Thai-Fried Soft Shells with Sweet Chili Sauce

Soft shell crabs are an odd delicacy, which seem to be an either/or proposition with most.  Some can’t get enough of them, others can’t quite get past the visual.  I fall into the former lot.  I look forward every summer.

Cooks often want to get all cute with soft shells.  Sautee them with leeks and tomato, achieve balance, crisping the shells with a shallow pan fry.  This is not my preferred method.

Soft shell crabs are tiny sea monsters that we pluck from the ocean at their most vulnerable, slice off their eyes and assholes, and rip out their lungs, before eating them whole.  I don’t want to be all sensual.  I think they deserve a viking funeral.  I deep fry them, with a batter based on Thai fried chicken.  It uses an alkaline limestone solution which makes the coating extremely crispy.  The texture makes biting into the sweet, salty nuggets of backfin all the better.  Thai sweet chili sauce is great on crab, and though potent, doesn’t completely dominate its flavor.

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Mise en Place

Equipment

  • food processor or blender
  • large bowl
  • dutch oven
  • cooling rack set over sheet pan

Ingredients

Batter

  • 1 tsp ground white pepper
  • 1 tsp coriander
  • 2 tbs chopped cilantro roots or stems
  • 2 large cloves chopped garlic
  • 2 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp sugar
  • 3 tbs oyster sauce
  • 3/4 cup rice flour
  • 1/2 cup limestone water
  • 1-2 cups rice flour
  • 2 quarts canola oil
  • 4-6 softshells, freshly killed and cleaned
  • thai sweet chili sauce, store-bought or homemade

1) Make the batter.  Place all the batter ingredients into a blender or food processor and process until smooth.

2) Batter the crabs.  Coat the crabs completely in batter before dredging in additional rice flour.  Rest on rack sat over sheet pan for twenty minutes, while the oil comes to temperature over high heat in a dutch oven or large pot.

3) Fry the crabs when the oil is hot enough that the handle of a wooden spoon or chopstick bubbles vigorously when submerged.   Move them around a bit to make sure they don’t stick together.  Remove from the oil when golden brown and serve with Thai sweet chili sauce.

Link Stew, April 2013

An interesting and beautifully photographed article about the young French chef’s who are making one of the world’s most famous and traditional dining scenes a bit less stodgy.

American craft beer is on the rise, capturing a greater percentage of the marketplace by the year.  A good thing.

4th & Jackson, South Philly

4th & Jackson, South Philly

Philly is a city of BYO’s. A few of them decent sushi restaurants.  Sushi though, is always difficult to pair.  Here a few somms offer their suggestions.

Mark Bittman, formerly of the NY Times, gives my fair city its propers.

No reason a fat kid can’t be stylish.

Drinking wine in mixed company is always a chore.  Will there be a snob who removes their nose from the bowl of their glass only to look down it at you? This article offers a lengthy, academic breakdown of how to describe one of wines more ambiguous descriptors–minerality.

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Hipsters are doing their best to make an interest in food annoying.  Stop them.  Also a word to hipsters–your art is pedestrian and unimaginative.  You look like jackasses.

Natural wine is trending.  It is unsulfured, and sometimes a bit oxidized.  There can be considerable bottle variation, and it is often quite stinky.  Tradtionalists and advocates of natural wine are engaging in a high-falootin’ pissing match in the wine press.

This.  Good day.

Beyond Pho: Khmer Kitchen

As a white American raised in the Philly suburbs, my appreciation of the the wide breadth of Asian foods and their varied and intoxicating ingredients was late coming.  A Havertown  kid in the eighties thought that every Asian person they knew was Chinese.  Looking back, I think they were mostly Korean.  Asian food was also almost entirely Chinese, or at least its odd Chinese-American mutation, bought in restaurants fronted by fish tanks, which sold  gummy, deep-fried sweet and sour pork in an unnatural, neon orange sauce.

In my teen years, if I ventured to the Main Line I could find sushi, raw and to my young mind still a bit suspect, and the first few Thai restaurants, where edamame in sea salt seemed exotic.

Now I live in South Philly, of which nearly every Asian immigrant group can claim at least a block or two.  The more established immigrant communities offer more widely available restaurant quality food. Chinese, Japanese, and maybe Korean and Thai spots are ubiquitous throughout the city and suburbs.  Exploring these cuisines is less about finding a restaurant, and more about finding a kitchen that compromises less for the Western palate.

