Friday, July 30, 2010

My Top Ten Favorite Spices

Spices bring depth and personality to any bland dish. Cooking with spices gives any dish a pulse, a rhythm, and a beat. They make food sing. Here are my Top 10 favorite spices to cook with:

10. Saffron is a powerful and expensive spice so I use it sparingly. I add it to my Saffron ice cream, classic Spanish paella, Tunisian lemonade and Moroccan Lamb Tagine.

9. Hungarian paprika is great for Chicken Paprikash and regular California paprika is a major ingredient in my Southern BBQ rub. But smoked paprika adds a unique smokey flavor and richness to some of our favorite dishes. The "smoke" in this sweet paprika is the wow factor. It makes Mexican carnitas and tacos and Spanish Paella more flavorful. We also love it sprinkled on top of hummus and home fries.

8. Vietnamese Pho won't be the same without this spice. It also gives Thai Iced Tea its distinctive flavor. I also like to add this to my Vietnamese Style beef stew. For my husband's birthday party this year, I made homemade bread with star anise and figs.

7. I use both black and green cardamom seeds in savory Indian and Tibetan dishes and the green ones exclusively in sweet desserts. One of these days, I would like to make one of my favorite Ethiopian dishes using berbere sauce and cardamom. Sometimes, I add ground cardamom to my blueberry muffins to give them an added flare.

6. Nutmeg is an easy choice. It's versatile and not just for baking anymore. With my microplane, I grate a dash into bechamel sauce to give it dimension and flavor. I also like to dunk and soak corn cobs in milk, butter and yes, freshly ground nutmeg.

5. Thanks to Penzeys, I learned that there are many different types of cinnamon depending on their country of origin. I use this sweet spice in lots of things including my homemade cinnamon buns, korma masala and countless other applications.

4. Turkish Bay Leaves are the best bay leaves I've ever cooked with. Mild and earthy, Turkish Bay leaves are an important ingredient to many of our homemade stews and soups.

3. Once I saw women selling freshly picked allspice in little plastic bags during a trip to the Caribbean. Allspice gives many popular Caribbean dishes their great flavor. If you want to make authentic Jamaican Jerk Chicken and Pork, you'll need allspice. Ground Allspice along with really good cinnamon take hot chocolate to a whole new level.

2. Pepper is the most popular spice in the world. I cook with many different types of pepper ( Szechuan, pink, green and so on). Tellicherry peppercorns from India are the most aromatic black peppercorns I know. They enhance any dish and they are the ONLY peppercorns I use when I make my Philippine adobo. For me, this knocks any peppercorn out of the park.

1. The second most popular spice in the world is #1 in my book! Cumin is found in kitchens all over the world -- from North and South America to India to the Middle East. It is intense and robust in flavor. I lightly roast Cumin seeds in a pan and then pulse them in a coffee grinder to transform them into a powdery power spice. Biting into roasted whole cumin seeds are my version of grown-up pop rocks candy. :)

I get my spices everywhere -- from Penzeys, local ethnic stores and some of our travels. Most of my spices are stored in tightly seeled jars. We have a lot of spices and some of them are in this plastic and durable organizer. Where did I get this fancy contraption? Home Depot! This was my hubby's brilliant idea and I do believe it's in the nuts and bolts section.

What spices do you like to cook with? :)

Monday, July 26, 2010

A Garden Story

"Gardens are a form of autobiography." ~Sydney Eddison, Horticulture magazine, August/September 1993

There's one thing I learned about myself this year. I LOVE gardening. I love everything about it: from sowing the seeds to picking the vegetables off the vine and all the hard work in between. When my maternal grandmother was alive, she spent many days tending her huge Quezon City vegetable garden. I remember running around her garden and playing "Cops and Robbers" with neighborhood friends. This has to be one of my most memorable childhood memories of being in my lola's garden. In the middle of her garden was a rectangular fish pond which she constantly stocked with Tilapia and other fresh water fish. Every so often, she would bring home a cornucopia of Asian vegetables like kangkong or water spinach, talong or eggplant, and puso ng saging or banana heart/blossom. Unfortunately, I was one of those picky eaters who refused to eat anything green and healthy. I often shoved or hid vegetables under my plate (or fed them to the dog). I just didn't know any better. Like most kids, I did not appreciate what my grandmother was trying to do back then.

I do remember the joy of being in her garden and watching her hunched over with her hands in the earth. As a novice gardener, I am now just beginning to understand why my grandmother spent all those long hot hours planting and meticulously caring for her vegetable garden. I recently learned that the process of planting your own vegetables is addicting. My family and I love watering our plants and watching recognizable supermarket vegetables pop right out of our own garden. Gardening creates a stronger connection between the food we eat and where the food comes from. I don't admit it out loud but I even like pulling out those unwanted weeds. It's pretty meditative. There is something really good that comes out of planting some of your own food. Growing vegetables goes beyond satisfying our appetite and keeping us healthy. It somehow fulfills our need to nurture, grow and produce food that's better for our family.

