Articles in World w/recipe
We’ve gathered around a rustic wooden table at Don Alfredo Pollos al Pastor, a country restaurant sitting 7,000 feet in the Nahuatzén Mountains, an hour west of Morelia, Michoacán, in the colonial town of Pátzcuaro, Mexico. The wait for the Mexican food is a torment. Aromas of grilling meat hit us hard and make us pant through the thinner air in anticipation of what’s to come.
I sip an amber Victoria beer and drift into memories of the restaurant in the late 1980s, when the place was nothing more than a roadside shack with a dirt floor and corrugated metal roof. Then we sat at wobbly metal tables on rusted chairs boasting Cola-Cola logos for decor.
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We were there for the food. We didn’t have to think about it. The menu was simple: chicken, handmade corn tortillas, soupy pink beans and a fresh table salsa made with the local heat-packing chile manzano (Capsicum pubescens), onions and sour oranges. If we were lucky and there on a weekend, they’d have a few baby lamb legs over a fire. As time has passed, the lamb has become so popular the restaurant’s simple terracotta serving plates now boast a new hand-lettered name: Don Alfredo Pollos y Borrego al Pastor (chicken and lamb over coals).
Before entering the larger space today — now with a real concrete floor and solid roof — we gape at the main attraction, a trench 20 feet long and 4 feet wide filled with a long, center mound of glowing embers of white mesquite. On either side of the trench are a few dozen 4-foot spiked metal rods, each impaling three chickens, lined up in two neat rows. The bright yellow flesh of the birds comes from their diet of fluorescent orange marigolds. Combine this and the high temperature of the coals, and you have incomparable flavor and beautifully charred crisp, golden skin.
A flamenco twist to a Mexican surprise
The biggest surprise lies at the far end of one row — 10 additional steel rods with a few kilos of marinated pork hanging from each rod, pouring out aromas the way only pork can. The chunks of meat appear dark from the mesquite, but not a speck of blackened pork is anywhere in sight. Roasting meat is in the blood of these cooks; they rotate and swivel the rods like turns of flamenco, flourish and sizzle, flourish and sizzle.
It has been a long, dry season for lovers of flesh in this part of the world. Pork is celebrated after a Lenten stretch and the Easter lambs have all been eaten. I’ve had my share, perhaps more than my share, of succulent carnitas over the years here in Michoacán, the carnitas capital of the world, but this young pork is primal perfection. These pigs are Mexicans, raised to be fat and placed upon a hot fire, not like their American cousins bred to be lean, mean and articulated muscle machines. Their flavor comes from mesquite smoke and bubbling fat-basted meat cooked lowly and slowly to achieve a moist interior and a mahogany-colored, stunningly brittle skin.
As orders fly in, the cooks select chicken or pork from the spikes and transfer it to a chopping block. A few precision hacks with a machete, a squirt of sour orange juice over the crunchy spitting skin, a sprinkle of salt and the platter is on its way to the table. The torture is over, the waiting is complete and satisfaction is imminent.
Not more than 10 minutes and a half bottle of beer have been swallowed since we passed through the doorway, but they were slow Mexican minutes and we have the patience of hungry Americans, which is to say none.
We ravenously descend on our platters. The waiter has brought pork, chicken and warm corn tortillas. There is a growling silence until, one by one, tortillas are piled with copious quantities of meat and that sweat-inducing table salsa to make perfect tacos. One bite says everything; the wait was worth it. Full grinning mouths smile at each other across the table. We are reduced to happy noises, for there are no words worth the pause.
Fresh Chile Manzano and Sour Orange Table Salsa
You may substitute one juice orange and one Mexican (aka Key) lime to achieve a similar flavor to Don Alfredo’s sour orange, a type of Seville orange primarily used in marmalade. A chile manzano, rocoto or perón (Capsicum pubescens) looks like a huge habañero, so to be sure that you have the right chile cut it open, manzano seeds are black.
Makes about 1½ cups
1 white onion (3 inches), peeled and finely chopped
½ chile manzano, stemmed, seeded and finely chopped
2 Mexican sour oranges, juiced
Sea or kosher salt to taste
Stir all the ingredients in a serving bowl. Serve at room temperature.
Don Alfredo Pollos y Barrego Al Pastor, Tanganxuan intersection on the Periférico (aka the lower end of Libramiento, before it enters the Glorieta opposite the Bodega Aurrerá supermarket), Pátzcuaro, Michoacán. Telephone: (434) 342-3151. (The original location, and still the best.) A second spot is on the autopista Morelia-Pátzcuaro, Km. 6. Telephone: (443) 132-5975.
Top photo: Pork and chickens over mesquite in Pátzcuaro, Michoacán, Mexico. Credit: Nancy Zaslavsky
I love the spring produce and all the fresh new flavors of the season. In the weekend farmers markets in Dallas there is an abundance of strawberries, asparagus, leaf lettuces, spinach, spring onions, radishes, broccoli rabe and kale. At the Indian markets red, green and yellow bell peppers glow next to mounds of brilliantly green chilies, curry leaves and leaf vegetables. Tucked in between purple, green and white eggplants and fresh green peas are baskets of green knobby rough textured bitter gourds. They all turn into beautiful, flavorful spring dishes.
