Category Archives: recipes

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.
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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.
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How to Carve a Sharkmelon

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I always thought it would be an earthquake that would be the end of Los Angeles. Or a meteor shower. Zombies even. Black plague. Aliens. But sharks? Come on!

If you aren’t familiar with Sharknado, it’s the made-for-TV movie about sharks that get caught in a hurricane and rain down terror on an unsuspecting L.A. I’ll be the first to admit this isn’t Citizen Kane, but if you enjoy so-bad-it’s-good movies along the lines of Snakes on a Plane, then you’ll probably like Sharknado. And if you don’t have a fine appreciation for the kind of movie that you drink to, then clearly you have misplaced priorities. 😉

After attaining cult fame and viral popularity, the SyFy channel wisely decided to make a sequel, called Sharknado 2: The Second One. This time, the sharknado would be hitting NYC. Sharks attacking New York from the skies? Now that’s something I totally want to see! I decided to throw a screening party and sent out an email, something to the effect of, “Let’s watch Sharknado 2. Because it’s muthafuckin’ sharks in a tornado, that’s why!” And of course, we needed shark-themed food. Enter the Sharkmelon.

I’d previously seen a Death Star watermelon, so I knew that the watermelon was a highly versatile sculpture medium. Lo and behold, there are plenty of examples of watermelon sharks on the Internet, and with this how-to video guide, I was soon on my way to sculpting the David of sharkmelons.

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First, you start with a watermelon and place it on a relatively flat surface. Usually, the melon has a lighter yellow side where it naturally rests and stays put. Take a large chef’s knife and cut off one end at an angle, so that when the melon sits on that end, it’s tilted.

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Next, cut a wedge out of the other end of the melon. This will form the mouth. Save the rind from this wedge because you’ll use it for a fin later.

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Score a line above and below the open wedge, so that it tapers to the corners of the mouth. Use a paring knife or peeler to cut off the green part of the melon rind. Be sure to leave the white layer behind because this will form your shark’s teeth.

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Hollow out the entire melon, using a melon baller, spoon or whatever else you have on hand. This part is the messiest and most time consuming, and you’ll probably have to wipe down your counter a few times as you scoop out the melon innards.

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After your watermelon is hollowed out, use a paring knife to cut out teeth. I tried to make the center teeth larger and then taper down the teeth in size toward the edges.

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On the back of the melon, you can attach a fin. Cut the rind that you saved from the mouth wedge into a triangle, and shape it so that it lies relatively flush against the watermelon’s curve. Use two toothpicks to attach it to the back of the melon.

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Add eyes to finish the sharkmelon’s face. I attached two blueberries using toothpicks. You can use a paring knife to scrape off some of the rind to create eye sockets. Fill the sharkmelon with fruit (watermelon or a mixture of melon and other berries) and enjoy as you watch film footage of the 7 train getting flooded by sharks!

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Naturally, for a well-balanced meal, we also needed a shark pizza (sharkzza?).

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And a shark cookie (which expanded a bit in the oven and now mostly looks like a cute goldfish).

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Best party mascot ever.

I’m Giving Up Cooking to Drink Soylent This Week, Here’s Why

All natural Soylent mix

Last month, the New Yorker published a piece on Soylent, a shelf-stable powder that can be mixed with water to become a meal replacement. “The End of Food,” the headline screamed, “Has a tech entrepreneur come up with a product to replace our meals?” Unlike Slim Fast and similar products, Soylent claims to be nutritionally complete, the only thing you’ll need to eat (er, drink) for the rest of your life (which hopefully will not be shortened due to diet). Also, it was invented by a bunch of young engineers who subsequently launched a successful Kickstarter campaign to manufacture Soylent for the masses. $755,000 later, we are that much closer to a humanity that doesn’t have to think about food ever again. This despite a name that was intentionally chosen for dark humor.

My gut reaction upon hearing the Soylent story was that it was a ludicrous idea. Why would anyone want to replace all of their meals with this shake? That would take all the fun and pleasure out of eating! The more I thought about it though, the more I started to see the appeal. As someone who loves food, cooking and works in the food industry on several levels, it’s hard for me to step away from my “Good food will bring world peace and cure cancer!” bubble. But I know for many people, food is a means, not a way of living, and it requires time, expertise and effort to craft meals three times a day. If you are cramming for finals and would otherwise drink soda and grab two dollar-slices of pizza, is Soylent such a bad alternative?

Click here to jump to the FAQs/read about farts.

So, I went to the Soylent website and looked at the ingredients. It read like the elements of the periodic table: choline bitartrate, manganese sulfate, chromium chloride, and on and on. As someone who cares about understanding what goes into my body, this was not reassuring. (Yes, I realize that when I eat “real” food, these chemicals are also going into my body, but I would rather they come from recognizable foods than be artificially produced in a factory.)

