Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Cuts of Meat

This is a helpful article that i am reprinting without permission but with a plug, from the MANual.

Shell Steak: Also known as a New York steak or a strip steak, a popular and tender cut most often broiled or cooked in a cast iron pan.

Filet Mignon: A very tender and lean (not to mention pricey) cut of meat that calls for searing on all four sides and a rare center. The filet remains a standard bearer despite being a little underwhelming on the flavor scale.

Rib Steak: Fatty and flavorful, a rib steak usually comes with a bone attached. Its center is well known as the rib eye and is normally served boneless. Popular cooking methods are the tried-and-true broiler method, which works for almost any cut, or on the grill.

Porterhouse: Also known as a T-bone, this consists of a shell steak and a filet separated by a bone, and is generally a large and expensive cut of meat best prepared in the broiler.

Skirt Steak: Tough, stringy, and flavorful, skirt steak is generally marinated before cooking and is best served braised or otherwise slow-cooked—a technique that keeps the cut’s mineral flavor while amping up its tenderness.

Hanger Steak: A cheap, tasty, and tough steak, hanger steak should be cooked quickly over a high heat—though served rare to medium rare—and is often used in dishes like steak tacos.

For pork…

Rib Chops: The pig version of a rib steak, this is the most flavorful cut of pork and is best served broiled.

Loin Chops: Bake these bone-in cuts for a moister piece of meat.

And for lamb…

Rack: A cut from the rib known for being fatty and flavorful (and less dry than a sad old leg), best served broiled.

Loin Chop: Similar in construction to a Porterhouse—and served bone-in—this cut has a filet on one side and a shell on the other. Like all cuts of lamb, if it’s in season (spring), the methods that are used to cook steaks can be used to cook lamb. In the wintertime, when lamb is tougher, you’ll want to use a slower method, and instead of broiling, you should try baking it.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Joy Tsin Lau Restaurant

The formula for choosing Chinese restaurants postulates that one should go for those with most Chinese patrons. And it is certainly the case at Joy Tsin. On any given Sunday morning or early afternoon, the line of diners often extends past its spacious lobby and spills onto the street. This can be a fun if a bit stereotypical way to introduce yourself to Chinese everyday life and culture, as the line is full of families complete with miniature, ancient yet dignifies elders with toothpick thin bones and parchment-like skin and vibrating packs of small children with nearly identical haircuts.

There is a constant flow of newcomers and goers dead set on squeezing past you at any cost. First you maybe overwhelmed by this persistence and the lack of consideration for your perceived personal space. And it so happens that once in a while some respectable American lady in front of you would make a sarcastic wisecrack, looking back at you with the expectation of comradery, as if both of you are united by some sort of shared experience by virtue of looking European. And you frankly don't know if these people are delivery men (unlikely), members of the family ahead of you ( you keep hearing the words "party of nine" from the hostess) or just eager visitors trying to gouge how long their wait will be. But you should just flow with it knowing that the food won't disappoint and that this, as much as the collage on the wall of hundreds of photos of the owner in various traditional costumes, in front of various honor plaques, banners and posters, with various children in arms is a part of experience.

And the experience is what you're here for. Well, really you're here for fantastic Dim Sum. And it begins with carts of steamed dumplings - shrimp, chives, pork, or freshly fried rice crepes. Followed by an unbelievably tasty and fragrant star anise beef tripe and lungs stew that goes down like an elixir spiked with spicy red chilly oil. The first 15 minutes is where you should really pace yourself. You're hungry, and everything looks good. Unfortunately you may reach your capacity right after having a bowl of congee (rice porridge) or what looks like the most tender wonton you've ever seen. So you may opt for the next cart pushed by a smiling lady and loaded with plates of crawfish (visual factor: 10, taste factor: 4), fried shrimp, snails, clams and fried quail. There's also baked rice wrapped in dry leaves, and plates with jelly fish, pork buns and mustard greens.

