Monday, November 28, 2011

Time to Cook the Books a la Grecque

The latest book pick for Cook the Books, the Internet foodie book club that my friends Johanna of Food Junkie, Not Junk Food and Deb of Kahakai Kitchen started three years ago, is Patricia Volonakis Davis'  Harlot's Sauce: A Memoir of Food, Family, Love, Loss, and Greece (NY: Harper Davis Publishers 2008).  With Cook the Books, we have read many kinds of foodie non-fiction, novels, children's literature and biographies, and traveled the world reading about different culinary traditions, but we have never examined the wonderful food culture of Greece, so I was excited when Johanna picked this book for our current CTB selection.

Davis tells the story of her courtship and marriage to a Greek immigrant and the cultural clashes between her first generation Italian-American family and his. Eventually, she and Gregori and their son Nick move to Greece and her descriptions of her new life there were the most interesting part of the book for me. I enjoyed the translations of various Greek words and expressions ("She can make a donkey die!" means someone is stubborn beyond words) and loved her prose about about Greek Orthodox rituals, the complex dance of the biscotti and coffee at Greek funerals, and comparisons of American and Greek attitudes towards children, stray dogs, and education.

Though the word "Food" is given preeminence in the title of this book, there is not so much discussion of Greek cuisine as there are descriptions of how Davis' marriage weakens and ultimately unravels. And this is not what I thought the book would be about, so unfortunately, I would find my thoughts drifting away through yet another recitation of a marital argument or fight with a passive-aggressive in-law. I flipped ahead through many pages seeking out the nuggets about Greek culture seen through an American's eyes or about the love-hate relationship that first generation immigrant families have with US pop culture and societal freedoms.

My favorite character in the book is Patricia's mother, a chain-smoking philosopher, whom she unfortunately becomes estranged from after too many Gregori incidents.  I absolutely loved Mama Nancy's theory of comparative religion. When young Patricia came home from Catholic school one day and asked how one knows that their religion is "the right one", Mom replies:

 "All religions are the "right" religion, if they're right for the person following them. They all teach basically the same things: to love one another, be the best people we can be, to never deliberately harm someone else."

When her daughter asks why there are different religions, Mom's educational metaphor comes back: "The best way I can describe it is that it's like decorating a house. Some have furniture that might seem strange to you, but the people who live there are happy with it." (p. 81)

After my reading, I was inspired to filch a Greek cookbook from our bookstore shelves, Perfect Greek (London: Parragon, 2006) and perused many a delicious recipe for various mezze, sweets and salads, but ultimately I settled on a recipe for a tomatoey Greek Fisherman's Soup which I adapted to be much more stew-like and which made for a wonderfully fragrant meal served over rice. I'm glad I made a big pot of rice, because this concoction had terrific juices and we sopped up every bit at dinner.

Here's a Fish Stew fit for a Harlot or Fisherman or whomever shows up at your table:

Greek Fisherman's Stew (adapted from Perfect Greek)

2 frozen fillets of tilapia, thawed and cut into chunks (they will flake off in the cooking)
1 lb. frozen shrimp, thawed and shelled

1 onion, peeled and thinly sliced
4 stalks celery, thinly sliced
3 cloves garlic, peeled and sliced

3 Tbsp. olive oil
1/2 cup dry white wine
1 (14 oz.) can diced tomatoes and their juice
Peel of one orange
1 tsp. chopped fresh thyme
3 Tbsp. chopped Italian parsley
2 bay leaves
Salt and pepper to taste
Hot cooked rice

Heat olive oil in large soup pot. Add onion, celery and garlic and cook, stirring often, until softened, about five minutes. Add fish and shrimp and cook, stirring often, another 5-7 minutes, until shrimp are pink

Add white wine and tomatoes and bring to a boil. Add orange peel (I used a tangerine and squeezed in the juice too), thyme, parsley and bay leaves. Cook another 15 minutes at a simmer until seafood is thoroughly cooked and the fish has flaked up and into your wonderful stew juices.  Season with salt and pepper and serve over hot cooked rice. The citrus in the sauce really picks up the sweetness of the fish and shrimp.

Makes 4 dinner servings.

Johanna, our resident Athenian Cook the Book hostess, will be posting a roundup of all the blog entries about Harlot's Sauce after tomorrow's deadline, so hop on over to Cook the Books later this week to see all the posts. Our featured author, Patricia Volonakis Davis, will also be serving as our guest judge to select a winner from the blog entries so that should be entertaining reading as well.

