Pok Pok: Wild Duck Laap, Thai Pork Fried Rice, Cucumber Salad

duck laap 4

I travel a lot for work typically for a project in one city that could take anywhere from a few weeks to over a year. Travelling every week for a few days to the same city can be weary. The upside to this latest particular engagement is that it is in the lovely city of Portland, Oregon. The weather is just perfect for me, the scenery is beautiful and the food is brilliant. I honestly have not had a bad meal in this city. One of the places that I had on my list to visit in a city full of good eats is Andy Ricker’s Thai place, Pok Pok. I’ve eaten several fantastic meals over there so far so getting the book and trying a few of the dishes at home was of course to be expected.

galangal paste

We’ve enjoyed several meals from the book and all have been very good. The papaya salad I tried first was pretty much identical to what I had at Pok Pok. The stir fried rice noodles with pork, Chinese broccoli and soy sauce (Phat si ew) was an excellent one dish meal. So, I was very pleased when Nathan chose a few recipes from Pok Pok for our Friday dinner. The recipes are pretty simple but involve a lot of chopping and prep work. The fried rice, like all stir fries, really needs all the ingredients ready to go in order into the very hot wok or else you end up stressed and the your stir fry crappy!

Thai mise

Pok Pok refers to the sound cooks make when using the mortar and pestle. That’s where many of the “salads” are prepared like this cucumber salad. Strictly speaking this is my version of Ricker’s cucumber salad (Tam taeng kwaa). I simplified it a bit and removed the noodles he serves with it since we are already having rice. I prepared it like I do the papaya salad in the granite mortar by mashing some garlic, limes, palm sugar and salt together. Then the sliced cucumber goes in and gets a bit bruised along with cherry tomatoes before being seasoned with more lime juice and fish sauce. I garnished the salad with crushed peanuts for texture and because they taste wonderful with the cukes and the rest of the menu.

cucumber salad2

Laap is another dish that in typical Thai menus in the US is referred to as a “salad”. I’m not sure why that’s the case honestly, but really these are mixtures of minced meat (pork, chicken, fish or game) that are cooked fairly quickly with lots of traditional Thai aromatics. This version is labeled as Isaan minced duck salad (Laap pet Isaan) and is a bit more complex than previous versions I’ve cooked. Typically Laap is flavored with lime juice, shallots, lemongrass and some herbs with a sprinkling of toasted rice powder for crunch. This Isaan version adds more spice in the form of a galangal-garlic-shallot paste. I first broiled the sliced galangal along with the shallots and garlic then wrapped them in foil and let them bake and soften. These were then pounded in the mortar to form the paste.

duck laap2

I still had boneless skinless wild duck in my freezer from my hunt in the fall. It made perfect sense to use those in place of store-bought ducks. The wild duck’s gamy flavor worked great in this heavily spiced and fragrant dish. I used my cleaver to slice and mince the duck meat to maintain a nice texture and it’s quiet relaxing really. It took maybe 10 minutes to reduce the duck from breasts to minced meat.

duck laap

The duck is cooked with the paste and sliced shallots until just cooked through then flavored with sliced lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, green onions, dried chilies, lime juice and fish sauce. Before serving I tossed in plenty of herbs (Thai basil, basil, mint) and toasted sticky rice powder. It’s a very exotically flavored delicious dish with more toasted rice powder sprinkled on top for more crunch.

duck laap3

The Thai fried rice is really simple, but like I said before it works much better if you prepare all the ingredients and have them ready to go into the wok (or large skillet).  The whole cooking process takes maybe 6 or 8 minutes and you do not want t be chopping shallots in the middle of that. I’ve really been enjoying using my outdoor propane burner (a.k.a turkey fryer rig even though I’ve never fried a turkey) for stir-frying in my large carbon steel wok. I use that same rig to brew beer and whenever I deep fry anything. Using the wok on it though is such an exciting way to cook and feels like playing with fire! I get all my ingredients on the outdoor table next to my wok and start tossing them in one after the other sizzling and charring where needed before getting the sauce in to bring everything together. It’s quiet the rush! For this recipe first goes the shallot oil, then the egg followed by shallots and garlic. Everything gets tossed with pork…stir…toss (up in the air if you feel like it) until the meat is cooked through. In goes the rice and gets fried for a minute then a sauce goes in made from soy sauce, fish sauce, sugar and some lime. Done and delicious with fish sauce marinated chilies.

