Friday, December 30, 2011

Festive biryani

I've been on vacation since a few days before Christmas, and my intention had been to use the time making progress on my thesis project, which will be due in early May: seventy-five pages of a creative project and a 30-page (I think) critical writing project. I'll finish half of both! I'll start rewriting certain sections! I'll do more research! But...not so much. I've been severely sidetracked by Rick Stein's Far Eastern Odyssey, a cookbook of recipes from Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, Bali, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and a place close to my heart, Cambodia.

I worked in Phnom Penh for a year, starting in spring 2006, and that's where my mind travels when I daydream. It was a year I learned much about myself and the many ways the world can work, and I carry the lessons I gained with me daily. Some were painful — I remember early on talking angrily to a taxi driver after he said he'd pick me up at a certain time, but didn't, causing me to miss an important interview for an article I was writing. But losing your temper in Cambodia is a big mistake, especially if you do it in front of more than one person, and it took days to be forgiven. And before I was, many people wouldn't speak to me. They'd simply turn around when I started talking. I was just another crazy American who couldn't act right. Since then, I've tried to remember that what works in New York doesn't work everywhere, and to proceed with politeness and propriety in new situations with new people.

One of my favorite things about Phnom Penh was the food, especially the food in small street stalls, markets and local restaurants. There are some wonderful, fancy restaurants in Phnom Penh; it's the country's capital and biggest city, with hordes of politicians and foreign diplomats who dine in high style. But you can't strike up a conversation and test out your fledgling language skills (or, in my case, non-skills) in restaurants like that, and besides, expensive joints aren't for every day anyway.

One of my favorite spots was a market stall that served thick rice noodles for breakfast, with dried shrimp, pickled chilies, peanuts, coconut milk and taro spring rolls — a sweet, spicy dish with the sharp saltiness of seafood. Another was a rice porridge restaurant in the first-floor of a family's home, which also served as the garage. They'd roll up the front gate, take the car out, move the round tables in, serve soothing babah for less than a buck, and after the last person had left for the night, put everything back. And I loved all the tucked-away spots that served Cambodian style curry. Rick Stein's cookbook has recipes for all of that. Last week I made mussels in coconut milk and Cambodian green curry, and the smell of lemongrass still hasn't left the apartment.

I've also been testing my hand at the recipes from other countries included in the cookbook; I've made rich, saffron-bright Moghul chicken korma, and for Christmas dinner made a Bangladeshi lamb biryani, along with a salad of tomatoes, red onion, chilies, cilantro and cumin. One of the wonderful things about Stein's recipes is that he walks you through how to make everything taste really authentic, from how to use ingredients you may not have worked with before, to grinding all the spices yourself instead of using ready-made mixes. It takes more time, but it smells and tastes like heaven.

Many of the ingredients in his recipes can be found online, if they're not available in your local market. If you live in or near New York, you can get everything at Kalustyan's on Lexington Ave. between 28th and 29th streets. When I visited the shop for the first time, I felt like a kid at Disneyland — they had everything I was looking for, plus things I didn't know I might need, and they were playing the Brandenburg Concertos over the speakers. I could have spent the whole day in there. 

So aside from making a traditional full English breakfast for Christmas morning, it's been pretty spicy here in Brooklyn, with lemongrass and Thai basil and hot peppers crammed into the fridge. 

Next on the list is Vietnamese fried fish with turmeric and dill, then Bangladeshi bhuna khichuri, a spiced rice with lentils and hard boiled eggs served with fish, then back to Cambodia for beef with lime and black pepper dipping sauce. And after all that's been cooked and eaten, I'll get down to that thesis project. Happy New Years Eve day, and happy eating!

Madness, followed by cioppino

First it was a big project due at work. Then it was end-of-term projects due at school. Then I had to have surgery. Surgery! UGH! And then my computer died! (and is still dead even though it has a new hard drive!) UGH UGH! All this CRAP was sucking the joy out of me, and I neglected this new little blog of mine for two months, and was in a foul mood, and generally wanted to jump out a window. So I decided to have a little dinner party before the holidays to get things back on track. It was just the thing. 

There's always an element of performance anxiety when cooking for an audience; you want everything to be good enough that your guests will come back! I went through a lot of possible menus: Moroccan lamb stew and couscous, fried chicken with biscuits and coleslaw, a big roast with garlic mashed potatoes. But those all sounded so serious, and I wanted dinner to be a hands-on kind of meal, where you really have to get into the food — lots of slurping, dipping bread into sauce, wrestling a bit with some unwieldiness. There's something about that kind of shared experience that makes everybody loosen up, drink more wine, have more fun. Maybe the word I'm looking for is unstuffy. (Is that a word?)

So after much deliberation and thumbing through recipes, I decided on my mom's cioppino, but with more shellfish and more spice, along with this tangy stand-up salad, with the addition of endive leaves. Some of the guests are writers working on memoirs, so for dessert we had the addictive hazelnut Madelines from my favorite bakery, Sweet Melissa.   

Cioppino is a fish stew, and my mom's recipe is what she calls a dump-and-stir — easy, fast and flexible. I put together the savory, spicy tomato broth, then added the fish and shellfish just before we sat down to eat so the chunks of meat wouldn't turn into little erasers.

I had some reservations about making this dish, because I'd made it for a crowd once in Boston while I was there for a journalism conference a few years ago. I was staying with friends of friends of a friend, and they invited several of their friends and neighbors over for dinner, and as a thank-you for putting me up, I offered to make the main course. Bostonians love seafood! Right? I had been really happy and excited with how it turned out, but during dinner nobody said a word about the stew, instead praising at length someone who made a herb spread by chopping fresh thyme into a stick of butter. I though, in the words of Christian McBride, Huh, I guess they didn't dig it.

This time, I think everybody dug it. I suppose you can never be totally sure. But a few had seconds, and most of the food was gone by the time they left, which must be a good sign. In any case, I liked it's spiciness, the way the shellfish opened to reveal their plump tastiness and how the pieces of soft fish flaked apart on my tongue.

We ate and talked, drank too much wine, and after everybody had gone, and after I finished cleaning up the kitchen carnage around one in the morning, I decided to have another bowl. My mood had been bolstered, and I was ready to face the holidays.

Mom's Cioppino
1 green pepper, chopped
1 small sweet onion, chopped
6 cloves of garlic, minced
2 cans of chopped tomatoes, plus a few fresh ones
1/2 cup red wine, such as Chianti, Cabernet or Sangiovese 
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon oregano
1/2 teaspoon dried basil, or a small fistful of fresh basil, chopped
1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
Ground black pepper to taste

Handful of parsley, roughly chopped

1 to 2 cans of minced clams
1 pound cod or halibut, cut into 1-inch cubes
1/2 pound cleaned shrimp
1 pound of clams or mussels, or a mix of both

1. Gently saute the green pepper, onion and garlic until the onions are translucent.

2. Add the tomatoes, wine and seasonings, and bring to a boil, then reduce the heat, cover and simmer for 20 minutes. At this point, you can set the broth aside and wait to continue the recipe until you're ready for dinner.

3. Shortly before serving bring the broth back up to a simmer, add the parsley, clams and halibut or cod, and let cook for about a minute. Then add the shellfish and cover for about 3 or 4 minutes, or until the shells have just opened.

4. Serve it up and get down to eating. Easy, no?