Categories
Index Rant Restaurant Review

A compelling defense

[one_half][I]t periodically surfaces that I am not a fan of brunch. You could say that I hate it. When possible, I try not to reveal this stance in sensitive situations or crowded theaters. The ensuing maelstrom and chorus of gasps may lead one to believe I have just uttered a preference for eating small children. But it’s true. In the restaurant-obsessed cities of San Francisco and New York, there is no greater repository of culinary mediocrity than the Sunday brunch.

And we are all complicit. Show me an American who pursues cutting-edge, ethnic food carts with the tenacity of a storm-chaser, and I’ll show you someone whose brunch palate does not extend beyond the parameters of an International House of Pancakes. Call me what you want. A snob. A killjoy. A Hater of America. I guarantee you, I’ve heard worse. But I have yet to encounter a compelling defense of brunch. Until now.

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“Midwest country boy meets San Francisco China girl” is the image that closes an unassuming self-description of Potrero Hill’s newest sensation, Plow, which opened its doors in late September. Longtime residents of the Potrero, husband-and-wife team Joel Bleskacek and Maxine Siu sought to fill a conspicuous void in their neighborhood’s options of sit-down restaurants that serve breakfast. In their thoughtful preparation and handling of simple American food, Plow quietly redefines what it means to eat brunch.

Brunch is a dumping ground for old, nasty odds and ends.

In his book Kitchen Confidential, Anthony Bourdain’s famous rant against brunch begins with the contention that the meal essentially comprises rebranded scraps. Nothing embodies this claim more deeply than the standard breakfast home fry, known to the rest of us as “leftover baked potatoes.” I’ve eaten countless versions of this depressing dish, many of them accompanied by assertions that the restaurant serving them is famous as a result. French fries, please, when I am on the East Coast. Hash browns everywhere else.

At Plow, potatoes are boiled until tender, smashed, then deep-fried to order. Lightly touched with rosemary and thyme and tossed with strands of caramelized onion, the restaurant’s signature crispy potatoes are the perfect french fry in potato form, and arguably reason alone to sit down for a meal.

Weekend brunch varies little from the daily menu, save for a dedicated bakery basket containing a muffin, scone, and biscuit, all made in house. Plow otherwise serves breakfast and lunch only, meaning that no week-old dinner ingredients will suddenly appear in novelty omelettes. Instead, one can expect an evolving menu of mostly classic dishes made with seasonal, locally sourced ingredients.

Brunch is punishment block for the ‘B’-team cooks.

Another volley from Bourdain’s diatribe is rendered silent here. Bleskacek and Siu declare their aspirations for Plow to be an extension of their own home. Indeed, the restaurant caps Potrero Hill’s sleepy commercial drag, one foot seemingly planted in the residential thick of the neighborhood. To further blur the conceptual distinction between work and home, Chef Siu herself is stationed across the bar, calmly preparing meals for a clientele that includes neighbors, friends and family.

Windows occupy the upper three-quarters of the north-facing facade, permitting the dining room to be filled with consistent, pleasantly indirect light. 13-foot ceilings oversee an understated interior, anchored by diagonal stripes of salvaged wood and accented with American, early twentieth-century detail. As is the food, the materials, design and labor used to build out this space are exclusively local.

Brunch at Plow manages to maintain an air of civility. The open vertical space and galley-style arrangement of tables allow seating that never feels crowded, despite the restaurant operating at essentially full capacity from about 9:30 a.m. on. The owners’ children can sometimes be seen ambling about during the quiet early hours, with knowledge that they will be reunited with their parents not long after the 2 p.m. close. If the brunch shift here is a punishment for industry veterans Bleskacek and Siu, it seems, from their warm smiles, to be a welcome one.

Brunch menus don’t vary.

This last general criticism of brunch is most often my own. The menu choices here, to be sure, are not revolutionary. But Siu brings considerable experience (Oliveto, 42 degrees) and sophistication to her kitchen, and it shows in these humble, yet consciously precise dishes. French toast, the best I’ve had in recent memory, equally partners its egg with a porous, rustic bread that maintains structure and flavor. It’s a simple quirk and subtle departure from the more custard-like interior we’ve come to expect from this dish. Lemon ricotta pancakes are characteristically fluffy and light, with a mere suggestion of citrus perfume.

Savory eaters also benefit from decisions that pull the menu slightly astray from familiar. An exceptional sweet potato duck hash topped with perfectly cooked eggs, a special on my first visit, has graduated to the regular menu on an enthusiastic customer’s suggestion. The bread pudding is also a local favorite, replete with chanterelles, yellow candy onions, treviso radicchio, and cheddar. Most menus have included at least one eyebrow-raising selection: hard potato dumplings fried in bacon fat, crispy pig’s ears with lime and green onion vinaigrette, a roasted lamb sandwich with salsa verde. Sadly, an elegant breakfast of steamed rice, Chinese sausages and eggs did not survive the menu, but Siu has hinted that future cameo appearances are a possibility.

* * * * *

Plow delivers the quintessential American meal with food that is simple, local, and consistently well executed. I will certainly take a lot of grief for softening my stance on brunch. But with food this smart, I find it hard to imagine caring.

Plow
1299 18th Street, San Francisco; (415) 821-7569; eatatplow.com
Hours: Tuesday to Friday, 7:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, 8:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m.

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A warm thank you to my fellow bloggers who encouraged me to write this post.

And Now for Something Completely Delicious
The Cuisinerd
Eat Live Run
Eat Live Travel Write
The Front Burner
Good Food, Good Wine, and a Bad Girl
I am a Feeder
Korean American Mommy
Le Grand Fromage
Spicy Green Mango
Z Tasty Life [/one_half]

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Categories
Essay Index

I am a baker

[one_half][I] am told that my sensei was one of the original Navy SEALs. A short, wiry man with graying curls, bright eyes and an angular face. He could not have weighed more than 130 lbs. But if I were unfortunate enough to get caught in his vise-like grip, I would soon receive just enough weight applied to my ribcage to feel as if I were being choked by a giant. This time, I was determined not to let that happen. Starting on the ground, I proceeded to attack, making repeated, futile attempts to turn him over from the tuck position. One mistake, and maybe 3 seconds after that, I found myself in the familiar position of tapping out.

Sensei stood up, straightened his gi, and looked me directly in the eye.

“I remember when you were weak. It used to be easy to move you around! Now?” He smiled, raising an index finger. “Not so easy.”

I was exhausted and soundly beaten. But all the same, I felt an overwhelming sense of accomplishment. I had started practicing judo five months earlier. For the first 3 weeks, I could not get through the warmups without vomiting from exertion. Now I was stronger, faster, more physically intelligent, and better conditioned than I had been in my entire life.

As with many of my hobbies and obsessions, it was difficult to explain to people why I did it—why I kept going back to that dojo. I lived in New York and had a big job at a big bank, with the love of my life waiting for me at home. And yet I chose to spend 10 hours a week in a stuffy, windowless room, returning home with bruises, duct tape-wrapped toes, and a gym bag full of my own sweat.

To me, judo had nothing to do with wanting to fight, work out my aggression, or examine the state of my masculinity. What I valued about the experience was that it completely changed my perspective about what I was capable of doing.

