Among the many tourist sites we visited on our trip to Andalusia, the Alcazar in Seville (above) was one of my favorites. Just steps from the twisting passageways of the Barrio Santa Cruz (left), where we were staying, the Alcazar has some of the same amazing Moorish architectural detail (right) of the Alhambra in Granada, along with some incredible gardens that we didn’t have nearly enough time to explore. (For full set of photos, see my facebook page.) I suppose we could have lingered longer, but after getting up early and spending a few solid hours there, we were ready for some lunch. We headed toward the Calle Mateos Gago, where we had heard there were some good tapas bars. This was pretty much the rhythm of many of our days: get up early, put in a few hours of sightseeing, reward ourselves with tapas and beer or wine, take naps, repeat the cycle after the naps.
As we wandered down the street, we spotted a microscopic bar with a bespectacled stuffed boar’s head on the wall and a brash, gesticulating bartender, and decided right away that it was our kind of place. This was Bar Àlvaro, which I wrote about in my last post. After our lively experience there, we decided to go next door to Bar Tomate to chill out and order more food to soak up the alcohol. Although we had eaten a few tapas at Àlvaro’s, walking around the Alcazar the whole morning and then walking to lunch had worked up our appetites. According to Lonely Planet, Bar Tomate is known for their plump and delicious gambas al ajillo, shrimp poached in olive oil with a few red chiles and copious quantities of chopped garlic. Sold. If there’s anything better than that oil for dipping bread in, I don’t know what it is. Along with a couple glasses of crisp Verdejo, we were in heaven. The atmosphere at Tomate was much more subdued than that of its neighbor, but cool in its own way, with Art Nouveau posters and weird marionettes with currency from dozens of countries pinned to their clothing. And of course, the obligatory hams hanging from the ceiling! Continue reading
In June, I had the honor of hosting les culinettes, the cooking club I’ve been participating in for the past few months. Back then- a whole month ago!- my schedule was just free enough to accommodate a dinner party, but as the weeks fly by and freelance work* and wedding planning have been ratcheting up, blogging has sadly been relegated to the back burner (non-intended food pun, I swear).
*I’ve been developing and testing recipes for holiday food the last several weeks… strange but fun!
But rather than lament my absence here, I’d prefer to reflect on what was a beautiful balmy spring eve with good friends and great food. Our theme was “green”, in honor of fresh green vegetables finally being in the markets. Seems funny to think of it now, with temps in the 90s all week, but in mid-June we were just starting to see peas, asparagus and the like. Several people did use spring vegetables in their dishes, but the menu was surprisingly diverse, with others interpreting the “green” theme more loosely.
I had gotten up at 7am that day to get the house in order; in addition to cleaning, I wanted to hang a few pictures and curtains (nothing like company to get you motivated to do things around the house… I should entertain every weekend, I’d be so productive!). I was a machine all day, with just enough time to start getting my dishes ready as the dinner hour approached. Fortunately the theme wasn’t the only thing that was loosely interpreted, as most of the ladies arrived about 45 minutes after the appointed time, giving me a welcome opportunity to chill in the kitchen with a glass of wine and prep my food a bit more leisurely.
We decided to break up the meal into courses and eat the first round outdoors- it was one of those warm evenings with the barest of breezes, that elusive weather we long for in the depths of winter’s chill and summer’s scorch. The food was sublime, in every way a worthy match for the splendid weather. For appetizers, we had pea pesto and pea hummus on crostini made by Meghan, and a gorgeous grass-green fava purée topped with feta and kalamata olives that Abigail made with favas from her garden. The favas, which we spread on Zingerman’s baguette (only the best!), had the most amazing velvety texture that I was obsessed with, and a little spicy kick. Continue reading
Ever since reading Fuchsia Dunlop’s Shark’s Fin & Sichuan Pepper last year, I’ve been hankering to get into more authentic Chinese cooking. I realize “authenticity” is subjective and can be cause for debate, but in the broad sense I mean food that would actually be prepared in a Chinese home, rather than dishes that were created Stateside and appear on every Chinese take-out menu from Dubuque to Des Moines.
With that in mind, I picked up The Breath of a Wok by Grace Young from the library recently. It focuses in on the techniques of wok cooking as a necessary component of Chinese cookery, as opposed to some Asian cookbooks that reassure the cook that it’s fine to just stir fry in a skillet if need be. The way Young describes the use of a wok, it’s practically an ingredient unto itself. Anyone who’s had a well-prepared stir fry can identify the flavor of wok hay, the essence or “breath” of the wok, as Young translates it. It’s that underlying hint of smokiness that you just don’t get unless you cook at extremely high temperatures, and it is simply not possible to accomplish with a Western skillet.
