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The glass still in hand, he knelt and shifted the harness so the fat lower section of the samovar swung around his hip.  Deftly, he crooked back an arm to open the spigot.

David expected either the syrupy, blazingly strong coffee of the Arabs and Turks, or the sweet minted tea that was sipped through a sugar cube held in the teeth.  Both were beverage staples for every Arab café and restaurant.  Instead, however, the man released from the spigot a stream of hot, thick, white liquid.  David immediately smelled a honeyed aroma that filled his mind with the image of pink and lavender flowers in a desert oasis.  It smelled absolutely luscious.

“What is that?” he asked bluntly.  The man looked up from his task, the thick stream still arcing into the glass.

“My friend has never tasted salep?  Ah, such a treat you are about to have.”  The glass was full, and the vendor closed the tap, catching the last drops in the glass with a move of long practice.  He shifted his position, the samovar swung back along the harness strap and settled once more into the middle of his back.  Still kneeling, he placed the glass of steaming liquid into a handled cradle of brass lacework and presented it to David as if it were a delicacy to a king.

David took the cup and ventured a sip.  Thick, hot, smooth, and milky, the concoction was a wonderful collection of taste and texture: a satiny sweetness unlike anything he had ever experienced.

Giambastiani, Dreams of the Desert Wind,
(Seattle, Fairwood Press, 2004), p24

When I lived in Jerusalem, on cool mornings I would go down to the shuk in the Old City where I’d buy two things: a semit and some salep. A semit (or simit) is a large bread ring topped with sesame and other seeds. Vendors would carry them stacked on a stick and I’d buy one, still warm from the oven. Salep (or sahlab) is a beverage made from wild orchid tubers dried and ground into a powder. The powder is a thickener, and when added to milk along with a bit of sugar, some flavorings, and topped with whatever your heart desires, it is a luscious treat. I loved this combo so much that it made its way into my novel, Dreams of the Desert Wind (excerpted above).

Finding true salep outside of the Levant is damned near impossible, and the only sources I’ve found for authentic salep powder run about $10 USD per 1oz/30g. Since it takes a tablespoon/15g of powder per cup of the beverage, that’s way too pricey for my taste, so for years I’ve been looking for an alternative. The mass-marketed “instant salep” powders cheat, using corn starch or potato flour as a thickener, and they are always too . . . something. Too bland, too thin, too insipid, too gummy.

But rice flour, specifically glutinous rice flour, this makes a thickened drink that is the closest approximation I have found. As a rule, I try to avoid posting recipes with uncommon ingredients (life’s hard enough), but in this case, glutinous rice flour and rose water are pretty easy to find, either in a higher-end grocery, a Mediterranean bodega, or online. They’re inexpensive, too, both costing less than an ounce of real salep powder.

Salep (or Sahlab)

Makes 1 serving

Hardware

  • A 1-quart saucier pan works best for this because of its rounded bottom, but any small pot or pan will work. Just get the whisk into the corners.

Ingredients

For the salep:

  • 1 tablespoon glutinous rice flour
  • 1 cup milk (whole is best)
  • 2 teaspoons sugar
  • 1/4 teaspoon rose water

Optional toppings:

  • ground cinnamon, nutmeg, or ginger
  • ground/chopped pistachios
  • raisins or sultanas
  • shredded coconut

Procedure

  • In a small pot, whisk the rice flour with a bit of the milk to dissolve, adding the rest of the milk when the flour is incorporated.
  • Put pot over a medium heat and warm the mixture, whisking frequently as it thickens.
  • When the salep starts to simmer, pull it from the heat. Stir in the sugar and rose water.
  • Pour into a mug or glass, and top with whatever strikes your fancy.

Notes

  • I devised this recipe is for a single serving, but it is easily scaled up for more.
  • You can replace the rice flour with corn starch or potato flour, but there’s a marked difference in consistency and umami. Not recommended.
  • Some recipes out there suggest using vanilla as well. I do not recommend this, as it cuts the flowery aroma of the rose water.

k

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It’s hot out there. Uncomfortably hot. Freaking hot. Evil hot.

Here’s something tasty. Something easy. Something cool.

With a few common (and one not-so-common) ingredients, you can use this easy-as-you-please recipe to create a luscious, sweet/tart/creamy/flowery treat to enjoy in the long, hot evenings.

No-Churn Lemon Ice Cream

Makes 3 cups (which is like one serving here, but you can stretch it out if you’re feeling generous).

Ingredients

  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1/8 teaspoon salt
  • 1 tablespoon fresh lemon zest
  • 1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
  • 1 cup milk
  • 1 cup cream
  • 1 tablespoon rosewater (see Notes)

Procedure

  • In a medium bowl, combine sugar, salt, lemon zest and juice. Stir to incorporate.
  • Add milk, cream, and rosewater and mix until the sugar and salt are dissolved (when you no longer hear a gritty sound as you stir).
  • Pour the mixture into a shallow nonreactive pan; I use an 8×8-inch CorningWare baking dish, but a metal pan will work just as well.
  • Cover with foil, and set in the freezer for 2 to 3 hours. It should be crusty at the edges but still soft in the center. Stir to mix and break up the ice crystals.
  • Return to freezer for another hour and repeat until the mixture is frozen through.
  • Serve and enjoy.

