Fueled by scorching temperatures, a severe to extreme drought has settled over much of the continental United States. The most brutal heat wave in many decades, readings above 100 F have become commonplace. The Midwest is evolving into a dust bowl, while the Southwest and Rockies are becoming tinder boxes, and lakes and rivers across the South are withering up. More than half of all counties have been designated primary disaster areas this growing season. Almost four million acres of conservation land were opened by the Department of Agriculture for ranchers to use for haying and grazing. Crops and pasture lands throughout much of the country have taken more than a drubbing — they have simply become a debacle with little relief in sight. Somber days in the breadbasket as the drought has touched so many, so much.

Beat the heat fare should be trendy this cruel summer. A cooling concoction with infinite variations, raita is a traditional Indian-Pakistani-Bangladeshi condiment used as a salad, relish, spread, dip or side dish. Other versions include tomato, diced veggies, avocado, chutney, beet, masala, potato, sweet potato, onion, chile, chickpea, etc.  Although always finely mated with Indian dishes, versatile raita need not be relegated to south Asian eats.

RAITA

1 t cumin seeds, toaasted and ground
1 t coriander seeds, toasted and ground
1 t black mustard seeds, toasted and ground

2 C plain Greek (strained) yogurt
1 t sugar
1/2 t crushed red pepper powder or flakes
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

1/2+ large fresh English cucumber, peeled and diced
1 C fresh mint leaves, chopped

In a heavy dry medium skillet, toast cumin, coriander and mustard seeds until just aromatic. Allow to cool and then grind the seeds in a spice grinder or mortar and pestle.

Whisk together yogurt, sugar, red pepper, cumin, coriander, mustard, salt, black pepper, cucumber, and mint. Chill, covered, until ready to serve.

Pourboire: a brief word about measuring. Although baking demands precise measurements, savory cooking generally allows some laxity. So, unless you are as OCD as Ina Garten, just mete out ingredients with your eyes. Use that oversized 3 lbs of meat between your ears (and hippocampi) to judge and recall amounts — simply pour a carefully measured, even brightly hued, chosen spice into an open palm in order to ascertain the quantity of a teaspoon, tablespoon, cup or portion thereof and take note. Then, use that memory forward.

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Food is our common ground, a universal experience.
~James Beard

Paninis, tacos, burgers, croque-monsieurs, BLTs, lobster rolls, empanadas, and gyros, all sandwich fodder, have been exalted earlier here. Each have their unique crust, mantles and cores. Bánh Mì is just another ambrosial meal settled between or under dough slices, all united in mouth. A Vietnamese sub, of sorts, and yet another food born of a sordid imperialistic affair…a tale of conquest, occupation and social inequity. Later, America entered the fray and matters may have worsened. Someday, while mistrust will linger, we will heal some, and breaking bread never hurts.

Bánh Mì, while generally a Vietnamese term for all breads, now implies a sandwich chocked with meats and friends. The French baguette was first force fed to Indochine during turbulent, often overtly rebellious, colonial days (1887-1954). Việt baguettes, though, now differ some and have retained their culinary autonomy. Often made with a combination of rice and wheat flour, these demi-baguettes tend to possess a lighter, golden crust and an airier not so overly dense interior. Again, fresh bread is the star — yeasty, thin-skinned with a delicate crackle but sturdy enough to handle the usual suspects. The rest is about balance with the innards.

Traditionally, bánh mì are made with chả lụa, a pork roll made with finely ground pork wrapped in a banana leaf and steamed. The pork belly or butt are just a variation, but no less savory. As with most other fare, to assume there is some purist version of bánh mì is mistaken, even myopic. A little spread of black bean sauce, grilled pork, head cheese, fried eggs, aïoli, fried oysters, even the layering sequence are a few improprieties that come to mind — so, smite me, O mighty smiter!

BANH MI (VIETNAMESE BAGUETTE SANDWICH)

Việt baguette
Mayonnaise*
Fresh cilantro leaves
Pâté de campagne
Duck rillette

Braised pork belly, sliced or slow roasted pork butt, pulled
Tương Ớt Tỏi (chile sauce) or bird chiles or jalapeños, thinly sliced
Cured cold cuts (thịt nguội or đặc biệt), thinly sliced

Pickled carrots and daikon radish (do chua)*
English cucumber, thinly sliced
Nước chấm or nước mắm Phú Quốc (optional)

Slice the baguette lengthwise and hollow out the insides some, making a trough in both halves. Slather with mayonnaise on both insides. Lay cilantro on the top half of the bread with judicious smears or slices of pâté de campagne and rillette on each half. Arrange the pork belly slices on the top half along with the Tương Ớt Tỏi or chiles. Put cold cuts (thịt nguội or đặc biệt) on the bottom half, topped by the pickled carrots and daikon radish (do chua), and then the cucumber slices. If you so desire, drizzle ever so lightly with nước chấm. Close the hood and indulge.

