A Visit to the Dumpling House – Part II of the Dumpling Cafe

Not sure what the heck is going on? Head over here for part 1!

Despite the plethora of appetizers we’d ordered, we still had plenty of room for entrees. I think is one of the most magical things about these adventures – so many people are eating that you can really go to town on the ordering and neither be too full nor overladen with leftovers.

Our entrees were actually a bit less exciting than the appetizers, although a few daring choices were made.

Diced Chicken with Peking Sauce

This was not one of them, though it was delicious. The menu called it Diced Chicken w. Peking Sauce. Peking sauce is often an alternate name for hoisin, although confusingly it can also refer to a similar sauce called tian mian jiang, which is an amazing name for just about anything. Either way the chicken fit the profile – somewhat sweet, somewhat salty, the tiniest bit of chili. Very enjoyable and way less gloppy-sweet than your typical suburban “General Gau’s” chicken. It was good, just not terribly adventurous. I suspect we were all recovering from duck tongues and Weird Uncle Meatball.

Razor Clam Meets Pork with Chives
More intriguing was the “House Special Razor Clam Meet (sic) & Pork w/Chives in Hot Sauce.” Razor clams are not commercially fished, so someone is digging those suckers right out of the beach! The little bits of pork held most of the spicy flavor (unless you ate those little atomic death chilis they put into these dishes, which I did not), and the chives were abundant in a way you don’t normally see herbs used – tasty and interesting. I might have to try it at home! There were also pieces of secret squid tucked away in the mix – they were perfectly cooked, not at all rubbery and a nice addition to the dish.

Sauteed Blood with Leeks
This was the Sauteed Blood with Leeks. It was my choice, mostly because I am less excited about Intestine and Pork Blood Hot Pot, which was the other option up for discussion, and I am sad to say that I made the wrong choice. The dish wasn’t bad, it was just surprisingly boring for sauteed pork blood. We were able to easily remedy it with sauces from other dishes, but perhaps I judged the intestines too harshly – no one has ever accused a mustard hot pot of being dull. I guess I will just need to go back!

Twice Cooked Pork
This little beauty, on the hand, was not boring. In fact, it had the best sauce for doctoring the blood, along with anything else one saw fit to put it on. It’s Twice Cooked Pork, a name that doesn’t really reveal too much about how awesome this dish is. Luckily Jake pulled out his fancy-phone, did some research, and wisely recommended that we give this dish a whirl.
Holy cow. If you’re too lazy to click the link, basically the dish is pork belly boiled with ginger and salt, then fried and served with cabbage or leeks. This rendition also had a spicy-sweet chili sauce that was unbelievable on pretty much everything, including (especially?) sauteed pork blood.

All in all, Dumpling Cafe lived up to and even surpassed our expectations, even with their curious definition of meat balls. I can’t wait to go back! Armed with what we know now, I believe the team could put together a meal of truly epic proportions. And about 90 orders of soup dumplings.

Soup Dumplings, Duck Tongues, and Weird Uncles

Have I mentioned to you guys how much I love Serious Eats? Should you not know what that is (on the random off-chance that THIS is the only food blog you read), let me explain. Serious Eats is a food blog, but in a big, big way. It was created by acclaimed food critic Ed Levine, and as the name suggests they are serious about food, with daily recipes, book reviews, videos, and restaurant reviews. I got into Serious Eats because of their Food Lab column, in which J. Kenji Lopez-Alt, formerly of America’s Test Kitchen, de- and re-constructs recipes for ultimate tastiness. What can I say, it appeals to the science nerd in me. But I STAY with Serious Eats, well, for lots of reasons, but particularly because they often do features on Boston-area restaurants and food, giving me ideas for things to try and write about here. Like this one.

Now, if you’ve been a loyal reader of this blog for some time, you may remember the first time I tried soup dumplings. Truly that was a magical feast of porcine wonder. Yet here was Mr. Lopez-Alt claiming that not only were these xiao long bao better than any others served in Boston, they were the best he’d had anywhere. What was to be done but to give it a try? I gathered my intrepid dumpling crew – The Goog and The Sisters Sacchetti, with the additions of Jake, Mr. Menace, and Gary – and off we headed to Chinatown to see what delights The Dumpling Cafe had to offer us.

