Get Spiced Or Die Chai-in’

Just the thing to make your worries fade away.

Chaiiii, chaiii, chaiii, chaiii.  The melodic tones snapped me back to Earth.  Lost somewhere between exhaustion and relative lucidity, I immediately assessed my surroundings. First, I noted the location of my backpack.  Next was to assess all points of skin contact.  Realizing before bedtime that I wasn’t alone in my rail car berth, I had tucked myself in to provide a barrier.  No roaches were trotting around on this passenger!  Finding all to my (sub)standards, I let out a sigh.  And then it sounded again passing through the corridor.  Chaiii, chaiii, chaiiiiiiii.

Despite the resentment for such an abrupt awakening, I was tempted.  For a second I reflected on the sweet and spicy nectar, and then reality sunk in.  Chai could wait until I was sure it had come to a rolling boil.  No need to entice parasites mid-way through a journey.  The chai was lukewarm and the bathrooms a little short of sanitary.

Tea time!

Throughout my time in India, I found one constant.  North, South, young, old, rich, poor — chai.

It’s no surprise this delight has caught on in the West.  It takes your basic milk tea and it kicks it up.  It literally adds some spice to your life.  Now I get what Columbus was searching for.  Spices exalt the senses.

A coffee addict at heart, I’ll never cheat, but I do like to mix it up.  With the weather heating up, I was looking for something refreshing to top off my afternoons.  Taking an ode from India, I gathered together my spice stash and made up a batch that’s perfect served over ice.  My version uses soy, and takes into account its already-added sweetness. If you’re particularly fond of porcelain, feel free to sugar it up and rot ’em out.  Next time you hear the cry of chai, you’ll be amply prepared with back-up.

Perfectly spiced harmony

Soy Chai Tea

Makes 1 cup

1/2 cup water

1 black tea bag

1 tsp crushed/coarsely chopped ginger

1 green cardamom pod

2 whole black peppercorns

1 clove

1/2 cup sweet soy milk (I like Vegemil B)

1. Coarsely pound ginger, cardamom, peppercorns and clove together.

2. Bring the water to a simmer in a small pan over high heat.  Add tea bag and spice mixture.  Allow to simmer about 15 seconds, then remove from heat.  Allow all ingredients to steep together for another 5-10 minutes, then strain.

3. Pour strained concentrate over ice.  Mix with soy milk and enjoy.

Open for business

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Frankensoju

Remember a couple of months ago when I stumbled upon the idea for Kahlua soju?  Well, I kind of suprised myself with the success of that one, and I guess I didn’t stand alone. Thanks to this, I was given the opportunity to include a story in this month’s Groove Magazine, a publication geared towards the expat community in Korea. 

Starting with the Kahlua, I looked to friends for inspiration and came up with a slew of five cocktails that  reinvent the spirit.   From the soju strawberry lemonade to the fire-roasted chile mango martini, there’s something for everyone.  For those to whom soju conjures up images of a  karaoke rendition of “Livin’ La Vida Loca” (complete with valiant shimmy), it will wash away your pain.  For those new upon the bandwagon, hop aboard, fasten your seatbelt, and don’t expect to accomplish anything tomorrow.  Bottoms up!

Hop over to Groove to check it out here.

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Bite Me

Speaking with your mouth full is not encouraged.  Just the same for spewing debris from an overflowed mouth. Minding your manners can prove exhausting.  Particularly when everything you’ve come to know goes out the window. 

I was raised in a household where sneaking a rest on an elbow during a meal was comparable to committing arson.  Speaking of arson, the stares I’d receive down my mother’s nose in response were enough to burn a hole in your conscience.  Not normally an advocate of fear-mongering, I suppose in this case it proved effective.     

One inconsistency in my mother’s no-nonsense policy was the regular schedule of visits to a local sandwich joint.  Primanti’s sandwiches put Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on the (glutton-based) culinary map, and they’re a primary reason why I’ve purchased a flight home this summer. 

Let’s see what you’re made of.

French fries and coleslaw on a sandwich? Indeed, my friend, you will not be disappointed.  Prove your dedication by adding an egg inside as well. 

When we’d make our visits to Primanti’s, the biggest challenge was not deciding between pastrami or capicola, as you might assume.  Rather, it was figuring out how best to dislocate your jaw to enjoy the monstrous delight.  Not normally a stiff-upper-lip accredited form of dining, the experience was an exception to the table rules.  Filling your mouth to capacity was encouraged. 

