Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Week #45 Greek

Just between you and me and the gatepost--as my grandma used to say--I'm getting a little weary of trying to sort out the differences between Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cuisines. So much of it is so similar that when I ask, "What's the difference between your stuffed grape leaves and those of the country next door?" the inevitable response is, "Ours are better."

I yearned to do something a little different this time, so I headed out for groceries, not to the generic corner market but to Papa Cristo's on Pico at Normandie in Mid-City Los Angeles. This beloved LA institution is a Greek grocery, restaurant and catering company that keeps the city's Greeks--and Greek food lovers--supplied with plenty of imported and authentically prepared food.

Here's my haul, which I used to make dinner, with plenty of items I can use for quite some time--a good olive oil, some seasonings to which only Papa Cristo himself knows the formula and a nice bag of Greek sage that's still on its woody stems. And masticha, which we'll get to in a little bit.

What I didn't want to do was make what shows up on every Greek menu--or what people typically think of when they ponder Greek food. So no hummus, no baba ganoush, no baklava.

Instead of feta, which is what usually comes to mind when you think of Greek cheese, I selected wedges of a couple of completely different cheeses to go with the rustic bread that's made on-site. The cheese in the center is kaseri, a sheep's milk cheese with a little goat's milk thrown in for good measure. It has an herbal quality to it that I suppose is the result of grazing livestock in a scrubby landscape filled with rosemary, thyme and oregano. Its slight chewiness reminds me a bit of provolone. The cheese in the lower right is kefalotiri, a tart, saltier and slightly drier cheese made from sheep's milk. Having been around since Byzantine times, this is a cheese with some history. By the way, its name comes from the Greek hat called a kefalo. Now whenever I see one those hats, my wacky mind's eye is sure to envision someone wearing a round of cheese on his head.

Okay, so the canned beans seem like a cheat, but they're Greek gigantes, the largest lima beans you'll ever find. One glance and I'd swear they were actually fava beans, but they taste like neither limas nor favas. They have a mild flavor and with a slightly dry texture to them--in spite of their tenure in the can of sauce--so the mildly spicy red sauce was a good addition. I cooked up some of the couscous-type sour frumenty Greek pasta. It's made of durum wheat and has a robust sourdough flavor. Then I started layering: I spooned the hot pasta and beans over a bed of chard and let it wilt, then drizzled the dish with the olive oil and a little red wine vinegar (not too much, since the pasta is naturally sour) and sprinkled on one of Papa Cristo's spice blends. Served with bread and olives, it was a satisfying main course. With it we had glasses of retsina. This Greek white wine is famously pine-tasting, crisp and dry, but full of flavor.

I love love love leeks. But right up there on the list with turnips and rutabagas, they must be one of the world's most under-appreciated vegetables. While the traditional Greek way to have them is simmered, drained and then drizzled with olive oil and vinegar, I decided to instead top these with avgholemono sauce made of eggs, lemon juice and some of the leek broth (chicken broth is more traditional). While the leeks were simmering I tossed in a branch of the Greek sage to zazz up their mild butteriness with a little woody-herbally flavor.

I also picked up a can of calamari, a.k.a. squid, since I can't find the fresh stuff at our much more generic local grocery stores. These tiny little guys were packed in brine and still raw, so I gave them two minutes in a pot of boiling water with a couple of lemon halves tossed in. I've never cooked squid, and what I found on the subject said to cook it either two minutes or 30 minutes, explaining that if you go past two minutes they become tough, and then it takes a good half hour to tender them up again. Two minutes was perfect--they were delicate and not at all rubbery, which is my usual complaint with calamari. I detest eating what feels to my mouth like a basket of deep-fried rubber bands!

I made up a bit of ladolemono to dip them in. This intensely lemony dressing is a popular accompaniment in Greece to all sorts of seafood. It's a great addition to your stash of quick fix-ups--just whisk together a couple of tablespoons of fresh lemon juice, a half tablespoon of Dijon mustard and a quarter cup of olive oil, and season it with salt and black pepper to taste. This sauce has some serious pucker power, so cheat if you need to, by adding just a smidge of sugar while you're whisking to make the sauce a little less aggressive.

