Thursday, October 30, 2008

When Only Soup Will Do

I'm not such a winter person. Should you look at my resume, then, you might think I was mad, having spent the last seven years in such tropical locales as Montreal and Chicago. Despite the severity of the winter months, Montreal remains among my favorite cities in the entire world, and Chicago is not far behind (though at least the sun shone in Montreal between January and March, while Chicago was perpetually blanketed by grey). The fall, however, is one of my favorite times of year. And it has been far too short these past few years - I can recall a solid four days of fall-like weather in Chicago last year, and that might even be stretching it.

Now that I am back in New York, I am basking in all of it's autumn-ness, which has extended for weeks. I can think of no more wonderful place to be in the fall. As I look with a birds-eye view out of the window of my airplane, I can say without reservation that the palette with which Mother Nature works her magic in New York is unparalleled. It's wonderful walking weather, blissfully warm in the sun, while in the shade a light jacket or sweater provide ample protection from the chill. It's not even out of the question to stop at the Shake Shack and pick up frozen custard every once in a while. In fact, there might be no better weather for ice cream, since there is no rush to devour it before it melts into a sticky, gloppy stream traversing down your wrists. The list of things I love about fall is, well, it's unwritten, but if it were it would fill volumes - and it's not close to complete.

Autumn is really such a gently creature. She takes her time, settles in and makes sure we're comfortable with the idea of cold weather before winter comes crashing in. Fall introduces us to the crisp air, to its smells and its ability to just penetrate every fiber of our being.

Winter is far less considerate; if winter had its way, we'd have to deal with snow and sleet and harsh, biting winds without any sort of transitional period. That's where fall comes in. She gets us settled in to the post-summer way of life, and allows us ample time to embrace the coming winter. Full of such wonders as Thanksgiving, Halloween, apples, pumpkins, gem-colored leaves, and hell, my birthday, we're almost too distracted to notice that summer has left us behind.

That's not to say that fall doesn't affect us at all. That introduction of cold, crisp winds penetrates your body, ensuring our peace with it by the time the weather really turns.

I don't know about you, but the first few days of cold air leave me craving soup. Only soup will do to counter fall's chilly embrace. Once fall has done her job and my body has adjusted to the chilly air, my cravings become more well-rounded and varied. Sure, there'll be the odd soup here and there, but it's nothing like fall. At the first signs of cold, I need to be heated from the inside out, and the warm liquid traveling from mouth to tummy does just that. It allows me to make peace with the cold, since I have fooled my body into believing it's surrounded by warmth. Then before I (and my excessively fragile circulatory system) know it, winter has settled in, and I am totally alright with that.

And so the past two Sundays I've settled into my sweatpants and cooked up a giant pot of soup, meant to last me the week. After I return home from my walk back form work, I head to the stove and reheat away.

There is no comparison between soup made from scratch and the stuff from a can, and spending the little extra time (no more than a couple of hours, really) on the weekend means that I can enjoy the good stuff during the week in exactly the same amount of time it would take me to pop open a can and heat it up on the stove. So should you need some warming, throw some stuff in a pot, get cozy with some DVRed It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, stir every once in a while, and enjoy.

White-Bean Escarole Soup
Adapted from Martha Stewart

This soup is oddly nostalgic for me. When I was younger, my family and I would trek out to Staten Island for lobsters at a Spanish restaurant that featured a "Daily Double" lobster special. This soup was always an option to begin, and I remember always being unsure as to what escarole was, but I think I always ordered it, and I am pretty sure I really liked it. I'm not really sure what else would lead to such pointed cravings for white-bean escarole soup than a little nostalgia.

Regardless, this soup is hearty, filling, and best of all, really healthy. The pancetta imparts a bit of smokiness to the soup, and while it's not necessary, this smoky note adds a great deal of depth.

