Wednesday, March 30, 2011

ingredient: MANGO

This could easily turn into an ode to mangoes. I could talk about how I love their super sweet, juicy flesh. I could describe their beautiful golden interior and blushing green peel. I could proudly say that I’ve eaten mango every day for the last two weeks (the containers at my local bodega are finally ripe!) and that while I prefer them eaten raw, the sticky juice running down my mouth, I’ll also eat them over coconut rice or blended as sorbet or nestled in a muffin. But it would be like praising chocolate. Everyone already loves mangoes. It’s the most popular fruit on the planet.

But India takes the (mango) cake. Though mangoes have been cultivated on their subcontinent for literally thousands of years, the people of India never get tired of it. India grows more mangoes than all other fruit combined. More impressively, they produce the highest number of mangoes in the world, yet they aren’t the greatest exporter. They’re too busy eating them themselves. It’s like Americans and factory-farmed chicken.

In India, raw mango abounds, sometimes sprinkled with chili pepper or salt. This wonderful fruit also finds its way into cooked dishes, from sweets like burfee to pickled chutneys. Mango mixed with yogurt makes a refreshing, smoothiesque drink called lassi. It’s a veritable mango party happening over there and I, for one, am jealous.

Mango is a fruit but it tastes as good as dessert. So you might forget that one cup of mangoes has 12% of your daily requirement of dietary fiber and 100% of your vitamin C. Show me a parent who can’t get their kid to eat fruits and I’ll throw a mango at their face. If I haven’t eaten it first.

Buddha himself was known to relax in a mango orchard (and presumably indulge in a sweet slice or two). If it’s good enough for Buddha, it’s good enough for me.

Mahi-Mahi with Mango Salsa

Like I said, I’ve been eating a lot of mango recently. I’m just so happy to see it that I can barely walk by a fruit stand without stopping to have a little exchange. Hello, old friend, I missed you so much. Have fun wintering in Mexico? Great. Now get in my belly.

The good thing is that I see no need to limit my fruit intake to breakfast, lunch, dessert or snacks. Dinner is a totally acceptable place for fruit, especially if you’re pairing it with some spicy jalapeños, zesty lime juice, and crunchy red pepper to make an awesome fresh salsa that accompanies grilled fish. This is just the kind of semi-tropical wish-I-was-there palate cleansing dish that makes me look forward to summer and giving my oven a break.

I bought Mahi Mahi for this dish because Mahi Mahi is a tropical fish and this dish has tropical flavors. This almost caused a dining disaster. You see as I was taking my first bites, my mother, with whom I happened to be dining, said, “Mahi Mahi. That’s dolphin fish.”

I thought she meant it was like dolphin dolphin, and as I grew up during the whole Save-the-Dolphins campaign*, I was not about to eat Flipper. Which is what I told her and she told me I was being ridiculous, and I said, yeah, you would say that, because my mother happens to be the instigator of Lobstergate 1996.**

Luckily a quick Wikipedia search assured me that Mahi Mahi is not related to Dolphin in any way except for name. Regardless, if you can’t find Mahi Mahi, other good options are red snapper or tuna.

*In the 1980s, there was a campaign to save dolphins after shockingly high numbers were getting caught and dying in nets meant for tuna fish. Marine activists won the campaign and now most tuna cans sport the "Dolphin safe" label.
** Lobstergate: An incident in which my young self was eating whole boiled Lobster on our porch in Cape Cod and I found a row of little green balls in the lobster’s belly.
“What are these?” I asked innocently.
“Oh. That lobster must have been pregnant. Those are the unborn babies,” said my always blithe mother.
I dropped my claw crackers and almost hurled. I honestly haven’t eaten whole lobster since.

Serves 4


for salsa:
2 ½ cups chopped mango
1 cup diced red onion
1 jalapeño, finely diced
1 teaspoon lime zest
3 tablespoons lime juice
1 ¼ cup diced red pepper
¼ cup chopped cilantro
salt to taste

2 pounds Mahi Mahi
1 tablespoon olive oil
salt and pepper

In a small bowl, combine ingredients for salsa. Mix and let rest while fish is being cooked.

Heat a ridged grill pan or sauté pan over medium high heat. Drizzle fish with olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Cook until opaque and cooked through, about 5 minutes per side.

Top fish with salsa.

