The rub on spices

Decades ago, I warned Toronto Star readers in my “Taste of Asia” column to throw out any ground spices and herbs in their cupboards older than six months. I said they were past their prime. Defunct. Bad stuff.

No one likes a bossy food writer, so I tried to soften the tone and replace visions of global spice carnage with a gentle challenge: Close your eyes, open a random bottle and take a whiff.IMG_2593

“If you can’t smell anything, toss it,” I cajoled.

Well, I’m still on a spice rant after all these years. Commercially dried and ground spices and herbs lose most of their je ne sais quoi the moment they are harvested and processed, for it is at this juncture that their flavour-filled essential oils begin to degrade.

It gets worse.

When herbs and spices are ground into a powder, they are exposed to the ravages of oxidization and time… especially if they fall into obscurity in a deranged spice drawer like mine.

Luckily, mine underwent a radical makeover last week. I threw out all the wizened and yellowed dried red peppers, aroma-less ground powders of dubious distinction and the contents of any package, bottle or tin box that landed in said drawer prior to 2015 – with the exception of nutmeg.IMG_2545

I’m the proud owner of some relatively ancient nutmeg nuts, encased in shells and decorated with a fancy filament of mace. They come from Grenada and I began to horde them after several culinary visits to the Spice Island of the Caribbean. Alas, these nutmegs have broken all my self-imposed “Spice and Herb Guidelines”. They demonstrate incredible flavour once I hack off the shell with the blunt end of a knife and finely grate with my Cuisipro rasp.IMG_2586

The places this nutmeg goes! Sometimes it’s just a sprinkle over a Grenada-style rum punch. Or, a teaspoon into garam masala bound for a Punjabi-style curry. So alive are my nutmeg relics that a taster at my table recently detected a single smidgen slipped into a creamy, rich Yukon gold potato gratin.

Despite an undeniably close connection to the ever-popular nutmeg, mace is one loner of a spice. It boasts a well-known affinity with pumpkin, but just doesn’t seem to pop up on the recipe radar otherwise. You can imagine my glee, when I stumbled on a rub recipe calling for a whopping teaspoon of the stuff. I had some whole mace at my fingertips and was ready to put it through the grinder.

IMG_2545I simply peeled the lacy filaments off my whole nutmegs and placed them in my trusty spice blender that has continued to get revved up over all the cumin, cinnamon, cloves, cardamom (green and black), peppercorns, hot peppers, coriander, all spice, fennel and fenugreek I have been feeding it for the past three decades.

In went the mace filaments and out came a surprisingly pumpkin-toned powder that tasted more pungent and citrusy than its soul-sister nutmeg. When I closed my eyes and did a side-by-side sniff of the two, it was difficult to tell them apart. No wonder McCormick spice’s web site suggests putting either one in many of the same destinations, be it custards, eggnog, spice-filled quick breads or dusted on steamed veggies like carrots or sugar snap peas.IMG_2546IMG_2550

Back to the rub, which I spotted in my beloved Joy of Cooking but as per usual, put my own riff on. I chose it not only for the mace, but all the roasted cumin and cracked peppercorns.

Admittedly, cumin is my favourite. Sometimes I grind it raw, but I’m more apt to first toast the seeds in a dry frying pan over medium heat until they start to smoke. (Dry-frying spices is a risky venture as there’s a fine line between browning and burning. It helps to keep a sample of raw cumin seeds nearby as you dry-fry, to offer a visual comparison.) I like to grind the cumin seeds while they’re hot so as to savour the hot cloud of nutty cumin smoke released when the lid comes off.

IMG_2554I used my Thai mortar and pestle to crack or coarsely grind the black peppercorns used in this rub. To add authenticity, I took my hulking mortar outside, placed it on my back deck and visualized the northern Thai town of Fang where I saw countless fine cooks squat and pound – a satisfying way to approach this kitchen tool and more effective than placing it on a kitchen counter.

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Last but not least, salt. If you like smoky flavours, check out Salish, an Alderwood smoked sea salt.

 

 

Smokey, toasty pork rub

Get out your spice grinder and have some fun concocting this gorgeous mixture. Whole nutmeg nuts can be found in Kensington or St Lawrence Market or Little India. Try this on grilled pork chops, baby back ribs or slow-cooked pork shoulder. Rub one tablespoon per pound just prior to cooking or better still, rub and refrigerate overnight.

