Feasting like a Princess in Queens

“But where in New York can one find a woman with grace, elegance, taste and culture? A woman suitable for a king?”

“Queens!”

If anyone else grew up in a household with two brothers and only basic cable, you too have probably seen Coming to America over a thousand times and when the New York City borough of Queens is mentioned, this line is all that you can think of. No? Just me? Again? Alright, this is enough already.

Seriously though, we did a food excavation of Queens on our most recent trip to New York. We had overlooked the boroughs on our last trip, and it was a hole in my eating repertoire that I was ready to fill. Fill I did, with Liberian stew, Egyptian offal and three separate trips to Flushing Chinatown. For regular readers of my blog this will not be surprising. I am a little late with this post, but I wanted to report back the best of my findings.

Kabab Cafe (Astoria)

Spices on a Plate As has already been discussed in numerous places on this blog, I’m a bit of a sucker for Anthony Bourdain. I am a wee bit embarrassed by it, however it has also lead me to more than one good meal. This is one of those good meals.

As has already been discussed in numerous places in the blogosphere, there are downsides to Kabab Cafe. It can be expensive. There is no menu. The dude is crazy. It’s small. They serve weird food. All of these are right. If these are things that will turn you away from a restaurant, I do not recommend Kabab Cafe.

If you’re like me, though, and bit parts of big animals served by a mad scientist from a kitchen the size of a gas station bathroom turns you on, this is the place for you.

A big portion of my enjoyment of the place was watching the owner/chef, Ali work. Not the part when he laid into his poor assistant (a thankless job, it appeared). Rather his flicking of spices this way and that, the clatter of pans and disorganized tossing of ingredients which all made their way to my plate, turning out as great dishes.

I was taken aback upon walking in, where I was gruffly asked, nay, barked at, what I wanted to eat. I didn’t know, so I was given the option of meat or veg. I caught up to the moment and mentioned I was here for dead animal–the good parts. We were seated and given plates (shown above) of spice along with bread and hummus for dipping. Then the good stuff started coming out. First was a rich sauce of braised cheeks and hearts over lightly scrambled eggs. I use ‘over’ loosely as it was sort of an un-pretty pile of reddish lump on my plate. That said, it tasted great. None of the dishes were overly photogenic, and in fact the next three looked so alike it took in depth analysis to remember which was what. Second up, though was sweetbreads. This was the most traditional of the dishes, followed by the brains, which were a favorite of mine–these pan-fried ones were significantly better than the steamed version I’d had in Laos. Finally we had to cry uncle after a plate of kidneys–we were too full to see what the mad scientist would bring us next. The total for this,  4 smallish plates with bread and snacks plus a few drinks was around $80 in the end. Not cheap. Be prepared for this if you go. But do go if you love great meat in interesting preparations. I thought the food was delicious and the setting unique and that it was worth every penny.

Kabab Café on Urbanspoon

Maima’s Liberian Bistro

Liberian Seafood Soup at Maima's

When I first read about Maima’s it was about Liberian food and that it seemed similar to Ghanaian, a favorite of mine. I stored it in the back of my head. Then it popped up again–winning an award for being one of the spiciest foods in NYC. Again, a favorite food of mine (anything spicy). It had to be done.

Had to, despite being a little out of the way and in a neighborhood that us two were so out of place in that we got asked twice in the block between the car and the restaurant if we were lost. By the cops. We were impressed-taking preventative measures or being helpful? Unclear. Once in the restaurant we would have been out of place, had there been anyone else there. We ordered seafood soup (pictured) and chicken stew.

Aside from containing nearly an entire crab, multiple prawns, clams and a good chunk of fish, the soup had tripe, chicken feet and a pork…knuckle? I was impressed at the array of stuff in it, as a sopped it up with fufu, the thick starch it was served with. It was spicy in the best kind of way, a slow burn that works its way into every part of your mouth, including the outside, leaving you with fruit punch lips akin to that kid in elementary school. The chicken was less spicy, but possibly even more flavorful–the underlying richness in these foods, the warmth and flavor that is cooked into them really sets them apart. A pair of gentleman in cable company uniforms sat at one of the other tables. They held their giggles at our tears of pain and joy regarding the spice level and asked us if we were enjoying it. We were. They were from Liberia, they told us, and loved the food at Maima’s. It was just like what their mama would make in Africa. If that is not what an immigrant cuisine restaurant can strive for, I’m not sure what is. All I know is that I’d like to borrow a Liberian mama (Maima?) to start a restaurant in Seattle.

