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Sunday, December 20, 2009

Madang Gooksu: Knife-cut Chicken Noodle Soup

On cold days like these, there's nothing better than a piping hot bowl of kalgooksu, which literally translates to knife noodles because they are hand-cut using knives. And there's no other place in LA that does it better than Madang Gooksu. The thick, rich broth has hints of dried anchovy (myulchi), chicken and garlic and the classic chicken kalgooksu comes with shredded chicken, huge chunks of potatoes and zucchini. Because it doesn't come fully seasoned, one can customize one's desired level of saltiness and spiciness with the accompanying seasoning sauce consisting of soy sauce, red pepper flakes and green onions (and probably other ingredients I'm missing). If you're nursing a cold, it doesn't get more comforting than this. The complimentary kimchi side dish will awaken your congested sinuses too. The kalgooksu portions are large. One order could easily feed two.

The (hot stone) dolsot bibimbap was also decent. The kimchi was ok but not as good as the one at Hanbat, which serves my favorite bowl of sulleongtang.

In short, the thing to have at Madang Gooksu is, uh, gooksu, which means noodles. In the summertime, this place serves an excellent konggooksu, which is a cold, soybean-based noodle dish that I can't get enough of. The ice-cold, milky broth is basically ground soybeans that have been soaked, peeled (it's a lot of work to make it at home but well worth it) and pureed with some water and then seasoned with some salt. Add thin noodles, a wedge of tomato (odd, I know, but indispensable), cucumber strips, half a hard-boiled egg and voila.

Madang Gooksu
869 South Western Avenue, Suite 1
Los Angeles, CA 90005
(213) 487-6008

Monday, December 14, 2009

Soup's On: Simple and Easy Entertaining

It's time for our quarterly dinner party extravaganza again. My cooking-mate, YT and I decided to do something with seasonal vegetables, themed around harvest. We leafed through vegetarian (I know!) cookbooks and many others and the results were an eclectic mix of healthy dishes that brought out the best of the ingredients' flavors and textures.

It being cold outside, I decided to do a soup sampler and we altogether made four soups, including mint pea, roasted red pepper, red onion and corn with chipotle. Yes, I did color-coordinate it somewhat, but flavors ruled.

Before I go into the meal, let me tell you about the appetizers we served: bresaola with persimmons and fennel, cheese puffs and dried apricots stuffed with a goat cheese and mango chutney mixture, each topped with a single jewel of pomegranate seed.

The beauty of these dishes is that they were so simple to make. It was just a matter of finding the right combination of ingredients to create magic. The saltiness of the thinly sliced, air-dried beef went so well with the sweetness of the persimmons (I used ripe fuyu) and licorice taste of fennel as well as its crunchiness. Just drizzled some olive oil and balsamic vinegar over the layering and voila. It looked and tasted like a million dollars. The cheese puffs were soft, warm and cheesy -- what's not to like? I had to stop myself from consuming one too many to save room for what was to come.

The apricot and goat cheese appetizer was good but not fantastic. There was definitely a novelty factor but not sure I'd make it again.

Let's get into the soups and main dishes. The soups were all excellent. I had always fantasized about serving the soups in small shots like they do in restaurants so it was nice being able to do that, in various colors to boot.

It's hard to come up with a favorite soup as they were all delish.

Sampling the soups was like a wine tasting -- there seemed to be a proper order depending on the intensity of the flavors.

I slurped the corn soup first and savored with delight the concentrated corn flavor spiked up with roasted chipotle peppers. This recipe came from the Greens cookbook. I only added a touch of cream so it wasn't too heavy. Even though corn isn't in season, it was a wonderfully comforting soup. As was the mint pea soup topped with smoked salmon and creme fraiche. This soup is versatile because frozen peas are always "in season" and the bright green lights up the table. The mint and pea combination is a classic one, of course, and it was nice complementing it with the saltiness of the salmon and the creme, which is always welcome as long as it doesn't overwhelm. The roasted red pepper soup, given a slightly Indian take with cumin and cilantro, was an unusual combination that worked very well (the lovely orange hue further brightened the table). The recipe from Food & Wine Magazine (one of my favorite recipe sources) called for seared scallops on top that I skipped. I had the red onion soup last because it was the heartiest. It also had the most texture with chunky onion strips that were sweet from caramelization and floating in this delectable deep red concoction. This recipe was from the Greens cookbook as well.

