𝌟 endeavour

Vegemite and I are friends, but we’ll never be hot lovers…

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If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.

J. R. R. Tolkien (1892 – 1973)

Last night’s party aboard Sonofagun was quite a happening.

Everyone we invited turned up. The sight of 19 people (and one friendly rottweiler) jamming, laughing and chattering together on the back deck of the boat—as well as the flotilla of a dozen dinghies hitched to the back platform, and a full-sized sailboat, Outsider, rafted up alongside so that people could cross from one boat to the other—was pretty damn impressive. It was impossible not to feel the love from all these friends who made the effort to leave the land and join us on the water.

The menu was a success…Christophe declared the coq au vin “perfect” and “nearly as good as my mother’s” (*fistpump* Yes!), while the dips (the bagna cauda and borani esfanaaj, particularly) were pronounced “addictive” by several friends, who hovered around that end of the table nearly the entire night. A  fondue of dark chocolate (served with strawberries, macadamias, and some ill-chosen marshmallows that nobody touched) and cups of strong coffee at the end rounded the dinner off with a sharp little perk-me-up that after-dinner joints and more booze worked into rowdy revelry, before leading everyone back to the ciabattas, olives, cheeses, nuts and dips…to quell those notorious munchies.

The last of the crowd went home by two a.m., though a couple of friends went to sleep on Outsider, just next to us, while Tobias the rottweiler and three other friends unrolled their swags and slept on deck.

On the whole, a party to be remembered…especially as I didn’t take any photographs! Flash bulbs and long exposures on a moving boat would only have produced blurry, dark, grainy and greyish photos of the evening, anyway, and captured none of the energy, the conversation, the merriment, the aromas of simmering wine or liquified chocolate and coffee that hung in the chilly air. Such moments blossom in a rapid geometry of sensations, emotions and ideas…and because I wanted to really be a part of that dynamic Now, as it was unfolding, I didn’t even think of getting my camera out, let alone entertain any concerns for finding a good angle or getting the lighting and exposure right. I’m trying not to let anything stand between myself and the Present; I want to be more than just a spectator of my life.

My only photograph of the day was taken in the morning, laved in refined sunlight, music flooding the boat, during the peaceful and relaxed enjoyment of my third cup of coffee, in-between having made the borani esfanaaj (heavenly) and getting ready to start the mashed potatoes (for which recipe I succumbed to food hubris and complicated processes by using Julia Child’s version, purée de pommes de terre à l’ail. It was sinfully buttery, fluffy, and infused with a gentle, creamy garlic flavour. Taking my hubris a notch higher, I would suggest improving this recipe, next time, by using oven-roasted garlic flowers…instead of boiling the garlic cloves in water. Presumptuous beyond belief.)

Recipes I used are here, for the bagna cauda (I added paper-thin slices of shallots to this) and borani esfanaaj.

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Dude’s very happy that the big black dog is gone, and he is once again king of Sonofagun.

For the coq au vin, instead of using the pressure cooked recipe, I ended up slotting use of the pressure cooker into the full-on, multiple-process recipe from Julia Child’s first volume of French cooking. *sigh* I know I said I wanted it to be quick and easy, but in my heart I knew that the flavor of the sauce would suffer, and you can’t sacrifice flavour for the sake of convenience! May as well grab a bucket of fried chicken, in that case, no? So, really, Christophe’s cocotte-papin or autocuisier only saved me 15-20 minutes of cooking time whilst I was tenderising the chicken. Everything else happened in Julia-time…sort of like the culinary version of William Morris’ Arts and Crafts Movement: the dish took 5½ hours to prepare, from start to finish, not counting the time spent washing the various pots and skillets, along the way, but counting the final heating of the dish before serving.

Defrost in translation…

sunday's sketches
I was on deck with my sketchbook, supposedly drawing ideas for a group exhibit that I’ll be joining in September (but really I was distractedly doodling, as usual, and had made a few attempts to draw Kris, who was sitting on the other end of the deck) when sailor, friend, and all-around lovely French guy Christophe dropped in on the (reasonably) good ship Sonofagun this morning to lend me his 6 liter pressure cooker as well as a small recipe book that used to belong to his mother.

