cooking

NYC Cooking Afternoon: League of Kitchens Workshop

And in other Evan-Heather adventures: For Christmas, just like his birthday, I wanted to give Evan something that the two of us could share.

Instead of going on another trip, I opted for a local experience.

Evan loves food. In fact, I think he’s more passionate about eating and trying different types of cuisine than he is about anything else.

So I thought that a League of Kitchens cooking class would be perfect for us.

The idea is that home cooks make some of the best food—especially dishes that are handed down through generations and made with love for family and friends. The League of Kitchens partners with NYC immigrant cooks who teach small groups of students their signature recipes in their homes. They offer several types of cuisine: Trinidadian, Argentinian, Indian, Korean, and more.

Evan chose a vegetarian Bengali class for the two of us.

And that’s how we found ourselves deep in Bay Ridge, a few weeks ago, in the cozy home of a woman named Afsari.

The workshop started with a snack of tea and samosas, while Afsari told Evan, three other students and me a little about herself. She’s from Bangladesh and has one son. In addition to teaching with the League of Kitchens, she’s also a cooking instructor at the nonprofit Restaurant Opportunities Center of New York. She caters events, as well. Afsari’s signature dish, which she described to us with pride, is rice pudding, which takes two hours to make.The plan was to make that rice pudding, as well as some other items. The menu for the day was quite ambitious:

  • Palak Paneer (spiced spinach with homemade farmer’s cheese)
  • Gobi Masala (cauliflower and potato in a spiced tomato and coconut sauce)
  • Begun Pora (roasted eggplant with mustard oil)
  • Plain Chapati (flat bread)
  • Firni (rice pudding)

I could see why the workshop was 5.5 hours long!

Afsari started us on various tasks: slicing vegetables, shelling pistachios, cutting herbs.

League of Kitchens Workshop | NYCExpeditionist.com

She’d demonstrate how to do something…

League of Kitchens Workshop | NYCExpeditionist.com

…like frying eggplant in a cast iron skillet, stirring rice pudding, or rolling and heating bread…

League of Kitchens Workshop | NYCExpeditionist.com

League of Kitchens Workshop | NYCExpeditionist.com

…and then we’d jump in.

League of Kitchens Workshop | NYCExpeditionist.com

Hours later, once all the dishes were complete, we sat down to enjoy everything we’d created.

League of Kitchens Workshop | NYCExpeditionist.com

League of Kitchens Workshop | NYCExpeditionist.com

League of Kitchens Workshop | NYCExpeditionist.com

For me, the food was like cleaner, healthier versions of the food found at most local Indian places.

The palak paneer and, of course, the rice pudding were my favorites. And everything tasted even better the day after, once the flavors had some time to meld in.

League of Kitchens Workshop | NYCExpeditionist.com

The class was understandably a bit pricey, so it’s not something I could see myself doing frequently. But for a special occasion or couple’s activity, it was definitely a fun and tasty way to spend the afternoon.

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The Argentine Experience

A few years ago, I was in Beijing for a travel story, and one highlight of that trip was going to Black Sesame Kitchen. At the cooking school/private dining space, I met chefs and then watched them make knife cut noodles, stuffed my own dumplings, and chatted with others in my group over good, paired wines. The meal was one of the best I’d ever eaten, and a hell of a lot of fun, too.

Ever since then, I’ve wanted to do something similar in another country. And while researching stuff to do in Buenos Aires, I found what looked like an equivalent.

The Argentine Experience started out as a puerta cerrada, but has since moved into a large, new space in Palmero Hollywood. It emphasizes that it’s not a cooking class, but rather a dining experience where people participate in a few key steps.

So basically, they have chefs who do all the hard work (mixing, measuring, seasoning), and guests do one or two things at the end. (i.e. stuff that can’t mess up the meal.)

As a New Yorker who rarely cooks, that sounded fine to me!

I went to the Argentine Experience on my third night in BA. Upon entering the space, I was given a welcome cocktail that I quickly gulped down once I saw that we all had to don crazy-looking checkered aprons and chefs hats. (Luckily, glasses of Malbec followed!)

Once again, I was lucky to have a diverse group of dinner-mates. Besides me, there was a Brazilian couple who lived in Switzerland, two Australians, a travel agent who was from Peru but lived in BA, and an American who was interning in BA. Our hosts for the night were a Brit and an Argentinean.

They introduced the first task at hand: Making empanadas.

empanadas of argentina

We each received a round of dough…

empanada dough

…which we then stuffed with stewed beef, cheese, veggies and Malbec-reduced onions.

empanada fillings

Everything smelled so good that I overstuffed mine—I could barely pinch it closed. (You can see a little of the filling spilling out!)

uncooked empanada

Once we’d stuffed them, they were whisked away to an oven somewhere behind the scenes. We were then given another piece of dough—but this time, our empanadas had to be in the shape of something, and our hosts would select the best one as the winner.

…they assured us that they’d already seen X-rated empanadas formed to look like every possible body part.

Once we’d all finished our entries, they, too, were taken to the oven.