Also, it was expensive. A week’s supply (21 meals) was $85. That is actually much higher than the amount I usually spend on groceries each week ($20-30). I suppose if you factored in the cost of my pantry ingredients plus the amount I spend eating out at restaurants, I spend more than $85/week on food, but even so, this seemed like a large amount to spend on a product that was widely acknowledged to taste mediocre.

But what if I could make Soylent on my own? It turns out that there is a burgeoning DIY Soylent movement, with a rich variety of recipes designed for various needs (building muscle, losing weight, women’s health, etc). So, I set out to see if I could make Soylent on my own. And lo and behold, there was a recipe online for “All Natural Soylent.” I figured that if I could source all of the ingredients from the venerable Park Slope Food Coop, then it would indicate the quality and relative “naturalness” of my finished Soylent. It would also mean significant cost savings for me compared to buying Soylent directly.

Starting tomorrow (Mon 6/16), I am going to embark on a Soylent-only diet for one week. That means no solid foods, no alcohol, no cheating (I hope). I’ve never tried restricting my diet before in any manner, so clearly going cold-turkey on Soylent for a week will be a cakewalk.

Frequently Asked Questions

Natural Soylent Ingredients

What’s in this “all-natural” Soylent?

Milk, nuts, cocoa powder, dried spices, and other odds and ends, but primarily ingredients that you would know and recognize. Part of the appeal of using this mix was that any leftover ingredients I had at the end of the week could be used in regular cooking, whereas most Soylent recipes call for things like “GNC Mega Men Sport.” I ended up substituting a packet of Emergen-C for camu camu powder, since the Food Coop didn’t carry it, but since the recipe only includes 1 g of this, I don’t feel too bad about the compromise. Here’s the full recipe for a one day/3 serving batch, designed to give you 2,000 calories/day:

  • 5 cups 1% milk, Vitamin D-fortified
  • 55 g coconut sugar (potassium)
  • 45 g cocoa powder
  • 30 g chia seeds (fiber, protein and omega-3 fatty acids)
  • 75 g sunflower seeds (thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, B6, and folate)
  • 50 g hazelnuts
  • 25 g peanuts (niacin)
  • 10 g dried spearmint (vitamin K)
  • 5 g dried basil (vitamin K)
  • 10 g soy lecithin (choline)
  • 3 g iodized salt
  • 1 g Emergen-C powder (vitamin C)
  • 1 g paprika (vitamin A)

What’s it taste like?

Honestly, it tastes all right. The dominant flavors are chocolate and mint, so it basically tastes like minty chocolate milk, which would be really appealing if I only liked chocolate more. The texture is a little gritty but tolerable. If I work on my blender technique and experiment with blending the liquids and solids in smaller batches, I think I’ll be able to get a totally smooth shake. Or, if anyone wants to lend me a Vitamix blender, I’m all ears.

No really, why are you doing this? Why are you kicking puppies and taking all the fun out of food?

Anyone who knows me knows that I LOVE to eat. Moreover, I cook frequently and do it well. So I don’t think there’s any question that I’m lacking the skills or motivation to make my own meals. However, I also REALLY love efficiency and good time management. Right now, I spend a good chunk of my time planning meals, assessing my kitchen inventory, grocery shopping, prepping and cooking food. If I freed up that time, what could I do with an extra 5-10 hours each week? That idea excites me immensely. Can you imagine what you could accomplish with that block of time?

I’m also doing this as a social and psychological experiment. What’s it like to eat the same thing every day? I certainly don’t lack for options in NYC, but there are people in developing countries who can’t afford a diverse diet. How do I explain what I’m doing to my friends, family and coworkers? I tried to block off a relatively quiet week for my Soylent diet, so that I could avoid missing out on parties, work events, etc. Of course, it didn’t work out that way, and I’ll definitely be forced to drink my Soylent while at public gatherings. But that’s fine, I’m happy to share my story, even if I come off as a bit of a kook. More importantly, I hope my experiment will inspire some radical conversations about why we eat what we eat, and why the idea of Soylent feels so repulsive and icky to people…or not.

Wait, I heard Soylent makes you burp/fart/[unmentionable effects on your gastrointestinal system] a lot?

Prolific flatulence does seem to be one of the most “dangerous” side effects of the Soylent diet. This is probably because most Americans (97%) don’t eat enough fiber. So when you suddenly start eating the proper amounts of fiber, your system may have some trouble adjusting.

I’m not too concerned about this (though maybe my coworkers should be) because I already eat tons of leafy greens and whole grains, but there’s only way to find out what happens when I’m hitting the minimum recommended fiber level…

Will Soylent be healthier than what I normally eat?

