My Delicious Life in Indonesia

•July 15, 2013 • 4 Comments

OMG, you guys…. Indonesian food is uh-may-zing.  Like, totally, completely, utterly, ridiculously good.

Indonesian food, how do I love thee?  Let me count the ways…

1)  Tempeh.  Deep fry thin slices of it until golden-brown, and dip it in sambal.  Crispy fermented soybean crack.

2)  Sambal.  This is the condiment of my dreams.  Super spicy chile paste with garlic, onion, vinegar, salt and/or terasi (a fermented shrimp paste).  Need to clear your sinuses?  Use this like ketchup.

3)  Tahu goreng.  I actually crave tofu these days.

4)  Nasi goreng.  Whether it’s special (with a little ayam [chicken] and a fried egg) or just some veggies, this rice is the bomb-diggity.  Serve it with plenty of sambal and kecap manis.

5)  Kecap manis.  My favorite varieties are sweet and spicy.  Just don’t confuse it with saus tomat (ketchup).

6)  Tahu isi.  Literally heaven in food form.  I prefer mine to be vegetarian, as the meat would distract from the deliciousness that the filling is.  Our pembantu (housekeeper) made one for us the other night with glass noodles, cabbage, carrots, and some kind of bumbu (spice paste) that has made me a tofu fan FOREVER.  Again, this is amazing slathered in sambal and kecap manis.

As I learn recipes for these and the associated techniques, I’ll do some more detailed write-ups.  Tahu isi definitely requires its own blog post.

For anyone who knows me… you’ll be surprised by this: I have been slowly converting to a mostly vegetable-oriented diet.  It certainly helps that the non-meat options here are ludicrously yummy.  My waistline has definitely liked this shift in dietary locus, and I’m sure my cardiovascular health isn’t complaining either.  One of the main reasons I was so meat-centric was that I had no idea that vegetarian cuisine could be so bloody good!  My staples in the States were grilled and roasted veggies as accompaniments to proteins; here with the myriad sauces, different produce, and different cooking techniques my mind has officially been blown w/r/t veggies and non-meat products.  I still will not eat fish or mushrooms, however.  Yuck.

Despite the amazing food here, I’m still anxiously awaiting my kitchen equipment.  Welcome kit cooking is like camping…. you can only do so much.  I’m lost without my food processor, immersion blender, Le Creusset French oven, and good sauté pans.  What’s a boy to do?  Buy a wok and a cast-iron skillet from Amazon to tide him over, that’s what.

On the horizon for me are cheesemaking (the cheese SUCKS here… so when you can’t find good sh*t, you make it), pizza making (ditto, plus I CAN’T WAIT TO PLAY WITH MY NEW PIZZA OVEN), fried chicken (I have several Indonesians and ex-pats interested in my fried chicken, thanks to my wife’s mad marketing skillz), and grilling (having a Weber once again will be so nice).

Sorry for the extended hiatus, dear readers…. Those of you in the Foreign Service know all about the transition to post and how unadventurous welcome kit cooking is.  For those of you not in the FS… it’s hard to write about cooking when you’ve been completely uninspired and unable to cook anything decent due to lack of equipment, quality ingredients, and time.

More later, I promise.

A short hiatus…

•May 30, 2013 • Leave a Comment

Our house is packed, and we’re prepping to depart.  This Expat Chef has his knives rolled up:

knife roll open

and in his suitcase (because you should never leave them in another’s hands, ever),

knife roll closed

but all his pots and pans on their way halfway across the globe.

Expect a post from me in about 3 weeks, after I’ve settled in, eaten my (jet-lagged) birthday diner in Hong Kong, and am somewhat settled in Indonesia.


Pizza rules!

•May 4, 2013 • 1 Comment

I’ve spent the last few years trying to perfect my pizza.  There’s something about pizza that just screams “comfort food” to me, and when I’m abroad I really enjoy the pies that come out of my oven.  Thanks to Slice and The Pizza Lab, my pies turn out better and better, regardless of where I am.  Pizza has become almost an obsession with me, and I really look forward to the nights when it’s on the menu.

