Monthly Archives: May 2007

A touch of green

Look no further than the back yard for a bit of spring flavor.

The little patch of chives in my back yard pushed through the winter thatch a couple of weeks ago and said: “Eat me.”

Well, allrighty then.

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I never appreciated chives much until I realized what they represented: A decent scallion substitute with a milder flavor, growing free in my backyard. Since then, they’ve become a perennial (heh) favorite. You don’t have to plant anything, just watch them grow and go help yourself.

Later in the season, their delicate purple flowers make pretty garnishes, as well.

So I rooted through the freezer for some marbled pork, because it was time to make one of the urchins’ favorite dinners, caramel pork.

That’s right. Caramel. Pork.

Two great flavors that go great together. If only I’d invented it.

It’s a Vietnamese dish. Their cuisine includes Kho dishes, meat or seafood simmered until tender in an unctuous broth of burnt sugar, fish sauce, ginger and garlic. The recipe I use is a mutated version of a “pork clay pot” recipe published by Charles Phan, the chef of The Slanted Door, a San Francisco favorite. I don’t have a clay pot, but I do have the metal kind, so off we go.

Don’t bother with pork loin here. You need some fat in the meat, or the sauce will suffer. Pork shoulder, also known as pork butt, or “country style” ribs are appropriate. I usually use trimmings from spare ribs, which I freeze in quart bags whenever I make barbecued spare ribs.

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You could mince the ginger and garlic more finely - but my kids don’t mind, so I don’t bother

The recipe below is a good place to start, though I usually omit the chile pepper and hard-boiled eggs, and double the garlic and ginger. Shallots give it the accurate Vietnamese air, but onion will do in a pinch. This is one of those dishes that is probably better the second day, which also gives you a chance to peel off the fat layer before you reheat it.

Caramel pork
adapted from Charles Phan

1-1/2 pounds fatty pork
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1/4 cup sugar
1 tablespoon minced garlic
1 tablespoon minced ginger
1/4 cup chopped shallots (or substitute onion)
1 small jalapeno or serrano chile, minced (optional)
2 tablespoons fish sauce
1/2 cup water
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
4 hard-boiled eggs, peeled (optional)
2 tablespoons sliced chives (or scallions)

Cooked rice

Put the oil in a pot that you have the lid to, over medium heat. Add sugar and stir a bit, and it will dissolve. Stir occasionally, and in about 5 minutes it’ll be caramelizing. When it’s reached the level of browning you like – I go for a dark amber – drop in the garlic, ginger, shallot and chile, if using, then stir. It’ll sizzle and release an intriguing aroma.

After the flavorants are soft, about 5 minutes, add the pork and raise the heat to medium high. Stir, browning the pork, for about 5 minutes or more. Add the water, fish sauce, black pepper, and bring to a boil. Lower the heat until it simmers calmly, and if using, nestle the hard-boiled eggs in the pot. Cover and cook for 30 to 45 minutes, until pork is tender, stirring once or twice.

Serve over rice, sprinkled liberally with chives. Or I suppose you could use scallions, but just try to find those in your back yard.

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Like an ice cream sundae, except it’s made of pig

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Currying flavor

If you have never enjoyed the banana-like plaintain, here’s a place to start

Kevin Purdy, a journalist working in Niagara County, wrote the following guest post. Every year or two, it seems, the student paper at the University at Buffalo does a feature on credit card debt amongst undergraduates. Financial counselors are quoted, an anecdotal tale of balance-carrying woe might be told, and a quick quote from a Visa spokesperson is sometimes thrown in near the bottom of the service piece.

Sadly, Doctor Bird’s Carribbean Rasta-Rant (3104 Main St., 837-6426) never enters the conversation. More’s the pity, since this Main Street institution could easily serve as a value-conscious meal plan while offering – and I’m estimating here – 78 times the flavor and soul of anything offered up in a dormitory dining hall.

Doctor Bird’s became, at minimum, a once-a-week tradition during my junior year at UB. I no longer find myself near South Campus much these days, but $1.50 still buys a remarkably rich, spicy, flaky-crusted treat. Throw in another buck or two for a side of plantains or “Rasta Pasta,” and you’ve got a meal that leaves nobody complaining of hunger. There is a student discount with a valid ID, but that almost feels like cheating.

The patty is the easiest point of entry for any palate, and hard to miss in the counter-top warmer. Choose a filling – chicken, beef, soy or callaloo, a leafy vegetable native to the Carribbean – and a level of spice you’re comfortable with. Choose “hot” and chances are you’ll be wishing you’d plucked a ginger beers or exotic-looking root drinks from the cooler. However you order it, you get your filling mixed with curried potatoes inside a deeply satisfying pocket.

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The patties are from New York City, but it’s an island taste

The patties are shipped up from New York City, according to the owner, who calls himself “O.G.” But ingredients for the entrees are bought locally whenever possible.

That means the goat curry uses meat from the Broadway Market – and puts it to darned good use. Juicy meat served on the bone slides off with just the gentlest push of the fork or tongue. Even in the melange of spices, the strong flavor of the meat comes through in every soft-as-baked-potatoes bite. Red beans and rice with a kick and steamed vegetables round out a meal that’s barely $10 if you add a beverage.

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Tender and toothsome goat curry anchors an exotic meal

The fried plantains at Doctor Bird’s are as good as any I’ve had in my admittedly limited experience around Buffalo. The Rasta Pasta belies its chintzy name, and the jerk-style entrees, salads and sandwiches don’t exist on the same culinary planet as similarly-labeled dishes at Applebee’s et al. Next time I’m in the neighborhood, I’m stopping in for some oxtail and perhaps a cut of the homemade Jamaican banana bread they keep in the cooler.

Doctor Bird’s is a de facto take-out spot, as limited space allows only three tables with two seats on each side. They close on Sundays and aren’t open past 10 or 11 p.m. most nights, but there’s a Jim’s Steakout next door if you arrive hungry at the wrong time.

Next time you hear a college student say they’re living off the “value menu” at their local fast food joint, let them know about the Rasta-Rant. The dollar you save might be the one they don’t have to bum off you.

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Tough tables

Menu at Per Se, Thomas Keller’s East Coast outpost. Photo by baobee.

One complaint you don’t hear too often from restaurant-goers around here is that it’s too hard to get into a place. Sure, Saturday night at 8 p.m. fills up fast in the good places. But I’ve never heard of a Western New York restaurant that was impossible to get into for months. I wish we had one.

Instead, read all about the phenomenon in a Wall Street Journal article.

“Times are tough for the mere mortal who wants to land a table at a top spot. That’s because recent changes in the restaurant world, from a new cottage industry of “table scalpers” who nab desirable seats and then resell them to the shrinking number of tables of top eateries, have turned getting reservations into a global blood sport.”

Apparently, people are scalping reservations at places like Nobu and Gramercy Tavern, at $35 a pop.

What a waste. I could have bought a salad at Le Cirque for that.

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