Sunday, April 21, 2013

My Book of (Asian Food) Revelations

I just got back from one of the most exciting, delicious, and flat-out FUN vacations of my life, bar none.

The recipe: join a crack team of adventurous eaters assembled by girl & the fig owner Sondra Bernstein on a luxury Silversea Cruise through Hong Kong, four major coastal cities of Vietnam, and Singapore.  Bring your most fearless, hollow-legged and good-natured foodie friend, her male clone (brother), and spectacularly shameless/fearless/hilarious sister-in-law.  Tack on an extra day before and after the cruise to enjoy those ports, and -- why not? -- an extra 24 hour layover in Tokyo so you can see the Tsukiji Fish Market before it moves to its new location in 2014.  With only 24 hours in each city, surrender to the whirlwind of tastes, smells, sounds, colors, cultures, and sights and just do what you can with the time you have -- camera and antibiotics at the ready.  No fear, no pouting you don't have more time, and no thoughts of how swiftly the end of the vacation is approaching.  Just embrace the adventure and go for it.

It's taken me weeks to ponder and review everything we devoured with our eyes and mouths, and choose what to post as my highlights.  The visuals of this trip blew me away -- from the majestic elegance of the cruise ship, the impossibly beautiful sea/sky/cloud/light of Hong Kong at sunset, Tokyo's futuristic urbanity, and the eerie perfection of Singapore streets, to the incredible snapshots you face at every turn all over Vietnam (the most photogenic country I have ever seen).  But this post is going to be about the food revelations of the trip... those thrilling new experiences that open your mind to a new way of tasting, eating, and cooking.  

So here we go, in no particular order because I hate ranking favorites -- choices which are, by definition, all favorites.

1. Bun Bo Hue, Ho Chi Minh City/Saigon (Vietnam).

Bun bo Hue, before you add the extras. The herbs on top
include lots of Chinese coriander, which looks sort of like
dandelion greens but tastes far different. 

After mixing in the veg, chilies, etc., you really start to drool.
Despite my disclaimer above, this may be the dish of the trip. Unlike pure beef pho, the broth for this classic Vietnamese soup is made with beef, pork, and lemongrass, and you'll find both beef and a light-colored, smooth-textured pork mousse/sausage slice nestled in there with the noodles and herbs.  Add fresh lime juice, chili paste, fresh sliced chilies, and additional fresh herbs and veggies to taste as you eat it.  The vegetable add-ons may vary, but typically include shredded banana blossom, shredded raw morning glory, and bean sprouts.  

The rice noodles used for bun bo Hue are thicker than the vermicelli used in pho -- more like a classic spaghetti, so that they don't become mushy in the broth no matter how long it takes you to get through the bowl.  I did not need this extra insurance, but it's a good thing to know.  

We first encountered this dish on our life-altering, back-of-the-motorbike nighttime tour of Saigon's best local street food spots (YOU MUST DO THIS. Contact XO Tours).  Despite the parade of incredible edibles we stuffed ourselves with that night, I was starving for it the next morning, so we sought out a street-food specialist Saigon restaurant (Quan Ngon 138), located just across the street from the Reunification Palace. 

At Quan Ngon 138, you will find lots of pork and tasty
nuoc cham dipping sauce as well as the other condiments.
The second version I had (pictured to the left) included a piece of pork shoulder that still had the skin and fat layers intact -- a visual turnoff for most Americans, including myself, but an important lesson in why we must overcome such aversions.  That piece of pork was unspeakably delicious... fat, skin, and all.  It was also completely tender throughout, no rubber or mush in sight.  I cannot imagine the sad, colorless life I would have had if I hadn't broadened my mind with that piece of pork.