1 pound navy beans or other white beans (I used small cannelini beans, but would have preferred something larger)
6 cups beef stock
1 large onion, minced
2 carrots, peeled and sliced
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 bay leaves
1/4 pound pancetta (Italian raw bacon), cut into 1/4-inch cubes
1 large head escarole, washed and separated into leaves
Salt and freshly ground pepper

Soak the beans overnight, or boil for 3 minutes and soak for 1 hour.
Simmer the beans in the soaking water and stock with the onion, garlic, carrot and bay leaves until the beans are tender (about 1 hour). Blanch the pancetta in boiling water for 5 minutes. Drain and add to the soup halfway through cooking.
When beans are thoroughly cooked, add the escaole leaves. Simmer for 2 minutes and season to taste with salt and pepper.

Mushroom Barley Soup
Adapted from Zingerman's Deli's recipe in Jewish Cooking in America via

Among my absolute favorite things in the world, mushroom barley soup is a deli classic. On offer in every institution from
Carnegie to Manny's, it's a standby, a never-fail dish that has a place in many people's memories. This version is fantastic, adapted from a recipe from Zingerman's Deli in Ann Arbor, Michigan it is thick, substantial, and again, healthy. The parsley perks up the other ingredients, both visually and taste-wise, and is a really great addition to this soup. I also added a parsnip, because I like them, but feel free to leave it out if that's not your thing.

This recipe produces a ton of soup, so I'd suggest either halving the recipe or planning on having a lot of friends over to share it with you. However, it's tastiness may lead you to eating a bit more than you had planned.

2 tablespoons dried porcini mushrooms (about 1/2 a one-ounce package)
2 tablespoons butter (original recipe calls for margarine, but if keeping kosher is not a concern for you, butter is a better bet)
1 large onion, thinly sliced
2 ribs celery with leaves, diced
1/4 cup parsley
2 carrots, peeled and sliced
3 cloves garlic, chopped
1 pound cremini mushrooms (or other mixed mushrooms, preferably not button)
1 tablespoon flour
7 cups beef broth or water
1 cup whole barley
2 teaspoons salt

Soak the mushrooms in 1 cup of hot water to cover for a half hour. Strain through a coffee filter or cheese cloth, reserving the water.
Coarsely chop the dried mushrooms.
Melt the butter in a stockpot and sauté the onion, celery, 2 tablespoons of the parsley, carrot, garlic, and fresh mushrooms until soft, about 5 minutes.
Lower the heat and add the flour, stirring every 30 seconds for about 5 minutes or until thick.
Add the beef broth and the cup of reserved mushroom water to the pot, and turn the heat up to high. When the soup has come to a simmer, add the barley. Stir well and season with salt and pepper to taste.
Simmer, covered, for about an hour or until the barley is tender and the soup is thickened, stirring often.
Add additional chopped parsley, mix thoroughly, and adjust seasonings.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Shanghai Dumpling Bonanza

If I was looking forward to one food item more than any other during my trip to China, it was the dumpling. To be specific, the soup dumpling, but really I was on the lookout for any dumpling.

Two and a half weeks into my trip, it was looking pretty dire. I knew that Shanghai was where I was bound to find the best dumpling, but I was rather shocked with how few I came across throughout the rest of the country.

Sure, there was the odd pork and chive filled variety, but it wasn't anything special. They were good, sure, but I just knew there were better dumplings to be had. And then, there was Shanghai.

On our first day in Shanghai, we made sure to stop off at Nan Xiang, a restaurant in the middle of the exceedingly touristy Yuyuan Gardens. There is also a window, on the first floor of the restaurant (the restaurant proper starts on the 2nd floor) selling nothing but the soup dumplings. Just follow the ever-present line snaking across the bazaar to the source of the deliciousness in the form of xiao long bao.

Each tightly wrapped bundle is an adventure. There is an art to eating these, such that you don't burn the shit out of your tongue while making sure not to let a drop of thIe unbelievably delicious soup escape your mouth. First, you must bite the dumpling and suck out the soup, making sure to blow on it a bit so that you can actually taste what you're about to eat. Then just cram the dumpling into your mouth, and enjoy the unbelievable combination of fresh dumpling skin and fatty, fatty pork. Eating these with a spoon is undoubtedly easier, since you don't have to worry about the little suckers slipping out from between your chopsticks as you attempt to savor these little treats.

