Damn. I let myself down at Sichuan Village in Chantilly, VA. I finally showed my whiteness.
Wonderful, food-loving Ben took me to his favorite Sichuan-style Chinese restaurant in Virginia. He took good care of us, ordering five dishes for three people and earning a respectful (or perhaps incredulous) stare from the nice server lady. By the way, don't bother going without someone who can order off the Chinese menu, else you will be eating those beloved Chinese-American classics, chicken fried rice and lo mein. Vomit.
The first to arrive was a cold appetizer of sliced tendon, tripe, and stomach in a Sichuan chili sauce with spring onions, and peanuts. The sauce is the reason I dream about Sichuanese food. Made with dried and roasted chilis, not ground but crushed into small pieces that retain their texture, the heat and flavor of the chilis leached into the oil, coloring it red. And red is my favorite color. We were meant to be, don’t you see? Toasted, flavorful, moderately hot, with a dry crunch, the oil was painfully addictive. I could – and did – eat it with a spoon. Oh yeah, and the tendon, tripe, yeah whatever. They were good, but they were not confused. The sauce was the star of the show.
Then came the dry fried green beans, a la Shanghai Gate (perhaps even more delicious). There was also fried fish and steamed tofu, and a giant, bone-in pork shoulder with a thick fatty skin and meat so melted and tender that Ben cut it up with a spoon. A spoon, people! The rather imposing pork shoulder was surrounded by baby bok choy, reconstituted dried mushrooms, and curiously, squares of ham in a thick sauce. Forget the ham. Forget the sauce. You can most certainly forget the cabbagey bits when staring at sweet, fatty, cotton ball-soft pork that pulls away from the bone with no pressure from the chopsticks. Make sure to fight for the skin. I would have, if I had assurance I wouldn’t explode from eating too much.
I was so happy. So happy! We were all doing so well, happy, eating, talking… and naturally, this was around this time that it happened, that I failed. One of the chief reasons I forced Ben to take me to this place was the promise of blood tofu – congealed pork blood steamed and cut into squares. Try not to read too much into my dying to try this particular delicacy. Just let it go.
I was expecting something tinny, metallic and derr, blood-like. It wasn’t. The blood tofu was very mild. It hardly had any taste at all, with a consistency of hard tofu - creamy and silky, but drier. It was good. The blood tofu swam around with bamboo shoots and wiggly chunks of pork intestines.
The pork inside bits? Not so much. Without going into too much detail, they tasted just like the substance it is their job to convey. Yep, they had a certain tint of poo. And here’s the thing. You can’t really bite through a chunk of pork intestine. You kinda have to take the whole piece given into your mouth and pray that it stays there as you work on it, with pained focus and rigid concentration. I know that not everything I ate after the poo conveyor tasted the same, but I’ll be damned if I wasn’t looking for that flavor in every subsequent bite. That's an acquired taste if I ever experienced one.
I totally failed. I thought myself all kinds of badass. I was psyched about the blood tofu, the tendon and stomach frankly rocked (and rocked hard). The poo conveyor, however? It almost did me in. My whiteness got the best of me. I deduct ten badass points from myself. Sigh.
14005 Lee Jackson Highway
Chantilly VA 20151
(703) 631- 5888
Saturday, December 29, 2007
Sunday, December 23, 2007
Some stereotypes are true. Russians really do know their vodka. Swedish vodka is fit only for degreasing engines, French vodka plays in the minor leagues, at best, but the Russians… Russians are the studs of the vodka world. They do it right.
There are a two key factors which determine the quality or smoothness of vodka. 1) The purity and quality of the water. Water in Russian is voda. Vodka - voda... get it? Except they drink way more vodka than water over there.
2) The amount and quality of wheat or rye. Contrary to popular belief, it’s only the Polish that make vodka from potatoes - the Russians always use grain.
Russians are very particular about how they drink their vodka, following a strict ritual that distinguishes their vodka drinking from all the other sissy vodka practices on the planet (why on earth would anyone dilute their vodka with fruit juice? Unless they are drinking Swedish vodka, that is).
So here’s what you do if you want to drink like a Russian. This procedure is not for the faint of heart, I warn you.
To drink like a Russian:
- Take a shot glass (real Russians fill a normal glass half way up but I don’t expect that level of devoted alcoholism out of normal people) and fill it to the brim with vodka which you just took out of the freezer.
