Shake Off the Winter Blues with Leah Cohen’s Tropical Seafood Feast
Coconut, tamarind, and citrus sparkle in this installment of Dinner at Kat’s.
Don’t fear the dinner party! We’re of the opinion that hosting is so much more fun when guests are welcomed into the kitchen. This is Dinner at Kat’s—a new series wherein SAVEUR editorial director Kat Craddock welcomes buzzy chefs, cookbook authors, and wine and spirits pros into her home for a day of cooking and connection. There’s no mystery behind throwing a successful dinner party. Find the menus, recipes, drinks, shopping tips, and tricks to make it happen right here.
While winter root veggies and hearty braises have their charms, come December, I’m always jonesing for lighter and brighter fare. Chef and cookbook author Leah Cohen grew up in New York’s Westchester County and now lives in Jersey City, so she’s no stranger to the Northeast’s dragging, dreary winters. The food at her restaurants—Pig & Khao on the Lower East Side and Piggyback up by Madison Square Garden—is inspired by Leah’s extensive travels throughout Southeast Asia and her own Filipino heritage. In the bone-chilling depths of winter, her bright, chile-laced fare is the next-best-thing to a Southeast Asian vacation.
Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Leah kept her kitchens open, coming into the city daily to prepare meals for front-line workers through the Rethink Chinatown Initiative. These days, business is more or less back to normal, and between running her restaurants and raising her two sons with her husband and business partner Ben Byruch, and judging the hit PBS show, The Great American Recipe, Leah has plenty to keep her busy. So I was over-the-moon that she agreed to join me for dinner.
The Big Night:
Leah and I hit up the Union Square Greenmarket for some provisions in the morning, then headed back to my apartment to cook. Back in my pastry cheffing days, I loved to perk up guests’ palates in the winter with tropical flavors and plenty of in-season citrus. So when she suggested expanding that sunny vibe throughout the meal with a crunchy green mango salad and a tart and tamarind-laced pot of sinigang, I knew we were in for a treat.
SAVEUR’s senior recipes editor, Benjamin Kemper, was in town from Madrid that day too, so he came over to join us. Benjamin’s a good pal, and one of the people I work with the most every day. But, while I’ve tested, edited, and eaten so many of his 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 clicked into sync right away, slicing, shredding, and steaming through our mise en place over our tropical, happy-hour cocktails.
Leah and I knew we were going to want to nosh on something salty and fried while we cooked, so she showed us how to make ukoy—crunchy sweet potato fritters with Chinese chives and baby shrimp. Doused in spicy, seasoned cane vinegar and paired with our sweet drinks, they were, in no uncertain terms, a revelation.
For our main course, Leah decided to make one of her family favorites. Sinigang—a tamarind-laced Filipino soup—is home cooking at its best. There are many traditional variations, which can include fatty pork, chicken, or seafood. The chef grew up eating her mom’s red snapper sinigang, and still today, it’s the only style of the dish she makes. Impressive and colorful enough for a dinner party, the recipe is also easy, mild, and nourishing enough for a soothing sick-day supper—in other words, you’re going to want to bookmark this one.
Anticipating that Leah’s savory dishes would take up a good bit of space in my little city kitchen, I made sure our dessert course was squared away a day ahead of time. I found a great, old-school chocolate-dipped macaroon recipe in our archives that I whipped up in homage to Leah’s native New York, then echoed the cookies’ tropical notes with a rum-spiked coconut sorbet.
At The Bar:
Our classic cocktail expert, Shannon Mustipher, wrote 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 Filipino flavors: banana, coconut, and calamansi. Shannon was on her way to a specialty rum event in Philly and couldn’t stick around long. But, once she dropped off the ingredients, Benjamin took over the necessary bartending duties, crushing ice and mixing 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 crushed ice maker, do yourself a favor and break out the food processor early. Before your guests arrive, pulse ordinary ice cubes in small batches, then transfer immediately to a container in your freezer. Also note: crushed ice melts far more quickly than cubes; process double the amount of ice that you think you’ll need.
- While infusing spirits with fresh or dried coconut works great, I’ve always hated how much booze was lost in the process due to absorption. "Fat-washing" is a pro bartender technique in which oils and other high-fat foods are used to infuse flavor and fragrance into spirits. Shannon’s clever use of unrefined coconut oil results in a potently coconut-scented rum with just about 100 percent 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. Popping classic coconut macaroons into the fridge immediately after dipping them in melted chocolate eliminates the need for fussy and time-consuming tempering—though if that’s your jam, by all means check out our handy how-to.
- Since I had plenty of melted chocolate left over from the cookies, I took a page out of my former chef, Mindy Segal’s playbook and swirled the leftovers into half of my vegan coconut sorbet, stracciatella-style.