Tag Archives: Food

Eggplants: Cooking and Connecting with the Old World

Food is culture. I am a first-generation Romanian-American, but I don’t know much about Romanian food. My father fled the country in the height of Ceausescu’s dictatorship, and once he moved to the United States, he was dedicated to being an American.

He won’t speak Romanian around my brother or me often, and when we eat together, we usually go out for noodles. Sometimes he will talk fondly of his grandparents’ farm, how they would grow plums and eggplants and he would help care for the animals. He still goes back there at least once a year to see the family that lives there now.

My cooking has never been very culturally inspired, only driven by local availability, price and my deep love for fresh vegetables. I know how to prepare zucchini, and I have developed some second-natured intuition for the tenderness of oven-roasted root vegetables.

For years I’ve been committed to the leafy greens and squashes of farmers’ markets. I have spent many afternoons perfecting my vegetable hash, a recipe-less medley of seasonal produce, dusted generously with salt and pepper and cooked in stages, so that the potatoes are golden-brown and the kale isn’t crispy or the garlic burned.

Once, in an attempt to be more creative in the kitchen, I bought the prettiest vegetable I had ever seen at the farmer’s market. It was an eggplant: oblong and shiny, a deep magenta with delicate white stripes. I had eaten plenty of eggplants before, but I had never cooked them myself.

I excitedly brought the eggplant home, treating it more like a new houseplant than a food, and placed it on my kitchen counter. Overconfident and more accustomed to  cooking straight-forward potatoes, I chopped the eggplant into chunks and threw it into a pan of hot oil.

The skin quickly turned grayish, and the once-spongy white flesh absorbed all of the oil within seconds. I had no intuition for the vegetable. It wouldn’t sizzle. It wasn’t firming or softening. I seasoned it, waited and then reluctantly forked the pieces onto my plate. Whatever I had done was not right. I had naively mistaken it for any simple fry-until-golden-brown kind of vegetable.

Brigitte Riordan, B-Side.

I soon became fascinated with the art of cooking eggplant. It started with a phone call to my mom. She joked I was living my Romanian grandmother’s dream — Mica loved eggplants, she told me. My great-grandparents grew them on their farm outside of Bucharest, and Mica used to make a luscious Salată de Vinete, a traditional Romanian eggplant spread.

I had only met Mica once, when she came to the United States to see how my brother and I had grown and could only say “hello” and “I love you.” When she died a couple years later, the farm was left to my father, a self-proclaimed city boy. He grew up in a town outside of Bucharest infrequently visiting his grandparents’ farm, and never spent enough time in the kitchen to know the magic behind his mother’s eggplant dishes.

Having about as much knowledge of my cultural heritage as I did the proper preparation of the eggplant, my affinity for the vegetable only grew. Online, I found countless recipes, histories and iconographies.

I read every nostalgic narrative that accompanied traditional recipes, with stories of growing up eating eggplants cooked in Romania, Turkey, Egypt and India. Despite all of my research, when it was just me with a cutting board and a four-burner in my tiny kitchen, I was intimidated.

For the next eggplant I bought, I wouldn’t begin with any attempt at my grandmother’s Salată de Vinete. I would try and cook it in a pan, like I had before, but this time I was aiming for the velvety richness I had read about. I stood at my kitchen counter, and slowly sliced through the dark purple skin and cut the flesh into thin, spongy white ovals.

Each piece had to be salted, soaked in a colander, rinsed and then left to dry on paper towels. I heated up the oil in the pan, carefully placed the slices one-by-one, and waited. Every recipe said eggplants take time. My mother told me that once, when my grandmother came to visit, the oven became so hot from her eggplants roasting for such a long time that the window above the stove shattered.

Some recipes online described the transition from firm and spongy to soft and luscious as “the collapse.” I waited for the collapse. I added a little bit of salt and pepper. I flipped them. I started to see them soften. I didn’t break any windows.