**Next up on the Cook the Books reading list is John and Matt Lewis Thorne's collection of food essays "Outlaw Cook".  It's a fantastic book and I invite you all to join us in reading the book and then blogging up your thoughts and any Outlaw-inspired recipes.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

A Vegetable Sputnik Sends us into Orbit: Cooking with Kohlrabi

Chipmunk-ravaged kohlrabi plants from our garden

A wonderful little vegetable sputnik is the kohlrabi, a newcomer in the Crispy home garden, which I grew from a packet of seeds. Gardening with kohlrabi so easy. They grow rapidly, like radishes, and should be picked before they get too large and woody, or a swell up too quickly after a bout of rainy days.

They have the most interesting, sculptural form, looking all the world like a small, pale green satellite with stemlets jutting out from all points on its circumference.One can eat leaves too if a chipmunk is not present in one's garden shed and keeps nipping out to mine them.

I would describe the taste of this brassica as having a mild turnip or cabbage flavor. When chopped, the pale green flesh is more reminiscent of celeriac or a fat broccoli stem in texture, though it is somewhat more juicy.

You can eat kohlrabi raw, sliced into sticks or rounds to dip into your favorite spread or eat sprinkled with salt. We also tried grating the kohlrabis on my box grater and dressing them with mayonnaise, celery seed and salt and that was an okay sort of salad.

Kohlrabi in a Remoulade Dressing
On the advice of my friend Erika of Hungarian descent, the best way to cook kohlrabi is to hollow out and then parboil smallish specimens and then stuff them with a rice and meat mixture, as one would stuff a green bell pepper. We haven't yet tried that method, but I tried Erika's other suggestion, which was to slice some kohlrabis, fry them in butter and then add vegetable stock and herb. A little simmering time later and they were a nice side dish on a brisk autumn night.

You can also find a lot of information about kohlrabi and how to cook it from one of my favorite vegetable cookbooks, Bert Greene's Greene on Greens (NY: Workman Publishers, 1984). He shows his particular fondness for this brassica with no less than eleven recipes, some of them quite elaborate.

However, the best dish hands down that we have tried with our kohlrabi bounty has been Kohlrabi Cakes. They are similar to potato or zucchini pancakes and we found that we can use up the bags of grated kohlrabi in our freezer. Dan the Breakfast King came up with this recipe during one creative morning and we've been really enjoying them.

Getting the specifics of the recipe from my brilliant, breakfast-making husband is a little difficult since it's kind of an improvisational recipe. He makes it a little bit differently each time, but he also notes that it is a very flexible and forgiving recipe. If you have a  carrot or onion scrap in your fridge, you can add it or not. You can season it differently each time. The amount of flour depends upon how moist your kohlrabi mixture is. So, with some less-than-wide-awake-note-taking on my part (I need my second mug of coffee in the a.m. before I am fully cognizant), I offer the following tasty recipe for:

Kohlrabi Cakes

2-3 apple-sized kohlrabis
1/2 green pepper, coarsely chopped
1 small onion, peeled and chopped
1 large carrot, peeled and coarsely grated
2 cloves garlic, peeled and finely chopped

1 egg, beaten
2-3 Tbsp. white rice flour
Your choice of herbs and seasonings (we like to use coarsely ground black pepper, smoked paprika and salt)
Butter and olive oil for frying

Whack off the ends of the kohlrabi and peel them. Grate them on the big hole side of your box grater. You will end up with about 2 to 2-1/2 cups of grated kohlrabi. Squeeze to remove excess moisture. You can also use frozen grated kohlrabi, thawed and drained.

Mix in pepper, onion, carrot and garlic. Beat in egg, seasonins and add enough flour to bind it all together. If your batter is too moist, add another Tbsp. of flour. It should just hold together when you shape it into patties.

Heat a Tbsp. each of butter and olive oil in a frying pan over medium heat. Add two or three patties to your pan and fry slowly, flipping two or three times, for about 10 minutes, or until kohlrabi cakes are brown and CRISPY on the outside.

Makes 4 kohlrabi cakes.

I am sending this kohlrabi post and recipe to that most venerable food blog event (it's reached venerability as it's in its sixth year!), Weekend Herb Blogging was started by Kalyn's Kitchen and is now headquartered by Haalo at Cook Almost Anything and guest hosted this week in Italian and English by Brii at BriggisHome.

Brii will have a roundup of all the Weekend Herb Blogging #311 posts after this Sunday's deadline, so stay tuned for that.