Here's the body of one of the calamari. Larger ones can be stuffed with a mixture of something wonderful and then breaded and lightly fried. I'd say this size would be perfect for piping in a mixture, just like you would with a squash blossom. Just pull out that cartilaginous spine first (don't worry about the other bits inside--they're edible). I guess this is an experiment to reserve for another day.

The baklava in Papa Cristo's pastry case called long and loud, but I opted for these crumbly cookies laced with chopped nuts. I had them with some ouzo, which is the color of water when you pour it into the glass but turns milky when you add water to it. Ouzo is an aperitive, meaning you're supposed to have it before dinner, to get the digestive juices flowing in preparation for the meal. But I've jumbled up everything else in this meal, so why not have the aperitive at the end? It still aids digestion.

 Leftovers: For lunch the following day, I varied things a bit and had the remaining ingredients as a cold salad: a bed of chard, then the pasta and beans, with the rest of the calamari cut up on top and a bit of the kefalotiri grated over it and drizzled with just a touch of the ladolemono. I didn't mind having this two days in a row. It's a good way to get a lot of flavor and variety in one dish--and to use up leftover bits that are too few to make much of a meal on. A handful of those huge beans, a couple of calamari and a few gratings of cheese, combined to provide all the protein I needed for one meal.

 Snack time: People love their "spoon sweets" in Greece, and masticha is a favorite. Growing only on the southern part of the island of Chios, the evergreen mastica tree produces a pleasantly resinous tasting sap that is used to flavor this yummy paste. Get a spoonful of this white taffy-like substance and dip it into a glass of water to make a "lollipop" of it, called a "submarine." It's a great treat on a hot day. While masticha looks like it might be employed in some other way in the kitchen, this is the only way I've ever heard of anyone eating it. Hmmm, looks like an ingredient that's just begging to be experimented with, doesn't it?

For breakfast the following morning we toasted some of the leftover rustic bread and enjoyed it with the cheeses and some rose petal preserves. I was still swooning from the rosewater ice cream I'd had during my Persian adventure the previous week, so a rose petal strewn breakfast made me quite happy.
For future reference, rose petal preserves are quite liquidy and don't work well on rustic bread with its large crumb (that's baker talk for holes in the bread created during the rising process). It leaks through and you have to lick it off your plate. It's also difficult to photograph as it seeps through, so I'll just have to document it this way, with those luscious petals sliding off the spoon.

Yeah this is Greek-lite, I know. But it was fun poking around in the market, reading labels and becoming overwhelmed by the variety of food available. When you're dealing with a cuisine that is several thousand years in the making, your choices are practically unlimited.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Week #44 Persian

"You know, we could eat a boatload of caviar and still be entirely faithful to this blog entry," I submitted to my dinner date, Chef Don, as we breezed west through Los Angeles toward the sunset. He cackled with glee.

Persian is one of only two cuisines on the planet, the other being Russian, that can claim caviar as an authentic part of its cuisine, because Iran and Russia are the only countries that border the Caspian Sea, where the caviar-laden sturgeon makes its home. All the rest of the world's fish eggs are just that--fish eggs. As the saying goes, "Location is everything!"

Enticing as that gorging-on-caviar idea was, practical considerations--namely money--deemed that we resist the neighborhood caviar bars. Instead we blew through Beverly Hills and stopped at Baran Restaurant, in that part of West LA known as Tehrangeles, for its concentration of Iranians, their businesses and most importantly to us, their restaurants.

Within moments a basket hit our table filled with uniformly cut pieces of nan-e lavash, unleavened bread as thin and easy to handle as a stack of playing cards. We smeared them with soft butter and rolled up pieces of sweet onion inside. They were refreshing yet substantial.

