Thursday, August 23, 2012

Jerry Traunfeld's Crab and Lemon Thyme Soufflé (5/24)

The last time Jerry Traunfeld's name found its way onto this here blog was when I tried my hand at his roast chicken last year. I left that experience with very good thoughts on his approach to cooking, so I dutifully snooped around the Internet for a Jerry Traunfeld recipe that I could use in this year's soufflé project. The result? A recipe for a crab and lemon thyme soufflé with a parsley-tarragon butter sauce. Sounded amazing. And it was amazing.

The concept was intimidating, but everything was actually relatively simple. First, melt the butter and whisk in the flour.

Add the milk and salt and whisk until the mixture boils and thickens.

Remove from heat, whisk in the egg yolks, and then add the minced lemon thyme.

Transfer the soufflé base to another bowl. I added some lemon zest because I just felt like I wasn't getting enough lemon from the lemon thyme alone. Place plastic wrap over the surface of the base and set aside.

While the base cools to room temperature, butter the soufflé dishes and coat with bread crumbs.

About 45 minutes before serving, preheat the oven to 375 degrees and start whipping the egg whites.

As the egg whites slowly start to stiffen enough to form free-standing peaks, fold the crab meat into the base and season with salt and pepper.

Gently fold the egg whites into the soufflé base.

Fill a roasting pan or similarly oven-proof container with water so that the ramekins are half-immersed. Toss the entire apparatus into the oven for at least 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, make the parsley-tarragon butter sauce. Start by placing the parsley and tarragon into a blender.

Combine the lemon juice, minced shallots, and salt into a saucepan until the mixture boils and reduces by half.

Then, at low heat, slowly whisk in the butter. Keep the sauce on low heat.

About 5 minutes before serving, pour the shallot-wine-butter sauce into the blender with the parsley and tarragon.

Blend until smooth. The sauce should be an alarmingly bright and vibrant green. Season with more salt to taste.

At this point, the soufflés should be done: golden-brown, puffy, and fragrant.

The water contraption can be difficult to move around, so be careful. Thankfully, these guys held up for a relatively long time without deflating.

Create a hole in the center of each soufflé with your spoon and pour in a generous amount of the sauce.

The end result was complex in flavor, comforting in temperature, and crisp and fluffy in texture. My first spoonful released a plume of addictive smells: the familiar smell of a freshly baked croissant, an unimposing cloud of lemon and parsley, and brief hints of licorice and wine.

The smell of crab only reached my nose as I was about to take my first bite. I hesitated for a short second before placing the spoonful into my mouth. A thin and giving shell, a satisfying but not overpowering flavor of egg, strong herbal notes, and generous chunks of toothsome buttery crab meat. The faint flavor of wine married the various acidic and basic ingredients into a cohesive, addictive soufflé.

This was probably the best savory soufflé I've had in a while--at home or in a restaurant.

The entire soufflé crawled its way into my stomach in a matter of seconds, like a small army of sprinting, outrageously delicious sand crabs, leaving momentary imprints on my tongue.

I know I'm already insanely behind on this project, but I just might have to make this one again before the year ends.

Until next time, Jerry Traunfeld.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Mexicali Taco & Co.

My life has been defined by Mexican food. And for better or for worse, it all started with Taco Bell. By the time I had graduated elementary school, I had similarly graduated, again, for better or for worse, to El Torito. By high school, I was well into my one-thousandth order at Baja Fresh.

In college, where I was encouraged to voice my opinions, I proudly and confidently granted my coveted, one-of-a-kind award for "the like, best effing Mexican food, ever--I'm not even kidding" to three establishments over the course of one week: King Taco, El Taurino, and Patty's Mexican Foods.

One-and-a-half years of working in South Korea with plenty of soju and no trace of good Mexican food, I shocked my dead, Mexican taste buds to life with a visit to Mexico. Next stop, Seattle, and after three years, the only Mexican food I've found comfort in is Rancho Bravo. On short trips to L.A., I dutifully made my way to Ricky's Fish Tacos and tried some killer tacos at places like Guisados, Loteria Grill, and countless food trucks. And sprinkled throughout, of course, was the pseudo-Mexican, category-of-its-own Chipotle.

But then came the day. The day my life changed. For the absolute better. From one that simply enjoyed carne asada tacos to one that is shamelessly obsessed with carne asada tacos.

The day I put Los Angeles' best carne asada taco in my mouth.

