If Yan Could Cook. . .

Congee Wong

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JP and I come up with any excuse we can to go to Markham, Ontario. He needs his license renewed. I want to visit a friend in Toronto. It’s his birthday.

Markham has few virtues. Commercial parks are separated by huge stretches of empty sprawl and multi-lane roads and highways. There are few sidewalks and no pedestrians anywhere. The public transit is a confusing, expensive mess of overlapping regions and juristictions (are we in Toronto? York? Markham? Did we just pass from one into the other?). There is no shade in the brilliant smog heat of summer, no protection from the blinding white of winter. On our most recent trip we gave in and rented a car, joining the invisible population. Though we both hate driving, I got deathly car sick, and JP left his keys, cellphone, and watch in the car after we returned it, it was one of my better road trips.

Why do we go? JP has a few reasons, all of them edible, but mine is Congee Wong.

Markham is dominated by its Chinese community. One only sees other people in select places (“white malls” are the minority, and they tend to include a deserted or out-of-business restaurant). The first time we went, we were walking through a food court and I said, “Hey, look, another white guy!”
JP responded, “Oh…I know him!” And he did. I was still laughing about that months later.

If I could only go to one restaurant for the rest of my life (I would ponder suicide, but then) I’d choose Congee Wong. If I lived nearby, I would systematically conquer all 248 items on the menu (not including drinks). It is simply the best Chinese food I have ever had, and it is gutter cheap. Insane cheap. Feed two people who haven’t eaten all day for under $20 cheap. I would be a much happier woman if I could stop off there every morning for a large $3.95 bowl of congee.

They serve something they refer to as “garlic sauce” (I suggest on a big heap of young, dark, perfect Chinese broccoli/Gai-lan) that I have been trying furiously to recreate. I think it involves minced and dried garlic, red chilis, a touch of dried shrimp, cornstarch, soy sauce, and oil – and then the hand of god.

All the food feels like it’s done right, a feeling which is hard to further explain. You could not change it. You could not improve it. It could not be more harmonious. Nothing could be more right with the world.

On one occasion we were seated right by the kitchen and I wished we had ordered every dish that passed. I am big on shrimp dishes there, because the shrimp is always so meaty and tasty and fresh and never overcooked: the tiger shrimp congee, the shrimp rice noodle rolls, the shrimp and broccoli (I dream regularly about broccoli soaking in their garlic sauce). Restaurant congee is always better than congee made at home, as it is usually cooked for many hours for that creaminess that shines and lingers in the mouth. Congee Wong is a step further still. The flavour is the flavour I associate with congee – salty, subtle, and soothing – only more intense, more present. JP favours the fried rice noodles with beef in X.O. sauce, which has that magic level of heat such that it stings, yet you could eat the whole platter first thing in the morning – which we have done.

Scatter my ashes in the parking lot.

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Written by skimfu

August 12, 2009 at 12:13 am

Posted in Restaurant Reviews

The Great Puff Disaster

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For some reason, I thought the best way to spend my birthday was to make a gazillion cream puffs. If you recall, I was extremely pleased at how easy it is to make puffs of any sort. I was punished for speaking too soon. To the kids watching at home – greasing the pan is EXTREMELY important.

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Using the same recipe as the link above (bring one cup water and one stick butter to a boil, add one cup flour and pull away from the sides, blend with four eggs and pipe or spoon into balls, 400 degrees F for twenty minutes), I ruined around fifty puffs by not greasing the pans and sheets on which they were being baked. This left me with about three dozen puff-scraps, and a boyfriend prepared to run to the grocery store repeatedly to lessen my dismay.

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Solution number one: stuff them with a mixture of onions, cooked spinach, and feta!

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Solution number two: stuff them with a mixture of mashed potatoes, sour cream, bacon, and green onions!

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Solution number three: for the absolute worst ones, top with finely chopped pineapple, mango, and strawberries, and cream whipped with sugar, cinnamon, and vanilla.

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Solution number four: distract party guests with additional strawberries and cream!

Happily, I have since then managed to make functional puffs. Actually, there have been several parties since then, none of them noteworthy (an overwhelmingly fishy “Brazillian stew”, a soup with too many sweet vegetables, various remakes already blogged about), one of which included frozen profiteroles (puffs filled with ice cream) and chocolate sauce. I intend to make them again and have the appropriate pictures taken, although—

although, I am about to uproot my whole life and move elsewhere. In a week and a half. Abandoning all I hold dear and moving into a tiny, noisy, smelly room over a grocery store and facing a McDonalds, whose kitchen I cannot being to imagine. Which is not to say that takes precedence over chocolate and ice cream concoctions.