For salads, we had a cornucopia of winter vegetables that included leeks, cauliflower, squash, baby carrots and turnips to name a few, with a garlicky parsley dressing that added just the right amount of flavor and color to the winter veggies.

We also had an arugula and serrano ham salad with slivers of shaved ricotta salata topped with pomegranate seeds. This salad is one of my favorite salads, not only because it looks beautiful but also tastes so good.

Ok, it's not exactly guilt-free because of the ham but it's only dotted with ham, not overwhelmed by it. And the pomegranate salsa using pomegranate molasses is the perfect dressing for this salty, crunchy and slightly sweet salad. It's so easy to make, looks gorgeous on the table and tastes great -- a surefire winner at dinner parties! You'll notice I've made this for a Spanish fiesta before to much raves.

I also made a dish with brussels sprouts, my current obsession. I had cooked with them before but had never roasted them. David Chang was famously quoted as saying that "you can't f**k them up" and true to this statement, his rendition of brussels sprouts became the most popular item in his restaurants.

I was given a cool-sounding recipe from GQ's blog and first tried the one in italics on the bottom of the entry. The healthier version was out of this world, so I had to try the spicy one using Sriracha sauce Chang had.

OMG. The thick-cut bacon bits cooked to crunchy perfection certainly helped and squirted with some "death ketchup," Sriracha sauce, it doesn't get any better. The version using olive oil, lemon juice and almond slivers was just as delicious, if not as decadent.

I highly recommend anyone try this recipe immediately. If it conjured up some bad dinner table memories associated with brussels sprouts, this may just be the opportunity for you to rid yourself of this once and for all. It's a nutritious, readily available vegetable that's very versatile, after all. Ok, I need to stop raving about this. Focus on the entire meal.

For the two main meat dishes, we had a wonderful leg of lamb stuffed with bacon and sage -- the perfect winter dish -- and cornish hen roasted with whole garlic bulbs, shallots and grapes.

This recipe came from one of my favorite cookbooks, Great Food Fast, but most of the recipes are available online because they were featured on the PBS show, Everyday Food. I don't watch that show as much but love its simple and easy recipes. The hens were moist and juicy and the grapes imparted a great sweetness to the whole dish. Some of my guests simply took a whole roasted garlic bulb, scooped out the caramelized garlic and consumed them solo -- like morsels of garlic candy.

I made good use of the carcasses to make yummy broth with some veggies and ginger for aroma.

We also had a side dish of potato provencal with tomato and red onions but I didn't care much for this dish. It didn't toast easily on top despite spreading some butter on and it was on the bland side. I probably wouldn't make it again. I have a good potato gratin dish that's a bit less healthy but a lot more flavorful.

If you have a lot of strong-flavored dishes, like very spicy items, this potato dish may temper those flavors because it is mildly flavored.

It just wasn't anything special.

We also had a celery root puree as another starch that was good.

For dessert, YT made an amazingly good pear tart in a cast iron pan. The crust was perfectly crunchy and crumbly at the same time, much like puff pastry but less buttery than that.

All in all a successful dinner party. A big shoutout to our resident mixologist who made the best pomegranate margaritas, complete with salt-rimmed glasses and jewels of pomegranate seeds floating in the glasses.

YT and I used to make it a point to make the most elaborate things but now with a few dinner parties under our belts, we're veering toward simple, hassle-free cooking that is all about the flavor that leaves enough time to enjoy the company of our guests. Not that we hadn't done this before but you know what I mean.

We also used the Zuni Cafe cookbook for some of the recipes.

Happy eating!

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Best of NY Part III: Squid Ink Paella at Midnight

Here is the third and last installment of NY eats that were most memorable.

1) Socarrat

One of my biggest gripes about L.A. was that it didn't have serviceable Spanish food. Then The Bazaar came along, except Jose Andres decided he wasn't going to serve paella, the classic Spanish rice dish that had so eluded me both in the kitchen (could never get it to cook evenly) and restaurants (yuk). So when I heard about this "paella bar" that specializes in this dish and also got an overwhelming endorsement from a fellow NY-based foodie, I had to try it -- even if it was after two bloody burgers and a good chunk of a divine porterhouse earlier in the day.

