Category Archives: food

How to Buy Real Saffron in Morocco

Moroccan Saffron

Morocco is known for their abundance of spices, particularly saffron. Unfortunately, saffron is one of the most expensive spices in the world because of the enormous amounts of labor involved. (The purple saffron crocus harvest lasts only 1-2 weeks in the fall, and it requires 150 flowers to yield 1 gram of saffron threads.) I wanted to see if I could score a deal on saffron (compared to prices in the US), but of course, saffron is also one of the most widely faked spices on the market, so the challenge was on.

There’s lots of information online about how to distinguish real from fake saffron, but having worked with the real thing (and bought the fake version in a sealed container in Turkey), I was confident that my nose would not lead me astray. Real saffron has an intense and distinctive odor; if you can smell the product, it should be pretty easy to tell what you’re buying. If you stick your nose in the jar and don’t smell much of anything, you’re likely being sold safflower, which looks similar but has none of the flavor of saffron. Of course, this does not help first-time saffron buyers or anyone who doesn’t remember what it should smell like. If that’s the case, look for red threads with small bits of yellow on one end and a trumpet-like flare on the other end.

Spices in Tangiers
Continue reading How to Buy Real Saffron in Morocco

How to Stage/Intern/Trail at a Restaurant: The Right Way

Turkish Eggplants
Turkish Eggplants

Undeterred by how quickly I’d flunked out of my first kitchen, I immediately set about finding a new one. Maybe a pizzeria? Pizza is my all-time favorite comfort food after all. I emailed a neighborhood Neapolitan pizzeria and got no reply. What about a sushi restaurant? I stopped by a sushi restaurant and asked to apprentice myself to the chef; he didn’t even want to talk to me. (Wait, was this a hint that I should come back 300 more times?) I kept walking and strode into a Latin American restaurant, one that I knew was helmed by a chef-owner known to use seasonal and local ingredients. It was busy but not slammed, the kitchen was comfortably large and relatively cool, and the staff was friendly and encouraging when I explained that I’d like to come in as an intern. As I left, the chef’s mother caught my elbow. “I overheard your conversation just now, and he definitely takes students in from time to time, so I think it will work out!” Things were looking much brighter.

After a brief interview, Chef put me on the weekend brunch shift, or Saturdays and Sundays from about 8 am to 4 pm. It was the only time that would fit with my day job schedule, and gave me a little time at night to have a social life. The early mornings were challenging, particularly if my previous night was a late one. Though I wasn’t a coffee drinker, I quickly developed a reputation at the restaurant for drinking my coffee strong and black.

The other line cooks quickly tasked me with basic prep work, from picking herbs and dicing tomatoes to making pupusas. Really though, my first task was to learn to speak the language. And not just the usual kitchen slang. Much to my chagrin, Spanish had not been covered anywhere in culinary school, and this was by far one of the most important skills I could have learned. While everyone spoke at least some English, the lingua franca was definitely Kitchen Spanish. I quickly learned the words for ingredients like watermelon (sandilla), peach (duraznos) and honeydew (melon blanco). I memorized the shorthand for our menu items, and mumbled my ingredient pick-ups to myself as I put components together. Most importantly, I got a crash course in Spanish slang. Some of it was innocuous enough (“ya tu sabes” isn’t in any of the textbooks, but it means “ya’ll already know”), and some of it would curl your grandmother’s hair. We would jokingly call each other “marica” (homo/gay) or “vieja” (old woman), yell “mierda!” (shit), “puta madre!” (motherfucker) and “que putas?” (what the fuck?) when things went wrong, and if a particularly fetching woman walked into the restaurant, or even within 15′ outside, whistles and murmurs of “masota!” (hot babe) would ensue.

Meanwhile, the other line cooks were interested in learning Chinese. “Teach us!” they pressed me. My sous chef had actually spent a few years working at Chinatown warehouses, so much to my surprise, he already knew some Cantonese. “Hey, how do you call a white person? Gwai lo, right? But that’s not what they call Mexicans, they call us mak lo!” I grinned sheepishly as he continued on. “Leung seung dai gai! That means, two boxes of large chicken! But the best is pok gai (bastard, go to hell), you can use it for everything!” One day, I explained that in Chinese, zou gai (lit. to be a chicken) means “to work as a prostitute.” The other guys thought this was the funniest thing ever, and repeated it it all afternoon.

During opening hours, the soundtrack in the dining room was a safe, appropriately eclectic mix of Latin pop and lounge music. When the doors were locked though, the speakers would blare with Beastie Boys, “Turn Down for What,” reggaeton and the latest banda hits. What’s banda music, you say? It’s best described as Mexican polka music, folksy and singer-driven but always with a brass section. I quickly got familiar with my homeboys Alfredito Olivas, El Recodo and El Komander, who was described by NPR as the “Jay Z of Mexican drug balladeers.”

