No one said it would be easy. That's probably the major reason why we wait to eat certain meals in ethnic restaurants or get them delivered to our homes. We're lazy, short on time, but more likely intimidated, thinking the wonderful flavors are too complicated to duplicate at home.
It's true that some ethnic dishes are better left to the experts. But I think it's the spices and sauces, and sometimes a technique I'm not familiar or comfortable with, that leave me hesitant. Can it be as simple as an approachable recipe and a good grocery list? Possibly.
Mostly, I think anybody considering tackling an "exotic" dish at home needs to suspend disbelief that it is beyond her abilities.
I think it's all about the learning curve. Part of success here means first finding a dish that can be approximated in a home kitchen. Not too many exotic ingredients or equipment. Time to read a recipe thoroughly and understand the steps and ask the questions: Can I do this in my kitchen?
Then, you need to make a shopping list to create a new mini pantry. The good thing is, once you buy these ingredients, reaching for a can of chipotles in adobo sauce or a jar of fish sauce will be as familiar as pulling the ketchup out of the refrigerator.
Look for resources: I've found that big supermarkets are getting better all the time about carrying a wide variety of ethnic ingredients, from fresh to dry, boxed and canned. Check specialty ethnic grocers in your community. World Market in Shiloh has a good selection of world products.
These recipes were selected because they are close to authentic by American cooking standards, are not wildly complicated and contain ingredients you should have no trouble locating in the metro-east.
Start with the calzone recipe if you want to build confidence. I'm not sure anybody would call Italian food exotic anymore, but it's a good place to start. Next in simplicity is the stir-fry. Look for extra wok tips here as well.
The pad thai and the pastitio need the most time and attention, and a bit of know-how in the kitchen. Still, the Greek dish has no unknowns in it.
Chicken Pad Thai
8 ounces rice noodles (or enough for 2 people), linguini-width
PAD THAI SAUCE:
3/4 tablespoon tamarind paste dissolved in 1/4 cup warm water
2 tablespoons fish sauce, plus more to taste
1-3 teaspoons chili sauce, or substitute 1/2 teaspoon or more dried, crushed chili or cayenne, to taste
3 tablespoons brown sugar
1/8 teaspoon ground white pepper
1 to 1 1/2 cups uncooked chopped chicken breast or thigh
Marinade for chicken (1 teaspoon cornstarch dissolved in 3 tablespoons soy sauce)
Vegetable oil for stir-frying
4 cloves garlic, minced
1-2 fresh red chilies, minced, optional
1/4 cup chicken stock
3 cups fresh bean sprouts
3 green onions, sliced
1/2 cup fresh coriander/cilantro
1/3 cup crushed or roughly chopped peanuts (or other nuts, such as cashews)
1. Bring a large pot of water to a boil and dunk in your rice noodles. Turn down the heat to low and keep an eye on them: You will be frying the noodles later, so you don't want to over-soften them now. Noodles are ready to be drained when they are soft enough to be eaten, but still firm and a little "crunchy." Drain and rinse with cold water to prevent sticking. Set aside.
2. Make Pad Thai sauce by combining the sauce ingredients together in a cup. Stir well to dissolve tamarind and brown sugar; set aside. Note: This may seem like a lot of sugar, but you need it to balance out the sourness of the tamarind; it is this balance that makes Pad Thai taste so amazing.
3. Place chicken slices in a small bowl. Stir together the marinade and pour over chicken. Stir well and set aside.
4. Warm up a wok or large frying pan over medium-high heat. Add 1-2 tablespoons oil plus garlic and minced chili, if using. Stir-fry until fragrant (30 seconds).
Add marinated chicken. When wok/pan becomes dry, add a little chicken stock, 1-2 tablespoons at a time, to keep the chicken frying nicely, 5-7 minutes.
5. Add the noodles, and pour the Pad Thai sauce over. Using two utensils, use a gentle lift-and-turn method to fry noodles (like tossing a salad). Stir-fry in this way 1-2 minutes. If you find your wok/frying pan too dry, push noodles aside and add a little more oil to the bottom of the pan.
