Things I Love: Chinese Greens

February 28, 2014

Real pea leaves
Had dinner with my cousin last night, and when he saw "sauteed pea greens" on the menu he asked if I knew what they were.  

It stopped me cold.  I've been eating dou miao  in Chinese restaurants for years – they're one of my favorite greens – but I hadn't paid attention to their slow creep out of Chinatown onto American menus. Suddenly I'm seeing them everywhere.

"They're so sweet!" my cousin said when I gave him a taste.  "Do you know where I could buy some?"

"Any Chinatown," I told him.  And then – because I couldn't help myself – I suggested that while he was there he might want to stock up on other interesting vegetables as well.  In the best stores mountains of choys fold into long beans and winter melons. There might be four kinds of chives, and yam, pepper and scarlet-freckled amaranth greens share a cooler with purple perilla. 

Here are a few favorites.

Chinese Celery

Chinese celery

Identifiable by its thin stalks and flat, bushy leaves, Chinese celery is a punchier, sweeter cousin to the more widely available western variety. It tends to be a little less fibrous. It’s an ideal stir fry companion, especially when paired with a contrasting texture like smoked, pressed or dried tofu, bean sprouts, or barely cooked sliced chili.  I like it cut into 2-3 inch pieces, quickly blanched and then stir fried in peanut oil with smoked bean curd, thinly sliced chili, and a splash of light soy sauce. It can be served hot or cold.

And don't discard the leaves, which taste like celery. They make a great substitute for parsley.

Tatsoi/Spoon Cabbage



Takecai in Chinese. Tatsoi is easily distinguished by its almost cartoonish curved leaf edges and its shiny dark green color. Like other mustards, it’s got a nice zip when eaten raw. Cooked, its stems are milder; they taste like bok choy—mushroomy, a little funky. Tatsoi has a reputation for being easy to grow, which explains why it has overrun NY's farmers markets.

Not complaining. 

How to buy and cook pea leaves.

These sweet little leaves are suddenly everywhere, although the hydroponically grown variety in some supermarkets can be bland and disappointing.  The ones in Asian markets are more robust, but avoid those with even the slightest yellowing in the leaves. Don't buy the bunches overrun with curlycue tendrils either: they will be bitter.

Pea leaves are perfect cooked like spinach: quickly (to preserve their sweetness), in a relatively hot pan in neutral oil, with a little garlic. And if you throw some leaves into a spicy soup at the very last minute, their cooling quality contributes a nice balance.  

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Notes from L.A.: The Meat Palace

February 27, 2014


Chi Spacca

See that innocent looking little dome in the right hand corner of the plate?  It might be the most delicious thing I've ever eaten, 'njuda,  a soft little pile of pleasure that has the texture of pudding and the bite of spicy salami.  Piled onto grilled bread, it's just one of the joys of eating at this palace of meat.

There is also this, 


a platter of Chef Chad Colby's cured meats. Colby's obsession with cured meats is famous in the food world, and from his very fine salami to the culatello to that little hockey puck of boned, fried trotter, it's all wonderful stuff. The glass jar?  That, of course, is nothing but deliciously whipped lardo.


Then on to the main events…..


The "tomahawk"  is a huge hunk of pork (42 ounces, to be exact), easily enough to feed four. What I like best is the way the kitchen coddles the bones. After slicing off fat trenchers of meat they dust the bones with fennel pollan and spices and give them another blast of heat. What you end up with is the crustiest, richest, most delicious bone I've ever gnawed on.

There's also this,


A triple rack of tender veal that's been rubbed with porcini powder and roasted to a turn.  You could also choose huge slabs of gorgeously aged beef or bone marrow pie so rich it cold probably feed a family for a week. 

Dessert?  There's this tiramisu, soaked in enough booze to make you reconsider driving yourself home. Tiramisu

But if you want my advice, you'll turn the meal on its head and end with the focaccia di Recco. Meant to be eaten at the beginning of the meal, this crisp, savory cheese-filled tart seems to me the perfect way to end. The ethereal concoction is a fine counterpoint to all that meat; it's so light it seems to simply float right off the plate. 


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Notes from LA: Tacos, Take 3

February 24, 2014


Tacos Guisados looks like a little shack on a frantic stretch of Sunset Boulevard in Echo Park.  Perched on stools outside, diners watch cooks crafting tortillas, scooping freshly mixed nixtamal out of a big bowl and expertly patting them into small rough circles.

