Archive for November, 2007

Ode to Orange Vegetables

Sweet Potato Fries

As you know from my recent posts, Jim and I had a wonderful vacation in Singapore. But sometimes as we sweltered in the island’s always-hot, sticky air, I longed for Brooklyn. To be more specific, I longed for Brooklyn in the fall.

I wanted to walk through the rust-hued leaves littering the sidewalks and feel their satisfying crunch beneath my feet. I missed my green wool coat and hefty, comforting scarf, both patiently waiting for me in the closet. I was ready to hide under my grandmother’s pink hand knit blanket while the wind whistled outside.

But perhaps most of all, I missed some of my favorite seasonal foods: butternut squash soup, sweet potato fries, pumpkin pie. Hearty, healthy, and brilliantly orange, the vegetables in these dishes embody cozy fall cooking at its best.

I have already told you about my recent pumpkin pie experience. Two weeks earlier during a grey Sunday afternoon I roasted two butternut squashes and puréed them into a spicy soup from Patricia Wells’ Vegetable Harvest. I even threw in half a rutabaga, because I had received one from my CSA and was thrilled to find a purpose for it. I spent the next three days happily sipping the sunny, silky soup until every drop was gone.

Later that week I moved on to the sweet potato fries. When I made them last year using this recipe from Giada De Laurentis of the Food Network, they tasted fine, but were much too soggy. I decided to abandon Giada (please, it had to happen) and go my own way to unleash the crispiness I knew lurked within those potatoes.

Sweet potato fries are easy to make, and what I have written below barely qualifies as a recipe. Whatever you’d like to call it, it resulted in some meaty, crispy fries, the best I’ve ever made. This elemental dish celebrates more than simple flavors. It announces the arrival of Autumn and the joy it brings me every year.

And now I’ll go back to eating my clementines. Because, you see, I like orange fruit almost as much as orange vegetables.

Recipe for Sweet Potato Fries

  • 5-6 sweet potatoes, cut into 1/2-inch strips
  • olive oil
  • salt

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Cover a cookie sheet with tin foil. Spread the sweet potato slices in a single layer. If you have an olive oil sprayer, spray a bit of oil onto the fries. Stir them so that all are very slightly coated with the oil. Do not add too much olive oil; this is very important. Sprinkle the potatoes with salt, and stir again. Bake the fries for about 45 minutes, stirring them very carefully after the first 15 minutes and then every 10 minutes. Serve with ketchup or mayonnaise. I made Giada’s garlic mayonnaise, and it was quite wonderful. Enjoy!

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Pumpkin Pie D’Oh!

Mixing the Foolproof Pie DoughSeparating the cooked pumpkin from its shellMixing the fillingThe sad crust

Thanksgiving is over, and the deluge of December holidays will be here before I’ve fully recovered from it. In addition to the frenetic shopping, traveling, and gift-swapping that await me, there’s cooking to be done. And in the world of holiday baking, ’tis the season for Cook’s Illustrated’s Foolproof Pie Dough.

Published in the November/December issue of Cook’s Illustrated magazine, this recipe has been the talk of message boards and food blogs, with bakers everywhere producing stunning and tasty pies. I first experienced dough-related success back in October, when I used the recipe to make Cook’s Apple-Cranberry Pie. The revolutionary addition of vodka to flour, salt, butter, vegetable shortening, and water created a malleable dough and wonderfully flaky crust. So when I promised my mother that I would make a pumpkin pie for our Thanksgiving feast, I knew exactly which recipe to use. The good people at Cook’s, always thinking of everything, had generously posted a single-crust version of their foolproof recipe on their website.

With the pie crust mentally taken care of, I turned my thoughts to the filling. In the past I’ve made a perfectly good pumpkin pie using canned pumpkin purée. I’m not ashamed to admit it. But this year I decided to challenge myself and make my purée from real pumpkins. A quick stop at Whole Foods after work on Monday loaded me down with two sugar pie pumpkins, and I envisioned two leisurely days of pastry making, pumpkin roasting, and pie baking.

What is it about time management that I will never understand? On Monday evening I made my dough and placed it in the fridge to use the next day. What I should have done next was roast the pumpkins, so that I could quickly assemble the filling from The Joy of Cooking the following night. Somehow I decided that watching television was a much better idea.