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Bitter gourd, which is also called bitter melon and balsam pear (Momordica charantia), is a very nutritious and healthy vegetable. This green melon that is shaped more like a cucumber has uneven grooves and a rough texture and is unlike any others in the melon family. It is also the most bitter of edible vegetables. Just as chili peppers vary in size and degree of heat, there are many varieties of bitter gourd that differ substantially in the shape and bitterness. The Indian variety is dark green and spiky while the Chinese variety is lighter in color with a bumpy peel. Some Taiwanese, Japanese and Filipino varieties are ivory to white-colored.
Bitter gourds grow on vines in tropical and subtropical climates. They are cultivated in most parts of Asia, Africa, South America and the Caribbean. They have a hollow center with a thin layer of flesh surrounding a seed cavity filled with large flat seeds and pith. Young bitter gourds tend to be bitterer than the ripe vegetable.
When a bitter gourd begins to ripen its color changes to shades of yellow, the interior has a reddish hue and it has less bitterness. When it is fully ripe it turns orange and splits into segments that curl back to expose seeds covered in bright red pulp. Bitter gourd is mostly cooked when green, or when it just starts turning yellow. The young shoots and leaves of the bitter gourd are also edible.
Selling Americans on bitter veggies
Even if its bitter taste does not appeal to you, its health benefits certainly will. It is low in calories and carbs, has high fiber content, and is high in vitamins and minerals. Bitter gourd is a proven hypoglycemic agent, a natural source of plant insulin that helps lower blood sugar levels. Indian herbal medicine, Ayurveda, prescribes it for controlling blood sugar and digestive disorders. It has a long history of use in Chinese and African herbal medicines too. Its medicinal uses are also popular in South American countries.
Bitter and astringent flavors are generally restrained in American cuisine. Bitter gourd is a delicious vegetable when cooked right and the taste buds are given the chance to become acquainted with the most misunderstood of the primary flavors. The healing properties of bitter gourd are becoming more widely accepted in the United States, especially among natural health practitioners. Advocates created the The National Bitter Melon Council in 2004 to build a community of bitter melon fans and advocate for the vegetable. The group hosts events and festivals in various cities in the United States to celebrate the health, social, culinary and creative possibilities of this underappreciated vegetable.
People who enjoy bitter gourd find its bitterness refreshing and palate cleansing. It is a favorite vegetable in Indian, Chinese, Southeast Asian, South Asian, and South American cuisines. In these cuisines its bitterness is recognized for its place in the flavor spectrum.
In Indian cuisine there are so many ways of cooking bitter gourd. The bitterness is tamed by cooking with of spices, shallots, yogurt, coconut, mango, potatoes, peanuts, tamarind or onions. They are also stuffed with spices and pan-fried. Spiced, sun-dried and deep-fried bitter gourd rings are a common dish. The bitterness can be reduced by salting pieces before cooking or tamed by blanching them for a few minutes.
This recipe makes a good side dish. The bitterness is tamed here by the addition of shallots and spices. Shallots have a pleasant crispness and are sweeter and milder in flavor than onions. They have a really nice way of incorporating themselves more fully into dishes.
Bitter Gourd With Shallots
6 to 8 medium sized bitter gourds
1 tablespoon salt
½ teaspoon turmeric
1 teaspoon coriander powder
1 teaspoon cumin powder
½ teaspoon ginger powder
½ teaspoon powdered red chili peppers (less for milder taste)
3 tablespoons of oil
3 to 4 shallots, thinly sliced
1. Slice the gourd in half lengthwise, scoop out and discard the pulp and seeds. Rub with salt and set aside for half an hour. Squeeze out the bitter juices and then cut the gourd into ¼- to ½-inch segments. You’ll be left with little C-shaped segments.
2. Combine the salt, turmeric, coriander powder, ginger powder and powdered chili pepper and mix well. Sprinkle the spice mix on the cut pieces to coat them with spices.
3. In a pan heat the oil and add shallots. Keep stirring so that they are evenly cooked.
4. Add the spiced bitter gourd pieces to the pan after three or four minutes. Reduce the heat and cook them covered till tender. Open the cover and stir a few times so that the vegetable is cooked and browned evenly.
Top photo: Bitter gourds. Credit: R.V. Ramachandran
Susan Feniger, one of Los Angeles’ best-known restaurateurs, is always planning her next food trip, as soon as she comes home. Feniger’s restaurant Street, which opened in 2009, is inspired by the global street-food scene, but her explorations are as much about experiencing the lives people lead as they are about finding travel-inspired recipes.
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Talking about a trip to the Turkish countryside, her eyes brightened as she described going with a friend to meet a farmer he knew. A walk into the fields up from the river led them to a house made of sticks with a cow in front. Inside, the kitchen had a fire pit in the middle of the room.
