Hungry Ghosts, Floating Lights, Chinese Fishes: Symbolism and Life in a Tornado

There’s an old Chinese proverb that says don’t curse the darkness – light a candle. I had no idea how appropriate that quote would come to be when I began pulling the threads together for the 9th week of the International Vintage Recipe Tour. If life had gone according to plan, this post should have gone out on Wednesday, March 4th. Our 10th country in the Recipe Tour would have been published four days ago, and I would’ve, as of today, been cooking and photographing the recipe for Week 11’s culinary destination.  Unfortunately, Lady Nature had other plans.

If you are just catching up on events of the past couple of weeks, shortly after midnight on Tuesday morning, March 3rd, a tornado blew through town and in three short minutes spun my city neighborhood around. These are some photos I took just after sunrise on the morning of the storm…

One of my favorite things about my neighborhood is its mix of modern apartment buildings, historic cottages and pocket-sized parks. All of my loves are within walking distance… the farmers market, the grocery store, the fish market, the library, the garden center, the waterfront, the history museum, not to mention fun shops and a unique collection of wonderful restaurants.

Fantastically walkable, it is entirely possible to live car-free here and still have all your daily needs met. It’s quiet during the week, lively on the weekends and just a 15 minute walk to Music City night-life and all sorts of cultural activities. There’s a fox that lives near the yoga studio, plenty of squirrels to keep the pup entertained on her daily walks and so many blooming trees that it snows with flower petals every Spring.

A great mix of young blending with old as far as architecture, demographics and ideas, it’s a hot spot for food enthusiasts and bar hoppers and a proving ground for new concepts and good ideas. It is one of those neighborhoods that used to be industrial, but now is referred to as trendy, up and coming, and re-energized. To me and my husband, it is home, it is work and it is wonderful.

The day before the tornado, I was at the art store buying specialty papers for a craft project for Week 9 of the Cooking Tour.  It had taken almost the entire week prior to figure out an appropriate cultural tie-in to that week’s featured destination – China.

I wanted to write about something that focused on the beauty of the country and the culture, a topic that easily gets overlooked these days now that the coronavirus has captured everyone’s attention.  After days of searching and muddling all this over, inspiration finally came in the form of a folded paper project.

In the month of September in China, there is a celebration called the Hungry Ghost Festival. Similar to the Day of the Dead in Mexico, it is a celebration of family members who have passed away. Places are set at the table, complete with food offerings and empty seats, to acknowledge the presence of these past lives and the impact they had upon the family.  One of the components of the festival includes making and releasing floating paper lanterns on the water. These floating papers, each carrying a small candle, act as a directional signal for lost souls. The lighted paper lanterns help guide their way. When the candle burns out after the lanterns have been set afloat, it signifies that the lost spirit is no longer in need of direction. It has found its way home.

As soon as the tornado touched down, our power went out. Most of the neighborhood was sleeping at the time the storm occurred but woke up to one of three experiences – 1) their roof was blown off 2) all the glass in all their windows were shattered and blown, not out, but into their living space or 3) terrific gusts of wind could be heard rattling around outside. My experience was the third one – lots of wind, no broken glass, roof still intact. That night, the temperature had been warm enough to sleep with the windows open. It was also the night, Liz Lemon and Grace the Grapefruit spent their first time since last summer overnight outdoors on the balcony.

When I heard the high winds, I woke up to my pup sitting in the bathtub and discovered that the power had gone out. I didn’t know about a tornado. I didn’t know that a block away, buildings were falling down and people were scrambling to safety in their pajamas. I just heard the wind, much like in a hurricane, and thought simply that it might too strong for my plants outside. That’s how weird a tornado can be.  By some stroke of sheer luck, the tornado hit one block away. It left my street relatively unharmed except for scattered debris and power and internet outages. Two, three and four blocks away from my building was an entirely different story.

Shaken, saddened and shocked, my husband and I spent the morning in touch with family and friends, trying to make sense of everything. Immediately we were thrown back into feelings of life post 9/11 in New York City – a time when tragedy and sorrow hung around us like a heavy blanket for almost a year.  Just like 9/11, destruction was all around us. It was our environment. It was our view. It was where we lived. And now here we were again, experiencing a similar devastation.

The weather was beautiful the entire week following the storm – sunny, in the mid-60’s, and blooming. Spring had sprung in the neighborhood and the birds were excited to sing about it. Living without power and internet access for a week, in a disaster zone, while nature carried on in such a pretty way, was surreal and jarring to the senses.  On one hand there was so much destruction and on the other there were daffodils that danced in the breeze.

One of the things that helped distract from the scariness of the scene in front of me was the building of the paper lantern and all that it symbolized. The lantern, which gets folded and shaped into a lotus flower, only took less then 30 minutes to make but everything that it stood for carried me the whole entire week. For four nights we walked around by candlelight and flashlight until the power finally came back on on day five. Each day, I imagined that each flame and each beam of light was like a Chinese lantern floating on the water, guiding us in the dark towards something bright. It was a comforting reminder that it was okay to feel a little bit lost. That eventually we would find our way home again.

