Holy Mary Mother of God Halibut

Cold open:

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This. All of this.

I want to talk to all of you about this halibut. Look at it. Just look at it.

I love to cook seafood but part of it always feels a little intimidating. So much can go wrong, especially with something super steaky like halibut. It didn’t help that my original plan was 86’d by an unexpected absence of sardines.

What was supposed to happen was this recipe. Last month I subscribed to the New York Times paper, crossword, and recipe app, and I’ve been determined to make the most of it (if you hit a paywall on that link, thank the NYT). The original recipe includes all the things I like: fresh fish, the salty umami of anchovies and garlic, and the sour of capers. All my favorite funks in one place.

I started my prep but then discovered to my horror that all the sardines were gone. In my relish for all things anchovies, I forgot to restock. Whatever. This is Central Europe. I can get anchovies anytime I want. To the corner store!

Sardines in mustard sauce, sardines in tomato sauce, sardines in brine… no anchovies. Another corner store. No anchovies. Two more corner stores. No anchovies. Though one store clerk was totally rooting for me. “Good luck man!” he shouted as I walked out the door.

This level of obsession has ended more than one romantic relationship in my life. Maybe there’s some undiagnosed thing going on, but no time for that now. Anchovies!

I never found anchovies. My head hung low, sad Charlie Brown music playing me home, my dog in tow.

On that sad walk, I thought about what works with fish. Fish loves salt. Fish loves butter. Fish loves fresh herbs. Steaky fish loves coriander seed. I have all those things. Happy times.

Cast iron. Drippy drip drip from the olive oil. Simmering but not smoking on medium-high, add tail-end halibut steak (my fishmonger cuts me a deal on off-cuts), caked in freshly ground sea salt and black pepper. Two or three minutes, flip. I tapped the skin.

You know that glorious moment when you tap fish skin and feel the crisp outside with just a little give. That means the fats just beneath the surface are still intact, and slowly melting into the flesh. Glorious.

Made a quick lemon dressing with whatever didn’t go into my cook-time bourble (sounds dirty but it’s really not) and tossed some rocket in that while a small portion of couscous finished in a steel bowl.

Back to the cast iron. Slab of butter. Clove of minced garlic. Handful of fresh dill. Two spoons of capers. Kill the heat. Now it’s a sauce.

Filled a shallow bowl-plate with the dressed rocket. Fluffed the couscous with fresh parsley and added that on top. Popped the halibut on top, with the crispiest side facing up. Butter-caper-garlic-herb sauce on top. Finish with fresh chives and black sea salt (that’s the smears you see on the edge of the dish).

Normally, I reflect on what would make this meal better. Not this time. Not even anchovies would’ve made this better. It was perfectly balanced from bottom to top. I bit into the crispy skin with the fatty underside and ululated. That’s right. Ululated. It was that life-altering. Traumatically good.

I recommend an oak-finished chardonnay. You need something a little creamy to round out this acid monster.

This dish marks day one of the Sam 2.0 menu, in which I work towards a more sustainable and enjoyable kitchen:

  1. Use what I’ve got.
  2. Keep it weeknight-friendly.
  3. Bring leftovers back to life.
  4. Stay local and in season.
  5. Less meat, more vegetables.
  6. Less filler, more killer.

Here’s the rest of the menu for the week.

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Things may change. After today’s visit to a pumpkin patch I started thinking that curry soup unfairly masks this magnificent squash. I think back to what my local Italian place does with simple sage and butter. Maybe a gnocchi instead? We’ll see.

 

The three good restaurants in Nepal

It’s not easy being a food lover in a developing country, especially one where hygiene standards are nonexistent, and innovation is discouraged. During my third and final year in Kathmandu, there reached a point when, on rare occasions I risked dining out despite realistic fears of introducing new bacteria to my gut’s ecosystem, I would do the mo:mo test.

For the uninitiated, mo:mos are the indigenous dumplings of Nepal. Every region seems to do a dumpling. Southeast and East Asia have gyoza, Central and East Europe do pierogies, and my own beloved Carolinas do chicken and dumplings. But in these places, you’re unlikely to find the local dumpling on every single menu. In Nepal though, mo:mo reigns king. And I have no idea why they put the colon in there, except maybe as a subtle hint of things to come. Out of your colon.

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Meet your mo:mo. 

Mo:mos I’ve always said are the first food people fall in love with in Nepal, and the first thing they come to despise. All it takes is that one round of mo:mos from the vendor who handles filthy, crumbled currency with the same fingers he uses to stuff and steam your order.

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Kathmandu keeps it real. 

So what is the mo:mo test? Simple. When visiting a new restaurant, scan the menu. If there are mo:mos, leave the restaurant.

I’ve seen mo:mos at restaurants claiming to be Italian, Japanese, American, or the self-appointed category that always gives me pause, International. Listen, if you serve mo:mos, you’re a Nepali restaurant. Embrace that. Do your peanuts sadeko, your buff choyla, hell, even throw some testicles into the mix. I’ve written about some damn fine restaurants that do local cuisine, and none of them hurt for business. But don’t claim to be something you’re not.

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NOT international

Before going further, I need to add that living as a food lover in the developing world is hard, but writing about it is harder. There’s no way to write critically about dining in a broke ass country without sounding like an insensitive jerk. Understand, there are no posh districts in Kathmandu with shimmering glass buildings and chichi cocktail bars piping downbeat chill house music through the speakers. Some parts are a little nicer than others, but it is a broke ass country. If a place seems posh, walk twenty paces in any direction and you’ll see abject poverty — an elderly woman bent sideways begging for money, a toddler with no arms, a dog half-eaten by maggots… honestly, the whole experience makes one doubt the existence of God, but that’s heavy content for a food blog.

Where was I? The mo:mo test. I found three places that pass the mo:mo test, and also serve excellent food, and also have a flawless track record for hygiene. In no particular order, here we go.

Flat Iron Grill. Raju, and his American partner Brian, who hails from Louisiana, are best known for their cured meats — ham, bacon, sausages, and very recently, pastrami — all which are sourced from sustainable farms and house-smoked with local wood. They sell their cuts at the Saturday and Sunday farmers’ markets, along with bagels, bear claws, and buckeyes.

