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Wednesday
Apr202005

Two New Cookbooks!

cookbooks2.jpg

Here's a short quiz designed to determine if you suffer from chronic cookbook compulsion. Answer as honestly as you can - if not detected early this condition can have devastating consequences for your marriage, your job - even your home decor!

Which of the following applies to you?
a. You buy new cookbooks because you want them, not because you need them
b. You're willing to miss your favorite television shows in order to read your new cookbooks
c. When you try unsuccessfully to fit them on your bookshelf you conclude the problem is not the number of cookbooks, but the number of bookshelves
d. You wake up your disgruntled husband at night to ask, "honey, which one of these should I make first?"
e. You get up before the alarm, sacrificing precious sleep, in order to look at your new cookbooks some more
f. Realizing you won't be able to live without your new cookbooks for a whole day, you sneak them into work where you surreptitiously glance at them when no one else is looking
g. All of the above

Oh dear, I'm too ashamed to tell you which answer applies to me, but seeing as I wrote the quiz, I suppose you'll be able to figure it out.

My new cookbooks, hot off the Amazon.co.uk press, are:

crazywater.jpgCrazy Water, Pickled Lemons
by Diana Henry

I've been drooling over this cookbook in the bookstore for over a year, and felt the time had finally come to drool over a copy of my own. Diana Henry has collected recipes from around all the shores of the Mediterranean for this book, and grouped them by theme, so that every chapter has recipes that share common ingredients and have whimsical names like The Spice Trail, Fruits of Longing, Of Sea and Salt, and Fragrance of the Earth. The recipes are spectacular and unusual; the writing is evocative, poetic and sensual. She recounts personal experiences and anecdotes about the foods she describes; you feel you are experiencing the people, places and history of these foods through the pages of this book before you've even tasted the foods. The photographs are vivid and luminous. A magical book, a piece of art and inspiration as much as a catalogue of recipes.

Sample recipes:
Duck Breast with Walnut and Pomegranate Sauce
Lavender, Orange and Almond Cake
Moroccan Chicken with Tomatoes and Saffron-Honey Jam
Date-Stuffed Mackerel with Spicy Broth and Couscous
Baked Sweet Potatoes with Marinated Feta and Black Olives
Lemon and Basil Ice Cream
Piadina with Caramelized Onions, Walnuts and Taleggio
Chocolate and Rosemary Sorbet
Spinach and Feta-Stuffed Pork with Cardamom-Spiced Oranges
Amalfi Lemon and Honey Jam
Provencal Roast Lamb stuffed with Figs, Goat's cheese and Walnuts
Spiced Quinces with Crema Catalana

casamoro.jpgCasa Moro
by Samuel and Samantha Clark

This book palpably abounds with love - love between the authors and their family, love of the cuisine they describe, and love of their adopted land in the south of Spain. The authors are the husband-and-wife team behind the popular London restaurant Moro, which serves their own particular interpretation of Spanish, North African and Middle Eastern food. This book is their second, and includes both recipes they serve at the restaurant and dishes they've learned from their neighbors in the small village in southern Spain where they live part-time. The photographs have a curious washed-out 1950s quality to them; I've seen this in other books recently and can't quite understand it. They're artistic in their own way, I suppose, but I would rather see food photographed in such luminous and vivid colors that you feel you want to eat the page. The recipes are amazing, however, and there are many of them; they cover much the same ground as Crazy Water, Pickled Lemons, but they seem more rustic and hearty, an impression which is probably helped along by the photographic style.

Sample recipes:
Fried Aubergines with Honey
Saffron, Tahini and Yogurt Soup
Carrot Puree with Caraway and Feta
Rabbit with Rosemary Rice
Hot Chorizo Salad with Fino Sherry
Blood Orange and Rosewater Sorbet
Spiced Beef Salad with Fenugreek and Hummus
Pork in Almond Sauce
Chicken and Cardamom Dumplings
Dates with Coffee and Cardamom
Pistachio, Orange and Almond Tart
Roast Chicken Stuffed with Sage and Labneh
Chocolate, Chestnut and Almond Cake

Yum! Time to start cooking...

Tuesday
Apr192005

Edinburgh Gems: Suruchi Restaurant

suruchifood.jpgAs you may have deduced, I'm an Indian food junkie. When I first moved to Britain and realized how ubiquitous Indian food is here, I was delirious with joy. I'll never forget my first day in Edinburgh, how driving through the city I nearly jumped out of my seat with each new Indian restaurant we passed - the Delhi Diner, the Bombay Bicycle Club, the Taj Takeaway... Visions of tamarind chutneys, saffron-laced sauces, spicy kebabs and koftas danced dizzily before my eyes as I quickly tried to calculate if my student stipend would reach to cover Indian dinners seven nights a week. That first night Manuel and I bypassed the supermarket and made a beeline for the nearest Indian restaurant, not even stopping to read the menu. We figured that with so many vying for diners' business, they must all be good, right?

