IMBB #17: East Meets West Over a Cup of Tea

 

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Jasmine Tea Soufflé with Lemongrass Ice Cream

 

And before you know it summer is quietly exhaling its last long breaths and the July edition of Is My Blog Burning? is upon us. Our hardworking host, Clement of the awe-inspiring A La Cuisine! has chosen tea as our unifying gastronomic principle this month. What can one do with tea? Although tea is consumed in copious quantities across Europe and North America, it rarely finds its way into anything besides a drinking vessel. Iced tea, hot tea, green tea, black tea, chai tea, tea with milk, tea with lemon, tea that is not really tea at all but peppermint leaves or chamomile flowers… Tea is ubiquitous, but it rarely shows up in anything solid. At least not in Western cuisine, which perhaps explains why tea-flavored food instantly conjures up the Orient, where tea is used not just as the basis of a drink but as a flavoring in itself. The recipe I finally chose to highlight tea, however, is a kind of fusion, or rather a friendly handshake between two very traditional Western preparations (soufflé and ice cream) and two sophisticated Eastern flavors (jasmine tea and lemongrass). I actually stumbled across this recipe quite by accident when I was planning to make something else with tea, yet the seductive harmony of tastes this dish was promising had me instantly converted.

If you’ve ever had jasmine tea, you’ve probably never forgotten its haunting perfume. Unlike jasmine rice, which is a rice with a natural jasmine-like scent, jasmine tea is made by actually layering tea leaves with freshly-picked jasmine blossoms, and leaving them to dry until the tea is completely infused with the flower’s scent. The flowers are normally removed before packaging, but the tea I bought for this dish (from a local bulk-tea merchant) still contained them, small and wrinkled and oh-so-jasminey. The effect of this on the soufflé was quite powerful, the fragrance of the flowers deeply permeating the airy batter. It also married perfectly with the ice cream, which is subtle enough to not mask the tea but rich with its own herby, citrusy complexity. The two components create really quite an amazing partnership of taste and texture, enhanced even further by the contrast between the blistering-hot soufflé and the frosty ice cream. The only problem is the timing – like any soufflé these must be served immediately upon coming out of the oven, and especially topped with the ice cream you have a race against time to serve your guests anything but a gloppy puddle of mush. Not that it would be the end of the world – after taking the above photograph I had only a gloppy puddle of mush left, but that didn’t stop me from licking the dish clean!

Jasmine Tea Soufflés with Lemongrass Ice Cream
Source: adapted slightly from Ming Tsai (original recipe available here)
Serves: 6 to 8

For the soufflés:
1/2 cup loose jasmine tea leaves
1 cup milk
3 cups heavy cream
2 Tahitian vanilla beans, split lengthwise and scraped
1/2 cup honey
10 eggs, separated
1/2 cup cornstarch
1/2 cup sugar (1/4 cup for yolks, 1/4 cup for whites)

pinch salt
6 to 8 buttered and sugared 6 ounce ramekins

In a non-reactive saucepan on low heat, mix tea, cream, milk and vanilla pods and bring to a simmer. Simmer for 20 minutes then take off stove and let steep an additional 30 minutes. Strain infused liquid and re-heat with the honey to a simmer. In a stainless steel bowl whisk together the 10 yolks, cornstarch, salt and 1/4 cup of sugar. Temper the yolks by adding only a ladle of hot infused cream to the yolks. Mix well then add tempered mixture back to the saucepan. On medium heat, whisk constantly until it thickens then cook an additional 3 to 5 minutes. A pastry cream texture should be achieved. Transfer base to a baking dish, seal with plastic wrap and place in refrigerator. Base can be made 24 hours in advance.
Pre-heat a sheet tray in a 375F oven. Whisk the egg whites with 1-tablespoon of sugar in an upright mixer equipped with a whip attachment on slow. In about 8 to10 minutes soft peaks will be achieved. Add the rest of the sugar and whip at high speed for two 5 second bursts. In a large stainless bowl, hand whisk the chilled infused cream base until smooth. Using a spatula, gently fold in the egg whites. Work quickly, but do not over mix. The base needs to be one homogenous color. Fill ramekins to the top. Drop each one from a height of 3 inches onto the counter to disperse any unwanted bubbles. Place on heated sheet tray and bake for 12 minutes. After 6 minutes the soufflés will start rising. Check the rising soufflés to see if any edges are getting caught on the rims of the ramekins; if necessary open the oven door and carefully slice the sticking part with a paring knife (you won’t ruin the soufflés if you work fast). The soufflés will straighten themselves out. When the sides of the soufflés are golden brown (the key to a soufflé not falling is the crusty, golden brown sides), pull out of the oven and dust the tops with confectioners’ sugar. Serve immediately with a scoop of the lemongrass ice cream.

