Friday, September 30, 2005

Aui Zhou!

I've been away, neglecting my little fledgling blog. Where have I been, you ask? I have been continually stuffing myself with Aui Zhou Spicy Chicken from Grand Sichuan Int’l. Yes, I had heard of the greatness of Grand Sichuan, and I had many times enjoyed delicious dishes, but Aui Zhou Spicy Chicken is on a different level.

I had a sort of pin the tail on the donkey approach to ordering from Grand Sichuan – I would pick a category, like pork or vegetable or chicken, shut my eyes, stab at the menu with my eager chopstick, and order whatever it landed on. But once I tried it, I vowed to change my ways and devote my life, all day every day, to Aui Zhou Spicy Chicken!

So that is how I spent the past week. But yesterday I had to go to a place to try on a special outfit that I have to wear soon for a special occasion and I realized that I was walking the fine line between "perfect fit" and "sausage casing." The Aui Zhou Spicy Chicken (as well as perhaps a hoppy beverage or two) was making its presence known on the waistline in a less than flattering way.

"This must stop!" I vowed. I swore to confine my Aui Zhou Spicy Chicken intake to once a day. That is how it came to pass that I cooked healthy dinner last night.

Chicken Onion Pitas with Parsley Stuff

This recipe is closely adapted from Epicurious' Spicy Beef and Onion Pitas with Parsley Sauce and can be made using whatever is hanging around in the fridge. The "sauce" includes parsley, shallot, cider vinegar, water, olive oil, sugar, and salt and pepper. I substituted honey for sugar (mostly because I didn't feel like dragging the sugar down from the barely reachable cabinet) and I added some lemon juice, just for the hell of it. I threw everything in the mini processor and it looked like this:

I coated the chicken in salt, pepper, ground cumin, and ground coriander and stuck it in the fridge while I sautéed the onions, which went from this:

To this:

Delicious onion magic! I sautéed the chicken until cooked through and added back the onions to warm up for a minute while I toasted the pitas over the flame. Only one caught fire, a great improvement over last time I made this dish. I stuffed the pitas with the chicken/onion mixture, topped it with the parsley sauce, and served it with a salad. Here is the finished product…

J. also suggested that this would be great with what he calls a "cream" sauce. When pressed, he indicated that he meant "shwarma sauce." So next time, I'm going to try it with some tahini as well. Definitely not in lieu of the parsley sauce though – that is essential.

Its not Aui Zhou Spicy Chicken, but it will get you through until its time to order again.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

The Gift of Cheesemaking

I thought the perfect accompaniment to my spicy fried chicken would be some NJ tomatoes, perhaps the last before all tomatoes become mealy and nothing tasting, and some fresh mozzarella.

A few months ago I decided that my love for all things cheesy was sufficiently strong that it was time to learn to craft my own. I envisioned myself lovingly producing artisinal cheeses right in my own little kitchen, hopeful that cheesemaking was that long-awaited undiscovered talent just looking for the opportunity to blossom forth. Maybe I would quit my job (or a bad man would take it away from me) and I could devote my life to producing gourmet cheese. Could I rent some space in a cave to age my coveted masterpieces until they were ready to be sold at market for exorbitant sums? Would there be room in my apartment? Would I need a cheese studio? Should I alert Saveur in case they want to send out a reporter?

I ordered the deluxe cheese kit (hey, rated "BEST OVERALL" by the Wall Street Journal). My first attempt at mozzarella, back in May, produced a hard Polly-O lump - completely misshapen and bland. I refined my strategy and gave it another shot last night.

Start with one gallon of milk:

Add special secret ingredients to curdle it:

Scoop and drain the curds:

Heat them in the microwave, knead them, stretch them, and drain them some more:

Voila - so cute!

The only problem – this batch was dry, crumbly, and bland. Only a serious dousing in olive oil and salt made the cheese even remotely tasty, otherwise it was just sort of, I don't know, white tasting. Here it is, with tomatoes and oil:

What am I doing wrong with this accursed cheese? There must be a way to make it more cheesylicious somehow! I am still nursing the hope that my gift will shine forth; perhaps I am destinied for a future in hard cheeses rather than soft? Stinky rather than delicate? Do I need to go to cheese camp?

