Lychee and Strawberry Daiquiri

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Can you believe it's August tomorrow? How about a drink recipe to start off the last full month of summer?


I became intrigued by the idea of a lychee based drink ever since I heard somebody mention a lychee martini at a place where I was working a while ago. The woman who mentioned it was British, so she pronounced the word as "lye-chee" (lye as in what is used to make soap, along with what Norwegians put on their fish, more on which later). This pronunciation stuck with me for some reason and even though I’ve been corrected many times, I can’t bring myself to say "lee-chee." According to Merriam-Webster, both pronunciations are correct.


Lychees, native to China and Southeast Asia, are the size of small strawberries. They are also reddish-pink and heart shaped. Which is maybe why I decided to mix the two in this drink. And since lychees are very mild, with a faint floral fragrance, I thought their tender sweetness would pair well with the tartness of strawberries combined with some lime juice.


The edible white fruit is contained inside a pink husk. You can remove it by peeling it using just your fingers. My preferred way is to make an incision with a pairing knife all the way around the top of the lychee, remove the top of the husk and then grab the bottom of the lychee with your index finger and your thumb, and squeeze. The white fruit should pop right out of its husk.


Before using them in the recipe be sure to remove the hard pit inside the white fruit by slicing it down the middle to access and remove the pit.


I’ve looked at several versions for a daiquiri, and traditionally it can be quite heavy on the alcohol. Some proportions call for two parts fruit to one part rum and some lime juice, others even call for a one to one ratio. I prefer fruitier cocktails, with less alcohol so it does not overpower the other ingredients. And especially since lychees are so mild, I decided to use more of the fruit in the recipe.


If you can't find fresh lychees (a local Chinatown or an Asian market is your best bet), you can use canned ones. Since canned lychees are usually preserved in syrup, be sure to adjust the sugar proportions. This drink can also be made without the alcohol as a refreshing ice smoothie.

Lychee and Strawberry Daiquiri
(Makes 2 drinks)

You will need:
1 cup (237 ml) ice
1/2 cup (118 ml) lychees, peeled and pitted
1/2 cup (118 ml) strawberries, coarsely chopped
3/4 oz (22 ml) lime juice
1 tbsp sugar
2 oz (60 ml) rum

In a blender, combine ice, lychees, strawberries, lime juice, sugar and rum and process until well blended. Or omit the rum for an alcohol-free option. Divide between two cocktail glasses, and top the rim of each glass with a strawberry half. Enjoy.


Dragon Fruit (Pitaya) Granita

Saturday, July 28, 2012


In my last post I wrote about being easily distracted when I shop for food, especially so at the huge Asian market nearby stocked with things you can't get elsewhere. When I was there last, I was looking around, and somewhere past the frozen durian my eyes were drawn to the bright pink of fresh dragon fruit. Without so much as blinking an eye (or giving a thought as to what I would do with it), I quickly selected a few photogenic specimens and went on my way.


A dragon fruit or pitaya is actually the fruit of a cactus plant, which is native to many Southeast Asian as well as Central and South American countries. It ranges from a baseball to a softball in size, but more oval in shape. Its skin is vivid hot pink, or mauve, accentuated by greenish stalks. Once you cut into it, the flesh is white or sometimes purple or red, with a generous sprinkle of tiny black seeds of a size similar to a kiwi's. The taste of a ripe dragon fruit is most similar to a kiwi but milder; it is not as tart and only faintly sweet. The texture is a little firmer than a kiwi's and more similar to that of a peach.


You can eat the flesh by itself or make a juice drink or dessert. Be sure to pick a nice, ripe fruit. The color should be bright without any spots, the skin should be somewhat springy to the touch, not too soft or rock hard. To serve it raw, slice the fruit lengthwise in half (the somewhat thick outer skin should give in fairly easily). If you've ever scooped out an avocado, you can scoop out the flesh in a similar way. Use a spoon to separate the flesh from the skin (with ripe fruit this will be very easy to do), by going all the way around the sides of the fruit. Then lift the white flesh onto a cutting board, flat side down and dice into 1/2 inch cubes by slicing it lengthwise and then crosswise. Spoon back into the rind and serve.


Or, as I did, you can make a granita.


