Thursday, August 27, 2009

summer oatmeal

Oatmeal is not the stuff of summer breakfasts.

Autumn breakfasts, yes. Winter breakfasts, absolutely. Even spring breakfasts, during that period when it's still chilly in the mornings and those piles of grey snow haven't quite melted away. But summer breakfasts are the domain of of Greek yogurt with honey, of plates of fresh raspberries, and of plums nicked from the icebox. Summer breakfasts should be light and cold and refreshing. Which makes the idea of sitting down to a bowl of oatmeal on a summer morning absurd, if not downright wrong.


Well, not exactly. You see, my summer desserts revolve around fruit, either poached or baked with some sort of topping. And as I've mentioned before, I have a fondness for desserts that do double-duty as breakfast. In that category, crumble is one of my favorites.

Americans call it a crisp, and it's similiar to cobbler, but crumble is a British dessert, and a product of World War II cookery. It's a very simple dessert: you cut up fresh fruit, mix it with a little sugar and seasoning, and put it in a baking dish. Then you mix up a topping, spread it over the top, and pop it in the oven. Ingredients for the topping vary. At its most basic, it's a mixture of flour, sugar, and butter or margarine, but you can also use nuts, crushed cookies, or rolled oats. Which brings us to oatmeal.

A mixture of quick-cook rolled oats, butter, and sugar goes crisp on top, but turns soft and almost pudding-like on the bottom. As a dessert, crumble can be served warm with ice-cream, but the leftovers make for a most agreeable summer breakfast the next morning.

And if you're like me, it'll make you think about rewriting famous poems. "I have eaten the crumble that was in the icebox," anyone?

Peach and Blueberry Crumble

To make this vegan, replace the butter with margarine or Earth Balance. Flaked almonds are also a nice addition. At the very end of summer I make this with apples and raspberries, but right now, peaches and blueberries are at their best.

(Serves one, with leftovers for breakfast.)

Preheat oven to 350F.

Take a large ripe peach, peel it, and cut it into rough dice. Put the dice in a shallow baking dish. Add a large handful of blueberries (two if you have small hands). Add a tablespoon or two of brown sugar, few drops of vanilla extract, and a sprinkling of cinnamon. Reach in with your hands and give everything a stir. Set aside.

To make the crumble topping, get out a mixing bowl and combine one cup of quick-cook rolled oats with three tablespoons of brown sugar, a sprinkling of cinnamon, a sprinkling of nutmeg, and a pinch of salt. Cut in half a stick of chilled butter. Rub the mixture with your fingertips until it forms clumps.

Top the fruit with the crumble mixture. Pat it down gently, but don't pack. (If you'd like a crunchier topping, or you have a super-sweet tooth, you can sprinkle the topping with additional brown sugar at this point.) Transfer the dish to the oven.

Bake for thirty-five to forty minutes, or until the fruit bubbles around the edges and the topping is a nice toasty golden color. Remove from the oven and allow to cool for fifteen to twenty minutes. Serve warm. Greek yogurt or ice-cream is a nice accompaniment.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

late-night institutions

"You don't want to get dessert here, do you?"
"No. I want a condensed milk bun from Tsui Wah."
"A what from where?"
"It's a Hong Kong institution. We're going. Just follow me."

I'm in Hong Kong for the weekend before I head back to Boston for the start of fall semester, and Lucille has taken it upon herself to continue my education in Hong Kong's restaurant scene. Dinner has been a solid, if unadventurous meal at Pizza Express (despite the name, it's actually a dine-in restaurant that does a respectable thin-crust pizza), but it appears that we're going to make up for it with our next stop.

It's a particularly muggy, airless night, and we're just a stone's throw away from a branch of XTC On Ice Gelato, one of Hong Kong's best gelato shops, but Lucille is on a mission. We head away from the steep, narrow streets of SoHo, moving towards the main streets of the Central district. We hit our destination halfway down Wellington Street: a glass-fronted eatery with a noise level audible from the street.

"Tsui Wah," announces Lucille, and heads up the steps to the door. I stick closely behind, not sure what to expect.

Inside, the dining room is busy, almost chaotic, packed with groups in animated conversation. Harried waitstaff rush about with trays of food and stacks of dirty dishes. The decor is typical cha chaan teng: bright fluorescent lights, glass-topped tables, and chairs with backs so low, they could almost be called stools.

Lucille flags down a waiter and signals that we're a party of two: he points to a table near the side of the room, and we make our way over. The waiter deposits two glasses of black tea on the table, the standard cha chaan teng beverage, and promptly disappears.

