Foodie Tuesday: Tikka Masala Madness

We were both hungry for something Indian-food-ish. Really hungry. It was time to figure out a new recipe for a nice Tikka Masala-like sauce, for a change of pace. So I went hunting. I looked through my Indian cookbooks and went wandering online for a while, and found that the core ingredients for a creamy tomato curry seemed fairly stable from one recipe to another, but as with any sort of classic food, not only did the proportions vary widely but the peripheral or add-on ingredients did, too.

Jamie Oliver’s recipe seemed to me to sit somewhere right in the middle of the typical combinations, so I chose to use that as a jumping-off point for today’s home-brew. And what do you know, it came out pretty nicely. And relatively simply. I made a big enough batch that I could freeze a couple of meals’ worth, too. I opted to cook up the other parts of the meal (a batch of vegetables, roughly chopped prawns, and coconut rice) separately, then just took some of the finished sauce after it’d simmered for a while and spooned up customized individual combinations in bowls for our dinner.

This is a recipe where it’s particularly helpful to have your mise en place waiting next to the cooktop so it goes together very easily.Photo: Tickled Tikka Masala

Tickled Tikka Masala

Finely mince or crush 2-3 cloves garlic, 2 Tablespoons fresh ginger, 1-2 teaspoons freshly chopped jalapeño, and 1 T grated citrus zest (I used lemon and lime together). Mix with 2-3 T lemon juice, 1.5 T chicken bouillon (I like Better Than Bouillon brand). Set aside.

Blend together dry ingredients: 2 Tablespoons garam masala, 1 T ground coriander, 1/2 teaspoon ground cloves, 1 T cumin, and 1 T smoked paprika, and 2 T freeze-dried diced shallots. Toast gently in 3-4 T ghee in a large pan over medium-low heat.

Add the citrus-bouillon blend and stir it all together to warm through. To this, add a whole can of rich coconut milk (13.5 oz Chaokoh, my fave) and stir it in. Add 24.5 oz canned tomato puree or sauce (tomatoes and salt only; Mutti Passata is my favorite) and about 2 T tomato paste. Let this whole thing simmer gently for an hour or two, covered, stirring occasionally.

Add whole milk yogurt or labneh to taste, serving by serving and garnish with chopped fresh cilantro. Or, if you don’t have a yogurt-and-green-thingies-averse partner like mine, finish the whole dish with them. Or you can top it with toasted coconut, with cashews, pistachios, bacon pieces, chopped dried apricots, or whatever suits your fancy. However you choose to do it, as you can see by the long list of ingredients and the longer list of recipes I surfed before landing on one of my own, the dish is endlessly customizable. And yes, it turns out, every bit as tasty as I remembered.

Photo: Tikka with Toppings

Foodie Tuesday: A Toast to Skagen

I have not yet been to Skagen, that Danish destiny so alluring to international tourists, fishermen and art lovers, but I have long since had an imaginary affair of the heart with it, thanks to the popular Swedish concoction known as Toast Skagen. It’s quite a simple thing, really, just toast points with a light shrimp salad on them, but when the shrimp are just-jumped-out-of-the-sea fresh and sweet and the preparation of them done with a delicate hand, it’s just about as good as seafood can get. So between visits to Sweden, I pine for the treat. It’s not that I couldn’t make my own facsimile of that assemblage, for even in the heart of north Texas there are places where one can lay hands on pretty good shrimp (at a price), but since the presence of briny air and piercingly radiant northern light and the lilt of Swedish conversation all around are also key ingredients regardless of their absence from the written instructions one might find for the preparation of it, Toast Skagen is still best savored in Scandinavia, and worth the protracted longings between visits.

That is why, if it appears on an even moderately trustworthy menu in Stockholm and its environs, I am likely to order Toast Skagen without even giving much of the rest of the menu a fair study. On the visit that just ended a few days ago, I did just that. Several times. And I was not disappointed—unless you count each time I ate the last bite.