If you are a grown man who is unathletic and cannot play basketball, you will likely not learn how to play during a pickup game in the South Bronx. You have to already know how to play. That, in a nutshell, was how I saw the world for nearly 30 years. I learned early on that I would be praised for the things I did well. Wanting approval, I pursued those things. And when I wasn’t sure whether I’d be good at something, I usually didn’t want to find out.

The revelation I experienced with judo was that, as a white belt, it did not matter whether you were a cop, wrestler, or out-of-shape equity derivatives trader. You were going to get your ass handed to you, respectfully, and effortlessly, by the black belts. There’s something liberating about everyone essentially starting from zero. And the entire dojo, from the yellow belts to the senseis, wanted us to learn.

Shortly after whipping myself into shape and purchasing a year-long membership to the dojo, I hyperextended my knee and never returned to the mat. I left as a white belt. But I also left knowing that I had transformed my body in ways that I had not thought possible. I entered the dojo detesting the idea of being a beginner at anything, because it meant that I could be dominated, shamed, or dismissed by others. I left embracing it.

A year later, I quit my job and went back to college. I volunteered in two labs and took undergraduate courses in math, chemistry and physics. I learned how to swim. I am now working on a PhD in biophysics. Someday, I may perhaps be convinced to sing.

As I see my daughter grow into her person, astounding as any parent imagines his child to be, I catch myself wanting to brag and outwardly gush over her achievements—exactly the behavior that I believe nurtured my fear of failure. I’m ultra-wary of raising a perfectionist, and I don’t want Esme to avoid new experiences the way I did. So I try to temper my praise and replace it with enthusiasm. But I think the best way that I can teach Esme to embrace being a beginner is to continue being one.

Over the past several months, I have put myself in the awkward position of being a beginner over and over again. I am exhausted and beaten. But I can now say that I’m a writer. Not a professional or seasoned one, but I write essays and tell stories, and I work at it every day. Similarly, I am now a relatively social person, connecting with people in ways that were inconceivable in my loneliest moments. I have also found that I am a beginning recipe developer, instructor, and producer/director of video.

And as of this past Thanksgiving weekend, I am proud to now call myself a baker. [/one_half]

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Categories
Baking Desserts Index Vegetarian

Pumpkin Pie Redux

[one_half][M]y extremely talented sister once told me that she had made a pumpkin pie, from scratch, with a fresh pumpkin, and that it tasted no different from a pie made with canned. I was in college at the time, when the idea of cutting open an actual pumpkin seemed tantamount to building your own television. The canned pumpkin seemed like a modern marvel that could possibly render the unprocessed version obsolete.

But times, and curiosities, change. I am now accustomed to seeing (presumably fresh) pumpkin shoehorned into every imaginable food throughout the fall and winter seasons. Pumpkin gnocchi, pumpkin pancakes, pumpkin crème brûlée, pumpkin soup, pumpkin flan, pumpkin ale, and of course, the abomination that is the pumpkin spice latte. In each of these cases, I find myself asking the same question: What does pumpkin taste like?

The answer invariably seems to be: Cinnamon, cloves, ginger, and nutmeg. Not that I have an intrinsic problem with those flavors. But aside from the comforting, orange-brown paste we are accustomed to taking in a pie shell, what does it actually feel like to bite into a piece of pumpkin? Perhaps, as I have often suspected, there is a reason we don’t leave the pumpkin meat intact. I could imagine it being bland, slimy, possibly bitter. Perhaps, like quince, it is only palatable in paste form. I considered it a personal challenge to prove that notion wrong.

As a home cook primarily known for slow-cooking meats, I have long felt that I should learn how to make a proper dessert. Years before the genesis of Babychili, I found myself oddly drawn to the numerous pie contests I saw on television. I felt that they were different from other cooking competitions in that, despite being open to professional cooks, the contestants, generally speaking, had no formal training. They were home cooks like me, and they were surprisingly creative. I wondered whether I could win such a contest, and how long it would take to find out.

It’s become cliché for savory cooks to say that they are intimidated by baking, but that has certainly been the case with me. Eventually, work, “real life,” and various other excuses took over, and I never did try making a pie. Sometimes you need to get pushed into the pool. So I committed, this Thanksgiving, to executing my own version of pumpkin pie (actually a tart). And dammit, you were going to get pieces of pumpkin if it killed me.

* * * * *

CANDIED PUMPKIN TART WITH TOASTED PUMPKIN SEED FRANGIPANE

The crust

Regular readers of this blog have heard me say this several times now, but I’ll repeat it for the newcomers: If you are a neurotic perfectionist, or perhaps just like to have things explained to you in pedantic detail, a highly recommended way to learn any new technique in the kitchen is to consult The Zuni Café Cookbook by Judy Rodgers. I have rarely attempted a recipe from this book that did not subsequently result in the best version of that particular dish I have ever had. So when it came time to learn how to make a pie crust, I did not turn to any number of classic tomes on baking. I went straight for the Basic Rich Tart Dough, by Rodgers.

But even a recipe as informative as Zuni’s does not necessarily make for a perfect first try. The prominent eyebrow-raiser in this recipe is its inclusion of salted butter. The salt, as I understand it, plays an important role in both the flavor and texture of the dough. Rodgers recommends butter containing 90 milligrams of sodium per tablespoon, which is near the high end of the range for salted butters. I neglected to remember this detail, and simply bought “salted butter,” which, in my case, happened to contain a whopping 115 milligrams per tablespoon. This was, in my opinion, too much salt for my recipe. I made three different crusts, and settled on using the European Style Lightly Salted Butter by Straus. In addition to being lower in sodium (45 milligrams per tablespoon), this butter was also significantly lower in moisture than the other two brands I tried. The lower moisture butter behaved with flour exactly as described in the book, while the other two butters (though they worked perfectly fine) were significantly stickier.

* * * * *

The filling

I imagined slices of caramelized pumpkin enveloped in a base of toasted pumpkin seed frangipane. Frangipane is a baked cream, typically made with almonds, that rises upon baking and assumes the consistency of a sticky bread. My first attempt at this was an unqualified failure. The frangipane did not rise, and the butter, all 13 tablespoons of it (which turned out to be only 9 tablespoons too many) leaked out of my poor tart and left it sitting in a pool of molten fat. I made several more versions of the frangipane before arriving at this version, found at Dessert First by Anita Chu. I made two ingredient substitutions: in place of almonds, I used pumpkin seeds (raw, unsalted, and hulled) which I pan-toasted over medium-low heat for 5 – 10 minutes until they became fragrant and slightly brown. So that my pumpkin seeds would not compete with the flavor of almonds, I used vanilla extract instead of almond extract.

One practical piece of advice I can offer in making any frangipane is to make sure that the sugar/pumpkin seed (or sugar/almond) mixture is processed or ground to the point where you cannot imagine the pieces of seeds or nuts being any smaller. Before adding wet ingredients, you should arrive at a sandy-colored sugar. There may be flecks of skin from the pumpkin seeds, but there should be no detectable grit from the meat of the seeds. This is apparently essential for allowing the seeds to incorporate into a smooth cream that will rise during baking.

