Friday, January 30, 2015

Crazy Guacamole

Crazy Guacamole

So, I think the Super Bowl is this weekend. I'm not 100% sure, since I don't follow sports at all, but I've heard people talking about it. I can't tell you who's playing (other than that it will be two NFL teams), but I do know one thing: it's all about the food.

Chips and dip are an ideal snack to serve during the game, and the best such combination in my opinion is tortilla chips with guacamole.

Guacamole is one of those foods that elicits strong opinions from some people. There are those that insist that a "purist" version is the best, the kind of guacamole with as few ingredients as possible, like Diana Kennedy's classic recipe that contains just 6 ingredients: avocado, onion, tomato, cilantro, salt and serrano chiles. If this sounds like your thing, you'll love the guacamole at Rosa Mexicano, since their recipe is simple like this.

Oyamel guacamole
A bit debate among guacamole enthusiasts is whether it should contain lime juice. I'm in the "yes" camp on this. I love how it adds a bit of tang, which goes so well with the spice and salt. If this sounds like your thing, you'll love my Basic Guacamole Recipe, which is like the Kennedy/Rosa guacamole but with lime juice. Perfect!

From there, you can make things more interesting, if you want. My favorite local guacamole is what you get at Oyamel. It ups the ingredients to 8, adding crumbled queso fresco to the mix and substituting tomatillo for the tomato. I love how tomatillo gives it a nice fruity tart punch beyond just what you get with the lime juice. I have a recipe for a roasted tomatillo version that's similar to this.

My Basic Guacamole drizzled with Tabasco chipotle hot sauce and served with blue corn chips

Some other things you can do: add a little ground cumin or coriander. Use other types of citrus juice. Use other types of chiles, such as jalapeños for extra heat or chipotles for a little smoke. Or add hot sauce. You can add nuts for crunch, like this Spicy Pistachio Guacamole inspired by New York City's Empellon Cocina.

All of these are great ideas, but they're all pretty pedestrian when it comes to guacamole. Inside-the-box type stuff.

What if you want to get crazy, I mean really crazy with your guacamole.

Enter The Black Ant, the New York City East Village Mexican restaurant I raved about last week.

The Black Ant's guacamole

As I discussed, we had a fabulous dinner there last month. Everything was great, but the thing I can't stop thinking about was their guacamole. It was so good. Not just because they served it with the thick kind of corn chips I really crave for guacamole (and rarely get served), but because the chef isn't afraid to dress the guacamole up with all sorts of unusual ingredients. Of course, it starts with avocado, and had the usual tomatoes and cilantro, but from there, it included stuff like toasted corn, dried chiles, orange wedges and sliced radishes. I think there were more ingredients too. And it all worked together well with those ingredients adding complementary flavors and texture.

It's simple enough to create a guacamole like this. Just make a basic recipe and mix in whatever additional ingredients you like for additional heat, tang and texture. I picked up a 9 oz. container of the Whole Foods guacamole and mixed in a diced dried ancho chile, dried corn snack, 1/2 an orange and a sliced radish. The extra ingredients play well with the avocado and add unexpected elements like extra crunch or heat. This seems like the perfect way to add unexpected fun to a great Super Bowl spread.

Crazy Guacamole
Inspired by the guacamole at The Black Ant, New York City

Basic guacamole recipe (or good store-bought, 9 to 16 oz. such as is available at Whole Foods)
1/4 cup to 1/2 cup toasted corn snack (or other crunchy ingredients, such as nuts or chicharones)
1 ancho chile, step and seeds removed, finely chopped
1/2 orange, peeled and cut into chunks (or other citrus)
1 radish, thinly sliced
White, yellow or blue corn tortilla chips

1. Mix up a batch of basic guacamole or use good store-bought guacamole.

2. Stir in other ingredients as desired for heat, tang and/or texture.

3. Serve with tortilla chips.


Basic Guacamole

Roasted Tomatillo Guacamole

Spicy Pistachio Guacamole

Restaurant: The Blank Ant

Restaurant: Rosa Mexicano

Restaurant: Oyamel

Restaurant: Empellon Cocina

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Pressure Cooker Pasta Inverno

Pressure Cooker Pasta Inverno

If, like me, you're a fan of different types of pasta dishes, you've probably come across Pasta Primavera, a dish of lightly cooked spring vegetables ("primavera" means "spring" in Italian) with pasta and fresh herbs. It's a wonderful dish to serve as the first spring produce arrives, things like snap peas, bell peppers and scallions are perfect in it.

I was thinking lately that winter vegetables should also have their own pasta dish, so I decided to come up with a version of "Pasta Inverno" (hopefully you've caught on that "inverno" is Italian for "winter").

There's a key difference in cooking winter vegetables from spring ones: the winter ones generally take longer to cook. While spring vegetables are done with a quick blanche or sauté, hearty winter vegetables like butternut squash and cauliflower need a good roast or braise. One of the delights of Pasta Primavera is that comes together quickly. How could I make a similar wintertime dish that wouldn't take all day to make?

Enter the pressure cooker: a wonderful time-saving device that drastically reduces the cooking time for ingredients that would otherwise require hours to tenderize. About a year ago, I did a series of pressure cooker recipes (links for which appear at the end of this article) and it really does reduce cooking times for all sorts of recipes from meats to grains to vegetables.

In this recipe, I used the pressure cooker to shorten the braising time for a winter vegetable pasta sauce composed of cauliflower, butternut squash, kale and canned tomatoes. While it still takes time to prep and sauté the vegetables, the pressure cooking does make this into a dish that can be done in about an hour (the time it takes to bring the cooker up to pressure may vary depending on its size; my 8 quart model seems to take longer than I would often like, but does give me the flexibility to cook a large quantity).

