Cheeseboat

A dear friend from our prehistoric ivy-covered days at Yale was visiting from California and staying in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. My challenge was to introduce him to a cuisine he probably had never sampled while still not schlepping him miles away from his accommodations pro tem. The solution was Cheeseboat, 80 Berry Street in Williamsburg – Georgian food sans subway excursion.

Cheeseboat features Georgia’s greatest culinary hits and there were three that I particularly wanted him to try:

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We started with the Pkhali Sampler. Pkhali is often described as a vegetable pâté, a spread, a dip, or even a salad – all approximately correct. In essence, it consists of a cooked single type of vegetable plus walnuts, garlic and cilantro, ground together into a paste. The veggie component can range from carrots, beans, or eggplant to a host of others; among the most common, and on today’s plate from the top counterclockwise, are beets, spinach, and leeks, served in this case with mchadi, Georgian corn bread, and spiced oyster mushrooms.


These are Khinkali, stuffed with seasoned ground beef, which the menu describes as “soup dumplings”.

<rant> I’ve seen that portrayal elsewhere and it really gets my goat. I mean, I guess it’s a triumph of sorts that soup dumplings (xiao long bao) are so ubiquitous now that any dumpling shaped vaguely like xlb is called a soup dumpling. Soup dumplings are delicious; they contain soup. Khinkali are delicious; they do not. Similarity of appearance does not imply similarity of contents. You know, like books. </rant>

Now, the cool thing about khinkali is that topknot of twisted dough. Not only does it form a protective structural seal, but it also provides a convenient handle by which you can elevate the treat from plate to mouth. I’m told you’re not really supposed to eat that appendage, and I agree that it’s a little chewy, but that doesn’t stop me. Try lubricating it with the thoughtfully provided “traditional garlic Nee’ortskali sauce” (Ortskali is a river in Georgia). Yum.


The obligatory inner workings shot. Note the absence of soup.


If you’ve had any experience with Georgian food, you probably know about khachapuri, the Georgian cheese bread that comes in several varieties. One of the most popular is adjaruli, although it’s only referred to as a cheeseboat here. But since that’s the name of the restaurant and they offer fourteen not-quite-Georgian variations on their specialty from mushroom to steak to shrimp, I’ll accept the conceit. This is the standard variation. Shaped like a kayak, the center of which is filled with cheese, a raw egg and a chunk of butter are added just as it’s removed from the oven. Stir the mixture: the egg cooks and combines with the butter and melted cheese. Break off pieces of the bread and dip them into the cheese mixture. Hot bread with melted buttery cheese that you eat with your hands, fresh out of the oven – what’s not to like?
 
 

TBD 2…

Still contemplating the ins and outs and whereabouts of the revivification of ethnojunkets as the pandemic begins its retreat. A couple of posts ago, we examined khe, an appetizing fish delicacy which is customarily on the agenda in our Little Odessa tour.

In this post, we’ll take a look at two of the scores of exquisitely prepared foods available at Tashkent Market on Brighton Beach Ave, one of the stops along the way. Because they offer some incredibly delicious dishes, we always indulge in several on the tour, but I had never sampled these two so I thought I’d share.

The trick to making a successful selection is either to know the language or to go with someone who knows the ropes (🙋‍♂️ shameless plug). Case in point: there’s a long counter displaying an array of prepared fish – fried, baked, sauced, you name it – and all of them look absolutely delicious. But the signage above the trays is often just a transliteration as opposed to a proper translation into English. For example, you’ll see Fried Treska – that’s cod, Fried Korushka is smelt, Sazan is carp – you get the idea.

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This is Paltus with Sweet Chili Sauce – paltus is halibut – which was perfectly cooked. My only regret was that I should have spooned on more of the tasty sauce that permeated the skin. (Also fun for people who experience pareidolia. You know who you are.)


With the top slid back like a convertible. Sort of.


