I have been thinking, Padma Lakshmi and I would get along really well, maybe even be best friends. Aside from our supermodel good looks, we share a passion for witty and intelligent men. We both love to cook and eat and write about it all. Sure Padma lives in New York / Los Angeles / Las Vegas / D.C. and I’m here in Alabama. That’s really all that separates us.
Okay, a girl can dream about being a glamorous, willowy, jet-setting, superstar Top Chef hostess, right? But Padma Lakshmi also happens to be an award-winning cookbook author. The fact that she knows her way around a spice cabinet is what I admire most and try to emulate in my own kitchen.
In her book Tangy Tart Hot and Sweet: A World of Recipes for Every Day, Padma combines ingredients from a myriad of cultures. Each dish explodes in flavor. Even better, she finds a way to make her recipes multi-task. Her Chili Honey Butter is one such example. This simple blend of softened butter, honey, cayenne and salt elevates a toasted baguette to the sublime. Add a tablespoon to the skillet before sautéing cauliflower or searing a piece of fish and your senses truly awaken. I recently made her Barbecue Shrimp with Chili Honey Butter as an appetizer for a group of friends and everyone went crazy for them.
Tangy Tart Hot and Sweet introduced me to another spice which I now can’t live without: za’atar. This Middle Eastern blend is comprised of toasted sesame seeds, dried thyme and sumac. It is simple to make yourself but even easier to pick up at Penzey’s Spices in Homewood. It is traditionally used as a rub for flatbreads but you shouldn’t stop there. Add a few tablespoons to a cup of Greek yogurt and serve with grilled lamb kabobs or as a dip for fresh vegetables. Add a tablespoon to a stick of softened butter, blend in a little salt and pepper and you have an amazing compound butter. Stuff some of this under the skin of some bone-in chicken breasts and roast to perfection. Padma uses za’atar in her Carrot and Cilantro Salad. The dressing has orange oil in it which complements the tartness of the sumac so well. Anywhere you’d use the traditional French herbes de Provence, you could substitute za-atar.
This book imparts a sense of culinary adventure which is so fun. When I get tired of making the same things week-in and week-out, I am reminded to go back to the spice cabinet and experiment with something again. You can find inspiration almost anywhere in Birmingham. Drop by Red Pearl on West Valley Avenue for a true epicurean escape. While you’re waiting on your lunch order, you can search the attached grocery store for unusual herbs and ingredients. I spend the majority of any trip to Whole Foods Market in the International aisle. It is here I can find simmering sauces from India (to use up the last of that rotisserie chicken meat), go-chu-jang from Korea (lovely with shredded pork in soft tacos), or a spicy tamarind dipping sauce—perfect for beef short-ribs.
So, in a few short weeks, when you are overwhelmed by traditional turkey and dressing/stuffing, when you can’t eat another bite of pumpkin-anything, and you’re SO not ready for that onslaught of holiday candy, remember the spice cabinet. Stock up on the fresh stuff now so you’re ready; many spices lose their power after a few months.
World Traveler Chicken and Rice
Serves 6 – 8
1 7.5-ounce jar marinated quartered artichoke hearts
½ cup mayonnaise
2 teaspoons Penzey’s Singapore Seasoning (may substitute curry powder)
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
2 cups cooked rice
1 cup cooked quinoa
½ red bell pepper, seeded and chopped (about 1 scant cup)
4 green onions, white and light green part only, chopped
¼ cup sliced pimiento-stuffed green olives meat from
1 rotisserie chicken, about 2 – 3 cups
1 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley salt and pepper, to taste
1) Drain artichoke hearts but reserve marinade. Set artichoke hearts aside.
2) Whisk mayonnaise into reserved marinade to combine. Add Singapore Spice Blend (or curry powder) and lemon juice and stir to combine.
3) Pour cooked rice and cooked quinoa in a large bowl and toss together with a pair of forks. Pour marinade over and toss again.
4) Add in remaining ingredients (including artichoke hearts) and toss again with forks. Using forks, and not spoons, will help maintain the fluffy texture of the dish.
• To serve, spoon mixture over a bed of lettuce and garnish with wedges of fresh tomatoes. Or, transfer mixture to a prepared casserole dish, top with a couple tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese and bake at 350ºF until warmed through and cheese is melted.
• Feel free to substitute cubes of firm tofu or leftover turkey for the chicken in this dish. You may also opt to substitute Greek yogurt or sour cream for the mayonnaise. Make this dish your own!
Christiana Roussel lives in Crestline and is a lover of all things food-related. You can follow her culinary musings on line at ChristianasKitchen.blogspot.com or on Facebook or Twitter.