Sunday, January 29, 2012

Episode 20: Cantonese Braised Beef

Not all Chinese dishes require a wok. I've been making this recipe for Cantonese Braised Beef with Daikon for a couple years now--almost since the day it was published. The Hong Kong Market on Commerce Street has all the sauces and seasonings needed for it--even Chee Hou sauce, which was somehow elusive in Flushing. Now that I have Chee Hou sauce, of course, I will be trying to find as many excuses as possible to cook with it, rather than have it molder in my refrigerator door.

What I wasn't able to find was boneless beef shank, which was easy to find when I was in spitting distance of an Hmart, but now with the nearest one being a hundred miles away in Burlington, Mass., I needed to work with what the local butchers could offer. If you do a search for "Cantonese Braised Beef" you will find some recipes calling for brisket. I found, however, that it worked just fine with chuck. The key is to get a whole chuck roast and cut it yourself. Make sure when cutting it to leave some of the fat and connective tissues in your chunks--exactly the things that western cooks and butchers usually trim away, but that Chinese cooks value for the resulting textural contrasts.

I usually omit the last step of adding the corn starch slurry. It's a largely cosmetic measure, to gloss up the dish and thicken the sauce. I find that after a long reduction and rendering of the natural fats of the meat, it is plenty glossy and thick without the starch.

Hot Librarian prefers hers served over rice; I do rice on the side, though I have been known to spoon some of the sauce onto the rice. Not the usual Chinese way of eating, I know, but delicious.

While this is a Cantonese dish, variants of braised beef with daikon can be found in many other regions of China. This in spite of the fact that beef is rarely used in everyday Chinese cooking. For example, in Fuchsia Dunlop's Land of Plenty: A Treasury of Authentic Sichuan cooking, there's a version that includes 6 tablespoons of chili bean paste in the braising liquid. I would love to try it, but with HL and the Little One, I'm outnumbered.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Episode 19: Venturing into the Norselands

I couldn't help but notice it: It's so close to Pat's, and the flags are prominent. But I needed an excuse to visit Simply Scandinavian. The recipe for Swedish Meatballs from the December 2011 issue of Saveur served nicely. I picked up the needed lingonberry preserves and, on more of a whim, an 8 ounce package of gjetost.

The meatballs came out delicious, though I should note that I substituted ground veal for the ground beef, in the interests of a lighter flavor. It worked nicely. (I also threw a rutabaga in with the potatoes, which did not work quite as well.) The Little One was enamored of the lingonberries, dubbing them "wonderberries."

The meatballs, however, are not the main topic of this post. That would be the gjetost. It's a Norwegian food item, whose name literally means "goat cheese". It is nothing, however, like a crumbly French chevre or an earthy Spanish cabrales. Some would argue that technically it isn't even a cheese. It is made by combining milk, cream and whey, and boiling them down until the milk sugars caramelize. I've seen it referred to as "Norwegian fudge," which works as a descriptor. It is sweet, with a goatish aftertaste.

I've also seen it referred to as a "love it or hate it" type of food, and I can see that. I thought it was delicious, LO seemed to like it, but Hot Librarian was put off by the combination of sweet and goat.

The traditional way to serve it is in very thin slices made with a cheese planer; apparently the texture is unpleasant in larger chunks. For this morning's breakfast, I made an open-faced sandwich of it, with a toasted slice of Maine Grain bread from Standard Baking Company, a thin layer of gjetost, thinly sliced apple wedges, and a dollop of the lingonberry preserves.

I think this will be my regular breakfast for the next few days.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Episode 18: Maine Shrimp

Having grown up in southern Florida, there's something familiar to me about living in a place where people speak naturally of "the season" and everyone knows what that means, where full-time residents resent the part-timers even, or perhaps especially, if they work in a business that is dependent upon them. I imagine that in any such place there are things about the off-season, the time of year when harsh weather chases off the tourists and seasonal residents, that make it bearable or even wonderful, and that help remind those who choose to live there year-round about what keeps them in place.

I say "I imagine" because I never figured out what that was about Florida: I hated the place and couldn't wait to get out. But I've figured out what one of those things must be in Maine: Maine shrimp.

