The New Convivialist

Category: visiting kitchens

Salade Lyonnaise and Other French Mountain Fare

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A few weeks back I had the privilege of spending four days with friends at Benoit’s country house in Alsace. I say privilege not only because France, country house, and friends all in the same sentence is a delight which is self-explanatory, but also because this particular group of friends is so culinarily-oriented that we joked we could charge visitors a full-board fare of hundreds per night, if we were so entrepreneurially-inclined. The weather was not entirely conducive to the outdoor playing we had hoped for, but it did enable a kind of festive Christmas-like eat-a-thon that left us all basically incapacitated and unable to do much more than sit in front of the fire and play Settlers of Catan.

If you’ve never eaten the Alsacian regional specialty Choucroute, I cannot lie and say you need to run out to your butcher tonight to try and recreate it. It’s rather a kind of dish akin to, say, Icelandic puffin, which one needs merely to check off the list one time as done. I had first learned of Choucroute when reading Jeffrey Steingarten’s thrilling account of eating his way through Alsace. This essay fermented the idea in my mind of Choucroute being an exciting, mysterious, even cult-like kind of delicacy. However, I soon found that this steamed ensemble of sauerkraut topped with an eye-popping array of sausages, hocks and other fatty pork pieces (some identifiable, others not) is not for the meat-phobic or ‘flexitarians’ among us. I myself was slightly queasy before we even started the feast. (I might also add here that dinner the night before had consisted of the not exactly light fare of saucisson, fresh Maultaschen in broth, flaky duck pie, and flan.) We ordered enough Choucroute from the local butcher for the nine of us, but were encumbered with leftovers upon leftovers well into the following day, which we tossed on the grill to a quite satisfactory result.

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The inclement weather did hold long enough for two or three solid walks in the Vosges trails. Between intermittent sprinkles of rain and brilliant sunshine, we foraged for the sweetest of wild myrtilles along the trailside. Upon Benoit’s warnings of the dangers of fox pee on wild berry bushes and the horrendous sickness that can result, we resisted snacking on-site. Even so, picking enough of these tiny berries for a proper tarte was a challenge. We managed, though, with enough left over for what was perhaps the most heavenly jam I’ve ever eaten on my morning toast.

Ahhhh, salad! When it was suggested one day for lunch that some fresh salads might be prepared, we all breathed a distinct sigh of gastric relief. It turned out that two of Benoit’s childhood friends who joined us at the house own and operate their own salad bar in Lyon. The four Lyonnaise in the group got to work in the kitchen, chopping fennel, garlic, onions, and oranges, like line cooks in a harmonic progression that only old friends can accomplish. But when I saw a big slab of bacon being sliced into thin lardons, I became suspicious, wondering what in the world was going on with this salad concept? Damian, a former Lyonnais now living in New York, showed me how to make the traditional Salade Lyonnaise: fresh croutons sautéed in garlic, fried lardons, mixed in with fresh, bitter greens and mustardy vinaigrette, topped with a runny poached egg. The combination of the savoury and creamy with the sharp and crunchy makes for an exceedingly balanced, yet still fairly light salad, one for which we were all grateful.

 

Recipe: Salade Lyonnaise

Day-old French bread, roughly cut

Garlic, two cloves

Olive oil

Butter

Smoked bacon, sliced against the grain thinly in strips (lardons)

Frisee or other bitter greens

1 egg per person, poached

Vinaigrette:

1 Tbsp. Mustard

1 Tbsp. Melfor Alsacian honey vinegar (or red wine vinegar if you do not have this)

2 Tbsp. Olive oil

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  1. Bring frying pan to medium heat and add olive oil and garlic. When garlic begins to become fragrant, add the bread pieces and a few small cubes of butter. Fry until golden and crunchy. Set aside to cool.
  2. Fry bacon strips until crispy. Drain and set aside to cool.
  3. Make vinaigrette: whisk mustard and vinegar together and slowly add olive oil in a steady stream. Season with salt and pepper.
  4. Toss the greens with the vinaigrette and mix in the croutons and bacon.
  5. Poach eggs: Bring pot of water to a boil and then reduce to a simmer. Stir in a spoonful of vinegar and swirl the water in a circular motion. Crack the egg into a small bowl or teacup and gently lower it into the swirling, simmering water. Allow it to cook for 3-5 minutes until the white has set and then remove with a slotted spoon and allow to drain. Repeat with remaining eggs.
  6. Divide the salad onto individual plates and top with one poached egg each. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
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A Marriage and a Seaside Paella

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A couple weeks back I was fortunate enough to be a guest at the wedding celebration of our friends and across-the-hall neighbors Nikolaus and Clarissa on the stunning island of Ibiza. No, it did not take place at the mega-club where Skrillex was in residency. The Ibiza we experienced was instead a dry, rolling farmland sheathed in a quiet interrupted only by lambs trotting through clumpy fields. All the wedding festivities were centralized around the hills of the tiny village of Santa Agnes de Corona, which the bride’s family has known as a home for nearly four decades. Read the rest of this entry »

Like Beige Floating in Beige: A Käsespätzle Recipe from Scratch

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After over three years of living in Germany and foolishly believing countless friends in their promises to show me how to make Käsespätzle from scratch, finally I receive an invitation. It is the invitation to beat all invitations. It comes from Lea, my friend and the girlfriend of the fabled Benoit (of canelé and tarte tatin notoriety). Read the rest of this entry »

Bulgogi and Vegetarian ‘Bulgogi’ : A Recipe

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In rural Spain, the tastes of South Korea are elusive. Or… not really. During my stay in the mountains outside Barcelona, I didn’t learn how to prepare calçots (the seasonal specialty that’s everywhere this time of year) nor did I try to recreate a melt-in-your mouth dish of stewed pigs feet I ate at the local restaurant. Instead I observed how to cook a staple of the Korean kitchen. Bulgogi, or ‘fire meat’ is one of the most popular Korean dishes, eaten both in the home and in barbecue restaurants as well as, apparently, in rural Catalunya.

