Monthly Archives: July 2008

My Toys: An Introduction

Some of my toys 

I’ve been to quite a few home kitchens filled with so much extraneous junk than cooking becomes less efficient. The clutter of useless and redundant equipment takes up valuable counter and storage space. I’ve spent more time searching for specific tools than cooking. I firmly believe that you should only have what is necessary to cook.

That being said though, I’m a huge gear head, partly because I hope that it would improve my cooking and partly because I’m just into stuff like that. But I’m very selective about what goes into my kitchen. It must have a specialized purpose and it can’t be duplicated by something else. This ensures that I have a very select arsenal of specialized equipment that makes cooking easier, interesting and fun.

In this section I’ll share with you some of the tools that I love using. 

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The Subjectivity of Taste: WD-50

Cooks and servers converging on the pass

About a month before eating at Per Se, I made reservations at Chef Wylie Dufresne’s avant-garde restaurant, WD-50. Two weeks later I was there with my lovely roommate Hom.

In part, this visit was gastronomic training for Per Se, like a runner slowly upping his milage before a marathon. But perhaps the bigger reason for coming to WD-50 first, was that I knew eating at Chef Keller’s restaurant would spoil me for my future meals.

I was excited. There were a number of “firsts” at WD-50. It was the first time I was taking pictures of my whole meal. (I felt extremely self-conscious, and I still do a year later, almost to the day. I was at WD-50 on June 14, 2007. Wow. I’d also like to take this opportunity to apologize for the low quality of photography here and in my up-coming posts in the leaving New York series. I was totally clueless on photography then. The beautiful photography at Per Se was a fluke, the side effect from the magic of a perfect day.) It was my first Michelin star experience. The first time dining in the restaurant of a celebrity chef, although I think Chef Dufresne might cringe at that label. But I had seen him on television and was totally intrigued by his food. Indeed it would be my first time sampling what is labeled as avant-garde cuisine, characterized by its use of molecular gastronomy techniques.

Stepping into the restaurant from its nondescript entrance on the Lower East Side, I was surprised by the casualness of the place, which I appreciated. It was inviting. (My only complaint was that the row of two tops where we were seated were uncomfortable close to each other. But I often encountered that in New York City.) I was glad that Chef Dufresne didn’t take himself too seriously. Throughout the course of the meal, I could see that there was a sense of humor and wit that translated into his dishes.

Sesame flatbread

The “bread basket” immediately set the tone for the meal to come. A wooden box of paper thin sesame flatbread was set in front of us. It looked like a two dimensional vista of a jagged mountain range. It tasted like a sesame papadum, and like my favorite chips, I couldn’t stop myself from nibbling at them.

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Cured Hamachi, Lemon Leather, Cilantro Sorbet, Paprika

I was expecting really “out there” food from WD-50, a Methyl Cellulose and Isomalt filled pyrotechnic show. So I was surprised to see a rather conventional looking dish of cured hamachi. But the dish, taken in its totality was a wonderful symphony of flavors, textures and temperatures. If this dish were a person, it would be the sort of person who could seduce someone on the first date.

Pizza Pebbles, Pepperoni Emulsion, Shiitake

I think the “Pizza Pebbles” suffered from the bar being set so high by its predecessor. I was intrigued and impressed by how Chef Dufresne, through his technological culinary wizardry, transmogrified a mushroom and pepperoni pizza by using Maltodextrin into a line of small pebbles. But in all honesty I found the taste and texture lacking. Well it tasted like pizza, but without all the elements that I love about pizza; the gooey cheese, greasy pepperoni and doughy base. His pebbles had a slight dry roughness to them. It’s like the Combos snack that I love, and it would be great if I had the munchies, but just not in this restaurant setting.