½ cup sweet or smoked paprika

¼ cup ground roasted cumin

¼ cup packed brown sugar

¼ cup cracked/coarsely ground black peppers

2 tbsp hot cayenne powder

2 tbsp sea salt

1 tbsp chile guajillo molido (or any mild chile powder)

1 tbsp smoked salt

2 tsp mace

© 2015 Madeleine Greey

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My mango mania

I met my first mango in Taiwan in 1980 and it was love at first bite.  Like so much for me in Asia then, a mango was terribly exotic and new. I was floored by its fresh, juicy, tropical taste and loved eating it “inside out”,  those luscious orange cubes popping out from a leathery,  inverted skin.thai20ice

Mango orchards covered much of Taiwan and small mountains of these fruits used to fill the markets during mango season. On a student budget, this was something I could afford to binge on, but my Chinese Auntie was appalled by my ravenous appetite.

“Too much yang,” she’d scold, wagging a finger. “This fruit is too yang. It’s  too hot!  It’s going to make you sick.”

It didn’t.

I know that Chinese notions of dietary, yin-yang balance are centuries old and very wise but when mango season comes to town, I open wide and gobble up.

IMG_1704Every spring in Toronto these yellow, kidney-shaped mangoes called Ataulfo and Alphonso start to appear and I can’t wait to peel off their skin and slice into their rich golden, fibreless skin. Deeply sweet and intoxicating, it’s no wonder Persians named it samarbehist or fruit from heaven.

I’m happy to eat it straight for breakfast, or slice it up and toss it into a fruit or green leafy salad. It goes into my Thai mango salad and stars in a salsa (recipe below). Sometimes I’ll cook up some coconut sticky rice and serve that adorned with thin slices of mango. Nothing beats it pureed into a mango lassi or strawberry smoothie.

Besides rocking in the taste department, mango is a nutritional powerhouse, ranked right up there in the top ten list of good-for-you fruits. It’s an excellent source of vitamin A, high in C and a source of fibre, vitamins E and B6. Moreover, it’s bursting with carotenoids (plant pigments) such as beta carotene and zeaxanthin, which protect against cancer, enhance immunity and help to prevent age-related macular degeneration, the leading cause of blindness.

Before Ataulfo and Alphonso entered the market, most consumers were familiar with Haden, Kent or Tommy Atkins mango. These are oblong or roundish, about the size of an adult hand, covered in green skin splashed with red and sometimes yellow patches. They usually weigh about twice that of the smaller yellow ones.

IMG_1711It’s good to know that colouring does not indicate ripeness in a mango. How it feels, does. A ripe mango should yield to slight pressure and have the feel of good leather. Sniff around the stem end. A ripe mango will emit an intense, flowery smell.

Two new varieties of mango have become available, the big green Keitt from the USA and the Pango Mango from Puerto Rico. Both are large meaty mangoes. The Keitt stays green, even when ripe.   And the newly developed green Pango Mango with its reddish blush has no fibre at all.

MANGO SALSA

Serves 4

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This salsa offers up a quartet of flavours: sweet, sour, salty and hot. It’s a cinch to make and, like most salsas, the flavours intensify if you let it sit in the fridge for a few hours before serving. Mango salsa is the perfect counterpoint to grilled poultry or fish, Tex-Mex dishes or even curry served on rice. Be sure to use fully ripe mangoes.

2 ripe mangoes, peeled and diced into 1/4-1/2-inch cubes

1/2 cup            chopped red onion

1 clove garlic, crushed

1/4 cup            chopped fresh coriander

Juice of 1 +1/2 limes

2 roasted sweet peppers   * optional

1 large dried hot pepper, dry-roasted

Salt

In a non-metallic mixing bowl, add the mangoes, red onion, garlic, fresh coriander and lime juice. Dice roasted red peppers if using and add to mixture. Chop dried chili pepper and add to salsa mixture. Salt to taste. Refrigerate for at least 1 hour before serving for best results.

 Dry-roasting your dried chili peppers helps brings out richer flavours.   Plus, it’s simple to do. Either roast it in a dry frying pan at medium heat for a few minutes or until it turns dark brown, or roast it in your toaster oven. It’s easy to burn a dried red chili pepper, so watch it carefully.

Getting all steamed up over fish

When I lived in Taipei, Taiwan I discovered steamed fish. It seemed to be on every restaurant menu and highlighted the divine, subtle flavours of fish.

IMG_6932The hallmark of this dish is its simplicity. Any klutz in the kitchen can do it. That’s because steaming is a moist and gentle way to cook the piscine population and even if you steam a little longer than necessary, it won’t (OMG!) dry it out.

