Articles in World w/recipe

A bowl of Malaysian rice porridge. Credit: Aida Ahmad

If you ask me what would I choose as my last meal, I wouldn’t be able to give you just one. I have too many favorites. Doubtless, however, is that the soothing staying power of my mother’s wholesome rice porridge is among the most memorable.

In the Malaysian language, the common definition of rice porridge within the Malay community is Bubur Lambuk (pronounced boo-boor lahm-bok), which has various ingredients and spices such as cumin, fennel, garlic, onions, dried prawns and lots of coconut milk as well as black pepper. A bowl of this is undoubtedly flavorful but can be overwhelmingly flavored with spices.

My mother’s rice porridge, though, has a comforting effect. According to her, it was a staple for her growing up in our hometown in Penang, Malaysia, and it has become the one thing I look forward during Eid, which marks the end of fasting during Ramadan each year. In many parts of Malaysia, hearty rice porridge is a staple during the breaking of one’s fast. Mosques and suraus (smaller prayer halls) usually prepare cauldrons of rice porridge to distribute to people. Although it is mostly meant for the poor and destitute, everyone is welcome to take home a packet or two.

My mother, Nisha Ibrahim, who turned 70 in January, recalled that in her youth, “At 5:30 in the evenings during Ramadan, we would flock to the mosque to get some porridge with our tiffin carriers, but over the years I have used my own recipe, which doesn’t require a lot spices. I use simple ingredients, which create a balanced flavor.”

When my mother was a child, people didn’t use any plastic containers when they got their porridge stash at the mosque. “We would take those aluminum mugs with the lids so the food would stay warm when we brought it home.”

It is now more than a month past Ramadan, which will start June 18 in 2015, but the echoes of my mother’s dish remain. The added oomph in her recipe comes from the generous portions of fresh garlic and ginger. Both provide a calming effect on the stomach. In the past, whenever I thought of rice porridge, I not only thought of breaking fast but also associated it with nursing a flu to feel better. Now I feel it’s a great meal for  any day of the week.

Rice Porridge

Prep Time: 20 minutes

Cook Time: 45 minutes

Total Time: 1 hour, 5 minutes

Yield: Makes 2 to 3 servings.

Make sure you don’t use Basmati rice, because the starch content is relatively low. Instead, go for low-grade rice, as the high-starch content will break down the rice easily.

Ingredients

  • 1 cup uncooked rice
  • 8 cups filtered water
  • 2 tablespoon vegetable oil
  • 1 tablespoon black peppercorns
  • 1 tablespoon fenugreek seeds
  • 1 pandan (screw pine) leaves, one leaf tied into a knot
  • 4 garlic cloves, crushed
  • 1 thumb-sized piece of ginger, coarsely chopped
  • 3.5 ounces (100 grams) minced beef or chicken
  • 3.5 ounces (100 grams) diced carrots
  • ¼ cup coconut milk
  • 3 tablespoons cilantro leaves, chopped

Directions

  1. Wash the rice in a big sieve. Do this three or four times, swishing the rice until the water runs clear. Drain and set aside.
  2. Put the rice in a big pot and add 8 cups of filtered water. Bring to a slow boil. Be sure not to let it burn.
  3. Add the vegetable oil, peppercorns, fenugreek seeds and pandan leaves and stir until contents are well mixed.
  4. Add the garlic and ginger and stir for a minute.
  5. Reduce the heat to medium-low and monitor the grains until it resembles a thick, creamy porridge. This should take about 5 minutes.
  6. Add the minced meat and carrots and heat until the meat is cooked and the carrots are soft.
  7. When the porridge is fragrant, add the coconut milk and cilantro leaves. Leave to cook over low heat for 10 minutes while stirring occasionally.
  8. Using a ladle, stir contents and scrape the pot to make sure nothing sticks before serving.

Notes

Tip: You can use fried shallots or fried dried anchovies (both available at Asian grocers) as garnish and to make the porridge tastier.

Main photo: A bowl of Malaysian rice porridge. Credit: Aida Ahmad

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The town is Lipsi in Greece. Credit: Elisabeth Luard

If a glass of ouzo and a chewy chunk of octopus is what comes to mind at the cocktail hour, you need a boat with a sail and a following wind to carry you round the Dodecanese, a string of volcanic islands that belong to Greece but are rather closer to Turkey.

Gastronomic delights on the little island of Lipso — if you’re not a yachtie, as many of the visitors are, you can get there on the thrice-weekly ferry out of Samos — are goat’s cheese and cephalopods, mostly octopus, or octopodi. Lipso’s cheese can best be appreciated in the form of pies, tiropita, available hot from the wood oven at Taki’s bakery on the harbor front of the island’s friendly little capital, Lipsi. Meanwhlie, the night’s catch of octopodi are visible throughout the day dangling suckered tentacles like reddish bunting from the awning of Nico’s ouzerie by the quay where the fishermen land their catch. Octopus, for the tender-hearted, are voracious carnivores whose favorite supper, also on the menu at Nico’s, is pipe fish, an eel-like creature no longer than your hand with a pointed snout and a luminous blue-green spine.

As you might expect, there is more than one way to cook an octopus. There’s octopus simmered with tomato and onion; octopus salad; octopus frittered or fried; octopus preserved under olive oil with vinegar to eat with fat slices of just-cooked yellow potato; octopus cooked with big white beans; octopus stewed with red wine and the peppery oregano that grows wild on Greek hillsides. But the simplest and most delicious is octopodi cooked to order on the grill at Nico’s after the place opens for business at sundown, in the company, say, of a Greek family and friends celebrating a christening or wedding or just having a good time in spite of what’s happening with the European Union in Brussels and the government in Athens.

