May 20, 2010

Oregano (Recipe: grilled lamb, souvlaki style) {gluten-free}

Grilled lamb, souvlaki style. 

Last Spring I planted two types of oregano, Greek and Italian, in my herb garden.

One lived through the winter. One didn't.

Before I tell you which one survived, I want to be clear that this is not a political commentary, nor is it a reflection on which cuisine reigns supreme.

It's not even a matter of taste, as both have strong, unique flavor. (Use any type of fresh oregano sparingly; it's surprisingly potent.)

No, it's just Mother Nature, or the quirks of my herb garden, that enabled the Italian oregano to survive where the Greek oregano could not.

That's the great thing about gardening, though; there's always next year! I'm off to the herbary now for another Greek oregano plant.

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May 11, 2010

Kosher salt (Recipe: salt cod balls with chipotle mayonnaise dip)


I don't know a single American or European chef or home cook who wouldn't put salt and pepper at the very top of the list of seasonings without which they simply could not cook.

So, you can imagine my surprise when the Brazilian cooks I met on our travels last year did not use black pepper.

Salt, yes. Pepper, no, never.

A couple of weeks ago, I taught my first class on Brazilian cooking, featuring some of my friend Peter's recipes (moqueca, pão de queijo) that use typically South American ingredients from my pantry. Often, like Peter (an American-born chef), I couldn't help but toss in a bit of black pepper automatically, a reflex action.

Salt, on the other hand, goes into everything, no matter who's cooking.

In my kitchen, that means kosher salt, my everyday, go-to, can't-cook-without-it, nothing-fancy, cheap-in-the-supermarket salt.

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May 4, 2010

Szechuan peppercorns (Recipe: spicy green beans with ginger and garlic) {vegan, gluten-free}

Spicy green beans! 

When it comes to food shopping, especially in ethnic markets, I'm not easily defeated. Send me on a mission to find the most obscure ingredient; I won't let you down.

I don't speak Chinese, or Spanish, or Italian or Japanese, but I have mastered the arts of pointing and miming, and my skill at drawing little sketches of ingredients on scrap paper from my pocketbook is improving.

I smile and shrug, ask other shoppers for help, point and mime all over again, and cruise slowly up and down the aisles, back and forth, until I find whatever it is I'm looking for.

Works every time -- except the first time I went shopping for Szechuan peppercorns.

I looked and cruised, mimed and smiled, pointed and sketched, and still came up empty. And it wasn't until much later that I learned why; between 1968 and 2005, the US had banned the importation of Szechuan peppercorns.

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April 1, 2010

Black pepper (Recipe: sun-dried tomato ketchup)

Sun-dried tomato ketchup kicks up any sandwich or burger. 

Last week, my high school reunion came to me.

Two friends from high school days in suburban New Jersey, along with four of their friends from now, made their way to my log house kitchen for a cooking class.

In high school, we never cooked together. In fact, I never cooked at all, except for the few months when I declared myself vegetarian and my mother informed me I could cook my own meals until I "got over it".

The menu, tagine cuisine, featured simple, straightforward, Moroccan dishes based on meat, fish, vegetables and dried fruit. The group remarked on how delicious everything tasted, and the conversation turned to spices. I explained that I replenish my spices once a year, or in the case of some I use all the time, like black pepper and cumin and cinnamon, much more frequently.

"Ah," they said. "That must be why it all tastes so good!"

That, and good juju when old friends get together in the kitchen.

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March 14, 2010

Saffron (Recipe: risotto with shrimp and asparagus) {gluten-free}

Shrimp asparagus risotto 

My sister-in-law, a scientist who often worked with the World Health Organization, traveled to places most tourists never go, and from many of those places she brought back wooden spoons for my kitchen.

From Pakistan, however, she brought saffron. Real, honest-to-goodness saffron threads.

Imagine my glee! It looked red enough, like the high-quality (and high-priced) Spanish saffron I usually buy. When I opened the baggie, I noticed a kind of musty odor, but saffron does smell a bit, so I didn't think twice about cooking with it.

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  • My name is Lydia Walshin. From my tiny kitchen in Boston's South End, I share recipes that use what we keep in our pantries, the usual and not-so-usual ingredients that spice up our lives.

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