I sat with my plate; the slices of eggplant were cooked through. Though my dish wasn’t all that interesting, the vegetable itself was. I felt connected to my father, to Mica, to my great-grandparents. One day, I’ll try and make the Salată de Vinete. One day, I’ll go to Romania with my father, I’ll see the farm and eat the eggplants of my ancestors. For now, I’ll sit alone in my kitchen with an eggplant, sliced thinly and cooked to collapse, salted and peppered and with every intention to cook another one tomorrow.  

Extra Spice in the Old North End 

Central Market Taste of Asia. RYAN THORNTON. The Vermont Cynic.
Central Market Taste of Asia. RYAN THORNTON. The Vermont Cynic.

“I’ll do medium spice, just to be safe,” said the server at Central Market Taste of Asia on North Winooski Avenue in Burlington’s North End. I tried again.

“No, I really do want it hot. I liked the curry you made me last time.”

“Are you sure?” she asked. “It has chilies in it.” I continued to emphasize that, yes, this was the level of spice I wanted, and after a fairly lengthy discussion she wrote “Hot” on the order slip and brought it out to the kitchen.

The issues I wanted to address during our discussion concerned whether or not I was doing something unusual. As a white American in a rural state, I realize that members of my demographic had probably come in before and been overwhelmed by spicy dishes— or, suspecting that they might be, had been careful to ask about a dish’s spiciness beforehand. I don’t blame my server, then, for exhibiting a bit of extra caution. Most of those inquiries had probably been followed by requests that the spiciness of an order of shrimp vindaloo or chicken tikka masala be toned down somewhat, to avoid undue discomfort.

On my first and third visits, I had apparently made the mistake of asking that same question. The first time, an otherwise delicious chicken curry arrived completely devoid of the bracing heat I’d anticipated. Its intact flavors were well-balanced and its chunks of chicken thigh were tender, but the lack of fire left me disappointed. I resolved to try again.

The second time, I ordered chicken shahi korma, a creamy curry dish with nuts and vegetables. I requested “hot,” without prefacing the request with any sort of question. I was asked to confirm my choice, and said yes with what must have been the right amount of confidence. The shahi korma was, indeed, blazingly hot. Small orange flecks of chili were visible throughout the pale sauce. On its own, the curry would have approached — but not yet reached — an uncomfortable level of heat. Accompanied by papadums, (thin, shatteringly crisp wafers of legume flour), white rice and pleasantly stretchy naan bread, the balance of heat and flavor was wonderful.

My third visit and subsequent order led to the conversation excerpted above. I had arrived with a question in mind, one I’d been mulling over since the first meal: Had my expectations of Nepalese food been skewed unrealistically toward the fiery side of things? The try-hard Westerner who seeks to prove himself by trying a foreign cuisine at its most “other” is a well-known foodie stereotype. He (for this diner is almost invariably male) is closely related to the seasoning-averse lightweight. Neither will appreciate another culture’s food except on their own terms, and neither is something I’d like to be.

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Central Market Taste of Asia. RYAN THORNTON. The Vermont Cynic.

Andy Ricker, a white American restaurateur and Thai food expert known for a nearly unique deference to the culture that created his livelihood, has often suggested asking restaurant staff to “make [a dish] as you would for a Thai person.” He offers a translation of this phrase into Thai; lacking confidence in my off-the-cuff Nepali, I settled for English.

“Would a Nepalese person want this dish to be spicy?” I asked.

“Yes,” my server replied. “Nepalese people like very spicy food.” Whew. Reassured that this order would be the real deal and not just some crass stunt, I thanked her and joined my photographer, Ryan, to look through the shop’s grocery section.

Because we got to Central Market Taste of Asia toward the end of their kitchen’s operating hours, seating was not available and we had to take our order to go. To avoid a similar experience, readers should take note of the fact that Central Market sometimes closes earlier than their sign states (9:00); additionally, the kitchen closes at 8:30 and sometimes before then.

After perusing a burstingly diverse array of pan-Asian produce, packaged foods, and housewares (highlights included coconut-flavored larva-shaped cookies, perfect for Halloween; stark white cans of butane gas labeled with a red and orange explosion graphic and the word “POWER;” and a tall, slim glass bottle of fuchsia-hued “Houston Cowboy” lychee-flavored syrup, product of Thailand, complete with illustrated cartoon namesake– perhaps a placebo substitute for Houston’s better-known purple concoction?), Ryan and I collected our food and ventured outdoors in search of a place to eat.

