Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Sriracha slaw and kimchi

With the increasing popularity of Community Supported Agriculture, some of the dozen or so readers of this blog may have a farm share box and currently be wondering what to do with all of those greens.

Here at the 45th parallel, local produce in June is pretty much limited to spinach, kale, lettuces, bok choy, various other mixed greens and a handful of tender roots, such as radishes and kohlrabi, accompanied by their greens. Last week's veggie box was so full of greens I couldn't get them all in the crisper drawers of the refrigerator.

So what to do?

Fortunately, greens tend to cook down to a fraction of their raw volume. That large bag of spinach looks like enough for at least 6 entrée-sized salads, but sauté it with a little garlic and onion and it becomes a side dish of 2-4 servings. Wash and tear the kale into chunks and dry it out in the oven for kale chips.

After a week of large salads and triage on most of the greens that easily rendered themselves to cooking, I was left the night before new box pick-up day with a gigantic head of bok choy. We wanted to try the new barbecue food truck in the neighborhood, so I thought a sriracha slaw might be a nice accompaniment.

I thinly sliced the bok choy and inspected the crisper drawers for other vegetables that could lend themselves to the enterprise. I shredded three carrots, a purple kohlrabi bulb and half of a red onion left over from something else.

I consulted the internet for some sriracha dressing ideas and made a blend based on what I had on hand.

Sriracha Slaw Dressing

1 Tbsp of ginger, peeled and coarsely chopped
3 cloves of garlic, peeled
1/3 cup natural peanut butter
juice of about 3 limes
2 Tbsps sugar
2 Tbsps Belgian framboise beer
2 Tbsps fish sauce
sriracha to taste

Mix all ingredients in a blender or food processor, or grate the ginger, press the garlic and whisk everything in a bowl. Toss with the shredded veggies and add salt and pepper to taste. Finally, if you happen to have it, a splash of lemongrass-mint vinegar is nice.

I want to emphasize that the list of ingredients is highly adaptable. I added the beer because it was in the fridge and I thought a little berry flavor would be nice. You could make this dressing with mayonnaise, sriracha and a touch of any complementary acid, such as rice or umeboshi vinegar, or just about any citrus juice.

the finished slaw

Don't toss the slaw with the dressing until you're ready to serve. A topping of chopped roasted peanuts would be very good with this, but I didn't have any.

I still had a huge amount of leftover would-be slaw. I've been trying to eat more fermented foods, so I decided to toss it all together and make kimchi using a modified version of this easy vegetarian recipe. I made a salt and water brine for the leftover veggies and let them soak while watching another silly episode of the Bachelorette (we all have our vices!) Two hours later, I drained the veggies, made a quick porridge of water and rice flour to add to the leftover sriracha dressing, and then tossed everything together. The colorful mixture is now enjoying a vacation under some weights in my sauerkraut crock. Hopefully it will all be good!

Monday, June 17, 2013

Teasanity, part 2

Today I invite you to explore tea in some of its lesser known forms, namely matcha, kombucha and laphet.


Tea is a substance that invites rituals.

The simplest and perhaps most common tea ritual for most Americans resembles that practiced by my in-laws every morning: heat a kettle, pour the hot water over the bag of Lipton in a mug, wait a couple of minutes, remove the bag, add a spoonful of sugar, and enjoy with toast and jam.

The Japanese, however, have taken the tea ritual to an art form. My knowledge of the elaborate tea ceremony is limited to reading about it, and I probably have a better chance of trying to stage a ceremony myself than I do of visiting Japan in the near future.

I could build this in the backyard:

Even if I never held a tea ceremony, it would be a terrific reading and writing nook.

The tea part of the ritual is easily accessible even in northern Michigan. Matcha, the powdered green tea used in the ceremony, is sold in specialty stores and online shops. Numerous retailers offer matcha starter sets with a bowl, a bamboo whisk and a tin of the powdered tea.

I add cooking grade matcha to smoothies. Numerous websites offer recipes featuring matcha, and you'll increasingly see it is an ingredient on restaurant menus.


A fermented beverage made from sweetened tea and a "scoby" of bacteria and yeast, kombucha is a drink of Chinese origin that apparently spread to Russia, and from there the rest of Europe, in the early 20th century. Adherents claim benefits ranging from weight loss to cancer cure; the mainstream medical community is skeptical.

Twenty years ago, kombucha was only available as a home-brew and generally required some old-fashioned networking (the kind that existed before the internet) to track down a scoby, or mother culture. Today kombucha can be purchased in the beverage section of your local health food store, where it has reached the level of a craze. But many people still choose to brew their own.

Finding recipes for kombucha is as easy as typing the name in a search engine. Getting the scoby is almost that easy. If you happen to be the kind of person whom other people suspect of brewing strange things at home, you'll likely be offered one from a friend or acquaintance. These things reproduce, so most kombucha brewers always have a "baby" to give away. I got mine from a neighbor who got it from her daughter's boyfriend.

Kombucha fermenting in a jar. Yeah, it looks nasty.
If your social circle doesn't include likely connections, mail-order cultures are available on the internet, even on Amazon. Kombucha experts say it may be possible occasionally to obtain a culture from a commercial beverage, such as the widely-available Synergy brand.

The fun of brewing kombucha is in the second fermentation for which you can add other flavorings and get creative. My neighbor blends cherry juice with her finished kombucha; I've been adding a little hibiscus tea to get a fizzy tart beverage that's more pleasing than the first ferment.