The simplicity of the combination is key, because it must showcase the freshness of the shrimp, but there is room for subtle difference just as there is in any classic food recipe or combination that has survived the twin tests of time and chefs’ egos. The best preparation of Toast Skagen begins with fresh, perfectly cooked cold shrimp, is seasoned with nothing more noticeable than fresh lemon juice and fresh dill, lest the delicate salty sweetness of the shrimp be overpowered, and is bound with mayonnaise and served with or on bread. That’s about it. The subtleties come in with the proportions in the combination, the type of bread or toast, the presentation, and a few possible additional flavors and garnishes that won’t attempt to compete with the simple perfection of the concept.Photo: Toast Skagen 1

On this visit, I managed to taste three slightly different, all delicious, versions within the bounds of our ten days. I’m sure I’d have done more, but I did have to leave room for other favorites, and despite having eaten extensively and often, I did have to accept the finitude of hours in the day. Even though with midsummer daylight, those were admittedly impressive. The version of my shrimp-laden toasty dream that I’d been contemplating for the longest before our recent trip was had on our last day in Stockholm, for we had plenty of other places to go and people to see before then, but we did finally go to Sturehof, a venerable restaurant in a swanky but not stuffy neighborhood only a hop, skip and short T-bana (subway) ride from where we stayed. At Sturehof, I was greeted by lightly toasted points of white bread and a copious hillock of shrimp shaped with the help of a very light coating of mayonnaise. A toss of snipped dill, a mild dash of perhaps Dijon mustard to undergird the squeeze of lemon I’d give it, and a spoonful of Kalix Löjrom (caviar) to give a little snappy texture and sea flavor boosting, and it was a filling but refreshing luncheon to give our last day of play in Sweden a far less melancholy tinge.Photo: Toast Skagen 2

The second version of Toast Skagen was almost an afterthought in the middle of our visit, but far from negligible in the eating. My husband and I went with a dear friend to visit the fantastic Artipelag, part seaside park, part eco-tourist experiment, part art museum and all Swedish brainchild of the inventor of the BabyBjörn line of child care products. Unlike many museum cafes, this place’s eateries are worthy of a visit entirely unrelated to the call to check out all of the other wonders of Artipelag. We didn’t even bother to go up and dine in the restaurant upstairs after having a quick look at the buffet in the less fussy main level. It was an extravaganza of delicious and beautifully prepared traditional Swedish foods and their contemporary companions, and reasonably priced for such a grand meal at that. Among the attractions for me was an early spotting of other visitors parading their plates to the table with enticing spoonfuls of Toast Skagen in their midst, but when I arrived to select my foods at the board, the Skagen bowls were empty. Empty! Thank goodness I noticed that the staff continued to keep most of the dishes there overflowing with fresh batches of food, so I pulled up my fainting spirit and managed to down great quantities of other delectables before going back to find the missing delight replenished.

It was worth the wait, which, given the quantity and quality of everything else I’d been eating quite happily in the meantime, was no small feat. This version of Toast Skagen was either the plainest or the most complex of all, depending upon how one chose to dish it, dress it up, and/or accompany it when choosing from the fabulous array of salmon with baby peas, lovely cool salads, savory sausages, buttery tiny roasted potatoes, and so much more. I opted to keep it somewhat unfussy since it was really the dessert after I’d consumed so much other tasty food. There was splendid chewy, crusty peasant bread to be freshly sliced by my own hand from a warm loaf, so it seemed the obvious thing to merely take a slice or two, give it a slick of good cold butter, because to ignore good cold Swedish butter is very nearly a cardinal sin, and put a fat spoonful of shrimp on top. This variation had the mayonnaise and dill and very little else, but because the shrimp and bread and butter were so fresh and delicious, it was as close to perfect as need be.Photo: Toast Skagen 3

