Thursday, 21 May 2009

words for portland and polenta


where everyone plays the banjo, makes their own pie crust, and has a tattoo.


where I am wooed by nettle pesto, oak-aged beers, and enough versions of the humble tea leaf to shock Buddha himself.

It's really a grand place, when it's sunny and everything is green and lush and there is always more good food and drink to be had.

Phenomenally flakey rhubarb hand pies, a rustic square pie of super tangy rhubarb and a few choice strawberries baked by yours truly, and carrot cupcakes were just a few of the nibbles from the weekend, a weekend that ended in a feast of food that easily topped all of these delicious treats.

My sister Laila's best friend and roommate Lila, happens to be half Indian. And happens to have a mother who is an awesome cook, and can whip out a feast without staining her silk sari or even breaking a sweat.

A Gujarati meal, from the Gujarat region of Indian, Lila's mom put us all to shame with the simplicity of her garbanzo curry, the flavors of her fried rice with cardomom and cashews, the perfect puffiness of her puris.

Now, I meant to come here with a recipe. And I mean to, soon enough. I've been planning on making the Hemsell family chai, and begging for one or even two recipes for these dishes, but I felt like I needed to tell you about it fast, before all the details slipped away.

But even still, I feel a little bad. I mean, it's one of those things that can't really be recreated. If the puri aren't being shaped by two sets of mothers and daughters hailing from multiple countries, would they really be the same?

If they weren't being fried by a woman who just watched her daughter graduate from college, would they puff just as well and take in just enough oil for that crispy yet light crust that maintains enough tooth to scoop up mounds of curry and rice?

Would the beans sit so contentedly with the tomatoes and spices if they hadn't sat overnight while the flavors developed, as we stood around the kitchen drinking beer and thinking about making space in our bellies for the next day?

And then the fish curry - although not going with the Gujarat theme - how could that dish survive if it weren't prepared by a Texan transplanted to India, (Lila's dad) holding a stout beer in one hand and a fish shaped potholder in another?

Would the raita taste be as fresh if not made from Portland yogurt and eaten in the backyard while sitting on the lawn?

And still, I forget things. Have I mentioned the vegetables? The rice? The shiro? Oh, the shiro.

The shiro is really what I want to talk about. Because although the main meal was fabulous and delicious and mind-blowing and everyone was licking their fingers and I could not keep myself from going back again and again for more, the dishes are far from my realm of comprehension, cooking-wise at least. The spices and the methods are totally foreign to me. Maybe something to be learned in the future, with time and patience, but for now I will let turmeric be turmeric, and eat it where it is found outside of my kitchen.

But the shiro I can do.

Shiro is a sweet. Not quite a dessert, at least not in the Tess world of chocolate cakes smothered in more chocolate. Shiro is simple and satisfying and very moorish. If you don't know this word, moorish, you should learn it. It's a great word. It comes from the land of the Scots, as far as I can tell, and just refers to something to can't keep your hands off of. It might not be super fancy, or anything you'd especially notice, but you just can't get enough.

That's what shiro is. Made with semolina, milk, sugar, almonds and cardamom, it's thicker than a pudding but not quite a cake. It's like a soft, sweet, grain cake, if you can imagine. The cardamom makes it slightly exotic, the sugar brings the grain back from it's pasta origins, and the almonds (toasted and slivered) deliver a satisfying crunch that makes me go all soft inside and say to myself: more.

Kirti made her shiro with cream of wheat. Semolina in disguise. And as I was eating it, I was marveling to myself about how this simple breakfast cereal could be totally transformed with so little. And then I started to think about polenta, another grain that somehow accomplishes a smooth transition between savory and sweet. Grainier and chewier, I thought it might make a nice contrast to the sweet milkiness, even if it totally bastardized the dish by introducing something Italian.

So yes, this is a tease. I wanted to give you something Indian, and here I am with another dessert. I hope you'll forgive me, and perhaps make friends with someone who happens to be from the Gujarat region, and then be really really nice to them, and maybe they will cook you a meal.

For your sake, I hope it's able to mimic ours in even a fraction of a degree.