* * * * *

The pumpkin

Finally, we arrive at the $64 question: Do pieces of pumpkin belong on a tart? I maintain that the answer is yes. My treatment of the pumpkin is inspired by calabaza en tacha, traditionally served during Day of the Dead celebrations in Mexico. The challenge here was to prepare slices of pumpkin that were attractive, preferably caramelized, had a distinct pumpkin flavor, and could be cut easily with a fork. But how thick can I cut the pumpkin? Should I parcook it? Marinate it? Allow it to cook completely on the tart itself? I struggled to arrive at the product I suspected (but was not certain) was possible, and experienced a key aha moment when reading this recipe for butternut squash tart by Matt Armendariz. Roast it in oil first. Then season and bake. Here is the winning method:

Candied pumpkin

1 small sugar pumpkin*
grapeseed or vegetable oil
kosher salt
1/4 C granulated sugar
zest and juice from 1/2 of a small orange
2 T maple syrup
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground ginger
1/4 tsp ground allspice

*Note: The pumpkin should be small, young and heavy for its size. Its flesh should provide a fair bit of resistance when cutting with a sharp knife. If the flesh is light or spongy, then too much of the starch has been converted to sugar, and it will wind up tasting more like a radish than a sweet potato. A kabocha or butternut squash would also work nicely here.

Peel and quarter the pumpkin and thoroughly scrape out the pith and seeds. Cut into uniform slices about 1/2 cm thick. Lightly toss in neutral oil with a sprinkle of kosher salt. Roast in a preheated, 400F oven for 15 minutes or until tender, turning once to ensure even heating.

While the pumpkin is roasting, combine remaining ingredients and mix thoroughly. Taking care not to damage the cooked pumpkin slices, arrange them in a single layer on a large plate and coat both sides with mixture. Allow the slices to marinate for about 15 minutes.

* * * * *

Assembling the tart

Spread the frangipane evenly in a frozen tart shell and carefully arrange pumpkin slices in a fan (or other desired) pattern. Bake in a preheated, 375F oven for about 40 minutes, or until both the frangipane and crust have begun to brown. About halfway through cooking, the frangipane should rise considerably, then relax. Allow the tart to cool completely on a wire rack before ravaging.

* * * * *

Needless to say, over this past week, I became extremely adept at peeling and seeding pumpkins. The tart shell, once a terrifying prospect, quickly became manageable. The pumpkin seeds yielded a rich, nutty frangipane. And the roast pumpkin slices married with orange to offer a fragrance reminiscent of marmalade. Did I mention that my tart didn’t last long?

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Categories
Chinese Index Sauces Vegan Video

17:00

[one_half][W]hen I first heard mention of “National Men Make Dinner Day,” I thought it was some kind of joke. What’s next? “National Women Change Light Bulb Day?” I’ve since made two key realizations:

  1. It takes place in Canada (which is perhaps all I needed to know).
  2. According to the website, I am apparently exempt from this activity:

Are you a man who makes dinner on a regular or semi-regular basis?
If the answer is ‘YES”, do not go any further!
National Men Make Dinner Day is NOT for you!

Still, the premise of a “National Men Make Dinner Day” fascinates, though I’d like clarification on a few things. For example, is the phenomenon distinct from Valentine’s Day? How does it work for gay and lesbian households? If I lived in Canada, would Matt Berninger be making me dinner? Presumably, these questions are addressed in the FAQ …

While it seems mildly condescending and more than a little sad to imply that Canadian men are so far gone that they might consider cooking one day out of 365, I do laud the intent, which is to encourage people (perhaps as many as 15 million of them) to cook their own food. I exist in a peer group where people, male or female, generally don’t cook. And I’ll admit that I myself occasionally indulge in a bit of non-cooking by way of South Asian-inspired paste that I’ve squeezed from a foil envelope. But it never hurts to remember that, in less than 17 minutes (the duration of one televised intermission in ice hockey) I can make a meal with fresh ingredients that tastes good, makes me feel good, and costs less than $2 per person.

I’ve previously posted about my love for David Chang’s ginger scallion noodles. This recipe, in addition to meeting above criteria, is one that makes you feel like a rockstar. Why bring it up again? Because I’m guessing that someone who needs coaxing to enter the kitchen may not have read my 1500+ words about ginger scallion sauce, riveting as they may be.

So let’s lower the barrier, shall we? Canadian National Man: In the time it takes for you to drink a beer, I can promise that you’ll learn how to pick and peel ginger, how to use a knife, and how to make a killer sauce that will get you dinner on the table before 17:00 have expired. You can thank me during the second intermission.

Music: One Never Says ‘Verbal’ When One Means ‘Oral’ by Good Old Neon is licensed under a Sampling Plus License.

Update: Thank you, Chef John, for featuring us on Food Wishes! [/one_half]

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Categories
Desserts Index Korean Meats Vegan

Retrospect

[one_half][I] viewed a lot of my world through the dusty window of a green, 1973 Chevy Impala. This was the first car I knew, and the one our family drove for almost ten years. I still remember those six, giant, rectangular brake lights. Parking whiskers that scraped the curb with a dull, grinding murmur. And that engine. A 350 small-block V-8. My sister and I recognized the sound of that engine from indoors. Hearing it approach, then halt, punctuated by the quick ratchet of the emergency brake, meant only one thing:

Mom and Dad home. Quick … Turn off the TV!

In addition to being a harbinger of parental authority, our car was a private boat in which we sailed off to exotic places through night and day. Places far beyond the sun-drenched concrete of Hawthorne, California. Hot Springs, where my mom sought relief for her arthritic joints. Sacramento, where we occasionally visited a family friend named Rena, whom I knew as “American Grandma.” And once in a long while, Oregon, where our cousins Ty and Trinda lived. It was on one of these trips that I first saw a deer and snow.

Dad was driving late into the night, and my sister and I tried to find comfortable ways to lie across the back seat without hitting our heads on the window crank. We were eating cold pieces of fried chicken fished from the darkness of a brown shopping bag, when Mom gasped. We all saw it, staring straight at us, like a ghost pausing in the middle of the road. The snowflakes outside were larger than I expected. Everything looked monochrome in our headlights. And a few seconds later, it was gone.

On all those trips, we ate the food that Mom packed. It was usually something relatively healthy, like kimbap, barley tea and fruit. It was food we were accustomed to. Comforting, perhaps, but sometimes flirting with boring. Above all, it was what we could afford. I would sometimes stare longingly at the fast food joints we passed on the road: Shakey’s Pizza, Carl’s Jr., Pioneer Chicken … These were the places my cousins and classmates would certainly stop for a meal, in their luxurious, wood-paneled station wagons.

As I grew older, the road trips got longer. Indiana. Illinois. Wisconsin. I was becoming more conscious of how modestly we lived, and understood that we regularly drove distances people would ordinarily fly. And I resented it. I grew tired of sticking out, living in our messy, half-unpacked house, being stuck for what seemed like forever in the backseat of that car, listening to my parents bicker in a language I only half-understood. I carried that with me for a long time. And when it came time to go away to school, I chose New York, the farthest away I could possibly be. My dad wanted to drive there with me. In a decision I regret to this day, I told him no. I wanted to fly. And I wanted to do it on my own.

As a parent, I can now begin to appreciate how my father must have felt. I’ve since gotten to know both of my parents as people; flawed, but human. And I’ve repeatedly wondered what it would have been like to be on the road for those few days, spending all my waking hours with my father, whom I was accustomed to seeing for maybe an hour a day. The old man’s still around, but he’s not one for long drives anymore. I wish we had taken that trip together. This is the food I would like to have made.