Tomato Heart

Oh right, you wanted to hear about cooking at a restaurant. Cultural stuff aside, I certainly polished my skills as a cook, particularly by asking lots of questions. “So, how do you make refried beans?” I asked my sous chef. “Well first, you take the can opener,” he cracked.
Continue reading How to Stage/Intern/Trail at a Restaurant: The Right Way

What’s It Like to Be a (Temporary) Vegan?

Vinny’s cheeseless veggie pizza

So, what’s it like to go from an oyster slurping, pork braising, cheese grating, cream swilling chef and eater to one that’s not?

It’s incredibly easy and hard at the same time.

For the most part, V-month was FABULOUS. Much better than the time I tried to drink Soylent for a week. Unlike Soylent week, which was mindnumbingly boring, I’ve had tons of room to experiment with new foods and flavors.

I’ve concluded that it’s best to understand vegan food as vegetable, fruit and grain based dishes, not meat or cheese imitations. For the most part, vegan alternatives are invariably not the same as the original, and this leads people to be uncomfortable about “weird” textures and flavors. We go down the wrong path when we tell people “you won’t miss X, you’ll love this (can’t possibly be the same as the original) vegan version instead!” The dish might be good on its own merits, but I can’t help comparing it to what I’ve had before. But when I don’t try to mimic meat dishes, there are no voices in my head trying to compare what I’m eating to something else. In other words, it’s better to get pizza without cheese than pizza with soy cheese, so that you can divorce yourself from your prior expectations. I’ve tried two kinds of vegan cream cheese so far, and while they were fine, mentally I never really got over that they weren’t the same as cream cheese. So I switched to just using hummus or peanut butter on my bagels.

On my own, I can stick to a vegan diet relatively easily. However, external pressures and social obligations complicate matters. On one occasion, I ended up at a bar near Penn Station for dinner, and pretty much the only thing I could eat was French fries and beer. (Wait, I guess that’s not really a problem.) It’s also awkward to say no when people offer me food. After a good friend made red-wine braised oxtail for dinner and invited me over, I had to say no. As someone who often gives food as a sign of care and affection, it feels terrible to turn down someone else’s offering, especially if it’s homemade. I told people at the beginning of the month that I was trying a vegan diet, but no one really remembered. For this particular dinner party, I ended up bringing my own food, which was a good compromise but I was lucky that I’d cooked ahead of time.

For the first time, I also have to read food labels carefully. It gives me a sense of what it’d be like to have a food allergy. Is that milk in the frozen naan? Why on earth would you put milk powder in gluten-free flour?

Vegan Mapo Tofu

What have you been cooking?

Lots of things! There’s the usual assortment of grain salads, beans and vegetable sides, but for me, the easiest jumping point is to cook Asian food, which is generally dairy-free already, and easy to make vegetarian. I loved these recipes for mushroom mapo tofu and braised eggplant with tofu. I also made time for vegan desserts (who says vegan means healthy?) and had a blast with this chocolate cake and these carrot cake cookies.

The seemingly Sisyphean task that I wanted to accomplish was to create a good vegan cheese sauce (read: one indistinguishable from your average cheddar sauce). I’ve been experimenting with a bunch of vegan cheese sauce recipes, and honestly, none of them are great when I compare them to actual cheese sauce. This recipe for vegan mac & cheese left me wrinkling my nose initially. However, if I tried to think of it as pasta tossed with butternut squash and creamed cashew sauce, then that changed matters entirely and I could enjoy it on its own merits.

One unexpected perk was that I could now swap food with vegan and veg-inclined friends, who tend to cook a fair amount out of necessity. I usually cook in massive batches over the weekend and end up eating the same thing for days afterwards. Suddenly I had more people to swap food with, and that was a nice communal experience.
Continue reading What’s It Like to Be a (Temporary) Vegan?

The V-Word, or Explorations with a Plant-Based Diet

Vegetable Stock Mirepoix

“I’m sorry, you’re doing what? Who are you and what did you do with my friend?”

“That’s cool…but please come back to us after a month, ok? Because seriously, if you don’t, there will be repercussions.”

“Oh that sounds awesome! You cook so much, it’s going to be really easy for you!”

Anyone who knows me knows that I like to eat heartily and adventurously. Is it spicy, smelly or squishy? Hand over a fork! What’s that, braised donkey? Excellent, we’re eating ass tonight! It also helps that I have the superhuman metabolism and appetite of a pro athlete (thank you daily biking!), so I’m pretty much always hungry and never say no to food. Which is why for the month of January, for the first time ever, I’m excited to be systematically stripping out large swaths of the food pyramid from my diet to go vegan. Wait, what?

