Saturday, August 30, 2008

The Omnivore's Hundred

On the island of Borneo, many hotels have a sign in their lobby: NO DURIAN. Durian is thorny fruit with the odor of rotting human flesh.

I’ve eaten it.

After considering the Omnivore’s Hundred, a list of 100 foods that the Very Good Taste blog thinks every good omnivore should try at least once in their life, I’ve come to realize that I’ve eaten some foods that many (indeed, most) would consider strange. Have a look at the below list for yourself and let me know how many you’ve tried! Or, if you’re also a blogger:

1) Copy this list into your blog or journal, including these instructions.
2) Bold all the items you’ve eaten.
3) Cross out any items that you would never consider eating.
4) Optional extra: Post a comment here at linking to your results.

The VGT Omnivore’s Hundred: (Items I've eaten are in blue bold) (Items I've eaten since posting this are in green bold)

1. Venison
2. Nettle tea (just bought some at the market!)
3. Huevos rancheros
4. Steak tartare

5. Crocodile
6. Black pudding
7. Cheese fondue
8. Carp
9. Borscht
10. Baba ghanoush
11. Calamari
12. Pho
13. PB&J sandwich
14. Aloo gobi
15. Hot dog from a street cart
16. Epoisses
17. Black truffle
18. Fruit wine made from something other than grapes
19. Steamed pork buns
20. Pistachio ice cream
21. Heirloom tomatoes
22. Fresh wild berries
23. Foie gras
24. Rice and beans
25. Brawn, or head cheese
26. Raw Scotch Bonnet pepper
27. Dulce de leche
28. Oysters
29. Baklava
30. Bagna cauda
31. Wasabi peas
32. Clam chowder in a sourdough bowl
33. Salted lassi
34. Sauerkraut
35. Root beer float
36. Cognac with a fat cigar
37. Clotted cream tea
38. Vodka jelly/Jell-O
39. Gumbo
40. Oxtail
41. Curried goat
42. Whole insects
43. Phaal
44. Goat’s milk
45. Malt whisky from a bottle worth £60/$120 or more
46. Fugu
47. Chicken tikka masala
48. Eel
49. Krispy Kreme original glazed doughnut
50. Sea urchin
51. Prickly pear
52. Umeboshi
53. Abalone
54. Paneer
55. McDonald’s Big Mac Meal
56. Spaetzle
57. Dirty gin martini
58. Beer above 8% ABV
59. Poutine
60. Carob chips
61. S’mores
62. Sweetbreads
63. Kaolin
64. Currywurst
65. Durian
66. Frogs’ legs
67. Beignets, churros, elephant ears or funnel cake
68. Haggis
69. Fried plantain
70. Chitterlings, or andouillette
71. Gazpacho
72. Caviar and blini
73. Louche absinthe
74. Gjetost, or brunost
75. Roadkill
76. Baijiu
77. Hostess Fruit Pie
78. Snail
79. Lapsang souchong
80. Bellini
81. Tom yum
82. Eggs Benedict
83. Pocky
84. Tasting menu at a three-Michelin-star restaurant
85. Kobe beef
86. Hare
87. Goulash
88. Flowers
89. Horse (maybe – I ate a few unrecognizable things in Japan, horse may have been one of them)
90. Criollo chocolate
91. Spam
92. Soft shell crab
93. Rose harissa
94. Catfish
95. Mole poblano
96. Bagel and lox
97. Lobster Thermidor
98. Polenta
99. Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee
100. Snake

My score is 80...81...82...83...84...85...86...87...88 and I'm going to make it my mission to find and eat as many of those I haven't tried as possible!

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

International Steez – Part 3: Arigato gozaimazu

If I’m 100% honest with you, I didn’t really dig the food when I lived in Japan. I mean, sure the sushi was pretty darn fresh and good, as were the steaming monster bowls of ramen and mounds of cheap dumplings, and I ate some of the best seafood I’ve ever had. I even experienced some of the most memorable meals of my life, like when I placed my fate in the hands of a fugu chef in Kobe and received a delicate tasting reward in return. Here's the pile of fugu before simmering it in the hot pot:

And me staring death in the face.

Or when Phil treated me on my birthday to a Kobe beef feast in Kobe.

