Global Cuisine

mise-en-placeYesterday afternoon, I was lost in a meditative moment of nothingness while pleating dumpling skins around mound of shrimp filling.  A gentle fall breeze had been blowing through my kitchen window, transforming the room from a sweaty summer dungeon to an autumn playpen.

A podcast of This American Life was playing in the background and it would drop in and out of my consciousness as I prepped my food for the day.  My fingers danced through my mise en place bowls, filled with carefully prepped components of the dish I was focused on.  It all came together in perfect harmony, with me paying very little attention.

Do you want to know a secret?  Cooking is the easiest thing I do.  I don’t mean that in a nasty “Pah ha, I’m so awesome at my job” kind of way.  I just mean that, once I’ve made it to the actual cooking part of my job, I know that my mind (body, soul) knows what to do.  By the time I’ve arrived in the kitchen, I have spent hours working with the client to specify the preferred regional cuisine, protein specific, dietarily proactive meal of their dreams and formulated a procedure and plan to carry out said dream meal. 

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misosoup.jpgMiso soup is a traditional Japanese comfort food that has gained popularity throughout the world. Here in the United States, it entered the zeitgeist along with sushi and sake when Japanese cuisine became popularized in the 1980s. In Japan, miso soup is eaten by everyone everyday and is as popular as tea. Most Westerners tend to find it difficult to appreciate miso soup, to say the least. It's just one of those foods that is either loved or hated. But for me it's a soup I've been trying to come to terms with for many years. Whenever I've had miso soup I've always hated it, but sometimes I've almost liked it. I've learned that depending on the restaurant and depending on the preparation and the paste used, miso soup can be very different.

There are three to four main types of miso paste used to make the soup including red, white, yellow, and a mixed paste. They can be made of soybeans, wheat, barley, rice, or a combination. The flavors range from very strong and salty, of red miso, to more delicate and refined, of white miso. I've become very fond of yellow miso, which is the one I use for this soup recipe. I use a brand that makes a low-sodium version, which is just how I prefer the taste. Most miso pastes are very high in sodium. I do love the umami flavor of miso, but do not like the overpowering salty taste of many miso paste brands. That's what turned me off in the first place. But making miso soup is mostly about personal taste.

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newoliveoil.jpgNovember is a glorious time in Umbria. The grape harvest has been recently completed, the olive harvest is underway and all the stores and restaurants are trumpeting vino novello and olio nuovo. I was at my local butcher and I asked him the difference between nuovo and novello,because as far as I could figure out, they both meant “new”.

A spirited discussion ensued among the small crowd of customers waiting in line for prosciutto, the end result of which was that there is no difference between the two words, but no one would be caught dead saying olio novella or vino nuovo.

If you did, they would think you were a German.

Olio nuovo does not travel. If anyone tries to sell it to you at Dean and Deluca or Eataly, sneer at them and say that you have to be there to get the experience of new oil, just pressed today. By “there” I mean the hills of central Umbria where truly fine olive oil is pressed from the local fruit. I know this because we have been picking that fruit for the last two weeks and will be for the next three.

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kalelambFor most normal cooks, inspiration can come from just about anywhere…a restaurant, a cookbook, even a book club. But one of the consequences of being a journalist who cooks is that, occasionally, I end up “cooking the news.”

And, in 2011, as the pro-democracy movement that became known as the Arab Spring swept through North Africa and the Middle East, I ended up in the kitchen (along with Wolf Blitzer) skinny-fying a traditional dish of the region that’s now a family favorite:  Kale, Chard and Chickpea Stew with Lamb over Clever Couscous.

It’s a dish that not only celebrates the rich tastes of Tunisia, it’s also rich with disease fighting and energy boosting nutrition. Already known to be a great weight loss food, chickpeas are loaded with protein, fiber and iron and–like the other fresh ingredients in this dish like sweet potatoes, zucchini, onions, chili peppers, the amazing kale, chard and the super-powered cooked tomatoes – they provide unique antioxidants that are proven to help fight heart disease and cancer.

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mangolassi.jpgThis hot weather has had me craving countless summery foods and refreshing drinks, more than I can count. To keep cool I've been snacking on fruit and drinking iced teas and smoothies. Recently I was reminded of the popularity of mangoes while walking in the city on an extremely hot day. Everywhere I noticed vendors selling mangoes carved into flowers. I couldn't help but feel transported to South America where that custom is prevalent. Mangoes are a celebrated fruit throughout the world with hundreds of varieties grown in tropical climates, particularly in India from where they originate. Mangoes can be enjoyed as desserts and snacks or in savory dishes like Indian chutneys and pickles. But one of the most popular ways to enjoy a mango is with a lassi, a traditional Indian yogurt smoothie.

Lassis are very popular in India, where there are both sweet and savory versions with some including spices. Mango lassis are more common outside of India and are specialties of Indian restaurants. I always order one at any Indian restaurant because the yogurt always helps cool off my taste buds by counteracting the heat of the spicy Indian dishes. But even when I'm not eating spicy food, I still crave a refreshing lassi. It's very quick and easy to make right at home.

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