Monday, November 29, 2010

Purple Sweet Potatoes

After eating a Thanksgiving meal packed with starches (mashed potatoes, corn, stuffing, and the special German noodles - spaetzle - that my Grandmother always brings), I thought it would be fun to do a starch I had never tried before.  Enter the purple sweet potato:

Also known as the Okinawan sweet potato, as they are native to the Japanese island, these large bumpy spuds are widely eaten in Hawaii.  They have a ton of vitamins and minerals and are low in calories -- about 140 for a cup.  The purple color is caused by the presence of anthocyanin, which is being currently researched for its anti-cancer components.

I found a recipe for mashed purple sweet potatoes that called for coconut milk.  Um, sold!  (If you aren't a fan of coconut, use regular milk.)  Peeling these proved difficult because of the deep grooves, so I tossed them whole into a pot of boiling water.  They were pretty big, and pretty dense, so they took a while to soften, maybe 45 minutes.  After they were fork tender, I took them out to cool before peeling.  This is what they look like inside:

I peeled them and took a taste.  They have a distinctly floral flavor, with a texture that is slightly denser than a yam.  Once mashed with the coconut milk, salt and pepper, they became creamy and the floral aspects mellowed.  I served them with pineapple-ginger marinated grilled chicken and white asparagus.  The color is reminiscent of grape soda, but the purple sweet potato is delicious and I will definitely try them again!

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Adventures in Supermarketing

We have a wonderful Asian supermarket nearby called Assi.  It is a fun place to shop because their inventory is very different from my local grocery store.  They have live eels, fluke, and abalone in tanks next to the requisite lobsters, their ice cream flavors include exotic flavors like red bean and corn-and-cheese, and the produce section has whole rows of items I have never seen before.

So, I am starting a new project.  Each week I will buy one unfamiliar thing from Assi's produce section, research it, cook it, and let you know all about it.  This week I bought a bitter melon.

This funky fruit looks a lot like a cucumber that has gone bad.  It is bright green, spongy to the touch with a clean smell.  It is a tropical fruit, but grown mostly in China, India, and Africa, and also eaten in Japan, Pakistan, and Vietnam.  It is supposed to have many homeopathic applications, such as aiding in digestion and helping lower the blood sugar of Type 2 diabetics.  Laboratory research is ongoing about ways it may aid in treating malaria and HIV.

Typically used like a vegetable in savory recipes, we decided to add it to a stir fry.  First you cut the ends off and split it lengthwise in half.  The seeds inside are the size of pumpkin seeds and need to be removed along with most of the pith.  Then, we sliced it in 1/4" strips.

Raw, it is crunchy, tastes slightly herbaceous but mostly bitter, and has an intense drying effect on the mouth.  Although it tastes nothing like beer, that drying sensation reminded me of drinking a very hoppy IPA. 

We used pork and black bean sauce because most recipes I found extolled the triumvirate, saying the pork paired well with the bitter melon and the black bean sauce reduced the bitterness.  I am sure you could use chicken or tofu with equal results.  Here's how:

1 lb meat or tofu, cut into strips
1 bitter melon, deseeded and sliced
2 T black bean sauce (I found this in the Asian section of my regular supermarket)
rice to accompany

Heat olive oil in a pan, when it is hot add the meat and bitter melon.
Saute until meat is brown and melon has softened slightly
Add the black bean sauce, mix in thoroughly and cook two more minutes
Serve over rice

Even cooked, the bitter melon was still pretty bitter.  The taste hadn't changed much, just the texture -- after stir-frying it had the consistency of a cooked green pepper.  The black bean sauce, like most bottled Asian sauces, was a salt bomb, but it was delicious and paired well with the pork and the melon.  I don't know how much of the bitterness it removed; I think the rice was a better means to that end.  (Some recipes suggest that blanching it before adding it to the stir fry will further reduce the bitterness.) 

I was nervous about this dish because of all the negative comments on forums about the bitter melon.  One person, in response to "What should I do with a bitter melon?," went as far as saying "Curse the farmer and throw it out!"  Many others said it was an acquired taste, and I can see how that is true.  It isn't my favorite new ingredient in a stir-fry, but it was edible on its own, and pretty good with a big spoonful of rice.  I wont rush out and buy it again, but I found recipes for using it in a curry and, knowing my penchant for curries, I would be willing try it that way some other time.

Next up: Okinawan Purple Sweet Potatoes

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Willow Grove Eats

We live in a suburb of Philadelphia, and with two kids, we usually stick close to home when we want to go out for dinner.  Willow Grove has a lot to offer, and here are my top five neighborhood haunts, in no particular order:

The Willow Inn
210 N York Rd
Willow Grove, PA
This historic building is a staple in the area -- a bar, a restaurant, and a place where you always run into someone you know.  They have great Italian food with affordable prices and attentive staff.  They are kid friendly, and the other patrons don't seem to be bothered by us either.  Try the Eggplant Parmesan or the ravioli.

La Fusion Cafe
3 Easton Road
Willow Grove, PA
This pretty restaurant is in the heart of Willow Grove and BYO.  For those of you who don't live in a state with antiquated liquor laws, BYO means you can bring your own bottle of wine, six pack of beer, or even bottle of vodka, if you wish.  As the name indicates, they serve Asian fusion fare, and they have a full sushi bar in addition to their regular menu.  Try the crispy tofu appetizer, and the chicken curry is amazing.

634 York Road
Willow Grove, PA
Tortillas is a happily decorated Mexican restaurant.  It is BYO also, but you get one complimentary margarita or sangria per person.  The chicken mole is delicious, but the real reason to come here is the salsa.  They make it in house and it is fresh, tangy, and wonderful.

Pasta Fazool
804 S York Road
Hatboro, PA
One would never expect to find such a gem in a tiny strip mall just south of downtown Hatboro.  This authentic Italian restaurant is run by the kind host with a thick Italian accent.  Upon sitting down at your table you get complimentary brushetta and wonderful bread with the most incredible olive oil that I have ever tasted.  This oil actually tastes like olives!  If you don't fill up dipping your bread, try the Pasta Puttanesca, it is garlicky and delicious!

Wayback Burger
2720 Easton Rd
Willow Grove, PA
Yes, this is a chain, and right up the street from another burger chain, Sonic.  The Texas Burger is really spicy, with jalepenos, pepper jack cheese, and chipolte mayo, but absolutely delicious.  They also make their own potato chips in house, and it is worth the trip just for these.

Honorable Mention and fond farewell to Jason's Deli.  We loved this place, but when we tried to go there last weekend it was closed.  They had great sandwiches, baked potatoes, and free soft serve ice cream.  I'm sorry to see it go.

We also absolutely love Gaya, but it is in Blue Bell (about 30 minutes away), so I wouldn't consider it a neighborhood haunt.  Korean food is one of my favorites, so perhaps it deserves its own post anyway.

If I have forgotten any of your favorites, please let me know!  I love trying new places!