Do not dismiss the dish by saying that it is just simple food.
The blessed thing is an entire civilization in itself.
~Abdulhak Sinasi

Both daring and demure, sate (satay) spans the culinary horizons of east Asia from street vending to fine dining. While Indonesia is the proverbial home to sate having adopted it as the national dish, versions of this delicacy abound in Malaysia, Singapore and the Phillipines. Sate is simply marinated, skewered meat often served with a peanut sauce. Given the cultural and geographical enormity of the Indonesian archipelago and the vast eastern Pacific rim, this varied region teems with varieties of sate prepared, marinaded, wrapped and sauced with differing twists. The meats? Well, chicken, lamb, mutton, goat, beef, pork, rabbit, deer, water buffalo, lizard, crocodile, offal, tripe, flat fish, shellfish, eel, horse, turtle, snake, ostrich, porcupine and testicles, to name a few. Far from monolithic, sate is regional cuisine run blissfully amok.

Given the vagaries of invasions, conquests, occupations, trade and cross-cultural pollination, the origins of sate are murky and even disputed. Sate has been claimed to have been influenced by every immigrant or colonial group in Southeast Asia from Chinese to Indians to Western Europeans to even Arabs and Turks. Some lean on the reed that the spice trade which brought Arab merchants to Southeast Asia led to the spread of their culinary culture to Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore. Nomadic Arabs, who often grilled sword-skewered meats, introduced their gustatory habits to east and southeast Asia. Over time their roasting practices were morphed by locals and then evolved into sate. The peanut based sauce either emerged as an east Asian flair or was initially borne by Spanish invaders from South America.

The confusion continues with etymology. Sate is variously called satay, saté, satae (Thailand) as well as satte (Philippines). Some even assert the origins come from some Chinese sounding combination of sah-tay or even sam-tay or a disputed Tamil word. Others claim that term has origins in the Malay peninsula and Sumatera region—a dish that is made by salai (smoking or grilling) on a pak (box grill), that was simply conjoined and abbreviated to arrive at sa-té.

Those were some gnarly origins. Unresolved history and linguistic muddle aside, just savor the present with a sophisticated sear of grilled chicken, lamb, beef or pork (even offal). Spicing the embers brings an added element.

LEMON GRASS CHICKEN SATAY

1/2 C canned unsweetened coconut milk
1/4 C freshly squeezed lime juice
1/4 C peanut oil
1 t fish sauce
2 T fresh cilantro leaves, julienned
2 t fresh ginger, peeled and minced
1 t raw sugar
1 T turmeric
2 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and minced

Boneless, skinless chicken thighs
Lemongrass stalks (about 8-9″ long)

1-1/2 C canned unsweetened coconut milk
6 T smooth peanut butter
2 T chopped peanuts
3 T brown sugar
3 T soy sauce
3 T yellow onion, peeled and minced
2 T red curry paste
2 fresh, plump garlic gloves, peeled and minced
1 T fresh lemon grass, smashed and minced
2 t unseasoned rice vinegar
1 t minced lime zest
1 jalapeno or Thai bird chile, stemmed, seeded and minced
1/2 C minced fresh cilantro leaves, chopped
3 T minced fresh basil leaves

1 T coriander seeds
1 T cardamom pods
1 T red peppercorns
4 whole star anise

Place the coconut milk, lime juice, oil, fish sauce, cilantro, ginger, sugar, turmeric, and garlic in a mixing bowl and stir to dissolve the sugar. Set some marinade aside for basting. Cut each chicken thigh lengthwise into thick strips, place in baking dish and toss well with remaining marinade. Cover and let marinate in the refrigerator for at least 4 hours, even overnight.

Remove the outer leaves of each stalk of lemongrass and cut the thinner end at an angle to make lemongrass skewers. Then, set aside. You may also use metal or soaked bamboo skewers.

Place the coconut milk, peanut butter, peanuts, sugar, soy sauce, onion, curry paste, garlic, lemongrass, vinegar, lime zest, chile, cilantro, and basil in a large saucepan. Bring just to a simmer while stirring, but do not boil. Continue cooking until the sauce thickens, about 15 minutes. Turn heat to low and allow to remain warm.

Prepare a charcoal grill to medium high heat. While the grill is heating, thread the marinated chicken strips onto the lemongrass skewers. Just before grilling, toss the coriander seeds, allspice, red peppercorns and star anise on the coals. Cook directly for about for 2-3 minutes per side, basting with reserved marinade. Serve with the warm peanut sauce.

