Friday, December 31, 2004

Odds and (year) ends

Soon I will be heading south for a New Year’s party and cooking session. The occasion will be held at The Deacon’s brother’s house (time to concoct some new blog identities). I’ll report on that in more detail tomorrow. In the meantime, here are some things that caught my attention today.

Kitsch’n’Zinc has this great post on “fusion cuisine.” Ponder the question of why western chefs always seem to borrow from Asian cuisines, and not the other way around. As an American cooking Asian food, sometimes in a non-authentic way, I find these issues intriguing. Someday I’ll probably blog about the vexatious concept of “authenticity,” but I guess that will have to wait for next year.

Back at the current events desk of SevenSoy Central, I am heartened by the many food bloggers who have rallied around the victims of the tsunami disaster. I’ve added links to the tsunami blog and Wiki in my sidebar. superchefblog has a roundup of aid links and continues to update. Elsewhere in the blogosphere, there is everything from folks reporting that they’re all right to others who have put their own blogs on hold so they can help the online information effort. Just follow people’s links, or run down the list of updates at food porn watch. WorldChanging is doing a great job of posting reports about the issues behind the carnage. And, of course, your news outlet of choice will keep you updated with the horrific numbers that just get worse and worse.

All food comes from a place and a culture. Even if it seems exotic to the diner, it probably originates from somebody’s home-cooked meal. I would appeal to those of us who say we love Asian food to recognize that some of that wonderful food comes from places that are so devastated they make the other side of the moon look like a garden. I feel a little uncomfortable about sermonizing like this (and don’t intend to make it a habit), but I want to recognize the link between the cuisine and where it comes from. If you love Asian food, please find a way to send whatever help you can to these places (and thank you if you already have). Thank you for listening. And may 2005 turn out to be a better year. See you then.

Thursday, December 30, 2004


Tonight I tried the Frugal Gourmet's version of "Rice and Noodle Pilaf." Not the noodle version, because I wound up using orzo rather than bits of Chinese egg noodles. Still, and I hate to say it, it didn't thrill me as much as a skilletful of Rice-a-Roni. That's got to be treason. Very disappointing. Then again, maybe a garnishing of the right seasonings might make a big difference. The dish worked fine, it just wasn't very exciting. I omitted the salt (because I prefer not to add salt to anything I cook, if possible), so maybe that was part of it. But I also used the leftover porcini mushroom soaking water and, although it added a bit of an undertone, it didn't rev up the dish.

Wednesday, December 29, 2004


It's that time of year, I suppose. I suspect food is a component of many peoples' New Year's resolutions (as in the ever-popular, "I'm going to lose some weight this year."). Well, that one is probably on my list too, but it's not the only culinary resolution for me. Some others:

1. I'm going to use food more economically and waste less of it. Gardening should help.
2. Rather than stick with tried-and-true wine favorites, I'm going to expand my wine horizons by trying new ones.
3. I'm going to shift my approach from cooking new recipes to integrating the cuisines I'm learning how to cook with the familiar food I'm used to.
4. I'm going to plan meals more, so I don't always come home after work and settle for the easy or lazy thing.

That's probably plenty to tackle for one year. Besides, there are plenty of other non-culinary resolutions to fit in as well.

Monday, December 27, 2004

Phuket, and other places

From Marnie Henricksson's Everyday Asian, one of my favorite cookbooks:

"Lemongrass Soup with Shrimp, Tomato and Straw Mushrooms"

"Called tom yum kung in Thailand or canh chua tom in Vietnam, this is the fiery, hot and sour soup of Southeast Asia. I have it in every Thai or Vietnamese restaurant I visit in hopes of re-creating the experience of one fragrant bowl I had on the Thai island of Phuket, sitting on the beach, watching the sunset as tears streamed down my cheeks. It was all very beautiful, but the tears were, in fact, from the chiles. Even so, I couldn't stop eating that soup."

If you've seen the news lately, you know that Phuket, along with many other places around the Indian Ocean, has been devastated by the tsunamis from the 9.0 earthquake near Sumatra. I've never been anywhere near southeast Asia, but somehow, occasionally cooking Thai food makes Phuket more than a mere name on a map to me. I find myself thinking of noodle sellers and fishermen in these hard-hit coastal regions. The footage on the news is horrible.

Thanks to Il Forno, I discovered this blog that is tracking tsunami news and the relief effort. Please consider helping out in whatever way you can.

Sunday, December 26, 2004


Sometimes I think I should've named this blog "The Leftover Chronicles" or something like that. I truly love getting more than one meal out of a cooking session. Tonight I had the leftover turkey from last night over a new batch of spinach fettuccini. Of course, the marsala sauce was long gone last night, but it was still pretty good.

I went down to The Deacon's for brunch today, which provides the other red-letter culinary event for today. Granted, brunch was nice (lox, bagels, fruit plate, eggs benedict, etc.) but I got sent home with a CARE package of cookies and a hunk of stollen. This is the time of year when I'm grateful for my friends who bake. Of course, this recipe is sorely tempting, and I may even bake these cookies, if I can ever decide on which kind of arare to bring home from the Asian supermarket.

Saturday, December 25, 2004

Found holiday

I’ve been more of a winter solstice kind of person for a while, but I grew up celebrating Christmas and I guess I can’t quite give it up. Circumstances led to my spending a solitary Christmas this year. I was a little afraid my introverted, somewhat downbeat outlook might make it a less than festive holiday, but I needn’t have worried. I hung all three of my Christmas tree ornaments from the chandelier, hung some forgotten sun-catchers where they could catch the kitchen light, repotted the spearmint and the sage, and discovered that three candles sitting on the hearth could bring light out of darkness as effectively as any fire, and without the need for fireplace tools either. Rather than being a year for tried and true holiday traditions, it turned out to be a found holiday.

Of course, I had to make a nice meal for myself. There are several turkey recipes I’ve wanted to try for a while, so I got a turkey breast and settled on “Turkey with Mushrooms and Marsala,” from The Frugal Gourmet. Although the recipe was created to use up leftover turkey, I was cooking mine from scratch, so I lengthened the sautéing time. I used dried porcini mushrooms, which neatly solved the problem of not having chicken stock on hand; I just used the mushroom soaking liquid. I added a little sage (some rescued from the variegated sage, which has a nasty case of downy mildew and got radically trimmed back in an attempt to solve the problem). I served the turkey, mushrooms and sauce over spinach fettuccini.

It was out of this world. It smelled so good cooking and was equally good to eat. The smoky porcini mushrooms really made the dish. Even the taste of the spinach fettuccini was a good counterpoint to the intense marsala and mushroom sauce. My only criticism is that the turkey meat seemed a little bland, but maybe that’s what I get for using turkey breast. I didn’t even use the whole breast either; I used half and still wasn’t able to finish all of it. No matter; I’d happily make this again. Relaxing afterward with a glass of Bailey’s Irish Cream and listening to King’s College Choir on WWFM while watching the candles burn down was a nice end to a peaceful day. Whatever your winter celebration of choice, I hope you enjoy yours as much as I have enjoyed mine.

Friday, December 24, 2004

2004 Food Blog Award nominees

I guess since I posted about the call for nominees, I ought to follow it up by noting that the finalists have been chosen and voting has officially started. You have until December 31 to vote. I'm still making up my mind on some categories, but at least I know some of the blogs I'll be voting for.

Thursday, December 23, 2004

The mother of invention

Once again, I'm posting late. Real-life busyness has delayed my blogging (that and the cold that won't let go).

Anyway, on Tuesday my current workplace had a potluck holiday dinner. I was assigned a side dish, which was fine; I figured I could do some sort of Asian noodle dish. One thing led to another: the canned water chestnuts proved to be past their expiration date, while the chicken poaching liquid from the other night looked like it was trying to develop into a sentient lifeform. Ick.

