Le 2021 Lait de Poule Est Arrivé!

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Eggnog! First sighting of the year!

It’s like waiting for this year’s vintage Beaujolais Nouveau to appear: Le 2021 Lait de Poule est arrivé! (They say that the French have a word for it, and I have to admit a certain fondness for their spin on the word “eggnog”, lait de poule: hen’s milk.)

If you’ve read me, you know that I have a few (ha!) guilty pleasures when it comes to holiday food, and for me, nothing heralds the advent of the season like the first appearance of eggnog on supermarket shelves. And snatching it away precipitately as they do every year when the yule log’s embers have barely begun to evanesce only makes the anticipation and craving for next year’s batch more intense.

But which one(s) to buy? The brand in this photo may not be my fave – it’s merely the first I’ve found this year. But fret not. I and my OCD are here to offer you the benefits of my research and experimentation regarding this happy holiday quandary. Please check out my essay, An Eggnog Excursus – and unlike the holiday libation itself, it’s available year-round under “Deep Dives” on my homepage!

Cheers!
 
 

Shakshuka

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I hadn’t been considering taking a photo of this and there isn’t even any backstory except that I had been reading a food website’s newsletter that happened to be singing the praises of shakshuka. I’m told that I’m hopelessly suggestable when it comes to food choices (okay, fine, guilty as charged) so you know what took place next, totally spur of the moment.

Shakshuka comes with some weighty baggage regarding its origin and consequently a predictable carry-on of spelling alternatives. Best I can tell, it got its start in Ottoman North Africa; Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Turkey, Israel, Palestine, and Yemen among others proudly include it among their national cuisines, each with its own accent of course.

Essentially, shakshuka is tomato sauce (canned tomatoes are fine if you don’t have great fresh tomatoes and great amounts of time) pointed up with onions, peppers, and garlic in which eggs are poached; the basic recipe is pretty simple although it calls for a soupçon of finesse at the stove when nestling the raw eggs into the sauce. But beyond the fundamentals, international flights of fancy take off involving an assortment of seasonings that run the gamut from sweet to spicy and the inclusion of black olives, preserved lemon, feta cheese and such, as well as representative meats and vegetables (think merguez or chickpeas). Space and deference to your plans for the remainder of the day preclude my listing them all here.

My extemporaneous seasonings that day included lots of toasted ground cumin and whole cumin seeds, smoked paprika, harissa to kick it up, and cilantro as an integral ingredient as well as a garnish. Pretty straightforward, but I was motivated, and sans forethought I used whatever I had on hand. I did veer from the canon, however, by anointing it with white truffle oil post poach.

I can’t imagine this dish without bread – but English muffins instead of a more appropriate North African or Middle Eastern bread? Say it with me: because that’s what I had on hand!
 
 

When Is Haluski Not Haluski?

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Actually, it’s not about when, it’s about where. Here’s what happened:

The weather was more than agreeable so I decided to take a walk to the local farmers’ market – just looking, thank you, those $8 organic heirloom tomatoes are way beyond my pay grade these days. The problem with “just looking” is that you actually see things. Things like a Brobdingnagian cabbage that was flawless, dirt cheap, and the circumference of an oversized beach ball. I rolled it home and, trying to think outside the box grater, proceeded to burrow through the interwebs in search of cabbage recipes other than coleslaw, stuffed, or soup so I could to put this behemoth to good use. I found 53,900 results for something called haluski; 22,200 results for halusky; 11,600 for halushki; and 3,800 for halushky.

Now, many years ago, I developed a delicious but agonizingly labor-intensive recipe for Bryndzové Halušky, a Slovak national dish: diminutive potato dumplings that involved the adept use of a special kitchen tool (a halušky strainer) and frustratingly hard-to-find bryndza, a pungent sheep’s milk cheese. That had been my halušky connection – with nary a shred of cabbage to be found therein. (And yes, I know that some cultures toss in sauerkraut on occasion.)