The waiters rush past you like acrobats balancing piles of steaming plates in a hurry to replenish the carts. Your only hope is that you get a chance at first dibs on stuffed pig intestine, since you're afraid that by the time the cart makes a circle around the immense dining room you won't have any. But that fear soon disappears as you realize that the mysterious kitchen elfs keep churning out their delicious wares and the waiting stuff is not at all interested in kicking you out in order to free up your table. One cultural trait, the wisecracking respectful American lady, I hope will find refreshing.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Luke's Lobster

93 E 7th St

I have mixed feelings about lobster in general and lobster rolls in particular. I get the appeal of eating an "expensive" product. And it does have an impressive presence on a plate. But somehow I can't shake the feeling, every time I see someone with a plate of lobster, that in all probability the Broadway show will be amazing and the commute back to _______ (fill in the blank) will be a breeze, and after this wonderful dinner we can all relax and go back to eating crap again.

But if you're going for the flavor, I'd have a crab or a longoustine any time. The meat is so much more flavorful and texture is so much more gentle. Of course there's a way to make good lobster, to balance it's meatiness and to once and for all take it out of it's attention grabbing whore of a shell.

Enter Luke's Lobster. A smallish store front in East Village. Again, not being a huge fan of lobster rolls which in my previous experiences tended to be an uninspiring combination of rubbery meat and cheap tasting mayo, it's hard for me to claim proficiency in the art of roll making. But this is as close to the work of lobster roll perfection as one can get. First of all, the lobster is fantastically fresh. An obvious point you'd think, but an important one nevertheless. Shell fish tends to acquire a slightly metallic after taste, which these rolls lack entirely. Secondly, the meat is cooked expertly - it's juicy, succulent and flavorful. And finally, it's perfectly dressed. There's barely any mayo, and its taste does not overpower the lobster. Oh yes, the rolls are filled "to the brims" with large chunks of meat, so you can really taste and enjoy the main ingredient.

I do have a gripe though. And it's with Luke's buns. I am not sure what butter they use, but its taste is overbearing. It's too sweet with a slight whiff of artificial flavoring and it competes with the delicate flavor of the lobster meat. So just ask the dude (or dudette) not to butter them. Just try it.

And by the way, you can get wonderful crab salad and crab claws as well. Awesomeness.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Leek Soup-Purée

Leeks are great. Let me explain why. First - the taste; it's sweet, with light onion aroma and gentle spice. It adds dimension and depth to dishes without being overpowering. Second - the color; it's a mix of vibrant greens, yellows and whites that becomes even more verdant when heated. Finally, the onion's texture is truly wonderful. It can be crunchy, silky, or disappear all together blending with the main dish.

Leeks are fantastic in soups, in pies or sauteed to accompany fish or meats. Another plus is that leeks are available pretty much all year round. Early autumn being the best time to get them. I came across a fresh bunch of young leeks in my local vegetable shop just recently. These were grown in Guatemala and were much thinner than your usual leeks. Actually they looked more like thick scallions. Whether they were just young or a different type, they had gentler flesh and a wonderful subtle sweet flavor with with just the right amount of bite.

The verdict - a season appropriate soup-purée. Extremely easy to make and tasty as hell. Here's the recipe as interpreted by Julia:

What you need:
1. A nice bunch of leeks, about a pound. If of a regular thick kind, you'll need 3-4 stalks. If a younger thinner kind you'll be OK with 8. Of course depending on your taste preference, you can make it more or less "oniony". In either case pick firm, compact stalks with bright white roots and green un-wilted ends.
2. A cup of cubed carrot (half of a large carrot)
3. Two large potatoes
4. 3 Tbs of olive oil
5. 4-5 cups of water ( enough to cover the potatoes in a pot)
6. Coarse Kosher salt, crushed black pepper, whole white and black peppercorns, mustard seed, coriander seed and crushed bay leaf to taste.

