27 June 2011

Willing to bet

Reader, I’ll bet my bottom dollar that you don’t care much about cauliflower. Yes, cauliflower is probably what you can easily live without. Or let’s take it further: perhaps you even believe that cauliflower is among those things you are sure you’d be better off not knowing. Golly gee whiz, am I not assumptious? What do I know about what you detest?

As to me, I don’t recall I tried cauliflower as much as even once, either in my childhood or green teen years. The thing is, I always had dreadful feelings about cauliflower. In our country house garden, my grandmother used to grow it in a remote vegetable patch not too far from a latrine. There were lots of spiders in that patch too; they weaved their fluffy webs in the thick cauliflower plant leaves. I don’t like spiders. Cauliflower was dead for me.

Of course to say now that I haven’t stuck my fork at cauliflower since then would be an ugly lie. If you are one of the irreversible cauliflower haters, worry not – I’m not going to sing paeans to the wacky vegetable. I myself seem to remain an ambivalent cauliflower eater. I noticed that unless it’s stir-fried with an amalgam of my favorite Indian spices (turmeric, coriander, mustard seeds, to name but a few), turning therewith into a bomb of flavor, I don’t usually strive to eat it on its own, what with its rather mute taste and appearance. Offer it to me baked under a thick coating of cheese, and chances are high I might call you – sorry! -- a disgusting person. (I do not like baked cauliflower with cheese.) With that in mind, I surprised myself recently at how pleasant I found a dish which, in essence, is nothing more than briefly cooked cauliflower florets, chopped finely and bejeweled with toasted pine nuts, preserved lemon peel and fresh parsley, all splashed with lemon juice and olive oil, and salted and peppered. The dish is cauliflower ‘couscous’, ladies and gentlemen. And it’s tasty: fresh; slightly citrusy and pickle-y (preserved lemons), and toasty (pine nuts) in spots; and, overall, mild. I liked it.

After being solidly anchored to bed by flu for almost a week earlier this month and having at last recuperated, I found myself in some sort of a culinary limbo. I finally felt hungry for more than a bowl of dry cereal, but my mind’s mouth stayed persistently empty -- I didn’t know what I wanted. My usual standbys – eggplant stew, tomato curry, red lentil soup – failed to re-ignite me. Even chickpeas didn’t cut it for me, which made me particularly worried. If not chickpeas, what then? My imagination stalled, I randomly pulled an old issue of a Dutch food magazine from under a pile of books parked on the living room floor seeking inspiration in a language I barely understand but for recipes. Forcefully leafing through it, I came across a brief instruction for cauliflower ‘couscous’. And although I wasn’t quite sold on that recipe (raw cauliflower; not even a single sprig of fresh herb; too much lemon juice), the idea I loved. Upon my soul -- I felt some excitement! What an indigenous take on traditional ‘couscous’ as well as on cauliflower, don’t you think?

Who knew it would be cauliflower, the ‘curdle’ head, to snap me out of my post-flu blues and send me back to my kitchen eager again to try and tweak? It’s not going to be my vegetable of choice any time soon, but I would pay attention to it more often. Cauliflower has some aces up its sleeve. I’m willing to bet on it.

Cauliflower ‘couscous’

Yield: 4-6 servings

This is a minimalist recipe, basic, even. If you have a food processor, enlist its help to pulse the cauliflower. I don’t, so I chopped the stuff with a knife, which is, by far, the toughest part -- if you can call the chopping of cooked cauliflower tough, that is.

To my taste, preserved lemon peel is a show maker in this concoction. Its deep charged citrus-floral taste gives a fillip to the cauliflower, cuts through the vegetable’s grassiness. Beware not to overuse it though, otherwise the dish might taste bitter. If you can’t find preserved lemons – these can be found at a Middle Eastern grocery store – go with normal lemon zest instead. It’s not quite the same, but use enough salt and you’ll get to bring the light out of the whole lot.

I prefer cauliflower to be crisp-tender, but if you like it soft – go on and keep it longer on the fire. For this recipe, I’m using a large head of cauliflower, the one that would approximately amount to two and a half pounds. Tailor the seasonings to the size of cauliflower you have at hand – and to taste.

We had it on the side with pan-fried salmon, which we first cooled down to room temperature. That was good. Cold roasted chicken would be good too. Or roasted eggplant, if that is what you fancy.

1 large head cauliflower (about 2 ½ pounds or 1.2 kilo)
1 heaped tsp finely chopped preserved lemon peel (see Note below)
1 Tbsp lemon juice, or more to taste
2 Tbsp pine nuts, lightly toasted
3 Tbsp fresh flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped
fine sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
3-4 Tbsp good-quality olive oil

1. Fill a medium pot with water, add a good pinch of sea salt and bring to a boil.

2. Remove any leaves and cut off the tough stem of the cauliflower. Lop off the cauliflower florets. Place in the pot and cook for 5 minutes. Drain and let cool. Discard the stalks and chop the florets finely. The final result should resemble couscous grains, but it’s OK if there are pea-size (or even larger) cauliflower beads left here and there. If you use a food processor, pulse the cauliflower briefly. Don’t over work – or the cauliflower will run juices.

3. In a large bowl, mix the chopped cauliflower together with the rest of the ingredients. Taste and adjust the seasoning. Serve at room temperature.

Note: Using a sharp knife, slice the peel off a preserved lemon. Remove any pith. Cut the peel into thin strips and dice the strips finely. To get 1 heaped tsp, you will need the peel of slightly less than half a preserved lemon.

