Standard Pages (they don't change often)

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Send in the clones

With the cold nip air arriving in Texas, we begin to forget the somewhat tropical climate we usually enjoy here. Certainly tropical enough to cultivate bananas. Many folks plant banana plants around Houston, usually for decorative purposes, but something about last year's climate has triggered many of these plants to produce fruit. Even local food writing legend Robb Walsh is ripening his own harvest.

These, however, are not the Cavendish variety commonly seen in the supermarkets; there are many other different banana varieties. In common American parlance, the dividing line between bananas and plantains is that the latter requires cooking. Truth is, plantains are also bananas. And just about all the bananas I've seen around Houston are of one variety, plump fruit that benefits from cooking.

Harvested bananas
This should come as no surprise: this is a seedless variety, most likely a triploid. But that also means that all the banana plants in Houston are clones, taken as shoots from an original transplant to the area (bananas originated in Southeast Asia). The spread is remarkable, considering that the only way these particular seedless varieties can spread is by human intervention. But this is a quiet invasive species, taking vigorous incursion in the Gulf Coast area - a model immigrant so to speak.

What to do with a harvest? First of all, bananas are climacteric fruit - so freely harvest them green and hard, and allow to ripen in an enclosed area. This variety resembles plantains in that they won't have a uniformly yellow skin, and black is not a sign of rot. Then, cook them. Baked, boiled, they make great fritters or banana bread.

I experimented in making a crepe crusted banana palm sugar pie. Enjoy the clones.

Crepe crusted banana palm sugar pie. 

Friday, November 16, 2012

Big Breasts

Did you know it's oyster season? It'll be a good foil for the bird. 
Because the American Thanksgiving tradition centers around the ready availability of a whole turkey, farmers need to anticipate the demand at this one point of the year. Not only that, but with the premium placed on the breast meat require turkeys to have consistently huge breasts: male or female. To the point that the birds are, well, too top heavy to mate. 

Not to worry - artificial insemination is the solution to both these problems

Gobble gobble. 

Monday, November 12, 2012


What's the correct term for something or someone with origins in Myanmar? Myanmari? Myanmarese? Myanmarian? Fortunately, Burma is still an acceptable name for that country.

I must admit, I know remarkably little about the cuisine of Burma. I know it has significant influences from both China and India, but you could say the same for Singaporean or Malaysian food, and those seem remarkably different from Burmese cooking. 

Khausa. From Nikoz Fusion Grill, Sugarland, TX.
I first encountered Burmese cooking in the form of curry khausa, which apparently a pasta dish with two sauces - and spaghetti or fettucine are acceptable. Fortunately, Naomi Duguid recently published her book on the cooking of Burma, and from there, I learned that the predominant dishes are salads called thoke. There are myriad variants of thoke, as these are prepared from whatever ingredients are available - unlike the pampered First World, people of Burma don't necessarily have the luxury of on demand produce.

For Foodapalooza 2012, I decided to prepare my version of thoke. Near as I can tell, thoke carries a refreshing range of textures, and a blend of flavors that range from spicy to savory and a hint of herbal aroma.

I based the thoke on daikon radish. I shaved the daikon with a vegetable peeler into long "noodles", and did a quick 15 minute pickle with julienned ginger, salt, vinegar and sugar. While this was marinating, I prepared the rest of the ingredients: chopped cilantro, toasted sesame seeds, pan toasted peanuts, and a bit of sesame oil. Drained the daikon, tossed these together, and topped with a healthy dusting of bonito flakes* (katsuoboshi), and a fried lotus root chip. Tangy, crisp and crunchy.

Daikon thoke. Foodapalooza 2012 style.
* I originally wanted to use small dried anchovies for the umami component, but was cautioned that the small fish heads may freak people out. Katsuoboshi was a compromise. 

Friday, November 9, 2012

Onion bits

"Convenience". Really?

Over at Epicurious, someone surveyed the NYC grocery shelves in the aftermath of hurricane Sandy, and was surprised to find that stocks of onions were depleted. After all, as the saying goes, everything starts with an onion. Then I discovered these packs of prechopped onions in a local store.

I am appalled by this. Firstly, ounce for ounce, these pre chopped onions are almost 10 times the cost of the whole onions. Not 10%, but a whopping 900% . There's nothing to cutting up an onion - there's no seed to deal with as is the case of a mango or an apple, and just about the entire plant is edible (one should be so lucky as to find onion flowers). I've heard arguments that it takes too much time, or that it would require a food processor.


