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.

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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.

You may fool all the people some of the time, you can even fool some of the people all of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all the time.
~Phineas T. Barnum

Dear Groupon,

I felt compelled to write about your troubling Superbowl XLV ad which used the plight of Tibetans to convince consumers to buy Groupon certificates. In case you missed the airing, actor Timothy Hutton ended his somber monologue about how Tibet’s “very culture is in jeopardy.” He then suddenly chirped in that Tibetans “still whip up an amazing fish curry,” touting how his friends and he thankfully saved money at a Chicago Himalayan restaurant via Groupon. As you may know, Tibet has been threatened with societal extinction at the hands of an oppressive Chinese government. So, peddling your product at the expense of tyrranized victims of a revered culture seemed, at best, perversely odd.

Your multimillion dollar half minute was undeniably directed at furthering Groupon’s brand and generating Groupon profits and not aimed at altruism. An attempt to garner marketing attention and revenue from a beleaguered people’s struggle seems exploitative—a disrespectful quip demeaning the gravity of Tibetan misery.

I embrace humour noir, but this was over the line. Genocide is no joke.

While it appears that empathy rarely emanates from your Chicago Ave boardroom, it has seemed reasonable to expect some remorse. But, no genuine apologies are in the offing. The only words uttered were a feckless, fork-tongued defense (a/k/a publicity statement). And nowhere to be found is a solitary “I’m sorry” from corporate. Just self-justifying tripe focused on quelling Groupon losses.

No matter how and when spun, making light of cultural, religious and ethnic persecution for gain is both chilling and disgraceful. Equally deplorable were Groupon’s lame, hastily organized post airing efforts to contort this crass “show me the money” profiteering into donating to a mission-driven cause. You padded a hasty retreat driven solely by the palpable fear of losing customers. Nice try, Andrew.

On to the culinary content of the Tibetan fish curry ad which was likewise thoughtless. FYI, Tibetans do not eat fish for the most part. To many locals, eating fish is as abhorrent as pork is to Muslims and beef is to Hindus. Besides the obvious fact that Tibet is a mountainous, landlocked country, the absence of fish on tables there exists for several reasons. Some Tibetans practice water burial in lakes, and so eating fish is considered synonymous with dining on the dead. Fish are also regarded as the incarnation of the revered god of water and thus remain sacred. Tibetans detest gossip, and as fish do not have noticeable tongues, they cannot gossip. So, fish are rewarded for their silence by not becoming part of the Tibetan diet.

The disdain for Groupon’s brand name that resulted from your ads seems predictable. The negative online aftermath urging a mass “unsubscription” also comes as no surprise. Who knows how conscientious shop owners may respond.

Sincerely,

A Lay Cook

P.S. Groupon’s after the fact public ploy to show social conscience through savethemoney.org has already ceased. That non-profit “humanistic” site has already closed and now simply redirects to Groupon’s profit making center. A vital effort to save Groupon’s most precious natural resource: money.

CALAMARI WITH RED CURRY & COCONUT MILK

3 T peanut oil
1/2 medium yellow onion, peeled and finely chopped

1 jalapeño pepper, stemmed, seeded and minced
1 T peeled and grated fresh ginger
3 plump fresh garlic cloves, peeled and minced
1 1/2 T red curry paste
2 t ground coriander
Freshly ground black pepper

1 14-oz can coconut milk
1 1/2 C chicken broth
1 T light brown sugar
1 T fresh lime juice
Pinch of sea salt

2 lbs calamari, (bodies and tentacles), cleaned, bodies cut into 1″ slices

Freshly grated lime zest
Fresh mint leaves, chopped
Fresh cilantro leaves, chopped

Heat peanut oil in a large skillet or Dutch oven over medium heat. Add onion, and sauté until translucent, about 5 minutes. Add jalapeño pepper, ginger, garlic, curry paste, coriander and pepper and cook over medium heat another 3-4 minutes. Then, add coconut milk, broth, brown sugar, lime juice, and salt. Bring to a gentle boil, reduce heat, and simmer 5 minutes.

Add calamari to curry sauce, and cook over medium high heat until calamari is opaque, about 2 minutes. Plate and garnish with lime zest, mint and cilantro.

