Saturday, February 21, 2009

Middle Eastern cooking

For V-Day, Priya got me an amazing cookbook: The New Book of Middle Eastern Food, by Claudia Roden (click for New Yorker piece). There are probably dozens of recipes I can't wait to try NOW. Last night, I found myself at home, hungry, well-stocked with groceries from the co-op, with Priya stranded at her house doing I tried out three of the recipes.

First, I made the mujadarra. I love mujadarra and have made it a bunch of times in the past, but the book's recipe (called "megadarra"; Claudia is, after all, Egyptian, and the Masriiy do have that nasty habit of replacing Js with Gs...) was quite different. See, when I make mujadarra, I do it all in one pot (my Dutch oven); I fry a huge amount of onions (5 big ones) in vegetable oil for a long, long time, until they're dark brown, almost burnt-looking...then I throw in some lentils, stir a bit, add water, cook for a while, add rice and more water, and cook til done (maybe adding some cinnamon or cumin or something on the way). Really easy and really great.

Claudia's mujadarra recipe starts off with only three onions and olive oil. Then, she has you cook them only until they're soft and darkening, not deep-brown-fry them. In a separate pot (argh, more dishes!) you boil water and cook the lentils in it for 20 minutes (adding cumin and coriander to the water); you then take half the cooked onions and some rice and dump them into the water, where you finish cooking everything. Meanwhile, you turn the heat back on the onions, deep-brown-fry them, and put them on top of the finished dish. It's a lot more work and honestly the easier way is just as good.

I had some flash-frozen salmon fromTJ's, so I pulled it out and made a chermoula marinade from the book (cilantro, olive oil, red wine vinegar, cumin, coriander, garlic, etc) and pan-fried it. That came out absolutely delicious, and I will use it again. I didn't save half the marinade to use as a sauce for the fish, but I really didn't need to--it was very flavorful already.

Finally, I wanted to experiment with some Jerusalem artichokes (sunchokes) I'd bought at the co-op...never had 'em before. So I made a simple recipe involving frying them with fresh tomatoes, onions, and garlic in a pan. I wasn't sure how long to cook them for, so I left 'em a little crisp, which was fine--they were delicious, like celeriac but without the celery flavor.

Fantastic cookbook, and great meal! I ate it watching Grizzly Man--maybe the first time I've sat down and watched a movie myself in more than a year (and it was a good one).

Valentine's Day

Priya and I celebrated the crappy traditional holiday of Valentine's Day by staying in, cooking dinner, watching a DVD, doing crafts, and, um, getting engaged. Way to strike at tradition!

For dinner, we made pork roast; at one point we were combining four separate recipes, but we whittled it down, removed the stuffing, and ended up with something simpler. I brined the pork using Alton Brown's recipe (cider vinegar, salt, brown sugar, mustard powder, peppercorn) and then browned it in a mixture of honey and butter (a Martha Stewart suggestion) before roasting it in the oven. It came out with a delicious flavor, but was a little dry, undoubtedly due to the fact that we did all this without a meat thermometer. Never again!

On the side, we made brussels sprouts with guanciale (again); they didn't come out quite as dry as we would've liked them, but were still delicious. Priya also spearheaded the creation of another favorite of ours: a giant beet rosti, from Mark Bittman, which fell apart a bit (we just made it way too big) but was still sweet and delicious. She also whipped up the corn muffins.

Dinner entertainment was Towelhead (pretty good); post-dinner crafts came courtesy of Jonathan (I painted my lion monochrome, and Priya chose a flame theme for her penguins); engagement ring was purchased at Erie Basin in Red Hook.

Relish & Brooklyn Label: two brunches

Last weekend, Priya & I went to Relish for brunch to kick off my winter break; I'd never been, heard it was good, and we were early enough we could avoid the rush and sit right down. This weekend, to lament the end of winter break, we went to an old standby--Brooklyn Label, right nearby her apartment. At both locations, I ordered corned beef hash and she ordered huevos rancheros, forming a nice bookend for the vacation. (No, we didn't do it on purpose; I was halfway through my hash today when Priya suddenly said, "You ordered that last week...I ordered this last week...!" and I was like, "Oh!").