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Knot Foie, Kimchi Puree and Iranian Raisin Puree, Rice Pebbles

The “Knot Foie” was the sort of culinary alchemy I was expecting from WD-50. Fragile foie gras had been transmuted into a pliable rectangular log and tied into a knot. Yet it retained the smooth and unctuous qualities that characterized foie gras. This dish also demonstrated Chef Dufresne’s considerable talent in pairing seemingly incongruous flavors to create an extremely dynamic offering. He had beautifully dotted the foie with Iranian raisin and kimchi puree. So each mouthful was punctuated with an alternating sweet and spicy bite. The dish was completed with studs of Japanese puffed rice for textural contrast. This was a brilliant dish on so many levels. Read how they created this dish in this New York Times article.

Sweetbreads, Cabbage-Kaffir, Fried Water Chestnuts

This next dish should have been a slam-dunk, but wasn’t. I’ve been infatuated with the luscious deliciousness of sweetbreads ever since my first bite at Wesley Genovart’s Degustation a few months before. But the sweetbreads here were dry. I liked how the plate resembled fried chicken and fries but at the same time the monotone made the dish look dreary.

Beef Tongue, Fried Mayo, Tomato Molasses

I love beef tongue and its something I don’t see often on menus. I thought the fried mayonnaise was genius. Put all the components of this dish together and you have a sophisticated rendition of the familiar corned beef sandwich. Clever, elegant, comforting and utterly delicious, this and the Knot Foie were my favorite dishes.

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French Onion Soup, Gruyere Ravioli, Rye Crisp, Onion Paste

Finally spherification. I was wondering if this molecular gastronomy technique was going to make an appearance. It did, in the form of a skinless liquid Gruyere ravioli in the “French Onion Soup.” A fun and modern interpretation of a classic, I ate a ravioli whole and it exploded in my mouth, then I pierced another, the cheese oozing out to mingle with the clear and flavorful broth in my spoon. It reminded me of soups back in Singapore where the hawker would put a barely cooked egg yoke in.

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Surf clam, Watermelon, Garlic Chive, Fermented Black Bean

I had mixed feelings about the next dish. I loved the surf clam and the use of black bean because even though I see it all the time in Chinese cuisine, and up till now, I’ve never seen it applied in a western context. But once I bit into the fermented black bean, the impact of its pungent taste overpowered the delicate and tasty mélange of flavors from the other delightful ingredients. It was a bold move to put that ingredient in there and I love how Chef Dufresne isn’t afraid of taking his guests out of their comfort zone, but the black bean threw the delicate balance of the dish off.

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Lamb Belly, Black Chickpea, Cherried Cucumber, Lemongrass

The last savory dish was lamb belly prepared to mimic bacon. It felt like crispy bacon and tasted very similar to it, with a hint of gaminess from the lamb to make it interesting. I liked the dish by itself, but not in the context of the meal. I’m primarily a carnivore and wanted something substantial to round out the meal. When I saw lamb belly on the menu I was hoping for something like the lusciously lamb belly I ate at Suba, also in the Lower East Side which Hom had taken me two weeks before for my birthday. I wanted a big chunk of meat more than the thin strips of lamb bacon.

Argan Oil Horchata, Cantaloupe, Carob

I never had horchata, the Latin American drink made with rice and usually flavored with vanilla and cinnamon. At the time I didn’t even have a clue what argan oil was. (It’s from the argan nut grown in Morocco and it’s supposedly good for your skin.) The horchata tasted like the almond milk Rusty (my college buddy and roommate while I was living in the Financial District) and I used to get on our late night runs to the real Chinatown, east of Chatham Square. But this “soup” was more complex, with the addition of cantaloupe, the distinct yet complementary flavors danced on my tongue. It was tremendously refreshing and definitely set the mood for the desserts to come.

Desserts at WD-50 are splendid. Even with the departure of the rock star like über pâtissier Sam Mason, the desserts were inventive, ingenious, gorgeous to behold and a pleasure to eat. Definitely one of my favorite dessert places in the city, second only to Will Goldfarb’s now defunct Room 4 Dessert.

Fried Butterscotch Pudding, Mango, Taro Ice Cream, Smoked Macadamia

Butterscotch is one of my favorite flavors and one that I don’t see too often on menus, although I feel that it’s making a comeback. Here at WD-50 it was fried, doubling the yum factor.