I managed to regroup by substituting almonds for water chestnuts and plain ol' water for some sort of chicken stock. I wound up naming it "Green Bean Amandine Lo Mein." It sounds like some horrible fantasy of fusion cuisine, I know, but in practice it turned out ok and got good reviews from those who tried it.

Green Bean Amandine Lo Mein

green beans, blanched and sliced in half
slivered almonds
1 shallot, chopped
1 tablespoon peanut oil
1/4 cup water
1 tablespoon light soy sauce
2 teaspoons Shao Xing rice wine
2 teaspoons sugar
3 tablespoons oyster sauce
cooked Chinese egg noodles

Heat a wok or large skillet and add the oil. Stir-fry the chopped shallot for a minute. Add the water, light soy sauce, rice wine, sugar, and oyster sauce, and bring to a boil. Add the green beans, then the egg noodles and cook for two minutes. Add the slivered almonds and cook for another minute.

Note about amounts: I’m very bad about measuring amounts in my own extemporaneous dishes. Here, I just picked a likely-looking amount of beans and a proportionate amount of noodles. The sauce is adapted from Ken Hom’s sauce in “Familiar Beef and Tomato Lo Mein,” although he uses chicken stock, of course.

Sunday, December 19, 2004

Braised pork tenderloin

I cooked another new (to me) dish tonight. I tried "Braised Pork Tenderloin with Star Anise, Sweet Soy and Balsamic Vinegar" from From Bangkok to Bali in Thirty Minutes. I realized I would have to adapt the recipe a bit when it occurred to me that the recipe called for a hunk of pork tenderloin, while I was working with the thin-sliced version from the Asian supermarket. I halved the amount of ingredients for the sauce, and still had plenty left over to pour over some leftover rice for tomorrow's lunch.

The "sweet soy" in the title is kecap manis. I'm still getting used to using it; a soy sauce whose best substitution is maple syrup is definitely a far cry from shoyu. The kecap manis was augmented with palm sugar, water, balsamic vinegar and light soy sauce; the star anise is stir-fried in the pan juices left from browning the pork tenderloin, along with ginger and garlic. The sauce is thick and sweet, but not overly sweet. It sort of approaches teriyaki sauce, but is different in some subtle way; maybe the influence of the vinegar. Whatever it is, it worked out pretty well.

Saturday, December 18, 2004

Szechuan (garlic) chicken salad

Tonight, for a change, I decided to make a chicken salad. I used the "Szechuan Chicken Salad" recipe from Marnie Henricksson's Everyday Asian. The basic salad ingredients are poached chicken, green beans, and celery on a bed of Chinese egg noodles. These are dressed with garlic, ginger, scallions, black pepper, rice and black vinegars, light soy sauce, sugar, and sesame and chili oils. The result was a big pile of food (guaranteed leftovers) with a bright taste that made me think of lemon or lime even though neither was an ingredient in this dish. I worried that the chili oil might be too much (Henricksson likes her food hotter than I do, I've concluded), but it was fine; I might even add more than the recommended four drops next time. I will probably cut back on the garlic, though. The recipe calls for two large cloves, which is what I used. The salad is very garlicky. This is not necessarily a bad thing (maybe it will chase my cold away), but it may be too much of a good thing. Still, it was a very enjoyable meal, and I look forward to going back for seconds tomorrow, when the ingredients of the dressing probably will have melded more.

Garden report

I have a small garden, all in containers since I live in a condo. The current roster of plants includes: two ginger plants, two sages (one regular, one variegated), two mints (spearmint and orange or bergamot mint), one tomato plant planted on a lark late in the season and some scallions. My mother gave me a book called The Bountiful Container, which has given me all kinds of ideas about growing my own herbs and veggies. No matter how carefully I try to buy produce at the store, some of it usually goes to waste, unfortunately. The idea of being able to pick just enough for a salad at a time is very appealing. Also, for whatever reason, this year has not been a great one for store-bought lettuce. There have been a number of times when I went to the store intending to buy lettuce and walked out empty-handed, because none of the heads of lettuce on display looked very good.

Already my small collection of herbs has brought dividends. Dried sage has always seemed too pungent to me, but fresh sage is much better. Being able to put mint in my tea is a real blessing, too, and the mint responds by putting out more sprouts. I repotted the orange mint a few weeks ago; now it's probably the spearmint's turn.

So now I've started planning next year's garden. I wander around gardening websites and make long lists of things I could buy, complete with price comparisons among different seed companies. I'm in the whittling-down phase, where I pick what I want to grow most next year and try not to spend a fortune. I figure I'll start with an assortment of salad greens and add some herbs. There will also be a few plants intended to attract butterflies and, if I get real lucky, hummingbirds. I already have seeds for amaranth (aka Chinese spinach) and tropical sage (a hummingbird plant). I particularly look forward to growing Thai basil and mitsuba. The Asian supermarket sells shrink-wrapped packages of fresh Thai basil leaves, but the amount is way more than I can use at one sitting (yes, I know, I just have to cook more Thai dishes). Cilantro is another garnish that seems to be more sensibly grown rather than bought at the store.

So, it all adds up to happy plans for the growing season yet to come, which is probably the best part of the whole thing, especially at a time of year when daylight is at a premium.

Thursday, December 16, 2004

Feed a cold

It's December in the northeast and we've just had a cold snap, so 'tis the season to get sick. Feh. I am coming down with a bad cold that makes me feel crummy but still isn't remotely as bad as the last time I had the flu, when I just wanted to die.

I woke up around 3:00 this morning and couldn't get back to sleep, so I decided to have a big breakfast of...spaghetti? At 5:30 AM? Well, it worked; it gave me a substantial beginning to what was going to be an exhausting day at work, and it even kept me away from the vending machines. Now, alas, my stomach is acting up, maybe from the overly cheesy pizza at lunch (the chicken noodle soup was fine). I see a cup of ginger tea in my future.

I'll try the leftover salmon from last night's dinner tonight, but if it doesn't go down right, I think we're going right to another plate of spaghetti or noodles. Then it's a hot bath and an early bedtime.


Food porn watch!

Wow! This little corner of cyberspace is now on the ever-lengthening scroll of food blogs at food porn watch. It's an honor to be included. If you find this blog via food porn watch, welcome. I hope you find something interesting, useful or just diverting here.

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Easy food

As I get more into cooking, I find myself thinking about food issues more. For example, even though I am a self-identified carnivore, I find myself eating more and more vegetarian food all the time – not because I “should” or “it’s good for me,” but just because the dinner I want to cook on a given night happens to not contain any meat. As I dabble in different cuisines, I find the convergences among and differences between them interesting. As I get older and my metabolism starts slowing down, I find myself pondering eating more healthily as old standbys such as burgers, chocolate and junk food of all stripes seem less appealing. I guess my food habits are changing, not out of an intellectual desire to change, but just because my body wants something different. It’s kind of weird and kind of interesting at the same time, and I’m not sure I’m expressing it well. Expect more of this kind of rambling on this blog in the future.

I’ve been unemployed since the middle of last year, but am currently working a temp office job (which explains the less-frequent updates here). Back in the office environment again, I find myself eating what I think of as “easy food.” It’s what’s on hand in your typical office setting. Coffee. A vending machine with soda and junk food. In my last full-time job, there was an actual soda fountain in the pantry and a very high-tech coffee machine.

Now, I’m a tea drinker. At home, I don’t usually have junk food hanging around because I don’t buy it at the grocery store. But here I am at work and here I am putting my quarters into the vending machine for an overpriced helping of salt, sugar and preservatives. It’s somehow easier to get a cup of coffee in the morning rather than bring some of my favorite teabags with me and use the hot water. Is it really that hard to organize my life so that I can bring the food I want to eat with me to work, rather than opt for the easily available alternatives that don’t satisfy me? I wouldn’t choose to eat this food on my own time. Why am I doing it at work?

These are rhetorical questions, but I wonder if anybody else out there is wrestling with these same issues. Maybe it’s just as simple as mindfully trying to change your habits, over and over again, until the new habit becomes engrained. At least I brought some of my own teabags to work with me today. It’s a little step, but it’s a start.

