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Posts tagged ‘Sunday Night Special’

Sunday Night Special: Corn, Potatoes, Green Sauce

Peruvian dinner

Very occasionally I do this horrible thing where
someone speaks perfectly good English with a Spanish accent and I respond back
in crappy Spanish, like a reflex. There's no need for that.  I was just excited to get a cashier at Food
Bazaar who happened to be Peruvian (not what I'd expect in East Williamsburg)
and was into my ingredients. I blurted out "Mis amigas no comen carne"
when she suggested lomo saltado, I guess because coming up with a non-meaty
Peruvian menu sucked ass and the trauma was pent-up. I did make a chicken.

Peruvian ingredients

I was asked if could add a dish that didn't involve
onions, corn, peppers, potatoes or avocado, and add asparagus somewhere.
Um…no? At least I didn't suggest salchipapas or anticuchos. And clearly, I am
a control freak who can't just mellow out and have fun cooking with friends. The
dinner turned out pretty well, though. Wine smoothes things out.

Papas a la huancaina

Papas a la huancaina. Sometimes you've got to embrace the starch. Potatoes were how this whole idea started (Peruvian wasn't even my suggestion) and I can't think of a more classic dish than the simple sliced boiled potatoes with a cheesy aji amarillo sauce. I've had restaurant versions and always thought it was a little bland, but this version was spicy (just lightly–nothing Peruvian is incendiary). Recent James Beard award-winning Gran Cocina Latina had a higher-brow version, and it was tempting, but I just went home-style with evaporated milk and saltines.

Pollo a la brasa

Pollo a la brasa had to be oven-roasted, no brasa. There are a million variations on the marinade, and I'd say the most important ingredient is the soy sauce.

Green sauce

The green sauce, a non-traditional (I think) staple at Peruvian-run chains like Pio Pio and Sophie's, may have been the biggest hit. You could eat this on anything. I had habaneros on hand instead of jalapeños. Half a pepper added punch–and a little yellow-ness–but the sauce can handle it because it's mayonnaise-based.

Ceviche mixto

I did turn to Gran Cocina Latina for the ceviche,
Marisa Guiulfo's Lima Fish Cebiche (not online anywhere) since there is a whole
chapter devoted to variations. The base is simple: lime juice, garlic, red
honion aji amarillo and cilantro, and I included scallops and squid in addition
to cubes of flounder. It could've done without the squid, which was a little
bitter and chewy. And yes, corn in two forms–hominy and toasted kernels–and
sweet potatoes (some use white potatoes and yuca too) were present. There's no
harm in more starch with your nearly-raw seafood.

Sunday Night Special: Beets, Spinach, Dumplings

A million years ago, I used to post Sunday cooking
experiments. At some point I stopped because if there's anything less
interesting than hearing someone talk about where and what they ate out, it
might be what they made at home (yes, I know that cooking blogs are a huge
genre). Personally, I'm not into telling cute back stories or styling photos
with props. But I have felt the urge for a revival. Cooking is fun. I'll
probably just stick to the facts, and use the same serving dishes over and
over. So every other Sunday, I will be having a handful of friends (of varying
skill levels and dietary preferences) over for a informal cooking club that
will tackle a different cuisine each session. There's not likely to be any beef
or pork included (much to my sadness) but sticking to vegetables, a little
seafood and the occasional chicken, is a challenge I'm up for.

I'm a competent home cook, but not wildly creative
or intuitive. I pretty much follow recipes unless I know my way around a dish,
which is why I never understand people who say they can't cook. I've had
surprisingly few disasters as a result of simply following a set of rules (however,
I'm scared of empanadas and mayonnaise after a few miserable failures).

Georgian was a slightly odd first choice for
cuisine, considering no one had any first-person experience with any of the
dishes. On the other hand, that's freeing because who knows if you're doing it
wrong? Does the food taste like crap? No? Ok…success.

All recipes were single-sourced from the May Saveur.

Charkhlis chogi (beets in tart cherry sauce)

Charkhlis Chogi/Beets in Tart Cherry Sauce It's
possible that people who say they don't like beets would eat this without
trouble. The roasting and subsequent application of butter softens any
bitterness (I don't think beets are bitter, but it has been said) and the
cherries may be monochromatic, but add different dimension of sweetness.

