A Mess O’ Greens

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Today’s brunch actually started a few days ago. I had prepared some ribbons of collard greens (cooked just until tender, not to mushy death) using smoked pork necks as a base and my secret enhancements – a bit of butter, brown sugar, red wine vinegar, and hot sauce (not secret anymore, I guess) – in the pot likker to bring some character and complexity to it. For the uninitiated, pot likker (i.e., pot liquor) is the heavenly liquid that is left over after greens have been cooked. Needless to say, after I consumed the collards, I saved the pot likker to work its magic on another day.

Today was that other day. It happened that I had a bunch of greens from various sources in the fridge: kale, beet greens, mustard greens, and redvein dock; I also had a few stems of Tokyo turnips (aka hakurei turnips), the leaves of which would integrate perfectly with the verdant mélange, and of course, the transcendent pot likker waiting to be called upon to glorify the mundane.

On the side, I dished out some leftover potato salad with bacon (one of my signature recipes that calls for a ratio of 2 pounds of bacon to 4 pounds of potatoes plus lots of other good stuff) that I had recently made for a party (you know, how to win friends and influence people). The Japanese turnip roots got a shower of dill. But it still needed a bit more zhuzh to make a proper meal of it, so after a bit of contemplating, an over-easy fried egg with lots of freshly ground black pepper did the trick.

For a bunch of remains and surpluses, this is one of those times when the leftovers outshined their progenitors.
 
 

Tulcingo Restaurant

Part of what I’m calling the “Golden Oldies” series: photos I had posted on Instagram in bygone days that surely belong here as well, from restaurants that are still doing business, still relevant, and still worth a trip.

In a recent post I noted that there are seemingly dozens of restaurants along the Latin American strip on 5th Avenue in Brooklyn’s Sunset Park and no, I’m not going to try to eat my way through all of them. But back in April, 2017, we visited one of the neighborhood’s better known eateries and it did not disappoint. Tulcingo, at 5520 5th Ave, offers an extensive menu and we barely scratched the surface. Here are a few photos:

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Birria (it’s a two syllable word) hails from the Mexican state of Jalisco. I don’t recall if this dish was as trendy then as it is now, but I do recall that Tulcingo’s rendering was a tasty one. It’s essentially a meat stew, customarily made with goat although this version is Birria de Res so beef is the star of the show. Birria distinguishes itself from similar recipes in that the meat is marinated in savory adobo before it goes into the stew pot – and you can taste the difference.


And while we’re on the subject of beef, these are Tacos de Lengua, tongue for the uninitiated – so tender that I was about to describe it as meat that melts in your mouth but I thought the better of it. Delicious.


Shifting the focus from head to toe, or more specifically from mouth to limb, this is Pierna Adobada, pork leg, marinated and roasted to perfection.


Plato Barbacoa de Chivo. If you’ve never tried goat before, this is a good way to do it because you don’t have to wrestle with extricating bits of meat from a carcass – no bones about it. Barbacoa is marinated and traditionally steamed in a pit which guarantees juicy results although other methods of preparation can be just as successful; it’s pulled and shredded for serving.


Rice and beans to stave off teasing about how meat-heavy our dinner had been!
 
 
Tulcingo is located at 5520 5th Ave in Sunset Park, Brooklyn.
 
 

Court Order

You may remember my St. Joseph’s Day post about a visit to Brooklyn’s Court Pastry Shop, 298 Court St, to procure some sfinge for the holiday. My bathroom scale certainly does. Since everything in the display case had appeal, I had to restrain myself from my customary one-of-each-please order, but it did warrant adding add a few other items to the docket:

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Almond Biscotti and Cassata. When I was into baking Christmas cookies, I took great pride in my toasted almond biscotti with Amaretto infused dried cherries. But then I tried these. <sigh>

Sharing the spotlight is a single-serving cassata. The full-sized version is an iconic over-the-top sweet Sicilian sponge cake, saturated with rum or liqueur, stuffed with cannoli filling (often shot through with chocolate bits or candied fruit), clad in marzipan, and loaded with more calories than a Christmas dinner in Palermo.


The inner workings.


The Urban Dictionary says that “half in the bag” means “subject has consumed some alcohol” so this rum baba which is wholly in the bag means that it has consumed more than “some” alcohol; I’d suggest ubriaco.


The inner workings. Hmmm. Perhaps a straw….

