A young friend dropped by recently and noted that there had been no DishnDat lately. True. True. DishnDat needed a break, and still needs a break, so follow us on Facebook. Lots and lots of photos. Please drop by and drop us some “likes.”
Chicken bog is a kind of congee from the American South, specifically the low or coastal country of the Carolinas and Georgia. It consists of a rich broth and shredded, stewed chicken and rice. It’s easy, economical, and delicious. The chicken is cooked in water for a really long time, removed and shredded, and added back to the broth with salt and pepper, maybe lemon juice and maybe butter, and sometimes sausage. It looks and sounds bland, but I’m here to tell you that once you start eating, you can’t get enough.Bog is one of those traditional regional dishes for which every family seems to have its own tradition or variation. Vivian Howard’s recipe, Scarlett’s Chicken and Rice, for example, is named after her mother Scarlett. Because it’s her mother’s recipe, duh. It’s as plain as the proverbial pair of white cotton panties, and it is out of this world.
One recipe netted 5 quarts of chicken broth, two of which I used for the bog. Another two quarts I used for chicken soup, adding diced carrots, turnip, garlic, and leeks. That left me two quarts of broth for the freezer. That’s a lot of food from one little chickadee!
By accident, I made the ghahstly mistake of preparing cauliflower as a side dish. An all-white dinner from the kitchen of a Betty Crocker Future Homemaker of Tomorrow Award winner? Horrors! Quick! Grab some cheddar to shred over the veg and pop in the microwave for a quick fix.
And for my next number, a mash-up of two recipes from Vij’s at Home: Relax, Honey: The Warmth and Ease of Indian Cooking .
For some time, I’d been eyeing those huge salmon filets with the skin on at Costco, thinking I should really pick one up and cut it up for the freezer. However, I was deterred by the skin, which I would want to remove before freezing. I like to prepare salmon by baking it in parchment bags, and wouldn’t want soggy, unappetizing skin on my plate. So, I watched a few video tutorials on the web and figured it didn’t look so hard. I can skin chickens, after all, why not a big piece of fish? Well, I’ll tell you why not. Because it’s bigger and slipperier than a chicken. And it’s gross. And the skin is really, really stuck to the flesh. Uch. What a mess. I managed to get a few intact portions out of it, but then I had a whole bunch of salmon bits about the size of prawns left over. I dumped them in a plastic container and stuck them in the freezer. And forgot about them.
Then, one day, I’m reading through Vij’s At Home, just minding my own business, when I come across a recipe for Prawns in Pomegranate Curry that makes my mouth water. I have to have it. I have all the ingredients, more or less, except the prawns. Then the proverbial light bulb goes on as I remember the salmon bits. Well, they are both pink, right?
I marinated the salmon bits in the refrigerator in marinade leftover from Vij’s Grilled Marinated Wild Salmon, which I had made a few days earlier. While the salmon was marinating, I prepared the chickpeas, also vaguely from the same cookbook.
Ingredients for Pan-Roasted Chickpeas
1 can chickpeas a/k/a garbanzo beans, drained but not rinsed
1 small red onion, sliced thin or diced
2 small carrots, diced
3 cloves garlic, sliced thin or smashed and left whole
1 tablespoon canola oil
1/2 cup diced apples and grapes (I used some of my Savory Red Grapes with its juice)
4 dried dates, pitted and chopped
1/2 teaspoon cumin
1/4 teaspoon cayenne
1/2 teaspoon coriander
1/2 teaspoon ground star anise
Ingredients for Salmon
3/4 pound salmon, cut up into bite-size pieces, if you like, or leave it whole
1 tablespoon canola
1 tablespoon fresh ginger, chopped or grated
1 teaspoon cumin
1 teaspoon turmeric
1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 tablespoon pomegranate molasses or 1/2 cup pomegranate juice
1/2 cup chopped cilantro
Instructions for Chickpeas
- Heat canola oil to medium heat in a medium frying pan;
- Add spices and stir around to toast or cook off the raw odor;
- Add onion and garlic until soft;
- Add the diced carrots;
- Add chick peas and let everything caramelize;
- When chickpeas start to blacken, add the fruit, and lower the heat;
- Cook the fruit through without letting it get soggy;
- If you start to get a “sauce,” raise the heat.
Instructions for Salmon
- Remove the chickpea mixture from the pan, don’t wipe out the pan;
- Add 1 tablespoon of canola oil;
- When oil is heated add the spices and let toast to cook off the raw odor;
- Add pomegranate molasses, the garlic and the salmon (in pieces or whole), together with its marinade;
- Cook on one side for 4 to 5 minutes, and flip the salmon over;
- Cook until the outside is dark and crispy looking, probably another 4 minutes;
- Add chickpea mixture back to pan, adjust for salt and pepper.
