January 31, 2012

Kung Hei Fat Choy! Chinese New Year, New York City style.

This past Sunday, I welcomed in the 'Year of the Dragon' in New York City's Chinatown. I have to thank Elaine, The Gourmet 'Girl,' for my current obsession with all things Chinese. Through our friendship, she has opened my eyes and palate to a wonderfully rich culture of fabulous art, music, colorful and elegant clothing and people. And, of course, let's not forget the food.. Ah... the food.

We always start our Chinatown sojourn early in the morning, making our way through the shops, fresh produce stands, fish markets & butcher shops with their Peking Ducks hanging in the windows.After strolling Mulberry and Mott Streets, we end up at one of the area's best spots for Dim Sum, Sunshine 27 Restaurant, on the Bowery.

Now, the first sign that this is the place to be, is the fact that it's filled with locals and those Chinese tourist who know where to find the best their culture has to offer. That said, if there were possibly 10 of us Caucasians in a dining room of over 200, it was a lot. So, rule of thumb: when experiencing the cuisine of another culture, go to where the locals go.

Sunshine 27 is a large, bustling restaurant serving Dim Sum, Hong Kong style, with carts. Parties are often seated together at communal tables and the camaraderie is amazing. If you are not a Dim Sum aficionado, sitting with those who are familiar with the cuisine is a great way to learn. As the carts come around, you are offered choices of Shumai, Shrimp Dumplings, and yes, for the more adventurous, Chicken Feet in Black Bean Sauce.
Now, here is the best part; we sat for over an hour, were stuffed from the food and pot of fresh tea served to every patron and when the bill came, it was a mere $15.00 for two. Dim Sum can be a great family value in this economy, while at the same time, exposing your kids to an historic cuisine, culture and people.
After our Dim Sum feast, we head over to the Golden Steamer Bakery, on Mott St., to pick up Pork Buns and other traditional Chinese sweets. Then, as the crowds start to swell in anticipation, we find a spot amongst the throngs of tourists and residents alike, to view the Chinese New Year's parade.

Chinese New Year
Chinese New Year is the longest and most important festivity in the Chinese calendar. The origin of Chinese New Year is itself centuries old and gains significance because of several myths and traditions. Chinese New Year is celebrated in countries and territories with significant Chinese populations, such as China, Indonesia, Tibet, Macau, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and also in Chinatowns around the world. It marks the end of the winter season. The festival begins on the first day of the first month in the traditional Chinese calendar and ends with Lantern Festival on the 15th day. Because the Chinese calendar is lunisolar, the Chinese New Year is often referred to as the "Lunar New Year." We have just come out of the Year of the Rabbit (2011), with this, (2012) being the Year of the Dragon. Next year (2013) will be the Year of the Snake.

Dim Sum
The unique culinary art of dim sum originated with the Cantonese in southern China, who over the centuries transformed yum cha (drink tea) from a relaxing respite to a loud and happy dining experience. In Hong Kong, and in most cities and towns in Guangdong province, many restaurants start serving dim sum as early as five in the morning. It is a tradition for the elderly to gather to eat dim sum after morning exercises.

Literally meaning "to touch your heart," dim sum consists of a variety of dumplings, steamed dishes and other goodies, much like hors d'ouvres served in traditional French restaurants.
Eating dim sum at a restaurant is usually known in Cantonese as going to "drink tea" (yum cha), as tea is typically served with dim sum.
There are common tea-drinking and eating practices or etiquette that Chinese people commonly recognize and use. These are practiced not only during dim sum meals but during other types of Chinese meals as well. It is customary to pour tea for others during dim sum before filling one's own cup. A custom unique to the Cantonese is to thank the person pouring the tea by tapping the bent index finger if you are single, or by tapping both the index and middle finger if you are married, which symbolizes 'bowing' to them. 

Some popular types of Dim Sum

Shrimp Dumpling or Hargao
Delicate steamed dumplings with whole or chopped-up shrimp filling and thin wheat starch skin.

Jiǎozi or Potsticker
Northern Chinese style of dumpling (steamed and then pan-fried jiaozi), usually with meat and cabbage filling.

