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.