Food is certainly a wonderful avenue for experiencing other cultures, and in addition to bringing home memories of fantastic feasts in foreign eateries, the Leopard sometimes attempts to learn how to produce some of the delights he tries. These ventures are frequently ill-advised and result in unpleasant flavors and odors, but sometimes I am able to get something right, so I thought I would share notes on some of my more successful dishes. I also can't help including some cocktail recipes.
Oddly enough, I never much cared for eggplant until I visited Turkey and discovered the fantastic things that the Turks had learned to do with a vegetable I used to find little more than grotesquely bulbous. One of my favorite eggplant dishes is this simple salad. Though generally served among a table of other mezes, you can easily enjoy eggplant salad as a dip for Turkish pide bread, pitas, lavash, crackers, or vegetables. It makes for a creamy and fresh addition to Middle Eastern dishes or as a welcome companion to hummus, feta cheese, and olives.
2 good-sized eggplants
1½ cup whole Greek yogurt
Juice of ½ lemon
2 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
3 crushed garlic cloves
Begin by pricking the eggplants and roasting them in a really hot oven (about 500°F) for about 45 minutes or until they are soft and wrinkly. Take them out and peel off the skins. If the skins comes off easily you'll know they're just right. Put the eggplants in a colander and chop and mash them up so that the juices get strained out. Put the mashed eggplants in a bowl and mix them with the yogurt, olive oil, lemon juice, garlic, and salt to taste. Let chill in the refrigerator and serve.
Meatballs in various varieties are ubiquitous in the Scandinavian lands. One of my favorites is this Danish version. Simple to make and tasty to consume, frikadeller can be accompanied by boiled potatoes, red cabbage, and hearty bread. I learned how to make them in a friend's kitchen in Vejle, Denmark.
¼ kilo ground veal (or beef if you prefer, though it's not traditional)
¼ kilo ground pork
One finely chopped medium onion
2 cups milk
Salt and pepper
First, the meatballs themselves. Mix the ground veal and pork together by hand and spread it all out in a big pile in a bowl. Remove about a third of the meat from the middle of the pile. Fill the empty space half with bread crumbs and half with flour. Add the removed meat back to the mixture. Add the onions and eggs and mix everything together by hand. Add just enough water to make the mixture easily malleable. Let the mixture sit for about a half hour. Form balls and fry in a pan in butter until done.
For the traditional gravy served with the frikadeller, let one tablespoon of butter melt in a pan until it bubbles. Add a tablespoon of flour and form a ball. Cook the mixture until it changes color (I wish I could describe exactly what color you need to achieve). Remove from heat and whisk in just enough milk to dissolve the mixture. Put the pan back on the heat and add 2 more cups of milk. Boil until the mixture thickens. Add salt and pepper to taste and serve the gravy over the meatballs.
Despite repeated attempts by my Danish friends to teach me the correct pronunciation of this dessert, I can only barely approximate it and will not try to describe it in detail here. Just briefly, the "r" is pronounced like the German "r," the "ø" like the German umlauted "ö," and the "d" is "swallowed" and pronounced somewhere between an "l" and a "th," thus exceedingly difficult to get right by English speakers. It's considered a tongue twister even for native speakers. Luckily, the dish is easier to make than to pronounce and is very tasty. Though red currants are frequently used, I generally use strawberries and raspberries. I learned to make it with frozen fruit, which is frequently the case as the dessert is often served around Christmas, but fresh fruit can be used as well.
500 grams frozen strawberries
300 grams frozen raspberries
4 tablespoons potato starch or corn starch
Fill a saucepan with about ¾" of water. Add the fruit and bring the water to a boil. Allow it to boil for about five minutes. Add some sugar to taste (about 6 tablespoons is generally adequate) and let it all boil again until the fruit gets mushy. Have a taste to see if you're happy with the sweetness and add more sugar if desired. Mash it all together a bit. Bring the mixture to a boil again. Dissolve some corn starch in water. Potato starch is more traditional but not as easy to find. Dissolving is important as if you add the starch without water you'll end up with starch pellets. Add the dissolved starch little by little. Let it boil for a couple of minutes to thicken. Add more starch if necessary to thicken more. The consistency should be smooth but not soupy. Let cool and serve in bowls topped with cream.
Amazing as it may seem, I never tried a crêpe in my life until a trip to Paris and a charming Breton crêperie in Montparnasse, so I firmly associate crêpes with French cuisine. One of my first priorities upon coming home was learning how to make my own. The recipe below is very simple and adaptable to both savory crêpes (called galettes) and sweet crêpes. Traditionally, buckwheat flour is used for galettes and wheat flour for sweet crêpes, but I've found you can interchange the two fairly successfully, which is particularly helpful when you want both dinner and dessert crêpes the same evening and don't want to make separate batters.
