Wednesday, July 26, 2023

Dining in NYC: Urban Hawker

Once upon a time, Anthony Bourdain planned to bring a Singapore-style hawker market to New York City's Pier 57, near Chelsea Market and the Meatpacking District. It would have dozens of vendors of authentic Singaporean food, which comprises Chinese, Indian, Malaysian, and Indonesian cuisines. Sadly, Bourdain died in 2018, before he was able to realize his vision. His original partner in the enterprise, KF Seetoh--a Singaporean food critic and television personality who made appearances in Bourdain's various travel programs--finally brought the market to life in 2022, but on a much smaller scale. Rather than a hundred or so vendors on a pier, there are seventeen, and the venue, one of several food courts run by an outfit called Urbanspace, is located near Rockefeller Center. Eleven of Urban Hawker's purveyors came from Singapore; the remaining six are local, and on a recent trip to NY, my friend Daisy and I tried as many as we could.

Six of 17 is pretty good for one evening, huh?

Unlike some other of the city's food courts/markets, Urban Hawker has a good amount of space to dine-in. We chose to park ourselves at the far end of The Sling Bar. Singapore Slings in hand, we started our feast with an order of Hainanese chicken rice from Hainan Jones

Hainanese chicken rice from Hainan Jones
Hainanese chicken rice is the national dish of Singapore, so it was a must-try. When properly made, the chicken is meltingly tender and juicy. It might appear poached, but Hainanese chicken is cooked in the residual heat of boiled liquid, rather than with constant heat. A whole chicken is submerged in seasoned water that has been brought to a boil. Once the water, with chicken, comes back to a boil, a lid is placed on the pot and the heat is turned off. The chicken stays in the water for 45 minutes or so. The meat is chilled, then sliced and served with garlicky chicken fat rice and both a sweet soy sauce and a spicy chili sauce. The dish is simple and complex at the same time. 

Having never eaten Hainanese chicken rice before, I had nothing with which to compare the version from Hainan Jones. But as a stand-alone dish, it was beautiful. The chicken was juicy and flavorful and the rice was schmaltzy. The accompanying cup of broth, to sip or use as a dip, was richly flavored. The tiny cups of sweet soy and chili sauce were both tasty, but I found myself gobbling down the chicken without needing to dip it into other flavors. The accompanying Chinese broccoli was good, but I would have preferred it to be hot. 

Singapore Sling from The Sling Bar
Once the chicken was demolished, we went to work on an order of pineapple fried rice from Mr Fried Rice. I adore fried rice, but haven't had a good version of it since I was a kid. My Dad liked a tiny carry-out on Cold Spring Lane called Chung's, where we bought roast pork fried rice by the quart and ate it out of the container on the way home from the restaurant. I don't remember anything else from Chung's, but the rice was great, lightly sticky, just greasy enough, and full of porky flavor. 

pineapple fried rice from Mr Fried Rice
I was happy to find that the rice from Mr Fried Rice had a similar texture and porky essence. It was studded with whole shrimp and tiny pieces of the most tender squid I have ever eaten, garnished with a generous dusting of pork floss (imagine cotton candy made with dried pork), and a small pile of roasty cashews. There were also small nuggets of pineapple, of course, but not enough of it to make the dish overly sweet. I couldn't stop eating it.

Singapore Chili Crab from Wok & Staple
We also had chili crab, Singapore's second favorite dish. I have always been under the impression that chili crab was pretty spicy. This one was only mildly so. The sauce seemed to be a combination of ketchup and bottled sweet chili sauce (like one might serve with spring rolls). I thought it was overly sweet and too gelatinous in texture. The crab was Dungeness, which I suppose is fine if you're not from Maryland and used to blue crab. I didn't find it to be especially meaty, despite the vast size of the creature. What I did like about this dish was that it came with disposable gloves that made it fairly easy to eat. There were also lobster crackers to break open the legs, but they're only so useful when the crab shells soften in sauce and are not quite the right diameter to fit the cracker. 

I suppose it sounds like I hated this dish. Not so. It was unusual and one of the dishes I've always wanted to try. I think the expectations I set for it were probably a little too high.

murtabak - flatbread with beef filling from Mamak's Corner
Finally, we had murtabak, a ghee-laden flaky flatbread filled with beef, egg, and red onion, and griddled until crisp. It was served with a cup of a liquidy lentil curry to use as a dip. It was so delicious, and the switch to flavors characteristic of Indian food was a welcome change, but I was SO FULL at this point that I probably didn't appreciate it as much as I might have had we ordered it earlier in the meal. Still, we polished it off without complaint.

