Thursday, February 25, 2010

Where'd I put my Alkaline Salts?

I'm gearing up for this Saturday's big collaboration dinner junket where my crazy-haired X-Marx friend and I will be serving up a good 7 or so courses of F.o.t.D. inspired food, dressed up nice and pretty for the night (the food that is; we'll be our usual slovenly selves). It's a pretty fluid process in both method and consumption, by which I mean to say plans are tentative with plenty of room for improvisation--and we drank a lot of beer planning, probably will while cooking and definitely will after cooking. We've got some interesting things planned, all in the name of top-notch food, which I will dutifully report on back here at some point in the future in order to keep the taut bubble of suspense intact for those attending.

Meanwhile, treat yourself well, dole style. Get a couple of packs of ramen, add culantro and basil and poach an egg in the broth and add some pickled shiitake mushrooms. It will fuel your search for the ever elusive alkaline salts you need to make your own ramen noodles. More soon.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Soup and Bread, Year II: The Pork Dumpling Gang or, Get Ready for Some Run-On Sentences

As you most certainly know by now, I am an avid supporter of Martha Bayne's wonderfully un-little little project called Soup and Bread. It's free and all donations go to something good and food related. Plus Martha says nice things about me when writing about it. Wednesday's. 5:30-8:30. The Hideout. 1354 West Wabansia Avenue in Chicago. You know, by North and Elston. You can go to Stanley's before or after.

I was up last week, so I visited my little Asian market down the street and came up with a pork dashi broth garnished with scallions, culantro, Thai basil, roasted pork belly and handmade-by-me-not-handmade-by-someone-else-that-so-many-restaurants-like-to-post-on-their-wordy menus pork and ginger dumplings, shaped in the form of tortellini. Sadly, the old "crunching the last 3 of 8 hours of making this soup that should really be made over the course of a few days into 30 minutes plus oh my God I need to somehow transport this scalding soup and it's accompaniments across town in the next 5 minutes" conundrum arose, so I didn't get pictures towards the end. Nevertheless, there is a photo of the finished product on the Soup and Bread page linked above. Swimming against my own stream of not really posting recipes, I'm going to post it here. Seems like something like this might require it. Here is the recipe as I wrote it for the Soup and Bread site:

Pork Dumpling Gang
Pork Dashi, Roasted Pork Belly, Pickled Shiitake Mushrooms, Pork and Ginger Tortellini Serves 6

Dashi is a basic stock used ubiquitously in Japanese cooking. It gets much of its flavor from Kombu (pictured), a dried kelp that lends the stock its salty, nearly meaty backbone and Katsuobushi, dried, fermented and smoked bonito tuna flakes. In this adaptation, influenced by David Chang’s Momofuko, I wanted to go for a more porky, meaty flavor, so I omitted the Katsuobushi and pumped things way up with pork neck bones, chicken bones (if you can find chicken backs, or are in possession of a chicken carcass, this is best) and a few cubes of concentrated lamb stock I had in the freezer. All ingredients can be found in an Asian market. Don’t worry if you don’t have frozen cubes of various meat stocks in the freezer.

For the Pork Dashi:
3# pork neck bones
1 large piece Kombu
1# chicken backs or bones
1 ounce dried shiitake mushrooms
1 onion, diced
1 carrot, peeled and diced
3 scallions, sliced
1/4 cup Cane Vinegar, or to taste
1/4 cup Soy Sauce, or to taste
2 T Fish Sauce, or to taste
Juice of 1/2 lime
Heat oven to 400°. Put pork neck bones on sheet pan and roast in oven for 30 minutes. Flip bones and roast for an additional 15-30 minutes, until bones are deeply roasted.

While bones are roasting, put kombu in large pot and cover with 10 cups of cold water. Bring to a boil, then remove from heat. Let steep for 10 minutes. Remove kombu and discard or save for another use.

Put raw chicken bones into the kombu water and return to the stove over medium heat.

When the pork bones are done roasting, pour off any melted fat and save for another use. Add roasted bones to the water. Put roasting pan over a high flame and pour a cup or so of water into the pan to deglaze it. Scrape the pan with a spoon or spatula to remove any flavorful bits that are stuck to the bottom of the pan. Pour all of this goodness into the stockpot with the bones. Be sure bones are submerged. If more water is required to submerge bones, add whatever it takes.

