Philly Bargain: The Restaurant School at Walnut Hill College

This past Saturday Sarah and I went to the Restaurant School for dinner. She had a tough week and needed to be treated. We had often thought about checking this place out, with its $21 three-course prix fixe for the European Courtyard French Menu. For those who don’t know, the Restaurant School is a culinary institute between 42nd and 43rd on Walnut St. in West Philly [where: 19104]. In addition to the school itself, it has two restaurants, a bakery and a market with sandwiches. The restaurants and the stores are run by the students under supervision from instructors. There are some rough edges, but overall we had a good time and a good meal. Read the rest of this entry »

Six Month Anniversary Dinner: Fall Spiced Pork Chops with Spinach and Apple; Stuffed Heirloom Tomatoes

Sarah and I celebrated our six-month anniversary of marriage with a nice dinner and some wonderful home-brewed beer made by Sarah’s best friend Kara, which we aged for six months.

I was inspired by Ida Mae’s Bruncherie to do a fall pork chop dish. Theirs is applewood smoked but I do not have a smoker, so I had to improvise a bit. Earlier in the day we went to the Headhouse Market and bought two thick grass fed pork chops, some apples, heirloom tomatoes, some raw milk Parmesan cheese and some spinach.

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Giwa: Satisfying Korean Food for Winter Days

bibimbap

When we lived in New York City, I went to school and worked at the City University of New York (CUNY) Graduate School and University Center, more commonly known as CUNY Grad. One of the nice things about working there, which offset the constant annoyance of tourists (the Grad Center is on the opposite corner of The Empire State Building), was that the area is filled with really good Korean restaurants. They vary in price from cheap to very expensive. Our favorite was Mandoo Bar, which served up wonderful dumplings and noodles. I hadn’t really had great Korean since we moved to Philly– until Giwa opened up down the street from where I work.

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Mofongo!

I was excited about this dish.  It’s a Puerto Rican side dish of African origin, basically a cake of fried plantains, chicharrones and garlic all mashed together and smothered in delicious tomato sauce.  When we lived in Ridgewood, Queens, we had a couple of Puerto Rican and Dominican places down the block that served wonderful, wonderful versions of this.  (If you’re in the area, try Jorge’s on Seneca Ave., right under the Seneca M stop.  It’s the one with the purple neon lights in the windows.)  You can also get it with chicken, or with whole garlicky shrimp on the side.  They’re all delicious, and in our neighborhood the going rate for a cake of mofongo bigger than the two of us could finish was about $3.50.  Did I mention it’s gluten free?  I must have eaten this stuff three times a week when I first went on the gluten-free diet.   We often had it on the side with some pollo a la plancha and rice and beans, but just as often we’d eat it on our own.  Filling! Cheap! Gluten-free!

Mofongo is probably the dish Joe and I have missed the most since moving to Philly.  We tried a $15 version at Mixto but were unimpressed, so we decided to make our own.  I looked up a couple of recipes but didn’t find anything quite like I remembered, so we decided to pretty much wing it.

Mofongo:

3 green plantains, sliced diagonally

6 cloves garlic

1/2 cup crumbled chicharrones, fried fatback or bacon, cooked

Olive oil and salt to taste

Fry the plantain slices until they soften.  Crush garlic and grind in mortar and pestle with olive oil and salt.  Add all ingredients to food processor and pulse in short bursts until the plantains are in small pieces.  (Do not puree.  If it’s a paste, you’ve gone too far.)  Pack tightly into a bowl or small ramekins to shape.  Warm in oven on low heat until ready to serve.

Sauce:

3 cloves of garlic

2 Cups of chopped cherry tomatoes (I used green, yellow and red)

One medium onion chopped

Two chilli peppers or japalenos roasted, peeled, seeded and finely chopped. 

