Monday, July 30, 2012

Terong terasi, varkashert : Umamified Indonesian Eggplant

A predominant salt flavoring in Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines is some form of fermented shrimp paste.  In contrast to other parts of Southeast Asia, the shrimp paste in these countries, especially Malaysia and Indonesia tends to be more heavily fermented and often dried. In Malaysia it is known as belachan, in Indonesia as terasi and in the Philippines as bagoong.  To develop the flavor even further, it is often fried or toasted before being used in a dish.   The smell, to most Westerners, is nothing short of revolting, but it is an essential element of the cuisines and adds an umami richness to the dishes where it is used.  (One day I will write a more extended discussion of fermented fish and seafood products and their role in Southeast Asian cooking.)

You can think of this particular dish as a Southeast Asian version of Imam Bayildi, a Turkish dish that means "The Imam Fainted." The most common version of the Turkish story is that an imam married a woman who was renowned and a good cook, and as a wedding gift they received enough olive oil to last for years.  She made him a dish of eggplant, onions, tomatoes and garlic cooked in olive oil, and he liked it so much that he asked her to make it every night.  She did, but after a week she said she could no longer make it because she had run out of olive oil, so the imam fainted.   In the Southeast Asian variant, the wedding gift is shrimp paste, and the imam faints when this runs out.   I'll take the olive oil. 

This having been said, something good is missing when you leave the shrimp paste out of the dish. This variant is intended for vegetarian, those who want to observe kashrut, who have shellfish allergies, or who may not want to be knocked over by the smell of shrimp paste when they cook it.  I substitute a deep red barley miso for the terasi and it is not bad.  Even better than that.  It is also quite easy, so try it.

Indonesian-style Eggplant with Red Miso Sauce

  • 1 to 1 1/2 pounds fresh, firm eggplants (I use 3-4 medium sized ones;  Japanese-style are also nice but should be prepared differently, see below)
  • 6-8 cloves garlic, peeled
  • 2 hot, fresh red chili peppers
  • 1 tablespoon dark red barley miso
  • 1-2 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 2 shallots, peeled, halved and sliced
  • 1/2 cup water
  1. Prepare the eggplants:  If using conventional or medium-sized eggplants, quarter them lengthwise and cut the quarters into one-inch chunks.  Place on a baking sheet lined with foil and sprayed with oil spray, and broil about 5 inches from the heat for 10 minutes.  Make sure not to burn them.  Turn off the broiler, and turn the oven to 350 and back for 10 minutes.  They should be tender, but if not, leave them in the turned off oven and they will soften considerably.  (You could also cook them on a grill.) 
  2. If using long, thin Japanese eggplants, slice them into 1/2 inch disks and saute them on medium-high heat in a large nonstick skillet, sprayed with oil spray, until tender and browned, about 10-15 minutes.
  3. While the eggplants are cooking, using a mortar and pestle pound the garlic with the chilies and a pinch of salt until you have a paste.  Add the miso and pound a bit until almost homogeneous. (If you don't have a mortar and pestle, you can use a mini-chopper or make a paste on a cutting board using the side of a broad knife or cleaver.)
  4. After the eggplants are tender, heat the oil on medium in a nonstick skillet and add the shallots.  Saute until soft and beginning to brown, about 5 minutes.
  5. Add the paste from the mortar and stir about 2 minutes until the aroma changes, indicating that the garlic is no longer raw.
  6. Add the eggplant and stir until it is well incorporated.  Add the water and cook on high until most of it evaporates and you have a thick sauce and the eggplant is tender.  If it needs more time, add a bit more water and repeat.
  7. Serves 4-6 as a side dish and goes very well with rice.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Grandma Jenny's stuffed cabbage

My father's mother was a fabulous cook of the Litvak variety.   There are many recipes for stuffed cabbage (in our family, holishkes or gewicklete kroyt) out there.  What made hers so much better than the others?  I think there are three "secrets":  she put flanken and/or stew meat and soup bones in the pot, which added a lot of flavor and richness to the sauce;  she used sour salt (citric acid) and NEVER vinegar or lemon juice to make it sour since you want the pure sweet and sour flavor and not the taste of vinegar or lemon; and   she added prunes to the pot, which made the sauce richer and tastier.

My grandmother's cabbage recipe died with her.  Barbara, my cousin Lonnie's wife, sat with her one afternoon to try to learn how to make it, but didn't get too far.  My grandmother was not a great teacher, and the concept of measuring ingredients was as foreign to her as the Queen's English.   I have tinkered with the recipe over the years, and found a lot of help in Arthur Schwartz's Jewish Home Cooking , particularly in getting the sweet/sour balance of the sauce right, but departed from it in significant ways, especially in the use of bones and prunes.  Making this is a labor of love, with the accent on both labor and love, but well worth the effort. 

