Food in the Mail!

Did you ever play the secret Santa game, where a group of people – friends, colleagues, classmates – each give an anonymous Christmas gift, and receive one in return? It can be great fun, but in my experience with these things people rarely know each other well enough to pick out something their gift recipient will actually like. We all know how hard it is to pick out gifts for those we’re closest to (I can see Manuel nodding in agreement!), so how much harder is it to pick out gifts for those we barely know? Not that hard at all, it seems, if you’re a food blogger!
Blogging by Mail was initiated by Nic of The Baking Sheet as a way for food bloggers to exchange something more tangible than digital words and photos. The idea was picked up by Andrew of Spittoon over here in the UK, who thought a European version might be fun.  Considering the huge number of nationalities represented by European bloggers, this seemed like a great way to do a bit of cross-cultural culinary exchange, but unfortunately I was going to be out of the country the first time it happened. So when Andrew recently announced Round Two, I didn’t hesitate to sign up.
Since the most appealing aspect of the European exchange seemed to be the prospect of receiving a packet of goodies from another country, chock full of exciting things unavailable at home, my first reaction was disappointment when a heavy box showed up bearing UK postage stamps. It only lasted as long as it took to open the box, however, because what I found was a treasure-trove of unusual delicacies, none of which I had ever run across before. Everything inside had been beautifully wrapped in colored tissue paper and foil, and cards bearing a little description and history accompanied each item. The wonderful mystery box was sent to me by London-based blogger Johanna, a.k.a. The Passionate Cook, who originally hails from Austria, but has lived and traveled far and wide. Johanna has had the bizarre luck to have been assigned Edinburgh bloggers both times (despite there being only two of us) – she may be getting a bit tired of posting boxes up to Scotland, but the pleasure is certainly mine, since she obviously knows how to assemble a box of goodies worthy of any food-lover’s fantasies.
Included in the box were:
Homemade plum-apple-ginger chutney, thick and fragrant and spicy. We’ve been eating this with cheese, and last night I used some in a delicious salad dressing for a plate of arugula, pears, goat cheese and almonds. It’s delicious – and she was thoughtful enough to include the recipe.
A bag of sweet and spicy wasabi peanuts. Johanna says she picked these up from the Cranberry’s stand at Euston station. They’re similar to wasabi peas, but heartier, spicier, and very, very addictive.
A bag of chocolate meringues from the chocolatier William Curley in Richmond. Crunchy chocolate meringue coated in thick dark chocolate – how did she know I like chocolate? 😉
A small bottle of blackcurrent liqueur made by Bramley & Gage in Devon. Similar to creme de cassis, which I love mixed with white wine for a Kir, but infinitely more complex and fresh-tasting, with a hint of blackcurrant bitterness and fruity acidity. We’re saving this for a few Kir royales (with champagne, of course)!
An envelope of Herbie’s Sydney spice, an aromatic and exotic mixture of wattleseed, lemon myrtle, galangal, lime leaves and other spices.  She says this company’s spice blends are impossible to find outside Australia – I’m assuming this little packet has traveled back with her from there! We’re planning to use it as a rub for some luscious grilled Antipodean chicken.
Milerb Italian Mischung, a blend of fresh herbs in oil, sealed in a little jar and ready for use anywhere you’d use fresh herbs. She brings this back from Austria, which reminded me that I used to buy similar things in Germany. It’s a great concept and a fantastic way to have fresh herb flavor available at any time – I don’t know why it doesn’t catch on more widely. I can’t wait to try it in salad dressing!
More chocolate – this in the form of two very unusual chocolate bars from Zotter, a family chocolate business in Styria, Austria. One has the absolutely hilarious name Hot Chicken Ensemble and consists of milk chocolate surrounding a creamy egg liqueur filling (which tastes like eggnog!), and the other, called Grammelnussn, contains dark chocolate-enrobed crunchy bits of pork cracklings in a cinnamon-scented cream. Very bizarre sounding, but as she promised, very delicious!
And finally, the instructions to all of us had been to reach to the back of our cupboards and find something to send that we hadn’t used in a while. Johanna’s ‘cupboard love’ ingredient was a bag of quinoa flour, something she bought long ago but never found a use for but thought I might appreciate because of my wheat allergy. I’m very intrigued by this unusual ingredient – I love quinoa salads and have even had quinoa pasta, but I’m also a little stuck for ideas. All suggestions welcome!
A big thank-you to Johanna for the tremendous care and thought that went into this package – we’re going to be enjoying these edible treasures for weeks! And if this wasn’t enough, you can catch the roundup of all the food-mailing action across Europe over at Spittoon. 

