Sunday, July 8, 2012

By the Rivers of Babylon

I rarely read the Portland Press-Herald, so I did not know that Tandoor Bread on Forest Avenue had been reviewed until I entered the place. Good. Maine is truly blessed to have Audai Nasser baking his tenur here. (First hint at what a blessing: The article mentions that some of his customers come up from Boston.) We might be even more blessed to have his wife, Kanat Saad, cooking ful (fava beans) for us.

Ful and bread is the meal of poverty through much of the Arab world. When done right, however, it is also one of the most delicious things anywhere in the world. This ful was more right than I have ever had before. Hot Librarian, thinking ahead to a few nights wherein she will need to cook in my absence, asked, "How hard could it be?" I replied that ful is one of the easiest things to make--just onions, good olive oil, salt and lemon juice--and one of the hardest to make well. The proportions have to be exactly right.

We also had falafel, which came with the ful, pickles, lettuce, tomatoes and onions and that wonderful tenur as part of a plate for one that would have been enough for three. Texturally perfect, and its flavored married beautifully with the ful and vegetables to form a perfect sandwich. That stated, if you're not in the mood to overstuff yourself, and opt instead to order a simple falafel sandwich, you will be offered amba (or, as the proprietress referred to it to a pair of bemused customers, mango sauce).

Amba, as I explained when it became clear that the other customers were reflexively inclined to reject it, is not at all sweet, and similar in flavor to an Indian mango pickle. It is also, I continued somewhat pedantically, Iraq's great contribution to world gastronomy and thoroughly addictive. Don't believe me? Ask any Israeli under the age of 50. When the Iraqi government lashed out after the Arab-Israeli war of 1948 by expelling the massive, millennia-old Jewish community from Baghdad, one of the results was to expose millions of Ashkenazi Jews who had never had anything more flavorful than schmaltz to the joys of amba. Even if the ful weren't as fantastic as it was, I'd be planning a return visit just to get my next amba fix.

Fortunately, we had all three come from a nature walk at Gilsland Farm, in the mood to eat in great quantities. So in addition to my ful and falafel, HL had ordered a selection of pies for her and Little One to sample--meat, cheese, spinach, and za'atar. I did not sample the cheese, but HL and OL both relished it--salty and gooey without being greasy. The meat pie was perfectly seasoned with allspice, cumin and probably more, and the za'atar smelled like a Palestinian hillside. Only the spinach pie was disappointingly underseasoned.

I could not leave without bringing some baklava home: walnuts, almonds, honey, rose water and cardamom perfuming layer after layer of phyllo, at turns crispy and luscious. And there I wept for the rivers of Babylon.

Monday, June 25, 2012

What Portland Needs, Part 1

There's a fatal flaw in the premise of this blog, and that is: With my job requiring frequent travel out of the Portland area, I am now more likely some weeks to be dining out in another state than in Maine, or even than I am to cook in my own kitchen. Last week was one such week, which took me to Washington DC. In the interests of bringing it all back home, I will be starting a new series called What Portland Needs, describing good meals had elsewhere in order to evaluate whether they highlight missing pieces in our thriving, diverse restaurant scene.

District Kitchen: I dined at the bar in this remarkable neighborhood spot near the hotel I was staying. The basic idea: local farm-fresh ingredients, down-home Southern classics rendered with a culinary-school turn, and a well-stocked bar. Sound familiar? It should. It's what would happen if you brought together the kitchen chops of Duckfat, the regionalisms of Hot Suppa and the boozy splendors of Local 188. I started my meal with some deviled country ham, served with toast points, and a sampler of three types of pickled vegetables (rhubarb, asparagus and sugar snap peas). My starting cocktail was a house special called "Kindness and Cruelty," composed of gin, dry vermouth, Benedictine and absinthe, garnished with a generous twist of orange. Since it was so obscenely hot, I limited myself to a bibb lettuce salad for my second course, but what a salad--generously dressed with duck bacon, maple pecans and a "charred scallion - chevre dressing". I'm not entirely sure what that dressing description even means, but it was tasty, and went well with the DC Brau Belgian-style ale.

So does Portland need this?

Clearly not. The fact that I was able to readily define it with reference to the strengths of a few of our most popular local places shows that. But if some alumni of those operations were to come together with a similar concept, I would eat there gladly.

Meskerem: A good conversation with a colleague led naturally to the notion of a shared dinner, and what better food is there to share than Ethiopian? The nearest Ethiopian restaurant to where we were conferencing was Meskerem, an old favorite of mine: It was the first Ethiopian restaurant I ever went to, 21 years ago with my mother while I was competing in a national math competition at the same hotel I was staying in on this trip.

Unfortunately, the Meskerem of today is not the Meskerem I went to then, nor is it the Meskerem Hot Librarian and I went to regularly 12 years ago when we lived in Mount Pleasant, the neighborhood just north of Adams-Morgan. Back then, there were four different Ethiopian restaurants on the same block. Meskerem was the most popular, but the competition kept them on their toes. If I were in the mood for kitfo, for example, I would suggest one of the places on the same block that did it better.

When my mother and I went 21 years ago, we ordered the Meskerem Messob (sampler platter) for two, and got enough small portions of a wide enough range of meat and vegetable dishes to form a comprehensive sense of the cuisine, our likes and dislikes. This time, my colleague and I ordered the Meskerem Messob, and got large portions of four meat dishes and two lentil dishes. The spicing on all was toned down. I suspect, now that they no longer have nearby competition, that the best Ethiopian and Eritrean food to be found in DC is no longer in Adams-Morgan, but in other parts of the city or even decamped to the suburbs.

So does Portland need this? No, we have Asmara.

Jaleo: I saved the best for last. Amazingly, I never went here when I lived in DC, due probably to HL's ambivalent attitude toward Spanish food. Since then, Chef/Owner José Andrés has risen to celebrity chef status, thanks in part to his friend Anthony Bourdain getting airtime for his media-friendly ADHD symptoms. Yet the food has not suffered for it. On this visit, I sampled:

  • A watermelon-and-tomato gazpacho poured over sweet cherries and goat cheese
  • A mixed green salad tossed with pine nuts, capers and an anchovy vinaigrette and topped with toast points, shredded idiazábal and anchovy fillets
  • Arroz negro (rice cooked with squid ink), generously festooned with squid and shrimp
  • A miniature, two-bite cone filled with a soft white cheese and raw salmon, and topped with trout eggs
  • For dessert, a Charlotte Russe-type cake filled with apples, served with fresh vanilla ice cream and a jellied reduction of Pedro Ximenez oloroso sherry.

I had two glasses of a good txakoli with the savory courses and a glass of the same Pedro Ximenez as in the dessert to go with it.

So does Portland need this? It might be a bit much to expect a chef even approaching Andrés's caliber to set up shop in our little town, and we already have Masa Miyake filling the mad genius niche in our restaurant ecosystem. But it would not be at all unfair to expect Portland's otherwise excellent culinary scene to have at least one decent Spanish tapas place. Any young would-be-chefs who love Maine should think seriously about staging in one of Andrés's restaurants, or doing a tour of Spain, and setting up shop somewhere in the Arts District or the Old Port.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Taj Indian Cuisine

The Indian restaurant formerly known as Aroma has re-opened under new ownership as Taj Indian Cuisine. Hot Librarian, Little One and I attended their grand opening on Wednesday evening. The news for lovers of Indian food is mixed.

First the good news: Most of the former menu is intact, all the way down to the mini dosas and mini utthapams on the kids' menu, and the new owners bring some welcome new additions, with an emphasis on dishes from the southern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh. The onion mirchi bhaji appetizer brings two whole hot green peppers, dipped in a chickpea flour batter and fried, then split and stuffed with a relish of red onion, lime juice and cilantro. Painfully delicious. Also tasty was the "Green Chicken". You know a preparation is authentic when a key vegetable ingredient is described on the menu using its Latin scientific name, which I've forgotten and therefore cannot look up. It doesn't matter. You don't need to know what it is to find it tasty.

HL and LO each ordered old favorites, and this is where the news gets more mixed. I should begin by stipulating that they each found their meals "tasty." Nonetheless, they were not quite up to the marks that Aroma had been hitting regularly. I hesitate to judge the dosa because it is a dish that can easily go awry when a kitchen is in the weeds--as they clearly were on this grand opening day. If it does not come off the flat top at just the right moment, it can either be wan and bland, if a bit undercooked, or crunchy yet unpleasantly flavored, if even slightly overcooked. This one was a bit undercooked. LO enjoyed it nonetheless. I sampled the sambar with it, and it was good--not as subtly spiced or generously festooned with vegetables as Aroma's, but fiery with dried red chilies and including the welcome addition of drumsticks. (A South Indian vegetable that eats like an artichoke leaf but tastes even better.) HL got the chole batura--the batura was thick and doughy, not airy and crispy, and the chickpeas with a bit too much tomato and not enough spicing in the gravy. Again, at least in the case of the batura, this could have been a result of the kitchen being in the weeds.

This is family-owned and -run restaurant, I suspect with the older generation working in the kitchen, and the younger, fluent-in-English generation working the front of the house. I have more than one soft spot for that kind of restaurant. Nonetheless, it could be the restaurant's Achilles heel if they don't work out the kinks in time. Clearly, there are some good cooks at work there. It is still the best Indian restaurant in Cumberland County. But good cooks do not necessarily make good restauranteurs, and even good restauranteurs don't necessarily find commercial success.

The opening day seemed to be going well for them in terms of numbers. The local South Asian community had come out in force, and many non-South Asian regulars of the old Aroma, like ourselves, showed up as well. But that also meant that the inexperienced front of the house staff was fumbling in so many textbook ways. So much so that I asked the young man who seemed to be in charge if this was the family's first restaurant--which it is. As the first-born son of an immigrant former-restauranteur, I more than sympathize. I remember the day I was in his shoes, a day that was only made tolerable by slow business and the fact that it was not my parents' first restaurant and I was mostly playing back-up to my consummately professional mother. So I offered him a lot of well-meaning, unsolicited advice, prefaced by the proviso that "I know exactly what you're going through."

Whether you were a fan of Aroma, or never got around to visiting, be sure to try Taj. Give them multiple chances. Tip generously and be open and honest with any criticism. Help them work out the kinks and find the success they deserve. You will be rewarded with delicious food.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Sopes

With no posts in over a month, I suppose this blog lapsed into dormancy. There are legitimate reasons, none of which I care to share. In that time I have eaten at some very good restaurants, and some not-so-good ones. I have cooked some very good meals, and some not-so-good ones. Rather than attempt to recount them all, I'll just detail my most recent success.

