Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Keshmesh: Persian Green Raisins














In the United States, most consumers are familiar with store-boughtraisins. Thompson, Flame and Golden varieties line supermarket shelves, each bearing little flavor semblance to fresh fruit of the vine. This is not characteristic of the delicate savor of Iranian green raisins, known as keshmesh in Farsi. In fact, keshmesh have a taste that is quite unique in the raisin world…

At first glance, the taut skins on keshmesh resemble the pruned fingertips of an ancient kitchen matriarch. This dry appearance is culinary camouflage for a raisin that truly tastes like a grape. Though golden raisins are brighter and somewhat citrus-like in their flavor profile when compared to their dark cousins, they are sweeter and somewhat cloying in comparison to green raisins.

Highly concentrated, like all dried fruits, keshmesh strike the palate with a trinity of flavors; pineapple, lemon and a nutmeg-tinged green apple to be precise. Even the sound they make when poured into a dish draws the attention as they delicately ping against the bowl like small hollow stones.

Sinha Trading Company, located in New York City, carries the tastiest keshmesh in Curry Hill. The store directly imports raisins from Iran and their stock bears a lower incidence of blemishes and inconsistencies in color and flavor. In addition, the green raisins are packaged in 1lb. bags which are preferable to bulk bins that continuously expose the raisins to oxidation and the occasional greedy hand.

Keshmesh are great by themselves, as an accompaniment to pistachios or added to oatmeal and cooked rice dishes. They are less sweet than traditional raisins, so dole out a generous helping.

Notes:

Sinha Trading Company is located at 121 Lexington Avenue, in New York City. The store is located in “Curry Hill,” a neighborhood which is home to a variety of Indian restaurants and storefronts. Curry Hill extends from 27th to 30th Street on Lexington Avenue. It is easily accessed via the #6 train, which conveniently stops on 28th Street. 212-683-4419

Photo of green raisins from Alibaba.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Developing Your Sense of Taste & Smell


As a "nose," I am often asked how one develops a vocabulary of the senses. There isn’t a simple answer to this question as describing what one smells or tastes is subjective. Every experience we have ties into another and each of us walks around with an internal compass with a particular set of reference points based on the people, places and things that have surrounded us. As each person searches for the right words, words that will add depth and meaning to their understanding, a collective tapestry of discovery is woven in which we are all inextricably linked.

This is particularly evident when an individual describes something we have encountered in a way that resonates with our personal experience of that very thing. We consider this person’s viewpoint and proceed in assessing their beliefs and notions as credible. Suspending judgment can be freeing, but it can also be a dangerous pit. When we rely solely on others to verify our perceptions, we are to a certain extent, allowing them to think and feel for us. Other people’s assessments are simply orientations. There are no absolutes in the world of the senses, which is why Proust could wax on about a single madeleine for paragraphs on end.

The perfect starting point for building an olfactive and gustatory vocabulary is observation. By paying attention to the sense of smell and taste, we begin to hone in on nuances which rely on instinct and memory, versus visual cues. In addition, the more we practice experiencing the world through taste and smell, the more skilled we become in reading people, environments and situations. This is because in doing so, we are reawakening primal skills that existed before mankind walked upright, when we could literally smell danger in food unfit for consumption or the pending arrival of a voracious animal. (One could say that modern women continue to execute this ability rather skillfully in the mating game.)

A perfect place to begin developing your sensory observation skills is the pantry. If you are a coffee lover, order a variety of regional beans in assorted roasts from a coffee shop that has relationships with growers and supports fair trade. If you are a chocolate lover, experiment with different percentages of cocoa content and regional varietals. If you are an herb or spice lover, download a free catalog from Penzy’s Spices and read it from cover to cover. Each entry in the catalog describes herbs and spices in detail and you can order in small amounts and sample flavors which befit your palate.

