049: Mercury Trines Chaos
Melinda & Mackenzie's Covid-safe restaurant recs for first dates with locals
(JS) The Triple Crown is back, baby, and so is Eleven Madison Park, now with a vegan twist! The internet was abuzz with bad takes this week, begging the evergreen question: what does a return to normal look like and for whom? Perhaps selfishly, I revisited my California transplant pipe dream and decided to spend my first couple weeks post-post-vax-fortnight in Los Angeles (many thanks to friend of the newsletter Tosh for providing a supremely comfortable Hancock Park adjacent crash pad). Once again I’m reminded of that classic Italian adage, “Living in a world where no one’s innocent / oh but at least we tried.” I’m looking forward to reconnecting with dear friends and family, meeting their newly acquired dogs and/or partners, scheming to acquire all sorts of regionally-specific takeout without a rental car in a city that’s famously unfriendly to pedestrians, and exposing myself to all sorts of new airborne threats in the process. Are we wearing masks outdoors? Does anyone know what’s going on? Jk hahaha… but seriously what are you guys doing?
It may be evident that the decision to maintain East Coast work hours has allowed me to meet my deadlines while also keeping my brain worms hungry. Between an extended stint at Newark International and a whirlwind excursion to Palm Springs, it’s been a lighter week than usual as far as cooking is concerned, but I still managed to enjoy a few bites of the following:
Christened my two weeks on the West Coast with some requisite LA bullshit from Erewhon: the salmon collard green wrap was pretty good (and vaguely reminiscent of one I enjoyed years ago at Sunrise Mart), but the famed kelp noodle salad was a little heavy on the sesame oil for my taste
A weekend of grilling in the desert with friends of the newsletter Tosh & Bennet; hits included coffee-rubbed jerk ribs and some freestyled garlicky shrimp with a dilly celery slaw (which made for excellent shrimp salad sandwiches the next day)
Thai takeout from Hollywood’s Luv2Eat, including a stellar tum Thai and a sinus-clearing Phuket style crab curry (both of which I indeed luv’d 2 eat)
(SB) Dear readers, as I read my illustrious colleague’s introduction, I cannot help but confess: I am jealous, and wish that I too was in Los Angeles, a stone’s throw away from the beautiful dark twisted fantasy that is Erewhon and able to sit on a beach chair facing the Pacific, rehearsing an oral history of frozen yogurt on the west side circa 2010 with friend-of-the-letter Jessie. Alas. Instead, today I apologized to a dog that barked at me at the entrance to Andrew Cuomo’s subway. (JS: Me in every interaction always.) In spite of this sobering state of affairs, I’ve been feeling the cautious optimism of someone with one foot just entering one the four most liveable months of pandemic city weather.
While the unmistakable film of social awkwardness caused by a serious lack of interaction with casual acquaintances does hang about me, my Libra placements (sun & rising!) cannot help but have a near limitless appetite for the small pleasures of food, friendship, and lightness. (JS: Chani Nicholas found shaking.) As darkness swirls ominously everywhere beyond my most myopic views of the future, I haven’t had much of an appetite for anything but uncomplicated and earnest leisure during my (few) non-work hours. I just want to sit outside and revel in the non-productive value of my one wild and precious life! After a year like this, I think we all must. Here’s what I ate:
I’ve been in full outdoor drinking mode: classic Italian fare in Irvington (on Hudson!) post-wedding dress shopping with my girl Eva; hangover-bait piña coladas with oysters and more from newly reopened uptown waterfront destination The Hudson; a delicious mezcal-fueled happy hour, Thai salad, and burger at Sonnyboy. Phew.
Almost half the menu at Fat Choy, including a delicious mushroom sloppy joe, salt and pepper cauliflower, and bok choy that sent me to garlic heaven. I wish I had taken a photograph, but I literally ate too fast.
Some good ol’ clean-the-fridge fried rice with lots of ginger, sesame, spinach and mushrooms. Plus, lots of water to help metabolize all this drinking.
