Archive for February, 2008

the funny peté bean

February 28, 2008

Sator, or stink (or stinky) bean, is used in Thai and Indonesian cooking. In Holland it is most of the time called Peté in a modernized frenchified spelling.

We are talking about beans of the shape of a thumbnail or slightly larger, and about as thick as half a pencil. Their color is most inspiring: a difficult to define, solid pastel green that lacks most of the watery translucency normally associated with peas and green beans. Through their appearance alone, peté beans speak to us of far away countries and unknown customs. In one of Louis Couperus’s numerous novels (I forget which), a colonial poisoning during an extended meal has to take place. In the Dutch filmed version this event is duly introduced by showing how a large dish of peté beans in a hot red pepper sambal is being brought into the dining hall. In the subdued lighting and the stuffy late-nineteenth century setting they wink at us, out of their red sauce, in a most sinister way. Long before there are actual deaths to report, we shiver and huddle together. (more…)


small improvements

February 26, 2008

Someone on ask metafilter is asking for new hamburger recipes. Funny that people actually know what to answer. I mean, we’re talking about hamburgers. What I would find interesting with hamburgers is how they are cooked, technique-wise. This is much more important than what happens in terms of authenticity if I mix another teaspoon full of this, that or the other into the burger mix. Spices and combinations can be improvised, cooking techniques much less so. A spoiled burger remains spoiled, no matter whether we’ve added thyme or not.

The small good things that happen in the kitchen have little to do with recipes. They are about spending tiny bits of time on actions that make all the difference. Reducing watery matter is one such example. (more…)

culinary greenland

February 24, 2008

On my way from Ottawa to Kangerlussuaqu, the international airport of Greenland, I had three things to think about. The first was that I was hungry. I had arrived in the hotel late and hungry, the bar was closed, there were only tiny bags of peanuts available and I needed my three hours of sleep before the 5:00 A.M. check-in. At noon, halfway across the Hudson bay, I was still hungry, even though sounds and smells were beginning to emanate from the front of the plane that announced an improvement of my condition. The second thing I was worrying about was how I was supposed to eat my meal, once it had arrived. I could, in fact, hardly breathe – wedged against the windowpane of the battered B-727 (not such a big plane) by a set of frontier-culture shoulders, owned by a muscular person shorter than wide, who didn’t communicate (since I survived, I believe that I managed somehow).

Third, and that is the introduction I intended to write, I was rehearsing Greenlandian food in my mind. If you are the father of two children (seven and ten years old at the time) who eat their breakfasts from their special “Save The Seals” plates every morning, you’d better not risk having to answer difficult questions. No seals, in other words. How about Whale? The airline brochure made a great point of telling the tourist that Greenland hunts only non-endangered kinds of whale – so yes, perhaps whale. Maybe no whale blubber. I forget why I thought that. (more…)

tahini chicken – tahini fish

February 21, 2008

Chicken fillets normally turn out best when prepared like I have described elsewhere: you separate the small and the big muscles of one fillet, and you slice the big one into two (or in big specimens several) horizontal layers. A really sharp knife is a Must in this operation, or you will get sloppy fillet bits and minced fingertips. The problem is now that in order to turn these fillets-of-fillets into something edible, you actually have to stand there, watch them, turn them in time, stop the cooking in time, and let the house elf or kitchen troll do everything else in the meantime.

I tried to solve this by creating an oven dish, which was inspired by ground lamb in sesame sauce, as served in a restaurant in Abu Gosh west of Jerusalem. (more…)

up, down, and up again

February 18, 2008

Last November I got a gift certificate from these guys, a late but welcome ripple in the wake of the defence of my dissertation. Someone had found out about my interest in cooking: it was from the Swedish kitchenware chain Verner&Verner, issued at their first-ever store in the Nordstan mall of Gothenburg. Gratefully, I went to V&V’s website and picked out one of these things I always wanted to have but refused to pay for.

Verner&Verner, which began in 1986, has a profile that attracts the Glass-Door-Pantry and See-Me-Cooking types, with a lot of colorful Le Creuset’s assorted pots and pans, a selection of expensive knives, a sharpening service, shelves full of gleaming espresso machines, kitchen-aid mixers in green and red, piles of design accessories, pasta in fancy glass tubes, herbs and specialty coffee. They used to be quite alone with this concept in Sweden. It always was a pleasure to walk through their shops. But competition has caught up. Both V&V shops in Borås closed last year, and a week after I had chosen my gift-certificate-item, the newspaper announced that Verner&Verner had gone out of business altogether.

Darn. As soon as there was time, I stuffed my coupon into my backpack and we went to Nordstan in Gothenburg. Yes! The shop was still open. It was still called Verner&Verner. I went to the shelf, grabbed my box and lined up at the desk.