Stuffed Cabbage

  • 2 to 2 1/2 pounds ground beef (not too lean -- chuck works well)
  • 1/2 cup rice, boiled for 3 minutes (I like short grain pudding or risotto rice, but Carolina will work as well;  just avoid fragrant rices like jasmine or basmati)
  • 3 eggs
  • 1 to 1 1/2 cups breadcrumbs (challah crumbs from last week's bread are best, but panko or any old breadcrumbs will suffice)
  • 2 onions, coarsely grated
  • Salt and pepper (depending on the quantity of meat and whether it is kosher, 2 teaspoons to 1 tablespoon of salt and about 40 grinds of a pepper mill;  use less if you are unsure and test as below)
  • 28 ounce can tomato puree
  • 1 teaspoon sour salt 
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 cup dark brown sugar
  • 1/2 cup to 1 cup water or stock
For assembling the dish
  • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
  • 2 heads of cabbage (you should be safe with one 4-5 pounder and one 3 pounder)
  • 2 onions, finely chopped
  • 6 pieces flanken, about 2 pounds -OR- 1 to 1 1/2 pounds meaty soup bones and 1-2 pounds of stewing beef
  • 1 pound pitted prunes

  1. Soften the cabbage leaves by your favorite method (either freezing and defrosting, blanching, or microwaving -- all are described following the recipe). I prefer freezing and defrosting.  Since you never know exactly how many usable leaves a cabbage will yield, I think it is a good idea to have two on hand.  You don't want to be caught short.
  2. Set aside the larger cabbage leaves for stuffing, and the center of the cabbage and smaller leaves for the pot. You should have between 15-20 large leaves.
  3. To make the filling, put the beef in a very large bowl, and make a hollow in the middle of it.  Break the eggs into the hollow and beat.  Add the remaining ingredients.  I prefer the full amount of salt and pepper, but you might want to cut down.  Mix well with your hands and set aside.  If you do not trust your instincts on seasoning, take a small piece and fry it quickly in a nonstick skillet and taste.  Adjust salt and pepper accordingly.
  4. Combine the ingredients for the sauce and set aside.
  5. Take a large, heavy ovenproof 6 to 8 quart casserole and oil it with the vegetable oil. 
  6. Shred the reserved inner leaves of the cabbage as well as any torn leaves.
  7. Set the shredded cabbage, chopped onions, prunes and meat on a cutting board in separate piles.
  8. Preheat your oven to 275 degrees.
  9. Put about 1/3 of the shredded cabbage and chopped onions in the bottom of the casserole.  Arrange 3 pieces of flanken (or the soup bones) on the bottom.
  10. Stuff the cabbage leaves, starting with the largest leaves.  Lay a leaf on a cutting board with the top closest to you and the rib away from you.  If the rib is still very tough, cut it out.  (I find that this is less likely to happen with frozen defrosted leaves.) Take a small handful of beef and form it into a meat ingot of about 2 inches by 1 inch by 3/4 inch. Place it near the top of the cabbage leaf about 1inch from the end.  Fold the end of the cabbage over the ingot, and then fold over the two sides.  Roll the leaf up.  You should have a fairly compact roll. 
  11. As each roll is done, place it in the pot to make one layer.  You will probably have about 8 rolls.  As the leaves get smaller, you will use somewhat less meat for each.
  12. Scatter 1/2 of the prunes on top, and then top with 1/3 of the cabbage and chopped onions.  Put the remaining flanken or stew meat on top, and then arrange the remaining rolls on top.  If you have any meat filling left, you can either make them into meatballs and add them to the pot if there is room (they benefit from a quick browning first) or make them into old-fashioned hamburgers which are best pan-fried and served well-done. 
  13. Top with the remaining prunes, cabbage and onions.
  14. Pour the sauce ingredients over the stuffed cabbage.  It should come nearly to the top.  If not, add some water.
  15. Place a  lightly oiled heatproof plate slightly smaller than the diameter of the pot over the cabbage.  This will weigh down the rolls slightly and improve their texture. 
  16. Bring the pot slowly to the boil, cover, and then transfer to the oven.  If your pot is very full, put a pan that is larger than the casserole on a lower shelf in the oven.  Put some cold water in the pan.  This will catch boilovers and prevent you oven from smoking up and your fire alarm from going off. 
  17. Cook for 3 hours. 
  18. Take it out and cool off before refrigerating.
  19. Reheat in the oven for a long time before serving 8 as a main course and 12-15 as an appetizer.  My grandmother would usually serve it with mashed potatoes or rice, but I think that all it needs is some challah to soak up the juices. 
Preparing the cabbage:  Although it takes planning, I find that freezing and defrosting the cabbage works best.  Start by removing the outer leaves of the cabbage.  I have read that the heads are so tight that this will remove any dirt, and that you actually add more contaminants by rinsing it with tap water at this point.  Who knows?  Core the cabbages carefully (you don't want to mess up too many leaves) and place in the freezer.  This takes up a lot of room, so be prepared.  Freeze for about 2 days, and then defrost in your refrigerator for about two days before proceeding with the recipe.  Alternatively, place one cored cabbage in a large pot, add boiling water, and after 5 minutes remove it and peel off those leaves which you can.  Replace the cabbage in the pot and continue until the leaves are too small to stuff.  You an also microwave the cabbage in a large microwave-safe dish for about 8 minutes, remove, peel off the leaves, and then return and zap some more.  I think that you can see why I prefer the freezing method, even if it takes up a lot of valuable freezer real estate and is a bit mafia-ish, sort of like having a head in your freezer. 