Eating octopus at a cafe table. Credit: Elisabeth Luard

Eating octopus at a cafe table. Credit: Elisabeth Luard

Octopodi as served at Nico’s is not for the squeamish. Which of course you’re not, or you wouldn’t be reading this. You will already have observed the evening’s menu dehydrating in the morning sunshine when you took your breakfast at Taki’s — open 24-7 because of the yachties — where your order might be Greek coffee (medium sweet), freshly squeezed orange juice and Lipsi’s speciality pita, a puffy open-topped tart filled with grated cheese set with egg. The bakery’s activities, you will observe from the video playing on the countertop, have been blessed by the Orthodox priest from the white-washed tourquoise-domed basilica on the hill where christenings and weddings take place, providing good business for the ouzerie and sharpening appetites for octopodi.

At sunset, when you take your place on one of the blue-painted chairs at a yellow Formica-topped table at Nico’s, your order is taken by a blue-eyed, bearded man with a profile straight off a Greek vase who slings one of the draped octopodi over white-hot charcoal and watches patiently till it sizzles and singes. Then he chops it into bite-sized pieces, drops them on a plate and plunks it down in front of you with a quartered lemon, a jug of ouzo and as many glasses as you have friends — of which you will have plenty if, like me, you’re recording the scene with sketchbook and paints. If your friends are happy and the ouzo flows freely, dancing will follow.

And no, I can’t provide a recipe for grilled octopodi with lemon and ouzo as prepared at Nico’s because preparing octopus is men’s business — so what do I know? You’ll just have to go there and order it yourself. What I can deliver, however, is instructions for octopodi ladolemono, octopus with oil and lemon as prepared by Lazarus, chef patron of the taverna of the same name on Ulysses’s island of Ithaca on the Italian side of the Greek mainland. It may not be the same, but it’s a start.

Octopus salad with oil and lemon

Octopus. Credit: Elisabeth Luard

Octopus. Credit: Elisabeth Luard

“As a woman,” explained Lazarus. “Octopus is not your business. But as a foreigner in need of instruction, I shall tell you. First, you must capture your octopodi. For a skilled spear fisherman such as myself, this is not difficult. Now comes the work. You must pick the creature up without fear and throw it 40 times against a rock. Less times are needed if it’s small, more if it’s large. First the flesh is hard, but slowly it softens. Now you must rinse it in seawater so that it foams. Unless you do this, it will never soften. You’ll know when it’s ready because the tentacles will curl. You must not take off the skin, as so many ignorant people do. The skin turns red when you cook it, and this is what tells you the octopodi is fresh and good. No Greek would eat an octopus which is skinned and white. To prepare it for a salad, put in a pan and cook it gently with a ladleful of sea water until it’s perfectly tender — allow 20 to 40 minutes. Drain it and slice it carefully into pieces — all of it is good. Dress it with the oil pressed from the fruit of your own olives, and squeeze on it the juice from the lemons from the tree in your own garden. Now you must shake over it a little of the oregano which you have gathered wild in the hills. Now all is ready. Set out the glasses with the ouzo and fetch water from the well, since you will also need to quench your thirst. Now you may call your friends, as many as are suitable for the size of your octopus. If you have too many friends, provide more bread and plenty of olives.”

Main illustration: The town is Lipsi in Greece. Credit: Elisabeth Luard

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The cured salmon dish served at the dinner. Credit: Susan Haddleton

This summer, I undertook the daunting yet exciting task of cooking for some of my peers. The experience started when I submitted a paper for the 2014 Oxford Symposium on Food & Cookery, which was being held at St. Catherine’s College in Oxford, England.

This year’s theme was food markets, and my paper covered my thoughts about Nordic food past, present and future. I wanted to explain the history behind Nordic food and why all of a sudden it is in focus, along with what it has to offer other than just being a new trend.

My paper was accepted, and I was thrilled. I was going to Oxford and staying at St. Catherine’s. My academic career was interrupted a couple of years ago by my love for cooking, but with this experience I could now finally live out my dream of an Ivy League university experience.

No more than a few days after learning my paper was accepted, an email came in from one of the symposium trustees, Ursula Heinzelmann. Would I cook Nordic street food for the banquet Saturday night? I was a little hesitant, as I was excited about pretending to be an academic for the weekend.

Not to mention Nordic street food does not really exist. That’s hot dogs with remoulade sauce or open sandwiches on rye bread — not really material for an Oxford banquet.

After a few hours of in-depth thinking, I decided to accept, but I changed the concept. I wanted to cook the kind of supper I would do in my kitchen at home.

Deciding on a Nordic dinner menu no easy task

My head started to spin. Did I want to come up with something completely new or just cook some of my favorite things and share my love for my own food culture? I decided on a home-cooked Danish dinner, a simple, tasty menu.

My first menu selection was cured salmon with home-baked rye focaccia served with some favorite July vegetables: radishes and cucumbers. Testing this, I tried to cure the salmon with dry nettles, but it did not work. It tasted like herbal tea. Fresh nettles worked, but the season for nettle is over come July, so I decided on lovage, a spicy herb with an aftertaste of celery. It worked perfectly with the salmon. To accompany that, I thickened some heavy cream with lemon overnight and then added a lot of freshly grated horseradish, a bit of sugar and lots of black pepper to make a horseradish dressing.

For the main course I decided to serve black barley, which is a heritage grain that my friends at Skærtoft Mølle back home in Denmark started cultivating some years back. It’s now growing in small quantities. I wanted to use tarragon, fennel, cauliflower and celeriac. When I create a menu or a new recipe, I always start with the vegetables. For me, the vegetables are the center of the meal.

With that, I decided to serve one of my classic lamb stews with fennel, tarragon, white wine and elderflower cordial (see recipe below). The cheese for the meal I brought myself from Knuthenlund, a small organic producer in Denmark.

