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For many people the arrival of vine-ripened tomatoes marks the beginning of summer. But for me, it’s the mounds of corn at our farmers market. With countless ways to enjoy corn, one of the most delicious is to use corn kernels in an Asian-style congee or rice porridge.
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Certainly the easiest way to enjoy corn is to strip off the husks and place the cobs into boiling water or onto a blazingly hot grill. Featured center stage, a bowl of freshly cooked corn on the cob is wonderful. But corn is also an able supporting player when the kernels are cut off the cob and added to salads, soups, stews and pasta.
Congee, the best kept secret of the Asian kitchen
A meal in itself, congee is Asian comfort food. Putting good use to leftover rice, the most basic congee is a stew of boiled rice. Many cuisines have made the dish their own by layering in flavor with combinations of stocks, fragrant oils, fresh and dried herbs, spices, vegetables, meat, poultry and seafood.
Congee comes in many consistencies. Some feature the broth as much as the rice. Other versions have very little liquid and the congee has a consistency similar to porridge.
Any rice varietal will work nicely to make congee. Short grain, long grain, white or brown rice, it doesn’t matter. When the cooked rice is added to a liquid over heat, the starches thicken to create a sauce. Water can be used as the liquid, but a home-made stock adds much more flavor.
My congee borrows the general technique but is not an attempt to create an authentic dish as prepared in the Philippines, China, South Korea, Thailand, Japan, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Indonesia, Malaysia or Vietnam.
Because the starting point for congee is so flavor neutral, a variety of vegetables, seasonings and stocks can be added. A fine dice of carrots, green beans or broccoli works well, as does a shredding of kale, spinach or sorrel. Instead of olive oil, use sesame or truffle oil. Add aromatics such as raw garlic, fried garlic chips, turmeric, cilantro, cumin, saffron, pimentón or oregano. Homemade broth brings another level of flavor. You can use a dominating liquid like beef stock flavored with anise or take a more delicate approach using shrimp stock with a saffron infusion.
As an ingredient in congee, corn is an ideal companion because the firm sweet kernels contrast well with the creaminess of the boiled rice.
If lobster is not available, another protein can be used. Cooked or raw fish, crab meat or shrimp can be substituted for lobster. Or, shredded roast chicken or roast pork will pair nicely with the corn. A vegetarian version is easy to make by using homemade vegetable stock and fresh farmers market vegetables and herbs.
Cooking a lobster is probably easier than you might think. Bring 3 inches of water to boil in a large pot. Hold the lobster’s head submerged in the boiling water. Cover the pot with a lid. Cook five minutes. Remove the lid, submerge the part of the lobster that is not yet red. Cover. Cook another three minutes. Transfer the lobster to the sink. Reserve the water in the large pot.
When the lobster is cool to the touch, hold it over a large bowl. Remove the legs, claws and tail, reserving any liquid to add to the stock. Discard only the dark colored egg sack. The green tomalley is a delicacy and should be saved to be eaten warm on toast.
Removing the meat from the tail is relatively easy. Use kitchen shears to cut the shell underneath lengthwise and across the top of the tail. The meat will come out without effort. Cracking open the claws takes a bit more work and sometimes requires the use of a hammer. The body meat is especially sweet and requires the use of a pointed stick to separate the meat from the cartilage.
Some of the meat will be cooked. Some will be raw. Both can be used in the recipe.
Place all the shells into the pot with the cooking water and simmer covered thirty minutes. Strain out the shells and reserve the lobster stock.
Refrigerate the lobster meat and stock until needed. The preperation of the lobster can be accomplished a day ahead. If all that sounds like too much effort, use the other proteins mentioned above.
Homemade stock is preferable to canned, boxed or frozen stocks, which are often overly salted and can have a stale taste. Homemade chicken stock is a good substitute if other stocks are not available.
Because rice varietals absorb liquid at differing rates, have enough stock on hand. Adjust the amount of stock as you cook until you have the consistency you enjoy. If you want your congee to have more soup, use six cups of stock. If you would prefer less soup, use four cups. Taste and adjust the seasonings as well.
