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Monday, October 22, 2007

Can you say fall-off-the-bone in Afghan?

How's this for a story: local favorite Afghan restaurant in San Francisco named "The Helmand" located on the edge of North Beach and Chinatown closes down. Its manager moves to Arizona to set up shop because he's told there isn't a single Afghan restaurant there. I'm glad he did. I would return any day to savor his amazing lamb shank, but more on that later.

We drove by Kabab Palace -- Cuisine from Afghanistan a few times thanks to its prominent location. Curious, we walked in, only to find out it had been three days since it opened. Armed with a huge appetite and even larger party, we ordered a good sampling. The top photo features two appetizers that can be ordered as entrees: aushak, a ravioli filled with leeks and scallions, served on a sauce of yogurt mint and garlic, topped with ground beef and mint; and mantwo, homemade pastry shell filled with onion and beef, served on yogurt and topped with carrots, yellow split-pea and beef sauce. Interesting factoid: the word, "mantwo," used for these ethereal dumpling-like things is the same as "mandoo," used for Korean dumplings, and "manti," tiny dumplings served with yogurt in Turkish cuisine.

Both appetizers were mild and the flavored yogurt sauce complemented the dumplings nicely, but I liked the aushak better, only because I thought the ground beef inside the mantwo was a bit dense. It may well be the garlic-infused yogurt sauce on the aushak that did me in. It helped that the bright white yogurt tinged with sprinkles of green from the mint and red from the meat sauce looked vibrant and inviting.

Let me jump to the best dish, hands-down: qabelee, a pilaf-type rice baked with chunks of lamb shanks, raisins and glazed carrots. This type of rice is called "pallow," and is described as basmati rice boiled then drained of water, seasoned with vegetable oil, cardamom, cinnamon, nutmeg, cumin seeds and black pepper caramelized and then baked. That's a pretty elaborate preparation of the rice. But the star of the dish was the lamb shank, in all its fall-off-the-bone glory. Lamb isn't usually the most popular meat, but my companions were devouring it. The lamb was buried inside a mountain of the rice topped with raisins that added a tinge of sweetness to the rice and lamb combination. It was like discovering a treasure tucked inside that was waiting for its shining moment. I can't think of a better way to eat lamb shanks.

Sabzi challow was another good lamb and rice dish but slightly different. It was lamb loin and the challow rice is made in a similar way to pallow rice but with less seasonings. I liked the spinach that came with the lamb, but some grains of rice of the challow were dried out and hurt when I bit into them.

My third favorite dish was chapendaz, beef marinated, grilled and served on a sauce of grilled tomato, hot peppers, onion and cumin seeds served with lentils and spinach rice. I liked that the beef was cooked medium as requested, although I'm a medium rare kind of person (family-style dining has its pitfalls). We also had mourgh challow, a chicken dish infused with spices and sauteed with yogurt, cilantro and curry, which was similar to chicken tikka masala but less spicy. Koufta challow featured rice with beef meatballs sauteed with sun-dried tomato, hot peppers and green peas in a tomato sauce. The meatball dish looked a lot better than it tasted. The meatballs were too densely packed and felt dry.

What pulled the flavors together was the condiments trio that included "chatnis," the Afghan word for "chutneys." Cilantro chatni was my favorite, which tasted almost identical to the Indian variety, bu the other red chatni was made out of chili peppers and there was a yogurt and dill sauce that added a refreshing touch to the meat dishes that could feel heavy at times.

All of these delectable dishes were washed down with the perfect drink -- green tea with cardamom. Service was great and I would definitely recommend this place. It also has a lunch buffet I have yet to try but I'm sure it'll be as well-prepared with care and attention to detail as the dinner dishes.

Kabab Palace
Cuisine from Afghanistan
710 W. Elliot Rd., Suite 108
Tempe, AZ 85283
(480) 775-6288

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Everything that a Lamb Stew Should Be

I am so excited I found yet another gem in the San Gabriel Valley. Even though I can't say I've tried everything or gone five times, I feel good giving it a solid endorsement because it hit the spot in such a big way.

I had read much about the fine Muslim Chinese food haunts and finally made my way to China Islamic in Rosemead. The lamb hot pot (called Lamb Stew Warm Pot -- we got the small size) was excellent, as was the sesame green onion bread. There were a good number of lamb dishes, not surprisingly, and I went with what was most recommended on message boards. Our waiter told us the hot pot would take 20 minutes (made fresh to order!) and we were in no hurry.

The best part about the hotpot was the ultra-tender, fall-off-the-bone chunks of lamb that were so incredibly succulent that two of us had no trouble totaling all the bone-in pieces of lamb in the pot. And it was a big pot. The silky pieces of tofu, vegetables and glass noodles harmonized with the aromatic herbs and spices that went into the hotpot made it such a pleasure to slurp and dunk the bread in that we surprised ourselves by barely leaving any juices in the pot.

I detected some nutmeg and cumin, but the most pronounced flavor that distinguished this dish from other hot pots was aniseed, which has a slightly liquorice-like undertone. I think there were fresh sprigs of cilantro topped on the soup that gave it a very refreshing finish.

Now for the bread. You can get thick or thin sesame green onion bread and I opted for the thick one because I thought that would be more authentic. And thick it was -- a bit too much so for me. But the crust was perfectly crispy sprinkled with toasted sesame seeds and the dough had chopped green onions integrated into it. It was good by itself and did a decent job of soaking up the juices in the pot. I would probably get the thin bread next time, which looked more manageable. I'm just not a huge fan of overly doughy breads.

My only Muslim Chinese food experience prior to this was in Xian after visiting a mosque nearby. We were obsessed with trying local places that wouldn't be touristy, and were directed to a hole-in-the-wall that served only one thing -- soup with soaked pieces of bread torn by the eater. I don't remember what it was called but do recall loving it despite the laborious task of tearing the bread into very small pieces. When my lazy ways prompted me to tear bigger chunks into the soup, the local patron we were sharing a table with gestured to produce smaller chunks -- much smaller chunks. I complied. It was worth it.

Back to China Islamic, we also had the Shredded Chicken with Bean Sprouts and Dried Bean Curd that was a stir-fry with vegetables. It was bland; I wouldn't recommend it. The restaurant was initially empty on a weekday but later got a bit noisier with kids frantically running around as more families occupied large round tables with lazy susans.

I will definitely return to sample more.

China Islamic
7727 E. Garvey Avenue
Rosemead, CA 91770
(626) 288-4246

Saturday, October 6, 2007

Soups Up (the hearty seafood variety)

On top of the good food I had in San Francisco restaurants, the icing on the cake was that I was invited to a dinner party cooked by a master chef in training who made the most amazing garlic bread and heartwarming seafood stew.

The menu was simple yet hearty and flavorful.

We started out with Belgian endives topped with a modified Caprese salad of sweet tomatoes, balls of mozarella and shredded basil seasoned with oil, garlic and balsamic vinegar (she may some other secret ingredient I wasn't aware of). It was great because while I'm not a huge Belgian endives fan, the bitterness of the vegetable complemented very nicely with the refreshing and garlicky salad topping. It was also a treat not having to cut each piece of tomato and making sure each morsel contained the threesome combination that make a Caprese salad great. No fussing -- I just scooped it up with an endive, or bread later when we ran out of endives.

Now for my favorite part of the meal -- the garlic bread. While she didn't make the bread herself (courtesy of Il Fornaio), she brushed the chunky slices with a divine mixture of olive oil and garlic before placing them face-down on a nonstick grill pan and grilling them to perfection, crispy and soft at the same time, complete with grill marks. I know that an actual BBQ grill would do the trick better, but since I don't have one and won't get one anytime soon, I vowed to treat myself to one of those pans soon.

Needless to say that the bread topped with the Caprese salad was even better than the endives. You could say I had bruschetta, then, although the correct pronunciation of the beloved appetizer and snack topped with anything from tomatoes to prosciutto is much debated (is it brus-ke-ta or brus-she-ta? We hear it's likely the former and others have said both are correct, but maybe I need to consult my Italian sources in Bologna to weigh in).

We had to police guests from eating all the bread so we could use it to soak up the juices of the wonderful seafood stew called cioppino. I'd like to share a unique cioppino recipe our host created from multiple sources. The cioppino was extremely filling but it felt ok indulging because it was fish, clams, shrimp and veggies -- stuff that's good for you in moderation, of course. In short, it was the perfect comfort food for a cold day.

I'd like to thank our host, JK, aka Cocinera, who graciously fed us and shared her passion for cooking with us mere mortal cooks. Hope she doesn't forget about us little people when she opens her new cozy eatery!

photos: courtesy of Catherine the Great.

Cioppino Recipe
(serves 6)

1 onion, chopped
1/2 green bell pepper, chopped
1/2 red bell pepper, chopped
4 large shallots, chopped
1 can (28 oz) peeled tomatoes, chopped
6 cloves garlic, minced
2 Tbs flat leaf parsley, minced
3 Tbs basil, chiffonade
1 Tbs thyme leaves
1 bay leaf
1 Tsp red pepper flakes
1/4 cup (8 oz) tomato paste
2 cups dry white wine
6 cups fish stock/clam juice
Olive oil
salt & fresh ground pepper for seasoning
1/2 lb large shrimp
1/2 lb mussels
1 lb clams
1/2 lb halibut
1/2 lb squid

1. Clean & steam the mussels & clams in water until the shells open. Remove the seafood and save the liquid.

2. Shell & devein the shrimp, leaving the tails intact.

3. Make additional fish stock if there isn't enough clam juice.

4. Heat about 3 tablespoons of olive oil in a large stock pot.

5. Add onions, shallots, green & red bell peppers until tender (about 5-6 minutes).

6. Add garlic & red pepper flakes and sauté for few more minutes.

7. Add tomato paste, peeled tomatoes (with juice), basil, thyme, parsley and bay leaf. Cook for 2 minutes.

8. Add white wine & fish stock. Bring to boil.

9. Salt & Pepper to taste.

10. Cover the pot and bring the heat low to simmer for 30 minutes.

11. Add shrimp, squid & fish. Continue to simmer until fish & shrimp are cooked.

12. Add mussels & clams. Cover and simmer for 5 more minutes.

13. More salt, pepper & red pepper flakes to taste.

Ladle the stew into bowls and serve with garlic bread.