The pudding had to be a classic from the month of July: a cold buttermilk soup with cardamom biscuits. I contemplated going the chef way and revamping the pudding using the same ingredients, but I do not cook like that anymore. I cook things in a simple style. I do not plate it too much; I like to keep the food transparent and let the ingredients do the talking, so I stayed with the classic.

With one suitcase full of cheese and the other full of rye flour and black barley from Skærtoft Mølle, I set out for Oxford three days ahead of the dinner to start cooking everything from scratch. The first thing I did upon arrival was meet with and greet the staff and head chef in the kitchen.

That’s always an interesting experience. Head chefs do not in general like other chefs in their kitchen. They tend to compete heavily instead of exchanging ideas. The attitude is often that the head chef knows everything.

I have cooked in many kitchens around the world. First you start out humbly, trying to understand their system. This time was a little bit different because Tim Kelsey, the head chef at St. Catherine’s, and his team do this every year. I believe they both look forward and dread the event, as they never know what is going to happen. But they were very open and forthcoming with me.

I made my plans and started prepping with my new team. On Friday night, my sister Silla arrived to assist me, and on Saturday we worked all day. Silla cut 700 slices of cured salmon and I baked the bread, adjusted the buttermilk soup, cut vegetables, prepared the fresh herbs and made the stew. By about 6 p.m. Saturday, all 220 salmon dishes were lined up. The kitchen was 100 percent calm, and we were ready to get the food out.

This is the moment of bliss: You have worked for days and are just waiting for the action. You know you’ve put all your love into it. This is the moment I love the most in the kitchen; it’s the calm before the storm.

We ran a smooth service that night. I was happy with everything, but also apprehensive. Before the guests start eating, there’s no way to tell whether they will like it. I had high hopes and butterflies in my stomach. I mean, I was cooking for Claudia Roden! That doesn’t happen every day.

The meal was indeed very well received — people complimented us and asked questions about the flavors, the grain and how I had cooked the celeriac. I believe the dinner was a success, and I was overwhelmed and very proud as I went around the tables and talked to people. I had shown a corner of modern home-cooked Danish food.

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The kitchen staff at St. Catherine's preparing the dinner. Credit: Trine Hahnemann

Summer Lamb Stew

Prep Time: 1 hour

Cook Time: 1 hour, 15 minutes

Total Time: 2 hours, 15 minutes

Yield: Makes 6 servings

Ingredients

  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • 2 pounds lamb, cut in cubes, from shoulder or leg
  • 3 leeks
  • 2 whole fennels
  • 4 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
  • 1 tablespoon fennel seeds
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 10 sprigs of tarragon
  • ½ cup elderflower cordial
  • 2 cups white wine
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
  • For serving:
  • 2 tablespoons fresh tarragon leaves

Directions

  1. Heat olive oil and butter in a large sauté pan and brown the meat on all sides. Do this in two batches if necessary. Do not boil the meat.
  2. Chop the vegetables. The leeks should be in 1 inch pieces, and the fennel should be in ½ inch slices.
  3. After the meat is browned, add the garlic, fennel seeds, bay leaves and tarragon to the sauté pan and mix well. Then add in ⅔ of the leeks and fennel, reserving the rest for later. Allow the mixture to sauté for a few minutes.
  4. Pour the elderflower cordial and white wine over the meat and vegetable mix, then sprinkle with salt and pepper to taste. Stir well and bring to a boil.
  5. Skim off any froth that rises to the surface, then turn down the heat and let it simmer for 45 to 55 minutes.
  6. When the lamb is tender, add the rest of the leeks and fennel and let simmer for 5 minutes more, then add more salt and pepper if necessary.
  7. Sprinkle with fresh tarragon before serving. The dish can be served with boiled barley or boiled new potatoes.

Main photo: The cured salmon dish served at the dinner. Credit: Susan Haddleton

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When planning a summer gathering, try one of these delicious summer drinks from India instead. Credit: R.V. Ramachandran

In the outermost reaches of southwestern India, the soundtrack of summer has a deeper bass and a heavier beat than the rest of the year. The sun shines down with all its might and glory, and we reach for cool summer drinks.

The best thirst quencher is of, course, water; nothing hydrates like water. Growing up in southern India, we drank water stored in unglazed earthen pots, which cooled the water amazingly well. Sometimes, the water was delicately flavored with the fragrance of cleaned roots of raamacham (Chrysopogon zizanioids), a perennial grass native to India.

When it comes to summer drinks, the top five south Indian favorites are tangy sambharam with a hint of chili, sweet paanakam flavored with ginger and cardamom, homemade lemonade, freshly squeezed sugarcane juice and fresh green coconuts filled with sweet coconut water. Living in Texas, the 100 degree-plus summer temperatures often make me crave these refreshingly cool libations. Luckily, sambharam and paanakam are easy to prepare with a few readily available ingredients.

When the thermometer hits triple digits, do you automatically reach for a soda? The next time you are tempted to drink a soda, read the label. They are loaded with sugars and artificial food colors and flavors. When you are planning a summer gathering, try one of these delicious summer drinks from India.

Sambharam

Summertime conjures up memories of big pots of sambharam, home-churned buttermilk spiced with green chilies, fresh ginger, curry leaves, lemon leaves and coriander leaves, kept in the open veranda of my ancestral home. The sight of this big pot was a welcome sign to those who walked by to stop and get a glass of this cool refreshing summer drink.

Buttermilk is the liquid left behind after churning fermented milk to make butter. Before the widespread industrialization of the dairy industry, most butter in India was made by mixing boiled and cooled milk with yogurt culture and allowing it to sit overnight to ferment. During those unrefrigerated hours, the added yogurt culture caused the microorganisms in the milk to sour slightly, taking on a nutty tanginess. This fermented milk was then churned to separate the butter from the buttermilk. Drinking tangy buttermilk helps to lower the body temperature and keeps the body cool and revitalized. Salty, tangy and spicy, this drink is a sure energy booster.

