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Divisive Durian

I’ve created some tension in my house because I am storing durian in the fridge.  It’s not even a full durian fruit, just the pulpy insides, which are in a shrink-wrapped plastic box.  Nonetheless, it is stinking up the  refrigerator, so that a cloud of durian-stench wafts out every time the fridge is opened.

For those of you not familiar with durian, it just stinks.  Of durian, Anthony Bourdain has remarked that after eating, “your breath will smell as if you’d been french kissing your dead grandmother.”  In Singapore and other parts of Southeast Asia, durians are banned from being brought into enclosed public spaces.  However, they are also praised as “the king of fruits” in that same part of the world.  Here in the West, they are a lightning rod of controversy.  As far as I can tell, most people in this country are thoroughly disgusted by the durian before they even taste it.  Even then, they are likely not to come back for a  second bite.  Now, I sought out durian a few years back after reading about it in some Asian cookbooks, which sung its praises.  I  find it quite delicious, addictive  even – but I do not deny that it is pungent – and funky tasting – as hell.  After several unsuccessful attempts to turn people on to durian, I have come to the realization that most people are happier not to have me serve it to them.  So I am forced to enjoy it in solitude, sitting and eating it in the  backyard because  my wife does not want it in the house.

Case in point: I threw a dinner party awhile back, and since I had some durian in the fridge and needed to cook dessert, I threw together a durian cheesecake.  I figured, what better way to ease people into eating durian – they don’t have to deal with the pungent fruit itself,  it will be mixed with traditional cheesecake ingredients to cut the strong flavor.  The meal went off great, everyone was singing the praises  of the food, so I brought out my cheesecake with much fanfare.  There was much discussion and anticipation, my dinner guests being familiar with the durian but never having sampled one.  I should add that this was a sophisticated group of diners, many of whom would not hesitate to consume the funkiest of unpasteurized french cheeses.  But durian threw them for a loop.  Many took one bite and left the rest. Maybe one guest ate his entire piece, though less than enthusiastically.  It was pretty much a stellar flop on my part, I should have just served some ice cream.  So I learned my lesson – durian is not ready for prime time in this country, or indeed outside of Southeast Asia.  You will not be buying durian at Gristedes or through FreshDirect in the near future, if ever.  Durian will not be all the  rage on NYC menus, nor will it be sold from food trucks.  Its just too funky, and too divisive.  Its one of the few foods that separates consumers into two camps – utter revulsion, or blissful enjoyment.  There is no in-between, no one is just okay with being served durian (actually, J. Burger may provide  an example of someone who is basically lukewarm about durian.  Of course, she is Southeast Asian, so she is kind of over it at this point).

Next up: I am keen to find some interesting new recipes, beyond custard, smoothies and cheesecakes.  Durian cake intrigues me but my wife will never forgive me if I fill the house  with the smell of cooked durian, so that will have to wait.  I’m also curious about durian pairings.  We all know that prosciutto and  melon pair well together, but what on earth pairs with durian?  I feel like there is lots of new culinary ground to be broken with durian, once you have gotten past creamy desserts.  I’m just sorry I can’t get more people enthusiastic about this particular journey – but, as the Grateful Dead sang:  if I go, no one may follow, that path is for my steps alone.

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Accepting the Lard Back Into Your Life

June 23, 2011 1 comment

For years, the butt of jokes, the source of shuddering revulsion – lard has been the most reviled cooking fat for many generations.  It wasn’t always this way.  At one time, lard was cooking fat’s It Girl.  As these cheery advertisements indicate, lard was once marketed as a sensible lifestyle choice, for hip power couples and families alike.  But eventually, lard was eclipsed by butter and its ugly stepsister, margarine – and later on by sexy newcomers like olive oil.   So indeed lard has been relegated to become the Jimmy Carter of cooking fat, toiling away quietly and doggedly in certain regions of the country, in pie crusts and the like, while remaining the subject of derision for many.

So- the question arises, do you even know what lard really is? Yeah, sure, it has lots of fat, beef fat, or something.

In fact, it is pig fat.  Pig fat is all the rage these days, at least around New York City.  Restaurants like Fatty Crab, Fatty Cue, the Momofukus and many more have basically been created to serve you pig fat.   They call it pork belly.  If you’re really hungry you can get a Bo Ssam, or a suckling pig and feed a crowd.   So – if all the love for pig fat, why no love for lard?  Because its so bad for you! Well, maybe yes, maybe no.  According to the Source Book For Food Scientists (2d ed. 1991) by Herbert W. Ockerman, lard has less saturated fat and less cholesterol than butter by weight, and no transfats.   So, in some respects, you are better off using lard than butter.

