I have a small stack of brand new cookbooks next to my corner in the living room (you know, big comfy chair, and all my ‘control’ devices close at hand). These were given to me at Christmas time by my L.A. daughter, who always seems to know what my interests of the moment are – I think Sandee leaks them! It’s probably time I began breaking into them to give me some new kitchen inspiration, and to feed my addiction for vicarious travel adventure. I’ve known for a long time that it’s far more fun to plan a travel adventure than it is to actually do it. And it’s a lot cheaper too.
So most of my travel these days is the vicarious kind – and I really love a good food-travel book. And Melissa has included a beauty among the Christmas books she gave – ‘Burma, Rivers of Flavor’, by Naomi Druguid. And what makes it even more exciting is that none of us know much about Burma – do we! For years, it’s been almost like Burma didn’t exist any longer – that it just went away. And what makes that even more meaningful is that even when Burma was wide open and accessible, I doubt there was a city with more mystery and intrigue than Rangoon – even its name would send chills of excitement through you – at least me. Yeah, I know the names Burma and Rangoon have been officially changed, but I’m betting the rest of the world continues to use them for a long time.
And I have never seen a Burmese restaurant anywhere, have you? So, the food of Burma is just as much a mystery as the country itself – it is with this level of excitement and anticipation that I bring you my discoveries. And the first will surprise you a bit, I’m sure – and require a little background.
Burma is a land of heat – some things grow well, and some, not at all. Potatoes are one of those in-between kind of plants – they don’t take a lot of cold, but they don’t like a lot of heat either. In Burma, there is a short period of time each year of two months or so when potatoes will grow well, and then the rains come to put an end to them. The Burmese enjoy their potatoes with a spicy edge, and a touch of bitterness too, which they traditionally get from hibiscus flowers – Druguid suggests a good alternative for those of us without access to exotic tropical flowers is a bitter green, like sorrel or even dandelion greens.
Currently, in my part of the world, it is dandelion season. Some people hate dandelions – you can always tell who they are because their lawns are awash in dandelion flowers each April – those of us who would love to have a sea of dandelions in our lawn of course do not. Oh, I have plenty of non-grass kinds of things growing out there, but sadly, not a lot of dandelions.
When I went looking for dandelions, I first had to spend a good deal of time researching just what a dandelion looked like, because unfortunately there are many look-alikes out there – fortunately, none are toxic, but then, few are as good tasting either. I’m betting that you think you know exactly what a dandelion looks like; and I’d bet you really don’t know!
Here’s some help.
The identification problem arises from the fact that a dandelion grows from the top of taproot in a rosette form – in our minds, we associate this unique plant form with a dandelion, but actually there are maybe hundreds of other plants which grow the exact same way – and look very similar. But there’s an easy way to ID a dandelion from all other look-alikes, because a dandelion sends out leaves with sharp points on them (from whence its French name has evolved – Lion’s Tooth), and the ends of those points always point back toward the ground, at least the bottom set of teeth do. No other of the look-alikes do this! So, now you know.
Let’s celebrate spring (at least in our part of the world) by making use of nature’s gifts – get out and pick some of those prime dandelion greens before they start flowering, for then their leaves turn even more bitter. But, and it’s a big BUT, that doesn’t mean they become inedible – those like me even enjoy the increased bitterness, especially if you are cooking them (as in this recipe) since the cooking tones down the bitterness.
So here’s a Burmese, Naomi Druguid adaption of a springtime variation of a very basic side dish – and for many of you, a good introduction to a springtime veggie you should have been eating all along.
Spiced Burmese New Potatoes and Dandelion Greens
About 2 lbs. small new potatoes, or small fingerling potatoes (in Burma, since the potato growing season is short, smaller potatoes are more common – it’s OK to simply cut up the new potatoes – but do use new potatoes)
About a cup and a half (1 ½) of chopped dandelion greens (use the larger leaves for this, and reserve the smaller leaves for salad use)
3 – 4 tbs shallot oil (* see below)
1 green or red fresh hot pepper, seeded and minced (or if your hot peppers are not really hot, leave the seeds in there)
1 tsp salt, or to taste
Place the potatoes in a pan with just enough water to cover them. Bring to a boil, and lower the heat to medium low for a low boil. Continue until the potatoes are cooked through but still firm. Drain, place back in the pan – cover and set aside for 10 minutes.
Heat the oil in a small skillet over medium-high heat. Add the minced peppers, and as soon as they begin to sizzle, add the chopped dandelion greens – stir as the greens wilt and everything gets mixed together – add the potatoes and mix all well while the potatoes get well heated – add salt to taste and remove to a serving bowl. Sprinkle some crisped shallots over all and serve.
* All over Southeast Asia, the use of flavor infused oils is common – most often, they are very hot, with a chile base. But in this case, Druguid is suggesting one where the oil is infused with shallots – so not only do you get a more flavorful oil with which to cook, but a byproduct of crispy shallot – which can add another layer of flavor to this dish.
In her book, Druguid provides a process for making a cup of shallot oil, and a corresponding large amount of crisped shallots – but for our purposes here, I’ll give you a trimmed down recipe for a smaller amount appropriate for this dish.
Take 2 or 3 shallots and trim and skin them – cut down the middle and slice into thin slices, and place into a skillet in which you’ve heated ¼ cup of neutral oil (peanut or grape seed is good) over medium-high heat – stir – as soon as you see some of the shallot slices getting dark edges, lower the heat to medium, or lower – stir the shallots often while they are cooking – during their first 5 minutes of cooking, you want them to begin to take on a light golden color – continue occasional stirring, but do not raise the heat. Continue cooking another 2 or 3 minutes, as the shallots become more golden – be careful here, as they will quickly turn from golden to dark brown (burned!) if not watched. As soon as you sense them getting nicely brown, remove them from the heat. Strain the oil from the shallots, and place the shallots on paper toweling to dry and crisp for a few minutes. The oil is now ready to use – you should have just enough for this dish, and maybe more than enough crispy shallots too.
I know what you’re thinking – and I agree – maybe this was not the best Burmese representative recipe in Druguid’s book, but I wanted to do the dandelion thing too – you know how we bloggers are – I promise I’ll go back and dig out a few more down the road. But it was a really good recipe for expanding our horizons a bit. When was the last time you made a potato side dish that included bitter greens? If like me, maybe never – but it was simply delicious, and I’ll surely use it again. I hope you’ll give it a try, even if you adapt it a little – yeah, it’s OK.