True Confessions

Praveen at peace. He doesn't know about the palak paneer.

Person: Praveen
Location: Guwahati, India
Recipe: Vegetable Makhani

I cheated on my Indian couchsurfer. I know. I’m an awful human being.

And this after he brought me diamonds. And pearls. And brass earrings. And an odd but cool-looking key ring that sounds like bells when you shake it.

Diamonds and pearls and silver and brass are a girl's best friend(s).

And tea, god bless him, from his family’s tea plantation in Guwahati in the northeastern state of Assam.

Oh and then, he saved my life. That’s right. He saved my life, metaphorically speaking, anyway.

And still, I cheated on him! I’m clearly an awful human being.

Do you want to know how he saved my life?

Well, for an entire year, I’d been sitting on a free $800 American Airlines ticket to ANYWHERE IN THE WORLD that I snagged after agreeing to be bumped from a flight to France last year.

For a whole year I’d been sitting on that ticket, waiting, just waiting, for the right moment to cash it in so I could fly to ANYWHERE IN THE WORLD.

But then life took over, and I forgot about the ticket. I knew it had to be booked in September, but my day job didn’t allow for more vacation, so I’d purposely delayed booking a flight for as long as possible in order to push it into the following year.

Okay, so now it’s September second, a Friday night, and Praveen is at my house. He’s being incredibly nice.  We’re eating leftovers from an amazing Indian dinner he cooked for me the night before. When all of a sudden, it occurs to me that it’s September, which means, that’s right, that ticket, I need to book it soon because I have ONE YEAR to use it.

Do you see where this is going?

So I open the drawer in which I keep the envelope containing the ticket, pry it open, and discover that it needs to be booked THAT NIGHT!

ओह, नहीं!!  (“Oh, no!” in Hindi)

I start freaking out. I call American Airlines. What can I do? Where can I go? HELP!!!

After some back and forth, the ticket agent and I agree that my best bet is to fly to London on April 1, 2012. Done. Booked.

But wait. No. Not done. Not booked. Because booking over the phone isn’t enough. No. In order to use the free $800 ticket to ANYWHERE IN THE WORLD, I have to BRING IT to the American Airlines counter at J.F.K. Airport and HAND IT to a ticket agent. And did I mention, the counter closes at 10:30 p.m. (it’s now 9:15 p.m.), I’m at least an hour from J.F.K. by subway, my car is in the repair shop, and it’s a holiday weekend, which means everyone and their mother will be on the highway, headed out-of-town.

मदद करो!!!!!! (“Help!” in Hindi)

Which is when Praveen, cool as a cucumber, says, “Don’t worry. I can drive you to J.F.K. I have a Zip car. And it has GPS.”* *(Insert my bad rendition of an Indian accent here.)

I stare at him, eyes melting. “Really? You would do that for me?”

“Of course,” he says, “It’s no trouble. I have GPS.”

At which point I feel EVEN GUILTIER that I CHEATED on Praveen earlier that night by offering him palak paneer that I’d bought that afternoon at a PAKISTANI restaurant! Which just goes to show what a horrible human being I am, and why it’s critical that Praveen NEVER, EVER find out what I did.

Cheating on Praveen at the Pakistani Tea House.

So we get in the car and start driving through the streets of Brooklyn and onto the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway to get to J.F.K. Airport. But suddenly the GPS starts directing Praveen towards Prospect Expressway, which I would NEVER, EVER take to get to J.F.K.

“Praveen, why is the GPS directing us through East New York, one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in Brooklyn, in a completely different direction than I’ve EVER taken in my ENTIRE LIFE to get to J.F.K.?”

“Oh, that’s probably because I programmed it to avoid tolls,” he graciously explains, at which point I internally freak out even more, because now I’m sure we will NEVER, EVER get to J.F.K. on time because the local roods will take FOREVER!!!!!!!

But drive we do, through neighborhoods I completely don’t recognize, until we reach J.F.K., at which point we start madly following signs to the departure gate for American Airlines (the last one, of course), and then I’m dashing, but dashing, to the ticket counter and breathlessly explaining to the woman behind the desk my situation, which causes her to stare at me like I’m a crazy person, until I stop blathering, at which point she says to me, “Well you’re one lucky lady, because if you’d gotten here 10 minutes later, we’d be gone.”

And with that, she processes my reservation and hands me a ticket: London, April 1, 2012. Just like that, Praveen has saved my life. Or at least my $800 ticket.

I rush back to the car. I hug Praveen. We both start laughing, amazed at our (my) good fortune. And then we drive back to my apartment, hardly believing we’ve just been through this whirlwind, three-hour escapade.

And as we lay down in our respective beds, I think to myself, “God, how I love couchsurfing, and how grateful I am to have Praveen briefly in my life. But, more importantly, he must NEVER, EVER find out about that palak paneer!