Sitting on the floor for their meal, Feniger watched with pleasure as the farmer’s wife first made tahini by grinding sesame seeds and then baked the tahini into the bread for their midday meal. The bread was delicious as was the experience.
In her kitchen at Street, Feniger demonstrated one of the popular dishes on the menu, an easy-to-make dish with lots of flavor: Brussels sprouts flavored with goat cheese, apples and hazelnuts, topped with an Italian version of a picada without nuts.
When Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken, her longtime cookbook collaborator and fellow chef, were doing research for the dishes they would serve at their second restaurant, Border Grill, they traveled extensively in Mexico. She quickly discovered that the food she loved was the food cooked by street vendors and in people’s home.
As she explained, When you go into people’s homes “they’re so happy you’re there eating their food. People took us into their homes because they wanted us to taste their food. You didn’t get that if you go to restaurants. When you are on the street and you are in a culture that doesn’t usually see [outsiders], they really like that [you are willing to try their food].”
Travel-inspired recipes from around the world
To Feniger, eating the food prepared by people for their everyday lives is how you see the heart of a country. Over the years she has traveled around the world, pursuing her love of culture and eating.
“When I travel, if I don’t see a historical site, I’m OK. The much more rewarding experiences are the ones with people in their kitchens. My memories when I travel are ones with people, not with the monuments.”
On a 14-day trip, crisscrossing India from Delhi to Mumbai to Goa to Kerala (her favorite), Feniger ate on the street or in people’s homes every day. … When she was in Shanghai she was taken by a local on a food tour that began at 4 a.m. so she could watch a man make savory fresh soy milk sticky rice doughnuts cooked in a wok. By 8 a.m., he had finished his breakfast service so he cleaned up and left, allowing a shoe repairman to take over the stall.
Let the ingredients lead you
The menu at Street cherry-picks taste treats she ate during her travels over several decades.
Recently, Feniger revamped the Street menu and gently moved in the direction of vegetarianism, not for policy reasons but because the street food she loves tends to feature produce over animal products.
Hence, the Brussels sprouts dish. Her picada is Italian and illustrates Feniger’s belief that keeping it simple is best. Take a run at flavor, she suggests, letting the ingredients lead you and everyone will be happy.
Brussels Sprouts with Goat Cheese, Apples and Hazelnuts
Cooked quickly, the Brussels sprouts should be crunchy so the dish tastes fresh and inviting. The contrast of savory Brussels sprouts, sweet apples and tart-creamy goat cheese, together with accents of the picada make the dish delicious on its own or as a side dish with a protein such as sautéed tofu, fried chicken, grilled steak or baked salmon.
For the sauté:
½ cup raw hazelnuts
1½ tablespoons olive oil
6 cups whole Brussels sprouts, shaved thinly on a mandolin or with a knife
2 medium sized Granny Smith apples, cored and cut into a small dice
Juice of 1 lemon
6 ounces soft goat cheese, broken into small pieces
1 teaspoon kosher salt
For the picada:
⅛ cup extra virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons minced raw garlic
2 cups bread crumbs
Salt to taste
zest of 3 lemons
1 bunch Italian parsley, finely chopped
For the sauté:
1. Preheat oven to 350 F.
2. Spread the hazelnuts out on a cookie sheet and toast them for 5 to 10 minutes until they are roasted and slightly browned.
3. Remove from heat and pour onto a clean dish towel.
4. Fold the dish towel over the toasted hazelnuts and roll lightly to remove the skins. Discard the skins.
5. Place the hazelnuts on a cutting board and chop into small pieces, or alternately pulse in a food processor for a brief period of time. Set aside.
6. In a large sauté pan, heat the oil on medium-high heat.
7. Add the Brussels sprouts, apples and salt, and cook, stirring occasionally, until the Brussels sprouts are slightly browned on the edges.
8. Add the hazelnuts, lemon juice and goat cheese.
9. Toss together and turn off heat.
For the picada:
10. In a large sauté pan heat the oil, but do not let it smoke.
11. Add the garlic and stir quickly to release its flavors, but do not brown.
12. As the garlic starts to color, add the bread crumbs and salt to taste.
13. Stir well to combine and toast in the oil (about 5 minutes).
14. When the bread crumbs are browned, remove from heat and place in a mixing bowl.
15. Add the lemon zest and the parsley while the bread is still slightly warm.
16. Toss and then spread out on a cookie sheet to cool to room temperature. Store in an airtight container before using.
17. Sprinkle on top of the Brussels sprouts before serving.
Top photo: Susan Feniger in her kitchen at Street, demonstrating making Brussels sprouts with goat cheese, apples and hazelnuts. Credit: David Latt
One of the many things that I love about travel is the chance to eat a renowned dish in its country of origin. In India, I went straight for the curries. In Vietnam, I fell for bánh mì. In Switzerland, I gobbled up fondu, raclette and rösti. You can’t get much more authentic than that.