A granita is an Italian dessert, which is similar to a sorbet. Both sorbet and granita can be made using the same ingredients (juiced or puréed fruit, a sweetener, and a bit of tang from either lemon or lime juice). But while a sorbet usually requires an ice cream maker to get the desired texture, a granita is easily made by hand. All that's required is a freezer and a spoon to scrape it. The texture is also slightly different: a granita has a grainy texture made up of coarse ice crystals (which is achieved by repeated scraping with a spoon or a fork as it freezes) whereas a sorbet has a smoother texture.


Why did I settle on granita? Because it's hot, it's summer, and I don't have an ice cream maker. One of my projects this summer was to make a frozen dessert by hand, and a granita seemed very manageable. With just three ingredients, it is extremely easy to put together. The only caveat is the time it takes to make it. It will take several hours for it to fully freeze, and it will require your time in between to scrape it to prevent the granita from freezing solid. If you're planning to serve it at a dinner party, I suggest making it a day ahead of time to have one less thing to worry about.


Dragon fruit granita
(Makes about 2 cups)

You will need:
3 medium dragon fruits (about 2 lb/900 g)
1 tbsp lime juice
1/4 cup (60 ml) agave syrup, or to taste
sprigs of mint, for garnish

1. To prepare the dragon fruit, slice the fruit in half, lengthwise, revealing white (sometimes mauve) flesh dotted with small black seeds. Carefully insert a large spoon between the outer skin and the flesh, and go all the way around to separate the the two. Carefully scoop out the white flesh and place it flat side down on a cutting board, and slice into cubes. Repeat with the remaining fruit. Discard the skin or place it in a freezer to use as serving cups for the granita.
2. Place the cubed dragon fruit flesh in a food processor or blender. Add lime juice and agave syrup and process until puréed. Pour into a ceramic baking dish large enough so that the mixture is about 1 inch thick and place in the freezer.
3. After 30 minutes, mix the mixture with a spoon by scooping around the edges and into the center. Put back in the freezer and repeat every 30 to 45 minutes; the mixture will progressively become thicker and will begin to crystallize. Be sure to break apart any large icy chunks that form. Continue the process for a total time of at least four to five hours or freeze overnight. Before serving, scrape with a fork so that the granita has a coarse, grainy texture. Serve in a dessert glass garnished with a mint leaf, or inside frozen dragon fruit rinds.


Mackerel with Anchovy Butter and Vegetable Sauté

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Sometimes this happens to me: I go to a store with a few firm ideas of what I need, but then I get distracted and come out with things completely different from what I planned to get. Which can make shopping difficult. Like the other day.


Our local Asian market has a great abundance of fresh fish, with an extremely quick turnover. There are no local seafood markets here, and at any other shop I previously visited, the fish usually has a somewhat withered, unappetizing look. As if it has been in the open air for a day or few too long. At commercial chain supermarkets there is almost never a smell by the fish counter. Everything is sanitized, antiseptic, filleted, prepackaged. Only once you get home and put your nose to a flaccid fillet, you get a whiff of that fishy almost-but-not quite rotting smell.

But when I walk past the large fish counter at the Asian market, the smell just lures me. It smells like the sea. Like seaweed. Like lake water. Like the skin of the fish you’ve just caught. The smell is strong, overwhelming, and to me, irresistible. The counter is lined with fish and shellfish of all sorts. Except for very large fish, most is not filleted; they do it on request.


Among the dozens of fish lining the ice counter, my husband spots mackerel. Its silver and black striped back oily, plump. Knowing what it tastes like raw from sushi (it’s his favorite), he is tempted. Apart from raw, I only had mackerel smoked, never cooked. In fact, in many cuisines it is served smoked or salted, to preserve it as the tender flesh of the fish is prone to spoiling. There are a few exceptions, like the British who sometimes like to have it cooked fresh. So we get the fish, a few other random items (dragon fruit, white bitter melon, lychee berries), and leave without bothering to look for what we came in for originally.

When we get home I know I want to cook it whole. There is a break in the heatwave which only lasts a day or two, so in the oven it goes.


