Thursday, September 30, 2010

Report from the Deep Freeze: I HEART Bigos!

Yesterday I pulled a container of bigos out of the freezer and moved it into the fridge so I could have it for lunch today. Now it's lunchtime, and I'm in heaven.

 In case you don't recall, while reporting on Polish cuisine during week #49 of my "52 Cuisines in 52 Weeks" adventure, I made a big pot of bigos filled with beef, Polish sausage, sauerkraut and mushrooms. It's addictive stuff, and I love it cold. I just put it into a pretty bowl today so it would photograph better than in the deli cup I froze it in--and out of which I was eating it while standing in the open refrigerator door when it occurred to me I should tap out a blog entry about it. If it weren't in the 90s today, I'd heat it and have it with some mashed potatoes. But it's good to know that Poland's classic "hunter stew" is not only edible straight out of the fridge, but PRIMO served cold.

And here's something I already knew but that was reinforced for me today: When you make a big batch of something with the intent of freezing part of it, and it's something you know tastes better a few days after it's made, then wait a few days after you make it before you freeze it. This way it will be at the peak of flavor when you're ready to eat it, whenever that might be.

I neglected to include a recipe in the Polish cuisine blog entry, so I'll do it now. I apologize for the oversight. While there are many ways to make bigos--and as a hunter's stew it accommodates most any sort of meat you want to chuck into it--what follows is a good basic way to make it.


Soak 4 ounces of dried mushrooms in warm water for between 30 minutes and an hour, until they're completely hydrated. Squeeze water out of mushrooms and set them aside (strain any remaining grit from this mushroom broth and keep the broth to make soup another time).

While the mushrooms are hydrating, dice one large onion and set aside. Cut a pound of meat(s) of your choice into bite-sized pieces, along with two Polish sausages and 6 ounces of bacon.

Melt a tablespoon of lard (I used bacon drippings, but you can use canola or vegetable oil if you must) in a large, thick pot and brown the meat, sausage and bacon. Then add in the diced onion and cook until transparent. Add the mushrooms and a pound of strained sauerkraut to the pot and enough beef broth to cover it all. Sprinkle in some caraway seeds and a tiny bit of sugar. And a splash of red wine. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and let simmer for about 30 minutes.

Taste to see if it might need a bit more salt (the kraut and sausages may give you as much as you want) and season with salt and black pepper as desired.

Serve hot, cold or room temperature.

Friday, September 24, 2010

The Imposter in the Garden

The healthiest plant in my garden these days--and for quite some time now--is what is known as a curry plant. This frosty-green perennial is available for purchase at the gardening center alongside herbs like oregano, thyme, parsley, tarragon and sage. While, I've never known what to do with it, I've been happy to let it coexist with all the other herbs that regularly make their way into whatever I happen to be cooking.

 While the aroma of the curry plant is vaguely similar to that of a generic curry of some sort, no curry seasoning blends actually contain this plant. Recipes for curry are innumerable, with each cook possessing the secrets to family favorites. Different spice blends lend themselves to particular dishes, whether based on chicken, fish, vegetables or tofu, and to different seasons as well. Some curry blends make you sweat and cool you off in summer, while others help keep you warm in winter. Most curries include some combination of cinnamon, coriander, cumin, nutmeg, fennel seed, cardamom, fenugreek, turmeric, saffron, tamarind and quite a number of other spices and flavorings. But no curry plant.

Yesterday I finally became curious enough to do a little research and find out what this plant really is and how to use it. I discovered that we have an imposter in our midst. It turns out that this plant has neither culinary nor medicinal qualities. Except for its use in potpourris and wreaths, it does nothing to merit the space it takes up in the garden. I realized that I've been had by a plant! How sad is that? I fumed about this at dinner.

"I'm going to rip that plant out of the ground and throw it into the dumpster tomorrow," I told Himself. "I feel like going out there with a flashlight and pulling it up right NOW!"

"Feeling just a bit vengeful, are we?" he chuckled.

