Friday, August 22, 2008

Vietnamese soul food

On my way to a concert on the Lower East Side the other night I decided to walk through Chinatown and see if I couldn't scrounge up something delicious to eat. I was strolling more or less aimlessly when I suddenly realized exactly what I wanted: pho from Nha Trang. Now for a New Yorker I have a laughably bad sense of direction, but my stomach managed to lead me true, and my efforts were rewarded with a deep, steaming bowl of comfort food.

If you haven't had pho before, trying it should be at the top of your to-do list. Pho is noodle soup: it's usually comprised of a rich beef broth loaded with thin rice noodles and served with different cuts of meat, such as thin-sliced beef, meatballs, or fish balls. The best thing about pho is the do-it-yourself style in which you eat it: the soup comes with a plate of flavorful garnishes--usually bean sprouts, fresh Thai basil leaves and a lime wedge--that you add at your discretion along with soy sauce, hoisin sauce and sriracha. Each bowl of pho is different, and that's what's so fun about it. It's also the perfect meal for the budget-conscious: at $5.75, the type of pho I ordered the other night (#1, with beef brisket, eyeround, tendon and tripe) was the most expensive on the menu. That's still a bargain in my book:

Nha Trang
87 Baxter St. (between Canal and Bayard)
(212) 233-5948

Nha Trang Centre (alternate location)
148 Centre St. (at Walker St.)
(212) 941-9292

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Grandma knows best

In my last post I shared a photo of a slice of my grandmother's blueberry cake, and I thought I'd go into a little more detail about that recipe. In one of my older posts I wrote about "the old standby"--one of those recipes that you return to again and again, both perfecting it through practice and also putting your own personal stamp on it. And an important and reliable standby is definitely the family recipe. Carefully passed down like an heirloom, it's tried and true and stands the test of time. In my food-centered Jewish family, we have a number of such recipes. One of them is my great-grandmother's mandel brot, which is basically a Jewish biscotti studded with nuts (mandel brot means "almond bread"). The story goes that my great-grandmother never used recipes, and as she got older family anxiety that the recipe might pass away with her increased. So one day when she was baking her famous cookies she was closely observed and the recipe was finally recorded. Since then it's been baked dozens of times, mostly by my grandmother (whose blueberry cake recipe follows) and by my mom.

My grandma Georgia is a great cook and baker. We visit her house in Pittsburgh for Thanksgiving every year, and in addition to the turkey, brisket, sweet and sour meatballs and potato kugel that she turns out (largely on her own), she also serves up pumpkin pie with the most tender and flaky crust (her secret? Crisco), airy vanilla cake topped with sweet cherries, and chunky, slightly salty oatmeal-and-chocolate-chip cookies. Blueberries, obviously, aren't in season in November, but during the summer when they abound my grandma makes this delectable cake. It's such a great recipe: sweet and laden with fruit, it still manages to be light, thanks to the step which calls for the egg whites to be beaten separately. The best way to eat it? Unadorned, and with a cup of coffee or tea. But if you want to gild the lily--as we all do sometimes--top it with some vanilla bean ice cream.

*Note: if you--like me--prefer your desserts a little less sweet, you can reduce the sugar in this recipe by up to 3/4 cup. Another change I make is to use two sticks of room temperature butter in place of the shortening. Finally, I add the zest of one lemon to the wet ingredients for more complexity of flavor. Enjoy!

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Snackin' with Steinberg

Earlier in the week my dear friend Gideon Steinberg asked me to come join him at his country house in the Catskills for a few days. I was grateful for the invitation, since I hadn't really been out of the city since graduating from college in late May and the heat, grime and noise were really beginning to wear on me. It was a lovely sojourn and I only wish I could have stayed longer.

