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.

10 Minutes to Lobster Mushroom Bisque

Tonight’s dinner, a beautiful Lobster Mushroom Bisque, I made, start to finish in about ten minutes. I’m betting myself I can do the blogpost in an equally small amount of time. Especially easy since in my hurry to scarf the soup, I had no intention of stopping to take a picture.

This dish makes a perfect entrance as the foggy days of fall roll in. Warm, hearty and a soup that’s really a meal. I stole the idea from Carmelita, which did a Lobster Mushroom Bisque in a Tomatillo, hallowed out, for this year’s Sunset Supper event. Theirs actually tasted like lobster bisque. I was aiming for a little less dairy creaminess, so I didn’t use milk or cream in mine.

Lobster Mushroom Bisque

1 Large Lobster Mushroom or a few small ones
2 tablespoons of butter
1 cup of flour
2 cups of chicken or turkey stock
Salt, pepper, thyme to taste
Splash of Sherry vinegar

To make a roux, melt the butter in the bottom of the pot, adding in the flour and stirring. I didn’t brown mine, I mostly wanted the thickness, not the flavor. When it was good and ready, I added the stock, bringing it to a boil. While that does it’s thing, chop the lobster mushroom. Let it simmer for about two minutes, then blend. Salt, Pepper and fresh thyme to taste, then finish with a splash of sherry vinegar.

Double the Fun: Corn Soup, Corn Fritters

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Corn fritters may not sound like the most exciting thing on earth, but they were delicious and they were twice as exciting because they were made from what otherwise would have been thrown in the trash.

Backing up, I had five beautiful ears of corn. Gorgeous specimens, the epitome of late summer embodied in tiny, yellow toothed fabulosity. Yet, somehow, in the week I had had them, I had yet to use them in anything! It was a crime against fresh produce, an evil act upon the tasty treats. Teetering on the edge of no longer being good, I lunged to save them from the oncoming grasp of the twin terrors, mold and shriveling. Just in time, I put together a great corn soup. When I finished the soup, I did something I rarely do, partially because I’m lazy and partially because I like to leave my soups rustic, with something to bite into: I strained it. This created the effect of a beautiful, creamy, silken soup. It also left me with a mash of ingredients that hadn’t made it through the straining. Everything was edible, and I knew there was a way to use it, I just hadn’t figured it out yet.

When I have this kind of cooker’s block, I open the fridge, I contemplate it and I probably snack on some olives while I think, but I didn’t even get that far. Adding in flour, baking soda and an egg, I rolled the mash/dough into little balls, squished them flat and pan fried them, gleefully giddy as I watched them puff up into hybrid biscuit/pancakes/fritters. Damn they were good.
Summer is fun, and the corn is plentiful, but it is just that much better when you get to double your fun and use it all twice!

Corn Soup
5 Ears of corn, cut off the cob
2 Cloves of Garlic, peeled
3 Tablespoons Olive Oil
1 Small Serrano Pepper
3 Cups Chicken Stock
Salt, to taste

When I began this soup, I planned to add more spices, but in the end, this turns out to be so simple and beautiful, that I left it alone. Heat the oil and fry the garlic, pepper and corn for a few minutes. When it smells good and delicious (about 5 minutes) add the chicken stock, bring to a boil, then lower to a simmer. Let simmer for about an hour–more if you’d like, then blend (I used an immersion blender). I strained mine through a small mesh strainer, though I think cheesecloth in a colander would work just as well. Be sure to really squeeze all the liquid out. The soup is then ready to go. Save that mash of corn, garlic and pepper bits though, for…

Corn Fritters
Mash from above
About 1.5 cups whole wheat flour
1.5 teaspoons baking powder
1 egg
Olive oil
Salt

Add the egg and the baking powder to the mash, then start adding flour. This is a bit of a judgment call on how much to add, just keep going until you have a thick dough–more like cookie dough than pancake batter. Roll the dough into individual balls–smaller than a golf ball. If you keep your hands moist, they won’t stick to you as much. Heat the olive oil, just enough to cover the bottom of the pan. Press each ball flat as you place it into the oil–doesn’t need to be completely flat, just one squish. When they begin to brown (about a minute or two), flip them. When they’re done, place on paper towels and salt.

A Summer Soup for a Winter’s Day

avo-soupWhat to do with one of those rare winter weekends in which I’m not on the ski hill? I had a birthday brunch for a best friend that just happened to be in perfect position for me to stop at the Ballard Farmer’s Market on the way. As a close friend of mine, she’s spent over ten years of birthdays with me having to bail early or miss out because I’m never around on weekends, so I was a little thankful for the day off from coaching. After hitting up the farmer’s market, I was very thankful.

Maybe it was just being away from the markets for so long, maybe it was that there really were a million fabulous things for sale, either way I was floored by the selection and the exciting options arrayed before me. I snatched up a few beautiful Washington truffles to grate over the birthday girls omelet (and later, on millions of my own pasta dishes, toasts, really anything I could find to grate it over. Actually, I left one in my car and when I returned to it after the party, it took me a minute to realize what the beautiful scent perfuming my vehicle was. It is almost worth it to leave it there all the time. I found a home brewed Kombucha tea and bought a bottle. I couldn’t resist a few odd meat parts from Olsen Farms, some root vegetables and whatever else I could find. I ended up with a few odds and ends that I planned to throw together for a dinner.