About the only things you need are a sharp knife and a chopping board, and even for a novice, cutting up an onion should take less than a couple of minutes - you'll spend about that much timing waiting for a pan to heat up. Of course, I advise not rushing for any novice in knife skills for safety purposes. But the real secret: despite the admonitions of needing even slicing and dicing, most recipes will do just fine if the onions were just roughly cut up any which way. No food processor needed.

Perhaps then, with the money saved, you can donate it to the Red Cross for Sandy relief.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Tasting with the eyes

Huitlacoche and monkfish chowder
Over at Foodapalooza 2012, BBQDude requested a dish made from huitlacoche, corn kernels infected with the fungus Ustilago maydis. In American agricultural circles, it's considered the pathogen corn smut, but in Mexican cuisine, it is as prized as truffles. Indeed, the comparison is apt, as it has that range of complex flavors reminiscent of truffles.

The challenge of cooking huitlacoche is the alarmingly black color and the misshapen distended corn kernels filled with spores. Traditionally, this is hidden in an enchilada or an empanada, but our past project involved using it as a savory cheesecake - which at one point was compared to dirty dishwater in appearance but fortunately not in taste. This time around, I wanted celebrate the color of the ingredient, and hopefully make it attractive as well. I chose to make a soup - a chowder in fact to celebrate the New England fall.

We found some nice monkfish tails, which I took fillets off of. The trimmings and bones go into a pot with slices of ginger and water to make a fish stock. In a second pot, chopped onions are sautéed, and then the canned huitlacoche, then clarified fish stock. Pass this through a blender, and then a sieve to remove any small bits. Meanwhile, in a second pot, I made a roux from butter and flour, cooking this to a blonde stage. The soup is then added back in, and cooked to a thick soup. Finally, cream is added to taste. Seasoned, of course, with salt and pepper.

One challenge is that the only sweet corn available was canned. So I drained it, and laid it out on a sheet pan and put it under the broiler until slightly charred. This livens up the texture and flavor.

For service, I brought the monkfish fillets to room temperature, dried them off, and seasoned liberally with salt and pepper (Sichuan peppercorns would be good here, but I didn't have any available at the time), and a little oil. Get a heavy pan really hot, put in some heat stable oil. Lay the fish in the pan, and finish in a hot oven.

To serve, a few ladelfuls of soup, a few spoonfuls of corn, and lay the sliced fish on top. Serve with spoon and camera.

Thursday, November 1, 2012


Classical French cooking puts a great deal of significance to sauce cookery. The working French kitchen dedicates a cook on sauce preparation; in fact the saucier is ranked only behind the sous chef in the cooking brigade. Classically, there are five "mother sauces" from which others are based on. But we gleefully threw all these conceits out the window while cooking for Foodapalooza 2012

The challenge was to prepare sauces from quintessentially New England ingredients: blueberries, rhubarb, and cranberries, and pair them in savory preparations. Both the berries involved the same basic sauce direction: heat the berries (straight out of the freezer, I might add) on a sauce pan, adjusted with sugar for sweetness, and add complementary spices. For blueberries, I chose chipotle pepper and cumin. I wanted smoky overtones, with a gentle back heat. The cranberries, however, were a platform for fall sunshine: lemon peel and lemongrass, and a touch of maple syrup. I wish I could post an exact recipe, but the quantities will vary depending on the flavor the berries harvested. 

Rhubarb, I went a different route - I roasted it. Laid the chunks on a sheet pan with a sprinkle of sugar and a touch of olive oil and a hot oven. After I got little bits of char, I dumped it into a bowl, and mashed it while it was warm with slivers of raw ginger, tasting to adjust with more sugar or salt. 

Not that the item we were pairing the sauces needed much help: beer battered bacon. 

Beer battered bacon with New England Sauces.
To make, start with good bacon. We had some amazing stuff. Cut it into thicker slices. The beer batter is 50% rice flour, 50% AP flour, egg whites we had left over from making ice cream, baking powder, salt, paprika, cayenne pepper, and enough beer to make a thick batter (we used the hoppy Harpoon Ale). Allow it to rest in the fridge for 30 minutes minimum. Bacon slices can be dipped directly into the batter (it'll stick), and then into hot oil and fry until golden brown and delicious. Try not to burn yourself. Dip chunks into the sauces.

The blueberry chipotle sauce did double duty in a second dish:

Duck, blueberry sauce on sourdough.

What's great about dishes like these is that it's all about technique. Duck breast is scored, seasoned with salt, and put into a searing hot pan skin side down. The fat will render out, and make a nice crispy skin. Sourdough was inoculated the day before, and baked earlier in the day. We toasted it, buttered, laid the duck slice, and a dollop of blueberry sauce.

Chives are there to make it look like we have green stuff on the plate.