For the ice cream:
3 cups milk
2 cups heavy cream

4 large stalks lemongrass, chopped
8oz (225g) sugar

pinch salt
6 large egg yolks

In a non-reactive saucepan, simmer the milk and cream with the lemon grass and until it has reduced by one-quarter. Cover, set aside and let the lemon grass steep for several hours, or even overnight. Strain out lemon grass and heat the milk and cream with sugar and salt. Bring to a simmer. Hand whisk the yolks in a bowl until frothy. Temper the yolks by adding a cup of hot milk to the yolks and stirring quickly to combine. Carefully add the tempered yolks to the sauce pan, whisking constantly. Whisk constantly on medium heat until lightly thickened (do not let boil!). Strain the mixture, then cool completely in the refrigerator or an ice bath. Follow manufacturer’s instructions for your particular ice cream maker. Soften slightly before serving.

 

 

Prawns with Chili and Feta, or You’d Have Done the Same

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Prawns with Lemon, Chili, Garlic and Feta

Here’s the scenario.

You have, thanks to a particularly generous offer at the supermarket one day, one whole kilo of the largest, spindliest, most succulent raw tiger prawns in your refrigerator. They are sitting there quietly (okay, they’re dead, so they’d better be quiet!), awaiting their fate, which really must be decided soon, or else all that sweet succulent prawniness is going to slowly rot away. You know that they probably won’t need more than a flash fry with a little bit of garlic and lemon, but something about the ordinariness of that preparation is still bugging you. You decide to give it a bit more thought and see if something better comes to mind.

Later that day, you conveniently find yourself in your neighborhood bookstore, which has a moderately-sized cookbook section. Your steps are taking you naturally in that direction out of normal book-browsing habit, when you realize this might be a perfect place to seek some inspiration for your dinner – just a few ideas, nothing more. You browse your way through a few uninspiring books and then pick up a book you’ve seen there several times before, one you’ve been secretly admiring, a book dripping with beauty and style, but alas, a book that is (for the moment anyway) just a little more than you can afford. However, upon lifting it up and resting it on your forearm to browse, it falls open, as if by magic, to a recipe for Prawns with Lemon, Chili, Garlic & Feta. You stop and stare. Not only does it offer a use for those prawns at home, but the only way you could ask for more of your favorite things together in one pot would be to add chocolate. And speaking of the pot, the recipe (as if reading your mind) calls for some type of large, cast-iron pot for this dish, and what do you happen to have back at home, just waiting to be called into action? You know even before you’ve finished reading the recipe that this is it. Your dinner has found you.

But what to do? The recipe has multiple components, it contains involved instructions, and really, you want this dish, not some half-hearted attempt at recreation. Do you buy the book? You can’t afford it. Do you put the book back on the shelf with a sigh of resignation? Of course not. You need that recipe. You will do anything to get that recipe, short of anything overtly illegal.

So you glance over your shoulder to make sure no one’s watching, you duck into a quiet corner where no one will bother you, and you spend twenty-five whole minutes memorizing that recipe. You scrutinize every last gram of every last ingredient and you don’t give up until you can recite the entire recipe by heart. Then you stealthily slip the book back on the shelf (no worse for wear, naturally), and run home as fast as your legs will carry you in order to write down what you’ve memorized before the details start to fade.

