Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Like Tea for Chocolate

Having never been a chocoholic, I was nevertheless overjoyed to see Mark Bittman's recipe for a vegan chocolate pudding in last week's NY Times. E, however, is an avowed choco-fiend and recently threw out a hint that perhaps I could interrupt the long succession of eggy concoctions which have been emanating from our kitchen with regularity. Could I break the tedium with a chocolate-themed treat now and then?

Initially taken aback after realizing that not everyone shared my penchant for custardy desserts, I eventually recovered and consented to branch out a bit. Thus this chocolate pudding, appearing when it did, so providentially, was embraced heartily and easily found its way into my growing recipe file. Bittersweet chocolate, with its heart-friendly properties, along with silken tofu -its pillowy malleability a pleasure to work with- are the cornerstones of this recipe. It was truly a deus ex machina; an Athena, smoothing the tumultous waves that surrounded her beloved Odysseus as he made his way back home to his waiting Penelope in Ithaca.

Fair-haired indeed, Odysseus escaped unscathed from the Lotus-eaters; whoever ate their food - of lotus plant- would banish all thoughts of home and remain in Lotus-land forever. Tennyson described beautifully the state of mind of those who were mesmerized from partaking of the lotus-plant in the Lotos-eaters:
How sweet it were, hearing the downward stream
With half-shut eyes ever to seem
Falling asleep in a half-dream
To dream and dream, like yonder amber light
Which will not leave the myrrh-bush on the height;
To hear each other's whispered speech;
Eating the Lotos, day by day;
To watch the crisping ripples on the beach,
And tender curving lines of creamy spray;
To lend our hearts and spirits wholly
To the influence of mild-minded melancholy;
To muse and brood and live again in memory,
With those old faces of our infancy
Heaped over with a mound of grass,
Two handfuls of white dust, shut in an urn of brass.

With the chocolate god (or is it Mark Bittman) firmly on my side, I whipped up this Mexican chocolate pudding in no time (using 1/4 less sugar than called for in the recipe and the result still yielded a satisfying sweetness). Unbelievably rich, I found one spoonful enough (seldom the case for me where desserts are concerned). Paired with Keemun Golden Buds -itself with overtones of molasses and chocolate- the tea and pudding serenaded each other, each with its own chocolate-nature to reveal. With E finishing -with alacrity- my bowl of pudding, I nodded off into Lotus-land.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Food Musings

His head was bowed as he sat on the edge of the hospital bed. A large man who had sailed four times around the world with the Navy, he was back once again with a new stroke. The last one, five months ago, cleared up pretty well; other than some slight blurring of his peripheral vision out of the left eye, he was pretty much at his baseline. But this time he felt that his world was coming to an end. Earlier today when he was home, he had been trying to assemble the components of his four-wheeled walker which had broke down. The task was not going well and becoming increasingly frustrated, he tried to swear. To his alarm, all that came out was a string of incomprehensible noises.

As he recounted the story to me, I could sense the frustration as he struggled with his speech -although now much better. A period of verbal fluidity was only occasionally punctuated by a garbled word. Still smoking four cigarettes a day -down from a 4 pack a day habit- he had no intention of quitting. What do I have left? he queried me, other than my cigarettes, I don't have much else. I left him sitting with his lunch tray arrayed with food falling under the rubric of low salt and low fat.

As I prepared dinner, I envisioned him sitting on his bed, eating joylessly the sanctioned dishes placed in front of him. Food -which could have been a source of pleasure for him- was now prescribed and proscribed like another pill to swallow or a poison to avoid.

While sipping a ginger tisane, I diced a medley of mushrooms, baby bok choy, and bits of garlic for a tofu stir-fry. It was bracing to feel the raw materials of our dinner in my hands -tangible precursors to our meal.

