Fish & Chips

👨‍🍳 Cooking in the Time of COVID 👨‍🍳

I haven’t made beer battered codfish in a long while, and since my local supermarket had both essential ingredients (well, they always have beer but cod is less common there), and the fish appeared to be on sale (I wouldn’t know: like I said, they don’t usually have it), I thought I’d give it another go.

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Everything was fair game for the deep fryer that day, so (clockwise from the left) those are scallions (not bad), fries (chips, call ’em what you will), onion rings (a complete afterthought because I had too much batter left over) and the codfish. Homebrew tartar sauce at the center because I use it so infrequently that it doesn’t pay to buy a bottle since it won’t keep forever and I end up tossing it. (Mine’s better anyway. 😉)


Close up of crispy flakiness – or is that flaky crispness?


Considering they were unplanned, the onion rings turned out surprisingly well.

The perfectly sliced, bright yellow, juicy fresh lemon wedges may still be on the kitchen counter.

Will I never learn? 😑
 
 
Stay safe, be well, and eat whatever it takes. ❤️
 
 

Purim 2021

The Jewish holiday Purim begins this year (it’s 5781 according to the Jewish calendar) on Thursday evening, February 25, and ends on the following Friday evening. Although this post was originally published a year ago, some things never change. Tradition!

The story of Purim memorializes the time in ancient Jewish history when Haman, royal vizier to King Ahasuerus of Persia, had been plotting to exterminate all the Jews in the empire. His plan was thwarted by Mordecai and Queen Esther, his adopted daughter, and the deliverance is one of joyful celebration, steeped in traditional ceremonies and festivities. Among the many icons of the holiday, one of the most renowned is the hamantasch, literally “Haman’s pocket”.

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Hamantaschen are delicious triangular baked pastries conventionally filled with thick prune jam (lekvar) or ground poppy seeds (muhn), but these days creative cookery presents some serious competition. Happily, the always mind-blowing Breads Bakery, 18 E 16th St in Manhattan, covers the entire spectrum. On this plate, there’s sweet Poppy Seed, Halva, Chocolate, and Apple (their signature flavors) along with a pair of savory challengers, Purple Haze and Pizza. The former, covered in sesame and nigella seeds, holds sauerkraut – a little sweetish and worth a bite even if you don’t care for sauerkraut. The latter is filled with a blend of tomato paste, mozzarella and parmesan cheeses, basil, garlic, and olive oil and tastes exactly like what you’d expect with that set of ingredients; try warming this one up. Fusion food for sure.


Sometimes a change of focus helps to make a point – or six.
 
 

Leftover Gravy, Swiss Steak, and a Flashback

👨‍🍳 Cooking in the Time of COVID 👨‍🍳

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This is not a TV Dinner. Nor does it play one on TV; that would be too meta. (Ceci n’est pas une pipe, either.) Rather, it is a refrigerator magnet measuring 4" x 3" that I bought because it struck a responsive chord in my retro heart, a dissonant chord that reminded me of my culinarily deprived childhood during which my mother’s oblivious ineptness in the kitchen relegated us to a daily sentence of Swanson’s TV Dinners and Morton’s Chicken Pot Pies. (Curious? Read “How I Got Into Cooking” if you dare.)


In any event, this all started because I had been staring at my refrigerator pondering how I should repurpose the gravy from the pernil I had recently made (see post) and since that magnet was in my direct line of sight, an itching, quirky thought of reproducing the nostalgic Swiss Steak dinner rushed into my head. So I set out to replicate the dish in all of its 60s splendor, but in a rendition, courtesy of the aforementioned gravy, that would actually taste better than either the refrigerator magnet or its original subject.

Good thing I couldn’t remember what that thing in the middle was supposed to be or I might have taken a crack at that too. It’s possible that the good folks at Swanson never really identified it as anything beyond a “yummy dessert treat topped with a sweet red maraschino cherry!” or words to that effect. My taste memories of it draw a blank. Can’t imagine why.

Happily, and ghoulish flashbacks notwithstanding, the end result, appropriately presented here, was infinitely better than the ur-dinner.

But I still couldn’t resist throwing the canonical frozen pat of butter onto the mashed potatoes.
 
