Sunday, September 14, 2014

Malabar Mussels

When one thinks of strength, the first thing that comes to mind is muscles.  However, for many women in the southern Indian state of Kerala, it is mussels that give them strength.  Green mussels or perna viridis, to be exact. Back in the 1990s, local villages along the Indian Ocean coastline began to start farming mussels as a way to make a living.  Mussel farming exploded in the region and, overall, India rose to become one of the largest producers of green mussels in the world.  

The most important thing about mussel farming in Kerala, at least to me, is found in a study by V. Kripa and K.S. Mohamed.  Their study is entitled "Green Mussel, Perna Viridis, Farming in Kerala, India - Technology Diffusion Process and Socioeconomic Impacts" (2008).   As Kripa and Mohamed report, there were three types of ownership when it came to mussel farms.  There were individual ownership and family ownership, both of which are self-explanatory.  And, there was "self-help group" ownership or SHG ownership.  There were only about 17 to 20 SHG mussel farms, all of which were located in one district (the Kasgorod district) of Kerala  

The SHG mussel farms are the key to empowering women.  As both Kripa and Mohamed found, "[t]he biggest outcome of mussel farming in Kerala was the empowerment of women with 87% of the SHG farms owned by women." The SHG is a formal organization, with officers and group meetings.  This organization makes it easier for women to obtain financial assistance and support from local banks and the government. Those 17 to 20 SHG mussel farms have enabled as many as 2,000 women to become active in an economic activity, which enables them to better support themselves and their families.  The SHGs not only help to alleviate poverty, but they also empower women not only in the economic workplace, but also when it comes to decision-making in their homes.

This recipe demonstrates what can be made with those green mussels, as well as blue and black mussels that are traditionally found in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.  It incorporates a wide range of ingredients, especially in the Malabar Masala.  (One note: don't let the fact that you can't find some of the masala ingredients -- like the curry leaf powder -- stop you from making the dish.  The masala will still be great.)  Along with the masala, the combination of fresh chiles, ginger, garlic, and red onions also provide an interesting array of range of tastes and flavors.  The sauce was so good that I decided to serve the dish with some rice, which could help to soak up some of the sauce.  I hated to see that sauce go to waste.   

Adapted from Smita Chandra's recipe published by Saveur
Serves 2-4

Ingredients (for the mussels):
3 tablespoons of canola oil
6 cloves of garlic, thinly sliced
2 small green Thai chiles or 1 serrano, thinly sliced
1 two-inch piece of ginger, peeled and thinly sliced
1/2 small red onion, thinly sliced
2 tablespoons of Malabar Masala (recipe below)
3 plum tomatoes, chopped
1 14 ounce can of coconut milk
Kosher salt, to taste
2 1/2 pounds of mussels, debearded, rinsed and scrubbed
1/4 cup roughly chopped cilantro
Cooked white rice, for serving (optional)

Ingredients (for the Malabar Masala):
1/4 cup of coriander seeds
2 tablespoons of cumin seeds
2 tablespoons of fennel seeds
1 tablespoon of green cardamom pods
1 tablespoon of whole cloves
1 teaspoon of black mustard seeds
1 teaspoon of fenugreek seeds
1 teaspoon of whole black peppercorns
2 star anise
2 sticks of cinnamon
2 tablespoons of dessicated coconut
2 tablespoons of dried fenugreek leaves
1 tablespoon of crushed red chile flakes
1/3 cup of curry leaf powder
1 teaspoon of ground ginger
1 teaspoon ground turmeric

1.  Prepare the Malabar Masala.  Heat a 10 inch skillet over medium high heat.  Cook coriander, cumin, fennel, cardamom, cloves, mustard seeds, fenugreek seeds, peppercorns, star anise, and cinnamon sticks until fragrant and toasted, about 3-4 minutes.  Add coconut, fenugreek leaves and chile flakes, cook until the coconut is golden, 2 minutes.  Let cool and then transfer to a spice grinder along with curry leaf powder, ginger, and turmeric.  Grind into a powder and store in an airtight container for up to 6 months.  

2.  Prepare the base.  Heat oil in a 6 quart saucepan over medium high heat.  Cook garlic, chiles, ginger, and onion until golden, about 4 to 6 minutes.  Add masala and tomatoes. Cook, stirring occasionally until the tomatoes begin to break down, about 5 to 7 minutes. 

3.  Cook the mussels.  Add coconut milk, salt, and 1/4 cup of water and bring to a boil.  Add the mussels.  Cook covered, occasionally shaking pan until all mussels are opened, about 5 minutes.  Garnish with cilantro and serve with rice.


Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Malabar Fish Fry

If there was ever a meal that could be considered to be universal, one that could cross boundaries or even oceans, it should be a fish fry.  Cultures around the global make a meal -- indeed, an event -- out of frying abundant, cheap local fish.  Back in the Midwest, where I was born and raised, a fish fry was almost a weekly event.  Numerous restaurants would advertise "all-you-can-eat" fried fish.  Customers could double down on the fried experience by getting their fried fish with french fries.  Cue the All in the Family theme, "those were the days."

I still have fond memories of going with my family to a local restaurant for a fish fry.  I would stuff my self with all the fish I could eat.  It was most often fried perch or fried catfish, thickly battered and deep fried.  I would devour fillet after fillet of deep-fried, heavily battered fish.  This was long before I knew about there were good or bad kinds of cholesterol, saturated or unsaturated fats.   When I was a kid, my focus was singularly on the fish.

Halfway around the world, I am sure there were children having the same enjoyable experience.   Take, for example, children in the Indian state of Kerala.  One of the boundaries of Kerala in the north is a long coastline, known as the Malabar Coast.  All along that thin coastline, there are cities with people who depend upon the ocean for their meals.  The abundant supply of seafood makes a fish fry a logical meal for many families.  The fish would be those native to the waters, such as bullseye or sardines, most likely whatever the fishermen brought back in their boats on that particular day. .

I recently came across a recipe for a Malabar Fish Fry and knew that it was something that I had to make. Rather than battered fish, this simple fish fry recipe features a rub consisting of turmeric, chiles, garlic and ginger.  The only issue that I faced  was the fish.  Bullseye are no where to be found where I live.  Sardines are a hit or miss.  The recipe suggests salmon, shrimp or snapper, but I decided to go another route.  I chose catfish, one of the fishes from my childhood fish fry courses, for two reasons.  The first is that the thickness of the fillets stands up well to frying.  Second, catfish is cheaper than snapper or salmon.

Finally, I thought the combination of red chile powder and turmeric would be spicy, but not overbearing or inedible.  The heat was perfectly fine for me; however, my beautiful Angel found the rub to be too spicy for her to eat.  This was only the second time that I made a dish that was too spicy for Clare.  (Interestingly, the other dish was another Indian-inspired dish, my Soft Shell Curry, Goan-Style.)  Although I really wanted to make something for my beautiful Angel, it just meant that I had seconds.   Just like when I was a kid.

Recipe adapted from Saveur
Serves 2

1 pound of catfish fillets
1 1/2 tablespoons of red chile powder (such as cayenne)
1 teaspoon ground turmeric
2 cloves garlic, mashed into a paste
1 one-inch piece of ginger, peeled and mashed into a paste
Kosher salt, to taste
1/4 cup of coconut or canola oil

1.  Prepare the fish.  Rinse fish and pat dry using paper towels.  Mix chile powder, turmeric, garlic, ginger, salt and 2 tablespoons of water in a bowl to make a paste.  Rub over fish and let the fish sit for 10 minutes.

2.  Cook the fish.  Heat oil in a 12 inch non-stick skillet over medium high.  Cook fish, flipping once, until crisp and cooked through, 8 to 10 minutes.


Monday, September 8, 2014

Gadino Cellars Viognier (2011)

Back in 2011, the Virginia Wine Board declared Viognier to be the state grape of Virginia.  At first blush, it seems like a shrewd (or, perhaps, not so shrewd) marketing campaign.  Viognier is for Virginia.  You can just hear the slogans.  "VYOHN yay" is for "ver GIN ya."  One can see the billboards along Interstate 95 and Interstate 81, with outlines of the State of Virginia filled with grape vines and bottle of wine.    

However, the association of Viognier and Virginia goes beyond common letters in their name.  Many Virginian vineyards and winemakers have successfully cultivated this grape to produce some very good wines.  One area of Vigonier activity is the Monticello AVA (American Viticultural Area).  The AVA gets its name from Thomas Jefferson's home, which is located within the region.  The AVA stretches across the central Piedmont in Virginia, including most of the Albemarle, Greene, Nelson and Orange counties.  

One winemaker, Gadino Cellars, takes Viognier grapes from the Monticello AVA to produce a single varietal wine at their family operated winery.  The grapes for their wine are grown at Gene Sulliva's South River Vineyard located at 900 feet elevation on gentle slops of the Blue Ridge near Stanardsville, VA, which is located in Greene County.  My beautiful Angel and I bought a bottle of the Viognier when we visited Gadino Cellars' tasting room.

The Viognier poured a very light straw color, with a faint golden hue.  The winemakers describe the aromatic elements of this wine to include honeysuckle, which I think is generally true.  I got some tropical fruit in the aroma as well, but some of the more commonly noted aromas -- such as apricot, orange blossom, pear -- were not very strong or present in the aroma of this wine.  