 Next came an appetizer of tahdig, the wonderfully crusty rice that sticks to the bottom of the pot (check out my blog entry Do Not Soak This Pan to see my attempt at making some). It was smothered in two stews, one of lentils and the other of herbs and beef, which was so good I ordered a full entrée of the stuff. Tahdig is wonderful all by itself--a savory rice krispy treat for adults--but those stews were necessary: I'd been starving myself all day so I could savor more of this cuisine.

The herb-and-beef stew is called ghormeh sabzi, and it's considered the national dish of Iran. Made of beef, beans and assorted greens and herbs--whatever greenery is available in any particular region of Iran--it carries enormous flavor and is filling without being too heavy.

The boiled chicken, in the foreground (with ghormeh sabzi in the background) came with albalou polo, basmati rice flavored with sour cherries and saffron (picture below). Maybe chicken and sour cherries isn't the first combination you'd think of, but what a natural pairing. Just think about all the great dishes you've had combining chicken and lemon, or perhaps chicken and capers. As for the chicken, I couldn't pin down exactly what the flavorings were (and it looks more braised than boiled), but it was mildly hot and perfectly accented by the sweet and sour cherries.
albalou polo

Torshi is a dish of aged pickled vegetables, including carrots, eggplant and cauliflower with an array of herbs and plenty of salt. My tonsils are seizing up even as I type this--it's incredibly sour, and a tiny bit goes a long way. In fact, I brought most of it home with me. I plan to enjoy it for a really long time.

 I think faloodeh is what angels eat for dessert. This sublime rosewater granita with vermicelli has been around for a looong time, since about 400 BCE. It's sweet and rich yet light. The rosewater makes it rich, the ice makes it light and the vermicelli gives it a bit of chewiness. Vermicelli may seem like a strange ingredient in ice cream, but I believe that's what helps keep it frozen longer. Without those frozen starchy bits, the ice crystals would quickly melt away.

Confession time: Dessert didn't end there. Don wasn't familiar with Mashti Malone's, a veritable palace of Persian ice cream in Hollywood, so I had to remedy that deficiency in his local food knowledge. I figured we'd stop by and pick up prepackaged containers to carry home and enjoy later. But nooo, before I knew what was happening he'd ordered a couple of scoops--pomegranate and saffron. I held my order to a single serving of herb snow, which is similar to faloodeh but contains those wonderful gelatinous basil seeds. It was all heavenly.

One of the nice things about faloodeh--about granita in general--is that it's a great frozen treat that doesn't require an ice cream maker to produce. Time to share the secret:

Yield: 8 servings

2 cups granulated sugar
2 cups water
2 tbsp. rosewater (you should be able to find it in any Middle Eastern market)
2 oz. vermicelli
garnish options: lime wedges, sour cherries, chopped pistachios, fresh mint leaves

Stir together sugar and water in a medium saucepan and simmer over medium heat until the sugar is dissolved. Remove from heat, stir in rose water and allow to cool to room temperature.
Place noodles in a glass or metal bowl and add just enough boiling water to cover them. Let stand for a few minutes, until the noodles are soft. Drain noodles, rinse under cold water and drain again; then cut noodles into one-inch lengths.
Stir noodles into rosewater mixture in a shallow dish and set it in the freezer.
After an hour, reach in and stir and break up the ice crystals with a fork. Repeat periodically over the next two or three hours, until you have a nice crystally sweet dessert.
Serve with the garnish of your choice.

Saturday, July 24, 2010


 I love the sound of that little telltale POP! coming from the kitchen that lets me know my jellies and chutneys are properly insulated. Ooh! There it goes again! Three more and I'll know they're all ready for the pantry.

This is strawberry jam with balsamic reduction to give it richness and depth, and a little black pepper, just for the sass. It's better than anything I can find in the stores. I don't manage to make it every year, and when I don't, I'm always sorry. Not only is it good on a croissant, but I love it on a ham sandwich. Or all by itself, licked off a spoon when I'm standing in the open fridge door. The lemon chutney is good that way, too.

