Tuesday, December 23, 2008

The gift that keeps on giving

No, this isn't a holiday-themed post. But I'm choosing to use that familiar expression as a metaphor for...soup. Yes, that's right, soup. Because in the same way that a good gift continues to bring happiness long after it is given, a good pot of soup continues to nourish for days or even weeks after it is cooked. Sometime last week I decided I wanted to make soup. It was cold, and I wanted to be warmed, and I wanted to have a big pot of something tasty waiting in my fridge for me to partake of whenever I wanted. Also, I had a frozen chicken carcass lying around, and it was high time to convert it into some homemade broth.

So that's where I started. Making chicken broth is easy and you can basically do it however you want to, adding whatever seasonings or aromatics that you happen to have on hand. What I did was place the frozen chicken carcass in the biggest, tallest pot that I own, filled it almost to the top with about 10 cups of cold water, added half an onion, a bunch of fresh parsley, and a small handful of black peppercorns. I covered the pot and turned on the heat, and when the water came to a boil I uncovered the pot, turned it down to a simmer, and left it alone for about 3 hours, or until the broth had reduced to about 8 cups of liquid. At that point I turned the heat off, skimmed the top of the broth of any foam or excess fat, then seasoned it with a good amount of salt and a little bit of black pepper. Then I reserved the 6 cups I needed for my soup and transferred the rest to containers to let it cool.

Then I did something I don't often do--I followed a recipe. Doing so was, in fact, kind of counterintuitive, because making soup is so simple that you can usually just wing it. But I felt like making a bright, flavorful soup, not your run-of-the-mill chicken noodle variety. So I found a recipe at epicurious.com for Thai Chicken-Coconut Soup, made of a base of chicken broth and coconut milk and featuring lively additions such as lime juice and zest, chilies, cilantro and fish sauce. The soup turned out just as I wanted it to: spicy, complex-tasting, and filling. And the pot lasted me about six or seven meals--I just ate it continually for a few days in a row, never tiring of its flavors, which intensified as it sat in the fridge. The best part? There's still one serving left, sitting in my freezer waiting for a day when, lazy and hungry, I'll still be able to enjoy a complete meal in about 5 minutes. That's a lot of payoff for not a lot of work.

Thai Chicken-Coconut Soup
From epicurious.com
Makes 6-8 servings


4 oz. cellophane noodles
6 cups low-sodium chicken broth

1–2 red Thai (or jalapeƱo) peppers, seeded and finely chopped (plus slices for garnish)
3 cloves garlic, chopped
1 tablespoon grated ginger
2 teaspoons grated lemon zest
1 teaspoon grated lime zest
1/4 cup fresh lemon (or lime) juice
4 tablespoons Thai fish sauce, divided
1/2 pound shiitake mushrooms, sliced (3 cups)
2 boneless, skinless chicken breasts (about 5 ounces each), cut into 2 1/2-inch-long by 1/4-inch-wide strips
1 cup light coconut milk
2 cups baby spinach
2 tablespoon chopped cilantro (plus sprigs for garnish)


Place noodles in a bowl; add enough warm water to cover and let sit until soft, about 15 minutes. Drain. Combine broth, pepper, garlic, ginger, lemon zest, lime zest, lemon juice and 3 tablespoon fish sauce in a medium saucepan. Season with salt. Bring to a simmer, add noodles and cook 3 minutes more. Using tongs, transfer noodles to a bowl and cover with foil to keep warm. Add mushrooms to broth; season with salt, if desired; simmer 3 minutes more. Add chicken and coconut milk and simmer, stirring, until chicken is just cooked, about 3 minutes. Stir in spinach until it begins to wilt, about 1 minute. Add chopped cilantro and season with remaining 1 tablespoon fish sauce. Using tongs, divide noodles among 4 bowls. Ladle soup into bowls and garnish with sprigs of cilantro and slices of pepper.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Japanese grazing on a budget

Last week when discussing where to meet for dinner near her apartment in the East Village, my friend Jess and I settled on Caracas Arepa Bar, a delicious and reasonable Venezuelan spot that I've been to several times. The day happened to be Wednesday, though, which of course meant that I was reading the New York Times Dining section before heading out to meet Jess. Browsing the "$25 and Under" column, always most applicable to my dining tastes and sadly appearing in the paper on a less frequent basis than in the past, I happened to spot a very favorable review of Village Yokocho, a Japanese yakitori spot also right near Jess's place. It sounded so appealing--and so cheap--that I asked Jess if she'd be willing to forego the arepas this time around. A big fan of Japanese food, she instantly agreed, as I knew she would.