Phkali (spinach and walnut salad)

Phkali/Spinach and Walnut Salad I think this emerald
green puree is meant to be more of an appetizer than side. That's ok, though.
There is a startling amount of spinach in this mound, enriched with an
impressive amount of toasted, ground walnuts, which is why I just went with bagged
C-Town greens. Sorry. I'm conventional–and frugal. All-baby, all-organic
spinach would've made this a $25 plate of food, I calculated. Pomegranate seeds
were impossible to come by, so this is garnish-free.

Khinkali qvelit (cheese and mint stuffed dumplings)

Khinkali Qvelit/Cheese and Mint Stuffed Dumplings
These were a little more intermediate. I wanted to make the eggplant dish, too,
but dough-making plus frying seemed a bit ambitious for a test run. Luckily,
one attendee was a confident baker (others got relegated to chopping, shredding
or Game of Thrones-watching). If you can't find farmer's cheese (I found
it–Friendship brand is common in NYC–but it was past the expiration date) and
live somewhere where queso fresco is common, that'll do. And if you eat the
leftovers the next day with untraditional Thai chile paste, that's ok, too.

What did you cook this week?


Sunday Night Special: Penang Curry Mee

Curry mee

Sunday Night Special has fallen by the wayside. I can only focus on so many things and detailing cooking projects is low on my list. It's not like there aren't already thousands of recipe blogs to read. While I love looking at others' food-styled meals, I can't stand fussing with photographing the things I make at home.

But I did attempt to recreate the curry mee I recently had in Penang using a recipe from Rasa Malaysia. Yes, you can get it for maybe $5 a bowl in Queens, and I probably will next time given the time consuming nature of preparing this and many Malaysian dishes. It's fun to cook at least once, though.

Just beware; the strong fermented smell shrimp paste will take over your entire living space. It doesn't bother me in the least but James wanted to kill me when he got home from work, opening every window in the house, blasting fans. (I heard my neighbors coughing in the hall and half-expected a knock on my door. Frankly, I just consider it payback for using the space in front of my door as a stroller parking lot.) I had also been simmering shrimp head and shells for hours and soaking dried squid. It was cacophony of sea creatures. The only thing missing was the pig's blood cubes. I have no fear, but wasn't sure the best place to pick them up in NYC.

Sunday Night Special: Saffron Chicken Breasts with Pea Shoots and Mint

Saffron chicken with snap peas

Hmm, I don't write much about cooking because it's boring. Coming from me at least. It's already asking a lot of strangers to read about what I eat in restaurants. That's why I'm always amazed at the wild popularity of recipe-driven blogs where comments can reach triple digits and book deals abound. Odd.

But I feel compelled to share the edible results of my Opposite Day experiment with greenmarket ingredients. I'm not spontaneous so the concept of picking up what's fresh on a whim and creating a meal is counter-intuitive. Plus, I don't tend to cook New American fare, which is what seems logical when confined to seasonal and local raw materials. I mean, coconuts and limes don't grow here. Chiles would be manageable, though.

I thought I could come up with something using the chicken, snap peas, pea shoots and mint I'd picked up. Needing guidance, I found Saffron Chicken Breasts with English Pea Purée, Pea Shoots and Mint and instead of making a bed of mashed peas, I tweaked Sugar Snap Peas with Mint and Orange  to use lemon as the citrus. But if I had known this was what I was going to make I would've bought parsley and green onions at the farmer's market, too.

After Grand Army Plaza, we just ended up going to our cheap no-frills stand by, Western Beef, anyway. It's a weird place, great for basics as well as Latino and Eastern European obscurities, but you won't find things like tarragon, Colman's mustard powder (on our shopping list), Fage yogurt or non-utilitarian cheese. I guess that's what Fairway is good for.

While inside the sizable  walk-in meat locker, I decided to buy $1.59 per pound skin on bone-in chicken breasts in plastic-wrapped Styrofoam to compare with the $5 per pound chicken piece (breast, wing and drumstick) I got at the greenmarket. That's not just a little more expensive, it’s leaps and bounds beyond. Three times more. Would I be able to taste the difference?