And oh, what delights there were!
Xiao Long Bao
Rather than being coy, and making you wait until the end of this tale to find out if Serious Eats did me right and the soup dumplings lived up to the hype, let’s get it out of the way first. THE SOUP DUMPLINGS WERE AMAZING. Tender little morsels of pork tucked into a thin-skinned dumpling and surrounded by a marvelously fatty, ginger and garlic flavored broth. Outstanding – you could just get six steamer baskets full of these and be in heaven, unless you hate dumplings, in which case there is something wrong with you and you should really see someone about this terrible affliction.

But that wasn’t all that Dumpling Cafe had to offer! With so many traditional Taiwanese dishes to try, our intrepid band did the only thing we could possibly do, and ordered as many dishes as it seemed humanly possible to eat.

For appetizers, in addition to the dumplings, we had:
Pan Fried Duck Dumplings
More dumplings! But they were different dumplings. These were pan-fried duck dumplings, and they were also quite tasty, though not quite as shockingly good as the soup dumplings. Fluffy, light and pleasant, but greatly improved, as we discovered later, by the addition of sauces from other dishes.

Duck Tongues
Grilled duck tongues! Or, as the menu called them, duck tongus. (I really love Chinese restaurant misspellings and I’m afraid you’re going to have to indulge me in the litany of those from the Dumpling Cafe. Far from detracting from my restaurant experience, I think these little mistakes really enhance it.) As you can see, they are served on a stick. Everything on a stick is delicious, right? Well, to be fair, I think I liked these more than the rest of our party. They’re sort of rich and fatty, but a bit
of work because, much to the surprise of everyone at the table, ducks have a bone running through the middle of their tongues! (Of course, had we paid more attention to the very article that brought us to the restaurant, we’d have known that.) I have no idea why this is, since my preliminary research leads me to that other Serious Eats article (my other favorite column, Chi Chi Wang’s amazing “Nasty Bits.”) or information about duck calls. Either way, I think some of my dining companions were a bit put off by the fiddly little bones, but I liked the tongues quite a bit!

Chicken Skin
The “Sticky Toffee Pudding” of the evening – grilled chicken skin. In this case, people seemed surprised at how much they loved it, which I thought was funny, since I thought it was a gimme that the best part of any bird is its crispy, delicious skin. While the grilled technique rendered the skin a bit less crisp, it was made up for by the flavorful marinade it had been soaked in.

My surprise love of the night was this:
Chilled Tofu with Preserved Duck Egg
No, those eggs aren’t bad, they’re preserved! The dish is Chilled Tofu with Preserved Egg and it was wonderful – the tofu sweet and light, the egg
unctuous and creamy. I was afraid I wouldn’t like the preserved egg (also known as a “Century Egg”) due to having read about the eggs smelling of sulfur and ammonia, but I didn’t notice any smell at all and the taste was complex and rich, like the Platonic egg, a good contrast to the blander tofu.

Odd as the Century Egg was, it was not nearly as strange as the appetizer that we thought would be the most Western – the Taiwanese Meatball. When we ordered it, we’d expected little meatballs, something like what you’d get in an Italian Wedding Soup, served in a tasty sauce. The menu said it came with grary, which we surmised was meant to be gravy, although it provided an amusing nickname for Gary for the evening. Imagine our surprise when this arrived, put in front of us with the single word “pork”:
Weird Uncle Meatball
We were, to say the least, puzzled. We confirmed with the waitress that by pork she meant meatball. She had. We dug in.

It was…surprisingly tasty, though the gumminess of the gelatinous rice…shell? I guess? was a little intense. However the bits of pork and mushroom inside were deliciously meaty, and the “grary” was bright and pungent and not as sweet as it looked. Elise declared that if the chicken skin were the “back seat of the car dish” and the xiao long bao were the “girl you take home to mother dish” then the meatball was like a weird cousin that everyone is a little nervous to have over but who turns out to be kind of interesting. I thought about it and decided that weird uncle seemed more fitting, and thus Weird Uncle Meatball was born. Later research revealed that Weird Uncle Meatball is a traditional dish also known as bawan. Research also revealed that not all bawan are as gelatinous as Weird Uncle Meatball was. For all of that, as I said, he was quite tasty and worth the adventure – just be prepared for the oddity.

Tune in later this week for the second installment – our entrees!

True Adventures – Part 2

After enjoying our drinks and appetizers, it was time to get down to the serious business of dinner – the entrees.

Valerie ordered the Vietnamese Crepe:
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Filled with honshimeiji mushrooms, fried tofu, and mung bean sprouts, this crisp pancake was light, flavorful, and tasty with its spicy dipping sauce.

