Category Archives: Ethnic foods

Naturally cumin

The first time I tasted cumin in Chinese cooking was in Beijing with Ling. It was the year before the Summer Olympics and we were hard at work, travelling from one meal to the next, arduously food reporting for More magazine, analyzing and recording every delectable mouthful that came our way.

The Cumin Find was at lunch. It was a rustic Xi’an-style place, with small wooden tables, rickety seats and glass panes smudged with layers of steam and dirt. We had spent a hungry, stomach-growling hour crisscrossing alleys and laneways searching for this hideaway. Ling kept our search ignited with enticing tales of hand-pulled, perfectly chewy noodles swimming in vast bowls of rich, heavily spiced lamb broth.

A smiling, pudgy cook-owner wearing a white pillbox cap and apron plonked two steaming bowls down before us while yelling something over his shoulder in Shaanxi dialect. Ling and I shared knowing smiles. This place was the real deal.

We dug in, chopsticks on the right, ceramic soup spoon on the left to catch any remnants that fell from our eager lips. Steam clouded Ling’s glasses and I could have sworn I heard her purr after each mouthful. She tried to ignore me, but my questioning was incessant.

“What you talking about?” she blurted out between gulps.

“I want to know what’s in this.  I’ve never tasted this spice in Chinese noodles before.”

“Oh” she said. “Ziran

I heard ziran and figured she had said “Naturally.”

I let her pause and collect her thoughts. She was used to me asking a lot of questions on this trip, especially mid-bite.  I waited. Ling continued to revel in the meal… she’d moved on to her roujiamo or Chinese hamburger. She gripped the clay-oven flatbread bun with both hands, inhaling its charcoal overtones.  Stuffed with fat, soft morsels of grilled lamb, this Xi’an wheat flatbread bun is famous for soaking up loads of gravy without falling   apart.  I watched a dribble of lamb juice trickle down Ling’s chin and detected that purr, again.

“What is it?” I asked again.

“I told you,” she said. “Naturally.”

Despite the prospects of a cold lunch.  Despite the look of irritation on Ling’s almost-always angelic face, I pressed on, asking her to write down the two characters that were pronounced zi and ran. Patiently, Ling wrote down the zi character on the palm of her left hand with her right index finger, making sure I was watching every stroke as she forged the invisible ink used by Chinese when pantomiming how to write a Chinese character. She wrote ran stroke by stroke even slower this time, sensing all the ignorance painted in my blank stare.

She stopped her invisible writing and we both groaned. I hadn’t recognized any of the gibberish she had scrawled.

I knew how to write naturally in Chinese but this ziren– this ziren she’d just written on her palm – spelled out a spice that was unnaturally Chinese: cumin.

The Xi’an chef had tossed crushed, whole cumin seeds into a firey wok glistening with oil and loaded with garlic and dried, hot red peppers, elevating our simple bowl of hand-pulled noodles into a culinary epiphany for me. Cumin had seeped into the juicy lamb chunks, too, washing away any untoward mutton-ness and caressing it with a nutty, deeply Middle-Eastern allure.

I was hooked – even if the Chinese pronounced cumin like its homonym naturally.

Ling’s face was flushed. We had shared a tall bottle of Beijing beer to soothe the zing of all the hot dried red peppers flecked throughout the soup. I looked around. It seemed as if everyone in Beijing had apple-red cheeks during this cold, autumn spell. Just the day before, Ling and I had run outside the Temple of Heaven, trying to escape gusting winds that lashed against our skin like ice daggers. Our week in Beijing was to end tomorrow and Ling put down her chopsticks, wiped her chili-oil smudged lips and made a promise for Toronto.

“More ziren,” she smiled. “You love it!”

Eleven years later, I sit in her refitted and renovated kitchen and watch Ling cook in her wheelchair. She zips from one end to the next, pulling small packages of meat from the freezer, scooping Jasmine rice from a lower bin and standing on her one leg to reach for items above the counter. I have brought her a big bag of raw cumin seeds and she rolls her wheelchair before the stovetop range and turns the front burner on high. In minutes, the beige-green seeds in the dry, hot wok turn chocolate brown and the room fills with a smoky, nutty aroma. Deftly, Ling tips the contents of the hot wok on to a plate. With a wooden spoon, I guide the seeds into a coffee grinder.

Some seeds scatter and we say “Ai Ya!” in unison.

