Friday, August 5, 2011

Snapshot: Crocodile Menu

My friend Frank, a former monk, sent me this snapshot from Singapore. It was included alongside other photos inside Orchard Towers, which are decidedly less appropriate and not really in keeping with Buddhist tradition, wink wink.


I dunno dude, I'm kind of partial to free-range.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Intestine

Unless you're a vegetarian, you've probably eaten intestines at some point in your life without even realizing it. Due to the cheap nature and availability of this offal, it is cooked around the world, often as a casing for meats and liquids, or a combination thereof. You might also know this as sausage, though these days the submucosa of the intestinal casing is sometimes substituted for a synthetic collagen-like material. For all intents and purposes of this post we're talking about pig intestine, which is still used for sausage casing, just not as commonly as its bovine counterpart. The United States doesn't find much culinary use for intestines outside of sausage, but other countries, such as Korea, like them to play the starring role in their cuisine.

I first had Korean BBQ when I was a teenager in Japan and had never even heard of it. I sat down with my host family on the first night I met them ("Americans all drink beer, right? You want a beer?" "Um...yes, we do. Starting when we're 15. Two please.") and had one of the best meals of my life. Since then, I've been hooked.

The Korean BBQ joint Honey Pig is awesome. And not just kind of awesome. Spinal Tap wailing on your guitar at 11 awesome. It's open in two locations in northern Virginia (Annandale, which is essentially Koreatown, and Centreville, which isn't far off). It's open 24/7 and is usually packed with people around the clock, though I have oddly never had to wait more than a few minutes. The food is good, the BBQ is cooked on a grill at your table, and you leave reeking to high hell of cooked meat. I wouldn't take a date there expecting a romantic evening or anything, but you'll leave with your belly content. And if you're having trouble reading the Honey Pig link, it's probably because you're not fluent in Korean. I would link to a menu written in English, but the one I found online is pretty much, well, not actually what they serve.

Because I don't want to sound like a complete ass (or more so than I usually do), I'm going to leave out trying to type in a Korean accent.

Waitress: Hi! What would you like?
Me: Three orders of dumplings and-
Her: WHAT?!
Me: Three orders of dumplings...?
Her: You can't have three orders of dumplings!
Me: Why?
Her: Too much! (Insert spherical Bilbo Baggins stomach emulation by her here)
Me: ...and an order of...coughbeefintestinescough
Her: Uhsaywhat?
Me: Beef...intestines?
Her: (hands on hips) You want beef intestines?!?! (laugh) Okay, sassy boy!

She takes the order to the open kitchen in the back where I hear some incredulous "eh?!"s followed by rapid fire Korean, guffaws, and staff unabashedly pointing at me. I guess I forgot to mention I was the only Caucasian there. I'd been before a few times, but never gotten the intestines, which apparently few people do.

The intestines come looking downright foul before they hit the grill. Like something gloopy out of a pig's stomach, for instance. Wild, I know. I didn't stop her to ask if I could get a good whiff, but with the marinade the dish was swimming in I doubt it would have mattered.

Don't mind the empty chair in the background. I said the place was packed and it's my blog, so there.

The intestine was placed on the grill and curled almost delicately with tongs by the waitress into pleasant little curlicues. Pretty much instantly a grayish, foaming substances came out of the tubes, and this is when I realized that the offal perhaps hasn't been cleaned to its maximum potential. Strangely enough, the thought of what might be in there turned my stomach even more than eating testicles. But then the smell of smoky goodness enveloped me (or the smoldering mushroom cloud coming from the grill), and I knew I was in for a treat. That, and the grill is placed with grooves at an angle, so all the bad "stuff" (hopefully) found its way out.

The meat was turned a few more times and nicely seared, then it was chopped and additional marinade was added along with jalapenos and garlic. Let me just say there must be some sort of garlic surplus in northern Virginia, because damn, son. Remember what I said about not taking a date to get Korean BBQ? You've been forewarned.

Tic Tac, sir?

In the tradition of Korean ssam, you take some leafy lettuce, some rice, jalapenos and raw/grilled garlic if you're feeling brave, and whatever banchan, or sides like kimchi, you want to add. It's kind of like assembling your own Korean taco. This process is similar for most dishes there and for Korean BBQ in general.

The intestine wrap was chewy--though less so than I thought it would be--but tasty. I can tell that without the savory marinade and sides, it would be nearly flavorless on its own. I've nearly run the gamut on the menu at Korean BBQ restaurants, with the spicy pork, kalbi, and bulgogi bing my favorites, but it's all good.

I'd suggest washing your meat-scented clothes ASAP or risk receiving a "friendly greeting" by your dog at the door.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Balut (Egg)

This Superbowl Sunday wasn't exactly the typical spread of pizza and chicken wings. John and Tina, a Vietnamese couple, had people over to their new apartment for a seafood extravaganza with snow crab legs, blue crabs, clams, shrimp, and pho. I'm gingerly typing this entry out as I nurse the nicks and cuts on my fingertips, souvenirs from crustaceans determined to pinch even from the grave.