Written by skimfu

August 11, 2009 at 11:20 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Two Uses for Pesto: Roasted Vegetable Sandwiches & Pesto Linguine with Pancetta

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Pesto is an easy, simple, and clean way to remind your blender that you care. You know that it saves time on chopping and mincing. You know it truly integrates flavours for pastes and bases. And you know that it can take and grind a finger on a bad day. Oh yes, you know who’s boss, but how often do you truly express your subservience, or give sacrifice to its grudging benevolence?

I buy my blender flowers each week. Then we have tea.

First off, darken the desired amount of pine nuts and garlic gloves in a bit of oil.

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Two or three bunches of basil, leaves only, go in with just enough oil to blend. Too much raw olive oil can overpower with its soapy, horticultural taste. Add the pine nuts and garlic, along with lots of shredded or grated parmesan or parm-reg, and use the blender on one of its coarser (lower) settings. Be extremely liberal with the cheese. When was the last time someone told you there was too much cheese in the sauce? Never? I thought so.

These pictures were taken during my pancetta phase, when I felt that salty cured pork held the universe together. Toss the sauce with hot cooked linguine and crushed pancetta bits.

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The same pesto is the key to great roasted veggie sandwiches. Toss cubes of eggplant, red and yellow peppers, and zucchini in olive oil and salt (a touch of balsamic vinegar and oregano or rosemary works too, if that’s your thing), then lay them in one layer on a baking tray. If they overlap too much, they’ll steam and get soggy. Put them in the oven at 375 degrees F until they shrivel a bit. If you’re used to roasting root vegetables, keep in mind that these vegetables cook very quickly – it should take less than twenty minutes.

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Use a fun kind of bread. Here we have an overly thick, onion-studded ciabatta. Spread one side with pesto.

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Build your sandwich with roasted veggies and an ample heaping of feta or a creamy chevre. Goat cheese is, of course, tastier and more structurally sound. And sometimes all I need from a sandwich is that it doesn’t fall apart. Just like life.

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Written by skimfu

August 11, 2009 at 10:09 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Philinos

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I am sometimes hesitant to go back to a restaurant where the first visit was especially magical. A good meal is a complex formula: was it really the food, or the pleasant, understated waiter? Was it because you were hungry or you’d had just the right amount of alcohol? Was it the way your companion looked in the light, the way he held your hand, the jokes he made? Did the vigorous bike ride over give you an exercise high, making you salivate, triggering some evolutionary urge to dig your teeth into the meat? Were you just wowed by the idea that you could get a milkshake with breakfast, and not the breakfast itself?

The second trip to a restaurant can kill the memory of the first. But then the past is always like that: give me back that hour we were happy and not the years of insecurity; give me the constant reassurance of grades and not the sleepless monotony and I’ll go back to school.

The second trip to a restaurant can also be confirmation of your dreamy initial chemistry, like a good second date. Philinos, 4806 Avenue du Parc, just above Villeneuve, deserves a racy third date.

The first, oddly remarkable thing: the bread. I’ve never been moved to comment on bread before. In my experience, restaurants bring you hot white bread and butter, or something uncommon but banal like focaccia wedges or giant crackers – you can’t go too wrong. Except for Alto’s, where the waitress throws one of those disturbingly everlasting, indestructible POM buns at you, still in its plastic wrapper, but that’s a different story. I don’t know what kind of bread they serve at Philinos; it’s dark and flavourful as rye but not as dense, has a tang but isn’t sourdough, has a salty, chewy crust but a pliable, doughy center. Our most recent visit was right after I had flown over the handlebars of my bike, struck the back of a car with my body, and smashed my jaw on the asphalt below. I still worked my teeth through a full plateful of bread. Served with balsamic vinegar and olive oil (of course!), the bread is a good indication of things to come.

On this visit, we shared the “Pikilia” house hot appetizer platter: two spanakopitakia, two tyropitakia (mixed cheeses in filo pastry), calamari, and loukaniko (homemade pork sausage). The filo pies were fine, but the ample spread of calamari was the star: big, yielding rings and tentacles, in a batter that is light but satisifying and crunchy, alongside chunky tzatziki you could eat on its own. I eat a lot of fast-food style Greek food, and the warm, artisanal touches of this meal were unfamiliar (a suggestion: don’t eat the calamari at Nickels. The breading falls off and the fishy smell is overpowering). The homemade sausage was so good I would have fought for it, fork and nail.