I see that there's a menu under the glass of the table, but it seems awfully short.

"Is this the entire menu?"
"No. The full menu is pages and pages long. It's spiral-bound. But all the popular dishes are on the short menu, and I know what we should order, anyway."

Lucille flags down another waiter, and rattles off a long string of Cantonese, of which the only words I catch are bao (bun) and cha (tea.) The waiter scribbles a few notes on his pad, sticks a copy under the glass top of our table, and dashes off.

"What are we eating?"
"Condensed milk bun, fried pork bun and an ice lemon tea."
"Okay. Now, explain what this place is?"
"Tsui Wah is as local as you can get in Hong Kong. Any more local, and you'd be across the harbor in Kowloon. I come here with my friends late at night."
"Tsui Wah is where everyone ends up late at night on the weekends, before they go home?"
"Yep. There's even 'Tsui Wah regret' - when you meet someone in a dim bar and they look okay, but they don't look so good under the fluorescent lights in here."

Now it all makes sense. All big cities have their late-night institutions, those places where you can go for a bite at two in the morning, those spots where people end up after a long night out. New York has its diners. New Orleans has the Cafe du Monde. And Hong Kong has Tsui Wah. In other words, I am about to discover what Hong Kong locals eat when they've had too much to drink.

And I am going to discover it without any delay. Service is fast: just a minutes after Lucille put our order in, a waiter comes by and sets down a plate - one condensed milk bun (lin nai bao.)

(Photography is Lucille's, which means it's vastly better than mine.)

Thirty seconds later, a second waiter follows with a glass - one iced lemon tea (dong ling cha.)

And then a third waiter comes by with another plate - one fried pork bun (ju pah bao.) I've been expecting something along the lines of a Cantonese bakery product, a sweet bread stuffed with shredded dried pork, so I'm pleasantly surprised when it turns out to be more of a sandwich: a crispy pork cutlet, lettuce, pickle and mayonnaise on a soft roll.

Lucille picks up one of the bun halves, lifts it to her mouth, and watches expectantly as I do the same. As it turns out, it's not a bad sandwich at all: the pork is flavorful and just a little greasy, and the crunch of the lettuce and pickle contrast nicely with the soft, floury roll. I am questioning the wisdom of eating one of these on top of a full dinner, but I can see how this would definitely hit the spot after a few drinks.

I nod my approval to Lucille, and she passes me the glass of iced lemon tea. It's made with the typical Lipton, brewed very strong, and served over crushed ice with plenty of lemon slices. It's cold and sweet, and I can understand why it's one of the most popular summer drinks in Hong Kong.

Lucille has been happily sinking her teeth into a condensed milk bun half, and she gestures to me to pick up the other. It's remarkably simple, a plain bun split and toasted, generously buttered and drizzled with sweetened condensed milk, but it's strangely, almost scarily delicious. The bread is crisp on the outside and soft inside, and the condensed milk is a sticky, satisfying contrast to the salted melting butter. I could see myself easily eating far too many of these if I had a case of the late-night munchies.

"This is good. Really good."
"Ha. I told you."

After we brush away the stray crumbs and finish our tea, Lucille picks up the copy of our order the waiter left under the table glass, and we head over to the cash register to settle the bill. The total comes to HK$48, about US$6.20, a very reasonable price for a post-dinner snack.

"Oof. I think I need a walk."
"Mmm. I think you're right."

We leave the restaurant and start wandering back up towards SoHo. The next time we visit Tsui Wah, I think we'll do it well after dinner. Maybe I'll even go out in between.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

like (crazy) water for fish

I have just a few days left in Perth, and I'll be back in Boston next week. I've been updating my cooking to-do list, and dreaming about all the produce I'll find at the farmers' markets. But I'm not very happy about the news I've been hearing from New England.

The blight that has decimated the local tomato crop has cruelly dashed my dreams of eating insalata caprese for breakfast, lunch and dinner. From what I understand, I might not get my heirloom tomato fix at all. I'm trying not to think about that possibility, because it's far too depressing, but I'm stockpiling recipes that work with supermarket tomatoes, just in case.

Though supermarket tomatoes don't make for terribly good eating when raw, they work just fine when cooked in a dish like pesce all'acqua pazza, one of my favorite late summer meals. The name translates literally as "fish in crazy water," but I can't find anything crazy about poaching white fish in a broth made with tomatoes, garlic, olive oil, red chili flakes and flat-leafed parsley. The flavors are clean and simple, and it's satisfying without being heavy.