Washington Ave. offers a bounty of Vietnamese options, alluring for their exotic ingredients and French influence.  One can certainly find satisfaction in a banh mi, or a grilled meatball, but I’d rather be able to buy my noodles and broth without having to wade through a sea of hipsters dying to tell me how one should actually pronounce pho.

The harder to find Asian cuisines have piqued my interest lately, and I would like to share my experience with them, while at the same time supporting in a modest way the small business owners who make the life of a fat kid in South Philly so fulfilling.

Khmer Kitchen is a modest BYOB on Sixth and Morris.  It offers a simple menu of appetizers, noodles, rices dishes, with both meat and fish.  Cambodian food is similar to Thai and Vietnamese food, and shows the influence of Chinese, Indian and French cuisines.  Fresh herbs, such as Thai basil, mint, cilantro and culantro are abundant.  Turmeric, lemongrass, galangal and lime leaf can also be found in many dishes.

The status of the chili is lesser in Cambodian food as compared to Thai, with black pepper often providing the dish with its heat.  Fermented fish paste is prevalent. It is often considered an acquired taste for Westerners, though becoming accustomed to its savory, umami undertone is certainly worthwhile.

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I have sampled their Sach-Khoe Ang’, which is  seasoned grilled beef, meant to be wrapped in lettuce with tuhk prah-hok, a sort of chutney or salsa of tomato and peppers, and lots of fresh herbs.  It was perfect finger food, topped with a squeeze of lime.

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I also had Sah-Law Ka-Koe.  A sweet pumpkin stew, with green papaya and pork.  Its fragrance and flavor was intoxicating, slightly sweet and silky.

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The star, however was Prah-Hok Kahteeh.  Which was simply crudite, served with minced pork, caramelized with shrimp paste and spices.  It not only led me to exclaim, “Fuck ranch dressing!” I was actually left with a deep sense of loss that I had spent my life dipping raw vegetables in anything else.

I have read some internet whining about slow service, though it is not something I encountered.  The service was earnest and polite, and even with takeout, they asked me if I had eaten Cambodian before, and gave instructions of how it is intended to be consumed.

Drop in with a bottle, or go for take-out.

Meatball Mayhem Ep. 1: The Swedish Meatball Sandwich

Swedes, it sometimes seems, are known only for cheap furniture, Nordic beauty, and of course meatballs.  Having explored their cuisine to a certain extent I know a few of its  other stars–they have an astounding variety of pickled herring that I find almost physically arousing.  But the meatball is a utilitarian crowd pleaser, and with the recent horse meat flap perhaps more will attempt to make their own, rather than purchasing them at Ikea (though it’s still a great place to pick up a few jars of lingonberry jam and a kerswozzleplunk).

I have a Swedish friend who most likely considers the idea of placing her homeland’s meatballs on a roll blasphemy, but this is a Philadelphia food blog, and Philly is a city of sandwiches.

Eschew the roll if you must, but it will be much more difficult to eat standing up.

Swedish Meatball Sandwich

Mise en Place

Equipment

  • stand mixer, fitted with paddle attachment
  • large bowl
  • large pot
  • potato ricer or masher
  • deep fryer, or large dutch oven and spider
  • 2 cooling racks set over a half sheet pan
  • large saucepan
  • wooden spatula
  • whisk

Ingredients

Meatballs

  • 1/2 cup cream
  • 2 slices white bread, crusts removed, torn into 1 inch chunks
  • 1 1b ground pork, the fattier the better
  • 1 onion, grated with the large wholes of a box grater
  • 1/4 tsp ground nutmeg
  • 1/4 tsp ground allspice
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 1 lb ground beef

Sauce

  • 3 tbs unsalted butter
  • 3 tbs flour
  • 3 cups chicken stock
  • 1 cup cream
  • juice of 1 lemon

Mashed Potatoes

  • 2 1/2 lbs Yukon Gold potatoes cleaned, peeled, and quartered, kept covered with cold water in a large bowl, until ready to boil
  • 4 tbs unsalted butter
  • 1/2 cup half and half
  • soft, long sandwich rolls
  • lingonberry jam

1) Make the meatball mix, as you bring a large pot of salted water to a boil.  Beat together the cream and egg, pour over the bread.  When the cream is absorbed mash with a fork. Place the ground pork, onion, cream-soaked bread, nutmeg, allspice and baking soda in bowl of the stand mixer.  Mix at high speed until the pork fat is whipped into a smooth paste.  Add the ground beef and at mix at low speed until just combined.  Season generously with salt and cracked black pepper.  Cover and place in the refrigerator to chill.

