Sunday, December 9, 2012

The island feast

It's always hard to come back from a vacation, especially one so perfect and food-centered as this one. Here are a few pictures from our South Pacific island feast.

Our destination was Tonga, an island kingdom located between Fiji, Samoa, and Cooks Islands, a short three-hour flight from New Zealand. From Auckland we took an Air New Zealand flight to the Tonga capital Nuku'alofa, then a charter flight in an antique 1944 DC3 airplane to the Vava'u island group, where we chartered a sailing catamaran to sail between the islands.

Picture a perfect tropical island, with a coral reef, a sandy beach, and coconut palms swaying in the warm breeze, surrounded by deep blue waters, full of fish, dolphins, and whales. Now picture sixty of these islands, a few of them with little native villages or fishing resorts, most of them uninhibited, within one-hour sail from each other. This is Vava'u island group.

Tongans love their food, and are very proud of it. The local diet is based on tropical vegetables (taro, sweet potato) and fruits (coconut, pineapple, bananas), with a lot of fresh fish and shellfish, and some pork, with some potatoes, tomatoes, chili peppers, and lettuce thrown in. At the farmers market in the main town Neiafu you get a large basket of coconuts for $7 paangas ($1 paanga roughly equals 60 US cents), and a bunch of bananas or a pile of pineapples for $3 paangas.

Farmers market in Neiafu:

This is what we were using for snacks while sailing. Our regular afternoon after diving and snorkeling snack consisted of New Zealand cheese, salami, and crackers with bananas and pineapple slices, and a drink of an unripe coconut with a shot of rum poured in.

For breakfasts, I made simple omelets with bacon and cheese for those who were hungry in the morning; those who were not subsided on instant porridge, bananas, Turkish coffee and green tea.

Our divers and fishing lines proved to be useless in the South seas: the fish shied away from the divers, and it never got the lure. I had to go fishing at the farmers market. Fortunately, the local fishermen sell them (cheap) at the farmers market: spiny lobsters, barracuda, Pacific snapper, grouper, parrot fish, jacks, etc., come in fresh every morning. We grilled the snapper and trevally on board on our gas grill, and I pan-fried parrot fish fillets with fresh coconut flakes - all delicious, accompanied with a rice and vegetable pilaf, green salad, or boiled potatoes.

Parrot fish:

Cutting up a trevally:

Spiny lobster:

The highlight of the island cuisine is ota ika - raw fish - bite-size pieces of firm white fish, marinated with lemon juice, coconut cream, and vegetables, served with potato fries. This is addictive! Their fish soup is also coconut-based and delicious.

Ota ika:

Fish coconut soup:

Back to New Zealand, it was a completely different food experience. The country's main feature is rolling green hills, where they raise sheep, cows, and deer. New Zealand lamb feeds the world, but it tastes the best in New Zealand in spring. Beef and venison are fresh and tender. Even in the most touristy places you get a tender cut of meat, cooked to perfection and plated beautifully.

Rack of lamb:

Lamb chops:

Venison cooked on a hot stone:


Fish and seafood:

In Auckland, fish and seafood are great, and they do mind the presentation.

Street sushi is a Southrn Hermispere exotic, and, surprisingly, they are edible, and tasty.

Breakfasts and snacks:

Our captain's birthday falls on December, 1st. The International Date Line is set up all crooked and twisted in the South Pacific, to make sure that all the island nations are on the same time and date. So, after celebrating our captain's first ever summer birthday in Auckland by bar-hopping, we got on the plane to San Francisco on December, 2nd, and we flew into December, 1st and back into December 2nd, three more times. The turbulences didn't allow for a proper celebration on the plane, but we held tight to our wine glasses, and we toasted every one of our captains birthdays in and out!

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Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Learning Indian home cooking

This month I started cooking for one of your typical international Californian families: the husband is from Hungary, the wife from India. Both love their native cuisines, and want to share them at the family dinner table, but with two little kids and two full-time jobs they of course need help cooking.

I have an extensive menu of Eastern-European dishes, including a few traditional Hungarian recipes, so I was able to satisfy the Hungarian side of the family just fine. My ideas of Indian cuisine, on the other hand, are limited to the menus of the local Indian lunch joints, and Californian dishes with "oriental" flavors. Luckily, the visiting Indian grandmother agreed to teach me a few traditional homemade dishes.