Gâteau Basque

Gâteau Basque 

The first time you step off the plane (or train or bus) into the cool, humid air, you could be forgiven for thinking you’ve arrived in the wrong country by mistake. The landscape is the first clue, particularly if you’ve traveled here from other parts of Spain. Parched, arid plains have given way to close-knit, brooding mountains, cool and temperamentally presided over by rain clouds. The cities are tucked in between them, dark and close as well, huge apartment blocks challenged in height only by the aging black spires of the industrial infrastructure. There is no endless sun, no evening bullfights here. The people you encounter are quieter, more reserved; friendly yet enigmatic. Signs on streets and doorways mock your grasp of Spanish with their incomprehensible strings of letters containing multiple ‘k’s and ‘x’s, and words like kaixo and eskerrik asko filter their way into the conversation of those around you. And if all that weren’t enough, when you start talking to people they all ask you how you enjoyed your time in Spain. But, you stammer, I haven’t left Spain!  Yes, they reassure you, you have. You haven’t just crossed into another province of Spain, you’ve entered a place that is emotionally, intellectually, and linguistically its own country – Euzkadi, the Basque Country.

I was sixteen the first time I got on a plane and flew alone across the Atlantic to Spain. Waiting for me was a contingent of strange faces ready to begin my orientation to this new place, and a few days later I would meet the second contingent of strange faces that would provide me a home for the next year. I was about to fulfill a long-held dream of mine to live abroad and learn another language by becoming a high-school exchange student. The problem was that up until the day I left I didn’t have any idea where I was going. Although I had been registered with the exchange organization for nearly a year, up until my departure no one had been able to tell me anything about my future host family. They hemmed and hawed and stammered every time I asked for an update, but their message was always firmly the same: "don’t worry, we’ve got everything under control". The day I arrived in Madrid they were, for the first time, smiling, with audible relief in their voices. "We’ve found you a family. You’ll be going to the Basque Country."

The Basque Country? Did that mean that my fantasies of learning to dance flamenco, eating paella and drinking Sangria in ancient Moorish courtyards had just been squashed? I suspected so. I had read about the Basque Country once in an issue of National Geographic. It occupied about a paragraph in an article on Spain and mentioned that this ‘dark and industrial corner of northern Spain’ was best known for its ‘mountains, fervent separatism and magnificent cuisine’. It briefly hinted at how the Basques did everything they could to distance themselves from the symbols of the rest of Spain. As I mulled over this shortly before my arrival I didn’t really know what to think about the prospect of industrialism or separatism or the absence of flamenco, but at least the cuisine part had me intrigued.

As a matter of fact, as I later found out, it was cuisine that indirectly facilitated my placement in this very place. At the time I went to Spain I was halfway through my decade as a strict vegetarian, and the fact that I had indicated this on my exchange application had caused the organisation no small amount of trouble to find me a host family. ‘What are we going to do with a vegetarian?’ I still imagine all those Spanish families saying, quickly pushing my application to the bottom of the pile. Vegetarianism was, and still is I suspect, a rare occurrence in Spain, and identification as such tended to provoke anything from slight confusion (‘You only eat vegetables?’) to downright horror (‘But if you don’t eat meat you’ll die!’). Luckily, I had the culinary wisdom and flexibility of the Basques to thank for finally finding a home, as a certain family, upon being told of my plight (and my planned arrival in two days), immediately agreed to take me on for a year, vegetarianism and all. Later on, when I asked them if they’d been apprehensive of feeding a vegetarian for a year, they laughed. "We figured you would eat the same things we eat, just without the meat. It’s no sacrifice – everything here is good."

