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Midway through summer I start craving a bit more excitement from my grill. Sure, I keep the usual burgers and kebabs on the menu. However, for a flashy, festive meal that’s a snap to create, I add bivalves to my barbecue.
Bivalves, a class of mollusk, possess two hinged shells, or valves, held together by a single muscle. Sound familiar? It should. This group consists of oysters, clams, mussels and scallops. Of these, clams, mussels and scallops all receive invitations to my cookouts.
Why aren’t oysters included on the guest list? It’s because of the “no R” rule — don’t consume oysters in a month without an “r” in its name. This is not an old wives’ tale. During the months of May through August, oysters spawn and become watery and unpalatable. Not even a smoky grill will improve their state.
Bivalves provide a chance of pace on the grill
Of the bivalve trio, the clam, specifically the East Coast littleneck clam, is a particular favorite of mine. Less than 2 inches in diameter, these are the smallest hard-shell clams. They are also the tenderest and one of the eco-friendliest.
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Along with its sweet, somewhat briny taste, what I love about the littleneck clam is that it cleans itself, siphoning water into and out of its shell, pushing out debris as it goes.
Keeping this self-cleaning trait in mind, about a half hour before placing them on the grill, I lay my littlenecks in a bowl filled with cold water and pour a generous amount of salt over them. The clams immediately begin to push out the salted water and any sediment that has collected in their shells. You can watch the grains of sand and dirt float to the top of the bowl.
After 20 to 25 minutes have passed, I arrange the debris-free clams on a sheet of tin foil. Although this may seem like a mundane task, I stay on my toes, looking out for fastidious or feisty clams among the bunch. These invariably spit water at me.
Placing the foil on my preheated grill, I cover and cook the clams for five to eight minutes. They’re finished when all their shells have opened. Any that don’t open I discard.
The grilled clams, with their juices pooling in their shells, can be topped with a dollop of hot sauce, squeeze of citrus juice, drop of butter or pinch of ground black pepper. Juicy and mildly salty, they’re equally delicious without any adornments.
Mussels require a smidgen more effort. Look at a mussel and the first thing you’ll notice is a cluster of scruffy threads attached to it. Known as a beard, these fibers allow the mussel to cling to and grow on rocks and other substrate. Although useful to the mussel, they’re of no value to me and must be scraped off with a knife.
Beards removed, I scrub the mussels under running water with a stiff brush. If they seem heavy or dirty, I soak them in a bowl of cold water for an hour before draining and washing them off again.
Cleaning finally completed, I follow the same cooking steps used for clams. As for dressing the grilled mussels, I consider what complements their sweet, moist meat and adorn them with such ingredients as chives, shallots, mustard, lemon juice, tarragon vinegar or garlic-laced butter.
Scallops differ from the other two in that they’re shucked at sea immediately after being harvested. As a result, I don’t have much cleaning to do. I just rinse the meat under water and move on to cooking.
Unfortunately, the lack of shells means I have an increased risk of the scallops drying out on the grill. To combat this possibility, I generously coat the scallops with olive oil before laying them on a hot grill. After seasoning each with salt and pepper, I cook them for two to three minutes per side or until the translucent flesh has turned a beautiful pearl color. I immediately remove the scallops to prevent overcooking.
Similar to clams and mussels, scallops require few, if any, extra ingredients. A dusting of cayenne, scallions, shallots, and vinegar or lemon or lime juice will balance out their sweetness, while a splash of cream or white wine will enhance it. Chervil, parsley or thyme likewise pair well with these plump and flavorful bivalves.
The next time that you fire up your grill, add some bivalves to your barbecue. Simple, quick and flavorful, they’re a welcome addition to any summer feast.
From “Fish Market” (Running Press, 2013). If you don’t have an outdoor grill, you can make these on a grill pan.
- 8 tablespoons unsalted butter
- Juice of 1 lemon
- Grated zest of 2 lemons
- 3 tablespoons fresh basil, minced
- ½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 5 dozen medium-sized hard-shelled clams such as top neck or cherrystone, scrubbed
- Preheat the grill on high.
- In a glass bowl in the microwave or in a small pan on the stovetop, melt the butter. Allow the butter to cool slightly, about 10 minutes, and then add the lemon juice, zest, basil and pepper. Stir together and set aside.