Friday, March 25, 2011

ingredient: PEANUTS

I just heard a fun fact: peanuts are sometimes called goober peas. Yes, I am highly skeptical that more than five people in the world have ever used this phrase, but who cares? I’m a big fan. Let’s start a movement! Let’s contact the National Peanut Board. I really want to go on the subway and see their new ads:
Goober Peas: Energy for the Good Life.

Here are some other things about goober peas that you might not know. First, they’re a legume, like lentils or navy beans. Second, the plant produces a flower which actually dives back under the soil to mature into peanuts. (Do you think it’s embarrassed? Maybe it just gets cold.) Also: China produces almost half the world’s peanuts. However we do have a fair bit of domestic peanut production in Southeastern states like Georgia and South Carolina- which explains why boiled peanuts are a popular seasonal snack in those areas. Sorry, I can't tell you what a boiled peanut tastes like, or why you'd boil a nut in the first place.

Over time, peanuts have become associated with the health food movement. In fact I feel like they’ve really spearheaded the campaign for nuts. But we should thank the peanut and its proponents for teaching the American people an important lesson, namely that not all fat and calories are created equal. Despite their high levels of fat and calories, peanuts are a great source of nutrition, even for those on a diet. That’s because peanuts contain mostly unsaturated fat (the stuff that’s in olive oil), and absolutely zero trans fat (the stuff that’s in Ritz crackers). Peanuts have 30 essential nutrients, a ton of protein, fiber and antioxidants. They’re also a good source of Niacin, a vitamin you didn’t know you needed but actually helps brain function and blood flow.

My favorite way to eat peanuts is quintessentially American: peanut butter. This is funny because I used to hate peanut butter. Capital H- Hate it. I ate a jam sandwich every day for lunch in middle school and let me tell you, the number of times I had to say, “I just don’t like peanut butter OK” far surpasses the number of times anyone has ever called them goober peas (until we make this a thing and sweep the nation.)

But it’s not just me. In college my first year Italian professor, a sweet young woman from Naples, came in one morning, looking aghast.

“This morning I tried your American peanut butter,” she said, her faced pulled into a most unpleasant frown, her hands circling in a way that meant “this product you allegedly call peanut butter.”

“And...?” someone ventured. She seemed too traumatized to go on.

“And it is not what I thought. It is disgusting. So salty! I actually spit it out!” This was accompanied by more hand waving indicating “Believe me, I spit that s*** out onto the floor it was so freaking gross. Who are you people that would make such a product?” Then she sighed and wagged one finger. “Non. This is not like Nutella.”

Personally I’ve come to like peanut butter. In fact I’m going to go make myself a goober pea and jelly sandwich. Latas.

Peanut Butter Cookies with Peanuts

I like contrasts in the food I’m eating: Sweet and salty. Hot and cold. Soft and crunchy. It was with the latter in mind that I made these peanut butter cookies. I took a recipe for a tasty, soft, standard peanut butter cross cookie and added whole peanuts. The result is a nicely crunchy and supremely peanutty cookie. I think it’s a version that even an Italian could love.

2 2/3 cups flour

1 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon baking powder

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature

1 cup crunchy peanut butter

1 cup packed light brown sugar

3/4 cup sugar

2 large eggs

1 1/2 cups whole peanuts

1/2 sup sugar, for rolling


Preheat oven to 350°F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. In a small bowl, whisk together flour, baking soda, baking powder, nutmeg.

In a large bowl, beat butter until creamy, about two minutes. Add peanut butter and beat until well combined, about 1 minute.

Add light brown sugar and 3/4 cup regular sugar. Beat for three minutes. Add eggs, beating for one minute. Beat in flour mixture in two parts, scraping down sides of bowl after each addition. Mix in peanuts.

Pour 1/2 cup sugar into a small bowl. Roll dough into 1 1/2 inch balls. Roll each ball in sugar to coat lightly. Place balls on baking sheet and press down each ball twice with the tines of a fork, making a crisscross pattern.



Bake cookies until golden brown and starting to crisp at the edges, 12 to 14 minutes.

Monday, March 21, 2011

ingredient: CHEDDAR

There are streets in Brooklyn Heights named after fruit (Pineapple Street, Orange Street, Cranberry Street etc) and it has always been my dream to live on one. Then I found out that Cheddar is an actual village in England, and I have subsequently changed my life goal to move there. Imagine the return address stickers I could get!*

I bet Cheddar is a friendly town, because cheddar is a very friendly cheese. I’ve never met a person who doesn’t like some version of this firm cow’s milk cheese, even if it’s just the bastardized pre-shredded Polly-O kind. Ok, scratch that, maybe Cheddar is an angry town, because people all over the world are buying and selling bastardized pre-shredded Polly-O versions of their artisanal product, failing as they do to have any type of D.O.C protection for the name “cheddar.”

