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Honeycomb macaroni w/ porky cream

”  Together, each cylindrical chamber separates easily with a brisk crack where the melted cheese are harvested and mingles with the cream sauce laying bare.  “

On October 22nd 2018, in the darkness of the night, I laid on my eyes on Margeaux Brasseries’s “honeycomb macaroni” for the first time, and heard destiny calling.

At first it seemed that our connection was immediate and reciprocal, even through the barrier of the computer screen, that there was an understanding without words, that we instinctively knew each other’s needs and wishes, requirements and rewards, that I knew how to make it happy, and it too, wanted to be mine.  We would hit it off.  We would be an item.  We would hold hands at dinner parties and whisper secret jokes only we could understand.  We would complete each other.

But apparently, it had other ideas.

Six days later after two catastrophic failures at making this dish, it became increasingly clear that the affection was one-directional only.

But could I blame anyone else but myself?  No.  Because I took it for granted.  I made the classic mistake in a relationship when things felt so given, so seemingly straightforward, I forgot that it too, requires attentions to details.  First time around, sounding even stupider now said out loud, I used a type of macaroni that was tree-sizes too small.  If you enjoy weaving beads necklace for dinner, this is another way to pleasure yourself with.  If not, it’s probably a good time to know that when macaroni is big, it’s not called macaroni anymore.  It’s called ziti.  Who knew.

I felt good about this new piece of knowledge.  Perhaps too good.  Emboldened by the sense that I had figured it all out, the second mistake was, if possible, even dumber.  What had I expect from introducing a highly sticky material to another highly attractive surface?  Left them alone for five minutes, I walked in on the inseparability between my old friend copper pot and my new love honey macaroni in the most interlocked position there is.  What a cliche.  Cliches hurt.

Two near-permanent breakups, I learnt my lessons.  I gave it thoughts.  I right all the wrongs.  I paid the attentive devotion it deserves.  Only on our third date, I bent my knees and made it a faithful proposition.  And at the end of the kitchen aisle, shimmering, it stood as beautiful as I had imagined.  It is named honeycomb macaroni for a good reason.  Its tubular bodies, slender and uniform, huddles intimately with only gooey melted cheese as the mortar of its magnificent structure, like a bee hive made of carbs and dairy.  Where in between the gaps, the cheese droops downward like thick syrup to the hot skillet in anticipation where heat, butter and starch await in forming a golden flat cap, a delicate, crispy and delicious linkage.

Such beauty doesn’t need the distraction of a loud sauce.  Something simple, but thoughtful.  Something understated, but not without declaration.  So I “brewed” grounded and browned guanciale, the porkiest substance I know on earth, in a simple cream sauce brightened with nutmeg and cardamon.  It was then strained like a tea, removed of the solid source of its deep aroma, leaving only a silky blanket of cream curiously imbued with the thickness of aged pork.   Together, each cylindrical chamber separates easily with a brisk crack where the insulted cheese are harvested and mingles with the cream sauce laying bare.

It was an affair that ignited passionately, even if one-sided only, and ended in what will certainly be a lifelong companionship.  Learn from my mistakes, and you will find yourself an object of your affection, too.

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The shroomiest mushroom risotto, without breaking bank

when powdered and browned in hot grease, dried shiitake’s exponentially multiplied surface areas darken and deepen boundlessly, releasing every molecules of that shroominess that would otherwise cost you a limb

If you have ever found yourself frozen in front of the mushroom isles at your local Whole Foods Market, cold sweats dripping down as you struggle to understand how on earth could a fungi — categorically no different than the molds crawling underneath your drywalls — be charging sometimes more than $50 per pound, while feeling utterly shitty about yourself, well, this recipe is for you:

Poor man’s mushroom risotto.

I’m speaking from a place of deep empathy.  Having been born as a relentlessly cheap human being, I understand the hurt when even a dickhead-shaped vegetation that lives off of decomposed matters could take one look at me, and smirk.  A brainless, judgy brainless sponge that grows next to if not on top of rotten shits, thinks I’m not good enough.  Who do they think they are?  By the way I’m not talking about the cheap mushrooms like White Buttons, pfff... who do you think I am?  I’m talking about the delicious ones, the truly robust, earthy, and nutty-flavored mushrooms with Elvish names, Chanterelle, Lactarius Indigo, Blue Foot, that grows in an enchanted woods with the fairies and talk to birds.  Those fuckers.  I ain’t sayin’ it’s a gold digger; but it ain’t messin’ with no broke n-beeeep.

Can you tell this is personal?

