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myMEGusta

Named for things that please me (“me gusta” in Spanish) and rhymes with balabusta (Yiddish for “good homemaker”).

Fondue!

Simmering Fondue in Gruyeres, Switzerland

It was a dark and stormy night, rather, noontime.

Normally a cause for tourists to be annoyed in July, the cool weather was a blessing for us in beautiful Gruyeres, Switzerland, because it was Fondue Day! And we got Raclette, too! But myMEGusta is getting ahead of herself.

Those of us of a certain age remember fondue parties, with fondue pots at wedding showers seeming to multiply like spoons in the sink.

Cheese fondue, a mélange of cheeses with some white wine, maybe a little mustard seasoning, was the most popular, eaten by dipping hunks of crusty bread on which impatient neophytes would always burn their tongues.

There was beef fondue, now pretty much unheard of, where little pieces of tenderloin were dipped into oil, then dipped in savory sauces. A cholesterol festival, if there ever was one.

Chocolate Fondue

And, who doesn’t love chocolate fondue, totally decadent but delish when made with really good, dark chocolate and excellent fruits in season.

Getting back to Switzerland, fondue is a genuine “local” food, not something created for tourists, but something the locals eat relatively rarely, and then, only in cold weather.

Raclette Bubbling

Raclette is a close relative, basically baked cheese which oozes and bubbles as it cooks and caramelizes.

It was no surprise to see fondue signs all over the place in Switzerland, but Chinese Fondue mystified myMEGusta (although not enough to stimulate her to order it).

Interestingly, and it makes sense, this dish is a local version of the traditional Mongolian Hot Pot, a simmering bowl of broth, in which thinly cut, tender meat slices are quickly cooked, then dipped in one’s favorite seasonings and sauces. Vegetables also simmer in the broth, maybe noodles as well, and it makes for a healthy, savory dinner. The oddly named Hometown Restaurant on Grand Street in NYC’s Chinatown serves a varied and delicious hot pot menu.

Asian Hot Pot

Lovers of Japanese food will recognize the similarity to shabu-shabu, the bubbling broth into which well marbled beef, from Kobe when you can find it, is plunged just long enough to barely cook it, then, like with Hot Pot, dipped in a soy/mirin based sauce. Yummy.

Once, on a trip to visit the snow monkeys of Nagano, Japan, the ryokan’s (inn’s) set dinner included a simmering hot pot (intended for vegetables or noodles or whatever) and beautiful sashimi from the local fresh water, an extremely risky thing for outsiders to eat due to potential parasites and such. Not wanting to cause the innkeepers to lose face, it was imperative to eat the fish. What to do? Sneak it into the hot pot to cook when they were not looking. And it was delicious.

Japanese Snow Monkeys

It is fun to think that parallel culinary universes developed in the Alps, in Mongolia, and in Japan, and no Marco Polo legends about why the similarities!

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The Joys of Summer: Salad Caprese

“No Italian would ever eat that. It’s an American invention.”

Caprese Salad at Ristorante Santa Eufemia, Verona, Italy

Thus was spoken with authority by a fellow traveler in Switzerland, and myMEGusta had no internet at her fingertips to prove him wrong. And he was insistent on the subject, even as she pointed out that the cuisine of Italy is hugely diverse, from the Alps to the toe, from Sicily to the deep interior.

Tomatoes with buttermilk mousse.

OF COURSE it is Italian, a classic from the Isle of Capri. This combination of tomatoes and mozzarella, with a daub of pesto or fresh basil leaves, is beloved, and a plateful of heaven when made with top ingredients. Also known as Tricolore, it is said to been created to resemble the Italian flag; more likely, the name came after people had come to love the flavor combination.

It is so popular that variations show up all over, like the addition of balsamic vinegar or serving on a bed of lettuce (gilding the lily, but harmless). One delicious combination found in a long-forgotten restaurant, but wonderful, was heirloom tomatoes with pesto and a buttermilk mousse (OK, not mozzarella, but a relative). Sometimes, herbed smooth cheese is substituted.

