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January 25, 2006

24 Hours in Baltimore...

Faidley's flagship crabcake. If the tomatoes served some purpose other than to make for a nice photograph, I couldn't figure it out.
... three huge crabcakes, four small crabcakes, five chilled crab legs and a bowl of crab soup.

And it isn't even crab season.

Admittedly, in my zeal to make the most of our one day in Baltimore, I may have gone a little overboard. It's quite possible that I consumed more fried seafood on this one trip than I did in the previous six months. And it's also quite possilble that I won't be able to touch fried seafood for another six months. But yeah, it was totally worth it.

What I learned is that Marylanders don't get cute with their crabcakes. Sure, everywhere else you'll see them breaded, seasoned, sauced and otherwise dressed up every which way possible. But if I had to go with one word to describe the Baltimore crabcakes I tried, it'd be minimal. Fricking huge, but minimal. And to be clear, this was entirely welcome. After all, when you have fantastic ingredients, dressing them up too much just complicates things. As such, this much wasn't a surprise. But there were three things about them that did catch me off-guard. First off, "lump crabcake", intentionally or not, apparently refers both to the nature of the crab and the shape of the cake. No patties here. Just giant, baseball-sized lumps. Secondly, there was very little if any breading. But the biggest surprise for me was that they were predominately deep-fried. For some reason, I had it in my head that pan-fried was the most traditional, and that deep-fried was the foreign bastardized version. Turns out that not only is this not the case, but that the deep-frying totally makes sense.

Fish market and raw bar paces away, colorful folk manning the fryers and not a chair to be found in the place.
Our first stop on the grand tour du crab was Phillips Harborplace, on the edge of the inner harbor. Phillips had a lot going for it. It came recommended, seemed to be generally respected, and being a scant two blocks from our hotel, it was perfect for a late arrival. It also holds a special place in my ladylove's heart, one of their other locations being a frequent childhood vacation dinner spot. And c'mon... any restaurant that overlooks what essentially looks like a pirate ship can't be all bad. Sadly, we had some service issues that made it hard to give the place a fair shake. While it was solid, I can't say it was exceptional. We had a nice chilled seafood assortment to start, but provided you have good critters to work with, that's tough to screw up. But due to said service issues, my crabcake sat under a heat lamp for at least 20 minutes. As such, I can't say I got the best Phillips has to offer.

So when lunchtime rolled around Monday afternoon, I felt that I had to give traditional Baltimore seafood another shot. A bit of research turned up Faidley's, which hit on three counts. It was within walking distance of the hotel, it had been frequently named the best crabcake in Baltimore by some reliable sources, and as an added bonus it was part of the "World Famous Lexington Market", a charming and impressive indoor farmer's market. On top of which, it sounded like a real hole-in-the-wall authentic spot, which is exactly what I was craving. I wasn't the least bit disappointed. Faidley's is a simple, no-nonsense kind of place. I tried to sweet talk the woman taking orders, but she seemed mostly confused. Of course, I knew the crabcakes were a signature dish, but I was hoping for a little more intel. When I asked her what I should have, her response was, "I don't know, what do you want?" So I took another tack and when I asked what her favorite was, she responded, "Well, I like fish." Being a seafood stand attached to a fish market, I believe this knocked a whole two potential choices off the menu. So I asked for a crabcake. She then pointed to two different cakes sitting on a prep table behind her, saying "That one's the second best crabcake, and that one's the best. Which you want?" Of course, there's only one correct answer to that question. So I ordered myself one "best" crabcake, a plate of fried clam strips (an old favorite I hadn't had in a long time), and I opted to try one random, interesting sounding choice. I had no idea what a coddie was, but I figured it would probably be tasty.

Coddie on the left, crabcake on the right. Both awesome.
As it turns out, I made a great choice. I think I expected coddie to be some kind of fried fish fillet, but that wasn't the case at all. What I got was another fried cake, shaped like a thick hockey puck. It was comprised of cod, onion, and what seemed to be potato, a suspicion that a little research later confirmed. Turns out that in rather convenient fashion, I inadvertenly ordered an unusual fish cake native to Baltimore. A coddie, as it turns out, is almost exactly what my tastebuds told me -- cod flakes or fresh cod, onions and mashed potatoes formed into a patty and deep-fried. And it was fantastic. The breading/batter was a little heavier on the coddie, resulting in a thickish crispy crust on the outside and a wonderfully moist and mushy middle.