This curry was like a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony that I’d once heard…..especially the last movement, with everything screaming and banging “Joy.'” It stunned, it made one fear great art. My father could say nothing after the meal.
~Anthony Burgess

Lens culinaris is a bushy annual legume, well adapted to semi-arid, cool conditions and cultivated for its lens-shaped seeds which are usually smaller than an eraser head. Low in fat and protein/iron laden lentils have a mild, nutty, and fairly terrene flavor. Given their nutritive vigor, they form an intergral part of global diets, especially in the Indian subcontinent with its abundant vegetarian populace. Vegan comfort food.

The rainbow coalition of lentil shades is dazzling: black, beluga, brown, green, orange, maroon, crimson, pink, red, tan, yellow, white, black & white. A common red lentil is the Red Chief which is a lovely salmon pink in dried form, but turns golden when cooked. As lentils are rather submissive by nature, they are suited to more dominant, assertive spices, such as sense-evocative curries.

Dried lentils may be stored in an airtight container for up to a year in a cool, dry place…a pantry sine qua nons.

RED OR BROWN LENTIL CURRY

2 t cumin seeds
2 t coriander seeds
1/4 t mustard seeds
1 T black peppercorns

1 t turmeric
1 t red pepper flakes

1 medium yellow onion, peeled and finely chopped
2 T canola oil oil
1 T fresh ginger, peeled and finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, peeled and finely chopped
1 fresh jalapeño or serrano chile, seeded and finely chopped
1 T curry paste

1 t sea salt
1 t freshly ground black pepper

2 C vegetable stock
1 1/2 C dried red or brown lentils
1 (14-oz) can unsweetened coconut milk
1 cinnamon stick
Sea salt

Basmati rice, cooked
1 C fresh cilantro leaves, roughly chopped

Spread lentils out on a large plate to check for, and remove, small stones or debris. Then, place lentils in a strainer, and rinse thoroughly under cool running water.

In a small heavy skillet, combine the coriander, cumin, mustard seeds and peppercorns. Toast over low medium heat, shaking the pan until very slightly browned but not burned, 2-3 minutes. Cool and then add to a spice grinder or coffee mill and grind to a fine powder. Add the turmeric and red pepper and pulse the grinder a couple of times until well mixed. Set aside the curry spice powder.

Saute onion in oil in a heavy medium sauce pan or Dutch oven over medium high heat, stirring occasionally, until translucent and just turning golden, about 6 minutes. Add ginger, garlic and jalapeño or serrano chile and cook, stirring, 1-2 minutes. Add the curry spice powder (above) and curry paste; cook, stirring, 1 minute.

Stir in stock, lentils, coconut milk, cinnamon stick and bring to a boil, then reduce heat to a simmer. Simmer, covered, until lentils are tender, about 25-30 minutes. Season with salt to taste.

Serve over Basmati rice with cilantro scattered on top.

Pourboire: Cauliflower florets can be added for the last 10 minutes of the simmer.

Zestful Sweet Spuds

November 12, 2009

Said Aristotle unto Plato,
“Have another sweet potato?”
Said Plato unto Aristotle,
“Thank you, I prefer the bottle.”

~Owen Wister

A moist, spicy autumn darling. The sweet, dense flesh of sweet potatoes is enhanced by the variegated zing of coconut milk, curry paste, nutmeg, cinnamon…and that hint of orange on orange on the finish. Something about redheads.

MASHED SWEET POTATOES WITH COCONUT, CURRY
& ORANGE ZEST

4 lbs sweet potatoes
4 T unsalted butter

3/4 C coconut milk
1 T Thai red curry paste
1 T honey
1/2 T light brown sugar
1/4 t freshly grated nutmeg
1/2 t ground cinnamon

Sea salt and freshly ground black (or white) pepper

Zest of 1 orange

Preheat oven to 400 F

Prick potatoes with a fork in several places. Bake potatoes until quite tender, about 1 hour. When cool enough to handle, peel and mash well with butter.

Meanwhile in a medium heavy saucepan, heat coconut milk with curry paste, honey, brown sugar, nutmeg and cinnamon over low heat and whisk until well mingled. Stir enough coconut/curry mixture into mashed sweet potatoes to achieve the desired consistency. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Immediately stir in orange zest and serve.