Chicken breast comparison

Side by side, the conventional chicken breast on the left was bigger, fattier and more yellow than the pinker, more petite fresh one on the right. Once cooked, though, these plus the other two regular breasts I sautéed, all started looking the same. James is dismissive of boutiquey meat so I gave him a standard breast and took the organic for myself.

I thought mine was more tender and super juicy, though I did miss the larger amount of crispy skin (partially my own doing, I’m not much of a butcher and mangled the skin when separating the breast from the leg). But then, I tasted James' and it was also moist and had good texture. Argh, we kept tasting mine hoping for a revelation but both conceded there wasn't a major discernable difference.

For me, flavor is prime. Of course, there's also something to be said for simply avoiding meat filled with antibiotics and chemicals, the product of an animal's miserable life. I'm just not ready to pay three times as much for that yet.

It is a luxury and a matter of priorities. I prefer spending my money on restaurant dining.  It reminds me a bit of my mom’s perception of therapy (which to my knowledge, no one in my family including myself have ever really participated in, not that they/I couldn’t use it). She once mentioned almost wistfully, “that would be fun,” meaning paying for self-discovery and analysis is something self-indulgent that rich people do. In the same way, I view organic meat as being for other people.

Sunday Night Special: Fish Head Curry

Mystery fish

Who says Twitter is good for nothing? Every time I get back from Singapore (ok, I've only been three times—I'm not trying to make it sound like it's a regular part of my life) I intend to try making a fish head curry only to instantly forget after quickly getting caught up in NYC again.

Thankfully, I was re-reminded by a tweet from The New York Times' Pete Wells, about the glory of fish heads. Who knows what he ended up doing with his piscine score? I knew exactly what I would do after getting my hands on a nice meaty specimen.

Where he picked up a $15 tilefish, I was limited to what the Chinese market I happened to stop by had on offer: a 99-cent-per-pound mystery breed. I have next to zero capability for discerning fish species by sight so I asked what kind of fish these came from only to hear, "fish head!" in response like I was the dumbest person on earth. (I felt the need to mention I'd recently made a fish head curry while doing a phone interview with Zak Pelaccio and when he asked what kind of fish I'd used, I lied and said snapper because I didn't want to admit my fish ignorance. He then said I should've used something oily like salmon. I'd agree with the oily, though I've never had a salmon fish head curry. Then this morning I read about the kerfuffle involving Mark Bittman using overfished red snapper and realized that I’m not only incapable of  identifying fish by sight, but the imaginary me also cooks endangered species) No need to press the matter and I'd only be out a couple bucks (plus lots of prep time) if the fish sucked.

Its face seemed a little slim and long with a little fleshy appendage that mimicked a goatee. Fish heads I usually see curried are fuller, broader. The dreaded red snapper is often recommended in recipes and I’ve also seen a call for threadfin, which I don’t think are common here.

One of these days I'll learn that no matter how many cookbooks I possess or experience I have with eating the cuisine, Malaysian-Singaporean food will never taste the same in my hands. Seriously never. I'm stymied as to what causes my food to always turn out flat and dull. I can't attribute it to lack of fresh ingredients because my Thai and Chinese food usually turns out pretty good. I'm clearly doing something wrong.

The first issue was deciding on a recipe. Every one I found was slightly different so I adapted a few based on what sounded right. Fish head curry uses dry spices, not a fresh paste or rempah, since it's a Singaporean specialty of Indian origin. Ok, there's also a Nyonya version but the curry everyone associates with Singapore is served at Indian restaurants and not so much at hawker centers.

Therefore, you need curry powder and lots of it. One thing I've discovered is that Malaysian recipes often specify the type of curry powder you need, none of that generic madras business. They seem to have two distinct blends: fish and meat. I picked up packets of each on a visit to Kuala Lumpur but that was a few years ago (perhaps the first step on my route to dull food was using old spices). It seems that main difference is that fish curry powder doesn’t contain clove, star anise, cinnamon and cardamom like the meat version.

The recipe I was following called for five tablespoons and unfortunately, my little packet only contained around four. So, I spent a bit of time grinding and making my own supplementary powder based on the recipe below, which I've left as is. Even cutting down those numbers by a third, I ended up with two whopping cups of the stuff, used an entire bottle of coriander seeds and still came up short. Grams to ounces confuse me. I had no idea what an insane quantity I was concocting until it was too late. I filled up the spice grinder with dried chiles three times and still didn't have the 50 grams per my digital scale!