The pressure cooker made nice work of this sauce. I let the vegetables sauté in the olive oil for about 15 minutes. That may sound like a long time, but it's a pretty large quantity of vegetables. Make sure you use a pressure cooker large enough to handle the volume or, if needed, pare down the quantity of vegetables in the recipe. Once the cooker came up to pressure, I cooked the vegetables under pressure for about 10 minutes before using the quick-release method remove pressure. The sauce was very hot, and it continued to cook the pasta a bit after I stirred in the noodles. Because of that, I recommend cooking the pasta a little shy of al dente so that the noodles won't be too soft when served (I like my pasta chewy).

Pressure Cooker Pasta Inverno

1 lb. dried tube pasta (penne or ziti)
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 yellow onion, diced
3 garlic cloves, smashed
1 lb. butternut squash, cut into 1/2 inch cubes
1 head of cauliflower, cored and cut into small florets
6-7 kale leaves, stems removed/discarded and leaves chopped
28 oz. can diced tomatoes
6 oz. can tomato paste
1/2 cup dry white wine
1 cup water
1 tbsp. dried oregano
2 tsp. dried thyme
1 tbsp. chopped fresh rosemary
Dash of ground nutmeg
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Grated parmigiano-reggiano cheese, at table

1. Cook pasta in salted water according to package directions for al dente or just a little shy of al dente. Drain and set aside.

2. Heat olive oil in the pressure cooker pot set over medium heat. Add onion, garlic, squash and cauliflower, and saute until softened, about 13-15 minutes. Add kale, diced tomatoes, tomato paste, wine, oregano, thyme, rosemary, nutmeg, salt and pepper. Stir to combine. Lock lid and increase heat to medium-high to bring contents up to high pressure (note: adjust cooking temperatures as needed for your cooker and stove, these directions are for my Fagor Duo 8 qt. pressure cooker used on an electric range). Once pressurized, reduce heat as appropriate to maintain pressure (medium-low for me) and cook at high pressure for 10 minutes.

3. Remove cooker from stove and set in the sink. Release pressure with quick release method. Remove the lid and add the cooked pasta. Stir to combine.

4. Serve pasta in shallow bowls with grated parmesan at the table.


Pasta Primavera

Pasta Primavera with Asparagus Pesto

Equipment: Pressure Cooker

Cooking with a Pressure Cooker

Pressure Cooker Barbecue Spareribs

Pressure Cooker Chicken Paprikash

Pressure Cooker Mole Chicken Chili

Pressure-Cooked Quinoa Salad with Cauliflower

Pressure Cooker Spring Risotto

Monday, January 26, 2015

Recent New York City Restaurants

[Update: White Street has closed.]

There are a lot of reasons we enjoy occasional visits to New York City, but one of the best ones is the food. We always eat well when we go there, and I put a lot of thought into where we should go, balancing the desire to try new places with the tug of old favorites.

Among the latter, we recently enjoyed the consistently great pastas at Lupa Osteria Romana and the Roman-style pizza we love at Spunto Thin Crust Pizza, sister restaurant of Posto and Vezzo.

The new places we visited included a coal-fired pizzeria, exquisitely well-prepared classics and our new favorite Mexican restaurant.

Guacamole - The Black Ant
The Black Ant

We've sampled Mexican restaurants in New York before, but hadn't yet found a true favorite until we visited The Black Ant. Chris found this restaurant in an article about the recent surge in great Mexican restaurants in New York. The Mexican food at this small East Village space was creative, beautifully composed and incredibly delicious.

Given it's name, expect to find black ants inside, although not in the food--they adorn the walls in various sizes. However, there are other insects on the menu: grasshoppers show up in a bisque and a hash. We stayed away from ordering invertebrates and still found plenty to love on The Black Ant's diverse menu. 

Devil in Oaxaca - The Black Ant

The drinks and guacamole quickly established that this was a place we were going to like. The avocado dip arrives is mashed as usual with tomato and cilantro, but is also artfully decked out with crunchy toasted corn, dried black chiles, radishes and an orange wedge. It comes served with the kind of thick tortilla chips we love, which really are necessary to hold up to a chunky guacamole. Cocktails showed similar inventiveness. I loved the Devil in Oaxaca, made with mezcal and carrot juice.

Our entrees were just as stellar, both of which featured a deliciously prepared meat surrounded by a delightful assortment of vegetable sides. Chris sprang for the roasted suckling pig with corn mole, smoked camote (sweet potato) and pickled cauliflower, the last of of which had a nice spicy kick. There were also a couple of crispy pieces we suspect were chicharonnes, Mexican pork rinds. I had the short ribs braised in mezcal and served with chichilo negro (like a dark mole sauce), horchata chocoyotes (tasty little fried corn dumplings), sun choke purée and a topping of salad with pomegranate seeds and micro greens.

Drunkie Monkey - The Black Ant

We capped off our Black Ant experience with the Drunkie Monkey dessert, a wonderfully rich piece of plantain cake. Like all the dishes that proceeded it, the cake is beautifully plated with other ingredients that add visual interest and flavor.

Of the places we visited this year, The Black Ant was our easy favorite, an establishment with friendly service, good cocktails and food that is both creative and delicious. We'll definitely be going back.

Macherroni with Pork Ragu - Hearth

To be a finalist for the James Beard Award for outstanding restaurant requires "consistent quality and excellence in food, atmosphere, and service." The restaurant also has to have been in service for at least 10 years. Basically, they should really know what they're doing.

