Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Chinatown, my love

Starting a couple of years ago after I read Fuchsia Dunlop's excellent food memoir Shark's Fin and Sichuan Pepper, then devoured her two beautiful cookbooks Land of Plenty and the Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook, I quickly became obsessed with Chinese cooking, and it's a trend that's continued--and grown--since then. I think Chinese food gets a bad rap--people say it's greasy, or bland, or makes them sick--and that's because they're thinking of the carelessly thrown together, cornstarch- and MSG-laden takeout on their nearest corner. It's simply not an opinion I understand, because true, artfully prepared Chinese food is so incredibly flavorful, bursting with spicy, salty accents and full of contrasting textures that, to my palate, at least, it's simply one of the best cuisines out there. (I should point out here that there isn't really one "Chinese cuisine"--as you may have heard, China is a big country, and there are many regional styles of food. I happen to be partial to the fiery cuisine of the Sichuan or Szechuan province, but then again I like any kind of well-made Chinese food.)

Although you might imagine them to be exotic or difficult, the Chinese recipes I've tried are actually quite easy. What they rely on is a well-stocked pantry: you need some basics such as different kinds of soy sauce, chile pastes, fermented vegetables, toasted sesame oil, etc., but once you have those items the actual preparations are quite simple. For the past few months I'd sort of fallen out of the habit of cooking Asian, and that was because during my last move, I misplaced my precious stash of special ingredients. When I started my internship at Serious Eats, whose offices are located in Manhattan's Chinatown, it was the perfect occasion to restock my cabinets.

Some staples I picked up recently included (from left): fermented broad bean chile paste; Chianking, or black, vinegar; Shaoxing cooking wine; and potato starch (whose silky texture and un-gloppiness I prefer to cornstarch). Don't you love the packaging? So colorful.

Speaking of great packaging, check out these preserved Szechuan vegetables. Drool and an enthusiastic thumb's-up? Now that's great advertising!

Once I had all my go-to ingredients, I put them to good use making a recipe by one of the Serious Eats editors, Kenji Lopez-Alt. Kenji's no slouch when it comes to perfecting recipes: in addition to years of restaurant experience, he's got a stint as editor at Cook's Illustrated under his belt. Having tasted some of the delicious dishes he's whipped up in our office kitchen, such as bok choy and black bean chow fun and tonkotsu ramen, I knew I could trust his recipe for braised eggplant and tofu in garlic sauce. The best tip I learned from this recipe was to steam the eggplant first: sometimes, eggplant takes a long time to break down and become soft and creamy, and getting it to do so often requires a lot of hot oil. The pre-steam allows the eggplant to soften before it gets incorporated into the stir-fry:

Next, I fried up some aromatics: garlic, ginger, scallions, and the preserved vegetables. This right here is why I love Chinese cooking: look at all the flavor packed in there! It doesn't really matter what you add next--that oil has so much going on, anything cooked in it is going to be good:

The steamed eggplant and some diced firm tofu get fried up in here, then cooked down with a richly flavored sauce made up of soy, vinegar, cooking wine, brown sugar and chile paste. Behold, the finished dish:

Braised Eggplant with Tofu in Garlic Sauce
Adapted slightly from
Serves 4

*Note: visit your local Asian grocery before making this recipe: many of the ingredients are not available at the supermarket.


- 4 small or 2 large Japanese/Asian eggplants, rinsed and cut into large chunks
- 3 tsp. Chianking vinegar
- 1/2 c. Shaoxing cooking wine
- 1 tbsp. potato starch
- 4 tbsp. soy sauce
- 2 tbsp. brown sugar
- 1 tbsp. fermented broad bean chile paste
- 1 tbsp. sesame oil
- 2 tbsp. vegetable oil
- 2 cloves of garlic, smashed and peeled, plus 4 more cloves, minced or thinly sliced
- A 1-inch nub ginger, peeled and minced or grated
- 3 scallions, thinly sliced, whites and greens separated
- 2 tbsp. Chinese preserved vegetables, minced
- 1 package firm tofu, excess water squeezed out, cut into medium chunks
- 3 tbsp. chopped cilantro


1. Place eggplant in a large bamboo steamer set over a wok filled with 2 inches of water. Bring to a boil over high heat, reduce to a simmer, cover steamer, and cook until eggplant is completely tender, about 15 minutes. Set aside. (If you don't have a bamboo steamer, you can use a steamer insert in a large pot of water.)
2. Make the sauce: in a bowl, combine vinegar, wine, potato starch, soy, brown sugar, chile paste and sesame. Whisk until completely smooth.
3. Wipe out wok. Add oil and whole garlic cloves and cook over medium heat, turning garlic occasionally, until it is browned and fragrant. Remove garlic and discard.
4. Turn heat to high and add minced garlic and ginger, scallion whites, and preserved vegetables. Cook, stirring, about one minute, then stir sauce to recombine, and add to wok. Add eggplant and tofu and stir gently to combine. Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer, and cook, stirring occasionally until thick and glossy, about 10 minutes longer. Garnish with scallion greens and cilantro and serve immediately with white rice.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