They come 16 to an order, for 12 yuan, or about $1.75. Half of this was enough to make a meal for me, since the inside is full of rich pork and unctuous soup.

The next dumplings I sampled came from - me! I attended a couple of cooking classes while I was in Shanghai: a wet market tour and wok class and a dim sum class. I'll report back later on the wok class, but for now I'm all about dumplings. We made xiao long bao from scratch (well, almost, the "pork jelly" was already prepared, and is essentially a mixture made of pork skin that melts down as the dumplings steam and provides the soup for the soup dumplings), mixing, kneading, filling, twisting and steaming our way to dumpling perfection (I wish).

Watching the dumplings being made at Nan Xiang, I was impressed with how quickly they were folded. Pleats and crimps made effortlessly, without even looking. Once I tried making these little buggers on my own, though, my level of admiration for the dumpling-makers of the world skyrocketed. We spent a solid 45 minutes just making practice dumplings, with the instructor walking around, telling us we were doing it incorrectly, and graciously repeating her instructions and leading our hands in order to familiarize us with the excessively tedious process of crimping.

At first, I was terrible. I mean really, how pathetic is that dumpling? I appeared to have no chance whatsoever to be an expert dumpling maker. And I'm not exaggerating, I was awful. Once I got the hang of it, though, after many, many, maaaaany failed attempts, I was on a roll. In fact, the instructor said that I made the nicest dumplings of the group at the end (and she didn't even say it to me! so it had to be true! Right? Right!)

But seriously, look at these beauties. They were the result of my persistence, determination and extreme stubbornness. And they were delicious.

I have the recipe stashed away somewhere, but my room is still in the transitional period (read: there's a lot of shit I still have to unpack), and will get that down here as soon as it's unearthed, but what I can tell you is that the dough was made with nothing more than flour and water, while the inside is a mixture of pork, pork jelly, ginger, garlic, green onion, soy sauce, sugar, salt, pepper, and a bit of water. At least I think that's what's in it. In any event, when you're working with a base of pork and something called "pork jelly," can you really ever go wrong?*

*Hint: the answer is no.

The final dumpling I'm going to share is perhaps the ultimate, the daddy of all dumplings: the shengjian bao. It is a force to be reckoned with, and it is one of the (surprisingly many) foods from my trip that I find myself really and truly craving.

Behold the fried soup dumpling:

This gem came to me from Yang's Fry Dumpling. They're larger than xiao long bao, and a totally different monster. The skin is thicker, the inside fuller, and they soup tastier and more plentiful than their little cousins. And - they're fried, which is really the kicker. Instead of getting the steam treatment like the xiao long bao, the shengjian bao are fried in a giant cast iron pan so that the bottoms get a crunchy, crackly, unbelievably delicious texture. The pan is closed so that the dumpling steams while it fries, allowing the meal to cook and creating a contrast in the texture between the top of the bun and the bottom. A light coating of sesame seeds, some green onions for good measure, a quick dip in some vinegar and you have yourself a pocket of pure perfection, ready to burst at the seams with pure tastiness.

There is so much soup in these things that you really must be careful when biting into them, for the soup is not too shy to burst out and greet your adorable yellow shirt with its greasy embrace.* With a well-placed bite, the golden shell will part just enough to allow you to slurp all of the soup out, and then unashamedly devour the rest, perhaps even without taking a breath. These things are incredible and ridiculously cheap at 4 yuan for 4 crazy good dumplings (less than 60 cents). And I would like one now...

* RIP adorable yellow shirt. Rest assured that you were sacrificed for an exceedingly worthy cause.

