Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Cookbook Obsession: “Secrets of the Red Lantern”

Southern Vietnamese Fish Cakes
 About once a year a cookbook comes my way that for a period is the object of my culinary obsession.  The latest, “Secrets of the Red Lantern”, arrived a few weeks back via Amazon, a gift from a friend halfway around the world. 

For a cookbook to captivate me, it must add something novel to my kitchen repertoire.  And no, I’m not talking about “50 Ways with Mac N Cheese”, or “Halfway Homemade with Packaged Foods”.  A good cookbook will teach me.  It might teach me technique, as in the case of Jennifer McLagan’s book “Bones” which continues to provide everything I might want to know about cooking meat on the bone.  Or, more often these days, the book goes deep into a particular cuisine of which I have only some familiarity but a lot of curiosity. 

“Secrets of the Red Lantern” is a bit of a hybrid book.  Two parts family history, one part recipes, it is Pauline Nguyen’s story of her family’s flight from Vietnam and settlement in Australia told in words, pictures, and food. 

Tom Rim- Shrimp in Tomato Sauce
This is not the sort of book you take down all in one sitting.  But it is beautiful enough to take a place on the coffee table allowing me to dip in a dip out to read tales of Pauline and her brother Luke’s childhood, drool over the beautiful pictures of some of the favorite family dishes, and dream up which recipe I wish to try out next.

Favorites so far have included Luke’s recreation of one of his mom’s signature dishes at his parents’ restaurant opened when they resettled in Australia.  Tôm Rim, shrimp sautéed with tomato, fish sauce, and black pepper, was assembled with ingredients I can find these days at any American supermarket- tomato paste, shrimp, fish sauce, cilantro.  But the wide range and nuance of flavors from sweet to spicy to tart to bitter, were pure Vietnam.

These days Pauline along with Luke and Mark Jensen, her partner in life and love, make up the team behind the popular Sydney restaurant Red Lantern.  In addition to sharing family recipes these three also manage to break down some better-known Vietnamese dishes into step-by-step instructions simple enough to replicate at home.  Fish cakes, one of my favorite Vietnamese appetizers, appear shockingly easy in this book.  Even though the recipe can be done entirely in the food processor, I took the chef’s recommendation to work the fish sauce into the paste of mackerel, garlic, and green onion by hand.  The work was tough but satisfying.  I could see and feel the texture change to the non-sticky consistency described in the book that signals it is ready to form into cakes and fry. 

Pauline writes in reference to the name of their restaurant, “To raise a red lantern outside your home is a symbol of honoring good company.”  I don’t know when I will have the pleasure of visiting Sydney, but until I do “Secrets of the Red Lantern” is poised to keep me excellent company in the kitchen for sometime to come.

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

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

When a Sticky Bun Meets Pork

Pork Sticky Roll, Northern Spy Food Co.
How could you possibly make a sticky roll better than it already it is, you ask?  How about filling it with pork?

At least, that is what the good people at Northern Spy Food Co. in New York City are doing.  And damn is it a fine improvement to an already scrumptious food. 

Listed under the “snack” section of the dinner menu, the sticky pork roll resembles its breakfast cousin only superficially.  Just looking at the spiraled roll with creamy glaze it would be hard to distinguish from the cinnamon filled sugar topped pastry found in the glass case of just about every coffee shop. 

But take one bite of this sinful, savory pastry and expectations give way to surprise then delight, as the full flavor profile unfolds.

First, there is no cinnamon, and any perceptible sweetness appears to come solely from the grass fed pork morsels tucked away in the folds of the soft roll.  As for that glaze, far from molten powdered sugar, the topping on the pork sticky roll is made of locally sourced parsnips pureed then hit with a good mustardy kick.

The look of this dinner roll is all whimsy but the taste- soft roll, luscious pork, sweet and spicy sauce- is pure classic flavor combo. 

As for the pork sticky roll’s place on the dinner menu, if I were to show up at my local coffee shop one morning to find Northern Spy’s pork roll in the glass case next to the typical sweet version, I know which one I’m buying.    

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

Monday, April 16, 2012

Movie and a Dinner: Jiro and Sushi Azabu

Nigiri at Sushi Azabu
Last weekend I went with John to see “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” expecting an hour and a half of food porn.  We were not disappointed.  In shot after shot delicate slices of toro and kampachi dripped on mounds of perfectly molded rice, soy sauce lightly washed over with the stroke of a brush. 

But this story of a man, possibly the most famous sushi chef in Japan (and the only sushi chef with three Michelin stars) is much more than sushi porn.
It is the human story of a man who humbly strives for perfection in this one task. From Jiro to his sons to the man who sources tuna, a few common themes emerged.

1.     Absolute dedication to craft.  There are several beautiful shots of Jiro’s oldest son sitting outside the dining room in the morning waving sheets of nori over smoking kindling.  The work appears dull and monotonous but he approaches it in the methodical, committed fashion that he will later use to mold rice and slice fish.  In Jiro’s world, even the mundane task of toasting nori requires complete devotion.
2.     Filial responsibility.  Much is made in the story of how the younger of the two sons left Jiro’s several years ago to start his own restaurant knowing in Japan that his older brother would be heir to Jiro’s place.  Much is made of watching the older son now in his mid-fifties still working side by side in obedience to his father, never knowing when his time will come.
3.     Loyalty reigns.  All the suppliers interviewed for the movie make the point they feel honored Jiro chooses to buy from them.  The rice supplier is in return so loyal that he refuses to sell the rice he gives Jiro to anyone else, even when one of the top hotels in Tokyo comes asking.
4.     One can always do better. This was actually a motto of my grandmother’s when I was growing up.  Jiro embodies this ethos.  Even at 85 he still comes to work everyday constantly trying to improve on his life’s work, certain that each day he can make sushi just a little bit better than he did the day before.

