Tag Archives: Lucky Peach

You may not want to hug the bug on your plate, but embrace it nonetheless

… Several years ago, in a reputable Thai fusion place not far away …

Halfway through dinner one evening I was appalled to find an inchworm doing its cute little humpbacked crawl through my noodle salad. The waiter was not sympathetic. “Our produce is all organic,” he sniffed.

I’m not particularly squeamish. I grew up a small town farm girl, and always tell my girls, “Dirt don’t hurt.”

I’m also a firm believer in the many benefits of organic produce, but that doesn’t excuse skimping on washing before service. When I insisted on a refund he just shrugged and took my plate away. Only half my meal was comped, and I walked out hungry after eating half of a worm’s playground. I hoped he wasn’t missing any friends.

The little incher wasn’t as big and hairy as this guy from the pumpkin patch last fall, but still. That was my first, and last time at this unnamed Sacramento restaurant.

… Flash forward, but not too far, to last week on my living room couch …

I read an article by Harold McGee in Issue 3 of “Lucky Peach” talking about “Handling Herbs.” Spanking mint as opposed to muddling it for mojitos to ‘liberate its minty essence without over-damaging the cells and eliciting a vegetal quality’ was a surprising tip, but I was most intrigued by his discussion of how bugs can make organic produce healthier and even taste better.

Maybe that’s why my backyard sage is so wonderful…

According to McGee, the flavors of herbs and spices come from the chemicals they make and store for chemical warfare against bugs, animals, and microbes. You wouldn’t munch on a cinnamon stick because it doesn’t taste good on its own, but if you simmer apple cider with whole cloves and cinnamon sticks, the resulting infusion is autumn comfort in a cup.

Thus, if a plant is damaged by pest invasion, that sends a message to boost its chemical defenses (aka antioxidants, aka flavor). McGee suggests reconsidering buying the less-than-pretty bug-eaten produce at the farmer’s market as it may be tastier and healthier than it’s more presentable neighbors. (!)

I’ve often heard food is only as good as the soil it’s grown in, but this was the first I’d heard that bugs can actually improve a plant’s nutrients and flavor. I guess it’s true for people and plants alike; whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.

… And then, at a restaurant recently nominated for a James Beard award …

I had my second meet and greet with an unexpected critter in a restaurant setting. A few minutes upon arrival, while admiring the trays of artfully laid black trumpet mushrooms, locally grown oranges, key limes, and Persian cucumbers, I spotted a tiny mite-like thing crawling near my place setting. I wasn’t offended, but I didn’t really want to share my dinner with him, so I asked my husband to “get it.” He brushed his thumb over it, leaving a dark brown paint stroke on the white linen. I didn’t bother mentioning it to the waiter, and the entire meal was unforgettably decadent.

… Checking out the rearview …

I doubt that Thai-fusion waiter was up on his McGee so many years ago, but maybe I’ll reconsider my boycott. I’m can’t say I’m ready to slurp a scorpion lollipop like these insect treats we discovered at Pismo Beach last summer, but maybe it’s not such a bad sign if a healthy critter hops on my plate.

What do you think?

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Filed under Cookbooks and other Book Reviews, Obsessed with Produce, Techniques

Before You Make Instant Ramen Gnocchi Parisienne…

Despite my epic failure a few weeks ago attempting homemade ramen, aka alkaline noodles, I still wanted to try making instant ramen gnocchi found in the maiden voyage of “Lucky Peach.” (See my notes on homemade ramen and Arzak eggs here.) This recipe is the equivalent of a triple dog dare. I mean, how could it taste even remotely good? And yet, that’s exactly what is promised-indistinguishably good gnocchi parisienne.

Should I have attempted this feat after a proper night’s sleep? Absolutely. As a result, I spent all Sunday afternoon making mistake after mistake, probably four hours total. (Yes, I stopped to take pictures, but I did that between steps.)

Most of my mistakes had to do with bad equipment decisions, stemming in part from my late night Glee induced haze, and partly from poor directions. I will give you my notes so you can make this dish for yourself (in much more reasonable time, certainly not half a day). And yes, you should make it, at least once. The transformation from this:

to this

is stunning.