Notes

  • A garnish of chopped almonds works very well with this.
  • The addition of rosewater is technically optional, but I strongly recommend using it here, as it adds a floral top note to the treat that makes a big difference.
  • Rosewater and orange blossom water are staples in my spice cupboard. They’re inexpensive, but versatile, adding a certain je ne sais quoi to dressings, cocktails, desserts, even dishes like steamed vegetable and mashed potatoes. Like lavender is to Provençal cooking, these subtle, fragrant decoctions are essential to traditional Levantine treats, like my baklava.

k

 

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Most everyone knows that I hate single-taskers in the kitchen . . . those items in your utensil drawer or the cupboard that only do one thing. If your kitchen is anything like mine (i.e., galley style layout), you know that I have limited storage space and even greater limits on counter space. So, if I’m going to allow a single-tasker into my kitchen, it has to do an amazing job and it has to take up minimal space. (Example: the Norpro bean slicer; small in size, but an absolute champ at slicing haricot vert lengthwise.)

With that in mind, many of my friends were surprised to hear that, for a holiday present, I had purchased a sous vide cooker. “Sous vide” (pronounced “soo veed,” meaning “under vacuum”) is a cooking technique, long used by professionals, that is now enjoying a resurgence among foodies. (more…)

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On Monday I mentioned that I had gotten myself into a bit of a sticky wicket by offering to run the kitchen while my wife hosted a business retreat. News that we’d have both gluten-free and vegan dietary restrictions gave me serious agita, as I am not well-schooled in cooking for non-meat-based diets.

With a little research and some creative thinking, though, I managed to pull it off. Cooking double-purpose menus meant that I overdid it a little on the quantities, but hey, leftovers, right? (more…)

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I learned to cook from my father. He thought there was one temperature setting: Volcanic. He cooked everything fast and hard. “Braise” was not part of his vocabulary.

It took me a long time to unlearn that — burning through too many pieces of non-stick cookware was part of that re-education — but now I thoroughly appreciate the value of the entire heat spectrum. While the sear and the char are still part of my cooking toolbox, I am now quite familiar with the simmer, poach, braise, and other “go easy” settings.

Spaghetti alla Carbonara is a perfect example of “go easy” cooking. A few simple ingredients combined with proper (low) heat make for a lovely, light entree. I use capellini (angel hair) as opposed to the traditional spaghetti because I think it lends itself better to the thin, light sauce. (more…)

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Simple LivingPierre Troisgros is a giant in the world of cooking. This dish — one of his masterpieces — was said to have changed the face of French cookery back in the ’60s, when he and his brother Jean won their third Michelin star.

Like most culinary masterpieces, it is a thing of elegant simplicity…if you have what is needed. Fish stock. Creme fraiche. Sorrel. I will tell you how to make the first two, but fresh sorrel is difficult to find, even in season. I’ll give you a workaround for that, too. See the Notes section, below.

This recipe is not difficult, but it may take you to foodie places you’ve never been before.

Trust me, though. This dish is so worth the journey.


Salmon à la Troisgros

Makes 4 servings

Ingredients

  • 2 thick (or 4 thin) salmon fillets, deboned and skinned
  • 2 cups fish stock (see Notes for easy recipe)
  • 2 medium shallots, chopped finely
  • 2–3 white mushrooms, chopped finely
  • 1/3 cup dry white wine
  • 3 tablespoons dry vermouth
  • 1 1/4 cups creme fraiche (see Notes for easy recipe)
  • 4 ounces fresh sorrel leaves, washed and stemmed (see Notes for substitutions)
  • 4 ounces unsalted butter, cut into eight knobs
  • Freshly squeezed lemon juice
  • Coarsely ground salt and pepper

Procedure

Prepare the Salmon

  • Debone the fillets: Run your fingers against the grain to feel the pin-bones and pull them out with pliers or strong tweezers.
  • Skin the fillets: Place each fillet skin-side down on a cutting board and, with a thin, long-bladed knife, slice just between the skin and the flesh.
    • The skin and bones can be used in making the fish stock (see Notes).
  • Trim the fillets: If you have two thick fillets, using the same cutting board and knife, slice them in half through the thickness (i.e., knife blade held parallel to the board) to make four fillets of equal thinness.
    • Some recipes call for pressing the fillets down to flatten them further, but I feel this destroys too much of the texture, especially if you cannot find high quality salmon, so I say avoid it.

