Monthly Archives: March 2016

Parm

Ramble I

I don’t really have an opinion about Valentine’s Day. It’s a Hallmark holiday, sure, but if a couple wants to use it as an excuse to spend time together, I don’t see the harm. I do recognize the headache it causes for dining out, just like New Year’s Eve, both for customers and restaurants. This year, the holiday was extra trying, occurring on a Sunday, of a long weekend, on one of the coldest days of the year. So not only were couples going out, but so too were those seeing no need to stay in on the adjusted “Saturday” night. Kitchens also had to deal with the delivery demands of a cold, weekend night. As with New Year’s Eve, I usually have no desire to go out because it can be an overpriced shitshow. But when I first read about Dirt Candy’s Solo Diner Week for the holiday on Goodies First, I paused to reconsider my position. Wouldn’t it be fun to relish solo dining among all the couples? Except, Dirt Candy was stopping the promotion on the 13th, which kind of defeated the purpose for me. I then read that Momofuku Noodle Bar was doing a prix fixe in honour of the holiday, calling it S.A.D. instead—Singles Awareness Day. I appreciated the joke and was intrigued about the kitchen extending itself for the evening. I was all set on going until the deep Arctic chill arrived. I didn’t want a cold walk and subway ride. But I also was going a little stir crazy.

I remembered that some friends had sent me a Parm gift certificate for Christmas, as they know how much I like the roasted turkey sandwiches, and within a manageable walking distance, is a new-ish location of the Major Food Group mini chain. I was even able to make a last minute OpenTable booking.

Ramble II

Spilled Milk is a favourite podcast of mine, hosted by food writers Molly Wizenberg (of Orangette) and Matthew Amster-Burton. Every week they talk about a different food or dish (e.g., frozen pizza, cauliflower, ham and cheese sandwiches), beginning with their first experiences or childhood memories with the food and then just moving onto funny stories and jokes. You might notice their influence on my posts… Anyway, the episode the week of Valentine’s Day was about garlic bread, and Molly mentioned how delicious said bread was at Torrisi Italian Specialties (now closed), a sort of precursor/sister restaurant to the original Parm on Mulberry Street. That very same week, New York Times writer Julia Moskin posted an Instagram of the original recipe. While I don’t know if the recipe now used at Parm is exactly the same (I didn’t taste the crushed red pepper), I had to order it because, one, bread, and two, the stars above governing food writing seemed to suggest it should be so.

It was a perfectly serviceable garlic bread. The type of garlic bread that weakens my resolve, however, is that which is made with slices, where each side is kissed with butter, garlic, and salt to the point of almost becoming soggy. I was able to resist eating it all because these thicker slabs became tougher and chewier as the toasted bread cooled. My temperature proclivities prevent me from enjoying cold toast, so I did not reveal myself as the carbaholic we know I am and finish the lot of it. And I’m not sure about the use of a seeded semolina hero; the semolina adds a nice sweetness, but I’m not crazy about sesame seeds on my garlic bread.

The strong showing of the arugula salad was unexpected, as I ordered it purely to eat something green. When presented, parmesan covered the salad like a thick coating of snow, and as I tossed it, I saw that the fresh, peppery greens that lied beneath had a generous coating as well. So, for every salad you’ve ordered that didn’t have enough cheese, this one more than makes up for it. And while eating it, I didn’t have to play the where-are-the-dried-figs game. There were plenty.

I couldn’t even have ordered a turkey sandwich if I wanted to as the heroes that Parm is most known for are take-out only during dinner at this location. But my intention was always to try the baked ziti, a dish I know only because of Carmela Soprano. When her expert skills in making this dish were first showcased to the world, ziti was a totally foreign shape to me. There was penne, there was rigatoni, but what was this other tube? It only fueled a fondness for my created otherness of Italian-Northeast American culture.

