Tuesday, March 30, 2010

S&I Thai

The essence of Thai food is a balance of sweet, salty, sour, spicy and, more occasionally, bitter. Unfortunately, what we get in restaurants is frequently one-dimensional simply sweet, or "level 10 spicy." Thankfully, John and I found S&I Thai, a takeout dive in Allston that cooks just like the best of what we had in Bangkok. They don't wimp on the chilli fire or any of the other taste elements that make Thai cuisine so wonderful.

Order off the pictures on the walls rather than the printed menu. If you don't know what something is, just point or ask. Be sure to get one of their "crispy pork" dishes, such as the pad ga pow moo krob pictured here. They expertly fry the fatty cuts of pork, leaving it crispy and savory, then stud it with chillis and basil. The Thai barbecued chicken with sticky rice is also to die for. Order it with a side of som tam (papaya salad).

Final note: S&I is very easy on the wallet. Entrees are $8 or $9, so go ahead, finish off the meal with a mango over sticky rice.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Genki ya

Genki Ya, the little organic place in Brookline, is my second favorite sushi bar in town. Rice choices include brown and multigrain, but we just go there because it's yummy. Spicy scallop roll above, nigiri dinner at right.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Pad thai

Pad thai has gotten a reputation as the thing that unadventurous Americans always order at Thai restaurants, but it's actually an excellent dish. Who could not love comforting rice noodles and shrimp stir-fried with sweet, salty and sour flavors, topped with ground peanuts and fresh green onions?

Well okay, actually I have had a number of bad restaurant versions, achingly sweet and/or suspended in thick, gooey sauce. Kasma Loha-Unchit, a Thai cooking instructor in San Francisco, explains that the gooey restaurant texture that many Americans have come to prefer is achieved through tomato ketchup. Kasma's recipe, which inspired my version below, is drier than the typical restaurant pad thai, with a complex range of flavors and textures.

Pad thai is made with bean sprouts, which neither John nor I like. I am slightly allergic and he considers them "barely food," so I have omitted them here. If you like, add a handful to the wok in step 7.

1. Soak 1/2 pound of dried rice noodles in hot water for 30 minutes (while you do the prep in steps 2 and 3) until noodles are limp but still firm to the touch. Drain.

2. Mix 3 T. fish sauce, 3 T. tamarind juice, and 2 T. palm or white sugar. Taste and adjust seasonings to achieve a balance of salty, sweet and sour.

3. Peel and devein 1/3 pound of shrimp. Cut 3/4 cup of firm pressed tofu (found in any Asian grocery) into matchsticks. Mince 4-5 garlic cloves and thinly slice 3 shallots. Cut 5 scallions or garlic chives into 1 1/2-inch segments. Cut a lime into wedges. Crush 2/3 cup roasted peanuts. Measure out 1/4 cup dried shrimp and 2-3 T. ground chillis.

4. Heat a wok until it smokes, add a bit of peanut oil, and quickly stir-fry the shrimp just until they turn pink. Sprinkle them with fish sauce and remove from the wok.

5. Add the tofu to the wok, frying 1-2 minutes until golden. Add the garlic and shallots, then the dried shrimp and ground chillis.

6. Now add the drained noodles, tossing well with the other ingredients. Once the noodles have changed texture and softened, push the mass up along one side of the wok. Add a bit of oil to the cleared area, crack 3 eggs onto it, and scramble lightly. Once they have set, toss them in with the noodles.

7. Add the sweet and sour seasoning mixture, stirring well to coat the noodles evenly. Adjust the flavors. Add the scallions or chives, the shrimp and half the peanuts to the wok. When the greens are slightly wilted, transfer to a serving platter and garnish with the rest of the peanuts and the lime wedges.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Chicken dressed two ways

In her cookbook Land of Plenty, Fuchsia Dunlop describes five different ways of dressing cold chicken meat. These sauces are meant to be a simple yet dramatic introduction to Sichuanese cuisine. She suggests serving them as appetizers or cooking a whole bird and "surprising your guests" with a choice of three or four different sauces served in little bowls around a central dish of piled-up chicken meat. While you could certainly use leftover roast chicken meat, chickens in Sichuanese cooking are always poached in water. In keeping with the Chinese obsession with uniform cutting, cut the chicken in either chunks, slices or slivers — mixing different shapes in the same dish is seen as messy and unbalanced.