Maima's Liberian Bistro on Urbanspoon

Xi’an Fine Foods

Xi'an Fine Foods Noodles Xi’an Fine Foods is no news to people in New York. I’d like to hope that anyone who truly loves great food wouldn’t find it news either. The shop we went to is in the basement of the Flushing Mall (Mall being a loosely used term). Zigging and zagging through a maze of deliciousness, we got distracted by a dumpling here, a soup there, before we got to this stand. Lamb hand pulled noodles were the only thing on my mind. Until I looked at the menu, then I wanted everything. But I was there for the noodles, and I’d found to many distractions on my way in to afford more stomach room.

Those noodles? the most friendly little texture a noodle ever did have. Filling my mouth with big thick noodle, then chewing apart with the lightest of toothy touches. The flavor stood up to the texture, spicy, savory, that combination of middle-eastern cumin edge with bright, popping Chinese cooking techniques. This is the noodle dish that (my) dreams are made of.

Xi'an Famous Foods on Urbanspoon

Nan Xiang Xiao Long Bao

We actually ended up going here twice by accident. That was a very happy accident. Disappointed that New Yeah Shanghai House, our favorite soup dumplings, or XLB, seemed to have closed, we had researched what the next best might be and come up with Nan Xiang. We went, just the two of us, and really enjoyed them. I didn’t think they were as good as New Yeah, but I did like it better than those from Joe’s Shanghai and a number of others in New York.

A few days later we were headed back to Flushing Chinatown with my friend T., a Flushing native–in fact, her dad owns a restaurant in the area, which has sadly been closed every time I’ve been in town! I’ve had his food though–me, her fathers lobster sauce and a 5 hour drive. It was not pretty. Right, back to Nan Xiang. T. was excited to bring us to her favorite XLB spot in the hood, which was, of course…Nan Xiang. She felt bad that we had already been, but us, having been already, were not complaining. The food was again great, this time we were able to branch out and try a few more things. I wasn’t a fan of their other dumplings, but the noodles and the rice cake dishes were both excellent.

Nan Xiang Xiao Long Bao Soup Dumpling House on Urbanspoon

And then…

We found a giant pile of frozen awesome

It was almost 100 degrees out and this was mango flavored frozen awesome from a basement of a mall behind Nan Xiang.

Alterna-Thanksgiving: Peking Turkey

Somehow, somewhere I got the idea that I needed to make a Peking Turkey for Thanksgiving this year. It was extravagant, cross-cultural, a project. It was perfect. Most people just looked at me sideways as I excitedly described my plan. I even found evidence that someone had done it before and was able to use their recipe to guide me. My parents left town for Thanksgiving, and left to my own devices, I took over their kitchen (nicer than mine–and there’s a dishwasher), and created a feast with my friends.

Peking Turkey

Photo by Valentina Vitols

I was also lucky enough to have the amazing Valentina at Thanksgiving dinner, so she is responsible for the incredible photos of the meal. We set the turkey on a bed of sliced radishes and scallions, and sliced it in traditional Peking duck style, with the skin separated from the meat. Coming from a girl not really enthralled by traditional roast turkey, this was my personal favorite preparation of turkey. It took a little bit of work, but not much more than a brined bird–about 20 minutes the day before and two hours plus prep and resting time on the day of.

Sweet Potato Gnocchi

Photo by Valentina Vitols

This is my sweet potato gnocchi, from an old recipe, sauteed with sage. I’m a sucker for dough-based items, so this was a great alternative to traditional mashed or baked sweet potatoes.