However, some of those elements were present in the taste.  I could clearly detect flavors of pear and even a little peach in the taste of the Gadino Cellars Viognier.   The winemakers suggest that there is tropical fruit and spice in the taste, and, I can say there was a hint "spice" in the taste of the wine.  Overall, this is a very good Viognier and it demonstrates the potential of the varietal in Virginia.

When it comes to pairing, the winemakers suggest that their Viognier can be paired with turkey, roast chicken and shellfish.  All of these are intriguing pairings, especially the turkey.  I could definitely see this wine being served on Thanksgiving day along with a very large, stuffed turkey.  Of course, the 2011 vintage is long gone and it will have to be bottles from the 2012 vintage.

We found this bottle at the tasting room in Washington, Virginia.  It sells for $22.00 a bottle.


Saturday, September 6, 2014

Grilled Steak with Sauce Vierge

Back in the 1980s, there was this chef.  Actually, there were a lot of chefs back in the 1980s, but there was this one chef.  He was born in southwestern France, but, he lived and cooked in Paris.  He also wrote cookbooks.  As the 1980s unfolded, this chef popularized a sauce.  That was quite a feat for a country whose cuisine is known for its sauces.  However, those sauces were stock based sauces.  This particular sauce is a fresh sauce, with fresh ingredients, like olive oil oil, lemon juice, tomatoes and basil.  It was to be used in shellfish dishes and pasta dishes, the type that would be particularly welcoming to a fresh sauce.

That chef was Michel Guérard and the sauce that he made popular goes by the name of Sauce Vierge or, literally translated, "Virgin Sauce."  (Don't ask me why it is called by that name, that question is best left for Chef Guérard.)  I had come across a recipe for sauce vierge and placed it on my short list of recipes to make.  The recipe sat on that list for a long time.  A very long time. 

At long last, I made the recipe for sauce vierge.  As I did my research, I realized that the sauce I was making bore little resemblance to Chef Guérard's recipes.  Sure, the olive oil is still there.  But the basil, lemon juice and tomato are long gone. 

The reason is that the term -- sauce vierge -- has come to represent a variety of Mediterranean sauces, many of which go by other names.  Names like "green sauce," "sauce aux herbes" and "sauce verte."  These sauces are generally a combination of olive oil, various herbs, mustard, capers, olives and other aromatics.

The particular recipe that I found and used had two things that appealed to me. First, the recipe included an additional ingredient for the sauce... a jalapeño pepper.  The pepper provided the sauce with a good, but overpowering, kick.  Second, it called for using this sauce on a grilled steak.  Although the recipe called for the use of a sirloin steak, which is a decent cut for use with sauces.  (Flank steaks or flat iron steaks are definitely better for sauces.)  I decided that I would use my favorite cut, a bone-in ribeye.  

The recipe definitely worked very well.  In fact, it worked so well, that I will definitely try it on seafood or pasta dishes.  However, depending upon the fish or pasta, I might leave out the pepper.  The kick works well with beef or other meat, but it may be a little to much for fish.

Recipe from Saveur
Serves 4

1/4 cup roughly chopped flat-leaf parsley
1 tablespoon of capers
12 large green olives pitted and roughly chopped
6 oil-packed anchovy filets, drained and finely chopped
4 cornichons, roughly chopped
1 shallot, finely chopped
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
1 jalapeño, stemmed and finely chopped
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon of dijon mustard
Kosher salt and 
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
4 thick top sirloin or ribeye steaks (about 2 lbs.)
1.  Prepare the Sauce Vierge. On a cutting board, pile together the parsley, capers, olives, anchovies, cornichons, shallots, garlic, and jalapeño. With a large knife, finely chop and scrape the ingredients to combine.  Transfer the parsley mixture to a large bowl and stir in 6 tbsp. of the olive oil and the mustard with a fork to make a thick and chunky sauce. You can drizzle in more olive oil for a thinner consistency, but I think the sauce is better if it is thick and chunky. Season with salt and pepper. Set the sauce aside at room temperature to let rest for 30 minutes, to allow the flavors to mingle.

2.  Grill the Steaks. Build a hot charcoal fire in a grill or heat a gas grill to high heat. Rub steaks with the remaining olive oil and season lightly with salt and pepper. Grill steaks, turning once, until lightly browned and medium rare, about 2–3 minutes per side. Transfer steaks to a platter and let rest for 3 minutes. Stir the sauce, because it will begin to separate slightly as it sits and spoon it over the steaks. Serve hot or at room temperature.