But, these experiences were rare, partly because the cost of dining out in a good restaurant in Japan is astronomical, and partly because I didn’t speak enough Japanese to confidently enter most of the better establishments (there weren’t many English menus in Kobe). I have to say that I missed crusty sourdough bread, pungent cheeses, cured sausages, deli meat, and cheesy pizza (I really must add here that many of the pizzas in Japan have a raw egg cracked in the center and a grid of mayonnaise painted on top – what’s wrong with pepperoni and cheese, people?!).

Luckily, my best friends in Japan were San Franciscans who were similarly concerned with eating well, often. One of our favorite economical home meals was to have a roll-your-own sushi “party.” Fish was expensive, but you don’t need much of it for sushi and rice and vegetables were some of the most affordable items in the supermarket. Here are me and Katie with a bounty of raw ingredients ready to be rolled up and chowed down – oishi!

Fortunately all of the ingredients for a sushi party can be found in the States, and also here in Australia (I do live in Chinatown, which actually should be called “Asia” town, so there are plenty of shops carrying Japanese ingredients a block from my apartment). In Boston, the Super 88 stores carried all the Japanese goods I could ever wish for, including some I would never wish for (natto, anyone?), and at least two full aisles of soy sauces which will never cease to baffle me.

My friend Melissa and I hosted a sushi rolling party at my apartment with some pan-Asian flair that included miso soup, homemade Shanghai soup dumplings, spring rolls, and enough sushi for our entire graduating class at BC.

Since sushi leftovers are a bit fishy to say the least, we did our best to hog everything in one night. A challenge we were most certainly up for.

The sushi party’s international reputation has continued in Australia, with Meagan and Amy joining me for an all-you-can-roll feast. First stop was to the Asian supermarket next door for all the tools and goodies we needed, including rolling mats, nori (toasted seaweed sheets), pickled ginger, sushi rice, wasabi and soy sauce.

I worked on slicing the salmon and tuna into long, thin strips while Meagan julienned the carrots and cucumbers and sliced the avocadoes.

We also poached some shrimp.

Meanwhile, we made the sushi rice. You can’t use regular steamed white rice for sushi, as it will not have the correct texture and sweet flavor that makes sushi, well, sushi. Here is a basic sushi rice recipe that should work. Sometimes I also throw in a square of square of kombu (kelp) while the rice is steaming.

While Meagan and I chopped, Amy worked on the tamagoyaki, a sweet rolled egg omelet that in my opinion is absolutely necessary for a good sushi party. Tamagoyaki is tough to get just right at first, as the technique is a bit tricky to make it so that the omelet is firm yet soft and doesn’t brown. Eggs are beaten with dashi (a stock made out of dried bonito flakes), sugar, and sometimes sake (we didn’t have any so omitted this). A square omelet pan works best for cooking the tamagoyaki, but since my kitchen here is less than well-equipped we used a small skillet to build and roll the omelet in layers. Here is Amy at work:

With all of our ingredients prepared, it was time to go to work on the rolls. Meagan had never rolled sushi and I believe at this point was still a bit skeptical. She turned out to be a natural and her first rolls looked like they came straight from Nobu’s kitchen!

Chef master extraordinaire Amy made an inside out roll, with the rice on the outside of the nori. She lightly coated a square of plastic wrap with nonstick spray, made an even layer of sushi rice (always use wet hands when working with sushi rice to prevent sticking), topped it with a sheet of nori and the fillings, and used the plastic wrap to coax the mass of ingredients into a long roll. Normally this takes a bit of practice but hers were perfect, of course, on the very first try.

She then rolled this in toasted sesame seeds…

Cut it into slices with her usual sophisticated flair…

And put my dinky little rolls to shame!

If you want to have your own sushi party, it helps to have a shopping list and a menu in mind before attacking the “international” section of the supermarket. Most of these items can be found at a regular supermarket, except for the sashimi-grade fish, for which you might need to visit a fishmonger. If you can’t find sashimi-grade fish, you can always used poached shrimp, imitation crab (found in the freezer section), or even smoked salmon to make Philly rolls with cream cheese. Vegetarian sushi is also an option. Have fun and here’s to Nippon-wa!

rolling mats

small dishes for soy sauce, wasabi, etc.
serrated knife for cutting sushi

Basic Ingredients:
sushi rice (also need rice wine vinegar, kombu [kelp], sugar, and salt to season)
nori (toasted seaweed sheets)
pickled ginger
soy sauce

