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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.

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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.

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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.

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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
Guest Post Index Korean Poultry

Guest post: Korean mandu for an American kitchen

[one_half]THE EVOLUTION OF MANDU

[U]ntil my brother made me write this blog entry, I always made a long apology whenever I prepared Korean food. Depending on what I was serving, my apology would include some version of the following statements: It’s not the way my mom made it. Koreans usually don’t serve x with y. If my mom tasted this she’d smack me. This is definitely not authentic, but…. Naturally, I made similar statements in my early drafts. And my brother, who is by far my biggest fan and my strongest supporter, kept shooting my drafts back to me. Not sure it’s there. And, worse: Good start!

Bewildering, I thought. Why is this hard? Is it because I’ve never written about cooking? Have I lost my touch? If it weren’t Ben, I might have flaked on this assignment and quietly pretended my insecurities never came up. But it’s Ben. So I found myself, over the past several weeks—thinking more about mandu and more about how I think about mandu—than I ever have in my life.

See, when it comes to mandu, I know how it’s supposed to be done. I’ve seen my mom prepare a hundred or so every month ever since I can remember. She begins with a pound of beef tenderloin, which she chops finely with a meat cleaver. She seasons this with fresh garlic, black pepper, soy sauce and salt (because they both season meat differently). Next, she takes a hunk of handmade tofu (I think she used to make it herself when we were really little kids) and squeezes all the water out of it with a linen bag that she sewed up specifically for this purpose. (Cheesecloth doesn’t work.) She seasons the crumpled tofu with sesame oil and salt. She lets the tofu and the meat sit in separate bowls, absorbing seasonings at room temperature, while she approaches the vegetables. It’s a different vegetable every time because mom cooks seasonally, but my favorite mandu vegetable was always Korean squash from her garden. This she juliennes, salts, drains, and seasons. Then she chops a small handful of her own kimchee, which she’s always made with less salt (doesn’t last as long, but it tastes fresher), onions, ginger, and sweet shrimp. When the moment feels right to her, she mixes everything in a large bowl, binds it with one or two egg yolks, and then sits at the table to stuff the mandu.

When we were really really little, she made the dough for mandu too, by mixing flour, water and salt. I don’t remember this myself, but my dad, who prefers homemade dough, tells me about it repeatedly on mandu making days.

Mandu is the only dish that my mom ever bothered acting humble and polite about, because she knows flat out that she makes the best. I tried to follow the legacy, and throughout my adulthood, I fixed mandu all the time. Of course, I’d try some shortcuts. I hate dishwashing, so I’d try to season everything in the same bowl (why not? It all ends up in the same bowl anyway). I’d use store-bought kimchee. I always bought meat that was ground in the store. None of my shortcuts worked. My mandu tasted flat, watery, or muddy.

So I gave up and started trying to make mandu the way my mom did. I asked the Korean market to call me on tofu delivery days. I made sure my mom made kimchee for me whenever she came to visit. And when I finally thought I might be able to make it the way it was supposed to be done, I prepared mandu for my parents. That afternoon, the butcher handed me a package that he ground up himself right then and there. “That there’s tenderloin with some prime rib thrown in,” he said. “Your momma’s gonna love that.” I even made the dough, which made my dad sigh as he watched me flatten and stuff each little round. Mom ate my mandu with a completely neutral look in her eyes. “How is it? Is it the way it’s supposed to be done?” I asked. “Sure,” she said flatly. “Delicious.”

I was missing something, and it drove me crazy. Like so many foods I tried to replicate from our childhood, my mandu just wasn’t there. It was boring. It was an occupant on the table that added nothing to the meal. I had the right ratios of crunchy, savory, sweet, and salt. What did it lack? Whenever our church prepared a meal, cooks always asked my mom to taste and correct every dish before it was served. Like her mother before her, our mom was Chef to five neighborhoods. But when I asked her to test my mandu, she shrugged. “It’s good. It’s fine.”

So I sat down with my dad, the theorist. (It doesn’t make sense to talk to my mom about theories.) And together, we came up with a few mandu principles that seemed to be Pretty Good Truths.