- Place a layer of tin foil on the grill and then place the clams on top of the foil. Cover the grill and allow the clams to cook for 8 to 10 minutes.
- After tossing out any unopened clams, place the grilled clams in a bowl or on a platter and drizzle the lemon-basil butter over the top of them. Serve immediately.
Main photo: Clams on a grill pan. Credit: Kathy Hunt
As a longtime pescetarian and proponent of healthy eating, I’m delighted when people mention adding seafood to their diet. My heart sinks, though, when I hear that these additions consist of imported shrimp and tuna or farmed Atlantic salmon.
Although I appreciate any attempt to eat more wholesomely, I wish Americans would make wiser, more environmentally sound choices when it comes to shellfish and fish.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 91% of our favorite seafood was shipped in from overseas in 2011. Meanwhile, our own waters teem with nutritious yet highly invasive species such as Asian carp, northern snakehead and lionfish. In an age of increasing concerns about the environment and sustainability, our dependence on imported and ecologically unsound seafood makes no sense. It’s time for us to stop making unviable choices and start eating America’s glut of destructive, nonnative fish.
Eating invasive fish aids sustainability
Think that the need for invasivores – people who eat invasive species — might be overhyped? Consider Asian carp, specifically bighead, silver, black, and grass carp. They were introduced in the late 1960s to control parasites, algae and weeds in Southeastern U.S. aquaculture.
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This story is not unique. Dumped out of exotic aquariums, the flamboyant and venomous Indo-Pacific lionfish has infiltrated the coastal waters of Florida, spreading as far north as North Carolina and as far south as the Caribbean. Left unchecked, the lionfish has destroyed entire reef populations and drastically reduced biodiversity.
Native to Africa and Asia, northern snakeheads have likewise decimated wildlife in the Potomac, sections of the East and West coasts, Florida and Hawaii. Able to live several days out of the water, they wriggle over land to ravage nearby ponds, reservoirs and lakes. As a result, snakeheads are particularly troublesome.
Although America spends millions of tax dollars attempting to contain or eliminate these and other invasive fish, they remain prized foods in their native lands. In China and Southeast Asia, cooks grill, fry, poach, braise, steam or stew snakehead.
In Cambodia, this freshwater fish serves as an essential source of protein and stars in the traditional curry dish amok trey. Firm, white-fleshed and moderate in flavor, it makes a fitting substitute for overfished darlings such as monkfish and snapper.
Low in mercury and PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyl), Asian carp also abounds with culinary possibilities. Along with smoking, steaming, grilling and frying, it performs well in soups, curries and stews. Mild and white-fleshed, it’s a good stand-in for the depleted Atlantic cod and Icelandic pollock.
Lionfish, too, is a pleasant-tasting replacement for environmentally unsafe fish. In July 2010, the Washington Post prophesized that lionfish could be “the new sustainable ‘it’ seafood.”
Mild in flavor and white-fleshed, it offers a versatile alternative to popular but eco-unfriendly choices such as grouper and orange roughy. It responds well to most cooking techniques and pairs well with a number of ingredients.
Although lionfish does possess venomous dorsal spines, its meat is safe to eat. I say this from experience. This past winter in the Florida Keys, I had several lovely, light lunches of speared, filleted and then pan-seared lionfish topped with a spritz of lime juice or dollop of mango chutney. Obviously, I lived to write about it.
Our aquatic enemies may be tasty and a snap to cook, but not everyone will want to devour a fish called “snakehead” or “bighead carp.” This is where smart marketing comes into play. Most people would avoid the unattractively named Patagonian toothfish. However, tucking into an exotic Chilean sea bass has proved to be A-OK with diners. Same fish, different designation. Provide snakehead and Asia carp with fancy or friendlier names, and watch how opinions change.
Exposure will likewise aid in gaining converts. Invasive species-themed dinners have already taken place in Chicago, Miami, Dallas and Baltimore. Along with raising public awareness of these marauding creatures, the events aim to tantalize the public’s palate. Chefs create tempting specialties such as snakehead po’ boys, European green crab stew, lionfish sashimi and Asian carp croquettes. Bite into a moist and flavorful snakehead taco, and you’ll never fill your tortillas with shrimp or tuna again.
