Monday, January 6, 2014

DC Foodventures: Day 1

I have a week of vacation between jobs and I'm using it to get to know DC a bit better, culinarily. This means a lot of lunch excursions (by public transit) and trips to ethnic supermarkets around the district, MD, and VA. As a jumping off point, I've started with Tyler Cowen's list of his "current favorite" restaurants in his ethnic dining guide. Today I took a trip up to Rockville, MD for lunch and a few groceries.

I hit up two Rockville restaurants from Mr. Cowen's list. I can't purport to write any kind of restaurant reviews — since I went by myself I only got to try a few dishes — but I can describe what I ate. First I walked from the metro up to Bob's Shanghai 66. I'd heard the soup dumplings were great, and I had a hankering. The restaurant had a pretty good crowd at 2pm on a Monday. I got seated right next to the semi-open kitchen. Some cooks were rolling, stuffing, and forming dumplings at a glassed in counter.

It was a joy to watch them, although I did feel like a schmuck taking pictures with my two-week-old smartphone (a month ago I smugly looked down on those restaurant instagramers, and now I've joined them). I ordered the crab and pork soup dumplings and fried turnip balls which I've had before in NYC and love. The turnip balls were tragically weekend-only (as was the watermelon juice I tried to order — I ended up with a "lemon tea" which was basically too-sweet lemonade), so I asked for the dumplings that I was witnessing in their nascency. They ended up being fried "house special pork".

Both dumplings were good. The fried pork dumplings tasted fresh; pleasantly chewy like fresh pasta, and the good kind of greasy — slicked in a layer of hot oil, not soaked in reheated grease. The filling was tasty but nondescript. The soup dumplings were nice too.

Not the best I've ever had, but a silky soft dough with a fishy tasting broth full of bits of meat as well as egg drops which added a great texture.

Next I headed across the street to Kam Sam Supermarket. I wandered around, digesting, and picked up a few items. $5 worth of $80/pound dried scallops (about 7 scallops) for pho broth, a bottle of passionfruit concentrate because I always buy new passionfruit-flavored-anything for sampling (it's my girlfriend's absolute favorite flavor. This stuff ended up being too sweet, as per usual), and some cane vinegar. I just got Hugh Acheson's A New Turn in the South as a Christmas present, and he calls for cane vinegar in a few recipes. I actually couldn't find it at first, in the vinegar section. I asked a few employees but we were having trouble bridging the language gap — they vaguely suggested I check the vinegars in aisle four. A stroke of modernity led me to pull out my brand new pocket-computer once more. I pulled up a picture on Amazon and the employee's understanding clicked right away — "oh, aisle two, first section, on the left." It ended up being in the Indonesian section. Praise be technology.

I wasn't exactly hungry, but didn't want to leave Maryland without trying another restaurant. I headed to East Dumpling House. A bit closer to town center, and a bit more American feeling (fewer Chinese characters on the menu, for example). I ordered some pork and dill dumplings. Twelve steamed white packages of joy came a few minutes later.

I liked these dumplings even better than my first two plates. They were packed with dill but still had a distinctly porky flavor. While they each contained a big chunk of filling, there was also a nice teaspoon or so of hot, dilly, porky broth inside each dumpling. Fantastic on a cold day. They actually reminded me a lot of similar dumplings at the superb Mother's Dumplings in Toronto.

When I got home it ended up that I had picked the wrong cane vinegar — there were two bottles at the store, and Mr. Acheson suggests in his book buying the one I passed over. Since I didn't love the flavor of the vinegar I ended up with (it doesn't have the strong malty, nutty notes described in the cookbook), I might be making a second trip to Rockville this week. There's a Latin Market I missed on this trip too, and, for once, I've got plenty of time on my hands.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Simple Luxuries

For our two weeks in Italy, we will be staying just outside of Florence, in the neighborhood of Settignano. It’s wonderful to get away from the bustle of the city, and – while the restaurant options are limited – the food is truly revelatory. I’ll write about it quite a bit on this blog, but for a start I’d like to write about two antipasti (appetizer) dishes I had on two subsequent nights, both at Café Desiderio, a small restaurant in the town square. Each course used some of the most expensive and luxurious ingredients in the world. Truffles and foie gras, respectively.

Foie gras is made from the liver of a fattened duck or goose (I’ve already written some thoughts on the ethics of foie gras here, if you’re interested on my take), and is extremely rich and extremely wonderful (I’d eaten it once before, in NYC). On our second night at Café Desiderio, I ate an antipasto of toasted Tuscan white bread topped with chunks of foie gras au torchon (the term is French, and the foie was from a French farm. Most people, including most Italians, agree that the best foie gras in the world is made in France), a drizzle of olive oil, and Maldon sea salt.