  • Meat plus tofu. If you’re Korean, the meat is likely very lean, grass-fed beef. Tofu serves to moisten the texture of the beef, by softening it and adding a marrow-like consistency that ostensibly adds richness. By removing some of the water from the tofu, and seasoning it with sesame oil, tofu can mimic fat and gelatin.
  • Vegetables. If you’re my mother, the only reason to add vegetables is for Good Health. If you’re my father, you believe the vegetables are there to add texture, flavor, and color.
  • Kimchee. We’re Korean. That’s reason enough.
  • Mandu dough. Here’s where my mom and dad take surprising turns. Mom buys organic Nasoya wonton wraps from Safeway, or “good ones” from the Korean market. Same difference. Why? Because it’s easier, and it tastes great. My dad remembers handmade dough and just can’t get past its incomparable, light texture. He’s right. I’m sure I’ll start making this again when my children stop wanting to play with wasp nests and fire.

Here are the problems I had with these principles:

  • Meat plus tofu. As nice as my dad’s theory sounds, tofu just doesn’t replace marrow, fat or gelatin. And despite what everyone says, tofu has a strong soybean flavor, and it doesn’t, as some may assume, simply absorb the flavor of beef. It tends to take in initial flavors and retain them. It also has a high water content and a tendency to toughen into grainy crumbles when crushed and cooked at a higher temperature. If you mix tofu into ground beef in the same way that folks create meatloaf mixtures, what you get is a soggy mixture that retains the metallic tang of raw blood, even after it’s cooked.
    This is why my mom drained and seasoned the tofu separately, and tossed it gently into the beef, so that there were small lentil-sized pieces of beef mixed with small lentil-sized pieces of sesame oil-flavored creamy tofu. But even with gentle tossing, you still get some odd texture/flavor challenges.
  • Finely chopped (but not ground) vegetables and kimchee follow mom’s approach of preserving the integrity of individual flavors. I think this is a great principle, as long as the flavors work together to present a glorious whole. Otherwise, you just have a bunch of disparate stuff. I’ve tasted mandu made with various leftover stuff from the fridge, and this random approach, mixed with the raw blood problem above, can produce the impression of garbage.
  • Mandu dough. I could probably make time to make these, but right now in my life I know I don’t want to.

Given the above, this is what I did:

  • Ground chicken. Store-bought, hormone-free, vegetarian, free-range chicken that has been ground by your butcher offers the right texture, flavor and fat content. We use dark meat. (My BF makes mandu with ground pork, and that’s also fabulous.) The minute I went with a higher fat content meat with a naturally tender texture, I challenged the whole idea of individual nuggets of flavors, and went instead for what I perceived to be the ultimate goal of meat + tofu: richness, tenderness, subtler meat flavor. To shift away from ground meat’s tendency to get rubbery or bouncy, I also added a small amount of fine white breadcrumbs.
  • Good quality frozen spinach. There are a lot of situations where fresh blanched spinach is so superior to frozen spinach leaves that it’s appropriate to sneer when frozen is suggested. This is not one of them. I chose spinach because there is something lovely that happens when wilted spinach leaves are entangled in the golden, garlicky chicken. Kind of the same way that there is something lovely between pork and caramelized cabbage. Another bonus is that the frozen leaves won’t go bad if I decide on too many last minute tickle fights or soccer games.
  • No kimchee. I know: freaky. I know this means I might get my Korean card taken away, but there you have it. I like kimchee when it’s stewed, and I like it fresh. I’m just not crazy about it when it’s lightly steamed inside a nugget of meat. To me, that bright, spicey, tart flavor just kind of goes limp and sour in there. (So how did my mom do it so well? I don’t know. Possibly magic.)
  • Yangnyum soy sauce. Yangnyum, usually used as a dipping sauce, creates deeper flavor in meat that is essentially just steamed. Yangnyum cuts the grittiness of spinach, brings out the round savory capability of chicken, and supports the caramelizing of the mandu.
  • Mandu skins. See above.