Hence, we had high expectations for Hearth, which was among last year's nominees (it lost to San Francisco's famed Vietnamese restaurant, The Slanted Door). When it came the food, we were not disappointed. Everything we ate at Hearth was exquisite--thoughtfully composed, brilliantly executed and thoroughly delicious. Had anyone been hoping to scrounge for crumbs from our finished plates, they would have turned up empty handed.

Lettuces and Vegetables Salad (with Puffed Wild Rice) - Hearth
My "Lettuces and Vegetables" starter salad was a particularly good example of how Hearth brings sophistication and creativity to simple ingredients. The salad's mixture of greens are tossed with fresh vegetables like carrots and radishes and roasted ones like carrots and beets. What really made this salad great was the topping of crunch puffed wild rice. I love adding crunch to salads with ingredients like nuts, seeds and croutons. Never before had I seen a salad with puffed rice. Such a great idea. Chris's starter, a mixture of roasted squashes with pumpkin seeds, honey and ricotta, was also very good.

Roast chicken breast has become a common fixture on many restaurant menus lately (I still hold up Palena's as the best I've ever had), but that shouldn't be a reason not to order Hearth's, which is excellent. The breast was juicy, tender and smoky and served with chicken sausage, celery and crispy apples, a wonderfully winter combination. We also loved the macherroni with pork ragu in which oversized tube pasta are coated with just the right amount of meat sauce and served with rosemary and creamy whipped ricotta.

Pumpkin Cake - Hearth
We stayed seasonal in our dessert order: a moist pumpkin cake drizzled with bourbon caramel sauce and accompanied with a scoop (not a quenelle, a refreshing return to the classic sphere) of eggnog gelato. A few stray pieces of roasted pumpkin confirm that cake's flavor is authentically squash and not "pumpkin spice."

I'd be remiss in not mentioning our cocktails, which were also fabulous. Hearth's short list of drinks shows a lot of finesse with classic flavors. I loved the Dennis Coles, a mixture of gin, Byrrh (a wine-based aperitif with quinine), ginger, lemon and habanero shrub. I might attempt to make something like this at some point. Chris's Gary Grice cocktail, made with rum, drambuie, punt e mes and mole bitters was also quite good.

Service at Hearth was generally good but fell a little short given our high expectations for it. I have no complaint about our servers, who were friendly and knowledgable, but there was an unexpected slowness to a lot of what we experienced, especially at the beginning. There was no host to greet us when we arrived, and it took surprisingly long for one to materialize as other diners queued up behind us. Once we were seated with water and menus, it also took surprisingly long for someone to take our order. And our drinks took a long time to make as well, although I was pleased that the restaurant took notice of this and comped our drinks. Perhaps it was just an off night, although the final stinger was when a busser whisked away my cocktail before I was finished in an action so fast she halfway through the restaurant before I could utter a protest. I really appreciate it when bussers ask before they take things.

Still, I wouldn't hesitate to recommend Hearth despite these small oversights, especially given that the food was uniformly stellar. Credit for that goes to Chef Marco Canora, who has worked at Hearth since it opened in 2003. Before that, he worked under Tom Colicchio, first as a line-cook at Gramercy Tavern and then as executive chef at Colicchio's famed Craft, which was honored with a James Beard Award for best new restaurant in 2001 (an award that Hearth was later nominated for). Canora's clear mastery of winter dishes has me wondering what creativity he would show with summer's produce bounty.

The No. 4 - Juliana's Pizza
Juliana's Pizza

We always stay in Manhattan when we visit New York City, but sometimes we include a midday trip to Brooklyn as a break from hustle and bustle. We've explored Park Slope and Williamsburg in the last couple years, and during recent trip, walked across the Brooklyn Bridge to spend a few hours in Dumbo.

We knew we wanted pizza while in Dumbo. New York City is famed for its pizza, and Brooklyn in particular is noted for having some of the best examples of New York-style pizza. Walking from Brooklyn Bridge park to Front Street we passed two such restaurants next door to each other: Juliana's and Grimaldi's.

These people are actually waiting to get into Grimaldi's, the pizza restaurant next door to Juliana's.

Grimaldi's is clearly one of New York's most popular pizza restaurants. According to its Wikipedia page, "lines for tables are often long in summertime." Well, guess what? They're also long in the dead of winter, even when it's really cold outside and it's a Monday. At about 11:45 when we went to eat, the line for Grimaldi's extended far down the block. So that made the choice easy: we went to Juliana's, which was busy but had no line. We were immediately seated in the stools at the back that look into the pizza kitchen. Perfect! Watching the guys stretch and top the dough before putting it into the coal-fired pizza oven was a real treat.

As expected, the pizza was fantastic. We sprang for the #4, a tomato and mozzarella pie with arugula and prosciutto. The pizza crust was pretty much perfect--blistered in spots but still soft under the toppings. We ate almost an entire large pizza washed down with a few beers. Service was great too.

After having such good pizza at Juliana's I find it hard to believe that Grimaldi's would be so much better to be worth the wait (if you've tried both, I'd love to hear your perspective). In some ways, Juliana's really is the original Grimaldi's experience. Juliana's sits in Grimaldi's original location and is run by Grimaldi's original owner, Patsy Grimaldi (he and his late wife Carol sold Grimaldi's in the '90s, and the new Grimaldi's Pizzeria owner was apparently not happy about having next-door competition from Grimaldi the man, as detailed in this great New York Magazine article by Jane Black).

Pea Tendril Salad - White Street

White Street

If I had to sum up White Street with one word, it would be "elegance." The handsome Tribeca restaurant's decor instantly evokes "class," and perfectly matches the kitchen's tasteful cuisine.

Although Open Table describes White Street's dress as "smart casual," you'll definitely want to err on the "smart" side to fit in with the luxuriously spacious restaurant's classic decor of dark brown walls, crystal chandeliers and--so rare in restaurants these days--white tablecloths.

