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Sangria is a simple concoction of fruit, sugar, water and wine and a staple in sunny, tapas-minded Spain. Grown-up fruit punch, it’s refreshing and versatile, taking on more savory lemon and lime tones if that’s the fruit you choose, or slightly sweet if peaches are your preference.
But if you can’t be bothered to make your own, increasingly bars are making inventive versions, and good bottled versions abound.
Eppa SupraFruta is a bottled sangria, available in both red and white versions, made from organically grown Mendocino County wine grapes.
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Slices Sangria is the new creation of Mike Kenton, the founder of OFFbeat Brands. Kenton spent much of his career at Codorniu in Spain, where he fell in love with the traditional drink.
He uses wine made from Spanish grape varieties such as Tempranillo and Verdejo, blended with fruit juices such as orange, lime and blackberry (for the red); or lime, lemon and pineapple (for the white).
“Sangria has been on my family’s dining table for as long as I can remember,” said Slices’ Spanish winemaker, Miguel Gúrpide.
Gurpide also makes a sangria rosé (the fruit used includes lime, lemon and strawberry) and two sparkling sangrias, one rosé and one white.
Relatively light in alcohol (usually under 9% alcohol by volume), sangria is an easygoing cocktail to make for one or for a crowd, doused in club soda or given a couple of cubes of ice.
Courtesy Eppa Sangria
2 to 3 cardamom pods
½ ounce lemon juice
½ ounce simple syrup
1 ounce fresh pineapple juice
2 ounces Eppa SupaFruta Sangria
Pineapple leaf, for garnish
1. In a tin, muddle the cardamom pods.
2. Add the rest of the ingredients.
3. Shake vigorously for 30 seconds.
4. Double strain over ice in a wine glass.
5. Garnish with a pineapple leaf.
Courtesy Tara and Les Goodman, Adafina Culinary
2 onions, Spanish or sweet, sliced ⅛-inch thick
6 to 7 medium Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled, sliced into ¼-inch rounds
2 cups Spanish olive oil
6 large farm eggs
Kosher salt and pepper to taste
1. Place the onions and potatoes in a medium mixing bowl, and toss with a couple pinches of kosher salt.
2. Place a 10- to 12-inch nonstick pan over medium-high flame, adding the onions and potatoes.
3. Pour in the olive oil and stir to coat.
4. When oil begins to bubble, reduce heat to medium-low and cook, turning frequently, until potatoes are fork-tender but not browned, about 15 to 20 minutes.
5. Remove pan from heat and strain the oil from the onions and potatoes.
6. Set aside oil and reserve for another use.
7. Cool onions and potatoes to room temperature, and adjust for seasoning, adding salt and pepper as needed.
8. Beat the eggs and add them to the cooled potato mixture.
9. Return pan to medium heat and stir the tortilla mixture as it cooks until eggs are slightly set.
10. Spread mixture out evenly and reduce heat to medium-low.
11. Cook until bottom is golden brown and eggs are set, about 10 to 12 minutes (you can place pan under the broiler for 2 to 3 minutes if needed to set the top).
12. Remove pan from heat and let cool for 10 to 15 minutes.
13. Place a plate face down over the pan and flip tortilla over — bottom side up. Let cool for a half hour or so, and slice into wedges.
14. Serve with Spanish pimenton (paprika) aioli, crunchy sea salt, and a glass of chilled sangria — or a sangria cocktail.
Top photo: Sangria. Credit: iStockphoto
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 was taken aback recently to hear the hard statistics: The United States imports more than 45% of the fruits and vegetables we put on our tables.
We regularly see produce from Mexico, Canada, Chile, China, Guatemala, Ecuador, Peru and more — imports that have tripled since the 1990s. The produce is harvested before it is even ripe, so that it can be cheaply and efficiently boxed and shipped to our shores for consumption often weeks later.
And while it is a fact that the local food movement is growing exponentially, the reality is that these small farming efforts are often built on marginal land or urban plots. As for big agriculture, according to the American Farmland Trust we lose more than one acre of farmland to urban development every minute of every day, 24/7.
