I’m fond of the books that are part recipe, part  history. I really do want to know how something appeared, what created this or that recipe. I’m not as thrilled by the chemistry of it all; ironic given my university degree. But these two books tickle both my need for a good recipe and my need for the context of it all.

Robb Walsh is an excellent food historian. In this book he gives a simplified version of his Houston Press articles on Tex Mex and the fajita. In it there are useful charts of meats, some food experiments he tried that works (yes, in a Gene-Jon-Sean-Jimmy kind of way – ever try galbi fajitas?).  But if you’re like me, and write or seriously think about food, you buy what Robb Walsh writes because he cares enough to do his research and  get his story right. He doesn’t pull it out of thin air.

Colleen Taylor Sen’s book is lighter and breezier, a two to three hour read. But there are recipes that go back hundreds of years in this book, varieties of curries probably not easily made today. It covers a lot more of the earth than does Robb’s book, touching  usefully on things like Thai, Dutch and Japanese curries. But the best coverage is of the Indian recipes, what they are, where they come from. It talks about the origin of tandoori chicken, for example and has plenty of colorful photos.

Both recommended. I’d say that Robb’s book is a must read for anyone trying to critique Mexican restaurants in America.

You know, the Japanese do not eat sushi or tempura routinely. Those dishes are reserved for special occasions.
Japanese guest, at my brother-in-law’s Thanksgiving party.

The Chamorros have a few dishes that are signatures, and as my family encountered them a number of times during the Thanksgiving holidays, I thought it appropriate to introduce these dishes in context. In almost all cases where we were served food, the centerpiece of the meal, the first thing on the table was a finadene sauce. I’ve spoken of finadene before. It’s a sauce based on soy sauce, lemon juice (or vinegar), scallions, and boonie peppers. Finadene is a ubiquitous flavoring component in the Marianas, found even in the local Kentucky Fried Chickens. In the absence of boonies, my wife has had good luck with Thai (bird) peppers. But Thais can be 50,000-100,000 Scoville units in heat, while Professor Marutani of the University of Guam has shown me quotes that place the heat of the boonies in roughly the same range as jalapeno peppers, or about 4000 Scoville units. To note, my wife usually freezes her Thai peppers first.

Home made Finadene sauce.

Kelaguen is a Micronesean version of ceviche. However, instead of being applied largely to fish, the most common forms of kelaguen are chicken kelaguen (recipes here and here) and beef kelaguen(recipes here and here). This is not a staple, but a side dish and used for special occasions.

Chicken kelaguen

Red rice is a staple Chamorro dish, and the rice is colored with the red pigment of the achiote bean. The blog Scent of Green Bananas has an excellent article on Chamorro red rice. The bean imparts a subtly different flavor to the rice, which I can only describe as “duskier” or “darker”. This kind of red rice is not the same as Japanese red rice, which is sweeter and more a dessert. Achiote (or achote) can usually be purchased at places with a strong Hispanic influence, such as Atlanta’s international markets.

Chamorro red rice.

A Micronesian cultural resource I’ve recently encountered is the Guampedia. They have placed online dozens of recipes. Among other things, more exotic forms of kelaguen (venison, yellowfin) are presented among the recipes.

I recently made a couscous stir fry, whose recipe I won’t post, as it’s mostly identical to the quinoa stir-fry I posted earlier.  There is one exception, however. I substituted shallots for onions when I did this one, just to see how it would turn out. They turned transparent really really fast, so fast I was a little afraid of burning them. This left me a little interested in finding out what other people did with shallots, as they mostly seem to be this “fancy onion” that people use in this dish or that.

Poking around the Internet, I found this excellent article about shallots on Michael Ruhlman’s blog. His comments, including one about adding a spoonful of shallots to a panful of sauteed mushrooms, are really worth noting. Other online articles, such as this one from about.com, call the shallot a cross between onion and garlic and a milder version of both. The Chowhound site has an interesting article about what to do with 5 pounds of shallots. But the surprise of the browsing day was running into this article from the blog White on Rice, which talks about making banh mi (and the article is just fantastic). Turns out they also publish a blog named  Battle of the Banh Mi, and it has some really cool articles all its own, such as this one on the fillings of banh mi. The blog is collecting opinions about what is good and where, and for opinions about banh mi in Atlanta, Georgia, the appropriate link is here.