Salmon Betki – truly luscious. Big chunks of fresh salmon, barely held together by what I’m guessing was the tiniest bit of chopped onion, yellow bell pepper, possibly some carrot, black pepper and egg; I suspect there’s a binding agent like breadcrumbs, but it’s completely unobtrusive.

And remember, if you see something that piques your curiosity and it’s not on our menu du jour, I’m happy to offer some enlightenment; you can always purchase a taste to take home for yourself!

Now, back to ethnojunket contemplation. More to come….
 
 

Eid al-Fitr – 2021

Eid al-Fitr, the Festival of Breaking the Fast, is the Muslim holiday that signifies the conclusion of month-long Ramadan; in 2021, it begins on the evening of May 12. Since I’ve recently been revisiting the neighborhoods we explore on ethnojunkets, this seemed like a good time to return to the Middle Eastern section of 5th Avenue in Brooklyn which I refer to fondly as Little Levant.

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Ma’amoul are shortbread cookies filled with a paste made from dried fruit, often dates but sometimes figs, or nuts, such as walnuts or pistachios; they’re frequently associated with Ramadan but fortunately are available year round. Paradise Sweets, the Middle Eastern bakery at 6739 5th Ave, was offering three kinds the day I stopped by: clockwise from left, pistachio, walnut and date.


Can a cookie actually melt in your mouth? These were wonderfully fragile, disintegrating into a crumbly powder like a Mexican polvoron: you’ll start with a bite, but you’ll want to finish with a spoon. For those who don’t care for uber-sugary cookies, the good news is that this version is not especially sweet; I discovered that the flavor seems to blossom in the company of a hot beverage – tea or Arabic coffee would be perfect.


Some of the smaller markets along the way were offering prepackaged ma’amoul like this one from Pâtisserie Safa, a Montreal based company. Its structural integrity was sturdier than the freshly baked specimens and the cookie was surprisingly tasty.


Both the dough and the filling were significantly sweeter than the locally crafted examples and I detected a welcome note of orange blossom water that enhanced its flavor profile.


Another survivor of the pandemic is the stalwart bakery Nablus Sweets at 6812 5th Ave. These are Qatayef (aka Atayef), made only during Ramadan and especially for Eid al-Fitr; they’re often sold by street vendors in the Middle East. They start out with a batter akin to that of pancakes but they’re griddled on only one side, then they’re filled with white cheese or nuts, folded into a crescent, fried or baked, and soaked in sweet rose water syrup. This pair enclosed a syrupy chopped nut filling.


They’re thicker and chewier than I anticipated – I was expecting a straight ahead, lighter pancake texture based on what I saw as they were being prepared:


Fresh off the griddle. Some folks buy them just like this, ready to be brought home to be filled with the family recipe (of course) of creamy cheese or walnuts, sugar and cinnamon.
 
 
More to come as I continue contemplating the resumption of ethnojunkets….
 
 

TBD…

The weather is warming up and COVID-19 is settling down which means it’s time for me to start seriously considering the feasibility of offering my ethnojunkets again. An ethnojunket is a food-focused walking tour through one of New York City’s many ethnic enclaves; my mission is to introduce you to some delicious, accessible, international treats (hence, “ethno-”) that you’ve never tasted but soon will never be able to live without (hence, “-junkie”). You can learn more about my ethnojunkets here.

Rather than trying to make a decision about the future in a vacuum, I decided that actually revisiting some of my old haunts might serve a twofold purpose – to inspire me and also to reveal which businesses have survived the pandemic (so far). Therefore, I’ve been eating my way through various Chinatowns, Little Levant (the Middle Eastern enclave in Bay Ridge), Little Odessa (the Russian/Former Soviet Union strip along Brighton Beach Avenue in Brooklyn), and the Latin American section of Sunset Park in service of that quest. In this and some subsequent posts, I’ll show you what I’ve been tasting in the process.

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This is khe, one of the treats we always indulge in on the Little Odessa ethnojunket. Not many people realize that Russia and North Korea share an 11 mile border and the Korean culinary character of khe is obvious. Meaty chunks of fish marinated in vinegar, onions and Korean red chili are the main ingredients in this delectable dish (recipes vary); think of it as ceviche meets kimchi. Only better. The reason behind its migration from the Russian/Korean border into Uzbekistan is the stuff of which history is made and you’ll hear the story on this ethnojunket.