It all adds up. Stifling competition from often inferior product from abroad. Aggressive developers here at home. Shopping malls. Young farm family members choosing not to follow in their parents’ footsteps.
According to the USDA, the number of farms in the United States fell to a six-year low in 2012.
Shrinking number of farmers
Today more than half of American farmers, roughly 2.2 million individuals, are near or past retirement age and there are few prepared with the skills to take their place. How could it be that the Unites States, once the envy of the world in terms of agricultural output, is not even producing enough to feed our own people?
As a nation it’s no secret that we eat too much and too much of the wrong foods, and this has dire consequences on our health. We are currently ranked 33rd on Newsweek / Bloomberg’s 2012 survey of the world’s healthiest countries.
I was reminded of these and other sobering statistics at a screening of “Ground Operations: Battlefields to Farm Fields,” a powerful documentary that addresses the urgent need to retool and reboot U.S. farming practices.
Thanks to the efforts of Dulanie Ellis and Ray Singer, award-winning filmmakers in Ojai, Calif., a social action campaign has been launched nationwide to give combat veterans the opportunity to become a new generation of farmers.
In 2000, Dulanie Ellis launched Walk Your Talk Productions to explore what it would take to protect the world-class farmland in her region of California from development. Thus began her commitment to agricultural activism. Her partner in the documentary, filmmaker Ray Singer, shared her passion and together they embarked on a three-year journey that has profoundly affected each of them. Their goal is to strengthen the growing network of combat veterans who are transitioning into organic agriculture and to build resources for veterans so they can create healthy new lives for themselves and contribute to food security for our nation.
Back from the battlefields
Recently returned from protecting U.S. interests overseas and having traded in their fatigues for overalls, hundreds of veterans returning from Afghanistan and Iraq are now committed to growing organic produce and selling it to local communities from Seattle to Florida.
Colin and Karen Archipley, founders of Archi’s Acres in Valley Center, Calif., have taught more than 100 veterans not only how to grow crops, but how to run a farm as a business through their Veterans Sustainable Agriculture Training (VSAT) program.
VSAT is a proprietary hands-on six-week training program “from seed to market” with an emphasis on developing a business plan. Colin and Karen purposefully tap into the skills and military training of the veterans — attention to detail, dedication and thoroughness — and assist with job placement and business creation at the end of the immersive training. Graduates include successful farm owners and workers, soil-testing pioneers, restaurateurs, and owners of food companies.
Michael O’Gorman, a passionate advocate for the cause of teaching veterans to farm, is the founder and director of the Farmer Veteran Coalition (FVC) located in Davis, Calif. This national network of independent veterans-in-agriculture has teamed up with the USDA to offer free educational retreats in sustainable agriculture all around the country, open to veterans and their spouses.
The coalition serves as an important networking agency. Veterans are able to talk with farmers, attend workshops on financing and related business topics. FVC also offers the Fellowship Fund, which makes small but strategic grants to farmer-vets so they can get what they need most to strengthen their operation.
“Our goal is to connect the latest generation of veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan to viable careers in agriculture,” says Michael. “What we see amounts to religious conversions. These young folks have taken on the military and farming — two of the hardest challenges we face — and they’re not even 30 years old.”
American-grown food for all — it’s more than a wish. The United States is projected to add some 28 million people by the year 2020. With nearly 340 million mouths to feed by the end of this decade, food supply is arguably one of the defining issues of our time. Think about it. Homegrown food is healthier for you. Healthier for your children. Healthier for our communities. Healthier for America.
The next time you plan your week’s shopping, check first for a local farmers market. You may just find a veteran farmer continuing to do service for our country.
Top photo: Mark Winkworth. Credit: JJ Britt
Communist writing tends to be dry and not food-inspired literature. So it is surprising that Lu Xun, one of China’s most famed 20th-century authors who counted Mao Zedong among his fans, used it as a central element of his popular short story, “Kong Yiji.” (孔乙己).
