrigerated section of Asian grocery stores, especially those with a Japanese specialty.

Konnyaku frequently appears in winter stews -- the most famous one being oden -- as it provides a dramatic contrast to ingredients which are soft from a long simmer. Oden appears frequently in convenience stores in Japan, usually in a water bath next to the cash register. I don't eat fish, and so I never tried the offerings I saw (even if I did eat fish, I probably wouldn't have tried them).

Something about the stew captured my attention, and I have tried many times to make a vegetarian oden at home. Recently, I finally figured it out, thanks to the invaluable Washoku (it seems that every other post at this blog mentions this book. And for good reason. If you want to learn how to cook Japanese home-style food, buy the book.).

One of the beauties of the stew is that you can adjust ingredients as you see fit. No lotus root or burdock root? Leave them out and add some more potato or mushrooms (the Japanese sweet potatoes sold by the mushroom farmers at the Berkeley Farmers' Market are especially good). I haven't tried green vegetables like snow peas or green beans, but it is conceivable that they would be tasty.

Japanese Vegetable Stew
Recipe inspired by Elizabeth Andoh's "Soy-Stewed Chicken with Vegetables" on page 254 of Washoku

2 large carrots, peeled and roll cut
3-4 Japanese sweet potatoes, peeled and cut in odd-shaped pieces
3 potatoes, cut in odd-shaped pieces
2 inches of burdock root (a.k.a. gobo)
2 inches of lotus root, peeled and roll cut
A few mushrooms, preferably shiitake
A few ounces of deep-fried tofu
1 block of konnyaku (about 12 oz.)
1 tablespoon neutral vegetable oil
3/4 cup vegetarian dashi (see recipe below)
2 tablespoons soy sauce
2 teaspoons sugar
1 tablespoon sake

Preparing the konnyaku
When you open a package of konnyaku, you will probably notice a somewhat funky aroma. Do not worry, this is not a sign of spoilage (assuming the konnyaku is opened before its sell by date). Rinse the block with clean water. konnyaku is slippery, so the utmost care is needed when you slice it. To make triangles, first slice it in half lengthwise. Tip each piece onto its flat end and slice through the middle to make two thin sheets (you'll have four pieces now). Next, use the tip of your knife to make shallow cuts into the surface of the konnyaku to provide additional surface area for flavor absortion. After scoring both sides, cut the pieces in half lengthwise, and then into triangles. Do not stack pieces on top of each other as you cut, as they might slip as the knife applies pressure.

Making the stew
The first step -- and quite a fun one -- is to dry roast the konnyaku in a pan to remove excess moisture and thus allow it to absorb the flavors of the stock. Heat a large skillet or wok over high heat. When it is hot, add the konnyaku to the dry pan. Do not worry, it will not stick. Shake the pan to loosen the pieces and turn them now and then. When the konnyaku starts to squeak, add the oil. Stir fry for an additional 30 seconds, then add the vegetables. Stir fry for a few more minutes. Add the tofu and pour in the stock, soy sauce, sugar and sake. Stir the mixture. Reduce the heat to medium-low. Cook, covered, until the vegetables are tender.

Serve with some rice, a salad, some Japanese quick pickles, and a nice saké.

Variation: You can also use shiritake, a noodle-like product made out of konnyaku. To prepare it, rinse it thoroughly after opening the package, cut the threads into shorter pieces if desired, then follow the same dry roasting process as for the konnyaku block.

Note: the roll cut is used to create uneven shapes that have extra surface area for flavor absorption or to reduce the chance of sticky during stir-frying. However, it also makes for vegetables that can be tough to pick up using chopsticks.

Vegetarian Dashi
To make a vegetarian dashi stock, place a piece of kombu sea vegetable and several dried shiitake mushroom stems into some cool water. The ratio that Andoh uses is 15-20 square inches of kombu and three mushroom stems to 4 1/4 cups of water. Let this mixture steep as long as possible in the refrigerator, preferably overnight. A long soaking allows the natural glutamates (flavor enhancers) to go into the water. When ready to make the stock, put the mixture in a pan over medium heat. Bring it almost to a boil, then reduce the heat slightly to keep it at a low simmer. Keep it at this point for 5 minutes, then turn off the heat. Let the mixture steep for 5 minutes more, and then strain into a saucepan.