Maybe this isn't a strawberry's immortality, but it IS a lovely reminder of strawberry season much later on, when there's not a local berry to be had. This is something worth working up a sweat for and a sticky I don't mind cleaning, although I really shouldn't be mopping up the kitchen with my tongue.

Oops...did I type that out loud?!

Friday, July 16, 2010

Week #43 Argentinean

Whenever I hear someone say, "I could really go for some Argentinean food," I figure he--and 99% of the time, it IS a he who says this--is jonesing for a serious dose of red meat. After all, the most prevalent and popular of Argentinean restaurants are churrascarias, those meat-on-a-stick places.

But my vegetarian buddy Pat and I opted for something different. We headed for  Lala's in West Hollywood, where the menu was loaded with both meat and plenty of choices to satisfy the more vegetably inclined (yes, I know that's not a word, but sometimes you just have to make one up).
The first thing to hit the table is usually chimichurri, a great sauce for dipping your bread into or for drizzling over a steak or a serving of fish. The main ingredients are garlic, parsley, salt and pepper in olive oil. The choice of spices is at the discretion of the cook. It has a light, clean taste--but never hot--that tames the dense richness of all that steak. It's good over veggies, too.

Since somewhere around 60 percent of Argentina's population has at least a little Italian blood flowing through their veins, that country's influence on this cuisine is understandably pronounced. The Argentinean version of the frittata is the tortilla de papa, a potato cake held together with egg custard. This one is pretty basic, egg with potato and onion and a little chopped parsley over the top.

The provoleta is positively wicked. If not for a sprinkling of salsa, this would just be a skillet full of melted, crusty, chewy provolone, not that I'm complaining, mind you. You just have to focus on the salsa to convince yourself that what you're eating isn't flat out deadly! This is one of the most satisfying and decadent things I've had in a long time. I may have to return soon just for provoleta with a glass of wine--by myself, so I don't have to share (with apologies to Pat, Himself and anyone else who thought they might get to tag along).

Here's my entraña, the obligatory hunk o' beef, flanked by salad and rice. Sorry I'm not finding much to say on the subject, but it pretty much looks and tastes like Sunday lunch at most any restaurant in America--if I'd had it with mashed potatoes, which was an option. It was good, but there's nothing here that screams of a particular international cuisine. If I'd opted for the steak Milanesa, it would have been thinly sliced, breaded and fried, chicken fried steak style. Very familiar. Very American, Southern style.

Since I didn't make room for an appetizer or dessert, I decided to focus on those at home:
Some consider the official sauce of Argentina to be salsa golf, also known as salsa rosada, a combo of mayo and ketchup, plus other ingredients that vary depending on who you listen to.  Like chimichurri, it's a good all-purpose sauce. I know, some of you probably think a dip made of mayo and ketchup is a little on the low-rent side, but "dijonnaise" works and this does, too. It's especially popular in Argentina as a dip for palm hearts. I tried that, along with asparagus spears, carrot sticks and broccoli florets. It was all good.
 I even stirred in some chopped hard boiled egg and a few capers and made a yummy, though slightly pink, egg salad, a nice change from my usual.

Salsa rosada (I like that name better) is essentially one of those concoctions you mix things into until you like what you've got. The basic recipe I found called for twice as much mayo as ketchup, and then a bit of lime juice, Tabasco, salt and pepper. I added the tiniest bit of colatura (or garum or fish sauce, depending on which ethnic market you find it in). That realllly opened it up and enriched the flavor. A splash of caper juice instead of lime juice worked well, too. They sell it premade, in squeeze bottles like mustard, but as quick and easy as it is to whip up, and as easy as it is to make it exactly the way you like it, why settle for the store bought variety?