2) Make the mashed potatoes.  Drain the potatoes and transfer to the boiling water for 20 minutes or until easily pierced with a knife.  When the potatoes are nearly finished melt the butter in a large saucepan.  When it ceases to foam add the half and half and stir, until it begins to steam.  Drain the potatoes. Rice the potatoes into the saucepan, heating the contents gently, and stir with a wooden spoon until a desired texture is reached.  Season with salt and pepper and remove from the heat.

3) Shape and fry the meatballs.  Heat the canola oil to 375 degrees in the deep fryer or on the stovetop in the dutch oven.  As the oil reaches temperature shape 2 tbs of the meatball mixture at a time into balls.  Fry the meatballs in batches for 5 minutes, or until dark, golden brown, transferring them to the cooling rack set over a sheet pan as they finish.

4) Make the sauce.  In a medium saucepan melt the butter, adding the flour when the butter stops foaming.  Mix together with the wooden spatula until combined.  Add the chicken stock a few tbs at a time, mixing with the spatula each time.  After the first cup of stock is added you can add the remaining stock one half a cup at a time, and switch to using a whisk to stir.  When the all of the stock has been added and the sauce is smooth, maintain a gentle simmer until it has reduced by about 1/3 and begins to thicken.  At this time add the meatballs, cream, and lemon juice and stir to combine.  Season with salt and pepper.

5) Assemble the sandwiches.  Reheat the potatoes, adding a tbs of butter and splash of  milk to loosen if necessary.  Split the rolls and smear the bottom half with mashed potatoes.  Top with meatballs and lingonberry jam.  Eat the first sandwich standing over the sink like a fat kid.

Link Stew, March 2013

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The Death of a Wine Industry-  An interesting article which discusses the circumstances surrounding Algeria’s decline as a wine exporter–they were once the world’s largest.

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Domain Name Mischief- Culinary assclown Guy Fieri failed to lock up the domain which matches the name of his notoriously silly Manhattan restaurant.  A spoof ensues.

A brilliant wackjob ate nothing but monkey chow for a while.  On day 5 he starts to lose it.

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A  great blog post that discusses an art installation that sheds light on our unnecessary reliance on refrigeration.

Are you a Fat Kid? Take the Quiz.

Are you a fat kid?

It is often difficult to tell. For fat kids are not always fat.  Sometimes, they are the most fit.  They have simply developed a passion for exercise, if only to compensate for their passion for eating–hours of hot yoga every week simply to allow oneself to always order dessert.  80-mile bike rides for a six-pack and a bacon cheeseburger.

I am certainly a fat kid.  My inner fat kid is alluded to in the blog’s tagline. Specifically the “perhaps, a bit too much” part.  Fat kids are a constituency who I seek to engage the most, along with Industry lifers, and obsessive home cooks.

Write what you know.

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A Cookbook Review, Burma: Rivers of Flavor

Succulent Pomelo Salad

Succulent Pomelo Salad

Burma enters our consciousness most often with stories of humanitarian crises–violent crackdowns on peaceful protests or a corrupt government’s inept response to a natural disaster, leading to unnecessary death and suffering.  Burma is officially Myanmar, and an insistence upon calling it Burma, is a political statement in and of itself.  It suggests that the name, as well as the government is illegitimate.  Burma is ruled by an autocratic military junta, whose power is supported by drug money and a cruel and violent response to dissent.

Naomi Duguid has written a book that distracts from the unfortunate political plight of Burma, calling attention instead to its cuisine and its land’s natural beauty.  Burmese food is simple, balanced and delicious.  In its cuisine one finds a fascinating confluence of the flavors and ingredients of its neighbors, India, China and Thailand, as well as those unique and homegrown.

