South of the Orient: Part IX

Noodles_2August was HOT. The temps in Seattle were much higher, on average, than usual. As a consequence of these norms, the city doesn’t believe in air conditioning…so Tom and I were on the lookout for any solution to cool down. In many parts of the world, heat is met with more heat. Whether it is an Indian drinking hot chai or a Jamaican enjoying jerk chicken (seasoned with must-have Scotch bonnets), a variety of cultures turn to hot and spicy foods in the sweltering heat. The reason? It makes you sweat, and sweat cools you down. I’m no scientist, but we were desperate and willing to try anything. So we decided to indulge in our own spicy experiment with Pad Kee Mao.

ThailandThis recipe did not come out of a cookbook. Tom learned how to make the dish while living in Southeast Asia; in Laos, Thailand and Malaysia, primarily. He spent about a year in the region, split between a pre-college getaway and a post-college return.  The above photo was taken by Tom in Tham Kong Lo: a cave that extends for 7 miles. He shares more about the adventure:

Our small gang of backpackers had convened at a grass hut guest house the night before, the entire village having lost power at 7PM (daily occurrence) we’d bonded over candlelit noodles and communist beer (Beerlao), and planned the following day’s excursion. Tham Kong Lo is a stalactite-riddled mega cave that stretches deep underneath miles of limestone karst, home to a singular, somewhat terrifying ecosystem and traversable only by canoe. There’s darkness in familiar settings and then there’s pics, oily darkness pregnant with bats, giant spiders and dripping with humidity. Everyone should experience the latter at some point, if only for the experience of emerging renewed and soaking wet into a lush jungle valley at the other side, sunshine streaming through the banyan trees.

Noodles_3When Tom shared this story with me, I was inspired to recreate an image of those “stalactites” using our noodles…it was one of those things that sounded way cooler in my head. But the photo also illustrates perfectly al dente rice noodles, so I kept it. Moving on, many of us know Pad Kee Mao by it’s English title: Drunken Noodles. Khi mao is Thai for “drunkard”…yet the source of this appellation is a bit of a mystery. Some believe the first-ever recipe included rice wine, while others attribute the recipe to a drunken chef who concocted the dish with whatever was available in his home after a long night out. Regardless, it is now one of the cuisine’s most famous celebrities, and for good reason.

DSC_0171The dish is spicy, but can be moderated to your taste by de-seeding the peppers or omitting them entirely. It brings together a variety of rich flavors in a fairly quick preparation: oyster sauce, chili paste, soy sauce, fish sauce, and loads of veggies. Tom cooks the dish so that there is very little liquid left in the pan before serving – so there is some patience involved. But the end result is absolutely worth the wait. You can include one or a medley of proteins (we used both chicken and tofu in our recipe). One key ingredient, flavor-wise and aesthetically, is basil: you can use Thai or regular, just be sure to have a whole heap of it. Click HERE to see the recipe for this spicy dish.  

NoodlesWhen you eat something spicy, not only do you sweat – your heart rate also increases…much like my own whenever I think of playing the opening lines of Jacques Ibert’s Flute Concerto. Written in the doldrums of the Great Depression, the work was commissioned by the renowned flutist and pedagogue Marcel Moyse. It is surprisingly lighthearted for the era yet far from frivolous. Even with a reduced orchestra, the work is both both elegant and rich with thematic color…and, for the soloist, very difficult to perform. The opening stanza is an audition ace, as flutists across the world harness the dramatic statement to impress panels. The piece as a whole sustains an exhilarating pace, with two poignant respites that allow our soloist to catch her breath…just before hurling the audience into an electric finale. The following recording features Emmanuel Pahud (my flute hero) and the Tonhalle Orchester Zürich performing the first movement of the concerto. Enjoy!

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Sources Cited:
“Drunken Noodles,” Wikipedia.com
“Flute Concerto: Jacques Ibert,” LA Phil

