Saturday, January 31, 2009

Chinese jelly grass dessert on ice (仙草蜜)

Simple and lovely dessert common in South China and South East Asia: grass jelly with liquid cane sugar and ice. The Chinese name can be roughly translated as "honey from mountain hermit's grass". It tastes just like that: faintly bitterish jelly reminiscent of Chinese herbal medicines or licorice drenched in sweet nectar. It is made by boiling the aged and slightly fermented stalks and leaves of Mesona chinensis (member of the mint family) with potassium carbonate for several hours with a little starch and then cooling the liquid to a jelly-like consistency.

I find that too far-fetched and just buy it canned in my local Chinese store. Sweetened and chilled, there is nothing like it on a hot day. Add a few stripes of sweetly fragrant jackfruit for an extra kick.

Chorba, the Moroccan soup

Chorba is a generic Moroccan word for soup. In Morocco I was served it at any time of the day. What better appetizer can you think of to prepare your palate and induce salivation for the rest of the meal!

Most of time it is tomato-based with thin vermicelli, lamb bits and beans. Harissa - the spicy sauce - is served alongside so you can adjust the level of hotness yourself. Fresh chopped herbs are essential: I use coriander and spring onions.

So here's the recipe:

  1. Chop finely one big carrot, one big turnip and two potatoes. Let them sit and dry for while: this way they will stay whole when boiled.
  2. Chop finely half a pound of lean lamb, beef or chicken breast.
  3. Heat a thick-bottomed pot medium hot and briefly fry the veggies and meat.
  4. Add 2-3 crushed garlic cloves, a dash of freshly ground turmeric (powder will do too), half a bunch of chopped coriander, a sprinkle of freshly ground black pepper and a pinch of salt. Fry a tad longer.
  5. Add 1.5 litres of water, bring to boil. Reduce the heat.
  6. Open a tin of peeled tomatoes, mush them into pulp and tip into the pot.
  7. Wait until it starts simmering again and add two handfuls of fine vermicelli.
  8. Allow to simmer for another 20 minutes. The vermicelli should be well done.
Veg(etari)ans: substitute the meat with a (strained) can of chick peas. Carnivores can also add some beans to meat, Moroccans do.

Here is a theme song for this fragrant Moroccan meal:

Scallops baked in shells with cream and crumbs Breton style

Cocquille Saint-Jacques à la bretonne - are a luxury starter.

The recipe is very straightforward: oven-baked scallops on shells in bechamel with bread crumbs on top.

Alsatian Rieslings are very different from their German cousins: they are crisp, dry with berry or fruit overtones that are never perfumy. I bought this bottle straight from the producer in Riquewihr.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Kitchin N1 London restaurant review

Well, after nearly 2 decades of perfecting my restaurant-choosing skills, I still occasionally slip.

I really don't know what possessed to me go for this 14-quid Thai-Indian-Italian-Chinese buffet this time against my lovely companions' advice. After all there are Golden Rules:
1) There is NO good buffet under 20 quid in London or 20 euros on the Continent or 20 bucks on the Stateside. It's just the way the world food prices are. For anything under 20 units of currency you get served chewable muck.

2) Jack of all trades - master of none. So very true for restaurants too: it's next to impossible to be good at Thai AND Indian AND Chinese AND Italian unless you can afford to hire a specialist chef for each. Which for 20 quid a pop you simply can't.
So here's a breakdown:

Indian - was the best of the lot because it must have been their original specialty. When you keep the same pot warmed up the whole day, naturally the flavour goes but overall even the huge chunks of chicken breast were munchable. Just. They do fix your own naan to your liking. Nice touch.
Score: 6 out of 10. Should be actually 5 but the lamb kebab has redeemed the other 8 pots of lackadaisical fare.
Thai - a single pot of green curry was there to stand for the whole exuberance of Thai cuisine. It featured the same huge chunks of chicken breast in a fierely salty gravy that faintly smelled of fish sauce and lemon grass. No veggies in sight. Honestly, I couldn't bring myself to finish it.
Score: 2 out of 10. You didn't even try guys.
Italian - the bruschetta was nice but the pizzas were frozen ones from Tesco. They also had 2 pots of pasta but the Milanese lady who was with me wouldn't touch those. Neither did I but just because I found it difficult to get excited about repeatedly reheated gnocchi and fettucine.
Score: 4 out 10 and that's generous considered that it wasn't even Tesco's Finest.
Chinese - well, it was authentic if your idea of Chinese is a 8-quid all-you-can-eat at Leicester Square. Day-Glo colours - electric red, shocking orange - this resto must be keeping in business a really huge chemical factory somewhere in China. And - SALTY! - I swear, enough salt to make a medium-sized swimming pool inhabitable for marine fauna. Same huge chunks of chicken breast and hardly any veg in sight.
Score: 3 out of 10. It was just marginally better than the Thai "single-curry section" - 1 extra point for the variety.
Salad bar - sliced and chopped anaemic edibles with a choice of four heavy sauces. The variety and presentation of a Soviet-style canteen.
Score: 4 out of 10, for trying. I know how hard it is to procure vegetables that actually taste or smell like something in the midst of winter in a northern country. You guys have failed but so have many others.
Dessert - cheapest cakes on the market with dollops of whipped cream, tasteless fruit salad and 3 bowls with oranges, pears and green apples. Yummm. Overall cost must not have been more than 10 pounds.
Score: 4 out of 10. I guess you can't really expect masterpieces of patisserie for 14 quid a head. Oh well.
Conclusion: The worst of takeaways lined up on heated plates
in a post-modern urban café interior. Recommended if your only objective is to stuff your face on limited budget.

I am glad I was in the company of two beautiful and smart young ladies who were gracious enough not to mention that I have ruined their culinary experience by dragging them to Kitchin N1. Sorry, ladies, I'll listen to you next time!

Turkish bulgur with pine nuts and Cajun chicken

Bulgur is a cereal popular in the Middle East: Turkey, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan. I lightly fry it in butter first and then steam it in 3 shares of water. Bulgur is a tough cookie and this can take up to 40 minutes. It should come just a wee bit chewy, al dente, and I enhance its natural nutty fragrance with slowly roasted and chopped pine nuts, cashews and pistachios.

This chicken is to die for. Here I mix Chinese, Hungarian and Cajun influences to marinate slivers of skinned breast filet in lemon juice, lemon zest,
liquid cane sugar, ground paprika and toasted garlic:
  • half a kilo of skinned chicken breast cut into slivers;
  • one lemon, zested and squeezed;
  • 3 nice glubs of liquid cane sugar;
  • a teaspoonful of ground paprica;
  • half a head of garlic, peeled, sliced and toasted.
The longer chicken soaks the better: overnight in the fridge is the optimum . I griddle-fry for the nice sear marks and serve with the bulgur. Chopped coriander blends in perfectly into this symphony of tastes.

Here is a theme song for this fragrant Turkish meal (warning: this is NOT, under any circumstances, a homoerotic video!):

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Daikon-guk: clear Korean soup (식물국)

Daikon-guk is a clear beef broth served in the olden days to the Korean emperor.

The recipe is simple and the aromatic soup is deeply satisfying on a cold winter day.
  1. Cut 100 g lean beef into thin strips.
  2. Chop the white of one leek into thin (apprx. 2 mm) circles.
  3. Peel 10 cm of daikon and cut it into thin (3-4 mm) semi-circles.
  4. Stir-fry the beef quickly in a tablespoonful of sesame oil.
  5. Add the leeks and the daikon and quickly sautee. The vegetables have to stay crunchy.
  6. Add a splash of Kikkoman soya sauce and tip into a pot with a litre of cold water.
  7. Bring to boil, switch off the heat.
  8. Serve with just a tad of ground black pepper and a sprinkle of chopped parsley.
Here is a theme song for this fragrant Korean meal:

Panchan: Korean side dishes (반찬)

Korea may be wedged between China and Japan but its culinary tradition is distinctively different from its neighbouring countries.

ucumber namul (warm salad), kimchi (Peking cabbage pickled in red pepper) and pickled bamboo shoots are staples of Korean cuisine. They are eaten in the beginning of the meal, a starter equivalent.

Korean chicken with pyogo mushrooms

This is not the typical fiery Korean fare you'd expect. Actually, Koreans know more than splicing their food with industrial quantities of chillies. This chicken dish is based on the delicate combination of the natural flavours of chicken, ginger, leeks and mushrooms.

irst, I put a whole chicken in a pot, pour cold water to cover it all, add sliced fresh ginger root (abt. 3 inches) and one stalk of leek chopped into circles. Bring to boil, allow to simmer for half an hour.