I don’t do drugs. I am drugs.
~Salvadore Dali

I meant to embark on the fierce rivalry that has ensued between the United States and Mexico which will be renewed in the title match of the Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football (CONCACAF) Gold Cup tonight in Pasadena (formerly in Mexico). The U.S. and Mexico have shared 9 of the 10 Gold Cup tournament championships. Much is at stake as the winner qualifies for the next Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) Confederations Cup, a preview of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. But, what follows seemed more important.

Squandering billions monthly on an ineffective policy with lives, capital and truth as casualties sounds just like the misguided Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. No, this ongoing waste derives solely from the failed four decade long War on Drugs. As the Global Commission on Drug Policy recently concluded, “…the evidence overwhelmingly demonstrates that repressive strategies will not solve the drug problem, and that the war on drugs has not, and cannot, be won.” The esteemed, independent 19-member panel was comprised of former heads of state, a former U.N. secretary-general, a business mogul and even an author. They did not mince words. The report issued by the commission and delivered to the White House and Congress calls on governments to promptly end the criminalization of marijuana and other controlled substance use. They urged that governments instead institute drug policies based on methods empirically proven to reduce crime, lead to better health, and promote economic and social development. Drug users who are in need should be offered treatment, not incarceration.

The commission—which included George Schultz, who held cabinet posts under Presidents Reagan and Nixon and former Federal Reserve chairman Paul Volker—is particularly critical of the United States, which must change its drug policies from those guided by anti-crime, “lock ’em up” approaches to ones rooted in health care and human rights. By financing domestic law enforcement to the exclusion of treatment, our government has wrongly focused on punishment rather than supporting prevention. That myopic approach comes as little surprise in this reactionary land.

The fiscal costs of this so-called war have been staggering. As recently as 2008, a study authored by Harvard economist Jeffrey Miron estimated that legalizing drugs alone would inject almost $80 billion a year into the U.S. economy. Over $20 billion has been directly spent on the purported War on Drugs in the first half of this year alone. Then, there is the shameful stat that the United States has 5% of the world’s population, yet 25% of the world’s inmates are housed in our overflowing, understaffed prisons. Too often, these joints are far from correctional or rehabilitative, but instead focus on punitive measures which only serve to rend the human spirit. A great percentage of these prisoners are drug offenders, caught up in a deeply flawed agenda. This makes little mention of the concomitant creation of a racially disparate and societally displaced underclass many of whom now have shattered and scattered families, criminal records, no voting rights, no income sources, and suffer severly limited educational and job opportunities. Once on the street, their futures are bleak.

After over 40 years, over 40 million arrests and over a trillion dollars imprudently spent, is it not time to shelf this misconceived war on drugs as another failed experiment? This move has been much too long in the making.

As the report declared, “(T)he global war on drugs has failed, with devastating consequences for individuals and societies around the world. Fifty years after the initiation of the UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, and years after President Nixon launched the U.S. government’s war on drugs, fundamental reforms in national and global drug control policies are urgently needed.”

On to some south of the border fare for tonight’s match…

CILANTRO, CUMIN & LIME RICE

2 C long grain white rice
2 C chicken stock
2 C water

2 T canola oil
1/2 medium yellow onion, peeled and chopped
3 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and minced

1/2 C chopped fresh cilantro
1/2 t dried cumin seeds, lightly roasted then ground
Zest of 1 fresh lime
Juice of 1 fresh lime
1 pinch sea salt

In a medium pot, heat the oil over medium heat. Add the onions and garlic, and cook about 5 minutes or until the onions are translucent and the garlic only lightly golden. Add the rice, stir with a wooden spoon to coat well, and cook for 1 minute.

In a small bowl gently mix the chopped cilantro, cumin, lime zest and juice. Add the stock and water, cilantro/lime mixture and salt. Bring to a boil, stir and decrease the heat to low.

Cover and cook for about 20 minutes or until the water is absorbed and those telltale “fish eyes” appear on the surface. Remove from the heat and let rest for 5 minutes.

The torch of love is lit in the kitchen.
~French proverb

What’s in a name?

In 1803, envoys from the recently founded Nguyễn dynasty gathered in Beijing to establish diplomatic relations with their northern neighbor. The emperor had chosen the name Nam Việt for his ancient realm. The word Việt, a shortened form of Bách Việt (“hundreds of Viets”), was derived from the traditional name for the imperial domain and from those who populated what is now northern and central Vietnam. Nam (south) had been added to acknowledge expansion into lands further south.