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Rise and Shine: Part III

Sweet Potato Hash 4Labor Day Weekend (for me) is often equated with being in the outdoors, shopping sales, splurging on movies, and eating a great brunch. We scored on all fronts, particularly in the brunch category…though the movie splurge was a close second: Guardians of the Galaxy, Predator, and The Princess Bride (EPIC). Anyways, the brunch we made was fantastic – we often go for scrambled eggs with kale, but wanted something extra special for the holiday weekend. The result was a Spicy Chorizo & Sweet Potato Hash with Avocado that was unbelievably unhealthy delicious!
Sweet Potato Hash 1Labor Day was a holiday established in the late 19th century, having been championed by the Central Labor Union of New York and fought for by the countless supporters of the labor movement. It takes place annually on the first Monday of September, paying homage to “the creator of so much of the nation’s strength, freedom, and leadership — the American worker.” While the celebration itself has become less grandiose and parade-driven in recent years, it still serves as a reminder of the many accomplishments and victories of the American working force…and no one loves brunch more than a 9-to-5’er on Labor Day!
Sweet Potato Hash 5Of course, most restaurants don’t serve lunch on Mondays (assuming that everyone will be at cookouts or drinking) so we took brunch into our hands. And my what a success it was. This is Tom’s genius, taking some of my favorites (sweet potatoes and kale) combined with some of his (chorizo and eggs) to create a dish so potent that each bite elicited a groan of indulgence.One of the secrets to the flavor’s depth was thanks to my newest cooking tool, which is basically a ceramic “grater” within a small plate – the tool allows you to break down aromatics while capturing the oils and juices. It’s pretty and awesome (and was an impulse buy thanks to Labor Day sales).
Sweet Potato Hash 3Much to Tom’s chagrin, we used chorizo-flavored chicken sausage in lieu of actual chorizo – some may harken the substitute as a sacrilege, but the result was surprisingly full of flavor. The flavors all married beautifully, with the sweet potatoes adding a touch a sweetness and the kale adding fullness. We could have stuck with the healthier end of things…but then Tom stirred in some crumbled blue cheese OH MY GOD I LOVE CHEESE. The result was creamy and fantastic, and I couldn’t stop eating it. Topped off with some hot sauce and parsley, this was all-in-one win for a Labor Day brunch. Click HERE to get the recipe!
Sweet Potato Hash 2My original intention had been to select a musical piece that pays homage to the labor movement…but you can only imagine the top search results for my query “classical music and unions” (heh…) Well I imagine there may exist such a piece (suggestions are Carl_Nielsenalways welcome!) I opted for an alternative approach and chose a piece that was composed in 1894 – the year Labor Day was officially established. The findings were impressive, with Massenet’s Thaïs and Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune, to say the least. However, it was Carl Nielsen’s Symphony No. 1 in G minor that caught my attention. He is generally an underrated composer, and I thought it suitable to showcase him here for the first time. Premiered in March of 1894, the 4-movement symphony lasts just over half an hour. Though the title indicates a minor setting, the work actually begins and ends in the joyful key of C Major…which is more than appropriate within the celebratory context of this post. The symphony is quite unique, given the aforementioned progressive tonality and Nielsen’s early mastery of orchestral form. Composer and Nielsen scholar Robert Simpson says the piece is “probably the most highly organized first symphony ever written by a young man of twenty-seven” (you read that correctly – Nielsen was 27). The below recording is with the San Francisco Symphony, under the direction of Herbert Blomstedt – enjoy!

Sources Cited:
“History of Labor Day,” United States Department of Labor 
“Symphony No. 1 (Nielsen),” Wikipedia.com
PHOTO of “Carl Nielsen” Wikipedia.com