- Pick up the shot glass with one hand, a dill pickle with the other.
- Toast to the health of your friends (hopefully, you are not doing this all by your alcoholic lonesome).*
- Exhale strongly to get all the air out of your lungs. Quickly take the shot and bite the pickle, neither stalling nor breathing between the swallow and the bite. [Getting rid of all the air prevents the burn of the vodka as it comes back up.]
*Update - my father has requested a correction to the above point, lest one of you actually attempt to stuff a pickle into your mouth without breathing, choke, and then sue me for all I am worth (which is really not all that much, although I do have some nice earrings). You are supposed to exhale once more after swallowing the shot and then bite the pickle. I guess I do it (and many other things) without thinking.
- Rinse and repeat until the desired doneness. Err, drunken-ness.
Up until recently, I thought that Grey Goose was the cat’s pajamas (whatever that means). That is until my father brought back a bottle of Marusya** from his last trip to Moscow. The vodka, in its elegant, narrow-necked 500 mL bottle, is not currently exported from Russia and not terribly easy to come by while there. This stuff, people… This stuff left me speechless. It’s so good that the makers recommend drinking it at room temperature, which is unheard of for vodka.
With Marusya, all the rules and rituals go out the window. You really don’t need to chill it to take the edge off – there is no edge. It is smooth and velvety. You don’t need a pickle chaser to take the burn off – the vodka goes down without a hitch. There is no kick back, no diesel-like fumes punching up into the nasal passages after the swallow. There is no taste, no after taste, no trace of engine cleaner. It’s like buttah. It made for a memorable Thanksgiving and I hope it does the same for this coming New Year’s eve.
I cannot wait until this stuff is sold in the U.S. Or at least until they get a freakin website. Until then, I have to rely on my Dad’s frequent business trips to Moscow for my supply of Marusya. Man, that stuff is good.
* Russians toast with “Za vashe zdorovye,” to your health. Not to be confused with “Na zdorovje”, which is a Polish toast. We take this very seriously, in case you couldn’t tell.
** Marusya, a pet name for Maria, is a very Russian name for a very Russian woman.
Thursday, December 20, 2007
The raw materials:
Carp – the cheapest fish on this earth, full of teeny bones and a fatty skin (occasionally referred to as “crap”)
Beets and carrots, for color and sweetness
Clean, dry onion skins (no one ever accused Jewish cuisine of being wasteful)*
Pepper, salt, and sugar
About five hours, five helpers, a couple of bottles of wine and a ton of patience.
That’s all it takes to prepare my grandmother’s gefilte fish (from here on out referred to as gefilt-oy fish, so named for the obscene amount of time and labor that goes into its preparation).
Do not be fooled by the short and basic ingredient list – this is not a trivial recipe. It is probably the least trivial cooking event I have ever been a party to. And a party it was, by the way – one that started with wine and ended with vodka. We had to celebrate the fish, did we not?
I wish I had concentration enough to snap a photo of the final, plated fish, but by that time all I wanted to do was crawl into bed. I can tell you that my grandmother’s gefilt-oy fish is very sweet, smooth, and light. I loved making the fish with my entire family and closest friends around me, crowding around my Mom’s kitchen island. I loved looking at the fish, drinking to the fish’s well-being, eating the fish, so on and so forth, but will I ever make it myself? NFW. Email me if you need me to decipher that acronym.
The following recipe is more of a guideline than a hard-set protocol. I am writing it up less to encourage anyone to undertake this lengthy (read: pain in the ass) procedure but to give you an idea of just how much of a pain in the ass it actually is. Unless you have your whole family crowded around you. Then it's fun.
My grandmother's gefilt-oy fish
For 3-4 kg of carp (whole fish):
1) Boil the carp heads, tails, and fins (excluding the gills!) for 30 minutes to make a fish stock. Strain the stock and keep hot.
2) While the stock is boiling happily away in a giant pot on the stove, slice the fish vertically into “steak” pieces. Make an incision (pardon the medical terminology) along the spine of the fish on both sides. Slide the knife under the skin and cut out the knob of fish flesh between the ribs (are they actually ribs? Pardon my cursory knowledge of fish anatomy) and the spine, being careful to keep the skin attached.
Keep the bones! They are key players in the many many subsequent steps.
