Something to Read: L.A. Son

30days

I have a crush on Roy Choi, the chef who started Kogi Truck and invented the Korean Taco. Tacos plus kimchi equals romance forever. I wanted his book, published under Anthony Bourdain’s imprint, before I even knew what it would be like.

la-son-roy-choi

It is exactly the style of book I’d like to one day be witty enough to write. It’s a memoir, it’s a cookbook, it’s mostly black and white but with the occasional full-colour photo thrown in. It’s beautiful. It’s funny. It doesn’t shy away from the swears, which I think is important because who cooks politely? I’m burning myself and spraying mess everywhere and cursing like a sailor on rough waters and that’s how I like it. Cooking is relaxing, and it’s relaxing because you’re in your kitchen burning off whatever needs it.

L.A. Son: My Life, My City, My Food is a fantastic book. It’s completely different in both tone and content from any other book on your shelf, I guarantee it. Roy Choi was born in Korea and raised in Los Angeles, and grew up around a mash-up of cultures and flavours. He studied, he misbehaved, he went to cooking school, worked at Le Bernardin, and then became a food truck boss and Anthony Bourdain pal. The book has recipes for everything – all kinds of things – from kimchi and spaghetti to pupusas and French onion soup. I read it over a week or so, savouring the text and marveling at every recipe.

There was one in particular that stood out to me – I laughed so hard I called Nick over to read it. You see, Nick is a sauce junkie. He needs small amounts of every possible flavour all the time, and prefers meals he can construct out of myriad bits. He loves dim sum, tapas, stuff like that, and he makes what he calls a “sauce line-up” whenever there are multiple sauces at his disposal. Chicken McNuggets plus every sauce including mayonnaise and honey is one of his secret favourite treats. The recipe is called “That’s So Sweet” and I might as well excerpt it for you here because if you’re on the fence, this will either sell you or sway you.

That’s So Sweet

I’ve always loved the sauces in life more than the food – maybe that’s why I cook the way I do. So it’s no surprise that I’m a sauce packet fiend. If I go to a fast-food joint or the mall food court, my tray is like twenty-five deep in the packets. And it’s not that I’m hoarding all this shit; no, I have a ritual. I’m real anal about my packet game. I open ’em all up before I eat anything, and make my sauces. I blend and mix and create. Then people say “Oh, he drowns his tacos and rice bowls in too much sauce.” Guilty as charged. Drown your chicken or shrimp in this sauce.

  • One 25-ounce bottle Mae Ploy Sweet Chilli Sauce or other Thai sweet chili sauce
  • 2 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons roasted sesame seeds
  • 1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon Kosher salt
  • 2 serrano chiles, chopped, seeds and all
  • 5 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon Sriracha
  • 3/4 white or yellow onion, chopped
  • 1/2 cup fresh lime juice
  • 1/3 cup fresh orange juice
  • 2/3 cup fresh Thai basil leaves
  • 2/3 cup chopped fresh cilantro
  • 6 garlic cloves, peeled
  • 2/3 dried Anaheim chile, chopped
  • 2 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons chopped peeled fresh ginger
  • 2/3 cup chopped scallions
  • 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons kochukaru
  • 2/3 cup natural rice vinegar (not seasoned)
  • 1 teaspoon chopped peeled galangal

Combine all the ingredients in a blender or food processor. Blend everything until it’s all real smooth.

Use liberally on whatever you got cooking for dinner – chicken, shrimp, everything – and pack the rest in Tupperware. It’ll store in the fridge for two weeks.

And here’s a preview of Eddie Huang, who I want to tell you about later this week. From his series Fresh Off the Boat, Eddie Huang interviews Roy Choi in L.A.:

Something to Read: Spoon Fed

30days

I’m still in a bit of a mood, as the pain after my wisdom teeth extraction remains ongoing. Tomorrow I have to leave the office for a bit to go back to the surgeon’s office to have him review his work. On my walk home from work today I simply couldn’t stand it any longer and found myself back in Dairy Queen for the second time in less than a week. I make a lot of excuses for my behaviour, but I stand by all of them.

spoonfed

Today’s book is Spoon Fed: How Eight Cooks Saved My Life by Kim Severson, who is a writer for The New York Times. The book features stories about Severson’s interactions with eight cooks, all women, who play a pivotal role in Severson’s life (both in the kitchen and outside of it). My favourite part is the chapter on Marcella Hazan, who teaches Severson to Let go of expectations and you’ll be a lot happier.” And it features That Perfect Sauce.

