Sunday, August 31, 2008

Having a Bad Day in the Kitchen? Make a Talisman

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Anyone who has ever burnt a roast or broken mayonnaise without knowing why they screwed eventually realizes that the cause of their problem does not lie with them, but instead is due to external factors that are beyond the understanding of rational minds. The truth is the atmosphere of the earth is inhabited by clusters of intelligent, and occasionally malicious, energy that has the ability to interfere with the way we cook. During those times when you find that this energy is giving you a hard time, it's not a bad idea to build a talisman to remind it to behave and leave you the hell alone.

Here is a simple talisman that I made from a rib of celery and a couple of cloves. The cloves give the celery a determined gaze while it raises its arms to "shoo" the bad energy away. I did not give my talisman (whom I named Pardus in honor of my sojourner colleague) a mouth in order to signal to the bad energy that if it does not leave me alone it will not get anything to eat.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Pardus' Southern (Indian) fried Chicken

The days pass slowly and leisurely in one sense and rush past in a blur in others. We wake each morning, some taking a skiff across the river to a network of paths and “roads” for an early morning run, others sleep in, others sip tea and read.

We gather for meals – breakfast, lunch and dinner – in a beautiful outdoor pavilion, where Keralan specialties are served buffet style by the house staff. Dosas and pooris, and chapattis make up the bread baskets; dal (lentils) and rice are always included, as are at least one meat, one fish, and one vegetable curry. Boiled eggs come with breakfast and fresh fruit is always on hand. Annu’s refreshing fruit coolers are staple beverages and we drink them by the gallon. Sugar syrup infused with fresh ginger is mixed with freshly squeezed juice of “Chinese Oranges”, Lemons, or limes and then diluted with chilled water.

The kitchen facilities at Phillipkutty Farm range from a modern Demo kitchen with two burners on a marble counter – from which Anniamam holds court and gives classes – to a series of rustic outdoor prep areas where the staff cleans fruits and vegetables, cleans and cuts meats and poultry, and cooks the dal and rice over open fires.

I spend as much time as I can in the kitchens, watching, helping, and cleaning (which the staff seems to find very weird). Monday evening will be our final meal together as a group, so a special meal is planned and I am asked to cook anything I like as a contribution to the celebration. “What will you be making?” everyone wants to know – especially Anniamam. But I have no idea. First, I generally like to compose my menu while I’m shopping – using the market as inspiration; but what will I find in the market and will I know what to do with what I find? Second, and more daunting, if I try to cook Keralan food I’m going to get my ass kicked by Anniamam…it would be like my mother going up against Mario Battali in an Italian dinner competition. So, I stall for time and hope the market is good to me.

Monday morning is market time. Up at 5:30, across the river by skiff and a few of us take tuk tuks into the village. Anniamam has given us a shopping list which we break into segments so that each can try their hand at local “shopping”. On top of that, I’m supposed to be composing my dish in my head and adding on to my part of the list with items I’ll need to cook it.

The area is rustic, the ride through it jarring, exciting, and a bit disturbing. We’ve been living like royalty for the past few days and now I feel like I’ve left Versailles for the squalor of medieval Europe. Here's a Tuk Tuk eye's view of the ride to town

But the guilt wears off as soon as we get to the market – these people know what they’re doing here….and I can only pretend that I know, and hope that I guess right.

The vegetables on my list are easy to recognize and purchase, the stall tenders are very helpful and polite. One of my companions has been charged with buying the fish, but it’s all whole – outside, on the fin, thinly cooled with chunks of rapidly melting ice. She has an idea of what she’s looking for, but not really sure how to go about choosing the right ones or checking for freshness so I’m enlisted. With translational help from our guide Saresh, I wade into the fish sector, pulling back gill flaps, pressing on flesh for firmness, checking for belly burn, odor, and clarity of eyes – all of the CIA basics. One guy is sure he has a sale, until the gills turn up brown and slimy, but after a few tries we pick 6 kilos of small fresh bonito tuna which satisfy the criteria. I learn later from Saresh that the background conversation was pretty funny - “Hey, that white guy really DOES know what he’s doing”….

The easy stuff done, I can’t put off my challenge any longer. I’ve got to figure out what I’m going to prepare for dinner…

For 10 days we’ve eaten South Indian food – it’s been good and interesting and the spices have been a huge education, but almost all of it has been stew. Heat oil, temper spices, add protein or veg, add water and coconut milk and cook until very tender…soft…wet…
Right now, I’m dying for something grilled, or fried and crunchy and when I see a stall filled with cages of live chickens…..hmmmmm….Southern(Indian)Fried Chicken!....I can do that and it’ll be good…I can tweak the local ingredients a bit to make something satisfying from home.

Southern (Indian) Fried Chicken:

12 Kilos live chickens (ask your poultry man to kill, eviscerate, and feather them for you)
1 quart fresh whole milk yogurt (ask your staff to make milk the cow and make it fresh early that morning)
4 oz. each fresh ginger and garlic mashed to a paste (again, have staff pick and prepare fresh earlier in the day)
½ cup ground Keralan red chili powder(hand grind in mortar)
¼ cup ground dried turmeric(preferably home grown, boiled, dried and ground)
2 Tbsp. salt
1 kilo imported “American” flour (all purpose)
¼ cup ground black pepper (preferably home grown, dried and ground)

2 liters sunflower oil – for frying

1. Bone chickens – separate legs, thighs, breasts, wings – reserve bones for stock
2. Combine yogurt , ginger, garlic, salt, chili powder, and turmeric powder – taste and adjust seasoning as needed.
3. Add chicken parts and marinate for 4-6 hours
4. Heat oil in large Kadai (or similar heavy, flat bottomed pan) until a pinch of the flour “sizzles”
5. Add black pepper to flour and stir to combine evenly
6. dredge chicken pieces in four and gently place pieces in hot oil. Fry until deep golden on each side and interior is well cooked.
7. Serve with Keralan Rice, sambar dal, curried okra, and papadams

The dinner was a success. Anniamam made chicken curry, fish curry, vegetable curry, lots of other really good Keralan cooking. At one point during my chicken frying, Annu and Anniamam asked if they could try a piece….they tasted, talked in Malayalam (the local dialect), and Annu asked “what did you call this again?”….I replied “Southern Fried Chicken”….to which SHE replied “We think it tastes like Kentucky Fried Chicken, it’s good”…

Friday, August 29, 2008

Blogging Wounded

Yesterday I told you about the oven that I am helping to build at Hendricks Farms and Dairy, and I put up a slide show that partially detailed the process of laying up the block for the base. In today's slide show you will see that we filled in the base with a combination of busted-up cement block, shale, old brick and sand. We also began laying the firebrick that will make up the deck of the oven and serve as a "counter top" upon which we can serve food, cool bread and whatever.