A Cupboard Not Bare

January 19, 2009

Even the most resourceful housewife cannot create miracles from a riceless pantry.
~Chinese proverb

Before traipsing into the kitchen or addressing the grill, some thought needs to be given to the provisions on hand. Not only would it be unrealistic to expect all ingredients to be locally fresh throughout the year, but the time constraints of daily life often demand an impromptu table. Having a well supplied (and periodically restocked) pantry is simply essential for home cooks to produce remarkable meals without a last minute forage at the neighborhood market. Some cupboard items can even prove superior to the fresh versions in certain seasons or preparations while others only come in pantry form.

The list below is not exhaustive, but is intended to be fairly comprehensive for the lay cook. Of course, you will tailor your pantry to suit your palate and home cuisine. However, before you reject this list due to storage size restrictions alone, please keep in mind that almost all of these items are carefully housed in the cabinets of our minimalist urban kitchen with a small frig.

Oils –- extra virgin olive, canola, peanut, grapeseed, vegetable, white truffle, avocado, walnut, sesame

Vinegars — red wine, balsamic, champagne, apple cider, sherry, port, rice wine

Spices & Herbs — black peppercorns, white pepper, green peppercorns, pink peppercorns, mixed peppercorns, cayenne pepper, salt (sea, gray, kosher), herbes de provence, fine herbes, ras el hanout, za’atar, sage, thyme, rosemary, oregano, bay leaves, tarragon, fennel seeds, fennel pollen, savory, celery seed, mustard, turmeric, cardamom, paprika, pimentón, cumin seeds, coriander seeds, caraway seeds, curry powder (homemade) & curry paste, fenugreek leaves, garam masala, caraway seeds, nutmeg, cinnamon (sticks/ground), chipotle chile powder, ancho chile powder, star anise, sesame seeds (black, white), allspice, anise seeds, saffron threads, wasabi powder, rubs (i.e., asian, ancho chili, dried mushroom, rosemary & pepper, tandoori, basic barbeque), local hot sauce(s), barbeque (preferably near home) sauces

Grains & Pastas — rice (white long grained, wild, brown, jasmine, basmati), polenta, risotto, pastas (potentials: taglilatelle, linguini, spaghetti, penne, lasagne, orzo, tortellini, orcchietta, capellini, farfalle, capaletti, cavatappi, cavatelli, fusilli, gnocchi, macaroni, papparadelle, ravioli, vermicelli), couscous, Israeli couscous, rice (cellophane) noodles (vermicelli–bun & sticks–banh pho)

Asian –- soy sauce, shoyu, white shoyu, hoisin sauce, chili garlic sauce/paste, sriracha, nuoc mam nhi(fish sauce), nuoc mam chay pha san, hoisin sauce, red, yellow & green curry pastes, mirin, sake, coconut milk, miso pastes (white, red), oyster sauce, wasabi paste/powder, five spice, tamarind paste, mirin, rice flour, panko bread crumbs, kochujang, gochu garu, konbu

Garlic, shallots, ginger, potatoes, yellow & red onions, dried chiles

Mustards, chutneys, capers, sun dried tomatoes, anchovies, tomato paste, harissa, tahini, creme fraiche, pickles

Canned tomatoes (san marzano + homemade), stock (homemade/canned)

Legumes –- lentils (several colors + lentils du puy), garbanzos, cannellinis, white beans, black beans, navy beans

Booze — red & white wine, cognac (brandy), port wine, Madeira, sherry, eau de vie

Baking — flour, sugars (white granulated, raw cane, light brown, confectioner’s), baking powder, cornstarch, cornmeal, yeast, cocoa, dark chocolate (70-85% cocoa)

Flavorings –- almond extract, vanilla beans, vanilla extract, Tabasco, Worcestershire

Dried fruits — currants, apricots, figs, prunes, currants

Nuts –- pine nuts, walnuts, almonds, pistachios, hazelnuts, pecans, unsalted peanuts

Honeys (local, raw, unprocessed), mi-figue mi-raisin, raspberry and strawberry preserves, apricot jam, pure maple syrup, peanut butter

Dairy –- whole milk, unsalted butter, eggs, buttermilk, heavy whipping cream

Fruits –- lemons, oranges, grapefruit, blueberries, strawberries, blackberries, heirloom tomatoes

Cheeses –- parmigiano reggiano, pecorino romano, gruyère, marscarpone, roquefort or gorgonzola, feta, fontina, manchego

Meats proscuitto, serrano

Spreads tapenades, caponata, hummus