Here are two of these dressings for chicken. The first, chicken slices in sichuan pepper and sesame oil sauce, is dressed with a lovely, summery sauce that uses pureed scallions and resembles pesto in consistency. The second, fish-fragrant chicken slivers, uses the same delectable flavorings as in fish-fragrant aubergines.

Chicken slices in sichuan pepper and sesame oil sauce (jiao ma ji pian):

1. Soak 1 teaspoon of raw Sichuan peppercorns for a few minutes in very hot water. Slice 1 pound of cooked chicken meat.

2. Slice the green parts of 5 scallions, then whizz them into a green paste in the food processor with the Sichuan pepper and a dash of salt.

3. Mix the scallion paste with 3 T. chicken stock and 2 T. soy sauce in a small bowl. Stir in 1 1/2 T. sesame oil. Pour over the chicken and serve, optionally, on a bed of sliced cucumbers.

Fish-fragrant chicken slivers (yu xiang ji si):

1. Cut or shred 1 pound cooked chicken meat into fine slivers and lay them on a serving dish. Finely slice the green parts of 3 scallions. Very finely mince a few cloves of garlic and an equal amount of ginger.

2. Combine 3 T. soy sauce, 1 T. Chinkiang black vinegar, 1 T. sugar in a bowl. Whisk in 2 T. chilli oil and 2 tsp. sesame oil. Add the ginger, garlic, scallions and 1-2 T. Sichuanese chilli bean paste. Mix well, pour over the chicken, and serve.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Tofu with black bean sauce

If I ever fell on hard times, I would probably eat this dish at at least 3 times a week.

Block of tofu: $1
1/4 lb. pork: $1
Chicken broth: $.50
Small quantities of beans, garlic, scallions, sauce, rice: ~$1

We're talking less than $4 for a rich, delicious, fast and, as far as I can tell, healthy dinner for two. Go on, try it.

Adapted from Grace Young's The Breath of a Wok:

1. Cut a 14 oz. block of firm tofu into 12 pieces. Put them on paper towels to drain and sprinkle with a little salt.

2. Whisk 2/3 cup chicken stock with 1 T. oyster sauce, 1 tsp. cornstarch and a pinch of sugar. Slice 2 scallions thinly.

3. Rinse and drain 2-3 T. Chinese fermented black beans. Mince 3-4 garlic cloves. In a bowl, combine the beans, garlic, 1 T. soy sauce and 1 tsp. Shaoxing rice wine. Mash with a fork.

4. Heat a wok on high and swirl in a little oil. Add 4 ounces ground pork, stir-frying just until cooked. Remove the meat to a bowl, keeping its juices in the wok.

5. Add the tofu to the wok, cooking a couple minutes until browned. Stir in the bean mixture and stir-fry 30 seconds until fragrant. Now stir the broth mixture and add it to the wok, stirring until the sauce thickens. Add the pork and scallions and simmer another minute. Serve with white rice.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Chicken rice, part 2

In my perhaps futile quest to replicate one of the best dishes we had in Singapore, I made chicken rice again last night. The major tweak since my last attempt was that I fried the raw rice grains in sesame oil and garlic before steaming it in chicken broth. The rice turned out fantastic — nutty, garlicky and aromatic, pretty much just as I remember. Despite gentle and careful poaching, the chicken still did not turn out as tender as I had hoped.

1. Heat 1 T. peanut oil and 1 T. sesame oil in a wok. Stir-fry 2 cups of uncooked rice with a few cloves of minced garlic until it begins to turn golden. Steam the rice, substituting chicken broth for water.

2. Crush an inch-long piece of skin-on ginger root and four cloves of garlic. Put in a large saucepan with a quart of chicken broth and simmer covered for 10 minutes.

3. Add 2 chicken breasts to the pot in a single layer. Bring the broth back up to the barest simmer and let the breasts poach gently for 10-12 minutes. Check for doneness, then slice.

4. While the chicken is poaching, peel an inch-long section of ginger. Put that in the food processor with 5 peeled garlic cloves and 6-8 red Thai chillis. Add dashes of fish sauce and white vinegar, pulse fine, and pour off into a bowl.