So far the project is going really well. But, I'm feeling pretty beaten up. Handling all that cement block yesterday shredded my fingertips and the pain from all those tiny cuts kept me up the better part of last night. Even now, after numerous applications of a terrific anesthetic hand lotion ( I'm using Bag Balm) the pain from typing is infuritaing. And although I swim between 5 and 6 miles a weeks and my legs are in great shape, my hamstrings feel like they've got spear heads buried in them.

After so many years of doing masonry owrk on a amateur basis, I knew that what to expect: masonry if f---ing brutal and, it takes about two weeks for my body to get get used to it.

I wonder if Mike Ramondo, who graciously voulunteered to help, is in as much pain as I am.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

New Project: Cob Oven

As regular readers of this blog probably know I take bread baking seriously [because] baking causes me serious joy. So it may not surprise you to read that when I first began working with Trent Hendricks back in November of 2007, we talked about building a cob oven to bake bread, pizza and whatever. Well today, almost one year later, we started to build one.

The base of the oven (see slide show) is a little over seven feet long, six feet wide and, when the firebrick deck is laid up tomorrow, three feet high. We are filling the base with sand, which we will cover with thick galvanized mesh and mortar, before laying up the fire brick. The oven is going to be made from a mixture of clay, sand and straw and will sit on top of the firebrick deck. I'm hoping to get the deck laid up tomorrow, and build the oven on Saturday.

Work does not get much cooler than this folks -not in my world anyway.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Pardus at Phillipkutty Farm, Kerala, India

The family which owns the island and operates the plantation also has 5 bungalows for guests. As our group will occupy all of the bungalows we are taken into the main house and greeted as family. There is a grandmother – Anniamam; mother – Annu; and two children – Phillip, 10 year old boy; and Annia, 5 year old girl – and a bevy of servants and helpers. The grand mother speaks some English and the mother and children are perfectly fluent. During our orientation we are served cold drinks of lime and ginger before being shown to our rooms. There will be two hours before lunch, during which the others settle in and rest. I have been introduced as a cook and teacher and when I ask if I may watch our meals being prepared I am immediately invited into the kitchen.

The chopping and cleaning is done by her staff, but the final preparation is done by Anniamam (the Grandmother). I am flattered to be asked if I would like to prepare the entire meal with her – actually getting my hands into the food – mixing the meat with the spices and marinade, frying the spices for and doing the cooking of two of the accompanying dishes while she stands at my side and directs me. Over the next three days I will get to work with Anniamam a lot; her daughter-in-law, Annu, helps translate and transcribe most of the recipes. Quantities of spice and portion sizes are pretty much “best guess” status, so I’ll test them with my students as soon as I get back to CIA.

Okra is Beautiful

Check it out

Monday, August 25, 2008


The boats are romantically beautiful, hand carved wild jackwood with ornate prows and complex thatching for roof and walls. We relax on deck – the weather finally cooperating, and sip cocktails as we glide past rice paddies, coconut groves, children splashing and women pounding laundry with stones. Being Independence Day we get the occasional shout of “Jai Hind” - “Long live India” - from groups on shore.

Part of the plan is that we will be able to assist in preparing the evening meal and some of my group is expecting me to take charge and create dinner. Although I feel pretty confident that I could, to the extent that I inspect the kitchen for ingredients and tools, write a menu and a prep list, I am also sensitive to the crew. How would I feel if a tourist walked into MY kitchen, threw my menu out the window, and started cooking his version of MY region's food? So instead, a few of us volunteer to help with prep. I’m assigned to peeling and slicing onions, chopping tomatoes, and cutting broad beans.

Because everything was made from scratch, cooked, and served right away, the resulting meal was perhaps the best we’d had so far. The vegetable dishes were especially good, broad beans pooryaal, aloo jeera (potatoes with cumin and chilies), and “thoren” a concoction of grated carrot and coconut liberally spiced with black mustard seed. Of course , rice and chapatti accompanied.

After dinner is cleared, cheap Indian rum and “vodka” is poured and the adventurous among us prepared our “digestif” – the paan.

Paan is used through out south Asia – for some as a true after dinner refresher, for a others as a stimulant to get through the daily drudge of hard physical plantation work. To prepare, you need three essentials- Betel nut , which supplies the stimulant itself; lime paste (the caustic alkaline, not the citrus) to release the stimulating alkaloids from the nut; and paan leaf, a highly aromatic leaf from a variety of pepper vine, acting as the wrapper to hold all together. Often, flavored tobacco or spices are added but tonight we are roughing it. First a dab of the caustic lime goes onto the leaf – not too much or you’ll burn a hole in the side of your cheek when you chew it- then some chopped or shaved betel nut flakes, then the leaf is wrapped around, creating a small packet which is placed between the cheek and gum, lightly chewed and sucked. The combination of the leaf, nut, and alkaline makes you suddenly start to salivate like mad…and a chemical reaction with the lime turns your saliva bright cherry red. So, we suddenly went from a relaxed, civilized dinner party on the mahogany deck of a boat to a pack of drooling savages, spitting constantly and profusely over the side. The ultimate psychoactive effect was hardly worth the effort, but it was good for a laugh and gave us all bragging rights back home.

A comfortable night’s sleep on the boat followed by a cold “bucket shower”, a breakfast of omelets with chilies and onion and coconut dosa and then a two hour trip up the river to our “farm”. This will be our final stay, we are spending three nights on an island which is home to a working coconut plantation.

