I’m behind on my re-posts from my work over on Berkeleyside NOSH.
Out today is my piece on a visit to the California Olive Oil Council, a trade group that certifies California oil as extra-virgin quality. There I attended an olive oil sensory panel and learned (or did my best to learn) how to taste oils and look for the good stuff:
After sniff comes slurp, the most humorous of the tasting steps. Instead of simply gulping down the oil, we take a bit of oil in the front of our mouths and suck in a couple of short bursts of air. Yes, it sounds funny, and it feels even funnier. But slurping and sucking is an important step in tasting oil. … [read more here]
Also recently posted on Berkeleyside is my review of Casserole House in Temescal. The Korean restaurant specializes in “casseroles,” which are more akin to hot-pots than an American hot dish. However, I went to check out their banchan (gratis small plates of things like kimchi, soybeans, blanched veggies, and preserved fish):
The word on the ‘nets was that Casserole House served not only one of the most abundant spreads of banchan, but also the best of its kind in the Korean strip running up and down Telegraph Avenue. In fact, most visitors claim the banchan to be the best part of the meal there, polishing off the many mini bowls even while leaving the casserole pot half full. … [read more here]
My most recent feature for Berkeleyside NOSH went live yesterday. In this piece, I wrote about my experience using Good Eggs, an online organic food marketplace. The website aims to connect small farmers and artisans in the Bay Area with consumers large and small. Using the gorgeous website was a breeze, and the product I received was all high quality. My online major gripe was that I wasn’t able to order as many fruit and vegetables as I’d normally buy at a farmers’ market or the grocery store.
When I was visiting St. Petersburg, Russia last spring, I ate my first bites of Georgian food. As far as Matt was concerned, much of the best food in Petersburg comes out of restaurants specializing in food from the southern Caucuses: Georgia and Armenia’s proximity to Turkey and the Mediterranean lends the food a vibrancy unseen further north. Yet the harsher weather and stark mountainous geography adds its own ascetic quality to the food. There may not be a huge variety of ingredients from which to choose, but those that are available are prepared with all of the spice and excitement of Georgia’s southern neighbors.
One of Matt’s favorite restaurants to visit was a rollicking space he called “Caucasian Party Restaurant.” I believe the actual name was something along the lines of “a restaurant for khinkali and khachapuri” but the party restaurant moniker stuck. Why party? It’s BYOL (liquor that is), so big groups of big men would gather in the oversize booths and share bottles on bottles of their own personal vodka. These men seem to spend hours at their tables, drinking and eating astronomical amounts of food—grilled cheese, skewered meats, baskets of bread, plates of pickles, and plenty of khinkali. It’s a sight to see, even when having much less of a party (but still a good meal) at your own table.
We visited not for the partying, but for the dumplings. Khinkali are Georgian dumplings that somewhat resemble Shanghai soup dumplings. On steroids. These things are seriously as big as a fist. The cinched top is so thick that the dumpling can be clutched like a lollipop and eaten upside down; serious khinkali eaters ditch the handle after slurping up the rich broth inside to save room for more dumplings (and to keep track of how many have been eaten, Man V. Food-style).
On another night, we ventured to a decidedly fancier Caucasian restaurant for their khachapuri. Khachapuri is most accurately a name for a family of Georgian cheese-filled flatbreads, as there are at least seven or eight distinct versions of the bread. Some are open-faced and filled with melty cheese, while others are closed and stuffed with tangy, aged cheese easy to pick up and eat as a snack. The khachapuri at this one particular Petersburg restaurant were in the Adjara style, shaped like fat canoes filled with molten cheese, butter, and runny eggs. The dough is buttery rich and tangy, but it has enough structure to stand up to the bombastic filling. I still remember this dish fondly, almost a year later, with hopes that I will one day learn to make it myself.
So imagine my excitement when I learned about a local cook who travels around with a mobile khachapuri cart and throws pop-up khinkali dumpling parties every once in a blue moon. Who is this man? Why hadn’t I heard of him before? When can I get my fix?
It turns out this man, Boris Portnoy, was not truly destined to be my best friend, and his organization, Satellite Republic, was not fated to be my new source for Caucasian food. He is about to close shop here in the US and set off for Australia, leaving my hopes for an infinite supply of khinkali delivered to my front door totally diminished. I did, however, manage to snag a seat at his final pop-up at The Punchdown, a wine bar in Oakland, a couple of weeks ago.
The menu was a selection of Georgian-style dishes with strong California influences, many cooked on Portnoy’s mobile grill set-up on the front patio of the restaurant. Items like grilled eggplant rolled around ground walnuts (Badrijani) and lightly dressed Persian cucumbers reflected the simple yet flavorful style of cooking that Matt recognized from his time eating in Russia.
