Sunday, April 24, 2011

Sampling an unacquirable taste

A recent episode of Food Network’s Chopped featured the most challenging baskets of mandatory ingredients I have ever seen: the appetizer course had to include goat brains, the entre course had to feature fish heads, and the dessert basket included durian. Twice in the past, I have sampled durian – once in Thailand and once in Malaysia – in vain attempts to understand its considerable popular appeal in Asia. It is a large, spiky fruit – a single durian can weigh five pounds or more – with a notoriously horrible smell. It’s been called much worse, but the following characterization of the durian’s odor given in Culinaria Southeast Asia: A Journey Through Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia (Cooking) is distressingly accurate:

“The stench of the durian has been described as a mixture of onion, strong cheese, rotten eggs, and rotting meat, all soaked in turpentine!”

In his book, Are You Really Going to Eat That?: Reflections of a Culinary Thrill Seeker, Rob Walsh describes his own attempt at eating durian. He was the guest of Thailand’s former deputy minister of finance, who was now in the business of raising a variety of durian called Golden Button, and Walsh’s hosts were encouraging him to eat up:

“Before me on a plate are several soft, yellow sacs of durian, the sweetest, creamiest fruit I have ever tasted. I have already eaten one of the soft, custardy segments, but the smell of rotten eggs is so overwhelming, I suppress a gag reaction as I take another bite of the second.”

Ultimately, the stench proves too much for Walsh, and he can’t finish the second section of durian.

In my own case, it wasn’t so much the smell I couldn’t get past – horrible as that was – but rather the bizarre flavor. Many accounts describe durian as “sweet and custardy” – just as Walsh does – but others have also noted the presence of additional flavor components that I really dislike in my custard. In Alan Davidson’s entry on durian in The Penguin Companion to Food, he quotes the following account of durian’s flavor, published in 1869 by Alfred Russel Wallace in his book Malay Archipelago :

“A rich butter-like custard highly flavored with almonds gives the best general idea of it, but intermingled with it come wafts of flavor that call to mind cream-cheese, onion-sauce, brown-sherry, and other incongruities.”

It was these “other incongruities” that I couldn’t get past: I found the flavor to be dominated by two strong components, each one fine by itself but really unpalatable in combination: the promised rich, creamy custard flavor, plus an extremely strong onion flavor. Wrap the whole experience in an odor so bad that the durian is commonly banned from public transportation and hotel rooms in Asia despite its enormous popularity there, and you have one of the world’s truly acquired tastes.

I know: I’ve tried to acquire even a little bit of the taste twice, but have failed utterly both times.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Ramps, morels, and the return of spring

Besides the promise of better weather, the three things I most look forward to with the coming of spring are ramps, morels, and fiddlehead ferns. This weekend, two of these three signs of spring – ramps and morels – both appeared at our local Whole Foods Market. Last year (May 6, 2010, "The Rise of the Lowly Ramp"), I did a post on ramps – also known as “wild leeks” – with a brief discussion of what they are like (think “very strong spring onion”), where to buy them (a good on-line source is Earthy Delights, which currently has both ramps and morels), and a brief discussion of ramp festivals. A quick Internet search on “ramp festivals” just now shows me that I am a bit late with my ramp post this year – sorry about that – because several of the large ramp festivals have already happened. But it’s not too late – the Richwooders website provides a lot of background information about ramps, along with a long list of ramp festivals, which continue from now through the second half of May.

Last year, I gave a recipe for scrambled eggs with ramps, ham, and gruyere, and my most recent post was about scrambled eggs with octopus, so it should be pretty clear that I really like scrambled eggs. It will come as no surprise, then, that I conclude this post with a recipe for scrambled eggs with ramps, morels, gruyere, and smoked salmon. The recipe features the same key ingredients – eggs, ramps, and smoked salmon – as the recipe for soft scrambled eggs with ramps and smoked salmon currently featured on the Earthy Delights website. The main differences are, first, that their recipe is for a French soft scrambled egg that is prepared using a double boiler, and second, that their recipe does not include either morels or gruyere. They do, however, strongly recommend accompanying their eggs with two tablespoons of steelhead or salmon caviar, something that sounds like it should also go great with the recipe given below, although I must admit I haven’t tried it.

In preparing the scrambled eggs described below, I only used one ramp because I didn’t want to overpower the other ingredients – these were small ramps and quite assertive in both flavor and odor – but I think I was too cautious, so the next time I make these eggs, I will increase the number of ramps to two, as I have suggested in the recipe below. As with the octopus omelet described last time, I served these eggs with a chunk of good bread and a nice white wine. (Specifically, an 80% chardonnay/20% torrontes blend from H.J. Fabre in Argentina.) Now, all I need is some fiddlehead ferns to go with it … maybe next week.

Scrambled eggs with ramps, morels, and smoked salmon


3 eggs

2 baby ramps, both the white and green parts, chopped into small pieces

1 to 2 oz. morels, cut into small pieces

2 oz. smoked salmon

¼ cup grated gruyere

1 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil

Fresh ground pepper

Sea salt


Wash and chop the ramps, rinse and chop the morels, and shred the smoked salmon into small pieces, removing the skin if present. Lightly beat the eggs with the sea salt and black pepper.

