Archive for November, 2010

A childhood friend, chef Peter Shelsky, tipped me off to a program on New York’s public radio station WNYC this morning, as thanks for tipping him off to my favorite restaurant in New York.  My favorite Egyptian chef, Ali El Sayed from said restaurant — the Kabab Cafe on Steinway Street in Astoria (Queens) — was going to be on the Leonard Lopate show talking about Egyptian food, Peter said.  The link is here.  The problem is, I’m now craving this food again even though I was just in New York, and eating there, a week ago.

I also just found this recent PBS video interview with him too.

Ali is not just a genius with ingredients, he’s delightful to listen to, especially when he talks about food (although he has plenty to say about art and life and culture too). Whenever I visit New York, I make it to his itsy-bitsy restaurant and perch at a table with my friend Karyn, chatting with Ali while he tells us things like, “When you make falafel (out of favas!), you should behave like you’re making a soufflé. They’re very delicate.” Indeed, his falafel are light and flavorful and addictive. He makes lamb stuffed with ground lamb and ground nuts and spices, lamb chops with pomegranate sauce, gorgeous chickens, and exquisite-yet-simple desserts (I still drool when I think about the blueberry clafoutis I had the first time I went there).

I don’t normally write about restaurants, and this place isn’t even in Seattle. But listen to the interview with Ali, especially if you’re inspired by people who love food, by the history of food, or by the idea of making something tasty in your own kitchen. And if I work out a recipe for stuffed lamb or good falafel sometime, I’ll let you know. But I may not need to; Ali is writing a cookbook. And when it comes out, I might be in danger of not leaving my kitchen for a month.

Image courtesy Facebook.

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Latke Art

Since Hanukkah is early this year, latke season is coming up!  Here and here are some past posts on oils to use for frying.  I still haven’t tried the macadamia nut oil a few commenters suggested, but am interested in it.

Here, however, are some latke-related mash-ups I put together in a bout of pre-Hanukkah procrastina– er, creativity. You can click on them for full-size images.


[Edited to add: Per request, I added a few of these to greeting cards and aprons in a Zazzle online store here: http://www.zazzle.com/seattledebs]


Oily Night

Dali’s Deli

American Non-stick

Latke Thrower

Mona Latke

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A kugel, for those who don’t know, is a casserole with a self deprecating sense of humor. A Jewish traditional baked starchy pudding dish often made of noodles or potatoes, the name has roots in common with Yiddish words for “ball” and “bullet” possibly to signify the cannonball-like feeling it leaves in the stomach. There are less-starchy kugels, of course: those with plenty of meat or onions or fat or crispy chicken skin.  The kugel wears many hats. It’s used to this. Change the kugel a bit and it’ll just shrug and ask, “What am I, chopped liver? That I should care?”

Even for a dish so varied, I take a pretty liberal interpretation of kugel. My kugels generally contain no noodles, sometimes no potatoes, and generally lots of cream and saffron. This kugel, coming out of my oven during the Thanksgiving season, has cauliflower, cream and even… cranberries.

Cranberries? Why not?! There’s a reason cranberries taste so good with traditional Thanksgiving foods: the tartness makes the savory flavors feel fresh and contrasty. A few cranberries thrown into an apple pie improves it. Throw a few in the kugel too.

This kugel, as I believe a kugel should be, is flexible. I threw some potatoes in it, but you don’t have to. You can increase or decrease the brussels sprouts or mushrooms. And the onions… well, I actually started out cutting three large onions for two dishes and then, in my flu-bleary state of mind, canceled one dish but forgot to decrease the onions.  The result was delicious.


Thanksgiving Kugel with Cauliflower, Brussels Sprouts, and Cranberries

  • 1 head cauliflower
  • 1/2 pound or more brussels sprouts
  • 1/2 lb potatoes or winter squash or more cauliflower
  • 1-3 thinly sliced or chopped onions (see above)
  • thinly sliced mushrooms, to taste (a handful, a pound, whatever)
  • 1-2 handfuls of cranberries
  • cream
  • saffron
  • butter and/or schmaltz
  • olive oil
  • salt
  • pepper


1. Preheat oven to 400-415F. Chop up the cauliflower and potatoes or squash. Remove brussels sprouts’ stems and outer leaves, and slice them in half.  Arrange all of these ingredients in a large casserole pan, like a rectangular Pyrex.  Coat with olive oil, salt and pepper.  Roast until not yet very soft and browned at the edges, stirring occasionally.  While this is roasting, start the onions in step 3.

2. When that’s nearly done roasting, add your cranberries, stir, and put it back into the oven. The cranberries will roast pretty quickly.

3. In a very large pan, heat butter, schmaltz, olive oil, or some combination thereof.  Add onions and salt and cook slowly until they’re completely clear and browned.

4. Remove from pan, add more fat, and cook the mushrooms, not crowded in the pan — do several batches if necessary– until they brown a little and release their juices.  Make sure there’s enough fat in the pan for them; the pan shouldn’t look like a desert and the mushrooms shouldn’t wither.