Roast beef roll ups

Photo by Valentina Vitols

K and T brought these super easy and quick appetizers. So easy that since the kitchen was in such heavy use, K was able to prepare these while sitting on the floor with a cookie sheet! Just unroll a sheet of Pilsbury crescent dough, spread with cream cheese, top with a a layer of roast beef and a little arugula. Roll up, slice and bake. Not my usual route, but they were delicious and I could definitely see doing riffs on this with herbs and horseradish for extra zing. They were a huge hit.

Arepitas with avocado sauce

Photo (& food!) by Valentina Vitols

“These would be even better, if only we had a little bacon” Someone said. Perhaps it was R, Valentina’s husband, as she crafted these little arepitas, mini Venezuelan corn pockets. Bacon was procured (We had to add it to butter for the oyster stuffing, if I’m honest). Arepitas were stuffed–Beecher’s cheese curds and bacon–and then consumed. I’m impressed that Valentina managed to snap a photo, but she’s good like that.

It wasn’t a traditional Thanksgiving by any means, but it was a delicious one, with good friends, good wine and great food.

 

Beijing Part 5: Regional Chinese Food

As I finish my summary of eating in Beijing, China for eleven days last fall, I contemplate the irony of the fact that an 11 day trip took me 11 months to finish writing up. Yet, the impact that the food of Beijing made on me is fully worth the patience of my readers and time I’ve spent thinking about what was so amazing about it.

While I’ve already written about the foods from two regions, Sichuan and Xinjiang, as well as Beijing’s Street Food and own cuisine, the thing that truly floored me, amazed me and made me feel as though I knew just so little about the cuisine of such a vast country was all the regional dishes. I knew the basics, Peking duck is from Beijing, Sichuanese food is common in Seattle, I knew Cantonese, but with the guidance of my amazing friends, Nick and Even, we took a tour of the foods of so very many different foods.

In summarizing the foods of these various cultures, it is hard to get beyond broad generalizations. The foods of Sichuan were hot with spice and cool with Sichuan peppercorns. The foods of Western China, aka Xinjiang, were closer to Indian or Afghani or even Turkish food than anything else I’d had. Those I at least had known something about before the trip. Then Nick led us down a whole new path. I’ll be summarizing a few of those ‘new path’ meals here.

With a group of six people–assorted ex-pat friends of theirs joined us–at a Shaanxi restaurant, we were able to order a good amount of food. The restaurant was a great little spot, just off of a main road, where I never would have thought to look. I took a card to remember the name of the place, so I could recommend it in the future–I can still remember the frustration when I opened a coat pocket, months later to see the washed, shredded, card. Fear not, the powers of Google returned it to me! (Yeah, I just spent 20 minutes Google-ing it so you can get to it. Thank me later). This was probably the first recommendation I’d give for a traveler to Beijing, as it was totally different from anything you get at home, yet totally identifiable. And totally, completely and utterly delicious.

From the top left corner, you can learn that I have no idea what that first dish is. But it involved noodles and spicy sauce. Next to it was the century egg, my first experience with them, which I enjoyed, despite their reputation for stinkitude. In the bottom right is longevity noodle, which is all one noodle. Yeah, that was hard to share between all of us (especially since it was topped with an egg). The fourth dish shown here is a wasabi buckwheat noodle, which reminded more of Japanese food than anything else. I always find experiences like that refreshing, to remember that no culture is in isolation–authenticity is such a relative term. But before we dwell further….the rest of the dishes (not all of them. I spared you photos of the more boring looking, but no less tasty dishes, such as bitter melon).

Okay, now we’re at the good stuff. In the bottom left, you see Brett and I looking extremely apprehensive at the amount of food that has just arrived and continues to arrive. By the minute! Next to that is a mutton and dumpling soup. That is, mutton, in dumplings, in soup. On the top right is one of my favorites from a meal that was full of amazing food, the green noodles (okay, them being green helped them in that favoritism) which you pulled out, dunked in to the murky, chile-spiked sauce next to it, then ate. The real winner, though, overall, was the lamb-burgeresque thing pictured on the top left. Like a soft, buttery English muffin, filled with tender, savory, roast lamb, topped with cilantro. Oh, damn, I just drooled on the keyboard remembering that dish. Unrelated: I think we’re planning a return to China soon. Oh, wait, that was totally related.

