Experimenting with couscous

Foods like couscous, vanilla pods or Nutella might seem pretty mainstream to most people now, but there was a time when these food items were not so easy to find in my part of the world and one had to go very far to be introduced to them.

This is the story of how I discovered couscous.

My first close encounter with it occurred –like many other gastronomic discoveries, come to think of it– in Paris, almost 6 years ago.

At that moment in my life, I essentially felt I could and should try anything I wanted.  My days were filled with activity.  I spent my time attending daily intensive French courses at the Alliance Française. In the afternoon, I reserved sacred time for blatant Parisian flânerie and in the late evenings, I took Italian (Lessons were taught by a very handsome Giovanni, and a sophisticated Roman anthropologist, Anna, with whom I secretly wanted to be best friends).  But I digress.

The cherry on the cake -and the point of telling you all this- is that by the end of my stay, I also decided to sign up for informal cooking classes chez madame françoise meunier… where the happy encounter took place.

There is a big chance nostalgia and time is making me idealize this, but bear with me,  this is how I remember it:  It was a crisp, beautiful April morning in Paris, and five very different people from all paths of life and continents gathered to get busy in Françoise’s sunny atelier to prepare together a luscious chicken tajine with buttery couscous.

Later that day, when we sat down around Mme Meunier’s rustic, rectangular table to taste the fruits of our labor, we took our first bites silently, closing our eyes as we savored a sample of maghrébine cuisine in a mouthful. Françoise had secretly (and wisely) dropped a silky, shiny lemon into the tajine. The lemon had been preserved in salt and lemon juice for over a month and, after a few minutes of simmering along the chicken and rich spices, it fell apart and impregnated our stew with an amazing and unexpected flavor.

But the real highlight for me was the couscous, as simple as it was. The tiny semolina pearls glistened with fresh farm butter and were perfectly seasoned –this is pretty much my idea of the perfect dish: very few ingredients, stupendous results.

Since then, I have made several incursions into the world of couscous.  Although, to this day, my favorite way to prepare it is how i learned to do it with Françoise.  Recently I spotted heaping bags of Israeli couscous alongside the “regular” couscous in my favorite natural foods store, and I couldn’t resist bringing home both and experimenting with them.

I dressed the fatter, Israeli couscous with a simple dressing and added cranberries, toasted almonds, chifonnades of mint and basil and fruity extra-virgin olive oil.

For the smaller-sized couscous, I spiced things up wtih minced ginger, garlic, lemon zest, smoked pimentón de la vera, cumin and coriander seeds to make a tasty crust for a lovely salmon filet. This was the result:

I doubt Mme Meunier will ever read this humble blog, but this one’s for her.

Ladies and Gentlemen: I’ve converted to tea.

 I’m not exactly certain of what started it all, but I have fallen absolutely and utterly in love with tea in the past 4 months. Grey, green, black, rose, white; blueberry, vanilla, lemon…you name it! I love tea in all colors and flavors. Hot? Cold? –Bring it. Sweetened, unsweetened? –No problem. I have happily discovered that both forms have their merits.

Why do I say this is a change and not just another happy gastronomic discovery, you ask? The thing is, for many years, tea was always a pretty forgettable beverage to me.

In my eyes, forgettable is worse than being just plainly bad. You see, I have no appreciation whatsoever for bland, mediocre, characterless foods. Granted, the food itself is rarely to blame.  Usually, it has more to do with the way it’s handled or prepared.  For instance, to me, a gorgeous wild salmon filet that’s been overcooked is such a waste, it saddens me to the point of apathy; and in my opinion, if you are going to serve a perfectly noble side dish like a baked potato, please do it some justice, and bake it right.  The potato deserves to shine and be all it can be, no matter how simple it may seem.

