Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Song of the Week: Champagne Supernova

Monday, December 27, 2010

TIC: Chopsticks

I love chopsticks. I’ve used chopsticks my entire life—I don’t remember ever learning, just doing, so when confronted with the daily use of chopsticks while living in China it was very easy to dive right in. One way to connect with a foreign country’s culture is to adapt their dining habits. Using chopsticks is fundamental to eating in China and connects the diner not only to the present meal but also to thousands of years of past eating in China.

It’s easy for some Westerners to make fun of chopsticks, but perhaps this is simply because they can’t master their use themselves. For example, Bill Bryson stated “I find chopsticks frankly distressing. Am I alone in thinking it odd that a people ingenious enough to invent paper, gunpowder, kites and any number of other useful objects, and who have a noble history extending back 3,000 years haven't yet worked out that a pair of knitting needles is no way to capture food?” And even the loveable Muppet Miss Piggy insulted chopsticks, noting that “You do not sew with a fork, and I see no reason why you should eat with knitting needles.”

But chopsticks are a very interesting way to relate with food. Rather than piercing and slicing, you gently pick up the food. It’s a much less violent way to approach a meal. Chopsticks also demand a certain degree of mindfulness when eating. It’s difficult to shovel huge amounts of food in your mouth when eating with chopsticks, so the smaller bites might as well be embraced. Note the flavor and texture of each mouthful before going in for the next bite. Enjoy the satisfaction you get from masterfully plucking an item from the dish and popping it in your mouth.

In her Chinese food memoir Fuschia Dunlop explains how the preparation of Chinese food and the use of chopsticks go hand in hand: “Chopsticks, used in China for two, maybe even three thousand years, make their own demands. Knives are almost never seen on the Chinese dinner table, so food must be tender enough to be torn gently apart with chopsticks, or otherwise cut into bite-sized pieces. At grand feasts, you may find whole ducks, chickens or pork knuckles, braised so lovingly that they melt away at the touch of a chopstick, but for everyday meals, almost everything is finely sliced or slivered.”

During one meal in China, a fellow student asked Wentao, our Chinese mom, if he was good at using chopsticks. Obviously expecting a different answer, he looked a little crushed when Wentao replied, “Hmm, not really. Your form is not very good.” Then she proceeded to analyze everyone’s use of chopsticks around the table, offering brutally honest criticism. But when she got to me she said, “Now Maya, you have good form.” Sweet. It was definitely a proud moment for me.

So what constitutes good form with chopsticks? Well, one aspect is the location on the chopsticks where you place your hands. Wentao informed us that only children and foreigners hold their chopsticks close to the pointy end of the chopsticks where you pick up food. As one gets older and more experienced, his or her hands naturally move up the chopsticks, further away from where you grab food.

There are also some basic rules to using chopsticks. For one thing, don’t impale your food with the pointy end of the utensil. Food in China is prepared so that you shouldn’t have to pierce your food, but rather pluck it lovingly from the dish. Sometimes a slippery dumpling can make this difficult, but try to avoid stabbing your food. Another taboo is sticking your chopsticks into a bowl of rice so that they stand straight up in the air. And when you are not using the chopsticks either lay them on the accompanying chopstick stand or on the edge of your plate.

With practice even rice, which many find difficult to eat with chopsticks, becomes easy to eat. Next time you sit down to a Chinese meal, abandon the fork and try out some chopsticks. And if you need pointers, check out these videos on how to properly hold and move chopsticks.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Thalamus Anyone?

I just got back from another fabulous meal at New World Bistro Bar in Albany, New York. They've introduced the new winter menu for the season, and everything was amazing. It was also the first time that my friend Natasha dined at New World--I'm pretty sure she's hooked.

One item we tried that was new for me was sweetbreads from the always tempting Forbidden Pleasures section of the menu. I was a little wary of this foodie dish--sweetbread is the name for various cooked gland meats of the cow or lamb, ranging from the pancreas to the thymus to the thalamus, which is what we dined on this evening. However, the cow thalamus glands were delicious. The texture was very normal--tender and tasty with no excessive fat or oil. The exterior was light and crispy, and the flavor was...almost indescribable. And the lemon caper sauce it was served with was divine. I didn't realize I was eating cow brain when I devoured the sweetbreads (though I had a sneaking suspicion that the thalamus was located in the brain), but the entire experience was delicious. I was impressed.