The first, and not least, helping of this craved creation that I had on the journey was on a tour boat that we took with other great local friends, while cruising leisurely through the archipelago‘s canals to have a short walking tour in Sandhamn before boarding for a leisurely dinner cruise back to town. The dinner onboard was a very pleasant, well-prepared selection of Swedish favorites, like the Artipelag buffet, but at this sit-down meal one had the choice of two fixed menus, with or without drinks and dessert, and ours had an option for my object of Swedish shellfish lust on it, so that was a foregone conclusion. This was the prettiest plating of the three, and had a couple of good signature tweaks worth mentioning. Besides the creamy, dill-speckled shrimp salad and a scoop of Löjrom for that snappy seaside pizzazz, there was a small stroke of Balsamic reduction brushed onto the plate and its piquancy gave a sweeter buzz to the usual lemon spritz, the latter still perfect in its way. And the garnishing lettuce and cucumber on the plate were so bracingly fresh that I only barely resisted turning Toast Skagen into Vietnamese-style salad rolls for the occasion. I munched the greens as a mini side salad, instead. Great textural contrast in one uncomplicated gesture.

Now, should you think I was so obsessed with this specific dish and with All Things Swedish All of the Time, I can assure you that my euphoric revisitation of beloved Stockholm and environs was filled with beloved friends, too, and yes, lots and lots of non-shrimp-toast-related food. More on that later. For now, be content that you know a plain yet elegant dish worthy of single-minded pursuit, and go forth in search of it yourself.

Foodie Tuesday: Buried in Berries

Photo: Raspberry BonanzaOne of the joys of the warmer seasons is the abundance of fresh produce, not least of all, those little jewels the berries and close cousins like the aggregate fruits. Having grown up in a region known for fabulous berries, in a valley renowned, in fact, for farming them in its fertile volcanic soil in the Evergreen state, I know well enough the labor that it takes to successfully farm, pick, process and sell them, never mind shipping them intact anywhere, given their tender sensitivity and fleeting prime. But I certainly found my way past the sweaty, low wage, arm-aching, thorn-scratched, and slug-tormented frustrations of a short-time field hand to renew my love of fresh berries.

I have long since confessed to you that, despite their being among the easiest to farm and to pick, blueberries remain my most hated fruit, and I dislike pretty equally their flavor, smell and texture despite all attempts to convince me they are Superfood and worthy of desire. I am not a big fan, in fact, of any of the round, popping sorts of berries that are similar in my mind to blueberries in any way—currants, gooseberries, huckleberries, and so forth. I’m not that egalitarian. But the berries that I do enjoy, I gladly indulge in enjoying in quantity when they’re at their peak. I seldom tire of strawberries or of those magnificent rose relatives, the blackberries, raspberries, salmonberries, black raspberries and all of their delicious ilk. Ahhh, berry good!Photo: Blackberry Burst

One of the nicest things about really fine, fresh produce, of course, is that it tastes so good whether you do anything to or with it, or not. Straight out of the field, straight into my mouth. Bright, juicy, flavorful little pieces of heaven. Much as I happily enjoyed that dessert combination of my youth, angel food cake with berries and whipped cream, I think I might consider the berries the angel food part more than the cake. Berries in cream, whipped or not, are also a spectacular treat when I can get my hands on a dish, with or without a cake foundation.

The berries are marvelous as individual sorts or in happy combinations. Whole or mashed, sliced or diced. Superb in jams and sauces or salsas. Fabulous in smoothies. Outstanding when added to salads. Unbeatable in pies. One of the most delicious accompaniments to savory foods, especially something like some magnificent wild salmon or game, whether processed in some recipe or just eaten fresh alongside the fish or meat. Sweet and bright.

Oh, and berries make dandy liqueurs. Berries, sugar, vodka. In that order, in declining quantities, in a sealed jar or bottle. Bunch of weeks or months, shaking it up gently from time to time, while keeping it in a nice cool, dark spot between stirrings until the time seems right; strain the niceness and enjoy. Of course, it works fine without booze, too. Berries, some nice sparkling water and some sweetening.

These little gems are delicate. They are so fine in their pristine state that it would be wrong to over-process them. Don’t be a killjoy. There’s really no recipe here for success; in fact, the best so-called recipes for using fresh berries mostly leave them unsullied by cooking and doing much of anything other than stirring them in with other good things. What are you waiting for? If the season’s on, get thee to the nearest farmer’s market and stock up on glorious fresh berries. If they’re not in season, I apologize for your sorrow, but I must encourage you to make the most of preserves and frozen berries. Yep, they freeze well when properly treated. But my friends, do not slouch. Run, quickly, and get some berries. You can thank me later.