 
Stay safe, be well, and eat whatever it takes. ❤️
 
 

Pernil

👨‍🍳 Cooking in the Time of COVID 👨‍🍳

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Saying that pernil is basically a pork roast is like saying that Christmas is basically a holiday. I mean, it’s true as far as it goes if reductionist understatement is your thing, but I’m confident that if you’re familiar with pernil, you understand why I find it irresistible. And apropos of that analogy, in parts of Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Cuba and elsewhere in Latin America, Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without it; fortunately, it’s a year-round treat. Each region champions its own slightly different spin on the recipe. Having experimented with many variations over many years, I’ve developed my own take on it as well; I can’t lay claim to any degree of authenticity, but I can proudly state that it is delicious.

I’ve found a multitude of recipes online set off by stunning photos more tantalizing than any I could ever capture, but I can’t help but be a little circumspect about some of them. For example, one suggested working in the garlic and rubbing in the spices just before cooking; my interpretation (like so many others) marinates the pork in the fridge for about 48 hours. That may have been the same recipe whose snapshot included a kitchen knife presumably responsible for those freshly carved picture-perfectly smooth slices. Again, I’m no expert, but I’ve never seen it served like that. You don’t carve pernil. You pull it apart with tongs or forks but never cut it into elegant slices. And I suspect that that was also the recipe that called for roasting it at 350° for three hours. Three hours? No wonder they had to use a carving knife! After three hours, pernil is cooked, but it isn’t done. What you see here came from a pork shoulder that spent fully 8½ hours in an oven that limboed as low as it could go (what’s the opposite of 11?) until the final minutes when I cranked up the heat to crisp the skin. (Mmmmm….chicharrónes!)


I serve it with arroz con gandules (the time-honored accompaniment of rice and pigeon peas) and maduros (fried ultra-ripe plantains: if a potato and a banana had a love child…well, you get the idea). Tostones are traditional, but I can never get enough maduros.

I’m pleased with my ultimate combination of herbs and spices that collaborate with all the garlic that goes into the marinade – cumin, oregano, Goya Sazón with culantro y achiote, and also with cilantro y tomate, adobo, black pepper, paprika, fresh cilantro, plus a little chipotle in adobo (totally inauthentic) and naranja agria (bitter/sour orange juice) for the all-important acid component, olive oil, and lots more. As a matter of fact, that marinade, after cooking, transmogrifies into the most amazing gravy. But since I’ve never seen gravy served with pernil, I always reserve it: waste not, etc.

If you’re curious about how I repurposed it this time, stay tuned for the next post!
 
 
Stay safe, be well, and eat whatever it takes. ❤️
 
 

Open Heart Sugary – or, the Anatomy of a Valentine Cookie

👨‍🍳 Cooking in the Time of COVID 👨‍🍳

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These are Red Currant Raspberry Linzer Cookies, first cousins of Austria’s Linzer Tart – traditionally, I do stars for Christmas and hearts for Valentine’s Day. This particular batch began months earlier with the acquisition of red currants and raspberries when they were in season followed by a little time spent prepping and cooking them up. It’s a lot easier than you’d expect and the filling keeps for quite a while in the fridge while you’re procrastinating doing the fussy part. If you’re not a fanatic, however, I can recommend Hero Red Currant Premium Fruit Spread; I’ve had pretty good luck with it – it just needs a bit of finessing via the addition of some red raspberry jam to achieve the degree of sweetness you’re after plus some straining.


The dough calls for flour, sugar, and butter, of course, plus finely ground blanched almonds, almond extract, and lemon zest. Start by baking equal numbers of fronts and backs. Occasionally a front or back will fracture which then perforce spells doom for its perfectly intact intended mate, but sadly, I’ve never found an effective way to repair a broken heart. Sometimes, you just have to eat your losses. This is an example of how culinary art reflects life. But hey, that’s the way the cookie crumbles.


Look closely at the finished cookies in the first photo and you’ll see that the powdered sugar blankets only the outer section of the heart while the inner red lifeblood of this classic treat shines through unobstructed. Now, examine the above photo and follow along to see how I do it:

Bottom rows:
Starting with solid backs, use a plastic squeeze bottle to add preserves around the perimeter but not in the center. (Neatness doesn’t count.) Match tops to bottoms.

Top rows:
Let it snow, let it snow, etc. Note the unfilled but sugary centers. Next, squirt a blob of preserves into the cutout thereby hiding the powdered sugar.

Now, here’s the painstakingly obsessive step (why do I do these things?): then and only then, for each cookie, carefully use a toothpick to smooth out any less than perfect curves of the inner heart, et voilà! Your cookies will look like those in the first photo. Maybe better. (Why can’t they make Photoshop for food?)
 
 
When the cookies are complete and have been packed away, your workspace will look like this one, post-sugaring and pre-cleanup, an exercise in negative space.