Prepare the Sauce

  • Combine fish stock, shallots, and mushrooms in a saucepan and bring to a boil. Cook down to a glaze (10–15 minutes at high boil).
  • Add wine and vermouth. Cook down further, reducing once more to a syrupy glaze (5 minutes or so).
  • Add creme fraiche and boil until thickened (2–3 minutes).
  • Pour sauce through a fine-mesh strainer into a clean bowl. Clean out saucepan, return strained sauce to it, and return pan to stove over a medium heat..
  • When rewarmed, add the sorrel leaves and let them cook for about 30 seconds only. Remove from heat. Add the butter, a few knobs at a time, and stir gently to melt and incorporate.
  • Season with lemon juice, salt, and pepper. Set aside.

Final Procedure

  • Prepare serving dishes to receive sauce and fish.
  • Bring a non-stick skillet up to medium-high heat.
  • Season the less-pretty side of the salmon with salt and pepper.
  • Place the salmon in the hot skillet, pretty side down (seasoned side up). Cook for 30 seconds, then turn, and cook for an additional 15 seconds. (Don’t fret, the fish will continue to cook on the plate, in the sauce.)
  • Ladle sauce into each plate (include some of the sorrel), and place salmon (seasoned side down) in the sauce.
  • Serve immediately.
  • Pairs very well with salad of melon (honeydew or casaba), arugula, and slivers of cold-soaked green onion.

Notes

This dish requires three things you may not have in your pantry or fridge: fish stock, creme fraiche, and fresh sorrel. You can easily make the first two and get around the seasonal vicissitudes of the sorrel harvest. Here’s how.

  • Fish Stock
    • Fish stock is quick and easy, and for this recipe, you don’t need much (two cups). I like a very simple fish stock, with few additions. Use trimmings from fish like the skin from the salmon in this recipe, or use the shells you saved from the shrimp or prawns you peeled last week.
    • Take 4–6 ounces of fish trimmings, shrimp/prawn shells, and/or fish meat. Avoid hard shells like crab (they add too much mineral taste) and molluscs (too little flavor). Put it in a pan with three cups water. Add half an onion. Bring to a low boil for about 30 minutes. Strain off the broth.
  • Creme Fraiche
    • You cannot substitute sour cream here — too sour — but you can substitute heavy cream and a last-minute dash of lemon juice. Making creme fraiche isn’t hard, though.
      • Take two cups heavy whipping cream and pour it into a glass jar. Add three tablespoons buttermilk. Stir, cover, and let sit at room temperature 8–24 hours, the longer the better. It will thicken and develop a slight tang. Great over omelets, it’ll keep in the fridge for a week or so.
  • Fresh Sorrel
    • Good luck finding fresh sorrel out of season — or in season, for that matter — and you cannot substitute dried sorrel. Some folks will substitute spinach, but it lacks the acidic flavor this dish requires.
    • I recommend substituting fresh arugula. It adds a peppery/radishy flavor, and is available year-round. Prepare it exactly as the sorrel, but toss with a squeeze of fresh lemon juice after you stem the leaves.

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PlumsWant to bring a little pizzazz to that sandwich? Want to add some zip to that cold-cut platter? Here’s a suggestion. A complex mix of flavors — earthy, sweet, tangy, spicy — designed to enhance rather than smother.

Cook up a batch of this, set it in the fridge for a couple of weeks to mellow, and enjoy.

Plum Chipotle Chutney

Makes about 4 pounds

Hardware

  • Glass jars and rings/lids for preserving (optional, for long-term storage)

Ingredients

  • 2 pounds plums, halved, stoned, and chopped
  • 3 onions, chopped
  • Scant 1/2 cup dried cranberries, chopped (use an oiled knife to keep them from sticking to the blade)
  • 1 tablespoon ground ginger
  • 1 tablespoon black/brown mustard seed
  • 1 tablespoon ground cumin
  • 1 tablespoon sweet (not hot) paprika
  • 1 teaspoon ground chipotle
  • 1  2/3 cups red wine vinegar
  • 2 cups dark brown sugar (or 2 cups light brown sugar plus 2 tablespoons molasses)
  • 2 teaspoons kosher salt

Procedure

  • Put all the ingredients (except sugar and salt) into a large pot over a medium heat and stir well.
  • Bring slowly to a boil, reduce heat, cover, and let simmer for 10 minutes until plums are tender.
  • Stir in sugar and salt, and stir until dissolved.
  • Keep at a light boil for 20–30 minutes, uncovered, stirring to keep it from sticking, until it thickens.
  • Store in the fridge for two weeks to mellow. It’s great right away, but it’s better if it rests for a while.
  • Optional: For long-term storage, spoon into sterilized jars, seal, process, and store for up to 6 months in cool, dry place.

Notes

  • If you’re not going to share or can the result, make a half recipe. Four pounds is a lot of chutney.
  • I prefer to roughly chop my plums/onions, as this gives more texture to the chutney. If you prefer a more homogeneous texture, chop finely.
  • For a smokier flavor, use smoked paprika.
  • You can substitute raisins or sultanas for the cranberries.

k

 

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