After plowing through the coddie, I moved on to the famous crabcake. It was a vast improvement over my Phillips experience the night before. Baltimore crabcakes, it seems, keep the focus on the CRAB, and this is a beautiful thing. I'm still not sure what goes into them, but whatever it is exists solely to bind the crabmeat together, give it a little fried brown goodness on the outside, and season it just barely enough to bring out the crab flavor. The beauty of this crabcake was, to me, in its vaguely chaotic nature. It wasn't uniformly mixed, carefully breaded and perfectly shaped. It was mixed just enough to bind it, formed into a rough hunk, and dropped into the fryolator. The result had lumps, but it had character. I've had some tasty crabcakes, but this one was purity of form. It was almost enough to make me skip the sauce. This, for a condiment whore such as myself, is one of the highest possible compliments.

The fried clams, while great, were probably pushing it. Man can only take so much fried seafood in one sitting (or standing, as the case may be). But that was only yesterday afternoon, and I'm ready for more. And there's even room for improvement. Apparently, when the famous blue crabs are out of season, most of the crab you get in Baltimore is brought in from Mexico. And while it's tasty, I understand it isn't the same. I look forward to hitting crab season next time around, and getting these fellows as they're meant to be.

Wok Envy?

Maybe a little.

January 23, 2006

The Triumphant Return of Morton

Dominic Armato (click to enlarge)
Just when I thought I'd finally banished Morton's Iodized Salt from my kitchen.

Forgotten in the shadow of the Kosher salt, Baleine sea salt and three forms of Fleur du Sel, I hadn't touched Morton in months. When I dug him out this week, he was hiding deep in the recesses of a corner cupboard that's hardly ever opened. If he pours when it rains, then my kitchen has evidently been bone dry for the better part of 2005. I thought I'd finally kicked Morton to the curb, but this week I had to press him into service to rescue me from a former nemesis:

The dreaded sticky wok.

My last wok died an unfortunate death. First, it got kind of sticky in places. Then, as I tried to tell myself that it would eventually fix itself with use, these sticky spots slowly became encrusted with shallow raised humps of charred stir-fry matter. Nothing would remove them, and they'd only continue to grow. I tried everything short of steel wool, knowing that to resort to this nuclear option would be to chop off my wok's proverbial nose to spite its proverbial face. When I moved back to Chicago, it sat in a box for a long, long time, unused due to its suboptimal condition. Said condition worsened, of course, and when I finally pulled it out a couple of years ago, it was horribly rusted. I felt shame... the profound shame of a samurai whose blade has been so neglected that it can now scarcely split a reed, much less the skulls of his enemies. A true Wok Fu warrior would have worked tirelessly to try to resurrect his sacred instrument. Or at the very least, would have maintained his honor by throwing himself on his chef's knife. But I took the coward's way out, pitching my former wok and replacing it with a brand new one. This time, I was determined to own my wok for at least 20 years, over which time I would slowly and patiently mold it into a deadly culinary instrument of Wok Fu. So after carefully seasoning my new wok, and starting it off with a healthy regimen of deep-frying, imagine my shock when I recently prepared a stir-fry with a honey-based sauce, only to find, after washing, that my new instrument had started to develop the same sticky, crusty spots that doomed my previous love.

It was Morton who came to my rescue.

Well, Morton and Grace Young, anyway. I've already expounded upon the myriad virtues of Young's new book, The Breath of a Wok, but I am also now convinced that it performs miracles. In truth, saving my wok was not such a mystical process, but it was one with which I had previously been unfamilar. Per Young's suggestion, I cleaned my wok with hot salt. The process goes something like this:

You heat a bunch of salt (I used about 1/3 of a cup) in the wok over high heat, then turn the heat to low. You spread the salt around the wok, and it sticks to the trouble spots, as you can see in the photo above. You continue heating the wok over low for about five minutes, then turn off the heat and let it sit until it is cool enough to work with. You then take a folded rag and scrub the salt into the sticky and crusty spots. Somehow, the salt breaks up the grease and the crud without significantly harming the wok's patina. You wipe out the wok, heat it again, give it a good wipedown with some oil, and gently wash it with a sponge.

