Archive for January, 2008

Falafel Shuki, Jerusalem, Israel

Wednesday, January 30th, 2008

One thing I’ve learned is never to underestimate the human capacity for focus and specialization. And from my perspective, it’s generally a great thing.

When it comes to food, there are two ways this can go. The first is where a restaurateur or a producer focuses like a laser on producing one thing… perfectly. They just get great at it. And once-in-awhile their neighbors, (hopefully in an ever-widening circle) recognize that effort and patronize the producer.

But sometimes, the producer doesn’t always choose what they’re good at. Sometimes, they do their thing and it turns out that one thing they do stands out among the rest. They might know why or they might not. But it doesn’t matter. The customers learn what to order by word of mouth. And the restaurateur learns over time (from their customers) what they’re doing well. In the case of Jerusalem’s Falafel Shuki, that one thing is Falafel balls.

While in some of the neighboring Arab countries (Egypt especially) the falafel is made with fava beans, the Israeli Jews stick with chickpeas exclusively. If you’ve eaten falafel in the United States it’s probably been some chunky, over-cooked, under-flavored affair. Adopted by the vegetarians of the country, falafel has gotten lost amid alfalfa and Tofurkey (just like chummus has been marginalized and misinterpreted in this country). (Veggies send your hate mail… 3-2-1… now!) In the middle east its hot, greasy, street food. And the folks at Falafel Shuki make it well.

A super crisp and gently textured thinner than average shell, and an almost creamy and soft inside makes each ball a little treasure. They’re perfectly deep fried. And in this case burying these beauties is not an insult but a compliment. They’re buried in pita getting chummy with chummus, tahina, pickles, and various salads (the onions with sumach being among my favorite).

Falafel Shuki is located downtown on one of the main thoroughfares (Jaffa street). It’s patronized by many Americans and tourists but don’t hold that against it. My sister, who’s currently a soldier in the Israeli army, told me this was the place to go for great falafel, and she was absolutely right. And their shwarma was quite good as well. So… even if falafel isn’t your thing, you’ll be all set.

Armenian Tavern, Jerusalem, Israel

Monday, January 28th, 2008

There’s not much like the old city in Jerusalem. The fact that there’s been a city (almost) continuously operating on (basically) the same spot for millenia combined with the importance to three of the world’s religions is especially compelling when combined with the day-to-dayness of the city. There are portions that are religious in significance, places that are super touristy, and most impactful, quiet spots where people go about their every day lives.

It’s on the edge of one of these touristy spots (the entrance to Jaffa gate) in the oft-overlooked Armenian quarter (the Arab, Jewish, and Christian quarters typically dominate) that you find the Armenian Tavern. It’s basically geared towards tourists but it’s buried, literally. You head down the steps in the ornately decorated restaurant and have some absolutely delicious Lahmejoun. Lahmejoun is basically a thin half pita spread with minced lamb and veggies and seasoned generously. They’re not very large, but they’re super delicious. I could eat a thousand of them.

The chummus, tahina, salad, and kebabs were quite delicious as well.

When I lived in Boston I used to be able to head to the small Armenian district on Mass. Ave. in Somerville and pick up a whole box full of Lahmejoun. It would always be a race to see whether the Lahmejoun would be gone before I made it home. I’ll admit that the Armenian Tavern is special to me because my parents used to take me there when I was a kid. It always seemed so cool heading underground to eat. But as far as I can tell, fond memories or not, the Lahmejoun are still savory, light, and quite tasty.

Today’s Secret Ingredient…. Heat

Wednesday, January 2nd, 2008

I wish with everything in my little cooks heart that Harold McGee wrote for the NY Times every Wednesday.

This week we are treated to an introduction to an ingredient every cook uses every day with very little understanding. In this weeks article, he talks about heat.

Having been in the kitchens I have been in,  I have been exposed a bit to the thought of better using heat to cook foods.  Take sous vide, a word that we hear thrown around with trendy modern food is actually an exercise in the most efficient manner to apply heat to food.  Yes, the method of putting food in vacuum sealed bags and cooking it in water has been used for a few decades now.  However it’s the more recent study into how the energy of heat changes and effects the molecules in our food that resurrected this method from the depths of reheating catered dinners, introduced perfectly controlled thermobaths from laboratories, and brought it to the forefront of haute cuisine.

While much of the study of heats effects on food relate to meat cookery, where our use of the energy is at it’s most inefficient, the application I found most interesting was for potatoes.

Almost every restaurant has mashed potatoes on their menu.  It seems to be a game of chasing the white rabbit, that of making the perfect, fluffiest, creamiest, mashed potatoes.  We as cooks hear legend of different kitchens and their ethereal potatoes, like Joel Robechons, “passed through the tammis 5 times!  Mounted with twice their weight in butter!”  Every kitchen has their spin on making theirs better.

At WD-50 I saw something done to the potatoes that makes a cook scream, “yes!” A method of cooking the potatoes with an explanation using true understanding of the molecules inside the potatoes and the effects of heat on them.

The potatoes are peeled, sliced, and cooked in a water bath at 65 degrees celsius for 30 minutes.  The potatoes are transferred to an ice bath to cool completely.  At this point the potatoes are still crisp, seemingly unchanged.  Once cooled, the potatoes are cooked just as you would have had you just peeled them.  If the potatoes are seemingly unchanged, you might ask what on earth did they just do?

Well, working with a method used by the commercial mashed-potatoes-in-a-box companies, they use just enough heat to cause the starch granules inside the potatoes to swell.  Think of these granules as little sacks of starch molecules.  They absorb water, and the starches inside grow.  If they are mishandled, or bounced around by too much energy, say that of boiling water, these little bags break open freeing all those starch molecules.  These rouge starches are now free to retrograde, recrystallize and cross-link forming long gummy chains.  This is not good.

So, after cooking the potatoes in gentle heat, just long enough to make these starch bags swell, the potatoes are then cooled in an ice bath.  The starch in the potatoes are allowed to recrystallize, or retrograde.

Wait, didn’t we just say that was bad?  Well, it’s bad when the starches aren’t contained.  Because of the gentle application of moderate heat those little starch sacks are intact with swollen starches inside.  The ice bath forces these starches to retrograde, gel, set, what every you may, inside their sack.  Retrograde is permanent.  The starches are now cemented into place safely inside their granules, and you can now cook the potatoes with a more aggressive heat, and break apart the starch sacks by mashing and passing through a tammis, processing the potato.  You can manipulate these particles into a nice smooth, even mashed potato with out risk of releasing the starches from their containment.  No gummy paste, no stringy gluey mashed potatoes.

And the best part?  You can cool the mashed potatoes, and reheat them for service with no change in texture.

Pretty cool, huh?