Kung Pao in the Time of COVID

👨‍🍳 Cooking in the Time of COVID 👨‍🍳

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As a hedge against renewed COVID angst and the current wave of Kafkaesque national politics, I’m cleaving to this course again for a little while, just until the omicron spike subsides. (Some say the graph is shaped like an ice pick but I can’t help seeing it as an inverted hypodermic needle.)

Because I ran out of Ben & Jerry’s but I did have chicken and crunchy peanuts on hand, Kung Pao will have to do for today’s comfort food.

In addition to those two ingredients, I added red bell peppers and scallions along with dried chili peppers, Sichuan peppercorns, garlic, ginger, and yibin yacai (preserved mustard greens) for the aromatic flavor burst component, and sugar, soy sauce, Shaoxing wine, Zhenjiang vinegar, and Guizhou fermented black bean chili sauce to keep it together.

And apropos of keeping it together, I can’t help but wonder if it’s possible that between the red bell peppers and the green scallions, I was subconsciously trying to keep Christmas around a little longer.
 
 
Stay safe, be well, and eat whatever it takes. ❤️
 
 

Pongal

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Pongal, the holiday, is a four day long harvest festival occurring around mid-January (on the 14th this year) that is observed primarily in the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu but like most spiritual anniversaries can’t really be confined to a specific geographical area, diasporas being what they are. One of the most important holidays celebrated by the Tamil community, it is characterized by social gatherings, time-honored rituals, prayers for health, happiness, and prosperity, and, of course, traditional foods. Bidding farewell to the winter solstice and marking the beginning of the sun god’s annual ascent in the zodiac, each day of the holiday features its own set of conventions. It is the second and principal day on which pongal, the dish, is prepared.

The word pongal means to boil or spill over and the seasonal milk plus newly harvested rice preparation does indeed overflow as it cooks, symbolizing the abundant harvest for which participants exuberantly give thanks. The dish manifests in two varieties: sweet (chakkara or sakkarai pongal) which calls for jaggery (unrefined cane sugar) along with raisins, cashews, and spices like cardamom, and savory (ven or khara pongal) which emphasizes an array of more potent spices and herbs.

A multitude of recipes is extant, of course, some saturated with copious ghee (usually the savory variants), some shot through with coconut (usually the sweet), but most of the recipes I’ve found call for the addition of moong dal (mung bean or green gram) to keep company with the rice, similar to North Indian dal khichdi. For today’s culinary adventure, I decided to prepare the savory version.

After toasting the dal, I cooked it together with rice in equal parts (again, recipes vary, often with more rice than dal) using more water than customary to achieve the proper cohesive consistency; they’re prepared sans seasoning – all of the distinctive ingredients are folded in afterwards.

One of the essentials of many world cuisines involves dry toasting spices to bring out their essence. In addition to employing that technique, Indian cuisine takes it one step further by making a tadka, tempering whole herbs and spices in oil to bloom their flavors beyond dry roasting and to flavor the oil as well; it’s the foundation of many Indian dishes and one I frequently use. In this case, ghee provided the lipid component (make sure it’s high quality and fresh) and my “distinctive ingredients” were cashew nuts, cumin seeds, cracked Tellicherry peppercorns for their citrusy notes, curry leaves, grated fresh ginger, green chilies, a pinch of hing (aka asafoetida) and turmeric.

Simply fold the tadka into the prepared rice and dal mixture, cook for another minute or two, et voilà. The texture of the dish should be a little like risotto, think porridge rather than discrete grains like biryani – after all, it’s comfort food; some recipes even call for mashing the rice a bit. It’s often served with coconut chutney (see photo) and sambar.

I confess to consuming it with greedy gusto since this particular combination of cashews, herbs and spices really resonates for me; of course, now I’m craving the sweet version too. Next time!
 
 
Happy Pongal!
 
 

Korean American Day

Korean American Day commemorates the arrival of the first Korean immigrants to the United States on January 13, 1903 and honors the contributions the Korean American community has made to this country.

In recognition of the annual January 13th celebration, I offer some pix from Mokbar, the Korean restaurant at 212 Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn near Barclays Center. A bit of research reveals that Mokbar is still holding strong at that address and has two locations in Manhattan food courts as well, in Chelsea Market (75 9th Ave) and at the Hugh (601 Lexington Ave & 157 East 53rd St); you can order online from any of them.

Here’s a lookback at what we enjoyed at the Brooklyn venue in 2017 BC (Before COVID).

