Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Pupusas and Pasta

Carbs anyone? We've been so good recently, but Sunday, not so much. It's probably best in my world if I don't cook when I am exhausted.

Baked Pasta with Ricotta and Pork Ragù
Sunday was a brief sliver of time-off between chaotic full houses at the restaurant on Saturday and Monday and I was really tired; really, really tired. If there had been a fridge full of food, I probably wouldn't have done anything but sit and vegetate. But the fridge was pretty barren and we had to go out to schlep 14-year-old to his girlfriend's, so while we were out, we decided to grab a quick bite. I wanted tacos or something of that ilk, something really simple.

Ann remembered that there is a pupuseria down on Valley Avenue (next to Sona) that we have been meaning to try. Rid of teenager, we gave Puerto la Unión Pupuseria a shot. I'm not quite sure what to make of this place, but I want to like it. It was empty when we got there except for a bunch of kids who were playing in the adjoining dining room. We sat in the little dining room into which you enter from the street; it was very cold and very dark, too dark by far to take photos. The booth we sat in had seen better days: the seats were sagging and the springs were poking me in the ass. Definitely a shoestring budget, which I as a fellow restaurateur appreciate fully, given this horrible winter.

I am guessing that the place has changed hands once or twice since opening. The menu is unlike what I have heard others describe in the past and the current menu seems recycled: it says they offer beer but I don't think this owner actually does and it says they accept American Express, which they don't.

In any case, I don't need a menu in a pupuseria. I ordered three pupusas, one each loroco, frijol, and chicharrón. Ann ordered chorizo con huevos. My pupusas were very good and I enjoyed the curtido that came with them. The bean pupusa was my favorite, the loroco my least. Ann's eggs looked terrible and lacking chorizo. She ate them but I could tell she didn't really like them. We both had horchata to drink, Ann's first experience with this beverage. It was too sweet for me and seemed like a commercial mix. I make horchata at times at the restaurant from chufa nuts and then freeze it into sorbet. That way, I get to control the sugar.

In any case, the pupusas were worth returning for. Good to know. Having made gazillions of them at the restaurant, they are not something I want to make at home.

For once, I really didn't want to cook at home on my day off, but at least at dinner I rallied. The thought of not cooking something for my beloved Annie I couldn't bear. She insisted that we stop on the way home and get some pasta, and being as tired as I was, I gave in. Back home, I got a bag of pork ragù out of the freezer.

The result you see above: strozzapreti pasta mixed with my ragù and ricotta cheese, topped with shredded mozzarella and baked. Oh my was it good and sinful! And after weeks of eating well, I felt pretty bad after having eaten it. But I'd do it again!

Monday, February 17, 2014

Pre-Valentine's at Glen Manor

Doing what I do, I can always guarantee that I am working like a dog on Valentine's Day. That's just one of the many perqs of my chosen profession! Truth be told, it is at this time of year that Ann really starts hating the restaurant life and who can blame her? Although Valentine's isn't that much of a big deal for either of us, it's just one of the many ways that life reminds us that we don't lead "normal" lives. And sometimes, we just want to feel normal.

So if Ann and I want to celebrate Valentine's Day similar to normal people, we have to pick a time that fits into the restaurant schedule. This year, we decided to celebrate the weekend before Valentine's, knowing I would be beat the Sunday following a huge holiday weekend. And our idea of celebrating is some quiet time with great food and great wine.

We have been remiss in getting down to see Jeff and Kelly at Glen Manor and so it was an easy decision to go see them on a grey winter day threatening more snow. Chances were good that we would be able to get our quiet time and spend some time talking with Jeff and Kelly if the tasting room were quiet.

As we walked in, Kelly came out of the back room and greeted us as effusively as ever and exclaimed, "We only have Hodder Hill left for sale!" intending for that to be an apology. Darn, twist my arm, I only get to drink your best wine? I'll see if I can live with that.

"We Only Have Hodder Hill Left for Sale"
I asked Ann if she would make a loaf of her fabulous bread to bring with us and she did, one flavored with black pepper and parmesan cheese. And I told her that I would grab a couple pieces of cheese and maybe a piece of salame, if there were any in the cooler. All the while I was planning to make a couple of charcuterie items to bring along as a surprise.

Chorizo-Habanero Terrine
I decided to make a pork terrine, but I'm tired of the mellow ones that I have been making all winter at the restaurant and so I decided to do one spiced like Mexican chorizo with a bit of heat from some golden habaneros. I ground the pork rather more coarsely than I usually do and the fat as well. The meat is flavored with a sofrito of poblanos, onions, habanero, garlic, cumin, ancho chile, and pimentón. A healthy dose of Sherry vinegar makes it taste like chorizo.

Sinful Mousse of Chicken Livers
And going in exactly the opposite direction, I made a super-classic mousse de foies de volaille. The chicken livers marinated in a super-concentrate pork jus, Calvados, shallots, and thyme for 24 hours. Then I seared them and whipped them into a silken mousse and covered them with more of the pork jus, the remains from cooking our pork bellies. It hardens into a beautiful aspic in minutes in the refrigerator.

Boerenkaas Gouda and Virginia's Own Grayson

Hodder Hill Makes Everyone Smile Like This

Kelly Made Goodies

Two Nuts

2010 Hodder Hill Still Life

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Fish Tacos with Mango-Vanilla Salsa

We seem to eat a lot of tacos, tacos suaves, soft tacos in particular. Just click the tacos label in the web view (not the mobile view) to see the various taco postings. There's a reason for that. Tacos are delicious, healthy enough if you use corn tortillas and watch what you put in them, and so easy to fix.

And name somebody who doesn't like tacos. [No, not her. She won't touch anything with her hands because she's afraid of getting a little dirty. No, I meant name somebody who likes to eat who doesn't like tacos.]

This taco isn't very photogenic because I just didn't feel like decorating it, I was starving and I crushed it seconds after snapping this shot with my cell.

Pan-Seared Mahi-mahi and Mango-Vanilla Salsa Taco
I don't usually eat mahi because I find it pretty boring. But when it is fresh, it is decent enough and cheap enough fish. I remember having to fight the bastards off the hooks when we were out tuna fishing. They are seemingly everywhere. I ordered some for a friend and when my fish guy sent me a little too much, I took the excess home for a few dinners during the week. I cut it into thin 1.5 to 2-ounce slices so that it would sear quickly.

Ann Made a Salad While I Seared the Fish

Salsa Mise
Salsa 101. You need cilantro. Check. You need a fruit. Tomatoes aren't in season, but I got a nice mango. Check. You need some onion. Green instead of the usual yellow or white. Check. You need some acid. Lime, check, but you could use lemon, tamarind, or vinegar. You need some heat. No fresh peppers, but I have some chile-garlic sauce. Check. After that, it's all improv on your part. With mangos, I love a touch of brown sugar (or dark rum) and vanilla extract. See the vanilla extract my mother made for us for Christmas? Yay us!

Food Porn
If this picture doesn't get your juices flowing, why are you reading this?

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Red-Cooked Chicken

"Oh my God, I think this is better than your pork belly bánh mì!" exclaimed Ann. This is high praise indeed: my bánh mì, currently on the lunch menu at the restaurant, was tops on her list of all the dishes that I have ever cooked. And for such an unassuming looking dish to assume the mantle of the-best-dish-ever is saying something. Though no stranger to hyperbole when it comes to food, Ann seemed earnest in the extreme. I can understand her excitement: this dish clearly shows why Chinese cuisine is one of the world's great treasures.

Red-Cooked Chicken: Uninspired Plating, Inspired Flavors
Unwittingly, Ann asked me to cook this eastern Chinese classic last week. As she was flipping through some or another food thing, she showed me a plate of red-cooked pork and said she wanted it. The dish wasn't labeled red-cooked but that's what it was. It's been 30 years since I red-cooked anything at home (though it is the basis of many dishes at the restaurant). I decided to lighten up the calories by going with chicken, but chicken legs instead of insipid breasts.

Red Cooking Basics
I've been red cooking dishes so long that I no longer remember the prescribed formulae, if there ever were such things, for this braise. Because of the long cook time, I put together the dish in the slow cooker the night before, so that I could remove it from the refrigerator and start it cooking before I left for work in the morning, to have it waiting when I returned.

Into the slow cooker went the three huge chicken leg quarters, 6-8 star anise pods, half a cinnamon stick, a chunk of rock sugar, a handful of whole garlic cloves, several slabs of ginger, a couple whole green onions, the peel of a tangerine, and the stems from a bunch of cilantro. To this I added about half a cup, maybe three-fourths, of soy sauce, several tablespoons of Chinkiang black vinegar, and water to just reach the top of the chicken.

To finish the dish, I put some rice on to cook, removed the chicken to a plate, and strained and defatted the braising liquid which I then reduced to the point where if I reduced it any further, it would be too salty. At the very end when the sauce and rice were done, I blanched some Chinese broccoli and we sat down to dig in.

This dish clearly belongs in the pantheon of great dishes invented by humankind. It is that good. And that simple: try it yourself. If you've never had it before as Ann had not, it will be a revelation of the best kind.

Sunday, February 2, 2014


Veggies with Roast Pork and Lop Cheung
Sometimes I get a real hankering for a big plate of stir-fried vegetables, whatever's on hand. I love vegetables of all kinds and always have. As a kid, I had two rather finicky siblings who didn't like a good number of veg between them, and so I often got double helpings of those things that they wouldn't eat. Score!

Today, we went to the store in anticipation of the snow storm tomorrow and in anticipation of having red-cooked chicken tomorrow night to score some chicken and some rock sugar for the braise. While we were there, we grabbed a can of baby corn, some gai lan (Chinese broccoli), a few hon-shimeji (Beech mushrooms), and a few snow peas to augment what we already had in the refrigerator.

From the refrigerator, I grabbed a lop cheung, a small piece of roasted pork (from the last post), nappa cabbage, cilantro, pickled mustard stems, garlic, and ginger. I had hoped to put in a bit of pressed tofu, but our leftover bit was infected with a yeast and so I decided not to take a chance.

Fifteen minutes of prep et voilà!

High heat is the key to a great stir-fried dish. If you don't have a professional wok and wok burner (I don't and most fire codes prohibit them in residential kitchens and in many restaurant kitchens as well), you need to get a pan really hot and work in batches so that you don't overload your pan. You are looking for the elusive wok hei (breath of the wok) that comes from scorching heat. If you overload your pan, your vegetables steam and don't stir fry at all. A splash of stock or water added once the vegetables begin to brown will flash steam them to a perfect crunchy cooked texture.

My little stir fry here took four batches. I started with the items that wouldn't overcook while waiting for the other batches to get done (corn, lop cheung, pork, Chinese broccoli stems, pickled mustard stems) and ended with the most tender vegetables that would overcook most easily (snow peas, Chinese broccoli blooms, and green onions).

Vegetables to warm a heart!

Linguini with Clam Sauce

It felt good to get back in the kitchen yesterday, if only for a few minutes to make a late afternoon lunch of linguini with white clam sauc...