Archive for the ‘Snacks’ Category

Okra & Shrimp Tempura

March 12, 2010

Ingredients: shrimp, okra, tempura batter mix, flour, peanut oil, salt.

The last time I cooked with okra was about 3 years ago. I made a huge batch of gumbo, into which I incorporated half a bag of frozen okra. That was some delicious gumbo… except for the okra. I liked its flavor well enough (reminiscent of roasted green pepper and eggplant), but I couldn’t get past the squishy/slimy consistency. It was totally gross. I hate wasting food though, so I attempted to bread & fry the remaining frozen okra, with no less unappealing results. [Was that a triple negative? I’ll leave it; seems appropriate.]

Now, I take some pride in my palate. Very few culinary ingredients turn me off, and I like it that way. But I couldn’t lie to myself: okra was not something I ever wanted to put past my lips again.

Then I saw this post for Indian stir-fried okra. It looked great (as do all of Sebastian’s posts), but what really piqued my interest was his tale of plucking fresh okra pods and snacking on them “like french fries.” Wow! That is some seriously appealing imagery. I had no idea that okra could be eaten raw, or that it could somehow not be slimy.

I have since looked into de-sliming technique, and I present to you a few pointers:

  1. Slicing releases the slime, so do as little of that as possible. Use a sharp knife to minimize bruising.
  2. Slime runs vertically through the pod, so horizontal slices are guaranteed to release all of it. Try julienning the okra instead, or leaving it whole.
  3. The longer you cook okra, the more slime will emerge.
  4. Slime is water-soluble, so avoid steaming or stewing the okra, unless you are also using plenty of acid (such as tomato or vinegar) to break it down.
  5. Conversely, frying or stir-frying in oil prevents the slime from leaching out.

In hindsight, it makes a lot of sense that frozen okra would lead to excessive slime. Freezing any vegetable leads to cell wall damage from ice crystals. In the case of okra, that means free-flowing slime. So, avoid frozen okra for everything but stewed dishes.

Soon after regaining the desire to consume okra, I had the good fortune to stumble upon a lovely unmarked package of fresh, firm okra at a Chinese market. I dove right in. The raw okra was indeed addictive, crisp and with a hollow little *snap* when bitten into. The seeds did have a slight raw-flour aftertaste, but this was easily covered up with a touch of mayonnaise (or any other salad dressing/dip).

But what to cook? I wanted to see how far I could push the slime prevention, and eventually settled on tempura: no slicing, no water, minimal cooking time. Plus, I still had french fries on the brain after reading that post over at INJI. As you can see, I also chose to batter fry some big juicy tiger shrimp along with the okra. I used a box mix, so there’s not much to report as far as preparation goes.

The tempura was crunchy and savory, heavier than anticipated but still (predictably) delicious. The okra was fleshy, not slimy. This felt like a huge victory, for which I credit the opportunity to work with fresh okra. I’ll be keeping an eye out for it in the future, and I recommend you do the same!


Stuffed Artichokes

February 14, 2010

Ingredients: artichoke, garlic, breadcrumbs, parmesan, olive oil, white wine, oregano, basil, black pepper, salt.

It seems to me that a majority of artichoke recipe titles end in “dip.” That’s a shame. The delicate flavor of a fresh artichoke should be lifted skyward and savored with simple, honest preparation — not drowned in cream cheese.

Then again, if your artichokes came from a can, it’s probably too late for glory. Now, I don’t hate tinned artichokes. They’re edible. The problem is how overpoweringly tart the preservative citric acid can be. I mean, it works out fine for dip and vinegary salads, but you aren’t really tasting artichoke.

Case in point: when I served one of these Italian-style stuffed artichokes to Senka, she remarked (with surprise) that it was nothing like what she expected from prior experience. Then she remarked that I should make them more often…

Working with fresh artichokes is definitely a challenge. The pointy outer leaves must be snipped, the stem must be peeled, and the thistly inedible innards must be scraped away with vigilance. [If you’re interested in doing this, I recommend studying one of the many illustrated guides online.] It’s also common practice to rub a wedge of lemon over shorn edges, which helps to prevent oxidization. With only 2 artichokes to stuff, I skipped this step.

For the stuffing, I mixed together a hearty pile of breadcrumbs, minced garlic, shredded parmesan cheese, Italian herbs, salt & pepper, and extra-virgin olive oil. I tucked the mixture into the gaps between leaves, plus down deep where the center “choke” was removed. I set my pair of artichokes in a shallow bath of white wine, covered the pan with foil (glass would probably have be better), and allowed for 30 minutes of oven braising. Toward the end, I removed the foil so as to crisp the breadcrumbs on top.

