Sunday, September 30, 2012

Eating In Shanghai

I really wish that this post was a first-hand review of traditional Shanghai cuisine with details on local specialties and unusual culinary experiences.  However, when I travel for work, eating is a haphazard affair driven by unbelievably long work hours, dietary requirements of a globally diverse team, and proximity. So, I offer you the following smorgasbord of business-travel eating. Bon Appetite!
Room Service Roasted Chicken
When I’m travelling and jet lagged, sometimes plain uncomplicated food is helpful to settle my stomach and help me sleep. This thyme-roasted chicken with steamed rice and asparagus from the room service menu was perfect as a first-night-in-town meal in my room before passing out from the 24 hour journey.

October Mid-Autumn Festival
This latest trip coincided with the Mid-Autumn Festival in China. This is one of the most important holidays in China and is associated with the legend of Houyi, and eating Mooncakes. Mooncakes are offered between friends or on family gatherings while celebrating the festival.
Wikipedia describes mooncakes as “round or rectangular pastries, measuring about 10 cm in diameter and 4–5 cm thick. A rich thick filling usually made from red bean or lotus seed paste is surrounded by a thin (2–3 mm) crust and may contain yolks from salted duck eggs. Mooncakes are usually eaten in small wedges accompanied by Chinese tea. Today, it is customary for businessmen and families to present them to their clients or relatives as presents, helping to fuel a demand for high-end mooncake styles. The caloric content of a mooncake is approximately 1,000 calories (for a cake measuring 10 centimeters (3.9 in), but energy content varies with filling and size.” 
I found them to be very, very heavy eating, with the red bean variety having a flavor similar to fig newtons, minus the fig seeds.

Hello Kitty Coffee
Starbucks is ubiquitous in Shanghai. There is a Starbucks on-site at the office complex, and even though I don’t drink Starbucks coffee at home, it’s the best available. We drink a LOT of coffee when we’re working in Shanghai, thanks to jet lag and long hours. And yes, I did actually stir my coffee with my Hello Kitty pencil. I know.

How to stock a mini-bar:
Because the cafeteria at the office serves local style food of questionable provenance, and breakfast in the hotel is expensive, I’ve mastered the art of stocking the mini bar with groceries.
Yogurt, fruit, raw vegetables and diet soda take precedence over the standard mini-bar fare.  

Indian food with the Indians.

Chinese cuisine is not kind to vegetarians. On this trip, our team discovered India Kitchen, a local indian restaurant that delivers. The team has taken great pride in in ordering lunch every day…and single-handedly employing an entire fleet of delivery scooters.

Upscale Groceries - the Shanghai version of Whole Foods...
...If Whole Foods sold SPAM.
Bakery section

 Produce section

 Red bean granola

And there you have it…the business travellers tour of eating in Shanghai.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Yes, Chef: Discovering Marcus Samuelsson, and other Musings

As so often happens when I walk through a real bricks-and-mortar bookstore, a book cover jumped off the shelf and into my hands. The cover of "Yes, Chef" by Marcus Samuelsson was unique to see in the cooking section...usually cookbooks have lovely pictures of food and lots of greenery or other images that evoke fresh food. This book has a dark, firey cover with a mysterious ochre-orange-terracotta powder spread across a black background. It cried out to be picked up off of the shelf.

This is a memoir of Marcus Samuelsson, who was born and orphaned in Ethiopia in the early 1970's, adopted by a family in Sweden and had his first introduction to cooking at the elbow of his Swedish grandmother. His culinary education and evolution reads like a career in the United Nations and present day finds him living and working in NYC's Harlem, running a number of restaurants, TV shows, books, and other culinary pursuits. It is an interesting and inspiring read.

I had never heard of him, but I did eat at Aquavit during his tenure there, during my NYC consulting days pre-September 11.

So my musings this morning are thus:

Bruce and I often comment on sub-cultures...the convergence of like-minded people who gather themselves around common interests...who are completely invisible to the larger community until one day, without preamble, a book jumps into our hands. Or we wander into a store we've never seen, as happened when we stepped into the Dragon's Den in Poughkeepsie - a store entirely dedicated to the Dungeons and Dragons gaming community. Or the Song of the Sea in Bar Harbor which launched our return to the world of music.

This blog is about all things culinary, but it is also about exploration. In the past two weeks, I've been introduced to Yotum Ottolenghi, Nigel Slater, and now Marcus Samuelsson...each with a story to tell through food. What a big, wonderful world we live in.