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Sushi at Amber

Tantalizing photos of the Raisinhater family sushi feast at Amber. Brother R. Raisinhater (see arm below) and Mom Raisinhater (not pictured) were in attendance, and we were served by brother C. Raisinhater, the fantastic bartender!

You are jealous? You cannot resist (despite my crappy photos)? You are going out to have sushi for dinner tonight? I am not one bit surprised.

Monday, September 19, 2005

Deep Fried Bacon

A few days ago I wrote about my favorite types of fried chicken. I understand that wasn't your traditional deep-fried super crispy chicken; I appreciate that. I would love to be able to make chicken like that. If I could make chicken like that I probably wouldn’t ever make anything else. And I’d probably never leave my apartment and I’d weigh about 500 pounds. But I live in a New York apartment, with a teeny tiny kitchen. If I deep fry (and I mean seriously deep fry, in at least 4” of oil) everything in that kitchen gets a greasy film and I have to stare at its dirtiness and it stays filthy until I'm having guests and actually need that serving platter and then it is gross and whoever is trying to help in the kitchen thinks I am unhygienic and unfit for food handling.

Therefore, I tend to like things that get pan fried, the mess is so much more manageable, especially with my splatter shield. And I fool myself into thinking it is somehow healthier. But believe me – I cant wait to go home to my parents’ house and start up their deep fryer.

I'll throw anything in there. Just shut your eyes, open the fridge, grab, and fry. I promise it will be delicious. My brother, C. Raisinhater, made the best onion rings ever – all you do is mix beer into flour until it is barely a paste, dip your rings in, and throw them into boiling hot oil. This year we're considering an all-deep fried thanksgiving, including a burn-down-the-garage fried turkey.

The must superlative fried treat ever, though, was the deep fried tempura bacon at The Red Cat. Typically The Red Cat serves delicious tempura green beans (they are classified as a vegetable and are easy to overlook on the lower portion of the menu if you are not careful). But, last time I went, they also had BACON TEMPURA! It is exactly as it sounds. It is cooked bacon, tempura battered and deep fried. It was truly as good as you imagine it to be. You know you want some. Go on down there before they take it off the menu!

Friday, September 16, 2005

Mmm, Lentils

Sometimes, something sounds like it is going to be a delicious and fantastically healthy side dish, and you think to yourself “how scrumptious, I will make this wonderful lentil salad.”

“I will use only ingredients that I happen to have on hand, right here in my kitchen, and it will provide a nutritious and well balanced addition to my evening meal.” And perhaps you are trying not to go to the grocery store, because you will be away from the kitchen for a few days and don’t want to stock up and have the food rot secretly in the crisper drawers. And you are cheap.

So you make a few substitutions. Instead of dill and basil, you use parsley and mint, because those are the herbs that are washed and ready in the fridge. Fresh herbs are expensive! And there is always too much in the bunch. So there is just about zero percent chance you are going to tromp over to Whole Foods for eight dollars worth of basil and dill when there is perfectly good parsley and mint right there in the fridge.

And then you don’t have quite enough tomatoes, and no scallions at all, but you do have plenty of onions, and the onion sounds like a good friend of the lentil. And there are some bits of red bell pepper in the fridge too; you think they might provide some added color and crunch. The recipe calls for “small French lentils,” and you have only an old and sort of scary bag of dried lentils.

Surely there can’t be so much difference from one lentil to another. And they package does indicate that these are “No. 1 Grade.” You press fearlessly onward, so proud of your healthy lentil salad with creative and thrifty modifications.

Aesthetically, things are not too bad. Your lentil salad looks like this…

But the smell is already quite strong and the smallest nibble brings tears to your eyes. Perhaps you inadvertently used some kind of bionic onion? An onion grown next to the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant? This one onion, smaller than a lemon and only a little bigger than a lime, managed to infiltrate every corner of your healthful lentil salad and completely overwhelm it, so that it tastes like this…

It is too strong for even your onion-loving roommate. You eat the toasted pitas stuffed with chicken and lovely mild sautéed onions in parsley garlic sauce. You eat some hummus that was hanging around the back of the fridge. You put the lentil onionfest into a Tupperware and throw it in the back of the fridge. Maybe you could put it on pasta for a refreshing (oniony!) pasta salad? Perhaps the flavors will mellow overnight? A hungry vegan might stop by unexpectedly?

