Tuesday, October 28, 2014

SOS Chefs - Amazing Spices and Other Food Products for Professionals

We had a catered party a couple of weeks ago and the chef was a Tunisian named Sami. We talked a lot about food, and about great products and where to find them. He told me to go to SOS Chefs, in the East Village, and tell the lady that Sami the Tunisian chef sent me. 

So I finally made the journey to Avenue B between 6th and 7th Streets today, and it is quite a place! As Sami said, the range and quality of the spices is amazing, but please note that they charge for it. I was helped by a lovely young woman who kept bringing me spices to try, and of course I ended up buying a number of them. When I introduced myself to the owner, who it turns out is also Tunisian, I was treated to a tour of the mushroom room in the back, where a huge variety of mushrooms are stored pending orders by New York's chefs. Also nuts and other perishable items: I drooled over the Sicilian pistachios, but was able to resist them due to the $100 per pound price tag.

Timut Peppercorns
Sicilian Pistachios
Spices and Black Garlic from SOS Chefs
I did indulge in some Nepalese Timut pepper, of which I tasted a single grain and enjoyed a tingling tongue for 20 minutes, rather like a cross between Szechuan and black pepper. I'm really looking forward to using it, and it is already loaded into a grinder. The other spice I bought were ones that I needed or bought in order to upgrade my existing pantry, like incredibly fragrant Aleppo pepper that blows the stuff I had away. And I was talked into a head of pungent black garlic, which I must figure out how to use.

SOS Chefs also has a great selection of grains, oils, pastas, beans and other items that I am forgetting. A long way to go from the Upper West Side, but a fun visit.

Bobby Jay

Great Pork Doth Not a Great Banh Mi Make

I was in the neighborhood so I went to Porchetta, maker of stupendous porchetta (roasted pork loin wrapped in pork belly), for a sandwich. I planned to get their wonderful porchetta sandwich, but, seeing a sign for banh mi, decided to go for it as part of my quest for a great banh mi.

Porchetta Banh Mi
While the porchetta was divine -- moist pulled pork of two kinds with little crackling rewards -- the banh mi was not successful. First, the pork is seasoned with Italianish spices. Second, there were no other meats, like pâté and ham. Third, they added thinly slice red onions, which seemed only to reinforce the Westernness of the thing.  Fourth, they added too much mayonnaise, although it was the real Kewpie that is used widely in the Far East. Fifth, the hot sauce was normal hot sauce, not sriratcha. And finally, there were no jalapeños or cucumbers. Also, the sandwich is a bit sloppy, as can be seen above, although this is less apparent when it is closed and ready to be eaten and ultimately a minor quibble.

The bottom line: an excellent pork sandwich but missing the wonderful melange of Vietnamese tastes that is the essence of an authentic banh mi.

The quest continues.

Bobby Jay

Sunday, October 26, 2014

She Wolf Miche: Spectacular Bread

On my weekly pilgrimage to the Upper West Side greenmarket behind the Museum of Natural History, I noticed a new stand: She Wolf Bakery. They had a case full of miches, a brown sourdough (levain) bread similar to the famous Pain Poilâne made in Paris and marketed throughout the world. I bought a quarter loaf and couldn't wait to try it at home (the piece below is substantially carved down from the quarter miche). It is intensely sour but gives full reign to the flavors of the white, whole wheat and rye flours of which it is made. In short, a revelation, better in my opinion than the renowned Parisian loaf. The crust is crispy and the crumb delightfully moist, a triumph of the baker's art, as you can see below.

Based in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, She Wolf makes other breads, but I didn't see any of them today. The bakery has a stand at the Union Square Market on Mondays, so I will have to check it out. They are also at the Greenpoint market for those who live in or near that neighborhood.

Miche from She Wolf Bakery
She Wolf Bakery's stand at Upper West Side greenmarket
(Perhaps not entirely coincidentally, I am reading Michael Pollan's new book: Cooking: A Natural History of Transformation, nearly a quarter of which is devoted to bread, more specifically a natural levain bread from Chad Robertson that is the subject of his brilliant Tartine Bread. I plan to write more about Pollan's book in an upcoming post.)

Get this bread if you can!

Bobby Jay

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Making Banh Mi

My favorite bánh mì place, Baoguette, is no more, so I have been on the hunt for a good replacement. So far I have not found it. (By the way, banh mi has added to The Oxford English Dictionary a couple of years ago, without accents, so hereafter I have dropped the accents.)

Coincidentally, I found out about a book by Andrea Nguyen, The Banh Mi Handbook, which tells you everything you want to know about banh mi, including recipes for each element -- bread, pickles, cold cuts, mayonnaise, meat and sauce. Armed with this book, I set out to make a great banh mi, and the results were pretty great, even though I only made some of the elements and bought the others.

Classic banh mi
This banh mi consists (in order) of (i) a baguette from Epicerie Boulud, (ii) mayo, (iii) Maggi sauce (yes, the Vietnamese use it all the time), (iv) pork liver pâté, (v) mortadella, (vi) Nguyen's excellent poached garlic pepper pork tenderloin, (vii) her daikon and carrot pickles, (viii) cucumber slices, (ix) jalapeno slices and (x) a little sriratcha. The blending of hot, salty, sweet (the rub for the pork), sour and umami (Maggi sauce) is what Vietnamese food is all about.

As is often the case, I did my experimenting while J was out of town, and so waited for her return to amp my banh mi up to the next level, substituting Nguyen's crispy roasted pork belly for the poached garlic pepper pork tenderloin. This is made with similar spices (five-spice, pepper, brown sugar, salt, soy sauce) but the richness of the pork belly, which is dried in the fridge for a couple of days before roasting and broiling, elevates the banh mi considerably.

Crispy roasted pork belly
Nguyen's book contains recipes for banh mi with chicken and fish for those who don't like pork or just want a lighter version. I plan to get to some of these, as well as her banh mi rolls, in due course.

Bobby Jay

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Coconut Yogurt

A couple of weeks ago, I was buying Ronnybrook milk at the farmer's market behind the Museum of Natural History, when the person in front of me asked for coconut yogurt, exclaiming "I love this stuff, it's amazing!" So I said that I'd have what she was having, and had a great surprise: it really is wonderful. The taste and texture of the coconut flakes are subtle but combine with the sourness of the yogurt to produce an almost-dessert product that's great by itself or to elevate fresh fruit.

There are two problems with Ronnybrook's coconut yogurt. First, it is hard to find. Second, it is made with full-fat yogurt, and many people (me included) prefer low- or no-fat yogurt. So I set out to try to make my own with store-bought Face Greek-style yogurt and with my homemade 1% yogurt. I thought  it would be difficult to find just the right proportion of coconut to yogurt, and also asked myself whether to use sweetened or unsweetened coconut flakes. It turns out that my first trial was a success: 90 grams of Greek yogurt, 10 grams of sweetened coconut flakes. This ratio also worked for my homemade yogurt, even though it is considerably more tart than the Greek-style. Obviously, you can use more or less coconut according to your taste.

Just to be sure, I tried using unsweetened coconut flakes, which provide the texture but not the satisfying sweetness. While adjusting with sweetener could fix this, why bother? Just stick with the readily available sweetened coconut flakes.

If you can get it, try Ronnybrook's coconut yogurt. Otherwise, make  your own.

Bobby Jay

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Mixing Food Cultures

J is a dealer in contemporary Japanese ceramics and in the course of her (and sometimes my) travels to Japan, she has found some beautiful dishes and bowls that are meant to be used, not just admired. I love using them with Western food, which can be challenging because the artists were seeking to make vessels that suit Japanese tastes in food and presentation (including size). When it works well, I like to think the artists would be pleased that their work can be used in ways that they never contemplated.

Joan was particularly taken by this presentation of chicken soup in bowls by the late Kato Yasukage.

David Waltuck's mom's chicken soup in Kato Yasukage bowl
Ottolenghi's roasted eggplant with lentil on Hoshino Gen plate

Bobby Jay