Friday, December 30, 2005

Four flavors

In southeast Asian cooking, a balance of four flavors is prized: heat from chiles or pepper; sourness from tamarind, lime or vinegar; sweetness from sugar; and saltiness from fish sauce or soy sauce. A well-made dish should demonstrate a complex interplay among these tastes, reaching a level as sophisticated as anything in French haute cuisine or in India's intricate spice blends. The other night I made a Thai dish with obvious sources for all these tastes, but proved that including certain ingredients is far from executing the dish at a high level.

The dish in question was "Tangy Bean Thread Noodles with Cilantro and Lime" from Quick and Easy Thai by Nancie McDermott. After preparing the bean thread noodles by soaking them in hot water, then draining and cutting them into shorter lengths, you stir-fry two tablespoons of chopped shallots and one tablespoon of chopped garlic in vegetable oil for a minute. Then you add a quarter of a cup of chopped meat of your choice (I used pork this time), toss, and add two tablespoons of fish sauce and one teaspoon of soy sauce. Stir-fry the meat until done, then remove from the heat and mix in the noodles. Let stand until it reaches room temperature (I omitted this step, opting to eat while hot) and add two teaspoons of sugar, one teaspoon of dried red chile flakes, and two tablespoons each of lime juice, chopped scallions, and fresh cilantro or mint. Wrap in lettuce leaves, if desired, to serve.

Rather than getting an interplay of the four flavors, I wound up with a single blended taste that wasn't bad, but wasn't tangy, either. It wasn't nearly as spicy as it should've been; maybe the omission of scallions (the ones I had on hand were played out) had something to do with it, but the chile flakes didn't live up to their end of the bargain, either. The other flavors seemed more muted than enhanced by the combination, as if they were cancelling each other out. I'm sure this wasn't the intent of the recipe.

Just another example of how you can cook a meal and follow the recipe, yet end up light-years away from the way the food "should" taste.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Odds, ends and a preview

I have a couple of odds and ends to catch up on blogging, so expect them in the next couple of days. This week so far has been uneventful, with chashu Monday night and chashu over fettuccini last night. I have a feeling that tomorrow's predicted rain will lead to a session of making oxtail stew. The Lurker sent me a report from the road yesterday; he and Perfect Tommy discovered that the Langhorne Krispy Kreme is now closed, alas.

The main reason I'm blogging this aimless entry, however, is to give you the heads-up on a new project I'm getting involved in. If you travel the food blog-verse, you may have run across references to the upcoming WellFed Network. WellFed is going to be group of blogs about food; each blog tackles a different topic and has a group of bloggers contributing to it. I'm pleased to announce that I will be contributing to two of the four WellFed blogs coming online in January: Sugar Savvy and The Spirit World (follow the links for a preview).

I will be blogging a column called "Asian Sweet of the Week" for Sugar Savvy; it is what the title says it is, a review of a semi-randomly-selected candy from the well-stocked shelves of the the local Asian markets. One of the other columnists is based in Asia, so that part of the world should have excellent coverage. Of course, the rest of the world has plenty of sugary treats to offer, so I'm sure there won't be a dearth of material.

The Spirit World is dedicated to alcoholic beverages other than wine (which will have its own WellFed blog); beer and cocktails have already made appearances. My occasional contributions will be in the line of reviewing Asian liquors (hm, I sense a theme here) as well as writing about cooking with alcohol, which is what I do with it most frequently. What is the difference between using sake and michiu in a stir-fry? I hope to find out.

It is always nice to be able to look ahead to new possibilities at the New Year. I'm glad to be involved in this project; it's a way of doing something a little different with my blogging. Meanwhile, of course, Seven Kinds of Soy Sauce will keep chugging along with its recipe reviews, digressions and occasional road food mayhem.

Sunday, December 25, 2005

'Tis the season

'Tis the season to find whatever good you can in a situation that may not be ideal. Rather than the day to sit down to a big family meal, today was the day to drive from Massachusetts to New Jersey (so that I can show up at work tomorrow). My parents and I did Christmas yesterday; my mom prepared a ham with mashed potatoes, gravy and various accessories. It turns out that lingonberry jam is even better with ham than cranberry sauce is.