There are whole volumes I could write on the people, the landscape, the language, and the way of life in this fascinating place, and hopefully I’ll find ways of working in elements of these in future posts. Today, however, I’ll restrict myself to telling you a little about the food. I wondered for a long time what kind of recipes I could share from this place renowned for its cuisine. I actually did very little cooking there – that was the domain of Clari, my somewhat imposing host mother, and I dared not interfere where she so powerfully ruled. And, to be honest, the one time I did cook for them – some Ameri-Mex enchiladas I had been craving for months – it was met with a less-than-enthusiastic response. I probably should have expected it – Clari’s meals engendered passionate loyalty in the family – though I always wondered why such a skilled cook as she never felt tempted to step outside the boundaries of the familiar palate of Basque flavors (about as exotic as it got was an occasional bowl of spaghetti.) Obviously, Basques prefer their own food, and with good reason.

Our everyday fare was simple and rustic, but whatever it was, it always had extraordinary flavor. Never fewer than three courses, it encompassed a standard rotation of vegetables, fish and meat, most of it impeccably fresh and cooked with nothing other than olive oil and garlic. Sauces were limited to tomate frito (a sweet, oniony tomato puree) and mayonnaise, if they hadn’t been doused with garlic and that fragrant oil (or even if they had). Lentils and beans, simply cooked with a few aromatics, were a staple for me, as were bowls of garlic-soaked vegetable stews, vinegary salads, and melt-in-your-mouth fried potatoes, eggplant and zucchini. Second courses, which I simply bypassed in favor of more vegetables, were fish, fried or baked, or meat – cured pork loin and simply cooked beef being the most common. Dessert was expected after every meal, though it usually took the form of a yogurt or some fabulously pungent Pyrenean cheese and fruit, and for special occasions Clari would make her wildly-loved natillas, silky pots of eggy, vanilla-flecked custard. Tortilla española (Spain’s ubiquitous potato omelet) was the dish where Clari particularly shined (she was famous in town for her version), and everyone in the family looked forward to savoring the creamy, oniony just-set centers oozing out of their crisp potato-edged confines. This was one dish I did learn to make at Clari’s side, and the one hint I will give you to the secret of a great tortilla is to not skimp on the frying oil – I mean it, and you’d probably swoon if I actually quantified it. (I know I did.)

But I realized that in terms of recipes, Basque food is very difficult to pin down. What makes it great isn’t the complexity of preparation or the sophistication of flavors, but simply the quality of everything you can get there. Fish and seafood come in about a trillion different varieties and are so fresh they practically jump off your plate. Meat is so full of flavor it seems to come from a pre-industrial age*. Vegetables – the cornerstone of the cuisine – taste like they’re supposed to. With a little bit of garlic and oil, lemon or tomato, or the smokiness imparted from a piece of chorizo or roasted pimiento del piquillo, these things are transformed into one of the world’s great cuisines. It’s neither comp
licated nor intricate, but just like this now world-famous Basque cake, it’s fabulous – and certainly worth passing on the Ameri-Mex enchiladas any day.

*In case you’re wondering how I know this, I’ve been back twice since becoming a carnivore and tried to redeem myself by trying every meat/fish preparation I could get my hands on.

