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This charmingly candid photograph shows the chiles en nogada that I made for a backyard pot-luck last month. Chiles en nogada are in essence peppers stuffed with pork and fruit, covered in a walnut cream sauce and pomegranate seeds. The recipe is said to be almost 200 years old, comes from an area just southeast of Mexico City called Puebla, and is traditionally served around Mexican Independance Day, in a tribute to the red, white and green of the flag. The particular occasion for us was a luncheon wishing some Parisien friends au revoir, but as it was the weekend before Mexican Independence Day and the party’s hosts were Mexican, I decided to give this dish a go, thousands of kilometres from its natural home.

The distance matters: the chiles of chiles en nogada are meant to be poblano peppers, and these are impossible to find in the UK, at least out here in not-London. So I substituted grilled and peeled green bell peppers instead, and incorporated a few small diced green chilies into the filling to try to recreate the slightly picante flavour of the poblano, if not the shape. The filling is a saute of diced cooked pork, onion, garlic, cloves, cinnamon, almonds, apple, and diced dried apricot (again, faking the candied innards of a cactus that I couldn’t find locally). The walnut sauce is not a bechamel, but a no-cook mixture of creme fraiche, quark, sour cream and sugar (a crazy combination to mimic the proper queso fresca), ground walnuts, and (gluten-free) bread crumbs. Pomegranate and cilantro to finish, for the patriotic flourish.

So my Mexican friends very graciously ate this version of chiles en nogada, which was more improvised than authentic, and proclaimed it accurate. ¡Such good manners! For a study in contrasts, behold the bowl of mole sauce in the upper left corner of the photo: it’s makings were transported by suitcase to the UK from a market in Mexico City. Now that’s impressive dedication to the real thing.

For all I know, it’s ‘palak pakora.’ Pakora was suggested by the letter home to parents as a buffet food for the school Eid party. This surprised me, as I think of parkora as Hindu, but the chick pea fritter extends throughout the subcontinent, and I believe that everyone eats them. Ashamedly, I have no idea what ingredients might make a pakora more typical of Bangladesh or of Pakistan rather than Tamil-Nadu, so I made them as I always do. I expect that vegetarian pakora was suggested by the school because it neatly skips the issue of halal, which might vex the non-Muslim parents, and thereafter by extension the Muslim parents, too.

Pakoras are very quick and simple. For these I sifted besan (gram, chick pea) flour with a little ground cumin and cardamon, pinches of salt at bicarbonate of soda (baking soda). I then made a paste with water, and stirred in chopped spinach, cilantro, diced red onion and green chili (not much, these were for the kiddies). I promptly deep-fried them by the tablespoon-full in sunflower oil and drained them on towel. My son dips them in yogurt. I like them with lime pickle in oil.

Otherwise, I’ve been absorbed in the markets these past weeks, watching the Fall of the Empire. I buy the FT every morning and it’s out-of-date by lunch. I hang on Robert Peston’s every word, and am consequently tickled to anticipate every calamity by twelve hours. Months ago I found rights issues fascinating (for all the good it did those banks…), but they look ho-hum these days, with half the high street evaporating and Iceland slipping beneath the North Atlantic in a hiss of leverage. I wonder if I’m too old to learn Mandarin…

Thinking of you, US of A,

with your Freddie Mac, and your Fanny Mae.

I’m no Du Fu. But seriously, since food-inflation has neared 10% in the UK, our household has only been eating meat every second night. We also eat a lot of cured pork, which is cheap because it goes farther in smaller quantities. I estimate that we save about £15/week ($25USD), or about £750 in 2008, this way. In other words, my inborn meanness is partly responsible for all the lentils ’round here.

So in the face of the many Louisianan jambalaya recipes calling for chicken and shrimp and pork and alligator and all sorts of protein extravagances, this is a solely-sausage jambalaya, with gluten-free free-range pork chipolatas on offer (on sale) this week. Chipolatas are a thin sausage, and browning them also cooks them through, so out of the pot they came as soon as they looked good. I sauteed onion, celery, and garlic, and flavoured with oregano, thyme, paprika, and some dried chipolte innards. In went red pepper, the rice, and a can of sieved tomatoes. Now, Emeril would probably disapprove (and I’m okay with that), but I keep the lid off the pot while the rice cooks. This is because with the lid on I can’t see what’s going on inside, and what’s going on is usually burning. So I stir and I monitor and I add broth as needed until the business is done. I sliced my browned sausages the size of shrimp, chucked them in, and, um, well, bam (lower case ‘bam’, very meek and sideways-glancing).