Maybe it's acqua pazza because, even made with supermarket tomatoes, you'd have to be pazza to turn it down?

Pesce all'Acqua Pazza

This recipe works with any mild, firm-fleshed white fish, though I usually use tilapia. If you don't have a particular fish in mind, and you're curious about sustainable seafood choices, check out Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch guide.

(Serves one, with leftovers.)

Put the kettle on, or boil some water in a pot, if you're not a tea-drinker.

Take two large, ripe tomatoes, cut a big X in the bottom of each, and put them in a big heatproof bowl. Once the water boils, pour it over the tomatoes. Allow them to sit for two or three minutes, then fish them out with a slotted spoon. Peel off the skins - they should come away easily.

Chop the tomatoes roughly and put them in a shallow pan.

Mince two cloves of garlic. Toss them in the pan with a glug of olive oil and a dash of red chili flakes. Add two cups of water and a big pinch of salt, and turn on the heat.

Bring the mixture to a boil, then turn it down to a steady simmer. Let it cook for thirty minutes or so, or until the tomatoes start to break down and the mixture looks soupy.

Take a generous bunch of flat-leafed parsley and chop it finely. Add it to the pan. Let the mixture simmer for another ten to fifteen minutes, or until the parsley has softened. Congratulations, you now have crazy water.

Time to add the fish. Take two fillets of mild white fish and gently slide them into the mixture. Add a little more water if they're not fully covered - unless you're using tilapia, which give off a lot of liquid as they cook.

Let everything simmer for another five to ten minutes, depending on the size and thickness of your fillets. Once the fish is cooked through, turn off the heat. Serve immediately, preferably over rice.

Note: If you end up with excess crazy water, don't toss it. It can be frozen and used in other fish or seafood dishes.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

finger food

I love lamb chops, but I almost never order them when I go out to eat.

This has nothing to do with the quality of the meat I've seen, or the skill of the chefs I've encountered. I've eaten at many restaurants where I'm sure the lamb chops were first-rate. But I spent three years of my early schooling life at an all-girls private Methodist school, the kind of place where the teachers would measure uniform skirts with a yardstick to make sure none of the students had been making forbidden alterations, and it had a permanent effect on my table manners. I can eat just about anything with a knife and fork, and I probably couldn't slurp my soup even if I tried.

Lamb chops leave me torn between table manners and the demands of good food. It's just not considered good manners to pick up lamb chops with your fingers in order to get at those tiny little bits of meat on the bone. You can be a surgeon with a knife and fork, and you still won't get them clean. Leaving those delectable little edges of crispy fat, however, might qualify as a crime against cuisine.

And so I stick to eating lamb chops in settings where I can use my fingers. It's worked out quite well: some of the best lamb I've ever had was eaten standing in the service kitchen of a hotel banquet room.* Preparing them myself comes a close second; there's nothing quite like being able to gnaw at the bones in a decidedly uncivilized fashion when I'm dining alone.

Just don't tell my old teachers, please.

(Warning: Bad photography ahead. I have discovered that my laptop has a camera function, but it's very, very basic.)

Abbacchio alla Scottadito

The Italians understand perfectly the idea of eating lamb chops with your fingers. "Scottadito" means "burned fingers." Strictly speaking, abbacchio refers only to suckling lamb; older lamb is agnello. Suckling lamb is the most tender, but older lamb works just fine.

(Serves one.)

Take a large sprig of fresh rosemary, strip off the leaves, and chop them up finely. Place them in a large, shallow bowl, and cover with a few tablespoons of olive oil. Crush a garlic clove with the back of a knife, and add it to the bowl. Place three or four lamb cutlets in the oil, and leave to marinate for an hour or two in the fridge.

Preheat the oven to 250F.

Take a heavy-bottomed pan (cast iron is good) and place it over high heat. Pour in the oil you used to marinate the lamb, and let it get good and hot, almost smoking.

Season the lamb cutlets with a generous sprinkling of salt and fresh black pepper. Place them in the pan, and sear for a minute on each side. Transfer the cutlets to an ovenproof dish, and let them sit in the oven for ten minutes or so, or until just warmed through.

Serve with fried or oven-roasted rosemary potatoes, and a green salad to follow.

*I will tell the full story of the Mad Italian Chef soon, I promise. But the quick explanation is that the Mad Italian Chef organized a private dinner party for a very big bigwig, and he let me join the team of chefs in charge of plating each course. There were leftovers of the olive-crusted rack of lamb with Chianti mustard and black truffle polenta, and we made sure they didn't go to waste.