With a bit of consumer education, exposure and smart marketing, we could control — if not eliminate — America’s invasive seafood species problem. In the process, we would reduce our dependence on unsustainable, imported seafood. It’s time for us to take note of the invasive species’ culinary appeal and start catching and consuming our nemeses.
Main photo: Lionfish. Credit: iStockphoto / kiankhoon
As a lifelong sweets lover, I think of summertime as the season where I cast aside my beloved rich, wintry desserts for light, fruity treats. One dish that always tops my list of summer offerings is the trifle. Composed of layers of liquor-doused sponge cake, fruit or preserves, custard and whipped cream, this heavenly British original is far from trivial.
Although it may sound unfamiliar to many Americans, this creamy creation has wowed Britain since the Middle Ages. Trifle first appeared in print in T. Dawson’s 1596 book “The Good Huswifes Jewell” and consisted of spiced, sweetened and boiled cream.
The trifle has grown more elaborate more tasty over time
During the 18th century, the trifle became much more elaborate. So did its presentation. In order for guests to see the ingredients, sponge cake or macaroons were placed into a clear glass bowl. They were then wetted with wine, brandy or sherry. Blanketed by custard, they were ultimately topped by the frothy milk and wine or fruit juice combo known as syllabub.
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The city of Cambridge specialized in several trifles, one of which was known as “the duke’s custard.” Here, brandied Morello cherries were slipped between the sponge cake and custard. Cambridge also had “the dean’s cream,” which incorporated candied fruit, and “chapel trifle,” which substituted jam for the alcohol.
The addition of fruit turned the trifle into a sophisticated confection. No longer was it just a bowl of velvety custard, cream and dampened cake. Now diners encountered distinct textures and flavors. With this, the modern trifle was born.
Fruit added complexity and sweetness to the dessert. It also increased its exquisiteness. When viewed from the side, the contrasting bands of gold from the cookies, orange, violet or ruby from the fruit, blond custard and white cream were striking. It’s not surprising that 18th-century cookbook author Hannah Glasse said that, with burning candles placed around it, a fruit preserve-laced trifle made a beautiful centerpiece.
In Victorian England, trifle became the dessert to be served at festive occasions. It was a staple of the banquet table and served as a light alternative to another British classic, Christmas pudding.
Over the decades cooks have experimented with this lovely sweet, occasionally transforming it into something far less pleasing. I think specifically of the 1890s savory trifle. In it fried bread took the place of sponge cake, chunks of lobster replaced the fruit and mayonnaise stood in for the custard.
In recipes aimed at England’s working poor, early 20th-century British food lecturer Florence Petty tried to inject some whimsy and fun. To that end, she refashioned the trifle into a main dish made from leftovers. Dubbed “beef trifle,” her creation consisted of meat mixed with horseradish and breadcrumbs. Topped with layers of beaten eggs and gravy, Petty’s beef trifle was baked and served in a glass bowl as the evening entree.
Another less radical take was the Indian trifle, which included rice and cinnamon. Closer to the original are those recipes that replace the alcohol used for softening the sponge cake with coffee, coconut milk or liqueur.
Because of my nagging sweet tooth, I stick with tried-and-true dessert trifles, with a few tweaks, or course. Instead of the traditional sponge cake, I substitute Italian ladyfingers or amaretti cookies and pour Madeira or other sweet, white wine over them. If I’m serving this to children as well as adults, I use the fruit’s macerating liquid or orange juice in place of the alcohol.
As for the colorful, fruity layer, some cooks insist on using preserves rather than fruit. Not me. Although this dessert tastes magnificent with virtually any fruit, I like a mixture of macerated raspberries and blueberries, mangoes and kiwis, plums, apricots, strawberries or passion fruit. In the winter, canned peaches or pomegranate seeds are equally divine.
Regarding the final two tiers, custard and whipped cream made from scratch are musts. Neither takes long to prepare, yet both taste so much better than what you’ll get from a box or an aerosol can. To add a bit of zing, I sprinkle chopped pistachios, toasted almond slivers, citrus zest or pomegranate seeds over the whipped cream.
This summer cast aside the usual pies, cobblers and ice creams for British trifles. They never fail to please both visually and gastronomically.