Well, getting back to the matter at hand:  I have to say it gives me some peace of mind to know that I can justify my previously assuming attitude towards tea with the fact that, growing up, I was only exposed to generic over-brewed cinnamon tea, made tolerable only by the redeeming qualities of a touch of sweetened farm-fresh milk. Té de canela was another negligible food item I simply didn’t really care much for, like the voluminous, but spiritless pan de dulce they sold at the corner kiosk (no offense, Rocco). On the other hand, I have a much more vivid recollection of the yummy, chunky oatmeal with which, in my house, cinnamon tea was invariably paired with (I’ll have to ask my Mom for the recipe!).

Speaking of my mother (and tea), she does know how to prepare a rather interesting “culantro” tea (or Eryngium foetidum, according to Wikipedia). Unfortunately, my brother and I would only get to sip this concoction when we were so sick with asthma or bronchitis, that home-made remedies were the only and last resort.  Culantro tea was supposed to soothe your lungs.

Come to think of it, I must have unconsciously associated tea with displeasing Vick’s VapoRub inhalations and unpleasant chest rubs or something, because it had never occured to me until now that culantro tea was actually rather flavorsome. (Another recipe I have to collect).

And now, after all these years, I’ve made my peace with tea.   I’ve even invested in an insulated cup (finding one was a feat in and of itself in France) and a tea infuser, and find myself become increasingly preoccupied with finding the right technique to steep infusions ( see the BBC’s tea-brewing how-to ) and make the perfect delicate and fragrant cup of hot tea and the ultimate glass of crisp, refreshing iced tea.

Not only am I discovering all kinds of interesting facts about the drink, but also fascinating varieties and methods of preparation. This will surely sound naive to a more experienced tea-drinker, and certainly to any tealover, but… seriously: how did I go through most of life neglecting the wonderful, exhilarating world of tea?

All this week I’ve been sipping on a refreshing Iced Tea made out of sweet-scented tisane I found at the corner pharmacy. I know, I know: tea from a pharmacy does not sound particularly tempting, but this one is hand-picked and has a divine and delicate citrusy/flowery aroma.

Here’s how I do it: I boil 1 1/2 liters of fresh water and steep three tiny bags of the afore mentioned tisane for 5 minutes.  I let it cool at room temperature.  Add the juice of one lemon, sweeten it to taste and stick it in the refrigerator.

It’s simple, yet it’ll blow away your tastebuds! :) I offered it to my girlfriends on our weekend-movie ritual last weekend and not only did it get a long mmmm after the first gulp, but raves all throughout the evening :) Who needs soda pop when you can make such good tea in a manner of minutes ?

Also, browsing through NPR archives I found an All Things Considered interview with Fred Thompson, a North Carolina native who wrote a book called, suprise-suprise: “Iced Tea” (ISBN 1558322280).

Even though the interview aired in late Summer 2002, it provides a simple and seemingly goofproof method  for brewing iced tea.

Next batch I make, I’ll give the North Carolinan method a try.  Nothing to lose, and a lot to gain from the attempt ;)

Fred Thompson’s guide to the perfect glass of iced tea:

6 regular-size tea bags (“You can use Orange Pekoe, Oolong, green tea, Lipton — pick your favorite.”)
1/8 teaspoon baking soda (a good pinch)
2 cups boiling water
6 cups cold water
Granulated sugar or other sweetener to taste (optional)

1. In a glass measuring cup or ceramic teapot large enough to accommodate the boiling water, place the tea bags and baking soda. Pour the boiling water over the tea bags. Cover and let steep for 15 minutes.

2. Remove the tea bags, being careful not to squeeze them (squeezing the bags will add bitterness).

3. Pour the concentrate into a two-quart pitcher and add the cold water. Sweeten, if desired. (Some Southerners put in as much as 1 1/2 cups of sugar.)

4. Let cool, then chill and serve over ice.

Makes two quarts.

Tea will become cloudy if refrigerated while still warm. Add a little boiling water to clear up the cloudiness.

The tannins in tea also cause cloudiness when the tea is brewed in hard water. If you know you have minerals in your water, use bottled or filtered water.