2.  Mystery Bao, Hong Kong (China).

I took this shot the day after, so the bun had
dried up a bit from its original succulence... but it shows
off the varied textures better than the fresh pics I had.
The morning we did dim sum, we really did dim sum.  Two girls, ten dishes, no holds barred.  Neither our prior breakfast of congee and pork buns, nor my partner-in-gluttony's even earlier breakfast at the hotel  held us back at Maxim's Palace City Hall (a fantastic recommendation from Hong Kong native Joe, who sat next to me on the plane ride there).  Among the many delicious items we devoured was this little steamed bun on the dessert cart.  Our favorite cart-driver (who seemed simultaneously impressed and amused with our voraciousness, and kept egging us on to greater glory) told us it was called something like "mai yung pau" -- but since she spoke next to no English, and we spoke zero Cantonese or Mandarin, it's hard to say for sure what this was.  It TASTED like a bun stuffed with sweet, crumbly peanut paste mixed with chunks of cooked unsweetened kabocha squash.  The balance of sweet and savory, gritty and smooth, toothsome and succulent won us over, big time.  Anyone know what the real name is? I'd love to find this little gem again.

3.  Tea-coffee (aka yin yeung, yuanyang, or yuangyang depending whom you ask), Hong Kong (China).

The breakfast we ate just before we hit Maxim's. This
photo is actually of pantyhose milk tea, but the
tea-coffee version looks almost identical -- just a touch
darker, as you would expect.
This staple breakfast drink mixes classic Hong Kong "pantyhose" milk tea (nai cha) with coffee.  The unlikely combination completely enchanted me with its depth of flavor, silky texture (from the milk tea), and just plain uniqueness... it isn't tea, it isn't coffee, it is a wholly different animal with its own set of charms.  According to a variety of sources I read, the name in Mandarin means "mandarin duck," and the drink symbolizes matrimonial harmony -- a nice image for a recipe that unites two such strong, often polarizing characters into something greater than the sum of its parts.

4. Lime Dipping Sauce, Ha Long Bay (Vietnam).

I am hard pressed to think of another dipping sauce as primal, delicious, and simple as this Vietnamese classic.  The first time I tried it at a beach restaurant on Ha Long Bay, I fell head over heels in love. I had vivid, sordid fantasies of the stuff for days afterwards.  I later confirmed (in the authoritative and stunningly beautiful Taste Vietnam: The Morning Glory Cookbook) that this miraculous ambrosia consists only of a soft sea salt, ground black pepper, and fresh lime (and, in this version, sliced fresh chilies as well).  You squeeze the lime's juice into the dry ingredients to make a slurry, then dip whatever you want into it.  I cannot stress enough how delicious this was. 

5.  Banh Mi Thit Xiu, Hoi An (Vietnam).

We found this spicy little beauty at The Market Cooking School & Restaurant, where we picked up countless tips and details about Vietnamese cooking (and scored our autographed copies of Taste Vietnam, which was authored by the owner).  Our market guide recommended this particular banh mi as the most popular among the Vietnamese workers who go there for lunch:  sliced pork pâté,  sliced roast pork belly, crunchy fresh and pickled veggies, aromatic Vietnamese herbs, and generous dollops of local Hoi An chili paste stuffed into a thin Vietnamese baguette spread with mayonnaise.  This is one of those sandwiches you know as you're eating it that you can never replicate at home.  Treasure the memory of its endless layers of flavor, for that is all you'll be taking home.  Alas.  Naturally, I'm still compelled to try to approximate this, so will keep you posted if the reverse engineering attempts are successful.

6. Chicken Yakitori, Tokyo (Japan).

What, chicken yakitori made the favorite list?! Yes, but this was no ordinary chicken, my friends.  This was THE most intense chicken flavor I've ever experienced, and it came just from skewered chicken thighs seasoned with salt and grilled -- I watched the family do this from about three feet away, and there were no tricks involved.  Incredible. Why can't we get chicken like this at home?? Even the most organic, free-range, well-educated chicken in California doesn't taste this good.  Thank you, Yakitori Tori-Cho, for this revelation.  (Good luck finding this place though, we stumbled upon it by chance after failing to find either of the two yakitori places recommended to us.  Mom and pop and son kinda place, and we were the only white people in sight. Fantastic.) 

7.  Sushi at Tsukiji Fish Market, Tokyo (Japan).

Sushi breakfast at Tsukiji Market in Tokyo was a bucket list item for me.  They say there is no fresher, more authentic sushi in the world.  We hit Daiwa Sushi in Building 6 on the recommendation of Naoto, a former colleague of mine from my Kinokuniya Publications Service days.  Never in my life have I eaten such uni, ika, toro, anago, and tuna belly.  Incomparable freshness.  The toro was probably my favorite, so I'm showcasing it here.  Well worth the one-hour wait, and the long long flight to get there.  CHECK.

