REACHING FOR THE SUBLIME

There is a lot from my college years that I’ve forgotten and am in the process of forgetting, but I’ll always remember Professor Gopen’s seminar “T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets and Music.” Professor Gopen wholeheartedly believed that listening to classical music was the key to accessing the Four Quartets. For every few lines of text, we’d listen to selected recordings. It was arduous at first. It felt stilted. How does listening to Schoenberg‘s A Survivor from Warsaw relate to

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time. 

The turning point for me was learning to connect the things that music does, such as “reaching” or “yearning” for resolution, to the things that words can do, such as mimicking the way humans experience time.

When I was making this dish, I felt like I was doing some serious reaching — reaching to make fruit simmered in liquid into something more than fruit simmered in liquid. The finished product looks more bizarre than beautiful, either like an alien or an essential organ. Its taste evokes the milk, honey, and nectar of a realm where suffering doesn’t exist.

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POACHED, CHILLED WHITE PEACH w/ HONEY KEFIR & TOASTED ALMONDS 
inspired by Bar Tartine

for four servings:
6 cups of water
2 cups of sugar
4 medium/large white peaches
1/3 cup sliced raw almonds
3-4 cups of kefir or filmjölk
2-3 drops of almond extract
warm honey to taste
coarse sea salt
cornflowers (bachelor’s button), optional

Combine the water and sugar in a large pot and bring to a simmer. When the sugar is dissolved, add the peaches with skin on. Cook for 10-20 minutes (how long exactly will depend on your stove and the size of your peaches) until the peaches are as soft as you like them but still intact. Use a slotted spoon to transfer the peaches to a bowl of ice cold water, then remove from water and chill in the refrigerator. Meanwhile toast the almonds until light golden brown and set them aside. Microwave the honey for 30 seconds or so until it is very runny. Slowly add the warm honey to the kefir until it just begins to offset the kefir’s natural tartness. Add a few drops of almond extract. (Be careful not to overwhelm the kefir’s flavor with the honey and almond extract) Chill the honey kefir. Before serving, peel the peaches. If the peach skin doesn’t come off easily, use a paring knife to help peel away the skin. To serve, place each peach in a shallow bowl and pour the chilled honey kefir around it so that it is partially submerged. Arrange the toasted almonds and cornflowers around the peach. Sprinkle a bit of sea salt on top of the peach.

WEEDS

This salad is inspired by one currently on Rich Table’s menu: “LITTLE GEM LETTUCE, STRAWBERRY, BUTTERMILK, LOVAGE.” Little gems are crisp like romaine and sweet like butter lettuce. Lovage leaves have the perfume of anise and the taste of celery. Without having tasted the dish, I was intrigued and wanted to riff on it.  I ended up using the velvety, slightly tart leaves of purslane — classified as a succulent weed — at the suggestion of an enthusiastic vendor at the Pasadena Farmer’s Market. “It contains tons of omega-3 fatty acids.” Since every righteous salad needs a naughty outlet, I sprinkled gribenes (crispy chicken skin) over the top.

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PURSLANE, STRAWBERRIES, BUTTERMILK, CRISPY CHICKEN SKIN 

3-4 bundles of purslane (or mache, watercress, baby spinach)
a pint or so of local organic strawberries (small)
skin from 2-3 chicken thighs
1/3 cup buttermilk
1 garlic clove, smashed and peeled
1 generous teaspoon poppy seeds
1 1/2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
freshly cracked black pepper and kosher salt

Gently rinse and dry the purslane. Clean the strawberries and cut the leafy part off. Stir the buttermilk, garlic, poppy seeds, and vinegar together in a small bowl. Season the buttermilk conservatively with salt and generously with  black pepper. Set all of this in the refrigerator to chill. Meanwhile heat a nonstick skillet on medium heat and fry the skin until golden brown and very crisp on both sides, about 10-15 minutes, draining the fat as necessary. Transfer the crisped skin to a paper towel. When it is cool, break it into small pieces. To serve, drizzle some of the buttermilk dressing over the purslane. Plate the purslane, then add strawberries and bits of crispy chicken skin on top.

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THE POWER OF IDEOLOGY

Ever since Julie Andrews’ moist doe eyes looked up to Peggy Wood’s for spiritual guidance, Americans have been admonishing themselves to Climb Every Mountain as if this was the best way to deal with life’s obstacles.

– Curl up in a ball and nap in the shade of a tree? Bad.
– Turn back and try another route? Bad.
– Stick to the gently rolling hills? Bad.

And so I’ve long felt ashamed by all the mountains I didn’t care or dare to climb as a home cook. Souffles: totally unneeded stress. Sushi: better leave it to the pros. Beautiful multi-layered cakes: life is hard enough.

