6.28.2016

Eat More Green Stuff

I recently had a conference call during which I learned a certain grocery store chain plans to offer a program to rate the contents of your shopping basket, much like your mother might if she combed through your crumpled receipts. 

I suspect many of us have an internal dialogue about what we eat that we turn up or down like a transistor radio. But perhaps some people hope to go home and review a computer printout of their food purchases like it is a naughty or nice list from the North Pole.

A program like this brings up many questions.  It so happens—for me—I only go to this particular grocer for two very specific things: turkey subs and hot dogs. At my most recent trip, I was also lured into buying some canned beer from their liquor store warehouse. 

So it is pretty clear my report card would not be one to post on the fridge.  

At a recent dinner at the Rosebud, I debated this idea with a good friend of mine over negronis and fried vegetables. It was the kind of conversation you can have with someone you have known for nearly two decades. She pointed out a way to scam the system by paying cash for your undesirables.  I had not even thought of this, but it was a fast reminder as to why we are still friends.

It is ultimately sad that we need a computer to help decide if what we are buying is “good.” But I get it.  Marketing is powerful, and confusing, and many people find food labels to be like hieroglyphics.

Plus we are very busy and easily distracted by cookies.

But the food choices we make are also very complex.  I shop at four different spots to get what I need—and reasons for this vary from nutrition and sustainability to emotion and taste.

All are valid. And hard to judge in isolation, whether you are a machine or a human.

Take the ingredients to make this ice cream.  Fresh mint and matcha tea might make Dr. Weil happy.  But flavonols in the tea may be blunted by the addition of dairy.  Not to mention the matcha food miles. Plus the mint is not actually even eaten.

The dark chocolate is 70% cocoa, but is that enough? (Probably not.)  But it was produced locally and this allows me to implicate an unsuspecting factory in Somerville, Massachusetts in the post-rationalization of my cravings. 

And swapping brown rice syrup in place of the corn variety seems better, but is it once you consider the arsenic risk? 

All this aside, no one eats ice cream for its health benefits.  The ingredients, however, do make a very satisfying iced dessert.  It is smooth, bright, and grassy, with slight bursts of bitter chocolate. I originally added the matcha for shallow reasons (namely to impart a light green hue).  But it also contributes a vegetal note that plays very well with the mint and dark chocolate.  A computer is not going to know this. At least not yet.

So here is a little secret.  A way to simplify things.  Eight out of ten of us do not eat enough fruit and vegetables. This is not a metric that makes people very healthy.  It turns out broccoli does not have a sexy marketing campaign, either. (Though it should.)

But if you aim to eat more plants maybe, just maybe, you might have a little bargaining room for ice cream every now and again too.

Matcha Mint Chocolate Chip Ice Cream

Ingredients:

2 cups whole milk, divided
1 tbsp plus 1 tsp cornstarch
1½ ounces (3 tbsp) cream cheese, softened
1¼ cups heavy cream
2/3 cup granulated sugar
2 tbsp brown rice syrup
pinch of salt
3 ounces fresh mint (including the stems) or about 3 cups lightly packed mint leaves (stems removed)
½ tsp matcha green tea powder
¼ tsp orange blossom water
2 ounces dark chocolate (preferably 70%), cut into small shards

Instructions:

In a small bowl, mix 2 tbsp of the whole milk with the cornstarch.  In a separate medium bowl, whisk the cream cheese until smooth. 

In a medium saucepan, combine the remaining milk, heavy cream, sugar, brown rice syrup, and salt on medium-high heat, stirring occasionally until the mixture boils.  When it reaches a slow rolling boil, continue to stir for 4 minutes more.

Meanwhile, roughly tear the mint leaves into small pieces.  Prepare a large bowl with ice and a little water and put a smaller bowl inside the larger bowl; set aside.

In a small bowl, whisk the matcha tea into the orange blossom water until a slurry forms; set aside.

Remove the saucepan from the heat and gradually add in the cornstarch mixture; return the pan back to medium-high heat and bring to a boil, stirring occasionally until it thickens (this will take a few minutes). 