You also might want to know about "curry seeds," which are called for in many recipes. From what I understand this is a blend of whole fennel seeds, cumin seeds, brown mustard seeds, fenugreek and black dhal in proportions that I’m not sure about. I didn't have the dhal.

Once you have your blends ready to go and your vegetables and aromatics prepped, the rest is easy. There aren't really any shortcuts since we don't have brands like Prima Taste here that sell ready-to-use mixes that aren't half-bad (I've tried a few of them). I'm loving this fish head curry "party pack." Now, that's my kind of party. James is trying to finagle a way to get his company's Singapore office to send us a bunch of these packets. I'd be curious how the fish head curry blend tastes because…well, my rendition didn't end up impressing anyone.

Fish head curry

My pot of fish was wrong, even by looks (and I don't just mean that it's ugly anti-food porn). The consistency of the liquid should be thinner, oilier and ruddy. Mine was creamy even though I thinned it down with water. James insists the versions we had in Asia didn't contain coconut milk. I agree that they seemed sharper and soupier but every recipe I found included at least a little coconut milk. I would go easy on it.

The fish, itself was mild and inoffensive. I'm sure it could've been fresher but it was amazingly cheap. This whole dish probably cost under $8 (if you only count the portion of the $2.89 bottle of decimated coriander seeds that were actually used for this). Even at such a bargain, I'm going to lay off the Singaporean experimenting for a while because it's too much effort for lackluster pay off.  But I feel compelled to write out a recipe, anyway, because I don't think that was the problem.

1 whole fish head, about 3 pounds
1 tablespoon mixed curry seeds for fish curry (optional)
1 thumb-sized piece of ginger, chopped
3 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
2 onions thinly sliced
5 tablespoon fish curry powder made into a paste with 1 /4 to 1 /2 cup water
10 okra pods
3 tomatoes, quartered
10 chiles slit into half lengthwise
20 curry leaves
1 /2 to 1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon sugar
1 tablespoon tamarind mixed with 1 cup water
1 cup coconut milk
5 tablespoon sunflower oil        

Fish Curry Powder
250g coriander powder
60g cumin powder
150g chilli powder
30g turmeric powder
20g black pepper powder
10g fenugreek powder

Rub fish head with salt, then wash and pat dry. (I’m just repeating what I’ve read everywhere. Rather than seasoning with salt, this step seems intended to remove “fishiness.”)

Heat oil in a wok or saucepan, add the curry seeds and stir fry over high heat for two to three minutes till the seeds pop. Add garlic, ginger, onions and stir fry till fragrant. Add the fish curry paste and brown over low heat, till oil raises to the surface. Sprinkle water if the paste begins to burn.

Add the coconut milk, tamarind juice, salt, sugar and curry leaves. Bring to a boil, stirring. Add the fish head, along with okra, tomatoes and chiles.

Simmer for 15 minutes or until fish is cooked.

Adapted from Sylvia Tan's Singapore Heritage Food and the Singapore Tourism Board

Maybe it's impossible to perfectly replicate Singaporean fish head curry in Brooklyn. I've suspected as much and Laura Shapiro's recent post, "Food Doesn't Travel" reinforces this notion.

Sunday Night Special: Pig’s Ear Salad

Pig ear salad

In a thrifty attempt to work through all of the odds and ends that have accumulated in my two freezers (yes, two) before allowing myself to buy any new perishables, I found a stash of pigs’ ears. Waste not, want not.

It’s strange that dull gray supermarket ground beef that’s been lazing around in a deep freeze for months doesn’t bother me but these large (much larger than I realized from the packaging) fleshy flaps gave me pause. Hooves and even chicken feet don’t bother me much, but these ears seemed so lifelike.

I originally bought them to recreate the pig’s ear salad I had at Resto, which I now believe is also served at Irving Mill.

The salad part was straightforward. The original uses escarole. You could use any hearty greens. I happened to have some aging mesclun in the fridge and beefed it up with big handfuls of arugula.

