Thursday, January 29, 2009

Kalamata Olive and Date Tapenade

Tapenade is a staple appetizer at many a dinner party. And more often that not, this tapenade is store bought. Sad. Since it is unbelievably easy to make.  I'm sure if you were to look in your pantry, you will find that you already have the ingredients to make a perfectly decent, perfectly gourmet-store-worthy hor d'oeuvre. But don't just stop there. Use as a sandwich spread, in soups, tossed in pasta. The possibilities are endless. 

I have used kalamata olives here because they are sweeter than most other olives. Paired with dates, it produces a relatively fruity tapenade. However, you can use any olive on hand, paired with another dried fruit such as raisins or figs. Or take a savory approach with artichoke hearts, roasted red peppers, or even cocktail onions. You simply can't go wrong here. 

Kalamata Olive and Date Tapenade
Serves 4 to 5

1 cup pitted kalamata olives 
1/4 cup pitted dates
1 tbsp capers
2 tbsp olive oil
2 small cloves garlic, minced
1 tsp sherry (optional)

Soak dates in one cup of hot water for fifteen minutes. Drain. Add to food processor with remaining ingredients. Puree and pour into serving dish. Serve with dry toast or multigrain crackers. 

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Chinese Bean Soup (with Sichuan Peppercorns)

My knowledge of authentic Chinese cuisine is limited but that does not prevent me from experimenting with various Chinese ingredients. One of my favorites is sichuan peppercorns. I still remember my first sichuan meal: more spicy than I had expected but what a meal! Spicy beef short ribs, chicken with green beans, and bean sprouts in a spicy broth. Since that delightful induction, sichuan cuisine is now high up on my list of ethnic indulgences.

The two main elements of sichuan cuisine are chili peppers and peppercorns. Despite its name, the sichuan peppercorn itself is not spicy but imparts a tingling, numbing sensation on the lips and tongue. With quite a unique aroma and taste, these tiny pods have an overtone I can only describe as similar to the aroma of lime leaves.

If used in excess, the taste can be overpowering, especially in a mild bean soup such as this. When I first made this recipe, I added a teaspoon to the beans while they softened and a teaspoon to the mushrooms. Instead of a bean soup, it tuned out to be a peppercorn soup, with a taste that was almost medicinal. Ultimately, a single teaspoon was just enough to impart the desired level of sichuan flavor .

Chinese Bean Soup
Serves two to three

1/2 cup black eyed beans
1/2 pint cremini mushrooms, sliced
1 tsp black szechuan peppercorns
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tsp grated fresh ginger
2 tbsp chilli oil
3 cups low sodium vegetable broth
1 egg
1 green chili, chopped (more or less; optional)

1. Wash and boil black eyed beans in two cups of water until fork tender. I prefer using the pressure cooker for this as it softens the peas in about 10 minutes, as opposed to traditional boiling which can take up to half an hour. Drain and set aside.
2. Heat a stock or other deep pot over medium heat. Toss mushrooms with garlic and oil. Saute with peppercorns for five minutes. Stir in vegetable broth and cooked beans. Cover, reduce heat slightly and simmer for 12 to 15 minutes.
3. Whisk egg separately, pour into soup, quickly stir to distribute and remove soup from heat.
4. Serve immediately with small pieces of chopped fresh green chilli.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Green Pea Croquettes with Chevre

In the spirit of change, we decided to become vegetarian. No red meat, no poultry but maybe seafood. This was more of a health related decision than anything else. I am not sure why we had not done this before. After all, we typically ate meat once a week (except during the holidays when, I admit, it gets a little out of control) and whenever we dined out. Do I think we will miss meat? Do I think it will be a difficult change? On the contrary, I accept this as a interesting culinary challenge. Another reason to be creative in the kitchen.

After the first two weeks as an official vegetarian, it became obvious that, just as was suspected, this was not going to be very difficult. First, we were doing it together. That way, we can keep each other in check, and offer support and a gentle reminder when the other (usually me) behaves like an omnivore. Second, vegetarian options are endless and adding just a few key ingredients can turn a boring or over-done dish into an exciting new dinner staple. Like these croquettes.

Croquettes are typically cylindrical or circular disks of food, breaded and deep fried. While mashed potatoes and meat are typically the base, other ingredients can be substituted. And while deep frying is rarely undertaken in my home, I have found that the same crunchiness is achieved by searing in a little oil on high heat. Here, green peas are the base and soft goat cheese adds a striking flavor and contrast to the crunchy exterior. If you like crab cakes, I think you will like these little green patties. This recipes makes four to five large cakes or about eight appetizer-sized ones.

