Tuesday, May 29, 2012

A weekend in Vancouver

I just got back from a whirlwind trip to Vancouver, BC.  What an amazing city!  The weekend we were there was blessed with blinding sunshine.  I think that Vancouverites must be just as sun-starved as us Portlanders, because the streets and beaches were simply packed with sun-worshippers in skimpy costumes.  This allowed us to really indulge in our favorite activity -- people watching.

Another favorite activity that we indulged in was, of course, sampling the local eats.  Apart from an unfortunate falafel incident on the popular Denman Street, which left me questioning Vancouver's true food-cred, I have to say we had some pretty nice meals. 

The ice-creams around town were particularly yummy -- we especially liked the scoop of maple walnut at the end of our hike up to Prospect Point in Stanley Park.  Another meal at Adesso Bistro, a neighborhood Italian restaurant adjacent to our hotel boasting a small but excellent wine list, was also quite memorable -- and not just for the multiple digits on our final bill. 

There were also several excellent delicacies to gawk at and occassionally sample from at the Granville Island market, including unpasteurized cheeses (!!!), pains au chocolat at a French bakery, 'La bagueette et l'echallote', and juicy, plump lychees from the market.  These were all rendered especially tasty by the end of a 4 mile hike in the blazing sun to get from our hotel to the market itself.
Gawking at desserts at Granville Market

Granville Island Tea Company

Cheeses galore

Shiny steel cans holding infused oils

Juicy lychees

Cherries at the marketplace

But the most wonderful meal we had, hands-down, was at an unpretentious hole-in-the-wall restaurant on Broadway -- Peaceful Restaurant.  Granted, this may not really be a hole in the wall much longer, after it was recently featured on Food Network recently.  Indeed, while we were one of the first ones in this tiny restaurant, it quickly filled up and saw lines waiting for our table within a half hour of our arrival.  I first heard of this place while I was channel-surfing during a recent hotel stay and came across an interesting noodle-making video filmed at a local restaurant in Vancouver and featured on Food Network's Diners, Drive-in's and Dives. As someone who has no cable TV at home, I wasn't very familiar with the show, but the panache and dexterity of the Chinese noodle-maker certainly left an impression.  In anticipation of a potential trip to Vancouver, I bookmarked the name of this restaurant in my head and located it once we go to Canada.

Vegetable dumplings
 The specialty of the place is their 'hand-dragged noodles'.  Since we got there just as it opened at 11 a.m., the smiley-faced chef was very indulgent when I asked to take photographs and even called me back to the kitchen to film him as he deftly converted a mass of dough into perfect strings of noodles, ready to be dropped into a vat of boiling water at the ready.   Part of the reason that we were there so early was that we had skipped breakfast in anticipation of our meal at  Peaceful Restaurant -- this turned out to be one of the few instances where it is in fact a great idea to skip breakfast. After perusing the extensive menu while sipping on hot oolong tea, we ordered Sichuan-style noodles featuring the hand-dragged noodles, as well as pan-fried vegetable dumplings.  The dumplings were by far the best I've ever had.  The slightly thick and chewy house-made wrappers were flecked with specks of scallion (I think) and filled with a piping hot flavorful mix of veggies served along side some vinegar with just a dash of soy.  Getting to the main course -- the noodles -- every mouthful was bursting with flavor and spice, quite reminiscent of 'Indian-Chinese' for those in the know, but far less greasy.  What set them apart, however, were the noodles that had just been prepared in front of our eyes.  The noodles were long and chewy, with just the right amount of bite to them -- in a word, amazing!  I would move to Vancouver just to be able to eat these noodles on a more regular basis!
Vegetarian Sichuan style noodles

Making the noodles

The proud chef

Since we only had two days in Vancouver, we didn't get a chance to see everything that we hoped to.  We will definitely return to this city to see the Sun Yat Sen Chinese classical gardens, stroll along English Bay beach again, and hopefully return to Peaceful Restaurant.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Vegetable Khichdi

They say that one always dreams in the language that one is most comfortable with -- their native language, so to say.  I've also heard it said that the language that one is most conversant is the one a person uses to do math and sums in their head.  I think a similar analogy applies to food.  A long while ago, I wrote a blog post for the American Society for Nutrition, entitled 'The Immigrant's Fridge."  Part of what I was saying in this article is that one of the last things to change in the assimilation process of an immigrant to a new culture is their diet.  For someone like me, who's had the privilege of having traveled widely and lived amidst various cultures, questions about self-identity can be hard to answer.  For instance, I cannot truly answer the question of which language is my native language, though I suspect that it is in fact English.  Certain other aspects -- such as what I consider to be an appropriate amount of personal space when speaking with someone -- are decidedly American.  But when it comes to food, perhaps my Indian identity has proved a bit more indelible.  Ultimately, on a rainy, cold, and grey day, when I start craving comfort food, the recipes that I most often resort to still tend to be Indian ones.  Familiar ingredients, cooked simply and quickly, with just a smattering of spice to satisfy my tastebuds.  As I sit here on such a cold, grey, and rainy day in Portland, I share with you one of my favorite comfort food recipes for you to try out.  I'd love to hear what you think of it.