Bastardized Shiro, or Polenta Pudding with Cardamom

*Note: Freshly ground cardamom is  in a different league than preground. If you don't have a mortar and pestle, don't have the elbow grease, or don't have the time, use preground, but you will be missing out.

2 cups whole milk
8-10 cardamom pods, to yield  about 1 1/2 tsp ground cardamom
1/4 cup sugar
pinch of salt
1 tbsp butter
1/2 cup polenta
1/4 cup slivered, toasted almonds
fresh raspberries, for serving

1) Place the milk, cardamom, salt, and sugar in a medium saucepan. Bring to a boil (be careful, the milk sometimes wants to boil over).

2) While the milk is heating, melt the butter in a small saucepan. Add the polenta, and quickly stir to coat. Toast the polenta about five minutes, till fragrant. Remove from heat.

3) When milk is just beginning to boil, whisk in the toasted polenta. Turn the heat down to bring the milk to a simmer, and let cook 10 to 15 minutes until milk is absorbed and polenta grains are soft.

4) Take polenta off the heat and stir in almonds. Smooth mixture into a small pan, such as a 9 by 9 brownie pan, or a pie plate (as long as it's about 3/4 to an inch thick).

5) Let cool at least ten minutes. Serve slightly warm, spooned into bowls, or let cool to room temperature, then cut into wedges or squares. Serve with a couple raspberries. Refrigerate any leftovers, which are excellent the next day.

Serves 3-4, but can easily be doubled

Wednesday, 20 May 2009

Silly and Serendipitous

An empty fridge. Two roommates go separately to the grocery store. Each returns with a handful of things from the market. Each toss their purchases on the counter. And then they realize. Everything is purple!

One has bought a handful of baby eggplants, a small purple cabbage, and a plump head of lilac-tinged garlic. The other has bought a fat magenta beet, inexplicably purple asparagus spears, and two artichokes, a soft purple creeping to the tip of each leaf.

Instead of spacing out the vegetables through the week, everything is cooked at once. How could all that purple be served separately?

Asparagus is roasted. Artichokes are steamed. Beet is grated. Eggplants are stuffed with garlic and herbs. Cabbage is julienned.

And then, just to make sure everything isn't too beautifully purple, crumbles of pale feta and leaves of green cilantro are throw in here and there.

Baby Eggplants stuffed with Garlic and Herbs

10 or so baby eggplants, no bigger than your thumb

2 cloves garlic, slivered

2 or so tsp fresh thyme leaves

juice from 1/2 lemon

3 or so tbsps olive oil

salt and pepper

1/4 cup crumbled feta

1) Preheat oven to 350. Slice the eggplant lengthwise, leaving the stem and bottom skin intact. In each slit, push in a sliver of garlic and a few thyme leaves.

2) Place eggplants in a small casserole dish. Squeeze the lemon over the eggplants. Drizzle the olive oil over the eggplants, making sure to get a couple drops into each slit. Season with salt and pepper.

3) Cover dish with aluminum foil, then bake 35-45 minutes, depending on the size of the eggplants, until soft and easily pierced with a fork. Take off aluminum foil, turn the temperature up to 400, and roast another 5-10 minutes until browned.

4) Sprinkle with feta. Serve.

Cabbage and Beet Salad

1/2 head cabbage, julienned as finely as possible

1 large beet or two small beets, finely grated

1 small handful cilantro, finely chopped

1/2 cup fava beans, already shucked and cut in half, if large

2 tbsp rice wine vinegar

3 tbsp olive oil

1 tsp sesame oil

salt and pepper

feta, for garnish

1) Combine vinegar, oils, salt and pepper in a bowl. As you chop and grate, add to the bowl. Toss to coat. Serve topped with crumbled feta.

Note: This salad is fine to sit for a while, and I feel even benefits from a good half hour wait. The cabbage softens a little and becomes more slaw-like.

Thursday, 14 May 2009

maybe it's obvious

I guess I should have realized that working six days a week till six or later at night would not leave me with excessive amounts of time for cooking. After whiling away the hours in Scotland, or being in the middle of nowhere with my parents, San Francisco is pretty frickin' different.