Saturday, December 11, 2004

Happy shopping

I just got back from the Asian supermarket. I'm going to a potluck dinner tonight and am planning to make donburi, so I needed to get a few things. The Asian supermarket is in full holiday swing, with Christmas music interspersed among the Sinatra-type songs (it's either 80s music, bombastic pop or Sinatra on their PA system, which leads to some downright surreal moments). They are also giving away stuff if you buy x dollars worth of groceries; I politely turned down the Chinese newspaper, to the amusement of the cashier, but was delighted to claim my very own free calendar. It's a huge calendar with landscape scenes; each landscape has birds in it somewhere, ironically. I also got a free long-lasting 60 watt light bulb; not bad since I'm getting low on light bulbs.

The announcement on the PA about the shopping rewards wished customers "Happy shopping." Maybe I'm a little odd, but I'm always happy shopping in there. Such neat things you can buy, so many tempting possibilities. You never know what you'll run into; this morning in the Korean section, I saw a can of silkworm larvae cooked in soy sauce and sugar. The picture on the can did not look appetizing, but a quick Google confirms that this is a real Korean dish. I guess I'll be cowardly and leave them alone for now.

Friday, December 10, 2004

2004 Food Blog Awards

Given the plethora of other food blogging events, this was probably inevitable. Deciding who to nominate for some categories is obvious, but for many others it's a poser. There's so much excellent competition out there. As if life weren't already busy enough already right now.

Go check it out and vote for your faves.

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

Oyster sauce abura-age

With half a package of abura-age to use up from the weekend’s random stir-fry, I decided make a fusion dish (or what passes for it in this household). Abura-age is Japanese and oyster sauce is Chinese. This recipe was adapted from a recipe in Ken Hom’s Easy Family Recipes from a Chinese-American Childhood. I got two meals out of it this time, dinner and leftovers for lunch the next day.

The original genesis of this meal was a day several months ago when The Dancer came to visit. I wanted to cook for her, but The Dancer is a vegetarian. Although I’m a confirmed carnivore, I’ve been cooking more vegetarian food lately (but that’s a blog entry in itself). I suggested the Ken Hom dish and asked if the oyster sauce would be a problem (it’s technically not a vegetarian sauce, after all). She said no and when we sat down for dinner that evening, she pronounced it excellent. That meant a lot; The Dancer has been cooking for herself, without recipes, for as long as I’ve known her. She’s sort of a role model.

Hom’s recipe calls for deep-frying firm tofu. Now, I have a thing about deep-frying; the idea of filling up a pot with lots of hot oil and cooking stuff in it gives me the willies. I made glazed walnuts once by deep-frying them in my wok, but walnuts are small and the amount of oil was manageable. When perusing the recipe, I realized that abura-age is just that – deep-fried tofu. So I dispensed with doing the deep-frying myself and used ready-made deep-fried tofu. What a relief!

Since I’ve significantly altered the recipe from Hom’s original, here’s the reworked version.

Oyster Sauce Abura-Age

6 abura-age pockets, rinsed and sliced
1 1/2 tablespoons peanut oil
7 dried shiitake mushrooms, rehydrated and sliced
3 scallions (white and green parts), chopped
1 clove chopped garlic
1 tablespoon chopped ginger
1 tablespoon Chinese light soy sauce
2 teaspoons Chinese mushroom soy sauce
1 tablespoon Shao Xing rice wine
2 teaspoons sugar
2 tablespoons oyster sauce
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/4 cup soaking water from the shiitake mushrooms

Heat a large skillet or wok; when a sprinkling of water droplets ionizes on contact or skips around the pan, it’s hot enough to add the peanut oil. Stir-fry the scallions, garlic, and ginger for about 30 seconds. Add the soy sauces, rice wine, sugar, oyster sauce, pepper, and mushroom soaking water. Add the abura-age and mushrooms and cook for about 4 minutes or until most of the sauce is absorbed, according to your taste. The abura-age in particular will soak up the sauce well. You might want to lower the heat a bit when cooking the abura-age and mushrooms so as not to burn the food, but I find myself adjusting the temperature as a spontaneous thing; if the ingredients look like they’re about to start burning, I turn it down, otherwise I just keep going on high heat. Serve with rice.

The “darker” ingredients of the mushroom soy, oyster sauce, and shiitake mushrooms give this dish an earthy, substantial taste; it approaches Chinese dishes such as Ken Hom’s “Savory Beef Chow Fun with Black Bean Sauce” (also in Easy Family Recipes).

Monday, December 06, 2004

Saffron orzo

Tonight I finally got around to making "Saffron Orzo" from The Moosewood Restaurant Cooks at Home. Not bad. Maybe a little more subtle than I had expected, but a good pasta dish.

Random stir-fry

Yesterday, after a birding trip, The Lurker and I came back to my place for some dinner. The Lurker got takeout from Wendy's, but I'm trying to economize and also wasn't in the mood for fast food. So, while he ate his food, I threw together a random stir-fry that worked out pretty well. I used abura-age (deep-fried tofu pockets) because I didn't have any thawed meat on hand. I stir-fried some shallots and ginger in peanut oil for about a minute, then stir-fried the abura-age for a couple of minutes, then dumped in the sauce. I used a blend of shoyu, mirin, sesame oil, water, Tabasco sauce and cornstarch for the sauce, and when it clumped together a little too much, I added some sake to deglaze the pan. Getting a good sauce consistency when I'm making things up on the fly is still an adventure. The whole mess was served over a bed of udon.

It ended up being a quick tasty meal. Next time I might add some water chestnuts for crunch and veggie content, but it was more than adequate for dinner.

Friday, December 03, 2004

Poached in white wine sauce

In the interest of exploring my blog options, here I am playing with the settings and postdating a blog entry. I really wish I had blogged this one at the time, but life has gotten busy lately.

To make a long story short, The Deacon let me know that she was having flounder poached in white wine sauce for dinner tonight. Her mother is in San Antonio and I guess The Deacon was looking for company. I didn't have anything special planned for my dinner but even if I had, the words "poached in white wine sauce" probably would have induced temporary insanity. So there I was, standing on the front porch of The Deacon's manse with a hopeful smile on my face (invisible due to the current lack of a porch light).

As I have gotten more into cooking, I have found great pleasure in cooking for my friends or my parents. But there is also pleasure in sitting back and letting someone else (willingly) cook for you. While The Deacon did her thing in the kitchen, I got to play with the cats. I grew up with cats but currently don't have any, because it's a big responsibility. It is really nice to visit households with cats and get a little feline therapy.

The flounder was lovely, attended by a light salad and green beans, as well as hazelnut cookies for dessert. One of The Deacon's talents is cookie-baking. My parents think she should start a subscription service, Cookie of the Month. They would probably be the first subscribers. The Deacon spends most of December baking cookies and has barely gotten started yet. Today was the day she candied orange, lemon and lime peels.

After dinner, we enjoyed tea and Jeopardy. The Deacon sent me home with a zestless orange, lemon and lime. Never pass up real fruit juice, especially if you have Thai recipes lying around the house.

Wednesday, December 01, 2004

Mmmm, noodles

Life has been somewhat hectic, so I've been negligent in my blogging. Since I'm currently temping for a couple of weeks, I spend much less time reading food blogs during the day. Alas. I guess I would have to say that the advantages of getting some income outweigh the disadvantages of not being able to check my favorite blogs constantly. Especially with a mortgage.

I was feeling a little down tonight, but dinner fixed things pretty well. I cooked Marnie Henricksson's "Korean Beef Noodles." This recipe has even been posted on the web here. I usually leave out the carrots (didn't have any on hand tonight) and I mix some Tabasco sauce in with the soy sauce mixture rather than using a real chile pepper. It is a very tasty stir-fry; the beef is particularly delicious. I remember how impressed I was when I cooked this dish for the first time, because the recipe coordinated the cooking times of the noodles and the beef so they would be done at the same time. I also remember ordering "Home Style Noodles" from a local noodle shop and discovering that the takeout was virtually identical to my version of Korean Beef Noodles. Not only that, but I thought my own version was pretty comparable with the real restaurant version in terms of taste. Not that I intend to start a restaurant any time soon.