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All the bacon for me

Their first cafe opened on the ground floor of the Ambassador Hotel in the expat ghetto of Lazimpat. They had just opened a second one in the Thamel backpacker district as I was leaving the country. It is basically a sandwich cafe, but they use local European-style bread and other quality ingredients, which of course include their meats. They also make fresh soups daily, and helped introduce Kathmandu to craft beer, selling all varieties of Great Divide, imported from Denver, Colorado. On Fridays, Flat Iron features special menus. Sometimes it’s tacos (dang good pulled pork), other times it’s Southern barbecue, other times it’s something else. Check their website for this Friday’s menu.

Musicology. Sadly, this place opened just months before I was set to leave Nepal. It’s everything a neighborhood bar should be. Musicology isn’t just on my map because it was dangerously close to my house. It also serves killer food. They might be the only place in the country to serve sliders! They make ones with crispy fried chicken, notably similar to the Chick-fil-a recipe, minus the bigotry. They make vegetarian ones that were darned good too. Their wings are awesome and spicy. They make a filling kati roll, which is sort of like a Nepali burrito, but the wrap is paratha bread with an egg cooked around it, and there are cubes of yak cheese inside.

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Yes, please. 

Full disclosure: Musicology does not technically pass my mo:mo test. They do have mo:mos and honestly, they ain’t great. But that can all be forgiven when you flip to the bar menu. They feature a long list of imported craft beer, as well as craft cocktails, which very, very, very few restaurants manage to do well.

Chez Caroline. Tucked deep into the labyrinthine but charmingly colonial Rana palace, this is the closest you’ll get to France without boarding an Etihad flight. In their courtyard one feels transported back to a less hectic era of Kathmandu’s timeline, before the littered streets and heavy smog. They serve standard bistro fare and they do it well: steak frites, chicken fricassee, and an amazing ratatouille, to name a few. As with the two aforementioned restaurants, the service is top notch. While they don’t have much in the way of craft beer or cocktails, they boast a decent wine list, which is rare in Nepal.

It took me years to realize this is the same Chez Caroline that sells at the Yellow House Market on Sundays. Their booth usually features Mediterranean items like hummus and babaganoush, as well as more continental selections like rabbit paté.

There are a few other places that deserve an honorable mention, as well as an explanation for why they didn’t quite make the list.

Workshop sustained me many a workday when I’d forgotten to bring reheats from home. I have nothing but respect for this Lalitpur institution, which focuses on Tex-Mex and burgers. They opened the year of the quake, which became also the year of the border blockade, the year of the fuel shortages… in short, it was the worst possible year to open a new restaurant in Nepal. Furthermore, they opened with a menu that was way overambitious. For example, I love carne asada, but most locals (and even foreigners) don’t know what that is, and carne asada involves a lot of product and prep time. Also, you can’t put guacamole on the menu in a country with strictly seasonal produce. Still, Workshop has persevered. They eked their way through the national crises. They cut from the menu what wasn’t working and replaced it with some innovative items like the most delicious donuts in the country. Think Voodoo Donuts, Nepal. Their burgers never disappoint, their milkshakes and malts are the bomb, their fries are crispy, their wraps are on par with Chipotle. Really, the only reason they’re not in my Top Three is because without a beer and wine menu, it’s just lunch food.

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But these donuts! Some nights, I lie awake thinking about them. 

CuriloTheir kitchen does not mess around. They make a duck ravioli worth killing for, and nobody in town makes better pizza. The house wine is satisfyingly adequate. If you’re looking for a good brunch, this is the jam. Yes, they do avocado toast. They’re strategically located across the street from the British embassy and down the road from Ciwec International Clinic, so I’ve no idea why it took so long for me to discover this place!

The only issue is their inconsistent service. Some days, it’s spot-on, and the chef will come out to answer questions about the menu. Other days, it’s like your table is invisible, even if you’re seated right next to the bar where the waitstaff is checking out YouTube videos. Anyone who eats out in Nepal experiences this at pretty much every eatery, but it still pisses me off every time.

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At least they’ve got this cool cat. 

Piano BThis was the first good restaurant I found in Nepal. Deantonio, who hails from Sicily, runs the place and he does a fine job with the food. Everyone raves about the balsamic braised onions and fresh caprese with locally-made mozzarella. More than this, Deantonio changes the menu seasonally, so diners are likely to find new choices with every visit. A quick look at the website makes me want to fly over just to try the grilled duck breast with braised chard and saffron mashed potatoes. He sources ingredients locally as possible, but imports excellent stuff from his home country as well, such as anchovies and olive oil.

Once again, it’s the service that kills this place for me. On days he’s there, Deantonio runs a tight ship. When I had to plan a friend’s stag night, he was instrumental in making sure everyone’s stomachs were thickly lined early in the night. So much meat and cheese! On days he’s out though, the front-of-house crew is clueless. They often don’t know the menu, they don’t clean tables, and they disappear into the kitchen for long periods of time.

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Gotta say, it was a pretty fun stag night…

Le Sherpa. This place very nearly made the list, except they might try a little too hard. Don’t get me wrong, their wait staff is impeccable and efficient. White cloth napkins, flawlessly clean stemware, and fresh flowers. Their ingredients are local as can be; indeed, they host the Saturday farmers’ market on their lawn! For under $15, you can enjoy a smartly-prepared brunch with a Pimm’s cup or mimosa.

Here’s the thing though. The English breakfast. By its nature, a true English breakfast looks like it was prepared by a grumpy British man with a powerful hangover. It’s meant to be a giant plate of soupy baked beans, greasy fried eggs, soggy grilled tomatoes, charred toast, and fatty sausages. Le Sherpa serves some sort of post-modernist version, with little ramekins compartmentalizing all the breakfast components. It’s too tidy. It’s a minor thing, really, and not enough to prevent me from coming back.

A few other quickies:

Dan Ran has the best noodle soup in town; their pork broth is reportedly simmered for days! With a plum wine cocktail or warm sake, it’s the perfect cure for winter blues. The rest of their menu falls off the cliff a bit though.

