Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Ejji Ramen

Baltimore is always a few (or more) years behind current restaurant trends; at least we are still unmatched in the crab cake department. The ramen craze has finally hit at long last and Ejji Ramen, in the Belvedere Square Market, is one of the first to do things right.

Ejji (sounds like and means "edgy") is not purely a Japanese restaurant, however. The owners, Oscar Lee and chef Ten Vong (whose families also own Chocolatea Cafe in Tuscany/Canterbury), are Malaysian and have incorporated Malaysian elements into their short menu of dumplings, skewered meats, and noodle soups. Mr Minx and I were invited to a media tasting in the week before Ejji's opening to get an idea of what their food was all about.

We started out with a sample of their gyoza, stuffed with cabbage, shiitakes, and smoked tofu. The fresh and delicate filling gets punched-up with a dip in a super garlicky sesame/soy sauce.

Next, we tasted their pork belly yakitori and both beef and chicken satay. The pork, cooked over traditional Japanese charcoal called binchotan, was pleasantly chewy and nicely seasoned. Shakers of sichimi togarashi (a spicy seasoning blend that includes red chile) were on hand to add a bit of heat to the pork, while the satay had a delicious lime-infused peanut sauce for dipping. The skewers of beef and chicken had been marinated in lemongrass, kaffir lime, ginger, and coconut milk and were flavorful even without the sauce. There were murmurs of dry chicken around the table, but mine was lovely.

Ejji offers three styles of ramen, which one can mix and match. Choose one broth, one noodle, any of thirteen toppings, and a sauce, to make the dish your very own, or order something from the predetermined menu.  We tasted all of the chef's house-made sauces, including two very spicy sambals in red and green, a puree of scallion and ginger, soy perfumed with yuzu, and a black sesame garlic soy. There are also shishito peppers pickled with fish sauce, which offers a milder heat than the sambals.

We sampled three styles of ramen. The first was Ejji's vegetarian version of a Hokkaido-style miso ramen. The rich noodle soup is customarily topped with sweet corn, but Ejji uses the corn in the broth itself, instead of pork. To mimic the fatty mouthfeel of pork-based stock, chef Vong uses butter, which works perfectly with corn. Our servings were topped with soft-boiled egg, enoki mushrooms, scallion, and a large piece of bamboo shoot. Of course, this being ramen, the star of the dish was the tangle of chewy, thick, curly ramen noodles. Ejji gets their noodles from Sun, a noodle manufacturer of some reknown based in Hawaii with a branch in New Jersey. (Consumers can buy Sun noodle products at HMart and Lotte.)

The second bowl of ramen we tried was made with the perhaps more-familiar tonkotsu broth. Making the broth is a two (or more) day process involving cleaning, boiling, rinsing, and more boiling of pork shin bones until they no longer leach out blood and create a nearly opaque milky broth. (Read about making tonkotsu broth at Serious Eats.) The rich stock was then ladled over thin curly ramen noodles and topped with cha siu pork, a miso egg, and slices of melt-in-your-mouth crispy pork belly.

The soups were so good, it was hard to stop eating them. Unfortunately, that meant we didn't have much room left for the final bowl, a laksa. Laksa is a Malaysian favorite, often made with coconut milk and, as with Ejji's version, curry. The broth had a shellfish base (clams and shrimp) and contained slices of clam, a fried shrimp, and spongy bean curd puffs and a sprinkling of katsuobushi (bonito flakes). The thicker curly ramen noodles were used in this dish (but you can order the laksa with more traditional rice noodles). This was the heartiest of the three soups we tasted and a bit on the sweet side due to the coconut milk. A big spoonful of spicy sambal added some brightness, as did a squeeze of the accompanying lime.

Ejji Ramen has been a long time coming. Lee and Vong had been planning the restaurant for two years, and personally, I think it was worth the wait. I predict the restaurant will be very popular in the cold months to come.