Random link from the archive: Food Blogging in Tolstoy's War and Peace? (January 2007)

Technorati tags: Japan : vegetarian : Food

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Whole Lemon Lemonade

(Updated 10/23/16. Originally posted on 03/08/07)

The skin of a lemon is such a cheery hue. I'm fortunate to have a mature lemon tree in my backyard, and so when I look out my office window, I can see a few lemons hanging on the tree, little yellow orbs amidst the green leaves, and they can brighten my mood.

For designers of fruit crate labels many decades ago, I'm sure the skin was a major inspiration. For example, in the Southern Cross label below, the designer put lemons into the sky to make a constellation. The Comet label, which I included in my second post about the History of Fruit Crate Labels is another example of a lemon becoming an astronomical object.  (My History of Fruit Crate Labels, Part 1 looks at the purpose and creation of fruit crate labels.)

The focus of this post is lemonade, so why look at the skin?  There is a good reason:  in my favorite lemonade recipe, the skin is the secret.

Southern Cross fruit crate label from California Historical Society on Flickr Commons
(Note: the Southern Cross constellation is probably not visible from San Fernando, which is north of L.A.)

I follow the approach recommended by Cooks Illustrated in the late 1990s: instead of pressing lemon halves onto a juicer to extract the juice and then discarding the spent halves, the whole lemon is used. Thin slices of lemon are mashed with sugar to release the aromatic and flavorful oils from the peel while dissolving the sugar. This gives a far more complex flavor than standard lemonade.

The photo below shows one lemon after it has been sliced.  I cut the lemon in half, place it down on one of its flat sides to provide a solid cutting setup, and then slice thinly. The slices go into a bowl with the sugar.

Photo of thinly sliced lemons to be used in lemonade

The recipe below calls for 10 to 12 lemons, but there is an easy rule of thumb if you want to scale it up or down:  2:1:1, for every 2 lemons, use 1 quarter cup sugar and 1 cup

Whole Lemon Lemonade

Adapted from Cooks Illustrated, July/August 1998


10-12 medium organic lemons
1 1/4 cups (250 g) sugar
5 cups (1180 mL) water


Measure the 5 cups of water into the pitcher or jar you plan to use for the lemonade in and place it in the refrigerator. For extra quick chilling, make your 5 cup measurement using a combination of water and ice cubes.

Wash and scrub the lemons very well to remove dirt and other garden residue. Slice each lemon in half length-wise, then cut into thin (1/8", 3 mm) slices.

By hand: Put the sugar and lemon slices into a big bowl or saucepan that has a flat bottom and that you aren't worried about damaging (e.g., don't use a pristine Le Crueset or non-stick pot) Use a potato masher to mash the lemon-sugar mixture. Keep mashing until it looks like most of lemon segments are all broken (i.e., juiced).

Using a stand mixer: Put the sugar and lemon slices into the bowl of the stand mixer (Do not put any ice cubes into the mixture! See note below.). Attach the paddle. Drape a kitchen towel or piece of newspaper over the mixer to contain any splattering. Turn the mixer on its lowest setting, and let it run for a few minutes. Remove the bowl from the mixer stand.

Pour the water into the bowl and mix lightly by hand. Set a large strainer on top of a pitcher or mixing bowl (preferably one with a pouring spout). Pour the lemons and liquid into the strainer; scoop out whatever doesn't pour. Let it drain for a few minutes, pressing lightly to release more juice. Transfer the liquid to the serving or storage pitcher.


  • Replace part or all of the sugar with honey.
  • Replace a few lemons with limes, oranges or other citrus.
  • Add thinly sliced ginger to the sliced lemons
  • Add mint or lemon verbena leaves to the sliced lemons, or infuse the water with lemon verbena leaves

Important note about using a stand mixer:  Although it is tempting to put ice cubes with the lemons and sugar to cool it down faster, do not do this! I tried it once and one of the cubes became stuck between the paddle and the mixing bowl, causing the mixer motor to make a hideous sound (and perhaps some internal damage).

Image Credit

Southern Cross fruit crate label from the California Historical Society's collection on Flickr Commons, no known copyright restrictions.