Finally, I'll mention a tea product that was unknown to me until about a week ago and now is at the top of the list of things I'm desperate to try.

I read about laphet in Sandor Katz' book, The Art of Fermentation, and was intrigued by the "explosion of flavor" he said he experienced when he first tasted these pickled tea leaves that are the basis of laphet thoke, a salad that is one of the signature dishes of Burma but nearly unknown in the United States.

Burma, or Myanmar, is slowly opening to tourism after decades as a closed society, so it is currently all the rage among adventurous travelers and foodies. Naomi Duguid's cookbook, Burma: Rivers of Flavor, was nominated for a 2013 James Beard award. And Anthony Bourdain traveled to Myanmar for the first episode of his new CNN show.

With all of this attention, one would expect laphet thoke to be popping up on all the trendy menus and home cooks finding laphet for sale across the interwebs. Not so. My initial research indicated I basically had three options if I wanted to sample this delicacy: travel to Burma, journey to San Francisco and wait in line for hours at the no-reservations Burma Superstar cafe, or mail-order laphet from London and make the salad myself.

My only planned travel is an August vacation to Montreal, so it occurred to me that Canada may have more lenient laphet importation policies and my whim to try this dish could be satisfied there. And yes, I discovered a new Burmese restaurant has opened in my favorite Montreal neighborhood!

But what happens if I become addicted to laphet thoke, as it seems has happened to so many customers of Burma Superstar? Sander Katz offered a possible method of obtaining a steady supply, as he mentioned in his book a friend is growing camellia sinensis on her Alabama farm to make her own laphet. I have relatives with southern gardens, and I've already started trying to persuade my siblings to plant tea shrubs. In the meantime, if anyone out there has a better idea, please leave a comment!

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Teasanity, part 1

I had no idea when I took Dr. Andrew Weil's advice to drink more tea that I would enter a world of connoisseurs and obsession.

Prior to consciously incorporating tea into my daily regimen a few months ago, I drank it irregularly, mostly when I wanted a hot, non-caloric beverage without the caffeine hit of coffee. My brews were split between herbal tisanes and green tea, generally from a bag. Occasionally I would steep a loose leaf tea, such as gunpowder, in one of my small Xiying pots.

Xiying pot
With the nagging suspicion, soon to be confirmed, that my tea-making skills could be improved, I embarked upon a research project. My education continues, but I'll share the highlights so far.

After water, tea is the most consumed beverage in the world. In the United States, it is mostly brewed from bags and served iced. But for tea connoisseurs, the variety of brews available from the camellia sinensis plant almost could be compared to the variety of wines produced from cultivars of vitis vinifera.

To begin, I knew that tea came in various hues -- black, green and white -- and that the colors had more to do with the production process than with appearance. I also knew that herbal teas were misnamed and should be called tisanes or infusions. However, I wanted to get past my superficial knowledge of tea, so I went to class.

Dozens of online tea sellers provide educational pages about tea, and books are available as well. But I only found one source that made me take a quiz at the end of each topic. TeaClass is a fun way to satisfy your inner geek while learning about the history and culture of tea, the varieties of processing, and of course, how to steep the perfect cuppa.

Brewing tea with a bag could not be simpler, which is why most tea in the United States is sold in bags. Grab a mug, fill it with hot water, drop in the bag and wait a couple of minutes.

Those interested in exploring the full diversity of tea will eventually seek out the loose leaf. For that, you'll need one more piece of equipment -- a strainer. Any fine mesh strainer will work, so you don't need to rush out and buy a tea strainer. You can brew a teaspoon of loose leaf tea in one cup and pour it through an all-purpose strainer into another cup.

If you discover you enjoy brewing loose leaf tea, you likely will want to buy a dedicated strainer. Nearly every store with even basic kitchen supplies will stock various tea balls and infusers, most priced less than $10. I have a couple of those, but I prefer to use a teapot with a made-to-fit infuser; it brews enough for two cups of tea, which is ideal because I'm usually sharing with my daughter. For one cup, I'll use one of my smaller Xiying pots.

Tea shops and online purveyors offer a dizzying array of brewing vessels, from traditional Japanese cast iron to contemporary glass beauties. And those on the go can find travel mugs with built-in infusers. Fans enthuse endlessly about their favorite teapots on dozens of online forums. Any non-toxic vessel that holds water will work; tea may even be steeped cold in the refrigerator. For an eco-friendly brew, fill a clean jar with water and the appropriate amount of tea and leave it out in the sun for a few hours.

What to brew? The options can be even more overwhelming. Any well-stocked supermarket will offer dozens of varieties of bagged teas in black and green, perhaps even white, some with added flavorings, as well as herbals to address a range of moods and conditions. Some groceries will stock a few tins of loose leaf tea, but specialty stores generally offer a larger selection of those. Online tea stores may stock hundreds -- yes, you read that right: hundreds -- of tea varieties.

I've purchased tea from both a local company and a downstate retailer that specialize in carefully selected organic teas. And recently, I enjoyed a visit to a shop that surely must have one of the largest inventories of tea anywhere: TeaSource, which has three storefront locations in the Twin Cities area as well as an online shop. Seriously, if you're ever in Minnesota, skip the Mall of America and go to TeaSource; the Gap is the same everywhere, but there are few places that can offer you a choice from more than 200 teas. I'm grateful for the online ordering because I can see my small sample of chocolate cream tea will not last until I return in September.

Coming next: taking tea out of the cup.