Prep time: 15 minutes
Cook time: 15 minutes
Total time: 30 minutes
Yield: 4 servings
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
3 ears corn, husks and tassels removed, washed, kernels cut off the cobs
1 medium yellow onion, washed, root end, top and outer skin removed, roughly chopped
4 large scallions, washed, root end and discolored leaves removed
4 to 6 cups homemade stock, lobster stock if available or use chicken stock or water
4 cups cooked rice
3 cups cooked or raw lobster meat (approximately two 2-pound lobsters) or another protein
1 basket cherry tomatoes, washed, each tomato cut into quarters
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Cayenne to taste (optional)
1 tablespoon sweet butter (optional)
1. Add olive oil to a heated pot on a medium flame. Sauté corn kernels until lightly browned.
2. Add chopped onions and sauté until lightly browned.
3. Fine chop scallion green parts. Cut white part into ¼-inch lengths and reserve.
4. Add scallion green parts to the sauté.
5. Pour stock into pot, stir well and simmer five minutes.
6. Add rice. Stir well. Continue to simmer.
7. The longer the rice cooks in the liquid, the softer it will become. If cooked too long, the rice will dissolve creating an unpleasant texture. When the consistency is what you like, shred the lobster meat and add along with the chopped cherry tomatoes. Stir well. Simmer two minutes.
8. Season to taste with sea salt, black pepper, cayenne (optional) and sweet butter (optional).
9. Serve congee hot in large bowls. Top with white scallion lengths.
Main photo: Corn-Lobster Congee topped with chopped tomatoes and sliced scallions. Credit: Copyright 2016 David Latt
Going vegan tastes so good when you turn up the heat on garbanzo beans and create a beautifully charred vegetable salad.
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Carbon steel pans and their close cousins, cast iron pans, love heat. Turn a burner on high, place the carbon steel pan on the fire, and you’ve pushed the pedal to the metal. Used by chefs to create crispy skin fish filets and perfectly seared steaks, carbon steel pans can also be used to give vegetables a beautiful, carbonized crust that deepens their flavor.
Hot, fast and easy
Everything is faster with a carbon steel pan. Cooking is quick. And so is cleanup.
Unlike stainless steel pans that must be scrubbed clean after each use, once cured, a carbon steel pan needs only a gentle washing to remove leftover oils. After that, it can be dried on a high flame.
If you have not used a carbon steel pan, think of it as a wok cut down to frying pan size. What carbon steel pans bring to the party is the ability to create rich caramelization quickly. In a matter of minutes, the high heat chars the garbanzo beans and vegetables with a small amount of oil.
Because the temperature of a carbon steel pan can reach as high as 700 F, a blend of oils works best. Eighty percent canola manages the heat with less smoke, and 20% olive oil adds flavor.
Flash cooking adds flavor and seals in the healthy qualities of fiber-rich garbanzo beans, a good source of protein and essential minerals such as manganese and folate or B-9. Also called chickpeas, the legumes provide a starchy contrast to the vegetables.
To make a delicious salad, toss the charred garbanzo beans and vegetables with olive oil and reduced balsamic vinegar together with finely chopped Italian parsley or fresh leafy greens like arugula, green leaf lettuce, romaine or frisee.
Mise en place, tongs and a good over-stove exhaust fan
What restaurant chefs call mise en place is all-important when cooking with high heat. Because the dish will cook in a matter of minutes, all the ingredients must be prepped ahead of time. Peel, chop and arrange all the ingredients on the cutting board before you fire up the carbon steel pan.
Remember, the pan can get as hot as 700 F, so have a good pair of 12-inch tongs at the ready. Turn on the exhaust fan so any smoke from the pan will be pulled out of the kitchen.
Charred Vegetable Salad With Garbanzo Beans
Use any fresh vegetables you enjoy. Besides broccoli, carrots and onions, Swiss chard, kale, spinach, turnips, Chinese bok choy and celery are also delicious when charred.
All the vegetables must be cut into small pieces so they will cook evenly. Leafy greens can be shredded. Calculate the order in which you add the vegetables based on how long they take to cook. For example, broccoli, carrots and turnips take more time to cook than does spinach.
Because carbon steel pans are relatively nonstick, less oil is required when cooking. The recipe calls for a minimum amount of blended oil. Use more depending on taste.
