Monthly Archives: August 2011

Sibling #5 Craves Childhood Crack: Sweet Potato Fries with Garlic and Thai Basil

Michelle, or Shel as everyone calls her, is a stunner. She’s the only one that got our Canadian father’s fair skin and hazel eyes. Unlike some of us Shel actually attended public school in Taiwan, which meant that her superior Chinese qualified her to be the tone correctional officer in our house. It might not seem like such a big deal to use the second tone instead of the third, but when incorrect usage can change a sentence from “I caught a cold” (wo-3rd gan-3rd mao-4th) to “I fucked a cat” (wo-3rd gan-4th mao-1st) you begin to see the benefits of having someone to double-check that you are raising, dipping and dropping your voice in all the right places.

In Taiwan a favorite activity for all of us siblings after a long day of school, work and what-have-you was to head down to the local night market for some entertainment. We spent hours trying to catch tiny turtles or goldfish with a quickly disintegrating “net” of tissue paper, popping colorful water balloons with darts— and of course enjoying the tasty street food. Sweet potato fries, dusted in a secret blend of spices were ridiculously addictive and Shel’s (if not everyone’s) favorite. The “secret blend” was likely a mix of 40% spices and 60% MSG, but whatever the ingredients were it was 100% epicurean crack.

These particular night market fry-stalls were set up with a dizzying array of par-cooked items neatly arranged in front. And a large oil-filled wok sizzling behind, waiting. We would grab a little plastic basket from where it was stacked on the side and begin to peruse the options— squid, chicken, fish cakes, tofu, mushrooms and vegetables— anxiously snapping our metal serving tongs together while we made up our minds. Some nights we’d buy a mix bag, adding a little calamari (cut into strips rather than rings), chicken, or maybe green beans. But we never skipped the sweet potatoes.

Replicating this dish is a challenge in part because I can’t be 100% sure what was in the secret spice blend, but mainly because I don’t want to use MSG. However, with high quality spices (buy them as fresh as you can; I get mine from The Spice & Tea Exchange in Georgetown), sweet potatoes, garlic and Thai basil this snack is pretty spectacular—even without the controversial flavor enhancer.

3 sweet potatoes (I use the Japanese or Korean variety)
Vegetable oil
4 cloves garlic
10 Thai basil leaves
1 tsp. fried shallots * see Cook’s Note
½ tsp. garlic powder
½ tsp. onion powder
1 tsp. white pepper
1 tsp. salt

  • Cut the sweet potatoes into ½ inch thick fries.
  • The trick to really great fries—crisp with a fluffy center—is to blanch them in 300°– 325° oil till just cooked through but not golden. If you’re using a deep pan rather than an actual fryer, stir occasionally to prevent the sugary fries from sinking to the bottom and browning.
  • Remove with a spider (or your preferred straining device) onto paper towels. Thoroughly drain and set aside until you’re ready for the final step.
  • For the seasoning, place 1 tsp. of fried shallots into a spice blender. Pulse to a fine powder. In a small bowl mix together the shallot (don’t stress getting every last bit out of the tiny blender), garlic powder, onion powder, white pepper & salt.
  • Bring the oil back up, this time to 350°– 375°. Add the par-cooked fries taking care not to overcrowd the pan. Stir gently to ensure even cooking. 30 seconds before the fries are completely ready crush the garlic cloves, leaving the skins on, and toss them into the oil. Just before removing the garlic and fries throw in the basil. (Step back, this will cause the oil to splatter violently)
  • Drain everything on paper towels. Remove the papery skins and mince the garlic. Dust generously with the spice blend, adding extra salt if needed. Toss and enjoy immediately.

Cooks Note: Fried shallots are common in Chinese cooking and are readily available at your local Asian grocery store. If you have and/or prefer to use shallot powder instead that would work too.

Feast Your Eyes: Farmers’ Market Dinner

A bustling farmers’ market in late summer might be one of the most beautiful places in the world to me. I’m enthralled by the rows of red, pink, yellow and orange tomatoes, still warm from the sun. The smell of freshly cut herbs, twine bows around their stems, resting in a shady corner. Pink mountains of peaches gradually shrinking as shoppers fill their bags with the aromatic fruit. And crates of sweet corn waiting to be snatched up and grilled, steamed or turned into creamy soup.

The weekends that I’m in town, my Saturday usually begins with a trip to the Arlington Courthouse Farmers’ Market where I challenge myself to put together a meal exclusively from items purchased at the market. Below was last Saturday night’s dinner.

Summer tomatoes, sugar baby watermelon, arugula & feta cheese. Dressed with balsamic vinegar and olive oil

Pork & tarragon sausages topped with grilled onions and poblano peppers

Chicken liver pâté served with a warm baguette 

Ok, I cheated a little by serving a pâté that I had made the day before, along with a baguette from Whole Foods. There is a stand selling some pretty damn fantastic bread at the market, (I’m a sucker for their potato bread). However this particular pâté was inspired by Peter Mayle’s Encore Provence, and thus demanded a French baguette be partnered with it. Can’t argue with that logic.