Pho 99 is another winter warmer, with their pho bo and grilled pork. I’ve probably eaten here more times than any other place in Kathmandu. While it’s the best Vietnamese in Nepal, it’s also the only Vietnamese. The beef broth tastes canned and they use (are you sitting down?) Nescafe for their Vietnamese coffee. Not okay.

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Redeeming quality: they sell very tasty bahn mi at the Saturday market. 

Don’t let Mango Chili’s location in Labim Mall deter you. It’s the best Thai food I’ve found in Nepal, and they have a 2-for-1 happy hour. Unfortunately, they seem to have grown a bit lazy after a successful first year. The noodles are soggy, the sauces lack vim, and the cocktails lack alcohol. It’s still not bad, but it’s not as great as it used to be.

Next door is Le Mirch, and they do Indian food. What makes this place notable, in an ocean of Indian restaurant choices? Attentive staff, cool ambiance, and well-prepared food… usually. Their seafood is disappointing, but what do you expect from a landlocked country?

In closing, I wish to call out a few places that top all the lists with Trip Advisor and Lonely Planet, which has convinced me that their websites are incapable of vetting for fake reviews. Because that theory sounds better than the sad alternative: people in Kathmandu simply think shit food tastes delicious.

I’ve purposely left hyperlinking off these places, for fear that any links will increase web traffic to these god awful establishments.

Roadhouse. Enough about Roadhouse, everyone! Their pizza may be better than average for Nepal, but what’s the use if one in ten pizzas make you sick? Also, they once made me a Manhattan with red wine.

Vesper. “Hey girls, let’s have a night out, just the ladies. We’ll start at Vesper. They have champagne and a great wine list. And the best pizza!” No, no, and no. I’ve tried so hard to like this place. The interior is definitely something to see. Very chic. But they never have the wine you want from the list, nor the other wine you want from the list, nor the other wine. The pizza straight up sucks. I once made better pizza with cardboard and set of crayons. And the service? Wow. Just wow. I’ve seen plates come out to the same table more than half an hour apart. I’ve seen wait staff lose entire tickets and ignore their tables completely. Ladies, you and your girlfriends may think you’re going to kick off with a quick Chianti, but you’ll be there an extra hour waiting for the check. Seriously this place needs to die.

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Not even golf caps can make this place okay. 

Southern Comfort. This place has so much potential! It tries to sell itself as an American eatery, but their menu tumbles hard down the “we make everything” rabbit hole. As with any such restaurant, this means all their food ranges from bland to uninspired to inedible. Their beer glasses smell like rotten fish. And despite the stylized (you might even say copyright-infringing) sign outside, they do not stock Southern Comfort. Yet they have a great courtyard with live blues musicians, there’s a piano in the foyer, and the beer is cheap. I want to like this restaurant. Please, guys. Fix your place.

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“Original” indeed…

OR2K. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe I’ve eaten here too many times, and I’m jaded. But I know Middle Eastern food, having lived and traveled in the region, from Beirut to the Persian Gulf. I know what good tahini tastes like, and good falafel, and good flatbread, and good eggplant. And OR2K falls short. It’s better than most places in Thamel, but too often, I’ve gone there with a crowd and taken my first bite and been like, “Oh yeah… this is as mediocre as I remember.”

Pokhara in general. Pokhara is the lake district of Nepal, located about five hours to perhaps one hundred hours from the capital, depending on road conditions, or thirty minutes by plane. People like to spend short holidays there, and they come back raving about the food. Listen, there is no good food there, only edible food. Now to be fair, if you’ve just come from a twenty-day Annapurna circuit hike, that edible food must taste pretty amazing.

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Pokhara: picture says it all. 

Rather than end on a cynical rant, I want the readers to know, especially those who’ve not yet visited Nepal, that things are changing fast. New places open every week, and more and more are venturing into non-mo:mo territory. Despite my whinging and moaning, I’m forever a Nepal optimist. With a few years left on my visa, I hope to return one day soon, and stumble across some pleasant surprises.

Saturday morning in the Ottoman Empire

Dammit I love Saturdays. This day of the week epitomizes the perfect state of zero obligation. A great day like that requires a great start. There is no greater start than a great breakfast.

While in Kathmandu, anyone who knew my breakfast habits knew my all-time favorite thing. Eggs on toast. Kathmandu happens to have the best eggs in the world, so all the better. Here was my take on eggs on toast:

  1. Dry toast? Boring. Buttered toast? Played out. A wedge of baguette fried to crispy perfection in equal parts olive oil and butter? Now we’re talking.
  2. Bread’s going in the cast iron, and soon as I flip the bread, in goes the egg. Let both finish in the pan until the bread is brown and crispy yet a little greasy on both sides, and the egg is a perfect medium with firm whites and a runny yolk. Pull everything out like a teenager practicing risky sexual behavior. Stack the egg on top of the bread. Like a teenager practicing risky sexual behavior.
  3. Add a bit more oil in the pan and add a handful of za’atar spice. Straight outta Bei-ROOT! Get it aromatic, now it’s a pan sauce. Pour that over the egg and bread. Toss on some Maldon sea salt and cracked black.

That’s freaking delicious.

This particular Saturday, I was thinking of that egg and that bread and that spice and how I could game it up a bit. Yeah, it was one of those Saturday mornings where I woke up thinking it was a work day then realized it wasn’t and felt great because I didn’t have to work after all but then realized I also could not get back to sleep so I thought about food until I got really hungry and hauled out of bed.

I rummaged through my kitchen, thinking about what was on hand. I did have a baguette, but also some thin baguette slices I had not used up in the previous night’s making of crostinis. My workplace hosted a pot luck and I’d made crostinis to go with the basil hummus I’d also made. Perhaps I could use both somehow.

I toasted the bread chips, same as I would a crostini, but without any fats. I know, I know. I just finished a ramble about the joys of fat-infused toast. But I had something different in mind for this toast.

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Who’s played out now?

Soon as the toast browned, I slathered on some harissa paste. Wait — isn’t that hella spicy? Yes. But a Mediterranean Muse had possessed my Breakfast Brain, and obsessing me with the flavors of the old Ottoman Empire. I thought of ways I might balance the North African spice. How about that basil hummus from last night? Sure. I slather it across the plate. Harissa toasts on top.