Words and food have been cultural dancing partners throughout China’s history. Confucius used culinary themes thousands of years ago, for example. During the Song Dynasty (960-1279), artists, poets, scholars and other literati gathered to discuss their work in teahouses and over intricate meals. Using seasonal ingredients was valued, as were balanced delicate meals. Even locavorism had an early heyday, as foods focused on nearby regions were preferred to showcase local styles.
Shaoxing’s unique food traditions
Lu was born and raised in Shaoxing not far from an epicenter of Song Dynastic literary and culinary experimentation based in the nearby city of Hangzhou. Lu’s integration of food in his short story, however, is used uniquely as a tool to demonstrate class differences rather than as an extended form of embellishment.
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Whereas nearby Shanghai is known for soy sauce just to the north, Shaoxing is famous internationally for its wine (as recently featured in the popular documentary series, “A Bite of China“) and its stinky fermented tofu. Zhejiang generally is notable within Chinese cuisine as one of the famed “Eight Culinary Traditions” for its light, fresh flavors that are less greasy than Shanghainese cuisine. It is also respected for tea production, especially the green varietal called Longjing that is produced around Hangzhou. Dishes featuring local freshwater fish and a braised chicken dish known as “drunken chicken” similarly focus on local ingredients.
The story, and its historic setting, inspired the creation of a successful chain of restaurants also named Kong Yiji. There are four locations in Beijing and one in Shanghai. These are perennially packed and generally well-respected by locals and expats alike for their food. While a bit pricier than your average dinner spot, they are considered a good bargain for your renminbi. My friend and I decided to check it out and see what parts of Lu’s story made it onto the menu, and if it’s any good.
Dishes from food-inspired literature
Lu Xun never reveals Kong Yiji’s real name. Instead, Kong Yiji is the nickname given to the character by bar-goers and bartenders to poke fun at his educated airs, referencing the name of common Chinese characters used to teach children Chinese calligraphy. Kong himself never passed the Imperial Examinations to become a true scholar, yet he wears the long robes expected of such a position.
When he orders his warmed wine scooped out of the earthen bowl where it is fermented, he uses high-brow language, attracting the ridicule of other customers. I tried the Shaoxing wine at the restaurant and it was dark and savory, an unexpected surprise in a regional cuisine that integrates sweetness in unexpected places.
For example, the stinky deep-fried tofu (zhao chou doufu) was smoky as usual, though less pungent than other varieties I’ve tried in Changsha, Wuhan, Beijing, Hong Kong and Taipei. It was accompanied by a sweet “sour berry” (suan mei) sauce like a chutney in both flavor and consistency. I have never seen such an extreme a gap between the savory and sweet elements in Chinese food. It was also unusual for the dish to include something in jelly-like form spread atop the main ingredient. It worked well, like a stinky cheese would if paired with quince paste.
In Lu’s story, Kong often orders a plate of aniseed-flavored broad beans (huixiang dou) as his bar snack, so when I ordered it at Kong Yiji as an appetizer, I expected something lowbrow and simple, suitable for pairing with booze as with the salty, deep-friend version sold nationally at convenience shops and offered for free at bars today. Instead, the beans had been steamed and were soft and giving. The flavor was simultaneously smoky and sweet, unfurling slowly so my mouth was entertained as can be expected of sophisticated restaurant food.
I don’t eat meat or fish so I didn’t try the seafood or drunken chicken but my dining partner shared a dish with me mixing chopped bits of steamed shrimp, chicken, mushrooms, green beans and niangao, a chewy glutinous rice cake. We chose it mainly to test the boiled bamboo component, which is the other bar food Kong orders (zhusun) because, Lu stresses in his writing, it costs merely an extra penny when ordered alongside the broad beans (and Kong must be frugal with his money). The dish cleverly balanced the many textures and flavors, but as far as bamboo goes it was bland and slightly overcooked. It was no match for the tofu or broad bean dishes.