A lot was in the handling.  Once you raised the sandwich for the initial bite, it was time to demonstrate your commitment.  You must not release the hold until down to the very last morsels.  Disregard, and disaster would ensue.  The delicate balance would crumble into an intimidating pile of slop.  It was in your best interest, as dining with forks at Primanti’s is viewed as rather pretentious. 

This regular exercise in grip-centered technique proved useful when I found myself at my first teacher’s dinner in Korea.  A mainstay of employment in this country, the outings are considered just as much an obligation as showing up on time for class.  Explained to me as crucial for developing working relationships, nothing says bonding like acting as crutch to a stumbling deskmate. 

It sent me into a tizzy when slurping was a sign of enjoyment and I was faced with the almighty lettuce wrap.  Seeming impossible to consume in one bite, thankfully, I came with experience.      

Wrapping up morsels of food in crispy lettuce blankets is kind of a staple of the Korean diet.  It eliminates the need for plates, and adds a nice amount of freshness.  Referred to as ssam, there’s often a basket of leaves present on the table. 

Like Primanti’s, the art of ssam congestion is a delicate one.  Nimble fingers are a bonus, and a lot is contingent upon finding the right balance between fill capacity and leaf surface area.  Forget attempting multiple bites, you only end up with mangled gristle looking unsightly on your chin. 

My personal plan of attack is the bag o’ gold method.  I find it works best to gather the loose edges in one cluster around the center of the leaf.  With a wide open mouth, I then shove the whole bit, bag first, into my mouth.  It’s a one-handed technique, and you may want to set aside a good minute for chewing. 

Like Primanti’s, don’t waver once committed to the bite.

With weekend dinners out not proving enough to keep my techniques sharp, I decided to whip up something  at home.  It’s becoming crucial that my jaw is in shape for my visit(s) to Primanti’s this August.  I came up with a variation of curry chicken salad that’s perfect for the picnic-friendly weather.  It’s spiced up with ginger and orange, and perfect to keep in the fridge for an urge to practice on short order.    

The challenger

Curry Chicken Salad Ssam 

Serves 4

4 cooked chicken breasts, shredded (about 4 cups)

2 cups julienned carrots (about 1 large carrot)

2/3 cup sliced green onions

1 small container plain yogurt (3 oz./85 grams)

2 Tbsp mayonnaise

1 Tbsp orange zest

1 Tbsp orange juice

2 tsp finely minced ginger

1 tsp curry powder

Lettuce or cabbage leaves (any variety)

1.  Combine chicken, carrots and green onion in a medium-sized bowl.

2.  In a small bowl, mix remaining ingredients until smoothly blended to make the dressing. 

3.  Pour dressing over chicken mixture, and stir until evenly distributed. Serve as wraps in leaves of your choice.

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Teeny Weeny Tahini Bikini

Swimsuit season is upon us.  Pick your poison – what’s the diet of the year?  Is it Atkins?  Oh no, that’s right, that guy died of a heart attack.  Not a good indicator for my bacon and ranch meal plans.

The cabbage soup diet?  It seems I may have struck gold for this one.  Kimchi pots swarm beneath my window sill.  It would take nothing more than a covert night mission, a large pot, water, and I could be simmering away to abundance!  Tempting, yes, but I’ll admit I’m a little scared.  And not of getting caught by my landlord. The combination of cabbage, spice and fermentation sounds dangerous, and I’m nervous about what it might do to my intestinal tract. It can’t be good.

 They say it takes 28 days in sequence for something to actually make a lasting change.   It’s a shame we didn’t face the music 27 days ago. We may have been able to actually reduce the amount of fat on our body.  Since we didn’t, it’s all about pretending and making ourselves feel thinner.

My go-to is the Swimming Departure-Day(S. D-Day) method.  It’s really quite simple.  Just refuse all sustentence on day of set swimming escapade.  Around 2 pm, while lying in the hot sun, you MAY feel a little lightheaded.  No worries!  Dehydration is the perfect scapegoat for your delirium.  We also all know you weren’t actually going to walk around.  Your stomach looks a hundred times flatter kicked back. 

Alright, alright. I’m not entirely serious.  I may have embraced this method at one point, I may still draw upon it on occasion, but I’ve come of age.  After trials and tribulations, I’ve come full circle back to seventh grade health class.  The only thing effective for healthy weight loss is the combination of a balanced diet and regular exercise.  Spontaneous fat-burning ab-belt, why couldn’t you have worked!?