Serve with garlic naan, or rice.
*Note: Substitute pomegranate juice for the tamarind juice in the original recipe.
Meanwhile, I am preparing a post on restaurants, and would love to hear about what you like and dislike most when you go out to eat. How about it?
My favorite cranberry sauce has almost no sugar at all. I like it sour like the fruit. But, in my obsession with canning and with Kevin West’s Saving the Season, I have made room in my heart and my cupboard for his Chunky Cranberry Jam with Nuts and Ginger. My own version (no nuts, much less sugar) follows below. It makes four or five pints. It can be used as a sauce with turkey dinner or as a jam on an English Muffin. It’s great added to plain yogurt. According to Mr. Darcy, it’s delicious all by itself, by the spoonful!
Important: The recipe below is not for canning; the sauce must be refrigerated.
Cranberry Sauce with Apples, Orange Zest, Cinnamon and Two Kinds of Ginger
Zesting the oranges and mincing the gingers.
2 pounds fresh cranberries
2 cups water
2 Granny Smith apples, peeled, cored and cut into 1/2 ” pieces
Zest of 2 navel oranges
1 1/2 tablespoons each crystalized and fresh ginger, minced (or 2 tablespoons fresh alone)
1 4″ cinnamon stick
1/2 to 4 cups sugar
- Rinse and pick over cranberries to remove stems.
- Place cranberries, water, apples, orange zest, ginger or ginger combination, and cinnamon stick in a large, low sided pot (to make constant stirring easier).
- Bring the mixture to a boil, lower to a simmer, and cook until the berries pop. This will happen very quickly.
- Return the mixture to a low boil and begin to add the sugar a little at a time. If you like a less sweet sauce, start with 1/2 cup or even 1/4 cup, and keep adding in 1/4 or 1/2 cup increments until you have reached the level of sweetness desired. Stir constantly when adding the sugar: You don’t want your sauce to burn. Again, this step goes very quickly.
- Remove the pot from the stovetop.
- Remove the cinnamon stick, and allow the sauce to cool.
- The cranberry sauce can be frozen for future use, or kept in the refrigerator if used within a couple of weeks.
- Serve warm, cold or at room temperature.
I love the view through the top of the jar. What beautiful jewel-like colors!
*DISCLAIMER: This recipe is not for canning.*
According to NPR, I’m not the only one dealing with the horror by baking cookies since the election. Thanksgiving? Well, I was thankful that I didn’t have to face a Thanksgiving table with relatives who voted for him. I would not have gone.
I was AFK for a while, and not just because for a few months I could do nothing more productive than scarf down Xanax and lie in the fetal position to deal with it all.
How are we supposed to survive An American Tragedy and the death of Leonard Cohen, both in the same week? I spent Election Day and the three days that followed, shell-shocked for one and inconsolable for the other, holed up in my kitchen. I canned and I baked cookies. Bunkering and mourning. Obsessively.
For the pantry:
And for Mr. Darcy’s cookie jar:
Dorie Greenspan’s matcha tea and white chocolate madeleines are simply amazing, and very simple to make in one bowl.
And speaking of madeleines, the honey and blue cheese in these madeleines are unexpectedly harmonious flavors that make an irresistible savory cookie.
What more is there to say about the election? So many have said so much and so well. Now we know how fragile is our civilization. But just for today, let the divine humanity of the unflinchingly flesh and blood Leonard Cohen sing us out and be grateful that we had him in our lives when we did and for as long as we did.
St. Louis, Missouri, is not known as a food destination city, per se, but it is known for, among other things, very meaty and fatty St. Louis spare ribs and St. Louis Gooey Butter Cake, which became a legend after a local baker mixed a cake in the wrong proportions. Or so they say. St. Louis also has its own style of pizza that sounds even worse than Chicago-style pizza, if that’s possible. In St. Louis, mozzarella is replaced by something called “Provel,” a white processed cheese formed by a fusion of Provelone, Swiss, and white cheddar. One of these days, I will stop being a snob and I’ll try it.
Weber Grill at the St. Louis Galleria opened about seven months ago, and even though it is tucked into a forgotten corner of the mall and hidden by construction, you can see it from a mile away because of the bright red outsized Weber grill that sits on top like a gigantic fire hydrant with a dog whistle. I have zero knowledge about BBQ, so I cannot speak to its authenticity, a subject that I understand is hotly debated at every roadside BBQ joint, but the meat and fish here were delicious. Just for context, however, remember that our dining experiences in St. Louis have been limited to chain restaurants in the mall: Enough said? But no; it really is good!