Back home, sambharam is prepared with slightly sour buttermilk. Homemade yogurt and buttermilk always taste fresher. They do not contain any thickeners or preservatives. Plain yogurt also makes good sambharam.

Prep Time: 10 minutes

Total Time: 12 minutes

Yield: 6  servings

Ingredients

2 cups plain yogurt or 3 cups buttermilk

Salt to taste

4 cups ice-cold water

1 or 2 fresh green chilies (serrano or Thai) (less for a milder taste)

3 tablespoons fresh lemon or lime leaves, thinly sliced (if available)

½ cup fresh curry leaves

1 teaspoon fresh ginger, grated

2 teaspoons very finely chopped fresh coriander leaves

Directions

1. Combine the yogurt, salt and water in a blender, and mix well. If using buttermilk, reduce the quantity of water.

2. Pour into a pitcher.

3. Cut the green chilies lengthwise and then into thin strips. (If you prefer the drink mild, reduce or eliminate the green chilies.)

4. Stir in the green chilies, lime or lemon leaves, curry leaves and grated ginger.

5. Garnish with finely chopped cilantro leaves. Usually this drink is not strained; it is served with all the added ingredients. If you prefer, refrigerate it for an hour and strain before serving.

Paanakam

Another cool drink perfect for the scorching heat of August is paanakam. This ginger and cardamom-flavored drink is sweetened with jaggery (Indian unrefined brown sugar), known for its digestive and cooling properties. Paanakam is usually served as an offering to the gods during Hindu religious rituals and festivities. Although considered a celestial favorite, it is also a refreshing, cool drink on a hot summer day anywhere in the world. Some traditional recipes include flavorings such as sandalwood and the fragrant root raamacham. It tastes quite delicious even when these ingredients are substituted with crushed cardamom. It is also very easy to make. Use as much jaggery and spices as your prefer. For me, the perfect Paanakam is one that has a kick of ginger and a hint of cardamom.

Prep Time: 15 minutes

Total Time: 20 minutes

Yield: 6  servings

Ingredients

1¼ cups jaggery or brown sugar

1 pitcher cold water

1 teaspoon ground cardamom seeds

1 teaspoon ginger powder

3 tablespoons of fresh lemon juice

Directions

1. Heat the jaggery/ brown sugar and one cup of water till the sugar is dissolved.

2. After it has cooled down, pour into the cold water and stir well.

3. If using jaggery, strain the liquid through a fine-meshed strainer.

4. Sprinkle cardamom powder and ginger powder. Add lemon juice and stir well.

5. Chill in the refrigerator. Serve over crushed ice cubes for a cool, refreshing drink.

Main photo: Sambharam and paanakam make for cool summer drinks. Credit: R.V. Ramachandran

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Martha Rose Shulman's vegetarian black bean tostadas. Credit: Martha Rose Shulman

In the summer of 1968, I was introduced to the secrets of Mexican cooking. At that time Mexican food was not something you knew or thought much about if, like me, you were a Jewish American princess from Connecticut. I had tasted tacos on an Acapulco beach while on vacation with friends in 1963, and had never forgotten them, but I didn’t know what it was that made them taste so good.

Five years later I was a socially active high school graduate who also happened to have a curious palate. I spent that summer working with migrant farm workers from South Texas as a camper-volunteer at an American Friends Service Committee Quaker youth work camp in Central Michigan. Our group had been assigned to help with a housing grant for migrant farm workers who wanted to relocate to Michigan and work in the auto industry. But at the last minute the money did not come through, so when we arrived the counselors had to find something for us to do. Instead of building houses we became, in essence, social workers and activity planners for the children who lived in the migrant camps. We created a little school for the younger children to attend during the day while their parents worked in the fields, and every night we’d visit the camps and organize activities like baseball games and dances.

I became close to a few of the families. I got to know the kids well and spent time with the parents. One woman in particular, Señora Saenz, a large woman who had 10 children, took a liking to me. I visited the Saenz family every night in their little cabin, which smelled pleasantly of cumin and chili. Here, in the Saenzes’ one-room cabin, I realized that those two spices were the key to my long-ago taste memory from Acapulco.

I had developed a passion for cooking the previous summer, and at the Quaker work camp I took over in the kitchen early on, cooking feverishly for the group of 24 every night. I wrote to my stepmother, requesting that she send casserole recipes, and she hastily dispatched a sheaf of index cards. I had a huge kitchen to work in, but I had to pull off the recipes using pretty awful ingredients: USDA surplus items, standard issue for welfare recipients.

A lesson in cooking Mexican food

One day when I was visiting Señora Saenz, I asked if she and her older daughters would teach me to cook Mexican food. I offered to teach them how to make a cake in exchange, although I knew nothing about baking beyond cake mixes. The family was enthusiastic, and the next evening when I arrived at the camp they had all the ingredients ready for beef tacos and enchiladas — chili and cumin, onion and ground beef, corn tortillas and oil, tomatoes, tomato sauce, cheese and chilies.

Mrs. Saenz showed me how to heat the oil in a frying pan and sizzle the cumin and chili powder before adding the onions and browning the meat to make picadillo. Once the meat was cooked, she showed me how to season and soften the tortillas in cumin- and chili powder-spiked oil before making enchiladas. Then she showed me how to make a red sauce for enchiladas. We made some quick tacos with the beef picadillo and shredded cabbage, then we made enchiladas. Afterward I opened my box of cake mix, added what needed to be added and baked a cake, which we finished with white frosting from the box. In retrospect, I am sure that Mrs. Saenz and her daughters probably knew how to make cake from scratch, but nobody said anything about it.