Reducing balsamic vinegar creates a thicker sauce and adds sweetness, offsetting the acid.
Prep time: 15 minutes
Cook time: 15 minutes
Total time: 30 minutes
Yield: 4 servings
1/2 cup balsamic vinegar
1/2 cup blended oil, 80% canola oil, 20% extra virgin olive oil
1 medium yellow onion, washed; skin, root and top removed; thin sliced
1 15-ounce can cooked garbanzo beans, organic if available, drained
2 cups shiitake, portabello or other brown mushrooms, dirt cleaned off, stems trimmed on the end, thin sliced
2 cups broccoli crowns, washed, each floret cut in half lengthwise
1 large carrot, washed, stem and root ends trimmed, peeled, finely diced
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
2 large bunches Italian parsley, washed, stems removed, leaves finely chopped
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1. In a small saucepan over a low flame, reduce the balsamic vinegar to one quarter the original volume. Set aside to cool.
2. Arrange all the prepped vegetables on a cutting board or in bowls for easy use.
3. Place a 10-, 12- or 14-inch carbon steel pan or cast iron pan on a high flame. When the pan begins to smoke, turn on the over-the-stove exhaust fan.
4. Drizzle a teaspoon of blended oil on the hot pan and immediately add the thin-sliced onions. Using tongs, toss the onions in the hot oil, turning frequently to avoid burning. When the onions are lightly browned, add drained garbanzo beans. Mix together. Add another drizzle of blended oil. Using tongs, toss frequently to avoid burning.
5. Add mushrooms. Stir and mix well until lightly browned.
6. Add broccoli crowns. Stir and mix well until lightly browned.
7. Add finely diced carrots. Mix well and drizzle with blended oil. Season with sea salt and freshly ground black pepper.
8. Taste a broccoli crown and carrot dice. When they are al dente, with a little crispness, remove from the flame.
9. Transfer to a bowl or large plate to cool.
10. Place the finely chopped Italian parsley into a large salad bowl. Add the room-temperature charred garbanzo beans and vegetables. Toss well. Season the salad with extra virgin olive oil, reduced balsamic vinegar, sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste. Adjust seasoning and serve.
Main photo: Charred garbanzo beans, shiitake mushrooms and onions in a carbon steel pan. Credit: Copyright 2016 David Latt
Dinner-party ready and perfect for everyday meals, a whole fish roasted in salt puts “wow” on the table. A whole fish cooked inside a dome of kosher salt looks beautiful and is easy to make. Ten minutes to prep, 30 minutes in the oven, a salt-roasted fish on your table will make everyone happy.
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Using whole fish costs less per pound than filleted fish. Cocooned inside its salt blanket, the protein rich-fish cooks in its own juices.
The technique is very low-tech. No fancy machines or tools are required. Some recipes call for egg whites and water to moisten the salt, but from my experience, water alone works perfectly. After the fish has cooked inside the coating of moistened salt, a fork will effortlessly peel back the skin and a chef’s knife easily separates the meat from the bones.
When creating the salt coating, it is important to use kosher salt. Do not use table salt and definitely do not use salt that has been treated with iodine, which has an unpleasant minerality.
When you buy the fish, ask to have the guts and gills removed but there is no need to have the fish scaled because the skin will be removed before serving. If the only whole fish available in your seafood market is larger than you need, a piece without the head or tail can still be used. To protect the flesh, place a small piece of parchment paper across the cut end, then pack the moistened kosher salt on all the sides to completely seal the fish.
Even though the fish is cooked inside salt, the flesh never touches the salt. The result is moist, delicate meat.
After removing the salt-roasted fish from the oven, let it rest on the table on a heat-proof trivet. The sight of the pure white mound, warm to the touch and concealing a hidden treat is a delight.
What kind of fish to use?
Choose a fish that is as fresh as possible, with a clean smell and clear eyes. When you press the body, the flesh should spring back.
The cooking time will vary depending on the size and thickness of the fish.
In general, a whole fish weighing 3 to 5 pounds will require a three-pound box of kosher salt. Since that is an estimate, it is a good idea to have a second box of kosher salt on hand. Personally, I prefer Diamond Crystal kosher salt because it is additive-free.