You can only get fresh Maine shrimp in winter. This year, the catch season began January 1. It is always a short season, because the shrimp migrate, but this year it promises to be especially short, as the catch limits have been dramatically curtailed by the fisheries service. I've already cooked with them twice, and would have done so more often if I were more flush with cash. Though honestly, they're not that expensive, either. The last time I checked the Harbor Fish Market, they were $9/pound for fully shelled ones, $6/pound for the ones that have had their heads removed but still have their shells, legs and tails, and only $2/pound for whole shrimp with heads. I usually get the headless ones and shell them myself. They're easy to clean; usually, after I take off the first shell segment, the meat will pop out with a gentle tug. If I wanted to make a shrimp stock--and I imagine these cuties would make a glorious one--I'd get the whole ones and reserve the heads and shells.

They are relatively small, sweet, with a rich crustacean flavor. Sort of like concentrated lobster.

So far my preparations have been relatively simple, and I give an example of one below. But I've been thinking about some of the world's great shrimp dishes, and which would go well with, or perhaps even be improved, by Maine shrimp. Here are just a few that come to mind:

Mainers: Have fun with them while they last! Anyone out of state is welcome to come and try them, if you don't mind the chill (12 degrees Fahrenheit as I write).

This is my concoction from last night. I like pairing haddock with the shrimp. Partly, it's because Hot Librarian is not much of a fan of crustaceans. But also, I think haddock goes nicely with shellfish. It has good fat content and a rich taste of its own. It's a fish that is ubiquitous in Maine, and underappreciated elsewhere. Which I hope remains the case, lest the prices follow a cod-like trajectory.

Maine Shrimp and Haddock in Tarragon Lemon Butter

  • 2 Tbsp olive oil
  • 1 haddock fillet, 8-12 ounces
  • Sea salt
  • Freshly cracked black pepper
  • 1 large shallot, chopped finely
  • 3 Tbsp dry vermouth
  • Juice of half a lemon
  • 2 Tbsp cold butter, cut into small pieces
  • 1 Tbsp chopped fresh tarragon
  • 8 ounces of Maine shrimp, shelled
  • Lemon wedges for serving

  1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
  2. Put oil in an ovenproof skillet.
  3. Season the haddock with salt and pepper and place flat in the skillet.
  4. Place skillet in oven. Cook for 15 minutes.
  5. Remove skillet from oven and haddock from skillet. Reserve haddock on a plate and cover with foil to keep warm.
  6. Place skillet on a burner at medium heat. The residual haddock fat will begin to foam. When the foam begins to subside, add the shallot. Cook the shallot until soft, about 2 minutes. (Do not grab the handle with an unprotected hand--it's still hot from the oven!)
  7. Add vermouth and let cook until mostly evaporated.
  8. Lower the heat to very low and add the lemon juice. Then add the butter one piece at a time, swirling in the skillet to melt and incorporate into the sauce.
  9. Add tarragon and stir so it is thoroughly incorporated.
  10. Add the shrimp, spreading evenly in the skillet. Raise heat to medium-low, so that it gently poaches in the sauce. Cook until shrimp is just cooked, turning once. This step took me about 12 minutes, but it could vary depending on your range. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
  11. Return the haddock to the pan and gently toss to coat it in the sauce and re-warm it. If the haddock breaks into bite size pieces, that is not a problem; you just don't want to shred it to bits.
  12. Serve with lemon wedges and any winter vegetable that has a bit of natural sweetness. (I served it with a parsnip puree, which was a great match.)

Friday, January 20, 2012

Episode 17: Pupusas!

In celebration of a new job, I took the family out last night to Tu Casa (aka Tu Casa Salvadoreña, at 70 Washington Avenue in Munjoy Hill). Hot Librarian and I have been big fans of Salvadoran food for over a decade now, ever since we spent some of her grad school years in a heavily Salvadoran neighborhood in Washington DC. Especially the pupusa.

A pupusa is made of the same hominy corn dough as a tortilla, but is much thicker, stuffed with a filling and cooked on a griddle. It is served with a vinegary cabbage slaw called curtido, and a light tomato sauce that, despite its resemblance to a Mexican salsa, is not at all spicy. Each of the accompaniments can be added to one's taste.

Unfortunately for me, Tu Casa offers only two types of pupusas, both of which had cheese (and I am lactose intolerant). Now, queso salvadoreño is one of the least known of the world's great dairy products: When shredded, it melts like mozzarella, but it has the salty tang of a good feta as well as a bit of Jarlsbergian pungency. But there were enough other tempting things on the menu that I decided not to risk the unpleasant side effects. The two options are revueltas (a mix of queso salvadoreño and ground chicharrón--pork rinds) and queso con loroco. Loroco is an edible flower with a strong herbaceous aroma and taste, very strange and totally addictive.