I recently returned home after spending a couple of weeks in Catalunya at art artist residency, which consisted of a big old farmhouse renovated to accommodate up to twenty artists and writers living and working for short periods of time. I found myself there rather spontaneously and arrived without too many expectations. One perk of the residency is that dinner is prepared for all the artists nightly, allowing focus and attention only on the work at hand and not on such ‘mundane’ tasks as cooking a meal. While I appreciated this gesture in theory, naturally, being me, after three days I was itching to get into the kitchen and cook something inspiring for myself, even if it did take precious time away from working.

I was thrilled that among the other residents, two artists from Seoul were invited for the month. Apparently fed up or bored (or both) with Spanish food, they began at lunchtime a gradual commandeering of the kitchen to make Korean dishes. That is, within the confines of the limited ingredient availability found in rural Spain. One of the Koreans, Daniel, a bad-ass (just no other way to describe her) sculptor and street artist, was determined to perfect a version of Bulgogi and share it with the others in the group one night near the end of her stay. So, every day for a week, she could be found in the sunny kitchen chopping heads (yes, entire heads-see photo below) of garlic and marinating beef in a pungent soy sauce mixture, practicing her technique.

That last Thursday night, at the exceedingly early hour of 7pm – remember this is Spain – the dinner of beef and vegetarian bulgogi, along with a thick spring onion-cheese omelet was inhaled all of us, including the most traditional of the Spanish eaters, in utter silence.

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Recipe: Bulgogi

½ kilo beef, best is rib-eye or sirloin steak, cut across the grain in thin slices

½ head of garlic, minced

1 onion, cut in half and sliced into moon shaped pieces

2-3 spring onions, white and green parts, sliced

1/3 cup soy sauce

1 tablespoon sesame oil

1-2 tablespoons sugar

2 tablespoons sesame seeds

red chili flakes, to taste

black pepper, to taste

neutral oil, for frying pan

 

1. Combine the soy sauce, sesame oil, sugar, sesame seeds, chili flakes and pepper in a bowl and stir together.

2. Place the sliced beef, garlic, onions and spring onions in a bowl. Pour the marinade over the top and gently stir with your hands, lightly massaging the meat to infuse it with the sauce. Cover tightly and refrigerate overnight, or at least a few hours.

3. Heat the oil over medium flame in a frying pan. Sauté the mixture in batches, browning the meat on one side, and then turning over (flip only one time)

4. Serve with rice or lettuce leaves

 

Recipe: Tofu Bulgogi

¼  kilo firm tofu, cut into thin bite-sized squares

½ head of garlic, minced

1 onion, cut in half and sliced into moon shaped pieces

5 spring onions, white and green parts, sliced

1/3 cup soy sauce

1 tablespoon sesame oil

1-2 tablespoons sugar

2 tablespoons sesame seeds

red chili flakes, to taste

black pepper, to taste

neutral oil, for frying pan

 

1. Combine the soy sauce, sesame oil, sugar, sesame seeds, chili flakes and pepper in a bowl and stir together.

2. Place the tofu, garlic, onions and spring onions in a bowl. Pour the marinade over the top and very gently stir with your hands, since the tofu breaks easily. Cover tightly and refrigerate at least a few hours.

3. Heat the oil over medium flame in a frying pan. Sauté the mixture in batches, browning the tofu on one side, and then turning over (flip only one time).

4. Serve with rice or lettuce leaves

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Ukrainian Varenyky

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Before we can even begin to discuss Ukrainian food, please follow this simple set of instructions: chill a tumbler and a bottle of vodka in the freezer until they are both opaque with frost. Remove and pour yourself, oh, about 20 cl (I do hope you’ve chosen a large enough glass). If you are a man, drink in one fluid swill. If you are a woman, you are permitted to sip, but not too leisurely.

Good. Now that the most important element of our mise en place is taken care of, let’s talk about Ukrainian dumplings. The process of making Pelmeni (meat-filled dumplings) and Varenyky (vegetarian dumplings) from scratch is admittedly a time-consuming one, but also fun and even meditative, so if you have time, I would recommend inviting few friends, chilling a larger bottle of vodka and whiling away a few hours over small rounds of dough.

This is just the way we did it in friends’ Theodora and Benjamin’s cozy kitchen a couple weeks ago. Both are excellent cooks, interested and skilled in an astonishing range of cuisines, but at my urging Theodora kindly demonstrated some classic dishes from her native Ukraine. During our lengthy dumpling preparation, Benjamin proved just as capable with quintessential Eastern European tastes, producing palatable appetizers of smoked trout toasts with cucumber dill salad and serving up perfectly spicy Bloody Marys, all while tending to a rich stock simmering steadily on the stove.

Theodora emigrated with her family from Ukraine to Germany in the early ‘90s. Though she describes her own parents’ cooking as eclectic, growing up she managed to learn the ways of the traditional cuisine on visits back to Ukraine with her grandmother, who would think nothing of spending a few hours in the kitchen making Varenyky from scratch. Compounding the difficulty of this feat was the fact that the inside of Gran’s house in rural Ukraine was without running water. Taking into consideration our contemporary habits of popping a pack of ravioli in a pot of boiling water, this indeed sounds challenging. But on a visit outside to the well to get some water, one also would encounter parsley or dill plants the size of small trees growing in the garden, alert and ready for picking.