Tomato with herbed cheese, olive oil and basil, La Girolle, Grenoble, France

Coeur de Boeuf Tomatoes at Marche Ste Claire, Gernoble, France

No Italian would eat Styrofoam tomatoes and slabs of dry mozzarella (intended for adequate pizzas, not eating plain). But they, and the world, love the flavorful tomatoes of summer, whether from a backyard in Minnesota or a market in Munich. The most frequently seen in markets and on menus on a recent trip to France and Switzerland was the Coeur de Boeuf, or Beef Heart, tomato, as tasty as it is beautiful.

The mozzarella available now in the United States, if you shop carefullty, is light years better than it used to be.

The best mozzarella, IMHO, is the freshest:

Tomato with buratta, basil, olive oil, balsamico, Brasserie Chavant, Grenoble, France

It can be the bufala, made in Italy with the milk of water buffalos (no relation to the American bison of Yellowstone Park), oozy with a little tang. This is flown to the US, but can be hard to find and expensive.

It can be buratta, made fresh everywhere with a fresh mozzarella skin enveloping heavy cream and stracciatella cheese, exquisite and a super-caloric treat.

It can be freshly made, still warm fresh mozzarella from stores like Fratelli Market http://fratellimarketct.com/ in Stamford, CT, or on Arthur Avenue in the Bronx, where it is made continuously throughout the day.

Failing these options, the little “fresh” mozzarella balls you find in the supermarket will do in a pinch. Just stay away from the rubbery blocks whose only purpose is sit atop a bubbling pizza.

A Summertime Treat: Cold Asian Noodles

Soba Salad

Even if you’re avoiding carbs, it’s time to think about indulging in some refreshing Asian noodles in a light, zesty sauce.

Soba noodles, made with a mixture of buckwheat and regular flour (NOT for the gluten-free) are a really special summer treat. Readers of myMEGusta may recall an artlcle last summer about buckwheat: https://mymegusta.com/2016/07/28/pass-the-buckwheat .

Cold Soba with Dipping Sauce

Our favorite ways to enjoy soba noodles at this time of year (or at any time of the year, for that matter) are dipped in a tasty sauce found on the shelves of all Asian groceries, or in a salad, like they serve at Nippon Restaurant in NYC, offered with various garnishes. Both concepts are nice, light dishes in any case, served up either as a main course or as a little side dish.

Enthusiasts of Dr. Dukan or other low carb diet advocates may be familiar with shirataki noodles, made with potatoes and/or yams or tofu, and also known as harusame. Easy to prepare, these noodles can be found in supermarkets, usually in the refrigerated section near the produce department (the same area where hummus lives). One tip: Don’t attempt to freeze them, as they’ll disintegrate.

Harusame Noodle Salad

Gluten free, shirataki are beloved by carb-free and gluten-free dieters as a spaghetti substitute, and actually are reasonably satisfying in that context if one is desperate for a satisfying red sauce experience.

More traditionally, they are served with a light soy dressing, perhaps with chilis, lime juice, onions and peanuts over lettuce, as myMEGusta enjoyed recently at Haru Sushi in Manhattan’s Theater District http://harusushi.com/ .

Yes, you CAN try these at home!

Tofu Shirataki

Yam Shirataki

 

 

 

Getting a Dose of Dosas

Dosa at the Oberoi Rajvilas in Jaipur

This is the story of a pancake.

Think of a giant, crispy crepe, made of rice and lentil flours, stuffed with a savory filling, and always made to order. It started as a food for South India’s vegetarian masses, and became so popular that it is now served all over the country, whether as a breakfast offering in some India’s (and the world’s) best hotels, or on the streets of Varanasi, the mystical destination for religious pilgrims on the shores of the Ganges.

Street Dosa Maker in Varanasi

In the delightful novel, Selection Day (by Aravind Adiga), a Bombay slum dweller seeks to claw his family’s way out of poverty by molding one of his two sons into a star cricket player. The boys are forbidden to eat dosas, although it is unclear whether this is because of street food sanitation or carbs (most likely the latter); one son sneaks them from time to time and becomes a star anyway.

At the start of a group tour of India, myMEGusta was the only one eating this exotica at breakfast (in lovely hotels, not on the street). Then came odd gazes and comments like, “Hey, that looks good. What it is?” After 18 days, dosas were being savored by fellow travelers throughout dining room every morning.