This is the fifth of the Weber Grill Restaurant franchise (three in Illinois, one in Indiana), and I would be very happy indeed if they opened a location on the Upper West Side! As they themselves say:
Sit back, relax, and let Weber do the grilling tonight. Join us at the Weber Grill Restaurant where there’s no mosquitoes, tiki torches, or chance of rain. Just delicious grilled food from the folks who really know barbecue—Weber.
Most of what we ate at Weber Grill was really excellent. Mr. Darcy loved the pretzel rolls that they bring to the table, which inspired me to make them at home. I found two recipes, one from Fleischmann’s Yeast, and the other from King Arthur Flour. I opted in favor of the KAF, because it had fewer ingredients, but they both looked good, and they both involved giving the dough a bath — so much fun!
My Caesar salad with grilled salmon was perfect, but the “grilled rustic flat bread” was supermarket pita with some herbs thrown on it while someone whispered, “Grill.” Mr. Darcy’s baby back ribs and crab cakes were both delicious, but the “roasted garlic mashed potatoes” had no garlic, much less roasted garlic. The lemon grilled shrimp appetizer was very nice, but the four grilled shrimp came upon a huge pile of greasy fried onions, and the lemon aioli dipping sauce was devoid of both lemon and garlic. Just plain mayo. I do not care for coleslaw, and the blue cheese and pecan coleslaw did not change my mind, much as I love both blue cheese and pecans.
The staff was very pleasant and the service was quite good. Our iced tea and water were constantly being refreshed. Oddly, the check was presented without our being asked if we wanted dessert. I really wanted to try the St. Louis Gooey Butter Cake. Sniff. Oh well. Maybe next time.
The room is attractive with several separate seating areas. It is child-friendly, and the noise level is comfortable even when the restaurant is crowded. The booths are unusually comfortable. This was the first booth in living memory that didn’t make me feel like I was sitting in a high chair. Sweet!
The restaurant was busy the night we went, but I understand that Saturday nights are impossibly crowded and very hard to get into. Make reservations.
Weber Grill offers grilling classes in a large and well-appointed classroom-kitchen, and I have convinced Mr. Darcy that we should take a class the next time we are in STL. I went to the website hoping to sign up for e-mail notifications, but found nothing. It would be good if they would provide e-mail information about their class schedule.
Speaking of cooking classes, Kitchen Conservatory, just up the street from the St.Louis Galleria, offers over 800 cooking classes a year, and the schedule for the year is right there on line. Right now. The classes are very reasonably priced and clearly delineated as “demonstration” or “hands on.”
Kitchen Conservatory has been here for 30 years and is an independent, locally-owned enterprise. It is housed in what looks like a small house from the street. Once inside, however, it feels huge. There are quite a few clearly designated and easy to navigate selling areas with an astronomical amount of top quality kitchen equipment. Everything you can imagine is displayed attractively — over 6000 items — from huge Le Creuset Dutch Ovens to tiny little piglet cookie cutters. You can also shop on line. There is an informative blog, and they even offer an Ask The Chef feature to e-mail your cooking and baking questions. I haven’t tried it yet, but if it’s anything like King Arthur Flour’s Baker’s Hotline, we are in luck!
There are two kitchen-classrooms: one appears to be for demonstration classes while the other looks to be for participation classes. Definitely on the agenda for our next trip.
Waiting for me back home was Dorie Greenspan’s wonderful new baking book Dorie’s Cookies. First out of the box, so to speak, were My Newest Chocolate Chip Cookies — to which I added espresso, of course — for Mr. Darcy. Clearly a winner, this is a hefty volume and I will be reporting back on it. Frequently!
I’ve been seeing the festive Blue Apron boxes being delivered to my neighbors for a few years now. And i have scoffed. If you are going to get the ingredients delivered, why not have prepared meals delivered? Why not a meal delivery service like Muncherly? But I conceded that, considering the price of ordering out, and the time spent shopping for groceries, it might be a nice compromise for a family. An expensive compromise, no doubt. Based on meal delivery services as opposed to restaurant delivery, I assumed that it would be not only expensive but that the portions would be skimpy. And we all know about Mr. Darcy’s appetite.
I assumed that dinner for two would mean that there would be just enough food for Mr. Darcy alone. I assumed that mass produced meal-kits would mean boring, repetitive meals. I assumed that the ingredients for mass-produced meals would be of poor quality. I assumed that the meals would be fattening, full of sodium and preservatives and, generally speaking, not for the health-conscious. I assumed that a meal-kit service would mean being tied to a schedule. I assumed that there would be no choice. I assumed that pre-prepped meals would still mean too much work for all the money.
