The internet is rife with bloggers' accounts of their turkeys and stuffings. You don't need me for that. Yes, my family had dinner. Yes, we made turkey (and it was transcendent, beyond-turkey wonderful), and two kinds of stuffing, and two kinds of cranberry sauce. Yes, there was an excess of food and lots of family and lots of fun. However, as I am sure you can judge from the photo above, Thanksgiving in my family tends to be a little different from the norm. How so? We drink. And I mean, we drink. Every once in a while we play true to type (Russians), and we drink vodka. And we enjoy it.
At the beginning of the evening, I ran to fetch something from the kitchen. Upon my return, I found that I had already been served - a slice of bread (home-made, naturally) and a shot of superb vodka (a brand that not imported into the States, straight from the ex-motherland. Not really my motherland per se, but I am sure it is someone's). I think my plate summed up a lot of things about me pretty well. Aaaah, my parents know me well.
P.S. We ran out of vodka half way through dinner (I may never let my father live this one down) and had to move on to Patron. My grandmother liked it! Lick, shoot, bite, the whole story. She was a champ.
Tuesday, November 27, 2007
Friday, November 23, 2007
My friends tell me that the surest way to tell if a Chinese (or other variety of Asian) restaurant is any good is to assess its Asian Quotient (AQ), otherwise known as the number of Asian diners. If the number of Asian diners far outweighs the number of white ones, it is a safe bet that the restaurant knows what they are doing. If however, the restaurant is full of plain old white people, there is a high chance that it is as authentic as the Italian food at Bertucci’s. Which is to say, not at all.
This past week I had the marked pleasure and honor of being one of four white people at Shanghai Gate (very high AQ). Notably, the other three white people happened to be sitting at my table, even more notable was the fact that one of the above mentioned white people was a fluent Chinese speaker that spends a large part of her time working and living in China and Taiwan (she also happens to be Elizabeth, the perfectly lovely fiancée of a perfectly lovely friend and lab mate, Allen. Say hi, Allen).
Elizabeth took up the reigns and ordered for all of us (in Chinese, natch) impressing both myself and our servers in equal measure. The double take the server did when addressed in perfect Chinese was something to behold. Made me feel all important too. I would have never known to order the stuff she did because I would have no idea.
Twice fried green beans in garlic sauce – salty, crunchy, a little spicy, and fried. Mmm.
Lion’s head casserole (in the background) - very finely ground pork meatball spiced with soy sauce and sherry, in a deep brown broth and baby bok choy. I did not know why it is called that – Elizabeth had no answer for me. It doesn’t look like a lion’s head. I think it is safe to assume that it doesn’t taste like one either. Apparently, the name is derived from the fact that its accompanying cooked bok choy or napa cabbage looks like the mane on the meatball lion head. I admit that I failed to see the resemblance.
Black bean chicken wraps – minced chicken, sweet perfectly balanced with sour, set off by the fresh crunch of the lettuce.
Yu Xiang Pork – shredded pork in fish sauce with bamboo shoots, served with steamed bread. The bread was light, slightly sweet, and kinda sticky on the outside, making for an airy, fishy pork umami bomb of a sandwich (way better than it sounds).
And the thing that I was most excited about. The thing that made my long, shit day seem just a little bit shorter – soup dumplings (photo at head of post). The most brilliant invention of all time. Soup inside a dumpling. Bite through the wrapper for a giant gush of super hot broth and a small pork meatball. The key is catching the dumpling at the correct temperature – cool enough that it won’t burn the first eight layers of flesh off your mouth but not so cold that the broth begins to congeal.
Standing out in a room had never tasted so good.
204 Harvard Avenue
Allston, MA 02134
Saturday, November 17, 2007
I am way too visually stimulated. Scary movies give me nightmares. Not even movies that others consider scary - I saw stupid stupid Outbreak and could hardly sleep for two weeks. I am so completely unhip.
A couple of years ago, everyone was telling me about Robert Rodriguez’s Sin City and how utterly fabulous it was. I, knowing full well that I should not, went to see it. I walked out of the movie theater in a practically catatonic state from discomfort, carrying a general feeling ickiness. I was not a happy camper.
