At a time when immigration is a political lightning rod comes a book that reminds us just how much our culinary landscape has been deliciously shaped by the food traditions brought and shared by so many newcomers to this country.“A Place at the Table: New American Recipes from the Nation’s Top Foreign-Born Chefs” (Prestel), of which I received a review copy, celebrates 40 of America’s top chefs and rising stars, all of them immigrants, who forged a new path here to make their mark in the culinary world.
The new book is by Gabrielle Langholtz and Rick Kinsel, respectively the director of culinary projects and the president of the Vilcek Foundation, a New York organization that raises awareness of immigrant contributions to the United States.
Within the pages of this beautifully photographed book, you’ll get to know chefs such as Maneet Chauhan, a native of India who beat out 40 male chefs to become executive chef at Vermillion in New York and Chicago; Diego Galicia, a native of Mexico, who scraped together $15,000 with a business partner to open his Mixtli in an empty train car in San Antonio, TX that led him to being named one of the year’s “Best New Chefs” by Food & Wine magazine; and Mustsuko Soma of Japan, who moved to Seattle to open her lauded Kamonegi, famed for its hand-made soba, after learning that Washington was one of the largest buckwheat producing states in the country.
The stories captivate. And the recipes entice with dishes such as “Sea Urchin Lumpia” from Chef Charles Olalia of Ma’am Sir in Los Angeles; ” “My Mom’s Coffee-Braised Brisket” from Chef Michael Solomonov of Zahav in Philadelphia; “Easy Bibimbap for Home” from Chef Corey Lee of Benu in San Francisco; and “Pancake Stack Cake” from Pastry Chef Miroslav Usukokovic of New York’s Gramercy Tavern.
I was tempted to try my hand at making “Hand-Torn Noodles with Cumin Lamb” from Chef Kate Telfeyan, whose story is the epitome of inspiring. Born in South Korea, she was abandoned at a supermarket when she was just a baby, suffering from malnutrition and tuberculosis. Fortunately, she was adopted at age 2 by an American couple, a father of Armenian heritage and a mother who is French-Canadian. Together, they raised her with a love for both those heritages and cuisines. Along the way, Telfeyan educated herself about Korean food.
After earning a degree in English literature, she worked in publishing before realizing her passion lay in cooking. She is now the chef de cuisine of Danny Bowien’s acclaimed Mission Chinese Food in New York.
As Telfeyan describes in the book, the hand-torn noodles are reminiscent of the traditional Korean dish called sujebi. The flavors of this dish are very northern Chinese. And the lamb takes its cues from her Armenian heritage.
If you’ve never made your own noodles before, this is the perfect way to initiate yourself. A simple dough comes together easily in the food processor. Then, all you do is pinch and pull off small pieces by hand that get cooked in a pot of boiling water. The noodles are organic in shape. Probably no two are exactly alike. And there’s no right or wrong to the way they look. Kids would probably have fun helping to make this, as it’s a little like playing with Play-Doh.
The noodles cook up chewy and toothsome. They are thick and rustic, providing a substantial foundation for the ground lamb cooked with loads of fragrant cumin, a little Chinese black vinegar, and a splash of fish sauce. This is a pretty meaty dish, with the meat to noodle ratio fairly high, making for a hearty meal.
The dish may be on the heavy side. But what lightens it up is the flourish of julienned fresh cucumbers and dill fronds over the top that add a bright vibrancy.
I was skeptical about the lemon accented sour cream that finished the dish. It seemed more Hungarian or Russian than Chinese or Korean, and more suited to goulash or stroganoff.
But it actually works, adding a rich, creamy component that kind of ties everything together even nicer. The only change I made, though, was to make only half the amount of lemon sour cream originally called for in the recipe. I don’t think you need 1 cup of it for four servings. I much prefer just a little drizzle of the sour cream sauce as an accent, and not so much that it weighs the whole dish down. But if you are a sour cream fanatic, feel free to make the full amount.
This is a homey dish — Asian-style. And thanks to such contributions by Telfeyan and so many other immigrants, our appetites are all the more contented.
Hand-Torn Noodles with Cumin Lamb
For the noodles:
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
3/4 cup water
For the herb salad:
1 English cucumber, cut into matchsticks
1 bunch fresh dill, fronds picked
Juice of 1 lemon
For the lamb:
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1/2 white onion, diced
2 tablespoons minced shallot
1 1/2 tablespoons minced garlic
3 tablespoons ground cumin
1 pound ground lamb
3 tablespoons Chinese black vinegar
1 teaspoon fish sauce
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1 small handful chopped fresh cilantro stems
1/2 cup sour cream, thinned with juice of 1/2 lemon
For the noodles: In a food processor fitted with the dough blade, combine the flour, 1/2 teaspoon of salt, and the vegetable oil. With the motor running, pour in the water and process for 30 to 45 seconds or until the dough starts coming up the sides of the bowl and forms a ball. Cover and let stand at room temperature for 30 minutes.
While the dough is resting, fill a medium saucepan with water and bring to a boil then add a big pinch of salt. Holding the ball of dough in one hand, use the index finger, middle finger, and thumb of your other hand to pull and tear off pieces of dough and carefully drop them into the boiling water. Continue with the remaining dough and cook for 2 to 3 minutes or until the noodles float to the surface. Drain the noodles and set aside.
For the herb salad: In a medium bowl, toss the cucumber matchsticks and dill fronds with the lemon juice, season to taste with salt, and set aside.
For the lamb: In a wok or large skillet, heat the vegetable oil over medium-high heat. Add the onion, shallot, and garlic and cook, stirring, for about 2 minutes or until the aromatics soften. Add the cumin and a pinch of cardamom and continue cooking for about 3 minutes or until the onions are translucent. Add the ground lamb and cook, using a spoon or chopsticks to break up the meat, for 3 to 4 minutes or until the lamb is mostly cooked through. Add the black vinegar and fish sauce and season to taste with salt and pepper. When the lamb is completely cooked, remove from the heat and add the cilantro stems.
Pour the lamb over the cooked noodles and toss to combine. Transfer to bowls, drizzle with the sour cream, and top with the herb salad, and serve.
Adapted from “A Place At The Table” by Gabrielle Langholtz and Rick Kinsel
More Asian-Influenced Noodles To Enjoy: Chilled Soba Noodles with Spicy Orange Sesame and Tofu
Plus: Panfried Pho Noodles
And: Sichuan Pork Ragu