Sunday, April 29, 2007

The restorative powers of a jicama salad

It was an intense weekend of food for me, if somewhat laid-back in terms of cooking. Friday, my friend Leslie came over for drinks and snacks. I had originally planned for crudites and other pantry antipasti, but I got all worked up sitting in the office thinking about spiced pork meatballs with guacomole that I rushed to the Coop right after work to get groceries for a bigger, Mexican-flavored meal. The Coop was a madhouse, though, and I only got home seconds before Leslie arrived, too exhausted to carry out my grand plans. So we had a slap-dash dinner of meatballs, guacamole, store-bought salsa and chips, and some quick quesadillas with monterey jack cheese and spicy yellow peppers. Leslie is, thankfully, the kind of friend I can ask to grate cheese and chop vegetables, and it turned out prosecco goes surprisingly well with semi-Mexican food. Easy and satisfying, and I got to use my new griddle.

Saturday, I went to a dim sum birthday brunch at Dim Sum Go Go at 11 am, followed quickly by a daytime wedding at 1. By the time I left the wedding at 6, I was so stuffed (and tipsy) I could barely see straight. I waddled home and went almost immediately to bed.

On Sunday, a big group of friends and friends of friends gathered at Spicy & Tasty for lunch. We were overwhelmed by the menu--what was "luscious duck"? "Enhanced pork"? How much should we order? What to do?

I felt like I had to take charge, since I had organized the outing, but to be honest, I felt too nervous to order what I truly would have ordered if I had been alone and had four stomachs. We got two orders of dan dan noodles, one of my favorite things to eat in the whole wide world; two orders of cold sesame noodles; two orders of tea-smoked duck; eggplant in garlic sauce; enhanced pork; seaweed with garlic; beef with peppers; and an almost disgustingly bland soup of soft bean curd and zucchini, our attempt to order something we had seen at another table that looked a lot tastier. (If I had been alone, I probably would have also ordered jellyfish, maybe some tripe or tendon, and some more cold, spicy dishes.)

The dan dan noodles were perfect, with that strange, subtle flavor so unique to Sichuan food.

The "enhanced pork" and the beef with peppers were big hits, as was the tea-smoked duck. And when the bill came, we were stuffed, but we seriously considered ordering more so we could help the restaurant pay its rent--$11 per person! I'm dying to go back.

By Sunday evening, I was exhausted from all the eating I'd done. I could have skipped dinner, I suppose, but that didn't really occur to me. I knew it would be good to have a refreshing salad, something raw and crunchy and clean. I already had all the ingredients for the jicama-melon salad I hadn't gotten around to making on Friday: jicama, cantaloupe, blood oranges, cilantro, and fresh limes. (No pomegranate seeds for me, since they're a winter fruit in NY.) I threw everything together, let it sit for an hour in the fridge as recommended, and ate a big bowl while watching a PBS documentary on dogs. You know you have serious dog-fever if you find yourself cooing to the TV by yourself. But the salad was good! Next time, I'll use a little less lime and hope for a riper melon.

Almost-summer fruit cake

For our Tuesday night book club dinner, I had offered to make dessert, and although I wasn't constrained by war-time parameters, I was constrained by my general laziness towards dessert. (Now I am going to get on my soap box.) I think dessert should be simple. My sister and my friend Leslie, former pastry chefs, would probably disagree, but after a big meal, the best thing to eat is a little something sweet, something to round out the meal, to make you feel particularly happy and cozy inside, but not something that's going to weigh you down and make you forget the good taste of everything you ate before dessert. I love sugar and I love cream, so I am definitely advocating more than a piece of fruit, but for me, the point of dinner is not dessert, it's dinner. I've always found dessert-focused restaurants slightly nauseating--a tasting menu of desserts, are you kidding me?

So there are a few desserts I make over and over: sorbet or ice cream with maybe a little nut cookie (from Deborah Madison's "Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone"); galleygirl's pear tart which is moistened with the juices of the ripest, most fragrant pears you can find; and a simple summer fruit cake, which I also first found recommended on Chowhound. (I rarely make chocolate desserts because actual chocolate always tastes so much better to me than chocolate-flavored anything.)