I hold the top of the grinder down firmly as the machine whirls the seeds into powder. When I lift it off, twirls and wisps of cuminy, smoky clouds twist in the air.  Ling and I both poke our noses in the cloud and swoon.  Naturally.

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Spicy Cumin Beef

 Last spring, I enjoyed many cooking sessions with Ling and her fine cook, Lina who hails from Hunan Province where they eat as many – if not more – hot chillies than they do in Sichuan. Whenever Ling purchases flank steak, she slices it up into small packages for the freezer. During the prep for a dish, Ling lets the meat defrost slightly until it’s easy to slice up sliver-thin, toss into a bowl and marinate for at least 10 min.

150 g/5.2 oz    frozen flank steak

2 tsp                corn starch

1 tbsp              sherry/Shaoxing wine

1 tbsp              light tamari

2 tsp                roasted ground cumin

2 tbsp              vegetable oil

3                      oblong shallots, thinly sliced

3                      bell peppers (red, yellow and orange) thinly sliced

Pinch of salt

1 tbsp oil

1-inch piece    fresh ginger, peeled

3                      garlic, chopped

½ tsp               Ling’s fresh chili paste (see below)

1-2 tsp             chili oil

1 tbsp              Shao Xing Wine

Green onions, chopped

 

Slice defrosted flank steak as thinly as possible. Put in a bowl and marinate with corn starch, wine, tamari and cumin  (while you chop the veggies or put on some steamed rice).

Heat wok on high, add oil and stir-fry shallot and bell peppers with a pinch of salt until tender (about 3 min). Transfer to a plate and reserve.

Without cleaning the wok, add another tablespoon oil, put beef into the wok and pat it down flat to the surface to sear for 1 minute without stirring.  Once it is white around the edges, stir it until no longer red. Add stir-fried onions and bell peppers, fresh chili paste, chili oil and wine. Splash in some water if you want it saucier. Garnish with finely chopped green onions.

 

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Ling’s Salted Red Chili Peppers

Thinly slice 20 fresh hot red peppers. Place about a third in a small glass bowl or mason jar, sprinkle heavily with salt, layer with another third, salt, and add the final layer, the salt. Add a few drops vodka.  Mix with chopsticks and refrigerate. Beware, this is HOT.

 

 

 

 

 

Chapli Kebab

Chapli Kebab

 

Kebabs TP1 lb ground lamb or beef

1 finely diced medium tomato

1 finely diced medium onion

1 egg, beaten

1 tbsp ground coriander

1 tsp salt

1 tsp hot pepper flakes

1 tsp crushed garlic

Butter, melted

½ cucumber, diced

1 tomato, diced

Naan or pita bread

Sumac

In a large bowl, combine ground meat, tomato, onion, egg, coriander, salt, hot pepper flakes and garlic. Marinate for at least 2 hours or overnight. Soak bamboo skewers 30 min., if using.

Shape kebabs on skewers or as patties.

Baste skewered kebabs with melted butter and cook on a hot grill or under broiler for 2-3 minutes on each side or until no longer pink. Alternately, heat butter in a hot frying pan and cook patties 2-3 minutes per side or until fully cooked.

Serve on naan or pita bread with chopped cucumbers and tomatoes and a dollop of yogurt sauce. Garnish with a sprinkle of sumac.

Yogurt Sauce:   Drain one cup of plain yogurt in a cheesecloth-lined sieve over a bowl for one hour. In a medium bowl, combine drained yogurt, one diced jalapeno pepper, two tablespoons each of chopped mint and fresh coriander, a splash of lemon juice and salt to taste. 

 

Asian BBQed Chicken 101

My go-to marinade for pork or chicken is Asian-style.  That means soy sauce, cooking sherry and lots of shredded ginger and garlic: four essential items I like to have in my kitchen despite ginger’s proclivity to go into hiding. That spicy root likes to sneak behind a box of cereal or get buried in my crisper thus a couple of chopped green onions often must substitute. Add a little sesame oil and sugar and this marinade transforms into a rich teriyaki sauce that is soaked up by the meat and translates into something caramelized and super-moist on the barbecue.