And then a friend submitted my name to Blue Apron for a one-week free trial. A fabulous cook herself, she assured me that the meals are delicious and that there is ample food, even for Mr. Darcy. “Just think,” she said, “no shopping.” The only downside, she warned: No leftovers!
In order to get the free trial, you have to go to the Blue Apron website and create an account, but that’s fine, because it costs nothing to do so and you can cancel at any time. The website is one of the best I’ve ever seen in terms of being easy to navigate, find answers, and take care of business without having to contact Customer Service. If you need to contact Customer Service, however, they respond almost immediately, and in English.
That was not my experience when I signed up for HelloFresh.com and PeachDish.com, thinking that I would do a comparison test for the blog. HelloFresh got everything wrong from the gitgo — it scheduled my first delivery a month before the date I selected. I contacted them (or “reached out” in today’s [mis]use of language) immediately, told them what happened, and asked them to cancel my subscription. They did as I requested, but without even an offer to make it right. A typical contemporary one-off business model. No interest in developing customer loyalty. With PeachDish, I had so much trouble negotiating the website that I canceled that account also. They, too, had no interest in providing any assistance. Are you in or are you out? Ho-hum. By contrast, when I “reached out” [gag] to Blue Apron with a question, I received a prompt reply from an actual human who had actually read my question, not a bot that was programmed to hit the “We’re sorry to see you go” button. Nice. Customer loyalty? Indeed! No wonder Blue Apron is the only box waiting in the lobby.
Here’s a bonus: with Blue Apron you can schedule your weekly delivery at your convenience. I requested Sunday, thinking that I might want to prepare all three meals and put them in the refrigerator or the freezer for later use.
So what about the meal kit?
The meal kit contains all the ingredients in the exact amounts needed for each meal: protein, fresh vegetables, and a starch. In addition, each box includes three separate paper bags of “Knick Knacks,” containing the spices, and the other ingredients necessary for each dish. Everything is included except salt, pepper, and olive oil.
What I appreciate is the lack of waste. If you need one scallion for a recipe, you get one scallion, or two sprigs of parsley. There is no grocery store that I know of where you can buy just one or two — you have to buy a bunch or a bag, and it’s a white knuckle race against time to use it all before it turns to green sludge. Similarly, if you need a tablespoon of tomato paste, that’s included. Just one tablespoon. No more opening a can of tomato paste only to have it grow a caterpillar in the refrigerator while you wait to find a use for the other five tablespoons.
Everything arrives in a well-refrigerated box that can sit unattended with the doorman or on the front steps for a few hours, and all the ingredients are packaged so that you can just empty the box and put everything away as is if you are not planning to cook immediately. The packaging materials are recyclable.
So what about the menu?
There are several plans, and I chose the three meals a week for two people plan. In that package, you get one fish meal, one chicken meal, and one beef or pork meal per week. Blue Apron promises that you will never eat the same meal twice in one calendar year. Now that’s not something that would bother me, but just passing it on.
I have found the recipes interesting and varied. They include some more unusual ingredients, like Korean spices and black garlic that are neither in every supermarket nor that easy to find if you don’t have the time to run all over the city. In my experience of three weeks, the meals are delicious. I have even found new appreciation for foods I never thought I cared for. A recent recipe of Spicy Chicken & Carrots completely changed my mind about dark meat chicken. I never thought catfish that was not deep-fried, i.e., masked, would have any flavor.
The average recipe takes 20 to 30 minutes to prepare, which takes the sting out of having to cook if you are dead tired. Apparently, even Ruth Bader Ginsburg was willing to spend 60 minutes in the kitchen! I don’t know if she went Peg Bracken or Richard Olney, but 60 minutes these days is a long time.
Blue Apron recipes are designed to be followed easily, even by inexperienced cooks. They are printed on large, laminated cards that may be kept for future use. Also included in each box is another large laminated From the Farm card with interesting information about one of the ingredients included. I imagine that it would be fun and useful to prepare these meals with a child who can learn not only how to cook, but where food comes from, and how to eat well.
A bonus: you can go to the Blue Apron website and get recipes without subscribing to the delivery service. You can even sign up for to receive recipes by e-mail without subscription to the meal kit service. Generous and good marketing.
So how do you manage your account?