Soft Chocolate, Avocado Puree, Licorice, Lime Sorbet, Mint Puree

When the chocolate dish was presented to our table, we just stared at it for a while. If there was ever a dish that could win an architectural and design award, this would be the one. The spiral of soft chocolate tasted amazing. It felt smooth and tasted rich and luxurious. I liked the ice cream and the avocado puree. I wasn’t a fan of the licorice, but that’s just because I don’t like that flavor. I thought the play on the color green was great. You didn’t know if you were going to taste the avocado or mint.

From left to right: Me, Chef Dufresne and Hom

At the end of the meal I asked if it were possible to meet Chef Dufresne. The manager brought Hom and I to the kitchen. I was surprised that Chef Dufresne wasn’t expediting but on the line, cooking. I’m not entirely sure, but I think the mutton chopped chef was cooking some lamb. Meanwhile the manager gave us a tour of the kitchen. He pointed out the dehydrator used for the mushrooms in the pizza pebbles dish, he let us look over the shelves on the wall where they kept their specialized ingredients; it felt like it belonged in a lab than in a kitchen, and then he explained the work space lay out. It was definitely fun and interesting to be given such a behind-the-scenes look. Once Chef Dufresne was done with his dish, we chatted for a bit. He was so friendly and down-to-earth. He then introduced me to the pastry chef, Alex something, formerly from some restaurant that also started with the letter A. I told him that the desserts were amazing and that we enjoyed it very much. Although inwardly I was disappointed that I had missed the opportunity to meet Sam Mason. It was only months later that I realized the enormity of that introduction, that the young looking pastry chef was Alex Stupak, formerly from Alinea!

Brown butter-passion fruit marshmallows that were presented with the bill

Intellectually I thought the meal was excellent. Although my stomach told me to take it down a notch to very good. Hom said the meal was good too. But I sensed a lack of conviction. Months after the meal, I talked to a prominent chef who also features avant-garde techniques in his acclaimed French restaurant in Singapore. He said that the restaurant was a disappointment on his recent trip to New York. Perhaps he was expecting El Bulli or Alinea. I pointed out though, for the price you pay and the large number of courses given that it’s actually quite a bargain. I also pointed out that Frank Bruni, the critic from The Times had raved about the restaurant. Bruni had given WD-50 three out of four stars, something that he doesn’t do lightly.

I began to wonder about the range of responses to the food at WD-50. Shouldn’t good food appeal to everyone? I have no answers for that question.

Sure there were some misses during my meal, but there was never a boring moment.  I applaud Chef Dufresne’s courage to dare. Eating at WD-50 is a riveting culinary adventure.

(I have to admit that I didn’t take note of the names of the dishes. But luckily I found them at the The Gourmet Pig’s blog while researching on how WD-50 made the Knot Foie. Read his account here. In an amazing coincidence he dined there on the same night that I did!)

 

WD-50

50 Clinton Street

New York, New York 10002

(212) 477-2900

http://www.wd-50.com

Dinner offered only. Monday though Saturday from 6 p.m. to 11 p.m., and on Sunday from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m.

Price Range:

It was $115 for the tasting menu when I dined there. It is now $140.

Dress Code:

Casual.

Pimp My Plate: Stacking with Molds


Stacking with molds is an easy, eye-catching and elegant presentation technique. All you need is a mold and ingredients that have been diced to achieve the layered effect. I like to use ingredients that not only complement one other in terms of flavor but are also visually contrasting. I’ve used a simplified shrimp sandwich consisting of sliced bread, avocados, tomatoes, steamed shrimp and eggs whites with a touch of Old Bay seasoning for this example.

First set the base of the stack on the plate.

 

Then place the mold on top.

 

Layer with the next ingredient, making sure they are diced small enough to fill in all the gaps. Then using the back of a spoon, gently press down to pack.

 

Add the next ingredient and repeat the packing process.

 

If the mold isn’t tall enough, gently life the mold to create more space.