One cup of chicken stock

Four scallions chopped

Salt and Pepper to taste

Heat olive oil in a high-sided pan or pot on medium high heat. Add onion, saute for a couple of minutes. Add garlic and saute until soft but not brown. Add tomatoes and stir. Cook for a couple of minutes and add the scallions and chillies. Reduce heat to medium and cook for 10 minutes. Add chicken stock. Increase heat to high. When it begins to bubble, reduce heat to medium low and simmer for another ten minutes. Use a stick blender or pour liquid into a blender. Blend until you have a thick but soupy consistency. Put back on stove on low heat and add salt and pepper to taste. At this point you could add a bit more stock if is is too thick. You want it to be easily pourable yet it should adhere to the mofongo.  Also, you can cut down on the chillies if you don’t want it blazing hot.

Our execution:

We bought three green plantains, but our first surprise was that two of them ripened really quickly.  OK, so we’d be unorthodox and mix green (savory) and yellow (sweet) plantains in our mofongo.  So far, so good.  Joe pounded some chicken cutlets flat, rubbed them with adobo seasoning and threw them on the grill.  He fried up some bacon and some fatback (since we can no longer just go to the corner butcher for a cone of hot chicharrones), and threw together a tomato sauce.

Meanwhile, I sliced the plantains and fried them until they got soft and a little bit brown.  Then I attempted to mash them with a masher, but they just got stuck in the grooves of the masher, so I threw them in the Cuisinart with the pork.  I muddled some garlic, olive oil and salt with the mortar and pestle and threw that in as well.  A few pulses later, it looked like mofongo.  It smelled like mofongo.  And it tasted like mofongo.  Score!

Since we didn’t really have a good mold for a big mofongo cake, I pressed the mixture into ramekins to make little single-serving cakes.  We served them piled with Joe’s improvised tomato sauce and some chopped fresh scallions, and the chicken, for a bright and colorful meal.  (Sadly, my camera ran out of batteries!) The sauce was much, much spicier than the thin, savory sauce we loved in Ridgewood, and the plantains were sweeter.  It wasn’t exactly like the Ridgewood version, but it was damn tasty.

And then I had a nasty allergic reaction, the details of which I’ll spare you.  I have a long history of negative and scary interactions between my immune system and my gut and have been diagnosed with all sorts of things (see the FAQ for a Cliffs Notes version), and this was the first bad experience I’ve had since my recent stay in the hospital.  I made it through half a serving of mofongo and then was pretty much destroyed for the night.  I’m not sure which ingredient declared war on my body, but I’ll definitely be discussing this at my next doctor’s appointment.

But!  The good news: if you’re not a freak like me, this dish is quite tasty, and much easier to make than I expected it to be. 

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Siu Mai (Steamed Shrimp and Pork Dumplings)

OK, I’ve done a second Chinese recipe, and I have to tell you, this is fun.  Maybe it’s just because it’s a novelty for me, but I’m really enjoying using techniques like stir-frying and shaping dumplings.  It’s just a good time in the kitchen for me. 

Last night we made siu mai (or shu mai), a steamed dumpling that’s become quite popular in the US.  You can get it at most Japanese restaurants (it’s not as common in American Chinese restaurants, though its origins are Chinese) or frozen at Trader Joe’s.  This is another recipe from the Eileen Yin-Fei Lo book.

Well, I say last night, but it was a two-day process.  It’s not difficult, but the meat needs to marinate overnight.  For the meat mixture, you are mixing diced shrimp (peeled and deveined, please!), ground pork and diced shiitake mushroom caps.  The marinade is a mixture of peanut butter, dark mushroom soy sauce (Best! Condiment! Ever!), sesame oil, Chinese cooking wine, rice wine vinegar, sugar, pepper, salt, and cornstarch.  It’s supposed to have an even consistency, but mine was pretty lumpy so I took it for a quick spin in the Cuisinart.  I put it in a covered bowl and let it sit overnight in the fridge.

The next day is the fun part: shaping the dumplings.  Lo gives instructions for the dough, but she also advocates buying fresh dumpling wrappers if available, so I picked some up at the Chinese supermarket.  I suspect that the wrappers I bought may be a bit bigger than what she was going for, though, since the recipe says it makes 36 dumplings and I got 16.  My siu mai looked exactly like the pictures in the book, only bigger.  Eh, what are you gonna do? 