The food we had at White Street was very good. My favorite thing was a salad of pea tendrils with peanuts and a spicy sesame-lime dressing. Pea tendrils are one of those not-at-the-grocery-store items I sometimes pick up at my farmers market and wonder what to do with them. A salad like this is absolutely perfect. I loved the Asian influence and the surprising but not unwelcome bit of heat. Chris's started, a spiced pumpkin soup with pepitas and ricotta got a nice lift with a bit of acid.

Chickpea and Quinoa Cake was a great example of a vegetarian entree done well. The cake sat atop a flavorful mix of spiced yogurt, onion and pickled cabbage. White fish is easily overpowered by big flavors, but the ginger broth and baby vegetables were perfectly understated accompaniments to slow-cooked cod.

For dessert, we sprang for something a bit unusual: bayleaf custard. I'm seeing herbs more and more in dessert making for an enticing herbal-sweet combination. White Street's custard was served on a crispy wafer and accompanied by two preparations of quince--a tart fruit that I don't often see on menus.

Running the kitchen at White Street is Executive Chef Floyd Cardoz, formerly of North End Grill and Tabla, both of which were the works of famed restauranteur Danny Meyer. Meyer is not involved with White Street, but that shouldn't chase you off from trying the great food and ambiance of Cardoz' latest venture.

Original DB Burger - DB Bistro Moderne

DB Bistro Moderne

I've written before about the difficulty of finding a really great meal in the Theater District. It continues to be a vexing problem that unfortunately we didn't quite solve with DB Bistro Moderne.

I had high hopes for this restaurant. It's part of Daniel Boulud's restaurant empire, an expanding collection of restaurants in New York and other big cities that includes the high-end Daniel and DBGB Kitchen and Bar, which recently opened an outpost in Washington, D.C.

Our meal at DB Bistro Moderne was far from bad, but it just wasn't that memorable. In particular, our entrees were example "style over substance." My roasted chicken was quite good, but I could have done without the accompanying vol-au-vent, a puff pastry filled with vegetables. Just expertly roasted vegetables would have been better. They don't need the pastry.

Chris was disappointed with the Original DB Burger, another reminder that gimmicky menu items often disappoint. The massive patty consists of sirloin stuffed with braised short ribs. Foie gras and black truffles are also part of the deal and push the price tag up to a hefty $35 (note: this is not the DB Burger Royale, which, at $110 is one of the world's most expensive burgers). Despite all that, he found it to be lacking in flavor. I tasted it and thought that while good, it wasn't $35 good.

Although we were a bit underwhelmed, DB Bistro Moderne is a decent choice if you're seeing a Broadway show. We went on a Sunday, a night they don't offer the official "pre theater" menu, but the restaurant still did a good job of getting us through drinks, starters, entrees and dessert (a delightful molten chocolate cake with vanilla ice cream) in time for our show. It's certainly a lot better than Becco.

The Black Ant, 60 2nd Avenue (between 3rd and 4th Streets), New York, N.Y. (East Village). (212) 598-0300. Reservations: Open TableThe Black Ant on Urbanspoon

Hearth, 403 East 12th Street (on the corner with 1st Avenue), New York, N.Y. (East Village). (646) 602-1300. Reservations: Open TableHearth on Urbanspoon

Juliana's Pizza, 19 Old Fulton Street (near Front Street, under the Brooklyn Bridge), Brooklyn, N.Y. (Dumbo). (718) 596-6700. Juliana's Pizza on Urbanspoon

White Street, 221 West Broadway (between White and Franklyn Streets), New York, N.Y. (Tribeca). (212) 944-8378. Reservations: Open TableWhite Street on Urbanspoon

DB Bistro Moderne, 55 West 44th Street (between 5th and 6th Avenues), New York, N.Y. (Midtown/Theater District). (212) 391-2400. Reservations: Open Tabledb Bistro Moderne on Urbanspoon

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Restaurant: China Chilcano (D.C.)

China Chilcano

To say China Chilcano's opening has been hotly anticipated is an understatement. The Peruvian restaurant with Chinese leanings is the latest in the successful line of Washington, D.C. restaurants from José Andrés, the Spanish-born chef who led the effort to make "tapas" a household word in the U.S.

The handsome space--decked out in vibrant red neon and bamboo poles--sits on a 7th Street NW block with Andrés' Spanish Jaleo on the north end and his Mexican Oyamel on the other. Just a couple blocks away reside his Mediterranean Zaytinya and gastronomic laboratory Minibar (and its attached bar, Barmini). If you count his roving truck, Pepe (and I wouldn't discount its tasty sandwiches), that makes 7 different ways to enjoy his food in D.C. Top chef indeed.

Although China Chilcano's menu fuses South American and Asian flavors, this isn't "fusion" in the typical sense of smacking together two disparate cuisines. Rather, as explained by our server (and the restaurant's website), the cuisine is fundamentally Peruvian as influenced by the country's Asian immigrant cuisines, particularly Chinese (Chifa, in Peru) and Japanese (Nikkei).

(top) Cholotini; (bottom) Pisco Sour
Of course, cocktails are a great way to start the evening, and China Chilcano's drink menu showcases the restaurant's infatuation with pisco, the famed Peruvian brandy. The popular pisco cocktails show up here like the punch and the sour, the latter is as tart-sweet and frothy as expected, finished with a few squirts of the traditional Amargo Chuncho bitters. Our server told us she expects the Cholotini will become the restaurant's most popular drink, and I can certainly see why. The fruity but not too sweet concoction made of pisco, prickly pear, passion fruit and lemon resembles a pisco take on the Cosmopolitan. While I liked the drink, I preferred the Manhattan-ish Capitán made with Sour cherry pisco, vermouth, Amargo Chuncho bitters. With a taste akin to a caramel apple, it was both Chris and my favorite drink.