You can make this in one large, clear glass bowl or small, individual glass bowls.
- 12 ounces fresh raspberries
- 1 teaspoon sugar
- 2 tablespoons cranberry juice
- 12 to 14 ladyfinger or amaretti cookies
- ½ cup white wine
- 3 large eggs plus 2 egg yolks
- ½ cup sugar
- Pinch salt
- ½ teaspoon almond extract
- ½ teaspoon vanilla extract
- 2 cups milk
- 2 tablespoons cornstarch
- 1 cup whipping cream
- 1 teaspoon almond extract
- 1 tablespoon sugar
- 2 tablespoons sliced blanched almonds, toasted
- Toss the raspberries, sugar and cranberry juice together in a bowl and allow the ingredients to steep for 30 minutes or so.
- As the berries are macerating, make the custard. Place the eggs, egg yolks, sugar, almond and vanilla extracts and pinch of salt into a saucepan and, over medium heat, stir the ingredients until combined. Slowly pour in the milk and cornstarch, stirring continually. Keep cooking over medium heat, stirring constantly, until thick and the custard can coat the back of a spoon and it reaches a temperature of 180 F on an instant-read thermometer. Remove from heat and allow the custard to cool.
- In either a large glass bowl or smaller individual bowls, line up the ladyfingers until the bottom is covered. So that I can fit more cookies in the bowl, I like to place them on their sides rather than bottoms.
- Using a strainer, strain the berries, reserving their juices. You should end up with roughly ¼ cup of liquid. Add the wine to the juice and pour the mixture over the ladyfingers so that all are coated.
- At this point make the whipped cream. In a medium bowl beat together the cream, almond extract and sugar until stiff peaks form.
- To assemble the trifle, evenly spoon the raspberries over the ladyfingers. Pour the cooled custard over the berries. Spread the whipped cream over the custard and then top it with the toasted almonds. Refrigerate until ready to serve.
Main photo: A raspberry trifle. Credit: Kathy Hunt
Most of us have experienced this scenario once in our lives: You travel to a new region, sample the local cuisine and fall head over heels for a unique food or drink. Perhaps you ask for the recipe so you can re-create this amazing repast in your own kitchen. Maybe you buy every box or bottle you can find and stuff your suitcase with liquor, pastries or cured meat. Then again, you might have a case of the delicacy shipped to your home.
If you’re anything like New York City restaurateur Pepi Di Giacomo, you don’t stop with a case of your favorite, Tuscan-made chocolates. “I wanted the chocolate for myself. How can I get it? I open up a shop,” she says.
In January, in a jewel-box-sized storefront a few blocks north of Manhattan’s Union Square, Di Giacomo opened America’s first Amedei chocolate shop.
There she sells a variety of velvety chocolate pralines, bars, truffles and drops; a rich, silky chocolate-hazelnut spread known as Crema Toscana; and luscious hot cocoa. Most of these treats contain a minimum of 70% cocoa. All pack a powerful flavor punch.
Amedei chocolate made by master chocolatier
The sweets at Di Giacomo’s well-appointed shop come from the Tuscan town of Pontedera, Italy. Home to the dashing Vespa scooter and sustainable Castellani wine, Pontedera is where the world’s first female master chocolatier, Cecilia Tessieri, and her older brother Alessio produce Amedei.
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Named for Tessieri’s maternal grandmother, who, according to Cecilia Tessieri, “loved chocolate and was the heart of the family,” Amedei came out with its first chocolate, Toscana Black, in 1998. Cecilia Tessieri worked for eight years on this nuanced dark chocolate bar before deeming it ready for the public. Like fine wine, exceptional chocolate takes time.
Toscana Black possesses a clean, refined flavor. It comes from a blend of Venezuelan Criollo and Trinidadian Trinitario beans.
While Toscana features only two varieties of beans, the “9″ chocolate bar includes beans from nine cacao plantations. All nine had been on the verge of closing when the Tessieris encountered them. The siblings saved, restored and put the plantations back into production, growing the beans used in Amedei’s award-winning chocolates.
As Di Giacomo points out, Amedei is “a true bean-to-bar company.” She adds, “They oversee plantations, work with farmers’ cooperatives, collect the beans, and roast, grind and mix them. They source the best ingredients and make their chocolates very pure and complex in flavor.”