On Saturday, one of the vendors at the Deering Park Farmer's Market had some cute baby summer squash with their blossoms still attached. Another had some gorgeous-looking rainbow chard. My first thought was chard-and-squash-blossom quesadillas. I mean real Mexican quesadillas, made fresh with corn masa and folded over themselves, not their norteamericano namesake--grilled cheese between two flour tortillas, also known as sincronizadas.

Unfortunately, the Bodega Latina on Congress Street does not appear to stock Mexican masa harina, which was not a surprise, as the proprietors are Dominican. (They did, to my surprise, have Venezuelan masa harina, for the making of arepas, which I will have to keep in mind, since Venezuelan arepas are delicious.) They did have, in their freezer case, some think Salvadoran-style tortillas, which in a pinch are great for making sopes, and they do also stock Mexican-style queso fresco. So that is what I made.

Sopes with Chard and Squash Blossoms

Ingredients:

  • 1 bunch rainbow chard, leaves removed from stems and chiffonaded; stems reserved and coarsely chopped;
  • 1 yellow onion, diced
  • 3 cloves of garlic, minced
  • 2-3 jalapeño peppers (optional--see note on preparation below)
  • baby summer squash with blossoms--the squash thinly sliced, the calyx of the blossom finely chopped, and the petals chiffonaded, each separated from each other
  • chopped cilantro (optional)
  • 7 thick tortillas
  • grated queso fresco, to taste

Note on preparation of peppers: Hot Librarian and the Little One have such a low spice tolerance that I had to omit these entirely. I made up for it by eating too many of the La Costeña brand canned pickled whole jalapeños--I ended up eating five alongside my three sopes! If you are using fresh peppers, heat a large non-stick skillet or griddle over high heat. Put the peppers in when the surface is very hot. Turn them as needed so the skins brown and blister all over. Put them into a paper bag and fold over the top. When the peppers have cooled enough to handle but are still warm, peel off and discard as much of the burnt skin as you can (it need not be perfect). Remove and discard the tops, slice them lengthwise into thick ribbons, discarding most but not all of the seeds and ribs, and then chop into squares.

Cooking instructions:

  1. Heat 1-2 Tablespoons of cooking fat (olive oil, a neutral cooking oil, or good quality lard--I used olive oil) in a large pan over medium-high heat. When hot, add onions and chard stems. Saute until onions are translucent and stems are softened, about 10 minutes.
  2. Add garlic and peppers (if using). Saute another minute.
  3. Add squash slices and saute until just softened, 1-2 minutes, then the calyxes and do the same (another 1-2 minutes).
  4. Add the squash blossom petals and the chard leaves and cook until thoroughly wilted.
  5. If you are using the cilantro (which I can't, because it tastes like soap to HL), you can stir it into the still-hot chard-and-squash mixture after removing it from the heat, reserve it as as a garnish, or use it as both, as I would. Put a lid on the pan to retain the warmth and set aside.
  6. Place a large non-stick skillet or griddle on high heat until very hot. If your tortillas are fresh, you will need to work very fast, so you may want to do one at a time. If they are frozen, they will need to heat through, about 90 seconds on each side. Heat and lightly brown tortilla on one side, then flip it and add the chard-and-squash mixture and a handful of cheese. When the cheese has just begun to melt, it is ready.

Makes 7 sopes. Serving size for an adult: 3 sopes. Serving size for a four-and-a-half-year-old: 1 sope, plus an extra tortilla on top to make it into a "Mexican grilled cheese sandwich".

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Restaurant Selection

Consider the following limitations:
  • The restaurant must take reservations.
  • It must be able to comfortably seat a party of twelve.
  • It must have alcohol--wine, beer and liquor.
  • It must be on the Portland Peninsula, and thus be within walking distance or easy cabbing distance of one of the downtown hotels with conference facilities.
  • It must be open in early May, and on Monday evenings.

Within those limitations, which five restaurants would you select to exemplify the best of Portland?

I ask because I just came back from a day-job-related conference in Newport, Rhode Island, which may be held here next year instead, and if it is I will likely be asked to compile the list and logistically arrange for "dinner groups". In anticipation of such a hard task, I will be dining in the coming weeks at restaurants that would be strong candidates for such a list--and posting about them.

Monday, April 30, 2012

Gluttonous Weekend

This last weekend was a good one for both home cooking and restaurant visits. Let me just dive into the recipes, then:

Udon, Tofu and Bok Choy in Soup

Where to buy ingredients: Sun Oriental Market has the best selection of Korean and Japanese ingredients I've found so far in Portland. And lots of vendors at the Portland Farmers Market are coming up with bok choy.

Ingredients:

  • 1 piece of kombu (dried kelp), about 4 inches square
  • 4 cups of cold water
  • 1 small pouch of bonito flakes
  • neutral cooking oil (e.g. grapeseed, peanut, or canola)
  • 1 piece of fresh ginger, about 1 inch long, peeled and minced
  • 3 Tablespoons of light soy sauce
  • 2 Tablespoons of mirin
  • 1 block of firm tofu, cut into half-inch cubes
  • 1 head of bok choy, washed and roughly chopped
  • 1 lb of frozen udon noodles
  • Green parts of 3 scallions, thinly sliced
  • 1 teaspoon of sesame oil

Directions:

  1. Place kombu in a cooking pot and soak in cold water for 20 minutes.
  2. Bring to a boil, then add the bonito flakes and remove from the heat.
  3. Let stand for 5 minutes, then drain with a fine mesh strainer, pressing the solids. Reserve the broth (dashi).
  4. In a clean cooking pot, heat just enough oil to film the bottom over medium-high heat. Add the minced ginger and saute for a minute.
  5. Add the broth, soy sauce and mirin and bring to a boil. Add the tofu cubes and reduce to a simmer.
  6. Simmer for 5 minutes, then add the bok choy and simmer for 3 minutes more.
  7. In a separate pot, cook the udon according to the package instructions (usually, 1 minute in boiling water), then strain and add to the soup.
  8. Once the soup comes back to a simmer, remove from heat and add the scallions and sesame oil, stirring to incorporate. Serve hot.

The other meal combines two dishes from opposite ends of the Middle East, a "tagine" from Algeria and a "sabzi" from Iran. I'm using scare quotes because this meal was improvised, based on recipes I've cooked before, dishes I have eaten, and ingredients I had readily available to me. I do not vouch for their strict authenticity--though they both tasted pretty good to me.

Lamb Shank "Tagine"

Ingredients:

  • 2 whole lamb shanks
  • coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 Tablespoons of olive oil
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • 1/2 teaspoon each of: whole coriander seed, whole cumin seed, and whole fennel seed
  • 1 onion, sliced thin
  • 2 garlic cloves, crushed
  • 4 carrots, coarsely chopped
  • 1 cup dry, robust red wine
  • 1 large can of tomatoes, hand crushed
  • 1 cup of whole prunes

Instructions:

  1. Preheat oven to 325.
  2. Season the shanks with salt and pepper.
  3. In a large, heavy kettle or casserole (preferably ceramic or enamelized cast iron, though I did it in regular cast iron and it worked fine), heat the olive oil over medium-high heat. Sear the shanks on all sides, then set them aside.
  4. Lower the heat to medium and add the whole spices. Stir a few seconds until just fragrant.
  5. Add the onions, garlic and carrots. Saute until the onions are slightly caramelized.
  6. Add wine, turn up the heat to high until reduced by half.
  7. Add the shanks and the tomatoes, cover, and put in oven.
  8. After an hour and fifteen minutes, turn the shanks over and add the prunes. Return to oven and cook for another hour.
  9. Serve with cooked basmati rice and "Sabzi" (see next recipe)

"Sabzi" (Iranian-Style Braised Mixed Greens)

Ingredients:

    Several handfuls of fresh spinach, washed and stemmed
  • 3 scallions, sliced thinly, white and green parts separated
  • 2 Tablespoons of butter
  • Coarse salt and freshly ground pepper
  • 1/2 teaspoon (or so) of dried mint
  • 1/2 cup of chopped fresh parsley
  • handful of radish microgreens (available at Portland Farmers Market--if you can't find them, mix regular-sized radish greens with spinach and cook the same as the spinach)

Instructions:

  1. Melt butter in a large pan over medium heat.
  2. Add white parts of scallions and cook for a minute.
  3. Add spinach and cook, stirring, until all leaves are wilted, about 5 minutes.
  4. Season with salt, pepper and mint.
  5. Add green parts of scallions and parsley and continue cooking, stirring, for a minute.
  6. Remove from heat, add the radish microgreens, and stir in.
  7. Serve with lemon wedges.

As for restaurants:

  • Though both pho and Hanoi are in its name, the real thing to seek out at Pho Ha Noi may be a specialty of the city of Hue, bun bo Hue dac biet: A spicy broth with thick, wheat-based noodles, various cuts of beef, slices of slightly spongy pork meatballs and, my favorite, chunks of gelatinous tendon.
  • Two visits to the Sunday buffet at Aroma, and no disappointments yet. Protip: The pongal may look like baby food, but it's not, unless your baby likes red chiles, whole peppercorns and curry leaves. Top it with the sambar, and you'll be loving it until your next trip to the bathroom.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

More of Eco's Gourmandise

I'm not just doing this for your edification: I will have to return this book to the library soon, and I would like to have these recipes or the names of dishes available for future reference, research and practice!
My teachers liked to eat well, and this vice must also have remained with me into adulthood. I remember mealtimes, somber rather than lively gatherings where the good fathers would discuss the excellence of a bollito misto, prepared as my grandfather had instructed.

It required at least half a kilo of shin of beef, an oxtail, a piece of rump, a small salami, a calf's tongue and head, cotechino sausage, a boiling fowl, an onion, two carrots, two sticks of celery and a handful of parsley. All left to cook for various lengths of time, depending on the type of meat. But, as my grandfather insisted and Father Bergamaschi confirmed with emphatic nods of the head, once the boiled meat had been arranged on a serving dish, you had to sprinkle a few pinches of coarse salt and pour several spoonfuls of boiling broth over the meat to bring out the flavor. Not many vegetables except for a few potatoes, but plenty of condiments - mostarda d'uva, mostarda alla senape di frutta, horseradish sauce, but above all (on this my grandfather was firm) bagnetto verde: a handful of parsley, a few anchovy fillets, fresh breadcrumbs, a teaspoon of capers, a clove of garlic and the yolk of a hard-boiled egg, all finely chopped, with olive oil and vinegar. (63-64)

The above description, with its reference to cotechino, might have been the reason why I ordered the charcuterie special of duck cotechino at Duckfat last night. I need to find an excuse to replicate the bagnetto verde


Excellent beef braised in Barolo then arrived at the table.

