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Winging It

Posted by Bob Kohm on February 11, 2009

I am fighting a war with my intestines. There’s some twisted, dark, evil part of my brain that recalls the fiery goodness of the foods I ate as a teenager in largely Asian Flushing, Queens in the  ’80s– alien to my English-German-Italian DNA, I suppose, but oh so delicious. If it didn’t have bird chiles or Szechuan peppers in it, I didn’t want it. I still don’t. My GI tract doesn’t always agree, but screw it if it can’t take a joke.

Going to school in Buffalo didn’t help any. I worked for a semester in a pizza and wings joint just off campus and I learned there possibly the only bit of useful info I learned in Buffalo, that real Buffalo wings have only four ingredients– chicken wings, butter, garlic powder and Frank’s Red Hot Sauce from Durkee. Fry the wings, dump them in a plastic paint bucket, dump in an unwise amount of Frank’s Red Hot, the garlic powder and some butter to make the sauce stick– think the “jellied” part of “jellied gasoline” for napalm– and temper the fire with some (more) fat. Throw the top on the bucket, swirl and shake.  The only difference between “Mild” and “Why God, WHY?” wings is the amount of butter and Frank’s sauce– for hot you use a lot of butter and the same amount of sauce you’d use for mild. If you have a vendetta against someone, you up the Red Hot. Slap some carrot & celery sticks in a little paper french fry tray, wrap it in foil, throw in a cup of Blue Cheese (NEVER ranch, for the love of Jim Kelly and all things Buffalo) and deliver.

Simple. No exotic spices, no pineapple (gack), no chipotle or barbecue sauce. Wings, Frank’s Red Hot, butter, garlic powder. Finito.

I had a bad thought last night. I wanted wings, and was already planning on making BBQ chicken for the family. I bought a package of wings to go with the chicken breasts. I grilled the hell out of the wings over the hottest part of my fire, until they looked like they’d been fried. I got a bucket. I got the butter, I got the garlic powder. In the store earlier I had seen that Frank’s had a newer product, Frank’s Extra Red hot. I got that.

My kids wanted to know why I was crying at the table. It was hard to explain the physiological response of tearing eyes to a five year old when your upper palate is on fire and your guts are screaming at your esophagus, “Oh no you DO NOT! Not in OUR HOUSE!”.

But damn, were they good.

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An Overlooked Great Cuisine

Posted by Bob Kohm on February 10, 2009

When we as Americans think of the world’s great national cuisines we are automatically drawn to the “classics”– French and Italian, with a  broader second tier that might include Japanese, New American, Spanish, Chinese, German and Indian. All have their culinary wonders, to be sure, but we tend to fall back on them to the exclusion of some of the world’s other great cuisines, rooted in antiquity but advanced by modern technique.

One of my favorite overlooked cuisines in Lebanese. A subtle blend of Middle Eastern flavors meshed with Mediterranean and North African influence, Lebanese mirrors and places its own mark on foods both east and west, appropriate for the food of the residents of ancient Phoenicia.  A trading people who at the very least roamed the Med and the West Coast of Africa and who may have even made it to the East Coast of North America and around the Horn of Africa to East Asia, the Phoenicians introduced the Hellenic and Roman worlds to spices and foodstuffs from around the ancient world.

Reminiscent of its Phoenician roots, modern Lebanese cuisine takes from cultures all around the Mediterranean rim and adds in flavors and spices from the deserts to the east. Like most of the Med cuisines, they look heavily to the sea and make extensive use anchovy, sardines, octopus and squid.  The warm flavors of lemon, garlic and olive and the coolness of mint are hallmarks of the dishes.

Like truly great Italian cooking, it does not rely on the intricate techniques of haute French or the precision of New Spanish; instead Lebanese food is all about the interplay of fragrant spice and fresh ingredients, cooked in the peasant methods of stewing or grilling and eaten with usually with pita. While not showing the sophisticaton of technique that produces layers of flavor in French cooking, Lebanese cuisine presents flavors every bit as intricate achieved through imaginative combinations of ingredients.

Lebanon follows the pattern of many warmer Mediterranean cuisines by offering a vast array of small plates, called mezze. Analogous to Spanish tapas, a group would generally order two or three hot or cold mezze per person, usually including a hommus or a tabouleh salad as one, and maybe an order of kebobs for the table.

Amongst the homey mezze you’d see on any Lebanese menu are the above mentioned hommus and tabouleh, of course, as well as the salad fattouch (chopped tomatoes, onion, cucumber, radish, pepper, parsley & mint with olive oil and lemon juice), soujok (beef & lamb sausage, mildly spicy), and shawarma, either beef or chicken marinated in lemon, garlic and aromatic spices and then roaster or grilled. Falafel (chickpea fritters) and fried kibbe (beef or chicken dumplings) are omnipresent; if you want to try something more adventurous, go with the kibbe nayeh, which is a Lebanese version of steak tartare– raw ground beef mixed with burghul (bulgar) wheat, mint and onion. I know– sounds awful to the American palate, but trust me, it’s incredible once you get past your aversion to eating raw meat.

