Friday, June 29, 2012

This Month's Flavor: India

Surging in popularity throughout the world is the colorful and flavorful influences of Indian cuisine.  Its tantalizing tapestry of spices, combined with a palette of culinary influences from various regions and cultures, offers a unique dining experience.  Thankfully, rest assured, temples of doom serving up banquet menus of eyeball soup, chilled monkey brains and snake surprise are not among those influences.

A long history of regional and cultural interactions has resulted in the Indian menu that we know today.  Spice trade between this south Asian nation and Europe is often credited with the prompting of Europe’s Age of Discovery – a delicious discovery at that, given the vast assortment of regional Indian spices, vegetables and herbs. 

Religious practices have also influenced the dishes presented from the Indian kitchen.  Hinduism resulted in the prevalence of vegetarianism in India.  While many households will consume poultry and seafood, the sacred standing of cattle among those adhering to strict Hindu culture renders beef taboo from their ingredient list.   Even Indian restaurant menus around the world rarely list beef.

Frequently used spices in Indian cuisine include chili pepper, mustard seeds, turmeric, cumin, ginger, ground coriander and garlic.  Garam masala is a mix of five or more spices that usually includes cinnamon, cloves and cardamom.  Every region in India boasts its own unique blend for garam masala.

Among herbs, coriander leaves, fenugreek and mint are all typically used in the Indian kitchen.  Nutmeg, rose petal essences, saffron and coconut are used to infuse another dimension of flavor; and ingredients such as peanuts, cashews, raisins and toasted coconut are often used as garnishes.

Pulses, a group of legumes that includes lentils, chick peas, pigeon peas and mung beans, are another staple of Indian cooking, as well as basmati rice.

It is astounding how many individuals I know personally who have yet to sample Indian fare.  The first statement of trepidation I hear from most of them is “Oh, isn’t Indian food really hot?  I don’t like spicy food!”  While some Indian dishes do indeed rank high on the heat index, not all of them result in profuse perspiration and frantic water consumption.  Indian food is almost always spicy, as in flavored with spices.  Not all Indian food is spicy as in hot, however.  Which leads into the next excuse of “I wouldn’t even know what to order!” Dishes vary dramatically across India, influenced not only by culture, but also by economics, season and geographic locations set by proximity to sea, mountain or dessert.  In other words, there is something on every Indian restaurant menu to satisfy every taste.

Among the popular entrees to be found on the menu in most Indian restaurants within the U.S. are curry, tika masla, korma, vindaloo and tandoori, all of which may be prepared with chicken or lamb.  Korma is my personal favorite; defined as a rich and creamy curry embellished with nuts and raisins.  Korma is a milder curry, one I would recommend for the faint-palated.  If you feel adventurous and want to sample a little more heat, a vindaloo may be the way to go.  Tika masala is tomato-based and contains various spices and fenugreek.  Tandoori is a yogurt-based spice marinade for meats.  Tandoori chicken is an easy grilling dish for home BBQ cooks.  I have prepared most of these at home.  Biriyani, another alternative that I would recommend to those who can’t take the heat, is a rice entrée containing basmati rice, chicken or lamb, mild spices, vegetables, raisins and nuts. 

Side dishes and accompaniments that I would recommend to anyone new to the scene of sampling Indian foods include saag paneer, which is basically cooked spinach with cheese, naan, which is an unleavened bread that is baked in a tandoor oven, sometimes prepared with onion or garlic, and basmati rice with peas or any other rice pilaf whose menu description appeals to your senses. 

Although I am a dedicated wine drinker, I personally prefer beer to imbibe with Indian fare.  For those preferring a non-alcoholic option, the lassi is a traditional Indian beverage that is yogurt based, blended with milk, spices and additional flavors of fruit such as mango.  Tea is a staple beverage in Indian, particularly Darjeeling tea.

Enjoy my version of chicken curry, in which I use ingredients that you can purchase in any supermarket.   The result is creamy and not spicy hot.