Remove the saucepan from the heat and slowly whisk some of the hot liquid into the cream cheese until smooth.  Add the cream cheese mixture to the pan with the remaining liquid; add the torn mint and green matcha slurry and whisk to combine.

Pour the liquid into the prepared bowl on ice.  Let cool for about 30 minutes and then refrigerate, letting the mint steep for about 5 hours.  Strain out the mint and then return the milk mixture to the fridge (I prefer to let it chill overnight, but you can churn it once it is cold.)

When ready, churn the mixture in an ice cream machine for 20 to 25 minutes, or until it gets thick and creamy and pulls away from the sides of the bowl.  At the very end of the churning, add in the chocolate shards while the machine is still running.  Pack the ice cream in an airtight container.  Cover with parchment paper cut to fit the container and freeze for at least 4 hours.

Makes about 1 quart

Notes:

-I luck out having Taza chocolate so close.  Luckily, you can also order it online.


5.31.2016

Colonel Tso’s Cauliflower Slips the Mooring

I went to Nantucket last weekend and the thing that always catches me off guard—besides the unwritten island uniform of Nantucket Reds and navy blue blazers—is how good the food is.

Holding a group of vacationers captive, fully surrounded by water, might encourage some slack at dinnertime. But most restaurant prospects are far from grim.

Raw oysters come cold and briny, as though they were shucked straight from the Atlantic.  Lobster rolls arrive generously proportioned. Fried clams appear plump and juicy, without the bits tasting of iron and shoe leather that occasionally haunt the mollusk.

The problem with these well-intentioned establishments is that I sometimes leave hungry. One evening my four-ounce short rib arrived with a silhouette of sticky rice that I can only assume was modeled after a golf ball. The next night, I preempted a pasta dish with two appetizers, and still needed to request an order of bread.  There were also multiple meals during which my plate was proactively cleared after coming back from the bathroom.

I was often quite hungry and paid a good deal of money to feel slightly less so.

Admittedly, my perspective might be skewed. When Brett and I went to Babu Ji in New York City, we paid the equivalent of one market price Nantucket lobster roll plus a beer to be happily destroyed by a tasting menu of pan-Asian cuisine.

And while you could argue it is easy to offer fancy proteins like shellfish and short rib and please people, it is a much harder sell to cast a cruciferous vegetable in positive light.  This is where Colonel Tso comes in.

Inspired by General Tso’s chicken, the dish offers a plateful of nostalgia while smartly swapping in cauliflower for suspicious and ubiquitous poultry.  Why Babu Ji trades a general for a colonel I am not certain.  It does not deserve the slight in rank.

Sure the dish will please vegetarians, but I believe it will please anyone who likes the occasional fried thing or who bristles at the thought of leaving a restaurant without a slight postprandial paunch.  Colonel Tso’s cauliflower was one of the courses we were served at Babu Ji and the recipe holds true to memory.

The vegetable is crispy and addictive, even before you add the sweet and spicy sauce.  I would argue you could leave off the mahogany coating altogether if you have post-traumatic associations with late night Chinese takeout, but my recommendation is to toss at least half the mixture in sauce, taste the difference, and then decide for yourself.  It is hard to go wrong when it comes to a big bowl of fried bits, made even better by the rebuttal of cauliflower as an undesirable.

Perhaps I do not like to be bridled.  I might be a little too coarse—or too hungry—for Nantucket.  I also really do not like salmon-colored pants on men.  And though I appreciate a flamingo-themed rosé brunch with a view of mooring buoys, it is not enough to distract me when my half-eaten plate of fries is prematurely swiped.

At any rate, when flamingos start hanging from the rafters (see below) it is time to flock home.  And, with any luck, that home will have something fried waiting.