[May cause static cling]

Begruddgingly facing the facts, I embrace “everything in moderation.”  I consider dieting a balancing act.  I load up as much as possible on a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains and lean proteins.  I’m not one to turn down chocolate cake, however, and this is where the balancing comes in.  If I happen to (on occasion) consume, say, three or more (ten) cookie packages intended for individual consumption, I make up for it the next day.  I’m extra strict with the calories, or I ratchet up my work out.  It’s just not practical to deprive yourself of chocolate.  BBC, you’re SO in my corner.  Check it out: Chocolate ‘may help keep people slim’

With summer impending, I figure it’s about time to get on that wagon.  Day 1 of 28, here goes nothing.  I had some chick peas from a recent trip to Suwon, and it seemed a good time for some crisp veggies and hummus (hello, protein!).  This recipe comes to me from my father, by way of The Mediterranean Cookbook by Betty Wason.  It starts with tahini, which you then combine with chickpeas to make hummus. Your biggest challenge is going to be figuring out how best to mash your chick peas.  I’ll go ahead and give you my blessing.  Use a fork, eat an extra cookie, and we’ll call it even as “cardio.”

Tahini Sauce

Makes about 2 cups

1 cup sesame oil (I substituted soybean oil)

6 tablespoons lemon juice

1/2 cup water

1-3 cloves garlic, crushed

1/2 to 1 teaspoon salt (to taste)

1/2 cup parsley, coarsely chopped

“The easiest way to make the sauce is with a blender.  Place the oil in the blender first; add, with blender in motion, water and lemon juice alternatively until the mixture is the consistency of thick cream.  Crush the garlic separately in a mortar or bowl and work in the salt.  Add the garlic-salt  mixture to the Tahini.  Do not overbeat.”

Or, chuck everything in the blender and give it a whirl.  That’s what I did.   Emulsion, schemulsion.

Appears smooth and creamy to me!

Hummus

Makes about 2 cups

Guilt-free

100 grams dried chick peas OR 1 large can chick peas

1/2 cup Tahini Sauce

lemon juice

salt, to taste

Since dried chick peas seem to be the most readily available to those of us in the land of kimchi, I’ll start there.  Place the chick peas in a medium-sized bowl and cover with plenty of water.  Allow to soak at room temperature overnight.  

They plump while you sleep

After soaking, transfer chick peas to a saucepan.  Cover with water and simmer, partially covered, over medium heat about 25-30 minutes, or until chick peas easily smash between the fingers. Drain and cool.

If using canned, ensure the chick peas are drained.  Now, choose method of mashing.  I happened to be equipped with a potato masher which worked just fine.  Otherwise, use food mill, blender (make sure Tahini is poured in to provide some lubrication), or a fork.  Mix Tahini Sauce with mashed chick peas, and add lemon and salt to taste.

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Beard Free Sounds Alright to Me

Before Korea, I lived in Colorado.  Ground zero for the hairy and unwashed.  Let’s be clear, I am neither discriminating against those who tend to small mammals under their arms, nor ruling out that I may have given up on shampoo for a short while myself.  Just telling it like it is.

Conducting field research. That’s a lot of hair.

When my grandmother came to town for my brother’s graduation, she was a little confused by the presence of turbans.  Turbans, yes Grandma, let’s just go along with that.  The explanation of dreadlocks may take a while.  You totally wouldn’t appreciate the cool factor that explodes when they’re done up in a lofty nest.  Not to mention the bonus points if the head wrap happens to be red, yellow and green (black accents and african motifs also acceptable).

Example A: Head wrap may not fall in the designated category, but the radiant luster earns plenty of party time credit.

Beards were par for the course and everyone who was anyone rocked one.  To be honest, I can’t disagree with the trend.  I envy beards during brisk rides up the ski lift. They are the face warmer to trump all others.  They’re a perfect tool to ensure you’re able to savor the last bite of every meal.  And also…beards are totally dead sexy!  They work like gravitational force with the ladies.  Well, some ladies.  You know who you are.

Notice how subject A is insuppressibly drawn to the beard. Subject B notes this quality, and wants a beard for himself.

While we know the consensus in Colorado, I’m not so sure of the beard verdict when it comes to clams.  A bit foreign to me, I’m not even entirely sure what a clam beard looks like.  I picture it as a scraggly little tuft, similar to the growth on an unsightly mole.  Either way, I don’t think it’s favored for consumption.  Since I am obviously in no position to identify a clam beard, let alone remove one, I was stoked on a find at NongHyup the other day.  In the cooler section, they had a shelf full of fresh, cleaned clams, seemingly ready to go. I’d been wanting to recreate a clam sauce recipe my friend’s mom let me in on, and it seemed the time had arrived.