Of these, it is the Swiss potato pancake, rösti, that I make on a regular basis. Derived from the German word rösten, which means to roast or grill, rösti consists of fried, shredded potatoes. That’s it. That’s the main and often sole ingredient of this easy Swiss specialty. Crisp on the outside yet soft and velvety on the inside, the simple rösti possesses a rich, complex flavor and competing textures that make it a sheer delight to eat.
Originally, rösti served as a filling breakfast for 19th-century Bernese farmers. A shared offering, it was placed on a platter in the center of the breakfast table. Using their spoons, people would cut off a piece of the patty and dunk it into a cup of weak, milky coffee. It may seem like an unusual custom, but it was one that soon caught on in other parts of Switzerland.
Rösti a versatile dish for any meal
Rösti quickly usurped the traditional Swiss farm breakfast of soup or mash, which had fed the hungry since medieval times.
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Today’s Swiss cooks continue to deck out their potato pancakes with a diverse range of ingredients. At Geneva’s Auberge de Savièse, rösti is decorated with strips of red bell peppers and onions. Meanwhile, the Eiger Guesthouse in the Alpine village of Mürren adds a touch of Italy to its offering, adorning it with sliced, fresh tomatoes, buffalo mozzarella and a drizzle of pesto sauce.
Some prefer pairing a simple rösti with a savory entrée. This is the case for Geneva resident and United Nations worker Chris Morh. “On a chilly day there is nothing better than to have rösti with Zuericher Geschnetzteltes, veal with cream sauce,” Morh says.
Just as the serving styles vary, so too do the ways that rösti is prepared. The differences start with the potatoes, which can either be cooked and then shredded, or shredded when raw. This is also the case with a relative of rösti, the American hash brown.
Then there is the question of how to cook the potatoes. Although I prefer to boil them in their skins, others opt for steaming. With the latter method, no salt is added to the potatoes and fewer nutrients leach into the cooking water.
In what the shredded potatoes are fried also differs from cook to cook. Some folks swear by vegetable oil while others endorse butter or bacon fat as the best.
Many claim you should fry your potatoes in oil and then add butter in small dabs at the very end of the cooking time. You spread the butter around the rösti’s edges so it melts, drips down into the hot pan and flavors your dish. I’ve found that this step also stops my potatoes from sticking to the skillet.
In spite of the variations, there are some agreements on rösti. You should use firm, cooking potatoes such as yellow or golden. You should also sauté the potatoes first before shaping them into a plump pancake and frying the cake on both sides.
Whether you make it to Switzerland or just to the corner store, pick up a pound of firm, yellow potatoes and treat yourself to an easy, delicious dinner of rösti.
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided
1 tablespoon olive oil
1½ pounds yellow/golden potatoes, boiled in salted water until just tender, peeled and grated
¾ teaspoon dried thyme
½ teaspoon salt
⅛ teaspoon ground white pepper
⅓ cup grated Gruyère cheese
2 spring onions, whites and 1 inch of greens sliced
1. In a large, nonstick frying pan, heat 1 tablespoon butter and the olive oil over medium-high heat. As the butter is melting, toss together the shredded potatoes, thyme, salt and pepper.
2. Spoon the potatoes into the frying pan and sauté for 1 to 2 minutes, making sure that all the potatoes have been coated with the oil.
3. Shape the potatoes into a pancake and fry on one side until golden brown, 10 to 15 minutes.
4. Place a flat plate over the top of the pan and invert the pan onto the plate. Return the pan to the heat, add a dab of butter if needed and then slide the rösti back into the pan, uncooked side down. Allow the potato pancake to cook for another 10 to 15 minutes, until that side has also browned.
5. A few minutes before removing the rösti, break off small pieces from the remaining butter and spread it around the edge of the potatoes.
6. To remove the rösti, place a serving platter over the top of the pan and invert it onto the platter. Spread the Gruyère cheese and spring onions over the top of the rösti. Serve immediately.
Top photo: Rösti. Credit: Kathy Hunt
There are, say, half a dozen main kinds of cake, but the range of frostings is theoretically unlimited. I’ve been experimenting with Asian flavor ideas. I’ve made pomegranate frosting and topped it with candied walnuts, swiping a flavor idea from the Iranian dish fesenjan, and I’ve used cardamom and saffron, a combination used in a number of Indian desserts.
And I love Thai food, so violà: ginger-lemongrass-coconut frosting. (Because the Thais use coconut as raw coconut milk, I ignore about my otherwise iron-clad rule of toasting coconut before using it in this recipe.) It’s an eye-opener, fresh and elegant.
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The whole point of this frosting is to emphasize the flavors of the fresh ingredients. Ginger poses no particular problem because you can get ginger root in many supermarkets these days, and all you have to do is grate it. Then you strain out the juice and you’re in business.
Lemongrass is more of a chore, even when you can get it fresh. It’s nicely fragrant (in fact, one variety of lemongrass is used as a mosquito repellent under the name citronella) but the stalks are extremely fibrous, almost woody. It’s a fool’s errand to use a grater or even a mortar on it. For this, we have food processors. It goes without saying that when shopping for lemongrass, you should choose the freshest, least dry stalks, but you’ll have to make do with whatever the market carries.
