Sunday, May 23, 2010

Spize Cafe and a Thai Cooking class!

Last Thursday Aditya and I attended a cooking class at our favorite pan-Asian restaurant, Spize Cafe in downtown Raleigh. Their super talented chef and owner Meechai showed us how to make lemongrass pork rolls, tom kha soup and tilapia in a panang curry. All of which, though I must admit I am a little too partial towards the tilapia, were amazing.

I had been meaning to write about restaurants in the Triangle (Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill) area that I really like but never got around to doing so. This cooking class gave me the perfect opportunity to change this and no better place than to start this off than Spize!

Spize serves mostly pan-Asian flavors concentrating on Thai, reflecting chef Meechai's roots. Other than the delectable fare what attracts me to this place are the very hospitable owners, Meechai and his lovely wife Jacq. Meechai is a software engineer by day and chef by night and if that in itself is not commendable, then its definitely his passion for perfection. We learnt at the class that everything from the spice powders to the stocks to the bread is made from scratch. The difference this attention to detail makes is evident in the taste. His commitment also extends to being environmentally friendly, the marble tabletops are from reclaimed material and the tableware is from corn by-products.

Coming back to the cooking class, we learnt how to make the marinade for the succulent and delicately flavored lemongrass pork for the rice rolls, how to stuff the rolls and how to handle them delicately. We learnt how to make a mean Tom-kha soup, how to make the penang spice paste from scratch and how to wrap it around a crispy tilapia filet. We also learnt some valuable tips like store lemongrass (in a ziplock bag in the freezer), how to make your own chilli paste (soak the chillies, deseed and then grind) and how to treat your rice paper rolls (like a lady :)). And then we got to eat it all!

I wish I had better pictures to share but we were too busy enjoying ourselves. To see more pictures from the cooking class please see this link. I will not be sharing any recipes here because I really want you to go there, taste first and then attend their class if possible. If you do, I would highly recommend the open-faced Vietnamese sandwiches with spicy eggplant or thinly sliced, cumin chicken on the crusty baguettes and of course the spicy panang tilapia curry infused with kafir lime leaves. They also have an excellent hot-pot, a Thai fondue in which you can dip vegetables, tofu or meat, accompanied with some chile sauce and rice. These are my favorites but I am sure you will find yours. 

p.s. Recipes to follow once we try these on our own!

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Mujadara and Tatziki

We always tend to draw analogies with what we are familiar with. Since Indian food is what I grew up eating the most, I find myself drawing many analogies to it. Like in this case. Mujadara is Middle Eastern comfort food. It has basic ingredients, is simple to make and to me it is very similar to the Indian khichdi. It has rice and brown lentils cooked with some aromatic spices and mixed with a generous helping of caramelized onions. Tatziki is a creamy yogurt and cucumber sauce that to me is very similar to the Indian raita. It is made with cucumber, mint and garlic all mixed in thick Greek yogurt and served cold. It is a great side for the mujadara or as a dip for pita bread or a topping on some Middle eastern spied burgers. Both are extremely popular in the Middle East so much so that the origins of each is a topic, hotly debated!

Mujadara and Tatziki, together make one of my most favorite meals, especially on hot summer days. The coolness of the cucumber and yogurt is a perfect balance to the wholesome rice and lentil mixture. As the temperature rises I find myself craving for this, especially at lunch. Neomonde deli and bakery which is one of my favorite lunch places in the Triangle area does a great job at satisfying these cravings. In their version of Tatziki dried mint is used. If you have any on hand, feel free to use that for a more authentic taste. I didn't have any so I used fresh mint instead. The result was just as good. 

This meal is satisfying, delicious and did you notice? Meatless! Going meatless even once a week can do a huge amount of good for us and our planet. Many restaurants, chefs and food bloggers have been participating in this worldwide movement by going meatless on Monday. I have decided to follow suit and I will be sending this as my first entry for Meatless Mondays.

1 cup brown or white rice (preferably long grained)
1 cup brown lentils
2 cups water or vegetable stock
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 large onion sliced
1/2 teaspoon cumin powder
1/4 teaspoon paprika
1 cinnamon stick
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon sugar

- In a stock pot, cover the lentils with water. Add half of the cinnamon stick and cook till tender. Be careful as to not overcook these. Once the lentils are cooked, add salt, paprika and cumin powder and mix well.
- While the lentils are cooking, in a separate wide bottomed pan, heat the olive oil and spread the onions evenly. Let them sit for a couple of minutes without stirring so as to get the bottom layer brown. Then stir to mix the top layer with the bottom and sprinkle with a teaspoon of the sugar. Stir till all the onions are evenly brown. Remove and set aside on a paper towel.
- In the same pan, cook the rice with 2 cups of water or vegetable stock and the remaining half of the cinnamon stick.
- Mix the rice, lentils and three fourth of the caramelized onions together. 
- Serve topped with the rest of the caramelized onions.

1 cup greek yogurt
1 medium sized cucumber
1 small garlic clove
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon mint, finely chopped

- Peel the cumber, slit lengthwise and remove all the seeds. Chop evenly.
- Grate the garlic into the yogurt, add in salt and mint. Mix in the cumber and serve chilled. 

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Strawberry shortcake

Strawberry season is in full swing. If you were at any of the local farmers markets I mentioned in my earlier post, you would find them in copious amounts. We have been getting tons from the North Hills farmers market and overdosing on them. We have been diligently heading the advice that its best to eat them fresh and on the same day as they are bought so very few make it to the day after! Its like eating a potato chip, you cannot stop at one. By the way, did you know that eating only one serving of strawberries (about 8) provides more Vitamin C than an orange?

