An Educated Palate

Math has never been my favorite subject. If there was one black mark on my quarterly report card, it would be filed under algebra, or calculus. Quite frankly, it’s a small miracle that anyone let me graduate with such a flimsy understanding of numbers in general. One limited concept that I can comfortably wrap my mind, and my lips around, is pi.

Okay, you got me. Not actual pi, but pie. Flaky pastry and comforting fillings both sweet and savory always make perfect logical sense. Pi Day, March 14th (3.14) is the only day of the year I’m happy to bridge the gap between baking and calculating.

This year, I’d like to present to you an appropriately educated provision. Inspired by daigaku imo, imagine a chunky sweet potato pie with a touch of Asian flare. Directly translated, daigaku imo means “university potatoes.” Though still murky in origin, the name can be traced back to two plausible explanations.

Tokyo University, sometime in the early 1900’s, saw the rise of this cultural sensation. Some say a snack shop began offering lightly fried sweet potatoes drenched in sugar syrup and tossed with sesame seeds, while others are adamant that it was a student selling these sweet and savory delights to raise funds for tuition. Either way, we have Japan to thank for yet another viral food hit.

Rather than pulling out a vat of bubbling oil, my adaptation uses only a touch of toasted sesame oil to roast the tubers to fork-tender perfection. Creamy yet still toothsome, the pale white flesh takes on greater dimension with the umami notes of soy sauce rather than plain salt, plus the acidic edge of vinegar for balance. These subtle, delicate nuances will keep tasters guessing, but this is a culinary equation that’s easy to solve.

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Wordless Wednesday: Once in a Lifetime Fine Dining

Focus \ Concord Grape, Parsnip

Maize \ Husk
Smut \ Huitlacoche, Corn, Pink Pepper

King \ Coconut, Culantro, Mango
Ink \ Korean Barbeque

Truffle \ Pine Nut, Wojap
Bone \ Mushroom, Barbeque

Heirloom \ Beans, Sassafras

Trumpet \ Cured, Blueberry

Cookie \ Lavender

Taco \ Smoke, Myoga

Rosini \ Cauliflower, Frites
Fungi \ Mushroom, Truffle

Paint \ Strawberry, Banana, Toasted Jasmine

Alinea
1723 N Halsted St.
Chicago, IL 60614

 
 

 

 

Lettuce Eat Celtuce

“Excuse me? Hi, yes, thank you. I know it’s been a while since my last visit, but I don’t see the Chengdu-style fava beans on the menu. Am I looking in the wrong section?”

Spoiler alert: I was not looking in the wrong section. Those supple pods bathed in fiery red oil, kissed by the heat of a blazing wok, were gone. In light of all the new, exciting eateries opening up everyday, few spots warrant repeat visits whenever I return to my hometown on the east coast, but Shu always drew me back in no matter how brief the trip, for another round of those inimitable fava beans. Now, bereft of my essential staple, I scrambled to amend my order. What could possibly take the place of this rare delicacy?

Not one to play it safe, naturally, my eyes drift to the most unusual option I can find. Vegetarian chicken with lettuce. Lettuce? Really? Described merely as an entree containing peppers, wood ear mushrooms, and scallion in a white garlic sauce, I pressed the waiter for details, to no avail. Not even Google translate could help, alternately suggesting that the Chinese characters might be indicating a type of celery, or asparagus, or an unidentified stem. It was perfectly peculiar.

Thus, I accidentally discovered celtuce, the greatest uncelebrated Asian vegetable to take root in Chinatown. The entire thing can be eaten, but is often sold with the leaves separated from its white stems. More versatile than your average tuber, it can be eaten raw, with a crisp texture similar to jicama or water chestnuts, or cooked, be it steamed, boiled, pickled, grilled, roasted, or sauteed, yielding a more tender bite. The flavor is mild but subtly nutty, with a slight woodsy, smoky piquancy, almost reminiscent of broccoli stem or kohlrabi.

Celtuce is almost too versatile, making it hard to narrow down the options for preparation at home. After much deliberation, I landed on a simple dish that is equally adaptable. Keep it cold and you’ve got a refreshing salad. Give it a little saute and you’ll be enjoying a hot stir fry in minutes. Toss with pasta, like al dente bucatini or spaghetti, and it’s a whole new meal.

