What the heck is kataifi? ... Perhaps you sighted it here first

A sighting is when a new or unfamiliar thing passes before our eyes or under our nose for the first time. Then it encores. For example, you notice a new-to-you word in a book and then, within a short period of time, you see that word again in, say, a newspaper. First thing you know, you see it all over the place.

It works the same way with food. Say an off-beat ingredient catches your eye, or there's an unfamiliar food on the menu. In most instances, the first response is, "Now what the heck is THAT?"

That's a sighting. Then comes second sight. It might happen within a few days, a week or a month. But after the second sighting, you know in your food writer's gut that food is going to be the next big thing or at least some chef's ingredient du jour.

The last time I visited Tamari, an Asian-Mexican fusion restaurant in Lawrenceville, I ordered a hot tapa, Filo Shrimp -- three big shrimp wrapped in kataifi, deep-fried, and served with three dipping sauces. Wow, that's one good combination, says I.

Then recently, at the Old House restaurant in Santa Fe, a trio of seafood appetizers featured a huge baked sea scallop wrapped in, guess what, kataifi.

This tongue twister (say kuh-tuh-EE-fee) is a style of phyllo pastry that looks like it has been passed through a shredder. Strands are as thick as ukulele strings and, when cooked, have the appearance and texture of shredded wheat cereal. You've seen it at area Greek food festivals, as kataifi is a traditional ingredient in Greek and Mediterranean desserts and sweets such as baklava and cigar-shaped, nut-and-honey cookies.

Two sightings, one conclusion: Chefs are using kataifi to add crunch to not sweet, but savory dishes. You watch!

Even the big guns are doing it. Superchef Joel Robuchon was inspired to combine shrimp with kataifi after tasting a Vietnamese recipe for shrimp coated with soft vermicelli. Since he's inclined toward Mediterranean flavor, he swapped kataifi dough for the vermicelli. He smooshes the kataifi dough, tosses it with chopped herbs and presses, rather than wraps, it onto the shrimp to very pretty effect. He pairs the dish with a French chardonnay.

In the kitchen

Thinking kataifi would be fun to play with, I headed into the kitchen. Here are some of the things to remember when working with the shredded dough.

Remove the package from the freezer and place it in the fridge to thaw overnight. Before opening the package, a housekeeping suggestion: For easy clean-up, spread sheets of newspaper on your work surface; shreds of dough will wind up all over the place, trust me. Later, wrap up the whole mess and discard (or recycle) it.

Work with only a small amount of kataifi at a time. When you open the package, it will remind you of a rolled-up cable or skein of very thin yarn. Remove a small handful at a time and loosen by gently pulling and fluffing the strands with both hands working in opposite directions.

Keep exposed kataifi covered with a damp napkin or towel. If the dough starts to dry out, spray with a fine water mist and cover until dough becomes soft and pliable again.

For wrapping shrimp, pull off a section about 9 inches long and cut with scissors. Place pastry threads on work surface and spread with fingertips to an even width, about 11/2 inches. Holding the shrimp by the tail, wrap the dough round and round, tucking in strands as best you can. When wrapped, place seam side down on a rack until all shrimp are wrapped.

Wrap scallops in a similar way.

There's a learning curve here. First tries are likely to be unkempt, looking like bed-heads. Save any kataifi that breaks off while separating, shaping or trimming edges. Toasted or fried, these broken strands make a good topping for vegetables or salad.

Place the unused kataifi back in the plastic bag and seal. Freeze or use within two weeks.

Just about any dipping sauce that might be served with Asian food is good with kataifi-wrapped seafood. Try Thai spring-roll sauce, plum or satay sauce. A garlic or herb mayonnaise would be terrific, too. For a quickie homemade sauce combine equal parts bottled hoisin and plum sauce, a few drops of sesame oil and a squirt of sriracha for heat.

Where to buy kataifi: Middle Eastern grocery stores.

Where to try before you buy: Tamari, 3519 Butler St., Lawrenceville.

Crispy Fried Shrimp in Kataifi

PG tested

This is a basic formula. Add seasonings as you like. To give this dish a tropical twist, serve with a pineapple, purple onion, red pepper and jalapeno salsa.

  • 2 pounds largest shrimp, cleaned and deveined, tails left on
  • Salt and pepper
  • Flour
  • 1 egg
  • 16-ounce package kataifi
  • Vegetable oil for frying
  • Sauce for dipping

Clean the shrimp and pat dry. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Place a pile of flour on a paper plate. (Use whole-wheat flour for a toastier flavor.) Break egg into a bowl, add a few drops of water and stir with a fork to mix.

Unroll the kataifi and separate a small bundle of strands. Using scissors, cut kataifi strands about 9 inches long and as wide as a small finger.

For each portion, spread and flatten kataifi on your work surface into a strip about 11/2-inches wide, but not too thick. Holding the shrimp by the tail, dip into the flour, shake off excess, then dip into the egg to cover. Wrap the strip of strands of dough around the shrimp, leaving the tail uncovered. The pastry will adhere to the egg-y coating. Set aside on a rack and continue wrapping shrimp.

In a deep pot, high-sided skillet or Fry Daddy, heat oil to 350 degrees. Use a thermometer to monitor the temperature.

Carefully lower a few shrimp at a time into the hot oil using a slotted spoon to avoid splashes, and turn with a wooden chopstick. Fry until golden brown and crispy, turning once, about 2 minutes each. Remove and drain on paper towels. Scraggly ends that break off are a munch treat for the cook.