I checked into Wikipedia for some orthographic advice. Traveling though Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania, Romania, Hungary and other corners of Central and Eastern Europe, the spellings and recipes were similar, but nationalized, of course. But here’s the kicker, ibidem: “In the United States, most adapted halušky recipes call for egg noodles rather than potato dumplings. Some American cooks include loose, cut, and fried green cabbage…compelled by simplicity [check], difficulty in finding bryndza or acceptable substitutes [check!], and access to affordable cabbage [check!!]….” (Italics and bracketed comments mine.)

Okay, American style gets the nod and as a bonus it only required ingredients I already had in the house: butter, egg noodles, butter, and onions. (Did I mention butter?) Some of the recipes called for bacon but I chose to use the last two hunks of Polish sausage lurking in my freezer from a recent foray to Greenpoint; if you’re curious, they were wiśniowa and zwyczajna (my spellcheck was traumatized and still is in recovery from that one – feel free to send flours).

The recipe is simple and pretty obvious really, but a couple of notes: Cut the cabbage into pieces similar in size to the noodles, and cut the onions into pieces like the cabbage. And most important: you’ll be frying the veggies and boiled noodz in a cowful of butter, but don’t just cook to soften: you want them to pick up some color and get a little crispy – that’s essential – and those crunchy bits sticking to the bottom of the pan are an integral part of the dish too. It’ll require a bit of patience, but keep your focus on crispy and brown (even my plate was brown, but you don’t have to get that obsessive about it) and you’ll turn out some hearty Eastern European comfort food that will Czech all the boxes. 🙃
 
 

Leticia’s Ecuadorian Restaurant

Maybe it was because on that day I had eaten less than I should have and walked farther than I should have carrying more than I should have on less sleep than I should have gotten the night before. Maybe.

Emotionally, it was a little surreal – like a scene in a French New Wave film from the late 50s, underscored with that quaint, quirky, quintessentially European music that telegraphs an atmosphere of utter happiness and convivial hyperfamiliarity, music that gets louder just before everything starts to get strange.

The weather was perfect for outdoor dining that day. “A drink to start?” asked our cheerful-as-a-Disney-bluebird server as if we were regulars or on some level had known each other forever. The menu listed one of my favorites. “Horchata, please,” I requested, expecting either the creamy white rice drink or the opaque, grayish jicaro-based beverage. She quickly returned with a semi-translucent vividly pinkish-purple (or possibly purplish-pink) citrusy libation and disappeared before I had a chance to inquire.

Surreal is when the unfamiliar happens in familiar surroundings.

An animated manager-type emerged as out of a trippy mid-last-century flick, ever so eager and more than happy to help us, his newest old friends, with ordering from the extensive menu. “But first,” I asked, “this is horchata?” He accommodatingly explained that it was Ecuadorian horchata, horchata lojana to be precise, an herbal drink made from a combination of flowers and herbs: lemon verbena, lemongrass, lemon balm – that explains the citrusy notes – mint and chamomile to name just a few of the ingredients. Horchata can blush: we live, we learn.

The pageant of surreal delight continued: the diner behind me excitedly exhorting a curious sidewalk passerby to come in and try the delicious food, she eats there all the time (turns out she lives just upstairs), and here are her recommendations; the couple seated catty-corner to me (he spoke only Spanish, she had some English), overheard as she was enthusiastically and sibilantly demonstrating an English plural for his edification: “Say beanssss.” These days, it doesn’t take much to bring a smile to my face. “This place engenders joy!” I thought aloud, caught up in the aura.

Enough about the ebullient ambiance. You want to know about the food, don’t you?

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Leticia’s had been recommended by a friend for their Chaulafan – a cognate of Chinese chao fàn, fried rice – and it was excellent. Ecuadorian style fried rice with shrimp, chicken, beef, vegetables, eggs, onions, bell peppers, and sliced avocado on top paired with sweet plantain under a hillock of cheese sauce. The surreal part? Its ceramic serving vessel was so cleverly designed to look like a Chinese take-out food container that it made Andy Warhol’s famous artwork look like just another advertisement for Campbell’s Soup.