MAYONNAISE*

4 large egg yolks, room temperature
2 T Dijon mustard
2 t white wine or champagne vinegar
Tiny pinch of cayenne pepper

1 1/3 C canola or grapeseed oil

Separate egg whites from yolks. Egg yolks contain a natural emulsifier, lecithin, which helps thicken sauces and bind ingredients.

Whisk together the egg yolks, mustard, wine vinegar or lemon juice, salt, and cayenne pepper in a medium glass or metal bowl.

Add a few drops of oil while whisking; then pour in the oil slowly, in a very thin stream, while whisking vigorously with the bowl tilted at an angle on a folded towel. The emulsion should become thick enough to hold its shape and appear voluptuously creamy. Be patient, because if you add the oil too rapidly the mayonnaise will break and turn soupy.

PICKLED CARROTS & DAIKON RADISH (DO CHUA)*

1 large carrot, peeled and cut into matchsticks
1 lb daikon radishes, peeled and cut into matchsticks
1 t sea salt
2 t sugar

1/2 C sugar
1 C distilled white vinegar
1 C lukewarm water

Place the carrot and daikon radishes in a bowl and sprinkle with the salt and 2 teaspoons of sugar. Knead the vegetables for a few minutes, expelling the water from them. They will soften and liquid will pool at the bottom of the bowl. Drain in a colander and rinse under cold running water, then press gently to exude extra liquid. Transfer the vegetables to a pickling jar.

In a medium glass bowl, combine 1/2 cup sugar, vinegar, and water and stir to dissolve the sugar. Remove from heat, allow to cool to room temperature and pour over the vegetables. The brine should cover the vegetables. Allow the vegetables to marinate for at least two hours, preferable overnight. Keep in the fridge for a month or so.

Lamb Down & Tzatziki

May 14, 2011

Not life, but good life, is to be chiefly valued.
~Socrates

Tomorrow, another young ruminant bites the dust. A whole roasted spring lamb with Greek fixings, including tzatziki, awaits. Having been assured that this spring sacrifice was not lured from a local childrens’ petting zoo with rodent pellets, I will sleep soundly tonight. Mary’s little lamb, on the other hand, is sleeping fleeceless with the fishes…only to be almost miraculously resurrected over glowing coals.

Cucumbers (Cucumis sativus) are cultivated creeping vines from the gourd family which bear cylindrical fruit. With south Asian origins dating back some 10,000 years, several different cucumber cultivars have emerged over time. English cucumbers have thin, tender, edible skins and a relative lack of seeds which lends sweetness.

Tzatziki (τζατζίκι) is the omnipresent and ever versatile Grecian meze, served as a dip, soup, sauce or salad. Common to Mediterranean cuisines, this delicate yet tangy mingling of cucumber, yogurt, garlic, lemon and mint often graces gyros, souvlaki, vegetables, and grilled or roasted meats, to name a few. Offer when cool as a cucumber.

TZATZIKI

1 English cucumber, peeled and diced
Sea salt

2 C Greek yogurt (yiaourti)
Juice and zest of 2 lemons
3 plump garlic cloves, peeled, smashed and finely minced
Freshly ground black pepper
Sea salt
1/2 C fresh mint leaves, cut into ribbons

Salt the cucumber and place over a wire mesh strainer positioned over a bowl. Set aside to drain for 2 hours or so.

Meanwhile, in another bowl, combine the yogurt, lemon juice and zest, garlic, black pepper, another pinch of salt, and fresh mint chiffonade.

Squeeze out the excess moisture from the cucumbers and add to the yogurt mixture. Stir well to combine. Allow to rest in refrigerator for at least two hours before serving so the flavors can marry.

Pourboire: you may also wish to drain the yogurt overnight through a cheesecloth or muslin bag suspended over a bowl. Discard the liquid in the bowl and use the thickened result. This step is mandatory should Greek yogurt be unavailable.

A Devil’s Eggs

March 14, 2010

Boiled eggs. Are seasoned with broth, oil, pure wine, or are served with broth, pepper and lovage.
~Apicius, Cooking and Dining in Imperial Rome

Demonic fingerlings. Seems enigmatic given that Lucifer’s ova not only pose as Easter fare but are served at so many under-the-nave-in-the-basement-low-ceilinged-linoleum-floored church functions.

