Monthly Archives: August 2007

My New Toy

Choy Sum

For the first time in my life, I am the proud owner of a digital camera. Yes, I was also the last person to get an Ipod, and back in the day, the last person to buy a CD player. Since I’m new to blogging and cameras in general, I didn’t want to get the fanciest camera around, so I went with the “good value for the money” camera, as opposed to the “so expensive it should come with the services of a professional chef to cook for your blog” camera.

But although relatively cheap, isn’t it great? Here’s a picture of some baby choy sum that I sauteed for dinner the other night with galangal and spring onions. Doesn’t it look as green as–hey what’s that on the bowl? A price tag?!? The whole world can see that I bought the bowl for $1.49 at TT’s market? Why didn’t I notice that before?

Oh well, I can take the price tag off and redo tomorrow. Oh, wait. Is there any choy sum left? No! I ate the rest for lunch today. Argh!

At least I have the consolation of knowing that even at its very worst, my food photography always looks more appetizing than this.

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Italian for Beginners

Sorbets
Six years ago, my sister and I went backpacking through Italy for a whirlwind ten days. Most of the stories of our trip would be familiar to anyone who has been to Rome, Florence and Venice in August: heat, crowds, long lines, great food, beautiful art. We did learn some valuable lessons, about travel, Italy and life, that, in the spirit of generosity, I will now share with you:

1) Don’t ever, ever leave anything of value in a car in an Italian city. Not even if the car is locked. Not ever if your friend’s cousin’s flaky friend who’s a tour guide at the Catacombs told you could because you were only popping to see the church for, like, 5 minutes. Don’t do it. Ever.

2) Don’t stay in hostels. Actually, this advice may not be universal. Let me revise: Don’t stay in hostels if you don’t appreciate being kicked out of your room at 10 am or even just need a day off from being a tourist. If you have to stay in a hostel, for heaven’s sake, stay in one with a kitchen. There is nothing more heartbreaking than going to fabulous Italian markets and not having anywhere to cook anything, not even to boil water for pasta.

3) Do allow your elder sister to bully you into carting 2 liters of water around a day. It’s hot and dry in Italy and you don’t want to have to pay 5 lire every time you get thirsty. If your back hurts from carrying around said bottles of water, don’t complain to your sister. Thirst makes her even more irritable.

4) Do not panic if you get trapped in a hot, stinking, airless toilet. The door will open if you unlock it.

5) Do have your sister who’s meeting you in Germany bring along a giant sized box of Lactaid. You will need it for all the gelato you will have once you get to Italy.

6) Do use the Banana Test. This is perhaps the most valuable lesson we learned, courtesy of the Let’s Go: Italy Travel Guide, 2000 edition. To quickly assess the quality of a gelateria, look at the banana flavored gelato. If it’s a warm, bright yellow color, walk away; it’s packed with artificial colors and flavors and probably has no banana in it. If the banana gelato is an unappealing grayish brown color, you have stumbled upon a reputable establishment. I have since employed the banana test in gelaterias and ice cream shops all around the world, and it never fails. Thanks to the Banana Test, my sister and I ate the most wonderful gelato every single day in Italy.

Most of the gelato has melted (pun intended) into the haze of our grand Italian vacay, but the memory of two particular scoops of sorbetto have stayed with me ever since. It was a day too hot to sightsee, too hot to even walk. Shut out of our hostel and thus the possibility of a siesta (see #2), we dragged ourselves from gelateria to gelateria examining Banana Gelatos. When we finally found one that passed the test, we were too hot, sticky and thirsty (my sister had finally rebelled against all the water carrying) for dairy-based confections to hold any appeal. Instead we turned to the sorbetto, my sister chose mango, I, coconut, and we traded cones every few licks. And therein was the revelation. While mango and coconut sorbets are each delicious on their own, together, they are like the best of couples, each magnifying the best of the other. The mango becomes more fruity and sensual; the coconut becomes creamier and nuttier against the acidity of the mango. Best of all, having two flavors that are so different avoids what I call the monotony problem with sorbet. Either flavor may be delicious and intense, but after a few licks, they start to taste the same. The mango and coconut, however, complement each other so well, that each flavor tastes even better when you return to it.

So when I borrow an ice cream maker last week, I knew that I would take the extra time to make two flavors of sorbet. I may be stuck in the US for a while, but my taste buds can go straight to Italy with two scoops of sorbet.

Mango Sorbet and Coconut Sorbet

I haven’t included the recipe for the mango sorbet because I basically lifted it off of this post with no innovation or adaptation of my own. I omitted the lime zest from the mango sorbet in the recipe because I wanted to keep the mango flavor as pure as possible.

Coconut Sorbet
This might possibly be the easiest recipe in the entire world.

1 c. water
¾ c. sugar
2 c. coconut milk*

1. Combine water and sugar and heat until sugar has dissolved.
2. Add coconut milk, strain and chill.
3. Freeze in ice cream maker.