So, you are ready to accept the lard back into your life – what to do with it?  Here is a recipe in which lard is a very traditional and crucial ingredient, but which I think most people will want to eat regardless of their prejudices.  So if you are ready to fall in love with lard all over again, give it a whirl:

Tamales De Dulce (Sweet Tamales)

Makes 24 tamales

This recipe is from “Fonda San Miguel: Thirty Years of Food and Art,” by Tom Gilliland,  Miguel Ravago and Virginia B. Wood (Shearer Publishing).

Ingredients:
1 1/2 cups vegetable
shortening or lard
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon sea salt
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
4 1/2 cups masa harina
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 10 3/4 ounce can chicken broth
1/4 cup raisins
1 teaspoon anise seeds
1/4 cup chopped candied citrus peel
24 corn husks

Instructions:
In the bowl of a stand mixer, beat the lard until fluffy, about three to five minutes. Add sugar, salt and cinnamon; beat to blend. In a smaller bowl, whisk together the masa harina, baking powder and chicken broth. With the mixer on low speed, add the masa mixture, a little bit at a time and mix until all ingredients are incorporated. Fold in the raisins, anise seeds and citrus peel. Set aside.

Soak the husks in hot water for about 20 minutes or until they are soft and pliable. Drain and pat dry with paper towels. Put 2 tablespoons masa down the center of each husk. Follow pictures for folding. Place the rack in the steamer and pour in enough water so that it just touches the rack. Stand the tamales on the rack, open end up. Bring the water to a boil, cover and steam for about 45 minutes. Serve warm.

The Art of Grilling

September 1, 2010 1 comment

As you may have noticed, J. Frankfurter and I have been somewhat lackadaisical with posting over the past few of weeks.  With various vacations, moving for the Frankfurter clan and life generally, we’ve been distracted by the norms of summer.  We’re going to try to enjoy the last few days of the season and ease into fall with a few posts here and there.  But don’t worry.  Once the cold settles in on New York City, we’ll be hovering around our computer monitors for warmth and posting frequently once again.

With Labor Day right around the corner, many people are preparing ritualistic cookouts and barbecues to say goodbye not only to summer but to their grills as well with.  While people will always debate charcoal vs. propane, your esteemed blogging jurists both prefer charcoal for the smokey flavor that cannot be duplicated by propane.  J. Frankfurter uses the old-school Weber grill, which is easy to fire up with the help of a charcoal chimney.

In my humble opinion, one should avoid using lighter fluid or the equally flamable Kingsford MatchLight charcoals.  Whatever you grill will end up having that odd and less than delicious lighter fluid aftertaste.  The shortcut is not worth it if your food comes out tasting like chemicals.  Rather than using a chimney to light up my charcoal, I cheat a bit with the Weber Performer, which combines the aforementioned Weber grill with a propane starter.

If you haven’t done so already, check the series on Serious Eats about how to properly prepare charcoal grills for cooking.  While propane out grills are admittedly more convenient and capable of creating just as tasty meals, if done properly, the time commitment for lighting, using and cleaning charcoal grills can be minimized.

How Does Your Garden Grow?

July 22, 2010 Leave a comment

Hello, faithful readers of Allegations of Deliciousness.  Did you miss me?  I’m sure you did, even though J. Frankfurter did a mighty fine job entertaining you in my absence.

I know I mentioned the possibility of posting while I was away in Cambodia, but I was too busy enjoying my vacation.  Now that I’m back at work and in front of a computer non-stop, you’ll get new posts from me about the trip in the next few days.  In the meantime, an update on the garden.

Earlier, when spring as just becoming summer, I wrote about my container garden for this year that I set up out on the balcony.  Overall, things appear to be going well, despite the awful heat wave that has defined New York City this summer.

As you can see, the tomatoes, cucumbers and jalapenos are this year’s winners.  I’m ready to make a nice salad and some guacamole this weekend.  I don’t want to jinx it, but it appears that those dastardly squirrels have been leaving my poor, little garden alone this year.

The parsley, chives, mint and Italian basil are all thriving as well.  The dill and cilantro, however, appear to be struggling.  I can’t figure out if it’s the heat or my under/over-watering.

Most of you will not be very familiar with the herb called “dap ca” in Vietnamese, but it is a staple in fresh spring rolls and many bun (rice vermicelli) dishes.  The clover-shaped herb with a sour and fishy after-taste is not to everyone’s liking, but dap ca happens to be one of my favorites.  My mom sent me some at the beginning of the summer along with some Thai basil and shiso, but only the dap ca survived being packaged, expressed mailed up to New York and replanted.

Paul The Octopus Will Not Be Served For Dinner

For those of of you who have been living under a rock for the past week or so, there is an octopus in Germany named Paul who picks soccer games with startling accuracy.  Since the start of the World Cup, Paul the Octopus has correctly predicted all six of Germany’s victories, and most recently picked Spain in their victory over Germany in the semi-final round (he also picked four out of  six of Germany’s games in the UEFA Euro 2008).