Kong Yiji’s restaurant owners took inspiration from Lu Xun to replicate a period and place in Chinese culinary history when high-end food was appreciated by high society. The outlet we went to, near Chaoyang Park’s west gate, has a cultivated river flowing through the dark wood floor, which is separated into island sections where tables and booths provide some privacy. The male waiters run around wearing black suit pants and vests, and the women wear long red qipao dresses, the female version of the floor-length robes scholars wore during Lu Xun’s era. Today, even the servers have a right to dress in refinery. Even more modern, they take your order on electronic handheld devices and wear earpieces used by the kitchen to inform them when food is ready for pickup.
Lu wrote during a period of dramatic societal upheaval in China, often exploring anxieties related to his educated background at a time when shifting class conditions prioritized the masses instead. He most likely would not have been pleased by my Kong Yiji dining experience, but Kong Yiji the literary figure would probably have felt proud.
Top photo: Diners at Kong Yiji restaurant in Chaoyang Park, Beijing. Credit: Manuela Zoninsein
I’m a Trader Joe’s groupie. So I was thrilled when my Hawaiian-shirt-clad friends announced that they would be purchasing all their seafood from sustainable sources by the end of 2012. The Monrovia, Calif.,-based retailer had been a target of a Greenpeace “Traitor Joe’s” campaign for its ocean-unfriendly policies, including the sale of a variety of endangered fish. With that pledge, Trader Joe’s joined the good guys.
But four months past the deadline, my glee has changed to frustration over Trader Joe’s unwillingness to say whether it has indeed gone sustainable. The retailer’s only statement on the subject, a customer update posted on its website March 27, does not address the deadline at all. Instead it lays out a number of steps it has taken in “support of our seafood goal of shifting to sustainable sources.”
Trader Joe’s says it will do the following: Stop selling swordfish caught in Southeast Asia, only sell canned yellowfin and albacore tuna caught using approved sustainable methods, set up new standards for suppliers of farmed shrimp and keep genetically engineered salmon off its shelves. The store has also stopped selling endangered Chilean sea bass, orange roughy and red snapper. Those are all steps in the right direction.
Trader Joe’s mum on meeting deadline
But can I go to Trader Joe’s today and pick up fish fillets for dinner without worrying about whether I am contributing to the degradation of the ocean?
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Why the mystery? Everyone understands a missed deadline, particularly when it involves something as complex as seafood sustainability, global supply chains and the economics of food. But refusing to discuss the matter makes it look like Trader Joe’s is hiding something.
Casson Trenor, a senior seafood campaigner at Greenpeace, acknowledges Trader Joe’s is making “tremendous progress” toward saving the oceans. But he says the company’s reluctance to provide more information about its seafood sourcing policies has made it nearly impossible to determine whether the retailer is actually living up to its promises.
For example, he says the store is still selling items such as farmed salmon and dredged scallops that Greenpeace and other groups do not consider sustainable. Are they simply clearing out old inventory? Or are they flouting their own goals and hoping others won’t notice?
There are a lot of things to love about Trader Joe’s if you’re a foodie on a budget, a time-strapped cook (who knew broccoli slaw could taste so good?) or an aficionado of cheap wine. But unfortunately, transparency isn’t one of them. Trenor explains that a key part of Trader Joe’s success is its ability to create tasty, easy-to-use foods — such as spicy fish fillets — that aren’t available anywhere else. To prevent those products from being copied, the retailer has resisted pressure to reveal its sourcing or its suppliers.
“Trader Joe’s is all about magic and illusion,” Trenor says. “It delivers an experience that it doesn’t have to compete for because no one else can produce that product. Why would it give itself away?”
Verifying the sustainability of a seafood product requires two key pieces of information: where it was caught or farmed and how it was caught or farmed, explains Victoria Galitzine of FishWise, a Santa Cruz, Calif., organization working with the seafood industry to develop sustainable business practices. As a first step, she recommends checking out the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program, which has an app and pocket-sized cards with lists of ocean-friendly seafood and fish to avoid.