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From the jipbap (“set menu”), we couldn’t forgo the Jaeyook – crispy pork belly with caramelized kimchi and onions. Easy to see why.


Kalbi Mandu – dumplings filled with marinated beef, caramelized onion, and garlic chives.


Tteokkboki – brown butter rice cakes with bacon, minced pork, white kimchi, and poached egg.


A particularly delicious Ho’ Cake (Mokbar’s spin on hotteok, Korean sweet pancakes); these delights are filled with braised pork belly and served with a kimchi dipping sauce.


Mok Wings – crispy chicken wings with spicy gochujang.


Pajeon – Korean pancakes with charred scallion and garlic chives.

 
 

Egg Drop Soup

And speaking of holiday leftovers….

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I usually use chicken broth when I make egg drop soup.

But the idea here was to use up all the leftover turkey with deference to glorified frugality beyond the ritual turkey salad sandwiches, turkey hash, turkey mole, turkey tetrazzini, turkey burritos, turkey pot pie (see last post) and an occasional treat for the cats, so the broth that went into this dish was made from leftover roasted turkey bones.

If only I had a leftover turkey egg to use in this…. 🙃
 
 

Turkey Pot Pie

I’ve written about the procession of leftover Thanksgiving turkey dishes that parade through my kitchen annually, but I’ve never posted any proof. So if you don’t mind a few more Home Cookin’ pix, here, in reverse order of presentation, are some photos of this year’s Turkey Pot Pie. The lacy crispy bits are fried Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, aka frico.

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Plated: prettified with parmesan and peppered with parsley.


Preparatory probe plowing into pot pie prior to plating.


Preliminary portrait. Picture perfect – practically. 🤷
 
 
Clearly, I have too much time on my hands. 😉
 
 

Russian Orthodox Christmas

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I was having a conversation with a friend just the other day. “The holidays are over,” she sighed. “No more excuses to procrastinate.”

“Don’t be so sure,” I countered. “Remember, you’re talking to the Equal Opportunity Celebrant.”

“Okay, so what’s up next?” she asked, grateful for the reprieve.

“Russian Orthodox Christmas.”

“Russians celebrate Christmas?”

“Indeed they do, every January 7. And it’s pretty cool, especially the ritual of flinging a spoonful of a very special Christmas treat up to the ceiling to see if it sticks.”

So I pointed her to a story that I had written long ago. Precisely the story I’m pointing you to right now. Read on….
 
 

Alternate Side of the Sweet

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If you read me regularly, you know that I didn’t orchestrate an over-the-top Thanksgiving feast this year; our annual gathering was an out-of-state potluck with each family member contributing some favorite side dishes. (I brought these two.)

But I missed my Dandy Brandied Candied Yams. (Actually, they’re sweet potatoes, but that’s a story for another day.) On a subsequent shopping trip, I tossed one in the basket, but upon contemplating the solitary and rather forlorn looking sweet potato back in my kitchen, I knew that I wasn’t going to go through the process of creating a mini version of the elaborate side dish for just myself. I also knew that I wasn’t really up for a plain roasted sweet potato, no matter how much butter I doused it with. I needed to come up with an alternate side for that sweet potato.

So I decided to experiment. (Mwah-ha-ha!) I performed a cursory inventory of the fridge and the pantry and hatched a scheme: Roast the root, mash the flesh and instead of brown sugar for sweetness and butter for creamy unctuousness (two of the many DBCY ingredients), I’d use eggnog.

Now wait – before you go “Ewww!” stay with me; this is how recipes are born. Upon testing, the theory proved reasonably solid although it needed some intensification. For texture, I added some butter-toasted pecan pieces and crystallized ginger (both of which I had on hand). But it still needed a bit more sweetness (I was surprised, too) plus a jolt of spice so I drizzled a thread of maple syrup over the nogified veggie mash and sprinkled a bit of cinnamon and freshly grated nutmeg on top.

Trust me: if it hadn’t worked, I wouldn’t have taken the time to photograph it and write it up for future fine tuning. Reckless abandon to the rescue again!
 
 

Joyful Kwanzaa!

Kwanzaa is the annual celebration of African-American heritage, unity, and culture; it begins on the day after Christmas and extends through January 1. The name Kwanzaa comes from the Swahili phrase “matunda ya kwanza” which means “first fruits” referencing the first fruits festivals in Southern Africa.