That's that. And it worked. Morton has restored both my wok and my Wok Fu, and for that, he has been welcomed back from exile and placed in my day-to-day pantry. I don't deserve him, but Morton's forgiving that way. When it rains, he pours.

January 22, 2006

A Toast to Patsy

Not the most appetizing intro, I know. But bear with me.

The well-ventilated fellow you see on the right is one Pasqualino "Patsy" Lolordo, an Italian immigrant and mentor to some guy named Alphonse Capone. 77 years ago, he was gunned down in his apartment, and Capone's response was to order a revenge hit that would become known as the St. Valentine's Day Massacre.

Patsy is also lying in front of my fireplace.

With such a notable Chicago mafia landmark in my living room, I felt it was only appropriate that we remember our good pal Patsy on the anniversary of his death. There was Italian accordion music. There was a movie that depicted the slaying. There was a toast with the same beverages being shared by Patsy and his killers (red wine and whisky). And, of course, there was pasta. Rigatoni all'Amatriciana Rossa is not only a well-known pasta dish, but it's also probably my number one favorite comfort food. When I want a pasta that is quick, easy and utterly satisfying, this is the one. Over 43 Movie & Pasta Nights, no pasta has been repeated more than once, except for the Amatriciana, which I've made seven times. Or, more accurately, six times. In its seventh iteration, it was known simply as Patsy's Pasta.

Dominic Armato (click to enlarge)
Patsy's Pasta
(Rigatoni all'Amatriciana Rossa)

1/4 C. Extra Virgin Olive Oil
1 Small Red Onion, Minced
1 Clove Garlic, Minced
1/4 Lb. Guanciale (or Pancetta), sliced thick and cut into strips
2 C. Tomato Puree
Crushed Red Pepper, to taste
Salt, to taste
1/3 C. Grated Pecorino Romano, plus more to top
1 Lb. Rigatoni, al dente

As mentioned, this is a very traditional and well-known pasta from the town of Amatrice. Though it's generally made with bucatini, the restaurant in Rome where I came to adore it, La Maddalena, uses rigatoni, which I've come to prefer. As with any simple pasta, the quality of ingredients is absolutely critical. I use Raineri Silver Foil olive oil, and Carmelina bottled tomato passata, though regular canned Carmelina tomatoes pureed in a blender will do just fine. Also, you have to have good guanciale and pecorino. Though I wouldn't totally discount the possibility, I've never found guanciale or pecorino from a major grocery store that I was happy with. But I like to take the approach that it isn't an inconvenience, but rather an opportunity to hang out in my local Italian grocery or specialty store.

Heat the olive oil over high heat, and when hot, add the onion and garlic. Sauté for 2-3 minutes until the onions begin to turn translucent. Add the guanciale and continue to cook for another 2-3 minutes, until the guanciale starts to color. Add the tomato puree, red pepper and salt, reduce the heat slightly, and simmer for 8-10 minutes. Meanwhile, cook the pasta. Ideally, the pasta and sauce should be ready at the same time, but if one has to wait, be sure it's the sauce. Add the cooked pasta to the sauce, mix in the pecorino and stir to combine thoroughly. Serve with extra pecorino to sprinkle on top, and a glass of red wine or whisky with which to toast Patsy.

January 21, 2006

Wok Fu - Pork with Mint and Sugar Snap Peas

While grocery shopping this evening, I was struck by the urge to stir-fry. So I threw a little something together that turned out well enough to share. I'll write it up semi-recipe style, but bear in mind that all measurements are super approximate based on my recollection, and as such are probably horribly inaccurate. One of these days I'll get into the habit of measuring as I go in the name of full documentation.