HL got one of each, and let me have a taste of the loroco one--which I would never decline. I paid the price for the cheese, but it was worth it. The pupusa had a good corn flavor, a decent sear. The cheese, oozy and funky, with the unforgettable perfume of loroco. The curtido was good and vinegary, setting off the flavors of the pupusa nicely. LO had her own revuelta and devoured it.

HL also got an order of fried plantain, which turned out to her chagrin to be two whole ripe plantains, each cut lengthwise--way more than she could eat. However, they served it with what tasted to me like real crema salvadoreña--like the cheese, a little known but excellent dairy product. It tastes like creme fraiche, but is just a bit thinner, perfect for dunking plantains.

As for me, I came famished and ordered big. I started out with a tamal salvadoreño de pollo, a corn tamal cooked in a banana leaf and filled with a gently seasoned stew of chicken and potatoes, then had the plato montañero. As I discovered living in Queens, just about every Latin American nation has its own variant of this: A hearty countryside all-day breakfast consisting of meat, egg, beans and starches piled high. Tu Casa's Salvadoran variant had a grilled, marinated steak, a fried egg, sliced avocado, beans, rice and half of a fried plantain. The steak was nicely seasoned, though I added some of the tomato sauce for the pupusas to good effect, and the beans savory. The starches gave no cause for complaint. Unfortunately the egg yolk was cooked hard, so the egg didn't add much to the meal other than calories.

The menu seems heavily weighted toward those Salvadoran dishes which share names and features with better known Mexican dishes (e.g. tacos, enchiladas), as well as some straight-up Mexican and Tex-Mex items added presumably for the comfort of customers unfamiliar with Salvadoran food. Missing was yuca con chicharrón, an old deep-fried favorite of mine that has been on the menu of every Salvadoran restaurant I've visited up until now, and the limited selection of pupusas was disappointing. (For example, LO had been hoping for a bean and cheese pupusa, and I might have ordered one that was filled with just chicharrón.)

Another thing that could stand some improvement was the service, though to be honest it was no worse than what we've been conditioned to expect from comparable institutions in our former hometown. Don't go if you're in a rush. But do try the pupusas.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Episode 16: More Indian Food, at Home and Away

For tonight's dinner I had a cabbage that needed to be used, some ground, grass-fed beef, and a full spice collection. So I turned to Madhur Jaffrey's An Invitation to Indian Cooking (1973), and ended up making some savory kheema, and cabbage with onions. (I had done the kheema because I figured we needed some protein, but in retrospect the cabbage dish was hearty enough that we could have made a vegetarian meal of it, with perhaps a garnish of hard-boiled egg for protein.)

The Jaffrey book was one of the first cookbooks that Hot Librarian and I shared while keeping house together. She was a year ahead of me in her education, and a grad school colleague had given it to her as a gift just before the summer between my college graduation and the start of my graduate schooling. It was a peculiar summer, during which she slaved over her Master's Exams and retrieved big stacks of books for me from the graduate library, which I read in the midst of a failed search for work in an isolated Midwestern college town, giving her the space and time she needed to get her work done, and cooking up elaborate dinners. A lot of those dinners drew on the Jaffrey book. (It was also during that summer that I first proposed to her.)

With English being the lingua franca of the Indian subcontinent, and so many Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis and members of their respective diasporas being active online, this is not a cuisine (or rather, a set of cuisines, for the regional variations are extensive) for which cookbooks are an absolute necessity anymore. There are plenty of websites on which one can find good recipes, written in English, using measurements and ingredients that are accessible to most American kitchens. (Including here in southern Maine, thanks to Masala Mahal.) I particularly recommend sify bawarchi. But a well-written cookbook is good for teaching you the fundamentals of a cuisine, the things that home cooks, in posting their recipes on the internet, may take for granted as being understand.

For example, many of the online recipes will call for "onion-garlic paste" or "onion-garlic-ginger paste" or "chili-onion-garlic paste". Those are things that you can now probably find in a jar at a well-stocked Indian grocery store, but you would get better results by making your own as part of the prep work. Reading Jaffrey's recipes, which nearly always begin with "put onion, garlic and ginger with x tablespoons of water into the food processor and puree into a smooth paste" will teach you the appropriate quantities of each ingredient. They will also teach you when to use whole spices, or ground ones, why Indian recipes call for cooking vegetables much longer than one would see in a French or Italian cookbook, and why "curry powder" is an abomination.