We have it with a knob of anchovy butter (consisting of unsalted butter with chopped anchovies with an herb or spice or two mixed in). Mackerel itself is a rather oily fish, rich in omega-3s. The taste is very flavorful and reminds me of herring. As a result, the salty, tangy and wonderfully fishy butter combined with the moist flesh of this fatty fish simply melts in your mouth.


This well-buttered fish can be complemented by a simple vegetable side dish, such as baby zucchini and cherry tomato sauté.

Baked Mackerel with Anchovy Butter
(Serves 2)

For the fish, you will need:
1 lb (450 g) whole mackerel, gutted & cleaned
juice of 1/2 lemon (about 1 tbsp)
1 tbsp olive oil
1 tbsp chopped fresh parsley
2 tsp chopped fresh basil
1/4 tsp salt
1/8 tsp ground black pepper
a splash of white wine (1 to 2 tsp)

For the anchovy butter, you will need:
2 oz (56 g) unsalted butter, at room temperature
2 anchovy fillets, finely chopped
1/2 tsp lemon juice
1/2 tsp finely chopped parsley

1. Preheat oven to 400ºF (205ºC). In a small bowl whisk together lemon juice, olive oil, parsley, basil, salt and pepper. Rinse the fish and pat dry. Place on a plate or a cutting board and pour the marinade over the fish, rubbing it all over including inside the cavity.
2. Place the fish in the middle of a sheet of parchment paper large enough to wrap it. Drizzle 1 to 2 tsp of white wine over the fish. Holding the edges of the parchment paper, roll the edges together to form seal around the fish. Place on a baking sheet and bake for 15-20 minutes. The fish is done when the skin is slightly crispened and the flesh flakes off the bone.
2. While the fish bakes, prepare the anchovy butter. In a small bowl, mix together softened butter (butter should be soft enough to mix it with ease but not melted), anchovies, lemon juice and chopped parsley. Cover and refrigerate until serving.
3. To serve the fish, remove from parchment paper. Serve whole, or divided in half if serving two people, with a knob of chilled anchovy butter on top which will melt over the fish.

Zucchini and Cherry Tomato Sauté
(Serves 2)

You will need:
1 tbsp olive oil
1 small shallot, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 cup (135 g) chopped baby zucchini
1 cup (140 g) whole cherry tomatoes
1/4 cup (60 ml) white wine
1 tbsp chopped parsley
salt and pepper, to taste

Heat olive oil in a large pan on medium heat. Add shallot and sauté until fragrant and softened, 2-3 minutes. Add garlic and cook for 1 minute more. Add zucchini and tomatoes, and sauté for 5 minutes until vegetables begin to soften. Add the white wine and cook for 7-10 minutes more, until the zucchini is cooked through and tomatoes are softened. Stir in parsley and season to taste with salt and pepper before serving.


No-Bake Cocoa Cookie Balls

Thursday, July 19, 2012


Our oven has been off duty for several weeks now. On some of the hotter days of this very hot summer there has been enough heat to make an omelet outside, and I did not want to generate even more of it indoors. And since many desserts invariably involve baking, they have been largely off the menu. But then I remembered a dessert that my mom and my grandmother used to make when I was little, a confection which has the texture and consistency of a cookie and requires no baking.


In Russian they're called kartoshka, which translates to small potatoes. Despite what the name might imply, potato is not one of the ingredients. They are made with crumbs, sugar, butter and cocoa which are mixed together into a sort of a paste. Instead of being baked, the mixture requires being chilled, so that it reaches the right consistency for rolling it into round baby potato shapes. Which is perhaps how these got their name.


There are many versions for making these. And this one emerged after multiple attempts. My first was with homemade breadcrumbs, because I wanted to avoid using graham crackers. My mom phoned me right when I was working on that batch, and said it would not work without crackers, that breadcrumbs would alter the texture and would be too bland in the recipe. I was stubborn so I persisted. She was right. Lesson: always listen to your mother.


Another attempt was made with solid coconut oil, which melted pitifully into a liquid as soon as I began mixing it because of the heat. The recipe calls for a solid fat. As I wrote about before, coconut is much more sensitive to heat than butter. Another lesson: sometimes you shouldn't mess with something that already works. And after several adjustments of proportions and tweaking the process I learned that for something seemingly so simple, the way and the order in which the ingredients are mixed matters. And sometimes it's as simple as using old and trusted ingredients.