Gâteau Basque

This cake, as a matter of fact, is something I never ate in the Spanish Basque Country, though many confections I tried had strong similarities. This is an invention of the French Basques from the town of Cambo-les-Bains, but with the Basque passion for pastry-cream filled confections, it reflects tastes on both sides of the border (I actually found this cake listed on several Spanish websites, so it is known there too). One thing to keep in mind is that this is a cake with a wide variety of interpretations. While always distinguished by the presence of a filling, a Gâteau Basque can have a spongy cake or a crisp pastry exterior, and the filling can consist of pastry cream (plain or almond-flavored), fruit preserves (cherry is common, but other fruits can be used), or as you’ll find in this version, both. This particular recipe, flavored with almonds and rum or orange flower water, has been adapted from François Payard’s beautiful book, Simply Sensational Desserts.

Yield: 1 cake, enough to feed 10-12 people (the original recipe actually has you make 2 smaller cakes from the same ingredients; I combined them into one)

3/4 cup (90 grams) slivered almonds
1 1/3 cups (200 grams) all-purpose flour
1 tsp (5 grams) baking powder
1 scant teaspoon salt
4 large eggs
1 cup (200 grams) sugar
1 vanilla bean, split
14 Tbsp (1 3/4 sticks) (200 grams) unsalted butter, melted and cooled
1 Tbsp dark rum or orange flower water
1 1/3 cups (340 ml) pastry cream (recipe follows), at room temp
10 oz (275 grams) low-sugar cherry preserves, or the same weight of fresh pitted cherries

For pastry cream:
2 cups (500ml) whole milk
1 vanilla bean, split, or 1 teaspoon extract
1/2 cup (100 grams) sugar
1/4 cup (30 grams) cornstarch, sifted
6 large egg yolks
2 Tbsp (30 grams) unsalted butter

For cake:
Place the almonds in the bowl of a food processor and process until finely ground, about 45 seconds. Transfer to a medium bowl. Sift the flour, baking powder and salt over the almonds. Gently whisk until combined and set aside. Place 3 eggs and the sugar in a large bowl. Scrape the seeds from the vanilla bean into the bowl (reserve the pod for another use) and whisk the eggs until thickened and pale. Whisk in the melted butter. Whisk in the dry ingredients and rum. Let the batter stand for 20 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 400° F. Butter a 9" springform pan. Dust the pan with flour, tapping out the excess. Put the pastry cream into a medium bowl and whisk it until smooth. Scrape half the cake batter into the pan and smooth the top with a spatula. Spread the cherry preserves over the batter. Fill a pastry bag fitted with a 1/2" plain tip with 1 1/3 cups of the pastry cream (reserve the rest for some other use). Pipe the pastry cream over the preserves, beginning 1/4" from the edge of the pan and piping a spiral toward the center in tight coils. Scrape the remaining cake batter over the pastry cream and smooth it into an even layer, covering the cream as much as possible. Lightly beat the remaining egg and lightly brush the tops of the cakes with the egg wash.

Bake the cake for 45 to 50 minutes, until golden brown on top and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Cool the cake in the pan on a rack for 10 minutes before unmolding and cooling completely. Dust the top decoratively with icing sugar, if desired.

For Pastry Cream:
Line a shallow baking pan (such as a 9" square pan) with plastic wrap. Put the milk in a medium saucepan, scrape the seeds from the vanilla bean into the pan, and add the bean. Bring to a boil and remove from heat. Whisk together the sugar and cornstarch in a small bowl. Place the yolks in a medium bowl; whisk in the sugar mixture and whisk until the mixture turns pale yellow and is thick and smooth. Gradually pour half of the hot milk into the yolk mixture and whisk to combine. Return the mixture to the saucepan and cook over medium heat, whisking constantly, until the mixture thickens and comes to a boil. Boil for several seconds, then remove the pan from the heat and whisk in the butter until completely melted. Scrape the pastry cream into the prepared pan, spreading it evenly with a rubber spatula. Cover the pastry cream with plastic wrap, placing it directly against the surface to prevent a skin from forming. Refrigerate until needed, or up to 3 days. Remove the vanilla bean before using the pastry cream.
Makes about 2 1/3 cups