“Can you recall the first grown-up recipe you really mastered? It’s likely not the first thing you ever made, the misshapen pancakes cooked at your father’s elbow or a batch of cookies crammed with too many M&Ms. And it is likely not the first few experiments when you left home, the ones you made to impress a date or because it was your turn in the kitchen at the shared house you lived in during college.

“That special dish usually comes once you are old enough to have someone to cook for and mature enough to understand the value in mastering a recipe so that its preparation is as routine as making a bed with fresh sheets, and the results as predictably nice.” (Page 219)

You can make it with fresh tomatoes, but the thing I like about Marcella Hazan’s tomato sauce is that you can make it with dirt cheap Superstore No Name Brand canned tomatoes and it still turns out beautifully – not harsh or acidic, not ever. It’s so simple, and so wonderful, and you can gussy it up with meatballs or gnocchi or whatever, but you don’t even have to. I like Hazan’s sauce (from Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking) over a bit of whole wheat pasta and a bit of shaved Parmesan, maybe a little buttered bread on the side for sopping. It’s perfect, beyond what you might expect.

If you’re serving other people, double the recipe. If you’re in a pissy mood because your teeth still hurt, have someone else make it for you. Thank that person. Repeatedly.

Marcella Hazan’s Tomato Sauce

  • 1 28-ounce can of canned whole tomatoes
  • 5 tablespoons butter
  • 1 onion, peeled and cut in half
  • Salt

Put the tomatoes and their juices in a pot with the butter and the onion, and bring to a simmer over medium heat. Simmer, uncovered, for 45 minutes. Stir occasionally. Taste, adding salt if you find it needs it.

Before serving, fish out the onion and discard it. Give the tomatoes a whiz with an immersion blender, or use a regular blender to smooth the sauce. Serve over pasta.

Rich, hearty meat sauce.

With the exception of a four-hour period last Friday during which I managed to score an excruciating, now-peeling sunburn from sitting on a patio during lunch, this part of the world has been slow to summer. Which is just as well, because I’ve recovered most of my appetite, and after Paris the taste I’m looking for is unctuous. Unctuous like long-roasted meat, and like the sauce around it, so rich with that slowly melted fat that coats your mouth and the inside of your belly, leaving you full and sleepy.

I went with Grace (and Claude, but that is a story for another time) to a restaurant in Paris called Bistroy Les Papilles where we were brought just such a dish. Three steaks of pork belly were served in a tomato sauce filled with navy beans, thyme, and fresh spring vegetables; the pork had been cooking long enough that most of the fat found itself in the sauce, so that the meal was deceptively rich. I succeeded in eating only a small plateful, though it was a satisfying plateful.

It’s not really possible during the week to cook a slab of pork belly until it melts down into and plumps several pounds of white beans, not when one has to go to a place of business and complete tasks each day – I do have a slow-cooker but it’s the kind that sets things on fire. It is possible to mimic that unctuousness on a weeknight at home; the secret is to use good-quality meat, a combination of pork fat and olive oil, and a cheaterly handful of minced mushrooms. Top with cheese.

This sauce is easy, but it’s not slimming. The point is comfort (as my point so often is), and this is one of those dishes you could serve to company some rainy night, even on the weekend. It’s layered, and tastes as though it cooked for much longer than it did. The cinnamon adds balance to the meatiness, so if you are unsure about it, just add a little bit and see what you think.

Meat sauce for pasta

(Serves eight.)

  • 6 strips bacon, chopped
  • 3 tbsp. olive oil
  • 1 medium onion, finely chopped
  • 1 cup celery, finely chopped
  • 1 cup carrots, finely chopped
  • 1 1/2 lbs. good quality ground meat (I like a combination of beef and venison or pork, but you could use just beef if that’s what you have)
  • 1/2 lb. mushrooms, finely chopped
  • 4 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1/2 cup dry red wine
  • 1 28 oz. can crushed tomatoes
  • 1 1/2 tsp. dried oregano
  • 1 tsp. ground black pepper
  • 1/2 tsp. dried basil
  • 1/2 tsp. cinnamon
  • 1 cup beef stock
  • Salt to taste
  • 1/4 cup finely chopped fresh parsley

Brown bacon in a large pot over medium-high heat. Remove from pot to a plate lined with paper towel using a slotted spoon.