All of this came about because I told him, over some vodka at the Dinah Beach Yacht Pub, that I didn’t know what to make for Kris’ birthday dinner that would be easy for me to prepare on our very low-tech boat, yet still a respectable dish, and in quantities that would feed 15-20 adults, without shackling me to the kitchen stove all night.

He suggested I make coq au vin (rooster with wine) in a pressure cooker, and I thought Hmm, that’s really not a bad idea…throw everything into the autocuiseur, walk away and, an hour later, come back to reveal tender chicken pieces in a rich sauce of cognac and red wine.

Add to this dish some mashed potato and a hearty pumpkin or a lentil and garlic soup (don’t forget, it’s winter in Oz, and even tropical Darwin gets chilly when the sun goes down…especially on the open deck of a boat in the harbour!), preceded by little bowls of homemade hommus, bagna cauda, this award-winning recipe for borani esfanaaj (“yoghurt and spinach dip in the Persian manner”), vegetable crudites, a couple of decent cheeses, some salami and smoked salmon, and loads of fresh, crusty Turkish bread and baguettes…

I gazed into the middle distance and my eyes took on a faraway, concentrated look as the entire evening’s menu sort of just wrote itself, in my head, while I methodically imagined every taste and texture to see what a meal like that would be like. I even sipped an after-dinner glass of frosty eggnog for a moment, before discarding the imaginary drink and replacing it with a mug of hot homemade mocha chocolate, instead. I gave a contented sigh and beamed at him. Christophe probably thought to himself “Ah, she only drink two shots of this vodka, but already she is drunk!”

I have only ever made coq au vin using an old Cordon Bleu cookbook…if my memory serves me, it involved several cast iron pans, many hours of stirring and thickening, as well as handfuls of perfectly good carrots that you simmered for ages until very soft…only to squeeze them for their juices and throw away the rest. Also, there was blood, and a Dutch oven involved.

It hadn’t been an easy dish to cook in my mother’s modern, gadget-packed kitchen—and it left a small trail of dirty cookware—so there’s no way I would manage it on a solar powered boat with a single-burner camping stove and a Coleman cooler for refrigeration, but Christophe’s recipe looked promisingly short, so maybe it would be simple, too?

I wouldn’t know until I translated it from the French.

“Gild the cockerel pieces…halfway through the operation, add the onion roundels…. Add the cognac (the recipe gives you a choice of cognac or coffee grounds…can’t be right…) and quickly ignite. Cover with red wine…cut the sandy feet off the champignons and wash the latter…simmer for 30-40 minutes from the time the pressure cooker starts whispering, depending on the age of the cockerel (a fork will easily penetrate the thigh when it is the appropriate time)…”

It was pretty easy, after the literal translation, to go over the instructions with the logic of recipes in mind, and smooth it all out so it made sense…only that bit that my dictionary said meant “coffee grounds,” and a word that wasn’t in my dictionary: couenne, that I first mistook for cayenne pepper (but turned out to be pork rind, yuck, wouldn’t use it, anyway!)

There’s no point writing the recipe here until I’ve tried it myself. If everything goes well, I’ll be sure to let you know and share it! In the meantime, thought I’d share the doodle I made next to my rough translation of the recipe (which I wrote in my sketchbook, because it was the closest bit of blank paper)

coq au vin

Although a capon or chicken is usually used, the recipe was originally recommended as a way to tenderise tough old sinewy roosters, like this potty-mouthed old fella.

  • Potetto something (DO NOT TRY THIS AT HOME!) (gmbcooking.wordpress.com) A hilarious article about, among other things, how letting your pressure cooker get all scungy and disgusting can cause cancer… also, a recipe for “Potato something” about which the author writes: “Divine, heavenly, uplifting, subliminal, subtle are all words that I will NOT use to describe this dish. It was crap and I will never do it again.”
  • National coq au vin day (eatocracy.cnn.com)
  • Lock the Lid, Embrace the Green (miamiherald.com)

recipe: besan dhal paratha

Have I mentioned that I adore Indian food, over and above any other?