As is often the case, the possibilities are boundless with eggs. But, consider they do embody the essence of life and epitomize fertility. Just let your culinary mind wander. Think chopped or minced crab, shrimp, proscuitto, serrano, chiles, mustards, horseradish, wasabi, celery, fennel, caviar, smoked salmon, cured olives, cornichons, sun dried tomatoes, kimchi, peanuts, pistachios, shallots, crème fraîche, and herbs galore—to name just a few.

CURRY

6 large eggs

3 1/2 T mayonnaise (preferably homemade, but prepared works too)
1 T scallion or green onion, minced
1 T jalapeño chile, seeded and finely minced
2 t minced mango or chile chutney, finely minced
1/2 T curry powder
1/4 t ground cumin seed
Pinch of garam masala
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste

Red radishes, finely chopped (garnish)

Place eggs in heavy, medium sauce pan, and add enough cold water to cover by 2″ or so. Bring to a boil over high heat, uncovered. Immediately remove from heat, cover, and let stand for 12 minutes. Drain hot water off eggs and then carefully transfer eggs to a large bowl of ice water to halt the cooking process. Then dry thoroughly with a kitchen towel. Gently crack the eggs and peel under cool running water.

Cut peeled eggs in half lengthwise, spooning yolks into a bowl. Using a fork to mash, mix in mayonnaise, then scallions, jalapeño chile, chutney, curry, garam masala, sea salt and freshly ground pepper. Using a pastry bag or heavy plastic bag, pipe filling into egg whites, mounding slightly. Easier yet, simply spoon the the yolk mixture into the open egg whites.

Cover and chill eggs for at least 2 hours, even overnight. When serving, top each egg with some chopped radishes.

CAPERS & TARRAGON

6 large eggs

3 T mayonnaise (preferably homemade, but prepared works too)
1/2 T dijon mustard
4 t fresh tarragon, chopped
2 T capers, drained well
2 t shallot, peeled and minced

Pinches of paprika (garnish)
English cucumber, peeled and finely chopped (garnish)

Place eggs in heavy, medium sauce pan, and add enough cold water to cover by 2″ or so. Bring to a boil over high heat, uncovered. Immediately remove from heat, cover, and let stand for 12 minutes. Drain hot water off eggs and then carefully transfer eggs to a large bowl of ice water to halt the cooking process. Then dry thoroughly with a kitchen towel. Gently crack the eggs and peel under cool running water.

Cut peeled eggs in half lengthwise, spooning yolks into a bowl. Using a fork to mash, mix in mayonnaise, mustard, tarragon, capers, shallot, sea salt and freshly ground pepper. Using a pastry bag or heavy plastic bag, pipe filling into egg whites, mounding slightly. Easier yet, simply spoon the the yolk mixture into the open egg whites.

Cover and chill eggs for at least 2 hours, even overnight. When serving, top each egg with a small pinch of paprika and some chopped cucumber.

CHIPOTLE

6 large eggs

3 T mayonnaise (preferably homemade, but prepared works too)
1/2 T dijon mustard
2-3 t canned chipotle chiles, finely chopped
Sea salt

Cilantro leaves (garnish)

Place eggs in heavy, medium sauce pan, and add enough cold water to cover by 2″ or so. Bring to a boil over high heat, uncovered. Immediately remove from heat, cover, and let stand for 12 minutes. Drain hot water off eggs and then carefully transfer eggs to a large bowl of ice water to halt the cooking process. Then dry thoroughly with a kitchen towel. Gently crack the eggs and peel under cool running water.

Cut peeled eggs in half lengthwise, spooning yolks into a bowl. Using a fork to mash, mix in mayonnaise, then chopped chipotle chiles and salt to taste. Using pastry bag or heavy plastic bag, pipe filling into egg whites, mounding slightly. Easier yet, simply spoon the the yolk mixture into the open egg whites.

Cover and chill eggs for at least 2 hours, even overnight. When serving, gently lay 1 or 2 cilantro leaves onto the filling on each egg.

Cold soup is a very tricky thing, and it is the rare hostess who can carry it off. More often than not, the dinner guest is left with the impression that had he only come a little earlier he could have gotten it while it was still hot.
~Fran Lebowitz

Oddly, I chose this cool, rainy, ruminative day to write about cold fare. But, our sultry and sometimes sweltering summer will soon swoop down, so now is the time to dust off and unveil some cold soups—and I do mean well chilled, not room temp.