Having signed up for the free trial, I decided to try out the service for a couple of weeks, and learned how easy it is to use. They provide a calendar of menus a few weeks ahead of time, so that you can choose the weeks for which you want delivery. No minimum! No need to cancel your account when you don’t want delivery. You just have to be sure to check the website periodically and indicate your preference for taking delivery or skipping a week.
If you skip a week, there is time to change your mind and add it later on — and vice versa. In addition, most meals can be swapped for an alternative. A good trick for the absent-minded or otherwise too busy to keep track is to skip all the deliveries at first, and then go back and add them in.
So what about quality and nutrition?
The quality of the proteins is outstanding. I have yet to receive mislabeled fish — or suffer the effects thereof. In most restaurants, fish is routinely and deliberately mislabeled, and what you get instead of the red snapper on the menu may well be the notorious escolar or Ex-Lax fish. Yes. It’s exactly what you think it is. Blue Apron sends healthy, non-stinky and firm-fleshed fish. The pork, beef and chicken are better quality than what I can buy from our local-and-too-expensive-for-my-pocketbook-butcher.
Similarly, the fresh vegetables are beautiful, vibrant, and spotless. They have color, snap and flavor. Attention is paid to every component of the meal. A recent tablespoon of mayonnaise was the richest, yellowest, and eggiest mayo I have ever seen. It looked and tasted home-made.
Included in each box is an insert with complete nutritional information about each meal: calories, sodium, fat, sugar — the works.
So what about the elephant in the room — the cost?
Is it expensive? Well, yes. If you are comparing a Blue Apron meal to a meal of rice and beans, of course it’s expensive. I’m not being facetious. As a rule, I can no longer afford food shopping in my own neighborhood anymore; I have to take a bus across town to Target and Costco for both fresh food and staples. With a little Whole Foods on the side. But, if it’s any consolation, Blue Apron is less expensive than any of the other food services that I have considered trying. Here’s what it costs: under $10 a serving. And that’s it. No hidden extras**; no tipping. Can you eat out for that? Not where I live, you can’t. Not unless you are eating pizza. Is that a lot of money? Yes, of course it is. But food costs a lot of money, and prices go up every day. Recently, I went through cash register receipts, and it became pretty clear that Blue Apron is actually saving me money. Not that my experience is necessarily typical. There is a ton of advice on the internet about how to use a meal kit service to save money; all it takes is a quick Google. For me the great revelation at a difficult time in my life was how much time can be saved by not having to shop. And I love that there is no waste whatsoever. All the food is used; everything can be recycled.
So, to recap:
- Yes, No, Maybe
- Ties you to a schedule?
- Too much work?
- Not usually
- Skimpy portions?
- Boring, repetitive menus?
- No choice?
- Poor quality ingredients?
- Unhealthy amounts of fat, sodium, sugar and preservatives?
Popeye is a terrific cook, but he works seven days a week and absolutely crazy hours. His diet consists of anything he can grab on the run — typically something way too expensive for a “meal” with no nutritional value. He has some free time each week and I thought/hoped that with Blue Apron he would find time to prepare at least six healthy meals for himself, and eat something other than Mickey D’s. Oh yes, that love never died!
With some hesitation, I submitted his name for a free trial week. (Blue Apron lets you submit the names of five friends for free meals.) He scoffed. I knew he would, but he tried it. He even prepared and ate the catfish, a fish he normally dislikes. In his own words, Blue Apron “makes all the difference.”
With Blue Apron, you get interesting and varied meals that taste delicious and are easy to prepare. For those without time to shop, for those who need a boost for any reason — with prep, with ideas — it’s just terrific. I scoff no longer!
*P.S. I just couldn’t resist an alternative version of Pimento Cheese from Vivian Howard.
**Blue Apron offers a wine delivery as well, but it is entirely separate.
Nothing beckons like the aroma of bread. Remember the aroma fingers in cartoons? I spent the past week filling the apartment with enticing bread aroma fingers as I began to cook my way through Bread Illustrated, a must-have from the ATK Empire. Subtitled, “A Step-by-Step Guide to Achieving Bakery-Quality Results at Home,” Bread Illustrated is the perfect book for the beginner as well as a great reference book for the advanced home bread-baker. I have been a bit leery of ATK publications since the departure of Christopher Kimball, but this is a winner. All the recipes I tried work, but are they bakery quality.”? Well, no. But they work beautifully in a home kitchen with no special equipment.
Furthermore, in every case, the recipe from Bread Illustrated produced a better loaf than I’ve ever made in the past. Japanese Milk Bread (Hokkaido), for example, which appears at the top of the page, misshapen, is a great favorite of mine. (Think Challah without the braid.) The fact that it doesn’t have its usual baby-bottom shape here is not a failure of the recipe, but of my having been distracted. The taste and texture are marvelous.