Chicken Curry
8 chicken thighs
3 tablespoons peanut oil
1 onion, chopped
1 package fresh sliced white button mushrooms
1 green bell pepper, diced
2 garlic cloves, minced
4 teaspoons curry powder
¼ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 cup chicken stock
1 large apple, such as Granny Smith, peeled, cored and diced
2 tablespoons flour
1 cup heavy cream
1/3 cup raisins
1/3 cup peanuts
1 cup uncooked basmati rice
2 cups water

Place the basmati rice into a fine mesh sieve and rinse the rice under running water in the sink for about a minute.  Allow to drain. 

Heat 2 tablespoons of the peanut oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat.  Place the chicken in the skillet and cook until both sides have browned.  Remove the browned chicken from the skillet and set aside.

Add the onion, peppers, mushrooms and garlic to the skillet and sautee until the onions are translucent.  Stir in the curry powder, salt and cinnamon.  Cook and stir until fragrant, about 30 seconds.  Stir in the chicken stock and the apple, then return the chicken to the skillet.  Bring the mixture to a boil, reduce the heat, cover the skillet and simmer for about twenty minutes or until the juices from the chicken run clear when pierced with a sharp knife.

Meanwhile, bring 2 cups of water to a boil in a medium saucepan.  Stir in the rice, reduce heat, cover saucepan and simmer for twenty minutes or until the rice is tender and all water has been absorbed.  Check the rice periodically.  If the liquid gets absorbed before the rice is tender, add more water.

Once the chicken is cooked, remove the thighs and arrange them on a deep serving platter.  Place the flour into a 2 or 4-cup glass measuring cup.  Add one ladle full of the stock from the skillet.  Whisk vigorously until the flour has been blended smoothly into the liquid.  Add the cream to the measuring cup and continue to whisk until well incorporated.  Gently stir the mixture into the skillet.  Cook and stir until the sauce is thickened and bubbly.  Remove from heat.  Stir in the raisins and peanuts and then pour the sauce over the chicken.  Once the basmati rice is cooked, transfer to a serving bowl.  Serves four.

For a quick and simple weekday dish with a touch of Indian flare, keep a jar of garam masala spice blend in your pantry.  This cuts time because all of the spices have already been measured and combined.  Then all you need to do is slice some zucchini, maybe some chopped red onion and minced garlic and sautee it all in a skillet with some peanut oil or butter and a couple of teaspoons of the garam masala.  You could also add shrimp or cubed boneless chicken breast or thigh to the mix.  Serve it over some basmati rice and there’s dinner in twenty minutes!  If you make a super market stop on the way home to buy the shrimp, pick up a Naan bread from the bakery or bread aisle.

Food For Thought

Linens beware!  A word of warning about turmeric: this spice is often used in Indian cooking, one of the requisites when preparing a tandoori marinade, it imparts that golden yellow hue to food.  It also imparts a neon yellow forever stain into any material that touches it.  It does not wash out, ever.  It will stain some countertops as well.  Serve that meal on an old tablecloth that you never really liked too much anyway, or on a t-shirt that your young child has been begging you to tie-dye, the splashy-splotchy effect will be even more groovy than that of the traditional method.  Conclusion: if you’re a sloppy cook, get the meticulous neat nick in your household to do the cooking that night, and ban from the kitchen all towels, potholders, clothing (naked cooking, folks, I bet some people do it all the time!) and white cats and dogs who are eager to assume their usual roles as sous-chef. 

Monday, June 18, 2012

It's Easy Eating Green!

It’s Easy Eating Green!

‘It ain’t easy being green,’ declared the infamous amphibian Muppet.  Perhaps if his diet had consisted of summer’s fresh green vegetables that are so simple to prepare, he would have had less to complain about.  It IS easy eating green when farm stands are about to bust at the seams with freshly harvested produce radiating every shade of green that you can recall from your childhood mega-sized box of crayons.  While Muppets and Crayolas may evoke positive memories of your youth, it is time to cast aside another set of recollections, the negative ones, the ones that insist to this day that you abhor vegetables! 

Now that most of you have presumably grown up, it is time to introduce the flavors and textures of green vegetables into your diet.  For years, many Americans shunned the concept.  Considering the way vegetables were typically prepared during the early twentieth century, that was understandable.  They were unappetizing, smelled bad and tasted worse.  That’s what happens when you boil all color, crunch and nutrients out of anything.  When broccoli has been cooked until the verdure is no longer bright and alive, resembling the shade of your Dad’s old army fatigues, and it has been broken down into a mushy substance that requires little chewing, it really can’t taste appealing either.