In Berlin we are blessed with a great number of resources for Russian groceries, including one in particular that I’ve been meaning to visit for ages, a 24-hour supermarket in Charlottenburg. So, if you get a hankering for Varenyky at, say, 3 am on a Thursday morning, rest assured you can pick up a jar of preserved tomatoes like the kind we used as a side dish, or a package of pickled cabbage, which we fried with onions as the dumplings’ filling. Even still, Ukrainian dumplings can be made easily with very normal ingredients found just about anywhere in any season: flour, eggs, ground meat, root vegetables and, of course, dill. The combination of flavors like beets and dill will taste definitively Eastern European to most. When you recall how many different cuisines have a proprietary version of dumplings (I’ve already written about a bunch of them- for example, here and here), you realize that they represent a kind of lowest-common-denominator food. Roll out some dough thinly and fill with basically whatever you have lying or growing around. Close it up somehow (this usually depends on what the filling is and where you come from, but interestingly enough, I experienced the same style of dumpling closure for both Pelmeni and Chinese dumplings). Boil in a broth or water and serve hot with a simple sauce.

Call them what you will, but dumplings have that satisfying and simple constitution that makes them the go-to comfort food the world round.

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Recipe: Ukrainian Dumplings (Varenyky and Pelmeni)

Note about amount: you can scale these up if you want to serve lots of people or freeze leftovers, very handy given the lengthy process

For the dough:

2.5 cups all-purpose flour (plus a few more tablespoons as needed)

½ cup water (plus a few more tablespoons as needed)

1 egg

1 tsp salt

For the Pelmeni filling:

1 carrot, finely grated

1 onion, very finely chopped

2 cloves garlic, finely grated

approx. ¼ kilo ground beef

lots of salt and pepper

For the Pelmeni finishing:

butter

dill

For the Varenyky filling:

1 onion, finely chopped

1 package (500 grams) sauerkraut (‘kapusta’) or cabbage

For the Varenyky finishing:

1 onion, finely chopped

lardons or bits of bacon

1 tbsp vegetable oil

1. Make the dough: Mix the flour and salt together in a bowl, turn out onto a working surface and form into a mound. Make a hole in the center of the mound and crack the egg into it. As you begin to mix the dough together with your hands, gradually add the water. After a few minutes of mixing, it will come together. Knead for a few more minutes. You may need to add a bit more flour or water depending on how sticky or dry it is. You know it’s ready when it is smooth and elastic. Form into a ball, wrap in plastic and set aside to rest in the refrigerator (at least 20 minutes) until just before you roll it out.

2. Prepare the fillings: For the Pelmini, finely grate a carrot and two cloves of garlic (yes, Ukrainian cooking uses a lot of garlic and onion, but if you are drinking vodka, you shouldn’t have to worry about their effects). Finely dice one onion and mix together in a large bowl with the ground meat and lots of salt and pepper.

For the Varenyky: finely dice one onion. Warm one tablespoon of vegetable oil in a skillet and sauté the onion until soft. Add the package of sauerkraut or the cabbage (we used a 500 gram package of a polish brand of ‘kapusta’) and continue to cook over medium heat for about five minutes.

3. Remove dough from refrigerator and divide into two pieces. Roll out the first piece very thinly on a clean surface dusted with flour. Using a biscuit cutter or the top edge of a wine glass, cut 2-3 in (5-7.5 cm) rounds in the dough. For a really fun way to roll out dough and stamp the rounds, take a look at the ladies’ preparation in this video about Ukrainians cooking in New York City.

4. Fill the round with a tablespoon or so (however much you can fit without it bursting open) of filling. If you are making Varenyky, fold the round of dough in half to create a half-circle, and pinch around the edges, using water if needed to make the edges stick to each other. When you reach the two ends of the circle’s radius, pull both sides of the dough down to meet each other and pinch to seal (see photos). If you are making Pelmeni, the beginning is the same. Form a half circle, but then, starting from the left bottom edge, pinch with your left thumb and fold the pinched dough forward slightly with your right fingers. Continue along the length of the edge, from right to left (see photos – I found this one trickier to master). Repeat with the other half of the dough and filling and set aside folded dumplings.

5. Bring a large pot of water to a boil. If you have some handy, you can also use broth. We used half chicken stock and half water to cook our dumplings. Toss the dumplings into the boiling water and cook through until they float, and then a couple minutes longer- the meat-filled ones will take a few minutes longer than the vegetarian.  With a slotted spoon, remove the dumplings from the pot and place in a bowl or serving dish.

6. For the Pelmeni, sprinkle a couple tablespoons of butter over top, along with some fresh chopped dill as garnish. For the Varenyky, we sautéed a chopped onion and some lardons in a frying pan and then slicked it over the finished dumplings as a sauce.

To lighten the dish, serve with whole jarred tomatoes and a simple side salad of cooked and grated beets, with grated garlic, chopped dill, walnut oil and a squeeze of lemon.

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Meatballs with Rosemary White Wine Sauce or Frankie’s Polpette

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This is a recipe I’ve wanted to share for a long time. It is about a meatball, but not the kind with tomato sauce or spaghetti or anything having to do with a slow-cooker. It is a somewhat more refined meatball, but still one that can be made en masse, lending itself easily to large events or holiday gatherings.

The preparation is Italian in origin, but with a little practice, you will find that you don’t need Nonna herself in the kitchen to make a stellar batch. For our monthly Dritte Mitte aperitivo, a heaping bowl of polpette has become a mainstay, one of a handful of dishes that feeds up to 100 people. The bite-sized meatballs satisfy, with a savory yet citrusy and herbaceous undertone. They also look impressive, but do not pose an enormous burden in the kitchen. One of our quintet, Frank, has mastered the art of polpette. Though he is no more versed in Italian cuisine than your average German guy, Frank has with practice become the primary responsible party for the preparation of the polpette each month.