Stuffed artichokes are super fun to eat. You pluck one leaf at a time, then strip off the meaty underside with your teeth (and discard the rest). As you progress concentrically, each leaf yields increasingly more flesh. Exciting! Near the choke, however, the leaves become too thin to bother nibbling; at this point, you simply yank off the remainder and feast upon the delectable, dense heart. It’s not as gory as it sounds. In fact, I find it quite sensual, and rewarding after all that work.


November 17, 2009

Ingredients: zucchini, Travnicki cheese, bulgur wheat, egg, scallion, lemon, bread crumbs, oregano, mint, black pepper, salt.

I came across recipes for kolokithokeftedes (Greek for “zucchini meatballs”) a few times while browsing other people’s food blogs, and finally got around to making them at home. This was an instance of being fairly sure I’d enjoy what I was cooking, yet with hardly a clue as to what it would taste like.

I started by preparing some coarse wheat bulgur. I love the chewiness of bulgur, and figured it would blend into and fortify the texture of my fritters. Most recipes suggested either breadcrumbs or plain flour, but I wanted more “tooth.”

When the bulgur had cooled, I combined it with the rest of the ingredients: an entire grated zucchini, an egg, chopped scallion, oregano, mint, a big squeeze of lemon, and plenty of salt & pepper. I also crumbled and blended in a block of Travnicki Sir, which is a Bosnian brined sheep’s milk cheese similar to mild feta. Although it surely didn’t matter for this particular recipe, I just love the texture of Travnicki. It’s light, nowhere near as dense as feta, yet with a stiff integrity and springy resistance to the bite. I often enjoy it with sliced cucumbers and tomatoes.

Many of the kolokithokeftedes I saw online were flat patties, like latkes (Jewish potato pancakes, the only fritters Mom used to make). For some reason I wanted mine to be spherical. Another common feature I wished to avoid were the dark burned bits of zucchini flecking the outside of the fritters. So, before frying, I shaped the dough into golfballs, and gave them an extra roll-around in some bread crumbs. This provided a protective layer that saved the zucchini bits from blackening.

The results were spectacular, if a bit hard to describe. The outsides were crispy of course, but gave way quickly in the mouth to a creamy-yet-chewy filling, almost like risotto. There was no zucchini texture, but its flavor lurked in the background, providing a slightly bitter “healthy” taste. The foreground of the flavor profile was all Greek: herby from mint & oregano, tangy from lemon and feta, rich from the olive oil I used for frying.

An Inspired Sandwich

November 6, 2009


Sandwich ingredients: ciabatta roll, hot-smoked salmon, red bell pepper, Västerbotten cheese, mâche, cornichons.

Dressing ingredients: olive oil, white wine vinegar, mustard, honey, shallot, thyme, oregano, basil, black pepper, salt.

When I had a job in downtown Philadelphia a few years ago, I loved stopping by DiBruno Bros after work. They’re an Italian fine-foods store, with an extensive cheese selection and all kinds of other culinary goodies. I wasn’t making enough money to justify buying anything there, but gazing/sniffing was free! Then one day a coworker tipped me off to a brilliant tactic: show up after 5pm and steal a sandwich for half price. Done and *haumph* done.

My favorite DiBruno Bros sandwich was humbly titled Ham & Cheese. It was, of course, so much more than that. Layered between two triangular halves of a rosemary-kissed ciabatta bun were thin shavings of Parma ham, sharp aged provolone, roasted red bell peppers, field greens, Italian dressing, and curious little pickles that looked like baby cucumbers. As these pickles were the best or at least the most distinctive part of the sandwich, I asked the guy behind the counter what they were called.

Cornichons. French. Eat ’em all over Europe.”

So, that’s the story of how I moved here! Well, no, it isn’t. But it is the story of how I came to appreciate a really tasty pickle. Cornichons are made from unripe gherkins, which are related to cucumbers but are much smaller and bumpier. As a result, they are crisper too. Flavor varies by recipe, but cornichons are typically tart and garlicky, with a hint of dill and/or clove.

I decided, upon sampling a particularly good jar of cornichons, to attempt a recreation of that wonderful half-price sandwich from long ago.

Instead of ham, which I no longer eat, I used Swedish hot-smoked salmon. The salmon is not actually hot. Rather, it is fully cooked (and richly flavored) by heated smoke, as opposed to cold-smoked salmon, which is cured raw with unheated smoke.

Instead of sharp provolone (a South Philly specialty), I used Västerbotten cheese (a North Sweden specialty), which I find to be texturally similar. It’s semi-hard and crumbly, but with enough moisture to support thin slices. Västerbotten tastes somewhere between aged Cheddar and young Parmesan.