Photo: All Sorts of Berries

Foodie Tuesday: Warm Up the Winter

There are plenty of good reasons to love winter eating. Every season has its particular pleasures and what appeals and tastes best varies with the weather, activities particular to the time of year, and winter–whatever challenges the season may present in terms of work and play–is rich in favorites too. What I tend to love in winter is mostly the kind of food and drink that spells comfort in colder weather: roasted, fried, grilled, hearty, spicy and/or deep flavored comfort is particularly welcome at my table.

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Roasted squash stuffed with artichokes and sage is complemented by roasted beetroot and rosemary. They can all go in the oven at the same time, too, with just a little supervision!

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Shredded slow-cooked or roasted meats like spicy chicken or [pork] carnitas are filling and satisfying. If there were roasted vegetables yesterday, a mash or puree of them can make a lovely accompaniment to today’s entree. Simple, silky carrot puree with lemon juice and butter, for example, works in companionable comfort with the coarser mash of guacamole–the latter, easily made on the fly when I keep some mashed avocado handy.

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A moist and tender pork roast, with a half avocado, some pan-fried green beans and red capiscum slivers, and potatoes roasted in the oven with butter, salt and pepper, smoked paprika, mustard seeds, and crushed cheddar cheese puff crumbs, makes a grand and gratifying meal.

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A good curry (at our house, nearly always nothing more than good coconut milk spiced with homemade sweet curry masala*) is a great way to combine any sort of roasted, grilled or sauteed vegetables, with or without seafood or meat. A couple of pieces of grilled citrus for drizzling into the curry to taste, adds a nice bright note that can bring a dash of sunshine to the winter, too.

KINCURRY
A curry masala recipe, courtesy of the late Quentin Kintner of Port Angeles, WA.
I think Q would approve of my sharing this, since he was generous enough to share it with our family in the first place!

4 T (tablespoons) ground turmeric
3 T ground coriander
2 T ground cumin
2 T ground ginger
1 T ground cardamom
1 T ground mace
1 T whole white peppercorns
1 T whole cloves
1 T whole fenugreek
2 tsp ground cayenne

Grind the spices together and store carefully away from light and heat; I use a dedicated small coffee grinder for my spices. That’s all there is to it! This masala freezes well, if you’re not fast enough to use a whole cup of it up quickly or are planning to give some away. I like to make a double batch (about 2 cups) since it does keep. It’s wonderful toasted in either a dry pan or a little ghee before adding to various dishes, savory or sweet.

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Even the standard steak dinner, sided with rice and vegetables, can be jazzed up a little for winter with some seasonal fruit favorites as garnish. Here, a perfectly ripe pear and a handful of brightly-sweet pomegranate arils please the eye as wonderfully as they do the palate.

Foodie Tuesday: Lemon Chicken without Cats

A friend of ours once told us about the Chinese restaurant in the small southern town where he grew up that was renowned for its trademark Lemon Chicken–until, that is, the owner was questioned about the disappearance of many of the neighborhood’s pet cats on a timetable that coincided a little too closely for comfort with the preparation and the offering of said dish on the menu.

I prefer to offer a more strictly bird-based version of the dish when I get hungry for lemon chicken. Call me old-fashioned.