Some shoppers may find another option, because recently some supermarkets have started carrying puréed ginger and puréed lemongrass in plastic squeeze tubes. One brand name to look for is Gourmet Garden. This is typically sold in a cold case alongside the packaged salads and refrigerated sauerkraut. To use these in this recipe all you have to do is press the purées in a fine sieve until you have enough juice.
If you don’t have access to lemongrass of any description, you can make an excellent frosting by substituting ¼ teaspoon lime zest and maybe some lime juice to taste.
There is obviously a world of exotic flavors out there. Still, though I try to keep an open mind, I don’t think I’ll try curry frosting anytime soon, basically because of the cumin, and scratch chili off my to-do list. I’ve experimented with making this frosting with fresh galangal (called kha in Thai) in place of the ginger, and I didn’t like it. Galangal is a cousin of ginger with a more pungent and distinctive flavor, but it proved way too pungent, almost mustardy. With that in mind, I’m tentatively scratching honey-mustard off my to-do list as well.
But ranch dressing flavor? I don’t know, maybe. I’ll get back to you on that.
Thai Coconut Cake
Serves 8 to 12
For the cake:
½ pound (2 sticks) unsalted butter plus about ¼ cup, softened
3 cups all-purpose flour, plus 2 tablespoons for dusting
2 teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
1 cup milk
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 cups sugar
1. Generously rub the insides of 2 (9-inch) cake pans with the ¼ cup of softened butter, then dust with 2 tablespoons of flour and shake out the excess.
2. Mix the flour, baking powder and salt. Add the vanilla to the milk.
3. Beat the butter until light, about 3 minutes, then gradually beat in the sugar until the mixture is smooth and fluffy. Add the eggs one at a time, beating 20 seconds after every addition.
4. Add 1 cup of the dry mixture and beat at medium speed just until the flour is incorporated, coaxing the flour into the mixture with a flexible scraper. Add ½ of the milk and do the same. Repeat with the remaining flour and milk. Stir up from the bottom with a scraper to make sure the mixture is uniform and beat at medium speed for a couple of seconds.
5. Divide the batter between the two prepared cake pans. The total weight of the batter is 50 ounces, so each layer should weigh 1 pound 9 ounces (if you include the weight of the cake pans, that will be 2 pounds 5 ounces). Bake at 350 F until the tops are golden brown all over and spring back if lightly touched, and the layers are starting to pull away from the sides.
6. Remove the pans from the oven and set them on racks to cool for 10 minutes. Overturn the pans and remove from the layers, then set the layers right side up again and leave until cool, about ½ hour, before frosting.
For the frosting:
1½- to 2-inch length of fresh ginger
5-6 stalks of lemongrass
1 tablespoon vodka
1 cup sugar
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon cream of tartar
¼ cup water
¼ cup light corn syrup
2 egg whites
2½ to 3 cups shredded or flaked coconut
Optional: 1-2 drops green food coloring, 3-4 drops yellow food coloring
1. If you can find ready-puréed ginger and lemon grass, press them through fine sieves to get ¼ to ½ teaspoon juice each. If you can’t find the ready-puréed kind, follow this procedure using the first three ingredients: Grate the ginger and strain enough to get ¼ to ½ teaspoon juice. Chop the lower, whitish part the lemongrass stalks into ¾-inch lengths and process them in the food processor (checking the blades from time to time to make sure that they haven’t gotten fouled and are still running free) until it looks like lawnmower clippings with no solid chunks, about 3-4 minutes. Add the vodka and process a few seconds longer, then sieve out as much liquid as you can. Set the juices aside.
2. Place the sugar, salt, cream of tartar, water, corn syrup and egg whites in the top of a double boiler and beat until foamy.
3. Pour 3 or 4 cups of water in the bottom of the double boiler and bring it to a boil over high heat. When it is at full boil, set the top of the double boiler over it and beat continuously with a hand-held mixer at top speed (about 12 minutes) until the beaters form deep sculptural folds in the frosting, the sheen has begun to fade, and the frosting forms firm peaks when the beaters are removed.
4. Remove the top of the double boiler and beat the frosting at high speed off heat for 1 minute. Beat in the ginger and lemongrass juices to taste. If you want to alert diners that this is not ordinary coconut cake, add food colorings to taste.
1. Set one cooled cake layer upside down on a serving plate. Using no more than ¼ of the frosting, frost the top of the layer and sprinkle with 1 cup of the coconut.
2. Set the other layer over this, right side up (flat side down), and cover the cake with the rest of the frosting. Sprinkle the rest of the coconut over the top of the cake and pat it onto the sides.
Thai coconut cake with lemongrass and ginger. Credit: Charles Perry
Chinese meat demand overtook that of the United States in 1992, and according to the Earth Policy Institute, the Chinese were eating more than double the amount of meat that Americans were consuming last April.