The verdict: I can testify that there were no objections – and a preponderance of evidence for a continuance in the future.

 
 

Do You Hear What I Hear?

In my last post I wrote that I had been spending an inordinate amount of time in the Latin American section of Brooklyn’s Sunset Park (no, not “Parque Atardecer,” but wouldn’t that be cool?) tracking down a variety of Mexican and Central American cremas in a quest for the best. Among the scores of restaurants in the neighborhood, there is one that notably displays great tempting piles of freshly crackled chicharrónes in all their fried porky glory in its front window: La Isla Cuchifrito at 4920 5th Avenue.

La Isla Cuchifrito. Fried Pork Island. Pretty much says it all. (BTW, if anyone reading this remembers “Fried World” on Eighth Avenue in Times Square from decades ago, we can be BFFs. But I digress.) In my monomaniacal pursuit to find the crème de la cremas, I strode past that seductive window any number of times and each time I passed, a voice in my head whispered, “Just do it. You know you wanna.” Finally, the provocative whisper grew into a stentorian shout and I succumbed.

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I entered the establishment and pointed to one of the many perfect specimens of chicharrón that had been calling out to me. The fellow behind the counter extricated it from its window seat and set it on a chopping board. Brandishing his cleaver wordlessly, he cast an eye toward me as if to get permission to hack it into manageable chunks. I stopped him mid-backswing because I knew I wanted to take a photo of the whole thing once I got it home so you could see what all the fuss was about. “Entero, por favor,” I essayed.


Split down the middle to reveal the inner workings. There are three distinct layers of heavenly deliciousness here: the crackly skin that is at once crispy and crunchy, a vein of fat that I swear liquefies as you chew, and a layer of savory seasoned pork. The ideal bite comprises a bit of each.


On the plate along with some homemade arroz con gandules and some stoop line vended atole de granillo, a dense but meekly flavored corn-based gruel.

Normally at this juncture in the narrative, I would wax rhapsodic. But I’m not about to let this get cold.

Sorry, not sorry.
 
 

Cremature Judgment

The stretch of 5th Avenue between about 38th and 59th Streets in Brooklyn’s Sunset Park is a mecca for Mexican, Central and South American food (at the risk of mixing my geographic meccaphors).

My plan had been to do a definitive roundup of the varieties of crema to be found there but as Robert Burns wrote, “The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft a-gley.” Each time I set about composing the post, some new question popped up that warranted an investigation and prompted another trip back to Sunset Park: I had to stop somewhere even if I hadn’t evaluated everything there was to evaluate. So rather than an exhaustive report (because it would be exhausting to write and even more so to read), I offer these tasting notes perhaps prematurely.

I’m going to assume that you are already familiar with crema and when you run across a Mexican recipe on the interwebs that calls for sour cream, you raise an eyebrow, question its authenticity, and wonder if the result will taste pretty much like the real deal, particularly if the next ingredient is Velveeta.

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Any well-stocked supermarket around these parts is likely to have a least one brand of crema, usually Mexican style and often Tropical brand. Note that Tropical refers to its product as “cultured sour cream”; I don’t know if that’s an actual distinction or just a clarification for the American marketplace. If you see it, try it; in the vernacular of cybershorthand, IMHO any crema > any sour cream. But if you want to take a deeper dive, and you should, it’s easy to find Quesos La Ricura brand and others in Latin American neighborhoods.

The difference between these two brands of Crema Mexicana is both significant and subjective: for starters, Tropical is saltier. Regarding texture: I could be wrong but I find a lot of dairy products (including yogurt) seem to have upped the ante these days on guar gum content; it’s a stabilizing and thickening agent made from guar beans and imparts a viscous, not quite sticky quality to whatever it “enriches” but doesn’t affect the flavor. (Note that all of the brands I sampled for this post use gums of one kind or another. So does your favorite ice cream.) In this case, Tropical is thicker but gummier and, based on my experience, enjoys a longer shelf life than Quesos La Ricura, enough to make me speculate about the fingerprint of higher guar gum content. Tasted good though.


But Mexican crema only begins to plumb the depths; here are examples of Salvadoran, Honduran and Guatemalan cremas as well to champion their own rendition of this (literally) crowning achievement, each proudly displaying its flag and crowing “para el gusto de nuestros pueblos”. Gotta love it.

The nutritional info on the back of the jars as well as the ingredients listed on the front are identical; the color variations run from Honduran ivory though Guatemalan then Salvadoran and finally to Mexican snow-white.