Bug-Eating Still Makes Me Buggy

I was in 5th grade the first time I became aware that people ate bugs for reasons other than wanting to make someone else vomit. It was the beginning of the school year and our social studies class was doing one of those "What I did over the summer vacation" time-wasting exercises. While I was trying to figure out how to spin my exciting summer of sitting in the basement watching TV, one of my better-heeled classmates regaled the class with a talk about his trip to South America and his discovery that people eat ants because they like them. Of course, he nailed the presentation by producing a can of chocolate covered ants and handing out samples to anyone brave enough to try them. (I did not.)

I eventually overcame my fear of eating any kind of bug and have eaten baked and fried grasshoppers, fried meal worms and smoked ants. But each of the half-dozen or so times I engaged in entomophagy, the gustatory experience was underwhelming: the flavor and texture of the bugs did not justify the work it took to get passed the fact that I was eating animals that I has become acculturated to see as associated with plague, pestilence and (in the case of ants ) the flensing of the carcasses of dead squirrels and battlefield mortalities.

But hey, don't let the unpleasant images that I associate with insects and eating wreck your appetite for vermin. Why not surf over to Sunrise Land Shrimp where Dave offers a variety of services designed to help you overcome your culturally inspired aversion to eating things that you have learned to protect yourself from by

  • sealing all foundation cracks
  • spraying all areas of infiltration and infestation with insecticide
  • placing all dry goods in tightly sealed containers
  • stomping with foot in heavy boot and etcetera
I know it is not rational to be put off by a dish of "bean worm" (above) but be totally okay eating some other animal. And as someone who likes to think of himself as pretty rational, the contradiction is mildly embarrassing. But that's alright, I'll live with it. Besides, I'm probably not half as rational as I think I am.

Anyone care for a plush cup cake?

Sunday, August 24, 2008

What does it take to get a Wine Spectator Award of Excellence?

Well, according to Robin Goldstein, the author of The Wine Trials , nothing more than a lively imagination and payment of $250.00 fee. Robin submitted the menu of a fictitious restaurant sporting a high priced "reserve" wine list made up (depending on who you choose to believe: Goldstein or The Wine Spectator) largely or partially from wines that had been given low-ratings by The Wine Spectator, and received their Award of Excellence.

You can read Robin's side of the story HERE and The Wine Spectator's response to the hoax HERE.

My thanks out to Crazy Raven for tipping me off to this amusing story. -Bob dG

Saturday, August 23, 2008

More Mike Pardus Posts from India

WOW, having a high-speed 'net connection again is like getting back into a car after driving an ox cart for a week. So much ground to cover I can't figure out where to go first. Looking over my notes I still owe a few visuals. I met a few new fruits over here that I'd never seen before and want to make sure to introduce you to them.

First - and most beautiful - is the "tree tomato" - tastes like a tomato/kiwi cross; grows in a tree; looks like a guava relative (maybe?)

Check it out:

Next, I think I've mentioned the "fish tamarind" - the smokey, puckery, dried fruit that is only used for fish curries. It took a long time to find someone who could show me what a fresh one looks like - they're really sour too. Here they are side to side:

Dried Kokum

Fresh Kokum

So....After the Spice jungle Walk we went back to the hotel for dinner. The food was excellent, but it seems that all of the local chefs have the same repertoire. The Keralan fish curry, the vegetable pooryal, and the chicken curry prepared for us was delicious- the best so far; but it was the third rendition of each we had seen in 5 days.

New day, new destination – back on the bus and through the mountains to the low-lands again. This time to meet a house boat which will double as accommodation and transportation tonight as it takes us into the Keralan “Backwater” for a 3 day stay at a farm.

On the way out of the mountains we encounter several Independence Day “parades” of children dressed up as famous Indian leaders following their teachers through the streets, chanting freedom slogans.

Independance Day Parade

Queen of the Parade

We stop in one mountain town which is described by our guide as a “Plantation Town” apparently surviving pretty much on the spending of plantation workers. There is nothing here for a typical tourist , but we spend about 45 minutes wandering ally ways and buying local tea, rice, and the makings for Paan later on. Paan is the (in)famous preparation of the psychotropic betel nut wrapped in an aromatic leaf chewed for it’s stimulant effect, and, euphemistically described as a “digestive”.

Village Center

Alley way for Paan Dealers

I didn't have time to stop, but I was DYING to hang out with these cool guys at the City Bakery and Cool Bar

Continuing through the mountains, dropping elevation rapidly, the scenery changes from dramatic mountain waterfalls to bamboo jungle to rice paddies and levies.

Our destination for the day is the “Backwater” region of Kerala, a system of canals and rivers designed to transport agricultural products from inland plantations to the coast. We are to board a houseboat converted from a barge and travel up-river to an island farm, the journey takes long enough to necessitate dinner and an overnight stay on the boat.

I'll put up some river photos and scenic video in my next post...

Friday, August 22, 2008

Catching up from Kerala

Hi, Michael Pardus here.

Finally I have a solid connection...I know where I left off with text, but there are a lot of photos and some video that I want to share, so I'm going to that in first. Since it's out of sequence, let's call this first one a "naan" sequitor....

Using the Tandoori oven at the casino Hotel in Kochi, Kerala, India.

Next is a quicky on how to properly use Dosa batter to make the huge fermented rice flour crepes:

I had mentioned the Fresh Fish Lunch in Kochi, here's a video clip from the kitchen followed by a slideshow of accompanying pictures.

Slide Show from Fish nets, stalls, and lunch in Kochi :

OK, next set I owe you is Kochi market...some of these shots are NOT for PETA viewing...

