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.