Better than Take-Out

Kung Pao 2For many, take-out Chinese is a beloved ritual: the sauce-laden dishes packed into decorative food buckets have become a movie night staple (in fact, I’m about to enjoy such an evening with my new roomie Megan!) Yet let’s be honest…it’s not the healthiest of cuisines. In fact, the nutritional detriments outweigh nearly all of the benefits. By no means does this mean you should forfeit your occasional Friday night movie and Chinese take-out tradition. But there’s a much healthier way to enjoy the cuisine for the rest of the week – give homemade a go! My boyfriend Tom loves to cook Chinese food, and his Kung Pao Chicken is possibly the best I’ve ever had (take-out included).
Kung Pao 6Most of Tom’s recipes on this blog have highlighted the cuisines of Southeast Asia (under the aegis of South of the Orient series [hyperlink]), yet this is the first recipe of his that comes from the Orient proper. The dish – also known as Gong Bao or Kung Po – originated in the Sichuan Province of southwest China. It is named after Ding Baozhen: a governor of Sichuan during the Qing Dynasty. It is claimed to have been one of his favorite dishes, and was thus named in his legacy.
Kung Pao 5However, its connection to an imperial official was later repudiated by radicals of the Cultural Revolution: a pro-communist movement from 1966 to 1976 that sought to eradicate cultural and capitalist traditions in China. The dish was therefore referred to as hong bao ji ding (“fast-fried chicken cubes”) or hu la ji ding (“chicken cubes with seared chiles”). The name Kung Pao was reinstated during China’s political reformation in the 1980’s.
Kung Pao 4It’s a classic stir fry of chicken, peanuts, and vegetables, and is famously known for having a spicy kick. The traditional recipe contains Sichuan peppercorns (which I’ve blogged about before), but isn’t a necessary ingredient. Tom’s version relies on Chinese chili paste, which is gently sauteed with a variety of minced aromatics. This step is where the magic happens – the rest will come from the sauces and ingredients, but these aromatics set up the base of this dish’s awesomeness.
Kung Pao 3The best part about Tom’s take on this recipe is the copious incorporation of vegetables: we used a mixture of kale, bell peppers, and mushrooms. You can use whatever variety of vegetable you prefer, increasing or decreasing the amounts as needed. That being said, the two “add-ins” that should remain are the chicken and the peanuts (which really make the dish). The result is a meal that is both healthier, more colorful, and much tastier than take-out: click HERE to turn this classic into a homemade tradition!
Kung Pao 1At the end of China’s cultural revolution mentioned above, the nation was longing to reawaken its artistic ambitions. The Central Conservatory in China reopened its doors in 1977, with the intention to accept no more than 100 students. 18 THOUSAND applications arrived, all of whom were desperate to pursue an art form they had been forced to abnegate for the past decade. The Conservatory accepted 200 students that year, with a number eventually joining the ranks of 95534-004-D7249C13the internationally renowned musicians. One of the most notable graduates of that class was composer Tan Dun – his style is a unique fusion of Western, traditional Chinese, and experimental styles. In 1997, Tan Dun was commissioned to write a piece celebrating a truly historic moment for China: the return of Hong Kong to Chinese sovereignty from British rule. The work was premiered at the reunion ceremony (pictured right), titled “Heaven, Earth, Mankind – Symphony 1997”. The symphony is a large-scale work for solo cello, Bianzhong bells, a full orchestra, and children’s chorus. It is a celebration of the old, the present, and the future, paying tribute to the values of ancient China while looking forward to a new global community. The below videos are two excerpts from the work, titled “Jubilation,” and the “Song of Peace” (the videos are a little bizarre, but are the only two I could find on YouTube) – enjoy!

Sources Cited:
“Kung Pao Chicken,” Wikipedia.com
Melvin, Sheila and Jinding Cai. “Composers Emerging From China’s Grim Revolution,” New York Times. April 1, 2001.
“Heaven, Earth, Mankind (Symphony 1997),” TanDunONLINE. 2012

Achieving Rustic Elegance

Stuffed Bell Peppers 1Whenever I cook for friends, I see it as the perfect excuse for making a meal that is both creative and gourmand. Good food, hearty wine, and breezy conversation are all that’s needed for a perfect evening. Just the other day I invited my dear friends Paige and Mel over for a much-needed girl’s night-in. Considering it was a weeknight, I sought out a recipe that was both healthy and convenient. These rustic Italian Stuffed Bell Peppers were the result of my queries, and they were absolutely delicious.
DSC_0187Bell peppers are a vegetable that almost anyone can love – they are colorful, naturally sweet, and remarkably versatile as a food item. Essentially any cooking method applies: roasting, sliced, sauteed, grilled, broiled, baked, smothered, used as dippers, pureed. Red, orange, and yellow bell peppers are typically the “riper” varietals of the bell pepper cultivar. They are (of course) more expensive than the not-as-tasty green bell peppers. Though this may tempt you to opt for cheaper variety, the extra $ has its benefits: colorful bell peppers have nearly twice as many nutrients and vitamins as their green cousins.
Stuffed Bell Peppers 2I mentioned the need for this meal to be convenient – the night before, I prepped the chicken & quinoa filling, and made the tomato sauce. This cut my time in half for day-of prep, allowing the three of us to sit down and enjoy each other’s company (rather than being tied to the kitchen the entire time). You can go so far as to stuff the bell peppers a day in advance – just make sure to cover the pan before refrigerating! I’m fairly busy most days, and this kind of meal is perfect for anyone who prefers the social aspect of dinner parties over the operative side.
Stuffed Bell Peppers 4My calling these “Italian” is a nod to the filling’s iconic staples – tomato sauce, fresh basil, and Parmesan Reggiano. Each brings a unique layer to the dish: the sauce a creamy depth to an otherwise unconventional protein/grain filling (chicken and quinoa), the basil a burst of freshness that veils the make-ahead component, and the cheese…well, cheese is just about the best thing ever. The resulting dish was colorful, flavorful, and made for a beautiful presentation at serving. Click HERE to see the recipe for this nutritiously vibrant meal!
Stuffed Bell Peppers 5Though it might seem appropriate to have chosen an Italian composer for the musical pairing, I wanted to capture this dish’s rustic depth. Granted…this is a fairly common characteristic of many classical compositions. So I decided to start out with a composer, and chose none other than Antonín Dvorák – a composer who mastered the art of translating folk ideals into elegant masterpieces. He was very much inspired by traditional songs and melodies from a variety of cultures (Bohemian, Austrian, Native American, German – to name a few). Influenced by these styles, Dvorák seamlessly wove the themes into his own compositions. His chamber music was especially illustrative of this attribute – worth noting he composed over 40 works for string ensembles alone. Among his most famous is the Trio in E minor for piano, violin, and cello, Op. 90, “Dumky”. This piece was written shortly before his three-year residence in America. The word “Dumka” is Ukranian, and roughly translates to “melancholic composition.” Daniel Felsenfeld (a music critic and composer himself) provides an apt description of the piece:

“The form of the piece is structurally simple but emotionally complicated, being an uninhibited Bohemian lament. Considered essentially formless, at least by classical standards, it is more like a six movement dark fantasia—completely original and successful, a benchmark piece for the composer. Being completely free of the rigors of sonata form gave Dvořák license to take the movements to some dizzying, heavy, places, able to be both brooding and yet somehow, through it all, a little lighthearted.”

As aforementioned, Dvořák had a unique talent for fusing ideas and emotions into beautiful creations that performers and audiences similarly adore – this piece beautifully demonstrates said talent. The recording below is with the Beaux Arts Trio, performing the first movement Lento Maestoso. The entire piece is on YouTube, segmented by movement (numbered in the right sidebar). I highly encourage you to listen to all 6, if you have the time – enjoy!

Sources Cited:
“Antonín Dvořák,” Wikipedia.com
“Piano Trio No. 4 (Dvořák),” Wikipedia.com

Flavorful Interpretations

Pesto and Chicken 2One thing I love about Italian food is the bang you get for your buck. It’s one of the more versatile cuisines, and fits beautifully within any budget or schedule. This past weekend, my boyfriend Tom and I traveled to Boston’s North End (for lunch at Saus, my new favorite restaurants in town) and visited the Open Market shortly after. Aside from the standard deluge of veggies and fruits, we came across these huge bouquets of BASIL. Without thinking twice we bought two bundles, along with some tomatoes, asparagus, and red bell peppers. Our basil overload led to a platter of Roasted Vegetable Bruschetta and a to-die for Basil-Walnut Pesto that we tossed with pan-roasted chicken thighs and asparagus…it was so freakin good that I had to pinch myself to make sure I wasn’t dreaming.
Pesto 2Pesto is originally from Genoa (a region located in Northern Italy), and comes from the Genoese term pestâ – “to crush or pound.” A traditional pesto contains pine nuts, garlic, basil, Parmesan, and olive oil that is “crushed” to a paste in a mortar and pestle (a word whose derivative is the Latin equivalent of pestâ). We opted for walnuts in ours, along with shaved Parmesan Reggiano. It honestly doesn’t really matter what ingredients you choose for a pesto, so long as they are complementary of one another and not totally wacky (but hey, no one’s gonna judge if you decide to make a pesto out of chocolate chips and parsley…but they probably won’t eat it). This pesto, on the other hand, will definitely be a winner at your next dinner party – click HERE to see the recipe!
PestoBruschetta is one of my favorite appetizers – it’s simple, elegant, and (like pesto) fairly customizable. We roasted a bell pepper over an open flame (do this with caution, of course) and topped each slice of bread with a healthy dollop of basil, veggies, and mozzarella. The metal pan gave each piece a toasty finish, and every bite was packed with flavor. This can be a hit for vegans (great with pine nuts) or carnivores (chicken would be killer!) Whatever your speed, this is a great appetizer or side, and basil is hands-down the herb to go with: click HERE to see the recipe!
BruschettaBoth of these dishes, as aforementioned, can easily be tailored to the preferences and vision of the chef. Room for creativity is a beautiful thing in cooking – as you gain experience, a recipe becomes more of a suggestive tool that can applied to your own ideas. There is definite symmetry between this concept and performance. When a musician first encounters a piece, they go through the motions of learning the notes and becoming comfortable with the overall work. Once it’s “under their fingers”, interpretation steps in – the moment for the musician’s voice to really shine. Perhaps one of the greatest voices in the history of classical music is that of Fritz Kreisler. Fritz_Kreisler_1Both a violinist and a composer, he was an extension of an era where virtuosic musicians were putting their voice into performance AND writing. The art of musical interpretation is thus beautifully ensured through each of his compositions’ intimate understanding of the instrument. Today, violinists are able to quite literally pour their soul into writing that fits the violin “like a glove”. I find Kreisler’s Recitative and Scherzo for solo violin to be especially apropos – written in 1910, Kreisler dedicated this short work to his colleague violinist Eugene Ysaÿe (yet another performer who also composed). The below recording is with Jascha Heifetz – at the age of 11, Heifetz performed before Kreisler for the first time. Kreisler turned to the others in the room and exclaimed “We might as well take our fid­dles and smash them across our knees.” After listening to the video below, you’ll understand what he meant – enjoy!