Cows…I’d always thought that, in India, cows were sacred and not to be killed or consumed. Not always. There are cows walking around , all over the place, but it really depends on who you are and what you believe and how close knit your community is whether or not you eat them, milk them, or worship them. It was described to me by several people – Hindus and others – that if your area was ethnically diverse and you were not particularly devout, you may well be Hindu and actually eat beef flesh, at least is the south. Further north, where the Hindus tend to be closer together and more seriously religious, beef was not as likely to be consumed. Here’s a few views of life as a cow in Kerala:

After leaving Kochi there were a bunch of things I saw on the road into the mountains which I mentioned, but never got to post pix or video of. Here are a few albums and a short video:

Roadside roasted corn stall on the way to Munaar:

"Indian Squirrels" (Monkeys)...set up behind the corn stall guy and wait for tourist leavings - after the initial cuteness wears off they remind me more of Central Park vermin than anything else:

Some pretty breathtaking scenary through the tea plantations:

The Fried Banana Guy in Munaar:

And now we're pretty much caught up. My last post ended with a quick paragraph promising details on a spice plantation visit, here they are:

The tour turns into a safari of sorts – trekking through a jungle of tangled and varied spices, stopping to look and dig and pull out of the ground and taste. We see cardamom, cinnamon, nutmeg, clove, turmeric, ginger, pepper vines, coffee, jack fruit and vanilla – all growing tangled, on top of or beneath each other. The current thinking in spice growing is “don’t put all of your eggs in one basket” – when the market drops on one spice, the others rise or remain stable – hence, the small grower has a lot of different eggs in a variety of baskets.

Although many of the spices were not ready for harvest, it was really cool to see them in their developmental stages – green vanilla pods and whole, unripe nutmegs, the leaves on the plants often as fragrant and flavorful as the spices themselves. The plantation manager started a game which we all eagerly participated in – he would pull a leaf from a bush or tree and ask us to pass it around, sniffing and tasting until someone could guess what the spice was. Out of the context of a kitchen, pulling leaves from trees, I was surprised at how long it took for me to figure out what some of the leaves represented. I knew the aroma and I knew the flavor….but I couldn’t name clove or nutmeg without a bit of thought.

Our trek through the spice jungle ended just as it began to rain again, we loaded onto the bus and went back to the hotel – where the chef had arranged a demo of local dishes using spices we had just been introduced to.

Here's an album of photos from the plantation followed by a video - the video is really more a way of to give you the audio from the jungle, but the sense of "lush" comes through as well.

Spice Plantation Album:

And the video/sound clip:

Stay tuned...I still have a week to go!

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Welcome Back Trent

Out of respect for the privacy of Trent Hendricks and his family I have not blogged anything about the truly awful events of the previous ten days. Trent is someone who values his privacy a lot, and is someone who seems to only show his face in public when he thinks that there is no alternative but to step up to the plate and be seen. So last Monday when his wife Rachel rushed him to the hospital after he became delirious with fever and pain, I wrote nothing about it.

However, yesterday Trent returned to his farm, and even though he probably should have just flopped into bed, pulled the blankets over his head and turned off the world, he went into his office and sent out a newsletter explaining what happened to him. So now I feel like it's okay to tell you what happened.

A few months ago one of his white quarter horses (I don't know for sure, but it might have been the one in the photo.) kicked him in the shin. The bruise was horrible and the swelling seemed to me to take forever to subside. For a while it looked like he was going to be fine, but then he did something that introduced staphylococcus bacteria into the wound. Over a period of about two weeks, an abscess formed leaking bacteria into his bloodstream. Eventually, the pain was so intense that he actually complained (Dude never complains, never.) and had to be medicated. When Rachel realized that the pain meds she had in the house were not working, she took him to the hospital where he was diagnosed with a life-threatening staph infection.

Anyway, it flips me out to think that Trent almost bought the farm. The man's a dad with five beautiful kids, a fine wife and life partner and a set of parents that anyone would be proud to know -let alone be related to. He's also a great friend to me and a visionary steward of the the land and plants and animals who is really only at the beginning of his tenure. When I think about what might have happened last week, it makes me weak.

Welcome back Trent, we were worried.

Fish Hooks Man With Worm

By now many of you have seen this creepy story about the man who alleges that he was infected with tapeworm after having eaten allegedly undercooked salmon. Those of us who love raw and rare fish recoil from the idea that something we love, crave even, could possibly be a harbinger of something as horrible as a fracking tapeworm. But the truth is that it is possible to get tapeworm from eating raw and rare fish. So please be careful!

Lawsuit says eatery to blame for 9-foot tapeworm

FYI: How to make Sauerkraut

1) Remove damaged outer leaves from cabbage and rinse whole heads with cold water;

2) Cut cabbage in half, remove the interior of the core (stem) and save for the hogs or compost pile;

3) Shred cabbage with knife, mandolin or, food processor or if you are really lucky one of these;

4) Weigh the shredded cabbage periodically and add salt at a rate of 0.32 oz per pound cabbage or 2%;

5) Place the salted shredded cabbage in a ceramic crock or barrel, put a plate or some other flat thing on top and weight it so the cabbage stays depressed during fermentation. Cover with a cheesecloth to prevent flies from fouling your work (Flies love sauerkraut.) Place in a cool place -a cellar, for example- to ferment;

6) Wait a day or two and if the cabbage appears dry, add cold water to cover. If you work at a place that makes cheese and you are impatient to see the cabbage ferment, you can dump in some whey which will be loaded with the lactic acid producing bacteria (naturally present on the cabbage, of course) that is required to produce the sauer of the kraut.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Harvest Work

There isn't much I feel like saying about how I feel about spending half a day cutting cabbage for sauerkraut than "I accepted it, it weren't that bad and heck, sauerkraut is damned good so why would I have cause to complain about it?" Besides, I had two nice people to help me and I know that when the second half of the crop comes in for cutting, they will be there to help me again.

Slideshow of what 93 pounds of cabbage looks like as it begins the journey to becoming sauerkraut. Photos were taken at Hendricks Farms and Dairy on August 8, 2008.

Is Rachel Ray being Exploited?