In Florence and Tuscany, the bread is pretty different from what I think of as good European bread. My favorite crusty white breads are baked from biga (Italian) or poolish (French), doughs which are left to ferment for hours, days, or even weeks, and develop all sorts of complex, buttery, rich and hearty flavors. Salt is mixed in with the dough which intensifies the intoxicating tastes and smells. Tuscan white bread, however, is made with shorter fermentation times and no salt. I have to be honest, on its own it’s not my favorite. Fresh baked bread is always great, but without the salt the bread here is quite bland. The texture, however, is wonderful. After it’s baked, it starts going stale in a matter of hours (so far I’ve noticed that the better the restaurant, the softer the bread in the basket), but when it’s fresh it has a crumbly, crunchy, slightly chewy crust and an airy soft and spongy crumb. It also toasts beautifully (crisping up the edges of the crumb), and it’s a perfect platform to showcase other flavors without getting in their way. Like truffles. Or like foie gras.

At the café, the crunchy toasted bread was a wonderful textural contrast to the silky smooth foie. The foie gras was unbelievably soft and creamy (much softer and it would be a liquid), so that when I popped each bite into my mouth and chewed, the foie slipped around among the bits of bread, soaking into all the crumb’s pores, spreading out into every corner of my mouth. And oh lord, did that foie taste good. Rich and creamy and everything I love about liver with none of the unpleasant, metallic flavors it can take on.

The dish was topped with just enough ingredients to highlight the flavors of the foie without distracting. The oil (like most of the olive oil I’ve had in Florence) tasted of olives – briny and slightly vegetal, almost grassy. It contrasted with the flavor of the foie, while complementing its fatty texture. The salt was also essential. Salt belongs in almost every dish. It highlights and intensifies flavors by making certain aromatic compounds more volatile (i.e. more likely to disassociate and be tasted) and enhances some smells (and scent is inextricable from taste). I got this information, by the way, from this Q&A with Harold McGee, one of my heroes. His On Food and Cooking belongs on every shelf of everyone ever.

The salt was sprinkled on top of the foie gras. Sea salt is harvested in crispy thin flakes, so it has a great crunch and pop. Also, because it wasn’t mixed in with the foie, it created tiny pockets of intensified, salty flavor, dotted all over my tongue. Molto bene.

Then on the first night, I tried a crostono di tartufo (truffles on bread). It was, yet again, an extremely simple dish. Besides the side salad of arugula (nothing special), it had three ingredients: Tuscan white bread, salted butter, and summer truffles.

When the crostono arrived at the table, it was one big slice of bread, topped with truffle-specked butter. Truffles are a fungus which are prized both for their rarity (they only grow underground, in the wild, and must be sniffed out by pigs, goats, or specially trained dogs) and their unparalleled taste and smell. Truffles have a wonderful, flavor enhancing umami-ness (the fifth “savory” flavor found in cured meats, mushrooms, and MSG, for example) and remarkable subtlety. To infuse the truffle flavor into the butter, the chef at Café Desiderio let the truffled butter melt under a low heat, then resolidify, then melt again, then re-resolidify (gently dissolving the truffle's flavorful compounds in the fat). Molto, molto bene.

As I was taking in the dizzying scent of my truffley toast, the waiter pulled out a whole fresh Summer truffle and a truffle shaver and topped the dish with all those paper thin slices of truffle that you see in the picture. My oh my oh my. The taste was subtle (Summer truffles are less intense (and correspondingly less expensive) than their winter cousins, the Black (or Perigord) Truffle and the ultra-expensive White Truffle) but amazing. Earthy, slightly sweet, rich and gentle. And the texture was unlike anything I’ve ever eaten – soft and thin enough to almost melt in my mouth, but still firm enough to have a bite to it. I don’t have enough molto’s to say how bene.

In the past not-even-a-week, I’ve eaten some of the best food of my life. I can’t wait to tell you all about it. Ciao, tutti.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Simply Perfect

For the next two weeks, I’ll be in Italy with the Syracuse Library Science program. At my library blog I’ll be writing about the course, and reflecting on international librarianship. Here, I’ll write about the food.