Racially, I may be the rebellious heir to Philippine cooking, and an indifferent heir to the cooking of the American midwest…I may be a trepid émigré to the heavy meat-and-dairy foods of Australia, an enthusiastic admirer of Thai, Vietnamese, and Malay street foods, and a happy participant in Mexican and Italian dishes…

But the Indian kitchen is my spiritual home (even though I am not in the least bit Indian) and Indian cooking is my soul food. I love everything—everything!—that issues from the kitchens of this 5,000-year-old cuisine…from Kashmir in the North to Tamil Nadu in the South, and all the marvelous flavours and textures in-between.

I’ve tried to teach myself to cook some of my favorite things, over the years, though I must confess that the subtleties of flavour and some of the traditional ingredients of the cuisine are lost on an outsider like me. But then I am not cooking to please an Indian husband (who would, no doubt, compare my skills to those of his mother), Indian mother or Indian mother-in-law, thank goodness! Kris doesn’t mind Indian food, but his favorite is Thai, and so, really, I cook for myself. I cook for myself because I delight in all aspects of Indian cooking, from shopping for the spices to the time and labour intensive processes of kneading doughs, grinding spices, grating and milking coconuts, sieving, churning, stirring bubbling chutneys for hours on end…as much as in the finished food.

That said, I don’t dare claim any of my own recipes as authentically Indian or correct!
I improvise a lot. I experiment. I substitute things to bring the Glycemic Index of a recipe down. I probably create a lot of unholy marriages between ingredients that Ayurvedic practitioners would shudder to read of. But the stuff I make is yummy (well, I think so, anyway), it brings me joy to make it and eat it, and—almost too good to be true—most of them have the Low GI rating that, so far, has kept my blood sugar within ‘normal person’ levels for two years straight.

I’ve been making plain roti (a.k.a. chapatti) for a long, long time, but only very recently learned to make Parathas (also parantha or parauntha) from my lovely new co-worker Sabi. She and her family are Sikhs from Punjab, and are strictly vegetarian. There were no pictures of the day I visited Sabi at her home…I didn’t want to freak my new friend out by pulling a camera out and styling the food. She’s a very shy and simple woman, a devoted wife and mother, has been just a few years in Australia.

Parathas are a fabulous, flaky Indian flatbread cooked on a hot griddle. The flakiness is caused by trapping oil and/or oily pastes between layers of dough (so parathas are slightly less healthy than plain roti or chapattis, which are pretty much flour, dough, water, and a scant tablespoon of oil) but they are so delicious that they are worth the extra oil content! I use canola oil, for what it’s worth.

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Besan & Dhal Roti

Atta (dough)

  • 2 cups of atta flour
  • 1/2 cup of besan
  • 1/4 cup of rolled oats, only because I was experimenting the day I took the pictures…better just leave them out!
  • 1 tsp each of coriander seeds, nigella seeds, coarse-ground chilli powder. I also threw in Maldives fish sambol (because I am addicted to the stuff), and chaat masala (ditto)
  • 1/2 inch piece of ginger (not pictured) finely grated
  • a handful of chopped coriander leaves (not pictured)
  • 1 tablespoon canola oil
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • about 1 cup of warm water
  • extra atta flour for rolling
  • extra canola oil for cooking

Besan & Dhal Roti

In a mixing bowl, combine the flours and all the spices, herbs, seasonings in the picture above. Don’t forget the ginger and coriander, which I forgot to include in the photograph. Add warm water, a little at a time, and when the mix starts to look like a bowl of broken-up cauliflower lumps, drop the spatula and use your hands to knead the lumps together. Just because the mix looks dry doesn’t mean it is…kneading by hand will tell you, by feel, when the dough is of the right consistency (soft, but not sticky) Never dump all the water in at one time…I find that I never use up all of the water, and still my doughs so far have been too sticky to knead and roll with ease. So this tip comes from my experience of not following this tip!

Once everything has come together, take the dough out of its bowl and knead by hand for a few minutes. Form into a ball, cover, and let rest for “at least 10 minutes”, as the various recipes say, though I find that leaving the dough for an hour, or even overnight in the fridge, makes it more elastic and less sticky.

While the dough is resting, make the besan and dhal paste.