David Lebovitz's wild rice salad

As a member of a winter CSA share, there are certain vegetables I've had to welcome, en masse, into my home (and refrigerator) this season: namely, potatoes (sweet and white), carrots, and beets. Though root vegetables store well, I find it's best to dispatch them quickly, if I want to have room in my tiny kitchen for anything else. So after last week's CSA pickup, when I was saddled blessed with several pounds of each, I decided to immediately peel and roast them, which would not only concentrate their flavor but also significantly reduce their bulk. But what to do with them afterwards? I've already eaten a bazillion sweet potato fries this season, already prepared roasted beets tossed with yogurt, lime and scallions, already made a huge batch of carrot soup that lingers on in my freezer. As my cubed and seasoned veggies roasted away in the oven, the debate continued: where would they end up? Luckily, divine providence stepped in when I felt compelled to read one of my favorite blogs, that of master pastry chef David Lebovitz, who usually shares sweet recipes, but occasionally throws in a savory one. Blessedly, that day was one of those days.

Early in his career, David worked in the kitchen at Chez Panisse, so he knows his way around vegetables. The recipes he shares on his site hew closely to my own cooking style: heavy on the produce and whole grains, light on the meat. So it came as no surprise when his Wild Rice Salad with Lemon-Tahini Dressing immediately appealed to me. Not only had I recently purchased a big bag of wild rice at the Co-op, but my roasted vegetables would go perfectly in the dish, plus I had just opened a jar of tahini for a hummus-making endeavor.

Actually, speaking of hummus, what attracted me most to this recipe was how it sort of riffs on that classic Middle Eastern spread. The salad's dressing is made of lemon juice, tahini, olive oil, water and raw garlic: if you were to add some chickpeas, you'd have hummus. I love cooking with raw garlic. Growing up, my dad was allergic, so we almost never utilized the stuff, save for rare occasions when my mother--the cook of the household--felt compelled to make a smaller, separate garlic-free dish for my father, and a larger, garlic-heavy one for her, my brother and me. Think about it: a world of tomato sauces, soups, stews, meatballs, all without the beneficent touch of garlic. Sad, right? These days, I think I still cook with less garlic than most people, and to add raw garlic to something feels downright illicit. So this recipe, with its whole one clove of garlic, minced, was damn near a walk on the wild side for me.

I made a few small changes to the dish, the major one being that to further embrace the hummus theme (and because I still had some left over from the Great Garbanzo Soak of 2012), I added a few handfuls of cooked chickpeas. What results is a lovely salad: the wild rice dense and chewy, the roasted vegetables sweet and earthy, with brightness from the lemon and garlic. Not a bad lunch to eat for six days in a row, as I did:

Wild Rice and Roasted Vegetable Salad with Lemon-Tahini Dressing

Adapted from
Serves 6 - 8 as a side dish


- 1 c. wild rice, rinsed
- About 6 cups peeled and cubed root vegetables: I used a mix of sweet potatoes, beets, and carrots
- Olive oil
- Salt and pepper to taste
- About a cup cooked chickpeas
- 3 to 4 scallions (white and green parts), finely chopped
- 1/2 c. fresh parsley, chopped
- 1/4 c. tahini
- Juice of 2 lemons
- 3 tbsp. warm water
- 1 clove garlic, minced
- 1 tsp. soy sauce
- 1/4 c. olive oil
- Salt and pepper to taste


1. Preheat the oven to 425°. Toss the vegetables with 2 or 3 tbsp. of oil and plenty of salt and pepper. Spread on a large baking sheet (or 2) and cook until tender, about 40 minutes.
2. In the meantime, add wild rice to a medium pot and cover with lots of water. Add about a teaspoon of salt. Cover and bring to the boil then drop to a simmer and cook until rice is tender, about 40 minutes. Drain.
3. As rice and vegetables cool, make the dressing: in a medium bowl, combine the tahini, lemon juice and water, stirring briskly to smooth out the tahini. Whisk in soy sauce and olive oil, season, and taste.
4. When rice and vegetables are cool, combine in a bowl then stir in the chickpeas, scallions and parsley. Add the dressing and mix well. Note: the tahini dressing dries out in the fridge. If you're not eating all the salad at once, store salad mix and dressing in separate containers in the fridge and combine them before serving.