Once I got home in one piece and unpacked the car, it was time to try and cobble together a bit more of Christmas for myself. My inspiration was last year's solo holiday and dinner didn't fall far from that tree. I sauteed some porcini mushrooms in butter until they browned, then I added half a cup each of porcini soaking water and cooking sake. I cooked the sauce down and also added a teaspoon of cornstarch dissolved in too much water. When it had started to thicken, but there was still a good amount of juice, I poured it over some spinach fettuccini. Boy, that didn't last long. It really is heartening to be able to come home and throw a meal together that tastes so good. Even on a day taken up with other things, you can still make a little space and take a little time to treat yourself well. At least, I hope I can remember that in the future, because I tend to lose sight of it easily.

Happy holidays!

Friday, December 23, 2005

Perfectionism: the enemy in the kitchen

Well, here I am in balmy Massachusetts, where upended trees are still strewn hither and yon from the nasty storm that came through a few weeks ago. My parents had at least four trees come down in the yard but luckily none of them hit the house or did major damage. They did lose power for several days.

I haven't been up here since June, and I wasn't able to visit for the holidays at all last year, so it's nice to be here. One way to treat my parents is to cook a meal for them. Last night I thought I'd try "Garlic Fried Shrimp" from Marnie Henricksson's Everyday Asian. Of course, once I arrived in the kitchen, variables were introduced. My parents' electric range cooks hotter than mine. They picked up a bunch of veggies for the stir-fry although the recipe doesn't call for them.

The idea of the recipe is the Vietnamese technique of cooking garlic and onion down into a syrup (with the help of oil, sugar, fish sauce, salt and pepper). Once this is done, then the syrup is poured off and separated from the oil. The oil stays in the pan and is used to stir-fry the shrimp. Then the sauce is returned to the pan, heated through, and the shrimp and sauce are served over jasmine rice.

It was probably a mistake for me to try this technique (a new one for me) in a new kitchen with an audience I wanted to impress. The garlic-onion-syrup mixture quickly cooked down into something that looked more burned than anything else. I hacked as much of it as possible out of the pan and set it aside in a bowl. Then I started stir-frying the veggies, adding first the asparagus spears, then the sliced mushrooms, then the shrimp, then the pea pods. Stir-frying did pick up a lot of the burned crispy stuff left over from the sauce.

Then came the time to add the sauce back in, but when I attempted to scoop it out of the bowl, it came flying out and skated across the kitchen floor in a perfect imitation of a hockey puck. The mess had congealed and crystalized, doubtlessly abetted by the sugar. My mother opined that it was rather like a kind of candy, and even thought it didn't taste bad. All I knew was that it wasn't remotely what had been supposed to happen. Argh! So I just finished up the stir-fry and dumped the shrimp and veggies over the jasmine rice (which came out fine despite boiling over).

I couldn't think of the dish as a success since the end product was so different from what the recipe intended. But my parents loved it. I grudgingly had to admit that it was a successful meal, just not the successful meal that I had set out to prepare. And that's the real joy of cooking - those surprises that come along and teach you more about cooking than the tried-and-true comfortable dishes. Take the asparagus, for example. It was the first time I'd cooked asparagus, because I'm not a big fan of it. My dad loves it, though, so it went into the stir-fry as a treat for him. It came out perfectly done, crisp on the outside and tender on the inside. Even I liked it.

Someday, I'll try that recipe again and get it "right." But last night's meal will last longer in memory for its "imperfection."

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Kindred spirits

Normally when I mess around with my sidebar links, I don't notify the media. It's just routine cyber-housecleaning, nothing to get excited about. Clean out the dead links, add new interesting sites as you find them. But is something else.

I stumbled onto it while looking for info about Baby Star snacks. Then I saw the item about the closing of the first Massachusetts Krispy Kreme store in Medford. I e-mailed the link to Perfect Tommy and The Lurker; Perfect Tommy, of course, is a dedicated fancier of Krispy Kreme, while The Lurker is a not-so-innocent bystander sure to be amused by any of Perfect Tommy's excesses. Then Perfect Tommy e-mailed back that The Lurker should check out the fries section, with its mention of "the Chick-fil-A triad." It turns out these folks are obsessed with Chick-fil-A, too. The Lurker was happy they adore Chick-fil-A. Perfect Tommy was happy that they actually understand the batter-to-potato ratio for french fries, which he has been expounding about to an uncomprehending populace for ages. I like the Asian snack reviews (well, ok, and the Bugles review too), but on wandering through the site, I stumbled on this snippet from their explanation of how came to be:

"As for the name of the site, it has something to do with Jeremy's hunger for Trader Joe's taquitos (hideous things, really). The name stuck when the word found its way into a certain Simpsons episode, when one of the retirement home residents said "I want some taquitos" not once but twice in the same episode. Understanding Jeremy's logic in choosing that name for the site (not to mention understanding Jeremy's logic in general) is like getting from Point A to Point B by taking a side trip through Points C, E and F. You'll just have to trust us."

