Sunday Supper. Wild-Striped Bass with Heirloom Tomatoes, Pea Sprouts and Yuzu Kosho Dashi.

Monday, September 12th, 2011

I was in San Francisco this weekend when I got a call from J who was at the Hollywood farmer’s market. In the previous 48 hours, I had gotten a taste of a delicious pork chop from NOPA, slurped oysters and various savory seafood soups from Hog Island Oyster Company in the Ferry Building and endured a multi-coursed San Francisco-meets-Morocco meal at Aziza. All of this amidst the mixture of cocktails and spirits entering the body. I had a fantastic weekend but there was nothing more I craved than a simple, homey meal with my wife. For us, there is nothing more comforting than a simple pan-roasted fish over farmer’s market veggies and some sort of broth. I was inspired by a fantastic meal I had at Pujol in Mexico City and since then have done numerous variations of fish-in-broth dishes. Jeni picked up some tutti frutti heirloom tomatoes (so sweet), pea sprouts and some fresh wild-striped bass from McCall’s and I hit the kitchen stove – with a glass of wine of course. Never cook without a glass of wine in hand, it’s a naked feeling!

If you haven’t had striped bass before, the texture is chunky yet moist. When you break the flesh with your fork, it will come off in sections which makes it a perfect bite every time. This dish on paper is as simple as it sounds but the magic happens when you add a special ingredient: yuzu kosho. My current love has been Shin Sen Gumi’s imported yuzu kosho that they sell for $7 from some company in Japan. And it is the best yuzu kosho I have tasted, of all the seven plus kinds I’ve tried. Ask Jonathan Gold, he’ll give you the golden nod. Yuzu kosho is a Japanese condiment made of chili peppers, yuzu peels and salt. The addition of yuzu kosho brings about a spicy citrus state that will surely open your eyeballs, but it should only be used in moderation as it can and will overpower your food. Maybe even a third world country.

Ingredients for 2 servings
2 square pieces of wild-striped bass (about 4-5 oz. is a good serving)
small heirloom tomatoes
pea sprouts
olive oil + vegetable oil

Ingredients for broth
tsuyu (Japanese soup broth sauce or noodle dipping sauce; any kind)
hon-dashi (Japanese bonito fish stock powder)
yuzu kosho

(1) Making the dashi stock. Add about 2.5 cups of water, or more if you want to drink more broth, into a pot and set on high heat. Immediately add a 2″ x 2″ piece of kombu (dried seaweed) and tsuyu dipping sauce to taste. Once you have the right amount of salinity, add 2 tablespoons of hon-dashi fish stock and bring to a boil. Lower the heat to a simmer and add about 1-2 teaspoons of yuzu kosho into the broth. Does it taste good? Did your eyeballs widen? If not, add more. The result should be a nice balance of tsuyu, bonito flavor and subtle yuzu kosho. The longer you simmer, the more the water will evaporate resulting in a salty dashi stock – not good. Before you’re ready to serve, check the salinity and add water if necessary.

(2) Getting the vegetables ready. Heat up a skillet for a good 5 mins until the pan is smoking When you’re ready, add the pea sprouts in season with salt & pepper. The reason you cook on such high heat is to get what the Chinese call “wok hei” (breath of a wok). When food is cooked at extremely high temperatures, there is a different taste in the food as the flavors are more so sealed rather than let out. Before you finish the pea sprouts, add 2 tablespoons of your dashi broth in there to add some extra flavoring, and quickly put on a plate. Sauté the heirloom tomatoes the same way with 2 shots of dashi broth at the end. Set both vegetables aside for service.

(3) Put a cast-iron skillet on the stove over medium heat and turn your oven on at 450 degrees. I normally keep my skillets on high heat for a good 8-10 mins before I sear meat but in the case of fish, you don’t want to obliterate the precious skin of bass. So medium for 3-5 mins is good. Add half vegetable oil and half olive oil into the pan. The second it starts to smoke, carefully lay the pieces of fish away from you to avoid the splashing of oil. Make sure you’ve added salt & pepper on both sides of the bass. Sear for 4-5 mins on medium heat and keep checking to see that your skin isn’t burnt – it should be a dark golden brown, but not black. Once the skin is crispy, carefully flip them over (I use tongs) and throw the whole skillet into the center of the oven. In about 3 mins, your fish should be done.