3) Grind the fish flesh, onions, and two pieces of white bread soaked in water in a meat grinder. Mix in two raw eggs, a tablespoon of canola oil, black pepper, salt, sugar, and some cold water to a grandmother-sanctioned consistency. What that consistency is, I cannot say.
4) Adjust seasoning. And by this my grandmother meant taste the RAW fish and egg mixture, all the while assuring your family that you are not going to die of carp/crap poisoning because we eat sushi right? It’s the same thing, right? (Umm, no. Actually it’s not the same thing, not at all. Last time I checked, toro didn’t cost 99c per pound.)
5) Stuff the ground fish back into the fish skin. This step is totally key and I totally failed. I was not able to make a single piece that met my grandmother’s stringent requirements. I either put in too much filling or too little, either too far in or too far to the side. It wasn’t pretty. Oy.
6) Layer thinly sliced raw, peeled beets, sliced onions, and clean onion skins on the bottom of a heavy pot. Layer fish pieces on top, adding vegetables/onion skin between each fish piece and between each layer to prevent the fish from sticking. Drizzle each layer with canola oil.
This cauldron-esque pot made the trip from Moscow with my grandmother. Apparently, my inability to pack lightly has a genetic component.
7) Pour hot fish stock down the side of the pot (so as not to break up or otherwise disturb the already tormented fish) until the top layer of fish is almost covered, but not quite. Bring to a boil over high heat, lower heat and cook covered for 1 hour and uncovered for 2 hours, shaking the [hot, boiling, heavy, scary] pot occasionally to prevent the fish pieces from sticking to each other. [Please don’t sue me for damages if you, I am assuming drunkenly, decide to try this for yourself.] Every once in a while spoon some cooking liquid over the top layer of fish to prevent it from drying out.
8) Carefully transfer the cooked fish to a platter and pour some of the strained cooking liquid over the pieces to give them a gloss.** Cool completely in refrigerator before eating.
* Oddest ingredient prize? That belongs to the onion skins. The skins are largely responsible for the yellow/orange hue of the final gefilte fish product.
** The fish stock, after boiling with the vegetables and gefilt-OY fish, is rich and gelatinous. My grandmother recommends boiling potatoes in leftover stock. I imagine it would also make an amazing base for some form of soup.
Monday, December 17, 2007
WooHoo! Another issue of the Fletcher Ledger is up, with an article from yours truly. I was hoping to have the above sad image of desolation included in the article, but alas, that was not to be. It will make sense in context, I promise. The death and disease in the shot above is to this very day parked on my windowsill. Why I haven't yet tossed it, I can't say. I may still be in mourning.
Wednesday, December 12, 2007
Long blogging absence, even longer graduate school career that Just. Won't. Die. In other words, I have yet another committee meeting tomorrow which has slowed my blogging activities to a crawl. BUT seeing as how I am here to entertain, and since I am a comment whore, I thought I would pass on this excerpt from an email from a dear friend. I think you will quickly see why he and I get along.
In response to my previous post about Christopher Kimball's low opinion of Rachael Ray:
"I haven't really watched Rachel Ray. I think I saw a portion of one show. She has this nice round bottom, but not much going on in the chest area. The two halves don't match. That has nothing to do with her cooking ability... just an observation. I think I have seen her more on Dunkin Donuts commercials lately...which I found odd because I thought she supported some healthy eating initiative."
Sunday, December 02, 2007
“Thank you for calling WGBH. May I please have your first and last name?”
Boston’s WGBH was one of the first pubic radio and TV stations launched in 1951. It was the home of Julia Child’s French Chef. It is now the home of Christopher Kimball and America’s Test Kitchen. WGBH puts on periodic pledge drives, asking for viewer support and contributions. Pledges can be made online, of course, but it seems that a lot of people are really either uncomfortable with computers or they simply prefer the minimal personal interaction that speaking with a phone operator affords.
This is where I came in. This past weekend I volunteered to take a four-hour shift as a phone pledge-collector. It was a slow day. A really slow day. In those four hours I received four phone calls. Two of those were nutjobs and two were very nice (and very ready to spend – one caller pledged $250, the other, $125).
One of the main reasons that I signed on for the job - besides the good karma vibes of course - was the likelihood of encountering Christopher Kimball, a badass in his own right. He really does wear a bow tie all the time, and not ironically. He is also likely the only man who can pull it off. He is wickedly funny. He hates Rachel Ray with a burning passion (and has little respect for the rest of the Food Network).
