Thursday, February 26, 2009

Saguaro Greetings from Tucson!

I've ditched the dumpling research in search of a warmer climate and was treated to a plane ticket to come out to Tucson and visit my sister-by-another-mother, Ilene and her fantastic husband, Greg. I arrived late last night, about 2am on my East Coast body clock and was greeted by Ilene, Greg and Arrow, the smiling stray dog they found last year. He dutifully poked his head out the window as we drove into town and kept stepping on the window control and opening the window wider to get his whole body out there and bark at whatever was hiding in the cactus.

This morning I woke up to the cooing and calling of desert birds, morning doves and hooting owls and dogs greeting each other for the day and was dropped off on 4th Avenue, the main drag just outside of "downtown" Tucson. There's a thriving coffee house scene here at Epic Cafe, I'm surrounded by folks taking their time, reading the paper, talking politics, spirituality and economics, web surfing and just being neighborly. People here are actually talking to each other! It's refreshing. Especially watching the regulars greet each other and jump in conversation. Living in New York, I haven't found an atmosphere like this and I'm not sure it exists outside of small towns. If you're reading this and you've found one, let me know!

As far as the food goes, I've been pretty minimal since I'm kind of hanging out there absorbing time and not really here to eat. The dessert case at the front of the store looks pretty enticing though and has lots of friendly looking cakes and pies, vegan scones and raw food bars. I tasted the Hungarian Mushroom Soup (which oddly enough I made on set this week) and it was a little more watery and had more paprika than my version but it was very tasty just the same. The small salad I had was also very satisfying with a little feta, cucumbers, tomatoes, onions and home-made looking flatbread and a balsamic vinagrette.

I'm on my way out of here after four hours and as many cups of mint tea and explore the rest of 4th Avenue.

I found some amazing vintage Mexican tops, dresses and fantastic cowboy boots in thrift stores down the street and a store that sells seeds and items made from plants that are native to the desert ecosystem. There's an art gallery that sells work made by local homeless artists and artists (hopefully with homes) in the area and around the corner on the way to downtown, there's a few larger art galleries on the way to the warehouse district with incredible work from modern artists. I meandered my way to the heart of the business district and sat in the beautiful park outside of the Moorish dome of the Pima County Court House and enjoyed the sun.

At then end of the day, Greg and Ilene and I had drinks outside on the patio of the Hotel Congress, known for great rock shows these days and it's gangster harboring history.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Prosperity Dumpling

This dumpling thing is really getting a little out of control but I'm not working now anyway so it's fun to have a hobby. I just have to make sure I don't turn into one!

Yesterday I met up with my friend Robyn on the very Lower East Side to check out Prosperity Dumpling. It was listed on NYMag's Cheap Eats and I wanted to see how good it could be for $1.00.

I got a little lost coming off the B train at Grand and finally got my bearings. It was freezing out and I trudged over to Eldridge Street amidst the chaos of Grand Street, full of fish markets, pungent and shiny with gleaming fresh fish, wriggling lobsters and dancing crabs. Eventually I found the little yellow brimmed storefront at 46 Eldridge and pushed my way in.

There were three pre-teen Asian American kids in there, goofing around and eating soup and dumplings. It was about 3pm and I was pretty hungry so I got the Pork and Chive Pan Fried Dumplings, 5 for a $1.oo and the Pork Dumpling Soup for a $1 while I waited for Robyn. She got lost too and I ordered her the Steamed Vegetable Dumplings while I dove into the pork dumplings. They were a bit disappointing... The texture was great but the taste was lacking, the pork tasted of old freezer burn and mothballs and I wound up burping them up until late in the evening as a gross reminder. The soup was better, the dumplings in there were plump and tasty and the broth was accented by ribbons of green seaweed.

Robyn's Vegetable Dumplings were the best choice, full of green vegetables and carrots, they were delicious and even though they scalded her mouth, she grinned all the way through the pain!

By the time she got there, the place was full of pint sized kids, snacking on dumplings, chattering and teasing each other in Chinese and English. At one point a delivery came in bearing oil and supplies for more dumplings and more cold air and I laughed trying to figure out how it was going to get through the crowd and I had to hold my stool up to let it in the kitchen, after which we quickly high tailed it out of there.

Up the street at 69A, we found a much quieter, warmer dumpling environment run by a sweet little woman who didn't speak much English but took our order through sign language and menu pointing. We liked her cloth sleeve protectors, I'd like something like that while working but couldn't figure out how to ask where she got them.