Score

I established a healthy 1:1 clam to clove ratio for the garlic, and the rest was smooth sailing.  The best part is that this was on the table in about 15 minutes.  This is key for finding the time to pursue bearded bliss, be it disposing of sharp edges or trailing your local Mufasa.

Dig in

Clam Sauce

Serves 2-3

5-6 cloves garlic, minced

1/2 cup olive oil (extra virgin if available, extra generic if living in Korea)

1/4 pound shucked, cleaned, debearded clams, lightly chopped and juices reserved

1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley

pinch of salt

fresh ground pepper

1/2 pound spaghetti/linguine, cooked

Heat oil in a shallow skillet over medium head.  When oil is hot, toss in the garlic.  Cook, gently stirring, for about 3-5 minutes or until garlic just begins to turn lightly golden.  Be careful not to burn the garlic as it will turn the dish bitter.  Just when garlic is starting to brown, turn off the heat.  Toss in clams, reserved juice, and parsley.  Stir to lightly cook the clams.  Season with salt and pepper.  To serve, spoon over hot pasta.

I’d like to give a special shout-out to my man Don Wooden, new recruit to the Bearded Gentleman’s Club (BGC).  He went for the gold with this one!

I tip my hat, good sir.

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Cirque du Jerk

Sit back and marvel at the extravaganza. 

With summer nipping at our heels this weekend, out came the bbq’s and we bellied up to the beach.  It was a friend’s birthday, and everyone plus their nephew-once-removed came out to celebrate.  Knowing in advance the potential of the gathering to end up in a chaotic frenzy,  I did some damage control and brought along an arsenal of meat. 

I found myself a shrink-wrapped chicken that undoubtedly was the recipient of one butcher’s wrath and fury.  This baby was hacked up with no rhyme or reason.  Legs looked like wings, and breasts were indistinguishable from thighs.   The opportunity for partial bone excavation (or throat-lodged loss of breath) was also very real. Regardless, it was all there, and the lack of giblets meant I was a happy camper in the end.  You can hack all you want as long as I don’t have to venture into the deep for a slimy surprise.  The intimate quest makes me uncomfortable, to say the least. 

Moved by the sunshine, and the accompanying vibes of Mr. Marley, I was feeling some jerk chicken.  I had a spice rub in my cupboard, but that just seemed too easy.  Kicking it up a notch, I sought out this recipe for a blended marinade via Nigella Lawson.  With a little Koreanization, we were in business.

Not the same for the grill component.  At face value, we seemed well off.  A trio had been arranged on the beach, alongside ample coals.  First thing first, I staked a claim, and loaded the grill up with charcoal.  Incentive for taking initiative: control of the almighty torch.  Complete with trigger, this thing made you want to incinerate.  Next best only to a class full of bowing students. P-O-W-E-R. 

Soon enough, the coals were glowing and it was time to get down and dirty.  On further assessment, the absence of a standard-sized grill rack was brought to our attention.  In its place were two small paddle-esque grates. Finding my first opportunity to amaze and astound, I carefully balanced the grates together.  The whole affair was contingent on a slight overlap in the center.  That, and the careful arrangement of  points of pressure (aka carnage o’ chicken).  I could say this worked like a charm, but that wouldn’t have been a circus.  I promised a spectacle.  

No big deal.

Uneven heat from the coals meant frequent chicken flipping was necessary.  This allowed me to debut my ability to calculate the ever-changing points of balance.  With each flip, the grates dipped and the bystanders gasped and squealed. It was a rollercoaster of emotion as we escaped chicken fiasco time and time again. 

For one onlooker, the thrill proved all too much.  She summoned her resourcefulness, and emerged from the woods with a perfectly sized stick.  Without so much as an utterance (imperative for the climactic build-up), she nestled the branch across the grill and under the grates for support.  Genius!  She was showered with praise. 

At this point, it seemed the show was over.  We would proceed as normal, flip to our heart’s content,  and consume the reward subsequently.  And then it happened. 

 

Watch your eyebrows!

 

Caught up in a flurry of social exchange, no one really saw it coming.  All of a sudden, a geyser of fire shot up to the sky!  There was a crack, and the stick was all but a distant memory. Here, the show became interactive.  A front-row admirer’s cat-like reflexes are to thank for saving our supper from the inferno of doom.  Crisis averted, audience AMAZED.

When the excitement died down, it was time to eat.  The chicken was delicious and enjoyed.  There were requests for an encore, but it may have been a limited run.

Jerk Chicken

Adapted from Homestyle Jerk Chicken by Nigella Lawson

Serves 3-4

1 whole chicken, hacked to bits

1  teaspoon ground allspice

1 teaspoon dried thyme (or I used mixed herbs)

1 teaspoon cayenne pepper (I used paprika)

1 teaspoon pumpkin pie spice (stand-in for ground ginger and nutmeg)

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1 clove garlic, peeled

1 1″ piece ginger root, peeled and cut into chunks

1 tablespoon brown sugar

Juice from 1 lemon

2 tablespoons soy sauce (I used teriyaki sauce)

1/4 cup rice wine vinegar

2 fresh small(spicy!) chile, whole

1 small onion, peeled and quartered

Combine all ingredients in a blender, puree until smooth.  Pour over chicken in a ziplock bag and allow to marinate.  Grill and enjoy (BYOGG: Bring Your Own Grill Grate).

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Life Savers For An Awkward Commute

Sometimes, my teaching arrangement stresses me out.  I teach at four schools.  But this isn’t the issue.  The issue is the distance that lies between point A (my house) and point B (the school of the day).  More importantly, it’s the conversion of that distance, congruent with the rate of travel, into sequential minutes.  Creeping, crawling, somewhat non-progressing minutes.

All of my schools are found in the country.  Each one farther than the last.  Due to my circumstance, I am often granted rides with any number of teachers, nurses, chefs, and what-have-yous going to and from.  While thoughtful, indeed, sometimes this presents an obstacle.

In my culture, silence is awkward.  Depending, of course, upon how well you’ve come to know someone.  From a young age, I was schooled in the delicate art of yawn-inducing small talk. Example A:

“How was your day?”

“Fine, thanks. And yours?”

“Mine was good.  Just went to school.  A normal Monday, you know?”

“Yeah.”

“I hate Mondays.”

“Yeah.”

“Did you have to work today?”

“Yeah.”

“When did you have to go to work?”

“Around 9.”

“Was it busy?”

“Kind of.  Not too bad.”

“That’s good.  Where’s your office?”

“Downtown.”

“Near the post office?”

At about this point I’ll need reminding.  Am I trying hard to form a friendship, or am I freelancing for the CIA? Do I really care about any of these answers?  Absolutely not.  It’s just one of those things, engrained in us as polite.  We try our damndest to avoid the dreaded, dreaded lull.

To live in Korea (or abroad for that matter) is to develop a tolerance for the awkward.  Sure, it might make our skin crawl, but we have no choice.  Take it as fuel for a language course, but inevitably, language is acquired only after paying our dues in substantial awkward hours.

Interactions enter the second stage when we frantically inquire about the weather in May and whether or not our counterpart cares for licorice.  These questions surface in a panic,  in fear we’ve been discovered.  They know that we know that this is awkward.  At this point, it’s best to just pipe down.  Twenty questions only hits the matter home.

Do we just call it a draw?  Put our best tidbits back  in our pocket and embrace the quiet? Distractions come in handy here. Smartphone, you’re the best investment I’ve ever made.  Breathe deeply, relax, and you can always become enthralled in the bug that just hit the windshield.

If you make it this far, I commend you.  Everything is going to be alright.  The interaction will end, you may even exchange a sentence before it does!  A for effort, you just had to show you tried.  Your initial thoughtful exchange should have done the trick.

I’m going to do a little legwork for those of you not yet into stage three. For your next inevitable silence,  here are a few fun facts to break the ice.

“Last night, I made sugar like snow in my blender!”

Put your skis back in storage.  “Snow” is simply a comparison.  “Powdered” is a little advanced to ensure comprehension.  But, regardless, it’s true.  I. kid. you. not.  If you throw granulated sugar in your blender, within seconds you can have powdered at your disposal!  I didn’t believe it myself.  And then it worked. Amaze and astound!

“In Korea, I make Mexican food! Yes, yes!  I use yogurt!”

Seeing as sour cream is readily unavailable, plain yogurt makes a great substitute.  Works great in just about any application.

“In the USA – tomato juice – not sweet!  Here I make! Tomato paste and water,  together!  Delicious!”

Helpful when you need to explain the unsightly cringe post-swig of the sweet juice you’ve just been offered.   Also helpful when stricken with the urge for day drinking.  This is all you need to know to achieve Bloody Mary bliss while living in Korea.  Just mix one part paste with four parts water.

