Thursday, March 26, 2009

Stump the Cook - Results!

Dear Mouse,

Ok, sure, you might say the high odds of the recipe being cooked FOR me played a role in my decision. However, I might say that no one else came through with any suggestions, and the mushrooms were going to go bad, to say nothing of the eggs. And we would both be right.

Kudos to the GC for his beautiful Sunny Eggs concoction. It was delicious!! Two mounds of sliced up little new potatoes, mushrooms, and red pepper (yes an ingredient was added), fried in a delicious mass, sprinkled with fresh herbs and crowned with a sunny-side up egg.
A brilliant solution to the "not enough eggs for an egg-based recipe" problem, and a damn fine breakfast dish. Thanks GC!

Happy Spring!

The Boo

PS. In other Egg Related Miracle News, I had to post this picture. At our Spring Equinox dinner, we blew eggs and painted them, something we did last year too. At one point, I broke last year's eggshell.... and THIS was inside.

You guys see the leaping deer, right? It isn't just me??

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

How to Eat a Soup Dumpling


Dear Boo,

It's a well known fact that Soup dumplings are one of the world's most perfect foods. Okay, well known by me, at least. Please tell me you've tasted one. If you haven't, let me do my best to describe: a bite sized meatball of pork or pork and crabmeat, seasoned beautifully and swimming in a meaty and rich broth all tied up a thin dough pouch twisted elegantly like a perfect christmas package, and adorned with a spoonful of salty soy-based sauce mingled with ginger slivers like tiny matchsticks. When you bite in, the hot broth, chewy dough, and meaty center explode in your mouth, making for a singularly perfect bite. This is almost unbearable to type as my craving for a soup dumpling is now officially overwhelming.


The Boyfriend and I are lucky enough that a paradise for soup dumplings, Grand Sichuan, is right near us. However, this story of Soup Dumplings doesn't take place at Grand Sichuan. No. It begins at home, after a late Saturday afternoon nap. It was 7pm and the sun was down when I opened my eyes. I reached across the couch to nudge the Boyfriend and said, "Let's go to the Dumpling House." Where this idea came from, I have no idea. But the thought of a cheap dinner in this chinatown hole in the wall seemed like a stroke of dream-induced genius.


Silly me. at 8pm on a Saturday night, the place was PACKED, with a line of people hovering over those lucky enough to snag a table, waiting for them to take their last bite before they swooped in for a seat. We resolved to come back another time. But now I had to have dumplings. "Joe's Shanghai!" I exclaimed. I'd never been, but had heard quite a bit about it and apparently it is THE place to go for....that's right...SOUP DUMPLINGS. By the time the Boyfriend looked up the address on his Blackberry, my craving had reached epic proportions. We set out through the dark Chinatown streets, our mouths watering.


Between the two of us, we've lived in this city for oh, about 15 years combined. And it's not a large island, this Manhattan. So would you believe me when I said after about four minutes of trying to outsmart the blackberry map, we didn't know which end was up/our ass from our heads/a pigeon from a porcupine? We were LOST. I am not kidding you when I say I saw streets I never knew existed, I walked down entire blocks without seeing one English letter, and asked directions like a tourist. We walked past Chinese banks and barbershops, old men squatting on the sidewalk slurping quart containers of noodles, packs of teenagers flying by on bikes, gray and mottled windows looking down into ground floor kitchens where vats of fish heads sat staring up at an old tv flashing Chinese game shows, and in the midst of it all, an imposing ancient synagogue out of which poked a head with long and shiny peyes, under a tall black hat. I've never felt so lost in my own city. "You wanted to get out of town this weekend," The Boyfriend said. "Well, here we are."