A good ground meat is the first order of business– either all beef or, as is more common in Italy, a combination of beef and pork. Next comes a loaf of plain white sliced bread, with the crusts cut off, soaked in milk and hand-mixed into the meat. A few eggs, a good dose of grated parmesan and lots of salt (plus strong hands) is all it takes to finish the basic recipe. The balls should be rolled on the small size, so that they can be cooked through rather quickly, and tossed in a dish lightly dusted with flour. A frying pan is warmed to medium heat with a slick of olive oil, filled (not crammed!) with meatballs and fried to a light brown. Pour a glass or so of white wine into the pan (with practice you will know when), along with a sprig of rosemary. Let it all cook, the crisp flavors of the wine and the rosemary infusing the meatballs. Once the liquid has reduced, squeeze in a bit of lemon juice into the pan, stir, and turn out into a bowl. Repeat and repeat and repeat, depending on how many or how hungry the group is.

Since I think intentionality is always important when someone does something well, I asked Frank what he thinks about while he lovingly rolls his perfect balls of meat. He responded, not missing a beat, “I think about the fact that I’ve never eaten one.” You see, Frankie is gluten-intolerant, thus both the bread and the flour in the recipe unfortunately prohibit him from testing the results. That’s right, I thought. He’d never even tried them. After two years of rolling polpette every month, you would think that once, just once, he would succumb to meaty, citrusy temptation and stuff one into his mouth, in a moment of blind insanity. But no, never. Maybe it’s actually the mystery of the polpette, the unrequited anticipation of the taste, that makes Frank so excel at their preparation. When you can’t actually eat that thing you have taken so long to cook, the end result is abstracted, and no longer food, but something higher– art?

 

Frankie’s Polpette : Recipe

1.5 kilo ground meat, combination of beef and pork

4 eggs

one loaf of sliced white sandwich bread, crusts removed

milk, enough to soak the bread

100 grams parmesan, finely grated

4 teaspoons of salt, or to taste

a few large sprigs of rosemary

olive oil

approx. 1 bottle of white wine (just cheap table wine)

juice from two lemons

 

Process:

1. Soak the bread in a small bowl of milk until it softens. It may be easier to do this in stages so that it really soaks through, taking small stacks of bread and pouring the milk over them into the bowl.

2. Crumble bread between your fingers and begin to incorporate into the ground meat. Add the four eggs and mix everything with your hands.

3. Add the grated parmesan and then the salt (don’t be shy with the salt), mixing well so that everything is evenly combined.

4. Roll the raw meat mixture into small balls in your palms (bite-sized). Place balls into a lightly-floured dish and toss to coat. Set aside prepared meat balls.

5. Heat a frying pan to medium and add a tablespoon or so of olive oil. Fry together as many meatballs as the pan can hold, without crowding them. Shake or stir gently with a spoon until the meatballs are lightly, evenly browned and almost cooked through.

6. Add a cup or so of the white wine, as well as one large sprig of rosemary (whole). Shake the pan occasionally and cook until the wine has reduced and the sauce appears to have thickened.

7. Squeeze some lemon juice into the pan, stir and pour out into a large serving bowl.

8. Wipe out the pan and repeat the cooking process with the rest of the raw meatballs.

italian meatballs recipe

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Pad Thai: Recipe for the Original Street Food

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Having never travelled to Thailand myself, what little experience I have had with Thai cuisine has been stir-fry dishes from your average, “westerned-down” restaurant. No doubt there are some excellent ones out there: one of my favorites from my New York years is Sripraphai, a renowned Thai eatery hidden away in Woodside, Queens. But in Germany my usual experience is that even among decent quality Asian restaurants, there is a frustrating lack of spice and surprising flavors, a dumbing-down to palates that are accustomed to blander foods. Though there are a couple of great Vietnamese restaurants and one or two Korean places that are passable, authentic Thai restaurants in Berlin remain elusive.

This is precisely why I had been trying to find an excuse to visit the Thai Food Market in Wilmersdorf ever since I heard whispers of it through various food-loving friends. Admittedly it’s no big secret, having appeared on countless ‘insider guides’ and blogs to Berlin food and culture. That said, it always felt a bit off my own worn and beaten weekend path of Mitte-Kreuzberg-Prenzlauer Berg’s ternion. The excuse came the last two weekends in a row: the unmistakable dread of winter setting in, what feels like just a few weeks too early. There’s something special about the fleeting days of autumn, when the only really pleasant times to be outside are the sunny hours of high noon. It becomes that impetus that pushes you out of laziness or routine, in an effort to gulp down a few last outdoor adventures before winter conquers indefinitely.

I was surprised by how low-key the Thai Food Market was. I knew it was outdoors, but had expected something a bit more established, similar to how food trucks operate in Los Angeles, perhaps. When I arrived in the small, but quite green Preußenpark, however, if I hadn’t known to look out for the group of Thai vendors, I might have mistaken the ‘market’ for a series of private picnics. Because basically it is just that: the Thai ladies actually began selling their savory and sweet dishes as a result of interest in homespun picnics that would take place with their friends and family every weekend in Preußenpark. Each ‘stand’ is merely a series of colorful tarps, umbrellas, tupperware, hot plates and pots spread out to a varying degree, with two or three seated ladies gently hawking their wares to passer-bys. Which brings me to my nagging question of how these vendors actually slip by the health regulators!? Don’t get me wrong, I found the operations all to be exceedingly sanitary and overall clean-looking. Kind of like being in your grandmother’s house. If your grandmother had a habit of schlepping her entire kitchen to the park every weekend and cooking for you cross-legged on the ground. Regardless, I would guess that half of the restaurant kitchens or cafes in Berlin are not nearly up to snuff with the cleanliness standards of these women cooking on tarps spread out over the grass.