**And if you would like to enter in my giveaway to receive a copy of Laura Russell's new "Gluten Free Asian Kitchen" cookbook, be sure to leave a comment at the previous post here at The Crispy Cook. I'll have another giveaway this week after I announce the winner of this great new cookbook.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Cinnamon Basil Cupcakes with Fresh Tomato Soup for Novel Food

If you are a gardener, cook or voracious reader of mystery novels, (or all three like me) you will love diving into Susan Wittig Albert's China Bayles series. Set in the Texas hill country, China is a former high-powered defense attorney who shifts gears mid-career to open up an herb shop surrounded by gardens in a small town. Her main side kick is a red-haired Amazon, Ruby, who wears flamboyant clothes and shares commercial space with our heroine to run her New Age shop full of crystals, tarot cards and incense.

I had a thoroughly enjoyable time this summer reading through the cozy series, which now numbers 19 books in all.  Albert has a different herbal theme for each book and its title and one can learn a lot about gardening, folklore, the medicinal use of herbs and even try out some delicious recipes from the back of many of the books. I was particularly taken by a scene in Book 2, Witches' Bane, in which China and her mom dine at former nun Maggie's Restaurant and have a lunch of Cinnamon Basil Cupcakes, thick Tomato Soup and Greek Style Broccoli Salad. That sounded like a fantastic combination, so much so, that I ordered cinnamon basil seeds from a catalogue just to try out those cupcakes (which are more like savory muffins).

That's where I was stymied. I had a nice little bunch of Cinnamon Basil plants sprouting up in a clump in the garden when the overzealous weeder, husband Dan, yanked them out by mistake. It was a long interval between reading about this mouthwatering literary feast and actually seeing this project to completion, but it was a worthwhile wait.

A bunch of Cinnamon Basil with gorgeous purple stems

Back to the garden patch I went to plant some more, this time carefully marked with a special stake, and they duly grew into the handsome plants you see above. This basil variety really does have a spicy cinnamon fragrance and taste and are a striking plant with dark purple stems and light purple blossoms. In addition to using them in the following Cinnamon Basil Cupcake recipe, I used the chiffonaded leaves liberally in my tomato and noodle salads all through August.

The Cinnamon Basil Cupcakes come out a pale shade of green, which is not the usual color for a muffin or cupcake, but they are so delectable and they certainly make for a colorful meal paired alongside deep red tomato soup. I will reduce the amount of sugar in this recipe when I make them again, as I felt they were a little too sweet, but they really were a wonderful accompaniment when served warm from the oven and dunked into my soup.

Gluten Free Cinnamon Basil Muffins (or you can call them Cupcakes like China)

1/4 cup cinnamon basil leaves, stripped from stems
1/3 cup vegetable oil
1/2 cup sugar
1 egg, lightly beaten

1/2 cup white rice flour
1/2 cup cornstarch
1/2 tsp. xanthan gum
1 tsp baking powder

1/4 cup sour cream
1/4 cup milk
1/2 cup walnuts, finely chopped

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

Puree cinnamon basil leaves in a blender with the oil until it is a fine puree. Add sugar and egg and mix well.

Sift together dry ingredients. Add to basil-oil mixture and combine. Add in sour cream, milk and walnuts and mix well.

Bake at 350 degrees F for 15-20 minutes, or until muffins feel springy.

While muffins are baking, you can whip up a quick tomato soup by sauteeing some onions and garlic in olive oil until golden, adding in a bunch of fresh or canned peeled, pureed tomatoes and then cooking over low heat, stirring often, until desired thickness. Season with a little more fresh cinnamon basil and salt and pepper and you have an awesome, literary-inspired light meal.

I hope this whets your appetite for this excellent herbal mystery series and to plant a patch of cinnamon basil yourself. You'll want to read the China Bayles series in order, as China, Ruby and various family members go through a lot of changes in life. I saved up this tasty post just for the 14th edition of Novel Food, which is hosted quarterly by Briciole. Novel Food invites participants to cook up recipes inspired by a literary work which has been particularly captivating.

If you haven't already discovered this fun blog event, you can check back through the archives to discover novels, plays, short stories and poems which have inspired bloggers to whip up wonderful creations in their kitchens. This round of Novel Food ends this Sunday, so you still have time to join in the fun or wait until after the deadline to see what others have been reading and then eating.

**And now for a bit of Crispy Cook housekeeping. I am pleased to announce the winners of my Lundberg Family Farms and Stonehouse 27 giveaways. The five winners are: Lindsey, John, the Swedenese Family, Simona and Kathleen. Congratulations to all and I will be contacting you to get your mailing address so that you can receive your Lundberg Brown Rice Bowl and Stonehouse 27 Cooking Sauce sent to you.

Stay tuned for another Giveaway post this week to learn how to get a copy of a great new GF cookbook: Laura B. Russell's "The Gluten-Free Asian Kitchen". I've made several recipes from this cookbook and all have been terrific.