Dominic Armato (click to enlarge)

Dominic Armato (click to enlarge)

Stir-Fried Pork with Mint
and Sugar Snap Peas

1/2 Lb. Pork Loin, cut into matchsticks
1/2 Small Onion, cut into 1" chunks
1 C. Sugar Snap Peas
2 cloves garlic, minced
3 whole red chiles
Peanut Oil

1 Tbsp. Shaoxing
1 Tbsp. Thai Fish Sauce
2 tsp. Honey

1/4 C. Tangerine Juice
Grated Zest from 1 Tangerine
2 Tbsp. Shaoxing
2 Tbsp. Thai Fish Sauce
1 Tbsp. Honey
2 Tbsp. Mint Chiffonade
1 tsp. Cornstarch

Combine the pork wth the marinade ingredients, and let them sit in the fridge for an hour or so. Dry sherry would be an ample substitute for the shaoxing. When washing and prepping, it's important to remember that for stir fry, the vegetables should be dry, dry, dry. Otherwise, they steam and simmer and lose that crisp freshness you expect from a good stir fry. Ideally, you should wash them, dry them as much as possible, and then let them air dry for a few hours. But if you're pressed for time, there are always other options. Heat a wok over high heat, and when the wok is extremely hot, add a couple tablespoons of the peanut oil, swirl, and add the pork. Spread it out, and let it sit for 15-20 to get a nice sear going. Then, stir-fry until the raw exterior color has just disappeared. Slide the pork out onto a separate plate, and reheat the wok. Add more oil, then toss in the garlic and chiles. Stir-fry for a few seconds, then toss in the onions. Cook until they just barely begin to turn translucent, then add the sugar snap peas. Cook until the peas are bright and crispy, only about 10-15 seconds. Return the pork to the wok and stir to combine. Give the sauce a stir to ensure the cornstarch is dissolved, then add to the wok. Stir-fry until the sauce has thickened slightly, and coats all of the ingredients. The entire stir-frying process, from start to finish, shouldn't take longer than 2-3 minutes.

Chow down posthaste... wok hay fades with every passing second!

January 19, 2006

The Beef-Off - Chapter I - Al's

Dominic Armato
The Italian Beef is a Chicago institution. We're known for the Chicago-style hot dog and deep dish pizza around these parts, but the Italian Beef is an equally worthy, if lesser known, member of the Chicago-centric food pantheon. Not only did it most likely originate here, but it's also nearly impossible to find a good one outside of Chicago. As such, Chicago native and Italian Beef lover that I am, I feel that I should endeavor to make myself an authority on the subject. Of course, there are hundreds of establishments in the city that serve Italian Beef, everybody has their favorite, and I'm no exception. But as someone who once changed a very strongly held beef allegiance, I've recently felt compelled to cast a wider net. With this mandate, I present the first chapter in my 2006 quest to make myself a Chicago Italian Beef aficionado.

But first, some history.

I was always an Al's guy. My mother would drive me to auditions in the city, and then we'd fall into the Ontario location for a beef and some supremely (read: wonderfully) greasy fries. As such, when my father and good friend both suggested three years ago that Mr. Beef was far superior, I picked up the Al's standard and went off to war. This battle for beefy supremacy took the form of The Great VinCenzo Beef-Off, and the results came as a shock. Not only was Mr. Beef the winner in a landslide, but even I, Al's champion, was forced to admit that Mr. Beef's was the superior sandwich.

The results haunted me. How could I have been so wrong? It isn't as though I'd never had Mr. Beef going into the Beef-Off. I was fairly well-versed in both, and had chosen my favorite in an educated fashion. So, even though the Beef-Off had the pleasant result of providing me with a new favorite establishment, I could never shake this vague feeling of uncertainty. As such, I read with great interest a post over at, which detailed how Al's Ontario outpost had been suffering from quality issues so severe that the folks at the original Taylor location had booted the Ontario management. This, combined with the significant amount of Al's love over at LTH, convinced me that I needed to visit the flagship location on Taylor. I'd tried the Ontario Al's on a couple of occasions since my conversion to the Church of Mr. Beef and been underwhelmed, but it was time to give my old love one last shot.