I was asked to make something fast for my daughter and myself, and I had a hankering for something a little different. I can pan sear steak with the best of them but I wanted something fast and simple. My daughter suggested tacos, but I was thinking what I would see in a plate of fajitas, and it is essentially marinated steak, bell pepper strips and onions. So, I went to the local carniceria and found a beautiful red pepper and some nice thinly sliced steak (0.7 lb), so I also bought the chicken my wife wanted and some flour tortillas and headed home.

We prepared a fajita style marinade as so:

Juice of 1 lime
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 cloves garlic, minced.
salt to taste
1 teaspoon red pepper
1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
add water till the steak was covered.

The steak and marinade were placed in a bowl, wrapped in plastic and allowed to sit in the refrigerator.

In the meantime we cut up 1 green and 1 red pepper and 1/2 yellow onion and 1/2 red onion. We placed the veggies in a bowl for the time being.

The longer you marinate, the more flavor you’ll get. Some people add cumin to the marinade, others add cilantro, and still others add jalapeno pepper. Some even add tequila! Still others marinate the peppers with the steak.  In Keith Law’s blog, he uses a dry rub for his fajitas. This is a place where some inventiveness will help you. Look at some other recipes for fajita marinades to get ideas.

After the steak was marinated enough (the longer the better for sure, and overnight is probably best. We did it an hour. We were hungry), we took it out of the fridge and cut it into thin strips. This aids in the cooking. For that matter, if you cut the steak before marinating, it will marinate faster (increased surface area).

If you want the steak to have a more grilled appearance, you’ll need to use a pan at a high heat and probably start cooking the steak first. As this can leave a kitchen absolutely full of smoke, I chickened out and just added a tbsp of oil at medium-high heat, let the pan warm up and tossed in everything – steak, onions, peppers – at once. I cooked until the steak was done, no hint of red and with the vegetables soft and moist. I had my daughter try the meat and when we were satisfied, we removed the food from the skillet, drained the juices, poured it all into a bowl. We provided a spoon and flour tortillas and allowed anyone to have at it.

It looked great, and would have been great over a bed of rice, too.

In the Indian section of the Buford Highway Farmer’s Market, they’re called urid dals, though online most sources call them urad dals. I have been fascinated by them since sources say they have an earthy flavor, and one thing I’m trying to do with my various incarnations of lentil soup is have a tasty product that isn’t mush. But the one thing I didn’t get before cooking this batch was a good cooking time, and I cooked them about 30-45 minutes. The product is a little chewy this time, as opposed to mushy. The soup is still not perfect.

There are some good looking recipes for urad dals out there, such as this really tasty looking dal mahkani. There are interesting lentil recipes as well, such as this one from the blogger Food and Spice for a spicy green lentil and split pea dish. But I wasn’t really finding recipes that told me how long to cook urad dals. Then I switched search tactics and found this Carnegie Mellon site pretty quickly. Sanjiv Singh’s recipe for curried black lentil soup has the dals cooking for two hours. Whoooops.

Other good looking recipes include this one, from 101 Cookbooks.  The site beanslentils.com has a nice spicy urad dal dish. And off-topic but way cool:  Aarkfood’s ten essentials for the Indian kitchen.

My first exposure to any black bean and corn salsa was when my wife came home with a bottle of Desert Pepper Trading Company’s Black Bean and Corn Salsa. The realization that a salsa could be more than a light condiment hit me between the eyes as if it were a 50 pound hammer.  For me it’s been a Super Bowl treat since, to get some of that salsa and some Green Mountain Gringo Tortilla Chips and ruin any diet I might have been on.

Aha moment number 2 just came at lunch this morning, when the neighboring division of my company held an open lunch. There was a black bean and corn salsa there. I got a cup, tasted it, and then looked at what was in it. It didn’t seem that far removed from a pico de gallo, and I’ve been making pico these days. Pico de gallo is amazingly good when made fresh. I told myself I’d dig through the blogs, gather some recipes, and then briefly review what I had found. This is going to be a link-filled summary article. It’s more a wish list of things I’d like to consider making some day — at least the easier ones!

Salsa Notes

If you dig though the very nice salsa article on the Wikipedia, you’ll find that pico de gallo is a kind of salsa (salsa cruda). The kind of black bean and corn salsa I’d be interesting in making would probably start as a salsa cruda (Improvements welcome, of course).

Black Bean and Corn salsas

Just doing a web search on black bean and corn salsa gets some workable links, such as the ones here, here, here and here. But if I had any complaint to make, they are using a lot of canned goods, as opposed to frozen or fresh, and they don’t stretch the reader very much or teach much of anything.