Should you have a touch of the mad scientist living inside you, or are particularly fond of detail, there is a link on Eblong that contains industry flavor wheels (tools which categorically organize taste families and descriptors) for beer, wine, coffee, chocolate and maple syrup. As you conduct each tasting, write down your flavor impressions and follow-up by checking them against the flavor wheel. You may want to keep a special notebook handy for your notes, so you may return to them for future comparison. Sensory experiences are deeply tied to memory and you will learn as much about yourself as the things you taste—which is why bringing a special friend along for the ride isn’t such a bad idea…

Helpful Links:

Please note that any recommendations that appear on GlassPetalSmoke are based on the editor’s tastes and preferences, which are unsolicited.

For Guittard’s single origin tasting kit, visit Chocosphere.
For coffee beans, order from The Roasterie in Kansas City.

For spices, visit a local Penzy’s Spices or download their catalog on the web.

For flavor wheels, visit Eblong.

Photo of perfumer Yann Vasnier courtesy of the perfumer. Vasnier was interviewed by Michelle Krell Kydd in February, for the fragrance website Bois de Jasmin. The article is entitled "Kouign Aman: The Breakfast of Perfumers." Mr. Vasnier is a native of Brittany.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

The Perfume of Mimeographs

For many baby boomers, the mention of the word “mimeograph” instantly inspires childhood olfactive memories. Freshly duplicated papers felt cool in the hand as traces of sweet and aromatic ink (which resembled the intermingling of ethyl alcohol and heliotrope flowers) rose above the paper. Students were often compelled to deliberately sniff the stencils that teachers used to deliver tests and educational materials. As a result that scent has become embedded in the collective memory of a particular generation.

Bill Bryson, author of the memoir The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid writes, “Of all the tragic losses since the 1960s, mimeograph paper may be the greatest. With its rapturously fragrant, sweetly aromatic pale blue ink, mimeograph paper was literally intoxicating. Two deep drafts of a freshly run-off mimeograph worksheet and I would be the education system’s willing slave for up to seven hours.” Bryson’s reveries continued as he immersed himself in the scent and “…drifted off to a private place where fields were green, everyone went barefoot, and the soft trill of panpipes floated on the air.”

The highly purposeful mimeograph offered limited print runs without reliance on electricity and in today’s times would be considered environmentally “green” in form and function. The intense recollections built around mimeos (or dittos, as they were often called) show how the sense of smell is powerfully linked to memory. Every generation has an olfactive catalog of sorts, but the scents of childhood provide a glimpse into the purest form of human curiosity and receptiveness. Perhaps there is a lesson inherent in mimeos that extend beyond reminiscence, a gift our teachers inadvertently left behind.

References:

The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, by Bill Bryson.

Photo of Nosetalgia, a scratch and sniff book by Michael Gitter, Sylvie Vaccari and Carol Bobolts. Visual mimeo reference on page 16.

The Sense of Smell, the PDF edition of a paper by Harmon and Reimer (now Symrise).

Thursday, July 5, 2007

Turkish Delight: Rose as Aphrodisiac


Turkish delight—the name itself is equivalent to a flirtatious wink. Veiled in powdered sugar, its square shape is softened by a tender blush that opaquely radiates from its center. Once consumed, it leaves a trace of confectioner’s sugar on the lips and a perfumed echo of rose on the tongue. It’s a sublime treat that elevates floral flavor to regal status, but what else would one expect from a confection created to satisfy the wives and mistresses of Sultan Abdul Hamid I...

In 1776, the same year the American Declaration of Independence was signed, Anatolian candy maker Hadji Bekir opened a sweet shop in Constantinople. Shortly thereafter, Bekir introduced the world to rahat lokum and was appointed chief confectioner in the Ottoman court. The Sultan, who commissioned Bekir’s work, unleashed a passion that exceeded the boundaries of his ever evolving harem. In the 19th century an unnamed British traveler shipped cases of the confection to England and crowned the delicacy “Turkish delight.” It is a British favorite to this day and is used as a tool of enticement in C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

The aphrodisiac aspects of Turkish delight are evident when one attempts to bite into the treat, an approach that is futile if true satisfaction is sought. A far more enjoyable approach (which was likely intentional on the part of Bekir and the Sultan) is consumption of the soft, flesh-like cube whole. As the powdered sugar melts, the tongue teases the morsel, gently exploring the confection until it dissolves in a sweet lingering finish. To say that eating Turkish delight is similar to kissing is not an understatement as this skill in love is necessary in order to fully appreciate the flesh-like texture of this delicacy.