Friday, November 26, 2004

Shellacked chicken

Birding is an interesting pursuit. It's about finding birds, of course, but a lot of it also seems to be about finding congenial people with which to drive around and be silly. Most of the birders I know have a gift for wordplay, and after a long day in the car, everybody gets a little punchy. A lot of these silly conversations involve various in-jokes; shared knowledge of Monty Python routines, VH-1 trivia, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension and what birds have been seen in New Jersey (lately and cumulatively) is essential for my little in-group. For starters.

Today we got onto the subject of shellacked chicken. When The Lurker and Perfect Tommy brought it up (they'd started talking about it on a previous birding trip which I had missed), I thought about photo shoots where food gets shellacked in order to look appetizing when photographed. I used to work in an art department, so I suppose that was an understandable reaction. Without dragging you, the long-suffering reader, through the whole conversation (lots of birder humor boils down to the "you had to be there" variety), I will mention that Perfect Tommy thought he remembered a Frugal Gourmet recipe for shellacked chicken. That was all it took. Once we dispersed, it was a race to the keyboard to see what the internet would offer up.

Searching for shellacked chicken only offered general info about "food-grade shellac" (a somewhat worrisome concept) and descriptions from menus where a glazed finish is considered a shellac. Try lacquered chicken, and it's a whole 'nother ballgame, though. I found dozens of lacquered chicken crockpot recipes, and a recipe for Vietnamese lacquered chicken that involves barbequeing. But Perfect Tommy beat me in the all-important bizarreness department by finding a site where teachers post instructions for mummifying chickens in order to teach their classes about ancient Egyptian culture. Some even use canopic jars for the chicken's internal organs. If I had been doing stuff like this in school, I might have paid a little more attention, especially when I was going through my ancient Egypt phase.

One treat of the day was being able to relive the top 50 of WXPN's 885 greatest songs of all time. Of course, we missed most of the same songs we missed the first time around, when we were driving around southwest NJ trying to stay within range of XPN's signal while birding. But then, this is supposed to be a cooking blog, so you probably don't want to hear about that.

Last tomato of the summer

It's the day after Thanksgiving, and I had the last home-grown tomato of the year for breakfast. The plant was a "patio" tomato plant that struggled against wilt and inept gardening technique for much of the season, but it managed to produce a fair number of tomatoes halfway between cherry and plum tomato size. Now the plant has pretty much shriveled up and died, but one red globe stayed stubbornly on the vine until this morning. I finally gave in and plucked it. It was tart and not completely ripe, but it was still delicious. Now summer is finally over.

Thursday, November 25, 2004

This week's master sauce

This post goes back to Tuesday night. Since it was time for the master sauce's weekly refresher and I had some chicken thighs, I decided to combine the two for a light dinner. It worked out well. The surface of the cooked thighs was a uniform brown color, but since these were skinless thighs, I don't know if that has the same significance that it does when cooking a chicken with skin on in master sauce.

Wednesday, November 24, 2004

Aging wine

I am not what you would call a wine expert. Most of my wine knowledge, such as it is, is picked up from my dad, who is far more advanced at it than I am. I have a small group of wines that I enjoy drinking, and I idly consider starting a small cellar if I ever have enough spare cash to lay a few bottles away. I like Merlot, I like [yellow tail]. On the other hand, I also like sake and beer. As a birder, I think that the number of bottles in the local liquor store with pretty bird labels are nothing but trouble; they encourage you to buy alcohol for its label alone (there are some beautifully-designed labels out there). My fondest wine dream is to discover a nice cheap red that is fine to cook with but won't tempt me to drink it up before I get a chance to cook with it.

Being the wine know-little that I am, I'm always interested in guidance. Today, thanks to LENNDEVOURS, I found this wonderful post on aging wines at Vinography. It does an excellent job of explaining the whole process. Thanks, Alder!

Monday, November 22, 2004


Frozen dinners. They are a bad habit dating back to my early days of being on my own. Stouffer's makes it so easy for you that there are dishes I've only eaten as frozen tv dinners. It's long past the time I should cook them for myself. Chicken Carbonara is one of those dishes.

Last night I cooked "Pasta Carbonara, Roman Style" from The Frugal Gourmet Cooks Three Ancient Cuisines. It was a learning experience. The 1% milk I prefer made the sauce not smooth and creamy, as the recipe suggested, but a bunch of cheese particles suspended in butter solution. Not very appealing, visually, but I was impressed at how the taste matched the Chicken Carbonara I'm familiar with. I guess that's the important thing, but as I am usually cooking for one, presentation is one of those things that gets tossed out the window first. I want food to taste good. If it looks pretty, that's just gravy. So to speak.

Sunday, November 21, 2004

Get thee behind me, scallops

I had dinner all set and ready to go last night. I’d done my prep work with BBC World News on in the background; now, Colameco’s Food Show was up next. I figured I’d just cook with that on in the background. Alas, it was not to be. First he was on a scallop boat out of Cape May. Then he was cooking with scallops so incredibly fresh that I was almost drooling, never mind that I was watching on my tiny ancient tv. So my pork fried rice had to wait a half-hour before it was cooked.

The ridiculous thing is that I can’t even eat scallops. I’ve only eaten them a couple of times. Each time they tasted wonderful but before long, I got very sick. It only took a few incidents like this to realize that I must be allergic to them or something. So now I avoid scallops like the plague. I can eat other shellfish without a problem; it seems to be a scallop thing.

Once I finally got to it, the pork fried rice was delicious. I used Ken Hom’s recipe for “Tasty Pork Fried Rice” from his book Easy Family Recipes from a Chinese-American Childhood. In the interest of using up leftovers, I substituted bamboo shoots and water chestnuts for the bean sprouts. I also didn’t use as much rice as the recipe called for, but the extra amount of the veggies made up for that. I substituted pork loin meat for the pork shoulder in the recipe, because pork loin was cheaper, and used napa cabbage rather than lettuce because I had it on hand. When I was stir-frying, it smelled wonderful. I’d overlooked this recipe while I was cooking my way through Easy Family Recipes earlier this year; no danger of that in the future. The egg and chopped scallions gave the dish an almost spring-like taste; fitting for dinner on a day largely devoted to garden planning.

Thursday, November 18, 2004

Packing lunch, finding chimichangas

Last night I made a dinner whose primary purpose was to provide lunch for today. Normally I make or buy a sandwich when I go on a birding trip, but I decided to do something a little different for today’s trip. I brought the leftovers from last night’s stir-fry.

The stir-fry combined shallots, ginger, Quorn tenders, bamboo shoots, water chestnuts and slivered almonds. The sauce was a combination of 2 tablespoons master sauce, 1 tablespoon chicken broth, 1 tablespoon oyster sauce, 1 teaspoon sesame oil and a dash of Tabasco sauce. I poured the stir-fry over jasmine rice. I think the sauce needs something, I’m not sure what. The Tabasco sauce was too little to taste in the final product. The important thing was that it made a great cheap lunch for a day outside.

On the way home, The Lurker and I stopped at a pizza place for dinner. Good pizza with a crisp thin crust; of course I forgot to note the name of the pizzeria but I'm sure we'll be back. Since the strip mall where the pizza place was located had a Kings, I ran in to look for the chicken chimichangas mentioned in Sunday's post. Lo and behold, there they were. I grabbed four and brought them home. The most annoying thing about trying to track them down was that I didn’t remember the brand name, so I couldn’t look for them on the internet. Now I know the brand is Don Miguel. Whew.