Gideon is a really good cook and over the course of our friendship we've made a lot of tasty things to eat together. The past few days were no exception, and I thought I'd share some of our creations. First up is a dead simple guacamole we had as an afternoon snack after swimming in the lake: just two ripe avocadoes mashed up with minced shallot and garlic, some chopped cherry tomatoes, lime juice, salt and fresh chives:

Gideon had this amazing, locally produced whole milk ricotta cheese that was rich, creamy and ever so slightly salty. He used it to top these delicious (and rather elegant) one-bite snacks of basil and a halved cherry tomato:

The main event on Monday night was this jerk chicken from the New York Times that I've been wanting to try since the recipe was published last month. Marinated overnight and grilled over charcoal, it was deeply flavorful, tender and juicy:

We served the chicken with some brown rice and black beans that we cooked together to a porridge-like consistency and flavored with a heaping spoonful of the jerk chicken marinade that we had boiled down into a sauce:

For dessert I served up slices of my grandmother's blueberry cake topped with vanilla ice cream and a quick sauce that I made of just-picked blueberries and a little maple syrup:

And, finally, breakfast on Tuesday morning: toasted whole wheat pita wedges topped with the aforementioned ricotta and, on one side, leftover blueberry sauce; on the other, halved cherry tomatoes, olive oil and salt. Sweet and savory on one plate? Now that's my kind of meal:

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Spicy snacks under the summer sun

I've been meaning to write about the food sold at the Red Hook, Brooklyn soccer fields for a long time now. Not only because what's available is so delicious and varied and cheap, but also because visiting the fields is a quintessential summer experience. The Mexican and South American vendors at the park attract a mix of families and hipsters, local Brooklynites and reverse bridge-and-tunnelers, the very old and the very young and everyone in between. The summer sun beats down upon those playing soccer, and either before or after your meal there's nothing better than a refreshing dip in Red Hook's large, cool and clean public pool, located right across the street from the ballfields. It's a good time all around.

I'm not the first person to write about the food at the ballfields: the New York Times hit upon the trend back in 2006, and the vendors at the park also attracted a lot of attention during 2007, when the city cracked down on the more or less ramshackle operation, demanding that the food purveyors update and standardize their facilities, a move that cost invidual vendors up to $35,000. The future of the vendors was uncertain, but, thankfully, they returned in full force this summer.

All the news surrounding the ballfields has brought in a massive wave of customers. When I arrived at a little past 3 P.M. today--far past peak lunch hour--the crowds were almost unbelievable. Lines ran about 20 or 30 people deep for the more popular trucks; other trucks had lines with a minimum of 10 people. Luckily, everything moves fast. Each truck has about 4-5 people assembling meals inside, which are then passed through little windows to the hungry--and eager--customer. Here's a picture of the general scene just to give you an idea of what it looks like:

I quickly got in line at the drinks/grilled corn truck. Freshly-squeezed/brewed watermelon, cantaloupe, jamaica (hibiscus flower), lime, lemon, tamarind, mango and cucumber juices and infusions were all for sale, as well as the Mexican rice-and-cinnamon drink horchata, as this happy little sign advertised:

I'm normally a tamarind kind of girl, but today I couldn't resist the watermelon juice, which I saw being blended up into a frothy, irresistable pink libation. Here's a shot of the action inside the truck, pouring juices and handing over grilled chile-dusted ears of corn:

Once hydrated, I surveyed the food options, which include standard, easily recognizable options like tacos and quesadillas as well as less well-known choices like huaraches and pupusas. I decided to get in line at one of the less popular trucks, which today was offering goat (barbacoa) tacos. Goat? Enough said. It happens to be one of my favorite meats, and one I don't get to eat very often; I don't know why more people weren't going for it. Here's the menu advertising the options:

And the meal I ended up with: one goat taco ($3) with onions, cilantro and pico de gallo (fresh tomato salsa), and one tostada (fried corn tortilla) ($3) layered with mashed black beans, crema (Mexican sour cream), queso fresco (mild, firm Mexican cheese), and shredded lettuce. The goat was superb: meaty, gamey and tender, and the sliced jalapeƱos hidden inside the tostada provided a piquant counterpoint to the meat's richness. I topped both with a pickled radish salsa/slaw that was available on the truck's little window counter. And lest I forget, I also got an order of chicharonnes (fried pork skins) ($1) to complement my meal. It's not really like me to eat deep-fried animal skin, but I figured for the sake of the blog I should:

Can't forget the drink ($2.25), either:

Can you really beat an authentic, flavorful meal eaten under the sun in Brooklyn for $9.25? I don't think so--and judging from the number of people at the park today, I'm not alone.