Recently, I stumbled on a post from The Pizza Lab about some modifications you can make to a Weber kettle grill.  Well, guess what… I bought the rig.  It will have its maiden voyage in Indonesia, and I remain hopeful that the pies it produces will be my best ones yet.  While I still long to have a brick oven built for me at some point, traveling the globe with a 1,400 lb. pile of bricks isn’t the most practical of ventures.

See, I grew up in CT, and New Haven pizza was the gold-standard.  I still do love me some New England Greek-style pizza, but the New Haven pizza scene is ridiculous.  Of Pepe’s, Sally’s, Modern, and Bar, Pepe’s is still my favorite.  There’s something about the crust that makes me weak in the knees just to think about.  It’s gotten so bad that every time I find myself back in CT, I try to figure out how I can get a Pepe’s pie.  My family thinks I’m nuts.

For my everyday pizza, I use my oven (set as high as it goes) and a heavy baking stone.  That thing rocks.  I can get a good NY-style pizza out of it in under 10 minutes.  While the pizzas this method produces are good, I’m looking for great.  Enter (hopefully) the Weber pizza Frankenoven.

What is it about pizza that makes me go crazy for it?  It’s really the perfect food, if you ask me.  Crusty, chewy, salty, zesty, cheesy, bright, and customizable to the extreme.  Like meat?  Go for it.  Vegetarian?  Done.  When you’ve got the basics down (dough and sauce), you can do pretty much anything you want to the pie and still have it come out great.  At this point, I have my New York-style pizza down to the point where it’s consistently great with little to no effort on my part.  Throw the dough together the night before, make the sauce the day of, and you can churn out 3-4 pies within an hour.

For the recipes, the only special ingredients or equipment you need is bread flour (you will not get good gluten formation with all-purpose), a food processor, and a baking stone.  Easy.  Soon enough you’ll be making the best pizza you’ve had just about anywhere.  I promise.

For the dough (I like to weigh my ingredients, but I’ve put in volumetric equivalents):

4 to 4 1/2 cups (630 g) bread flour, plus more for dusting
1 1/2 tablespoons (18.9 g) sugar
3 teaspoons (9.8 g) kosher salt
2 teaspoons (6.2 g) instant yeast
3 tablespoons (27.3 g) extra-virgin olive oil
15 ounces (420 g) lukewarm water

Place all the dry ingredients into the bowl of a food processor with the regular blade attached.  Pulse until well-combined.  Add the olive oil to the water, and with the processor running, pour the water and oil in a steady stream into the bowl.  The dough will begin to form up and ride around in a ball on top of the blade.  When this happens, continue to process for another 15-20 seconds.  Transfer the dough with well-floured hands onto a lightly floured surface.  Knead a few times, then divide into 3 or 4 equal pieces. Place pieces into gallon Ziploc bags with a tablespoon of olive oil or oiled quart-sized deli containers.  Place dough into refrigerator at least overnight or up to 3 days.

For the sauce:

1 medium yellow or Vidalia onion, diced
2-3 cloves garlic, minced
1 28-oz. can of whole peeled tomatoes
2-3 teaspoons dried oregano
1 teaspoon crushed red pepper
6-10 leaves fresh basil
generous pinch kosher salt
1 teaspoon sugar
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 tablespoon olive oil

Heat olive oil and butter in a large saucepan over medium heat until butter is melted and has stopped frothing.  Add onions and salt and cook until soft and golden brown, stirring frequently, about 8-10 minutes.  Add the garlic, oregano, and red pepper, cook for about a minute more.  Add tomatoes and basil, and bring liquid to a slow boil.  Reduce heat to low, and simmer for about 20 minutes, smashing tomatoes with back of a wooden spoon and stirring occasionally.  After cooking for 20 minutes, either puree in batches in a blender (Careful not to over-blend!  You want the sauce to stay red, not turn pink), or puree with an immersion blender until mostly smooth.  Add sugar and simmer for an additional 20 minutes, while adjusting salt and red pepper if necessary.

