Vegatables

Virtually fat-free and crazy addictive, Som Tam Thai salad, with Granny Smith Apple

 

SOM TAM COMES IN MANY SHAPES AND STYLES… ALL OF WHICH WILL EVENTUALLY COMPEL THEIR SUBJECTS TO SUCCUMB TO INEVITABLE ADDICTION

The other day as I watched again, sneering, yet another TV documentary made in the frantic, nation-wide hunt for the next revolutionary diet that is going to save America from drowning in its own fat — the Atkins, the keto, the 5:2, the Paleo, the HCG, the Zone, the Jenny fucking Craig, you name it — I reached down to my bag of kettle-cooked Texas BBQ potato chips with a grin before I glanced at the clock in wrenching gasps.  Holy mother of god it’s past 9 o’clock?! the feeding window has closed on my 16:8 intermittent fasting diet!

We all do it.  We all do it.  Twitching and turning in an endless cycle of struggles in order to stay in the balance between emotional sanity and the general shape of a socially acceptable humanoid.  So much deliciousness, so little fat cell allowance.  It’s almost as integral a part of the First World Problems as knowing how not to lose it when asking “What do you mean there’s no wi-fi?” at a beachside cafe on a Caribbean island.  I get it.

Having said that, I have to admit my general confusion at America’s difficulty in meeting such task, the final switch from consuming overly processed foods to fresh produce or simply just freshly prepared foods.  I feel this way because I think deep down, I know the answer to this question.  Deep down, I know how to save us all.

America just has to eat as good as A Third World country.

Look, I think we have grown so privileged, so involved with exhausting the last possible way to pair caviar with fried wagyu steaks or stuffing lobsters into a pig that we have, perhaps irreversibly, forgotten how to make poor foods taste good.  Not poor foods as in fast foods, but cooking with cheaper ingredients such as vegetables that is a major part of the diet in less privileged countries where meats are considered a luxury, where eating vegetables is not a choice, but a necessity, and as a result, where they taste really, really, really good, because they have to.

Take Thailand for example, where they have taken a virtually fat-free salad to the brim of an art form — som tam, or better known as Thai green papaya salad.  Som tam comes in many shapes and styles, depending on the region, ranging from mild and friendly to deeply funky and challenging to the foreign tongue, all of which will eventually compel their subjects to succumb to inevitable addiction.  Consider som tam Thai, the focus of our current interest, as the gateway drug.

Without the use of deeply fermented crabs or fishes like its other peers, som tam Thai is as friendly to the untrained tongues as it is delicious.  A mixture of ruptured chilis and garlics, bruised tomatoes and green beans with thinly shredded green papaya, and an acutely savory, sweet and tangy dressing, all pounded under the gentle urgency of a wooden mallet, ushering them onto the way to becoming something greater than the sum of its parts.  Perhaps its greatest wisdom is standing against the western practice of keeping the vegetables as un-wilted and perky as humanly possible in a salad, knowing that the partial breaching of their exterior defenses allows the exchange and absorbance of flavors to deepen.  Practically fat-free but incredibly robust, a celebration between a spectrum of textures, a push for the limit of human sensory, burning, salty, sweet, crunchy, sour, som tam Thai has boldly gone where no American vegetables have gone before.  The only thing standing in our way is perhaps that its main ingredient, green papaya, is somewhat of a tropical monopoly.  But please rejoice in knowing that it works just as beautifully with Granny Smith apples that are more abundant to us than we know what to do with.

So people, put down your kale salad and eat this one.  Feel alive again.  And maybe once in awhile, go get some fried chicken.  Just not a whole bucket.  You see.  It’s not that complicated.

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POTATO LATKE WAFFLE FRIES

THE PERFECT HOMEMADE FRENCH FRIES ARE, ACTUALLY, NOT FRENCH FRIES.  NOT ANYMORE.

As a “foodie”, for a lack of better words, I hereby acknowledge and accept all ramifications of these following confessions:

Despite the inexcusable amount of opportunity and close proximity in the past couple decades, I have never, until last Wednesday, had a Shake Shack burger.

That is correct.  Never wanted one.  Never needed one.  I suppose as a food-blogger who’s supposed to know these things, that oozes the same level of non-credibility as a cityscape Instagrammer who hasn’t been hit by a car  — judgements ensue.  But what can I say, because to me, burgers are like children.  Despite the high hopes and dreams every time you wanted one, let’s be honest, most of them turn out to be a disappointing investment with negative returns.  So as a general rule of thumb, I avoid both equally at all costs.  Having said that, I have to admit that my first Shackburger experience — an honest portrayal of a classic cheese burger yet of high caliber — was undeniably satisfying.  But blah blah, who cares, because today’s subject has absolutely nothing to do with burgers.