It’s been almost two weeks since the storm, and already our neighborhood is on the mend. Some of the buildings have been condemned and will be torn down, some of the restaurants are closed with hopes of reopening soon, and a good batch of broken windows have been boarded up. It’s not the same neighborhood as it was a month ago, but spirits are resilient around this place and I can only hope it will be a even better place to live and work sometime soon.

There are so many things to be thankful for in these past two weeks. We are alive. Our friends and neighbors are alive. Miraculously and inexplicably, no one died in our four block radius despite the chaotic scenes. People have been so kind and helpful and willing to lend support in any way they can. More volunteers showed up to help clean up then were actually needed. And donations of all kinds poured into town to the point where city managers eventually said thank you, we have enough now.

I’ll forever be grateful to the Recipe Tour and to China and to the Hungry Ghost Festival for helping me through this difficult, unexpected life event. The tornado was a scary thing. The coronavirus is a scary thing. But the Chinese lanterns taught me that in darkness there is also light. If you are struggling during these days of uncertainty and quarantine, I hope making your own paper lantern will help guide you through these dark and disturbing times. I hope this paper project, will offer you just as much comfort as it did for me during these past ten days.

It was my original intention to photo each step of the lantern making process, but somehow, in my addled storm state, I didn’t quite capture enough photos of the steps to make sense of the process.  You can find a step by step tutorial from the Chinese American Family blog here, which is the one I followed to make the lantern for this post. The only thing that I did differently was that I used two different colors of handmade paper – red to represent China and beige to represent calmness. Also, just an fyi, this project makes one floating lantern that is 8″ inches in diameter.

Whether it is September or not, whether you live near a body of water or not, whether you are going through a tough situation or not, a floating paper lantern has a place at your table always. I love the idea of floating one or two in a shallow dish of water as a centerpiece in place of a floral bouquet or a collection of candles. I love the idea that it symbolizes someone you hold dear. So much of cooking and eating and gathering together involves long-term memories, fleeting moments, passed down stories, and centuries worth of techniques and innovations all created by people who came before us. The paper lanterns are such a lovely way to honor those individuals, especially as they relate to the kitchen and to cooking and to the enjoyment of food.

Pretty, hopeful, and easily accessible, it is a fun craft project that takes little time and few materials. China has been known for their folded paper crafts, called zhezhi, for centuries and shares similar styles with Japan’s paper folding craft, origami. China’s paper making grew out of frugality and remembrance and is often burned during celebrations and festivals, like the Hungry Ghost. If you are concerned about open flames inside your floating flowers, you can always use a flame-less tea light for a similar effect. If you plan to make a fun night at home with your family, friends or roommates while you are self-quarantining, this paper project not only offers a fun activity but also offers an easily made decoration for your Chinese dinner party incorporating this week’s menu items.

Like exquisite Chinese paper crafts, traditional Chinese food also has its own creatively packaged presentation. The accompanying recipe for China’s post is one that features artfully cut foods that are cooked in an interesting and unusual manner. Like the paper lantern, this fish dish is a literal present, individually wrapped up in paper, fried in oil and then served to each diner like a gift.  In Belgium, we learned how to fry cheese into fondue but in China we are wrapping food in paper and then quickly submerging it in oil, where it steams instead of fries.  A wonderful recipe for anyone who likes to decorate their food with flair and flourish, this recipe is delicious, interesting and pretty to look at. On the menu, I’m pleased to present Fried Fish Wrapped in Paper served alongside a bed of Ginger and Pork Fried Rice.

Since this is two recipes in one, I’ll start with the easiest one first since it can sit in a warming state for a little bit while you make the second recipe. Ginger and Pork Fried Rice, is another one of those foundation recipes where you can add your own spin once you get the general hang of preparing it. If you wanted to make this vegetarian, you could swap the pork for mushrooms or add in additional vegetables like snow peas, carrots or broccoli. Because the fish in the accompanying recipe is very lean, the pork fried rice adds a satisfying bit of fat that is complimentary to the overall flavor. So if you are a meat-eater, I’d recommend making these two recipes as-is.

Ginger and Pork Fried Rice

(serves 4)

6 tablespoons peanut oil

2 eggs, lightly beaten

1/3 lb (about 1 cup) ground pork (I used grass-fed, pasture-raised pork)

2 cups cooked rice (I used jasmine rice)

1/4 cup chopped green onion

Drizzle of sesame oil

12 lettuce leaves or 1 head of butter lettuce

Heat two tablespoons of oil, add the eggs and scramble to the soft stage, then set aside.

In a wok or large skillet, heat two additional tablespoons of oil and add the pork. Cook, stirring until the meat is thoroughly browned and cooked through. Add the ginger and stir, Add the rice, salt and pepper and cook, stirring rapidly to blend all the ingredients. When the rice is piping hot, mix-in the remaining oil, the green onion and the egg, broken up roughly. Drizzle a little sesame oil over the rice and toss quickly.

Keep the rice warm while you make and cook the fried fish recipe. Once you are ready to serve both the fish and the rice there are several suggestions on ways to present the rice. The first, simply scoop it into a bowl and serve as is. The second, scoop small portions onto individual lettuce leaves and roll them up. Or the third way, scoop out the center of a head of butter lettuce and fill it with rice so that it makes, essentially, a lettuce bowl that can be shared among your fellow eaters. I opted for number three, since our farmer’s market lettuce has been so beautiful lately.