I've always thought fruit fools were the province of the English, but I keep running across recipes in Argentinean collections for mango fool. So that's what I made for dessert, fresh mango puréed with confectioner's sugar and lime juice, and some whipped heavy cream folded in (no, that tub of whipped topping from the grocery won't do--the cow is more trustworthy than the chemist in the milk fat versus partially-hydrogenated something-or-other debate). I spooned it into a glass with crumbled amaretti and slices of mango and topped it with toasted almonds. It gave me an idea--this purée would be a good replacement for the egg custard in tiramisu if you're making it for someone who can't eat eggs. Of course, there's still all of that heavy cream, so it's not a low-fat alternative, just an egg-free one.

While Pat had plenty of lunch without the meat, I remembered that my vegetarian friend Katie spent a few weeks in Argentina last year, so I gave her a call to find out how easy it was to do without meat in a country that, like the U.S., practically has a steak stitched onto its flag. Katie said the strong Italian influence meant there was plenty of pasta with tomato-based sauces to eat. She noted that Argentines are quite proud of their cheeses, so there was no shortage of protein. While Argentina produces some good wines, the national drink is maté, a type of tea that most people seem quite devoted to, so much so that Katie said the hiking trails were filled with people with a special apparatus strapped to their backs from which they sipped tea as they hiked. Curious!

I come away from this dining experience with the feeling that Argentinean cuisine is very much like our own. While there may be an overlay of other cuisines on our plate, America tends to be a strong meat-and-potatoes kinda place with a few regional variations, just like Argentina.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Mmm, Sweet Garlic Spears...

I just returned from a weekend jaunt to Seattle, where every farmers' market--not just the biggie in Pike Place--is offering garlic spears. They're the pre-flowering tops of the elephant garlic plant, milder than regular garlic, and milder still when they've had the heat put to them. And they are completely wowsome.
These grilled babies were smoky and delicate. The heads have the sweetness of grilled onion but without the heat (down toward the root end is where the attitude picks up). In spite of their gentleness, later in the day I found myself with a righteous case of dragon breath, so be warned if you're so excited about finding garlic spears that you hog them all for yourself.

To my knowledge we don't get them here in Southern California, but if I'm wrong about this, please set me straight and tell me where to find them. I yearn to bring them home by the armload like flowers, and see how many different ways I can prepare them. I'm sure they'd be great sautéed, chopped up and added to potato salad, or sprinkled over a plate of chicken livers or stirred into vichyssoise--or any soup, for that matter. Or grilled and tucked into a sandwich or left raw and dipped into bleu cheese dressing and munched on like carrot sticks.

Dang! I'm getting hungry for something that requires plane travel. Time to leave the keyboard and look for something to take my mind off of garlic spears. Time to book another trip to Seattle.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Week #42 Indian

You've heard me say this countless times about a lot of different countries, but I have to say it again:

India is so gi-normous that there's positively no way to do its cuisine justice in one puny little blog entry. They don't call it the subCONTINENT for nothing. Not only is it big, not to mention geographically, climatically and culturally diverse, but its strategic location has ensured that centuries of adventurers trekking between East and West have brought myriad ingredients, cooking techniques and traditions to blend with the local ones. The result is an amazing array of foods and flavors. In fact, I defy anyone to get bored eating Indian food, because there's always another region's food to explore. And another, and another...

But the thing that impresses me about this cuisine above all others is that as an avowed meat eater, I can have a vegetarian meal in an Indian restaurant and come away completely satisfied--that doesn't happen for me in any other type of vegetarian establishment. Rajdhani in Artesia's Little India lays out a vegetarian spread so rich, varied and flavorful that it actually makes me forget to miss the meat. Its cuisine is Northern Indian, an area with a strong tradition of vegetarianism.

I'd been to Rajdhani once before and knew to come hungry. They don't actually have a menu--service is Thali style, so you just sit down and servers come through and load your own personal platter, called a thali, which is filled with small bowls called katoris, with every kind of dahl, soup and stew you can imagine. This is the most lavish feast I've ever had laid before me. If you clean your plate, it doesn't stay empty very long. They just keep coming around and filling your katoris and doling out another piece of naan, another puri, and another and another, until you shoo them away in your state of oh-god-I'm-stuffed ecstasy. It's a lovely misery.

