Monday, August 27, 2012

The Honey Pig

When my mom comes to visit, we try to show her a good time. We let her relax. We feed her well. And we take her someplace local for an experience she can't get at home. This year, we took her to The Honey Pig in Ellicott City.

The Honey Pig is a 24-hour Korean barbecue restaurant located on Route 40. It has a sparse, warehouse look inside with corrugated steel siding and posters for other Korean businesses. It is such a cultural experience that walking through their front door feels a bit like leaving the U.S. As near as I can tell, they are always busy. And why wouldn't they be?

They do the traditional table-top grill and offer a variety of spiced beef, pork, and organ meat that is cooked at the table and served with the usual accompaniments of kimchee, sliced fish cake, picked daikon, spicy green beans, and sliced raw peppers and garlic. They tend to direct foreigners like us toward more pedestrian items, but this is most likely from hard-learned experience. The Korean palate is used to much more flavor than the typical Marylander can abide.

With my mother along for her first Korean barbecue experience, we let the waitress talk us out of the spicy pork bellies, but ended up with a good mix of bulgogi - seasoned beef - unseasoned pork belly, and beef tongue, a personal favorite of mine so long as it is not prepared by white folk.

The tongue was sliced thin and was very tender. It needed little seasoning and was quite good on its own. The pork was also sliced thin and took the special Korean hot sauce very well. This I ate with the raw garlic and peppers, wrapped in a little lettuce for the flavor explosion that makes Korean barbecue so enjoyable. The bulgogi was cut thicker and was marinated with sliced onion. It was a flavorful spicy rather than the heat my counterpart was looking for. Even so, we were all extremely satisfied with the experience.

The service is un-American in that once they have cooked the meat for you, they let you enjoy your meal, even allowing you to digest before presenting you with the bill. This is saying something for an establishment that perpetually has a line out the door. The Honey Pig is about the Korean dining experience. Patronized by ex-pats, immigrants, and guest workers, and filled with bouncy Korean pop music, they deliver just that.

Waiting for our table

A quick Facebook Mobile lesson

Pork belly on sale tonight

Preparing for our gastronomical adventure

The usual accompaniments

Fire up the grill

Beef tongue

Pork belly


My counterpart enjoying his barbecue

Spicy tofu soup

Everyone is a member of The Clean Plate Club tonight

After dinner

A parting glimpse

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Throwing in the Towel

There are few things I enjoy more for lunch than a grilled cheese sandwich with tomato soup. The grilled cheese is indeed a classic lunch, and one that is so popular that the Whole Foods down in my part of the city has started grilling them up to order during the Tuesday lunch rush. So I was baffled and disappointed when the GrrChe truck made a special trip to Harbor East and never drew a crowd. At least, not when I was looking. Which is truly disappointing because these guys offer something unique albeit off the beaten path.

GrrChe visits Harbor East. Harbor East does not return the favor.

Maybe it was the location. Around the corner on Central Avenue certainly seemed like a viable location. It's close to the office buildings on Fleet Street yet not directly in front of the Bagby Restaurant Group. Curbside Cafe was there every week and developed a regular following.

Maybe it was the infrequency of visits to this location. The trucks that have done well in this neighborhood have had a regular schedule. Curbside Cafe was every Tuesday. IcedGems is every other Friday.

Regardless of the reasons, and despite the undisputed quality of their food, I feel as if I must now accept what the owner of GrrChe may have already figured out. With the plethora of established restaurants and a high degree of competition for the corporate lunch crowd, Harbor East may no longer be a viable venue. Not just for them. Perhaps not for any of the trucks. We haven't had a regular lunch truck since the Sliver Platter moved out to the county. My coworkers and I can talk about how much we miss the food trucks, but if we don't patronize them when they stop in our area, we will lose them all for good.

Which is a shame, because they truly add value to Baltimore's restaurant scene. Especially the ones that take an otherwise standard lunch item and bump it up a couple of notches. Trucks like Haute Dog, Souper Freaks, IcedGems, Kommie Pig, and GrrChe make lunch a little more interesting when they appear on the scene. I have held firmly to the belief that there is room for everyone in Baltimore's food scene - the restaurants, the food trucks, everyone - and that we can all get along if everyone just agrees to. Sadly, this does not appear to be the case.

That being said, here's what I had for lunch.