Finally, after much circling and some helpful hand gestures, we spotted Pell Street, leapt for joy and dashed across Bowery (or was it East Broadway?) to Joe's Shanghai. Emboldened by our adventure, I pushed my way through the crowd outside and into the packed restaurant. Instantly, the hostess directed to two empty mismatched chairs at a table for ten. The interior of Joe's Shanghai is set up like a rec room--brightly lit with low paneled ceilings, and crammed with the large circular tables and black chairs you might find in a conference hall. We sat down, sandwiched between a party of 8 who were finishing up their dinner. Before we had even picked up our menus, our no-nonsense waiter asked if we'd like dumplings to start. Duh. We quickly settled on the whole spicy fish (not spicy in the least, it turned out), ordered "crispy" as the waiter suggested, and a sesame pancake to go with our dumplings, and two beers. Soon, in a large bamboo steamer, our dumplings arrived. After our trek through Manhattasia, how sweet it was.


I've learned, in my extensive soup dumpling eating experience, that there is a right and wrong way to eat these things. The wrong way can result in a ruined shirt, a scalded tongue, and an angry dinner companion. The right way will keep you from looking like a total fool, and maximize your taste explosion. Proceed cautiously. With the tongs they provide, gently transfer a dumpling to your large spoon, taking care not to puncture the skin. Holding the spoon in one hand and your chopsticks in the other, carefully, take a small bite out of the dough near the top of the dumpling. Now is your chance to get some points for style. You can either slurp out some of the soup inside, enjoying the broth and making the whole thing more manageable, or press down on the dumpling so the soup runs out onto the spoon. Blow a little on the opening you've created so the insides don't scald you. If you want to be like the delicate and graceful young woman who was seated next to us halfway through our meal, you can take a spoonful of the soy sauce and pour it in through the opening you made. Or if you're me, and not that coordinated, spoon a small amount over the top of the dumpling. Now, with the chopsticks pinching the dumpling to a manageable size, tip the spoon into your mouth, taking a bite and slurping the sauce and broth into your mouth at once. It should only take two bites to eat the whole thing.

Do NOT by any means, do what the gentleman to my right, on an evening out with his buddies, did to his poor dumpling, stabbing it with both chopsticks so the broth ran out onto his plate, and tearing it into tiny bits and pieces which he ate separately, one by one.

Do NOT do what I managed to do on my last dumpling: get greedy and skip a step, tearing right into the dumpling with your front teeth, causing a geyser of broth to shoot out onto your dinner companions plate.

DO go eat some of these immediately. And if you can help it, get a little lost along the way. Honestly, I think I prefer the dumplings at Grand Sichuan, but the journey to Joe's was more than half the fun.


The Mouse

Monday, March 16, 2009

Stump the Cook

Dear Mouse,

I'm not sure what is going on with me. Procrastination (supposed to be writing new music for this big upcoming show)? avoidance of Life Issues such as the fact that MM is about to move to Chicago? the onset of spring fever? some kind of misplaced Purim-Carnival frenzy? I. Cannot. Stop. Cooking.

Here's my week/end:

* Saturday: Beef Stew. An all-day event involving the Farmers Market, Whole Foods, compare-and-contrast recipe research, and my Le Creuset's maiden voyage. In the end it was half yours, half Ina's, with a few tweaks. Good dinner, GREAT leftovers, just in time for Patty's Day.

* Sunday involved two restaurants, so you'd think my culinary ardor would have cooled a bit.
1. Brunch w/MM at this cheap/adorable place in Brooklyn
2. Mom's birthday dinner at Raoul's with you.

I blame the euphoria-inducing asparagus vinagrette/quinoa appetizer ("It's like springtime on a plate!" I kept repeating, to anyone who would listen, which was no one) for the fact that I STILL ended the evening in the kitchen, at 2AM! AFTER going out!! mixing up a batch of blueberry muffins. (Come to think of it, I blame you, for the bag of tiny frozen wild blueberries from Trader Joe's. They came out violet-tinged, and perfect. I'll say it again: Soda No, Powder Yes.) Breakfast for a week.

* Monday I read this recipe on the Wednesday Chef (who we've just found out reads AMB!! Yay), realized I had half the ingredients, hit the corner store, and made it for dinner. I forgot the ginger and tried to fudge the spice blend, and it came out not great. But I'll try again.

Now here's where you come in. And, I hope, a few of the people reading our oh-so-private correspondence here.

