Tuesday, October 26, 2010

A Dinner for My Uncle - Braised Lamb Shanks, Black Cod with Mushroom Dashi, Poached Octopus and Seared Scallops

A Dinner for My Uncle

It was 1983 and I had just woken up from a long nap on the plane. My mom quickly tapped on my shoulder and pointed out the tiny window. I was groggy and disoriented from my first airplane flight (Pan Am!) – but my eyes grew wide open. To this day, I can vividly recall the yellow lights of Hong Kong's harbor and Kowloon City. I could see large junk ships sprinkled all over the green water and cars cruising the streets like fish swimming in a two-way stream. My mom was from Macau, now the Las Vegas of Asia, but had moved to Hong Kong to work. She then moved to the United States in the early 70s to pursue a more opportunistic life as many Asians did. She got married a few years later and had me and my sister. It was now eleven years since she had left her father and brothers and she was happy to come back to Hong Kong now with her own family.

For first time visitors to Asia, it is usually quite a disorienting, stimulating experience. Like life on fast-forward. We filed out of the airplane, picked up our luggage and proceeded through the long hallways towards the exit. As we got closer, I could hear indistinct chatter from people and cars honking. I was taken aback by how many people were waiting to pick up their friends and family. The lighting was a bit dim and casted behind the crowd. At my age and size, everyone seemed like a giant silhouette to me. It was daunting. But all of a sudden, my mom sped up ahead of me and my dad, who was holding my baby sister. We could see a man behind the rail waving vigorously with a huge smile on his face. This has to be the Uncle my mom had spoken about so often. "Kow-fu", as I would learn to call him, which means "mom's younger brother" in Cantonese Chinese. I didn't know him but I knew I liked him the second he picked me and my sister us up for a hug. It was 1983 and I was now in Hong Kong with my new family.

The details of the trip were blurry after the day at the airport. I can only be reminded of the activities we did through pictures. A lot of photos of us at restaurants with "lazy susans" on the tables. Photos of us on random park slides. Anonymous old people holding us. Anonymous people with terrible 1980s fashion holding us. But one thing we'll never forget is the feeling of love that my Uncle gave us and that constant smile that could only come from a good relationship between him and my mom.

In the next 27 years, we had visited and seen my Uncle at least 8-10 times. But this time, he was coming back to Los Angeles to visit my family. I had grown a lot since then and I am now married myself. He had met Jeni before but this time he would be stepping into our house. It was now my turn to make him feel the way I felt when I met him that day at the airport in Hong Kong. If I had to write about the impact of my "Kow-fu" on our life, it would be a long series. But what do you give someone who pretty much has everything, has seen a better part of the world and indeed lives a life rich in so many ways. And as I've learned and preached throughout my time writing this blog is the importance of food, friends and family. In almost everything we do, food does bring us together. As children, we all hated being force-fed by family. They weren't trying to make our lives difficult, they were just trying to provide sustenance and love.

With that, I decided to show my appreciation for my Uncle and Aunt visiting from Hong Kong with a home-cooked meal. With Nathan and Karen McCall's wonderful offerings, local farmers market and great wine from Jill Bernheimer's Domaine LA, I was able to prepare a California-ish menu.

Kowfu Dinner Scallops

Seared Diver Scallop with Piquillo Pepper Sauce & Spanish-style Green Beans
Recently, the scallops at McCall's have almost been as large as a hockey puck. The bigger ones are obviously meaty yet can be challenging to cook since you stand a better chance of undercooking it or "cracking" the scallop - a HUGE pet-peeve of mine. In that case, less is more theory comes in to play. If you don't think you can handle the large size scallop, get two smaller sized ones. If you haven't had piquillo peppers before, you may want to start using them over red bell peppers – they are so sweet and subtly smokey. You will usually find them jarred with olive oil and water. I recommend Bajamar, which McCall's and La Española (Harbor City) has. If not, Trader Jose will work just fine.

Diver or Dayboat Scallops
Roasted Piquillo Peppers
Wax beans
Whole Dried Peppers (I like Thai, spicier than Mexican and Italian)
Heavy whipping Cream
Chicken broth (optional)
Smoked paprika
Olive Oil

(1) Blanch the wax beans prior to cooking them in the pan, it'll make your life much easier. Bring the water to a rigorous boil, add two tablespoons of salt and a shot of olive oil. Add the beans and cook for about 3 minutes, strain the beans and shock them in an ice bath to stop the cooking. Remove from water and dry with paper towels. These should have a nice crunch to them, but not a raw taste.

