Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Zucchini Jambalaya: Not Really Louisiana

I checked with my informant on such matters, Katy, a New Orleanian Katrina exile who knows a lot about cooking. She says zucchini would not, to her knowledge at least, be used in jambalaya.

Zucchini is recent in Lousiana cooking, and jambalaya traditional. So traditional, in fact, that it goes back to the dishes of rice cooked with meat, seafood or vegetables introduced by the Spanish Lousiana Creoles. Few Americans recall that Spain ruled New Orleans and Louisiana for decades in the late 1700s, including when the "Cajuns," the defeated French who were driven out of the Canadian region of Acadie, arrived.

Jambalaya is in an extensive family of rice dishes cooked with seasonings and various ingredients (think paella, think pilaf) that originated in Central Asia and came to Spain with the Moors and Arabs.

Although non-traditional, zucchini, for which I am seeking more ways to fix, gives an interesting freshness and tang to jambalaya. Try this otherwise traditional recipe if you doubt it.

Jambalaya with Zucchini

3/4 pound smoked ham (from the deli, sliced 1/4-inch thick)
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium-large onion, in 1/4-inch dice
3 sticks celery, in 1/4-inch dice
1 small red bell pepper, in 1/4-inch dice
1 pound boneless, skinless chicken breast, in 1/2-inch cubes
2-1/2 teaspoons Cajun seasoning ("Louisiana" or "Cachere")
3 tablespoons tomato paste plus 1/2 cup water
1-1/2 pounds young zucchini, in 1/2-inch dice
2 cups long-grain rice
1 teaspoon salt
Sliced green onions (green and white parts) plus coarsely chopped parsley for serving

Cut ham in 1/4-inch cubes. In heavy pot, fry it gently in oil until starting to brown.

Add onions and celery, and fry until softened, stirring from time to time. Add bell pepper, and fry briefly.

Add chicken and Cajun seasoning, and fry until raw color changes. Add tomato paste, water, and zucchini. Simmer, covered and stirring from time to time, until zucchini is tender. Turn off heat.

While the mixture is cooking, rinse and drain rice. In a different pot, bring it to a boil with the salt and 2-3/4 cups water. Do not stir. Cover tightly when mixture boils, reduce to lowest heat and simmer without opening lid. Set timer for 20 minutes. When time is up, turn off heat, but keep pot covered. Let rest 10 minutes.

Stir, then taste zucchini mixture. Add salt if necessary to make it just faintly salty.

In large bowl, gently toss the mixture and the rice together. Return jambalaya to meat-zucchini pot, place sheet of waxed paper over pot and replace lid.

Keep warm until needed for serving. If holding for a while, place in 150 degree oven, or place pot in a large frying pan, add water 1-inch deep to pan, and keep on simmer.

Serve sprinkled generously with sliced green onion and parsley. Accompany by Louisiana hot sauce.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Fish Curry: Authentic and easy

With several friends visiting Malaysia and sending back daily updates and photos, I was indirectly reminded of some of the cooking I learned when we lived in that country for much of the 70s.

In particular, an Indian fish curry came to mind, one I used to make frequently back then. What set it apart from other curries, which I often still cook, is the ease of making it. I learned it as a "korma," one of the curries with a smooth, fragrant but not too hot sauce.

Ironically that fish dish was not like the typical fish curries we got at Indian restaurants or at the homes of friends. Rather it was based on a recipe from a cookbook (which I still have) written by "Mrs. P Majumdar," an Indian woman living in Singapore. At some later point, I met Mrs. Majumdar's daughter, and found out that her mother was from Bengal, in eastern India, an area with fairly different cooking from what we had in Malaysia.

I had changed a number of things in the recipe, but kept the core principle of marinating the fish in spices, lime juice, and yogurt, then cooking it quickly.

Here it is, filtered through my memory and made with ingredients available in the US. Having revived it recently and guineapigged it on some neighbors who are long-time friends, I don't understand why I neglected it for so long.

The recipe serves six, accompanied by lightly salted rice and a vegetable curry, yogurt, and chutneys. The dish went well with an unoaked Chardonnay when we tested it with our friends.

Fish Korma after that of Mrs. Majumdar

1-1/2 pounds tilapia, either very fresh or still frozen
4 teaspoons lime juice
8 tablespoons yogurt, whole milk or low fat
1-1/2 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons ground turmeric
1 teaspoon paprika
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1/4 teaspoon cayenne
1 small-medium onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, finely minced
1 inch fresh ginger, peeled and finely minced
3 tablespoons canola oil
1 teaspoon whole cumin seeds
2 small bay leaves
2 small sticks cinnamon, broken in half
1 teaspoon sugar
1/2 cup water
3 tablespoons coarsely chopped cilantro, including part of stems, for serving

If fish is still frozen, thaw quickly in lukewarm water. If fresh, rinse fish. Cut in 1-inch squares and place in bowl.

