The first bite fills my mouth with unexpected stars. Yes, sometimes dishes surprise me. On paper, the recipes or descriptions may seem puzzling or humdrum, the combination of ingredients failing to sing to my food-loving imagination. But I am always eager to try new concoctions when cooking with talented chefs. Their gifts open my palate to new tastes and textures.
Three addictive dishes come to mind; each a scrumptious revelation taught to me by a Southern California chef. Concoctions such as an avocado-centric raita that is so flavorful its delicious teamed with everything from chicken to chips to salad. A bright green rice that is simmered in a pureed mix of fresh herbs and broth. And a meat-free carpaccio that showcases skinny slices of raw zucchini.
Shachi Mehra, chef-owner at Adya Restaurant in Anaheim, puts a California spin on the Indian condiment raita by making it with avocados. (Photo by Curt Norris)
Shachi Mehra, chef-owner of Adya in Anaheim and Irvine, has a talent for combining tradition with innovation. Her dishes showcase influences from all regions of India while placing California fruits and vegetables in the spotlight.
Her avocado raita is one example — one very delicious example. Typically, the condiment is made with plain yogurt, herbs, chilies and spices; often cucumbers are also included in the ingredient list. But in Mehra’s kitchen, a cucumber-free version is whirled with generous amounts of ripe avocados, making it creamy smooth and irresistibly rich. She dreamed up the avocado version years ago when she moved to California.
Move over guacamole, her raita topping is a contender.
One way she uses her it is atop masala papad, a salad-like concoction that is served on crisp poppadums; imagine an Indian version of tortilla chips topped with a mouth-watering vegetable concoction and garnished with tangy guac. The salad mixture combines roasted corn kernels with diced cucumbers, thinly sliced radishes and roasted cumin, as well as cilantro, Serrano chili and chaat masala (a dried ground mixture of mango powder, cumin, black salt, coriander, ginger and chili). The colorful tangle is tossed with a dressing of extra-virgin olive oil and fresh lime juice.
Poppadums are the foundation of the dish; they become blistered and cracker-crisp when flame toasted. Also referred to as papads, at first glance the plain ones look something like fried-and-wavy flour tortillas. They are made of lentils and can be used like brittle tortilla chips for dipping or spreading.
Yield: About 5 cups
1 1/2 tablespoons cumin seeds, divided use
3 cups plain Greek-style yogurt; nonfat is OK, divided use
Salt to taste
4 ripe avocados, seeded, scooped from the skin
1/4 to 1 green chili such as jalapeño or serrano, unseeded, minced, see cook’s notes
1/2 bunch cilantro, chopped
Juice of 1 lime
Cook’s notes: I use japaleño rather than serrano because I prefer a milder, less fiery mix. When working with fresh chilies, wash work surface and hands upon completion and do not touch your face or eyes.
1. On medium heat, toast cumin seeds until one shade darker and fragrant, shaking handle to redistribute seeds from time to time. Place on plate to cool. Grind in spice grinder or place in zipper-style plastic bag and pound with mallet or bottom of a saucepan until ground. Use 1/4 teaspoon in this recipe and 1/2 teaspoon in the Masala Papad (recipe follows); leftover toasted cumin can be refrigerated airtight and used in a variety of dishes.
2. Puree 1 cup yogurt, salt and avocados in food processor or high-speed blender. Add remaining yogurt and puree until smooth and totally blended. Transfer to bowl and using a whisk, stir in chili, cilantro, 1/4 teaspoon toasted ground cumin and lime juice. Taste and adjust seasoning.
Masala Papad features corn, cucumber, radish, olive oil and served atop toasted poppadums. (Photo by Cathy Thomas)
Yield: 4 servings
2 fresh corn, roasted until caramelized, kernels removed from cob
1 small watermelon radish or red radish, trimmed, cut into very thin slices, mandolin sliced preferred
1 small cucumber, Persian or English (hothouse) preferred, diced
1 teaspoon minced unseeded serrano chili (use less if a less spicy version is preferred)
1/4 cup chopped cilantro
1 teaspoon chaat masala
1/2 teaspoon roasted ground cumin
1 teaspoon fresh lime juice
1 1/2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil
4 toasted poppadums (plain, or with black pepper), see cook’s notes
Cook’s notes: Uncooked poppadums and chaat masala are sold online and at Indian markets. If you are using a gas stove, set the flame at medium high. Holding 1 poppadum with a pair of tongs, flip it back and forth over the open flame until bumps start to appear on the surface and the poppadum turns light brown, 1 to 2 minutes. Remember to shift the tongs to toast the part initially covered by them. Repeat with the remaining poppadums. Set them aside to cool. (Note that I find it easier on my stove to use tongs in both hands and hold the poppadum about 1 inch from the flame, turning frequently). OR, if you prefer, broil them in the oven. Place rack as close as possible to heating element and preheat the broiler to high. Toast the poppadums until bumps appear on the surface and they turn light brown, 1 to 2 minutes. There is no need to turn them. Set them aside to cool. Microwaving poppadums on high power for 30 seconds to 1 minute is also an option. The poppadums will turn crisp and brittle as they cool. You can store them (cooled) in airtight plastic zipper style bags at room temperature for up to 2 weeks (but I bet they will be gone long before that).
1. Toss all ingredients except the poppadums in bowl; taste and adjust seasoning as needed. Place poppadums in single layer on platter or four individual plates. Top with corn mixture and serve; pass avocado raita for topping. Guests can break the poppadums into pieces and eat them using their hands.