We had originally planned to finish off the meal with dessert from Lady Wong, a local vendor that specializes in cakes with flavors like mango and calamansi, and the gelatinous "cake" known as kuih. The texture of kuih, actually a firm custard, is hard to describe. It's smooth, cool, and bouncy, and quite delicious if fresh and well-made. My favorite has a layer of coconut sticky rice at the bottom. At this point, however, I couldn't fit another mouthful, so we passed on eating dessert at Urban Hawker. (I did pick up some kuih to snack on the next day.)

While I think we gorged ourselves like the champion eaters we are, there are many other vendors at Urban Hawker that need to be explored. I want some laksa from Daisy's Dream, a Roti John from Ashes Burnnit, stuffed bean curd from Yum Yubu...all of it! 

Urban Hawker
135 W 50th St,
New York, NY 10020

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Wednesday, July 19, 2023

Faux Crab Cakes

hearts of palm crab cake with corn salad and fonio pilaf
It has not escaped my attention that we've been eating pretty poorly recently. Poorly as in health-wise. We've consumed a lot of tasty food, but nothing with enough vegetables or fiber to make it beneficial to our physical well-being. Sure, a laminated pastry stuffed with pistachio cream does wonders for the psyche while it's being consumed, but ultimately it's adding to the layer of fluff that has been increasing around my midsection over the past year. 

I have the privilege of being able to work from home four days per week until Labor Day, so there's no excuse not to put a proper dinner on the table most nights. Plus, it's summer, so fresh produce is bountiful and delicious, and our balcony herb garden is ready to add flavor to any meal. While we Minxes are not vegan or even vegetarian, I've been trying to use less meat recently. Tofu has been in heavy rotation, and sometimes there's no meat substitute on the table at all. 

The other day, I recalled that we had a recipe for faux crab cakes, made with hearts of palm, in our second book, Baltimore Chef's Table. The recipe came from Great Sage, a very good vegan restaurant in Howard County. Rather than dig up the book and use that recipe, I decided to see what other variations on the theme could be found on the Internet. I found a couple of versions that included canned chickpeas. Yuck. No thanks. Another recipe called for sautéing the hearts of palm with celery and onion, but I wanted something even easier. I did pull out our cookbook and saw that Great Sage baked the hearts of palm for a bit, presumably to dry them out. It was 92F on the day I planned on making these, so turning on the oven was out of the question. It also used celery and peppers. What I wanted was a good old-fashioned Maryland-style crab cake with no extraneous vegetables or legumes. Just a simple binder, filler, and Old Bay Seasoning. So I made up my own recipe, and I gotta say, it turned out very well. Even the dog--who hates vegetables--liked them.

Faux Crab Cakes
This recipe can easily be doubled. 

1 14-oz can hearts of palm
2 teaspoons Old Bay Seasoning
1 teaspoon cornstarch
1/4 teaspoon Dijon mustard
2 tablespoon mayonnaise (use vegan mayo if you are so inclined)
1/4 cup + 1 tablespoon gluten-free panko (regular is fine, too)
Oil for frying (corn, canola, whatever you like)

Drain the hearts of palm and place them on a clean kitchen towel. Gather up the edges of the towel and twist them tightly together. Over the sink, wring out as much water from the vegetables as possible. You'll have crushed the hearts of palm in the process, but not enough. Using your hands, rip the vegetable into small chunks and pieces to resemble crab meat.

hearts of palm before squeezing, after squeezing, and after breaking down into small pieces.
Kinda crabby-looking, eh?
Put the hearts of palm pieces in a bowl. Add the remaining ingredients and mix well. Form into two rounded patties of equal size.

Add about 2 tablespoons of oil to a medium skillet over medium-high heat. Once the oil is hot, put in the palm patties. Cook for 3-4 minutes, until golden brown. Flip and brown the other side.

Serve with your favorite mayonnaise-based condiment, like tartar sauce. I served mine with an esquites-style corn salad and Yolele fonio pilaf.

2 servings.

Tell me that doesn't look like a crab cake.