Thanksgiving sweets

Thanksgiving was good, and everything it’s supposed to be:

We lounged around, watched reruns of Scrubs, Grey’s Anatomy and Ugly Betty; we played with the dog (he was so hyper with all the extra food he ate that my friend’s sister seriously consiered doping him with dramamine) and over-ate.  We also slept too much and had luxurious meals that we don’t get to have normally.

I’m not just talking about my friend’s fantastic feast (a wonderfully moist turkey that had brined overnight and then seasoned with a fragrant rub by Williams Sonoma; sweet and spicy cornbread stuffing, maple-glazed sweet potatoes, mashed potatoes with bacon and roasted garlic purée, sautéed green beans with walnuts, buttery rolls, and orange-cranberry dressing), but also eggs, ham, muffins, for dinner one day; and, the best part: chocolate-pumpkin torte, pumpkin flan with a dollop of cinnamon whipped cream for breakfast another day (I told you we were being decadent).

To make cinnamon whipped cream (see picture above) beat 2 cups of cold heavy cream, 3/4 cups of powdered sugar, a teaspoon of ground cinnamon and 1/2 teaspoon of vanilla extract for about 10 minutes in a cold stainless steel bowl with a cold whisk.

I love you, Pumpkin

My appartment is filled with the warm smell of Thanksgiving.

A few rapid cerebral associations via taste and smell take me back to past years of joyful meals with friends and unforgettable experiences of this American holiday.

The delicious aroma invading my apartment is owed to a rich and dark pumpkin flan, whose recipe I found in an old issue of a Ruth Reichl endorsed Gourmet magazine that I’m testing out tonight.

Since I am spending the holidays at a friend’s house, I wanted to bring something special. Pumpkin flan seemed like the right choice for so many reasons:

Thanksgiving and other autumn holidays are obviously pumpkin time –squash fruits my friend happens to adore, d’ailleurs (quite recenlty he told me he’s becoming slightly obsessed with Potimarron pumpkins).  Also, adding the sweet touch and bright orange color of pumpkin purée and the spice of ginger, old spice and cinnamon to the good old-fashioned flan seemed like a natural bridge between my Latin American upbringing and my current life in America.

By the way, this is the friend who answers the question of how to say “Thanksgiving” in French, in the following fashion:

Action de grâces.”

And no more than a second later:

“More like action de graisse!”

He’s one of my favorite people, needless to say.

Anyway, he has offered to cook the first big meal at his parents’ new house. The folks just got there today, I hear. My friend is a cultured gourmand and an adventurous home cook, so he’s been planning a

“kick-ass feast that will be both traditional AND gourmet, thank you very much.”

He’s rather territorial in the kitchen, so things should be interesting.

Pumpkin Flan (adapted from Gourmet magazine; they suggest cinnamon whipped cream as an accompaniment)

1 1/3 cups sugar
6 large eggs
2 cups canned pumpkin puree
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground allspice
2 cups heavy cream

In a small skillet combine 2/3 cup of the sugar with 1/4 cup water and bring the mixture to a boil, stirring and washing down any sugar crystals clinging to the sides with a brush dipped in cold water until the sugar is dissolved. Cook the syrup, swirling the skillet, until it is a deep caramel, pour it into a warm 2-quart glass loaf pan, tilting the pan to coat the bottom evenly, and let the caramel harden.
In a bowl beat the eggs with the remaining 2/3 cup sugar, beat in the pumpkin puree, salt, ginger, cinnamon, allspice, and cream, and pour the custard into the loaf pan. Set the loaf pan in a deep baking pan, add enough hot water to the baking pan to reach halfway up the sides of the loaf pan, and bake the flan in the middle of a preheated moderate oven (350 degrees F) for 1 hour and 15 minutes, or until a knife inserted in the center comes out clean. Let the flan cool and chill it, covered, overnight. Run a thin knife around the edge of the loaf pan, invert a platter over the pan, and invert the flan onto the platter. Serve the flan, cut into slices.

Sweet or savory?

Crêpes:  as far as I am concerned: one a week keeps the doctor away.