Parm ups the ante with their version by browning the sides of each piece (not just the top) so that you get more of the crispy bits that often only come with corner pieces. I should say that before you get those bits, you have options for how you will attack the slice. Do you try to get some of the pooled marinara sauce first? Do you spread the large dollop of rich ricotta? While I understand making room for vegetarians, I was not going to miss out on the meat gravy for an extra $4. Do you then try to get all three sauces on a tube at once? Or do you make a mess of it and mix? Regardless, I found that once I broke through the browned exterior, what lurked within was mozzarella, melted and ready to be stretched into glorious strings.

How could I be sad on S.A.D. with a plate like this?

Semolina Gnocchi (Gnocchi alla Romana)

When oatmeal regularly serves as my main course for dinner and cottage cheese does for my #saddesklunch, you could say that beyond my love of creamy, I also have a thing for mushy. All manners of cooked porridge and soaked grains, muesli sludges and carb-based puddings have a place at my table. Sweet or savoury is good, and I like when they’re particularly stodgy—I like for my spoon to stand practically straight in my oatmeal, loosened only slightly with a pouring of cream.

 

I have a few bookmarks, then, on recipes for semolina gnocchi, or properly gnocchi alla Romana, because it is essentially a dish based on baked medallions of semolina mush. Having made ricotta gnocchi before, I know that “gnocchi” can mean more than ridged potato dumplings. Those ones that are easy to find and can be leaden and dense when you’re unlucky or pillowy soft when you’re batting 1,000. While I suppose you could bake potato or ricotta gnocchi in a sauce after they’re made, what’s unique about semolina gnocchi is that baking is part of their creation.

 


 

Once you’ve made a semolina porridge – probably the hardest part due to the constant stirring—you leave it to cool and firm up. The gnocchi are then formed, and they are baked until golden edges appear. They are more similar to making small cakes/medallions/fries out of cooked, cooled polenta that way. But the semolina does not firm up as much as polenta does. What you’re left with are dumplings that have a thin, crispy crust and a cream-of-wheat-like interior. Naked, more butter, or tomato sauce. I don’t think you can screw them up with how you choose to top them. The acid from a tomato sauce is nice, but the richness from butter makes them the indulgence you want on a cold night.

 

 

And in that respect, perhaps this post is a little late given the date on the calendar, but I am not one of those people who goes sockless in March. Having grown up in a climate where snow has been known to fall in June, I’m not giving up on warm, comfort food until I’m using my A/C.

 

 

Semolina Gnocchi
Apologies if what follows is confusing, but I pull from two sources when making this for myself, one from Jessica Theroux on Leite’s Culinaria and a Florence Fabricant/New York Times rendition I found on The Wednesday Chef. For the most part, they are quite similar, with the exception of the amount of butter and the way they are baked. Because I tend to eat my gnocchi with a brown butter and sage sauce, I follow the Culinaria ingredient list for the most part and use less butter in the gnocchi, but I add nutmeg like Luisa and do not top with breadcrumbs. If you followed Luisa by serving with tomato sauce, more butter in the gnocchi might be your thing. As for the method, I follow the Culinaria method up to the point of baking (the end of step 2), then Luisa’s for the baking (her step 4). This means that I start my dough with milk, nutmeg, salt, and semolina, adding the butter, egg, and cheese once it’s cooked. To bake, I follow Luisa and grease my pan, overlap my discs, then dot with more butter. I split the difference on baking temperature at 425 degrees for about 20 minutes. I like them just slightly crisp and brown.

For one serving of gnocchi, I use the following amounts. I have a scale, so measuring half an egg is not a problem for me. Luisa’s recipe uses only egg yolks, so you could use one yolk as a workaround.