And from all this thinking and rewriting arose some personal discoveries:

  • Be the mandu. Mom makes amazing mandu, and trying to achieve greatness in mandu is a worthy journey. But maybe trying to exactly replicate her inimitable style doesn’t make sense. Whatever happens in her kitchen, with her tools, and her magical touch is as particular as her thumbprint. Maybe knowing how mandu is supposed to be done is going to come down to how I apprehend, understand, and interpret the mandu I was brought up knowing. I don’t have a sunny, cement-walled backyard where Korean squash and shepherd’s purse grow rampant with sharp, sweet green onions. I don’t use the same warped wooden cutting board, or make the same musical cutting sounds with my knife. Maybe that’s why mom treats me like I’m stupid every time I tried to make them exactly the way she does. It’s her way of pushing me out into the culinary world and saying, Take what you know … and then go get ‘em honey.
  • Deliciousness can come at any price. Or rather, as my brother quoted from Momofoku, “… deliciousness by any means.” Ground chicken and frozen spinach are lowly ingredients, and it feels somehow unglamorous not to be using something exotic or difficult. But put them together, seasoned properly, in mandu, and something glorious happens. Browned in a pan, they come out golden, rich, complex, and full of umami. I have yet to meet anyone who didn’t try to eat at least of dozen of these in one sitting. Have I tried making them with lobster or oyster mushrooms, or chestnuts? Yes. Are they as delicious as the chicken ones? No.
  • Time is an issue. Like my brother, I have never been afraid of taking time to make good food. Make my own condiments? Drive across town for a single ingredient? Practice pulling noodles by hand? All good things that I have done and loved. But once children came into my life, cooking moved to occupy a lesser portion of my daily life. So, also like my brother, I focused on creating uncomplicated dishes efficiently and well. With this approach to mandu, I can make 50 yummy mandu in about 20 minutes. That’s important to me.

So what does this all mean? Well after having written this blog several times over, I think the bottom line is that mandu—like all dishes—is supposed to move gracefully through time and generations. (I say gracefully because as open as I try to be, there are still ingredients that I feel might take mandu to a bad place, like cheese spread or ketchup.) Edification can be a form of cherishing, but it can also restrict natural evolutions that take place from kitchen to kitchen. So no more apologies. Right?

Right. Still, the real test came when my parents were visiting us, and we found ourselves having to slap together a fast meal. Mom foraged around and found a bag of my quickie rogue chicken mandu in my freezer. Despite myself, I had a quiet anxiety attack. She’s going to know I cheated. She’s going to think I’m an unfit mother because I can’t make mandu the real way while still keeping my children safe and engaged in fun algebra exercises. Instead, for the first time in my life, my supertaster, critical, talented mom gave me unqualified praise. “WOW delicious!” she exclaimed, totally surprised. “Tell me how you made this! Write it down! I want to make that for Esme!”

* * * * *

HOW I MADE THAT MANDU
(according to my BF Leeann, who watched me, and then wrote it down for me, and my 6-year-old daughter Jinju, who took the above picture)

Mandu (Korean dumplings)
1 T dark brown sugar
1 tsp fresh crushed garlic (I use a mortar and pestle)
1 tsp ground black pepper
1/2 C finely minced scallions, sautéed until bright and fragrant, cooled to room temperature
1/2 tsp fresh ginger juice
2 T toasted sesame oil
1/5 C (scant) soy sauce
1 extra large egg, separated
5 oz frozen, good quality spinach leaves, thawed, lightly drained (don’t squeeze it so much that all you have left is fiber)
plain, fine white breadcrumbs
1 lb ground chicken
1 package wonton or gyoza wrappers
olive oil or grapeseed oil*
water

Yangnyum dipping sauce
1 T dark brown sugar
1/2 tsp crushed garlic
1 tsp ground black pepper
1 T minced scallions
2 T toasted sesame oil
1 T ground, toasted sesame seeds
1/4 C soy sauce

*My mom and I use these two oils for Korean cooking. Mom never uses canola or soybean oils because she thinks they taste nasty (I think they are fine). I never add sesame oil to my cooking oil because I think that intense, direct heat adversely changes the flavor (Mom thinks I’m crazy to think so). Olive oil adds a lovely richness to Korean cooking. Grapeseed oil preserves clarity. Those two we agree on.