Instead, it has more to do with Shake Shack’s equally famed crinkled fries.  And how it has nothing but also everything to do deep-fried potato latke waffles.

For the most part, I pride myself as a purist, almost as much as my other less honorable characteristics.  When it comes it fries, it is no different.  I contest the practice of wedge fries, shoestring fries, curly fries, spiral fries, or anything that deviates from the textbook-standard straight-cut 1/4″ thick eternal classic for that matter, is immediately frowned upon.  As much as I would like to say that Shake Shack’s crinkled fries had changed my mind, it did no such thing.  But what it did, in common with all the other attempted contestants, was that it brought an important subject into the considerations for a fantasy French fries — maximized surface area.

In all fairness, each of these criminal deformations done to an innocent straight-cut French fries, were all good intentions to increase the surface area in contact with the frying oil in order to bring more crispiness to their overall performances.  They mean well.  They really did.  Except that in most cases (curly fries, wedge fries and most waffle fries in particular), it has achieved the exact opposite.  Shake Shack’s crinkle fries had came close but unfortunately not close enough to this ideal, still held back by its excessive girth and fast food chain-standard paleness (In fact, the company’s 2013 correct ambition to revamp their fries succumbed to the demands of blindly nostalgic customers, an example where democracy fails).  But its admirable failure had left me fantasizing a perfect world where uneven and warped surfaces could, perhaps, achieve the same level of crunch and crispiness as well-made staight-cut fries.  While it certainly wouldn’t be a bad idea, so far, it remained a theoretical hypothesis like Matt Damon on Mars.

Well, that was until Freedman’s potato latke showed up on this Month’s Bon Appetit.

It was a crispy potato enthusiast’s wet dream, where the maximal amount of surface area that could exist inside a 7″ wide and 1″ thick disk is transformed into a sharp, fracturable and golden browned starch-suit, where geometry meets food porn.

Impressive no doubt, but upon my first trial to test the reality of such dream, I immediately realized that its true genius lies not only in its final magnificence, but in how its process has successfully eliminated the No. 1 enemy of making anything that resembles French fries at home.  The despicable requirement of multiple blanching and re-frying.  Anyone who has attempted to create French fries from scratch at home understands deeply both the heinousness as well as the necessity of such process, which removes enough starch and moisture from the potatoes during its first soaking and second blanching so that the ultimate crispiness can be achieved in the final high-heat frying.  It’s a process that, some insist, could take more than a day…

…where potato latke waffle, does not.

All the stunning amount of liquid inside the potato is easily extracted in the shredding step, from then it further evaporates during the brief toasting inside the waffle iron where the potatoes cook and set in shape.  Roughly in a well-spent 20 minutes, the waffle becomes a homogenous body of soft and creamy potatoes held together by their own starchy content and lightly browned hems, which I’d like to point out can be kept inside the freezer on call, en route for greatness.  Inside a shallow pool of hot grease, the granular makeup of the cooked potato disbands subtly around the edges, creating jagged hot spots of glorious crispiness in the same manner throughout the rest of its geometric surfaces, underneath which, the creamy and molten potatoes are captured and sealed, awaiting for the liberation of an audible fracture.  Crispy.  Potato-y.  Incredibly.

With too much respect to this culinary enlightenment, I am almost reluctant to call it a potato latke as it originally intended, or waffle fries as it literally is.  I am almost insistent to say that it is the perfect homemade French fries, when the perfect homemade French fries are, actually, not French fries.  Not anymore.

But in the very moment when I paired them with smoked trout that was still cold to the touch as they do in Freedman’s, and smeared a barbaric stroke of whipped butter and creme fraiche to its zigzag surface as they totally should too, I immediately lost the need to differentiate.  It works undeniably as a perfect potato latke; it works brilliantly as fries.  When something works so sublimely outside the box, throw away the box.

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POMELO AND THAI HERBS SALAD

 

THE EXPERIENCE IS BETWEEN EATING A SALAD AND DRINKING A COLD GLASS OF GATORADE

I don’t eat salads.

I think that’s quite self-evident on this blog.  But even a non-salader like me feels a tinge of excitements as pomelo season approaches, the citrus giant with enormous and voluptuous pulps that burst with sweet, floral and faintly bitter juices resembling a lemony grapefruit.  For the record, I’m not a fan of grapefruit, which is why I’m not particularly excited about pomelo’s potential as a stand-alone fruit course.  But what gets my buzz going is its potential to be a fantastic savory treat.

