Wednesday, March 30, 2011

steak and polenta

At Martin's wine cellar, about three blocks from where I lived for the last couple of years in New Orleans, there was a deli. I used to go there all the time, mostly because they had great sandwiches and fries. But they had specials, and one of those was a steak on grits. Grits are basically cooked ground coarse cornmeal, usually cooked in water and butter. The steak, with some sauteed vegetables, was placed on top of the grits and then blanketed with a sauce.

Polenta is not very different from grits. Often cooked in water as well, it is a staple in Italian food. It can be served, as shown above, as a kind of porridge and goes with almost everything, from meat to chicken to seafood... it has a mushy consistency, as expected, but it has a nice subtle play of flavours that tend to highlight flavours from what you serve with it. It can also be allowed to dry and then be cut into blocks and fried for some crunch.

I haven't played much tennis in the last few weeks, so my cooking output had reduced. Strange how they're linked. But I've started again with dedicated intent and my food production will provide me with the energy I need. The plate you see above is basically polenta cooked with milk and cream, sauteed peppers, zucchini and mushrooms, and steak. The flavours went very well together, as expected. I based this on a recipe from Locatelli's book but changed around some things. His suggestion of some rosemary with the steak was maintained and it helped to marry the steak and the polenta even more. He had another recipe close a few pages off from this one that had a lamb stew with peppers and polenta. I think the extra sauce from a stew will help the experience. The polenta wasn't dry but the consistency of cornmeal and milk needed another flavourful liquid, a stock, a demi-glace or something similar. I will try that next time.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

potato salad

i seem to be keeping an interest in side dishes these days. i made this salad recently for a bbq / outdoor food event at my sister's the other day. eating it within minutes of a perfectly grilled burger was great.

just a side note:  about the burger. it was a wagyu striploin burger. i was not eating it like i would any other burger. it's practically a reformed steak. sacrilege to overcook. the red velvet juices soaked up into the standard kuwaiti white burger bun were perfect.

back to the potato salad. mustard in two forms, dill, celery, and the sauce. the mustard seeds explode as you eat them, releasing a haphazard, yet delicate, punctuation to the experience. as do the other ingredients. they are balanced with the undertones of the potato, baby and cooked until just done. i also like this salad with red potatoes.

there is nothing wrong with focusing on the side notes of a meal. in fact, in a true study of anything one must pay attention to everything. understand the composition, the cosmology of the experience. the whole is often greater than the sum of its parts, but you have to know the value of the parts first to understand what the whole is. and more specifically, every part of a meal has to be great, from the smallest to the greatest detail.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

gnocchi with taleggio

taleggio has become one of my favourite cheeses over the past few years. in kuwait, dean and deluca had some taleggio every once in a while, but as usual, they'd have a small quantity then nothing for months. then they changed their supplier and the taleggio they have now is pretty awful. carluccio's opened up and their deli has taleggio. i'm a happy man.

pictured above is a meal that took me no longer than five minutes to put together. gnocchi is one of the easiest, and quickest, pastas to cook. i make it myself sometimes, but this was from sultan in a packet. the sauce was basically taleggio, a spoon of milk, a couple of sage leaves, some nutmeg that i let melt in a separate pan. once the gnocchi started floating, i transferred it straight away and let it cook for a minute more, the sauce being absorbed by the potato and flour pillows. shredded some parmesan on top, done. didn't even add salt or pepper, it didn't need it.

taleggio isn't a very mild cheese, nor a very strong one either. it smells stronger than it tastes. but the complexity of flavour is what's great about taleggio - the strong aromas, the salty taste, hints of fruit maybe... i'm not really good at explaining these things. it's texture is also great. by my estimates, somewhere between a double- and triple-cream cheese, this cheese is made for melting. it doesn't need a strong temperature before the barely firm cheese turns into rivers of white, as i would imagine warm marshmallow in the factory before getting cut up into smaller pieces.

recently i had some taleggio and raclette that were going to be going bad soon, so I made some great grilled cheese sandwiches. just with some standard kuwaiti white bread, cooked in a pan with some butter. i though honey would be a good dipping sauce for it, and it was. this cheese also goes really well with leeks on some pastry. it needs that accent, either sweet or savoury, to bring out the subtleties of the flavour.

edit: yes, according to wikipedia, taleggio is 48% fat, which puts it right between double cream (40%) and triple cream (60%)

Monday, March 14, 2011

sides to go with everything

the eating experience should be a balance of tastes, textures, colours and aromas. sometimes you get a beautiful cut of meat and grill it, but you can't just have a steak without anything on the side. steak and chips, steak and salad, steak and vegetables. sometimes I want nothing more than a few of the freshest vegetables simply prepared. lightly marinated with some olive oil, salt and pepper as well as an acidic elements as well - vinegar, lemon juice, etc. in fact i could eat grilled green onions with every meal.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

blood orange sorbet

As promised earlier, here is something I made with an ingredient that's been available for the last couple of weeks. i know i always talk in superlatives, but blood oranges really are one of my favourite fruits, definitely the most balanced citrus. You have to watch out, though, that sometimes they advertise pink oranges as blood oranges. the only similarity is the colour, although barely, but they taste like orange oranges. They are good, but not as good as blood oranges. The juice has to look like this...

