Aug 28, 2011

Eating with zest

Of course there is an intended pun. What were you thinking! I am in love with the latest addition to my kitchen - the Microplane Zester. I can't believe I was zesting limes and oranges without this handy tool - makes zesting a piece of cake (no pun here!)

I've been zesting pretty much anything zestable and thought to share this easy and tasty appetizer I made. Lets call it lemon and pepper tofu (pretty ingenious huh!).

Anyway, so I took some firm tofu and sautéed it in my cast iron pan till it got a nice brown color all over. In the meantime, I rubbed some cashews with olive oil and put them under the broiler and once they had some color, pulled them out and tossed it with paprika, lemon zest and salt. Next I took the sauteed tofu blocks and seasoned it with salt, pepper and lime juice. I arranged the tofu in a flat bowl, topped it with the cashews, some chopped green onion and lots of lemon zest.

Voila! A great tasting healthy snack.

Aug 3, 2011

sweet and sour

I have been reading about molecular gastronomy and it got me thinking about what I could do at home that did not conform to convention... so here's an experiment I tried. Take a look at the picture below and try to guess what it is. Or just read on...

If you did guess tomato, you are absolutely right. It is sheer coincidence that the tomato should be the protagonist yet again. This is a steamed tomato that's been skinned and dressed in a marinade of orange juice, balsamic vinegar and orange zest. I was trying a play on sweet and sour since no one expects this to be a tomato. Truth be told, it looks better than it tasted but it was a very interesting combination. The sharp orange zest gives way to the soft touch of the tomato flesh which squirts tangy juice as soon as you bite into it... quite a medley of flavors.

Next time, I think I'll go light on the orange zest but not on the zest for experimenting with food.

Till later!

ps: I just bought the Microplane zester - super cool.

Jun 25, 2011

Fruity vegetable...

How's that for an oxymoron. That's probably how a tomato would introduce itself if it were a standup comedienne. Officially classified as a fruit, I have seen more use of the tomato as a vegetable than as a fruit. It is easily one of the most versatile ingredients that can hide in the background of a sauce to add body or take center stage as the main topping on pizza.

Why such a big deal about the tomato? Well! I admire Chef Floyd Cardoz a lot and when the consummate gentleman won the Top Chef Masters, he made a very elegant dish with tomato as a base. I thought I'd borrow the idea and add my own zing to it. The result was a beautiful looking dish with very subtle flavors.

So to start with, I layered three sliced tomatoes and half a fennel root to my baking dish. Next I popped in a couple of bay leaves, few balls of black pepper and topped the veggies and spices with one cup vegetable stock, about a half cup white wine and about one and a half cup water. I covered the baking container and let the ingredients cook for 2 hrs in the oven at about 350 degrees. Then I pulled it out and strained all the liquid into a bowl making sure to press hard on the veggies to draw out all the liquid. To this I added some salt and pepper to taste and a pinch of anise seed.

While the tomato/ onion broth was cooking in the oven, I took some leftover rice, sauteed some mushrooms and mixed it in with some pesto and egg white. The consistency was such that I could shape the mixture into a patty. Then I grilled it on the pan till it was nicely browned on both sides.

The assembly was pretty easy - poured the tomato fennel broth into a bowl, placed the rice cake and garnished with some fennel leaves and cilantro. Voila! Behold the healthy, hearty and flavorful soup.

Soup, salad, sauce, curry base, side dish, garnish, topping.... mexican, italian, spanish, indian, mediterranean....stew it, grill it, bake it, stuff it, puree it, boil it, dry it or eat it raw. Do what you can with a tomato and it'll make food better - perhaps that's why it is the mainstay of so many cuisines.

Jun 11, 2011

Presenting Rose - Queen of Flowers!

Few weekends back, I was at the rose garden in San Jose. Walking through the sweet scented air, surrounded by roses in full bloom, I was naturally thinking about how unique and versatile the rose is. For many, it may be a surprise that the rose is a very popular ingredient used in India.

Fresh rose petals are often added to dairy based sweets. Chopped petals are mixed with paneer and cardamom to make mouth-watering sandesh while kheer is often garnished with fresh rose petals. Rose essence is commercially extracted to make gulab jal or rose water used to make rose lassi. Rose water is also used to hydrate dry eyes during hot summers and is believed to soothe eye infections like conjunctivitis. Rose flavored sweet concentrate is routinely added to cold milk to make a rose milk-shake served to discerning guests. Rose flavored ice-cream is also very popular. And on and on…