This is the perfect description of a birding trip (or heck, even just a conversation) between The Lurker, Perfect Tommy and myself. I'm not sure whether I'm heartened to find others like us on the internet, or scared.

Well, I just finished my bag of Baby Star chicken-flavored Crispy Noodle Snack. Time enough to end this post!

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Sesame-ginger stir-fry

This recipe comes from one of my more recently-acquired cookbooks (Ken Hom's Hot Wok), but it reminds me of a Frugal Gourmet recipe that I've been cooking (and fiddling with) for years. That Frugal Gourmet recipe is "My Cousin David's Hot Szechwan Chicken." Oddly enough, Hom's recipe is also named after another person; it's called "Peter Ng's Sesame-Ginger Chicken." Hom’s recipe claims no Sichuan influence; instead he tells us that Peter Ng was born in Malaysia of Chinese descent.

The techniques of the two dishes are similar; first you marinate the chicken meat, then you stir-fry. In the present case, the marinade consists of two teaspoons light soy sauce, one teaspoon mushroom soy sauce, one tablespoon Shao Xing rice wine, a half teaspoon each salt and black pepper (I omitted the salt), one teaspoon sesame oil and two teaspoons cornstarch. This marinade is a bit more involved than The Frug's, which just calls for light soy sauce, sherry and cornstarch. Hom directs that the meat be marinated for 30 minutes, The Frug gives no time limit.

This stir-fry is a bit different in that it calls for a blended oil in which to stir-fry, instead of straight peanut oil or vegetable oil. The blend is one tablespoon peanut oil and two teaspoons sesame oil. This technique of blending sesame oil with regular cooking oil is used in Japanese cooking for tempura, but I haven't previously encountered it in Chinese or Chinese-influenced dishes. It doubtless is used here to help produce the sesame flavor of the dish.

Stir-fry three tablespoons of ginger (Hom calls for shredded, I just chopped mine) in the blended oil for a minute, then add the chicken and stir-fry until the chicken starts browning. Then add the following ingredients: two tablespoons mushroom soy, two teaspoons sugar, one teaspoon salt, half a teaspoon black pepper and 150 milliliters stock.*

* Digression: My copy of this cookbook is the British edition, so it includes metric fluid measurements. Two-thirds of a cup is roughly equivalent to 150 milliliters, but I just measured it out in a cup with metric amounts on one side.

After stir-frying for a minute, cover the pan and simmer for eight minutes. When the simmering is done, uncover and raise the heat to reduce the sauce. Once the sauce has reduced to several tablespoons, add two tablespoons of Shao Xing rice wine and stir-fry for about two more minutes. Garnish with scallions and serve.

The Frug’s recipe is a straight stir-fry without sauce reduction and simmering. His sauce ingredients are sherry, mushroom soy, brown sugar, sesame oil, Worcestershire sauce, water and cornstarch. Both recipes result in a flavorful thick sauce with a certain tang to it, sort of an example of culinary convergent evolution. Hom’s sauce is almost syrupy by the time it’s done, with a dark brownish-red color that brings to mind Chinese red-cooked stews. The dark color comes from the mushroom soy, of course, but sesame and ginger, as the recipe’s title indicates, are the dominant flavors. The strongly-flavored chicken from both recipes goes well with either rice or noodles as a setting.

This meal was like meeting an old friend in a new guise. I’ll definitely be making it again.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Sauce follies

Building on my last major meal, I decided to take the sauce and pour it on some spinach fettuccini for dinner. Half a cup of real sake, half a cup of chicken-turkey stock, no seasonings. I sauteed some porcini mushrooms in a bit of vegetable oil first. Once the mushrooms had absorbed most of the oil, I added the sake and stock. I subsequently added a teaspoon of cornstarch, but this didn't thicken the sauce in any significant way. I reduced the sauce for a while, then poured it on the fettuccini.