So, shaping the dumplings.  The dumpling wrapper is a thin, circular piece of dough.  Take that into your left hand, and with the right scoop out a good bit of meat filling– three or four tablespoons, I’d say.  Smooth it onto the wrapper, and then use your fingers to fold and shape it.  You’re creating a little basket shape that’s open on top, and you want to flatten the filling on top so it all cooks evenly.  I used a cookie sheet to hold them while I was making them, and tapped the bottom on the cookie sheet so it was flat and stood up on its own.

Next, steaming time!  The recipe calls for 7 minutes in the steamer, but since they were big we did 10 minutes.  We steamed four at a time and they came out perfectly done and fragrant.  We put some dark mushroom soy sauce on them and oh my god, were they delicious.  The mushroom flavor was dominant, but shrimp and sesame were prominent too.   When they start to cool down, the dough starts to toughen a bit, so these are best eaten piping hot.

The great thing about these is that they freeze really well.  Once we’d eaten our fill, we let them cool and then froze them for about two hours on a cookie sheet, just enough to let them solidify.  Then we wrapped them up, put them in a ziploc bag and put them in the freezer for a rainy day!  Lo says they’ll last for about two months, and to heat them up you just need to steam them for 3-5 minutes. 

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Roast Pork Buns (char siu bao)

Philadelphia is blessed with a vibrant Chinatown. I’ve written before about Chung King Garden, but last night it was all about the bakery. We stopped at a little joint on Race at the corner of 10th called Hong Kong Bakery. [UPDATE: this has since become one of our favorite spots in Philadelphia. Try the coconut bread for $1.50 a loaf!] It had a selection of bubble teas and shakes, of which I’m dying to try the durian shake. There’s also a small bakery case with a fairly typical selection of bao, or buns, with different savory and sweet fillings. They’re cheap, usually less than a dollar each, and surprisingly filling.

There’s lots of great stuff– coconut buns, thousand-year egg buns, lotus buns– but the addictive glory is to be found in the roast pork buns. These little beauties are the Cantonese answer to the barbecue sandwich– oh, but there’s so much more to it than that.

The selection of English-language information on the history of Chinese cuisine available on the internet is pretty thin, so I’m hoping to flesh this out a bit once the big honking Chinese cookbook I ordered arrives. My knowledge of Chinese food and culture is extremely slender. My knowledge of the history of immigrant populations in the US is a bit better, so this analysis focuses on that.

First of all, the bun. It can be steamed, baked or fried, but steamed is traditional. It’s about the size of a hamburger bun. The dough is slightly sweet and usually coated with an egg wash to get a nice golden brown sheen on top. The filling varies, but the basic ingredients are barbecued pork and chopped onions. They’re often suspended in a sweet, dark pink sauce.

The beautiful bun has recently been the target of calumny: a newswire story about Chinese bakers putting chopped cardboard in their pork buns was shown to be a fraud. Does anybody else find the Chinese food-adulteration panic just a wee bit racist? I mean, it’s grounded in legitimate concerns, but it also plays on the long-standing stereotype that Chinese people eat gross things. (Which is why I have a problem with the whole premise of ‘Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern,’ but that’s another post.)

The Worldwide Gourmet provides some background in the form of legend (though couched in some extremely unfortunate language):

On six successive occasions Liang successfully repelled the fearsome barbarian tribe commanded by Meng Huoh. The seventh time, both parties having fought honorably, Meng Huoh bowed before Liang’s strategy and wisdom. Everyone joined in the great march back to the Shu kingdom. On the way they came to a river. According to barbarian tradition, in order to cross the river a human life first had to be sacrificed and the head thrown into the water to ensure that the current could be safely crossed. Liang, in his great wisdom, did not wish to kill an innocent man, since his ghost could return to claim other victims, and so he ordered his cook to prepare a large steamed round loaf shaped like a head which he threw into the river. Everyone made it across without incident. Since that day, and for a long time afterwards, little steamed buns were made in the shape of heads, more oval than round. These buns are called “mantow” or “mantou” which phonetically is the same word, referring both to buns and the heads of barbarians!

