Monday, 22 April 2013

koushary, cairo, and cabernet franc...

When the Arab Spring took hold of Egyptian hearts in Tahrir Square last year, one thing kept running through my mind: I wonder if Tahrir Koushary is doing good business, or will it suffer from violent clashes? Set on a side-street about a block from its epynomous square, Tahrir Koushary served up the best of Egypt's starchy, spicy, and not very pricy national dish, koushary. For about $1, a styrofoam tub of layered macaroni, rice, lentils, and spiced tomato sauce (topped with a dollop of fried onions) kept my belly full of necessary nourisment...and free of pharaoh's revenge.

Back home in Canada, koushary became a staple for my student budget...and soon became a signature dish passed on to many friends. In fact, the my first attempt at homemade koushary came on an atypical afternoon in Ottawa. With friends visiting from Toronto, the drinks began to flow early and despite my intoxicated state, I managed to throw together a quick koushary to satisfy our rumbling tummies. Although our inebriated state would have enjoyed just about anything, it was my sober roomate who not only raved about how delicious it is, but who also ate more than us!

Although it requires many pots and pans to make, the simplicity of koushary comes in the ease of access to ingredients; only the tomato sauce requires some work at balancing flavours. The key to this sauce is what I consider the holy herbascious trinity of Egyptian dishes: cilantro, dill, and parsely. Furthermore, koushary is a completely vegetarian dish that can be adjusted to meet the dietary needs of vegans (use an egg-free pasta) or omnivores (I often add grilled lamb sausage).

Setting these additions and substitutions aside, here is all you need for a homemade koushary:

2 cups cooked macaroni2 cups cooked rice
2 tbsp. olive oil4 cloves garlic, crushed
½ cup chopped tomatoes1 tsp. each cumin
½ tsp. cayenne peppersalt and pepper to taste
2 tbsp. red wine1 lemon, juiced
¼ cup each chopped cilantro, parsely, dill
3 tbsp. flour½ cup lentils
1 cup chick peas1 medium onion, sliced
cooking oil

Cooking Method
1) If macaroni and rice are not already cooked, then prepare as you normally would. NB: lentils and chickpeas should also be pre-soaked if starting with dry ingredients.
2) In small saucepan, heat olive oil over medium heat. Add garlic and fry 1 -2 minutes until golden.
3) Add tomatoes, spices, and red wine. Bring to a boil and add lemon juice and herbs. Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer 20 minutes. Stir occasionally.
4) Add 1tbsp. flour to each lentils, chickpeas, and onions. Toss until well-coated with flour.
5) In heavy sauce pan, heat cooking oil over medium-high heat. Add lentils and fry until crispy (2 - 3 minutes). Remove and set aside. Repeat same for chickpeas and onions, frying each separately until crispy.
6) In individual serving bowls or large serving dish (e.g. casserole dish), layer the ingredients in the following order: macaroni, rice, tomato sauce, lentils/chickpeas/onions.

Serve with lemon wedge and tobasco for individual flavour adjusting just as you would at Tahrir Koushary (bi-shatta, min fadlak - spicy please!).

I may be wrong in recalling that wine was not served at Tahrir Koushary (and even if it were, I'd likely have stayed far away from it), I sampled 4 different wines with this dinner. In the end, a Chinon (by Bernard Baudry) worked best. Made from Cabernet Franc in the Loire Valley, a Chinon has strong perfume that stands up to the spices of the koushary, and the inherent green bell pepper notes match perfectly with the herbaceous holy trinity in of the tomato sauce.

If Qatar does not happen, maybe I'll become Cairo's leading sommelier.

Tuesday, 16 April 2013

pairing for paella...

After going through the Spanish Rice thought process of my previous blog, I opted for the paella path for dinner. The next step in the process was to pick a paella-friendly wine. As discussed in previous entries, more is involved in food and wine matching than just "red with red, white with white." In the case of my paella, I needed to take into consideration the delicate texture of the seafood, the exotic aromas from the saffron, the high acidity of the tomatoes and lemon, and the spicey intensity brought on by the paprika. What is a gringo to do?