In a medium bowl, thoroughly mix the first 6 ingredients. Mix in the ground meat and spinach. Add egg yolk to bind, and mix (reserving egg white in a separate bowl). As my BF puts it: add bread crumbs until moisture is something you can only sense (and hear) in the mixture rather than see.

The wonton wrapper will have one side that looks more floured than the other. Drape half of the wonton wrapper across the top of the egg white so that only half of the floured side is moistened. Place about a teaspoon and a half of the filling mixture in the center of the wonton wrapper on the moistened side. Fold wrapper in half over the mixture. Seal the edges and gently flatten the filling to press out air bubbles and allow for more even cooking. It takes a little practice to figure out the proper amount of filling to use, but once you do, the assembly moves fairly quickly. I usually place the assembled mandu on a large piece of waxed paper. Repeat until filling mixture is gone. Makes about 50.

At this point, you can freeze them, on a cookie sheet lined with wax paper, as long as the mandu are not touching each other and the skins are not too damp (if you find yourself making damp ones, just sprinkle cornstarch on the wax paper). After they are frozen solid, you can store them in a large zippered bag until you’re ready to cook. Never defrost frozen mandu. Simply follow the directions below, which are the same for fresh or frozen.

To make yaki mandu (potsticker style) heat about 2 T of oil over medium heat in a nonstick frying pan. Place mandu in the frying pan (leaving enough space between them so they can breathe, which means you will have to cook them in batches). When the mandu starts making a tchka tchka tchka sound, add a few tablespoons to 1/4 C of water to the pan and cover until the top of the mandu are steamed through, slightly translucent and wrinkly. The filling should feel firm to the touch. Bottoms should be golden brown. Transfer to serving plate, and repeat until all are cooked. Serve with dipping sauce.

These are also yummy in soup. Bring homemade stock or broth to a light boil, and season soup with salt, black pepper, and a pinch of freshly crushed garlic. Cook mandu until they float up to the top, and then finish with minced scallions and a few dots of sesame oil. Warm until the scallions are bright green and the sesame oil is fragrant.

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open mandu with filling

closing mandu

uncooked mandu on cutting board

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Categories
Dinner Party Gluten Free Index Soups Vegetarian

Chilled english pea soup, made with pea shell consommé

[one_half][S]mall details often tell you a lot. For instance, you can usually tell someone’s really into clothes by checking out their accessories. Shoes, socks, belt, watch. Someone who doesn’t care will figure, No one’s looking at my socks. On the other hand, are they kinda funky? Like in a cool way, not an odiferous way? Yeah. Didn’t happen by accident. You kind of have to go out of your way to buy funky socks. That’s someone who’s not capable of letting it slide. Same goes for food. When I’m at a restaurant, I know the kitchen is totally geeked out when they send out an absolute killer soup or salad. Doesn’t happen all that often, actually. Sure, if you’re going high end and paying at least eighty bucks for your meal—it better be good. But what about a more casual spot, like a neighborhood restaurant, or a bistro? How many lentil soups have you had where you honestly thought, This is the bomb… ? Whenever that happens (and for me, that was perhaps once), I’m really excited about the rest of the meal, because I know that kitchen’s too proud to send out another fucking chunky, flavorless lentil soup with carrots.

Given my opinion of soup-as-window-to-a-kitchen’s-soul, perhaps it was a bit ambitious for me to decide, on the day of my (already overly ambitious) dinner party, to add english pea soup to the menu. I had originally bought the peas for a salad, but was concerned that most of the peas would simply accumulate at the bottom of the bowl and then be eaten separately from the greens, or not eaten at all. Then I remembered this cool post on Eatfoo about making a consommé out of pea shells. I wanted to try that, so I decided to wing it with a soup recipe and see how things went. Had I ever made soup before? Of course not. OK, my first post was about soup. But I think Korean soups are a different animal. I mean, to my knowledge, no one makes creamy, pureed soups in Korea. If so, those people have not immigrated here and served said soup to me.

