Sunday, February 26, 2012

Episode 27: Thai and German

I had kind of hoped that Vientiane Market, where the Little One and I had lunch yesterday, would have some sort of obscure Laotian specialties available. It is, after all, named after the capital of Laos. However the owners and kitchen staff are apparently a mix of Thais and Laotians, and they seem to have opted in their limited take-out kitchen (with a few Formica tables for those who prefer to eat in) mostly for known crowd-pleasers from the Thai side of Mekong River. Though there is larb/laap, a spicy meat salad that is popular both in Laos and in the northeastern sections of Thailand bordering it. When summer comes, I will return to order it.

The most wintry thing on the menu had to be Massaman curry, which I ordered with beef. It was one of the best examples of the dish I have hard, peanutty and coconutty and fragrant with turmeric, lemongrass and red chili. LO wanted noodles, so we got her pad thai. She seemed to enjoy the dish, but it seemed to me to be lacking something--perhaps fish sauce, or lime juice, maybe both. We brought home a bottle of Sriracha, a household staple whose purchase was long overdue.

With the strong reputation of Portland's Thai restaurants, I wasn't amazed enough by Vientiane for it to have won my eternal allegiance--yet. But I will return.

Today's family lunch was our first brunch at Schulte & Herr. There's not much that I can say about it that hasn't already been written at Edible Obsessions. Hot Librarian had the Bergmannkiez, out of nostalgia for the many excellent breakfast spreads we had on our last visit to Germany. LO got a kick out of being able to have latkes with sour cream and apple sauce for lunch--"It's like Hanukkah!"--though I think she got a good deal of her caloric intake from pieces of ham, salami and cheese off of HL's plate. As for me, I could not resist the lox and horseradish sauce as toppings for my potato pancakes. My only complaint is that for brunch they served it in same size as they offer for appetizers at lunch or dinner during the week. I would have gladly payed proportionately more a larger serving. As it was, the perfectly seasoned side dish of roasted beets that I ordered--and a bit of HL's Bergmannkiez--filled the hole. For now, it's BYOB--and had I known, I would have budgeted time to grab some beer en route. When this place gets its liquor license and can offer German and/or Austrian beers and wines, they will be an unstoppable juggernaut.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Episode 26: Red Flannel Hash a la Marocaine

On the theme of presenting Maine classics with an international spin, I give you Red Flannel Hash a la Marocaine. It is also presented in the spirit of coming home tired on a work night and wanting to use up leftovers in a tasty manner.

The first thing you're going to need for this recipe is leftover roast lamb. As I've explained, the oven in my current apartment is quirky at best, so I hesitate to give a proper recipe. This one, suitably modified, worked very nicely. More important than the recipe, however, is the quality of the lamb itself. There is one particular farm represented at the Portland Winter Market that I would recommend without hesitation... except that I've forgotten their name. But you can't miss them: Lately, their stall has been the first one you see as you enter the market, and they are the only ones who advertize "fatted calf" (i.e. veal) among their wares. Buy their lamb. It is the tastiest lamb I have had in the United States.

Once you have some good roast lamb sitting in your refrigerator, this recipe is so easy, it almost cooks itself.

Red Flannel Hash a la Marocaine

  • 1/2 lb boiled beets, peeled and chopped into half-inch cubes
  • 3 small-to-medium carrots, boiled and cut into half-inch rounds
  • 1 medium (half-pound) starchy potato, boiled with skin on, and cut into half-inch cubes
  • about 1 lb of leftover roast lamb, cut into half-inch pieces
  • 1 medium onion, diced
  • coarse salt
  • freshly ground black pepper
  • 1/2 teaspoon of sweet Spanish paprika
  • 1/2 teaspoon of cumin
  • 1/4 teaspoon of coriander

Heat a pan (NOT non-stick) over medium heat. Add a tablespoon of olive oil and melt a tablespoon of butter. Cook onions until translucent. Add all other ingredients, and stir until seasonings are thoroughly mixed. Let sit for about 10-15 minutes, until potatoes begin to form a crust at the bottom of the pan.

You are welcome to serve this with a runny fried or poached egg, if your tastes and calorie counts allow. It would be delicious with one, but it was also delicious without.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Episode 25: Home Cooking (Korean, Moroccan, Indian)

The home kitchen has been busy these last few days, as well. Dishes prepared include
  • Dalk galbi (Korean-style grilled chicken), served with a ginger-soy-sesame carrots and brussels sprout stir-fry
  • Moroccan slow-roasted lamb shoulder, served with a ras-el-hanout stew of chickpeas and butternut squash
  • Hyderabadi tomato karhi with pakoras (Hot Librarian's concoction)

The karhi (a thick soup made of buttermilk, chickpea flour, tomatoes and spices) was delicious, but I don't know the recipe that she used. Of the things I cooked, the most successful was the chickpea and butternut stew, so that's what I'll post. (On the dalk galbi, I need to work on the marinade--I had based it on the marinade I use for short ribs, but the chicken came out just a bit too salty from the soy sauce. The carrot and brussels sprout stir fry was tasty, but not a stand alone meal. The lamb shoulder came out perfect, but the cooking time and method was based on our quirky oven.)