Here are my suggestions on how to save time, batter, and sanity while making this recipe:

1)   ‘Bring 2 cups of milk to a boil and then immediately remove from heat.’

This direction sounds quick and easy, and yet it took those little bubbles 45 minutes to skim the surface. I set the heat at medium to avoid scalding. Perhaps medium is too conservative? The recipe doesn’t specify heat level.

My suggestions: One: Before pouring the milk into a saucepan, microwave it in a shallow bowl for 2 minutes, stirring at least once halfway through. Liquids boil faster when starting at a higher temperature. Why I haven’t tried my own advice yet is beyond me. Two: don’t use a 2 qt saucepan. Use a 10” or 12” skillet. The large surface area encourages faster boiling.

2)   ‘Steep two packages of instant ramen (sans flavor packets) in the hot milk for a minute, noodles should still be firm.’

It made sense to just add the noodles to the saucepan for steepage, but the noodles don’t fit well in a 2 qt saucepan. I then tried a 2 qt casserole dish, which was wider, but only slightly better.

Revision: If you don’t use a skillet, pour hot milk into a long, shallow pan that can accommodate submerging both packages of noodles at the same time.

3)   ‘Strain noodles and put them into a blender with 1 cup reserved milk. Blend for half a minute.’

(Because it took so long to boil, much of the milk evaporated. I had to add an extra ¼ cup to make a full cup.) I have an excellent KitchenAid blender capable of crushing ice, but it completely choked on the dough, even after adding another 3 Tablespoons of milk!

Revision: Unless you have a Vitamix, do not use a blender. A food processor fitted with a standard blade works well.

I never thought I would see ramen noodles in my blender.

4)   ‘Add 4 egg yolks and blend till the dough has the consistency of “loose toothpaste.” You might need to add 1 Tablespoon of milk if the mixture is “dry.”

Is “loose toothpaste” a patisserie term I’m just not familiar with? I had no idea how to apply this description to dough. I added another tablespoon of milk to make the dough “looser.” (After the previous 3 added in a vain attempt to get my blender blades moving.)

Texture note-I thought the finished gnocchi were “creamy” in the middle, in fantastic contrast to the butter browned crispy sides. My husband, however, found it “smooth” and “custard-like,” and therefore didn’t like it because custard makes him gag. Although he did say it improved (firmed up) once it cooled. My 8 year old didn’t like it because it tasted “doughy.” My three year old liked it, but then she likes most things. So depending on your texture preferences, you may want to stick with, ‘no more than one extra tablespoon of milk.’

5)   ‘Transfer batter to a pastry bag with ½” wide tip or sturdy plastic bag with ½” corner snipped from the end. Refrigerate the dough for the time it takes to bring a large pot of water to boil.’

(Once I had a “dough,” I had to taste it. It was decidedly pasty, and only slightly better than plain cooked ramen noodles.) I spoon fed the dough into my pastry bag, thinking the tip was big enough, and of course it wasn’t. Instead of fat, happy gnocchi dropping into the gently simmering pot, I had fat little squirts of toothpaste. I transferred the batter to a ziploc with the corner cut out, and it worked perfectly.

Suggestion: Don’t mess with a pastry bag unless you are a piping expert.

6)   ‘Work in batches, piping dough directly into simmering water. As they rise to the surface, remove them to a greased plate. You can cool and store them as long as overnight before finishing.’

As I wrestled with the gnocci, I was also reducing stock and thought it would be cool to cook the gnocchi in that instead of water. I still like the idea, but the stock had reduced so much that I had to start a big pot of boiling water just to finish.

Revision: Start a big pot of boiling water when you are ready to cook. Use your biggest pot and a generous amount of water so you don’t have to wait for it to re-boil if you need to add more.

7)   ‘Before serving, brown gnocchi in 2 Tbsp butter. Finish with another Tbsp butter and fresh lemon juice. Garnish with grated Parmesan and fresh herbs.’

I debated on making a different sauce. I had visions of a roasted butternut squash based sauce, but I’m glad I didn’t. The simple flavors were perfect. I used a little fresh basil from my garden, and about a tablespoon of lemon juice. (The recipe tells you to finish with lemon juice, but doesn’t say how much.)