Like many Amedei devotees, I first became hooked on its bar chocolate. A bite of aromatic Chuao or creamy milk chocolate flecked with toasted Piedmont hazelnuts proved to be the perfect afternoon pick-me-up or after-dinner sweet. After I progressed to the rum-laced, dark chocolate praline Passione and ginseng-infused, milk chocolate praline Equilibrio, I understood why Food & Wine contributing editor Pete Wells called Amedei “the world’s best chocolate.” Smooth, well balanced and mature flavored, Amedei’s filled chocolates, or pralines, are divine creations.
Considering how heavenly Amedei’s filled chocolates are, I wasn’t surprised to learn Cecilia Tessieri started her confectionary career as a praline maker. She trained and worked in small chocolate laboratories and large factories across Europe. She also apprenticed with European bean-to-bar masters, learning firsthand how to craft exceptional chocolate and pair unusual ingredients.
Inspiration, she says, comes from her travel experiences as well as her emotions. “Much also depends on whom the chocolate is meant for,” she says.
Each year Amedei introduces one or two new chocolates. The small number is a result of the large amount of time spent perfecting the chocolates. “Pralines and tartufi — Italian truffles — need one year of study and tests before they are released,” she says.
These are chocolates worth the wait. Past newcomers include such delicious goodies as the cinnamon-walnut Toscanello and the cherry- and maraschino-liqueur filled Badia. Inspired by Brunelleschi’s dome on Florence’s renowned Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore, the dome-shaped Badia is sublime.
Thanks to Cecilia Tessieri’s creativity and Pepi Di Giacomo’s initiative, we all can enjoy sumptuous, otherworldly chocolates any time, anywhere. Along with selling Amedei at her shop on East 18th Street, Di Giacomo offers the same products online at the Amedei website.
“It makes me happy to feed people and feed them good food,” she says. With Amedei, Di Giacomo has made not only herself but also countless chocolate lovers quite happy.
Main photo: Chocolates for sale at Amedei in Manhattan. Credit: Kathy Hunt
While the days of bakers standing on street corners, shouting out the familiar “hot cross buns; hot cross buns. One a penny, two a penny … ” rhyme, died long ago, bakeries still fill their display cases with these small, spiced yeast buns. Seeing them glistening in a storefront window is a sure sign that the Lenten and spring seasons have arrived.
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Although most of us associate hot cross buns with Easter, these pastries have been around since pre-Christian times. Archeological evidence indicates that ancient Egyptians made little yeast rolls to give as an offering to the goddess of the moon. For ancient Greeks and Romans, these cakes served as tribute to the goddess of light. The Saxons created tiny, round breads for the goddess of spring. They also receive credit for adding the cross to the design. To them, the cross signified the four seasons.
By the Middle Ages, much of Europe had adopted the custom of baking spiced, raisin- or currant-filled buns for spring festivals and other special events. However, in England, an unusual 16th-century law reduced their prevalence by decreeing that bakeries could only sell “cross buns” for funerals and on Good Friday and Christmas.
Hot cross buns on Good Friday
Over the years, Good Friday became the official day for procuring them. Because they usually went directly from the oven to the customer, historians presume that is why they became known as “hot cross buns.”
Since 1935, La Delice Pastry Shop in New York City has produced and sold hot cross buns for the Lenten season. “We make and put them on display one day before Ash Wednesday so that people can see and get excited about them,” says the in-house baker who goes only by George and who has worked at La Delice since 1976.
Flavored with vanilla, diced candied fruit and raisins, the tender rolls call to mind miniature panettones. Unlike the Italian holiday bread, La Delice’s buns are brushed with a light glaze and then adorned with powdered sugar icing crosses.
These are the buns I remember from my childhood. With their velvety dough and sweet, chewy fruit, these buns always came from a local bakery. When asked why we didn’t bake our own, my mother would claim we were keeping alive a family tradition; even my great-grandmother, who was born in the 1860s, purchased her hot cross buns.
It turns out that my great-grandmother had a good reason for relying upon someone else for her spring baked goods. Prior to the 20th century, scant few recipes for hot cross buns appeared in cookbooks. It seems that almost everyone dropped by a neighborhood bakery to procure a hot cross bun.