At the end of the summer when I went home, one of the first things I did was give a Mexican dinner party for my friends. I scoured the markets in Westport, Conn., looking for corn tortillas. It was a challenge (it would be another two decades before decent Mexican food or even Tex-Mex was accessible beyond the border states). I finally found them –  corn tortillas packed in a flat yellow can — in the exotic foods section of the local supermarket. I wonder how long they’d been there. Who was making Mexican food in Connecticut in 1968? I made exactly what Señora Saenz had taught me to cook — tacos and enchiladas. My friends loved the meal.

I had no idea then that, five years later, I would decide to make a career of cooking. By then I was living in Texas and had spent quite a lot of time in Mexico. I was also now a vegetarian and no longer made the beef picadillo I had learned to make in Michigan. But when I made enchiladas or refried beans I still used the techniques I had learned from Señora Saenz –  sizzling the spices in oil before adding other ingredients and seasoning the oil for the tortillas with cumin and chili powder. That’s why I was able to develop my first signature dish, Black Bean Enchiladas, and that’s why they were so good.

Refried Bean Tostadas

Prep time: About 30 minutes

Cook time: 2 hours unsupervised cooking for the beans; 15 minutes for the refried beans

Total time: 3 hours (2 hours unsupervised)

Yield: 4 servings

For the beans:

Ingredients 

½ pound (about 1⅛ cups) black beans, pinto beans, or similar heirlooms, washed and picked over for stones, soaked for at least 4 hours or overnight in 1 quart water

1 medium onion, cut in half

2 large garlic cloves, minced

¼ cup chopped cilantro

Salt to taste (I think beans need a lot, at least 1 teaspoon per quart of water used)

Directions

1. Place beans and soaking water into a large, heavy pot. Add halved onion and bring to a gentle boil. Skim off any foam that rises, then add garlic and half the cilantro, reduce heat, cover and simmer 30 minutes.

2. Add salt and continue to simmer another 1 to 1½ hours, until beans are quite soft and broth is thick and fragrant. Taste and adjust salt. Stir in remaining cilantro. Using tongs or a slotted spoon, remove and discard onion. For the best flavor, refrigerate overnight.

For the tostadas:

Ingredients

The simmered beans, above

2 tablespoons grape-seed, sunflower or canola oil

1 tablespoon cumin seeds, lightly toasted and ground

2 teaspoons mild chili powder

8 corn tortillas

¾ pound ripe tomatoes, finely chopped

1 to 2 serrano or jalapeño chilies (to taste), minced

2 slices red or white onion, finely chopped and soaked for 5 minutes in water to cover, then drained, rinsed, and drained on paper towels

¼ cup chopped cilantro (more to taste)

Fresh lime juice and salt to taste

2 cups shredded cabbage

2 small or 1 large, ripe avocado, diced or sliced

¼ cup chopped toasted almonds

About 3 ounces (¾ cup) queso fresco for crumbling

Directions

1. Drain off about ½ cup of liquid from the beans, retaining it in a separate bowl to use later for moistening the beans should they dry out. Heat the oil over medium-high heat in a large, heavy nonstick frying pan and add the ground cumin and chili.  Cook, stirring over medium heat, for about a minute, until the spices begin to sizzle and cook. Add the beans. Fry the beans, stirring and mashing with the back of a spoon, potato masher or a wooden pestle until they thicken and begin to get crusty on the bottom. Stir up the crust each time it forms, and mix into the beans.  Cook until the beans are thick but not dry, 10 to 15 minutes.  They will continue to thicken and dry out when you remove them from the heat. Add liquid you saved from the beans if they seem too dry, but save some of the liquid for moistening the beans before you reheat them, if you are serving them later. Taste the refried beans and adjust the salt (they probably won’t need any as the broth reduces when you refry them).

2. Cut the tortillas in half. To toast in the microwave, place as many as will fit in a single layer and cook for 1 minute. The tortillas will be moist on the bottom. Flip them over and microwave for another minute. If they are not yet crisp, flip again and zap for 30 seconds to a minute. Alternatively, deep-fry the tortillas in sunflower oil or grape-seed oil until crisp and drain on paper towels.

3. In a medium bowl, combine the tomatoes, chilies, onion and cilantro. Season to taste with salt. Stir in the lime juice if using. Let sit for 15 to 30 minutes for the best flavor.

4. Spread a layer of refried beans (about 2 tablespoons) over each tortilla half. Top with cabbage. Spoon salsa over the cabbage and top with sliced or diced avocado, a sprinkling of chopped toasted almonds and a sprinkling of queso fresco.

Advance preparation: The refried beans will keep for 3 to 4 days in the refrigerator. Set aside in the pan if you are serving within a few hours. Otherwise, transfer the beans to a lightly oiled baking dish, cover and refrigerate. To reheat, cover with foil and bake in a 325 F oven for 20 minutes.

Main photo: Black Bean Tostadas. Credit: Martha Rose Shulman

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Purslane, Corn, Squash and Squash Blossom Soup. Credit: Nancy Zaslavsky

Mexicans have foraged verdolagas (purslane, or Portulaca oleracea), a native of India and Persia, for centuries, and it remains a favorite green from Tijuana to Cancun. Because the annual plant isn’t a bit fussy about a sprout site, and because it’s a succulent, it germinates easily from a cutting or seed and needs little water once started.

Wild purslane is thrilled with most any sunny spot, where it spreads flat on the ground quickly from a single root and multiplies like chickenpox in kindergarten after it goes to seed. Sadly it’s less cherished in the U.S., where the plant is best known as a common weed and a gardener’s biggest nightmare. Farm-grown purslane, unlike in the wild, grows vertically, and can reach knee high for easy harvesting.

Green with a red blush on some of the 40 cultivated varieties, its edible ½-inch to 2-inch long leaves look like delicate baby jade plants. Larger leaves and stems are crunchy with a mouth feel like cactus paddles and okra but more delicate, with a tangy, slightly salty citrus-pepper bite.

