Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The Baconic Aesthetic

Friend, ex-coworker, and general "Good Dude" Bronson (BJJ/MMA blog, current post food-related) just linked me to this New York Times story about a 4-lb. grilled bacon and sausagecreation that has gone viral on the Interwebs. That story reminded me of the Bacon Cheese Baconburger, which led to my coining the word "baconic" to describe that characteristic while the BCB story has in greater quantity than the bacon-sausage roll. When I say baconic, I don't just mean "of, or relating to, bacon," though of course that is part of the definition. The term also references a bacon-centric (baconic - see how useful this word is!) aesthetic that seems to pop up regularly among foodies and on their blogs. Part of bacon's appeal among these people is doubtlessly its delectable smoke and pork and salt flavor, carried (and how cool is this?) by its own grease. That bacon taste of course traditionally enhances all sorts of dishes, from salads to soups to mashed potatoes, but it can also work well in strange places like desserts (with chocolate) despite its characteristic assertiveness.

So flavor is one reason why food enthusiasts love bacon. But just as bacon has complex flavor, the bacon aesthetic has many facets as well. One facet is that bacon is contrarian. In an era (and I'm talking here about a length of time measured in decades) that is decidedly anti-fat and anti-salt, bacon is pretty much wrapped in those gastronomic demons. Even smoke is, or should be, controversial because of its carcinogenic effects. Fresh, natural ingredients with clean flavors are another fixation of modern cooks, and deservedly so. Bacon is so heavily processed and distinctly flavored that the uninitiated would probably be unable to identify it as pork. And as a preserved food intended for long-term storage, it's not anywhere near fresh. So of course we love it and love talking about it, because we're all about the naughty stuff. Bacon is a smoky, greasy finger in the eye of conventional culinary wisdom, and the bacon aesthetic is all about going our own way with food, especially if it's the wrong way. Bacontakes a stand for everything that is forbidden us, and it does it in a brash, in-your-face way: when you put bacon in a dish, you simply cannot cover it up. It says, in a most baconic fashion, "I'm here, even if I shouldn't be. And you love it."

XLB Are For Suckaz

This morning my waking thought was a remembrance of Xiaolongbao, a Shanghai specialty consisting of little thin-skinned dumplings filled with both pork or seafood filling and (here's the special part) a bit of pork broth. I first fantasized "Wow! I'll bet people in the States have never had soup in their dumplings! Culinary world, I am about to blow your mind and burn your tongue." Sadly, a quick google search revealed that not only does everybody and their mom know about XLB, but they were even a little food fad in the mid-90s. So much for my dreams of real originality. Or at least the appearance of originality here in the US.

My next thought was a remembrance of actually eating XLB in Shanghai. It took some doing, but eventually I got a seat at Xia Xia Xialongbao Tang, a well-recommended XLB shop in the middle of their neighborhood home to tons of restaurants and nothing else. I remember my eager anticipation of what surely would be a transformative tasting experience, and also the clear "do-not-care" attitude of the waitress (though the old guy who brought me a spoon when she forgot to seemed pretty ok). And the dumplings? The skins were substantial enough to taste, but not at all unpleasantly thick, and they had the tender texture you generally look for. The solid filling (I got the pork) was fine, though nothing stunning. And the crucial bit, the soup? Meh. The stock was delicious, but it felt like there was maybe half a teaspoon in each dumpling. And looking at the picture of the dumplings, I can't see why I expected any more to be stuffed into those things.

A little disappointed, I left the restaurant and started to head back to the hostel to collect my stuff and catch my train west. I was still hungry - those dumplings were expensive, for China, and one steamer basket's worth was surely not enough to satisfy me - so when I spotted someone frying more substantial-looking dumplings across the street, I leaped at the opportunity to get something more in my stomach. Nothing about Yang's Fry-Dumpling restaurant or the dumplings themselves indicated that the Shanghai soup dumpling scene was about to redeem itself in a moment that mixed a bit of euphoria with a bit of searing pain. There was a kind of ridiculous, but understated, yellow sign with poorly formatted english writing and a picture of an anonymous hand giving the thumbs up. In the window that opened onto the street, a big batch of dumplings the size of a child's fist were being shallow-fried in a huge pan. My experience with these fried dumplings was that the restaurants tilted the pan and only used enough oil to active fry things in one corner of it, so often half your dumplings were half cold. I should never have doubted Yang or his fry-dumplings. After buying a set of four, I was walking down the street towards a subway stop when I bit into the first one. I don't know what I expected, but I guess probably some kind of meat stuffing. Instead, steaming-hot (at the least) soup game gushing out, burning my tongue and splattering everywhere. It turned out there was at least like a gallon of soup in each of these things, and the whole deal was super-heated. The bottoms were awesomely crunchy, which of course left the tops a bit rubbery. There were sesame seeds and delicious grease and some kind of solid stuffing that I can't at all remember because of the soup. Oh my, the soup was everything I wanted: hot, delicious, and in quantity. I'd finished all four by the time I got down into the train station, the soup from each one burning my mouth in some new place. But I was smiling anyway.