Roasting and peeling bell peppers isn’t exactly difficult, but it does require foresight. Unfortunately, sandwich and foresight don’t jibe too well; sandwich pairs better with impulse. I forced myself to make the peppers ahead of time on this occasion, though. I don’t think I would have made the effort if not for this blog. So, thanks everyone!

The sandwich came together really nicely. Crusty ciabatta, tangy homemade dressing, gentle mâche lettuce (find some if you’ve never tried it), plus the aforementioned pickles, salmon, cheese, and roasted pepper. Next time I make this, however, I will be sure to add the ultimate finishing touch: wrap the sandwich up in butcher paper, then wait until after 5pm to eat it.

Cranberry-Halloumi Burrito

October 8, 2009


Ingredients: cranberry-studded halloumi, orange and green bell pepper, jalapeño pepper, black bean, cranberry, bulgur, cumin, black pepper, salt.

Served with: whole wheat tortilla, sour cream, cilantro.

I wrote about halloumi before, here. An excerpt:

“You might not be familiar with halloumi, but you should be! It’s a salty, somewhat rubbery cheese from Cyprus, a bit like a super-firm block of mozzarella. What’s unique about halloumi is that it doesn’t melt, so you can pan-fry or grill it. This puts a delicious brown crust on the surface and takes away the rubberiness. In fact, the resulting texture is very similar to grilled chicken, so it makes a great meat substitute.”

What I did not mention previously is that halloumi usually comes folded over a bit of torn mint leaf. It’s a nice touch, and solidifies the cheese’s Cypriot/Greek identity. So, I was taken aback recently when I saw a package of halloumi featuring cranberry instead of mint. I gave it a try on the grill and was pleasantly surprised by how nicely the tart & sweet flavor of the fruit had permeated the salty cheese. The result was a nuanced yet exceptionally balanced product.

It would not be inappropriate to call this cheese inspirational, considering that’s literally how it affected me. For days, I woke up thinking about new and better ways to enjoy cranberry halloumi. One recurring idea was to construct a sweet & savory “Tex-Mex” burrito, with halloumi replacing grilled chicken strips, and dried cranberries mixed into the rice and/or beans. Does that even sound good? I had to find out one way or another, because I couldn’t get the idea out of my head.

To begin preparation, I fired up the grill-pan and blackened a jalapeño and a pair of bell peppers (orange & green). To remove the charred skin, I let the peppers steam inside a sealed plastic bag for a while after grilling, then let them cool. This process allowed the skin to slip off easily.

Next, I made a quick “rice” & black beans using bulgur (coarsley cracked and parboiled wheat). To this I added cumin, salt, pepper, and a sprinkling of dried cranberries. It was tasty, and reminded me of Moroccan couscous dishes, which often feature raisins or other dried fruit.

I divided the halloumi into thick slices, grilled them carefully, and began to assemble the burritos. For a finishing touch, I tossed in a little chopped cilantro and a dab of sour cream. The whole wheat tortillas I used seemed a little raw, so I sat the finished burritos on the grill to pick up some color and texture on their outsides.

I enjoyed my burrito, but I think a Top Chef judge would say that it “needed refinement.” The flavor basically worked, but it was missing something(s) despite having probably too many unique tastes. My proportions were also a bit off, which resulted in a fairly dry burrito. I will probably try this again sometime, perhaps with a sauce to moisten it up.

Wasabi Tuna Salad

October 4, 2009


Ingredients: tuna, mayonnaise, celery, wasabi-flavored vegetarian caviar, rice wine vinegar, fermented yellow soybeans, wasabi paste, palm sugar, ginger powder, shallot powder, sesame oil, sesame seeds, salt.

Served with: whole wheat toasted baguette, iceberg lettuce, nectarine.

Isn’t mayonnaise funny? A spoonful of mayo is hideously unappetizing … until you slap it onto or into something. Then it becomes mmmmmmayo. Hits the spot. A can of tuna sprouts wings when mayonnaise is applied.

Anyway, this sandwich was an experiment that turned out really well. I wanted to use up some wasabi-flavored vegetarian caviar (made from seaweed, also used here) and figured it would make for an interesting accent to tuna salad. I remember long ago having excellent chicken salad made with Soy Vay toasted sesame marinade, and decided to try matching that flavor profile.

I created the base for the tuna salad with mayonnaise, rice wine vinegar, palm sugar, ginger powder, shallot powder, sesame oil, and salt. Then I mixed in the wasabi caviar and some whole fermented soybeans. It seemed like a good occasion for the soybeans because I wanted the flavor of soy sauce without the wetness or dark color.