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My favorite stand was that of an older Thai lady, tiny and weather-worn, with a sizable line in front of her impressive spread. Sitting on her tarp with socked feet, surrounded by tubs and containers of fresh ingredients and bottles of sauces, it became apparent that she was making something to order. This was in contrast to most of the vendors who tend to have large pots of stir-fry already made or fried dumplings churning consistently out of a magical cast iron cooker powered by god-knows-what. The Little Thai Lady didn’t need to hawk. She was queen of her kingdom, taking in orders, single pan in hand, calm and focused, despite the ever-growing line in front of her. She was making Pad Thai, with either chicken or tofu, fresh per single order.

I had the opportunity to watch her in action during the course of a few rounds, as I waited to order my own dish. It was astonishing to observe how easily the Pad Thai came together when all the ingredients were ready and prepared, sitting in tubs waiting to be tossed in. A good dose of oil into the frying pan, and crack! a whole large egg straight on top. Let it sit, no need to be fussy. Pivot over to the enormous vat of cooked rice noodles, grab a handful or two on a plastic plate, reserve for later. Pivot back to hot plate. Break up the egg slightly, not quite a scramble. Grab handful of bean sprouts, another of green onions. Throw ‘em in. Noodles, yes, toss those in now too. Squirt, squirt: lots of lime juice. Now some tofu or chicken, pieces pre-cooked. To the left is a large vat of thick, brown sauce- pour two ladles over the noodles. Stir again, more furiously this time. Maybe another squirt of lime. Stir stir stir. Scrape out onto plastic plate. Top with more green onions, plus a slice of fresh lime and some cilantro leaves. Finally a couple good spoonfuls of finely ground peanut. Done. Repeat. And, mind you, all while never leaving a seated position.

Since Pad Thai is a classic street food in Thailand, I think the unfussy way Little Thai Lady cooks her version is probably pretty close to authentic. It was certainly delicious, with the perfect ratio of savor to sweet, plus a good dose of sour from the plentiful lime juice. And at five euros for a heaping plate, you can’t really go wrong. As we happily ate on the grass behind her ‘kitchen’, we continued to watch her frying away, guessing at how much profit she makes in a day. Probably not much, we gathered. Even with a steady stream of patrons, her preparation time must be significant. Although she had two able-bodied young grandsons on the side, to whom she would occasionally beckon for reserve green onions, they for the most part just lounged on a blanket, playing with their space phones.

Little Thai Lady was a true force. She was out there cooking in the elements – sure, to make a living – but also, I think, out of passion for her food and her culture. She does what she does well, and with care. What I saw was not a woman at work but an act of generosity, of bringing real Thai spice to some unsuspecting Berliners.

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After observation, I attempted to re-create Little Thai Lady’s tofu Pad Thai. It is my own humble recipe, but do give it a try. Feedback welcome!

 

Pad Thai with Tofu

For two large servings

-Pad thai rice noodles (Banh Pho)

-3 Tbsp. neutral oil

-1 package firm tofu

-1 cup roasted peanuts, crushed

-2 eggs

-2 small shallots

-2 big handfuls of bean sprouts

-1 bunch of Chinese chives, cut into 2-inch lengths

-Juice from 1-2 limes, plus extra wedges for garnish

-Fresh cilantro leaves

For Sauce:

-1 Tbsp tamarind paste

-1 1/2 tsp. fish sauce

-1 Tbsp. soy sauce

-3 tsp. brown sugar

-1 tsp. rice vinegar

-1-2 Tbsp Sriracha sauce (to taste)

-2 Tbsp. water

-1/2 tsp. chili powder (to taste)

1. Prepare tofu: I like to slice the block into three pieces, widthwise, and squeeze out water by leaving for 20 minutes or so between layers of paper towels, a plate on top to weigh it down. Remove paper towels and dice into bite-size pieces. Heat non-stick pan or wok to medium. Thinly slice one shallot and fry in a Tbsp. of neutral oil. When soft, add another Tbsp of oil and the tofu pieces and fry until golden. When about half-way cooked, you can sprinkle in some soy sauce if you want an extra flavor kick. Set aside over paper towels to drain oil.

2. Prepare sauce: in a small saucepan on very low heat, combine all ingredients and whisk together. Taste and adjust spice as desired. Remove from heat and let cool- it will become thicker as it cools.

3. Cook noodles according to package directions, immediately rinsing with cold water. Drain and cool in a colander.

4. Chop Chinese chives and slice the thicker white part in half lengthwise. Separate the very green ends from the lighter green/white parts. You will use these as garnish later. Wash bean sprouts and set aside. Squeeze the juice from 1-2 limes and set aside in a small bowl.

5. Now you are ready to put together the stir-fry. Depending on the size of your frying pan, you will need to decide whether to cook one serving at a time or two at once. While Little Thai Lady first cracked the egg into the oiled pan, I chose to pre-cook first a sliced shallot in the remaining 1 Tbsp of oil, and then the Chinese chives and sprouts.

6. After a minute or two, push vegetables to one side of the pan and crack the egg(s) into the other. Let sit for about 30 seconds and then break up with a spatula or wooden fork, incorporating into the vegetables. Add tofu, one spoonful of the Pad Thai sauce, and stir again. Grab rice noodles, by the handful, and toss into the pan. Add lime juice and stir together a little bit. Pour in Pad Thai sauce and stir well with spatula and wooden fork, until everything is incorporated.