Dosa at the Leela Palace in Delhi

The thin, rolled pancake is pretty much empty at the outer edges, with all the stuffing, usually spicy onions and potatoes, in the center. Start adding the accoutrements – a thin but chunky vegetable stew, spicy tomato sauce(s), and coconut chutney – one is quite challenged to eat this dribbly treat without making quite the mess. But, myMEGusta had never seen anyone eating it otherwise, whether in a New York restaurant or in the hotels, all tourists struggling with knife and fork.

Then, voila, came the great revelation at Navaratna, a fantastic vegetarian Indian (kosher) restaurant in Stamford, CT, where the clientele is primarily Indian businessmen and families (with a sprinkling of good eaters who keep kosher). http://www.navaratnact.com/ A dosa had to be sampled soon after my return from the sub-continent, just to see how the local rendition would compare with the wonderful breakfasts in India.

Dosa at the Vivanta Hotel, Cochin in Kerala

Two big news flashes: The flavors at Navaratna were actually more exciting than in all those fancy places that catered (deliciously, by the way) to tourists. And, the proper way to eat it is with one’s right hand, no utensils. It was amazing how easy it was to rip off a little crispy pancake and grab up some of the filling and sauces. Who knew?

This is one thing that myMEGusta is not about to make at home, particularly given the proximity of Navaratna, but you can get the pancake mix in an Indian grocery store, and the fillings would be time consuming but not difficult to make, assuming that you start with top quality, authentic ingredients from that same source.

Paella, The Heavenly Rice Dish of Spain

Paella!

When trips to Spain are coming up, myMEGusta’s thoughts turn to paella.

Paella at Madrid’s Mercado de San Miguel

Paella on the beach! Paella in the moonlight (the locals do dine late)!

Pronounced pah-eh-yah, not pah-LAY-lee-yah, this mélange of rice and meats and/or seafood and/or vegetables transcends the idea of chicken and rice. It’s usually made with special paella rice, akin to the Arborio rice used in risotto. It is always cooked uncovered, and the quality of the ingredients (e.g. really good stock, the proper rice, fresh seafoods and such) and the sequence in which they are added make a huge difference. The “socarrat,” crisped rice at the edges and on the bottom of the pan, is an important part of the delicacy, and servers make sure everyone gets some.

Costa Brava Paella at Etapes in Barcelona

Like the great pasta dishes of Italy, paellas reflect local ingredients.

The best known type, from Valencia, is traditionally made with chicken and snails, although you won’t find the latter is most modern renditions outside of the city. Paella originated here, a major rice growing area, and was named for the unusual pan in which it is cooked, the “paellera.”

The owner of Etapes, a favorite Barcelona restaurant (http://www.etapes.cat/en/) , warns customers that theirs is the “local” paella, Costa Brava style, not the Valencian. I was delighted with this shellfish rendition – hefty shrimps, razor and cherrystone clams and mussels – from the seaside region northwest of Barcelona.

Black Paella at Madrid’s Mercado San Miguel

Then there is black paella, made with squid ink and shellfish. It sounds odd, looks odder, and is an exquisite creation that sings of the sea. Lovers of risotto nero, an Italian relation, will also adore this dish.

Paella, made correctly, is such a production that most of what is consumed in Spain is purchased ready-made at the market, like in this photo from Madrid’s Mercado de San Miguel (two versions!) or from paella specialist caterers. Outside of Spain, you’ll find superb examples at places like Borough Market in London.

Paella at London’s Borough Market

One restaurant in Barcelona’s Las Ramblas market specializes in paella, which you watch cooking through a window, and it is on this year’s must-try list.

Paella Simmering in the Restaurant Window

Ambitious home cooks do make it, and my MEGusta has enjoyed a superb example, which took hours to create, in the home of Minnesotan friends.

And, there are festivals, large groups of people gathering late into the night to indulge in paella made in super giant paella pans on wheels. (You cannot make this up: The pan’s diameter was as wide as the man was tall.) The fixin’s for this “fideua,” a pasta based variation on paella, were in view from the sidewalk, mountains of dried egg noodles and other ingredients that were just being organized for a VERY late night feast. Maybe this is where the idea for Rice-A-Roni came from?

