Last week, we chatted with Susan Feniger about being out in the kitchen and becoming a celebrity chef. This week, we continue the talk, and bring it back to the food.
AfterEllen: How did you come up with the concept of Street, a restaurant with a menu featuring street food from all over the world?
Susan Feniger: I opened Street because I love street food from all around the world. One of the most popular dishes at Street is Kaya Toast, which I got through my friend Robert Danhigh. It’s a Singapore street dish that’s great for hangovers. We make a coconut curd with egg yolks and pandan leaves, and spread it on white toast with salted butter. It’s served with a soft-cooked egg drizzled with dark soy sauce and white pepper. So you dip the sweet thing into the salty mixture. It’s a huge seller.
Another popular dish right now is Bhel Puri, an Indian street food. It’s puffed rice with sweet potatoes, date tamarind chutney and cilantro, all mixed together.
AE: Yum! Both of those dishes sound incredible. I’m also thinking about your Mexican fare at Border Grill. We all throw together tacos and burritos at home on occasion (actually, it happens weekly at my house.) How would you advise someone to get more exciting with their Mexican, get out of the Old El Paso rut?
SF: You can make great Mexican food with ingredients found at every grocery store. We use tamarind and achiote, but you could still do great Mexican food without it. People get intimidated because they don’t know enough about some of the ingredients, so that’s challenging. As with every ethnic cuisine, spend a little time learning some key things: what are the major chiles? In the Latin kitchen, they’re chipotle and ancho chiles. You can get them on the internet, and they make a nice addition to the meal.
You can also make a really great red rice with simple ingredients. Sauté onions, garlic, and tomato to make a sauce, then fry the rice in oil, and cook it in the sauce.
You have to get out of your comfort zone, widen it. People get nervous because they see things they’re not familiar with. But with a little bit of exploration another level of cuisine opens up. If you can make lasagna, then you can make chilaquiles.
AE: When did you first become interested in cooking?
SF: As a kid, my mom was a fantastic cook, and I did hang out in the kitchen with her. She was always cooking, putting meals in the freezer, or pulling out some fudge. I learned a ton about seasoning from her. If she made a lasagna, it would taste fantastic. If she made a salad, it was also always really delicious. She had a knack for making meals with great flavor profiles.
If people focused more on taste than creativity, there would be more good food. It’s not about being creative in the kitchen as much as it is about knowing how to taste, really think about it, and make sure the flavor profile is there. There’s no point in being creative if the food isn’t good. Flavor has to drive creativity. The only important thing is that it tastes great. I’d rather have an unbelievably fantastic taco than foie gras without flavor.
(an Egyptian street food macaroni dish)
Susan and her Street co-chef, Kajsa Alger, sent us this truly toothsome recipe (I added some explanation here and there to clarify the steps). This is not just comfort food, but a wonderful potluck dish (it serves a crowd). Have leftovers? Bring it to work the next day for a savory and very pack-able lunch.
2 cups brown lentils, rinsed
1 ½ cups basmati rice, rinsed and soaked for 30 minutes
2 cups tubetini (straight-cut macaroni)
4 cups diced white onion
2 tablespoons + 1/8 cup canola oil
¼ cup ghee (clarified butter)
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons ground cumin
2 tablespoons + 1 dash of kosher salt
5 cups water
1 tablespoon harissa (you can substitute your favorite hot sauce if harissa isn’t available. You can also make some.)
Bring a pot of water to boil and cook the tubetini until it’s al dente. Set aside.
In a large pot over medium heat, combine the ghee and two tablespoons of canola oil. When the oil and butter are hot, add the rice and lentils and toast for approximately five minutes, stirring regularly.
Add the cumin and the salt, stirring to combine. Toast another minute or so, then add the water.
Cook uncovered, simmering until the liquid is absorbed and the rice mix starts to crackle and toast on the bottom (stir it occasionally).
Place in a large mixing bowl and set aside.
Add the 1/8 cup canola oil, 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, ¼ tsp kosher salt, and harissa to a skillet on medium heat, and stir to blend. When the oil mixture is hot, add the cooked, drained pasta to the skillet. Stir it as it crisps up. Add it to the bowl of rice and lentils and mix to combine.
©2009 Susan Feniger and Kajsa Alger
Candace is the co-editor of Dear John, I Love Jane: Women Write About Leaving Men for Women (Seal Press, 2010), and Ask Me About My Divorce: Women Open Up About Moving On (Seal Press, 2009). She is currently working on a memoir-with-recipes for Seal Press called Licking the Spoon. Candace is also the features editor at Mothering magazine, mama of two, and enamorata of smarty-pants Laura, her live-in recipe tester. Follow Candace on Twitter @candacewalsh.