Start with a steamer. If you don’t have one, make the trek to the best housewares shop in town: Tap Phong Trading (360 Spadina Ave, (416) 977-6364) where you’ll find many options, from the standard bamboo baskets that fit inside a wok or over a pot, to a full stainless ensemble with pot, stackable trays and cover. The latter is easier to clean and less prone to mildew. Many rice and slow cookers also convert into steamers. No matter the format, make sure you find a steamer that is wide enough to accommodate a pie plate since the fish cooks in sauce and steamer trays are full of holes.

IMG_5109Next step: choose your fish. Salmon, halibut, tilapia, sea bass, cod, haddock, sole… you name it. Anything can work from inexpensive, supermarket frozen fillets to local fresh findings. Both Bill’s Lobster (599 Gerrard St. E; 416-778-0943) and Hooked (888 Queen St. E; 416-828-1861) are walking distance from my kitchen and both offer excellent fish and service. While you are there, nab a recipe or tip from them. Bill’s wife has plenty of quick culinary ideas, as do all the staff at Hooked who use the tagline “we are chefs, first.”

You’ll need to access your inner chef when slicing the fresh ginger. Go thin. Once you’ve peeled a three-inch piece, cut lengthwise into paper-thin slices then stack them together and slice into thin matchsticks.

Mirin makes this dish. It’s a Japanese rice wine similar to sake, but with a lower alcohol content and higher sugar content. Most Asian food stores sell it. In a pinch, you can use sherry, cooking wine, Vermouth or dry white wine but add half a teaspoon of granulated sugar to the cooking liquid if you do.IMG_5110

Simple steamed rice is the perfect compliment. The fish steams up a delicious sauce of its own that will soak into the rice. Stir-fried baby Shanghai bok choy rounds out the meal perfectly.

© 2015 Madeleine Greey

Chinese-style steamed fish

1 lb (450 gm) fresh or (defrosted) frozen sea bass, cod, salmon, haddock, tilapia or halibut fillet, cut into 4 pieces

Sauce:

1 + 1/2 TBS black bean and garlic sauce OR 2 tsp soy sauce

2 tsp sesame oil

2 TBS water

2 TBS Japanese mirin

1 three-inch knob ginger, peeled and thinly sliced into matchsticks

3 green onion OR 1 small leek, thinly sliced lengthwise

2 TBS fresh coriander, chopped

Mix sauce ingredients in a small bowl.

Place fillets in a heat-proof dish that will fit inside an aluminum or bamboo steamer. (Or, create your own steamer by placing a rack set in a large skillet.)

Using a spoon, place an equal amount of sauce on each fillet. Sprinkle over with ginger matchsticks and green onions or leek.

Bring several inches of water to boil in the steamer. Wearing oven gloves, place the dish with fillets into the steamer.

Cover and steam 8-10 minutes on high, or until the fish flakes at the touch of a fork and is opaque in the middle.

Garnish with fresh coriander and serve over steamed rice.

© 2015 Madeleine Greey

Deconstructing Chianti

“The baron is standing right over my left shoulder,” enthuses the man offering me a glass of wine, nodding his head in that direction. “I’m not kidding. A real baron.”

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Sidekick on the left, Baron Francesco Ricasoli on the right.

So I look. I have to. I am drinking the man’s homegrown Chianti and am curious what a real baron looks like. Suave and impeccably attired, he’s smiling ear-to-ear. Who wouldn’t in his shoes?

Baron Francesco Ricasoli is thirty-second in a long line of barons overseeing Ricasoli estate in Tuscany, the essential birthplace of Chianti where his forebearer Baron Bettino Ricasoli developed the first modern Sangiovese-based Chianti recipe in the 1800s. (I’m not sure if this happened before or after Bettino became Italy’s second prime minister, but do know his governmental office shows just how seriously Italians take their wine).

I met the present-day Baron Francesco Ricasoli at the Canadian unveiling of Chianti Classico Gran Selezione on June 16 at The Carlu and planned to take this wine tasting as seriously as a wine-drinking journalist can. I was up for the slow amble… table to luxurious table, tasting endless glasses of voluptuous Italian red wines. I took notes. I asked questions. And I leaned into the shiny, silver spittoons IMG_7630with grace and feigned expertise, all the while knowing I’d  rely heavily on a certain wine guy once back in front of my computer, writing this piece.

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Wine Guy Randy Hodge

In my books, nobody knows wine better than Randy Hodge. He will tell you the contrary, but that’s just part of his charm. Randy is all about enjoying wine and accepting personal preferences.

Like mine.