Though nearly forty years old, Jaffrey's book has held up well. As a rule, the ingredients are fresh (though she does make extensive use of canned tomatoes--understandable enough to anyone who lives in a place without year-round access to soil-grown heirloom varieties), the directions are clear, and there is a good balance between everyday staples and more elaborate, dinner-party-type productions. She did not attempt a compendium of recipes to represent the many regions and cultures of the country or the subcontinent, but drew mostly on her own Delhian background. However, for the "regions" of India (many of which are larger or more populous than some major European nations), there are other cookbooks and extensive online resources.

But even with the best of cookbooks, training and recipes, sometimes, you just don't have time. Sometimes, you need to eat out. Monday at the lunch hour was one of those times, and we ended up at Jewel of India in South Portland.

I had the sholay bhatura (previously known to me by the more common transliteration of "choley bhatura"). This is a Punjabi dish that, in Queens, can be found as a breakfast food at the small, 24-hour storefront restaurants catering primarily to taxi drivers that dot neighborhoods with either a large number of Indians and Pakistanis (like Jackson Heights), or those with a large number of taxi garages (like Long Island City and Astoria). It consists of a thick stew of complexly seasoned chickpeas (choley), served with one or two pieces of puffy, fried bread (bhatura), which is torn off in pieces and used to scoop up the chickpeas. The choley had a a bit more of a tomatoey sauce than I am used to, but that was more than made up for by the hint of an herbaceous pungency that I believe may have come from a judicious use of dried methi leaves (fenugreek). The bread was a bit odd: The shell was a bit thicker than I've had it before, resulting in a flavor and texture a bit like a good, but unsweetened, yeast doughnut; I'm more accustomed to a thin, flaky shell. (The difference had its benefits, as it held the weight of chickpeas better.) And to have the mixed pickle that is a usual accompaniment, I would need to have ordered it and paid an additional two dollars.

The oddest thing, however, is that the bread came out well before the choley, giving it time to begin deflating before I could actually have my meal. Perhaps this was a concession to a perceived preference among Americans to have their breads first, before the entree. If I return and order the dish again--which I may well, for it's not one I'm likely to make for myself--I will need to make a point of asking the waiter to have the kitchen time it so that they're ready to come out at the same time.

HL reports that the mutter paneer (peas and cheese) she and the Little One shared was likewise more tomatoey than she is used to, and generally characterized it as "workmanlike, not spectacular" but worth a return. LO said her mango lassi "tastes like a good mango lassi." You can't argue with that. Overall, it was good, and worth a return visit.

We didn't try Aroma, because it's closed on Mondays, but being South Portland residents we definitely have to give it a shot before declaring a favorite. With some South Indian specialties on their menu, and even a few Indo-Chinese dishes, I'm looking forward to it.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Episode 15: Palestinian Breakfast

I don't understand why people buy packages of pre-made hummus. It may be one of the easiest things in the world to make. I've been getting good results from this recipe for years. The "hardest" part about it is squeezing the lemons.

Palestinians and other peoples of the eastern Mediterranean have been eating hummus for breakfast for millennia. To take it a step further in authenticity, spice it up with za'atar. There are few better ways to start the day.

Since the chickpeas I used were cooked in a cocido madrileño, today's batch is not halal, nor kosher, nor vegan. But it is delicious. (And if you don't have cooked chickpeas readily available, canned will serve just fine.)

The olives and tahini come from Al-Ahram market at 630 Forest Avenue.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Episode 14: Spanish Hash

As promised, I made a hash out of some of the leftovers from my cocido madrileño. It was delicious. And since a cocido is not very heavily seasoned, you could probably make this without having first made the cocido:

Spanish Hash

  • 1-2 Tbsp olive oil
  • 1 small onion, chopped
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 1/4 tsp sweet Spanish paprika (pimentón dulce)
  • 1/2 cup cooked chicken
  • 1/2 cup cooked pork belly
  • 1 small turnip, peeled, boiled and cut into 1/4 inch slices
  • 1 small, waxy potato, peeled, boiled and cut into 1/4 inch slices
  • Salt and pepper to taste

  1. Heat the oil in a large pan (NOT non-stick) over medium-high heat.
  2. When oil is hot, add onion, garlic and paprika. Stir to make sure paprika is thoroughly mixed in. Cook for 2-3 minutes.
  3. Mix the meats and vegetables together. Add to the pan, mixing thoroughly with the onion/garlic/paprika mixture and spreading out into the thinnest possible layer.
  4. Cook until the bottom has begun to brown, about 8 minutes. Remove from heat.
  5. When serving, make sure to scrape up as much as possible of the browned bits at the bottom of the pan.
  6. Serve with an egg, either fried over-easy in olive oil, or poached.