My thali, loaded with the vegetarian Gujarati cuisine favored by the Hindus of Gujarat, in northern India, includes chickpeas (channa); bhendi kari, (okra curry); dhal (lentil purée); sambar (lentil & veggie soup); puri, a hollow, puffy bread; papadam; naan and khaman dhokla. The "glass" I drank from was stainless, too. 
It's amazing just how sharp a table filled with these stainless pieces looks.

Khaman dhokla is a leavened bread (most Indian breads are flat) made from chickpea flour and spices and topped with fresh cilantro and sautéed green chili peppers and mustard seed. It's highly addictive stuff!

The attention to detail is extraordinary. The kitchen must be enormous to accommodate all the pots required to cook this variety of dishes, but everything is seasoned to perfection and all seasoned differently. Just when you hit a super-hot something that threatens to reduce you to a pool of sweat, tears and regret, here comes the basmati rice and a glass of brisk lassi (a yogurt drink) to cool you down.

On the whole, Indian cuisine is pretty healthy fare, that is until you get to the desserts. Our trio of desserts (clockwise from the top): rosewater ice cream topped with basil seed (funny how those gelatinous seeds look like fish eggs, huh?). This stuff makes me swoon!; gulab jamun, fried dumplings made from a dough of flour, powdered milk and butter, and then soaked and served in syrup; and shrikhand, thickened yogurt with saffron and cardamom stirred in. A bite of each was all I needed to cap off an amazing meal.

These freshly fried papadam have tiny black flecks of onion seed, which give these chickpea wafers a kick. They're crackly-crispy and addictive, but since they're pure protein, you can't eat as many as you think you can!

I got carried away and had to hit a couple more Indian restaurants--and I'm contemplating going back for more once I've posted this blog entry.
At Flavor of India in Burbank (they also have a location in West Hollywood) I had lamb seekh with mint chutney on a bed of sweet onions. Remember that classic combo of lamb chops with mint jelly? Same idea here: This dense, rich lamb kabob has mint chutney for dipping, which helps lighten and brighten the richness of the meat.

Naan--hot, puffy and satisfying flat bread. It's soft on the inside and crispy on the outside.

A quartet of chutneys: tamarind chutney, sweet, tangy and fruity; mango chutney, essentially jam, I think; tomato chutney, tomato-sweet from those roasted tomatoes and slightly spicy; pumpkin chutney--I didn't really taste pumpkin, but it was good--and pleasantly warm.

 Quickly, quickly I'm racing down to southern India (cuisine wise) for dosa, a large, crispy crêpe filled with paneer, an Indian cheese, and an array of veggies. It comes with various chutneys to dip it into--the green one is a mint chutney. I'm not sure what the orange one is--it was good but mild. Dosa is made from a combo of lentil and rice flours, so just the wrap itself is loaded with protein and carbs sufficient to get you through the day. Roll up some tofu, veggies, potatoes and onions or whatever you crave, and you essentially have India's answer to the burrito. With chutney instead of salsa. Dahl on the side instead of beans. And rice. Always rice--it's international!

I had this dosa for lunch at India Sweets and Spices in Los Feliz, although there are locations all over the LA area. They have a grocery attached, but I recommend eating before grocery shopping. That way you can focus on what you came to buy and not get too carried away trying to buy one of everything. I thought I had a pretty good grip on all those Indian flavorings beyond the usual range of spices, things like amchur, peepal and zattar (heh heh, how THAT for A-to-Z?!), but I found a huge section of herbs, seeds, roots and flavorings I'd never encountered before. I'll have to save them for another day, another cooking, eating and blogging adventure.

