Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Kebab of the Week: Refrigerator Raid

This week’s kebabs were born, basically and simply, out of a lesson in frugality. It’s only midweek but it has been a busy week, and I didn’t feel like thinking about the optimal meat/vegetable combination for our skewers, nor did I want to put much effort into researching the most delicious imaginable marinade.

Clearing out our full-to-bursting refrigerator is always a priority so I raided the veggie bin, hoping it would turn up some serviceable goods. What good luck to find yellow summer squash, a yellow bell pepper, and a red onion. Roughly one-inch chunks of these vegetables were threaded loosely on skewers with same-size pieces of chicken breast that had been marinated briefly in white wine (the last three fingers from the previous night’s dinner), olive oil, fresh thyme, and salt and pepper.

While Hambone manned the grill I made some rice and a batch of chimichurri, rescuing a head of parsley and dregs of cilantro.

Friday, June 13, 2008

reading: Shark's Fin and Sichuan Pepper

Recently I finished reading Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper, British food writer Fuchsia Dunlop’s delectable memoir of eating in China. The Guardian called this book a “cultural immersion,” which is apt, as the memoir entails much more than food.

Beginning in the early 1990s, Dunlop lived in China, off and on, for over a decade. As a student—and as a professional writer—she has traveled to remote corners of the country, engaging every person she could in conversation. That rich experience certainly imbues her writing with great depth. Between descriptions of food and meals, Dunlop dazzles with history, geography, modernization, growth, and more.

In the early 1990s, Dunlop lands in Chengdu in Sichuan province—the area recently devastated by earthquakes—where she researched Chinese policy on ethnic minorities. She falls for street food, as well as the incendiary food of Sichuan province and the snout to tail eating of China. When her visa expires, she enrolls in a professional training school for chefs, as the only Western student and one of three women.

As a student of Sichuan cookery, Dunlop learned about mastering the arts of flavor, starting with fu he wei, the complex flavors. Sichuan cuisine boasts twenty-three official complex flavors, one of which is “home-style”—salty, savory, and a little hot. In her travels, she had an opportunity to challenge her culinary comfort zone by eating a lot of truly exotic foods, including civet cats, goose intestines, and more. The chapter on food textures and mouth-feel—an integral part of Chinese cooking—is eye opening.

All is not delicious. Dunlop explores the SARS health crises, which temporarily put a damper on eating in restaurants, where the risk of disease transmittal was high, especially with such practices as “public” chopsticks. She also looks at other issues, such as food safety (use of toxic food additives is rampant) and the controversial consumption of endangered species (shark’s fin and bear paws, to name a few).
In addition to Shark's Fin, Dunlop has written two authoritative cookbooks, one of which—Revolutionary Chinese Cookbookwas nominated for a James Beard Award (Asian Cooking) this year.

If you’re interested in China, food, or travel—or if you simply appreciate sparkling prose—this book is for you.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008


~ The redesigned website for City Pages, the Twin Cities alternative weekly, is live. Best part—the food blog, Twin Cities Eater, is more prominent and more attractive. I encourage you to check it out. Also, Rachel Hutton reviews Obento-Ya this week. Must. Eat. There. Soon.

~ Fueling my summer passion, the Pioneer Press (by way of syndication) offers kebab recipes.

~ At the Star Tribune, Rick Nelson interviews Catherine Friend, the Zumbrota (MN) author of The Compassionate Carnivore, a meat-lover’s handbook to eating local (no matter where you live).
~ 2008 James Beard Award winners have been announced. None of our outstanding Minneapolis chefs (Isaac Becker of 112 Eatery, Tim McKee of La Belle Vie, and Alex Roberts of Alma and Brasa) won in the Best Chef Midwest category. Still I’ve thoroughly enjoyed re-reading the list of nominees, adding restaurants and cookbooks to my lengthy to-do lists. Dara weighs in on the awards with an insider's perspective.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Kebab of the Week: Barefoot Contessa's lamb kebabs

Kebabs are summer’s perfect one-dish meal. There’s nothing easier than skewering succulent chunks of meat and jewel-toned vegetables (or just vegetables, if you’re so inclined) on a stick. Few foods are quicker to prepare and cook. Typically, about five minutes of cooking time on the first side, then a flip of the skewer for five more minutes; less time if you’re using fish or seafood. Plus, there are infinite combinations of skewerables, which keeps the summer menu lively.

We’ve had best results when meat can be marinated overnight, though any amount of time will do. A quick brushing of a high-quality oil and a liberal sprinkling of salt and pepper can coax great flavor out of meat and vegetables, too.

This year for Mother's Day, oldest son Alpha thoughtfully gave me a copy of Ina Garten’s Barefoot Contessa at Home because he knows I enjoy watching her show. As we were flipping through the gorgeously illustrated cookbook, the lamb kebabs caught our eye. Two nights ago we seized the opportunity to make the red wine vinaigrette in order to marinate the lamb, and last night we grilled. The meat was tender and flavorful, enhanced by bathing in marinade. I cannot wait until lamb comes into the kebab rotation again. Garten's recipe includes a side sauce—stock, lemon juice, olive oil, and a pinch of rosemary, quickly brought to a boil and reduced—which we ran out of time to make. We may try it in the future, but we didn’t miss it this time round.

Lamb Kebabs
adapted from Barefoot Contessa at Home

1-1/2 pounds top round lamb
2-3 garlic cloves, minced
1 T fresh rosemary, minced
1 T fresh oregano, minced
olive oil
1/4 cup dry red wine
2 T red wine vinegar
salt and pepper
red onion, cut into 1 to 2-inch pieces
cherry tomatoes

Cut the lamb into 1-1/2-inch cubes. Place cubes in a large zippered plastic bag. Make marinade by combing garlic, rosemary, oregano, 1/4 cup olive oil, red wine, vinegar, and salt (to taste). Cover lamb with marinade, and refrigerate overnight.

Heat and prepare grill, per your custom.

Loosely thread lamb on skewer, alternating every few cubes with onion pieces. Thread the cherry tomatoes on skewers. Brush with olive oil. Season both sets of skewers with salt and pepper. Place the lamb skewers on the hot grill. After 5 minutes, turn the lamb. Add the tomato skewers to the grill for five minutes.

Serve the skewers on a bed of couscous or rice.