As well as listening to your mom.

No-Bake Cocoa Cookie Balls
(Makes 18 to 20 1.5 inch cookies)

You will need:
7.2 oz (200 g) graham crackers (about 13 1/2 whole)
4 oz (100 g) butter, sliced into chunks
1/3 cup (90 g) sugar
1/8 cup (15 g) dark unsweetened cocoa powder
1 cup (113 g) chopped hazelnuts, divided
2-3 tbsp soy milk
1 tsp rum (optional)

1. Using a food processor, process the crackers into crumbs (yielding about 1 1/2 cup crumbs). Add butter, and process until the butter is fully incorporated. Add sugar and cocoa and process until well blended. Scoop out into a bowl. The mixture should have a consistency of moist sand. Stir in 1/2 cup hazelnuts. Mix in soy milk and rum. Cover and refrigerate for one hour to allow the mixture to solidify slightly.
2. Scoop a small amount of the mixture with a rounded tablespoon and form it into a 1 1/2 inch ball (3.75 cm) by rolling it between the palms of your hands. Repeat with the remaining mixture. Grind the remaining 1/2 cup hazelnuts in a food processor or an electric mill and roll the balls in hazelnut crumbs. Refrigerate until ready to serve.


Bloody Mary Shrimp Cocktail

Sunday, July 15, 2012


I continue to boycott this incessant heat which has been plaguing the North East for the last several weeks by making two things: cold appetizers and cold cocktails, with a few other things thrown in here and there. Recently a concoction was created around these parts that somehow fills both functions, a part cocktail and a part appetizer. I blame it on the heat.


This recipe is for a shrimp cocktail with a vodka-infused tomato sauce. The sauce starts out as wanting to become an ordinary, decent cocktail sauce. And just like any well-meaning cocktail sauce it likes to hang out with its two pals, horseradish and lemon juice. What it doesn't know is that its two pals also sometimes like to hang out with tomato juice and vodka. So our friend gets a taste and things get a little carried away. It goes through several crises and realizes it has been missing some spice in its life, so it also gets a red hot cayenne pepper. And just like that, it turns into a Bloody Mary hybrid.


You can serve this appetizer as an ordinary shrimp cocktail, with shrimp and sauce on the side (or in a martini glass). However for most efficient and effective delivery of this sauce, porcelain Chinese soup spoons are best. They're perfect for single servings, avoid the issue of double-dipping, and can hold a sufficient amount of sauce to allow it to fulfill its promise of going straight to your head.


As always, feel free to adjust the proportion of the vodka to the sauce to suit your own preference for a stronger taste or one with less bite.

Bloody Mary Shrimp Cocktail
(makes 16 single servings)

You will need
16 medium to large shrimp, cooked, peeled and deveined
3 tbsp tomato paste
1/3 cup (80 ml) water
1 oz (30 ml) vodka
2 1/2 tsp freshly squeezed lemon juice
1/2 tsp horseradish
1/8 tsp sugar
salt and pepper to taste
cayenne pepper, to taste
jalapeño slices (optional, for garnish)

Whisk tomato paste and water in a measuring cup until smooth (the mixture should be of a somewhat thick consistency). Add vodka, lemon juice, horseradish, and sugar. Season to taste with salt, pepper, and cayenne. Place in a small serving bowl and serve as a dipping sauce for the shrimp; alternatively serve individually in porcelain soup spoons by adding about 1/2 tbsp of sauce into each spoon, topped with a shrimp and a jalapeño slice. Serve chilled.


Stuffed Kale Rolls (Dolma)

Thursday, July 12, 2012


I've yet to meet a person who hasn't had dolma in one form or another. And perhaps you've had it too, without even knowing it. While one of the more well known types of dolma is the stuffed grape leaf, the name itself can mean any stuffed leaf or vegetable. Dolma is a derivative of a Turkish word dolmak which means to fill (and also, to be full). Stuffed peppers, stuffed eggplant, stuffed tomatoes, stuffed cabbage leaves, among others, can all be classified under this name.