Then a few days ago, I came across this recipe for a rhubarb buttercream cake. Rhubarb is like catnip to me. I act silly in its presence. Imagining its tart, beguiling character, I felt a strong urge to make the cake, yet I doubted my abilities. Baking is just not my forte. I usually don’t enjoy doing it. This is when the sinister ideology of Rodgers and Hammerstein reared its head. Climb this mountain, Mr. Alpenglow. Climb this mountain.

I did and it was awful. Had to make three cakes. One broke and I had to make another. Had to make a Swiss meringue buttercream which utterly failed (too runny, then a curdled mess). Had to go back to the store for more rhubarb and more butter. Had to whip up a beginner’s buttercream. Had to frost the cake with unsteady hands. But then I arrived at the summit and the view took my breath away.

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RHUBARB BUTTERCREAM CAKE* 

adapted from The Vanilla Bean Blog

for the buttermilk cake:
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup of unsalted butter, room temperature
2 cups sugar
4 large eggs, room temperature
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1/2 cup buttermilk
1/2 cup sour cream

Preheat the oven to 350. Line the bottom of three 8-inch round cake pans with parchment paper, then butter and flour the pans (bottom and sides). In a medium bowl, sift together the flour, baking powder, and salt, then set aside. In a small bowl, combine the buttermilk and sour cream, then set aside. In a large bowl, whip the butter with an electric or standing mixer at medium speed until light and fluffy. Add the sugar and beat again until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add the eggs one at a time, followed by the vanilla, whisking as you go until the batter is light and voluminous. Fold in the flour mixture and the buttermilk mixture in three additions, starting and ending with the flour. Divide the batter evenly among the three prepared pans and bake for 25-30 minutes until the center is set (eg. until a toothpick comes out with just the slightest bit of moist crumb). Let the cakes cool before flipping them out onto a wire rack. Cool completely before frosting the cake.

for the rhubarb buttercream**:
4 cups of rhubarb, diced
1/3 cup of water
1/2 cup of granulated sugar
4 cups of unsalted butter, room temperature
2 pounds of confectioner’s sugar
2 pinches of salt

Bring the rhubarb, water, and granulated sugar to a simmer in a pot on medium flame. Stir occasionally until the sugar is dissolved and the rhubarb is completely softened. Carefully transfer this mixture to a food processor or blender and pulse until smooth. Run the rhubarb mixture through a strainer. Return the rhubarb syrup to a small pot and simmer for 5-10 minutes on medium-low heat until the syrup has thickened, stirring constantly to avoid burning. Chill the syrup completely (the freezer is okay). In a large bowl, beat the butter with an electric or standing mixer on medium speed until light and fluffy. Next, add the sugar in batches and continue to beat. Finally whisk in the salt and 1/2 cup of the rhubarb syrup. If your buttercream is holding up well, as it should, continue to add rhubarb syrup a few tablespoons at a time(I ended up using close to 1 cup because I wanted to highlight the rhubarb’s tartness). You can use the buttercream immediately or cover it with plastic and store in the refrigerator until ready to use (bring to room temperature).

*The next time I make this cake, I’m definitely going to include a rhubarb compote between the cake layers to intensify the rhubarb experience.

**The original recipe calls for a Swiss meringue buttercream, which I tried but initially failed at. I substituted with this forgiving buttercream recipe, which yields more rhubarb syrup than you will need and a very generous mount of buttercream. Leftover rhubarb syrup is delicious in lemonade, iced tea, cocktails, and other desserts. If you’re okay with a thinly frosted cake, you can certainly cut the recipe in half.

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HIGHFALUTIN / EVERYMAN

Last year, for my dad’s 70th birthday, I made a fairly intensive summer menu featuring a platter of prosciutto, grilled asparagus and pecorino; chicken liver mousse with blackberries and bread; corn soup with prawns; Maine lobster salad with heirloom tomatoes; duck confit; and an apricot tart.

This year for his 71st, my dad had a simple hankering for a hamburger, or 汉 堡 堡 (han bao bao, translated literally as  “Chinese baby”). During a recent visit to New York, he’d fallen hard for The Breslin’s Charbroiled Lamb Burger, so I chose to make the classic Charbroiled Burger which earned an enthusiastic following at April Bloomfield’s first restaurant, The Spotted Pig. There are three components to getting this burger right at home: (1) Kindly ask your butcher to grind equal parts well-marbled short rib, brisket, and sirloin — and take care not to overcook the beef; (2) Find pillowy-soft brioche buns with a shiny lacquered exterior; (3) Top the burger with your favorite blue cheese. Lacking restraint, I added a few other goodies, but none were needed and might’ve even been a distraction. With such a highfalutin burger, you’re going to need an everyman side. Where better to turn for that than America’s most dubious “restaurant,” Hooters?