Monday, February 13, 2012

More fun with chickpeas

My friend Mathilde's birthday was last Friday, and we had a small party to celebrate. As is usual, when we gather at Willy's house, food played a supporting starring role. As a sort of group effort, we all pitched in to make a big pot of tortilla soup with all the fixins, Willy made another ridiculously intricate and delicious layer cake, and I decided to contribute some hummus that I prepared at home earlier in the day. Inspired by my recent success cooking with dried, soaked chickpeas, I decided to go that route with my hummus, in lieu of canned garbanzos. I soaked and cooked some more chickpeas, then drained them, reserving the cooking liquid. I tipped most of the legumes into my food processor, keeping back about a cup of them, and made my standard hummus by adding garlic, tahini, lemon juice, olive oil and some of the cooking liquid. After tasting and adjusting the flavors to my liking, I let the food processor run for a long time, whipping the hummus into a dense, silky purée. The dried chickpeas contribute a better texture and a fuller flavor to the spread.

My favorite part about this dish, though, is what I decided to do with the remaining, whole chickpeas. Recalling a recent trip to Mimi's Hummus in Ditmas Park, where I ate a fava bean hummus garnished with some whole favas, I knew that I wanted some textural contrast in my hummus. So I marinated the remaining chickpeas in a mix of sambal oelek (my favorite all-purpose hot sauce--you can use sriracha, harissa, or whatever chile paste you prefer), olive oil, and chopped fresh cilantro and parsely. When I served the hummus, I made a well in the spread and lay the whole chickpeas in the middle. The super smooth hummus, broken up by the toothsome whole chickpeas, makes a winning legume-on-legume combination:

Hummus with Whole Marinated Chickpeas

Serves 8 - 10 as an appetizer


- 1 1/2 c. dried chickpeas, soaked overnight then cooked for about 1 hour, or until soft, drained, cooking liquid reserved--or use about 3 c. canned
- 2 cloves garlic, smashed and peeled
- About 2 tbsp. tahini
- The juice of about 2 lemons
- About 4 tbsp. cooking liquid
- About 4 tbsp. olive oil, plus more for marinated chickpeas
- Salt, to taste
- About 1 tbsp. hot chile paste such as sambal oelek, sriracha, or harissa
- 1 - 2 tbsp. chopped fresh parsley, cilantro or both


1. Add all but about 3/4 c. chickpeas to bowl of a food processor. Add garlic and pulse to combine.
2. Add tahini, lemon juice and salt and turn machine on. As it is running, pour the cooking liquid and olive oil in through the spout on top. Check for seasoning, adjusting as needed, then leave machine running for about 3 minutes so that hummus becomes very smooth.
3. In the meantime, prepare the marinated chickpeas: combine them with the chile paste, about 1 tbsp. of additional oil, fresh herbs, and salt. If possible, let marinate for 30 minutes to an hour.
4. When ready to serve, spread hummus into a shallow bowl and create a well in the middle. Add marinated chickpeas, drizzle with additional olive oil, and serve.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Claudia Roden's orange and almond cake

When you're as food-obsessed as I am, it makes sense to surround yourself with people on your wavelength, so it comes as no surprise that some of my closest friends also happen to be excellent cooks/bakers/snackers. My adventures in cooking with my pal Gideon have been widely chronicled on this site. Patricia, who sadly lives in France nowadays, is the queen of hosting potlucks, and Mathilde, who lives in New York but hails from Paris, is the master of the quiche and makes a mean crêpe, to boot. Just to mention France one more time, Bonnie and I founded a dinner club together with our friends in Toulouse last year, and I think it's safe to say that her dinners were the most heavily anticipated--she made a mapo dofu last Chinese New Year that blew my mind (and, to a certain extent, my tongue--those Sichuan peppercorns can be fiery!) Despite all these heavyweight contenders, I think it's actually my friend Willy who can go head to head with me in terms of food fixation. He and I cook together all the time, and when I need a culinary companion for a far-flung peregrination to Queens or deep south Brooklyn, he's usually game to make the trek with me.

Willy also happens to be an excellent baker. He's prepared my birthday cakes sever
al times--this past year, it was a white layer cake filled with homemade raspberry jam and draped with homemade marzipan. His no-knead bread, which he makes routinely, puts mine to shame, and I've also tasted potato bread, rye bread, and Anadama bread that he's made. A few months ago, I was over at Willy's for lunch, and for dessert he served a beguiling orange and almond cake the likes of which I had never tasted: it had a ton of texture from the ground almonds, a powerful perfume from the oranges, and an underlying bitterness to complement its sweetness. What most attracted me about this cake, though, was the unusual way in which it was made: Willy told me that to make the batter, he boiled two whole oranges for hours, then ground them up, peels and all, to incorporate into the cake mix. That slight bitterness I tasted was coming from the orange pith. I loved the idea of this recipe, and I had to try it.