Bring stock just to a simmer, and allow to simmer slowly (a bubble or two every couple of seconds) for about 6 hours, occasionally skimming any scum that forms on top. Naturally, water will evaporate from the pot, so take note of the liquid’s starting level and replenish every hour or so as necessary.

When one hour of cooking time remains, add mushrooms, onion, carrots and scallions. Simmer for final hour.

When the stock is done, remove from heat and let rest for 30 minutes or so. After resting, strain the stock through the finest strainer available. You can use a double layer of cheesecloth to help get things nice and fine. Reserve mushrooms for the pickled shiitake mushrooms and discard everything else.

Let stock settle and skim fat from the top. Save fat for another use. Taste stock and add cane vinegar, soy sauce, fish sauce and lime juice. Stir stock completely and taste again. Adjust flavor using additional amounts of these four seasoning agents. This pork dashi should last about seven days.

For the Roasted Pork Belly:
1-2# pork belly
depending on how much you love it, skin off
3 T kosher salt (per pound of pork belly)
3 T dark brown sugar (per pound of pork belly)
Any spices you might like (this is up to you and by no means necessary and will develop as you develop your pork belly roasting mastery. Suggestions? 5-spice, fennel, cumin, coriander, etc.)

Rub pork with all other ingredients. Put in a plastic bag and seal. Place in refrigerator and let cure overnight. If you can’t do overnight, give it as much time as you can. Even an hour.

Heat oven to 400°. Remove pork from bag, discard any liquid, and place pork in roasting pan, fat side up. Roast for 60 minutes. Lower oven to 250°. Roast an additional 60-90 minutes until outside is crisp and inside is tender. Remove from oven and let cool in a refrigerator. When cooled, slice into thin chunks. Use in the next couple of days.

For the Pickled Shiitake Mushrooms:
Reserved shiitake mushrooms from pork dashi, sliced thin
1/4 cup pork dashi
1/2 cup cane vinegar
1/4 cup soy sauce
1 T sambal (chile paste)
1 T freshly grated ginger

Bring all ingredients but the mushrooms to a boil. Pour over mushrooms and let cool. Cover and keep refrigerated. This’ll keep for about a week.

For the Pork and Ginger Tortellini:
Makes 24 tortellini

For the dough:
1 cup all-purpose flour
2 large eggs
pinch of salt

Combine all ingredients in bowl and knead well until a smooth, cohesive consistency is reached. Let rest for 20 minutes. Roll to your pasta roller’s thinnest setting and cut into 3” diameter circles. Keep covered so dough does not dry out.

For the filling:
8 ounces pork shoulder or loin, cubed
2 ounces pork fat back, cubed
1 T freshly grated ginger
2 cloves garlic, finely minced
1 scallion, finely minced
2 tsp sambal
3 T cane vinegar
1 tsp sesame oil
1 tsp fish sauce
1 T soy sauce
1 T Thai basil, minced
1 T culantro (A cousin of cilantro, thus cilantro may be substituted), finely minced
1 egg
Place your grinder in an intimidating position and let it menace your cubed pork as pictured. Grind pork and fat, or finely mince. Add all other ingredients and combine well. Poach a small sample and taste for seasoning, making any necessary adjustments.

To assemble:
3 “ dough circles
Pork and ginger filling
1 egg yolk

Brush half of a dough circle lightly with the egg yolk. Place a small amount of filling, roughly 1/2 tsp, in the middle of circle. Fold bottom of circle up to create a half moon containing the filling. To create tortellini shape, place the flat edge of the half moon across your pinky so it forms a cross with your pinky. Wrap the dough around your pinky, overlapping the two ends and pinching them down to seal. Use egg to help adhere the two ends to each other if necessary. Remove from finger and place on floured sheet pan.

