Bresca, chinese food, chinese new years, new years, year of the bumble bee, year of the dragon

2012: Year of The Bumble Bee

2012 is suppose to be a very interesting year, what with all the talk of Mayan calender ending and a well attended Zombie Apocalypse event being organized on Facebook. In a few weeks, we will be entering the “Year of the Dragon,” according to the Chinese Zodiac calendar. Though the symbol for “Dragon,” danced above our heads on New Years Eve, The Missus and I celebrated the start to the “Year of the Bumble Bee” at Bresca.

I’ve mentioned Bresca a few times on this blog. My love for the food, and respect for Chef Kern Desjarlais runs deep, but this wasn’t going to be your typical night at Bresca. Much like her recent wine dinners, led by Joe Ricchio, have brought theme meals of Bresca influenced Estonian and Greek dinners, this was going to take the food of Bresca to Hong Kong with a five course menu. And I was more excited about this meal than I was Christmas.

The evening started off with, not bread and oil, but with puffed wheat cakes and salty sweet popcorn served with a sweet chili sauce. To say that the snacks weren’t odd–it wasn’t normal looking popcorn and the wheat cakes weren’t so much that, but rings–would be lying to you. To say that they weren’t addictive would also be a bold face lie, especially when dipped into the house made chili sauce. The dish was a great little reminder that we weren’t in normal Bresca mode.

The first course of the evening was a duo of “Little Jewels,” which were composed of a deep fried quail egg topped with caviar and a steamed lobster dumpling, placed atop a smear of spicy sauce. The tiny, panko breaded egg was the first to go. It exploded a warm, custardy yolk under the crispy breading, the moment I bit into it. The caviar, a fantastic little treat all on its own, added a bit of salt and added richness to the nibble. Its companion was far more delicate, though. I’m not quite sure if anything else was nestled in the supple dumpling skin with the lobster, I just know that it melted quite easily on our tongues. We both looked at each other, kind of nodded our heads and said, “Wow.”

The second course gave us an option of either a “Singapore Salade,” comprised of shaved rare beef, greens, vermicelli, peanuts, herbs and umeboshi dressing or “Black Pearl Hot and Sour Soup,” with cloud ears, white fungus, lily bulb, tofu, egg with a black truffle ‘bun.’ I opted for the soup, with The Missus going for the salad. Hands down, I won. While her salad was beautifully dressed with a rich, salty vinegrette and the marbled beef melted on your tongue, nothing could have beat that soup. Nothing. I actually wanted to lean over to the table next to us and tell them all to order the soup. Full of foreign fungi and tofu, I rationed every spoonful of the clean, earthy broth. Occasionally, though, I did pause to sneak in a bite of it’s accompanying crostini loaded with black truffle shavings. When Corey, our waitress, came over to see how we were enjoying things, I looked up at her and said, “I want to eat this every day of my life.” I had absolutely no issue with picking up my bowl and drinking down every last drop. I was pleased.

The third course, XO noodles, was next. Fresh thin egg noodles, tossed with XO sauce, dried scallops, red wine sausage and scallions. Outside of an accidental eating of a full thai chili pepper on her part, this was one of The Missus’ favorites. Like the previous two courses, the flavors were gently balanced, which is important when dealing with XO sauce and dried scallops as they can come off extremely salty and fishy. Instead, it was a bowl of comfort with familiar flavors like the rich egg noodles and red wine sausage mingling with the not so common flavors of the sauce. I believe it was this course that made me declare that I was ‘ruined’ for Chinese food for life.

Main courses soon followed, though we weren’t quite sure how much room we had left. The Missus, at my poking and prodding, ordered the five spice roasted duck that was served with a scallion pancake, pickled cucumber and hoisin sauce. I managed to snatch away one tiny bite of the duck from her plate and I can tell you that the duck skin was ridiculously crispy and the warming flavor of the star anise in the five spice was front and center. The scallion pancake was crisp, instead of doughy, and reminded more of Roti Cani than any scallion pancake I’d had previously.

I opted for the pork dish, which was a slow roasted shoulder cut served on top of an insanely rich parsnip puree with apples and cippolini onions. Again star anise was the main flavor here, rubbed on the outside of the pork, which was left to marinate to absorb the flavors. The sauce was, I’m guessing, a combination of soy, chinese vinegar with, perhaps, a bit of citrus and ginger. Whatever the components, it was fantastic ladled over the perfectly tender slab of pork shoulder. But, the best component was actually the least asian on the plate: the parsnip puree. Apparently Chef Desjarlais wanted us to be fat and happy going into the new year because there had to be a ridiculous amount of butter and cream mixed into the velvety puree.

Dessert, always the highlight at Bresca, rounded out the already spectacular meal. Truthfully, I had stopped reading after “Buttermilk panna cotta” and didn’t find out, until later, that the other option was an apple beignet with creme fraiche ice cream and spicy walnuts. The Missus and I both ordered the panna cotta which, just when you thought a perfect dish couldn’t be improved upon, you’re proven wrong. Horribly and fantastically wrong. This panna cotta was made into a miniature sized portion and served with a coconut tapioca base, the usual tropical fruits, a puff pastry coconut lime stick, passion fruit caramel raspberry sorbet and raspberry fruit lantern.

Got all of that? Yes, I know… iphone photos suck for food blogging and this photo does absolutely no justice to how beautiful the plate was, but I had to put it up because of how beautiful that fruit lantern was on the plate. Like so many other trips to Bresca, the dessert nearly brought us to tears. While the panna cotta is rightfully the star, it was the coconut tapioca base that had me swooning in my seat and finding room in my belly to finish it down to the last spoonful.