So vital is the selection, care, technique and culture of the wok that Young spends the first 65 pages of her book discussing these topics before any recipes are given. I read most of those pages, but the other night I was feeling eager to dive in so I thought I’d forge ahead and try my hand at one of the recipes, a scallop & asparagus stir fry. Apart from one misstep at the very beginning (minced garlic that turned black within seconds of being added to the uber-hot wok), the recipe was a breeze. Best of all, when I tasted the dish, there it was- the slight “grilled” flavor of wok hay! It felt like a revelation. I served it with a very non-authentic but delicious variation of my favorite carrot and avocado salad, where I subbed in ginger, hot chili paste, rice vinegar and a touch of soy sauce for the French vinaigrette.
Even if you only make the occasional stir fry, I would highly recommend reading Young’s chapters about wok use and putting her advice into practice. That little bit of knowledge just might have you creating some wok hay of your own, and I’m here to tell you it’s worth whatever small extra effort might be involved. My scallop stir-fry was easily one of the best I’ve made- the scallops seared but juicy; the vegetables crisp-tender; the sauce just a sheer glaze that nicely flavored without drowning the ingredients. I have a feeling the wok is going to be put to use a little more often in our household in the near future.
I can’t summarize Young’s 65 pages for you, of course, but here are a few tips for achieving wok hay in your own kitchen:
- Use a carbon-steel wok, never nonstick.
- Have all ingredients close at hand; the process goes lightning fast and there’s no time to realize you forgot a component during cooking.
- Don’t exceed the amount of ingredients a recipe calls for or add too much to the wok at one time; it brings the temperature down too far and your food will steam instead of sear.
Notes: The original recipe called for 1 lb of asparagus. I only had about 3/4 lb so I subbed in some snow peas for the remaining 1/4 lb. The important thing is not to go over 1 lb total of vegetables, because it will reduce the wok’s heat too much. The only other change I made was to sprinkle the garlic on top of the scallops when I put them in the wok. When I put the garlic in first, I found that it instantly burned and I had to start over.
1 lb. scallops (if you want to splurge, use fresh dry sea scallops, but I used frozen, thawed bay scallops and they tasted fine)
1 lb. asparagus, trimmed & cut into 2-inch pieces
1 ¼ tsp salt
4 tsp Shao Hsing rice wine or dry sherry
2 ¼ tsp cornstarch
1 ½ tsp oyster sauce
1 tsp sesame oil
½ tsp ground white pepper
1 Tbs peanut or other vegetable oil
1 Tbs minced garlic
Put 2 cups of water in a medium saucepan with 1 tsp salt and bring to the boil. Add asparagus. When the water returns to a boil, remove from heat and drain the asparagus; set aside. (If using any snow peas, they do not need to be blanched.)
Rinse the scallops and pat dry thoroughly with paper towels. Combine in a bowl with the sesame oil, white pepper, 1 ¼ tsp of the cornstarch, 1 tsp of the rice wine and the remaining ¼ tsp of salt; mix well to combine. In another bowl, combine the remaining 1 tsp cornstarch, rice wine, and the oyster sauce with ¼ cup cold water.
Place scallops, asparagus, sauce and garlic within hands’ reach of the stove. Heat a 14″ flat-bottomed wok over high heat until a bead of water vaporizes within 1-2 seconds of contact. Swirl in the vegetable oil. Add the scallops, carefully spreading them in a single layer. Sprinkle the garlic on top. Cook undisturbed for 30 seconds to allow them to brown; then stir-fry with a metal spatula for 30-60 seconds or until scallops are light brown but not cooked through. Add the asparagus. Stir the sauce mixture and add to the wok. Bring to the boil to thicken the sauce and finish cooking the scallops, about 30 seconds.
Serves 4 as part of a multi-course meal.
I’m sitting in the guest room where Robespierre and Farrow are sequestered, trying to milk the last moments with them before we give them up this week to their new “parents” (due to Marvin’s severe allergies). The house– my new home– is filled with the aroma of chicken roasting on a bed of shallots, herbs and garlic, courtesy of Marvin, who decided to take a turn in the kitchen tonight. Although we signed the paperwork over a month ago, the moving process has been slow, and I was still at the old house this weekend trying to take care of odds and ends and consolidate things to one side in the basement. As of this weekend I’ll have tenants in both flats, and even though I’ve been sleeping here for a couple weeks, that somehow seems to make it official.