Another new item for me was the cow tongue that adorned our Catskill Smokehouse Charcuterie Plate. It tasted very much like corned beef, and I could definitely see myself eating tongue on a regular basis. Then again, you just can't go wrong at New World. We also tried some German pork sausage (the officially name was pronounced "Yukwurst" but I haven't uncovered the actual spelling. Perhaps Yachtwurst?) on the chacuterie plate--it was essentially meat butter. That's the only way to describe it. The meat was like a decadent cream, intense in flavor and smooth in texture. It was excellent when spread on the accompanying grilled rye bread with a smear of mustard.

I also had some amazing Blue Point oysters. I recently read the oysters taste better in the winter, and I think it's true. The flavor of the oysters simply exploded with each bite. There's nothing quite like a good, briny, eastern oyster.

Be sure to check out the new New World winter menu this season!

Blood Orange Cosmo

Blue Point Oysters

Catskill Smokehouse Charcuterie Plate

 Beef Tongue

German Pork Sausage

House-made Duck Liver Pate

Satueed Sweetbreads, Egyptian Style, with Babaganoush and Lemon Caper Sauce

Dessert Tapas Trio

Nutella Marscarpone Mousse

Chocolate Chevre Truffle Rolled in Chile and Cinnamon

Lemon Curd with Berry Compote

 Snowy Night in Albany

Be sure to check out my other posts on New World Bistro Bar:

'Tis the Season

A weekend of good holiday eating...

Seared Sea Scallops

Wild Rice with Garlic and Shallots

Steamed Snow Peas

Coffee with Egg Nog

Breakfast Sausages

German Apple Pancake

Beef Tenderloin

Green Beans and Carrots

Roasted Red Potatoes

Salad with Buttermilk Ranch Dressing

Dark Chocolate, Blackberries, Raspberries, and Whipped Cream

Quote of the Week: Primal Thrill

"Left in their natural environment, most oysters would be eaten by something; why shouldn't it be you? For all animals, life involves ingesting other life. That should be celebrated, and oysters are the perfect way to do it. You may not be ready to chase down a rabbit and kill it, but you can shuck an oyster, eat it, and get the primal thrill. It's like going native with training wheels."

—Rowan Jacobsen, A Geography of Oysters

Merry, Merry Pork Belly

For Christmas Eve (well, technically it’s Children’s Day Eve in our house, but that’s another story) dinner I prepared a decadent braised pork belly dish. Although I love pork belly, I’d never cooked it before so I checked out a variety of recipes online. After searching through many tempting concoctions, I decided to adapt this recipe for Japanese braised pork belly to my own liking.

1 pound of pork belly
1 tablespoon of chopped fresh ginger
¼ cup of chopped shallots
¼ cup of sake
¼ cup of soy sauce
Dash of Chinese five-spice

Sesame oil

For those of you who don’t know, pork belly is a cut of meat taken from the belly of a pig—you probably know it best in its incarnation as bacon. For this recipe you’ll want to start off with about a pound of pork belly and dice it into cubes. 

Next heat a large pot to medium high heat and placed the pieces of pork belly in the pot. Although there is enough fat on the pork belly to eliminate the need for oil, you can add just a little bit of sesame oil for flavor.

After about four minutes of sautéing the pork belly add a tablespoon of chopped fresh ginger and a quarter-cup of chopped shallots. Stir the ingredients together for about 30 seconds.

Turn the heat down to about medium and add three tablespoons of sugar to the pot, allowing the sugar to mix with the fat and caramelize. It’s important to keep a close eye on the dish at this point and not allow the sugar to burn. The sugar should turn a light brown color, but if it begins to burn it will ruin the flavor of the dish.

After the sugar has caramelized and coated all the beautiful little pieces of pork belly, add just enough water to cover the meat. Next mix in a quarter-cup of soy sauce, a quarter-cup of sake, and a dash of Chinese five-spice. Reduce the heat to low and allow the pork belly to simmer for about two hours. 