PS. Anybody else remember that annoying chain restaurant in Edmonton years ago that made all the staff yell “Jambalaya!” whenever it was ordered? What am I saying?: it was a chain: it probably embarrassed people from Vancouver to Winnipeg.

This is my version of a sweet-and-sour cabbage dish from north-eastern China (not to be confused with the more famous Chinese hot-and-sour cabbage). If you imagine this dish as Slavic cabbage rolls that have been gutted of their meat before being sent through the office shredder, you will not be too far off the mark. In its preparation, thin slices of cabbage and a little salt are first stir-fried aggressively in oil for two minutes, then covered to steam gently for five. Once the cabbage is removed from the wok, a simple sauce is made quickly there with stewed tomato, the squeeze of a mandarin orange, rice vinegar, sugar, and soy sauce, all thickened with a little cornstarch. It is a green vegetable with sauce prepared in less than fifteen minutes.

I shall leave you with the poetry of Henan-born Du Fu (712-770CE):

A poet should beware of prosperity,
Yet demons can haunt a wanderer.
Ask an unhappy ghost, throw poems to him
Where he drowned himself in the Milo River.

From ” To Li Bai at the Sky Send” by Du Fu, as translated by Witter Bynner in The Jade Mountain: A Chinese Anthology, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1929. Li Bai was also a poet of the Tang Dynasty, and a friend of Du. The drowned poet of the verse is Qu Yuan, who wrote centuries earlier during the Warring States Period.

This is my version of saag paneer (or palak paneer), an quick Indian side of greens with fresh cheese. The version one reconstitutes from powder in a pouch tends to be more pablum-like. When I make it at home I like mine chunky, with fried paneer and the tang of a tomato sauce. This specimen is a saute of onion, garlic, coriander, cumin, fenugreek (methi) seed, and spinach leaves to which chopped canned tomatoes have been added toward the end. Very simple, quick to do, and not at all hot, so a hit with small children. The onion and fenugreek make it seem quite sweet, actually.

Be warned that paneer is a vengeful dairy product. It hath wrath. Sweetly toasted cubes of cheese come at the price of hot oil spitting about the kitchen and the cook. For minimal spitting, buy a well-pressed block of paneer and fry the whole thing over medium heat on its two significant sides. The fried slab of paneer may be subsequently chopped, producing on each cube two nicely browned sides of six, all for minimal fuss and violence. Frying individual cubes of paneer is maddness: a volley of hot oil shrapnel will pepper your hairy forearms and set them on fire. And once that spreads to your eyebrows your evening is pretty much ruined.

Here is a stack of black sticky sweet-and-sour ribs, not terribly different from those in the buffet tray. Proper Shanghai ribs would be short and straight, but mine are long and curvaceous tonight. I lacked the foresight to have them them sawed at the butcher’s, and I am irrationally scared of my whop-ass Chinese cleaver.

Wuxi ribs these are not, because I was in a hurry, and Wuxi takes a while. Nor are they the much-copied deep-fried ribs of Eastern China: these are a quick stir fry in only a few tablespoons of oil. I disassembled my baby backs the easy way, between the bones, and shallow-fried them like any bit of meat in a wok. (BTW, any such meat is improved by sitting a few minutes in a little salt and a splash of booze, then blotted and tossed with a big pinch of cornstarch). The black-like-tar sauce is the classic for deep-fried ribs, a simple sauce of asian vinegars, soy sauce, and sugar thickened with cornstarch, cooked in the wok after the ribs had been taken away. Scallion scatter on the platter.

These were good, but the best sweet-and-sour ribs I have ever had were made by my Shanghainese roommate one snowy afternoon in Newfoundland many years ago. As we say about all the good stuff in life, I wish I had paid better attention at the time.

I find that as one drives further toward central Asia raw onion is treated with more respect. Sweet and crunchy with a little sting in the tail, this is a condiment or a salad, depending on one’s inclination.

There are many ways to draw the sulfur out of a raw onion. Choosing a low-sulfur variety, like vidalia or walla walla is one. Time spent in the refrigerator after slicing is another (a good tip for your nachos americanos, too). Ice water is good, as are acids, if these treatments do not compromise the recipe.

But I would never be too aggressive about removing the sulfur. After all, raw onion, with its crunchy balance of bite and sweet, is the raison d’etre, n’est pas? If I do not want raw onion, I make a cucumber raita instead. That said, be warned that churri is not first-date food.

So, what is churri? Well, this churri is tame-enough slices of onion sitting in a bath of yogurt and buttermilk (a little acidic, yes?). The green flavours come from a puree of mint, coriander, ginger and a little chili, plus some ground cumin for warmth. It makes a more forceful accompaniment to the more comforting and meaty rogan josh.

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