At this point we took it upon ourselves to continue exploring regional foods and ended up at the rather upscale, highly recommended, Three Guizhou men. I knew basically nothing about Guizhou food, so it was a learning experience, for sure. What I found so interesting as I traveled the various culinary regions, was, as the old saying goes, the more things change, the more things stay the same. For example, that dish in the upper left? For all the description I could give you, it was basically a sweet corn tamale. A damn good one. Lower right? That’s a potato pancake. I’ll hesitate to say ‘latke’ and give away my own heritage, but the similarities were there. Note to self: this Chanukah, add spicy chili peppers to latke plate. The other two pictures are a dish that, as it arrived we slowly realized was basically hashbrowns and bacon. And chilis, of course. Okay, conclusion? American breakfast+chili peppers=Guizhou food. Overall the food was good and quite spicy, but I’m not sure I would recommend it unless you were specifically seeking out Guizhou food and a nice meal. Also–it was hard to find, hidden in an alley behind an Olympic venue.

After having ventured on our own, we decided to return to the wisdom of Nick and Even for a little weekend lunch. Even had lived in Yunnan province prior to finishing school and moving to Beijing, so she offered to be our tour guide through the food.

This food was slightly more towards Thai or even Vietnamese food, I thought, especially ‘Crossing the Bridge Noodles’, not shown, which are the signature dish of the region. Basically a big bowl of noodle soup with stuff in it, but I agreed with Even when she said she didn’t think it was really the highlight of the cuisine. We did learn some really great things at the meal, and I enjoyed the food that was further from what I’d had before. We started with a salad of Chrysanthemum greens (bottom right), which were lightly dressed and slightly spiced. The texture was surprising, not at all reminiscent of the frisee which it resembles, but lighter, friendlier. We had a few other, non-pictured dishes (the noodles, a purple fried rice in a pineapple), but the chicken in the bottom left was one that stood out as being exceptionally perfectly cooked and spiced. The whole fried fish (served with spices) on the top left was a favorite of mine–though whole fish always will be–and it taught us a great fact: in China, you don’t flip the fish. You have to pick the meat on the bottom from the top, because if you flip it over to get to that meat, you flip the boat that we are all in. Makes sense to me, I sure as hell haven’t flipped a fish since then. Lastly, in the upper right, you’ll find Yunnan Fried Cheese. Somewhere between doughnut and mozzarella stick, lies these. Crunchy on the outside, stretchy on the inside and dusted with what I think is a combination of sugar and MSG, I secretly loved them. Though we all know I have a mozzarella stick issue.

What, you’re still reading? You’re either bored, hungry, or planning a trip to Beijing. Okay, here it is though, the final meal to go up on the blog, the final meal we ate on the trip. Before leaving, Nick insisted on taking us to one more stop, lunch on the way to the airport, at a Hunan restaurant. There are a million restaurants in the U.S. that use the word Hunan in them. Very few of them serve Hunanese food. I’m eternally thankful that I had the chance to experience real Hunan food though, because I now understand a tiny fragment of this wild, mysterious cuisine.

What do I mean by wild and mysterious? Well, on the upper right, you’ll see a dish that I am told is “wild Hunan vegetable”. No other info and no English name, because, well, why give an English name to something that only grows in Hunan Province? It was sort of halfway between a mushroom and a green, which only belabors the point that in addition to having no English name, it is very difficult to describe. So I won’t. Below that, you’ll find stir-fried donkey meat, which was far better than I would have guessed. Donkey seems to do very well at absorbing the flavors around it, so the meat was fragrant with the peppers that surrounded it. Cold tendon, bottom left, is fast becoming my go-to dish on any Chinese menu that has it, and this Hunan version was up to par. Above that is a classic Hunan dish, a special, Hunanese type of bacon, with a deep, rich, smokey flavor. I believe here we had it over tofu, which soaked up additional smokiness from being cooked with the bacon. Imagine the best bacon you’ve ever had? Now imagine better: Hunan Bacon.