A young shop assistant, all towering regret, “I’m so sorry, but we are not accepting these coupons any longer. We have been selling their certificates as a service, but they’ve gone bankrupt, and we cannot, at this point…I am really sorry but there’s nothing I can do about the matter.” (more…)

spagetti [sic] in borås

February 18, 2008

Even though their homepage appears to be down, the Italian restaurant Spagetti in Borås was up and running yesterday. Upon arrival, it was under one quarter full of guests. This may have been a reflection of snow turning to a drizzle, and of slippery roads. Before the riverside of Södra Strandgatan and Sandwalls Plats was transformed into a cute pedestrian zone, complete with an abstract curry-sausage sculpture and palm trees during the summer, a health store resided where Spagetti resides now. Where I used to buy organic tofu (trust me, it is better), refills for my water filter, dry beans, Dutch honey and the occasional fair-trade cocoa’n’sawdust bar, I can now sit down and relax.

There are ups and downs with Spagetti, but to be fair, I want to praise its pleasant atmosphere and friendly service right away. We were a come-and-go company of an average of six persons. Four of these were in a drinks-craving after-concert mood. One of them was accompanied by six-months-old Elias, a bright and social fellow who most of the time was content with goo from a jar. Food was served in a most cheerful manner, unfaltering even when the youngest of the group had a food-deprival crisis. Musician’s babies have strong lungs, well developed vocal cords and a keen sense of pitch. (more…)

the kitchen of statenlaan 119

February 13, 2008

I began to cook my own meals in the kitchen of one of the houses with student rooms that the Royal Conservatory of the Hague maintained around 1980.

The house (also featured in this entry) had three kitchens, each of which was shared by six or seven music students. While on the other side of the wall someone was nervously stuttering through Schumann’s first piano sonata on his battered Bechstein Grand, interrupted by frequent nicotine- and espresso-fill-up silences, I battled to find out how a slice of pork behaved when fried at various temperatures, how rice was best kept from sticking, how to prepare bean chili or a new-agey veggie all-in-one-pan with rice, nuts, raisins, chopped dried apricots and curry powder. Others had other pastimes. (more…)

(lack of) dedication, and punishment

February 11, 2008

A former member of my household had a tendency of putting the rice pan on the burner and leaving the kitchen for other tasks. I have, consequently, developed an extended repertoire of technical solutions for getting a layer of blue-black rice out of any kind of pan (most effective is a conical steel brush on a power drill).

I have endlessly tried to fill the time it takes to get the ingredients of a Cappuccino processed respectively hot enough with useful other tasks. Scraping burned milk off the stove is no fun, so I have stopped trying.

While my herbal tea steeps (that is, if I’m having herbal tea), I go away: I hate waiting and I hate burning my mouth. Most of the time it is cold when I return.

A shoulder of pork in a cosily warm oven, snuggled against the sides of a heavy pan and comfortably coated by its rub, doesn’t need your agonizing about its state every minute. But most things cooking simply don’t like being left alone at all. So today I had this beef roast, carefully trimmed and treated with the most delicious of rubs (pepper, juniper, cloves, powdered bay leaves, you name it). I put the oven on real low, put the meat on a bed of veggies, added a dash of wine and went writing posts for my harpsichord blog. I returned into the kitchen once to turn the roast, but I forgot that I could have checked its inner temperature already then, just for keeping in touch, kind of. So, yes: sigh. We had perfectly spiced, completely cooked-through roast beef today. I sliced it really thin and made thick gravy to cover its old-leather-belt-color. But I’ll have to learn to do better than that, even on Sundays.

greek salad as we had it there

February 9, 2008

Where I live, “Greek salad” is inevitably served with lots of fancy lettuce, feta cheese (not bad: but most of the time not enough of it), olives (worse: usually the cut-corner, grey-black, pitted, tasteless, guests-eat-anything-whatever-you-give-them kind), a mountain of these unspeakable wedges of raw red onion (that bad) and salad dressing of the customer’s choice (I don’t even say anything). As I experienced salad as served everywhere all over Greece thirty years ago, its bliss came from a seeming lack of sophistication (no lettuce, no elaborate dressing, no fancy decoration) in combination with really fresh ingredients. (more…)

okra, lamb, and an oven

February 8, 2008

In the mid-seventies, Greek restaurants invaded West Germany. These restaurants all worked more or less according to the same formula: to the accompaniment of plink-y-ploink background music, you were first served a “free” glass of freezing-cold Ouzo (whether you were thirteen or eighty). Mellowed accordingly, you ordered a too copious and too salty meal, such as the following classic: mixed grilled meats with tsatsiki, olives, salad, a heap of rice and French Fries. An alternative would have been to choose between their oven dishes: lamb with beans, lamb with eggplant, lamb with tomatoes, lamb with okra, beef with beans…

When I finally visited Greece in 1977, I found that, in fact, the real Greek restaurants usually offered rather few of these grilled excesses (not counting the ubiquitous souvlaki) but had instead many varieties of the veggie-plus-meat squishy-stew kind of food. As every good tourist guide will tell you, another special thing in Greece is that the tourists often are invited into the kitchen to look around and pick the food of their choice. Of course, I still don’t know how the Greek cook at home. So this following manner of preparation is not “Greek”: just my way with okra and lamb. (more…)