 

Repeat the layering process with all your ingredients.

 

Once finished, carefully slide the mold off.

 

Now you have transformed this simple shrimp sandwich…

 

Into this elegant beauty. Consider your plate pimped!

Pimp My Plate: An Introduction, Bringing Sexy Back

Pimping a crab salad

Looking at a plate of food is like meeting someone. First impressions count. I’m more receptive to a gorgeous looking dish as I am to a gorgeous looking woman. I’m also more forgiving to an attractive but maybe not so great tasting dish, as I am more tolerant of negative personality traits in an attractive lady. Shallow I know, but that’s how I roll.

Theimportanceofsalt.com’s Pimp My Plate section is aimed at bringing sexy back on the plate, to visually seduce the diner. I’ll share techniques on how to plate strikingly appealing food.

The Story of Lobby

Image from http://www.boston.com/business/ticker/2008/03/maine_lobster_i.html

When I was a kid living in Maryland, my dad, who knew I loved to eat lobster, bought a live one from a guy who used to sell ‘em by the road on certain days. I took it out of its bag. It was cute and majestic all at the same time. The literal translation for lobster in Chinese is the “Dragon Prawn.” I never had a live lobster at home before.

I touched it.

It moved.

That was it. I would keep this one, as a pet. Hello Lobby, welcome to your new home.

We had a huge bathroom with an accompanying huge Jacuzzi. It was seldom used.

Perfect.

I filled it with ice cold water and mixed in a bag of salt. The water was cold in Maine right? “Yuppers,” I told myself as I gently deposited Lobby in. Yay! I now had a pet lobster. I envisioned, like only a child could, that I would come home from school everyday and feed it before my daily dose of “Saved By The Bell.” Nevermind that I didn’t even know what lobsters ate.

It would be awesome.

I kept on watching it. Fascinated. But as the hours went by it became lethargic. Very soon it was not moving at all. Oh no!!! Lobby!!! We were going to be the bestest buddies in the world.

My brother came into the bathroom and took at glance into the jacuzzi / Lobby’s new home.

“Let’s eat it,” he said.

“Noooo…Lobby…” I pleaded, my face scrunching up in sadness.

“Bet he tastes good. I’ll go melt the butter,” he reasoned and volunteered.

“Fine,” I said a bit grudgingly.

Someone, I forget who, set Lobby into a pot of boiling water.

I gave one last sigh.

Then Lobby became alive again! Possessed by some otherworldly strength, it tried to claw its way out of the pot.

“Take it out!! Take it out!!!” I screamed!

Lobby was lifted out of the pot. He was mostly red now and had stopped moving as vigorously. He wasn’t going to make it. The microwave dinged. The butter was done.

I ate him and he was delicious.

The Lobster and the Boy: In Search of Americana


Photo from Alicia

In December of 1992, my dad got posted to the Singapore Embassy in Washington D.C., I realize now, just how that singular event would shape my life. It was during the short one and a half year period that I fell in love with America. I knew that I would someday live there. Thinking back I remember watching from the hotel room, for the first time, flakes of snow drift down. They settled on the dark rooftops of downtown Bethesda, turning the urban scene into a vista of fluffy white. I remember the little creek that demarcated the boundary between my neighbor’s property; I was astounded by the lack of any sort of fencing. I was also astounded by the amount of land our house sat on, three quarters of an acre, totally unheard of in land scarce Singapore. There were deer in the morning from nearby Great Falls National Park. I remember MTV and “Saved By the Bell,” and the zillion other channels on cable. At that time, Singapore had five channels if you counted the two from Malaysia. I remember Montgomery Mall and how vast it seemed compared to the shopping centre’s back home.

I remember my first lobster. I don’t remember where I had it, probably Phillips, but I remember the thrill of having a whole lobster. The whole thing was mine, and it had claws like a Sri Lankan (Mud) crab too! Usually when I ate lobster in Singapore, they were always chopped up and served communally as is the norm in a Chinese restaurant. You don’t get the sense of abundance from devouring the magnificent creature in its shell when you are sharing bite-sized morsels with the whole table. I loved eating those whole Maine lobsters. It was one of those rare and special treats from my childhood.