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Plus a little paprika for Hungarian smoke and capers for Turkish acid.

Wait, weren’t we making eggs? Yes. So I crack one into the bowl, because especially in a new country, trying new eggs, one can never be too careful. That egg might be rotten. Or  contain a chicken fetus. Or an engagement ring. Wouldn’t that be weird?

Good thing I take precautions (unlike certain randy teenagers) because that lousy egg yolk liquified as soon as it landed in the bowl. Better in the bowl than in the pan. I thought of adding it to my dog’s kibble, but thought better — I got all these eggs the same time from the same guy (lousy farmers’ market). That means all the eggs were probably equally ho-hum.

Improvising, I went for an omelette. Beat the eggs and added the za’atar. As it cooked, I realized one element was still missing. I had the Levantine hummus and spice mix, the heady picante paste of North Africa, but it still needed a dose of Cordoba, the Ottoman base of operations in Spain.

Manchego is the answer. Grate some of that into the omelette, fold over, and splat! Right on top of the bread. Maldon and cracked black and Bob’s your uncle.

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I’ve seen prettier presentations, but I won’t be looking at it for very long…

Repeating this exercise, I think the harissa paste would benefit from a bit of time under the heat, atop the crostini. The hummus was cold from being in the fridge, which offset the temperature of the omelette. Not sure how to fix that, except to make the hummus fresh next time.

Speaking of fresh, mental note to finish eating the rest of that hummus tomorrow. Maybe go full Iberia and plate up some jamon and the rest of the manchego. Red wine and boom. Ferdinand and Isabella taking it back! That’s for another day’s writing.

Happy breakfasting everyone.

Campeau + caponata = Campeaunata

Summer’s wrapping up in Europe, at least that’s what my calendar says. The heat wave says otherwise. But hey, deadly summer heat is the new normal, right? At least here, we enjoy modern amenities like insulated housing, and while home air-con is unheard of, we have plenty of climate controlled shopping centers and movie theaters, plus my host city has a nice cool river nearby.

I’ve long thought mine will be the last generation to really enjoy global warming.

With a long sunny apocalyptic summer comes gargantuan produce. Today at the farmer’s market I picked up a comically oversized bag of basil, which in turn had leaves the size of a monkey’s paw. Obviously some of that will become pesto, but I thought about ways to use the rest, remembering that I’ve still in the fridge a medley of summer vegetables. Searching for recipes by ingredient, I stumbled across an old friend, caponata.

In some ways, caponata is like ratatouille. Except one is Italian and one is French, and ratatouille tends to include more spices. Both emphasize the need for the very freshest ingredients, and both typically include eggplant, maybe zucchini, bell peppers, onion, tomato paste or sauce, and garlic. Already I sense a few purists out there are ready to spit and curse across the comments. To that I say, whatever dude. You say un pomodoro I say une tomate.

I’ve made both dishes (let’s say the same dish) in the past to good effect, but always felt the flavors could be boosted somehow. That’s right. I’m about to get all Test Kitchen on this B.

But first, a brief aside. Years ago, I worked in a little Italian kitchen in Corvallis, Oregon called Iovino’s. Regina Iovino was a mother to us young bucks in the kitchen but a reality show mother when it came to her food. Her stern instruction and raised eyebrow laid the foundation of what I know about cooking today. Several times during the making of this meal, it was almost like Regina was standing behind me, judging. Her non-negotiable rules of the kitchen echoed through my head. I’ll mention some of those as we go along.

The eggplant. Peeled, cubed, and scattered across a wide bowl in one even layer. Why? For the salting. Regina would never forgive the poor bastard who left eggplant unsalted. Her theory (which like all Italian culinary theory, may or may not be valid) was that salt tenderizes the eggplant and releases the water (this part is true) which makes the eggplant more readily absorb whatever you cook it in (not sure about that one, but I do like salt). I threw some coarse salt across the top and set it aside.

The tomatoes. Most recipes called for tomato paste, but what is tomato paste? It’s reduced tomatoes, right? How could I do one better? Honestly, I’m not a huge fan of that canned stuff. It’s often overly tart, and after I use the recipe’s prescribed tablespoon or whatever, I now have a bunch more sitting in the can, which then goes in the fridge, then gets pushed to the back of the fridge, then I find it three months later and I’m like, “Hey, is this a few days old… or weeks old?” And then I use it anyway and I poop wrong for the next few days. Not worth the trouble!

I blanched the tomatoes for a few minutes while I started prepping other stuff, and then removed the peels. There are lots of ways to remove peels, I’ll let you read up on that. Only after removing the peels did I have the brainstorm of roasting those guys in the oven. That could wake up the sugars a bit. In they went.

The chicken. Okay, chicken is definitely not a standard ingredient, but a fine accompaniment. I had a few skin-on, bone-in thighs that needed some action. I kept it simple here: coarse sea salt and ground pepper, dried oregano, and a bit of olive oil. I learned this trick with thighs, where you start them in a room temperature pan and bring up the heat. This renders the skin, which releases the schmaltz (that tasty chicken fat) and prevents the skin from sogging up. This is important for later.

Flip the thighs, given them a good sear, make that Maillard magic happen, then set aside on a roasting pan for finishing in the oven later. I didn’t want the thighs in the same heat as the tomatoes; the chicken would cook fast enough after the tomatoes were done.

My vegetarian friends will be sad to know I totally used the same pan for the caponata. Because a fond is a terrible thing to waste.

The other vegetables. Not rocket science. I hit the oil with a pinch of red pepper flake before adding diced onion, red and green bell pepper, and about three fat cloves of garlic. Let that sweat a bit with a little S&P, and got to work on the herbs.

Oh but first I need to talk garlic. Mama Iovino had this thing about garlic. She insisted we cut the little butt off the bottom of each bulb, explaining that it imparts unwanted bitterness. I’ve seen some chefs who leave the butt on, claiming that to remove it will sacrifice valuable essence from the garlic. Then there was Nona. Nona is this Italian grandmother (yes, another Italian matriarch in my life) who in Tuscany taught me how to make some crazy delicious food, and insisted that Real Italians do not cut their bulbs at all. Don’t even peel them! Throw those buggers in, as is. As they soften, the skins are easily removed (with tongs, please) and given a bit more time, the bulbs are so soft, a chef can mash them against the side of the pot, dissolving them into the sauce.