Mexicali Taco & Co. started as a food truck. Literally. One red pickup truck wielding a light and a stereo blasting dance music. One grill smaller than a grand piano. One bucket of ice and sodas. One cross-section of a tree trunk to chop carne asada on. And one table to slather on some salsas and toppings.

And to top it all off, in the middle of an empty parking lot on the corner of First and Beaudry, Mexicali Taco & Co.'s humble beginnings showcased a stunning view of Downtown L.A.

My visits to Mexicali Taco & Co. were never too frequent, peaking at four gluttonous visits in one week. One of those visits even followed a twenty-two course meal at The Bazaar.

As is the occasion with most patrons, I quickly became friends with co-owners and head honchos Javier and Esdras. And the more friendly we became, the less embarrassed I was of seeing them more often than some of my close friends in L.A.

Unfortunately, Mexicali Taco & Co. had to temporarily shut down after some glitches having to do with the parking lot's managers. Their loss. On to bigger and better things.

After a painful and torturous set of months, Javier and Esdras opened a permanent space that was bigger, and most definitely better. The best part? They changed their hours to every day except Sundays, instead of only Wednesday through Saturday nights.

Some days they still play that nostalgic, parking lot dance music. But as their menu has expanded, so has their music selection, ranging from jazz standards to Latin pop rock.

The cashier is flanked by a delicious selection of Aguas Frescas and a salsa bar. The selection varies, and I've only tried these a couple times, but both times they've been ridiculously refreshing and delicious.

My favorite drink I've had is the Cebada. Like a cinnamon-infused barely-sweetened barley milk tea, the overall effect is rich, refreshing, and particularly useful in fighting against some of their spicier selections.

The salsa bar is plentiful and complete with a tangy and spicy tomato-based habanero salsa; a flavorful, more watery tomatillo-based salsa de arbol; a creamy, addictive guacamole sauce; a familiar, bright pico de gallo; smartly seasoned, thyme-infused pickled red onion; and fresh radishes and limes.

The selection can be overwhelming, but don't be afraid to experiment, mix, and match.

Enough. On to the main event. The tacos. These unassuming triplets come topped with a healthy portion of grilled green onions sprinkled with salt and a hearty cup of slow-cooked pinto beans.

The tacos come on either a corn or flour tortilla. I have to take a second to address just how delicious these tortillas are. Because these are not your typical tortillas. Javier and Esdras drive them up themselves from Calexico every week. And with your first bite, you fully understand what Javier and Esdras mean when they say that they can't find comparable tortillas anywhere closer. Both varieties are light and delicate on the outside, and rich and flavorful on the inside. They garner just enough chew and texture--almost crispy on the outside, al dente on the inside.

The Chicken Taco is perfect. Surprisingly juicy and satisfyingly charred with a savory seasoning. Just a tad bit of spice goes a long way in making this one of the tastiest chicken tacos I've had.

But the real, clear winner, if you haven't picked this up already, is the Carne Asada Taco. So. Effing. Tasty. So effing tasty that I was compelled to write a haiku.

So effing tasty.
Tender, rich, and tangy chuck.
So effing tasty.

Okay, not my best work. But still. Like the chicken, the carne asada proves that Javier and Esdras know their way around a grill. Charred edges, an undeniably savory meatiness, and a noticeable, yet quiet, citric aftertaste.

Chorizo is the third option (chorizo picture below), but the toothsome, smoky, and lightly-spiced chorizo really fares best in the Zuperman (not pictured, unfortunately), a wonderful concoction of meat (chicken), meat (carne), meat (chorizo), and cheese sandwiched between two crispy flour tortillas. So, so good.

My favorite taco? Carne asada on a corn tortilla, guacamole, pickled red onions, and pico de gallo with a tiny spritz of lime. A handful of heaven.

My taco-monster friend, Steph C., mentioned two, very good strategies for topping your tacos. First, do up your tacos one at a time. Unless you're going to inhale all three in three minutes, which is completely possible. Second, if you are saving a carne asada taco for last after eating their other selections, make the small effort to order your last tacos separately so that you can enjoy them fresh.

If you're anything like me, though, and giggle with over-excitement every time you go to Mexicali Taco & Co., you might find yourself ordering everything on the menu without remembering either of these strategies.