The restaurant we always visited to grab an order of khe didn’t make it (although they have another business elsewhere that did survive) but fortunately, I found this tidbit at a different venue along the tour and it’s every bit as delicious as the previous version. It’s a personal favorite and one that always gets a big thumbs up from our group.

Stay tuned. More to come….
 
 

My Beef with Stroganoff

👨‍🍳 Cooking in the Time of COVID 👨‍🍳

Top Round London Broil was on sale at my local supermarket and the memory of Beef Stroganoff, an economical comfort food from my youth, came to mind: budget beef, sautéed mushrooms and savory gravy over noodles – what could be more fundamental? I’ve been tossing this together for so many years that the idea of consulting a recipe never crossed my mind, but since my obscenely large collection of cookbooks has been gathering cobwebs of late, I reasoned that a quick memory refresher couldn’t hurt.

The exercise brought me up short, however: every recipe I came across emphasized how “the quality of the beef makes the dish excel” and to “use filet mignon or ribeye…nothing less”. What? Slather filet mignon or ribeye in gravy? Now, where I grew up this preparation was considered a frugal approach to stretching meat; as a matter of fact, even to this day in my world, a great gravy is what makes the dish. So I returned the books to their dusty shelves and proceeded with my tried and true methodology:

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I seasoned the meat with salt and plenty of freshly ground black pepper and in a hot cast iron pan, seared it in a mixture of butter (for flavor) and oil (so the butter wouldn’t burn), flipped it once, and let it rest while I made the gravy.

In the same pan, I sautéed onions, added sliced cremini mushrooms, garlic, S&P, removed them from the pan, made a roux in it (nothing unique – standard rouxles apply), and used a very rich beef broth I had in the freezer plus Worcestershire sauce, Dijon mustard, and dill. When the gravy had thickened, I would have customarily added sour cream at that point, but there was Mexican crema in the fridge and I swear it was even better than sour cream in this application and may become a new component of my “recipe” (such as it is).


After the meat had had a chance to rest, I sliced it thinly (prudent if it’s a tough cut)…


…folded it into the gravy along with the vegetables and ladled it over boiled, drained noodles.


A side of roasted Brussels sprouts rounded out the meal.

I don’t care what they say – I think this is a dish fit for a czar!

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

Cinco de Mayo – 2021

Since it’s Cinco de Mayo, I found myself musing about some of the Mexican dishes I’ve cobbled together over the past year or so of quarantining and hyper-conscientiousness. I’m hopeful that my 👨‍🍳 Cooking in the Time of COVID 👨‍🍳 series will be drawing to a close soon – but for just a little while longer, I’m still proceeding con cuidado.

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Chicken Mole. Shredded chicken, sautéed onions and the like combined with a packet of Mole Rojo Oaxaqueño (took the easy way out that time) topped with some crema Mexicana. (BTW, stay tuned for a post about the subtle differences among commercially available Mexican, Salvadoran, Guatemalan, and Honduran cremas.) In the back, rice cooked in chicken broth along with onion, garlic, red bell pepper and achiote for color; freshly grated cotija cheese sprinkled on top. On the side, black beans, corn, and jalapeños with red pepper, onion, garlic and spices including Mexican oregano and Tajín.

And what did I do with the leftovers?

¡Las quesadillas estaban deliciosas!

For a side dish, I made esquites, the Mexican street food favorite: grilled corn with garlic, jalapeños, scallions, cilantro, crema and lime juice topped with crumbled cotija cheese and Tajín.


On another occasion, I was jonesing for fish tacos and it wasn’t even the officially sanctioned el martes. Besides, it gave me an excuse to break out the comal and make salsa cruda. There’s nothing auténtico about these, but they were a cinch to prepare. Pan seared fish, cut into chunks and set into a taco shell along with avocado, shredded lettuce, shredded cheese, and a bit of crema, all awaiting some homemade salsa to do the heavy flavor lifting.