Besan & Dhal Roti

Besan and dhal paste

  • 1 cup of cooked dhal…I used chana dhal, washed and soaked for a few hours in water, then boiled—with salt, a teaspoon of turmeric, and a piece of cinnamon bark—until cooked but not mushy). Drain well and let cool.
  • 1/3 cup of besan
  • 1 tsp ajwain or carom seeds
  • 1 tsp red chilli powder
  • 1/2 tsp turmeric powder
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1/3 cup canola oil

Note: To make a very simple paratha, use just canola oil instead of the besan-and-dhal paste to create the layers. The process remains the same.

Into a food processor or blender throw together the cooked dhal, besan, spices, and salt. Pulse to a mush, adding oil until the paste is smooth and, theoretically, spreadable…though I keep mine fairly stiff, and it doesn’t spread easily at all. The the good thing about this is that I can use more of the paste than just a thin smear (I love dhal!) but I get less pasty mess running out of my bread when I roll it out. Whatever suits you, I say.

Set a heavy-bottomed non-stick frying pan, or a griddle, or a thawa, onto low-medium heat.

Besan & Dhal Roti
Divide the dough into 6 or 8 balls. On an atta-dusted surface, roll out one ball of dough into a four-inch circle.
Besan & Dhal Roti
Smear or spread (in my case this involves some softly delivered expletives and the messy use of my fingers…the spoon in the picture is for show, just so you know) the paste over the circle.
Besan & Dhal Roti
Fold one third of the circle over…
Besan & Dhal Roti
and fold the remaining third up over the first.
Besan & Dhal Roti
Then fold the long rectangle up by thirds again,
Besan & Dhal Roti
to make a fat little square
Besan & Dhal Roti
Dust the bundle, and then gently pat the square down a little with your hand to make it easier to roll. With a VERY LIGHT TOUCH, start rolling the square out into a flat bread. If you make small rolling movements from the center outwards, rotating the bread with each roll, you can get a circle. I usually don’t bother…I just make 90 degree turns and try to get a 7 or 8-inch square.
Besan & Dhal Roti
More stretching can be done by picking the bread up and flipping it from one palm to the other…this actually does less damage than rolling. Flip the flat bread onto the hot, DRY griddle.

On the griddle, let one side cook only slightly, about 30 or 40 seconds. Holding the griddle by its handle, slide a corner of the bread to the edge, where you can quickly pick the bread up and flip it over onto the other side.

Quickly spread a teaspoon of canola oil over the cooked surface of the bread, letting the other side cook for about 30 seconds.

Note: To cut down on oil and make this step even quicker, I use canola oil in a spray can and spray the surface of the bread. Nice and light!

Flip the bread over again, and oil this surface, as well. Cook for 30 seconds…the surface of the bread should start undulating and moving as hot steam trapped between the dough layers pushes them apart and cooks them from the inside. AWESOME!

Repeat the flipping action until both sides get spots of golden brown on them. Flip onto a plate and serve hot, with a dipping bowl of yoghurt dusted with chaat masala, and maybe some chutney or lemon pickle.

Besan & Dhal Roti
I can’t believe my luck! Easy and cheap to make, flaky yet moist, spicy, stuffed with dhal or anything else I care to use, earthy and satisfying, plus 100% approved of by my doctor!
I just died and went to heaven.

What makes this flatbread such a wonderful option for healthy eating?

Atta flour is made from durum wheat (Triticum durum), the same ‘hard’ wheat used in making pasta, which is another beloved staple of those watching their blood sugar and weight. (You cannot imagine my excitement when I learned that atta and durum are one and the same thing…I used to make my own lasagna and fettuccine noodles from scratch, but gave it up because of the soft wheat flours that were all I could find in the Philippines to use. Even in Australia, durum wheat doesn’t just sit around, available to the public, on supermarket shelves…but every Indian grocery sells atta in 15 kg. sacks! Woot!) Durum also goes by the name bread flour, and winter wheat. It is extremely high in protein, yet lower in gluten (that glutinous web that enables leavened breads to trap air and rise) than the flour made from other wheat varieties.

Besan, or chickpea flour, is also rated as having a low G.I., as are all other varieties of dhal—also known as pulses, lentils, peas or beans. Dhal (derives from the Sanskrit verb “to split”) is typically around 25% protein by weight, giving it a comparable protein content to meats. Dal is also high in Low Glycemic Index carbohydrates, whilst being virtually fat free. Dal is also rich in the B vitamins thiamine and folic acid as well as several minerals, notably iron and zinc.