For our book club, I trotted out the summer fruit cake once again, and again, it did not disappoint. The recipe is so easy that I mixed the ingredients at 9 pm on Monday night and had it baked and cooling by the time I went to bed at 10:30. I had all the ingredients just sitting in my pantry, with a bag of frozen strawberries in the freezer just for occasions like this. I've made this cake with all kinds of fruit. Raspberries are particularly good, cranberries very pretty for holiday dinners, and plums arranged in concentric circles are really beautiful. I like to run the cake under the broiler for 30 seconds at the second, so the top gets really caramelized, and then dust with some powdered sugar and serve with whipped cream. I ran out of powdered sugar, but it didn't matter, it was still delicious.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

How to Cook a Wolf

We've been at war for over four years now. I first read MFK Fisher's "How to Cook a Wolf" 10 years ago, when I tore through the one-volume compilation, "The Art of Eating," during a particularly boring summer in suburban New Jersey. A lot of the children's books I read growing up also had World War II in the background, nothing really intrusive or disturbing, but the characters were always talking about buying victory bonds or hoarding sugar ration cards or collecting tin for the army. So Fisher's advice to those who were scrimping and sacrificing didn't seem odd, just very quaint and earnest, and not something that would ever be relevant in my lifetime.

So now we are at war, but you would never know it to look at what we eat and how we eat. Food and foodie culture have come to mean so much more than nourishment, and even more than status and money. Pork and other fatty meats feel like an obsession in New York, and people seem almost proud, rather than just happy, to eat at a place like Momofuku or Fette Sau, where vegetarians and dietary restrictions in general are shunned. In some ways, New York's trendy love of unrestrained food is part of a general movement towards slow food, the kinds of food our grandparents ate, before people got obsessed with calories, sugar, and carbs. But in other ways, especially in a city like New York, the food trend of absolutely no restraints feels weirdly macho, with each eater out to show they can eat more, in quantity and quality, than anybody else. It's silly of me to complain, since I'm not the kind of eater this culture is mocking. I mean, I go around declaring that vegans must be bad in bed. But reading "How to Cook a Wolf," and eating a meal inspired by it, has been making me think about the kind of satisfaction Fisher describes, and whether the culture I live in knows that kind of satisfaction.

At one point, MFK Fisher describes a friend who is very poor but still very fond of giving dinner parties. At Sue's "wolf-dodging" dinners, she would serve "little bowls of chopped fresh and cooked leaves," a "common bowl of rice," giving you a "soup dish full of sliced catcus leaves and lemon-berries and dried crumbled kelp." The food was good, not because "she wandered at night hunting for leaves and berries; it [was] that she cared enough to invite her friends to share them with her, and could serve them, to herself alone or to a dozen guests, with the sureness that she was right." MFK Fisher is the last person to suggest eating is an unimportant activity. But what she does suggest, which would be heresy in our foodie-culture, is that what we eat may not be quite so important.

"How to Cook a Wolf" was our reading for this month's book club dinner. (It's true, I belong to yet another food club, a book club that focuses on books about food and wine.) Maaike, the host, decided to serve a simple meal in keeping with our reading, costing less than $25. She was almost embarrassed to serve it: a hot, heaping bowl of spaghetti with butter, cheese, and fresh sage she couldn't stop herself from adding; some peas and baby onions from a frozen bag; and big wedges of iceberg lettuce.

Obviously, I am not one to advocate deprivation for deprivation's sake. Just because our president doesn't call on us to sacrifice in any way for a war only he believes in doesn't mean I'm going to self-ration my sugar to feel morally superior. But Maaike's "Wolf"-inspired dinner was as satisfying as MFK Fisher promises. There was red wine and good conversation and lots of laughter. The food was good; it didn't need to be anything more.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Sunday meze

The first time I tried kibbeh was at a celebratory dinner at a Palestinian restaurant in Paterson, New Jersey. My clients, a couple who had just successfully fought deportation, wanted to take me out, and they ordered a feast. There were six of us, the two of them, their three young children, and me, but we still couldn't finish the enormous platter of grilled meats with rice, yogurt cheese, and hummus. We did, however, manage to eat all of the kibbeh, those delicious little fried footballs of bulgur and lamb. I think I will always associate my love of kibbeh, the crisp, crackly outer shell contrasting with the soft, spiced meat and pine nuts inside, with this family and their generosity and love.