The oyster mushrooms -translucent little conches- were still speckled with some dirt; the leaves of the baby bok choy fanned out delicately.
We finally sat down to eat in the twilight. Neither a drug to be feared nor a panacea to embrace, our dinner was simply a meal -healthful and pleasure-giving.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Not-So-Manic Tuesday

My mandarin Tuesday. How I love this particular day of the week: shorn of office duties, it is both languid and orderly. Kitchen table cleared of breakfast, I sit down with the well-worn spiral notebook, favorite ink-filled pen at its side. Nearby on a coffee-table magazines, journals, and a half-read volume of short stories by Raymond Carver clamor for my attention but will stay idle until evening.

In the morning, I write, calling on a creativity rarely needed during my workdays- too much creativity exerted in the practice of medicine would, in fact, be rather scary. I array the teapot and cups on the table while the kettle's familiar roil breaks the day's silence. I break out the new tea -a Chinese green called Hongking Special from this spring harvest. The first infusion is truly floral, headily so. For a green tea, this is a muscular one -a tea that asserts its fragrance. The second steeping -more attenuated- is like a gardenia past its over-ripe stage.

Suffused by the tea's warmth, I write. I luxuriate in words: mellifluous, honey-flowing or staccato-crisp; they all teem with life on the page before me. A veracity to life -my life- in spirit, is the hoped-for result.

Pauses in writing by household activities provide me with time to linger over certain images, ideas, phrases, and yes, that le mot juste. A prosaic routine involving folding freshly-laundered sheets or a playful break of scampering with the cats -as they rediscover an old clinking toy- infuses the act of writing with the palpability of life.

Sensory experiences seem to sharpen. A tea pairing of a ginger custard is creamily suggestive of coconut while the ginger flavor sings out robustly. Earlier, little bits of ginger -their essence in liquid form- had streamed into a receiving glass bowl creating rivulets in a sea of smooth milkiness. I had tinkered with the recipe but am pleased with the result: the ginger stays true to its nature ( and is not overpowering) complementing the tea's brashly authentic one of florality.

Ginger Custard
(adapted from Gourmet, March 2007)
Serves 4-6
1/3 cup sugar
1/4 cup finely chopped fresh ginger
3/4 cup skim milk
1 cup light coconut milk
2 large eggs
1/4 cup water
Pinch of salt
1) Put oven rack in middle position and preheat oven to 325 F.
2) Bring sugar, ginger, and water to a boil in a saucepan, stirring until sugar is dissolved. Add milk, then return just to a boil and remove from heat. Let stand, uncovered, for 15 minutes.
3) Whisk together eggs and pinch of salt. Whisk in hot milk mixture. Pour through sieve into another bowl, pressing on the solids. Discard the solids. Divide the custard among the ramekins and cover with foil.
4) Bake in a water bath for about 35-40 minutes, until the edges have set and centers still wobbly. Transfer ramekins to rack and cool, uncovered for 45 minutes. Chill for 2 hours.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Practice What You Preach

Nightfall and we still haven't had dinner. Through a concatenation of things -late hours at the office often playing a role- E and I find ourselves sitting down to a late dinner on a weekday. A meal taken during the ebbing hours of the day is intrinsincally pleasurable; daytime activities drawing to a close, I relax in E' s company, savoring the last forkfuls of nourishment.

From the perspective of a physician, though, I am not practicing what I preach- many a times have I enjoined my patients to avoid eating late in order to prevent the dreaded specter of acid reflux (often to be countered with but can't I just take the purple pill instead?). Notwithstanding this less than salubrious practice, many pleasant memories I have are of supping in the waning hours of day.

On my first trip to Europe at the age of sixteen, along with my aunt, uncle, and three cousins, we stayed at a rented cottage in a Spanish hamlet overlooking the Mediterranean. For weeks, languid days were spent reading in the sun, swimming, and of course, eating. An occasional trip to nearby Valencia infused urban excitement into an otherwise pastoral sojourn. A particularly balmy night found us, al fresco, savoring a large pan of paella. Of all my memorable gustatory experiences, this is high on the list. Suffused with heady saffron and studded with a largesse of succulent pieces of seafood, this was a perfect one-dish meal. Surrounded by city bustle, the calm star-lit night, and my relatives' company, the paella became much more than a novel dish to discover.