7. Turn Pad Thai out onto plate(s). Top with reserved green parts of Chinese chives, a few cilantro leaves and a wedge of lime. Spoon two heaping tablespoons of crushed peanuts over top. Serve with fork and spoon.

tofu pad thai recipe

 

 

thai lady in wilmersdorf food market

convivialist food blog

tofu pad thai

Vacations, Feasts and the Restaurant Industry

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I have always thought the restaurants of Italy in France did it right. A couple weeks of closed doors in August comes at a time when precisely no one wants to be inside behind a hot oven. Allowing the full staff, from dishwasher to owner, to retreat from the stress and hustle of the restaurant industry for an entire two weeks seems not only generous, but … humane. In the US, people pride themselves for working hard, for only taking two weeks of vacation per year. In particularly in the food industry, which just never stops (or cannot stop, for purely economic reasons), vacation of more than two days is a rare luxury.

But this is not an advocacy post for more vacation in the United States (maybe later). It is rather to tell you about the dining possibilities that can ensue when restaurants DO decide to just go ahead and hang that ‘gone swimming’ sign for a couple weeks.

Last week I had the pleasure of attending a casual Italian feast in the countryside about an hour outside of Berlin, at Wehrmühle Biesenthal, a renovated landmark property dating back more than 750 years, which in recent times has been home of ART Biesenthal, a privately organized exhibition for contemporary art. Friends Federico, Wibke and Francesco of restaurant Da Baffi organized the dinner for a group of about 40 in collaboration with musicians The Group. Da Baffi is a cozy restaurant in Berlin Wedding and one of my favorites in the city, specializing in traditional and seasonal dishes from Emilia Romagna. The sourcing of their ingredients is an example of perfection-bordering-on-obsession, so I was anxiously starving myself all day in anticipation of what the trio would prepare in an outdoor environment. One far away from the safety of their own kitchen.

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When our five-person posse from Berlin arrived, hair still wet from a quick stop at a nearby lake (and run-in with a rain shower), we walked into the half-renovated barn to find the band and a makeshift bar, hip-looking people lounging about on sofas with Aperol spritz in hand, the brook of the mill babbling out the windows. Paul commented that this is the kind of thing you usually only read about in the New York Times Style section. I had to agree: the laid-back air, melodic music and smell of the grill just beginning to be fired up, all in superb countryside surroundings renovated with an urban taste for minimalist architecture.

After a short walk around the property, we headed over to the buffet and grill area, where Federico and Francesco (“Cisco”), along with a couple of assistants, were busy with last minute preparations. Superb cold dishes included a salad of buckwheat groats and oven vegetables, light dorade-stuffed bell peppers, panzanella salad from self-baked bread, and the restaurant’s signature, ultra-rich burrata over rucola. Cisco was manning a teepee-shaped barbecue, whose grill swung gently over top of the coals. He said he hadn’t used such a barbecue before, but the improvisation proved successful when we tasted the second course of grilled crayfish. I passed on the mango sauce, opting instead for a bit of olive oil and black sea salt as seasoning. At that point in the dinner I was already more than satiated, but I had spied a few steaks, as well as a large stash of octopus marinating beside the grill. Thus, I set off for another walk through the landscape to digest, the weather having cleared enough to see an oil-painted sunset in the distance.

The kilo-sized octopuses greeted me back at the grill with a smell that was at once repulsive and enticing. It half reminded me of a city sewer, and having smelled such a thing in an urban environment, I would have run the other way. But knowing the origins were emanating from fresh sea creatures, fire-grilling, I swallowed the slight gag reflex and stuck around for a first taste. Really my only experience with octopus prior to this one had been in salads at restaurants, or ‘pulpo’ dishes in Spain, and always with that distinct gummy-worm texture. Grilled octopus was somewhat of a revelation since, if prepared well as it was here by Da Baffi, it has a soft, gentle texture, crisping at the ends of the tentacles where the grilling does its real magic. The flavor was definitely of the sea, but mild and more tenderly meaty and substantial in texture. Similar to, dare I say, chicken?

I won’t even attempt to give you an expert recipe here, since I need to first experiment myself with grilling octopus. But there are a few tricks to the preparation that seem to be universal. The octopus is made up mostly of water, so the key to tenderness is to drive as much water out of the creature as possible before placing it on the grill. In Greece, this consists of the fisherman actually beating the freshly-caught beast against a rock, as many as 100 times. If you buy one from a fishmonger or grocery store, you can defrost it in the refrigerator for about a day, then braise it in some vegetable broth (you probably won’t need much broth as the octopus’s own liquid will be released in the process) and a wine cork. Many chefs say that the enzymes present in the cork aid in the release of water from the octopus. You will need to simmer it for about 45 minutes to 1.5 hours, depending on its size (check for done-ness with the tip of a sharp knife). Once this is finished, you can pull them out of the water and leave in the fridge overnight either alone or in a marinade of wine and some spices (recipes vary). Then, when you are ready to grill, just pull them out and set them over the flame until seared on both sides, the ends of the tentacles brown and crispy. Remove the head and cut the pieces of meat roughly, serving with a drizzle of olive oil and salt.

As far as I know, grilled octopus never appeared on the daily menu at Da Baffi. Though they weekly feature new dishes, there is a certain degree of experimentation and fun with cooking that can only happen outside the confines of the daily restaurant grind. Had they not opted for a few weeks’ summer closure, Federico, Wibke and Cisco most likely wouldn’t have endeavored to host such a decadent meal for their friends and fans. The constraints of time and schedule could not have allowed for the days of preparation that such a meal involves. The three owners of Da Baffi are among the best examples of good restaurant owners because they are truly generous, holding the pleasure of their customers –many of whom also happen to be their friends– in the highest regard. But there is one other essential ingredient that enables this generosity: the satisfaction of the cook as a creative individual, with the ability to function as an artist outside of the confines of the day-to-day. The occupation of the restaurateur and chef can be a thankless and grueling one, but giving it a little air and time can allow the big goblet of creativity to be re-filled.