Other sources put the date closer to the tenth century, during the Sung dynasty, when the dim sum tradition became popularized by the teahouses that catered to Silk Road travelers.

In Hong Kong, dim sum is generally served in the morning up until midday. Dim sum came to the US with the Chinese diaspora. Chinese workers have been in the US since it was founded; during periods of rapid expansion, they were encouraged (not to mention tricked or forced) into immigrating to the US to work as laborers and miners, particularly in the booming gold mining industry. The Transcontinental Railroad in particular was built largely by Chinese workers. However, as the 19th century wore on and workers all over the US began organizing and demanding their rights, the US ruling class responded by using Chinese workers as scapegoats. (It wasn’t the robber barons’ fault that wages were so low, you see, it was the ‘Yellow Peril’ undercutting American workers and depressing wages! Sadly, that logic still works for racist politicians today.) In 1882, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, legalizing discrimination against Chinese immigrants and limiting their further entry into the country. (You can read a great San Francisco Chronicle article on its effects here.) The act was not repealed until 1943.

Chinese food, however, began its rise among the non-Chinese population in the US in the 1890s, when fashionable urban types began eating chop suey. (The origins of which are disputed, but everyone agrees it’s an entirely American dish.) Various iterations of Chinese cuisine eventually became part of New York City culture, as Chinese ideas about food met and mingled with Italian, Jewish and other influences on the Lower East Side, and from there the food Americans now know as ‘Chinese food’ was exported around the country. Today, every town that has a dot on the US map has a Chinese restaurant, and almost all of them serve this Americanized version of Chinese food. In the Chinatowns found in major cities, though, Chinese food is still made for the tastes of immigrants from China, and you can find restaurants specializing in specific cuisines (Szechuan, Fujianese, etc., as well as dishes from Taiwan and Hong Kong). This is where you’ll find dishes with real spice and flavor, meats and ingredients that challenge American tastes (jellyfish, anyone?), fresh handmade tofu and noodles, and, of course, roast pork buns. If your Chinatown is particularly diverse, you may also be able to find some of the many ways in which the roast pork bun has been adapted to other Asian cuisines, like those of Vietnam, the Philippines, Macau and Hawaii.

That’s why I love Chinatowns, all of them. New York City continues to lead the American palate down exciting new roads, and I hope the next few years will bring more Chinatown cuisine to the rest of the country. Life is too short for us to waste our time on bland General Tso’s.

What’s that? You’d like some recipes? Of course you would:

One “Lady Gwenhwyvar Lawen fitzHerbert APF, OW” (if that is her real name!) has posted a short history of dim sum with some tasty-looking recipes.

Jessica at Su Good Eats tried two recipes (with great photos).

Homey Cooking also provides a recipe.

Enjoy! And don’t forget to

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Pork chops cooked with whole spices and tamarind juice; Maya’s Potatoes with Yogurt

It’s a lazy Sunday in Fishtown, Mythbusters is on the tube, and the weather is cooling off. Time for some nice Amish pork chops and potatoes. I was raised on meat and potatoes; this is just a more interesting variation.

First of all, you have to get good pork chops. We get ours at L. Halteman Amish Foods in the Reading Terminal Market. The preparation is really easy– time-consuming, because of all the simmering, but not difficult. (Which is actually a common theme in the dishes I’m making.) You heat just enough oil to coat the bottom of your stockpot, and brown the pork chops. Jaffrey says to do this in two batches, but I was halving her recipe– she called for 8 pork chops, and there are only two of us. Still, I had trouble fitting all four pork chops until they cooked down and shrank a bit. Brown them, take them out, put them on a plate for a minute. Put in two whole garlic cloves, a cinnamon stick, a couple of dried red peppers, and some cloves, peppercorns and cardamom pods. Fry for a few seconds and then add a bit of salt and a cup of water. (You have hot oil going here, so I’d really recommend shielding yourself with the pot lid while you do this.) Re-introduce the pork chops and simmer for half an hour, turning occasionally. Things will be smelling really good right about now. When the half hour is over, time for the remaining ingredients. Jaffrey doesn’t tell you to do this, but I took out the pork chops for a minute while I whisked in the tamarind paste, sugar and salt– it just seemed like a real pain to mix otherwise. Reintroduced the pork chops and simmered for another half hour, turning occasionally.