Perhaps, the most unique use of the rose is in imparting flavor to a "paan". The "paan" is an ubiquitous after-food finisher that doubles as dessert and breath freshener. In its simplest avatar, it is a betel leaf smothered with a mixture of kattha, choona and chaman bahar (rose powder) topped with a mixture of dry betelnuts. The dessert paan is stuffed with gulkand - candied rose petals. This betel leaf filled with gulkand and spices is then folded over into a triangular shape. Tucked away into a corner of the mouth the paan dissolves slowly, leaving behind fresh breath. What would the paan be without the queen of flowers - the beautiful rose!


chaman bahar - brand of rose powder
choona - slaked lime
gulab jal - rose water
gulkand - candied rose petals, word literally means sweet flower
katthha - areca nut paste
kheer - rice and milk pudding flavored with cardamom; served hot or chilled
lassi - sweet beverage made with yoghurt, water and sugar; sometimes flavored with fruit pulp or flavors
paneer - fresh farmer's cheese that's been pressed to remove the water
sandesh - fresh farmers cheese kneaded till it has a pudding like consistency. Typically mixed with nuts, flavorings, fruit and sometimes color to make delectable dessert.

May 9, 2011

Tea tasting in Chinatown

The past weekend, we had family visit us and off we went to Chinatown. The first thing that struck me was that as we walked deeper down the main street, it looked less like San Francisco and more like an Oriental neighborhood with cramped shops selling all kinds of trinkets, gadgets and curios. The wares spilled onto the sidewalk and I could buy scarves for $5, SFO skyline paperweights for $3, paper lanterns for $2 and on and on. The color, pace, crowd and noise was reminiscent of another world and age.

In the midst of all the chaos, we spotted large beautiful shops which sported the sign "Free Tea Tasting". I took a quick peek into one and it was filled with rows upon rows of jars filled with tea as far as I could see. To one side was a huge wooden table with small tasting cups and about 15 seats arranged almost like in a sushi bar. Now, I have never tasted tea before and had no idea what to expect.

Our gracious hostess seated us and broke into a chatter, "If you like the tea you have to buy 1 bag and if you don't like it, you have to buy 1 kilo", and we were smiling. Then she told us that one has to wake up a tea before brewing it i.e rinse the dry tea leaves in boiling water for 5 seconds and throw the water away. That action rehydrates the tea leaves following which the tea is steeped in boiling water for under a minute depending on the type of tea. "Never more than a minute", she said. "That ruins the tea".
She poured us at least 6 kinds of tea and all the while she educated us about the teas. "Our flavored tea never tastes of the flavors because we don't add chemicals. We only infuse the smell so the tea has only the aroma but tastes like regular tea." And she was spot on. It was a delicate balance for the senses. As I raised the cup of jasmine tea, I could smell the jasmine but taste only regular tea. My favorite was the tea flavored with Ginseng. It was wonderful as it finished with a sweet after-taste in the back of the mouth. What an experience!

I always knew India to be the largest producer and consumer of tea. And with that comes a perception that it also has the most variety. But now after a visit to Chinatown, I'm not so sure.

May 1, 2011

Vung Tau: The quest ends

I have a huge weakness for Vietnamese food - be it the comforting pho, the healthy salads or the more indulgent hot-pots. We relocated from Seattle to the San Francisco bay area almost two years back and have been looking for good vegetarian Vietnamese fare ever since. Being a Pho Cyclo regular (gush! gush!) in Seattle for over two years, I was almost beginning to give up hope.

I was explaining my predicament to a food aficionado that the best Vietnamese I've eaten in the bay area, is at Tamarine in Palo Alto (contemporary and pricey for everyday eats). She recommended that I try Vung Tau. Interestingly, it was started by the parents of the folks who run Tamarine.

So we decided to give Vung Tau a shot right away and I am delighted we did. Right from the casual decor to the warm service and most importantly, excellent food, it hit the sweet spot. They have a separate Vegetarian menu (very cool!) and I ordered the "Lemongrass Tofu with rice noodles" without any hesitation. As soon as the dish arrived, I could smell the fresh lemon grass and on the first bite the aroma filled my mouth (mmmm!). The tofu itself was succulent, elastic and flavored with lemon grass and chili all the way through. They also gave me imitation fish oil to flavor the salad. Overall, the dish was a good balance of sweet and spicy. I am definitely coming back here for seconds and thirds and... many more.

My quest for good vegetarian Vietnamese food in the bay area finally comes to an end. I don't think it's a coincidence that Vung Tau is a coastal state capital in South Vietnam known for being the most beautiful city for tourism. Apt name for an apt restaurant. Thanks CJ for the excellent recommendation!

Apr 21, 2011

Before and After

A picture is worth a thousand words.

BEFORE: Behold the celebratory yellow pepper dancing on the hot stove.

AFTER: Change of form into a beautiful puree seasoned with some star anise and rosemary. Finished with some mint oil and paprika.