Luckily, in a growing awareness and quest to eat healthier than our ancestors, we have learned to prepare vegetables in a way that maintains their original color, flavor and texture.  Today’s youth is more accepting of vegetable consumption when no longer faced with unpalatable variations.  We now embrace the entire spectrum of bounty the whole year through, but what better time to get better acquainted with produce than the present, during a season that offers a vast array of choices.

Some of summer’s starring green vegetables includes spinach, green beans, sugar snap peas, asparagus and zucchini.  During the colder months, roasting vegetables is a savory option as the cooking process imparts a tasty caramelizing facet to eggplant, winter squash, fennel, beets, carrots, etc.  Ninety-degree days are not conducive to firing up a beastly hot oven, however.    Luckily, delicate fresh summer vegetables lend themselves best to light steaming, grilling, sautéing and incorporation into salads. 

While the occasional elaborately prepared vegetable with a saucy accompaniment is certainly enjoyable, vegetables really require minimal fuss, rendering them perfect weekday side dishes.  Green beans and asparagus are perfect when steamed just long enough that a knife can pierce through without resistance, yet the color is still a lively jade or emerald.  A light sprinkling of sea salt provides just the right finishing touch.  Both vegetables can be enjoyed this way with healthy dining in mind.  You may wish to add a little something on occasion to boost the flavor experience and change things up.  Since asparagus and lemon are a winning pair, whisk together some extra-virgin olive oil, salt, pepper and finely grated lemon zest and pour the mixture over the steamed asparagus.  For the green beans, toss them with a drizzle of hazelnut oil and some toasted hazelnuts.

Sugar snap peas and zucchini are ideal for sautéing.  Sugar snap peas do require a bit of prep work.  The stem end needs to be snipped off, and a ‘string’ that runs the length of the pea needs to be peeled off.  It sounds tedious, but it’s really not that labor intensive and it goes quickly.  Put some favorite music on.  My favorite way to enjoy sugar snap peas is to sauté them in sesame oil and then toss with either black or white sesame seeds.  For occasional flare I’ll add some cashews to the mix.  It is imperative to fight any tendencies toward attention deficit disorder and stay focused when sautéing sugar snap peas – they cook FAST!  They should not brown, they should stay a vibrant jewel-toned green and they should remain a little crisp.  Remember, these can be consumed raw in salads or with dips, so very little cooking is needed here.  The sautéing is more to warm them up and impart the sesame oil.  Zucchini can be thinly sliced crosswise – use a food processor, you have better things to do with a beautiful day outside – and then sautéed in olive oil with a hefty amount of minced garlic.  For an occasional dimension of heat, toss in a few crushed red pepper flakes.

Spinach can be savored raw, as a palette for salads, or sautéed.  As spinach wilts under the heat of the sauté pan, it shrinks considerably.  My rule of thumb says that approximately six ounces of fresh spinach leaves will yield one serving of cooked spinach.  If you’re cooking spinach for a family of four, that’s going to look like a frighteningly enormous mountain of spinach!  It will shrink dramatically, I promise!  You will likely need to cook that amount in two batches.  Simply sauté in olive oil in a large, deep pot until the leaves have all been well wilted, but still bear a bright hunter green hue.  Season with salt and pepper and the spinach can be eaten as is.  For added flavor enhancements, remove the pot from the heat as soon as all of the spinach is cooked.  With the spinach still in the pot, stir in hazelnut oil, salt, pepper and Dijon mustard.

Zucchini is also fabulous off the grill.  It can be sliced lengthwise into slabs and then grilled, or it can be cut into chunks and threaded onto skewers, alone or with other vegetables and/or meats.

Other green vegetables to appear on the scene of fresh summer crops include lettuces, cucumbers and green bell peppers.  Here is my recipe for a green salad that showcases several of summer’s best green ingredients.  To keep it healthy, a drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil and a sprinkle of sea salt is all it needs for dressing.  Since I only take healthy dining so far – hey, I am eating my vegetables, aren’t I? – I love this salad with Brian’s homemade creamy garlic dressing.