Several weeks later, I found the occasion to make it: I was attending a Rosh Hashanah dinner at my cousins' house in New Jersey, and I volunteere
d to bring a dessert. I picked up the ingredients I knew I would need, and then called Willy to confirm the method of preparation. As I simmered the oranges in boiling water, an intense, almost incense-like fragrance filled my apartment. I couldn't wait to taste this cake. When the oranges were ready, I puréed them in the food processor, then set them in the fridge to cool as I worked through the rest of the recipe: grinding the almonds, separating the eggs. Then I put the whole thing together, poured it into a pan, and slid it into the oven to bake.

All that work had made me hungry, so I peered into the fridge to see what I could make myself for lunch. And that's when I saw it: that bright, vivid, luscious-smelling orange purée, still cooling in my fridge. Very distinctly not baking in my cake. My heart fell. Who needs a plain old almond cake? I thought. It's been done!

When my boring, stupid almond cake emerged from the oven about 45 minutes later, I tried to salvage the situation. I mixed some of the orange
purée with some water and sugar, in an attempt to make a glaze. I poked some holes in the still-warm cake and brushed on the glaze, hoping that it would imbue the cake with its citrusy freshness. And in the end, of course, the cake was fine--but it barely tasted of orange. It lacked that exotic quality that the cake I'd tasted at Willy's had in spades.

Luckily, I was able, through my haze of anger, to have the foresight to stick the rest of the unused orange purée in a container in the freezer, to be deployed at some other time. I finally got my chance this past weekend, when my brother hosted a cassoulet party at our parents' house. Bravely, I volunteered, yet again, to bring dessert. I went through all the same steps, but of course, this time I remembered to include that precious orange purée in my confection. I also adjusted the cooking time and temperature a little bit, remembering that while Willy's cake had a more crumbly texture, I was looking for a softer one in mine. And I'm happy to report that the end result was just as glorious I had hoped for all those many months ago when I first made the cake: moist, fragrant and vivid in color from the orange peel and egg yolks, this cake truly has the power to transport you to the Middle East.

Middle Eastern Orange and Almond Cake

Adapted slightly from this recipe
Makes one cake


- 2 oranges
- 6 eggs, separated
- 1 1/2 c. ground almonds
- 1 c. sugar
- 1 tsp. baking powder
- 1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
- 1/2 tsp. almond extract
- 1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon
- 1/2 tsp. salt


1. Preheat the oven to 375°. Prepare a medium spring form pan: butter the bottom and sprinkle with additional almond meal.
Wash oranges thoroughly, place them in a pot, cover with water and boil for 2 hours. Remove from water, cut open and remove seeds, then purée in a food processor until completely smooth. Set aside.
3. Combine ground almonds, orange purée, egg yolks, sugar, baking powder, vanilla, almond extract, cinnamon, and salt in a large bowl, mixing well.
4. Whip egg whites to somewhere between soft and stiff peaks. Fold gently, in two batches, into the yolk mixture. Pour into prepared pan and bake for 45 minutes or until top is well browned but center still appears moist.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

How to make almond flour

Got a recipe that calls for almond flour but all you've got in the pantry are whole, skin-on almonds? No problem. Or maybe all you have are blanched almonds? Even easier. If you've got a food processor, you've got almond flour. Well, almost.

For those in the skin-on camp, what you've got to do, is, well, blanch the almonds. Far from being a specialized process that can only occur in some mechanized factory, blanching and skinning almonds is a breeze. First, fill a pot with enough water to cover your almonds. Cover it and heat it to boiling. Drop in your almonds and set a timer for 45 seconds:

Drain the almonds and dump them out onto a towel:

When they're cool enough to handle, all you have to do is rub off the skins with your fingers. If you've ever shelled fresh beans like favas, the process is almost exactly the same: you sort of grip the almonds between your thumb and forefinger and push. It'll slide right out of its skin:

And now you've got a whole mess of pristine blanched almonds (or, if you started out with those, they'd look something like this):

When they've cooled completely, place them in the bowl of the food processor, fitted with the normal blade. Pulse until the almonds become flour. Don't overprocess, as this will result in (pale, inferior) almond butter!

So now that you've got almond flour, how will you use it? I used mine in this. Stay tuned for that post, up next!