To assemble dish:
Pork and ginger tortellini
Roasted pork belly
Pickled shiitake mushrooms
Culantro, chiffonade
Thai basil, chiffonade
Scallions, sliced
Pork Dashi

Steam or simmer tortellini until filling is cooked all the way through. Place 4 tortellini in the bottom of a soup bowl. Add a few slices of pork belly and a few pickled shiitake mushrooms, arranging in an attractive manner. Sprinkle a pinch each of culantro, Thai basil and scallions in bowl. Present to your guests. At the table, ladle hot pork dashi into each bowl. See the goodness. Smell the goodness. Taste the goodness. Feel the goodness.

There it is. Long, huh? Sometimes I get wordy. If you'd like this emailed to you as a PDF or Word document, email me at and get the pork products ready. At this point in human history, there isn't a way to make this "healthier", vegetarian or low fat. Sorry. But if you can, do make it to The Hideout one Wednesday night. Just give yourself more time to get there than I did.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

No Pictures In This One. I Ate Instead.

So, I've stumbled upon something really good. And I'm thrilled that it is, relatively, in my neighborhood for a change. It's a tiny little BYOB Thai restaurant by the name of Me Dee Cafe at Damen and Lawrence. I first saw it while waiting for a suspect leasing agent to come show me an apartment right above it; I sat in their window and marveled at the colorful bags of Thai potato chips before being shown an equally suspect apartment. And it's open late. One of my dreams has come true.

So, by tiny, I mean tiny. When I walked into the amazingly-high-on-the-scale-of-Asian-cuteness room with an eating buddy (the kind of guy who would try the house specialty off the floor in the back of the sketchiest kitchen in the dirtiest part of town in the name of culinary exploration--my kind of guy), half of the dozen or so seats were filled by a group of Thai kids. It was about 11:00pm or so, and we made a move to one of the empty seats. The waitress, appropriately dressed in a RUN DMC t-shirt, came over and asked if we had reservations. We looked at each other, as though one of us would have thought to make a reservation at a place like this, and sheepishly squeaked out a "no." Evidently, there was a group that had the table we were at reserved. We got sad for a second, then noticed the two stools in the window. We asked if we could sit there, and she happily obliged. Yet as soon as they saw us sit down, everyone in the place instantly feared utter destruction of the tiny springy plastic stools by this overgrown-despite-having-Japanese-genes ogre named "me". The group of kids offered two of their seats to us, and they squished in together, quite a touching display of humanity, if not seat preservation. We happily accepted and opened our dark Portuguese session beer, Sagres Brune, which strangely enough, went great with what we were about to have.

So we took a look at the menu. Naturally, we were first given the typical menu of so many marginal Thai restaurants. You know the usual offenders: pad Thai, Thai iced coffee and the like. We again prepared to embrace sadness, but both knew there was more to be had here. We looked at the kids next to us. They were eating congee, a type of rice porridge served with several flavorful accoutrements. That's what we came for, inspired by a Chicago Reader article about the place. We asked if there was a menu for it; the waitress slowly smiled and brought us a couple. Of course, the entire menu was written in Thai, thus her smile. She began a willing and earnest translation of the menu; I spared her the trouble and turned to the gold mine of knowledge sitting next to us (not my usual way of describing college-aged kids busy text messaging and iPodding and talking about whatever it is they talk about) and asked if they wouldn't mind one-upping their seating maneuver gesture by ordering for us. They happily obliged (what friendly kids!) and ordered us a big bowl of congee and five of the sides to go with it, explaining that we'd get a discount if we ordered five. Everyone happy, we thanked them and waited for our food.