Then you’ve got Anthony Bourdain, who insisted that the method demonstrated in Goodfellas was the way to go, with the razor blade. But then, Bourdain wrote Kitchen Confidential during some aggressively coked-up years, rest his soul.

Most of the time, I combine what instinctively feel like the best ideas. I pluck off a bulb, draw the blade down the butt, and pull the bulb away from the knife, which may leave a bit of skin, but that’s okay. Into the pan you go.

Maybe it’s rocket science after all.

The herbs. Regina loved a basil chiffonade, and loved teaching cooks how to do it. Find the biggest leaf you can. Place a slightly smaller leaf on top. Keep doing this until you’re about five or six leaves deep. Roll them up, with the stems as your line of symmetry. Slice the roll crosswise the same way you would a sushi roll, but with paper thin slices. A good chiffonade will look like someone dropped a lawnmower sack across the cutting board.

Parsley is easy enough. I’ve always rinsed, chopped, and then wrapped in a paper towel to dry.

I put about half of each into the caponata. Added also some capers and red wine vinegar for acid.

It all comes together. My base vegetables had broken down beautifully which meant they were ready to receive the eggplant. I thought for a moment about pressing the cubes in a colander to drain the water, but then thought that water would contribute nicely to the overall dish. Plus, I like salt.

While the eggplant softened up on the heat, I pulled the tomatoes, cut the heat from a roasting broil to an easygoing 350 and popped in the chicken skin up so it would crisp. Now, keep the seeds, or lose the seeds? I consulted with my imaginary Regina. She shrugged her shoulders indifferently, so I kept them in.

I threw the tomatoes into a food processor and liquified them. I sensed this would be real tasty, given time to reduce reduce reduce with the other vegetables. Then I remembered this Epicurious recipe that called for anchovies. If you seek savory, anchovies deliver! Minced three of them, and blended into the tomato sauce with a bit of the anchovy oil. These anchovies were particularly strong, so I was excited to find out how they would marry in.

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Nothing but good happening here.

Left the caponata to do its thing on a simmer, adding in a bit of zest from a leftover lemon in the fridge. The chicken was finishing fast with perfectly crispy skin on top, and I pulled it just before it hit the internal 140 and let to rest a few minutes with a foil tent.

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Look at this chicken! This is what it’s supposed to look like. 

To plate, I spooned a healthy but not obnoxious portion of caponata into a shallow bowl and placed the chicken on top of that. A bit of juice from the lemon, a fat pinch of basil chiffonade and parsley, and a sprinkling of Maldon sea salt and chunky ground pepper.

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Forgive the low light of the photo, but I was ready to inhale this food. 

I gotta say, this is the tastiest thing I’ve made in the new apartment so far. It beat all my previous attempts at caponata (or ratatouille, for that matter) and accompanied the simple chicken thighs perfectly. The last minute lemon topped out the acidity of the capers and red wine vinegar, but didn’t go overboard. Some recipes call for raisins or even sugar, but I wouldn’t go there. The onions and bell peppers, along with the roasted tomato sauce, add just enough sweetness on their own.

 

Doing it all over again, here are the few things I’d change.

  1. The garlic was sort of a kerfuffle. The sauce didn’t simmer as long as Nona might have liked, so the bulbs remained firm. In the end, I pushed the bulbs through a press, which undoubtedly brought upon my house a Tuscan curse for many generations. Next time I’ll just mince the damn things, even if they leave some of that valuable essence behind on the cutting board.
  2. Experiment further with the eggplant. If I were to do everything exactly the same, would it make a difference to strain the aubergine a bit? Regina would probably say yes.

Really though, no complaints. The only thing that will make this dish better is 24 hours in the fridge. Unfortunately, the skin on the other chicken thigh will not maintain the crispiness, but it’s a small price to pay. I’m sure that Regina Iovino, wherever she is, would be most pleased.

Breakdown of a Newari lunch

In my other blog, DeepSouthRefugee, I’ve mentioned the Newari lunch in passing once or twice, but never gone into full detail of what that experience is really like. This food blog seems like a more apt platform.

First thing to know: if you’re doing a Newari lunch correctly, you should not make any other plans for the rest of the day. Done correctly, the Newari lunch experience starts in the morning with a hearty hike, and fills the rest of the day with eating and drinking. The final challenge is getting home.

The walk or ride up the hill. Yes, some folks opt for a taxi into the villages edging the Kathmandu Valley. As many of my Newari lunch connoisseurs tend to be out of shape, that’s a popular option, but it’s less fun. Everything tastes better if you’ve earned it.

The typical starting-off point is Suraj’s shop. He’s my best local pal in Kathmandu. The crew meets at his shop, and if we’re feeling especially cheeky, we’ll pull a “walking beer” off the shelf. Suraj is also our guide, and for this reason, he’s endlessly stopped by locals who see him walking with a gang of foreigners and ask how much money we’re paying him, to which he responds, “Hey, I’m not making the badass money!” So it begins.

My best canine friend, Boo, usually joins us. This presents some challenges, as Kathmandu is rife with packs of feral street dogs. For this reason, we find it wise to arm ourselves with sticks and stones with which to ward off the especially aggressive mutts, but most of the dogs are just territorial barkers. Not long after we cross the bridge over the sceptic Bagamati River, the pockmarked asphalt gives way to dirt trails and Boo goes off-leash to sniff out giant rats.

The scenery unfolds as the elevation pitches upwards. Some routes take us through wild forests, others through rustic villages. Either way, it’s a photobug’s dream. What’s less dreamy is the effect of a hilly hike on the prior night’s bad behavior. Our party often has to take a breather — another golden opportunity to relish the views. On a good day, the skies are clear, and one can see the sprawl of the greater Kathmandu urban area, or better yet, breathtaking vistas of the Himalayan range. Those days are almost exclusively in October, so plan ahead when booking flights.