To make the pizza:

New York-style pizza dough
1 batch New York-style pizza sauce
1 lb. full-fat mozzarella cheese, grated and placed in freezer for at least 15 minutes
toppings of your choice

Take desired number of pieces of dough out of the fridge at least 2 hours before cooking, gathering each piece into a ball and placing on a floured workspace with plastic wrap over it.  Allow to rise at room temperature until roughly doubled in volume.  At least 1 hour before baking, preheat oven to its highest temperature (500 or 550 degrees, usually) with baking stone on lowest rack (remove other rack to reduce risk of forearm burns).

Working with floured hands on a well-floured surface, gently press dough, and form into a roughly 8-inch round.  Alternatively, use a rolling pin and roll out dough to an 8-10 inch round.  Transfer round to a well-floured pizza peel or a piece of parchment large enough to accommodate on an over-turned baking sheet (if using parchment, take care to trim excess, as it will burn in the oven).  Ladle 2/3 to 3/4 cup pizza sauce into the middle of the round, and use a large spoon or ladle to distribute sauce to within 1 inch of the edge.  Evenly distribute 1/4 to 1/3 of the cheese over sauce, then top with whatever toppings you like.  Slide pizza onto baking stone with peel or baking sheet, and bake for 8-15 minutes.  Pizza is done when the cheese is bubbly and browned in spots, and the crust has puffed up and is an even golden brown with some areas of slight char.  Let sit for 2-3 minutes before slicing and serving.

Desert Island Gear (AKA UAB)

•March 23, 2013 • Leave a Comment

In the Foreign Service, we uproot our lives every 2-4 years, and move somewhere new. As a chef, this can be kind of a pain for me. I have a few things that make transitions easier for me, and they’re not just unique to the FS lifestyle.

When packing out in the Foreign Service, you can pretty much guarantee that you won’t see that stuff again for a while. “A while” usually means anywhere between 3 to 14 months (depending on your training duration and receiving post). As such, for me at least, I have a few things that I refuse to part with for any reason. These things either go in a suitcase or UAB (our allowance of a few hundred pounds which will arrive “quickly” to post), and they do help immensely in making my portable kitchen a little more functional.

Nice thing about these items is that they’re exactly the same as the essential items for anyone starting anew in a new house/apartment/etc. Hence my label of “desert island.” In order to feel comfy in my kitchen (wherever it may be), I need a good chef’s knife, a well-seasoned cast-iron skillet, a food processor, a heavy metal spatula, and a pair of tongs. In all seriousness, you can make just about anything you’d like with these tools.

A good kitchen knife is the most important tool in your arsenal.  A good knife will feel balanced in your hand, will be at least 8 inches long, and will be razor sharp.  A dull knife is a dangerous knife, people.  The majority of times I have cut myself in the kitchen it’s been because the knife wasn’t sharp.  I know it sounds backwards, but the sharper the knife, the less work you’ll have to do, and the less likely you’ll be to slip and injure yourself.  If you’re in the market for a knife, go to Williams-Sonoma and test-drive them.  Put them in your hand, go through the motions of chopping, see if it’s a good fit.  If not, move on to the next one.  Just because a knife is expensive or pretty doesn’t mean it’ll fit you.  My current favorite brand is Shun, and I’ve bought 2 knives so far.  They’re not cheap, but I like the way they feel in my hand and they hold an edge well.

I wrote about cast iron a couple of weeks ago.  I literally would be lost without my cast iron skillet in the kitchen.  It sears, it fries, it sauteés, it bakes, it makes pizza, it pan-roasts, it makes pan sauces.  It’s an all-around workhorse in the kitchen.  You can heat it up really hot, it retains its heat well, and you can go from stove-top to oven to table with one pan.  Don’t leave for post without one in your suitcase or UAB.

Food processors are also a blessing in the kitchen.  A quality food processor will set you back about $100, but it’ll save you 100 times that in time saved.  Processors make marinades in 45 seconds, can thinly slice potatoes for gratins or pommes anna, make salad dressings, pizza dough, biscuits, pie shells, sofrito, shreds veggies and cheese, and even grinds meat.  Try all of that with any other appliance.  My stand mixer takes a backseat to the food processor with pizza dough and biscuits these days.  I can get a good NY-style pizza dough together in under 5 minutes in the processor.