Giant Paella Pan

Fresh Minty Bevvies

Saturday, May 6, is Kentucky Derby Day, a time for celebration among horse lovers and an excuse to pull out the fresh mint!

Actually, it’s always a good time to enjoy fresh mint. The best will come from farm markets when they open in a few weeks here in New England, but good produce departments and ethnic, especially Indian, markets have it year round.

Mint Julep

The Mint Julep used to be the most famous drink utilizing fresh mint. It also incorporates sugar and bourbon, traditionally served in a silver or pewter cup with lots of crushed ice. Some people muddle the mint and sugar together (releasing the mint aromas), others make a syrup, and lots of folks serve it in a regular rocks or cocktail glass. Thousands of these will be served in Louisville, KY, on Saturday, and race viewers will join them in hoisting this treat as they watch the race televised around the world.

The most popular mint drink today is the Mojito, a Havana, Cuba, native, and very similar to the Mint Julep. It’s a little time consuming to make it right (and why bother if not?). First you take perfect mint leaves, washed, then put into a glass with sugar. Muddle them together, not long enough to destroy the leaves, add rum and fresh lime juice, add club soda, add ice and garnish with a sprig. One fine day, when lime prices go back down, it will make sense again to garnish with lime slices as well, but this is cosmetic, not adding flavor, so can be skipped.

Mojito

It is said that this was a favorite libation of Ernest Hemingway, but this may be apocryphal, made up by a restaurant he frequented or by other promoter in history.

Recipes for both cocktails are plentiful on the internet. Just beware of sponsored sites supported by brands other than good bourbons and rums, as they’ll tell you to use the wrong spirit, which might (or might not) be tasty, but will definitely not be authentic.

Muddled Mint Leaves

Don’t be daunted by the term “muddling”! This simply means that you smash the leaves around a bit, the sugar providing the texture to bruise the leaves a little. And, you don’t need to buy a muddling tool, which does make it easier, and also sets you up to make a traditional Old Fashioned, a bourbon drink with crushed fruit. You can use a spoon with nearly as good results.

A wonderful, non-alcoholic use of fresh mint is simply to infuse in hot water, and have mint tea, which is a step above what is made with ubiquitous tea bags.

If you have bought a bunch of mint leaves, and it’s just too much for the amount of Juleps or Mojitos (or Indian recipes) you are making, you may be able to root the sprigs. Simply put the stems into water, set on a window sill, and wait. If you are lucky, they will root, and you can pot or transplant to the garden. If not, have some more Mojitos next week, or the week after, as the mint will stay in great shape.

One safety note on these mint drinks: It’s a raw vegetable, and treat it as such if you are tempted to order one in any location where the water quality would cause you to avoid eating salads.

The World’s Remotest Island: Tristan de Cunha

Tristan de Cunha

Inhabited by just over 200 people (islanders as well as expatriates), this jewel of a volcanic island lies in the choppy South Atlantic 1750 miles (translation: 4 – 6 days by ship) from Cape Town, South Africa. And, just because you reach Tristan de Cunha doesn’t mean that you’ll actually get there; the seas are so rough that landing is often denied to casual visitors. The only way to travel by air is if your ship happens to have a helicopter.

It is visited several times a year by commercial vessels, e.g. boats to pick up the island’s specialty and financial bedrock, Tristan Rock Lobsters, as well as the occasional mail boat, cruise liner or yacht.

Tristan Rock Lobster

The economy is built on these “crayfish”, sustainably fished and shipped around the world. The Tristanians have harvested this bounty of the cold ocean responsibly since time immemorial, recognizing that what was once their main food staple (with potatoes) can continue to thrive only if they do so, with limits on what is caught commercially and even for family consumption.

Fishing Boats

Speaking with Constable Conrad (“Connie”) Glass on board Le Lyrial, a French cruise liner crossing from Ushuaia (Argentina) to Cape Town, myMEGusta learned about life on the island (“We respect each others’ differences. It’s a very small village but we are very independent people.”)