Don't tell him I cheated!

————————————–

Here’s the dish Praveen made for me during his visit. It was delicious, but because I can’t find vegetable makhanwala mix like the one he BROUGHT OVER from India, I’m providing a substitute that should get you in the ballpark.  

And to show you what an even more awful person I am, this photo is NOT the dish Praveen made for me, because that was so good we ate all of it.  No, this is a similar-looking mixed vegetable plate from the Indian restaurant Taste of Tandoor, located at 149 Church Street in lower Manhattan.  If you want to cheat on your Indian couchsurfer while in New York City, you can also visit Pakistani Tea House, just down the street, at 176 Church Street.

Mixed vegetable plate from Taste of Tandoor.

Recipe: Vegetarian Makhani  (Buttery Vegetable Curry)
Serves: 4
Preparation Time: 30 minutes

Vegetables:
2 1/2 ounces (75 grams) vegetable makhanwala mix if you can find it. If not, try this: Parampara’s Vegetable Jaipuri Mix
15 ounces (425 grams) frozen, defrosted or canned mixed peas and carrots
4 ounces (115 millilitres) milk
1/2 cup (75 grams) red onion, diced
1/4 cup (40 grams) fresh red pepper, diced
2 Tablespoons (30 millilitres) vegetable oil
1 teaspoon (3 grams – 1.5 UK teaspoon)  mustard seeds

Rice:
3 to 4 cups (560 grams) pre-cooked white rice
1/2 cup (75 grams) red onion, diced
2-3 Tablespoons (30-140 millilitres) vegetable oil
3/4 (1.8 grams – 1 teaspoon UK) teaspoon cumin seeds
1/2 teaspoon (1.5 grams – .75 UK teaspoon) mustard seeds

Optional for rice:
1/8 to 1/4 teaspoon red chili powder
1/4 teaspoon fenugreek leaves
1/8 teaspoon asafaotida

Spicy World seems to be a good source for Indian spices if you don’t have an Indian grocery in your town, and you can buy from them directly on Amazon.com.

To prepare vegetables:
1. Place oil in frying pan over medium heat.
2. Add mustard seeds, onion, and red pepper.
3. Add 1 cup (250 millilitres) water and the vegetable makhanwala or jaipuri mix.  Stir to combine.  Continue to cook about 5 minutes.
4. Add peas and carrots.  Add milk.  Stir to combine.
5. Lower heat and allow mixture to simmer, covered, until ready to serve.

To prepare rice:
1. In a frying pan, place oil over medium heat.
2. Add cumin, mustard, and red onion.  Add optional spices.  Stir to combine.
5. Add cooked white rice and stir to combine.  Cook over low heat until warmed.

Serve vegetable makhani on top of spiced rice with naan bread as accompaniment.

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Have Mercy on Us for We Know Not What We Have Cooked

Person: Monica
Location: Barcelona, Spain
Recipe: Gazpacho

Monica smiling before the storm.

We were battening down the hatches in the apartment, Monica and I. Hurricane Irene was drawing near, and New York City had begun shutting its collective doors to all but the most intrepid. Subway service was on its way to being suspended citywide. And as early as 5 p.m., bodegas were slamming their gates in preparation for the impending storm; shelves had already been emptied of water, bread, and milk. Soon, as Monica and I knew but never voiced, we would be one another’s sole ballast.

Watch out hurricane! You haven't reached Brooklyn yet.

Faced with impending doom, it’s natural to supplicate oneself to God in hopes of finding tea and sympathy. Luckily for me, Monica sang in a gospel choir in Barcelona, so we were that much closer to heaven. Steering clear of actual prayers though, as she claimed her interest in gospel was musical rather than religious, we instead eased our minds by filling the larder with God’s essentials: bread and water. I ran the tap and collected clear H2O in pots, then made a quick run to a grocery store to see what could still be had for love or money: jars of artichokes and capers, tins of tuna, perhaps a lemon. Two bottles of wine and some nectarines and apples I’d bought days earlier at the farmer’s market would keep us sane with sangria.

Calm before the storm.

That night, we huddled at the table while outside the wind whipped at trees and buildings. Rain pounded the glass, as we ate in silence under dim lights to conserve energy, hoping we’d be spared the rude awakening of even more thunder and lightning deep in the night.

It's going to be a rough night.

Dinner was modest – bread and cheese and olives at 10 p.m. – which Monica said was the typical dinner hour in Spain, even without a hurricane. Apparently, she couldn’t cook a lick herself, despite her mother’s job as a teacher to younger chefs. The skill had skipped her and her younger brother, while catching hold with the three eldest siblings.

The next morning, with further deluge still threatening, we turned into castaways on a desert island, tearing at the food in the refrigerator as if we’d been out in the elements all night rather than tucked cozily in our respective beds.