Over the years I've noticed that whenever I eat Indian food, I always come away wrapped in a happy state that lasts for a few hours. And that if I have Indian for lunch, I spend my afternoon not especially productively, but feeling great beneficence toward my coworkers and all others I encounter. What's in Indian food that causes this? I've never been able to find out, but I LIKE that feeling!

If Himself were leaning over my shoulder right now, he'd scold me for typing your eye off. Apologies. I hope you made it all the way through. And I hope you go out and get yourself some Indian food soon.

While I have your attention, though, here's a great recipe for fresh coriander chutney:
Dhania Chatni
Into a blender chuck 1 cup of firmly packed fresh cilantro leaves (cleaned & blotted dry); 6 spring onions, which you've cut into halves or thirds (cleaned & minus the root); 2 fresh green chilies of your choice (remove the stalks & seeds first); 1 clove of garlic; 1 teaspoon of salt; 2 teaspoons of sugar; 1 teaspoon of garam masala (which you can make yourself or pick up at the store); 1/3 cup of lemon juice; and 2 tablespoons of water. Whiz it all in the blender, pour it into a pretty bowl and chill before serving. Since cilantro is great with Mexican food, you can make this, omitting the garam masala, and use it as a dip or topping for tacos, beans or whatever you desire.

*And a big whopping P.S.: Please check out the blog--and book!--of my friend, adventuress Vanessa Able, who has just driven and blogged her way around India. Seriously!

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Barbecue Spaghetti and a Pair of Explanations

Here's my plate from a lunch I had back home in Memphis recently, where one of the local favorites is barbecue spaghetti. When I mentioned it on Facebook someone asked, "How is that possible?" For starters, note that there's no "d" on the end of "barbecue." The spaghetti itself isn't barbecued. Rather it's mixed with barbecued pork (because this is Memphis) and barbecue sauce. This rendition includes some tomato and onion, too.

Since barbecue is made in large quantities, putting together a batch of barbecue spaghetti is one way of varying the meal. Just as you'd serve turkey in myriad ways post-Thanksgiving, we require a little variety in barbecue's presentation, especially when that was one whopper of a hog on the spit.

Alternately, preparing barbecue spaghetti is a sneaky way of taking a little barbecue and making it go further. I know someone who always says, "Let me know how many people are coming so I'll know how much water to add to the soup." Call those noodles Barbecue Helper, then.

And let me know how many people are coming, so I'll know how much pasta to add to the barbecue.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Week #41 Korean

The first time Himself and I ventured into a Korean restaurant, we accumulated 18 little plates on our table BEFORE our order arrived--and all we'd asked for was an appetizer and two entrées! So if you like to sample loads of different dishes, a Korean meal will surely please you on that score. And if you like your meal heavy on the garlic and pickles, you'll be positively thrilled.

For this latest trip I made a lunch date with Charles Rosenberg, who lives right smack in the middle of Koreatown. This is his home turf, but I managed to find a good spot he'd never heard of. Booyah! Mountain Cafe is open 24 hours a day and is one of those places the locals know and cherish. While most people are familiar with Korean barbecue, this place is all about the soup. Apparently it's THE go-to place for a restorative bowl of porridge at 3 a.m., when the parties are winding down and everyone has indulged a bit too much. I just can't do 3 a.m. the way I used to, so we went for lunch, a sane hour and a manageable crowd.

We started with an order of b(r)oiled ravioli. I'm typing it this way because the menu said "broiled," but our dumplings were quite obviously "boiled." No matter. Each one was like a tiny meal unto itself, with a little bit of ground beef, mixed vegetables and noodles tucked inside. Dipped in the kimchi juices, they made a good starter.

Banchan with our starter of b(r)oiled dumplings
These myriad sides, called banchan, remind me of all the sides called "salads" you get in an Israeli restaurant. Most banchan are some form of kimchi, a pickled vegetable of some sort (ours includes cabbage and Asian radish), although the bowl in the upper left hand corner contains chunks of sweet beef. This is actually a quite modest spread, as banchan go.