Nanxiang Mantou Dian

85 Yuyuan Lu
Shanghai, China

Yang's Fry Dumpling
54 Wujiang Lu
Shanghai, China

Chinese Cooking Workshop
No 35, Lane 865 Yu Yuan Road
Shanghai, China

Monday, October 6, 2008

A Farmer's Feast

In the three and a half weeks I spent in the vast country of China, I was in cities as large as 30 million people, and towns so small they had only a single nursery school. We made it to Yangshuo, in Guanxi province toward the end of our trip, and it was a lovely break from the fast pace the trip had been following up to that point. We sat around, went swimming in the gorgeous Li river amidst water buffalo and fishermen, and enjoyed the stunning scene cast by limestone cliffs.

On the last of our three days in Yangshuo, we were lucky enough to be treated to a meal prepared by a farmer in his home. It was one of the high points of the trip; the food was wonderful, the house was charming, and the farmer was constantly coming back and forth, checking in and making sure we were satisfied, and that we left full (oh, did we leave full). He was gracious and kind, answering all of our questions without abandon through our tour guide, who served as translator.

The food was not the most creative in the world, nor was it the most aggressively spiced, but it had no reason to be. The ingredients were extremely fresh, and the quick cooking methods and subtle flavorings allowed their flavors to really shine through; it was absolutely wonderful. And it was served with none of the pretense of the "eat local" craze that is tearing across North America right now. This is not to say that I am opposed to said movement, in fact I think it is wonderful, and I think every one of us should take steps to eat more sustainably. There is no need for such a movement on the farms of Yangshuo. These farmers eat from the land, and understand the give and take between man and nature. This understanding has never waned, and there has never been any way to eat besides locally, which is why the food has never lost its soul. It was real, honest food. And it was delicious.

We sat down to three dishes: omelette with ground pork, sauteed potatoes and a sauteed pumpkin (or other like mystery squash). Everything tasted just like the sum of its parts, allowing the freshness of the ingredients to shine through. The squash was my favorite of the three, it was delicately spiced and had a hint of sweetness, and it was absolutely fantastic.

The farmer came out next with a dish of carrots and chicken with spring onions. The carrots tasted, well, just like incredibly carroty carrots, so crisp and fresh and oh so orange, perfectly accented with just the touch of soy sauce in which it was sauteed.

Bamboo shoots with pork was next. The sauces that graced each of these plates was rather similar, and I think it was just a sautee in some soy sauce, with a touch of garlic and ginger that brought every dish together, and allowed the ingredients of each to really speak for themselves. Bamboo shoots were one of the things I got (probably undeservedly) excited about every time they arrived at the table, since they are pretty much the best things ever and highly underrepresented in the American diet for obvious bamboo-related reasons.

These fried eggplant slices were battered and also had some pork stuffed in there. I wasn't a huge fan just because it tasted too fried for me, but everyone else at the table absolutely gobbled them up.

Sauteed bean sprouts in soy sauce was the last dish to make ti to the table. I didn't expect much from this dish, but it really surprised me. When I thought about it, I realized that I hadn't often eaten cooked bean sprouts, since they're usually tossed in at the end of the recipe to make sure they don't get sadly droopy. These bean sprouts were cooked just enough to warm them, but they still kept all their delightfully snappy integrity, and the light sauce allowed the very delicate flavor of the bean sprouts to come out without overpowering it.

The farmer dashed off after he realized we were full beyond belief and returned a few minutes later on his motorbike with a large bag in his basket. We all watched, confused, as he set up a ladder and strung what appeared to be 92854 firecrackers along that and the wall. Apparently it is tradition for those in the town to set off firecrackers whenever they have honored guests (though we were far from distinguished, so I'm not sure if I buy this...) to draw attention to and honor their presence. Let me tell you, those firecrackers were loud as hell, and seemingly went off for 17 minutes, though I'm sure it was more like five. To my eardrums, it was an eternity. But it was amazing.

It was wonderful to take a break from the chili flake and MSG-addled dishes we'd been (gladly, mind you) eating through that point on the trip and enjoy some food that didn't need any of that pageantry. Just Real. Good. Food.