Having hitched a ride on the ship, Connie and his wife were en route to the Cape Town police academy for some advanced law enforcement classes. (“Crime” in Tristan is limited to occasional petty theft and DUI arrests.) He was thrilled to be on this yacht-style cruise ship with his wife, as journeys to/from Tristan de Cunha usually involve far less elegant accommodations (not to mention food bearing no resemblance to the Alain Ducasse designed menus on Le Lyrial).

We passengers were actually the lucky ones, as we had the benefit of meeting him, and hearing his talks about life on the island.

Connie shared his thoughts about favorite local preparations of the “crayfish”: Thermidor (with a mayonnaise/tomato sauce), in a chowder-like soup with potatoes, and in tarts with a different mayonnaise sauce.

Tristan’s other staple food is the potato, used in myriad ways, descended from some of the first potatoes that crossed the Atlantic from South America. There wasn’t a potato to be seen in the supermarket (more like a general store), because the islanders get them directly from the potato patch farmers. Because flour is an import (which can run out), Tristanian cooks have learned to use spuds creatively, for example in pie crusts. Perhaps in the crayfish tart?

Alas, myMEGusta didn’t get to taste anything.

Here are two links which readers may enjoy. Link from them amd you’ll find out more about the island and its really interesting history):

A very accurate description of Le Lyrial’s visit:

http://www.tristandc.com/news-2017-03-17-Le-Lyrial.php

More information about the lobsters and their processing:

http://www.tristandc.com/news-2017-02-28-schoolfactoryvisit.php

Tristan Rock Lobster for Sale in London

“The World’s Finest Lobster”

Poutine – The comfort food of Northeastern Canada

Poutine

Everyone loves a perfect French fry, right? And a dollop of tasty cheese? Not to mention a drizzle of your favorite brown sauce (maybe Grandma’s at Thanksgiving)? Well, put them together, and you have poutine, the classic Quebecoise dish of French fries doused in cheese and gravy.

Of course, if the exercise starts with soggy French fries, dull cheese and bad gravy, it reverts to being something that can pass only as a comfort food for those who crave it for some non-gustatory purpose.

Poutine is ubiquitous in Canada, particularly in the Northeast, turning up in even fancy restaurants, the way a perfect specimen of a grilled cheese sandwich might turn up as a garnish with a plate of some esoteric tomato concoctions in an upscale joint in NYC. It was actually quite delish when myMEGusta tasted it in that context at one of those places in Toronto a few years ago.

Poutine with Lobster

The Poutinerie

Visiting a very posh banking district in London last year, we stumbled upon an outdoor food court type of place catering to yuppie workers stepping away from their computers for a quick lunch break. Among the stands for scotch eggs and other such “comfort foods” was La Poutinerie, and their fare looked tasty, indeed, including “original”, with rib meat, spicy and vegetarian versions.

Poutine potato chips

On the other end of the spectrum was Vancouver’s MegaBite Pizza, next to a McDonald’s, featuring this Canadian classic aside pizza and wings. No, we did not sample this one. There are even Poutine flavored potato chips.

Getting back to Northeastern Canada, a shipboard lunch companion and New Brunswick, Canada, native recently joked, as he poured some gravy over a bowl of French fries, “I am making my own poutine!” He went on to describe that his family’s poutine is an entirely different animal: cheese and gravy stuffed in to potatoes then deep fried, sounding almost like a croquette. Not the topic one expects to explore while dining on a French boat in the middle of the South Atlantic Ocean.

Puffy Puris Popcorn Popovers and Pommes Souffles

It’s all hot air. Hot steam, to be exact. But what delicious results!

Puris AKA Pooris

Puris AKA Pooris

Popovers

Popovers

These starchy treats from all over have one thing in common: They became puffy because of trapped moisture which exploded and the starch quickly solidified. And it’s universal, from street food for the poor in India to elegant French restaurants, from mum’s home cooking in England to theaters.

Popcorn

Popcorn

Everyone knows about popcorn, but consider Yorkshire pudding, known in the United States as popovers. This is simply a batter which holds together as it quickly rises, making a crispy outer shell filled with steam. Visit any British supermarket, and you’ll find bins of them in the frozen food section.

