April 12, 2011
At a Thai restaurant last week, my dining companion convinced me to forego the tantalizingly spicy offerings in favor of a chicken dish served with ginger, pineapple chunks and cashews in a sweet and sour sauce. When the dish came out, I was thrilled to see that it was served in half of a hollowed-out pineapple, with the fruit’s spiky green crown adding some visual flair. How novel! It was the sort of presentation I had seen only at picnics when someone would carve out a watermelon into a bowl or basket to hold bite-sized chunks of fruit. But in Thai cuisine, food carving is an intricate art form meant to turn ordinary dining into a visual spectacle.
Kae sa luk, the centuries-old Thai tradition of transforming fruits and vegetables into elaborate displays, began in the court of King Phra Ruang. Meals were expected to please both the palate and the eye. Using specialized tools to make intricate incisions and excisions, artisans—either palace chefs or the daughters of aristocrats—would craft foodstuffs to resemble plants and animals. Onions become chrysanthemum blossoms, cucumbers are fashioned into leaves to ornament soups, and the vibrant colors of a watermelon’s pulp and rind are used to dramatic effect in the creation of flower blossoms. And while pieces are generally made for garnish and table decoration, produce such as pumpkins may be carved into serving vessels and even some salads are presented as a floral spray to be dismantled and consumed by diners. And the Thai take on the watermelon basket is above and beyond anything I’ve seen at the picnic table.
Radish rosettes suddenly seem pedestrian by comparison (not that I could even carve one of those).
And for those of you wanting to learn the craft, there are books and DVDs on the market to get you started. For the rest of us who don’t have the time or patience, YouTube lets us admire kae sa luk masters and their edible masterworks from afar.
March 25, 2011
In spring a Northerner’s fancy turns lightly to… anything other than the same old starchy winter vegetables I’ve been eating for months. I don’t remember if this used to happen to me when I lived in a snow-free climate, but now that I live up north the only things I’m craving more than balmy breezes and flowers at this time of year are bright, sunny flavors to perk up my palate. Lemon fits the bill nicely. Not only does it add zippy flavor to everything it touches, a bowlful of lemons doubles as both cheerful table decor and subtle home fragrance. I’ve never seen anyone use rutabagas as a centerpiece, and I’m pretty sure parsnip-scented dishwashing liquid would be a commercial flop.
Plus, lemons have been curing scurvy since the 1600s—and providing entertaining videos of pucker-face babies since at least the dawn of YouTube.
If life hands you lemons, say, “thank you,” and don’t limit yourself to lemonade. Here are five ideas:
1. Breakfast. The best time to wake up your taste buds is first thing in the morning, no? You could go sweet, topping your favorite morning bread product with lemon marmalade, a sophisticated alternative to orange. (If you’re going to make it yourself, you might want to hold out for Meyer lemons—they’re a little sweeter and have thinner, tenderer rind). Or try fluffy lemon-ricotta pancakes, which use only the zest (squeeze the juice to use later, or mix up some Bloody Marys, if it’s that kind of morning). If you’re more a savory breakfast type, go for the whole classic New York bagel schmear: cream cheese, lox, capers, red onions and thin lemon slices (tomatoes are also a possibility, if you can find good ones at this time of year).
2. Soup. A recent Inviting Writing essay (with recipe) by a reader who tried to perfect her mother-in-law’s avgolemono soup may have sparked my latest round of lemon obsession. The ultra-lemony soup is one of Greek cuisine’s many delicious uses of the citrus fruit. Lemon also brings lentil soup into new and exciting territory (a squirt of lemon juice can even—almost—rescue bland, over-salted canned lentil soup, I find).
3. Main dishes and sides. The possibilities here are endless—chicken or fish piccata (I like this variation using miso paste); lemon pizza; lemon risotto (Giada de Laurentiis serves it in a lemon cup, if cute presentations are your thing); sole meunière, the French dish that Julia Child said changed her life; and Lee Lum’s Lemon Chicken is one of the recipes I’ve been wanting to try from Amanda Hesser’s The Essential New York Times Cookbook (originally published in the paper in 1969), but I haven’t been able to find water chestnut flour.