Tuesday, November 16, 2004

Masoor dal

A lot of my friends love Indian food. In central Jersey, there's an abundance of excellent Indian restaurants, so it's easy to get a great Indian meal if you're so inclined. But Indian food is one of those things that I'm still learning to like, although I've been eating it for years. My best guess is that the complicated suites of spices and flavors confuse my palate. My favorite "ethnic" food is Japanese food, which has a limited variety of simple flavors. I love Indian breads like naan, I like tandoori chicken, I like chicken korma and navratan korma and I'm sure there are others that I'm forgetting about right now. But there are many Indian dishes that challenge my taste buds too much and leave me longing for something more "normal." I guess they pull me too far out of my culinary comfort zone.

I used to have a simplistic idea that Thai food was blazingly hot and nothing else. It took learning to cook Thai food for me to start understanding that there was much more to Thai food than heat. I have a lot to learn about Thai food and its complicated blends of flavors, but I feel like I'm going in the right direction. So I figure - if this works for Thai food, why not Indian? I should try cooking Indian food to get a better understanding of it, and maybe even learn to really like it.

I decided to try a masoor dal recipe since it is one of the quicker-cooking dals. I used the recipe in Linda Bladholm's The Indian Grocery Store Demystified. It cooked up pretty quick, as advertised, and was quite easy to put together. I had it for dinner the other night, and just finished up the leftovers for an afternoon snack. Once again, however, I find myself saying, "There's nothing wrong with it, but..." and thinking that spaghetti for dinner sounds awfully reassuring. It's kind of disappointing, in a way. It seems like admitting defeat to decide that I just don't like a lot of Indian food, especially when my friends do like it.

Oh, well. I guess I'll have spaghetti for dinner and try making chicken korma when I'm ready to jump into the fray again.

Monday, November 15, 2004

Stewin', part two

Tonight was one of those "What am I going to make for dinner?" nights. I ended up reheating the stew and finishing it off. Since the leftovers were mostly stew juice, I added the last of my current bag of egg noodles. So I cleaned out the cupboard and had a good meal. It's probably not what a cookbook would advise (rice and noodles in one dish?) but it wound up tasting pretty good. It cooked down to a porridge-like consistency, so the original problem of having too much juice and not enough solid ingredients was not a problem in the end.

Sunday, November 14, 2004

End of a quest

When you move, nothing is where it used to be. This goes not only for your belongings (the book that used to be on the third shelf of the hall bookcase now is in some box somewhere) but also for your foodstuffs. Sure, any general grocery will have staples like sugar, milk, bread and eggs, to name a few; many groceries will even have soy sauce, udon, coconut milk or fish sauce (especially if you live in an area with a big Asian community). But there are always a few odds and ends that you routinely picked up at various stores in your old town that go missing when you try to find them in your new town. Only when you fail to find them do you realize how important they were to you.

Cut to the chase: I’ve finally located a store that sells Journey’s Borealis Birch Beer. The soda is something of an acquired taste; search for reviews on the internet and you’ll find raves interspersed with reviews claiming it’s undrinkable. I probably tried it in the first place because I’m a sucker for the Arctic, and the label with the shamanic deer figure and northern lights looked cool. When I first tasted it, I didn’t know what to make of it, but it was intriguing enough to keep me buying it. To make a long story short, it grew on me.

When the Whole Foods in my old town stopped carrying it, I was pretty upset. I kept wandering into the soda aisle and looking longingly at the shelves that should have had a full array of Journey sodas. No dice. I know I could’ve asked them to start carrying it again, but I’m not the most assertive person. I guess I just hoped it would turn up again. After all, the bonito flakes eventually did (but that’s another story).

Time went swiftly by (as it does in moral, instructive tales), to misquote Roger Angell. I moved and began to explore a whole new array of grocery stores. My new health food store became Wild Oats, which did not carry Journey sodas either. Then, a few months ago, Whole Foods opened up a huge new store on Rt. 1. Last month, I checked it out. I came home with too many goodies, but still no Journey sodas.

Last night, I was visiting with some friends and happened to mention my Journey quandary. “Black Forest Acres,” said one. BFA is a local family-owned health food store with two branches, one relatively near me. I made a scouting trip this morning and came home with two four-packs of Borealis Birch Beer. Life is good.

Now I just have to find those chicken chimichangas I used to get at Kings and I’ll be all set…

Saturday, November 13, 2004

Cold Sichuan chicken

Last night, I fixed an old favorite. It appears in The Frugal Gourmet as "My Cousin David's Hot Szechwan Chicken." I call it "cold Sichuan chicken" because I don't usually add the six dried chili peppers. I can never remember how to spell "Szechwan," either, so I've gone for the "Sichuan" version, which I can remember how to spell.

This was another dish I started cooking soon after I got my own place. I didn't have different types of Chinese soy sauce then, so I just substituted shoyu for the light soy and mushroom soy in the recipe. I used to use cooking sherry too, but now I've gone over to using Shao Xing rice wine (the recipe calls for sherry). Since I had problems keeping brown sugar as anything but a hard block, I usually omitted the sugar in the recipe; last night I used palm sugar. All of these little changes make subtle differences in the flavor of the sauce. I pour the whole thing over a pile of udon, which works so well that there have been times when I just whipped up a batch of the sauce and stirred it in with the noodles. I love the sauce, and I like its flavor best with udon, better even than the chicken which is supposed to be the centerpiece ingredient.

Last night I followed the recipe more closely than I usually do and it tasted pretty good. There have been times when I followed the recipe and it didn't impress me as much as my old shoyu/no sugar/sherry variant. I'll have to try the no-frills version again and see how it compares. The only problem with last night's version was the fact that one of the chicken breasts I used wound up tasting a little bit off, but not enough to cause subsequent physical grief, at least.

Thursday, November 11, 2004

Sittin' and stewin'

It's hard to get excited about stew, at least it is for me. Last night, though, I made a red-cooked beef stew that made me feel pretty good. I took the recipe from Marnie Henricksson's Everyday Asian. The sauce, with its blend of light soy sauce and mushroom soy sauce (not to mention the star anise), was reminiscent of the master sauce, but not quite the same. Henricksson advises boiling the meat for two minutes, then browning it to seal in the moisture. It worked like a charm. The meat pieces with some marbling of fat were moister than the others, but all turned out quite tasty. For beef pieces that looked like crusty brown hockey pucks on the outside, that's quite an accomplishment.

When I reheated some of it for lunch today, I found that the flavor had mellowed and melded nicely. I still have a little left, but it won't last much longer. It's my first stew, I think, and definitely worth remembering as winter creeps closer.

Wednesday, November 10, 2004

Chai masala

Recently I picked up an innocuous-looking little can labeled Tea Masala. I’m a big tea fan, so anything relating to it intrigues me. The tea masala became an impulse purchase. Once I got it home and consulted my small culinary library, I found out it was a spice blend for Indian tea or chai.

There’s been a cold snap recently, so this afternoon seemed like the ideal opportunity to fix some chai. I adapted a recipe from Linda Bladholm’s The Indian Grocery Store Demystified, reworking it to allow for the fact that I only have 1% milk around the house. I may have added too much masala; it was a heaping teaspoon.

What I wound up with was an innocent-looking mug full of what appeared to be very milky tea. One sip, however, made it plain that this was no ordinary tea. The chai has a strong peppery bite that will take some getting used to, but which is not unpleasant. I’ve bought various brands of chai teabags, but this masala is spicier and less sweet than they are. More palm sugar next time may help sweeten it, but there is definitely a different blend of spices involved. The packaged chai teabags go heavy on cinnamon and cloves. This masala (made by Maya) lists black pepper, ginger, green cardamom, nutmeg and mace as the ingredients. I’m a fan of Yogi Tea’s ginger tea (which rivals the sinus-clearing power of wasabi), but Maya’s chai masala ups the ante even further.

Now that I know about the dynamite packed into that little masala tin, I’m starting to think that a thermos of this chai would make the perfect wake-up call for a cold winter birding trip. I know that any real Indian cook would have a homemade chai masala blend, but I’ll have to work up to that after I get a spice grinder. In the meantime, this store-bought chai masala ought to do the job. It’s a bracing treat for a chilly afternoon.