The truth is that any cheese can technically be called Cheddar if it is made by “cheddaring,” a process in which milk curds are ground into small pieces, cooked, and pressed into a mold. As a result of this lax designation, the taste, color, and texture between cheddars varies greatly. I prefer strong, sharp cheddars to the mild, plastic types even if the latter are admittedly great at achieving perfect melted-cheese texture. I also prefer pale yellow cheddars to orange ones for purely aesthetic reasons, though it’s true that some shameful producers use food dye to give their cheddar a carroty orange hue.

Cheddar is a versatile cheese. It melts beautifully, making it perfect for all kinds of baking and cooking. It’s also delicious when simply sliced and eaten with an apple. It must be because people love Cheddar so much that they seem intent on making it in record-breaking quantities. Starting with a 7,000 pound block made for a Canadian exhibit in 1866, cheese makers have continued to up the ante until the current cheddar record was established: a 56,850 pound mass of cheese made by the Federation of American Cheese Makers in 1989. Kraft is still selling the remains.

So go on and buy some Cheddar, whether it be English, Irish or made right up in Vermont. Just do me a favor and shred it yourself.

*You should be imagining a small picture of my dog in a cheese hat, adjacent to my name and address.

Cheddar Scones with Chive Butter

There is never enough cheese in cheese scones. Why is that? Is it because it would feel gluttonous? It’s not like you’re not already eating a scone. So just make that scone meet its sconey potential and load it up with cheese. That’s what I say. But sometimes no one listens to me and I have to just bake things myself.

These are seriously super cheesy. And they’re delicious. The scone is light and airy and pulls away into hot, melting, cheesy bites. It’s salty and sharp, the perfect dish for a boozy brunch. Chive butter makes a delicious accompaniment, though it’s not totally necessary. Making these scones is though. So do it. Just don't tell anyone how much cheese is in the batter.

On a side note, I have always wanted a cheese hat, and not just for my dog. So if you've got one lying around, send it my way.


For Scones:
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoons salt
12 tablespoons butter, cold, diced into 1/4 inch pieces
1/2 cup buttermilk
1 extra large egg
2 cups sharp cheddar, grated
1 egg, beaten with 1 tablespoon water, for egg wash

For Chive Butter
4 tablespoons salted butter, softened
2 teaspoons chopped chives

To Make Chive Butter:

In a small bowl, mix softened butter with chopped chives until well combined. Set aside.

To Make Scones:

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

In a large bowl, combine flour, baking powder, and salt. Stir to combine. Using an electric mixture, beat in butter until it is the size of peas.

In a small bowl, whisk together egg and buttermilk. Beat egg mixture into dry ingredients until just combined, about 1 minute.

Add grated cheddar to dough and mix until cheese is evenly distributed, being careful not to overwork the dough.

Turn dough out onto a floured surface and kneed 6 times. Roll dough out into a 5 by 10 inch rectangle. Dip a sharp knife in flour, then cut dough into eight triangles. Brush each scone with egg wash. Put scones onto a baking sheet and bake until puffed and golden, about 25 minutes. Serve warm with chive butter.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

ingredient: GIGANTES

Gigante or gigande are type of large, flat white bean commonly used in Greek cooking. I’ve found that the closest thing that’s readily available in American super markets is the Lima or the Butterbean, but not to worry. I think that the taste, especially between Gigandes and Butterbeans, is extremely similar: as beans go they’re more sweet than nutty and more creamy than dry. In fact I think it’s fair to say that gigantes are essentially just very large white beans, which is great because it means you get twice as much as that flavor-absorbing middle section.

Beans in general are one of the best (if not the best) sources of nutritional bang for your buck. These low-fat, high-protein gems are packed with iron, B vitamins, and fiber. And while darker beans have higher levels of antioxidants, gigandes are still an extremely healthy addition to any meal. And they’re cheap. One pound of beans costs around one dollar. One dollar! Even my asshole overpriced supermarket in the West Village sells white beans for $1.40 a pound. With my budget, I should be eating beans and not much else.

