Friday, June 26, 2009

Kick Out the Jam

Had a bowl of strawberries in the fridge that were probably a day away from getting dumped in the garbage. But as my dad always says, “to waste is a sin.” So I decided to make jam, with a kick.

Strawberry-Chipotle Jam
about a quart of strawberries, hulled, quartered, and mashed with a potato masher
1/2 cup sugar
juice of 1 lemon
zest from 1 orange
a pinch or two ground chipotle, to taste

Combine first four ingredients in a heavy skillet and bring to a gentle boil over medium-high heat. Cook, stirring frequently, until thickened, about 10 minutes. Stir in chipotle and let cool. Store in a glass jar.

But wait, that’s not all. This tart, sweet, and spicy spread also inspired a late-night snack—a grilled turkey wrap with strawberry-chipotle jam and blue cheese. Nathan likened it to a savory Pop Tart, which sounds like a great idea to me!

Friday, June 19, 2009

Hoppy Hour

Ever wonder why it's called India Pale Ale? Say what you will about the evils of colonialism, but it’s thanks to the British empire that we have IPA, created out of demand on the part of colonial troops stationed in the subcontinent during the 18th and 19th centuries. It’s thought that the flavor and aroma of the extra hops, along with its elevated alcohol content, gave IPA the fortification it needed to withstand the long voyage between London and Bombay without spoiling.

Since I’m not much of a beer drinker myself, Food Comma enlisted resident ale expert NLS to taste-test a few IPAs for this week’s drinks feature.

Lagunitas Brewing Company
Petaluma, CA
$8.99 per six-pack at Big Mac’s, Silver Lake

This is my go-to beer, hands down, the workhorse IPA that I so crave. Back in ’93–’99 when I was in Michigan, I would by default buy Labatt’s. Something I knew I would like, no experimentation necessary. In 2009 this has become my Labatt’s: nuthin’ fancy, dependable, steadfast, and true. Tonight, the night belongs to Lagunitas IPA. Ahhhhhh... –NLS

Stone Brewing Company
Escondido, CA
$13.99 per six-pack at Cap ’n’ Cork, Los Feliz

According to the liner notes on the back (do beers have liner notes?), Stone Ruination IPA not only has 100+ IBUs, which stands for International Bitterness Units, but also will render any food or drink thereafter bland, in effect “ruining” your ability to settle for lesser drinks. A few sips into my first one, I wasn’t sure if this was so much of a good thing. The hops content seemed a little too extreme, way too bitter—and typically I like bitter. Must come back to and try again. Hey, I thought Lagunitas was extreme the first time I tried it. –NLS

Shipyard Brewing Company
Portland, ME
$8.99 per six-pack at Cap ’n’ Cork, Los Feliz

Interested in trying an IPA from the East Coast, I was happy to find this IPA at the Cap. Now I’m not sure to blame the Cap or their distributor or if I have been the victim of psych-mology. Just prior to popping the bottle I notice one of those “freshness date” things. Well, the thing said “Best enjoyed by December 07.” Uh-oh. My first impression: soap and tea. Not ideal. Next time will remind myself to check for dust on the bottle. –NLS

Friday, June 12, 2009

TV Dinner

Though Top Chef Masters might sound like a head-to-head battle between the former finalists of all the previous Top Chef seasons, this spinoff instead pits some of the country’s most renowned chefs against each other in the familiar “quickfire” and elimination challenges for the benefit of the charity of the winning chef's choice. The first episode aired this week, and according to Twitter, it was the highest rated debut of any series that has ever premiered at 10 p.m. on a Wednesday on the Bravo network. Way to go.

The level of experience and professionalism of the chefs might preclude the trash talking and petty dramas that help make the regular series so fun to watch, but it was definitely refreshing to see these contestants behaving maturely, dealing in a respectful manner with the critiques of Girl Scouts and the difficulties of cooking in dorm room toaster ovens, instead of whining like little bitches. But the whole rating system with the stars—from 1 to 5, including 1/2 stars, like in a restaurant review, for a possible 20 stars after averaging the scores from the quickfire challenge and then adding the ratings of the three judges after the elimination challenge—is cumbersome, clearly. Who wants to do math while they’re watching TV?

Dinner on the table

Anyway, being that my brother Daniel hosted the season finale of Top Chef last February, it was my turn to have him over for the Top Chef Masters premiere. And not to be outdone by his fabulous Indian feast, I cooked up a Southeast Asian spread featuring Thai grilled chicken with hot and sweet dipping sauce, a Yunnanese take on mapo tofu flavored with ground pork and chile oil, and a chile-spiced cucumber salad.

All the recipes were from Hot Sour Salty Sweet: A Culinary Journey Through Southeast Asia by Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid (not to be confused with Tangy Tart Hot and Sweet by Top Chef’s own Padma Lakshmi).