This meal would’ve been truly magical, if I hadn’t known (and done) all the work involved in the transformation. The good news is, I’m positive if I make it again, it won’t be such an ordeal. Hopefully these notes from the trenches help (and don’t scare you off.) I’m almost tempted to make it again just to see how much time, dishwashing, and dough I would save. Almost.

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Filed under Cookbooks and other Book Reviews, Ingredients, Techniques

“Lucky Peach” Review and the Craziest Eggs You’ve Ever Seen

Back in April, I succumbed (quite happily) to Dave Egger’s publishing house McSweeney’s entertaining e-newsletter advertising their brand spanking new food quarterly, “Lucky Peach.” David Chang, chef/owner of NY’s Momofuku Noodle Bar et al, is the brainchild. Momofuku means “lucky peach” in Japanese if you were wondering.

I preordered it, sight unseen. How could I resist? The quarterly boasts contributions by Anthony Bourdain (No Reservations), Harold McGee (author of On Food and Cooking; The Science and Lore of the Kitchen, the tome on my shelf I intend to one day read in a comfy arm chair from cover to cover, not all in one bite of course), Wylie Dfresne (mad scientist at famed restaurant wd~50), and many more.

But really, the promised recipes took me over the top. Gnocchi Parisienne-a riff on gnocchi made from instant ramen noodles. How much weirder and strangely cool can you get??? I have been waiting rather impatiently, until now. My “Lucky Peach” has finally arrived. Issue 1 – Ramen, Summer 2011.

Reading on you will find:
The Fuzz – My rather minor complaints, and “Lucky Peach” Cooking Experiment #1-Homemade Alkaline Noodles
The Juicy Bits – The parts I savored, and “Lucky Peach” Cooking Experiment #2-Arzak eggs

The Fuzz

Did I mention I’m allergic to peach fuzz? I get itchy red bumps all over my face. Luckily it’s easily prevented. As long as I wash my peaches before digging in, it’s all good. Moving on now.

My first impression? Hmm…the cover…rubs me the wrong way. I expected to see something edible and enticing–not two raw chickens being lowered by their taloned feet, naked, into a soup pot. I don’t know about you, but Salmonella does not make me hungry. However, it does work to get your attention, and definitely says loud and clear, This is not your ordinary food porn.

Lucky Peach Issue 1
(Image courtesy of McSweeney’s)

The first piece – a travelogue by Peter Meehan and Dave Chang didn’t do much to awaken my appetite either. It was rather long and much less literary than I expected. It would probably work in real life, or on tv, but for some reason I found reading this ultra casual tone a bit obnoxious. I guess that’s the problem when you combine genres-so many expectations to make or break.

Not a great start, but don’t worry, it gets much better. A great many details of ramen as a rich, complex cuisine emerged beyond those bright red and orange packets of deep-fried quickie noodles. I had heard of ramen houses, but never thought to go. (I was quite content being a big pho fan.) I blame the scars of childhood for this. I still haven’t effectively blocked the memory of kids in elementary school eating instant ramen noodles dry, crushed up with a sprinkling from the little foil seasoning packet for snack. *shudders*

On a side note, the instant noodles themselves are not a bad product. We buy a $4 box maybe once a year and make stir-fry on occasion, minus the packet of course. This is known at our house affectionately as “Crazy Noodles.” It’s a great kitchen sink sort of meal. Throw in a bunch of veggies and you can use up leftover meat like BBQ ribs when there’s not enough for another meal on its own. The noodles cook faster than the time it takes to chop everything up. Heck, even the editors of Cook’s Illustrated are not above using ramen noodles, sans packet.

I don’t really have much more to complain about, except:

“Lucky Peach” Cooking Experiment #1-Homemade Alkaline Noodles

I wish I could’ve flipped to the last pages of this cooking adventure to see how it was going to end. After much hard work, (and contemplation of the irony of years blurring by in contrast to the draaaaag of time passing while kneading dough so elastic it punches back) the noodles looked fantastic. They even had the distinctive yellowish hue that says “ramen.” On first bite they tasted good, but sadly, the aftertaste screamed BAKING SODA. The entire batch had to be tossed=epic failure.