I got some more Pork and Chive Dumplings for the sake of comparison and Robyn got more Vegetable Dumplings. The Pork and Chive were much better here, still 5 for a $1 but Robyn didn't like the doughiness of her Vegetable dumplings, 6 for $2.50, they were filled with rice noodles and mushrooms, which she's not a big fan of. We also shared a scallion pancake, which was a little greasy and not very tasty but somehow satisfying anyway. It was light and flakey and not too heavy once we soaked up the grease with a napkin.

There were several ladies in the back, making pan sheets full of dumplings by scooping out the ingredients with a knife from plates piled high with a mountain of ground pork and vegetables and then pressing them onto half of a dough circle and sealing them with their fingers into plump packages. I wanted to take a photo but didn’t want to freak them out so we moved on.

We wound up going in and out of shops like visitors in a foreign country, it was fun to see the toys and kitchen supplies and try to figure out what certain mysterious objects were used for. My feet were freezing and all I wanted was a warm place to sit and defrost but it wasn’t forthcoming. We found ourselves in a bakery, drawn in by a beatific guy grinning from ear to ear, chomping down an Asian version of a glazed donut and talking about NY and the Art scene and trying to figure out what he was on because he seemed a little too far out of orbit for a sober person. Eventually we parted ways, she had to go give a massage and I had to get home to defrost my feet and take a nap from all the dumplings!

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Rickshaw Dumpling Bar

I was so excited when I read that Anita Lo of Annisa was going to partner in Rickshaw Dumpling Bar which opened in 2005 across from the Institute for Culinary Education at 61 W. 23rd Street between 5th and 6th Avenues.

Pan fried or steamed, these little treasures give a culinary bang for the buck, and even though they could be found cheaper in Chinatown, for their location and convenience, they are right on the money. I'm usually there in an off hour so I haven't seen the turn around time at a lunch time rush but from the moment I order at the simple chrome counter, my little dumplings are ready in less than two minutes at the pick up bar around the corner. It's ridiculously easy, fast and delicious.

The menu is printed in giant, simple graphics, they offer six kinds of dumplings;
  • Classic Pork and Chinese Chive (my favorite with cabbage, ginger and scallion and a soy-sesame dipping sauce)
  • Chicken and Thai Basil (a runner up favorite with lemongrass, glass noodles and carrot served with a spicy peanut dipping sauce)
  • Szechuan Chicken (with chili and white soy bean, I must admit, I haven't tried it yet)
  • Hudson Valley Peking Duck (with shredded cabbage and scallion served with a hoisin dipping sauce)
  • Shrimp (with sweet jicama, scallion and a wasabi miso dipping sauce)
  • And a vegetarian option, Edamame (filled with lemon, scallion stuffed in a whole wheat wrapper and a lemon sansho dipping sauce).

Each of these little lovelies can be ordered on their own in portions of 6 of a kind for $5.50 or 9 of a kind for $7.75 or you can pair them with an Asian Green Salad or have them served in a Noodle Soup for an additional $3.38 for a small or $5.95 for a large.

There are several heart healthy sides that can be ordered as well, Chili Sesame Noodle Salad, Cucumber and Jicama Sticks, Miso Mini Soup, Jasmine Rice, Chilled Edamame and a Dumpling Shot (don't know what this is yet, stay tuned.) On top of all of this, the chicken they use is naturally raised Bell & Evans and the Duck is from the Hudson Valley and they use organic ingredients whenever they can, I can give kudos for that!

Last night I had a scant 15 minutes to dine and dash before a Culinary History Primer class at the I.C.E. so I opted for my standby of the Classic Pork and Scallion. Knowing from experience the six of a kind would leave me wanting, I went for the larger load of 9.

My only complaint is that you can't mix and match dumplings, I'd love to try a medley and have asked several times, apparently I'm not the only one, so a girl can hope that an option is coming soon...

My meal last night was no disappointment even though I have to admit, I gobbled them down in an unhealthy 6 minutes due to my class time, I enjoyed them thoroughly and my fellow diners seemed a little wary when I did a little happy dumpling dance as I popped the last baby in.

Luckily for me, I checked my Facebook updates while I was cramming in my dinner, (lucky they're small) and saw Maureen's recommendation that I try the Chocolate Soup Dumpling for dessert. Now, even though I'm a very sweet person, I go for savory foods and don't usually eat dessert but I have to admit, the Warm Chocolate Shangai Soup Dumpling caught my eye when I ordered my dinner and with Maureen's recommendation, I had to get it, I felt it was a sign from above. I'm glad I did because the moment I took my first bite, yeah, I was in Heaven...