Obsessions of a fire-eater

I love all the different forms and flavours that impart heat and spice to savoury food…don’t really seem to enjoy food that hasn’t got a fiery bite to it, one way or another. Our household goes through loads of freshly ground pepper, fresh garlic, onions, and hot English mustard, and a small bowl of hot soba noodles tossed with wakame bits, a teaspoon of miso paste, and a big squeeze of wasabi, is a comforting dish I make for my lunch when Kris is away. But I am devotedly addicted to chillies…and the hotter they are, the better.

Commercial hot sauces are something I fall back on in emergencies, although they are never as “extra hot” as their advertising and labels would suggest. And I don’t like that the chillies are diluted in vinegary liquids, as in Tabasco Pepper Sauce, or bulked up with garlic, onion, milder peppers, and thickened with xanthan gum and propylene glycol alginate, as Nando’s Extra Hot Peri-peri Sauce is.a bottle of Nando's Extra Hot Peri-Peri Sauce

I have a bottle of each of these sauces…the Tabasco I keep in my handbag, for when I go out, because it doesn’t matter how hot the Thai, Indian, Indonesian or Malaysian places in Darwin say their food is, it’s never hot enough. And often it’s sickly sweet and salty, as though the heat were something embarrassing that sugar and salt had to apologize for, and disguise.

The other problem with bottled sauces is that they get pretty expensive. I bought a new bottle of the Nando’s sauce on Saturday. Today, Sunday, there is half a bottle left. Yes, I put chili in and on everything: sandwiches, pasta, pizza, salad dressing, crackers, noodles, tofu, fish, meat, soups…everything. Lots of it. I need a lot of it, because the sauce isn’t hot enough.

A display of hot peppers and a board explaining the Scoville scale at the HEB Central Market location in Houston, Texas

The Scoville scale is a measurement of the spicy heat (or piquance) of a chili pepper. The number of Scoville heat units (S.U.) indicates the amount of capsaicin present. Sweet bell peppers are rated zero Scoville Units (S.U.), while Jalapenos (and bottled Tabasco sauce) measure 2,500-8,000. The Asian Bird’s Eye chili is between 50,000 to 100,000, the Habanero and Scotch Bonnet, as well as the Piri-piri or African Bird’s Eye, are between 100,000 and 350,000…and so on up the scale.

The hottest edible chillies, which include the Naga Viper, the Trinidad Scorpion from Australia, and the Naga or Bhut Jolokia, are between 850,000 and 1,463,700 S.U. The next step of capsaicin up from that, rating an incredible 5,000,000 units, is probably just a concentrated extract…instead of the name of a plant or fruit, it is listed on the Scoville table as “Law enforcement grade pepper spray”,  and “FN 303 irritant ammunition”.

Back when we were living in a fisherman’s hut on the beach in El Nido, Palawan, I had a couple of birds-eye chilli plants—the most common culinary chilli in the country—and, eaten fresh, they were pretty hot, though boring. But I also had three or four precious Habanero chili plants…the Spice King of my garden. The seeds had been given me by a yachtsman who’d just come from the West Indies, and I planted and cared for these chillies as though their fruits had been walnuts of gold. I had never come across them for sale in Manila, and was pretty sure I was the only one who had them in the town of El Nido. I was so in love with my Habaneros. They were gracious in return, growing chest-high and large-leaved, each plant bearing as many as 60 fruits at a time. They ripened to a fire-engine red, and besides being very, very hot (S.U. 300,000+), had a beautiful perfume locked in their flesh, as well. Just half of one of these chillies was enough to turn a quart-pot of curry into molten lava, with the aroma of flowers warmed by sunlight.

When there were too many of the fruits at one time I dried them and made harissa, a spice paste or condiment from Tunisia and North Africa. It was beautiful, and only the littlest dab was needed on a slice of bread to kick your taste buds to the moon. While I used the spice paste extremely often, I just as often would open the little jar just to breathe in the heavenly smell of the stuff. Even friends who didn’t like any heat whatsoever joked that they would love to wear a very small vial of it around their necks, so they could just smell it once in a while. It was beautiful. That Habanero perfume, combined with lightly dry-roasted caraway seeds, combined to make a third entity, a synergetic aroma that made people swoon.

