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Eating elephant’s ears?!! March 26, 2010

Posted by ourfriendben in gardening, recipes, Uncategorized, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here, and no, I’m not talking about ripping the ears off elephants and grilling them, or smoking them and giving them to your dog. Instead, I’m talking about the water-loving tropical plant, Colocasia esculenta, popularly known as “elephant ears” because some moron apparently thought the big leaves resembled the triangular ears of the beloved pachyderm. As if.

“Esculenta” does imply edible, though, and it turns out that this particular elephant’s ear produces the tubers revered in the tropics as taro, which is believed to be the world’s oldest cultivated crop.

Taro tubers are used to make poi, a tropical staple that, as I understand it, looks, tastes, and feels like paste. Eeeewww. (But to be fair, as far as I can tell, the same could be said of cream of wheat, which people apparently also eat with pleasure. I suppose that poi-lovers, confronted with my own beloved Southern specialty, grits, might pronounce the same judgment on it. Naturally, we grits-lovers, cream-of-wheat-lovers, and poi-lovers would doubtless all defend our favorites to the death.)

But I digress. I bring this up because I was recently in my favorite Indian grocery, Rice & Spice in scenic Emmaus, PA, looking for fenugreek leaves so I could make a few recipes from the cookbook Modern Spice by Monica Bhide. Until encountering Monica’s book, I’d never heard of fenugreek leaves as a culinary ingredient, though I’d enjoyed fenugreek seeds for years. Sure enough, Rice & Spice came through; I left the store with a large bunch of fresh fenugreek leaves.

But of course I couldn’t resist wandering around while I was in there, breathing in the fantastic aromas of spices and incense. I stopped to admire the bin of fresh ginger “roots” (actually rhizomes, think iris), which are always huge, plump, and fresh. And next to them, I saw a bin full of dirty, hairy tubers that were starting to sprout. Mind you, “dirty and hairy” isn’t about to stop me on the road to culinary discovery. Things can always be washed and peeled. Perhaps this was a delicious, aromatic cousin of ginger. Picking up one of the tubers, I held it to my nose, expecting that hot, lemony, gingery smell to explode through my sinuses. Instead, I smelled… dirt.

Mercifully, the proprietor appeared just then and asked if I was looking for anything in particular. “Do you have fenugreek leaves?” I asked, immediately confusing the issue by brandishing the offending tuber and asking, “Oh, and what’s this?”

“It’s elephant’s ear,” she replied.

“Uh.” All I could think of were the ornamental elephant ears beloved of water gardeners such as yours truly. “Uh.” (Stunned by this revelation, I was not at my most astute.) I hate having to resort to the “Oh, duh!!” question, but in this case, it was ask the question or never know, so, oh, duh: “What do you use it for?”

“We use it to make patra.” Seeing my continuing burnt-out-bulb expression, she went to the freezer case, grabbed a box, and said “Here. Try this. It’s really good.”

The box cost a whopping $1.99. I was game. Once home, I saw that it’s the elephant ear leaves, not the tuber, that are used to make patra, aka “patra leaf roulade.” (The ingredients list calls them “alvi leaves.”) The brand is Bhagwati’s Recipes of Gujarat, named for the founder of Deep Foods, which you’ll doubtless be familiar with if you patronize the Indian section of your grocery’s shelves or frozen foods areas. The dish is described as “Spiced leafy roulade sauteed to a soft texture then garnished with shredded coconut and fresh coriander.” The half-inch-thick, 1 1/2-inch-wide wheels of patra looked like cross-sections of a really elaborate wrap.

I already had leftover dal and palaak paneer at home that I’d made a bit earlier in the week, and I’d bought some house-made samosas while at Rice & Spice, so I figured it would be easy enough to make some basmati rice, heat up the leftovers, and serve a delicious Indian meal with yogurt, mint chutney, tamarind-date chutney, hot tamarind sauce, and homemade peach-apricot chutney as sides, heating up the samosas and patra rounds to serve as appetizers. But I hit a snag: The only directions on the patra box were for microwaving, and we don’t have a microwave.

Not to be daunted by mere directions, I put the patra rounds in the toaster oven with the samosas. And once everything was hot, I served them up with the tamarind sauce and mint chutney.

Yum!!!!! Who’d have thought elephant ears were even edible, much less good? Not me. But these patra leaf roulades were delicious. I can’t wait ’til the next time I’m in Emmaus and can stop by for another box (or two).