Most recently, Paul has picked Spain to beat the Netherlands in the Final (and has picked Germay over Uruguay in the 3rd place game).  So – why report about this on a food blog?  Well, Paul’s prognostications have been inextricably linked to the subject of food based on the repeated calls for Paul to be eaten in retaliation for his unfavorable predictions.  Now, Paul is just calling them as he sees them and can hardly be blamed for Germany’s defeat (or any other team ‘s defeat).  However, this has not stopped soccer fans from speculating as to how Paul would taste grilled, with a splash of lemon and maybe some good olive oil.

Paul’s handlers at the Sea Life Aquarium in Oberhausen, Germany, have stated that this is not going to happen (and in fact, the aquarium has taken extra security precuations to prevent crazed soccer fans from attacking).  However, there are still many anonymous untalented octopi out there that you can eat for dinner if you are so inclined.

The challenge in cooking octopus is, as I understand it, to make sure that it comes out tender – as octopus is otherwise particularly rubbery and chewy.  Interestingly, several chefs, such as Mario Batali, claim that the best way to tenderize the octopus is to simmer it along with a cork from a wine bottle.  Batali provides no technical explanation as to why this would work – and, indeed, my survey of relevant articles on the internets provides no satisfactory information either, apart from some vague suggestion that there are “enzymes” in the cork that help tenderize octopus.  What I have noticed, however, is that the chefs who espouse this method are uniformly Italian (e.g., Lidia Bastianich, and others).  It is also clear to me that that wine corks are fully sterilized and chlorinated before being stuck in the bottles, so I am not sure what active ingredients would remain.

In short, I can find nothing that entirely disproves this theory, but neither can I find anything that explains why it is anything more than an old wive’s tale, or some sort of Italian cooking superstition.  I suppose the only way to test the theory would be to cook two batches of octopus under extremely controlled, consistent conditions – one with cork and one without.  But that sort of test cooking is nothing I have any interest in doing, at least not right now, so it will remain a mystery for the time being.

However, Paul the octopus can continue to swim freely, secure in the knowledge that while his brethren may appearing nightly on the Babbo menu, he has nothing to fear and can continue picking soccer games and receiving worldwide acclaim.

UPDATE:

Lest some readers think that Paul’s freakish accuracy is merely based on chance, it should be noted that he correctly picked Germany as the winner of the third place game, and correctly picked Spain as winner in the final match. ALL HAIL PAUL! Soon all will bow before Paul, but for now he will be taking a position at Goldman Sachs, which he read great things about in a Rolling Stone article by Matt Taibbi.

In Defense Of Sandra Lee’s Lasagna

June 22, 2010 2 comments

Poor Sandra Lee – not so long ago, she was the darling of the Food Network, and queen of her own little corner of the culinary universe in which she was free to conceive of whatever crazy “semi-homemade” concoctions she could think of.   At worst, some negative reviews would appear on her recipe pages at Foodtv.com, but they would usually be outweighed by the positive ones.

*Note: lest there be confusion, the dish pictured on the right is not her lasagna – it is non-traditional but it is not THAT non-traditional….

But now, by virtue of her relationship with Andrew Cuomo, she finds herself and her cooking suddenly thrust into the harsh glare of the national media.  Suddenly, the press are crawling all over her books and recipes, questioning her media savvy, and to add insult to injury, her boyfriend’s Italian mamma disses her lasagna recipe in the presence of TV reporters (for the recipe itself, go here).

So it has come to this, the New York Times itself has decided to jump on the pile and has devoted a snarky edition of its Diner’s Journal to “Putting Sandra Lee’s Lasagna To The Test.” Ultimately, the journal reports that the resulting dish is “cafeteria-style” and “ketchuppy” but concludes “we’ve had worse.”  Fair enough.  It should be noted that her recipe calls for cottage cheese and also for canned tomato soup as the sauce, hardly traditional ingredients.

Sandra’s recipe has evidently stirred the passions of Times readers, who state their opinions on the matter in no uncertain terms in the comments:

For example, commentor “ORL” is not afraid to wear his emotions on his sleeve:

I’ll never forget the day I went to a friend’s house in grade school and her mom served us spaghetti – Chef Boyardee from a can. I started crying! It was unrecognizable.

Next, “Smitty” lowers the boom:

I grew up in the Midwest, and even there this wouldn’t have passed as lasagne.

In contrast, “Jack” cuts to the chase very efficiently:

Sandra Lee was being PAID by Campbell’s to promote their product, in this case tomato soup. Get it?