Thai fried rice



Aerated Scrambled Eggs

Classically, proper French style scrambled eggs are soft, light, fluffy and creamy. They do not much resemble the diner-style scrambled eggs we typically know and cook. They are almost like a slightly curdled custard. Of course they are delicious, but the problem is they require close to 30 minutes of constant slow stirring, sometimes using a double boiler! They are not something I do often and honestly this type of scrambled eggs is not always what I am looking for. Usually the regular “drier” eggs is what I would make for myself and for the family.

With an immersion circulator controlling the water temperature to an exact degree, soft scrambled eggs are very easy to do. Another huge benefit to this method is that while the eggs cook, I am free to prepare the rest of the breakfast. The process involves mixing eggs with salt, pepper and a little milk and then bagging them with a few cubes of butter. They are cooked at 72.5C for about 25-30 minutes. They are done at that point and can be served after shaking the bag for a few seconds to break up the curds. The first time I saw this method was on the Ideas in Food blog and since then they published their book. So I used their procedure and took it to the next level like they did by quickly putting the cooked egg mixture in an iSi canister and charged it with one NO2 charge (Tip: put some very hot water in the canister, leave it in for a few minutes and dump it out before putting in the eggs to make sure they don’t cool down too quickly). That made the eggs very luxurious and light when dispensed warm from the whipping canister.

I served the aerated scrambled eggs with sauteed mushrooms and asparagus that was blanched and then cooked in butter. The mushrooms and the asparagus stems go in the bowl first, then I dispensed the eggs covering everything. I garnished the bowls with butter-fried bread chunks, asparagus tips and toasted butter solids. Those butter solids by the way are fantastic stuff. I first saw them on David Brazelay’s EatFoo blog (David now runs the Lazy Bear underground restaurant in San Fransisco). They are really the dregs left after clarifying butter, basically the milk solids. To make a bunch of them though a bit of dried milk powder is added to the melted butter and allowed to brown gently. What you end up with is a super flavorful and nutty little bits that add great buttery flavor and a nice texture to all kinds of foods.

Alinea: Chocolate, warmed to 94 degrees

From the title of this recipe one would not know what to expect. Is it a hot chcolate drink? Just warmed chocolate? Honestly it sounds a bit boring. Boring, though, this recipe is not! Without waxing with no end about the nuances of this dish I have to say that this dessert from Alinea is AWESOME. It’s so much more than the sum of its parts that at first glance I was not sure how they will work together. It’s a dish that combines braised figs, Bergamot tea (you know, like Earl Grey), a cinnamon flavored ice cream and dried chocolate mousse. The result is delicious, comforting, familiar and exotic at the same time and features amazingly harmonious textures. Oh and I just love how classy and lovely it looks…hence the tons of pictures in this post.

I had seen this recipe years ago, right before the Alinea book was published. This one was one of the few “preview” recipes published by the authors on their Mosaic website. I just never got around to making it for the usual various reasons but mostly because fresh figs have a fairly short season here and when I do find them they are pretty pricy and the fruit is not that great. Recently though I found a bunch for an excellent price at Whole Foods, so I bought some to eat fresh and to make this recipe. The figs are braised in a mixture of wine, ruby port, glucose and sugar until they are soft. The cooking liquid is then reduced to a glaze and stored along with the fruit until plating time. The figs and their liquid delicious on their own. They will work great as a garnish for game meats or on top of vanilla ice cream.

The ice cream is supposed to be “cassia ice cream”. Cassia buds are the tiny flowers of the cassia tree, the same tree that usually produces a very fragrant bark that we use regularly -cinnamon. The buds are supposed to have a cinnamon flavor and aroma but are more flowery, citrusy and intense. At least that’s what I gathered from a couple of online sources. In any case, I could not find them locally and was not going to order them online. So, I used a bunch of cinnamon sticks and some corriander seeds that get toasted and steeped in milk. Like many of Alinea’s ice creams, this one is fairly low in fat and is supposed to be frozen in with a Pacojet not churned in a regular ice cream maker.