"My son will never understand the beauty of such a thing," he said. "Beef with onion, carrot, celery, sage, rosemary, bay leaf, clove, cinnamon, juniper, salt, pepper, butter, olive oil and, of course, a bottle of Barolo, served with polenta or puréed potato. Go on, fight the revolution. All taste for life is gone. You people want to be rid of the pope, and we'll end up being forced by that fisherman Garibaldi to eat bouillabaisse niçoise. What is the world coming to!" (69)


Warning: Impending slaughter of an endangered species!

The sailors were about to haul up a large turtle of the kind to be found south of Corsica. Dumas was delighted.

"There'll be work to do. First you have to turn it on its back. The turtle innocently stretches out its neck and you take advantage of its imprudence to cut off its head - thwack! - before hanging it by the tail to let it bleed for twelve hours. Then you turn it on its back again, insert a strong blade between the carapace and the breastplate, being very careful not to perforate the gallbladder, otherwise it becomes inedible. Remove the innards and retain only the liver - the transparent pulp inside serves no purpose, but there are two lobes that, because of their whiteness and their flavor, seem like two veal noisettes. Finally, remove the membranes, the neck and the flippers. Cut them into pieces the size of walnuts, leave them to soak, then add the pieces to a good broth, with pepper, cloves, carrot, thyme and a bay leaf, and cook together for three or four hours over low heat. In the meantime, prepare strips of chicken seasoned with parsley, chives and anchovy, cook them in boiling broth, then add them to the turtle soup, into which you've poured three or four glasses of dry Madeira. If you have no Madeira, you can use Marsala with a small glass of brandy or rum, though that would be second best, un pis-aller. We'll taste our soup tomorrow evening." (115, 117)


My stay in Sicily ends here, and I'm sorry I won't see what is going on in Naples and beyond, but I wasn't here to enjoy myself, nor to write an epic. At the end of these travels I remember with pleasure only the pisci d'ovu, the babbaluci a picchipacchi (a way of cooking snails), and the cannoli ... Ah, the cannoli! Nievo also promised to let me taste a certain swordfish a' sammurigghu, but there wasn't enough time, so all I can savor is the aroma of its name. (139)

Monday, April 23, 2012

Eco's Gourmandise, Installment 1

Umberto Eco's newest novel, The Prague Cemetery, is his most controversial, and not surprisingly so: The central character is a forger behind the fabrication of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and is as anti-Semitic, racist and generally misanthropic as one would expect such a character to be. However, like many of the protagonists of his previous novels, this one is a gourmand as well. And since Eco imagines him as an Italian of Piedmontese origin, exiled to Paris, with a brief sojourn in Sicily, there are plenty of mouthwatering descriptions of food mixed in with the rants about Jews, Masons, Jesuits, women, non-European "inferior races" and the lower classes. Here are a few of them, to whet your appetites:
The power of art ... to be rewarded by a visit to the Café Anglais.

My memory must be in my nose, yet I have the impression that centuries have passed since I last savored the aroma of that menu: soufflés à la reine, filets de sole à la vénitienne, escalopes de turbot au gratin, selle de mouton purée bretonne ... And as an entrée: poulet à la portugaise, or pâté chaud de cailles, or homard à la parisienne, or all of them, and as the plat de résistance, perhaps canetons à la rouennais or ortolans sur canapés, and for entremets, aubergines à l'espagnole, asperges en branches, cassolettes princesse ... For wine, I don't know, perhaps a Château Margaux, or Château Latour, or Château Lafite, depending on the vintage. And to finish, a bombe glacée. (17-18)


I find it relaxing to labor away for a few hours preparing some delicacy. For example, côtes de veau Foyot: meat at least four centimeters thick - enough for two, of course - two medium size onions, fifty grams of bread without the crust, seventy-five of grated gruyère, fifty of butter. Grate the bread into breadcrumbs and mix with the gruyère, then peel and chop the onions and melt forty grams of butter in a small pan. Meanwhile, in another pan, gently sauté the onions in the remaining butter. Cover the bottom of a dish with half the onions, season the meat with salt and pepper, arrange it on the dish and add the rest of the onions. Cover with a layer of breadcrumbs and cheese, making sure that the meat sits well on the bottom of the dish, allowing the melted butter to drain to the bottom and gently pressing by hand. Add another layer of breadcrumbs to form a sort of dome, and the last of the melted butter. Add enough white wine and stock until the liquid is no more than half the height of the meat. Put the dish in the oven for around half an hour, basting now and then with the wine and stock. Serve with sautéed cauliflower. (18-19)


I would have enjoyed a visit to Chez Philippe in rue Montorgueil to put myself in the appropriate frame of mind for this form of self-hypnosis. I would have sat down quietly, taken my time in studying the menu - the one served from six p.m. to midnight - and ordered potage à la Crécy, turbot with caper sauce, fillet of beef and langue de veau au jus, finishing with a maraschino sorbet and petits fours, washed down with two bottles of vintage Burgundy.

By then, midnight would have passed and I would have had a look at the night menu. I would have allowed myself a turtle soup (a delicious one comes to mind, made by Dumas - so did I know Dumas?), salmon with spring onions and artichokes with Javanese pepper, with a rum sorbet and English spiced cakes to follow. Further into the night I would have treated myself to some delicacy from the morning menu, perhaps the soupe aux oignons, which the porters at Les Halles would also be tucking into at that moment, happy to demean myself with their company. Then, to prepare myself for a busy morning, a very strong coffee and pousse-café of cognac and kirsch. (45-46)


Of my grandfather and my childhood I remember above all the bagna caöda: a terracotta pot of bioling oil, flavored with anchovies, garlic and butter, is kept hot on a charcoal burner, and into are dipped cardoons (which have been left to soak in cold water and lemon juice - or some said milk, but not my grandfather), raw or grilled peppers, white leaves of Savoy cabbage, Jerusalem artichokes and tender cauliflower - or boiled vegetables: onions, beetroot, potatoes or carrots (but as my grandfather used to say, this was stuff for paupers). (48)


I think four quotes is enough for now. There will be more installments, at least until I have to return the book to the library. There are four-hundred pages of reactionary spleen and trained gluttony to go.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Asmara

Before Hot Librarian ever applied for the job that brought us here, there were three restaurants, enjoyed on a family vacation to Maine, that convinced me I could live here: Duckfat, Bar Lola and Asmara. So why haven't a blogged about any of them yet? Perhaps I am fundamentally a novelty-seeking individual. Perhaps the fact that I enjoyed them as a tourist is subconsciously influencing me away from them as I seek to refashion myself into a Mainer.

Or perhaps, it's just because I hadn't gotten around to eating in them yet.

The Little One and I got to Asmara yesterday. I don't understand why the place is not overrun with families overflowing from the Children's Museum around the corner: What could be better, from a child's perspective, than a restaurant where using your hands is not just permitted but expected? The decor is very kid-friendly as well: LO insisted on sitting in the front booth, near wooden sculptures of a giraffe, an elephant and a zebra.

Until moving to Portland, I was more familiar with Ethiopian food than that of their neighbor (and enemy) to the north, Eritrea. The relationship between the two countries might be compared to a forced marriage that gave way to an acrimonious divorce. The very short version: Eritrea had been an Italian colony. After the Italians left, the Ethiopians annexed the country without asking the Eritreans if that was what they wanted. The Eritreans fought against the Ethiopians in a decades-long civil war. The Eritreans ultimately got independence, but since then the two countries have fought several border wars in which thousands of people have died.

In spite of the deadly animosity, there are cross-border cultural links and similarities. For example, Tigrinya, the most commonly spoken language in Eritrea, native tongue of 60% of the population, is also spoken by about three million Ethiopians.

All of this is to say that while Eritrean food is very similar to the Ethiopian food to which I became accustomed in my Washington DC sojourns, the food at Asmara has some subtle differences, and I do not know enough to say whether those differences are an authentic representations of how tastes differ in Asmara (the Eritrean capital city, not the restaurant) as opposed to Addis Ababa, or are the result of concessions to a Maine palate. While one can get spicy dishes at Asmara (the restaurant), even the spicy dishes are more gently spiced than what one finds in Adams-Morgan.

Nonetheless, the food is delicious. Our choices were constrained by the fact that LO and I would be sharing, so I let her pick: We got the lentils, with a side of cabbage, carrots and potatoes. All dishes at Asmara come with a side salad of lettuce and tomato, dressed in a light vinaigrette that seems, to me, to show some lingering Italian colonial influence. All are served on top of a piece of injera, the spongy, sour flatbread that serves as the sole utensil. The best part, in my opinion, is ending the meal by eating the pieces of injera into which the sauces and dressings of the dishes, sides and salad have soaked. On previous visits, HL has gotten their African sweet tea, which is generously seasoned with clove, and complements seasoning of the dishes nicely.

The service has always been pleasant, on each of our visits. An especially well-thought-out touch of hospitality is the provision of steamed cloth napkins before the meal, so that one can wipe one's hands before the meal.

I am surprised, given the fact that Eritrea has a long coastline (and left Ethiopia landlocked upon its secession), that there are not many fish or seafood dishes on the menu: Just one, with salmon, which I'm pretty sure is not caught much in the Red Sea. Chicken, beef and lamb are amply represented, and there are many vegetarian options as well (as evidenced from our meatless meal).

One complaint is that they only provide one piece of injera per entree--and if one orders only one entree, then the "plate" is the only piece. If you request extra injera, they charge for it: $2 a piece. Even so, with a single entree and one extra piece of bread, we left satisfied at a reasonable price: $17 for the two of us, including tax and tip. On weekdays they serve lunch specials, with a couple selected entrees at an even lower price.