With purslane, flavor depends on when it’s picked

In the book “In Defense of Food,” Michael Pollan calls purslane one of the most nutritious plants on earth. It contains more omega-3 fatty acids than any other leafy vegetable, on par with some fish. When the plant is thirsty, it switches to photosynthesis: At night, its leaves trap carbon dioxide, which converts into malic acid, and in daylight, the acid transforms into glucose. Purslane has 10 times the acid content in the morning vs. when it’s picked in the afternoon, so expect it to be slightly sour in breakfast quesadillas and almost sweet at dinner.

Mexicans cherish the plant’s citrus taste and look forward to the warm summer months when it is widely available. Tiny, delicate half-inch leaves are perfect for salads and to tuck into sandwiches; thick, larger leaves and thick stems cut into pieces are best for a more toothsome bite in cooked dishes, especially soups and rustic stews, where their natural pectin is appreciated for thickening qualities.

I suggest looking for luscious cultivated bunches at a greengrocer, Mexican market or farmers market rather than scrounging around town hunting for miserly sidewalk shoots. Unless you’re a fan of foraging, you probably won’t have a clue what time of day the store-bought purslane was picked; even so, its juicy leaf texture will woo you back for more.

Once picked or purchased, keep purslane fresh for another day or two in a container out of the sun with cut stems in a few inches of fresh water. Most people cut off and discard the thickest, chewy stem bottoms and use only delicate stem tops and leaves in recipes.

As in other Mexican soups and sauces, flavor and texture are everything. This soup is perfect for the family or when friends stop by; if fussy grandmothers are invited to a special-occasion dinner, strain the finished soup for a traditionally upscale smooth liquid.

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Purslane from Coleman Family Farm at the farmers market in Santa Monica, Calif. Credit: Nancy Zaslavsky

Purslane, Corn, Squash and Squash Blossom Soup (Sopa de Verdolagas, Maiz, Calabazas y Flores de Calabazas)

Prep Time: 10 minutes

Cook Time: 50 minutes

Total Time: 60 minutes

Yield: Makes 6 servings.

Ingredients

  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 1 cup chopped white onion
  • 2 to 2½ cups scraped kernels from 3 ears summer sweet corn
  • 3 yellow zucchini or crookneck squash, about 6 inches each
  • 3 cups purslane leaves with delicate stems, 2 tablespoons of the tiniest half-inch leaves reserved for garnish
  • 2 large handfuls squash blossoms, 6 reserved for garnish
  • 1 teaspoon kosher or sea salt
  • ½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 4 cups low-sodium chicken or vegetable broth at room temperature
  • ⅓ cup grated Mexican queso añejo or Parmesan cheese
  • ½ cup Mexican crema or sour cream

Directions

  1. Heat the oil in a large pot over medium heat. Toss in the onion and cook, stirring every few minutes until translucent. Add the corn kernels, stir and continue cooking 5 minutes. Cut the squash in quarters lengthwise and then into half-inch slices. Scoop into the pot and stir, cooking another 5 minutes.
  2. Pull off leaves and delicate stems from the thick purslane stems, enough to have about 3 cups. Add them to the pot and stir. Turn down the heat and simmer gently 5 minutes.
  3. Remove the five sharp green sepals at the base of each squash blossom. Snap off the stems from six of the prettiest blossoms and reserve for garnish. Slide the other blossoms and stems into the pot. Cook, stirring for a minute, and then turn off the heat.
  4. Ladle half the hot vegetables into a blender or processor. Pour in 1 cup broth. With the air vent open, purée 30 seconds and pour into the used mixing bowl. Ladle the remaining hot vegetables into the blender with another cup of broth. Purée 30 seconds, but this time pour it into the cooking pot. Scrape the purée from the bowl into the pot with a rubber spatula. Pour in the remaining broth. Bring to a fast boil (big bubbles you can’t stir down), and then lower the heat to a bare simmer for 2 minutes.
  5. Ladle into serving bowls. Garnish each with one of the reserved squash blossoms in the center, a sprinkle of grated cheese, some tiny purslane leaves and a small dollop of crema.

Main photo: Purslane, Corn, Squash and Squash Blossom Soup. Credit: Nancy Zaslavsky

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Tonkatsu kare, or pork cutlet with curry sauce. Credit: Hiroko Shimbo

After several days in Japan, every foreign traveler notices that the Japanese love kare-raisu or curry rice as much as they do sushi and ramen. This dish of an aromatic but not very spicy curry sauce served with rice and protein can be found throughout the country, from the largest cities to the smallest remote mountain villages. There are entire restaurants specializing in kare-raisu, small family-run operations and large restaurant chains. The strange story of how this distinctive dish came to be a Japanese favorite starts with the British, their navy, and a Japanese physician’s observations on malnutrition.

After Japan emerged from centuries of isolation with the Meiji Restoration in 1868, the Japanese government decided to model its newly developing navy after all aspects of the British navy, including the training of its officers and sailors. Around the same time, Japanese doctor Kanehiro Takaki, who had studied at an English medical school, was appointed as a navy physician. Takaki’s mission was to conquer the mysterious disease beriberi, which was very common among Japanese naval officers and seamen.

During his stay in England, Takaki did not see many cases of beriberi in the British navy. And he noted that the British sailors’ protein-rich diet that also included wheat bread — foods rich in vitamin B, which we now know is required to prevent beriberi — was very different from Japanese sailors’ simple diet of fish, vegetables and rice. He concluded that malnutrition was the cause of the beriberi epidemic and that the addition of such proteins to the diet could solve the beriberi problem in the Japanese navy. Takaki returned to Japan and worked to persuade the navy that it should adopt a Western diet containing protein for the sailors. Nutritious, filling and easy to make in a single pot, kare-raisu was perfect for the navy kitchen and was soon adopted by all branches of the navy. It became the custom in the navy to serve kare-raisu at the end of each week.