The fried fish recipe is really easy to make. The most complicated part of it is wrapping the fish in the parchment paper. But if you think of treating it like how you would wrap a homemade empanada then you’ll be a pro in no-time. The trick to wrapping the fish in paper is to fold the edges over on themselves so that no steam can escape and so that no oil can seep inside. Although this recipe is called Fried Fish, the fish never comes in contact with the oil. The hot temperature of the oil simply steams the fish inside the wrapped package in just 3 minutes. You can actually hear the steam bubbling up against the paper as it bobs around in the oil. It is a nice auditory detail:)  And have no fear, if your packages don’t seal all the way, it is not the end of the world. The oil will fry the fish instead of steam it, but it will be delicious regardless.

Fried Fish Wrapped in Paper

(4-6 servings)

2 teaspoons sesame oil

1/2 lb boneless fresh fish fillet such as striped bass, flounder or sea bass (I used cod)

1 teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon sake or dry sherry (I used sake)

12 thin slices fresh ginger

12 small snow peas

12 small strips of green onion

12 slices fresh mushrooms

Cut twelve 6″ inch squares out of parchment paper. Set aside. Cut the fish filet into 12 pieces of equal size. (Note: I cut the fish into rectangles which were about 1″x 1.5″inches  in length). Slice all the vegetable ingredients and place each in individual bowls so that they can be quickly accessed when you are ready to assemble the packages.

Brush one side of each square of the parchment paper with sesame oil. Next place a piece of fish on the oiled parchment (step 1), followed by a sprinkle of sake, salt & pepper (step 2). Place a snow pea (step 3) on top of the fish, then a piece of ginger on top of the snow pea (step 4). Place a sliced mushroom on top of the ginger (step 5) and then finish with a slice of green onion on top of the mushroom (step 6).

Next, scoot the layered fish tower down to the bottom third of the parchment paper square.

Bring the top  edge of the parchment paper down to meet up with the bottom edge, like you were folding an envelope, and then crease the middle section of the paper. Beginning on the left hand side start to fold over the edges of the paper like an empanada. Work your way around the package so that you end up on the right side with a small flap that you can then tuck inside the crease of your final fold. This makes much more sense once you actually do it. Here’s a little step by step to help illustrate it…

Repeat each step until you have all 12 packages assembled and wrapped…

In a medium sized pot, heat the oil to 180 degrees. Working in batches so as not to crowd the pot, drop the packages in the oil for 3 minutes or until the parchment paper is lightly browned. At this step, you’ll here a wonderful bubbling noise as the fish and vegetables steam inside the paper.

Remove each batch to drain on paper towels for a few seconds before serving.

The recipe recommends serving the fish in the package, which is fun for the novelty of opening up the paper…

but it looks much prettier if you unwrap them and serve them on a plate or on a bed of rice.

This is such stylish and bite-sized food, it would be a fun appetizer for a sake party or as an accompaniment alongside other traditional dishes for a mix and match Chinese feast. Served just as-is, with a scoop of rice and two or three pieces of fish, you’ll be surprised how filling and satisfying this meal can be, even with its petite portions. The fish and vegetables cook to perfection inside the paper pouch. The ginger adds a nice hint of spice. And both dishes retain all their flavors even if they sit at room temperature for a little bit.

I went on the search for Chinese sake for this post, but I couldn’t find any locally, so I paired these two dishes with a glass of room temperature Tozai, which is a Japanese sake from the Kyoto region. I’m not much of a rice wine connoisseur so I picked this one for its beautiful label featuring painted koi fish, and it’s suggestion of light flavor notes that included lemon, grapes and banana.

Again, like the paper lantern project, this was a fortuitous choice for this post, our most dramatic week of the Recipe Tour so far. Known as living jewels because of their shimmering scales and vibrant colors, koi fish represent luck and good fortune. A day after making these two Chinese recipes and toasting them with a glass of sake, the tornado arrived and somehow miraculously, thankfully, luckily left the Vintage Kitchen intact. Unrecognized by be at the time, I went into that difficult weak with symbols of luck, good fortune and bright light on my side. If I have learned anything from this culinary time spent in the kitchen with China, it is that symbols swirl around us all the time. Sometimes they even save the day.

My heart goes out to everyone impacted by the coronavirus. I wish you all the koi fish in all the world and all the bright light for in which to see them. Join me this Wednesday, for Week 10 of the International Vintage Recipe Tour, as I attempt to catch up to our regular culinary travel schedule again. This week, culinary escapades take us to Columbia where I’ll be discussing nothing but sunshine and happiness and comfort food. Until then, be well and safe.

The Natural Disaster and the Postponement

Hello there dear and treasured kitcheners. As you know, Wednesday nights are usually the time when you can catch up on the latest installment of the International Vintage Recipe Tour. I regret to inform you that this week the post is delayed until Friday, due to an ongoing power outage. My lovely and beautiful and cherished city neighborhood was one of the places that was most hard- hit by the tornado that blew through Nashville just after midnight on Tuesday morning. The photo accompanying this post is of one of my favorite restaurants just two blocks away. Sadly, this is by far not the worst site in the neighborhood. It’s been difficult and devastating these past few days,  but luckily the Vintage Kitchen, the Tour, and the spirit behind both, keep the joy and the passion ignited and moving towards sunnier days ahead.