A year (or more?) has passed and Mr. Rodriguez has made it up to me. You see, he is a badass. The DVDs of his movies (for sure Once Upon a Time in Mexico and Sin City, not sure about others) had short cooking videos as a bonus feature. How awesome is that?? The first video had him making puerco pibil, the same dish that Johnny Depp’s CIA agent killed cooks for when he found one that he particularly enjoyed. The second video at the end of the Sin City DVD has Mr. Rodriguez making breakfast tacos with homemade flour tortillas. The egg breakfast taco part of the video was nothing terribly remarkable. The tortillas, however, were stunners. Fluffy, with round brown spots from the hot skillet, they looked nothing like the plastic-enclosed stuff you buy in a grocery store.
He, being the badass that he is, looked like he was born with tortilla dough in his hand (that’s actually kind of gross. Sorry). I had some ethnic and cultural shortcomings to overcome in attempting to make tortillas, but I think it did a passable job. There was room for improvement, certainly – my tortillas wound up oddly crunchy on the edges and not exactly circular (umm, if you squinted just right they sort of looked like circles), but it wasn’t bad for the first try.
Absent was the odd chemical aftertaste of store-bought tortillas (at least the ones sold on the East coast) as well as the rubbery, gummy texture. Instead, there was warmth, freshness, fluffiness, and softness. If I could make tortillas large enough to use as blankets, I would. Alas, as that is currently not a possibility, I had to make do with regular sized fresh tortillas, but they perfect for holding skirt steak fajitas with adobo seasoning and green bell peppers. One day, long in the future, I may approach badass-hood. Not holding my breath though.
The following is my annotated transcript of the YouTube video of Robert Rodriguez making tortillas.
Sin City Tortillas
2 cups flour
½ tsp salt
½ tsp baking powder
¼ cup butter
½- ¾ cups warm water
- Cut the butter into the flour in a food processor, stand mixer, pastry cutter, or just two forks (the trick is to incorporate the butter without melting it from the heat of your hands). The flour will have a course, almost cornmeal-like consistency.
- Add water until the dough holds together but is not sticky (Mr. Rodriguez is descriptive and vague all at the same time on this point).
- Knead the dough for about 2 minutes.
- Separate dough into 8 – 10 golf-sized balls.
- Wet a towel with warm water, cover the dough balls and allow them to rest for about 20 minutes.
- Squash the dough balls into disks and roll out (I floured my board rather heavily. Mr. Rodriguez did not. I am not half the badass he is).
- Plop tortilla dough onto heated skillet over hot heat. Cook on one side ~8 seconds and flip over (if the tortillas are coloring too quickly, turn down the heat). Cook about a minute – the tortillas should start bubbling, indicating that the baking powder is doing its job. Flip them over again and press on the edges a little with a spatula to keep them in contact with the cooking surface.
- Cover with towel to keep the tortillas warm until ready to eat.
Consider yourself a badass for making your own tortillas. I do.
Tuesday, November 13, 2007
This is getting out of hand. I am not creative enough to keep up. Every week, Maiya ups the brunch stakes. Every week, she pulls out something so completely fabulous that I spend the next seven days digging through my brain-bound food catalogue, trying to come up with something equally stunning and impressive. I thought I was doing pretty well.
Take my last brunch, for example. I made a fennel and carrot salad (on a mandoline, no fingers sliced open, thankyouverymuch) substituting oranges for tangerines and arugula for watercress, apple sausage patties (so-so), slow-scrambled eggs, a la Gordon Ramsey (beware of YouTube link), a giant German pancake, and no-knead bread.
While the German pancake looked all kinds of impressive and sophisticated, I quickly realized that the Germans went and pulled a misnomer. It’s really way more breakfast soufflé that pancake. Yes, it’s topped with lemon juice and powdered sugar but it still tastes like pouffy eggs with tang and sweetness, not like a doughy, gorgeously carbohydrate-laden pancake. It was quite pretty though, and crunchy on the bottom from the healthy (or desperately unhealthy, as the case may be) dosing of butter.
The slow scrambled eggs were the silkiest I have had, with no texture besides that of a bright orange, silky custard, no eggy curds to mess up the experience. The bread was, well… fresh baked bread and that can hardly ever be bad, and the salad was fresh and crunchy.
So you can see why I was feeling confident in my brunch abilities. And then I went to Maiya’s house. Do you know what she did? You will never guess. It was crazy. I was stupefied beyond words and pictures. I had to resort to video to do the process justice!