USE A CONDIMENT: Gay Lil’ Vinegar
(JS) It seems as if people are eating flowers these days with reckless abandon, or at least heaping them onto their bakes and tucking them into cocktails for an extremely grammable finish. (SB: lilac wiiiiiiiiiiiine…) I often enjoy working edible buds (or their extract) into a dessert or beverage, and have experimented with the likes of rose petals and lavender buds for dry rubs of all sorts. That said, I know there is a subset of readers who fear the floral, more readily associating these flavors with soap or grandma’s purse. For these folks especially, I suggest you give the chive blossom a chance. As is perhaps obvious from the name, these are the flowers you’ll find at the end of perennial chives. Somewhat whimsical in appearance – picture something between a dandelion and a Seussian truffula tree, ranging in color from mauve to pastel lavender – their flavor is unlike the aforementioned florals, but instead firmly in the allium camp. It’s the essence of chive all dolled up. You can enjoy the petals raw, sprinkled over a salad for a pop of color, or stirred into a buttery slow scramble, for eggs that remind me of sour cream and onion chips. They’re an alluring addition to a grilled vegetable platter, finished with a bit of olive oil and sea salt. But if you’re looking to enjoy a hint of chive all year long, you might consider steeping them in wine vinegar for a vibrantly hued and delicately flavored infusion.
This recipe is largely based on sensorial cues, but if you’re jonesing for a textual guide, try this one from David Leite. You’ll need at least two cups of blossoms for a pint of vinegar. David recommends Champagne or white wine vinegar – you could probably use red wine vinegar here as well, but part of the fun here is coaxing the color out of the blossoms, so I’d recommend starting with something closer to clear (plain white vinegar might be a little intense). Begin by thoroughly rinsing your blossoms, making sure to remove as much dirt as possible as well as any resident insects, then stuff the blossoms into a sterilized jar. Gently warm your vinegar – there’s no need to boil, you want to give your blossoms a bath rather than scald them. Pour the warm vinegar into the jar to submerge the blossoms, pushing them down with a spoon as needed. Allow the vinegar to cool and place a bit of parchment paper over the top (to prevent reactions with the metal), then screw on the lid. Place your vinegar in a cool, dark place for at least a couple weeks. A basement is ideal but a cabinet or pantry closet will work. After two weeks you can start checking your vinegar – it will have taken on a rosy magenta hue, with a hint of chive on the nose. Taste and decide if you’d like to further infuse. When the vinegar is flavored to your liking, strain the blossoms out and store in a sterilized glass bottle or jar. Enjoy in vinaigrettes of all sorts, or for finishing hearty soups and braises.
HOT IN HERRE: BANANA SOFT SERVE-ISH
(SB) My own apartment building has been a feverishly steam-heated sauna for the better part of this year (I hate you Boiler Truck), but this weekend marked the first day that I really started to feel hot walking out and about in the City. With the caveat that I still hope to be able to use the oven for a few more weeks, we’re marking the season re-introducing a feature designed for when it’s simply too sweaty to do much more than eat something cold on the couch.
I am, of course, aware that I’m not breaking any news with this little vegan banana ice cream number. In fact, I’ll confess to rolling my eyes a little bit when I first heard of it in the dreaded diet-y “you won’t even miss the ice cream” that it’s often bandied about in. However, I tried a few versions in the throes of trying to tamp down on my sugar consumption in the face of my raging pandemic sweet tooth and have found myself both surprised and inspired by its malleability. On the most basic level, you only need two things to make this soft serve: frozen bananas and a food processor. The bananas go into the processor, you scrape down the sides at regular intervals, and before you know it, they’ve come together as a creamy soft-serve base. You can eat it right away, or freeze it for a firmer texture. As simple as this is, I have gleaned a few additional insights: beginning to process the frozen on the “chop” setting before moving to puree makes the mixture a little creamier; letting the frozen bananas thaw for several minutes before throwing them in the processor helps with move things along; and depending on the texture of your bananas, you might think about adding in a little oat milk. Sometimes, when making multiple batches, my food processor blades get frozen and need a quick hot-water bath. Keep the faith if it looks like you’re just ricing a banana!