Another disappointment, though not with the restaurant itself: Every time we have been there, it has been nearly empty. This is a place that deserves to be buzzing. Hopefully this entry will do its small part to remedy that situation.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Bread, Dumplings and Noodles

First an administrative note: I recently had occasion to read back obsessive-compulsively through this blog. And noticed that it took a real nosedive around the time I got a day job. Not just in terms of the frequency and length of entries--that was to be expected--but, more mortifying to me, in the quality of writing as well. Yes, an increase in typos and grammatical errors, but more than that, a loss of some snap in the prose. (That more non-job energy has been going into other forms and venues of writing may explain it, in a somewhat gratifying way, but is no excuse.)

With that stated, I'll try to do a better job in this week's entry.

Earlier this week I was introduced to The Bread Shack in Auburn. Did you know that Auburn was home to an internationally renowned competitive baker? I, for one, did not. I was introduced to it over a lunch hour by a colleague who shall be referred to as the Charming Professor, or CP for short. Now, I will confess that I was focused primarily on the conversation. But I could not help but notice that the cranberry walnut chicken salad sandwich (on cranberry walnut bread) I was eating was one of the most delicious things I have ever had in sandwich form. As a consequence, I think I may at times have spoken with my mouth full, unwilling or unable to refrain from taking another bite. CP ordered a sampler of cookies for the table, sparing me the agony having to choose among the many cookies, tarts, and pastries for a sweet. All the cookies were buttery, perfectly crisp and just sweet enough. But the snicker doodle in particular was a taste I want to have again and again.

Last night brought us into the already praised Schulte & Herr for our third visit, an unexpected dinner. We were graciously seated despite a lack of reservations. The Little One was emphatic about having the Wurstplatte, Hot Librarian wanted the Maultaschen (ravioli-type dumplings filled with soft white cheese and greens, served with roasted root vegetables). So despite wanting the Maultaschen myself, I took one for the team and ordered the Wurstplatte. LO tore through half the sausage and the ham, and generous dollops of the sauerkraut (braised with bacon for extra pigginess) and German potato salad. Yet my gambit worked, for HL had had a late lunch and wasn't very hungry: I got a couple of maultaschen and some deliciously sweet roasted parsnips and carrots--leaving no room, alas, for the plum streusel.

Today for lunch, in the midst of our Saturday grocery shopping, I took LO where I would have preferred to go last night, Pai Men Miyake. LO was emphatic about wanting the gyoza. I also ordered the edamame for us to share, to make sure she would have some vegetable matter. The sashimi soba that I ordered was refreshing and well-balanced, perfect for a warm spring day. But the real highlight was a special small plate that I ordered at the end of the meal, to fill the hole inevitably left by a tasty and moderately portioned Japanese meal: deep-fried oxtail. The oxtail had been braised into a shreddy, near gelatinous state, then formed into a cube which was breaded and deep fried, then served with a streak of sauce made with sendai miso (a four-hundred-year-old delicacy whose praises are well-sung here) and, for balance, a little mound of kimchi. It was a special, so I may never taste it again.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Passover Recap

Dishes listed in order of appearance:
  • R.W. Knudsen 100% Concord Grape Juice: A big hit with the Little One. We may have to ration her consumption.
  • 2007 Vidal-Fleury Cotes du Rhone: An amazingly complex wine for only $14. Still has some tannins to it, so it could probably stand another year or two of bottle aging.
  • Freshly prepared horseradish: Nose-tingling. It will be making an appearance of my matzah brei some time this week, and several other dishes in the weeks to come.
  • Haroset: Best haroset ever, by acclimation. None of us could stop eating it. Recipe in one of the earlier entries.
  • Tangerine, olive and fennel salad: Working in those non-traditional seder plate components. Very simple: peeled, de-pithed segments of four tangerines; about twenty cracked green olives brined with lemon and hot peppers (Ziyad brand--you can get them in large jars at al-Ahram), pitted; a bulb of fresh fennel cut into matchsticks. Mix them all together and dress at the last minute with olive oil. Tasty--would have gone well with fish (but Hot Librarian convinced me to take baked haddock off the menu, on the correct assumption that we would have too much food).
  • Matzah Ball Soup: Best ever. See the recipe in an earlier entry for the soup itself. For the matzah balls, follow this Smitten Kitchen recipe recommended to me by my mother. Sorry, ma: My chicken soup is now better than yours, though I can't take full credit for it. The Goransson Farms rutabagas, that I suspect had spent the colder days of winter in the ground sweetening up in preparation, imparted a dark orange hue to the stock and a luscious flavor.

From this point forward, both LO and HL had managed to fill themselves up with haroset, salad, and matzah ball soup, so all opinions are solely mine.

    Roasted lamb shoulder: I love Southpaw Farms lamb. If you can find a lamb purveyor whose lambs are solely milk and grass fed, and slaughtered when they're still young and tender, you can duplicate this. Otherwise, sorry. It starts with a bone-in shoulder. Because the lamb is young, it's relatively small--about two and a quarter pounds. Then brine and rub with the spice mixture as I described in an earlier entry, and let it sit in the refrigerator at least four hours. Preheat you oven to 375 (350 in the case of my hot-running oven). Put the shoulder in a small roasting pan, covered with aluminum foil. Put in the oven for 30 minutes. Then remove the foil, rub the shoulder all over with olive oil, and put back in the oven for an hour and 15 minutes. Let rest. We probably let it rest too long because we had only just started reading the seder when it came out of the oven. Even so, best lamb ever.
  • Salade aux fines herbes: This was simple. A package of pre-washed mache from Whole Foods. Whatever herbs I could grab there yesterday morning--tarragon, parsley, chives--and also the fennel fronds left over from the other salad. Season with salt, and dress with a standard shallot and dijon vinaigrette. Went very nicely with the lamb.

HL and OL returned to the festive meal in time for the dessert, for which I can take no credit (except for having ordered it), a flourless chocolate-almond-raspberry torte from Standard Baking Company. It was good. Even I, without much of a sweet tooth, had a generous slice.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Passover Marathon, Part 2

Why does Ashkenazi Jewish food have a reputation for being bad? Probably because it is so simply seasoned, that it takes a great deal of care for the cook to get it to cross the boundary between bland and delectable, without crossing that further bound into oversalted. As a case in point, my great-grandmother's chicken soup, which became my mother's chicken soup and is now, in effect, mine. I don't have a recipe, because my great-grandmother's refrain in the kitchen, whenever someone would ask for a recipe was, "until it's right." This is an until it's right recipe. If you can't tell the difference between right and not right, maybe you should let someone else make it.

It starts with a chicken. I didn't want to do a huge batch, so I opted for chicken parts instead today. I would have preferred backs, but Pat's didn't have them for sale. Instead I took one leg and four wings. Another trick I've been known to do is throw in some feet, for color, but those were easier to find in Flushing. I'm sure I could have found chicken feet at one of the many Asian markets in town, but I didn't want to add a stop this morning.

Then the vegetables: an onion, a small rutabaga, four carrots and four ribs of celery, all chopped coarsely, along with two whole cloves of garlic, some sprigs of parsley and about six whole black peppercorns.

Then the water: Cover it all with about three quarts of water. Add a little bit of salt, but not too much--leave yourself some leeway to adjust the seasonings along the way.

Bring to a boil. Skim off foam as it appears. Lower to a simmer. Keep skimming off foam. After it has boiled about an hour, taste the soup. Adjust the seasoning. Then wait until the chicken joints are all coming loose. With a whole chicken, that could take an additional two hours. With pieces, as with today, it took about an hour additional, for a total of two hours. Taste the soup again, adjust the seasoning, wait a bit, and taste again. When it tastes like the people you will serve it to will know you love them, then it is ready.

Drain the broth. Reserve the carrot and rutabaga pieces and put them into the broth. Eat the plain boiled chicken with some of the freshly prepared horseradish (and some of those roasted beets I mentioned in the last entry, that weren't part of the official menu) as a cook's treat lunch. (Or make it into a chicken salad that goes great on matzah--but Hot Librarian doesn't like chicken salad.)

As for the lamb shoulder, I did come up with a nice spice rub. First I rubbed the meat with coarse sea salt. Then I pan roasted about half a teaspoon of fennel seeds, and crushed them with a mortar and pestle. (Note: Orthodox Ashkenazi Jews do not consider fennel kosher for Passover. Another reason I am not Orthodox, and tend to prefer the Sephardi palate.) I mixed the crushed fennel with half a teaspoon each of cumin and coriander powder, and about a quarter teaspoon of cardamom powder, in a small plastic bag, and shook it up to distribute the spices evenly. Then I rubbed the mixture all over the lamb. It's a small shoulder, about two and a quarter pounds, so I won't start roasting it until after I pick the Little One up from preschool. Before then, I'll print the haggadot.

Still to do in the kitchen (and I may not get a chance to blog about all this today):

  • Roast the lamb;
  • Roast the vegetables (carrots, celeriac and potatoes with lemon and savory);
  • Make the matzah balls and reheat the soup;
  • Make the orange, olive and fennel salad;
  • Make the salade aux fines herbes (mache with tarragon, parsley and chives in a shallot vinaigrette)
  • Assemble the seder plate.

Passover Marathon, Stage 1

Passover cooking is constrained cooking. One cannot use flour or any bread other than matzah. Even if one is in a family where the laws of kashrut are usually disregarded, it's probably best not to engage in any flagrant flouting of them, so no pork, no shellfish, and no use of dairy at all since, unless one is in a vegetarian household, it is also traditional to have some sort of large piece of roasted animal flesh as the centerpiece protein--with lamb being traditional among those of Sephardi and Mizrahi background, and chicken, duck or goose being more common among Ashkenazim. There must certain traditional items: a purely decorative roasted shank bone from a lamb or goat, hard boiled eggs, fresh herbs and leafy green vegetables, a paste that is supposed to look like mortar called haroset, usually made with apples and nuts and wine (but recipes vary), and bitter herbs, most often horseradish, called maror.

There are other, more recent traditions that have cropped up in households like ours that celebrate Passover for its political significance as a tale of human emancipation, rather than in a traditionally religious framework: oranges a sign of support for gay liberation and feminism; olives in solidarity with Palestinians. And then there are the traditions that have no religious or political significance, but whose neglect would cause open familial strife: For example, what would Passover be without matzah ball soup?

The shankbone has been roasted. It came out of a Southpaw Farms shank that I braised earlier this week for a kind of lamb stifado. Southpaw Farms are the sellers at the Portland Winter Market whom I praised earlier as the purveyors of the best lamb I've had in the United States. One of their lamb shoulders has just finished defrosting, and I need to figure out how I want to spice rub it for tonight.