(2) In a blender, add about 3-4 pieces of the piquillo peppers, one clove of garlic and a little cream. Blend it and add cream and stock as needed for a nice consistency. Add sugar for some sweetness. Don't worry about it being too chunky. Upon service, you will heat the sauce up in a pan with some butter and smooth it out. Salt and pepper to your taste. If you want, you can blend it for another few minutes. Set the sauce in a pan on low heat as you'll be serving it right away over the scallop.

(3) In a skillet or iron pan, keep the heat on high. Make sure the scallops are COMPLETELY DRY before seasoning them with S&P. The more moisture your scallop has, the more difficult it is to get a nice caramelized "cap". The heat must be high but not to the point it is "cracking" your scallop open. You have to babysit scallops or they will lose control. They'll drop out of school, starting doing drugs and you'll never hear from them again. 3-4 minutes per side depending on the size of your scallop. Set aside.

(4) Sauté the beans on super high heat. They have already been cooked but you want that last kiss of heat from the skillet. Add olive oil, toss in the beans. Add garlic, dried chili peppers, smoked paprika and S&P to taste. When I cook this, it takes no more than 1 minute because my skillet is smoking hot. Squeeze a little lemon juice over the dish and serve. The sweetness of the scallop blends really well with the smokiness of the piquillo peppers and spiciness of the sautéed green beans.

A Dinner for My Uncle

Poached Polipolata Octopus with La Quercia Pancetta and Baby Potato & Celery Salad
This is inspired by one of my favorite Italian dishes in Los Angeles. Both Osteria Mozza and Osteria Mamma (ex-Chef of Osteria La Buca) offer a tasty, poached-octopus salad. The former cooks the octopus with the "fabled wine cork method" and finishes it off on the grill. The latter poaches the octopus in water and offers a lighter, delicate version of this famed Italian dish. I chose to follow the latter because I didn't have time to do a final char. And since an octopus lacks bones and sinews, there is no need to do excessive braising. The preparation of my 4 lb. octopus took no longer than 1 hour 15 mins. After all, you are not serving the whole octopus, only the tentacles.

Baby potatoes
La Quercia pancetta (any will do, even Nueske bacon)
Special occasion olive oil
Regular olive oil

(1) Wash the octopus, touch its eyeballs and say "sorry". You don't want to submerge the octopus in hot, boiling water because it will curl up really quickly and tighten all the tentacles. Instead, add the octopus to a pot and fill it with cold water. Add 2-3 tablespoons of salt. Bring the octopus to a boil (probably 10-12 minutes) and immediately cook on low heat. The key here is to check Mr. Octopus every 15 minutes. You do not want a mushy, overcooked octopus – it's gross. Cut a piece of the tentacle off and try a piece from the wider part of the tentacle. If it tastes soft yet still meaty, you're good to go. Cut off all the tentacles at the base and add them to an ice bath. Discard the head. Remove the tentacles once they are cold and pat them dry. Mix some olive oil with the tentacles in a bowl and keep it refrigerated. You are prepping them for sautéing or grilling.

(2) Boil the potatoes til they are in between hard and fork-tender. Shock them in ice. You will be cutting them into small pieces and want a somewhat nice bite to them - not mashed potatoes.

(3) If you are grilling the octopus tentacles, make sure they have a nice char on high heat. You want that nice grill taste. If you are sautéing, cut the tentacles up into 1/4" - 1/2" pieces. Sauté on high heat in a skillet with garlic and a little white wine if you'd like.

(4) Cook pancetta until they are slightly crispy. Pat them dry with a paper towel.

(5) Mix the tentacles, potatoes, celery, pancetta and chives in a bowl. Cough it up, and use the SPECIAL OCCASION olive oil since this will make or break the dish. You use cheap olive oil, it will taste like styrofoam. People will know you're cheap, delete you off Facebook and never speak to you again. S&P and lemon juice.