5. Whisk 2 T. soy sauce with 2 T. sugar in a small bowl. Slice a cucumber into long segments.

6. To serve, heap the rice into shallow bowls and arrange the sliced chicken on top. Spoon a bit of the broth on top to moisten, then drizzle with a bit of the sweet soy sauce. Pass the remaining soy sauce and chilli sauce at the table. Serve the remaining broth in small soup bowls. Feeds 2.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Chipotle seared shrimp

The more I use my wok, the more perfect it seems — ideally suited not only for stir-frying but deep-frying, braising, and seemingly every kitchen task. Its high sides let you toss food without spilling. Its round shape allows even small amounts of frying oil to pool in the bottom. Its thin, carbon-steel surface heats and cools quickly, allowing for superior temperature control. I have pans that cost five times as much, but they don't seem to come down from the shelf much these days. I find myself using it even for non-Asian dishes, including this zesty shrimp recipe adapted from the America's Test Kitchen book Cooking for Two.

This dish takes on Southwestern character with chipotles, cilantro, and avocado. Interestingly, it calls for a sprinkle of sugar on the shrimp to help with caramelization and browning.

1. Peel and devein 1 pound of extra-large shrimp. Mix the shrimp in a bowl with a dash of olive oil and pinches of sugar, salt and pepper.

2. Core, seed and chop 1 tomato (or substitute an equivalent amount of canned crushed tomatoes). Mince 2 chipotles from a can of chipotle chiles in adobo sauce. Slice 2 scallions, separating white and green parts. Mince 3-4 garlic cloves and a quarter bunch of cilantro. Dice half an avocado.

3. Heat 1 T. oil in a wok or skillet over high heat until smoking. Add the shrimp in a single layer and cooking, without moving, until spotty brown on one side, about 1 minute. Transfer shrimp to a bowl (they will be underdone).

4. Return the wok to high heat and add the tomato, chipotles, scallion whites, garlic and cilantro. Cook 1 minute, adding a squeeze of fresh lime juice.

5. Return the shrimp to the wok and continue to cook until just done, about 1 minute. Serve over white rice, sprinkled with the scallion greens and avocado. Feeds 2.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Sea-flavor noodles (hai wei mian)

When my Sichuanese cookbook author Fuchsia Dunlop indulged in fiery dan dan noodles in Chengdu, she often coupled it with a bowl of this tamer noodle soup to counterbalance the scorching heat of the dan dan. The sea flavor in this warming dish comes from dried shrimp, as fresh seafood was hard to come by in the inland province of Sichuan. You can find the tiny shrimp sold in plastic bags in any Asian market.

This was an intensely satisfying meal, just the thing for a rainy Sunday afternoon. Be warned — not for mushroom haters.

Adapted from Dunlop's Land of Plenty:

1. Soak 1 ounce of dried baby shitake mushrooms and 1 ounce of dried shrimp for 30 minutes in enough hot water to cover them. (Since I don't have a kitchen scale, I interpreted one ounce as "some.")

2. Cut 1/2 pound of pork loin into thin, 1/8-inch slices and season with salt. Slice 1/4 pound of fresh button mushrooms to match the pork. Slice 3 scallions thinly.

3. Heat 2 T. peanut oil in a wok over a high flame. Add the pork and stir-fry until it whitens. Splash in some Shaoxing rice wine around the edges and let it sizzle. Add the mushrooms and stir-fry another minute. Now pour in the bowl of dried mushrooms and shrimp with their soaking water, as well as 1 quart chicken stock. Bring to a boil and leave to simmer on low for an hour, until the pork is very tender.

4. Season the broth with salt and white pepper. Bring a separate saucepan of water to a boil for cooking the noodles. Add 1 package thin wonton noodles for just 60 seconds, then drain. Divide the noodles into bowls. Spoon the meat and mushrooms over the noodles and sprinkle the scallions on top, then fill the bowls with the soup. Feeds 3.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Breakfast tacos

On the heels of my successful execution of huevos rancheros, the NYT runs a story on Austin's dominance when it comes to breakfast tacos.


Sunday, March 7, 2010

Huevos rancheros

Huevos rancheros is one of my favorite brunches, so I had to try this recipe from the Boston Globe Cookbook. For whatever reason, this smoky Southwestern dish is extremely popular in my decidedly Northeastern town, appearing on nearly every Sunday brunch menu across the city. The recipe was written for 12, implying that it's not worth the trouble for any fewer, but thankfully it adapted easily for 2 and really wasn't difficult at all. I have drastically amped up the proportions of garlic and chipotles.

1. Mince one small onion, 2-4 cloves of garlic, and 4 T. fresh cilantro. Open a can of chipotle peppers in adobo sauce and chop up 2 of the chiles. Grate 2-3 ounces of Cojita, cheddar or jack cheese. Dice 1 avocado.

2. Brown the onion and garlic, then add the chiles, some of the adobo sauce, and about a third of a 28 oz. can of crushed tomatoes. Simmer about 10 minutes, then stir in half the cilantro and season with salt and pepper.

3. Empty a 15 oz. can of black beans into a small saucepan and add 1/2 tsp ground cumin. Mash the beans coarsely with a potato masher, then let simmer over low heat.

4. Heat 2 T. peanut or canola oil over medium-high heat in a large frying pan and add 2 corn tortillas. Cook 1 minute or until crisp and brown, then flip and fry the second side. Turn them onto a plate and repeat with 2 more tortillas on a second plate.

5. In the same pan used for the tortillas, fry 4 eggs until whites are set and place one on each tortilla. (You will have some extra beans and chipotle sauce, so feel free to expand the recipe to 3 or 4 people, cooking 2 tortillas and 2 eggs for each person.

6. Ladle some sauce on the eggs, then sprinkle with cheese and cilantro and garnish with beans and avocado.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Rabbit

I've enjoyed it in French bistros since I was a kid, but bunny is the new darling of the slow food movement. Here, aspiring farmers in Brooklyn pay $100 to learn how to kill rabbits.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Fried rice two ways

Whenever John and I made too much rice, we used to stupidly throw away the leftover bits at the bottom of the pot. Now we save them up for fried rice, which must be cooked with cold rice or it comes out mushy. Fried rice is beautiful — it's quick, delicious, colorful and can be made with whatever meat or vegetables you've got.

First up is Mandarin fried rice, adapted from Grace Young's Breath of a Wok. This dish uses lap xuong, the sweet, fatty Chinese sausage found in any Asian grocery. Lap xuong evokes major childhood nostalgia for me. My grandmother sliced it, fried it up and served it to me over sticky rice, the hot fragrant grease sinking through the rice to permeate every grain. As an adult, I noticed that the second ingredient is pork fat. To save our arteries, I bought the "extra lean" kind.

1. Thinly slice 1 Chinese sausage. Mince a few cloves of garlic and an equal amount of ginger. Slice 2-3 scallions thinly.

2. Beat 2 eggs. Heat a wok until smoking, then swirl in 1 T. peanut oil and 1 tsp. sesame oil. Tip in the eggs and tilt the wok so that the eggs cover the surface as thinly as possible to make a pancake. When the pancake is just set, turn it onto a cutting board and slice it into shreds.

3. Reheat the wok with another T. of peanut oil. Add the garlic and ginger and stir-fry 30 seconds. Add the sausage and stir-fry 1 minute. Add the scallions and 2-3 cups of cold cooked rice, breaking up large chunks of rice. Add a splash of Shaoxing rice wine and stir-fry 2-3 minutes until heated through. Season with soy sauce and white pepper, add the egg shreds, and toss to combine. Feeds 2.

The second version is Thai basil fried rice, very loosely adapted from Kasma Loha-Unchit's recipe.

1. Cut 1/2 lb. chicken or pork into small pieces and sprinkle with fish sauce. Chop 6 cloves of garlic and 2 Thai chillis. Thinly slice 3-4 shallots.

2. Heat a wok until smoking and swirl in 1 T. peanut oil. Add the meat, leaving undisturbed for a minute to brown, then add the garlic, chillis and shallots. Stir-fry a couple minutes until meat is cooked and vegetables slightly browned.

3. Add 2-3 cups cold cooked rice and stir-fry until rice is softened and has begun to brown. Add 2 T. black soy sauce and toss to coat the rice. Season with fish sauce, then remove from heat, stir in a cup of Thai basil leaves and sprinkle liberally with white pepper. Serve with a wedge of lime. Feeds 2.