"This is the bitter herb that we eat as a remembrance of our affliction...." I'll spare you the Maxwell House haggadah liturgy. Really, this is fresh horseradish from another mainstay of the Portland Winter Market (farm name escaping me at the moment) who had horseradish roots for sale last week. I had already been making use of the root earlier this week. What was left, I ran through the food processor, put into a Bell jar and covered with distilled white vinegar. This will be making me happy for weeks to come. I just took some roasted beets out of the oven, one of which will go into a toned down version of maror for the Little One and Hot Librarian. For that, just puree one beet with about a half-teaspoon of the prepared horseradish. I just dressed the other two roasted beets with cumin, coarse sea salt, lemon juice and olive oil.

And here's the haroset. Because HL doesn't like the taste of alcohol, and LO is 4, this is an alcohol-free version. 3 Macintosh apples, coarsely chopped and cored but not peeled, 6 seeded Deglet dates, coarsely chopped, 2 dried Turkish figs, two small handfuls of walnuts, pan-toasted, about 1/4 teaspoon each of cinnamon, clove and cardamom powder (maybe a bit more of the cinnamon, but not too much), and finally 2 tablespoons of R.W. Knudsen 100% Concord Grape juice. Put them all in the food processor and pulse, do not grind. You want to keep pulsing until it looks sort of like this--mortar-like, but with the fruits and nuts retaining some integrity, not mushy baby food.

Now I need to check on my chicken soup, and rub some spices on the lamb. More to come.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Episode 33: What Is Love?

Love is coming home on a Monday evening, and finding your partner cooking Cambodian food.

It turns out that Makot Pech market on St. John's not only has a full selection of Southeast Asian condiments, canned foods and dry goods, but also a selection of some otherwise hard-to-find vegetables. The star vegetable of the night was bottle gourd (labeled there as Asian green squash; Hindi speakers may know it as "dudhi").


Recipe adapted from The Elephant Walk Cookbook:

Stir friend bottle gourd with pork and tofu

  • Grapeseed oil
  • 3 garlic cloves, smashed
  • 1/2 pound of ground pork
  • 4-8 oz. of fried tofu, cut into bite-size cubes
  • 1.5 Tbsp fish sauce (preferably Thai)
  • 1 tsp sugar>
  • 1.5 lb bottle gourd, peeled and chopped fine
  • 1 large egg, beaten
  • 1 scallion, sliced
  • Sriracha to taste

Heat oil in large skillet or wok over medium-high heat and sauté the garlic until golden brown. Add the pork, tofu, fish sauce, sugar and squash and cook, stirring to break up the pork, until the pork is cooked through and the squash is tender, about 5 minutes. Add the egg and cook, stirring, until it is firm. Remove from the heat, sprinkle with the scallion and stir well. Serve with jasmine rice and optional Sriracha.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Episode 32: Korean Food without Compromises at Korea House

The Little One and I finally got to Korea House yesterday. It really was exceptional. To begin with: Four banchan, including fish cake, konnyaku jelly, and two different kinds of kimchi, radish and cabbage. The kimchis were fermented to the point of pungency and heavy on the chili pepper. LO devoured the fish cakes--the only non-spicy banchan--so I only got to sample a few, but they were good, with a nice balance of soy and sesame seasoning them. The konnyaku jelly was delicious, well-seasoned with soy, scallion and chili, and a brave choice for Portland.

LO was in the mood for beef, so I got her the bibimbap. I did not sample it because she insisted on adding soy sauce to it, which was not to my taste. But the egg looked nicely fried, the beef seemed well-seared, and there was a wide variety of vegetables.

I had the 고등어조림 (go deung eo jo rim), braised mackerel with Korean radish and heroic quantities of gochujang. The mackerel was served on the bone, as is traditional, the radish pungent as it should be, and the whole ensemble spicily delicious.

As a restaurant, it had a few of the decor elements that I am used to: the stainless steel lidded rice bowls, blond wood tables and, how could I have forgotten, a massive photographic mural of some very picturesque mountains and waterfall in Korea.

I won't say that there's no reason to visit their competitor, Little Seoul, which did, after all, have Korean rice with red beans, a specialty worth seeking. But in terms of the flavors and portion sizes, Korea House is closer to the mark, and makes no compromises.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Episode 31: WWJCD? (What Would Julia Child Do?)

Marché in downtown Lewiston advertises that they make their crepes using Julia Child's recipe. I can believe it. The results are fluffy and taste as if they would go equally well with sweet or savory fillings. Quite different from the no less delicious, buckwheat-based, Franco-American versions one can find at various greasy spoons in L-A.

Would Julia Child have filled them with "house made duck confit, mission fig jam, bleu cheese, truffle" (and also some unlisted arugula)? She might have left out the fig jam, which melted and puddled out when exposed to the heat of the crepes and the duck. She likely would have served the arugula as a lightly dressed salad on the side, rather than letting it wilt a bit in the filling. Otherwise, all seemed as ineffably delicious as she would have liked.

But would Julia Child have eaten it? Yes, I'm pretty sure she would have.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Episode 30: Update from Aroma, and another Dispatch from Lewiston

If I let it this could become the weekly "exploration of Aroma's menu" blog. It's the place we seem to default to when I'm too tired to cook and we don't want to think to hard about where to eat out. I'm not going to post here everything I try something new off their menu--only when something is so delicious I think everyone should try it. Today that something is the Goat Chettinad Curry. This is a southern Indian dish, from the state of Tamil Nadu, and thus densely seasoned with curry leaves, mustard seeds and chilis. The result is the most savory goat I've had in Maine (even better than the Somali goat at Safari restaurant).

I've tried yet another Thai place in Lewiston, Pepper and Spice at 825 Lisbon Street. (I hesitate to link to their website, because they have some annoying music playing on their homepage.) I can't do a head-to-head comparison with Thai Jarearn, as I did not order Jungle Curry (or duck). But I did get a pork garpow that was nose-tinglingly spicy and basil-fragrant. (And the prices are lower--amazingly affordable, in fact.)

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Episode 29: Bubble Maineia

The name is ridiculous. The menu is limited. But Bubble Maineia almost certainly serves the best Chinese food in Maine. Possibly the best Chinese food north of Boston. And if one limits one's consideration to the sub-genre of "Taiwanese snack food joints," then they've even got some of their countrymen in Flushing beat. If I worked in Portland, I would be seriously tempted to eat lunch there every day. As it is, I know what my response will be from now on whenever the Little One asks for Chinese.

If only they were open on Christmas.

Things to order: The beef stew noodle soup, spicy and fragrant with star anise, and generously loaded up with both meat and bok choi; the teriyaki pork bun; the five spice egg. There's more that's probably just as good if not better, but this is what I've been able to sample so far. Washed down on a cold night with a hot ginger almond milk tea, and it hit all the right spots.

Dear Portland foodies: Don't complain, just go, and order widely and adventurously. If that beef stew noodle soup goes the way of the erstwhile tortas at Taco Trio, or the rumored Three Cup Chicken at Chia Sen, I will blame you collectively and individually, and curse you deeply in my soul.

Dear proprietors of Bubble Maineia: Would you consider running some Taiwanese favorites as specials? Perhaps an oyster pancake--that would showcase Maine's native bounty of the sea. And if you have a stash of stinky tofu in the back, I would pay top dollar (at least as long as Hot Librarian is not dining with me). And just one thing more: Could you please open, for just a couple hours around lunchtime, on December 25th? We'd tell every Jew we know in town and make it worth your while.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Episode 27: Thai and German

I had kind of hoped that Vientiane Market, where the Little One and I had lunch yesterday, would have some sort of obscure Laotian specialties available. It is, after all, named after the capital of Laos. However the owners and kitchen staff are apparently a mix of Thais and Laotians, and they seem to have opted in their limited take-out kitchen (with a few Formica tables for those who prefer to eat in) mostly for known crowd-pleasers from the Thai side of Mekong River. Though there is larb/laap, a spicy meat salad that is popular both in Laos and in the northeastern sections of Thailand bordering it. When summer comes, I will return to order it.

The most wintry thing on the menu had to be Massaman curry, which I ordered with beef. It was one of the best examples of the dish I have hard, peanutty and coconutty and fragrant with turmeric, lemongrass and red chili. LO wanted noodles, so we got her pad thai. She seemed to enjoy the dish, but it seemed to me to be lacking something--perhaps fish sauce, or lime juice, maybe both. We brought home a bottle of Sriracha, a household staple whose purchase was long overdue.

With the strong reputation of Portland's Thai restaurants, I wasn't amazed enough by Vientiane for it to have won my eternal allegiance--yet. But I will return.

Today's family lunch was our first brunch at Schulte & Herr. There's not much that I can say about it that hasn't already been written at Edible Obsessions. Hot Librarian had the Bergmannkiez, out of nostalgia for the many excellent breakfast spreads we had on our last visit to Germany. LO got a kick out of being able to have latkes with sour cream and apple sauce for lunch--"It's like Hanukkah!"--though I think she got a good deal of her caloric intake from pieces of ham, salami and cheese off of HL's plate. As for me, I could not resist the lox and horseradish sauce as toppings for my potato pancakes. My only complaint is that for brunch they served it in same size as they offer for appetizers at lunch or dinner during the week. I would have gladly payed proportionately more a larger serving. As it was, the perfectly seasoned side dish of roasted beets that I ordered--and a bit of HL's Bergmannkiez--filled the hole. For now, it's BYOB--and had I known, I would have budgeted time to grab some beer en route. When this place gets its liquor license and can offer German and/or Austrian beers and wines, they will be an unstoppable juggernaut.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Episode 26: Red Flannel Hash a la Marocaine

On the theme of presenting Maine classics with an international spin, I give you Red Flannel Hash a la Marocaine. It is also presented in the spirit of coming home tired on a work night and wanting to use up leftovers in a tasty manner.

The first thing you're going to need for this recipe is leftover roast lamb. As I've explained, the oven in my current apartment is quirky at best, so I hesitate to give a proper recipe. This one, suitably modified, worked very nicely. More important than the recipe, however, is the quality of the lamb itself. There is one particular farm represented at the Portland Winter Market that I would recommend without hesitation... except that I've forgotten their name. But you can't miss them: Lately, their stall has been the first one you see as you enter the market, and they are the only ones who advertize "fatted calf" (i.e. veal) among their wares. Buy their lamb. It is the tastiest lamb I have had in the United States.