One good rule to follow is to choose a wine from the same region as the food; if centuries of tradition have worked for locals, then it should surely work for me. Since paella originates in Valencia, my first instinct is to look for a wine from that region.  Monastrell (a.k.a. Mourv├Ędre in France or Mataro in the New World) is readily available in our market, but it's full-body, high tannins, and dark fruit character would likely clash with the seafood-based paella. Likewise, the traditional Moscatel de Valencia would be more suited to a dessert, and although widely planted in Valencia, I can't say our stores are abundant with neutral white wines from the Merseguera grape. So much for regional consistency.

Barcelona: Home to the World's Best Chilean Paella

My thoughts then trended toward my first visit to Spain. Naturally, while in Barcelona, I wanted to have an authentically Spanish paella experience. Delicious as the paella was, I was disappointed when, at the end of the meal, I realised we had ended up in a Chilean-themed restaurant.  This memory made me think that if "authentic" paellas can be found in different regions and households, surely different wines would suit the palate as well.
Fortunately for me, I had a few sample bottles open to run another profile taste to see which worked best with paella. On their own, each wine had their own merits and were of good quality for their price. But with paella, here below are the results from my cata de vino con paella:
1) Mitchell "Watervale" Riesling, ClareValley, Australia
Australian Rieslings have a distinctly lime flavour. With the paella, this flavour became even more pronounced. The key here is the acidity tempered the acidity of the tomatoes and lemons as well as the spice from the chorizo and paprika, and the light body of the Riesling did not clash with the delicate seafood components.
2) Undurraga "Sibaris" Carmenere, Maipo, Chile
Maybe my authentically-Chilean-paella-in-Spain experience precluded me to enjoy this combination, but I was surpised that not only this red but also the least expensive of the flight finished second. The tannins of this particular Carmenere were not to strong, the juicy flavour rested well with the spice, and in the end, the minty character of the Carmenere really came out with the paella, yet without clashing with the other components of the dish.
3) Domaine Font de Michelle, Chateauneuf-du-Pape, France
With a bit of Mourv├Ędre in the blend, the Font de Michelle was the closest to regional authenticity of the group. Although the flavours generally worked with the paella, the spicy chorizo and paprika brought out the high alcohol in the wine; an overall mediochre pairing.
4) Brocard "1er Cru - Vaucoupin," Chablis, France
Wines of Chablis are generally delicate, and the Brocard is no exception. Beautifully sublime, it became intimidated by the powerful complexity of the paella. Too much going on in the dish, so the wallflower wine cowered in the corner, too afraid to show it's true colours.
5) Kim Crawford Sauvignon Blanc, New Zealand 
Where the Chablis shied against the paella, the extravert character of the Sauvignon Blanc fought the flavours of the paella resulting in a date-gone-wrong. Too bad, considering Kim Crawford is a great choice for seafood; it just did not work with the tomatoes and saffron.
So, there you have it. I wonder what the results would be for jambalaya, Spanish Rice, or for your own paella-inspired concoction?

Sunday, 14 April 2013

spanish jambaella rice...

Growing up, the reprieve from a steady dinner diet of meat-potatoes-veg came in one of two forms.  First, there was the always popular spaghetti; a dish my Mom claims was practically unheard of growing up in 1950s Vancouver. The other option, however, would have to go down as my favourite childhood meal, Spanish Rice; an easy one-pot supper of belly-filling rice, vitamin-based veggies, and protein provided in the form of hot dog wieners.

It wasn't until my late teens that I discoverd that Mom's special Spanish Rice was based on an the traditional Spanish rice dish, paella. I recall finding paella in a cookbook one day (this was 20 years before "googling" something); a recipe that opened up a world of exotic and alternate ingredients like "chorizo," "saffron," and "calamari."  We attempted this "new" version of Spanish Rice and were surprised at how yellow it became; a bit too yellow as I believe we were heavy-handed with the expensive saffron.

A few years and another garage-sale cookbook later, I was excited to discover a likely "missing link" in the road from the Spanish paella to Mom's Spanish Rice: jambalaya. It was a period when I was into anything spicy, so the complex, cayenne-based heat of the jambalaya was yet another revalation in rice. Jambalaya is essentially a fusion of Spanish paella with French techniques (e.g. the roux and mirepoix) and African-inspired spices.