Central Market Taste of Asia. RYAN THORNTON. The Vermont Cynic.
Central Market Taste of Asia. RYAN THORNTON. The Vermont Cynic.

Tungsten streetlights lent a sleazy glow to the Old North End as we walked, and it soon became apparent that our food would grow cold before we found a table with natural lighting. We sat down to eat on the sidewalk by an African market, in full view of passing cars.

The thali platter I’d ordered included chicken and lamb curries, both assertive and complex, with tender and flavorful meat; lentil soup, whose float of orange chilies gave it a fruity, almost floral lift; the aforementioned pappadum, along with poori (a deep-fried whole-wheat bread puffed from within by steam); the creamy yogurt sauce raita, which was sweeter and thicker than Indian versions I’d had in the past; the ever-present white rice; and gulab jamun, a spherical dessert made of milk solids and soaked in cardamom-scented rosewater syrup. All were terrific. Ryan’s order of onion bhaji was enjoyable as well, although a tad greasy. We used part of the substantial portion to improvise a sort of quasi-Nepalese take on poutine, pouring a small amount of curry over the sweet, battered fried onion. It would probably have been better with some paneer to stand in for the traditional cheese curds.

All in all, I’m mostly pleased with the establishment that has replaced 99 Asian Market at 242 North Winooski Avenue. What was once Burlington’s most underrated bowl of pho has given way to an array of rich, well-spiced stews, as well as a number of noodle dishes I have yet to try. There will be plenty of opportunities in the future; already, Central Market Taste of Asia seems likely to inherit its predecessor’s place as an Old North End standby.

Pingala: Vegan Food for Omnivores

As both an omnivore and a nitpicky jerk, it’s always bothered me a little to be called a carnivore.

The confusion, if that’s what it is, likely stems from the fact that I eat meat with obvious enthusiasm. I’ve heard the term directed at other people who eat meat, usually by those who do not.

Unfortunately, the use of the term in this context presumes that vegetarianism and omnivorism are opposites; that is, if you consume animal flesh, you must be defined by that habit and not by the multitude of other foods you eat on a daily basis.

Conversely, those who choose not to eat meat or animal products are all too often defined by their dietary taboos when the things they actually prepare and consume are a much more interesting topic. I suppose what I’m getting at here is that, yes, I eat animal products, and there’s a good chance you do too, but that shouldn’t stop you from trying a meal at Pingala Café in Burlington.

Pingala is a vegan restaurant overlooking the Winooski River from the Burlington side. The comfortable, wood-paneled space is not especially large, but its superb lighting and high ceilings give the impression of greater capacity.

Those ceilings’ altitude is put to good use; the menu stretches far overhead and, depending on a new diner’s outlook, could appear either daunting or reassuringly thorough in its scope. In any case, the employees are patient and eager to offer recommendations.

Readers familiar with vegan cuisine will recall that a large percentage of it can be categorized as:

a: only incidentally vegan, or

b: only incidentally food.

The latter category, which contains such stomach-churning nonsense as Soya Kaas American Cheddar Style Slices, is mercifully absent from Pingala’s offerings. Instead, the restaurant has chosen to emphasize fresh, unprocessed ingredients coupled with the occasional nod toward (but by no means a reliance upon) animal product substitutes.

IMG_3180Pingala’s “California Club” sandwich, for instance, stacks smoothly satisfying baked tofu atop avocado mash, red onion and kale pesto. The combination of textures and flavors, especially in conjunction with crisp, paper-thin slices of smoky eggplant “bacon,” bore much more than a thematic resemblance to its more traditional non-vegan equivalent while retaining its own novel and pleasant identity. As with most good club sandwiches, it was served on firm, lightly toasted white bread. A side salad of mixed greens with a pleasantly tart orange-hued vinaigrette was also provided.