For the main course, I had the “Paidakia – Garides”, two jumbo shrimp and two lamb chops, accompanied by baked potatoes and buttery vegetables. Everything is left in large, hearty, flavour-soaked pieces for you to cut away at. JP had the moussaka, which was also delicious if slightly over-rich – not that moussaka is supposed to be gentle. He thought it was perfect. It seemed like we ordered a ridiculous amount of food, but the waiter joked that the sight of our plates – clean down to the garnishes – would please the chef.

The reason I only write positive restaurant reviews – throwaway comments about Alto’s and Nickels notwithstanding – is because of the way I read reviews. I read them looking for somewhere to eat tonight, not hoping to be warned away from bad experiences or to revel in the spark and glee of criticism. Closed-down restaurants look so sad, the crumbling remains of someone’s belief they had the formula to survive an industry where the profit margins are razor-thin.

Written by skimfu

April 23, 2009 at 5:22 pm

Posted in Restaurant Reviews

Can you panko-bread it? & Mini Garlic-Cheese Biscuits

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I wish there was a registry of nice people, or some sort of awards system where you could nominate people who had done right by you on any given day: the middle-aged woman who seems to genuinely like working at your neighbourhood KFC, the concierge who went to bat for you against the company that owns your building, the people who answer Craigslist ads with good grammar and politeness, the man and his daughter who helped you move after seeing you tumble boxes down the street, the guy who lent you his bike lock when the pins fell out of yours right before an exam. Why is there no way to honour these people? I wish their prospective employers would call me and I could attest that yes, these are good people.

An easier question: what else can I bread in panko besides pork fillets? The short answer: shrimp – yes, but it’s better to make a batter; pork tenderloin – no, but pork tenderloin is so good it almost doesn’t matter what you do to it.

I dipped the shrimp in one egg whisked with two tablespoons of soy sauce, then flour, then panko crumbs, and then into a layer of hot oil.

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They were great with Sriracha sauce, though it was a lot of steps and dishes to bread them. I suspect shrimp dunked in a batter and then fried would have been just as good. We had them with an unremarkable rice noodle soup (broth, green onions, white onions, Chinese five spice, lettuce, cucumber, spinach, thin rice noodles, sesame oil).

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This soup base, detailed here, is a weeknight staple around here. Conceptually better for you than packaged ramen (JP calls it “undergrad fuel”).

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I think Asian food by candlelight is just weird.

The pork tenderloin I rubbed with just a little bit of cinnamon, ground cloves, salt, and cayenne pepper. Cinnamon and cloves – good with ham, good with cookies. Go figure. Then I dipped it in one egg and two tablespoons of water, and cooked each side in oil on the stovetop. They went in the oven for fifteen minutes.

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Tenderloin releases lots of juices, which makes the batter mushy, rather than crisp. It releases a lot of juices because it is mouthwateringly, meltingly juicy and tender. Even with the blah coating, it was so tasty, and that little sprinkling of cinnamon, cloves, and cayenne had somehow penetrated every bite without masking the meat. Man!

We had it with sliced radishes and zucchini, sauteed with garlic.

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The giant orange cookies pictured are garlic cheese biscuits, based increasingly loosely on the recipe from What’s a Cook to Do? by James Peterson. In my version, a cup of flour and a tablespoon of baking powder get mixed together, and then 6 tablespoons of butter are cut in (between 1/4 and a 1/2 cup). Three gloves of minced garlic and a 1/4 cup of shredded Parmesan-Romano cheese are added. About 1 cup (or slightly less) of milk is mixed in to form a wet batter. The first time I made them, with the pork tenderloin, I attempted to make large drop biscuits:

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In the oven at 450 degrees F for fifteen minutes, these spread a lot and became flat discs. Today, with lunch, I put the same batter into mini-muffin tins:

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These came out much better – bite-sized, buttery delights. With so few ingredients, one bowl, and a short baking time, an easy addition to the arsenal. I had them with fresh berries and some leftover vegetable soup.