Tina is hard to explain. She's diminutive and cute, and could probably play Tinkerbell in a Vietnamese version of Peter Pan, which is undoubtedly why people call her "Tinabelle."

(Tina cartwheels into the TV room and taps me 46 times.)
Tina: "Dude, you want an egg?"
Me: "Uh...okay?"
Tina: "It's not a normal egg...it's like an embryo."
Me (swoon): "You had me at embryo. What's it called?"
Tina: "I only know what it is in, like, Vietnamese. Whatever. I'm making you one."
(Tina skips into the kitchen, her three-pound rat dog, Yappie, following at her heels.)

I'd heard of balut before, but I'd never seen it in person. Balut is the fertilized egg of a duck or chicken that has reached the embryonic stage but is not yet fully developed. As far as I know, it is not often eaten outside of Southeast Asia (maybe because it's a frickin' embryo), though in areas like Vietnam and the Philippines, balut is enjoyed as an everyday snack. Age is a factor in taste; usually the egg is considered ideal at 17-20 (or more) days after fertilization. Understandably, prenatal foods make Americans squeamish, so I consider myself lucky to find uncooked balut, especially when I wasn't even seeking it out.


(Just a 26-year-old man using a Mr. Eggy baby spoon. NBD.)

The preparation is difficult, but bear with me: boil the egg and serve it piping hot.

True to the cuisine, I ate the egg with a squeeze of lemon, chili sauce, Vietnamese coriander, and salt and pepper.

Strangely enough, balut tastes like...wait for it...an egg! Or, to be more precise, an undercooked egg with some decidedly strange textures. First, there's a little grayish liquid swimming atop, which is to be sipped. What I can only assume are the boiled remains of the chick-to-be rest in the middle of the shell, with the taste of a pungent egg (and maybe a little chicken) and the texture of undercooked scrambled eggs with some sea urchin to boot. There is an off-putting crunch akin to crab lungs, which I came to learn is the underdeveloped cartilage of the duckling. There is also some cooked yolk with thick, maroon veins. Finally, at the bottom, there are some rubbery white leftovers, the texture of a wet racquetball and about as flavorful. The smell is a little on the sulfurous side, though not putrescent the way I'd heard people describe it before.

The chili sauce, citrus, and seasoning are certainly welcome complements to the balut, though the Vietnamese coriander I could do without. Of the small percentage of people who don't like cilantro, a figure in which I do not include myself, the most common complaint is that it carries a "soapy" taste and smell (the cause of which is oddly still a mostly a mystery), which I found prominently in the Vietnamese cousin of the herb. An amusing side note about Vietnamese cilantro is that both my hosts were quick to tell me not to eat too much, as it "makes you a scrub (John)" and "makes your ding-dong not work (Tina)." A quick Wikipedia search revealed that Vietnamese cilantro "is used to repress sexual urges," though I feel like if you're eating duck embryos you probably don't need to much help keeping it in your pants.

In closi--what's that? Balut's an aphrodisiac? Oh, okay. Well, so are jackal bile, skink, ambergris, and seal penis, but I think I'm going to pass on eating them with any sort of regularity. Call me crazy, but there are certain foods that just don't do it for me. And while I'd eat it again, I can throw balut in that category without too much hesitation.

Monday, January 31, 2011

Caviar

As a child, I remember thinking that caviar (and only of beluga variety) was something that high rollers stacked on blinis and creme fraiche with tiny spoons as they discussed shady illegal arms deals in thick accents, scantily-clad Slavic floozies lounging in the background. In retrospect, this Albert Broccoli-esque belief was a little presumptuous, as there are many different types of caviar out there that range wildly in price, type, color, size-you get the idea.

Caviar is salted fish eggs, and while though those from sturgeon are considered to be the real McCoy, there are plenty of alternatives such as salmon, whitefish, and trout. There are four types: Beluga, Sterlet, Ossetra, and Sevruga, ranking in quality of the order listed. Traditionally Russian and Iranian brands are considered to be the finest, though in my opinion it's kind of like wine: you like what you like and hope that it hasn't gone bad. Growing up, my family usually served it with some sort of cream spread, crackers, and chives or scallions, but I've seen many different uses ranging from sushi, atop soft-boiled eggs, paired with a baguette, and as a complement to other seafood. Mostly, the bold (and often expensive) nature of caviar lends itself to being eaten and enjoyed without much outside influence.

To celebrate the birthday of Boris Spassky, aka Gospodin Ducklips, I thought a little caviar and Stoli Gold would be in order this Saturday. Not really--I had no idea who Boris Spassky is until I just Googled "Russian birthday January 30th," but there was a Stevia-sweet deal. In hopes of savoring and interpreting the true nature of the caviar, I decided to it best to enjoy with only crackers or a baguette.