So for years, or more accurately since the 24 heads of dried morel we obtained from our France road trip had run dry, I’ve been secretly doing this.

Dried shiitake mushroom.

Cheap, common, found almost wherever Asian groceries stand and season-neutral.  Why is it generally much more affordable than other varieties of dried mushrooms such as porcini, morels and etc?  No idea (psst, because it’s Asian).  But I can assure you that flavor-wise, it does not dwarf in comparison.  In fact, it has been aiding the flavors and complexities of a huge number of Asian dishes, soups and stews, precisely because of its high natural-occuring MSG and a deep, musky, earthy aroma.  But regrettably, typically cooked whole or in slices, its true potential has yet to be realized by the general public.

It wants to be, no, needs to be, powered.

Think about it.  Remained as a whole, or slices, or even finely diced, the mushrooms are only allowed a limited exposure to direct heat and caramelization.  But when powdered and browned in hot grease, its exponentially multiplied surface areas darken and deepen boundlessly, releasing every molecules of that shroominess that would otherwise cost you a limb.  As a supporting role, usually a couple tablespoons will suffice.  But in the case of carrying an entire Italian culinary staple, say risotto, to whole new height, I suggest we go to town.

Almost 1/2 cup of shiitake mushroom powder will fry slowly in chicken fat, as transformative as the making of a dark roux, until its pale brown complexion takes on the color between cinnamon and dark chocolate, until its faintly woody aroma expands into a pungency that is almost spicy and sweet.  All this magic is then extracted by the chicken broth, and delivered into every single grains of arborio rice in a silky, totally un-grainy finish.  Although you may deem the appearance of fish sauce and soy sauce as out of place, but they only amplify and compliments the shroominess without making an entrance.  I urge you not to swap.

So there.  Go buy expensive dickheads if you want to be like that.  But me?  I’m sticking with this.

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How to make perfectly butterflied and crispy skillet chicken

While I try to concentrate on cookbook post-editing…

Let’s talk simple geometry here.

A bird is a three-dimensional object.  The surface of a skillet is a two-dimensional plane.

How do we warp a three-dimensional object for it to make perfectly parallel contact with a two-dimensional plane, in the explicit interest of a chicken, creating that impeccably even, blistered and crispy skin?  Aside from the fact that it’s super fun, of course (it is).

Here’s how.

Plus a five-minutes pan sauce too delicious for its simplicity.

Ate this two days in a row and counting.

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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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KHAO SOI NEUA/BEEF

KHAO SOI HAPPENS TO HAVE THE RIGHT BALANCE OF BOTH EXOTICISM AND SAFETY IN THE EYE OF A CAUTIOUSLY CURIOUS BACKPACKER.

Scad has been said about khao soi on the internet — some well-informed and some, not so much — so I think I will not bother.  It’s possibly the most famous dish from Northern Thailand, a somehow debatable status in my view.  Being back from a quick trip in Chiangmai Thailand, the capital of khao soi, I’m attempted to assume that its popularity among foreigners is contributed to its relatively benign characteristics if compared to the other more “adventurous” yet far more stunning dishes the region has to offer.  Khao soi, being chicken or beef in coconut curry with egg noodles, happens to have the right balance of both exoticism and safety in the eye of a cautiously curious backpacker.  It certainly isn’t, by far, the best thing we’ve tasted on this trip.  But I’ve always wanted to formulate a khao soi recipe after I’ve actually tried it at its source, so here it is.

Pushing it further on its muslim Chinese origin, I’m replacing dried chilis with Sichuan douban chili paste for a more complexed flavor, as well as inviting the mild tinge of numbness and floral quality from Sichuan peppercorns.  Another trick is to dial down on the amount of coconut milk in the broth itself so it can be reintroduced again right before serving, increasing depth and layers of flavors as how it is done in some of the better khao soi restaurants we’ve encountered.  In a bit of a disagreement with the blunt, under-processed pickled mustard greens that are often mindlessly chopped and scattered in the noodle as a failing contrasting agent, I’m replacing it with pan-fried pickled caperberries that provides sharp pops of sourness and complexity.  Then last but not least, a reminder of Sichuan peppercorns in the topical chili paste to bring it all together.

Enjoy.