Sources Cited:
Maltese, John Anthony. “Jascha Heifetz: Violinist Nonpareil,” Jascha Heifetz: The Official Website
Strauss, Axel. “Violin Music: Fritz Kreisler’s Recitativo and Scherzo, Op. 6,” All Things Strings
“PHOTO: Fritz Kreisler,” Wikipedia.com

Introducing a Tasty Tradition

Chicken Parm 1I love hosting dinner parties – whether I’m cooking for a party of 2 or 20, I get such a thrill out of it. That being said, it’s waaay less stressful to cook for only a handful of people. Earlier this month, I was planning a dinner for my good friends Neal and Beth, and in hopes of catering the menu to their tastes I asked if they had any “requests”. Neal (naturally) took the opportunity to unload his bucket list of cravings: BBQ ribs, pulled pork sandwiches with mac & cheese, ice cream sandwiches, quesadillas…yet the one request I took seriously was Chicken Parmigianina: a classic that should be a staple for any American cook. That’s at least what I thought…before realizing I had never made the dish myself. That compelled me to give this recipe a try, for the sole merit of claiming I can cook this “made-famous-by-Maggiano’s” classic.
ParmesanParmigiana is a dish with a variety of renditions, but essentially consists of a filling that has been deep- or lightly-fried topped with tomato sauce and cheese (usually Parmesan…as you’d expect). It’s a fairly simple recipe that comes together quickly, making it perfect for a weeknight meal (and impressive enough for mid-week guests). The most well-known version is with eggplant, and is considered an authentic Italian creation. Chicken Parmigiana, on the other hand, is attributed to Italian Americans – regardless of its origin, the components are undeniably Italian.
Chicken Parm 2I used Pioneer Woman’s recipe for this, with a few tweaks (including a can of fire roasted tomatoes – a secret ingredient for any great sauce!) I also increased the wine in the recipe, for both the sauce and the chef, and used whole wheat spaghetti. The resulting dish was stunning, and the flavor was absolutely divine. It baffles me that it’s taken up to now to make such an amazing dish – and did I mention it’s budget-friendly as well?? This a winner, my friends. So to all college students, busy parents, and stressed-out professionals – click HERE to find your culinary therapy.
Chicken Parm 5It felt only appropriate that the musical pairing for this dish be Italian – the depth and variety of Parmigiana led me to Antonio Vivaldi: an Italian composer who is considered to be one of the most influential of the Baroque genre. His style is often typified as being “lively” and “bright”, as he sought to refashion the formal structures of rhythm and harmony. Vivaldi is seen as both an innovator and forebearer of Italy’s musical vivaldi-01legacy – even Bach found inspiration from his writings (which is saying a LOT, folks). Considering the “legacy” that Parmigiana holds in the culinary sense, I wanted the musical pairing to be a part of something greater – for Vivaldi, that is L’Estro armonico (“Harmonic Inspiration”). Comprising of twelve separate concerti, this collection aggrandized Vivaldi’s international renown. British musicologist Michael Talbot said the work is “perhaps the most influential collection of instrumental music to appear during the whole of the eighteenth century”. Of the twelve concerti, I settled on Concerto No. 8 in A minor for two violins and strings, RV 522 for this post’s actual pairing. The piece is both vibrant and poignant, and true to Vivaldi’s inventive style. The two soloists establish a dialogue that challenges in one phrase and supports in the next, and requires talented “conversationalists” in performance. There are number of musical elements that illustrate this piece as an antecedent to Vivaldi’s acclaimed Four Seasons (written 10 years after the fact); it holds an especially close affinity to “Winter,” given the minor setting. The  work is filled with “flavorful” colors,  making it an ideal pairing for this dish. (Fun fact: Vivaldi was a redhead, and called il Prete Rosso – or “The Red Priest”. I hazard a guess of the potential affection he held for a good marinara of deep “red”). The below recording is with The English Concert, directed by Trevor Pinnock. Enjoy!