Shumai or Pork Dumpling
Small steamed dumplings with either pork, prawns or both inside a thin wheat flour wrapper. Usually topped off with crab roe and mushroom.

Bāozi or Bao
Baked or steamed, these fluffy buns made from wheat flour are filled with food items ranging from meat to vegetables to sweet bean pastes

Cheung Fan or Rice noodle roll
Wide rice noodles that are steamed and then rolled. They are often filled with different types of meats or vegetables inside but can be served without any filling

Pheonix claws or chicken feet
These are chicken feet, deep fried, boiled, marinated in a black bean sauce and then steamed.

Lo Mai Gai
Glutinous rice is wrapped in a lotus leaf into a triangular or rectangular shape. It contains egg yolk, dried scallop, mushroom, water chestnut and meat (usually pork and chicken).

There are a few more varieties of Dim Sum, but I thought I'd start you off today with the most popular and most common. I hope you have learned a bit today and I have piqued your interest in exploring Chinese culture and of course, Dim Sum. If you have never experienced the magic that is your local Chinatown, plan a trip and spend a leisurely Sunday strolling through ancient culture, art and cuisine. You'll be glad you did.

As always,

Bon Appetit!


January 22, 2012

Mise en place...as important in life as it is in cooking...

This is the first in a series of posts coming this year designed to simplify the art of cooking gourmet in your own home. I hope you learn from them, enjoy them and share them with your foodie friends. In today's post, we will cover the first step for any aspiring cook or chef: Mise en place.

If you are a chef, foodie or just someone who knows their way around a kitchen, you have probably heard the term 'Mise en place'. For the novice or at home cook, this may be a term that is foreign to you, which it actually it is. It is one of the first lessons learned by culinary students, it is that important a concept. Many home cooks who struggle with complicated recipes, more often than not, simply have these difficulties because they do not apply this simple method. So today, let's look at its importance, both as it applies to cooking, and, how that translates to life.


First, let's define the term;  Mise en place, pronounced miz on plas, is a French phrase that literally means "putting in place." It is also defined by the Culinary Institute of America as "everything in place," referring to 'set up' in commercial kitchens. It refers to organizing and arranging the ingredients. You will find and be amazed to learn that once you apply this technique to your own cooking, rather than the lack of culinary acumen you once attributed to yourself, in most cases, it is simply the lack of this critical first step that is to blame. I promise, your whole world and opinion of yourself as a cook or chef will rise to new heights once you start employing 'Mise en place' to every recipe you attempt to tackle. (yes, even the simple ones)

Preparing the mise en place ahead of time allows you to cook without having to stop and assemble items, which is most desirable in recipes with time constraints, but should be applied to any and all your cooking endeavours. If you are a new cook, or aspire to be competent in the kitchen, you can relate to getting flustered (I, your humble Gourmet Guy did as well) when trying to read the recipe with ingredient-caked hands, or while in the midst of mixing or sauteing. You get food on the book, yourself, run back and forth from the recipe to the stove top or cutting board, etc. etc. etc Employing 'Mise en place'  will elimate your frustration, ease any difficulty in interpreting a recipe and allow you the true joy of creating a culinary masterpiece just like the 'big time' chefs.

Mise en place in practice.

Recipes should be read through completely, before you ever start actually cooking, for necessary ingredients and equipment. Ingredients are then measured out, washed, chopped, and placed in individual bowls. Equipment, such as spatulas and blenders are prepared for use and ovens (or pans) are preheated.

It is this simple 'secret' that allows all of our favorite restaurant or TV chefs to make it look so stress free and easy, even when they are preparing art on a plate. Of course proper technique is also, if not just as, important to your success with complicated recipes, but this is step one (1) in bringing your cooking experience to the next level. You will appreciate the ingredients, the process and the results with a newfound delight, while your family and friends will think you are secretly attending culinary school on the sly. Stay tuned to Kitchen Rap and feel free to share these posts with friends, as we will cover such things as proper knife skills, sauteing, grilling, etc., in later posts here throughtout the coming year.