Meanwhile, if you garden and grow elephant ears, and are now contemplating trying to make your own dishes with the leaves and/or tubers, a warning: I don’t know about the leaves, but the tubers are apparently poisonous until they’ve been cooked or soaked. And poi fans, please: If you have any good poi recipes, let me hear from you!

                ‘Til next time,



Spices, Scotland, Shiloh… and cheese. February 22, 2010

Posted by ourfriendben in recipes, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. For Valentine’s Day, our friend Ben surprised me with (surprise!) cookbooks. If, like me, you love cooking, I thought you’d enjoy hearing about them.

But first, a brief digression about the other thing OFB produced as a Valentine’s Day present: A bottle of my favorite liqueur, Drambuie. Drambuie is a Scottish liqueur that was apparently developed in 1745 for Bonnie Prince Charlie and which has been enjoyed by countless lesser beings, such as yours truly, ever since. (Their classic motto is “The spirit lives on.”) But when our friend Ben triumphantly produced the bottle, I thought he’d bought a knock-off by mistake. That was definitely not the classic Drambuie bottle, brown glass with a shape as ancient and dramatic as its origins. This was a plain old clear liquor bottle that could have held vodka or rum. Worse, until I picked it up, I thought it was, gasp, plastic. How the mighty had fallen! Tragically, it proved to be the real thing. The bottle had been redesigned, so the company claimed, to “reveal the unique golden liqueur” inside. Ha! How about, the bottle has been redesigned so it’s cheaper to produce and more of them will fit onto a store shelf. Give me back my brown bottle!!!

While I’m already off-topic, let me explain how our beloved black German shepherd Shiloh fits in to all this. (Fortunately, Drambuie has nothing to do with it.) Our friend Ben had somehow managed to find a Valentine’s Day card with a photo of a black German shepherd on it. At first I thought that, despite his true Luddite incapacity around anything technological, including cameras, OFB had somehow managed to Photoshop it. I mean, how likely is it that a greeting card company would decide that any sort of German shepherd was a good subject for a Valentine, much less a black German shepherd? But checking it out, it was a real honest-to-God Valentine from Shoebox/Hallmark. Kudos to OFB for pulling that off!

Now, back to the books. Back in the fall, I’d read a review of a new cookbook called Modern Spice: Inspired Indian Flavors for the Contemporary Kitchen by Monica Bhide (Simon & Schuster, 2009). It sounded like a must-get. Having long since abandoned any pretense of subtlety where our friend Ben is concerned, I clipped the review, handed it to him, and said “Next time you’re stumped for a present for me, I’d really like this.” At the time, I was hoping it might make an appearance for my birthday or Christmas, but it didn’t, and I eventually forgot about it. Meanwhile, poor OFB was carting the review around in his book bag all this time. And for Valentine’s Day, he not only got me Modern Spice, but Ms. Bhide’s earlier book The Everything Indian Cookbook (Adams Publishing, 2004). And, for something completely different, The New American Cheese: Profiles of America’s Great Cheesemakers and Recipes for Cooking with Cheese (Laura Werlin, Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 2000).

The Everything Indian Cookbook is aimed at the beginner who’s just sticking a toe into the enticing, exotic ocean of Indian cuisine. It features 300 recipes, including (to quote from the front cover) Minty Potatoes in Yogurt Sauce, Malabari Coconut Rice, Spinach Lamb Curry, Sizzling Tandoori Chicken, and Almond-Coated Naan Bread.

But what I found most valuable about it were the pointers throughout the book to help the novice feel at ease with Indian cooking, from chapters on “Basics of Indian Cooking” (including techniques and a basic Indian spice pantry) and “Basic Recipes,” including the classic spice mixtures garam masala, tandoori masala, and chaat masala, plus homemade ghee (clarified butter) and paneer (Indian cheese), to tips and definitions scattered throughout. Tips include everything from “Deep-Frying Made Easy” to how to find and use dried fenugreek leaves and the proper techniques for cooking with cumin seeds. (“Cumin is never used raw.”)

The Everything Indian Cookbook is, admittedly, not something it would have occurred to me to buy. But I’ve really been enjoying paging through it. It has no photos and is not vegetarian—two drawbacks in my book—but it has tons of veggie-friendly recipes and others that can easily be adapted, and I’ve already learned plenty of things I hadn’t picked up from more beautiful and sophisticated Indian cookbooks. (My friend Huma, for instance, has told me a hundred times that the Indian dish I make with spinach and paneer is not saag paneer, but it wasn’t until I got this book that I saw that the dish with spinach is called paalak paneer, and that saag paneer uses mustard greens instead of spinach.) Highly recommended if you’d like to expand your culinary horizons.

