Extra-browns Browned Butter

Not double, not triple, but ten, twenty-times of (salty) browned bits.

You’ve never known browned butter this way.  You’ll never want to know it any other way.

The other day, two hours after midnight while I was peeling through the dense jungle of Amazon’s available silicone microwave popcorn makers to be exact, something hit me like a lightening slitting down a tree.

Browned butter.

A glorious thing, absolutely.  But what is wrong with browned butter?  No, no, let me rephrase.  What is missing with browned butter?  It’s a beautiful thing that is butter made even more beautiful by letting the remaining traces of milk – an inevitable remnant from the process of making butter from cream – slowly caramelize into speckles of browned bits that, I want to argue, is the unsung hero that truly gives browned butter its celebrated nuttiness and deep, rich aroma.

So here I ask again, as attractive as is, what is missing with browned butter?

I say, not enough browned bits.

Yes, think about it!  Think about how sick browned butter could be if it is accompanied by not double, not triple, but ten, twenty-times the amount of browned bits that separates browned butter from being a component to a stand-alone, self-sufficient sauce all on its own.

Because I’m not just talking about browned bits, but salty, salty browned bits.  Relentlessly nutty to a point of almost sweet aroma storming your nasal cavity, with the saltiness bringing out all the nuance of depth and flavor that plain fat couldn’t physically carry by itself (salt can’t melt in oil), this is what I am calling Extra Browns, the late-arriving amplification of what browned butter could’ve, should’ve, would’ve been if everyone has been making it this way.  You’ve never known browned butter this way.  You’ll never want to know it any other way.

Simply add milk.  Simply add milk, my friends.

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Moroccan Baghrir – Thousand holes pancake

Long been a destination on my bucket list – and one that had taken us way too long to fulfill – we finally visited Marrakech in December 2018.  I sort of did and didn’t know what to expect.  A dancing mirage somewhere in between the Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea, the face of Marrakech carried mysterious, exotic and imaginative beauty in my mind, like a place only in story books, almost unreal.

But of course, in reality, Marrakech is anything but unexposed.  We arrived to find an ancient city, like all the others of her kind left only with the pillars of tourism industry, whose beauty, flaws and dignity are laid bare for the world to entertain with.  Her plastered skin glowing in pink and orange, her sometimes unequivocal display of chaos and neurosis, and her remedial serenity and reflective pools inside the earthen walls of her beautiful courtyard houses, all of which was once for herself, now all is but a reluctant theme park for foreign passers.  This could be a difficult dilemma for any city, especially a poor one like Marrakesh, where her livelihood brings out both the best and worst she has to offer.  Within the walls of Medina, it could feel like a pressure cooker of transactions.  A request for directions, a photograph, a helpful hand, all of which seemed to need to become an exchange for euros, or worse, extortions.  And there she stood in the backdrop, her face blushing in that beautiful gradation of earthy red hues, I wondered, if in sadness or apathy.

That sounded negative.  For that I apologize, for who am I to lay judgment in my brief and shallow crossing with a city that is obviously complicated, and made our trip sound unenjoyable which it definitely wasn’t.  

If you wish to enjoy Marrakech, in my experience, you have to choose a great riad to stay in.  Riad is traditional Moroccan courtyard houses, but nowadays, mainly known as a synonym for Bed & Breakfast.  Your riad is where you retreat from the outer disorientation and intensity, where you find conversations beyond bargainings, where it could feel like a temporary family even just for a few days.  And most importantly for us, where the foods were great.  When it comes to street foods, to be utterly honest with you, I wasn’t too impressed, at least inside the walls of Medina.  We tried our best to avoid obvious tourist traps and focused on old establishments favored by mostly locals, but nothing stood up to the promise.  On the third day, out of search-fatigue and the promising aroma lurking out of the kitchen every late afternoon that we could no longer ignore, we decided to stay in our riad for dinner at a more than reasonable pricing of 20 euros per person.  What was served to us that night, had single-handedly reversed our perception of what Moroccan cuisine could and should be.

The dinner started with a few small bites of cold appetizers, each nicely balanced in texture and flavors that eased our skepticism.  Then came a lightly spiced pumpkin soup that held so much more nuances of comfort than its creamed orange appearance suggested.  “Is this typical in Moroccan meals?” I asked the manager.  “Yes.”  He smiled in amusement.  “Pumpkin soup.”  Of course.  At this point we were sufficiently assured to not be surprised by any excellence that was not expected.  But the main course, a bubbling tagine of fork-tender beef stewed in gentle spices and dried fruits with the occasional crunch of heart-shaped almonds, blew us away.  It isn’t easy, I feel the need to point out, to cook foods that are unmistakably motherly and soft-spoken while standing up to all the required sophistication and depths one would expect from a paid dinning experience.  Whoever cooked this meal, has a rare gift, but it wasn’t until the next morning that I decided to find out who she was.