Diners experienced with eating at Andrés' restaurants will find the dinner menu familiar: small plates divided into groupings, some of which are more obviously meant as starters (dim sum, salads and vegetables) and entrees. In the latter camp, China Chilcano's menu features "Chaufas and Tallarines" (fried rice and noodles), the Chinese Connection (the most obvious "fusion" dishes) and "Peruvian to the Bone."

We chose one dish from six of the menu's nine groupings and tried to strike a balance between its more Asian- and Peruvian-leaning dishes. We weren't disappointed with anything we had. China Chilcano's Asian-influenced Peruvian dishes are as enjoyable to eat as they are beautiful to look at.

(top) Yuquitas Rellenas (yuca fritters); (bottom) Pegao Norteño (lamb pot stickers)
The starters set the tone for China Chilcano's tasty and beautifully presented food. First up was the Yuquitas Rellenas, which are yuca fritters with yellow pepper, wood ear mushrooms. The fritters arrived at the table piping hot and were finished at table with a light drizzle of brown sugar syrup. We also sampled the Pegao Norteño, lamb pot stickers with cilantro and cumin served a smear of winter squash sauce. The pot stickers arrived connected with a crispy lace topped with a flower and a few little pieces of gold leaf like a gorgeous edible doily.

Quinoa Salad
My favorite of the early dishes was the quinoa salad. Seriously! Since quinoa is native to Peru, I had a hunch that China Chilcano might be able to do something great with it, and I wasn't let down. The salad arrived with Peruvian corn (think large pieces like hominy), onion, tomato, cucumber, fresh cheese and bibb lettuce leaves to roll up the salad like a taquito. The salad is nicely dressed--just enough to give it some zest.

Aeropuerto (fried rice and noodles)
Is it too soon to crown a signature dish at China Chilcano? I've seen a fair amount of buzz for the Aeropuerto, and after sampling the dish, I can see why. Fried rice is mixed with 20 vegetables, tossed with a sweetened soy sauce and topped with fried thread noodles and adorned with airplane-shaped vegetable cut outs. It's the kind of dish you just can't stop eating.

(top) Lomo Saltado (steak with vegetables and fries); (bottom) Aji de Galina (chicken stew)
Lomo Saltado will be a familiar dish for diners who frequent Mexican restaurants in D.C., many of which feature the peruvian dish of grilled steak, vegetables and fries on their menus. However, I've never had a version as good as this one, served with perfectly tender steak, vegetables, ginger, soy sauce and crispy matchstick fries. It's from the "Chinese Connection" of the menu and, although adding ginger and soy may be an obvious way to add Asian flavor to a dish, it works so well here. The Aji de Galina, a chicken and pepper stew the menu declares is "Peru's most precious dish" is another homey winner augmented with fresh cheese, olives, pecans and soft-cooked eggs.

Ponderaciones de Kiwicha
We finished our evening with an order of the Ponderaciones de Kiwicha, a spiral cookie that tasted not unlike a fortune cookie served with a wonderful dark chocolate pudding, banana slices and ice cream made from Algarrobina, a black carob syrup. The cookie was good, but the pudding and ice cream were the best parts.

The service at China Chilcano has a different vibe than that at other Andrés-run restaurants. At places like Jaleo and Oyamel, I'm used to the dishes coming out pretty fast, often together, making for a speedy sometimes almost rushed dinner. At China Chilcano, the food arrived one plate at a time, sometimes with a significant interval between dishes (and a really rather long wait for our dessert, but hey, they're still pretty new). The entire vibe of the place is just more relaxed, certainly than at Oyamel, which can feel rather manic on a busy weekend night. We were in China Chilcano on a Saturday evening, and it definitely felt more laid back, which was great.

There are a lot of reasons to love China Chilcano, from the food to the drinks to the ambiance. It even deserves a pat on the back for ending one of D.C.'s longest-running teases. After the Olsson's bookstore that formerly occupied the space closed in 2008, Wagamama, a British-owned chain of Japanese noodle bars acquired an interest in the space and put up a "coming soon" sign not once but twice since 2009, finally officially nixing its plans in 2012. Much as I do love Wagamama and had hoped it would come here, I'm more than happy that Andrés has filled the spot with an original vision that delights and satisfies has much as his other nearby establishments. ¡Salud!

China Chilcano, 418 7th Street NW (between D and E Streets NW), Washington, D.C. (Penn Quarter). (202) 783-0941. Reservations: Yelp SeatMe China Chilcano on Urbanspoon





Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Cauliflower-Bacon Clam Chowder

Cauliflower-Bacon Clam Chowder

Growing up in Portland, Oregon, we spent a fair amount of time at the beach. For people used to beaching in California, Florida or along the East Coast, the Oregon Coast is a very different experience. Forget crowded boardwalks, sun-batching on groomed sand and swimming in the ocean (it's far too cold without a wetsuit). When I tell people this, they seem mystified as to what one would do while spending a weekend there.

Plenty actually. Most obviously, the Oregon coast is stunningly beautiful, and a visit there should take advantage of that fact. Instead of being flat like much of the East Coast, the Oregon Coast is adjacent to a small mountain range--the Oregon Coast range--which shoots fingers of rock into the ocean at regular intervals, breaking the beaches into smaller pieces and introducing a wider variety of plants and animals into the area. Although many Oregon beaches are lined with the typical beach grass and shrubs, it's not uncommon to see fir forests nearby or even extending all the way to the water in some places.