We arrived at the restaurant at about 9 PM and it was packed. We found some seats on a little bar right in front of the open kitchen and drank in the bright, cheery atmosphere along with our ice-cold beers:

When we saw that most of the dishes on the menu ranged from $2-9, we proceeded to order a multitude of them. We started with some yakitori skewers, as those are, of course, the restaurant's speciality (yakitori means grilled skewers). From left to right, we had: duck with scallion, squid legs (really just pieces of squid), and chicken meatballs, which cost $2 or $3 per skewer:

These were all rather tasty--well-seasoned and smoky from the grill--but the duck made a particularly strong impression: having ordered so many dishes, I sort of forgot what to expect, and when I took a bite of the duck it was tender, juicy, gamey and unmistakable.

Next we received a dish we had ordered from the specials menu: a broth with ground beef, pieces of pumpkin, and whole shrimp; I think this cost $5, and it was warming and sweet from the pumpkin:

Up next were two items from the "kushiage," or breaded and fried bites, section of the menu. These were a variety of meats, seafood and vegetables that were coated in panko, or Japanese breadcrumbs, and fried ($2-3 apiece). We got a piece of pumpkin (I happen to love pumpkin and all similar squashes) and a whole fried shrimp, with its head and all; both were delicious (when is fried food not?):

We were still hungry at this point so we ordered two more dishes. First up was another broth, this one with bits of pork, chunks of root vegetables and scallions; I think it cost $4 or $5. Our favorite dish of the evening, this soup was simple, down-home and comforting:

And finally we got some sort of noodle stir-fry with cabbage, beef and shrimp ($6). I liked this dish, but it was showered with bonito flakes, which are little pieces of dried, smoked fish. They're definitely an acquired taste, and I have to say that I enjoyed the noodles more once we got past the layer of bonito:

Because we ordered so much food (we probably could have gone without the last dish), Jess and I each ended up paying about $20. But for all that food and a beer apiece that's quite a steal; grazing is also probably my favorite way to eat, since you get to taste so many different items. It was a great night that ended at Jess's kitchen counter with a pint of Ben and Jerry's and two spoons; I can't think of a more fitting close to an evening spent with a friend of 18 years.

Village Yokocho
8 Stuyvesant St. (between 3rd Ave. and E. 9th St.)
(212) 598-3041

Saturday, December 13, 2008

A brief sojourn to the country

Last weekend I finally escaped New York City and headed upstate to my friend Gideon's country house. As I detailed in this post, Gideon and I like to cook together and we tend to create some really delicious things. The past weekend was no exception. We arrived late at night and got right to work the next morning, making oatmeal griddle cakes for breakfast. The recipe, which we found in the classic Joy of Cooking, is dead simple; you basically just add the usual pancake ingredients (flour, leavening, eggs) to cooked oatmeal, mix, and fry. A great use for leftover oatmeal, they made a filling, hearty breakfast that fortified us for our hike in the frigid woods:

For dinner that night we roasted a chicken and some potatoes in exactly the same manner as I demonstrated in my recent post on roasted chicken. This one came out just as nicely:

On the side we enjoyed a refreshing salad of green leaf lettuce, sectioned grapefruits, sliced red onions and avocados dressed with olive oil and rice wine vinegar. The lightness of the salad was a perfect counterpoint the warm, rich and salty chicken and potatoes:

As good as that whole plate of food was, I think my favorite part of our meal was the little cooks' treat that we made at the beginning as we cleaned the chicken: chopped liver. Gideon happened to have some homemade chicken and matzoh ball soup that he had made with his grandmother, so as any good Jews would do we skimmed the top of its schmaltz (that's chicken fat, used for cooking, for you Goyim out there) and slow-cooked the one liver that came with the chicken, along with some chopped onions, in a small pan. We then seasoned it well with salt and pepper and whirred it up with some fresh parsley in a little electric chopper. Here it is spread on some olive bread and garnished with raw red onion:

The chicken was a large one and took a while to roast in the oven. As it did, Gideon and I decided that we wanted to bake something, so we made challah bread. For a yeast bread, it's very simple to make and doesn't take too much time. Here's what it looked like after we braided it and let it rise for a second time:

And here it is after being coated with an egg wash and baked:

And here it is after being converted to French toast the next morning:

Think we were done eating by that point? Well, not quite. Late on Sunday afternoon we threw together this chicken salad with parsley, tomatoes, red onion, olives, olive oil and vinegar and made to-go sandwiches to bring in the car:

Needless to say, after polishing those off I was quite full.