Filling Ingredients:
sashimi-grade fish (tuna, salmon, poached shrimp or tempura battered seafood are usually easy to find)
mayonnaise mixed with wasabi or Thai sweet chili sauce

tamagoyaki (sweet rolled omelette)

Optional accompaniments:

miso soup

dumplings with black vinegar and sesame seeds for dipping
steamed edamame
mochi for dessert
green tea ice cream for dessert (easy to make - buy green tea powder and mix into vanilla ice cream)

tempura (battered fried vegetables [eggplant, burdock, green beans, asparagus, and mushrooms are common] or seafood)

Friday, August 22, 2008

International Steez – Part 2: India comes to Cari

Before coming to Australia, one of the culinary goals I set for myself was to learn as much about Indian cuisine and culture as I could during my studies. Indian food was certainly underrepresented in my repertoire of recipes and I had a vague notion that its ingredients, spices, and techniques would be new and interesting for me. The $6 Indian lunch buffets near my old office in Cambridge were of surprisingly good quality and taste, but I knew there just had to be more to Indian food than saag paneer and chicken tikka masala.

Well…. the food gods heard my plea! I have four best girlfriends here in Australia…. and three of them are Indian! And they are all just as obsessed with food and culture as I am.

Leena was an early inspiration. You can read about some of her Indian food adventures here and here. Without the mortar and pestle and spice grinder she bequeathed to me when she departed Adelaide, my subsequent Indian food adventures would not have been possible! Here she is showing off her curry powder in my kitchen before traipsing off to make a lamb curry on one of her last days in Australia.

I tackled making paneer, Indian cheese, early on in my time here in Adelaide. You can read about it here. It wasn’t my first time making paneer, but regardless I was very impressed with how cool I was. I mean, who makes their own cheese?! Little did I know that was just the beginning.

My friend Jackie has fed my hunger for knowledge of Indian food in a number of ways. She and her mom hosted an Indian dinner for me and my classmates, which you may remember from this post. She also gave me an Indian cookbook for my birthday, which I am proudly holding here.

When I first received the cookbook, 660 Curries by Raghavan Iyer, I read it more like a novel than a cookbook, mentally devouring its recipes in bed before falling asleep. Amaranth and asafetida and Bishop’s weed… fenugreek and jiggery and kewra and nigella… jackfruit and luffa and kudampuli and myriad colors of lentils! What were these strange and exotic ingredients, what did they taste like, what did they look like, where could I find them, how did I cook them? I thought I knew a little sumpin’ sumpin’ about food but this was a whole new undiscovered world to me.

The book’s role in my life has since transitioned from novel to food bible. I’ve made a number of recipes, including rista and goshtaba, lamb meatballs in two sauces. One sauce was cream-based and perfumed with saffron and fennel, and the other a thin spicy curry with black cardamom, cloves and saffron. Unfortunately I must have been too disoriented from the saffron-scented air in my kitchen to remember to take a photo of these curries, but trust me when I say they fulfilled all my expectations!

I have kind of become a vegetable freak and Indian cuisine offers so many vegetarian options that I really just do not know where to start. I made sirka paneer, sweet-tart paneer with potatoes and cauliflower in a vinegar sauce, and it was so satisfying and unique that I cannot wait to try some of the other vegetarian and paneer curries in the book. You first make a spice paste with vinegar, tomato paste, coriander seeds, cumin seeds, fresh and dried chiles, garlic and ginger.

The curry comes together with fried onions, the spice paste, cauliflower, potatoes, coconut, and paneer. What amazed me most about this dish was that it was deceptively simple and quick, yet the curry had such depth of flavor and variety of texture. Another revelation I have had here in Australia is pappadums, crisp lentil wafers… and parathas, flaky buttery Indian breads. They are both readily available in supermarkets here and all they take is a zap in the microwave or a few minutes on the griddle and they are ready to accompany your Indian dream feast.

Here it is, sirka paneer with pappadums and parathas.

Well Ms. Meagan completes my circle of Indian gal pals here in Australia. She’s doesn’t do much Indian cooking but is obviously very knowledgeable on the subject and has a superb palate. When she tastes a curry, she can break it down and tell me if the curry paste is raw (meaning it wasn’t cooked long enough) and what the component parts of the curry are – something I am unable to do in this early stage of my Indian food knowledge adventure.

We the gastro-girls decided to head to curry night at the Exeter Hotel here in Adelaide. For $15, you get a substantial curry and rice and for just a bit more some chutneys and breads as accompaniments. Now that is quite a deal here in Adelaide – no $6 Indian buffets to be found here, no no no sista.