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SIGUMCHI NAMUL (Seasoned spinach)

This classic banchan (side dish) is always waiting for me at my parents’ dinner table in LA.

2 lbs spinach leaves, trimmed and cleaned
2 tsp soy sauce
2 tsp kosher salt
2 tsp sugar
1 T distilled white vinegar
1 thinly sliced scallion
kochukaru (Korean red pepper flakes), to taste (opt.)
1 T toasted sesame seeds

In a large stockpot, bring 4 quarts of water to a boil and blanch spinach leaves until bright green, no longer than 10 seconds. Immediately shock the leaves in icewater, and drain. Squeeze out excess water, and blot with paper towels. It’s not necessary to get it completely dry, just not dripping wet. Mix soy sauce, salt, sugar and vinegar in a large bowl and toss with wilted spinach leaves (your hands are the best tools here). Add scallion, kochukaru and sesame seeds and toss once more. Optionally, you can chop the resulting mass of spinach into roughly bite sized chunks.

Notes. 2 lbs of raw spinach looks like a frighteningly large amount. Don’t worry. It will compact to the size of a softball with this recipe. You will, however, need a very large bowl for cleaning and shocking. To get the best color, it’s important not to overcook the leaves. Do this in batches, if necessary.

* * * * *

KIMBAP

Unquestionably, kimbap is the canonical Korean picnic food. Similar in form to futomaki, kimbap is served at room temperature, eaten with the hands, and, due the acidity of the rice, keeps for at least a day. I never tried Japanese sushi rolls until college, but I must have eaten hundreds of kimbap as a child. I filled these with spinach, takuan, fried egg, and Spam. Other typical fillings include bulgogi, kamaboko, sauteed carrots, and kimchi. Ideally, one wants fillings that complement one another in color, texture, and flavor.

On Spam. I see you non-Asians out there, raising your eyebrows at the choice of Spam. All I can say is that, in my experience, the people most vocal in their disgust for Spam have never actually tried it. Their loss. Suffice to say, Hawaiians know what they’re doing. Mark my words: Spam will be the next bacon. Whether you choose to face that reality is a decision only you can make. To address its possibly unappetizing texture or appearance, give the Spam a nice sear before deploying.

Seasoned Rice
Adapted from Growing Up in a Korean Kitchen

2 1/2 cups high-quality (we like the Nishiki brand) short-grain white rice
4 T rice vinegar or distilled white vingear
1/2 T sugar
kosher salt
1 T rice wine or vermouth
1 T sesame oil

Cook the rice, preferably in a rice cooker. The rice is easier to work with if it’s overly not soft/mushy, so limit the amount of water added to about 1 1/4 – 1 1/2 times the volume of the dry rice. While the rice is cooking, combine vinegar, sugar and a pinch of salt in a small saucepan. Briefly simmer under low heat until sugar and salt are dissolved. Allow the solution to cool, then add rice wine and sesame oil, mixing well.

When the rice has finished cooking, transfer to a large bowl and fluff the rice with a fork or rice paddle. Drizzle in seasoning and mix well. Keep the rice covered and work with it while slightly warm.

Egg ribbons

vegetable oil
6 large eggs
kosher salt
black pepper

Cover the bottom of a 10″ skillet with vegetable oil and place over medium heat. Beat 3 of the eggs until blended and add a pinch of salt and 1 – 2 turns of freshly cracked black pepper. When the pan is hot, add the eggs and cook, pancake-style, for about 2 minutes, moving the pan if necessary to heat evenly. Flip the pancake (you may need 2 spatulas to do this) and cook for another minute. Remove from heat and set egg pancake on a paper towel to cool and drain. Add a bit more oil and cook the other 3 eggs the same way. Cut into slices about 1/4″ wide. If they turn out too thin, you can always double them up when assembling your roll.

Kimbap

8 – 10 sheets of kim (also called nori, or laver), roughly 8 inches square
seasoned rice
8 – 10 strips of takuan, about 8″ long and 1/4″ wide
egg ribbons
1 can Spam, cut into 1/4″ wide strips and seared
sigumchi namul
sesame oil

highly recommended tool: a bamboo mat called a makisu or a pal.

There are many tutorials available online for rolling kimbap and maki rolls. I reviewed this one and this one before making mine. I also enjoyed watching this woman, a beast at the kimbap station who doesn’t even need a bamboo mat! My first kimbap always turn out a bit gnarly-looking, but as with any new technique, things gets better with practice. To fill each roll, I used one strip of takuan, two strips of egg ribbon, two strips of Spam (arranged end to end), and a small line of cut spinach.

Notes. I am often guilty of overstuffing rolled foods, so I make a conscious effort to start with less rice than I think I need, adjusting up if necessary. Keep a bowl of water handy to keep rice from sticking to your fingers. Brush the outside of the roll with sesame oil and cut into 1/2″ slices. Wipe down and wet your knife regularly.

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JANG JORIM (soy sauce braised beef)

This side dish is a practical choice for packed lunches because it is essentially preserved, staying fresh for months in the refrigerator. The use of beef is auspicious, due to its historical scarcity. Small portions are advised due its intense flavor. A wonderful recipe can be found at my friend Amy’s website.

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KONG NAMUL (seasoned soybean sprouts)

Soybean sprouts are ubiquitous in Korean cuisine, and this banchan is a another childhood favorite. A recipe can be found elsewhere on my website.

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BORI CHA (roasted barley tea)
Adapted from Growing Up in a Korean Kitchen

Growing up, I was always offered my choice of beverage: water or barley tea.

1/2 C unhulled barley
1 quart water

If the barley has not already been roasted, you may pan-toast it for 3 minutes over medium-low heat, until fragrant. Add barley to water, bring to a boil (preferably in a ceramic or enamel-lined pan) and reduce to a simmer. Brew for 1 hour, and strain. Can be served hot or cold.

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YAKBAP (sweet rice cake)

My mom likes to remind me that I was such a picky eater as a kid that I would mysteriously get a stomach ache every day at meal time. Which was miraculously cured when it was time for dessert. This homemade variation of dduk is another perennial picnic favorite. A fail-safe recipe, and by far the quickest you will find, is described in a separate post.

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Categories
Fusion Index Italian Japanese Pescatarian

Translations

[one_half][T]here is perhaps no context in which package copy could be as fascinating to me as it is when I’m browsing the aisles of an Asian grocery. Examples are sufficiently numerous to fill books, but one that has always stayed with me is the seductive teaser that graces the packaging of my all-time favorite candy, Kasugai Muscat Gummy:

Its translucent color so alluring and taste and aroma so gentle and mellow offer admiring feelings of a graceful lady. Enjoy soft and juicy Kasugai Muscat Gummy.

This epigram unironically makes me wish that I could speak Japanese, so I could pinpoint the exact moment the car missed its exit and wound up at, quite frankly, a much more interesting place than it had originally intended to be.

Less commonly, we are treated with what I might call an inverse translation. That is, a translation that undergoes a round trip back to its original language. Of course, translations are not perfectly invertible, so the resulting text is subject to not one, but two transformations. Such was the case with Madonna’s 1996 interview with Budapest newspaper, Blikk. The interview was conducted in English, translated into Hungarian, and then, at the behest of USA Today, translated back to English. Sadly, the USA Today excerpts are unavailable, so we are left with Garry Trudeau’s hilarious re-imagining of said interview. A sample, for those who missed it at first go-around:

Blikk: Madonna, let’s cut toward the hunt: Are you a bold hussy-woman that feasts on men who are tops?