In the meantime, I sauté 12 pyogo and and 3 medium oyster mushrooms in a tablespoonful of odourless vegetable oil. If you only have dried mushrooms , soak them overnight in an ample amount of water. That water (mushroom stock) you can later use to cook uncommonly fragrant rice.

Steamed Vietnamese tilapia with spicy dip (cá hấp xốt cay)

ietnam swept me off my feet with its culinary sophistication. A Vietnamese roadside hawker probably uses more types of herbs than a chef in a posh Western restaurant. And I really admire how the Vietnamese use chilis: just to let some spiciness linger in the background, bringing out the taste of the main ingredients.

This tilapia was grown in Vietnam so it deserves to be cooked according to the customs of its country of origin. The only foreign influence I allow is the traditional Japanese marinade for white fish. Mix equal shares of shoyu, sake and mirin and let the fish marinate for at least half an hour to enhance its natural flavour.

Then I lace a bamboo sieve with:
  • circles of leek (preferably the white part)
  • slices of carrots
  • julienned celery root
  • half-circles of daikon
  • half-circles of topinambour (Jerusalem artichoke)
  • slices of lotus root
  • julienned shiitake
Do not stuff them too tightly, allow for the steam to get through later. Put tougher veggies like topinambour or carrots close to the bottom. Top it all with filets of white fish. Give it a good grind of black pepper.

Bring 5cm of water in a pot to boil, add a stock of lemon grass chopped, top it with the bamboo sieve. Don't forget to put the lid on!

While it all is steaming away - it takes just 5-7 minutes, really, prepare the dip:
  • grated ginger, abt. 2 inches;
  • one clove of garlic, crushed;
  • one chilli pepper, finely chopped;
  • juice of one lime;
  • a tablespoonful of palm sugar;
  • 3 tablespoonfuls of fish sauce
  • 2 tablespoonfuls of water
Mix it all well until the sugar dissolves completely.

Serve with steamed rice and dry white wine or lemon grass tea.

Kimpira gobou - braised Japanese burdock (きんぴら牛蒡)

obou is an edible Japanese root. The English translation - burdock - makes it sound like something out of a witch potion but in fact it tastes delicious. Its earthy flavour blends wonderfully with carrots' natural sweetness. Shoyu, sake, mirin and a soupçon of toasted and seeded chili give this warm salad an amazing flavour with just a wee touch of spiciness.

Now for the recipe:
  1. Julienne one gobou (burdock root) and two carrots.
  2. Heat two tablespoonfuls of sesame oil in a thick-bottomed wok, add first the gobou and one whole chilli pepper.
  3. When the gobou soften somewhat, add the carrots.
  4. Take out the chilli, seed and chop it very finely.
  5. Add equal parts of mirin, shoyu and sake to the vegetables - about two tablespoonfuls each. Add the chopped chilli.
  6. Allow to simmer stirring regularly until the liquid is soaked into the vegetables.
  7. Add a dash of white and a dash of black sesame seeds. Serve hot, warm or cold.
This goes gloriously with ice-cold beer or can be served as a part of Japanese dinner with steamed rice.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Japanese shiitake simmered in sake, mirin and shoyu

Shiitake mushrooms are so fragrant they do not need any condiments. However, there is one traditional way to enjoy their exqusite flavour even more.

Cooking this dish starts the day before from soaking dry shiitake. Fresh ones won't take long simmering. Immerse 12 large dry shiitake in lukewarm water. Do not use hot water as it scold the surface and blocks the inside from becoming moist.

The next day, pick out the mushrooms and chop them 3-4 mm thick. Use the water to boil rice or as stock for sauces and soups, not limited to Asian dishes.

Heat a thick-bottomed wok and add 2 tablespoonfuls of odourless vegetable oil. Stir-fry the mushrooms until fragrant. Reduce the heat and add sake, mirin and shoyu, 3 tablespoonfuls each. Simmer until the mushrooms absorb the liquid.

What's in a name: bak kut teh (肉骨茶)

My first time in Kuala Lumpur I had a little shock. On every street there would be a very busy no-frills café with a huge Chinese sign saying "Meat and bone tea". It sounded so cannibalistic to a simple Northern lad like yours truly, it took my friend Ani some effort to drag me into one.

Bak kut teh was invented in Malaysia in the 19th century to supplement the meagre diet of Chinese coolies. Nowadays, people eat itmore for the savoury taste than for the nutrient kick.