And with that, we hopped in the cab and headed to the airport. Arriving back in Seattle, we made our next meal the same as the one before we left for China: Sichuanese Hot Pot. Yeah, we’re incorrigible.

An Event, A Thought on Cheese, A Product and A Recipe

There is a back log of things I want to post on and I’m just going to let them all go right here, for your enjoyment: a fun event this weekend, murmurs of what is being called a ‘burrata crawl’, a new product I love and the recipe for a dish that I’ve eaten for 4 straight meals.

Farm to Table Food for Thought

The Kitsap public library was kind enough to invite me out for this ‘gourmet picnic’ and I’m actually really excited about it. In addition to talks by a number of local food writers (Molly of Orangette, Shauna aka Gluten-Free Girl and Lorna Yee of Cookbook Chronicles), there will be food provided by Monica Downen of Monica’s Waterfront Bakery and Cafe, local wineries and breweries and Kitsap food chain information. Tickets are $50 from here. We are going to walk onto the Southworth ferry with our little puppy because this is a dog friendly event! Oh, hey, did I mention I got a puppy?

A Thought-a on Burrata

I love burrata and have loved this creamy, delicious cheese since I first tried it at Cowgirl Creamery in San Francisco. I used to bring it back with me, unable to find it here. It has since become available all over the place, though only Delancy serves the brand that I like from California. Metropolitan Market carries some expensive Italian stuff, and it just is not fresh enough. Calf and Kid (which I love!) carries a kind that I find doesn’t mix the outer mozzarella portion with the inner mascarpone part, meaning it seems to have a skin.

In the last few weeks I’ve heard that Lark is making their own burrata and that Marjorie also has burrata on the menu. Where else carries it? I’m hoping to organize a taste test of all of them so I can establish a regular source around here! Leave me any burrata knowledge in the comments.

Korean Pancakes EVERYDAY!

I recently have discovered a product called, fittingly “Korean Pancake mix”. I had to put a picture up so you can see, that is really its only name in English. I got it at Uwajimaya and this stuff is awesome. You just mix with water and it really tastes like the Korean pancakes you get in restaurants. I’ve mixed all kinds of things in: squid, shrimp, chives, chard, kimchi, asparagus, you name it. I love a quick easy meal that can have meat, veg or be adaptable and ready in minutes, I’ve eaten these savory pancakes for breakfast, lunch or dinner. I know this little tidbit is ridiculous, but I’m really excited about the product. I swear they aren’t paying me or giving me product or anything. Seriously, this stuff is good.

Chili Crab Recipe

Speaking of things I’ve eaten for breakfast, lunch and dinner, we caught a full limit each (6 a piece) of red rock crabs on Sunday and I made a crab each into chili crab. We were only able to eat half a crab each because they were so big and rich! I then proceeded to eat leftover chili crab for all three meals yesterday, including as chili crab fried rice (in the wok with rice and egg). I did not get any pictures, but I thought I’d share the recipe in case you have a hankering! Or so I can go back and look after I next go crabbing.

There are no amounts, but it is a very forgiving recipe, so don’t worry about it!

You’ll need:

Garlic
Ginger
Hot peppers of some type (I used dried local cayenne, because it was what I had)
Soy Sauce
Chicken or other stock
Chili black bean paste
Sesame oil
Tapioca flour (or cornstarch if you prefer)

Steam the crabs for about 5 minutes, so they are almost entirely cooked, then break them down: pull off the top, let all the juices and innards run into a bowl. You can save the top for presentation, or throw it away. Pull off the dull grey gills from the body and discard. Cut the body in half and set aside. Do this for however many crabs you have.

Heat a bit of sesame oil in a wok and add the minced garlic and ginger and thinly sliced peppers, letting them get fragrant and release their flavors before adding the chili black bean paste–which you can get at any Asian market. I had a Sichuan kind that had about two tablespoons left in the jar, so I used that much. Another minute or so on the heat and add about half the stock (I used a can, it’s not super important here), bringing it to a slight boil. Add back in both the crabs and the reserved crab liquid and innards. Also add just a dolop of soy sauce–it’s only there for some salt content. Add the rest of the chicken stock, but you only need enough to cover the crabs. Let this simmer for two minutes or so, getting the flavor into the crabs. Sift about a quarter cup of tapioca flour or cornstarch over so the sauce thickens and sticks to the crab, then serve!