I am sure you can imagine how the next evening turned out. After roasting the pumpkins, pre-baking the pastry shell, mixing the filling, burning my left arm, and baking the pie, it was 11:30 pm before the pie was finished and I could go to sleep. Sweet, sweet sleep.

But I didn’t experience the satisfied slumber of one who has cooked a perfect pie. Oh, no. You see, my pie was ugly. Somehow the crust had cracked during the pre-bake, and filling oozed around one side of the pie. I also misunderstood the crimping instructions, and didn’t trim the edges of the dough enough; the crust crumbled off every time I shifted the pie’s position. Transporting the pie to Yonkers on Metro-North was an altogether separate, distressing adventure.

Thanksgiving Pumpkin Pie

By the time my bedraggled pie appeared on our Thanksgiving table, I could only hope that at least it tasted good. And it did: The filling was light, airy, and full of fresh pumpkin flavor, the crust appropriately flaky (at least in the spots where the filling hadn’t leaked around it). Lucky for me, whether I give them a jewelry box made of popsicle sticks or a sad-looking pumpkin pie, my family is always proud of me, and will usually eat whatever I make for them. And for that I give thanks.

And next time, I will give more time to my pie.

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Singapore, Part IV: Little India

Hindu Temple on Serangoon RoadJust so you know, this will be the final post about my Singaporean sojourn. I could probably write one or two more entries about the place, but to tell you the truth, I’m ready to move on. I’ve gotten over my jetlag, I’ve been spending more time in the kitchen, and with Thanksgiving just days away, I’m now in the mood for stories about cozy home cooking. But first let’s visit Little India before we turn back to Brooklyn.

One of Singapore’s largest ethnic neighborhoods, Little India is a feast for the senses. A walk down Serangoon Road leads you past numerous restaurants emitting rich aromas of curries and spices; crowded jewelry stores displaying elaborate yellow-gold designs in their windows; and clothing shops selling flowing garments of intricate needle- and beadwork. Jim and I happened to be there during Deepavali, a Hindu festival celebrating the triumph of light over darkness, which infused the normally bustling atmosphere with a festive air. At nighttime, Little India’s narrow streets glowed with electric lights illuminating the way to Serangoon Road’s intricate and beautiful temples.

Before I tell you about the food, I should admit that in the past few years I haven’t been a big fan of Indian cuisine. It’s strange, because I used to eat it quite often, and I don’t really know why I stopped. But since Jim loves it we gamely ventured into a few of Little India’s restaurants. And surprisingly I rediscovered my appetite for Indian food.  Sometimes love does bloom the second time around. Here are two restaurants that rekindled my flame for this delicious cuisine:

North Indian set menu at the Banana Leaf Apollo, Little India, Singapore

 

 

The Banana Leaf Apollo: OK, I’m just going to say it: I did not try the fish head curry. Yes, I know it’s the one dish you’re supposed to try at this popular restaurant. I know it’s mentioned in all the guidebooks. But I just couldn’t eat a fish head. You see, I have this phobia of eyeballs…and that’s all I need to say about Fish Head Curry. But Jim and I ordered some other wonderful dishes, sampling from both the North and South Indian parts of the vast menu. Warm naan helped scoop up the vegetables in our North Indian set menu which included yellow dhal, fried cauliflower, and pureed spinach (8 SGD). There was even a cute little bowl of tomato soup. All were generously flavored with exotic Indian spices, yet somehow each retained their natural essence. I truly couldn’t get enough of them, even though I had already filled up on savory chicken biryani (8 SGD). I spooned this mixture of tender meat and rich rice onto a wide banana leaf for easy access and devoured it from all angles. Eating off a banana leaf really is quite convenient; I should do it more often. Undecurrents of clove, bay leaf, and various other spices infused this comforting dish, and I cannot wait to try it again. 48 Serangoon Road