Random link from the archive: A Week of Eating (November 2006)

Monday, March 05, 2007

Intriguing Asian Signs

On my occasional trips to Asia, I really notice the commercial signs. Something about their bold and unfamiliar designs catches my attention. Or, more likely, my senses are heightened while traveling (and I always have my camera with me). It's possible that the local signs are just as interesting, but I don't notice them (one of these days I should bring my camera on a normal walk and see if anything is worth photographing).

Here are some of my favorites from my recent trips to Asia (in no particular order):

The Rochor Bean Curd mascot in Singapore.

Beancurd City in Singapore, near Little India.

A Kal guk su restaurant in Daejeon, South Korea. Kal guk su is a noodle soup.

A restaurant in Seoul, South Korea, in the Insadong district.

A restaurant in Seoul, South Korea, in the Insadong district.

The Coffee Boss (one of my favorite logos) looming above the Shimbashi train station in Tokyo.

The "Baby Hunt" store in Gongju, South Korea. I'm not sure if it is a fertility clinic, a very sick sport, or a branch of the Hunt clothing chain. (Probably that last one)

Cow and pig are friends. Restaurant sign in Daejeon, South Korea.

The "Big Feet Chinese Healing Centre" in Central Hong Kong.

The ABC Spicy Corner in Kuala Lumpur's Little India.

A Nasi Kandar shop in central Kuala Lumpur.

Random link from the archive: Entertain MeMe (November 2005)

Technorati tags: Malaysia : Japan

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Transparency at the Table

Q: What do chickpeas, corn starch, soybeans, sweet potatoes, wheat, buckwheat, mung beans, konnyaku, and rice have in common?

A: They are all made into noodles.

Italy is famous for pasta, Thailand for rice noodles, Japan for noodles made from buckwheat (soba), and the vast realm of Indian cuisine includes noodles made from chickpea flour, rice flour, and corn starch. This post is about a Korean noodle made from sweet potato (dang myun or tangmyon in Korean. The hangul (Korean script) is 당면).

Put Some Spring into Your Meal
The noodle is an unappealing gray when dry, but gains a wonderful transparency when cooked. The flavor is between mild and non-existent, so the noodles act as a flavor sponge or carrier. Their elasticity is quite impressive, and they can probably be stretched to two or three times their length (something that can lead to dangers at the table: stretched noodles snapping and either flying across the table or causing a piece of vegetable to become airborne. Coveralls and safety glasses might be appropriate garb.).

The noodles are most famously used in chap chae (alt: jap chae, hangul is 잡채), a dish of noodles, beef and vegetables. Memory is a mysterious thing, and for unknown reasons one of my strongest memories of dorm food at college is of chap chae. One day, one of the lunch choices was chap chae (probably alongside such Midwestern stalwarts as tuna noodle casserole, sloppy joes, or macaroni and cheese). I was completely mystified. What is this "chap" thing? However, my memories of everything after seeing the label are a lot fuzzier. I don't remember if I took a plate, whether I liked it, or what my dining companions thought about this international option. It wasn't until a few years later that I learned exactly what chap chae is, and a few more before I tried cooking with the noodles.

Sweet Potato Noodle "Slumgullion"
Slumgullion. What a great word. I ran across it in the indispensable Food Lover's Companion while looking up something in the S section. The word sounds old and rustic, from another era. And indeed it was coined by miners during the California gold rush in the mid-19th century. The cooking dictionary defines it as a stew made from leftovers.

The last few times I have used the noodles, I cook them with whatever vegetables (and tofu) were in my refrigerator: a slumgullion of sorts. Generally this means carrots, onions, napa cabbage, garlic, ginger and some greens. I'm sure my method isn't authentic, but I like it.

I cook the noodles according to the package directions, then drain and rinse with cold water. I drain them again and toss with a little sesame oil. I stir fry the vegetables until nearly tender, then add some soy sauce, sugar, and sesame oil. In go the noodles, and I cook, tossing the mixture, until everything is hot. A garnish of sliced scallions, or perhaps some chili sauce, is a good addition.

For recipes that are more authentic and detailed, try the Seattle Times, Korean Kitchen, or the Seattle Asian grocery Uwajimaya.

Random link from the archive: Unusual Greens, Part 5 - Borneo Greens (October 2006)

Technorati tags: vegetarian : Food