Once you have some good roast lamb sitting in your refrigerator, this recipe is so easy, it almost cooks itself.

Red Flannel Hash a la Marocaine

  • 1/2 lb boiled beets, peeled and chopped into half-inch cubes
  • 3 small-to-medium carrots, boiled and cut into half-inch rounds
  • 1 medium (half-pound) starchy potato, boiled with skin on, and cut into half-inch cubes
  • about 1 lb of leftover roast lamb, cut into half-inch pieces
  • 1 medium onion, diced
  • coarse salt
  • freshly ground black pepper
  • 1/2 teaspoon of sweet Spanish paprika
  • 1/2 teaspoon of cumin
  • 1/4 teaspoon of coriander

Heat a pan (NOT non-stick) over medium heat. Add a tablespoon of olive oil and melt a tablespoon of butter. Cook onions until translucent. Add all other ingredients, and stir until seasonings are thoroughly mixed. Let sit for about 10-15 minutes, until potatoes begin to form a crust at the bottom of the pan.

You are welcome to serve this with a runny fried or poached egg, if your tastes and calorie counts allow. It would be delicious with one, but it was also delicious without.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Episode 25: Home Cooking (Korean, Moroccan, Indian)

The home kitchen has been busy these last few days, as well. Dishes prepared include
  • Dalk galbi (Korean-style grilled chicken), served with a ginger-soy-sesame carrots and brussels sprout stir-fry
  • Moroccan slow-roasted lamb shoulder, served with a ras-el-hanout stew of chickpeas and butternut squash
  • Hyderabadi tomato karhi with pakoras (Hot Librarian's concoction)

The karhi (a thick soup made of buttermilk, chickpea flour, tomatoes and spices) was delicious, but I don't know the recipe that she used. Of the things I cooked, the most successful was the chickpea and butternut stew, so that's what I'll post. (On the dalk galbi, I need to work on the marinade--I had based it on the marinade I use for short ribs, but the chicken came out just a bit too salty from the soy sauce. The carrot and brussels sprout stir fry was tasty, but not a stand alone meal. The lamb shoulder came out perfect, but the cooking time and method was based on our quirky oven.)

Ras-el-Hanout Chickpeas and Butternut Squash

Note: The spice quantities in the following recipe are after-the-fact approximations. The way I was actually cooking was fully improvised, with measurements in the form of sprinkles, pinches, scatters and, "until it smells right." The less rigorously you follow this recipe, and the more you follow your nose, the more likely you are to end up with something tasty. Or, you can make things easy on yourself, and use about 2 teaspoons of a commercially blended ras-el-hanout.

  • 2 tablespoons of olive oil
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 2 large cloves of garlic, minced
  • 1 butternut squash, peeled, seeds and pulp scooped out, and cut into 1/2 inch cubes
  • 1/2 teaspoon of sweet Spanish paprika (pimentón dulce)
  • 1/2 teaspoon of ground cumin
  • 1/4 teaspoon of ground coriander
  • 1/4 teaspoon of ground cloves
  • 1/8 teaspoon of ground cinnamon
  • enough water to cover (about 4 cups)
  • nutmeg, freshly grated (a few passes over the grater should be sufficient)
  • salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
  • 1 can of chickpeas (I had actually planned on starting by boiling dried chickpeas, but I had forgotten to put them in to soak the night before.)

  1. Heat large pot with olive oil on medium-high heat.
  2. Add onion. Cook until translucent.
  3. Lower heat to medium. Add garlic. Cook stirring for a minute, until fragrant.
  4. Add squash. Stir to coat with oil.
  5. Add paprika, cumin, coriander, cloves and cinnamon. Stir until thoroughly mixed and incorporated and spices just begin to fragrantly toast.
  6. Add water, nutmeg and some salt and pepper. Bring to boil, then lower to a simmer and leave uncovered.
  7. Cook for 15 minutes. Add chickpeas. Cook for 15 minutes more. Check for seasoning, and add more salt and black pepper if needed. Remove from heat. (Depending on your palate, you may wish to add the juice of half a lemon or a whole lemon at this point. I can see that it would be very nice, but it wouldn't have matched well with the lamb I was serving.)

Super easy, vegetarian or vegan friendly, can be thrown together as a last-minute after-work meal. Serve as a side dish with meat, or as an entree with rice and/or bread.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Episode 24: Two Reviews (Mexican and Somali)

At this point we've visited Taco Trio enough times, and sampled enough items, that I feel comfortable posting about it. A few notes:
  • My favorite of their taco fillings would be the carnitas. Soft, shreddy, with some slight caramelization, they're like pig candy. The Little One seems to agree.
  • Items that are supposed to have a certain intrinsic heat to them, such as the tacos al pastor, or the chicken mole, tend to be toned down. This can be made up for somewhat, but not entirely, by the excellent range of salsas of various bases, chilis and heat levels, not to mention the superb vegetales en escabeche.
  • In spite of that, the mole, at least as I tasted it yesterday in a tamal special, was toothsome, making up in complexity what it lacked in heat.
  • The tamales themselves are tasty, with good corn flavor from both the filling and the cornhusks in which they were wrapped.
  • The inclusion of coconut in the horchata is unusual, but tasty. Even so, the tamarindo will be my go-to drink.

All told, it's good for what it is, a basic taqueria. I must confess to a bit of sticker shock ($3.50 for a taco? $3.75 for a tamal?), but unless and until Portland has enough of a Mexican population--and relaxed enough food vending regulations--to support taco trucks and street corner tamaleras, they're unlikely to be surpassed any time soon. After all, like any brick-and-mortar restaurant, they need to pay the rent.

A couple wishes:

  • I'd love it if some day they could add tortas and/or cemitas to the menu.
  • Some stew-type dishes (guisados), even if kept on a steam-table, would be nice as occasional specials.

One place where the spicing is not toned down at all is the Somali restaurant at 30 Washington Avenue in Portland--formerly known as Hamdi, then Fez (and a large sign with that name is still over the door), but now calling itself Safari African Restaurant. We tried it today: It was our first experience of Somali food anywhere. The complimentary tea with which we were greeted was exceptional--redolent with cardamom, and heavily but perfectly sweetened. (It was also welcome because the dining room was underheated--the hospitality and the tea were genuinely warm, but the room not so much.) If the dishes we ordered today--goat meat for me, and a kebab sampler shared between Hot Librarian and the Little One--were any indication, Somali food is simple but flavorful. Both came with a rice that appeared to have been generously buttered and flecked with saffron threads. The goat was fiery, and bathed in a thin sauce of tomato, pepper and onion, but intricately seasoned. The kebabs--kofta, beef and chicken--were similarly seasoned, which was a bit unfortunate, as LO found it to be a bit too much to take (and mostly ate rice as a result). My hope is that the kebabs offered on the children's menu are not seasoned as aggressively, and that if we had ordered her one of her own, she would not have had as much trouble. Otherwise, delicious as it was, we may not be able to return often.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Episode 23: On the Road (Silence Explained)

I've been trying to write an entry about some excellent grinders we had in Connecticut, or an amazingly delicious hole-in-the-wall Haitian takeout place discovered in Rockland County, New York. But what led me to go through those places was the funeral of my wife's grandmother. And no matter how I try, I cannot find a way to discuss the food in isolation of the sad circumstances without feeling like an ass.

So if you happen to be near a dingy shopping center in Spring Valley, at the northeast corner of North Main Street and Eckerson, go to Sunshine Restaurant and order the tassot (fried goat) or the legumes (vegetable stew), "complet" in either case. And if you happen to be passing through Connecticut, you could do a lot worse than to stop at one of the many locations of Nardelli's. May you do so in good health and good cheer.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Episode 22: Jungle Curry and Cretons in Lewiston

A new full-time job is going to make my postings a bit less frequent. And it means that more of them will be reviews of good places to eat in Lewiston and Auburn.

I have two good finds already. The first, Thai Jar Earn Express, is worth a visit if one happens to be in town. I have not yet had a chance to try any of Portland's reputedly good Thai restaurants. But for anyone in Androscoggin County, this place seems to provide a good representation of the cuisine's delicacy and diversity. I ordered a jungle curry with duck. It came out redolent of fish sauce, lime juice, chilis and other seasonings, and the quantity of sauce was more than enough to serve with the rice. But the duck itself still had crispy skin. A well-executed version of a favorite.

Today I visited a rather different eatery at lunch, Edward's Restaurant at 760 Main Street in Lewiston. It's a hole-in-the-wall diner in a desolate-looking shopping center, but the atmosphere was friendly, and they had homemade cretons, a French-Canadian classic. Piggy and nicely seasoned--I could eat it every day.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Episode 21: Dosas and Indo-Chinese at Aroma

Dear Portland Foodies,

You are no longer allowed to complain about the chain restaurants around the Maine Mall. Nor should you ever discuss any Indian restaurant but this one: Aroma. (In fact, I wish I had not written about any others, but in the interests of probity I will not delete the posts.) If you find yourself anywhere in South Portland, or simply have a craving for Indian food, go straight there. Full stop. No excuses.

In eleven years of living in Queens, I ate in many Indian restaurants, in Jackson Heights, Long Island City, Richmond Hill, and Flushing, and even the canteen of a Hindu temple. Aroma was better than all of them. In fact, it was the best Indian food I've ever had outside of London.

I might not have even realized it was so good if not for a misunderstanding. The Little One wanted a child's mini dosa. (That they even have mini dosas on the children's menu is itself fantastic. They also have mini utthapams.) The waiter misunderstood Hot Librarian's order to mean that we also wanted a regular dosa for ourselves. When it came out and we expressed surprise, he insisted on taking off our check, even though we would gladly have paid for it. Very gladly.

Until now, the dosas at the Ganesha Temple Canteen had been our gold standard. For those who do not know, a dosa is a thin crepe made of a mixture of rice flour and lentil flour, and rolled into a tube. It can be, but need not be, filled with a fragrant stew of potatoes and mixed vegetables, and/or a variety of spicy chutneys. Whether filled or not, they are traditionally served with sambar, a thin but richly spiced, sauce-like soup of beans and vegetables, and a coconut chutney that both heats and cools.