I've seen this video at least ten times today and each time I have smiled. Who knew that a yellow pepper would do a war dance before jumping into the blender.

Apr 14, 2011

Salad, Appetizer or Dessert?

Today, when I got back home from work, I inhaled a lungful of fresh spices which meant that my wife was cooking dinner. Clearly, I would not be cooking anything so I decided to rustle up a quick fresh snack to start.

Since I had bought some papaya, I cut a ring quickly, filled it with a mixture of coconut milk and grated carrot and topped it off with some dates. The whole operation took less than 10 minutes and we had this beautiful snack.

Wonder if it qualifies as salad, appetizer or dessert?

Apr 6, 2011


Those who've cooked or eaten risotto will know that the best tasting risotto is made and eaten fresh, otherwise it is just an unyielding lump of starch and protein. So for this post, I thought I’d focus on the journey of making the risotto which, I believe, is one of the more scenic ones.

The initial challenge was to figure out the risotto flavoring. Being vegetarian, it was easy to go with wild mushroom and dry wine but that sounded drab so I decided to color it up a bit and opted for black asian fungus and red wine/ sherry cooking wine reduction instead.

I sautéed some red onion, garlic, black fungus and red walnuts in olive oil and a small scoop of butter. I waited till the onions were nicely caramelized and the house was alive with a warm onion-garlic-butter smell. Then I added in the risotto rice and tossed it around till the rice toasted to a golden yellow (not brown!) and emitted a nice nutty odor.

Quick aside - cooking risotto is one of the most rewarding experiences since it is cooked in distinctive stages and each stage contributes a unique flavor, smell and texture, not to mention taste. The onions and garlic warming in butter give way to the toasty smell of risotto rice which in turn yields to the acidic smell of wine and finally the sharp smell of parmesan cheese sets in as the risotto swirls around. And I keep scooping the risotto with my finger to sample the taste - it just tastes better off the finger than the spoon - mmmmmmm

Ah! Back to reality... I started adding the vegetable stock to cook the rice. Now purists may add stock and wine in equal alternate measures but I say do what your heart tells you. If you want a harder hitting risotto, go for some additional wine, maybe a few drops of balsamic vinegar or even soy sauce - you are the artist...

Anyhow, I kept adding the vegetable stock till the rice was half cooked and then introduced my wine and sherry reduction. If I were to put a ballpark estimate to the total liquid proportion, I’d say it was 3 parts stock and 1 part wine/sherry. The key is to keep stirring the risotto so the rice is fully agitated, releases starch and takes on a creamy texture. Also, it is important to add the stock/ wine of your choice cup by cup (adding the next cup only once the previous cup has been absorbed) so that the rice doesn’t just cook but releases starch.

After the rice was fully cooked, I turned off the heat and added parmesan cheese (although would have preferred goat cheese if I had some). I’ve learned from a disastrous experience before, that cheese and heat make for strange bedfellows. Also, I find it helpful to add salt and pepper after the cheese has been incorporated so that saltiness from all the different ingredients is accounted for. Since risotto is a complete dish, it can tend to get monotonous. To help the palate break the the monotony of flavor, I added some fresh grapes to act as a freshener between bites. The toasted walnuts also added a wonderful crunch texture to the risotto to keep it alive. All in all, a scenic journey with all the sights, sounds and smells and a rainbow at the end.

By the way, I also realized that cooking can also improve spelling. Rissotto, Rissoto, Risotto - ha ha ha - you get the drift. If there was a spelling bee specializing in cooking, r-i-s-o-t-t-o would definitely be on that list.

Mar 17, 2011

Joy of Iron

The love affair with iron started when my wife threw out all our non-stick cookware for health reasons. "Non-Stick utensils have carcinogenic material", or so she said as she carried out her threat. So now we have only cast-iron or steel cookware. Anyway, it has been a blessing in disguise as I have discovered the joy of cooking on iron.

I love that the food cooked in a cast-iron pan has a beautiful texture, cooks evenly all over and it just tastes better - seriously! Not just that but cast-iron cookware also has a long long life, can be put under the broiler and also does not require cooks to use only wooden or silicone spoons/ stirrers. It has just been great.

I tried my first fancy experiment with the cast-iron pan today where I rubbed some paneer(farmer's cheese) blocks with a paste of ground olives, olive oil, cumin and paprika. I served it with a tomatillo salsa spiked with fresh orange juice and a roasted tomatillo and ginger sauce. Needless to say the roast flavor in the sauce and the cheese was a winner.

I will be the first to acknowledge that maintaining cast-iron is more work than a standard pan and one builds some serious muscle while maneuvering the heavy pan. But hey, now I can say with a straight face that I am an iron chef ;)