I'd have to say that the corned beef hash at Relish was far better. Brooklyn Label usually has a vegetarian (beet) red flannel hash, and this corned beef hash was a special; when I heard it, I was hoping it would maybe become permanent. Alas, it didn't quite live up to expectations. Firstly, it came drenched in brownish hollandaise sauce even though I specifically asked for no hollandaise (the waitress offered to replace it, but we had been waiting a while and I was hungry, so I declined). The hash itself was very salty and buttery (no doubt partially due to the unwanted hollandaise) and was largely ground, mushy corned beef like you'd get from a can (but with better flavor); however, my second bite found an inch-sized cube of corned beef, which is usually a good thing (when it falls apart into shreds); however, this cube was rubbery and solid. I think they didn't stew the corned beef for the hours it requires! Also, the poached egg yolks were not runny; they weren't pale yellow and solid, per se, but they were gelantinous and didn't ooze and mix with the hash like they ought to. Unfortunate. Finally, the price of $14 was a bit high. The Relish hash was $11, and was a little more "deconstructed" than I would make it--essentially it was a mix of pieces of (tender) corned beef, potatoes, and lots of red and green bell peppers (a strange addition to corned beef hash, and while it's not one I would make myself, it did work):

Brooklyn label hash:

Relish hash:

Priya's huevos rancheros were nice, but came drizzled all over with runny sour cream (which would have made me send them back instantly; either mention that on the menu or put it on the damn side). With the recent revamp, they had replaced the flour tortilla with a crispy corn tortilla, which was an excellent change; unfortunately, they'd also jacked the price up to $14, which is kind of abominable for huevos rancheros. The Relish huevos rancheros were $10.

Brooklyn Label huevos:

Relish huevos:

Note: the Relish pix were taken with Priya's camera, so they look better. It's only coincidental that they also were better.

Thursday, February 19, 2009


Stan and I tried to go to Shopsin's a week or two ago for lunch during Regents, but found it crowded (there's only, what, six tables?). We waited around a bit, but Kenny's son saw us lingering and called us "cocksuckers" and said it was "too long to wait for fuckin' lunch" and told us to get out. Okay.

So today Priya and I went for brunch before her class (school is on winter break for me). We got there around 11am, missing the lunch rush, and got a table in just a minute or two. After perusing the giant menu, we settled on our order. Unfortunately, they were out of ice cream, so Priya couldn't have her avocado shake. (I thought one of the points of pride was that they were never out of anything? Maybe they just didn't want to make it).

I got birch beer (made from syrup and seltzer; it was kind of not good, very bland and watery and sweet, not crisp and treelike like the birch beer of my youth at all) and a slider special for $14--three sliders, french fries, and chocolate bacon. The sliders were excellent--caramelized fried onions, small juicy burgers, soft dinner-roll type buns. The fries had a strange sweet flavor I couldn't place--I think it must have been from the type of potato used in the frying? And the chocolate bacon tasted basically like eating a chunk of chocolate with a little hint of bacon--good, but not exactly what I was expecting. (The chocolate bacon apparently comes from another shop in the Essex Street Market, a chocolatier).

Priya got her perennial favorite: blisters on my sisters, an $8 dish of tortilla, rice, several kinds of beans (including some giant thumb-sized flat bean), eggs, chiles, and a huge amount of toasted melted cheese. It was very nice--she ordered it 6 out of 10 on the spiciness scale, which I thought was okay but she thought might be too hot--and certainly not only half as good as the $15 blisters on my sisters with meat!

Some of the prices were weird--the Indian breakfast skillets were $21! what!--and we guessed that they were either dishes that were a) annoying to make, so they don't want to make 'em much, or b) only Kenny knows how to make 'em, and since he sat in a chair talking the entire time we were there, maybe he doesn't like getting up to make stuff so much nowadays.

Anyway, the food was really good, and I wish we could come here more, and I also wish the prices were significantly cheaper, but it was a great experience, and I will try to come back again.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

what to do with guanciale?

Working at the co-op, I spied a big package of Niman Ranch guanciale for ten bucks and bought it on a whim. Then, arriving home, I was faced with the question of what to do with it...

After casting about for suggestions, Priya and I decided to make bucatini all'amatriciana (no bucatini available, so we used perciatelli). It was very, very simple, with fresh tomatoes, onions, garlic, a little bit of crushed tomatoes, red pepper flakes, a bunch of parm, and not much more. And it was fantastic. The guanciale flavor was amazing, so much better than bacon or pancetta would have been... I would've liked it a little saucier, but it's hard to find good tomatoes in the heart of winter...

On the side we made brussels sprouts fried in guanciale with garlic and then braised in chicken broth. They cooked a little drier than usual, but I think they were better that way--so next time I'll make them "too dry." (Priya is taking advantage of the fact that Alex shared his blog password to put her two cents in: I never liked brussels sprouts before, but these were sooooo delicious! My mouth wants more now! I am getting hungry just thinking about them.)