5. When all the mushrooms are done, add the onions back to the pan with all the mushrooms, and add some cream and a pinch of saffron.  Stir, letting the flavors bubble together, and adjust salt to taste.

6. When everything in the oven is done roasting, stir the pan ingredients with the roasting ingredients, press into the casserole pan, add more cream if desired, and bake until the top is golden-brown.

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This one is for the paleo eaters, the cauliflower enthusiasts, or just anyone looking for a simple flavorful fall/winter dish that works for a variety of meals. This would be great for Thanksgiving.

Cauliflower is a pretty classic grain-substitute for people who avoid grains for health reasons.  It’s bulky, low in carbohydrates, and a good absorber of sauce. It has a nice, nutty flavor, but not so strong that it overpowers whatever it accompanies.  Cauliflower is gracious like that.

Roasting cauliflower, like brussels sprouts, tends to be a good way to attract the skeptics and convert the cauliflowerphobes.  Roasting brings out flavor and leaves appealingly browned florets and soft, steamy stems.  You can roast cauliflower on its own and serve it with salt and pepper, butter or olive oil, parmesan cheese, parsley, lemon juice, etc.

My aim: Make a cauliflower pilaf, treating the vegetable like rice.  Mix it with well-browned onions.

Result: Success!

This came out just like I wanted. I’ve eaten it so far as a side to roasted chicken with sauce, on its own, fried in butter with eggs for breakfast, and tossed with sautéed mushrooms and kale with lots of parmesan and black pepper for dinner.  Cauliflower pilaf is a keeper.


Cauliflower-Onion Pilaf

  • 1 head cauliflower (white or yellow)
  • olive oil
  • salt
  • butter and/or schmaltz (chicken fat)
  • 1 large yellow onion

1. Heat oven to 450F.  Chop cauliflower small.  Keep florets separate from stems, and cut stems into very small pieces.

2. In a large cast iron pan or a deep baking tray, spread cauliflower pieces so they’re all exposed.  Coat with olive oil and sprinkle with salt.

3. Roast until browned (time will vary depending on size of the pieces and how hot your oven really is.  I did this while I was cooking a chicken anyway).  When the cauliflower is cooked (very soft with browned edges), take it out of the oven.  Using a knife, like a big chef’s knife or rectangular chopping knife to chop it up.  You don’t want to mash it, you want it in small pieces like rice, and this cutting is easiest when the cauliflower is hot.  Chop until it’s small or you’re sick of chopping.

4. Slice an onion very thinly, into strips about an inch or two long.  Heat a very large skillet (I used the same large cast iron skillet for both the cauliflower and the onions, just waiting until the cauliflower was done first).  Add butter and/or schmaltz and let it heat up a moment/melt.

5. VERY SLOWLY cook the onions in this pan.  I heated the onions up at first, added some salt, and stirred the onions around for a minute or so, and then turned my burner down to very nearly its lowest setting.  I left the kitchen and did homework, checking the pan every 5-10 minutes and giving it a stir.  You want the onions to burn but not brown.  If you’re worried about leaving them unwatched, get a stool and a book and perch near the onions.  You don’t want to get impatient and hurry them into cooking.

6. Meanwhile, the cauliflower has been drying out a bit, which is great.  When your onions are done, stir the cauliflower bits into the onions and mix well.  Adjust for salt and serve.



~ You can reheat this in a pan or microwave.  For a pasta-like meal, sauté some mushrooms in butter, add finely chopped greens (like red kale) and cook until wilted, and then add leftover pilaf and stir.  Grate parmesan or similar cheese on top liberally, and add lots of black pepper.

~ This is a great side dish for chicken or meats. It absorbs sauces nicely.

~ It also works well for breakfast: Heat a lot of good butter, crack in an egg, break the yolk, and stir. Then sprinkle on a cup of the pilaf and mix it in. So good!

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Smell Your Carrots

There are foods you (probably) know to choose by smell.  A good cantaloupe, when perfectly ripe, releases a melony fragrance, especially from the navel where the stem used to connect.  Ripe strawberries call out, “You wrote me into your food budget this week, remember?  Really, you did!  You just spelled me e-g-g-s.”  And you’ve probably bought your share of prepared food because the smell from a street stand, restaurant or bakery was overpowering.

Why not vegetables?

For the last two weeks, I’ve been buying carrots from Whistling Train Farm, which is run by Mike Verdi, son of the late Queen of Pike Place Market, Pasqualina Verdi.  Mrs. Verdi was famous in her day for, among other things, handing carrots to small children who came by her stand at Pike Place.  I was one of those children, and my mother insists the carrot incident was a defining moment in my life, the reason I eat the way I do today. I’m happy to give Mrs. Verdi credit.

Fast forward to the carrots I’ve been buying from her son. They’re outstanding. Sweet, flavorful, crisp, fresh.

How did I know they’d be so good? Not just because this farm produces such high quality produce, or because this carrot’s great-great-great…n(great) grandparent changed my life. I smelled them. Perfect carrots smell amazing. Like perfume rabbits would spray on themselves to attract mates if they weren’t already so good at, well, mating. Perfect carrots smell like spring, like sweetness in the back of your throat, like everything a carrot seed dreams of growing up to be.

