Monday, September 5, 2011

Spiced Lamb with Plums: The artistic science of culinary experimentation.

Some claim that cooking is an art, others that it's an exact science.  I believe that it's both - a scientific art, an artistic science.  A kitchen is a paint-splattered laboratory of gastronomy, where exact measurements work in tandem with bold brushstrokes of creative combinations.

Fancy words aside, what I'm saying is that you should be willing to experiment in the kitchen.  Responsibly, of course.  Deep-fried black licorice with a peanut-anchovy dipping sauce is certainly an experiment, but not one any sane person should attempt (or is likely to attempt more than once).
There are certain things in cooking that serve to make a memorable dish: texture and flavor are at the forefront of those.  Crunchy and salty on the outside, chewy and sweet on the inside?  Awesome.  That just WORKS.  Sweet and spicy, nutty and salty, lean and rich - all those combinations work, so long as the ingredients used to achieve them are good.

Which brings me to Spiced Lamb with Plums, my most recent culinary concoction, inspired by Middle-Eastern, Indian, and Southern (Southern United States, that is) cuisines.
The Recipe:

Spiced Lamb with Plums

- 1 lb of boneless lamb stew meat
- 3/4 lb of bone-in stew meat
- 1 large yellow onion, chopped
- 1-3 small jalapeño peppers (depending on how spicy you like your food), sliced into rings
- 2 dried red chili peppers
- 5 plums, pitted and sliced (the sweeter the plums, the better)
- butter
- 2-3 Tbsp olive oil
- coarse salt and pepper

In a large bowl, combine all of the lamb and liberally sprinkle with coarse salt and pepper.  Mix by hand to make sure the meat is evenly seasoned.  Cover and refrigerate for about 1-2 hours.
1-2 hours later:
Separate out the boneless and the bone-in meat.  If you like, you can cut some of the meat off the bony pieces (the bone-in lamb will be used for making lamb stock, so doesn't need too much meat).
In a medium heavy skillet (French skillet works great), melt 1.5 tablespoons of butter over high heat.  Lightly brown the boneless lamb, then remove from the skillet and set aside.  Add the bone-in lamb to the skillet and let brown.  Add 1 dried chili pepper and saute for about 30 seconds, then add 3/4 cup of water.
Cover, reduce heat to very low, and let simmer for 20-30 minutes.

In a large non-stick skillet, melt 1 tablespoon of butter over medium heat.  Add the olive oil.  Saute the onions until soft and starting to turn golden-brown, about 5 minutes.  Add jalapeños and chili pepper, and saute for 2-3 minutes, until jalapeños soften.  Add the boneless lamb that was set aside earlier.  Saute for 3-4 minutes, stirring frequently.
Add the plums and saute for another 5 minutes. Add the lamb stock.

Reduce heat to low, cover, and let simmer for 20-25 minutes.

Serve with basmati rice.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Chicken-on-Salt: the easiest chicken recipe... possibly ever!

The following statement may shock you, amaze you, or possibly send you into a murderous rage, particularly if you're an avid follower of the Julia Child brand of thinking that, in order to taste great, food must be labored over and involve many arduous steps to concoct.  (This is in no way meant as a slight against Julia - I do love me some JC recipes).

You can make chicken taste delicious in THREE ludicrously easy steps, using only ONE ingredient (aside from the chicken, of course; even my culinary prowess might be stretched when trying to cook chicken without chicken).

"EGADS!" you may exclaim (though most people don't say that anymore, sadly.  It's such a great expression - try saying it out loud), "Surely you jest!"
I do not, and don't call me "Shirley."

Without any further ado, I give you... Chicken-on-Salt!!!  This recipe was handed down to me by my father, who got it from his father, or possibly brother... well, anyway, it was a male relative of some sort, and while its cultural origins are lost in the mists of time, its simplicity and quality are timeless.