This simple meal took only 10 minutes in the kitchen, and 15 at the grill… who can’t spare that kind of time?

Mr. Sweetums…  looking for a little love and perhaps a taste of the pork sausage 

Why Drive To Hana When There’s White Sand, Naked Surfers, and Grilled Fish in Makena?

Let me preface such a bold statement by saying that if you’ve never seen a tropical rain forest or waterfalls then definitely drive to Hana. It is beautiful. Winding roads and one-way bridges. Black basalt cliffs that drop off into the blue ocean. Hills so heavy with moisture that water seeps out of the rock, trickles down the sides of the slopes, and glistens off delicate maidenhair ferns and vibrant green moss. Air perfumed with the sweet smell of wild ginger flowers mixed with a ripe sour odor of tropical fruit fermenting on the ground under the trees.

But don’t drive up there expecting the dense forest to part like a botanical curtain, revealing a secluded waterfall with white aerated water cascading into a glassy turquoise pool. You will most definitely not be able to convince your companion to strip down and make passionate love to you, the cool water falling on your backs from the cliffs above. There are numerous waterfalls and waterholes, but you will share each with a dozen or so tourists dipping their white hairy legs in ash green water that seems to have taken on an oily sheen from all the diluted sunblock and bug spray in it.

Hana is gorgeous, no argument there. But if you’ve seen a tropical rainforest before and only have a few days in Maui, I would recommend spending the 6+ hours it would take you to drive to and from Hana, eating and relaxing in Makena instead.

Grab a towel and spend part of that time lying out on the warm white sand of Big Beach. It’s the largest non-developed white sand beach on the island and it is phenomenal. A pretty sudden drop about 30 feet offshore results in consistent 8-12 foot waves—hours of fun for those who enjoy boogie boarding or body surfing, and a relaxing soundtrack for nappers and sunbathers (not that I’m promoting tanning! It’s bad, very bad!)

If you’re up for a little adventure and a bit of a show, climb the rocky cliff on the far right. On the other side of the lava outcropping lies the clothing optional Little Beach. The combination of wind, waves, surfboards and nudity makes for a show that could rival Puppetry of the Penis (imagine penis origami… or maybe don’t). Nude sunbathing isn’t officially allowed in Hawaii, so if you want to return home sans tan lines this is the place. Alternatively, if you are simply curious what a naked man hunched down riding a wave looks like… Ta-da!

After a few hours of swimming (and showing), you’re apt to be a bit peckish. Luckily there are two superb dining options close by that serve my favorite type of food—meat grilled on the side of a road.

Immediately across the road from the entrance to the parking lot for Big Beach is a stall selling Ahi and Mahi Mahi sandwiches. The chef/owner of this gritty food operation is a character straight out of an Anthony Bourdain novel—bare-chested, tattooed, sporting a beard and ponytail. He has an affinity for talking inches from your face, an experience enhanced by the fact that he’s missing his right front tooth.

His 13 years in the food industry were evidenced when he cut a perfect one cm. onion ring by cupping the onion in his left hand and smoothly guiding an 8inch blade straight through the bulb with his right hand. He whipped out a disposable latex glove for handling the fish, showing that—contrary to what his personal appearance might suggest—cleanliness is a high priority.

We caught whiffs of caramelizing pineapple as we sat on a twisted log waiting for the fish to cook and were regaled with the musings of a man who clearly spends a lot of time in his own head. He told us about the night he kicked everyone off the line in a restaurant where he worked and finished the busy dinner service with only a dishwasher by his side. He bragged about the various job interviews where he threatened to punch his prospective boss. But we were repeatedly assured that he never kicks a man once he’s down—he always waits for the opponent to stand up before laying into him again. With the passion of a guidance counselor instructing a wayward teenager he cautioned us to keep our backs to a wall whenever we found ourselves in the next inevitable bar brawl.

Our host bragged that he would impersonate a crazy person if ever faced with a prison sentence, excitedly assuring us that it would earn him a little vacation on the funny farm and secure him an early release. I don’t think he’ll have to try too hard to convince anyone. Thankfully his fish sandwich is determined to outshine his intense personality.

Marinated in a secret sauce (the chef is willing to part with the recipe for a measly $10,000) and cooked to perfection over smoldering wood, the fish is sandwiched between a split bun, shredded lettuce, tomato, sweet onion and a thin slice of grilled pineapple. There are no condiments on the sandwich. The juices from the fish, pineapple and tomato provide all the sauce you need. It is fresh, smoky, flavorful and large.

If grilled fish or brawling tips aren’t for you, then stop at the Big Beach BBQ wagon, about a hundred meters or so back up the road towards Wailea. They have fish as well, but the real star is their succulent kalua pork, slow cooked the night before by the owner & operator, it’s heaped over shredded cabbage on warm tortillas or soft purple taro buns.