After a morning at the farmer’s market and a day watching the snow fall while eating a beautiful brunch, I decided I would channel my summer farmer’s market mind and make a dinner that seemed to be from that season. I shucked 12 beautiful Pacific oysters from Taylor Shellfish and lay them on a plate, surrounding bowls of avocado soup. While I had bought the avocados from Costco, the wonder of the soup came from the pint of raw goat milk I blended with the four avocados.

While the depth was wonderful, it lacked a little something, so I cracked open a can of chipotle peppers and spooned a dollop on to each serving of cold soup. As the peppers seared our lips, the soup cooled, reminding us of why it make a summer stunner.

There may be nothing like a bowl of cold soup in the summer, but a bowl of it in the winter is a close runner up.

Sunchoke and Saffron: The Sunniest Soup

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After over a week of snow and now rain, it has not been so pleasant outside here. I am a lover of the snow and rain, but it was time to see the sun. Since it clearly wasn’t appearing outside, I decided to make the sunniest soup I could: Sunchoke and Saffron. While yellow is not always the most appealing color for food, this soup, with its symbolic suggestion of solar warmth, was the exception to the rule.

Despite my effort to represent the summer season in this dish, I still wanted a soup I would want to eat now, in the depths of winter, so I kept the dish heavy–though at the last minute decided to eliminate the cream, since it was quite thick and rustic even without it.

I had never worked with sunchokes before–or saffron, really, except that they sounded cool and sunny and the saffron is cheap at the store by my house, so in they went to the soup. I’m sure there are probably more flavorful ways to use the sunchokes, but I kept looking at them and researching and nothing seemed much more delicious than this.

Sunchoke and Saffron Soup

Turkey or other poultry stock
1 lb sunchoke
1 teaspoon ground saffron
1 teaspoon fresh thyme
1 tablespoon olive oil
4 shallots
4 cloves garlic
Salt and pepper to taste

To begin, I left the skin on the sunchoke, which is why you can see the rustic brown bits floating in the soup. For a more formal soup, you can peel them before chopping them into smallish (1 inch or so) pieces. Sautee the shallots and garlic in the oil until they start to turn translucent, then add the chopped sunchokes. Continue sautéing until the oil is mostly absorbed into the sunchokes. Add in the enough stock to cover all the sunchokes and dump in the saffron and thyme. Once boiling, bring it back down to a simmer and let simmer for a full hour to bring out all the flavors. Blend the soup, salt and pepper to taste and you are ready to go. Again, if you are looking for a less rustic version, simply strain at this point.

Enjoy the sunny soup!

Snow Day Soup: Indian Spiced Roasted Carrot

bats-carrot

I bet it sure seems like I’m making a lot of ‘snow day’ posts, huh? Well, could be that Seattle has been absolutely paralyzed by snow for the last week or so. It got kind of ridiculous last night when none of our local hot pot restaurant were open and I realized I was going to have to make do with what was in the house.

Luckily I usually keep enough food in the house to keep a family of five alive for 30 years after the nuclear holocaust, so coming up with a soup was more a matter of creativity than making do with what we had.

After I peeled seven large carrots I rolled them in a mixture of garam masala, curry powder and cumin as well as salt and roasted them in the oven. When they got brown and tasty looking and had turned the whole house to a warm cozy haven that smelled like an Indian restaurant (I think I had a dream like this once…) I chopped them a bit and threw them into a pot of turkey stock made from the leftover Thanksgiving carcass which had been wallowing away in my freezer. The stock, not the carcass. I’m not that lazy.

After letting the carrots simmer in the stock for an hour so they had a nice rich flavor, I busted out the ol’ immersion blender and let her rip. To give it a nice velvety texture I spooned in a cup of half and half. Taste test. Nope, needs more spices. I have a rule on fixing soups–dump a bunch of salt in, it is usually all it needs. This, however was the exception. I added more garam masala, curry and cumin. Still something missing. I grated a bunch of ginger in. Looked good, a little texture contrast, tasted good, but something, something still wasn’t there. I fed B. What is it? Duh! Pepper, he says. Perfect. I cracked pepper over top till there were tiny black spots speckling my soup. And the taste… Spot on. I shall call it Spot on Speckled Carrot soup from now on.

Snow Day Japanese Hot Pot

hot-potAs six inches of snow piled up on the ground outside my house, I begged B to go for a walk to frolic in the fluffy white stuff with me. We wandered among city blocks, children and adults alike sledding in the streets while cars sat long abandoned. After getting involved in a snowball fight with some neighborhood children and making snow angels in the park with a few friendly puppies, we started to head home, stopping to buy hot chocolate at our local QFC. 

And then there he was, a beautiful Lodge enamel coated Dutch oven, on sale for $30. I had been planning on getting one, though the cheapest I’d seen was about $20 more expensive than this. I had been planning on making a Japanese hot pot, for which this would be ideal. And B already had one down, checking it out. It was fate. We walked the rest of the way home, struggling under the weight of the pot, but our steps light with excitement–about the snow and the Dutch oven.

The snow kept on all day, from the “thundersnow” (real term!) that shook me awake like a bomb going off to the few flurries that tapered out as the sun went down. But that winter chill couldn’t pass through the doors of my house. No, not when inside my new pot warm broth curled around tender udon noodles. Chunks of squash swam around, chasing down shiitake mushrooms. The food stayed warm as we lingered over spoonfuls of hoto nabe in front of the fire, the heat of the Dutch oven working its magic.