I was very happy to have the opportunity to sit behind Mr. Kimball’s back as he asked for donations on live television (you just may see me on PBS if you live in the Boston area – I am the nervous-looking blond girl trying to avoid the camera). I had the chance to speak with him and really wanted to, but totally chickened out. I was also completely pinned behind my desk - I had no idea that 40 people could be stuffed into 5 square feet of floor space, give or take. I did find out that America’s Test Kitchen sends recipes out to home cooks for testing, to get an idea of how real people cook and you can sign up to be a test cook on their website, somewhere.
Turns out, there are some very stupid real people. Apparently, one chicken recipe came back with a poor review. In the comments section of the review, the test cook had written something along the lines of, “ I didn’t have chicken, so I used shrimp. It really wasn’t good.” Wow. I really hope he didn’t cook the shrimp 5 minutes on each side as you would with chicken.
P.S. Should I ever actually graduate, I will absolutely look up how to be a test cook. I am a real person. More often than not, a stupid real person, but still... I can do it.
Tuesday, November 27, 2007
The internet is rife with bloggers' accounts of their turkeys and stuffings. You don't need me for that. Yes, my family had dinner. Yes, we made turkey (and it was transcendent, beyond-turkey wonderful), and two kinds of stuffing, and two kinds of cranberry sauce. Yes, there was an excess of food and lots of family and lots of fun. However, as I am sure you can judge from the photo above, Thanksgiving in my family tends to be a little different from the norm. How so? We drink. And I mean, we drink. Every once in a while we play true to type (Russians), and we drink vodka. And we enjoy it.
At the beginning of the evening, I ran to fetch something from the kitchen. Upon my return, I found that I had already been served - a slice of bread (home-made, naturally) and a shot of superb vodka (a brand that not imported into the States, straight from the ex-motherland. Not really my motherland per se, but I am sure it is someone's). I think my plate summed up a lot of things about me pretty well. Aaaah, my parents know me well.
P.S. We ran out of vodka half way through dinner (I may never let my father live this one down) and had to move on to Patron. My grandmother liked it! Lick, shoot, bite, the whole story. She was a champ.
Friday, November 23, 2007
My friends tell me that the surest way to tell if a Chinese (or other variety of Asian) restaurant is any good is to assess its Asian Quotient (AQ), otherwise known as the number of Asian diners. If the number of Asian diners far outweighs the number of white ones, it is a safe bet that the restaurant knows what they are doing. If however, the restaurant is full of plain old white people, there is a high chance that it is as authentic as the Italian food at Bertucci’s. Which is to say, not at all.
This past week I had the marked pleasure and honor of being one of four white people at Shanghai Gate (very high AQ). Notably, the other three white people happened to be sitting at my table, even more notable was the fact that one of the above mentioned white people was a fluent Chinese speaker that spends a large part of her time working and living in China and Taiwan (she also happens to be Elizabeth, the perfectly lovely fiancée of a perfectly lovely friend and lab mate, Allen. Say hi, Allen).
Elizabeth took up the reigns and ordered for all of us (in Chinese, natch) impressing both myself and our servers in equal measure. The double take the server did when addressed in perfect Chinese was something to behold. Made me feel all important too. I would have never known to order the stuff she did because I would have no idea.
Twice fried green beans in garlic sauce – salty, crunchy, a little spicy, and fried. Mmm.
Lion’s head casserole (in the background) - very finely ground pork meatball spiced with soy sauce and sherry, in a deep brown broth and baby bok choy. I did not know why it is called that – Elizabeth had no answer for me. It doesn’t look like a lion’s head. I think it is safe to assume that it doesn’t taste like one either. Apparently, the name is derived from the fact that its accompanying cooked bok choy or napa cabbage looks like the mane on the meatball lion head. I admit that I failed to see the resemblance.
Black bean chicken wraps – minced chicken, sweet perfectly balanced with sour, set off by the fresh crunch of the lettuce.
Yu Xiang Pork – shredded pork in fish sauce with bamboo shoots, served with steamed bread. The bread was light, slightly sweet, and kinda sticky on the outside, making for an airy, fishy pork umami bomb of a sandwich (way better than it sounds).