Monday, November 08, 2004

The king of fish

Salmon, of course. I have lots of terrific-sounding salmon recipes, but somehow I never end up making any of them. When push comes to shove, I like it simple. Just stick a salmon steak in the oven at 400 degrees and cook it until it's flaky. Lately, I've been drenching it in lemon-butter dill sauce; pouring some shoyu over it is pretty good, too. If you like it so much when it's simple, it's hard to get motivated to do a whole new recipe, even if it's from a cookbook you love.

I have a friend who hates seafood. His one positive experience with seafood was a piece of salmon fresh out of a Norwegian fjord. I like to think this is further evidence that salmon is the best (sea)food there is. Mmmmmmmmm.

Friday, November 05, 2004

Ginger beef

Tonight's entrée was the "Ginger Beef" recipe from The Frugal Gourmet Cooks Three Ancient Cuisines. I julienned ginger for the first time (surprisingly easy to get those matchsticks; my new sharpening stone is paying off) and decided that the green onions called for in the recipe had better be scallions. They were added later in the recipe, like scallions usually are; most of the stir-fry recipes I have ask you to fry regular onions in the oil when you begin cooking, like garlic and ginger. It wasn't bad, but adding beaten eggs on top of an oyster sauce-chicken stock combination seemed a little odd; the result was like a variant of scrambled eggs. It was pretty gingery, as advertised; I may have gone a little too heavy on the garlic, however. One of those cloves was rather big.

On looking in the fridge, I realized that I have a lot of eggs to use up before the November 11 expiration date; I'd better get cracking (sorry) on some frittatas or something.

Tonight's music to cook by: Unusual Weather by Michael Manring (1986). The first solo album by one of my favorite bass players. I'm finding myself listening to a lot of records (yes, on vinyl) while cooking. 80s music reminds me of a time when my life was very different. Windham Hill instrumental albums are probably safer to listen to than Thomas Dolby; listening to the latter while chopping ingredients leads to the occupational hazard of brandishing one's knife and yelling, "Science!" Windham Hill tends to induce quiet nostalgia instead.

Wednesday, November 03, 2004

Lumpy panang potatoes

Salvage time. I heated a can of coconut milk in the big skillet and added the lumpy potatoes from the other night. I also added the old green beans, a heaping tablespoon of panang curry paste and a couple of tablespoons of slivered almonds. It didn't turn out too badly. It could've used some more curry paste; even I thought it was a little lukewarm, spicewise. When I talked to my mom on the phone tonight, she suggested potato pancakes or soup as alternate ways of using up lumpy potato disasters.

At times like this, I find myself thinking of the 18th century racehorse Potoooooooo. I guess that's just a warning about the accumulated detritus that winds up inside one's brain once one reaches a certain age. Beware free association, the enemy of logic.

Easy noodles

The fridge is getting crowded again. It's time to make something that will use up the odds and ends that are making things so crowded. Yesterday, however, I found myself unexcited by the thought of cobbling the leftovers together. I ended up making easy noodles instead.

1. Boil a bunch of udon and drain.
2. Put the udon in a bowl.
3. Dress with a mixture of soybean-sesame oil and shoyu.
4. Eat.

Nothing to it, really. Maybe tonight I'll manage to use up those leftovers. Another random panang curry is a possibility.

Tuesday, November 02, 2004

Tough ol' bird

Yesterday I went to the Asian supermarket. As I browsed through one of the meat cases (which contains stuff like pig’s ears, chicken feet, rabbits and several varieties of whole chickens), I noticed a category of chicken labeled “hen” and priced more cheaply than the other chickens. Unlike most of the other chicken carcasses, the head and neck were not included. I remembered that I wanted to cook something in the master sauce, so I bought one of the hens.

Cutting the legs off so I could fit it in the pot was more strenuous than usual and it seemed like there wasn’t a lot of meat on the bird. A couple of hours later, when the chicken was done simmering, I found that the skin and meat were tough. It didn’t taste too bad, but chewing gave my jaws a workout. I can only conclude that the "hen" is a lean bird only meant for making stock or some other purpose, not as the centerpiece of a meal. One good thing about the hen was that it turned a uniform brown after simmering in the master sauce. As Bruce Cost says in Asian Ingredients, “For even coloring and the tastiest results, it’s important to use a fresh-killed chicken such as those available in Chinese poultry markets. The little yellowish chickens with the tags on them that have been raised in factory-like conditions and shipped on ice turn out with blotchy coloring when cooked this way, for some reason.” The last chicken I cooked in the master sauce was blotchily colored when finished, just as Cost describes. I also got that chicken at the Asian supermarket. Cook and learn.

In the coals to Newcastle department, I got even more green beans, despite the need to use the ones I already have. They just looked so beautiful and fresh there in the produce department, so I got a big pile of them. I saw something somewhere on the web about cooking them lightly and freezing them for later use at times when they’re in season, so I think I’ll do that with some of them. Other purchases included water chestnuts, bamboo shoots, fish sauce, shoyu, and canola oil for the pantry (I'm getting low on all of them). There was also a bottle of chili-ginger oil, which is something I’ve wanted to try for a while.

Sunday, October 31, 2004

Donburi on the road

Tonight I ended up cooking dinner at a friend's house. Donburi and sushi made a delicious combination. The sushi was store-bought, but the donburi was homemade. We used chicken broth rather than dashi and added sliced onions and mushrooms to the recipe, making a big wok full of food. Between the donburi and sushi, we were rather full by the end of the meal. Even the cat loved the taste of donburi broth he got. After that, we watched a few episodes of Iron Chef on the VCR, including a natto battle. Good food, good fun, even better than trick or treating.

Writing about food

There is a wide world of food blogs out there. It's amazing how many people are setting down their thoughts about cooking or eating out at restaurants (or both). No matter how many you visit, there are more. Every time I look at a new one and check the links section, there are food blogs I didn't know existed. Granted, I'm a relatively new convert, but whenever I start feeling comfortable with my new route, something happens that expands the route. Not that I'm complaining, mind you. I sample many food blogs periodically thanks to food porn watch's updates, but blogs that I find myself going back to again and again with particular pleasure are linked in my sidebar. Expect this list to grow.

I found this fascinating article via World On A Plate. It's nothing less than a history of food writing in the US. It looks at how food writing in newspapers and magazines has become less reporting and more advertising, selling the idea of a lifestyle to readers.

It's the kind of thing that inspires soul-searching. I've been a writer for a long time; I have the requisite pile of unfinished novels (another of which I'll start tomorrow for NaNoWriMo) and occasional published pieces in a handful of obscure magazines. I'm a newbie when it comes to blogging, though, and a newbie when it comes to writing about food. I still wrestle with how to paraphrase recipes that aren't my own. I have yet to find a consistent style that I think works well (though some posts are getting there - I like the donburi post). I haven't started obsessing about whether to install third-party comments or tracking statistics for this blog, because I just want to work out what I want to do, without worrying about what others think. I'd love to have regular readers, but I feel like I need to get this blog on solid footing so I'm confident in what I'm doing before alerting the media too much. That's why most of my friends don't know this blog exists yet.

So along comes this article, which seems like a challenge. Is writing about food just another solipsistic way of having one's own individual solution? Shouldn't I be out there trying to make the world a better place instead? There are so many problems, so many things that upset me and make me want to rant. Maybe I should pursue those things with the urgency I feel, rather than broadcasting what I made for dinner last night. Boiling the master sauce again doesn't do a damn thing for biodiversity, after all.

My short term answer (which seems like a wimp-out) is that I need to find ways to be more active for positive change but that this blog will still be a writer's exploration of a different kind of writing, and the blog that I wanted to read but couldn't find in the blogosphere.