The salsa cruda started by charring white onion, tomatillos, tomato, and jalapeño on a comal – shown here mid-blister. Added rehydrated dried ancho and chipotle chilies, cilantro, garlic, lime juice, olive oil, salt, and a pinch of cumin and Mexican oregano. I chopped it all by hand because a blender or food processor creates a thin salsa which is fine but I prefer some crunch.


The finished product. And last but not least…


…guacamole!
 
 
¡Feliz Cinco de Mayo!
 
 
Stay safe, be well, and eat whatever it takes. ❤️
 
 

Orthodox Easter – Pascha and Kulich

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Most holidays come equipped with delectable, traditional foods and Orthodox Easter is no exception; it occurs on the Sunday following the first full moon that appears on or after the spring equinox – May 2, in 2021. As an Equal Opportunity Celebrant, I make it a practice to sample as many of these treats as possible around such festive occasions, not because of any personal porcine tendencies of course, but in order to altruistically share information with anyone who might be unfamiliar with these delicacies.

Yeah, right.

According to Wikipedia, the Eastern Orthodox Church, officially the Orthodox Catholic Church, is the second largest Christian church with approximately 220 million baptized members. The majority of Eastern Orthodox Christians live mainly in Southeast and Eastern Europe, Cyprus, Georgia and other communities in the Caucasus region, and in Siberia reaching the Russian Far East.

According to ethnojunkie, each region has its own distinctive, specialty baked goods that are prepared in celebration of the holiday. Many are sweet breads called pascha (or some variant), from Greek/Latin meaning Easter, and ultimately from Aramaic/Hebrew meaning Passover. Let’s check out two of them.


If you go out in search of pascha, you’ll discover vastly divergent varieties depending upon the heritage of the bakery you land on. Polish versions I’ve sampled are puffy, yeasty, a little sweet and are designed to be pulled apart and shared at the table. Some other Eastern European and Russian styles are more like a cheese-filled bread, with veins of sweet, white dairy goodness running throughout. This photo was taken surreptitiously in a Russian market. Shhh!


Shown here is Romanian pască. This particular example comes from Nita’s European Bakery at 4010 Greenpoint Ave, Sunnyside, Queens – look for the awning that reads Cofetaria Nita. It is unique (at least in my experience) and undeniably stellar. This dense delight, about nine inches in diameter, is actually a two-layered affair, with a rich topping/filling that is virtually a raisin-studded, hyper-creamy manifestation of cheesecake that sits atop a sweet cake-like bread; the religious theme is easily recognizable.


Here’s a view that reveals the layers. If you like sweet desserts, you’ll love this.


On my recent peregrination through Brooklyn’s Little Odessa on Brighton Beach Avenue where Russian and Former Soviet Union shops abound, it seemed that every market was selling kulich, a Russian/Slavic Orthodox Easter bread. Look closely behind the eggs in the first photo and you’ll see an array of them. (Look even more closely behind the kulichi and the sign for яйца and you’ll see packages of the Italian Christmas treat, panettone. Pretty much every market was offering them as well. In terms of taste, they’re pretty close although panettone is a little richer, however I have yet to determine why both are sold in this neighborhood during Orthodox Easter. But I digress.)

Not as sweet as pascha, the cylindrical kulich is often baked at home in a coffee can to achieve the characteristic shape; this diminutive example stands only about five inches high. The Ukranian legend reads куліч (cake) пасхальний (paschal) and around the beltline з великоднем (Happy Easter) христос воскрес (Christ is risen).


It’s somewhere along the bread <-> coffeecake continuum, shot through with raisins, and always dressed with a snow-white sugar-glazed cap and colorful sprinkles.

з великоднем!
 
 

Thai Diva

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.