This week our featured country is China, another area of the world dealing with a troubling crisis. Thankfully, our focus this week is anything but bleak. The recipe stemming from this colorful Asian country is delicious and features a unique cooking technique and stylized presentation. I can’t wait to discuss it all with you. Coming up in Friday’s post, there is also special focus placed on a Chinese cultural tradition that is soothing, inspiring and illuminating. I didn’t realize at the time I was pulling all the threads together for this week’s Recipe Tour that it would feature a symbolic lifeline in the Chinese community that would also become a lifeline for me too. But the world is wonderful that way – making us feel unique and universal all at once.  Please come back and visit again on Friday where good recipes await and joy prevails. See you soon.

Eating with Elephants & Elizabeth Taylor: It’s Dinner and a Movie Night, Ceylon Style!!

Hope you are hungry this week fellow kitcheners! Tonight’s post is all about a feast for the eyes, the imagination and the belly. Welcome to Week 8 of the International Vintage Recipe Tour 2020. Welcome to Ceylon…

Last week we were in Canada making a Walnut Tart and learning all about maple trees. This week we are traveling 8,400 miles east to the lost land of Ceylon, the first stop in our Recipe Tour that involves a country that no longer exists. Well, that’s not entirely accurate. The landscape itself still exists but the country has been renamed from Ceylon to Sri Lanka. This automatically adds a sentimental bit of nostalgia to our cooking endeavors this week. So what exactly led to such a big change in our world history?

An old trading map of Taprobane. Photo courtesy of lankapura.com

In a nutshell, this is what happened. Ceylon was a British ruled country beginning in 1815. Before that, the country was known by a variety of different names including Taprobane, Ceilao and my personal favorite, Serendip, which is where we get the word serendipity from.  In 1948, Ceylon established independence from Britain but it wasn’t until 1972 that they changed the name of their country to something that was more reflective of their unique heritage. They chose the name Sri Lanka which means Island of Resplendence, a positive, empowering moniker that let the world know they were ready to shine proudly, brilliantly, and independently all on their own accord. Tonight’s recipe dates to 1971, the year just before Ceylon changed names and took on a new identity.

Camellia sinensis – the base of all tea plants

Most tea drinkers today know about historic Ceylon because of the famous tea that came from there- a black variant steeped in antioxidants that boasts all sorts of health benefits. As a favorite known around the world, Sri Lanka’s current tea industry contributes over a billion dollars a year to their economy. Other local treasures hail from this island nation too. Important food exports include coconuts and spices. On the International Vintage Recipe Tour this week we are featuring all three of these noteworthy commodities – two in recipe version (coconuts and spices) and one in movie version (tea).

1930’s Map of Ceylon

On the menu this week we are making Ceylon Curry – a spice infused chicken recipe that involves a marinade, a slow simmer, and a freshly made batch of homemade coconut milk. For entertainment, tonight’s dinner is paired with a sweeping 1954 melodrama of a movie called Elephant Walk, which stars Elizabeth Taylor and takes place on a tea plantation in Ceylon.

Liz plays Ruth, an English bride who moves to Ceylon with her new husband. There he runs a tea-plantation first started by his father years ago, called Elephant Walk. Filled with excitement and anticipation at this exotic new life ahead, Ruth, upon arrival, quickly discovers a world very different than what she had anticipated, and a husband very much changed from his wooing days back in England.

Natural beauty and a luxurious environment make up her new home, but Ruth learns almost immediately it is not a peaceful paradise.  As it turns out the plantation was built, decades ago by her father-in-law, right in the middle of the migratory walking path to water made by the local elephants during drought season. This off-handed act of careless  disregard for the natural instincts of the elephants has created a hostile environment between man and animal, leaving everyone’s defenses constantly on guard.  To make matters more uneasy, Ruth’s husband (played by Peter Finch) is still controlled by his dead father’s arcane rules when it comes to running not only his business but also his personal life.

Busy with the management of the tea business by day and carousing with his friends at night, he has little empathy for Ruth, a stranger in a new land, and little desire to restructure his life in order to accommodate his new wife. Curious and questioning, Ruth is the only non-native woman on the plantation.  An intelligent, independent, feminine creature, she is set adrift among a sea of old-school men who possess a boy’s club- type mentality. Nothing seems to make sense to her once she arrives in her new home. She doesn’t have any direction, doesn’t understand her purpose and doesn’t understand her husband, yet she is determined to figure things out.  Trying to navigate this complex world leads to a growing kinship that develops with her husband’s business manager (played by Dana Andrews), who also happens to be the only person on the plantation that will talk to her about anything important, including the ostentatious ways of her father-in-law and the mysterious and powerful hold he still has on everyone at Elephant Walk.