Modern Spice is a whole different animal. To quote Ms. Bhide: “This book takes Indian cooking and translates it for our generation—this book embraces the intense, spicy Indian flavors but is not stuck on an artificial standard of authenticity that no longer exists even in India.”

As an intuitive cook, I completely approve of this approach, as long as it’s plainly stated upfront. To say that India, with all its diversity, has a “standard” cuisine is like saying that there is one style of cooking that characterizes my native South. Anyone who’s tasted the signature dishes of, just skimming, South Carolina, the Florida Keys, my home state of Tennessee, Louisiana, and South Texas will find little similarity between them, and little do they know how many variations play out in every region. Think about the endless variations of a single food such as barbecue or chili or even coleslaw (that’s just “slaw” to us Southerners) and you’ve said it all. Ms. Bhide’s point is well taken.

Modern Spice is full of useful advice, instructions, and tips, many gleaned from Ms. Bhide’s years teaching cooking classes and coming to understand what American amateur cooks need to learn. But it has a sophistication and range that picks up where a basic Indian cookbook leaves off. You won’t, as Ms. Bhide notes, find a recipe for mango lassi here. Nor will you find saag paneer or even paalak paneer. Paneer, yes, used in recipes such as Paneer and Wild Mushroom Pilaf, Paneer and Fig Pizza, Anaheim Peppers with Mint-Cilantro Chutney and Paneer, Papad Stuffed with Crab and Paneer. (As you can see, this book isn’t vegetarian, either, but again, has many veggie-friendly recipes.) I was deeply disappointed by the lack of photos—the book has only eight, stuffed awkwardly in the middle—but was charmed by the author’s essays, interspersed throughout, about her upbringing and food adventures. If you already know and love “classical” Indian cuisine in its many variations, Modern Spice is a must-buy.

Now let’s leave the world of spices and talk about cheese. As an avid cheese-eater, I have many books on cheese and cheese-making. I fantasize about learning to make my own cheeses. I also avidly read articles about American cheesemakers and fantasize about eating their luscious boutique creations. (Our friend Ben and I will very occasionally splurge on a handmade cheese by a local artisan, but normally fine cheeses are, like fine wines, alas, far beyond our budget.)

So The New American Cheese was the ultimate fantasy. This book won one of The IACP Cookbook Awards, and it’s easy to see why. It is photo-rich and breathtakingly beautiful. It tells the story of the evolution of cheese in this country and profiles 80 of the foremost American artisanal cheesemakers at the time of its publication.

And the recipes are to die for: Bruschetta with Fig Puree and Blue Cheese; Teleme, Squash, and Onion Galette; Mozzarella and Roasted Mushroom Panini; Mixed Beet and Crottin Salad with Walnut Oil and Lemon; Dill-Lemon Greek Salad; Blood Orange, Fennel, and Feta Salad; Pistachio-Coated Goat Cheese Rounds on Mixed Greens with Nut Oil Vinaigrette; Pizza with Blue Cheese, Butternut Squash, and Fried Sage Leaves; Polenta with Wild Mushrooms, Fontina, and Aged Cheese; Green Garlic Risotto with Cauliflower, Pancetta, and Fromage Blanc; Lemon Parmesan Risotto with Asparagus; and Cheese Enchiladas with Lime-Tomatillo Sauce. There are also tantalizing meat-based main courses, like Grilled Pork Chops with Cheddar-Corn Spoonbread and Apple-Sage Chutney; sides like Fennel, Apple, and Celery Root Gratin and Lemony Artichokes with Feta and Oregano; and dessert classics like (of course) cheesecake and apple-Cheddar pie, as well as more innovative desserts.

One thing (among many) that charmed me about The New American Cheese was a delightful chapter devoted to upgrades on classic American comfort foods, from French onion soup, mac’n’cheese, Cobb salad, and fondue to Welsh rarebit, grilled cheese, cheeseburgers, classic Iceberg lettuce with Maytag blue cheese dressing, and shepherd’s pie. This cookbook is a must-have for anyone’s shelf, for the recipes alone but especially if you want to really learn about cheese and cheesemaking.

In case you’re wondering why I’m torturing you with the concept of all these recipes and not giving you any, every one of these books threatens dire consequences if any of their content is reproduced in any way. Sob! You’re on your own, I’m afraid. I can’t afford artisanal cheeses now, and would really rather not contemplate the prospect of eating “Government Cheese” behind bars. (Just ask Martha.) But perhaps I’ll write a post soon that provides you with my own distinctive recipe for saag—I mean, paalak—paneer…

          ‘Til next time,