I know I've been complaining about this for a few weeks now. But I'm still getting accustomed to this whole meal-in-two-minutes thing. What I've gleaned so far: it's not always satisfying, mostly frustrating, but sometimes, kinda fun.

Like yesterday's five minute dinner: grilled cheese made with California whole grain bread and a good slab of Humboldt Fog goat cheese, sided by some flash-sautéed spinach. It was quick and to the point. It was warm and cheesy and had enough green in it to made the butter I fried the bread in okay.

And then there's the quinoa tabbouleh. Simple. Bright. Fast.

Quinoa is pretty sweet, as they say. That is, super healthy, super easy, semi-super cheap (especially if you get a huge bag from Cosco).

Tabbouleh is usually made with couscous, but quinoa goes just fine with the bright citrusy flavors of this easy Middle Eastern grain salad, and adds that extra boost of protein. The salad came together in less than twenty minutes, and required little skill beyond the fine chopping of a cucumber.

Made with summer vegetables, this salad will be fantastic when the tomatoes are falling out of market stands, but goes well now with hothouse cherry tomatoes. And don't be tempted to leave out the mint, it adds something perfectly summery and clean to the salad, and the whole dish would be bordering on dull without it.

Quinoa Tabbouleh
from Bon Appétit

2 tbsps olive oil
2 tbsps fresh lemon juice
2 tbsps plus 1/2 cup fresh Italian parsley, chopped
1 garlic clove, minced
salt and pepper
1 cup water
1/2 cup quinoa, rinsed
1/2 cup cucumber, peeled and finely chopped
1/2 cup chopped tomatoes
1/4 cup chopped fresh mint
lettuce leaves, if you want

1. Bring water to a boil, add quinoa. Reduce to a simmer, cover, and cook 13 minutes till water is absorbed.

2. Meanwhile, whisk oil, lemon juice and garlic in a bowl. Season with salt and pepper. Chop the cucumber, tomato, mint, and parsley, adding to the dressing as you go.

3. When quinoa is finished cooking, let cool about five minutes. If you want a cold salad, chill it. (I liked the contrasting warm quinoa and cold vegetables). Add quinoa to vegetables, and toss to coat. If using lettuce leaves, pile tabbouleh over leaves.

Serves 2 for a main or 4 as a side dish.

Tuesday, 12 May 2009

why you should never throw away stems

And then, there was more chocolate...

Make that chocolate frosting.

Put whatever leftovers you have, if you've manages to keep it away from friends and roommates and yourself, into a jar and stash it in the fridge.

When you get home from work, eat it with peanut butter.


If you haven't made it yet, buy chocolate ice cream.

Get out the best quality olive oil you have, and some crunchy sea salt.

Give yourself two good scoops of ice cream, douse it in a pour of olive oil, and sprinkle it with salt.

Add a blob of whipped cream if you want.

Trust me, it's euphoric.

(Thank you Bi-Rite Creamery)

Sunday, 10 May 2009

struck with it

My current internship has certain perks. It's unpaid, yes, but I do get to go to fancy breakfasts with famous director speakers, or movie premiers with cast members of The Office making jokes ten feet away from me! In fact, I feel like I've been a little too starstruck lately. I mean, referring to the director of "Milk" as Gus, just like he's my best friend? It's a little iffy.

So I was extremely happy when I arrived at the Saturday Farmer's Market and I was just as excited to see a beautiful bunch of pink-stemmed chard as I had been to John Krasinki. Maybe there's hope for me after all.

I was also happy when I was invited to a dinner that night that involved, among many delicious foods, a pasta made with hand-milled acorn flour (tossed with herbs and goat cheese - delicious), and a rose petal jam, sweet and sticky next to a creamy round of cheese that went fabulously with it.

But I was happiest when I arrived back in the city Sunday evening, my bag of market booty overflowing, and the house empty of all distractions except for a chopping board.

I opened my last bottle of Fraoch that Ian had brought me and set to work on the fava beans.

Favas are new to me. I'd often see the lumpy pods overflowing from market stands, but I never really knew what they were, or what to do with them.

Finally I did the simple thing: ask. Apparently they can be eaten raw, straight from the pod. They can be tossed in salads. They can be lightly sautéed. I stopped there, even though the list, of course, goes on. Sautéed was good enough for me.