In a large pot bring water to a boil and add cubed potatoes. Place whole spices in a canvas spice bag and place in the pot.

Clean leeks. If necessary, remove the top dead layer and trim the top edges. Cut the stalks lengthwise and wash thoroughly. Cut the leeks in pieces about 1/2 inch wide. Transfer cut leeks in a bowl, add a pinch of coarse salt and squeeze lightly with your hands to release the juice. Let stand for a minute. Heat about 2 table spoons of olive oil in a large pan and saute the leeks until bright green, about 2 minutes. Add carrots and salt and crushed black pepper to taste and saute until carrots start to soften.

Check the potatoes, they should be almost done. Add leeks and carrots. Return the pot to heat and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and cook for about 5 minutes. Turn off heat and remove the spice bag. Let it cool for 5 minutes. Sieve the stock and reserve.

Carefully puree vegetable mixture in the processor in small batches, adding reserved stock to control thickness. Ideal puree shoudl be not too thick, silky and viscous. Transfer the puree back into the pot and return to heat. Add salt, adjust for spices and bring to a boil while stirring. As soon as it boils turn the heat off.

Plate, drizzle with some olive oil and serve with a slice of crusty rustic bread. For extra kick I like to butter the bread and toast it untill just golden brown.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Ramen NYC

Ramen cauldrons at Totto Ramen

For over three years now, there has been an explosion of ramen joints in New York. Ramen - a Japanese comfort food, is a dish of noodles in a hearty broth that is traditionally served with a variety of toppings such as sliced pork belly, seaweed, sprouts, green onions and flavored with soy or miso.

Up until recently my favorite has been a ramen from Sun-Chan, a divy place on 103 St. and Broadway. Their ramen is a simple, light yet flavorful dish with a generous slice of roast pork. The only drawback is that the broth tends to be salty and pork is a bit dry. Still it is a great dish and goes well with Sun-Cha's other specialty - yakitory (skewers of bacon-wrapped quail egg is excellent). And while on the subject of Sun-Chan it's a great place to get sushi and sake as well. Everything is extremely fresh and surprisingly creative for such an under-the-radar joint. Also a nice, truly Japanese touch, is that when sake is served you get to choose your own cups from an array of mismatched options.

After Sun-Chan came Ippudo. This hipped up ramen emporium on the lower east side, which looks a bit too much like a night club, produces extremely hearty and flavorful version of ramen. But their broth, which is pork-based, is extremely heavy. It's a tasty choice, but frankly I couldn't handle a third visit. To me it's a proof that too much of a good thing is not necessarily good. But that could be just my liver talking.

So that brings us to Totto Ramen, on W 52nd. Here you find a perfect balance between all flavors and ingredients. The broth at Totto is chicken-based which lends a certain lightness to the flavor. The noodles are expertly cooked al dente, and the slices of pork belly with stripes of translucent velvety fat melt in your mouth and are crisped by a torch before landing in your bowl. Additional toppings include soy marinated hard boiled egg, sprouts and green onions.

The menu is pretty bare bone and features only a handful of choices - you could get a plain ramen, a spicy ramen (that's regular ramen + a spoonful of chilly oil) or miso ramen. If you order one dish and one dish only - order the miso ramen. The bowl of creamy broth comes with a fragrant scoop of ground pork and fermented miso paste. The broth is so fantastic is almost addictive. The noodles are wavy and chewy and miso adds a level of earthy complexity to the dish. They sometimes serve the soup with diced white onion instead of the green onion, which makes the already sweet broth a bit too sweet for my taste. The pork belly which in itself is a work of art rounds up all flavors with its smoky perfection.