“You know Kahlua?  I make Kahlua soju!!” 

Tread carefully with this one.  It could unintentionally lead to your arch nemesis: a string of awkward soju dates.  Check it out here.  If you’re looking for an extra allotment of quiet minutes, contingent on your demonstrated effort, present companion with their very own take-home bottle.

And there you have it.  I wish you luck, friend.  If all else fails, you could always just develop a case of narcolepsy.  One especially triggered by long rides in the car.  

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The Daily Rind

This evening, I had an upswell of shame.  I couldn’t help myself.  I really like chicken and I can do wonders in one pot.  I can’t lie to you, and who am I kidding.  I know I said I’d steer away from this trend, but I can’t handle the guilt.  I’m going to embrace it.  Consider it branding.

According to my highly credible market research (The Next Food Network Star), a cook needs to have a point of view.  Gimmicks can’t hurt either. Rachel’s got her garbage bowl, and I’ve got my aluminum wok.  Are you sick of the photos yet?  Food styling is next on the agenda.

Exactly a week before payday, I find myself upping the ante.  The challenge comes from working with only what’s already stocked.  Couple this with a narrow margin to supplement.  I’ve been sitting on a can of cannellini beans, so I figured it’s now or never.  Coincidentally, I also had a leftover rind from my last wedge of parmesan.  Hours I thought I’d lost forever to Everyday Italian seem to be making a comeback.  If it weren’t for Giada, I’d never know that salty roundness the rind adds to a nice broth. It may be shaping up springtime, but we’re putting the soup on.  I’m hoping to pull some reverse psychology on mama nature and heats things up.

Good news for 'Leave No Trace' - a use for every bit

Chicken Cannellini Bean Soup

Serves 3-4

4 cups water

3 chicken bouillon cubes

1 Tbsp mixed herbs

1/2 tsp black pepper

1 chicken breast, sliced lengthwise in half

2 Tbsp olive oil

1 large onion, diced

1 stalk celery, chopped

3 cloves garlic, minced

1 can cannellini beans, rinsed

1 can diced tomatoes

parmesan rind (optional)

salt, to taste

1. Put water, bouillon, spices and chicken in medium saucepan (oh!  It’s not one pot! …busted!) over medium-high heat and bring to a boil.  When the mixture is boiling, turn off the heat and cover. Allow to sit about 5-10 minutes and breast pieces should be cooked through. Remove chicken, shred and set aside.

2. Meanwhile, heat oil in an expensive dutch oven (or a flimsy Asian wok).  Saute onion and celery until translucent, about 3 minutes.  Next, add the garlic.  Saute another minute or so until softened, but do not allow the garlic to burn.  Add cannellini beans, tomatoes, reserved poaching liquid and rind.  Bring the mixture to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer about 15 minutes.  Return chicken to pan and simmer for another couple of minutes, then serve.  Add salt to taste if needed.

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Queso Flavored Coffee

After graduating from college, I found myself cowering in the face of responsibility. For four years, I’d complained about 8 AM seminars and whined every hour through an all-nighter. I could not wait to graduate. That is, until I caught wind of exactly what came next.

Faced with an ultimatum: work or die, I tapped into my creative problem solving. I came up with a clever scheme to travel, and still make some use of my degree. Under the pretense of “field work,” I booked a flight to Central America and summoned a friend to take it on with me.

We arrived in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, and headed right to the small town of Suyapa on the outskirts of town. The taxi stopped, and we found ourselves looking out-of-place and bleary-eyed in a quiet plaza central. According to our “formal instructions” we would be greeted by a friend of a friend. Just as we were beginning to grow concerned, a friendly voice hollered across the square. The gringas had landed and word traveled fast.

Our street

We were immediately swept up into a growing entourage and led through town and up the hillside. On our way, we passed women vending tortillas and children playing in the streets. The welcome we received was warm, and we were happy to have arrived.

Winding past modest houses, the scent of chorizo drifted to the street. Before we knew it, we were home. We walked into our quaint little compound and were given swift instructions not to exit without an escort after dark. The presence of gangs was strong up the hill and it just wasn’t safe.

A view of the puebla

Exhausted from the transit, we assessed our open-air apartment, clambered under a mosquito net, and drifted off to sleep. That is, until we were awoken by our neighborhood roosters. Right on schedule, at about 3 AM, and promptly every few minutes thereafter.