All this scenic grandeur makes for great walks along the beach or in nearby parks. You can also sit inside your beach house and stare at the ocean between breaks in assembling jigsaw puzzles and drinking local microbrew. It's a relaxing, meditative experience, especially if it's cold out.

And cold it often is. Sometimes windy. Often rainy. So it's not surprising that a hearty warm soup like clam chowder is popular on the Oregon Coast. The best-known is from Mo's, a local chain that started in Newport, Oregon, but clam chowder is available in many other restaurants also. When I was in high school, we frequently got it from a small shop in the town of Rockaway Beach run by a mother-daughter team. Their chowder was so good. They served it with a slice of garlic toast, which made the perfect lunch.

The clam chowder I grew up with is the New England style: thick and creamy with clams, potato, onion and celery. And often bacon. Mo's recipe includes bacon, and my mother always made it with bacon. She often joked that it was "bacon chowder," since it contained far more bacon than clams. My mother made a thinner version of chowder than you'd get at restaurants, since she didn't like thickening it with cream and flour. While tasty, these ingredients pack on the calories.

I wanted to make a New England-style chowder--with bacon of course--that was thick and creamy but thickened with something other than cream and flour. I could have gone with potato, although that keeps the carbs high. Instead, I thought about using cauliflower. Low-carb dieters are familiar with cauliflower puree as a substitute for mashed potatoes. I wondered whether roasted and pureed cauliflower could thicken chowder while providing an additional welcome flavor.

Turns out, it works great as a substitute not just for the cream but also potatoes. The chowder still had plenty of body and flavor with the base of bacon, onion and celery. It doesn't hurt that I used really good bacon. The best bacon, actually: the hickory-smoked bacon from Benton's that I adore.

It just so happens that today is New England Clam Chowder Day. This cauliflower-bacon twist strikes me as just the ideal way to celebrate. Especially if you're lucky enough to be enjoying the day from the Oregon Coast.

Cauliflower-Bacon Clam Chowder

1 large head of cauliflower
2 tbsp. olive oil
Kosher salt
2 cups water
8 oz. thick-cut hickory-smoked bacon, cut into 1/4-inch wide strips
1 yellow onion, diced
2 celery ribs, diced
1 garlic clove, minced
4 cups low-sodium chicken broth
1 bay leaf
4-5 thyme sprigs
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Two 6 1/2 oz. cans of chopped clams, liquid reserved
1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley

1. Preheat oven to 450 F. Cut florets from cauliflower head and chop florets as needed to pieces about 1 1/2 to 2 inches. Place florets in a large bowl. Drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with kosher salt. Toss to combine. Spread florets in a single layer on a baking sheet. Roast in the oven until the florets have softened and are lightly browned around the edges, about 30-40 minutes, turning after 15 minutes. Allow to cool and refrigerate until ready to use (use within a day or two).

2. Combine the cauliflower florets with 2 cups of water and puree in a food processor or place in a steep-sided saucepan and puree with an immersion blender.

3. Heat a Dutch oven or large soup pot over medium heat. Add bacon and cook until browned and crisp, about 8-10 minutes. Remove bacon with a slotted spoon and set aside on a paper-towel-lined plate. Drain off bacon fat in excess of about 2 tablespoons (leaving the 2 tablespoons in the pot). Add onion, celery and garlic and sauté until softened, about 8-10 minutes.

4. Add the crisped bacon, pureed cauliflower, chicken broth, bay leaf, thyme sprigs, pepper and liquid from canned clams to the pot, increase heat to medium-high and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for 15 minutes. Turn off the heat, add the chopped clams and stir to combine. Taste and adjust seasoning as needed. Serve soup in bowls topped with about a tablespoon of chopped fresh parsley.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Quick Black Bean Soup

Quick Black Bean Soup

Black Bean Soup is my favorite winter soup. It's something I've been making for over 20 years, having discovered the Silver Palate Cookbook recipe when I was a teenager learning how to cook.

Back then, I made the recipe faithfully, including using a full cup of olive oil for sautéing the 3 cups of diced onions (which, I'll agree with my mother now seemed a bit excessive). Today, I do a few things a little differently, such as using kielbasa instead of a ham bone (and a lot less oil). You can read that recipe here. It's a wonderful soup, but it takes overnight to soak the beans and about 2 hours of cooking time. That works great for the weekend, but it's a stretch for a typical weeknight.

As an alternative, I came up with this "quick" black bean soup recipe. It's similar to the Basic Black Bean Soup but cooks in a fraction of the time. In fact, from the moment I set the Dutch oven on the stove to the moment I turned it off and dished up the soup took just 35 minutes. That's not bad for a hearty, flavorful homemade bean soup.

Of course using canned beans is essential to the reduced cooking time. And yes, canned beans aren't as tasty as dried ones, but they aren't bad. I'm a big fan of the Goya brand, and the larger 28-oz. can is just right for this soup. And homemade soup with canned beans is still tastier than a not homemade canned soup, in my opinion (channeling Ana Gasteyer's Good Wife judge there). This soup is just as good if not better on the second day, so I recommend making enough for leftovers.

Quick Black Bean Soup

2 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
1 yellow onion, diced
3-4 garlic cloves, minced
Salt or seasoned salt, to taste
1 smoked turkey kielbasa, cut into 1/4-inch thick slices
1 tbsp. ground cumin
1 tbsp. dried oregano
2 tsp. smoked paprika
1/2 tsp. chipotle chili powder (or more if you want it hotter)
28 oz. can black beans, drained and rinsed
4 cups low-sodium chicken stock
1 bay leaf
1 tbsp. brown sugar
1 tbsp. dry sherry

1. Heat the olive oil in a Dutch oven over medium heat. Add the onions and garlic. Season with salt and sauté until the onions have softened, about 6-8 minutes.