All you really have to do is juice it, add about 50 g of sugar for every 250 ml of juice (put the sugar in a pan and put just enough juice to start dissolving the sugar into it) and then put the mix in the machine. Two ingredients, that's it. I could easily just have the juice by itself, but it's really nice in this form as well.

fettucini bolognese

well worth the wait. this sauce took over a couple of hours to cook. first, the carrots, onions and celery were fried in some olive oil. they were removed, then the minced meat was seared before adding the vegetables back and cooking, then adding flavouring, pureed tomatoes and water. then a two hour wait.
served on fettucini and topped with some parmesan. i had more a couple of hours later. 

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

ode to spinach

Spinach has to be one of my favourite all time vegetables. To me, it represents vitality and strength. Maybe I watched Popeye too often as a kid, but I honestly love the stuff. Always did. I love a raw spinach salad with crushed walnuts, some very thinly sliced red onions and a nice slightly sweetened balsamic vinaigrette. Spinach is also one of the key ingredients in my much-beloved shabzi. It's a versatile vegetable that works well in many combinations.

Unfortunately time moves on, seasons come and go. As the season for nice winter greens is coming to an end, I decided to go all out with an italian version of creamed spinach. I love original creamed spinach, flavoured with onions, milk and bay leaves, but this version has cream, some garlic and parmesan cheese.

However, as seasons end, they begin for other things. Tonight I will make one of my favourite desserts featuring an item that just started showing up in the vegetable market last week, or the week before. Stay tuned!

Monday, March 7, 2011

many bites

Sometimes you're feeding a lot of people. What food do people like? In this case, the party was a group of teenagers - I had to be create a diversity of food that would appeal to most. Now that I look at it, bread has a lot to do with party food. Bread makes things easy to handle and allows for a lot of flavour in a small package.

The menu, if I remember correctly, was

  • Mini burgers with balsamic-glazed red pepper / onion compote
  • Chicken curry baguettes
  • Arancini with mozzarella and tomato sauce
  • Goat cheese and roasted vegetable galettes

This was a few years ago, but it's still food that i would enjoy today, although I may have evolved in terms of presentation and portion size. The fervor in the kitchen was uplifting and helped me really grow a fondness for team work in the kitchen. A lot can be accomplished.

Arancini are great. But, as I learned, best served warm unless modified slightly to include a couple of additions. If the pieces were cut diagonally, topped with a small piece of tomato which has been soaked in olive oil and garlic, with salt and pepper. Put a skewer through it and I think it could be a winner. 

Bread. So simple, so humble, so good. 

stereo blogging - cucina update

It wasn't intentional, but since we were sitting on opposite sides of the table, we captured the food from different angles. Stereo blogging. Two points of view, same event.

grilled shrimp

We developed this dish as an appetizer in our old restaurant, amaya. Those really were the good old days. When you have great, fresh ingredients sometimes it's just best to serve them simply. This appetizer called for large shrimp, tail on, peel off, marinated in a very simple sauce with olive oil, garlic, lemon, some herbs and then grilled.  Even though I wasn't the biggest seafood fan, running and developing the restaurant got me to appreciate good seafood. It was great fun coming up with early concepts for the menu. Lots of experimentation and quite a few successes. Unfortunately, because of licensing issues with the location, we had to close down. We are waiting for the day and the opportunity to bring amaya back. She will come back with a vengeance. 

Sunday, March 6, 2011

cucina, missoni hotel, salmiya, kuwait.

Always looking for a new place to dine in Kuwait, something that brings more to the table than your average place, I was happy to hear about the cucina restaurant at the new missoni hotel opening up. To be honest, it was more of a discovery through deductive reasoning: I knew the hotel was opening and reckoned that it would have a good italian restaurant. And to be honest it did not disappoint.

Having done some research about the cucina at the Edinburgh missoni hotel, I knew that it focused on well made, simply presented food and that the menu was put together by no other than one of my favourite chefs, Giorgio Locatelli.

This is the kind of food better eaten than discussed, but I have to say that I was impressed by the flavour of the food. In Italian cooking, ingredients are key and the cucina made sure that everything was just as good as it would be at any good hotel around the world. One thing I did miss, however, was a good wine list.

For many more photos, please read after the jump...

Saturday, March 5, 2011


Ask somewhat what they think a good pizza is, you'll get different answers. The thin vs thick crust debate in an eternal one, and toppings are another. Above is a vegetable pizza I tried making, but wasn't my best result. The crust ended up being a bit too thick for my liking, as I was trying to make it as thin as possible. I like my crust paper thin, just strong enough to carry the toppings. This was another vegan experiment but I honestly think some mozzarella cheese would have certainly helped. What do you think is the best pizza? I tried the pizza from Lorenzo the other day and didn't think it was that bad. Quite a few new Italian restaurants opening up these days, I wonder how they compare.