Vegetable Khichdi 
(loosely translated as a vegetable porridge)

1 C cut vegetables, such as beans, carrots, peas, and corn
1 C short to medium grain rice, such as jasmine, washed
1/2 C moong daal*
Half a red onion, finely sliced
2 tsp ghee (clarified butter)*
1 tsp turmeric powder*
2 tsp cumin seeds *
1.5 T spice mixture
2 tsp salt

To make the spice mixture:

Grind equal amounts of cumin seeds and whole black pepper in a spice mill to a coarse consistency.  This spice mix is great on a variety of foods, including sliced cucumbers, tomato soup, and roasted potatoes.

To make Khichdi:

Pressure-cook vegetables, rice, and daal with 1.5 C water till rice and daal are very well cooked, usually about 6 whistles**
Allow cooker to cool completely
In the meantime, heat ghee, add cumin seeds and turmeric and sautee till seeds crackle
Add onions and sautee until they are translucent
Add rice/daal mixture and spice mixture
Mix well, sprinkling some water on top if needed to help spices mix into rice
Taste and adjust for salt

The final consistency of this dish should be like very thick oatmeal.  It is often served with either yogurt or an Indian style pickle*.  But it's most importantly always served piping hot!

Cook's Notes

* These are all available most easily at Indian grocery stores and sometimes at well-curated specialty markets.

**If you don't have a pressure cooker, a lot of Indian recipes are quite a bit more time-consuming.  In this case, I would suggest soaking the daal in hot water for about an hour, and then mixing it with the rice and veggies and cooking in a rice cooker or an open vessel until the daal is softened completely.  I also recommend investing in a good pressure cooker, as this is a great way to steam and cook foods quickly with minimal loss of nutrients.

To reheat, lightly sprinkle water and heat in microwave.  Alternatively, heat in a skillet, adding enough water to loosen up the rice and lentils.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Spicy tofu with golden beets and beet greens

Alas, my vacation has come to an end. Truth be told, it ended a while ago, but with a million things to catch up on at home and at work, I just haven’t had the time to devote to this space. Besides which, those of you who know me personally also know that I’ve been spending some time preparing and launching my Etsy store, Five Farthings, which is another one of my creative outlets, albeit unrelated to edible goodies.

Before we go any further, the results of the spice set giveaway are in, and the winners have been sent an email with instructions to receive their gift. Thank you all so much for the comments, and please keep them coming. Without your feedback, there simply is no reason for me to continue with this effort.

Although I haven’t been blogging a lot since I went on vacation, I have been cooking. In fact, spring is such a great time for foodies in general, because menus everywhere are chock-full of farm fresh ingredients that are predominantly vegetarian. Granted, I often don’t know what many of these items are. Rapini? Ramps? Crucolo? Thankfully, the Portland restaurant scene is laid back enough that my queries as to their identity are generally met with helpful explanations and only rarely with incredulous expressions at my ignorance.

So with this inspiration from local restaurant menus and joyful trips to the local farmers’ markets, I have also been keeping myself busy in the kitchen incorporating new ingredients into my platter. Here’s one such recipe, Spicy tofu with golden beets and beet greens, that made for quite a delicious new twist to our weekly tofu intake. The sweetness of the beets is nicely offset by the mild bitterness of the greens, and you’re left with the satisfaction of having used up an entire big bunch of beets -- greens and all. This was the first time I had cooked beet greens, and I will definitely be buying more of these as soon as possible. Are there any greens that you have lately tried and enjoyed? Do let me know, since I love experimenting with substitutes for good ole spinach.

The recipe

Spicy tofu with golden beets and beet greens

6 golden beets peeled and cut into ½ inch pieces
Leaves of 6 beets, chopped roughly
4 cloves of garlic, minced
2T sesame oil
1 package of extra firm tofu, cut into 1 inch cubes
1 small bunch of scallions, minced
¼ C low sodium soy sauce
¼ C chili garlic sauce
1 T all-purpose flour dissolved in ¼ C cold water (optional)

Heat oil in a pan, and add garlic and beets. Sautee lightly.
Add tofu and allow to brown lightly on all sides
Add beet greens, in batches if necessary, and allow them to wilt
Add soy sauce and chili garlic sauce and cook on medium heat until beets are softened
Taste for salt and spice and add more soy or chili-garlic sauce, as needed

If using, add flour dissolved in water and cook for about 3-5 minutes.
Take off heat and garnish with scallions. Serve over hot steamed rice.

Cook's Notes: Given the sweetness of the beets, I thought this recipe could easily handle the amount of spice listed below, but feel free to scale it back to suit your tastes. I served this over a ½ and ½ mix of brown basmati rice with white jasmine rice cooked with 1.5 measures of water in a rice cooker. The fragrance and toothiness of this combination was just what I was after.