For the price, we were generally impressed by the quality and taste. The chutneys were flavorful and while the bread was neither fresh nor Indian (Jackie pinpointed it as a frozen Malaysian version of roti), it did not detract from the rest of the meal.

We shared the four curries we ordered. Meagan’s favorite was a Thai seafood curry in a mild and creamy coconut milk sauce, delicately scented with curry leaves and cilantro.

Jackie preferred the spicier Mumbai chicken masala.

None of us were impressed by the paneer and vegetable curry or the lamb “vindaloo” (which my India experts pronounce vin-DA-loo, not VIN-da-loo). There was only one piece of paneer in the veg curry which severely disappointed Amy (didn’t bother me cuz I got the one piece there was – ha!) and the lamb vindaloo apparently wasn’t really a vindaloo, the spices were still raw according to Meagan and Jackie, and Amy thought the lamb could have used another half hour on the simmer (she’s not Indian but she’s a chef and she knows food so I believed her). Regardless of all these small complaints, once we started eating…

It didn’t take long for us to polish off every last bit of the meal!

We were happy customers.

My Indian food adventures have reminded me why I love food – it’s a lens for me to understand and learn about cultures and people and history, it brings friends and families together, it’s a never-ending journey where the possibilities can never be exhausted and there is always something new to learn or perfect, it can be enjoyed anywhere at any time on any budget, and most importantly, it just makes me so darn happy.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

International Steez - Part 1: Viva Peru

The world is a small place when you’re armed with a santoku knife, a skillet and a wooden spoon. While my kitchen may seem like nothing fancy, in the past month it has magically transported me to Peru, India, France, Japan, the Middle East and North Africa. And I didn’t even have to pay fuel surcharges or airport fees or worry about getting la turista from drinking the water!

First stop: Peru. My classmate Amy is from Lima and her mom sent her a care package of latin goodies from home so Amy could treat Meagan and me to a Peruvian feast. Oh dear. What a feast it was.

It started with a cluster of packages of Peruvian peppers and potatoes that are unavailable basically in the rest of the world.

Did you know that the potato originated in Peru, and that today there are thousands of varieties of wild and cultivated potatoes available there? I learned that from the International Potato Center’s website. Yes, the International Potato Center is a legitimate body and is the kind of place I will most likely toil away my days after receiving a degree in gastronomy. I can think of worse jobs than that of Expert in Potato Cultivation, Distribution and Consumption. Sounds like every day would be an exciting new adventure.

Anyway, I digress. In the care package were rocoto, panca, and spicy yellow pepper sauces along with two types of dried potatoes and Peruvian mayonnaise. And, for the kicker, two bottles of pisco!

There is some dispute as to whether pisco legally belongs to Chile or to Peru, but Amy vehemently claims that pisco is Peruvian, always has been and always will be, and I am inclined to take her side after visiting the town of Pisco, Peru a few years ago and witnessing the extent to which the locals consume the lethal spirit. It is made from distilled grapes and from my experience can vary wildly in quality. Luckily, Amy was a master at making pisco sours. Amy is a master at making everything, so I wasn’t surprised. She whipped the liquor with egg whites, crushed ice, sugar, lemon juice, and passionfruit…

…and the night was off to a great start. Salud!

The first course of the evening was causa.

Amy rehydrated the yellow potatoes sent to her by her mom and mixed the mashed potatoes with the aji amarillo (spicy yellow pepper paste), olive oil, and salt. Meanwhile, she poached a chicken breast, chopped it, and made a filling of chicken salad with mayonnaise, red onion, cilantro, salt and pepper. She then lightly oiled a piece of plastic wrap and spread the mashed yellow potatoes in a thin, even layer.

Next she layered slices of avocado with 2/3 of the chicken salad filling.

Then she dexterously rolled the causa into a log, sealing it on all sides so no filling peaked out of the seams, and topped it with the remainder of the chicken salad, mayonnaise mixed with rocoto paste, cilantro, and more sliced avocados.

Voila! A masterpiece.

Causa is eaten cold or at room temperature, so Amy let it sit while she finished creating the rest of the meal. On the menu: ají de gallina and carapulcra.