And the thing that I was most excited about. The thing that made my long, shit day seem just a little bit shorter – soup dumplings (photo at head of post). The most brilliant invention of all time. Soup inside a dumpling. Bite through the wrapper for a giant gush of super hot broth and a small pork meatball. The key is catching the dumpling at the correct temperature – cool enough that it won’t burn the first eight layers of flesh off your mouth but not so cold that the broth begins to congeal.
Standing out in a room had never tasted so good.
204 Harvard Avenue
Allston, MA 02134
Saturday, November 17, 2007
I am way too visually stimulated. Scary movies give me nightmares. Not even movies that others consider scary - I saw stupid stupid Outbreak and could hardly sleep for two weeks. I am so completely unhip.
A couple of years ago, everyone was telling me about Robert Rodriguez’s Sin City and how utterly fabulous it was. I, knowing full well that I should not, went to see it. I walked out of the movie theater in a practically catatonic state from discomfort, carrying a general feeling ickiness. I was not a happy camper.
A year (or more?) has passed and Mr. Rodriguez has made it up to me. You see, he is a badass. The DVDs of his movies (for sure Once Upon a Time in Mexico and Sin City, not sure about others) had short cooking videos as a bonus feature. How awesome is that?? The first video had him making puerco pibil, the same dish that Johnny Depp’s CIA agent killed cooks for when he found one that he particularly enjoyed. The second video at the end of the Sin City DVD has Mr. Rodriguez making breakfast tacos with homemade flour tortillas. The egg breakfast taco part of the video was nothing terribly remarkable. The tortillas, however, were stunners. Fluffy, with round brown spots from the hot skillet, they looked nothing like the plastic-enclosed stuff you buy in a grocery store.
He, being the badass that he is, looked like he was born with tortilla dough in his hand (that’s actually kind of gross. Sorry). I had some ethnic and cultural shortcomings to overcome in attempting to make tortillas, but I think it did a passable job. There was room for improvement, certainly – my tortillas wound up oddly crunchy on the edges and not exactly circular (umm, if you squinted just right they sort of looked like circles), but it wasn’t bad for the first try.
Absent was the odd chemical aftertaste of store-bought tortillas (at least the ones sold on the East coast) as well as the rubbery, gummy texture. Instead, there was warmth, freshness, fluffiness, and softness. If I could make tortillas large enough to use as blankets, I would. Alas, as that is currently not a possibility, I had to make do with regular sized fresh tortillas, but they perfect for holding skirt steak fajitas with adobo seasoning and green bell peppers. One day, long in the future, I may approach badass-hood. Not holding my breath though.
The following is my annotated transcript of the YouTube video of Robert Rodriguez making tortillas.
Sin City Tortillas
2 cups flour
½ tsp salt
½ tsp baking powder
¼ cup butter
½- ¾ cups warm water
- Cut the butter into the flour in a food processor, stand mixer, pastry cutter, or just two forks (the trick is to incorporate the butter without melting it from the heat of your hands). The flour will have a course, almost cornmeal-like consistency.
- Add water until the dough holds together but is not sticky (Mr. Rodriguez is descriptive and vague all at the same time on this point).
- Knead the dough for about 2 minutes.
- Separate dough into 8 – 10 golf-sized balls.
- Wet a towel with warm water, cover the dough balls and allow them to rest for about 20 minutes.
- Squash the dough balls into disks and roll out (I floured my board rather heavily. Mr. Rodriguez did not. I am not half the badass he is).
- Plop tortilla dough onto heated skillet over hot heat. Cook on one side ~8 seconds and flip over (if the tortillas are coloring too quickly, turn down the heat). Cook about a minute – the tortillas should start bubbling, indicating that the baking powder is doing its job. Flip them over again and press on the edges a little with a spatula to keep them in contact with the cooking surface.
- Cover with towel to keep the tortillas warm until ready to eat.
Consider yourself a badass for making your own tortillas. I do.
Tuesday, November 13, 2007
This is getting out of hand. I am not creative enough to keep up. Every week, Maiya ups the brunch stakes. Every week, she pulls out something so completely fabulous that I spend the next seven days digging through my brain-bound food catalogue, trying to come up with something equally stunning and impressive. I thought I was doing pretty well.