At the end of the meal, the father inexplicably stopped at a big grocery store, told us he'd be really quick, and came back bearing an economy-size carton of yogurt. It was the biggest carton of yogurt I had ever seen. He wanted me to have it, so I could make my own labneh, or yogurt cheese. He was very serious as he instructed me to line a strainer with paper towels and let the yogurt just sit in the colander overnight. And he was right, it really is as easy as that, and with a little olive oil and salt, it becomes so much more than yogurt.

I've been obsessing about Mediterranean food all year. Clifford Wright's massive tome, "A Mediterranean Feast" has been sitting next to my bed for the past two months. Every other night or so, I read a couple more pages and fall asleep hungry. It's fascinating to see how history and religion have intersected with food culture all around the Mediterranean, the foods that Spain absorbed from the Arab world, what the Ottomans brought to Turkey, how taken medieval Italy was with those exotic spices of the Middle East. There's something not quite satisfying about this book, perhaps because all the nuggets of information and all the recipes feel somewhat disjointed, but I definitely can't complain about lack of information.

And as I've previously noted, I've been cooking a lot from Paula Wolfert's cookbooks all winter. More recently, the cookbook of the month all April on the Chowhound Home Cooking board has been Claudia Roden's "Arabesque," which gave me a great excuse to check out "Arabesque" and her earlier book, "The New Book of Middle Eastern Food" from the Brooklyn Public Library. (Incidentally, the Brooklyn library has an impressive cookbook collection. I'd almost rather keep it a secret, so they're all always available for me.)

As much as I love kibbeh, it seemed intimidatingly difficult. Paula Wolfert's list of 50 varieties of kibbeh in "The Cooking of the Eastern Mediterranean," and even her detailed instructions on how to form those tasty footballs scared me. I felt like I needed a Lebanese grandmother. So when Claudia Roden provided an easy one-layer baked version of kibbeh, it was irresistible. And the recipe, in her classic simple style, is very easy; the food processor does more work than you:

Kibbeh base:
2/3 c. fine-grain bulgur
1 medium onion, cut in quarters
1 lb. lean leg of lamb
1/2 t. salt
black pepper
1 t. cinnamon
2 T. vegetable oil

1 pound onions, sliced
3 T. extra virgin olive oil
1/4-1/3 c. pine nuts
salt and black pepper
1/2 t. ground cinnamon
pinch of ground allspice
1/2-1 T. pomegranate molasses (optional)

Rinse the bulgur in a fine sieve under cold running water and drain well. Puree the onion in the food processor; add the mealt, salt, pepper, and cinnamon and blend to a paste. Add the bulgur and blend to a smooth, soft paste. With your hand, press the paste into the bottom of an oiled, round, shallow baking dish or tart dish (I used a springform pan), about 11 inches in diameters. Flatten and smooth the top and rub with 2 T. of oil. With a pointed knife, cut into 6 wedges and run the knife around the edges. Bake in a preheated 375 degree oven for about 30 minutes.

While the base is baking, fry the sliced onions in olive oil until golden brown. Add the pine nuts and stir until lightly colored. Add the salt, pepper, cinnamon, allspice, and pomegranate molasses. Cook, stirring for a minute or two.

Serve the kibbeh with the topping spread over the top.

Unfortunately, this recipe didn't meet my deep desire for homemade kibbeh. The edges didn't get nearly as crispy as those delicious footballs, and I had to admit to myself that a good part of the reason I love the oval kibbeh is that it's fried. It was good, just not great.

The rest of the meze were so straightforward, recipes seem almost unwarranted. I made an orange-olive-onion salad with walnut oil, cumin, paprika, and a little white wine vinegar since I had run out of lemons. I had about 1.5 cups of yogurt I had strained, per my client's instructions, just sitting in my fridge, and I only had to add some cucumbers, crushed garlic, and a bit of mint from my garden to make cacik. I also had maybe 2/3 cup of canned chickpeas that needed to be eaten, and after quick glance at Paula Wolfert's "Slow Cooking of the Mediterranean," I blended them up with some cayenne, olive oil, salt, and tamarind (substituting for lemon juice) to make something that approximated Wolfert's Moroccan hummus.

I loved the loose and easy way all these dishes came together. I had a friend visiting from out of town for the past couple of days who only left at 4 pm on Sunday, but I managed to do two loads of laundry, catch up by phone with a friend in Napa, and have dinner ready by 7 pm, when my friends Mimi and Alex showed up to help prevent me from massive and immediate weight gain.

It was such a beautiful night, we had a picnic on my deck. And we finished with homemade honeydew sorbet, made from half a melon leftover from my weekday breakfasts. I was particularly proud of the sorbet because I just winged it, pureeing the melon, adding a little lemon juice for character, and several tablespoons of sugar.

Final kibbeh words of wisdom from Paula Wolfert's "The Cooking of the Eastern Mediterranean":

"We who have grown up with Kibbeh, and who continuously argue about how it ought to taste, smell, feel, and look, equate the making of it with the indestructability of our will to go on, to live in faith, optimism, and thanks."

- Barbara Thomas Isaac, "Everyday Delights of Lebanese-Syrian Cooking"

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Some pig!

"So one of my co-workers, her engagement ring is this 3.3-karat Harry Winston. It's so pure it has some XX rating, something beyond the usual rating."

"That must be, like, six figures."

"Yeah, his family has a lot of money...I don't care, you know."

It takes a lot for me to be willing to listen to this kind of conversation, namely, a whole BBQ-ed pig. Such a pig, plus a whole extra butt, can only be consumed at a party, and even though I knew I'd have to listen to people talk about how Cartier watches are just too common, I knew I might never again have the chance to see and taste such a pig. My friend Lina and her roommate organized the birthday party for their husband and fiance, respectively, and all of them have a fine appreciation for pork. Daisy May will actually deliver a whole pig with corn bread, several sides, and pineapple (when watermelon isn't in season) to your home with paper plates, forks and knives, and handy wipes. They like to call it the "Big Pig Gig". So convenient and so New York.

When it arrived, the entire party of 20 or so people just stood around taking pictures, it was such a spectacle.

We had to line the kitchen counters with aluminum foil because the counters in this luxury condo are made of some sort of soft stone that stains easily. (Retarded, I know.) But it did make for a celebratory, shiny bed.

This being a Korean party, kimchi was requisite. The sides were good, if not exhilarating: creamed spinach, coleslaw, beans, and creamed corn.

So I was impressed. The pig was moist, juicy, in places even silky. The butt came with a gravy that wasn't so exciting, but it just fell apart at the slightest touch. It was definitely more than a gimmick. But more and more, I'm realizing BBQ is one of those few dishes that I'm really only interested in eating if it blows my mind. I like my meat to be interacting with other flavors, not just its own fatty juices. I'm sure it's heresy in some parts, but I like sauce. And this is definitely going to offend someone somewhere, but I loved the BBQ I had at Jack's Bar-B-Que in Nashville during a friend's bachelorette party weekend. What can I say, I like sauce and I'm not ashamed of it!

I guess my only real criticism is that I wish the pig had come with sauce. Maybe something got lost in the delivery, because Peter Meehan at the New York Times got sauce, and he only ordered half a pig.

I'm not quite sure the pig made up for having to smile at mindless inanity, but at least now I won't yearn and wonder, "What would it be like to order a whole BBQ-ed pig?" Oh God, did I just mentally prostitute myself for pork?

Spring is finally here

Spring chose a good time to come back to New York. After a week of unseasonably cold weather, Friday was sunny and Saturday, today, is downright hot. Everyone is radiant. Erin, my roommate from San Francisco, is in town, and we walked all the way to the Brooklyn Botanical Garden today to look at the cherry blossoms. Even though I have been on a spending freeze, and virtuously resisted the adorable little herbs at the farmers' market, I couldn't stop myself from buying a big potted dahlia.

Spring also means sorrel is back at the farmers' markets. The first time I tasted sorrel, at the Alemany market in San Francisco, I almost couldn't believe it. It seemed so unreal, this bright, green leaf that tastes so intensely lemony. I'm always looking for new ways to cook with it, to see what strange and delicious things it can do.

Deborah Madison's "The Savory Way" is definitely one of my best cookbook buys this year. I snatched it for $5 during the madhouse of the James Beard Foundation's biennial cookbook tag sale, which makes it even more precious. Whenever I use her recipes, I end up with food that is fresh, delicious, and healthy without being self-consciously so. For example, the tomato, fennel, potato with saffron stew calls for a big blob of garlic mayonnaise, and this lovely sorrel and lentil soup happily incorporates a tablespoon or more of heavy cream. And with every added ingredient, you can really taste the change, the added dimension. It's funny, the recipes feel only incidentally vegetarian--the word "vegetarian" is nowhere on the cover, and the first mention of it in the inside flap is to proclaim, "These brilliant recipes are not just for vegetarians." Heh, heh, apologetic vegetarianism is my kind of vegetarianism.

Deborah Madison is right to warn you that the soup isn't pretty, because it isn't. But she's also right in saying that it's absurdly simple, and the more I ate it, the more I loved it. It's almost miraculous how flavorful a handful of lentils and water can be, and the sorrel, as it turned olive green and murky, kept its sharp, citrus tone. I would probably reduce the amount of water to 1 quart next time, but that's the only modification I would make. The recipe is so easy that the summary that follows is from memory:

1/2 cup of lentils
1 small red onion, diced small
1 bay leaf
1/2 t. salt
1.5 quarts of water
3 handfuls of sorrel, shredded
1-2 T. of heavy cream

Combine lentils, onion, bay leaf, salt and water. Bring to a boil and simmer for about 30 minutes, until the lentils are completely soft. Puree half the lentils. Add the sorrel and cook for 10 more minutes. Stir in the cream, add salt to taste, and serve with freshly ground pepper.

That's it, a great Saturday spring lunch.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Brooklyn Supper Club

Damn, I keep forgetting to take my digital camera with me to dinner. This photo, alas, is not of the delicious sauerkraut and cheese pierogies my friend Magda served at the April meeting of our Brooklyn Supper Club. I stole it from Road Food. Magda's pierogies had beautiful, dark brown bits of caramelized onions on top, and her mountain of pierogies was only one of several dishes that weighed down her table.

In law school, a group of friends who were planning to move to California after graduation started the "California Dining Club." It just started somehow, one person had a dinner party and another person offered to host the next one, and it just snowballed in the most delicious way. When I moved into a NY apartment with a real eat-in kitchen, I knew I wanted to start a Brooklyn supper club, and happily, one of the old "California" members had also moved to NY, and I had a couple of other friends who were happy to get together once a month to catch up and eat a big meal. We've had some people "try out" and not come back, we've had one person bring in her fiance and friends, but the core has managed to absorb and hold steady. I expect that it'll be going strong while I'm in Oaxaca, waiting for me to come back and test out my mole-making skills.

(I recently joined another supper club, that originated from Chowhound's Outer Boroughs board, and though it seems to be defunct now, Magda accused me of being a "supper club whore." It's true, I belong to more than one dining club, but how else is a single girl going to find enough people to eat all her cooking?)

Last night's dinner was a triumph. While we chatted about Magda's meat-eating brand of vegetarianism, and HIV prevention by circumcision, and the men's colored underwear article from the Times, we ate homemade pickled herring, accompanied by baked fingerling potatoes, pickled mushrooms, and pickled cucumbers to start. We had stuffed our faces with abandon, assuming there could not be more food, when Magda told us the next course was ready: a big platter of braised leeks in vinegary sauce with chopped hard-boiled eggs, an enormous bowl of roasted beets with goat cheese, and another giant platter of roasted asparagus. And it still wasn't over: the aforementioned pierogies followed, in the biggest ceramic roaster I've ever seen, and a ricotta-orange-pine nut torte made by Jeremy, Magda's fiance.

And she sent me home with leftovers.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Oh nachos!

It's been a long time, too long, but last night, I remembered how much I love nachos in all their unauthentic glory.

Every other week, I meet a friend for dinner, for me to practice Korean and for her to practice English. We've been meeting for over a year now, and it's taken us a surprisingly long time to figure out exactly what kind of venue we need. We usually meet for two hours, so we can't go anywhere we'll be rushed out, but we also want to keep things cheap, and cheap food in NY almost necessarily goes hand in hand with quick turnover of tables.

A few weeks ago, though, I had a craving for a good hamburger and we discovered that the perfect venue for us is a laid-back bar on a Monday night. We sat at Old Town Bar for two hours with interruptions from the easygoing waitresses only for refills of water, and had excellent burgers. Last night, I chose South's Bar, just a few blocks from my office, where I knew I would find a similarly easygoing atmosphere with solid, good food. (Their website looks new, and it makes the bar look spiffier and less lovable than it actually is.)

But to my heart's surprise, I also found a renewed love of nachos. Mmmm! Sadly, I have no photos, only memories of the mountain of chips and toppings that came to our table. And for $7!

I stopped eating nachos around the same time I realized TGI Friday's was not good food. When there were heirloom tomatoes and levain breads and untold artisanal cheeses to discover in my post-high school New York-New Haven-San Francisco circuit, I forgot about the pleasures of canned jalapenos and sour cream. South's version is particularly rich. It's not just a layer of chips with stuff on top. The kitchen actually weaves layers of chips between the black beans, the jarred salsa, and the cheese that you know is real because it gets hard. The mountain is topped with a big dollop of sour cream and an equally big dollop of guacamole, accompanied with a generous sprinkling of big, juicy, sliced jalapeno peppers, that provide the kind of familiar, vinegary spiciness that can only come from canned ingredients. It is very very good.

And there's something, I don't know, weirdly heartwarming to me about an Irish pub in New York serving Mexican nachos. Sure, nachos aren't really Mexican, but South's isn't really Irish, and who can turn up their nose at a lovely mess of chips and dips?

(Apparently, nachos were invented by Ignacio "Nacho" Anaya. Yeah, uh huh.)

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Chicken and clams

It's been raining all day, big, fat, rain drops coupled with a fierce wind. It was the perfect day to lie in bed and read all day--sadly, that is not what I did. Since I had to go out anyway, I got a few groceries and made a proper dinner, another Sunday experiment.

There must be an Asian woman in the neighborhood who buys a dozen clams every weekend, because the fish guy at the Fort Greene farmers' market seemed to think I was her. A dozen clams IS sort of a funny quantity, but such a good one for me. I bought them on a whim, along with my usual turkey thighs from DiPalo's, and realized I had almost everything I needed "chicken and clams" from Bittman's "The Best Recipes in the World." It's precisely what it sounds like, chicken with clams, and some sauteed onions, garlic, chicken stock, and parsley. Skinless turkey thighs were not a good substitute, because they did get a little dry, but oh, I loved the clams. The soupy, briny sauce, I ended up spooning directly into my mouth with an enormous ladle. A dozen clams supplies a surprising amount of meat, and for $5, a nice weekend treat.

I've been roasting potatoes in the way Marcella Hazan recommends for bluefish Genoese style--thinly sliced and tossed with olive oil, garlic, and parsley, in a cast-iron pan. You end up with all these lovely, crispy bits.

And one of my favorite salads, roasted beets with haloumi cheese, drizzled with olive oil and lemon juice, with a little parsley for color.

If only I could stay in bed all day tomorrow.

Sunday, April 8, 2007

And birthday week continues through April 7...

There's something so lovely about beer in the afternoon.

Drinking at night is fine and often quite festive, but it's never as relaxing as drinking in the afternoon. It's more like having coffee or tea, a nice way to sit and watch the day go by, except time seems to slow down even more with booze. Maybe it feels healthier to have a buzz in bright sunshine?

Leslie and I separately discovered how much we love drinking during the day, but once we found the other felt the same way, we declared it would be our new birthday tradition. We're particularly lucky to also share a love of schnitzel, spaetzle, wieners, and all the other things that go so well with beer in the afternoon. For her birthday last November, we went to Loreley on the Lower East Side. Since it was my birthday, I forced her to walk all the way to Avenue C in the East Village.

Even though it was depressingly cold for April, the sun was shining like it was spring, and Zum Schneider felt warm and cheerful. We got there just as they were opening, and everyone seeemed to be in such a good mood. There were no crowds, no lines, just a couple of happy people chatting over full beer steins.

The pretzel was very, very good, particularly with the excellent mustard. We also got the spaetzle plate with cheese, onions, and bacon, and the "O'Batzda," which is very accurately described as a "cheese spread of brie and blue cheese made w/ onions & beer."

The weisswurst tasted just as they looked. Boiled and white. Solid food, all of it just as good as expected. My schneider weisse amber beer was smooth as smooth could be.