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Cold Noodles Against High Heat

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Even in the depths of summer, it is unusual for the temperature in Berlin to reach the 30s, never mind reach the 30s for two weeks straight. Not accustomed to the heat and even less to air-conditioning, here we deal the old fashioned way: hand-held paper fans, en-masse exodus to the lakes, and specially-designed-to-cool foods. Like ice cream, loads of it. But eating ice cream multiple times per day (believe it or not) becomes tiresome and you eventually begin to crave something more satisfying and substantial to eat… then what?

Though she comes from Seoul, which surely has its share of hot and steamy, my friend and colleague Hae lan is unable to deal with the heat. When it’s too hot, she gets a sort of dreamy look in her eyes and then, slowly, begins to melt, sliding down her chair in a way that can only be reversed by the thought of something revivifying like…. cold noodles, anyone?

Hae lan and her friends from Maturlich served as guest chefs at our Dritte Mitte aperitivo last winter, but I must admit that on the evening they cooked, I was stuck behind the bar mixing drinks non-stop, and was unable to actually eat what they had prepared. So when she told me last week she would be preparing a cold noodle dish for a work event, I eagerly signed on to observe and assist, my sharpest knife in tote.

Cold noodle dishes are often served in South Korea in the summertime, as they are satisfying, but also cooling. Surprisingly cooling, actually. Despite a good dose of spicy kimchi on top, the dish was served with a hunk of ice on the side, which, although appearing strange, did wonders to help keep the noodles cold while eating. Cold noodles have another function, Hae lan explained. At the über-popular BBQ restaurants in South Korea (and abroad – Korean BBQ has certainly taken other large cities worldwide by storm) plain cold noodles are often ordered at the end of the meal, serving the purpose of soaking up any leftover sauces or bits of meat. YES.

In the case of our little meal, we made a very typical dish of Galbi, beef (or some people use pork) marinated in a mixture of soy sauce, garlic, green onion, sesame and honey. At a restaurant, you might grill this yourself at the table with your fellow diners, but we just wanted to give everyone a taste of it  (and did not have a table-top grill), so we cooked it in advance and served it as a side dish.

The basic components of the cold noodle dish we prepared are Somyun, thin wheat noodles (look a bit like angel hair pasta); kimchi mixed with Gochujang (a Korean red chili paste mix with fermented soy beans and sweetener) and honey; hard-boiled egg; thin strips of cucumber; and some seaweed crumbles. (see below for ‘shopping list’ photo cheat sheet.) Sounds simple, right? Well, it is in principle, but as I learned from Hae lan, there are lots of subtle ways that a good noodle dish can be made just a little bit better.

When any kind of external condition becomes strenuous, when we feel vulnerable, I think there is always a tendency towards what is most comforting and safe. In no small part is this also the case with extreme weather and eating habits. When the temperatures climb to 40°C, I go for the simple slices of watermelon that I grew up eating during the summer months, or the cold-brewed iced coffee that my roommate in New York would make during the doldrums of August heat. Likewise, if you’re from South Korea, you might grab a package of Somyun, some fermented cabbage and a big block of ice.

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Recipes: Korean Cold Noodles / Galbi

Ingredients:

for the noodle dish:

100 grams of Somyun, thin wheat noodles, per person

1 package of kimchi (or homemade)

3 heaping Tbsp. Gochujang, red chili paste

2 Tbsp. honey

a few sprinkles of rice vinegar

1 large cucumber, sliced into small matchsticks

eggs (1/2 per person)

1 package of small sheets of dry seaweed, crumbled

a few green onions for garnish, thinly sliced

for the Galbi:

filet of beef (or short ribs if you can find) thinly sliced, about 1 kilo, or a bit more depending on how many people you are

1 cup soy sauce

a few dashes of sesame oil

small onion, diced

green onions

garlic, mashed

chili powder

sesame seeds

3 tsp. honey

1. Make marinade for the Galbi. In a Tupperware container large enough to fit all the meat that you want to cook, mix together soy sauce, sesame oil, diced onion, finely sliced green onions, a couple of cloves of mashed garlic, a few sprinkles of chili powder, sesame seeds and honey.

2. Slice the meat into approx. 1 cm thick pieces and place inside the container with the marinade. Cover container and refrigerate for at least ½ hour, or as long as overnight.

3. Prepare kimchi mixture. Remove contents from one large package of kimchi (see photo) and cut the cabbage into smaller pieces. Place in a large bowl and add the red chili paste, honey and a few sprinkles of rice vinegar. Here, Hae lan recommended tasting the kimchi right out of the package, before mixing in the other ingredients, and then again afterwards, to get a taste for the difference. You really want to strike a harmonious balance between sour, sweet and spicy. Mix well and refrigerate for about a half hour.

4. Hard boil enough eggs so that each person will get a half. I suggest making one or two extra in case the shells do not come off so beautifully, as was the case with ours! Hae lan told me that the egg is often the first thing to be eaten in a Korean meal, because it is thought to ‘cover the stomach with protein’. When cooled, remove shells and cut eggs in half lengthwise. Set aside.

5. Wash and cut one large cucumber into thin matchsticks. Slice green onions for garnish and set aside. Take one package of the dried seaweed sheets (see photo) and crumble with your fingers into a small bowl. All of these will be used later on.