Regarding the dosas at Aroma, there's a slight difference of opinion between me and HL. For HL, who does not use the sambar and only slightly dips pieces of dosa into the coconut chutney, the dosa at Aroma was as good as that at the Ganesha Temple. Aroma's has a pleasant nutty flavor, different from but just as good as the slightly fermented flavor of those at the Temple Canteen. For me, however, the sambar and the chutney elevated Aroma's even higher. The sambar was perfectly seasoned. The chutney was redolent of coconut oils, and the red chili flecks used instead of green chili gave it a slight smoky flavor. As far as I am concerned, it is the best dosa I've ever had.

The other things we ordered were all delicious as well. HL got a massive order of tamarind rice that was flecked with nuts and crispy bits of urad dal and studded with red chilis and other spices. I was in a bit of a chili-head mood, so I got the chilli chicken--an Indo-Chinese dish, roughly the Indian equivalent of General Tso's chicken, and an appetizer of cut mirchi (basically deep fried chilis). There are a number of Indo-Chinese dishes on the menu, mostly under Chef's Specialties.

Go to Aroma. Keep going to Aroma. Order everything off the menu. That is what we'll be doing. I pray it's open on Christmas.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Episode 20: Cantonese Braised Beef

Not all Chinese dishes require a wok. I've been making this recipe for Cantonese Braised Beef with Daikon for a couple years now--almost since the day it was published. The Hong Kong Market on Commerce Street has all the sauces and seasonings needed for it--even Chee Hou sauce, which was somehow elusive in Flushing. Now that I have Chee Hou sauce, of course, I will be trying to find as many excuses as possible to cook with it, rather than have it molder in my refrigerator door.

What I wasn't able to find was boneless beef shank, which was easy to find when I was in spitting distance of an Hmart, but now with the nearest one being a hundred miles away in Burlington, Mass., I needed to work with what the local butchers could offer. If you do a search for "Cantonese Braised Beef" you will find some recipes calling for brisket. I found, however, that it worked just fine with chuck. The key is to get a whole chuck roast and cut it yourself. Make sure when cutting it to leave some of the fat and connective tissues in your chunks--exactly the things that western cooks and butchers usually trim away, but that Chinese cooks value for the resulting textural contrasts.

I usually omit the last step of adding the corn starch slurry. It's a largely cosmetic measure, to gloss up the dish and thicken the sauce. I find that after a long reduction and rendering of the natural fats of the meat, it is plenty glossy and thick without the starch.

Hot Librarian prefers hers served over rice; I do rice on the side, though I have been known to spoon some of the sauce onto the rice. Not the usual Chinese way of eating, I know, but delicious.

While this is a Cantonese dish, variants of braised beef with daikon can be found in many other regions of China. This in spite of the fact that beef is rarely used in everyday Chinese cooking. For example, in Fuchsia Dunlop's Land of Plenty: A Treasury of Authentic Sichuan cooking, there's a version that includes 6 tablespoons of chili bean paste in the braising liquid. I would love to try it, but with HL and the Little One, I'm outnumbered.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Episode 19: Venturing into the Norselands

I couldn't help but notice it: It's so close to Pat's, and the flags are prominent. But I needed an excuse to visit Simply Scandinavian. The recipe for Swedish Meatballs from the December 2011 issue of Saveur served nicely. I picked up the needed lingonberry preserves and, on more of a whim, an 8 ounce package of gjetost.

The meatballs came out delicious, though I should note that I substituted ground veal for the ground beef, in the interests of a lighter flavor. It worked nicely. (I also threw a rutabaga in with the potatoes, which did not work quite as well.) The Little One was enamored of the lingonberries, dubbing them "wonderberries."

The meatballs, however, are not the main topic of this post. That would be the gjetost. It's a Norwegian food item, whose name literally means "goat cheese". It is nothing, however, like a crumbly French chevre or an earthy Spanish cabrales. Some would argue that technically it isn't even a cheese. It is made by combining milk, cream and whey, and boiling them down until the milk sugars caramelize. I've seen it referred to as "Norwegian fudge," which works as a descriptor. It is sweet, with a goatish aftertaste.

I've also seen it referred to as a "love it or hate it" type of food, and I can see that. I thought it was delicious, LO seemed to like it, but Hot Librarian was put off by the combination of sweet and goat.

The traditional way to serve it is in very thin slices made with a cheese planer; apparently the texture is unpleasant in larger chunks. For this morning's breakfast, I made an open-faced sandwich of it, with a toasted slice of Maine Grain bread from Standard Baking Company, a thin layer of gjetost, thinly sliced apple wedges, and a dollop of the lingonberry preserves.


I think this will be my regular breakfast for the next few days.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Episode 18: Maine Shrimp

Having grown up in southern Florida, there's something familiar to me about living in a place where people speak naturally of "the season" and everyone knows what that means, where full-time residents resent the part-timers even, or perhaps especially, if they work in a business that is dependent upon them. I imagine that in any such place there are things about the off-season, the time of year when harsh weather chases off the tourists and seasonal residents, that make it bearable or even wonderful, and that help remind those who choose to live there year-round about what keeps them in place.

I say "I imagine" because I never figured out what that was about Florida: I hated the place and couldn't wait to get out. But I've figured out what one of those things must be in Maine: Maine shrimp.

You can only get fresh Maine shrimp in winter. This year, the catch season began January 1. It is always a short season, because the shrimp migrate, but this year it promises to be especially short, as the catch limits have been dramatically curtailed by the fisheries service. I've already cooked with them twice, and would have done so more often if I were more flush with cash. Though honestly, they're not that expensive, either. The last time I checked the Harbor Fish Market, they were $9/pound for fully shelled ones, $6/pound for the ones that have had their heads removed but still have their shells, legs and tails, and only $2/pound for whole shrimp with heads. I usually get the headless ones and shell them myself. They're easy to clean; usually, after I take off the first shell segment, the meat will pop out with a gentle tug. If I wanted to make a shrimp stock--and I imagine these cuties would make a glorious one--I'd get the whole ones and reserve the heads and shells.

They are relatively small, sweet, with a rich crustacean flavor. Sort of like concentrated lobster.

So far my preparations have been relatively simple, and I give an example of one below. But I've been thinking about some of the world's great shrimp dishes, and which would go well with, or perhaps even be improved, by Maine shrimp. Here are just a few that come to mind:

Mainers: Have fun with them while they last! Anyone out of state is welcome to come and try them, if you don't mind the chill (12 degrees Fahrenheit as I write).

This is my concoction from last night. I like pairing haddock with the shrimp. Partly, it's because Hot Librarian is not much of a fan of crustaceans. But also, I think haddock goes nicely with shellfish. It has good fat content and a rich taste of its own. It's a fish that is ubiquitous in Maine, and underappreciated elsewhere. Which I hope remains the case, lest the prices follow a cod-like trajectory.

Maine Shrimp and Haddock in Tarragon Lemon Butter

  • 2 Tbsp olive oil
  • 1 haddock fillet, 8-12 ounces
  • Sea salt
  • Freshly cracked black pepper
  • 1 large shallot, chopped finely
  • 3 Tbsp dry vermouth
  • Juice of half a lemon
  • 2 Tbsp cold butter, cut into small pieces
  • 1 Tbsp chopped fresh tarragon
  • 8 ounces of Maine shrimp, shelled
  • Lemon wedges for serving

  1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
  2. Put oil in an ovenproof skillet.
  3. Season the haddock with salt and pepper and place flat in the skillet.
  4. Place skillet in oven. Cook for 15 minutes.
  5. Remove skillet from oven and haddock from skillet. Reserve haddock on a plate and cover with foil to keep warm.
  6. Place skillet on a burner at medium heat. The residual haddock fat will begin to foam. When the foam begins to subside, add the shallot. Cook the shallot until soft, about 2 minutes. (Do not grab the handle with an unprotected hand--it's still hot from the oven!)
  7. Add vermouth and let cook until mostly evaporated.
  8. Lower the heat to very low and add the lemon juice. Then add the butter one piece at a time, swirling in the skillet to melt and incorporate into the sauce.
  9. Add tarragon and stir so it is thoroughly incorporated.
  10. Add the shrimp, spreading evenly in the skillet. Raise heat to medium-low, so that it gently poaches in the sauce. Cook until shrimp is just cooked, turning once. This step took me about 12 minutes, but it could vary depending on your range. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
  11. Return the haddock to the pan and gently toss to coat it in the sauce and re-warm it. If the haddock breaks into bite size pieces, that is not a problem; you just don't want to shred it to bits.
  12. Serve with lemon wedges and any winter vegetable that has a bit of natural sweetness. (I served it with a parsnip puree, which was a great match.)

Friday, January 20, 2012

Episode 17: Pupusas!

In celebration of a new job, I took the family out last night to Tu Casa (aka Tu Casa Salvadoreña, at 70 Washington Avenue in Munjoy Hill). Hot Librarian and I have been big fans of Salvadoran food for over a decade now, ever since we spent some of her grad school years in a heavily Salvadoran neighborhood in Washington DC. Especially the pupusa.

A pupusa is made of the same hominy corn dough as a tortilla, but is much thicker, stuffed with a filling and cooked on a griddle. It is served with a vinegary cabbage slaw called curtido, and a light tomato sauce that, despite its resemblance to a Mexican salsa, is not at all spicy. Each of the accompaniments can be added to one's taste.

Unfortunately for me, Tu Casa offers only two types of pupusas, both of which had cheese (and I am lactose intolerant). Now, queso salvadoreño is one of the least known of the world's great dairy products: When shredded, it melts like mozzarella, but it has the salty tang of a good feta as well as a bit of Jarlsbergian pungency. But there were enough other tempting things on the menu that I decided not to risk the unpleasant side effects. The two options are revueltas (a mix of queso salvadoreño and ground chicharrón--pork rinds) and queso con loroco. Loroco is an edible flower with a strong herbaceous aroma and taste, very strange and totally addictive.

HL got one of each, and let me have a taste of the loroco one--which I would never decline. I paid the price for the cheese, but it was worth it. The pupusa had a good corn flavor, a decent sear. The cheese, oozy and funky, with the unforgettable perfume of loroco. The curtido was good and vinegary, setting off the flavors of the pupusa nicely. LO had her own revuelta and devoured it.

HL also got an order of fried plantain, which turned out to her chagrin to be two whole ripe plantains, each cut lengthwise--way more than she could eat. However, they served it with what tasted to me like real crema salvadoreña--like the cheese, a little known but excellent dairy product. It tastes like creme fraiche, but is just a bit thinner, perfect for dunking plantains.

As for me, I came famished and ordered big. I started out with a tamal salvadoreño de pollo, a corn tamal cooked in a banana leaf and filled with a gently seasoned stew of chicken and potatoes, then had the plato montañero. As I discovered living in Queens, just about every Latin American nation has its own variant of this: A hearty countryside all-day breakfast consisting of meat, egg, beans and starches piled high. Tu Casa's Salvadoran variant had a grilled, marinated steak, a fried egg, sliced avocado, beans, rice and half of a fried plantain. The steak was nicely seasoned, though I added some of the tomato sauce for the pupusas to good effect, and the beans savory. The starches gave no cause for complaint. Unfortunately the egg yolk was cooked hard, so the egg didn't add much to the meal other than calories.

The menu seems heavily weighted toward those Salvadoran dishes which share names and features with better known Mexican dishes (e.g. tacos, enchiladas), as well as some straight-up Mexican and Tex-Mex items added presumably for the comfort of customers unfamiliar with Salvadoran food. Missing was yuca con chicharrón, an old deep-fried favorite of mine that has been on the menu of every Salvadoran restaurant I've visited up until now, and the limited selection of pupusas was disappointing. (For example, LO had been hoping for a bean and cheese pupusa, and I might have ordered one that was filled with just chicharrón.)

Another thing that could stand some improvement was the service, though to be honest it was no worse than what we've been conditioned to expect from comparable institutions in our former hometown. Don't go if you're in a rush. But do try the pupusas.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Episode 16: More Indian Food, at Home and Away

For tonight's dinner I had a cabbage that needed to be used, some ground, grass-fed beef, and a full spice collection. So I turned to Madhur Jaffrey's An Invitation to Indian Cooking (1973), and ended up making some savory kheema, and cabbage with onions. (I had done the kheema because I figured we needed some protein, but in retrospect the cabbage dish was hearty enough that we could have made a vegetarian meal of it, with perhaps a garnish of hard-boiled egg for protein.)

The Jaffrey book was one of the first cookbooks that Hot Librarian and I shared while keeping house together. She was a year ahead of me in her education, and a grad school colleague had given it to her as a gift just before the summer between my college graduation and the start of my graduate schooling. It was a peculiar summer, during which she slaved over her Master's Exams and retrieved big stacks of books for me from the graduate library, which I read in the midst of a failed search for work in an isolated Midwestern college town, giving her the space and time she needed to get her work done, and cooking up elaborate dinners. A lot of those dinners drew on the Jaffrey book. (It was also during that summer that I first proposed to her.)

With English being the lingua franca of the Indian subcontinent, and so many Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis and members of their respective diasporas being active online, this is not a cuisine (or rather, a set of cuisines, for the regional variations are extensive) for which cookbooks are an absolute necessity anymore. There are plenty of websites on which one can find good recipes, written in English, using measurements and ingredients that are accessible to most American kitchens. (Including here in southern Maine, thanks to Masala Mahal.) I particularly recommend sify bawarchi. But a well-written cookbook is good for teaching you the fundamentals of a cuisine, the things that home cooks, in posting their recipes on the internet, may take for granted as being understand.

For example, many of the online recipes will call for "onion-garlic paste" or "onion-garlic-ginger paste" or "chili-onion-garlic paste". Those are things that you can now probably find in a jar at a well-stocked Indian grocery store, but you would get better results by making your own as part of the prep work. Reading Jaffrey's recipes, which nearly always begin with "put onion, garlic and ginger with x tablespoons of water into the food processor and puree into a smooth paste" will teach you the appropriate quantities of each ingredient. They will also teach you when to use whole spices, or ground ones, why Indian recipes call for cooking vegetables much longer than one would see in a French or Italian cookbook, and why "curry powder" is an abomination.

Though nearly forty years old, Jaffrey's book has held up well. As a rule, the ingredients are fresh (though she does make extensive use of canned tomatoes--understandable enough to anyone who lives in a place without year-round access to soil-grown heirloom varieties), the directions are clear, and there is a good balance between everyday staples and more elaborate, dinner-party-type productions. She did not attempt a compendium of recipes to represent the many regions and cultures of the country or the subcontinent, but drew mostly on her own Delhian background. However, for the "regions" of India (many of which are larger or more populous than some major European nations), there are other cookbooks and extensive online resources.

But even with the best of cookbooks, training and recipes, sometimes, you just don't have time. Sometimes, you need to eat out. Monday at the lunch hour was one of those times, and we ended up at Jewel of India in South Portland.

I had the sholay bhatura (previously known to me by the more common transliteration of "choley bhatura"). This is a Punjabi dish that, in Queens, can be found as a breakfast food at the small, 24-hour storefront restaurants catering primarily to taxi drivers that dot neighborhoods with either a large number of Indians and Pakistanis (like Jackson Heights), or those with a large number of taxi garages (like Long Island City and Astoria). It consists of a thick stew of complexly seasoned chickpeas (choley), served with one or two pieces of puffy, fried bread (bhatura), which is torn off in pieces and used to scoop up the chickpeas. The choley had a a bit more of a tomatoey sauce than I am used to, but that was more than made up for by the hint of an herbaceous pungency that I believe may have come from a judicious use of dried methi leaves (fenugreek). The bread was a bit odd: The shell was a bit thicker than I've had it before, resulting in a flavor and texture a bit like a good, but unsweetened, yeast doughnut; I'm more accustomed to a thin, flaky shell. (The difference had its benefits, as it held the weight of chickpeas better.) And to have the mixed pickle that is a usual accompaniment, I would need to have ordered it and paid an additional two dollars.

The oddest thing, however, is that the bread came out well before the choley, giving it time to begin deflating before I could actually have my meal. Perhaps this was a concession to a perceived preference among Americans to have their breads first, before the entree. If I return and order the dish again--which I may well, for it's not one I'm likely to make for myself--I will need to make a point of asking the waiter to have the kitchen time it so that they're ready to come out at the same time.

HL reports that the mutter paneer (peas and cheese) she and the Little One shared was likewise more tomatoey than she is used to, and generally characterized it as "workmanlike, not spectacular" but worth a return. LO said her mango lassi "tastes like a good mango lassi." You can't argue with that. Overall, it was good, and worth a return visit.

We didn't try Aroma, because it's closed on Mondays, but being South Portland residents we definitely have to give it a shot before declaring a favorite. With some South Indian specialties on their menu, and even a few Indo-Chinese dishes, I'm looking forward to it.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Episode 15: Palestinian Breakfast

I don't understand why people buy packages of pre-made hummus. It may be one of the easiest things in the world to make. I've been getting good results from this recipe for years. The "hardest" part about it is squeezing the lemons.

Palestinians and other peoples of the eastern Mediterranean have been eating hummus for breakfast for millennia. To take it a step further in authenticity, spice it up with za'atar. There are few better ways to start the day.

Since the chickpeas I used were cooked in a cocido madrileño, today's batch is not halal, nor kosher, nor vegan. But it is delicious. (And if you don't have cooked chickpeas readily available, canned will serve just fine.)

The olives and tahini come from Al-Ahram market at 630 Forest Avenue.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Episode 14: Spanish Hash

As promised, I made a hash out of some of the leftovers from my cocido madrileño. It was delicious. And since a cocido is not very heavily seasoned, you could probably make this without having first made the cocido:

Spanish Hash

  • 1-2 Tbsp olive oil
  • 1 small onion, chopped
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 1/4 tsp sweet Spanish paprika (pimentón dulce)
  • 1/2 cup cooked chicken
  • 1/2 cup cooked pork belly
  • 1 small turnip, peeled, boiled and cut into 1/4 inch slices
  • 1 small, waxy potato, peeled, boiled and cut into 1/4 inch slices
  • Salt and pepper to taste

  1. Heat the oil in a large pan (NOT non-stick) over medium-high heat.
  2. When oil is hot, add onion, garlic and paprika. Stir to make sure paprika is thoroughly mixed in. Cook for 2-3 minutes.
  3. Mix the meats and vegetables together. Add to the pan, mixing thoroughly with the onion/garlic/paprika mixture and spreading out into the thinnest possible layer.
  4. Cook until the bottom has begun to brown, about 8 minutes. Remove from heat.
  5. When serving, make sure to scrape up as much as possible of the browned bits at the bottom of the pan.
  6. Serve with an egg, either fried over-easy in olive oil, or poached.

(Sorry for the lack of pics in this post. Attempts turned out to be fuzzy. Whatever my quality as a writer, I'm a lousy photographer.)

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Episode 13: Five-Spice Tofu with Braised Tatsoi

Tonight's dinner: Five-spice tofu with braised tatsoi. Ingredients:

  • 1 Tbsp neutral oil (canola, peanut or grapeseed) for stir-frying.
  • 1 Tbsp minced fresh ginger.
  • 12 oz. package of five-spice tofu, cut into thin slices (available at Hong Kong Market)
  • 1 package (5 ounces, maybe?) of tatsoi
  • 1 tsp good-quality light soy sauce (I like the Pearl River Bridge brand, for a good balance of price and quality--also available at Hong Kong Market)
  • 2 Tbsp low-sodium broth (pork, chicken, vegetable or black bean--I used chicken)
  • 1/2 tsp sesame oil

The tatsoi came from the Portland Winter Market. The tofu, soy sauce and sesame oil all came from the Hong Kong Market. In Flushing my fridge and pantry were overflowing with condiments, seasonings and pickled vegetables of Chinese, Korean, and Southeast Asian provenance. I'm sensing that I'll be going on a Chinese kick soon, so I will be gradually rebuilding some of that abundance. There's another market on Congress Street, Sun Market, closer to the Arts District, that I intend to check out--it has Korean as well as Chinese writing on its advertising, and so may be the place to get gochujang, dwenjang and kimchi. And I've driven by a few places with Khmer writing on their awnings as well.

As for cooking it: Heat wok or large non-stick pan on medium-high to high heat. Add oil when the pan is hot. When the oil shimmers, add the ginger. In five seconds, add the tofu. When the tofu has browned slightly but before the ginger burns (if your heat is high enough, this should only take 15 seconds), add the tatsoi, soy sauce and broth in quick succession. Cook, stirring, until the tatsoi is crisp-tender (2-3 minutes at the most). Remove from heat and add the sesame oil. Serve with rice.