Dinner at Lagnaa in Little India, Singapore

Lagnaa: My boss discovered this restaurant during his trip to Singapore two months ago, and I had promised him that I would try it. (No, I wasn’t afraid he would fire me if I didn’t go. The man simply has good taste in food.) Lagnaa offers bare foot dining, something I hadn’t noticed in many of the other restaurants we passed. So we left our shoes at the entrance and walked up to the 2nd floor into an oasis of calm. Tables are set close to the floor, and we sat upon pillows for our meal. On the advice of our waitress we started with the Chicken 65, tender pieces of fried chicken seasoned with garam masala and a complex mix of spices (8 SGD). For the multitude of spices in this appetizer, the chicken still tasted sadly bland to me. I was much happier with my yellow dhal tadka, a gentle, smooth dish of lentils cooked in butter, onions, tomatoes, garlic, and cumin (4.5 SGD). Raw red onion added a fresh crunch to the pureed texture. The keema matter, a rich mix of minced mutton, green peas, and a gravy of Indian spices filled us with its satisfying heft (8.5 SGD). And once again, we ate so much of the wonderful naan that we had to request a second helping. The atmosphere was so peaceful that I practically had to drag Jim out the door; he didn’t want to leave! No. 6 Upper Dickson Road T: 65 6296 1215

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Singapore, Part III: Laksa

Laksa from 328 Katong Laksa, Singapore

Have you ever tried something once and fallen in love with it, only to be disappointed the second time around? No, I’m not talking about your ex-boyfriend or girlfriend. I’m still writing about food, specifically the sad tale of my laksa letdown. 

It all began as we sat under the night sky at Lau Pa Sat with our Singapore-based friend Susanna. Jim and I asked her what other local foods we had to try during our time on the island.

(I love talking about “our time on the island.” It sounds so very Lost. Seriously, I cannot wait until the new season starts.)

After a short pause Susanna said, “Laksa. And you have to go to my favorite place, 328 Katong Laksa. It’s the best.”

Although I was having an intense satay experience at the time of this conversation, I immediately became excited at the mere thought of Peranakan laksa. I had tasted a spoonful of this rich, coconut milk-based soup the previous week during a work-related lunch. With that one sip, my taste buds were hooked on its spicy broth and smooth rice noodles. Now I couldn’t wait to indulge myself with an entire bowl.

A few days later Jim and I hopped in a cab and drove out to this famous yet unassuming storefront in the eastern suburbs. When the steaming bowls arrived at our table, the spoons were filled with crumbled laksa leaves, which we stirred into the soup right away. Then we started eating. (Slurping is more like it, but that really doesn’t sound very elegant.) Sweet coconut milk and spices such as chilli and galangal created a soothing broth with a mild undercurrent of heat, while broken rice noodles, bean sprouts, and small shrimp added welcome texture. I’ve since learned that these short rice noodles, which eliminate the need for chopsticks, are specific to the “Katong” style of laksa.

Here’s where my story takes a melancholy turn. Because if I were to be honest, I’d have to say that I left 328 Katong Laksa feeling slightly underwhelmed. For some reason I had expected a more powerful punch from this local dish. My lunch from 328 Katong Laksa seemed too mild, too gentle in comparison to the rich broth I had so briefly tasted the week before.

Had I idealized my first sip of laksa? Was I now doomed to wander the earth searching for the perfect bowl? Eh, there are worse things. I’m up for it.

328 Katong Laksa, located at 216 East Coast Road. Bowls of laksa cost about 3SGD each.

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Singapore, Part II: Chilli Crab

Chili Crab at Long Beach Seafood Restaurant, Singapore

You cannot leave Singapore without trying chilli crab. I think it might be an official law or something. And as we all know, in Singapore you don’t want to break the law, especially one as delicious as this.

I first tasted chilli crab at Long Beach Seafood Restaurant during another trip to Singapore back in January. Basically it’s an amazing mess of fresh crab meat drenched in a soupy, spicy sauce of tomatoes, eggs, and chilli paste. Long Beach uses giant Sri Lankan crabs and serves them in their already half-cracked shells. As soon as I took my first bite, I could only think of one thing: I had to drag Jim and his spice-craving taste buds back to try it. And nowhere else would do. Long Beach Seafood Restaurant, with its fun, family-style setting on the East Coast Seafood Center waterfront, is the perfect place to get crabby.

And saucy. Eating chilli crab is a true immersion process, as the orange gravy always insinuates its way into every pore of my hands while I wrestle the meat out of its shell. After about 30 napkins I’m forced to give up and turn my attention to the fried, dense buns called mantou that accompany the dish, using them to sop up the silky sauce.