I’m proud to be friends with Rabih abi-Ahd, who owns one of the finest Lebanese restaurants in America– Me Jana, in Arlington, VA. We dined at Me Jana again on Saturday with friends, and I couldn’t recommend it more if you live in DC or travel here for business or sightseeing. Rabih’s place serves the kind of ethnic cuisine that foodies go searching for and most often find in a no-ambiance Mom’n’Pop joint that has incredible food and formica tables; luckily Me Jana tampers with that mold by serving the same incredibly good food in a pleasantly sophisticated dining room that works for a dinner with clients or a nice date night but that isn’t a stranger to big groups ordering tons of mezze and drinking too many Lebanese beers. If you come, go for the sea scallops in saffron lemon yogurt. Just trust me.

If you don’t live in DC, find a Lebanese restaurant in your city and give it a go, especially if you’ve never tried the cuisine before. Before long you’ll be addicted to zataar and sumac, craving good hommus rather than the stuff fromt he fridge section in your supermarket and you’ll be thinking kafta rather than hamburger next time you pick up a package of ground meat. It’s that good.

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Two Keys to Chili

Posted by Bob Kohm on January 27, 2009

First, you absolutely must control the television and radio stations in Santiago…but that’s not important right now.

Actually, I’ve been telling people that I’d be writing about cooking in this space as well as all the other gobbledygook I’ve been throwing at you, but the truth is I haven’t had the time or energy to do a lot of cooking lately. What I have done is make a pot of really, really good chili. No, it’s not something old school formal like beef en croute or whacked out creative like some of the Indian fusion stuff I do, but the Super Bowl is Sunday and dammit, this was really good.

So, chili needs two things above all else– more than one kind of meat and a spice that probably doesn’t come immediately to mind. On the meat front, whether I go with ground beef (almost always), ground turkey or something different, the one meat I have been using to great effect the last three or four times I’ve made chili is bulk Mexican chorizo. Here in DC there’s no problem getting this sausage even in our “regular” supermarkets, but if you have trouble finding it go to any Mexican grocery and they’ll have it. I specify Mexican because a lot of Latino countries have a sausage named chorizo– Argentinian chorizo is a bit sweet, Salvadoran is spicy but flavored differently than Mexican, etc. Mexican chorizo is by far the spiciest and adapts very well to chili.

The spice that I’ve been using– a cinnamon stick– gives a fantastic depth to the chili and provokes that, “Wow, what is that flavor” reaction int he people who eat it. One whole cinnamon stick put into the pot right before you add liquid and left for the whole simmer does the trick– the cinnamon oil releases and very subtly infuses the entire dish. Since cinnamon is a warm spice it makes sense when you think about it, as does the knowledge that cinnamon is widely used in savory dishes from the Yucatan and throughout West Africa.

This is clearly not a purist’s Terlingua or something like that nor does it pretend to be, so please, Texans, no hate mail!

So, for the chili…

  • 1lb ground beef
  • 1lb bulk chorizo or link chorizo, skins removed and crumbled
  • 3 cans RoTel diced tomatoes with green chiles
  • 3 cans Pinto or Black Beans with canning liquids, depending on your preference
  • 2 medium sweet onions, one sliced, one diced
  • 1 whole head garlic, cloves minced (if you really want to go crazy roast and squash the garlic)
  • EITHER 3 tablespoons chili powder (McCormick’s Hot Mexican is at least decent), or blend your own with ground dry chiles and ground toasted cumin seeds– lots of recipes on line for that.
  • 1 teaspoon dried ground chipotle pepper
  • 1 teaspoon prepared dried mustard
  • 1 tablespoon of dried (preferably) Mexican oregano
  • 1 whole cinnamon stick
  • 12oz. Beef Stock– Kitchen Basics works well enough
  • 1 tablespoon Olive Oil
  • Salt & pepper

In a heavy Dutch Oven, heat the olive oil until shimmering and drop in the sliced onions, stirring constantly. After one minute, add the diced onion and stir together until the onions caramelize; remove the onions. Crumble the chorizo and brown, remove but don’t pour off rendered fat. Brown the ground beef and the minced garlic in the chorizo fat, season with salt & pepper. Drain off all but a small amount of the grease from the pan and add back the onions & chorizo; mix to blend. Add the RoTel tomatoes and juices, beans with liquids, beef stock, chili powder, chipotle, mustard powder, cinnamon  stick and oregano– vigorously rub the oregano between your palms as you sprinkle it into the pot to release its oils and maximize flavor. Add salt & pepper to taste, going easy on the salt if you are using commercially made beef stock. Bring it up to a brisk simmer, then reduce heat to low and gently simmer for at least one hour and preferably two to three, adding a bit more stock as necessary if it seems to be evaporating too quickly. The longer it cooks, the more distilled the flavors become.

Serve over rice with finely chopped onions, shredeed jack cheese & sour cream as toppings.

The recipe can also work very, very well in a CrockPot– brown the meat and the onions then dump everything in the CrockPot and cook it for four hours or more.

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