Forbes magazine recently reported that Rachel Ray earns about 18 million dollars per year. But if the following description of her is correct then it is very clear to me that she is being ripped-off :

Rachael Ray Garbage Bowl:
In fewer than five years, Rachael Ray has radically changed the way America cooks dinner. Her perky-girl-next-door swagger, her catchphrases for techniques, and her dinner ideology of simpler, less expensive and just in time have sold billions [Emphasis mine] of books and placed her at the top of the talent heap of food television personalities. [SOURCE]

If, according to this copy from a description of a 20 dollar Rachel Ray branded garbage bowl for kitchen scraps, she has sold billions of books, then it seems to me that her income should be much more than $18,000,000/ year.

True, Forbes did not tell us her net worth. So perhaps she is sitting on a nest egg of a half a billion or so bucks from book sales. But what is more likely is that the copywriter at was just so psyched by how totally kOoL it would be for us all to have a Rachel Ray branded garbage bowl that he got a little carried away and, AHEM, exaggerated?

Sunday, August 17, 2008

A New Look at A Hunger Artist

I plugged the entire text of Franz Kafka's "A Hunger Artist" into a tool named Wordle to produce this startling word cloud. What has Wordle done? From the Wordle website

"Wordle is a toy for generating “word clouds” from text that you provide. The clouds give greater prominence to words that appear more frequently in the source text." Wordle

I'm not quite sure how to explain this, but after having seen this graphic, I'm more convinced than ever that I chose the right name for this blog.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Spice Plantation

by Mike Pardus

Okay, short one this time - and I'll get the visuals in later. A friend of our guide is plantation manager of a fairly extensive spice plantation in the "cardamom mountains" of northern Kerala. Usually not open to tourists, we arranged to have two guides - the chef of our hotel and the plantation manager. I had my reservations at first - it's been raining for days up here and a two hour, soaking wet walk in the forest did not sound all that great. Wrong.

It was incredible. The plantations used to specialize in only one spice, but because of quick and dramatic market fluctuations they found it more stable to diversify. Today, for the first time I got to see the common spices of my trade in their natural settings - vanilla beans, cardamom pods, cinnamon, nutmeg, pepper, ginger and turmeric all growing together - in a tangled hog-podge of jungle. The plantation manager would explain the how's and whys of the growing and the chef would give background on use. We quickly developed a game of guessing which spice grew on which bush by smelling and/or tasting the leaves. It was a really cool, VERY educational day. I have a ton of photos, which I will add when I can.

Thanks for reading - MP

Mike Pardus: India Journal

I invited Mike Pardus to blog here during his gastronomic trip to India. It seems that he's been having trouble getting online everyday so this, his first post, is a long one. -Bob del Grosso

Kerala India Journal 2008

Depart JFK 9:30 PM Friday, Aug. 8th. Flight to Mumbai is 15 hours, crossing 10 time zones, 3-hour layover in Mumbai for connection to Cochin. We arrive hotel in Cochin at 4:00 AM Sunday - Local India time. It is 6 pm Saturday in New York, so total travel time has actually been 21 hours.

In-flight food – snacks are minimal, beverages are plenty. A small bag of peanuts is accompanied by a 5 oz. pour of scotch.

Meals – I order the veg option for the 2 meals they offer – both are surprisingly tasty – although hard to actually identify. The rice is well cooked and fluffy, the “main courses” are veg stews or curries – texturally mush, but flavorful.

We arrive at the hotel and collapse for a few hours. Wake at noon local time and head to hotel dining room to find food. I’m watching the kitchen crew set up the lunch buffet – it’s not hard to identify the sous-chef in charge – I introduce myself and ask to see the kitchen. Suddenly part of the “brotherhood” I am taken into the kitchen, give a full tour and we discuss plans for me to come back between lunch and dinner services to get a lesson in making Biriyani and to give a lesson in making flavored compound butters and using them to make warm emulsion sauces.

The kitchen is fairly small by western hotel standards, but the hotel itself is fairly small Рonly about 90 rooms, it is organized into separate, temp controlled garde manger/butchery areas, another temp controlled pastry room, and a hot kitchen. The hot kitchen is divided into 3 lines divided by cuisine РContinental, Indian, and Chinese. There are woks on the Chinese side, grill and saut̩ burners on the continental, and burners for cast iron Karai vessels and a charcoal fired tandoor oven on the Indian side.

Before I leave to eat lunch I get a quick lesson in using the tandoori and a few suggestions on how to improve my technique at home.
  • I use yeast to raise my naan, they suggest baking powder
  • I paint the putter facing side of mine with ghee before baking, they use water on their hands while shaping the dough to keep it from sticking to their hands, but also to Help it stick to the inside of the oven

Lunch – I am typically suspicious of hotel food when I travel. At best, it’s usually a fuel stop, at it’s worse it’s truly dangerous – if you can’t see what they’re doing you have no way of knowing if it’s safe to eat (I’ll usually opt for street food where I can SEE the quality and freshness before I order and observe the care of preparation).
That all being said – I had seen the kitchen (spotless), met the cooks (trained and proud), and lunch was very good. Well-cooked, varied mostly moderately spiced vegetable and fish curries served with several varieties of dal (lentil stews) and roti (flat breads).

My off-the-cuff French classical demo for the commis in the kitchen went well and exposed them to the use of whole butter and the technique of emulsion sauces and my biryani lesson was equally productive, but cut short by the demands of the group to take off for a “cultural” demonstration…a bizarre, contrived demonstration of esoteric regional dance apparently irrelevant to anyone but the local tourism board (room full of tourists, most of whom appear as bored as I am – not a single local – watching a couple of guys in Hindu Mythic drag making exaggerated facial expressions and hand gestures at each other to the sound of background drumming). I pretty much made it clear to our guide that – while I as sure this was important and significant to some, I would have rather been in the hotel kitchen for service – so please, let me know what’s up and give me he option next time.

Dinner at the hotel after the “show” actually worked well. I sat with some friends I had made and - Already being “in the club”- the sous-chef asked our preferences and cooked for our table of 4. Spiny lobster in coconut curry and fried butterfish. Accompanied by chutneys, dal, and doasai (flatbread/crepes) filled with spicy potato and onions.

Monday Aug.11
Breakfast early – more of the same – well prepared Indian vegetarian food, some meat, great mango lhassi, house made yogurt (very tart and refreshing), and honey sweet, soft, ripe papaya.