Now I did say at the beginning, that Mise en place can also be applied to life. Not much of a stretch really: Create for yourself your recipe for success, be it personally or professionally. Gather the neccessary components (ingredients) such as resources, friends, skills or career opportunities. Add the ingredients, execute your recipe, methodically, calmly and stress free, then assemble the dish. Either way, cooking or living, you'll be amazed at the delicious results that you yourself are capable of. All it takes is a little Mise en place.

As always my friends,

Bon Appetit


January 15, 2012

A culinary look at Morocco...

"Of all the gin joints in all the world, she hadda walk into mine." Who can forget Bogey rasping out those immortal words? "Casablanca." Just one of the exotic cities in a country filled with mystery and intrigue. Morocco's three top cities to visit are Marrakesh, Casablanca, and Tangier. Morocco's reigning monarch, King Hassan II, likens his country to a desert palm: "rooted in Africa, watered by Islam and rustled by the winds of Europe." A poetic description for a place which can appear mystical, magical and foreboding all at once.

Situated on the northwest coast of Africa, Morocco is one of three countries which make up the Maghreb ("furthest west"), the other two being Algeria and Tunisia. The Atlantic Ocean is to the west, while the calm waters of the Mediterranean are due north and the harsher sands of the Sahara are to the south. Snaking through the center of the country are a series of mountain ranges, beginning with the Rif mountains in the north and continuing with the Middle Atlas, High Atlas and Anti-Atlas ranges, which nearly split the country in half along a vertical axis. It is these mountainous areas which are heavily populated by the Berbers, the indigenous people of Morocco who still comprise 80% of the population. The Berbers are not ethnically Arabs, but they are Islamic.

Two languages are indigenous to Morocco: Arabic and Berber. French is also widely spoken. The Haouz, like most of the plains and cities of Morocco, is Arabic-speaking. The highlands areas of the country are largely Berber-speaking. Classical Arabic is Morocco's official language, but the country's distinctive Arabic dialect is the most widely spoken language in Morocco. French, which remains Morocco's unofficial third language, is taught universally and still serves as Morocco's primary language of commerce and economics; it also is widely used in education and government. Many Moroccans in the northern part of the country speak Spanish. English, while still far behind French and Spanish in terms of number of speakers, is rapidly becoming the foreign language of choice among educated youth. English is taught in all public schools from the fourth year on.

Once you have adapted to their way of life, there is a universe of intriguing travel opportunities and many hands to shake less then 50 miles from Europe. Veiled women occasionally may give you a seductive look, but don't go there!
Three mountain ranges present diverse landscapes and three different ways of life: the Rif in the north, the High Atlas and the Anti-Atlas, that remains mostly undiscovered. Azrou is a quiet Berber town only 2 hours drive from Rabat, worth visiting for its forest and calm atmosphere. Three different Berber groups inhabit these mountains and, on the whole, these areas are more relaxing than the large cities. You should consider trekking, even if you are a beginner, so you'll catch a glimpse of one of the many aspects of authentic Moroccan life. Adventurous skiers can find good slopes in the Atlas Mountains.

If you only have one week and you would like to see amazing geological landscapes, palm oasis, painted rocks, and the Berber way of life, Tafraoute is not to be missed. Only two hours drive from Agadir, the drive is almost as stunning as the destination. The roads are good quality throughout the north and west; there are even freeways near the bigger cities like Casablanca.
The oasis of the pre-Sahara present yet another timeless image of the Arab world with immense palm groves in the desert. Not to be missed are the fabulous mud Kasbahs and ksours (palaces and family houses) which you can find near Zagora.

Morocco produces a large range of Mediterranean fruits and vegetables and even some tropical ones. The country produces large quantities of sheep, cattle, poultry, and seafood which serve as a base for the cuisine.