Texture notes: Mexican and Honduran were the thinnest. Guatemalan is the heaviest, more like a hybrid of sour cream and crème fraîche.

Flavor notes: Among the four, Salvadoran was rich, salt level just right, and a little sweet (my fave if you must know); Mexican was saltiest; Honduran was salty and a little more acidic, perhaps with barely a hint of cheesiness; and Guatemalan was less tart/tangy than the others. In general, the Central American versions were a bit nuttier and richer than their Mexican counterparts.

But bear in mind that these are fine grades of distinction; YMMV based on your own personal taste and the age of the product. Age of the product? Read on….

Now, originally I thought that Guatemalan had a slight cheesy funkiness to it – but was it “on the edge”? So I went back to Sunset Park (one example of what I meant by new wrinkles hindering me from finishing this post) and bought another jar of the same brand (the one evaluated but not photographed here). Curiously, this time it was in a shorter jar like the others and topped with a white cap. Was the first one past its prime? I used it well before its sell-by date. I’ve decided that those dates should be taken with a grain of salt (ahem); technically, these all still have a month to go but I know there’s no way they’re all going to survive that long. Is it this particular brand or the store’s handling of it? We’ll never know. But don’t let that deter you: get one with a distant sell-by date and you’ll most likely be fine.

Also be aware that the variations from brand to brand are almost more important than their national styles. But in general, cremas are all richer and runnier than sour cream and that’s really what you’re after, especially if you’re not doing an OCD A/B comparison.

And I won’t even begin to talk about the commercial products that come in plastic bags, or even better, unlabeled plastic bags in the dairy case – that’s the housemade stuff and usually worth getting.

But now, a problem has emerged: What am I supposed to do with all this crema in the fridge? Expect to see some home cooking where I’ve swapped it in for sour cream, yogurt, crème fraîche or even buttermilk.
 
 
But if you see me putting it in my coffee…send help.
 
 

Japanese Curry

👨‍🍳 Cooking in the Time of COVID 👨‍🍳

It’s been a minute since I posted any homemade Japanese food but since I cooked up this Japanese curry and it wasn’t bad, I thought I’d share. Actually, the word “homemade” might be something of a stretch: the sauce comes from a package, specifically the quick ‘n’ easy, rather ubiquitous S&B Golden Curry Sauce Mix, the hot variety – and for “hot”, read medium.

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Yes, Japanese curry is a thing; as a matter of fact it’s considered to be one of the country’s top two national dishes (the other being ramen) which are only then followed by sushi and miso soup. From The Japan Times: “The spice mix known as curry powder and curried dishes were most likely introduced to Japan via the Anglo-Indian officers of the royal Navy and other stalwarts of the British Empire. They were among the first Westerners the Japanese came into contact with, after Commodore Matthew Perry landed his Black Ships at Kurihama in 1853, opening the country to the world after hundreds of years of isolation. Since this new dish came from the West, as far as these Japanese travelers were concerned, it was classified as yōshoku (Western food)….”


After years of tinkering with flavor profiles and targeting them to local tastes, Japanese curry came of age, a countrywide comfort food that exhibits little similarity to the Anglo-Indian dishes that gave rise to it. Inside the box, you’ll find blocks of curry sauce mix, essentially an instant roux packed with all the typical flavorings. The instructions couldn’t be simpler: stir-fry chunks of your protein of choice (I used beef) along with some vegetables (onion, carrot, etc.) in oil for 5 minutes, add water, bring to a boil, and simmer for about 15 minutes.

Now if you do any cooking at all, you will immediately recognize that there’s no way red meat is going to tenderize during that meager interval, so put your optimism back in the pantry, take out your patience, and let the dish simmer covered for a good deal more time until the meat is actually tender. Then turn the heat off, break the curry-roux bricks into pieces, add them to the skillet, and stir until the sauce mix has dissolved completely. Simmer and stir for another 5 minutes or so.

I kicked up mine with some yuzu shichimi togarashi (seven spice mixture) that includes dried yuzu peel and red chili pepper and topped the rice with furikake. Raw scallion is a good foil for cooked beef and more important, I had some on hand, so why not?

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

Look by Plant Love House

Part of what I’m calling the “Golden Oldies” series: photos I had posted on Instagram in bygone days that surely belong here as well, from restaurants that are still doing business, still relevant, and still worth a trip.