Then we headed out for a pretty dull morning of generic tourist stuff – a church, a synagogue (Kerala has a long history of ethnic tolerance and diversity and is proud of it), and a few colonial buildings from Dutch and Portuguese occupation. Just as I was beginning to despair, two things happened. We were taken to a ginger drying warehouse where fresh, whole ginger was hand-graded and then dried, stored and shipped to processors (who would grind for other purposes). This was a pretty cool place, piles of dried ginger several feet deep, thin brown men in loose shirts piling, sorting, bagging, …and the pervasive aroma of citrus – the smell of drying ginger has a distinctly lemony aroma. Snitching a small piece to chew as we walked around, my mouth was refreshed and my stomach warmed and settled.

Next, the guide let slip that after the next “cultural stop” we would walk to the docks from which the fishermen cast their nets and launch their small day boats and that we could – if we wished – purchase fresh fish and find a local restaurant to prepare it for us.

I pulled the guide aside and told him that I’d meet them at the docks and wandered down the squalor-strewn street to the docks and fish vendors.

Mackerel, small tuna, barracuda, Indian “salmon”, squid…. a lot of fish – all fresh, some still alive. Some men were casting nets into the river, some were fishing off of stilt piers, some were pushing out or pulling in with small boats. Under lean-to tarps were casual displays of the catch for sale and hawkers tried to hustle and sell me. One guy followed me for several blocks – “where are you from?” “What do you do” “you like fish?” – his offer was if I buy the fish he would take me to his restaurant and cook the fish for me. I deflected him, telling him that I needed to wait – to meet my group and see what they wanted to do.

One of the group members was native to Kerala and his mother had joined us on the tour – somewhat as a guest, somewhat as an unpaid guide and local expert. On the docks she proved to be a fierce bargainer both in negotiating the price and quality of the fish and then in deciding who would be allowed to take us to their restaurant and prepare it for us. Unfortunately for my new “friend” he was not chosen – all I could do was shrug…. he had figured out that neither he nor I was willing to argue with “mem taz”.

So, cook selected, we followed down the street behind as he led us to the restaurant. I made sure I was close on his heals and that he knew that I would be in the kitchen, with camera, as lunch was prepared.

The kitchen was not spotless…but given the general squalor of the rest of the area, it was acceptably clean. The tabletop was wiped down with a reasonably clean rag and the fish gutted and prawns striped of their legs. The Mackerel was then hacked into2” thick steaks. The prawns to be quickly stewed with onions, chilies, turmeric, tomatoes and coconut…. the mackerel, smeared with a chilie paste and deep-fried in hot oil until crisp.

From market stall to table, including walking time, cleaning, prep and cooking was 1 hour….we sat on a deck overlooking the river, ate our catch and drank cold beer….tab for everything ? $8USD per person – including food, preparation, and tip.

Few hours to relax and/or shop, clean up, and we were due for a “cooking lesson” and dinner at a local home. No need to elaborate on this…. a local “expert” regularly invites (sells) tourists into her home for a “class”…I didn’t expect much, and I was still disappointed. Again, I should have stayed “home” at the hotel with pros.

Tuesday August 12, 2008

Need to be on the bus by 8:00 am, didn’t get to sleep until 1:30 last night, attempting to upload photos and video for blog. Checking out today and heading into the mountains – town of Munaar in the Cardamom Ghats..(mountains covered with tea plantations and cardamom.

High light of the trip so far was what was to be a 30 minute stop at the wholesale banana market in the center of Cochin. That was pretty cool in and of it self, but the banana market was on the periphery of a larger, deeper, and more labyrinthine market place which sold foods of all types. Fruits, vegetables, and fresh spices from the area were on the outer circle, but wandering deeper in we found fish – live or freshly caught; poultry – live in cages and in various stages of dismemberment; and goat, again, from lvie to freshly killed and bleeding, to cut into subordinate pieces. One table featuring only the heads and parts there-of – tongues, cheeks, and eyeballs freshly plucked from the still fur-covered, horned heads. I took a couple of photos and joked that I was doing the cover art for the re-release of an old Rolling Stones album. The vegetarians in the group did not laugh.

I could have spent the entire day in that market, the sights tempting and disturbing, the smells tantalizing and repugnant, life and death, visceral senses from our ancestors times.

Back on the bus for the 4 hour trip into the mountains. Up, a lot….cool weather replaces oppressive heat, clean forest and spectacular waterfalls replace urban filth. Stop at a roadside restaurant for lunch where I get to practice eating with my hands – an order of fish “thali” – plump local white rice served with an array of condiments ranging from hot and sour lime-chilie pickles to sweetened condensed milk thickened with noodle segments and scented with cardamom. The condiments are served in small tin ramekins ,the rice on a tin "plate" - you add condiments to the rice as you like and then scoop the rice up in your hand (only your RIGHT hand) and put it in you mouth. It's not that hard, really = just weird for a knife and fork kind of guy.

We reach the hotel, get settled in and have dinner – another buffet of curries and lentils and rice and flat breads – but better than average this time. Our guide has arranged for a demonstration in the kitchen with the chef after dinner.

The demo consists of the chef quickly and experrtly preparing a Keralan fish curry and then “sevai” – a thin, sweet milk based dessert containing, of all things, Italian vermicelli pasta. This loose “pudding” is one of the most popular sweets in India, we’ve aread seen it a few times, but this one is the best so far. I am very impressed with the cleanliness of the kitchen, the professional appearance of the cooks, the meticulous ay out of mise-en-place for the hastily arranged demo and the precise cooking technique of the chef. Although, for the most part, he did things the way that I would have, there were slight nuances that brought a me a better understanding of how to prepare these dishes. The curry leaf in the fish dish were lightly fried in the oil to bring out their distinct but subtle aroma and flavor, the vermicelli was added raw into the pot and lightly toasted in coconut oil before the other ingredients were added in order to bring the depth of the toasted wheat to an otherwise sweet-bland concoction.

Wednesday August 14, 2008
Up and out of the hotel by 8:00 AM – some opt for a “cultural” tour of local sights and landmarks, I ask to pointed toward the local market where I spend 4 hours wandering., examining and sampling various fruits, watching chickens unloaded and slaughters, and buy a few souvenirs for folks back home. Most interesting – a large meaty variety of red banana which proves to be substantial enough to be lunch with a cup of tea; a variety of passion fruit which is ripe and fragrant while still firm and yellow on the outside (as opposed to the shriveled purple ones we get in the US; and a fruit the locals refe to as “tree tomatoes” – apparently a relative of guava/passion fruit with a sweet but distinctly tomatoey flavor to the flesh.

Then back on the bus for a 4 hour wind through the mountains and tea plantations – jaw dropping scenery. One rest stop of note: A guy in the side of the road with a small wood fire, a bellows, and a stack of corn on the cob… order he shucks the corn, stokes the fire, places corn on steel rod and quickly roasts in. when the kernels are slightly blackened he rubs the ear with fresh lime, chilie and salt, places it back into the husk and hands it to you to eat – 15 rupee (roughly 25 cents US).

When we finally reach the hotel for the night we’re pretty beaten up by the bus ride. Some have started to get sick from contaminated water or food some are just nauseous from the long, rough ride. I’m tired, but feeling pretty good so I drag myself into town to look around and have dinner. Near the edge of town is a guy deep frying banana chips in coconut oil – slicing them thinly into the oil with a rough mandolin and stirring until crisp. For 10 rupee I get a 50 gram bag and munch them on the way to a restaurant recommended by our guide.

The restaurant is mediocre. I order Pork Vindaloo – a dish I make with my students in my class at CIA. A dish from the city of Goa, Vindaloo is supposed to be like fiery- vinegar laced pork BBQ. Tonight I settle for less – chunks of overcooked pork in a n insipid sauce with a few potatoes.

I promised everyone that I would post everyday. Several things have conspired against me and prevented this from happening. Some of which has to do with my own tech ignorance but mostly limited, slow, or non-existent net access I'm having real problems getting photos and video embedded into this blog - I'm sure that's my own inexperience.

1 hour later - Checking in on this I see that only 1/3 of my photos uploaded. I can't upload from where i am - can't connect my own lap top. The connection at the 'net cafe where I posted the draft of this was pretty spotty - it took three attempts to send a couple of simple e-mails, so I'm not surprised that a lot of the photos didn't load properly. Anyway, the journal below is complete as of Wednesday night. When I get a stable connection I'll try again inserting photos and video clips where appropriate -Mike Pardus

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Snack on Rats to lower Food Prices

An Indian official has proposed that his fellow countrymen eat rats to reduce the price of food all over the world. His logic runs like this: Since rats consume 50% of the grain in the northeastern state of Bihar, eating them would save the grain for human consumptions and cause the price of grain to drop all over the world ?

Ahem, either something is missing from this AFP story or India is producing much more grain than I ever imagined. Doubtless he said -or meant to say- that eating rats would cause the price of grain to drop in India.
Whatever the truth of what he said is, I'm not serving rat for dinner until the economy collapses or I run out of mouse :-)

Rat snacks can solve world food price crisis: Indian official

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

A Hunger Artist?

Some people will eat almost anything. I suppose that some are motivated to stuff unusual things into their maws by the prospect of appearing to be braver or badder than the rest of us while others are simply so hungry that they will eat whatever to assuage their appetite. The woman in this video eats a sword. I'll leave it up to you to decide why she'd want to do something like that.
But I think it is telling that she does not chew it and neither does she appear to allow it to pass through her intestines.

Monday, August 11, 2008

First Two Days in Kerala

Mike Pardus reporting on his gastronomic trip to India

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Ok, so I'm two days late....but I'm still 10 hours ahead of most of you, so maybe it's not so bad. I've got some video to post - gotta work that one out next, but these photos should give you an idea of what's going on over here.

traveled froo 20 hours to get to the hotel - across 10 time zones, slept for 4 hours and went staright to work. Got invited into the hotel kitchen to catch a Naan demo on the tandoori oven - video may actually get posted, ten went out to start eating curried fish, prawns and veg. Got a few more hours sleep and then went to the docks of old Cochin to look over the fresh catch. Fortunately, one of our group is from Kerala, and his mom - the most fierce negotiator I've ever seen - got us 5 kg of giant prawns and 5 kg of King Mackeral for about $20 US....then got a local restaurant chef to cook them for us - while we all crowded into the kitchen to watch and take pictures. The meal was very simple - fried mackerel and a prawn curry with local Keralan rice and roti - but it was as fresh as could be, cooked by a guy who did it so naturally and well that it all happened - stall to dinner plate - in less than an hour.

A Ripe One

On a more cheerful note, last week I took down one of three big salami I made back in March. It's certainly not the best salami I've ever eaten, but it's pretty darn good. Frankly, I'm relieved its edible at all. I've never made a salami this big and I was really worried that the case would harden before the inside was dry (It didn't).

The salami is seasoned with fennel, garlic, black pepper and red wine, but it tastes mostly like nicely fermented pork -that's a good thing.


It's another rainy day here in Pennsylvania, but it feels like it's raining all over the world. It was raining and hailing yesterday when I learned of the death of Richard Ruhlman, Michael Ruhlman's dad. I knew that Michael's dad was ill, but it was still a shock to read that he had passed.

And just now I read that the man behind the voice of South Park character Chef, THE Soul Man (Yeah, he wrote the song.) Isaac Hayes, has died at the age of 65.

I also discovered today that Dorian Leigh Parker, who greatly encouraged me to become a chef when it was not at all clear to me what I was supposed to be doing, died in July in a nursing home at 91 from Alzheimer's. The world will most likely remember Dorian as the glamorous fashion model who may or may not have been the inspiration for the Holly Golightly character in Truman Capote's Breakfast at Tiffany's, but I remember her as a fabulous cook and a kind and charming life teacher.