But as the day wore on, and we remained trapped, waiting, for what more we did not know, I began to go slightly mad, and before reason could grab hold of me, I began cooking as if my life depended on it. No piece of food went untouched. Whatever was there, I turned it into something. Guacamole. Tzatziki. Spanish gazpacho. Mexican chocolate ice cream. Nectarine-mojto pie. I was a whirling dervish of rolling pins and spatulas.

Nectarine-mojito pie. Take Martha Stewart's peach pie recipe, substitute nectarines, and marinate with rum, mint, and lime.

By the time I was done, there was enough food to feed a small army, not two solitary women trying to watch their summer weight for a few weeks more. What would we do? If we ate it all ourselves, surely we would have arrived post-storm two sizes bigger than we began. Then again, perhaps we needed to conserve. Who knew how long we’d be without another infusion of comestibles.

But just then, we heard a knock at the door, and standing outside were two unexpected guests, friends from afar who had travelled through the storm to see if we were okay. We invited them in and offered them sustenance. Soon a party atmosphere took over.

The Hurricane Singers.

The Lillet and sangria flowed. And, before we knew it, we were singing to God and the heavens, asking to be spared. Save us Yahweh. For we know not what we have done. We have been gluttonous with gazpacho and sangria and nectarine-mojito pie and Mexican chocolate ice cream. Oh, please, thou Anointed One, let us see daybreak the same dress size as how we beganeth the day. Forgive us, Lord, for we know not what we have cooked.

And lo, our prayers were answered. And She was good. And our basement was spared from water damage. Later, we wandered the streets of Red Hook looking to see how others had fared, and found many not so lucky.

A flooded basement in Red Hook.

We prayed for their safe recovery and secretly offered thanks to the sky. Had they been gorging themselves on chips and beer, we wondered? But their kitchens held their own secrets, and it was left to us to imagine what had transpired.

What happened in THAT Red Hook kitchen?

Recipe: Spanish Gazpacho
Serves: 4-6
Preparation Time: 15 minutes

Monica's Spanish gazpacho. And a sunflower to ward off more rain.

Ingredients:

1 1/4 pounds very ripe, plum tomatoes – 630 grams
1 clove garlic
2 tablespoons diced cucumber – 28 grams
1/4 cup diced green pepper – 53 grams
4 ounces olive oil – 118 millilitres
2 ounces red wine vinegar – 59 millilitres
Optional: Croutons (fresh or slightly stale bread brushed with olive oil and baked briefly in oven to crisp)

1. Roughly dice tomatoes into small cubes.
2. Place all ingredients except for olive oil and vinegar in a bowl or blender.
3. Blend with a hand mixer or in the blender until smooth.
4. Add olive oil followed by red wine vinegar. Blend again to emulsify. Approximately 1 to 2 minutes.
5. Top with croutons and a drizzle of olive oil.
6. Allow gazpacho to chill for a few hours to enrich flavor.
7. Serve cold or slightly chilled.

To take a spiritual tour of Brooklyn with one of our visitors, check out Dr. Kevin Dann’s Time Spirit Tours Web site.

Waves hit the shore in Red Hook.

Women on the Verge of a Dietary Breakdown

Location: Finale Emilia, in the Italian province of Modena
Person: Samantha
Recipe: Spaghetti Carbonara

March is the month in which human beings – trapped inside for months to avoid winter – finally allow ourselves to, well, go a little crazy.

And, being the wise creatures we are, we humans have also realized it’s better to ritualize our weather-induced insanity, rather than let it run amok by, for example, grabbing a club and galumphing over to Frank’s cave next door to knock him upside the head because he and Brenda totally dropped the ball on our plans for a joint Florida cruise!!!!!!

Ah…that feels much better.

How do humans ritualize March madness? Well…

Catholics, and some Christians, celebrate Mardi Gras.

Jews celebrate Purim.

Sports fans celebrate the NCAA Playoffs.

And women celebrate….
Wait a second? Are you kidding me?
That’s how we’re supposed to let loose after months of having to trudge through the snow in our Manolo Blahniks???
By celebrating Women’s History Month????
NO FRIGGING WAY!!!!!

You call this a party???

Okay…deep breath…stay calm…must think…Ides of March…ideas…
Wait! Got it!

Alright people. Listen up:

I’m hereby announcing the Female Version of March Madness:

This March, instead of a respectable, feel-good holiday about all things femme, I’m advocating a release of seasonally-induced craziness (as opposed to the hormonally induced one, already discussed in an earlier post) by exercising our right to a Hall Pass:

In other words, a week in which women can eat all the de-stressing, comfort food we want, without having to worry about our weight!