Several folks at the table ordered the Green Curry with fried tofu, mizuna & bok choy, maitake mushrooms and black rice cake:
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The curry was pleasant, mild for green curry but with a terrific hint of lime. I found it slightly salty but the black rice cake was nicely chewy and it was all well-balanced.

Speaking of balance, the flavors in the spaghettini melded perfectly:
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Another popular choice at the table, it combined smoked tofu, English peas, blanched almonds, and a “cream sauce” made from cashews. The smoked tofu was incredible, with a flavor and texture like smoked gouda, a perfect complement to the sweet English peas. To my taste the homemade pasta was a bit too soft; a function, I think, of being made without eggs. Other than that, this was close to my favorite dish.

The ultimate honor, however, ended up with my own entree:
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This the phyllo purse! Stuffed with seitan, roasted zucchini, and caramelized onions, surrounded by a red mole, fire roasted peppers, arugula & pepitas, this was an outstanding combination of flavors and textures. The phyllo was crisp and golden, opening to all of the treats inside. Seitan, which is made from wheat gluten, is often used as a meat substitute, although personally I like it just fine on its own merits. The mole was smoky and complex and brought out the best in all of the ingredients. Should I return to True Bistro I may have a hard time ordering anything else…

When the time came for dessert our waitress asked us if she could make some recommendations. Naturally we agreed – who better to help us make our choices? She recommended, and we ordered, the following:
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The coconut pie. This was pretty much a no-brainer anyway; it’s always raved about in reviews, and it’s even won vegan baking praise from PETA. A blood orange sauce is swirled around a slice of what almost resembles a firm coconut pudding topped with toasted coconut; the crust is some sort of short bread or crumble. It’s NOT meant to be coconut cream, and so it is not, but it IS creamy on its own right. Not being the world’s biggest coconut fan (I like the taste, but the texture of dried coconut squicks me out) I liked this just okay, but LOVED the blood orange sauce. Drip that on some good vanilla and we’d have a serious winner. If you DO love coconut, this is pretty outstanding.

Her second choice was the newest dessert on the menu, a raspberry Napoleon:
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Traditional Napoleons are made with puff pastry layered with pastry cream or whipped cream, and iced. Puff pastry = butter and pastry cream is out for the obvious reasons, so this was instead sugar phyllo dough with a filling of white chocolate “mousse” and topped with raspberries and a raspberry reduction. Again, the fruit here was the big winner, sweet and tart at the same time and very, very fresh. The sugared phyllo was a hit too, crispy and not too sweet. The white chocolate mousse was good and creamy, but a bit unexciting in the way that white chocolate always is.

However, the final recommendation was exciting indeed!
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That, my friends, is the “death by chocolate” cake. Covered in creme anglaise and shattered caramel, this blew me away. In part this was because I was expecting chocolate cake, as in birthday cake. I do not really care for chocolate cake. It is always disappointing to me, because it doesn’t really taste like chocolate, and cake is just not my jam. It’s like sub-par, sugary bread. THIS chocolate cake, on the other hand, was a riff on flourless chocolate – creamy, intensely cacao-flavored, barely sweetened, and covered on top with one of my favorite desserts, burnt sugar. Hard to go wrong with that combination, and I was all the more impressed when I found out that it’s made with silken tofu! If I can ever get my hands on this recipe, look out!

All in all, True Bistro exceeded my expectations of what a vegan restaurant can do. My favorite dishes were those that didn’t try to replace animal products so much as demonstrate that you don’t always need them to make great food. Thank you to Mr. Menace, Elise, Valerie, Dan, Aime, Gary, Sarah and Andrew for sharing this adventure with me!

True Adventures – Part 1

So many of our adventuresome outings are focused around meat, particularly unusual (to our culture anyway) meat and meat products. Machu Picchu is a chicken grill, with an assortment of offal offerings. The Gourmet Dumpling House trip focused around pig ears and feet, and who can forget the blood-based delights of JnJ Turo-Turo or Cafe Polonia? While each of these has been wonderful, it was time for something truly bold, truly adventuresome. Something new. It was time…for veganism.

Well, to be fair, neither I nor the other intrepid foodmanauts of the Adventures in Food crew actually became vegans. For readers who may not know, vegans are vegetarians who go a step or two farther. Rather than simply not eating meat, vegans do not eat any animal product whatsoever. That means no cream, no butter, no eggs, no cheese. Depending on their reasons for choosing to practice veganism, this can extend beyond food into all animal-based products – no leather shoes, no wool sweaters – or it may be limited to culinary choices. Either way, we did not adopt this stricture for more than the constraints of one meal, but for the course of that meal we ate absolutely no animal products.