Use only enough water to moisten the kosher salt so the grains stick together. Too much water will create a slurry, which will slide off the fish. Because kosher salt is not inexpensive, use only as much as you need. A quarter-inch coating around the fish is sufficient.
Placing herbs and aromatics inside the fish’s cavity can impart flavor and appealing aromas when the salt dome is removed. Sliced fresh lemons, rosemary sprigs, parsley, cilantro, bay leaves or basil all add to the qualities of the dish but discard before platting.
Depending on the density of the flesh, generally speaking, one pound of fish requires 10 minutes of cooking at 400 F.
The mild fish can be served with a tossed salad, pasta, rice or cooked vegetables. The fish goes well with freshly made tartar sauce, salsa verde, pesto, romesco, chermoula or pico de gallo.
Prep time: 10 minutes
Cooking time: 30 minutes if the fish weighs 3 pounds, 50 minutes if the fish weighs 5 pounds
Resting time: 5 minutes
Total time: 45 or 65 minutes depending on the size of the fish
Yield: 4 to 6 servings depending on the size of the fish
1 whole fish, 3 to 5 pounds, with the head and the tail, cleaned and gutted but not necessarily scaled
1 3-pound box kosher salt, preferably Diamond kosher salt
½ to 1 cup water
2 cups fresh aromatics and lemon slices (optional)
1. Preheat oven to 400 F.
2. Wash the fish inside and outside. Pat dry and set aside.
3. Pour 2 pounds of the kosher salt into a large bowl. Moisten with ½ cup water. Mix with your fingers. If needed, add more water a tablespoon at a time until the salt sticks together.
4. Select a baking tray that is 2 inches longer and wider than the fish. Line with parchment paper or a Silpat sheet.
5. Place a third of the moistened salt on the bottom of the lined baking tray.
6. Lay the whole fish on top of the salt. Place aromatics and lemon slices inside the fish, if desired.
7. Carefully mold the rest of the moistened salt over the entire fish. If more salt is needed, moisten an additional amount of salt.
8. Place the baking tray into the pre-heated oven.
9. After 30 minutes for a 3-pound fish and 50 minutes for a 5-pound fish, remove the baking tray from the oven and allow the fish to rest for 5 minutes.
10. Using a chef’s knife, slice into the salt dome on the back side of the fish, along the fin line. Make another slice on the bottom of the fish. Lift the salt dome off the fish and discard. Using the knife, make a cut across the gills and the tail. Insert a fork under the skin and lift the skin separating it from the flesh.
11. Have a serving platter ready. Using the flat side of a chef’s knife, slide the blade between the flesh and the skeleton along the fin line. Separate the flesh from the bones. Try as best you can to keep the entire side of the fish intact, but no worries if the flesh comes off in several pieces. When you place the flesh on the serving platter, you can reassemble the fillet.
12. Turn the fish over and repeat the process on the other side.
13. Discard the head, tail, bones and skin or reserve to make stock. If making stock, rinse all the parts to eliminate excess salt. Place into a pot, cover with water, simmer 30 minutes covered, strain and discard the bones, head, tail and skin. The stock can be frozen for later use.
14. Serve the fish at room temperature with sauces of your choice and side dishes.
Main photo: Salt-roasted sea bass. Credit: Copyright 2016 David Latt
Steamed rice is a perfect side dish. Never threatening to overshadow the qualities of a main dish, rice is a good accompaniment for grilled proteins, braises, stir-fries and steamed veggies. But there are times when a meal needs not symbiosis but fiery contrast. That is when Chef Chris Oh’s kimchi fried rice can save the day.
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Located near Sony Studios, Oh’s Hanjip Korean BBQ is one of a dozen new restaurants that have created a culinary district in what was once sleepy Culver City, Calif.
An unlikely path to becoming a chef
If you met Oh before he was 30, you would have known an economics major who studied at the University of Arizona and followed his supportive parents into the world of entrepreneurial businesses. Within a few years of graduation, he owned a home, a real estate company and a car wash in the San Francisco Bay Area. He was living the American dream.