Today we had our first hands-on lesson:
Stir-fried cauliflower
Chicken curry

I was about to get lost in the family's well-organized spice cabinet (that takes up an entire floor-to-ceiling built-in closet), when my teacher showed me a tin box with a few spices that she uses in everyday cooking.

Clockwise from the top: cumin seed, ground cumin, turmeric, black mustard seed, asafetida, ground coriander; center, red chili powder.

Tadka, the traditional flavor base, is made of cumin, mustard and turmeric, cooked in olive oil.

1-1/2 cup yellow lentils

2 Tbsp olive oil
2 tsp black mustard seed
2 tsp cumin seed
2 tsp ground turmeric
8 dried curry leaves
8 dried red chilies, with seeds, broken up
About 2 tsp (1-1/2 inch piece) jaggery (raw sugar)

2 medium tomatoes, chopped
1 small bunch cilantro, chopped, to garnish

Cook lentils in pressure cooker with 3 cups water until very tender.

Heat oil in a pot. Add mustard seed, cumin, turmeric, curry leaves, red chilies, cooked lentils. Add water to make soup consistency, season with jaggery. Bring to boil, add chopped tomatoes, bring to boil again, serve, garnished with chopped cilantro.

Stir-fried cauliflower:

2 Tbsp olive oil
2 tsp black mustard seed
2 tsp cumin seed
2 tsp ground turmeric
1 tsp asafetida
2 cauliflowers, cut into bite-size pieces
4 fresh hot green chili peppers, with seeds
1 tsp salt

Heat oil in a large sauté pan. Add mustard seeds, heat until the seeds start to pop. Add cumin seed, turmeric, asafetida; add cauliflower, chilies, season with salt. Stir for a while, cover, reduce heat to medium-low, cook until soft and dry, stirring occasionally.

Chicken curry:
For the curry paste:
1 small bunch cilantro
1 small bunch mint
1 medium onion
4 large garlic cloves
3-inch piece of ginger
1 medium tomato
1 Tbsp black peppercorns
1 Tbsp cumin seed

Roughly chop all paste ingredients, combine in blender, blend into almost smooth paste. Remove paste from blender; rinse the blender container with cold water, save the rinsing water.

2 Tbsp olive oil
4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cut into small pieces
1 Tbsp salt, or to taste
1 cup heavy cream

Heat oil in a large pan over medium-high heat. Add curry paste, cook, stirring, until it starts to brown. Add chicken. Cook, stirring, until chicken pieces turn golden on all sides. Add 1-2 cups water from blender, scrape the pan to deglaze. Cook until the liquid thickens, 10-15 minutes. Taste, add salt. Stir in cream, cook 5 more minutes, serve over rice.

Menu today:

Chicken soup with wild rice and mushrooms

Stir fried cauliflower

Leek and potato frittata
Garlic green beans

Baked cod with tomatoes and bell peppers
Cannellini beans with kale and tomato

Chicken curry
White rice, flat bread (store-bought)

Cabbage rolls
Braised cabbage with caraway

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Thursday, May 24, 2012

Spring vegetables


Steamed asparagus and broccoli with lemon dressing

Roasted asparagus with orange and oregano

Asparagus with saffron champagne vinaigrette

Grilled chicken with asparagus

Fava beans

Quinoa pasta with beans and asparagus

Fava bean dip with garlic and Meyer lemon

Beans and peas ragout


Braised leeks in white wine

Leek, spinach, and Gruyere quiche


Sautéed radishes and watercress


Steamed artichokes with lemon vinaigrette

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Location:San Rafael, CA

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Do not compost

Do not compost

I didn’t say this! By all means, please do compost! It’s economical, fun, good for your garden and for the rest of the planet. However, I’ve noticed that people get carried away, and put on the compost pile things that should go in the pot and on the table. Please, do not compost these, give them a try:

Beet greens. They are sweet, tender, and full of vitamins. Why would you toss beet greens, and then go and buy Swiss chard? It’s actually the same plant, except the beets were bred to have larger roots, and the chard was bred for the leaves. Clean the beet greens carefully, then use in braised greens dishes, add to borscht, or sauté in olive oil and toss with pasta.