Add olive oil, followed by the onion, celery, and carrots. If the veggies are cooking too quickly, reduce heat to medium, and cook until soft and lightly golden, about ten minutes. Remove from pot to a plate using a slotted spoon. If you reduce the heat, put it back before the meat goes in.

Add meat, mushrooms, and garlic, breaking the meat up with a wooden spoon as it cooks. When meat has browned, add back vegetables and deglaze the pan with the wine. Add crushed tomatoes, oregano, pepper, basil, and cinnamon, and then beef stock. Stir to combine, and then taste. Depending on your bacon and stock, you may or may not need to add salt. Let simmer over medium-low heat for 30 to 40 minutes, stirring occasionally. Before serving, add parsley. Serve over pasta with additional parsley for garnish, and a sprinkling of cheese.

For us, this is enough for dinner and leftovers, and for a bit to put in the freezer for dinner another night. It is better the next day. And if you live nearby, you will need it tomorrow because it will still be raining. If you are a cat, the birds will tease you relentlessly as they hide in the branches of the tree just outside your window. Right now we all need our share of meat sauce.

Sriracha buffalo wings.

I don’t really get chicken wings.

Like, I get that they are a vehicle for sauce and dip and that sauce and dip are two of humanity’s greatest triumphs, but as a vehicle they are clunky and difficult. There are too many parts of the chicken wing that are not meat, and you have to work for what you get, and you don’t get much. You have to keep eating chicken wings forever if you expect them to make a meaningful meal.

And anyway, if I am going to get my hands dirty, it’s got to be for something really worthwhile, like crab legs or brownies.

But Nick really likes them, and doesn’t even seem to care that they are messy and complicated. And since we always eat what I feel like eating sometimes it’s not a bad idea to throw him a bone. These wings are fried and then doused in sriracha and then baked, and I served them with a chilled dip of sour cream, lime juice, salt, pepper, and cilantro. For the longest time Nick ate in silence, not even pausing to swear at the Canucks or complain that he had to get his own beer. These are good wings – the first period has ended and he still hasn’t spoken a word.

Sriracha buffalo wings

  • 2 cups peanut oil
  • 2 lbs. chicken wings, tips removed
  • 1/2 cup flour
  • 4 tbsp. sriracha
  • 2 tbsp. butter, melted
  • 1 tbsp. lime juice
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 1 tsp. pepper
  • Chopped scallion, for garnish

In a large pan over medium-high heat, heat oil for three minutes.

Preheat oven to 350°F.

Place chicken into a plastic bag with flour, and shake until wings are covered – you may need to do this in two batches. Place half the wings gently into the pan, and cook eight to 10 minutes, until golden. Remove to a plate lined with paper towels, and repeat with the second set of wings.

Meanwhile, in a large bowl, combine sriracha, butter, lime juice, salt, and pepper. Add fried wings and toss to coat.

Place on a baking sheet fitted with a wire rack. Bake for 25 minutes.

Serve hot and sprinkled with chopped scallions.

If you’re going to tart up your veggies with cheese sauce, do it with this cheese sauce.

Important news: Paul is back.

Last night, the team (Grace, Paul, Nick, and I) reconvened for our first dinner since Paul returned from Montreal, and we pretty much picked up where we left off.  Though it’s probably a fairly normal thing for most people, I thought we’d do something novel and have a dinner of meat, potatoes, and a vegetable – I called it a Dad meal, because it reminds me of the kind of meal you’d serve to a Dad, yours or otherwise.

It’s hard to have this many things for dinner when it’s just me and Nick, but with Grace and Paul in attendance, there were fewer leftovers and it was like a family dinner that didn’t involve any actual relatives. I made Hank Shaw’s Easy Duck Confit, a big dish of fluffy mashed potatoes, and broccoflower – straight out of 1992 – covered in cheese sauce.

As we’re heading into fall now, the temptation to cover everything in cheese is probably growing for you too. As hardier veggies start popping up in markets, I suggest bringing them home and covering them in this sauce. The sauce is most conducive to broccoli or cauliflower (or the weird genetic hybrid that is broccoflower), but you could put this over carrots, asparagus, spinach – whatever you’ve got. Also, this is pretty much the base I use when I make baked macaroni and cheese – obviously you’d add more cheese to that (obviously), but there you go. Look how versatile!