Simple, fresh, full of crisp seasonal produce, it could become the star of your next potluck picnic. Spring is just around the corner, no matter the weather right now! Introduce your friends to celtuce with this compelling little salad, be it hot or cold.

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The Trouble with Truffles

When it comes to truffles, how much is too much? Is there even such a thing as “too much” when we’re talking about the most savory, hyper-palatable substance found in nature? Sure, it’s easy to go overboard with a few seemingly harmless extra drops of truffle oil, turning a previously balanced dish into an acrid chemistry experiment gone wrong, but that’s another story entirely. Most commercial options rely on entirely lab-created chemicals for their aroma, without a single fleck of fungus in sight. Carried by cheap filler oils, these knock-offs lack the subtle nuances, earthy richness, and depth of pure umami intensity distilled within real truffles. Dirty diamonds locked within nubby black exteriors that could just as easily be mistaken as rocks are the key to this taste of luxury that no scientist can replicate.

When you go all-in on the real deal, you’ll know the difference when you taste it. Immediately it hits you, sweeping you off your feet before that first bite even hits your taste buds. The aroma alone can stop a conversation in its tracks and turn heads, like a dazzling supermodel making a grand entrance at a party. This bombshell doesn’t need any makeup or designer clothing to captivate, though. All that brilliance and more is found within; inherent, implicit, obvious to see beyond shallow outward aesthetics.

The real trouble with truffles is that their delicate nuances begin to fade almost as soon as they’re unearthed. Part of their scarcity is due to this ephemeral quality. Even if you can get the real deal, fresh isn’t always best. Personally, my top pick is always preserved, since there’s no gambling with lack of access, nor variable quality. At least that’s the case with Truffle Hunter. There’s nowhere to hide on these short labels fronting meaty shavings of black summer truffles, lightly brined and kept pristine in extra virgin olive oil. In that two-for-one punch, you get the full-bodied fungus, AND true infused truffle oil.

Genuine luxury is sinking your teeth into one of those substantial sheets of pure umami power. Frequently recommended as a topper for crostini, that suggestion made me think of toast, which naturally leads to avocado toast, and the inspiration to embellish was unstoppable from there.

Avocado toast elevated to the status of fine fare, this breakfast staple is now fit for a crowd. Taking basic staples to the next level, a tiny dose of white truffle balsamic vinegar is blended into creamy, luscious cashew ricotta, harmonizing with the beautifully marbled slabs of black truffle sparkling on top.

Resting atop a lightly seasoned crust of crisp breadcrumbs, each layer is more decadent than the last. Buttery, bright green avocados take on a greater degree of decadence, heightened by the intense, earthy, almost nutty notes of truffles. You could always gild the lily with a finishing kiss of truffle salt… But that might just test the theory that too much is never enough.

Simply sublime, sublimely simple. It may be tough to go back to plain old avocados on bread after just one bite.

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Emergency Rations

Warranted or not, panic wrought by the coronavirus has spread to pandemic levels, faster than the illness itself. Food scarcity is a concern that most city dwellers have the luxury of ignoring, but suddenly doomsday preppers are wiping grocery shelves clear of dry beans, grains, and spices. It’s the end of days for the avid baker caught off guard. Surely it’s a temporary state of affairs, but when dire cravings strike, what’s one to do without easy access to ingredients previously taken for granted?

Lucky for you, I’m terrible at planning on a good day, so I have years of experience working with a limited pantry. Skipping past all the fancy flourishes and contemporary conveniences, you can still make superlative sweets, comparable to the most indulgent high-end baked goods.

Just plain flour, oil, sugar, and cocoa are at the heart of these treats. Embellish with nuts and chips if available, but it’s far from necessary. These basic staples hit high marks for every category; soft and tender, crisp around the edges, sweet with a touch of salt to accentuate deep chocolate flavors, they’re ready for you at the dawning of the apocalypse. The world at large may turn into a hellish land populated by zombies and shut-ins, but at least there will be dessert at the end of the day.

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