Also in that period, great changes were occurring on the Japanese culinary scene. The ban on meat eating that had been imposed on the commoner population was finally lifted. New ingredients such as butter and milk were introduced to the Japanese kitchen. The Emperor himself promoted Western-style meals, with the hope of building a stronger and taller Japanese population. Under these conditions, new Western-style dishes, collectively called yoshoku, were born, and some of these new creations were adopted by the navy kitchen. Kare-raisu, directly inspired by the curry-spiced stew dish served in the British navy, was one. This is how curry rice came to Japan from India by way of the British navy.

Here is an early kare-raisu recipe published in 1906 from the “Kaigun Kappo Jutsu Sankoshoor Navy Cooking Technique Reference Cookbook.

1. Cut meat, carrots, onions and potato into cubes.

2. Heat beef fat in a stock pot and cook flour.

3. Add curry powder, stock, meat and vegetables, and cook over low heat.

4. Add salt to taste.

5. Serve the curry sauce over steamed rice with pickled vegetables.

It is not at all different from the recipe in general use today.

Japanese curry with vegetables

Vegetables with rice and curry sauce. Credit: Hiroko Shimbo

In Tokyo, kare-raisu was first served to the public at high-class, white-tablecloth restaurants. Diners often dressed in Western attire and, wanting to be seen as modern, ate their curry with knives, forks and spoons, not the usual chopsticks. It is recorded that in 1877, Tokyo Fugetsu-do, a Western-style restaurant, served kare-raisu and its price was 8 sen (8 cents).

A few decades later, a different style curry was born in Tokyo. This new curry dish came directly from India by a rather serendipitous route. Ras Bihari Bose, an Indian activist, fled to Japan in 1915 when his plan with colleagues to overthrow the British Raj failed. But Japan was part of an Anglo-Japan Alliance, and Bose was not safe. Luckily, he fell under the protection of Aizo Soma, a businessman known for his benevolent activities. Soma owned and operated Nakamuraya, a store in Tokyo that produced newly introduced bread products along with the traditional Japanese sweets. Bose tasted Japanese kare-raisu while he was in hiding under Soma’s protection, but criticized it as “not at all authentic.” He proceeded to help Soma develop a more authentic Indian curry recipe. The result, Indo-kare, was introduced to Soma’s customers in 1927 at his new café-restaurant, which still exists.

Today kare-raisu and Indo-kare share the same popularity in Japan. My favorite kare-raisu is, of course, my mother’s curry. Her version is in between the European and Indian styles of curry. Beautifully caramelized onion with commercially prepared S&B Curry Powder and some flour in oil was cooked with carrot, potato, apple in chicken stock for more than four hours. As the sauce cooks, she checks the flavor several times and adds seasonings such as salt, sugar and shoyu (soy sauce). I followed my mother each step, tasted it as the curry cooked down and learned the very best flavor, texture and color in the prepared dishes. The end result was a velvety, brown, lightly thickened, aromatic sauce. Below is my recent kare-raisu recipe, inspired my shrimp curry recipe in my book  “The Japanese Kitchen.

Hiroko's Chicken Curry

Prep Time: 20 minutes

Cook Time: 2 hours, 30 minutes

Total Time: 2 hours, 50 minutes

Yield: 2 servings

Ingredients

  • ¼ cup canola oil
  • Half medium white onion, chopped in food processor
  • 1 tablespoon ginger, chopped fine in food processor
  • 2 garlic cloves, chopped fine in food processor
  • 2 tablespoons Japanese S&B curry powder or Madras curry powder
  • 1 teaspoon turmeric powder
  • About 1 tablespoon all purpose flour
  • 2½ cups chicken stock
  • 2 tablespoons tomato paste
  • 2 to 3 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce
  • 1 to 2 teaspoons Tamari soy sauce
  • Sea salt
  • About ¼ cup apricot jam
  • About 2 tablespoons light brown sugar
  • 2 chicken thighs and legs, skin attached, cut into 6 to 7 pieces
  • Half lemon
  • Cooked rice (short-, medium- or long-grain rice)

Directions

  1. Cook the onion in heated oil until it is lightly browned, stirring occasionally. Add the ginger and garlic and cook 1 minute more.
  2. Add the curry powder, turmeric and flour and cook until it is smooth. Add 1 cup of the chicken stock and stir with a whisk. Add an additional 1 cup of the chicken stock and stir with a whisk. Add the remaining ½ cup of the stock and stir with a whisk. Add the tomato paste, Worcestershire sauce, tamari, sea salt, apricot jam and light brown sugar.
  3. Cook the curry sauce about 1½ hours -- longer is better. When the sauce is cooked halfway, squeeze the lemon half into the curry sauce and throw the used lemon into the sauce.
  4. Heat a little oil in the skillet and brown the chicken pieces on both sides.
  5. Transfer the chicken pieces to the curry pot. Cook the chicken in the sauce for 20 to 30 minutes over very low heat, covered.
  6. Serve the curry over hot, cooked rice.

Main photo: Tonkatsu kare, or pork cutlet with curry sauce. Credit: Hiroko Shimbo 

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Onigiri made with brown rice. Credit: Sonoko Sakai

Consuming whole grains is making us healthier eaters. Take rice, which since ancient times has been one of the most popular grains eaten around the world, particularly in Asia.

Many Japanese  people, including myself, are making the switch from white rice to brown rice, opting for unmilled or partially milled. Brown has become the new white — for its purity, if you will.

The brown part, the bran and the germ of the grain, contains all the good stuff — protein, vitamins, minerals and fiber. Besides its nutritional value, brown rice is better than white rice because it keeps you full for a long time and it takes longer to digest compared with white rice. This is because white rice is mainly starch, which turns into sugar when it goes into your digestive system. In fact, Japanese people are dieting on brown rice to lose weight and detox.