So that night, I popped favas out of their green pods. I discovered the soft, furry insides of the pods, and the satisfying ping of the beans as they bounced into a metal bowl. I sautéed the beans quickly with a garlic clove and a few grated zucchini, adding some lemon zest at the final moment. Alongside the barbeque chicken we were having, the beans were perfect. Fresh and bright with the lemon, the beans kept their shape and a satisfying chew, while the grated zucchini clung all over for added texture.

So this week, I bought more. More fava beans, and more unknowns. Specifically green garlic. I've read about it so much, and skipped over so many recipes including it because it seemed so, I don't know, fussy I guess.

Since they don't sell it in stores, green garlic is one of those special foods that people wait for each spring, anticipating the soft yet familiar bite of garlic as they much on the entire head of garlic. Because apparently, it's all edible. With the most tender of stalks, which is what I had stumbled upon, you can eat every last nubbin (except for maybe those dry looking hairy parts, I'd expect that to be rather unpleasant). No peeling of cloves, no loose flutters of lacey garlic casings floating around - just slice the whole thing, looking out for the same design as when cutting a grapefruit in half.

I also bought familiar things: a fat purple onion, dainty asparagus, and the chard I mentioned above.

I knew it would all come together perfectly in a pan, the flavors complementing and melding as the heat encouraged and changed them.

It's really the simplest of concepts: buy the freshest of ingredients that arrive the same time at the market, and they will need little extra to be delicious. With an egg to tie everything together, dinner can practically make itself.

Spring Vegetables with an Imperfectly Fried Farm Egg

Go to the Farmer's Market. Choose what looks good to you. Perhaps a few small onions. Perhaps crisp asparagus, or a fluffy bunch of greens. Grab a stalk or two of green garlic. If you see any zucchini, get those too. And don't forget the fava beans, if available.

Prepare your vegetables. It doesn't matter if they are all the same size. Break the asparagus here and there. Cut the onion in jagged half moons. Shell the beans. Grate the zucchini, or perhaps cut it into matchsticks. Variety is good. Change is good.

Heat some olive oil. Start with the onion, if you're using it. Let it soften slowly, gently. Toss in your vegetables, starting with the harder ones like asparagus, ending with anything leafy you might want to add. Season. Stir. Wait.

Give it ten minutes or so, till everything is yielding to the heat but hasn't lost all its crispness. If you have some herbs from your garden, or perhaps your neighbor's garden, add them. Extra flavors are good but not essential. It you have a lemon, grate some zest in.

In another pan, heat a bit of oil or butter and fry an egg or two per person. It's okay if the yolk breaks in the pan, it happens.

Pile the vegetables generously on plates. When the whites have set in the egg but the yolks are still runny, place the egg on top of the vegetables. If you have any parmesan, a grating of that would go well here. And maybe a few grinds of pepper.

It's Spring, and everything's changing.

Thursday, 7 May 2009

French Housewives Know Best

So I was going to write about lavender biscuits. And I will, in good time. But something much more pressing has come up: 99 percent chocolate.

Today is the first free day I have had in a long long time. The first day with no one to entertain, talk to, account to, be nice to, whatever. Of course I had to bake something.

I've been whipping out little things in the past week, like those lavender biscuits I was talking about. One bowl things that bake for fifteen minutes or less. But today I wanted something that lasted. I wanted to work at chopping, and stirring, and heating. I wanted something that would sit in the oven for a long time, filling the house with the smell of chocolate. I wanted chocolate cupcakes with an obscene amount of frosting to dip my fingers into.

I was to make the frosting first. The butter was frozen, the block of unsweetened chocolate rock hard, and I spent a good while warming myself up by chopping them both into tiny pieces on the flimsy plastic cuttingboard we use here. I simmered cream and sugar, and watched the mixture turn a gentle brown as it bubbled into a cappucino-like froth. I whisked the chocolate and butter into the cream and sugar, and finally, stirred in a bit of vanilla. Frosting, finished.

But wait. There was a baguette sitting on the table. And a little bowl of fleur de sel. And the chocolate had to be tasted.