Miso ramen at Totto Ramen

Another nice thing about Totto Ramen is that it's modeled on authentic Japanese ramen joints (so I heard). You don't go there to spend time. You go there to satisfy your hunger or a craving as the case may be. You go in ( that's actually is not entirely true, as the lines outside usually stretch out the experience by extra 30 min), you eat your noodles and get out. The best place in the house is at the counter where you can watch chefs boil noodles, check the fat content of the broth and torch the pork belly and joke with each other at the expense of dinners they find entertaining.

Chef crisping pork belly with a torch

Sorry for the crappy photo quality (thanks for nothing iPhone)

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Stuffed Peppers

Stuffed peppers is one of my favorite dishes and one of the most flavorful and visually striking recipes home cooking can provide. Taken to a near art-form by my wife Julia, who religiously produces a dish consisting of almost identical, perfectly shaped vegetables with expertly seasoned delicate filling, this recipe has many versions and spans a number of cuisines.

So here's a bit of a back story. Stuffed peppers are common for Mediterranean, Southern and Eastern European cuisines. Serbians, Greeks, Turks, Armenians, Bulgarians, Romanians all have them. The dish has even infiltrated parts of Russian cuisine. Of course the taste and method of preparation will vary depending on a region. In some recipes, for instance, sour cream or heavy cream is added to the sauce, while others use only pork or only beef instead of a mixture. One thing remains consistent, however - to make a dish you need bell peppers, a mixture of meat and rice and plenty of carrots, tomatoes and onions. Oh yes, and a huge pot or a casserole dish.

In general, the dish is fairly easy to prepare. The intricacy is in coming up with the right proportion of meat to rice - too much meat and you will have a much denser, less delicate filling. The recipe I am providing here is Julia's, but you would have to come up with your own magical touch, since it is that ephemeral ingredient that makes a dish truly great.

Here's what you will need:
1. 5-7 Medium size bell peppers.
When choosing pepper, pay close attention to its shape and feel. Peppers should feel heavy in your hand. It is an indication of thickness of the flesh and will guarantee the best flavor. Try to go for the perfectly shaped vegetables - not too crooked, too long or too shallow. Red peppers have a wonderful, intense flavor. Green peppers tend to be a bit tougher and add earthy tones to the dish. Yellow peppers bring color and brightness to the dish and have a much milder flavor. So use a mix.
2. 1.5 large carrot
3. 3 medium onions
4. 1 cup of cilantro
5. 4 medium tomatoes, or 5-6 plum tomatoes.
You can also use peeled whole tomatoes out of a can. Canned Neapolitan plum tomatoes will work great, just make sure it has no seasoning added to it.
6. 1.5 lb. of ground beef/pork mixture. 50/50 proportion works fine, but don't go for the leanest beef as it tends to be dry. You can also add veal to the mixture.
7. 1/3 - 1/2 a cup of uncooked white rice.
8. Olive oil, salt, pepper, oregano or dry basil for seasoning.

Peel and roughly chop the onions. Peel and grate the carrots using a rough grater. Peel and chop tomatoes. The best way to peel tomatoes is to submerge them in boiling water for about a minute or until the skin pops. Chop cilantro.

Remove stems from the peppers by cutting the tops off to produce an opening large enough to fill the peppers without cracking them. Core and clean them. Place peppers in a large pot filled with boiling water. There should be enough water in the pot to cover the peppers. Bring it back to boil and cook until slightly soft - about 2-3 minutes. They should be able to maintain their shape and stand up when you take them out. Set peppers on a clean plate, careful not to damage them, let them cool. Make sure there is no water left inside the peppers.

Discard most of the water, reserving about 2 cups for cooking rice. In a medium pan rinse rice and add reserved hot water. Par-cook rice, keeping it very al dente. It's OK if rice is still a little wet, as it will add moisture to the filling.

In the large pot heat olive oil, add onions and sauté until slightly soft (about 2 minutes). Remove half of the onions and set aside. Add carrots to the pot and continue to sauté for another 2 minutes. When carrots soften, add crushed tomatoes. Season with some salt and oregano. Taste the sauce to check for acidity. You can always add a pinch of sugar to offset the tartness. Careful not to over cook it. Once combined remove the mixture from the pot and set aside.