(4) Add a heap of the pea sprouts in the center of a bowl. Sprinkle in some heirloom tomatoes. Add as much broth as you’d like but don’t drown the veggies! You want to form an “island” for the fish to rest on as you want to maintain the crispiness in the bass skin. Add the bass on top, garnish with chopped chives and throw the whole plate back into the oven for about 3 mins for service. Your dish must come out hot to be fully enjoyed.

Enjoy and thanks for reading.

The Silver Lake Crawfish Boil. How to Eat Crawfish.

Thursday, July 21st, 2011

Aside from The Boiling Crab, my first true experience eating Louisiana crawfish happened over Memorial Day weekend in the wonderful city of New Orleans (NOLA). We had serendipitously met a young bartender named Lucinda at a restaurant called Sylvain who overheard my desires of attending an authentic NOLA crawfish boil. After a few cocktails and assurance that we were indeed not creepy people, she extended a warm invitation to her restaurant’s crawfish boil which was to be held in the patio of the restaurant for the local bartenders in the city (The Cure, Arnaud’s French 75, Loa, Swizzle Stick Bar, Bar Uncommon). At around 4 pm the next day, Jeni and I showed up at Sylvain not knowing what to expect. It certainly felt as though we were crashing the party, as we didn’t know a single soul. Out of the corner of my eye, we saw Lucinda and approached our sole connection and ticket to this bartender-only affair. We talked a little, grabbed a cocktail and were directed to the very back of the patio. As we walked, we could see hints of red peeking through the people we walked by. And there it was – what we had come here exactly for. On a table were three or four heaping mountains of deep red bugs with the occasional sprinkling of garlic bulbs, corn cobs, onions and halved lemons. At each table side, there were 2-3 people picking at the massacre of crustaceans. We watched how the NOLAns approached the crawfish. Some ripped off the head, sucking out the muddy head juices. Some went straight for the tail and discarded the head and claws. Some just ate the corn and nothing else. With their greasy, spice-stained hands, they would reach for their plastic mugs of beer and wash down the cajun spices. I approached the table and grabbed a few of the largest crawfish I could find. I watched the guy next to me go to work, as he effortlessly removed the head, sucked out the head juices and cracked open the tail – all while laughing and talking. I removed the head and slurped the juices out of the head. There was a nice Cajun spice taste mixed with head matter and Louisiana waters – it was amazing. My lips were ready to fall off from the heavy dosage of Cajun spice, but it was both pleasurable and painful at the same time. It tasted nothing like the ones I had at The Boiling Crab that’s for sure. Sure the crawfish were delicious, but it was all about congregating and gossiping over mud bugs and cheap beer. That humid day in New Orleans with mud bugs and perfect strangers left a lasting impression of NOLA on us. And I couldn’t wait to return here for yet another crawfish boil.

It seems the food gods had read our minds during our returning flight to Los Angeles. That same week, there was a crawfish boil to be held right in Silver Lake, Los Angeles. The boil was being thrown by a comedy troupe in Los Angeles known as Summer of Tears and one of the members (Rob Kerkovich) is the fiancé of our lovely friend, Anjali Prasertong of Delicious Coma and writer for Apartment Therapy’s The Kitchn. Anjali and I actually went to the same high school and crossed paths more than a decade later all through food.

The Summer of Tears crawfish tradition began back in 2007 when boil was thrown for one of the troupe member’s birthdays. The year before they had done an epic cookout for the birthday boy, where they flew in a “turducken” and they all looked at each other and thought, “How does one top a motherfucken’ turducken? Oh! a Crawfish Boil!” And with the exception of 2010, the mass murdering of crustaceans became an annual get-together for the troupe and friends. A Louisiana native by the name of Will Greenberg took the heavy reins as the crawfish cook and has done it every year. The crawfish population has decreased substantially due to these guys. And this year, there were over one hundred people expected to attend this mud bug massacre on a June afternoon. And with over four kegs and country music, sloppiness was more than encouraged.

