file yumbo

October 21st, 2009

African meets Choctaw over a stew pot and each throws in their respective signatures; okra and sassafras, followed by a Spaniard and a bit of smoked meat and a Frenchman with his roux, and almost that quickly gumbo is born in Louisiana.

The splendor of the dish, aside from its flavor, lies in its forgiveness.  Types of ingredients and quantities of ingredients are often determined by what is at hand or by what is leftover or by what one prefers.

Even the hallowed roux has no hallowed ruling; blond roux, brown roux, red roux or no roux is for the cook to determine and may be subject to the amount of time he or she may have.  I always ensure there is enough time to develop a dark brown roux, because the smoky toastiness it gives the dish is unparalleled.

Shrimp Gumbo

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forest fire

October 12th, 2009

One of my jobs while in Russia in 2000 and 2001 was tutoring LSAT preparation to a brilliant group of young Russians and one North Korean and on a crisp fall day it was decided that we should all head into the woods 30 kilometers north of Moscow for a picnic.  A fine game plan anytime of year!

We got off the train in a small village that probably wasn’t populated with more than a dozen or so residents and trekked on into the woods.  Aspen leaves drifted lazily through the peeping sunlight and the air was perfumed with moss and mushrooms.  One mile later, all sounds seemed to cease expect for the occasional groan of an aged tree.

Bundles and bags were dropped and an immediate race was on to gather dead tree branches and kindling.  “Hey,” I said, “You can’t light a fire in the forest.”  Everyone stopped dead in their tracks and looked at me like I’d lost my mind.  Clearly I had, because this wasn’t California and its precious paranoia didn’t apply.  Oops, my bad.

A fire in a forest!  What an extraordinary freedom!  Blankets were set out and dozens of bottles of wine appeared along with a farmers market’s worth of tomatoes, cucumbers, onions and pickles.  The women began chopping and the men swilling as the fire got seriously into its crackle and pop stage.

A vodka bottle went ‘round the group a couple of times, followed immediately by pickles and lemons and when the fire had reduced to bright red embers, ten gaudy sabers emerged from an old gym bag.  Judiciously this time, I held my tongue and waited to see what was to transpire.  Pre-dinner sword fights, perhaps?

From another gym bag came a large plastic bag filled with raw pork chunks and onion slices swimming in herbs and red wine.  The meat was skewered onto the sabers and left to roast above the embers.  Clearly, this was no hotdog-on-a-stick picnic lunch.  This was Shashlik, prepared the way it had been when first divined.

The sight of it was mesmerizing, if not stupefying.  Again, I had to keep my mouth closed, this time because I was salivating like a desert crawler who’d just espied an oasis.  My eyes had never seen such art, my nose never teased so cruelly, and my foot began to tap to the percussive lure of spitting meat. And oh! the flavor; so indescribably elegant and earthy.  No food experience before or since has ever stroked my soul so divinely.

Pork Shashlik

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October 9th, 2009

The search for the holy grails of certain food preparations was a decade long sport for me until I gave it up in favor of generating said items myself.  Amongst those sought were the best quiche, the best crab cake, the best Bloody Mary and the best onion soup and many disappointments were met along the way.

Onion Soup Gratinée, for example, runs the short gamut of hideous to passable and never manages to hit it out of the park, which is a shame because it is simpler to do it well than overdo it poorly.  Too much cheese, an inferior broth and an overload of the wrong onions are the most popular errors.

Onions have been around since the Bronze age, but it wasn’t until French country folks got their spoon-say in on the subject that the beloved classic French Onion Soup Gratinée was developed, and that result due largely to the dearth of meat and other food stuffs with which to work.  A simple symphony of onions, broth, stale bread and a bit of cheese rivals even the most heralded and revered food preparations ever divined.

A Classic Soup

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jonesing for toast

October 6th, 2009

It always happens.  As soon as a food is beyond reach, it becomes the one most desired.  For me it was a hotdog while in Brazil, in Mexico a salad, in Korea a tortilla, in Austria prime rib, in France a Popsicle, in Venezuela a hamburger, in England pulled pork barbeque, in Slovakia fried chicken, in Belize something curried, in Poland again a salad, and in Russia it was toast!

Truth told, in Russia, it wasn’t just toast I was jonesing for, but any food at all.  My rule when living overseas is to live, work, commute, shop and cook like a local and never fall in with the ex-pat packrats at their facsimile-of-home hangouts.  But dang if Russia wasn’t the most challenging food challenge of all my travels.

Groceries were acquired from odd little kiosks that specialized in a handful of not necessarily related items.  Yogurt and toilet paper from one kiosk, tea, bottled water and Snickers bars from another, bread and stale bread products from another, and a window from which came vegetables (if you were fluent enough in Russian to specify what you wanted).  Meat parts that rested on counters in the open air and unwashed eggs were stacked on the dirt or snow, subject to the season.

Restaurants, of the non-tourist variety, had no English menus and nor did anyone speak English, so I couldn’t eat out until I’d mastered the language of food, which I hadn’t had time to do prior to leaving because there’s so much else to do when relocating overseas.  In no time at all, my thin self was becoming stick thin and perforce sped up my mastery of the Russian alphabet and a handful of necessary words.

Armed with the ability to sound things out on a menu, I came to recognize, wonder of wonders, Chicken Caesar Salad.  Really?  What arrived at the table was some diced chicken atop shredded cabbage with an unknown mayo sort of dressing.  And it was pretty good, weird, but good.  Another time I recognized Chicken Schnitzel, which translated into a boneless chicken breast coated with tiny bread cubes and deep-fried.  The plate was garnished with three canned peas and a cube of carrot.