  • 1 cup of milk
  • 1.75 ounces of semolina
  • 1/2 teaspoon of salt (heed Luisa’s warning about needing salt)
  • 1 ounce of parmesan cheese, grated, divided in half (about 2/3 for the dough, 1/3 for topping before baking)
  • pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
  • Approximately 1 tablespoon of unsalted butter (about 1/2 for dough, 1/2 for dotting tops)

As for the brown butter and sage, I would say I brown a couple of tablespoons of unsalted butter, adding the sage leaves just as the milk solids start to turn brown. I use a six-inch pie plate for baking and serving myself the gnocchi. No need to dirty up another dish, so I just pour the butter over the gnocchi and insulate my lap with a tea towel or two. The added benefit is that they stay nice and warm.

 

Dadam

When I saw the thick noodles and floating mochi balls in a bowl of Korean soup featured on the blog Midtown Lunch a few months ago, I had to investigate. The blogger’s choice of a seafood-seaweed broth didn’t interest me, but the suggestion that you could have a perilla seed broth, did. What was such a broth? My trip down a rabbit hole involved texting my Korean-American friend on the other side of the country to learn all about the noodle soup kalguksu and the uniqueness of using the seed deulkkae, which is often compared to sesame. I have tried and enjoy eating the fresh leaf of perilla (which I know as shiso in Japanese cuisine), but had no idea about the seeds. Stories of her mom’s cooking and love of the ingredient confirmed that I would eventually make my way up to the third floor of a  Koreatown food court and chew my way through the glorious dough on offer at Dadam.



 

Scalding hot in its metal vessel, the soup with its vegetable-dyed noodles and mochi balls only signified as food to me through its placement next to some complementary kim chi and the inclusion of cutlery. Otherwise, I felt a bit like an excited child getting to eat Play-doh or some craft-time creation.

The intense heat gave off an earthy, vegetal aroma. Fingering the noodles with my chopsticks revealed a very thick soup base.  The first few spoonfuls, while burning my mouth, were also surprisingly and disappointingly underseasoned.  I felt guilty going back up to the register to ask for something to doctor it up, but then felt relief when I saw that they had all manner of seasonings packed up, including some nice sea salt. If salting was a faux pas, I clearly wasn’t the only one making it. A healthy dose transformed the dish for me. The bland earthiness of the soup/sauce became almost Alfredo-like, yet with no heaviness from cream or butter. The noodles were as chewy as I’d hoped for, long and thick and always well-coated when I tucked in. The mochi balls were expectedly low on flavor, but their characteristic gumminess was all I really wanted. Like when I had mochi in soup at Tori Shin, I now appreciate this texture in a savory setting. The complimentary kim chi was awesome and integral to the experience. The cool temperature of both provided a break from the soup’s warmth. And the spicy heat from the cabbage and the crunch from the daikon provided texture and flavour breaks.

The turn to warm weather means I won’t be back for this soup soon. But I’m reminded that we’re approaching cold noodle season and should be returning to another Asian food court gem.

 

Untitled

I spend a lot of time being physically uncomfortable: Nine times out of ten, I’m probably cold; exercise only feels good when you’re done; a lot of clothing appropriate for the office always has a way of needing to be adjusted; eight hours a day at a desk is demanding even with an ergonomic chair; and even though I try to get away with only 15 minutes of rush hour train travel a day, my face in someone’s armpit while the corner of someone else’s oversize bag threatens my kidney like a shank is a physical torment so regular that New Yorkers can easily forget to complain about it. There are those times, though, when I might be dressed warmly enough in clothes that don’t pull, twist, or chafe, far from the gym, and riding the train at an off-peak hour to enjoy some non-desk time at a restaurant.  Relief is only temporary as I’m confronted by a tiny room with backless stools where a polar vortex occurs every time someone opens the door (or in summer, by industrial A/C). I fully admit to being a Goldilocks, but I previously pointed out that the discomfort of NYC dining is very much a thing.