The day’s special, latkes with applesauce and cashew “sour cream,” was as good a rendition of the dish as I’ve had in recent memory, although I’d have preferred it if the textbook golden-brown crust had penetrated just a little more deeply into what could have been a more firmly textured interior. The pancakes were nicely seasoned, however, and the applesauce had a certain earthy tang that complimented them and brought out more of the cashew cream’s slightly nutty flavor than I’d probably have otherwise tasted.

One of my dining companions, who had been to Pingala before, recommended the “Loaded Nachos,” a generous portion of excellent corn tortilla chips piled high with what the menu describes as “black bean salsa, diced tomato, avocado, red onion, cilantro, cheesy sauce and cashew sour cream.”

IMG_3192The salsa and other vegetables were sublime from a textural standpoint and tasted wonderfully fresh. I’m not sure exactly which was “cheesy sauce” and which was cashew cream; there appeared to be only one substance, moderately thicker than what was on the latkes but still fairly liquid in consistency. It tasted a bit like cashews, rather unsurprisingly, but more interesting was the hint of a taste not unlike that of the soft Mexican cheese queso fresco. Overall, the sauce(s) certainly contributed to the dish, but in a subtle way that (as with the latkes) might have been easy to miss if we hadn’t read that they’d be there.

The subtlety of Pingala’s dairy substitutes is, for the most part, an asset. Our meal would certainly not have been as good if we’d had to navigate around the forcefully bland, processed flavors of any commercial analogues. Pingala’s primary strength, aside from obvious technical aptitude, is their marriage of largely unaltered natural flavors and textures with only those others that compliment them. Often, a dish is just as good (or, more excitingly, altogether different) from its non-vegan counterpart; sometimes, as with the smoothies they blend with coconut milk in place of yogurt, it is even better.

Whether you choose to follow a vegan lifestyle or are simply of a mind that good food should not necessarily be defined by absences or inclusions, Pingala’s worth a visit. You’re likely to find, as I did, that it merits many more. This food is excellent in its own right, no matter what your diet typically includes.

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Sugar Shack Celebrates Syrup

 

[dropcap style=”normal or inverse or boxed”]I[/dropcap]t takes 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of maple syrup, and 30 to fuel Misery Loves Company’s springtime Sugar Shack event.

That figure doesn’t factor in the four gallons of syrup that chefs Nathaniel Wade and Aaron Josinsky also used in preparation for the ticketed private dinner, which spanned 11 courses and contained numerous nods to traditional Quebecois food while retaining, and at times topping, the typical Misery supper menu’s no­-holds-­barred experimental charm.

“When you go to southern Quebec,” bartender Mike Dunn said, “If you go to the sugar houses there around this time of year, they do dinners like this, where it’s a celebration of maple, and there are consistent flows of food … always way too much.”

Vermont shares Quebec’s enthusiasm for maple­­, but the Quebecois, having inherited a storied feasting tradition from local fur trappers and the Abenaki before them, generally have us outpaced in terms of sheer, gleeful gluttony.

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RYAN THORNTON The Vermont Cynic: The introductory course; house-made pickles and rolls served with whipped lard, fresh butter, maple syrup and coarse mustard

 

[dropcap style=”normal or inverse or boxed”]N[/dropcap]ot so at Sugar Shack. The meal began with a couple of yeasty, deliciously plush rolls; these were accompanied by mixed pickled vegetables, mustard, maple syrup and both kosher butter and a slightly smoky whipped lardo.

 That plate was quickly followed by one bearing chicharrones, o​r fried pork skins, dusted with espelette pepper; buttery, dense foie gras truffles; and thin slices of remarkably tender, well ­balanced ham that my photographer and I were told had come from a very young pig named Ladybug.

Next came a small glass of maple sap reduced by 50 percent, which we were encouraged to sip before consuming pale peach­-colored cups of a sea urchin panna cotta to which some sap reduction had also been added.

The urchins’ creaminess and delicate briny edge were smoothed together by soft­spoken maple undertones. More seafood soon appeared; as the “Superfly” s​oundtrack played overhead, we were given wild yeast b​lini​ topped with cured salmon, trout roe and maple creme fraiche.