Here are some pix from multiple occasions in 2016 and 2017 that were taken at Look by Plant Love House, the cozy Thai restaurant at 622 Washington Avenue in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn. I dined there on a number of occasions and liked their Thai home cooking so much that I subsequently brought an assortment of foodie friends there to check it out as well. (Apologies for the grainy photos – I used the wrong film in the camera 😉 – but I can assure you that the food was significantly better than the pix!) In no special order:

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Chiang Mai Khao Soy, a Thai classic that highlights noodles two ways: Soft egg noodles swaddling chicken in Chiang Mai curry sauce topped with crispy egg noodles, accompanied by red onion, pickled cabbage, cilantro and lime.


Guay Tiao Num Tok (Pork Blood Noodle Soup). Don’t be squeamish about this one now that you know its ingredients; it deserves the popularity it enjoys back home! Thai boat noodle soup flavored with palm sugar, vinegar and Thai chili featuring sliced pork, pork balls, Chinese broccoli, and bean sprouts.


Hor Mok Pla, a seasonal special. As described on their menu: “a pair of banana-leaf cups filled with an airy, mousselike custard of finely ground fish, decorated with coconut cream, finely julienned makrut lime leaf, and red chili threads.” According to Wikipedia, the dish is associated with marriage because the marriage of ingredients within it is representative of the love of a married couple. And since everyone I shared it with seems to love the dish, that sounds about right to me.


Khao Kluk Kapi. Fried rice mixed with shrimp paste formed and surrounded by fried mackerel, Thai sausage, fried eggplant, shredded omelet, and more.


Khao Pad Nam Prik Pla Too. Another spicy shrimp paste rice platter (khao means rice), this time served with a fried whole mackerel, fried eggplant, steamed carrots and broccoli, a boiled egg and (if memory serves) fermented shrimp paste dip.


Moo Manow – moo means pork (easy to remember because of the barnyard irony); this dish consists of juicy chunks of pork dressed in garlic-chili-lime sauce served over Chinese baby broccoli.


Nam Prik Ong. Pork rinds, broccoli, and cucumber (plus jasmine sticky rice not in this photo) served with Chiang Mai’s favorite medium-spicy dipping sauce made from minced pork and tomatoes.


Num Prik Phow Tom Yum Goong Yai. Sounds like a mouthful, but let’s break it down: “num prik phow” = Thai chili paste; “tom” = to boil and “yum” is the spicy hot and sour salad you know and love, hence “tom yum” = hot and sour soup; “goong” = shrimp; “yai” = large. The menu description is “rice noodle in Thai chili paste soup with jumbo shrimp, homemade pork patty, bacon, and soft boiled egg. Not sure if the bacon is in there to complement the egg, but we sent our compliments to the chef. As I think about it, in either language, that is a mouthful – and a delicious one at that!


Pla Lui Suan. Fried fillet of red snapper covered with Thai herbs (makrut lime leaves, galangal, red onion, shallot, and mint), topped with cashew nuts and fresh chili-lime sauce.


Yum Pak Boong Grob. Crispy watercress salad with chili-lime sauce, shrimp, and minced pork, topped with crispy shallots, cilantro and peanuts. The green vegetable is known by a raft of names – fitting because it’s semiaquatic: water spinach, kangkong, Chinese watercress, morning glory, and water convolvulus to name a few; you can identify it in Asian markets by its hollow stems. Translation: yum = spicy salad, pak boong = water spinach, grob = crispy (because it’s fried).


Panang Ped. Roasted farm-raised half duck in panang curry paste, coconut milk, makrut lime leaves, string beans, and bell pepper.
 
 
Look by Plant Love House is located at 622 Washington Avenue in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn.
 
 

Honeycomb Cake

I’ve written about this triumph of texture over gravity before; in that post I described Vietnamese Pandan Cake, Bánh Bò Nướng, easily identified by its emerald hue, but Honeycomb Cake, aka Beehive Cake, has its fans throughout Southeast Asia and in China as well. It’s easy enough to find a snow white version in Chinatown bakeries around these parts (sometimes even on dim sum carts) but less frequently a chocolate colored (notice, I said colored, not flavored) variety like this one from Dragon Bay Bakery at 5711 8th Avenue in Sunset Park, Brooklyn.

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Above, a slab cut from the loaf; this piece is about nine inches long. It’s sweet but not too sweet, which I know will be welcome news to many of you; its texture is the key to its charm.