6. Add the bean sprouts and continue frying 1 more minute, or until noodles are cooked. Noodles are done to perfection when they are no longer "hard" or crunchy, but chewy-sticky wonderful. Taste-test for seasoning, adding more fish sauce until desired flavor is reached (I usually add 1 more tablespoons fish sauce). Toss well to incorporate.
7. Lift noodles onto a serving plate. Top with generous amounts of fresh coriander, green onion and crushed/chopped nuts. Add fresh lime wedges to squeeze over each portion, if desired. Serves 2.
Pad Thai Tip: For even more flavor, make a double batch of the pad Thai sauce. Then, as you're stir-frying the noodles, add more sauce until you're happy with the taste. Any leftover sauce can be stored in the refrigerator for up to 3 weeks.
2 onions, diced
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 pounds ground beef, pork, lamb, or combination
1/2 cup red wine
1 (28-ounce) can crushed tomatoes in puree
1/3 cup Kalamata olives, chopped
1 teaspoon Greek oregano
1 cinnamon stick
Salt and pepper
1 pound small tubular pasta, such as mini penne
8 tablespoons butter, melted
2 cups milk
2 eggs, beaten
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
6 tablespoons butter
1/3 cup flour
4 cups milk
Salt and pepper
3 eggs, beaten
1/4 cup Parmesan cheese
1. Meat sauce: Heat oil in a large skillet and add onion. Cook until softened and add garlic.
2. Add meat and cook until browned, breaking up chunks with a wooden spoon. Add remaining meat sauce ingredients, mix and simmer 1 hour, covered. (Cover cinnamon stick with meat sauce in pan.)
3. Meanwhile, bring a large pot of water to boil; salt generously and add pasta.
4. Cook pasta to al dente, drain and return to the cooled pot. With the heat off, stir in butter, milk, eggs and cheese. Set aside.
5. Bechamel sauce: Melt butter over medium high heat in a large sauce pan or medium pot. Whisk in flour and cook for several minutes, whisking smooth, do not allow the roux to scorch.
6. Slowly add milk, whisking constantly until thickened and no lumps. If your milk is cool and sauce seems thin, bring to a boil stirring constantly then remove from heat once thick. Add salt, pepper and nutmeg.
7. Beat 3 eggs in a medium bowl. Very slowly add Bechamel sauce to beaten eggs, being careful to keep from curdling the eggs. I usually start by tempering the eggs, that is I dip my whisk in the hot sauce, then whisk those drops into the eggs, then continue doing this a few times before attempting to slowly dribble about a 1/4 cup of sauce into the bowl. Once you've gotten about that much successfully incorporated, you can go ahead and slowly add the rest.
8. Remove the cinnamon stick from the meat, allow sauce to cool slightly.
9. Grease a large lasagna pan or two medium casserole dishes with oil, then construct pastitio by layering: Pasta mixture, meat sauce, more pasta mixture. Finish by covering with Bechamel and sprinkling grated Parmesan over the top.
10. Bake casserole at 350 degrees 45 minutes to 1 hour, until Bechamel is set and golden. I bake two casseroles and remove one at about 30 minutes. Allow it to cool then cover in plastic wrap then foil and place in the freezer for another dinner.
11. Once casserole is nicely browned on top, remove from oven and allow to rest 20 minutes. Serves 12.
chaosinthekitchen.com, adapted from Recipezaar
1 pound skinless, boneless chicken thighs, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
1 tablespoon minced garlic
2 teaspoons soy sauce, divided use
1 1/2 teaspoons cornstarch, divided use
1 teaspoon plus 2 tablespoons rice wine or dry sherry, divided use
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon sugar
1/4 cup chicken broth
2 tablespoons peanut or vegetable oil
2 tablespoons minced ginger
1/2 cup sugar snap peas, strings removed
1/2 cup thinly sliced carrots
1/2 cup thinly sliced celery
1/2 cup unsalted roasted cashews
1. In a medium bowl, add garlic, 1 teaspoon soy sauce, 1 teaspoon cornstarch, 1 teaspoon rice wine, 1/2 teaspoon salt and sugar. Stir; add chicken and combine. Set aside.