Red Hook Ballfields Vendors
Red Hook Soccer Field, corner of Clinton St. and Bay St.
(no phone)

Friday, August 1, 2008

And lo, there was bread, and it was good

Back in May I reported that one of my culinary goals for the summer was to learn how to bake good bread. I nourished a sourdough starter weekly, but for the most part it just sat in my fridge unused (with the notable exception of its inclusion in these sourdough pancakes). But the good thing about goals is that we usually get around to them, even if it takes a while. And so over the weekend I finally made a loaf of sourdough, and I couldn't be more pleased with how it turned out.

The reason I finally got around to baking bread was that I bought a bread stone, which I had been meaning to do for a long time. I had originally intended to just buy one or two saltillo tiles, commonly used for flooring, because Alton Brown of the Food Network show Good Eats said that that was the thing to do. But I don't live near any big home goods stores, and when I checked with my local hardware stores they didn't carry the tiles. So I just bit the bullet and purchased a bread stone at Williams Sonoma--for $35. I think that price is a little exorbitant, but luckily I had a long-unused gift card from my brother lying around (thanks, Eric!) I can't stress how much of a difference baking with the stone makes. I am not a skilled baker, and this bread turned out phenomenally well. That's because the stone preheats in the oven and gets scorching hot, drawing out all the moisture in the bread and producing a crackly crust that comes close to approximating the texture of bakery loaves.

So I'll walk you through the process. It's a long one--you have to have a deep reserve of patience to be a baker because you can't speed things along. What you do first is mix your starter with water, a little sweetener, and the flour to form a dough. You knead it--an infinitely satisfying process--then let it rest a while. Then, you knead it again, adding the salt. That's it; you have your dough. All it has to do now is rise. This step actually proved to be a minor problem for me. You see, although my starter is by all accounts active and alive, it wasn't sufficiently raising the dough. When I noticed this, I quickly took action, mixing up 1/2 tsp. of instant yeast with some water and flour to form a paste, and then kneading it into the dough. Problem solved--the dough quickly started to behave as it should. Purists might frown upon this step, but I think it was necessary. The dough rises at room temperature for 4-6 hours, and is then punched down and allowed to rise in the fridge for a second period of 8-12 hours (as I said, patience is key!) Here's what my dough looked like when it came out of the fridge the morning after its second rise:

After the cold dough comes to room temperature, about 2-3 hours, you shape the loaves. I only made half a recipe, which yielded one large loaf. What you do is flatten the dough into a large rectangle, fold each long side into the middle, then fold that completely in half to create tension in the dough, which will cause a nice springiness as the bread bakes in the oven. Then you let the loaf rest, yet again, for 1 hour. At this point you should place your bread stone on your oven's middle rack and start preheating the oven to 500°. You should also place a heavy pan full of water in the bottom of the oven to generate steam. Here's my loaf after 1 hour of proofing, almost ready for the oven:

Next I slashed the bread lengthwise, and then it was time to bake. I quickly slid the loaf from a cornmeal-dusted baking sheet directly onto the stone, splashed the floor and walls of the oven with water for more steam, and closed the door. Within the first five minutes of baking, I splashed water twice more (you can use a spray bottle, too). After that, I lowered the oven temperature to 450° and left the oven door closed for 20 minutes. Then I opened it up and rotated the bread, closed it, and baked the bread for 15 more minutes. The bread is done when the loaf sounds hollow when tapped on the bottom. I removed the bread to a cooling rack and waited (more!) until the bread was completely cool before cutting into it--you must do this, or else you'll mess up the bread's texture by releasing all the steam still in the bread. And here's my gloriously crusty brown loaf (can you tell I'm a little bit proud?):

