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.

Whipped Lardo: How to Make my Holy Grail

Whipped Lardo

Whipped lardo is simply heavenly. A heavenly spread that was my holy grail of recipes. I’d eaten it at an underground restaurant type of meal and it stuck in my mind. Stuck so hard as one of the best bites I’d ever eaten that I scoured the internet, up, down and every which-way, without gaining even the first inkling of any idea how to make the dish. So it was taste and test time. For the last year I’ve made more attempts than I want to count, all equally failed, to recreate this dish.

It had been called ‘Whipped Lardo’ when I ate it, so yes, I began by making my own lardo. Good, yes, but was it making whipped lardo? No. So I kept going, rendering lard and whipping it, curing back fat right and left. Finally I had to give up. There was just no way I could figure it out without just a little hint from its creator.

Fate must have intervened, because a few weeks ago I took up a friend on an offer to attend that same underground restaurant type of meal. The cook was different, but luck would have it that the chef who made the whipped lardo, the wonderful and pretty darn cute Joel Cox, would be joining us in eating the dinner. So, fast forward to the car ride home, I’ve had a few glasses of wine and I finally feel courageous enough to ask “Joel, please tell me how you made that whipped lardo!”

And like a little child trying desperately to watch the beauty of the bubbles while also catching them in their hands, I listened as he told me the secret I had been missing. You grind the fat directly in the meat grinder. No actual lardo used, nor is there actual whipping. He told me the rest of the recipe, though I have to admit to having been so stuck on this part of the recipe that I only vaguely heard ingredients, so I improvised when I made it. He also explained that he had learned this recipe from the great Dario Cecchini, who you may have heard about in the book ‘Heat’ or seen on Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations.

So what is the whipped lardo like? Like butter on overdrive, like meat in cream form, like flavor that is at once so simple and so complex that you must have another bite to figure out which one it is.

Whipped Lardo

1/3 lb of pork back fat or leaf lard (Joel said back fat, I used leaf)
1 small clove of garlic, mashed into a paste
1 teaspoon of Sherry Vinegar (or red wine vinegar)
Salt, pepper, rosemary to taste

Grind the fat through the smallest setting on your meat grinder. Add the garlic and vinegar and begin massaging air into it. As you work with the meat, folding in air using a motion like a back rub or milking a cow, it will get softer and softer. Add in salt and pepper and rosemary and begin to taste. It will need a decent amount of salt to bring out the full flavors, though go more sparsely on the pepper and rosemary for that big pig flavor. When you’re done, spread it on a cracker or piece of bread and enjoy.

Holy Sh*t Pork Cheeks

Chipotle Pork Cheeks

Chipotle Pork Cheeks

Holy Shit Pork Cheeks, as in “Holy shit B, if you aren’t home in 10 minutes, I’m eating these all myself” He only got the 10 minutes because that was the amount of time I was going to have to spend photographing this. I got home and took the lid off the crockpot these were in all day and tried to lift out a cheek to taste and photograph and got my first realization of how amazing these would be–I literally couldn’t get one out whole, because they were so tender that they just fell apart. Into the delicious, porky broth below. This dish is certain to become a regular around here–for starters because despite eating it for dinner and lunch the following day, neither B nor I could stop thinking about the pork. On top of that, the total cost of the dish (which fed 2 people 2 meals) was a whopping $5. And I spent maybe 5 minutes on it.

Let me back up to the origin of the cheeks for a minute so you can appreciate the happy accident that turned out such an instant classic. Sometimes B has to go to the store. Sometimes he doesn’t pay too much attention to what he is buying, as long as it says “pork” and looks like it would be tasty on the grill. So when he got home and I told him I didn’t think cheek would do well on the grill, he glared at me. I gave him one to test and went out for the night. He wouldn’t admit that it was no good, but I noticed the rest of the cheeks in the fridge. He’s just trying to deny me my ‘told ya so’. 

So the next day, I opened the fridge to make breakfast and saw the pork cheeks, begging me to use them in the slow cooker. I only got the cooker last week, and while my first attempt, shortribs, wasn’t terrible, I don’t think they’ll get made again. This, on the other hand, I’ll be making again, probably this week.

Holy Shit Pork Cheeks

4 Pork Cheeks
1/2 can Chipotle peppers (about three peppers)
Turkey stock to cover
oil
salt
pepper

Simply season the cheeks, sear them quickly on both sides in the oil and throw everything into the slow cooker for 9 hours. Or however long you are at work for.

The only two words to describe these is Holy Shit, so they are the words I use, but seriously, these are cheap, delicious and f-ing fantastic. So make them. Now.

 
What are you waiting for?? I said GO!

Rediscovering Culinary Heritage… and Fat.

chicken-skinWhat, you might ask, are these little darlings? Well, that is a gribene. Did I know this until like 10 minutes ago? No. Because I’m apparently too far from the New York home of my family’s culinary heritage, I’ve never before had a gribene. Luckily I don’t need to learn this at the foot of my mother’s stove because Wikipedia can teach me in 5 minutes what previous generations spent years learning.