Sources Cited:
“Parmigiana,” Wikipedia.com
“L’estro Armonico,” Wikipedia.com
“REBEL at the Library of Congress,” Ionarts (PHOTO)

South of the Orient: Part V

Tikka and SaagI have been enjoying a LOT of South Asian cuisine as of late. My boyfriend Tom has converted me into a curry-loving/spice-craving gal…granted, he’s got some great recipes up his sleeve (hence the series). In fact, it’s a cuisine that’s perfect for this time of year – winter is not my forte, and Wednesday’s temp was a balmy 7 degrees. The promise of a piping hot meal loaded with spices and protein has been a saving grace during the season. Piling on layers of clothing can do the trick, but this Saag Tofu and Chicken Tikka Masala works wonders on a chilly winter day.
183819_1811611419548_5295728_nBoth of these dishes are common to the Punjabi region, where Tom spent close to two months exploring (North India primarily) – the photo above was taken in a village called Auli. Located in northeast Uttarakhand, Auli is about 13,000 feet above sea level and lies deep within the majestic Himalayas. The Himalayas,  which is Sanskrit for “abode of the snow”, make this a perfect anecdote for winter:

“After a ten hour ride in a van hugging cliff sides all the way up into the mountains we arrived at Joshimath, before another hour straight up a mountain toward Auli. The driver could only make it so far and we had to hike the last couple of miles in deep snow to the village, which resides quietly in the shadow of Nanda Devi, India’s second highest peak at 26,000 feet, just a hair shy of Everest. From the plateau, a heady panorama of mountain peaks and micro-ranges in every direction laying strewn with Hindu icons. Auli is the embarkation point for some of the world’s most intense pilgrimages.”

Saag Paneer 1Saag is prominent in Northern India, and is prepared in a variety of ways. The basic recipe is spinach leaves (or similar leafy greens, such as mustard and kale) are finely chopped, then sautéed with a variety of spices. The most well-known rendition calls for pan-seared paneer: a fresh cheese used in a variety of South Asian recipes. Tom opts for tofu, which is both healthier and easier to find in local grocery stores than paneer. The sautéing takes a bit, but that golden hue gives this dish a texture and taste that’s extraordinary!
Saag Paneer 2I have made Saag before, but this is by far my favorite recipe – the flavors are complex, and the textural aesthetic is stunning. Some varieties use cream, yet this recipe is vegan and chock-full of spices: cumin, coriander, fenugreek, and garam masala. The key (per usual with Tom’s recipes) is to dry-roast the spices one at a time, then grind them to a fine powder. It comes together in no time once all of the ingredients have been prepped. Don’t fret if you have leftovers, as it’s even better the next day. Click HERE to see the recipe for this flavorful side!
Chicken Tikka 2Tikka Masala is one of those dishes that nearly everyone loves – comprised of roasted chicken simmered in a creamy sauce, it is one of Tom’s signatures. Similar to Saag, cooking the protein separately aids with the texture and flavor of the final dish. The marinade yields a beautifully tender meat that is hard to beat – yogurt is the secret weapon here. Acidic marinades have been known to “denature” (or toughen) the meat, whereas milk-based marinades won’t. It is alleged that the calcium helps to activate certain enzymes that break down the proteins, creating a more tender and flavorful meat. South Asian and Middle Eastern cultures have been using dairy-based marinades for a looong time, for good reason!
Chicken TIkka 1The masala, unlike the marinade, is fairly complex – a medley of spices, healthy fats, and vegetables come together to create a creamy sauce that is both spicy and rich. The original calls for a lot of cream, but Tom lessens the cream needed by upping the almonds. The result gives the sauce more character without inhibiting the spices and aromatics. This dish is both filling and loaded with protein, making it a perfect meal for those colder days. Click HERE to see the recipe for this beloved classic!
Chicken Tikka 3Winter often gets a bad rap – slushy sidewalks, dry skin, chilly and biting winds – and it’s frozen beauty is often disregarded. Some of the most gorgeous landscapes I’ve witnessed were in the coldest climates (Tom would readily agree). Case in point – the below photo is from a hike we took together in MontanaIMG_1037 about a year ago. It is one of my favorite pictures to date, and yet I was freezing my tail off the entire time! Spring, summer and fall are often flooded with activity – it is winter that gives us a moment of stillness, in which we may breathe and experience our world. This led me to choose Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 1 in G minor, “Winter Dreams.” This symphony is arguably the cheeriest (and least tortured) of his six symphonies. It has a youthful air, which can be attributed to the fact that he was only 26 when he wrote it. In this symphony (just over 40-minutes in length), Tchaikovsky paints the isolated beauty of a Russian “winter journey” using rich orchestration balanced by gossamer melodies. The piece captures the dynamics of this posting’s two dishes, while also alluding to the tranquil enticements of winter. The below recording features Bernard Haitink and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra – enjoy!