IMG_1175Chicken thighs are a perfect place to begin. I’m talking bone-in, skin-on to ensure real flavour. Forget those fat and expensive chicken breasts that often taste no better than the Styrofoam they are packaged on.  We want dark, flavour-filled meat and you’ll find that with the thighs.

img_1178.jpgBarbecuing chicken with the skin-on may create flare-ups if cooked on direct heat. But any BBQ-pro knows to use indirect heat, heating the two outer grills on high and leaving the middle grill off. According to my in-house BBQ specialist, you need to pre-heat the outer grills for 5- 10 min (lid closed) then lay on the thighs, skin side up, along the centre grill. Wait a couple of minutes, turn them over, basting with the remaining marinade. A long cooking time, lid closed, with constant turning and basting are the keys to success, says my BBQ king.

Dark juicy meat calls for 30-40 min depending on the size of the thighs and heat of your grill.  Be sure to test one thigh before serving, making sure the juices run clear and the meat is well cooked, especially near the bone. You aren’t apt to overcook or dry out an Asian marinated chicken thigh but you might be tempted to say the cooking is over before it is.  Give these babies the time they need and know that they can rest covered with aluminum foil for up to 10 minutes before serving, too.

IMG_1180Chances are you’ll be drinking some beer or wine while you cook and perhaps entertaining. Despite all that partying, promise me you’ll keep food safety first and remember that barbecuing is the number one cause of a dreadful affair called cross-contamination.

Remember that dish you carried the raw meat or poultry out to the barbecue in? Send it (and its raw juices/contamination) right back to the kitchen once your marinated meat is cooking.  Use a new, clean platter to receive your cooked goods and alas, you will cross over into a land free of food poisoning and full of Asian barbecue flavour.

I like to serve Asian bbqed chicken with hot, steaming Jasmine rice,  stir-fried Shanghai bok choy and/or a quick cucumber salad. This meal is quintessential summer food, in my books.

Asian BBQed chicken thighs

While chili paste is essential to this marinade it does not produce a spicy chicken thigh.  Trust me.

½ cup   cooking sherry

¼ cup   soy sauce

1 tbsp  sesame oil

1 tsp    sugar

1 tsp    sambal oelek

1 inch knob ginger, grated

2 garlic cloves, pressed or grated

8          skin-on, bone-in chicken thighs

In a bowl, combine cooking sherry, soy, sesame oil, sugar, sambal oelek, ginger and garlic. Pour over chicken thighs (I like to marinate in a glass casserole with thighs in a single layer). Marinate for at least 30 min and up to overnight, in the fridge.

Barbecue thighs on indirect heat (as described above) for 30-40 minutes or until juices run clear and meat is thoroughly cooked.

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Stir-fried Shanghai bok choy

Most Asian markets carry this green leaf, green stem bok choy (about 8 inches long).

2 tbsp              canola oil

1-inch              knob ginger, grated

1                      large bunch Shanghai bok choy, stems and leaves separated, washed thoroughly and chopped

½ tsp               salt

Heat a wok on high.  Add oil and swirl around the sides of the work. Add ginger and stir rapidly for 10 seconds, add bok choy stems, stir 2 minutes. Add leaves, salt and ¼ cup water and cover with lid. Leave to steam/cook until leaves are wilted and stems are tender. Serve.

Easy Asian cucumber salad

English cucumbers are long and thin, wrapped in plastic and greenhouse grown, versus the pudgy, thick-skinned field-grown cucumbers.

1                      English cucumber, sliced thinly

2 tbsp              seasoned rice vinegar

1 tsp                sugar

1 tsp                sesame oil

Pinch               hot pepper flakes

¼ cup               chopped fresh coriander

Salt                  to taste

In a medium bowl combine all ingredients and serve.

 

 

 

Luxurious Lentils

I don’t think there is anything I make more regularly and with more satisfaction than soup. I never make a small pot, I always go big because soup is a mainstay of my diet and freezer. So is bread. One and one equals dinner or lunch, from season to season.

My friend Karen recently gave me a box full of pantry goodies.  She was cleaning out her gourmet cupboards for a move and decided she’d rather give me toys for my culinary sandbox  than put them in storage and out of usage for half a year.

“Mostly flavoured vinegars and lentils,” she droned, then spiced it up with “there’s a bottle of truffle oil, some wasabi and white Chinese fungus.”

It was the lentils that sung out for soup.

img_1202.jpgYet… lentils left to their own devices can create the most boring soup in the universe.

Under the spin of magic, lentils can also offer up mouthfuls of rich vegetarian Soup Bliss that is so complex, you’d want to shoot the writer who just wrote the last line’s blasphemy.