We showed up in a group of five, hungry and excited to see what was in store for us. We walked down several flights of backyard stairs to reveal that we were a bit too early and too eager. There were a few people dispersed through out the yard chatting away, and no food in sight. But our eyes quickly caught sight of a man with a cowboy hat, red-striped Osh Kosh overalls with no shirt and probably rocking it Commando-style, running back and forth with large green mesh bags filled with crawfish. He looked determined – a man with a mission. This had to be the crawfish killer – Will Greenberg.

The look of a serious cook or a serial killer? What’s the difference when you really just need someone with crazy passion and determination to kill off 120 lbs. of crawfish? If it was an axe instead of the crawfish bag in his hands, we’d probably be fearing our lives. But Captain Crawkill put down the bags when he saw us and welcomed us to the crustacean slaying, directing us to the cold kegs. A jolly transplant from Louisiana, he was the perfect host for a gathering like this. And after you watch his videos, you’ll get an idea of knack for making you laugh and making you feel pretty damn uncomfortable at the same time. (Hint: Football game day, ha.)

120 lb’s of crawfish were shipped overnight from New Orleans and had to be watered down to keep the crawfish alive for the boil.

Aside from the kegs of beer, there was a cooler clearly marked for the ladies. I think I accidentally drank some of the PPD from the wrong cup – and the results weren’t favorable. Nothing happened to Captain Crawkill though when he drank from this since he was rocking it Commando-style.

Will had a large pot boiling on top of a burner for quite a while. A metal strainer was fitted within the pot along with handles for easy extraction of the crawfish. Once everyone started piling in, he went to work. He grabbed one of the crawfish bags and grabbed a pocket knife out to slash an opening. People slowly gathered around as he prepared to drop the first batch. I have to admit I felt a little bad for the mud bugs as I could see them slowly crawling around in their meshy prison, aware of their impending death. Will quickly shook the whole batch into the pot, splashing savory liquid all around – the crowd uttering audible “ooohs”. And just like that, the first batch went in and everybody turned back to what they were doing.

I’m sorry you’re so delicious. Really I am.

Immediately after dropping the crawfish into the pot, Captain Crawkill grabbed a baseball bat and proceeded to push down all the crawfish, making sure they were all submerged.

It took about 25-30 minutes to cook each batch of crawfish. During that time, Will and his cooking crew were seen running back and forth adding corn, mushrooms, onions and other goodies into the cauldron o’ crustaceans. All of that amidst the beer-drinking, loud chatter and random country music.

And finally, the moment everyone was waiting for – the sprawl. Will packed on some oven mitts and lugged the strainer out of the pot. He lifted the strainer over to the dinner table which consisted of two lined-up folding tables. As he walked, the steam from the pot fogged up his glasses and he was forced to walk around with one eye-shut. People started to form around the table as he moved towards the very end of the table. And before he dumped out the crawfish, he yelled, “Is everybody ready?!”  Everyone screamed.

He walked backwards and steadily shook out all the goodies in the strainer, making sure that there were enough mud bugs to fill the whole length of the two tables. The deep crimson red crawfish with corn, mushrooms, onions and garlic bulbs sprinkled all over the newspaper matting. As soon as Captain Crawkill dumped out the last crawfish, everyone attacked it like free samples at Costco. I counted nearly 25 people surrounded the tables, with even more people behind them trying to squeeze in. It was beautiful.

Crawfish are simply the perfect conversation starter. We saw that there were a lot of newbies like us, with the seasoned crawfish killers passing down advice on how they like to eat their crawfish. A lot of chatter, a lot of beer flowing and a lot of carcasses.