Other dishes, like the asparagus and peas with yogurt and chanterelle mushrooms borrowed more from California cuisine; as one friend said later, “They don’t eat f-ing asparagus in the caucuses.” Still, the flavors—preserved lemon and dill—were strongly evocative of Georgia’s connection to both Russian and Mediterranean cuisine. Briny lemon and punchy dill are not a typical pairing for California chefs. A dish of asparagus, peas, and mushrooms at say, Gather in Berkeley, would instead be a mixed grill, with the vegetables charred and dressed simply in olive oil and Maldon salt.
Muzhuzhi Tolmas, grape leaves stuffed with bulgur, pine leaves and pigs foot meat, were equally potent—gamey almost to the point of being off-putting. Much easier, and even more delectable in their simplicity were the three mains. First up were two barely smoked fillets of trout dressed lightly with a bright blood orange relish. Next, we gleefully dug into quartered hen tabaka, grilled under a brick next to a single slender grilled ramp, and licked off the rich schmalz coating our fingers. Following the bird were lamb belly skewers so tender we forgot that they were missing the grilled oven grape vines advertised on the menu.
But we came here for the khinkali and khachapuri, right?
The khachapuri was, frankly, just okay. Made in the less goopy Imeretian style, this particular khachapuri was made with super thin pastry-like bread wrapped around sharp dried sulguni cheese, much like a pupusa. What should have been a rich and easy to eat snack was instead lackluster. By the time we bit into the bread, the pastry had lost any shred of crispness and the cheese was tepid and fairly bland.
Even more dissapointing was the fact that there were no khinkali on the menu. Sure, the dumplings must be labor intensive, but for a last-pop-up-ever blow-out, you’d think Portnoy and his crew would have gone all out.
The Punchdown, on the other hand, was firing on all cylinders. The bar has a wonderful selection of rare wines, and they served an all-Georgian wine list for the evening. My three-wine flight included a sweet and fruity 2010 Chardakhi Rkatsiteli, a neon orange and fantastically dry 2010 Alaverdi Monastery Rkatsiteli, and a challengingly tannic 2009 Nika Saperavi. Matt chose a couple of different wines, most notably a glass of 2011 Pheasant’s Tears Kisi that tasted more like Scotch than wine. For the wine education alone, the meal was a worthwhile experience. Add in a couple more lamb belly skewers, and I would have almost forgotten my yearning for khinkali and oozing, cheesy khachapuri.
My latest installment of “To Die For” is up on Berkeleyside NOSH. This time, I traveled to Albany to sample some awesome Thai food at Da Nang. My pick for best dish is their braised pork shank, called Kao Kha Moo. Read the story, and then get yourself up to Albany! I also recommend heading over to the Hotsy Totsy for their bottled cocktails afterwards:
Da Nang’s bright red and yellow exterior is an attention hog. Even on a stretch of San Pablo Avenue replete with Thai, Vietnamese, and Laotian restaurants, it stands out. Places like White Lotus and Lao-Thai Kitchen seem to blend in to their surroundings with understated signs and quiet storefronts. On the other hand, Da Nang screams out to passers-by: “Eat here now.”
So eat at Da Nang we will. … [story continues here]
[above photo by Emmeline Chuu]
The lazy weeks of March have somehow turned into the nonstop work days of April. All of a sudden, spring showed up with daffodils and sunshine. There are many peas to shuck and many visitors with whom to sup. I can tell it’s going to be a vibrant and exciting next couple of months.
I hosted an Easter brunch for 10 or 12 of my East Bay friends this year. On the overloaded table, I served a version of food52′s pomegranate ham, deviled eggs with smoked paprika and Maldon, Southern-style biscuits, mustardy potato salad, bitter greens, strawberries, coconut macaroons, pine nut blondies, and very strong mimosas. Amidst all of the eating, chatting, drinking, and general merriment, I managed to snap only this one photo:
This was quickly instagrammed and tweeted, and then my social media presence disappeared for the day. Should I have made time to carefully document all of the rest of the food that day? Perhaps, but I was having too much fun to bother. Does that make me a poor blogger for the day? Maybe. Win some, lose some. And even though I don’t have a picture of them, my favorite part of the meal was by far the macaroons. These cookies come from a recipe handed down from my mother, who in turn got it from her friend Nicole. These are not the sickeningly sweet towers of Angel Flake seen on many a spring-time table. Instead, they are slightly sweet domes of desiccated coconut, held together with egg whites and just a little sugar, laced with vanilla and miniature chocolate chips. These macaroons are supremely moist and tender on the inside, and have a crisp caramelized bottom that makes all the difference.