Surprisingly, I have been managing to cook a fair amount since the move, I just haven’t had time to photograph or blog about it. We’ve had venison and pork meatballs with pasta sauce from last summer’s tomatoes, a chicken in mustard sauce with goat cheese and leek-stuffed apples, and these Provençale-style mussels that I actually did photograph because it was a paying gig for a recipe column I’ve been writing.
That day we also had our first dinner guest, our friend Jon, who had been helping Marvin move that day. I love all the “firsts” that come not just with moving, but with moving in together- our first night in the new house, first meal cooked on the new stove, first guests, etc. One first that I am particularly eagerly anticipating is the first fire in the fireplace (right now, there are boxes piled in front of it, but I hope to rectify that this weekend). Unlike the vast majority of my peers, I have never shacked up with a significant other, so I was a little anxious about the adjustment, but it seems to be going fairly smoothly so far. (One night at dinner when we did get into a bit of a spat, he gave me a hug afterward and said something like “It’s OK, it wouldn’t be normal if we didn’t have some growing pains”. That’s why I love this man!)
As soon as things are more settled, I really hope to get back into my blogging routine. Going from posting a few times a week to only once or twice a month is seriously bumming me out! Part of it is due to time taken up with some paid writing gigs I’ve gotten lately, which is a good thing, but I miss writing here just for me (and the few of you who visit). But instead of dwelling on that, can we talk about mussels? I can’t believe I’ve never posted about mussels before, seeing as how they’re one of my favorite quick-but-fancy meals (fancy in terms of being a bit more exotic than my usual weeknight fare, not in terms of difficulty).
This recipe will be old hat for experienced mussel-makers, but I’m hoping to convert a few of you who may have the mistaken assumption that mussels are tricky to make. Au contraire, mon frère- if you can mince shallots and open a bottle of wine, you’re more than halfway there. This article on CHOW is the best one I found to describe the selection, cleaning and storage of mussels for the uninitiated. Personally, I just buy them the day I’m going to use them; the store I buy from (Holiday Market) sells them already cleaned and debearded, so all I have to do is check for any open ones (if they close when you tap them, they’re still alive and you can safely use them). Add a green salad and some bread to soak up the juices and you have a pretty freaking fantastic meal in about 10-15 minutes. Perfect if you’re busy doing other things like, say, unpacking 30 boxes of cookbooks…
Moules à la Provençale (Mussels with Tomatoes and Garlic)
The following recipe makes enough for two main-dish portions or four appetizer portions. If you want to double the recipe, double the quantity of mussels but only increase the other ingredients by half.
2 lbs. mussels
2-3 large shallots, roughly chopped (about 2/3 c.)
3-4 cloves garlic, chopped (about 2 tbs.)
1 bay leaf
4 tbs. chopped flat-leaf parsley
1 14-oz. can diced tomatoes, drained
1 c. dry white wine (I used an inexpensive Vinho Verde, but a Sauvignon Blanc would also work well)
A couple of glugs of olive oil (about 2 tbs.)
Pinch of salt, as needed
Heat the olive oil over medium heat in a wide, lidded skillet (alternatively, a Dutch oven or stock pot may be used). Add the shallot and garlic and cook until they just begin to soften. Add the wine and bay leaf and simmer for a couple of minutes to blend the flavors. Add the tomatoes and 3 tablespoons of the parsley. Taste the mixture for salt, adding a pinch or two if needed (may not be necessary if your tomatoes are salted).
When the mixture begins to simmer again, add the cleaned mussels and cover the pan or pot with a lid. You will want to have the rest of your meal ready to go, because the mussels are best eaten as soon as they are cooked. Steam the mussels for about 4 minutes, shaking the pot occasionally (especially important if your pot is deeper than it is wide and the mussels are stacked on top of each other). Do not overcook or the mussels will become tough.
Spoon the mussels into shallow bowls with some of the cooking liquid and vegetables, then garnish with the reserved parsley. Any mussels that have not opened should be avoided (usually there are only a couple per batch). Serve immediately with crusty bread, a salad and the leftover wine you used for cooking.