And the beat goes on.
 
 
Stay safe, be well, and eat whatever it takes. ❤️
 
 

Home Brew Char Siu

👨‍🍳 Cooking in the Time of COVID 👨‍🍳

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One more from the Year of the Ox dinner.

Nothing fancy but very tasty: homemade char siu, Cantonese style roast pork. Marinated to make it flavorful and tender, steam roasted over hot water to keep it moist, then a searing stopover under the broiler for a crispy-edged finish. Leftovers destined for fried rice…or perhaps a noodle dish…wait, maybe a stir fry….

(Guess I’ve gotta give this more thought. Watch this space!)

Here’s to a healthy, prosperous, and happy New Year of the Ox!

新年快乐!

Xīnnián kuàilè!
 
 
Stay safe, be well, and eat whatever it takes. ❤️
 
 

Chinese New Year 4719 (2021)

👨‍🍳 Cooking in the Time of COVID 👨‍🍳

The Chinese observation of the Lunar New Year is upon us: it’s 4719, the Year of the Ox, known for his determination and strength. Fortuitously, the Ox also possesses great patience, and I am positive that he will be standing by us diligently throughout these distressing times until next year charges in like a raging Tiger and we can all celebrate together as we once did.

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But even a pandemic can’t stop us from embracing all of the traditions that make this holiday so extraordinary. One that I particularly enjoy is the way in which wordplay and homophones factor into the selection of traditional foods specially prepared to mark the occasion. For example, at festive gatherings a whole fish will be served, because the word for fish (yu) is a homophone for surpluses.

Now frankly, I could use some surpluses these days and the notion of a whole steamed fish festooned with fresh ginger and scallions appealed to me. However, I knew I wasn’t going to make it to any Chinatown fish markets this year and since I’m cooking for one, the idea that I might find a small enough whole fish locally seemed to be a lost cause. But as I traversed the aisles of my neighborhood supermarket, what to my wondering eyes should appear (I know, wrong holiday), just lying there all alone, curiously out of place in the meat case, was this diminutive porgy, the only one to be seen.

Because it came from a chain operation, I expected it to be prepped and ready to face my culinary endeavors head on. But no. Removing it from its plastic wrapped Styrofoam tray, I found it very much unscaled, ungutted, uncleaned – in other words, totally intact! It’s not that I’m averse to prepping a fish – I’ve done it plenty of times – but I was surprised that this was how it was packaged at my local white-bread American supermarket.

Since it was the only one if its ilk in the case and seemingly untouched by human hands to boot, it occurred to me that it might have been freshly caught, straight out of the Gowanus Canal, perhaps. (“Hey, let’s see if anybody’ll buy this!”) I mused that it might lend a certain aromatic je ne sais quoi to its flavor profile. Since this is the Year of the Ox, a bullhead catfish might be a more appropriate choice – after all, it would cover both bases – but this rogue porgy was all I could land. In any event, I obviously lived to tell the tale and I’m happy to report that it turned out to be quite tasty.

But how that porgy got there is still a complete mystery to me. Which reminds me of another Lunar New Year tale when my inner ox was thwarted in attempting to access a particular nian gao (the traditional sweet rice cake and a homophone for high year) no matter how much determination and strength he could muster – and what should have literally been a snap became a classic mystery.

Curious? Please read my very short story, “The Case of the Uncrackable Case!”

新年快乐! Xīnnián kuàilè!

 
 
Stay safe, be well, and eat whatever it takes. ❤️
 
 

50 Ways to Love Your Liver

👨‍🍳 Cooking in the Time of COVID 👨‍🍳

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There must be 50 ways, I thought, so I set about searching for some unusual ones. Easier sung than done though.

I confess to being a lifelong liver lover, but I do know folks who are liver leavers, some tracing the trauma back to a childhood experience with a Chaplinesque dinner of shoe leather liver, so I’m always on the lookout for more palatable variations. I wrote about South African Chicken Livers Peri Peri a while ago (one of my favorite treatments for liver) and now I’ve unearthed this Persian dish called Jaghoor Baghoor. You might see it as Jaghul Baghul or any number of alternate spellings where double o’s and single u’s get swapped and l’s and r’s freely do-si-do. And there are as many unique tweaks for it as there are spellings.

A traditional dish from Zanjan province in northwestern Iran, it calls for lamb liver, onions, optional mushrooms, and fried potatoes – fairly prosaic, right? But what attracted me was the unlikely combination of three (and only three) flavor additions that make it distinct: tomato paste, pomegranate syrup (one of those aforementioned unique tweaks), and more turmeric than I’d ever think to use in a single dish.