A Taste of the Tropics: Laksa Lemak

Laksa Lemak with Prawns, Quail Eggs and Chicken

Years ago, I used to consider my pantry pretty well-stocked. Overflowing with bottled sauces, vinegars, oils, all sorts of things dried, pickled and salted, pastas, rices, spices and various assorted kitchen sundries, I assumed that as long as I kept collecting, some day I would have everything, and exotic dishes could be whipped up at the drop of a hat. Sicilian sun-dried tomato paste? Got it. Hawaiian red rock salt? Ditto. Pistachio extract and cocoa nibs? Four kinds of dried mushrooms, six kinds of vinegar, and eleven different types of bouillon cubes? I think you get the point. What I hadn’t taken into the equation was just how much more I would need when I started experimenting with Asian food. In the blink of an eye, my pantry was looking very bare indeed.

Asian cooking – and by this I’m specifically referring to Southeast Asian, Chinese and Japanese – was uncharted territory in my kitchen for a long time. Although I’ve always loved eating it, cooking it was something I used to happily leave to the experts, and as long as I was living in places where ethnic restaurants were good and affordable, that seemed a perfectly reasonable thing to do. Another good reason for this was that Asian food always took me outside my ‘culinary comfort zone’ whenever I tried to do it myself. The recipes, in addition to requiring hard-to-find ingredients with strange names, contained confusing abbreviated instructions for things I had no idea how to do: exactly how does one grind rock-hard things to a paste, or steam things in a multi-tiered steamer? Yet whenever I attempted simpler (and obviously ‘Westernized’) versions they never tasted authentic. It wasn’t until I moved to Edinburgh and its lack of authentic Asian restaurants that I realized it was imperative that I track down the right ingredients and master the unfamiliar cooking techniques, or else I would have to bid farewell to some of my most favorite food on the planet. Thankfully, due in no small part to a five-year old craving for a bowl of laksa, I decided to give it my best shot.

I first tasted laksa in Australia, of all places, at a wonderful Malaysian restaurant in Melbourne. Straddling the line between a curry and a soup, it’s really the best of many different Asian traditions and is always a deeply, bottom-of-the-belly satisfying one-bowl meal. It’s a popular street food all over southeast Asia, but particularly in Malaysia and Singapore, where it grew out of a fusion of Chinese and tropical Asian ingredients and techniques. And if you’re interested in the name, as the linguist in me always is, it apparently comes from the Sanskrit ‘laksha’, which means ‘many’, obviously referring to the profusion of ingredients in (if not versions of) the dish.

There are, I’m told, as many versions for Laksa as there are cooks in Southeast Asia, but there are some broad commonalities based on region. Laksa lemak, perhaps the most well known and also known as nonya laksa, is a type of laksa served in a rich, slightly sweet and strongly spiced coconut gravy, and usually features cockles or prawns and a variety of toppings like bean sprouts, fresh herbs, tofu and cucumber. Katong laksa is a variant of laksa lemak from the Katong area of Singapore. Here the noodles are normally cut up into smaller pieces so that the entire dish can be eaten with a spoon alone (that is, without chopsticks or a fork). Penang laksa, also known as asam laksa (from the Malay for tamarind), comes from the Malaysian island of Penang and has a sour tamarind flavor as its main distinguishing feature. Other ingredients that give Penang laksa its distinctiveness include lemongrass, ginger flower, blue ginger (lengkuas) and chilli, and typical garnishes include mint, pineapple slices, thinly sliced onion and a thick sweet prawn ketchup. Finally, Sarawak laksa comes from the town of Kuching in Sarawak, on the Malaysian island of Borneo. It has a base of shrimp paste, sour tamarind, garlic, lemon grass and coconut milk; toppings include beansprouts, omelette strips, chicken strips, prawns, fresh coriander and optionally lime.