Entering this narrow joint with one long, communal table just before closing around midnight, I wasn't hungry but this paella tinted in black squid ink and topped with shrimp, almost raw slices of scallops, pieces of fish, squid, fava beans and slivers of piquillo peppers was a revelation. It came with an aioli that I used to dip the meaty shrimp and sometimes spoonfuls of rice. Socarrat refers to the crusty layer that forms at the bottom of the pan. In short, the best part of the paella. The leftovers tasted almost as good when heated from home hours later (our server urged us not to microwave the paella -- I dutifully complied). I still dream about this paella.

259 West 19th Street
New York, NY 10011
(212) 462-1000

2) Russ & Daughters

This place is an institution, and conveniently located adjacent to Katz's, so I sampled its famed bagel and lox. The salmon was pretty darn perfect, but I wish I would have gotten a plain bagel as the one with everything on it was too salty for my taste. The saltiness of the salmon made it sodium overkill but besides this minor detail, what's not to like about a bagel with smoke salmon, cream cheese, tomatoes and red onions? Ok, I prefer warm bagels and this one wasn't. Not sure if that's the way I'm supposed to have it but I like them heated because otherwise the bagel felt too dense and not soft enough.

Russ & Daughters
179 East Houston Street
New York, NY 10002
(212) 475-4880

3) Kefi

This shrine to nouveau Greek cuisine helmed by chef Michael Psilakis is a bit hectic and cramped but the grilled octopus salad on top of beans was by far the best dish. The octopus was smoky and soft and complemented the almost pureed beans very well. It had a slight crunch from diced onions that also gave it a refreshing bite.

505 Columbus Avenue
New York, NY 10024
(212) 873-0200

4) Artichoke Pizza

Here was another 2 a.m. pizza run but imagine my surprise when I see a long line outside of a tiny storefront waiting at that hour, in the rain. Obviously, this joint has some serious fanatics. Everyone has their favorites but I liked the Margarita. Fortunately, it only serves four kinds of pizzas besides Margarita: Sicilian, which is the square one, artichoke, which is like a slightly fancier version of cream of mushroom soup on pizza dough (this doesn't mean I didn't like it) and finally, the odd crab pizza. This last one I didn't get but of the other three, Margarita had the best combination of thin crust, cheese and tomato. My partner in crime who stood in line and kept me company in freezing rain liked the Sicilian. The debate goes on...

Artichoke Pizza
328 East 14th Street
New York, NY 10003
(212) 228-2004

5) Ippudo

I'm always on the hunt for fantastic ramen, so had to try this NY outpost of a Japanese chain that got raves from NYT critics and message boards alike.

It was unfortunate that I had it as my first meal of the day, which, despite its soupy goodness, was on the heavy side, even for me. I mean, I usually live for that stuff -- milky broth full of porky flavor and robustness. I got the Shiromaru Hakata Classic with the works, slices of pork that deliciously dissolve in your mouth from lengthy cooking, green onions, bamboo shoots, egg, red pickled ginger slices and wood-eared mushrooms. I also tried the Akamura Modern, which had a stronger flavor that I didn't like as much. The base of the broth was the same but the strong flavors came from garlic oil and miso mixed in.

While it was a good bowl of ramen, I like the Hakata ramen at Shinsengumi here better.

65 4th Avenue
New York, NY 10003
(212) 388-0088

6) Il Laboratorio del Gelato

Now onto dessert: This gelato shop is so small, blink and you could miss it, but the green tea and hazelnut flavors were definitely worth stopping by.

I've always hated green tea ice-creams that look green but taste like anything but green tea -- you know, the watered down flavor. I could actually taste the green tea in this one. The hazelnut wasn't as good but equally deep in flavor.

95 Orchard Street
New York, NY 10002
(212) 343-9922

7) Donut Plant

I'm not one to crave anything too sweet for breakfast or in general, but one bite of the plain glazed yeast donut was one of the most comforting ways to start your day.

The donut was soft as I bit into it and the sugar on the glaze, yes, the sugar was plentiful, but nothing that a dunk in some strong coffee can't remedy.

I had the plainest kind to really see what this donut shop is made of, but it offers a huge array of wacky varieties.

Donut Plant
379 Grand Street
New York, NY 10002
(212) 505-3700

And finally, there were two disappointments: Shake Shack, whose famed burger underwhelmed me, and Joe's Shanghai, which I should have known better not to go to. What was I thinking when I have Din Tai Fung right here at home?