Usually I alter these recipes to make them more home-ice-cream-machine friendly like I did with the delicious buckwheat ice cream from another Alinea recipe. This time though I decided to see what would happen if I just made the recipe as is. Well, the resulting ice cream predictably froze much harder than is desirable and had a very light texture (not too icy though) on the tongue. To serve it I had to let it sit on the counter for 5 minutes or so I can make nice quenelle scoops out of it. On it’s own, the ice cream is not great honestly. It’s a bit too light and not creamy enough, but the cinnamon flavor with the accompanying corriander came through very well. When it was time to eat the plated dish though, the ice cream worked perfectly with all the other elements. It’s lightness played very well with intense chewy figs and the dark crunchy chocolate mousse. So, even though the ice cream could not stand on its own, it was perfect as a smaller player in a larger composition.

This was a neat and unique way to serve chocolate mousse. The mousse is that cracker looking piece on top of the ice cream. It’s a dehydrated chocolate mousse. The recipe is pretty standard with dark melted chocolate, egg yolks, whipped egg whites and sugar and it makes for a tasty version of this confection (I saved some and served it in a small ramekin). The rich mousse is spread on a acetate sheet and dehydrated for several hours until it is crispy and can be easily broken into shards. Those shards are addictively delicious all on their own and go great with a glass of milk. It’s a good thing that the (half) recipe of the mousse makes more than enough of the crackers for lots of servings of the dessert, because we snacked on those things like crazy.

For the bergamot tea, I cooked dried mission figs with water, sugar and a little salt. Off heat, I added earl grey tea leaves and let them steep for a few minutes. I strained everything out and then blended in a few grams of Ultratex-3 to finish the sauce. It’s interesting to note tha the Ultratex here does not make the sauce too thick or pudding-like. Instead it gives it just a little body and texture.

Last but not least, the recipe’s namesake is made..or more like “warmed”. One of the reasons people love chocolate so much lies in its melting point. Chocolate, or more accurately, cocoa butter melts at around 94 degrees F. Since our bodies maintain a temperature of 98 degrees F , chocolate just gently melts in our mouths and spreads is bitter sweet complex goodness. So, what Achatz is doing here is using that property to soften the chocolate by warming it just up to its melting point while maintaining its shape. Allen at his Alinea blog, just recently posted about this recipe (with his customary amazing pictures) and went to great lengths to create an environment that maintains about 94F. I did not. All I did was put a few broken quality dark chocolate pieces on the mousse shards. I heated my oven to about 100F, turned it off and left the pilot light on. I slipped the chocolate topped mousse shards in there for about 15-20 minutes by which time the chocolate got perfectly soft but did not run all over the place and maintained its shape. As far as I could tell using an oven thermometer the temperature in there remained around 95-98F.

To serve it, I put three braised fig halves and some of their liquid in the bottom of a bowl. I topped them with a nice quenelle of ice cream and layed a chocolate topped mousse shard on that. I gently poured some warmed bergamot tea/sauce around in the bottom right before serving it (at the restaurant they do this table-side). The dessert is supposed to be garnished with a bergamot flower, a pretty red one. I had none and went to my herb garden to see what I had. I ended up with some basil buds and pretty rosemary flowers. This really was a perfect dessert.

Yellow: Tomatoes, Saffron, Corn, Virtual Egg

A while back I was making a chicken stew that included saffron, a Tagine really. The saffron needed to soak and flavor a portion of chicken stock that I had put in a white bowl. The color was so pretty with the deep rich yellow of the saffron threads slowly diffusing and swirling into the clear liquid. I decided then to make a plate of yellow food. Usually I go for the opposite and try to get a contrast of colors on a dish. This time yellow it will be and if it works out I might try my hand at different colors. I’m thinking blue might never make the cut though. As opposed to the many wonderful yellow foods, you just don’t see a ton of blue edibles. Anyways, yellow worked out perfectly.