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Written by skimfu

April 23, 2009 at 4:21 pm

Posted in Asian, Pork, Shrimp

Only Vaguely Greek: Chicken Souvlaki with Lemon-Pepper Yogurt Sauce, Spicy Shrimp Pitas with Tzatziki

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My favourite fast food dish – what you can usually get in mall food courts, at restobars and pubs, at odd diners open in the middle of the night – is a souvlaki platter. You usually get a stick of meat, some rice, some salad (sometimes Greek), and fries. There is some sense that you’re getting more or better food than your friends with their burger, pizza, or poutine, or at least that you’re going to be less sick at the end of it. My only qualm would be that you never seem to get enough meat and salad. The logical solution:

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This meal is based on this recipe from Epicurious for the chicken. Cubes of chicken breast were marinated for about two hours in garlic, about two tablespoons of lemon juice, dried thyme, dried rosemary, salt and pepper. The recipe calls for freshly squeezed lemons and fresh herbs and overnight marinating, but who am I, the pope?

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These were strung onto skewers and oven-broiled for fifteen minutes.

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For the yogurt sauce, I used half of a 750 g container of plain yogurt, a splash of red wine vinegar, a splash of lemon juice, heaps of garlic and black pepper, and some dried mint, omitting the sour cream altogether. My only real innovation on the given recipe is using the sauce as a base for a salad dressing. I removed about a 1/4 cup and whisked it slowly with added olive oil. This was tossed with iceberg lettuce, tomatoes, cucumber, green pepper, and small cubed red onion.

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Once plated, the salad was topped with Kalamata olives, a sprinkle of dry oregano, and crumbled feta.

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Because I buy them frozen and love them both, I always seem to have corn and shrimp lying around. On winter nights, during exam seasons, and throughout my own year-round laziness, I used to end up cooking them together often, the same way I used to eat a lot of diced vegetables in soy sauce over rice. While perhaps not obvious bedfellows, I’ve found corn and shrimp are great with basil, oregano, garlic, and dried red chili flakes. Better yet, in a pita!

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This is not exactly tzatziki, but the right idea is there. I minced a whole garlic head. With the other half of the 750 g plain yogurt container, I mixed in half of the minced garlic, half of a finely chopped English cucumber, and lemon juice to taste.

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To cook the shrimp, put the remainder of the garlic, plus dried basil, oregano, and red chili flakes in a couple tablespoons of oil and let it cook for a minute to aromatize the oil. Add the shucked shrimp first, then the frozen corn (it may seem weird, but you can cook them in a dry frying pan), and salt.

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The pita is assembled with shredded (cut into strips…) iceberg, leftover from the salad that accompanied the souvlaki, the shrimp, and the tzatziki-like entity.

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The mutual ingredients make these two meals ideal to have in the same week. Also, if you wander into the kitchen late at night and there’s pita and tzatziki lying around, it might be gone in the morning.

Written by skimfu

April 23, 2009 at 1:46 am

Posted in Chicken, Shrimp

Addendum: Crepes, Nachos

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We’ve been eating a lot of morning crepes, as described in this earlier entry. The blender pitcher is often full of crepe batter, so I can just pull it out, pop it on the blender for a second, pour out a 1/3 cup into a pan lightly touched with butter, and we have breakfast. Just spread with peanut butter and folded up it’s quite good, or with a sliced banana inside. Strawberries and Nutella is quite decadent:

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Because it has become our quick morning food, I have yet to try any more elaborate fillings, like apples and brown sugar and cinnamon, or pears and caramel. Or ice cream. Well, there’s really no excuse for having not tried ice cream.

Edit: another good one is a pancetta scramble. Pieces of panchetta, chopped green onions and minced shallots cook together; add eggs whisked with milk and shredded cheese at the last moment, just as you turn off the heat.

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Have a sweet crepe for dessert for a quick two-course meal.

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Bruschetta leaves me with a lot of leftover ingredients. One solution is pasta sauce. Another good one is nachos.

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On a base layer of nacho chips, top with chopped jalapenos, tomatoes, red onion, olives, basil, and cooked, spiced (cayenne, paprika, cumin, black pepper, salt) ground beef. Add a second layer of chips and a second layer of everything else. Smother the whole mound in as much cheese (cheddar, Monterey Jack) as you’ve got. Pop it under the broiler until it’s a greasy, slutty mess. Watch TV and drink beer and pillage.

Written by skimfu

April 23, 2009 at 1:46 am

Posted in Beef, Dessert