The Moroccan Kitchen
The Moroccans are quick to point out that the best meals are found not in the restaurants but in the homes. In this land of good and abundant food, the emphasis is clearly on preparing your own. It is worth mentioning that women do virtually all of the cooking in this very traditional country. Being at the crossroads of many civilizations, the cuisine of Morocco has been influenced by the native Berber cuisine, the Arabic Andalusian cuisine; brought by the Moriscos when they left Spain, the Turkish cuisine from the Turkish and the Middle Eastern cuisines brought by the Arabs as well as the Jewish cuisine.

The history of Morocco is reflected in its cuisine. Political refugees left Baghdad in the middle Ages and settled in Morocco, bringing with them traditional recipes that are now common in Morocco, but forgotten in the Middle East. We know this because there are striking similarities between a 12th century (Christian reckoning) collection of recipes by Al-Baghdadi, and contemporary Moroccan dishes. A signature characteristic is cooking fruit with meat, such as quince with lamb, or apricots with chicken. Further influences upon Moroccan cuisine came from the Morisco (Muslim refugees), who were expelled from Spain during the Spanish inquisition.

The strong Arab influence found in two of the royal cities, Fez and Marrakech, contributed greatly to Moroccan cuisine, as did the Andalusian sensibilities of Tetuan and the Jewish traditions from the coastal city of Essaouira. Aspects of all of these cultures can be found in four of the best-loved Moroccan dishes: couscous, plumped semolina grains which are served with a variety of toppings; bisteeya, a delectable three-layer pie which is both savory and sweet and wrapped in the thinnest of pastry; mechoui, tender roasted lamb; and djej emshmel, succulent roasted chicken cooked with olives and lemon.

The midday meal is the main meal, with the exception of the holy month of Ramadan. The typical formal meal begins with a series of hot and cold salads, followed by a tagine. Bread is eaten with every meal. Often a lamb or chicken dish is next, followed by couscous topped with meats and vegetables. A cup of sweet mint tea is commonly used to end the meal.

The main Moroccan dish most people are familiar with is couscous, which is very old and is probably of Berber origin.

Beef is the most commonly eaten red meat in Morocco. Lamb is preferred, but is not as common due to its higher cost. Poultry was historically used and the importance of seafood is increasing in Moroccan food. The breed of sheep in North Africa has much of its fat concentrated in its tail, which means that Moroccan lamb does not have the pungent flavor that Western lamb and mutton can have.

Traditional Moroccan dishes

Bistteeya, Basteela, or Pastilla (Layered Pigeon or Chicken Pie)
This rich sweet pie is built with many layers of the thin pancakes called Warka. Filo may be substituted, as it is nearly impossible to replicate those slim, griddle wonders. The meat is mixed with eggs, herbs, spices and almonds, and is cooked on the stove top, then topped with a sugar icing and cinnamon.

Chakchouka (Tunisian Eggs)
This is a lunch or light meal made in one pan. Peppers, garlic, cumin and tomatoes are cooked with harissa and olive oil, then eggs are fried gently among the cooked vegetables.

Ferakh Maamer (Spring Chicken with Couscous Stuffing)
Young chickens are stuffed with a sweet couscous stuffing, enhanced with almonds, raisins, orange water, and sugar. The birds are then simmered slowly in a large casserole in a sauce of honey, onion, garlic, ginger, cinnamon, and saffron.

Tagine Barrogog bis Basela (Lamb Tagine with Prunes)

Lamb is simmered slowly with onion, garlic, ginger, saffron and parsley, to which are added prunes, cinnamon, honey, and orange blossom water.

Sweets are not usually served at the end of a Moroccan meal. Seasonal fruits are typically served. A common dessert is kaab el ghzal ("gazelle's horns"), which is a pastry stuffed with almond paste and topped with sugar.

Halwa Shebakia
A honey cake, which is essentially pretzel-shaped pieces of dough deep-fried and dipped into a hot pot of honey and sprinkled with sesame seeds. Halwa Shebakia are cookies eaten during the month of Ramadan. Zucre Coco are coconut fudge cakes. Halva may also be made from a variety of other ingredients, including sunflower seeds, various nuts, beans, lentils, and vegetables—such as carrots, pumpkins, yams, and squashes.