So I picked a frond of the pretender and nibbled a bit of it. Not much flavor, really, just enough chlorophyll to let me know I was chewing on a plant. Then I slept on it (on my decision, not on the plant. Sheesh, you readers!). In spite of its dishonest ways, it is greenery, and it does smell nice. It's pretty, too and one of the few things thriving in my deserty backyard.

Oh, what the hell? For now, the imposter stays.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Home From the Greenbrier: A Retrospective

 How do I sum up the Greenbrier experience?

I've perused the writings of my fellow attendees of the Symposium for Professional Food Writers at the Greenbrier during the past few days. Their reflections are comprehensive, coherent and helpful, while I still don't know what to say. I'm not inclined to merely parrot their observations or roll out a series of photos of everything we ate, since the focus was on food writing and publishing, not simply on food. In fact, I was leery of paying too much attention to the food itself for fear I'd miss out on the meat (so to speak) of the Symposium.

Instead of blathering on about it, I'll let three photos speak for me:

 The attention to detail was striking, all the way down to the chocolates on our tables in our meeting room. Notice how each one is arranged just so, with the wrappers placed facing outward? No detail was too small to escape their attention. On my bed were four pillows: a soft one for stomach sleepers, a medium one for back sleepers, a firm one for side sleepers and a feather pillow for me! I built a fort out of them, burrowed in each night and slept the sleep of the happily overwhelmed.

Speaking of happily overwhelmed, breakfast on the final morning featured this knock-your-socks-off presentation of pork, a chunky and succulent homemade sausage wrapped in a perfect latticework of bacon. The ungenerous, antisocial part of me wanted to snatch it away and sit in the corner alone and eat it all.

I didn't do that, you'll be happy to know. The company was too good and the conversation too rich, to do such a thing. I have more friends and professional associates than I had before I went, people whose talent, work and opinions I value. People I can turn to for advice, and for whom I'll gladly provide the same. We writers do not exist in a bubble. We need each other's insights, generously given. At the Symposium, I hit the mother lode.

self portrait
I love this painting of a drooling pig, hung just outside the entrance to the main dining room at the Greenbrier. It pretty much sums up the way I feel about my experience there, both personally and professionally--happy, but hungry for more.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Self Promotion for the Timid

Okay, guys and gals. I have a problem with self promotion, but this competition requires a little of that, as well as a finely-turned phrase. I promise not to use the three little words with you very often, but I'm going to do it now. And those three little words are:

I submitted an essay in Anthony Bourdain's Medium Raw challenge. Most of the points will be awarded for the writing itself, but one component is the support of those willing to go online and vote.

So please vote for me. And you can vote DAILY. I just can't vote for myself.

While you're at it, why don't you enter the challenge, too? It'll be fun. You might win. And if you do, I'll selflessly help you with the beastly chore of spending the loot.

Friday, September 10, 2010

An Honor and An Opportunity

I've been awarded the Apicius Scholarship to attend the Symposium for Professional Food Writers at the Greenbrier. This is a big deal, and I'm truly excited to be going--and receiving a scholarship to go!

According to the Symposium's website, the Apicius Scholarship is "awarded to a professional food writer whose prose rings with a clear voice and reflects the delicious joys of the table. In the spirit of Apicius, the first Roman to write cookbooks, the goal is to grant this award to that writer whose work will stand the test of time."

This profoundly gratifies and humbles me. I won for writing "Not Your Granny's Aspic," which appeared in the spring 2010 issue of Edible Memphis. As is often the case with my assignments, I had so much fun doing the work that I forgot it was supposed to be work! So this is icing on a really yummy cake.

The timing of the award is propitious, since I've just completed my "52 Cuisines in 52 Weeks" blogging project and begun work on a book proposal based on it. The Symposium is the perfect place to carry my ideas.