A cookbook for the coffee table

Measuring nearly 2 feet across when open and weighing over 5 pounds, it’s really more a coffee table book than a practical everyday cooking guide. But the recipes, each of which includes a tidbit about its specific region or an anecdote about the dish, are superbly written and easy to follow. Just look at the results.

Grilled chicken with hot and sweet dipping sauce

The best part, of course, is the leftovers. Nathan decided to skip the salad for his lunch the next day, so I used the spicy cucumbers in a banh mi–inspired baguette sandwich.

Leftovers two ways

Here are recipes for some of the above dishes, from Hot Sour Salty Sweet:


1 Tbs peanut or vegetable oil
3 scallions, trimmed, smashed flat with the side of a cleaver, cut lengthwise into strips, and then cut crosswise into 1-inch lengths
1/4 cup (about 2 oz) ground pork
4 blocks fresh tofu (about 1 1/2 lbs), cut into 3/4-inch cubes
2 to 3 Tbs Hot Chile Oil (recipe follows, or store-bought)
1 tsp salt, plus a pinch
1/8 tsp freshly ground Sichuan pepper, or more to taste*
1 tsp cornstarch, dissolved in 1 Tbs water

Place all the ingredients near your stovetop. Heat a wok over high heat. Add the oil and swirl to coat, then toss in the scallions, reduce the heat to medium-high, and stir-fry briefly. Add the pork and stir-fry, breaking up any clumps with your spatula, until it has all changed color, about 1 minute. Pour off any water that has drained out of the tofu cubes and add the tofu, chile oil, salt, and pepper to the wok. Raise the heat, turn the ingredients gently to mix well, and cook for 30 seconds to 1 minute. Stir the cornstarch paste, add to the wok, stir to blend, and cook for another 20 to 30 seconds until the sauce thickens.
Turn out on to a plate or into a shallow bowl. Serve hot or at room temperature, to accompany rice or noodles.
Serves 3 to 4 with rice and one or more other dishes

*I don't have Sichuan pepper so I used freshly ground black pepper.


1/2 cup peanut or vegetable oil
3 Tbs dried red chile flakes

Heat the oil in a wok or skillet. As soon as it starts to smoke, toss in the chile flakes, taking care not to splash yourself, and remove from the heat. Let stand until completely cool, then transfer to a clean dry glass jar and store in a cool place. If you wish, in several days you can strain out the chiles and store them separately or discard them, leaving you with just a gleaming orange hot oil.
Makes about 1/2 cup oil


2 Tbs Pepper-Coriander Root Flavor Paste (recipe follows)
2 to 3 Tbs Thai fish sauce

3 pounds chicken breasts or breasts and legs, chopped into 10 to 12 pieces

Hot and Sweet Dipping Sauce (recipe follows)

Place the coriander root paste in a large bowl and stir in the fish sauce. Place the chicken pieces in the marinade and turn to coat well. Let stand, covered, at room temperature for about 1 hour or in the refrigerator for as long as 3 hours.
Heat a grill or preheat the broiler. If using a grill, place the chicken pieces 4 to 5 inches from the flame, bone side down, and grill until the bottom side is starting to brown, about 6 to 8 minutes. Then, turn over and cook until golden brown on the other side and the juices run clear when the meat is pierced.
If using a broiler, put the chicken pieces in a lightly oiled broiling pan, bone side up, place 4 to 6 inches from the broiler element, and cook for 8 to 10 minutes, or until the chicken is starting to brown. Turn the pieces over and broil for another 8 minutes, or until the juices run clear.
Transfer the chicken pieces to a platter and serve with the dipping sauce and plenty of sticky rice.
Serves 6 as part of a rice meal


2 tsp black peppercorns
5 to 6 large cloves garlic, coarsely chopped (about 2 Tbs)
3 Tbs coarsely chopped coriander roots*
Pinch of salt
1 tsp Thai fish sauce

Place the peppercorns in a mortar with the garlic and pound to a paste. Add the coriander roots and salt and pound to a paste. This will take 5 to 10 minutes; if you have a small blender or other food grinder that can produce a smooth paste, use it instead. Stir in the fish sauce. Store in a well-sealed glass jar; this keeps for 4 days.
Makes 2 to 3 Tbs paste

*I don't know where to find coriander with the roots still attached, so I just used coarsely chopped stems.


1/2 cup rice or cider vinegar
1/2 cup sugar
1 to 2 cloves garlic, finely minced
1/4 tsp salt
1 1/2 tsp dried red pepper flakes

Place the vinegar in a small nonreactive saucepan and heat to a boil. Add the sugar, stirring until it has completely dissolved, then lower the heat to medium-low and let simmer for 5 minutes.
Meanwhile, using a mortar and pestle or a bowl and the back of a spoon, pound or mash the garlic and salt to a smooth paste. Stir in the pepper flakes and blend well. Remove the vinegar mixture from the heat and stir in the garlic paste. Let cool to room temperature. Store sealed in a glass jar in the refrigerator for up to 2 days.
Makes about 1/2 cup sauce