Radish and turnip tops. These greens add wonderful, slightly spicy flavor and tons of vitamins to any dish where you would use other leafy greens. Or roast radishes or small turnips with the greens attached, for added textural interest.

Outer green cabbage leaves, cauliflower, broccoli, and kohlrabi leaves. These can be tougher than the cabbage heads, so they take longer to cook. On the other hand, they have higher concentration of vitamins and minerals than white cabbage heads. When braising cabbage, start with shredded outer green leaves, give them 15 minutes head start, then add shredded white or red cabbage.

Or, remove the thick center veins from the leaves, blanch them in in boiling water or steam in a microwave for about 2 minutes, refresh under cold water, stuff with your choice of seasoned cooked grains, meats, and vegetables, roll into tight parcels, place in a baking dish with chicken or vegetable broth, tomato sauce, sour cream, or a combination; bake uncovered at 375 degrees until tender and beginning to turn golden. Serve with the pan sauce.

Broccoli stems. Peel them, cut a slice and try it raw – you’ll be surprised. It’s the best part of the broccoli! If anything is left after you tried them raw, slice them and steam in a steamer or in the microwave, together with the florets, 4-5 minutes. Refresh with cold water, toss with your favorite salad dressing. My current favorite is 1 Tbsp almond butter, 1 tsp tamari soy sauce, 1 Tbsp olive oil, 1/2 tsp white wine vinegar or sherry vinegar, enough water to thin, salt and pepper. Top with dried cranberries, sliced almonds, toasted hazelnuts, sunflower seeds, or whatever you like.
Carrot tops. They taste like a carrot with a hint of parsley. They can be tough, so cut them finely and add to braised greens, soups, or pasta sauces in the beginning. Give them time to soften, and they will give your dish additional tasty goodness.

When making chicken or vegetable stock, carrot and onion trimmings, parsley stems and roots, green parts of leeks, kale stems, cabbage cores, leafy celery tops, small cloves from the center of a garlic head, lemons halves squeezed for juice, mushroom stems, bottom parts of asparagus – all add flavor, color and nutrition to the stock. Make sure that the vegetables are well cleaned. Simmer them in the stock for about 30 minutes to extract the flavor. If you are making a vegetable stock, after straining it, you can still compost the vegetables.

I’ve listed vegetable parts that I’ve been using in my cooking and enjoying for a long time. There may be other neglected edible plants or plant parts out there. Please do your research before attempting to cook and eat anything new. Our goal is to get taste and nutrition, not to get sick.
Do not try to cook with the greens from tomatoes, potatoes, peppers, and other members of the nightshades family – they can be poisonous.
Braised mixed greens
This is a “loose” recipe, with lots of possible variations. I have made it with or without meat; with wine, different types of vinegar, and apple cider; using almost every leafy vegetable on the market. Taste as you cook. Note that chickories will add some bitterness, and chards and beets will add sweetness; adjust the seasoning.

Wash your greens well. Don’t waste time on drying then: any water clinging to the leaves will help them cook.

Serves 4
2 Tbsp olive oil
2 ounces bacon or pancetta, thinly sliced (optional)
1 large red onion, thinly sliced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 bunch black kale, stems removed, torn into bite-size pieces
1 bunch red kale, stems removed, torn into bite-size pieces
Tops from 1 bunch of turnips, with stems, chopped
Tops from 1 bunch of carrots, thick part of stems removed, chopped
1 cup not too fruity white wine (Italian pino grigio works well)
Salt, pepper

In a large, deep sauté pan heat oil over medium heat. Add bacon or pancetta, if using, brown, stirring often. Add onion, cook, stirring, until soft and beginning to turn color. Add garlic, cook another minute to soften it. Start adding greens in batches. The greens will shrink, giving you room to add more greens. Stir to help the greens to shrink evenly. Add wine. Cover, reduce heat to medium-low to maintain slow simmer. Simmer until the greens are tender, 30-45 minutes. Remove the lid. Taste, season with salt and pepper. If there is a lot of liquid remaining on the bottom, cook uncovered until almost all the liquid evaporates. Serve as a side to pork, sausage, or chicken, or over white beans or pasta.

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Location:San Rafael, CA