Allow me to explain. After spending a therapeutic and much needed long day in the kitchen (making chicken sausages with Traca, from Seattle Tall Poppy, if you must know), I had still not made anything for dinner. I wasn’t about to start now! I’m a far bigger fan of random culinary projects than useful food.

I took all the leftover chicken bones and started a stock on one half of the stove and took all the skin and fat and threw them in a skillet to begin rendering into that much beloved tool of Jewish cooking, schmaltz. Mmm, mm, chicken fat delicious! But then it struck me… what if I ate the skin once it has no fat and is all crispy like an avian chicharron? Brilliant! But also, as noted above, apparently previously discovered. And apparently a part of my beautiful Jewish culinary heritage. Sounds pretty good to me. I mean, they were no less delicious than if I had been the first to figure them out. And at least my unknown comes from my own part of the food map. I like that. Just one more reason that being a Jew provides for good eating–not that I need one, you had me at Matzoh Ball Soup.

Gribenes

I served these crumbled over a salad of arugula dressed with olive oil and balsamic vinegar. So it was dinner too, I suppose.

Put the chicken skin and fat–I used the trimmings from 7 pounds of thighs, but whatever you’ve got, use it–in to a pan over low heat. As it gives off fat, turn it up to medium. The fat will release for about 10 minutes, at which point the skin will feel crispy and start to look very brown. Remove from the fat (save in the fridge for other uses) and drain over paper towels. Salt immediately after they leave the oil. Eat them as soon as they’ve cooled enough to touch!

My Mind, It has Been Blown.

I have written before about my love of Quinn’s. Walking distance from my house, extensive selection of wines at every level and in every size, innumerable different kinds of beer and simply impeccable food that goes out on a limb. Food everyone can enjoy, from the simple bread salad to the braised oxtail, they do great food. But last night, for the first time, they totally blew my mind.

I can’t get over it. I’d never seen it before. We ordered the bone marrow 2 ways, a dish I expected would come, as marrow usually does, with one bone, cut horizontally into rounds, so the marrow was inside. But oh, no, not last night. Last night at Quinn’s, the bone had been cut VERTICALLY! Instead of having narrow holes to dig the meat from, there were two long boats, offering up easily accessible seas of marrow. No more digging in with tiny spoons, scratching at the dark abyss of bone in front of you. I could simply sweep my toast across the surface of the open faced bone and absorb the meaty flavor. 

Why? Why hasn’t anyone thought of this before? Why doesn’t everyone do this? I cannot fathom. I’m going to see my butcher later this week and see if I can get some insight. In the meantime…my mind, it is blown.

A Beautiful Duck Fat Ladden Accident

Beef Liver Mousse
Beef Liver Mousse

 

Who says accidents must be bad? As my friend over at cheesetoast later told me, “it’s not an accident when it’s duck fat.” But it was an accident, it was just a wonderful and delicious one.

Basically I wanted to have a BBQ. I wanted to use the enormous beef liver that had taken up space in my freezer for the last two months. I decided to make mousse. There was too much mousse. What better way to preserve the second ramekin of mousse than by spreading a layer of duck fat, left over from the duck confit episode, over the top of the mousse?

Sometimes when you are cooking, or at least when I’m cooking, I get excited about something, an idea, a technique, and rationalization departs. Call it a brain fart, call it what you will, but I went to spread the duck fat over the top of the mousse before I had let the mousse cool down.

What happens when you put solid duck fat on top of warm liver mousse? I watched in fascinated horror as the fat quickly melted right into my mousse. My brain froze. Then I looked again. My mousse was creamily encasing the melted fat. And, as all good adaptable cooks would, I took a spoon and started stirring. The result, of course, was an unbelievably rich and tasty beef liver mousse. Having later eaten the version with out the duck fat, all I can tell you is that the proof is in the mousse: There is no such thing as a bad accident when duck fat is involved.

Duck Fat and Beef Liver Mousse

Chop up a sweet white onion (I used a walla walla) and a clove of garlic and put into a pan with a few tablespoons of butter (this recipe is very forgiving, so don’t worry about amounts). Saute them till they are transluscent, but don’t let them caramalize. While that is going on, chop the liver into managable pieces, about the size of two fingers. Add the liver to the pan and sautee for a few minutes, till all the sides have changed color. At this point I seasoned the liver with fresh thyme from my half living herb garden, a pinch of salt and some fresh ground pepper, though the seasoning could be whatever you choose. Then dump it all into the food processor and puree with about 2 sticks of butter.  Deglaze the pan using a sweet wine (I used port, for example) and add that along with a glug worth of brandy to the livers. Pour these into ramekins or molds, then add two teaspons of duck fat in and swirl with a spoon. Because mine was an accident, it was totally mixed in, but you could make a great design while mixing in the duck fat. Decorate with more herbs as a garnish, refridgerate for a few hours and serve with Wheat Thins (or cracker of your choice).