cassole/cassoulet

cassouletIf you’ve read this blog for a while you’ll know that cassoulet ranks as something of a minor obsession of mine. Named for its traditional cooking vessel, the cassole, a deep, round earthenware pot characterized by slanting sides, this rich, slow-cooked, casserole of meat and beans has its origins in Languedoc. Especially the towns of Toulouse, Carcassonne, and Castelnaudary, which each claim ownership of the dish and invoke minor variations on what is essentially a peasant stew assembled out of leftovers: Toulouse substitutes a local garlicky saucisson, while Castelnaudary trades duck confit for the more traditional mutton, and in Carcassonne, as I learned onboard le bateau yesterday, duck gets replaced with partridge. In the end it’s six of one: all are made with white beans, confit, sausage, and additional meats. And all soothe the soul on a cold winter’s evening like good comfort food is supposed to do. The only hitch yesterday was the weather. A heavy stew isn’t quite as inviting when the thermometer inches up into the 80’s. Not that I let that stop me.cassole

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in the kitchen with noon

in the kitchen with noon

Because a visit to the local market did nothing but whet my appetite for Thai food, I press-ganged Chef Noon into a brief cooking lesson in the show kitchen at Paresa. Three courses plus dessert sounded a little daunting at first but with lots of room to spread out, ingredients at the ready, and the guiding hand of Chef Noon leading me step by step, it was enlightening. Nothing too fancy; just a beginners excursion into Rattanakosin, the modern era of Thai cooking, which happens to feature a strong Chinese influence: woks, deep-frying, noodles. Goong Sarong would be our starter, a simple yet visually impressive prawn marinated in pepper, salt, and coriander root, wrapped in vermicelli noodles and deep-fried. Next, we moved on to a red curry. The secret, I learned, is to first cook the curry paste in a little oil, add your meat – we used duck breast – then coconut milk and bring it to a boil. Take it off the heat and stir in eggplant, grapes, pineapple, to allow the flavors to be drawn into the soup. Bring it to a boil a second time, adding chilis, basil, and a soupcon of ever-present fish sauce and remove from heat again. The whole process takes about five minutes. Letting the curry rest infuses the broth with the fruits and herbs, giving it a heady smell and marvelously rich taste. (And in so short a period of time – I was amazed.) Chicken stir-fry was the most easily accessible of the courses: deep fry lightly breaded chicken pieces until golden brown and allow them to drain on a paper towel. Heat a little oil in a wok, quickly frying peppers, onion, chili, and cashews. Season with oyster sauce and soy before mixing in the cooked chicken and voila, dinner is done. The results were more impressive than I had imagined, but dessert is where things really got creative. Tiny sweet Thai bananas battered in rice flour and coconut, deep-fried and served with a scoop of ice cream. There was enough batter left over that I thought I might show the chef a few tricks of my own. Thickening the batter with a bit more coconut I tossed spoonfuls into boiling oil, rolling the resulting pillows in a mix of white sugar and coconut. Beignets, I told her: fried dough balls. A bit frightened at first, Chef Noon and Fern, the curious Sales Manager who stopped in to watch us, soon gobbled them up, proving that in the kitchen we’ve all got something to learn.