At some point that day, I had what I thought was a pretty good soup. Then I thought, You can never add too much sour cream. Apparently you can. Just barely. I had to make a judgement call as to whether it was OK to send the course out. It didn’t taste awful—it was just out of balance. I hadn’t bought enough peas, so the flavor kind of disappeared in all that sour cream. I went back and forth about this, but ended up serving it. Here it is—this pale, pathetic-looking thing:

Reactions were decidedly mixed. Marc says he liked it. Bernadette ate the whole thing, but didn’t comment. I knew I would get an honest opinion from Naya, their nine-year-old son. Eh. It’s so-so. Thanks, kid. That’s actually the answer I needed, but understandably did not get from the grown-ups. But I knew there was a great soup in there. I tasted a glimpse of it during prep, and I felt certain I would have to go back and try it again.

* * * * *

The week after my dinner party, I was on a mission to find more peas. I knew they wouldn’t have any at my local grocery, so I turned to  The Mission Bay Farmers’ Market, which has been a welcome addition to our culinary wasteland of a campus. It’s small and doesn’t have the most exotic ingredients, but does have reliably good produce. I make it a point to stop by every Wednesday to take a break from endless meetings and benchwork. What I found weren’t the prettiest shells I’d ever seen, but the peas themselves were fresh, and still a bit sweet. This time I bought 4 lbs, to make certain that I wouldn’t run out.

Last spring at around this time, Erin made the Zuni Cafe’s Pasta alla Carbonara, and was excited to have found fresh english peas for the occasion. A couple things stood out to me about that experience: (1) In this context, the fresh peas tasted pretty much the same as frozen peas. (2) For a one-and-a-half-year-old, Esme was pretty good at shelling peas, and seemed to really enjoy doing it. She’s always been a busy kid. I try to allow my daughter to “help” me cook whenever I can. She insists on pouring the dry oatmeal into her bowl before I microwave it, wants to have her hand on the measuring cup as I add water, etc. I thought she would get a kick out of helping shell peas again, despite likely not remembering the work she did last year. So I let her have at it.

At first, she was shelling like a champ. She’d sometimes miss the peas in the corner of the pod, but went about her work at an impressive clip. She particularly liked throwing the empty shells into the large mixing bowl, where I had been collecting them. So much so, that she eventually just started throwing intact pods in there. I had to gently distract her, so that I could go back, fish out the good ones (which was not trivial), and finish the job.

* * * * *

A worthwhile decision to make, though I didn’t see any mention of this in any of the recipes I read online, is whether to use your peas raw or cooked. To some extent, it depends on the freshness and age of the peas. If they are mostly on the small side and are tender, juicy, and sweet, I am very much in favor of using them raw. I like being able to highlight the more delicate flavors that elude us for 3/4 of the year. If the peas are more mature, large enough to fill most of the volume of the pod, or are at all starchy, you probably want to cook them. Either method will yield a fine soup, and a good portion of the flavor will come from your shell stock, which you can’t get from the frozen section. Cooking them accomplishes two things. First, it improves the yield of the recipe. Unless you have an extremely powerful blender, a purée of raw peas will leave behind a significant amount of pulp. This will accumulate in your strainer and less will make it into the soup. Secondly, cooking, even a little bit, tends to mellow out the flavors. Raw peas can be a bit grassy-tasting, but a quick blanch can take that edge off. A superficial benefit to cooking the peas is that (as long as you don’t overcook them) you can get more vibrant color. Something to keep in mind is that any amount of cooking begins to summon the richer, split-pea flavor that is for the most part absent from fresh snap peas, english peas, etc. The longer you cook, the bigger role that family of flavors will play, so it depends on what you want.

Let’s start with the consommé.