6 June 2011

It is principal

Reader, would you agree that flu in summertime sounds like a joke? Would you also second me on that it really, really, really does not feel like one? Aw shucks! However unpleasant, I don’t mind a running nose, a swollen, scratchy throat, a cough that turns my lungs inside out as soon as they appear in winter, preferably in February, a time especially designated for crawling in bed and spending days – with occasional visits to the bathroom and the kitchen, in that particular order -- covered from the daylight-deprived world with a blanket, sweating the cold and all other miseries out.

The sun is unsuccessfully trying to stick its neck out through the shambolic rain-bearing clouds today. But even so, it’s still warm and agreeable out. No need for a jacket or even a scarf, both not a very unusual outerwear choice in Amsterdam in June. My spirit is willing to take a walk in the rain and listen to the drum-drum-drum of raindrops against my umbrella, to the tchhhh of car tires knifing at high speed through the rainwater pools, to the rustle of the tree leaves disturbed by the wind high above my head. But my body, sneezing and coughing in two-minute intervals, has given my spirit the double bird and refuses to budge. I stay home, pull the blinds close, and put on a turtleneck sweater because I’m running a fever and feeling cold, the irony not lost on me. It’s time to make Tom Yum Kai, Thai hot-and-sour chicken soup, I feel.

I got to know Tom Yum Kai by happenstance last fall. I do like Thai food, but I must admit I never tried the said soup, which is ubiquitous in any Thai restaurant, good and not so much, near and far. When Anthony and I go to our favorite Thai place, I turn into a ferocious noodle eater usually leaving soups out for suckers. Or rather, I used to. I fell rather sick past November, and the cold wouldn’t go away for weeks. I don’t remember where or from whom I heard that Tom Yum (‘sour soup’ in Thai) is believed to have immune-mending properties – and now that I think of it, how could it not with all those red chilies, ginger, and lime juice packed in it? – but I do remember that that evening we rushed out for a Thai meal for one reason only: Tom Yum. Lesson learnt -- I add a steaming bowl of hot, sour, and salty Tom Yum to the list, if not instead, of medicines to take when a need strikes. Over the time I also learnt I don’t have to go to a restaurant to get my chicken Tom Yum. There is no secret in making the soup, except that you have to trust your taste buds to balance out the bright, bold, and tongue-tickling flavors. Oh Thai flavors!

You begin by preparing a quick aromatic broth. Just throw some garlic, ginger, lemon grass and kaffir lime leaves in a pot of boiling water to infuse it with incredible, exhilarating flavors. After a minute or so, you add chunks of chicken breasts and let the lot boil for a handful of minutes. Next, plop in some mushrooms. After a couple of minutes, you remove the pot from the heat and stir in the requisite fish sauce (salty), lime juice (sour), and chilies (hot). Then you taste and adjust the seasoning to achieve the balance between the three. Taste and adjust some more, if needed. A sprinkle of fresh coriander and basil as a final touch and that is that.

My rendition of the soup is not authentic in a sense that I didn’t learn it from a ninety-nine year-old Thai grandmother who has been cooking it since age ten having watched her own mother making it day in-day out for the rest of the big family. Still, it is authentic to me in a way that I followed and trusted my senses to align those big flavors and bring them to harmony. Taste and tweak as you go. It is principal. That and to eat Tom Yam Kai when you are battling a cold, in winter or in summer, all the same.

Be well, Reader!

Tom Yum Kai (Thai Hot-and-Sour Chicken Soup)

Yield: 4 servings

A few things before you put a pot on the fire…First, in the event you can’t find fresh Kaffir lime leaves – these are usually available at an Asian, of course Thai in particular, supermarket -- use zest of two limes instead. Further on, commonly the plant root of choice in Tom Yum is galangal, a member of the ginger family that is not quite as rich and potent as ginger. Frankly, I think galangal’s flavor in Tom Yum gets lost behind those of lemon grass and garlic. For this reason, I prefer to use regular ginger for its fiery, peppery, confident punch. And finally, I like my chicken Tom Yum to be on the chunky rather than on the watery side, which is why I call forth a decent amount of chicken and mushrooms. Speaking of the latter, you could use shiitake mushrooms to keep in line with the Asian flair of the whole composition, but all those innumerous Tom Yums I tried sported champignons, their plump, slightly firm round buttons floating atop like buoys. I like cute champignons. I use them here.

1 L (4 cups) water or chicken stock
5 fresh Kaffir lime leaves
1 stalk lemon grass, cut into 4-cm (1.5-inch) pieces
3-cm (about 1-inch) long piece of ginger root, peeled and thinly sliced
2 large garlic cloves, thinly sliced
450 gr (15 oz) chicken breast, cut into 4-5-cm (1.5-2-inch) chunks
250-300 gr champignons (8-10 oz), intact if small, or halved or quartered if big
3-4 Tbsp lime juice, or to taste
4-5 Tbsp Thai fish sauce, or to taste
1 Tbsp chopped fresh red chili (with seeds), or to taste
Chili oil (optional)
2 Tbsp fresh coriander leaves, finely chopped
1 Tbsp fresh basil leaves, finely chopped

1. Over medium-high heat, bring water (or chicken stock) to a boil. Add the Kaffir lime leaves, lemon grass, ginger, and garlic, and cook for about 2 minutes to let the liquid infuse with flavors.

2. Dump in the chicken and the mushrooms, dial the heat down to medium-low, and cook uncovered for about 5-6 minutes. The chicken should be cooked through. Do not overcook.

3. Remove from the heat. Tip in the lime juice, fish sauce, and chilies. Taste and adjust the seasoning. Give it a few squirts of chili oil, if using. Let cool slightly, about 4-5 minutes, before adding the fresh herbs. Serve hot.