Summer Green Salad (4 servings)
1 head romaine lettuce, sliced crosswise into 2-inch pieces
2 green bell peppers, cored and cut into 1-inch squares
8 ounces sugar snap peas, ends trimmed and strings removed
1 hothouse cucumber, halved lengthwise, seeded, then cut crosswise into ½ inch slices
1 head broccoli, cut into bite-sized florets
1 ½ cup mayonnaise
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
3 tablespoons white vinegar
1 tablespoon sugar
3 large cloves garlic
2 tablespoons assorted chopped herbs (i.e. Basil, oregano, sage, rosemary)
salt and pepper to taste

Working in 2-4 batches, layer the romaine, green pepper, sugar snap peas, cucumber and broccoli.  Place all remaining ingredients in a food processor and process until smooth.  Pour the dressing over the salad and top with freshly cracked black pepper.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Ingredient of the Month: Strawberries

It’s berry season once again, when those luscious jewel-toned gems abound in the gardens and adorn cheesecakes.  Ruby red raspberries and sapphire-hued blueberries are also colorful confetti for garnishing summer salads, as well as nutrient-packed additions to your morning cereal.  Blackberries are also bursting with juicy flavor, offering a nice alternative topping for panna cotta.  In a couple of months, I will delight in bringing forth some tasty ideas to highlight berries in general.  However, in light of numerous signs cropping up outside of every farm beckoning all to pick strawberries to their craving’s content, this time let us focus on this ever most popular berry of them all.

Strawberries are actually members of the rose family, and have grown wild throughout North and South America as well as Europe.  It was not cultivated until the thirteenth century.  From there, the strawberry we know and love commonly today did not evolve until centuries of cross breeding. The result originated in the Brittany region of France during the 1750s from a combination of the wild Virginia strawberry and a Chilean specimen.  This hardy, juicy, red, cone-shaped berry offers us a flavor that is so coveted that it is now infused into everything, from ice cream to beverages to cereals.

While strawberries are available in supermarkets all year round, the peak time for picking strawberries here in the northeast is from April through June.  Smaller berries are more flavorful, larger ones tend to taste watered down.  Opt for bright, crimson-hued berries with their leafy green caps still attached; select those that are firm and plump, leave the mushy or shriveled ones behind.  Once purchased, plan to consume these late spring delicacies within two days.  Many farm stands that offer pick your own strawberries also vend jars of strawberry jam and preserves, as well as freshly baked strawberry rhubarb pies.

If you have a green thumb, you may want to consider adding strawberry plants to your garden plot, as they are easy to grow and hardy enough to endure most conditions worldwide.  Long Island is a perfect locale, as they do prefer sandy soil.  Keep plants well watered and protect developing fruit from birds and other hungry critters.  Strawberries can also be planted in pots, either hanging baskets or the aptly named strawberry jar pot.

Strawberries are often added to dairy products, such as ice cream, yogurt and milkshakes.  There is something so sweetly delicious about strawberry-flavored consumables.  One of my favorites is the Starbuck’s strawberry cream Frappuccino, sort of the grownup’s variation of the strawberry milkshake or the Quik strawberry milk!  Strawberries can also be made into preserves, jams and ice cream topping sauces.  When dried, they can be added to baked goods and cereals.  In their simplest, whole form, strawberries can be decadent when dipped in chocolate, lightly sprinkled with turbinado sugar or drizzled with mascarpone whipped cream.   Sliced or whole, they’re stunning confetti when dropped over cheesecakes or cereal.

Here is a recipe for a dessert that is a welcome happy ending to the meal, in that it is simple to prepare and doesn’t require firing up the oven.  This is panna cotta, which is an Italian custard, in this case vanilla flavored, that is topped with a strawberry coulis and sliced strawberries.

Almond Panna Cotta with Strawberries

Non-stick cooking spray
1 ½ cups whole milk
1 packet (4 teaspoons) unflavored gelatin powder (such as Knox)
½ cup sugar
1 ½ cups heavy cream
½ teaspoon Madagascar bourbon vanilla extract
½ teaspoon pure almond extract
¼ cup sliced almonds
2 cups strawberries, hulled
3 tablespoons confectioners’ sugar
½ teaspoon fresh lemon juice
6 strawberries, hulled and thinly sliced lengthwise

Lightly spray the bottoms and sides of four ¾ cup-sized custard cups with the non-stick cooking spray and set aside.