Tres Chanchitos (translation: three little piggies). A trio of succulent meats featuring hornado – perfectly cooked slow roasted pork (note the crown of crispy skin), fritada – juicy fried pork ribs, and chorizo – Ecuadorian sausage, served with pickled onions and tomatoes, mote (aka hominy, or corn on steroids) and chulpi (aka maiz tostado, or corn nuts). “Chanchito” also refers to a three-legged pig (surreal again), a good luck talisman and the shape of many molcajetes (including mine).

So there you have it. In some restaurants the charming staff and the ambiance make it unique, in some the food is absolutely on point; Leticia’s delivers both and manages to go beyond just special – like I said, the place engenders joy.

You already know that I’m going back. I wouldn’t be surprised if I run into you there. Because after all, surreal is when the unfamiliar happens in familiar surroundings.
 
 
Leticia’s is located at 40-32 National Street (at 103rd St just off Roosevelt Ave) in Corona, Queens.
 
 

Pumpkin Caramel Kringle

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My first encounter with kringler, the filled Danish pastry, occurred decades ago courtesy of an annual snail-mail catalog specializing in Christmas goodies that was headquartered in Wisconsin. (Racine is renown as the kringle capital of Wisconsin and kringler are the official state pastry.) In the year 2 B.C. (Before Covid), I wrote about Holtermann’s Bakery on Staten Island – they offered a rendition which, in my opinion, tasted as close to homemade as you can get from a store-bought baked good – and subsequently posted a face-off between theirs and a version from Trader Joe’s.

TJ’s product comes to us from the O&H Danish Bakery in Racine, Wisconsin, a family business that’s been making kringler and sharing hygge since 1949, so their Danish culinary bona fides are well established; their website touts over 20 tempting flavors.

When I posted the challenge, a friend tipped me off that TJ’s offered a seasonal pumpkin variety and I promised myself I’d track one down. And now, two years later, it’s “pumpkin spice szn” again and I finally made good on that promise. (In fairness, TJ’s is pumpkin caramel and not pumpkin spice.)

As Danish go, it was pretty good – sweet, dense, and doughy – but I’d be hard pressed to identify it as pumpkin caramel (or pumpkin anything) even after tasting the subtle filling by itself, devoid of pastry or icing. Maybe if it were a multiple choice option – but even then the choices might have to be sufficiently disparate like a) pumpkin, b) chocolate, or c) fish to guarantee landing on the right answer using the process of elimination.

But don’t get me wrong: I’m not carping. Alongside a cup of hot cocoa, it made a righteous breakfast that was a hygge harbinger of seasonal calories to come!


Complete and uncut, with a quarter for size comparison.
 
 

Treats from the Filipino Araw ng Aruga Festival

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Ube, the purple yam that turns up in so many Filipino desserts, and buko, the yielding flesh of young green coconuts, make an ideal combination in this Ube Buko Pie from Chibop’s Bakehouse in Forest Hills, Queens; note the slices of tender coconut throughout the top layer. The colorful interior begs for your attention, but don’t overlook the crust – delicate and crumbly, the perfect blanket to swaddle the sweet filling. Top notch.


Merienda NYC featured a trio of fried goodness on a stick – Kwek Kwek, Kikiam and sliced, flattened fishballs; a selection of sauces was available. The latter two are made from ground fish paste…

…and kwek kwek are quail eggs that have been battered and deep fried. (You can decide if the name is onomatopoeia reflecting the sound that quail make when laying their eggs.)


Emz Native Delicacies featured Suman Malagkit, sticky rice and coconut milk steamed in a banana leaf, sweet and salty at once. Nicely done.

The pop-up Araw ng Aruga (Day of Care) Festival took place last Saturday. If you’d like to learn about food events like this in advance, I highly recommend checking out Eating In Translation for their comprehensive weekly listing – that’s where I get all my info about upcoming festivals!
 