The bucket list is looking a lot shorter after this trip, so I think I should add a few more things. Foremost among them: securing a source for excellent Bun Bo Hue in Napa.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The Stuff You Should Be Buying At Trader Joe's

Truffegeddon dinner at La Toque's chef table was a tough post to follow, so I decided to take a completely different angle for this next one: my favorite cheap TJ's groceries, suitable for eating at home in front of the TV.

I have a short list of grocery products I get at Trader Joe's that consistently garner amazed compliments and urgent inquiries about their provenance.  One of my friends recently asked me to list them all out for her so she too can shop like a ninja there, and avoid the scores of nasty TJs products that lurk on the shelves.  It would take more time than I have today to list all of my picks, but here are seven of my most-loved and most frequently purchased staples, in no particular order:

1.  Kono Sauvignon Blanc ($7.99).  This is my go-to house wine, suitable for any occasion. It's an extremely racy, grassy, Sancerre taste-alike from New Zealand that pairs with practically any food you're having: Mexican, Thai, Japanese, Chinese, French, Italian, Vietnamese... there's enough acid to cut through rich dishes, but also enough Marlborough-style fruit to round out more lean snacks. I love its jalapeno notes, and distinctive whiff of pipi du chat that makes you think you're drinking a much more expensive Loire Valley offering.  Buy this one by the case, seriously.  Though fabulous with most foods, this wine is particularly delicious when paired with item #2, below.

To know them is to crave them.

2. Roasted Gorgonzola Crackers ($1.99). These little miracles put the crack in crackers.  They're kind of like tiny Saltines, if Saltines were hexagonal and dusted in an addictive umami-rich cheese/onion/garlic/yeast/soy sauce powder. I don't care that they don't actually contain any roasted gorgonzola, these things are compulsively delicious, and the perfect aperitif to munch on with a cold glass of Kono. I can't eat fewer than 30 in a single sitting, which is probably why TJ's lists the serving size as 31 crackers. Pro tip: don't ever let yourself snack on these directly from the box.  Also, did you see the $1.99 price?!? You can't go wrong with these.

3.  Tarte d'Alsace ($4.99).  This grande dame of TJ's frozen pizza section has a shockingly delicious puff pastry-like crust, topped with shredded gruyère cheese, julienned ham, and caramelized onions.  I like to cook it directly on the oven rack (put a piece of aluminum on the lower rack to catch the runaway cheese and oil that frequently escapes and makes a huge smoky mess on your oven floor), and bake it about 2-3 minutes longer than the directions recommend.  This crisps up the crust nicely, yet still keeps it pliable enough to fold around a green salad.  One tarte serves two not-too-hungry people (not four, as the package claims), but you can always add a fried egg on top of each person's piece to round things out in classic French style.  It makes for a tremendous and très chic dinner in 15 short, effortless minutes.

4. Fennel ($1.99/2-pack).  Fennel is not particularly well-known in the US, but I'm doing my best to change that by feeding it to everyone I cook for.  I mostly eat fennel raw in salads (it's awesome in a salad for the Tarte d'Alsace at #3, for example) or crudité platters, but I also love it cooked.  Pasta con sarde is one of my favorite ways to eat sauteed fennel, and buying this two-pack is the way to go if you're making a big vat of that delicious fennel-spiked sauce.  TJ's has the best price in town. Sadly, not organic though.

5.  Port Salut Cheese ($9.49/lb).  This French cheese was originally created by monks in the dark and crazy days following the French revolution, as a way to sustain themselves during the chaotic anti-religious sentiment of the period.  Those savvy monks obtained trademark protection once they realized how amazing their cheese really was, and now we have Port Salut in nearly every grocery store in Napa -- but TJ's has it cheapest. Semisoft, mild, but with an addicting tang, this cheese melts well and can be used in pretty much any situation involving cheese. I love it with the aforementioned Gorgonzola Crack[ers].  I also like to use it in toasted cheese sandwiches with sliced apples, or Pumpkin Butter (another fantastic seasonal TJ's item).