I have a couple of theories on what went wrong. An interesting technique is employed in this recipe. The brilliant Harold McGee shared how you can bake baking soda in a 250° oven for an hour to convert it from sodium bicarbonate to sodium carbonate (hence the alkalinity). The recipe said I could do this in my toaster oven, which made more sense than heating an entire oven for one little tray of baking soda. So there are two possible reasons for failure:

1) I now have doubts as to the steadiness of my toaster oven’s heat. It may have overcooked the baking soda. The problem is, it goes in white and comes out white.

2) The ratio of baking soda to the other ingredients seemed awfully high. The problem with this theory is, I can’t imagine the esteemed editors would not test this recipe before publishing it.

I’m not really sure what to think, other than to warn you-Do Not Try at Home. (Revisionist history as of 09/07/11, the editors have responded and the recipe has been corrected. Use only 4 Teaspoons of baking soda, not 4 Tablespoons.)

Luckily, we had an understudy to fall back on.

Despite the crash and burn, we managed a decent dinner, and I still can’t wait to try the recipe for ramen Gnocchi Parisienne.

The Juicy Bits

The recipe haiku for “Corn with Miso Butter” made my day, my week, my month.

I LOVE that they included fiction. But…I have this theory that all short stories are either a) dark, b) disturbing, c) depressing, or d) all of the above. “The Gourmet Club,” the short story that finishes off the magazine fits my theory with a capital T. I’m no Chicken Soup for the Soul kind of girl, but I still prefer a wedding to a funeral any day.

There was no advertising at all. We’ll see how long they can maintain this integrity without folding though. I guess I wouldn’t hold it against them if they started running ads, much.

I enjoyed the other articles, but to me, the best part of the “Peach” was the unique recipes. I was so intrigued I made one for breakfast-Arzak eggs, and one for dinner-you’ve already heard my homemade ramen noodle disaster.

“Lucky Peach” Cooking Experiment #2-Arzak eggs

When it comes to new recipes, I’m easily drawn in by unusual techniques. I like a little intrigue, a little danger if you will.

Arzak eggs could not be ignored for three reasons:

1)    Soft-boiled eggs hold a special place in my heart. My dad would take over the kitchen some weekends and serve soft-boiled eggs on buttered toast (when he wasn’t serving medium rare pancakes.) He had this way of cracking the shells down the middle with a single ~crack~ of a knife, and then cutting the cooked eggs into perfect halves. I haven’t yet been able to replicate that coolness.

2)    My kitchen twine is feeling rather neglected.

3)    There is no picture of the finished egg included with the recipe!! How can they just leave you hanging like that?

Arzak eggs are named for Juan Mari Arzak, the brilliant chef who created them. These fancy little poached eggs are not as difficult to make as they look. In fact, it probably wouldn’t have taken me nearly as long if I hadn’t been carried away with the aesthetics.

Here’s how this recipe went down:

Note to self-brush a little olive oil on the plastic wrap before you crack in the egg. I forgot this step.

Twist the wrap and squeeze out the air before tying the twine tight and trim. Say that 5 times fast.

It’s hard to resist taking these little bundles out and about.

They are quite photogenic

When my hunger won out over the art of it all, I finally rigged them in simmering (not boiling) water to keep them from touching the bottom of the pot.

The recipe says to simmer for 4 minutes and 20 seconds. After letting them rest a minute or two, I checked one and the white wasn’t quite set so I must confess I dunked them in a little longer.

To complete this fancy twist on my sentimental breakfast, I needed toast. Lucky me, I had some olive oil dough in the fridge. Hello, baguettes!

It will be very hard to top a breakfast of warm baguette with a healthy slathering of butter, fresh chopped curry, and an Arzak egg. Di-vine.

All in all, combining good literature with good food is always a good idea. Period. I’m very much looking forward to the next issue. If you want a little behind the scenes action, and a sneak peak at the next issue, check this out: http://eater.com/archives/2011/06/29/chris-ying-on-not-settling-semiridiculous-ramen-recipes-and-the-future-of-lucky-peach.php

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Filed under Cookbooks and other Book Reviews, Cuisines (Regional and International), Ingredients, Techniques