While this may have been a one off menu for Bresca, I hope that Chef Desjarlais considers doing this sort of themed menu every year, perhaps for the celebration of the Chinese New Year. The soup, hands down, was the best dish I’ve had all year and the XO noodles and ‘Little Jewels’ weren’t far behind. Not a bad way to end the year.

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burbur chacha, chinese new years, cooking fail, food memory, malaysian

Trying to Relive the Past

It’s been twelve years since I last stepped into Baba Malaysian restaurant in NYC. It was before 9/11, as it seems every thing that happened in the past twenty years is defined as a ‘pre’ or ‘post’ this date. It was my birthday in April of 2000 and my partner, who was from Long Island, took me down to celebrate at my favorite restaurant and attend an Astrea Foundation concert that featured Ani Difranco and Margaret Cho. It was a weekend of shopping, eating, music, and friends. It was also the birthday when I was approached by someone of the Twelve Tribes who assumed, probably based on my Pepto colored hair, that I was a lost soul and should join them on their bus for a spiritual awakening.

One of the best moments came when a car full of friends and I were driving 80+MPH on the L.I.E. and found an ice cream truck in the lane next to us. Through a game of charades and yelling, we convinced the driver to hand over some ice cream pops while we were driving. Luckily, it wasn’t rush hour and there were no troopers on that particular stretch of highway, because we were rewarded with a couple of chocolate dipped vanilla ice cream bars. I still laugh at the memory of my pink haired self stretching a third of the way out the window as this twentyish year old guy struggled to hand over the ice cream bars while driving with one hand on the wheel. I swear, those were some of the best ice cream bars any of us had ever had.

But, as easy as I remember something as crazy and idiotic as that, I still remember the meal.

Roti Cani

Beef Rendang
Mango Chicken

Coconut Rice

Burbur Chacha

Baba was my favorite restaurant in New York(this was when I was 23, still unversed in ethnic foods and just realizing that I had more than a fleeting passion for food) and getting down to eat there was always a treat. But, it’s not overly noteworthy that I can remember what I had twelve years ago because we ordered the same thing whether we were there or at Penang. Penang’s menu was much more extensive than Baba’s so there was the occasional change or addition in starter or entree but the desserts usually remained the same.

The dessert, with the funny sounding name of Burbur Chacha, made me fall in love with Malaysian food. It was sweet, gelatinous and warming. When Baba closed in late 2002, before I got to bid it a proper farewell with one last meal, I tried to find that dessert around Albany to no avail. Sticky rice in coconut milk with taro or black eyed peas were as close as I could find in the Asian supermarkets in the area. Theywerethisclose yet it still wasn’t the same.

Then this year, when there were quick plans being made to hop on the Concord bus to Boston for Chinese New Years(where the picture above comes from). I decided to try to track down a recipe, procure the items while in Chinatown and make a go for it at home. So, between laughing at the Missus’ cousin marvel at the Lions Parade

and having dim sum at Winsor Dim Sum Cafe

I dragged their asses from one side of Chinatown to the other looking for ingredients for the recipe:

11 ounces/ 300 grams purple yam, peeled and chopped into ½-inch cubes
1lb/ 450 grams sweet potato, peeled and chopped into ½-inch cubes
¼ cup dried tapioca pearls
2 cups/ 450 ml fresh or frozen coconut milk
¼ cup/ 200 ml water
½ teaspoon salt
6 tablespoons granulated sugar
1 pandan leaf, shredded into thin strips and knotted together

2 tablespoons coarsely chopped palm sugar

Steam the yam and sweet potato cubes for about 30 minutes or until tender. Leave aside to cool.

Prepare the tapioca pearls. Submerge the pearls in a bowl of cold water for about 15 minutes. Drain and transfer them to a saucepan filled with water. Boil the pearls, stirring constantly, until the pearls turn translucent. Drain the pearls in a fine-mesh sieve and pour cold water through the sieve. This helps to break the pearls up and prevent clumps from forming. Set aside.

In a large pot, combine ¾ cup/200 ml of coconut milk with the water, then add the palm sugar, granulated sugar, salt and pandan leaf, and bring to a boil. Add the rest of the coconut milk, the sweet potatoes and yam, and the tapioca pearls.

The Pandan leaves, very much like palm leaves, were the hardest to find, located in the back of the frozen area of the Chinatown C-Mart we finally tracked down. The scavanger hunt for these ingredients–as well as some ingredients for XO Sauce–kept us warm and out of restaurants where we would have sat and stuffed our faces.

After everything was found and I worked my way through some Eggs Benedict And Risotto, I finally got around to trying to recreate the dish.

My enthusiasm for the whole thing didn’t last long. In fact, right after I tied the leaves

I found that the tapioca, which actually eluded us for a while on our hunt, turned from this:

to this:

and completely turned to shit in the initial soaking.

*zen breathing*

Maybe it sheds or something, I thought to myself, as if it had some outer husk attached. But, it doesn’t, does it. No. I just managed to find the shittiest Tapioca Pearls in all of Boston’s Chinatown. The reality was obvious at this point: It was too late to turn back from all of this. The taro and sweet potato had been steamed, the pandan cut and tied and the coconut milk removed from it’s tin. I decided that it was best to just pack everything up for the day before I trashed my kitchen out of frustration and rage(we’ll blame the full moon for the grossly disproportionate reaction I was having).

Later the next day, I opened up my Mark Bittman’s “How to Cook Everything in the World” and settled on making an uberstarchified version of his Kheer. The end results were ok, as the taro was undercooked, more palm sugar could have been used, the milk was too thin and I ate it cold. Yeah, it was basically a big bowl of disappointment in trying to recreate what I once had and I learned that I’m better off leaving that dish to the memory of what it was.