Tarbeis beans are a French cassoulet bean. Not something I keep around the house though I did have flageolet, a common substitute. It was too late for soaking so a can of ordinary cannellini sufficed. I’ve never made cassoulet, maybe I’ll muck that up on a future Sunday before it gets too warm for such heavy food. I think I’d better hurry.

A poached egg is the crowning glory. I overcooked my yolk, sad since I love lots of warm runniness. But I’m not a perfectionist, I could never be a recipe tester with all of my impatience. A semi-set yolk wasn’t ideal but I wasn’t going to toss it out considering this whole exercise was to use up stagnating ingredients not create more waste.

Pig ears

The tricky part was the ears. I had no idea they were so tough, my normally adequate knife barely sawed through the double-ply slabs.

After a trip in a wok full of hot oil, my ribbons were crisped to brown, maybe a little too dark. Cooked slower and longer in subsequent batches and tossed with salt, they still ended up all crackle, little chew. Maybe Resto had special fatty, tender or possibly smaller or younger ears. Theirs felt like a wonderful bacon-crouton combo. My recent experience with pigs’ ears outside of Resto (at A Lorcha in Macau) were also very crunchy and cartilage-heavy just like these.

Even though I’ve never knowingly eaten chervil, I’m convinced that licoricey herb appeared in the original. No chervil at Fairway (nor frisee—maybe I’m doing something wrong because I can never find frisee). Instead, I added minced tarragon to a Dijon vinaigrette.

This dish would’ve been much better with lardons. Of course everything tastes great with lardons. Pig’s ears take more finesse, which I have yet to master.

Tortas and Lomitos

Tacos rico pierna torta

I wouldn’t exactly call it an epiphany but Saturday I woke up (I’d like to say bright and early but it was more like 11:30am) with the strange and sudden urge to know more about Mexican food. Not just to eat it, that’s easy (despite all of the transplanted complainers who seem incapable of looking beyond lower Manhattan), but to cook it more too, maybe even learn more about the cuisine first-hand (I know Oaxaca is a gastronomic destination but I’m thinking Merida).

Just how a certain subset of white dudes seem unable to resist an Asian girl, I have a fetish for the food (though I rarely dabble in the Korean or Japanese realms). It’s illogical and uncontrollable. Maybe I’m drawn to noodle soups, dumplings and curries because of their very foreignness. Though by that logic I’d also be a goulash or fufu fanatic, which I’m not. I think it’s the complexity of a spice blend or layers of sweetness, salt and spice that appeal. How lots of mixed up tastes blend into something exciting. But that’s not unique to Asian cuisine.

My resistance to Latin American food, Mexican specifically, stems from the feeling that I should know more about it. I wasn’t really raised with it, it wasn’t served in local restaurants growing up and I certainly wasn’t handed down any kitchen wisdom from a knowing abuela (nor an Anglo mish-mash grandma—to this day, I can’t recall my mom’s mom who’s still very much alive, cooking anything, period, let alone notable. My only memories involve puffed wheat cereal from enormous 99-cent store plastic bags, slicing Neapolitan ice cream from a rectangular carton into slices with a knife, and a mock apple pie) and yet it seems really accessible. I mean, I could be south of the border in a few hours by plane and even communicate with people (on a very rudimentary level, to be sure) when instead, I fantasize about locales that are literally my polar opposite where chitchat is futile.

I think that’s the scary thing. No one expects a foreigner in Malaysia or Beijing to know everything or to be able to speak Malay or Mandarin. You risk looking like a stupid American even when trying your best. But cultural floundering feels more shameful in a country so nearby, and one with which I share a heritage.

While cobbling together ingredients in Sunset Park for dinner, I discovered that epazote is easy to come by while recado rojo is not (they even sell the Yucatecan paste on Amazon so it’s hardly obscure). I (or rather James) had to make it from scratch.

Tacos rico torta

In the mean time, a torta was in order. We stopped at Ricos Tacos. My sugar and starch limiting means very few sandwiches in my life. But sometimes you simply need something gut-busting between two pieces of bread, in this case a fluffy bolillo. My pierna was a serious mess, only compounded by the copious amount of string cheese, avocado, beans, pickled jalapeños, and yes, mayonnaise, normally my nemesis. But just like with the banh mi, my aversion is waylaid by overall awesomeness.