It was tasty, but not remotely what happened when I tried this the last time. It is really funny (peculiar is maybe a better word) to see how the same ingredients and techniques can lead to very different outcomes. I guess that's one reason to keep cooking; if it was completely predictable every time, would it be as much fun? Well, ok, I'm an amateur cook, not someone who wants to open a restaurant any time soon. Unpredictability adds spice to the amateur's life, while to the hopeful professional, it probably means something's gone wrong. Careers are built on consistency.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

The best ingredients

There's a cooking truism to the effect that a meal's quality depends directly on the quality of the ingredients. The freshest produce and meat, unadulterated seasonings; all of these will combine for a fine meal. Reality being what it is, however, every cook without unlimited time and an unlimited bankroll (i.e., most of us) has to make certain tradeoffs. Sometimes these tradeoffs can be downright idiosyncratic. In my case, I hardly ever cook with frozen fish; I want it as fresh as I can get it, or at least bought the same day I eat it. On the other hand, I think nothing of buying beef, pork or poultry and tossing it into the freezer until I want it. Go figure.

Yesterday I tried making a variant of rosemary chicken. I started with the big skillet, which had had bacon fried in it recently (the bacon has no further part in this meal). I added a bit of vegetable oil to eke out the traces of bacon grease and the remaining crusty bits, then stir-fried quarter of a cup of sliced onion for a minute. Then I added some sliced chicken tenderloin and stir-fried until it had mostly turned color. The onions and chicken picked up the browned bacon leftovers from the skillet quite nicely, cleaning the pan up. I then added half a cup of homemade Chinese-style turkey-chicken stock, brought it to a boil, and did the same with half a cup of sake (the real stuff, not cooking sake).

I removed the chicken pieces with a slotted spoon and got to work on the sauce. A bit of salt and pepper to taste livened it up a bit, as did half a teaspoon of sliced fresh rosemary. From there, I just reduced the sauce. As it reduced, it remained close to the "au jus" end of the spectrum, so I added a teaspoon of cornstarch to thicken it up. This did the trick and soon I was pouring the chicken and the sauce over a big pile of jasmine rice.

The sauce tasted wonderful as it was bubbling away in the pan, but it was quickly lost in the pile of jasmine rice, becoming a mere shadow of a memory. This threw the spotlight squarely on the chicken which, it quickly became evident, was not quite ready for prime time. It was tender and moist, but it had an off-putting cardboard-like aftertaste. It was still edible, but clearly it had sat in the freezer a little too long.

Little details mean a lot. The sauce was perfect, but there was too much rice to absorb it. The meat was the right consistency, but just not fresh enough. On the other hand, there's reason to be hopeful. With just a few minor changes, last night's disappointment is sure to become another evening's beautiful centerpiece.

Friday, December 09, 2005

2005 Food Blog Awards

Just reminder that it's that time again: time for the 2005 Food Blog Awards! I thought voting was tough last year, but this year, there are even more great food blogs out there and I have less free time to read them. Ack. It really is hard to pick favorites when you know you will leave out many deserving contenders.

Trot over to The Accidental Hedonist and nominate your choices by December 16. Then the esteemed judges will review the contenders, come up with a slate of finalists and open them up to votes from December 21 to December 31.

If you have a food blog, good luck!

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Vietnamese hash

Well, ok, so the classic form of hash seems to require potatoes. My mom's hash definitely involved potatoes. But the thing I threw together Monday night seemed so hash-like, I couldn't say it was anything else. It's just that rice took the starch place of honor, rather than potatoes.

I improvised off of Ha Roda's recipe for "Egg and Pork Stew" in her cookbook A Vietnamese Kitchen. Marinate about a pound of ground pork in two tablespoons of fish sauce, one tablespoon of light soy sauce, one tablespoon of oyster sauce, some salt and black pepper to taste, one teaspoon of sugar, two tablespoons of chopped onion and two teaspoons of bacon grease. Stir-fry the pork for a minute or two, then add leftover cooked rice (about a cup) and stir-fry for another minute.Then add the egg and stir-fry. On the second day, I threw this over some rice noodles. On the first day, it was fine by itself.

I doubt it’s really hash, and it’s definitely not authentic Vietnamese food. But it turned out to be a tasty way of using up odds and ends.