The Chinese fervently objected to the proposed name because it conjured up memories of an identically named ancient state that had openly rebelled against China. So, it was resolved to call this culturally diverse land Việt Nam. Ironically, the words Việt Nam had appeared in several carvings and writings centuries earlier. Now, this long curve fingered nation carries the official moniker of the Socialist Republic of Viet Nam (Cộng hòa xã hội chủ nghĩa Việt Nam).

The country was often called Annam until 1945, when Emperor Bảo Đại changed the official name back to Việt Nam. During French occupation, it was westerly referred to as Indochine française (Vietnamese: Đông Dương thuộc Pháp, oftened shortened to Đông Pháp).

Gỏi cuốn, often translated as “salad roll,” is a wickedly delicate Vietnamese finger food comprised of pork, shrimp, herbs, bún (rice vermicelli), and chums all serenely swaddled in Bánh tráng (rice paper). This is synergistic stuff chocked with textured, cool nuances and flavorful bursts. Tailor made for a midsummer evening.

GOI CUON (VIETNAMESE SPRING ROLLS)

1/2 lb. pork loin, ground or sliced very thinly
1 T extra virgin olive oil

1/2 lb. medium shrimp
3 stalks of lemon grass, just the thick ends, smashed and roughly chopped
Sea salt
1/4 C whole black peppercorns
1 bay leaf
3-4 thyme sprigs
2 T coriander seeds
2 shallots, peeled and halved lengthwise

1 pkg bún (rice vermicelli)

1 pkg bánh tráng (rice paper)

1 C cucumbers, peeled and petitely julienned
1 C carrots, peeled and petitely julienned
8-10 scallions, sliced thinly
Bean sprouts

1/2 head Napa cabbage or green lettuce leaves, thinly sliced
Mint leaves, cut into chiffonades
Cilantro leaves, roughly chopped

Sesame oil
Rice vinegar

Over medium high heat and in olive oil, saute, then dry and drain pork on paper towels. Meanwhile, prep, clean and dry all vegetables and herbs and place in bowls for assembly. Lightly dress the cabbage in equal parts of sesame oil and rice vinegar.

Place shrimp, lemongrass, sea salt, peppercorns, bay leaf, thyme sprigs, coriander seeds and shallots in a large stock pot. Bring to a boil and allow to cook for about 5 minutes. Then add the shrimp to the boiling water and cook until just cooked through, about 2 minutes, then drain immediately. Please take pains to not overcook as the shrimp will take a tough, rubbery turn for the worse. Once cooled, peel and then cut boiled shrimp in half, lengthwise.

Add the rice vermicelli to boiling water and cook until al dente, about 8 minutes and drain well. All ingredients must be allowed to cool to room temperature before assembly.

Creating the rolls is a one-at-a-time zen task. Dip a single sheet of rice paper into a large baking dish filled partially with lukewarm water. It will soften within seconds. Then lay flat on a work surface. (If the rice paper languishes in the water longer than a few seconds it will become overly soggy and unusable.) Keep the remaining sheets covered with a damp cloth to prevent curling. On one edge, arrange a nest of rice vermicelli, a spoonful of pork, a few shrimp, some cucumbers, carrots, scallions, bean sprouts, cabbage, mint, and cilantro. While laying out the fillings, remain cognizant of how the spring roll will look once complete. Gingerly roll up the now loaded rice paper, tucking in the sides as you go and press to seal so it is snug. Once both sides are folded inward over the filling, roll the spring roll upwards so that it becomes a somewhat uniform cylinder.

Repeat with the remaining wrappers and filling. During the process, arrange finished rolls on a plate and cover with a slightly damp cloth to keep moist as you construct the remaining rolls. Gỏi cuốn should be rolled up firmly, but not too tightly, or the they will split. They should be assembled to your liking, but not overstuffed. While the wrapping may seem difficult at first blush, once you grasp a technique it will go smoothly.

Serve at room temperature or slightly chilled with dipping sauces or concoct one to your liking.

Nuoc Leo (Peanut Sauce)
1 T peanut oil
3 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and minced
1 t chili paste
2 T tomato paste

1/2 C chicken or vegetable stock
1/2 t sugar
2 T peanut butter
1/4 C hoisin sauce

1/4 C unsalted roasted peanuts, finely chopped
1 fresh red Thai chile pepper, seeded and thinly sliced

Heat the oil in a small saucepan and then add the garlic, chile paste, and tomato paste. Cook until the garlic is lightly golden but not browned, about 30 seconds. Whisk in the broth, sugar, peanut butter and hoisin sauce. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat and simmer for 3-4 minutes. Cool slightly to room temperature and serve in small bowls, garnished with peanuts, and sliced chile.

Red Curry Peanut Sauce
1/4 C roasted salted peanuts
1 T brown sugar

2-3 t Thai red curry paste
8-10 T water
2 t peanut or vegetable oil
3 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and finely chopped
1/4 C finely chopped shallot (about 1 large)
2 fresh Thai or serrano chilies, including seeds, thinly sliced crosswise

Finely grind 3 tablespoons peanuts in a food processor along with brown sugar. Finely chop remaining tablespoon peanuts by hand and set aside.

Stir together curry paste (to taste) and 6 tablespoons water until paste is dissolved.

Heat oil in a heavy skillet over moderately high heat until hot but not smoking, then sauté garlic, shallot, and chiles, stirring, until golden, about 4 minutes. Add ground peanut mixture and cook, stirring, 1 minute. Stir in curry mixture and bring to a boil, stirring constantly. Remove from heat and stir in chopped peanuts.

Cool to room temperature, about 30 minutes, then thin with water, 1 tablespoon at a time, to desired consistency.

Rice Vinegar & Soy Sauce
1 T rice vinegar
3 T soy sauce
1 t sugar
1 t red pepper flakes
1 t sesame seeds

In a small bowl, mix together the vinegar, soy sauce, sugar, red pepper flakes and sesame seeds.

Nuoc Cham
1 t crushed red pepper flakes
1 T rice vinegar

1/2 C nuoc mam (fish sauce), available at Asian markets
1/2 C fresh lime juice
4 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and minced
1/2 C turbinado (raw) sugar

In a small bowl, soak the red pepper flakes in the rice wine vinegar for 15 minutes.
In a second bowl, combine the fish sauce, lime juice, garlic, and sugar.
Whisk in 1 1/2 cups boiling water to the pepper & rice wine vinegar mixture.
Add the fish sauce mixture and stir until the sugar is dissolved.

Pourboire: Not surprisingly, rice vermicelli is found in other notable asian cuisines, including chinese (米粉), malay (bihun), and thai (เส้นหมี่ sen mee).

You cannot teach a crab to walk straight.
~Aristophanes

Another crustacean deity.

True crabs are decapod crustaceans of the order Brachyura. Ranging in girth from a few millimeters wide to spans over 12 feet, crabs are generally covered with a hard exoskeleton, and display a single pair of chelae (claws), dactyls (movable fingers) and four other pairs of legs. If a predator grabs a leg, crabs simply shed it only to rejuvenate the limb later. They are found in all of the world’s oceans, although many species live terrestially and/or inhabit fresh waters.

Sexually dimorphised, males have larger claws and a narrow, triangular abdomen, while females have a broader, rounded abdomen which is naturally contoured for brooding fertilized eggs. Due to joint structure, crabs typically have a sidelong gait yet they can burrow and swim.

Despite a reputation for culinary purity, crabs are scavenging omnivores, grazing on algae, mollusks, worms, fellow crustaceans, fungi, bacteria, and decaying organic matter. Aimless, promiscuous bottom feeders. In spite of or perhaps by reason of their diet, crabs are ambrosial on the back end.

A gastronomic and not a biological phrase, soft shell crabs are simply those critters which have recently molted their old undersized exoskeleton (carapace) and are still soft, succulent yet slightly crispy in texture. Maryland Blue crabs molt between mid-May and late September, and the new shell is exquisitely tender. The crabs fast several days before molting, so their systems are relatively purified when retrieved. Remember: the season is quite short.

Soft shell crabs should be bought live and should be cooked the day they are purchased. Have your fishmonger clean them, but do not have him hack off their legs.

By the way, do eat the whole enchilada…barefoot (or more), with bare fingers and une flûte de champagne in the other hand, while your eyes roll back into your head.

SAUTEED SOFT SHELL CRABS

Soft shell crabs, cleaned and patted dry
Buttermilk and/or whole milk

Sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
Quatre épices* or ras al hanout (August 11, 2009 post)
All purpose flour

1 T extra virgin olive oil
3 T unsalted butter
2 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and lightly smashed

In a large shallow glass or ceramic baking dish, cover the crabs with buttermilk or whole milk and refrigerate for an hour or so.

