Monthly Archives: July 2015

Superiority Burger

Even when I got turned off of red meat for a spell as a teenager, I still never ever ate veggie burgers. That’s what chicken was for. And as someone who can have allergy concerns with soy protein, I kind of completely avoided even considering veggie burgers. But then a few years later someone introduced me to Money’s Gardenburgers. A poor grad student’s new best friend. Warmed in a frying pan and then plopped on a toasted bagel? Dinner when I wasn’t eating cereal or spaghetti. But that was like a decade ago. I’ve moved on. Red meat is a bosom buddy and meals that feel like carbs-on-carbs are less appealing to my aging metabolism. But riding the wave of FOMO with the fried chicken, a friend and I made our way to the veggie burger hot spot of the moment, Superiority Burger. Opened by Brooks Headley, former pastry chef of Del Posto and author of Fancy Desserts, Superiority Burger has tongues wagging over its completely vegetarian menu and what many have said is the best veggie burger they’ve ever tasted. 

I would agree with those many. The burger was delicious. We found it very well-seasoned with a deeply satisfying flavour. The texture does not overcome the challenges of veggie burgers; the patty is still quite soft, making it hard to get that “bite” feeling with your teeth. However, the inclusion of quinoa gives it some good chew. The regular burger accoutrements of a special sauce, cheese, pickles, lettuce, tomato, and a potato bun don’t fool you, they just make it fun. Yelp will tell you that the burger is small. It’s certainly not large, but I would say it’s similar in size to any other fast food burger—that is, a McDonald’s hamburger, not their quarter pounder.

While there is definitely genius behind that burger, I was much more impressed by the taste and creativity evident in the vegetable sides. Now, these portions are on the small side. We ordered three between two of us: the burnt broccoli salad and the daily specials of potatoes oreganato and a cucumber salad. If I return, I would get two for myself. The eggplant in the broccoli salad was sort of like a puree/baba ghanoush on the bottom of the plate, which completely removed any worry of the nightshade’s common textural issues. The potatoes reminded me of homemade breakfast potatoes made from sliced leftovers. Although here made 10 times better because they’ve got crushed potato chips worked in. The cucumber salad was my favourite. There was some nice heat from a jalapeno honey, but I was all over the texture. The creamy yogurt-covered rice, the snap from the sesame stick, the crunch of the cucumber. A bowl of that for dinner, please.

We inhaled our gelato-sorbetto combo before I could snap a pic, but given that it was made by Mr. Headley, I would have been disappointed if dessert tasted like an afterthought. I never order sorbetto, but, when in Rome, given the chef’s pedigree. It tasted of the most perfect raspberry right off the vine with absolutely none of the iciness I often dislike in frozen dairy-free desserts. The vanilla labne gelato was our winner, though. Tart enough to clue you in to its namesake and creamy enough to not remind you in the least of Pinkberry.

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Arnold’s Country Kitchen

I visited a Nashville that contained as many new condos as it did cowboy boots, and so the presence of restaurants like The Catbird Seat was not out of place. But that doesn’t mean that comfy, regional cuisine has been pushed to the wayside. Nashville-style hot chicken is still very much on everyone’s lips. Brooklyn is getting in on the game, so expect it to start appearing on everyone-everyone’s lips. Memphis gets more props for its barbecue, but I read about a number of places worth a visit in Nashville. I just didn’t go to any. A 90-minute line at Hattie B’s prevented me from getting chicken one day, a hangover prevented me from trying Martin’s Bar-B-Que the next. All I had time for, then, was a traditional Tennessee meat-and-three lunch at the place, Arnold’s Country Kitchen.

Arnold’s is only open Monday through Friday for lunch, and I knew I would be facing a long line. Thankfully, it didn’t snake out the door when I arrived around 12:30 pm, meaning I could get in out of the heat and into the A/C. Regardless, the cafeteria-style service keeps the line clipping along at a good pace, and lunch hour means that few customers linger in their seats after eating.  A small L-shaped dining room packs you in tightly, but as it’s the South, talking to your neighbour is more the norm than practicing the fine art of eavesdropping as it is here. When you get to the front, the day’s menu will offer your choice of a few proteins and maybe twice as many sides, with dessert and bread on plates for you to grab yourself.

Although most plates I saw featured the fried chicken, I only had eyes for the roast beef. Especially when I knew I was getting mashed potatoes and gravy. Unfortunately, I think they saw me as an easy target for getting rid of some well-done meat; most of the beef plates I saw around me on tables were definitely more rare. No matter really because the thin slices kept it tender enough. Both the turnip greens and green beans had an unexpected, but welcome, spicy kick. The green beans were cooked down until they were soft and buttery, happily getting mixed up with the creamy mashed potatoes. Bread options were white rolls, baked cornbread muffins, or fried cornmeal pancakes. The fried cakes seemed like the best option for full indulgence. One of my aunts makes a summer pie I love with sliced peaches floating in a bed of peach Jell-O. Arnold’s peach pie was similar but much heavier on the amount of peaches, somewhat hiding the fact that there’s gelatin involved. It’s covered in essentially Cool Whip, an industrial product beyond reproach.