Ejji Ramen on Urbanspoon

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Monday, October 27, 2014

Chili Verde

Football season is here, which means a goodly portion of my Sundays are spent in front of the tube, simultaneously laughing and crying with the Baltimore Ravens. Ordinarily, I'm doing mise en place and cooking parts of dinner at different times of the day, but on these football Sundays, I have to get stuff started before kickoff. This usually means stew or chili is on the menu.

I've made and posted several variations on typical beef chilis, so I thought it was high time to try something different. Like a green chili. I made a really scrummy one with ground chicken and canned chiles not too long ago, but I was taking a day off from blogging and didn't bother recording the recipe. This time, I took notes.

Green chilis are tangier than red ones, and a bit lighter, so they are perfect for nippy-but-not-exactly-cold October weather. I roasted the vegetables first, then pureed them in a blender to make a thick green sauce. After a couple hours of simmering, the pork was meltingly tender and the dish was nothing short of perfection. Perfection for a day spent watching both football and baseball playoffs, that is.

Chili Verde

1 lb tomatillos, husked and quartered
Olive oil
2 poblano peppers, quartered, stems and seeds removed
2 jalapenos, cut in half, seeded or not, depending on how hot you want the end result to be
1 red onion, peeled and quartered
1 bunch scallions, trimmed
2.5 lbs pork shoulder, cut into smallish cubes
4 cloves garlic
2 teaspoons ground cumin
4 cups chicken stock
1/2 cup cilantro leaves, chopped
Salt and pepper
Masa harina
Sour cream
Tortilla chips

Preheat oven to 450°F.

Place the tomatillos on a rimmed baking pan lined with foil. Drizzle with some olive oil and toss to coat. Place peppers, onion, and scallions on a separate foil lined baking pan. Drizzle with olive oil and toss to coat. Put both pans in the oven and roast for 15 minutes. Remove tomatillos and scallions. Roast remaining vegetables, stirring once or twice, an additional 20 minutes.

Allow vegetables to cool, then put everything in a blender. Puree the vegetables and set aside.

Brown the meat cubes in a couple of batches. I didn't use any oil, but you may want to if your pork isn't as fatty as mine/you find it sticking. Once the meat is browned, stir in the garlic and cumin, then turn the heat up and add the vegetable puree and stock. Bring to a boil, then lower heat so the mixture is barely simmering.

Cook for the length of a football game, 2.5 - 3 hours. After an hour or so, add the cilantro.

If the broth seems too runny at the end of the cooking time, mix a tablespoon or two of masa harina with enough water to make a slurry the texture of pancake batter. Turn up the heat to get the chili boiling and drizzle in as much or as little of the slurry as you want, to get the texture you like.

Season aggressively with salt and freshly ground pepper.

Serve in bowls with sour cream, pepitas, more cilantro, and tortilla chips.

Makes 4-8 servings.

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Friday, October 24, 2014

Fleet Street Kitchen

We chose to celebrate our 14th wedding anniversary at a restaurant we hadn't tried before--Fleet Street Kitchen. To clarify, we had eaten in the Tavern Room part of the restaurant at the front, but had never dined in the more formal dining room at back.

The place is gorgeous, all wood and crystal chandeliers, but the unadorned row of windows on the west wall and horse-blanket upholstery on the long booth on the east wall give the place a more casual feel.

We started our feast by squinting at the cocktail menu. Honestly, with dim lights, serif font, and bad eyes, reading it was no easy task. Eventually we settled on our bevvies and proceeded to the food menu, which I had checked out earlier in the day. I settled on the scallops and halibut, with a side of broccoli rabe. Mr Minx ordered the short ribs, the rockfish, and a side of brussels sprouts. Everything was outstanding.

The scallops were aggressively seasoned, with a nice crust on the outside and properly translucent middles. The radish and radicchio salad offered both tart and bitter notes, and the broccoli puree was just plain pretty. (And tasty. And it didn't particularly taste like broccoli, which for some might be a plus.)

Mr Minx's tender short ribs came atop a mound of kale cooked with currants. A lot of currants. (From across the table, I thought it was a bed of lentils.) Leafy greens + raisins are a classic Mediterranean combo, and the deep, lightly sweet, flavors worked well with the beef.