Combine beef and pork in a mixing bowl, mix well. Season to taste with salt, pepper and oregano. Add par-cooked rice in about 60/40 ratio of meat to rice. Add cilantro and reserved sauté onions and mix again. Check for seasoning. Using extra care not to damage the peppers with your hand or a small spoon fill peppers with the mixture. If you have some filling remaining, don't worry - you can make excellent meatballs.

Return the large pot to heat and add some of the sauteed vegetables enough to cover the bottom of the pan. Place peppers side by side, open end up. If you have made any meatballs, now is the time to add them as well. Using a spoon, pour vegetable sauce over the peppers, filling spaces between and placing tomato chunks on top of the openings. Sprinkle with remaining cilantro. Cover and simmer until done - for about 60-90 minutes.

Turn off the heat and let it rest covered to cool.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Bibou, BYOB

Bibou BYOB is an excellent French restaurant in Philadelphia. Unpretentious, small (about 8 tables) and moderately priced (you can bring your wine - unheard of in NYC), the restaurant is tucked away in a working class Italian neighborhood of South Philly.

The food is absolutely delicious and flawlessly executed. The menu is small and favors fresh seasonal combinations and classic flavors. A cream of lettuce soup, laden with chunks of crab meat, (part of the summer $45 prix-fixe menu) is guaranteed to blow you away. And so does the appetizer of seared foie-gras in red wine reduction or an entree of soft shell crab with watermelon salsa. The only weak link was duck confit which should have been passed over for lamb chops that looked exceptional.

You can feel the chef's loving touch, as well as his wife's perhaps, who doubles as a hostess, in everything, as even the wait stuff project unusual warmth and friendliness without being too formal or overbearing.

bibou website


Seared foie-gras

Soft shell crab with watermelon salsa

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Eataly. In pictures. Trieste

Trieste. A Mediterranean city that had rather a prominent status during the reign of Austro-Hungarian Empire but descended into a sort of quite provincialism since then. We spent there about three hours en route from Bologna to Vrsr in Croatia, and not by choice.

It's a hazy line that separates the West from the East. There's not one thing that let's you know that you have finally crossed it. But there is a kind of osmosis that is happening - little things begin to swarm around you until you finally realize - you're on the other side. For us this realization arrived when we tried to catch a bus that was scheduled to take us to our final destination.

Julia has planned this trip for months rather obsessively. Vrsr is not an easy place to get to by public transport. She's checked bus schedules on-line constantly, called up the company about half-a-dozen times, and even enlisted the help of some local Croatian Italians to make sure the information is correct. So when we got off the train we thought we had just enough time to hit some local restaurants (which we did, and it was excellent). It's getting out of Trieste that presented a problem.

It so happened that the bus we were expecting now runs only like twice a week, according to a "new" schedule. Judging by a couple of other confused travelers, that schedule must have been very, very new. So we could either stick around for a couple of days or take another bus that would take us half way. We said "half way it is" and went to take a nap under a tree in a park.

But our lunch was magical. Hot summer day, narrow winding streets, Fresh Mediterranean seafood, cold beer. What could be better?

Octopus salad and fried calamary at El Fornel.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Eataly. In pictures. Bologna

So everybody talks about Italy's food culture. But coming from New York, a place where you can get breakfast at 3 am or 3pm, we tend to forget that the rest of the world does not operate on our insane schedule. It turns out that Italians, as much as they like good food, also like to consume it in a rather orderly fashion and, it seems, they're not particularly good at over-extending themselves by providing 24/7 nourishment to the fellow human beings. That is to say you can forget about getting your breakfast in a restaurant past, let's say, 11 am. Yes, New York spoils you - you eat when you're hungry, not when you're supposed to. And that royally screws you over in Italy. What am i to do if I've missed lunch (catch it between 12 and 2, or go hungry untill 7)?