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CHARBROILED BURGER
inspired by The Spotted Pig, recipe adapted by J. Kenji Lopez-Alt for Serious Eats

makes 6 half-pound burgers:
1 pound each of well-marbled boneless short rib, sirloin, and brisket
(or your butcher’s premium burger blend with higher fat content)
6 soft brioche hamburger buns, cut in half
10-12 ounces of Roquefort cheese or Point Reyes blue, room temperature
kosher salt and freshly cracked black pepper
grainy mustard, sliced red onion, avocado, and bacon (optional)

Have your butcher run the meat through a meat grinder. Form six patties about 4.5-inches wide and 1-inch thick each, making a slight depression in the center of each patty. Season the patties generously with salt and pepper. Prepare a charcoal grill and heat until the charcoals are uniformly grey, about 20 minutes. When the grill is very hot, place the patties on the hottest part of the grill for 1-2 minutes each side, then move them to a cooler part of the grill, cover, and cook to desired temperature (120 F for for rare and 140F for medium on an instant-read thermometer). Transfer patties to a cutting board and let them rest for 5 minutes. Next grill the buns, pressing down to achieve a golden brown cross-hatch pattern on the top of the bun. Place the burger on the bun, top with the blue cheese and any other desired toppings, and serve immediately.

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ONION RINGS
recipe from Hooters

1 cup all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting the onions
(or 3/4 cup flour plus 1/4 cup cornmeal)
1 cup beer, such as a lager
1 teaspoon freshly cracked black pepper
1/2 teaspoon red chili powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
2-3 large onions, peeled and sliced into 1/3 inch rings
canola or peanut oil for frying

Mix the flour, beer, and spices. Let sit for 30 minutes at room temperature. Heat about two inches of oil in a large heavy pot or saucepan to 370F. Spread flour on a plate. Dust a batch (5-6) of onion slices in the flour. Then dip them one at a time in the batter, shake off excess batter, and carefully place each onion ring in the hot oil. Cook the onion rings for several minutes until golden brown on both sides. Drain the onion rings on a paper towel or wire rack. Salt them and serve immediately.

GRAYSCALE

It was a hot summer day in New Jersey — felt like the hottest. A friend and I decided we had to have authentic Japanese ramen that day. The shortest distance between us and authentic ramen was a mere 60 miles, just across the Hudson from Manhattan on the New Jersey side, at the Mitsuwa Marketplace. Off we went like hounds on a distant scent.

The ramen was so delicious — entirely worth the trip — but to our surprise, it was a simple dessert that was revelatory: black sesame ice cream. Nutty, complex, sweet and savory, not to mention elegantly grayscale, this hitherto unknown treat totally tickled our palates.

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BLACK SESAME ICE CREAM 

recipe from Honest Cooking:
1 cup whole milk
3/4 cup sugar
1/2 cup black sesame seeds, raw
a pinch of fine grain salt
2 cups excellent heavy cream
5 egg yolks

Toast the sesame seeds in a nonstick skillet for 5-7 minutes and grind them in a coffee grinder or spice mill. Whisk together the milk, sugar, and black sesame powder in a pot over medium heat until the sugar is dissolved. Remove from heat and allow to cool slightly. In a separate bowl, whisk the egg yolks together with a teaspoon of the warm milk mixture. Add a few more teaspoons of the warm milk mixture. Pour the tempered egg/milk mixture into the pot and mix well. Add the cream and return to medium heat, stirring constantly until thickened, 10-15 minutes. Remove from heat and allow to cool. Transfer to a container or Ziploc bag and chill in the refrigerator, preferably overnight. Freeze the ice cream mixture in an ice cream maker and store in an airtight container in the freezer. To serve, top with toasted black sesame seeds and/or sliced fresh strawberries.

UNDERSTATED

I used to think that a gently poached egg cloaked in rich Hollandaise was the gastronomical height of the egg.

I also used to consider The Canadian Brass the absolute pinnacle of musical artistry.

Years ago when I was home from college, my dad took me to a French-influenced Japanese restaurant near his office called Maison Akira. The first thing the waiter brought to our table was chawanmushi, steamed egg custard in a tea cup. Akira’s version had shrimp, scallop, and delicate mushrooms, which gave the silken egg a subtle, almost mysterious perfume. I’ve been enchanted ever since.

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JAPANESE STEAMED EGG CUSTARD with KING CRAB* 
(茶碗蒸し – chawanmushi)

adapted from recipe by David Chang for 4:
2 cups of warm dashi (or 2 tsp instant dashi powder + 2 cups warm water)
3 large free range eggs
about 4 ounces king crab leg meat
4 small shiitake mushrooms, stems removed, sliced
1 scallion, thinly sliced
4 ceramic tea cups or shallow bowls

Crack the eggs into medium bowl and gently stir in the dashi to combine. Try to avoid incorporating air into the mixture. Strain into a large measuring cup. Divide half of the shiitake mushrooms among four tea cups. Pour the egg mixture over the mushrooms. Wrap each cup in plastic. Set the cups in a steamer basket over gently boiling water for about 15 minutes or until the custard is set. Unwrap the plastic and top the custard with the remaining mushrooms, the king crab segments, and scallion. Serve immediately or refrigerate and serve chilled.