As an aside, did anyone ever think that maybe, just maybe, Andrew Cuomo wasn’t dating Sandra Lee for her cooking ability?

And then we have commentor “Stephen:”

I must say that to me, lasagna is a two day process (and no, I’m not Italian). The first day, you make your Bolognese sauce and let it simmer all day (rich with white wine, milk, pork, veal, beef, mirepoix). Then, you make your bechamel and you assemble the lasagna. It rests overnight before being baked the next day, when all of the flavors have had a chance to harmonize. Time consuming? Yes. Worth it? Absolutely.

Now, I’m sure “Stephen” makes a MARVELOUS lasagna, but we are really comparing apples to oranges at this point.  To his credit, he is actually constructive and avoids the condescension and half-assed culinary “moralizing” that is found throughout these comments.  But Sandra Lee’s recipe is not for those home cooks that will lovingly craft a “two-day” lasagna in the style that “Stephen” suggests.  To the contrary, it is meant to be quick and easy in all aspects of its preparation.

Now, honestly, her recipe sounds kind of gross to me, and I am in no hurry to rush out and replicate it, even for the sake of journalism.  However, my intention is to defend the spirit of the recipe, which is (as I understand it), a quick and easy lasagna made out of simple and readily available ingredients.  But what I disagree with is the notion that somehow lasagna MUST be lengthy, laborious, made with only the freshest, homemade ingredients, and so on.  It may be best that way, but frankly, it is not always feasible to make it that way.

So, taking a page from “Stephen’s” book, I will attempt to provide a constructive alternative by providing my own “quick and easy” lasagna recipe, rather than just going through more comments and raking certain commentors across the coals in true anonymous blogger style, as I was originally planning on doing.  So, if Sandra’s recipe does not appeal, try this – it has even fewer ingredients than hers. 

1 28 oz. can crushed tomatoes
2 pkgs. frozen spinach
1 pkg. “no boil” lasagna noodles
3-4 fresh sweet Italian sausages, best quality you can find
1 lb. shredded mozzarella cheese (or chopped into very small cubes)
1 cup grated parmesan

1.  remove sausage from casing, form into bite-size pieces and brown in a pan
2.  strain crushed tomatoes thoroughly.  If using “no boil” noodles, add a 1/2 cup of water back to the tomato mixture.
3.  microwave the spinach packages to defrost, then drain any excess liquid.
4.  Construct the lasagna in an appropriately sized pan, you don’t really need instructions for this part, do you? Just make sure the layers of spinach/sausage/sauce/cheese come out even
5.  Cover the pan tightly with tin foil
6.  Bake at 350 for 30 minutes.

*some notes:
 –   Don’t be afraid of the “no-boil” noodles, they are just dry noodles that cook in sauce instead of boiling water.  So don’t be anxious if the sauce seems watery, it will end up being absorbed.
 – fresh mozarella is fine to use, but it will produce more water so be aware. 
 – the sauce can obviously be enhanced by adding some garlic, olive oil, fresh basil, etc.  – if you have time.
 – you could also add some ricotta as well, but I would not substitute it entirely for mozzarella as it basically just turns to liquid
 – if for some reason the noodles do not cook entirely, you can always just add some water, re-seal and cook for a while longer. But this is unlikely to happen.

This is not a highbrow recipe, but it gets the job done.  It is easy to shop for, quick to prepare (certainly it should take no longer than Sandra’s recipe), and tastes good.  There is no shame in cooking recipes like this – while you might not want to serve the dish at a fancy dinner party, it makes a hearty and satisfying dinner that will serve several people, and probably provide some leftovers.

Urban Gardening

June 11, 2010 3 comments

Just like all of the other stereotypical yuppies living in Brooklyn, I too have embraced urban gardening.  I consider myself very fortunate to have private outdoor space to try my hand at growing plants and herbs in containers.  Many people throughout the borough make good use of any outdoor space they have — from those coveted roofs and backyards to more resourceful spaces such as stoops, windowsills and fire escapes.

Last year during my first growing season, I planted many things that I just had no use for (lavender — what was I thinking?) or rarely used (oregano and sage).  This season I wanted to focus more on plants and herbs that I would use on a regular basis.  While I included some flowers this year to pretty up my balcony, let’s be honest — my focus was on what I could eat.

My balcony is currently home to plantings of plum tomatoes, jalapeno peppers, cucumbers, zucchini, green beans, chives, dill, cilantro, mint, parsley and Italian basil.  I will soon be adding Thai basil and shiso to the mix.  I have many of the basics to make Vietnamese spring rolls, guacamole, pico de gallo and a basic red sauce.  Recipes using what I’ve grown will pop up all summer.  Since I’ve never really been known for my green thumb, let’s just hope I don’t kill all of these plants.