I started by making a list of whatever yellow foods I could think of and started thinking of combinations that could work. Pretty soon I was sure that yellow tomatoes would be the centerpiece. Since saffron was what got me thinking about this whole theme, that was certainly going to be included. Corn was also a no brainer and to garnish it all I was using the virtual egg I made recently.

The tomato tart, like the virtual egg, is another recipe from Happy in the Kitchen, by Michel Richard. I did not follow the instructions exactly. My main deviation was to cook the tomato custard and the crust separately. I did that mainly to keep the crust crunchy and fresh, since the tomato filling might make the tart crust soggy if it was baked some time in advance. I made the filling from pureed yellow tomatoes and eggs with a few seasonings. The taste is pretty much pure tomato. I cooked the custard in a small loaf pan lined with plastic wrap to make it easier to remove later on. The crust is a straight forward 3-2-1 pie dough with the addition of yellow corn meal for part of the flour. I rolled it and baked it between two baking sheets. At service time, both the crust and the fragile tomato filling were layered, cut to shape and plated.

The corn was quickly cooked with butter and thyme. The combination of corn, butter and thyme works amazingly well, even in corn bread. Lemon also was part of the dish. I made a quick preserved lemon sauce of sorts. The sauce was quick, not the preserved lemon. These guys had been curing in the freezer for a few months. Curing in the freezer might sound odd, but with the amount of salt (and a bit of sugar) used, the lemons never freeze and they remain a brilliant yellow color. The recipe for the preserved lemons is from the Alinea cookbook. To make the thick sauce, I just pureed some of the lemon quarters with a touch of water and put it in a squeeze bottle.

I incorporated the saffron into a classic beurre blanc. Maybe in this case it’s a beurre jaune? The process is classic and involved simmering some shallots in wine and/or vinegar. In this case the white wine had a good pinch of saffron steeped in it. When the wine, white wine and shallots mixture was reduced to a glaze, I whisked in several generous knobs of butter. The sauce was seasoned and strained and was ready for plating. I garnished the plate with charred yellow tomatoes (I used a blowtorch…), inner leaves of celery, the virtual egg, saffron threads and a sprinkle of black lava salt for some crunch and a color accent. The garnish that looks like caviar is actually mustard. Pickled mustard seeds to be exact, from a recipe by David Chang. I’ve never had those before, but they are very nice. They have a soft but firm texture and the cooking/pickling dissipated their harsh bite leaving just a hint of bitterness and a mild mustard taste. Not to toot my own horn too much, but Yellow was pretty darn amazing. The dish looked beautiful and the flavors worked perfectly. There was just enough acidity, creaminess and crunch to make the dish a success.

Modernist Cuisine Barbecue

Most probably assume that Modernist Cuisine only makes food that looks like foam or spheres or something extra fancy. Well, sure it has all those things, but that is not the point. It’s just modern food, using all the information that was learned over the past few decades. The point is not to make “weird food” but to make delicious food and to make the most out of every ingredient. Sometimes it follows fairly traditional recipes, other times it completely dumps those processes in favor of better and/or more efficient ones. There are few things as humble and that trigger as much debate as barbecue. Barbecue is simple, really the polar opposite of fancy food. I am talking not about quickly grilled foods, but about slow smoking meat for hours until it is infused with flavor and perfectly tender. I’ve been doing this for years on my Chargriller BBQ and smoker. It works great, but I wanted to see how the modernist approach works. So for the 4th of July this year  I made a whole menu from the Modernist Cuisine books.

The meats I made were two classics, pulled pork (using the butt) and spare ribs. First I lightly salted and seasoned the meat and let it sit in the fridge overnight. Then it was smoked for 7 hours in my smoker using pretty low heat. This step separates the cooking from the smoking. The low smoke and the moist environment deeply flavor the meat with sweet smoke (you can see the awesome smoke ring on the ribs) but they keep it essentially raw. Next the meat goes into FoodSaver bags and is cooked sous vide at 65C for hours, specifically 72 hours for the pork butt and 48 hours for the ribs. That cooking process preserves all the flavor and ensures that the meat is cooked in a moist environment at a proper temperature. The meat will not dry out or burn and will end up wonderfully moist. The end result is delicious and perfect barbecue, especially those ribs. They are not so overcooked that they peel off the bones at the merest touch (“fall off the bone” is not a plus in bbq ribs BTW), but are just tender with the perfect texture.