And here's a peek inside at the bread's crumb. As a novice baker, I was very pleased with the bread's texture: it was chewy but not too heavy, with a wonderfully crisp crust. But I think that ideally the crumb should have larger air bubbles; maybe my technique will improve with time:

I loved the taste of the bread, too. What the sourdough starter adds is an intense, highly developed sour tang; I've made regular yeast breads a few times before and they just don't have the depth of flavor. Even though I had to boost my starter with a little yeast to get it to rise, it was really instrumental in creating a finished product that tasted (dare I say it?) almost as good as something you buy at a bakery. The best way to enjoy this bread? Spread thickly with good butter, and even sprinkled with a tiny bit of salt, if you dare. The creamy richness of the butter offsets the sourness of the bread in a most satisfying way:

French Country Sourdough White Bread
Adapted from The Modern Vegetarian Kitchen by Peter Berley
Yields 1 two-pound loaf

* Note: This recipe will take 2 days from start to finish. It's most convenient to do steps 1-6 on the first day, and steps 6-16 on the second.

3/4 cup white sourdough starter
1 1/2 cups lukewarm (70-80°) non-chlorinated water
1 1/2 tsp. sweetener (honey, sugar or molasses)
1/2 tsp. instant yeast
3 cups unbleached white flour
1/2 cup whole wheat flour
2 tsp. salt

1. In a large mixing bowl, combine the starter, water, sweetener, and yeast. Stir until starter is dissolved.
2. Add the flours and mix to form a ragged mass of dough. Cover the bowl and allow dough to rest for 5 minutes.
3. Scoop the dough out onto a clean, lightly floured surface. Wash out the bowl and thoroughly wash and dry your hands. Knead dough for 10 minutes. Invert the bowl over the dough and let it rest for 15 minutes.
4. Uncover the dough, add the salt, and knead for 5-10 minutes, until the dough is smooth and elastic. Avoid adding extra flour as you knead.
5. Lightly grease the inside of the bowl. Add the dough and turn it over several times until it is well-coated. Cover the bowl tightly with plastic wrap and set aside at room temperature until dough has nearly tripled in volume, 4-6 hours.
6. Gently press on the dough to deflate it. Cover the bowl tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 8-12 hours.
7. Remove the dough from the refrigerator. Remove the plastic wrap and sprinkle with a little flour. The dough will be very cold and stiff. Cover the bowl with a clean towel and set aside for 2-3 hours, until the internal temperature of the dough is about 68°.
8. Turn the dough out onto a clean, lightly floured surface. Press the dough into a 1-inch-thick rectangle. Fold one long end in to the middle of the rectangle; repeat with the other long end. Then completely fold in half to create surface tension over the dough. Pinch the seam to seal underneath.
9. Place the dough seam side down on a floured cloth. Sift a light veil of flour over the loaf. Cover with a clean cloth and let sit for 1 hour.
10. Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 500° F (at least 45 minutes before the dough is ready to bake). Set a heavy pan filled with water on the floor of the oven. Set a baking stone or inverted baking sheet on the middle rack. Dust a peel or baking sheet with cornmeal.
11. Press the dough with a fingertip. If the dough springs back quickly, it requires more time. If it springs back slowly or holds the indentation, it is ready to bake.
12. Gently transfer the loaf onto the peel, seam side down. Slash the dough length-wise, making an incision 1/2-inch deep and stopping 1 inch from the ends.
13. Open the oven and slide the dough onto the baking stone or baking sheet. Heavily mist the floor, sides, and ceiling of the oven with water, or splash some with your hands. Shut the oven door. Mist 2 more times during the first 5 minutes, taking care not to mist the loaf itself.
14. Turn the oven temperature down to 450° F. Do not open the oven door for 20 minutes.
15. Open the oven and rotate loaf for even browning. Continue to bake for 15-20 more minutes. The bread is done when the internal temperature reaches 210°, or when a loaf sounds hollow when tapped on the bottom.
16. Cool the loaf on a wire rack for no less than 1 hour before slicing.