Sunday, November 27, 2005


I'm one of those tiresome folks who is descended from one of the English people who landed on Plymouth Rock in 1620. My blog handle, in fact, is derived from one of those people. Thanksgiving is a lot of things to a lot of people, but to me it's always been a family occasion: an anniversary of an arrival in a new place, but also an occasion to honor the native people without whom the Pilgrim settlement would never have survived. Some contemporary Native Americans find that a troublesome legacy (and I don't blame them), but I think of a hard winter in a new country, when the English transplants were sick and dying, and the native people did what any decent human being would have done; they offered help to their new neighbors. That they were repaid so poorly is one of history's tragedies.

Thanksgiving found me alone again this year; partly from circumstance, partly from inclination. I turned to Mark Bittman and the Pennsylvania Dutch Farmers Market. Bittman's recipe for "Turkey Thighs Braised in Red Wine" (from How to Cook Everything) seemed just the ticket, and the farmers market was happy to supply a turkey thigh (one thigh is plenty of meat for one person). The seasonings ranged from porcini mushrooms to juniper berries, all simmered in some Ravenswood Vintners Blend Zinfandel. This would qualify as another "hearty food" kind of dish, with the dark thigh meat standing up to the intense red wine quite well. I added a twist to Bittman's recipe by frying some bacon in the pan first, then browning the turkey thigh and simmering; just to add a little something extra to the sauce. Not your typical Thanksgiving meal, but more than adequate and suitable for a festive special occasion.

Dessert was the traditional pumpkin pie, also from the Pennsylvania Dutch Farmers Market. On Friday, I introduced The Deacon to the market; she has been seeking a good meat counter ever since her favorite butcher shop, Heinz's, closed a few years ago. During my tour, I noticed a new heap of Mennonite and Amish cookbooks in the furniture-and-tchotschkes section; that definitely spells trouble.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

High-test stir-fry

The problem to be solved for last night’s dinner was what to do with half a package of abura-age before it went bad. This is what I came up with:

Take half a package of abura-age and one sliced piece of bacon; stir-fry in a tablespoon of peanut oil for about three minutes. Add two cups of bean sprouts and another tablespoon of peanut oil; stir-fry for another couple of minutes. Add cooked Chinese egg noodles and stir-fry for a minute. Add sauce composed of half a tablespoon of Chinese barbecue sauce, one tablespoon Chinese light soy, one tablespoon oyster sauce and one teaspoon of sesame oil. Blend ingredients, heat through, and serve.

The addition of the barbecue sauce was inspired by this post over at dcfüd. Although some of the other ingredients involved are hardly shrinking violets, the barbecue sauce made them all run for cover. Even though I used a minimal amount of barbecue sauce, my lips burned from the heat of the sauce. Whew. That really is virulent stuff.

Not the most refined meal ever, but a good way to use up odds and ends.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Bacon coma

I guess my recent infatuation with good ol' wholesome American cookin' may be getting a little out of hand. Yesterday on the way home from work I stopped off at the Pennsylvania Dutch Farmers Market (they have expanded hours due to the impending Thanksgiving holiday). Last week, I had eyed the bacon there but had not bought any. Over the weekend, I mentioned their bacon to The Lurker, who gave it a rave review. That sealed it; last night I bought a pound of the maple-honey bacon (among other things).

This morning's breakfast was about five slices of the bacon (big slices) and two eggs sunnyside up, fried in the bacon grease. The entrancing aroma of maple sweetness still permeates the kitchen hours later (not that I'm complaining). The bacon was every bit as wonderful as the aroma promised. But after breakfast, I had to go lie down for a while. Whew! What a knockout! Some farmhand I'd make, if I eat a stick-to-your-ribs meal like that and am impelled to take a nap, rather than go chop a cord or two of wood.

I fantasized about making some bacon gravy and searched online for advice. I found several odes to bacon grease; here and here are just two examples. My surfing emboldened me enough to pour off the remaining bacon grease from the skillet and save it. This has got to be the road to perdition that I'm starting down. I need to remember the title of this blog and start making some nice light stir-fries again.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Terra incognita: breakfast

I'm one of those people who usually thinks of breakfast as a pastry and a cup of tea, if that. Half the time I do without. Sure, I've read all those stories extolling breakfast as the most important meal of the day, but when you're in a rush to get to your job (such as it is), it's easy to toss all that out the window.