I wouldn’t say that Ricos Tacos specialty are tortas, that’s just what I wanted. That might be the advertised tacos arabes, a take on schwarma stuffed into a pita. Maybe next time.

I can say that intrepid DVD hawkers know no ethnic boundaries. African-Americans tend to stick to subways and blankets strewn across sidewalks while Latinos and Chinese ladies prefer the restaurant-to-restaurant roaming approach. I have no interest in discounted copies of Hotel for Dogs, though that doesn’t stop genuinely interested others from completing transactions while eating.

What seems to be uniquely Mexican are roving bands setting up shop in tightly packed eateries. No stage or prior arrangements necessary; these are not Filipina entertainers. We happened to be sitting near the door, therefore entitled to an accidental front row seat when a five-piece band, accordion, stand up bass and all, decided to give the jukebox a run for its money. No one seemed to mind. There’s no way this wouldn’t wreak havoc anywhere else outside of a subway car.

Because one can never have too much pork (I’d already eaten two strips of bacon as breakfast), dinner was to be lomitos, based on a recipe from Diana Kennedy’s Essential Cuisines of Mexico. This was thrifty because we used leftover scraps from the Super Bowl ribs that had to trimmed St. Louis style.

Beans and lomitos

These were eaten with soupy black beans and corn tortillas. Simple. Not the prettiest, but tasty.

1 tablespoon simple recado rojo
2 tablespoons Seville orange juice or substitute
2 pounds boneless pork, cut into ½-inch cubes
2 tablespoons vegetable oil or pork lard
12 ounces tomatoes, finely chopped
½ green bell pepper, finely chopped
2/3  cup finely chopped white onion
2 teaspoons salt
1 small head of garlic, unpeeled
1 whole habanero chile or any fresh, hot green chile
2 to 2 ½ cups cold water, approximately

Dilute the recado rojo with the orange juice and rub it into the pieces of meat. Set aside for about 30 minutes to season.

Heat the oil in a skillet and fry the tomatoes, pepper and onion together over fairly hight heat, stirring well and scraping the bottom of the pan from time to time, for about 10 minutes. Add the salt and set aside.

Toast the whole head of garlic on a griddle or comal, turning it from time to time, until it is browned on the outside and the cloves inside are fairly soft. Toast the habanero chile.

Put the meat into a large, heavy saucepan with the water, which should barely cover the meat. Add the tomato mixture and the toasted, unpeeled garlic and chile and bring to a boil. Lower the heat and simmer the meat, uncovered, until it is tender—about 1 hour. (The sauce should be of a medium consistency; if it appears to be too watery, turn the heat higher and reduce quickly.) Serve hot.

The Cardinal Rule

Ah, Super Bowl. The perfect excuse to drink too much on a Sunday and fry the heck out of things. Luckily, the lack of an F train (could a subway line possibly be more useless? And don’t say the G, it’s always come through for me) didn’t dampen spirits or scare away guests. 

Buffalo wings

Of course there were wings. And unusually hot this year. I think someone got carried away with the cayenne pepper.

Vietnamese wings

My annual plea for non-Buffalo wings was finally granted this year. I never man the fryer but I do try to influence what gets dipped into the bubbling oil. This Vietnamese-ish recipe came from the chef of Pok Pok, a Portland Thai restaurant that I always read good things about but have never tried because I am bad and never visit my hometown. Thai food is not enough of a draw, I’m afraid. These were sweet and salty. I would’ve liked to have eaten more than one.

Smokies wraps

I’ve never made wiener wraps out of Lit’l Smokies in my life, and then the one year I do someone brings a big pack from Stew Leonard’s. Call them lowbrow if you will but there was not a single piglet in a blanket left by the end of the evening.

Salt and pepper ribs

An attempt to recreate the salt and pepper ribs at Irving Mill was not unsuccessful though not exactly the same either. These were braised in soy-orange juice blend, which added a touch of sweetness. And the finishing lime squeeze added more citrus punch, as you can see pulp got all over the place. As you can also see, the pile was decimated by the time I realized ribs had been brought out. The crisp-and-tender interplay was right on.