The meat:  To me, this is the key to the dish.  In addition to enhancing the flavor and texture, you have a good amount of meat that you can serve to those who claim not to like cabbage.  My grandmother would always use flanken but this was before chefs had discovered short ribs and it was considered a budget cut.  I find that meaty soup bones sold but kosher butchers are often bony flanken at less than half the price, and I use that for the bone layer.  For the meat layer, I would recommend chuck or kalechal, or even brisket if you can find it at a good price.

Sauce variations: I prefer scant, thicker sauce.  If you prefer a thinner one, substitute about 1 quart tomato juice for the puree and water.  You can use raisins if you must, but you will be missing out on the true experience.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Their finest hour: Paneer in tomato sauce with red peppers

Thanks in part to the exhibit at the Morgan Library, which I have not yet seen, Winston Churchill and his soaring rhetoric are in the press again.  One of his most stirring phrases is how the British resistance to the Nazi onslaught was "their finest hour." It got me to thinking -- what am I really proud of in life.  At the top of my list is certainly helping to raise two wonderful children, Maya and Harry, who have a loving and mutually nurturing relationship.  Another is the Moroccan dinner I prepared on New Year's Eve to usher in 1990 (a selection of seven salads, b'stilla, a tagine of whole red snapper with peppers and tomatoes, chicken with preserved lemons and olives, and a sweet lamb tagine with carrots and prunes).  I might put this simple dish somewhere on that list as well.

This is only possible because of the relatively recent availability of high-quality paneer (fresh, pressed Indian cheese) in a number of Indian groceries.  (I have even classified this dish as fast an easy. To be honest, many of the dishes that  I  put in this category are not, but this really is.) I go back and forth on whether or not life is too short to make your own preserved lemons.  I currently think that it is really worth it.  But life is definitely too short to make your own paneer and it is the kind of thing that I would only take on every year or so.  The product that I used is Nanak brand which comes in a 14 ounce block and makes it possible to produce dishes like this on very short notice.  (Guru Nanak was the founder of Sikhism, a religion centered in the Punjab, and this dish has some of the artery-clogging characteristics of Punjabi food in an age of relative affluence, albeit toned down a bit for American sensibilities. There are other brands of paneer on the market, including one that is organic and kosher and available in some neighborhood stores.) The only downside to using store-bought is that you do not get the fresh whey, which is very tasty in preparing rice and other Indian vegetarian dishes. 

I put this dish together in about a half hour a few nights ago. Steve, a college friend of my son Harry was visiting, and they wanted to save money so they ate home a lot. One evening I gave them the choice between pasta, eggs cooked with potato chips, and  Indian vegetarian.  Somewhat to my surprise, they chose the last. I made basmati rice, Begali cabbage with coconut (see the post on Cabbage and marriage ), a raita and came up with this dish as well.  If you live near a source of paneer, try this.  It makes a quick supper and will leave your friends and family very satisfied.