Cheese sauce

  • 3 tbsp. butter
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 3 tbsp. all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 cup dry white wine
  • 2 cups half and half (or cereal cream – aim for about 10% milk fat)
  • 1 tsp. grainy Dijon mustard
  • 1/4 tsp. white pepper
  • Pinch nutmeg
  • 1 cup shredded Gruyere, sharp Cheddar, or other delicious, bold-tasting cheese (lightly packed – not pressed into a wad)
  • 1/2 tsp. Worcestershire sauce
  • Salt, to taste
  • 1 tbsp. chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley

In a heavy-bottomed saucepan, melt butter over medium-high heat until it foams. Add garlic, then add flour, and whisk until the three ingredients form a paste.

Whisk in wine, then half and half, then mustard, pepper, and nutmeg. Reduce heat to medium, and whisk frequently until thickened, about three to five minutes.

Add cheese and Worcestershire sauce, and taste at this point. Is it good? Does it need salt? Add salt if you need to. Is it too thick for your liking? Add more wine or dairy. You get the idea. Whisk in the parsley right before you’re done.

Pour into a pitcher and then serve, dousing your veggies as much as you like. It will be just like you remember, only better, because now you can have as much sauce as you want. 

Enjoy, and may the cheese-sauce season bring you warmth and please you.

Meatless Monday: Fried tofu with plum sauce and some rambling.

You see those pretty things? I think they’re pluots. I bought them from a place that labeled them “dino egg plums,” which is why I bought them, but I’m pretty sure they’re pluots. I’ve misidentified produce before, however, so please correct me if I’m wrong. But that’s really not the point.

The point is that today was incredibly challenging, with the temperature of my office soaring to an inhumane degree (which is to say somewhere over 30°C), the servers at work having exploded leaving me with literally nothing to do, and with coming home to disappointment – though, I saw it coming.

A proposal I had submitted for a book was declined, which I sort of expected because it was not the book I was sure of three months after pitching the thing, but still. Allowing delusion to take the place of rational thought has always served me so well, and I had convinced myself that within a year I would be a famous food writer and then the Food Network would offer to throw Guy Fieri off a bridge and invite me to live with Ina Garten if I’d just give them a late-night cooking show on which they’d allow me to swear. But it’s okay. I wasn’t sure of the thing after the fact, and it’s not a cookbook that I really want to write. I have an idea though. I’ll keep you in the loop. I’ll try not to forget.

But anyway, it’s Meatless Monday, and I’d best not let the heat lead my mind to wander, because this beer is hitting me hard and in a few short paragraphs I could forsake the recipe entirely for an unsettling peek into my soul or for a photo I’d surely regret. My goodness, it’s hot. But dino egg plums. They are what’s really important.

Fried tofu with fresh plum sauce

(Serves four, with four large pieces of tofu per person.)

Plum sauce

(Makes about 2 cups)

  • 2 tbsp. vegetable oil
  • 1 small onion, finely chopped (about 1 cup)
  • 1 small sweet red pepper, such as Hungarian, finely chopped (about 1/3 to 1/2 cup)
  • 1 tbsp. minced fresh ginger
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 lb. plums, diced
  • 1/4 cup brown sugar (adjust to taste – if you’ve got very sweet plums, dial it back; if they’re bitter little things, add more to your liking)
  • 2 tbsp. soy sauce
  • 2 tbsp. apple cider vinegar
  • 1 tsp. red chili flakes

Tofu

  • 2 350g blocks firm or medium-firm tofu (if you choose medium-firm, it will be softer but more like the agadeshi tofu you get in Japanese restaurants; if you go firmer than that, it’s heartier and denser – chewier, but Nick thinks more filling)
  • 3 eggs
  • 1 tsp. sriracha or other hot sauce
  • 1 tsp. soy sauce
  • 1/2 cup cornstarch

In a small pot over medium-high heat, sauté onion, red pepper, ginger, and garlic in oil until all have begun to sweat and their smells have co-mingled.

Pour the sweaty mess into a blender or a food processor, add the plums, and set the thing to spinning until the fruits and veggies are puréed. Pour back into the pot.

Taste the sauce at this point, and add the sugar in carefully, a little less than is called for at first, adding more as needed. Stir in soy sauce, apple cider vinegar, and chili flakes, and allow to simmer over medium-low heat for 15 to 20 minutes.

Meanwhile, fill the bottom of a large, nonstick pan with oil, about a half-inch deep. Heat until shimmering.