2. Add the kielbasa, stir to combine and cook another couple minutes. Add the cumin, oregano, paprika, chili powder, black beans, chicken stock and bay leaf. Increase heat to high and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low and simmer for 10 minutes.

3. Add the brown sugar and sherry and simmer another 5 minutes. Serve hot in bowls.


Basic Black Bean Soup

Monday, January 12, 2015

Roasted Celery and Fennel with Peanut Sauce

Roasted Celery and Fennel with Peanut Sauce

Celery may very well be the Cinderella of the produce aisle.

It's a vegetable that does a lot of work. It's a common ingredient in base recipes upon which other flavors are built. Lots of stews, stuffings and casseroles begin with sautéing diced celery, generally with onion, and also sometimes carrot, a classical cooking trinity known as mirepoix in France or Soffrito in Italy. Celery is often around but never the star, while wicked step-sister vegetables like kale, Brussels sprouts and radishes bask in all the glory.

But celery has a fairy godmother, and that's peanuts.

Peanuts bring out the best in celery, which is why the classic snack of celery and peanut butter is such a refreshing treat. A couple years ago, I created a simple celery and peanut salad highlighting this pairing, a recipe that caught the eye of both my mother (she's reportedly served it to friends for lunch) and The New York Times.

I revisited the combination of celery and peanuts for this dish, which uses these ingredients in a warm roasted vegetable side with Southeast Asian flavors. It's a nice complement to a meat dish in a similar vein (I served them alongside these Thai Chicken Thighs with Garlic and Lime).

Here, celery and fennel are roasted together until tender and lightly browned and then dressed with a spicy-tangy peanut sauce before being finished with a sprinkle of cilantro and roasted peanuts. It's a simple, but satisfying dish that's a healthful excuse for eating peanut sauce (more healthful, I tell myself, than just peanut sauce with noodles).

Although its flavor is mellowed by the roasting, celery is still the star, melding beautifully with the peanut sauce, fennel and cilantro. When it comes to organizing the cast of your next Asian-inspired dinner, you may gravitate toward bok choy, daikon radishes or eggplant, but I think it's high-time to throw humble celery a glass slipper.

Roasted Celery and Fennel with Peanut Sauce

1 bunch of celery, ends trimmed and stalks cut on the diagonal in 2-inch pieces
1 bulb of fennel, stalks, fronds and core removed, cut into 2-inch pieces
2 tbsp. vegetable oil
Pinch of kosher salt
1 tsp. ginger, chopped
1 garlic clove, chopped
Pinch of red chili pepper flakes
¼ cup creamy peanut butter
2 tbsp. lime juice
1 tbsp. soy sauce
½ tsp. fish sauce
2-4 tbsp. water, as needed for texture
1 tsp. coconut sugar (or honey)

¼ cup chopped roasted peanuts
¼ cup chopped fresh cilantro

1. Preheat oven to 425 F.

2. Combine celery and fennel in a large bowl. Add the oil and salt and toss to combine. Spread in an even layer in a 9 X 13 roasting pan and roast until tender, about 20-30 minutes, stirring every 10 minutes.

3. In the bowl of a food processor, combine the ginger and garlic and pulse a few times to mince. Add red chili pepper flakes, peanut butter, lime juice, soy sauce and fish sauce and pulse until combined and smooth. Add enough water to achieve desired texture (it should be thin enough that you can pour it over the roasted vegetables, but not so thin that you couldn’t see it—aim for traditional yogurt thickness).

4. Serve the vegetables topped with peanut sauce, chopped peanuts and cilantro.

Related Recipes

Celery and Peanut Salad

Caramelized Celery Crostini

Celery, Fennel and Pear Salad with Pecorino and Pecans

Celery Tonic Cocktail

Friday, January 9, 2015

Rye Ginger Sour Cocktail

Rye Ginger Sour Cocktail

While going through my restaurant posts last year to make my list of the Best Restaurant Experiences of 2014, I was reminded of the great Ms. Rosemary Bulleit cocktail we enjoyed at Thally and wanted to try mixing something similar.

The drink we had at Thally was made with Bulleit bourbon, Dolin Blanc, Luxardo maraschino liqueur and Thally's house-made ginger soda with a rosemary sprig garnish. It was a great example of using whiskey in a cocktail that still turns out bright and refreshing.

Of course, I changed it up a bit. I used Bulleit's rye instead of their bourbon, Lillet Blanc instead of Dolin Blanc, ginger beer instead of house-made ginger soda (not something I have on hand, unfortunately). I also added lemon, giving the drink a nudge toward a whiskey sour.

The result has a nice whiskey flavor, but isn't a "brown" cocktail like so many winter cocktails, as it manages to be more light and refreshing. It's a great drink that can be enjoyed year-round.

Thally has a lot of great cocktails on their menu. If you haven't been, I definitely recommend it. The food is also quite good.

Rye Ginger Sour Cocktail
Inspired by the Ms. Rosemary Bulleit cocktail at Thally in Washington, D.C.

1 1/2 oz. Bulleit rye whiskey
1/2 oz. Lillet Blanc
1/4 oz. Luxardo maraschino liqueur
1/2 oz. fresh lemon juice
4 oz. ginger beer
Rosemary sprig garnish
Lemon wheel garnish

Combine whiskey, Lillet, maraschino liqueur and lemon juice in a cocktail shaker. Add ice and shake until very cold. Strain into a rocks glass with ice. Add ginger beer and stir gently to combine. Garnish with rosemary and lemon wheel.


Restaurant: Thally (Washington, D.C.)