With rice on hand and these dishes in mind, the other day I decided to make Spanish Rice....or was it paella....or should it be jambalaya. It wasn't until I became stuck in this decision-making process that I realised how they share a base beyond just the rice, with additions and substitutions occuring along the way. Like Mom's own version of Spanish Rice, recipes for paellas and jambalayas vary from household to household, but the below flow chart gives an idea of how these 3 yummy rice dishes are created:
Spanish Jamba-ella Rice
2 tbsp. Olive Oil  
1 onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 tomatoes, diced (or 1 x 400ml can diced tomates, drained)  
2 cups rice   4 cups chicken stock  
2 bay leaves
salt and pepper to taste
Spanish Rice/ Paella
1 Chicken Brest, cubed   2 chorizo sausages
1 Cup green peas
1 dozen prawns, shelled   300g calamari rings  
1 bell pepper, chopped   ¼ cup chopped parsley  
Spanish Rice
2 tbsp. flour 1 tbsp. paprika 3 hot dog wieners, chopped
2 stalks celery, diced 2 - 4 threads saffron
1 tsp. each cumin, oregano
allspice, cayenne pepper

Now that we have an idea of what goes into each dish, how are they made? More fun with flow charts to explain:

Spanish Rice
Heat Olive Oil in a large Skillet
Add flour and fry until thick and golden
Add onions and garlic. Fry until fragrant and onions turn golden
Add chicken and chorizo. Fry until skin is no longer pink
Add wieners. Fry 2 minutes
Add celery and bell peppers
Add bell peppers
Add rice and fry until golden. Add tomatoes, stock, bay leaf, salt, and pepper
Add spices
Add paprika and saffron
Bring liquid to a boil. Cover, simmer on medium-low 20 minutes or until rice is cooked.
Add Seafood & Parsley
Add Seafood, Peas, & Parsley
Add peas
Cover again and cook another 10 minutes over low heat. Serve warm.

It may look confusing, but the point is to show how at each step, you can fuse a bit of jambalaya to your paella and create your own version of Spanish Rice!

Thursday, 11 April 2013

the culture of somewhere new...

Growing old with a travel bug can be problematic; more places to see, less time to see them. When travel opportunities present themselves, a balance of the familiar with the new is needed. For example, my January trip to South America: it was my 3rd time to Santiago, but I also crossed the Andes from Temuco to Neuquen to see native Monkey-Puzzle Trees. With too many destinations to choose from, I often forget there are also many places to discover at home as well. Yesterday, for example, I pumped myself to go somewhere I had never been before: I decided to go to a gym. 

Araucana (Monkey-Puzzle Tree) Grove, Chilean Andes
Other than a day spent bonding with my Uncle Jim and family in Toronto recently, the closest I've been to a Gym is seeing it through the looking glass at the local rec centre as I swim laps.  I'm as comfortable as a lab with the water, but I've never ventured to see what mysteries lay beyond the other door. Two things motivated me to take this unusual venture: first, I need to strengthen my left leg that I injured in Uruguay; second, if Holly and I are to rekindle our romance (see March 31st entry, une affaire hollandaise), I had best get fit with this Jim fellow people talk about.

In my best attempt to blend with the locals, I passed through the golden gates (well, glass door) to the land of Jim Nasium clad in track shorts, tennis shoes, short socks and my phys-ed class T-shirt from Japan (obviously hardly worn these past 20 years - and still fits!).  I soon discovered, however, that although you can look the part, the world beyond the looking glass is completely different than the one you are used to. In short, I found myself in culture shock.

Both impressed and intimidated, the number of free weights, benches, yoga mats, and various equipment left me as though lost on a foreign street of significant buildings and signs in an unfamiliar language. Not knowing the difference between my deltoids and my trapezoids, I hadn't a clue on how to work the various weights to my advantage (or, in most cases, work them at all). When a similar feeling of bewilderment befalls me in a strange new place, I look for the familiar as I adjust to my new surroundings. In lieu of a Starbucks in Vienna or KFC in Bangkok, I headed straight to the relative comfort of the exercise bicycles.