Enter Aperol-hour, if you're lucky to be in Bologna. This ingenious concept in a true italian fashion is about good food, good drink and good life in general. You can enter any restaurnat, cafe, deli, or pizzeria and order Aperol - a grapefruit/citrus flavored aperitif, served on ice with prosecco and a splash of seltzer - your drink arrives accompanied by an array of small plates, tapas style. What's on those plates depends how generous the cafe is. It could be various crostini, bruscheta, sardines, or simply olives, and even potato chips. One afternoon, just walking through a street hungry, I've sampled three different places, ranging from a hip-looking lounge (Aperol: 3 Euro. Olives, caper berries, sun-dried tomatoes: Priceless) to a mid-range snack bar (Aperol: 2 Euro. Potato chips and crostini) and a hole-in-a-wall filled with university students (drinking beer!) serving 1 Euro Aperol with bite size tomato bread.

Horse-meat bresaola, Parmigiano and arugula salad.

Monday, May 3, 2010


Speaking of graffiti - art mocking commerce, commerce mocking art.

Friday, April 30, 2010


Ristorante Parizzi
Via della Repubblica 71,

Parizzi is an amazing Michelin-star restaurant in Parma, helmed by a talented chef Marco Parizzi. Contemporary decor and airy atmosphere is pleasant and not at all stuffy, as would be expected from one of the most expensive restaurants in the city. The food is excellent and moderately-expensive by NYC standards.

The restaurant splits the menu into two parts. The first section highlights contemporary cooking and the second is focused on the traditional, provincial Parma cuisine. The contemporary side wins with a solid lead, but the traditional cuisine, while lacking some subtlety is nevertheless flawlessly executed.

One of the best things about Parizzi is its wine list that offers a wide range of local vintages. An extremely helpful waiter, detecting uncertainty in my behavior, has recommended an excellent and the cheapest bottle of sparkling white Malvasia that complemented the meal perfectly.

Parmesan Mousse

Duck Ravioli with Shaved Black Truffles

Baby Pork Chop with Potato Gratin

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Bali Nusa Indah

My little neighborhood discovery of the past two weeks - an Indonesian restaurant Bali Nusa Inda on 9th Ave and W. 46 Street. This is my first brush with Indonesian cooking and I found it quite agreeable - the crudest description I can provide is that it reminds me of a heartier Thai cuisine. What is great about this place in particular is a number of prix-fixe arrangements that combine miniature versions of the entire menu.
But if you go for separate dishes, a must try is Fisherman's soup, a spicy fish and seafood stewed in tangy tomato broth and Ikan Pepes - a broiled red snapper fillet in a similarly spicy and sour tomato sauce.

One of the prix-fixes Nasi Rames

Pixel side of life

On the pixel side of this blog there are two major art events that attracted my attention in a big way. The first one being Marina Abramovic's retrospective in MoMa. And the other one is Banksy's mocumentary Exit through the gift shop.

Completely different in both substantive and emotional effects, these two artists however have re-defined, in the span of over a quarter of century, what art is and how we perceive it. More over, they have re-defined the medium of art; Marina focuses on a human body, her own in many cases, and Banksy's fascination is with our body as a society. What makes these two artist share a common DNA is that both have made the viewer as much part of the art experience as the piece of work itself.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Pho Bang Restaurant

Vietnamese cuisine lives in a niche unoccupied by either Chinese or Thai cooking. Arguably the least divers of the three in terms of the ingredients and methods of preparation, it nevertheless can hold its own quite successfully. The flavors tend to be fresher, lighter and less complicated. Great emphasis is given to fresh vegetables and herbs. And there is of course fish sauce, a fragrant and tangy staple of Vietnamese cooking.