Then one day, as has happened to many others, he woke up and asked himself, “Is this it?” His answer was, “No.” He wanted to follow his passion and pursue the life of a chef. But this is where Oh’s story takes an unusual turn. Unlike many others who want culinary careers, Oh did not enroll in a cooking academy. He did not seek out a talented chef and apprentice himself for years.
He abandoned his successful life, sold his house and all his businesses, packed his car and drove to Los Angeles. He knew he wanted to be a chef, but his only cooking experience was preparing meals for his younger brother when they were growing up. He rented a house, bought a TV and turned on the Food Network. For days and nights too numerous to count, he sat on his couch and watched cooking shows. He studied classic recipes and learned to improvise by watching competition cooking shows.
Even though he had never worked in a professional kitchen, after his third interview, he was hired to be a line cook. A quick study, within two years Oh was working with some of Los Angeles’ top chefs. Fast forward another two years and he was the chef-owner of two food trucks and three restaurants. Along the way he won the third season of The Great Food Truck Race and had become a judge on cooking shows.
Korean flavors for American palates
The driving force behind his success is Oh’s love of Korean food. Many people have not experienced Korean food so his intention is to create dishes with authentic flavors but to make them more friendly to the American palate. Korean barbecue, he told me, isn’t just for Korean people.
Eating at a Korean barbecue restaurant is like going to a dinner theater except the show is not on stage but on the table. A gas-powered brazier gets the spotlight. Using tongs and chop sticks, everyone at the table plays chef and places thin slices of meat, seafood and vegetables on the hot grill. The conversation bubbles and the meat sizzles as everyone picks off the flavorful crispy bits and eats them with rice.
Based on his mother’s recipe, Oh adds a few chef’s secret touches to elevate his kimchi fried rice. Essential to the flavor profile is the addition of a barely cooked egg. Just before eating, the egg is broken up and mixed into the rice. The kimchi fried rice with its comfort-food creaminess is a good complement to the tasty, crispy bits that come off the grill.
Hanjip Korean BBQ’s Kimchi Fried Rice
Of the special ingredients needed to make the dish, only kimchi is essential. Found in the refrigerated section in Asian markets, there are many varieties of kimchi. The version used in Oh’s recipe is made with Asian cabbage. Most often sold in jars and prepared with MSG, there are brands that prepare their kimchi without MSG and are recommended.
Kimchi continues to ferment in the jar, which explains the gas that sputters out when the lid is unscrewed. To protect against juices staining clothing and the counter, always open the jar in the sink where cleanup is easy.
Furikake and nori, the other specialty ingredients called for in the recipe, are also found in Asian markets. Nori is a dried seaweed sold in sheets or pre-cut into thin strips. Furikake comes in several varieties. Chef Oh’s furikake is a mix of sesame seeds, nori, bonito flakes and seasoned salt.
For a vegetarian or vegan version, omit the butter and egg and use kosher salt instead of beef bouillon.
Prep time: 5 minutes
Cook time: 15 minutes or 45 minutes if the rice must be cooked or 60 minutes if using a sous vide egg
Total time: 20 minutes or 65 minutes
Yield: 4 servings
1 egg, sous vide 60 minutes or coddled for 4 minutes in boiling water or fried sunny side up
1 tablespoon sweet butter
2 tablespoons sesame oil
¾ cup chopped kimchi
3 cups cooked white rice, Japanese or Chinese
Pinch of beef bouillon powder or kosher salt
2 tablespoons kimchi juice
1 teaspoon finely chopped fresh garlic
2 tablespoons scallions, washed, ends trimmed, chopped
2 tablespoons nori strips for garnish
1 teaspoon furikake for garnish
1. Cook the egg sous vide, coddled or fried sunny side up. Set aside.
2.Heat wok, carbon steel or cast iron pan over high heat.