Over the next few weeks, the cock-a-doodle-doos morphed into lullabies and we grew accustomed to the new digs. In the evenings, when not out visiting with friends, we were face-to-face with confinement. Wanting to make the best of the situation, we got creative. We tried yoga, and successfully freaked out a repairman when surprised mid-om. Other times we visited with our neighbor to practice our Spanish. More often than not, however, we got creative with the local ingredients.

Attempt #65 to amuse ourselves

Working with not much more than rice, beans, and tortillas, we looked forward to the days when we’d find a truck in the main square. Its bed would be filled with fresh produce, and the pineapple really mixed up our salsa-of-the-day. Other days, we’d find the cheese man.

Prepping for salsa

Usually just across from the pupusa stands, he would wheel up his cart filled with blocks of soft, white cheese. Initially taking it to be some kind of farmer’s cheese, we arrived shortly at its variety. Endearingly dubbed “essence of vaca [cow]” due to the musty overtones, when sandwiched between tortillas it was the next best thing to delectable.

Gradually, we developed a taste for the funky cheese (or the boredom left us exercising hand-to-mouth technique). The kilos began to multiply. After leaving, I didn’t think I’d miss the bovine delight, but turns out I much prefer pasture to plastic. Korea’s endless supply of processed cheese is anything but enthralling.

A divine selection

With springtime taking hold in Korea, it’s bittersweet. I find myself inhaling the penetrating scent of manure, and trying hard not to pass out. I feel I am not alone in this quest. As I pass students in my rural school’s halls, their hands cover their noses, and their eyes show signs of an Armageddon. They move swiftly, and scramble into their next weather-sealed classroom. The situation being what it is, I’ve channeled the disgust and shifted my thoughts to nostalgia. An ode to the vaca, I decided to take on homemade cheese.

The modernity of Korea’s pasteurization methods seem to have eradicated the udder cowiness from locally sourced milk. This means a vaca-free cheese, but it doesn’t account for the cross-contamination of machinery. Cheesecloth seems to be a specialty item, and in my neck it just couldn’t be found. Coffee came into play with my endeavor, and I’m hoping “essence of java” isn’t all that awful.

The next best thing

I set up shop with the best I could find: a hand-drip coffee percolator and a utility-sized filter. This certainly wasn’t ideal, but it was all I could do. Due to the lack of drainage, I ditched the filter part-way through. This is good news to one disgruntled barista. It proved exhausting to coax just one filter from her industrial stash, and I wasn’t looking forward to a follow-up visit.

The contraption didn’t drain the cheese as efficiently as I had hoped. In crisis mode, I also involved a tea sieve. This allowed for some extra whey to escape, and should also round out the flavor with a nice herbal quality.

More a coffee or a tea drinker?

Rather than admit defeat, I’m going to make it work. I was planning to use my queso for enchiladas, so the liquidy goodness should mix fine with chicken and green chiles as a filling. I’ll report back post-consumption, but all in all not a complete lost cause. I could keep tweaking until the cows come home, but I’m hungry. “It’ll do, pig, it’ll do.”

Queso Blanco

Makes about 4 ounces

1 quart (1,000 mL) whole milk
2 T lemon juice
coarse salt, to taste

1. In a non-aluminim pot on the stove, heat the milk until just about to boil (85 degrees Celsius/185 degrees Fahrenheit). Mix in the lemon juice, and turn off the heat. Allow the mixture to stand for about 10 minutes. You should see curds starting to form along the surface as they separate from the whey.

Curds and whey

2. Pour the mixture into a straining device of your choice. If cheesecloth is available, take this route. Next best, use a fine sieve. Last resort, try the coffee dripper. Allow the whey to drain off of the curds for a couple of minutes, then sprinkle curds liberally with salt.

3. Continue to drain the cheese overnight. The next day, squeeze or press the heap of goodness to wring out any excess moisture(I’m still figuring out how to do this). Enjoy.

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Finding the Curry-age

I’ve always been super intimidated by Indian cooking.  Before visiting the country, it was hard to get a real grasp on kormas versus koftas, and dosas and dal. Something about the foreign charm of ghee and cardamom kept my kitchen rather bland and the Indian restaurant well patronized.

Hello, gorgeous.

In attempts to discover something outside of my standard tikka masala,  I’d time my visits to the lunch hour so as to sample the buffet.  The real deal clincher was the continual output of fresh naan bread, washed down with pitchers of mango lassi.  Needless to say, my lack of self-discipline quickly confirmed a ticket on the fast train to uncomfortably full. Not to mention the fast train to porcelain heaven.