It was one of those moments, as I ripped through the crackly crust of the bread and dipped it straight into the pot of chocolate, then sprinkled it with crunchy salt. One of those moments when it all just comes together, and it's just so perfect, without trying. It was suddenly so obvious: who needed cupcakes when there's baguette and salt?

I spooned a good quanity onto a little plate and spent some quiet moments swiping the chocolate around with chunks of bread, savoring the rich chocolate and the suprising saltiness every once in a while as one of the little crystals swept across my tongue.

It was lovely.

Like a classy nutella, the whole experience reminded me of something a glamorous French housewife would have put together for her kids when they got out of school. She would be wearing red heels and would be perfectly pristine as she prepared the chocolate. And when the children came tearing in the house she would remain serene, kissing each child on the forehead as they sat at the table, saying quietly to each, Ma cherie...

Now there is a big bowl of chocolate ganache on my stove - I'm planning on putting the rest, if anything remains after the afternoon, in a little jar in the fridge for tomorrow breakfast, or lunch, or both.

That Chocolate Frosting
from The Essence of Chocolate by John Scharffenberger and Robert Steinberg

1 1/4 cups granulated sugar
1 cup heavy cream
5 ounces 99% unsweetened chocolate, finely chopped
8 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into smallish pieces
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

In a small saucepan combine sugar and cream and bring to a boil over medium heat, whisking every once in a while. Reduce heat and simmer for six minutes. Add chocolate and butter and whisk till smooth. Stir in vanilla. Let it cool, or don't. Attack with crusty bread.

Saturday, 2 May 2009

Craving Waits

It's May, and it's raining. Like, really raining.

But, it's still the first day of the farmer's market in Healdsburg, and occasion enough for the drive north from the city (not to mention that I haven't found a job yet, and a few hours of work in the stores will at least let me eat next week).

I just wanted to stop by and talk about goat for a moment. I'm pretty sure the first time I tasted goat was in London's Camden Market this past February. Steaming vats of goat curry (and I do mean vats - the woks were at least three feet in diameter) beckoned to me and my traveling companions. Even though it was eleven in the morning, the spicy goat was the perfect antidote to the lingering gin swimming in our heads from the previous night. We ate big bowls of the stuff, while wandering the rest of the market that was packed with bizarre vintage clothing, old suitcases and nicknacks, and cheap imported jewelry.

I liked the curry a lot, but it didn't start any kind of manic flurry to eat as much of it as possible as soon as possible, which often happens when I discover a new food I like. So my goat cravings didn't surface immediately. They sat back for a while, were appeased by lamb, but peaked when I saw goat for sale at the San Francisco Farmer's Market a few weeks ago.

And then this morning, through the waves of colored umbrellas bobbing through the two aisles of the farmer's market, I spotted Mateo's Yucatan Tamales. A tent over a simple kitchen where tortillas were being shaped and grilled, I could smell - through the rain and the wet cement - that something delicious was happening. There was a tamales menu, where I was tempted by the suckling pig, but then they pulled out a second menu, this one written in chalk, and leaned it against their table.

And right there - there was the goat. I didn't even read the whole description. I saw the words goat, eggs, and homemade tortillas, and ordered them right away.

While it was cooked, Mom and I sat under a second little tent at a long picnic table covered in bright plastic fruit and flower patterns. The scent of meat and spices drifted over to us, and by the time our plate arrived, we were salivating.

The plate was gorgeous: a handful of fresh arugula, a scattering of crispy radishes, a pile of dark spiced goat, a thick smear of black beans, and on top, a fried egg. On the side was a pile of palm-size corn tortillas and a bottle of yellow habanero sauce, house made.

Each taco was different as we wrapped bits of radish with goat and hot sauce, or egg with arugula and beans, or one little scoop of everything to taste it all at once. Like any good taco, each was messy and full of flavor, and by the end I had hot sauce on my chin and arugula in my teeth, and the smell of the corn from the tortillas has seeped into my fingers.

Although I love a standard steak taco from any old taqueria with the grilled meat and the fresh cilantro and the pico de gallo, these goat tacos were awesome little suckers, and it's hard to give the standard taco a fair trial next to them.

And here begins that manic flurry...