The other treats will never taste better than the carne asada taco, but they're often just as delicious. I could eat the Gueros (Cantonese-Baja style peppers) all day every day, if only they didn't set my mouth on fire with each bite. The extreme spice of the blistered pepper is balanced with a sweet, salty, peppery, and citric soy-based sauce that renders the experience one of inadvertent masochism. Super delicious, but tongues, beware.

If movie theaters or ball parks served Nachos like the ones at Mexicali Taco & Co., maybe box office sales and attendance wouldn't be declining. Especially when they're topped with some of that tasty carne asada.

The salsa is addictive, and the rich sweetness of the roasted peppers balances itself with the tempered brightness from the onions.

The chips are thick and crunchy, not subject to the typical symptom of wet flaccidity. The mix of cheeses makes each bite pop with different proportions of creamy goodness. Some guacamole and pico de gallo doesn't hurt either. Be careful, though. One order can easily be your entire meal.

The remaining two game-changers at Mexicali Taco & Co. in particular make an order of only three tacos seem like an ungratefully dismissed opportunity.

The Vampiro would make even the most conservative vampires contemplate imminent death by eating this garlic-infused quesadilla. A generous and toothsome portion of cheese, a golden and delicately flaky shell, and a punchy garlic sauce are essential to my inability to forego ordering this every time. Again, don't even think about thinking twice. Order it with carne asada.

While the Gueros, Nachos, Zuperman, and Vampiro are all amazing, after the tacos, the next best thing at Mexicali Taco & Co. isn't any of the above. It's the Cachetada. A beautiful, crispy, grilled corn tortilla topped with your choice of meat (chorizo pictured here), a gooey Mexican cheese, and a smokey and balanced chipotle aioli sauce. And if you're going to make one of your selections Ranchero Style (adding an egg on top), the Cachetada is the one to do it on.

The Cachetada goes best with carne (again, no surprise there), and does just fine on its own, but I like to make this even more difficult to eat by topping it with the holy trinity of their guacamole, pickled red onions, and pico de gallo.

The first bite is a kind of magic. The pleasant snap of the tortilla opens up to a chute of juicy carne accompanied by a strand of thyme-spiced pickled red onion; a kick of chipotle is tempered by the cool, creamy guacamole; and subsequent chews are bookended by a bright pico de gallo and a hearty easy-fried egg.

When the yolk breaks, don't dwell on that brief feeling of panic. If a golden stream of egg yolk doesn't dribble down your chin by your third bite, you're eating it wrong. Or you just have an insane ability to eat this without things getting messy. Or you inhaled the whole thing in one bite. No judgment. Use those God-given fingers and tongue to scoop up any wounded soldiers.

There's no way to think about Mexicali Taco & Co. for even a second without ravenous hunger pangs. Every time I visit L.A., that first bite into a cachetada or taco makes my eyes sweat with unadulterated happiness. I went twice in the past week on my most recent trip to L.A., but to nobody's surprise, I'm already itching for my next fix. Thanksgiving couldn't feel further away.

Esdras. Javier. I know I always joke about you guys FedEx'ing some carne asada to Seattle. But seriously. Help.

Mexicali Taco & Co.
702 N Figueroa St
Los Angeles, CA 90012
(213) 613-0416

GET: Carne Asada Taco; Carne Asada Cachetada Ranchero Style; Carne Asada Vampiro; Cebada.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Belly Shack

While Belly Shack was certainly not my absolute favorite meal while in Chicago (I mean, it was up against some stiff competition), it definitely was not my least favorite. In fact, there are at least a couple of dishes that warm my soul just from thinking about them.

Being a Korean-American chef and serving up non-Korean food with Korean flavor profiles is pretty trendy these days. But it's one of those trends I don't really mind, as long as the chef is bringing something new to the table. If you're just now trying to make another Korean taco truck, just stop. Roy Choi's got that covered. Seriously. Stop it. Other than that, I love seeing how chefs incorporate flavors that I grew up with into well-balanced, thoughtful dishes.

Belly Shack's Bill Kim doesn't necessarily rise to the level of, say, David Chang, but he does have a serious knack (kind of like Roy Choi) for understanding and delivering familiar, and somewhat updated, comfort food. The restaurant is pitched as a marriage of Korean and Puerto Rican flavors ("Ko-Rican")--some were shining examples of the concept, others suggested a less passionate relationship.

The space is obviously influenced by urban street culture with tagged walls, industrial colors, and metallic seating arrangements. The space is simple, though, and eerily clean. Naturally, my two friends, Janice K. and Steph C., and I ordered a sizable chunk of the menu.