A note on tapioca flour: It is very important to sift it in, if you don’t it will congeal and form balls and instead of crab sauce you will have crab bubble tea!

China Part 4: Beijing Foods, Hot Pot and Miscellany

My Ursine Counterpart: He didn't stop eating the whole time!

Oh, what? I went to China? Oh, yeah, last December! And I’m still within the one year limit of when I returned from the trip to get all the posts up. After this there is just one more! So without further ado: Beijing-style food and other delicious miscellany.

Peking Duck with all the fixings

Peking duck is pretty much the most symbolic dish of Beijing, being as it shares the name with the city. Whole meals of a single roasted protein aren’t normally my thing, but I couldn’t leave without trying it and my wonderful friends directed me towards a new-ish place not far from where we were staying that would do a great job while avoiding the tourist pomp and circumstance of certain other places.

Jing Zun was convenient to the hotel we were at right then and to the subway. We ordered the duck of course, with the bones fried up afterwards. Our waitress notified us when our duck was being cut and it was like a culinary work of art. The chef made each cut with purpose, every piece of duck with its own place.

Chef cutting our duck up

Then the masterpiece was presented to us. Nothing grand mind you, was done. The crisp white uniform should convey the hospital-like cleanliness and efficiency that gave the restaurant a scrubbed feeling. All of that cool exterior halted when one sweet piece of duck was placed in the mouth.

Delicious Peking Duck

As is tradition, the duck was served with thin, crepe-like pancakes, sauce and scallion slices. The skin as like candy: crisp and sweet, yet meltingly rich. The meat itself was what surprised me the most, managing to be intensely flavorful without being overwhelmingly duck-y. It was apparent immediately to me that I had discounted this meal as just another piece of roast meat. This was truly a masterpiece.

Fried Duck Bones

Just in case that got too serious for you: we finished up with fried duck bones, which turned out to be like the best chicken wings ever did a whole bunch of crack and showed up at an Animal House party.

The other dish that we had pretty much planned our trip around was hot pot. We love hot pot. It actually cures everything. Bad days, illness, whatever. It is addicting, fun and delightful. We went to our first hot pot the night we arrived in Beijing at a place called Hai Di Lao. It was a fancy type place with kung fu noodles that are basically hand pulled noodles prepared while a guy dances around. It was a bit of a show, but satisfied a need.

The second time we got hot pot was at the height of me being sick (if you didn’t read the other China posts, or have forgotten, I had pneumonia or something close). As we waited for seats, I was white as a ghost and standing in 15 degree weather in a tank top while dripping sweat. Everyone was looking at me like I was out of my mind. That place was fabulous. No English menu, we were pointing and shooting. Later, we learned that the guy next to us lived in Vancouver and spoke perfect English. Apparently he just didn’t pity us enough to help us order. Thanks, dude.

Hot Pot Pot ready for cooking

If you’re not familiar, hot pot basically involves a steaming pot of spicy broth, into which you dip raw meats and vegetables to cook them. You then dip it into a sauce to cool it off a little.

Beef: It's what's for dinner!

Hot Pot Meat, sliced, ready to go

Cow Tummies!

And just for enduring that ugliness….

Hot Pot Dipping Sauce

Like an artists palette, no? I don’t know the names of these places, but as per usual, if you are interested in going to any of them I can describe the street and location. Just let me know!

And then one more place that served Beijing style food that we really liked: Lao Man Dumpling. We walked in, just B and me, and panicked. It seemed people were taking numbers. We mimed some numbers. We got one. Wait. How will we know when we get called? Yeah, luckily when nobody answers, they all motion to the white kids. We also learned from some friendly English speakers that the place had one elusive English menu. I managed to order some food. Dumplings, in fact.

The most perfect little dumplings I’d had all trip. We ordered a few different kinds, all were great. There was also some pretty good shrimp, a decent cold mixed appetizer and the second biggest food fail of our trip. I thought I ordered some type of noodle. What I got? Mush. Not even tasty mush. Gross, nasty, baby food colored, throw up tasting mush.

You might be curious as to what, then makes the list as the biggest food fail of our trip? Well, if you know me you know I like bacon. So how could I resist the bacon pastry? It looked so perfect!

Oh Sigh. I’m not sure I can put into words just how bad this was. But B took a photo essay of my reactions as I ate this, and it was very telling. However, nobody else gets to see those pictures.

Pescatarian/Gluten-Free Daikon Cakes

Daikon Cakes with Soy SauceDaikon or radish cakes are often a favorite at dim sum. My old co-worker J loved them so much that he categorically denied the existence of pork in them. The first time we went to dim sum together he tried to order them and I asked “I thought you didn’t eat pork?” He muttered something in response that indicated he had no idea there was pork, in the form of Chinese sausage or ham in them. The next time we were at dim sum we had a large group and everyone had been laughing as I helped J sort out what had pork in it–virtually everything but the chicken feet! He started to reach for the daikon cakes, but (in retrospect, I probably should have looked the other way) I reminded him there was pork. He looked crestfallen. Clearly, in his mind, these were pork free. Well, here’s for you, J, a pork free version of daikon cakes!

As I told Kay, the owner of the amazing Crow’s Wing Spa about these, she pointed out that they are also an excellent naturally gluten-free dim sum treat! As a committed omnivore in every sense of the word, I rarely cook things that fit dietary needs, so I was proud that this one catered to the needs of two very wonderful people I know!

What really inspired these though is my P-patch. In that I have only successfully grown my two kinds of radish (daikon and French breakfast). And exactly two peas. They were two very tasty peas though. And I’ve got radishes coming out my ears. So I decided to create the single furthest thing from a radish I could make from a radish: dim sum radish cakes! Using shiitake mushrooms and vegetable oil in place of the ham actually worked perfectly, so it became pescatarian–still need the shrimp paste to make it delicious!

Daikon Cakes

This takes a lot of time to make, but is great for making in large batches and storing for quick, fast meals. Plan to start in the evening and you’ll be ready for breakfast the next day!

Ingredients: 

2 tablespoons Vegetable Oil
1 tablespoon Shrimp Paste, You can either use shrimp paste (as I did) or soaked, dried and chopped dried shrimp
1 pound Daikon Radish, grated (you can do this with a cuisinart if you want)
10 Dried Shittake Mushrooms, Soak in hot water for 15 minutes, discard stems, chop into small (pill sized) pieces
1 1⁄2 cups Rice Flour
1 cup Water
Salt & Pepper, Add to taste
Red Pepper, Add to taste
Vegetable Oil Cooking Spray
1 tablespoon Sesame Oil

Step 1: Heat the vegetable oil over medium heat in a medium to large skillet.
Step 2: Add the shrimp paste and cook for a few minutes, try to integrate it with the oil
Step 3: Add the shiitakes and the daikon to the pan, let it cook, stirring often, until the moisture is almost all gone (it might even start to stick to the pan, a good sign that it is done). Probably about 20 minutes.
Step 4: While the daikon mix cooks, whisk the rice flour into the water, eliminating all lumps.
Step 5: Combine the daikon mix and the flour mix. Adjust to your taste preference with salt, pepper and red pepper.
Step 6: Spray a 9in square (or similar) pan (pyrex or cake). Fill with mixture. Should be about one inch thick. Try to spread it evenly.
Step 7: Set a large bamboo steamer over a wok or place a bowl upside down in a large pot and the pan on top. Add water and steam the cake for 45 minutes.
Step 8: Remove from steamer, allow to cool for 30-60 minutes, then run a knife around the edge to loosen, and invert on a plate. Cover and refrigerate overnight.
Step 9: Slice into individual size slices.
Step 10: Heat sesame oil to high in a non stick pan. Place one slice in, cook till brown and crispy, flip and repeat on other side. Serve!

Why Bad Food Can Be Good For You

To eat truly terrible food every once in a great while can actually be a blessing in disguise. As I unloaded my treats and treasures carried from New Orleans this weekend into my fridge last night, I gave thanks for all the great food I eat.