4. Desserts. For people like me who like their sweets cut with some tartness, this is the category where lemon truly shines. Last year I made a lemon tart from Cook’s Illustrated that came out brilliantly, if I do say so myself (the link is blocked to non-subscribers, so you can sign up for a 14-day trial or try this one with a pine-nut crust, from Epicurious.). Nigella Lawson’s lemon polenta cake sounds good. And for the true lemon lover, Smitten Kitchen offers a recipe for Shaker lemon pie that uses macerated thinly sliced Meyer lemons, peel and all. Those Shakers sure had some interesting ideas for baked goods. Of course, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention an American classic, lemon meringue pie.
5. Drinks. Now, I’ve got nothing against lemonade, especially on a hot summer day. But why not at least jazz it up with basil, mint or—though I can’t advocate it—cilantro? It certainly wouldn’t be out of the question to add some vodka to any one of those concoctions. Even better, do as Tyler Florence does, and make icy lemon-ginger vodka cocktails or, if you can wait 80 days, make your own limoncello. And did I mention the Bloody Mary? Well, it bears repeating.
March 24, 2011
If fruit trees grow from seeds, how do you grow seedless fruit? It’s not unusual for plants to produce mutant fruit that lacks seeds, but these fruits are usually the end of their line. Naturally occurring hybrids can also make sterile fruit. The varieties that we eat are specifically hybridized to be seedless, like seedless watermelon or bananas, or grafted onto host root stocks, like seedless oranges.
Navel oranges (named for the belly-button shaped indentation in the peel; did everyone else already know this?) were first planted in California in 1872; the New York Times looked back on the fruit’s origins in an article from 1902 (pdf).
The fine original seedless orange trees came from Bahia, Brazil, and were imported through the sense of a woman. Mr. Nellie Desmond of Syracuse, N.Y., was visiting her brother in a rubber camp along the Amazon. The natives brought her several seedless oranges, which were a curiosity to her. She inquired whence they came, and found they grew upon a clump of freak orange trees in the neighborhood.
The woman with sense brought some fruit back to the United States, and word got to the Commissioner of Agriculture, who instructed the consulate at Brazil to ship him some trees. A few years later, Mrs. Luther C. Tibbets, who was well-connected, procured three trees from an experimental USDA garden for land her husband was homesteading in what is now downtown Riverside, California. One of the trees was eaten by a cow, but after five years the others bore fruit. “On Jan. 22, 1878, two of the new oranges were cut open and critically tasted by a little company of orange growers at Riverside. A new star of the first magnitude rose that day in the horticultural firmament.”
Another star of the first magnitude might well arise from a recent report in PNAS. A mutant seedless sugar apple (Annona squamosa) from Thailand was found to have a genetic disruption that blocks ovule development. Fortuitously, similar mutations have been intensively studied in Arabidopsis, a mustard plant that is the lab rat of botany. Understanding this genetic pathway could lead to seedless sugar apples or soursops. Fruits in this genus “have a meat with a sherbet-like texture and a flavor that has been compared with a mixture of banana and pineapple,” the authors write, but huge seeds make these fruits a bit of a chore to eat or process. They also point out that Mark Twain described Annona as “the most delicious fruits known to men.”
Has anyone tried these fruits? I’m intrigued—and wouldn’t mind fighting through the seeds while the seedless varieties are in development.
January 10, 2011
Stay tuned for the next round of Inviting Writing, which we’ll announce on Tuesday, January 18.
A Slice of Heaven
By Kim Kelly
Tomatoes are a new thing for me. While I have always loved salsa, tomato sauce, and even an occasional dab of ketchup, I spent the first 42 years of my life diligently picking anything remotely resembling a tomato out of any salad, sandwich, In-N-Out Burger or taco. Something about the texture and what I remembered (from my one try as a child) as a somewhat “metallic” taste always had me saying, “no, thank you.”