There are three places we always land. One that many local purveyors of Newari food know quite well is Newa Lahana. Like most village buildings, the square footage is small, but the dining area goes up several floors. Great views of the surrounding rice paddies. Wait staff is composed entirely of smiling old Newari aunties, adorned in traditional costume. They know me well as the funny foreigner who brings his unusually well-mannered dog to the restaurant. They love Boo.

The second place is Monk’s. This place doesn’t officially have a name, but it’s run by a monk so the name just kind of stuck. This is where I had my first-ever Newari dining experience, and it’s the longstanding favorite for our lunch group. Monk pretty much runs the whole show, from the kitchen to the service, which is okay, because we’re often the only diners there, save for a few old men who play cards on the second level, where the tiny kitchen is. We usually opt for the roof, which has become much more inviting since Monk added the canopy, and the view can’t be beat.

Finally, there’s Suraj’s Choice, or as he would call it, “The best choice for today.” Suraj has an uncanny knowledge of every eatery, even in the most far-flung edges of the valley. Sometimes it’s a roadside shack, with few amenities and a dirt floor.

Other times, we’re in for a quirky surprise, like a weird Australian-themed joint. Probably the most notable is the nameless restaurant that somehow manages to exist right near the summit of Champa Devi (known in travel guides as “The Toughest Day Hike in Kathmandu”). Hiker-diners are greeted by a plastic table and chairs on a bald patch of land, just outside a small shack, a welcome sight after an hours-long upward slog through mud, bush, and leeches.

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The view ain’t bad, though.

Talk about the chyang. This local rice beer is simple to make. Start with cooked white rice. Plop it into a barrel or plastic sack. Add water. Set to ferment for 24 hours, and you’ve got chyang. It’s classically described to first-timers as an acquired taste, but well worth the acquisition once the drinking gets going, especially on a hot day. Good chyang is milky white in color, though some less delectable versions are tawny brown, or lumpy in texture.

Chyang is delivered in a jug or, in a fancier place like Newa Lahana, a brass ewer. It is dispensed into small tin cups or bowls. Everyone raises their vessels and takes a long swill. The commentary begins. No two batches are quite the same. It may taste of tart lemonade, or it may be more more neutral and chalky. We discuss the flavor and how it might indicate the alcoholic strength. Almost always, chyang is stronger than anyone anticipates. Though a relatively low-octane beverage, it’s damnably easy to drink, and as with any session beer, the alcohol can get on top of a drinker.

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My pal Greer demonstrates the process. Suraj in background.

Of our regular destinations, Monk’s unequivocally makes the best chyang. In fact, in making one’s way upstairs, one passes Monk’s chyang brewery, a set of enormous barrels in a dark dusty room. If the UNICEF branding on the barrels is any indication, they were originally designated for potable water storage. But who needs water when you can have chyang instead?

Next, the food. Any Newari restaurant, anywhere in the valley, will have at minimum the following items:

Peanuts sadeko. This might be the world’s best bar snack. Simple yet elegant, peanuts are tossed with chopped red onions, chiles, cilantro, and the mustard oil ubiquitous to Newari cuisine. (Of note, mustard oil is banned throughout the EU for human health reasons, but man is it tasty.) Some places cook it on heat, some prefer to serve it cold. Whatever the preparation, it wakes up the palate.

Aloo sadeko. Steamed potatoes tossed in signature Newari spices. The Scoville rating ranges from muy picante to “Oops, I just pooped my pants.” It usually comes on a small dish with toothpicks for easy plate-to-mouth delivery. It’s not my favorite dish, but if there’s a vegetarian at the table (or straw mat, as is the case of Newa Lahana and Monk’s), they get to eat something besides peanuts.

Dried buff. “Buff” is short for buffalo meat, at least in theory. We always speculate on the source animal, and the body part. Whatever the case, the meat is sun-dried to jerky texture. Unlike the jerky one finds at a gas station in the US, this stuff is tough. A single piece can take several minutes to chew, which nicely spaces out the timing of the meal, because service at any eatery in Nepal is notoriously slow. Dried buff may also be available sadeko style, prepared much in the same way as the peanuts.

Scrambled eggs. Here’s what you need to know about eggs in Nepal: they’re the best. Chickens are pretty much always hyper-local free range; the eggs you eat today were probably laid yesterday. Some places will fancy things up with a bit of onion, pepper, and chiles, but honestly, the eggs hold their own. The appeal here is the simplicity and quality of ingredients.

Buff choyla. Buffalo meat is tenderized in a pressure cooker and sautéed with those notorious Newari spices, and sometimes some fresh cilantro to cut through the fire. Like aloo sadeko, it’s eaten off a small plate with toothpicks. A good restaurant will also provide on the side a cupful of beaten rice or, pronounced colloquially, “bitten rice”. This is raw rice, smashed flat, making it easy to eat a pinch at a time. Its blandness helps to counter the insane spice of the choyla. Chicken choyla is also available, but chicken is not butchered into parts as is done in the West. Rather, it’s coarsely chopped, so much time and energy is spent nibbling the deadly spicy meat from the tiny bones. I much prefer the buff.

Raw buff. I get it. Everything about this seems like a bad idea. Because it is a bad idea. These places don’t have refrigerators. The running assumption is that the buffalo was ground that morning in a sterilized grinder, but let’s face it: that’s probably not the case. So you will probably get giardia or some other tenacious parasite from this. Yet this raw buffalo mixed with local spices and mustard oil tastes so freaking rich and delicious, it might be worth putting common sense on hold. Or maybe not. It’s up to you.

Bara. This is typically the last dish out. Bara is a sort of pancake made of mashed fermented black lentils. Optionally, one can request seasoned ground buff to be mixed in before the whole thing is pan fried in mustard oil and at the last moment, an egg (duck egg if available) is cracked on top and cooked to medium. A red chicken stock gravy is poured over, and away we go. Cut into this bad boy and yolky goodness spills across the plate, all the better for sopping up with the lentil pancake. Like other dishes, bara is served on a small plate but it’s extremely filling. Though we normally share the other plates, most of the time, each of us will request our own serving of bara.

Monk’s may have the best chyang, but hands down the best food selection is Newa Lahana. Their menu spans several pages — short by the standards of most Kathmandu restaurants but long for a Newari place, which often has no menu at all. Newa Lahana prides themselves on preparing cuts of the entire animal. Here are a few highlights.