The first blog based recipe I ran into was Kimberly’s salsa. It looks good. This recipe by Cheap Ass Chef was the first I had seen to use some lime zest. Spencer’s Kitchen offers a pretty straightforward recipe for the salsa (canned beans though, although one canned ingredient is hardly a problem). Real Mom Kitchen offers a bean and corn salsa that looks really good (uses Italian dressing to add sweet and sour flavors). The blog Royal Tart has a recipe that includes feta cheese, and the 7th Sage’s recipe is one you can cook and can. Last, but hardly least, Innocent Primate’s black bean and corn salsa recipe was really nicely done.  I like the trouble she took to tell people how to roast the peppers that the recipe requires. The difference between Innocent Primate’s directions, and what you get on the average cooking site, is like night and day.

Other salsas

In One Stop Cook’s recipe for Southwestern roll-ups, she presents the first salsa I found that was cooked. The roll-ups look good too.  Janet Joseph has an interesting fresh salsa, one that uses oregano instead of cilantro. Today’s Menu presents a trio of salsas, a pico de gallo, a salsa, and a salsa verde. The blog Your Easy Recipe presents a salsa using canned tomatoes. In the blog Biscuits and Such, a black bean salsa is presented. This one uses a commercial picante sauce as part of the recipe and also involves some cooking.

In the blog Lobster and Fishsticks, a Greek salsa recipe is described. In the blog “And She Can Cook!”, a simple, versatile recipe is shown, one that can become salsa or pico de gallo as needed. On the blog The Foodie Collaborative, the author presents a salsa and salsa verde recipe from a friend of hers. Both look really good.  Finally, on Sacred Chef’s blog, a nice looking smoky red capsicum salsa recipe has been published.

Sweet Salsas

In Cooking With Lindi, a mango salsa is presented as an accompaniment to steak. In this case, rather than cilantro or oregano, the ‘leafy’ component is parsley.  In the blog What’s Cooking, the salsa recipe (accompanying chicken this time) includes not only mango, but orange as well. In Duffek BBQ, a pineapple “salsa” is presented (with instructions for turning it into a salsa, unquoted). The blogger Domestic Diva presents a mango-peach salsa, and in the blog Margaritas in the Afternoon, a pineapple-mango salsa is given.

ca 2:30pm — I have a pot of black beans simmering on the stove, I have done some shopping and have the stuff for pico de gallo (substituting jalapenos for serranos this time), and I have hard red wheat and red quinoa from Mother Nature’s Market soaking on the kitchen table.

Soaking: hard wheat on the left, red quinoa on the right.

Soaking: hard wheat on the left, red quinoa on the right.

I’m thinking along three lines: black beans and rice as the first dish, some pico de gallo, and then a mung bean soup, with some wheat and quinoa added to provide the grain component of the soup. Of these three, it’s with the black beans and rice that I’m winging it the most. Thankfully WordPress has a common tag named rice and beans.

I threw in some salt, marjoram, a bay leaf and a few cubes of ham after about an hour of simmering, just to see what it would do. It has improved the smell of the pot quite a bit. I want the beans soft though, and different recipes I’ve perused are giving different times to simmer. This recipe suggests an hour and a half (but no salt) and this one suggests (with salt) perhaps three hours.  I’ll note the cubes of ham seem to have disappeared by now, melted into the broth of the beans. This recipe looks fantastic, but I’d have to use the same stuff I want to use to make pico.

ca 3:45pm — The pico de gallo is now marinating in the refrigerator. The last batch really didn’t hit its peak of flavor until 2 days after mixing. Today, the tomatoes were huge, the green onion bunch was huge, and the japalenos were huge, so 3 tomatoes, 1 japaleno, 1/2 a yellow onion and a bit more cilantro this time. It’s amazing how much easier it is to mince cilantro when you have an idea of the right tools (this tool, or perhaps that tool) to use.

The beans are whole and soft and on low heat.. I’m trying to reduce the liquid the beans are in. In a lot of recipes I’ve seen so far, they save the bean liquor and use it to cook at other stages, but if we’re sticking to the principles of Louisiana red beans and rice, we’ll just mix beans and rice and some of the liquor as needed. Flavor should evolve in the dish if we just eat some today and save the rest in the fridge.

ca 4:45pm – black beans and rice are done.

The final result: a bowl of black beans and rice.