In a medium saucepan, pour 1 cup of the milk and then sprinkle the gelatin powder over the milk.  Allow to sit for 3-5 minutes, the gelatin should swell.  Place the saucepan over medium heat, add the remaining milk and sugar, and stir constantly until the sugar and gelatin have dissolved.  As soon as this has occurred, remove the saucepan from the heat and stir in the heavy cream, vanilla and almond extracts until well blended.  Carefully pour the mixture into the four prepared cups, dividing evenly (I like to pour the mixture into a large glass measuring cup first, the spout allows for easier pouring into the small custard cups, but work quickly!).  Cover each cup with clinging plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight.

In a small food processor, process the 2 cups of strawberries and the confectioners’ sugar until all of the strawberries have been pureed.  Place a fine mesh sieve over a bowl.  Transfer the mixture to the sieve and press all of the liquid through the sieve into the bowl.  Discard the solids left in the sieve.  Stir the lemon juice into the liquid.  Stir in the strawberry slices.  Set aside.

In a nonstick frying pan over medium heat lightly toast the sliced almonds until their sliced surfaces start turning a golden brown.  Remove the toasted almonds from the pan and set aside.

At serving time, fill a shallow bowl with hot water.  Carefully run a very sharp knife around the inner sides of each custard cup.  Dip the bottom of the first cup into the hot water for about five seconds.  Invert the cup over a dessert plate, unmolding the custard.  Repeat with the remaining three cups.  Once all custards have been plated, spoon the coulis and sliced strawberry mixture over each, add a final sprinkle of toasted almonds and serve at once.  Serves four.

·         I have never had a problem unmolding the custards, but if you feel daunted by the task, you can instead divide the custard mixture into four deeper individual glass dessert dishes before refrigerating, and then simply spoon the topping over each right into the same dish.  It won’t look as elegant, but it will certainly taste the same.

·        Chocolate lovers can add another facet to this recipe by melting some top quality chocolate and then artistically drizzling that over the above finished product, extending those slashes of chocolate onto the surrounding plate itself, just before serving.

·        Throughout the summer you can enjoy this dessert by highlighting other berries, simply substitute the strawberries in the coulis for blackberries, raspberries or blueberries.  Instead of sliced strawberries, just toss in a quarter cup of the same whole berry to match the coulis flavor.

·        Those with nut allergies, simply omit the nuts and almond extract and use one full teaspoon of vanilla extract for a vanilla panna cotta that will be just as sublime, creamy and delicious.

Friday, June 1, 2012

From Farm to Table: Farm Stands and Farmers' Markets

The season of quests for outdoor strolls and indulging in freshly grown local produce is welcomed once again; consider a new game plan for contemplating dinner menus.  While many of us try our hand with cultivating herbs and vegetables in our own backyards, what better way to wile away a lazy weekend morning than to take a stroll through your local farmers’ market?  Even the greenest of thumbs cannot present an entire meal solely from his or her gardening plot.  Compliment your own harvest with that of other local epicurean producers who share in your passion for fresh foods.

Nothing beats provisions that are locally grown and prepared by dedicated farmers and artisan culinary creators.  There are a couple of ways in which you can support these local producers.  One, if you live in an area where such businesses are abundant, is to take a leisurely drive and visit several of these locales, selecting the most appealing bounty that each establishment has to offer that day.  Here on Long Island, the entire North Fork is a local food Mecca to which residents make regular pilgrimages.  Two main roads run the length of the fork, each flanked on both sides by local farm stands, pick your own fruit orchards, wine vineyards, cheese makers, bakers and the like.  Many of the farm stands offer jarred products that are produced locally as well, such as honeys and jams.