Right before my dad got posted back to Singapore, my mom took a road trip with some other Singaporean ladies from the embassy to Maine. She came back and told stories of road side lobster shacks where the lobsters where so cheap you could eat to your heart’s content without feeling guilty about spending all that cash.

We flew back to Singapore shortly thereafter.

Alicia and I on the beautiful Maine Coast. Photo from Alicia

It’s August 2007 and I’m in Maine, visiting my friend Alicia. She was the first friend I met at Syracuse University almost exactly 5 years ago. We moved in different circles at school, but we were always close and even though I hadn’t seen her for over a year I still felt a special bond with her.

Rockland Lobster Festival

The other reason for visiting was the Lobster Festival held in Rockland, an hour and a half drive from Portland where Alicia worked as a producer for the local TV station. There was another reason for visiting Maine before I had to leave the States. I wanted to experience the American Summer. The summer that I had read about in food magazines, the summer of clam bakes and lobster shacks. The food and its rituals represented to me, an outsider, a part of Americana.

The Lighthouse near Portland, Maine.

The water pump at Alicia’s relative’s home.

Driving through scenic Maine, I was stuck by the natural and historic beauty of the state. I wondered to Alicia why I never visited this gorgeous state before. There were three acclaimed restaurants that I wanted to visit in Portland too, Hugo’s, Fore Street and Five Fifty-Five. Sadly there just wasn’t enough time in my four-day trip. One day when I came back to America, I won’t make the same mistake and miss out on Maine.

Love the license plate

Pies! Pies! Pies! American Pies!

I love the American Fair. I love the cotton candy, fried dough or funnel cake, grape Icees, turkey legs, sausage sandwiches and other fair food. This was my last fair and I relished in its heady atmosphere. The sun was shining and after sticking the only pin into Singapore on the map that represented where the fair’s visitors had come from, we proceeded to the line for the main food tent.

It was long.

Alicia’s Fried Scallops. Photo from Alicia

Alicia bought some fried scallops, the only seafood that she’d eat, and we shared it while we snaked closer to the entrance. At the entrance of the tent were hundreds of lobsters, cooked and ready to be eaten. I nearly creamed in my pants.

The banner right outside the Main(e) tent.

 What a beautiful sight.

Once in, I bought three lobster, corn on the cob and cole slaw, the traditional fixin’ when eating lobster. Alicia watched as I devoured my lobsters. I loved the sheer decadence of eating three lobsters by myself. After I finished them I told Alicia I wanted two more. She was in disbelief. How can you eat so many she exclaimed. I don’t know. I wasn’t hungry at that point.

My first three lobsters

She just likes to play with them, photo from Alicia

I got another two more lobsters and after eating my fourth for the day, an older lady with her two (I’m assuming) adult sons sat next to us at the long picnic table. They put their tray of delectable lobsters down, the lady reached into her bag and took out a spool of nutcrackers rolled up in paper towels. She then proceeded to peel off three of them. She had extras.

“Do you want one?”

“No thank you ma’am,” I replied.

I turned to Alicia and held up my mitts.

“Old school baby.”

I then proceeded to de-shell the last lobster with all its meat intact. I reassembled the lobster on the plate. It looked as it has just molted. I admired my handiwork for a minute before downing the lobster. I groaned. That last one had definitely put me over the edge. 

De-shelled in less than a minute

The heads of my last two lobsters, bringing the kill count to five. If I were a fighter-pilot I would be an ace. 

At the time I didn’t really know why I wanted to eat five lobsters. There was no real rationale to it. Five was a nice whole number. But now, as I’m writing this, I realize I wanted the sense of abundance I felt when I was a kid living in the States. Three lobsters would have been just right. But I wanted to more than just eat them. I wanted to gorge on them, to store it and all that it represented. And to take it with me.