Well, recent history has made me rethink that idea. It started with the Christmas Bird Count scouting trip two weekends ago. I just fried a couple of eggs, nothing fancy. By midday, everybody else was hungry and I was still fine. This past weekend, The Lurker, Perfect Tommy and I scouted access points for the Batona Trail in the Pine Barrens. We met for breakfast at the Pennsylvania Dutch Farmers Market, where I had my new favorite, gravy over home fries. That kept me going well into the afternoon.

I think there may be something to this breakfast stuff after all.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Shrimp and mint

I've accumulated some shrimp recipes that I want to work through, and this week I decided to try Mark Bittman's "Shrimp, Roman Style" from The Minimalist Cooks Dinner. I used the variant of shrimp over pasta. Bittman says this recipe is normally used for tripe, which takes a long time to cook, but using shrimp requires much less time.

Season some olive oil by browning a tablespoon of chopped garlic over medium heat. Bittman adds 6 dried red chiles to this step as well, but I used some Korean red pepper powder and added it later, while the tomatoes were cooking. After browning the garlic, turn off the heat for a minute, then add chopped tomatoes to the pan. I used some plum tomatoes, less than the four cups Bittman calls for. They were also less juicy than regular tomatoes, of course, which affected the sauce's consistency. In any case, bring the sauce to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer. Stir occasionally and season with salt and pepper if desired. By the time I was ready to add the shrimp, the tomatoes were starting to soften.

Cook the shrimp for about about five to ten minutes, until they're pink. Adjust the sauce seasonings if necessary, then stir in a cup of chopped fresh mint leaves. Dump over pasta and serve.

Bittman says the sauce should have the consistency of "a moist, almost soupy stew," but because my tomatoes weren't that juicy, I wound up with chunks of tomato instead, sort of a sauce in parts. I can't say it mattered to me, however, because it tasted just fine. The mint gave an almost electric zing to what would otherwise have been an ordinary Italian-style tomato sauce. It was a good change on Italian food as usual, as well as another dish whose taste outstrips the effort involved in puttting it together.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

The cook's weaknesses

I've been cooking long enough to realize that I have certain weaknesses. Last night's cooking session exposed a number of them:

1. The tendency to expect a side dish to function as an entree, due to an unwillingness to cook more than one thing at once.
2. Using less of the main ingredient in a dish, but all of the sauce, leading to something swimming in sauce.
3. A tendency to let the attention wander a bit.

So that was my attempt at "Not Your Mother's Green Beans" from Moosewood Restaurant Cooks at Home last night. Too much dressing for the green beans, pine nuts more burned than toasted, and a side dish thrust into unwanted prominence as an entree.

The dressing is composed of a quarter of a cup each of balsamic vinegar and olive oil, plus a chopped shallot and two tablespoons of fresh parsley, basil or chervil (I used Thai basil). This is poured over some boiled green beans and then toasted pine nuts are stirred in. The right main dish would make this an elegant side indeed. Another mark against my meal-planning skills. I also noticed that the balsamic vinegar and olive oil did not want to mix with each other.

This was one of those "cook and learn" meals.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

List of excuses

Yes, it's been quiet here lately. It started with a weekend out of town last weekend, then a cold which has spent the subsequent week (and has yet to depart). November is also National Novel Writing Month, just for another distraction. It never ends.

Earlier this week, my intent to make southeast Asian saute hit an unexpected roadblock when I discovered my two remaining cans of coconut milk had solidified into something like coconut cream. It was disappointing because I was all set to liven the saute up with chopped tomatoes and mushrooms. I decided to regroup and turn it into a more Chinese stir-fry. After seasoning the oil with garlic and ginger, I stir-fried sliced chicken breast for a minute, then added the tomatoes, spinach and mushrooms and stir-fried for a couple more minutes. In went the udon, and then in went the sauce (two tablespoons each of Chinese light soy, Shao Xing rice wine and oyster sauce, plus an overly generous teaspoon of sesame oil and too much Tabasco sauce). It worked out ok, and was more pungently garlicky on the second day when I had the leftovers for lunch, for some reason. Not quite what I had intended, but not a bad plan b. I'm still not sure what the deal with the coconut milk was, though.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

More hearty fare

Readers of food blogs probably know better, but I suspect that many Americans still consider vegetarian food to be an anemic assemblage of bean sprouts, lettuce and vegetables that you eat because they're good for you, not because they taste like something you would want to eat. Last night, I made my second try at "Pasta with Porcini Mushroom Sauce" from Moosewood Restaurant Cooks at Home, and I can report that this is vegetarian food with a heft that ought to please any meat-eater, especially one fond of red wine sauces.