All that for about four bucks' worth of guanciale. So I have a big pig cheek in my freezer awaiting further usage. Maybe ravioli with guanciale and mozzarella di bufala inside, like we got at Convivio?

Priya's birthday meal #3: brunch

This year, as has become the custom, Priya topped off her birthday celebrations by hosting a big, elaborate brunch in her tiny Greenpoint 1BR. Something like 30 people showed up, so at times it was kind of tight, yes...

We started cooking a couple of days before, cooked more on Saturday during the day, continued to cook until 2am after coming home from Korean BBQ, woke up early Sunday morning and cooked some more, and we were still putting stuff together when the first guest arrived at 1pm (shockingly: Toby).

Let's see, what'd we have? We put together a big platter of mini bagels and Acme smoked salmon (a neighborhood specialty), cream cheese, tomatoes, onions, and capers. We grilled a whole bunch of chicken apple sausages (after a drama involving running around to three different stores trying to find them at an acceptable price and ultimately paying an unacceptable price anyway), made a tray of garam masala hard-boiled eggs (the simplest possible thing, but a good way to get eggs into people that can be prepared way ahead of time), and baked some panko-crusted cheesy potatoes (some portions came out great; Priya got an uncooked crunchy piece somehow and worried that they sucked).

I brought over some French green lentils with mirepoix and tarragon (usually I cook 'em in bacon fat and chicken broth, but I made them vegetarian this time, with a bit of vegetarian bacon salt thrown in for a smoky flavor, and we served them on a bed of baby spinach) and ful mudammas--fava beans with shallots, garlic, lemon juice, cumin, and parsley (figuring I'd go a little nontraditional and serve them cold, and completely whole--that way pickier eaters could maybe view them as a "bean salad" instead of "weird mush that's not breakfasty at all!"). We baked a brie filled with fig jam and walnuts. And we shredded up a huge amount of beets to make a raw beet salad with orange-pistachio dressing and goat cheese. Priya made her special curried quinoa with pears, cranberries, and mint and what I think is fast becoming her new specialty: a really easy almond cake that tastes fantastic (even if it collapses in the middle 100% of the time--who cares!).

We upped the fruit quotient with broiled grapefruit with caramelized sugar and mint (though they didn't broil so much as bake, since Priya's oven doesn't have a proper broiler--or at least not one we knew how to use) and a peach-and-cherry crisp (frozen fruit with an oatmeal crumble on top).

Also, Katie brought her annual contribution, a fantastic eggy casserole (made with tortillas, chiles, and a healthy helping of cheese) and Erum brought some excellent homemade halwa (semolina pudding). The feast also included cookies from Lena, a beautiful fruit salad from Jamie (including little crab apples that tasted not at all crabby), rugelach from Mike and Jude, Peter Pan donuts from Brina (another Greenpoint fave), and lots and lots of Prosecco.

Did I forget anything?

Oh, how about the group picture (of everybody who was there when the picture was taken)?

Priya's birthday dinner #2: Kum Gang San

For dinner with friends on Priya's birthday, we braved the snow and piled into Katie's van and for a drive out to the Korean part of Flushing for Korean BBQ at Kum Gang San. Amazingly, KGS is open 24 hours--no idea who is eating Korean BBQ at 7:30am on a Wednesday, but I guess someone is. I'd heard it had charcoal rather than gas grills, but that turned out not to be true--no big deal.

We started the meal off with complimentary bowls of soy milk into which we could mix either strawberry jam or soy sauce--I had mine with soy sauce, and it was delicious. Then the banchan (side dishes) began to arrive, and there is no way I could log or describe what each was because there were so many. We were content to just dig in--even when we had no idea what something was! At one point, Katie and Priya were tasting the same dish of unidentifiable strips of something slathered in red chili sauce. Katie thought it was veggies and Priya thought it was squid, and it turned out that it was both and they had just tasted different pieces. Between the seven of us, we ordered kimchee pa jun (kimchee pancakes), bi bim bap, chap chae (vermicelli noodles with beef), three kinds of BBQ meat (bulgoki, prime kalbi, and spicy pork), and duk gook, a soup picked by Lena, which featured those fat rice noodle/cake things that have always been my favorite Korean food.

Every time I've been to one of these sorts of restaurants, I've had to manage the grill myself, so it was nice that the waitress was all over this one. Maybe that helped make it so that the meal was excellent all round: good amount of food, good timing (after some ordering misfires in the beginning), good taste--and good people!