What is (or isn’t) magic about these buns?
Other folklore exists for these treats. At one time people believed that, when hung in the kitchen, the buns would bring good luck and thwart house fires. If packed by sailors for voyages, they prevented shipwrecks. When thrust into a mound of corn, they safeguarded against mice and rats.
The magical properties didn’t begin and end with protection. Take a handful of hot cross bun crumbs, mix them with water and supposedly you had a cure-all in a cup. End up with more buns than you can consume? Dry them out in a warm oven and you can keep and eat them all year.
While I can’t attest to any of these tales, I do know that hot cross buns are best consumed on the day they’re made. If you buck tradition and bake your own, you can freeze the un-frosted extras.
Should you need to make them a day in advance, hold off on icing the buns until right before serving. Before decorating, warm the buns in the oven until softened. The same rule applies for frozen buns.
If you want a little diversity with your buns, you can replace the frosting with strips of pastry dough or candied fruit peel. You can also flavor the dough with grated citrus zest, allspice, cinnamon, cloves and/or nutmeg. Some bakers leave out the candied fruit and only feature currants, raisins or other dried fruit. Others leave out the dried fruit and use only candied fruit. The choice is yours.
Hot Cross Buns
Makes 1½ dozen buns
1 package dry active yeast
3 tablespoons warm water
½ cup milk, warmed
½ cup warm water
1 teaspoon salt, plus extra for egg wash
¼ cup sugar
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
2 large eggs, divided
2 cups bread flour
2 cups all-purpose flour
¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon
¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
¼ teaspoon allspice
⅓ cup mixture of chopped dried cranberries, cherries and apricots
Grated zest of ½ orange
Canola oil or grapeseed oil
½ cup confectioner’s sugar
2 teaspoons milk
1. Combine the yeast and 3 tablespoons water in the bowl of a stand mixer or in a regular mixing bowl and allow the yeast to dissolve, about 5 minutes.
2. Add the milk, water, salt, sugar, butter, sugar and 1 egg and whisk to combine.
3. Slowly add the bread flour followed by the all-purpose flour and spices, stirring or beating on low until the flour is incorporated. The resulting dough should be moist but not sticky.
4. Using either your hands or the mixer’s dough hook, knead until the dough is smooth and pliable, about 10 minutes.
5. Add the dried fruit and zest and knead again until incorporated.
6. Grease a large bowl with canola or grapeseed oil and place the dough in the bowl. Cover it with plastic wrap, place the bowl in a warm spot and allow it to rise for 90 minutes.
7. Grease two baking sheets and set aside.
8. After the dough has risen, separate it into 18 equal-sized pieces. Roll these into small balls and place them on the greased baking sheets, keeping them 2 inches apart. Cover with plastic wrap and allow the dough balls to rise for an hour.
9. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.
10. In a small bowl, whisk the remaining egg together with 1 teaspoon water and a pinch of salt.
11. Using a sharp knife, slash a cross into the top of each ball. Brush the tops of the balls with the egg wash. Bake until the tops are golden in color and the bottoms sound hollow when tapped, 12 to 15 minutes.
12. As the buns cool slightly on the baking sheets, whisk together the confectioner’s sugar and milk. Using an icing knife or teaspoon, fill in the cross on the top of each bun with the icing. Serve warm.
Top photo: Hot cross buns. Credit: Kathy Hunt
With its gnarled body, fibrous, greenish-pink shoots and coarse, reddish-brown skin, galangal ranks high on my list of peculiar-looking ingredients. Thanks to its sweetly tart and peppery flavor, its piney aroma and the unique tang that it adds to foods, it also snags a top spot on my lineup of favored spices.
Galangal hails from southern China. Its name, though, originates from an Arabic word adapted from the Chinese phrase “ginger of Kau-liang”; this reputedly was an ancient part of Guangdong, near the South China Sea, where the plant grew. By the ninth century, galangal was a popular spice in the Middle East, which is how it garnered its Arabic moniker. Obviously, it had hit its stride even earlier in China.
