Author of the travel guide + cookbook, Queens: A Culinary Passport, Andrea Lynn is a Queens-based author. Her expertise landed her on Martha Stewart Radio and as a bhut jolokia expert on NPR's "Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me." Follow her: @AndreaLynn27.
At the Filipino restaurant Tito Rad’s Grill & Restaurant, I was taught how to make Kare Kare, a stew with oxtail braised in a peanut butter sauce. Sounds fairly delicious, right? Well, they also taught me a way to make it even better — at the last minute. During the last 10 minutes of the cooking process, a variety of vegetables like greens beans and halved baby bok choy are added to the mix and then steamed until tender, just about 10 minutes.
While working on my latest cookbook, Queens: A Culinary Passport, I chatted with cooks and chefs from diverse ethnic backgrounds (Himalayan, Cuban, Cypriot, Szechuan and more). As I learned how to replicate their dishes in my own kitchen, I amassed a slew of tips from them that I began using in my everyday cooking life.
I’ll admit it, I was a bit of a coffee snob. So it never occurred to me that instant coffee might actually, actually be the secret of some of the best coffee drinks on the planet. While working on my cookbook (and culinary guide to Queens), I learned that instant coffee was the secret to making Greek frappés. Hailed as the national coffee of Greece, the frappé is a frothy concoction of coffee granulates and water, made foamy thanks to a frappé machine.
I always thought the key to the perfect potato pancake was hand-grating the potatoes and onion, as opposed to using a food processor. But Ben’s Best Kosher Deli says the real trick is using paper towels to soak up the excess liquid of the grated potato and onion. Put a double layer of paper towels together, and press down on the grated mixture, repeating a few times until a majority of the liquid has been removed.
When trying to get tips from Himalayan Yak manager, Gyaltsen Gurung, on a potato recipe called Sho-Go Khatsa (Aloo Dum), he kind of shrugged and said, “It’s just cooked potatoes.” But it taught me so much more than that. The recipe Sho-Go Khatsa for has moved up my queue to become a favorite side dish. Here’s how it goes. First, the potatoes are boiled until half-cooked.
With a lemoniness that walks the line of almost being too tart without actually being so, creating authentic Greek lemon potatoes became an obsession of mine when I first moved to the Greek haven of Astoria, Queens. I marinated, roasted, and boiled the potatoes in a hefty amount of lemon juice, never happy with the subpar results. So when I started working on my cookbook, Queens: A Culinary Passport, I knew I had to delve into the secret of the lemon potatoes.
This was my first experience working with the natural spider web of caul fat, which is the membrane around the intestines (usually of pigs). And, much to my surprise, I fell a little in love with it. The Cyprus restaurant Kopiaste Taverna had introduced me to their specialty of sheftalia, a homemade Cypriot sausage made from ground pork, parsley, and onions rolled in caul fat. “It’s very unique and very popular in Cyprus. We sell hundreds of these.
Your spatulas have been warned: Achiote is the turmeric or, if you like, the saffron of Cuban and Latin American cuisine and will dye most anything it comes across a vibrant red-orange. It’s worth it though, as I discovered and cooked with this spice. In the Cuban recipe for Arroz con Pollo at Rincon Criollo, 1 to 2 tablespoons of ground achiote powder were added along with the spices and liquids to get the rice a “rich yellow color,” as described to me.
This tip is short and sweet but will change how you prep some foods for life. Repeatedly, when I was working with any type of stickiness on my hands, the chef made a note to wet my hands before touching it as to prevent sticking. For recipes like matzo balls, falafel, meatballs, and potato pancakes, using wet hands to roll into shapes worked to prevent any from clumping into large globs on my fingers.
What is there to know about feta cheese? A couple simple rules will give you the best Greek salad imaginable, as I discovered in my book research. The chef-owner at the Greek restaurant Taverna Kyclades in Astoria, New York, schooled me to never buy crumbled feta again. Ardian Skenderi says it’s best to buy feta cheese wedges instead of the crumbled varieties: “When the cheese is crushed up, you don’t know how good it is.
While restaurant cooking is very different from cooking at home, there are plenty of smarts that a home cook can pick up from chefs and their shops. As part of a week devoted to learning from restaurants, I asked Andrea Lynn to share some of the little tips and good ideas she picked up in her interviews with chefs, restaurant owners, and food truck proprietors in the neighborhood of Queens.