Madonna: Yes, yes, this is certainly something that brings to the surface my longings. In America it is not considered to be mentally ill when a woman advances on her prey in a discotheque setting with hardy cocktails present. And there is a more normal attitude toward leather play-toys that also makes my day.

You get the idea. The serendipity of words gained in translation. I somehow could not shake the thought of Madonna’s brilliant Blikk interview during a recent meal at Halu, a ramen/yakitori shop in the heart of the Richmond. The friends who had recommended this restaurant to us warned that we were not, under any circumstances, to neglect the pizza. They were, of course, referring to okonomiyaki, a traditional Japanese dish that’s more akin to a savory pancake, or a Korean jeon. At some point, this got translated as “pizza,” presumably because it is often sliced into pie-shaped wedges. Entertaining the unlikely idea that this was Japan’s take on a classic Neopolitan pie, I was compelled to devise an inverse translation: What about an Italian okonomiyaki? If perfectly invertible, one might arrive at a pizza margherita. But where would be the fun in that? Instead, my aim was to construct a dish with the same look and feel of an okonomiyaki, but with Italian-inspired ingredients and flavors.

MY BASTARD STEPCHILD

The concept. There were two main things I wanted to change about the “crust,” or the base. First, I seasoned the batter with anchovies instead of dashi. This gives the crust a flavor reminiscent of a cuddura patteda. Second, a classic okonomiyaki batter contains shredded cabbage. I opted to use radicchio—more specifically, a radicchio salad. A lesser offense is my use of shredded potato instead of nagaimo. This is a fairly common substitution, one that makes this recipe easier to shop for, and let’s face it … mine isn’t exactly a traditional recipe, anyway.

The topping is the fantastic shredded radicchio salad from the Zuni Café Cookbook. Typically, okonomiyaki is garnished with a zig-zagged squirt of kewpie mayonniase. I accomplished a similar visual effect by using Béchamel sauce.

A note on anchovies. I am officially in love with salt-packed anchovies. The flavor is incomparable to the oil-packed variety found in flat tins (which, incidentally, I also like). They are a bit more difficult to find, so you may want to buy them online. Also, they require more handling: Before using, soak a small batch of the anchovies in cold water for 15 – 20 minutes, then remove fins and backbone. Transfer remaining salt-packed fish to an airtight container. They will keep in the refrigerator indefinitely.

A note to the lazy. Honestly? I didn’t bother soaking these. I cut off the fins and chopped them up, bones and all. I used this instead of adding more salt. If I were eating these whole, e.g., over a salad, I would do it the long way. But in this case, I honestly don’t think it makes a difference.

The preparation. First, make the Béchamel sauce. This can be done a day in advance. You want to allow it sufficient time to cool, as it may be too runny otherwise. Note that Batali’s recipe makes 3 cups of sauce. We are using it for a garnish, so may want to scale it down or find another use for the rest of the sauce.

Next, make the shredded radicchio salad, as it is needed for both the crust and the topping. If desired, reserve breadcrumbs and sieved egg until after making the crust. The salad wilts considerably after an hour or two. This isn’t a tragedy, since part of it is being cooked. But it’s best to make this shortly before making the crust. If you also want to serve this as a straight-up salad, reserve some to dress immediately prior to serving.

Babychili’s Italian Okonomiyaki (or Italian-Japanese-Italian pizza)
adapted from Okonomiyaki World

grapeseed or other neutral oil
1 C all purpose flour
2/3 C ice cold water
2 eggs
1/4 C grated russet potato
About 3 tsp salt-packed anchovy fillets, finely chopped

Zuni Café shredded radicchio salad
Béchamel sauce

Cover the surface of a cast-iron skillet or griddle with a liberal pour of oil and place over medium heat. Combine flour, water, eggs, potato, and anchovy in a medium-size mixing bowl and stir until just smooth. Add about 1 1/2 C of the salad and mix until evenly coated. Test the batter by frying a small (coin-sized) sample. Adjust seasoning with anchovy (and/or salt, fish sauce), if desired. Ladle batter into the skillet and flatten to a pancake to about 1.5 cm in uniform thickness. You have a minute or so to add more batter if needed, or tuck in the edges with a spoon to make a nice-looking circle. Cook for about 3 minutes, or until the bottom is golden brown.  At that point, flip the pancake and cook for another 2 – 4 minutes until done.

Blot with paper towels, if desired. Dress with the shredded radicchio salad as a topping, being sure to include the toasted bread crumbs and sieved, hardboiled egg. Pan-crisped pancetta might also be nice here. Drizzle with Béchamel sauce and serve immediately.

Further notes. For crisp pancakes, use ice-cold water and eggs for the batter. The side that gets cooked first will be smoother and more even-looking. I tend to place this side face-up when serving. Finally, these are best when served, as much as possible, hot from the pan. If the pancakes must be reheated, this is best done in a skillet as opposed to a microwave.

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Categories
Gluten Free Index Pescatarian Seafood Vegetarian

A potato, a scallop

[one_half][I]t occurred to me at some point that watching Jacques Pépin work is an awful lot like watching my Dad. First, he looks like my Dad. They are exactly the same age and build. For as long as I can remember, Dad has kept his hair parted on the side, spatters of grey peeking out behind a home dye-job, carefully combed into place with a spare application of Three Flowers Brilliantine Pomade. Like Dad, Jacques occasionally pauses to audibly slurp saliva that has accumulated at the corners of his mouth. Both men move with fluidness and deliberation. But what I think reminds me most of my father is the way that Jacques approaches even the seemingly trivial task of chopping an onion with an almost pathological degree of meticulousness. I remember the Rhau household being home to perfectly pattern-matched wallpaper, seams disappearing even over outlets and circular wall plates. Fitted sheets were folded into flat rectangles of uniform thickness. Written driving directions always included an accurately scaled map, drawn freehand. I would try to learn how to do things the way he did, but with my kid hands, I could never get things quite as tight, even, or square as my Dad.

So you might understand why I continue to watch, with childlike wonder, footage of Jacques, his hands a blur of activity, cutting an onion into a mound of uniform squares in seconds. Wanting to learn how to properly handle a knife, I wasted no time getting Jacques Pépin’s Complete Techniques. The book needs no introduction to many of you. If it does, and you’re serious about cooking, go get it. It’s an invaluable and extremely thorough collection of step-by-step photo tutorials, presented in the charming, black and white style of an auto repair manual. It also contains a recipe that was new to me, and has since become a go-to move in the Babychili kitchen. I present it to you, with pictures of my hands instead of Jacques’s. Taking a page from Donna Ruhlman’s playbook, key technique photos are presented in black and white, as color does not contribute information in this case.

* * * * *

We last made this dish at a luxury dinner party of another sort, as a shout-out to a different chef: Richard Blais. I really felt for Richard, and what he might feel upon reviewing his decision to make banana scallops for the second time in a single season of Top Chef (three total, in case you missed it). My concept was to make “scalloped” potatoes, where seared sea scallops were paired with soap-shaped, roasted potatoes of roughly the same size, shape and colors. We were so pleased with how they turned out that we decided to make them again.