And was it worth it, all the nail-biting and heart-racing and mental fatigue that memorizing that recipe entailed? Wouldn’t it have been easier to just try to improvise something similar? As if you needed to ask.

It was more than worth it. It was AMAZING. The prawns were so tender and succulent we barely remembered to peel them before inhaling one after the other. The sauce was so good we drank the last spoonfuls from the pot, and we licked our fingers so clean we didn’t even touch the fingerbowls.

So yes, it may sound crazy, but I’m certain that faced with the same kind of dinner dilemma you’d have done exactly the same as me.

[Vacation Announcement: For the next three weeks, The Traveler's Lunchbox will be on the road and coming to you from the other side of the globe! It won't exactly be uncharted gastronomic territory, but it will be a change of scenery, at least from this end. Stay tuned for all the excitement...]

Prawns with Lemon, Chili, Garlic & Feta
Source: Falling Cloudberries by Tessa Kiros
Serves: 2-4 (I cut the original recipe in half)

2 lbs/1 kg raw prawns, in the shell (the bigger the better)
7 tablespoons/100g butter
8 cloves garlic, chopped
1/2 teaspoon hot chili powder, or to taste (Tessa calls for South African piri-piri)
1/4 cup chopped parsley (or cilantro)
7 oz/200g good-quality feta
2 large lemons
salt

If you want, prepare the prawns by cutting the shells open along the spine and removing the intestinal tract. I didn’t bother.

Spread about 1/4 of the butter in the bottom of a large heavy cast iron or enameled iron pot. Put 1/3 of the prawns on top, and sprinkle with 1/3 of the garlic, a little salt, and some of the chili powder. Cut in more butter on top. Repeat with two more layers, using half the remaining ingredients for each layer. Cover the pot, place on a large burner and turn it on to high heat. Cook, shaking the pot from time to time, for 8-10 minutes, or until the prawns have all turned pink and the garlic is smelling very fragrant (I found it took less time). Remove from the heat and uncover. Crumble in the feta, sprinkle in the parsley or cilantro and squeeze in the juice from the lemons. Cover again, return to the heat and cook for another ten minutes, shaking from time to time, until the feta starts to melt into the sauce.

Bring to the table in the pot, and serve immediately with lots of napkins, crusty bread and some fresh green salad (and little finger bowls of lemon water, if you’re intent on preserving your dignity :)

Smash! and Brown Cheese

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Some people love to see museums when they travel, others like to spend their time looking at architecture, ruins or designer boutiques. When I travel, the place I most like to spend time getting to grips with a new country is the supermarket. You can learn so much about people through what they choose to feed themselves every week, and I can easily spend hours wandering through a well-stocked supermarket (to the eternal chagrin of those I travel with), figuring out what I can buy that will best give me a taste of this new culture. Norwegian supermarkets were a veritable gold-mine of things I had never seen or tried before, and a last-minute shopping stop on my way out of the country left me with a good stock of goodies to enjoy back at home. Well, okay, some things didn’t actually make it home. Some were so good, and had such a hilariously funny name, that they spent the entire flight home in my lap, simultaneously being eaten and chuckled at. Ladies and gentlemen, let me introduce you to smash!, my new in-flight snack of choice. Smash! make their little nuggets of ecstasy by taking a salty, crispy horn-shaped corn chip and dunking it in thick milk chocolate. Doesn’t sound good? Believe me, you can’t eat just one. They are a perfect mixture of crispy, creamy, chocolatey and salty – a peculiar combination of flavors (Norwegians seem to be really into this sweet-salty combo), but one that really works. I’m just wishing I brought more than one bag, so I could have had some to enjoy at home. Then again, I probably would have eaten two on the plane. Or three. Or four.