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A member of the ginger family, galangal possesses hard, moist, yellowish flesh that’s reminiscent of ginger in texture. Like its fellow rhizome, it’s used in fresh, dried and powdered forms. Unlike ginger, dried galangal is employed only as a last resort, when fresh isn’t available. Fortunately, if you can’t track down a fresh chunk in the produce aisle, you can find jars of sliced or minced galangal in the Asian section of many supermarkets.
I first came across fresh galangal at the Ben Thành market in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. There, baskets of the crooked, mauve-tinged stems were on offer at virtually every produce stand.
Had I been traveling solo, I might have written off these odd-looking nubs as plant cuttings or compostable vegetable scraps and thought nothing further of them. Thankfully, my Vietnamese stepfather-in-law, who had accompanied me to the bustling market, filled me in on the exotic edibles.
Galangal a staple in many Asian cuisines
Galangal, he explained, was not just the start of a flowering plant but also a spicy, citrusy seasoning utilized by Vietnamese cooks. After peeling and thinly slicing it, they add it to stir fries and soups.
In addition to its use in Vietnamese cooking, galangal appears in Cambodian, Thai, Indonesian, Malaysian, Southern Chinese and South Indian cuisines. In Cambodia it plays a major role in the herb paste known as kroeung. A distinctly Cambodian condiment, kroeung consists of fresh lemongrass, galangal, turmeric, kaffir lime leaves and garlic. After pounding the ingredients together with a mortar and pestle, cooks spice up curries, soups, stews and the steamed fish dish known as amok tre with this chunky, fragrant paste.
In Indonesia, cooks include it in nasi goreng, or fried rice with meat and vegetables, the fiery meat dish rendang and Javanese curries. Thai cooks feature it in tom kha gai, a velvety soup of chicken, galangal, chilies and coconut milk.
This piquant spice goes well with a variety of foods, including beef, chicken, pork, seafood, chili peppers, cilantro, coconut milk, garlic, lemongrass, lime, Chinese long beans and rice. It adds zing to salads and baked goods as well as to the aforementioned soups, stir fries and curries.
In Southeast Asia galangal goes by many different names. Blue, Laos, Thai and Siamese ginger as well as the Malay term lengkuas all refer to galangal. Keep this in mind the next time that you read over the ingredient list for a Southeast Asian recipe.
Likewise, when shopping at your local Asian market or specialty grocery store, you should take a few things into consideration. When selecting fresh galangal, look for plump flesh and smooth, firm skin. Avoid shriveled, damaged or moldy skin. Choose a young, pinkish root; it will be more tender and manageable. Galangal is, by nature, tough and requires a sharp knife for cutting.
Once you’ve picked your produce, take it home and place it in a plastic bag before refrigerating. The plastic will ensure that it doesn’t dry out. Galangal will keep in the refrigerator for up to one week. It can also be slipped into a plastic, resealable bag and stored in the freezer.
Tart ‘n’ Spicy Shrimp Skewers
1-inch piece galangal, peeled and minced (about 2 tablespoons)
2 red chili peppers, de-seeded and chopped
2 shallots, chopped
5 garlic cloves, chopped
½ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground turmeric
2 teaspoons firmly packed brown sugar
1 tablespoon fish sauce
1 tablespoon lime juice
½ cup coconut milk
2 pounds (16 to 20 count) shrimp, defrosted and peeled
2 limes, quartered, for serving
1. Using a mortar and pestle, mash the galangal, chilies, shallots, garlic, salt, turmeric and brown sugar until a thick paste forms. Spoon the paste into a large bowl.
2. Add the fish sauce, lime juice and coconut milk and whisk together until well-combined.
3. Add the shrimp to the marinade and toss until coated completely. Cover the bowl and refrigerate for a minimum of two hours and maximum of six hours.
4. When you’re ready to cook the shrimp, preheat a charcoal or gas grill on medium-high.
5. Shake the excess marinade off the shrimp and thread them onto metal or bamboo skewers. (Note: If using bamboo skewers, you will need to soak them in water for 30 minutes before skewering the shrimp.)
6. Place a lightly oiled sheet of foil on the grill and lay the shrimp skewers on top of it. Grill the shrimp on one side for 2 minutes. Flip over the skewers and grill on the other side for an additional 2 to 3 minutes, until the shrimp have turned coral in color.
7. Serve hot with wedges of lime.
Top photo: Galangal. Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Piano non troppo