‘SCALLOPED’ POTATOES

Pommes savonnettes (soap-shaped potatoes) from Jacques Pépin’s Complete Techniques

5 large, starchy potatoes (Idaho russets work well here)
2 T butter
1 1/2 T neutral oil (grapeseed or vegetable oil)
3/4 C water

I was a bit nervous about making these for a shoot, since Erin had previously been the one executing this dish. The first step does take a bit of practice and patience. It’s important to remember that a mistake is not the end of the world. Potatoes are relatively inexpensive, and imperfectly cut ones can be used for many things (mashed potatoes, home fries, etc.).

Peel and rinse the potatoes, then shape them into cylinders. Carving out the cylinders is by far the trickiest step. Three things I learned here:

1. Use a narrow bladed knife. Like a jigsaw, it is easier to turn and maneuver.

2. Trim the ends of the potato to be square with its long axis. Do this first. The flat ends will provide visual references as you trim the curved body of the cylinder.

3. Angle your knife to make a shallow first cut. If you start cutting too deeply, you will be trimming more potato than is necessary. Observe:

My first cylinder was really skinny as a result. Contrast this with my third potato, starting with flat ends and a shallower cut:

This time, the trimmings were dramatically thinner. It’s easiest to use a sawing motion with the knife, turning the potato to cut along a curve. Try to achieve a rough cylinder, going back a second or third time to refine. For me, this quickly became a fun game, where my goal was to lose as little of the potato as possible while still achieving a nice, clean cylinder. Note the vast improvement that resulted from these few, simple adjustments:

Next, slice each of these cylinders into disks about an inch thick. Optionally, you can bevel the edges, which makes them look a bit less like scallops and more like pieces of hotel soap. The beveling also makes things look a bit cleaner after cooking, since the edges can fray.

Arrange the potato disks into a single layer in a large, nonstick, oven-safe skillet, with the nicer looking sides facing down. Add butter, oil and water. I find it’s convenient to combine these items in a pyrex measuring cup and melt the butter in a microwave. The mixture can then be poured evenly over potato slices. If the surface of the skillet is covered with the potato slices (as it should be), the liquid will come up to about 3/4 of the height of the slices.

Bring to a rolling boil over high heat, then place in a preheated, 475 degree oven at the lowest position (preferably the floor of the oven). Cook for 35 to 40 minutes, until potatoes are soft. The tops of the potatoes should be blistery, and slightly brown.

Allow potatoes to rest at room temperature for a few minutes, then flip them over. The bottoms should be beautifully browned, and the act of turning should allow the potatoes to absorb most of the remaining butter and oil.

Sea scallops with cilantro gremolata and ginger lime beurre blanc

I made the full recipe for the gremolata and beurre blanc, but prepared only a dozen scallops to feed 4. For reasons I have discussed previously, I used freshly cracked black pepper instead of white pepper.

Presentation is always a matter of personal taste, but I chose to plate two potato slices with one scallop.

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(Photo: Jason Ezratty)

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Categories
Desserts Dinner Party Fusion Index Meats Poultry Soups Vegetarian Vietnamese

Mother Peach

[one_half][L]ost in my incessant praise for David Chang has been a quiet appreciation for the deft hand of Tien Ho, former chef de cuisine at Ssäm Bar. Erin and I recently traveled to New York together for the first time in years, ostensibly to celebrate our seventh wedding anniversary. That we might also sample as much food as humanly possible from the Momofuku empire was, of course, a serendipitous byproduct. Giddy as we were about sampling the litany of dishes that brought fame to The House That Chang Built, the highlight of our tour emerged from a place we least expected: an understated lunch at Má Pêche, where Ho is currently chef and co-owner.

A tidy summer roll mating grilled pork cake with a narrow breadstick sported measured contrasts in temperature and crunch, an interplay we’d come to expect from Ho’s Ssäm Bar lineage. The prix fixe also starred an exceptional cold-smoked chicken, striking our palates with richness and stealthy precision. Our meal was punctuated by miniature bricks of cereal milk panna cotta and Chang’s version of culinary crack. An elegant meal with simple flavors and a keen eye to balancing sweet, bitter and tart.

Is Má Pêche the best restaurant in Midtown? Probably, no. But the 60 minutes we spent there were, for us, unthinkable luxury. There we were, in this city we knew like a college roommate, our daughter in capable, loving, 3000-miles-away hands. A quiet meal in the middle of a workweek that wasn’t, with no appointments to keep and no place in particular to be. It was the briefest taste of a life we’d had, one that we’ve mourned losing, while acknowledging the bleary-eyed exhilaration that comes with having lost it.

So when tasked to create a “Luxury Dinner Party” menu, I devised a home cook’s tribute to Tien Ho, inviting dear friends (and Mission Bay It Couple) Caleb and Akua. This is what we ate.

* * * * *
FRIED PICKLES

This course is perhaps more Noodle Bar than Má Pêche, and was inspired in large part by a wonderful post by Kelly at The Meaning of Pie. I’ve always adored fried pickles, and was struck by the use of panko to enhance the difference between the dry and wet varieties of crunch. My contribution to this dish was the replacement of kosher dill pickles with an assortment of Asian pickles—something I’ve been curious about, but have never seen done. I used thinly sliced takuan and two different types of kimchi: baechu (napa cabbage) and oi sobagi (stuffed kirby cukes). I also used pickled shiitake mushrooms, made with a recipe from Momofuku.

To more easily appreciate the effects of deep-frying, I also plated raw versions of these pickles. I served two dipping sauces: a “ghetto salad dressing” (mayo mixed with a splash of soy sauce) and a “ghetto rouille” (mayo mixed with a squirt of sriracha). My mayonnaise of choice was Japanese kewpie.

Notes I would definitely make this again. The deep-frying mellows out the heat and raw garlic of the kimchi, as well as the saltiness of the pickled shiitakes. A high-sided, cast iron saucepan is a convenient and economical tool for deep frying small portions of food while minimizing splash. Lead time here is minimal. The pickled shiitakes are optimal if made a week in advance, but perfectly delicious when eaten immediately.

Wine opened Franck Bonville “Brut Selection” Blanc de Blancs Champagne. For the early portion of this menu, I was looking for a beverage with crispness and acid to cut the oil from the deep-fried dish and the rich terrines that would follow. A sparkling wine made sense to me, and this Champagne was an economical and well-received choice.

Music cued Human Amusements at Hourly Rates, Guided by Voices.

* * * * *

BÁNH MÌ CLUB

A bánh mì sandwich was the anchor point for my menu. For starving graduate students such as myself, the $2.50 bánh mì is a dietary staple and gustatory wonder. Classically, it consists of an airy baguette made with both rice and wheat flour, toasted, spread with mayonnaise and topped with pickled carrots, cilantro, sliced jalapeno, and (typically) a mix of terrines. As was the case with my bo ssäm post, I was compelled to make this dish after reading asian jewish deli’s assessment of it. Like Phong, I was completely taken with the pickled daikon radish. I had always thought of daikon as the boring, bland stepsister of the Korean mu radish. But cured with Momofuku’s vinegar pickle master brine, it brightens inordinately, revealing an astonishing amount of fragrance and verve.