Just imagine it ladies: ice cream, pasta, tater tots (even if some cheerleading instructors among us consider them a controlled substance).

Mercedes on Glee fights for her right to tot.

That’s right.
Stand away from the pantry, boys.
This March, we are WOMEN GONE CULINARILY WILD!

The Couchsurfing Cook goes mad.

Here in New York City, my Italian friend, Samantha, got a few of us ladies off to a smashing start the other night by making spaghetti carbonara. Her recipe is simple and delicious and, better yet, I’ve provided a non-bacon version for the vegetarian and non-pork eaters among us.

Last, but not least, in another bout of madness for the CS Cook, I’m hosting my
first-ever contest:

Take a picture of your favorite comfort food and tell me in 200 words or less why you love it.

The winner, chosen at random, will win a copy of The William Sonoma Comfort Food Cookbook or, if you’re anti-cruelty, The Vegetarian Meat and Potatoes Cookbook.

The contest is open to all. You don’t even need to have XX chromosomes to enter. Deadline for entries is Sunday, March 13, 2011, at midnight. Winner announced March 16, 2011.

Samantha's amazing Spaghetti Carbonara.

* Check out the Website Samantha writes for, NUOK.IT, the Italian’s guide to all things New York.

Spaghetti Carbonara

Servings: 3 to 4

Ingredients:

8 ounces spaghetti – 250 grams
3 egg yolks
12 ounces bacon (We used Wegman’s uncured bacon or substitute equal amount of turkey bacon or baby bella mushrooms) – 340 grams
ground black pepper
Pecorino romano cheese (to taste)

1. Chop bacon into small pieces. Cook in skillet over medium heat until crisp but not burnt. If substituting mushrooms, first heat 1/4 cup (59 milliliters or 2 UK liquid ounces) olive oil in skillet. Once hot, add chopped mushrooms and a pinch or two of salt. Allow to cook 10-15 minutes until tender.

2. In small bowl, beat egg yolks, then add salt and pepper to taste.

3. Cook pasta in large pot of salted water. When done (al dente, a little chewy still), pour approximately 4 ounces (118 milliliters), approximately half a glass, of pasta cooking water into a bowl and allow to cool slightly.

4. Once cooking water is warm, add three-quarters of it to the egg yolks. Whisk to combine.

5. Return skillet with bacon to stove under low heat.

6. In a colander, drain pasta from large pot, then toss in pan with bacon.

7. Add eggs to pan. Toss to combine. Turn heat off and keep tossing.

8. If pasta looks dry, add more of the pasta cooking water to moisten.

9. Serve immediately in individual bowls. Top with grated pecorino romano and pepper.

** Want to know the inspiration for the black and white photos above? They came from this year’s TED Prize Winner, graffiti artist JR. **

Blame it on the Gumbo

Location: Pinewood, Louisiana + Garland, Texas
Person: Clell
Recipe: Seafood and Andouille Sausage Gumbo

After a time, a man gets to talking.

Maybe he confesses something. A dream. A desire. A regret.

Hours pass. He has time to reflect. On his life. Places he’s been. Things he’s seen.

There are subjects on which he’s an expert. Possesses expertise. You can see it. The way he stirs the spoon in the pot. A confidence there.

Not every man has his patience. It’s a skill hard-won. Perhaps his mother’s side? He never did say.

Then again, he left home early. Says he carries memories in his mouth now. Just went home for grandma’s birthday. Everyone knows, miles don’t equal love.

After some hours, the sky darkens. Night rushes in. The man grows tired. The hours feel like years. He’d just like a place to lay his head is all. The simple things what’s needed. Hot coffee in the morning. A piece of bread to dunk his sorrows. His requirements small. Not like his dreams. They loom large. Floating off to a distance. A black unknown.

Still, he knows there’s tomorrow. Believes it in his skin. The way he knows his history. The body, like the future, never lying.

In the morning, the man disappears. His soul turning material with the sun’s clear light. A shirt. A tie. Now a pair of pants.

Leave no trace, he learned as a boy, hunting in a Texas wood (pointing the gun away from the doe, as she sprang through the air unbidden, though he’s never spoke of the transgression).

Yes, it’s true what they say. Or what I imagined in a dream that followed: You can learn a lot about a man, by the way he makes gumbo.

* Thanks to Clell for sharing his family’s gumbo recipe. The Southern Foodways Alliance also has a wonderful article about how to make roux.