In went the tuna, and some diced celery and sesame seeds for texture. It tasted amazing. I couldn’t wait to get it into sandwich form! The hint of wasabi was so nice that I decided to break out my seldom-used tube of wasabi paste and kick my tuna salad up another notch. I’ll remember this trick in the future.

To frame my sandwich, I toasted a whole wheat baguette. I like my bread surface brown and crusty, but I also want the insides to remain chewy. Therefore: high heat, short oven time. It’s also important to let the bread cool down before the mayonnaise touches it. Mayo is funny like that too.

Stuffed Mushrooms Casino

August 26, 2009


Ingredients: button mushrooms, mussels, dried shrimp, green bell pepper, scallion, garlic, egg, dry sherry, lemon, heavy cream, breadcrumbs, parsley, oregano, chili flakes, butter, olive oil, black pepper, salt.

My new favorite ingredient is definitely dried shrimp. I’d seen them listed often in Thai recipes, but always figured that “real” shrimp would cover my bases and taste better anyway. As it turns out, dried shrimp taste very little like fresh shrimp. They are more like beef jerky, or bacon. This is quite a revelation for a pescetarian* such as myself!

To test my bacon analogy, I came up with a riff on Clams Casino — an American classic, and a bacon showcase. Clams on the half shell are topped with tiny slabs of bacon, bell pepper (optional), and bread crumbs, then broiled in an oven and served with lemon slices. When made fresh with good quality ingredients, Clams Casino is pretty close to heaven. I have fond summer memories of helping Mom prepare huge trays of these from clams that we had just scavenged directly from the beach.

Of course, nothing can top memories like those. However, armed with bacony dried shrimp, I figured I could transpose the same flavors onto (much humbler) stuffed mushrooms. They might not look like much, but these mushrooms were the tastiest thing to come out of my kitchen all year! I was ecstatic with the results.

To begin, I removed the stems and gills from the mushrooms. The gills I discarded (they are too strong in flavor, and add an unpleasant inky color); the stems I chopped up and sautéed in olive oil with garlic, chili flakes, green bell pepper, and diced dried shrimp (which I had presoaked for an hour). I splashed a little dry sherry in the pan, then turned off the heat and added some scallions and roughly chopped mussels. I chose not to keep them whole so as to avoid a texture catastrophe if they ended up being too chewy. To bind everything together, I whisked in an egg and some heavy cream, then filled out the mixture with a handful of bread crumbs. Finally, I seasoned my stuffing with parsley, oregano, black pepper, and salt.

Assembly was simple. First I basted the mushroom caps with melted butter, to keep them from becoming gray and wrinkly in the oven. I put a big spoonful of the stuffing mix into each cap, then sprinkled more bread crumbs on top, followed by a tiny drizzle of olive oil.

The stuffed mushrooms came out of the oven 25 minutes later, adorned with crunchy golden brown headwear and smelling garlicky-wonderful. The consistency of the interior was like a soft meatball, tender and bursting with the familiar flavors of bacon, green pepper, and clam. I gave each bite a heavy twist of lemon, which kicked the experience up yet another level.

* — Pescetarians are vegetarians that still eat seafood. The name is kinda stupid so I never use it. Perhaps “vegequarian?”

Crawfish Skagenröra

August 8, 2009


Ingredients: crawfish, shrimp, red onion, scallion, wasabi-flavored vegetarian caviar, crème fraîche, mayonnaise, lemon juice, lemon zest, salt, black pepper.

Served with: potato, avocado, cucumber, red bell pepper, iceberg lettuce, dill, lemon slices.

I was very fortunate this week to be offered leftovers from a kräftskiva (crawfish boil – a summertime tradition in Sweden). Many thanks to my friends Kenth and Lena for bringing me some of the biggest crawfish I’ve ever seen. They were caught in a stream near Lena’s parents’ farm, then boiled in salted water with beer and dill. I enjoyed a few as-is, but I wanted to make something special with the rest.

Skagenröra is one of my favorite Swedish delicacies. [Although it is named after a Danish beach, I believe the dish was first created in Sweden.] It’s a creamy seafood salad featuring shrimp and caviar, often supplemented (sadly) with imitation crab. I hardly ever buy it in the supermarket for that reason. Ironically, then, I decided to try vegetarian caviar for this experiment. It’s made with seaweed extract, and thus has a fairly authentic oceany taste. It also provides the unique popping texture of caviar. Skagenröra typically includes a kick of chili sauce, so as a further experiment, I got the wasabi-flavored caviar. In the end, it was too subtle to matter.