Despite my fondness for the traditional grilled cheese and tomato soup, a classic that GrrChe has certainly perfected, today I ventured over to their specialty menu. This menu is made up of grilled cheese with a twist: Grilled cheese with a crab cake, grilled cheese with pulled beef, and - my new favorite - grilled cheese with jalapenos.

Specialty menu

Called the Jalapeno Popper, it combines the elements of a jalapeno popper with a grilled cheese. Roasted jalapenos, cream cheese, pepper jack cheese, and bacon on sourdough, this was both creamy and hot and provided sufficient buffering to the belly. While the cheese peppery flavor and a warmness in my belly lingered into the afternoon, there were no repercussions felt as the day wore on. My only regret is not asking for tomato on it.

The Jalapeno Popper sandwich - spicy creamy perfection

My professional colleagues do not know what they missed today, especially since the apparent small draw may not encourage them to come back. It is with a great sadness in both heart and stomach that I admit defeat. I will continue to watch the food truck scene in Baltimore, if only from afar.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

If You Get Your Spices Cheap You Can Use Them Like They're Free

Kheema is an Indian dish made of spicy ground meat, potatoes, and peas. This afternoon my counter part made a very successful variation. He created a flavorful layered dish that, while not necessarily traditional, was certainly very satisfying.

Mis en place

He started by making some curry by combining the following until they smelled and tasted right. This is fairly subjective, so add each new spice a little at a time and stick your nose down in it:

Ground Oregano
Chili Powder
Ground Cumin
Spanish Paprika
Ground Sage
Saigon Cinnamon
Jamaican All Spice
Chinese Five Spice (just a little)

The trick is to purchase your spices in bulk so you can use as much as you want. Gareth visited the H-Mart in Ellicott City yesterday and was prepared. This is the best place in the Baltimore-DC area for spices. They sell them in those large containers pictured above. Go nuts.

Home made curry

Next, he cut up some garlic, onion, leek, and spicy little red chilis. Using the Kitchen Aid meat grinder attachment, he ground the veg with the lamb and pork belly, dredging the meat in the curry before running it through the grinder.

Pork belly and lamb

Through the meat grinder

For the remaining layers, he used:

Kohlrabi, both greens and root
Curry leaves (at least we think that's what they were)

For the rice, he used our Korean rice cooker and cooked the rice with minced kohlrabi greens and the supposed curry leaves, olive oil, a little heavy cream, and water.

Is this really curry leaves?

Tastes like curry leaves

He made two layers of veg - one starchy and one veggie. For the starchy layer, he peeled the potato and kohlrabi root and cur them into match sticks that he sauteed in olive oil with the watercress and some leek and onion.

The veggie layer consisted of minced carrots, cilantro, and peas, also sauteed in olive oil.

Mess in place

And, getting back to the ground meat, this was cooked through in a heavy pot. He pureed a couple more little red chilis and added this puree to everything except the rice.

Curried meat with a little extra boom boom

When everything was cooked, he layered everything in this order:

Rice at the bottom
Potato and Kohlrabi
Carrots and Peas
Meat on top with some of the jus drizzled over the whole thing

On the table

Plated up

Penuche Follow Up

I discussed yesterday's penuche episode with my counterpart, the real cook in the house. I have the follow addendum to yesterday's post:

  1. The instructions to cook the milk, butter, and sugar all together? When have I ever seen my very chefy counterpart do this? He typically melts the butter first, then slowly adds the sugar to ensure it dissolves, then slowly brings it to a boil and adds the dairy.
  2. That burning smell I noticed when my sugar mixture started to reach temperature? It was actually burning sugar. I most likely cooked my sugar at too high a temperature instead of letting it gradually simmer up to soft ball stage. This contributed to the uneven texture and the resulting rock-hard set.
  3. That heavy cream I used to help pull it together? It may have smoothed out the texture, but I probably should have continued blending my gravelly mixture until to smoothed out on its own. Using cream instead prevented this necessary step in the process from completing.
This is something I want to perfect. I'll continue working at this and will post again when I get it right.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Mary Cooks: Penuche

Fudge recipes are written by optimists. The typical fudge recipe is deceptively simple. I am going to write the truth about fudge.

First, some context. I had the day to myself, and a lengthy to-do list. Out of all the highly productive things I could have done, why did I decide to make fudge? This week, I wrapped up a particularly lengthy and frustrating project, one of those projects that lingers in the stabilization phase as more and more issues with the software are discovered and need to be addressed until finally there is no more money, and the project is declared complete. It was a long, rough ride for the team and I wanted to make a special treat for them. I decided on fudge as it is phonetically very close to an oath that was uttered so often during the project that many of us forgot it was a cuss word.

