Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Snow day treats part II: Consider Sriracha Sauce

While I am on the subject of yummy snow-day treats, I think that a great way to get warm is to eat something hot. And I don't just mean temperature hot, but a burn-your-mouth-and-your-gut-additively-spicy hot, courtesy of Sriracha sauce.

My family has been eating Sriracha sauce since I was in elementary school, and it finally seems to be trickling out into the mainstream. Sriracha has been popular amongst the Asian-American community since the 1980's, and you can now find it in suburban grocery stores and even Applebees serves some sort of shrimp with a Sriracha-infused dipping sauce. When Sam Sifton of The New York Times asked several prominent chefs what they always had in their fridge, Sriracha sauce was right in there, along with eggs, dijon mustard, and full-fat Coca-Cola, in case of hangovers (best cure on the record!). And Sriracha was in this week's New York Magazine's Approval Matrix, which I always find hilarious, yet charmingly astute.

I just snarfed down a delicious bánh mi sandwich at Hinco's in Cobble Hill (Bergen Street & Smith), covered in Sriracha of course, to beat the chill that comes with tromping through slush and snow. Vronsky became addicted to Sriracha after having it every day with my grandparents out in California last spring. It is currently the only thing he has in his fridge, minus a few stray packets of ketchup and soy-sauce. My Po-Pop and Gung-Gung always put it on lo-mein and anything that is leftover. It really will make anything taste better! They say that at their age, nothing has taste like it once did, so the sauce gives it some zip. Po-po also says this is why she only likes to drink scotch versus beer, wine or another sort of liqour, ha. Me too, Po-po. Me, too.

But Sriracha has an interesting back story that helps explain some of its mass appeal. Sriracha is manufactured by Huy Fong Foods and was "invented" in 1984 by David Tran, the founder of Huy Fong, who admits he is both proud of the products popularity and slightly bemused. Hung Foy gets fan mail and fan calls everyday, from people who are suggesting new ways to use the sauce (on multigrain snack chips in lieu of salsa), or a drunk guy who can't even pronounce Sriracha in his current state and just yells "I LOVE ROOSTER SAUCE." (Sriracha's packaging has almost remained unchanged in its 30+ years: clear red bottle, several different languages printed on it, from English and French to Chinese and Vietnamese, all setting off a giant rooster).

Many chefs regularly admit to using it as a "sleeve trick," and Sriracha is now even carried in Wal-Mart after hiding in Asian grocery stores and metropolitan "ethnic food aisles" for years. It is now part of chain restaurants like PF Chang's, and is in food/street meat carts from New York to LA. Yet Tran never had such a broad fan base in his sights when he created Sriracha.

He maintains that he created the sauce with the Asian-American community, especially the Vietnamese community, in mind. He felt that even in America, they would be yearning for hot sauce to put in their pho, the beef-broth and noodle soup that I, too, adore. And yet he did not want to make an exact copy, and drew on many different Asian flavors and techniques. The name "Sriracha" comes from the Thai town, Sriracha, which is know for its home-made chili pastes. And the Sriracha bottle includes serving suggestions for everything from pho to hot dogs, hamburgers, pizza, pasta and sauces to give it a nice bite.

Tran had always toyed with chili and pepper sauces, and when he finally struck on the winning combo of chili, sugar, salt, garlic and vinegar, a world-wide phenomenon was born. People dress up as Sriracha bottles for halloween and their are fan clubs that are hundreds of thousands strong.

I should qualify all of this and say that I am not a huge spicy food fan. I have never really taken to tobasco or jalapeno peppers, yet this is exactly the right kind of "heat" for me. Pick up a bottle today and see if you too will be converted!

Monday, December 27, 2010

Savory snow day treats

For all of you living in California, Florida or more temperate climes, you may have read in the news about the intense snow storms up and down the east coast the past few days. From Charlotte to Boston, there are several inches to almost several feet of snow, leaving many people stranded, hopefully at home at not on a train or subway or airport.

Me? My flight back to NYC was canceled so I have two more glorious days at home, lazing about in my fuzzy pj's, drinking hot tea or a nice malbec (depending on the time of day), reading, and getting creative in the kitchen since no one wants to bother with going to the store.

If you have been a follower of this blog, you already know that my family makes pizza for Christmas instead of a more "traditional" meal. My mom and I favor lots of veggies and tomato sauce with minimal cheese and perhaps just a sprinkling of ground beef sauteed with onions, garlic, ginger, and soy sauce. My dad on the other hand, piles his so thick with peperoni, ground beef and cheese that it takes twice as long to cook and is almost 3 inches high after cooking, when supposedly everything has settled.