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Traditionally, Chinese cuisine demanded far less meat than today’s Western diets as it was often used sparingly for stocks and sauces, as flavoring or as garnish to add texture to veggie-based dishes. Meat, especially pork, has always signified wealth and thus, with rising incomes, Mainlanders in China have wholeheartedly embraced a meat-heavy diet to demonstrate success. Pork and also fish are particularly important at business meals, as conspicuous consumption is said to “give face,” or demonstrate prestige and respect, to guests.
Chefs teaching classic Chinese vegetarian recipes
Not all Chinese are moving in this direction, though. I recently attended a monthly cooking class hosted at Tianchu Miaoxiang organized by Sixth Step Buddhist Retreat, a program that invites Beijing residents to spend a weekend in nature, meditating and learning about the Buddhist lifestyle.
Each month, free classes are organized to help residents learn how to cook non-meat dishes using seasonal ingredients. This time, Chef Tian, a Sichuanese chef, taught us to cook with mushrooms, eggplant and Chinese yam, known in Mandarin as “shanyao” 山药 This tuber is grown in areas surrounding Beijing and throughout northern China.
Before winter comes to an end, head to your local Chinatown or Asian specialty food shops and take advantage of these two (translated) recipes.
I included the Chinese ingredient names for rare items so you can show this to the shopkeeper, assuming s/he can read Chinese characters.
Faux Coral Fish Rolls (珊瑚鱼卷)
The original recipe suggests imitation fish 素鱼一条 but I don’t like to cook with imitation meats and moreover this will be hard to find outside of Greater China.
For the fish rolls:
1 package tofu skins 豆腐皮
1 kilogram shitake mushrooms 鲜香菇
1 kilogram winter bamboo 冬笋
1 medium-sized carrot 胡萝卜
1 kilogram eryngii mushrooms 杏鲍菇 (or any other type of mushroom you enjoy)
1 bunch coriander 香菜
½ green and red bell pepper each 青红椒
1 celery stalk 芹菜(for garnish)
2 grams salt
2 grams mushroom powder (non-meat bullion works) 蘑菇精
Optional: 1 can of imitation ham 素火腿 (can be bought at Chinese shops)
1. Cut the tofu skins into squares about 3×3 inches (these will be used like taco shells).
2. Julienne the shitake, bamboo, carrot and eryngii.
3. Separate the coriander leaves from the stems and save both.
4. Thinly slice the bell peppers and if you’d like, the imitation ham.
5. Take the celery and slice thinly length-wise; flute the tail.
6. Steep all ingredients in water until ready to use (the celery tails will curl).
7. Take all ingredients out of the water and layer atop the tofu skins. Roll the tofu skins up (like a soft taco or burrito), then tie closed with the coriander stems; set aside.
8. Microwave the tofu rolls for 1 minute.
For the sauce:
3 grams oil
Minced ginger to taste
10 grams ketchup
5 grams tomato sauce
10 grams sugar
8 grams white vinegar 白醋
½ cup of water
1. In a wok, heat the oil and cook the ginger until fragrant, then add the ketchup, tomato sauce until bubbling then add sugar and white vinegar; cook until the sugar melts and add a ½ cup of water until it boils.
2. Take the boiled tomato sauce and pour atop the micro-waved rolls; use the bell pepper strips and fluted celery to garnish.
XO Sauce Eggplant Sticks (XO 茄条)
Serves 8 to 10 as an amuse-bouche, canapé or appetizer
2 Asian eggplants (the long variety not the round one), sliced into sticks (the size of French fries will do)
2grams minced ginger
XO sauce (a fermented and flavorful fish paste available at any Asian goods food shop; as it’s usually made with shrimp or fish, if you are vegan ask for 素XO浆)
2 grams garlic oil (you can make this by adding a few garlic heads to vegetable oil and letting it sit)
2 grams salt
2 grams mushroom powder
8 to 10 narrow cocktail glasses
1. Place the eggplant on a microwave-safe plate and cover with plastic wrap; microwave for 5 to 10 minutes.
2. In a large bowl, place the cooked eggplant, ginger, garlic oil, salt, and mushroom powder together and mix together until ingredients are distributed evenly.
3. Spoon the eggplant mixture into the cocktail glasses and press down.
4. Spoon XO sauce atop the mixture, garnish with the coriander leaves leftover from the tofu rolls.
Crispy Chinese Yam (酥山药)
200 grams Chinese yam
Tempura powder (to coat)
Spiced salt (a dash)
Green and red bell pepper, minced (for garnish)
1. Cut the yam into ½-inch slices and blanch in boiling water briefly before dropping into cold water and leaving until ready to use again.
2. Pour oil into a wok until it is about 2 inches deep and heat until 250 F (or the surface is starting to undulate).
3. Take the yam slices and drop into the tempura powder until evenly coated, then drop into the oil and deep fry until the exterior turns a golden yellow; remove with chopsticks or a slotted spoon and place on paper towels to let dry.
4. Drop the minced red and green pepper and drop into the wok with the remaining oil, fry until fragrant and then add the fried yam slices, turning over in the oil until evenly cooked. 5. Sprinkle with spiced salt.