One such soup can be found in Myra Goodman’s delectable tome “Food to Live By: The Earthbound Farm’s Organic Cookbook”.  Her Mediterranean Lentil Soup is layered and rich, despite missing one of the most quintessential ingredients found in my soups: homemade chicken stock. To make matters more envious, this lentil soup reaches the finish line with nary a piece of bacon, prosciutto, ham, pancetta, sausage or speck.

I couldn’t do it. My copy of that cookbook was in the wrong city’s kitchen and none of its magical equation could be dredged up from the swamps of my memory.  Meanwhile, evil cooking gnats were hissing and spitting in the dark gutters of my hesitation, taunting with incantations of “You’ve got drab lentils, drab lentils!”

IMG_1194Thus, I gave my blonde curls a good shake and pulled out the bacon.

This in tribute to what I imagine was either a Spanish scam or one of Karen’s most luxurious food purchases ever.  Here was a bag containing just three cups of brown lentils with two, not one, $25 price stickers.  Highway robbery! I had to give these Mexican lentils the respect Karen’s wallet deserved, so I pulled out the big guns: a litre of freshly made chicken stock, simmered for 8 hrs on my backburner the day before.

I started chopping.

First, a quarter pound of PC Applewood smoked bacon which went into a large hot pot shimmering with olive oil. IMG_1198Next, a very crisp Walla Walla onion (love our Stateside produce from Washington), two stalks of celery, followed by a red and green bell pepper. Next, I cracked open a 796 ml can of no salt-added, organic “Terra Dolce” tomatoes that I bought – brand unknown – at Costco, gambling on a whole box that has delivered thrice the flavour for all its economy. Finally, in went a cup of Karen’s precious lentils washed and drained, followed by a litre of chicken stock.

Despite the bacon and homemade chicken stock, these lentils were heading perilously close to the oblivion of bland and comprehensive seasoning was in order.  I started by squeezing five cloves of roasted garlic into the brew, and chuckled with a witch’s glee as I rubbed two teaspoons of dried oregano from Karen’s box. No truthfully, I cackled, because Karen’s dried oregano is wickedly strong and full of oomph compared to the dross I had just given the sniff test from my spice cupboard.

Once I had dumped my old oregano stash into the compost pile, I was ready for more foraging through flavour-land (a.k.a. my spice drawer). IMG_1210A fat pinch of smoked paprika, a teaspoon of Club House ground cumin, one “DAN-D-PAK” hot, red dried pepper from Gerrard Chinatown, half a teaspoon of mild chile guajillo molido from Kensington Market, one chopped fresh green serrano pepper, half a cup of chopped fresh coriander and juice from half a lime. Because my stock is made without salt, I added a teaspoon of course Mediterranean sea salt from Italy, straight from Karen’s box (but without a price tag).

In less than half an hour, a scrumptious soup was born. Esta la vita!

 

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Karen’s Pantry Mexican Lentil Soup con Bacon

This is a spicy, full flavoured soup that brings lentils out of the pantry so they can live a little.

1 tbsp              olive oil

¼ lb.                PC Applewood smoked bacon, chopped into ½ inch slices

1                      large Walla Walla, Vidalia or Spanish onion, chopped

2                      stalks celery, chopped

1                      green bell pepper, chopped

1                      red bell pepper, chopped

1                      796 ml can tomatoes

4 cups              chicken stock

1                      cup small green lentils, washed and drained

5                      cloves roasted garlic (or 2 cloves, chopped)

2 tsp                dried oregano, rubbed

1 tsp                ground cumin

¼ tsp               smoked paprika

1                      hot dried red pepper, crushed

1                      fresh green serrano pepper, chopped

½ tsp               chile guajillo molido or mild chile powder

½ cup               fresh coriander, chopped

½                     lime, squeezed

1 tsp                sea salt * or to taste

Freshly ground black pepper

Heat oil in a large pot, add bacon and cook until golden and crispy.   Add onions, celery and peppers and sauté for five minutes or until fragrant. Add tomatoes, stock, lentils, oregano, garlic, cumin, smoked paprika, dried hot pepper, fresh serrano pepper and chile powder.  Bring to a boil then simmer for 20 minutes or until lentils are tender soft. Season with fresh coriander, lime juice, salt and pepper. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Media night at Mistura

Media dinners are staged to impress yet publicists often have trouble filling a table full of food writers. We get lots of invitations. Plus, we aren’t always ready to write about each and every meal that comes our way. But last night’s meal at Mistura (265 Davenport Rd) is a story I want to tell.