When chefs talk about great Italian food, over and over they use the word “simple”. Simple does not mean boring, and it does not mean conservative, it means combining a very small number of ingredients into spectacular results. Eating this food, one can clearly and dramatically taste each individual ingredient, and so each one must be of the highest quality. In Italy, the farmer who grows the tomato, or the baker who makes the bread, or the butcher who cures the prosciutto is as much of an artist as the chef who combines them – each one building off hundred years of collective cultural memory and experience in the pursuit of perfection.

Last night, we ate at Obika, a restaurant which celebrates one ingredient which is singularly Italian, mozzarella di bufala (or buffalo mozzarella) – mozzarella cheese made from the milk of the water Buffalo. Buffalo milk is richer than cow milk, and results in cheese with spectacularly wonderful taste and texture.

At Obika, we started off with a tasting of two mozzarellas. The pontina bufala classica (on the left, above) had a stronger taste than the mozzarella we’re used to – both more gamey (like buffalo or deer meat) and more funky (like lovely stinky cheeses) – although it was still mild compared to a blue or a brie. The texture was what blew me away. The outside of the ball was about as dense and chewy as the white of a hard-boiled egg, while the inside was loose without being runny or mushy. It was a continuous network of porous, soft, delicious cheese (so it didn’t crumble or break), and the pores were filled with a marvelous briny liquid, so that each bite burst in my mouth – fresh and clean and dazzling.

The affumicata bufala classica (on the right, above) was a smoked cheese. I don’t always love smoked goudas or gruyères – they often take on an odd, tough, rubbery texture and the smoke flavor can be overpowering. This cheese, however, was marvelous. The smoke only permeated the outer layer, giving it a lovely smoky flavor and a tougher texture than the pontina. The inside was untouched by the smoke curing, and was a bit looser and softer than the insides of the pontina. Since it was looser, it held more brine, which helped soften the impact of the smoke. Like a beautifully cooked steak or a perfectly ripe plum, each bite was a marvelous balance of textures and flavors.

We also ate a pizza topped with buffalo mozzarella (plus tomatoes, prosciutto, and arugula). It was a good, if not spectacular pizza, which didn’t really showcase the cheese. My brother (the best pizza chef I know) once made a pizza topped with only buffalo mozzarella, his own sauce, and basil. It was marvelous. The cheese melted beautifully, so a small amount spread evenly over the entire pizza. The slightly gamey, funky taste permeated each bite, and the cheese protected the integrity of the crust by serving as a barrier to the wet tomatoes. It was crunchy and soft, salty and sweet, beautiful in its simplicity.

Finally, at Obika, we had desserts made with ricotta di bufala (buffalo ricotta). I had a ricotta mouse (sweetened with honey), similar to canolli filling. Like the mozzarella, it had a marvelous texture – at once creamy and slightly stiff. It was studded with golden raisins and toasted pinenuts, and topped with candied orange zest. Every ingredient was essential, and every one was perfect.

My dinner mate had a buffalo ricotta torte, which was softer than the cheesecake we’re used to, beautifully light in texture and rich in taste. It was filled with rasberries and served with a strawberry sauce.

It was a spectacular meal – delicious, exciting, and simple. I can't wait for the next one.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Apple and Cheese Empanadas

Empanadas may not sound like traditional Thanksgiving fare, but they fit right in on tonight’s plate. Apples, raisins, cheese, what’s not to like?

I cheated a bit and bought pre-made frozen empanada wrappers (Goya Discos). They were easy to use and baked up wonderfully – flaky, tender, delicious.

As is always the case with simple recipes, the quality of the ingredients goes a long way. We bought fantastic apples and cheese at Union Square Market – the Newton Pippin apples from Red Jacket Orchards (which my dad called “the best apple he’s ever eaten”) were tart and crisp with a startlingly bright and intense flavor, and the Dorset cheese from Consider Bardwell Farm melted beautifully into the filling, and had a dish-defining but by no means overwhelming funkiness to it. I can’t wait to make these again.

Apple and Cheese Empanadas

¼ cup golden raisins
3 medium tart, crisp apples, such as Newton Pippin or Granny Smith
2 Tablespoons butter
½ cup Calvados
¼ cup grated soft and pungent cheese, such as Dorset, Gruyere, or Raclette
¼ tsp cinnamon
1/8 tsp cumin
¼ tsp kosher salt
6 Goya Discos, or other empanada wrappers
1 egg yolk
Lemon wedges, for serving

1.) Place the raisins in a shallow bowl, cover with Calvados (if ½ cup Calvados does not cover the raisins, add more) and set aside. If you can, do this a few hours in advance to cooking, so the raisins plump up.