Here’s a one-week snapshot of what I usually eat. In red, I’ve marked the meals which were from restaurants or that I otherwise didn’t make and don’t truly know what went into the food. I am a firm believer that homecooked meals, where you can control exactly what goes into your food, are better for you than food made in commercial settings. (Though I also recognize that some homecooked meals, including my own, can be just as unhealthy/even tastier than restaurant meals.)

Diet Diary

As you can see, much to my chagrin there is a lot of red. This was a week where I attended several events after work, and also had leftovers from Szechuan Gourmet from when I treated my mom and aunt to dinner. So I didn’t do a ton of cooking for myself that week. Weekend mornings are also tough because I’m working as a line cook, which means I end up cramming leftover food scraps into my mouth while I work, then eat at the end of my shift around 4:30 pm.

Without running a full nutritional analysis, I have no way of knowing how healthy my normal diet is, but it’s probably a bit high in fat and not nutritionally complete.

Will I save money by drinking Soylent?

I mentioned above that I felt buying Soylent was expensive, so how does making Soylent compare in terms of cost? I ran the calculations for my version of Soylent, and it comes out to $2.01/meal, which is definitely cheaper, about half the cost of buying official Soylent. If you bought all of the ingredients on Amazon, it would be just a bit more, about $2.75/meal.

Soylent Cost

So that’s that for now. I will be posting throughout the week with updates on the Soylent experiment, whether it’s worth the time savings, cost savings or health benefits, and any other unexpected effects. Stay tuned!

Truffle Lobster Rolls: Because you deserve a treat today

Truffle lobster roll

Here in New York, the weather is finally starting to warm up and our thoughts are wandering to sunny beaches and dockside escapades. With that in mind, what better summer treat is there than a hefty lobster roll made with healthy amounts of butter and mayo? (Yes, I realize that lobster rolls are typically made with either mayo (Maine) or butter (Connecticut), but here in Brooklyn, I’ve decided it’s ok to use both.) For an added dash of sophistication, I added some truffle oil to the mayo, but you can leave this out if it’s not on hand. You could also use store-bought mayo, but homemade mayo is SO much better in flavor and not difficult to do, so if you’ve never tried it, here’s your chance.

For the lobster meat, you can either boil a whole lobster and remove the meat from the shell, or use pre-shelled lobster meat. I’m lucky to have frozen shelled lobster meat on hand from work, which is perfect for lobster salads, bouillabaisse, lobster mac & cheese, and of course, lobster rolls. If you have the ingredients ready, lobster rolls come together in a matter of minutes, so there’s plenty of time for you to grab a cold drink with your other hand and enjoy the sunset.
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Recipe: Swedish Cinnamon Rolls

Swedish cinnamon rolls

While I was in Sweden, I fell in love with the cinnamon rolls that are ubiquitous in their bakeries and cafes. Buttery pinwheels laced with cinnamon and crunchy pearl sugar, and a hint of cardamom to add an exotic depth not seen in your monstrous American Cinnabon.

Unfortunately, when I looked at recipes for Swedish-style cinnamon rolls, many of them were for massive batches (30-40 rolls?!) or in uncomfortable European measurements (deciliters). Baking is already fraught with volume vs weight peril as is, and I was hesitant to follow any one recipe. So, as is usually the case in situations like this, I analyzed several recipes and came up with some averages in convenient quantities.

Essentially, you make a sweet bread dough with caradamom and let it rise for about 90 minutes. Then, lightly flour a clean counter and roll the dough out into a thin rectangle, about 15″ x 20″.


Cover the dough sheet with a layer of buttery and sugary goodness. This filling should be a little paste-like, not too runny.

Next, fold the dough like an envelope in even thirds.

Using a long knife, pizza wheel or dough scraper, cut long strips of dough about 1/2″ wide. I was able to get eight long strips, and then subsequently cut each strip in half to make smaller buns.

The tricky part is mastering how to twist the cinnamon rolls into knots. After doing some research (thank you, Youtube!), I discovered Martin Johansson, a popular home baker in Sweden who has published some books and has excellent videos demonstrating how to make cinnamon rolls.

Here’s the twist-and-spiral method:

Here’s the slightly more complicated loop-around-the-finger-and-over-the-top method:

I probably watched these videos a dozen times. Be gentle as you handle the dough, as it is quite stretchy and pliant.

When you have finished twisting your cinnamon rolls, lightly brush the tops with egg wash and give them a good sprinkle of Swedish pearl sugar (or another coarse white sugar). Into the oven they go!

The following recipe makes a manageable batch of 8 large cinnamon rolls or 16 mini-sized ones, which is what I prefer.
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