Green Pea Croquettes with Chevre
Serves 3 to 4

1 1/2 cups frozen or fresh green peas
1/2 medium onion, chopped
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 tbsp vegetable oil
2 tbsp part skimmed ricotta cheese
2 tbsp plain goat cheese plus more for serving
1 egg
1/2 tsp paprika
1/2 tsp cayenne pepper
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 cup chopped parsley
2/3 plain bread crumbs

1. Bring frozen peas to a boil in two cups of water for three minutes, drain and set aside.
2. Add one tablespoon vegetable oil to skillet over medium heat. Saute onion and garlic until soft, about three minutes, and add peas. Cook for another two minutes. Remove from heat, cool slightly, then puree in food processor or blender. Set aside.
3. In a large mixing bowl whisk together ricotta, chevre, egg, paprika, cayenne pepper, and salt. Combine well. Add pureed pea and onion mixture, parsley, and half of the breadcrumbs.
4. Set skillet over medium high heat and add about a quarter cup of vegetable oil. While oil heats, form pea mixture into 1 inch thick disks. Coat each side with reserved bread crumbs. Once oil has heated, add two or three patties at a time and cook for three minutes on each side.
Remove to paper towels to absorb excess oil. Serve with a wedge of chevre.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Beginning the year on a healthy note: with a fish soup

Standing on the corner of Canal and Baxter Streets in Chinatown, arguably New York's most famous ethnic enclave, I was taken back to my senior sociology class. In particular the section on how immigrants assimilate to life in the United States. New immigrants arrive here literally everyday with some never even bothering to learn English. Not because they chose not to but because the dynamics of the city's many ethnic enclaves make it easy to get by with just a basic knowledge of the language.

New York, as many other metropolises, would not be the attraction it is today if it were not for this influx of cultures. The mix of people, the music, the food, the ideologies all play a part in the attraction of the big apple. Imagining the city any other way is impossible. The constant influx of new immigrants, recently from Latin America and Asia in particular, has had an exceptional influence on the city's culinary sector. The restaurant scene alone is analogous to a mini world tour.

Last November, I chose to spend the Thanksgiving holiday in Queens; an easy decision not only because I get to spend time with relatives but it was also persimmon season! From August to about December, sidewalk fruit stands seem to glow with the bright orange of persimmons. Two varieties in particular, the fuyu and the hachiya. Me, I'm partial to the larger hachiya variety even though one must wait at least a week, sometimes more, for it to fully ripen. Otherwise, biting into an unripe hachiya is akin to eating a very green banana. Not a pleasant experience. The unpalatable aftertaste and sensation are due to the very high tannin content, especially the hachiya variety, which is only removed once the fruit is ripened. How can you tell when it is ripe? Simple. Ripe persimmons should be soft throughout while unripe ones are much firmer. Fuyu persimmons on the other hand are commonly classified as non astringent and are mostly ready to be eaten right from the vendor.

Food certainly is one reason I travel to New York. This visit was extra special. Oysters are particularly good this time of year and, true to form, my host had the freshest mini oyster bar awaiting us in the kitchen. He also shared this recipe with me; a common soup in Trinidad and Tobago's cuisine. As I have mentioned in previous posts, many of the country's cooks have their own variation of the national dishes. My mother and aunts all made this soup but each added their own special ingredient. I chose to post this version because of it relative simplicity. What better way to supplement our new year's resolutions regarding healthy eating than with a bowl of delicious, low fat Caribbean inspired soup. Here's to a happy and healthy new year!

Trinidad Fish Soup
Serves 4 to 5

1 two lb red snapper (sliced into 1" thick steaks)
3 limes
1 small onion
4 garlic cloves
2 springs fresh thyme
4 leaves shado-beni*
2 cups sweet potatoes, cubed
1 green banana, sliced into rounds (optional)
2 carrots, sliced
5 to 6 cups of water
2 whole scallions, chopped
1 large tomato, sliced into thin wedges

1. Squeeze two limes over fish, coat well and and drain off lime juice. Squeeze the juice of the additional lime and season with salt pepper,
2. In a food processor, grind onion, garlic, thyme, and shadon-beni. Add to fish, coating each side properly. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for thirty minutes.
3. Get a large stock pot over medium heat, add the carrots, sweet potatoes, and green banana. Cover with water and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer until the vegetables are fork tender. Season with salt and pepper. (Remember that the fish also has salt so use moderation here.) At this point, gently add the fish steaks to the pot. As soon as the fish is cooked through, (about 5 to 7 minutes depending on the thickness) add the chopped scallion and tomatoes wedges. Serve while hot with a slice of avocado (optional.)

* Shado-beni is found is most Trinidadian seasonings; every home cook uses it. It is sometimes referred to as Mexican cilantro and can be found in West Indian groceries. However, fresh cilantro can be substituted.