Seafood and Andouille Sausage Gumbo

Clell's Seafood and Andouille Sausage Gumbo

Servings: 10-12
Prep Time: 30 minutes
Cooking Time: 1 1/2 hours

Ingredients:

Roux:

1 cup vegetable oil – 236 ml
1 cup flour – 120 grams

Gumbo:

64 ounces chicken broth (can substitute vegetable broth or, as we did, half chicken, half vegetable) – 1892 ml
3 ounces chopped okra (10 whole) – 87 grams
4 ounces chopped onion – 115 grams
5 ounces celery (2 stalks) – 140 grams
1 green pepper – 85 grams
5 bay leaves
4 teaspoons Cajun or any mixed spice seasoning containing celery salt, garlic, thyme
2 teaspoons crushed red pepper
2 teaspoons cayenne pepper
2 tablespoons tabasco
2 teaspoons salt or to taste (we went easy on the salt)
1 lb. can whole, peeled plum tomatoes – 500 grams
13 ounces andouille sausage (4 in total), cut into diagonal rounds – 356 grams
6 fresh, whole oysters, shucked including juice
6 fresh, large shrimp, shells and tails removed, each cut in thirds
11 ounces medium, whole frozen shrimp, thawed to room temperature, each cut in half – 310 grams

To serve: 10-12 cups cooked, white rice

* It helps to have two people making gumbo. One to stir the roux, the other to ready the gumbo ingredients. At any point, the two can trade places.

Directions:

To make the roux:

1. Heat 1 cup vegetable oil over medium heat in a cast iron skillet until hot but not smoking, approximately 5 minutes.

2. Add 1 cup white flour and stir with wooden spatula to combine.

3. Lower heat and continue stirring oil and flour without pause for what will seem like FOREVER, but which is actually about an hour. Be sure to regularly scrape the pan bottom to prevent flour and oil from sticking. As you stir, the roux, as it’s called, will slowly change color from pale beige/grey to warm yellow to light caramel and then medium-dark brown caramel.

4. Once the roux is in the medium caramel-colored range, remove pan from heat and continue stirring a few minutes longer, until it turns slightly darker caramel brown. It’s important to remove pan from heat BEFORE the roux gets too dark, as it will continue cooking off the burner.

5. Whatever you do, DO NOT WALK AWAY from the roux, ALLOW IT TO SIT for too long without stirring, or LEAVE HEAT TOO HIGH, which will cause it to burn. If you sense the pan becoming too hot or see it starting to smoke, immediately remove from heat and allow to cool slightly before returning to low heat.

* There are some very talented people, probably Creole or Cajun folks, who can safely make a nearly black roux. Do not imagine you are one of them. Just take it slowly. Remember, they call New Orleans (N’awlins) the “Big Easy” for a reason. Roux may seem intimidating, and it is a bit of an art, but mostly it requires a calm head and a good nose.

While the roux is heating, a second person can do the steps below. In terms of timing, you want to have the roux finish so it’s ready to add to the broth and vegetables when you’re about at the halfway point:

1. Chop okra, bell peppers, and celery into 1/4″ pieces. Finely dice onion. Set each aside in separate bowls.

2. Into a large, deep pot, pour half the broth and warm under low to medium heat, approximately 10-15 minutes.

3. Add okra, onions, celery, and green peppers. Stir to combine. Cook until slightly softened, approximately 10 minutes.

4. Add whole tomatoes and spices. Stir to combine. Cook another 10 minutes.

5. Using wooden spoon, add roux to broth and continue stirring to combine. To keep gumbo from becoming too thick or gummy, quickly add remaining broth in cup measurements, stirring to combine. Stop before it gets thin and soupy.

6. Add andouille sausage and oysters. Bring to a boil, then immediately reduce heat to simmer.

7. Let gumbo cook, uncovered, simmering, another 30 to 45 minutes. Continue stirring gumbo occasionally, checking thickness, and add more broth as needed to maintain thick but not pastey consistency.

8. After 30 minutes, add fresh and defrosted shrimp.

9. Taste and adjust seasonings as desired. The taste should be spicy but not burning. Allow to cook another 10 minutes until shrimp is done.

10. To serve, ladle gumbo over 1-2 cups hot rice. Gumbo can be eaten right away, but some contend it tastes even better the next day.

Vincere la Battaglia di Wounded Tastebuds

Ready for the hunt...

October 11th was Columbus Day here in the U.S. of A.

Columbus Day, for those unfamiliar with it, celebrates the moment in 1492 when an overly confident Italian guy who hated asking for directions set sail from Spain in a big wooden ship for what he thought would be a quick trip to India to pick up frankincense and myrrh for his wife and instead landed at a totally wack Club Med in the Bahamas.

Now although you’d think Columbus Day would be a joyous celebration for Americans (named oddly after Amerigo Vespucchi whose b-day we don’t even acknowledge), the holiday is actually roiled in controversy.  That’s because it was Columbus who started the annoying trend of rich Eurotrash kids coming to the U.S., taking over the native people’s dance floor, smoking their home-grown Gitanes, leaving the stubs on the ground, then totally forgetting to tip.  All I can say is, Italian guys, SO hot but SO Genoa Shore!