Brown cheese (Gudbrandsdalsost or Gjetost) is a uniquely Norwegian delicacy, and I’m told that national pride dictates it should be found somewhere in every Norwegian’s refrigerator, whether they actually like it or not. Prior to tasting, when I asked people to describe it, I got a lot of eye-shifting and stammering in response. I was told that it’s kind of a sweet cheese, but salty too. You eat it for breakfast with coffee, sliced thinly on crispbread. It’s made by caramelizing the milk prior to cheese-making, but apart from that no one could tell much about the production process. It can’t really be described, people insisted, I would just have to try it. I was also warned that it is somewhat of an acquired taste, which naturally intrigued me even more. When I finally had the opportunity to buy some, I picked up two large bricks of it, thinking I didn’t want to kick myself later for buying too little of the potential culinary find of the century. Which two to buy took some deciding, however, as there seemed to be about a dozen different varieties. Some, I gathered, were made with goat’s milk (I got this from the picture of gaily leaping goats on the package), but the ones I bought were cow’s milk (at least so I assumed, though subsequent research has led me to believe that all brown cheese has some proportion of goat’s milk in it). Then there was the question of color – brown cheese comes in several varieties of brown ranging from pale ivory to deep chocolate brown. I finally decided on medium-light and dark specimens, and lugged them home with great anticipation. So, what is brown cheese? You’re going to hate me for saying this, but it is indeed really hard to describe. The texture is very firm and dense yet slightly rubbery. It lacks the chewyness associated with regular cheese, however, and inside the mouth kind of disintegrates into a sticky mass that coats your palate and requires some unseemly sucking noises to coax it down. And the taste? It is sweet, quite sweet, with the initial flavor reminiscent of caramelized condensed milk. So far so good. However it is also quite salty (are we detecting a theme here?), a perception which hit me just as the cheese cemented itself to my palate, and that was followed by a whiff of sour pungency, like a strong aged goat cheese. When I list all the component tastes separately, I see nothing wrong: sweet, salty, pungently goaty…but together I found them quite appalling. I ate one piece of each of my two varieties (the dark one tasting distinctly more molassesy but otherwise identical), willing myself to enjoy it but sadly having to admit defeat. If it is an acquired taste, I have a long and torturous road ahead.

Have you ever eaten caviar from a tube? I hadn’t. But Norwegians love fish, and these tubes of caviar are ubiquitous – especially for breakfast (I wonder if it goes well with brown cheese?). The name is a bit of a misnomer, I believe – I would rather call it sweet-salty-fishy red paste. There are no perfect little pearls of expensive unhatched sturgeon eggs in here, just cod roe mixed with tomato paste, oil, and lots of salt and sugar. Did I mention that Norwegians like things sweet and salty? Oh good. Luckily Manuel gobbled this up in no time flat (I had to physically wrest it from his hands in order to take a picture), but alas, me+fish+sugar+salt+tube was not a happy combination.

Aside from (my new arch-enemy) brown cheese, I didn’t expect to find anything in the cheese department that tickled my fancy. Then I saw Nøkkelost, a mild rubbery white cheese looking something like Edam, but containing lots of little brown flecks. My first thought was cumin, since I’ve eaten cumin-spiked Gouda in Holland, but I could tell there was more to this cheese than cumin. And there was. Cumin, caraway and cloves, to be precise, and the effect is quite wonderful. I tried this cheese on bread but found I liked it best on its own, as that allows the complex blend of spicy and sweet flavors to shine through. Although the cheese part itself was nothing special, the combination of these spices made for quite a sophisticated palate-teaser – the last thing I expected to find in this section of the supermarket.

And finally, there was one last acquisition of mine that didn’t actually come from the supermarket, but I thought I would mention it here anyway. While I was helping to prepare food for the wedding buffet, I found myself admiring a large heavy cast-iron pot that belonged to Guro’s parents. Guro told me these type of pots are very traditional in Norwegian households, and though they’re not cheap, nearly everyone invests in one as standard kitchen equipment. I must have made quite a show of exclaiming how hearty and rustic and beautiful it was, because the day of my departure Guro gave me one exactly like it as a thank-you gift for my help. I was speechless. It is a monster of a pot, weighing in at 5 kilos (10 lbs!), but it is exactly the kind of thing you can use your whole life long for slow-cooking every type of roast and stew imaginable. And it even comes pre-seasoned! Le Creuset move over, I think you’re no longer on the top of my wish list. And thank you Guro, you know your way straight to this girl’s heart.

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