I very rarely eat really awful food anymore. I’m not talking McDonald’s French fries, to which I’m morally opposed, and which are terrible for you, but let’s be honest folks, taste amazing. I’m talking food that tastes, looks and if we’re on such levels, acts in such a way that you expect it to come from a child’s diaper.

People eat bad food for whatever reason: They’re too lazy, they don’t know any better, they failed to plan or there were unpredictable circumstances that force them into it. That last one was my excuse. Having just eaten my way through New Orleans, my belly had completed a whirlwind tour of no less than 14 meals, at least five of which involved bread pudding in 4 days, I was now stuck in the Ramada North Houston at 11pm at night with little food recourse. Our flight out of NOLA had been delayed, we’d missed our connection and now the empty Texas suburb enveloped us in its strip-mall glow.

I’m not saying it was healthy or enjoyable to eat food this bad. I just debated adding quotes around the word food in that sentence. In fact if you had suggested that any good would come out of the meal, I would have aggressively pointed at the misshapen, supposed dumplings and said, “Really? That?”

“Do you have the number for Domino’s?” C, with whom I was stuck, asked. The front desk didn’t think that they still delivered pizza at that hour, but rather handed us the menu to Chef ***’s Hunan Cuisine, which delivered until 1am. Briefly I allowed my mind to flit back to the beautiful Hunanese food that we ate in Beijing: Spicy donkey meat, unidentifiable wild vegetables and rich, simple duck soup. I shook myself back to reality and we giggled with glee at the prospect of some good old Americanized Chinese food.

Unlike some people in the world, I don’t automatically categorize inauthentic as bad. One of the best cooking tricks my mother ever taught me was a stir-fry sauce made up of only ketchup and soy sauce–and if you ever need to cook in a college dorm or hostel kitchen, trust me this dish will make you friends and save you money. Americanized Chinese food falls into that same category. I’m not saying I’ll pick General Tso’s over Dan Dan Mien any day, but I’d rather have good General Tso’s than any Domino’s. Though I will make a side note to admit that while in high school I was acutely aware of the fact that it took three orders of the breadsticks to make minimum delivery and that if you didn’t ask for Garlic Butter dipping sauce 3 times, they’d forget it. What? Chinese food? Right.

An hour later Chef ***’s arrived at our door. We unbundled the food and supplies–the lack of chopsticks included should have been our first sign of disaster to come. We ordered a variety of things, starting with dumplings on the basis that even a terrible fried dumpling couldn’t be too bad (Open mouth, insert words). I cannot express in words just how bad these dumplings were. When showing people how to fold dumplings I always say that it doesn’t really matter, they all taste the same, but these were so poorly folded by someone who clearly cared so little, that it contributed to the awfulness. It was like frozen square wrappers were simply folded over, then squeezed, so instead of a meat filled part with dough border, it was a pouch of meat at the bottom with a large rooster comb of dough on top. But rooster comb’s are prettier.

By visuals alone, I was already noting how much better most of my meals are. I love bright oranges of citrus, beautiful greens and purples of vegetables, spicy reds from peppers, the rainbow on my plate. Before we even began to eat, I was already reviewing how lucky I am at most of my meals.

We tried the Orange chicken, thinking perhaps they excelled only at super-American dishes, we tried Hunan beef, thinking we needed to try more authentic. While I saw a pepper in there (and not just the one next to the dish on the menu) I couldn’t actually taste, well, anything. Cornstarch has no flavor, you know. The rice was dry and old and the fried rice seemed to have lacked the “frying” step and to be simply rice with soy sauce and stuff in it. With little left to say, we opened our fortune cookies, squinting to shield our eyes from the strange yellow glow coming from them.

Now, looking back at the meal I’m glad I ate it. To remind myself how much I enjoy the great meals. To show how low the standard can fall. So that I leave no nuance of deliciousness undescribed when I write on this blog. With my batteries drained to low, I’m now recharged, ready to go out, and build back up to the most delicious foods I can find.

P.S. The final irony? When we got to the room, we realized the number for Domino’s Pizza was on the advertisement on our key cards.