Vietnamese summer rolls

Trying to balance the fried with the fresh, I made Vietnamese rolls (there wasn’t an intentional Vietnamese theme), some with pork belly and shrimp, others with smoked tofu. The vegetables included bean sprouts, lettuce and carrots. I just can't bring myself to use rice vermicelli, a crime akin to rice inside a burrito. For dipping there was a hoisin-peanut sauce based on White on Rice Couple’s recipe and a nuoc cham that used both lime juice and rice vinegar. Maybe a little too tart? You could make 50 of these (think I made around 35) and they will still all get eaten. 

Avocado salsa

Also, a Japanese-flavored avocado dip/salad with jicama, watercress and wasabi-soy dressing for the sake of variety. I figured others would bring guacamole (for the love of god, don’t say guac) and sure enough two showed up bearing the chunky green gift.

No photos of the two cakes that were randomly brought from New Jersey Wegmans by two different people. Everyone in the know goes to Wegmans.

For whatever reason, certain party-goers watch the smaller downstairs TV instead of the big HDTV in the living room. The 30-or-so seconds delay between analog and digital becomes apparent when wild screaming bellows from the basement and nothing exciting happens for upstairs until half a minute later.

I don’t even follow sports. I just like having people over, drinking and making food (not the cleaning, however. James went on such a scrubbing and mopping rampage that he’s now physically sick. I honestly don’t think the average person notices dirt the way he does). However, guests did get riled up as evidenced in this video documenting the downstairs/upstairs divide. I had no idea such fervent Cardinals fans were in the house.

Sunday Night Special: Roast Chicken & Lentils With Mustard Vinaigrette

Roast chicken and lentils

I’ve never roasted a chicken, plain and simple, and that doesn’t seem right. After reading the article in the New York Times’ food section this week about Simon Hopkinson and the “most useful cookbook of all time,” I was reminded that I’d received Roast Chicken and Other Stories for Christmas last year but it got lost among all the other cookbooks I’ve accumulated since December.

The title cracked both my sister (who sent the gift) and I up, as if roast chicken was a self-evident story. Just wait till you hear the one about cod. As it turns out the book really is quite useful, straightforward and anecdotal. I enjoy cookbooks where you get a sense of the author’s personality (assuming they have a likeable one) and opinions.

I think roast chicken is one those so simple it’s hard to do right things like making an omelet. And why bother when you can pick up a perfectly good rotisserie chicken for around $6. I also shy away because this is the type of preparation where the bird itself makes a difference. I’m a horrible person who buys grocery store chickens. I tried imagining what a specimen from Bresse, or more accessible for Americans, a Blue Foot, might taste like. Maybe next time. Maybe never. I can’t even justify paying $20 or so for a run-of-the-mill organic chicken. I’m not there yet. Antibiotic-free was as far could go.

I’ve worked with whole chickens before, but I tend to make things like adobo or curries, never anything European. I hadn’t ever used fresh tarragon before this recipe. One notable difference between ordering from Fresh Direct instead of going to Chinatown is that you don’t have heads and feet with tiny toenails to deal with, though these bony feathery spikes sticking out the wings weirded me out a bit. And there seemed to be more neck attached than usual.

The roast chicken recipe is here on Culinate; it’s really very simple. I had minor trouble, the same trouble that plagues me every Thanksgiving and makes me glad I won’t be cooking a turkey this year. Any juices that are supposed to accumulate in the pan for basting, dry up and burn, then the bird still isn’t cooked after going well beyond the recommended roasting time. And the wine intended to go with the meal gets finished too quickly because there’s so much time spent waiting around for dinner. Ok, I can’t blame my drinking on the oven.

This time I added white wine to the pan to ensure extra liquid, and the drying up problem still happened. And after 45 minutes in the oven with 15 minutes resting with the door open, the skin still wasn’t as brown as I’d like and the juices weren’t completely running clear when I tried slicing the meat. I ended up having to put the chicken back on 350 for an additional 20 minutes. I swear it’s the crappy Magic Chef brand oven that I’ve had in every Brooklyn apartment. The temperature is clearly not accurate.