Every mouthful was remarkable and shared in the most convivial fashion. It marked the first media meal I’ve attended where the owner sat among us, introducing each dish with the kind of detail only a cook can possess, then looking out at us warmly, raising his glass in tribute and eating hungrily.img_8451

“Our agnolotti is stuffed with wild boar,” explained owner Paolo Paolini, as he introduced our primi course. “We reserve the cooking juices and combine with port or wine. To finish, we add sun-dried sour cherries. They add dimension.”

I could barely stifle the swoon from my lips after devouring half of my portion in one gulp. I looked to my right and watched wine writer Tony Aspler expertly slice small, exquisite pieces while quietly rolling his eyes in ecstasy.

I should have exhibited more professional control with the crispy artichoke appetizer, but it too, left my plate in seconds, swathed in a creamy, piquant sauce of fresh herbs, caper, gherkin and boiled egg.

Paolini introduced the artichokes as “crispy and flaky, never leathery like some artichokes can be” and at that instant, deep-fried crumbs crackled at the bite, raining down on my dress as wine writer Margaret Swaine proclaimed loudly, “these are better than any I have tasted in Rome.”

We are a jaded, opinionated bunch, tasting delicacies all across the city and around the world. Aspler had just returned from the 300th anniversary Chianti celebrations in Florence and Swaine was heading off to Wenzhou, China on a morning flight. But both had time for Mistura’s lamb ribs last night.

“These are our pride and joy. You can’t find lamb ribs anywhere except here at Mistura,” proclaimed Paolini, introducing succulent, meaty ribs bathed in a sweet, finely tempered Balsamic glaze.

“Where do you get them?” asked someone.

“Ah, ah, ah… a butcher!” stammered Paolini, smiling broadly at his coy response.

Luckily, his right hand man entered and further questioning ceased.  Executive chef Klaus Rohrich was wearing a chef’s jacket and a Blue Jays cap, nervously scanning the table full of food writers. Extracted from his kitchen domain, Rohrich looked exposed and twitchy, perhaps more due to the imminent Jays’ game than our inquiring gaze.

“Chef, tell us where you’ve trained?” asked the first and Rohrich murmured a muffled response about growing up cooking then entering the Mistura fold, cooking for years under the man he has now replaced: Massimo Capra.

Before more questions ensued, Paolini came to his rescue, extolling Rohrich’s charcuterie skills and his ability to use local and seasonal ingredients to recreate the Italian fare that has kept Mistura in business for 20 years.img_8449

Bubbly Prosecco and a huge platter of cured duck prosciutto, bresaola, cappicola, prosciutto and bellota pata negra was set out on a table to welcome our arrival. But it was the crostini slathered in duck liver pate that captured my attention and the warm mushrooms and gorgonzola hit a close second.

Pacing is a virtue that wise food critics employ at every professional opportunity but last night, I lost any workable tempo and simply dove in. Who could blame me when the salty, crisp skin of a pan-seared Branzino beckoned, offset by plump Manilla clams and even plumper cherry tomatoes? img_8457

Others would say no to dessert, but again, duty called and I obediently spooned up a voluptuous vanilla panna cotta draped in a strawberry sauce and studded with blueberries. A perfect medley of thick cream and soft, whipped air, mouthful after mouthful floated down my throat in sweet, puffy clouds.img_8460

Next, Paolini offered grappa and I started to shake my head wisely in abstention until the wine writers among us voiced their interest in this first Ontario-made grappa.

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“You need a separate license to distill,” they intoned, knowing that grappa is a recycled liquor made from wine-making’s dregs, its flavor akin to fire water. But this delightful potion had been supplemented with maple syrup and cayenne, to create a bewitching sip of sweet heat that closed the evening’s meal like a kiss.

Thai soup heaven

chiang mai noodle soup

It wasn’t until I went to the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai that I appreciated how a single soup can make a destination live forever in your memory. I was in my twenties, backpacking across Southeast Asia with my travelling buddy Anna. We had escaped Bangkok’s sauna bath heat and planned to make Chiang Mai just a quick layover – until we dipped our spoons into the creamy, golden contents of a certain noodle soup.

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