Oatmeal Griddle Cakes
Serves 2-3
Adapted from Joy of Cooking

1. Sift 1 cup of all-purpose flour. Re-sift with 1 1/2 tsp. baking powder and 1/2 tsp. salt.
2. Stir together 1 1/2 c. cooked oatmeal, 1/2 c. milk, and 2 tbsp. melted butter. Add one egg, beaten, and stir to combine.
3. Stir in the dry ingredients until just combined. Fry the cakes on a heated buttered griddle or cast-iron pan, about 3-4 minutes per side. Serve with butter and maple syrup.

Challah Bread
Makes 1 loaf
Adapted from Joy of Cooking

1. In a small bowl, mix 1 packet of active dry yeast with 1/4 c. warm water and 1 1/2 tbsp. sugar. It should froth up; if it does not, discard and try again with different yeast.
2. Measure out 3/4 c. warm water and add a pinch of saffron to it.
3. Sift 3 c. flour with 1 1/2 tsp. salt into a large bowl. Create a well in the center and add 2 eggs, lightly beaten, 2 tbsp. vegetable oil, the saffron water, and the yeast mixture. Using a wooden spoon, stir until combined. The dough will be very sticky.
4. Turn the dough out onto a floured surface and knead, with floured hands, until it becomes smooth and elastic, about 10 minutes. Place the dough in a large bowl that has been oiled and turn it over so that both sides are coated. Cover and let rise in a warm place until doubled in volume, about 1 hour.
5. Punch the dough down and knead it again, briefly, on the floured surface. Create three long, ropey strands of dough and place them on a greased and floured baking sheet. Braid the strands together and tuck the ends underneath. Allow the loaf to rise again, about 1/2 to 1 hour.
6. Preheat the oven to 400°. Make an egg wash of one egg yolk beaten with a little water. Brush it all over the loaf and bake it in the 400° oven for 15 minutes, then turn the heat down to 350° and bake for another 15 minutes. The loaf is done when it is well browned and sounds hollow when tapped on the bottom. Allow it to cool before you slice it.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

At the crossroads of Southeast Asia

I wish that I could say that I was blogging from abroad, but the subject of this post is actually just a choice phrase selected from the paragraph on the front of the takeout menu of Jaya, a Malaysian restaurant in Chinatown where I dined, along with my friend Gideon, on Friday night. Malaysia, the restaurant's owner Selamat Makan writes, "has been a melting pot of rich and exciting cross-cultural cuisine of traditional Malay, Indian, Indonesian, Thai and Chinese influences," adding that "this exciting, delicious, fiery, mild, tantalizing cooking is what we at Jaya present to you for your enjoyment." Cuisine that tastes of five different Asian countries and manages to be both fiery and mild at the same time? Count me in!

All jokes aside, the food at Jaya is some seriously good stuff, with layered flavors like chiles, coconut milk, cilantro and soy permeating each dish. Friday night was my first time eating there; it was Gideon's pick for dinner. When we arrived at about 7 p.m. the place was already bustling--always a good sign--with a healthy mix of white people, some of them likely tourists, but also a fair number of Asian families. Everything on the menu sounded so good to me that I didn't even know where to begin and was forced to make a last-minute decision when the waitress came by. I chose the dish on the menu that sounded least familiar to me, Yang Tao Foo Noodle, described as "bean curd and vegetable stuffed with fish paste in curry broth or clear soup with egg noodle." I opted for the curry broth. I wasn't quite sure what would be brought to the table, but I wasn't dissapointed when it looked like this:

And it smelled even better, with the sharp herbal scent of lemongrass cutting through the vapors of rich coconut milk and spicy chile paste rising from the steaming bowl. This was basically a big bowl of thick and intensely flavored curry filled with chewy egg noodles and topped with a few very interesting items: that cracker-looking thing at the top of the bowl was a thin, salty, deep-fried piece of fish skin that was actually very tasty, especially dipped into the broth; the chunk of tofu that you see was, in fact, stuffed with a hunk of creamy fish paste and some minced vegetables; the eggplant was tender and soaked in curry goodness; and the whole of the dish was showered with chopped scallions as well as a few bits of crunchy fried onion bits. I was full halfway through eating this and gave the rest to Gideon, so at $6.75 dinner was truly a bargain. Most of the other items on the menu--which were all unusual and intriguing--are under $9, and the most expensive dish offered costs $14.95. I know I'll definitely be returning soon.

90 Baxter St. (at White St.)
(212) 219-3331