Smell your carrots, folks. If they smell good, they’ll taste good.

A friend was cooking with me the other day, and I handed her a piece of a carrot. “Wow,” she said. “That’s sweet. Like candy.”  It was unlike carrots she’d tasted before, and she was delighted. Somewhere, Pasqualina Verdi was pleased.

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Okay, food confession time: I used to be a vegetarian.  A pretty bad vegetarian — what kind of nice, Jewish girl from New York could resist lox and whitefish on a visit? — but a vegetarian all the same.

Today, we’re going to meet the food that undid my vegetarianism once and for all.  Readers, meet gai yang.

Gai yang is a barbecued, oven-cooked or rotisserie-cooked chicken, marinated flavorfully and allowed to char slightly. In college, when I spent a semester in Thailand, I lived in an off-campus dorm a few blocks from a market called Talat Ton Payom (or Talat Suthep), where gai yang was sold. A market fiend, I was there almost every day buying treats to eat. Bags of fresh-cut pineapple. Snacks of sticky rice and spicy Northern Thai chili dipping paste. Fresh-squeezed orange juice. Som tam. And, of course, gai yang, always rotating temptingly behind a sheet of glass at a stand by the sidewalk. Gai yang, the food that convinced me I couldn’t be a vegetarian.  Not with something this tasty in the world, at least.

This week, I’m excited to be hosting my friend P’O, who lived on my dorm hall that semester.  She told me ruefully that Talat Ton Payom has changed a lot, that it’s much more polished and indoors now, not the collection of outdoor stands it once was. We’ve been doing a lot of reminiscing, including about a night we spent eating gai yang, sticky rice and pineapple with our friend for our friend’s birthday (there was also alcohol involved, and apparently I speak Thai funny when I’m drunk).

I finally made a whole-chicken gai yang in my rotisserie oven.  I was worried because it looked like the skin was burning, but I mentioned it to a Thai friend and she said, “If it’s not burnt, it’s not gai yang!”  Indeed, a popular chant about gai yang translates roughly as: “Burnt gai yang! Hasn’t been skewered. Skewer it in the left butt-cheek — ooh! Skewer it in the right butt cheek — ooh! Hot, really hot, really hot, really hot!”  (I’m not making this up.)

She was right.  It was super moist inside and the skin tasted just like that chicken at the market.  It helped that I’d bought a fresh chicken from Stokesberry Farm at the farmers market, and marinated it for a day.

Making this in the rotisserie is ideal, but you can also cook it in pieces on a tray, and flip them when they’re nearly burnt. If you don’t have a rotisserie, they tend to be cheap on craigslist, and are a fantastic way to cook whole chickens easily.  My grandmother taught me this. Her famous rotisserie chicken recipe is here.


Gai Yang: Thai Rotisserie Chicken

  • 1 whole fresh chicken (small is ideal; this one was about 2.5 lbs)
  • cilantro, chopped fine
  • garlic, chopped fine
  • honey
  • jam (optional)
  • pepper
  • fish sauce
  • soy sauce
  • a little coconut milk (optional)
  • juice of 1 lime, for a sauce (not Thai, but so delicious!)


1. In advance (at least a few hours, but 10-16 hours is ideal), marinate the fresh chicken in a mixture of the rest of the ingredients.  As to quantities, there should be enough fish sauce and soy sauce that the whole chicken has been sprinkled, and some of each area rubbed or drizzled with something sweet, ideally honey and jam — plum or orange is nice — but you don’t want this to be a super sweet chicken.  The rest should all be sprinkled on.  I didn’t use coconut milk, but some recipes include it in the mixture.

2. When it’s time to cook, tie up gai yang and put it in your rotisserie (stabbing through the butt cheeks — ooh!).  Leave foil on the bottom of the rotisserie to catch the drippings.

3. Cook about 45 min to 1 hour, or more if it’s not a very small chicken, until chicken is cooked all the way through and skin is burnt in some spots. Take out and let cool.

4. Meanwhile, collect all the drippings from the foil.  Pour into a bowl and mix with juice of one lime for a sauce that’s really tasty on rice or mashed celery root/potatoes/etc.

5. Cut up gai yang* and serve with nam jeem, sweet chili dipping sauce, available in the Thai section of any store that sells Thai ingredients. It’s also very traditional with Thai sticky rice (kao neeow).


1. Cut up chicken when raw.  Marinate as above.

2. On a foil-lined baking sheet, bake pieces skin-side-up at 375F until very well browned, nearly a little burnt.  Flip and cook 10 minutes on the other side. Serve.



If you don’t know how to cut up a whole chicken, here’s a good process.  Use a good kitchen scissors, especially one that has an indent for cutting bone.

1. Cut off the wings and legs.

2. Cut all the way up the front/breast.

3. Cut along the sides, separating the breast from the rest of the chicken on each side.  You can cut the breast down into fewer pieces if you like.

4. Cut along the backbone on both sides, separating the thighs.

Your chicken is cut!

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