Anyway as neither “Native American” nor Italian but rather avowed foodie, I have to admit that while I’m pissed at Columbus for setting in motion the manifest destiny thing, it’s hard to stay angry at a guy who unintentionally spearheaded the America-as-culinary-melting-pot-phenom that’s still taking place today.  Heck, half the reason I live in New York City is for the great Italian restaurants.

On the other hand…

It’s ALSO TRUE that it was the Mohawk and Iroquois — among other First Nations people — who taught us that the best-tasting food isn’t imported from thousands of miles away but rather grown close to home and eaten by those strange creatures modern explorers call “locavores.”

So there’s a culinary conflict here:  How to reconcile the exploratory spirit of Columbus — who gosh-darn-it just wanted to track down some Thai peppers for his off-the-chart hot sauce — and those who argue he should have stayed in Madrid eating free-range pollo and grass-fed vaca?

As the Couchsurfing Cook, you probably think you know which side of the debate I come down on, but I’m guessing you’re wrong.  You see I support both locally grown and world cuisine. Which led this past October 11th to an epiphany.  Why is there no special food connected with Columbus Day?  Christmas has goose. Hanukkah has potatoes.  Ramadan has dates.  Why nothing to honor Columbus?

Grifola Fondosa (Hen of the Woods) waiting to be cut.

And then it came to me.  Mushrooms.  Columbus Day needs mushrooms.

Why mushrooms? Because it’s mushrooms — and only mushrooms — that can bridge the gap between Italians and First Nations people.

Think about it.  Mushrooms are neutral.  They accept everything.  Olive oil. Garlic.  Butter.  And they come in all colors — red, white, brown, yellow, even blue.  They’re completely unprejudiced!  They’re also spongy and soft, like our hearts, which presumably will melt like butter upon tasting a cross-culturally unifying dish containing them.

And so it was that I spent Columbus Day hiking through the woods of Connecticut searching for mushrooms for what I’m convinced will become THE signature Columbus Day dish.  A dish that includes locally sourced mushrooms eaten by indigenous Northeast tribes as well as exotic, far-flung Italian flavors any visitor to a high-end version of the Olive Garden restaurant chain would easily recognize (did someone say, “extra garlic”?).

With a special shout out to an amazing artist and mycologist, the inimitable Gerry Miller, who regularly travels to the Amazon to hunt mushrooms and herbs with Peruvian tribes who still live as if in pre-Columbian times.  Thank you Gerry for teaching me how to hunt!

Heck if this whole Italian-Indian reconciliation catches on, I guarantee that one day Sherman Alexie will be the Grand Marshall for the New York City Columbus Day Parade.

Six Nations Risotto ingredients

Six Nations Risotto ingredients

Six Nations Risotto
In keeping with the international spirit of this blog, this recipe includes Imperial (U.S.) and Metric (U.K.) measurements.  Let me know if you like this feature and want it in future posts or whether it should go the way of turtle soup.

 

Servings: 6 as main dish; 8 as side

Ingredients:

1 1/4 cups – 280 grams butternut squash (can substitute delicata or acorn)
1 cup – 225 grams wild mushrooms wiped clean  (I used Hen of the Woods and chanterelle, but you can substitute brown or portobello)
1 cup – 225 grams arborio rice
1/2 cup – 115 grams dry white wine
1 cup – 45 grams fresh spinach (can substitute watercress)
2 cups – 16.5 U.K. ounces hot water
1 large – 9 grams vegetable bouillon cube
2 tablespoons – 2 U.K. tablespoons unsalted butter
3 tablespoons – 3 U.K. tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 tablespoon – 5 grams minced garlic
1 tablespoon – 15 grams minced shallot
1/2 teaspoon – 2 grams ground nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon – 1 gram ground sage (can substitute finely chopped fresh sage or savory)
1/2 cup – 90 grams grated parmesan cheese
Coarse salt and ground pepper to taste
Optional but highly recommended:  3/4 cup – 70 grams toasted ground walnuts

Directions:

1.  Preheat oven to 400 degrees Farenheit – 205 Celsius.

2.  Peel squash and cut into 1/2 ” – 1.25 centimeter cubes.  Toss with 1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil.  Add nutmeg and sage.  Add salt and pepper to taste, about 1/2 teaspoon each.  Place coated squash in large pan in oven and cook uncovered until soft and slightly brown, about 20 minutes.

3. Dice mushrooms into 1/2″ – 1.25 centimeter pieces.  Toss with 1 tablespoon melted butter and 1 tablespoon olive oil.  Season with salt and pepper to taste. Cook on stovetop over medium heat until softened.