There will be no snickering as to the prominence of my fivehead, or its vascularity.

Reviews:

Red: As I have typically thought, the red varietal of salmon roe is too salty for my likes by itself. It pairs much better with creme fraiche, sour cream, cream cheese, or butter and a baguette. The large nature of the egg lends itself to something of a pop when bitten into.

Yellow/Orange: From the whitefish, the yellow/gold caviar is quite tasty. Smaller than its sanguine counterpart, it is also less salty. Best, in my opinion, with butter and a baguette.

Black: The good stuff from a sturgeon, these tiny black beads are the least salty, most savory, and also most enjoyable. Though they're excellent with all sorts of pairings, a tiny dollop of creme fraiche and a blini are the ideal transport to your mouth. Maybe the James Bond villains had it right.

I've got some caribou in the freezer and Charlemagne (whom you may remember from the Beef Tongue entry) just got a sausage grinder, so look forward to that coming up.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Shark

Did you hear about the sharks that were recently caught in the Potomac River? Yeah, I had nothing to do with that. However, I used to row on the Potomac, and I figure it's my civic duty to eat sustainable foods.

In pretty much any habitat you can find sharks, there are people eating them. Obviously coastal regions tend to have a much higher presence of shark activity, which is why you see plenty of them in Japan, Australia, China, and Scandinavian countries. One particularly noteworthy dish from Iceland is h√°karl, which is shark that has been pressed and fermented under sand, gravel, and stone for up to three months, then hung to cure for an additional five more. H√°karl has really made the rounds with celebrity chefs: Anthony Bourdain described it as "the single worst, most disgusting and terrible tasting thing" he had ever eaten; upon trying it, Gordon Ramsey spewed out a Technicolor yawn; and for a guy whom I've seen relish raw testicles with hedonistic abandon and orgasmic moans, Andrew Zimmern sure had trouble getting past the ammonia smell. Luckily, as I was cooking for the masses, I decided to forgo the extensive process of fermented, cured shark, and go for something a little more crowd-friendly.

I got two pounds of shark, which was cut extremely thick, pink, muscled, and no ammonia or fish smell. This is how you want your shark. Because I was cooking at a friend's home and not my own kitchen, I didn't have anything but an iPhone, so work with me. The picture comes a little later.

Baked Shark with Shiso Pesto & Tomato-Watermelon Salad

Shark

2 lbs shark, portioned into six 6 oz. steaks
2 T butter
kosher salt and fresh cracked black pepper, to taste

Preheat the oven to 425. The rule of thumb with fish tends to be 10 minutes per inch, so do the math based off of the shark's thickness. Season the steaks liberally, then dot each piece with some butter. Add any remaining butter to the bottom of the pan, then put in shark in the oven for the time calculated.

Pesto

1 bunch basil (about 1 1/2 C)
1/2 amount of basil in shiso (perilla) leaves (optional, otherwise use an additional 1/2 C basil)
1/4 C pine nuts, toasted
1/2 C Parmesan cheese, grated
2/3 C extra-virgin olive oil (or more, as needed)
1 clove garlic
kosher salt and fresh cracked black pepper, to taste

Toast the pine nuts, then combine the remaining dry ingredients in a blender or food processor, slowly adding the oil until you've reached the desired consistency.

Salad

2 red tomatoes, small diced
1 yellow tomato, small diced
1 C watermelon, small diced
1/2 C of basil and mint, chiffonade
2 avocado, small diced
1/2 C feta cheese, crumbled
1/4 C white balsamic vinegar
1/4 C extra-virgin olive oil
kosher salt and fresh cracked black pepper, to taste

Combine all the ingredients well, adjusting for taste and seasoning.



This was a massive hit. Each element is delicious by itself or, as I quickly proved, scrambled together in a hodgepodge eyesore. My brother, Billy Bob, and I have been making the watermelon-tomato salad (or some version thereof) for years now. It really is the most mouthwatering, fresh summer accompaniment you could dream for. Shark has the sort of quality you'd expect from seabass: firm and mostly tasteless, but nonetheless adopts the characteristics of whatever it's served with. Typically I sear fish before I pop it in the oven, but because I was in an unfamiliar kitchen, I decided to keep it simple and not worry about it. Due to the long cooking time, the shark was able to attain the desirable crust in the oven anyway. You can't tell, but there's a sizable pile of grilled zucchini underneath the shark and salad in that picture, which I would highly recommend, as it adds sweet-savory crunch and smoky char to the dish. What brought it all together was the pesto. In case you don't know, shiso (common in sushi bars, but you might know it by "perilla") is a herbaceous leaf that is minty with a light anise note. This cornucopia in a bowl turns messy pretty quickly, but each element is terrific on its own or scrambled together.

Shark seems like a good, meaty fish that will adopt the characteristics of the ingredients you serve it with. I highly recommend it.