How does it come to look like this? Recipes differ. I’ve read that the type of flour used can be rice (common), tapioca (often in the Vietnamese version), or even wheat; the leavening agent, yeast (common), baking soda, baking powder, or a combination thereof; even the method of preparation can vary from steamed (common), to baked, or stovetop pan “griddled”. But somehow, the results manage to be rather similar: springy, bouncy, airy, spongy, fluffy, chewy, and squishy.

(Which quite by coincidence, I think were the names of the Seven Dwarfs. But I could be wrong about that.)


A more modest slice revealing the light cakey-looking top layer and the virtually weightless honeycomb structure supporting it. Its color comes from the use of brown sugar instead of white.


Still don’t get the “honeycomb” part? Here’s a cross section of the above slice, cut against the grain.
 
 
And a reminder: New York City boasts at least six Chinatowns and perhaps a few more depending upon your definition of what constitutes a Chinatown; just pick one and go! Now, more than ever, please SUPPORT CHINATOWN!
 
 

Two More from Tashkent Market

Two more quick bites from Tashkent Market on Brighton Beach Ave, Brooklyn, one of the stops on my Little Odessa ethnojunket, as I continue deliberations regarding its post-pandemic resumption.

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I’ve written about steamed manti before – the Turkic/Central Asian fist-sized dumplings often filled with juicy, delicately seasoned lamb and onions diced into chunks. These are Uyghur style fried manti, every bit as delicious as their steamed cousins.


And the inner workings, of course.


This one was new to me. The sign read “Men Caprese Salad”, the dish itself was hidden beneath a snowdrift of freshly grated cheese (therefore no visual clues) and nary a staffer could tell me anything about it in any mutually intelligible language.

So of course, I bought some.

On my way out, I glanced at the receipt: “Salad Men Caprice” was the spelling this time – still no help. But from having shoveled into it, I inferred that a connection to Italian caprese salad was specious: no sign of tomatoes or basil although the shredded cheese looked not unlike a firm mozzarella.


When I got it home, this is what I found: chopped hard boiled eggs, cubes of beef (likely boiled), shredded cheese (a semi-firm cow’s milk cheese it seemed), and lots of mayo and salt. So sort of a pumped-up egg salad. Pretty tasty, actually.

Later, I did manage to turn up a single website specializing in German and Russian travel and restaurants that referred to it: “The ‘Men’s Caprice’ salad is an invention of the Soviet era (although the name likely appeared quite recently). The gist of it is to take the most simple and satisfying ingredients and prepare a salad so that a hungry man has a full belly.”

Sounds right to me.

Lots more on my Little Odessa ethnojunket – if and when!
 
 

D’oh!

On April 24, Dough Doughnuts opened a new location in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn. Normally I wouldn’t go out of my way for a doughnut, but I had witnessed the mountains of accolades heaped upon this legendary bakery and now, since it had found a home in my neighborhood, I braved the lines and selected four:

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From upper left, clockwise:
• Boston Cream, custard filled and topped with chocolate glaze and “soil”
• Brooklyn Blackout, a chocolate doughnut filled with chocolate pastry cream and topped with “chocolate soil”
• Banana Hazelnut, not a filled variety
• Cheesecake with Red Velvet Topping

And for those who crave a look into the inner workings:

Boston Cream


Brooklyn Blackout


Banana Hazelnut


Cheesecake with Red Velvet Topping

Now for the heresy: I’m glad I bought four (at $4.50 each!) because had there been only one, I would have thought, “Damn, it’s a little stale – probably a day or two old”, but the odds of all four being substandard were infinitesimal. They were thick, dry, dense, heavy, bready, not flavorful – actually a little sour tasting but not in a yeasty good way, with a paucity of filling – and not very good filling at that.

And just to be snarky, here’s a photo from years ago of the outstanding product from Doughnut Plant that I hadn’t really intended to include in this post until now.


Top row: coconut crème (filled), peanut butter blackberry jam (filled); bottom: vanilla blackberry jam dough seed, crème brûlée dough seed, marzipan star.

Had the opening been on April 1 rather than April 24, I might have caught the joke. But it wasn’t.

Seriously, people, what am I missing?

If you’re one of those folks who get all twitterpated over Dough’s doughnuts, please explain your passion to me – particularly if you’ve ever reveled in the joy that is a Doughnut Plant doughnut.