The restaurant we visited is called True Bistro, and I believe it is the first of its kind in the Boston area. That’s not to say that Boston doesn’t have any other vegan restaurants. Right down the street from True there’s a little cafe called Pulse, Grasshopper has been serving vegan Chinese food for years, and right down the street from it is Peace o’Pie, which makes vegan pizza. What made True Bistro compelling to me is that its whole purpose is to make vegan food that is upscale – a real fine-dining experience sans meat, dairy, and eggs. A far cry from tofu-scramble and curried lentils, this would be in many ways the hallmark of true creativity in cooking, if they pulled it off. I had to try it.

And so, I rounded up 8 fellow food-adventurers, including Mr. Menace, and off we went!

True Bistro does not accept reservations, so I was a bit nervous bringing in such a large party. Luckily we arrived early enough that despite another very large party dining at the same time we were able to be seated immediately. The staff was extremely courteous and readied our table very quickly, I might add!

The interior is small, but painted in white to make the most of the space and take advantage of the large picture windows that surround it. The tables were appropriately set, for an upscale establishment, with white linens and blue wildflowers in bud vases.

I started my meal with the El Diablo cocktail – normally made with creme de cassis, tequila, and ginger beer. True Bistro’s version featured a housemade black currant liqueur – apparently the commercial product isn’t vegan, and, a bit unfortunately, ginger ale. It was pretty, but a tad on the sweet side due to the ginger switch:
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The sisters Sacchetti ordered the very picturesque peach sangria:
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The rest of the table contented themselves with less photogenic beverages in the form of water and beer, so you don’t get to see those!

We ordered several appetizers for the table. The ravioli in lemon-thyme “cream” sauce had been much talked about, so we ordered a couple:
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Bright with lemon and truly tasting of thyme, the cream sauce was amazing, and indistinguishable to me from actual cream. The ravioli themselves were filled with a wonderful pale-green sweet pea puree. The pasta itself was a bit soft, which I imagine is due to being made without eggs, something I didn’t know was even possible, frankly.

We also ordered the cornmeal-crusted oyster mushrooms. These I wish we’d gotten more of, because they were outstanding:
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The mushrooms were perfectly tender and sweetly meaty, while the batter was crunchy and flavorful. Though they came with two sauces, a horseradish dill and a smear of curry, they didn’t really even need them.

We also had a gorgeous plate of malty pickles:
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And some of the best fries I’ve ever eaten in my life:
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Now, you may be thinking that the fries aren’t really all that “upscale,” but they were done the style of Belgian frites, as any regular bistro would serve (though usually holding up a large steak, to be fair.) These fries were a revelation – gloriously salty, golden, and crisp. Our meal was off to a fine start!

As is this entry – too long for just one post. Tune in Friday for the thrilling conclusion – entrees and desserts! You know you want to find out the secret to vegan chocolate cake…

Asparagus Therapy

Asparagus is a fascinating vegetable. Formerly classified as a lily, asparagus is now recognized as its own species – and ranges from the one we’re familiar with, the green (or white, or purple) spears with the tight little leaves, to leafy vines, to covered in thorns. Nutritionally asparagus is a powerhouse, a good source of vitamin B6, calcium, magnesium and zinc, as well as dietary fiber, protein, vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin E, vitamin K, thiamin, riboflavin, rutin, niacin, folic acid, iron, phosphorus, potassium, copper, manganese and selenium. You know, in case you’re low on your rutin. In the spring, there’s no finer vegetable – while asparagus is now available year round thanks to trucks and planes, its true season here in the North is pretty fleeting.

Most people I know steam asparagus – a preparation I enjoy but find a bit dull. This also runs the risk of being unpleasantly mushy if the person steaming isn’t diligent. My preferred preparations are either sauteed with garlic or roasted – this brings out the true sweetness of the vegetable, and the tips get amazingly crunchy and delicate. However, I recently found myself in the position of having two big bunches of asparagus and decided to try something new – asparagus soup!

There are thousands, if not millions, of recipes for asparagus soup out there, but I went with this one because – a. I had all of the necessary ingredients at home and b. it could easily be made vegetarian or vegan if I wanted to make it again (I didn’t make it either, since I used chicken stock in lieu of veggie stock, but you COULD do this. The chicken stock was in the freezer! Besides, I don’t have soy milk, yogurt, or cheese on hand either, so it was all going to be moot.)