Well, there is always an interesting smorgasbord of leftovers once the pizzas have been finished. There's always a plethora of the beef and onions left over, as well as diced peppers and mushrooms and hopefully a tomato or two that hasn't been sliced. Unfortunately, sliced veggies never seem to stay crisp the next day, so we'll either put them in an omelet or make a modified frisee salad. Here is an excellent recipe, courtesy of Saveur. It reminds me so much of what Vronsky and I would eat when we were in Paris. We'd have that salad or haricot vert for lunch each day to make up for the fact that we had had champagne, eggs and lovely rich coffee for breakfast.

We usually don't have any bacon on hand in our house at home, although we always have eggs. If we had bacon, it would be eaten by my dad in one sitting. One year, I got him a "bacon of the month" club membership from Zingerman's, and my mom yelled at me. (Are you trying to kill him or what?!). Fortunately, the ground beef makes a nice substitute, and and the egg and always crisp frisee makes up for the fact that the peppers and tomatoes are getting a bit limp.

I often try to perk the peppers up by soaking them in some cold water for a bit, but the tomatoes tend to be beyond salvaging. If you have any hints, let me know! Otherwise, I just cover them in some balsamic glaze and eat them with a glass of red wine.

I also love making my own hot chocolate, heating some milk, semi-sweet cocoa powder, cinnamon and sugar in a saucepan. I have contemplated melting-down a Hershey bar in the past when we ran out of cocoa powder due to my sister baking enough chocolate cookies with white-chocolate chips and macadamia nuts to feed an army, but my mom said that if I ruined her pan she'd kill me, so I desisted. After all, we're trapped in the house all together, so it is probably best to keep the peace at all cost.

Rice is always in plentiful supply, and we've made a nice dent in our 15 lb sack to eat with my mom's delicious brisket, which takes 2 days to make and keeps for nearly twice as long.

There's also tons of charcuterie lying about, courtesy of several gift-baskets our family had been sent for Christmas, and while we've run out of proper toast points, baguettes and farmhouse bread, I admit that they are not half-bad with a Triscuit! Plus, my mom bought a huge wedge of Manchego cheese and some delicious gouda from the Netherland's to go with it while she bought a dozen bottles of wine as Christmas gifts for various acquaintances.

The one thing missing is a steady supply of fresh fruit. We've worked our way through bananas, our stash of apples, the cantaloupes and the Edible Arrangement Vronsky set to my parents. I suppose we should make plans to venture out at some point though, if only to cash in on the gift cards and take advantage of some sales!

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Simply the Holidays

A few years ago, Pegasus published a marvelous little book entitled Provençal Cooking: Savoring the Simple Life in France by Mary Ann Caws. I absolutely loved working with Caws on this charming combination of memoir, cook book, mini-travelogue, and philosophical treatise on the joy of living simply.

Complex does not necessarily mean better, whether it is food, prose, art or music. Sometimes the most pleasing meal is one that is the simplest to prepare and maybe only has a few ingredients. When Caws lived in Provence, she lived without electricity in half her house and no plumbing. Needless to say, she had to completely revamp her approach to cooking. It's much easier to make do without a modern kitchen when you are in the middle of the French country side and you can walk right outside your door and partake of the fruits of the earth (and perhaps your neighbors vineyard), versus in, say, a budget NYC apartment, which might have plumbing an electricity, but the stove and oven are patchy at best and your closest thing to local produce is a pack of Marlboros and a bag of Fritos from the vermin festooned mini-market around the corner.

But what I found the most appealing in Provençal Cooking was Caws' call for simplicity. In today's world, almost any one at some point will bemoan the fact that their life is too complicated. They are trying to be too many things to too many people. I have certainly felt that way from time to time, and it usually rears up in instances of feeling inferior because someone else has managed to start a non-profit that is about to spear-head a cure for AIDS, published a collection of poetry, qualified for the Boston Marathon, is a classically trained oboist, a volunteer at the ASPCA, and has managed to bake a pie from scratch and bring it to the church pot-luck. Meanwhile, I'm standing there with a plate full of uneven slice-and-bake cookies because I could not get my sh*t together in time to make anything better.

Perhaps I am the only one who feels this way, yet I have a feeling that I am not alone. It seems like the holidays bring out this feeling more than any other time of year. There is the stress of giving gifts and perhaps preparing the holiday meal. Family can certainly make this worse more often than they make this better, and while there are always pithy little sayings like "Christ is the Reason for the Season" or Linus' monologue that are bandied about to try and calm us down, I find that the best way to savor a bit of simplicity can be through food.

Whether you celebrate Hanukkah or Ramadan or Christmas, if you look back to the basic rituals of these faiths' social foundations, you find an extremely simple meal. Whether it is Jesus breaking the bread and sharing it with his disciples over some wine, fish and challah bread on shabbat, or bread, fruit and stew after a day of fasting, these meals are completely no frills but nourishing in every sense. And they are all meant to be shared with people, as holiday meals are today. Communion is always meant to be taken with your spiritual community, the sabbath meal is traditionally the family's main gathering point for the week, and the sunset meal iftar is an incredibly social occasion, with people meeting at family homes or mosques. There was no prize for who could make the best bread or bring the most exotic fruit. It simply was not the point. You were there to share the food with those you cared about and reflect on what mattered most to you--the simple, often blessed, things that should be remembered but often get lost in the complexity of day to day life.