But the subject here is toast, for which I continued to jones, long after learning to shop for groceries and order off menus.  When you have to have it, you have to have it, so I blew half a month’s salary on a toaster oven at a local electronics store.  I was so excited to get it home and plugged in that I forgot to get any bread and thus had nothing to toast!  Down the eleven flights of stairs I ran to the bread kiosk near the subway and then back up the eleven flights of stairs, gasping and panting.

Butter and jam at the ready, into the toaster oven went two slices of bread.  I paced and peered and waited.  After ten minutes, what emerged were blond pieces of melba toast.  What anguish!  What pain!  “Where’s my toast?” I implored to no one.  The two melbas sailed like Frisbees into the trash.

One of my clients found this story especially funny but agreed to assist in trying to return the toaster oven to the store, albeit not a common practice.  The store refused to take it back, of course, and went to great pains to point out the numerous sections in the User Guide that explain the laws that permit this.

Slightly chastised and humble, I schlepped the inept toaster back home, determined to create tasty things with melba toast and with unaccustomed patience did just that!  Over the next six months, melbas showcased an unending variety of rillettes, tapenades, relishes, bean spreads, cheese spreads, salmon spreads, egg spreads, and even sweet nut spreads, much to the delight of neighbors, friends and clients.  The toaster oven became the envy of my landlords and of course I bequeathed it to them when I left Russia, still jonesing for toast.

Melba Toast

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September 23rd, 2009

Anything with the word ‘butter’ in it has to be good, and buttermilk is no exception.  It gives breads more depth, sauces more tang and fried foods an unparalleled lift from the ordinary.

Last night we enjoyed a Fried Shrimp and Asparagus Caesar Salad wherein the dressing featured buttermilk and basil and the shrimp were marinated briefly in buttermilk and chili paste.  Outlandishly good!

Fried Shrimp Caesar Salad with a Twist

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fair warning, fair food

September 20th, 2009

New England competes pretty mightily with the great state fairs of the northwest.  Dad called them Grange Fairs and raced to view the livestock and farm machinery.  We loved fairs for the cotton candy and thrill rides and often tried to combine the two with certain disaster to follow.  The Eastern States Exposition caps off the summer each year and represents all of New England.

I left cotton candy in the dust (and in my hair) many years ago and have come to adore the other food offerings standard to state and county fairs.  But I can no more wait for October to get a jumbo cream puff than I can wait for the sun to rise each day, so I make my own fair food throughout the year, much to the delight of the man who came for dinner and never left.

Jumbo Creme Puff

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hummus among us

September 12th, 2009

What on earth is that stuff labeled ‘Hummus’ in the stores other than a tasteless paste guaranteed to cause choking?  Admittedly, I was lured into buying it once because it was on sale which still made it more expensive than homemade and once tasted immediately chucked into the trashcan, making it a very unwise purchase all the way around.

Hummus (the real thing) often shows up on our appetizer table or as a significant player in a Middle East or Mediterranean dinner.  Among its many charms are the seemingly endless array of flavorings and seasonings it can handle.  Instead of lemon as a component, try any other citrus, including the zest, and lime with a bit of green chili is sure to excite the palate.

Chopped olives, fresh herbs, and roasted vegetables are always a good addition and one of our favorites, served atop a fresh bowl of hummus, is spiced ground beef, otherwise known as Hummus Ma Lahma.  Surrounded by marinated veggies, fresh parsley, cured olives and toasted pita crisps, an appetizer such as this runs the risk of overshadowing any entrée that follows.


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behold the tomatillo

September 9th, 2009

From an engineering point of view, the tomatilla, more formally known as Physalis Philadelphica, has to be the most brilliantly designed fruit on earth.  From a spindly little seeding grows a five-foot bush crowded with little Chinese lanterns shielding shiny green balls of tartness.

Unlike its distant cousin, the tomato, tomatillas can be frozen without undue fuss simply by splitting them in half and chucking them into a plastic bag.  And they last a near eon in the freezer as do any salsa products made from this ingenious fruit.

Roasting tomatillas renders the most flavorful salsa, as does roasting any additions such as onion, garlic and chili peppers.  Blend it all up in a food processor with cilantro, cumin and a bit of lime juice and be sure to have plenty of tortilla chips at the ready.

Fresh Tomatillas

red, hot and lacy

August 9th, 2009

We’re not talking undergarments here, we’re talking Fried Ripe Tomatoes, plucked from the vine in the full height of sun, gently dredged in seasoned flour and skillet fried until that irresistible fragile coating of lace is achieved.  And they’re screaming-hot taken right from the pan and consumed as fast as one can spastically flap a hand over the steam being emitted from one’s mouth.  They make the better known Fried Green Tomato pea green with envy.

Fried Ripe Tomato


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tickle ‘n spank

August 7th, 2009

One of our favorite lunch joints, easily accessible from work back in 2001, was a Vietnamese restaurant named Thanh Thanh in Lowell, Massachusetts.  We always got the same thing, Cha Gio,  Nuac Cham and Bo Luc Lac chased with a Chinese beer.  Years after living up here in the northern boondocks, the time came to make our own.

As with several of my favorite Korean dishes, ‘making our own’ includes the opportunity to improve on the quality and diversity of the ingredients.  In winter we do Bo Luc Lac atop a griddle set center stage on the table, surrounded by raw ingredients to cook and a plentitude of side garnishes and sauces with which to embellish the end product.  Not only very tasty, but a moment to get warm by griddle.

Summer is no time for open indoor cooking, so I devised a summer version of Bo Luc Lac, so far from its origins that I had to rename it.  The flavors of this dish are so explosively sweet, salty, sour and spicy that you won’t know if you’ve been tickled or spanked and hence it name.  The man who came to dinner and never left prefers the title he crafted; “Ridiculously Delicious”.

Tickle 'n Spank Steak

Copyright © Katherine Stetson, all rights reserved.