Trader Joe’s says it is in the process of enhancing its package labeling to include information on species’ Latin names; origin; and catch or production method. But until that happens, I will need to ask my friendly sales clerk whether that frozen yellowfin tuna from Fiji was caught using a long-line or purse seine equipped with a “fish aggregating device, or FAD.” If the answer is yes to the FAD, it’s on the red list and off my grill.
“Asking questions demonstrates to the retailers that its customers care about the environmental performance of its seafood and eventually those messages will trickle up the chain of command to the decision-makers who can affect significant change,” Galitzine says.
I can also support retailers who are clearly ocean-friendly. In mid-May, Greenpeace will publish its annual Seafood Sustainability Scorecard ranking grocery stores by their sustainable seafood practices. Last year, the top scores went to Safeway and Whole Foods while Trader Joe’s ranked 15 out of 20.
Trenor wouldn’t say whether Trader Joe’s will be getting a better grade this year. However, if Greenpeace finds a large gap between Trader Joe’s promises and its delivery, he is not ruling out a revival of its “Traitor Joe’s” campaign.
“Trader Joe’s did make a promise to Greenpeace and other groups and that’s why we suspended our campaign,” he says. “The time is up. The question now is did they actually do what they said they were going to do?”
Top photo: A Greenpeace protest at a Trader Joe’s store. Credit: Greenpeace
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
Ask expatriates living in Malaysia about their favorite things to do there, and more often than not, their answer is eating the local food. As a Malaysian spending six months in the United States last year, I realized the usual exchange of pleasantries involves asking, “How are you?” In my country, it is a little different. We ask, “Sudah makan?” (translation: “Have you eaten?”) and this applies to friends, family and new acquaintances you meet on the street.
For us in a nation of 28 million, food always brings people together, and it’s the same in cultures all over the world. In our capital, Kuala Lumpur (KL), you can find almost any cuisine — Spanish, Italian, Indian, Chinese, Greek, French, Mediterranean and Middle Eastern. Despite being a Muslim-majority country, alcohol is widely served, from humble cafes on the street to ultra-posh and swanky restaurants in the city. Good wines, in particular, are readily available. Some will be surprised to know that Malaysia is one of the fastest-growing countries in the Asian market for wine consumption.
The Italian restaurant Svago in Kuala Lumpur is one place where you can treat yourself to fine cuisine and wine while taking in the amazing view of the Petronas Twin Towers, which were featured in the 1999 movie “Entrapment.” Svago’s lounge and bar area is an eclectic space of retro and contemporary decor, with parquet flooring, steel beams and floor-to-ceiling glass windows. The low-backed vinyl chairs and terrace encompass modernity.
Planeta wines a perfect complement to dinner
When a chef manages to craft innovative canapés that tantalize your taste buds, it is sacrilege not to have a healthy glass of vino to go with it. That evening at Svago, we were introduced to the five top wines — two whites and three reds — from Planeta, which we were told is one of the premier wineries in Sicily, Italy. The wines we sampled ranged from crisp and light to robust and full-bodied.
Chef Andrea Buson stays true to his Italian heritage but is able to inject Asian influences in his dishes too. The food on the table comprised the likes of Arancini Rossi (a beetroot risotto ball topped with pesto calamari), Smoked Duck Breast With Grilled Ginkgo Nuts, Wagyu Beef Carpaccio on Rocket Topped With Cherry Tomato and Aged Pecorino Romano, Herb-Crusted Lamb Loin prepared Provencal style, and Stuffed Cannelloni With Ricotta and Truffle Mushroom Duxelle.
For our sampling of Planeta wines, we started with the La Segreta Bianco, which takes its name from the wood that surrounds the vineyard at Ulmo. “It is produced mainly from Grecanico grapes and was introduced to Sicily more than 2,000 years ago,” explained Simone Di Domizio, the export manager for the Asian market, who regaled us about the wine’s history and geography and the uniqueness of the flavors. Under the light, this white is clear yellow with slight greenish reflections. It has aromas of citrus, pineapple and white peach. The palate is fresh and balanced, and it is ideal with Mediterranean cuisine and fish dishes.