Brain and spinal cord. Buffalo brain matter is chopped and fried in mustard oil with the rubbery interior of the spine. It’s all tossed with fresh cilantro.

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Here, we opted for just the spine. Not disappointing.

Bone marrow “hot pockets”. Buffalo marrow is sewn into sacks fashioned from the kidneys, then deep fried. Best to let them sit awhile; bite into one too soon, and lava-hot marrow will splatter across your hand and face and possibly cause severe burns.

Buff tongue. This one keeps us coming back. The tongue is blanched, then sliced thin, with a small dusting of salt, paprika, and cumin on the side. Dab the slices into the spice and eat. Super tender, super amazing.

Ear, eyeball, testicle, and penis. Like I said, this is a snout-to-tail operation. Adventurous eaters might try these items once, but honestly, the flavor is nothing to write home about, compared to the umami-rich offerings elsewhere on the menu.

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Clockwise from my pasty knee: bara, aloo sadeko, buff tongue, bara, buff choyla, bara, bitten rice. Plenty of chyang to go around.

By this point, everyone’s had their fill. If enough chyang has circulated the group, more bad ideas may materialize. The group may opt for “just one more” pitcher, or worse, tiny, single-serving clay bowls of raksi, the local rice wine that doubles as furniture polish. It’s a horrible ending, but a beautiful finish! The clay bowls are ceremonially smashed on the ground, my dog eats the remaining food scraps, and the bill is paid — usually no more than $10 or $20.

Getting home is the final challenge. Because of the location, taxis can be nearly impossible to find. Sometimes we manage to flag down an already overcrowded bus that will accept on board a gaggle of foreigners and their dog. More often, we stagger all the way downhill from the village, hitchhiking thumbs out. If we’re lucky, a cargo truck will let us ride in back, dropping our party in front of Suraj’s shop where the whole show began hours and hours before.

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Hitchhiking: definitely Boo’s preferred method of travel.

 

 

Banh hoi breakfast

Have today off from work so thought I’d do something with that marinated pork from the last entry. The original plan was to make nasi goreng babi, but then I read the instructions for the Vietnamese banh hoi noodles. Prep time on this rice vermicelli was so short, compared to rice! Here’s the deal:

  1. Boil water.
  2. Kill heat and submerge noodles.
  3. At exactly 1 minute, 15 seconds, pull the noodles and soak in cold water for one second only. 

The instructions heavily stress exact timings, warning that the noodles will “disintegrate” if the cook fails to mind the clock. Warning heeded, I got to work.

I’m a fan of David Chang’s culinary theory (even if in practice, I found his plates at Momofuku only so-so), especially his emphasis on the magic of eggs. My idea then was to prepare the banh hoi noodles, cook off one of the pork filets, then pop a runny-yolk egg on top of that. It mostly worked, but there were some unexpected surprises on the way.

I multitask in the kitchen, as many cooks do. Internet pop psychologists say humans are inherently bad at multitasking, while internet time management gurus argue we should try to get better at it. Whatever the case, my ADD-addled brain can’t help but work on many things at once, though I know full well that one or more of those tasks will likely fall to pieces.

So it goes. The vermicelli was done, and sitting patiently in a shallow bowl. The pork was cooking off. There were still a few unopened bags of spices from last night’s excursion to the Asian market, and I have all these spice jars, so to pass the time, I started dispensing said spices into said jars. I happened to be doing this atop my carving board, and szechwan peppercorns suddenly spilled everywhere. Just as I contained the disaster, the pork was finishing. I pulled out the filet, and noticed a bunch of peppercorns still scattered across the board.

This is what my chronically drunk high school art teacher used to call a “happy accident.” I corralled the peppercorns into a neat pile and plopped the filet on top. As it rested, it soaked in all those lovely face-numbing szechwan flavonoids.

The pork left behind some lovely fond, so I deglazed with shao xing wine to make a quick pan sauce. I’m starting to fall in love with that stuff! Sauce went over the noodles.

The egg was something of a disaster. Hadn’t I picked up a spatula at some point when stocking my kitchen? No. I picked up a funnel, a ricer, and a damned salad spinner, but no I did not pick up the third-most important home kitchen tool (after a chef knife and tongs) and now I have this egg I’m trying to cook in a giant pasta pot (did I mention I’m doing all of this in a single pasta pot?) so what do I have that’s like a spatula?

For a moment, I considered the stirring paddle for my Aeropress, but realized my barista friends at Stumptown (just kidding — Stumptown baristas have no friends) would never forgive me. I reached instead for a butter knife. I don’t know… it’s sort of flat, right?

It went as well as one might expect. The egg followed the oil around the bottom edges of the pot, resulting in immediately uneven cooking. I’ve never seen an egg cook in a donut shape before, but then, I’ve never tried to cook an egg in a pasta pot with a butter knife. I realized there was no way this egg was going to be anything close to over medium. Not even David Chang could make this work. So I did what every home cook does at moments like this: today we’re having our eggs scrambled! 

I scattered the sad, scrambled embryonic carcass across the banh hoi and quietly wondered if 10am was too soon for a beer. However, when I sliced up the filet and threw that on top, I was looking at a damned fine breakfast. A little sriracha for color and spice and here’s Johnny.

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Again, not the prettiest plate I’ve ever created, but it absolutely resembles everything that’s ever been passed across a lunch counter towards me in Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh, so I’m calling this one “White Guy Authentic.”

The pork marinade accomplished everything I desired. The meat was funky, saturated with umami, and not overly salty as I’d feared. The szechwan peppercorns did not join the plate; what they imparted to the meat during the two-minute rest was plenty! The thin noodles did a fabulous job containing the pan sauce.

What would I do differently?

  1. As before, use real utensils.
  2. Try ice water instead of cold tap water to stop the noodles from cooking further. My last few bites tasted a little soggy.
  3. Cook a proper over-medium egg, maybe in some chili oil, and throw that atop the pork.
  4. Use a squeeze bottle with the sriracha for nicer presentation.
  5. Scatter a few coarsely ground szechwan peppercorns around the edge, for accent.