The real fun comes, of course, with the toppings. As a proud member of a generation that came of age in the heyday of yogurt mix-ins, I took to this like a fish to water. My favorite combination so far has been an obvious yet elegant take on Chunky Monkey: once the banana is mostly soft, add in a handful of chopped walnuts and some semi-sweet chocolate. I have also been very into a take on Cherry Garcia, adding in a handful of frozen cherries along with the bananas and blending before throwing in some chocolate chips or chunks. (JS: This iconic duo of B&J’s flavors is, among many other reasons, why we connect.) Most recently, I couldn’t resist a dairy-laden experiment, and added some condensed milk and Milo to my bananas, which resulted in a creamier and decadent chocolate-malt soft serve. Next on my list of mix-ins are jaggery-and-peanuts, mangos and saffron, and some type of bananas-foster experiment. The world feels like my frozen banana.
CHARRED EGGPLANT, HOWEVER YOU LIKE IT
(JS) Although this newsletter loves a grill moment, it’s an unfortunate truth that neither I nor my co-editor actually have a grill. (SB: a true tragedy.) We’re therefore amped when we can replicate some of those seasonal, smoky flavors in ways that are only mildly risky in a rental apartment. For those for whom a lil’ Weber is out of reach, may I humbly suggest using your burner to char an eggplant, and then dress it up a bit. This perhaps obvious hack is great for a number of ingredients – peppers are perhaps the most obvious, affording a fire-roasted dupe ready for romescos and muhammaras alike, but you could try a mix of different veg for a mechouia-inspired spread.
Place your eggplant directly over your burner and turn the flame onto the medium high, periodically rotating it for even heat distribution. At the risk of stating the obvious, don’t walk away while you’re charring – it may bubble and spurt, and the skin can indeed catch fire. Once the entire surface is blackened and the eggplant feels tender, place it in a glass bowl and cover with saran wrap to steam for at least ten minutes, if not longer. When you return to the eggplant, it will have cooled and softened significantly, and you’ll easily be able to tear the skin away with your fingers. Discard the burnt skin, but save the liquid that’s accumulated in the bottom of the bowl, as it’s full of smoky flavor.
From here, the journey is entirely up to you. Use a couple forks to shred the eggplant, or chop or blend to achieve the consistency you’d like. You could keep things simple with a vaguely Greek melitzanosalata; stir in olive oil, some grated garlic, chopped parsley, and fresh lemon juice, and finish with some chopped red onion. (SB: *screams*: baingan bharta!!! [JS: My Big Fat Greek Wedding but Salonee’s the dad and it’s about India]) Take things in a baba ghanoush direction (or mutabbal, depending on whom you ask) with a little tahini. Pomegranate molasses adds something sour and sweet, while chopped nuts or a bit of yogurt offer a little extra bulk. I just listened to Reem Kassis talk about Sudanese salata aswad, an eggplant preparation flavored with peanut butter, sauteed tomatoes, and onions, on The Splendid Table podcast, and would be keen to try and adapt it for this technique. And the Thai takeout I enjoyed last night has me scheming to try a version spiked with fish sauce, garlic and a whole lot of lime juice.
PERMANENT ROTATION: Cold sesame noodles-- recipes abound, but this one from America’s Test Kitchen is a solid base.
(JS) Do I need another hot sauce? No. Am I viscerally drawn to the offerings from Los Angeles-based Singapore-style chili slinger Sauce Lah? Yes.
(SB) While Batch 001 is sold out, I’m eagerly awaiting the next drop of Heirloom Kombucha’s trio of genmaicha, rose, and kalamansi bubblies.
(JS & SB) We’d both like a seat in Ligaya Mishan’s upcoming class with Kundiman on the craft of food writing. As fans of both Mishan and the Kundiman team, we can’t help but be excited about such a thoughtful offering. As Adam Rapoport reminded us all this time last year: food has always been political :)
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