Last week I tried to make harissa again, using a bag of dried long red chillis from the supermarket. It didn’t come out anywhere near as nice as the stuff I used to make. The chillis had no perfume of their own, but smelled like burnt paper and dust. They didn’t soften much in the hot water I soaked them in. And I realized that I have been really careless about equipping my kitchen since we got to Australia, as there is no mortar and pestle to be found in my home!—something I am determined to set straight, next week if I can find the time to visit the Asian Grocery on the other side of town—so I could only mash the coarse mixture about with the flat of a spoon, and couldn’t make a paste out of it.

Still, I ate it in two days. Because. Chilli. Is chilli. Is chilli.

Harissa

1 cup dried hot red chillies—nice ones!—stems removed
1 teaspoon coriander seed (dry roasted)
2 or 3 teaspoons caraway seed (dry roasted)
1 teaspoon cumin seed (dry roasted)
all the cloves of 1 head of garlic, peeled and coarsely chopped
salt, to taste
extra-virgin olive oil

Soak the chillies in warm water to cover for an hour, or until they are soft. Drain and finely chop, discarding tough bits.
In a mortar, pound the spices to a powder, then add the garlic and salt and pound to a paste. Add the chillies, and pound until a coarse paste. Add olive oil, a bit at a time, while pounding, until you have a smooth paste.

Store, covered with a thin layer of olive oil, in a glass jar in the fridge.

After that very sad and mediocre harissa, I was so lovesick for my old Habaneros that I determined to grow them again, here on the boat…after all, I reasoned, they’d grown rather well in that garden by the sea, so they were probably tough enough to withstand salt air. I went hunting on the internet for a seed supplier, in Australia, who sold them, and found, oh joy!, The Chilli Seed Bank. Some wonderful Capsicum chinense angel, called, eh, “Chilli Man” (*pause* Fair enough, he seems passionate about his chillies, he’s obviously male, keep it simple…I like him already!) has got them all. I had my rapture this week, all right. Bhut Jolokias, Trinidad Scorpions (an Australian local), Red Savinas, Dorset Nagas

I couldn’t spend much money that night (though the seed packs are very reasonably priced) so I have ordered just one packet…the Naga Morich (S.U. 1,000,000) to start with, and see if they can survive life on the MV SonOfAGun.

You can expect another chilli rave (well, I hope so!) on this blog, in 4 or 5 month’s time. Are you a chillihead? What’s your favorite recipe for these little parcels of ecstasy?

Naga morich or snake chilli

Getting ready for the weekend

getting ready for the weekend...

Can’t believe my stay in the Philippines is coming to an end already. And what a miserable blogger I’ve been! Been so busy everyday, getting home past midnight, every night, and then getting up at 6:30 to do it all again…crazy!

I’ve got a big weekend coming up—dinner party with friends on Saturday, dinner party with family on Sunday—so I started cooking today. Fired up my parents’ third refrigerator and dedicated it to the weekend’s culinary creations.

basting garlic flowers with olive oil

I started out by roasting a lot of garlic flowers.

Cut the tops off whole garlic heads, arrange the heads upside-down in a tray, and brush virgin olive oil generously over the cut ends, letting it seep into the papery flowers. Roast for 5-8 mins at 180° C or until golden-brown.

cooking for the weekend: roasted garlic flowers

Then I mashed the cloves with some dried basil, and incorporated the chunky paste into a chewy French-style bread dough, formed into 3 large free-form loaves.

I also made up three trays of vegetarian lasagna (another three tomorrow). I’ve been making my lasagna the same way since I was 18…I guess you could say it is one of my ‘signature’ dishes. I just try to use the best ingredients I can find, and to make as much of it as I can, from scratch. I don’t make the mozarella or romano cheeses, though I wish I could. But I do make my own lasagna noodles, and poached, peeled, and seeded tomato puree.

With all these flavours floating around the house all day, you may wonder what I had for lunch (and dinner) today? I had a cup of uncooked rolled oats, soaked until soft in water. Seriously. *slightly crazy laugh*

You know how the Irish have the saying “The shoemaker’s wife and the blacksmith’s horse often go unshod”? There were faint echoes of that in the kitchen today!