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.