Within ten minutes, it became slim pickings as you would see people rummaging through the pile of carcasses for anything worth eating. I enjoyed eating the veggies and even ate garlic bulbs and whole onions. I bet the newspaper tasted good too, with all of that crawfish runoff.

Crawfish boils also include a tasty Louisiana staple, red beans and rice. A little speckling of the cajun spice mix over this and you’re golden.

There were quite a few Texans in attendance as one of the troupe member’s is from there. And Texans can’t live without their BBQ. As a bonus, they had delicious brisket shipped from Snow’s BBQ, which was recently ranked Texas Monthly’s #1 BBQ joint in all of Texas.  We had the pleasure of eating at Snow’s BBQ and traversing the Texas BBQ trail back in March. This young lady never had to stand for more than 2 minutes before returning back to the kitchen for a refill. It was so good.

For those attending any crawfish boils soon, I thought a quick guide would be handy so no time is wasted. This young lady was a pro and I nicknamed her Lady CrawKilla.

Done and done.

This is Rob Kerkovich, the fiancé of Anjali Prasertong of Delicious Coma, and the only man in Los Angeles worthy of wearing white jeans and matching white suspenders. After about the third round of crawfish, Rob came out with a large flower pot. There was a smirk on his face and knowing the mindset of this guy, knew he was up to something funny, or just plain out weird. Hmm Rob, why such a large pot for 5-6 flowers?!

Rob removed the 5-6 flowers and started digging through the “dirt” with a spatula, to reveal that this was actually a cake. The crowd reacted with a few “oohs” and “aahs”, thankful and relieved that they did not have to in fact eat dirt. So clever Rob! Rob was also willing to share the recipe from his leather bound family recipe tome.

The Dirt Pie as quoted by Rob Kerkovich
“This is a fairly complicated recipe, on par with anything found in the French Laundry cookbook. First, find a clean, plastic flower pot. Start with a base of chocolate cake, then a layer of Cool Whip, then a layer of chocolate pudding, then a layer of finely blended up Oreo cookies (so that it resembles, y’know, dirt). Repeat until you reach the top of the pot with the last layer being the Oreos. Each layer should be thick enough to obscure the layer beneath it. Now shove some flowers into the top and BAM! Dirt pie.”

In addition to the justful slaying of hundreds of crawfish, there was some beanbag tossing (sounds weird) and beer flipping.

The soon-to-be Mr. and Mrs. Kerkovich. Dirt pie wedding cake, Rob?

A fun, edible replica of Crawzilla. Love the Red Vines as antennaes!

Anyone wearing a Seersucker suit to a crawfish boil should immediately get first dibs on the crawfish. On the ladies too.

We were the first to arrive and nearly the last to leave. After enduring four rounds of crawfish over the course of 6 hours, I think I’m good for a long time. Many thanks to the Summer of Tears troupe, especially to Will Greenberg and Rob/Anjali for inviting us, what a great event! The food, company and overall vibe were great. I hope that you’ll get to experience a crawfish boil sometime in your life. Thanks for reading.

Summer of Tears videos. Ready to laugh and feel uncomfortable at the same time?
Teen Wolf

Sunday Supper. Khao Soi: Burmese-Influenced Egg Noodles in Thai Curry Sauce

Tuesday, July 12th, 2011

Have you ever eaten khao soi – Chiang Mai Thailand’s signature dish? Typically overshadowed by noodle dishes in Thai restaurants like pad thai, rad nar and pad kee mow, this is something I recommend to you for its beautiful colors and flavor profile. You’ve got tender chicken swimming in a rich and silky coconut curry with slippery egg nooodles, topped with Chinese pickled mustard greens and tear-inducing shallots to balance out everything. But what a lot of people don’t know that this dish isn’t originally from Thailand, but rather a surviving memory of centuries of migratory movement due to political turmoil, war and general commerce originating in the southern Chinese province, Yunnan. But enough of the history, which I’ll delve into a much longer posting.