Bread Illustrated is a volume in the very best of the ATK tradition: sober and no-nonsense, and chock full of essential information presented in a straightforward manner with lots and lots of food science background. And, of course, “Why this recipe works,” is the introduction to each and every recipe.
I began with breads in the chapter entitled,“Starting from scratch: 12 foolproof breads that teach the basics.” I was impressed by the approach, and found the recipes are interesting, useful, and, in every case, very easy to make successfully. If you are just starting to bake bread, you will encounter no discouragement, no brick loaf that will send you back to the store never to touch salt, flour and yeast again.
Brown Soda Bread was a revelation. This is a bread that I have rarely ever cared for, at least not without mounds of butter and jam. It is normally dry and grainy and lacking any inherent interest. NOT! This one is absolutely delicious.
I deliberately tried another bread that has never particularly called to me: Quick Cheese Bread. “Quick” and “cheese” as applied to bread will normally turn me off, because quick breads (breads without yeast) are usually too much like cake, and because I like cheese on top of bread, not in it. But this was a very good loaf, and Mr. Darcy loved it. So that’s that!
New sandwich bread recipes are always welcome, and I tried four of them:
American Sandwich Bread
Whole-Wheat Quinoa Bread
and my personal favorite, Pain de Mie. “Mie” means “crumb” in French, so Pain de Mie is literally “crumb bread,” and means “soft bread” or “sandwich loaf.” It is named for its soft crumb, and baked in a lidded Pain de Mie or Pullman pan, which creates the shape and all-over crust. Pain de Mie is Wonder Bread perfected. It has both flavor and texture; it doesn’t tear when you spread peanut butter on it. It can be sliced thin or thick, and eaten toasted or un-. It is one of the most tasty and versatile loaves on the plant, and did I mention easy?
And for those of you who have been waiting for Christopher Kimball to reappear in his new incarnation, here he is at last and it was worth the wait:
I’m happy to report that the magazine is exactly what you’d expect from Christopher Kimball, and even carries his signature bow-tie on the cover. There is no advertising, of course. But don’t give up your ATK subscription; there is no danger of overlap. Milk Street’s mission is to reach around the world for foods, spices, cooking techniques, and culinary traditions that we have always associated with “ethnic” restaurants, not our own homes, and to make them accessible for us in our own homes, using our existing batterie de cuisine. In fact, I was amused by the article in this charter issue revealing something that I learned in Spain many years ago — that scrambled eggs (and I would add fried eggs as well) taste better cooked in olive oil than in butter. So there you go! For those of us who don’t live near Boston and can’t go to the brick and mortar Milk Street Kitchen, Milk Street Magazine is about to change all of our home cooking preconceptions: fasten your seat belts!
Knowing how I swoon at the merest whiff of Indian spices, my mostest bestest dearest friend sent me a cookbook I’d never heard of from a restaurant I’d never heard of. Vij’s at Home: Relax, Honey: The Warmth and Ease of Indian Cooking, written by husband and wife team, Meeru Dhalwala and Vikram Vij, who together run two notable restaurants in Vancouver. (Their third cookbook was published earlier this month.) “Relax, Honey”: How irresistible is that sub-title, anyway?
After examining the beautifully designed and gorgeously hued front cover, I flipped to the back flap photograph, and saw a familiar cherubic face: “Dude! I know you! You were on Chopped Canada, eh?” I Googled Vikram Vij and sure enough, he was one of the first judges on that show. The warmly beautiful yet unpretentious-looking woman snuggled in his arms in the same photo is Meeru Dhalwala.
I had other plans for this post, but I was so enticed by the beauty of the book, so intrigued by the innovative recipes, and so drawn in by its generous spirit that I immediately looked for something to cook right now. I wondered if maybe, just maybe, I would at long last find a recipe for the wonderful buttery tomato sauce that comes with Indian butter chicken or murgh makhani in every Indian restaurant (except, as it turns out, at Vij’s). This is a sauce that is often so delicious that I want to lick my plate. At home I have no compunction, but Indian restaurants maintain such high standards in the dignity and formality departments that I fear my naturally indecorous behavior would find me banned for life. A risk not worth taking. When it comes to food, I am not civilized. No, I will eat bacon with my fingers; I will tuck my napkin into my shirt; I will lick my fingers; I will use a hunk of bread to sop up gravy; I will stick my nose right up and into a dish to better identify a mystery ingredient; and I absolutely refuse to leave a little tid-bit on the side of my plate as so many people do out of “politeness.” Frankly, any guest who offends me with such faux-politesse will never be invited back. Yeah, and I don’t do those dainty little dabs with a napkin at the corners of my mouth either: Life is too short!