Take my last brunch, for example. I made a fennel and carrot salad (on a mandoline, no fingers sliced open, thankyouverymuch) substituting oranges for tangerines and arugula for watercress, apple sausage patties (so-so), slow-scrambled eggs, a la Gordon Ramsey (beware of YouTube link), a giant German pancake, and no-knead bread.
While the German pancake looked all kinds of impressive and sophisticated, I quickly realized that the Germans went and pulled a misnomer. It’s really way more breakfast soufflé that pancake. Yes, it’s topped with lemon juice and powdered sugar but it still tastes like pouffy eggs with tang and sweetness, not like a doughy, gorgeously carbohydrate-laden pancake. It was quite pretty though, and crunchy on the bottom from the healthy (or desperately unhealthy, as the case may be) dosing of butter.
The slow scrambled eggs were the silkiest I have had, with no texture besides that of a bright orange, silky custard, no eggy curds to mess up the experience. The bread was, well… fresh baked bread and that can hardly ever be bad, and the salad was fresh and crunchy.
So you can see why I was feeling confident in my brunch abilities. And then I went to Maiya’s house. Do you know what she did? You will never guess. It was crazy. I was stupefied beyond words and pictures. I had to resort to video to do the process justice!
The woman made deep-fried poached eggs and served them on top of creamed spinach and fried ham. Really. She did. But being Maiya and being completely awesome, she swapped out the fried ham for fried Spam, which I had never had before but thoroughly enjoyed in all of its salty glory. Oh but that’s not all. There was also a salad with goat cheese and a pomegranate vinaigrette, and black pepper and cheddar bread from Hi-Rise Bakery. And mimosas. And I didn’t eat for the rest of the day (which I suppose is the whole point of Sunday brunch).**
The deep fried eggs were insane. Just insane. Crunchy on the outside with perfectly set whites and liquid yolks which spilled all over the already rich and creamy spinach, making my eyes cross in brunchy bliss. Oh but I left something out - the ginormous pan-sized hash brown with herbs and Parmesan, so handy in soaking up the yolk overflow.
How am I supposed to follow that one, people?? I have no idea. Help me.
** Ok, so that's kind of a big fat lie. What I should have said is that I had no business eating again on Sunday but instead made fajitas, fresh flour tortillas, and guacamole with the supervisor. And it was all so good.
Tuesday, November 06, 2007
So Archna and I made paneer. Well, that’s not really all we did. It was a Saturday to be remembered. We got up at about 9:30AM… I had my first beer by 10:30. It all went downhill from there and it wasn’t pretty. Picture two people splayed out on a couch in front of a TV blaring the Food Network, the coffee table in front of them littered with cheese, bread, and newly emptied bottles of wine. We managed to capitalize on our sporadic moments of motivation to extricate ourselves from the siren call of my couch to push on in making the paneer and engineering its starring role in one of my favorite dishes of all time, muttar paneer.
It went a little something like this:
1 medium onion, finely chopped
1 tbsp grated fresh ginger
3 cloves garlic, grated (I grated both the ginger and the garlic on a microplane. You could also pulverize the garlic in a food processor if making a large batch to store).
½ tsp cumin seeds
½ tsp ground coriander
½ tsp ground cumin
1/8 tsp turmeric
1/8 tsp chili powder
1¼ cups water
1/3 cup frozen peas
1 tomato, chopped (we used about 12 cherry tomatoes, halved)
A pinch of sugar
Fried paneer (really don’t know what amount to give… as much as you would like to add? Not very scientific, I know. I think our half gallon of milk yielded 1 – 1½ cups of paneer and we added it all in).
- Toast the cumin seeds in canola oil until they turn pink and begin to release fragrance.
- Add onion, ginger and garlic, sweat until the onion softens.
- Add the ground spices (cumin, coriander, turmeric, and chili powder), cook for another 3 minutes or so.
- Add water, bring to a boil.
- Add tomatoes and simmer on med high heat (a fairly potent simmer) about 10 minutes, mushing up the tomatoes slightly to homogenize.
- Add frozen peas and fried paneer.
- Add more water if necessary to cover the paneer.
- Cook another 10 minutes to infuse the paneer with the spices.
- Add a pinch of sugar to bring out the sweetness of the peas, salt to taste, serve over rice.