Marinate with lime juice, yogurt, salt and ground spices for at least 20 miuntes. (Or mix ahead and store up to several hours refrigerated.) Prepare onion, garlic, and ginger.

Heat oil in heavy pan. Add whole spices and let splutter while stirring for several seconds. Add onion and fry, stirring frequently, until starting to turn golden. Add ginger, garlic, and sugar. Fry one minute. Add water, and let boil half a minute.

Add fish and all its marinade. Over medium-high heat, bring just to a full bubble, stirring carefully so as not to break up fish. This will be enough to cook the fish. Remove from heat.

Taste sauce, and add salt if needed. Serve immediately, accompanied by lightly salted rice.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Fresh Red Cabbage Chutney for Curries: Beautiful and easy

This easy side dish for curries and rice is patterned after one that was served, and allegedly created, at a family-run Indian vegetarian restaurant I used to frequent in Atlanta. It would have been called something like "gobi chatney."

Chutneys are any number of fresh or cooked condiments to accompany Indian snacks and meals. Americans usually think just of the bottled "Major Grey's" chutney from England. That sweet, gingery bottled mango mixture, as tasty as it may be, is Anglo-Indian -- a 19th Century fusion enjoyed by British colonialists back home from India or out in the other colonies. While Major Grey's is not really Indian, Indian merchants are not adverse to making it to sell to the foreigners.

The restaurant, "Chaat Pati," made their chutney with green cabbage. Having some red cabbage to use up recently, I tried recreating what I remembered in red rather than green. It seemed to work well. The flavor and texture were pretty much what I recalled. The rich red color, which develops once the lime juice is added, was a bonus.

The recipe needs about a quarter of a medium head of red cabbage, minus the core. Cabbage is easily sliced, then briefly chopped on a cutting board with a chef's knife. The total preparation time for the batch of chutney was less than ten minutes.

Fresh Red Cabbage Chutney

1-1/2 cups coarsely chopped red cabbage
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons canola oil
1/2 teaspoon whole cumin seeds
1/8 to 1/4 teaspoon cayenne
1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lime juice

Slice cabbage as for coleslaw. Chop coarsely on board. Place in large glass measuring cup or bowl. Mix in the salt.

In a small pan, heat oil to medium hot. Remove from heat and stir in cumin seeds. When they stop spluttering, stir in cayenne. Immediately add seasoned oil to the cabbage, using some cabbage to help scrape out the pan.

Mix well. Stir in lime juice and let cool, stirring occasionally.

The chutney is ready in half an hour. Serve in a small dish to be spooned onto dinner plates at the edge of the rice.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Orange-Rose Chili with Lentils: Chile Rosado con Lentejas

Cooking for my wife's Monday lunchtime church staff meeting, a group that agreed to be guinea pigs, has led to developing a number of dishes. Several constraints shape what turns up. The logistics favor reheatable one-pot stews, curries, and chilis that are prepared ahead, plus rice or other grains served hot from the rice cooker. I also need to avoid cooking with nuts and seeds.

Here's a chili I developed for the group's next meeting. I aimed for a pink-colored chili but wound up with an orange-pink color. Since I worked with lentils this time, one of my favorite legumes, the dish was quicker to prepare from scratch than a chili with beans.

While I haven't yet tried this with a beverage, like most chili dishes it presumably does well with beer or medium-bodied red wines.

The recipe serves 4 to 6. Make a double batch to have leftovers, which are even richer flavored.

Orange-Rose Chili with Lentils -- Chile Rosado con Lentejas

3/4 pound (1-3/4 cups) dry tan/green lentils
1 medium onion, coarsely diced
1 pound ground beef, not too lean
2 cloves garlic, minced
2-1/2 cups water
2 teaspoons paprika
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon oregano
1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon cayenne
1/8 teaspoon black pepper
1/2 of a (6-ounce) can tomato paste
1 medium-large red bell pepper, finely diced
2 teaspoons salt, plus to taste
1/2 cup canned evaporated (not sweetened) milk
1/4 cup coarsely chopped cilantro, including part of stems, plus more for garnish

Place lentils in large bowl and add boiling water to cover by 3 inches. Soak at least 20 minutes.

In heavy pan over medium-high heat, fry onion and beef together, breaking up the meat. (If beef is very lean, add a little olive oil.) When beef has fully changed color, reduce heat, add garlic, and fry 5 minutes.

Drain lentils, and add to pot. Add water plus spices and herbs, but not salt. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat, and simmer, covered but stirring occasionally, until lentils are becoming tender (10-20 minutes). Add a little water as needed, keeping the mixture reasonably thick.

Add bell pepper plus salt. Simmer, stirring occasionally, until pepper is tender. Taste, and add salt if needed.

Stir in evaporated milk and cilantro. Bring just back to a simmer and remove from heat.

Serve now, or refrigerate and reheat later (check salt). Sprinkle with chopped cilantro. Accompany with rice.