I made two barbecue sauces, a thin Lexington style one that got tossed in with the pulled pork and a thicker, spicy tomato-based Kansas City sauce for the ribs. Neither one has any specialty ingredients and both can be done in less than 15 minutes. The potato salad was just a little more involved than a typical potato salad but it was so good that I could easily eat it by itself. The salad included fingerling and small red potatoes that were cooked sous vide. It also had “petals” of pickled red and pearl onions (I had made those a couple of days before) and egg yolks cooked to 65C. The yolks are really a brilliant touch. They add lovely yellow accent to the mix, a rich creamy mouthful and a subtle unique flavor. To make them I just cooked eggs with the immersion circulator at 65C. The whites were discarded and the yolks gently cut into 2 or 3 pieces each before getting tossed into the salad. The dressing here is not mayonnaise based, but instead it uses creme fraiche, mustard and walnut oil. The creme fraiche gives it just enough richness and a welcome tang. Lastly I made the White Cole Slaw. That’s just thinly sliced savoy cabbage tossed with green apples dice and an emulsified dressing consisting of another of those 65C yolks, grapeseed oil, buttermilk, vinegar and celery seeds. The slaw is very light and crisp. It worked wonderfully on top of a pile of pulled pork on a bun.

Moroccan Chicken Tagine with Lemon and Eggs

One of the most lovely looking dishes I made from a Paula Wolfert recipe. This amazing stew was the first time I use an actual clay tagine. This specific Tagine (which is the name of the pot and the dish made in it) is an inexpensive glazed clay one I bought from Sur La Table. It’s made in Portugal and as far as I can tell it worked great. In the future I would love to spring out some more cash and get one of those neat-looking ones from Clay Coyote, but for now, the Portuguese one will have to do. Maybe when Paula’s new updated edition of “Couscous and Other Good Food from Morocco” book comes out will be the right time for that.

This recipe is from her latest book, “Mediterranean Clay Pot Cooking“. It immediately caught my eye when looking for a recipe to try in my tagine in my books. I do admit that I was a bit apprehensive as to how it will all turn out since I was not sure what to exactly expect. In the intro, Paula refers to another tricky Moroccan  recipe that “encases” chicken in a cooked egg mixture and then discusses this one as similar but different in that it uses eggs but they form more of a custardy sauce for the chicken. That sounded good, but the eggs get cooked in butter in the tagine alone before adding any sauce and that concerned me. I was worried that the end result would resemble cooked chicken in an eggy scrambled sauce. If the Diana and the kids hate it, then all the work would be in vain. I really needn’t have worried because it far exceeded my expectations.

I salted the chicken (local, free-range from Yonder Way Farm) and seasoned it with paprika, cumin  and a very small pinch of cinnamon several hours ahead of time. I almost always pre-salt meat if I have the time. The base for the dish is a mixture of butter, grated onions, garlic, saffron, dry ground ginger and cinnamon (a tiny pinch of that). With water, that base makes for an aromatic liquid in which the chicken pieces gently stew. The chicken pieces get finished under the broiler for a crispy skin right before nestling back in the sauce for service. For the sauce, the cooking liquid is mixed with caramelized grated onions, olives, sliced preserved lemon peels, parsley and cilantro. Eggs get cooked very gently in the tagine in butter and mixed with lemon juice. To bring it all together, the onion-olive mixture gets mixed in to the eggs. The mixture turns to a wonderful velvety a very deeply flavored sauce. Add the chicken pieces back in and it is ready to serve.

For some starch to sop up all that amazing sauce, I made couscous and simple tangy chickpeas. The dish was a hit with everyone, the sauce was rich and very flavorful, but certainly not heavy or “eggy”. The last step of broiling the chicken pieces really takes the dish to the next level by giving it a deeply burnished and crispy skin as opposed to the soft flabby one we normally get in chicken tagines. I will be making this again and am already thinking how the sauce would work with lamb instead of chicken.