In fact, I feel compelled to share that one summer my college roommate did just this. She honestly ate almost nothing but canned beans for an entire month. Like you, I was shocked at first, but in awe by the end. You see she had been granted a small monetary stipend to study in Paris for the summer, but she first had to live in New Haven, studying the French language. New Haven in the summer? Quel dommage!

My friend thought about her predicament and decided to make the most of it. Having heard of the culinary delights of Paris, she decided she wanted to save as much of that stipend as possible to spend on baguettes, croissants, and macarons. That girl wanted to drink wine like it was water, and let’s just say her dreams came true. All thanks to the beans. She ate a can of beans for dinner every night. It is true that she loves beans in any form, more than anyone I’ve known, but really, I couldn’t believe her determination. I would have caved after a day and continued to indulge in my eight dollar jars of jam. But she got to experience the Paris of her dreams, and the moral of the story is that if you have to live on one insanely cheap product for a month, beans are definitely the way to go.

But back to gigande beans. These are a really beany bean, with a creamy, mellow flavor that takes well to herbs, olive oil, and tomatoes. Plus if you're like me, you'll find anything oversized especially fun to eat. If they were easier to find, I’d eat gigande beans all the time. A gigande bean, celery, parsley and lemon salad would be a refreshing first course. In the cold weather, I’d love a bowl of gigande beans stewed with a little kale.

But my go-to recipe for gigandes is Greek, because, in my opinion, Greeks are masters at taking simple ingredients and elevating them to the level of the Gods. This recipe is one of the classic examples.

Gigande Beans Baked with Spinach and Feta

There are some dishes that you’ll find on almost any taverna menu in Greece; Spanikopita, fried cheese, and souvalkia being prime examples. This is another. I love this recipe because the flavors just taste like Greece; dill, parsley, tomatoes, spinach, feta. Honestly just writing tomatoes-spinach-feta makes my mouth start to water. Those three ingredients are so perfect together that sometimes I’ll just sauté them up and go at the results with a fork for a quick, delicious meal. This dish is a level above sautéed vegetables because it’s baked in a nice big casserole and has a salty, cheesy crust. And of course I’m partial to any dish that creates its own little broth that’s just begging to be mopped up by a piece of bread. I’d really eat this dish every week if I was asked to. Or every day if I was saving up money to go to France.

There’s just one problem. I hate soaking dried beans. I don’t know why. Oh, wait, yes I do. It’s part of that now-I-want-to-eat-it-now mentality that I have when it comes to cooking. As a baker I’m much more patient. I’ll let bread rise all day, but I can’t get myself to soak some damn beans. Part of the problem is that once you soak the beans for eight hours, they’ll also need to cook for at least another hour and old beans can take up to three. That’s not really how my dinners roll.

Dried beans were the roadblock to realizing my gigante dreams. But then the other day I was tooling around a shop in midtown called Kalustyan’s. Oh Kalustyan’s. How to describe you? Imagine a food shop that has every weird or hard-to-find product you could ever want, from passionfruit syrup to bags of forbidden rice to Amaranth. I shouldn’t have been surprised to find that they also have canned gigante bans, but of course they do. Hooray!

I bought two cans of gigantes and immediately went home and made this dish. It was hearty and delicious. The onions and leeks are sautéed just enough so that they gain flavor but stay firm and don’t melt away in the finished casserole. The feta is mixed in with the beans and also sprinkled over the top with breadcrumbs to create a gooey, cheesy crust. The beans pick up the flavor of the dill and the tomatoes. By the end I was spooning it up onto hunks of crusty bread and shoveling it into my mouth.

In Greece this is often served as a mezze, or a small plate, but I think you’ll find this substantial dish to be a perfect main vegetarian course.

serves 8
2 15.5 ounce cans gigante or butter beans, drained and rinsed
2 9 ounce bags spinach, wilted
½ cup chopped fresh dill
½ cup chopped fresh parsley
1 leek, white and light green sections chopped
1 tsp salt
1 tsp freshly ground pepper
2 onions, diced
1 ½ cups feta, crumbled, divided
2 cups peeled, seeded chopped tomatoes (I took the tomatoes, sans juice, from a 35 ounce can of whole Italian plum tomatoes)
1 cup freshly made breadcrumbs

Preheat oven to 350 degrees

Heat 2 tsp of olive oil over medium high heat. Sautee onions and leek until tender, 7 minutes.

In a large bowl, mix dill, parsley, one cup feta, salt, pepper, spinach, onions and leeks. Mix in beans.