If you walk out back, however, you find an umbrella-shaded patio. Water splashes in a fountain. Birds sing. It’s hard to think of a nicer place to eat a good lunch for less than $5. No wonder the place is packed with hipsters. 

This is the new L.A., where tacos have their avid followers, and little taco stands proudly serve Stumptown coffee.  

It’s the tortillas that set these particular tacos apart. Freshly made, they have a sturdy corn-rich character that transforms whatever's put on top.  That might be anything, from these crisply grilled shrimp in a spill of sauteed chiles and onions…..



….to fine black beans, set off by little frisks of queso fresco….


…to this stewed pork in a deeply satisfying chile verde sauce.


And then, of course, there is the wicked version at the top. When I ordered the taco de chiles torreados the woman behind the counter eyed me narrowly.  "You sure?" she asked.

I nodded.

She shrugged. She rang it up.

The taco, filled with a large variety of blistered chiles, might be the single hottest dish I've ever eaten.

You have been warned.


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Notes from LA: Chengdu Taste

February 22, 2014

Chengdu Taste in Alhambra

Went again.  I love this little restaurant so much that I just can't stay away. There are so many flavors here I find myself thinking about, craving. 


Cold noodles with garlic sauce. Sprightly, springy noodles with an uneven texture and an elastic nature. The sauce is spicy, but not truly hot.


 Mung bean noodles. Fascinating how the soft texture of these transparent noodles makes for an entirely different eating experience. 



Sichuan Spring Vegetable. Looks like celery. Tastes like…. the closest I can come is chayote with a college education.  It’s soft, with a certain integrity, and it soaks up the spices in a wonderful way. 


Numb-taste dumplings.  If you’re curious about ma-la – the elusively sneaky heat of Sichuan peppercorns – this is the place to try it.  These dumplings have a heat very different than that of chiles.  The entire front of your mouth literally goes numb.  It’s an endlessly appealing sensation.



Toothpick lamb. Tiny squiggles of lamb encrusted in cumin and peppers until the spice seems a natural part of the meat. I couldn't help imagining that the animals spent their entire lives feasting on a field of cumin.


  Ma 2

Ma Po Tofu: Very much like the version of this classic dish that I had in China (although it lacks the inch of oil floating on the top).  



Sauteed potatoes: Crisply wok-tossed with cumin, this is like an intriguing Chinese version of scalloped potatoes



Sauteed lettuce. All I can say is: why have I never done this with lettuce?  Completely irresistible. 


 Eggplant. Soft. Rich. Spicy. Mysterious. 



Chengdu fried rice.  Light. Lovely. With little frisks of cured ham.


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Notes from LA: The Factory Kitchen

February 20, 2014

Driving to Factory Kitchen you have to go slowly to avoid hitting the street people. They wander into your path, wheeling their heaped grocery carts with aggressive intent: these streets belong to them. In the inky blackness of the night, the bright, buzzy room beckons like an oasis, Inside, people look at each other knowingly; how smart of us to have found this charming room, this wonderful Italian food. 

To begin. Starters include this rather brilliant beet casserole, a gluten-free lasagna of sorts, layered beets with melted asiago cheese.


And this crisp ballon of fried sage dough topped with proscuitto:


But the most-talked about dish is this focaccina di Recco, a fantastic concoction of crisp dough and crescenza cheese.  The first time I had it I fell in love. Then I went to Chi Spacca and had their version which is so much crisper and lighter that it has, I think, forever ruined the dish for me anywhere else.



Pastas here are superb. The signature dish, mandilli, is a huge handkerchief of pasta, as ethereal as butterfly wings, in a light basil sauce. Don't miss it.


The other not to be missed dish is casonzei, tiny packets of sausage topped with crisply fried sage, in a brown butter sauce.


Porchetta here are salty, fennel-dusted slices of pig. Roasted to a crisp, it arrives in fat, sassy, satisfying slices.  


You could go on to dessert – the cannoli are very good. But personally, I'd just have another order of mandili.  Or perhaps some more peperu, tiny sweet and sour peppers stuffed with cheese. Each one is a single bite that leaves your mouth buzzing with flavor. Ours got gobbled up so fast I never got to take a picture.

One more excuse to go back.

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