The other way to partake in one-stop local grocery shopping is to frequent a farmers’ market.  To drift off of my home turf briefly, I recently experienced a pleasurable couple of hours at a farmers’ market down in Marietta, Georgia.  The open-air market sets up for business every weekend in Marietta Square, in the old village adjacent to a picturesque park.  The market boasts dozens of local farmers and vendors peddling their wares which range from locally grown fruits and vegetables, locally produced cheeses including goat cheese, jams, condiments, pies, artisan breads and other baked goods, sausages, and other delectable delights to delve into.  There were even representatives from a few of the local restaurants offering flavorful introductions to their establishments.  Most vendors offered samples of their highlighted merchandise for that week, so one can try a nibble of something before committing to bring home a sack full.  Live music serenades browsers, dog owners lead their faithful companions as they shop, and a beckoning fountain in the park welcomes picnicking on any tasty eats that you just cannot wait to take home before indulging.  Some weeks also feature local arts and crafts vendors as well.  The market was bustling and its popularity clearly demonstrates that this is a highly coveted thing to do on a Saturday or Sunday morning.  My first and only trip here yielded purchases of several cheeses for an after dinner cheese course that evening, some croissants for the next morning’s breakfast and a jar of jalapeño-raspberry jam that I knew Brian would enjoy.  I could have bought so much more if I had been facing an extended stay in that area. 

Upon returning home, I did some Internet browsing to find that there are indeed several weekend farmers’ markets throughout the summer on Long Island.  With the extensive array of locally produced foods here, I thought it shocking that I had yet to encounter such markets.  There is one in Greenport that looks like it warrants immediate exploration.  Some of the farmers’ markets appear to be quite small with only a few vendors.  Luckily, I do have the advantage of a very local and friendly farm stand that I can frequent any day of the week for fresh produce and a few locally produced gastronomic gems.

During the summer months, make the weekly trek to a farmers’ market and/or farm stands.  Go into this with your eyes and imagination open, ready to plan that evening’s dinner solely around the freshest seasonal bounty that you happen to find.  A simple drive along that North Fork here can result in a fresh local duck from Miloski’s Poultry Farm, locally grown seasonal vegetables from numerous farm stands to toss on the grill as well, some locally produced cheese from the Catapano Dairy Farm to nibble on before dinner, a local bottle of wine from any of over forty vineyards to have with dinner, a locally baked bread to accompany the meal and a locally baked fruit pie to conclude it, both available at Briermere Farms.  Add a jar of locally produced jam to have on hand, and some fresh picked strawberries or peaches to enjoy with breakfast the next day.  You will reap the benefits of incorporating fresh, natural foods into your diet and support your local growers as well, a combination that makes me feel good both physically and mentally with every meal that results from these purchases.

Here are two of my recipes for a spinach salad.  One rendition contains bacon and eggs, plus mushrooms, green bell pepper, olives and Brian’s honey mustard dressing.  The other contains goat cheese as the protein source, and different ingredients.  As long as you keep the spinach, go ahead and swap out other ingredients in favor of whatever seasonal veggies and even fruits are in the spotlight.  If asparagus is abundant, for example, go ahead and cut the spears into one-inch lengths and then blanch them.  Once chilled, toss them into the mix.  Have fun with it.  If strawberry season is past and blueberries are coming into their own, use those instead.

Spinach Salad with Bacon

6 cups fresh spinach leaves *
1 pound bacon, cut into 2 inch lengths
4 eggs, hard boiled, cooled, peeled and chopped *
1 large green bell pepper, cored and cut into one inch squares *
10 ounces white mushrooms, sliced
1 cup black olives

Fry the bacon in a frying pan over medium-high head until jut starting to crisp.  Remove the bacon from the pan with a slotted spoon and combine with all remaining ingredients in a large salad serving bowl.  Serves four.

Spinach Salad with Strawberries, Goat Cheese and Pecans

6 cups fresh spinach leaves *
1 pint strawberries, hulled and halved *
1 yellow bell pepper, cored and cut into one inch squares *
10 ounces white mushrooms, sliced
1 cup pecan halves
1 cup goat cheese, crumbled *

Place the pecans in a single layer in a frying pan and toast over medium heat until aromatic.  Remove from heat.  Combine all ingredients in a large salad serving bowl.  Serves four.

Both of the above recipes are best served with Brian’s honey mustard dressing:

1 cup mayonnaise
1/3 cup Dijon mustard
¼ cup honey *
1/8 cup white wine vinegar
salt and pepper to taste

Combine all ingredients with either a wire whisk or in a mini food processor.

* Denotes ingredients that can typically be purchased locally from a farm stand or farmers’ market.  Accompany the salad with a bread and pie from a local artisan baker or farm stand, and a locally produced bottle of wine and you have a meal that is fresh and one that you can feel good about.