In my potstickers post, I had mentioned that I would post my recipe for Chinese-style kale as well as some variations on the potstickers. In addition to the pork potstickers, Kathy also made some with a really great seafood filling. She was hard pressed to give me an exact “recipe” since she was kind of winging it, but I’ll try to approximate it for you all. Also, although the browned plate of potstickers looks awfully impressive, Kathy tells me that her favorite way to prepare them is actually boiled, so I’ll give instructions for that too. I think there’s just something more “comfort-food”-ish about eating them boiled, and they soak up the dipping sauce a little better than the pan-fried version. In regards to the kale, it was something I came up with on the fly several months ago, and it was so addictive that I’ve made it several times since. I hesitate to call it Chinese, since I only have a vague impression whether they would combine these particular seasonings, but the use of the dry mustard powder called to mind that sharp Chinese hot mustard, so I’m running with it. I’ll try to give amounts, but honestly I usually just eyeball everything, so you may want to add the spices in increments and taste as you go. Also, the kale cooks down a lot so you may want to double the recipe if you’re feeding more than a few people or want leftovers. (I wouldn’t necessarily double the spices though- try increasing them by a third and see how it goes. You can always add more, but you can’t subtract once they’re in there!)
Chinese-style Kale (printer-friendly version)
1 large bunch kale
2 tbs vegetable oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 1/2 tsp dry mustard powder, or more to taste
1 tsp dried red chili flakes or Huy Fong chili sauce (the kind with seeds)
2 tbs soy sauce
1/4 tsp toasted (dark) sesame oil
optional: 1 tbs rice wine or Shaoxing (Chinese cooking wine)
Optional garnishes: toasted sesame seeds or fried shallots or garlic (these are available at Asian markets… try them and you’ll soon find yourself garnishing anything & everything with them!)
Remove the large stems from the kale. Chop into strips about 1 1/2″ wide; wash and set aside in a colander to drain. In a large, heavy-bottomed pot (such as a dutch oven), heat about 2 tbs of vegetable oil (add more if it doesn’t cover the bottom of the pan) and 1/4 tsp (a few dashes) sesame oil over medium-low heat. Add the minced garlic and cook GENTLY until the garlic is browned, turning the heat down as necessary so it doesn’t burn.* If you are using the dried chili flakes, add them to the oil and cook them for about 30 seconds to bloom the flavor. Add the mustard powder and stir out any lumps.
Add the kale to the pot and stir to coat with the seasonings. It’s ok if the kale is a little wet; the moisture will help it steam and cook down. The kale probably won’t fit all at once, so cook it for a few minutes until it cooks down and then add the remainder. You can cover the kale to assist the steaming process; just make sure to stir it often enough so that nothing sticks to the bottom of the pan. When the kale is tender but still green, add 1 tbs soy sauce and the chili sauce, if using. Stir and taste for seasoning, adding the remainder of the soy sauce as you see fit. You may also want to add a dash or two more sesame oil, chili sauce, or more mustard powder to taste. Sometimes I add a small splash of rice wine or Shaoxing as well (increase the heat for a moment to cook off the alcohol).
*A note on browned garlic: I know that most cookbooks advise you NOT to let your garlic brown, as they claim it acquires a “bitter” flavor. However, in some Asian and Indian cooking, cooks do brown their garlic and enjoy its characteristic flavor. If you do it gently and make sure not to over-brown or burn it, you’ll be fine. But feel free to sauté it for a shorter time if you disagree.
Filling for Seafood Dumplings (Gyoza)
14 oz. raw shrimp, peeled & deveined
6 oz. mild, white-fleshed fish such as sea bass or rockfish (you can alter the ratio of shrimp to fish if you like, as long as it totals 1 1/4 to 1 1/2 lbs)
1 small bunch Chinese leek (available at Asian markets; see photo above)
2 tbs soy sauce
2 packages round gyoza wrappers, thawed if frozen
Roughly chop or snip the Chinese leek (you should have about a cup). Process with the shrimp, fish and soy sauce in a food processor until almost smooth (a little texture is OK, as long as the mixture holds together). Pan fry a tablespoon or so to check the seasoning. The filling will be a lovely pistachio green color when cooked. It should have a delicate flavor and not be over-salted. Wrap the dumplings as specified in the recipe for pork gyoza.
Boiling Instructions for Dumplings (courtesy Kathy Lee)
Bring a large pot of water to a fast rolling boil. Add dumplings to boiling water. When water comes back to a boil, add a cold 8oz glass of water. Repeat 2 more times; then remove from water and toss around to keep the dumplings from sticking to each other and enjoy!