Season the soft shell crabs with salt, pepper, and a very light sprinkling of quatre épices or ras al hanout on one side only. Please do not overseason these delicate creatures. On a platter, dredge the crabs in flour, shaking off the excess.

In a large skillet, heat the oil, butter and garlic until shimmering and bubbling but not browned. Lay in the crabs, undersides up and sauté over moderately high heat, turning once, until crisp and cooked through, about 6 minutes total. Remove and serve immediately with an aioli, rouille, saffron mayonnaise, salsa verde or rémoulade.

Quatre Epices
1 T allspice berries
1 T whole cloves
1 T nutmeg, freshly grated
1 T ground cinnamon

Grate the nutmeg. In a coffee mill or spice grinder, grind the allspice and cloves. Combine all of the spices in a bowl, stirring to mix.

Pourboire: So many options here. For instance, season crabs with salt, pepper and any spices to your liking. Grill over a moderately high charcoal fire until firm, about 3-4 minutes max per side. Serve immediately, with a home crafted mayonnaise, aioli, or salsa du jour. Or create sumptuous sandwiches with the sautéed or grilled crab, bacon, ripe heirloom tomatoes, avocado and basil served on toasted or grilled artisanal bread.

Tacos à Paris? Enfin

June 1, 2011

Paris is always a good idea.
~Audrey Hepburn

A dimunitive spot in the Marais—not really a resto yet almost a caféCandelaria is now the self-annointed first bona fide taqueria in Paris. No doubt that claim will provoke debate on both rives and beyond. With minimal décor, a small counter, one communal table and a bouncer to boot, this venue offers tacos and tostadas to locals and tourists alike. About damn time, but never too late.

I have often been baffled why this eclectic culinary capital or even its overseas territories had not earlier embraced this humble and sumptuous street food. Tacos, un pur délice.

So, given colonial France’s nexus to southeast Asian fare…

SOUTHEAST ASIAN FISH TACOS

1/2 C shoyu
1/4 C coconut milk
1/4 C fresh lime juice
1 T red chile paste
1 T honey
4 fresh plump garlic cloves, peeled and minced
4 Thai bird chiles, stemmed and minced
2 lbs skinless halibut or mahi mahi filets

1/2 C coconut milk
1/2 C peanut butter
1/4 C fresh lime juice
1 T nước mắm Phú Quốc (fish sauce)
2 t sesame oil
1 t red chile paste
Honey
Red pepper flakes, to taste

1 C red cabbage, very thinly sliced
1 C Napa cabbage, very thinly sliced
1/2 medium red onion, peeled and thinly sliced
1 C pickled carrots and daikon radishes*

Fresh avocado slices
Fresh cilantro, roughly chopped
Fresh mint, roughly chopped

Heated flour tortillas or steamed bao buns

Whisk together shoyu, coconut milk, lime juice, chile paste, honey, garlic and 1/4 cup water to make a marinade. Place fish in a ziploc bag, pour marinade over the top and gently toss to coat. Refrigerate for at least 4 hours.

Meanwhile, stir together coconut milk, peanut butter, lime juice, fish sauce, sesame oil, and chile paste into a small saucepan over medium low heat. Cook over medium heat, stirring often, for about 5 minutes. Add a drizzle or so of honey and a pinch of red pepper flakes. Stir dressing and set aside.

Put cabbage, onions, pickled carrots/daikon into a large bowl with half of the dressing or so and toss to coat. Set slaw aside. Reserve any remaining dressing.

Prepare grill to medium heat. Drain fish, discarding marinade, and cook on well cleaned and oiled grill until it flakes easily with a fork and is opaque, about 5 minutes per side. Transfer fish to a cutting board, allow to rest for a few minutes and then roughly chop. Serve fish in warm tortillas or steamed bao buns, topped with slaw, avocado slices, dressing, cilantro and mint.

*Pickled Carrots & Daikon
1 C carrots, peeled and julienned (matchstick size)
1 C daikon radish, peeled and julienned (matchstick size)

1/4 C warm water
3/4 C rice wine vinegar
5 T sugar
1 T sea salt

Mix warm water, vinegars, sugar and salt until all is dissolved. Mix carrots and daikon radishes in a tightly lidded glass jar. Pour vinegar mixture into carrots and daikon, stir, cover, and allow to marinade for 3 days or so. Drain off liquid when ready to use.

Pourboire: of course, there are many ways to skin this quasi cat, but consider adding some red curry paste in lieu of or in addition to the red chile pastes in both the fish marinade and the slaw; or drizzle with a mix of sriracha and/or red curry paste and crema.