Roast beef with green beans, mashed potatoes, and turnip greens. Fried cornbread. Peach pie. Unsweetened ice tea. $14 and change.

The fried chicken sandwiches at Fuku and Shake Shack

I can only blame the nice weather. It makes going out so much easier, so much nicer. The humidity is bad for good hair days, but it doesn’t make me cranky. Thus, I’ve let myself get swept up in New York’s FOMO fried chicken sandwich moment. Last month, David Chang opened up Fuku, which sells his version of a hot fried chicken sandwich. Less than two weeks ago, Shake Shack debuted the ChickenShack at its Brooklyn locations. For no other reason than to try them because of the PR machine, I tried them. Mind you, early reviews were good.

Coming from a culture where, for the most part, fried chicken was only ever from the Colonel or in the form of boneless McDonald’s products, I’m very ignorant of the good stuff. Apparently, the sandwich from Chick-Fil-A is one to beat. My only thoughts are that it should be crispy and juicy. No flabbiness like I remember coming from KFC buckets or chewy, dry meat.

I had Fuku first. Potato bun with chicken, mayo, and pickles. I got the off-menu “Koreano” that added a daikon radish slaw. Crispy and juicy, yes, especially because chicken thigh is used. With the spillage that occurs, you get a good opportunity to taste the chicken only. It’s good, but not the least bit spicy as advertised. I preferred the bites with bun and slaw, the latter adding a great cool crunch. There is not enough mayo or heat, so I added the available Momofuku ssam sauce on the counter. Much better with it. I definitely want to eat this again.

The Koreano

A week later, I used a summer Friday afternoon to head to Brooklyn to try the ChickenShack—potato bun with chicken, buttermilk mayo, lettuce, and pickles. Totally beats Fuku in crispiness. The breading is thicker and when chunks fall off, you are rewarded with awesome salty nuggets. The breast meat is juicier than expected. I didn’t feel it needed anything more, even though Shake Shack now offers hot sauce at the condiment stand. The lettuce plays less of a textural element than it could, but the pickles make up for it. It does not surprise me that this was in development for two years. It was a very, very strong debut from a chain that the world is more aware of than ever.

The ChickenShack

It’s pointless for me to point out which one was better. They were both great. They are both worth trying if you like fried chicken sandwiches. But the thing is, I think on my next trip to Shake Shack, I’ll still choose a burger. So maybe the Momofuku empire ends up winning because I’ll be returning to Fuku? Regardless, they both underscore that New Yorkers are pretty spoiled. So. I win.

Koreano innards

ChickenShack innards

The Catbird Seat

I’ve always felt that your birthday is the day that you’re allowed to be as selfish as you want to be. Your day, your choices. You should not work, you should sleep late, and you should indulge in anything and everything that you want. But a few years ago, I reached a point where I no longer knew what to do about larger celebrations. When I lived in a place where I was surrounded by lots of close friends, parties or dinners were easy to organize and always expected. But now, in a city where I count my number of friends on one hand and feel my strongest connections reside in all the manners except face-to-face, cobbling together a birthday fete seems forced. So, I’ve started to escape the task and go on mini-breaks when the big day rolls around. I am almost always at my most happy when on vacation, so coupling a holiday with my birthday has been beyond the right decision. The first year I went to Philly and D.C., last year was Chicago, and this year was Nashville. Food is central to the trip, and a splurge restaurant has been the norm for my celebratory dinner.

When I was about 11 years old, I went on a short family trip to North Carolina to visit a cousin who was attending school there. I don’t remember much beyond swimming at the hotel pool, visiting a TJ Maxx, and walking around the Duke campus (although my cousin was a Tar Heel). So, I’ll say that this trip to Nashville was my first time experiencing The South, whatever that means. Upon reflection, it means for me that my dinner at The Catbird Seat was where I finally understood Southern hospitality.

Can warmth be disingenuous? Probably not, but I think you can tell when someone’s working at it. And that doesn’t mean phoney smiles and saccharine sweetness, it just means that you’re aware that someone knows it’s their job to take care of you and make you feel comfortable. Which is wonderful! But the genuine warmth I felt in Nashville, and especially at The Catbird Seat, was such that it looked and felt effortless. Taking care of you and making you feel comfortable was almost innate, not an extra to remember. It wasn’t formal or too familiar. Smiles, but no jokes. Patient and not patronizing. Perhaps I’m too jaded by New York service to recognize anymore that this is normal. I feel like all I can see and feel when home is no service, apathy with half a smile, or good, but worked-at service. And this is just in terms of general demeanour, not even quality of execution. In any case, I spend time on this because a lot of my affinity for my birthday meal has to do with feeling welcome and relaxed. Even when awkwardly eating dishes with my fingers or feeling the beverage pairing go to my head, I felt more like a guest and less like a customer. In other cooking-as-theatre tasting menu experiences I’ve had, such as at Momofuku Ko or Blanca, conversation with those serving you felt discouraged or to be kept to a minimum. I didn’t feel there was any more talking at Catbird, but again, that which took place was more conversational and fun.