Would definitely make again.

I’m told my relo shipment comes to the apartment today, so I will finally have all my implements of culinary destruction at hand. I have those oxtails in the fridge, and they are dying for a slow beef stock-red wine braise in my cassoulet pot, along with some onion, carrot, celeriac, and parsley.

Until then, cook for the love of it, and always come back for seconds.

First meal in a new kitchen

Week One in any new country, I make the same foolish mistake: within the first few days, I visit the local markets to see what’s available and inevitably buy everything that looks tasty, fresh, or interesting. Problem is, this usually happens before my kitchen is set up.

The mess of meats and produce sits in the fridge, uneaten, rotting away.

After now having lived in eight or nine foreign cities, one might think I’d have learned my lesson. Sadly, no.

Sundays in my neighborhood feature a farmers’ market and that’s to a home cook what an NA meeting is to a coke dealer. Endless opportunities.

I picked up some beautiful apples, pears, lemons, eggplant, carrots, cucumbers, tomatoes, onions, bell peppers, parsley, and chives. A few folks were selling chanterelles and it’s been ages since my last chanterelle. Celery root — or celeriac — is a staple here as I discovered so that went in the bag too.

Not far from my flat is a chain from I think Germany called Leclerc and it’s like a slightly upscale Carrefour. I didn’t have much time to spend there, so I stuck to basics. Sauces, spices, and a few proteins: bone-in chicken thighs, boneless pork filets, and some nice chunky oxtails.

Then today a local friend brought me to the Asian market for Vietnamese fish sauce, shao xing sherry, sriracha, sambal, mirin, miso, and a few items I’ve been surprised not to find in ready supply at standard grocery stores: soy sauce, rice noodles, and red pepper flakes. There was an attached takeaway counter so I munched on spring rolls and washed them down with a cold Tsingtao beer.

The spring rolls only whetted my appetite so I came home with a laser-focused ambition to cook. Too many nights now I’ve eaten at the ever so convenient American-style bar and grill, to the point where all the staff know me by name, and grow concerned about my calorie intake. I was ready to start my beloved home cooking routines.

Only problem was, I wasn’t ready. I was so into my initial setup and prep work that I completely flaked on a key fact: my relocation shipping hasn’t arrived yet. By all appearances, my flat looks like home, but open the cabinets. Plenty of pantry goods but not the cast iron pan that’s accompanied me around the world, not the two-dollar tongs that far outlived their life expectancy, and crucially, not my beloved nigh-invincible 8″ Victorinox chef knife.

Improvising, I pulled out one of the dinky IKEA steak knives from the silverware drawer and got to business. I decided to go with the pork. Four filets in the pack. I’d marinate half of them in soy, miso, fish sauce, garlic, and a healthy dab of sriracha. That’ll be the makings of a killer nasi goreng babi come morning. A little risky, and unconventional, to use so much salt in a marinade, but I love a good funk on my Indonesian food. We’ll see how it goes tomorrow.

The other two cuts I brined in Korean sea salt I picked up a few countries ago (I travel everywhere with a half-dozen or so salts, because I’m neurotic, apparently) and fresh ground pepper. Absent a proper cast iron or sauté skillet, I pulled out an IKEA saucepan and seared the bejeezus out of the cuts, then set them in foil to finish in the oven at 350. The oven is a nice upgrade from my countertop unit in Kathmandu. It’s bigger than a stupid breadbox, and it has rolling racks which helps prevent my food from splattering onto the floor in a molten mess. Also, it’s not on a damned countertop.

With those bad boys in the oven, I used the same saucepan to sweat some onions and garlic, utilizing that lovely Maillard fond. Absent a corkscrew for red wine, or any European-style sherry, I deglazed with shao xing. Tossed in the chanterelles and popped on the lid to let everything marry together.

While that was working, the IKEA knife went back to work, this time chopping up celeriac and carrots. That’s for later.

Pulled the pork, drained the juices into the onion-chanterelle ragout, and left the filets to rest. Cut the heat on the ragout, squeezed in some lemon, and swirled in a knob of butter.

The plate won’t earn this month’s cover of Cooks Illustrated but it turned out pretty decent. Not amazing, but pretty decent. The pork was just the right level of pink in the center — I’ve gotten pretty ace at that in recent years — and paired with the chanterelles, the umami flavor was off the scale. This was balanced by the sweetness of the onions and tartness of the fresh lemon. And butter of course makes everything better.

I was thinking of pairing the meal with some Bordeaux, but again, absent a corkscrew,  I instead cracked open a local craft APA. Beer works with everything, but wine would’ve been nicer.

Were I to do it again, I’d make a few changes:

  1. Use real kitchen equipment.
  2. For presentation’s sake, serve the pork on top of the ragout. Maybe garnish with something or other. I don’t know… tasty as it was, everything on the plate appeared very brown and grey.
  3. For this dish, the sherry was far superior to red wine, but I’m curious if European sherry would yield a different outcome than the shao xing.
  4. On the same note, would kosher salt build a better brine than the Korean stuff?
  5. Find a way to better clean the chanterelles than a rinse-and-rub. I noticed a little more dirt and grass in my food than I care for.
  6. The APA was okay, forced into a corner with beer, but an amber ale would’ve really accented the flavors better.

Any suggestions, readers?

All told, this recipe is definitely worthy of a repeat. A great Tuesday night quickie. It took all of 30 minutes, even with the flimsy IKEA steak knife.

Speaking of slapdash chop jobs, you might be wondering what became of the celeriac and carrots. As I write, they simmer in water with a bit of rosemary and metric ton of sea salt. The idea was to make a bisque of some kind. It’s always been my favorite thing to do with celeriac. But once again, I took for granted that my current kitchen is not what I had three months ago. It is a kitchen under development. Therefore, it lacks key components for a proper bisque, namely Pernod. However, I do have cream and of course plenty of butter, so let’s see how it goes.

If I stay motivated, I’ll write about the nasi goreng babi and vegetable bisque in a coming entry. The farmers’ market indicates that two of my favorite vegetables are in peak season, so that’ll hopefully yield continued good ideas. Until then, keep your kitchen stocked and remember that food is love.