Two of myMEGusta’s favorite steamy/crusty treats are Indian puris, also known as pooris, and French pommes soufflés.

Making puris

Making puris

The former is truly a poor man’s food, a simple, whole grain bread which delivers an extra wallop of calories (and flavor!) by being fried. You’ll find this humble bread as an a la carte option in many of the world’s finest Indian restaurants, as well as a staple among the poorest of the poor, sometimes accompanied by a stew (meat or vegetable) and serving as a main meal.

A recent street puri sighting was in Udaipoor, Rajasthan, India, on the day of a Hindu festival during which it was especially important for believers to give to the poor. At one temple, a group was gathered making large pots of (VERY appealing looking and smelling) curry, while a man sat nearby cranking out hundreds of puris in anticipation of the meal to come.

On the other end of the spectrum, although very similar in appearance, is the soufflé potato. Having nothing to do with the traditional eggy soufflé, these are simply twice fried disks of potato which puff up to elegant crispness. Rarely found outside of restaurants, pommes soufflés are time consuming and really messy to make, but OH SO good. Curious readers can find several good how-to videos can be found on YouTube.

Pommes Souffles with Steak at Cabana Las Lilas

Pommes Souffles with Steak at Cabana Las Lilas

One of myMEGusta’s favorite restaurants in Buenos Aires, Argentina, is La Cabana Las Lilas in the Puerto Madero district, a classic parilla specializing in wood grilled meats of all sorts. What makes this dining experience really special is their signature pommes soufflés, perfectly executed every time. http://restaurantlaslilas.com.ar/EN/

Perky Peppercorns

We all know that the ubiquitous black pepper grinds have nothing to do with bell or chili peppers, right? (*Scroll down if you don’t…)

But, did you know that black peppercorns originated in Kerala State in Southern India, where they still grow wild? Vietnam is now the leading global producer/exporter of traditional peppercorns, but they are still a very important crop where they first grew.

Peppercorns

Peppercorns

Peppercorns on the vine in India

Peppercorns on the vine in India

On a recent visit to the village of Komarakom, situated in the middle of a giant rice paddy and Lake Ashtamudi, the largest in India, myMEGusta saw peppercorn vines slinking up trees, looking very innocuous, although the unripe, green corns are very powerful (which she learned a few years ago dining on a green peppercorn garnished Thai Curry in Bangkok, and won’t make that mistake again).

The green corns mature and are dried to make this very familiar spice. But what about the other kinds of peppercorns?

Green Peppercorns

Green Peppercorns

White peppercorns are merely regular ones whose hulls have been removed. They have a slightly different flavor than the black, but are mostly used when a dish, such as a French Bechamel (white sauce) would suffer cosmetically from black flecks.

Dried green peppercorns are less common (and not a myMEGusta favorite), but can be found at retailers such as www.penzeys.com . They are also available packed in brine.

Szechuan Peppercorns

Szechuan Peppercorns

Szechuan peppercorns, or numbing peppers, are not peppercorns at all, rather an unrelated species, and it is the “pericarp” or exterior hull which is used in cooking, and as an ingredient in classic Chinese Five Spice powder.

Pink peppercorns are natives to South America, and are the dried berries the Brazilian and Peruvian pepper trees, not remotely related to any of the other peppers.

Pink Peppercorns

Pink Peppercorns

They all play together nicely in spice blends which make for an interesting grind on some dishes if you’re looking for a change from the everyday. A four pepper blend will contain black, white, green and pink; the five pepper blend usually contains allspice, not a pepper at all but tasty.

Mixed Peppercorns

Mixed Peppercorns

But, please don’t ask myMEGusta if she wants “fresh ground pepper”! What is that, instead of the stale stuff you usually serve?

*The vegetable peppers, ranging from paprika peppers in Hungary to Italian peppers to mild green/red/yellow peppers to fiery Indian dried chiles, are native to the Americas, and are part of the culinary diaspora started by Christopher Columbus. Like potatoes, they were eventually embraced throughout the Old World, to the degree that most people (including people who live there) do not know that they are imports.

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