Monday, March 26, 2012

Late Night Booze with a Side of Food

Grilled Squid Tentacles, Kasadela
If I told you we were headed to a drinking establishment that has food, you’d probably be thinking there was a night of Bud Light and chicken wings in front of you. This would be a reasonable assumption in many parts of this country but not if I was taking you out for izakaya.   

If the Japanese know how to eat, they also know how to drink.  So much so in fact they devote an entire genre of restaurant to drinking and the foods designed to snack on while throwing back a Sapporo.

Lucky for us on this side of the Pacific, Japanese transplants have done a good job of setting up shop in cities across the US.  And where there are Japanese people looking to drink, you are sure to find an izakaya restaurant. 

In Portland, Oregon, there is no question what you are in for at Tanuki.  “No Sushi, No Kids” is the rule at this dark, often loud, cubby of a restaurant.  Small plates are served alongside large beers and flowing sake.  For the truly adventurous, the chef offers omakase- just like in sushi, you sit back and let the restaurant pick your food.  My brother, Paul, would do this frequently during a period when he was traveling to Portland for work.  Going there myself around the same time, I found much of the food to be a tad salty for my taste- soy sauce, miso, seaweed, salted plum, are used liberally.  “But all the better for drinking,” said Paul.  He has a point.

In Vegas later that year with both my brothers in tow, I had hoped to take them to one of my favorite off-strip spots to eat: the chic and spectacular Abriya Raku.  Sadly, arriving at the restaurant at 11:30 pm we were told there would be an hour wait.  When we asked for suggestions on where else to eat, the Japanese waiters at Raku directed us to Ichiza Sake House, the staff’s choice for after work drinking.  On the second floor of a strip mall on Spring Mountain Road, Ichiza was overly lit and rocking at midnight, tables crammed with dozens of people and even more drinks.  The menu at Ichiza doubles as wallpaper. Apparently the rotating list of special small plates is too many to commit a standard menu, instead they are handwritten in English and Japanese and pinned to every inch of available wall space.  From what I remember, we drank well and ate a bit too- fried rice, dumplings, a strange jellyfish salad- all for about the price of a shrimp cocktail and a martini on The Strip.

A couple of weeks ago, Paul and I yet again were in search of late night booze with a side of food, this time in New York City.  On the recommendation of our cousin, we headed deep into Alphabet City to Kasadela.  Maybe it was the remote location, but the atmosphere was a bit more serene than past izakaya outings.  That being said, a table of Japanese patrons with large bottles of Kirin and liters of sake confirmed that the priorities of Kasadela still lay firmly on the bar side of the restaurant.  Shishito peppers were deliciously charred and nicely salted if not quite as many as our appetite demanded.  Fried chicken came soggy but a pork belly and kimchi special as well as a plate of grilled squid legs satisfied, particularly alongside a Kirin Ichiban and a carafe of dry Junmai Gingo. 

Overall, the food at izakaya restaurants I’ve patronized Stateside has a record often brilliant and sometimes just meh.  But then again, that is not really the point is it?  As long as the beer and sake keep appearing, a plate of expertly fried rice and maybe a handful of grilled shishito peppers is really all you need.  At least, I’ll take that over Bud Light and chicken wings any day. 

Amy Powell is a food and travel writer based in New York City. She is a graduate of Cornell University's School of Hotel Administration and the French Culinary Institute. Follow her on Twitter @amymariepowell

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

DIY Adobo Sauce

Tacos al Pastor with Adobo Sauce
Have you ever bought chipotles in a can and wondered, “What is that addictive sauce is the chilies are swimming in?”  The answer: adobo.

Got at thing for tacos al pastor?  Those delicious bits of pork on corn tortillas are the star of Mexico City street food.  What makes these pork tacos a deep shade of crimson and so darned tasty?  That’s right, adobo. 

Adobo is a rich reduction of blackened guajillo chilies, garlic, and spices, including a substantial amount of cinnamon.  As a marinade, the chili puree is mixed with vinegar or citrus juice imparting layer upon layer of flavor to whatever meat it touches. 