Right before Easter, I was invited to take a tasting tour around Rockridge Market Hall in Oakland. I’ve gotten to know some of the folks that work in its Pasta Shop and they’ve shared many great ingredients with me over the past few months. During my tour, I got a chance to try an awesome gluten-free almond and browned butter cake (working on my own version right now) from the bakery, a veritable ton of awesome cheeses including their creamy housemade mozzarella, and some pretty fantastic California extra virgin olive oils. Their most unique and fun to use ingredient right now has got to be Pollen Ranch Spice’s dill pollen. I was given a small tin of the spice during that tour, but it languished on my pantry shelf for a few weeks before I got a chance to play with it. I’m glad I did.
Unlike dill seed (which frankly gets a little soapy to me), dill pollen tastes purely of the lush green—it’s tangy, sour, and herbaceous. The pollen would work great in a pickle—you wouldn’t have to worry about the weird murkiness that comes from using the whole herb—or potato salad, but I used it in a yogurt drizzle for a warm beet and wheat berry salad. The addition of the dill moved the salad into Eastern European borscht territory and made for a surprising twist on an otherwise basic dish. The recipe for the salad will run in a later Berkeleyside piece, and I’ll be sure to link to it once it goes live.
Long before Easter and even longer before discovering dill pollen, I sat down with an old version of a family cornbread recipe and tried to remake it with fewer cans and no Jiffy mix. I made my own self-rising (or so I thought) cornbread mix with cornmeal, all-purpose flour, and baking powder. To that, I added corn kernels pureed with buttermilk to mimic cream-style canned corn, whole corn kernels, cheddar cheese, green chiles, eggs, honey, and some more buttermilk. I poured this big slop of a batter into a preheated 9×13 generously coated with butter and let it bake for almost half and hour.
The final result certainly tasted good, especially when hot, but it was far too dense to be called anything except for corn-cheese-loaf. Not exactly what I was going for. I went back and looked at the recipe again, and realized that I probably neutralized most of the leavening from the baking powder by using buttermilk in the batter. Most buttermilk-based cornbreads include baking soda in lieu of or in addition to the powder, and I think that would have solved the problem.
Instead of offering a half-hearted version of cornbread, here is my take on my mom’s take on Nicole’s macaroons. Eat with abundance all spring long:
Two weeks ago, I filled my kitchen with Athens, GA–Cajun–Carolina southern cooking: Sausage-laced low country boil, mile-high cathead biscuits and tomato gravy, mayo coleslaw, rice salad, and stacks on stacks of buttery blondies. Korean fried chicken wings at least once. Beignets that same day.
Last week, I plowed through pounds of potatoes, butter, lamb shoulder and pork sausage for an early Irish week. Soul food—fried chicken, tooth-achingly sweet candied yams, porky collards, cornbread—on the weekend. Too much beer.
Today was a big cooking day: pastrami-rubbed brisket by way of South Carolina mustardy barbecue, spicy pimiento cheese with little care for tradition, tomato-peach chutney that simmered for three hours on my barely functioning stove and smoked baby kale caesar with all of the secret smoke ingredients included.
A few days ago—after the Irish food but before the brisket—I bought the ingredients to make a recipe entitled “Easy Cornbread” that was buried deep in the trenches of my immediate family’s recipe folder files. I think I got ahold of the recipe in middle school after a Tybee Island Hendry family reunion. This particular cornbread is more like a casserole than the crumbly cast-iron side dish most often associated with the South. It includes creamed corn, whole corn kernels, cheddar cheese, canned green chiles, yogurt and a couple boxes of Jiffy mix.
Needless to say, this creamy and rich spoon bread is not what I’ve been wanting to eat recently. Tonight, there will be salad without mayonnaise but probably a generous drizzle of fancy olive oil.
Maybe tomorrow there will be cornbread.[First and third pictures by Emmeline Chuu]
This week, I wrote about a couple of food trucks looking to expand their business by opening brick-and-mortar restaurants. While I didn’t intend for the story to stoke a fire of controversy, its original headline and convoluted message caused a small uproar amongst devoted fans. To clarify, both LIBA Falafel and 510Burger will continue to operate their trucks across the Bay Area after their restaurants open.
Personally, I am a huge fan of both LIBA Falafel and 510Burger. Both serve excellent renditions of their chosen foods and serve their wares with a welcome lack of pretension. I wish both of them well as they continue along in the process. I know I’ll be eating their food—both on the streets and inside their restaurants—many more times.
Here’s the link to the story (with new headline).