When I ordered it, the sweet girl at the counter said, "Just one?" almost curiously and I answered "Yes?" with an equal question mark.

Seconds later, as it was handed to me, warm and comforting in a cellophane sack with a sticker, I might have begun to understand her questioning intonation, and after I bit into the deep fried round mochi dumpling covered in black sesame seeds and filled with oozing dark chocolate, I definitely understood! I savored that little ball of happiness for longer than than my meal, a little sad about ending the experience too soon.

As I went up to sign in for my class, I crowed about them and for the next two hours, obsessed about another. Yeah, when you look up the word "glutton" in the dictionary, there's a picture of me, (also under the word "gullible" but that's another story). As soon as I left my class, I dashed across the street for another and my friend at the registered smiled, she knew I had gotten the answer to the question!

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Momofuku Ssam

Last night I ventured out of my warm, cozy apartment into the slushy, snowy aftermath of an all day snow-day and popped into a fortune of a cab ride down to the semi-Lower East side to meet up with my two friends Lauren and Cristine at Momofuku Ssam. The cab driver was a guy named Mohammed and he was eating the most delicious smelling meal of noodles and stir fried vegetables he'd just prepared at home before his shift, we talked about food and favorite places to shop in the city. He lives in Jackson Heights and said the produce out there was great and he stocks up and stores things in the freezer for meals before work. I think he got a little shy about eating in front of me after I asked him to show me what he was eating and I swear he tucked his Tupperware in the glove compartment! I thought it was rather ingenious, and funny, maybe it keeps it warmer in there!

After crawling down 5th Avenue and sludging through Union Square, we made it over to 13th Street and Second Avenue to Momofuku Ssam, an innocuous and sleek, corner spot with no visible signage. Even as early as we were at seven pm on the beastly Tuesday night that it was, most of the tables were full but we didn't have to wait when our third showed up and we could be seated. I was excited to share this experience with Lauren and Cristine who hadn't eaten there yet and couldn't wait for their reactions. I love turning friends on to good food!

We started with a bottle of the house sake, the Momofuku "Private Label" Honjozo, moderately priced at $44 a bottle, it was clean and refreshing and a nice accompaniment to the rest of the meal.

The menu features Local / Seasonal small dishes and Artisinally raised foods and at my request, we started with the Steamed Buns, small slabs of fat rimmed pork belly, resting on a bed of hoisin sauce, with tiny cucumbers and scallions, it's one of my favorite dishes (even though it's not a dumpling, but the pillowy, doughy bun is a great stand in) and we shared the two by halving them and then all got a good bite out of the remaining quarter.

Our next dish was the Satur Farm's Fried Brussels Sprouts. These were definitely not the stuff of scarred memories of stinky boiled baby cabbages and I swear if I could, I would have curled up in the cradle shaped dish they came in and been quite happy. They are fried but not greasy, a culinary feat, making them almost melt in your mouth but still have a pleasing texture and are intermingled with a surprising addition of mint, and the more predictable, but still welcome, scallions and a light fish sauce vinaigrette.

We wound up ordering all three of the Local/Seasonal small plates, in addition to the Brussels sprouts, the other two were the Charred Squid, easily chewed and tender to the bite, tossed with ginger, scallion, mizuna and gorgeous paper thin wafers of watermelon radish and the Honeycrisp Apple Kimchi - a few sections of the sweet and tart HoneyCrisp apples, seasoned with spicy kimchi seasoning and served in a small pool of light maple labne yogurt sauce, a few crisped strips of Burger's smoked jowl bacon on the side and a smattering of tangy Arugula to round out the palate.

Approaching saturation but still enjoying the symphony of flavors, we ordered the Spicy Pork Sausage and Rice Cakes, a stir fry of pork sausage, spicy red peppers (we were warned to put aside) and tiny little marshmallow like rice cakes with chopped Chinese Broccoli, crispy shallots and enough heat to make Lauren and Cristine order an Anchor Steam to put out the fire. We finished with a shared piece of the Blondie Pie, a solid piece of sweetness with a dense butter crust and cashews mingled in the Blondie and fought over giving the last bite to Cristine, who demurred graciously then wisely changed her mind and gobbled it up.

I would have licked all the plates but didn't want to embarrass my friends...

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Excellent Dumpling House

Now that I'm back to doing Craft Services on TV commercials, (now known as Client Services, so spiffy) and working on a freelance basis, I have plenty of time to wander about my great city and eat like a tourist that knows what the locals know.