The woman made deep-fried poached eggs and served them on top of creamed spinach and fried ham. Really. She did. But being Maiya and being completely awesome, she swapped out the fried ham for fried Spam, which I had never had before but thoroughly enjoyed in all of its salty glory. Oh but that’s not all. There was also a salad with goat cheese and a pomegranate vinaigrette, and black pepper and cheddar bread from Hi-Rise Bakery. And mimosas. And I didn’t eat for the rest of the day (which I suppose is the whole point of Sunday brunch).**
The deep fried eggs were insane. Just insane. Crunchy on the outside with perfectly set whites and liquid yolks which spilled all over the already rich and creamy spinach, making my eyes cross in brunchy bliss. Oh but I left something out - the ginormous pan-sized hash brown with herbs and Parmesan, so handy in soaking up the yolk overflow.
How am I supposed to follow that one, people?? I have no idea. Help me.
** Ok, so that's kind of a big fat lie. What I should have said is that I had no business eating again on Sunday but instead made fajitas, fresh flour tortillas, and guacamole with the supervisor. And it was all so good.
Tuesday, November 06, 2007
So Archna and I made paneer. Well, that’s not really all we did. It was a Saturday to be remembered. We got up at about 9:30AM… I had my first beer by 10:30. It all went downhill from there and it wasn’t pretty. Picture two people splayed out on a couch in front of a TV blaring the Food Network, the coffee table in front of them littered with cheese, bread, and newly emptied bottles of wine. We managed to capitalize on our sporadic moments of motivation to extricate ourselves from the siren call of my couch to push on in making the paneer and engineering its starring role in one of my favorite dishes of all time, muttar paneer.
It went a little something like this:
1 medium onion, finely chopped
1 tbsp grated fresh ginger
3 cloves garlic, grated (I grated both the ginger and the garlic on a microplane. You could also pulverize the garlic in a food processor if making a large batch to store).
½ tsp cumin seeds
½ tsp ground coriander
½ tsp ground cumin
1/8 tsp turmeric
1/8 tsp chili powder
1¼ cups water
1/3 cup frozen peas
1 tomato, chopped (we used about 12 cherry tomatoes, halved)
A pinch of sugar
Fried paneer (really don’t know what amount to give… as much as you would like to add? Not very scientific, I know. I think our half gallon of milk yielded 1 – 1½ cups of paneer and we added it all in).
- Toast the cumin seeds in canola oil until they turn pink and begin to release fragrance.
- Add onion, ginger and garlic, sweat until the onion softens.
- Add the ground spices (cumin, coriander, turmeric, and chili powder), cook for another 3 minutes or so.
- Add water, bring to a boil.
- Add tomatoes and simmer on med high heat (a fairly potent simmer) about 10 minutes, mushing up the tomatoes slightly to homogenize.
- Add frozen peas and fried paneer.
- Add more water if necessary to cover the paneer.
- Cook another 10 minutes to infuse the paneer with the spices.
- Add a pinch of sugar to bring out the sweetness of the peas, salt to taste, serve over rice.
Oh it was wonderful! The paneer was tasted like the essence and soul of milk, condensed into a resilient fried nugget. It was creamy yet firm, with a fresh taste that you can only get from farmhouse milk still warm from a cow. Totally gross description, I know, but having experienced it, I find little else to compare it to.
The paneer was luscious and rich but had the little squeak of a fresh cheese curd. The heat from the chili powder, sweetness from the peas, acidity from the tomatoes and slight punch from the ginger were all in perfect balance with each other and generally got on famously. The pops of the peas, the squeaks of the paneer, and my grunts of approval harmonized beautifully.
I would have been happy to eat the fried cheese all by itself but felt we should have something more involved to show at the end of our day of Gluttony and Sloth. And we did. We had muttar paneer and we had Pride. It was a great day.
Sunday, November 04, 2007
The last installment of my restaurant reviews for Nature Network Boston has been posted. As I predicted, I have eaten myself out of a job. I covered all the areas around major research and convention centers, a scientist’s natural habitat. There is nothing left for me to explore.
On the positive side, I can now eat at restaurants that I want to eat at, as opposed to where I think other people may want to eat. I no longer have to dictate where we go when out to dinner with friends (they are all so wonderfully patient but I can see it getting irritating).
Writing and eating for these reviews has been so much fun. It also taught me a whole lot about writing for a major publication. I got a taste (pun intended) of food writing as a profession and I have to say, I liked it. I want more.