I just wanted to share this news with you. Tomorrow I head to West Virginia to the Greenbrier, a stunning estate set in the Allegeny Mountains. I look forward to hobnobbing with other professional food writers and with publishers, editors and agents. Who knows what will happen? I feel like this is the next step up the ladder of my career as a food writer.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

I Hide Things in Your Food least sometimes I do. And it's for your own good.

There are lots of ingredients out there that you'd never want to eat on their own, or with them simply perched on top of your food. These things get mixed in--ingredients like baking soda, raw eggs (usually), dried chili peppers and worchestershire sauce.

You wouldn't eat beef or chicken bouillon cubes on their own (unless you're a freak!). So why would anyone set a whole anchovy on top of a pizza and eat it just like that? It needs to be chopped finely and mixed into the sauce or distributed judiciously, with other ingredients layered to accompany it. I've met few people who like anchovies, but I think it's because they don't know to do with them. Anchovies are ingredients and thus to be used, not foods to be consumed whole, unless you're one of those rare people with a sodium deficiency.
I made pissaladière for dinner last night, the primary ingredients being caramelized onions, anchovies and kalamata olives on a flaky pastry, sort of a southern French version of pizza. (As you can see, I cheated and grated a bit of a basque cheese over it.) But the anchovies are minced and dotted throughout--they're an ingredient, not a topping. So rather than getting a mouth full of fishy saltiness (or salty fishiness), the anchovies become a subtle part of the flavor profile, one that helps make the whole greater than the sum of its parts. It's all about balance.

The same goes for adding salt to something sweet. Ever wonder why recipes for cakes, pies and cookies call for a touch of salt? It helps balance flavors. Try baking two batches of cookies, one with amount of salt called for in the recipe and one omitting it. Do a taste test. You'll notice the difference, and the more well-rounded flavor will be in the batch containing a smidge of salt. You won't actually taste the salt. You'll just be aware that the flavor is better.

So if you come to my house and I feed you the best spaghetti sauce of your life, it will be because there are ingredients in it that you never thought to put in there yourself. They're probably ingredients you don't even think you like. You'll be surprised by how much you do like them--when they're used properly.

Friday, September 3, 2010


 52 Receipts in 52 Weeks!

 If you happen to be counting, you'll know that I posted the 52nd cuisine of 52 yesterday. This pile of receipts, menus and business cards represents a boatload of research, eating, cooking, thinking and writing--and filing. It was a lot of work, but it was also a tremendous amount of fun. And I learned an awful lot about how people on this planet view food, prepare it and share it. In short, they do it with love.

So what now?

The Hungry Passport blog had a life before this particular project, and it will continue to have one afterward. But I'm not through with my exploration of the world's cuisines, either. I've only just started. Since there are certainly more than 52 out there, I'll keep exploring, but rather than one each week, I'll focus on one each month now while continuing to blog about other food and travel related subjects.

And after a year of delicious and intriguing research, I'm beginning to draw together my ideas for a book based on this tasty escapade. It's too early to say much now, but stay tuned for updates on the book and on the cuisines.

One thing I CAN tell you is that Himself and I have talked about this project a good deal during the past few days. We agree that those meals we recall with the most fondness--and felt were the best meals--were those we had with friends. Not surprisingly, shared experiences make for the most memorable times.

I hope reading these entries has encouraged you to seek out meals you've never had before and to find out how people cook and eat in other countries. And to try your hand at cooking some of their dishes yourself.

Have a great Labor Day weekend, and go eat something you've never had before, okay?!

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Week #52 Vietnamese

As Himself and I drag our weary bones across the finish line with cuisine #52, we know we made a good choice to conclude with. Vietnamese is the perfect way to finish, since the soothing broth in a bowl of pho and the fresh veggies in a cool spring roll are both just what our addled tums need to put us to rights.

We didn't make it to Little Saigon in Orange County, but Los Angeles has enough variety scattered throughout that we knew we could feast authentically without having to head for a specific enclave. So we went with our good friends Jeff and Judi to Lemongrass Vietnamese in Eagle Rock, that little jutting of northern Los Angeles that separates the San Fernando and San Gabriel valleys.