Yesterday I found myself down in Chinatown and after a pilgrimage to Pearl River Imports to buy a tea strainer, a present for my friend in Arizona and a rice paper globe for my bathroom, I decided to visit my favorite Chinese acupuncturist on Lafayette Street to fix my faulty left foot. Nick from Olive's on Prince Street recommended him to me because he helped cure Nick's Plantar Fascitis and that was a good enough reference for me! The waiting room was packed so I ducked out to get some cash and found myself standing in front of Excellent Dumpling House, one of my favorite places to dine during the obligatory jury duty that rears it's civic head every few years. As my friend Vera said, it's appropriately named and I have to agree. I am a big fan of dumplings, they are one of my favorite foods and words (next to the word Pie), bringing to mind dough wrapped treasures, soft, tasty and delightful, mmmm!

I pushed in and at 1:30pm, the place was totally packed. I was seated at the communal table in the back, I like the communal table, it opens up the possibility of meeting new people, which, when I've got the time, I like to hear about other people's stories and lives... Instead of my dumplings, I broke tradition and found myself ordering a soup I'd seen a woman eating when I walked in. It was full of bok choy, (my second favorite food,) and tasty slivers of chicken and wonderful long noodles nestled in a chicken broth with enough garlic to ward off the nastiest cold due to the vacillating weather we've been having lately. To my right a woman was engrossed in a book and looked loathe to interrupt it with conversation but gave a recommendation for it, Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh , she said it was so good she wished she could stay home all day reading it, I love a good book like that! Across from me was a woman dressed in various shades of blue and furious with the waiter for bringing her a dish she thought was going to be something different. It turned out to be the Soup Dumplings which are named rather misleadingly, instead of being mixed dumplings in soup, they're dumplings filled with soup. She was game to try it and seemed pretty satisfied but ordered the scallion pancakes to assuage her fury and seemed subdued by the combination. She shared the scallion pancakes with the woman on my left (apparently this was not a place to pick up a member of the opposite sex) who was waiting for an appointment at the Courthouse at 2:30. We wound up talking long after the others had left and she was a delightful dining companion. It was her first time at the Excellent Dumpling House and she ordered a feast of the lunch special which came with a fried wonton made with vegetables and cream cheese (I had major appetizer envy over that one but decided an order of five would be a bit self indulgent) and some sort of chicken with mixed vegetables and an order of vegetable dumplings which she, in turn, shared with me! We talked about how dumplings cross many cultural barriers and she told me to call her to come make a Dominican version of fried dumplings which sounded delicious too! (Fried anything sounds pretty health threatening but delicious anyway!)

With all this dumpling mania, I think I will begin a quest to find and make as many different cultural dumplings as possible. I'm up for the challenge and welcome any recipes or input that come my way! Last week on a shoot for Calvin Klein's Euphoria perfume, I made a fantastic pork and scallion dumpling from a recipe I found online and altered because I didn't have all the called for ingredients. Here it is with my changes:

Scallion and Pork Dumplings

1/2 lb fatty ground pork
1 Tbsp umeboshi plum vinegar (instead of Shaoxing Wine)
1/4 tsp Asian sesame oil
1/2 tsp Vietnamese chile-garlic sauce (preferably Huy Fong brand0
1/2 tsp unseasoned rice vinegar (I used seasoned and it seemed ok)
2 tsps soy sauce
1/2 tsp kosher salt
pinch of white pepper (black was fine)
3 Tbsp finely chopped cilantro stems
3 Tbsp finely chopped chives
3 Tbsp finely chopped scallions (the recipe called for just flowering chives, garlic chives or Scallions, I decided to go with both regular scallions and chives)
3 Tbsp finely chopped ginger ( the recipe didn't call for this but I knew it would be a fantastic addition)
24-30 dumpling wrappers (used squares and made them into little envelopes)

Combine all ingredients (except wrappers, duh!) in a large bowl and set in a larger bowl of ice while forming dumplings.

Bring a pot of vegetable or chicken stock to a simmer while making the dumplings.

To form dumplings, place a slightly rounded teaspoon of mixture in the center of the dough and moisten the seam on side of an angle, then fold one side over the other to create a triangle and press onto moistened side and then fold in the sides to make an envelope and lie face down on a parchment lined baking sheet. Repeat until with remaining wrappers and filling.

Cook dumplings until they float in gently simmering stock (so they don't fall apart) and the pork is just cooked, about 3-5 minutes. Use a slotted spoon to transfer to a platter and garnish with leftover chive stems. Or you could season the broth with soy sauce, scallions, garlic, ginger, and serve it as a soup which would be equally as comforting and delicious.