Sources Cited:
“Himalayas,” Wikipedia.com
“Marinades Add Flavor but Don’t Always Tenderize,” FineCooking.com
“Symphony No. 1 (Tchaikovsky),” Wikipedia.com

Some Cheesy Pleasure

ChickenRoulade3You know the old adage “tastes just like chicken?” Well, if you’ve been eating as much chicken as I have, the taste of chicken becomes just that: a flavor as unique as grass. Your daily cognizance of its presence reaches the point of tedium. Chicken is wonderful, don’t get me wrong – yet the “lean protein” and “cross-cultural” accolades lose their luster after the 10th meal you’ve had with chicken…similar to hearing Vivaldi’s Spring for the umpteenth time. So here I was again, facing the inevitable task of creating a chicken dinner that didn’t taste like chicken. I went for the easy win, and chose the one thing that makes any meal beautiful – a pungent, fatty hunk of cheese. And I daresay these Blue Cheese Chicken Roulades were to DIE for!
Blue CheeseNot to gross you out, but blue cheese is quite literally a “molded” cheese – it has been infused with Penicillum (yup, it’s the same genus that produces the antibiotic) to create those distinctive blue “spots”. It’s this addition that gives the cheese such fabulous depth – a salty, sharp taste that pairs well with honey and fruit (apples or pears especially). Like many a wonderful invention, blue cheese was a total accident – cheeses being stored in caves started to develop mold under the humid circumstances, and yet the flavor was a surprisingly welcome deviation from the original….WHY they ate the moldy cheese in the first place beats me, but I’m thankful they did.
ChickenRoulade2This is one of those recipes that looks more difficult than it actually is…well, you might accidentally prick yourself with a toothpick, but it’s a minor threat for such an irresistible result. The trick is to soak the toothpicks for 30 minutes at least, so they are “heatproof” and won’t splinter easily. We decided to include spinach as an afterthought, but it was more for color than anything else. Basil would have been too overpowering, and any other green would defeat the purpose.
ChickenRoulade6These roulades are the paragon of “comfort food” – no frilly sauces or special seasonings, just cheese doing what it does best: MELT. A castiron pan is best for this recipe, but any ovenproof skillet will do (or you can simply transfer the chicken to a baking pan post-searing…but then you lose all of those glorious pan juices!) Warning – you might attack your friend so that you can have his/her share…don’t say I didn’t warn you 😉 Click HERE to read more about this sinful recipe.
ChickenRoulade5“Nutritional” and “daring” rarely define comfort food – this is a genre whose sole intention is to portray the joy of eating, a pleasure that is by no means a triviality. The goal is analogous to the philosophy of many a French composer during the 20th century. Conveying pleasure through art was a priority, as Debussy famously describes:

“There is no theory. You have only to listen. Pleasure is the law. I love music passionately. And because l love it, I try to free it from barren traditions that stifle it.” – Claude Debussy