Randy and I both knew I had a grudge against Chianti. Turns out the first glass I met didn’t appeal and I’d never given another one a chance – until The Carlu wine tasting where every single drop went down like pure elixir.

It didn’t hurt that I was sampling Chianti Classico Gran Selezione, which in wine-speak means top-rung. Most of the bottles I tasted retailed for no less that $50. But honestly, after my second or third sampling, I couldn’t articulate a single, sober tasting note or fact.IMG_7625

For Chianti is more than just an intoxicating drink. It’s a confusing and complicated puzzle, unless Randy is leading the tour.

He says the first thing to understand is the terroir of this wine. All Chianti hails from Tuscany and is sanctioned as a DOCDenominazione di Origine Controllata (controlled designation of origin). In other words, wine makers can’t put “Chianti” on the label unless it comes from the designated area (parceled into seven sub-regions, of course). Strictly defined, regular Chianti must contain no less than 75% Sangiovese (a red) but can contain white grapes in the remaining 25%.

The specs don’t end there. Up one notch from regular, old Chianti is Chianti Classico, with its black rooster logo and yet another award: it gets a “G” on the end of its DOC making for a Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita (DOCG) pointing to a smaller, higher quality regional area. The Chianti Classico consortium currently rules, I mean, stipulates that Chianti Classico must contain no less than 80% Sangiovese grape (and rules out white in the mix, calling for red grapes only in the other 20 %)  which explains those “bright red cherry flavours” Randy says dominate this medium-bodied wine.

Chianti Riserva, he says, is another story. The best comes from Classico and Rufina sub-regions and is often aged in oak barrels from an estate’s best grapes. These tend to be fuller in body and richer in flavour. Think black cherry.

And if all these notes, regions and classifications aren’t enough to make non-wine-geeks quit their wine education, Randy jokes that the “Chianti Mafia” have upped the ante with Chianti Classico Gran Selezione, which goes another step, aging up to 30 months, versus the Riserva’s measly 24.

IMG_7622Forget the rules and regs.  Have a glass and taste this newcomer for yourself!  I can heartily recommend the pricey Ricasoli Colledilà Chianti Classico 2010 Sangiovese the baron was pouring. As I savoured its nuance, the baron’s  sidekick giddily pointed at the drawing on the label, bragging “That’s his house, no joking!”

But when I go Chianti shopping on my dime, I’ll stick to Randy’s guidelines. He says reliable producers of Chianti Classico are Fontodi, Fonterutoli, Castello di Ama, Badia a Coltibuono,  Castello di Querceto and Volpaia. Look for these at Vintages and expect pricing to range from $20-$25. For the economical among us, there are even under $20 bottle such as Rocca di Castagnoli, Valiano, Cennatoio and Lornano.

P1030353But beyond the right bottle is the right food pairing.  Rich, meat infused tomato sauces makes a great match for Chianti’s relative lightness and bright fruitiness. P1030276Shut your eyes tightly and travel to Tuscany on your palate. If visions of wild boar, Pecorino cheese, grilled lamb and forest mushrooms dance before your food-obsessed imagination, nab them. All will make fine companions for this age-old wine that funnily enough, made its first crude debut in a fiasco, or flat bottom carafe woven in straw. Yet nothing about Chianti is a ludicrous failure, especially when a perfect bottle graces your lips and turns a fine meal into an aria.

The Fish Store

I’ve been on a fish kick lately, eating it much more regularly than I usually do because truth be told, fish can throw me off my game. Every time I eat a flaky, moist fork-full of perfectly cooked salmon,Rainbow Trout tilapia or black cod I dive in with true adoration, savouring every mouthful, but the food issues inherent to our finned friends often throw me a curve ball. I get to thinking about their dwindling numbers and feel guilty if there isn’t an Ocean Wise logo nearby. It gets worse when I start to ponder mercury or the high price tag of fresh caught fish.

Enter the fish sandwich.

Of late, it’s been canned wild sockeye salmon for my noontime repast. Not only is the provenance of this fish considered as politically correct as you can go, but even the Food Police agree that the bones are edible and calcium rich. Give the can a drain, spritz the lot with fresh lemon juice and lay on the Asian ingredients: finely chopped fresh coriander, green onions and mayo whipped up with a healthy dose of sriracha sauce. Roll it up in a tortilla with some baby greens and few wraps satisfy better.

Or ditch the kitchen and head to the numero uno fish shack in town – aptly named- The Fish Store (657 College St. at Grace).IMG_7025

Is it a store or a resto? The answer is both and the space is a lot less than you’d think when considering this tandem offering. In fact, summer is the best time to visit as the front patio affords more seating than the closet-sized interior with its two small tables for two. Pull open the door and not two feet away is the cash register with a huge display of fresh fish on ice and another foot away, there’s Chef Mama toiling away.