Saturday, October 30, 2004

Master sauce

Tonight was uneventful. I went the spaghetti route again, since I didn’t have any bright ideas for reclaiming the remains of the lumpy mashed potatoes from yesterday. I suppose I should’ve put them in the blender and reheated them. Maybe tomorrow.

Tonight I boiled the master sauce and replenished it. I kept to the original proportions, despite my brave words about reducing the mushroom soy quotient. I did use palm sugar instead of refined sugar.

While poking around in the fridge tonight, I stumbled upon some green beans. I should dig up a recipe for green beans amandine or something like that so I can use them up. I’ve got the almonds.

Friday, October 29, 2004

Lemongrass pork chops and lumpy potatoes

When I’m cooking for myself, I don’t normally make side dishes. It requires enough coordination just to get the entrée on the table. I might make a salad or some pasta after the fact, but I don’t plan a multi-course meal. It’s too much hassle.

Tonight was the exception, however. The entrée was “Lemongrass Pork Chops” from Marnie Henricksson’s wonderful Everyday Asian, but all you really need to do with it is mix up the marinade and soak the pork chops in it for several hours. That left an open arena for a side dish and, since two thin pork chops were going to require reinforcements, I settled on “Golden Mashed Potatoes” from From Bangkok to Bali in Thirty Minutes by Theresa Volpe Laursen and Byron Laursen. I reckoned without the fact that I’ve never mashed a potato in my life, however.

Cut to the chase: the pork chops were divine. I substituted palm sugar for the brown sugar called for in the recipe. I’ve had this block of palm sugar sitting in my fridge for about a month and the thing is so hefty that I’ve avoided using it. But I got up my courage and found that it grates like a dream, so easy, such lovely shavings. I’ll probably go to the other extreme and start grating it into my morning tea. The other marinade ingredients are fish sauce, sesame oil, rice wine, black pepper, garlic and sliced lemongrass. I baked the chops rather than grilling them (no grill pan and the condo association frowns on hibachis on wood decks) but it didn’t matter, they tasted wonderful.

The potatoes were another story. It’s a simple recipe, basically just regular mashed potatoes with turmeric and cayenne added. But, as I said, I’ve never mashed a potato before. My technique definitely needs work. I realize now (after Googling for advice) that the potatoes weren’t tender enough when I took the masher to them, so that led to hard labor, frustration and giving up when the potatoes were still pretty lumpy. They didn’t taste too bad, but they could’ve been a lot better. Potatoes 1, me 0.

Tonight’s music to cook by: Hulling by Hulling (1995). Pleasant Swedish folk music, a mix of instrumentals and songs, with the nyckelharpa taking a leading role.

Thursday, October 28, 2004

RIP amaranth

As I say in my profile, cooking has led me in directions I would not have considered otherwise. Gardening is the latest of these. The idea of having a wonderful Asian garden out on my deck is so tempting, even though the produce at the Asian supermarket is usually pretty good. I would love to have a garden that was part edibles and part plants for butterflies and hummingbirds.

When I visited my parents on Cape Cod last month, my mother sent me home with two pots of mint and a book about container gardening for edibles. Not covered in the book, but available in seed packets at the Asian supermarket, was amaranth, otherwise known as Chinese spinach. Perhaps foolishly, I planted some amaranth seeds, even though it's fall and probably a little late for that kind of thing.

The amaranth seedlings did ok for a while, but yesterday, one shriveled up and died suddenly. The other one is doing the same today. They had seemed to be doing fine, but I guess I was wrong. I'll wait to plant more seeds until next spring. I guess it's part of the perils of a newbie gardener getting religion in the fall.

Yeeeeeeee haaaaaaa!!!!!!!!

I know this is a food blog, but I'll stray off-topic for a post. I am one of those long-suffering Boston Red Sox fans who will now need to get used to saying "World Champion Boston Red Sox." It's unbelievable. I knew this year's team was a good team and capable of great things, but fate always seems to have something bad in store for the Sox. After the Yankees stomped all over them in game 3 of the ALCS, I had had enough and swore I was going to root for the Detroit Tigers next year. Then they started winning (or maybe refusing to lose). And winning. And winning. I don't understand it, but somehow, everything started going the Sox's way. They just won the World Series, their first Series win since 1918. I don't know what to do with myself. Oh, and the lunar eclipse was a nice touch. "SOX WIN SERIES - MOON GOES DARK." How's that for a headline?

Ai yi yi! Way to go, guys!

Wednesday, October 27, 2004

Sukiyaki, sort of

The classic form of sukiyaki is the version in which the broth is simmered at the table on a portable stove while diners serve themselves from the pot. It’s a pleasant social gathering centered on a delicious meal. Since I’m usually cooking for one, it’s easier just to put the ingredients together on the kitchen stove and then serve it up as a finished meal, like any other dish. This takes a little adaptation, since all the recipes for sukiyaki I have are written to walk you through the process of dividing the food up into separate portions and cooking at the dining table.

I used Hiroko Shimbo’s recipe from The Japanese Kitchen last night. I stir-fried the thin beef slices in some oil, then added the broth, heated it, and added the remaining ingredients to simmer for about five minutes. The Asian supermarket sells frozen beef sliced paper-thin, which makes a big difference when you’re cooking a dish like sukiyaki or shabu-shabu. Stir-frying the slices is a little awkward, though; at least, it is in the big skillet I usually use for stir-frying. It might be better in a wok, but my wok is once again sporting a light patina of rust and I’m procrastinating on cleaning it.

Last night’s sukiyaki was additionally inauthentic because I used dried porcini mushrooms instead of shiitakes, and I substituted half a cup of the porcini soaking water for half of the shoyu used in the recipe. I was hoping to get some nice smoky porcini flavor into the sweet soy broth, but the result wasn’t too different from regular sukiyaki broth (not that this is a bad thing). I also added two fresh sage leaves, torn up. This was more successful, as the strong sage flavor gave an autumnal kick to the sukiyaki, but only using two leaves meant it didn’t overwhelm the broth.

Last night’s music to cook by: Blinded by Science by Thomas Dolby (1982). Science!

Monday, October 25, 2004

Playing catch-up

It’s been a hectic few days. There was the whirlwind trip to Cape May last week, then there was the prep for a get-together with my friends yesterday. In between, there were wimp-out meals when I cooked some spaghettini and dumped Paul Newman’s marinara over it (but it’s so good). Anyway, I’m back, but if there was a baseball game on tonight, I’d be otherwise occupied tonight, too.

Tonight’s meal begs a snack later on, but I have lots of leftovers from the get-together: cookies, chips, dip, salsa, veggies…the leftover pizza was taken care of for lunch today. Excellent pizza, even cold.

In Europe, I understand they shop for a day’s meals on that day. My version of this is to stick my head in the fridge and determine what needs to be used up before it goes bad. That got me Saturday night’s meal of a cake of firm tofu garnished with the essence of Japanese flavor in a bottle (EJFIB) (diluted with some water) and a couple of chopped scallions. Not enough to really mask the bland tofu flavor, but it was a solid meal. That approach also got me tonight’s sautéed spinach with a soy-sesame sauce based on the “Sesame Spinach” recipe in Moosewood Restaurant Cooks at Home. The water in which the spinach was cooked weakened the sauce too much, though. Better follow the recipe next time: the last time I did, it tasted great.

After fantasizing about all the exciting hors d’oeuvres I could prepare for my do yesterday, I just made some mulled cider. I adapted the recipe from Erma J. Fisk’s A Birdwatcher’s Cookbook. Half a gallon of cider, four cinnamon sticks, six cloves, a slice of lemon and a teaspoon of allspice are the ingredients: heat them over high heat, then simmer over low heat as people chat. Replenish when needed. The place smelled great, especially when we came back from our walk at the nearby nature preserve. It still smelled like mulled cider this morning when I woke up. Tonight it smells like master sauce, because I just boiled the sauce. It tastes more mellow today than it did the last time I boiled it; the aroma is a little sharper than the flavor.