Friday, March 4, 2011

salt and coffee? blue cheese and chocolate?

Do you find some foods too bitter? Add salt. Try it: get a strong coffee, add just a bit of salt to it - not enough to taste of salt, a half a pinch. Taste it before and after. Add some more salt and try it again. You'll be surprised, this actually works. Try it with tonic water as well and you'll see that the bitterness reduces. Apparently, this can't be explained scientifically.

Also, since I had some leftover gorgonzola from my pasta I decided to make a quick dessert out of one of my favourite flavour combinations. Dark chocolate + gorgonzola. You won't believe it until you try it. Apparently, about two thirds of the compounds that make up the flavours of both ingredients are common, so what you end up with is a beautiful chocolate taste with the floral aromas but not the sharpness of blue cheese. If you don't like blue cheese then you probably won't like this, but if you do, then give it a shot. You won't be disappointed.

spaghetti gorgonzola

So I had some leftover pasta from a couple of days ago, when I made the spaghetti with tomato sauce. As long as you immediately rinse the pasta after cooking to stop the cooking process and store it in the fridge in an air-tight container, then it should be fine within a couple of days.

Today's variation was a gorgonzola cream sauce. Melt some butter in a pan, add cheeses (I melted the gorgonzola first before adding some parmesan) and slowly heat. Once the cheese has just melted, add salt, pepper and some grated nutmeg. And of course, add the cream. Allow the ingredients to mingle until properly mixed and then reduce until nice and thick. Then add the pasta and allow it to heat through. Done. So simple, so good. 

vietnamese spring rolls

Lots of different kinds of spring rolls in the world. Some fried, some baked, some steamed, and others raw. I remember the first time I tried these, I was slightly hesitant. But after one bite I understood what the vietnamese spring roll meant. Encased in water-soaked rice paper, filled with rice noodles, a salad of tasty greens, bean sprouts and carrots, offset by the crunchiness of deep-fried tofu, these rolls are a winner. Variations include the addition of some protein, either chicken, shrimp, a combination, or anything else. This is a versatile dish that can be accommodated to your tastes.

The sauce is one that I put together with various influences and happens to be my favourite for these spring rolls. The peanut, mustard, honey, tamarind and chilies work hand in hand to create an aroma that complements the filling of the rolls. It's always good to keep your own portion of the dipping sauce as you really wouldn't want to share. It's that good.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

spaghetti pomodoro

Sometimes all I want is a simple plate of spaghetti and tomato sauce for lunch. Usually a few hours before I play tennis, i go for a portion of these delicious carbs to give me a boost of energy. With a side of simple salad with either a balsamic or lemon juice vinaigrette, this is the quintessential efficient lunch.

I make sure that I use spaghetti of a good brand, usually from Dean and Deluca, that is pressed through brass mould, as opposed to being pressed through a plastic mould. This allows the texture of the pasta to be slightly rough in order to grab onto the sauce, leaving nothing on the plate at the end.

The sauce is made with olive oil, garlic, salt, pepper, tomato puree and a couple of shakes of dried basil. I also put in a small piece each of carrot and celery that I take out after cooking - they add a nice aroma to the sauce.

Topped with some freshly grated parmesan cheese and it's ready. 

shanks and chips

Dinner tonight was lamb shanks and chips, one of my favourite interpretations of meat and potatoes. I let the lamb shanks marinade overnight and the result was a flavourful, melt-in-your-mouth experience. The marinade included mock-wine (grape juice and red wine vinegar), thyme, bay leaves, two heads of garlic and peppercorns. Before braising in the oven, I browned the shanks after lightly dusting them with flour. I then roughly chopped 4 big onions and let them caramelize in the juices of the browned meat over very low fire. Replaced the shanks, poured over the remainder of the marinade, covered with foil then into a moderate/low oven for a couple of hours.

The chips are cooked in the Heston Blumenthal triple-cooked method. The result is a chip that is fluffy on the inside and glassy on the outside. Yes, glassy. Heston explains that the state of any material when it reaches this state, extremely crunchy and can shatter into small pieces. To me it is the only way to cook chips. It's worth the wait and isn't really as cumbersome as many of his other techniques. First you run them under cold water for about ten minutes, then boil until just cooked all the way through. Placed on a wire rack over a tray, the chips should be allowed to dry out until cooled. After a while, heat oil in a pan until you reach 130 degrees celsius. Fry the potatoes until they look dehydrated, a light skin will develop and they will turn slightly yellow. Repeat the drying process, this time in the fridge. Let them cool down and then take them out to get back to room temperature before finally frying once again at 190 degrees. Each of the frying processes must be carefully controlled because if the oil gets hotter than the temperatures stated above, the chips may burn.