This chemistry lab looking contraption is the set-up for making Ca Phe Sua Da, Vietnamese iced coffee. A vessel containing super strong coffee and hot water sits atop a glass with sweetened, condensed milk. When the coffee has dripped through onto the milk, the result looks rather like a black-n-tan. Then you stir well to dissolve the milk and blend it with the coffee, and then pour the mixture over a glass of ice. This stuff's rich, strong and highly addictive. In fact, we lost count of how many we'd had, at least until the bill showed up.
Here it is, all mixed up and ready to drink, alongside some Vietnamese lemonade, made with lime juice and lemongrass.
We started with an assortment of fresh spring rolls with a ginger dipping sauce. I've grown to love these fresh rolls so much that the fried ones seem too heavy now (not that I'd turn one down). Rice vermicelli, bean sprouts, lettuce, fresh mint leaves and cooked and chilled chicken, shrimp and pork rolled into cool rice wraps are refreshing and healthy. You can eat these all day long without worrying that you've damaged your diet. (After a full year of feasting on the cuisines of the world, it's apparent that we're not too worried about that, though.)

Himself went for the pho, because he's hard pressed to have anything else when he goes out for Vietnamese. (And just in case you didn't know, pho is pronounced fuh, with a short u, as in "What the fu...?!") He opted for fried tofu this time, but thin bite-sized pieces of raw beef make a bigger splash, so to speak, because the broth is so hot that when you drop in the beef, it cooks automatically, right in front of you. The beef broth (he couldn't do completely without the animal!) was delicately seasoned--that is, until Himself dumped in a spoonful of those rippin' hot chilis. Pho is one of the most nourishing soups around, and when you load it up with chilis like this, it's a great way to open up your head when you have a cold or a bout of sinus miseries--or to simply cool yourself down on a hot summer's day.
Accompanying a bowl of pho is a plate of fresh stuff: bean sprouts, Thai basil leaves, slices of fresh jalapeno pepper and wedges of lime for seasoning your soup to suit your personal taste. Call it the fine tuning nob on your meal.

Judi's com tom of charbroiled shrimp over steamed rice was served with a sweet dipping sauce, which played well with the smokiness of the seafood. The salad with ribbons of carrot and daikon radish gave it a fresh kick.
Jeff's bowl of vermicelli noodles topped with barbecued chicken included a couple of fried egg rolls (because some people just can't get enough rolled food, right Jeff?) and the same sweet dipping sauce. This reminded me a bit of having a bowl of soup without the broth. All the components were there.

I opted for banh mi, a Vietnamese sandwich. If that looks like French bread to you, that's because it is. Back when Vietnam was known as French Indochina, a good deal of culinary exchange took place. The French may be gone now, but the baguette remains. This one is loaded with charbroiled beef. Strings of carrot and daikon radish and sprigs of cilantro round out the flavors and lend a fresh crispiness to the crunchy bread and smoky beef. It came with a soy sauce-based dipping sauce, but that wasn't really necessary. The flavors and textures were rewarding without sogging up the bread.

Of course we saved room for dessert--this is the last scene of the last act! Chuoi chien, or banana dumplings, are bananas rolled in won tons wraps, deep fried and served in a creamy coconut sauce. This gives you an array of textures as well as flavors. I wouldn't mind having chuoi chien for breakfast sometime.

Reminiscent of those slushy, gelatinous desserts I had in Thailand, Che Ba Mau, or Three Color Dessert, is a glass of red beans, pandan gelatin and coconut milk with a scoop of ice on top. You stir it up and eat it sort of like a chunky slushy, an assortment of colors, flavors and textures bombarding your senses with every bite.

It's time for a nap and some reflection now. After 52 different cuisines in the past 52 weeks, Himself and I agree we're still eager for more. As the defeated often cry at the end of a sporting match, "It's not over!" Except that we're not the losers here...