I kept it very simple too, though. I’m rarely interested in making things terribly complicated in the kitchen; that’s above my pay grade. My one innovation particular to this occasion was to test a new kind of gluten-free pasta and put together a dish that could sit around in the oven for an indeterminate period without dying, since our dinner guest wasn’t sure how quickly she could get to our house from Dallas that evening. Worked out pretty nicely, as it turned out, and was both lemony and quite acceptably chicken flavored, as planned.photoLemon Chicken Linguine

Layer into a covered four- or five-quart nonstick pan in order: 1 package of RP’s fresh GF linguine (9 oz)–uncooked, straight out of the package; 2 cups of roasted, poached or braised chicken cut into 1 inch pieces (I used chicken left from one I’d oven-braised a day or two before in butter with homemade lemon seasoning (oven-dried lemon peels finely ground with Tellicherry peppercorns and Kosher salt); 1/4 cup of grated Parmesan cheese; the juice and zest of one lemon; about 1/4 cup of heavy cream. Season with ground mace, ground coriander and [the aforementioned] lemon seasoning to taste. Cover the pan snugly with its lid and set it in a low oven (not above 225°F/107°C) until the liquid is absorbed or the guests arrive, or both.

Side dishes for such an uncomplicated meal should also be uncomplicated. Good old, ubiquitous in our household, coleslaw, with apples complementing the ginger. Green beans Amandine, done up Southern style by throwing a handful of crisped bacon on top. Dessert? Why, of course. I (conveniently) had some of my strawberry-mandarin granita right in the freezer and, by golly, found some rather nice fresh strawberries and lovely sweet mandarin oranges at the grocery store as well, so I macerated a dish of those two mixed together in vanilla sugar; spooned over the granita and accompanied by some little nut and cocoa truffles I’d also made and stashed earlier.photoAlong with these foods, of course, there needed to be good drinks aplenty. Nice for wetting the whistle. But remember, one should always show appropriate restraint with the drinking or one might not know the difference if someone tries to serve a less savory sort of ‘lemon chicken’ than mine.photo

Foodie Tuesday: What’s the Difference between an Old Smoothie and Desiccation?

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What does it matter whether I’m an old smoothie or just desiccated with age?

There’s no time of year that’s wrong for a tasty smoothie. Since these little flavor powerhouses can be packed with vegetables, fruits, dairy or non-dairy liquid goodness, and countless herbs, spices, elixirs and sweeteners of choice, why not occasionally enjoy a few of the day’s nutrients in a deliciously sippable form? And why not, while I’m at it, sometimes enjoy them in an outright ridiculously dessert-sweet version right in the middle of the rest of the meal? Behold the Peach Pie Smoothie. It knows no season, being easy to make with canned peaches–home canned being the loveliest, if one happens to have access to them. Never having embraced the thrills of home canning myself, I’m satisfied with finding ready-made canned fruits that are preserved in fruit juices (their own or mild flavored companion ones) rather than the heavy syrups that merely mask flavor and put the fruits into suspended animation that extends beyond their shelf life.

Peach Pie Smoothie [for one]

1/2 cup canned sliced peaches in fruit juice
1/2-3/4 cup cold water
1/4 cup whole milk yogurt
1 T honey
1/2 tsp vanilla
1/2 tsp Saigon cinnamon
pinch of salt

Blended together until smooth, this combination becomes a potable pie–and probably every bit as sugar and calorie laden as its forebear, so I’d better not make it a habit–that adds a happy note of variety to the meal of the day, whatever it is. I’d add a dollop of whipped cream to the top, given its rich dessert-like nature, but that would surely spell doom for my chances of minimizing the habit. When I say ‘that’s how I roll’ it begins to have a whole different meaning than I’d hope. Meanwhile, I’m too busy slurping to stop and whip the cream anyhow, luckily for me.

Besides this, there’s the sure knowledge that there are other sweet delights out there waiting for me all the time, and they’re not necessarily terrible for me either. The addition of salt–as you know, one of my favorite things on earth–to this smoothie has a specific purpose and reminds me of another grand feature of food that can be captured with little effort when one’s in the mood. Sweetness through the contrast with other types of flavor: sour, bitter, umami, or in this case salt. The enhancement of sweetness can also be relatively easily achieved by means of concentration.