 

Sunset Park 5th Avenue Street Festival – Tacos de Birria

More quick bites from Brooklyn’s annual Sunset Park 5th Avenue Street Festival.

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The hastily scrawled sign read Tacos de Birria y Carnitas. Birria (two syllables, stress on the first, trill the R, say “Beerrr-ya” with conviction) seems to be the darling of New York City Mexican food aficionados these days, and I’m not complaining. Essentially it’s a meat laden stew…

…served on corn tortillas. If you like juicy, wet tacos, this one is for you; as a matter of fact, it’s usually served with a side of broth from the stew (consomé). In this case, the sauce was ladled up from a tableside container and added later, alas, too much later for a proper photo. (I only have two hands.)

It started with the tortillas getting a dip in a seasoned, oily bath…

…prior to a crisping on the griddle.

But here’s the point: It’s always a Latin American food festival on this stretch of Brooklyn’s 5th Avenue between about 38th St and 59th St, street fair or not; you can find all of the treats in this and the previous two posts (and so much more) year round. Just come to this section of Sunset Park whenever the mood strikes you, wander around, choose a restaurant that looks appealing, and odds are you’ll go home happy.

I know I did!
 
 

Sunset Park 5th Avenue Street Festival – Gorditas

More quick bites from Brooklyn’s annual Sunset Park 5th Avenue Street Festival.

¡Gorditas!

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Chicken…


…and chicharrón.

A gordita (literally “chubby”) starts as a handful of masa molded around a filling; it’s fried in hot oil…

…cooled, sliced open, and stuffed with salsa and lime juice plus lettuce, cheese, and occasionally other goodies.

These came from Casa Vieja, 6007 5th Ave in Brooklyn (of course).

More Mexican street food to come. Stay tuned….
 
 

Sunset Park 5th Avenue Street Festival – Tacos

Quick bites from Brooklyn’s annual Sunset Park 5th Avenue Street Festival last Sunday.

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First stop – tacos in your choice of carnitas (pork), pollo (chicken), chorizo (pork sausage), barbacoa – chivo (goat), or mix – cabeza y lengua de res (beef head meat and tongue). Our choice: barbacoa (top) and mix.


Cooking…


…cooling…


…cutting.

More Mexican street food to come. Stay tuned….
 
 

Notstalgia

I’m not one for watching teevee, but lately, for a number of reasons, I’ve had too much time on my hands. As I was flipping through channels I didn’t even know I had, I came upon a what I assumed was a rerun of The French Chef, Julia Child’s archetypal 1960s cooking show. Turns out it was a re-rerun in the form of a new PBS cooking show, Dishing with Julia Child, a paean to the grande dame of TV chefs – and despite my reservations, it was every bit as entertaining and educational as its progenitor. It featured celebrity chefs José Andres and Eric Ripert doing play by play and color as they “watched” her program on a mockup of a retro TV screen. Not only is the concept too cute by half but it also solved the technical problem of the difference between 60s broadcast television’s 4:3 aspect ratio and today’s 16:9 frame.

In this episode, she was preparing the iconic French dish, sole meunière. Now, I seldom do any French cooking – it requires more patience than I can muster and more proper training than I possess – and when I do, I never post about it, even if I’ve snapped a pic of the aftermath. But I do make basa meunière from time to time since basa is inexpensive and the dish requires very little patience and even less proper training – dredge in seasoned flour, pan fry in brown butter, plate with capers, lemon and parsley, take photo, consume. It reminded me that I had a couple of photos hanging around from my Cooking in the Time of COVID series that I had never posted (I don’t really do French cooking, right?) so here are the consequences.

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I had been playing around with truffle fries as an accompaniment. A toss of steamed veggies on the side, because how much Fried can you eat? (Don’t answer that!)


Served with some incredible simply roasted honeynut squash. (I sang its praises in part of my Winter Squash Deep Dive series here.)
 
 
Finally, a use for the “French” tag in a post – marginally at least!