What Americana means to me. Photo from Alicia

Yummy Honeys: Giada De Laurentiis

Solo picture for the Sobe Wine & Food Fest – sobewineandfoodfest.com

Image taken from http://www.giadadelaurentiis.info

It’s only natural that the other love of my life, Giada de Laurentiis kicks off theimportanceofsalt.com’s Yummy Honeys section.

I’ve been crushing on Giada ever since freshmen year when I saw her cooking show “Everyday Italian.” She was captivatingly beautiful and would switch to an alluring Italian accent whenever she pronounced Italian words. Pancetta and spaghetti never sounded as sexy. I don’t know if its intentional, but there seems to be an undercurrent of eroticism to her shows, from the way she talks and holds her kitchen tools, to the way she puts food in her mouth. Or maybe Giada naturally exudes such raw sensuality.  Watching her show was instrumental in stimulating my interest for cooking.

Giada from her Jan. 2007 Town & Country magazine http://www.townandcountrymag.com

Image taken from http://www.giadadelaurentiis.info

She was also instrumental in teaching me the basics of cooking. Unlike some of the other hosts on the Food Network, Giada can really cook. She trained at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris then worked in LA’s kitchens, most notably at Wolfgang Puck’s Spago. She then founded her own catering company. Her expertise translates into her show. She does a great job of explaining the various culinary terms and demonstrating basic technique. I actually credit Giada for teaching me how to cook. I was heartbroken when she lost the “Iron Chef” match with her and Bobby Flay against Mario Batali and Rachel Ray. I’ve always wondered why she wasn’t paired with Batali, who she is a friend with.

Black & White – Giada from her Jan. 2007 Town & Country magazine – http://www.townandcountrymag.com

Image taken from http://www.giadadelaurentiis.info

When I was in college I heard she was doing a cooking demo and book signing at Turning Stone, a casino/resort on an Indian reservation about a 45-minute drive from Syracuse. Jenny (who has a girl crush on Giada) and I so wanted to go. But it would have cost $80 each way. We couldn’t afford it at that time. That day, I made meeting Giada one of my life goals.

South Beach Wine & Food Fest in FL — Giada’s demo. Image taken from http://www.giadadelaurentiis.info

Almost two years later I get a call from Aarti, a friend of mine from Syracuse who knows how deep my Giada love runs. Her boyfriend (now fiancé and soon to be husband in August,) Raj was invited to an architect and designer’s event. Giada was the guest of honor. Aarti invited me to come along.

Baywatch! Image taken from http://www.giadadelaurentiis.info

I don’t get star-stuck. I’ve seen a few movie stars while in New York and I could have hardly cared. But while waiting for Raj outside the building in midtown with Aarti, we spotted Giada walking up with her husband, Todd. Giada looked absolutely stunning. I was reduced to an incoherent mess. But I gathered up my wits to ask for an autograph for my Giada cookbook. Todd smoothly and politely stepped in, saying that they had to go in as they were almost late and to look for them inside. (Insert sad face here.)

“Giada in Paradise” promo shot from FoodNetwork.com, having dinner with her husband, Todd.

Image taken from http://www.giadadelaurentiis.info

Once Raj came, we went in and headed for the canapés, which was excellent, and the free wine. After about 30 minutes, we spotted Giada. I don’t know if it was because of the wine or because I was just in her presence, but I felt very lightheaded. As we approached, Todd greeted us and said he was beginning to wonder if we were going to find them. He apologized for having to rush earlier when we me, but they had to be here by a certain time. Todd was certainly a nice guy. Giada was just lovely as well. She was very approachable and friendly, even towards a bubbly, excitable mess that I was that day. We chatted for a bit after she autographed my copy of her book, then Todd took pictures for us. We bumped into them a few more times before we left. I hope I wasn’t too annoying, gushing every time we met. It was a dream come true to meet her. I’m forever grateful to Aarti and Raj for giving me that wonderful opportunity.

Me, Giada,  Raj and Aarti. Todd took our picture.

Here is a really funny, and well made video about Giada on Youtube: