Run Down Runaround

Walking into Philip Gelb‘s underground restaurant, you never know quite what to expect for dinner, no matter how carefully you study the menu in advance. It’s been many months now since I had the luxury of that fully immersive, in-person experience, but there are some moments indelibly imprinted in my memory.

It was a taste unlike any other I had encountered before, being shamefully uneducated on the entire Caribbean culinary canon in general. Leading with heady aromatics, simultaneously fiery hot yet creamy and soothing, it’s both familiar and entirely foreign. Tender vegetables enveloped in a voluptuous broth, almost thick enough to qualify as custard, smoldered quietly in deep earthen bowls. Dissecting the fundamental building blocks, the spices didn’t appear particularly exotic, nothing terribly esoteric; the combination of seemingly discordant elements, mixed with a generous pinch of technique, is where the true magic happens.

Run down stew is a staple of Jamaican cuisine, typically made with seafood, but no two cooks make it quite the same way. Coconut milk is the only constant, utterly irreplaceable component. Long simmered over low heat, the rich broth reduces to concentrate the flavor, thicken to a velvety consistency, and take on a subtly toasted, nutty aroma. Flavor like that doesn’t come out of a can; time and patience are really the most important ingredients here.

The genesis of the name is a bit murky, some attributing it to the way it’s cooked down and some of the more delicate vegetables fall apart. Personally, I’d like to believe that it comes from the ability to revive anyone who’s feeling a bit run down themselves. Forget about watery chicken soup; this stuff can truly soothe the soul.

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Serial Stalker

Watery. Stringy. Bitter.

These insults are regularly lobbed at celery by picky provocateurs, myself included. Provided as an afterthought alongside buffalo wings, or stuck unceremoniously into a bloody Mary, it’s the last vegetable I would ever pick off the crudites platter. Even raw cauliflower florets have more appeal when angling for that last smear of hummus.

Limp stalks with little flavor to speak of, they’re all fiber, no flavor. Digestible dental floss, if you will.

Despite that, somehow, celery has wormed its way into the very foundation of French cuisine, thus cementing its place in the greater culinary canon abroad. Making up a third of the classic mirepoix, it seems like every soup, stew, sauce, braise, and beyond calls for one or two of these stringy green sticks. That’s how I end up with an abundance of the very vegetable I despise: Find a new recipe, buy a whole bundle, use about 1/30th of it. Rinse and repeat.

Still, I do staunchly believe that anything can be made delicious with the right treatment. Besides, I’m not one to waste perfectly good food, even if it’s not my favorite. Borrowing a page from childhood snacks to appeal to basic cravings, I sought inspiration from good old ants on a log. Thick, sticky peanut butter filling the the void with sweet raisin “ants” marching down the line, celery is merely the vehicle, adding mostly crunch, with a subtle salty undertone.

All grown up in a simple, crisp slaw, this is the recipe to win over celery haters. Texture is absolutely essential, no matter how you prep your celery; floppy stalks are never acceptable. If they get a bit tired waiting around in the vegetable crisper, slice about an inch off the bottoms and pop them in a jar of ice water, like a vegetal bouquet. In about an hour, the cells will absorb water and reinflate, good as new.

Having “too much” celery just became a very good problem, indeed.

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Reveling in Rusticity

“Rustic” is one of my least favorite words. Plain and simple, it comes off as a measured euphemism for crude, unpolished, unprofessional, or downright poor quality. Applied to houses, pottery, or cooking, it just strikes the wrong chord, like a polite guest biting their tongue. They really want to tell you that they hate your decorating sense, or they’d rather eat a bale of hay than dig into your latest culinary disaster, but they’re too kind to say that.

It’s not a bad effort at all, they’ll insist. Perfectly rustic!

Nikujaga, literally “meat and potatoes,” is classic yoshoku for the soul. Westernized Japanese food at its finest, it has the unfortunate distinction of fitting that bill as “rustic” to many. Though meant as a term of endearment, I can’t help but hear it as an insult. Sure, it’s a homely stew that would never make headlines or start a viral craze, but there’s a real art to layering in rich flavors using minimal ingredients.

It doesn’t take a master chef to whip up this one-pot meal, but don’t do yourself a disservice by downplaying the deeply satisfying layers of flavors.

Between the salt and fat, protein and starch, it’s a foolproof approach to pure, unadulterated comfort food. Double it for a crowd, halve it if you’re short on ingredients, prepare it in advance, freeze in portions and thaw out as needed; this is a dish that will bend to your will without threatening to break.

It takes real finesse to craft a dish so well-balanced. The last thing I would ever call it is “rustic.”

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Honey-Do List

I think we can all agree that the end of year 2020 cannot come soon enough, for all its trials and tribulations. However, I’ll settle for striking a line through the year 5780 for now. Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year arrives at sunset tonight. Offering an opportunity for a fresh start, rebirth and renewal, the significance of this holiday feels especially salient this time around.

Apples and honey are practically synonymous with the occasion, expressing edible wishes for a sweet new year. There’s usually a loaf of challah on the table, a lustrous golden crust shining beside tall pillar candles, perfumed with that same nectarous sweetener, too. In celebrations past, maple syrup was the default replacement, and plain bread the only alternative. Now we have truly ambrosial bee-free honey, either store-bought or homemade, and egg substitutes galore.

Rather than simply veganizing the classic round loaf, I felt that we could all use an extra measure of sweetness to rebound from such a miserably bitter 12-month cycle. Honey cake is a common addition to the festive table, but probably not like this one.

Kasutera, the Japanese interpretation of Portuguese castella sponge cake, is the perfect non-traditional dessert for Rosh Hashanah. Light and fluffy, yet still dense and rich, it glows with a golden interior crumb singing with floral aroma. The top and bottom are deeply caramelized from the high sugar content, but the interior remains as bright as a sunny day. Having the opportunity to enjoy such delicacy, tenderness, and indulgence strikes me as an ideal catalyst for a truly sweet new year on the horizon.

Chag sameach! Sweetest wishes for the year 5781!

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Achieving the Impossible

Nothing is impossible anymore, now that Impossible is more prevalent than ever.

When The New York Times published an article by J. Kenji López-Alt breaking down the best ways to cook Impossible meat in full scientific detail, I bookmarked it in about a hundred places.

My friends are just as crazy as I am, and one particularly special man sent me a package of this high-end meatless ground as a present. Perhaps in this current era, true love is receiving raw vegan beef in the mail. Distribution has increased exponentially recently, through Trader Joe’s and Walmart, in addition to online sales. Never has the meatless miracle been more accessible. Mere months ago, when it was scarce in local markets, I was mining every possible resource just to get one bite of the action.

I had been saving it for something really special, not sure how to make the most of its full potential. When it suddenly became one of the few fresh proteins I had on hand thanks to early COVID-19 shortages, that was its unexpected opportunity to shine.

The recipe for vegan Turkish kebabs with sumac onions and garlic-dill mayonnaise in that same piece turned out to be perfect. I had to make some modifications, using all dried herbs instead of fresh, and forgoing the cherry tomatoes in a moment of forgetfulness. I also cooked them in my air fryer at 370 degrees for 13 minutes instead of pan-frying, for the sake of simplicity, and less splatter.

Admittedly, my experience with animal-based protein is limited at best, but these skewers were unmistakably meaty; deeply savory, rich and fatty in the way that no basic vegetable substitute could achieve. Pulled off the skewers, I could easily see these nuggets happily tangled in a nest of spaghetti, treated as finger food for [small, socially distant] parties.

Would this recipe taste as good with any of the other comparable competitors? Quite frankly, it’s Impossible to say for sure.