Colonel Tso’s Cauliflower
Adapted from Food52 and inspired by Babu Ji

Ingredients:

for the sauce

1 tbsp toasted sesame oil
3 garlic cloves, minced
4 scallions, white and light green parts only, minced (green parts reserved)
1 tbsp peeled and minced ginger
4 to 5 small dried chiles, minced
½ cup hoisin sauce
¼ cup rice vinegar
¼ cup tamari (or soy sauce)
2 tbsp brown sugar
2 tbsp cornstarch

for the cauliflower

1½ to 2 quarts peanut or safflower oil (see note)
½ cup cornstarch
½ cup all-purpose flour
½ tsp baking powder
1 tbsp garlic powder
1 tbsp ground ginger
3 tbsp black (or white) sesame seeds, plus additional for garnish
1 tsp dried red pepper flakes
½ cup cold water (plus more, as needed)
½ cup vodka
1 to 2 large cauliflower heads, cut into one-inch florets (see note)
Green scallion (from above) cut thinly on the bias, for garnish

Instructions:

To make the sauce

In a medium saucepan, add the sesame oil, garlic, (white and light green) scallion, ginger, and chiles; sauté on medium heat for about 3 minutes, until the mixture starts to soften slightly.  Add in the hoisin, vinegar, tamari, and brown sugar.  Stir and let it come to a slow boil.

Meanwhile in a small bowl, whisk together the cornstarch and a ½ cup (4 ounces) of water until fully incorporated, then add an additional cup (8 ounces) of water.  Pour the cornstarch mixture into the slowly bubbling sauce, turn the heat down to low, and whisk often until it slightly thickens.

Place the sauce on low heat on a back burner and keep an eye on it during the rest of the prep—turning down the heat even lower, if necessary, to prevent it from overly reducing. (After it thickens slightly, it should be kept barely simmering.)

To fry the cauliflower

Pour the oil in a Dutch oven or sturdy cast-iron pot (or deep fryer or wok) and set on medium high heat.  A deep fat frying thermometer is recommended here, as you will want to maintain the oil at 350 degrees (at a lower temperature the cauliflower will absorb more oil and may get greasy; at a higher temperature it may brown too quickly without properly cooking).

Set the oven to 200 degrees to keep the cauliflower warm after it is fried.

While the oil is heating, in a large bowl, combine the cornstarch, flour, baking powder, garlic powder, ground ginger, sesame seeds, and red pepper and whisk until fully mixed.

Add the cold water and vodka and whisk until a smooth batter forms (it should be the consistency of thin paint and should fall off the whisk in thin ribbons that disappear as they hit the batter—add additional water by the tablespoon, if needed).

Add half the cauliflower (or one head) to the batter and toss to coat.  When the oil is ready, working with a couple pieces at a time, lift the cauliflower from the batter, allowing the excess batter to drip off and gently place into the hot oil.  Repeat until the pot is full, but not overly crowded.  (Watch the temperature, if it starts to drop too quickly, stop putting cauliflower in.) 

Use a metal spider or slotted spoon to gently rotate the cauliflower pieces as they cook to ensure even browning.  They can be removed with the spider or spoon when they are golden brown and uniformly crispy (about 6 minutes). 

Transfer to a paper towel-lined baking sheet or plate. Then transfer to another baking sheet and place in the oven to keep warm.

Frying the cauliflower will take a few batches.  (Allow the heat to come back to 350 degrees in between frying.) Continue to add cauliflower to your batter until the batter is used up.

Once all the cauliflower has been battered and fried, pour the low simmering sauce over the pieces, tossing to coat evenly.  (See note below.) Garnish with sliced green scallion and additional black sesame seeds.

Yields enough for four to six

Notes:
-The recipe called for two quarts of oil.  You should be able to fry more cauliflower per batch if you are using more oil. I usually try to reduce the oil when deep-frying, to limit the waste, and got away with using just under a quart and a half.

-You may want to sauce half the cauliflower at one time.  The original recipe called for one head of cauliflower, but we found there was easily enough batter for two.  We left some of the second batch of cauliflower unsauced (any leftovers will lose their crispiness but will still be tasty).


4.24.2016

Babu Ji and the Bean Burger

Last weekend Brett and I ate at Babu Ji in New York City.  If there is a way to be killed by curry—and die happily—their tasting menu is it.  If you would like your death to include beer, there is the possibility of that too. 