Subsequently, with my mother at my side, we staged a personal intervention and put a ban on ever again going all-you-can-eat.  It was just toooo delicious.  When we found ourselves in the restaurant alongside buffet buccaneers, we simply had to breathe deeply and look the other way.  Our fate was sealed, and we calmly ordered controlled portions from the menu.

This seemed to perplex the curious Indian servers, as whatever we ordered often times was included on the buffet.  Before putting in our order, the slew of waiters standing at attention would one-by-one try their hand at defying the laws of surface tension.  They’d miraculously fit one extra drop in our water glasses and reiterate, “Madam, the buffet?” Yes sir, we’re crazy (as well as pathetic).  Can I have a “100-calorie pack” for dessert?

Since returning from my trip to India, I’ve been trying to muster up the courage to recreate the deliciousness that was each meal.  The other day, I caught a whiff of the spice blend I smuggled home while cleaning the cupboards. Okay, I lie.  While cramming things in, it fell on my head.  Either way, things were set in motion.

On our next to last eve in India, we were lucky enough to share a kitchen with Shivani. I was a little reluctant after realizing she was the wife of one particular shop owner.  This guy had sent me on a mission for small bills, then upped his price and refused to bargain as soon as I was cash in hand.  Regardless, she was the only cooking class in town and had many rave reviews. 

Cooking with Shivani

We were greeted at her home where she had a table set up and layered with ingredients.  First on the agenda was chai while we discussed our menu for the day. We learned to make many things, but most importantly, Shivani made Indian food approachable.  I took what I learned, added a subtle twist, and finally achieved masala enlightenment.  Here’s a run-down of the basics. 

Tofu Paneer/Chicken and Lentil Masala

Serves 4

Every Indian “gravy” starts with a base of browned butter and caramelized onions.

3 Tbsp butter

hot spices: 7 black peppercorns, 5 whole cloves, 1 black cardamom pod (lightly crushed), 1 tsp whole black cumin seeds

1 large onion, diced

I had always been under the impression that most Indian foods began with ghee.  This isn’t necessarily the case.  Shivani started her gravies (referring to the saucy base of any “wet” curry) with plain ol’ butter.  Basically, you just start out by melting the butter in a medium-hot pan.  Pay close attention, and when the butter begins to get the golden tone, toss in your “hot” spices.  Wait just a minute until they pop.  Next, add your onion.  Shivani liked to start with red onion, but for my dish I used yellow and it worked just fine.  Once the onion is in the pan, turn down the heat a bit and allow to gradually brown.

Golden goodness

To avoid a case of Dehli Belly, simmer until the butter separates from the curry. 

3 Tbsp ginger/garlic paste (I was at a loss for equipment to make a proper paste and just used finely minced)

2 Tbsp garam masala (Indian spice blend)

1/2 tsp salt (unless included in your garam masala blend)

1 can diced tomatoes

3/4 C water

When the onions have come to a nice even brown, turn the heat back up to medium-high and toss in the ginger/garlic paste.  Saute quickly.  Next, add garam masala, salt, tomatoes, water and bring to a simmer.  Allow the mixture to simmer until you can see little bubbles start to form across the surface.  Around the ring of the bubbles and at the edge of the curry, you should see a clear liquid starting to separate from the gravy base.  This is the butter.  Once this happens, your bowels are safe and you’re ready to move on.

Starting to separate

It’s gravy, baby. 

1/4 C plain yogurt

2 tsp lemon juice

1 C green lentils, cooked

1 lb. tofu or chicken (I seasoned with tandoori spices and seared)

When you’ve made it this far, pat yourself on the back and crank up the sitar.  You’re almost there.  All that remains is just stirring in the final ingredients and heating the dish through.  I promised to veer away from chicken, so I’m going to recommend adding in tofu as a stand-in for paneer.  While I’m not exactly sure what it is that separates the two, it worked just fine.  If your sauce seems a bit dry, feel free to add more water at this point and just allow to simmer to thicken.

Voila!

Congratulations!  You’ve just made your first Indian curry.  Truly just a matter of getting your hands on the spices, once you’ve done that, you’re good to go.  Now on to perfecting the naan

Special thank you to Tak Shivani for sharing her culinary secrets.  If you’ll be in the Pushkar vicinity, I highly recommend her course.

Shivani’s Sanjha Chula Flavours

www.pushkarcookingart.com

takshivani@yahoo.com

+91-9414656185

Pushkar, Rajasthan

India

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