Whoever first said that doing something easy was "like riding a bike" clearly never tried an automated exercise bicycle. With too many buttons that don't work as you'd think, I've had an easier time figuring out the multitude of remotes needed to operate my TV. After several failed attempts to pick a programme (what happened to just pedalling?), I finally got going on the "varied" routine. A good start to rehabilitate my leg, from my stationary cycle I could also observe the rituals of the locals.

First thing I noticed was the effortless rhythm of moving from one weight to another. Each person knew exactly what to do at each machine; locals accostumed to their daily routines. Furthermore, despite the increased testosterone levels in the room, the concept of play-nice-with-others and share-your-toys is very strong in gym culture. Nobody a particular weight, and politely let someone else have a go when it was their turn. Not only that, but the "be-a-sweetie, wipe-the-seatie" mantra apparently goes beyond just bathrooms. Spray bottles and clothes are neatly placed around the gym, and everyone kindly cleans their station when their exercises are done. Too bad most places in the world do not put as much thought into leaving something behind in the condition you found it.

My alloted bike routine complete (and seat cleaned), I felt a little more adjusted to the new culture in which I found myself, but not yet brave enought to atempt the complexities of bicep curls. As with taking a tour to get to know the sights and sounds of a new city, maybe next time I'll hire a personal trainer as my tour guide to better understand the cultural ethos of the gym. Or, do I go somewhere new again, like joining a running club? So much to see, such little time to see it.

Saturday, 6 April 2013

pineapple prawn curry...

After writing my last blog, I felt a "happy-sad" thinking back on my memories of Kyo-san. I didn't want to associate pineapples with such a mournful identity, so went to the kitchen to make my ultimate pineapple pick-me-up: Pacri Nenas. Pronounced "pach-ree nay-nas", it is an Indonesian pineapple curry dish I picked in Bali 15 years ago.

It was during my nascent days as a budding culinary celebrity in Japan that I visited tour operator friends living in Indonesia. They helped organise several day trips highlighting Balinese culture: Barong dance, terraced rice paddies, the artist enclave of Ubud, day sail to Nusa Penida Island, pub crawls in Kuta - well, that one wasn't so much an organised tour let alone cultural, but you get the picture. Of the different activities they booked me for, however, the day-long cooking class at Bumbu Bali Restaurant turned to be one of the most influential activities of my life.

The day started with a visit to a local market to buy the fresh ingredients for not only the class but for the restaurant as well. Back at Bumbu Bali, the morning was spent learning the basic stocks, sauces, and spice pastes of Indonesian cuisine. These basics were later used for the small lunch crowd - and I even hade my first taste of being a proper chef cooking a spicy grilled snapper for guests of the restaurant.

But about the Pacri Nenas. It was a side dish I helped make that day, and the key element is the spice paste. Below is a general recipe to which I add seafood, most usually prawns but occasionally calamari. Some of the ingredients may seem exotic, but can be picked found at any Asian grocer, such as South China Seas,, here in Vancouver.

Spice Paste
2 tbsp shrimp paste           2 shallots (or 1/4 onion), grated                          4 cloves garlic, grated
1 tbsp grated ginger          3 bird-eye chilis, seeded and finely chopped      1 tsp brown sugar
1 tsp each cumin, coriander, tumeric, and salt          2 tbsp ground macademia nuts or cashews
2 tbsp vegetable oil          1 lime, juiced

Combine all above ingredients to form a thick paste. Note that only a portion of the spice paste is used; the rest can be stored for future use:

Pacri Nenas Curry
2 tbsp cooking oil              2 tbsp Spice Paste (as above)            1 fresh pineapple, cut into chunks
1 can coconut milk            1 cup vegetable or fish stock             10cm fresh lemon grass
3 kaffir lime leaves            2 slices dried galangal                       1 lime, juiced
12 prawns, peeled             200g calamari rings

1) Heat oil in large sauce pan over medium-high heat. Add Spice Paste and fry until fragrant, about 2 minutes.
2) Add pineapple chunks. Toss in oil and paste, frying about 2 minutes until fruit starts to soften.
3) Add coconut milk and stock. Stir thoroughly to prevent curdling and bring to a boil.
4) Add lemon grass, lime leaves, and galangal. Reduce to medium-low and simmer for 45 minutes. Stir occasionally to prevent sticking and to integrate flavours.
5) Optional: add prawns and calamari. Continue to simmer for 5 minutes until seafood is cooked but still tender.
6) Remove lemon grass, lime leaves, and galangal. Add fresh lime juice. Stir to integrate and serve over rice.