It is said that Vietnamese cooking is greatly influenced by Buddhist philosophy in general, and by the principles of five elements in particular. Vietnamese dishes tend to appeal to all five senses. The food presentation is colorful and attractive to the eye. The sound of crispness of fresh vegetables appeal to the ear. The combination of five spices, commonly used in Vietnamese cooking are detected by the tongue, and their aroma occupy senses of smell. The tactile experience is conveyed through the inner and outer texture of the ingredients.

Pho bang Restaurant - has got to be one of my favorite Vietnamese restaurants in New York. Located at 157 Mott St (between Grand & Broome St), along what used to be the border between swanky Soho and trashy Chinatown. Surprisingly, the place still has that old-school cafeteria vibe, complete with the elderly matriarch behind the counter, often shared communal tables, and still decent prices. The waiters, depending on a set of mysterious factors known only to them, might treat you either good or bad, but the food is consistently excellent.

My favorite is Banh Hoi Thit Bo Lui, poetically translated as grilled beef with sesame seasoning and rice thread. On the table the dish looks as good if not better than it sounds. It's a virtuosic exercise in color and flavor combination. First arrives a plate of lettuce and mint leaves, followed by a smaller plate of rice thread sprinkled with crushed peanuts. Rice thread is a thin square pancake made up of narrow rice noodles lightly packed together. Then comes a dish of dipping sauce, fresh cucumber and do chua - pickled carrots and daikon. Finally service culminates with a plate of fragrant grilled beef. Thin strips of beef, about an inch and a half wide, are rolled up into barrels about the thickness of a hot dog, marinated and grilled to perfection.

You are supposed to combine all ingredients and roll them up into a lettuce leaf. It usually takes me thirty seconds or so to ascertain the situation and to devise the best way to tackle the problem of wrapping. And I have to warn you - it's not an easy task. Things tend to unravel. The meat always slips out and cucumber and carrot sticks out in every direction after the first bite. First I thought the trick lies in the order of ingredients, but experiments have proved me wrong. Now it seems like it's the combination of packing and wrapping that holds the key. But I will soldier on until I get it . I have seen the Vietnamese do it. I know it's possible!

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Draniki - Potato pancakes

Draniki are considered something of a national dish in Belarus. The word "draniki" literally means shredded. And refers to the fact that potato before being fried is grated to a pulp or shredded. Latkes is an Yiddish moniker for the same dish. But in either case we're talking about a potato pancake.

There is something homey about potatoes. There are people that genuinely love potatoes, which enjoy a status of a staple food in many European countries. While I am not in love with this tuber, its presence on a plate, besides being a good and versatile accompaniment for many dishes, creates a certain warmth and comfort. I am however nearly infatuated with one dish, and that dish is potato pancakes. It started, like so many other things in life, with a breakfast.

Alright, let's backtrack a little and start from the very beginning. In this particular case, the beginning arrived around year 1985 in a form of a plate full of potato latkes, or as they are called in Belarus - draniki. Once a month or so my mom or dad would make them as a weekend breakfast and serve with fried onions or fried pieces of spec. It was otherworldly. Fried either in rendered bacon fat or, more often, in sunflower oil, these draniki had golden brown crunch on the outside and a smooth silky interior. Onions, cut into thin rings and fried with cubed spec added an entirely new dimension to an already perfect thing. Only later did I discovered that it is acceptable to add a side of apple sauce, but back then we tried to keep our sweet separate from our savory.

In my family recipe, thinly grated raw potato is mixed with salt, black pepper, eggs, and flour, which creates a slightly puffier and doughy pancake. However I found that grating potatoes on extra coarse grater allows you to forgo the bulk of the flour and creates a thinner and crunchier pancake. In addition to onions and bacon you can pair draniki with sour cream, smoked salmon or apple sauce. You can also add a pinch of rosemary to the batter before frying to compliment the potato.

Coarsely grated potato creates a thinner crunchier pancake.