Rivers of Flavor is well-written and beautifully photographed.  Duguid informs the reader not only of recipes, but also about the land and people of Burma.  Her love of Burma is evident and the reader can’t help but develop their own appreciation.

The simplicity of Burmese cuisine is refreshing.  Duguid’s discussion of pantry basics is only a few pages long–but may add a few new items, such as toasted chickpea flour and dried shrimp powder to a curious chef’s repertoire.

In the dishes I have been able to prepare I have been most struck by the perfect balance of sweet, sour, savory and spicy.  The pictured pomelo salad is a fine example.  The shallots are sweet, the pomelo sour, and a savory, umami undertone is added by powdered dried shrimp.

RIvers of Flavor allows the food geeks among us to find satisfaction in adding another country’s cuisine to their toolbox.  It provides recipes superlative in their balance, simplicity, and subtle flavors.  But it also celebrates a people formerly most well-known for their victimhood, an endeavor certainly worthy of praise.

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The Modified Stephen Seagull Sandwich

My second restaurant job, and my first in the city, was at an upscale tavern.  Its money guy was an elusive cable billionaire, who I never met.  His physical presence was his longtime driver, whom he made a millionaire and would occasionally stop by wearing garish silk shirts and several pieces of jewelry.  He was a source of endless fascination to our Cuban exile dishwasher, recently released from prison, who on payday would stare at his paycheck, shaking his head while regaling us with stories of being a Miami drug dealer in the seventies.  The only thing that fascinated him more than the former driver was his young mistress, more specifically her ass.  He insisted we call him “Papi.”

The opening chef was a compulsive liar and percoset addict.  Papi once insisted he saw her kissing a short-haired woman in the basement.

Upon the cable billionaire’s death, the restaurant closed and the managing owners fled the city.

The restaurant afforded me my first city apartment and an education in the circumstances that may lead to you arriving at work to chained doors and unemployment.

I also remember a fine sandwich, the creation of the opening chef, which remained on the menu after her dismissal.  It was renamed–the restaurant had a nautical theme–as a catty parting shot at the chef who bore a resemblance to a certain action-movie star.

This is the sandwich as I remember it, several years later, with a few changes.

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Ingredients

  • long, hearty sandwich rolls, wholewheat, rye, or pumpernickel
  • thinly sliced smoked turkey
  • thick-cut bacon
  • thinly sliced tomato
  • thinly sliced green apple
  • butter lettuce
  • crumbled blue cheese mixed with mayonnaise and several dashes sweet paprika

Bittersweet Winter Fruit Salad with Persimmon and Pomegranate

One thinks of winter as a time for starches laden with butter and cream, hearty stews, and rich desserts.  There are, however, a few fruits, whose season reach their peak this time of year.  Rather than a mealy, out of season tomato tasting only of astringent cardboard, you should turn instead to winter fruits, such as persimmons, when you need to exercise a bit of restraint in the few weeks leading up to the holidays.

Persimmons are sweet, and a bit tangy, and look sort of like orange tomatoes.  The most common persimmons sold, are fuyu, which can be eaten raw, when still firm, and hichaya, which must ripe until soft, and are traditionally made into puddings.

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There is a Time to Juice

Eating Ice Cream in the Dark is my attempt to share a deep love of food and drink–its sensory pleasure, its endless variety, its fascinating role in culture and history.  But, alas, my love of food and drink possesses an element of compulsive behavior.  Winter is an excuse to eat heavier foods, which sometimes leads the inner fat kid to act out–he stuffs a stromboli with smothered cheese fries, or fills a pot pie with pasta.

Dipping the aforementioned stromboli in garlic butter is both disgusting and delicious, and for that it was a success.  But overindulgence in such things can lead to unfortunate circumstances.  Your cat may, as you recline, climb on to your belly, and with its front paws  begin to knead your soft midsection.  You will share a laugh as your significant other exclaims, “Look the cat’s making biscuits on your belly.”  And it is amusing at first, as the cat explores the softness of your stomach, tentatively..  However, the cat might not stop, after his first few pokes, but instead become seemingly transfixed, mesmerized, and continue its prodding, almost possessed, for several minutes until your belly becomes tender.  Your significant other, no longer amused, who has already with each night become increasingly frustrated with the snoring and sleepfarts, may turn away, as you notice what seems a mixture of shame and contempt enter their expression.

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