English pea shell consommé

about 4 lbs fresh english peas in the shell
water
kosher or sea salt

Make sure to pop a couple of the pods open at the market and taste the peas. They lose flavor rapidly after picking (and even more rapidly after being shelled). Ideally, you want peas that you would have been happy to eat raw. I’ve made this with young, immaculate shells as well as the slightly wizened shells pictured here. I couldn’t tell a big difference, so don’t be put off by discolored shells. Remove peas and reserve. (You may want to enlist a small child to help you with this.) Rinse shells thoroughly. Go through the spent casings and discard any obviously rotting or excessively dirty ones. If there are a lot of woody stems attached to the end of the pod, as there were here, I would go through with a pair of scissors and cut those off. For really young pods, this isn’t really necessary.

In a large stock pot, barely cover the cleaned and trimmed shells with water and bring to a boil, optionally adding about 1/2 tsp of salt. Immediately lower heat and simmer for 20 mins. Remove from heat and strain solids. At this point, the stock will be dilute and very lightly colored. Reduce at medium-low heat until the stock becomes golden and intensely flavored. For me, this happened at about 1/4 to 1/3 of the original volume. (You can mark the original level with a rubber band on the handle of a wooden spoon to track how much you’ve reduced the stock.) Periodically taste the stock and add salt, if desired. Be careful not to add too much at the beginning, since the stock will continue to become more concentrated. You can cook it down quite a bit more, if you want. In the Eatfoo post where I saw this recipe, David reduced the stock by 20-fold. Yowza!

Starting from 4 lbs of peas, this made 6 – 8 cups.

Incidentally, this consommé would be a fantastic vegetarian option to use as a stock for my kong namul guk recipe. For the soup itself, I consulted quite a few recipes, but ended up essentially adapting the Chilled Pea and Tarragon Soup from Bon Appétit.

English pea soup

about 1 lb of shelled english peas (I didn’t weigh them, but I think 4 lbs of pods yielded about 4 C of peas)
2 T butter
2 shallots, finely chopped
salt
4 C english pea shell consommé
1 tsp chopped fresh tarragon
2 T heavy cream
2 T sour cream
freshly cracked black pepper

In a medium saucepan, heat butter until bubbles subside and sauté shallots at medium heat until tender, but not brown (about 3 mins). Add consommé and bring to a boil. Add peas and salt and boil until peas are bright and just tender (no more than 3 – 4 mins). Remove from heat and add to blender along with tarragon, both creams, and several turns of black pepper. Purée until smooth (do this in small batches if you have a small blender—safety first!) Correct seasoning and strain through a fine sieve or chinois. I prefer not to force the contents through the mesh, because then you end up forcing fibers through that you were trying to strain out on the first place. If it’s going too slowly, you can tap the sieve and/or use a spoon to stir and redistribute the unstrained fraction. I can’t resist eating the pulp, but you can also just throw it away. Allow soup to cool and serve chilled or at room temperature. If desired, garnish with fresh tarragon and some sour cream. If you use heavy cream, as I did for the top photo, it creates a “slick” on top of the soup, which you may or may not find disturbing.

* * * * *

The Esme rating

Try as I might, I could not convince Esme to taste the soup. She may have had flashbacks to her first experiences with solid baby food. Puréed peas were the first thing that she absolutely hated. My mom got such a kick out of watching Esme grimace with disgust (and perhaps a sense of betrayal?) that she kept feeding it to her to elicit that reaction. Esme does like frozen peas, however. Not just peas that were once frozen. She likes them straight out of the freezer.

Esme, do you like these peas better, or frozen peas?

Frozen peas. But these are pretty good, too. They’re too crunchy.

Did she like the fresh peas enough to eat more than a few? Hard to say, really (see left).

* * * * *

The Ben rating

So Erin and I recently went to this cool restaurant in the Mission called Schmidt’s (as in Christiane Schmidt, of Walzwerk). They sell these light-as-air pea pancakes that beautifully juxtapose deep-fried crunchies with peas so fresh I find myself wondering whether fryolator is their natural habitat. Anyway, after all this, I saw a pea soup with lemon and mint on their menu. I had to order it and check out the competition.

All’s I’m saying is that the head-to-head score is Ben/Esme: 1, Christiane: 0. Not even close, actually. Though I’m sure she’ll come back to haunt us in the braised red cabbage category …

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