The only difficulty I had, considering the myriad types of laksa out there, was to find a recipe that looked both authentic and do-able. There are of course as many recipes you could care to find floating in the wilds of the internet, but I had three in my possession I was determined to use. Two of those are in recently acquired (and very highly recommended) cookbooks, Shiok! by Chris and Terry Tan and Tropical Asian Cooking by Wendy Hutton (and both, I might add, exquisitely photographed by Singapore-based photographers Edmond Ho and Masano Kawana). There was also a recipe Tara sent me from the The Best cookbook which corresponded to their cook-off of Asian noodle dishes I had seen a few years ago on television. After scrutinizing all three for their strengths and weaknesses and worrying about which was the most authentic, I gave up and decided to attempt a fusion of all of them, based on what I could find and what looked good. After trolling the supermarket shelves for several weeks and making a trek into lesser-known parts of the city in search of a rumored Asian supermarket, I finally found everything I needed (and my already-bloated pantry had swollen by yet another size or two).

The laksa that resulted was definitely worth the wait. Crunchy, creamy, slurpy and spicy, it was the perfect antidote to the tasteless westernized Asian food I’ve been suffering for years. I can’t really vouch for its authenticity, but considering the dissenting opinions on that anyway, I’m not going to worry too much – to my long-starved tastebuds, at least, it was perfect. In fact, next to the Sicilian tomato paste, Hawaiian salt and six kinds of vinegar, you’ll now find a section of my bursting pantry devoted to all sorts of things like fermented shrimp paste, sambal olek and Vietnamese rice-stick noodles, ready and waiting for the next Asian-food adventure. This may never be ‘comfort-zone’ cooking for me, but if the results are anything near as good as that laksa, I’ll soon be renting out a storage locker for the inevitable pantry overflow.

Laksa Lemak
Serves: 4

For the laksa paste:
3 large onions, chopped
2 oz (60g) galangal, chopped
6 cloves garlic, chopped
3 oz (90g) fresh ginger, chopped
3 stalks fresh lemongrass, chopped
5 long red chillies, chopped
1/4 cup vegetable oil
2 teaspoons chili powder
2 teaspoons ground tumeric
3 teaspoons ground coriander
2 teaspoons fermented shrimp paste (belacan), toasted*
1/4 cup dried shrimps, ground to a fine powder

For the sauce:
2 cups (500ml) coconut milk
4 cups (1ltr) good chicken stock
2 teaspoons sugar
1/2 – 1 teaspoon salt, or to taste
laksa paste (see above)

For assembly:
1 lb (450g) dried round rice noodles, soaked according to package instructions, or 2 lbs (900
g) fresh rice noodles, briefly blanched

4 tablespoons vegetable oil
4 garlic cloves, sliced
4 shallots, sliced
4 long dried chillies
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon sugar
12 hard-boiled quail eggs, or 4 hard-boiled eggs, peeled and quartered

12 cooked large shrimp, peeled and deveined
1 lb (450g) cooked chicken, cut or torn into strips

1 1/2 cups (150g) beansprouts
4 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro/coriander
2 limes, halved
chili sambal, for serving

Process the first 6 ingredients together in a food processor to a coarse paste. Heat the oil, add the paste, and fry over medium heat until the moisture has dried up and the paste is deeply fragrant, about 15 minutes. Raise the heat and add the chili, turmeric and coriander powders; fry 1 minute. Add the shrimp paste and ground shrimp and fry for another 2 minutes. Stir in the coconut milk, chicken stock, salt and sugar, and bring to a boil. Lower the heat and boil gently for about 20 minutes, until slightly thickened. Season to taste and keep warm.

Heat the vegetable oil in a frying pan and fry the sliced garlic, and separately fry the shallots and chilies for about 30 seconds until crispy and golden brown. Strain and cool. Pound together in a pestle and mortar with the salt and the sugar. Reserve.

Divide the hot drained noodles between four serving bowls. Top with the chicken, shrimp, eggs, and sauce. Scatter with the garlic, shallot and chili mix, beansprouts and coriander. Serve with the limes and sambal.

*To toast shrimp paste, spread it on a piece of foil and put it under a hot broiler or grill for a couple of minures.