So on a more recent afternoon, I again invoked the desirability of a one-dish meal: a lusty tofu salad -headily spicy- that combined the bright colors of a springtime harvest of yellow peppers and cilantro along with the last remnants of winter's hardiness found in red cabbage and sturdy carrots.

Steaming cups of chrysanthemum tea -actually, a tisane made from the infusion of the flowers plus bits of rock candy- nicely complemented the salad. Florally sweet, it was a ballast to the riot of savory flavors present in our dish. Purported to be a digestive as well, the tisane may even usurp that purple pill, knocking it down from its hallowed niche.

Tofu Salad
(adapted from The New Moosewood Cookbook)
Easily serves 4
The Marinade
3 Tbs sesame oil
5 Tbs rice vinegar
1 Tbs dry sherry
1 Tbs sugar
3 Tbs soy sauce
3 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 tsp salt (to taste)
Other ingredients:
1 lb tofu, well-drained
1 medium head of red cabbage, finely shredded
10 medium-sized mushrooms, sliced
2 carrots, julienned
1 yellow pepper, sliced into strips
1/2 medium-sized onion, sliced into small pieces
a bunch cilantro, minced
1) Combine marinade ingredients in a large shallow bowl.
2) Cut the tofu into cubes and add to the marinade along with the vegetables. Stir gently.
3) Cover and let marinate at room temperature for at least 2 hours. Serve cold or at room temperature. Great by itself or with chunky artisanal bread.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Move Over Rice-A-Roni, It's Rice Pudding

Tea-mail. What could be better? Finally, my package from Rishi arrived after several days of coming up empty-handed, save for unwanted flyers of pizza delivery come-ons. Two new Chinese greens -both organic fair-trade to boot- from this spring harvest were welcomed newcomers to our tea-shelf.

Our green tea supply was getting sorely depleted: sencha was whittled down to several cupfuls-worth; Pi Lo Chun, Lung Ching, and the lotus were staples that we drank with regularity; the Ancient Snow Sprout left in its wake only happy memories. Even august matcha saw its powdery content fitfully dipped into.

So late Sunday morning saw me puttering about the kitchen readying for our tea. Inspired by a recent visit to the Tropical Dome of our local conservatory -bathed in the dewiness of the greenhouse (my skin feeling wonderful after the aridity of the long winter) where small colorful birds flitted among sweet-smelling orchids canopied by overarching banana leaves, and a wedding party coyly posing for photos next to a koi-laden pond- I perched atop a stool over a pot of simmering rice, stirring languidly.

Creamy rice pudding, with touches of the exotic, was the hoped-for result. Rice, a staple of my everyday fare, was going to take top billing in a simple yet satisfying dessert. A sprinkling of rose water peppered judiciously with freshly-hulled cardamon seeds served as the palette which I applied onto my canvas of jasmine rice.

There was something so pleasurable in stirring this pot of rice, the tiny granules progressively becoming aromatic as coconut milk, and then the spices commingled. The elemental act of stirring - my mom, at this task, bent over her own pot of rice cooked in chicken stock to become congee, came to mind- evoked the comfort of the prosaic, the warmth imparted by the nourishing grain.

With the pudding now cooked, headily fragrant, waiting for us on the stovetop, I prepared our tea. The Organic Ensi Silver Needles, from the new cache, came out from its wrappings with ceremony. The leaves of this Chinese green resembled fat pine needles which plumped up further, peapod-styled, as it brewed a straw-colored liquor. The initial infusion yielded a mildly sweet tea, slightly roasty with a hint of saltiness. But it was in the second and third infusions that the delicate floral notes really blossomed.