There’s a number of reasons commonly cited for switching to a vegan diet: health, concern for the environmental impact of farming animals, ethics and so on. I’m familiar with the myriad arguments that are made around these issues and sympathize with all of them, but despite knowing all that I do, I still wasn’t compelled to give up an omnivorous diet. But what will my pork-loving Chinese family think? What if I take a trip to Argentina? But I work in the seafood industry, it’d be professional suicide to give up meat! What changed my mind was the realization that I could commit to a temporary stint as a vegan, and secondly, that there’s a ton of interesting innovations happening the alternative meat world (lab grown meat, cricket flour, better vegan substitutes). After all, I’m always eager to explore new techniques and ingredients, and by limiting my diet to plant-based ingredients, I will be motivated to learn just how delicious my food can be without reliance on cheats like cream, butter and bacon. If I can cook flavorful, interesting meals that will satisfy even a devout carnivore, I will consider myself truly talented as a chef.

Unlike my Soylent stint, which mostly elicited bemused curiosity and confusion, this time, the reactions from my friends ranged from enthusiasm to subdued apathy to outright hostility. Among the former camp were other folks who’d dabbled in vegetarian/vegan diets. Among the latter camp were folks who felt that my personal lifestyle choice was affecting their lives. I do tend to share food with people frequently, both in restaurants and from home-cooked meals, so I can see their point…but really, if anyone was going to be inconvenienced by my diet, it’d be myself. Even more interesting were the grumblings and fears that I might turn into a stereotypical PETA-flag-waving, fixie-riding militant vegan. The word “vegan,” it seemed, was anathema in my usual food-obsessed circles, synonymous with “hating fun” and “being judgmental.” So I began dropping the V-word and instead told people I was switching to a plant-based diet. Two sides of the same coin, but as any PR expert will tell you, it’s all in the delivery.

My mom was surprisingly supportive when I told her about my diet change, though perhaps in part because it was after the Christmas holidays and she wouldn’t be eating with me any time soon. After a few light warnings about eating plenty of beans (and not processed coincidentally vegan foods like Oreos), she started extolling the benefits of Buddhist veganism, aka what monks eat. In Buddhist philosophy, food is simply a type of life-augmenting medicine for your body, something that you eat in moderate amounts. In the same way that you would not take too much medicine, you would not overindulge in too much food (that would be sinful gluttony). Food is also not supposed to be too invigorating or exciting because you should eat with temperance. So, ingredients like onions, scallions, garlic and chili peppers are not used. And of course, alcohol is out. The end result is a cuisine that must walk a fine line between being not too interesting but not awful. “If you do this for a month,” explained Mom, “you’ll improve your fortunes and luck for the future!” Sorry Mom, I may be going vegan but I am definitely not ready to give up spicy food. So much for being spiritually purified.

I didn’t have much of a game plan going into January, but on New Year’s Eve, a vegan friend stopped by with a surprise gift, a copy of Vegan Soul Kitchen by Bryant Terry. Hold on, isn’t soul food traditionally pretty heavy on pork and butter, with vegetables being afterthoughts laced with bacon? I was intrigued. Terry studied at NYC’s Natural Gourmet Institute, whose curriculum has much more emphasis on healthy, seasonal cooking than the classical French butter-laced, gut-busting dishes that I’d learned at ICC. But in flipping the pages, I could see that Terry and I both agreed on some fundamental culinary truths. Namely: the importance of good stock.

As you read through the recipes in Vegan Soul Kitchen, you’ll notice that many of them call for various types of homemade stock. That’s right, no using store-bought vegetable stock as a shortcut, you must spend a couple hours making stock which will then be used for another two-hour recipe for what you actually want to eat. Prior to culinary school, I probably would have ignored all this and simply bought vegetable stock, but I know better now. There’s light-years of difference between homemade stock and the Tetrapack stuff, and homemade stock is a magical elixir that will add unimaginable layers of complexity and flavor into your final dish. So, step one of my vegan month: make vegetable stock.
Continue reading The V-Word, or Explorations with a Plant-Based Diet

Hack the Dish: Fung Tu’s Manila Clam & Black Bean Sauce Noodles

Manila Clam & Black Bean Sauce Noodles

A couple weeks ago, Serious Eats published an article on the clam and black bean sauce noodles at Fung Tu. They interview Chef Jonathan Wu and follow him step by step through a dish that is “a simple one, and easy enough for home cooks to adapt to their kitchens.” There’s enough detail in the article that you can figure out most of the recipe, but there’s no actual recipe published. (Not surprising, I don’t blame Wu at all for not wanting to make it that easy.) Moreover, the steps Wu follows make about 12 servings of noodles. I don’t know about you, but I usually don’t cook for quite that many mouths in one sitting.

Well, this sounded like a challenge. Could I figure out how to replicate the dish at home and adopt the recipe for say, four servings?