Back in June 2016, we picked up a few “small dishes” at Thai Diva, the Northern Thai restaurant at 45-53 46th St in Woodside, Queens, all of which were great. In no special order:

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Larb Muang – Northern Thai style chopped meat salad. This version featured ground pork in a kicked-up spice blend with fried garlic and cilantro; it’s also available with chicken or beef. Crispy pork rinds (think chicharrones but Thai) on the side.


Nam Prik Ong – When you see Nam Prik on a Thai menu, you’re venturing into a fiery zone; it’s a condiment made from roasted red chilies, garlic, shallots, lime juice and fermented shrimp and soybeans; here it’s the base for ground pork and tomatoes. It’s served with mixed veggies, hard-boiled eggs and pork rinds, of course.


Sai Ua (you might see it as Sai Oua or Sai Aua). Sai (“intestine”) ua (“stuffed” – an apt description of sausage in general) is another classic that hails from Northern Thailand. The stuffing is ground fatty pork with that immediately identifiable, signature northern Thai flavor attributable to chili paste plus some combination of shallots, garlic, makrut lime leaves, lemongrass, galangal, and fish sauce. Served here with contrasting cooling cucumber.


This is Tum Kanoon, stir-fried shredded green jackfruit with ground pork held together with Thai curry paste and herbs like makrut lime leaves and basil leaves. Did I mention crispy pork rinds?
 
 
Thai Diva Cuisine is located at 45-53 46th St in Woodside, Queens.
 
 

Crispy Prawn Chilli

👨‍🍳 Cooking in the Time of COVID 👨‍🍳

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At least that’s the way that Heng’s spells it on their label, and orthography notwithstanding, this stuff is outrageous.

On a recent visit to a market in Sunset Park’s Chinatown as I was ogling the infinitely many sauces and condiments, I couldn’t help but spot this product with its flashy reflective gold label. I suspected it might be a fishy requisite that could take its place beside the jumbo jar of spicy chili crisp in the fridge and I was not disappointed.

Remember when you first heard about sriracha and soon began dousing everything in sight with it – until you heard about spicy chili crisp and started slathering everything in sight with that? That’s where I’m at with Crispy Prawn Chilli now: I’ve even incorporated it into a dressing for seafood salad. There are other brands, of course (it’s not a new creation) just as Laoganma has its challengers in the spicy chili crisp division and Huy Fong has among sriracha rivals; Heng’s is a product of Malaysia.

The label lists its main ingredients as soybean oil, chilli, shallot, garlic, dried shrimp, sugar and salt; it’s spicy but not overly so, crispy and shrimpy, and can be used as a condiment at the table or in a stir fry as in this hastily flung together dish. For its maiden voyage, I decided to do a stir fry with Chinese cauliflower and peanuts to ensure that the prawn flavor wouldn’t compete with another protein in future applications, but now that I’ve experimented with it, I don’t think it would present a problem any more than fish sauce turns a dish “fishy”. Got a little delicate brown char on the cauliflower which played well with the crunch of the peanuts and the crispness of the prawn chili.


The verdict: delicious!

It’s also available in Fish and Cuttlefish versions, so now it’s back to Chinatown to sample its mates. (As if I needed an excuse. 😉)

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

Bunker

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.

From an April, 2017 visit to Bunker in Bushwick, Brooklyn that featured deliciously memorable homestyle Vietnamese street food.

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We started with Bánh Xèo, a crispy rice flour and turmeric crêpe stuffed with heritage bacon, wild prawns, and bean sprouts, served with lettuce and herbs. The word bánh means cake and xèo means sizzle, echoing the sound the batter makes when it hits the hot skillet. A classic, perfectly executed.


Bún Chả Hà Nội – Hanoi style grilled heritage pork sausage and pork belly served over bún (rice vermicelli noodles) with Vietnamese pickles and herbs.


Chả Cá Lã Vọng – Turmeric laced wild blue catfish with vermicelli, peanuts, dill and basil. Certainly not street food, this one is more likely to be found in restaurants; another outstanding rendition from Bunker.
 
 
Bunker is located at 99 Scott Ave in Bushwick, Brooklyn.