 

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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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Granola and no-churn banana ice cream bars

 

IT TASTES LIKE THE LONG MISSING EMPATHY IN ALL HEALTHY BREAKFASTS, AT LAST, FINALY TAKING PITY IN ALL THE UNGODLY URGES WE HUMAN BEINGS HAVE TO DEAL WITH

This is a desperate attempt to counter the tyranny that is summer in Hong Kong while still upholding a minimal level of personal responsibilities such as eating fruits and vegetables, taking fibers, lowering cholesterol and such sad things in life that we all to have bend to at one point or another.  Crunchy yet slightly chewy granola crusts sensibly consisting of rolled oats, corn flakes, seeds and popped grains, sandwiching a less reasonable yet thick layer of no-churn ice cream rampant with cream and sweetened condensed milk, the only good judgment of which is made with the inclusion of two frozen bananas.

It tastes like empathy in a healthy breakfast, at last, finally understanding and taking pity in all the ungodly urges we human beings have to deal with in real life situations.  And I’d say the constancy of 34 degrees celsius with 80% humidity is as real as fuck.

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SUMMER CREAMY TOFU NOODLES

A DRESSING THAT IS CREAMY YET EXTREMELY LIGHTWEIGHT, WITHOUT THE DEPLOYMENT OF MAYONNAISE OR DAIRY-THICKENED PRODUCTS

What drives us?  What fuels the engine that set us in motion through this open water of life?  And to what extend, if any, do we understand and can we even steer this propulsion?  Or are we all, in the end, simply just being moved?  Because when you think about it, doesn’t the phrase “being driven” imply, in the best case scenario, riding shotgun?  So are we all just passengers in an autonomous car?  At this point in life, I ask myself this a lot.

Whatever it is, we are of course all driven by different things, some by ambitions, some by expectations.  Some are driven by responsibilities.  Some are driven by ideals.  I, for one, am regrettably yet hopelessly driven by the saddest of them all — insecurities.  It is, no doubt, a powerful fuel, productive even, if cultivated under the right set of circumstances.  In spite of the inconvenient mandate it has issued me since birth to render all perceived informations as glass-half-if-not-almost-empty situations, it had nonetheless also dragged me through college, got me a job sort of, kept me engaged, however minimal, in some form of social productivities, being the last line of deterrence in between me and rotting unenthusiastically in an endless pit of Cheetos and ice creams.

Where it’s most relevant to the subject on this blog, it had also, with absolute authority, dictated how I cook.

As depressing as it may sound, for me, cooking is not actually about love, gathering, or even about eating.  Cooking, however solitary, is a sport.  And sporting is about performances.  It has to stand out.  It has to exceed.  It keeps a score.  Don’t get me wrong.  I adore this sport.  But as much as I feel happiness and fulfillment through this process, every time I present a dish whether here or in front of friends and families, I am not to nourish, I am to be evaluated.  It’s utterly pathetic.  I hate myself too as I read these sentences, but hey, I’m not driving remember?  I’m being driven.

This unfortunate defect in my character has largely reduced the number of basic recipes on this blog.  Quick or simple maybe, but not basic, at least not in my mind, not without some flare, some ah-ha’s, some kind of charm offensives.

But why am I babbling about this today?  Because today I’m breaking a mould.

The initial objective in this recipe was to create a dressing that is creamy yet extremely lightweight, without the deployment of mayonnaise or dairy-thickened products, as an equally exciting solution to a much-presented problem as we are being harassed by the demands of summer.  Credited to Brook’s Headley’s vegan chocolate ganache, the unlikely firm tofu came to mind.

The scrutiny that is imposed onto this under-appreciated Asian ingredient, often being measured against other robustly more flavorful competitors on the grocery isles, is sadly unfair and misinformed.  Because tofu was never about flavor.  Tofu is a textural thing.  Being pressed into solids, the curds are silky and fragile on the tongue.  Being obliterated in a food-processor, it becomes unexpectedly thickened, smooth and creamy.  It’s the new perfect mother-sauce.

Upon identifying the subject, my insecurity immediately steered the direction towards sensationalism, something loud, something flashy, something doused in heat and spices then set on fire with lighter fuel.  But something strange if not downright unnatural was happening.  This time, in spite of myself, my mind kept defaulting on a childhood comfort that is neither special or bold — the very simple flavors of silken tofu dressed with soy sauce and sesame oil.

This recipe is not rowdy.  It isn’t trying to make a point.  It quietly invites, and it quietly receives, where it quietly untethers after that.  The weightless creaminess wraps its subjects like the touches of cold satin sheets, cooling and soothing, tightens only to a gentle point by the saltiness of soy sauce, the nuttiness of sesame oil, and the soft prickling of wasabi in the nasal cavity.  It is perfectly unextraordinary.  It’s not how I like to cook.  But it’s what I want to eat.

And believe it or not, that for only a handful of times on this blog, I’m okay with that.  I consider it a triumph.

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