Pomelo is rarely too sweet, and it carries an uniquely floral and bitter note that blends wonderfully with other more robust or rich-tasting ingredients that seek a refreshing medium.  Take herbs salad for example, flavorfully too sharp and aggressive most of the times to be a dish on its own, but together with pomelo, it becomes a juicy and rounded symphony tapping on all the right notes in a cascading, orchestrated tempo.  First thing that hits the senses is the pungent saltiness of the fish sauce and shallots anointed with olive oil, which escalates along the individually distinctive sharp bites from the assorted fresh herbs, too sharp, almost, if it isn’t immediately awash with sweet and quenching juices with the rupture of each pomelo pulps.  The experience is a marriage between eating a salad and drinking a cold glass of gatorade.

A refreshing and guilt-free lunch on an overheated autumn day, but I know that it cries to be an equal partner alongside heavy and rich pre-winter dishes like roast pork belly or braised short ribs.  And next year, you’ll be counting the days for its arrival.

 
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PAPPA AL KIMCHI POMODORO, KIMCHI TOMATO BREAD SOUP

A HYBRID BETWEEN THE CLASSIC TUSCANY BREAD SOUP AND KIMCHI JJIGAE, SERVED HOT OR COLD

If you follow my Instagram, you’d know that I have a barking barfing fur-child to attend to (yes, still).  So I’m quickly leaving you this recipe, which is a fantastic way to use up any day-old breads, or any over-proofed-thus-deflated breads in my case, which happens a lot these days.  It’s a hybrid between pappa al pomodoro, the classic Tuscany bread soup, and kimchi jjigae, the national anthemic stew from Korea.  You can serve it hot with the AC blasting, or chilled and cold at the next rooftop party ya’ll kids are so good at throwing nowadays.  Relaxed, soothing and comforting, unlike my life as we speak.  So go now.  Have some fun for me.

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SWEET POTATO TAPIOCA GNOCCHI, GLUTEN-FREE

SOFT BUT PLEASANTLY CHEWY, THAT IT FROLICS IN BETWEEN EVERY BITE WITH THE UPMOST PLAYFUL RESISTANCE


Light.  Airy.  Delicate.  Cloud-like.

See, surely these are rules best to dictate cotton candies and runway models.

But, in my opinion, not for gnocchi.

I know, I know.  Who am I – an Asian who grew up in North America – to judge gnocchi, an inarguably Italian prerogative guarded by some very defensive if not hostile Italian grandmothers.  To some, if I am ever entitled to an opinion then it should only be on chop suey or somethin’, certainly not this heritage pasta sacredly given by the ancient Roman Gods.  Hey, I know!  I agree!, or at least I used to, which was why I never complained every time I was served with a plate of texture-less and borderline-mushy “clouds”, in Rome or Nice and etcetera might I add, and nodded in compliance like a team-player.  “Yes, Mandy.  These mashy semisolids are intentional and authentic.  Now shut up and eat them.  Gollum Gollum”.  I truly tried.

You see, close-minded it may seem, but I come from a place where any flour-involved, savory carbohydrates have to have, a chew.

Whether it’s hand-pulled xi’an noodles, the delicate wrappers of dim sum dumplings, or hand-shaped fresh pastas and whatnots, no matter.  No chew, shameful personal failure of the cook.  Doesn’t matter if it was the long-term habit that shaped my preference, or the other way around, it’s the same thing.  I just like’em chewy.

So as time went on, a quiet rebellion came when I first found out about this French” gnocchi business.  It’s a pâte à choux type of dough that yields a firmer, chewier and springy form of gnocchi, which were much more relatable and appreciated by my (ok angry nonna, I’ll say it myself) narrow-minded Asian taste-buds.  It was a vote of endorsement that said, hey there is actually a market out there for a texturally different type of gnocchi and it isn’t going to get me burnt alive on a stick in the middle of a piazza.  It was encouraging, although, not enough to push me to commit recipe-social-suicide, to turn the idea of gnocchi upside down.  Until, unfortunately, the real affirmation came a few weeks ago during one innocent gathering with friends, when one of them ever-so-harmlessly mentioned…

“I’ve never like the soft, fluffy gnocchi.  I prefer the chewier type”, he said.

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DIM SUM MONTH FINALE: Tapenade short ribs, plus dim sum party game plan

AT LAST, DIM SUM MONTH FINALE…

WHAT:  Beef short ribs in super garlicky tapenade sauce, an adaptation of a classic dimsum item – pork ribs with fermented black beans but with an American/European twist.

