Monday, August 31, 2009

A Memorable Summer Fish Soup

This savory fish soup called shūrbat al-samak (fish soup) is popular along the Arabian side of the Persian Gulf (called the Arabian Gulf by Arabs).

[photo: Clifford A. Wright]

The recipe will appear in my forthcoming book The Best Soups in the World (Wiley). It is spiced with a spice blend known as kabsa, which also gives its name to a famous dish of Saudi Arabia kabsa bi’l-dajāj, a chicken, rice, and nut dish seasoned with the kabsa spice mix. The kabsa spice mix is described in the note below and you can use the excess spice to season some chicken for baking. The soup is also seasoned with dried limes known as loomi (lūmī) popular in the cooking of Iran, Iraq, and the Persian Gulf states which gives prepared dishes a delightful tang. These sun-dried limes known as loomi are available through and Aleppo pepper is available at and many Middle Eastern markets. The shrimp of the Gulf are famous, and before oil (the black kind) was exploited, the shrimpers and pearl divers of the Gulf drove the economies of the small and then poor sheikdoms.
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
6 tablespoons finely chopped onions
1/2 teaspoon Aleppo pepper
5 large garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 large ripe tomato, peeled, seeded, and chopped
Pinch of saffron, crumbled
1 dried lime (loomi or lūmī) or 1 small fresh lime left in a 200 degree F oven for 3 hours
1 teaspoon kabsa spice mix (see Note)
6 cups fish broth
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1/4 pound large shrimp, shelled
1/2 pound red snapper or sole fillet, cut in half
2 tablespoons finely chopped cilantro (fresh coriander)
1. In a pot, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat, then cook the onions, stirring, until translucent, about 2 minutes.
2. Add the Aleppo pepper, garlic, tomato, saffron, loomi, and kabsa mix and cook, stirring, for 1 minute. Add the fish broth and tomato paste and bring to a boil over high heat. Add the shrimp and fish, reduce the heat to low, and cook until the shrimp are firm and orange-red and the fish is ready to flake, about 5 minutes. Correct the seasoning and serve with a sprinkle of cilantro.
Note: To make the kabsa spice mix, blend together 1 ½ teaspoons cayenne pepper, ¾ teaspoon ground cumin, ¾ teaspoon ground cinnamon, ½ teaspoon ground cloves, ½ teaspoon black pepper, ½ teaspoon ground cardamom, ½ teaspoon ground nutmeg, ½ teaspoon ground coriander, and, optionally, ½ teaspoon ground dried lime (loomi) or fresh and very finely chopped lime zest.
Makes 4 servings

Monday, August 24, 2009

Good Food on Mom's 90th

A small group of friends and family gathered over the weekend to celebrate my mom's 90th birthday.

[Photo: Michelle van Vliet]

My mom is scary; she's so energetic she wears out young children. I decided to keep the food very simple, partly because my mom freaks out if anybody does too much work for her. I had to give her a lecture the day before about graciousness in case anyone gave her a present. We had a raucous good time and I made a San Giuseppe-inspired feast of sweet Italian sausage and pepper heros, a very simple tomato salad consisting of only a mixture of very ripe Early Girls and beefsteak tomatoes dressed with snipped fresh basil, olive oil, and salt. We had tortilla chips with a salsa that my girlfriend Michelle made that was perfect and lots of beer, wine, and sodas. The sweet Italian sausages were plump and fat, the way they should be so that every bite squirted when you bit into it. The red and yellow bell peppers and the onions had been sauteed in olive oil and a little garlic until very soft and slightly caramelized. I laid the sausages and pepper in a pan for people to concoct their own heros. I used store-bought hoagie rolls which worked very well and set them next to the sausage pan. It's important to use soft rolls with heros because if you used hard rolls the sausage would slip out. Next to that was some very high quality imported provolone to lay onto the hot sausages so they would melt. The cake was store-bought, but really good: a lemon hazelnut meringue cake from the Rose Cafe in Venice, California; my mom loved it.

[Photo: Clifford A. Wright

Monday, August 17, 2009

Patates Brava - Potato in a Catalan Manner

Barcelona, the capital of Catalonia, is now also thought of as the culinary capital of the world by many. There's a good argument for this because Catalan cuisine is after all the foundation to the deconstructive gastronomy invented by Ferran Adria and his disciples. One mentions Catalan food to a foodie and the immediate response is Adria or El Bulli, his restaurant. But Catalan food is also a home food and magnificent preparations are possible for the home cook with even modest skills. I'm quite a fan of one preparation in particular, patatas brava. Patatas brava is a classic Catalan potato dish but these days it’s transformed into a very popular tapa in Barcelona bars. Restaurant chefs get into the act too and all sort of interpretive variations occur. The one I had at the Florian restaurant in Barcelona at Bertrand i Serra 20 in the early 1990s was demonstrated by the chef and owner Rosa Grau and her sous-chef Enrique Martin, who encased the potatoes in allioli. A more involved preparation as seen in the photograph is prepared by Chef Sergi Arola of the Arola restaurant in the Hotel Arts in Barcelona. The brava sauce is the tomato sauce. In more careless versions of patatas brava the brava sauce is made with ketchup and mayonnaise.
[Photo: Clifford A. Wright]