Take your pick: Tuna, shrimp, calamari, wild sockeye salmon, grouper, snapper, tilapia, scallops, halibut and black cod all ready for purchase or cooked à la minute.

Despite the lack of space, there’s no lack of signage, IMG_7026advertising a slew of dining options at unbeatable prices, be it sandwich, burrito, salad, tacos or the ”brown rice meal”. No deep fryer to be found here plus a gentle emphasis on good health, from the whole wheat option in the sandwich bun to the brown rice.

On a recent visit on a cold rainy day, I was warmed by a luscious bowl of butternut squash soup ($3.99) that was perfectly calibrated in both sweet and IMG_7028 salty departments and duly rich in deep, squash flavour. I asked Mama for the recipe but she laughed sweetly and declined. Beside her work section is a shelf piled high with their signature paposecos bun (from nearby Golden Wheat bakery) all pre-loaded with sliced tomatoes, red onions and lettuce.

I ordered the day’s special – grouper – and was rewarded with three flash-fried and very fat morsels of silken, juicy fish pillowed in a soft bun draped in a garlicky, tangy vinaigrette. IMG_7029What’s not to love about this combo of hot, insanely fresh fish, mixed up with the soft yeasty bun and the crunch of lettuce? I could imagine ordering several and getting lost in consumption… staring out the sea-blue paned windows of this ultra adorable eatery for hours.

But all good things come to an end and The Fish Store does it aptly. IMG_7027When it’s time to pay at the cash register, Papa Hwang nods down at the tattered edges of a cardboard box full of complimentary pieces of personal-sized gum that he has painstakingly and individually hand cut from a sleeve of Dentyne. I like to oblige him and “ooh and aah” a little between chomps of the gum, saying goodbye to my garlic after-glow but not to the memory of the finest fish sandie in town.

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Taxi Cuisine

My friend David takes a lot of Toronto taxis.

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In the course of a couple of kilometres, he unearths huge chunks of personal history from the guy-behind-the-wheel, lapping up and identifying their accents, then hitting on pure gold – from a food writer’s perspective. When the average driver thinks “back home” food appears like a sparkling mirage on the horizon.

And I depend on David for a complete recounting.

He retells their food fables to me and I’m transfixed by lush mango groves and tales of chins dripping with sweet juice. I follow their food steps into crowded, open-air markets thick with long-robed shoppers eyeing over endless mounds of pistachios, dates, saffron and coriander seed.

But it’s the detailed recipes David recites the minute he gets out of a cab that absolutely enthrall. Like that Bombay fish recipe calling for two mysterious spices that we could rub into a nameless finned species… that oh, we would learn the name of if we went to a certain fish monger on Parliament Street. There, David would drop his cabbie friend’s name like a password and all the rest of the dish would unfold – like magic.

It all sounded delectable but way too unreachable for my inner impatient cook. So I got in a cab of my own and started asking around for Indian restaurant recommendations.

“My wife,” chuckled the driver, who then proceeded to give me a blow-by-blow description of the Chapli kebab they had plans to make together that evening, right after his shift. While he distinctly called for ground beef and suggested I shape this kebab into a patty, I had (as usual) a different vision.

IMG_7272I raced off to  Mister Greek Meat Market (801 Danforth Ave; 416-469-0733) where freshly ground lamb is usually on hand, or can be made to order.

Sadly, Mister Greek doesn’t stock sumac, which is one part of this recipe I wasn’t going to fudge. President’s Choice has recently introduced Black Label sumac ($4.99 a bottle in the spice section), but I am leery of its tagline “tangy and fruity with a touch of saltiness”. I don’t want salt in my sumac, I just want those ground up little berries prized for their tangy, yet non-acidic lemony flavour. Look for it in Indian and Middle Eastern grocery stores and toss it over grilled meat, poultry and fish, or dips like humus or white bean.

Shaping these kebabs is a little tricky. You can listen to my driver and skip the skewer and opt for a patty, but I like to roll the meat around a skewer for a pogo stick kind-of-look. I love tandoor-style keema kebabs rolled this way and just had to do it for this chapli kebab. Use metal or bamboo skewers, but remember to soak the bamboo ones in water first for 30 minutes if you don’t want them to catch on fire under the hot broiler as mine did.

Kebabs TP

Chapli Kebab

1 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.

Serves four.

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.