Monthly Archives: July 2012

Burmese egg curry

The other day I looked in my fridge and found a dozen eggs, pushed to the back and forgotten. They were well past their sell-by date–good for hard-boiling, and little else. I’m leaving town for two weeks, and these eggs needed to get eaten. Enter a recipe I’ve had bookmarked for a good long time: Burmese egg curry.

As the name implies, this is a curry built not on meat, but on hard-boiled eggs. It’s an odd combination, but a nice one, with the eggs providing a rich, chewy contrast to the sauce. And what a lovely sauce it is: clean-flavored, fresh, spicy, light. The primary flavoring agent is turmeric, which I usually rely on more for its pungent yellow color than as a spice in its own right. But as the backbone of this curry, it’s gorgeously subtle: nutty and earthy and just a little bit sweet.

Even beyond the spice base, though, this curry is deeply satisfying. The standout vegetable here is okra, cooked just until crisp-tender; it thickens the curry slightly, making it soft and glossy, while keeping the bright greeny flavor to a maximum and sliminess to a minimum. And the whole thing gets finished with a scattering of cilantro and a big handful of crisp-fried shallot rings–deeply caramelized and sweet, nicely offsetting the spicy bite of the curry and the richness of the eggs.

For such a surprising and exotic dish, this is a great pantry cleanout. Most of the ingredient list is pantry staples–eggs, onion, garlic, canned tomato products, spices. I keep fish sauce around, because I love the salty funk of it, but plain old standby soy sauce works just fine. I also had a knob of ginger hanging around from another dinner, and it turns out this is a great use-up. All I had to buy were cilantro, shallots, okra, and a chili or two. In 45 minutes, I had dinner for three nights in a row–I fried as many shallots and eggs as I wanted each night, ladled on some warm curry, and tore a few cilantro leaves over the top. Easy, delicious, and just odd enough to be special.

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Classic refrigerator pickles

Here’s an oldie but goodie: refrigerator pickles.

I remember making a version of these with my mother when I was in grade school. We’d pickle cucumbers whole in a simple brine, with plenty of garlic and dill. Then into the fridge they would go, for a couple of days and sometimes longer, before we could get at them. At the time, it seemed like an eternity to wait, especially for little pickle-addicted me. After a while, I made up my mind that I didn’t really like refrigerator pickles, partly because they didn’t taste much like the supermarket pickles I was used to, and partly because they took so gorram long to be ready.

I know better now, of course. In fact, I think I even prefer refrigerator pickles to their pressure-processed counterparts. Without a sustained dose of heat to make them shelf-stable, the pickles retain some of their original snap, and the flavors in the brine stay sharp and unmuffled. On top of that, refrigerator pickles are a great way to play with flavoring agents, finding the combinations that hit the spot on a particular day, in a particular mood. The last time I made a batch, I threw in some allspice on a whim, and ended up loving it within the classic mix of garlic and dill; next time I’m thinking I might go full-on spicy, with some chili peppers and maybe even hot sauce in the mix.

Even the best refrigerator pickle recipes are templates, not rulebooks. As long as the proportions of vinegar and salt in the brine, and the ratio of brine to vegetable matter, stay about the same, the sky’s the limit. And not just with cucumbers, either; I’ve got my eye on pickled radishes next, and after that it’s on to pearl onions, baby carrots, and maybe even green tomatoes.

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Peanut-ginger udon noodles

My junior and senior years of college, I spent a lot of time at a place called the Book Mill. It’s a hidden gem of a used bookstore, tucked away in a serene corner of rural Massachusetts. Slogan: “Books You Don’t Need in a Place You Can’t Find.”

The bookstore itself is housed in a 19th-century gristmill. It’s a strange, slightly crazed little building, with odd-sized rooms, sharply angled rafters and staircases so narrow your shoulders bump the walls. The walls are lined with bookshelves, which are filled to creaking with books of every size and binding. There are vintage armchairs in every corner, for settling in and reading. The whole place smells musty, the way a good used bookstore should.