Ingredients for galettes:
3 large eggs
¾ cup buckwheat flour
⅓ cup all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon salt
1½ cups whole milk
2 tablespoons melted butter
Ingredients for crêpes:
2 large eggs
¼ teaspoon salt
1 cup all-purpose flour
1¼ cups whole milk
The preparation is essentially the same for both varieties. Whisk the eggs with the salt. Slowly add sifted flour and mix well with milk and butter (for galettes). Mixing the ingredients together is crucial. In Bretagne (Brittany), the batter is severely beaten for a good amount of time to ensure the proper consistency. You can use an electric beater, but I prefer to get in some exercise by mixing the batter vigorously by hand for twenty minutes or so. Strain the batter and let it stand for at least an hour, preferably longer. Heat a large pan over medium-high heat. Brush the pan with melted butter and pour enough batter to coat the bottom. You need a fast and firm hand to cover the pan as the batter firms very quickly. Cook the crêpe until the top appears dry, then flip it over with a spatula and cook the other side. Brush the pan with more butter for each crêpe. If only a smallish pan is available, you can sandwich two crêpes together with the filling as a middle layer.
Of course, a plain crêpe is hardly very thrilling. My favorite filling for a galette consists of ham, onions, and gruyère cheese. Lay the ham in the center of the galette while still in the pan and top with caramelized onions and grated cheese. Let the cheese melt and fold the sides of the galette over the filling in the shape of a square. Other tasty fillings I've tried include sautéed mushrooms and thinly sliced sausage. Shrimp cooked in garlic certainly sounds like a good idea to me and I hope to try it some day. How about eggs and shredded bacon for a breakfast galette? In other words, follow your imagination and your appetite. And don't forget to serve some dry hard cider with your galettes just as they do in Bretagne. Sweet crêpes can be filled with melted chocolate, nutella, and bananas and topped with whipped cream.
Though its fame has spread outside of its likely origins in Mexico, the margarita still carries an exotic aura and seems an appropriate addition to this page. Besides, it can often be difficult to find a good one, so I feel obligated to guide everyone in proper margarita crafting skills.
First of all, if you think making a margarita is a simple matter of blending tequila, margarita mix, and ice together with the blender set on "crush," this recipe is not for you. Most bars and Mexican restaurants will make margaritas in precisely this manner, especially if the drinks are on special. Naturally, bartenders want to make it easy on themselves and prefer to produce a drink cheaply and efficiently in large volume, and most of the drinking public just doesn't care as long as the price is low. But if you're going to make a margarita at home, there's no reason to not put some care into the preparation. The recipe below has been developed through much experimentation and error and is designed to yield good results each time.
1½ oz. tequila
1½ oz. Cointreau
¾ oz. lime juice
¾ oz. lemon juice
The first and crucial step is to ignore your blender and get out your shaker. A "frozen" or "blended" margarita is in the same class as those soda-and-crushed-ice drink combinations variously known as "slurpees" or "slushees" that are served from a spout in snake-like tube portions and are very popular with children. It's time to drink like an adult. And if you're out of college, give up the jello shots too. You can also serve a margarita on the rocks, but to truly enjoy a cold drink without the threat of dilution, I recommend shaking all the ingredients with ice and then straining into a glass. Yes, you should treat a margarita with respect, like a Martini or a Manhattan.
For glasses, you can use those tulip-shaped special margarita glasses popular in restaurants, but a rocks glass works just as well and seems a little more dignified. I prefer the type that taper a bit. Salting the glass is optional but is a nice addition. You don't need one of those sombrero hat salt dispensers. Just put some coarse (kosher) salt in a plate, moisten a glass rim with lime juice, and gently press the glass into the salt to coat the rim.
If you're like me, you frequently try to cut corners when you make a dish or a cocktail just to save some time or money. To make it easy, I will tell you exactly where you can skimp with this recipe. First, let's talk about tequilas. You don't need top-shelf tequila. Better quality tequilas are smoother and more complex in flavor. These tequilas are very nice when sipped straight, but these attributes tend to be lost when the tequila is mixed with other ingredients, especially the dominating citrus flavors. That said, I also wouldn't settle for a typical oro ("gold") tequila. There's a good reason why that golden hue looks a little unnatural: various flavors and colors have been added to mellow out the agave distillate. These additives will only interfere with the taste of your margarita. You're better off getting a blanco ("white," also known as "silver") tequila for a clean base for your drink. Personally, I prefer to go a step higher and use a reposado (aged up to a year) to add more complexity, but I find that most añejo (aged more than a year) tequilas are better appreciated solo. Both reposado and añejo tequilas have a golden color, but they've earned it through aging in oak barrels.