6.  Arabian Joe's Thin Crust Spicy Spinach Pizza ($3.99 for 4 pizzas).  I bring these little pizzettas to the office for lunch a lot, and torture my colleagues with their delectable aroma.  The olive oil-rich dough is spread with plenty of spinach cooked with garlic, spices, and green onions, so they actually have quite an impressive nutritional value as well as an intoxicating scent and taste.  For years I topped these with a dab of TJ's stellar eggplant hummus, a slice or two of pepper-crusted roast turkey deli meat, and a handful of arugula -- which I then folded up and ate like a giant taco.  That is still one of my favorite ways to eat them, but I'm trying to branch out. They're fantastic on their own, really, and need nothing except a few minutes in the toaster oven to unleash their full depth of flavor.

7.  Espiral Vinho Verde ($3.99).  This dubiously-priced Portuguese wine is a summertime staple for pool parties and barbecues.  It's a vinho verde, so don't expect buttery richness or 15% alcohol -- think vodka tonic, with a lot less alcohol -- and calories, if anyone cares.  This 7% alcohol wine is light, effervescent, and built for all-day drinking in the sun.  (Not that I ever do that, of course....)  Pour it over ice and add a few slices of lime to make it more festive, Argentine tincho-style. Another wine to pick up by the case when it's in stock.  

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Truffegeddon, Or How We Set A New Truffle Eating Record At La Toque

Chef Ken Frank of La Toque is a man who loves his truffles.  For 31 years, he has been serving a seasonal Truffle Menu at the peak of the Périgord black season in January and February.  He has lent his culinary talents to the Napa Truffle Festival every year since its inception, serving countless meals laden and larded with these incomparable black diamonds of the food world.

And so, when Ken told me and my truffle-loving dining partner that we had just set a new record for highest per capita truffle consumption in a single meal at La Toque, we could not believe it.  Until we went back through the photographic evidence of our gluttonous rampage.
A proud moment, indeed.
Ken began the truffle gavage with a gift (NO commercial transaction took place) of one of his favorite ingredients, seared to perfection and served with a bacon-wrapped date and aromatic confit orange slice.  Oh yeah, and truffles.  Pairing such a rich item with bacon sounded like it might be gilding the lily, but it really worked -- a seamless interplay of lusciousness, punctuated with smoke and meat and natural fruit sweetness.  Not pictured, to protect the innocent.

Next, we dove into a course of soft-yolked eggs nestled in a raviolo with some truffle slices, which was then bathed in a "sauce" of housemade truffle butter (some of which turned up again later in the meal, spread on the toast accompanying our truffle cheese). These free-range eggs came from Ken's own hens and had been stored next to black truffles for some time, so that the eggs themselves took on the truffle aroma.

Looks like pepper, doesn't it? Nope. That's all truffe.

Departing from the scheduled Truffle Menu, we then enjoyed a special piece of salmon with parsnip puree and braised leeks.  The raw salmon filet had been inlaid with black truffle slices, then slow roasted to succulence and showered with a not insignificant amount of julienned fresh truffle shavings.  Key word: earthy.

View from my post at the Chef's Table.

Ken's dayboat sea scallop with lobster sauce americaine was also truffled up to the max, with a layer of shavings actually inside the scallop, as well as lavishly strewn over the top.  I really liked the surprising combination of rich tomato lobster sauce with black truffle -- umami-rich, but with enough acid to keep it bright.  The scallop, for its part, was absolutely perfect.

Look at that gorgeous sear! The interior remained perfectly cooked, tender and sweet and juicy.

And then, the dish of the night.

Parmesan chawan mushi with oxtail, yellowfoot mushrooms, and truffle soup below.
And that subtle garnish on top.
Never in my life have I seen bigger black truffle shavings. More importantly, however, this dish was outrageously delicious.  Digging below those truffle paving stones, and past the gorgeous golden parmesan custard, you found chunks of tender braised oxtail and earthy mushrooms suspended in a consommé-like broth, scented with more black truffle.  I would never have guessed a chawan mushi dish would be my favorite truffle vehicle, but it was.