It helps to know how to cook brown rice to ensure optimum flavor and texture — nutty, sticky, aromatic and sweet. What I look for in my brown rice is good moisture and stickiness, but not mushiness. I also want my rice to be flavorful in its natural state and tasty even at room temperature.

What is the best way to achieve this perfect balance for rice? Japanese people will give you a variety of answers, but many cooks are still searching for the best method. After all, we have been spoiled eating white rice.

You need to know that it takes a little longer to cook brown rice because it has another layer of skin. The idea is to soften it. Basically, all it takes to cook brown rice is water and a little salt. I don’t use any oil or butter when cooking rice as Western cooks do, but that’s optional. The main question is the vessel in which the brown rice is cooked. You are looking at about an hour to cook rice from prepping to done, no matter what you use. Here are several options to consider.

Pressure cooker

I love cooking brown rice with a pressure cooker. Many brown rice aficionados swear by it. The rice comes out nutty, sticky, sweet and shiny — all the qualities I am looking for.

Cooking it in a pressure cooker does not require soaking, and it doesn’t take too much water to cook the rice. You’ll want a ratio of about 1-to-1.5 rice-to-water. While cooking, you’ll have to keep an eye on the pressure cooker while the pressure is building and you must handle the pressure cooker with care, so you don’t burn yourself. These tasks may be challenging for some cooks. Also, each pressure cooker works slightly differently, so you need to follow your manufacturer’s instructions carefully.

Using a pressure cooker is faster than other methods as well, about five minutes to prep the rice and 35 minutes to cook it, including the steaming.

Donabe clay pot

The donabe — a Japanese clay pot — has been used in Japan to cook rice and other dishes since ancient times. Sitting around the wood-burning stove waiting for the rice to cook in the donabe was one of my favorite childhood pastimes with my grandmother.

Onigiri made with brown rice. Credit: Sonoko Sakai

Onigiri made with brown rice. Credit: Sonoko Sakai

The grains love the even heat of the clay pot — the individual grains literally stand up when rice is cooked in a donabe. The donabe method is easier than you may think, but I know of two American friends who broke their donabes before they even cooked a grain of rice in them. A donabe needs to be seasoned properly, similar to using a tagine.

The donabe method for cooking rice is straightforward: The rice is soaked overnight in the pot with the measured water. The water-to-rice ratio is about 1-to-2. The rice is cooked to a boil over medium high heat for 30 to 35 minutes. The lid must be closed, and no peeking is allowed during cooking. Then, the heat is turned off and the rice rests for another 30 to 40 minutes. Still, no peeking until the timer goes off.

This method will give you a nutty, aromatic rice with good texture. Cooking brown rice in a donabe pot is a slow process, but the method is pleasing to the eye and palate. A good source for donabe pots is Toiro Kitchen.

Electric rice cooker — the no-brainer method

Rice cookers were invented in the 1950s in Japan. They had a life-changing effect on Japanese cooks like my mother and grandmother because they allowed them to walk away from the pot.

The rice cooks rather perfectly each time, so long as you allow it to soak beforehand and hit the water-to-rice ratio right. In a rice cooker, it can range between 1-to-1 and 1-to-1.2. The rule of thumb is to allow at least 20 minutes for soaking.

In recent years, rice cooker companies have come up with more advanced devices that look and think like robots. Some rice cookers come with a cast iron or clay inner cooker — ultra-modern technology enveloping old-fashioned equipment. They come with timers and various cooking settings for everything from porridge to sushi rice to brown rice. Some can even be used to bake bread. Costs can range from $150 to $800.

My Tiger rice cooker comes with a load of fancy features, but I use only the buttons for basic rice and brown rice. It’s a reliable machine. I should explore the other buttons. You can also buy rice cookers made in China that cost less than $30 but still cook a decent bowl of rice. You can find them at Target and Costco, among other retailers.

Stove or oven method

The simplest way to cook brown rice is on the stove top or in the oven. You don’t need any fancy equipment, just a pot with a tight-fitting lid. Le Creuset and Lodge make Dutch oven pots with a lid that you can place in the oven.

Baked brown rice comes out slightly moister and stickier than the stove top method. Here are the recipes for both, if you want to see which you prefer. Just like all the other rice recipes, no peeking is allowed while steaming the rice.

Stove Top Brown Rice

Prep Time: 5 minutes

Cook Time: 55 minutes

Total Time: 60 minutes

Yield: Makes 4 to 6 servings

Ingredients

1½ cups short- or medium-grain brown rice

2¾ cups of water

¼ to ½ teaspoon salt (optional)

Directions

1. Combine rice, water and salt in a heavy pot and bring to a boil.

2. Cover with a tight-fitting lid, reduce heat to a very low simmer and cook for 45 minutes.

3. Remove from heat with the lid on and let stand for 10 minutes to allow for further steaming.

4. Fluff with a rice paddle or fork. Serve the rice in bowls or make onigiri rice balls (this portion makes 4 onigiris) and sprinkle roasted sesame seeds, if you like.

Baked Brown Rice

Prep Time: 5 minutes

Cook Time: 55 minutes

Total Time: 60 minutes

Yield: Makes 4 to 6 servings

Ingredients

2½ cups water

1½ cups short- or medium-grain brown rice

¼ to ½ teaspoon salt (optional)

Directions

1. Bring water to a boil and preheat the oven to 375 F. Put the brown rice in an 8-inch square dish or a 7½-inch-by-2¾-inch Le Creuset pan baking dish.

2. Pour boiling water over the rice, cover tightly with aluminum foil and put it in the oven to bake for 45 minutes. Do not peek.

3. Remove from oven, toss the rice with a fork or rice paddle, put the cover back on and let the rice stand for 10 minutes.

4. Serve the rice in bowls or make onigiri rice balls and sprinkle roasted sesame seeds, if you like.

Main photo: Onigiri made with brown rice. Credit: Sonoko Sakai

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