Then first empanadas we made reappeared. They were delicious.

cooked empanada

And soon, our funny-shaped empanadas returned, as well.

Because I have zero artistic talent and a one-track mind, I made a pointe shoe empanada. The winning entry was a crab.

My pointe shoe might not have been the most attractive, but it was certainly tasty!

pointe shoe empanada

The main course didn’t require any work, on our part. We just had to choose how rare we wanted our steak.

steak

After eating the steak (every bloody, juicy bit) with potatoes, carrots and more Malbec, I was ready to fall into a food coma. But there were two more components to go.

First, we learned how to prepare and drink mate, the traditional Argentinean tea-like beverage. We filled our mate cups with leaves, shook them a few times to get the dust out, put the straw in, and poured in water. (I only had a few sips because it’s very caffeinated, and enjoyed its bitter taste! Normally, mate is a social drink, where everyone sips from the same straw, but due to the nature of the dinner, we all had our own.)

mate

For the grand finale, we made our own alfajores: cookies with dulce de leche sandwiched between. And rolled in shaved coconut and dipped in chocolate.

…can someone please open an alfajores shop in NYC? We have specialty food places for practically everything else!

alfajor

Before saying goodbye, we posed for silly group pictures. Here, we’re saying, “Que te pasa?”—or, “What’s wrong with you?”—with feeling!

que te pasa

(I actually ended up having dinner with the Brazilian couple the next night! I needed a break from all the meat I’d been eating, so I went to Osaka, a Japanese place across the street from the Argentine Experience. As I was sitting at the bar deciding what to have for dinner, the couple was seated right next to me. We ended up having the bartender select an array of dishes to share, and chatted as we each sampled all of them. It was one of those serendipitous moments that tend to happen when you’re traveling, but rarely at home!)

(Group photo via the Argentine Experience)

Continent-Shaped Cookie Cutters

feed the world cookie cutters

I’ve done very little cooking or baking this year, but now that it’s fall (which means cooler weather and the holidays) I’m getting inspired to spend some more time in the kitchen. Especially if I had these Feed the World cookie cutters, which are shaped like all the continents. How cool would it be to make your own sugar cookies and ice all the places you’ve visited? Or draw stars on the destinations you’d like to see next?

Plus, part of the proceeds benefit hunger relief. I suppose that’s a good enough reason to pick them up and indulge!

Happy Friday!

(Photo of Feed the World Cookie Cutters via Annie’s Blue Ribbon General Store; $20)

DIY Banh Mi

Two weekends ago, while unexpectedly sitting on a runway in Philly at 1 a.m., I stumbled across a recipe for grilled banh mi in Food & Wine‘s new travel issue. In addition to looking delicious, it appeared super-simple, just requiring a few ingredients, little prep time and two steps. I immediately knew that’s what we’d be grilling at Mal and Peter’s place the following weekend.

Maryland’s eastern shore, where they live, is, without doubt, the country’s best region for blue crabs. But other than that? Let’s just say, it’s definitely not New York. Thai, Korean, Vietnamese, Ethiopian, non-sushi Japanese, authentic Chinese and Italian are practically nonexistent. Mal and Peter have taken to getting their ethnic food fixes whenever they’re in NYC, Philly or DC–or they make it themselves. So we were all excited to try assembling our own banh mi.

The sandwiches came out great! It was so tasty and summery that we’ll definitely be grilling them all season long. And they really were effortless to make:

The marinade is just fish sauce, garlic, scallions, honey, sugar and pepper. We chopped and pureed the ingredients and poured the mixture over thinly sliced pork tenderloin.

After the pork marinated for two hours, Peter skewered the meat and grilled it to perfection–every piece was tender and juicy!

Then came the best part: assembling the sandwiches with hoisin sauce, Sriracha, pickled veggies, sliced cucumbers and lots of cilantro–and eating them. The recipe’s definitely a keeper:

Grilled-Pork Banh Mi (from Food and Wine)

Ingredients
1/4 cup Asian fish sauce
1 tablespoon honey
2 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
6 scallions, white and tender green parts only, thinly sliced
2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
1 1/2 pounds pork tenderloin, thinly sliced
Six 8-inch-long rolls or 2 baguettes, cut into 8-inch lengths and split
Hoisin sauce and Sriracha chile sauce
Vegetable oil, for grilling
1/2 seedless cucumber, cut into 2-by-1/2-inch matchsticks (We also used pickled veggies in addition to the cucumbers)
1 1/2 loosely packed cups cilantro sprigs

1. In a blender, puree the fish sauce with the honey, sugar, pepper, scallions and garlic. Transfer the marinade to a bowl, add the pork and toss. Refrigerate for 2 to 4 hours. Thread the pork through the top and bottom of each slice onto 12 bamboo skewers.

2. Spread the rolls with hoisin and Sriracha. Light a grill and oil the grates. Brush the pork with oil and grill over high heat, turning, until just cooked, 4 minutes. Place 2 skewers in each roll, close and pull out the skewers. Top with the cucumber and cilantro and serve.