Because of the delectable wine pairings that were going on, I don't remember the exact order of the dishes that followed, but here they are:

Ravioli stuffed with seared chicken foie,
 and tossed in a pistou-like sauce with white beans.
This is the point in the meal where we started
eating the truffle shavings like
potato chips.
Boned-out chicken wing stuffed with truffled French-style
farce -- but you aren't really looking at the chicken, are you?

Here's the toast I mentioned earlier. Below that spectacular paving job is the rest of the
housemade truffle butter used in the egg raviolo dish.
La Toque makes its own truffle cheese in season, using young Mt. Tam from Cowgirl Creamery. Ken says the younger ones are best because the flavor is still mild, and won't overwhelm the subtlety of the truffles the way a more pungent, aged version would.  Personally, I think the truffle-shingled toast he served with this cheese course could have stood its ground against most things, but this preparation really let the truffle shine like the star that it is.

And, the money shot.

After such an indulgent and eye-popping feast, Ken sent us off with an elegant and understated truffled mascarpone cannoli with roasted hazelnuts and chocolate accents -- just the right amount of sweetness and cream.  Well-played, sir.

A new record.  A glorious meal.  A gauntlet, thrown.  And all in the name of charity (the Napa Humane Society, to be exact).

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Unofficial Downton Abbey Recipes Are Officially Delicious

Valentine's Day provided the perfect opportunity to try out a few recipes from The Unofficial Downton Abbey Cookbook, and I am pleased to say the experience brought a few new additions to my last-minute dinner party repertoire... as well as a healthy respect for the Crawleys who purportedly ate this way every night.

To start, we sampled Lady Mary's Crab Canapés -- unlikely to win the prize for "most authentic" due to the Old Bay Seasoning, cream cheese, Tabasco, and Parmesan involved, but a crowd-pleaser nonetheless.

Crabby Lady Mary's namesake hors d'oeuvres.

Just like the Crawley sisters, these were as
gooey and cheesy as they looked.
We also amused the bouches with The Crawley Sisters' Stuffed Mushrooms, an spicy little number calling for more cream cheese and Parmesan to fill the gaps left by the destemming of the shrooms. They also worked in some garlic and oh-so-British Worcestershire sauce.

Because we 21st Century humans have fewer stomachs than the upper-class British employing Service à la Russe in the 1920s, we skipped the soup course and jumped straight to fish as our main meal -- omitting the Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth Courses of Joints, Steaks, and Roasts that were traditionally to follow the fish.

Daisy's Mustard Salmon with Lentils was my favorite dish of the night, thanks to its impressive resplendence of flavor and quick and easy style.  It actually could pass for healthy, too, if you don't use the entire half cup of butter that is supposed to go in.  The show-stopping mustard "sauce" consists of softened butter, chopped chives, chopped tarragon (this MADE the dish), Dijon mustard, lemon juice, a touch of sugar, salt and fresh ground pepper mixed together, then dolloped into the cooked French lentils and on top of the salmon just when you're ready to serve.  Tremendous! 

Daisy's tarragon-scented salmon and lentils stole my heart.
And most of my stomach capacity.

We paired our wild Coho salmon and lentils with a 2002 Nuits-Saint-Georges "Les Damodes" Burgundy by Philippe and Vincent Lécheneaut, because that's what Carson and His Lordship would have chosen.  This lovely silken delight of a wine even survived our side order of Baked and Buttery Balsamic Asparagus with Sea Salt, another butter-happy gift to humanity.  This simplissimo concept is essentially just roasted asparagus in a brown butter sauce that's jazzed up by the addition of a bit of soy sauce and balsamic vinegar.  Delectable.  No weirdness from the soy sauce addition at all, despite my misgivings.

Balsamic-spiked butter sauce, garnished with fresh vegetables.

After all that delicious butter, we had decided to forgo the uber-rich Creamy Chocolate Mousses and Mrs. Patmore's Extravagant Parisian Eclairs in favor of a light dessert like, say, two pints of Three Twins Ice Cream and a half dozen bignés from Ca'Momi.  This was our inspired Napa variation on the cookbook's Vanilla Wafers With Double Chocolate Ice Cream recipe, which included a helpful prefatory note: "With the advent of Service à la Russe, ice cream and wafers became the standard nonfruit dessert."  Reading a bit further, we learn that this standard dessert was actually the standard SECOND dessert, served after a first sweet course of something hot.  Maybe next time.  