3-4 Potatoes (medium size)
1 Egg
1 Tbs unbleached flour
Salt, fresh ground black pepper, rosemary to taste
Sunflower or peanut oil for frying

Peel potatoes. Grate using a small-hole grater. The rougher the tool, the crunchier and thinner the pancakes will be. If the puree turns out too thin, you may need to pour out a bit of extra juice. Before the potato starts to oxidize and turn pink, mix in salt, pepper, rosemary, egg, and a spoonful of flour.

Heat a cast iron or none stick pan on a medium heat until hot. Add about half a cup of sunflower or peanut oil and let it come to a temperature. Using a table spoon, scoop up potatoes and place in a pan. Be careful placing the mixture in the pan, as the liquid will splatter on contact with hot oil.

Fry the pancakes on each side until golden brown, about 3 minutes per side. You may need to add extra oil, as potatoes love oil and absorb it fairly quickly. Do not crowd the pancakes. When done, remove the pancakes and place them on a paper towel lined plate. Let the excess oil drip off and transfer to a clean plate.

Serve draniki with sour-cream, smoked salmon, herrings of all kinds, fried onions, fried spec or bacon, or apple sauce.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Alma de Cuba

My search for good food unexpectedly led me to Philadelphia. After doing a quick research on the Internet, and reading through an exhausting list on OpenTable.com I finally settled on Bibou BYOB. Unfortunately, this being a Monday (I guess, things are slow in Philly), the French restaurant was closed; so naturally, I went for the Cuban. Alma de Cuba had an attractive menu and what is more importantly an affiliation with Douglass Rodriguez, a nuevo Latino cuisine maestro whose Olá restaurant in New York I still remember and miss.

Overall food preparation showed promise and creativity. At least the thought was definitely there. But at times dishes seemed contrived - as if trying too hard to impress. The cuisine could definitely benefit from a more nuanced approach. One thing for certain, for better or worst, the boldness of flavor was always there.

Ceviche appetizer sampler was very good. Mixto was clearly the winner - it's flavors coming together perfectly. The second best was Yellowtail Kingfish - which leaned a bit too heavily Japanese. Peruvian Black Bass ceviche was unremarkable and almost mayonnaisee. The yucca fries overpowered the fish and left you with an aftertaste of an oily French fry.

Of course Douglass Rodriguez' classic Royal Palm Dates are a must-try. It's flavors combined effortlessly to produce a tasty and balanced dish. The bacon, just barely discernible, lent smokiness and rounded off the sweetness of the dates. Pulpo con Causa was nearly perfect - octopus grilled flawlessly with slightly charred exterior and tender flesh.

A real problem lied was with the entrees. Rum Cured Duck was a tad rubbery - evidently as a result of the lack of fat - the Heart of Palm side tasted of stale scallions as if it was left to sit there overnight. Duck Confit Fried Rice arrived burned and dried out and didn't taste like a dish but rather an overpriced version of trail mix with it's ingredients just tossed together at the last minute. Aji panca puree should not have been allowed on that plate no matter how authentic it might have been.

Sugarcane Tuna fared better - the tuna was cooked perfectly and served at a perfect temperature. The crust had just the right amount of spice and i think i even tasted cinnamon. Spinach and malanga puree created an excellent companion for the tuna. However the Escabache, very well prepared nevertheless, was overpowering with its sweet and sour punch. Maybe it could have been served better as a dish of its own, or a slight accent on the plate. A classic "less is more" illustration, it managed to deconstruct a perfectly balanced dish.

All that brings me to the final point. And that point is balance. It's OK to celebrate Latino cuisine with its bold flavors and bright colors. I get it. And too be honest, that part has become a cliché of its own and is already expected. But it's one thing to artfully bring two unexpected flavors together so that their interplay underscores each other's character, and it's entirely different thing to bombard your senses with a barrage of flavors and textures like a nouveau riche lover showering you with gifts. It's fun while it lasts but at the end it leaves you with a question - What the hell did i just have?