It was then that Sugar Shack began in earnest. Slices of t​ourtiere, ​a hearty Quebecois pork pie whose deeply browned lard pastry had come from the nearby Misery Loves Co. Bakeshop, arrived alongside a slaw of turnips, red cabbage and beets tossed with hot maple vinaigrette. Both were delicious, but the slaw proved particularly helpful as more meats appeared.

Two home­made maple sausages, poached in sap and tasting gently of pork liver, paired deliciously with a porridge of Abenaki corn from Butterworks Farm in Westfield, Vermont.

Double-­fried quail, whose preparation I’d been watching eagerly from our kitchen side table, was terrifically crisp and made for excellent finger food. The tiny birds came dressed with a maple shoyu sauce whose smokily salty flavor was edged with a resonant sweetness.

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RYAN THORNTON The Vermont Cynic: The whole suckling pig before being carved into slices for hungry patrons.

 

[dropcap style=”normal or inverse or boxed”]B[/dropcap]akeshop employee Logan Bouchard, who had temporarily resumed his past position as a server for the event, said that his favorite dish was either the quail or the wonderfully debauched pig’s trotter dish that followed it.

 For the record, that delicious dish consisted of trotters that had been disassembled and reconstructed around liverwurst stuffing, then seared and served over maple baked beans with ham broth and blood sausage.

“Aaron makes amazing liverwurst. It doesn’t have that metallic minerality that a lot of liverwurst does. And the trotter, there’s so much collagen in there that you can put anything in it and seal it back together, and it doesn’t look any different,” said Bouchard.

Speaking of collagen: the meat of young pigs is simply brimming with the stuff. It makes for a juicy, almost gelatinous cooked product. For the next and final meat course, Josinsky and Wade had removed the bones from a suckling pig’s body and rolled the meat into an approximate cylinder with the pig’s intact head at one end.

They had then roasted the pig until its skin, which crackled loudly under Wade’s carving knife, had reached a golden sheen. The resulting pork, complemented by a clove­-scented stuffing, was impeccably tender.

To announce the roast pig, Josinsky began banging a saucepan with a wooden spoon and strode into the dining room. He was greeted by applause.

After a brief post­-pork lull, dessert service got under way. The first and most substantial dish was a creamy maple sugar pie, a nod once more to Quebecois tradition.

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RYAN THORNTON The Vermont Cynic: A chef lays out rows of puff pastries to be filled with maple crème for the dessert course.

 

[dropcap style=”normal or inverse or boxed”]A[/dropcap]fter that came a plate of cream puffs, hard candy and fudge, all maple-­based and deeply satisfying.

Sugar Shack’s final course, appropriately enough, was sugar on snow. Our server brought us a bowl of shaved ice and poured hot maple sugar, thickened just past the point at which it could have been called syrup, on top. The combination was simple, straightforward and refreshing.

The event’s syrup and sap came from Al Bushey at Brigham Hill Maple in Essex Junction, Vermont, Wade said.

After dinner, Bouchard and I chatted about upcoming Misery Loves Co. events amidst the slow, churning riffs of stoner metal band Sleep’s monolithic smog opera “Dopesmoker.” Those who missed out on Sugar Shack will be pleased to hear that, “probably sometime in early May,” MLC will bring back its Café Corretto evenings at the Misery Loves Co. Bakeshop in Winooski. This time around, in addition to cheese, charcuterie, baked goods and amari, there will be a focus on increased raw bar offerings as part of a collaboration with seafood distributor Wood Mountain Fish.

MLC will also be participating in Winooski’s art and music festival Waking Windows, which will take place May 1­3.

In the meantime, they’re open for brunch, lunch and dinner. Check them out sometime at 46 Main St. Winooski, VT .

Eat a Real Donut: Ren Wiener at Scout & Co

Nicksmithsig[dropcap style=”normal or inverse or boxed”]D[/dropcap]o you ever find yourself dwelling on cartoon depictions of ordinary food items, taking in their eye-popping colors and lushly plump contours and wishing that they’d leap into your hand from the television screen? More specifically, have you sympathized with Homer Simpson’s opinion of the doughnut as rendered by Matt Groening, but been unable to find a suitable, tangible equivalent? The typical real-life doughnut has nothing on those bewitching pink-topped things.