Dining Room at Sushi Azabu
Later that week John and I dipped into Tokyo-style restaurant Sushi Azabu tucked away in the basement of Greenwich Grill in Tribeca.  This is no California roll sushi joint. Instead this diminutive den focuses on simple pieces of fish on rice, a few rolls, and a handful of Japanese small plates. 

Memories of Jiro fresh in our minds we went for nigiri- fish on rice plain and simple.  From the mackerel to the tuna, amberjack to salmon, each piece was exquisite.  Even before the fish arrived we marveled at the delicate chopsticks and the mesmerizing colors of the hand-blown glass sake carafe.  Both, we were told, were specially selected and imported from Kyoto craftsmen, an attention to detail and authenticity of which I think even Jiro would approve.

After the movie John commented that “Jiro” should be required viewing for anyone who wants to understand business in Japan.  I would add that “Jiro” should be required viewing for anyone who wants to know what it takes to become a true master at a craft- some talent is important, yes, but more than that it is the dogged determination to be better at what you do every day.  To know, as Jiro does, that even when you have already surpassed the competition, the task is never truly complete.

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

Monday, April 9, 2012

Cooking The Whole Quack

Duck Ragu
I stopped by Ottamenelli and Sons in the West Village of New York City last week to buy a whole duck.  The white haired, old-timer butcher with his blood stained apron asked if I wanted him to cut it up.  No, I replied, I liked to do that sort of thing myself.  Looking me up and down in my springtime asparagus green skirt and cream cardigan I can understand why his eyebrows raised.  I was not dressed the part of home butcher.  “You must have some sharp knives,” the old timer said.  You bet I do, I shot back.  The old-timer smiled.  “Beware a woman with sharp knives,” he said to the man in line next to me, and handed over the duck. 

I like my knives, without them I wouldn’t have much use for a whole duck.  If I just bought the breasts and I’d get one dinner for a couple people.  Throw in the legs and I might have confit or the base for a rich ragu.  Give me the whole bird and I have visions of days of meals to come- seared duck breasts one night, molten braised legs another, fat trimmings rendered and reserved for roasted potatoes, and the flavor packed carcass just waiting to form the base of my next poultry stock.

Back home with the duck, out came the knives and off came the breasts.  Seared to a perfect medium rare I wasn’t interested in serving the breasts plain.  Instead, I sliced them paper thin and placed the duck on a bed of Vietnamese rice noodles with roasted peanuts, cilantro, lime, and mint with a sauce of tamarind, chilies, and fish sauce. 

Duck Breast with Vietnamese Vermicelli Salad
Next I went to work on the fat.  I cut as much of the skin and attached thick layer of fat as I could off the carcass and put in in a pot over medium low heat.  After about 30 minutes with barely any attention paid, the fat had melted away.  I strained that off and added to the reserved drippings from the duck breasts.  Purple potatoes were cubed and roasted with a healthy dose of the melted fat.  The rest went in a jar and into the refrigerator to be used in weeks to come.

Several days later it was time for the legs.  Onion, garlic, carrot and celery went in the clay pot with some fresh rosemary and a couple of bay leaves.  Reduced red wine, diced canned tomatoes, chicken stock, and the legs rounded out the sauce.  A couple of hours later I pulled the once tough now achingly tender meat off the bone and mixed it back into the pot.  Tossed with freshly cooked pasta it was a meal fit for a king, or at least four hungry adults.

As for the carcass, it is in the freezer in a large bag marked “duck bones” waiting to be defrosted some lazy Saturday when I feel like putting a pot on to simmer. 

One week.  One duck.  Many meals had and more still to come.  I might finish the old-timer’s sentence for him: Beware a woman with sharp knives, a whole duck is no match for her in the kitchen. 

Duck Ragu
Time: 2 hours
Yield: 4 servings

2 T. olive oil
1 medium onion
1 carrot
2 celery stalks
3 garlic cloves
2 T. minced rosemary leaves
2 bay leaves
1 cup red wine
2 duck legs
2 cups diced canned tomatoes
1 cup chicken stock
1 lb. linguine
Parmesan cheese

Heat oil in a heavy pot over a medium flame.  Dice onion, peel and dice carrot, and dice celery.  Add the vegetables to the pot.  Saute for about ten minutes until softened.  Crush garlic and add to vegetables along with rosemary and bay leaves.  Saute for another two minutes.  Add wine and bring to a simmer.  Reduce wine by half.  Meanwhile season duck legs with salt and pepper.  Add tomatoes, duck legs, and chicken stock to the pot.  Bring to a simmer then reduce heat to medium low.  Put a lid on the pot and let simmer for 1.5 hours stirring occasionally, until duck meat is tender enough to fall off the bone.  Remove duck legs from the sauce.  Remove skin and any visible fat and discard.  Remove meat from bones and shred.  Before adding the meat back to the sauce use a small ladle to skim off any fat that has pooled on the surface.  Stir the meat back into the sauce and season with salt and pepper to taste.  Discard bay leaves.  Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil and cook the pasta until just shy of al dente.  Add the pasta to the sauce with a bit of the pasta water.  Let pasta finish cooking in the sauce.  Serve with grated parmesan cheese.

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