3. Add butter. Lower the flame and stir well to avoid burning.
4. Add sesame oil and kimchi. Stir well to combine.
5. Add cooked rice. Mix well with oils and kimchi. Do not over stir to encourage bottom layer to crisp.
6. Season with beef bouillon powder or kosher salt, kimchi juice and garlic. Stir well.
7. Add scallions and stir well.
8. When the rice is well coated and some of the grains are crispy, transfer to a serving dish.
9. Top with the egg and garnish with the nori strips and furikake.
10. Serve hot.
Main photo: Kimchi in wok to make kimchi fried rice at Hanjip. Credit: Copyright 2016 David Latt
Havana is back in the news. For more than half a century, Cuba has been off limits to Americans. With the reopening of the American Embassy in August 2015, tourists are flocking to Havana. The city is bustling with new restaurants, hotels, clubs, bars and paladars, the uniquely Cuban restaurant created in a family’s home.
The paladar movement began after the Soviet Union stopped subsidizing Cuba in what is called the “Special Period,” when the economy suffered greatly. The government experimented with private enterprise and allowed a few private citizens to turn their homes into restaurants.
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In 1999, we ate at La Guarida, a paladar on the third floor of a dilapidated building with an auto repair shop on the bottom floor. Walking up the curved staircase, we passed tiny apartments, their doors open to allow for the circulation of air.
Made famous as the location for the classic Cuban film, “Strawberries and Chocolate” (“Fresa y chocolate”), La Guarida was a restaurant created inside a small apartment. Customers ate in what had been the living room. Another room had also been cleared of its furniture to make way for a dozen small tables and chairs. Plates of chicken with rice and vegetables were served, and I remember we were charged for bread. All in all, the food was good but not special except that by 1999-Havana-standards, the quality was very good.
Fast forward to 2015 and a return to La Guarida found the restaurant in the same peeling, dilapidated building. Cars were still parked inside the building on the ground floor and the restaurant was still reached by climbing up the broad staircase to the third floor.
But La Guarida no longer looked like a family’s apartment. The restaurant now takes up the entire floor with a large kitchen, sleek modern bathrooms and large, expansive rooms decorated with crystal chandeliers and quality paintings. Sitting in any of the dining rooms or the small bar, you could imagine you were in London or New York. The menu no longer has home-cooked favorites such as chicken with rice and vegetables. La Guarida’s fine-dining cuisine would be easily found in Paris or Berlin with prices to match.
Like La Guarida, many paladars no longer look like private homes. Paladar Vistamar is in an upscale neighborhood of 1950s modernist houses. Located on the second floor, the restaurant occupies what was once the living room and terrace. The dining areas are framed by a floor-to-ceiling glass wall on the ocean-facing side of the building. Eat outside on the covered terrace and you will have the best view of the ocean and the pool below.
When we had lunch on a sunny, clear day, the ocean still churned from a storm that had passed over the island the night before. Waves crashed against a concrete retaining wall and swept across the pool.
Pork, chicken and rabbit were on the menu, but given the proximity to the ocean, we chose seafood. A red snapper ceviche was fresh and bright. A green salad with freshly cooked shrimp and lobster was beautifully presented, although foreigners were advised to avoid eating leafy greens because of problems with the quality of the water. On the advice of the waitress, we ordered sides of the delicious, soupy black beans and steamed rice or as they are called here Moors and Christians (“moros y cristianos”). To finish the meal, a light flan with fresh fruit was served as dessert along with cups of Cuban espresso.
For Americans, a stay in Havana always involves conversations about the current state of relations between the two countries and what will happen when the embargo ends.
Walking around the tourist areas of Old Havana (La Habana Vieja), you might be tempted to believe that Cuba has returned to a capitalist culture. That would be a mistake. Havana is a city living in two worlds. In the tourist sections of the city, capitalist-socialism is very much in evidence. Wide boulevards have been recently paved. Hotels are being constructed within sight of José Martí Square in Old Havana.
The other Havana is a few blocks from the neighborhoods visited by foreigners. On those streets, the pavement is potholed and the buildings are in a state of decay. Of course there are beautiful suburbs outside of the Old City and Central Havana. But most of Havana suffers from the effects of poverty and the consequences of the embargo.
Part of a larger complex, El Cocinero is next door to one of Havana’s cultural sensations, Fábrica de Cubano Arte, known locally as F.A.C. or Fábrica. An artist collective originally subsidized by the Cuban government, Fábrica is the ultimate hyphenate. Café, art gallery, screening room, lecture space, dance hall and bar, the expansive former peanut oil factory has dozens of rooms that are filled every night by hundreds of young Cubans. When you visit El Cocinero and after you have eaten and enjoyed one of their delicious, light-as-air piña coladas, definitely follow the music to Fábrica where you can dance until 3:00 a.m.