2.) Peel, core, and finely dice the apples

3.) Place the butter in a pan over medium-high heat, and let it cook until it has browned (the foam should be uniformly golden brown). Add the apples, stir to combine.

4.) Cook until the apples are soft and nicely browned.

5.) Add the Calvados and raisins. NOTE: THERE MAY BE MASSIVE FLAMES. You are flambe-ing the Calvados, the flames will die down when the alcohol burns off. Just be prepared. Make sure there is nothing flammable above or near the frying pan. If flames don’t erupt when you add the Calvados, induce them by tipping the pan so that the gas flame catches the alcohol, or, if you have an electric range, light the alcohol using a long match.

6.) Once things have calmed down, season to taste with cinnamon, cumin, and salt. The amounts listed above are approximate. You should taste the seasonings, but the apples and raisins should not be overwhelmed.

7.) Scrape the apple mixture into a large bowl, add the cheese and stir to combine.

8.) Preheat the oven to 400°.

9.) Lay out the empanada wrappers and place a heaping tablespoon of the filling in the center of each one.

10.) Fold an empanada in half, cupping it in your left hand. Wet a finger on your right hand and run it along the outer edge of the wrapper. Gently press the two halves of the wrapper together, forming a half-moon shape. Starting at one corner, fold a small section of dough over and gently squeeze it. Fold a second, overlapping crimp, press, then repeat until the entire empanada is sealed.

11.) Poke a few holes in the empanada with the tines of a fork. Whisk the egg yolk, then brush a small amount of yolk onto the top of the empanada (this will give it a nice lustre when you bake it).

12.) Repeat with the remaining empanadas, place on a parchment or wax paper lined cookie sheet and bake 10-15 minutes, until the tops are nicely browned.

13.) Serve with lemon wedges.

Cranberry-Chipotle Glaze

I loved how this sauce turned out. It paired well with duck, but I could see it as both a general-use hot sauce (on chicken wings, fried eggs, whatever) and an alternative to cranberry sauce on the Thanksgiving table.

Cranberry-Chipotle Glaze

½ cup cranberries, picked over (remove any mushy cranberries. To test the quality of a firm cranberry, drop it on a hard surface. If it bounces, it’s a good one).
1 chipotle pepper packed in adobo sauce, plus 1 Tablespoon adobo
¼ cup grade B maple syrup
Zest of 1 navel orange
Juice of 1 navel orange
Zest of ½ lemon
½ cup mulled cider (or, if you haven’t been mulling, regular cider)
¼ cup Calvados
Pinch kosher salt

1.) Chop the chipotle pepper, then combine all ingredients in a medium saucepan.

2.) Cook until the cranberries burst and are very soft. Strain through a fine meshed sieve, pushing down on the solids to extract as much liquid as possible.

Spice Steamed Duck with Cranberry-Chipotle Glaze

Happy Thanksgiving! It was a wonderful day, I woke up, cooked, ate, cooked, ate, cooked, ate, ate and now I’m thinking of fixing myself a drink. Beethoven’s been on the radio all day, and my parents have been great company. The meal was quite non-traditional, but I tried to include some Thanksgiving flavors (cranberry, apple, cinnamon, clove), and, while it wasn’t perfect (it’s never perfect), I have to say I was very happy with how everything turned out. The first post will be on the bird, then the cranberry sauce, followed by the empanadas, and finally a note on Jean Georges Vongerichten, whose new cookbook was my source for today’s breakfast, dessert, and snack recipes.

So, the duck. This method for cooking duck is from Mark Bittman’s fantastic How To Cook Everything. The bird is poked all over with small holes, then steamed with spices in the steaming water, and then glazed and roasted, resulting in flavorful and tender meat. A lot of the fat cooks off in the steaming, although there was still plenty of fat left on the bird (we ate around it, mostly).

I believe I made the following mistakes: 1.) the duck wasn’t far enough away from the boiling water during the steaming (i.e. the roasting rack wasn’t high enough), so parts of the bird were actually submerged in the water, causing meat and skin to fall off, 2.) The holes I poked in the skin weren’t deep enough, 3.) There wasn’t enough salt on the bird (these last two reasons probably both contributed to the lack of crispyness). Still – yum. Duck is hard to screw up, and the flavor combinations from the spice-steam and the glaze were very nice.