The final result: a bowl of black beans and rice.

I cooked the rice (1 cup) by first sauteeing it with a bit with celery ( 1 stick) , onion (1/2 smaller yellow onion) , garlic (2 cloves), and a handful of diced ham. I added water (2 cups) and let it simmer a bit (15 to 20 minutes). I forgot the lid and there were some losses, so I had to add more water as I cooked. The end product was good and soft, but a little sticky. The beans were well nigh perfect and the mixture quite edible. My family came home just as I finished. My daughter liked it, my wife decided it was good, but could use some spices.

I need to get my wife to teach me how to use the rice cooker.

ca 6:45pm — The black beans and rice ended up as half our dinner (smoked sausage being the other half). A single serving of bean and rice is all that is left.

ca 9:30pm — Today’s cooking is done.  But just before I started my daughter walked over to my quinoa and said, “Your quinoa is sprouting.”

My reaction was typical. “No it isn’t.”

“Come over here and see, it’s sprouting.”

And of course, my daughter was right. It’s what happens, I guess, when you soak quinoa almost 24 hours. I guess 4 hours is enough.

In any event, I had to precook the wheat for about half an hour, because I anticipated about 25 minutes of cooking for the mung beans, and wheat needs 45-60 minutes of cooking. I cut up a typical assortment of veggies.. 3 celery stalks, carrot sticks equivalent to a couple carrots,  1 yellow onion, 3 cloves of garlic, some remaining mini-pimentos, and the japaleno I didn’t put into the pico de gallo. I cooked the veggies in the pot in olive oil for 5-6 minutes and then added the wheat berries. Afterwards, I added mung beans and covered with about half an inch of water. In the pan I was cooking the wheat in, I added a quart of water and heated it while I cooked the rest (so I could add hot water as needed). 10 minutes after I started with the beans, I added the red quinoa, sprouts and all.

It took longer to cook (40 minutes, instead of the expected 25) than I expected, because I was keeping the heat low, and at times it was just under boiling.  At the end it began getting the color and consistency I like, so I then spiced (much the same as my red lentil soup):

1.5 teaspoons garam masala

0.75 tsp cumin

0.75 tsp coriander

0.75 tsp Jamaican curry powder

mixed peppers, from a grinder (12 twists)

marjoram, thyme, salt, salt substitute, red pepper to taste.

12 drops of a habanero-mango hot sauce.

The result looked something like this:

Mung bean, wheat berry, and red quinoa soup

Mung bean, wheat berry, and red quinoa soup

It’s a good tasting soup, and it’s going to be lunch for the next 3-4 days at work.

Il Forno is on the corner of Five Forks and Oak Road, just a block from the Five Forks – Ronald Reagan intersection. It used to be part of a chain, but was bought out by local ownership. I had eaten there a lot when it was part of the chain, but almost never since. When it was a chain, it delivered a surprisingly good pizza pie for a Southern corner shop. And I had been growing increasingly curious if the new ownership had found out how to consistently make a good crust.

The inside of the restaurant is attractive. The countertop is a steel surface and the chairs and tables are nice. There aren’t very many of them. I counted 7 tables inside. They do have outside seating, however, and when the weather is mild they can handle more people. The waitress and the cooks (visible as you sit) were all wearing I Love New York shirts and/or hats. A black T shirt was the uniform of choice.

I looked for something with pepperoni and some Italian sausage, and the only thing on the menu that fit was the Cardiology special. I ordered a 12″ pie and a beer. The on-tap beer selection is quite good if you’re into the heavier ales: Anchor Steam, Sierra Nevada,  Pilsner Urquell, Brooklyn Ale, etc. The pie took a little time, and I was on my second beer when it arrived.

It’s a thin crust pizza, and given the lightness of the crust, it had a respectable set of toppings on it. I could see that the crust was browned on the edges, but the take home lesson would be in the center of the pie. I’ve spent a couple years in the Northeast, and the one thing you can count on in a Pennsylvania or New York pie is a crispy crust. And in a joint claiming a New York heritage, don’t even bother if the crust isn’t good.

I pulled out a slice, took a bite. It was crisp from tip to tail. In all honesty I was a bit relieved. You always hope a place this nice looking will put up food to match its looks and it did. Now I will warn people that the thin crust doesn’t stay crispy terribly long. In my estimation this is a pie to be eaten on the premises, and not taken home. Before I was finished the toppings were steaming the crust in the middle and the interior inch or two had lost its crispiness. Of course, there was just one of me and a 12″ pie to navigate. Served to 2 or 3 people, this pie would be just fine.