Here's what we got, in addition to the congee, translation aided by the Reader article referenced above:
  • Ong Choy sauteed with garlic, chiles and black bean sauce. Ong Choy is a Chinese water spinach, something I've never knowingly eaten. The stems are hollow, and in some circles in China, the overeating of the stems is discouraged as they are believed to leave the eater hollow inside as well. I respectfully disagree and would eat these all day long. Nice and crispy and the sauce full of flavor.
  • A Thai omelette, known as Khai Jiaw, with crabmeat on a mess of shaved carrots. Sweet, sweet crab. Simple. The egg reminded me of omelettes my grandmother made me in Japan. So nostalgia was on my side. My eating buddy didn't seem as excited. But maybe that's because the plate was sitting directly in front of me and he had the ong choy in front of him.
  • Yam Lap Cheong. To quote the Reader article: Yam "rhymes with 'some'—a Thai word referring to a melange of things tossed together in a dressing that comprises the salty, sour, sweet flavors with some heat". Lap Cheong is Chinese sausage. It was sliced thinly and served in a sauce with great big flavors: sweet and sour, which we guessed was from cane vinegar, heat from chiles, saltiness from the sausage, sharpness from shallots, and that big brightness from cilantro. I am drooling. I love sour flavors and this had it, backed up by that big fattiness of the sausage.
  • A bowl full of little clams, fried with flavor. No idea what was in here. But salty and rich; tasty little morsels of clam. I dipped the shell into the congee and used it as a spoon for maximum flavor harvesting.
  • A dried pork, deep fried, with a spicy sauce. Kind of like a pork jerky, but hot and spicy.
All eaten over the bowl of congee. The congee itself is exactly what you would imagine. Not much flavor, but to me, a soupy, warm, soothing consistency, something I can understand desiring if you've been eating it your entire life. To a new comer it will taste like really watery rice. Give it a chance. Sustain with the congee, delight with the sides.

Nearing midnight and towards the end of the meal, at which point our friendly neighbors had moved on and another huge group came in, filling every seat in the place and still needing more to accommodate them and their case of beer and bottle of whiskey, I asked my friend if he thought it would be uncouth to pour all the delicious sauce into the congee. He said he didn't think so, and I thought back to the time I licked a plate at Schwa. I went ahead and poured away. We finished our beers and paid up, nice and cheap, and headed out. The first of our big snowfall had just started; I decided to walk home in it and enjoy the night and let some of the spice settle. Cold snow, hot belly. Welcome to the neighborhood Me Dee, and thanks to those kids for being so cool.

Monday, February 8, 2010

OK. Hibernation Over.