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Next came the chardonnay. While I more often choose Sauvignon Blanc over chardonnay because I don’t like the high acidity and rich oak texture in the latter, this one was buttery and smooth in all the right places. According to Di Domizio, the chardonnay “illustrates” the changes taking place in Sicilian wines. “Among the five wines, the chardonnay is our flagship wine and has gained the best ratings from reviewers all over the world,” he said. Its fermentation and maturing in French barrels have delivered a graceful and powerful wine. The golden yellow color with lively green glints beckons you, and on the nose there are aromas of peach, golden apple, white figs and vanilla cream as well as hints of hazelnut and Zagara honey. The palate is soft, round, energetic and full.
And enter the vivacious reds. The La Segreta Rosso is a young, fresh wine produced mainly from Nero d’Avola grapes. “This is a perfect approach to Sicilian wine with its excellent relationship between price and quality,” Di Domizio said. It has the brilliant color of ruby red with purple reflections. The explosive aromas of cocoa and tobacco first hit you, followed by bouquets of mulberry, plum and balsamic notes. The palate has ripe tannins with a fresh alcohol structure and is versatile with appetizers and meat dishes.
If you don’t already know, the heat in Malaysia comes with its friend humidity. By this time in the evening, even the air-conditioning was struggling to cool us down, and with the warmth from the wines we were positively toasty. The Maroccoli Syrah made its appearance with its fruity spiciness. “Sicily is a good place for Syrah,” said Di Domizio, because of its sunny dry places. The alcohol strength is subtle, and the aromas you get with this wine are blackcurrant, cinnamon and cloves, making it great with chili or curry. The Syrah would also pair well with the good Indian food in KL, I must say.
Alas, the night had to end, and it did so with a capping of the Sito dell’Ulmo Merlot. We were told it has enjoyed international attention since its first vintage, and the presentation of this noble grape is rich, round and powerful. It is found on the wine lists of some of the most prestigious restaurants and wine bars around the world. The palate is vibrant with a dense texture. “It has a balsamic and chocolate aftertaste which is fresh and complex. It works really well with fusion cuisines as well as mature cheeses and meat,” Di Domizio said.
Origins of Planeta wine
During our dinner, we discussed Planeta’s origins and history. Started by the Planeta family, which has have owned the estate at Sambuca di Sicilia since the 1600s, it is one of the most acclaimed Sicilian winemakers. While Planeta has penetrated the Malaysian market, the dinner was its inaugural wine-pairing event in Kuala Lumpur as an opportunity for consumers to sample the wines .
Planeta has five wineries in Sicily, and a sixth winery is being built. Aside from Malaysia, Planeta is making its mark elsewhere in Asia, including Japan, China, Hong Kong, Singapore, India, Cambodia and Indonesia.
“Malaysian consumers,” Di Domizio said, “have shown the yearning to further develop their wine knowledge” with the increase of international influences.
Top photo: The Planeta wines sampled at the dinner. Credit: Aida Ahmad
The first article in this series on coffee covered its early roots and routes. Coffee has planted itself all over the globe from the forests of Africa to the Middle East, the Indian Ocean Islands, South and Southeast Asia and the tropical Americas. Nearly all the commercial coffee varieties (97%) that grow globally are derived from either Coffea arabica or Coffea robusta. But how do different coffee varieties emerge? What are some of the favored varieties? Before the green beans are roasted, what are the factors that affect quality? How can someone roast coffee beans at home?
AFRICAN ORIGINS OF COFFEE
A three-part series:
» Part 3 (coming soon): How to conserve coffee's biocultural diversity in its place of origin to ensure its global survival for generations
Definitions and progression:
» Caramelization occurs when sugars in a compound are heated, release water, brown and produce new flavor compounds. It usually occurs at temperatures up to the first crack of coffee roasting.