There is no use in fighting it. Some (crappy) people may deny it, but the truth is that everyone on this earth is the same on the inside (except maybe Clive Owen. He is better). Let's use cheese as an example. Every culture and cuisine has their version of a fresh cheese. There are variations within the genre, just as with people, but the founding principle is the same. Russian people have have fresh farmer’s cheese (tvorog) – cow’s milk that is cultured overnight, then drained. Italians have mozzarella (pulled or stretched curd cheese) and ricotta, re-cooked from whey. Mexican people have queso fresco, Indians have paneer. Both of these are acid set cheeses, meaning that the milk is curdled by the addition of an acid. The resulting curds are separated and drained, and sometimes pressed (as in the case of queso fresco and paneer) to get rid of extra whey.
So you see? They are all the same at heart, and they all taste reeeaally good.
I got a hands-on demonstration of this unifying theory of mine when my old old old (15 years and counting) friend, Archna, came up to Boston for another visit. Seeing as how we were/are both stressed and tired, nothing seemed more appealing than sitting on a couch for hours on end and cooking something that takes ages of waiting but minutes of work. Enter paneer, the main component of one of my most favorite Indian dishes, muttar paneer (peas and paneer).
After multiple phone consultations with Archna’s Mom, and many assurances from her that we will never be able to make it properly we, remarkably, did it. I can’t say that we made it properly, but we made it. And it was delicious.
The basics of paneer making are as follows:
Heat milk (2% or whole milk) slowly over medium heat, stirring occasionally until it starts to boil. Don’t let it boil vigorously or you will have hours of stove scrubbing to look forward to - it always boils over. Always.
Turn off the heat and curdle the milk in one of two ways, either with the addition of vinegar or buttermilk. Buttermilk will make a richer, creamier paneer but vinegar may yield more curds. Add the buttermilk or vinegar until the milk curdles. For half a gallon, we used two cups of buttermilk (approximate vinegar equivalent would be ¼ - ½ cup).
Let the milk rest undisturbed, partially covered for two hours.
Drain the curds into a cheese cloth set in a colander. Either suspend the bundle from a faucet to drip the whey into the sink or, say you are kinda clumsy and let the cheesecloth slip open, leave the curds to drain the colander for one hour.
Remove the curds onto a high tech, sophisticated paneer pressing machine. This marvel of technology (my own invention) consists of a cooling rack atop a large pot or bowl...
... topped with a plate and a bottle of wine for a press. Preferably Chablis, preferably chilled, although this portion of the instructions may be modified to suit your individual taste.
Allow the paneer to drain for another hour.
Remove the paneer from the cheesecloth and transfer it onto a plate. Slice into biggish cubes.
At this point, the paneer may be refrigerated or frozen, or it can be fried straight away.
Brown in the paneer on both sides in vegetable or canola oil, drain on a paper towel, and use in your preferred recipe. My recipe of choice, muttar paneer, is forthcoming.
Thursday, November 01, 2007
There is no use in denying it – autumn has descended upon Boston. The leaves have changed color and are swirling down to the ground into messy piles, the squirrels have gone crazy and spastic getting ready for the next nine months of winter… and the nutjobs have come out to dine. That is not necessarily an indicator of a change in seasons, but it has come to my attention.
There I was, sitting in a perfectly cozy subterranean Italian restaurant in Beacon Hill (for an NNB review) when I happened to glance over at the next table… and gasped. Loudly. I then proceeded to stare and shoot threatening looks at the woman at that table, trying to make her aware of her incredibly inappropriate and disturbing behavior.
What was she doing? Dancing on the table? No, but that would have been cool. Flossing her teeth with her hair? Nope. Completely revolting, but not unheard of. You know what she did? Get ready for this. She poured ice water into her glass of RED WINE. She really did. I couldn’t make this shit up if I tried. I was floored. I may have been the only one at my table to have such a violent reaction, but that's beside the point.
Look, you don’t have to like red wine, or wine at all for that matter. I mean, I probably won’t have much respect for you, but it’s still ok not to like it. You don’t have to order red wine with dinner. Have a beer, a vodka martini (or four), a Shirley Temple, anything!, but do not order a glass of red wine and proceed to defile it by adding water (especially ice water). I can’t imagine a more perfect way to ruin something complex, alive and breathing, beautiful and warming than by diluting and chilling it with ice water.
You know what the lesson here is? Embrace your tastes, your likes and dislikes. At dinner, order a drink you will enjoy, one that will enhance your meal and your evening, no matter what that drink is. But don’t, for the love of all that is holy, order a glass of red wine simply because you think that you should, because it’s the grown-up thing to do, or because everyone else is doing it and then humiliate that wine in front of ardent and emotional fans such as myself. That’s just wrong.
Rant over. Thank you for your attention.