* You can make this steamed egg custard however you like — with clams, sliced scallop, shrimp, bits of chicken thigh, ham, and spring vegetables. Gingko nuts are traditional, if you can find them.

 

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COLD SOBA NOODLES with DIPPING BROTH 

for 4 servings:
2 bundles of soba (buckwheat) noodles
1 oz. bottle of soba tsuyu dipping broth
finely shredded nori (dried seaweed)
toasted sesame seeds
2 scallions, finely sliced
4 quail eggs, cooked and peeled (optional)

Bring a medium pot of water to a boil. Add the soba noodles and stir in a circular motion. Cook for 3-4 minutes until just tender, checking to ensure they’re not overcooked. Drain the noodles in a colander, rinse with ice cold water to remove any slimy texture, and drain well. Serve the noodles with toasted sesame seeds, shredded nori, scallions, a quail egg (optional), and a small bowl of the cold soba tsuyu.

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A BOWL OF CHERRIES

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Sierra Produce is an unlikely place. Nestled between a Bank of America and Papa Johns, it has a radically plain storefront, green awnings, and not more than five or six parking spaces. The store itself has an anachronistic feel: stacked wooden crates holding white corn; huge baskets of chestnuts; an old produce cart laden with cascading watercress, baby kale, curly endive, and black beets; hen of the woods mushrooms in cardboard boxes; peaches of every kind ripening in the afternoon light near the register, where an older Japanese man greets long-time customers and a radio coos a piano sonata. Sierra Produce and Finer Foods is its full name — not “Fine” (proud, definitive) but “Finer” (it’s relative, as you’ll see for yourself).

I grew up here in Arcadia, but this is all new to me. I had no interest in cooking as a child. I paid no attention to the markets, not even extraordinary ones a few minutes walk away. Now that I’m back from the East Coast, (I haven’t unpacked yet because I’m staying with my parents for awhile until I find my own place), I feel like a completely different person. Instead of loitering at the local In-n-Out Burger, my erstwhile pastime, I’m lingering at this quirky grocery inspecting Rainier cherries (I want the very best bag). They’re so beautiful I imagine being rich enough to bring little paper bags full of them to neglected people all over the world.

Tonight all I really want to eat is a bowl of cherries. Alas, I’m cooking for family now, not just an audience. I turn instinctively to my comfort food — the dishes I most like to share. A kale salad with raw and crispy bits, paired with fresh peaches and “cream” (yogurt). A “side” of curry fried chicken. Then those cherries.

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RAW & CRISPY KALE with PEACHES, TOASTED ALMONDS & YOGURT

for 4 servings:
2 bunches of Lacinato kale, stems removed & shredded
2 large (white) peaches, pitted and sliced
1/2 cup of sliced almonds, toasted
1/2 cup of plain yogurt
2 teaspoons extra virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling
2 teaspoons champagne or apple cider vinegar
1 teaspoon honey
kosher salt & freshly cracked black pepper

Set half of the kale and all of the peaches in the refrigerator to chill. Combine the yogurt, olive oil, vinegar, honey, and salt and pepper — then chill for 10-15 minutes. Drizzle the other half of the kale with a little olive oil and bake for 15 minutes in a 350 degree oven until crispy. When ready to serve, mix the raw kale, crispy kale, and toasted almonds in a large bowl. Add the yogurt dressing several spoonfuls at a time and toss to coat evenly. Plate the salad and top with several peach slices.

CURRY FRIED CHICKEN

for about 4 dinner servings of chicken:
8-12 boneless skinless (Jidori) chicken thighs
about 1/3 cup of your favorite curry paste
2 cups of buttermilk or whole milk
3 cups of all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons garlic powder
2 tablespoons onion powder
2 teaspoons cayenne
2 teaspoons paprika
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 teaspoon freshly cracked black pepper
canola oil for frying

In a large bowl, mix the chicken with the curry paste. Cover the chicken and refrigerate for at least an hour or overnight. Mix the dry ingredients in a large bowl. Pour the buttermilk/milk into a separate bowl. Prepare a wire rack or paper towel-lined platter for draining the fried chicken. Heat about 3 inches of oil in a large, heavy cast iron pot on medium-high flame. Press the chicken into the flour mixture, then into the buttermilk/milk, and again into the flour mixture. Shake off excess flour. Fry the chicken in the oil in batches, being careful not to overcrowd. Turn them over once in the oil. When the chicken is deep golden brown, remove them and drain on a wire rack. Season with salt and serve immediately.