A perfect complement to the more assertive flavors present in the rice pudding, the tea held its own and maintained its mild sweet nature.
Spoonful after spoonful of the soothing creaminess anticipated my next morning breakfast of the same.
Rice Pudding
(adapted from a recipe found in Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything)
2 cups of water
1 cup jasmine rice
Dash salt
1 cup skim milk
1 cup light coconut milk
1/2 cup sugar
10 pods of cardamon, seeds removed ( easily done with mortar and pestle)
1 teaspoon rose water
1. Bring water to boil in medium saucepan; stir in rice and salt. Cover and cook over low heat until almost all the water is absorbed (this takes about 10 minutes).
2. Uncover, pour in both the skim and coconut milk and cook, stirring frequently, until about half the milk is absorbed. Stir in the sugar and cardamon and add the raisins. Continue to cook until the rice is very soft and the milk absorbed (Step 2 is another 10-15 minutes). Then stir in the rose water at the end.
3. Spoon into custard cups and serve warm or cold. This keeps well for 2 days covered in the fridge.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Macaron Madness

Wanting to spice up the most banal of errands, I naturally gravitated towards the gustatory. What was I in the mood for? I finished the errand earlier than expected and had several languid hours ahead -at just the right time for an afternoon tea. A yen for macarons arose -not unusual, as I am besotted with these creatures- and I found myself heading towards the only place in town I knew of which makes them. Rushing in pell-mell near closing time, I was relieved to see the macarons in the corner of the display case. Neon pink and lime green, those puffy meringues enticed me and I ended up getting both flavors.

With the loot safe in my satchel, I was off to have tea. I could have stayed put in that unprepossessing lobby and chosen a cup of the Assam as the bakery really does have a decent selection of loose-leaf teas. But it would have meant wrangling with a large paper cup -the plastic lid invariably snapping open when you least expected it, scorching your fingers with the too-hot water. The leaves, likewise, cossetted in a paper infuser, would have had to be bailed out when the tea finished brewing -a second opportunity for scalding those fingers. So out of a desire for self-preservation, I carried off my quarry.

Now seated in a nook at this most congenial of coffeehouses (which carries a respectable number of Rishi teas) with my macarons now unwrapped, a cup of pu-errh steaming in my hands, I was content.

The sun streamed in through large windows as I sipped the pu-errh- a Chinese tea truly in a class of its own. Always fermented, pu-errhs are left to age in storerooms for as long as a decade before they are sold for use.

The liquor had a rich dark brown hue and the scent was heady -a deep inhalation causing any dormant cells in my nostrils to awaken from slumber, akin to what a waft of horseradish could do. The taste was brisk and equally potent. Earthy and at the same time slightly sweet, it was not unpleasant. I bit into a macaron: delightfully chewy, the raspberry flavor melded with the silky soft buttercream.

With the light of the day ebbing, holding the china cup between sips - and nary a tea-stain nor a wounded fingertip in sight- I felt strongly a marriage of practicality and aesthetics.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

The Tribute Tea

Propped up awkwardly on two pillows, he maneuvered around the sports magazines and the remote bed controls -scattered on the bed- to eat his lunch. His bedside table was now swiveled over the bed, cramping his bare knees tucked underneath. This must have been the third or fourth week of his hospital stay, and his medical condition has kept food at bay from him for days on end. But here he was, hungrily attacking the stir-fried chicken and rice on his plastic tray. It was a sight that buoyed me.

His lunch still warm, I was loath to keep him from it for any length of time -the window of palatability of most hospital food being, unfortunately, quite narrow. His spirits were up, I examined him: clear lungs, good heart sounds, and most importantly, soft belly -I felt intrusive, as always, to press on a patient's abdomen in the middle of his meal.

Bidding him good bye, I walked into a glorious afternoon, the budding flowers overhead irrepressibly joyous. The sunny warmth accompanied my short walk home.