The chicken survived, but I wasn’t completely wowed. I hate to admit that despite all my butter rubbing and herb and lemon stuffing, the flavor was more subdued than I’d like. The flesh was really moist, though. Maybe it just needed more salt. I’m a chronic under-salter and with all the recent salt-is-the-devil articles, I’m becoming even more paranoid about my health.

Roast chicken

No, I’m not going to make it all pretty for a picture (as if I ever do). It’s just me eating tonight and I don’t want to wash extra plates. You get the idea whether or not it’s sitting in the pan.

Trying to maintain a French-ish theme, I also made Salade Chaude aux Lentilles Avec Vinaigrette à la Moutarde minus the salad part. No arugula, just the green lentils in a vinaigrette. I hate to admit that these rich, tart legumes were tastier than the chicken.

Sunday Night Special: Colombo Chicken Curry & Green Bean Mallum

Colombo chicken curry & green bean mallum

Yes, this is food from last Sunday. I’m not foretelling the future. I would forego mentioning this meal altogether (I document my cooking very infrequently because honestly it’s not that exciting and lately I just haven’t had the attention span) but Sri Lankan food is something different for me. I don’t know that I’ve ever cooked the cuisine before and I’ve only tried it twice in restaurants.

1080recipes A friend was savvy enough to find my Amazon wish list and order “Mangoes & Curry Leaves” for my birthday last month. Unfortunately, I wasn’t savvy enough to keep said list up to date and already had the book. No problems, that’s why I love Amazon. Even though I wasn’t the buyer, I was able to exchange it for the same authors’ brand new cookbook, “Beyond the Great Wall.”
I took the opportunity to add “1080 Recipes,” the supposed Spanish “Joy of Cooking,” into the order. Now I’m faced with some serious skimming. I realized that 1080 is a lot of recipes, but I had no idea the book would be a massive 2 ½ inches thick (yes, I measured it).

So, before delving into my two new acquisitions I gave “Mangoes & Curry Leaves” another look. Who knows when I’ll have a chance to get back to it. All I knew is that I wanted to make something using chicken because I had bunch of bone-in thighs that needed using up. Colombo Chicken Curry fit the bill and only required the purchase of cashews and two tomatoes.

I do way more Southeast Asian than South Asian cooking so I’m used to pounding lots of herbs and fresh chunky things in a mortar and pestle. This style is more about toasting and grinding. I was shocked that I actually had every spice on hand: cumin seeds, coriander seeds (and used every last bit) fenugreek, cinnamon sticks and cardamom (not the pods, unfortunately). Interestingly, a spoonful of white rice and three times as many cashews also get tossed into the skillet, browned, then pulverized.

The end result, stewed with chopped tomatoes, grated coconut and coconut milk is complex in a way that’s hard to describe. I wouldn’t say that it tasted Indian or Malaysian but it definitely hinted at both. Just like whenever I infrequently attempt Malay curries, the flavor is rich, spicy but slightly flat like something’s lacking. Part of this is my inability to salt properly but I think the big issue is freshness of ingredients. It’s not like I live anywhere near the Spice Islands. Who knows where my spices came from and how long they sat around before sitting around in my kitchen.

I took one of the side dish suggestions seriously and read up on Green Bean Mallum. I’ve never heard of this vegetable dish. Luckily, EatingAsia has reproduced the recipe using sword beans. You’re not likely to find anything that exotic in the NYC area or probably anywhere in the U.S. but green beans work just fine. Better than fine. I really loved this condimenty side, maybe even a little more than the chicken. I ate this with brown rice like a hippy during the rest of the week and it was amazing and super spicy.

I was wary about shredding the beans, ultimately using my so-so food processor, because I hate fiddliness. But the texture was necessary. Whole beans would’ve been too substantial and dominated the dish. Really, the grated coconut is almost equal in prominence. Which reminds me, if you hate coconut I totally don’t understand you and you’ll hate both of these dishes.

Essentially, you cook the beans, shallots, turmeric, grated coconut, green chiles (I didn’t have Maldive fish or recommended substitute bonito flakes so instead sprinkled a few dashes of fish sauce) illogically with no water or oil in a covered pot for ten minutes. That’s it. You could totally do this with carrots, which I think wouldn’t be wholly untraditional. Though soggier, you could probably use a shredded green like spinach too.