Be advised if you do select the beer pairing option, which features your server swiping a new bottle out of the beer fridge every two or three courses, your demise will come swiftly.

When you have thirteen items to try—some which could be considered entrée portions in a more buttoned up establishment—the scene becomes reminiscent of a highbrow fraternity team-building exercise.  Like a gaggle of soon-to-be twenty-somethings with small collegiate beer guts working together to take down as many cases as possible, cheering through suds and yeasty burps to victory.  At Babu Ji the staff egg you on.

The contestant will finish his fried cardamom yogurt croquette in a fuchsia beet sauce and the Pork Slap pale ale, only to be greeted by a version of Colonel Tso’s with the rubbery chicken brilliantly swapped out for cauliflower, plus a crisp IPA.  The reward for finishing this is a mutiny of curry and Victory Prima pilsner.

The tasting feels relentless by the time you reach the kulfi.

And this was only one of many outstanding and subversive meals we ate over the weekend. (The counter service at Russ & Daughters Cafe, with a punctuation of tahini ice cream, was another high point.)

Upon returning to Boston I needed restorative dinners that could hold up to the food we recently tasted.  One night this included a sheet pan of Aleppo carrots and a life changing carbonara from Tasting Rome, which I hope to write about soon.

Another evening featured the white bean burgers seen before you and some roasted zucchini (that did not make the camera snap).  The splendor of these burgers—I have made them many times—is that they work with a variety of pulses.  (I would be remiss not to mention my preference for dried beans here, but do not let this stop you.) I should have featured them sooner, but bean burgers are not exactly beauty queens in the looks department.

Unlike many other vegetable patties, they hold their shape during the pan flip and resist collapsing into the bun.  They will take more spice and seasoning, should you push them, and do not apologize for a lack of beef.  And they are made for toppings.

With darker colored beans, like black or even the pinto, blue cheese dressing, red onion, and ketchup is a preferred selection. For the white bean version, avocado slices and a take on this yogurt sauce are recommended. A little barbeque would not be a misstep, either.  But I sense this is really only the beginning for a burger like this.

At Babu Ji there is an image of a white-haired Indian man with crooked aviator sunglasses and an aggressive mustache that extends out in a bushy cloud a couple inches from his face spanning east to west.  He is featured on their wall and website and the vibe he offers is one of adventure and of not taking any shit. He does not promise things will go easily, either.

It is very New York.

These burgers are sort of like that. Born out of necessity but not limited by it. Beautiful in their own way.  And with a little inspired thinking, their possibilities seem endless.

Spiced White Bean Burgers

Ingredients:

5 (2 oz) hamburger buns (I use brioche buns)
2 cups white beans (previously cooked or canned), divided
3 tbsp olive oil, divided
1 garlic clove, minced
½ tsp ground cumin
½ tsp chili powder
1 tbsp minced shallot
1 serrano pepper, finely diced
1 tbsp minced cilantro (about 10 sprigs)
½ tsp kosher salt
1 large egg

Instructions:

Place one 2-ounce bun in a food processor and pulse until it turns into crumbs; transfer to a large bowl.  In the food processor, add 1½ cups of the beans, 1 tbsp olive oil, garlic, cumin, and chili powder and pulse until the mixture becomes a thick paste.

In the bowl with the breadcrumbs, mix in the shallot, pepper, cilantro, and salt.  Add in the remaining ½ cup beans, bean paste, and egg and stir until it becomes a cohesive mixture.

Divide into four equal portions, shaping each into a patty.

Heat a sauté pan on medium heat and add remaining oil.  Add patties to the pan, pressing them down slightly. (Depending on the size of your pan, this may need to be done in two batches.) 

Cook about four minutes or until the bottoms are brown.  Flip and cook three to four minutes more or until the patties are cooked throughout.

Place each patty on a bun and top with choice condiments (recommended: avocado, this sauce, and barbeque).

Serves four

Notes:

-The patties can be made a little in advance and kept in the fridge until ready to use.