While the plantation environment is glamorous and decadent, Ruth must continuously adjust her attitudes and behaviors in order to keep her marriage together. When she can’t stand the peculiarities of life in this strange world one more minute and decides to flee back to England, a cholera outbreak occurs keeping her quarantined within the boundaries of the plantation. I won’t tell anymore about the story so as not to spoil the ending but you’ll see from this trailer that lots of drama happens throughout the movie…

Filmed on location in Ceylon, it’s is a wonderful glimpse into the exotic culture and landscape of vintage Sri Lanka. Some of the scenes were filmed in and around an actual tea company, so we get to see a little bit about how tea is made (or used to be made anyway!)…

Tea leaf gatherers.
Tea equipment on the right, brooding husband on the left:)

and there are lots of scenes that feature the lush and verdant country landscape…

Vintage clothes lovers will appreciate beautiful Liz and her Parisian wardrobe…

Originally, Vivian Leigh was scheduled to play the lead role, but she suffered from a nervous breakdown at the start of filming. Elizabeth Taylor was called in to replace her.

as well as the safari clothes and tuxedos worn by the guys…

That’s Peter Finch on the left and in top right corner. Dana Andrews is in the bottom right.

There’s a party scene that involves traditional dances and a kitchen scene so immense in size and scope it would boggle the mind of any home cook.  There was even a dinner scene complete with curry and rice!

If you aren’t familiar, curry comes in lots of colors. In this scene in the movie it was green. In our recipe this week it is red. But also in my pantry, I have orange curry, yellow curry and brown curry. That’s because there is no such thing as a universal curry.  Curry is a conglomeration of different spices all blended together. There is curry on the sweet side, curry on the spicy side, curry that is mild, curry that is intense and curry that has been infused with different seeds and aromatics.  Each version is unique in taste and scent.

The curry I used for this recipe is a red Thai Curry that was made of finely ground paprika, lemongrass, salt, shallots, galangal, cumin, coriander, chiles, pepper, cilantro, garlic, lime leaves, basil and spearmint. But you can use any kind of curry powder you like for this dish.  If you have a spice shop in your neighborhood, I highly recommend getting your curry powder there since it will be most fresh and flavorful, yielding an optimal culinary experience.

While Elephant Walk immerses us visually in the sights of Ceylon, this week’s meal immerses us in the scents of Ceylon. Tonight’s dinner is two recipes in one. The first is for homemade coconut milk and the second is for chicken curry. Both are easy to make but the coconut milk is labor intensive. If you are short on time, just buy a can of coconut milk and add it to the curry.

I have never made, or even thought about making homemade coconut milk before, so I was excited to try it. Basically it involves cracking open two coconuts, scooping out the meat and then blending it with water in the blender. It sounds simple. It sounds easy. It sounds like a 10 minute project.  I warn  you now this step takes some time (about 45 minutes per coconut) and it takes a little bit of muscle to crack the coconuts open and to scoop out the flesh. It’s a messy endeavor even if you are a meticulously tidy cook and it involves tools.  You’ll need a hammer, a heavy chef’s knife or cleaver, a strong butter knife, a vegetable peeler, cheese cloth and a medium to large funnel.

I made everybody a bit nervous when I posted a sneak peek video on Instagram on Sunday about the tricky aspect of chopping open a coconut. (If you missed it, click here and scroll through the sneak peek videos until you get to week 8.) It took about a minute and a half to crack open each coconut.  I used the backside of the cleaver so there really was no threat that I would chop a finger or a hand off, but I’m truly grateful that everyone was so worried for my limbs!  I’m happy to say everything is still intact, fingers and hands, and I’m more knowledgeable for having experienced the procedure. The whole task just takes a little bit of bravery, some good firm wacks with the knife and a steady determination to see the project complete. Eventually victory comes.  I’m sure this is one of those skills that improves the more often you do it. Maybe by the year’s end, we will all be experts at cracking those coconuts.

In the meantime, I must say, cracking coconuts was a pretty fun experience all the way around. There was lots of laughing during this process, bits of coconut shell went flying all around the kitchen and there was even a little impromptu competition between my husband and I about who could crack a coconut faster. He won. By a significant amount of time. So I’d encourage you to make your own homemade coconut milk at least once, just for the experience of doing it. Even though it may sound daunting and isn’t 100% necessary to the total overall taste of the recipe (a canned version would suffice just the same) you might discover a new sense of joie de vivre and camaraderie in the kitchen.

Coconut Milk Made in a Blender

(Makes about 4 cups)

2 coconuts

4 cups hot water

Once the coconuts are cracked open. Discard the water inside. Get out your hammer. Turn each coconut half skin-side down on top of a few sheets of paper towels and bang away at it until the shell either 1) falls away from the coconut meat or two separates enough that you can slide your butter knife between the outside shell and pry the meat out. This is the messy part, as coconut chucks may go flying around around your kitchen from both the hammering and the prying.

Once you remove the hard shell there will be a softer brown shell attached to the meat which you’ll peel off with the vegetable peeler. The recipe calls for two coconuts, however, you don’t need that much milk for the recipe, so if you don’t 3 cups of leftover coconut milk hanging around in your fridge, then just use one coconut.

how-to-make-homemade-coconut-milk-in-a-blender

Once the coconut meat from one coconut is peeled, cut it into chunks, toss it in the blender and pour two cups of very hot water over the meat. Blend it on high for about 3-4 minutes until thoroughly blended.