It helps that one of the key ingredients is manila clams, and I happen to be working for a company that sells manila clams. So after rustling up the other ingredients and doing some educated guesswork, I came up with the recipe below for the noodle dish.

My main problem was that more clam broth was generated than needed for the noodles. I ended up reserving about 1.5 cups of the broth and freezing it for later. If the full amount had been used, the noodles would have ended up far too soupy and salty.

The chili oil was also a bit of a conundrum, since Wu lists the ingredients that he uses (neutral-flavored oil, dried chilies, smoky chipotles, fresh chilies, garlic, confit shallots, fermented black beans and tomato paste) but no proportions. In the absence of any guidance, I simply made something up based on what I had already in my kitchen.

Those issues aside, the final result is quite wonderful: the salty punch of seafood, cut by sweet & tart pickled onions and a dash of smoky chili heat. It is more work than your average weeknight dinner (removing the clam meat from the shells is the most time consuming part), but it’s nowhere as labor intensive as most fine dining restaurant dishes.
Continue reading Hack the Dish: Fung Tu’s Manila Clam & Black Bean Sauce Noodles

Trailing at Gramercy Tavern

Gramercy Tavern Squid Ink Spaghetti
Squid ink spaghetti, grilled calamari, sesame, fresh green chickpeas (!), crisp, mussel broth, pepper flakes

“Fire four halibut.”
“Four halibut!”

A warm evening in May, and flowers were blooming inside the wood accented dining room of Gramercy Tavern. It was early for dinner, but students were already gathering with their families, a parade of graduation gowns mingling with power suits and little black dresses.

You know how sometimes things that seem totally unattainable become magically available when you just ask? I hadn’t even considered trailing at a restaurant the caliber of Gramercy Tavern, until a friend mentioned that he was pretty sure they would accept an intern, and he could put in a good word for me and find out. Sure enough, just a few days later, I was stepping through the swinging doors at one of New York’s classic arbiters for fine dining and good taste.

After signing a legal waiver and slipping into a jacket, I made my way upstairs to the pre-service staff meeting. Chef Michael Anthony was introducing Sean Barrett, founder of Dock to Dish, a cooperative of fishermen based in Montauk who distribute to restaurants and consumers. Dock to Dish supplies their catch to Gramercy Tavern, and Barrett was in house today to talk about his story and business model.

“I started fishing out of Montauk, and grew up on same day seafood,” Barrett said. “I wanted to make this available for a larger community, and I thought, how can we can catch locally and get it to the community? So, we founded a community supported fishery, and as a member, you’re entitled to whatever comes to the dock that day. We’re able to get you the top of the catch, and we subscribe to an ecosystem-based management approach. We use spear guns and rod & reel methods, but there’s no halos around any one method. Sometimes we use small boats, but we use larger boats in tough weather.

“I’ve always known Gramercy Tavern would be a perfect fit for us, with its focus on local sourcing and letting ingredients drive the menu, and I had Chef Mike on the top of my list. It’s no easy feat for a restaurant to receive whole fish, but the trade off is that you’re getting extraordinarily fresh seafood. That is definitely something we’re proud of. We’re thrilled to be working with Gramercy Tavern and Le Bernardin, and we’re a natural fit for them philosophically. Today, we’re partners with 10 restaurants and 100 community members. How do we keep this going for the next five years? By doing exactly what you’re doing, and demanding full traceability.”

There was a round of applause and a series of quick questions. “Ok guys, I’m sorry but we’re out of time,” said Chef Michael. “Write down your questions and I’ll pass them on to Sean!”

Gramercy Tavern mise en place

“Hi, I’m Duncan, the pm sous chef. Welcome to Gramercy Tavern.” He motioned for me to stand at the end of the pass. “Be careful where you stop, this is a good spot to hang out and observe the action.” I was hovering near a big tray of garnishes, sauces and other finishing touches. Sea salt, chives…was that chocolate sauce? Nope, olive paste.

Chef Duncan would be the dominant voice heard for that night’s call and response church service.

“Fire entrees. Flounder, black bass, cooked through.”
“Flounder, bass!”

“Can I get a spring salad and soup now? Allergies to peanut, soy, corn.”

I raised my eyebrows at this. Perez, the expeditor, whispered, “You ain’t seen nothing yet.” He’d been on expo for 17 years. “Back when I started, I was 40 lbs lighter, and I was handsome too!” he cracked. His job as expeditor was to monitor the flow and pacing of the courses that went out, working in parallel with the sous chef. Here beneath the bright, height-adjustable heat lamps reigned Perez in his home territory. Armed with a black Sharpie, he marked each ticket with its table number and times to indicate when a course was sent out, to ensure there wasn’t too long of a gap between dishes. Before each plate left the pass, he would inspect it to make sure it was clean, swabbing with a rolled cloth to clean up any errant sauce drips or grease spots.
Continue reading Trailing at Gramercy Tavern