Make sure the mixture is well combined then put in a heavy casserole or baking dish. Sprinkle top of casserole evenly with remaining ½ cup feta and breadcrumbs. Moisten with another 2 tbsp or so of olive oil.

Bake for 30 minutes, or until top is golden brown and beans are heated through.

Friday, March 11, 2011

ingredient: WHISKEY

Blame it on the English. Those party poopers are responsible for almost ending whiskey production not once, not twice, but three times. The other close call came from America’s teetotalers, but let’s start at the beginning.

Whiskey is a liquor distilled from grain, most typically barley or rye, though wheat or corn can be used. This is the very reason that Scotland and Ireland became such hotbeds of whiskey production: the islands couldn’t grow grapes, so barley beer was made instead. And if you're a peasant who's busy worrying about hell and damnation and you forget to take your barley beer out of the barrel, you’ll start to find yourself with a batch of whiskey.

Like with most profitable enterprises of the Middle Ages, monks had a lockdown on whiskey production. So in 1536, when Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries, he dissolved the distilleries as well, endangering the production of spirits like whiskey. In my opinion, a poor choice for a fat man trying to get laid.

The second threat to whiskey came in 1707, when England officially annexed Scotland. Suddenly Scottish products were subject to English taxes, which made good Scottish whiskey a little too pricey for the average swiller. Yet this wasn’t as bad as what happened just 18 years later, when, in 1725, the English Malt Tax was passed. The Malt Tax was so high that it essentially drove all Scottish whiskey production underground.

Luckily, whiskey is a spirit with spirit and this liquor has survived multiple campaigns that would have ended its sometimes nefarious career. Scottish whiskey producers, like their American counterparts three hundred years later, simply started to brew their whiskey at night, under the Moonshine.

Though every distiller makes whiskey their own particular way, here are the basic steps to how whiskey is made: Malt, Mash, Ferment, Distill, Mature.

The first step in whiskey production is malting, where a grain (barley, rye, etc.) is soaked in water in order to start the process of germinating and producing sugars that can be converted to alcohol. At this point, some whiskeys are dried over peat fires or in ovens in order to impart a smoky flavor. Either way, the grains are then mashed with water to create a mixture known as wort. Yum.

Now the liquid wort is heated, or distilled. Many whiskeys get boiled multiple times (i.e. a double or triple distilled whiskey) because each round of distillation increases the purity, smoothness, and asking price of the whiskey. Finally the whiskey is matured in casks for at least three years, though the best whiskeys will have sat in the producer’s basement for eight years or more.

A Tale of Two Whiskeys


As far as spirits go, I used to prefer gin. But one too many G&Ts, one too many mornings smelling like an old British man, and I had to leave it behind. I didn’t expect to become a whiskey girl, but then I didn’t expect to move into a brownstone in Brooklyn with five of my male friends, either.

These guys take an interest in whiskey that goes far beyond Jim Beam. They know their single malts and their cask strengths and all about chill filtration. They could probably choose correctly between a bourbon, a rye, and a Scottish whiskey in a blind taste test, and I wouldn’t be surprised if one or two of them swirled their glass thoughtfully then said, “Bruichladdich, 18 year” as I held the covered bottle in awe.

When I moved to Brooklyn, we spent many hours sitting around the living room, shooting the old proverbial, while they all sipped on a nice, aged Scotch, likely a LaPhroig or a Lagavulen. Being gentlemen they’d always ask, “Like one?” And one day I said yes.

I was surprised. Whiskey is pretty damn good. I liked the smoky, peaty ones first, but moved on to appreciate anything with a nice, caramel background and notes of toasted barley. And thus it happened that many a night found me and A., sipping on whiskies, watching Mad Men, and discussing the merits of Don versus Sterling or wondering why Betty is such a bitch.

So this is a recipe for A. who loves whiskey and ice cream.

Vanilla Ice Cream with Chocolate-Whiskey Sauce

serves aprox 8 people
5 ounces good quality dark chocolate
1/2 cup milk
2 tablespoons sugar
3 tablespoons heavy cream
2 tablespoons whiskey
Vanilla ice cream


Melt chocolate in a double boiler. Set aside. In a medium saucepan, whisk together milk and sugar. Bring milk to a steady simmer, stirring until sugar has dissolved. Whisk in chocolate until smooth. Whisk in cream.