Serve hot or at room temperature with a dipping sauce. Makes 4 servings.

-- Marlene Parrish

De Lime an' De Coconut Shrimp

PG tested

Because the coconut milk is thin, a whole beaten egg is added to the marinade to help the kataifi adhere. My fishmonger, Henry Dewey of Penn Avenue Fish Co., suggested I make a variation with the shrimp dredged in shredded coconut. I did, and it's a winner, too, because it's gluten-free and really coconut-y. You can substitute UN-sweetened coconut shreds for the kataifi. (Sweetened does not adhere well and tends to burn.)

  • 1 cup (8 ounces) unsweetened coconut milk
  • 1 egg, beaten
  • 2 tablespoons lime juice, fresh squeezed
  • 1 garlic clove, chopped
  • Red pepper flakes, optional
  • 1 pound largest shrimp, cleaned, deveined, tails left on
  • 8 ounces (about) kataifi OR unsweetened coconut shreds
  • Melted butter

In a medium bowl, combine the coconut milk, egg, lime juice, garlic, and red pepper flakes. Add shrimp, toss well and refrigerate for an hour.

Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and place a baking rack on the paper. Spray the rack with no-stick baking spray. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. If you have a convection oven setting, turn it on and set to 375 degrees.

Unroll the kataifi and, using scissors, cut a length about 9 inches long. For each shrimp, pull apart a section of kataifi and spread the strands to about 1 inch wide. The wrapping should be not too thick, not too thin.

Shake off excess marinade from the shrimp. Holding the tail end, wrap the shrimp with the strands as neatly as possible. Place the wrapped shrimp on the rack and continue wrapping the remaining shrimp. Drizzle each shrimp generously with melted butter. You can make the shrimp about an hour in advance of cooking.

Bake for 12 to 14 minutes, or until shrimp is barely cooked through and kataifi is golden brown. Serve hot, warm or at room temperature with Lime Dipping Sauce (below).

Makes 4 servings.

Lime Dipping Sauce

PG tested

Combine 1/3 cup mayonnaise with 2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lime juice, 1 tablespoon chili powder (scant), 1 clove garlic (crushed) and a few drops of hot pepper sauce. Stir and allow to rest for an hour. Makes about 1/2 cup.

-- Marlene Parrish

Scallops Wrapped in Kataifi

PG tested

Because of their shape, scallops fare better in the oven than in the deep fryer. This recipe makes 4 appetizer servings, but it can be doubled to make entree servings of 2 scallops each. The butter sauce is a good-for-company suggestion. For family, just make the scallops and serve with, say, a peanut sauce (find a recipe on the web at post-gazette.com/food). Drizzle drops of thick, syrupy balsamic vinegar (such as fig) around the scallops at serving time for a nice spark of flavor.

  • 4 extra-large sea scallops
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 5 tablespoons melted butter, divided
  • 1/4 pound kataifi phyllo pastry
For the butter sauce, optional
  • 1 medium shallot, sliced
  • 1 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme
  • 1 cup white wine
  • 1/2 pound (2 sticks) butter, cut into small bits, thoroughly chilled
  • Garnish
  • 1 tomato, diced
  • 1/4 cup diced scallions
  • 1/4 cup chopped dill
  • Syrupy balsamic vinegar, such as a fig

Heat the oven to 450. Season the scallops with salt and pepper. For each scallop, cut a section of kataifi about 8 inches long, then spread it out to 11/2 inches wide. Dip each scallop into melted butter, and wrap each with kataifi. Arrange the scallops, seam side down, on a rack placed over a baking sheet and drizzle with remaining melted butter. Bake the scallops until just done, about 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, if using, make the butter sauce. In a small saucepan, combine the shallot, thyme and wine. Simmer until completely reduced and there is no liquid remaining. Over low heat and whisking constantly, add the butter, a few pieces at a time. Allow the butter to become creamy before adding the next few pieces. Do not boil or the butter will melt and the sauce will become oily. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Keep the sauce warm.

To serve, place a wrapped scallop in the center of the plate. Spoon the butter sauce around the scallops. Sprinkle the tomatoes, scallions and dill around the sides, on the sauce. Drizzle the plate with drops of balsamic vinegar.

-- Epicurious, by Gregory Zapantis, 2005

Peanut Sauce

This spicy Vietnamese dipping sauce is wonderful with fresh spring rolls. It's also a yummy sauce for crunchy shrimp and scallops, too. Leftovers? Add a bit of water to thin it to make a spicy dressing for a salad. Refrigerated, in a covered container, the sauce will keep up to a week.

  • 1/4 cup hoisin sauce
  • 2 tablespoons smooth peanut better
  • 2 1/2 teaspoons ketchup
  • 1/3 cup water
  • 1 teaspoon vegetable oil
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons minced garlic

Pinch red pepper flakes

In a small bowl, combine the hoisin sauce, peanut butter, ketchup and water and stir until smooth.

Heat a small heavy saucepan over high heat. Add the oil and heat until hot, about 20 seconds. Add the garlic and pepper flakes and stir-fry for about 5 seconds until fragrant.

Stir in the peanut butter mixture and cook for 3 to 4 minutes. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Makes about 3/4 cup.

-- "Asian Noodles" by Nina Simonds (Hearst, 1997).

Marlene Parrish: marleneparrish@earthlink.net .


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