Cube tofu, cutting into roughly 16 pieces. Whisk the egg, sriracha, and soy sauce thoroughly, and dredge the pieces in this. Place them in a large bowl filled with the cornstarch, and toss to coat.

Place cubes of tofu in the hot oil and cook until their one side has achieved a gently golden hue, two to three minutes. Turn and cook the other side for a similar amount of time.

Serve hot, with plum sauce, possibly with chopped scallions if you have them, or minced shiso leaf, which is more elusive but worth the search.

Oh! If you have leftover sauce, which you may because two cups is a lot of sauce, the sauce keeps well in a sealed jar in the fridge, and you can use it for all manner of things. It’s good as a dipping sauce, but it’s also nice with pork, or even with cheese and crackers.

Meatless Monday, zucchini salsa, and a distressing case of not having anything to say but writing anyway.

I am right smack in the middle of a crippling bout of writer’s block. At work, I’ve just handed off my last contribution to a project that’s taken six months – it wraps up next week. I’m writing reports, strategizing communications, and generally doing serious, professional things, the kinds of things where I can’t just slip in an occurrence or two of “ass” just to amuse myself. It’s all very good stuff, of course, and I quite enjoy what I do. But periodically, professional writing (and editing even more so) can be draining, and all the liquor and free-writing exercises in the world can’t bring back the easy flow of writing when you have something to say.

I’d hoped that sitting down to write about salsa would trigger something. Instead, my head feels completely numb, as if it has run out of words and no longer cares to tell my face to hold my mouth shut. I am pretty sure MFK Fisher never sat slack-jawed and brain-dead waiting for something good to happen.

Fortunately, where the words sometimes disappear, the food is almost always reliable. At the end of a day measured in word-counts and tracked changes, there is the kitchen, and sometimes an ingredient or two to get excited about. Today we had a couple of little zucchini, some red potatoes, a red field tomato, and the fresh brown eggs of free-run chickens. Today, we had Spanish tortilla with zucchini salsa, and slumped onto the couch to let our weary minds wander.

There’s no real recipe for the tortilla – I watched Paul make it once. He lived in Spain so I believe he knows what he’s doing.

The gist of it is that you want to take a couple of tablespoons of oil, and sauté a diced onion until it turns translucent. Then you want to toss one-and-a-half to two pounds of thinly sliced rounds of potatoes (no more than a 1/4-inch, less is ideal) until coated in oil and onion bits. Pour a tiny bit of water into the pan – 1/3 cup  – then cover, and cook for 20 minutes, stirring every so often and scraping the bottom of the pan.

Then remove the potatoes and onion from the pan, cool each for ten minutes (spread out over paper towels and left until there’s no more steam), and heat the broiler. Wipe out the pan. Whisk together six eggs, some salt and pepper, and heat another tablespoon of oil in the pan. Mix potatoes into the eggs, pour the whole thing into the heated pan. Run a spatula along the sides (you don’t want this to stick) every so often, and when the sides are golden (five, six minutes), then shove it under the broiler until the centre sets and the top is golden. Another three minutes, maybe five.

Really, you can do this with anything. Slices of eggplant would be delicious. Zucchini, if it wasn’t already destined for salsa. Sweet potatoes, also good.

And top the whole thing with salsa. If it’s zucchini season and you have a few tender little ones in your crisper, make zucchini salsa (recipe below).

Zucchini salsa

  • 2 cups diced raw zucchini
  • 1 cup diced tomato
  • 1 cup diced red onion
  • 1 clove minced garlic
  • Zest and juice of 1 lemon
  • 2 tbsp. good olive oil
  • 2 tbsp. chopped fresh basil
  • 1/2 tsp. dried oregano
  • Red pepper flakes
  • Salt, to taste

Toss all ingredients together, and stick the whole thing in the fridge for about an hour. Toss again before serving. Serve with tortilla, as above (and also below), or with white fish, or chicken. If there are leftovers, sprinkle them over tortilla chips and cover with cheese to make nachos. Stuff it into tacos. The ingredients cut into larger chunks would make a nice salad.

I’m hoping the storm tonight carries enough electricity in the air to turn my head back on. Something has to, or tomorrow you might find me here, grappling with the basics of subject + verb + object in an embarrassing, futile attempt to regain any semblance of creativity and/or dignity. It is likely that I will turn to liquor, which would of course be completely out of character.