The base of Turkish delight consists of sugar, cornstarch and cream of tartar, a combination that is subject to drying and hardening if over cooked or stored under improper conditions. Hazer Baba, a popular brand of Turkish delight, is available in a variety of flavors (rose, lemon and mint, with and without nuts) and is dated for freshness. Yaranush, an Armenian grocery in White Plains, New York offers the best Turkish delight I have ever eaten (and wickedly good halwa as well). Sold in bulk, flavors include rose, orange blossom, mint, vanilla and sundry combinations with nuts. Yaranush does not ship by mail, but if you are fortunate enough to know someone who is willing to procure them for you, you will have no regrets.

It is possible to make your own Turkish delight, which is labor intensive, but worth the effort. For those of you who are willing to give it a shot, cookbook author Tess Mallos offers this recipe in The Complete Middle East Cookbook, published by Tuttle:

Lokum
Cooking time: 1 1/2 hours. Yield: approximately 2 lbs.

Ingredients:
  • 4 cups granulated sugar

  • 4 1/2 cups water

  • 1 teaspoon lemon juice

  • 1 cup cornstarch

  • 1 teaspoon cream of tartar

  • 1 tablespoon rose water (may be doubled, Cortas brand is best)

  • A few drops of red food coloring

  • 1/2 cup chopped, unblanched, toasted almonds (optional)

  • 3/4 cup confectioner’s sugar

  • 1/4 cup cornstarch

Combine sugar, 1 1/2 cups water and lemon juice in a thick-based pan. Stir over low heat until sugar dissolves, brushing sugar crystals off side of pan with bristle brush dipped in cold water. Bring to the boil and boil to soft ball stage 240° F (115° C) on a candy thermometer. Remove from heat.

In another thick-based pan blend cornstarch, cream of tartar and 1 cup cold water until smooth. Boil remaining 2 cups water and stir into cornstarch mixture, then place over low heat. Stir constantly until mixture thickens and bubbles. Use a balloon whisk if lumps form. Pour hot syrup gradually into cornstarch mixture, stirring constantly. Bring to the boil and boil gently for 1 1/4 hours. Stir occasionally with a wooden spoon and cook until mixture is a pale golden color. Stirring is essential.

Stir in rose water to taste and a few drops of red food coloring to tinge it a pale pink. Blend in nuts if used, and remove from heat.

Pour into an oiled 9 inch (23 cm) square cake tin and leave for12 hours to set.

Combine confectioner’s sugar and the 1/4 cup cornstarch in a flat dish.

Cut Turkish delight into squares with an oiled knife and toss in sugar mixture. Store in a sealed container with remaining sugar mixture sprinkled between layers.

VARIATIONS:

Crème de Menthe Lokum: Replace rose water and red food coloring with 2 tablespoons Crème de Menthe liqueur and a little green food coloring. Omit nuts.

Orange Lokum: Use 1-2 tablespoons orange flower water instead of rose water; use orange food coloring.

Vanilla Lokum: Use 2 teaspoons of vanilla extract instead of rose water and coloring, and stir in 1/2 cup toasted chopped almonds or chopped walnuts. Do not blanch almonds.

Note: The use of rose and orange blossom water has always been a part of Persian cuisine and the Romans, who used rose petals like confetti at their banquets, were no strangers to using the flower in food. Our modern noses have been overloaded by candles, air fresheners and artificially scented bath products so the idea of eating something that is ever so slightly perfumed can strike one as akin to eating soap or air deodorizer. It is all in the association—fragrant foods, though not for everyone, can be refreshing, sublime, and quite sexy. Though I have yet to taste novel flavors such as saffron, jasmine or bergamot in this confection, I am certain that adventurous creations will enter the repertoire of Turkish delight.

Sources:

Hazer Baba Turkish delight may be purchased online from Kalustyan’s.

Yaranush (an article about the Armenian grocery store in New York which may result in car jaunts or flights into Westchester County Airport).

The Complete Middle East Cookbook by Tess Mallos.