While the music of Debussy is among my favorites, I chose another French composer as the subject of this pairing: Jean Françaix (a fan of Debussy himself!) Françaix was a musical prodigy from the start, telling his family that he would become the next “great French composer” following the death of Camille Saint-Saëns. 1240471_504518966291893_466927587_nWhile this may seem overly ambitious (if not arrogant), his musical abilities by and large merited such confidence. His Wind Quintet No. 1 (written in 1948) is a remarkable example of the virtuosic, joyous style that guided most of his writing. The opening is a slow dance, with a horn melody soaring above a texturally rich harmony. In an instant, the winds take off on a series of running scales – yet the horn is still singing, reflecting on the calm from moments before. The second movement is playful, alternating between a fast-paced presto to a lilting, honeyed waltz. We encounter a theme and variations in the third movement, where each instrument takes a turn. The fourth is pure fun – the winds are flying through runs and articulated passages, while the horn and oboe recall the opening’s joyful respite. It ends on a humorous note, as though Françaix is reminding us to smile – for after all, isn’t that what music (and food) are all about? The below recording is with the Berliner Bläserquintett – enjoy 🙂

Sources Cited:
“Blue Cheese,” Wikipedia.com
“Claude Debussy,” Wikipedia.com
“Programme: Zephyr Wind Quintet,” Chamber Music New Zealand
PHOTO: Interlude.hk

South of the Orient: Part II

Gaeng Panang1Advancements in travel and communications have made our world far more accessible, and culinary experimentation has become easier as a consequence. Even so, it’s amazing how many flavorful foods have yet to be included in the conventions of American cooking. This mini series is meant to catalog the travels of my boyfriend Tom, and his unique understanding of Asian cuisine – one thing that certainly holds true to this style of cooking is the use of colorful ingredients. While it may seem laborious to prepare and process so many ingredients, the food is always packed with flavor – this Gaeng Panang Gai was a fantastic example of just that.
Gaeng Panang3This dish is native to Thailand, where Tom lived for almost a year (the below photo is from his travels). Similar as with India (which you can read about in my last post from this series), he was captivated by Thailand’s wealth of resources:

“…the ingredients come from what is readily available, and the south of Thailand is blessed with year round access to unique, evocative plants, roots and vegetables that they pound together in a pestle and mortar, a process that takes hours, not to mention iron wrists, until it forms a smooth, blisteringly strong paste, which is mellowed out in the wok with the addition of coconut milk.”

16440_1266104022204_6628122_nAn interesting fact about Thailand, there are only three seasons: hot, cool, and rainy. Local Buddhist monks measure their regional tenure by rainy seasons as opposed to years spent in said area. On the other hand, there are FIVE basic attributes to Thai cuisine: sweet, spicy, sour, bitter and salty. A pretty remarkable shift from Western traditions. And did I mention how much they love rice? Thailand currently stands as the world’s largest exporter – no wonder they make so many curries!
Gaeng Panang4The one thing I love about Asian cuisine is the color – bright reds, rich golds, luscious greens – when plated on white dish, the contrast is stunning. Watching Tom prepare this, I learned that it’s worth taking your time to get everything in place before running with it – that way you can act quickly once the “heat is on”. The paste is quite simple, and is the central element of this recipe. A food processor or blender is necessary, but you can mash it to a paste with a pestle and mortar if all else fails (and it would be an excellent forearm workout!) You can serve with or without rice, but you’ll definitely want something to sop up all of that delicious sauce – click HERE to see the recipe.
Gaeng Panang2The amount of flavor you experience in a single bite sets this dish apart – it’s practically a “treatise” on the qualities of Thai cuisine. You have your fundamental ingredients, to which a variety of components are added in support. This led me to consider Samuel Barber’s First Essay for Orchestra, Op. 12. The work is built upon a musical “thesis”, where the proceeding ideas and harmonies are all played out accordingly – similar to the structure of a written essay. The work was composed in 1938 for conductor Arturo Toscanini. Barber met the renowned Toscanini in the late 1930’s, who was quite taken with the composer’s music. The work was commissioned and premiered by Toscanini with the NBC Symphony Orchestra – Barber’s Adagio for Strings (arguably his most well-known composition) was performed for the first time on this very concert. The other thing that led me to consider this work was the chef himself – Tom is a very strong writer, and takes a good deal of pride on an “essay” well done (okay, so this connection may be a little kooky, but I’m fully aware of my writing eccentricities!) Anyways, this pairing both compliments and supports this delicious meal, and is a beautiful work – it may be only 8 minutes in length, but it is filled with musical color and passion. Enjoy!

Sources Cited:
“Thailand”, Wikipedia.com
“Essay for Orchestra (Barber)”, Wikipedia.com