Let mixture come to room temperature, then mix in whiskey. Pour over vanilla ice cream


It’s a hot summer night in Brooklyn. The smell of basil and flours wafts up from the garden, making K’s patio feel like paradise. We’ve had many courses of delicious food. The loafs of crusty French baguettes, which were at first cut into proper slices, are now simply being passed around so hunks can be torn off and dipped in the olive oil and juices that have pooled in the plate that once held a line of caprese salad. We talk a little more to digest, and then it’s time for dessert. K. disappears into the kitchen, returning with bowls of vanilla ice cream drizzled with whiskey. Ok, drowned in whiskey. And no, I didn’t forget to say sauce. I was surprised, not in the least because K. was at the time a strong believer in the merits of a good tequila. Whiskey, I thought. Here you are again.

You see, the more that I paid attention, the more I realized just how many people were indulging in this classic spirit. Another friend, M., makes my whiskey drinking practices look like the stuff of pansies. She has been known to partake in Whiskey Slaps, a game that she claims, in all seriousness, is fun. It goes as such: Sit in a circle with your friends, or, it seems to me, secret nemeses. One person takes a sip of whiskey then slaps the person next to them. The bottle, and the slap, is passed. I would believe that there is a certain amusement to this game that I’ve never been brave enough to try, but I will also say that M. is the kind of gal I want by my side if the world ever devolves into something resembling the last scene of Gangs of New York.

Because they'll inevitably end up mentioned more than once in the course of my eating adventures, you should know that M., L. and K., are what I refer to as my three amazing friends “from home,” meaning I’ve grown up with them and would take a bullet to protect their lovely faces. While L. prefers herself a nice big glass of wine to a tumbler of whiskey, she’s been known to indulge in a nice piece of French toast. So this recipe is for my girls, who love whiskey and brunch.

French Toast With Whiskey Sauce

serves 4
For Sauce:

1 1/2 cups heavy cream
2 teaspoons cornstarch
2 tablespoons cold water
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 cup whiskey

For French Toast:

8 slices bread (preferably a little stale, and preferably challah. But as you’ll see, all I had on hand was sliced white bread. Oh the shame.)
4 eggs
3/4 cup milk
1 tsp vanilla
3 tbsp butter
Powdered sugar

To make sauce:

In a medium saucepan, bring cream to a boil. In a small bowl, mix together the cornstarch and water, then add to the boiling cream, making sure to stir constantly. Reduce the heat to low, add the sugar and the whiskey and stir until sugar has dissolved. Take off heat and set aside.

To make toast:

In a medium, hopefully flatish bowl, whisk together eggs, vanilla, and milk.

Melt butter in a large skillet over medium high heat. Dip each slice of bread in egg mixture and shake off excess.

Put slices of bread in hot pan and cook until golden brown, about 3-5 minutes per side (depending on thickness of bread).

Put 2 slices of toast on each plate, sprinkle with cinnamon, powdered sugar, and drizzle with whiskey sauce and maybe some maple syrup.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

ingredient: LEMONGRASS

When I was small, I used to eat the onion grass that grew wild in my Pop Pop’s back yard. Let’s just say my parents were not happy when they saw me picking up clumps of green weeds and sticking them in my mouth. Onion grass is totally edible and can even be used like chives, but I can understand my parent’s concern. They couldn’t be sure I wasn’t eating regular grass, which even my dog only does when he’s sick. But onion grass is just one of multiple species of grass that can be used for more than just your lawn. I’m not talking about making special brownies, either.

Lemongrass is a prime example. Native to the Philippines, but a fan of any temperate to tropical climate, this plant grows in long, light green stalks. I’ve always associated lemongrass with Thai food because when I was growing up the local Thai restaurant was named Lemongrass (and was probably owned by Canadians. Similarly Chinese food always makes me think of baby buddhas.) But the truth is that lemongrass is not only used in Southeast Asian cuisine; it features in many African, Caribbean, and Central American dishes as well. Epicurious even has a recipe for leek matzo balls in lemongrass consommé, though I think that’s going too far.

This plant’s citrusy flavor is a great compliment to spicy curries, coconut milk, and ginger. Lemongrass is the base for a popular soft drink in the Philippines. I’d love to try a lemongrass soft drink, and in fact Jarritos should be all over that, but since the Philippines is unfortunately not on my current vacation radar, I’ve been sampling some lemongrass tea. Not only does it taste light and refreshing, but it’s supposed to calm me and clear my nasal passages. Every cup is apparently detoxing my liver, pancreas, kidney, bladder and digestive tract. That seems like one hard-working cup of tea. However it has been scientifically proven that Lemongrass has antifungal properties and strong cancer fighting abilities, so put on that kettle.