Like pasta, pizza dough, polenta and short grained rice for risotto (Carnaroli, Arborio, etc), crêpes are an ideal blank canvas that invite experimentation and are versatile for both sweet and savory dishes.

Alton Brown (love the man) suggests interesting variatons for the basic crêpe batter: inspired by his advice, I added a pinch of salt and chopped fresh rosemary, sage, thyme plus a pinch of dried fines herbes.

The savory crêpes were full of earthy aromas, and they had great texture thanks to the fresh herbs. For the sweet crêpes, I added a tablespoon of Chambord liqueur (an intoxicating black raspberry liqueur whose name refers to the pretty Château de Chambord, in the Loire valley), a tablespoon and a half of sugar and a teaspoon of vanilla extract for world-class flavor.

I still can’t dissasociate sweet crêpes from Nutella, so that’s what I filled them with. As for the savory ones, I built a mini-tower of crêpes with layers of grated nutty Gruyère cheese, thin slices of Prosciutto and a fried oozing-yolk egg on top. Yum!

National Pork Month?

Casually, one of my students mentioned today in class that he was seriously dissappointed he hadn’t found out until today that October had been declared National Pork Month.

Why was this relevant in class?  Don’t ask, but iInspiration source aside, driving home from school I thought of this recipe.
I prepared myself a simple vinaigrette (Dijon mustard, olive oil, fleur de sel, black pepper, white wine vinager) to toss with bite-size romaine lettuce pieces. Then I seared a cutlet of pork (previously seasoned with Gram Masala, garlic, salt and pepper) and then finished cooking it in the oven. I served it with a compote of pears, honey, diced sweet onion, clove, all spice, cinnamon, dried cranberries and raisins. I added a few velvety fresh leaves of sage in between the juicy medallions of pork.
I thought it turned out pretty well.  If you like the idea, I hope you try it and let me know how it works out for you.

Making Vanilla Sugar

The other day I was leafing through one of my favorite pieces of food writing (and a wonderful cookbook, I may add): Amanda Hesser’s Cooking For Mr. Latte.

I stumbled upon her book in a Barnes & Noble in NYC in 2003 and I often reread the chapters and return to it for charming, witty, passionate foodie talk and for great recipes.

In there, she has, among others, a phenomenal recipe for tagliatelle with crème fraîche and meyer lemon; an awesome, simple recipe for a delectable roasted guinea hen or guinea fowl –which according to the Eat the Seasons website, is a

“great alternative to chicken for a warming dinner on an autumn night.”

Guinea hen has, and I quote,

“a lovely flavour that is slightly gamey but very subtle (much less assertive
than pheasant or grouse)”

Cooking For Mr. Latte also has THE best recipe for Caesar salad (for a brief history of Caesar salad, click here) I’ve run into thus far; and a genious (in a so-simple-why-didn’t-i-think-of-it way) idea for a grilled cheese sandwich (Parmiggiano-Reggiano, combined with a few of coarsely crushed grains of paradise –all melted & toasted to perfection between slices of country bread in foamy unsalted butter) best served, according to Hesser, with a chilled glass of Pineau de Charentes, a world-famous cognac from the region of Charentes Maritime, a département in the west coast of France.

Enfin, je reviens à mes moutons: in one passage of the book, Hesser candidly talks about her quasi orgasmic experience with a pebbly vanilla bean quatre-quarts that I have been wanting to try for a long time. Few things are as satisfying as a crumbly, light good pound cake.
When I saw that this recipe incorporated three different kinds of vanilla, and called for

“as many vanilla beans you can afford to buy,”

I knew what I wanted to bake this weekend, even though that would probably mean I would have no money for… um, say, do laundry. But who needs clean clothes anyway? ;)

In preparation for the cake, today I made vanilla sugar (Vanilla Form #1 that goes in it): According to Ms. Hesser, you simply stick a split vanilla bean into a pound of white, ordinary sugar and let it sit for a few days.
The sight of the little black specks of vanilla goodness perfuming the sparkling sugar makes my mouth water.