Knife Training at the CIA

Earlier this season, before the CSA started up, I took the CIA (that's Culinary Institute of America, not the other one) course on Knife Handling. This one-day course was really useful, starting with a classroom discussion on the construction of knives and the various types of typical kitchen cutlery. We then moved into the teaching kitchen and spent the day learning a variety of techniques while simultaneously preparing vegetables for the dining hall's lunch menu. Here's the instructor's youtube video, demonstrating a smattering of what we learned in class.

 Beautiful windows in the CIA dining hall.

Set up at the chopping block. You will not see any photos of me in the chef hat. Just sayin'.

Chef demonstrates how to fry-cut potatoes:

Chef demonstrates how to peel kiwi:

Knife sharpening 101:

The day started with a classroom discussion of how knives are made, general knife handling and kitchen etiquette, and video of the instructor's favorite chef. We then moved to the kitchen and our individual stations. We moved through a series of tutorials, each designed to practice a new knife technique using our large, incredibly sharp CIA Chef's knifes.

By the end of the day, my hands were exhausted and I was bushed from standing all day, but my knife skills had taken a huge step forward. With constant practice through a summer of CSA vegetables, I can now chop 15-20 pounds of vegetables in about an hour. That seems like a dubious skill for someone who makes her living in a corporate setting, but given our family focus on healthy eating and a largely vegetarian lifestyle, this has definitely proved valuable. I've chopped, cooked and prepared vegetarian meals that fill our second freezer - and preserved our significant weight loss! There is something to be said for learning proper technique, whether it's on the violin, the QWERTY keyboard, or in the kitchen.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Ripe: Nigel Slater's Rhapsody on Fruit

Last weekend, I was wandering about at Williams-Sonoma. I enjoy savoring the feeling of endless possibilities that swirl about in cooking stores. I have the same experience at hardware stores...endless possibilities in all those bins of bolts and wing nuts. I digress.

I found Nigel Slater's hefty book: "Ripe: A Cook in the Orchard" and the vibrant photo on the cover drew me right in. Its not often that a three inch thick, hardcover cookbook turns out to be a page-turner, but this, my friends, this book...this is a book you can read.

Ripe is a rhapsody on fruit, and not just any fruit. Mr. Slater has an orchard planted in his small city garden. Each chapter is dedicated to a specific fruit, and starts with an eloquent and passionate ode, which makes me want to run to my nearest farm stand and bury myself in apples.  He goes on to describe different varieties of each fruit, including a notation about what can be found in the US, as well as in the UK. And before launching into a full chapter of recipes that highlight the fruit-of-the-moment, he provides his view of "pairings" in which he lists other foods that pair well with the highlighted soloist. This section alone is worth the price of the book...because it is here that the imagination begins to run wild.

I knew nothing of Mr. Slater prior to this. As it turns out, he has been the food critic for The Observer for 20 years, has written a dozen books, and hosts a show on BBC1 called Simple Cooking. 

Mr. Slater's website describes him as a cook who can write. I don't know if he can cook or not, having not yet tried his recipes, but write, he certainly can.

I've just ordered "Tender: A Cook and His Vegetable Patch."

Corn Pie (otherwise known as Verrill Farm's Famous Corn & Tomato Tart)

Here is the recipe (Verrill Farm's Famous Corn & Tomato Tart) I use as the basis for Andrews Family Corn Pie. I've made the recipe exactly as listed, but over time, I've made some modifications.

For example, I use mozzarella instead of cheddar & egg whites instead of whole eggs. I find the cheddar too strong and the eggs too quiche-like. This recipe is all about the CORN. This time, I had an extra bunch of cilantro, and some red peppers, but no chives, so I substituted accordingly. Oh, and fat free 1/2 and 1/2 instead of heavy cream.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Taming the Freezer

A well timed power outage put the nail in the coffin of our second refrigerator and after some deliberation, we decided to replace it with a stand-up freezer. I'm so glad we did. Despite a schizophrenic summer of hot, dry, soaking, cool weather, our CSA has been pumping out produce as though our very lives depended on it.

Knowing that we needed a way to organize the freezer contents for the long haul, I employed some standard design principles and I think I've got this puppy into shape. Here's what I did:

  • Label everything - All containers are clearly labeled.
  • Stack Like with Like - All the sauce is in one place, all the chili is in another.
  • Make it Easy to Find - All shelves have labels, so even if you can't see what's in the back, you have a reference of what's there.
  • Use Standard Sizes - For the most part, I have banished non-matching plastic containers. Standardizing sizes and shapes means better use of storage.
  • Keep the Ice Cream easily accessible - Ok, this is not actually a design principle. But we sure do like our ice cream!