It’s always a risky choice to mess with perfection, but I felt that taking some minor liberties with Tien Ho’s masterful interpretation of this sandwich (from Momofuku) was necessary to incorporate it into a five course meal. My key modification was to to make this sandwich a miniature triple-decker, using pan-grilled toast made from a loaf of sour batard from Acme. I also added some parma prosciutto, crisped in an oiled skillet, to mimic the bacon element of a more traditional club sandwich.

A note on portion size Even a small sandwich (as pictured here) is tremendously filling, particularly in the context of a multicourse meal. I presented it this way to accommodate the notorious appetite of a 6’4″, 205 lb, basketball-playing scientist. For mortals, I recommend a single tower, using toast points roughly 2″ square.

Preparation As is the case with the pickled shiitakes, both the daikon and carrot pickles benefit from a week of curing. In a pinch, however, overnight is better than nothing. The sandwich contains both a chicken liver terrine and ham terrine, which need to be made at least a day in advance. I advise also taking into account the amount of time it takes to locate 4 lbs of fresh ham. In San Francisco, it’s not so difficult. Often only available during the holidays elsewhere. Terrines and pickle recipes can also be found in Momofuku.

* * * * *

PEACH GAZPACHO

My favorite course of the evening served three purposes. First, as a nominal salutation to Má Pêche (“mother peach”) and Momofuku (“lucky peach”). Second, to bid a fond farewell to this year’s peach season, which was extraordinary. And functionally, I wanted to give my guests a breather from the assaulting richness of the surrounding courses. I managed to scavenge the last gasp of peaches last week from the Kashiwase Farms fruit stand, home to the most remarkable stone fruit ever to have crossed my jaded taste buds. I got about a dozen, cherry-picking the best 3 for my soup. This dish was cribbed directly from Daniel Humm’s Go-To-Dish segment on Chow’s fantastic new series. Humm’s soup is predictably stunning.

Notes Child’s play to execute, but really demands exceptional peaches. If your peaches are crunchy, mealy, or odorless, don’t try it.

Wine opened 2007 Vigneau-Chevreau “Cuvée Silex” Vouvray Sec. This dry chenin blanc was originally selected to pair with the next dish. The lady being dry, and the Vouvray being a rather promiscuous partner, we opened it. It worked surprisingly well with the creaminess of this soup.

Music cued Quarantine the Past, Pavement.

* * * * *

GA RO TI

I would have loved to replicate that smoked chicken I had at Má Pêche, but adding a cold-smoking step to my prep list was just not in the cards this time. I did feel that, given careful management of portion size in this menu, chicken was the correct protein for this course. Not excessively heavy, and in no danger of disappearing among its counterparts. I was looking for something simple and bold, and looked no further than this traditional Vietnamese roast chicken. Like The Ravenous Couple, I opted for cornish hens, a longtime favorite of Erin’s. I served halves of the cornish hen, seared off in a cast-iron skillet and drizzled with a pan gravy described as Dipping Sauce in the referenced post.

I did choose to serve this with tomato rice, forgoing the fried egg and adding a liberal punch of ground sumac, a tip I picked up from fellow blogger Jean at Lemons and Anchovies. The sumac provides acid, aroma and texture to the rice, and takes the dish very slightly to the left of faithful. I hesitated to include the rice, thinking that adding a starch might be  bit much for an already loaded menu. However, this is definitely one of those cases where it’s better to cut portions than courses. The tomato rice was an unqualified hit, devoured by Caleb and reminiscent of jollof rice from Akua’s native Ghana.

Notes The halved birds can be cooked in advance and held at room temperature until the final sear. In the interest of accuracy, I used a mixture of white and black pepper in the marinade, as the recipe specified. I’ve since concluded that I dislike white pepper, whose aroma tends to unpleasantly dominate anything I have seasoned with it. I am apparently not alone in this opinion. I recommend sticking with black pepper (preferably tellicherry). I used the same master brine from Course 2 to make the pickled beets that I’ve shown on the plate. In retrospect, the beets look exactly like takuan, and I may opt for a different color next time.

Music cued High Violet, The National.

* * * * *

LEMONGRASS GRANITA

To finish, I wanted something both refreshing and fragrant, and had in mind a sorbet or granita made with lemongrass. I adapted this recipe from Epicurious.

3 stalks fresh lemongrass, outer leaves discarded and root ends trimmed
3 C water
1/2 C fresh mint leaves, washed well and spun dry
1/2 C sugar
1 tsp kosher salt
juice from 1 lime

Trim lemongrass stalks of tougher, dried portions and thinly slice. Simmer sliced lemongrass in water, covered, for 5 minutes. Add mint and simmer, uncovered, for about a minute. Remove  from heat and add sugar, salt and lime, stirring until the sugar is dissolved. Purée mixture and strain through a chinois, discarding solids. Correct for salt and lime. Chill the filtrate, covered, until cold (this can be done quickly by immersing your mixing bowl in icewater) and freeze in an ice-cream maker.

Notes This dish can be served immediately as a sorbet. If held in the freezer, its texture will become more crystalline, allowing it to be served in the form of a granita. Garnish with a mint or basil leaf, if desired. The aromatic components of this dish are volatile, so it is best consumed within 1 – 2 days.

* * * * *

As if on cue, Esme arrived from a classmate’s birthday party shortly after we finished dessert. Our luxurious dinner came to a close, and we stood, rapt, as our daughter regaled us with tales of princess outfits, bouncy houses, and cake.

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Categories
Chinese Index Offal Poultry

Embracing the strange

[one_half][A]round the holidays, our lab conducts an annual outing for dim sum.  It’s an event I always look forward to, and one of the rare cases when we can reliably tear everyone away from the bench for a few hours. There are about 20 of us, however, so we usually can’t fit at one table. Upon arrival, the group chaotically organizes into two subgroups based on a number of criteria: Who wants to sit next to the boss? Who doesn’t want to be anywhere near the boss? Who can’t be separated from their BFF?, etc. Weeks before our first outing, my rotation advisor attempted to generate table assignments based the more rational criterion of what people wanted to order and eat. Dim sum is served family style, and best enjoyed with a like-minded group of eaters. I have to give Brian credit for devising a one-question diagnostic that fairly and accurately assesses the likelihood that a diner will be on board with the ordering habits of her responding cohort: Do you eat chicken feet?

For those who have not yet had the pleasure of indulging in dim sum, let me explain the ordering procedure.

(Customs vary, but most large dim sum houses in the city run this way.) A waiter comes by and takes, typically, a single order from the table. A representative from the table fills out the paper form, which is then checked off or stamped as the staff delivers each dish. It is very important to get that order right, since a busy restaurant can’t efficiently fulfill follow-up orders on the fly. In the meantime, servers are bringing around carts of dishes that the table may add to the order. You normally don’t want those for two reasons: First, you’ve presumably optimized your paper order. Second, the restaurant knows that turnover from the carts is unpredictable. Therefore, they only send out dishes that can tolerate sitting around a while, i.e. none of the prime dishes or perennial favorites like har gau (shrimp dumpings) or the sublime tang bao (soup-filled dumplings).

So the recipe for success at dim sum is:

  1. Have at least one person at the table (preferably one who speaks Cantonese) who knows how to order.
  2. Populate the table with people who eat what you eat, and know not to accept most orders from the cart.

I’ve had my fair share of bad dim sum experiences. On a number of occasions, I’ve been at a table so perplexed by the myriad dishes on the menu that we ultimately found ourselves with a motley collection of redundant, filling, mediocre items. So I knew very well the importance of above strategy to the overall dim sum experience. This time, I was determined to get seated at the correct table. That would be the chicken feet table.