As much as I was interested in dining at Untitled for the critical praise it has received, I also wanted to go because I knew I would be comfortable. In the times I have visited the relocated Whitney Museum of American Art, where Untitled is located, I had walked by the glass-encased restaurant admiring its upholstered mid-century modern chairs and the large swath of space that protects diners from any draughty door. The picture-worthy food was secondary to me making a reservation and splurging on being comfortable while someone else made me food and did the dishes. I was pretty confident that the food would more than do, however.

My visit was on a holiday Monday, so I received a brunch menu instead of the lunch one I had been stalking online. I was a little disappointed as I had thought about trying the beef tartare, but its absence made it less difficult to decide on a vegetable starter because now I could order two.  (I had stalked enough to decide I wanted to explore the menu through two starters and a main.)

Cauliflower, lemon, cardamom custard

While a vegetable-heavy menu is on trend both with restaurants and one’s health, the two aren’t the best of friends. Which suits me fine, because the oil that slicked the florets and the plate reminded me of the hot pan that helped achieve the brassica’s golden edges. The custard’s richness was the cue that this was more than a simple plate of vegetables. The custard also helped to cut the lemon, which was a bit overwhelming for me. The cardamom was present but not dominant, so no worries of the cauliflower tasting like a Swedish dessert.

Sunchokes, bacon, cloumage

Two bites into this sunchoke dish and all I could think of was a loaded steakhouse baked potato and how happy I was not to have to share this bowl with anyone.

Roasted and fried chicken, spaetzle dumplings, trumpet mushrooms

The fried and roasted chicken plate has been one of the popular menu items since the restaurant opened. I don’t swoon for fried chicken, but you know I do for doughy carbs. When I saw that the item had been updated to include spaetzle, I was all over it. Chicken and dumplings for the Ladies Who Lunch. Love. The crisp skin was impeccable, but softening it in the  gravy-like jus pooled at the bottom wasn’t a wrong move. The roasted flesh cozied up nicely next to the dumplings when taken together.

Mango upside down cake, pistachios, pink peppercorn

My chair was too comfortable to leave, so it was not hard for me say yes to dessert despite not paying attention to my satisfied hunger. I was having too much fun watching people line up for the gallery or the late lunch stragglers like myself.  I should now probably reconsider how I talk about my feelings on cake, but “the girl who doesn’t like cake” went with the mango upside-down version. The day was beyond grey, and I was rewarded with ample colour and a moist, sticky muffin-sized cake that did not give up a single crumb in dryness. The peppercorn was not discernible, which was too bad. The cooked mango was full of flavour, but a contrasting element would have been welcome. The mild fat of the unsweetened cream (maybe it was creme fraiche?) was nice, but neither it, the fresh mango, nor the freeze-dried raspberries could stand up to the cooked fruit and cake. But this is just a quibble for the sake of blogging, as I was overall pleasantly surprised with how much I liked this dessert.

When I stood, leaving the warmth of my chair and bursting the bubble of the last few hours, I received as cold a slap to my face as the one the wintry mix falling outside would soon bestow: I was uncomfortably full.

 

Casa Enrique

So, expectedly like many people this year, I will be going to Mexico City. My trip isn’t for a while yet, but as it will be my only real vacation, planning, plotting, and dreaming is well underway. The food, of course, is a big draw, especially as I am not very experienced in Mexican cuisine and want to taste and learn as much as I can. “Mexican” growing up meant Tex-Mex. Birthdays and special events at Chi-Chi’s, mall lunches at Taco Time, desperate stops at Chili’s. (Taco Bell maybe once?) As Edmonton’s Latin community and resulting food scene grew, it did so mostly through Salvadoran cuisine, and so when I crave Latin, pupusas always come to mind first. In Vancouver, there were a few legit Mexican meals, but overall, I’m a total novice in knowing what I like or want to try. As someone who doesn’t like quick meals, I’m never in the mood for tacos. I can hear many hearts breaking. I didn’t say I didn’t like them, though. I just don’t like meals that are over in minutes. And unfortunately, this has prevented me from exploring Mexican restaurants here in New York beyond a handful of times. And when I have, it’s usually not to eat tacos. My current quandary is, should I do some heavy exploring before my trip or after for comparison? Advice is welcome.