With a hankering for tacos eating away at my gut last weekend, I thought rather than try and salvage the sauce from several cans of chipotles, I’d try my hand at homemade adobo.  Adapting from a recipe in Richard Sandoval’s book Modern Mexican Flavors, I was able create a good imitation of the Mexican marinade I’ve loved for years.

This is not a lazy person’s sauce.  The process takes a measure of time, a good deal of attention, and a hefty helping of patience.  But give yourself the space to assemble a large batch of adobo and you will reap the rewards for weeks- the sauce keeps well in an airtight container in the fridge. 

I smothered a 3 pound pork loin in a thick coating of the finished sauce and let it sit for a good 45 minutes before roasting.  After the roast was cooked, I sliced, diced, and reheated the meat in a bit of the reserved sauce before filling my tacos.  Topped with diced onion, cilantro, and a squeeze of lime I was one satisfied taco eater.

Having mastered the basic pork in adobo taco, I might next try the sauce as a marinade for grilled chicken or stir a tablespoon in with ground turkey for a kicked up burger.  With this recipe for adobo under my belt I guess I can quit scraping the cans of chipotles just to get at the sauce. 

Basic Adobo Sauce
Time: 30 minutes
Yield: 2 cups

3 T. vegetable oil
½ medium white onion
2 garlic cloves
1 tsp. black peppercorns
6 large cinnamon sticks
½ tsp. cumin seeds
4 cloves
10 dried guajillo chilies
4 cups water
½ cup orange juice
¼ cup red wine vinegar
1 T. honey
½ tsp. Kosher salt

Heat vegetable oil in a large sauté pan over medium high heat.  Roughly chop the onion and peel the garlic.  Break the cinnamon sticks in half.  Add onion, garlic, peppercorns, cinnamon, cumin seeds and cloves to the hot pan.  Cook for about 5 minutes, tossing the ingredients until the onion and garlic blister slightly but don’t burn.  Meanwhile, remove the stems, seeds and membranes from the chilies.  Cut each into chili in 2-3 pieces.  Add chilies to the pan and cook for a few minutes more until the chilies are toasted.  Add the water and simmer until the liquid is reduced by half.  Add a bit of the chili mixture at a time to a blender.  Pulse with each addition until mixture is smooth, scraping down the sides of the blender frequently.  If it is too thick, add a bit more water but not too much, mixture should be quite thick.  Transfer the blended chilies to a medium mesh strainer.  Use a spoon or spatula to push the mixture through the strainer.  Scrape the smooth puree off the bottom of the strainer into a medium bowl.  To the chili puree whisk in orange juice, vinegar, honey and salt.  This can be stored for several weeks in an airtight container in the refrigerator. 

Amy Powell is a food and travel writer based in New York City. She is a graduate of Cornell University's School of Hotel Administration and the French Culinary Institute. Follow her on Twitter @amymariepowell

Friday, March 16, 2012

92 Years New: Nom Wah Tea Parlor

Soup dumplings and turnip cakes
There is no shortage of dim sum houses in New York.  These days, even new Chinese "inspired" restaurants are having a go at dim sum, giving it a fancy makeover with organic ingredients, sleek dining rooms, and equally high-brow price tags.

Organic ingredients are nice but sometimes you just want it down and dirty.  You don’t want to care about whether the ground pork in your dumplings was sustainably raised and you don’t want a dissertation on the architect who designed the dining room.  You want to be hustled to a cheap table with wobbly legs, thrown a pot of hot tea, and play dodge ball with steamer baskets as a surly Chinese grandmother flings your order on the table.

Nom Wah Tea Parlor was one of the first on the proverbial block in New York City working the trade of small plates of steamed buns, turnip cakes, and all manner of dumplings.  In existence on Doyers Street since 1920, Nom Wah was in need of a facelift a few years back and the influx of some youthful energy.  Enter Wilson, nephew of owner Wally Tang, who came on board in 2010 to turn the place around.