The last time I tried this, I didn't cook the sauce down enough, so it ended up way too soupy. Last night, I cooked it down a little too much, because I was alternating cooking the sauce with composing an e-mail to The Lurker. Multi-tasking can be good in a kitchen, but not when it extends itself out of the kitchen entirely.

The basic method: soak some dried porcini in a cup and a half of boiling water. Meanwhile, saute a cup of chopped onion in two tablespoons of olive oil for ten minutes, then add two cups of sliced fresh mushrooms. Also add a teaspoon dried marjoram, four teaspoons fresh sage and a dash of salt. While this is going on, cook some pasta; linguini or fettuccini would be good for this but I used spaghetti last night. When the mushrooms begin to soften, add the porcini, then stir in a tablespoon of flour or cornstarch, 2/3 of a cup of red wine (I used Ravenswood Vintners Blend Zinfandel again) and a tablespoon of shoyu. Simmer until the sauce thickens, then pour over the pasta. Garnish with parmesan and/or fresh cracked black pepper, if desired.

The cookbook says, "This is an earthy, rich-tasting pasta for a hearty fall or winter meal," and that's no lie. The combination of red wine and mushrooms in sauce is classic with beef, of course. It works just as well with pasta, too.

Sunday, October 30, 2005

Oxtail and beach plum

Yesterday morning I decided to go shopping at the Pennsylvania Dutch Farmers Market. I went first thing in the morning, so I was able to start the day with breakfast there. I had bacon gravy over home fries (they were out of sausage gravy, alas). The gravy was thick, creamy and a little smoky-tasting. The home fries were little wedges of fried potato seasoned with pepper and probably a few other things; I was too busy scarfing it all down to be very analytical. Definitely the kind of solid food you feed to the farm hands to fortify them for a long day's work.

Once I had fortified myself, I settled down to shopping. I couldn't resist getting another bag of peanut brittle; the one I bought last week disappeared so fast! I need not to make a habit of this, though. I bought a pile of other things and hauled them all home. There's something about a big shopping trip that makes me feel very satisfied. When I get the food home and stashed away in the cupboards and pantry, I feel like I killed a mastodon all by myself. Yes, I can provide for myself. I know this rosy picture falls apart on closer analysis (it's all about the payment of money, not real providing skills), but it's a pleasant feeling if not examined closely.

One of the things I got yesterday was a pound of sliced oxtail. The minute I saw it at the meat counter, I knew I was going to dig out a recipe for oxtail stew. The one I used was Bruce Cost's "Slow-Simmered Oxtail, White Radish, and Star Anise" from Asian Ingredients. Since I didn't have any daikon, I substituted sliced carrots. After parboiling the oxtail for two minutes, you boil eight cups of water and add the oxtail, three star anise, a quarter cup of Shao Xing wine, four smashed garlic cloves and six slices of ginger. This mix is cooked over medium heat, partially covered, for an hour. Then you add one tablespoon of mushroom soy and two tablespoons of light soy, two pieces (one inch square apiece) of rock sugar and one and a half teaspoons of salt. Cooking continues for two and a half hours. At that point, add the carrot or radish and cook for 30 more minutes. Of course, I neglected the step of cooking the stew down until the sauce was greatly reduced, so what I got was more soupy. I suppose I can cook it down tonight when I heat the leftovers for dinner.

The stew was lighter in flavor than I expected, probably because I didn't cook it down. The oxtail was falling-off-the-bone tender, very delicious. The carrots were almost but not quite as tender. I threw in some remnant egg noodles from almost-finished packages, just to confuse the issue; not enough to be a main ingredient, but enough to keep cropping up. Then I sat down to dinner while watching Colameco's Food Show and finding out how easy good roast beef can be (I liked his paean to iceberg lettuce and Russian dressing, too, though Perfect Tommy would probably be scandalized).