So there you have it. Americans may think they know about Shanghai soup dumpligs, but they're eating the ones from the wrong side of the street.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The Winter Gods Are Anti-Burgin'

So Chef John over at Food Wishes (a long-time inspiration to my cooking, and usually in more profound ways than this) put up a little video showing how to portion sliders with a muffin tin yesterday, which inspired me to make some sort of burger for lunch even though we're in the middle of winter, which is not exactly high burgin' season. I refused, of course, to absorb his lesson about even portioning or mimic the simplicity of his beef + pepper + salt burger formula; instead, I set out to make highly-seasoned, hand-formed pork patties.

Before starting any other prep, I put a non-stick pan on medium-high heat.

The overall plan to was to make a Sichuan-ish version of the pork filling I use most often for pot-stickers/wontons. I got out my mortar and pestle (more on buying kitchen supplies from laboratory supply companies in a future post) and ground together some black pepper, salt, and quite a few Sichuan peppercorns. On later examination, it didn't make any sense to grind the salt along with the peppercorns.

The spice blend was mixed with some decently fatty ground pork (ground at home a while ago then frozen, don't remember the cut), sliced scallions, minced garlic, grated ginger, and a drop or two of toasted sesame oil.

The mix looked like it had a great proportion of fat and smelled excellent, though it could have taken a few more Sichuan peppercorns. I formed two small patties by hand and of course they came out a bit uneven, but as soon as they hit the pan they smelled so great I couldn't make myself care. I cooked the first side for 4 minutes and flipped it over to find beautiful browning.

Then, suddenly, disaster! I was making a bit of sauce (Yeo's Sweet Chilli Sauce, a bit of soy sauce, a drop of sesame oil) for the burgers when out of the cabinet I was opening tumbled a glass jar full of some dried herb. The glass shattered and shards went flying onto the floor, into my prep area, and possibly into the cooking meat.

Goodbye, sweet burgers.

After cleaning up the glass, I found myself still desiring to feed on a hot mass of meat, but now I lacked ground pork. Luckily, I found a bag of half-frozen ground lamb in the fridge. I cut a portion of that off and did a quick-and-dirty defrost in the microwave (managed to only cook maybe 3-5% of the meat). In the de-glassed mortar and pestle, I ground up some cumin seeds, a few coriander seeds, cloves, black pepper, salt, and some fresh-ground cinnamon (what a different fresh-ground makes even with cinnamon, which I think is great pre-ground!) and mixed all that with the lamb.

The resulting patty fried up decently and tasted quite Hui-ish, but next time I should probably put in some sichuan peppercorns and a ton of ground hot chilies. Also, the lamb was far leaner than the lost pork, so the juiciness level was disappointing.

Random note: I guess the Chinese like burgers well enough, but they definitely like them some fried chicken. The familiar Colonel is EVERYWHERE over there.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Muslim Quarter Street Food, Xi'an

One of the most kick-ass cities for street food in China is Xi'an, in Shaanxi province (not to be confused with neighboring Shanxi province, of course). In the northwest section of the walled city lies the Muslim Quarter, a super-touristy ethnic section of the best sort. The Muslim Quarter is home to a large concentration of the Hui ethnic minority (the majority ethnic group in China, as in Xi'an, is Han). These guys are ubiquitous in China's streetfood scene, always selling grilled meat or seafood on a stick and maybe some flatbreads too. In Beijing they sell starfish and sea horses and in Shanghai I ate minced lamb and vegetables on pancakes in a Hui restaurant, but the one item you always see is grilled skewered lamb with generous sprinklings of ground hot peppers.

In Xi'an you can get plenty of grilled lamb, but they also have a constellation of other tasty things to try: grilled breads, more kinds of dried fruit than you have ever seen unless you work in a fruit drying factory, some kind of rice pudding cooked in individual pots over a flame, roast beef sandwiches, goopy mutton stew with crumbled bread (Yang Rou Pao Mo), another goopy soup eaten for breakfast with twisted doughnuts floating in it, and the list goes on and on.