I had never had chicken feet in my life. They are not comely. In fact, they look a bit like goblin hands. But this was one of the best dim sum restaurants in the Bay Area, and I didn’t want my non-chicken-feet-eating ways to stand in the way of the best possible dim sum experience the restaurant had to offer. So I said, Yeah, I eat chicken feet.

The verdict? Immediately one of my all-time favorites, and one that I’ve wanted to reproduce at home for some time. Savory, with a mild kiss of heat, chicken feet prepared in this way have a profound richness derived from a high content of slow-cooked cartilage and tendon—elements that contribute the vast majority of texture, flavor and body to a stock or consommé. The closest comparison I can make is to the middle joint of a chicken wing. Tender, gelatinous, with lots of skin. But in the case of chicken feet, not as much of the meat itself.

If you’re the type of person who gets a little skeeved out by the middle joint of a chicken wing, perhaps the feet are not where you want to start. On the other hand, if you have never had chicken feet and are open to trying them, I suggest you get yourself to a chicken feetery post haste. Or, make them yourself. The recipe is straightforward and satisfying. Note: this is the first Chinese dish I have ever cooked, and it is a bang-on version of the dim sum classic.

* * * * *

Phoenix talons (chicken feet in black bean sauce)
very slightly adapted from My Several Worlds

1 lb chicken feet
1-2 qts neutral cooking oil
2 qts water
1 oz fresh ginger
2 pieces star anise
2 oz cilantro root*
2 ounces maltose sugar*

the marinade
2 T oyster sauce
1 T sugar
2 T soy sauce
1 T rice wine or cooking sake
1 jalapeno, sliced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 tsp white pepper*
1 T fermented black bean sauce
1/2 tsp sesame oil

*Cilantro can be found on the root in Thai markets. More easily, stems may be substituted.
*Maltose sugar comes in either syrup or powder form, and can be found in some Asian markets. Eden foods makes a barley malt syrup, which is 76% maltose. Alternatively, 1/4 C of white sugar may be substituted.
*White pepper is traditional in Chinese cuisine. However, many find its aroma to be objectionable. Black pepper may be substituted here with little consequence.

Wash chicken feet thoroughly and pat dry with paper towels. Cut off nails with kitchen shears and discard. Coat feet with sugar and deep-fry at 350F until golden brown (5 – 7 mins).

Boil water and add ginger, star anise and cilantro root. Add chicken feet and simmer for 1.5 – 2 hours until tender. Drain.

Combine ingredients for the marinade and gently toss with chicken feet. When the mixture has cooled, cover and refrigerate overnight, or up to 24 hours.

Before serving, steam feet and marinade in a small bowl for 15 minutes. Garnish with sliced scallions or toasted sesame seeds, if desired. Serve hot, with a side of white rice.

* * * * *

And now, some blatant pandering to my beloved Foodbuzz editors (see right) …

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Chicken feet: They’re not just for dim sum anymore…

“Top 9” me?

What did you think I would make—a cupcake?

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Categories
Essay Index

Snips and snails and puppy dog tails

[one_half][O]h, but it was an unpleasant feeling. My wife had long since gone to sleep when I reached the sobering conclusion, having read just three posts from Molly Wizenberg’s nearly 6-year-old blog, that I had been hopelessly, thoroughly scooped. Honey, wake up. No, seriously—wake up! There’s another blog here that has good writing and photos …

Okay, for the sake of argument, let’s pretend that this didn’t happen in March 2010, that Molly’s memoir (which discusses, at length, her wildly successful blog) hadn’t already been on bookshelves for a year, and that I was not the last person on earth to read Orangette. Given those mental circumstances, I had to weep a little bit. Because before that fateful Waterloo moment, I was the proud, new owner of a free WordPress.com blog, and had begun writing about (wait for it … ) food. With a couple posts under my belt and some snarky comments in tow, I was confident that, of the 100,000 or so food blogs out there, mine would stand out as being the best written.

I’ll acknowledge that I was a little naïve about that one. But in my defense, I thought I was onto something different from what I knew to exist. As a spanking new blogger, I had begun my journey by pondering what makes a good blog. I read some of the pros (as well as some Jos) and accumulated bits of advice that I came to identify collectively as Best Practices for food blogging. I’m sure you’ve heard them, in some form or another. They boil down to something like:

  1. Keep your posts short.
  2. Cut to the chase.
  3. Post often.
  4. Take good pictures.
  5. Occupy a niche.

And so forth. Not horrible advice, really. But with myself as editor, I knew that I could not write this way. I certainly could not satisfy all these constraints while maintaining a writing voice that rang true to what I am: Completely neurotic and self-conscious. Was I really going to crank out pithy mood-prefaces to “quick and easy” recipes that were flavorful, healthy, and cruelty-free? Not when so many other writers were doing that much, much better than I possibly could. I wanted to distinguish myself, and for me that meant disregarding the Best Practices format altogether.

The concept I had in mind was to tell stories in the form of vignettes that illustrate the importance of food in my life. Stories long enough to tell you a little bit about me. I might write about the surreal experience of growing up in a moxanim’s household in Hawthorne. Or I might write about trying to do something wacky, like make fake skate wings out of diver scallops. But I would always leave room for myself to develop a distinct voice, which, in my mind, ought to be the most important part of any blog. If I do my job correctly, you’d want to read my posts, even if there is no recipe. And when there is a recipe? Well. You’re going to want to bang out that bad boy today.

So I started writing that way, and feeling good about myself. Then I found Molly’s blog. And Luisa’s. My response was a resounding: Crap. I am forced to adore these two blogs because the authors clearly do not care one iota about Best Practices. They take their time. They tell great stories. And their voices kill. Despite my initial chagrin over being beaten to the punch (by you know, six years or so), I eventually calmed myself down with a key realization: They have their voices, and I have mine.

Whether you love, hate, or remain steadfastly indifferent to my blog, I may compel you to admit that there aren’t many others that read like mine. I am not famous, professionally trained, poetic, or ethereal. My posts are not short. I don’t post every day. And I don’t write in my speaking voice (I’m not nearly this clever in person).

But enough about what I’m not. I am a husband and a dad. The arrival of my daughter forced me to rethink my grad school diet of frozen pizzas and meals that come in pocket form. I am now compelled to prepare delicious, homemade meals for my family. Though I am fascinated by all cuisines, I tend to gravitate toward simple, rustic food with bold flavors. After many years in which eating out was my primary form of entertainment, I started to teach myself to cook some of my favorite dishes. In doing so, I went from being somewhat of a food nerd to being consumed, beyond any reasonable degree, by thoughts of food and cooking. I am a pretty serious geek. Despite repeated attempts at maturity, I continue to excel at being a smart aleck. And I am now learning to write about all of it.

It is perhaps for all these reasons that I currently toil in relative obscurity. But if you’ve read this far, if you’ve read me more than once, or spent any time wondering when my next post would come, I’m willing to bet that you like this blog. If I were to encounter you in an elevator, I would, in all likelihood, be too chicken to say anything. But if forced, at gunpoint, to pitch you, I would say something like this: At Babychili, we try our best to serve delicious posts that are fun to read, useful, and crack you up. Best practices be damned.

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