Homemade Fish Tacos

I don’t know why, but it’s nearly impossible to find really good fish tacos in NYC. (Or Mexican food, in general.) You’d think, with the number of amazing restaurants and chefs here, plus diners’ high standards, someone would be known as “THE fish taco guy.”

A couple years ago, Ryan and I actually went on a quest to find the best fish tacos in NY. We very creatively designated Fridays “FTF”–for “Fish Taco Friday”–and ate at a different Mexican place each week. Over a couple months, we tried out La Esquina, Mole, Mercadito, Pinche Taqueria, Dos Caminos, the now-closed Bonita, just to name a few. And while some were good–at the time, Pinche was our winner–none was knock-you-flat-on-your-back extraordinary. They were always too salty, too bland, too heavy or too soggy (in the case of the fried guys).

It’d been a while since I had fish tacos (I think my FTF experiences jaded me), but recipes for them in Real Simple and Mark Bittman’s column in the Times magazine inspired me to concoct my own.

I made Bittman’s slaw first by slicing a cucumber into half moons and mixing them with half a minced jalapeno, 1/4 cup chopped cilantro and 1.5 tbsp lime juice. (I would have made a more authentic slaw using shredded cabbage, but I had just eaten my way through one head the previous week and didn’t feel like doing it again just for this meal.)

Fish Taco Slaw

Then, riffing on both recipes, I brushed a 7 oz. tilapia filet with olive oil, rubbed it with dark chili powder, sprinkled on salt and ground pepper and juiced it with lime. While it broiled, I heated the corn tortillas.

Corn tortillas

I was really surprised at how good the tacos looked when I assembled them…

Homemade fish tacos

…and even more shocked to discover that they tasted better than most of the places we tried on our FTFs.

Weekend Cooking: Jordan Pond Popovers

Acadia National Park

Last summer, I spent a long weekend at Acadia National Park with my then-boyfriend.

Acadia National Park

We hiked to the top of five mountains (which sounds more impressive than it is–the tallest one, Cadillac, is only 1,530 feet)…

Cadillac Mountain Sunrise

…saw the sun rise from the top of Cadillac, which is the first point in North America that daylight hits between October 7 and March 6…

Acadia National Park

…and took a bunch of ridiculous pictures.

Popovers at Jordan Pond House

On our last day, we ate at Jordan Pond House, a restaurant in the park known for tea and popovers. I hadn’t had a popover before, but was pretty enamored at first bite. The warm pastries were chewy on the outside and light and airy in the center–almost like a less flaky, less buttery croissant that had been puffed up. We ended up bringing home the restaurant’s official popover pan and recipe.

I don’t know what triggered it, but a popover craving hit me last week. So on Saturday morning, despite having a full eating agenda on my weekend calendar (Indian buffet Saturday night at Chand Palace and Sunday brunch at Fred’s), I decided to whip up a batch.

There are three things I like about the Jordan Pond popover recipe: 1) It’s drop-dead simple. 2) It only requires a few ingredients that are, for baked goods, relatively healthy (no heavy cream or butter). 3) It makes six pastries–so you don’t end up struggling to eat/give away a dozen for days afterward.

Flour, Eggs, Milk

You mix two eggs, 1 cup milk (I use skim), 1 cup sifted flour, 1/4 teaspoon salt and a speck of baking soda…

Popover Batter

…fill each popover holder halfway and bake at 425 degrees for 15 minutes and then at 350 degrees for another 15-20 minutes. (Don’t open the oven door when changing temperature.)

Popovers

And voila! No trip to Maine required. (Though the view from the Jordan Pond House lawn is a little more tranquil and scenic than that of my Washington Heights apartment.)

The Bubbles

Pisto: The Best CSA Dish, To Date

I was thrilled that last week’s CSA share included summer squash. It’s one of those vegetables that I often neglect to buy but enjoy every time I eat. Usually I just slice the squash and saute it with olive oil and pepper, but this time I wanted to try something new.

Enter NYT’s “Recipes for Health” series. I’m a big fan because the recipes are generally pretty simple, don’t require a ton of ingredients I don’t already have, and are, well, healthy (in theory). Plus, the series features recipes built around a specific ingredient, which makes searching a cinch. On the summer squash page, the “Pisto Manchego with Eggs” dish caught my eye. I hadn’t heard of pisto before, but according to the recipe, it’s “a savory mixture of summer squash, onions, garlic and tomatoes usually cooked down until the squash falls apart.” 

That description, plus the fact that it included eggs poached in the pisto, sold me. As it turns out, it was the tastiest dish we’ve made with our CSA veggies yet. The squash, which was tender to begin with, was cooked until it melt-in-your-mouth soft, and the eggs were the perfect, slightly creamy offset to the tart tomato flavor.

Pisto1The ingredients: four chopped summer squash, one chopped onion, four minced garlic cloves, one can of tomatoes with the juice set aside.

Pisto2Sauteing the squash and onions

Pisto3The squash, onions, and tomatoes cooked for 35 minutes.

Pisto4Add four eggs directly into the mix, and Pisto!

Pisto5We ate the delicious dish with side of crusty rosemary-olive bread and swiss chard (which was good, but not a great accompaniment to the pisto).