A quick note about napkins: As we walked around Singapore, many people tried to give us small packs of tissues printed with various advertisements. At first I wondered if my nose was running, but then I realized that there was a more practical inspiration behind this promotional blitz. Restaurant owners and hawker center vendors supply only one sealed, wet napkin at the beginning of each meal. After that, you’re on your own. So hold onto those free packs of tissues. Believe me, you’ll need them.

By the way, Jim loved the chilli crab. Did I call it or what?

Located at 1018 East Coast Parkway, T: 6445 8833. There are a few other outlets of Long Beach Seafood Restaurant around town, but this is the original. Crabs are priced by the weight.

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Singapore, Part I: Hawker Stands

Lau Pa Sat, Singapore

Getting over my jet lag has taken longer than I anticipated. But after a week of waking up at 3:30 am and then falling asleep on the couch at 8 pm, I’m feeling refreshed and ready to share the details of my food adventures in Singapore. And believe me, there’s a lot to share.

One of the most exciting food experiences on this small, hot island is eating at a hawker stand. In the “olden” days, Singapore was full of push cart vendors, selling their tasty wares all over town. But in recent years the government has mandated that the hard-working purveyors should be grouped together into more modern food complexes, with cleanliness and hygiene controlled by strict regulations. Some people lament that the atmosphere of the original rickety stands has been lost to government controls, but as a fan of good hygiene, I say, let’s eat!

Hawker centers are everywhere in Singapore: Grouped under steel awnings at busy intersections; inside the ubiquitous malls as modern-day food courts; or outside of residential apartment complexes. In general, the food is fresh, well-prepared, and a much better deal than you would receive in a restaurant. And wherever you go you’ll find crowds of hungry Singaporeans passionately enjoying their food. Chinese, Malay, Indian, it doesn’t matter. Singapore is a country of diverse cultures, but everyone seems to have one common obsession: food.

With advice from the Makansutra, Singapore’s revered guide on street food, and the message boards at Chowhound, Jim (who flew out for the second week of my trip) and I were well-equipped for some intense research. Don’t worry, we also branched out and made our own discoveries. Here are our favorite hawker center experiences:

Char Kway Teow at Newton Circus, SingaporeTiger Prawns at Newton Circus, Singapore

 

Newton Circus Food Center: Sometimes criticized as the most tourist-friendly of the hawker centers (what’s wrong with that?), this clean, bustling complex is nonetheless known for its seafood stalls. During our nighttime visit, Jim and I shared a large plate of Char Kway Teow from Thye Hong Fried Prawn Mee & Char Kway Teow, stall #58. A popular local dish of wide, chewy noodles sweetly fried with eggs, sprouts, prawns, and squid, they were worth the hype they received in the Makansutra. We quickly learned that fast (street) food in Singapore has an air of civility that you won’t find at your local McDonald’s. Even though you wait in line and order food directly from each vendor, the wait staff will bring it to your table when it’s ready. The main event of our evening came from stand #70: tiger prawns. These massive grilled shrimp, covered with fresh, cooked garlic and served with lime, were just what we needed to complete our meal. However, seafood in Singapore is priced by the weight. We thought we had received a bargain, only to realize we owed much more. No matter; they were worth every Singapore dollar. Located at the northern end of Scotts Road

Satay at Lau Pa Sat, Singapore

 

Lau Pa Sat: Located in the middle of the financial district, Lau Pa Sat houses vast hallways of diverse and aromatic food stalls. But if you’re looking for satay, those tasty bits of marinated, grilled meat on a stick, come after 7 pm. That’s when the surrounding street is closed off for satay vendors and their steaming carts. The only stressful part is choosing from the enthusiastic and vocal vendors. Jim and I and his co-worker Susanna went with the mutton, chicken, and prawn satay varieties, all grilled to tender perfection right in front of us. They were served with raw onions, sliced cucumbers, and a thick, peanuty sauce. But we didn’t stop there. We moved on to grilled stingray, another local favorite. Fresh, clean, and spicy, this seafood dish cured all of our fish phobias, and had us reaching for more. By the way, don’t forget your Tiger Beer18 Raffles Quay, near the intersection of Raffles Quay and Cross Street