With the cats furrily underfoot, I whisked together vanilla and eggs for a yogurt loaf cake, luxuriating in the flicking rhythms. A celebratory lemon cake that I adapted from Dorie Greenspan's recipe (my incorrigible tweaking to make it more healthy had me using fat free yogurt instead of whole milk yogurt; substituting lemon for the original lime was done more on a whim) for springtime -and for a homecoming. E, coming back from his weekend retreat later that day, would hopefully walk in as the cake, fragrant with lemon zest, awaits him for our tea.

I chose Lung Ching (Dragon's Well), a classic Chinese green, whose name refers to an old well perched on the flanks of a hill outside Hangzhou, the original birthplace of the tea. This tribute tea, historically presented to the emperor himself, still comes from the spring leaves near its eponymous well, grown on the hillsides.

The aromatic liquor, toasty and nutty, had a velvety sweetness that was only slightly vegetal. I sipped from my cup, basking in warmth, and placed another slice of the moist crumbly cake on E's plate.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Quiche and Tell

A confession is forthcoming: I am somewhat of a health-nut. This may come as a surprise to you, my dear readers, who have had to endure -sometimes in excruciating details, I am afraid- descriptions of my forays into carbohydrate excess. I admit that this pastry-loving penchant of mine, on occasion, has stymied my efforts at abiding by all things salubrious. A flaky jumbo-sized croissant (or two) has been known to serve good stead as breakfast in lieu of my usual bowl of Kashi cereal; this has been the case when my defenses against the sugar and butter gods are on the ebb in the early hours of the day.

I thought about this duality in my nature recently as I got ready to try out a new recipe for a quiche. As I scanned the ingredients and instructions of the recipe -in the latest Vegetarian Times issue- I found myself reflexively making modifications: what can I do to make the dish more congruent with my particular palate, keep the calorie and fat content down, and all the while still preserve its tastiness?

I guess I have been working with this calculus ever since I have started cooking in earnest, gravitating towards simple dishes -healthy inherently but with a subversive hint of richness.
This spinach and tomato quiche fit the bill: rich phyllo -used sparingly- with the slight saltiness of Parmigiano Reggiano offset the fresh spinach and cherry tomatoes which crown the whole affair.

Aromatic rooibos (which is red tea or red bush in Afrikaans, its eponym denoting the red hue of the tea after processing), a tisane made from a shrub indigenous to South Africa, pairs well with the quiche. I sipped the tartly sweet rooibos which seems to echo similar notes found in those plump cherry tomatoes.

Spinach and Tomato Quiche
(Adapted from Vegetarian Times, April 2009)
Serves 4
6 sheets of frozen phyllo dough, thawed
2 Tbs olive oil
1 1/2 tsps. toasted sesame seeds
6 cups of baby spinach (boiled for one minute, then all liquid squeezed out)
1 pint of cherry tomatoes, halved
1/2 cup of shredded Parmigiano Reggiano (or Parmesan cheese)
Quiche Batter
2 eggs
1 cup fat free milk
A generous pinch of nutmeg
Salt and pepper to season
1. Preheat oven to 350F. To make Crust, coat 9-inch pie pan with olive oil. Lay 1 phyllo sheet on work surface, and brush all over with olive oil. Sprinkle with 1/2 tsp. sesame seeds. Top with second phyllo sheet ( I find that it is best to have the edges of the sheets overhang each other; otherwise, there is not enough dough to form a nice crust- as you can see from my rather raggedy crust in the top photo) and brush with oil. Top with third phyllo sheet, brush with oil, and sprinkle with 1/2 tsp. sesame seeds. Repeat phyllo and oil layers two more times. Then, sprinkle fifth phyllo sheet with remaining sesame seeds and top with sixth phyllo sheet. Press into prepared pie pan and trim edges with scissors if needed.
2. To make Filling: Sprinkle cheese over crust and top with the spinach. Then arrange tomato halves over quiche.
3. To make Quiche Batter: Whisk together all ingredients in medium bowl. Season with salt and pepper. Then pour Quiche Batter over Filling in crust.
4. Set quiche on baking sheet. Bake for 50-55 minutes or until top is brown and center is set.