Spice Steamed Duck with Cranberry-Chipotle Glaze

10 whole pieces star anise (or enough broken pieces to make up 10 whole)
25 pods green cardamom
2 sticks cinnamon
20 cloves
1 4 ½ pound duck
1 recipe Cranbery-Chipolte Glaze (see above)

1.) In a medium skillet, toast the spices over medium-high heat until they are browned and fragrant. Grind the spices into a powder using a spice grinder (i.e. a coffee grinder which you only use for spices), a mortar and pestle, or improvised grinding tools (I used a cast iron pan and an ice cream scoop).

2.) Remove any giblets from inside the duck, cut off any excess fat, and, using the point of a sharp knife, prick the skin all over with small holes, being careful not to pierce the meat (which is about ¼ inch from the surface of the bird).

3.) In the bottom of a roasting pan, combine the spices and enough water to fill the pan up 1 to 2 inches.

4.) Place a rack in the pan, then place the duck on the rack, breast side up. Cover and set the pan over two burners, both on high.

5.) Put a kettle of water up to boil. When the water in the roasting pan gets low, replace it with boiling water, then put another kettle up. Continue this process for 45 minutes, then remove the duck from the heat and let rest for at least 15 minutes.

6.) Preheat the oven to 375°. Place the duck, breast side down, on a rack in the roasting pan. Brush all over with the glaze.

7.) Roast 15 minutes, brush with glaze, flip it over, brush again with glaze, then raise the heat to 425°. Roast another 15 minutes. Carve and serve with the leftover glaze in a serving pitcher.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Calvados-Spiked Mulled Apple Cider

I’m home in NYC with my parents for Thanksgiving, and it’s just the three of us. For dinner tomorrow, a whole turkey seemed like way too much food, so we decided to go with duck. The menu plan blossomed out from there, and I’m absurdly excited to spend most of tomorrow cooking (spice steamed and cranberry-chipotle glazed duck, apple and cheese empanadas, braised bok choy, and a tarte tatin for dessert). This weekend, I’ll post all the recipes, with the exception of the tarte tatin which comes from this cookbook (although I will write a post on the genius behind the book).

While I was planning the menu, I tried to include the same ingredients in multiple recipes, for two reasons. One: shared flavors in each dish will help give the meal cohesion, and two: I didn’t want to spend too much money on ingredients that my parents will never use – while they love food as much as I do, they prefer eating it to cooking it, and every time I come home I see that the mirin, or the chestnut honey, or the cheesecloth that I bought ages ago is still sitting in the pantry.

So, here’s a recipe I decided to make when I realized that I’d have leftover spices and Calvados tomorrow (Calvados in an apple brandy, which I got excited about when I read this excellent article about it in the New York Times). The duck will be steamed with these spices, the empanadas and the bok choy will both be flavored with Calvados, and the glaze basically includes one of these drinks dumped into it. I just drank one, and it was delicious and a half. No single flavor stood out (well, apple, but that doesn’t count), and they all blended into warming, lingering complexity. Feel free to omit the alcohol, but, let me tell you, the brandy really makes this drink special.

[Sorry about the lack of pictures for the next few entries, I left my camera in Syracuse, yeesh]

Calvados-Spiked Mulled Apple Cider

10 whole pieces star anise (or enough broken pieces to make up 10 whole)
2 sticks cinnamon
40 cloves
15 pods green cardamom
½ gallon apple cider (I used Red Jacket Orchards cider. It’s available all over NYC, including the Union Square Market, which is, in fact, the most magical place on Earth)
5 long strips of orange zest, removed with a vegetable peeler, any white pith scraped off with a sharp knife (the pith is bitter and adds no flavor, it should never be included in any recipe that I know of)
3 long strips of lemon zest, removed with a vegetable peeler, any white pith scraped off with a sharp knife
Calvados, to taste (probably one or two shots per mug of cider), I used Christian Drouin Sélection, which was reasonably priced and wonderful.

1.) In a medium pot, toast the star anise, cinnamon, cloves, and cardamom over medium-high heat until they are browned and fragrant.

2.) Add the cider and citrus zests and bring to the liquid to a simmer. Do not let it boil, as this will extract all sorts of bitter compounds from the spices.

3.) Simmer for 2 hours, adjusting the heat if necessary. Taste periodically – you may want to increase or decrease the simmering time, depending on how strongly spiced you like your cider.

4.) Remove from the heat. Strain through a fine-meshed strainer. Add Calvados to mugs, then pour in hot cider, stir and serve (note: if you are reheating, heat the cider, then add the Calvados. Make sure it’s not scalding hot, as the alcohol could evaporate off).