It’s no secret that I’m a fan of the many and varied cuisines in Africa and over the years it has been my pleasure to write about some delicious meals I’ve had the good fortune to experience at numerous African restaurants. Some of you know that I also enjoy cooking these cuisines at home; I make no claim to any expertise or authenticity in these West African dishes, but I was happy with the way they turned out so I’m sharing some here, virtually, with you.

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Groundnut Stew, also known as peanut stew, maafe, sauce d’arachide, and other handles depending upon its country of origin. This version started with a base of onions, canned tomatoes, and chilies, garlic and fresh ginger, then some chicken stock and spices including soumbala (ground néré seeds), with the addition of creamy natural peanut butter and ground peanuts, sweet potatoes and leafy greens. Pounded cocoyam (aka malanga) on the side.


Fish and Yam Soup. Fresh red snapper, stockfish, smoked bonga fish, dried prawns, crayfish powder, two kinds of yam, potato leaf, water leaf, and a fistful of spices. Fufu, plantain this time, at the ready.


Jollof Rice. A playful rivalry endures between Ghanaian and Nigerian recipes over this popular dish and I’m not getting in the middle of it! This one is closer to a Ghanaian version in that it uses jasmine rice as opposed to the long-grain rice found in Nigerian kitchens. There’s a base of tomatoes, onion, green peppers, ginger and garlic, and the seasoning I used this time (it’s not set in stone) contains Maggi cubes, Jamaican curry powder, star anise, smoked paprika, soumbala, pepper soup spice blend, and a touch of shito (hot pepper sauce) among others. That’s a green, yellow, and orange Scotch bonnet pepper in the corner and a smoked turkey tail on the side.


Palmnut Cream Stew. My rendition with chicken, smoked dried fish, squash, plantain, tomato and kale, fufu to make it complete.


Kelewele. Spicy, fried ripe plantains with a toss of peanuts for some crunch. Every country in West Africa has its own recipe, of course!


Thiakry. A sweet dessert made from millet. My spin on it contains swirls of baobab with peanut crème (which itself is the basis for another dessert called Ngalakh).
 
 
Joyful Kwanzaa!
 
 

Insalata di Frutti di Mare Revisited

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I mentioned my homemade Insalata di Frutti di Mare (Italian seafood salad) from Christmas dinner 2019 in a recent post and a reader requested that I post a picture. Since the photo came out reasonably well, I’m happy to oblige!

The foursome of shrimp, calamari (squid), polipetti (baby octopus), and scungilli (conch) playing equal roles (sometimes with mussels fifth wheeling) plus various veggies for crunch and zest is augmented by a harmonizing dressing of EVOO, lemon juice, herbs, and more.

More seasonal posts to come!
 
 

Atsa Some Sangweech!

Speaking of things that customarily grace my Christmas table, a platter of full-bodied Italian salumi, freshly baked crusty Italian bread, and an Italian cheeseboard have always taken center stage alongside my homemade insalata di frutti di mare, caponata, roasted tomatoes with smoked mozzarella, Christmas pasta salad, and more. (The word abbondanza comes to mind.) I honestly don’t know how Italian specialties specifically became the order of the day, but no one has ever complained. (They wouldn’t dare.)

Sadly, this year there would be no parties of any kind, family, friends, or curious hungry neighbors.

Back in the day, folks would sometimes take it upon themselves to fashion a sandwich tableside from savory components, and I got to thinking that since I was flying solo this year (ergo no flights of fancy), I’d make a huge sammich that would last for several days when cut it into pieces and could stand up to oven warming.

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While window-rattling Christmas music penetrated my kitchen (my antidepressant of choice these days), I constructed the two-foot long behemoth you see here. What’s in it in addition to Genoa salami, you ask? Pruhzhoot (aka prosciutto), zoopruhzaht (aka soppressata), gabagool (aka capocollo), mortadell (aka mortadella, but don’t confuse it with the ubiquitous pasta filata cheese, mootzadell) – and that’s just the meat contingent.


I limited the cheeses to the regulation provolone for sharpness and smoked mozzarella for meltiness and added a little sautéed onions and peppiz – veggies mean it’s good for you, right? The dressing was EVOO and balsamic vinegar kicked up with oregano, chopped fresh basil and the like. My secret ingredients? Agrodolce (sweet and sour) sun dried peppers from Vantia and – less an ingredient and more a technique – I fry the gabagool like bacon before I add it to the sangweech – heresy perhaps, but crunchy and delizioso.

And you know what? Christmas dinner this year turned out to be pretty merry after all!

(This one goes out with apologies to all my Italian friends. 😉)