Steamed Pork Buns
After a visit last weekend I would say there are certain aspects of the place that still feel decidedly last century, like the lumpy booth cushions and the sloping tables.  Among the modern improvements is the elimination of carts replaced with a handy order card.  What you loose in mystery cart presentations Nom Wah makes up for in the freshness of each order. 

Among the highlights were the obligatory pork buns, perhaps the largest and fluffiest I’ve seen.  Snow pea and shrimp dumplings were bursting with fresh greens, not frozen.  The clean, pure flavor of shrimp and greens were enough to make up for the package itself, which seemed to cling to the steamer basket, a resistance that made for some messy eating.

Shrimp and Snow Pea Dumplings
There were a few misses.  Fried dumplings were chewy, not crisp, and left a small pool of grease on the plate in their wake.   The soup dumplings were satisfactory though the sticky problem meant I lost the bottom off one and with that, the “soup” that is the whole point of the dumpling[1].  A plate of fried turnip cakes with bits of pork and greens was delicious after one bite, but bites two and three declared their presence as a solid lump of cake sitting in my stomach, taking up precious room I had reserved for other dishes.

The biggest surprise was the ubiquitous dim sum sesame ball- a crisp fried ball of dough filled with sesame paste and covered in toasted seeds.  This is the sort of thing you normally eat at dim sum because it is there, not so much because you want it.  At Nom Wah, you want the sesame balls.  The crisp hard shell collapsed with a bite revealing a soft molten center.  It was the way the a sesame ball should be, a play on contrasts- crisp and soft, savory and sweet.  And perhaps the sesame ball was a good representation of Nom Wah itself, an old player remade into something familiar but just a little bit new, and if not perfect, just a little bit better. 

Amy Powell is a food and travel writer based in New York City. She is a graduate of Cornell University's School of Hotel Administration and the French Culinary Institute. Follow her on Twitter @amymariepowell

[1] Meanwhile my brother shot himself in the face with hot liquid trying to take a bite out of the side of one.  Hilarious.

Monday, March 12, 2012

What’s Greek for Chicken Noodle Soup? Avgolemono

Avgolemono Soup
Moving to Los Angeles from New York City I expected to find good Mexican food in my new beach town.  What I didn’t expect was the discovery of delicious, authentic Greek cuisine.

Old Venice came first.  For a few months after settling in I would satisfy my occasional takeout craving with their hearty kebabs and a soup called avgolemono- a special I prayed would be available each time I visited.

Before Old Venice, I had never had avgolemono but the combination of chicken and rice in broth is as familiar and comforting as soup can be.  What made this soup unique was the intense tang of lemon juice and a silky thickness that I would learn comes from eggs. 

One night, just months after relocating, Old Venice burnt down, the victim of a fire started at a taqueria next door.  It would be years before they reopened.  Lucky for me a new Greek restaurant had moved into town about the same time.  Petroselevated the neighborhood Greek restaurant to a higher end experience, the menu something of a mix of health minded beach culture and the namesake owner’s obsession with authentically Greek ingredients[1].

Poaching Chicken for the Broth
Old Venice eventually reopened and Petros continued to attract the well-healed, bronzed denizens of the beach cities.  I kept going to both- Old Venice for its unpretentious, homey food and Petros for its devotion to quality ingredients.  Their differences never bothered me much except in one respect: the avgolemono soup.

The flavors were similar but the execution vastly different.  Old Venice’s, made with rice and seasoned minimally with a bit of dill, is the picture of simple perfection.  The soup at Petros on the other hand is made with orzo instead of rice.  It is thinner and soupier, studded with a fine dice of aromatic vegetables. 

A little research revealed neither of the approaches is wrong.  Avgolemono soup seems to be made as often with orzo as it is with rice.  Recipes vary from 2 to 4 eggs for the same quantity of broth, a difference that would drastically change the thickness.  And the vegetables appear optional- either used to season a long simmered broth with the poaching chicken and then discarded, or finely chopped and added toward the end. 