Kowfu Dinner Black Cod

Pan-Roasted Black Cod with Matsutake and Bun Shimeji Mushroom Dashi
The black cod at McCall's is intensely fresh and fatty. It is almost impossible to overcook this fish but the most desired part of this fish is a nice crisp skin. I've messed up on this in the past. If you overcook the skin it'll be blackened. If you undercook it, you'll get this soggy, scab-like texture which can be undesirable. In this dish, the moist fish is combined with the earthiness of Japanese mushrooms in a light dashi stock. Dashi is a key Japanese stock that is made with fish powder, bonito fish flakes, sea kelp (kombu), sake or mirin and salt. The result is a broth that can be sold as a soft drink. I've cooked this dish many times and my guests have always been happy. If you don't want to make your own broth, you can just buy a bottle of udon/somen/tsuyu sauce. From there, add shitake mushrooms, bonito flakes, soy sauce and sugar and just achieve the taste you're looking for. It should be slightly sweet and salty and match the milkiness of the black cod.

Black cod (skin-on)
Your choice of Japanese mushrooms (I used Beech, King, oyster, Matsutake)
Shichimi Togorashi (Japanese 7-ingredient chili pepper mix)

Dashi Ingredients
Dashi-no-moto fish stock (comes in large box or packets)
Shitake mushrooms
Bonito flakes (katsuoboshi)
Soy Sauce
Sake or Mirin

(1) I am very bad at measurements and just eyeball everything – tasting as I go. Start out with some water in a pot and add soy sauce. Throw in about 4 dried shitake mushrooms and a handful of bonito flakes and lightly bring water to a boil. Then add about 2-3 tablespoons of the dashi no moto fish stock powder to get that 'fishy' taste you have in good miso soup. From here it's a game of adding sugar and more soy sauce to achieve the final taste. Again, the result should have a nice hint of sweetness, fish, mushrooms and smokiness from the bonito flakes. Set on the side on super low heat. Bring to a boil upon service.

(2) Keep your oven on at 450 degrees. Sear the black cod in a oven-safe skillet (meaning no plastic handles) on medium to high heat and carefully watch that skin. You'll know the skin is being cooked on too high of heat when your smoke alarm goes off and you'll know the skin is being cooked on too low of heat when the fish starts sweating out the water. It has to be in between. I'd say 5-6 minutes on the skin side and then toss it in the oven for about 4-5. Keep checking the fish by jiggling it. It should be done when it's not like jello, and not too firm.

(3) Sauté the mushrooms of your choice on high heat and add a little bit of the Japanese 7-spice pepper mix.

(4) Now you're ready to serve. You want to add piping hot broth AROUND the fish. Pretend your black cod is a castle perched on top of mountain of mushrooms, surrounded by a mushroom broth moat and garnished with microgreen trees. Make sure the broth does not touch the fish. Protect that castle. Enjoy.

Kowfu Dinner Lamb Shanks

Braised Lamb Shanks with Serrano Chile Salsa Verde and Lazy-man Lentils
I felt a braised dish would be a great way to end a dinner. To me, a braised dish is the epitome of a home-cooked meal by a loved one. It's comforting, tasty and very tender. There aren't too many things that would suck as a result of a braising in a Le Creuset pot. Instead of doing the usual wine-braise, Nathan and I had discussed a beer braise with veal stock instead of chicken stock for that extra shot of slight "gameness". Often times, red wine can make a dish too "heavy" and this new plan offered an escape from food coma. For the salsa verde, I searched high and low for a good recipe. Many suggested either boiling the tomatillos, blending the tomatillos raw or roasting the tomatillos. Boiling would take away from the taste a little. Blending raw tomatillos would result in a super sour taste. I went with roasting because I like the taste. As for the lazy-man lentils, what I mean by that is use Trader Joe's pre-cooked ones – it'll save you so much time. Upon service, just wake it up with some chicken stock, garlic and butter.

Ingredients for Lamb Shank Braise
Lamb Shanks
Mire Poix (onions, carrots, celery)
Bay Leaves
Veal Stock Demi-glace (available at McCall's, if not use chicken stock)
2 cans of lager/light beer (I used Sapporo)
Red Wine (for color)
Chicken Stock
Whole bulb of garlic

Ingredients for Salsa Verde
8-10 Tomatillos (green tomatoes)
1 large onion
2-3 cloves of garlic
cilantro bunch
lime juice (if needed)
Chicken broth (optional)
Serrano or jalapeno chiles

Lamb Shanks

(1) In a dutch oven (Le Creuset), brown the shanks over high heat. The browner they get, the more flavor and better looking they'll be. Use salt and oil freely since you want to get a nice browning. This takes about 10 minutes. Remove shanks and place in a bowl. Keep the oil in the dutch oven.