Line a funnel with cheese cloth and set the funnel inside a large mason jar. Pour the mixture into the cheese cloth in batches. When it has finished dripping into the jar squeeze the remaining coconut pulp that hasn’t drained through the cheese cloth directly into the mason jar to extract as much liquid as possible. (Note: at this stage the leftover coconut pulp looks and feels a lot like flaked candle wax.) Then discard the pulp and repeat until you have emptied your blender and there is no more coconut meat to process. Two coconuts should yield about four cups of coconut milk. Refrigerate coconut milk until ready for use.

Ceylon Chicken Curry

(serves 6)

2 lbs. boneless skinless chicken cutlets

2 1/2 teaspoons salt

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper

1 tablespoon vinegar

1 one inch cinnamon stick

3 tablespoons curry powder

2 cloves garlic, crushed

1 teaspoon chopped fresh ginger

3 bay leaves

2 cardamom seeds (or 2 pinches of ground cardamom)

Cayenne pepper to taste (this is optional – I didn’t use it since my curry powder already ha some spiciness to it)

3 tablespoons butter

2 onions, chopped

1 green pepper, seeded and sliced

1 cup coconut milk

1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

Cut the chicken into small chunks and place in a bowl. Add the salt, pepper, vinegar, cinnamon, curry powder, garlic, ginger, two bay leaves (crushed), one cardamom seed or one pinch of dried cardamom, and cayenne (if using).  Mix well. Cover and refrigerate for at least two hours or up to 24 hours. (I marinated mine for about 12 hours).

Heat the butter in a dutch oven or a large saucepan and add the onion, the remaining bay leaf and cardamom seed (or pinch of ground cardamom) and the green pepper. Cook briefly (about 5 minutes) over medium heat, stirring occasionally.

Then add the seasoned chicken and cook stirring occasionally, until the liquid is partly absorbed (about 5 minutes).

Then cover and cook 45 minutes over low heat.

When the chicken is tender, add the coconut milk and simmer, covered for 10-15 minutes. Add the lemon juice just before taking the pan off the heat, but keep stirring until it has been incorporated. Then you are ready to serve it.

I suggest serving this curry over a bed of jasmine rice accompanied alongside a glass (or two!) of cold white wine – preferably a varietal that sits on the sweeter side.

As I’ve  mentioned occasionally on the blog before, I’ve been a big fan of curry for a long time and have tried handfuls of different recipes. This is by far, my most favorite to date.    The curry itself is so full of flavor, I can’t wait to try it with other types of curry powder to see how the tastes change. The coconut milk adds a brothy consistency that is lovely for sopping up with bread or extra rice and offers a creamy contrast between the spiciness of the curry.

Marinating the chicken ahead of time (a new concept for me!) makes each piece so tender. Just like a slow-cooked chili or stew recipe, it only tastes better the longer it sits in its juices. All in all, this was just a joy of a recipe. Even the tricky coconut chopping wound up adding a new theatrical element to the kitchen that was fun and unexpected.

While you are enjoying your dinner… the other thing I suggest is turning on the movie (you’ll find it on Amazon), and turning off your phone or any other ringing, blinging and beeping devices.  Just for the next two hours immerse yourself in all the sights, sounds and tastes of vintage Ceylon. By meal’s end, you’ll have experienced a brief encounter with a lost country through vibrant cinematic and culinary storytelling.

Cheers to vintage Ceylon and to magical movies and recipes that transport us! Join us next week as we head to China where we make an unusual dish that involves specialty papers and curious methods.

The International Vintage Recipe Tour: {Week 1} Armenian Stuffed Meat Balls

Welcome to Week 1 of the International Vintage Recipe Tour 2020! If you missed the previous blog post a few days ago, this is week #1 of a year-long culinary adventure as we cook our way through 45 countries in 12 months, courtesy of recipes from the 1971 edition of The New York Times International Cook Book. If you are all caught up and ready to explore, then cheers to our travels. Let’s get started…

COUNTRY #1: Armenia

In today’s post, we are headed to Armenia via the kitchen, to prepare a traditional heritage food packed with protein and whole grains, and to learn more about this exotic country’s history thanks to the publication of a modern day memoir.

I must confess right off the bat, before I began this cooking project I knew absolutely nothing about Armenia, other than the fact that it is where the paternal side of the Kardashian clan hails from. Pronounced R-Me-Knee-A (not R-Min-E-A!), and  nestled between Turkey, Georgia and Iran, Armenia is a small country that could easily be missed, depending on the age of the map you are consulting…

Located in Western Asia, a section of the world which also includes Middle Eastern countries,  Armenians consider themselves neither Middle Eastern nor Asian but distinctly European. Armenia is the birthplace of the apricot and home to the oldest winery in the world (which dates back 6000 years). The capital city of Yerevan predates Rome, and is considered one of the oldest inhabited capital cities in the world. On the food front, their traditional cuisine has been influenced and enhanced by the closeness of their surrounding neighbors, giving Armenian dishes a unique blend of Russian, Turkish, Georgian and Mediterranean flavors.