There is a symbiotic relationship between the gardener and her garden. A gardener keeps the plants alive and in return they give her food, gardening skills, a sense or pride and for me, memories of my grandmother. If you know me, you probably know that I like to cook pretty much everything. I'm a fan of global cuisine and global cuisine requires ingredients that are not local. Our little suburban garden cannot sustain all the food we like to eat. It is possible to use our locally sourced garden ingredients to create some of our international favorites but this requires a lot of creativity in the kitchen. I have a few new recipes using our abundant Zucchini so I'm learning to bridge garden ingredients and the international flavors that we love. Of course, I will not completely rely on our garden for sustenance this summer. It's just not practical. Plus, I like to cook with international ingredients: frozen calamansi from a Filipino store, labne from a Middle Eastern Market, Gailan from Chinatown, Kaffir Lime leaves from a local South East Asian market and so on. With today's world food market within a 20 mile radius of our home, there is no need to make everything "artisinal" or plant everything from the ground up. But if I can substitute locally grown produce from our garden in some of my dishes, I will. Organic vegetables that we have planted ourselves just taste better.

There is a wonderful Asian restaurant in the heart of the Champagne country in France that uses a lot of locally grown ingredients. For me, this place is proof that bridging local ingredients with old school Asian flavors can be done. At Le Grand Jardin de Chine in Reims, France, I noticed that they beautifully married many different locally grown vegetables with traditional Chinese, Vietnamese and Thai flavors. We had black wood ear mushrooms here but I didn't see bokchoy or any other fresh Chinese green veggies on the menu. More on eating in France later. I will strive to cook with more local vegetables but I still like my international and imported ingredients. Our pantry is like a stamp collector's book -- the ingredients are from all over the place.

In our garden, you will find Swiss Chard, Tomatoes, Chives, Rosemary, Thai Holy Basil and....

These are the sweetest, crunchiest and most delicious raw snow peas we've ever had. I've been buying snow peas from Asian Supermarkets and Boston's Chinatown for years and store bought snow peas can't hold a candle to home grown snow peas. The only problem with them is that the vines seem to deteriorate after the first couple of harvests. We pick them of the vine, wash them and eat them raw just as they are. They never made it to the vegetable crisper.

Zucchini plants come with Zucchini blossoms -- a delicate natural vegan casing ready to be stuffed, battered and deep fried, preferably with really good goat cheese or Queso Fresco. :)

This was the first monstrous Zucchini we harvested this year. In the middle of the summer, there is a population explosion of Zucchini in gardens all across the country but I never thought we would experience it ourselves. I'm sure Zucchini gardeners (and their neighbors) are not complaining. It's a good problem to have.

There is something to be said about planting your own food. I learned that your time and effort are the best fertilizers for your garden. I also learned that by growing some of our own vegetables, we are harvesting food for our bodies as well as our soul. I also learned that when I look at my somewhat green fingers and thumbs cultivating the soil, I see my grandmother's hands.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Our Favorite Family Friendly Eats Near Storyland

It's summertime in New England and if you are a parent to young children, you are probably thinking about fun day or weekend trips with your little ones this summer. One thing that might come to the minds of many New England parents with young children is New Hampshire's kiddie wonderland and amusement park, Storyland. If you are a foodie parent with foodie (or picky) kids, where do you eat around here? Honestly, there is not much to pick from especially if you are used to variety. But there are some hidden gems near the park. I've been to the White Mountains a few times and have enjoyed the food at Coyote Rose, Shalimar of India and Horsefeather's. Here are some other family friendly eats in the area.

A good bang for the buck is the Hill's Top BBQ Restaurant in Bartlett, New Hampshire. I like a place that invites you with the wonderful aroma of delicious smelling slow smoked meats wafting in and around the restaurant. I wish I could bottle that BBQ smell!

I'm no barbeque expert but I've had a lot of great barbeque across New England (from Boston, MA to Brattleboro, VT) and the Hill's Top made my list of top BBQ restaurants way north of the Mason-Dixon line. Their house smoked beef brisket is comparable to the ones I've had from Texas.

Who doesn't like an assortment of BBQ condiments on their table? The Hill's Top BBQ even has a white BBQ sauce called White Mountain White. This reminds of the mayonnaise and vinegar based BBQ sauce from Alabama.

Generally speaking, the food at Storyland is not bad. I like an occasional perfectly fried dough, here and anywhere else for that matter. But who doesn't like deep fried chewy bread bathed in powdered sugar? I was happy to see quasi Mexican food at this amusement park. It's a good alternative to the standard amusement park burger and fries.

Red Fox Bar and Grille in Jackson, New Hampshire is kid friendly and pretty affordable. They have many beers on draft and a pretty good wine selection for thirsty parents. We like their finger licking baby back ribs and melt-in-your-mouth roasted garlic mashed potatoes. Because this place is close to Storyland, it's a popular oasis for many families coming out of the park.

At Storyland, you and your kids might feel like a fast moving ball in a pinball machine. There are lots to see and lots to do so pace yourself and take lots of breaks especially if you have little ones. The whole family will be exhausted after a full day of riding the roller coaster, log ride and those spinning tea cups over and over again. It's all worth it though. The smile on your child's face is priceless and one you will remember for a long time.