Most of the commonly used raw ingredients for cooking are homegrown; the mint and olives comes from Meknes; oranges and lemons are from Fez and prickly pear comes from Casablanca.

They also grow almonds, dates, chestnuts, walnuts, cherries, melons and pomegranates. The Atlantic coast of Morocco provides some world class seafood and they raise lamb and poultry on the higher grounds. In the market places you can find homegrown produce that’s all organic all the time.
Though all year long you can find great produce in Morocco such as eggplant, peppers, onions, squash, almonds, pumpkins, fava beans, lentils and lemons, there are crops for every season. In spring they have the best; apricots, strawberries, cherries and kiwis and even peaches. In summer you will find the best; watermelon, wild artichokes and tomatoes. Fall brings; figs, pomegranates and grapes. In the winter; oranges, mandarins, onions, beets, potatoes, and carrots.

Morrocan Tea
The most popular drink is green tea with mint. Traditionally, making good mint tea in Morocco is considered an art form and the drinking of it with friends and family members is one of the important rituals of the day. The technique of pouring the tea is as crucial as the quality of the tea. The tea is accompanied with hard sugar cones or lumps. Tea is one of the most endearing parts of the Moroccan culture that one can experience on a visit to this mysterious country. It is part of everyday life, several times a day and is a large part of the hospitality that Moroccans pride themselves on.
Moroccan mint tea consists of Chinese green gunpowder tea, fresh mint leaves, usually spearmint, and many cubes of sugar. Teapots are metal with strainer holes at the base of the spout. Moroccan tea pots have long, curved pouring spouts and this allows the tea to be poured evenly into tiny glasses from a height. The green tea is put in the pot with fresh mint and some sugar.
To acquire the optimum taste, glasses are filled in two stages.When serving, it's traditional to pour a glass of tea and then pour that tea back into the pot so that the sugar is properly mixed into the entire pot. As the tea is poured, the server raises the pot to make a long stream of tea flowing into the small glass, adding flair to the ceremony. The Moroccans traditionally like tea with bubbles, so while pouring they hold the teapot high above the glasses. Sugar is often offered to further sweeten your half glass of tea. A half glass is normally served so that you can hold it in your hand without it burning. Since the teapots are metal, ranging from aluminum, to stainless steel, to silver, to brass, they get quite hot. Hot pot holders in the shape of a little man with a red fez are used to hold the hot handle. Many foreigners don't like the sweetness of the tea as it is considered extremely sweet. It does have a much sweeter taste to those who would usually add milk or sugar however none is needed for this flavorful beverage at all. You can also buy it as loose tea from all kinds of markets around the country for various prices. Another wonderful part of the tea culture in Morocco is the range of decorative tea glasses. There are mass produced glasses and there are also delicately hand-painted glasses by artisans. You can enjoy seeing the different designs inspired by the Arabic culture, architecture and also surroundings.

Dining Etiquette
If you are invited to a Moroccan's house:
~You should remove your shoes.
~Dress smartly. Doing so demonstrates respect towards your hosts.
~Check to see if your spouse is included in the invitation. Conservative Moroccans may not entertain mixed-sex groups.
~Shake everyone's hand individually.
~Watch your table manners!
~Food is generally served at a knee-high round table.
~The guest of honor generally sits next to the host.
~A washing basin will be brought to the table before the meal is served. Hold your hands over the basin while water is poured over them. Dry your hands on the towel provided.
~Do not begin eating until the host blesses the food or begins to eat.
~Food is served from a communal bowl.
~Eat from the section of the bowl that is in front of you. Never reach across the bowl to get something from the other side. As an honored guest, choice cuts will be put in front of you.
Scoop the food with a piece of bread or the thumb and first two fingers of the right hand.
~Eat and drink only with the right hand.
~Do not wipe your hands on your napkin.
~Water is often served from a communal glass. If you want your own glass, ask for a soft drink.
The washing basin will be brought around the table again at the end of the meal.
~Expect to be urged to take more food off the communal plate. Providing an abundance of food is a sign of hospitality.

Well that's about all I've got for ya so, 'here's looking at you kid.....'

Bon Appetit!