Friday, August 14, 2009

Amazing Grill

I grill a lot during the summer. Here in southern California where I live I could grill in the winter too, but out of an old native Northeast habit I don't. As a professional food writer and author of a grill book (GRILL ITALIAN, written 12 years before Mario Batali's Italian grill book) people assume I have some Cadillac of grills. I don't. As a townhouse dweller with only a tiny roof-top deck, I grill on an itty-bitty, cheap, falling apart kettle grill. It works. We eat well and through the magic of organizational skill I can grill complicated food for eight people on this Lilliputian grill. What to grill? I like to suggest food that people don't normally think of and recipes that they might not be familiar with. Succulent fat pork chops in a marinade typical of northern Italy with fennel and juniper berries is always a winner and worth a try. It's called Costolette di Maiale alla Griglia in Italian. Try it here.

[Photo: Kim McDougal]

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Good Cookbooks Teach How to Cook

Although I teach cooking classes and people seem to love them, I will tell the students that one of the best ways to learn to cook is by using cookbooks. They don't have to be beginner cookbooks (very few of exist). I also don't recommend chef/restaurant cookbooks because they are not appropriate for the home cook (most of them anyway). I usually recommend books that provide a certain cultural perspective on the type of cuisine someone is interested in. Right now, there is a resurgence in interest in classic French cuisine as a result of the popularity of the movie JULIA & JULIE and bookstores report a rise in sales of Julia Child's classic MASTERING THE ART OF FRENCH COOKING. But there are other more manageable cookbooks for the home cook interested in French home cooking such as Richard Olney's SIMPLE FRENCH COOKING, any of Patricia Wells' books, Michael Robert's PARISIAN HOME COOKING, or Martha Rose Shulman's PROVENCAL LIGHT. The reason a cookbook is a good place to start is not merely because it provides "ideas" but because a good cookbook will give you the essence and confidence necessary for the understanding required to cook from a particular cuisine. You do it over and over and suddenly you will actually be able to tell someone the difference between the food of Normandy and the food of Provence. You will get not only ideas but the IDEA. I try to write cookbooks like this and my next book out in December, THE BEST SOUPS IN THE WORLD, will give you the introduction to a world of delicious soups.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Devil's Chicken in the Summer

In the region of Lazio in Italy a grilled chicken is prepared called pollo alla diavolo, chicken devil-style, meaning it uses black pepper or chile for a piquant taste. But one should understand that an Italian cook's conception of piquant is very mild compared to an American familiar with, say, Mexican food. The name of this recipe, said to have originated in Rome, is applied to two very different methods. In Rome and Florence (in Lazio and Tuscany, respectively) cooks like to coat the chicken with olive oil, lemon juice, and lots of black pepper before grilling; hence the name alla diavolo, or hot as the devil. In southern Italy the use of dried chile is more common and the chicken is marinated in white wine and sage and then grilled and served with salt and pepper.

In either case, the common technique is to split the chicken open down the middle of the back, spread it out, and flatten it by heavy pounding on the breast with the side of a cleaver or a mallet. This is called spatchcocking. The chicken must be basted constantly with butter or olive oil so that it doesn’t dry out. When finished, it has an appetizing golden-brown sheen.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

The Imam Fainted

In my continuing celebration of the tenth anniversary of the publication of A MEDITERRANEAN FEAST I'd like to go back to an old favorite of Turkish cuisine, the Imam Fainted. The imam fainted, imam bayildi, is the name of one of the most famous of Turkish zeytinyağlı dishes (olive oil foods). It may have medieval roots, if we consider that the zeytinyağlı dishes, which are usually eaten cold, fit the prescriptions of the dietetic theory of humors that was the basis for medical theory at that time. It was customary to eat cold and moist foods in the summer during medieval times because that counteracted the hot dry humor of summer that caused an increase in bile, so the Galenic theory stated. Visit the recipe here for more on the dish and a recipe fro preparing it.
[Photo: The Bosphorus Restaurant, Winter Park, Florida]

Monday, August 3, 2009

Summer Grill: Lamb and Cherries

There is a special kind of cherry found around Aleppo in Syria known as St. Lucie's cherry (Prunus mahaleb L.), which is a small, bitter, crimson-colored black cherry. The cherries are used in a popular preparation from Aleppo called, simply enough, kabab bi'l-karaz, kebabs with cherries. You can use either canned sour cherries or any fresh pitted cherries. This recipe is a version in which the lamb meat is ground first as kafta. The difference between kafta and kebab is that both can be skewered and grilled but kafta is ground meat and kebabs are chunks of meat. The picture is of kafta in Morocco.