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COOKBOOK PRE-ORDER AND PREVIEW: MAPO TOFUMMUS

“IN 2012, IN A FORM OF SELF-ABANDONMENT, I STARTED THIS FOOD BLOG.  SEVEN YEARS LATER, I AM ABOUT TO PUBLISH A BOOK ABOUT THIS JOURNEY.”

I sat here for hours struggling with how to begin the sentence.  Stranger things have happened in this world I’m sure, I mean I could swear I saw a sea creature that looks like a glowing condom on the internet, but from where I stand, it doesn’t get more inexplicable than what I’m feeling right now.

It began in 2012.  It was just about two years into our miserable six years-long residence in Beijing.  In a form of self-abandonment almost, I started this food blog.

With no enthusiasm or objectives, setting out more to be a concession than a declaration, I did what I thought was throwing the white flag to all my other grander ambitions in life, that I was going to be that person, “a blogger”, a non-job made up by people whom I judged, past tense, to be minimally interesting that they had to put themselves on speaker.  It wasn’t brave.  It wasn’t inspired.  It was never expected to arrive anywhere.  I was standing on the edge of a cliff.  And I took the extra step.

The least of what I saw coming was that seven years later, I am to publish a book about this journey.

So yes, a Lady And Pups Cookbook.  The Art of Escapism Cooking – A Survival Story. 

This book is about my time in Beijing, what started it all.  If you are kind of new here, then yeah, no, I didn’t enjoy that.  This book is an self-reflective examination of how I retreated to my kitchen as a place to evade from my unpleasant realities.  What was wrong, what wasn’t, and answers that I am still unsure of today.  It’s honest but also contradictory, opinionated but nonetheless a personal truth.  An internal monologue, despicably self-serving and personal, almost to a fault.  Because for me this is more than a cookbook.  It’s therapy.  It’s closure.  It’s my attempt to draw a conclusion to what was a very difficult time of my life, to put the unsettlement to rest. You may find it funny.  You may find it bitter.  You may even find it obnoxious at times.  But it was what I had to say in the way that I had to say it, screaming and kicking, uncensored, crude, to boil my emotions down to something better than the ingredients of its making, a consommé of the nasty bits of my experience.  If you find that it resonates, I’m glad that you know you are not alone.  But if you don’t, then there are 80+ really fucking good recipes with it.

The book will be officially published in October but pre-order is available now.  Here is a recipe preview, of page 288 if you want to be precise.  I formulated the recipe list when I was still living in Beijing, but most of the book and recipes were written and shot after I left.  It is spoken in retrospect, a memoir if you will, where I am better equipped to find humor in past tense. I know I have been away from this blog for quite awhile, but from now on I will be posting more regularly again and continue to share sneak peeks.

I know I should be beating the drums right now.  But really, I just want to say Thank you.  You’ve made a very strange thing possible in my life.  Now go buy it, too.

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Super rich coconut, orange and mango panettone

see you next year, my friend

In a few days, we are going to pack our bags and head to Paris then Marrakech for our holiday vacation.  I probably won’t see you much on this blog during that time, which is why I’m throwing you a fat-bomb now to sustain your optimal winter-time figure all the way untill a new year comes. What a new year if one can’t make a diet resolution to fail utterly at?

This is what I call, the Crazy Rich Asian Panettone, lubed up with 12 egg yolks, coconut milk, and an ungodly amount unsalted butter and unrefined coconut oil.  This indecent level of fat not only keeps the crumbs sinfully moist, but also provides a backdrop of coconuty aroma where it pairs beautifully with speckles of dried mango and persimmons tinged with orange zests.  It could serve as an awesome “self-enrichment” during the holiday seasons but also, as we all secretly desire, as an ill-intended gift for our frenemies whom we would like to see de-shaped on that first depressing day back to the office.  Either way, we win.

So see you next year, my friend.  You’ve been lovely.

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Japanese fried chicken (karaage) w/ salmon caviar (ikura)

”  Ikura’s intensity lies in its sticky and viscous brininess that liquifies and oozes around the tongue after each pops.  When you think about it, a sauce, almost.  “

We came home from a long weekend in Kyoto and, if I may, I want to talk about me and karaage for a bit.