I've been missing. It's been a good month since the last solid FotD post, for a number of reasons, some more turbulent than others. However, I'm back, and with some solid material of interest from one of my favorite places to cook: my mom's place in Colorado. Why do I love it, aside from obvious reasons? To start, it's a charmingly rustic place nestled into a mountainous valley that brings me back to some serious basics. It is, naturally, cold there, so a warm oven baking something is always nice; all the pots and pans are made of cast iron, my absolute favorite cooking material and one that takes some time to get to know how to use properly; a lamb is slaughtered each autumn, dressed and frozen as are berries and peaches for use throughout the remainder of the year; grocery lists are well thought out before the long drive into town; pre-dinner cocktails are obligatory while sitting next to the fire with a lushly furred cat as a large, perfectly-suited-for-this-kind-of-weather dog howls protectively outside from time to time; and after the feast and conversation, one lies in a soft, toasty bed and remarks at the greatness of the silence, and sleeps the content sleep.
We planned our meals carefully, calculating how many I would be there for. Upon arrival, mom had one of my classic favorites ready: a big roasted ham and gooey, unctuous scalloped potatoes. Can't go wrong there. The next day, during a trip into town to see the old haunts, I would happen upon Mario's, the town's "Italian" restaurant. Given the loving nickname of "Malari-os" by my brother, it is always a destination of mine for some reason. They give you these big salads composed of iceberg lettuce, roughly 1 cup of shredded mozzarella cheese, the lot of it littered with pepperoni and Italian dressing. Basically a pizza with zing and crunch, served cold. but I love it. Then, the pizza itself. The typical combinations, but somehow, on this trip, I was so happily surprised--I noticed, which I had missed so many times before, that their crust is homemade, and it had the great tang of fermented yeast that is so difficult to find. A nice crunchy outer crust gave way to the melted cheese bomb and processed meat toppings, but hey--they got the most important part right. And it was good. Great. Grand. Maybe Mario's wasn't so bad after all. And the waitress, a young local girl, was one of the best servers that I've had in years. Come to think of it, that seemed to happen a lot on this trip. Even at a truck stop in the middle of the mountains, where I had my beef burrito smothered in green chile; it's been few and far between that I've experienced that sort of grace. So much for the refinements of the big city.
And about that green chile (with the acknowledgment of my digression). Essentially, it's pork butt braised with roasted poblano peppers (and mmmm...that smell of roasting poblano peppers...). One of my favorite things, ubiquitous in Colorado but you know, I just don't find it done the same way anywhere else. If you find yourself out there, try it. It's usually involved with menu items labeled "sloppy" or "messy". It's the best. Maybe I'm partial due to nostalgia. Could be. There were a lot of places on this trip, in Denver and Boulder, that I used to go and love and make proclamations of said love to anyone who would listen. And some of them, upon review, were just plain bad. Bars mostly. Sports bars. I'm not a sports bar kind of guy. Was I back then? I think it was just the happy hours that got me hooked (one place has three, yes three 2-for-1 happy hours per day: 9-11am (what?), 4:30-6:30pm, 9pm-12am. Yeah.).
ANYWAY, back to the remote comfort of my mom's place. Before heading in to town to see friends and experience Malario's and watch a basketball game at the high school, mom and I decided on lamb shanks for that evening. And how great is it that, for four people, there were four shanks available, because, as we all know, lambs have four legs. The special thing here was that they were all from the same lamb. It's probably been a long time since I've eaten an individual cut from the same animal as the person sitting across from me. We seasoned them nice and heavy and seared them off in cast iron; added carrots and onions and celery and garlic and red wine and stock, covered them up and put them in a 250 degree oven to braise away for the rest of the day. Remember what I said about it being nice, in such cold climates, to keep an oven on? They were in there for about 4 hours; mom turned the heat off and they just sat, happily, in their nice, warm bath until we were ready for them. (Speaking of nice warm baths, there's this place, up in the mountains, at the base of a 14,000 foot mountain peak, where a naturally occurring hot spring heats the river water, water which, mind you, was likely snow about three minutes before, a few thousand feet up. You use the river rocks to make a little private hot tub and you sit in the river. Beautiful and amazing.)
Stopped by the local brewery that sells their really good beer in growlers; sadly, I forgot the family growler and the brewery was out of them! Boo! So, a liquor store stop was necessary. One thing I noticed and remembered in Colorado was the plethora of amazing microbrews. It's ridiculous. The variety is astounding. And lots of places are canning their beer rather than bottling. For me, I first saw it in Dale's Pale Ale several years ago, and it seems to have caught on quite a bit. This time around, it was Ska Brewing's Euphoria Pale Ale. Seemed weird at first to can a good beer, but when you think about it, it makes perfect sense. No light on the beer. More transportable if you are in a raft, and less breakable over a head if a compromising situation arises. And you should probably be pouring this beer in a glass anyway, not drinking it straight out of the bottle or can, missing so much of the all-important aroma. It'd be great to see more of these. It'd be great to see more beer in Chicago, from Chicago. I know we've got a handful, but man, whenever I head west, it blows my mind how much is out there.

So, back with beer in tow, we boiled some of the potatoes my mom harvested that season, kept in a nice cool place in a gunnysack (which is, incidentally, the name of a restaurant in town), drained them and put them back in the pot with some butter and salt and pepper and rosemary. Put the lid on and shook the pot to smash them up. Simple. Took the shanks out of the liquid and strained the vegetables out; reduced the liquid just a touch and swirled in some butter and rosemary. It was already so thick that it needed no help at all. Piled up the potatoes and braised vegetables, put a shank on top, and drizzled the jus all over it. Soft, tender lamb shank and tons of flavor soaking down through the vegetables into the potatoes. Red wine. All this after the pre-dinner Manhattans and a few beers. Followed by Rum Raisin ice cream and coffee. Top-notch.
Next day: gumbo, cornbread, pecan pie, margaritas, more beer, and zydeco music. Oh, and slow poached eggs from the chickens down the road. Let's do that in another post, 'cause now my hunger has been worked up and I need to make something to eat. Also, I'm doing another Soup and Bread on Wednesday, 2/10/10, at The Hideout in Chicago; it's always a good time with donation proceeds going to good things food and hunger related, and there's always great people bringing tasty soups. Come on down. Starts at 5:30.