Ají de gallina is a saucy yellow concoction resembling a thick yellow chicken stew. It reminded Meagan of an Indian curry. There was a lot going on in the kitchen so I wasn’t able to write down the exact ingredients and measurements but I know it contained cubed poached chicken breasts and their poaching liquid, a paste made of white bread soaked in milk and pureed, onion, garlic, turmeric, aji amarillo, grated Parmesan cheese and ground nuts (I believe we used almonds but I may be wrong).

On the back burner is carapulcra, a very unique dish that didn’t resemble anything I’d eaten before. Amy toasted dried yellow potatoes and soaked them in water for a good 20 minutes. She then slowly sautéed cubes of pork belly until the fat rendered and the pork began to brown and then added the rehydrated potatoes, cubed potatoes, cumin, chicken stock, bay leaves, and water. She simmered until the pork and potatoes were tender and at the end added ground peanuts. (Amy – please correct me if I’m missing something!) And here is the finished plate:

Carapulcra and ají de gallina accompanied by white rice, boiled potatoes, kalamata olives and hard boiled eggs. Oh, and don't forget the cumbia and Mana playing on iTunes. I think Amy was expecting her friends and family from Lima to show up on my doorstep because we had leftovers for the next three days. But we were all full and felices at the end of the night!

Stay tuned for culinary adventures to India, France, Japan, the Middle East and North Africa in upcoming posts.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Cheese, and other Miscellanies

It’s been so long since I’ve written that I’m not exactly sure where to start. So, I’ll take the easy route and start with cheese. I’ll probably end with cheese, too, but whatever happens in between I can’t be held accountable for.

I eat a lot of cheese. I like cheese. There’s a shop at the market called the Smelly Cheese Shop and I like to go there. They said the cheese was smelly, so I decided to try for myself:

Here is one of my recent purchases there, a Tasmanian washed rind cow’s milk cheese wrapped in vine leaves accompanied by quince paste, a focaccia roll, a cheese stick for good measure, and local olive oil.

I like this photo of Meagan because there is a Cheese sign behind her, which is funny because she is smiling for the photo and awesome because I ate some delicious cheese right before taking the photo.

Cheese shops have clever names in South Australia. This one is called Udder Delights and was one of the stops on a class field trip (my program rules) to the Adelaide Hills. Apart from this cheese platter (which was shared amongst the group)...

I consumed an entire roll of chevre myself melted over open faced caramelized onion sandwiches.

Here I am with my classmates. I believe this was pre-cheese.

After eating lots of cheese the next stop on our field trip was to the Bird in Hand winery. So after a tasting we were all full of cheese and full of wine and I doubt anyone did homework that evening.

Say, cheese! (Sorry, couldn’t resist)

Another school fieldtrip was also cheese-related. The class visited Producers of McLaren Vale to meet the couple who manages the operation. We had a lovely local homemade lunch overlooking the vineyards, with a roaring fire, and learned about the challenges of managing a gastronomic tourism small business, and rallying the local food community behind the efforts.

On the menu was duck soup with salads and breads and almonds and quince paste and olive oil made on premise.

And cheese, too!

And everyone’s favorite of the day, a flourless orange almond cake made with oranges picked from the trees in the garden that very morning.

Everyone stocked up on preserves and wines and olive oils made in-house (which all tasted much much better than Amy’s face suggests).

Meagan and I couldn’t resist a photo opp with the vineyard in the background. Do you notice anything strange and/or especially shiny in this photo?

You don’t? Well, look closer and you will discover the reason for my prolonged absence from blogging in the blogosphere. That’s a big shiny rock on my finger – I got engaged last month! Being engaged is a full time job, and I am a full time student, so I have been a busy bee these past weeks writing a final essay and planning a wedding. The good news is that Phil and I celebrated our engagement first in Sydney and then right here in Adelaide with a picnic by the Torrens including a number of fine cheeses!

Here is a play-by-play or our engagement photo shoot.

Pop the champagne.

Drink the champagne (it was actually a cheap sparkling white wine that we drank out of plastic cups but who has to know?).

Pause for a photo.

Eat some cheese.

Change location. Cheesy photo.

Change location. 1,000 more cheesy photos (I will spare you from 999 of them).

A wedding is going to be fun! A big party! I’ve decided to wear my mom’s wedding dress, and with my super photoshopping skills I superimposed a photo of my mom’s dress over a full-body shot of me so you can get an idea of what I will look like on my wedding day:

I think I better stop eating so much cheese.