Most days, brutal reality proves too much for me and I beat a trembling retreat to the kitchen. I burn and cut myself regularly, but it’s safer than what’s out there. Here are a few things I’ve been tinkering with lately.
Recently I was fortunate to be a guest at the home of restaurateur Julie P of Brooklyn’s delightful Cafe Colette. Julie’s a great cook and always has something interesting and delicious on the stove- this time it was the Sichuan classic Mapo Tofu.
Rich and earthy, numbing and burning, Mapo Tofu welcomes you into its warm embrace and then bites you hard. You run whimpering to the nearest beer but there’s only one thing that will soothe that sting– another warm comforting spoonful. It’s a dance of solace and punishment that continues until the bowl is empty.
Julie sent me home with a tub of Sichuan peppers and dried chillies and the very next day I got to it. It’s not a difficult dish, and the aromas of the peppercorns and bean paste make it pleasant work; the only trick is getting the heat level right. After a few mouthfuls you shouldn’t be able to feel your face.
There’s no topic guaranteed to inspire me to misty-eyed logorrhoea than magical Vietnam. Oh the food! Those wonderfully herbaceous broths, piquant aromas and… See there I go. Read it here if you really want to. Anyway one of my favourite projects when returning from abroad is to attempt to recreate the stuff I ate there, and in Hanoi it was all about that phở . The first time I tried it I went straight for the big classic– beef phở– it’s a fairly laborious process involving pigs’ trotters and beef knuckles, and totally worth the effort. But the other day I decided to use the many bags of chicken bones and assorted duck parts in my freezer, and have a crack at the relatively simple chicken phở. The only guru you need seek to guide you on this path is Andrea Nguyen– she knows it all and makes it understandable. Dig the recipe here; and do like I did and recreate the South East Asian experience by cooking the broth on a 100 degree day in an tiny airless apartment with no AC. You’ll be glad you did.
Nick-Thai duck leg
I had a lovely plump duck leg in the fridge, which would stare up at me impatiently every time I opened the door. “But it’s 100 degrees,” I’d squeak. “Don’t make me turn the oven on!” The duck’s severed limb remained impassive. Then my eye lit on half a can of Thai curry paste (Prik Khing from the good people at Maesri, to be precise); I rolled up my figurative sleeves and set out to show that nagging leg a thing or two.
Browned skin-side down, then braised for 90 mins in curry paste on the stovetop, and I had melty, gooey, sliding-off-the-bone anatine magic. Add some veg to the curry, serve over jasmine rice.
Corvina is a fish found off the Pacific coast of South America, i.e Chile and Peru. It’s a bit like a sea bass, with firm white flesh, and it’s most often used in Ceviche. I learned all this from my fish guy. I also learned it’s the cheapest thing he has, so I snapped some right up. Aside from in my dreams, Ceviche is a big thing in Peru and Ecuador; it’s essentially raw fish, marinated briefly in lime juice– the citrus sort of “cooking” the fish. Bung in some red onion, salt, and chillies, maybe some cilantro/coriander and you’re done. It’s dead easy. You can serve it with sweet potato, corn, plantain chips. I used this recipe:
but it’s also worth taking a look at this guy at work:
Tom Yum Goong
Tom Yum is the spicy sour salty Thai soup you’ve probably had before. Goong just means prawns. Recently I was in Bangkok feeling seven shades of shithouse- monstrous jet lag leading to almost total soul destruction. I stumbled woozily to Mit Ko Yuan, an unassuming neighbourhood restaurant, and ate a Tom Yum Goong that completely restored and revitalised me. Lately, 2020-induced lassitude has led me to try and recreate this wondrous salvation in a bowl. I base mine loosely on Mark Weins’, but it’s a work in progress.
Stir Fried/ Pan Fried Prawns
My local fish guy has had some beautiful big fat prawns lately, so I’ve put aside my antipathy (I just always thought they were boring), and got cracking. Firstly, brine yo shrimp! Give them a bath of salty water, with a teaspoon of baking soda, about 30 minutes before cooking. It makes them tastier and keeps em firm.
Lately I’ve brined them and then seared them in a HOT (like the sun) cast iron skillet. Get that oil smoking before you introduce your prawns. Serve with rice, greens, dipping sauce.
Or instead of brining, marinate in fish sauce, lime juice, and sugar. Lift em out of the marinade and dump in a SMOKING wok. As soon as they’re done, dump in the marinade and a big handful of basil. Stir for a few seconds and serve with some jasmine rice.