Chicken Rice at Maxwell Food Court, SingaporeChai Tow Kueh (Carrot Cake) at Maxwell Food Court

Maxwell Food Center: The two dimly-lit, narrow alleys of Maxwell’s small stands offer everything from noodle dishes and wonton soups to fresh fruit juices. But Jim and I had one goal for our lunch excursion: to try “chicken rice,” Singapore’s so-called “national” dish. Chicken rice is simply tender poached chicken served over rice cooked in chicken broth. Nothing more, nothing less. We joined the long line at Tian Tian Haiwanese Chicken Rice, stall #10, which has been visited by none other than Anthony Bourdain. The rice was firm and fully-flavored, the chicken moist and clean. The comfort level of the dish can be shaken up with the addition of chili sauce, adding a tangy accent to this subtle meal. With some room left in our stomachs, we settled on a serving of Chai Tow Kueh, fried carrot cake. In this dish, white radish is fried into a spicy, gooey mass of pure comfort, with fresh scallions adding a welcome crunch. We went with the “black” style, which means the radish was fried with sweet black sauce. Junction of South Bridge Road and Maxwell Road, at the edge of Chinatown

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Book Review: Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant

OK, it’s 2:30 in the morning and I cannot sleep. I arrived back in town on Saturday night, and with daylight savings and the 12-hour time difference between New York and Singapore, I am having the worst jetlag ever. Ever. So, instead of tossing and turning all night, I figured I would come out to the living room and post this book review I wrote while on breaks from work in Singapore. Once I sift through my notes (the insomnia should help this happen sooner rather than later), I’ll be back with details regarding all the amazing food I ate there. But for now, let’s talk books. . .

When I heard about the new book Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant: Confessions of Cooking for One and Dining Alone, I quickly reviewed my own memories on the subject. The most vivid ones are of the solo dinners I have eaten during my work trips abroad. During my first few trips I was filled with anxiety as I approached any restaurant, dreading the moment when I’d shyly hold up one finger to demonstrate to the host that yes, I was alone, so stop looking at me and get me a table. . . Please?

Now I have no shame walking into restaurants by myself, and sometimes I actually enjoy it. There are worse things in life than eating a wonderful bowl of pasta in Italy by myself. Apparently, many people out there in the world agree with me. In Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant, editor Jenni Ferrari-Adler brings together a diverse group of writers whose unique perspectives on cooking for one and dining alone examine how joyous the experience can be.

The book opens with Laurie Colwin’s essay “Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant.” It touches on many themes that appear throughout the book: How one manages to cook anything at all in a tiny New York City apartment kitchen; how we indulge in unconventional foods when no one is looking (see Ann Patchett’s thoughts on saltines in “Dinner For One, Please, James,” and Jeremy Jackson’s love for black beans and cornbread in “Beans and Me”); and how we often return to those foods for comfort.

For Colwin and many of the other authors, eating alone in a restaurant or at home is a celebration, a time to indulge themselves and their native desires. But other writers in the book, such as M.F.K. Fisher in “A is for Dining Alone” and Haruki Murakami in “The Year of Spaghetti,” point out the lonely nature of these circumstances in achingly real essays.

Some of my other favorite stories include Phoebe Noble’s “Asparagus Superhero,” about the author’s efforts to eat asparagus every day (in a brave move, she doesn’t shy away from discussing the mysterious nature of asparagus pee) and Ben Karlin’s hilarious “The Legend of Salsa Rosa,” which shows how a meal in Italy can change your life. Some of the authors have even shared their special recipes at the end of their essays.

(On a side note, it’s fun to read how Marcella Hazan and Paula Wolfert, in their essays “Eating Alone” and “My Favorite Meal for One,” like to keep it simple when preparing meals for themselves. Sometimes even the grandes dames of cuisine don’t feel like cooking.)

The book ends with a bittersweet essay by Colwin’s daughter Rosa Jurjevics, who has taken food traditions from both her mother and father and made them her own. I think that’s the point of the book: Cooking and eating for one can lead to moments of freedom and revelation, even if it can feel pretty lonely sometimes. By the end of this book, I wanted to have dinner with everyone who contributed to it. But I’ll settle for keeping it close at hand, where I can reach it on a night when I’m dining alone.

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