No, I’m not referring to thinking-makes-it-so, though I have been known once or twice to furrow my brow in deep cogitation over whether I mightn’t be able to find more ways to bring out the sweetness of a dish or ingredient. My furrowed brow, however, hints at the other means to which I’m referring, because let’s face it (no pun intended), as I get older and my youthful juices start to dry up, my face does get more creased and crevassed. And desiccation is precisely what I’m talking about. Concentration sounds much cheerier, perhaps, but the meaning and effect are generally the same: to reduce or remove the liquids rounding out an ingredient or dish in order to enhance the detectable presence of the remaining portions. Salt, as a natural desiccant, can do this by means of leaching out juices as well as by its own salinity contrasting with other kinds of tastes. Evaporation, however, is another option and, though it’s a slower process than adding a bit of salt, depends on the ingredient itself to take the forefront, so to speak.

Let me just say that if anyone should call me a prune I would consider it highly complimentary, a tribute not only to my maturity but an indirect admission that I’m sweeter than most of those undeveloped youngsters out there.

Drying fruits in particular is a great way to pack concentrated, deeply flavorful sweetness into them. It seems only in the fads of recent years have we returned to a fuller appreciation of how marvelous that magic is, as evidenced in the skyrocketing prices and popularity of dried fruits of every sort, not to mention the pastes, candies and preserves we can make of them with little further effort. To wit:

OH, DRY UP!

Apricot, apple
Blueberry, banana
Cranberry, cherry, coffee
Date
Elderberry
Fig
Guava
Honeydew
Illawarra plum
Jackfruit, jujube
Kumquat, kiwi
Loquat, lemon, lime, lychee
Mango, melon, miracle fruit
Nectarine
Olive
Prune (plum), peach, pear, persimmon, pineapple
Quince
Raisin (grape), rambutan, rose hip
Strawberry
Tomato, tamarind
Uvilla, Ugli fruit
Valencia orange, vanilla bean
Watermelon (I’ve only heard of compression with this one, admittedly, not outright drying for concentration)
Xocolatl (okay, cacao is a berry that requires a fair amount of processing, but isn’t it highly worth the effort?!)
Youngberry
Zinfandel grape, zapote

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Peach Pie Smoothie

SPECIAL ELECTION DAY LINK LOVE!

See my youngest sister (and her good friend Rachel Myr) on Norwegian television being interviewed about being American citizen residents in Norway who still care passionately enough about their home country to pay attention to and vote in the elections. [Both the live/filmed interview and the print one are in Norwegian, but they aren’t terribly hard to decipher, really. Plus, you get to see my beautiful sister. Bonus!]

http://www.nrk.no/nyheter/distrikt/sorlandet/1.8381396

What’s-in-My-Kitchen Week, Day 7: Love & Happiness

photoIt’s said that Cleanliness is Next to Godliness, and regardless of your beliefs, a clean kitchen is surely going to keep you closer to the desirable state of ideal health and well-being than a slovenly one. A rotten, filthy kitchen, on the contrary, may well send you off to meet your maker (or annihilation) with unwelcome rapidity. In my experience, Good Eating is Next to Perfect Happiness.

Simply eating well–whether of the most esoteric or exotic or splendidly gourmet meals, or of the handful-of-greens with some impeccably ripe apricots, a speck of salt and pepper and a drizzle of lemon-infused honey pristineness–that act of tasting and enjoying is its own reward. Love of good eating and the happiness that accompanies and follows it are worthy sorts of pleasures.photo

The process by which the meal or nibble is achieved can be grand delights, too. Just happening on the desired food serendipitously, even sometimes without having realized there was a desire at all, is lovely. Planning a dish, a menu, an event can be a satisfying challenge and adventure. Hunting (in field, stream or market) can be your surprisingly meditative, endorphin-brewing action sequence to prepare for the meal making itself.

Along with all of this is the primary joy of dining with others: the communal happiness and yes, meaning that can be cultivated in shared eating. The love of good food is magnified, multiplied exponentially, by the reflection of that affection between those at table. With strangers and acquaintances, it is the magnanimity–the largeness of spirit–inherent in hospitality that binds and bonds us. Among friends and loved ones, the food is both expression and enhancement of the finest graces in our connections to one another. And I can think of no lovelier thing to stock in my kitchen than that.

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Pull up a chair and have a piece of pear-blackberry pie with me!