A heavy metal spatula helps with the cast-iron skillet.  You can scrape the bottom of the pan with ease, flip smashed burgers, grilled cheese, eggs, chops, steaks, or whatever else you want with it.  Use it to serve casseroles, lasagne, cake, pie, etc.  Tongs are also a good tool for serving as well as cooking.  Get long ones, as they protect your hand from hot grills and stoves, grease splatters, and other unpleasant mishaps.  Use them to turn steaks, chops, or chicken, serve salad, steamed vegetables, or hot items, and to handle raw ingredients when you’re cooking.

This is my desert island list.  I have more tools I enjoy using, but I think I could pull off just about any meal with only these 5 things and maybe a good stock pot.


The Dreaded “V” word…

•March 7, 2013 • Leave a Comment

Vegan.  Ugh, it’s hard to even spit out.  It’s one of the few words in the English language that I truly dread.  As a full-on carnivore, the thought of not eating any animal-based products is truly frightening.  No cheese?  No milk?  No guanciale, chicharrón, brisket, speck, or chorizo?  Kill me.  Now.

I’m 35 years old, and admittedly could be healthier.  I have high blood pressure and high cholesterol.  I probably drink too much.  I could stand to lose a few pounds as well.  Basically, I need to shape up and get my weight and diet under control.  (Disclaimer: I’m typing this post while sipping an 8-year-old Rye Whiskey, ate sausage, eggs, and cheese for breakfast today, and haven’t exercised in a few weeks, so I haven’t gotten serious about these things yet.)  As much as I try to eat better, I still find myself gravitating to meat as my go-to staple for any meal.

One of my main problems is my dislike of fish.  It was ingrained in my psyche when I was very young, what with the whole Catholic-no-meat-on-Fridays-during-Lent thing.  Gorton’s fish sticks were basically it as far as options went, and let’s face it, they suck.  So, as a child I was force-fed shitty fish, and as an adult I hate to eat fish.  Coincidence?  I think not.  However, lately I’ve been eating more seafood in the form of sushi, oysters on the half-shell, and sashimi-grade tuna.  I even ate a little salmon last night (*gasp*).  I know fish is a healthy meat option, but it’s going to take more time and effort than I currently have to change.

Enter Veganism.  If you don’t know what Vegan means, look it up.  Last year around this time, one of my most well-respected food bloggers went Vegan for a month.  This is the same guy who perfectly replicated Shake Shack’s burger, has tried every option from In-n-Out Burger’s secret menu, and perfected the hamburger blend.  In case that wasn’t enough, he also invented the deep-fried, sous-vide, 36-hour, all-belly porchetta.  He’s kind of a meat guy, so when he did the Vegan challenge, I was interested.  Very interested.

I read his Vegan-tagged posts, looked at the recipes, and asked myself if I thought I could do it.  “No way,” I kept telling myself.  Not even with recipes like this, this, and this.  The spicy peanut noodle salad has become a staple.  These recipes are GOOD.  And they’re meat-free!  And VEGAN!

This year, Kenji has gone vegan again.  This time he was better prepared, and has added some superb recipes to last year’s bunch.  I will be trying many of them, and hopefully some of them will become staples in my household.   I hope to even take the Vegan challenge one month, living a lifestyle devoid of animal exploitation.

It might happen.  Yeah, and monkeys might fly out of my butt.

Do you cast-iron?

•February 18, 2013 • 2 Comments

Non-stick pans are a waste of money.  The Teflon coating they employ is indeed non-stick, but it’s easily scratched and nicked, cannot withstand high temperatures, and is toxic if vaporized (at temperatures above 400 degrees) or ingested (if the surface is scratched or chipped).  Not fun.  The only practical application for non-stick pans I agree with is omelets.  They require non-stick or a well-seasoned pan.