Since the “Special Period,” paladars have blossomed into a subculture and have transformed the Havana culinary scene. Now the paladar is an iconic feature of the new Havana as much as the 1950s American cars that are everywhere in the city. As you make a shortlist of paladars you must visit on your trip to Havana, Ivan Chef Justo deserves to be at the top of your list along with La Guarida. The handiwork of two chefs who used to cook for Fidel Castro, Ivan Chef Justo is a soulfully curated vision of a traditional paladar. Family photographs line the walls along with portraits of 1950s Hollywood celebrities. Relying on small private farms for their ingredients, Ivan Chef Justo, like many paladars, is pursuing a farm-to-table program long popular in the United States but new in Cuba.
When we ate at Ivan Chef Justo, we were part of a large party. We were served family style with large platters filling the center of the table. Lobster stew with carrots, mashed yucca, Moors and Christians, roast chicken and, my favorite, roast pork with crispy lacquered skin, were eaten with relish.
During our week-long stay in Havana, we ate most of our meals in paladars. Talking with other travelers, we heard about their favorite paladars and we told them about ours. If you have friends traveling to Cuba, ask them which paladars they enjoyed and check La Habana online (www.lahabana.com). Because the more popular paladars are booked months in advance, email the hotel concierge to request reservations so you don’t miss out. And bring a lot of American dollars to exchange for the local currency called C.U.C.s (“cukes”) because, as of this writing, American and European credit cards are not accepted inside Cuba.
Paladars of Havana:
- El Cocinero Paladar (Calle 26, Vedado, between Calle 11 and 13, +53 7 832 2355)
- Fábrica de Cubano Arte (Calle 26, between Calles 11 and 13, Equina 11, Vedado, +53 7 838-2260)
- Ivan Chef Justo (Aguacate 9, Esquina Chacon, close to the Museum of the Revolution in Old Havana, +53 7 863-9697 and +53 5 343-8540)
- La Guarida (Concordia. No. 418, between Gervasio and Escobar, +53 7 8669047)
- Paladar Vistamar (Avenida 1, 2206, between Calles 22 and 24, Miramar, +53 7 203 8328)
- Rio Mar (Aveneda 3rd and Final # 11, La Puntilla, Miramar, +53 7 209 4838)
Main photo: Red snapper ceviche at Paladar Vistamar. Credit: Copyright 2016 David Latt
Winds blow through bare tree limbs, chilling you to the bone, making you long for bowls of hot, comfort food. Of course, a microwavable meal might be in your kitchen, but a freshly cooked meal is always more satisfying. Making pasta with delicious clams and healthy vegetables will warm you up. Quick and easy, it requires only one pot.
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The fewer pots and pans you need to prepare a meal, the quicker the cleanup. Using already cooked pasta is an easy starting point. Live clams purchased from a quality seafood purveyor will yield a fresh-from-the-sea brininess.
Fresh green beans have a pleasing crunch when cooked with the same al dente finish as the pasta. The dish can flexibly use different vegetables. If green beans are not available, use any number of greens from leafy spinach to broccolini, kale or shredded escarole.
Sometimes clams are sold in plastic mesh bags placed on beds of ice. At other stores, they are kept in tanks with circulating cold salt water. Unfortunately, buying clams can be a hit-or-miss proposition. From the outside, good and bad clams look pretty much the same. The only way to determine whether the clams are as good as they can be is to buy and cook them. This is why it is useful to have developed a relationship with a seafood market you trust.
Only use small clams, approximately 2 or 3 inches across. Larger clams are better used cooked, removed from the shell and chopped. Steamers, a deliciously sweet clam, require some finger work to remove the skin covering the foot, so manila, little neck or butter clams are easier to prepare and eat.
Clams with Pasta and Green Beans
Purchase the clams from a quality seafood market. Fresh clams have a wonderfully clean flavor. If the clams are in a salt water tank, pick as many clams as you can that are open. When you use the slotted spoon to remove them from the water, they will close, indicating they are very much alive.