(2) Sweat the mire poix for about 8 minutes and add 4-5 sprigs of thyme, 2-3 bay leaves and a beheaded bulb of garlic (don't bother peeling the garlic).

(3) Add shanks back in and add about 1 cup of red wine for color, 2 cans of beer, 3-4 tablespoons of cumin and chicken stock until the shanks are submerged. Add 2-3 scoops of veal demi-glace. Cover the pot and bring to a boil. Have your oven on at 500 degrees and move the pot inside once it has come to a boil. Braise for 2.5-3 hours and check at the 1.5 hour mark to make sure the liquid has not evaporated too fast. You'll want to add more chicken stock and flip the shanks upside down to "repair" the dried out side of the shanks.

(4) Salt to taste, or add water if it's too salty. Keep this in the oven on the lowest setting or on the stove at simmer until service. You'll want to use a fork to pull the meat off the bone and make sure you suck that marrow out of the lamb bones while you're at it – so good.

Salsa Verde
(1) In a mixing bowl, toss the tomatillos, chiles, garlic and onions with some olive oil. Roast them at 350 degrees for about 20 minutes or until they are tender. In a blender, toss them in and add salt to taste. It should still be sour enough, but have some lime juice on reserve just in case. I also used some chicken stock and extra pieces of raw onion to "kill" off the sour taste. This was tasty.

After four courses, some ice cream and ample wine, I could see that my Uncle and Aunt were ready to fall asleep. I didn't cook the fish as nice as I wanted to because I had to cook for 7. I knew some of the dishes were too different for them being from Hong Kong. But at the end, my Uncle assured me that there is nothing better than a homecooked meal. He has eaten everywhere in the world but would pick a meal with family over anything. And I couldn't agree more. All of the effort Jeni and I put in was worth it. I then looked at my little 4 year old nephew and thought about the day he would hopefully cook for me and I then understood how my Uncle felt at that moment. So to my "Kow-fu", thank you for being a great Uncle and for everything you've done for my family. Thanks for reading.


Daily Gluttony said...

Waaah, ho leng, ah! Lovely dishes and a lovely tribute to your Kow-Fu.

Hey I didn't know your mom is from Macau! My dad was from Macau! Are you sure you're not a long cousin or something? haha

a.r. said...

As always your photos are gorgeous, the food scrumptious!! but....the best from this post, at least for me.....what a beautiful story!! A beautifully written, heartfelt post.
It made me cry, and also think about my own family, and how this totally applies to us ""the importance of food, friends and family. In almost everything we do, food does bring us together"" ...always!

~Thank you so much for sharing Dylan!
Amazing post!!

Tricerapops said...

i was hoping you'd cover this dinner with photos and recipes. love it.

e d b m said...

Pam, thank you. Yeah! I love that place. When was the last time you were there? I can't remember what part of Macau my mom is from. Macau was super small and it'd be funny if we were somehow related ha. Our appetites and line of thinking are quite similar.

A.R., thank you. I wasn't trying to make you cry I swear. I was just being honest. Food, family and friends are definitely the first on my list.

Pops to the 3rd power, we'll talk more in depth about it if you want next time we're on a taco run or consuming some wine ha. Great seeing you again last week.

Anne said...

D, you make the rest of us look like amateurs! Amazing.

glutster said...

damn dude! you don't mess around! Looks like a dinner I would try to make, all my favorite proteins!

Hope you've been good man.

Denise Michaels - Adventurous Foodie said...

The sear on those scallops is perfect. These dishes really motivate me to do more creative dishes with seafood. They look delicious - and reasonably healthy, too. I guess it is possible to be a home cook and create such lovely food.

Hope you had a wonderful visit with your Kow-Fu.

Chocolate Shavings said...

That cod dish looks amazing!

Peggy said...

Wow! This dinner sounds absolutely amazing and I'm sure your Kow-Fu felt special after this! I know I sure would!

streetgourmetla said...

This is a deep experience, I feel ya, man. This makes your blog all the more special, immortalizing your special family moment. Beautiful.

Anonymous said...

all about you is love... so your uncle should be proud ...

tallnoe said...

Beautiful post. Beautiful story.
And now I'm hungry.
Thank you for sharing.

LimeCake said...

Asia is definitely disorienting! And can be supremely messy to first time visitors. That said, this is a wonderful menu! Everything looks delicious!

Nilcha said...

beautiful food.

Kathleen Bade said...

Dinner fit for a King ...
he must be.

Your food and photographs are incredible.

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