Luckily, the word typical needn’t apply to your doughnut intake if you live in the Burlington area. Just head over to cult coffee shop Scout & Co, in the North End. There’s a Winooski, Vermont location too, but you’ll really want to visit the original spot if you have doughnuts on the brain.

 

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RYAN THORNTON The Vermont Cynic: A successful vegan adaptation of the popular Girl Scout cookie, the Samoa, into doughnut form.

[dropcap style=”normal or inverse or boxed”]E[/dropcap]very Saturday, the Winooski-area pastry expert and all-around culinary marvel Ren Weiner delivers four varieties of doughnuts to Scout. These doughnuts are a throwback to her time at Misery Loves Co., a Winooski eatery where Scout owners Tom Green and Andrew Burke have also worked in the past.

Since setting out on her own several months ago as the one-woman baking company Miss Weinerz, Weiner has had plenty of opportunities to experiment and refine her recipes. “Doughnuts are awesome. Everyone knows what a doughnut is. With doughnuts as a base I can play with new fillings, flavors and techniques but still have a product that is approachable.”

That approachability helps Weiner’s donuts stand out among equally delicious but higher-concept offerings like Scout’s fingerling potatoes with oyster mayonnaise, pickled mustard seeds, pine oil and sumac.

 

 

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RYAN THORNTON The Vermont Cynic: The perfect topping for this fresh blueberry frosted doughnut. Weiner hand-cuts every rainbow sprinkle to the proper size.

 

[dropcap style=”normal or inverse or boxed”]W[/dropcap]hen I arrived at Scout & Co, the doughnuts available were Blueberry Joy, with picturesque icing that lent a slight, dark tartness to the yeasty pastry, and cheerfully bright sprinkles hand-rolled and cut into charming pieces by Wiener herself; Orange Cream, an almost impossibly bright-tasting confection bursting with orange zest and coated with coarse sugar for a hypnotic textural contrast; Vegan Samoa, which managed to surpass both its Girl Scout-distributed namesake and the expectations of this non-vegan; and finally, Boozy Irish Cream, which lived up deliciously to every aspect of its name.

 

Of all these flavors, I was perhaps happiest to see Orange Cream, which I’d been fiending for ever since Weiner still made them for Misery Loves Co. Bakeshop. I was afraid that they’d disappeared for good when she left there, and was profoundly relieved to learn that this doughnut flavor was still available.

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RYAN THORNTON The Vermont Cynic: The orange cream-filled doughnut is coated with granulated sugar and a pinch of orange zest.

 

[dropcap style=”normal or inverse or boxed”]T[/dropcap]he numerous hip parents who brought their children into Scout for doughnuts that Saturday morning must have been relieved, too, to discover a somewhat less guilt-inducing treat. Weiner said she prides herself on using the most sustainable ingredients she can source.

“[I use] cultured butters and fresh fruits, local and organic milk and eggs,” Weiner said. “The dough itself [is] made with natural yeasts and set slowly to rise over a two-day fermentation cycle.”

The benefits of this cycle, Weiner said, are significant.

“Because of [the fermentation process], my dough uses less sugar than most other recipes and has an amazing texture.”

 

 

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RYAN THORNTON The Vermont Cynic: The boozy irish cream filled doughnut, for those who want their after-dinner coffee in the morning. Topped with a light dusting of powdered sugar.

 

 

If you’re interested in seeing some more great photos of Weiner’s work and want an up-to-the-moment heads-up as to what her latest creations are, check her out on Instagram. She has gained a strong following on the site, which she said is like “having a cheerleading squad in your pocket.”

Join the squad. Track down a doughnut. You won’t regret it.

 

http://www.missweinerz.com/Scout O.N.E.

237 North Ave, Burlington, VT 05401

Open Monday 7 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Tuesday – Friday 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Saturday 8 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Sunday 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.. Doughnuts are delivered at 11 a.m. Saturday, and served as supplies last.