Here's what the fridge looks like today...and we're only halfway through CSA season!!

  • Top Shelf: tomato sauce, lobster sauce, and pesto (4 rows deep)
  • Next Shelf: Single Serving Entrees including chili, spicy chick peas, corn pie, ratatouille, stir fry, roasted vegetables, butternut squash quiche...and more (3 rows deep)
  • Next Shelf: Soups of various types
  • Bottom Drawer: Sweet Potato and Apricot Hand pies, Fruit pies
  • On the Door: Ice Cream

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Plenty: Vibrant Vegetable Recipes from London's Ottolenghi

I picked up two new cookbooks at Williams-Sonoma last night. This is one of them: "Plenty: Vibrant Vegetable Recipes from London's Ottolenghi". Yotam Ottolenghi is both the author, and the owner of several restaurants in London. I had never heard of him before, but I liked the cover, browsed the recipes in the store, and made the purchase.

Today, I picked up vegetables at the CSA and was faced with the need to do something with eggplant, peppers and several types of squash. Rather than return to my standby ratatouille, I instead found this recipe: "Very Full Tart: A fantastic Mediterranean feast, full to the brim with roasted vegetables."

I had to substitute several of the ingredients from the original recipe, based on what I had available. Butternut squash instead of sweet potato, delicata squash instead of zucchini, and baby mozzerella instead of ricotta.

First, to roast the vegetables. Two kinds of peppers on the top shelf. Eggplant, butternut and delicata sqhash on second shelf. Tossed with olive oil and sea salt.

Onions sauted in olive oil with bay leaves till they get soft and brown.
Heirloom tomatos
I made this with no crust because we're watching our carbohydrates. This is really more of a crustless quiche than a true tart.

All assembled and ready for the oven. Onions on the bottom, then roasted vegetables, tomatos and mozzerella. Finally, thyme to taste, two eggs (I used egg beaters) and some heavy cream (for which I substituted fat free half and half).

35 minutes in the oven and look what we have here: A Very Full Crust-less Quiche-like Mediterranean Feast!

Friday, September 7, 2012

I Could Eat These All Day Long!

What do you get when you combine a zip lock bag of frozen fruit with a high-powered blender and a tiny bit of lemonade?

This is a frozen, zero point (for those following weight watchers) treat that I could eat ALL DAY. This batch included frozen apple, grapes and strawberries and a very small amount of lemonade.


Some suggested combinations:
  • Fuji Apple
  • Strawberries
  • Red Grapes
  • Cantaloupe
  • Mango
  • Peach
  • Watermelon
  • Blueberry
  • Grapes

  • Cut fresh fruit into similar-sized chunks. 
  • Freeze in zip lock bags.
  • Put frozen fruit into high-power blender
  • Add small amounts of lemonade or other liquid of choice
  • Blend on frozen drinks setting until smooth
  • Serve. 

One half of a zip lock quart bag of frozen fruit makes two medium servings. 

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Caprese Salad

Bruce is out tonight and I didn't feel like a big meal. With fresh farm tomatos,  locally made mozzerella and garden picked basil in the fridge, there was really only one thing to do. Caprese Salad.

  • Tomatos, the fresher the better, chopped
  • Mozzerella, the fresher the better, cubed
  • Basil, the fresher the better, hand shredded
  • Olive Oil, 1 tbsp
  • Balsamic Vinegar, to taste
Mix. Pour wine. Eat.

Assuming all the other ingredients are fresh, the only way to ruin this meal is to use sub-par balsamic vinegar. Mine comes from Di Bruno Brothers. If you haven't heard of them, go here for their mail-order website. This is a great place to find gifts when you just can't send another basket of fruit or boquet of flowers and you're looking for something different and yummy. I can personally attest that the Abbondanza gift box is out of this world.

Talking Spices Again: Piquant

Someone asked what "piquant" meant in describing spices, and I didn't have a very good definition.

According to Wikipedia, "Piquance (pronounced /ˈpikəns/)[1][2] or piquancy, is the sensation commonly referred to as "spicy" or "hot" which is found in foods such as chili peppers. It is associated with the sense of taste, and in various Asian countries it has traditionally been considered a basic taste.