It is never cold in Malaysia but I discovered that bak kut teh can brighten up a gloomy Dutch winter day like nothing else. The recipe is simple, you will need:
  • 700g pork ribs (I use calf ribs as a more health-conscious choice)
  • 2 litres of cold water
  • one head of garlic unpeeled, broken down into cloves
  • 5-6 aniseeds
  • 2-3 quills of cinnamon
  • 1-2 tablespoonfuls of danggui
  • 5-6 cloves
  • a teaspoonful of whole white peppers (that will make it Teochew style)
Bring it all to boil, then simmer for 30-40 minutes. Skim the fat and froth. Add soya sauce to taste.

Zongzi - Chinese bamboo leaf wraps (粽子)

In Ancient China, that is 4th century BC, a famous poet Qu Yuan was very unhappy about the policies of the government in his kingdom. In protest, he committed a ritual suicide by walking into a river. He was a major celebrity so distraught people tried to retrieve his body but to no avail. Every river for the Ancient Chinese was governed by a dragon king. To appease it and let it help them find Qu Yuan's body, they would throw lumps of cooked rice into the water. They never found it but this tradition has been preserved in the Dragon Boat Festival to these days.

It is a festival dish and, as it goes, quite time-consuming. They must have really loved Qu Yuan to throw these precious darlings into the river. They can be made sweet or savoury with a wide variety of ingredients but this is how I make them:
  1. Soak 40-50 bamboo leaves overnight in warm water. Soak 10 dry shiitake with 4 cups of sticky rice. in lukewarm water, soak half a cup of peanuts in cold water. Soak in cold water. Don't do all that in one pot!
  2. Next day: slice the mushrooms 2-3mm thick, cut 2 chicken breasts into short thin slivers, julienne 2 bamboo shoots and 3 carrots.
  3. Heat 3 tablespoonfuls of odourless vegetable oil in wok and add a tablespoonful of five-spice powder. Fry until fragrant.
  4. Add the mix from Step 2 and the soaked peanuts and sauté. Add soya sauce to taste.
Wrap the rice and the chicken/veg mix into bamboo leaves as shown in this video:

team the wraps in a bamboo sieve for an hour.

Chevre chaud - grilled goat cheese on a bed of lettuce

Chèvre chaud means "hot goat". While Yankees were stuffing buns with frankfurters and calling them "hot dogs", the French were grilling goat cheese and serving it on a bed of lettuce with honey-mustard dressing.

Raw goat cheese is sharp and dry, not my personal favourite. The magic of grilling transforms it into lush runny goodness with flavourful seared crust. I must be imagining it but it even develops a certain smokiness in the process. Yum.

The dressing is simple and delicious and can be used with any vegetable salad. Just toss the following ingredients until they all dissolve and mix into homogeneous liquid:

  • equal shares of white wine vinegar and olive oil;
  • equal shares of honey and grainy mustard (about half the vinegar and oil volume);
  • freshly ground black pepper;
  • sea salt;
  • this is my addition: a wee dash of granulated garlic powder, which adds the toasted garlic flavour to what the Japanese call kakuashi-aji, hidden, background taste.

Grilled Cajun chicken wings

The secret of grilled Cajun chicken wings is in the marinade. Crushed garlic, finely chopped shallots and celery give the flavour when toasted in the oven. Black and red peppers add the spice. Lemon juice, white wine and liquid cane sugar create the nice sweet and sour balance while the sugar also makes the skin deliciously brown and crisp. Make sure to cut the skin so that the marinade gets to the meat.

Chopped celery leaves make a nice garnish.

On The Meaning Of Food In Human life

Food is a God-given gift, a reward for the miseries of human existence. Just think of the chances that in the never-ending universe of eternal cold, exploding stars and deadly radiation we are blessed to have complex protein-based life evolved to the point where we can enjoy enjoy 16 varieties of utterly scrumptuous edible shrimp, hundred of sorts of very diverse fragrant spices and all the astounding array of various grapevines that produce an infinite variety of most excquisite wine noses and bouquets. Even before enjoying the taste, food is about gratitude, feeling thankful for the precious one quadrillionth of the chance that you can have it.

What you eat becomes your physical body, which is the temple of your soul. It is our choice whether to build this temple with dried dung bricks or blocks of Carrara marble.

This is how I have figured out my priorities: I rather spend two hours cooking in the kitchen than absorbing mindless drivel on TV made with the sole objective to trick me into watching the commercials.