Second, although Cointreau is the ideal liqueur for a margarita, you can save a little and use triple sec instead. If you do so, I would recommend adding a bit more than the recipe calls for as most triple secs are less pronounced than Cointreau, and you want that taste of orange to come out and add dimension to the drink. You must not, however, skimp on fresh squeezed juices. Bottled juices are fine for adding tang to your cooking, but they don't work in a drink that depends on their flavor. I also wouldn't use the popular Rose's Lime Juice cordial as it is more syrupy than you would want. Work your wrist and squeeze some fresh juice. You also shouldn't skimp on ice. Make sure you have enough in the shaker to get the drink cold. And never re-use ice. Replenish for the next batch—it's only water. You can, however, multiply the volumes of the ingredients to make a number of servings in the same shaking.
Keep in mind that though the quantities listed above provide a good baseline (not to mention an easy-to-remember ratio: 1 part tequila, 1 part triple sec, 1 part citrus), you may have to make adjustments based on the quality and flavors of your specific ingredients. You frequently encounter this situation with juices; limes and lemons picked fresh from a tree in someone's backyard will be much stronger than the ones you find in most supermarkets, so use less citrus in that case.
Like the margarita, the popular Cuban cocktail known as the the mojito is another exquisite drink whose reputation has been ruined by too many poorly made versions served as happy hour "specials." The only recourse is too learn how to make one at home, so sometime in June I decided that this would be the summer for perfecting the mojito, and I'm happy to say that after much experimentation and the many sacrifices of dedicated taste testers I've finally developed the methods for constructing the ideal mojito.
2 oz. rum
2 teaspoons superfine sugar
Handful of mint
I usually use pint glasses or highballs for my mojitos. You could also use a shorter glass and just cut down on the amount of ice, but on a hot summer day a short mojito just doesn't provide the satisfaction of a tall cold one dripping with condensation. The first step is getting the sweet foundation ready. Add a bit of soda and stir the sugar into it. Superfine sugar works best as it dissolves nicely; if you use granulated sugar you'll have to work harder at dissolving or make simple syrup in advance.
Next you're ready for the most crucial step in the process. Drop a handful of fresh mint into the glass. I prefer to strip the mint leaves from the twigs as that's really where the flavor is, and the twigs just get in the way of the next step, the muddling. Now, most recipes ask that you be gentle about muddling the mint, but I've found that too much delicacy keeps you from releasing as much of the mint oils as you want, and you really do want a lot of those oils in your drink to make sure the mint is able to compete with all the other flavors. If you don't have a bartender's muddler (and who really does?), a pestle or even the handle of a wooden spoon work just as well. Just don't go easy on that mint; in fact, "muddle" just seems a bit too polite of a word to describe how you want to treat the mint. If drops from the soda water are popping up and hitting your hand, you're doing a good job. If splashes of soda water are ending up on the counter, you're probably being too vigorous. You'll find that after all this determined mashing the mint ends up in an unappetizing swampy mush at the bottom of the glass. Don't be concerned as when you do the stirring it will swirl up and occupy the glass nicely, and you can always add extra mint at the end for garnish.
The next step is adding the juice from half a lime. As I mention in the recipe for margaritas above, if you have a really fresh lime right off of someone's tree you'll want to use less juice. Then add the rum. You certainly don't need to use a top-shelf aged rum as the complexity would just be lost among the other flavors, but neither should you use grocery store brand rum, just get something decent and affordable. Most mojito recipes specifically call for light rum as it has a much more neutral flavor. I frequently use dark rum as I like the more pronounced taste, so choose according to your personal preference. Also keep in mind that colorless light rum often makes for better presentation as the crystal clear drink allows the rich colors of the mint leaves to really come through, whereas a mojito made with dark rum will end up looking murkier.
Now you're ready to add soda water (or club soda or seltzer, any carbonated unflavored water will do). Pour until the glass is about three-fourths full, just leaving enough room for the amount of ice you want. At this point you should definitely give everything a good stir as it won't be as easy to do so once the ice is in. You want to make sure all the ingredients are well blended and the mint leaves are floating around the glass. Then just fill the rest of the glass with ice. I usually like to add the hull of the juiced half-lime on top of the ice or a lime slice to the rim of the glass. You need to be bold when garnishing with lime as a simple twist just gets visually lost in all the mint leaves.
Last update for this page: 31 August 2008