The English cucumber makes a much superior choice of these green vegetal cylinders. After all, it handles the rigors of shipping well, appears in decent quantities and has such sweetly flavored flesh and skin that you can eat the entire vegetable. The flesh is smooth and refreshingly moist.

It is generally sold wrapped in plastic to reduce water loss, and so is usually not waxed as are other varieties. Contrary to popular belief, English cucumbers are not enitrely seedless, but the seeds are much smaller and less prominent. Cucumbers contain surprisingly high amounts of protein and vitamin B1 as well as an enzyme called erepsin, which aids in digesting protein.

Here is a trio of fresh and crisp chilled soups that soothe on those torrid days…

CHILLED ENGLISH CUCUMBER SOUP WITH DILL

1 1/2 T unsalted butter
1 cup chopped onions
4 English cucumbers, peeled, halved lengthwise, seeded and cut crosswise into 1/2″ slices
1 russet potato, peeled, cut into 1/2″ cubes
3 1/2 C chicken broth
4 large fresh dill fronds
6 tablespoons minced fresh dill
1 t salt

1 cup crème fraîche
Thin smoked salmon slices, about 3″ long

Melt butter in heavy large pot over medium heat. Add onions and sauté until slightly softened and translucent, about 3 minutes. Add cucumbers and potato; stir 1 minute. Add broth, dill fronds, and salt. Increase heat and bring to simmer, then reduce heat to low; cover and simmer until cucumbers and potato are tender, stirring occasionally, about 25 minutes. Remove and discard dill fronds.

Working in batches, purée soup in processor until smooth. Return to pot and cool 30 minutes. Whisk in 1/2 cup crème fraîche and 4 tablespoons minced dill. Cover and chill until cold, about 4 hours. Taste soup, adding more salt if desired.

Ladle soup into shallow bowls. Spoon a dollop of crème fraîche in the center of each bowl, and artfully arrange smoked salmon slices over the dollop. Lightly sprinkle with the remaining minced dill.

CHILLED ASPARAGUS SOUP

8 T unsalted butter
3 lbs fresh asparagus, bases snapped off and spears sliced in 1″ lengths
1 yellow onion, peeled and diced
3 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and minced
4 small spring onions or cippolinis, white part only, peeled and finely chopped

2 large Yukon gold potatoes, peeled and cut into eighths
1 qt chicken stock
1 qt vegetable stock

1 C tarragon leaves, stems removed and discarded
1 1/2 C spinanch, blanched, ice bathed and drained on paper towels
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
1-2 T Champagne vinegar

Crème fraîche
Caviar or salmon roe (optional)

Over medium heat, add butter to 1 large, heavy saucepan. Just when the butter has become foamy, add onion, spring onions and garlic. Lightly season with salt and pepper. Sweat mixture until soft and translucent, but not browned.

Add both stocks and potato to pan. Lightly season with salt and pepper and bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer until potatoes are tender. Once potatoes are tender, bring to a rolling boil and add the asparagus. Once the soup returns to a boil, reduce and simmer for 5 minutes, then remove from heat. Taste and adjust seasoning. Transfer to a large bowl and chill soup immediately in an ice bath.

In a food processor or blender, add tarragon and spinach to soup mixture and purée well in batches until smooth. Adjust seasoning with salt, pepper and champagne vinegar. Cover and chill until cold, about 4 hours.

Ladle into shallow soup bowls and garnish each with a dollop of crème fraîche and a teaspoon of caviar or roe.

Pourboire: in lieu of crème fraîche and fish eggs, you may consider crumbling some fine goat cheese over the soup. More rustic, but no less flavorful.

CHILLED AVOCADO SOUP

4 ripe medium avocados, halved, pitted, peeled and roughly chopped
1 1/2 C buttermilk
1 C plain organic yogurt
3 T fresh lime juice
1/2 medium red onion, peeled and diced
2 T chopped seeded jalepeño chili
Pinch of cayenne pepper
1/2 C chicken broth

White pepper
Sea salt

Sour cream
Lime zest
Red chili pepper, finely minced

Place avocados into processor and add buttermilk and yogurt; purée until smooth. Mix in lime juice, red oninon, jalepeño and cayenne pepper and purée further. With machine running, blend in 1/2 cup chicken broth. Season with salt and white pepper. Chill soup until cold, about 4 hours.

Ladel soup into shallow bowls. Serve each with a dollop of sour cream and a sprinkling of lime zest and minced red chili pepper.