After blending them into smoothies and eating quite a few in their natural state, I couldn't wait to cast them as the star ingredient in a dessert. At the same time though, I did want to maintain their natural flavor as much as possible. The solution? This strawberry short cake inspired by a recipe from Nigella Lawson's cookbook, How to be a domestic goodess: baking and the art of comfort food, which by the way, is a great book with lots of doable and delicious recipes. The strawberry shortcake picture in the cookbook really caught my eye, a flaky shortcake halved and stuffed with strawberries, topped with a dollop of cream. It looked so pretty that I had to give it a try and it was delicious! The original recipe called for whipping cream which I substituted with Greek yogurt for a healthier and lighter version. If you haven't used Greek yogurt before you must give it a try. Its basically a really thick version of regular yogurt which you can get if you hang it overnight to remove excess water. It is a great substitute for sour cream or heavy cream. Here I whisked it with some honey and vanilla extract to top the strawberries with. Trust me, the result was just as good and the heavy cream was not missed! For a more decadent version, vanilla ice-cream cream would work really well in place of the yogurt. If you like chocolate and berries together, drizzling some chocolate syrup would be a nice idea too. Either way do give this a try!

Note: The recipe below is my modified version from the original recipe from the cookbook. The original recipe called for unsalted butter and half teaspoon salt. I also used yogurt in place of light cream for the shortcakes and heavy cream for the topping.

2 cups plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
5 tablespoons sugar
1/2 cup butter, frozen (I used Smart Balance)
1 large egg
1/2 cup non-fat Greek yogurt or plain yogurt hung overnight

For the filling:
1 and 1/2 cups strawberries
1 tablespoon sugar
few drops of balsamic vinegar (optional)
1 cup non-fat Greek yogurt or plain yogurt hung overnight
2 teaspoons honey

- Line a baking sheet with parchment or wax paper and preheat the oven to 425F.
- Mix flour, salt (if using), baking powder and 4 tablespoons sugar in a bowl.
- Grate the butter into these dry ingredients and use your fingerprints to finish crumbling the butter into the flour.
- Whisk the egg into the yogurt and pour into the flour mixture while kneading into a dough. You may not need all the egg-yogurt mixture to make the dough come together so use cautiously.
- Turn the dough onto a lightly floured surface and roll gently to a thickness of about 3/4 inch.
- Dip a 2 1/2 inch round cookie cutter into flour and cut out as many rounds as you can. Work the scraps back into a dough, re-roll and finish cutting out, you should get 8 in all.
- Place the shortcakes about 1 inch apart on the baking sheet, sprinkle with the remaining sugar and bake for about 10-15 minutes or till they are golden brown.
- Let them cool on a wire rack for around 5-10 minutes.
- For the filing, crush half of the strawberries with the spoonful of sugar and the few drops of balsamic vinegar if using and halve or quarter the remaining strawberries depending on their size.
- Whisk the yogurt with vanilla extract and honey.
- To assemble the shortcakes, split each one across the middle and cover with a spoonful of the crushed strawberry mixture, a few halved or quartered strawberries, then dollop some yogurt or whipped cream on top and set the top back on.

Makes 8.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Carrot, ginger and peanut soup

Summer is without doubt my most favorite time of the year and I know that even though its still spring here in North Carolina, its been feeling kind of like summer already. Other than the warm weather, there is much to love here. Open air farmers markets, tons of fresh produce, outdoor meals and drinks on the patio. All in all it just makes me feel like good times are in store.

Summer is also a great time to start being more of a 'locavore'. There is an abundance of fresh produce in the various farmers markets around the area and they provide a great opportunity to try stuff you might have never tried before. Eating locally and eating seasonally will almost always guarantee that you are eating well.  If you are in the Triangle area and are looking for a farmers market close to you, here is a list that might help.

- State Farmers Market
- North Raleigh Farmers market
- Midtown Farmers Market at North Hills
- Five Points Community Farmers Market
- Durham Farmers Market
- Cary Farmers Market

Summer here though does get quite hot so my focus this season will be on recipes that require none or very little "on the stove" time. I am also hoping to experiment with some cold soup recipes, mainly because I like soups way too much to relegate them only for cold weather. This recipe here is one step in that direction though it does taste just as good when served hot. This recipe like quite a few here was inspired by a recipe for carrot and ginger soup that I saw in the latest issue of the Bon Appetit magazine. The original recipe was served with a chile butter and topped with peanuts. I omitted the chile butter and gave it a little bit of an Asian twist by adding some peanut butter, mixed with honey and red chili flakes. If you are not a big peanut fan, I think using almond butter would work just as well. The result is a smooth and velvetty textured soup with just a hint of sweetness and spice. Topped with some fresh cilantro and accompanied with toast and salad, it makes the perfect summer meal.

1 tablespoon olive oil
4 carrots, peeled and chopped into 1/4 inch thick rounds
1/2 onion, chopped
1 tablespoon fresh minced ginger
1 potato, diced
2 cups low sodium vegetable broth
2 cups water
2 teaspoons peanut butter
1/2 teaspoon honey
1/4 teaspoon red chili flakes
1/2 teaspoon salt (or lesser depending on the salt in the vegetable broth)

- In a heavy bottom stock pot, heat olive oil. Add chopped onion, minced ginger, diced potatoes and carrots. 
- Sprinkle the vegetables with salt and saute for about ten minutes or until they are slightly softened but not browned.
- Add the broth and water, bring to a boil and cook covered for about 20 minutes or till the vegetables are cooked through.
- Cool slightly, then puree in batches. Return blended soup to the stock pot.
-  Whisk peanut butter and honey with the red pepper flakes. Add to the soup and stir well, avoiding any lumps to form with the peanut butter.
- Bring to a simmer and get off the heat. Serve warm or cold topped with chopped cilanto and toasted peanuts.

Makes 6 side servings.