Today, I was running around the city on a number of errands, I had camera in tow, I wasn't too far from Taylor and a beef sounded mighty tasty, so I decided to fall in. In terms of atmosphere, Al's is the real deal. Greasy tile floors, steel counters lining the windows, and autographed photographs and dollar bills haphazardly pasted on every available wall. The counter service was appropriate as well... not quite surly, but not out to impress, either. I ordered my standard, which is a beef with hot and sweet peppers, dipped, and parked at the counter to consume.

Dominic Armato

Just like the surrounding building, Al's beef looks the part. Hard roll soaked in juice, thinly sliced beef, sauteed bell peppers and hot gardiniera. The giardiniera is perhaps one of Al's most unique features. Most commonly, you'll find pickled hot peppers of the green variety, possibly with chunks of carrot, celery and cauliflower, swimming in spicy olive oil. Al's, on the other hand, goes red. It's mostly comprised of very thinly sliced bits of vegetable in a hot oil that's been infused with dried red chiles. In fact, I'd always considered the giardiniera to be one of Al's best features. So after a long hiatus, it was with great gusto that I dove into my first Al's beef in quite some time.

In short, while it was a good beef, I definitely couldn't call it excellent, or even great. The first thing that struck me was an unusually strong dried herb taste. Of course, all Italian Beef juice involves dried herbs, but here they seemed overly pronounced... a little distracting, even. Upon further sampling, I was also a little let down by the beef itself. The meat in an Italian Beef is always fairly well-done. But here, it was almost crossing over the threshold into dry, tough and chewy terrirory. What's more, while the juice was flavorful, the beef itself was not. It was as though most of the fat had been cooked out, and along with it, most of the flavor. Overall, while the sandwich was bold, something about the flavor didn't seem rounded to me, and it was about halfway through the sandwich that I put my finger on it. The sweetness was missing. I think the component that elevates the Italian Beef from tasty treat to transcendent beefy experience is when you get a bite of ever-so-slightly gooey bread, saturated with the beef's natural sweetness. It's the balance of sweet and spicy that makes a great beef. Al's had the spicy in abundance... both the giardiniera and the herbs... but it was missing the sweet. As a result, the flavor, while good, just felt a little two-dimensional. But the final nail in the coffin was that which I used to consider a strength... the giardiniera. Most giardiniera is pickled, adding a significant tart component to the sandwich, but if Al's giardiniera is pickled, it's only very lightly so. So after three years of Mr. Beef, I found for the first time that I really missed that tartness. It's another layer of complexity that was missing from the Al's sandwich.

In the end, while I suppose I can't fault those who worship at the altar of Al's, it's not for me. I can best describe Al's beef as a spicy beef. If you're all about the spicy, this one's for you. But these days, I require a little more depth from my Italian Beef. And after three years, I'm finally comfortably convinced that this is a depth Al's just can't offer.

Addendum: The final Beef-Off results and wrapup can be found in The Year In Beef.

January 18, 2006

Mmmmm... Leftovers

Dominic Armato

Leftover roasted chicken sandwich. Oh yeah.

Easy There, Wolfie

It all started well enough. But then there were the Wolfgang Puck Cafes. Then the Wolfgang Puck canned soups. Then the Wolfgang Puck Instant Hot Lattes.

Today, it's Fettuccine Wolfredo.

Don't get me wrong, there's still a part of me that wants to like Wolfie. Yes, he's supremely annoying. Yes, he's sold out to a degree that I find troublesome, and I generally support selling out. And yes, looking back with today's eyes, his cuisine seems somewhat tame. But taken in the context of his time and place, you can't deny that he was both a talented and influential chef back in his heyday. Chinois on Main was one of my earliest progressive fine dining experiences, it'll always hold a special place in my heart, and when you consider that it opened its doors in 1983, you must give the man his due. When I was lucky enough to go (it's a big deal when you're 14), I'd request the counter so that I could watch Puck's culinary swat team from a scant three feet away. They'd tame the massive firebreathing woks, produce French/Asian sauces with obscene amounts of butter, and hold little impromptu contests to see who could dice and julienne vegetables with the most machine-like precision. And all the while, head chef Makoto Tanaka would stand parked under a spotlight on the corner of the counter, the figurehead of the good ship Chinois, slowly sipping Japanese beer and approving every outbound dish with a detatched nod. This was clearly a formative experience for me. It was Chinois on Main that led me to Fusion Food Cookbook, and it was Fusion Food Cookbook and California produce that took me from occasional cook to obsessed hobbyist. So Puck was a beloved landmark, albeit a distant one, in my own culinary development.

All of that said, when you start titling your dishes with bad puns involving your name, you've crossed over into Leon territory.

C'mon back, Wolfie... ignore the camera for a bit and make yourself some schnitzel... you'll feel much better, I promise. And we'll all feel much better about you.

I Am A Noob

Dominic Armato
When it comes to some things, anyway.

So often, I feel like a total fraud. Sure, two years' worth of Movie & Pasta Night has elevated my pasta game to formidable levels, but there are times when I feel like I have no business cooking some of the things I do. I recently compiled a list of my more unusual original dishes, mostly because I have this fear of forgetting them. But when confronted with a list of dishes such as these --

Crispy Squash and Scallop Napoleon with Butternut Butter Sauce
Lobster Egg Royale with Cognac-Lobster Cream
Bacon Goat Cheese Queso with Sweet Potato, Dates and Almond Pesto
Asian Duck Confit with Asian Pear and Citrus-Cardamom Vinaigrette
Chilled Duck and Fresh Peach with Gingered Mustard-Icewine Sauce and Basil Gelée

-- no matter how well they turned out, does it not seem ridiculous that I've never roasted a freaking chicken?!?

It's an odd insecurity. I feel like a jazz saxophonist who is scared that his fellow musicians will discover he's never listened to Coltrane. I'm not certain whether this is good or bad. I suppose it could be argued that to know convention is to be bound by it. But I do know that while I have no desire to stop the Iron Chef wackiness, with every passing month I feel more and more compelled to further explore the basics. In my head, I've been constantly reminding myself that I shouldn't feel bound to this system where I cook infrequently but on a massive, involved scale, and that I should be seizing every opportunity to prepare something quick, simple and elegant. It's something I have to force upon myself. After years of preparing mostly flashy five course meals, I find it difficult to just make a sandwich without thinking to myself, "Okay, now what can I do to make this really unusual and interesting?" But it's an exercise in self-discipline that I'm committed to, so when my future wife noted last night that she really had a craving for a good roast chicken, I decided to strike while the iron was hot. With this recent obsession in mind, the culinary troika of Quick, Simple and Elegant, I set out to tame the beast.

In this case, the beast was a chicken. There was a certain poetry to this selection that I liked. Not only is roast chicken a simple, salt of the earth kind of dish, but I've been guilty in the past of stating that it takes a lot for me to get excited by chicken. As such, I'd be challenging myself on two levels. In keeping with my three commandments, I decided to let Thomas Keller's Bouchon be my guide. For those who did not read my recent post wherein I basically fell all over myself in praise of this book, Bouchon is Keller's bistro book. And one of the things that impressed me about Bouchon is that at the very start of the book, before he even gets into any of the official "sections", right up front is his recipe for his favorite simple roasted chicken. This is clearly a man who knows the joy of a simple recipe done incredibly well, who chooses his quick and easy comfort dish to set the tone for the entire volume, and who will, I suspect, be an excellent guide on my quest to explore the basics.

Dominic Armato
Keller's recipe couldn't be simpler. Chicken, salt, pepper, maybe a little thyme, if you feel like it. That's it. No elaborate preparation, no funky ingredients, just the bare essentials to bring out the natural flavor of the chicken. He stresses the importance of trussing, but even there he provides you with a very basic method that's simpler than most others I've seen. So after a washing and very thorough drying, seasoning the cavity, a brief trussing and a liberal sprinkling of salt and pepper, I had a fine-looking fowl ready for the oven.

My first lesson learned is that roasting a chicken in a cast-iron skillet makes for a lot of spattering and more smoke than I'd like. But it's hard to argue with results like these. After about an hour at 450, I tossed a couple tablespoons of minced thyme into the pan juices, basted the chicken with said juices, and set it to rest. Leaving it alone for 15 minutes without attacking it was, unquestionably, the hardest part of the entire endeavor.