mise en place

curry, soy sauce, spices, sugar

vermicelli wrapped shrimp

thai red curry with duck

chicken stir fry with cashew

deep fried banana

my beignets

fern with chef noon

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top 100: kin shop

My only gripe with Harold Dieterle’s fantastically unfussy contempo-Thai restaurant, Kin Shop, is the lighting. Though the dim interiors go a long way towards making everyone seem that much more attractive, it’s heinous for the amateur iPhone photographer. So, you’ll just have to trust me on this because my snapshots can’t begin to do the meal justice. Also, I’ve never been to Thailand (something I hope to remedy later this year) so neither can I vouch with any authority on esoteric matters of authenticity, yet I can safely say this is the best Thai food in New York – certainly following the all-too-brief lifespan of Lotus of Siam. Like a novice at a night market, I enter just a bit overwhelmed by the thick smells and smoky air. Immediately want a taste of everything. Instead me and my merry band do the next best thing, putting ourselves in the hands of the kitchen and opting for the five-course tasting. (At $65, it’s a smart bargain.) Things get off to a bang with miang, a traditional Thai street food of tasty bits ‘n’ pieces wrapped inside a leaf. Here it’s a mix of fluke, lychee, chili jam, and crispy fried garlic on a shiso leaf. A myriad of contrasting flavors and textures, it’s the canape equivalent of an aperitif; a wake-up call, which tingles the palate in preparation for what’s to come: grilled prawns spiked with fresh lime and Phuket-style black peppercorn sauce; a succulent king-size crispy oyster over fried pork, peanuts and mint; squid ink and hot sesame oil soup (as delicious as it sounds disgusting). I’m made even happier when the special of the night arrives amusingly enough as the equivalent of a pasta course: grilled ramp congee with Chang Mai sausage, crayfish & crispy garlic. It’s the Greenmarket version of Thai comfort food, creamy, thick, and satisfying, with the addition of ramps, no less – the locavore’s answer to crack cocaine. Two versions of duck arrive next: a perfectly pink and tender roasted breast under a fragrant mound of fresh herbs, topped with green mango and accompanied by tamarind water and a spicy duck laab salad riddled with birds-eye chilis that more than earns its four-alarm fire notation. (So potent are the effects of the chilis that more than one person in my party navigated a bout of gastrointestinal distress the following day. Me? I’ve never tasted such an exquisite mix of meat and heat in a single forkful. I could easily eat this dish over and over again.) And that’s a prime example of what’s so enjoyable about Dieterle’s menu. Even if it’s not necessarily always a traditionalist’s version of Thai food, there’s a mutual regard for both the cuisine and the diner that meets way above the middle. Except for desserts, there’s no dumbing down here for ignorant palates. In the piquant hands of this Top Chef everyone and everything rises.

 

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shanghai surprise

Every street in Hong Kong presents its own special sensory overload. Stumbling onto Shanghai Street during a late morning amble proved no exception.

 

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bucket list: 2010 – february

FRANCE:  I narrowly escaped a snowstorm which ultimately paralyzed the Northeast only to find myself landing in Paris in the middle of a – you guessed it – snowstorm.  But, of course, it’s Paris, so despite the aching cold it was also achingly beautiful. (Plus, a pair of newly-acquired woolly French long johns kept me from succumbing to the elements.)  I had cassoulet on the brain – I blame the cold – and it led me on a foraging expedition through a handful of my favorite shops in the 2nd arrondissement:  the mothership E. Dehillerin, La Bovida, G. Detou, Mora, and new favorite victualler, Comptoir de la Gastronomie, where I chanced upon both haricot Tarbais and duck confit, conveniently vacu-sealed as if awaiting a trans-Atlantic journey inside my luggage.  The foraging paid off handsomely.  Not only did I return home to concoct a splendid cassoulet, I also ultimately invented the “cassoulet cake,” a brilliant – if i do say so myself – use of leftover beans and duck.

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live blog: paris booty

The great Paris booty hunt led me through a handful of my favorite shops around Les Halles in search of elusive, yet essential, ingredients as well interesting bits of kitchenalia unavailable back home. Starting at the mothership, E. Dehillerin, I picked up a covered terrine that will make a great butter dish that’s large enough to hold an oversized brick of European butter.  Somehow I restrained myself from indulging in a cast iron pâte mold and escargot plates; however, at the last minute I did succumb to a neat device for making julienne vegetables in addition to a good, solid chef’s knife. Around the corner at La Bovida I stocked up on ramekins for myself as well as for cool small gifts. Next it was on to G. Detou, across the street, where the mustard gods were smiling down upon me and I picked up the last giant pail of Fallot’s – the most authentic of the traditional Dijon mustards out there, I think. Then something unexpected happened.  While loitering down the block at Mora, I noticed the curved Art Nouveau windows of a shop I’d never seen before:  Comptoir de la Gastronomie.  It was fortuitous; inside I found bags of hard to find haricots Tarbais, vacuum packed duck confit, confiture l’onion, and logs of fresh Toulouse saucisson. I judiciously passed on the saucisson.  Something told me that I was already sneaking enough contraband into my luggage – I didn’t need fresh garlic sausage to set the dog tails wagging, too.  The rest of the goodies, however, were quickly shoved into a bag.  Together they’ll be making a reappearance this weekend in a cassoulet, as I test the theory that I’m an even better cook than I am smuggler.

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