This week in the kitchen, we are making a regional favorite, Armenian Stuffed Meat Balls. Essentially, this recipe is a meatball made with lamb, which is then stuffed inside another meatball, also made of lamb, and then cooked in beef broth. Each batch of meatballs is made with a different blend of ingredients – one vegetable laden, the other grain laden. Once tucked inside each other, they are quickly cooked in a boiling homemade broth and served immediately from the pot, plump and steamy.  Although stuffing meatballs sounds a little bit complicated, it’s actually a very easy and fun recipe to make.

Over the course of the last few decades I have made countless numbers of meatballs, but I never considered, before this recipe, that they could be 1) be stuffed or 2) be cooked in other ways besides pan frying or baking in the oven. Always a fan of innovative cooking methods and creative food compositions, I thought these stuffed and boiled meatballs would be a really interesting and exciting challenge. And boy was this the case!  A combination of  artistry, hand massage and play dough, these magical meatballs rolled their way into formation in the kitchen with nothing but joy and fun.

The only tricky situation I encountered with this recipe was sourcing bulgur, a cracked wheat that is a staple in the Armenian diet. Usually I can find this easily in the organic section of my local grocery store, but the day I went to shop for all the recipe ingredients, the store had sold out of what I needed. Two additional stops at other grocery stores also yielded an empty cart. Because the International Vintage Recipe Tour happens at a quick clip with shopping, cooking, photographing and writing all occurring within a week’s time frame, I had to come up with a substitution for this now elusive ingredient.  My first challenge of the project!

As it turns out, thanks to some quick research online, it was a simple remedy. Two similar alternatives for bulgur are couscous and quinoa, both standard finds in most grocery stores, both traditional heritage foods of Armenia and surrounding countries, and both substituted with the same 1-1 ratio. Perfect!

While the meatballs are easy to make, and they cook within ten minutes,  they do require about 6 hours of preparation time. Most of the time is eaten up by broth making (3 hours), chilling time in the fridge (2 hours), and hand kneading (20 minutes) but simultaneously, while each of these tasks are occurring, other components of the recipe can be readied, making it feel like the hours and the tasks just fly by. Both the interior meatball filling and the beef broth can be made a day or two ahead of time, but I recommend doing it all at once just for the sheer delight of completely immersing yourself in the making of this unique food.  The recipe itself feeds a crowd, making on average between 22-24 meatballs in total, so this would be a fun weekend cooking project when you don’t have the pressure of the busy work week to battle and you can relax with a glass of wine or an Armenian cognac as you cook the day away.

THE RECIPES: Homemade Beef Stock and Armenian Stuffed Meat Balls 

(Note: All  recipes prepared throughout the International Vintage Recipe Tour are executed exactly 100% as written in the New York Times International Cook Book, unless noted).

Homemade Beef Stock

4-5 lbs. beef short ribs or beef soup bones

2 leeks, trimmed split and washed well

2 carrots, trimmed and scraped

2 ribs celery, cut in half

1 onion stuck with two cloves

2 sprigs fresh thyme or 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme

Salt to taste

1 teaspoon peppercorns

Place the beef in a kettle and cover with cold water. Bring to a boil and blanch about 5 minutes, then drain and run under cold water. Return the bones to the kettle and add the remaining ingredients. Add more cold water to cover and simmer, uncovered, about three hours. Skim the surface as the stock cooks to remove fat and scum. Strain.

Armenian Stuffed Meat Balls

For the stuffing:

1 lb. lamb, ground

4 medium onions, sliced

1/4 cup finely chopped green pepper

2 tablespoons chopped parsley

1/4 teaspoon chopped mint

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon freshly ground pepper

For the Meatballs:

1 lb. very lean ground lamb

1 cup very fine burghul (cracked wheat) or 1 cup quinoa or 1 cup couscous

Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

1 small onion, finely chopped

1 tablespoon finely chopped parsley

water

4 cups boiling beef stock

To make the stuffing, saute the lamb over medium heat, stirring occasionally. Add the onions and cook over low heat  for thirty minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the green pepper, parsley and mint and cook 10 minutes. Add salt and pepper and simmer for five minutes.

When cool, chill stuffing for at least 2 hours. After it is filled shape into the size of marbles (about one teaspoonful for each)

To make the meat balls, combine the meat burghal, salt, pepper, onion and parsley and knead the mixture as you would dough , adding a few drops of water as you go along. Knead the mixture for twenty minutes until the mixture is like a medium soft dough.

Dip your hands in a bowl of cold water and make balls the size of walnuts. Make a dent in the middle of each ball with your thumb and press all around the inside wall to amke a round opening for the filling. The wall should be fairly thin. (Watch a video on how to do this on my Instastory here).

Place the marble-sized filling in each shell and bring the edges together to close. Smooth the surface with wet fingers  and flatten slightly by gently pressing between the palms.

Drop the meat balls into the boiling stock and cook for ten minutes  or until the meat balls come to the surface. Remove with a slotted spoon without puncturing. Serve immediately.

THE RESULT…

Delicious! Like a hearty little bundle of meatloaf, these meatballs contain all the components of a balanced dish with subtle, nuanced flavors. Filling, comforting and satisfying, the only thing I would have wished, was that they were a bit more aromatic in the spice department. They weren’t bland in the least, but I think I might have been spoiled years ago by my lovely Bulgarian friend’s specialty of Turkish meatballs, which are laden with cumin. That aside, these Armenian meat balls were delicious and delicate in their own unique way. I bet also, had I prepared this dish in the Springtime when the onions and the mint are at their peak of freshness, the sweetness of the mint and the tangy-ness of the onion would have been stronger, sharper and more distinct.

