The Frugal Foodie: Zentan’s Susur Lee

Looking to throw a springtime dinner party on the cheap? Zentan's Susur Lee shows us how to cook supper for eight for less than $50.

Susur Lee's ginger-and-cilantro-crusted chicken.

>>Click here to see a slideshow of Susur Lee cooking dinner.  

“Are you fast?” asks Susur Lee.

I know Lee doesn’t mean what I’m thinking. I pause long enough for him to add “in the kitchen.”

While I love to cook, I move slowly, deliberately, and often with a glass of wine in hand. I simply tell Lee no, but I’m willing to help and learn.

“I’m mean,” he tells me.

Lee, the Zentan chef who accepted our challenge to cook a dinner for eight for less than $50, is speedy. We’re in and out of the grocery store and back to my apartment in less than 40 minutes. And that’s nothing.

In the kitchen, Lee moves like a Tasmanian devil who has sucked down too much Red Bull. He asks me to peel the asparagus. By the time I’ve done that, he’s de-boned and butterflied two chickens and started the chicken stock. He also sliced rhubarb and grated apple for a baked dessert.

Sure, I’m pausing to ask questions, writing down recipes, and taking pictures. But I also remember what they said about excuses in Platoon. I try to pick up the pace. Egg shells, dishes, vegetable peelings, and utensils pile up in my sink. I worry something might break and then wonder if I got all the plastic out before I ran the disposal.

Despite his cautioning, Lee isn’t mean. He’s alternately funny (“Does your dog know I’m a Chinese chef?”) and helpful (“Peel the asparagus against the counter so you get more of a grip.”)

In no time, Lee’s finished, and ginger, lemon, and fruit perfume my apartment. He has a half hour before his ride arrives. So I ask if he’d like to sit and have a glass of wine.

He tells me about his wife’s dog and lets mine put his front paws on his lap so he can give him a better rub. He asks about writing and tells me how he admires the way some people can turn a phrase. Sometimes, a writer will describe his food so well that he uses their descriptions on his menu.

I like hearing how writers have left their mark on Lee’s restaurant. He certainly left his on my kitchen—and I don’t mean the mess. Everything smells amazing, and later, when my friends arrive, I realize it tastes just as good.

See all Frugal Foodie posts here.

All recipes serve eight.

Ginger-and-Cilantro-Crusted Chicken

For the marinade:

3 tablespoons steak sauce
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons soy sauce
¾ cup black pepper

Mix all ingredients in a large bowl. Set aside.

For the chicken:

2 large whole chickens
1 bunch green onion, chopped
5 tablespoons ginger, chopped with peel on
1 bunch cilantro
1 cup flour
3 eggs, whisked
Salt and pepper to taste
Vegetable or Canola oil, as needed

Butterfly each chicken, reserving one leg and all bones for the soup. Season with salt and pepper. Coat with marinade and set aside.

While the chicken is marinating, blend the green onion, ginger, and cilantro until it is almost a paste. Place it in a damp cloth and gently squeeze, which will get rid of any bitterness from the onion.

After the chickens have marinated for 30 minutes, dip them in the flour, followed by the whisked-egg wash, then the ginger and cilantro paste. Reserve the remaining egg wash.

Fill a sauté pan with enough oil that the chicken can swim in it (about 1 inch) and cook over medium-high heat 4 to 5 minutes on each side.

If you’d like to make the chicken ahead of time, saute 3 to 4 minutes on each side, then bake it later at 200 degrees for 10 minutes.

Spring Soup

½ celery rib, chopped
½ onion, chopped
½ carrot, chopped
Reserved chicken and bones from previous recipe
1 cup walnuts, finely chopped
Reserved egg wash from previous recipe
1 cup peas
½ cucumber, sliced
Splash whiskey

Fill a large pot with water. Add the celery, onion, and carrot, 1 leg of the chicken, and the bones from both chickens. Boil for 2 to 3 hours. Strain and skim off any fat.

Whisk the walnuts into the reserved eggs. Add the walnut/egg mixture, peas, cucumbers, and a splash of whiskey to the soup. Cook for 10 minutes over low heat and serve.

Asparagus and Daikon

1 bunch asparagus, peeled
1 large daikon, peeled and chopped
1 teaspoon peeled ginger
3 tablespoons rice
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 tablespoons butter
5 garlic cloves
1 teaspoon soy sauce
Salt to taste

Set up a pot of boiling water. Boil the asparagus for 10 minutes.

Fill a saucepan with water. Add the daikon, ginger, rice, and pinch of salt. Bring to a boil, then keep on a low boil for 30 minutes.

Add the olive oil and butter to a sauté pan set over medium-high heat. Add the garlic, asparagus, and daikon mixture, and roast until the vegetables start to caramelize, about 10 minutes. Glaze the vegetables with soy sauce and serve.

Rhubarb-and-Apple Bake

3 stalks rhubarb, chopped
5 tablespoons butter, plus more for drizzling over rhubarb
½ cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar, plus more for tossing with rhubarb
½ lemon, zested and juiced
5 tablespoons oatmeal or quinoa
1 apple, grated with the skin on (let it sit in a colander to drain any liquid)
3 tablespoons strawberry jam
5 tablespoons flour
1¾ cup plus 2 tablespoons cornmeal
Pinch salt
½ cup whiskey

Set the oven to 350 degrees.

Toss the rhubarb with about 1 tablespoon of melted butter and a few teaspoons of sugar—it should be lightly coated. Spread the rhubarb in a casserole dish. Squeeze the lemon juice over the rhubarb and sprinkle with the oatmeal or quinoa.

In the bowl of a stand mixer, cream the 5 tablespoons butter and 10 tablespoons sugar. Set aside.

Sprinkle the grated apple over the rhubarb. Spread the strawberry jam over the top, and pour the whiskey over that.

Mix the creamed butter/sugar with the flour, cornmeal, and pinch of salt until it forms a dough. Drop the dough in small bits over the rhubarb, pressing into a crust.

Cover with foil and bake for 45 minutes.

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