» First crack produces caramel-like notes.
» Maillard reaction occurs when a sugar and a protein interact when heated to produce browning and a range of different flavor compounds. The Maillard Reaction takes place slowly at room temperature, at higher temperatures and proceeds quickly during and after the first crack.
» Second crack produces smoky woody asphalt-like notes.
What are some of the salient characteristics differentiating Arabica and Robusta?
- Superior taste
- More susceptible to pests and disease
- Slightly larger beans
- Higher fat and sugar content than Robusta
- Best for all types of roasts
- Self-pollinating, which results in less genetic diversity and less variability
- Inferior taste
- Less susceptible to pests and disease
- Smaller beans
- Higher caffeine (double) and chlorogenic acid (CGA) content
- Best for dark roasts and espresso
- Cross pollination, which results in more healthy plants
How plant varieties emerge
from soil to soil
From Arabica emerged two well-known varieties, C. arabica var. arabica (typica) and C. arabica var. bourbon. According to genetic researchers, historical data indicate that Typica originated most probably from a single plant from Indonesia that was subsequently cultivated in the Amsterdam botanical gardens in the early 18th century. The Bourbon genetic base originated from coffee trees introduced from Mocha (Yemen) to the Bourbon Island (now Réunion) in the early 1700s.
When a plant migrates and grows in a new location, it adapts if it can. The migration may be around the corner to a sunnier side of the slope or as far away as another continent. The first coffee plantation on the Bourbon Island (Réunion), for example, yearned for the soil it first grew in — yes, I am attributing human qualities to a plant, but stay with me. Coffea arabica said — and certainly not with an ancient Latin accent but more like a Kafa accent with a tinge of Yemeni Arabic and the sailor slang of the Mocha Port — “Where am I, this soil is too sandy, and this sun’s heat is a bit much for my forest montane constitution and the salt in the air. Ya Allah, enough with the salt! And why do the minerals in the soil taste so nasty? And, hold on, what the hell is that fungus creeping on my leaves!” Get my point?
So the coffee cherries that survived got replanted. The second generation adapted. A unique tasting coffee bean emerged unlike its ancestors from distant Yemen or Ethiopia. This generation’s crop, now firmly identified as Island coffee, possibly contained more sugar, less of a particular protein or a different concentration of minerals. When the ultimate alchemical roasting occurred, new flavor compounds surfaced, and the world got Coffea arabica var. bourbon. That is one story of a coffee plant. Manifold factors determined taste. On the one hand, a brilliant creation of a new coffee variety materialized, on the other, the diminution of genetic diversity ensued. Wonderful and catastrophic, all at the same time.
Dry, wet and natural pulp-drying processes
Ripe coffee beans are processed in one of three ways.
Dry process is the original method that uses less machinery. Dried directly in the sun, the green seed is torn out of the dried dark fruit. This process can result in including unripe beans. And it requires more labor to hand pick the defects and contaminants.
Wet process entails removing the fruit, then washing it in water so unripe beans, defects and contaminants float to the top. The beans are fermented to remove the final mucilage fruit layer surrounding the bean and then dried.
Pulp natural process is a hybrid of the wet and dry. The fermentation process of the wet process is skipped and instead, the beans dry with some fruit still attached. This newest technique produces a cup that is less acidic and more full-bodied and is a cleaner process. It has been dubbed the “miel” or honey process in Costa Rica. (Sweet Maria’s is an excellent source for information on all aspects of green coffee beans.)
What to look for in a green coffee bean?
To assess a quality batch of green beans, look for uniform shape, color, size and evenness. These characteristics allow for even roasting of the beans. This ensures a consistent and defined taste.
Top photo: Green coffee beans. Credit: Sarah Khan
This article was partially underwritten by the The Christensen Fund, a nonprofit organization, dedicated to biocultural and agricultural diversity of marginalized people and landscapes globally.