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It’s been a stressful old week Chez Lemur, with an unreasonable amount of work on my plate. I have only myself to blame: I took on too much, not really thinking through when all the deadlines would happen (hint: at the same damn time) and now I’m regretting my enthusiasm for new projects. It was all the more lovely, then, when an unexpected package plopped through my door yesterday. I order a lot of books, so I figured this would be just another brown cardboard book box from that politically-dubious bookstore but it wasn’t! The package was from a former student, Isabel Machado, a Brazilian filmmaker who now lives in Alabama. I opened it up to find two rather wonderful things.

First, there was a book called The Happy Table of Eugene Walter: Southern Spirits in Food and Drink. Lots of my American foodie friends will be nodding knowledgeably, as Eugene Walter was apparently very famous, but he is new to me. He lived, as Isabel did until recently, in Mobile, Alabama and he sounds like a rather splendid figure.

He wrote about Southern food and drinks, and was a huge influence on today’s resurgence of interest in traditional Southern foodways. He was also an essayist and something of a personality. In one of his many trips to Rome, he played the Mother Superior in Fellini’s Giulietta degli spiriti! Seriously, you know he must have been a blast. Further evidence is that this book has fully 50 pages of cocktail recipes, including a dedicated chapter on hangover cures.

The second part of the package was a fantastic short film by Isabel and Gideon Kennedy called Grand Fugue on the Art of Gumbo, a  documentary on that most iconic of Louisiana’s dishes that considers both Walter’s legacy for Southern food and the more recent shifts in perception that have seen the growth of high-end Southern cuisine. The film is playing at film festivals right now, so if you’re in the US, look out for it.

I’m looking forward to diving into The Happy Table just as soon as my deadlines are met. In the meantime, it cheered me up immensely to receive such a thoughtful gift out of the blue – and it’s so great to see former students doing well in the world. Now, is it too early to raise a glass to that…?

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The last time I went into my awesome local chili store Chili Pepper Pete’s, I discovered a new ingredient: green Sichuan peppercorns. I’ve only ever seen red ones before so I asked the guy behind the desk what was up with the green ones. This was definitely the right question as it unlocked exactly the type of conversation you dream of having with your local food purveyor. He told me not only what they are (young unripe peppercorns) but how they source them in Sichuan province and how they’re used there in different dishes. Turns out one of the owners is married to a woman from there and, as he rather smugly told me, he doesn’t go to any of our local Sichuan restaurants as he gets really great Sichuan food cooked for him nightly. (I kid, he was lovely. I’m just jealous…) Naturally I bought a bag of the little wonders and then had to spend some time figuring out what to make to bring out their ‘greener’ flavour.

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Image Rick Harris, CC Attribution Share-Alike 2.0

Remember I went to Boston and my internet didn’t work? The whole trip felt like a massive technology fail, from my iPhone camera with the scratched lens to the iPad that didn’t want to connect to the hotel wifi. Not to mention that on the way out I missed a plane for the first time in my life and found myself stranded overnight at Logan airport. There was something deeply weird about the whole experience: I used to live in Providence and so I spent quite a lot of time hanging out in Boston. I wouldn’t say I knew the city well, but I did know my way around and had some favourite places to eat. So to spend several days there and be repeatedly lost and disconnected was an odd feeling. I should know Boston but I guess I don’t any more. So there’s something appropriately vague about my eating impressions of the city. I was staying downtown, far from my old haunts in Cambridge or even at the cheaper end of Newbury Street, and so I generally went where people took me. Luckily, I have well-connected friends who hooked me up with some amazing food. Read the rest of this entry »

As I mentioned in my rambutans post, my cooking recently has been led by some unusual ingredients turning up in Asian supermarkets. On a recent trip to London, I stopped into one of the Gerrard St Asian stores in the hope of catching some winged beans. They did have winged beans but they looked nasty and brown at the edges so sadly I had to pass them by. However, what did look nice and fresh was banana flowers, an ingredient I don’t recall seeing before in the UK.