In the past few years, though, articles praising the health benefits of tomatoes flashed across my computer screen and I began letting those tiny diced pieces on my taco slide by. I even kind of got used to those little fragments and almost missed them when they weren’t there. Then I bravely ate a slice from a salad. Unfortunately it was a winter tomato, white inside, mushy, a bit mealy and absolutely tasteless. To me it was just, well… for lack of a better word, yucky. The experience set me back a few years.
Two years ago a vendor at my local Carlsbad Farmers Market offered me a slice of heirloom tomato which had only hours earlier been picked fresh from his fields. I have to say his display was quite beautiful. Abundant with dazzling yellow, green, orange, red and even zebra striped tomatoes, I really wanted to like them but was sure I wouldn’t. A bright red globe had been sliced and simply dressed with a splash of balsamic vinegar and a light dusting of salt and pepper. Without an easy way to say no and to not offend him, I searched out the smallest slice and wondered how I was going to swallow the expected mushy texture and funky “tin-like” taste. Bracing myself, I popped the piece into my mouth and waited for my expectations to be met. Oh, how wrong I was! The flavor bursting in my mouth was anything but tin-like, and the texture not even remotely mealy. This small slice of heaven brought instead a fleshy yet firm and juicy bite combined with a savory sweetness. With the fresh delicate flavors dancing on my tongue, I found myself groaning in pleasure and actually reaching for a second slice. I purchased my first three tomatoes.
Since that eye-opening day, I have come to realize that there are good tomatoes and bad tomatoes. To me, “bad” (insert: soft, mushy, mealy) tomatoes are not worth eating. Good tomatoes, though, are a treat worth waiting for. That year, I spent my summer craving those luscious, flavor-filled heirlooms, even eating unadorned and plain slices out of hand. Recipes from magazines and internet sources filled my files and I spent leisurely afternoons at the market sharing tips on serving tomatoes with the vendors.
Mid-summer 2010 brought the much anticipated heirloom tomato arrival to our market and I purchased no less than 10 of the brightly colored, heart-shaped orbs the first day they appeared. Adding them to sandwiches, sauces and an extraordinarily tasty Heirloom Tomato Salad topped with Blue Cheese had my husband smirking and laughing at me. As I sat down and fully enjoyed this salad made almost wholly from tomatoes, I realized I had grown. Next summer I think I’ll grow again and give those mysterious yet alluring eggplants a try. Well… maybe.
January 3, 2011
Our theme for this month’s Inviting Writing series is “first tastes”: foods that were a revelation the first time you tried them. This week’s entry comes from Elizabeth Bastos, who shared a scary food story about artichokes last year. She blogs about “humor, food, home, parenting and cheese” at Goody Bastos.
A Rebound Relationship with Guava Paste
By Elizabeth Bastos
Years ago, when I was in a complicated relationship with a Venezuelan, I went to his home country and had a cheese arepa for the first time—and that was supposed to be the big deal. When I got home, broken-up-with and sad, my friends said: That’s too bad about Jose. How were the arepas? And I said they were okay.
The big deal for me was the guava paste. Not to get all magical realism, One Hundred Years Of Solitude about it, but the first time I tasted guava paste, it was the muted dead red of heartbreak, a sun just before it sets under the horizon, a thin slab that was sad/happy, sweet/tart and just slightly crystalline. Tears, maybe? I had a bit on top of a piece of cheese called queso tropical after one of my last arguments with Jose about the meaning of love and betrayal, and whether Americans can ever really be sensual.
Queso tropical distinguishes itself in no other way than that it is the perfect foil for guava paste. It is salty, coarse in texture, even squeaky. It’s the work-a-day piano man to guava’s torch singer. I said to Jose, through my tears: You are too passionate, like an artist, of course you are, but what is this cheese? What is this jelly on top? Is it jelly? A preserve of some kind? It’s definitely not strawberry. Or peach. More important, can I have some more? So I brought two bricks of guava paste home with me on the plane, plus some terra cotta knick-knacks, but they all broke.
When I eat guava paste even now, years later, I can’t help thinking: Wow. How can it be that for some people this fragrant, pomegranate-colored, ear-lobe-textured gem of a food is mundane? For me, it’s An Experience, perhaps The Experience. They don’t realize how lucky they are.