In looking for that buttery tomato sauce, I hit upon Butter Chicken Schnitzel, and did a double-take: Was I having a Ruth Prawer Jhabvala moment? It reminded me of my fabulous Mittel-European mother’s fabulous Mittel-European Wiener schnitzel. Of course, in those days, we ate veal, because who knew? Although not normally a fan of “fusion,” I read the recipe and was so charmed by the back story (and the prospect of schnitzel) that I had to try it. Spoiler alert: the back story has to do with chicken nuggets, which resonated with me, because when Popeye was a little boy, all he would eat was chicken McNuggets. No matter what I did, he would swallow food only from McDonald’s. There was much Sturm und Drang — his and mine. There were many desperate calls to the pediatrician who finally convinced me that Popeye would live and thrive, and to let him eat at McDonald’s. I did. He did. But my feelings are still hurt.
As for the Butter Chicken Schnitzel recipe, I was bewildered by the fact that there was no butter in the butter sauce’s list of ingredients. What am I missing? I checked my Madhur Jaffrey cookbook, and she uses butter. I sniffed high and low all over the internet like a pig hunting for truffles. I found recipes that smugly boasted of no butter or no cream, no butter and no cream, but I could find no explanation of a butter sauce recipe that doesn’t even mention the fact that it doesn’t contain butter. So, I Googled the restaurant, and sent an e-mail cry for help: “Is this an editing failure or am I just an ignoramus?”
And that, dear reader, is why God invented cyberspace. Help came from none other than Meeru Dhalwala herself:
Butter Chicken refers to a traditional name of a type of chicken curry that is very rich and creamy. . . . The “butter” in the title really refers to cream.
AND NOW WE KNOW.
Buttery Tomato Sauce
¼ cup canola oil
6 to 9 medium garlic cloves, pushed through a press or minced
1 6 oz. can tomato paste
1 tbsp. sweet paprika
2 tsp. garam masala
1 ½ tsp. salt
1 tsp. ground turmeric
1 tsp. ground cumin
1 tsp. ground coriander
1 tsp. cayenne pepper
1 ½ cups water
2 cups non-fat Half & Half
(Note: In order to spare our arteries, I baked the schnitzel instead of frying it.)
2 lbs. skinless, boneless chicken breasts, sliced in half horizontally, and pounded lightly to uniform thickness with a meat mallet
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 tsp. salt
2 eggs, beaten
1 1/2 cups panko bread crumbs
Canola oil spray
- Heat oven to 350°;
- Line a sheet pan with aluminum foil and spray well with canola oil;
- LIne up three dinner plates in FEB order: Flour, Eggs, Bread crumbs;
- Take the chicken slices, one at a time, and dip into the Flour, then the Eggs, and then the Bread crumbs, shaking off any excess after each dip;
- Lay each slice on the prepared sheet pan;
- Holding the can of canola oil spray a good two feet above the cutlets, spray the cutlets lightly but thoroughly;
- Bake on middle oven rack for 30 to 45 minutes or until golden;
- Turn the cutlets and bake another 15 minutes or until golden;
- Remove and let rest;
- When ready to serve, slice each breast piece crosswise in one-inch slices, or leave whole.
While the chicken is baking, prepare the Buttery Tomato Sauce:
- Heat the canola oil and cook on medium heat for 1 minute;
- Add the garlic and cook until golden, but do not allow the garlic to brown or it will make the sauce harsh and bitter;
- Add the tomato paste, stir and lower the heat;
- Stir in the salt and the spices, keep stirring and cook for 4 minutes;
- Add water and Half & Half, and remove from heat.
Confession: Mr. Darcy liked the sauce but found the spices a little too strong for his palate, so I added a little margarine to his serving to smooth it out. And this time it was he who licked the plate! No doubt had I used the whipping cream called for in the original recipe instead of Half & Half, the “butter” would never have been necessary, but heavy cream has 50 calories a tablespoon as opposed to the 10 calories in non-fat Half & Half. It’s hard to unring that bell!
Chickpeas in Star Anise and Date Masala called to me next. While I am not a big fan of chickpeas, they are healthy, so I eat them. However, I am a very big fan of dates and star anise, and this is an amazing dish. It’s fast and simple to make with subtle and complex sweet and savory flavors. It’s almost a dessert and I imagine it would be delicious over ice cream. It goes well with rice, with lettuce, or just out of the pot. Serve it hot, serve it cold.