Turkish food and I, we go way back as it turns out. My husband and I once knew this incredibly smart, brilliant man. As sometimes is common with these types, the part of the mind responsible for understanding (or perhaps developing) the string theory, overtakes the part responsible for social interactions. They stoop from always looking at the ground, their eye never meets yours. Interactions with others may seem daunting, mentally exhausting and invariably awkward. Introverted, they spew strange bits of obscure knowledge and have at times almost obsessive fixations. His happened to be where people are from. Whenever he would introduce someone he knew, an inevitable accompaniment was "He is from South Korea!" or, in my case, "She is from the Ukraine!" The peculiar excitement of the pronouncement made it seem as if it were either a great accomplishment or a freakish attribute. And ever since he found out I was Ukrainian (the day I shall always regret) he thought that, for some reason, I must be an expert on Turkish food.


This boggled me. Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union, Turkey is technically part of the Middle East, although it has been a potential EU candidate. Different histories and alliances, different languages and cultures. Why Turkey? Then I looked at a map more closely and I saw the answer. Turkey is right below Ukraine, the only thing separating the two is the Black Sea. I pulled a map of the Ottoman Empire: the southern part of what is now Ukraine was on the fringes of the empire, which enveloped modern-day Turkey. So while my average mind couldn't think past beyond 1917, his saw the connection between the countries immediately.

Ever inquisitive and stating that the Greeks (incidentally also once part of the empire) have an almost identical dish, he wondered if there was a dish similar in Ukraine. But the closest dolma type-dish I knew about was stuffed cabbage leaves, which are typically filled with ground meat and rice and cooked in a similar way.


What does this strange history lesson have to do with kale rolls? I borrow frequently from different cuisines, which is sometimes manifested in interesting combinations. When an idea for this dish first came to mind as a derivative of stuffed cabbage leaves, I couldn't help but also be reminded of the grape leaf dish (and therefore also of the conversation).


Since cabbage leaves are thick and frankly, cooked cabbage is rather stinky, I used kale. Kale is in the cabbage family, but its leaves are milder than cabbage, and more pliable. In this recipe I use dinosaur or lacinato kale, whose leaves are more amenable to being wrapped than curly kale. To prepare the leaves for wrapping, cut away about 1/3 of the bottom leaf, discarding the part right below where the leaf starts to expand. Blanch the leaves for about 3-4 minutes in simmering water to soften them, so that they can be wrapped with ease. 


Remove the thickest part of the stem, about two to three inches, as otherwise the leaf will not bend easily.


Then place the leaf veined side down, smooth side up. Dollop a heaping tablespoon of the filling (here brown rice, mushrooms and a few other good tidbits). Take the bottom edge and fold over the filling. Then take one side's edge and fold it. The other side will remain open. Simply roll the kale into a tight wrap and place on a serving platter, the top part of the leaf on the bottom. Serve them as they are, warm or chilled (and vegan), or with a yogurt sauce, the recipe for which follows below.


In a way this recipe is perhaps the missing link between the different dolmas of Turkey and Ukraine. It is kind of like the stuffed grape leaves, and it is sort of like the stuffed cabbage leaves, but can also be described as sui generis, meaning of its own kind. Its own kind of good.


Stuffed Kale Rolls
(Makes 25)

You will need:
2 cups (474 ml) water
1 cup (237 ml) brown rice
1/2 cup (75 g) red onion, finely chopped
8 oz (227 g) white button mushrooms, finely chopped
1 tomato, chopped
2 tbsp parsley, chopped
1 tbsp chives, chopped
1 tbsp lemon juice
2 tbsp olive oil, divided
salt and pepper to taste
25 lacinato (dinosaur) kale leaves
1. Bring water to a boil in a medium pot. Add the rice and a pinch of salt. Bring back to a simmer, reduce the heat to low, cover, and cook the rice 40-45 minutes until the water has evaporated. Remove from heat and let stand 5 minutes more. Fluff with a wooden spoon, and let cool slightly.
2. Heat 1 tbsp olive oil in a pan, add the onion and cook on medium heat, stirring frequently, until softened and fragrant, 2-3 minutes. Add the mushrooms and sauté on medium heat, until cooked through and the water the mushrooms give off has evaporated, about 8 minutes more. Remove from heat and let cool slightly.
3. To prepare the filling, in a large bowl, combine cooked rice, mushroom mixture, tomato, parsley, chives, lemon juice, and the remaining 1 tbsp olive oil. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Cover and set aside.
4. To prepare the kale, wash thoroughly and pat dry. Cut off about 1/3 from the bottom, right before the leaf begins to expand. Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add the leaves and blanch until softened and flexible, about 3 minutes. Drain and rinse under cold water and pat dry. Make an incision in the shape of a long triangle to remove about 2-3 inches (5-7.5 cm) of the thick middle stem from each leaf.
5. To make the rolls, place the leaf veined side down, and put a heaping tablespoon of the filling in the middle. Fold the leaf from the bottom over the filling. Tuck one side of the leaf over (the other side will remain open). Roll the leaf into a tight roll, and press slightly to seal the top of the leaf to the roll. Place on a serving platter, with the top of the leaf tucked down. Repeat with remaining rolls. Serve warm or chilled.