Use of the word "piquance" eliminates potential lingual ambiguity arising from overlap in meaning with the words "hot" and "spicy" which usually requires a determination or assumption of meaning based on context.

Instead of "hot" simply referring to temperature, and "spicy" being used to refer to the presence of spices (many of which are not actually piquant), the former two words are often used as synonyms for the latter, a word less commonly employed in reference to the characteristic which in regards to taste it solely defines, which is pain associated with the sense of taste.

For instance, a pumpkin pie can be both hot (out of the oven) and spicy (due to the common inclusion of ingredients in its recipe such as cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, mace and cloves) but is not actually piquant. Conversely, pure capsaicin is piquant, yet is not naturally accompanied by a hot temperature or spices."

You'll recognize a spice as piquant when you get that feeling of prickliness or burning in your mouth and you wish someone would spritz you down with an old-fashioned bottle of seltzer, like in the Bugs Bunny cartoons.  Now we know!

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Learning the Indian Spices

Welcome to my spice cabinet.  You'll notice that everybody is in a matching container. I've employed the same organizing design principle to my spices that I've used in my freezer: Using standard sized containers saves space! 

Now, meet the Indian spices. From left to right: Madras Curry Powder, Turmeric, Garam Masala, Coriander, Cumin, Cardamom Pods, and Black Mustard Seeds. Don't be scared.

Lets take them one by one. 

  • Madras Curry: I use Sun Brand, which lists the ingredients as Coriander Seeds, Turmeric, Chilies, Salt, Cumin Seeds, Fennel Seeds, Black Pepper, Garlic, Ginger, Fenugreek, Cinnamon, Cloves, Anise, and Mustard. This spice is piquant and peppery, so go slow when you add it.
  • Turmeric: This spice comes from another plant in the Ginger family, which is dried, oven roasted and ground into a powder. This spice has a pungent flavor, and is used as a dye, so be careful not to spill (or use wooden utensils) because it will stain. I use small amounts.
  • Garam Masala: In Hindi, garam means "hot" and masala means "mixture". Garam Masala is a mixture of a number of other spices and the variation varies from north to south in India, and from family to family. Typically, garam masala includes black and white peppercorns, cloves, cinnamon, cumin, black, green and brown cardamom pods. These are roasted together and ground. We've tried several brands but keep coming back to Williams-Sonoma's version (believe it or not). Your local Indian grocery will likely have several varieties to try.
  • Coriander: Coriander is the dried, ground seeds of our favorite herb, cilantro!
  • Cumin: The cumin plant grows from the east Mediterannean to India, which explains it's appearance in a variety of cuisines. The Spanish brought it to the Americas, which led to our preference for it in our modern day chili recipes. Cumin also has a peppery, pungent flavor, so add to taste.
  • Cardamom Pods: Cardamom is often used in sweet dishes and appears in Nordic baked goods. I first had cardamom in a Finnish easter bread. We add it to our spicy chick peas where it helps bring out the sweetness of the sweet potato along with the rich flavor of the garam masala.
  • Black Mustard Seeds: According to Wikipedia, four of the major religions include references to mustard seeds. Mustard seeds have the sharp flavor of our common mustard. I use only a few, and heat them in oil till they pop.
Now you've met the spices - time to experiment!

Monday, September 3, 2012

A Celebration of Food: Goshen Fair

Is there anything that says "end of summer" more than a visit to a local fair? We visited the Goshen Fair this morning, beating the crowds by several hours, and enjoyed a leisurely stroll through the fairgrounds.  Here are some vignettes from this glorious celebration of all things agricultural.

Lovely fresh organic produce
 Things we didn't know existed
Our favorite goats from Goatboy Soaps. Goatboy not only makes the best soap on the planet, but they also make the best fudge. We know this for a fact - we've performed extensive taste tests.
 Various competitions of bovine, equine, canine and porcine varieties...
 Hand on ham
 The carnival version of my typical work day:
 Things we didn't eat
A clear, blue sky
 A different perspective of the fairgrounds
 Self-portrait from the ferris wheel
 Pie pumpkins
 The best beets in Connecticut
 A cornucopia of produce
 And another
 My lands, the tomatos!!
 Possibly my favorite vegetable:
 I do not like them, Sam, I am!
 Sign on the giant pumpkins: "make great boats"
 Where our will power gave in...
 ...and we ordered Cinnamon buns as big as our heads!