As you know, I am a devoted listener of a certain weekly food-related radio show, which frequently features a segment called "Stump the Cook". A listener calls in, lists five ingredients, and the host has to come up with a recipe using all of them that the caller would actually consider eating. Your challenge, should you choose to accept it, is to think of something for me to do with these five currently in my kitchen, before this culinary frenzy of mine dies down. Ready?

* half pound of mushrooms from farmer's market
* pound of farmer's market small potatoes
* fresh rosemary & thyme
* 2 eggs
* bunch of parsley I bought instead of cilantro by accident

May the best Foodie win.

The Boo

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

What's Hiding in Murray's Cheese Caves? (Apparently, The Longest Post You've Ever Seen)

Dear Boo,

I have found my new calling. I've decided to become an affineur. I hope you'll respect my decision and support me in my new life. I can promise you there will be lots of perks in the form of camembert, tallegio, and goat cheeses old and young. Don't you worry, I will hoard all the bleu cheeses you so despise to myself.

It all started a few weeks ago when the Aunt had an extra ticket to a cheese class at the famous NY institution, Murray's Cheese, called "The Mystery of the Caves". Doesn't the name just make you tingle with excitement? CAVES?! Where??! And what happens there??? And what does it all have to do with cheese??? And how much will I get to eat?? A Mystery, indeed.

We blew in from the cold and were directed upstairs to the classroom where tables were laid with our class packets, glasses of red and prosecco, plates of nuts and dried fruit, baskets of bread, and of course, this cheese spread (see below). I got the idea I should wait before digging in. Our delightfully spunky teacher, Zoe Brickley, arrived and introduced herself as Murray's Affineur. An Affineur, despite being such an obscure job that wikipedia doesn't even have an entry for it, is someone who specializes in finishing cheeses--ie, aging and ripening cheeses from their nascent milky stages to the finished and desired product. The name, of course, comes from the French for to 'end' or 'finish', (but I don't need to tell you that, I'm guessing, since I forced you to be our spokesperson the entire time we were in Paris). All I could think was how enjoyable it would be to put that occupation down on my tax return.

Our friendly Affineur, Zoe, drinking on the job. Clearly this is my calling.

Zoe passed out some lovely lunch lady shower caps which we were instructed to put on before we could descend into the caves. Incidentally, the Boyfriend has tried making a case for me wearing these around the house or at least while I cook, and while it is true that I shed, I fear he might have some freaky cafeteria fetish going on. Anyway, naturally, I looked fetching in mine. We grabbed our glasses of wine and headed down the employees only staircase, past the cold storage room and the guys unpacking the day's arrivals, to...da da daahhhh....THE CAVES.

I'll be honest. I'm not sure what I was expecting. When I was abroad for my junior year, I traveled to quite a few Eastern European villages, and pretty much everywhere I went there were caves, and a cave tour. And every time, we were like, oooh, we have to go take the cave tour! It's like, a natural phenomenon, people, we must see it. And okay, maybe I'm a bad person but I was always a little bored. I mean, don't get me wrong--caves are cool. They're cold, and dark, and wet, and sometimes there are crystals and stalgtites or stalagmites and underground lakes, and I'm sure it was REALLY amazing for the person who discovered them on a little after dinner stroll through the mountains. But for me, after the first 15 minutes I was ready to head back through the gift shop, buy me a little stone gnome, order a latte and hitch a ride back to town. In short.... meh. Anyway, getting back. Murray's caves, despite what I imagined of winding tunnels and low stone ceilings, turned out to be three small underground rooms built into the cedar block walls, with large wooden doors. Visually, less impressive than their natural counterparts, but with dare I say, a far more exciting bounty inside.

These goat cheeses have a hot date.

The idea behind these caves, and really behind affinage in general, is to replicate what happened accidentally, naturally, back in the old country when people first started to make and keep their own cheese to feed their family. For instance, back in France, wives on the farm might milk the family cow, or goat, make their cheese, and then store it in the cold damp cellar where the natural molds or bacteria in the air would create a rind on the cheese, or blue moldy veins, in the way we now expect a brie or bleu to look and taste. Essentially, the kind of cheese people made depended entirely on the animals they kept and their natural environment. Now, like so many things in the New World, Murray's has invested time, energy, and I'm sure a whole lotta money, to study and recreate the precise conditions necessary for aging different cheeses. Many of these cheeses come from abroad and are shipped (mostly fedex) in their pre-aged stages, when it's easier for them to travel, which allows for the aging process to happen on site, developing cheeses that can be eaten at the height of their maturity and delectability.