Whipped Egg Whites, Yolks, Lemon Juice
I now live across the country from my old go-to sources for avgolemono but the craving still hits from time to time.  Last weekend I decided to go all out, making avgolemono the way I think my grandmother would have, if my grandma had been Greek.

I poached a whole chicken in water to make the broth instead of buying precooked chicken and stock.  I discarded the vegetables instead of keeping them in.  Rice beat out orzo because I already had lots of rice in the pantry.  And I went for three eggs, splitting the difference. 

The final soup was thick and creamy, intensely lemony with the rustic look of the one at Old Venice.  But I had taken the long route, poaching the whole chicken and making my own broth, an attention to quality that was reminiscent of Petros.  Most importantly, it was soothing, filling and tasty.  I think even Petros’ mother would have approved.

Avgolemono Soup
Time: 1 hr. 45 minutes
 Servings: 6

1 whole chicken, about 4 lbs.
10 cups water
1 carrot
2 stalks celery
1 medium onion
2 garlic cloves
2 sprigs thyme
¾ cup white rice
½ cup lemon juice, about 4-5 juicy lemons
3 eggs
½ cup chopped parsley or dill
Olive oil

Cut the chicken into quarters.  Remove skin and discard.  Place chicken pieces in a large soup pot and cover with 10 cups of cold water.  Peel the carrot and cut in two pieces.  Cut each celery stalk in half. Cut the onion in quarters.  Peel the garlic.  Add all the veg to the pot with the chicken.  Bring to a boil then reduce to a simmer.  Simmer half covered with a lid for about one hour, occasionally using a small ladle to skim off foam and fat the floats to the top.  After an hour remove chicken to a platter and let cool slightly until it is safe to handle.  Use tongs or slotted spoon to remove the veg and discard it.  Bring broth back to a boil.  Season with salt and pepper.  Add rice.  Cook rice for about 20 minutes until tender.  Meanwhile, chop 1 ½ cups of chicken, about one leg and one breast.  Reserve the remaining chicken for another use. Juice lemons. Separate eggs.  Beat egg whites until soft peaks form.  Whisk egg yolk with the lemon juice.  Fold lemon-yolk mixture into the egg whites.  Remove 1 cup of broth from the soup and slowly pour into the egg-lemon mixture, whisking constantly.  Return egg-lemon mixture to the soup pot in a steady stream, whisking constantly.  Bring the soup back to a simmer continuing to whisk until broth has thickened.  Stir in chopped chicken and herbs.  Taste for seasoning and add salt and pepper if necessary.  Ladle into bowls and serve with a drizzle of olive oil. 

Amy Powell is a food and travel writer based in New York City. She is a graduate of Cornell University's School of Hotel Administration and the French Culinary Institute. Follow her on Twitter @amymariepowell

[1] It is impossible to prove true the owner’s claim of smuggling everything from the oregano to feta back in his suitcase from regular trips to Greece, but I can confirm his mother made appearances in the kitchen, flown in to give the chefs training on everything from homemade phyllo to her special recipe for keftethes, a type of meatball.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Helping the Environment, One Beer at a Time

“Recycle, Reduce, Reuse.  We can close the loop….”  If anyone who read this column was a child in the Eighties you might remember this little ditty about recycling that would come on TV during commercial breaks for popular network cartoon shows.  Needless to say, it was successful gimmick. Because to this day I cannot avoid getting it caught in my head in an endless loop whenever I think about reusing something for the sake of the environment.

With that in mind, I wanted to say a special “thank you” to The Filling Station in Chelsea Market, the impetus for that annoying song getting stuck in my head at least a couple of times a week now. 

But as much as the recycling song irritates me, I love the set up at The Filling Station enough that I keep going back week after week.  The concept is one lots of people can get behind.  Select a bottle of oil or vinegar, jar of gourmet salt, growler or glass pint jar of beer, and you can bring it back to get refilled at a discount. 