Finding good green beans depends on the season and the purveyor. Always buy green beans that are firm and unblemished. For some reason, in Southern California where I live, green beans from farmers markets are often not as good as those found in Asian markets. At Marukai, a local Japanese market in West Los Angeles, the green beans are consistently firm and unblemished.
If substituting spinach, trim the root ends and rinse well to remove all sand and grit, then roughly chop and add at the same time as the clams. If using broccolini, cut off the stems, peel and cut into thin rounds, then add the peeled rounds and florets on the bottom of the pot with olive oil and lightly sauté before adding the clams. If using kale, cut the leafy part off the center rib and roughly chop and sauté in the pot with olive oil before adding the clams. If using escarole, shred and sauté in the pot with olive oil before adding the clams.
If clams are not available, freshly peeled and deveined raw shrimp are a good substitute. If using raw shrimp (peeled and deveined) instead of clams, sauté for one minute and add the green beans and pasta. Stir well. The shrimp will cook in 2 to 3 minutes. For additional sauce, add homemade seafood stock and butter (optional).
Not everyone enjoys bacon, but if you do, bacon and clams make wonderful partners in this dish.
For more sauce, add homemade stock, preferably one made with fresh fish or shellfish.
If fresh clams and green beans are not available, frozen can be substituted. The result will be good but not as good if both are fresh.
Prep time: 10 minutes (if using cooked pasta) or 20 minutes (if using uncooked pasta)
Cooking time: 10 minutes
Total time: 20 minutes (if using cooked pasta) or 30 minutes (if using uncooked pasta)
Yield: 4 servings
4 pounds live manila, little neck or butter clams
1 pound uncooked or 4 cups cooked pasta, fettuccini, spaghetti, penne, fusilli or ziti
1 pound fresh green beans, washed, ends trimmed, cut into 1-inch lengths
1 slice bacon (optional)
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 cup fish or shellfish stock (optional)
1 tablespoon unsalted butter (optional)
1 tablespoon capers, drained
2 scallions, washed, ends trimmed, cut into rounds (optional)
Sea salt to taste
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
Cayenne powder to taste (optional)
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese (optional)
1. Rinse the clams in a strainer to remove any surface sand and grit. Set aside.
2. If cooked pasta is not available, add kosher salt to a 4-quart pot, bring to a boil, add a 1-pound box of pasta to the boiling water, stir well and cook until al dente in about 10 minutes. Taste to confirm the doneness. Put a strainer over a large bowl in the sink and drain the pasta, reserving the salted pasta water. Toss the pasta to prevent sticking and set aside.
3. To cook the green beans, either use the salted pasta water or fresh water with kosher salt in a 4-quart pot. Bring the water to a boil. Add the green beans and cook 5 minutes. Strain and discard the salted water. Set the cooked green beans aside.
4. If using bacon, heat the pot on the stove-top on a medium flame. Lay the bacon slice on the bottom. Turn frequently to evenly brown. When crisp, remove the bacon and drain on a clean paper towel. Set aside. Leave the bacon fat in the bottom of the pan.
5. Place the pot on the stove-top on a medium flame. Add olive oil, unless bacon was chosen, in which case the bacon oil will suffice. When hot, add the alternative greens as directed above and then the clams and cover. Cook 5 minutes. Remove cover and stir well.
6. The clams will begin to open and give off liquid. Add the homemade seafood stock if more sauce is required. Add sweet butter if desired. Stir well and continue cooking on a medium flame.
7. Add green beans or the alternative greens as directed above. Stir well.
8. Add capers. More of the clams will open.
9. Add the pasta. Stir well. Remove whichever clams do not open and discard.
10. At this point the dish can be served or it can be set aside for up to an hour before serving.
11. When you are ready to eat, taste the sauce and adjust seasoning with sea salt, black pepper and cayenne (optional). Because the clams and bacon (optional) are salty, additional sea salt might not be required.
12. Transfer pasta and clams to a serving bowl. Top with crumbled crisp bacon (optional), scallions (optional) and freshly grated Parmesan cheese (optional).
Main image: Little neck clams with pasta and string beans. Credit: Copyright 2016 David Latt