4.  Place vegetable bouillon in hot water and allow to dissolve fully.  Stir to mix.

5.  In  medium-size saucepan over low to medium heat, saute shallots and garlic in 1 tablespoon butter and 1/2 tablespoon olive oil.  Cook until soft but not brown.

6.  Add arborio rice to saucepan and stir continuously with wooden spoon until rice turns from bright white to translucent at the edges, about 3 minutes.  Add wine and continue stirring until nearly all liquid is absorbed.

7.  Add vegetable broth to rice in 1/4 cup – 2 U.K. ounces increments, stirring continuously each time until liquid is almost entirely absorbed.  As rice cooks it will expand and become creamier. Rice is done when it’s slightly chewy or al dente.   Test doneness before last broth is added and increase or decrease as needed to reach desired consistency.

8.  After final broth is absorbed, turn off heat and add spinach, squash, and mushrooms to rice mixture.  Stir to combine.  Cover pot and allow to sit for 2 to 3 minutes to allow spinach to wilt slightly.

9.  To serve, spoon between 1/2 and 3/4 cup – 100 grams of risotto into a bowl and top with about 1 1/4 tablespoons of parmesan per serving.

10.  If desired, sprinkle with small handful of pre-toasted ground walnuts.  Walnuts can be roasted ahead by cooking in pan on stovetop at medium-high heat for 3 to 5 minutes, stirring frequently.

I Am Strong. I Am Bulgogi.

We had to leave...we're sorry.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way.  We were supposed to make bulgogi.  Together.  You and I.  But you had other plans.  You went to the outlet mall with your “friends.”  You shopped at Tory Burch and Chanel while I went shopping for london broil and kimchi.  It was all I could do not to cry while chopping the onions.

Sure my 40-year old friend Randy thought you were great.  You were a cute Korean exchange student from South Dakota. Who wouldn’t love you?  So naive and innocent with those big, dark eyes.

You’d never been to New York you said.  We were going to make bulgogi you said.  It was your favorite dish you said.  Was any of it true?

Because then you disappeared.  Like a thief.  In the night.  And after losing the keys to my house!

Sure you left a note.  Said you were sorry.   Said you were so ashamed you’d lost the keys you had to leave.  But what about my calls?  My pleas?  “Come back!” I cried.  “I’m not mad at you.  What about the bulgogi?”

But you didn’t return my calls.  All you did was leave me trinkets.  A plastic Korean drum on a key chain and a pair of chopsticks.  What am I supposed to do with those?

But it’s okay, because I’m strong.  Stronger even than kimchi.  And I figured out how to make bulgogi.  On my own.

I learned there are different ways to make it.  You can fry it in a pan.  You can barbecue it.  One recipe even called for Asian pears to sweeten and tenderize the meat.  But I decided to do it my own way, using oranges instead of pears.  Because I could. Because I wanted to.  Because it’s my bulgogi now!

That’s right.  I made bulgogi.  I made it without you.  And it was good.  And my friends liked it.  And you know what?  I’m going to make bulgogi again.  Because it’s a great summer dish.  And it’s delicious.  And I know now, because of what happened between us, I can survive.  I can make bulgogi on my own.  And because of that, I know I’ll be okay.

Bulgogi Without the Korean Girls (Who Went to the Mall, Lost the Keys to My House, Left Me an Apology Note, Disappeared, and Refused to Answer My Calls)

Serves 6


The dinner table set with bulgogi fixins'.

Ingredients:

1 1/2 pounds london broil, thinly sliced

For Marinade:

6 tablespoons low-sodium tamari
2 tablespoons toasted sesame oil
2 tablespoons toasted sesame seeds
2 cloves minced garlic
2 teaspoons white sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
2 scallions, including green, sliced on diagonal into 1″ pieces
1 yellow onion chopped into 1″ pieces
1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1/2 teaspoon grated fresh ginger
1 teaspoon grated orange rind

To Serve:

1 head red leaf lettuce
5 cups cooked white rice
12 ounces kimchi (1/2 – 3/4 jar)

Directions:

1.  Whisk marinade ingredients in a small bowl.

2.  When sugar has dissolved, pour marinade into large ziplock plastic bag.

3.  Add beef and chopped onion to bag and, using your hands, massage marinade into beef.

4.  Allow beef to refrigerate at least three hours.  For more flavor, let marinade overnight.

5.  When ready to prepare, preheat outdoor grill.

6.  When coals are ready, remove meat from marinade and place directly on grill.  Optional: brush grill with canola oil to prevent sticking.

7.  Cover with top and allow meat to cook 5-10 minutes until tender and slightly charred.  Use tongs to turn meat over and cook another 5-10 minutes or to desired doneness.   Remove from grill.

