Monday, April 30, 2007

Margy's Beijing Journal: Hot Pot

Tonight was Margy's introduction to Mongolian hot pot. (I don't think it counts that we've visited the dreadful J.P. Lee's in Millburn, NJ, a Mongolian barbecue place that's like a less fun version of a hibachi restaurant.) The joint was hip and classy, and parties could seal themselves off from the throng by closing what Margy described as a shower curtain around their table.

Legend has it, Margy says, that Kubla Khan brought hot pot to Beijing from Mongolia, though tonight I believe someone else delivered it to Margy's table. A big pot of broth was set over a burner in front of the diners, and Margy and her companions used chopsticks to grab a slice of meat from a tray and then swirl it around the broth for a scant minute until it was cooked. After the meat came a plate of dumplings, which were bathed in the broth in the same way. To the left of the broth is a bowl of tripe.

Me, I had Vietnamese food on Baxter Street in NYC -- not bad, but hardly a trip to the Forbidden City followed by a hot-pot feast.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Margy Goes to China!

Please forgive my absence. I've been eating bad takeout in New Jersey while Margy's been off frolicking in Beijing.

Okay, I exaggerate. She wasn't only frolicking; she was working very hard too. Alas, it just wouldn't have been practical for me to join her on this tightly packed business trip, so I held things down at home and wished for her quick return.

Margy's first taste of Beijing's many culinary delights was in the courtyard of the Huajia Yiyuan Restaurant, after she'd endured a full day of traveling and didn't know which end was up. (Though conveniently, with Beijing being twelve hours ahead, she didn't have to change her watch.)

But if Margy's body and mind had no idea what was going on, her appetite knew exactly what to do, and she had a great first meal, which was ordered by her two gracious and knowledgeable hosts and washed down with Chinese beer. Just look at those greens! As I imagine what they tasted like, I kind of feel like a fool for not finding a way to share this exotic trip with my beloved world traveler. Sigh. In the foreground is a plate of tofu on top of mushrooms, and at right is another assortment of mushrooms (or so Margy guesses). She loved it all, and then came the Peking duck. Sigh.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Choke Char

I am something of a suggestible shopper. Place Reese's Peanut Butter Cups in my path, and I'm bringing them home. And, somebody, please stop putting Kinder displays right next to the register. They're working too well.

Luckily, my willingness to depart from my list doesn't apply only to candy. The other day, ShopRite had a big display of baby artichokes set prominently in the vegetable section: rows of shrink-wrapped packages, each holding nine neatly arranged little artichokes. I was powerless to resist.

I'm hardly an expert choke wrangler. I'd worked with full-size artichokes a few times, but it had been years. Margy, who's known to make an awesome whole fish with artichokes, has had a little more experience. But let's just say my purchase meant this was a special occasion -- we had spiky green guests in the house, and I was on my best behavior.

I tore open the package and dumped the little guys on the table. They rolled around a bit, orbiting out in random directions. I collected them and began to whittle. A few long minutes later I was looking at a huge pile of stiff green leaves and nine puny yellow-green cylinders. These were obviously not so-young-you-barely-have-to-peel-them baby artichokes, but among the wreckage I had enough to make an ample side dish to go with grilled sausages.

I steamed the suckers for about ten minutes, let them cool, and tossed them in a few tablespoons of lemon vinaigrette (lemon juice, olive oil, Dijon mustard, salt, and pepper). Then they followed the sausages on the grill, to take on a bit of char. When they were done I dressed them in more vinaigrette. They were fun to eat, pleasantly al dente, with their natural tanginess highlighted by the lemony dressing. Given all the work they required -- the peeling, the slicing, the steaming -- I think baby artichokes will remain infrequent guests, but we'll definitely look forward to their next visit.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Happy Easter

Ah, Easter at my parents'. One of the only feasts that could possibly follow a Peking duck pilgrimage with any real success.

The troops fell in -- Margy and me, my three sisters plus entourage, and my folks -- and Mom kicked things off, and nearly ruined my appetite for anything else, with her beloved meat pie. Its literal name is pizza piena, or stuffed pizza, but the glories of dialect and Italian-American bastardization have basically rendered it "pizza keen" (or "pizza gain"; pick your fave). Eggs, cheeses, meats and sausages, and brown, flaky crust: It's pretty much the perfect food. I swore I'd only have two slices. I had four.

Mom ran the show, as is everyone's preference (including Mom's). She made the gorgeous ham, the roasted potatoes, the artichokes, the broccolini. But the rest of us pitched in. Sister #2, who brought along a vegetarian friend (he's a great guy so we forgive him), made quinoa and black bean cakes with chipotle mayo, which I nominate as an Easter staple from now on. I made Indian tamarind sauce to go with the ham, at my mom's request. The sauce was a little spicy for certain more timid tastes, but at least I could count on my brother-in-law to slurp it up, hot peppers being his drug of choice. Kudos to my mother -- she was right that the sweet-tangy-spicy condiment would work well with ham. And sister #1 joined the dessert fray with a great-looking chocolate cream pie that sat beside my mom's Italian cheesecake.