In my search for a fudge recipe, I came across a treat from my childhood - brown sugar fudge, also called penuche. One of the ironies of my mother is that despite what she served for dinner, she was capable of incredible desserts. Penuche was one of them. So when I found the penuche recipe in the Gourmet cookbook, I had to try it.

Mis en place

For Penuche, you will need:

1/2 cup plus 2 tbsp evaporated milk
2 cups packed light brown sugar
1 1/2 sticks butter, cut into tbsp
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
1 3/4 confectioners sugar

Simple enough, right? Keep in mind that fudge is actually a candy, and candy is an art that must be practiced. If you are a regular candy maker, you will not have any trouble with this. If you are out of practice, though, or a beginner, proceed with caution and understand that you will spend a lot of time stirring and waiting.

OK, so combine the milk, brown sugar, butter, and salt in a 3-quart heavy saucepan and bring just to a boil over moderate heat, stirring until the sugar is dissolved. From these instructions, I wasn't sure if I should have a liquid like a caramel sauce or what. I actually had something thicker than a liquid but not quite a solid. I also thought I would know when the sugar had dissolved. In retrospect, I did not.

I let the mixture come to a boil and then reduced it to low heat to simmer as the recipe instructed. In less than a minute, it no longer looked like my mixture was simmering, so I brought it up to a boil again. I did this several times over the next ten minutes until I felt I had everything at the right temperature.

Is my sugar dissolved now?

Is it dissolved now?

So, back to the recipe. Reduce heat to low and simmer, stirring frequently, until mixture registers 238 F on a thermometer and a teaspoon of the mixture dropped into a small bowl of cold water holds a soft ball when pressed between your fingers. This will take about 30 minutes.

The best part of this recipe is the reference to the old school method of checking on your sugar mixture. When you are cooking this stuff, it will hit 180-200 fairly quickly, and then will hover around 200 for so long you will feel as if your candy thermometer is broken. The old fashioned soft ball test will let you keep track of how far along you actually are. Then, after about 20 minutes at just over 200, the sugar mixture will change rapidly. I noticed a burnt sugar smell that I found disconcerting. But the temperature was rising and quickly reached 238. I did the soft ball test just to be sure.

Get comfortable - you're going to be here for a while

Still not sure if that burnt sugar action is right, but we are at temperature

Transfer mixture to a heatproof bowl. I used a large Pyrex measuring cup. Beat in the vanilla with an electric mixer at medium speed. Which was also disconcerting. When I added the vanilla to my 238 degree soft ball mixture, it bubbled, boiled, and seemed to evaporate. Undeterred, I proceeded with my hand blender and began adding the confectioner's sugar, a little at a time, as the recipe instructed.

Not fudge

Now the recipe says that in about five minutes, the whole thing will be thick and smooth. After five minutes, my fudge resembled course gruel. But if I've learned anything from my counterpart, it's that there are few things in the kitchen that cannot be salvaged with a little heavy cream, egg yolk, or both. I reached for the heavy cream and added a generous dollop to my mixture. A few minutes later I had a smooth mixture, albeit a bit grainy. And that is the sign of fudge failure. If you get to this point and still have graininess, you do not have fudge.

Heavy cream to the rescue

I divided my mixture evenly between two small pans - the intent was one for my team and one for Gareth's - and placed the pans uncovered in the refrigerator to set. While today's efforts are not fit to share with the team, I think we can work this into our ice cream activities.

Looks can be deceiving - a pan of grainy fudge is not worth sharing

A Return to the Food Truck Scene

It's been some time since I've seen a food truck in my work neighborhood. The Curbside Cafe was sold off so its owners could embrace a new opportunity. The Silver Platter, who dominated the area last summer, revamped their menu, relocated to the county, and has since run out of steam. The GrrChe truck made an isolated appearance back in the spring. Even IcedGems, a regular Friday lunchtime fixture, has been scarce.

Regular readers know that I love the novelty and creativity of the food truck experience. The small, mobile nature of the venture usually means a low overhead and lots of creative freedom. You can usually count on a fairly decent meal of out-of-the-ordinary food for a fairly decent price.

Even with the apparent disappearance of the food trucks from my neighborhood, the food truck scene in Baltimore remains strong. A fleet of trucks can be seen in Midtown, Fells Point, Hopkins, Charles Village, and many other neighborhoods throughout the city. And there are still (with increasing frequency) the food truck rallies know as The Gathering.