For those who aren’t familiar, karaage, aka Japanese fried chicken, is and should be regarded as a league of its own, standing far apart from the classic American fried chickens or the recently popularized Korea-style fried chickens.  It is none of those.  Karaage is boneless, cut into medium to large-size chunks, without sauce, and almost always, as gods intended, uses dark meats only.  Flavor-wise, due to its mildly sweetened brine, its juice runs almost nectar-like, secreting from its firm and bouncy muscles following the crunch of karaage’s trademark white-speckled crusts.  Served simply with lemon wedges and Japanese-style mayonnaise called Kewpie — also a distinction from American/European mayonnaise but that’s another story — such formula has become an establishment in the Japanese diet, celebrated everywhere from restaurants, department stores, convenience stores and even train stations.  Clearly as popular opinions suggest, there’s nothing wrong with it for sure.

I used to adore karaage.  I still do, I guess, but in a different way now.  Our relationship, which used to demand an intimate reunion whenever opportunity presents itself, had taken a shift since last weekend.

During this trip in Kyoto, strangely stalled in front of the frequent offerings of impeccably fried karaage behind spotless glass windows, I was feeling a general lagging enthusiasm which, unregrettingly, led to zero purchases.  What’s wrong with me?  I used to love karaage!  I should want this stuff, right?  I should not be able to get enough of it, no?  It’s a great piece of fried chicken for god’s sake so how do I explain myself?  I bit into an onigiri over-filled with mentaiko on my returning flight, aching over my betrayal.

I came home plunged into an intense couple-therapy session between me and karaage.  We shut the door, we shouted, we whispered, we cried, we left nothing unsaid and nothing unfelt we even skyped Kewpie.  After boxes of Kleenex tissues, we walked slowly out of the room, hand in hand, and are ready to make a public statement.  It isn’t easy.  Possibly appalling.  But we’ve both decided that at this specific juncture, what is best for our relationship to move forward with is — a threesome.

Look, karaage, on its own, is good.  But over time, I find karaage’s sweetness and garlicky undertone somewhat binding and tiresome.  It needs a sharp piercing beyond the general zing of lemon or mustard.  It needs a spanking.  Somewhere between reasons and insanity and Momofuku, ikura comes to mind.

Ikura is Japanese cured salmon roe, much like Russian caviar, but seasoned with soy sauce, sweet rice wine and dashi.  Its intensity lies in its sticky and viscous brininess that liquifies and oozes around the tongue after each jewel-like pops.  When you think about it, a sauce, almost.  If you think that the idea of pairing a vehemently briny fish eggs with fried chicken is strange, you’r not wrong, but in a way that feels very right, if that makes sense.  The faintly fishy saltiness does not protrude and speaks over everyone else, as it only flows through the ambience like strings of vividly played jazz, infusing vitality into the conversation, especially with its edge smoothed around by the creaminess of Kewpie mayonnaise.  It doesn’t change karaage.  It just makes it fun.

Sometimes a relationship needs a third party.

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Boneless “turkey purse” w/ stuffings and peppercorn gravy

”  An completely boneless, flabby, perfect roasting pouch engineered by nature that is 360 degrees encased in skins, ripe for any stuffings and cooks in one hour only  “

Be hold, the answer is here.

If you are one who is unreasonably attached to the grunt and unpredictability of the Thanksgiving turkey tradition, look away.  For this post could and will impose onto you, the liberation from the struggle.

For this point on, you will no longer look at turkey in the same light; you will no longer see it as a rigid object that takes an enormous space in the fridge to brine, a conductor of anxiety that takes forever to cook in the oven, a pending obstacle course that requires professional skills to carve.  No you will no longer.

From this point on, you will witness the way of turning turkey into an utterly boneless, malleable, flabby sack of skin and meat; deflated, deconstructed, a perfect roasting pouch engineered by nature that is 360 degrees encased in skins; a floppy blob that takes up little space in the fridge; a miraculous poultry-pocket ripe for any stuffings of your choosing and cook gloriously and evenly in the oven, if you can believe it, in one hour only; an epic center piece that is as easy to carve — for it has no bones! — as a loaf of sourdough bread.  And if you have chosen to honor it with my pick of the trade, it will open up to a wild rice stuffing that is diabolically jam-packed with fried garlics and whole soft-boiled eggs, paired with an incredibly floral and peppery gravy tinged with Sichuan peppercorns.  Best of all, mostly done the day before.

I call it, the turkey purse.  And it will put your next talk-of-the-town Thanksgiving in the bag.

But no thanks needed.  You’re very welcome.

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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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