(Sorry for the lack of pics in this post. Attempts turned out to be fuzzy. Whatever my quality as a writer, I'm a lousy photographer.)

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Episode 13: Five-Spice Tofu with Braised Tatsoi

Tonight's dinner: Five-spice tofu with braised tatsoi. Ingredients:

  • 1 Tbsp neutral oil (canola, peanut or grapeseed) for stir-frying.
  • 1 Tbsp minced fresh ginger.
  • 12 oz. package of five-spice tofu, cut into thin slices (available at Hong Kong Market)
  • 1 package (5 ounces, maybe?) of tatsoi
  • 1 tsp good-quality light soy sauce (I like the Pearl River Bridge brand, for a good balance of price and quality--also available at Hong Kong Market)
  • 2 Tbsp low-sodium broth (pork, chicken, vegetable or black bean--I used chicken)
  • 1/2 tsp sesame oil

The tatsoi came from the Portland Winter Market. The tofu, soy sauce and sesame oil all came from the Hong Kong Market. In Flushing my fridge and pantry were overflowing with condiments, seasonings and pickled vegetables of Chinese, Korean, and Southeast Asian provenance. I'm sensing that I'll be going on a Chinese kick soon, so I will be gradually rebuilding some of that abundance. There's another market on Congress Street, Sun Market, closer to the Arts District, that I intend to check out--it has Korean as well as Chinese writing on its advertising, and so may be the place to get gochujang, dwenjang and kimchi. And I've driven by a few places with Khmer writing on their awnings as well.

As for cooking it: Heat wok or large non-stick pan on medium-high to high heat. Add oil when the pan is hot. When the oil shimmers, add the ginger. In five seconds, add the tofu. When the tofu has browned slightly but before the ginger burns (if your heat is high enough, this should only take 15 seconds), add the tatsoi, soy sauce and broth in quick succession. Cook, stirring, until the tatsoi is crisp-tender (2-3 minutes at the most). Remove from heat and add the sesame oil. Serve with rice.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Episode 12: More Food of Spain

It was difficult selecting dishes from the Roden cookbook that were seasonally appropriate for a Maine winter. In general, the dishes from the region of Asturias tended to work well for that purpose, which ought not to be surprising. The capital city, Oviedo, is at the same latitude as Portland, the region has a long, rocky shoreline, and it is the only region of Spain that is too cold to have much of a tradition of native viticulture, preferring instead to make beer and hard cider.

I'll be returning the cookbook to the library soon (though I may well check it out again come the spring, or buy it for myself when I'm a bit more flush with cash). Here are a few of the dishes I've made from it in the last week:

  • Winter vegetable medley (menestra de invierno, Asturias): Somewhat disappointing, but that was really my fault. The recipe calls for "3 slices of jamón serrano, prosciutto, or bacon," but it was only when I started cooking that I realized that the bacon I was counting on had gone bad. The Little One, however, liked it, and kept eating the leftovers for lunches.
  • Roast pork with baked apples (cerdo con manzanas, Asturias), served with red cabbage with applies, raisins and pine nuts (lombarda a la madrileña, Madrid): This would have been heavenly if I had made it with pork belly, as the recipe called for, but for reasons familial and logistical I opted for some bacon-wrapped pork chops instead. It was still delicious. The red cabbage preparation was also delicious, and is still furnishing tasty leftovers.
  • Roast chicken with apples and grapes (pollo con manzanas y uvas, Asturias: This was amazing, and incredibly easy, too. Just stuff the chicken with one of the apples, cut into quarters, baste with a half a cup of freshly pressed grape juice at the beginning of the roast, and then another half cup when you turn it over midway through. The juice comes from a pound of green seedless grapes, run through a food processor and pressed through a strainer. (In fall, when Concord grapes come in season, using them would be even better.) Then you just caramelize another four apples and another pound of grapes in a heaping quantity of butter and olive oil to serve as a side.
  • Chicken cooked in cider with potatoes and peas (pitu a la sidra con patatinas y guisantes, Asturias): While Asturian sidra is still, I found that the Harpoon hard cider, though fizzy, worked nicely nontheless. This is a simple dish that any home cook could prepare in about an hour if using frozen peas. If you insist on waiting until the spring and using fresh peas, budget some time for shelling them.
  • Tolosa red bean stew (alubias rojas a la tolosana, Basque Country): Slow simmer the beans with onions and garlic. Simmer the meats (country-style spareribs, slab bacon, semi-cured chorizo, and morcilla--blood sausage) in a separate pot. Combine them at the end, and serve with boiled cabbage. The resulting smells in my house were reminiscent of two Maine classics: baked beans and "boiled dinner." I was somewhat hampered in this by the fact that I could not find blood sausage of any kind, anywhere in or around Portland. The meat counter guy at Rosemont Bakery said that he would love to make it, but cannot find a source for fresh pig blood. So I made do with just the spareribs, bacon and chorizo. Interestingly, I had better results with the cheap package of Goya chorizo that I picked up at the Bodega Latina, than I did later in the week using the fancy Spanish chorizo purchased at Rosemont. I think the key is, "semi-cured"--I think the Spanish one at Rosemont is fully cured, and thus did not hold up well to simmering. But I'm getting ahead of myself, racing to the masterpiece:
  • Boiled meats and chickpeas with vegetables (Cocido madrileño, Madrid): Again, no blood sausage, alas. For this one I used fresh pork belly instead of slab bacon. I had the marrow bones, and thus the marrow spread on a piece of toasted bread, but no beef, as neither of the butchers I had time to get to had any shank available. Little One discovered that she likes marrow, and had two helpings of the broth with broken vermicelli (fideos). It was the perfect meal for the first seriously snowy day of the season. The leftover chicken, pork belly and vegetables may well end up in that most downeast of all breakfasts: A hash. The leftover chickpeas will serve nicely in hummus (which, considering that they were cooked with pork, seems somehow transgressive).

Friday, January 6, 2012

Episode 11: Little Seoul

My relationship to Korean cuisine is a bit like the one I have to the Russian language: I love it, I appreciate its beauty, and I know some of the basics, but I find its grammar ultimately impenetrable, and thus doubt I will ever be able to perform higher order functions in it. This relationship is complicated by the fact that Hot Librarian, with her aversion to chili heat, fatty meats and cephalopods, finds it nearly impossible to select a dish to her satisfaction in most Korean restaurants. I have tried to reverse engineer a few dishes in such a way as to tone down the heat, add some tofu, and thus make them suitable for home cooking. But for the most part, Korean food has been a solitary pleasure for me, the source of many a nourishing lunch when I lived in Flushing and worked in Bayside, occasionally partaken alongside friends who share my bewildered fascination with it.

Fortunately, however, the Little One likes Korean food. So the two of us were bound to visit Little Seoul Restaurant on one of our days home together, as we did yesterday for lunch.

Let me get the inevitable comparisons out of the way. These are a few of the things that Little Seoul does not have:

  • Matronly, middle-aged Korean women bustling about the front of the house, who greet each incoming guest in unison with a chorus of an-jeu-se-yo (come sit down) and see off each departing guest with a chorus of ddo o-se-yo (come again).
  • A specialty dish whose identity is made clear through neon hangeul letters in the window, an awning depicting the animal in question above the entrance, and big posters on the walls.
  • Blond wood decor.
  • Lidded stainless steel rice bowls.

Not that all of those things are entirely to be missed. For example, many of the matrons have the intrusive habit of obsessive-compulsively rearranging your ban chan plates in what they deem to be the proper order every time they pass by your table. That was a feature of Queens dining that got old, fast.