6. Remove with slotted spoon onto plate; eat immediately.
Top photo: Eggplants in cups. Credit: Manuela Zoninsein
Easter is a moveable feast in both Eastern and Western church traditions — quite literally, since the date can vary by several weeks whether celebrated according to the Western (Roman Catholic) or Eastern (Orthodox Catholic) calendar: This year’s Roman Catholic Easter is March 31, and the Orthodox date is May 5. This can make for some confusion where the two groups intersect, as they often do in central Europe. Traditions in both camps, however, feature eggs as the universal symbol of rebirth.
A Russian Orthodox Easter as celebrated in the early 1990s by a self-sufficient farming family of Ruthenes living in Slovakia’s Tatras mountains on the borders of the Ukraine provided me with a lesson in maintaining national identity through festive traditions in a situation where church festivals were not officially celebrated at all.
The Ruthenes, Russian-speaking Ukrainians marooned in Slovakia in the aftermath of World War II, maintained their language and religion throughout the years of communism thanks, in all probability, to their minority status and the inaccessibility of their steep ravines and dense forest. Through the long winters, while the city dwellers of Eastern Europe endured shortages and bread queues, the peasant communities of the Tatras survived as they always had, through self-sufficiency and a well-stocked store cupboard. And at Easter, the most important festival of the Christian year, those who had moved to the cities to find work returned home to be with their families and enjoy the last of the stores, providing extra hands to plant the potato crop, the most important and labor-intensive task of the year.
At the time of my visit, my hostess, Anna Ludomirova — matriarch of a peasant farming family in the High Tatras — was preparing the Easter basket to be taken to the churchyard. Packed with good things — a tall round babka enriched with eggs and butter, decorated eggs, salt (a very important item in any self-sufficient household), the last of the ham from the brine pot — the basket was taken to be blessed with a sprinkling of holy water by the monks at the Russian Orthodox church on Easter Saturday. Once this ritual had been observed and the basket shown to the family ancestors buried in the churchyard, everyone returned home to unpack and share the contents.
Easter egg cheese part of traditional holiday meal
This picnic-style meal freed the ladies of the household to enjoy the company of visitors. But before the feast could begin, certain rituals had to be observed. A bowl of decorated Easter eggs painted with wax and dipped in colored dyes was set on the table and a ceremonial candle lit. Then Mama Anna sliced the top off a raw egg, mixed the contents with a little spoon and passed it round the table for everyone to take a little sip — a unifying gesture shared by all.
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These important rituals concluded, the company tucked into sliced ham and wind-cured sausage, spiced beetroot and gherkins in sweetened vinegar, grated horseradish in cream, eggs hard-boiled and saved in obedience to the prohibitions of Lent, thick slices of the buttery babka spread with more butter. Most unusual, however, was the centerpiece of the feast, egg cheese, a magnificent yellow globe as large and round as a soccer ball made by scrambling the first of the year’s eggs with the first of the year’s milk, tipping the result in a cloth and leaving it to drip overnight till firm and dry — a technique that mirrors the preparation of rennetted cheese later in the year, when the calves are weaned and the cows put out to grass. The eggshells did not go to waste, as they were emptied through pinholes to keep the shells intact and saved for the children to decorate with melted candle wax for the patterned Easter eggs sent to the churchyard in the basket.
After the collapse of the Russian empire and the splitting of Slovakia from the Czechs, the Ruthene communities returned to the Ukraine carrying with them traditions forgotten in their native land but preserved in all their ancient symbolism by a stroke of the politicians’ pencil all those years ago.
Wax-patterned Easter eggs
You need white rather than brown eggs for the patterns to be effective. You can use ready-blown eggshells from making egg cheese or cooled hard-boiled eggs. You’ll also need candle ends — plain, colored or both — food coloring and a pin with a large head.
1. Stick the pin in a cork to make a pen.
2. Melt the wax, keeping the colors separate.
3. Hold the egg firmly in one hand, big end upward. Dip the pen in the wax, and, starting half an inch below the apex of the egg, dab with the wax and drag it up toward the top to give a tadpole-shaped tick. Continue around the egg to make a sunburst pattern. If you use alternate lengths of stroke and different colored waxes, the pattern will be even prettier.
4. Repeat on the other end of the egg. (Hold it carefully or place in an egg cup so the warmth of your hand doesn’t melt the wax). Make more sunburst patterns around the sides.
5. Dip the eggs in diluted food coloring, as for batik.
6. Pile the eggs in a pretty bowl.
Easter egg cheese
This is a very unusual dish, a solid sphere of scrambled egg. It looks decorative, slices up neatly and goes very well with ham, the traditional Easter meat in northern and Eastern Europe.
1 liter of milk
12 free-range eggs
1 teaspoon salt
1. Bring the milk to a boil. Meanwhile, whisk all but one of the eggs with the salt.
2. When the milk boils, whisk in the egg. Keep whisking until the resulting custard is thoroughly scrambled.
3. Tip the mixture into a clean pudding cloth. Hang it in a warm place to drain with a bowl underneath to catch the whey, exactly as you would fresh cheese.