Delicious as an appetizer, a side dish, a main dish, or a snack, it’s simply impossible to stop eating these chickpeas. Just ask me; I’ve tried!
There are many restaurant cookbooks that promise restaurant recipes for quality home cooking. Vij’s At Home, or as I like to call it, Relax, Honey, actually lives up to the promise without condescension, without having to buy restaurant equipment, without long lists of recherché ingredients, and without having to hire either a sous-chef, a line-cook, or a dishwasher for mountains of pots and pans. Be warned, though: once you start cooking from Relax Honey, you will not be able to stop. Just ask me; I’ve tried!
Beet Greens Sautéed in Ginger, Lemon and Cumin, anyone?
At last, it’s here: The long-awaited, eagerly anticipated cookbook from Vivian (A Chef’s Life) Howard. And it’s just what we knew it would be, only even more so. Like Vivian herself, it’s warm and engaging; it’s honest and generous. It’s full of charming stories and an astonishing variety of mouth-watering recipes. This is one of those cookbooks that you can read with enormous pleasure even if you’ve never even wanted to boil water.
Deep Run Roots: Stories and Recipes from My Corner of the South is a heavy book, and it is meant to be read not skimmed. The photos are beautiful, but not slick and glossy food porno. Even the design and layout reflect the charm and personality of the author. Deep Run Roots is divided into sections by ingredient, such as corn, figs, pecans, watermelon, rice, sausage, and blueberries. At the top corner of each page there is a charming little iconic drawing of the ingredient featured in that section.
For those of us who follow A Chef’s Life on PBS (damn PBS makes it so hard with their constant schedule changes and no notice), Vivian is the antidote to the Food Network and its cult of [chef] personality. Ironically, unlike the Food Network “Stars,” who are such non-entities, Vivian actually has a personality. With most TV cooking shows, you end up asking yourself, as Pam Frier notes in Laughing With My Mouth Full, “wait a second — wait a second! The guy’s just making soup. Why am I here?” Not so A Chef’s Life. There is no gleaming spotless kitchen, no gleaming spotless Le Creuset pots and pans that look as if they are replaced new for each shoot, and no rows of glass prep dishes already filled with ingredients. Most importantly, there are no pan-flips, so reminiscent of the snotty SoCal blond hair toss, that make being a chef look easy, fun, and glam. So, even though she is more than smart and pretty enough to make it look all of the above, she is honest enough not to. (Note: She is honest without “sharing,” thank the Lord.}
And, bless her heart, she can write, reinforcing my notion that the best U.S. writers, including the best cookbook writers, are from the south. (Ask me some other time, and I will explain why Edith Wharton is the exception that proves the rule!) Furthermore, unlike most of the big-name celebrity chefs/cookbook writers, I will bet dollars to donuts that she actually wrote this book. It sounds just like her. I will be working through the recipes and reporting on them, but I have no doubt that they will all be every bit as lip-smacking as the ones I’ve tried so far — both from her TV show and from the book.
Pork Shoulder Steaks with Red Curry Braised Watermelon
(click to see original recipe)
- 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
- 2 lbs. pork shoulder or blade steaks (4 8-ounce steaks, or whatever your butcher will do for you)
- 2 teaspoons salt
- 2 teaspoons black pepper
- 2/3 cup apple cider vinegar
- 1/3 cup honey
- 1 1/2 tablespoons red curry paste
- 2 teaspoons fish sauce
- 5 cups watermelon, cut into 1 1/2-inch cubes, seeds removed.
- Preheat oven to 350°.
- Trim the pork of as much of the fat as possible without cutting into the flesh.
- Season the steaks with salt and pepper on both sides.
- Heat the vegetable oil in a 12-inch casserole over medium-high heat until almost smoking and place steaks in a single layer.
- Brown the pork on all four sides to get as much caramelization as possible.
- While the meat is browning, whisk together the vinegar, honey, red curry paste, and fish sauce.
- Once the pork is well-caramelized, remove the meat to a platter, and drain the excess fat.
- Return the meat to the casserole, and place the watermelon over it.
- Pour the vinegar mixture over the watermelon.
- Cover the casserole and place on the middle rack of the oven and bake for 1 1/2 hours.
- Then bake another 30 minutes without the lid.
- Serve with rice. Don’t skimp on the broth.
The watermelon resembles and has the texture of tomatoes, and the broth is the hands-down star of the show.
This recipe serves four. After eating both tonight and tomorrow night’s portions, Mr. Darcy looked up from his dish, announced the meal “addictive,” and asked for more. I held on to my plate for dear life.