First was one of my absolute favorites: Hot & Sour Soup. Rich, tangy, hearty, complex, and clean--a clever intersection of tortilla soup and a traditional Chinese hot and sour soup. Neither contribution of flavor profiles crowded the other: the bright cilantro and characteristically zesty broth balanced out the heartier hominy and juicy chunks of chicken. Gulping this down in a few heartbeats was tough to resist, mainly because the soup seemed to taste better with each and every spoonful.

The two downers of the night were strangled with large nets of noodles. The first victim was the Asian Pork Meatball Sandwich. Multiple porky meatballs topped with a mountain of flavorless somen noodles (too much unnecessary starch!) and stuffed into an awkward piece of dry and floury pita bread (maybe an Italian Giuseppe bread of sorts instead?). The measly topping of crispy shallots wasn't enough to save the texturally deficient sandwich and the topping was a sadly sweet rendition of Korean chili paste (go-chu-jang), that the table agreed would be better replaced by some gutsier sriracha, and perhaps a spritz of lemon or lime.

The second strangulation was the Belly Dog, a thick and more flavorful pita topped with a juicy, grilled dog, a mountain of crispy (read: often limp) egg noodles, crispy shallots, and pickled green papaya. This might have fared better with a sauce (sriracha-lime aioli?) alongside the crispy shallots and pickled green papaya. The egg noodles were absolutely unnecessary.

The side of Togarashi Spiced Fries with curry mayonnnaise were good, but mainly because of the sauce and addition of togarashi. The fries themselves were unfortunately a bit soggy at times.

Okay. Now back to the good part! Served in a typical Korean metal rice bowl, the Edamame was delicious. Some more of those crispy shallots and "Seoul sauce." I was hesitant about the sauce, mainly because it was packaged for sale right next to the cashier, and most bottled Korean marinades, especially when labeled "Seoul sauce," tend to be overly sweet and salty with nothing beyond generous portions of garlic, soy sauce, and sesame oil. But this was different. It was not too salty or sweet, with a notable balance of acid, heat, and balsamic vinegar. The sauce exceeded my expectations and made each pod of edamame rise above its typical minimalist, salt-sprinkled preparation.

My other favorite of the meal was the Brussel Sprouts & Chorizo. The quartered greens were cooked through with the perfect amount of caramelization and sometimes a welcome char. The chorizo was rich and hearty, lightened up by some cilantro and punchy fish sauce. The crispy wontons on top were a great addition for texture and a tad bit of starch to simmer down the other bold flavors. So, so good.

I also thoroughly enjoyed the Boricua with Marinated Beef. Next to the Hot & Sour Soup, this was probably the next most successful display of Asian and Puerto Rican influences. A fun mix of Korean ingredients smashed between two flattened fried plantains. The plantains were surprisingly crispy and satisfying as a substitute for bread. The beef was delicious, with a tasty and well-balanced bulgogi-like marinade.

The layer of brown rice and bean sprouts mashed with a heavy helping of hoisin BBQ sauce and a sauce similar to Thai chili sauce was a perfect, sweet, tangy, and delicious way to complement the starchy plantain. It also reminded me of how, as a kid (and now), I would love to mash my brown rice with tons of butter, bean sprouts, and a soy sauce, green onion, sushi vinegar, sesame oil, lemon juice, garlic, and red chili flake sauce (at least, that's what I think went into it--I should ask my mom about that). A real throwback to my childhood.

And of course, to finish off our Chicago trip, we had to get some Soft Serve with Bacon Chocolate Chip. The ice cream was classic--creamy, sweet, and smooth. The bacon sprinkle was fun, but I was kind of hoping for a larger, saltier portion of the stuff. The chocolate chip cookie chunks were a little hard, but I liked how the brittle chunks added some great texture to the dessert. Still, I wonder what the dessert would have tasted like with freshly-baked, soft chocolate chip cookies and chunks of crispy, salty maple-glazed bacon.

All in all, I'm a fan of what Bill Kim has to add to what sometimes seems like an over-saturated food trend. Belly Shack was a great, comforting way to round out a crash course in Chicago's food scene and to hobble onto a plane in the cold weather back to Seattle--happy, inspired, and satisfied.

Belly Shack
1912 N Western Ave
Chicago, IL 60647
(773) 252-1414

GET: Hot & Sour Soup; Edamame; Brussel Sprouts & Chorizo; Boricua with Marinated Beef.
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