But my favorite thing about lemongrass? It actually has nothing to do with gastronomy or health. Lemongrass is used to make citronella candles, that indispensable summertime staple which repels my nemesis: the mosquito.

Pork and Lemongrass Meatballs in Lettuce Cups

I was drawn to this recipe for two reasons. The first is that I love meatballs. Having been a vegetarian for most of my life, I’m still not a fan of a big, bleeding piece of steak or even a nice breast of chicken. I prefer my meat mixed with lots of flavors and spices, and that’s why meatballs and sausages are at the top of my list. And who doesn’t love the soft, juicy texture of a perfectly cooked meatball? Who doesn't have fun rolling them into cute little spheres? Well, I sure as heck do, and I'm particularly inspired after having tried the best meatballs in New York City.

The second reason I wanted to make this recipe is that I love eating things out of a lettuce cup. My reasoning is about 60-40 in favor of the pure novelty factor, but I do like the crunchy, clean taste of lettuce as well as any dish that lets me play with my food at the table.

This recipe is from the most recent issue of Bon Appetit, and though I dog-eared the page I’ll admit that I thought, “I’m not actually going to make this. When am I ever going to buy lemongrass?” But as has been a trend of late, I find that most ingredients are easily found if I just decide to look for them. And thus began my first foray into cooking with lemongrass. You can buy lemongrass already chopped, in a jar, or in stalks, to chop yourself, and I did both. I wanted to attack the plant myself, but it’s a hubristic cook who doesn’t have a plan B. I ended up using a bit of both for the sake of comparison. My verdict? The fresh plant has more flavor, certainly, but if time and or laziness prompts you to use the jar, don’t sweat it. (Until you sweat it, and shoo the skeeters away.)


1 pound ground pork
1 lemongrass stalk, bottom 5 inches only, minced*
1/4 cup chopped shallots
2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro
1 tablespoons fish sauce (such as nam pla or nuoc nam)
2 garlic cloves, chopped
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 teaspoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon ground pepper

For Dipping Sauce:

1 lemongrass stalk, minced*
¼ cup fresh lime juice
¼ cup fish sauce
3 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro
3 tablespoons coarsely grated carrot
1 ½ tablespoons golden brown sugar
2 teaspoons minced green Thai chile (serrano chile or other hot chili works too)

For Assembly:
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 head of butter lettuce, leaves separated
1 small persian cucumber, thinly sliced


In a food processor, pulse together all ingredients for meatballs except for pork until they have become smooth and like a paste. Add in pork and pulse until blended. Roll the meat mixture into 1 inch balls, making aprox 24 meatballs. Put meatballs on a baking sheet and chill in refrigerator for 1 hour.

Make Dipping Sauce:

In a medium bowl, whisk together all ingredients for sauce until sugar has dissolved and they are well combined.

For Assembly:

Heat oil in a large skillet over medium high heat. Add the meatballs to the pan (as many as can fit, don't overcrowd). Cook, turning occasionally, until cooked through, about 15 minutes.

Serve meatballs alongside dipping sauce, a stack of butter lettuce leaves, and a bowl of the cucumber slices. To eat, take a lettuce leaf, fill with a few slices of cucumber and two or so meatballs, drizzle with dipping sauce, close the leaf and dig in.

the set-up

the take down

*to mince a lemongrass stalk, directions taken from wh foods: Cut off green tops down to white fleshy part. They are not edible. Cut off root. Peel away outer layers until you reach the tender part of the lemongrass. Slice very thinly across the stalk. Continue to chop with chef's knife until very fine.

Friday, March 4, 2011

ingredient: TAPIOCA

To talk about tapioca we have to start by talking about cassava. About what? About cassava.

Cassava is the world’s largest crop you’ve never heard of. Or, at least, that you’ve never actually purchased or cooked with. (It’s O.K., I hadn’t either until I was working on a menu for a Brazilian-themed party.) But as the third most eaten carbohydrate in the world, I think it’s time we give cassava a little love.

