A Culinary Passport: Spice blends and exotic dishes define a chef’s global cuisine.
Aliya LeeKong, chef and author of Exotic Table (Adams Media), is a veteran of farmers’ markets around the globe. She is what you might call a chef without borders: Her background is Indo-Pakistani and Tanzanian, and her husband hails from Trinidad by way of Venezuela, Spain and China. Culinary influences also draw from travels to Dubai, Istanbul, Lima, Cape Town, New Orleans and more. LeeKong’s home cooking, she says, is “a complete amalgamation of our cultures’ histories.”
Her beautiful new book is packed with recipes for savory salads (see right), easy spice blends that you’ll want to keep handy, and delicious main dishes like Moroccan Chicken Pie. From Egyptian Dukkah to Tunisian Harissa to Middle Eastern Pomegranate Molasses, Exotic Table will open up a culinary world to you.
How does your multicultural heritage influence your cooking?
Aliya LeeKong: I’m American-born and raised, but my parents are Tanzanian and Indo-Pakistani. The food I grew up eating left an indelible mark, particularly the East African dishes which are a Creole of Indian and African spices and ingredients. As a kid I craved pizza one day (and I still do!) and mandazis (an East African donut of sorts) the next. My childhood fed into how I think about food and cooking now–and what satisfies all of the cultural elements that define a person.
What are two or three of your favorite things that home cooks can do to spice up their cooking?
AL: 1. Whip up a few great spice blends to keep in your pantry (i.e., Merken, Ras el hanout). Spices go a long way to create complexity in a dish. A good blend can be used anywhere, from a rub for grilling to a way to infuse depth of flavor to a stew. If you have some blends on hand, it becomes an easy, seamless step in your cooking.
2. Re-appropriate your favorite dishes—Love risotto? Try a different grain like quinoa or farro to give it a healthier twist.
3. Experiment! The best way to learn is to be playful and have fun when you’re cooking. Visit an ethnic grocer or search online and pick up an ingredient or spice you’ve never used before.
Israeli Couscous Salad with Lemon, Fennel and Basil from Exotic Table (Adams Media)
Couscous is one of those blank-slate ingredients that absorb flavors incredibly well. I love to use it in a salad with lemon and raw, shaved fennel. The combination, along with some torn basil, is fresh and light, great alongside a simple piece of fish or grilled chicken.
I personally prefer the texture of Israeli couscous to the traditional kind, but you could really use either. A few ratios to pay attention to here: Israeli couscous requires 1½ cups of liquid for every cup of the raw couscous. In turn, 1 cup of raw Israeli couscous triples to about 3 cups cooked.
3 cups vegetable stock or water
2 cups raw Israeli couscous
2–3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided
1 fennel bulb, shaved thin, fronds reserved
1 shallot, minced
1 tablespoon lemon zest
juice of ½ to 1 lemon
1 tablespoon sherry vinegar
small handful of basil, hand-torn
salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Bring the vegetable stock or water up to a boil over high heat. Season with salt, add the couscous, cover, and bring back up to a boil. When it comes up to a strong boil, remove from the heat and let sit covered 8 to 10 minutes, until the couscous has absorbed all of the water. Drizzle with extra-virgin olive oil and fluff with a fork. Cool completely.
Add the shaved fennel along with 2 tablespoons of chopped fennel fronds, the minced shallot, lemon zest, lemon juice, sherry vinegar and torn basil. Drizzle a bit of extra-virgin olive oil on top and season with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Mix, taste and adjust seasoning, including the lemon juice. Chill before serving.
The Leftover Lowdown
I never liked leftovers as a child, because they didn’t come with an expiration date. In my family, old-food phobia was a simple act of self-preservation. But now that I love to cook, I love leftovers, and the new Wean Green large-size recyclable glass containers with BPA-free plastic snap-on lids are perfect for multipurpose storage. The company started with small-portion size containers for babies and toddlers and now, with the launch of three new sizes—the Lunch Bowl, Meal Bowl and Meal Cube—they’re all grown up. Weangreen.com
Vicky Allard grew up making jams with her mother in England. “It was a passion,” says Allard, who, with her husband, Joe Hanglin, is the owner/founder of Blake Hill Preserves, based in Grafton, VT.
When the duo moved to their Vermont farmhouse and found blackberry bushes 15 to 20 feet deep behind the house, “It took me back to my childhood, where I went foraging with my dad and made jams in the kitchen,” says Allard. She admittedly got a bit carried away, and ended up making about 70 jars of blackberry jam. A friend snuck a jar down to the local country store, and things took off from there.
The new award-winning preserves and chutneys from Blake Hill (recent Good Food Award winners for three products) are not only brimming with organic and locally grown fruits—sourced from organic farmers within a range of 15 miles—but the unusual combinations are sure to excite your palate. In fact, it was almost impossible for us to decide which Blake Hill Preserves we liked best: the Plum and Blueberry? Raspberry Hibiscus? And then there were the chutneys: Date and Red Chili? Plum and Fennel? “Chutneys are wonderful,” says Allard, “and really savory condiments can be like whole meals in a jar.”
The couple took inspiration from Hanglin’s heritage—he comes from Gibraltar, a “culinary crossroads,” says Allard—as well as the Middle Eastern and Indian neighborhoods in London where they lived before they settled in Vermont.
All Blake Hill citrus fruits are organic, because citrus tends to absorb what it’s sprayed, according to Allard. Dried fruits are organic as well, as they tend to contain color additives and sulfates. Blake Hill is about to be certified from the Non-GMO Project. The products are low in sugar and the duo is working on a no-sugar added chutney, with natural sweeteners, like raisins.
“We really want to make things you’d make yourself from a health perspective, if you were doing it at home,” she says, “and so we like to have that transparency of knowing where our ingredients come from. Working with farmers we trust is important to us. We want every jar to be great.” Believe me when I tell you—it is. blakehillpreserves.com