Maybe I’ll cook a real meal tomorrow.

Tuesday, October 19, 2004

Wrong noodle stir-fry

Having some water chestnuts and bamboo shoots left over from the other night meant I had to figure out a way to use them. I improvised another dish that worked out quite well. I call it “wrong noodle stir-fry” because I dumped the food over regular American egg noodles, not Asian noodles.

First I stir-fried about three tablespoons of chopped shallots and two tablespoons of chopped ginger in a couple of tablespoons of peanut oil for a minute. Then I added the water chestnuts and bamboo shoots (four ounces each) along with two handfuls of green beans chopped into one-inch lengths. I continued to stir-fry for three minutes. Then I threw in the sauce, stir-fried everything for one more minute, and it was done. The sauce was two tablespoons of light soy sauce, one and a half tablespoons of oyster sauce, one tablespoon of Chinese rice wine, a few drops of Tabasco sauce and a teaspoon of sesame oil. It was a little spicy and a little savory. There was enough sauce left over to coat the noodles well but not so much it turned into a soup. The water chestnuts and bamboo shoots soaked up the sauce well, while the green beans were crunchy and sweet. I have to say I was very pleased with how this one worked out. I’ll have to remember it.

Tonight’s music to cook by: Mosaic by Mark Egan (1985). Ambient jazz fusion on electric bass.


After losing a couple of days due to birding, ridiculously long baseball games and a relative lack of exciting food adventures, I'm back. Yesterday I tried making Maki's essence of Japanese flavor in a bottle. After combining the ingredients, I reduced them down a little more than the recipe intended (oops), so I have an extremely concentrated form of it. Better luck next time, but in the meantime I can use what I have. The kitchen smelled really good while it was cooking, too.

While in a sauce vein, I should note that Sunday night I did the weekly boiling of the master sauce. It's starting to get a little intense in flavor, so I probably need to cook something else in it and replenish the ingredients. I just started it a couple of weeks ago. I used the "Looing Sauce" recipe in the late lamented Frugal Gourmet's The Frugal Gourmet Cooks Three Ancient Cuisines. That recipe uses both light soy and mushroom soy, which makes a very rich sauce - a little too rich, I think. As I keep the master sauce going, I'll probably tweak it by increasing the amount of light soy when I replenish it.

Friday, October 15, 2004

Random panang curry

A couple of days ago, I wrote about cooking from cookbooks, so it figures I would do something completely different tonight. I needed to use up some coconut milk, so I decided to try some of the panang curry paste I got at the Asian supermarket a few weeks ago. I mixed the coconut milk (about a cup and a half) with a cup of water, heated it and sauteed a heaping tablespoon of the curry paste. I added about four ounces each of canned bamboo shoots and sliced water chestnuts and cooked them. Then came two tablespoons of fish sauce and about eight ounces of precooked udon noodles. After heating the noodles through, it was time for dinner.

For a random non-authentic dish, it was pretty good. The bland appearance of the food would’ve been livened up by some garnishes, or by including colorful veggies like carrots or tomatoes. Taste-wise, it was more varied, with the curry paste giving a nice but not overwhelming bite to the creamy sauce (Thai food fans who are less timid than I about heat might want to at least double the amount of curry paste). The bamboo shoots were juicy and the water chestnuts crisp (stir-frying them in oil might’ve added something). All in all, a successful improvisation and a good basis for future tinkering. Plus I have leftovers for tomorrow.

Tonight’s music to cook by: Tone Poems by David Grisman and Tony Rice (1994). Very mellow mandolin and guitar music played on vintage instruments. Good Sunday morning music.

Thursday, October 14, 2004

Ode to donburi

I love donburi. Donburi is one of the first things I learned how to cook. I can still remember the first time I made it from a recipe in Hiroko Urakami’s Japanese Family-Style Recipes. As it simmered, a wonderful aroma filled my kitchen. The kitchen smelled exactly like a Japanese restaurant! What an ego boost to a novice cook that was.

Because of its simplicity and speed of preparation, donburi soon became a fixture in my life. Even on the nights when I dragged home after a long commute, all I needed was some thawed chicken and some dashi to get things started. Mirin, shoyu and sugar completed the sweet soy broth in which the chicken pieces were cooked. Then I added beaten eggs to the pan and let them set. After a minute or two of simmering in the covered pot, I had a tasty mix of chicken, egg and soy broth ready to be poured over a bowl of hot rice. It was quick, easy and hearty food; not only that, but I usually had plenty for leftovers the next day.

Because it was such a confidence-inspiring dish, donburi became the first meal I would make for friends if I’d never cooked for them before. Donburi and I have shared festive occasions filled with good company, and I know that many friends have finished their meals convinced of donburi’s goodness. Any positive feelings they may have had about my cooking skills were only a bonus.

There’s dashi in the fridge. Chicken is thawing. Life is good.

Wednesday, October 13, 2004

Spinach and fried tofu

I'm still at the stage where I usually cook from a recipe as opposed to winging it. I have some favorite cookbooks (but what cook doesn't?) and I bookmark recipes I want to try. Once I've cooked a dish, its page gets dog-eared and the bookmark moves on to another recipe or to another book entirely. Eventually, by cooking my way through the books, I get comfortable with the techniques and ingredients. I'm a long way from being able to make up recipes on the fly, but I can see that day off in the distance.

Tonight's effort was "Quick Simmered Spinach and Fried Tofu" from Hiroko Shimbo's The Japanese Kitchen. That required making dashi (stock) in advance, since I was out of it. I do have the little packets of dashi powder, but somehow I never end up using them. Making dashi from scratch is so simple, while deciphering the recommended measurements on the dashi concentrate package is challenging. Go figure. I made two quarts of it, enough for the spinach and plenty to save or freeze for other meals. With autumn's chill in the air, it's getting to be soup season again.

Appropriately enough, tonight’s meal turned out to be soup of a kind. I forgot how much spinach reduces when cooked. The idea is to boil the spinach and drain it, then to bring a cup and a half of dashi, two tablespoons of mirin, one tablespoon of shoyu and half a teaspoon of salt to a boil in a saucepan. Cook the fried tofu in the dashi etc. for a couple of minutes, then add the spinach, heat through and serve. After pouring the finished product into a bowl, I was inspired to add some spicy fat-free Italian croutons rather than the recommended five-spice powder (this is what comes of leaving boxes out on the counter where one can notice them at inopportune moments). The croutons dissolved fairly quickly, but to be fair, they’re meant to be sprinkled on salad, not dunked into soup. All in all, it was a nice light meal, though I’ll probably want a snack a little later.

Tonight's music to cook by: Greenhouse by Leo Kottke (1972). It’s really more stir-frying music than simmering music, especially his cover of John Fahey’s “Last Steam Engine Train.”

Tuesday, October 12, 2004

Why seven kinds of soy sauce?

A couple of weeks ago, it occurred to me that a lot of soy sauce has accumulated in my kitchen during the course of my cooking adventures. On counting the bottles, I discovered that I have no fewer than seven different types: regular shoyu (Japan), usukuchi shoyu (Japan), tamari (Japan), light soy (China), mushroom soy (China), mushroom-flavored soy (Thailand) and kecap manis (Indonesia). Not as many as the 17 kinds of tea from a previous culinary counting exercise, but many more than most people need to have around the house.

You might have figured out that I enjoy cooking Asian food. I have loved Japanese food since childhood and once I got my own place, I decided to try making it myself. But a funny thing happened. Through the influence of some terrific cookbooks and a move to a location where my nearest market is a well-stocked Asian supermarket, I began to drift a bit. I edged out to Chinese and Korean dishes, then started to include the odd Thai, Malaysian and Burmese meal. Now I find myself about to stick a toe into the great ocean of Indian food. The way I figure it, I'm working my way around the culinary world one meal at a time.

I'm not a gourmet. I'm not an expert. I just like learning new things. Cooking has turned into a great way to learn. I didn't expect it to work out this way, but I'm happy it did.