6. Meanwhile, your meat should be finished marinating. Ideally, this can be cooked on a grill, but frying in a pan coated with a little bit of vegetable oil also works fine. Cook for about 8 minutes or until cooked through but still tender. Remove meat from pan along with its juices onto a plate. Garnish with sliced green onion and set aside.

7. Boil water (can also start this while you are preparing the meat) in a large pot and drop in 100 grams of noodles for each person, being careful not to crowd the pot with too many. The trick to cooking the noodles in the best way, so that they remain tender and not mushy, is to watch the boiling water closely. Have a glass of cold water ready. After a minute or two of cooking, the water will start to boil over. At this point, add the cold water and stir. Repeat two more times when the water boils over, cooking the noodles a total of only about five minutes. Pour out the noodles over a strainer and rinse under cold water tap, massaging the noodles/pulling them apart with your hands.

8. Once the noodles are cooled by the running water and drained completely, take a one-portion-sized amount in your hand and wrap slightly around your fingers to create a kind of ball of noodles (Hae lan did this very elegantly, but I suspect it takes some practice.) Put onto a plate and top with two scoops of the kimchi mixture, making sure to get some of the spicy juice as well, some cucumber matchsticks, crumbled seaweed, one half of a hard-boiled egg and some garnish of green onion.

9. Take one ice cube (straight from the freezer) and place it just beside the noodles on the plate, to keep the whole dish as cold as possible.

10. Serve a portion to each of your friends and the Galbi in the center of the table to share.

I found it deliciously spicy, but nevertheless cooling on a hot night.

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Shopping list cheat sheet (sesame oil, gochujang, somyun, kimchi, seaweed sheets)

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korean food recipe

Seasonal Salsa – A Recipe from Maine and… France?

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Everyone was talking about my aunt Nancy’s strawberry salsa when I was home visiting Maine a couple weeks ago. Strawberries are perfectly in season there now, and though I would have preferred being in Maine a month later for blueberry picking, I was not in any position to turn down these perfectly-ripened berries. The strawberry is never something I had considered for a savory dish. When freshly picked, I think they’re perfect just the way they are and don’t need much fluffing and fussing to make delicious. But strawberry salsa, with tortilla chips. Hmmm, well, why not? Come to think of it, strawberries and fresh tomatoes can have a similar texture, and when a tomato is good, it is in fact also quite sweet. So, matched with something more vegetal and sharp, it might just be a golden summer treat. And it was. Everything I had hoped for. My aunt and sisters matched the salsa with these cinnamon chips, which made the snack more dessert-like, but I found it more satisfying with normal tortilla chips.

When I saw the recipe, I was surprised (confused?) to see a half up of “Catalina Dressing” on the list of ingredients. What in god’s name is Catalina Dressing, I thought. Is that like, a bottle of Thousand Islands or Creamy Ranch, or something equally turn-offish? Where does the name Catalina come from? It sounded vaguely Italian to me. Or from Catalina Island in Southern California? Yes, that must be it.

Like me, you might be suspicious of recipes that include a bottle or a can or a jar of something or other from the salad dressing aisle of the grocery store. “Just add two cans of Campbell’s mushroom soup and bake at 350°- it’s delicious,” you can practically hear a one of the Stepford Wives declare. But the strawberry salsa tasted so perfect and naturally sweet, that I couldn’t believe this “secret ingredient.”

A quick google search yielded a photo of a reddish colored Kraft bottle with the subtitle “Anything Dressing”. Ok, great, but what IS it? I urge you to check out www.kraftfoodservice.com and take a peek under their portfolio of dressings. Yes, portfolio, as if they were works of art and not chemical compounds. Kraft Catalina Dressing is, and I quote: Red French dressing characterized by a sweet, tomato flavor and tomato-red color. Basically, upon researching a bit further, I learned it is a kind of ketchup and mustard salad dressing with a bit of chili sauce. This is apparently what American food giant Kraft considers to be French.

The original salsa I tasted in Maine was exceedingly fresh and, I admit, had no taste of anything processed or Kraft-like. So, if you have access to the above-mentioned in your local supermarket, do go ahead and give it a try, for convenience’s sake. A simulation of Catalina Dressing using fresh ingredients is, however, quite easy and probably cheaper. It should stay fresh in the refrigerator for a few days, so it can be a great way to process strawberries that you may have over-picked. From my experience, though, with a group of eight people on a hot summer day, it won’t stay around for more than a half hour.

(photo above: adorable wooden strawberry – flea market find; odd thing found inside a bell pepper; fresh strawberry)

 

recipe strawberry salsa

 

Recipe – Strawberry Salsa

Yield:  approx. 3 cups

2 l/2 cups or about 500 grams finely chopped fresh strawberries

1 medium sized chopped green or yellow bell pepper

2 Tbsp. chopped green onions

2 Tbsp. minced fresh parsley

1/3 cup “Catalina salad dressing”, homemade version uses the following:

-1 small/medium tomato, halved and seeded

-1/4 cup vegetable oil

-2 Tbsp. red wine vinegar

-1 tsp. grainy mustard

-1 1/2 tsp. granulated sugar

-a few dashes of hot sauce or to taste

-salt and pepper

Tortilla chips

1. In a bowl, combine the strawberries, green pepper, onions and parsley.

2. To make the salad dressing, place the tomato pieces in a food processor or blender and process with the oil, vinegar, mustard, sugar and hot sauce. Taste and add salt and pepper as needed.

3. Stir the salad dressing into the strawberry mixture.

4. Cover and refrigerate for 2 hours.

5. Serve with tortilla chips and lemonade.

 

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