Next, heat the olive oil until it becomes fragrant. Add the ramps and sauté for about one minute. Add the eggs and stir. When the eggs begin to solidify, add the smoked salmon and the morels and continue stirring until they are almost done. Finally, add the gruyere and stir until it melts.

Serve and savor.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Octopus omelets

A number of years ago, my wife and I spent about a week in Portugal, staying in Porto. One of my two favorite memories from the trip was the Lello and Irmao Bookshop, without question the most spectacular bookstore I have ever seen. According to the entry for it in our guidebook, the shop was founded in 1869, and, architecturally, I would characterize it as a small merchantile cathedral. My words can’t begin to do it justice, but there is a very nice description of this local landmark by Elena, whose photos take me right back inside.

My other favorite memory of Porto was a dinner of roast octopus that was so good I had to go back to the same restaurant the next night just to have the meal again. Both times, we ate outside, overlooking the Douro River, just beyond the Ponte Luiz I, a magnificent iron bridge designed by one of Eiffel’s collaborators. Not health food, exactly, the octopus was drowned in butter and absolutely delicious, especially with a white port aperitif and a Portuguese sausage cooked on a little clay grill at our table with flaming brandy (we bought one of the clay dishes so we could make it ourselves at home; it’s a real conversation piece at parties).

Since then, I have often wanted to try preparing octopus myself, but it has a somewhat challenging reputation. In his octopus entry in The Penguin Companion to Food, Alan Davidson notes that, except in the Mediterranean countries and the Orient, the consumption of octopus has been inhibited by several factors, including its “alarming or repugnant appearance,” and “perhaps also by the unresolved difficulty of deciding what its plural form should be (a difficulty which must have caused at least some people who would otherwise have bought two to ask for only one.)” Amusing – and amazing – as I find this suggestion, I must admit succumbing for a long time to one of the other reasons Davidson lists for avoiding octopus: “the need (notorious but in fact not always applicable) to tenderize the flesh before cooking.” Recently, our local Whole Foods Market featured baby octopus and the person at the seafood counter assured me that baby octopus was quite tender, in agreement with Davidson’s comments:

“A baby octopus needs no special preparation, but can simply be deep fried or cooked briefly in boiling water.”

The person who sold me four baby octopi (octopus? octopuses? Whatever.) suggested grilling them, which seems to be the most popular recommendation in the cookbooks I have that say anything at all about octopus. I took her advice and incorporated it into the octopus omelet recipe given below. (In fact, I was in too much of a hurry to make an actual omelet, so the dish is really more like “scrambled eggs with octopus and gruyere,” and while that doesn’t sound either as poetic or as appetizing as octopus omelete, the end result was delicious, if I do say so myself.  If you want to do it right – as I plan to the next time I make the dish – the scrambled omelette described starting on page 129 of Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Vol. 1 has worked very well for omelets based on other, possibly less exotic, ingredients.)

As always, in preparing a dish that features an unusual ingredient (especially one where I have limited experience), I like to pair it with flavors that are known to go well with it. Unfortunately, this is somewhat challenging for octopus, because there don’t seem to be a lot of recommended octopus pairings. My favorite flavor pairing book, Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg’s  The Flavor Bible: The Essential Guide to Culinary Creativity, Based on the Wisdom of America's Most Imaginative Chefs does have an entry on octopus, but it is shorter than many of their other entries, and there are no bold-faced or capitalized recommendations to indicate “great” or “classic” pairings. Still, the authors do recommend sea salt, which seems natural enough, black pepper, olive oil, and onions, all of which I decided to incorporate (they actually recommend red onions, but I used a cipollini onion instead because I really like them). The sea salt I used was Sale Mediterraneo, a delicious mixture of sea salt with spices that include rosemary, sage, oregano, bay leaves, thyme and garlic. (We came across a jar of this while perusing the variety of great goodies available at the Ferry Terminal Market in San Francisco during a visit there. A reasonable substitute would be a mixture of your favorite sea salt with an Italian seasoning mixture like Penzeys Tuscan Sunset.)

Octopus omelet, ingredients:

½ pound baby octopus (about 4 octopi)

½ cup aged Gruyere, grated

3 eggs

1 small cipollini onion

1 Tbsp olive oil

½ tsp black pepper

½ tsp Sale Mediterraneo or other sea salt/Italian herb mixture


First, grill the baby octopus over a medium-hot grill, turning once, about 5 minutes per side. Allow octopus to cool and cut into small pieces.

Next, sauté the onion in the olive oil until translucent. Add the octopus, black pepper, and sea salt and sauté briefly, mixing well.

Beat the eggs with a fork and add to the mixture, stirring occasionally until the eggs begin to solidify. Add the cheese and continue to cook until done.

Serve with a good bread and a nice white wine. I had it with a Pinot Grigio and that worked nicely, but next time, I plan to try it with an Albarino, which I have found goes extremely well with seafood. Also, even though it is a bit of extra work, I highly recommend grilling the baby octopus before putting it into the omelet: the octopus picks up a nice smoky flavor that really enhances the dish.