Saturday, August 9, 2008

Ma Mouli Amour

I met my first Mouli grater in about 1977, and since then I have never been without one. There are other plier-style graters that are prettier, sharper and made from finer metal, but none of the many that I have seen have the appeal of the cheapest, crappiest tinned-metal Mouli.

My first Mouli (circa 1978) was almost identical to the one I have now (shown here in the slide show) but it had a wooden and not a plastic crank- handle.

After 3 decades of consanguinity, I've got more than enough reasons to love the Mouli. For starters, the Mouli (I assume the word is a diminutive form of moulin, the French word for "mill.") is more faithful than really good dog. It requires no special care, asks for nothing and it never fails to deliver a shower of perfectly grated cheese (Find me a dog who can do that!). I'm always thankful when a tool delivers exactly what it promises. However, when that tool also happens to be really cheap (the Mouli in the photo was 7 dollars) , exceptionally homely and rare (I have not seen one in someone else's home since the early 1980's) I'm not going to be able to be objective about it.

The following slide show shows my Mouli grater in action. The occasion was dinner tonight (8/9/08; please ignore the date on the show) at my home. It was a solo dinner (my wife is in Las Vegas, my kids are in New York) of pizza with summer squash, onions, tomato, Pave d'Affonois (goat) cheese, Mozzarella and, of course, grated Parmesan. The wine was Dolcetto d' Alba.

Hey, if you know anything about the origin of the typeface used on the Mouli would you mind dropping me a few lines? I'm making myself nuts trying to place it in time. It looks a lot like type I've seen on late 19th century French advertising posters, but it smells of the stripped -down mechanical aesthetic of post WWI futurism. Anything you can tell me about will be appreciated! -bdG

Now that's what I'm talking about

You want to talk excited? Well, talk this: the first wave of the tomato growing season is about to hit the beach; these beauties washed up on my dinner plate on 8.8.08.

To hell with the Olympics, this is the big news of the day. The yellow tomato is from Trent's farm (HF&D) the red tomato and basil are from my garden. Life is good.
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Friday, August 8, 2008

Pinch Me

If you are at all like me and grew up in the suburbs, you probably dream that your day begins with a walk around a farm populated by plants and animals as beautiful as these.

Sausage Parade Disaster

This may be old news, but it still has the power to strike fear into the hearts of those of us who love sausage. Drunk driver hurts 4 at Wis. sausage parade

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Caveat Eater!

I was just now reading Human Cuisine,Gary Allen and Ken Albala's recently published collection of essays, poems, recipes and (very) short stories on and about the subject of cannibalism. And while the book makes a great case that eating people can be fun and spiritually rewarding, it does not naturally follow that everyone is good for you. In other words, while most people are probably pretty nutritious and will not cause you to incorporate anything toxic or spiritually malevolent , others are pure junk food and should not be eaten.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Bad News for Aspiring Moral Eaters

Eating is not easy for those who want to eat in a manner that leaves a soft footprint, and for some who choose to eat Kosher meat, things just got tougher.

Officials from the state's Labor Commissioner's Office... uncovered 57 cases of child labor law violations at the Agriprocessors kosher meatpacking plant in Postville, where nearly 400 workers were arrested this spring in the largest immigration enforcement operation in U.S. history. [Source]

Unfortunately, this year kosher meat has become a different type of symbol, one not of mourning and spiritual devotion but of ridicule, embarrassment and hypocrisy. In May in Postville, Iowa, immigration officials raided Agriprocessors Inc., the largest kosher meatpacking plant in the country. OP Ed: The NY Times

Monday, August 4, 2008

El Bulli Sh-t or Not?

So this Swiss guy who is alleged to have decided to blow his life savings by eating at every 3-Star Michelin restaurant in the world and writing about his adventure, stepped away from his table at El Bulli to retrieve his business cards and vanished (POOF!) into thin air. The manager of El Bulli says he doubts that Henry Pascal, 46 simply skipped out on the bill because he left behind a notebook with menus that had been hand-written by three, 3-Star chefs.

But how does the manager know that the menus are authentic? And even if they are for real, are they worth as much or more than the 300 plus Euros of a meal at El Bulli? Me, I think that the manager is simply behaving like the premiere restaurateur that he was born to be and is trying to give the M. Pascal the benefit of his doubt.

But me? Well, I smell une rrrrrrrrrat Suisse!

Gourmet on tour disappears from renowned restaurant

Career Advice for Chefs

"There are really no shortcuts to being a good cook. You have to cook a piece of fish a thousand times before you get it. You really have to put in the time." Charlie Palmer

"People want to do it the quick way, but it takes a long time before it's about you. I found it calming peeling the carrots. I enjoyed cleaning the fish." Marcus Samuelesson

"Unless you want a brain aneurysm, work your career so that in eight to ten years you are mostly off of the hot line ." Me

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Odd and Sods

Does foie gras belong on pizza? This blogger seems to think so.

If you are an obsessive type who loves to turn over every stone and turd in the intellectual field of engagement that appears following a proposition and it's first counterproposal, then you might enjoy this piece in Slate about honey and whether or not it is proper food for vegans.

I will be reviewing Human Cuisine, an anthology of essays, stories, poems and, you guessed it, recipes on the subject of cannibalism edited by Gary Allen and Ken Albala. In the meantime, you can prepare yourself with this true story of truly horrifying act of anthropophagy on a bus in Canada.

My good friend and former colleague, Chef Michael Pardus of the Culinary Institute of America, will be guest blogging here during his upcoming gastronomic pilgrimage to India. I'm not exactly sure when to expect his first post, so please check in regularly or subscribe to this blog to make sure you don't miss anything. Expect lots of pictures, some video and, of course, a view of the culinary landscape of India through the eyes of a natural-born chef.

Finally, I would like to leave you with these neat pictures of cattle. I took these last weekend at the farm of the fine people (I did not secure permission to use their names, so I will not post them.) who own Sheppard Mansion. I was told that they are Scottish Highland and Angus hybrids, and a few undoubtedly are, but others look more like pure Scottish Highlands to me -not that I know much of anything about cattle.

Whatever, they sure are cool looking, no? And yes, they do serve them at Sheppard Mansion.