And I know better to expect the specialists. There's a stretch of Northern Boulevard, from Parsons Boulevard almost all the way to the Nassau County line, where nearly every block has at least one of them--here a place specializing in kal gook soo (soup with thick, hand-pulled noodles), there a place that serves a steaming bowl of seollongtang (beef marrow broth) with every meal, a few Korean fried chicken joints, some Korean-style Chinese places where you can get your jjajangmyeon fix (noodles with pork and black bean sauce, a riff off of the northern Chinese specialty, zhajiang mien, which tends to use a brown bean paste instead), another known for its soondae (blood sausage), a place that makes better sushi than many of the Japanese places in Manhattan (colonialism has its benefits) but if you know how and what to ask for you can sample the gejang (fermented crab--something that tastes much better than it sounds), a barbecue joint known for its galbi (short ribs), another for pork belly, another for duck, and if you downed too much soju the night before, you can choose between the places with excellent sam gye tang (chicken soup with rice and ginseng) or the places known for their hae jang gook (literally "morning soup," because what you need the morning after is pig blood). Amazingly, on any given lunch hour or night, even on the weekdays, most of these places are packed (and if they aren't, avoid them, they must be empty for a reason). The Census Bureau says there are 95,000 Koreans in all of New York State. That's more than the entire population of Portland, but even if they were all concentrated in Queens... I think they undercounted.

What I was looking for here in Maine is a good generalist, a place where I can reliably sate a craving. And that is what I found. Little One got the haemulpajeon (seafood pancake), demolishing half of it and making extensive use of the dipping sauce--soy sauce and rice vinegar liberally seasoned with chili flecks. (I, of course, sampled it, and ultimately finished it. It was good.) The kimchi jigae (spicy soup or pickled cabbage and pork) had a good sour tang, that leads me to wonder if the proprietors pickle their own cabbage. Fiery too: I kept the waitress moving to refill my water. (And hey, she actually refilled my water without me having to ask--that's an improvement over Flushing!) I had the option of the rice with red beans (billed as "Korean multi-grain rice"), which was a satisfying rendition of a tasty accompaniment (though perhaps a bit too small a serving).

But, speaking of accompaniments, I have to ask: What's with the ban chan? Now, I don't expect the kind of profusion common in Queens. Honestly, I don't even understand how those restaurants stay in business while giving out so much free food. Even when dining alone, I have seen as many as twelve different small or not-so-small plates--various vegetables, pickled, raw and cooked, at different levels of heat, and perhaps even a few proteins, such as tofu, stewed beef, fish cakes, tiny whole fish (my favorite), fermented oysters or crab. Once I was even served a whole grilled croaker as a ban chan! I may remember it fondly, but that is not what I was expecting.

The problem was not so much the number or the type--three different kinds of spicy pickled vegetables, i.e., cabbage, cucumber and bean sprouts--or even the comparatively small servings--maybe 2 or 3 tablespoons of each, where in Queens it would be twice that (and at some places, with refills if you finished them whether you asked for it or not). The problem was that they only came out with my entree, so instead of being able to whet my appetite with a few piquant bites beforehand, I had to figure out whether and how to integrate them into my meal alongside the jigae and the rice. I also hope that they vary the ban chan, which I can only find out on a return visit, which there certainly will be. We left satisfied, but not stuffed--an unfamiliar sensation for me when leaving a Korean restaurant, but not an unpleasant one.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Episode 10: Potaje de garbanzos y espinacas

I'm in a bit of a bind when it comes to cookbooks. I can tell you that I am greatly enjoying Claudia Roden's Food of Spain. And according to the U.S. Copyright office, "Copyright law does not protect recipes that are mere listings of ingredients. Nor does it protect other mere listings of ingredients such as those found in formulas, compounds, or prescriptions. Copyright protection may, however, extend to substantial literary expression—a description, explanation, or illustration, for example—that accompanies a recipe or formula or to a combination of recipes, as in a cookbook."

So I can tell you the ingredients that went into the potaje de garbanzos y espinacas according to Roden's recipe, or rather, in my attempt to roughly halve Roden's recipe, namely:

  • 2 Yukon gold potatoes, peeled and quartered
  • 1 15.5 ounce Goya can of chickpeas
  • 2 3/4 cups of low-sodium Chicken broth (I favor the Pacific brand, which these days can even be found at humble Shaw's)
  • 10 oz. box of frozen spinach, defrosted
  • 1 1/2 tsp red wine vinegar
  • Salt to taste
  • 1 hard boiled egg
  • 2 Tbsp olive oil
  • 2 cloves of garlic
  • 1 slice of sourdough bread, crust removed
  • 1/2 tsp of sweet Spanish paprika (pimentón dulce--this was a spice that a made a point of packing with me on the move, purchased from the estimable Despaña--when it runs out I'll have to figure out where to find it around here)
  • 1/2 tsp ground cumin
  • Pinch of red chili powder (pure, i.e., the kind you get in Indian markets like Masala Mahal, not the spice blends labeled as "chili powder" you find in the supermarket
  • Black pepper to taste (Roden doesn't call for this, but I found it necessary)

But to tell you how these humble ingredients combine into something sublime in less than an hour, I have to provide a substantially different literary expression. That should not be difficult, as I am not Claudia Roden. This recipe was so fast I certainly didn't have time to photograph its successive stages, only the final outcome.