Last night's Gathering was in Hampden in the parking lot of HeartWares at Keswick and 34th just a few blocks down from The Avenue. Many of the regulars were there, including The Gypsy Queen Cafe, Miss Shriley's, and the aforementioned IcedGems and GrrChe. But missing (and I did miss them) were SouperFreaks and Dangerously Delicious (I had my heart set on a mini SMOG pie, an item they only sell from the truck).

The gentle downward slope of the parking lot and the buildings that surround it looked to be the perfect location, offering the promise of protection from the still-hot sun of Baltimore's early evening. Alas, this was not the case. The sun shone directly into the space, and the surrounding buildings only served to cut off the air flow. Even so, it was a highly enjoyable food event.

With me again was a fellow foodie from work, and a couple of co-workers from her department. Our first stop was Miss Shirley's for their famous cheesy grits with bacon. They looked as good as always, although I did not partake this time.

First stop - the never disappointing Miss Shirley's

Cheesy grits with bacon

Next, we did a circuit to see what was there and plan the evening's eating. This is really the best approach to the food truck rally, especially a large one. As we wandered through, I stopped to chat with some of the vendors to try to find out why no one was in Harbor East anymore. Mostly, I heard good news about expanding operations and trying to reach more neighborhoods. IcedGems has expanded their circuit and now has a bi-weekly schedule throughout Baltimore. My favorite GrrChe also spoke of expanding operations to include additional trucks to reach a larger audience. All this is very good news. And despite the growing Bagby restaurant complex on Fleet Street, there is still room for these smaller lunch vendors to do business on an ad hoc basis so long as they park around the corner and out of sight on Central. (The Curbside Cafe did this for over a year, and we have been looking for someone to assume this space since they closed up shop.)



Last night's gathering was smaller than expected, and we navigated the space fairly quickly. We saw several newcomers, including the humorously-named Kommie Pig, selling sausages and pulled pork. We decided on fish tacos from Woody's Taco Island and an order of crabby fries from The Cruisin Cafe.

The Kommie Pig

Woody's Taco Island

Woody's Taco Island

The tacos consisted of fried tilapia, a mild cheddar cheese, cabbage slaw, fresh salsa, and a ranch-type cream sauce. They were light and flavorful and the perfect eating for a hot summer night.

Woody's famous fish tacos

The crabby fries were not so strong. The fries were fairly run of the mill, tasting like standard McCain's restaurant frozen fries tossed in the deep fat fryer. The crab topping, however, was good classic Baltimore cuisine. The traditional cream cheese and mayonnaise base had a generous amount of crab meat and a moderate dusting of Old Bay that was detectable but not overpowering. We mostly used the fries as a delivery vehicle for the topping. Once that was gone, we were done.

The Cruisin Cafe

Crabby Fries - fries covered in Maryland crab dip

A welcome addition to the food truck scene was a mobile clothing reseller Go-Go's Retread Threads, a vintage clothing shop in a revamped school bus. I loved this concept and braved the stifling heat of the bus to check it out. My co-workers did not share my fascination and remained outside. The seats of the bus were replaced with racks of neatly hung clothing with small shelves of shoes running along both sides and strings of lights hanging from the roof. While I found many souvenirs of my misspent youth, I exercised restraint.

Go-Go's Retread Threads

It was definitely all three

There was also a young entrepreneur selling cold beverages and raising money for The Guinea Pig Fund. When I purchased a bottle of water from him, before he gave me my change, he asked if I would like to contribute to the fund. I let him know I would donate a dollar to the fund. He thanked me and then explained that The Guinea Pig Fund was his effort to raise enough money to buy a pet guinea pig, which was why he was at The Gathering. I was so impressed with this that I asked if I could take his picture.

The Guinea Pig Fund

The Gathering food truck rallies continue to be an enjoyable evening out. Damien Bohager continues to contribute to the Baltimore dining scene with his ongoing support of the food truck community through the arrangements of these regular gatherings. I am looking forward to the next one.

Adult beverages, provided by event organizer Damian Bohager

The Jolly Pig

My distinguished colleagues and a shot of my IcedGem in their simple paper bag packaging that I later sat on

The side of the Kommie Pig

Busia's Kitchen

The Gypsy Queen Cafe

Lest we forget we are in Baltimore......

This is a caramel-covered donut with bacon. It also comes with whipped creme. I did not go there.