Casa Enrique in Long Island City, Queens, has been getting lots of coverage, especially because it has received a Michelin star. That definitely played a role in my visiting for a late brunch (hooray for somewhere that has brunch past 2:30 pm!), but truthfully, the big draw was the much-Instagrammed tres leches cake. If the rest of the meal was as satisfying as the cake looked like it would be, all would be right in my world.

Flour puffs

Instead of free chips, the gratis treat are “flour puffs.” I’m sure that they have a specific Mexican name, but when I asked, my waiter gave this gringa the simple response. The fried sqiggles were unsalted, but the corn flour had enough flavour to make them oddly addictive. More so was the texture, like packing peanuts—I can only imagine. The lingering oil from the fryer made for greasy fingers after a few handfuls, but even that didn’t stop me from enjoying the edible styrofoam as I started my beer.

 

Ensalada de betabel con jicama – Beets, jicama, mint, queso fresco, lemon vinaigrette

I had considered, and probably should have ordered, the ceviche as my starter, but the price point tipped a bit too high in my mind as did the thought that the portion would be too large. That does not mean that this salad was a let down. It was just as expected: very light, very refreshing, and crunchy. The beets may have dominated, but the jicama crunch was most distinct. The mild queso was not a rich counterpoint; its soft and grainy texture just added some nice body to the salad.

 

Pozole de mi tia – hominy pork soup, avocado, radish, oregano, lettuce, and onion

I’m one of those people who says that she doesn’t like brunch, so I steered clear of the few egg dishes to underscore the position in my mind. I also decided to explore without going for a default crowd pleaser like tacos or enchiladas, though the mole used on one version of enchiladas is supposed to be excellent. No, I went with a soup, riskier territory for me as I usually can be fearful of murky broths. I wanted to try the pozole mostly because I’ve never tried hominy before and have always been intrigued by the large kernels.

Enrique has surely done his aunt’s recipe proud based on the bowl I tried. As much a stew as a soup, the only mildly spicy red-chile-laced broth was brimming with shredded pork and chewy hominy. It was hearty, but not heavy. And like everything warm and delicious that comes in a bowl, perfect for a chilly day or when your soul needs some easy comfort. I definitely could have handled more heat, but I didn’t mind having the chance to taste the marriage of all the different elements. Served with lettuce and radish on top, the avocado, diced onion, dried oregano, fresh cilantro, and lime wedges came on the side for personal doctoring. The pozole also came with a side of totopos, which for all intents and purposes, are chips. I both dipped and crumbled.

In the thick of things

 

Pastel tres leches with goat milk caramel

It was at one of Edmonton’s Salvadoran restaurants where I first tasted tres leches cake. As someone who also says that she doesn’t like cake, my love has steadily grown for this sponge cake soaked in three milks (heavy cream, condensed milk, evaporated milk) that some believe first originated off the back of a condensed milk can. I stand by my dislike of cake because, to me, pastel tres leches is a thick pudding. A well-executed version has a proper eggy sponge that, when soaked in the milks, tastes of vanilla custard. The structure of the cake gives the body. You could say it’s like bread pudding, but I think a good tres leches is more… creamy? than a bread pudding. Perhaps I should say, it’s almost like flan. It should be eaten with a spoon in my opinion. Props to Casa Enrique for serving it in a vessel where the puddle of milks can be spooned and finished.

If you haven’t inferred by now, I loved this tres leches. Probably the best I’ve ever had. I worried that its height, taller than others I’ve had, would mean a drier top. Not so. Even if it was, the barely sweetened cream and goat milk caramel would help out. Thankfully, the caramel was not too sweet. Its stickiness made the spoon linger in my mouth longer, encouraging me to reflect with each bite on how much I enjoyed my meal.