If you're like Claudia Roden, you put the potatoes and chickpeas in a large saucepan with 2 cups of the broth and simmer the pot with its cover on for 10 minutes. If you're me, you forget to put the cover back on until about five minutes through (and it still turns out good).

If you're Claudia Roden, you have either meticulously picked over all the fresh spinach, washing it thoroughly, or you've at least remembered to thaw the frozen spinach, so you add it to the pot and continue the gentle, covered simmer for another 5 minutes. If you're me, you forgot to thaw the frozen spinach, so you dump the ice-cold brick into the pot, turn the heat up to medium-high to hasten its thawing, and then turn the heat back down to resume the covered simmer for 5 minutes (and it still turns out good).

Then you add the vinegar and season with some salt, and cook for another 10 minutes.

In the midst of all this (and this is why I had no time to take pictures), there's more stuff you should be doing, because the remaining ingredients are going to be added to the pot as a luscious, spicy slurry. This is where it gets interesting.

First you separate the egg yolk from the white, chopping the white into bits, and reserving both yolk and white. Then you take a skillet, heat the oil on medium-high (make sure it shimmers), and then add the garlic cloves and the bread. Make sure to brown both--forget everything you've learned from French and Italian cookbooks, the Spanish like brown garlic--but you have to be careful to make sure that neither burn. Turn them so both the bread and the garlic cloves brown on both sides. (If you're the kind of person who likes times, this step took me about 3 minutes.) Remove them to a plate with paper towels to soak up excess oil.

Now you take that fried bread and browned garlic, put them in the food processor, add the spices, and process to--well, Claudia Roden says "a fine paste", but to me it looked more like a powder. Add the egg yolk and blend so it gets thoroughly incorporated. Now slowly add the remaining 3/4 cup of the broth.

It is this slurry that gets added to the pot after its first 25 minutes of cooking. That's why you have to move fast, to make sure it's ready in time. Taste for seasoning, and season with salt and pepper to taste. After that, you continue the simmering of the pot for another 10 minutes, and then stir in the egg whites.

¡Que sabrosura!

Roden mentions that this is often served with added salt cod during Lent, or studded with bacon or ham at other times of year. Both seem to me like needless indulgences--it's perfect as a vegetarian dish. And as you can tell from all the goofs to which I readily confessed, it is a fairly forgiving dish, not requiring flawless professional technique.

Search, using your engine of choice, for potaje/garbanzos/espinacas, and you will find countless recipes, with many variations from this one. It is a dish of which Castilians, Madrileños especially, seem quite proud, and justifiably so.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Episode 9: A Puerto Rican Jaunt

Last month's issue of Saveur had a mouth-watering article, Island Holiday: Christmas in Puerto Rico, accompanied by several tempting recipes. This recipe for piononos looked appealing, but I wasn't in the mood for the full calorie bomb effect of deep-fried plantains. Instead I just did the portion of the recipe for the filling, to serve as a picadillo. My only modifications were to omit the achiote (though I probably could have gotten it at La Bodega Latina on Congress Street, but didn't have the time), and to pit and use the cracked green Turkish olives I got from Al-Ahram, instead of the standard pitted Manzanilla olives with pimentos.

Apologies to those who find images of simmering meats monotonous or offensive, rather than appetizing.

Another change I had to make related to the amount of tomato in the recipe. Following it strictly would have resulted in a picadillo that was too liquid. You can either simmer for 15 minutes after adding the tomatoes and their juices, or add only hand-crushed tomatoes and simmer for only 5.

The result was delicious, with just enough raisins and olives to bring a salty-sweet savor to each bite. I served it with some non-traditional accompaniments: pan-roasted root vegetables (carrot, parsnip and sunchoke) with garlic, thyme and rosemary, and plain basmati rice. For a more traditional set of sides, use the sofrito as a base for some habichuelas rosas (red beans) and make the arroz con gandules.

(Sorry if this entry reads like an ad for Saveur--I love that magazine.)