Paneer in tomato sauce with red peppers

  • 8 cloves garlic, peeled
  • 1 inch piece of ginger, peeled and sliced
  • 1 medium onion
  • 1 tablespoon ghee or vegetable oil (if using ghee, you can go up to 2-3 tablespoons)
  • 7 oz paneer (1/2 package of Nanak brand) cut into 1/2 inch cubes 
  • 1 red pepper, cored and cut into strips
  • 2 teaspoons whole cumin seed
  • 1/2 teaspoon turmeric
  • 1 tablespoon coriander
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 15 ounce can crushed or diced tomato (the smoky flavor of fire roasted Muir Glen is great here)
  • 1/4-1/2 teaspoon cayenne powder, to taste
  • Salt to taste (about 1/2 teaspoon should do it, since paneer has little salt)
  • 1/4 cup heavy cream (for a real Punjabi delight you can go up to 1/2 cup) 
  • 1/4 - 1/2 cup water
  • 1/4 teaspoon garam masala
  1. Put the ginger, onion and garlic in a mini chopper or food processor and grind until they are pureed.  Set aside.
  2. Heat ghee on medium in a nonstick skillet until hot but not smoking.  Add the diced cheese and cook until brown on several sides.  Remove to a plate.
  3. Add more ghee to the skillet if needed, and then add the pepper strips.  Salt lightly and cook on high until soft and brown in bits, but not mushy.  Remove these to the plate with the paneer.
  4. Turn heat down to medium, add the cumin seeds, and cook until they turn a few shades darker.  Be very careful not to burn them.
  5. Add the turmeric, stir once (you want to cook it slightly but not burn it) and add the past from the processor.  Turn heat to high and cook, stirring frequently, until the aroma changes, about 3 minutes.
  6. Add the coriander and cumin and cook, stirring for another minute.
  7. Add the tomatoes, and salt and cayenne to taste.  Cook on high heat until it turns into a sauce and the fat begins to separate, about 5-7 minutes. 
  8. Turn the heat down and add the heavy cream.  Stir to incorporate and add the water.  It should be the consistency of a medium-thick bechamel sauce.  Cook on low heat to meld the flavors, and taste for salt and cayenne.
  9. Return the paneer and peppers to the skillet and warm for a few minutes.
  10. Turn into a serving dish, sprinkling with the garam masala, and serve at once.
  11. Serves 4-6 depending on the rest of the menu.  Excellent with either basmati rice and Indian breads. 
Note on keeping paneer:  Paneer is perishable, fresh cheese.  Plan to use it withing a few days of when you open the package.  So, either double the recipe, or cook something else.  If you don't feels like an elaborate dish, it is very good pan fried in a little oil and served with a spicy tamarind or cilantro chutney.  It can also be cut into larger cubes of about 1 inch and cooked on the grill.  This is especially good if you slit the cubes and push in a stuffing of chopped green chile, ginger and coriander.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Peanut butter banana quesadilla

Maya and Andrew moved to Austin in November.  The disadvantage of this is that they are really far away.  The advantage is that we get to visit them there.  They live in a great neighborhood near South Lamar, and are walking distance from a great taqueria, a Lebanese baker and grocery store, a good bookstore, a branch of the Alamo drafthouse movie theaters, and the South Lamar location of the Kerbey Lane Cafe.  Being an Austin institution, Kerbey Lane specializes in locally sourced ingredients and excellent breakfasts and the menu has vegan and gluten-free sections.  Being an Austin institution, they serve queso (cheese melted in heavy cream) and you can get it on just about anything.

The first time we went, they offered a breakfast quesadilla made with peanut butter, bananas and cheese.   I made it at 6 this morning for Harry and his Year Course friend Laina before they left to work as volunteers at the Firefly music festival in Delaware.  Harry said that it sounded disgusting until he tasted it.  I hate the term crackalicious, but I have to admit that it is a necessary one.  There are few other ways to describe dishes like this. Here is my take on this dish, which varies somewhat from that served at Kerbey Lane.  It is impossible to give exact quantities, so I haven't.  You can eat it as breakfast, lunch, or almost any time of day:

Peanut butter banana quesadilla:
  1. Put two flour tortillas on a cutting board.  It will serve two if you use eight inch tortillas.
  2. Spread each with a thin layer of creamy peanut butter.  (For a real addictive treat, you can spread one of them with Speculous Butter, a cookie butter which tastes sort of like liquefied graham crackers and is sold by Trader Joe's.)
  3. Top one side with bananas, sliced about 1/4 inch thick.  One large banana is enough for an eight inch tortilla.  You will need more for larger ones.
  4. Sprinkle the bananas with about 1/4 cup of a salty hard melting cheese, like Cotija, Asiago or Romano.
  5. Drizzle some honey on the other side, and then put the two tortillas together in a sandwich.
  6. Spray a nonstick skillet with oil spray if desired, and heat it on medium-high.   If not using spray add some oil or melt some butter in the skillet.
  7. Add the quesadilla (which is what the conjoined tortillas have become) and cook for about three minutes.  Flip carefully, fully expecting that some of the filling will ooze out, and cook for about three more minutes.  It should be nicely browned on both sides and the cheese inside should be melted.
  8. Cut into wedges and serve warm.