Wrong. That dinner was beyond awful. We ordered two meat curries, two vegetable side dishes, some rice, naan and lassis, and the only good thing I could say about any of this was that the rice was well cooked. One of the meat curries had unnaturally-textured pieces of chicken breast floating in a tasteless, insipid sauce, while the other curry was so scorchingly hot that we almost couldn't tell that it was the exact same sauce apart from the kilo of hot chiles they'd added. There were no velvety, unctuous sauces, no pungent aromas of garlic and ginger, no subtle fragrance of spices - in short, no taste whatsoever. I remember we paid a small fortune for that meal, and slunk out with our tails between our legs, praying that by some freak accident we'd ended up at the only bad Indian restaurant in Edinburgh. How I wish that had been the case.

I have since learned that mediocre Indian restaurants have a long history in Britain. In the early 1950s, when the first wave of Indian immigrants opened up restaurants, they quickly discovered that in order to sell any food (for they couldn't just feed the Indian community, since they mostly cooked and ate at home), they needed to please local tastes. At that time anything like Indian food would have been very unfamiliar to the majority of the island's inhabitants, and these new food entrepreneurs had to figure out ways to not only make their food palatable, but also cost-effective. What was born is now referred to as the "Indian restaurant secret", but it's actually not much of a secret. These early restauranteurs came up with a formula that would form the basis of nearly every sauce the restaurant used, and it was basically just a mixture of tomato puree and oil. On top of that they would add cheap spice mixes and powdered garlic and ginger, along with other things to distinguish the sauces from one another. Liberal amounts of cream went into the famous 'Korma', things like bananas, pineapple and coconut were added to make 'Malay' and 'Kashmir' curries, and everything else was basically just a variation of the tomato-oil-powdered-spice formula with different vegetables and meats. It was obviously a hit, because Indian food quickly took off in popularity and within a relatively short span acquired the iconic status it has today in British culinary culture*. The only problem was that as tastes for everything else changed over the years, many of Britain's Indian restaurants stuck to this tried-and-true formula, with generation after generation of Indian restaurants succumbing to the bland monotony of the 'Indian restaurant secret'.

Obviously every rule has an exception, and good Indian food can be found if you look hard enough. Of course there are sleek, stylish, 'Indian interpretation' restaurants in every British big city by now, where you pay enormous sums of money for small portions of artfully-arranged, innovatively-flavored subcontinental cuisine. What I've been searching for, however, is a restaurant that has no Euro-chic pretentiousness, no high prices, just generous portions and generous flavors. At the top of my list for exactly this style of food is a little restaurant on Edinburgh's south side, near the University, which has developed a delightful fusion between Scottish humor and Indian cooking.

Suruchi Restaurant is tucked up some stairs in a slightly claustrophobic space and has decor that reminisces of someone's aging Indian grandmother. That's easy to overlook, however, because the service is friendly, the food is magnificent, and to top it all off, the menu is in Scots. They have the best Butter Chicken in the city, a velvety, slightly sweet blend of tomatoes, cream, butter, and spicy tandoori chicken. They have Lamb Malabar, which has tender pieces of lamb simmered in a chunky toasted-coconut sauce, or Chicken Nirvana, which blends chicken with South Indian flavors of coconut milk, mustard, lemongrass and curry leaves. Their meat kebabs are magnificent, spicy and succulent, as are their vegetable pakoras, little balls of perfectly spiced fried chickpea batter (which come with some mango chutney so good I end up licking the bowl...). Another unusual offering is their Simla chaat, which is kind of like a spicy pickled salad, enlivened with potatoes, cilantro, crunchy chickpeas and banana. While the restaurant is pleasant enough to eat in, we mostly end up getting takeaway food, because at Suruchi it represents such a good deal: while most of their main dishes hover in the 7-9 pound range, a takeaway order for one has any starter and almost any main dish you want with rice or naan included and costs a mere £8.50. Such a deal! And for those who need a little more Scotland with their India, Suruchi is the (as far as I know) only restaurant in the world to offer haggis pakoras - and believe it or not, they are tasty.

Now that's how I like to see Indian food adapted for local tastes! :)

*At work we have a microwave that provides pre-programmed settings for the foods most commonly eaten in the UK. Number one on that list, above bread, jacket potatoes and chicken, is 'curry'. No one can figure out how much curry this setting is supposed to heat, or what kind of curry - meat, vegetable, beans, thick sauce or thin? - but it's clear that somebody somewhere must be pretty confident of what this mystery curry must be!