Also known as manioc, boba, and yuca (not yucca), cassava is a woody shrub whose starchy, tubular roots were a prime food source for the pre-Columbian peoples of South America. It seems incredible to me that cassava has always been so popular because you can’t eat it raw. This isn’t like potatoes; they don't just taste bad when raw, they’re actually poisonous. Cassava roots contain toxic levels of cyanogenic glucosides, and you can get sick or even die if they're not properly prepared. Yet those ancient peoples, they just didn’t take no for an answer. Through what I’m guessing was a pretty nasty series of trial and error, they figured out that to make cassava root edible you must grind the root into flour, mix it with water until it becomes a thick paste, then spread the cassava paste over a basket and wait for at least five hours until most of the cyanide has evaporated. An obvious solution, I’m sure.

Cassava is an important crop in developing countries because it is highly caloric and contains substantial levels of calcium, potassium, and vitamin C. Cassava is an important crop in my own little world because it is used to make tapioca. Tapioca is a starch which is extracted from the cassava plant. The highlights of tapioca are that it’s gluten free, useful as a thickener, and can be made into those cute little balls we call tapioca pearls. I love tapioca pearls.

My love affair with tapioca stems from the fact that I’m a big fan of tapioca pudding. As with other foods that really wowed me, I remember the very first time I ever ate tapioca pudding. I was at my friend Kate’s house and she pulled a giant bowl of the stuff out of the fridge. At first I thought it was “just” vanilla pudding, but it turned out to be oh so much more. The homemade egg yolk-yellow pudding had an intense vanilla flavor and the most delightful texture. Though tapioca really has no flavor in itself, it makes other things, like bubble tea, seriously fun to eat. In fact bubble tea is reason #2 why I love tapioca. Sucking gummy balls through a giant straw while sipping on flavored sweet tea? Yes please.

My love was cemented this past week when I baked for the first time with tapioca flour. The following cheese bread is my new favorite thing ever (sorry, stuffed meatballs), and the chewy texture of tapioca flour is so fun that I'm going to continue play around.

P.S: Have a gluten allergy? This flour's for you.

Pão de Queijo
(Brazilian Cheese Bread, with a variation for Greek-Brazilian Cheese Bread)

I’ve loved Brazilian food since my childhood when my family would go over to a friend's house to eat feijoada, a hearty stew of black beans, salt pork, and sausage. The husband of the family was from Brazil, and on trips home he’d always pick up a bag of manioc flour so that we could have the traditional feijoada topping: lightly toasted coarse manioc flour. The topping was my favorite part and I top-loaded, not realizing I was blowing through a precious ingredient like it was table salt.

Feijoada is warming, flavorful and, at the time, unlike anything I was eating anywhere else. What I'm ashamed to admit is that until recently, despite my cooking exploits, despite this early introduction to real Brazilian cooking, I had still never picked up manioc flour or tried to make feijoada myself. Manioc flour was one of those ingredients I had dismissed as being too hard to find when the truth is that it took me one trip to one store (which wasn’t my crappy supermarket) to get it.

In a happy coincidence, just as I was thinking about Brazilian food a friend decided to lament the absence of good pao de quijo in America. I did a double take because I didn’t even know that Brazilians had their own special cheese bread. Admittedly this is something that I should have known or guessed, because cheese + bread is the universal recipe.

I was worried, again, that the cheese bread might be difficult to make, but quite the contrary. In fact, it belongs to my favorite category of recipes: Things You Can Make In Your Food Processor. The prep was fast and the results so delicious that I don’t want to admit how many of these little suckers I ate. The tapioca flour makes them pleasantly chewy in a way that they wouldn’t be with white flour. They also meet the you-want-to-eat-this-now requirement of being cheesy, hot, and salty.

NB: These are traditionally made with a South American cheese, and for my first batch I used queso fresco, a white farmers cheese from Mexico. I wanted to make a second batch because they were that good, but I was out of queso fresco. I always have feta lying around, and I happened to have haloumi as well. Haloumi is a salty, semi-firm cheese from Cyprus that’s ideal for melting, so I grated it up and threw it in. The results? Amazing. I see a continuing Greek-Brazilian alliance in the future.

1 egg
1/3 cup olive oil
2/3 cup milk
Scant 1 1/2 cups (170 grams) tapioca flour
1/2 cup (packed, about 66 grams) grated queso fresco (variation for Greek-Brazilian Cheese Bread: Haloumi)
1 teaspoon of salt (or more to taste)

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Grease two twelve cup mini muffin tins.

Put all ingredients in the bowl of a food processor.

Pulse until smooth, about 7 seconds. Pour batter into cups, filling 2/3 full.

Bake until puffed and golden brown, 15 to 20 minutes. Serve warm.