The Recipe:


- 1 whole chicken, butterflied (alternatively, you can just use a package of chicken legs)
- Coarse salt (quite a bit)

Preheat oven to 420 degrees F
Pour the coarse salt onto a baking sheet.  The layer of salt should be 3/4-to-1 inch-thick, depending on how big the chicken is.
Gently set the butterflied chicken (or chicken legs) onto the salt.  Don't press it down, don't roll it around, just set it down. (You can also sprinkle the chicken with some dried dill, but that's not necessary)
Put the baking sheet into the over and let cook until the skin turns a lovely golden brown and crispy (about 35-45 minutes)
That's it.  Chicken is ready to be served with a side of your choice.  Just be sure to knock off any small clumps of salt that may have gotten stuck to the bottom.
How this works: the salt absorbs a lot of the chicken fat, and also dries out the skin (making it crispy and delicious).  In turn, the chicken pretty much cooks in its own skin, and comes out nice, juicy, and flavorful.


"But WAIT!" you say.  "That's FOUR steps!"
Really?  Turning on the oven and/or putting a dish into said oven can't count as a single step?

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Dovga - the buttermilk soup that could

Our first morsel of delectable goodness comes from the small nation of Azerbaijan, where food is heavenly and corruption widespread.  This is not a political blog, though, so we'll avoid the latter and focus on the former.

Dovga, pronounced "dohv-gah," is a hearty buttermilk soup made with greens and other goodness.  It can be served hot, warm or cold, and can be eaten with a spoon or sipped out of a glass.  Quite the versatile little soup, eh?

Also, unconfirmed reports claim that it helps to prevent scurvy.

The Recipe:

Dovga - Buttermilk soup with greens and rice

- 1 gallon of Kefir (cultured milk) - it's thicker than buttermilk, and thus better in every way
- 1 big bunch flat parsley
- 1 big bunch curly parsley
- 1 big bunch cilantro
- 2 bunches (medium or larger) dill
- 1 bunch mint (LEAVES ONLY)
- 2-3 bunches scallions
- 2 handfuls (about 1 1/4 cups) rice
- 1 generous Tbsp flour
- 1 egg
- 2 very generous Tbsp. sour cream or Greek yogurt (the thick kind)
- 2 tsp. salt

Finely chop the greens and set aside.  In a large pot, combine rice, flour, egg, and salt, mix thoroughly.  Add sour cream, Kefir, and slowly stir in about 1.5-2 liters (about 6-7 cups) of water until mixture gets to desired consistency (you don't want it too watery, but if you make it too thick your arm will fall off).

Note: if you can't find Kefir, you can substitute regular buttermilk - just be forewarned: as buttermilk is not as thick, you will need more of it (about 5-6 cups more), and you shouldn't add any water to the mixture.


Put the pot over medium-high heat and, with a long-handled spoon (preferably wooden), stir non-stop until the mixture comes to a boil (30-40 minutes).
Lower the heat a little and, still stirring, let boil for 2-3 minutes (allowing the rice to cook through better).
While stirring, add in the chopped greens.  Stirring, bring the mixture back to a boil (about 15-20 minutes).  Let boil for about 1 minute (stirring slowly), and turn off.

Let cool to non-blazing temperatures before serving.  Salt to taste.

Mastering the Art of Enjoying Food.

I love good food.

I feel that it's important to get that out of the way right at the onset.

There are many books on cooking, and food, and concepts of "food therapy," sensory memory, etc. I don't really have any desire to compete with any of those venues, because, honestly, I have neither the time, nor the inclination, nor, in the more scientific areas, the educational background.

What I do have, though, is the firm belief that good food needs to be not simply eaten, but enjoyed. Everyone has a favorite dish (or several), or a style of cooking that is particularly appreciated, be it apple pie that their grandmother used to make or a spicy Korean side dish that can burn through solid steel and yet tastes like a piece of heaven solidified.

The point is, for a food to be truly memorable, it needs to be more than just good - it needs to evoke something, a pleasant memory of a sunny Saturday long ago or a general feeling of contentment.

So my advice (and take it with a grain of salt) is that the next time you take a bite or a sip, or even a healthy slurp of something that makes you go "Wow, this is really good," take a moment, close your eyes, let your mind drift, and take the next bite; what is the first thing that pops into your head, the first thought, or emotion, or image?  Exhale deeply (though preferably through the nose, so that you don't spray the people near you with half-chewed delicious food), open your eyes, and for another moment think about how you feel.

Enjoy your meal.