Dominic Armato

Yes, it was as tasty as it looks. In fact, my lovely future wife was shocked when I relayed to her the scant four ingredients involved. But as delicious as the carved pieces were at the dinner table, they paled in comparison to the scraps left behind. Three morsels in particular, attainable only by roasting your own bird, are worth the price of admission even if the rest of the bird is pitched. It's easy to see how these three bits comprise the real joy of roasting a chicken. The first is the tail. It's basically crispy skin and fat... rich, succulent, delicious crispy skin and fat. Secondly, you've got the oysters. Though I'd never actually had the oysters from a fresh roasted chicken, their reputation preceeded them. The oysters are two silver dollar sized oval pieces of meat that are tucked into the backbone just above the thigh. They're exceptionally moist, tender, fatty, and as tasty as that description would lead you to believe. For many, they're easily the best part of the bird. And they were fantastic, but for me they took a back seat to the third morsel. The best bit of the chicken, by far, was the middle section of the wing. I'd tucked the wings under the bird so that their middle sections were against the pan, cooking the entire time in the drippings. As such, they were more deep-fried than anything, but they were fried in the fat and juices of the chicken itself. They were crispy, salty, full of an intense, reduced chicken flavor, and despite their crispy exterior, the bits of meat in the middle were exceptionally moist and tender. Many if not most recipes I've seen for roasted chicken call for a roasting rack. I say fie! If you don't sit that chicken directly in a skillet, you miss out on the single best part of the bird.

All in all, a successful evening. I come away with a full belly, a bunch of roasted bones for stock, a deeper appreciation for the simplicity of a good roasted chicken, and a successful first chapter in the quest to explore simpler foods. This particular exercise comes highly recommended.

January 05, 2006

Wok Fu 101

I've encountered some pretty decent books that focus on the wok, but this is the best by a longshot. Those who stir-fry at home often lament the fact that they can't achieve the unique and intoxicating fresh glow of a good restaurant stir-fry. That glow is called "Wok Hay", which translates to "The Breath of a Wok", and lends the book its name. Wok Hay is one of those things that's difficult to describe but easy to identify, and this is the best available roadmap for achieving it.

For those who aren't familiar with traditional uses of the wok, a 240 page volume dedicated entirely to a simple, round pan may seem like overkill. But there's a reason the wok is arguably the heart and soul of Chinese cuisine. Only a culture that is thousands of years old could develop a pan that is simultaneously so simple and so versatile, and takes years to both season and master. There's something beautiful about an implement that increases in both beauty and utility as it ages... and for which the most traditional seasoning methods frequently involve copious amounts of lard.

Breath of a Wok is exceptionally comprehensive. To give some sense, the recipes don't even start until page 68, and with good reason. Without the proper technique, a wok is just a funny shaped pan. Young starts with a little wok history, but only to the degree that it's relevant to the cooking. However, once she delves into selecting and seasoning a wok, the book becomes an invaluable resource. She draws on a range of sources -- wok purveyors, family members, master chefs both eastern and western -- to cover multiple seasoning techniques for a myriad of different woks. It's less a matter of choosing what's best and more a matter of choosing what's best for you. Selection is a matter of both utility and personal style, and in the ideal world you don't have to choose between the two. As much as you may want to release your inner Iron Chef Chen with a northern style round-bottomed wok and ladle, they aren't going to do you much good on an electric range. Of course, once you've read the book through you'll be ready to run down to Chinatown and pick up 100,000 BTUs worth of blistering wok burner goodness, but Young patiently focuses on excellent alternatives for those who are less... enthusiastic.

Of course, the recipes themselves are fantastic and cover a broad scope. Young groups basic stir-fry recipes by primary ingredient, and then proceeds to provide instruction and recipes for other wok techniques, such as braising, smoking, steaming and deep-frying. The recipes aren't dumbed down for a western audience. Young keeps them accessible, but authentic. Plus, a comprehensive glossary that includes clear photos is sure to aid those who aren't accustomed to cruising Asian markets.

Bottom line, this book is a must-have. If you have an interest in wok cookery, start here. If you don't, start here anyway, and you probably will by the time you're about five pages in.