I love halibut and wasn't disappointed by the perfectly cooked hunk of seared king halibut atop a veritable mountain of glazed baby carrots with lemon and hazelnuts. This carrot lover was quite pleased.

Mr Minx's rockfish dish paired the fish with elements of clam chowder, including baby white potatoes, bacon, clams, and a chowder emulsion. Turnips found their way into the mix as well.  The fish had a nice sear, and the elements worked well together.

We had gone for the four course prix fixe dinner, which included a vegetable course. The spicy broccoli rabe with garlic confit and brussels sprouts with marcona almonds and creme fraiche seemed more like side dishes than a course unto themselves, so we asked them to be brought at the same time as the entrees. Both were terrific, and I particularly enjoyed finding the nuggets of almond in the sprouts.

Those three courses provided a lot of food, but we had dessert coming, too. I had the frozen cappuccino, made with a frozen coffee-flavored cream (not sure it was technically ice cream, as it didn't melt) atop a thin slice of chocolate cake, topped with crunchy candied cocoa nibs and milk froth. It wasn't exactly like a frozen coffee drink, but the textures and mild cappuccino flavors were appealing.

I think I preferred Mr Minx's tender peach almond upside down cake with creamy mascarpone sorbet and candied almonds. Again, a lot of really pleasing textures and flavors there.

As expected, everything we ate was delicious and well-executed and service was friendly yet professional. The atmosphere was nice, too, that is until a large group of people who didn't have inside voices took over the dining room with their inappropriate shrieks of laughter. A shame there's no way to turn the volume down on other people.

Fleet Street Kitchen on Urbanspoon

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Pumpkin Spice Cake

Have you all noticed that Autumn is the time for pumpkin spice everything? Starbucks kicked off the Pumpkin Spice season in August, with the release of their pumpkin spice latte. I'm not normally a PSL gal--I prefer the more Christmas-y gingerbread or peppermint mocha flavors--but I jumped on the bandwagon when I discovered that PSLs are really quite tasty when iced. A jumbo one of those really hit the spot on the long-ass drive back from Pittsburgh.

Once Starbucks opened the floodgates, a plethora of pumpkin products hit the grocery store shelves. Everything from coffee creamer to yogurt got the pumpkin spice treatment, and it's a wee bit excessive. I've tried the yogurt and thought it was just ok. The Weis brand ice cream was decent enough (and Weis ice cream isn't particularly good, IMHO), just pumpkin-y enough. The other stuff I won't try for you, but feel free to leave a comment if you have.

Various pumpkin-flavored Entenmann's products, Chobani yogurt, coffee creamer,
ice cream, Tastykakes, cookie dough, and pudding, all available at Weis Market.
My contribution to the season is a pumpkin spice cake. It's somewhat like a blondie, but moister, and, filled with pumpkin and all of the spices that make pumpkin pie so good--cloves, cinnamon, allspice, nutmeg, and ginger. I also added some toasted pumpkin seeds for crunch.

This pumpkin spice cake makes a nice snack on its own, but is especially good with a scoop of pumpkin spice ice cream. Hell, drink a PSL on the side, too, if you want. Just don't blame me when you start turning orange like a human jack-o-lantern.

Pumpkin Spice Cake

1/2 cup unsalted butter, melted
3/4 cup dark brown sugar
1 egg
1 cup pure pumpkin puree
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon ground allspice
Pinch ground cloves
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 cup toasted shelled pumpkin seeds

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Grease a 8x8-inch baking pan and set aside.

In a large bowl, combine the melted butter and brown sugar until completely smooth. Whisk in the egg until fully incorporated, then add the pumpkin, spices, and salt, stirring well. Add the flour and baking soda and stir until no white bits of flour are visible. Fold in the pumpkin seeds.

Spread into prepared baking dish and bake until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out with a few moist crumbs, about 30 minutes. Cool to room temperature before cutting into squares and serving. Cover and refrigerate uneaten cake.

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