The food that most interested me (enough to buy it twice with so many unexplored options close at hand) grabbed my attention with a huge cloud of steam, in the midst of which a Hui man was shovelling portions of something redolent of Chinese five-spice powder out of a big metal tub. The food turned out to be some kind of starch, mashed or rolled very small, steamed with chewy mutton, and beautifully spiced. I ordered a bowl, but didn't manage to get any of the soft buns he also had steaming in his metal tub. When I brought some back to the hostel to ask the receptionists what the starch was, they said it was wheat. This was the most satisfying dish I had in Xi'an, but I can't figure out its name or how it's made, so if anyone can tell me what it is, please please post a comment!

East Asian Street Food

Alright so a little while ago I spent a few months traveling through East Asia. Plenty of sleeping in backpacker hostels and trying not to get hustled on the street and eating weird unidentifiable sh*t off menus I couldn't read. As goes traveling in general, so too goes eating on the road: sometimes it's scary, sometimes it's fantastic, often it's a huge pain in the a**, but the overall experience tends to be enriching and positive and all that crap that means something but sounds mushy when you put it in words.

Surely the most hassle-free way of filling your belly in an unfamiliar place is street food, at least where such a concept exists in any meaningful way. You get to walk up to a stall and point at food that is at the least clearly displayed and often being cooked right in front of you. The transaction is entirely straightforward and the likelihood of getting ripped off slim, since you probably saw what someone paid for the exact same food a second ago.

In the street food category, China beat the hell out of the other countries I spent most of my time, Korea and Japan. Korea has some excellent stuff that I miss, especially tteokbokki (wonderful chewy rice cakes and other less important things in a moderately spicy red "curry" sauce that the Koreans incorrectly think is burn-your-a**-off hot) and gimbap (sort of Korean sushi rolls that are a lot better than that description makes them sound, but are more often sold as fast food in stores than from street stalls). Unfortunately, a lot of the street food is deep-fried something-or-other stuffed with red bean paste and though the variety isn't too shabby, it can't come close to what you can find in China. In any case, banchan, or little side dishes - pretty much always including kimchi - served alongside your other food, are the real fun of eating in Korea.

street food barely seems like it's trying, even when compared to Korea. In the Kansai region (Osaka and Kyoto and the center of the main island) you can get takoyaki (at its best, bits of octopus suspended in gooey pancake batter with a fried-crispy outer shell - you be the judge) and okonomiyaki (more pancake batter, this time in pancake form and with plenty of bland mayonnaise) and yakisoba (noodles, stir-fried) and whatever-else-yaki. That stuff can be pretty awesome, but it gets old real quick, and then what are you left with? Oh yeah, there's a 7-11 on the corner there, I guess you'll just have to pick up some onigiri (admittedly delicious sticky rice balls filled with something you can't read on the label. Good thing for you this is Japan and everything is color-coded). It's easy to come to the conclusion that street food is too filthy and disorderly for Japan, and maybe that's true. As some sort of consolation, a lot of Japanese fast-food establishments (another area of Japanese cuisine lacking in variety) combine the ubiquitous plastic food items with ticket-vending machines to make for an even more stress-free experience than eating on the street.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Rorshach Veesheeswahz, Pot-Stickers, Veggie-Burgers

A three-course meal that I didn't think about very much and revised mid-preparation, which resulted in three dishes that didn't relate to each other and had to be served at different times, which is far too fussy for me.

First up, Sweet Potato and Leek Vichyssoise. I saw this dish in Williams Sonoma's New Orleans cookbook, then found it online at (why reluctant? embrace your snobbery; it's what separates you from the inferior masses). This dish seems a bit contradictory, even in the name; as a cold soup, vichyssoise might be most appropriately served in summer, but sweet potatoes and leeks are fall or winter crops. Whatever.

First, I brought 4 cups of water to a boil in a pot, then plunked in 2 chopped large sweet potatoes. The recipe called for quartered sweet potatoes. I wanted them to cook faster, so I chopped them much smaller than that. I decided to use water instead of any sort of stock to protect the mellow flavors of leeks and sweet potatoes, the stars of this soup, from being muddled or even overpowered. The 2 chopped leeks I thought could wait until later in the cooking time, so perhaps preserve some of their freshness somehow. This idea may have had some validity, but in fact I forgot to put them in until a few minutes after I should have, so they were still a bit stringy when I removed the pot from the heat, which caused minor difficulties later.