4. When it’s quite drained, tip it out onto a clean dish, paint it with the remaining egg, forked to blend, and place it into an oven preheated to 350 F (180 C/Gas 4) for 10 minutes to glaze. The result should look like a large, shiny, yellow Easter egg.
5. Slice thickly and serve with ham, butter and bread.
Illustration: Ruthene women. Credit: Elisabeth Luard
Lent, the 40 days leading to Easter, is observed with solemnity by the Christian community in Kerala, India. Though there are variations among the different denominations, observant Christians abstain from meat and alcohol during this period. In contrast to joyful Easter celebrations, Maundy Thursday services are typically solemn occasions. On the evening of Maundy Thursday in Kerala, many congregations observe the Pesaha meal, a traditional Passover Seder meal at homes, commemorating the last supper of Jesus. Dishes including Pesaha appam and Pesaha paal are integral to the traditions.
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The word Pesaha is believed to originate from Syriac, and the ritual observances associated with Pesaha indicate its antiquity. “Christians of (the) Aramaic-speaking world, particularly those in Persia, in the early centuries followed a number of Jewish-customs,” wrote G. Rouwhorst in his piece on “Jewish Liturgical Traditions in Early Syriac Christianity.” Since the migration of Christians to Kerala began during the early centuries, perhaps the Jewish customs of West Asian Christians were brought to Kerala by these immigrants.
There are several similarities between Jewish Passover and Pesaha of Kerala Christians. These include cleaning the house, using cleaned or new dishes for cooking the Pesaha meal, singing special songs and feeding the poor. Both traditions also call for a preparation of unleavened bread called Pesaha appam, which is reminiscent of bread from a Jewish Passover meal. Pesaha paal is a Kerala version of the sweet component of the Pesaha meal. It is made with coconut milk sweetened with jaggery, thickened with rice flour and spiced with dried ginger and cumin. In times past in certain regions, new earthenware pots were bought to make the Pesaha appam and Pesaha paal. Some people even destroyed the pot after use and bought new ones every year.
On Maundy Thursday, after the evening prayer, the head of the house recites passages from the Bible about the last supper. He then breaks the ritual unleavened bread Pesaha appam. He gives the bread to the women in the family to soak in Pesaha paal, a sweet dish prepared with jaggery (Indian brown cane sugar) and coconut milk. The bread is then distributed among family members, beginning with the eldest. This bread is also called INRI appam, a reference to the Latin acronym inscribed above Jesus’ cross, translating in English to “Jesus the Nazarene, King of the Jews.”
Kerala makes Easter fare its own
As recipes travel from one continent to another, cooks often substitute or incorporate various local ingredients. Pesaha appam is no exception. South Indian breads are made with fermented batter of rice and a white legume called urad dal (vigna mungo). Other staple ingredients of Kerala cuisine are coconuts and spices. All of them are incorporated in the recipes for Pesaha meal.
But, unlike other traditional breads, the batter for Pesaha appam is not fermented, it is not allowed to stand for more than half an hour or so.
The first loaf is made by transferring batter to a round pan and creating a cross atop the dish with coconut palm leaves blessed by the priest on the previous Sunday.
The recipes, ingredients and cooking methods vary in different parts of the state. One cooking method called for baking the appam by placing the batter in a dish above a large pot of burning firewood and below another pot filled with embers.
Since gas stoves have replaced wood-burning stoves, in some parts of Kerala the bread batter is spread over banana leaves kept inside a round pan and steam cooked.
Pesaha Appam (INRI Appam)
The following recipes for Pesaha Appam and Pesaha Paal are adapted from the recipes of my friend Sany Abraham.
4 tablespoons urad dal
1½ cup freshly grated coconut
1 tablespoon thinly sliced shallots
Salt to taste
2 cups fine rice flour
1. Soak urad dal in water for about an hour.
2. In a blender, grind the soaked dal along with a few tablespoons of water into a smooth thick batter.
3. Separately grind the coconut and shallots to a smooth purée using very little water.
4. In a saucepan, bring 2½ cups water to a rolling boil, and stir in salt and the rice flour. Keep stirring so that there are no lumps. Remove from the stove. Mix the ground urad dal and coconut and shallot purée and mix well. The batter should be thick.
5. Spread it evenly in a round pan, place palm leaves in a cross shape on top, cover and steam for 25-30 minutes on medium high heat. Serve along with Pesaha paal.
2 or 3 cubes of jaggery
1 cup water
2 cups coconut milk
1 tablespoon fine rice powder
½ teaspoon cumin
½ teaspoon ginger powder
1. Melt jaggery with water over medium heat.
2. Strain the mixture into big pot.
3. Pour coconut milk into the pot and simmer for a few minutes.
4. Stir in rice powder and keep stirring.
5. Sprinkle cumin and ginger powder and stir well.
6. Place a cross made with palm leaves on top.
Pesaha appam and Pesaha paal. Credit: R.V. Ramachandran