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Spaghetti with Tomato-Turkey Ragu and Garlic Bread

Spaghetti with Tomato-Turkey Ragu

Last weekend was pretty rotten as far as D.C. winter weekends go. It was cold, but not freezing cold and it was raining. That's pretty much the worst kind of winter weather around here. It's not so cold that it's snowing (like it did yesterday). With the just-above-freezing kind of cold and rain, if you step outside, you get wet, then you get wet and cold, and it's just the worst feeling. Couple that with the fact that my husband picked up the other type of cold, and it was pretty much a recipe for a bummer of a weekend. Cold outside and a cold inside. Time for some comfort food.

Spaghetti with a tomato-meat sauce with a side of garlic bread is about as comforting as food can get. This is the kind of pasta dish my mom--and I imagine many other moms--made when I was a kid. It's the kind of recipe that everyone has a slightly different variation of, and in fact, I've made it several different ways myself (see, for example, here and here).

For this variation, I had bolognese on my mind, but not the all-afternoon cooking time bolognese needs. So I improvised something that's a bit like bolognese and a bit like the Spaghetti with Meat Sauce I've made before. It's not a super-quick dinner: it took about an hour and a half. But it's not an all-afternoon meal either. Even if you've had a busy Saturday, this is a perfect way to end the day.

I started with mushrooms, which I sautéed in a little olive oil. Then I browned the ground turkey and added diced onion and garlic. From there I did a step that's common to bolognese: simmer the meat in a little milk. Although bolognese is usually made with beef and pork, the technique still works to add tenderness and richness to ground turkey. In her Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, Marcella Hazan advises to cook the meat in milk before adding wine and tomatoes to protect the meat from the latter ingredients' acidity. I'm not sure about the science behind that, but I am sure that Ms. Hazan knew what she was doing.

For the wine, you can use a white or red wine. I've done both, but opted for red for this dish. Although I love to drink cabernet sauvignon, I wouldn't recommend it for pasta sauce, since its tannins, when concentrated, can add bitterness. I still opted for a fairly bold wine though, the Chateau Ste. Michelle Indian Wells Red Blend, which is mostly syrah and merlot.

To go with the spaghetti, I made garlic bread. This is the old-school kind of garlic bread that accompanies large bowls of pasta at no-frills Italian restaurants. It's warm but not toasted and coated generously with salted garlic butter. Although you could use a fancy baguette for this, I recommend the simple grocery-store variety that are more likely labeled as "French bread." Once it's out of the oven, you can keep it wrapped in foil to stay warm, although from my experience, it doesn't stick around long.

Spaghetti with Tomato-Turkey Ragu and Garlic Bread

Spaghetti with Tomato-Turkey Ragù

3 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
8 oz. white or cremini mushrooms, thinly sliced
Salt, to taste
1 1/4 lb. ground turkey (dark meat preferred)
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1 yellow onion, diced
4 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 tbsp. Worcestershire sauce
1/2 cup whole milk
2/3 cup dry red wine (I used Chateau Ste. Michelle Indian Wells Red Blend)
28 oz. can of diced tomatoes
15 oz. can of tomato sauce (note: because I had it on hand, I used leftover homemade pizza sauce in about the same quantity)
6 oz. can of tomato paste
1 tbsp. dried oregano
2 tsp. dried thyme
1 bay leaf
Pinch of red chili pepper flakes
1/2 cup water (or more if needed)
1 lb. dried spaghetti
Grated parmigiano-reggiano cheese

1. Heat 1 tbsp. olive oil in a Dutch oven over medium heat. Add mushrooms, season with a small pinch of salt and sauté until the mushrooms have given up their liquid and browned, about 10 minutes. Remove mushrooms from pot.

2. Add remaining 2 tbsp. olive oil to pot and, when hot, add the ground turkey. Season with salt and pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the meat is browned. Add onion and garlic and stir to combine. Cook until the onion has softened, about 10 minutes. Add Worcestershire sauce and stir to combine, then add the milk. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the liquid has mostly absorbed or evaporated, about 5 minutes. Add the wine and cook, stirring occasionally, until the wine has been mostly absorbed or evaporated, about 5 minutes.

3. To the pot with the turkey, add the cooked mushrooms, diced tomatoes, tomato sauce, tomato paste, oregano, thyme, bay leaf, red chili pepper flakes, water, and salt and pepper to taste. Increase heat to medium-high. When the mixture bubbles, reduce heat to simmer, uncovered, while the pasta cooks.

4. Bring a large pot of salted water to boil. Cook pasta one minute less than package directions for al dente (i.e. the pasta will be quite chewy). Drain the pasta, then add it to the pot with the simmering sauce. Stir the noodles into the sauce and cook for an additional minute or two. Remove the bay leaves.

5. Serve the pasta and sauce in shallow bowls topped with grated parmigiano-reggiano cheese.

Garlic Bread

1/2 loaf of French bread (baguette)
2 tbsp. unsalted butter, softened (but not melted)
1/2 tsp. garlic powder (finely ground)
Pinch of kosher salt
Dash of sweet paprika (optional)
Dash of dried oregano (optional)

1. Preheat oven to 350 F.

2. Split the baguette down the middle like a giant sandwich. In a small bowl, combine the butter, garlic powder, salt, paprika and oregano. Spread evenly on the cut sides of the bread. Place the loaf back together, then slice the loaf three times to create 8 pieces of bread. Leave the loaf together and wrap it in aluminum foil.

3. Bake the wrapped loaf in the oven for 5 minutes, then open the foil and back for another 5 minutes. Remove from the oven but keep wrapped in the foil to keep warm.


Cook In 101: Spaghetti with Basic Meat Sauce

Spaghetti with Meat Sauce

Lasagna, Bolognese Style