The refillable beer growler is nothing new, of course, employed by brewpubs around the country.  But The Filling Station picked up on the fact that not every one of their customers might be willing and able to drink a 64 oz. growler in a night.  To serve those more casual beer drinkers looking to purchase a draft brew on the way home from work, last fall they introduced branded pint jars complete with screw on lids. 

John and I have gotten pretty into this concept.  The beer menu, though not long, changes frequently, giving us the opportunity to sample a lot beers we probably would have a hard time finding on tap unless at the most diehard beer bars.  And the pint jars mean we can sample a couple at a time and still have room for a glass of wine with dinner.

Recent selections have ranged from standbys such as Allagash White and Lagunitas Czech Pilsner to locals like Bengali Tiger from Brooklyn’s Sixpoint Brewery and two-man operation Barrier Brewery that puts out a might fine Belgian Ale.

As we’ve amassed a collection of the Filling Station glass pint jars that we sometimes repurpose for water or cocktail glasses, I can’t help but patting myself on the back.  With a little help from The Filling Station, we’re just doing our part to help the environment by reusing those pint jars.  This was a lesson instilled in childhood- even when it comes to beer, just like the song says, we can close the loop if we just Recycle, Reduce, and Reuse.  

Amy Powell is a food and travel writer based in New York City. She is a graduate of Cornell University's School of Hotel Administration and the French Culinary Institute. Follow her on Twitter @amymariepowell

Friday, March 2, 2012

Freezer Love for Cold, Rainy Days

There is no time I love my freezer more than now, in the dead of winter.  Strange, I know, but let me explain.  Early in the winter I am full of idealistic energy.  No snow flurries will keep me from canceling dinner plans or even a 6-mile Central Park run on an early Sunday morning.  No 50-mile an hour winds will derail a shopping expedition by foot to pick up ingredients for cooking a Saturday night dinner at home. 

Fast forward to now, early March, and I’ve just about had enough.  It might not even be that cold but the idea of trekking in icy rain to pick up food for dinner just to schlep it home in my rigid rubber boots often doesn’t seem worth the effort.

Enter my frozen savior.  No, lazy people, I’m not talking Lean Cuisine.  I’m talking about all those bits and pieces of long simmered sauces and stews I’ve been storing up for just this sort of dreary, frigid, rainy day. 

You see, when other people might have thrown out that single serving of beef stew after they tired of eating it for several days straight, I freeze it.  When there is just enough ragu left for one person and John and I clearly can’t share, I freeze it, and save the sauce to reheat some day when he isn’t in town.  (Or I suppose I’d be willing to share if he wanted to eat it some night when I’m not around.)

It is not too late to get on board with this idea.  After all, not everyday is so cold to cause shopping and cooking paralysis.  And even when the temperatures rise, there will be plenty of April showers ahead likely to keep you indoors.

Step 1: Choose a recipe that will freeze well.  Ragu, stew, lamb shank, any dish that requires a long simmer will hold up well for freezing and reheating. 

Step 1.5: Adjust quantities if necessary to ensure leftovers.

Step 2: Pick a day to cook when time is no object, say, a lazy Sunday afternoon.  Put the pot on to simmer then go about your other business- Spring clean, read War and Peace, knit a sweater- and in a few hours, without much effort from you aside from the occasional stir, dinner is done.

Step 3: Eat heartily.

Step 4: Take the remainders and portion them into single serving containers.  Label each with the dish and the date- this will prevent mystery meats from lurking too long in the nether regions of the freezer. 

Step 5: Wait for the perfect day when you are down and out from the cold, not knowing what to do about dinner, getting ready to order in, then voila!  Inspiration.  Open the freezer and rediscover a home cooked meal, made by you, weeks, maybe even months before.  If your pre-cooked frozen dinner doesn’t quite save you from a cold, rainy day, it will at least spare you from another take-out dinner. 

Amy Powell is a food and travel writer based in New York City. She is a graduate of Cornell University's School of Hotel Administration and the French Culinary Institute. Follow her on Twitter @amymariepowell