The results should be spectacular. If the liquid simmers away too quickly, just add a little more as needed. At our own dinner table, my “vegetarian” mom even took a couple bites of pork belly, and she loved it. How can you resist this tender, unctuous, savory dish? Merry, merry pork belly, everyone!

Wednesday, December 22, 2010


I recently met up with some friends to dine at August in the West Village. August is a nice little bistro-y restaurant located at 359 Bleecker Street that serves European fare. We started off with good conversation and delicious cups of coffee. I was impressed by the elective selection of music playing over the speakers at August—the music ranged from “The Sun King” by The Beatles, to Lou Reed, to that song that goes “I wish I was a little bit taller, I wish I was a baller, I wish I had a girl that looked good I would call her.” And to top it all off, the food that followed was incredible.

As soon as I saw “Grilled Lamb Belly with Tzatziki and Black Sesame” on the menu I knew exactly what I was ordering. Lamb belly? I never even knew that lamb belly was a thing, but I was pretty sure that I would love it. Apparently it’s the midsection of the lamb that is located just below the loin. It arrived in a cast-iron pan –a nice hunk of lamb belly encrusted in black sesame seeds and sitting pretty on a bed of tzatziki. The meat was incredibly flavorful and tender. It fell lovingly off the bone, and the warm meat juxtaposed nicely with the cool Greek yogurt tossed with cucumber and dill. The dish was also served with fresh dill and mint leaves. Absolutely heavenly. As my friend Phil described it, it was “dill-licious.” 

Annie ordered the tarte flambé—an alsatian onion and bacon tart with crème fraiche. It was another beautiful creation. The bacon was cut into thick pieces and it seemed like the onions had been caramelized. The tart was baked in a wood-fired oven, giving it a rustic and smoky quality, and the crème fraiche added a nice creaminess to the savory flavors.

Phil opted for the August burger, which had also tempted me when I perused the menu. The burger was topped with bacon, cheddar, and a fried egg, and it was served with smoky mayo and fries. There’s just something so sexy about a bright yellow, luscious egg yolk oozing sensually into the crevices of meat and bread. The meat was cooked to a nice medium-rare and the thick-cut bacon was perfectly crisp. It was definitely one of the best burgers I’ve ever tasted.

The smoky mayo was a high point of the meal. The mayo was smooth and creamy and each bite revealed subtle layers of smoky flavor. But where did the smoke come from? We asked our server and he told us that they smoke the oil first before adding it to the mayonnaise. However, he didn’t know what smoking the oil actually entailed. My guess was that they simply brought the oil to its smoking point, but when I did a quick search online about smoking points many websites claimed that bringing an oil to its smoking point makes the oil taste bad, and the mayo tasted amazing not bad. [Note: doing a Google search on “how to smoke oil” will return many results for how to smoke hash oil but very few relating to food] Despite not being able to figure out how the concoction was created, it was still the perfect condiment for dipping the crispy, salty fries in.

Lunch at August was a nice treat—what’s better than eating good food and catching up with friends? I would definitely head back to August again, and I know there dinner menu is even more extensive than their lunch options. I highly recommend August to anyone looking for a fine meal in the West Village.

August on Urbanspoon

Sunday, December 19, 2010

There'll be Parties for Hosting...

Every year I have a holiday party and celebrate the season with good friends, delicious food, and tasty libations. Here's some of the food highlights of this year's party...

Cheese and Crackers

Sausage, Peppers, and Onions

Gorgonzola-Stuffed Dates Wrapped in Bacon


Hot Peppers Stuffed with Meat

Feta and Olives

Veggies and Dip

Skanky Vodka Martini with Blue-Cheese Stuffed Olives

Baked Brie

Tate's Chocolate Chip Walnut Cookies

I saved the best for last. I just started referring to this dish as "The Creation" since I don't know what else to call it. Look at these photos--don't you just want to eat it up? Everything about it is sexy--baguette, butter, brie, proscuitto, and fig and walnut butter. If you want to know how to make this decadent, delicious, and indulgent treat, check out my friend Eric's blog, Open Wide, for the recipe. Everyone needs to experience a taste of this heavenly creation at some point in their lives.

Happy holidays everyone! Hope you are all eating well...