Ras-el-Hanout Chickpeas and Butternut Squash

Note: The spice quantities in the following recipe are after-the-fact approximations. The way I was actually cooking was fully improvised, with measurements in the form of sprinkles, pinches, scatters and, "until it smells right." The less rigorously you follow this recipe, and the more you follow your nose, the more likely you are to end up with something tasty. Or, you can make things easy on yourself, and use about 2 teaspoons of a commercially blended ras-el-hanout.

  • 2 tablespoons of olive oil
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 2 large cloves of garlic, minced
  • 1 butternut squash, peeled, seeds and pulp scooped out, and cut into 1/2 inch cubes
  • 1/2 teaspoon of sweet Spanish paprika (pimentón dulce)
  • 1/2 teaspoon of ground cumin
  • 1/4 teaspoon of ground coriander
  • 1/4 teaspoon of ground cloves
  • 1/8 teaspoon of ground cinnamon
  • enough water to cover (about 4 cups)
  • nutmeg, freshly grated (a few passes over the grater should be sufficient)
  • salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
  • 1 can of chickpeas (I had actually planned on starting by boiling dried chickpeas, but I had forgotten to put them in to soak the night before.)

  1. Heat large pot with olive oil on medium-high heat.
  2. Add onion. Cook until translucent.
  3. Lower heat to medium. Add garlic. Cook stirring for a minute, until fragrant.
  4. Add squash. Stir to coat with oil.
  5. Add paprika, cumin, coriander, cloves and cinnamon. Stir until thoroughly mixed and incorporated and spices just begin to fragrantly toast.
  6. Add water, nutmeg and some salt and pepper. Bring to boil, then lower to a simmer and leave uncovered.
  7. Cook for 15 minutes. Add chickpeas. Cook for 15 minutes more. Check for seasoning, and add more salt and black pepper if needed. Remove from heat. (Depending on your palate, you may wish to add the juice of half a lemon or a whole lemon at this point. I can see that it would be very nice, but it wouldn't have matched well with the lamb I was serving.)

Super easy, vegetarian or vegan friendly, can be thrown together as a last-minute after-work meal. Serve as a side dish with meat, or as an entree with rice and/or bread.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Episode 24: Two Reviews (Mexican and Somali)

At this point we've visited Taco Trio enough times, and sampled enough items, that I feel comfortable posting about it. A few notes:
  • My favorite of their taco fillings would be the carnitas. Soft, shreddy, with some slight caramelization, they're like pig candy. The Little One seems to agree.
  • Items that are supposed to have a certain intrinsic heat to them, such as the tacos al pastor, or the chicken mole, tend to be toned down. This can be made up for somewhat, but not entirely, by the excellent range of salsas of various bases, chilis and heat levels, not to mention the superb vegetales en escabeche.
  • In spite of that, the mole, at least as I tasted it yesterday in a tamal special, was toothsome, making up in complexity what it lacked in heat.
  • The tamales themselves are tasty, with good corn flavor from both the filling and the cornhusks in which they were wrapped.
  • The inclusion of coconut in the horchata is unusual, but tasty. Even so, the tamarindo will be my go-to drink.

All told, it's good for what it is, a basic taqueria. I must confess to a bit of sticker shock ($3.50 for a taco? $3.75 for a tamal?), but unless and until Portland has enough of a Mexican population--and relaxed enough food vending regulations--to support taco trucks and street corner tamaleras, they're unlikely to be surpassed any time soon. After all, like any brick-and-mortar restaurant, they need to pay the rent.

A couple wishes:

  • I'd love it if some day they could add tortas and/or cemitas to the menu.
  • Some stew-type dishes (guisados), even if kept on a steam-table, would be nice as occasional specials.

One place where the spicing is not toned down at all is the Somali restaurant at 30 Washington Avenue in Portland--formerly known as Hamdi, then Fez (and a large sign with that name is still over the door), but now calling itself Safari African Restaurant. We tried it today: It was our first experience of Somali food anywhere. The complimentary tea with which we were greeted was exceptional--redolent with cardamom, and heavily but perfectly sweetened. (It was also welcome because the dining room was underheated--the hospitality and the tea were genuinely warm, but the room not so much.) If the dishes we ordered today--goat meat for me, and a kebab sampler shared between Hot Librarian and the Little One--were any indication, Somali food is simple but flavorful. Both came with a rice that appeared to have been generously buttered and flecked with saffron threads. The goat was fiery, and bathed in a thin sauce of tomato, pepper and onion, but intricately seasoned. The kebabs--kofta, beef and chicken--were similarly seasoned, which was a bit unfortunate, as LO found it to be a bit too much to take (and mostly ate rice as a result). My hope is that the kebabs offered on the children's menu are not seasoned as aggressively, and that if we had ordered her one of her own, she would not have had as much trouble. Otherwise, delicious as it was, we may not be able to return often.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Episode 23: On the Road (Silence Explained)

