Chef Leah Cohen’s Southeast Asian Seafood Recipes Shine

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Don’t be afraid of dinner! We believe hosting is so much more fun when guests are welcomed into the kitchen. Introducing Dinner at Kat’s, a new series in which the editorial director of SAVEUR Kat Craddock welcomes passionate chefs, cookbook authors, and wine and spirits professionals to her home for a day of cooking and connecting. There is no mystery behind organizing a successful dinner party. Find menus, recipes, drinks, shopping tips and tricks to make it happen here.

While winter root vegetables and hearty embers have their charms, in December I’m always on the lookout for lighter, brighter dishes. Cook and cookbook author Leah Cohen grew up in Westchester County in New York and now lives in Jersey City, so she’s no stranger to the dreary, dragging winters of the Northeast. The food in its restaurants—Pig & Khao in the Lower East Side and Piggyback up by Madison Square Garden—inspired by Leah’s extensive travels through Southeast Asia and her own Filipino heritage. In the frigid depths of winter, his bright, tangy dishes are the next best thing to a vacation in Southeast Asia.

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Leah has kept her kitchens open, traveling around town daily to prepare meals for frontline workers across the country. Rethink Chinatown Initiative. These days, business is more or less back to normal, and between running her restaurants and raising her two sons with husband and business partner Ben Byrunch, and host the hit PBS show, The Great American Recipe, Leah has plenty to take care of. So I was thrilled that she agreed to join me for dinner.

Photograph by Belle Morizio
Photograph by Belle Morizio
Photograph by Belle Morizio

Leah and I hit the Union Square Green Market for some groceries in the morning, then returned to my apartment to cook. Back when I was a pastry chef, I enjoyed enlivening guests’ palates in the winter with tropical flavors and lots of seasonal citrus. So when she suggested extending that sunny vibe throughout the meal with a crisp green mango salad and a pot of tart and tamarind sinigang, I knew we were in for a treat.
Editor-in-chief of FLAVOR recipes, Benjamin Kemper, was in town from Madrid that day too, so he came to join us. Benjamin is a good friend, and one of the people I work with the most on a daily basis. But, while I’ve tested, edited, and eaten so many of her recipes, we almost never get the chance to cook and eat together. A restaurant vet himself, he knows his way around the kitchen, and the three of us immediately got in sync, chopping, shredding and smoking through our mise en place over our happy hour tropical cocktails.

Leah and I knew we were going to want to snack on something salty and fried while we cooked, so she showed us how to make ukoy, crunchy sweet potato fritters with Chinese chives and shrimp. Drizzled with spiced and seasoned cane vinegar and accompanied by our sweet drinks, they were, without a doubt, a revelation.

Ukoy are perfect for a party. Everyone loves fried foods, you can make them ahead of time and they will still be crispy.

– Lea Cohen

For our main course, Leah decided to make one of her family’s favorite meals. Sinigang, a Filipino tamarind soup, is home cooking at its finest. There are many traditional variations, which can include fatty pork, chicken, or seafood. The chef grew up eating her mother’s red snapper sinigang, and even today it’s the only style of dish she prepares. Impressive and colorful enough for a dinner party, the recipe is also easy, sweet and filling enough for a soothing supper when sick – in other words, you’ll want to bookmark this one.

My mom used Mama Sita’s, so it reminds me of when she used to do sinigang when I was growing up. It’s all about nostalgia for me.

–Lea Cohen

Anticipating that Leah’s savory dishes would take up a lot of space in my small town kitchen, I made sure our dessert dish was prepared a day in advance. I found a great old fashioned chocolate dipped macaroon recipe in our archives that I concocted as a tribute to Leah’s New York City, then echoed the tropical notes of the cookies with a coconut and rum.

Our expert in classic cocktails, Shannon Mustipherwrote a fantastic book on Tiki drinks, so when she saw our menu, she was thrilled to develop a recipe that honored the genre’s Filipino roots. For the Mabunga cocktail, she infused a bottle of Kasama’s aged Filipino rum with unrefined coconut oil, then added classic Tiki and Philippine flavors: banana, coconut and calamansi. Shannon was on her way to a specialty rum event in Philadelphia and couldn’t stay long. But, once she dropped off the ingredients, Benjamin took over the necessary bartending duties, crushing the ice and mixing the drinks for us like a pro.

  • Many Tiki-style drinks benefit from a generous scoop of crushed ice. If your fridge doesn’t have a shaved ice maker, do yourself a favor and get the culinary robot early. Before your guests arrive, blend regular ice cubes in small batches, then immediately transfer them to a container in your freezer. Also note: crushed ice melts much faster than cubes; process double the amount of ice you think you will need.
  • Although infusing spirits with fresh or dried coconut works great, I’ve always hated how much alcohol was lost in the process due to absorption. “Fat washing” is a professional bartending technique in which oils and other fat-rich foods are used to infuse flavor and fragrance into spirits. Shannon’s clever use of unrefined coconut oil results in a powerfully flavored coconut rum with around 100% yield.
  • I take dessert seriously, but like to get the heavy lifting out of the way ahead of time so I can focus on dinner and my guests. Putting classic coconut macaroons in the fridge immediately after dipping them in melted chocolate eliminates the need for tedious and tedious tempering, but if that’s your jam, by all means consult our practical guide.
  • Since I had a lot of melted chocolate left over from the cookies, I took a page from my old chef, At Mindy Segal’s playbook and swirl the leftovers in half of my vegan coconut sorbet, stracciatella style.

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