8.  While meat is cooking, wash and dry lettuce, separate individual leaves, and place on plate.

9.  Place spoonful of rice on top of each leaf, top with  slices of meat and a spoonful of kimchi to taste.

10.  Wrap lettuce around meat, rice, and kimchi.  Eat and enjoy!

Au Revoir Elsa

Elsa left yesterday.  She was my “first.”  Not in the way you think (minds out of the garbage disposal dear readers!).  No, Elsa was the first couchsurfer who agreed to cook with me.  And for your “first” it doesn’t get much better than making tarte au pomme and beef bourguignon with a cool urban-planning professor from Paris!

Elsa stayed for a week, and from the moment she walked up to me on Atlantic Avenue with her short choppy hair, thin jeans and t-shirt, and those black, rectangular glasses all the architects wear,  I knew we would get along famously in the kitchen.  Elsa was clearly way cool.

Almost immediately after arriving though, I sent her to Fairway, one of the best and biggest grocery stores in New York City, to stock up on food.  When people from other countries — even other cities — stay with me, they nearly all enter a state of shock upon entering Fairway.  It’s as if they’ve never seen so much food — and good food — together in one place.

But when nearly two hours passed with Elsa still gone, I began to worry.  Had she’d gotten lost in the frozen food aisle?  Or been trapped beneath a fallen pile of tomatoes?  Just then the door opened and Elsa walked in, her face glowing beatifically — as if she’d gone to food heaven and then fallen back to earth from the weight of her now-laden, reusable shopping bags.  “That was incredible,” she said.

I recognized most of what Elsa bought, except for one package I had no idea Fairway carried:  pre-boiled and peeled beets sealed in vacuum-packed plastic.  Now in Brooklyn — where we’ve all become holier-than-thou locavores — admitting to buying pre-packaged, pre-cooked anything could easily get you tossed out of your favorite dinner party.  But Elsa assured me that in Paris these pre-done beets are all the rage.   It certainly did make life easier not having to wait an hour for the suckers to carmelize in the oven, and given how nutritious beets are (calcium, phosphorous, potassium, Vitamin C, to name a few) it was nice knowing there was a simpler way to add them to meals.   In the end, we made a salad of beets and spring lettuce drizzled with orange vinaigrette that easily matched the more-complicated version.

But Elsa’s real gift (not counting the yummy chestnut paste she brought that I’m still dreaming up ways to use) was her recipe for beef bourguignon.  Now I have to confess that before embarking on this Couchsurfing Cooking project I never cooked meat at home.  In fact, I’m what you’d call a hypocritical vegetarian:  I never cook meat myself, but if I crave it at a restaurant, I’ll cave.  If that’s not hypocritical, I don’t know what is.

This is all to say that Elsa preparing meat in my kitchen was another “first” along my downward (or upward as the case may be) spiral to becoming a Couchsurfing Cook.   Thankfully she was an excellent teacher, aided I should add by the distant assistance of her brother, a culinary school teacher whose secret ingredient clearly catapulted the dish to a higher gastronomic realm.

And what was that secret ingredient?  Now you’re not going to tell anyone, are you?   Well it’s…shh…CHOCOLATE!   Who knew?  Turns out if you stir in a speck (and I mean a speck) of semisweet chocolate at the end of cooking along with the burbling red wine and beef fat juice/stew for some amazing reason — perhaps that extra bit of fat/sugar in the chocolate  — the sauce becomes infinitely smoother.

Here then I present Beef Bourguignon a la Elsa.  Thank you Elsa for being my “first.”   I won’t ever forget you.  :  )

Preparation Time:  15-20 minutes
Cooking Time:  Approximately 2 hours
Cooking Supplies:  Cast Iron Pot; Knife; Wooden Spoon; Measuring Implements

Serves 3:

17.5 ounces stewing beef
1/8 to 1/4 cup flour
1 bottle (750 ml) red table wine (make sure it’s wine you’d drink, although it doesn’t have to be top shelf)
3 to 4 sprigs fresh thyme
1 bay leaf
1/4 teaspoon salt and pepper to taste
1/8 teaspoon ground whole nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon semisweet chocolate

1.  Cut stewing beef into 2” chunks.
2.  Place meat in a heavy cast iron pot.  In French they call it a casserole en fonte.
3.  Cook over medium to high heat until meat is browned.  The French term to describe the meat when done is “saisir” to be seized.
4.  Sprinkle meat with flour and stir with a wooden spoon until meat is thoroughly coated.
5.  Pour ¾ of wine over meat.
6.  Lower heat to simmer and add spices along with salt and pepper to taste.
7.  Allow meat to cook over low heat for two hours adding the last ¼ of wine as needed to ensure meat remains covered.
8.  After two hours meat should be tender and wine reduced.
9.  Just before serving, stir in dark chocolate.  A tiny piece is all that’s needed; add too much and it will taste like chocolate.
10.  Serve with a side of potatoes or over pasta to absorb sauce.