The first time I had what I thought was khao soi, was in Luang Prabang, Laos back in 2009. I did not enjoy Lao food growing up because I was an Asian kid trying to assimilate with my pre-dominantly white and Latino classmates. It’s been a mission of my mine to see where my father grew up and ultimately, taste the food I had grown up with for a substantial part of my life. So I told myself I would trace back to my roots one dish at a time. One night, we were walking around a Lao/Hmong night market looking for food. I of course, gravitated towards the noodle stand. I was searching for a dish I had grown up with called khao poun, which is a delicious, spicy fish curry and rice noodle dish eaten lukewarm. This particular stand didn’t have it but instead offered something called khao soi (pictured above), which to me looked like Vietnamese pho with a nice scoop of fried garlic and shallots. The lady didn’t have to put a gun to my head to try this. But as I ate it, I knew it was definitely not pho – but a delicious soup noodle topped with a dollop of pork, tomato, chile, spices and red curry paste which had to be mixed in with the broth. Once mixed in, the broth looked brownish orange. The noodles to my surprise were not the standard rice noodles you’d see in pho, but a thin round noodle that is quite similar to Guilin, Yunnan or Vietnamese bun bo hue noodles. I learned that khao soi literally means “rice chopped” or “rice cut”, thus the usage of rice noodles. It was amazing – I ended up asking for another bowl.

When I got back to Los Angeles from Southeast Asia, I was hot on the Lao food trail and started asking various restaurants in Thaitown if they offered khao soi. A lot of people don’t know this but a good majority of the Thai restaurants are either owned by Laotians or have Lao chefs. And a lot of them have secret menus that are hidden from you if you don’t look Thai. The two countries are next to each other and the food and language share some sharp similarities. When I found a place that did offer khao soi, I was stoked. I saw the waitress come out of the kitchen with my bowl of khao soi and I got my chopsticks ready. To my disappointment, what I saw in front of me was a bowl of egg noodles in curry with crispy noodles on top. Wait, wait, wait! What is this? This is curry! Khao soi is supposed to be in clear broth right?  Well I had to face the music and what was apparently the Thai version of khao soi – and it was delicious! Serendipitously, I had fallen for this comforting curry noodle dish called khao soi. Here is my version compiled with recipes found online and what I’ve tasted in restaurants. Use this as a starting ground as you may like it spicier or thicker.

Serves 4-6 people
1 pack chicken thigh (chopped into pieces) or drumsticks (skin-on)
1 pack Chinese pickled mustard greens (roughly chopped)
2 large cans of coconut milk
3 tablespoons Thai red curry paste
3-4 heaping tablespoons curry powder
1/2 heaping tablespoon turmeric
5-10 dried red chiles
1 tablespoon Coriander seeds (mashed with mortar & pestle/food-processed)
4-5 1/4″ ginger slivers
3 smashed garlic cloves
Chopped red onion or shallots (thinly sliced) – garnish
Fish sauce
Chicken broth or water
Wide egg noodles or Thai “ba mi” dried egg noodles
Wide egg noodles (a few strands for frying) or slivered wonton skin chips
Chinese hot chili oil (辣椒油)
Canola/vegetable oil

(1) First thing I would do is cook your wide egg noodles, not skinny “chow mein” style. I prefer the fresh kind over the dry, but that’ll work too. In a boiling pot of water, add 5 pinches of kosher salt and a tiny bit of oil. Cook noodles super al dente (about 3-4 minutes), because you will need to shock it in ice water to stop the cooking. Strain, dry, mix in some oil and set aside. You will microwave this briefly upon service but note that this dish is not served piping hot dish, but also not at room temperature.

(2) In a pot, add some oil and sauté the garlic cloves and dried chiles until fragrant over medium heat. Careful not to burn the garlic or chiles. Add 3 tablespoons of Thai red curry paste and using a spatula, really break apart the paste so that it’s smooth. Then add the curry powder, turmeric and mashed coriander seeds and stir everything together to form the base for khao soi curry. Stir for about 3-4 minutes to bring out the flavors.

(3) Add the chicken thigh or drumsticks in and sauté for another 3-4 minutes and lather up all the chicken with as much of the paste as possible.