I've been trying to write an entry about some excellent grinders we had in Connecticut, or an amazingly delicious hole-in-the-wall Haitian takeout place discovered in Rockland County, New York. But what led me to go through those places was the funeral of my wife's grandmother. And no matter how I try, I cannot find a way to discuss the food in isolation of the sad circumstances without feeling like an ass.

So if you happen to be near a dingy shopping center in Spring Valley, at the northeast corner of North Main Street and Eckerson, go to Sunshine Restaurant and order the tassot (fried goat) or the legumes (vegetable stew), "complet" in either case. And if you happen to be passing through Connecticut, you could do a lot worse than to stop at one of the many locations of Nardelli's. May you do so in good health and good cheer.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Episode 22: Jungle Curry and Cretons in Lewiston

A new full-time job is going to make my postings a bit less frequent. And it means that more of them will be reviews of good places to eat in Lewiston and Auburn.

I have two good finds already. The first, Thai Jar Earn Express, is worth a visit if one happens to be in town. I have not yet had a chance to try any of Portland's reputedly good Thai restaurants. But for anyone in Androscoggin County, this place seems to provide a good representation of the cuisine's delicacy and diversity. I ordered a jungle curry with duck. It came out redolent of fish sauce, lime juice, chilis and other seasonings, and the quantity of sauce was more than enough to serve with the rice. But the duck itself still had crispy skin. A well-executed version of a favorite.

Today I visited a rather different eatery at lunch, Edward's Restaurant at 760 Main Street in Lewiston. It's a hole-in-the-wall diner in a desolate-looking shopping center, but the atmosphere was friendly, and they had homemade cretons, a French-Canadian classic. Piggy and nicely seasoned--I could eat it every day.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Episode 21: Dosas and Indo-Chinese at Aroma

Dear Portland Foodies,

You are no longer allowed to complain about the chain restaurants around the Maine Mall. Nor should you ever discuss any Indian restaurant but this one: Aroma. (In fact, I wish I had not written about any others, but in the interests of probity I will not delete the posts.) If you find yourself anywhere in South Portland, or simply have a craving for Indian food, go straight there. Full stop. No excuses.

In eleven years of living in Queens, I ate in many Indian restaurants, in Jackson Heights, Long Island City, Richmond Hill, and Flushing, and even the canteen of a Hindu temple. Aroma was better than all of them. In fact, it was the best Indian food I've ever had outside of London.

I might not have even realized it was so good if not for a misunderstanding. The Little One wanted a child's mini dosa. (That they even have mini dosas on the children's menu is itself fantastic. They also have mini utthapams.) The waiter misunderstood Hot Librarian's order to mean that we also wanted a regular dosa for ourselves. When it came out and we expressed surprise, he insisted on taking off our check, even though we would gladly have paid for it. Very gladly.

Until now, the dosas at the Ganesha Temple Canteen had been our gold standard. For those who do not know, a dosa is a thin crepe made of a mixture of rice flour and lentil flour, and rolled into a tube. It can be, but need not be, filled with a fragrant stew of potatoes and mixed vegetables, and/or a variety of spicy chutneys. Whether filled or not, they are traditionally served with sambar, a thin but richly spiced, sauce-like soup of beans and vegetables, and a coconut chutney that both heats and cools.

Regarding the dosas at Aroma, there's a slight difference of opinion between me and HL. For HL, who does not use the sambar and only slightly dips pieces of dosa into the coconut chutney, the dosa at Aroma was as good as that at the Ganesha Temple. Aroma's has a pleasant nutty flavor, different from but just as good as the slightly fermented flavor of those at the Temple Canteen. For me, however, the sambar and the chutney elevated Aroma's even higher. The sambar was perfectly seasoned. The chutney was redolent of coconut oils, and the red chili flecks used instead of green chili gave it a slight smoky flavor. As far as I am concerned, it is the best dosa I've ever had.

The other things we ordered were all delicious as well. HL got a massive order of tamarind rice that was flecked with nuts and crispy bits of urad dal and studded with red chilis and other spices. I was in a bit of a chili-head mood, so I got the chilli chicken--an Indo-Chinese dish, roughly the Indian equivalent of General Tso's chicken, and an appetizer of cut mirchi (basically deep fried chilis). There are a number of Indo-Chinese dishes on the menu, mostly under Chef's Specialties.

Go to Aroma. Keep going to Aroma. Order everything off the menu. That is what we'll be doing. I pray it's open on Christmas.