But the Book Mill is more than just a bookstore. It’s a creative and social hub, with several artists’ studios and a small cafe attached to the old mill building. When my friends and I needed to escape from the pointy-headed bubble of our college campus, we would drive out to the Book Mill and claim ourselves one of the big black wooden tables in the cafe. We would order lunch–crusty brie-and-apricot sandwiches, fruit and cheese boards with honeyed yogurt, peanut-ginger udon noodles, a glass of maple milk to wash it all down–and sink ourselves into an afternoon of classwork or thesis writing, while the river tumbled by under the windows.

I still miss those afternoons, deeply, achingly. The cafe, the bookstore, the food and the river: they were all of a place, that old pastoral New England place, that just can’t be imitated anywhere else. Recently, on a hot afternoon, I tried recreating those peanut udon noodles from the cafe. I’ve never seen peanut noodles done anywhere the way they were done at the Book Mill, with udon noodles and broccoli and just the right clinging layer of sauce. So I stuck close to memory and tried to feel my way based on the flavors I had tasted dozens of times.

The noodles came out perfect, supple and chewy, and the sauce was rich and velvety like I remembered. It wasn’t the same, of course, but if I closed my eyes, I could just barely make out the feeling of a heavy wooden table under my elbows as I held my fork.

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Blackberry-coconut sorbet

I had a cooking disaster the other night.

I was trying to make white gazpacho with crab salad for a dinner party. I never got to the crab salad portion, because the gazpacho failed spectacularly. I wanted cool, creamy, refreshing; I got watery, grainy, bland. It was inedible, even after several rounds of straining and pureeing, and eventually I had to throw the whole thing out.

I sulked. I brooded. I whined to my boyfriend. After a while, I decided I wanted something sweet as a comfort. So I opened the freezer and pulled out a container of homemade blackberry-coconut sorbet. I’d found the idea for it in a Jezebel open comment thread, of all places. There wasn’t much to go on–just a few ballpark quantities and a note that it was transcendently delicious. I couldn’t resist trying it out, and whipped up a batch of deep purple sorbet, enriched with coconut milk. The texture turned out thick, creamy, luscious–more like ice cream than sorbet.

I stuck a spoon into the container and took a taste. Instantly I was reminded of childhood summers, when we went hunting for wild blackberries in the creeks near my parents’ house. I remembered straining to reach the ripest, plushest berries at the very top of the brambles. I remembered my first big blackberry scratch, all the way up the back of my leg, and taking a swim in the local pool to dislodge the thorns. I savored that scoop of sorbet–sweet-tart blackberry, rich coconut, whispers of honey and vanilla and rum–and slowly I sank into a summery calm.

And just like that, I was kitchen-powerful again.

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Bourbon vanilla barbecue sauce

Just in time for Fourth of July, I’ve checked another from-scratch food attempt off the list: barbecue sauce.

I’ve been obsessed for a while with making a barbecue sauce based on bourbon and vanilla bean. I like bourbon in barbecue sauce quite a lot, for the smoky-woody kick it provides. The vanilla is vastly less traditional, but there’s some method to my madness: “bourbon vanilla” is so-called, after all, because it smells an awful lot like bourbon. So I figured that the vanilla would bring out the sweet-and-mellow of the bourbon, and vice versa. If nothing else, it would be an odd little deviation from the barbecue sauce norm.

I also knew I wanted to do a sauce that wasn’t ketchup-based. Nothing against ketchup–a burger’s not a burger without it–but I wanted to play with cleaner, less-processed flavors, the better to show off the flavors of whiskey and vanilla. So I decided to base my sauce on tomato paste instead. I opted for honey over molasses or brown sugar as a sweetener, to keep the flavor profile light and unmuddied. And though I was tempted to toss in a mess of spices, to make up for the complexity lost by not using ketchup, in the end I decided to keep things simple: smoked paprika, cumin, salt.

The result of all this experimentation is a thick, bright, brick-red sauce. This one is more on the sweet-and-tangy side than the smoky-spicy side. I chickened out and only used a little vanilla, so that the flavor got a bit lost in the final sauce; I’ve adjusted the recipe to call for a whole bean. I’ve also been waffling back and forth about whether this sauce is too tomato-y–one taste and it’s fine, the next and it’s a little off. I may play around with that proportion next time.

So for a first try? Not bad. Room for improvement? Yes. Bourbon and vanilla playing well together in barbecue sauce? Seems that way.

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