Wait a second. I'm counting here and coming up short. Sister #3, didn't you bring anything to the Easter table? No, leftover Peking duck doesn't count! And neither does a hearty appetite! You're a baker for heaven's sake! Next year you're making me a chocolate lamb.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Peking Duck (in da) House

Such a lovely day, such a lovely duck.

My sister was in town from Vermont for Easter, and at the last minute we decided to give her a Manhattan dream day, or at least a fun trip to the city with the promise of Peking duck as the climax. We kicked things off in the East Village with a quick visit to an organic vegan restaurant, Angelica Kitchen. Not to eat, silly, but to say hello to one of my sister's VT-transplant friends. And then I took Sis on a subjective culinary tour of the neighborhood.

We strolled by Una Pizza Napoletana and considered ordering an "appetizer." (We wimped out.) We walked past Hearth, Rai Rai Ken, and the old site of Iso, where Margy and I had our true sushi awakening years ago. This sister doesn't do sushi, but her pastry-chef ears perked up when I told her we were right near the famous bakery Veniero's. (I also told her how disappointing I've found its pastries, though it's been awhile.)

To this point our "food walk" had found us taking nary a bite of anything, so we dropped in for a few cookies or a sfogliatella. Wouldn't you know there was a line that snaked clear through the bakery and all the way down the hall of the dining room. Obviously Easter is a good time for Veniero's. We moved on, our minds filled with sustaining thoughts of duck.

Next we tooled around the West Village for an hour or two, and then it was time to meet Margy in Chinatown. We found our third parking spot of the day -- at this point I really felt like I was pushing my luck -- not too far from Mott Street and the Peking Duck House.

I should mention that this whole thing was a bit of a quest for my sister. When we were planning the trip and I asked her where she'd like to eat, she didn't hesitate. She'd heard about the incredible pie at Una Pizza. I'd told her all about the steamed pork buns at Momofuku Ssäm Bar. She wanted the duck.

I'm happy to say she got her fill. I figured one bird would go pretty far among three people, but I wasn't certain. Anyway, we went all out with our appetizer round and ordered both pork dumplings and pork buns, so we weren't about to go hungry. We also balanced things out -- yeah, right -- with some sautéed Chinese cabbage, which was delicious and still held a bit of crunch.

But again, this was all about the duck. Even the absurdly loud and out-of-place techno music pulsating from the speakers couldn't dampen our enthusiasm for the magical meat on the platter in front of us. (I could swear they were playing lite-FM on our last visit, and I'll take robotic techno every time over the dreaded "American Pie.")

Peking Duck House is hardly the snazziest or the most interesting restaurant in New York City, but it bears remembering that the place does indeed get into some pretty important details, even beyond the duck itself. Take the pancakes. They're thin but soft, a little stretchy -- a far cry from the dry, dusty, easily torn wraps that accompany moo shu dishes at inferior joints. And the hoisin sauce is more delicate in flavor and less sweet than most, which makes a huge difference.

It's what the duck demands, par for the course for a bird this good. We sat right near the carving station and watched the "duck guy" deftly run his knife into each dark-roasted specimen until its flesh was set onto a plate in a swirl of perfect slices. Finally, it was our turn, and we asked for the bones, which as presented are really just the leg bones. But that would suffice.

We rolled our own pancakes, with hoisin, scallions, and cucumbers, and at last my sister's quest was coming to fruition. Her eyes rolled back in her head, and she made numerous yummy sounds. Margy ate quietly, smiling and sipping her Tsingtao. Me, I just repeated "Wow" a few dozen times. We hadn't made a trip to the racetrack, yet we'd hit the richest trifecta of all: delicious meat, crispy skin, and luscious fat. My sister had picked a winner.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Pasta and Pastry

A reliably good Italian restaurant is a wonderful thing, especially if it isn't far away. Basilico in Millburn is just such a place, a BYO with great food and an atmosphere that looks Manhattan-style trendy, with dark red tones, wood floors, big windows out front, and high ceilings. The staff is friendly, the prices are reasonable -- if I weren't obsessed with cooking, it's the kind of place where I'd want to eat every couple weeks.

Tonight we were packing a gift certificate from my parents, so we went all out. We had a trio of ceviches and a stuffed artichoke to start, then Margy had porcini ravioli with truffle sauce and I had a special of seafood ravioli with vodka sauce, asparagus, and mushrooms. Everything was delicious, especially the ravioli. The homemade pasta was just the right thickness -- we could almost but not quite see the filling smiling through each tasty little package -- and it had been expertly cooked. We wiped our plates clean with fluffy focaccia.

But we saved room for dessert, which is essential here. Though Margy's banana tart was excellent, the apricot strudel (pictured) took first prize. I can't decide how I feel about the presentation -- gorgeous? clumsy? overwrought? -- but we didn't look at it for long. The strudel was warm, the filling was hot, the ice cream was cold. It was over before we knew it.