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Tuesday, July 11, 2023

Tofu Gnudi - Two Recipes

tofu gnudi made from the Washington Post recipe
Gnudi is a funny-looking word. It's not, however, pronounced as spelled. The G is silent, "noo-dee." Yes, it sounds like "nudie," and essentially that's what the word means--naked. Gnudi are ricotta dumplings that could be the lovechild of gnocchi and ravioli filling, less-starchy than the former and more-starchy than the latter. Generally, they are made from ricotta cheese and enough flour to keep them from becoming cheese sauce once they hit boiling water. I like gnudi, and find them a bit easier to make than gnocchi. (I tried making potato gnocchi exactly once, with disastrous results, and have no plans to try again.) But now that I am lactose intolerant--and a bit of a broken record on that point, sorry--it doesn't make sense for me to make ricotta dumplings of any sort. When I found a gnudi recipe in the Washington Post that suggested firm tofu could replace the dairy, I made them post-haste.

Sadly, there was far too much moisture between the combination of spinach, artichoke hearts, and tofu, and the dough was too soft and sticky to make proper dumplings. Perhaps if the recipe had instructed cooks to press the tofu in addition to draining it, and omitted the artichoke, they could have been better? In any case, the artichoke added no discernible flavor, so why waste the money? I added nearly twice the flour called for and doubled the seasonings, so the dumplings ended up tasty but messy. The first batch leached so much of themselves into the cooking water, it was hard to see what was dumpling and what was just lumpy water.

Washington Post Tofu Gnudi
The Post recipe called for a beurre blanc-ish sauce of vegan butter, white wine, and lemon juice, which sounded boring. Instead, I made a raw tomato sauce. Pesto would be nice, as well. And because I like a little crunch with my soft and squishy food, I crushed up some garlic croutons and hazelnuts for the top.

1 tablespoon olive oil
3 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
8 ounces fresh spinach (regular or baby), roughly chopped
One (14-ounce) package firm or extra-firm tofu, drained
1 cup (8 ounces) artichoke hearts, drained and roughly chopped
1 tablespoon nutritional yeast
1 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest
1/2 teaspoon fine salt, plus more to taste
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/4 teaspoon grated nutmeg
1/2 cup all-purpose flour, or gluten-free flour

In a medium or large skillet over medium-high heat, add the olive oil and garlic and cook, stirring until aromatic, about 30 seconds. Add the spinach and cook, stirring, until wilted, about 3 minutes. (Depending on the size of your skillet, you may need to cook the spinach in batches.)

In a food processor or blender, combine the tofu, artichokes, nutritional yeast, zest, salt, pepper and nutmeg and process until smooth. Scrape down the sides, add the wilted spinach and process until the mixture is a uniform green, about 30 seconds. Add the flour and process until incorporated, about 30 seconds more. Taste, and season with more salt, if desired.

Using a small ice cream scoop or two large spoons, shape dumplings slightly larger than cherry tomatoes (roughly 1 1/2 tablespoons’ worth) and begin to carefully slide balls of the batter into the boiling water. Work in batches and avoid crowding the pot. Boil the gnudi until they are bobbing in the water, about 5 minutes. Using a slotted spoon or spider, transfer them to a platter and repeat with the remaining batter, if needed.

Tofu gnudi with spinach and a raw tomato sauce, made from a recipe generated by Chat GPT.
There was potential in the tofu gnudi concept, and I was willing to try again. Rather than search for another recipe on the web, I turned to Artificial Intelligence. The very first recipe I generated via Chat GPT seemed reasonable. I was pretty sure it would work better than the WaPo recipe, but I worried that it could have the opposite problem: dryness. Perhaps an egg would be needed to bind it all together. I wasn't sure that the small amount of lemon juice and oil would be enough.  

I used a food processor instead of my hands or a fork because I didn't want to work that hard. Rather than adding the ingredients to the processor in the order they appear in the recipe, I put in the tofu, nooch, basil, and 1/4 cup of the flour (I used oat flour) and whizzed that into a bunch of moist crumbs. I then added the lemon juice and oil and gave it another spin. Surprisingly, the dough came together quite well. I pinched a bit off and was able to roll a clean ball in my hands. I scraped it into a bowl and allowed the dough to rest in the fridge until I was ready to make dinner.