Regular readers might remember my fascination with the ready-shredded banana flowers in the Mekong Delta. At first, I had no idea what the giant piles of curling vegetable were: they looked a lot like Roman puntarelle but clearly weren’t. Eventually, someone told me what they were and the next time I was in a restaurant, I ordered the banana blossom salad. Like most Vietnamese salads, it was light and fresh, but at the same time complexly flavoured with layers of herbs and aromatics. And like Southeast Asian salads in general, it’s not like a Western salad so much as a category of main dish that’s mostly uncooked. A good Asian salad contrasts nicely with a thick curry, a crispy fried dish, a hot stir-fry. You might not come across a banana flower too often, but if you live somewhere with a good Asian market, they make for a tasty crisp side dish that uses all the fresh herbs you can lay your hands on. And if you don’t have any banana flowers, this is still a nice dish with cabbage or endive (or I might even be tempted to try it with jicama).

Vietnamese banana flower salad (Goi Bap Chuoi)

  • 2 banana flowers
  • 1 little gem lettuce
  • 1/2 lime
  • 2 shallots
  • 5 small red chilies or to taste
  • bunch of Thai basil
  • bunch of mint
  • bunch of cilantro (or Vietnamese coriander if you have it)
  • 3 tbsp sesame seeds
  • 2 tbsp roasted peanuts
  • 3 tbsp Asian fried shallots

for the dressing:

  • 3 tbsp fish sauce*
  • 1 tbsp caster sugar
  • 2 limes

* For a vegetarian version, use 2 tbsp soy sauce and be prepared to add more salt if necessary. A bit less soy sauce is good here as it can be a pushier flavour if you’re not careful – you might also want more lime.

Your first order of business is shredding the banana flower. Take off the outer, purple leaves till you are down to the fresh green ones. Now, I am going to tell you to put the slices directly into a bowl of cold water with lime in it to prevent discolouration, but the thing is you’re going to assume that this is like a pear or an apple. Trust me, it is not. These suckers turn a gross, dirty grey brown within seconds of exposure. It’s a kind of awesome and yet horrible decay in fast-motion. Also, there are flower buds in between the leaves that you don’t want to eat, so you can’t just slice through the whole thing like a cabbage – you need to take off one leaf at a time. These issues are slightly in tension with one another. So to shred the flowers, I ended up taking off one leaf at a time,  slicing it and dumping it in the water. This may not be the best way but it worked decently for me. I’m open to better suggestions…

Once that’s done, you can shred the lettuce at a more relaxed tempo. In Vietnam, they cut the banana flower with the stems of morning glory but crispy small lettuce seemed like a good alternative. Slice the shallots thinly and put in a big serving bowl.

In a cast-iron skillet, toast the sesame seeds and then peanuts till golden, then cool. Wash and tear the herbs, and mince the chilies.

To make the dressing, mix fish sauce, sugar, lime juice and a glug of warm water till the sugar has dissolved. Taste for balance and add more of anything you think is needed.

Finally, drain the shredded banana flower and mix everything in the bowl. Top with fried shallots.

Serves 4, ideally as part of a meal with other components.

When we were in Vietnam, there were rambutans everywhere. The Mekong delta is bursting with fruit and we were there during high rambutan season. As we cycled through the villages around Vinh Long, rambutan trees hung over the road and in each driveway there was a woman selling baskets of the fruit. At the floating market in Cai Be, a little motorboat stacked high with rambutans zipped past us, spraying water in a hurry to sell the latest harvest. And the fruit themselves were juicy and sweet, with more filling and less pit than I’m used to at home. Plus, the skin came away easily from the flesh, making them much nicer to eat. Knowing my interest in food, our guide Anh took us to an orchard where the trees are grafted and grown. Although fruit trees grow like weeds in the Mekong, the orchards develop the best varieties.

Back home, I was excited to see a pack of rambutans in an Asian supermarket in London’s Chinatown. They were relatively big fruit and they made me happy just to see them piled up in a bowl in the dining room. I’m a sucker for foods that remind me of Vietnam. I ended up taking them around to Lemur friends JD and M as a gift, and while they were sweet and tasty, the skin stuck a bit too much to the flesh for ideal snacking. This is probably the inevitable difference between fruit that are local and plentiful and import varieties that have come halfway across the world. Regardless, rambutans are so vibrant and evocative, I’ll no doubt buy them again when I come across them…

 

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