For me, my cast-iron skillet, griddle, and Dutch oven are my indispensable kitchen tools.  All three are well-used, well-worn, and well-seasoned.  The well-seasoned part is the most important.  If a cast-iron pan is not properly seasoned and cared for, it’s useless.  My first cast-iron pan came from someone’s trash on the side of the road.  I was driving by and saw a 14″ cast-iron skillet on top of a bunch of other curb-side unwanted stuff (the product of either a death or sudden move), pulled over and snagged it.  It was beautiful… thick with the polymerized grease of hundreds of uses over dozens of years.  I was giddy with anticipation.

I brought it home, gave it a quick scrub with a scrubby sponge and hot water (NEVER, EVER, EVER use soap), coated it with oil, and popped it into a 500 degree oven, waited an hour, turned off the oven, and waited for the it to completely cool.  What came out was a completely non-stick surface that can handle anything from pan-searing steaks and pork chops to fried eggs, bacon, and sausage.  Nothing sticks to this pan.  Nothing.  And each time I’m done with it, I pour a little kosher salt into it, add some lemon juice, and scrub the pan out with a paper towel.  The salt adds the abrasive quality, and lemon juice is a natural degreaser.  When it’s nice and dry (achieved by drying it out with a paper towel ASAP), I add a little vegetable oil to the pan, and rub it with a clean paper towel to coat the whole inside with oil.  Since I use my pan several times a week, there’s no need to worry about the oil going rancid.

If you can’t find a well-worn cast-iron skillet or pan, you can get a new one and achieve the perfect season with relative ease.  It just takes a few steps and some time.  You’ll need flaxseed oil (preferably organic, found in the refrigerated section of your local organic grocer), a clean cotton cloth, some paper towels, and an oven.  Preheat your pan in a 200 degree oven for about 30 minutes.  Take it out, place it on a heat-resistant surface, and pour about 3 Tbsp. flaxseed oil into it.  Use the cotton cloth to rub the oil all over the inside and outside of the pan.  It should be good and oily.  Next, use the paper towels to rub off most of the oil.  Your pan should be shiny with just the thinnest layer of oil, but not dripping or greasy.  Place the pan into the upper third of your cold oven upside down, and set the temperature as high as it will go (500 degrees is preferred).  Let the pan preheat with the oven, and then let it bake at 500 degrees for an hour.  Shut the oven off, and let everything cool down to room temperature.  Lather, rinse, and repeat.  This process should be done anywhere between 4-6 times, and with each application and heating of the oil, you will notice a darkening of the pan.  After 4-6 times, the pan will come out with a matte black coating that is completely smooth to the touch.  This is when it’s ready.  One important note: don’t cook anything acidic in the pan for the first 5 or 6 times.  You’ll thank me later.

If you take good care of your cast-iron pans, you’ll be able to hand them down to your children, and they’ll be able to hand them down to theirs.  Remember this: NEVER USE SOAP, and always dry the pan immediately and apply a thin coat of oil after use.  The more you use the pan, the better it gets.  Fry chicken, cook bacon, sear steaks, and pan-roast whatever you want.  Your pan is better than Teflon-coated, and can withstand extremely high temperatures and repeated use.

Now for a recipe:

Pan-roasted Whole Chicken with Quick Pan Gravy

  • 1 large chicken, about 4 to 5 pounds, spatchcocked (the skewers are optional… I prefer a weight for the pan-roasting)
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil, divided
  • Kosher salt and fresh ground black pepper
  • 2 teaspoons chopped fresh thyme, rosemary, oregano, marjoram, savory, or a mix (optional)
  • 1 shallot, finely minced
  • 1 cup dry vermouth or sherry
  • 1 teaspoon soy sauce
  • 3 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 2 teaspoons juice from 1 lemon