(4) Add 1 full can of coconut milk and stir well. This is your sauce base. If you want to make it thicker, slowly add in another can. If you want it thinner, just stay with 1 can. I went ahead and did 1.5 cans and about 1/2 a can of chicken broth. It’s up to you.

(5) Add fish sauce for salinity, add sugar to balance out the salinity, for that signature sweetness of coconut curry. Also decide if you would like more curry powder, turmeric and coriander. And one last check with the thickness – I ended up adding chicken broth to dilute it. If the curry is too rich the noodles will be too moppy – it has to be just right. Not too goopy, not too watery. Let the curry boil over low-medium heat for about 20-30 minutes to really marry the flavors. Longer the better, as the chicken will become even more tender, especially if you’re using drumsticks.

(6) Fry up a few strands of the egg noodles (fresh or dry) until slightly brown and crispy. Lightly break a few pieces as this used for texture. If you prefer wonton skins, cut out 1.5″ x 0.75″ slivers and fry them until crispy. Set aside on a paper towel.

(7) Make a mound with your egg noodles, or more so an island for presentation. Sprinkle a tiny bit of water over your egg noodles and heat it up in the microwave for about 30 seconds. Ladle in some curry around the noodles, creating a curry moat – adding the chicken on top of the noodle island. Garnish with shallot slices, cilantro, Chinese pickled mustard greens and your crispy noodles/wontons. Serve with Chinese hot chili oil (辣椒油) on the side. Enjoy.

Here are a few Thai restaurants in Los Angeles that serve khao soi. I’ve ranked them from favorite to least favorite. In all, most are pretty damn good and I’ve had to use price as a way to differentiate.

(1) O-Chai Restaurant ($6.95)
820 N Western Ave #101
Los Angeles, CA 90029
(323) 463-0634

O-Chai really offers a beautifully balanced bowl of khao soi. But I wouldn’t recommend anything else here as they seem to focus on selling a lot of the bastardized Thai dishes to the pre-dominantly non-Thai clientele. They get a huge plus for offering drumsticks in their khao soi though, when other places are either giving you super dry chicken breast or slightly tough chicken thigh.

(2) Pailin Thai Cuisine ($6.75)
5621 Hollywood Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90028
(323) 467-6775

Pailin also serves a solid bowl of khao soi, but I give the edge to O-Chai for the braised drumstick. And at $6.75, it is the cheapest out of the bunch! The food overall here is excellent and would recommend this place for an overall lunch/dining experience. Owners are super nice as well.

(3) Spicy BBQ Restaurant ($8.95)
5101 Santa Monica Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90029
(323) 663-4211

I think most people will go here because it is the only place for khao soi. But as my #3 pick, it’s clear that I have found other places I like more. Spicy BBQ is very good, but I feel the curry is way too thick and rich. But in all fairness, I have come here when the Aunt/owner wasn’t cooking. Her nephew actually made a much lighter curry and it was great. But at $8.95, go to O-Chai or Pailin.

(4) Jitlada Restaurant ($7.95)
5233 W Sunset Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90027
(323) 663-3104

Jitlada has consistently served good food over the years but I’m afraid that khao soi is not their specialty. I think you’ll have better luck with their other 2,189 items on the menu. The curry has the flavor, but the egg noodles were soggy and the portion was dismal. There was simply no love put in this dish.

(5) Wat Dong Moon Lek ($8.49)
4356 Fountain Ave
Los Angeles, CA 90029
(323) 666-5993

This is a hangout for young Thais, but I really never enjoyed their noodles that much. The khao soi here is watery, soggy noodles and just not presented nicely. They have some rice dishes here that are decent though. I wouldn’t bother with WDML.

(*) Bulan Thai Vegetarian Kitchen
4114 Santa Monica Blvd
Silver Lake, CA 90029
(323) 913-1488

There is hope for vegans that want to try this dish. Give it a shot. When you decided to eat meat, go to O-Chai or Pailin.

Thanks for reading. Hope you get to enjoy this amazing dish sooner than later.