After what my photo count reveals as 16 courses, I felt full but not stuffed. Many of the courses were more than one bite, but the portions and pacing were spot on for enjoying a meal of that length. The final savoury course of crispy pork tail felt like the main course with its heft and flavour, but it did not have the zipper on my dress fearing dessert. I never take notes when I eat, so the detail of most courses got lost in the wine. I liked the roe on the romaine a lot, and then how the presentation was echoed later with the sorrel leaves of the “key lime pie.” Despite being told that the nigiri was made with potato instead of rice, there still was unexpected delight in the taste. Sure, the oyster on the lavender was worth a picture, but the real fun was inhaling the perfume before sending the bivalve down. The high drama moment was using my fingers to delicately separate the pretty begonias and snail eggs to discover the beef tartare underneath. But overall, it was not a dramatic presentation of “How they’d do that?” dishes. Confirmation of why I happily paid what I did was not because of unique colours and shapes. Everything looked like it was touched with the lightest of hand—almost effortless?—yet the taste revealed the finest knowledge and skill.

Perhaps one of the greatest pairings of service and food I’ve ever had, then.

  

  
  

Hollandaise sauce and English muffins

This is the time of year when the weather app on my phone tells me that it’s 85 degrees outside, and my little digital thermometer on my bookshelf tells me that it’s 82 degrees in my apartment. Hot. I won’t even touch humidity because it will just make my hair frizzier. I can’t stand the sound that a window A/C unit makes, and I can’t stand to see my Con Edison bill rise, so my unit is rarely on. And as someone who complains that she is cold at least once a day, I’m not too bothered by my warm apartment. But when I get sweaty just by making toast, trying to think of suitable summer cooking projects has proven to be a challenge. Because I don’t just want to make a pretty salad. This resolution was about learning new techniques and skills, domestic goddess training.

The best thing I could come up with last month was Hollandaise sauce. No oven, minimal stove work, but I would get to try my hand at emulsifying eggs and butter. I (obviously) thought of making some sort of eggs Benedict, my mind going directly to a decadent version I had at Russ & Daughters Cafe with challah, sauteed spinach, and smoked salmon. But if I was going to stay in on a Saturday night for this once-a-month task, then I was going to bake my own base. Challah requires the oven. English muffins do not. They just require time and a hot cast iron skillet. I had both. Numerous times I’ve thought about making English muffins, but just never found the reason to. I’m as bad at eating frozen leftovers as I am regular leftovers, so I’ve never wanted to deal with those that remained. But for the sake of my Hollandaise, I would. Not surprising to me now, they were the sleeper hit of this meal. Easily fork-split and full of nooks and crannies. Even untoasted with butter they were perfect (my appetizer), as the golden crust from the skillet and the crunch of the cornmeal offer up a great textural contrast to the soft interior.
    

Right, but I did make Hollandaise for a Benedict. With prosciutto and white asparagus. When I saw the asparagus at Zabar’s, I thought of a meal I had in Berlin last year when the spargel was at its peak. One night, I got about half a pound covered in the silkiest Hollandaise ever (with a side of wiener schnitzel) and became a big fan of the pallid stalks. I aced the sauce. I didn’t go full on traditional with a vinegar reduction, as doing so would have been difficult for a single serving. So, just lemon, butter, eggs, a bit of cayenne. My arm nearly fell off, but there was no sauce breakage. The slightly undercooked poached eggs are what revealed my amateur hands. You’ll see that one of the yolks slipped free of its white jacket, ruining the shot.  It obviously got punished with the fork poke first.

The Kitchn’s English muffin recipe – So, my starter only sat for about 90 minutes. But I did do the cold ferment for 36 hours. I have no complaints, but I would like to try them again with the starter going for the full 12 hours. I do not have special rings, but I did weigh my dough to get equal portions. I didn’t want little muffins, so made a batch of five. I wrapped what remained individually in plastic wrap and then put them in a freezer bag. After about 30 minutes on the counter, they could be easily split with a fork. There are no leftovers…

Hollandaise sauce on Food Wishes – I’m not a big consumer of video instructions, but for something like this type of sauce, I thought it would be wise. After watching a number on YouTube, I remembered that a friend of mine really likes Food Wishes.  I don’t think he would be to everyone’s taste, especially the quality of this older video, but it ultimately was his technique and recipe that I used with success.

Cooking white asparagus – While waiting for my muffins to rise, I procrastinated by Googling white asparagus. I was just going to steam my stalks until I learned via Martha and Gabrielle Hamilton that white asparagus must be cooked much longer than green. I didn’t follow them exactly, but I did cook my asparagus in a shallow pan for way longer than I would have thought (20-ish minutes), continually checking their tenderness along the way.