Pickling isn't really the most precise word here--kimchi is fermented, so while it has a sour quality, it's not aggressively tangy. Instead, there's an effervescence to it that refines and intensifies the flavor of each item. Entire books have been devoted to kimchi, and rightfully so. The types are practically endless and vary throughout the country and with the season. In fact, kimchi is considered the national food of Korea. I'm thinking maybe I should revisit this particular food soon and devote at least one blog entry specifically to it.
I ordered the seaweed soup with shrimp. It tastes, as you'd imagine, intensely of the sea. You either like it or you don't. It's a little on the bland side, but if you've just punished yourself with an evening of excess, it's probably a safer bet than an overload of spice and fat. I added a few spoons of steamed rice to give it more bulk. However, my spoon found itself straying repeatedly into Charles' bowl...

Charles ordered this spicy, beefy soup with bean sprouts, Asian radish, Chinese vermicelli and rice. The broth alone is enough to make you purr like a kitten. It's rich and spicy, with a velvety texture, the perfect wintertime food. Fortunately we're having a cooler than usual summer here in LA.

After lunch Charles introduced me to Koreatown's Galleria Market. This huge grocery stocks just about anything you could possibly need to create an authentic Korean feast, including a vast array of prepared foods, if you'd rather skip the cooking part and go straight to the eating part.
 Ahh, kimchi as far as the eye can see! There's a pretty good chance that whatever you like pickled is available at this bar, not only vegetables but meats and seafood as well. No need to bury earthenware jars of food in your yard to, uh, mature, if you have this store in your neighborhood.
This 10w30-style arrangement reminds me of a store display of motor oil--in what looks like milk bottles, to really mix things up--but it's actually sake. At $2.95 a bottle, I'm betting this is not the premium stuff. We found it sitting next to the quick-grab items by the checkout, far, far from the proper wine and alcohol section. Wacky!

After discovering what freshly-made tofu was all about on my recent trip to Thailand, I was eager to take some of that lovely, whisper-soft stuff home with me. My introduction to fresh, hand-crafted tofu is as big a revelation as sampling my first proper baguette in Paris. I picked up several ingredients from the market and trotted right home to make myself a great pot of miso soup.

These chrysanthemum leaves are sweet, delicate and quick cooking. They add a welcome freshness--miso can be a very wintery tasting soup. They also provide a nice balance to a salad made with bitter greens. Their versatility guaranteed that I got several meals out of them. I'm eager to return to the market to sample their other greens, most of which I've never encountered in the usual grocery chains.

Lotus lace! These poached lotus root slices come bagged and ready to either crunch on or cook into a dish. They remind me in flavor and texture of a firmer jicama.

 Brown rice ovalettes don't look like much, but cooked into broth they make a nice alternative way to enjoy rice-as-usual.

I used all those ingredients and made a big pot of soup with a miso base. Velvety and crunchy, sweet and salty, it was a nice Part II to my Korean food adventure.

By the way, a package of miso paste is a great thing to have on hand. It lasts forever and is your ace in the hole if you need something warm and nourishing and you only have a few odd bits of food to work with. Just dilute a spoonful of miso in some water on low heat and chuck into the pot whatever you have in the fridge. Well, it's not quite as haphazard as that, but I just want to make the point that it's not at all complicated to make a good pot of soup if you keep some miso in stock.

Pickled garlic and kimchi are two mainstays of Korean cuisine; I can't get too much of either one of them! I bought pint jars of these at my local farmers' market, where a Korean man vends a nice selection of homemade goodies. Now whenever I crave a blast of flavor, all I have to do is reach for them. I ramped up the flavor in my pot o' soup by pouring in a little of the kimchi juice.

It's fascinating to see how manners vary, depending on where you are. They seem so very arbitrary. Drinking from your bowl is permissible in a Korean restaurant. But blowing your nose at the table is considered rude, even thought it's running because of all those hot peppers you just ate! I guess the smart thing to do is always to keep an eye on those around you and act accordingly.