You can click the link for the full recipe, but here’s what I did in pictures:

Simmer the asparagus briefly in a bit of stock with some onion. When they’re tender, remove and reserve some of the asparagus tips for garnish later. Try not to steam your fingerprints off.
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Put the rest of the veggies in the food processor. Now you are trying to avoid steaming your face off!
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Give them a nice whirl, until you have a pretty much entirely pureed batch of green goop.
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This was another reason to like this recipe – it didn’t have me pureeing with the liquid. If you lack an immersion blender, as I do, this is a relief.

Back in the pot it goes! Now you’re going to put in all the lemon and yogurt and milk and stock and whatnot. At first this will look unbearably gross, and then you’ll stir it all up and it will become a pleasant, slightly paler green.
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When you’re ready to serve it, throw on the tips and some parmesan cheese. If you would like to be extra decadent and have thrown the idea of a vegetarian soup out of the window, why not fry up some lardo and put that on there too? You will not be sorry you did this.
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This soup was delicious – creamy and slightly tangy from the yogurt and lemon. And now I have a new, potentially vegan-friendly asparagus recipe in my repertoire!

Livered and Onions

Livered and onions is a phrase my dad made up to express irritation – a play on livid that has always amused me. However, actual liver and onions are far from irritating – I love them! Here’s why:

1. Liver is super good for you – it’s full of vitamins, minerals, and protein that can be hard to get from other sources. You do have to watch out for the cholesterol, but that’s true of meat, period.

2. It’s delicious. Liver is like beef that’s been turned up to 11. Of course, this is exactly why some people don’t like it. To them I say, more for me!

3. It is CHEAP. This is important because I buy my liver at the farmer’s market, where the meat products can, for all the right reasons, trend toward the expensive. They’re expensive because the animals are raised right – treated well, no creepy chemicals, humanely killed – but I still can’t usually afford a $15-$20 steak. Liver, however, is a mere $2-$3per lb – and one pound is MORE than enough liver for several days worth of meals.

After a recent trip to the farmer’s market I took advantage of all of these wonderful attributes and made a very fast, very tasty meal.

I took some asparagus:
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and sauteed them with some green garlic:
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In the meantime, I rinsed the liver, which was conveniently already sliced:
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(The only problem with the preslicing was that I hadn’t realized it had been done – and liver is a bit…messy. The fridge looked like I’d been on a crime spree.)

While I patted the liver dry, I started the onions in a skillet:
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Once they’d cooked down, I dredged the liver in a mix of flour, mustard powder, paprika and pepper and popped in the pan that had held the onions:
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A few minutes per side was all it took! You definitely don’t want to overcook the liver – it goes from tender to leather pretty quickly.
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Put the whole shebang over the asparagus and there you have it – dinner in half an hour!
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Cheap, healthy, and local – what’s not to love?

Quick Bites – First Taste

I just wanted to tell you about a few exciting (to me, anyway!) things that I’ve found related to food lately. I may do this from time to time as a way to share (and occasionally remind myself of stuff to check out.)

Item one – Momofuku’s Dave Chang and McSweeney’s have teamed up to create a quarterly magazine! Called Lucky Peach, each issue will focus on a theme – issue one is all about ramen. That said, coming from the folks it does this magazine is so much more – short stories, discourses on authenticity, and lots and lots of recipes. The Huffington Post has a preview here, and having read the first issue nearly cover to cover I can say that if you like food, pop culture and really good photography this magazine is worth a look. (Local friends – I have a subscription and am happy to share.)

Item two – Chew. This is one of my favorite comics, and I was originally going to write a whole review for you, but then I decided that no one but me would want to read that. So instead I’m just going to tell you to go read it, because it’s amazing. The premise involves government conspiracy theories, alien life forms, vampires, and a man who can taste the entire history of anything he eats – except beets. It’s been picked up by Showtime to be turned into a half-hour show, so I recommend getting ahead of the trend and reading it now, before it’s all sold out. If you’re in the Boston area, may I recommend Comicazi as a great place to pick it up?

Item three – Night Life at Children’s Wharf. Apparently, the Children’s Museum is catering to adults on select Wednesday nights this summer! While totally random, this is also awesome, mostly because I work right behind it. Convenience counts, kiddos. The next Wednesday, July 13th, is Tiki Night! I’m there – who’s joining me?

That’s it for this round-up – but keep an eye out for more happenings and cool stuff, and if you know of any – drop me a line!