Your visions of yourself as an innovative recipe modifying wizard of healthy cooking are dashed to bits. Then again, lentils? What were you thinking?

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Red Meat Thursday

Yesterday’s Minimalist column, by Mark Bittman in the Dining Section of the New York Times, covered a topic dear to my heart – Skirt Steak.

His recipe featured Grilled Skirt Steak with Vietnamese Chimichurri.

I’ve been smoking up my kitchen with skirt steak at least a few times a month for the past two years, and this recipe, Skirt Steak with Cilantro Garlic Sauce, is the house favorite.

So when I saw yesterday’s column I knew what was coming…


I plan to make both versions, hold a taste test, and write up the results for the good of science and skirt steak eaters everywhere. Stay tuned…

I was actually planning to do this last night, but the siren song of The Odeon lured me out of the kitchen and down to TriBeCa for a great big cheeseburger with their delicious salty fries and a few pints of Fuller's London Ale.

I was so stuffed I thought it would be at least 24 hours before I could eat another cheeseburger, but then I read this fantastic comparison between burgers served at Shake Shack and Burger Joint. Not that I doubt this writer's competence or judgment, but this does seem to be an issue on which additional research may be needed.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Fried Chicken

I love all fried foods. Fried chicken is a way to eat fried food and convince yourself it is a healthy main course (hey, not red meat, very healthy) and much better for you than a naughty fried snackfood like prosciutto balls. Last night for dinner I made my favorite super easy fried chicken cutlets.

They are quick and crispy, a little bit spicy, and, aside from the buttermilk and Tabasco, don't involve any special ingredients that you don’t have lying around the fridge. If you don’t have buttermilk or Tabasco, substitute yogurt (plain if possible) and anything spicy that you have hanging around in the condiment area of the fridge.

The drawbacks of this recipe are twofold. First, guests with sensitive palates may be overwhelmed by the spice. I don’t understand this myself, but my soon to be in-laws are not so welcoming of the pleasures of tongue burning and stomach searing. Spicing it down is easy, just leave out the hot stuff (Tabasco and cayenne). You may want to make flavor substitution though, like using seasoned breadcrumbs (I use them anyway), some crushed fresh rosemary (or dried), paprika for color, or maybe a bit of parmesan in the breadcrumb mix or sprinkled on immediately after they come out of the pan. Second, this recipe is only good for a small group; it is a pain in the ass to deep fry individual chicken breasts for a large group.

If you’re cooking dinner for a group, it is best to use this recipe for spicy oven-fried chicken. It saves time, effort and money. Oven fried chicken thighs are fantastic for a big group and this recipe produces a consistently juicy, crispy chicken, regardless of whether you mess up and cook it for 15% too long or at 15% off temperature. It is stupid proof; you can drink a bottle of champagne before you cook it. The one essential thing to note is that you must buy chicken pieces with the SKIN ON. The skin crisps up and protects the chicken from drying out – the skin is essential.

Also, be sure to note that it has a long marinating time. If I’m cooking for 8 people or more, I just divide the marinade into two big bowls and either let the chicken pieces sleep overnight in the fridge in their marinade or make them first thing in the morning and let them have a full day of bathing in the yummy buttermilk.

And my favorite – the best crispy chicken recipe on the face of the earth – is Staff Meal Chicken.

It is spicy. Seriously spicy. And if you love spicy things like I love spicy things, you can make it even more spicy. But there is a certain lowest tier of spicyness (see recipe) below which you should not go. So if you do not like spicy at all, just go back a paragraph and make the yummy oven-fried chicken that is called “spicy” but is really not so much. As the article explains, Staff Meal Chicken was created by the Mexican chefs in the kitchen of Artie's Delicatessen, “a Jewish-style place on the Upper West Side.”

This recipe was originally published in the New York Times on October 16, 2002. On the following day, the Raisinhater family tried it for the first time. I’ve probably had it 400 times since that day, and I could eat it every day for the next year. It is one of my desert island foods. In our stockings every year, in our Easter baskets (yes, the Easter bunny still hides baskets for us), we receive our staff meal seasoning packets and it is a joyous occasion. We celebrate by eating even more staff meal chicken.

Monday, September 12, 2005

Prosciutto Balls

In my last post I did not disclose the full details of our meal because I was blinded by my elation at being able to recreate The Sandwich. What I omitted was that I fairly successfully recreated another of my favorite treats, the prosciutto ball.

Prosciutto balls were featured in the New York Times a little over a year ago. The article, “Deep-Fried and Bite-Size,” published on May 26, 2004 in the Dining In/Dining Out section of the Times featured Joe’s Superette, “a fluorescent-lighted relic” in the traditionally Italian neighborhood of Carroll Gardens. They were described as “about the size of the Everlasting Gobstopper of Willy Wonka fame and deep-fried golden brown,” bursting with “peppery Locatelli-spiked ricotta, chewy mozzarella and boiled ham.” I had no need to read further – my mission was clear.

It takes a lot to get me to leave Manhattan. Typically only the pleas of members of the Raisinhater family, from New Jersey and Queens, can coerce me to leave the Pastis delivery zone and venture away from a zip code that does not begin with “100.” But the prosciutto balls – I had to seek them out and learn if they were as delicious as promised.

An appetite inducing bike ride later, I arrived on Smith Street. Despite having the exact address, I could not locate the fabled Superette. I must have walked past the little 10 foot wide deli three times before I spotted it.

They were not on the menu. Hello, I said to the shaved head man with very very large arms. (What to do next, how to pronounce?) Raisinhaters and other Italian-American families, particularly in the greater NY/NJ area, tend to drop the last vowel on certain words, so mozzarella is pronounced “mut-zarrel” and proscuitto, “bro-jhoot.” I wasn’t sure, so I went for the schwa ending. “Do you have projhutta balls?”

“How many?”

Yikes, eight thousand? I went for six, figuring I could always come back in for more. I did.

They are nearly impossible to describe. The exterior is like any delicious fried thing, for example a properly fried mozzarella stick. The interior is almost like a soft little quiche, fluffy and cheesy and you cant tell if it is ricotta or egg that makes it so luscious. And little flecks of ham, and the sharp cheese taste – is it parmesan or romano? I ate three more and was more than a little stuffed. These are not light. If you go, I recommend six as a maximum, and that is a full meal. You may want more, but that's because you ate too fast and they haven't had time to hit your stomach.

Trust me, they are definitely worth the trip. Don't eat more than six at a time, especially if you have to ride your bike home to Manhattan.

Joe's Superette
349 Smith Street (First Place and Carroll Street), (718) 855-6463.

Friday, September 09, 2005

The Sandwich

The first time I ate at Pastis was on one of my first dates with J. I remember little of the evening except The Sandwich.

It must have been after midnight, because, at that time, The Sandwich was only served on the late night supper menu. I know we drank lots wine out of adorable little glasses. I remember feeling flushed with sparkly young romance as we shared oysters. And I remember that once The Sandwich arrived I forgot about J. entirely and started moaning softly to myself as I tore into the crusty bread and sweet sweet meat. I gestured madly to signify that this, this Sandwich, was the very finest thing I'd ever eaten in my entire life, and that I would love him forever and marry him and have his babies because I was so grateful that he'd brought me to this turning point in my sandwich-eating life.

J. didn't understand. He wasn't raised in the Temple Of Food and he only attends services on special occasions. My family, the Raisinhaters, we have the faith. We wake up and talk about what we're going to have for breakfast. As we eat our pig-based breakfast (we always decide on pig), we talk about lunch. As we eat lunch, we try to figure out how late we can eat dinner so that maybe we can squeeze in an extra afternoon meal and call it something misleading like "tea time."

So the very first thing I did when I woke up the next morning was call my parents and my three brothers and share with them the discovery of The Sandwich. And they tried it, and they were changed, transported. We Raisinhaters were not the first to recognize its greatness, a fellow Sandwich Lover ranked it the best sandwich in New York City. And, as he mentions, the frites are amazing too, but that is an experiment for another day.

Now, I am the most fortunate girl in the whole wide world because I live within the Pastis delivery zone. Some have asserted that this actually drove the apartment selection process, and I cannot deny that it was a factor. And it doesn't hurt that Pastis is also just a short walk away, for those evenings when I manage not to put on my pajama pants at 6pm. Sometimes, though, real life intervenes and takes away the job and the money, and even lucky me cannot go to Pastis as often as I would like.

So last night I gathered with some of my brothers and we very scientifically recreated our own almost-as-good-as-Pastis sandwiches and stuffed ourselves senseless while guzzling wine. And I will share this recipe with you, just in case you do not live comfortably within the Pastis delivery zone, or a bad bad man took away your job and you have less money than you would like, or you simply do not feel like putting on your low rise pants and cowboy boots to tromp down to the stupid meatpacking district trying to look trendy while drinking wine out of adorable little cups.

Sliced Steak Sandwich w/ Onions and Gruyere

This sandwich really requires that you spend the extra money and get the good stuff –meat from a trusted butcher (or whole foods), fancy aged gruyere, and fresh crusty bread. If you want to save some cash, try it with less expensive mushrooms.

1 large shell steak (about 1.4 lbs)
gruyere cheese
2 baguette-length loaves of crusty French bread
1/3 to 1/2 lb shitake mushrooms, stems removed, chopped into 1" pieces
1.5 large yellow onions
olive oil
healthy splash of red wine (plus lots more for drinking)
healthy splash of beef broth
frisee lettuce

serves 4 very hungry people

Slice the onions into strips and caramelize by cooking over medium heat with 2 T butter in a large skillet for 20-30 minutes, or until very brown, soft and sweet. Set onions aside. Cook the steak in the same pan on medium high to high heat – do not cook past medium rare, it will continue cooking after you remove it from the pan. We browned ours on the exterior and removed it while rare. Wipe any very burned bits out the pan and return the onions to the pan, along with the mushrooms, adding a little olive oil, and heat on medium. When the mushrooms soften and give off liquid, add the red wine, bring to a boil, and reduce. Next, add the beef broth and reduce, scraping up any brown bits off the bottom of the pan. Add 1 T of butter to thicken. Slice the rested and slightly cooled steak into thin strips, and slice the gruyere into sandwich size pieces.

Slice the hard ends off the loaves of bread, cut each loaf in half and slice down the middle. Remove some of the extra bread to make room for more steak. Generously spread mayo on the bread and put on a little frisee lettuce (optional). Add steak slices, gruyere, and a generous amount of the onion/mushroom mixture. Devour.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Simply Peel the Eggs

I haven't eaten a deviled egg in about 10 years, but when I'm suffering the after effects of margarita overindulgence I get spectacularly random and irresistible food cravings. Peeps! Potato gratin! Pickled beets and gorgonzola salad with apples! Nacho cheese gordita! And last Saturday morning, loud and clear, DEVILED EGGS!!!

It sounds so easy. Eggs in pot, boil water, heat off, cool egg, peel egg, bedevil egg, eat egg. All was going swimmingly right up through "cool egg," but then the trouble began. My modest eggs refused to be disrobed.

At first I thought I just had one prudish egg but the others turned out to be equally stubborn - I fed them the finest champagne and murmured sweet sweet nothings into their smooth ears (?) but their shells wouldn't budge. There was no way to get those shells off without damaging the egg so much that, even after deviling, it would be mangled beyond desirability.

Egg salad. Sort of like deviled eggs, although without the paprika and the opportunity to dig out the icing tube, right?