WHY:  The unexpectedly supple texture of the beef (thanks to baking soda) melting gorgeously into a pool of bold and complex mixture of flavors, a revelation that can be easily prepared ahead of time and cooks in under 8 min.

HOW:  For both flavors and accessibility, I have swapped the traditionally used diced pork ribs with the more luscious and rich-tasting beef short ribs, and Chinese fermented black beans with the equally bold and forward black olives.  Trust me, if I may say so myself, the reinvented combination works even better than tradition.  The surprisingly tender and velvety texture of the beef – achieved by adding just a tiny pinch of baking soda into the marinate – disintegrates in your mouth in a medley of perfectly orchestrated flavours that you didn’t even know would go together.  Black olives, strawberry jam, soy sauce, sesame oil, Dijon mustard, and a depth created by using both raw and fried garlics.  It’s easy to put together, and a cinch to cook in a blink of an eye.  You’ll wonder where it’s been your whole life.

Now, simply follow the instructions below on how to throw a hassle-free dim sum party!

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DIM SUM MONTH: GLASS DUMPLINGS W/ MUSHROOMS AND SMOKED GOUDA CHEESE

DIM SUM MONTH STILL CONTINUES…

OK, I know it’s not February anymore, but there’s still a couple more dim sum I want to share so DIM SUM MONTH is oozing into March a bit…

WHAT:  Glass-like translucent dumplings stuffed with caramelized mushrooms and a soft-hearted center of smoked gouda cheese, all in a beautiful tear-drop shape.

WHY:  Because the only tears you’re gonna cry are happy ones when you try this.

HOW:  This wrapper is actually my favorite not only because it’s so beautiful, but it actually freezes well, or should I say better than the more common and popular crystal shrimp dumplings.  It has a pleasantly bouncy and chewy mouth-feel, and it gives the audience a preview to whatever fillings you put inside!  In this case, we’re doing deeply oven-caramelized mushrooms that are bound together by a bit of ground pork and parmigiano-regiano cheese (and a hint of truffle oil if you can splurge), creating an earthy, warm and aromatic cradle that rocks a soft and temperate center of smoked gouda cheese.  Nothing is going to shout “funk!” in this flavor-profile here, only modest but confident display of a well-tolerated harmony.  The only accessory it likes is a brightening dab of heat from this chili sambal romesco sauce.  But the sky’s the limit here.  How about grassy colored spinach filling with a stronger punch of blue cheese, or sweet and red-cheeked carrots or beets and funky goat’s cheese?  Dream wild.

* I believe that the next post will be the final chapter of dim sum month, and I’m going to list out a complete game-plan on what, how and when to prepare certain items ahead of time, and throwing then all together at our virtual dim sum party :)

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DIM SUM MONTH: Turnip cake fritters w/ prosciutto

DIM SUM MONTH CONTINUES…

WHAT:  A very logical and long-overdue twist on the classic and quintessential dim sum – turnip/radish cake, in bite-size fritter form.

WHY:  For far too long have we allowed ourselves to be complacent with “tradition”, in this particular case, boring and bland squares of steamed rice cakes barely containing any turnips that draw all of its flavors and appeals from the XO sauce that is piled on top.  I mean think about it.  Without the XO sauce, who the fuck is turnip cake?  Even the slight attraction from its crispy pan-fried edges is more often missing than not.  But turnip cake deserves more than XO sauce, if we just take a moment to let the star – turnips! – shine through.

HOW:  An almost 50:50 ratio of finely diced Chinese turnips (or called daikon in Japanese) to batter, yields a supple and succulent texture in these little babies, almost juicy if you will.  Yes, juicy, which is not a word you hear often when it comes to turnip cakes, but it should.  Each tiny dices of blanched turnips burst out in natural sweetness within every bite, in perfect juxtaposition to the stickier batter that holds them all together and the incredibly crispy jacket that it wears.  Yes, crispiness, which brings us to my next point.  For all sakes, I don’t understand the way this dish was traditionally done, which was steamed into a big rectangular block, cut into slices, then pan-fried for that half-assed, pathetic excuse of a “crust” that doesn’t exist.  All along, it should’ve been in fritter-form!  360 degrees of heat and awesomeness that transforms that batter into blistered and satisfying crunch.  With turnip cake this good, we don’t need other distractions but a subtle ribbon of prosciutto on top.

*Yellow mixing bowl from Dishes Only.

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