A brief statement of purpose

There are already about a billion food blogs, so what might be a justification of yet another one, and who am I to do it?

What I aim to do in this blog is more than simply provide recipes. While recipes of my own will, in fact, be posted, some of the blog will consist of a variety of comments about restaurants and their practices, food preparation tips, personal annoyances (such as loud restaurants and the epidemic of misspellings on menus), and whatever else pops into my head relating to what we put in our mouths (and swallow, I hasten to add). The whole thing is meant to be somewhat provocative. I hope, if nothing else, it won't be boring. I, of course, solicit reader participation.

As for who I am and why I think I might have something to contribute to public discussions on this essential and pleasurable activity - eating - you'll have to click here.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Some interesting ingredients

These may not have been so common when you were a child (unless you’re a child now). I’ll occasionally add to this list.

Coconut milk: With the increase in the number of Indian and Thai restaurants over the past twenty years or so, more and more Americans have become familiar with this ingredient. It should not be confused with cream of coconut, which comes in almost identical cans and which, if used in entrée-type food preparations, will yield an unpleasant experience. This is the ingredient found in sweet drinks such as piña colada and in desserts. Coconut milk, on the other hand, can now be found in even many smaller grocery stores. Its price will, however, be from 50% to 100% higher than in Asian markets.

Fennel pollen: When you can’t find fennel or when you don’t want fennel itself in a dish, this is an excellent way to impart the taste. It comes in small jars much like spices and herbs found in this section of stores. Regrettably, it isn’t yet widely available. Try Penzey’s (http://www.penzeys.com/).

Lamb: For most Americans, the only red meat is that of, first and foremost, the cow. This is Beef Country, podnuh. Yes, pork is very popular as well, mass bred now to be largely tasteless (look for small, independent producers), and bison, which is increasingly available, but the unpopularity of lamb is evidenced by the fact that many large grocery stores simply don’t carry it – except when the legs of the animals appear just before the annual Resurrection celebration. This is very unfortunate. Many people seem to think lamb is too strongly flavored or simply that such a cute animal shouldn’t be slaughtered and consumed. Cattle are, admittedly, not “cute”; neither are chickens and turkeys. Rabbits, aka bunnies, are cute, so Americans don’t eat them. This is so irrational. Do people think the face of the lamb or rabbit will be part of the preparation? Ground lamb is not strongly flavored. Lamb is the meat of choice in the Middle East. The climate and land make cattle raising too inefficient – which it is regardless of location - and pork is prohibited by both Islam and Judaism. At least they agree on that – to their loss. If it isn’t in your grocery store, I suggest telling the manage to get it . . . or else.

Maftoul, Israeli couscous, Syrian couscous: I refer here not to the very small-grained couscous which is so common in North African cuisines, but to its larger-grained close cousin. If you’re unfamiliar with the larger of the two, look for packages – usually a pound or so – labeled maftoul, Syrian couscous, Palestinian couscous, or Israeli couscous. Both versions are, usually, made by rolling and shaping moistened semolina wheat and then coating them with finely ground wheat flour. Maftoul is the common name in Lebanon, Palestine, and Syria. In Israel, Ptitim is the Hebrew word for it, but it’s frequently marketed in the US as Israeli couscous. Some claim that it was invented during the early, economically difficult, years after the state of Israel was established in 1948, when rice was scarce, in order to provide the needs of Jews from Arab lands (Sephardim) and other areas not European (Ashkenazim). It quickly gained popularity among Israelis as a whole. The weight of the evidence, however, suggests that it preceded the year 1948. The smaller grained North African couscous is just fine, but the advantage in some preparations of the larger type is that it provides a distinct bite and a greater “mouthfeel”. It absorbs other flavors very well, too. In other words, since it’s heartier, it can stand alone with a greater degree of assertiveness. Think of round orzo, but the taste is still nuttier than orzo, particularly if one sautes it a bit in oil prior to adding the cooking liquid.

Nut oils: Walnut, hazelnut, and almond oil is what I have in the pantry. Better-stocked supermarkets will carry them, or at least one or two. I think their principal use is drizzling over finished dishes because their nutty flavor seems to diminish when subjected to heat. I’m not sure about this. I suppose I could do a simple experiment to find out, but I haven’t donw so to this point in time. I know this is true of truffle oil, which is more delicate. Notwithstanding this possible problem, I still use them for sautéing. Problem is, they’re definitely more expensive than canola oil and corn oil, particularly if you go to Williams-Sonoma or cookware specialty stores. You certainly don't want to use them for deep-frying. Look in your local supermarket where they’ll be cheaper, but here’s something I discovered a few years ago: Clothing and home goods stores such as TJ Maxx and Marshalls will usually have a small section among the pots and pans where pasta, coffees, teas and such are sold. Here you will frequently find one or more of these nut oils at a seriously lower price than at the grocery stores. If one of these stores is in your area, check it out.

Pomegranate molasses: This is sometimes called pomegranate syrup. It’s difficult to find this thick, distinctively sweet and sour product of the pomegranate fruit in any of our major supermarkets, so you’ll have to find a Middle Eastern or Indian shop or order it online. The better varieties are made from a somewhat more tart variety of pomegranate than the fruit which appears in the produce section in the winter months. Some brands, though, are too sweet. The syrup should have a sour component. Its uses are many, including as a baste for kebabs, for chicken, soups, and stews.

Rice: Get rid of ordinary “Big Ben” rice. Better - or at least more interesting -rice is cheap, and there are many ways to flavor it. (I won’t dignify “minute” rice with further comment.) And get a rice cooker. It’ll cost you as little as $20 or $30, although prices vary a great deal, and it’ll cook rice in 20 minutes or so. (A parenthetical note here: Many rice preparations require sautéing the rice first so as to brown it prior to steaming. In other words, the electric rice cooker won’t work for all recipes.) So which better rice should you get? I suggest having on hand three types: Japanese-style (actually grown in the US) medium to short grain; the longer grain Basmati rice (the best comes from Pakistan and Northern India); and Jasmine which is common in Thai and other Southeast Asian cooking and is also long grain. Many grocery stores now stock such interesting and tasty types marketed as “forbidden” rice, which is black, and “bamboo” rice, which is a light green. Why restrict oneself to inferior or less interesting rice? Big Ben had his day; it’s now time for Big Bashir, Big Bhupendra, and Big Banyat.

Saffron: Ahhh, saffron. Pity those who go to their graves, their funeral pyres, or to their urns without having tasted this product of the crocus flower, specifically their dried stigmas. This is the Supreme Monarch of spices, as far as I’m concerned. When I’m asked, “What does it taste like?”, I say, “Like nothing else.” One will occasionally see recipes in which it’s suggested that turmeric can be substituted. The color will be similar, but the taste of the finished dish will be completely dissimilar and inferior. Saffron has been cultivated for at least four millennia, probably beginning in Persia (Iran today), Greece, and parts of South Asia. “The myth of how the flower received its name speaks of the romance between Smilax, an Athenian forest nymph, and Crocus, her bewitched mortal lover. Crocus, in his obsessed pursuit, incurred the wrath of the gods and was turned into the exotic flower with the flaming heart. It is at the heart of the flower that saffron is found in the three blood red trumpet shaped stigmas that shoot forth from the inside of the flower.” (From Great Chefs.com) Harvesting must be done by hand, which accounts for its well-deserved reputation as the most expensive of spices. Moreover, to produce one pound of saffron, one must use at least seventy thousand crocus flowers. This gives new meaning to the term “labor intensive”. How expensive, you ask? Depending on quality, a pound will cost you $2000 to $4000. So if you want to have a meal of pure saffron, you may have to dip into your savings or sell some stocks. Of course, there’s no recipe which calls for a pile of saffron on one’s plate as a substitute for mashed potatoes, and no one would use a pound of this ambrosia at one meal. Have you ever heard of a saffron burger? Saffron comes in small containers of about one gram, in powdered or in thread form. The threads are the dried stigmas. (There are 454 grams in one pound.) This one small container will run about five to perhaps ten dollars, and a typical recipe will involve only a portion of this amount. Now you see that getting a new mortgage on the house is hardly necessary. To put this in perspective, what does a fast food burger go for now? About the same, right? These days, crocuses are grown for saffron in many countries, but major exporters are Spain, Turkey, and Iran. Look for stigmas which are uniformly red or orange, not yellow. Threads are preferable to powder which may be adulterated.

Smoked Spanish paprika: This stuff is so good I remember the first time I bought it. (Everyone remembers their “first time”, right?) It was January 2000 at The Spanish Table, a great Spanish cookware and market in Seattle’s Pike Place Market. About the only thing to which I haven’t added this is breakfast cereal. My mother used paprika to prettify some dishes. The tasteless microspecks reminded me of chiggers. Not really. I just thought they could’ve reminded me of chiggers if I had been old enough to think in terms of similes. Happily, this product, which comes in small tins, is increasingly available in reasonably well-stocked grocery stores. We’ve had non-smoked paprika, superior to French’s, available for some years now. Typically, it comes from Hungary and is available in sweet (i.e., non-spicy) and hot versions. What I’m referring to here, though, is smoked paprika. Please buy it.

Truffle oil: I know this product has of late achieved the dubious distinction among some restaurateurs and critics of being overused. The suggestion is that it’s faddish . . . or was faddish. To that I say, I’ve dined in a number of good restaurants over the years, yet I’ve never had that impression. Maybe it’s because I haven’t yet supped at Bob’s Truffle Oil Eats. In any case, I can think of worse fads. Most of us can rarely if ever spring for real fresh truffles, whether black or white. So we, the proletariat, shouldn’t be blamed for utilizing this substitute. I don’t claim it’s a great substitute for the real thing – what could possibly be? I simply claim that the better bottled versions are, in fact, reminiscent of the real thing. It’s good drizzled over potatoes in any form and on preparations involving mushrooms. It should emphatically be used only to finish a dish, not as a cooking oil. If it’s subjected to heat – higher than that of a plated dish – its redolent scent will dissipate. Prices vary quite a bit, and as a general rule, the higher the better. In the section on nut oils, I suggested trying TJ Maxx and Marshall’s. Same for this product.


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