Now for the potatoes. I didn’t start them until I had the pork chops simmering, which was a bit of a miscalculation– the chops were done well before the potatoes. Best to start these at the same time. I made these potatoes back at the beginning of this blog, and they were quite tasty. But between then and now, I’ve made a few spice-buying trips, so I had things like dried chillies, fenugreek, caraway seeds, and fennel, which were missing before. I also decided to do the variation with yogurt. (Jaffrey has you prepare Maya’s Potatoes and then adds a paragraph about adding the yogurt.) You fry your potatoes till they’re nice and golden brown, then drain the oil. If you’re me, you’ll lose control of the heavy cast iron pan and end up dumping some potatoes into the sink and almost burning your hand. If you’re not me, you may be able to avoid this.

Next, fry your spices. Now, technically, you’re supposed to make this mixture in the stockpot, then introduce the potatoes from the frying pan and simmer in the stockpot. However, my stockpot was busy simmering pork chops, so I had to be creative. I made the spice/tomato mixture in a small saucepan– fried the spices, then added the onion/garlic paste from the blender (no ginger this time) plus turmeric, fried that for five minutes, added tomatoes and sugar, and fried that for five minutes. The mixture smelled absolutely incredible. I added it back into the frying pan and coated the potatoes. I added in a pint of water, then remembered that I was supposed to be halving the recipe and that it should be half a pint. Yeah, I’m not too bright. I compensated by cooking this uncovered for longer than called for, then covering. This gets about 20 minutes of simmering, all told.

When that’s done, turn off the heat and let the potatoes cool for a few minutes. Jaffrey says to mix in the yogurt and heat on low heat, not enough to boil it (that would curdle the yogurt) but enough to heat it through. I found that the cast iron pan retained enough heat that merely folding in the yogurt and waiting for a minute was enough to heat the whole thing through.

Served with Flying Fish HopFish Ale. The pork chops had a nice flavor, but were a little dried out. Spooning the pot juices over the chops helped, but I’d shorten the cooking time next time.

As for the potatoes– holy shit, you guys. We both ate too much because we couldn’t keep away from these potatoes. I can’t tell you how much of a difference having the right spices made. We could taste the fenugreek and caraway seeds. It had this wonderful toasty, complex flavor that wasn’t there before. So nice. Oh my.

Notes for next time:
-Don’t cook the pork chops for the full half hour each time. Not necessary.
-Remember, Sarah: cast iron pans are heavy.
-Spiciness! One of my continuing critiques throughout these posts is that whatever I make “could have been spicier.” I’m thinking that Jaffrey, in writing an Indian cookbook for Brits, decided to be really conservative with the hot spices. She usually gives a range– one to three chili peppers, to taste (optional). And when she does, I use three– and it’s still not that spicy. Screw that. Next time she tells me one to three, I’m adding four.

To be clear: I’m a recovering spice wimp. I grew up eating food with no spices whatsoever– maybe some garlic salt if we were feeling really adventurous. When I went to college and started hanging out with Indians, my friend Deepa used to make her kebabs especially mild just for me, and I’d still be sweating and tearing up while I ate them. I’ve evolved since then, and I love spicy food, although I’m not a hot-sauce daredevil like my stepbrother AJ. In the last year or so, I’ve been deliberately trying to train my palate to tolerate hotter spices– I plan to visit India in the next few years and I don’t want to die! So: spice levels are going to rise. Be prepared.

I’m leaving on Thursday for the Socialism 2007 conference, and the food at the hotel is not allergy-friendly, so I’ll be making several dishes this week to pack and take with me to Chicago. There’s a big grass-fed chuck roast from Livengood Farms waiting for me, and some Fair Food Farmstand lamb stew meat that’s going into a chana dal recipe. Mushroom dal is also on the agenda. Stay tuned.