I nosed around for some recipes and didn’t like what I found, not one bit. Pickles, celery, all sorts of ingredients that didn’t seem quite right. I realized that what I still wanted was deviled eggs, only in sandwich form. And I thought even that might be a little dull, so I dug around my fridge and came up with this very tasty recipe:

MeBeth’s Egg Salad Sandwich

6 eggs, hard boiled
1/3 cup mayo (only Hellman’s)
3 T Dijon mustard
1 small squirt (approx ½ tsp.) Sriracha
½ tsp red wine vinegar
Wheat bread (toasted, if you prefer)
Sliced tomato

Cook the bacon while the eggs are hard boiling (see below). When the eggs have cooled, peel them (ha ha ha) and separate the whites from the yolks. Roughly chop the whites and set aside. Place the yolks into a food processor and add the mayo, mustard, Sriracha, vinegar, and a little salt and pepper if desired. Process until the mixture is sort of fluffy and reaches the consistency of deviled egg filling. (You could probably do this with a fork if you didn't have a food processor) Add yolk mixture to egg whites, stir. Apply lettuce, tomato, bacon, and egg salad to toasted bread. Eat.

The best method I’ve found for hard boiling eggs is as follows:

Place eggs in a pot and cover them completely with water so that they are 1" below the surface. Bring the water juuuuuust about to a boil, remove the pot from the heat, and let it sit for 7 minutes. Remove the eggs and place them in an ice bath until they are cool enough to peel.

I suppose you could make this sandwich much healthier by reducing the amount of mayo and by using some turkey bacon or fakey bacon (fakon?), but then if you’re going to that extreme you might as well just substitute sprouts for bacon, omit the egg salad, and double the lettuce. Mmmmm.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Back to the Kitchen

Sometimes real life is scary. Sometimes you get fired from your job, with no warning. Poof – GOODBYE JOB! Sometimes you want to crawl under the bed and hide until some lovely person comes to offer you lots and lots of money to do nothing all day but sit in your pajamas and smoke cigarettes. But then you remember you just quit smoking the cigarettes and there is nothing happy left in the whole wide world without the cigarettes, especially here under the bed with the dust monsters and old college memorabilia. But there is that one special thing, really the only thing, that can lure you out from under the bed. That thing is dinner.

It is time to get back into the kitchen. Summer is officially over (according to me) and the sweltering heat has abated. I need the comfort of rolling dough and dicing many many onions. My freezer is full of nasty microwave meals that I need to replace with extra strong Ziploc baggies of marinara sauce, home made meatballs, chicken carcasses for stock, and little empanadas in case of surprise guests. Just knowing I've stored away all those goodies, like nuts for winter, makes me a little less frightened of the chaos ahead of me.

Fresh Direct arrived three days ago with my first order in three months. They forgot my pita bread, which was a near disaster but for a last minute change of dinner plans, but they added in some absolutely adorable organic baby bok choy.

Over the weekend I made two old favorites and one new treat. First, some Sicilian Meatballs with linguini and marinara sauce. The recipe is quite unusual, and the resulting meatballs come out both sweeter and spicier than a traditional meatball. At first I balked at the use of currants. Nothing disgusts me more than a raisin, and the currant is clearly the raisin's whiny younger brother, but for the sake of science I prepared the recipe as written and was not one bit sorry. Somehow the raisiny-ness disappears and the currants leave a tangy sweetness that balances out the spicy sausage.

The marinara sauce included with the recipe looked quite ordinary to me, so I substituted our family favorite, my dad's standard recipe.

Dad's Marinara

2 cloves garlic, minced
1 large yellow onion, diced
3 T olive oil
1 28 oz. can diced tomatoes (I used Muir Glen Organic)
1/4 tsp. crushed red pepper flakes
1 tsp. dried oregano
1 tsp. dried rosemary
1 tsp. dried parsley
½ tsp. salt
½ tsp. pepper

Drizzle oil into a medium size saucepan over medium-low heat, add onions and garlic and sauté until translucent, approximately 10 minutes. Add tomatoes, increase heat to medium, and cook for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the herbs, salt, pepper, and crushed red pepper flakes, stir and cook for 15 more minutes (still stirring occasionally) or until sauce has reached desired consistency. Serve over pasta with freshly grated parmesan cheese.

I find that this recipe works best with linguini, fettucini, or similar long flat pastas. You can add pretty much anything to the sauce immediately before serving, including meatballs, sautéed veggies, sautéed shrimp, or leftovers like fish, scallops, or lobster. Especially lobster.


I will eat anything. Actually, anything but raisins.