It was a very meaty weekend. The night before, Sharon and I had had baby back ribs and chicken wings from Smoke Joint in my neighborhood. Her eyes lit up when I mentioned a barbecue place had opened in Fort Greene, so I couldn't say no, even though I knew we were going to Keen's Chophouse for dinner on Saturday. I owed her a steak dinner, and after almost a year of thinking about it, she was hungry for meat. Her recent trip to India only whetted her appetite for cow; she even had a nightmare that she was thwarted from eating her steak.

I had their famous mutton chop, she had the sirloin. I thought the waiter's attitude towards us, two Asian women, changed markedly when we ordered two huge pieces of meat and asked for the scotch menu. The meat was intense. Very good, though i couldn't eat more than a third of that crazy mutton chop. A French couple sitting two tables away from us literally swiveled their heads as it came to our table. Sharon, impressively, finished her steak. As she put it, "All you have to do is apply yourself."

But I was the one who insisted that we have dessert, a butterscotch sundae.

Next week, I am going to be vegetarian.

Saturday, April 7, 2007

Aburiya Kinnosuke, or Japanese for birthday week continues

My sister had a bad oyster at The Spotted Pig and couldn't come to Prune for my birthday brunch, but she made it up to me by taking me out to Aburiya Kinnosuke, her favorite Japanese izakaya, for dinner on Wednesday night. Even though the food at an izakaya, a Japanese grill, is as far from pancakes and bloody Marys as you can get, Prune and Aburiya Kinnosuke share the same philosophy of caring about food that is honest and straightforward. Sure, presentation's important--how could the Japanese not care about presentation?--but it's never meant to distract from or cover up the clean taste of the food.

Here's Mona squeezing her fresh grapefruit to pour into her shochu-soda cocktail.

We initially hesitated about ordering the green salad, that it would be "boring," but shame on us for doubting that Aburiya Kinnosuke would serve anything inferior. It was nothing more than advertised, a green salad with a mix of greens, broccoli, and cucumber, but with an intense freshness and crunch. We needed the raw salad to balance all the fuller flavors of the cooked food we had.

Their homemade tofu comes unadorned. You add the salt, the grated ginger, and perfectly diced skinny scallions. I shoveled my share into my mouth, and ate most of Mona's, too.

I got too excited and forgot to take pictures of the rest of the food. I wish I could show you the "tsukune" or grilled ground chicken with teriyaki sauce that we got from the robata grill. It comes on a paddle! We also got meaty grilled eringi mushrooms and the salmon with miso on houba leaf that comes on a little shichirin grill for your table. Thankfully, others on Flickr are taking photos of their meals at Aburiya Kinnosuke.

And when I thought it couldn't get any better, we had dessert. Mona is very fond of their black sesame pudding, which are all words that thrill me, too, but we were intrigued by the "red bean bavarois" on the menu, and when we asked the waitress about it, she got the most genuine smile and exclaimed, "It's delicious!" She told us that there was a visiting chef who had put on the menu, and we would only have a small window of time to try it. It's the first time I've wanted to lick a dessert plate in awhile, to get every bit of the perfect, custardy, red bean goodness.

THIS is the kind of restaurant I love best.

Monday, April 2, 2007

Good God, I have a lot of condiments

In two months, I will be leaving New York for a six-month hiatus starting in Oaxaca, Mexico, and ending somewhere in Spain. In addition to finding a sublettor, I constantly have in the back of my mind that I need to finish the couscous, those beans, that cornmeal. I've been trying not to buy new condiments, oils, vinegars, and spices for the past month, but I still have an insanely stocked pantry for a single woman.

extra virgin olive oil (Sahadi's excellent Lebanese Saifan brand)
canola oil
peanut oil
sesame seed oil
walnut oil

red wine vinegar
white wine vinegar
apple cider vinegar
champagne vinegar
rice wine vinegar
balsamic vinegar
white vinegar

Hungarian sweet paprika
Hungarian spicy paprika
regular paprika (whatever that is)
herbes de provence
bay leaves
ground and whole allspice
Syrian spice mix
ground and whole coriander seeds
ground and whole cumin seeds
Korean chili pepper powder
Korean roasted sesame seed salt
Sichuan peppercorn
curry powder
ground and whole cloves
fennel seed
red chili flakes
black peppercorns
ground ginger
ground and whole cardamom pods
Mediterranean oregano
garam masala