*There is some confusion about coconut milk. I picked up a can at the grocery store the other day for a Thai curry and discovered, to my horror, that it was actually coconut water (the water inside the coconut), thickened with some sort of emulsifier and a whole lot of sugar. Use unsweetened coconut milk, it should just have coconut and water. Check the label; I wish I had.

* I actually found coconut cream, which is the first pressing of the coconut. It’s rather richer than coconut milk. I used 1 ½ c. coconut cream and ½ c. coconut milk. But whatever you do, it will be fine.

Sources: Chocolate and Zucchini, Making Food. Eating Food.

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In which I turn 30 and wrestle with a hunk of meat

Jerk and Rice
Birthdays march inexorably in life, whether we’re ready for them or not. This year, I was most certainly not ready. New city, new friends, new house, no furniture, and a milestone birthday just around the corner. But if you must turn 30 under these circumstances, the best thing to do is to grab the birthday by the collar and dare it to make you miserable.

I decided to throw a party, my first official birthday party in years with lots of beer, good food, and time spent outside. A potluck barbeque. I would provide the meat, friends would bring the sides. Nothing says welcome to my life like a great piece of meat.

Except that, as a recovering health nut and former vegetarian, I really didn’t know the first thing about how to barbeque a large hunk of meat. So I hit the books and the Cook’s Illustrated website. I decided on Jamaican jerk pork, inspired by this post and the idea of conviviality stoked by the lively, hot flavors of the Islands. Tradition has it that jerk was perfected by runaway slaves from West Africa, who hunted wild boar for sustenance, seasoned it with the wild herbs and spices from the hills of Jamaica, and roasted it in pits dug into the ground. Jerk marinades build on a foundation of Caribbean chives (usually replaced by scallions), thyme, scotch bonnet peppers and the all-important allspice berry. Jerk masters closely guard the secrets of their recipe, but common additions include garlic, ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, and soy sauce. For my marinade, I decided to stick with the basics, plus a healthy amount of garlic and a dash of soy sauce. I forwent the other dry spices in favor of a large dose of freshly toasted and ground all-spice. I tossed in a conservative three habanero peppers.

For the meat, I decided on a pork picnic shoulder. The shoulder meat of the pig is one of the toughest cuts, filled with muscle and connective tissue, but it’s also the most rewarding when slow-cooked for hours at a low temperature. While Boston butt seemed like it would have been a good choice, I went with the picnic. The skin, crisp and crackling is one of the best parts, according to Cook’s Illustrated. I also absolutely wanted the meat bone-in. The bone keeps the meat juicy and moist—one of the reasons why boneless chicken breast often tastes like saw dust.

Then came the challenge of procuring a locally-raised, skin-on, bone-in picnic shoulder. It’s not really the season, and every butcher I spoke to told me I could have one if I waited a month. I almost broke down and called Whole Foods when Clancy’s, makers of the best sausages I’ve ever had in my life, returned my call. “From one of our own suckling pigs: the most beautiful piece of meat you could ever ask for,” said the proud butcher.

The butcher had recommended I brine the meat. Soaking the meat in a salt water bath tenderizes the meat, ensures it remains juicy, and allows seasonings to penetrate deep into the meat. I tossed some crushed all-spice berries, a cup of sugar, and handfuls of garlic into the brine for good measure.

I was planning to cook the pork on a gas grill. Inauthentic they may be, but I didn’t want to be fiddling around with charcoal for the first time in my life with ten people coming over for dinner. Until a foodie friend mentioned that she had a smoker I could borrow. “I don’t know,” I hedged. “I’m not really that good with fire.” “Oh, it’s easy!” she responded. “Charcoal, newspaper, match. How hard could it be?”

Seduced by the promise of smoky flavor and tender, succulent meat, I borrowed the smoker. The day of the cookout dawned wet, cold, grey and miserable. Noon found me stooped over the chimney starter, poking wads of damp newspaper with matches as the 100% natural hardwood lump charcoal stubbornly refused to light. One hour later I was still at it.

Just when I was about to dissolve into tears and order out from Famous Dave’s, my friend called with wise council from her Barbeque Bible: “Roll a sheet of newspaper into a donut shape, as not to impede the flow of oxygen to the fire. If you need the newspaper to burn longer, moisten it with a little vegetable oil.” That did the trick.

Six hours later, guests arrived bearing bowls of cilantro inflected fruit salad, roasted potatoes, chana masala, rice salad, platters of chile-butter corn and the makings for mojitos. People gathered in the living room, talking, laughing, making friends, but getting hungrier all the time. Waiting for it to reach the spoon tender temperature of 190 with a house full of hungry people was just not an option. The smoky flavor of long cooked pork had been wafting all over the neighborhood for six hours, and it was driving me mad with hunger. I bunged it on a gas grill and turned up the heat. At 170 degrees, I gave up and took it off the fire.