About half an hour before dinner, I removed the dough from the fridge and formed it into 28 sorta-equal balls, each of which I flattened lightly with a fork. I poured water into my largest sauté pan, enough to fill it about 2/3 of the way, and brought the water to a boil. After adding a pinch of salt, I put ten of the gnudi in the pan and hoped for the best. After 3 minutes, I gently flipped them with a fork and cooked them another 3 minutes. There was very little leaching of the batter into the water, though there was some. It was impressive how well the gnudi kept their puck-like shape. I cooked the rest in two batches, adding more water to the pan each time. I placed half of the cooked gnudi into a container with a light film of olive oil and put it in the fridge for later in the week. The rest I served with a raw tomato sauce and some sautéed spinach.

This version I will make again. Next time, I'll flavor it with a couple tablespoons of dehydrated tomato powder and cut back on the nutritional yeast. Perhaps I'll try artichokes again, but as part of the sauce.

ChatGPT-generated Tofu Gnudi 

14 ounces (400g) firm tofu, drained and pressed
1/4 cup nutritional yeast
2 tablespoons lemon juice
2 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 cup all-purpose flour (plus more for dusting)
1/4 cup finely chopped fresh basil
1/4 cup finely chopped fresh parsley
1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
Salt and pepper to taste

In a large mixing bowl, crumble the drained and pressed tofu using your hands or a fork.

Add nutritional yeast, lemon juice, olive oil, flour, chopped basil, chopped parsley, garlic powder, salt, and pepper to the bowl with the tofu. Mix well until all the ingredients are evenly combined and form a cohesive dough-like consistency.

Dust a clean surface with flour. Take a small portion of the tofu mixture and roll it between your palms to form a small ball. Place the gnudi on the floured surface and repeat until all the mixture is used. You should have approximately 20-24 gnudi.

In a large pot, bring salted water to a gentle boil. Carefully drop the gnudi into the boiling water in batches. Cook for approximately 3-4 minutes or until the gnudi float to the surface. Remove them using a slotted spoon and transfer to a plate.

Note: If desired, you can sauté the cooked gnudi in a little olive oil until lightly browned for added texture before serving.

* Any products in this post that are mentioned by name may have been provided to Minxeats by the manufacturer. However, all opinions belong to Minxeats. Amazon links earn me $! Please buy!

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Thursday, July 06, 2023

Sayso Cocktails

Last Summer's Fancy Food Show in NYC introduced me to several new favorites, one of which is Sayso Cocktails.

I am a big fan of mixed drinks but I'm usually too lazy to make one at home. I'll toss stuff together without measuring--various liqueurs that are on hand, some juice, seltzer--and end up with something quaffable, but not worth remaking. (I will never claim to have any mixology talents.) Sayso lured me immediately with the ease of making a tasty cocktail with only three ingredients: a Sayso "tea bag" (which I prefer to call a "sachet,"), water, and alcohol. The sachet contains all-natural flavorings and a blend of no-aftertaste low-calorie sweeteners that turn water into the cocktail mixer of your choice. You can stop right there, adding a bit more water and ice to your glass and enjoy it a mocktail, or you can add your favorite hooch. Sayso comes in four flavors so far: rosemary honey moscow mule, old fashioned, skinny cardamom paloma, and skinny spicy margarita.

Cocktails can be super sweet, but Sayso drinks are not. If you like sugar, you can certainly add some simple syrup to taste! You can also use Sayso as a starting point and create variations on a theme. For instance, when I remembered we had a container of Talenti Mango Sorbetto in the freezer, I realized I could make a spicy mango margarita. 

Spicy Mango Margarita

1 sachet Sayso skinny spicy margarita
4 ounces warm water
2 ounces blanco tequila
1/4 cup Talenti mango sorbetto
Seltzer (I used a tropical fruit-flavored one)
Fresh Mint

In a highball glass, steep the sachet in the water for 5 minutes. Wring all the goodness out of the sachet and discard. Add the tequila and sorbetto and give it a stir. Add a few ice cubes and top with a splash or two of seltzer. Garnish with fresh mint.

I prefer the old fashioned and Moscow mule flavors in the colder months, when I'm more likely to drink brown liquor like bourbon and dark rum. But all four flavors are great any time of the year.

Order Sayso directly from the company, or from Amazon. I received samples of all four varieties from the company, but I will definitely be purchasing these again, particularly the spicy marg version. 

* Any products in this post that are mentioned by name may have been provided to Minxeats by the manufacturer. However, all opinions belong to Minxeats. Amazon links earn me $! Please buy!

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