Although not a classically Indonesian dish, I recently had my Pacri Nenas with a bottle of Weston's WyldWood Dry English Cider. High acidity and fresh appley flavours were a perfect balance to the intense and exotic flavours of the Pacri Nenas, but would likely go with any curry as well.

Selamat Makan! (Bon Apetit!)

Thursday, 4 April 2013

pinapples in the time of mourning...

A recent shift in winds brought the warm rains of the southwesterly pineapple express to the shores of Vancouver and with it, so it seems, the pineapple harvest of Hawaii. Fruit stands and supermarket shelves overflow with fresh yet inexpensive pineapples; a tropical air to tantilise your palate with promises of summer and pina coladas. While most look forward to the perfect balance of sweet exotic juice balanced with zippy acidity, pineapples instead remind me of finding a little joy in was one of the biggest tragedies of my life: the sudden death of my very good friend, Kyoichi Sudoh.

My first host father when I lived in Yokosuka as an exchange student in 1992, Kyo-san and I developed an instant, brotherly kinship. 20-years my senior, Kyo-san went against the Japanese tradition of refering to him by an honoured title or by last name; the choice of an abbreviated first name was, quite simply, because he felt he was too young to have an 18-year old call him otou-san (dad). His wife, Hitomi-san, became an older sister to me while his two young daughters, Miki (7) and Taeko (4) were angelic younger sisters who, still to this day, I guard over like an older brother should.

In the seven short years I was blessed to have known him, never did I see the gentle-souled Kyo-san raise his voice, partake in any confrontation, or bemoan any disappointment. His deep voice and broad smile brought calm to every room he entered and joy to every one he met. This is why, on April 28, 1999, hearts sank as we learned that Kyo-san passed away suddenly in his sleep. He was only 44 years old.

Not only was I utterly devastated by the early morning news, but never in my life have I seen such an outpouring of emotional tribute as I did upon arriving in Yokosuka. It is customary for Japanese to present colourful wreaths to honour those who have passed, and these wreaths are displayed at the temple where the service is to be held. In Kyo-san's case, wreaths from family, friends, companies, school groups, and even the mayor's office stretched from the temple doors, down the driveway, and on to the street; a 1km long procession of wreaths, standing side-by-side, lining both sides of the street.

At the home, gifts of flowers and fruit filled the living room as mourners extended their sympathies to a family without father, husband, brother, or son. Considering the body was actually stored in the home for several days, it was a logical place to send these wishes. (Imagine my shock arriving at the home, tears streaming down my face, and being promptly escorted to Kyo-san's body laying in state).
As with the wreaths, the volumn of grief and gifts was overwhelming.

Amid this grief, a glimmer of joy. As you may have heard, Japan is a nation of $50 pears and $100 melons, so fresh fruit is an honoured gift that is most certainly not to be wasted. As with mourners from across Japan, I bade my final goodbyes and deepest condolences before returning to Kaga (where I had been living for some time). Tears raining from my eyes, it was not a pretty sight. In the midst of this, Hitomi-san turned to me and said "if there is anything you want, help yourself. There is so much that may go to waste."

Drying tears and speaking through hiccuping sobs, the best I could muster was "there's (sob) no need (sob) for anything (sob) ooh! (sob) pineapples! (sob) i'll take (sob) those (sob...and smile). And sure enough, off I went on the 5-hour train ride back to Ishikawa with not one but 4 fresh pineapples packed in my baggage.

To this day, whenever I have fresh pineapples, I am blessed with the memory of a great friend, the thought of a heart-wrenching loss, and the reminder that even on the gloomiest of spring days, sometimes the smallest thing can bring a ray of sun.