The overall effect is not one of sweetness; rather it has background notes of umami from the tomato paste, tart fruitiness from the pomegranate, and earthiness from the turmeric.

Most of the recipes I found for the dish (and there really aren’t many) call for lamb liver but they all say that beef or calf liver can be used. Due to COVID, however, I couldn’t get my hands on any of those, so I had to make do with chicken liver. What can I say? During a pandemic, bloggers can’t be choosers.

Of course, while I was making it, I kept hearing in my head:

You just get out the pan, Dan
Toss in the veg, Reg
Then you throw in the meat, Clete
And crank up the heat

Just fry up a spud, Bud
You don’t need to make rice, Bryce
Now the dish is complete, Pete
And you’re in for a treat.

 
 
(With sincere apologies to Paul Simon.)
 
 
Stay safe, be well, and eat whatever it takes. ❤️
 
 

Dek Sen

Part of what I’m calling the “Golden Oldies” series: photos from bygone days taken at restaurants that are still doing business, still relevant, and still worth a trip. These came from a number of visits; some made it to Instagram, others made it here to ethnojunkie.com, and still others never made it off my hard drive, so this is a collection that spans a few years of happy eating.

Dek Sen (literally “child noodles”), one of my favorite casual restaurants for Isaan Thai cuisine, has never let me down. Located at 86-08 Whitney Ave, Elmhurst, it has always been a stop along my Ethnic Eats in Elmhurst ethnojunket and will be again when things get rolling.

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Tiger Cry from the Starters section of the menu. Grilled marinated skirt steak with jaew sauce (chili dipping sauce). If this is what it tastes like when tigers cry, I guess those must be tears of jaew. <groan>


Dek Sen’s Tub Wann appetizer won’t leave you wannting: pork liver and red onion on a bed of greens. Ground roasted sticky rice for some crunch, lime juice, mint, scallion, and cilantro for some punch.


Zabb (very literally “delicious”) Wings. When you see zabb (you might also see zaab) it’s your clue that you’re dealing with food from the northeast region (Isaan, Isan, Isarn, et al.) of Thailand. Dusted with a crunchy coating that combines chili and lime, these wings are crisp, spicy, not at all greasy, and they definitely live up to their moniker.


Crispy Mussels Pancake, a signature dish. Fried egg pancake with mussels over sautéed bean sprouts served with Sriracha sauce.


The ever popular hot and sour soup, Tom Yum (“tom” means boil and “yum” means mixed). This one features minced pork, pork liver, fish balls, a perfectly boiled egg, bean sprouts, peanuts, scallions, and cilantro and is topped with fried wonton and fried garlic. Yum indeed!


Ka Nom Jeen Nam Ya (you might see khanom chin or other spellings). Khanom jeen are thin vermicelli noodles made from mildly fermented rice, here supporting “special curry chicken” with fish balls and fresh vegetables, a signature dish.


Pork and Pepper with Egg. A spicy offering with a focus on ground pork crowned with basil; the crispy fried egg on the side acts as a foil to the spice level of the pork.


Phuket Chili Fried Rice. Saw this one on the blackboard so I don’t know if it’s a regular. It’s redolent of homemade royal shrimp paste and served with mackerel, a boiled egg, and steamed vegetables.


And what’s for dessert? Rainbow Crepe Cake! This was only the 4,257,369th photo of Dek Sen’s rainbow crepe cake on Instagram! 😉 But I might just have been one of the first to mention that it tasted delicious as well. “Dek” means child in Thai and if this doesn’t have you channeling your inner unicorn, I don’t know what will.
 
 
Dek Sen is located at 86-08 Whitney Ave, Elmhurst, Queens.
 
 

Dal Palak

👨‍🍳 Cooking in the Time of COVID 👨‍🍳

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It was one of those days when I didn’t want to put a lot of thought into what I’d make for dinner; I opted for easy vegetarian fare: masoor dal (red lentils, aka football lentils) – orange in the package but yellow after cooking – prepared with chopped onions, garlic, ginger and a bunch of Indian spices and herbs including curry leaves, plus fresh spinach (palak) to greenify it. On the side, two kinds of papadums, thin Indian crisps that fry up in a trice.

It was also one of those days when I didn’t write down which spices and herbs I had used because I was too hungry to care and then the dish turned out to be great.

I’ll never learn.
 
 
Stay safe, be well, and eat whatever it takes. ❤️