Remembering the roots of this whole crazy season, no matter what faith, helped me keep my sanity this year more than ever before. Between work, family and social obligations, I had been sleeping on top of my laundry for several days because I literally could not find an hour to put it away. But what made me feel even better than an extra hour of sleep (or even putting my clothes away), was the twenty minutes I spent making icing last week.

Every year my roommates and I host a cookie decorating party, and while my designs are probably the worst of the bunch and I spent most of my time this year trying to keep my new puppy out of trouble, there was something really lovely about standing there, idly chatting over some B-grade white wine, mixing sugar and water. I had not spent any real time with them for weeks, and I had had this nagging feeling for months that my friendships, more than anything else, were being neglected at this point in my life. Wedding planning can do that, but it doesn't mean it should. But finally, here we were, playing with sprinkles and candy cane crumbles, slathering icing onto sugar cookies. It was simple, it was delicious, and it finally felt like Christmas.

Monday, December 6, 2010

The Early Bird Special at Maialino

It is a running joke between Vronsky and me that I like my men like I like my wine: full-bodied and furry. While he's actually on the side of quite slim and really not that hairy, I really do like spicy, tannin-laden wines, and the wine I had tonight at Maialino, the restaurant that is a part of the Gramercy Park Hotel, was just that. It was a Sicilian wine, "Fastaia," and the perfect complement to the Roman cuisine we stuffed our face on at 5:30pm, because we could not get a reservation at any other time.

I was actually alright with that, as my day was so crazy that I literally did not have a moment to eat lunch, so by 5:00 I was starving and the fact that suckling pig was the house specialty was music to my ears. But first, I had to gorge myself on the delicious sampling of bread and olive oil that graced the table. The oil was a bit too salty for my own personal preference, but the bread was so perfect that I actually preferred it alone.

Then came the salumi mista, along with a generous sampling of olives, which Vronsky does not like, so I got to relish them all myself. The salumi station is actually next to the bar, so you could see the meat being sliced with loving care. After reading how salumi was made in Bill Buford's Heat, I appreciate the explosion of taste in each bite even more.

Next, I had the agnolotti di zucca, which was essentially pumpkin ravioli with balsamic and pine nuts. It was delicious, but not not original, and I had a better version of that same dish at another Danny Meyer restaurant, Union Square Cafe. Vronsky's dish however, the bucatini all'Amatriciana, was excellent. The spicy tomato sauce was just that: spicy and tomato-y, and the bucatini was perfectly al dente. There was just a bit of Guanciale to give it some richness that cut the brightness of the sauce a wee bit.

Then came the suckling pig, which is not for the faint of heart or stomach. It is incredibly rich and the fat is almost as thick as the meat. As someone who is used to the Cantonese style of pig or duck in this manner, where the fat is almost completely rendered, seeing that snowy layer of fat just under the crackling was a bit surprising, although it does make everything delicious. In the end, however, I separated the fat from the meat and crackling and went to town. It is rich and flavorful and the roasted brussel sprouts were the palate cleanser.

For desert, we managed to make room for the torta sbrisolona, an almond and apple crumb cake with caramel gelato. Pure heaven for someone who loves anything pie-like, fruity or nutty. Round that off with a bit of espresso, and I can't wait to come back for the early bird special again!

Do not be intimidated by the location of the restaurant. While it certainly is not cheap, it is not necessarily expensive for a night out, as the portions are Continental-sized and served family style, so go with someone who is willing to share and you'll be able to try lots of things within a fair price range.

Next time, I would like to try a different secondi (I can only take suckling pig once every year, if that) and I would also like to try a more authentically Roman past dish, which tend to not be as saucy as the country Italian fare and more egg-based, like the bombolotti alla Cricia, which is pasta, egg, some Guanciale (unsmoked Italian bacon), and pepper. I would also love to try a cheese selection as well...I could scare enjoy my espresso because I was eyeballing the cheese tray of the people next to us, but my stomach was simply too full!

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Girl crush: Christina Hendricks

Christina Hendricks rules. Not just because she's a great actress, super sexy, and comes off as funny, warm and witty, but she's quite the foodie too! I won't spoil this great interview with New York Magazine's Grub Sreet, but I will pre-empt this and say that I should have a girl-date with her. She likes scotch neat, I like scotch neat. She likes goat cheese, I like goat cheese. She can cook a New Years dinner for 40-50 people, I cannot do that, but would like to hear all about it! Her hubby bakes delicious bread, and Vronsky can make a mean bowl of cereal. See! We're totally destined to be besties.....