A salsa of tomato, pineapple, pepper and cilantro adds additional flavor and crunch. Don’t leave without slathering on one (or more) of the homemade hot sauces: guava, lilikoi (passion fruit) & XXX. Tart and spicy, they add great kick to mildly sweet tacos and sliders.

The Hawaiian sausage made of pork and pineapple that they offer was another favorite of mine. I happen to like thicker sausage casings that have a bit more resistance and rewarding spring to them. These definitely qualify. Split open, grilled on the spot and placed in a hotdog bun and topped with a bit of crunchy cabbage—these sausages are delectable.

With a full belly you can either return to Big Beach for a snooze in the sun, or head back to your hotel for a poolside piña colada… or perhaps to the privacy of your hotel room to practice some puppetry of your own. Now, doesn’t that sound better than spending six hours in a car, and unwittingly rubbing up against total strangers in a murky swimming hole?

The Palettes of TCKs: Sibling #4 Requests Chicken Wings

Sibling number four is my very beautiful sister Janai. In addition to the usual identity crises associated with TCKs Janai has had the added complication of having a foreign name. In Chinese her name (pronounced jen-ai or ren-ai) means “true love” but unfortunately, in Japanese ja-nai means “am not” or “is not”. Thus Janai spent many years of her life reluctantly being called by her second name, Clare. Guess what my darling husband jokingly said to her when they met in Taiwan? “Clare? That’s a fat girl’s name.” Thank you John Hughes and The Breakfast Club!

However the shy girl grew up into a sassy lady who often renders men speechless when she extends a manicured hand and introduces herself, often repeating her exotic name several times for the bumbling gentlemen that can’t seem to get it right.

Janai sent me the following response to my comfort food inquiry, “Remember how we used to bake all those chicken wings?? Made our own marinade with soy sauce, mustard, ketchup, and any spice we could find? That’s what I crave…basic yet delicious…it’s what I remember as ‘home’.”

Ah, I remember those chicken wings well. They were the frequent stars of our dinner table because wings were cheap and the sauce was composed of just about every spice in the cupboard, and every condiment in the refrigerator door.

We’ve been making chicken wings in my family for years, but my relationship with them wasn’t always amicable. In Japan we would cook the wings in a skillet on the stove since we only had a very small oven (most Asian kitchens aren’t outfitted with large ovens; toaster ovens are usually used for baking at home instead). Just about everything in our kitchen was stainless steel and our cooking utensils were metal, which was great for cleaning. But when the pilot light in the stove shorted (and it did, ALL THE TIME), you got a free lesson in electrostatics. Question: What happens when you happen to touch the stove with metal tongs while your other hand is resting on the metal counter? Answer: The electrical currents have a play date in your body! To this day my body tenses in preparation for a jolt whenever I smell soy sauce and sugar caramelizing.

But we left that house, and eventually Japan. Somewhere along the way we found ourselves in a bigger kitchen, and we transferred the wings from the skillet to the oven. Nowadays I bake the wings first with just a little salt, pepper, lime juice and oil, (you could add other spices like Chinese five spice or chili powder) and then glaze the wings with the sauce right before I throw them under the broiler. With this method the meat is nicely seasoned and the sweet-salty sauce gets deliciously charred and sticky under the intense broiler heat.

Hopefully your kitchen is in compliance with safety codes, so making these simple Asian wings won’t leave you permanently traumatized.

1 lb. chicken wings
½ tsp. salt
¼ tsp. white pepper
½ tsp. lime juice
1 Tbs. neutral oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 inch piece of ginger, minced
1 half medium sized onion, diced
¼ cup soy sauce
¼ cup water
1 Tbs. ketchup
1 tsp. mustard
1 tsp. sugar
2 tsp. Sriracha

  • Mix the first 5 ingredients together in a bowl. Set aside to allow the chicken to marinate and temper (come up to room temperature)
  • Preheat the oven to 400°. When oven reaches desired temperature place the chicken wings on a sheet pan and into the oven for 10 minutes
  • While the wings are baking sweat the onions, garlic and ginger in a small saucepan over medium heat.
  • Combine the soy sauce, water, ketchup, mustard, sugar and Sriracha together in a bowl. Mix well.
  • Once the onions are translucent (about 5 minutes) add the liquid mixture to the saucepan. Simmer for 5 minutes. Remove from heat. Strain. Pour the strained liquid into a large bowl.
  • Add the semi cooked chicken wings to the sauce and toss to coat. Return the chicken wings to the sheet pan and place them under the broiler (turned to high) for a couple of minutes. Remove and flip the wings. Return to the broiler and sear the other side of the wings (1-2 minutes).
  • Remove when you have the color and caramelization you want.

Can be served as is….

Or with a sprinkling of chopped cilantro…

Cilantro and extra Sriracha…

Or with a dusting of shiso furikake—shiso, the popular Japanese herb (also called beefsteak plant), flavored rice seasoning… salty, tart and slightly floral.