And there will be a next time.  How else to sample the other four courses we skipped over?

Friday, February 8, 2013

Dinner At Downton Abbey

My mother's ability to choose wildly undesirable gifts for her family is notorious and unsurpassed.  So when I received an unexpected bubble-pack envelope from her a few weeks ago, I chortled with the anticipation of finding another French-language cookbook of Hungarian goulash recipes, or a pair of hand-made plastic beaded earrings from one of her Southwestern crafting friends, or the pamphlet from the last museum audio tour she's taken on her travels, or maybe just her latest clothing contribution that she was too lazy to drive past the post office to Goodwill's drop box (all of which I have, in fact, received from her in past years).  

Imagine my surprise when I opened the package and discovered a copy of The Unofficial Downton Abbey Cookbook!  Actually something I might voluntarily select for myself?? I could hear my inner Dowager Countess: "Well, now I've seen ev'rything." 

The author of this shockingly desirable gift, Emily Ansara Baines, also wrote The Unofficial Hunger Games Cookbook, which was the focus of a fabulous dinner party last year.  Ms. Baines' latest contribution to the unauthorized cookbook scene takes on both the Crawleys' refined francophile cuisine in Downton's upstairs dining room (including recipes for each of the 8-13 courses that were de rigueur for a proper meal with service à la Russe, as well as a selection of classic teatime favorites), and the hearty British workingman's fare dished out below-stairs in the servants' hall.   Interspersed with the recipes are snippets of etiquette advice, and historical curiosities related to the recipes and the show's plot lines.  (Disappointingly, there is no recipe for Turkish Delight.)

I foresee at least one Unofficial Downton Dinner Party in my future, though... and Valentine's Day might be just the right occasion to break out some Crawley-style decadence.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Plenty Good For 2013

One of my best friends gave me a copy of Yotam Ottolenghi's Plenty for Christmas this past year -- the gorgeous, soft-padded-hardcover cookbook of vegetarian recipes culled from Ottolenghi's veg-head columns in the UK's Guardian.  Neither the author, the gift-giver, nor I am a vegetarian, but that has absolutely no impact on the appeal of this book.  Browsing through these lusciously photographed recipes will inspire even the most die-hard carnivore.

Most of the recipes in this collection tend to riff on classic Mediterranean spices and combinations, but the nuanced, creative layering of texture and flavor really sets the collection apart.  Beet, orange and black olive salad, for example, sounds fairly common and familiar until the orange blossom water and chopped parsley hit your sensory receptors.  Subtle tweaks and additions like these make all the difference in the world, and are what really make this book unique.

The single best thing I've cooked in 2013 so far was the caramelized garlic and goat cheese tart from page 38 of Plenty -- a recipe that I plan to replicate at every opportunity. 

Three heads of garlic sounds like an overwhelming sulphurous miasma, but the cooking technique (blanch, drain, then simmer to a syrup with a touch of vinegar, sugar, and fresh rosemary and thyme) produced an elegant, sophisticated, and tender result.  Filling the tart with both fresh chevre and aged goat gouda (I used Midnight Moon from Cypress Grove) added depth, nuttiness, tang, and texture that counterbalanced the delicate earthy sweetness of the garlic.  And the pure butter puff pastry tart shell... well, we all know how delicious that is when done well.  I leave such pastry details to the pros, and bought a package of Dufour from the frozen section of Whole Foods.

The rest of the filling for this quiche-like recipe was hardly a dieter's dream -- eggs, cream and crème fraîche -- but we found that we didn't even need to use all of this lipidinous liquid to fill up the shallow tarte once all the cheese and garlic was nestled in there.  Thanks to the Provençal herbs in there (and, probably, the fabulous 2009 Girard Old Vine Zinfandel we paired with it), the richness does not overwhelm.  This would be a perfect vegetarian main course for any season, any meal, and any gathering. 

The introductory quote for this dish from the author's recipe tester Claudine really says it all: "I think this is the most delicious recipe in the world!"  Bold words, but remarkably hard to dispute.