Blah blah blah. If you want the science of it, I recommend getting it from Zoe who makes it all as exciting as mold growing on cheese can possibly be (which is QUITE, if you're wondering). She took us on a tour of the different caves which vary in their level of humidity, temperature, and of course, type of cheese. One cave is dominated by goat cheeses in different stages of ripening. Some were just covered with a layer of black ash, harkening back to the days when farm wives in France would pat their cheese down with soot from the hearth to keep the flies away. Some had a soft white down on them like teenagers just starting to sport a little peach fuzz under their noses, and some had veritable milky white rinds already. All of these cheeses have to be cradled, patted, and turned regularly, like babes in a nursery, as they develop their rind. In the other cave, mainly for stinky cheeses, rounds get bathed and scrubbed every couple of days to help the bacteria ripen and keep their orange rinds looking purty. It's good to be a cheese.

Zoe demonstrates cheese washing with a little pedicure scrub brush. No joke.

Once we headed back up to the classroom, the ammonia scent clinging to our clothes, we pulled off our swim caps and settled in to satisfy my now salivating taste buds. Working clockwise from the top of the plate we ate our way slowly around the half pound or so of cheese.

Clockwise from top: Young Selles St. Mare, Aged Selles-Sur-Cher, Tomme Crayeuse, Meadow Creek Dairy Grayson, Pecorino Foja De Noce, Bergkase, and Valdeon.

First we tasted the fresh goat cheese alongside the aged version, detecting the variations in texture and complexity as one does with wine. My favorite of the night was next, the Tomme Crayeuse, a cheese dubbed by the Murray's folks as Tom Cruise, for it's star status and complex taste. Like the man himself, it was unapologetic, very rich, smooth, but with a wacky bite. Then it jumped on a couch and told me I could solve my post-partum depression with vitamins and exercise. I spread it on some toast and sent it on its way with a prosecco chaser.

Zoe passed around a bonus cheese that she had wanted to try and that was on the verge of overripening. You know I love me some stinky cheese but even this was beyond my threshold. My eyes burned. My throat itched. My sinuses cleared. I felt like someone had stuffed my mouth full of dirty socks and mushrooms soaked in ammonia. It wasn't half bad.

After some more cheese trivia and pleasant wine-soaked banter, we rolled ourselves down to the store and out into the street. We'd planned on dinner after but had obviously underestimated what a half pound or so of serious cheese can do to you. Or, rather, I'd underestimated what I could do to a half pound of cheese.

On my way home, I thought about the events of the night with mixed feelings. On the one hand, it was AWESOME. Zoe was a fantastic teacher and the cheese was unbelievably good, and the caves were better than Europe, but I couldn't help but feel a teensy guilty, what with all the talk lately about eating locally for the planet and our economy. All the fedexing and shipping halfway around the world, and the--i'm sure staggering--electricity bills for maintaining these caves, just to produce what happens courtesy of mother nature elsewhere in the world, left me with a little bourgeouise guilt. But then I realized what was really irking me. The next morning, I'd be getting up and dragging my butt to work, while those cheeses, those stinking cheeses, those lazy goodfornothing cheeses lie around all day, just waiting to be coddled and massaged, thinking they're hot shit. "Well, Cheese," I thought, as I headed up Bleecker, "anyone ever tell you you're COVERED IN MOLD, geniuses?? And that that mold, and YOU, will sooner or later end up in MY BELLY?? Who's got the last laugh now, hotshots? Yeah, I thought so."


The Mouse

P.S. If you made it to the end of this post, I realize you may never want to hear another thing about cheese, from me or anyone else. But I'd still urge you to take a class at Murray's, or at the very least, go and chat up the counter staff for some free cheese knowledge. Makes a great present, too. My birthday's coming up. April 14. Ahem.