Next time, I’ll experiment with this recipe again in March or April, and add a triple dose of mint to the stuffing to see how that adds to the overall taste. If you try this recipe now, during the winter months, I would suggest serving them with a dollop of mint jelly or a spicy habanero jelly to add another dynamic layer of flavor. Traditionally, this food would be served alongside a heaping pile of rice pilaf or in a shallow basin of broth, like a soup, but because we are featuring just one recipe from each country on this Tour (although this week had two because of the broth) I served these meatballs with a simple side salad and some fresh grapes in lieu of the suggested Armenian Rice Pilaf recipe that followed in the cookbook.

HISTORICAL COMPANION: The Hundred Year Walk

Just like you would pair a fine wine with a fine meal to bring out the food’s flavor,  I thought it would be fun to connect each recipe we make with a unique cultural story from history to add interest to the dish and spark additional conversation. Throughout the tour, this historical nod will come in various forms – interviews, book recommendations, movie suggestions, music playlists, art discussions and artifact discoveries. This week’s cultural tie-in comes in the form of a book, The Hundred Year Walk, which details the history of Armenia and its people in a highly relatable way.

Written  by Dawn Anahid MacKeen, a thirty-something California native who is half American and half Armenian, The Hundred Year Walk,  published in 2016, tells the true story of her Armenian grandfather who survived Turkish military capture in the early part of the 20th century. It’s almost impossible to research anything about Armenia without reference to the tragic Armenian genocide of 1915 – an event that killed over 1 million people – about half of the country’s population. While this is a heavy topic for our recipe tour, this event is as important to the country’s history as their staple foods, and has come to define the Armenian culture throughout the past 100 years.

Dawn’s grandfather Stepan, a survivor of the Armenian genocide of 1915, recorded details of this life-altering experience and his escape to freedom in journals which he kept throughout his life.  Those journals were passed down to Dawn’s mother who tucked them away, out of sight for decades. But in the early 2000’s, on a trip home to California to visit her parents, Dawn finds the handwritten books and suddenly becomes consumed by stories surrounding her grandfather’s unusual and heroic escape.  Filled with a desire to understand her own family history and the struggles Stepan faced, Dawn begins piecing together  his cataclysmic journey as he walked through cities, over mountains and eventually across the desert in order to escape death. Retelling Stepan’s story as events unfolded in 1915, Dawn also parallels this ancient history with her own modern day journey of exploration in the early 2000’s, as she follows in his own footsteps retracing his route through modern day Turkey and Syria – a young woman traveling alone amid post 9/11 tension and unease.

What I loved most about Dawn’s book was her ability to paint a thoroughly engrossing portrait of the Armenian way of life known by her grandfather’s generation, and then balance that against her own unique perspective and experiences as a modern day American woman. Her book is a crash course in all things Armenia, while also offering a compassionate viewpoint of the effects of war and displacement upon multiple generations.

On a side note, one of the random things I learned in preparation for this post is that the library will buy books for you.  I wanted to read The Hundred Year Walk over the Christmas holiday but none of the books available online would be delivered in the timeframe that I needed, and my local bookstore didn’t carry this title. Dawn’s book was also not included in my local library system, which meant that they didn’t have any copies in any of their branches. On their website, I noticed a feature called “suggest a book ” where you can suggest a book for the library to buy which will then become part of  their permanent circulating collection. Not sure, how all this worked nor how quickly, I submitted a request for the library to purchase a copy of The Hundred Year Walk. The very next day I received an email that the book request had been approved, and that they were ordering several copies for several branches. Four days later, I received another email. The book was at the library ready for pickup. How marvelous! I’m not sure if all libraries offer this service, but it’s worth an inquiry if you find yourself in a particular predicament.

A 1940’s map of West Asia

History can feel very far removed and intimidating when you have no reference point or fundamental understanding of a country or a culture that is thousands of miles away and vastly different from your own.  But cooking this batch of Stuffed Meat Balls and reading The Hundred Year Walk was such a captivating experience.   Riveting from page one, I won’t spoil the book and its trajectory of events, only to say that it starts with a scene in the kitchen – a conversation between Dawn and her mother while they wash dishes. It’s a mundane task, so commonplace and ordinary, yet ultimately becomes life-changing for both women as there in the swirl of the dish water, Stepan’s story begins to form.

I hope Week One of the International Vintage Recipe Tour sets up in your kitchen in just the same way.  That conversations spark between between friends and family as meatballs get made and interest about Armenia grows.  I look forward to exploring and sharing more recipes from this fascinating country with you in future posts.  In the meantime, if you have any related food stories or experiences to share about Armenia or the Stuffed Meat Ball recipe,  please share them in the comments section below. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

To learn more about Dawn Anahid Mackeen , visit her website here.

Join us next week, as we embark on Week Two of our epicurean adventure… Australia, where we’ll feature a good news recipe for a country that needs all the good news it can get right now.