I started by blending together mayonnaise and crème fraîche, then thinning with a bit of lemon juice. Since I had the lemon in hand, I scraped some zest into the mix as well. To this I added finely diced red onion and scallion, plus the caviar, then set the bowl aside to let the onion flavors permeate while I shelled the crawfish. When that messy time-consuming procedure was finished and the kitchen was clean, I gently folded the crawfish and a small package of bay shrimp into the dressing. The skagenröra was complete! And it tasted great. The fresh crawfish claws and tails were delicious, the shrimp were non-textural but adequate in flavor, and the dressing was perky and smooth. A Swede might question the omission of fresh dill, but I could taste it in the crawfish (which had been boiled with dill).

I prepared a nice plate of veggies for my salad, including iceberg lettuce, red bell pepper, cucumber, avocado, and cold boiled potato. I should have also boiled an egg or two, for authenticity’s sake, but it was plenty of food. All the flavors worked really well together, and it even managed to feel healthy!

Scrambled Egg Quesadilla

July 29, 2009


Ingredients: flour tortilla, egg, milk, cheddar cheese, cumin, cayenne pepper, black pepper, salt, butter, crème fraîche, cilantro, chipotle pepper, lime juice.

If I could have 3 wishes, I’m pretty sure one of them would be the everlasting power to snap my fingers and conjure up a perfect quesadilla out of thin air.* See, whenever I want a quesadilla, I want it immediately. I want it right now. So I end up making it in the microwave, and it comes out floppy and bland. Then I have one of those moments where I’m eating something totally mediocre and must convince myself that it’s worth the calories. Tragic, considering that I’m fully capable of constructing a proper specimen.

I learned how to make quesadillas at a fairly young age, perhaps 8 or so, from my late Aunt Norma. It’s one of the earliest memories i have of being interested in cooking. I remember the feeling of revelation when Aunt Norma, who was originally from Mexico, explained that both sides of each tortilla should be browned. It was counterintuitive to toast the side that would end up facing inward, but it made sense… the cheese would inevitably soften the tortillas, so why not crisp them up preemptively? I learned more than how to make quesadillas that day; the real lesson was that cooking is about technique as much as it’s about ingredients. I wanted to know more tricks!

But let’s get back to business. I started by shredding some cheddar cheese into a container, then seasoning it with salt, cumin, and cayenne pepper. I toasted 2 tortillas in a hot dry skillet, one side only for each. The toasted sides face inward; the outer sides get plenty of browning when returned to the skillet later.

Lately I’ve been adding a thin layer of scrambled egg to my quesadillas. I like how the egg adds mass without adding heaviness, and the flavors blend together quite nicely. So my next step was to beat 1 egg with a little milk, salt, and black pepper. I add a bit of butter to the skillet, then drizzle in the beaten eggs. Once they thicken a bit (but before completely setting), I slapped on one of the tortillas, browned side down. The omelette then sticks to it like glue and can be easily slipped out.

Next, I put the other tortilla into the skillet, browned side up. Then I sprinkled it with the seasoned cheese, and immediately closed the quesadilla with the eggy half. I turned the heat down to low, and let it melt inside. After a couple minutes, I flipped it in order to brown the final tortilla surface.

I served the quesadilla with a Tex-Mex crème fraîche (thick sour cream), flavored with cilantro, lime juice, and chipotle paste. For a pretentious artful touch (as if French sour cream were not enough), I squeezed the mixture through a makeshift grocery piping bag.

* – Don’t scoff at me for my magic wish. I’d also use it to end world hunger.

Cabreze Sandwich

July 21, 2009


Ingredients: bread, mozzarella, tomato, basil, balsamic vinegar, olive oil, salt.

Simple is good. A sandwich like this one is a classic because it combines exactly the right number of components and lets each one shine. Of course, with so few components and each one shining, they’d better be good. Or at least not bad.

In my non-Italian opinion, the heart of a Cabreze salad (or sandwich) is the tomato. Some truly amazing plum tomatoes showed up at the supermarket this week, and I bought about two dozen of them. I’ll probably go back for more; they’re that good. I grabbed some fresh basil while at the store, already with this meal in mind. The mozzarella they sell isn’t literally fresh, but it’s the highly-perishable kind that comes floating in whey and tastes milky, sweet, and plenty delicious. The bread I sliced from a decent crusty loaf, then lightly oiled and grilled. For the final touch of Cabreze goodness, I reduced some balsamic vinegar in a saucepan until it became syrupy, let it cool, then drizzled it on top.