I didn’t order salads or calzones as I was there, but I saw them made and pass by. The calzones are simply enormous. The salads looked good, but they also looked a lot like they were assembled from precut pizza toppings.

The base (sauce and cheese) 12″ pizza runs about $11.00. The 16″ runs about $12.50. Toppings run from a dollar each to $3.00 for chicken. Named pizzas range from $13-$17 in the 12″ size and $14-$20 in the 16″ size. Pasta dishes run from $8.00 to $14.00, but most under $11.00. Calzones and Strombolis range from $6-$9.

Il Forno NY Pizza & Pasta on Urbanspoon

It’s not as if I expected her to help but she did. “Can I help make it?”, she asked. I know she’s helped my wife prepare foods before, but I didn’t expect this kind of reaction from my daughter over making pico de gallo.

The whole process, though, has had its little surprises. I get to the grocery and am checking out and my clerk is a Hispanic lady. Usually I merit as much attention as the clock on the wall, but not today.

She looks at my serranos and asks, “These don’t seem like jalapenos. Are these what you wanted?”
I look at my little cheat sheet and say, “Serranos. That’s what in the recipe, yes.”
She rings up the serranos and asks, “You making salsa?”
“No, I’m making pico.”
“You don’t have any cilantro.”
I grin and mention I already have some at home.
She then smiles and says, “It’s going to be so goood.”

Ok, so I’m home and I eat quickly and before I start cutting up my ingredients my daughter is wanting to help. And not only am I pleased but she’s also doing this with a handicap: a fine motor delay.

I do most of the cutting, but still she helps with the tomatoes and with the green onions. When I get to the spicy peppers she shows me a trick she saw on the Food Network for deveining and deseeding the peppers (using a spoon. Works like a charm). She added the lemon and lime juice to the mix and pretty soon after we have it marinating in the fridge. Looks good so far.

The pico seems better when the effort is shared.

The pico seems better when the effort is shared.

The recipe:

Cooks.com has a bunch of recipes for this kind of condiment. We picked this recipe in particular, provided by Stephanie. Our version of Stephanie’s pico is:

6 Roma tomatoes.
2 yellow onions
1 bunch green onions
1 bunch cilantro
2 serrano peppers
juice of 1 lemon, 1 lime.

Chop everything fine and mix. devein and deseed where necessary. Add spices to taste. Place in a bowl in the refrigerator and let it sit a while (Stephanie recommends at least 4 hours).

The blogger Feed Yourself has a recipe for a red-white quinoa pilaf that I’ve been eyeing for a while now. I had a piece of steak at home but no sides, so I figured this wouldn’t be bad. I could seal up any extra in a microwave container and take it to work. I was confident enough in my ability to cook quinoa and quickly, and I’ve cooked veggies similar to this in oil before. I just had to combine these steps in a couple different ways. Course, I’ve never made any pilaf ever, much less a quinoa pilaf. What the heck, worth a try.

I was too hungry to worry with cleaning up my red quinoa, so what I made was purely a white quinoa base. I had never taken quinoa so low in water that it wasn’t at least oatmeal-like in texture, so I spent a lot of time watching that bowl with a “is it done yet?” eye. I should not have worried so much.. it dried up just fine. I took it off the heat and fluffed it.

I cut up too much parsley, and my vegetables are hardly chopped fine. I tossed in some cilantro too, about a half handful – I’m a big pico de gallo nut and I’d probably tossed in pico if I could have found some. I misplaced my measuring spoons so had to guess with my spices using a baby spoon, but it all seemed to be pretty invulnerable to any fumbles on my part.

The pilaf is tasty and simple to make.

The pilaf is tasty and simple to make.

I took about half of it to eat with my dinner, a suprisingly good piece of leftover steak, along with some Jumex guava nectar I snagged while buying soft drinks for my wife. The rest of it I put in a microwave container. It’s going to become lunch, or perhaps a dinner side sometime.

The cleanup was a bit messier than I was used to. Soups tend to clean themselves but green bits of parsley were everywhere. The pan I cooked the quinoa in also had quinoa stuck here and there, but cleaning out a quinoa pot has a lot of the same pleasure I recall from cleaning up the cake mix out of bowls in my youth.

Check out Feed Yourself’s recipe. Definitely recommended.