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.  Coat the chicken in the olive oil, making sure to rub all of the skin with the oil.  Sprinkle generously with salt and pepper, then rub the fresh herbs onto the skin.  Heat 1 Tbsp. olive oil in cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat until shimmering but not smoking.  Place chicken skin-side down in skillet, place a weight on top (a cast-iron grill press, a brick wrapped in foil, or another heavy pan all work well), and cook until skin is golden brown and crispy, about 8 minutes.  Flip chicken over, and place skillet in the upper third of preheated oven.  Cook until an instant-read thermometer inserted between the thigh and body registers 170 degrees, about 40-45 minutes.  Remove chicken to a platter and tent with foil.  Place skillet over medium heat (careful, it’s hot!), add 1 Tbsp. olive oil, and quickly sauteé shallot, about 2 minutes.  Deglaze pan with vermouth or sherry, scraping up browned bits from the bottom of the skillet.  Add soy sauce, and boil until reduced by 2/3.  Reduce heat to medium-low, add butter, and stir until incorporated.  Add lemon juice, and remove from heat.  Stir quickly, then pour into gravy boat.  Cut chicken into serving pieces (split breast, legs, thighs), and pass jus around table.  Serve with roasted vegetables (leeks, carrots, parsnips, turnips) and either roasted sweet potatoes or red potatoes.  A good, dry white wine pairs well with this.


Potage Parmentier

•January 25, 2013 • 1 Comment

Winter has arrived in DC in the form of a cold snap (eff you, 20 degrees) and some trace amounts of snow this past Wednesday and coming this afternoon.  With these events has also arrived my desire to either hibernate or make a lot of stews and soups.  Since I can’t rightly do the former, I’ll stick to the latter.

Perusing the Farmer’s Market in Falls Church this weekend, I came across some beautiful leeks.  Feeling the cold in the air, I quickly decided to grab 2 bunches with a lovely, luxurious soup on my mind.  We made our way through the rest of the market, I picked up a few more ingredients, and then we went home to warm up with coffee and blankets.  I let the leeks sit in the fridge, almost forgotten until I went o a physical therapy appointment on Tuesday morning.  After crossing the ice planet Hoth (i.e. the 2-block walk to the office), I resolved to make those leeks into something to take the chill out of my bones.

Enter potage parmentier – potato leek soup.  It’s so deliciously simple that it should be a staple of everyone’s winter diet.  And if you live in a tropical environment there’s vicchyssoise – a cold version that’s just as lovely.  Each time I cook this soup, I channel the spirit of Julia Child because her recipe is still the best.  I’ve tweaked it a little over the years, but it’s more of an homage to her than a change on perfection.  I also usually conjure up this SNL skit whenever I make a JC recipe, as it’s so hilariously perfect.

The recipe is so basic, and I’m pretty sure you can find all the ingredients just about anywhere in the world.  I found leeks on a regular basis in the D.R., and while no one there knew what to do with them, I savored each opportunity I had to work with them, as they are one of my very favorite vegetables.  Here’s what you need:

  • 3 leeks, trimmed and thoroughly washed, then thinly sliced (white and light green parts only)
  • 4-5 russet potatoes, peeled and cut into half-inch half moons
  • 1 stick unsalted butter, divided
  • water
  • 1 pint good vegetable or chicken stock
  • 1/2 cup light or heavy cream
  • fresh chives, chopped (for garnish)

JC’s recipe calls for you to throw all the ingredients in a pot, cover them with water and stock, and simmer for 30-45 minutes to cook the potatoes through, then blend it in batches (or hit it with an immersion blender) to purée it.  I prefer to slowly sautée my leeks, covered, in 5 Tbsp butter and a generous pinch of salt for about 20 minutes before adding the potatoes, water, and stock.  This brings out some of the sweetness of the leeks, and makes their presence a little more forward in the dish. Your mileage may vary.  Whichever method you use, you’ll want to finish the now-creamy soup with some cream and the remaining butter while adding salt and fresh cracked black pepper to taste.  Ladle out into bowls, garnish with the chives, and serve with a good crusty French bread (boulés are a better choice than baguettes here).

For the vichyssoise, you can follow all the same steps, but skip the cream until serving time.  You definitely want to add the last bit of butter an incorporate it into the soup, however.  Let it cool to room temperature, then chill overnight in the fridge.  When ready to serve, let it sit for about an hour, add the cream and mix well.  Ladle into bowls, and garnish with chives, as above.  You may also want to consider garden or field cress as a garnish, as its peppery flavor complements the soup nicely.

As I roll through my winter repertoire, I’ll try to update this site with some of the soups and stews I concoct.  Everyone should have a few good winter dishes under their belt to survive these long, cold days until Spring finally arrives.