Oh it was wonderful! The paneer was tasted like the essence and soul of milk, condensed into a resilient fried nugget. It was creamy yet firm, with a fresh taste that you can only get from farmhouse milk still warm from a cow. Totally gross description, I know, but having experienced it, I find little else to compare it to.
The paneer was luscious and rich but had the little squeak of a fresh cheese curd. The heat from the chili powder, sweetness from the peas, acidity from the tomatoes and slight punch from the ginger were all in perfect balance with each other and generally got on famously. The pops of the peas, the squeaks of the paneer, and my grunts of approval harmonized beautifully.
I would have been happy to eat the fried cheese all by itself but felt we should have something more involved to show at the end of our day of Gluttony and Sloth. And we did. We had muttar paneer and we had Pride. It was a great day.
Sunday, November 04, 2007
The last installment of my restaurant reviews for Nature Network Boston has been posted. As I predicted, I have eaten myself out of a job. I covered all the areas around major research and convention centers, a scientist’s natural habitat. There is nothing left for me to explore.
On the positive side, I can now eat at restaurants that I want to eat at, as opposed to where I think other people may want to eat. I no longer have to dictate where we go when out to dinner with friends (they are all so wonderfully patient but I can see it getting irritating).
Writing and eating for these reviews has been so much fun. It also taught me a whole lot about writing for a major publication. I got a taste (pun intended) of food writing as a profession and I have to say, I liked it. I want more.
There is no use in fighting it. Some (crappy) people may deny it, but the truth is that everyone on this earth is the same on the inside (except maybe Clive Owen. He is better). Let's use cheese as an example. Every culture and cuisine has their version of a fresh cheese. There are variations within the genre, just as with people, but the founding principle is the same. Russian people have have fresh farmer’s cheese (tvorog) – cow’s milk that is cultured overnight, then drained. Italians have mozzarella (pulled or stretched curd cheese) and ricotta, re-cooked from whey. Mexican people have queso fresco, Indians have paneer. Both of these are acid set cheeses, meaning that the milk is curdled by the addition of an acid. The resulting curds are separated and drained, and sometimes pressed (as in the case of queso fresco and paneer) to get rid of extra whey.
So you see? They are all the same at heart, and they all taste reeeaally good.
I got a hands-on demonstration of this unifying theory of mine when my old old old (15 years and counting) friend, Archna, came up to Boston for another visit. Seeing as how we were/are both stressed and tired, nothing seemed more appealing than sitting on a couch for hours on end and cooking something that takes ages of waiting but minutes of work. Enter paneer, the main component of one of my most favorite Indian dishes, muttar paneer (peas and paneer).
After multiple phone consultations with Archna’s Mom, and many assurances from her that we will never be able to make it properly we, remarkably, did it. I can’t say that we made it properly, but we made it. And it was delicious.
The basics of paneer making are as follows:
Heat milk (2% or whole milk) slowly over medium heat, stirring occasionally until it starts to boil. Don’t let it boil vigorously or you will have hours of stove scrubbing to look forward to - it always boils over. Always.
Turn off the heat and curdle the milk in one of two ways, either with the addition of vinegar or buttermilk. Buttermilk will make a richer, creamier paneer but vinegar may yield more curds. Add the buttermilk or vinegar until the milk curdles. For half a gallon, we used two cups of buttermilk (approximate vinegar equivalent would be ¼ - ½ cup).
Let the milk rest undisturbed, partially covered for two hours.
Drain the curds into a cheese cloth set in a colander. Either suspend the bundle from a faucet to drip the whey into the sink or, say you are kinda clumsy and let the cheesecloth slip open, leave the curds to drain the colander for one hour.
Remove the curds onto a high tech, sophisticated paneer pressing machine. This marvel of technology (my own invention) consists of a cooling rack atop a large pot or bowl...
... topped with a plate and a bottle of wine for a press. Preferably Chablis, preferably chilled, although this portion of the instructions may be modified to suit your individual taste.
Allow the paneer to drain for another hour.
Remove the paneer from the cheesecloth and transfer it onto a plate. Slice into biggish cubes.
At this point, the paneer may be refrigerated or frozen, or it can be fried straight away.
Brown in the paneer on both sides in vegetable or canola oil, drain on a paper towel, and use in your preferred recipe. My recipe of choice, muttar paneer, is forthcoming.
Thursday, November 01, 2007
There is no use in denying it – autumn has descended upon Boston. The leaves have changed color and are swirling down to the ground into messy piles, the squirrels have gone crazy and spastic getting ready for the next nine months of winter… and the nutjobs have come out to dine. That is not necessarily an indicator of a change in seasons, but it has come to my attention.
There I was, sitting in a perfectly cozy subterranean Italian restaurant in Beacon Hill (for an NNB review) when I happened to glance over at the next table… and gasped. Loudly. I then proceeded to stare and shoot threatening looks at the woman at that table, trying to make her aware of her incredibly inappropriate and disturbing behavior.
What was she doing? Dancing on the table? No, but that would have been cool. Flossing her teeth with her hair? Nope. Completely revolting, but not unheard of. You know what she did? Get ready for this. She poured ice water into her glass of RED WINE. She really did. I couldn’t make this shit up if I tried. I was floored. I may have been the only one at my table to have such a violent reaction, but that's beside the point.
Look, you don’t have to like red wine, or wine at all for that matter. I mean, I probably won’t have much respect for you, but it’s still ok not to like it. You don’t have to order red wine with dinner. Have a beer, a vodka martini (or four), a Shirley Temple, anything!, but do not order a glass of red wine and proceed to defile it by adding water (especially ice water). I can’t imagine a more perfect way to ruin something complex, alive and breathing, beautiful and warming than by diluting and chilling it with ice water.
You know what the lesson here is? Embrace your tastes, your likes and dislikes. At dinner, order a drink you will enjoy, one that will enhance your meal and your evening, no matter what that drink is. But don’t, for the love of all that is holy, order a glass of red wine simply because you think that you should, because it’s the grown-up thing to do, or because everyone else is doing it and then humiliate that wine in front of ardent and emotional fans such as myself. That’s just wrong.
Rant over. Thank you for your attention.
Tuesday, October 23, 2007
My thesis work has received yet another blow, slipped one more click past my attention and leaped three steps past my caring. I have one more happy thing to distract myself - I am now a guest columnist for the Fletcher Ledger, the newspaper of the Fletcher School of International Affairs at Tufts University. I am all kinds of cultured like that. Take a look at my inaugural article, if time permits.
P.S. I make no claims on the stock photographs. No clue on those.
Thursday, October 18, 2007
I can’t imagine living far away from a coast. Landlocked states like Nebraska terrify me – they feel claustrophobic and desiccated. I need to have access to the water, I need to see and smell the ocean, to be reminded that there is a great big world outside of my lab, outside of highways, hustle, tussle, and spazzola of every day life. I find the ocean therapeutic. It calms me down, slows my thoughts. The smell of the ocean alone is soothing enough, the sound is even better, being rocked by the waves is the ultimate sensation for inner peace.
The ocean is one of the main reasons I love Boston as much as I do. There is the city ocean, hemmed in by docks, ocean walks and water front restaurants, and there is the nature ocean stretching outside of the city, bordered by wide beaches, sand dunes, and forests. The nature ocean is on the Cape (that’s how we Bostonites refer to Cape Cod. THE Cape. There is no other Cape for us). The pro-Cape Cod propaganda in books and movies is spot on – it is a heavenly spot with great food, gorgeous views, and the kind of quiet stillness that is so sharply lacking in the middle of a city.
A two hour-long mini road trip brought me to Provincetown and Wellfleet at the tip of the Cape. The former is full of adorable gay boys and girls, the latter is teeming with fresh, local oysters (that’s oystahs to us Bostonites). The annual Wellfleet Oysterfest was the reason for the mini-holiday. The festival celebrates the eponymous oysters raised on farms in Wellfleet. The mild tasting, lightly briny Wellfleet oysters were everywhere, sold by local restaurants and oyster farmers - shucked oysters, unshucked oysters, grilled oysters, oyster stew, even an oyster shucking competition (which sounded waaay more exciting than it proved to be).
Maiya took an expert turn at shucking an oyster, while I shied away for fear of losing a finger. I don’t do well with knives.
The warm weather and shockingly blue skies were a great complement to gorging on fresh seafood and plastic cups of locally brewed Octoberfest. This most perfect festival day continued with a cranberry picking expedition and a bonfire on a deserted beach under a star-riddled sky, with potatoes and corn caramelizing in the embers. I can’t think of a better argument for living on a coast… or for eating your body weight in fresh oysters.