2. In a small bowl, combine broth, 1 teaspoon soy sauce, 2 tablespoons rice wine and 1/2 teaspoon cornstarch. Set aside.
3. Heat a 14-inch flat-bottomed wok or a 12-inch skillet over high heat until a bead of water vaporizes within 1 to 2 seconds of contact.
Swirl in 1 tablespoon oil, add ginger, then, using a metal spatula, stir-fry 10 seconds or until the ginger is fragrant.
3. Push the ginger to the sides of the wok; carefully add the chicken and spread it evenly in one layer in the wok. Cook undisturbed 1 minute, letting the chicken begin to sear. Stir-fry 1 minute, or until the chicken is lightly browned but not cooked through.
4. Swirl the remaining 1 tablespoon oil into the wok, add the sugar snaps, carrots, celery and cashews, and sprinkle on the remaining 1/4 teaspoon salt. Stir-fry 1 minute, or until the sugar snaps are bright green. Re-stir the broth mixture, swirl it into the wok, and stir-fry 1 minute, or until the chicken is just cooked through.
Serves 2-3 as a main dish, or 4 as part of multi-course meal.
"Stir-Frying to the Sky's Edge: The Ultimate Guide to Mastery, with Recipes and Stories" by Grace Young
Sausage and Spinach Calzone
1/2 pound sausage meat, cooked
6 ounces fresh spinach
1 pound pizza dough, store-bought or homemade
1 cup ricotta cheese
4 cups mozzarella cheese, shredded
1/2 cup Parmesan cheese
1/2 teaspoon dried basil
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
1 garlic clove, minced
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 cups marinara sauce, to dip, heated
Salt and pepper
Preheat oven 450 degrees.
In a large grill plan, cook sausage until browned. Add spinach, wilt, drain the mixture and reserve.
In a medium bowl, combine ricotta, mozzarella, garlic, oregano, basil and cooked sausage mixture. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
Divide dough into 1/3 of a pound pieces. Stretch out each piece into a 12-15 inch circle. (It doesn't have to be a perfect circle.) Move them to a baking sheet coated with nonstick cooking spray.
Spread meat and cheese filling over one side of the dough. Leave at least 1-inch of the edge without filling to ensure a tight seal.
Lift one side of the dough and fold it over so that it meets the other side, forming a half moon, and pinch the edges together to seal, use a fork to press the edges together.
Brush with olive oil and sprinkle some Parmesan cheese over top.
Cut a few slits in the top to allow steam to release.
Bake 15-18 minutes, until golden brown.
Let stand 5 minutes before serving.
Heat the marinara sauce in the microwave for dipping.
Note: Use any filling you like. Plus, a pizza stone works well with this recipe.
Steven Valanti at blogs.rep-am.com
Quick Chicken Mole
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 onion, chopped
3 cloves garlic, chopped
2 tablespoons chili powder
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 can diced tomatoes, drained
1 bell pepper, chopped
2 chipotle peppers, roughly chopped
1 (10-ounce) can chicken broth
2 tablespoons peanut butter
2 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped
1 (5-pound) chicken, cut into 8 pieces
White rice, for serving
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Heat oil in a saute pan over medium heat. Add onion and saute until translucent.
Add garlic and spices and continue to saute to toast and develop flavor.
Add diced tomatoes, peppers, chipotles, broth, peanut butter and chocolate. Simmer for 10 minutes. Strain and puree until smooth.
Sear the chicken in a heavy-bottomed hot saute pan over medium-high heat until browned on both sides. Put in a casserole dish, cover (sprayed with nonstick cooking spray) with sauce, cover dish and braise 45 minutes to 1 hour in oven. Serve with white rice. Makes 6-8 servings.
Food Network, Paula Deen