Suruchi Indian Restaurant
14a Nicolson Street
(Opposite Festival Theatre)
Edinburgh EH8 9DH
Tel: 0131 556-6583
Friday
Apr152005

Caramelized Zucchini Soup with Rosemary and Walnuts

zucchinisoup.jpg

It's the scenario that haunts us all from time to time: you come home from work, you're hungry, it's late, you open the fridge - and there's nothing there. Maybe the supermarket is closed or too far away, maybe you're just too tired to go, but in any case there's no question of acquiring more ingredients. Don't panic. And don't pick up the phone to call for a pizza just yet. Do you have any vegetables hidden away at the back your fridge, or maybe in your freezer? If not, I'm afraid I can't help you, so go ahead and order that pizza. But if you do, you might want to try my formula for concocting a soul-warming soup from the dregs of your refrigerator and cupboards. It's nearly foolproof, because it allows for infinite variations based on what you have on hand. And I like the results so much I even use it when my fridge is full!

I haven't given any exact measurements here, because everything will depend on the quantity of vegetables you have. The best strategy is to add things sparingly if you're not sure, and increase the quantity later on if you want more. As far as the stock goes, it's better to have too little than too much, because you can always add more to thin things out, whereas it can take quite a while to boil off what you don't want (and you run the risk of things getting too salty with over-reduction).

Step 1. The vegetable. This can be whatever you have on hand, including a mixture of different things. Great options are zucchini, winter squash, sweet potato, leeks, corn, spinach, peppers, parsnip, turnip, eggplant, cauliflower, broccoli, tomatoes, beets, onions...
Step 2. The caramelization. This step primes the vegetable to release as much flavor as possible in the soup. For most vegetables, just cut them into manageable chunks (not too small), toss them with olive oil in a roasting pan and put them in a 375-degree oven for as long as they need to get a bit crusty and caramelized. Things like eggplant, peppers, tomatoes, winter squash and sweet potato can be roasted in their skins (peppers, tomatoes and eggplant can even be charred under the broiler if you like) and then peeled before proceeding. I also toss several *unpeeled* cloves of garlic in the pan with the vegetables. When the veggies are nicely caramelized, put them into a heavy-bottomed pot on the stove. Don't forget to peel the garlic.
Step 3. The stock. Honestly, I use bouillon cubes (Not anymore - I use Better than Bouillon! Try the organic chicken. You'll never use cubes again!). If I had the patience to make homemade stock I would use that, but whatever you have on hand will be fine. Cover the vegetables with the stock so that they're covered by about a 1/2 inch of liquid.
Step 4. The herbs and spices. Fresh or dried - it's your choice. There are the usual suspects, such as basil, thyme and curry, and untraditional ones, which are only limited by your imagination. Try chipotle chiles, or even chocolate! Toss in as many as you like and let everything simmer until the vegetables are starting to get soft.
Step 5. The enhancement. Here is where you can really get creative. Nuts are fantastic here, they add thickness and character without overpowering the other flavors. Walnuts, almonds, pecans, hazelnuts, cashews - lightly toast a handful and add them to the soup. Let them simmer with everything else for at least 10-15 minutes. Peanut or other nut butters are also great, as are grated or crumbled cheeses - though I add these just before the final step so they don't get stringy. Parmesan, smoked mozzarella, cheddar, pepper jack, feta, goat... Something else I've been experimenting with lately is booze: brandy, port, marsala, vermouth, sherry... Like the cheese, add a glug or two just before the end.
Step 6. The enrichment. This brings it all together, gives the soup some richness and thickens it up. Traditional is of course cream, but there are other possibilities: cream cheese, yogurt, coconut milk, butter... The only thing to remember here is that some of these don't take too well to boiling, so heat the soup gently after this step.
Step 7. The emulsion. If you have a hand blender, this step will be a cinch. If you only have a normal blender, carefully pour the hot liquid into it and cover the top tightly with a towel before you turn it on. Trust me on this one - if you don't keep that lid down with all your strength, you will have new decor on your kitchen walls!
Step 8. The final tweak. Check to make sure the balance of salt is to your liking; think about also whether a pinch of sugar or a squeeze of lemon would enhance the flavors. Correct the seasoning, heat for another couple of minutes, and serve to hungry people in big steaming bowls.

Some of my favorite combinations:
zucchini with rosemary and walnuts
sweet potato with curry, cashews and coconut milk
corn, yellow pepper and basil
cauliflower, almond and parmesan
eggplant with cumin, cilantro and lemon
butternut squash with sage, pecans and browned butter
broccoli, thyme and blue cheese
roasted red pepper with cilantro, feta and lime
mushroom (try a mixture of fresh+dried) with marsala and hazelnuts
 

...Bon Appétit!