Yogurt Dipping Sauce
(Makes 1/2 cup)

You will need:
1/2 cup (118 ml) Greek yogurt
1 garlic clove, crushed
1 tbsp chives
salt and pepper to taste

Combine yogurt with garlic and chives. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve or refrigerate until needed.


Beet Burgers

Saturday, July 7, 2012


With the summer in full swing, and Independence Day behind us, what could be more suitable (and more patriotic) than an American classic: the burger. But with the price of meat on an ever-increasing climb as wallets shrink, with recent studies published linking lower red-meat consumption to longevity, and with an increasing awareness about the source, sustainability, and quality of our food choices, meat may be reducing its appearance even on an avid carnivore's table.

So lately we've been exploring various alternatives to the hamburger, from pan-seared salmon burgers to oven-roasted portobello burgers (soon to come, just as soon as the weather dips below 100ºF). As we are both beet lovers, we wondered how the beet would fare as a meat substitute. It turns out, quite well. For vegetarians and carnivores alike, this burger has enough substance and flavor to satisfy any burger craving.

Don't worry, it's only beets being ground.
I have always been attracted to beets in part due to their vivid color. The remarkable thing about beet burgers is how closely they resemble actual meat-based burgers in color, although the faintly violet tint to their burgundy color gives them away upon closer examination.


Save for the use of the egg white which helps with the binding, the remaining ingredients are cooked prior to use. This is because beets take a while to cook through, and using them raw can result in patties with raw beet pieces in the middle. Nevertheless, I found that with these patties, longer time in the pan works better. It helps them crispen on the outside, without drying out in the middle.


Also if you buy beets in a bunch with the greens, remember that the leaves are edible. Beets are related to chard, except the latter has been grown to have large and nutritious leaves frequently used in salads and cooking, while the former has been bred to have a meatier root, but the leaves of either can be consumed. As a result, it can be a nice compliment to the beet burgers to use the beet leaves as a topping instead of lettuce, or to serve a side salad incorporating the greens.


Beet Burgers
(Makes 4 patties)

You will need:
4 medium beet roots, ends trimmed
1/4 cup (35 g) chopped red onion
1 15.5 oz (439 g) can of black beans, drained and rinsed
2 tbsp fresh chopped parsley
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp pepper
1 egg white
1 1/2 tbsp potato flour
2 1/2 tbsp canola oil, divided

1. Bring a medium pot filled with water to a boil. Add beets and cook, skins on, until cooked through, 40-50 minutes. Turn off the heat, drain and let cool. Then peel and grate the beets or pulse a few times in a food processor for a coarse consistency (processed beets should measure to about 1 1/3 to 1 1/2 cup).
2. Heat 1/2 tbsp canola oil in a pan, and sauté the onion until softened and translucent, about 2-3 minutes.
3. Place the black beans in a large bowl and coarsely mash with a fork or potato masher. Add the processed beets, the sautéed onion, parsley, salt, pepper and the egg white. Mix well to combine. Mix in the potato flour. Form the mixture into four flattened patties.
4. Heat remaining 2 tbsp canola oil in a large pan. Add the patties and cook on medium-low heat, 7-8 minutes per side, until the sides are crispy and moderately blackened. Serve with your favorite burger toppings.

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