Source: Shachi Mehra, Adya restaurant, Anaheim and Irvine
Raw zucchini is sliced paper thin to make Fig & Olives Zucchini Carpaccio. (Photo by Cathy Thomas)
Fig & Olive’s Zucchini Carpaccio
Raw zucchini? How could that yield welcoming flavor? Sometimes it’s very simple combinations of ingredients that wow the palate; a bowl of perfectly seasoned olives teamed with sliced salami; wedges of crisp sweet-tart apple paired with aged white cheddar; blanched greens sautéed with pancetta.
Or, in the case of Fig & Olive, a stunning “carpaccio” made with raw paper-thin zucchini slices, buttery extra-virgin olive oil, fresh lemon juice, shaved Parmigiano Reggiano and toasted pine nuts. It’s a classic concoction with roots in the south of France taught to me by the executive chef at that time, Pascal Lorange.
To start, he showed me that the zucchini needs to be an exact size, the diameter of a quarter, not a nickel or a 50-cent piece. They need to be very thinly sliced, preferably by using a mandolin. He confessed that a vegetable peeler could also be employed to do the skinny slicing.
The components, because there are so few, need to be perfect. The extra-virgin olive oil plays a crucial role. Lorange told me that for the carpaccio he prefers oil that is sweet and buttery, an aromatic wonder sourced from Portugal. The tasty vegetarian treat may sing of summer, but it is just as tempting as a first course when the weather is chilly.
Yield: 6 to 8 servings
1 pound medium zucchini (diameter about the size of a quarter)
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
Juice of 1 lemon
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
4 tablespoons shaved Parmigiano Reggiano
4 tablespoons toasted pine nuts, see cook’s notes
Cook’s notes: To toast pine nuts, place in small dry skillet on medium heat. Shake handle frequently to redistribute pine nuts, cooking until lightly browned. Watch carefully because they burn easily.
1. Trim zucchini ends. Cut into paper-thin slices using a mandolin or vegetable peeler.
Arrange the zucchini slices, slightly overlapping, on a large, flat platter. Cover with plastic wrap. Refrigerate until ready to serve.
2. In a small bowl whisk the olive oil and lemon juice. Just before serving, whisk the olive oil dressing briefly to blend it, drizzle it over the zucchini, season with salt and pepper, scatter the cheese and the pine nuts on top, and serve.
Source: Pascal Lorange, former executive chef Fig & Olive restaurants
L.A. chef Suzanne Goin’s Herbed Green Rice is irresistible once you get used to its verdant hue. (Photo by Cathy Thomas)
Herbed Green Rice
A few years ago, I joined acclaimed Los Angeles chef-restaurateur Suzanne Goin in the kitchen of her sadly now-shuttered West Hollywood restaurant, Lucques. A highly inventive chef, Goin cooked up some of the dishes she developed for Singapore Airlines, and shared her strategies for servings irresistible menus in the sky. During our cooking and sampling, the conversation turned to her extraordinary green rice, a recipe sourced from her cookbook showcasing another of her restaurants, A.O.C. in Los Angeles.
The verdant basmati turned out to be one of my favorite rice recipes, although at first try I was dubious about the bright green hue of the herb-laden broth used in its preparation. But don’t be put off by the vivid broth, the results are flawless.
Yield: 6 to 8 servings
2 teaspoons fennel seeds
1 cup chicken broth plus 1 1/4 cups water
1/2 cup packed Italian parsley
1/4 cup packed mint leaves
2 tablespoons minced chives
1/4 cup packed cilantro leaves
1 teaspoon hot sauce, see cook’s notes
1/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
3/4 cup finely diced fresh fennel bulb
3/4 cup finely diced red onion
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 cups raw white basmati rice
1 tablespoon butter
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
Cook’s notes: The original recipe called for adding 1 crumbled chili arbol when sautéing the vegetables. I prefer to use one teaspoon of Frank’s RedHot sauce to the cooking liquid in Step#2. I like it because it adds a spark of acidity and (for me) has just-right spicy heat. If you use Sriracha “rooster sauce” use 1/2 teaspoon.
1. Toast fennel seeds in a small pan over medium heat for 2 to 3 minutes, until they release their aroma and turn light golden brown. Cool. Grind in mortar and pestle, or place in small zipper-style plastic bag and pound with mallet or bottom of a pot until ground.
2. Bring chicken broth and water to a boil in medium-large saucepan. Turn off heat.
3. Place parsley, mint, chives and cilantro in blender. Add 1 cup of the hot liquid and puree herbs at medium speed (cautiously hold down lid of blender with potholder). Add remaining liquid and puree at high speed for about 2 minutes, stopping to wipe down sides and lid as needed. You should have a smooth, very green broth.
4. Rinse out pot and heat it over high heat. Add oil, fennel, onion, toasted ground fennel seeds and 1/2 teaspoon salt; cook over medium-high heat for about 5 minutes, stirring often, until onion and fennel are translucent. Add rice, 1 teaspoon salt and pinch of pepper; toss to coat. Add herb broth and bring to boil. Reduce heat to simmer. Add butter. Cover and simmer for 15 to 20 minutes, or until tender and liquid is absorbed. Turn off heat and leave rice covered for 5 minutes. Fluff rice with fork. Taste and adjust seasoning if needed.
Source: Adapted from “The A.O.C. Cookbook” by Suzanne Goin (Alfred A. Knopf, $35)
Have a cooking question? Contact Cathy Thomas at email@example.com
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