Carving the Pork

The pork was delicious: the kind of meat that will invade your cravings at inconvenient times and places, like when it’s minus twenty degrees out, and the possibility of smoking is six months away. Smoky, succulent, juicy and flavorful down to the bone. The skin came off in charred, crisp bits that three friends picked at while I carved in the kitchen. The heat of the three haberneros was just barely discernable as a mild pleasant burn that intensified the smoky flavor. The real heat was in the sauce, the best combination of salty, sweet, herby and hot, with the bass note of warmth from the allspice. And yes, it was worth the days of research, the frantic race to the butcher, and the hours spent babysitting the charcoal fire.

And when you get to spend your birthday surrounded by new friends, great food, and a damn good piece of meat? You almost don’t mind turning 30.

Menu

Jamaican Jerk Pork
Island Red Beans and Rice
Several side dishes brought by talented friends
Mango and Coconut Sorbets

Jamaican Jerk Pork

For the brine:
1 picnic pork shoulder, skin on, bone-in (mine was 4 pounds because it was from a suckling pig, but the full sized hog will give you as much as 7 pounds)
1 cup salt
1 cup sugar
1 handful allspice berries, crushed in a mortar
1 head of garlic, cloves bruised in a mortar (no need to peel)

For the jerk rub:
5 bunches scallions
5 cloves garlic
scant ½ cup whole allspice berries, toasted until fragrant and ground in a spice grinder
2 tablespoons freshly ground pepper
2 tablespoons thyme
1-6 scotch bonnets or habanero chiles (I used three, but ended up wishing I had used more)
a squeeze of lime juice
a generous amount of salt (maybe 1.5 tablespoons)
soy sauce to moisten

For the sauce:
¼ cup distilled white vinegar
¼ cup brown sugar

1. Brine the pork: Using a sharp knife, lightly score the pork skin in a diamond pattern. Do not cut through to the meat below. Bring a few cups of water to a boil, then dissolve sugar and salt in the boiling water. Submerge pork in 3 quarts of water, using ice to bring the temperature of the water down. Add spice. Refrigerate and leave 18-24 hours.

2. Make the rub: In a blender, combine all ingredients except soy sauce in a blender. Add enough soy sauce so that the blender blades whir smoothly. If it seems like you are using too much soy sauce, add a little water, but be careful not to add too much. Process to a paste.

3. Marinade the pork: Anywhere from 1-6 hours before you start smoking, remove pork from brine, dry with paper towels. Rub as much marinade as possible in all the crevices on the pork, place in a baking dish, and return to the refrigerator. Store the remaining marinade in the fridge as well.

4. Smoke the pork: Build a charcoal fire, place coals in smoker. Remove pork from baking dish, reserving marinade in bottom of dish. Smoking time will depend on the weight of the shoulder. The butcher told me at least six hours for a 4 pound shoulder, a seven pound shoulder can take up to 12 hours. Leave lots of time for smoking! My smoker had a pan for water to help regulate the temperature, but I didn’t use this feature because I wanted to keep the skin crisp. The butcher warned me to keep the temperature around 200 degrees. There was no chance of it getting much higher than that, perhaps because of my inept ways with charcoal. Most of the time, the grill temperature hovered around 225 for me.

You can also smoke with an ordinary charcoal grill. Just pile the charcoal to one side, keep the pork on the other side, shield the pork with some aluminum foil and watch the grill temperature. (I bought a cheap grill thermeter for $10. )

5. Smoke until the pork reaches an internal temperature of 190 degrees for pull-apart tender pork, or as long as you can stand it. My pork was tender at 170, though it didn’t quite fall off the bone.

6. While the pork is smoking, make the sauce. Mix leftover rub with the vinegar and brown sugar. Boil until onions and garlic are cooked, about 5 minutes.

Island Red Beans and Rice

1 ½ c. dried red beans
3 c. rice (I used jasmine)
2 c. coconut milk
1 bunch scallions, chopped
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1 green chile, halved lengthwise
a generous sprinkle of salt

1. The night before, cover the bean in cold water and leave to soak.
2. Boil beans until tender, 1.5-2 hours. (You should be able to smash bean on the roof of your mouth with your tongue. When in doubt, keep cooking.)
3. Drain beans, reserving liquid. Measure reserved liquid, add coconut milk, plus enough water to make 5 cups.
4. Rinse rice and drain well. Add beans, coconut mixture, and remaining spices. Bring to boil.
5. When rice comes to boil, cover, reduce heat to low, and simmer 20 minutes.
6. After 20 minutes, turn off heat, leave rice undisturbed for 5 minutes before fluffing with a fork.

Sources: The Traveler’s Lunchbox, Cook’s Illustrated Website, How to Grill: The Complete Illustrated Book of Barbeque Techniques by Steven Raichlen, and the generous folks at Clancy’s Meat Market, Minneapolis, USA.
Carving the porkCarving the porkCarving the pork

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