After the potatoes and leeks were mostly cooked, but still had some texture, I removed the pot from the heat and let it cool a few minutes. At first I tried to use a stick blender to puree the vegetables into the water, but that lacked the power to get the potatoes to the even texture I wanted, and furthermore couldn't chop all of the somewhat stringy leeks. Luckily, the food processor worked fine and got the soup along with a bit of grated ginger to an even consistency. Added cream, then seasoned with kosher salt and ground white pepper. If I were to make this soup again, I think I might use water to thin the soup instead of cream, for lightness. Also, there's a bit of guesswork in the seasoning at this stage, since you're going to chill and age the soup, which changes its flavor. It might make sense to leave the seasoning until after chilling and be careful with the pepper, which wouldn't then have time to mellow.

After a few hours of chilling in the fridge, I garnished with a bit of cream (couldn't be bothered with anything else, but some green would have been perfect) and got Rorshach Vichyssoise.

Second course: Yao Choy and Fennel Seed Dumplings. Today I felt like making dumplings and also wanted some sort of green vegetable in this meal, so I put together this dish based on a kind of bao (Chinese steamed filled bun) I had in either Beijing or Shanghai. That particular bao was too salty and generally unpleasant, but I understood the green veg + fennel thing they were trying to get at.

I chopped up half a package of Yao Choy (or Green Yu Choy or whatever) in the mini-food processor chamber attachment for my stick blender, then mixed in minced garlic, minced shallots, minced ginger, freshly ground fennel and cumin seeds, a bit of ground hot red peppers, sesame oil, and some salt and ground black pepper. That stuffing went into round wonton wrappers, which were then folded in half and crimped. If I use this brand of wrappers again, I'll definitely roll them out a bit thinner and cut them in half; as they were, they were a bit too large and a bit too thick.

To cook the stuffed dumplings, I first browned them in a combination of canola and sesame oil, then poured a bit of water in the pan and covered to steam/boil them. Dipping sauce was just soy sauce with minced ginger, though I think they would have been better with the soy sauce-rice vinegar combination they serve with steamed dumplings in China.

Finally, Black Bean Burgers with Tamarind-Ginger Sauce. Probably needs a better name. My girlfriend and I saw a recipe for bean-based veggie burgers the other day and we vowed to make them eventually. Being a bit of a jerk, I jumped the gun. Grabbed this recipe off the Washington Post and kind of followed it. Sort of not really at all. Simmered a can of black beans for a while to soften them up while I got everything else together. Mixed some freshly ground cumin seeds with minced shallots, garlic, and cilantro. The recipe wanted panko bread crumbs, but I don't have anything fancy-schmancy like that (actually, I'd like to get some at a decent price), but my father is always making these "tortilla chips" by baking store-bought flour tortillas, so I just ground up a bunch of those in that darn-useful mini food processor bowl for my stick blender. They were dry and kind of sharp-ish, which is what I imagine panko is like. The beans got drained and half of them got pureed in the same food processor before the whole bit was mixed together with salt, ground black pepper, a bit of sesame oil, and two eggs, which turned out to probably be one too many. The whole mix was a bit slimy from the egg, so when I formed it into three patties about 3/4-inch thick, I coated the top and bottom of both with more tortilla-chip crumbs to promote trouble-free browning in the pan.

Most interesting to me was the sauce I put on these moderately-bad-boys, a tamarind juice reduction with ginger. I've never worked with tamarind before, though I've known about it for a long time and in fact had had this vacuum-sealed package of pulp sitting in the pantry for a long time. Well today I finally opened it up, took about about a third of the half-pound package, and mashed it into some boiling water. 10 minutes later, I had this thick, brown, slightly musty, sort of sweet, bracingly tart juice. Strained out the pulp (saved that in a bag for another soaking), brought to a simmer with some minced shallots and ginger. I reduced the liquid until it had a good concentration of the aromatics, then added brown sugar to further tame the tartness and a bit of cornstarch to bring it to the spoon-coating thickness I wanted.

Plated: rice + burger + avocado slices + sauce. The burgers were a bit bland, especially in contrast to the sauce, but their combination of crispy-brown outside and smooth pureed beans inside punctuated by a few whole beans and the other ingredients was excellent. I think next time I might form the patties a bit thinner. The sauce was wonderfully striking with its balanced tartness, but it might have used some more ginger to make the complexity of the sauce more apparent.

Thursday, January 15, 2009


First post! This blog is intended mostly as an informal group of notes on food to myself. I'm attracted to the idea of collecting my food-related thoughts, adventures, and discoveries in the cloud for my own convenience, but I also hope to contribute something to the food blogging community that has so inspired me in the past. The vain hope is that anyone who finds this mishmash will make sense of some small bit of it and come away with a new idea to explore.