Under Pressure: Fried Pig Tail, Deviled Quail Egg, Beans and Sauce Ravigote


Making something delicious out of “scraps” is one of the pleasures of cooking. It’s simple to make a piece of steak or a chop appetizing, but transforming an admittedly ugly-looking piece of pig – a tail in this case- into a dish worthy of a classy fine dining restaurant needs technique and some creativity. So, when a friend of mine gave me a couple of tails from two fat farm raised pigs, I turned to Thomas Keller for guidance. The tails can be just boiled and fried and they will be good, but I knew no one else in my household would eat them. I needed to transform those tails to a very appetizing and fun dish. Keller’s recipe in Under Pressure does exactly that.

First I dealt with the tails. These were not just the tails, but also some meat and fat attached to them from the top of the pig’s back. So I knew I can have more than just two servings from the two tails by using some of that meat. Raw, the tails and their attached meat/skin/fat looked like small sting rays. The tails were bagged in FoodSaver bags with a mixture of chicken stock, herbs, white wine, onions and carrots. I cooked them at 85C (185 F) for about 10 hours. At the end of the cooking time, the tails were very tender (both meat and skin). The tails can be cooked in a pot with a larger amount of liquid of course. However, cooking the tails sous vide at a perfectly controlled temperature guarantees that while the meat and skin gets thoroughly cooked, the skin does not rip or crack. This is very important for the next step. Additionally you do  not get too much flavor loss to the surrounding liquid because in the bags the tails are surrounded by a relatively small amount of liquid and lots of aromatics.

While the pig tails are still very warm, they need to be deboned. It is much easier than it sounds and so worth it because, picking at tiny tail bones in a plated dish like this is not a fun experience. Besides, my little touch to the Keller dish, this way we can stuff the tails! I used a very sharp paring knife and slit the tails lengthwise. I then opened them like a book and removed the bones in one piece. It was very easy and the skin remained intact. The idea is to then season and reform the tails, now boneless, into neat rolls. The concentrated cooking liquid from the bags can be used to moisten them and, due to its high collagen content, set them into perfect cylinders. Before doing all that, I shredded the meat from the extra tail “attachments” and chopped some of the skin very finely. That meat is juicy and collagen rich already, but I also moistened it with a little cooking liquid from the bags. I used some of that mixture to stuff into the boneless tails before tightly wrapping them with plastic wrap into rolls. With the rest of the meat mixture I made faux-tails. I just formed three rough cylinders and then used plastic wrap to make a tight neat roll with each of them giving me a total of five “tails” for dinner. After thoroughly chilling those rolls they were completely solidified and ready to fry up. Frying the tails is pretty straight forward. They get the classic flour, egg wash, fine panko crumbs treatment. Twice. Then they are fried till golden and crispy.

The rest of the dish is simple. For the eggs I boiled the quail eggs and mixed the yolks with creme fraiche, paprika and salt. The filling was then supposed to be piped back into the whites using a small bag with a start tip. unfortunately, the star tip that I have is too big for the little quail eggs. So I sacrificed a bit of the aesthetic and used a small plastic ziplock bag with no decorating tip. The eggs were delicious and I had to save 4 of them for the plating before my 4-year old stole and ate them all. At one bite each, he could’ve finished off a whole dozen. Keller specifies the flat Romano beans for this dish. I can never find those. So I used regular green beans. I blanched them and sliced them very thinly on a bias. The beans get tossed with a shallot vinaigrette. I also needed a little frisee for plating but did not find any at my local store and did not have the time to go shopping for it. I used some spring greens instead. These were tossed with a simple vinaigrette as well.

Last but not least, I made a ravigote sauce. It’s made with Dijon mustard, olive oil, white wine vinegar, shallots, salt and pepper. Everyone loved this dish. Granted, the kids ate mostly the “faux tails” but my 7-year old, seemed to get a kick out of knowing that he was eating pig tails. It sure made me proud. It really worked out very well and looked great. The  delicious rich, unctuous and very porky meat went perfectly with the tart flavors of the sauce. The skin was very tender and contrasted great with the meat inside and the crispy panko crumb shell encasing it. The beans added more sharp tastes and a great vegetable crunch. The eggs acted more of a tasty garnish and I ate mine before the rest fo the components.