Miscellaneous sauces:
dark soy sauce
Korean soup soy sauce
Korean cooking syrup
Korean chili paste
Korean fermented bean paste
soba tsuyu dipping sauce
oyster sauce
fish sauce
srichicha sauce
Japanese mustard
Ukrainian sweet hot mustard
Dijon mustard
tamarind concentrate
pomegranate molasses
Sichuan chili bean paste
fermented black beans
Thai red curry paste
Thai green curry paste
peanut butter
Polish raspberry syrup
homemade mayonnaise--GONE
Korean quince syrup tea
Korean yuzu syrup tea
Korean ginger syrup tea

green Cerignola olives
black Moroccan oil-cured olives--GONE
ginger spread
apricot jam
pear chutney
spicy mango pickle
PLUS almost new fancy Italian blood orange marmalade and blackberry jam

And I'm not even counting the butter and cheese! Well, it looks like I have a lot of spicing to do in the next two months.

Sunday, April 1, 2007

Tomato, fennel, and potato stew with saffron...and Taqueria Coatzingo

It's been a gluttonous weekend, but it's pretty much impossible for me not to devote Sunday night to cooking at this point. It seems like such a waste not to try something new, with all that lovely free time to chop and simmer. Tonight, well, I regret not inviting anyone to come eat with me, because truly, it was delicious, and I made successful mayonnaise for the first time to boot.

Deborah Madison calls this a "failed fisherman's soup," with all the elements of a bouillabaisse minus the fish. I had some frozen fluke I wanted to use, from my previous big fish, so I slipped in some pieces at the end, but I didn't bother making a fish stock and pretty much followed her recipe. What follows is a paraphrase:

1.5 lbs red or yellow-fleshed potatoes
2 fennel bulbs
1 pound ripe tomatoes, peeled and seeded, juice reserved or 2 cups whole canned tomatoes
3-4 T. virgin olive oil
1 large leek, white part only, finely diced
1 large yellow onion, cut into wedges 1/2 in. thick
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 t. herbes de Provence
2-3 pinches of saffron threads
a large strip of orange zest, about 2 in. long
2 bay leaves
1 cup dry white wine
2 T. chopped parsley
12 Nicoise, Gaeta or oil-cured black olives, pitted

Peel the potatoes and slice them lengthwise into quarters or sixths. Trim the fennel and cut into wedges 1/2 in. thick. Cut the tomatoes into large, neat pieces.

Boil the potatoes for 5 minutes. Remove the potatoes but reserve the water.

Warm the olive oil in a wide pan and add the leek, onion, garlic, herbs, a little salt, saffron, orange zest and bay leaves. Cook slowly over medium heat until the onions soften, about 6 minutes. Add the wine and reduce by half. Add tomatoes, potatoes, fennel, half the parsley and olives. Pour in enough of the potato water to cover and bring to boil. Simmer covered for about 35 minutes, until vegetables are tender. Or preheat oven to 375, cover loosely, and bake for about 1 hour. Garnish with remaining parsley and garlic mayonnaise.

I've tried making mayonnaise before, and ended up with this harsh, viscous pudge. It was time to try again. This recipe is from Deborah Madison's "Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone." Whisk one egg yolk until it's thick, add one t. Dijon mustard, and 2-3 t. lemon juice or white wine vinegar. Add 3/4 c. peanut oil in drops at first, while whisking, and then in a steady stream after it's started to thicken. Then add salt and lemon juice to taste. I set my bowl on the counter with a towel coiled under it, and although I was too clumsy to really drip the oil drop by drop, it really worked. With some mashed up garlic, presto, it was garlic mayonnaise.

It's amazing, I love tomatoes and I know I love tomatoes, but it's still a shock to me every time I eat something rich with tomatoes how sweetly delicious they are. This very simple soup, which is essentially vegetables and herbs, had so much bright flavor, and it just went over the top with a dollop of garlic mayonnaise.

I wish I'd been hungrier so I could have eaten more, but I'd gone to Jackson Heights for lunch to have chilaquiles, enchiladas with mole poblano and more with some friends at Taqueria Coatzingo. Oh the woes of having only one stomach!