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Malabari Spicy Coconut-Fried Chicken Wings

There's no buffalo in these chicken wings. Though in India where this style of dry-fried "curry" originated, buffaloes are raised for milk to make rich, wonderful yogurt, clarified butter, and ice cream.

I was fortunate while living in Malaysia in the early 70s to experience ethnic South Indian spicy fried meats, lamb and chicken particularly, at small restaurants run by older cooks who immigrated from India during the colonial period. These regional specialties don't show up in cook books, as far as I can find.

This dish, usually made with small pieces of chicken, including skin and bones and using whole spices, I associate with Muslim cooks from the Malabar coast. Similar chicken as well as lamb treats, without the coconut but using curry leaves, were made by Hindu cooks from Tamil Nadu. The spicy treats were served at room temperature as appetizers or as side dishes in south Indian rice-based dinners.

While the original would have been made with freshly grated coconut slowly toasted on a dry pan, the dry unsweetened coconut available at natural food stores as well as at Indo-Pak groceries works in this recipe.

Malabari Spicy Coconut-Fried Chicken Wings

2 pounds chicken wing pieces, "drumettes" preferred, and no wing tips
1 small onion, diced
3 tablespoons canola or coconut oil
1 teaspoon whole fennel seeds
2 teaspoons whole cumin seeds
2 tablespoons dry finely grated unsweetened coconut
3 teaspoons ground turmeric
2 teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoon cayenne

Cut wings into separate pieces, if not already done. Remove any pin feathers still present. Dice onion. Set aside until needed.

Heat large frying pan to medium-low. Add oil, then fennel seeds. Stir or shake pan until seeds begin to fry. Add cumin seeds. As soon as they fry, add coconut. Lower heat to simmer and fry, stirring until coconut just begins to turn golden.

Lower heat. Add turmeric, and stir a few seconds. Add onions, and stir and fry 10-15 seconds.

Add chicken wings and sprinkle with the salt and cayenne while turning them.

Fry over lowest heat, stirring often and turning the pieces, until raw color is gone. Cover pan and continue to fry very gently and turning occasionally, until meat is very tender. Remove lid, and fry uncovered for several more minutes.

Serve on a platter or shallow dish. These can be served warm or at room temperature.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Afghan Qorma: Memories stirred by our summer trip

No, we didn't do summer vacation in Afghanistan this year. (Although when the kids were small and we were living in Asia, we spent a week there.)

Rather, on the trip north this summer, we ate at a fine Afghan restaurant, the Bamian, in Falls Church, Virginia. That reminded me, concretely, of qormas, the savory meat stews of Afghan cuisine.

Qorma -- or korma or quorma -- is a romanization from languages written in Arabic or Sandscritic scripts. Therefore the English spelling varies. The word is originally Persian, but rich-gravied meat dishes with this name range from Iran through Central Asia, to Afghanistan, to Pakistan and India.

Afghan qormas are typically made with lamb, beef being a distant second choice. Lamb not only tastes richer, but it cooks faster.

Frequently there is a vegetable cooked in with the meat and caramelized onion gravy -- green beans, cauliflower, carrots, spinach or eggplant (soak eggplant chunks in salty water 1/2 hour to get out bitterness). Qorma is traditionally served with chelow, plain white long-grain rice cooked with a little salt.

Qormas are tedious to prepare, but spectacularly tasty. They are better if prepared ahead and reheated to serve, making them a good entertainment dish.

In the real spirit of Afghan culture, no alcoholic drink would be served with qorma. Iced tea, or rosewater lemonade would be more typical. However, if you insist, beer or a light-bodied red wine can be drunk with it.

The recipe makes enough for four to six people, when served with a lot of rice. Since the cooking time is the same for a double recipe, doubling yields more meals for your efforts.

Afghan Qorma with Green Beans

2 medium-large onions, chopped coarsely
3 tablespoons canola or vegetable oil
1 pound stewing lamb, or beef (chuck preferred)
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 teaspoons turmeric
2 teaspoons ground coriander
1/2 teaspoon ground dry ginger or 1-1/2 inches fresh ginger peeled and finely minced
1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon cayenne
1-1/2 teaspoons salt
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1/2 pound green beans trimmed and cut in 1-1/2-inch lengths (or see above for other vegetables)
1/2 cup coarsely chopped cilantro, including part of the stems

Fry onions gently in oil in heavy pot, stirring frequently, until dark golden colored.

Meanwhile trim excess fat and tough parts from meat. Cut meat in 1-inch cubes. Add to caramelized onions, and fry gently, stirring often, until raw color leaves.

Add garlic, turmeric, coriander, ginger and cayenne. Simmer, covered, stirring occasionally and adding a little water as needed to keep moist, until meat is tender (lamb 30-40 minutes, beef 50-60 minutes).

Add salt and tomato paste. Stir well, and simmer 5 minutes.

Add vegetable, and simmer together with meat and sauce until tender.

Taste and add salt if needed. Stir in cilantro and remove from heat.

Qorma is better if cooked in advance and reheated to serve.