Today, The Lurker and I went out to Sandy Hook. We saw some birds, but the sunny breezy day was just a perfect fall day to be savored, no matter your recreation of choice. Migrating hawks flew overhead regularly while sparrows, Yellow-rumped Warblers and hordes of Dark-eyed Juncos foraged in the scrub and undergrowth. One find we made was what proved to be a beach plum bush with indigo fruits hinting at a violet tinge and what can only be described as a pruinose sheen. (I'm surprised to be able to link a botanical definition, since The Lurker and I were thinking of pruinose dragonflies when we made the comparison. Learn something new every day.) I picked one and brought it home to confirm the identification. Once it was identified, I ate it; its tart flavor and big pit may not be the sort of thing that commercial food producers go for, but it has a mystique all its own for those who love the beaches and barrier islands of the Atlantic coast. Besides, that particular beach plum may not have been ripe.

All in all, a fine weekend. I just wish it could last longer.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Rosemary chicken

This is one of those dishes that make you happy to have an herb garden. I resorted to The Frugal Gourmet for this recipe, which can also be found here. The Frug ascribes it to Italy.

Rather than using a whole chicken, I cooked this with some boneless, skinless chicken thighs from the Pennsylvania Dutch Farmers Market. For the white wine, I chose the 2004 Seyval Blanc from Unionville Vineyards up in Ringoes, not too far from here. I discovered this winery when The Deacon served the Seyval Blanc at a get-together not long ago. I'm more of a red wine fan, but the Seyval Blanc hit me just right; not too dry, not too sweet. I'll have to drive up there and get a few more bottles at some point.

In any case, this was another nice simple dinner that made an evening special and provided excellent leftovers the following day. I served the rosemary chicken over some wide noodles from the Pennsylvania Dutch Farmers Market, which made a good combination. I have some of the extra-concentrated tomato paste mentioned in the recipe page linked above and I used two tablespoons, but then, I'm one of those people who believes you can't have too much tomato-ness.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Off-the-cuff lo mein

I wanted to make lo mein to celebrate the discovery of the world's oldest noodles. I finally got around to it last night. After casing the library for recipes, I finally went to Gloria Bley Miller's The Thousand Recipe Chinese Cookbook. I can't even say I used a recipe; Miller's "Miscellaneous Stir-Fried Combinations for Chow Mein or Lo Mein" is really more like a serving suggestion. Anyway, one type of meat and one type of vegetable suited me just fine, since I had celery and thawed pork on hand.

I was so lazy I used flavored wok oil rather than chopping my own garlic, onion and ginger. I stir-fried one sliced celery stalk and some sliced pork tenderloin in the oil, then added a nest of precooked Chinese egg noodles. After stirring the ingredients together, I added a sauce composed of two tablespoons of Chinese light soy, two tablespoons of Shao Xing wine and a teaspoon of sesame oil. After heating it through, I plated the whole thing. It disappeared soon afterward. If lo mein can be this easy, I think I might cook it more often.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

The sophisticate's dinner

Take one thick pork chop on the bone, a bottle of Zinfandel, some red miso and the right album on the stereo, and you too can have a sophisticated dinner. The night was Saturday and I had decided to cook "Pork Cutlet with Miso-Red Wine Sauce" from Mark Bittman's The Minimalist Cooks Dinner. Bittman speaks of this recipe's taste belying the effort involved and I have to concur, although I made it more effortful than Bittman does.

The issue was searing the pork chop in a hot skillet for four or five minutes on one side, then three or four minutes on the other side. Once I did this, there was still a healthy amount of pink in the middle of the chop, and I was hearing the word "trichinosis" muttering in my brain. So I put the chop on a baking tray and stuck it in the oven so I could finish it by baking. It eventually worked.

The sauce itself is comprised of a cup of red wine and two tablespoons of red miso (or akamiso). Once the pork chop is removed from the skillet, one adds the wine and cooks it down by half. Then one turns the heat to low and adds the miso, mixing it in well. I reserved some wine to mix with the miso beforehand, so I could add a miso-wine paste to the skillet (rather than two tablespoon-sized miso lumps, which can be time-consuming to mix in). I used Ravenswood's Vintner's Blend Zinfandel, which has been one of my favorite wines of late.

It was a great pork chop smothered in a great sauce. Enough sauce was left over that I was able to serve the rest over spaghettini last night and enjoy something that really was ridiculously easy and ridiculously good. On Saturday night, I paired it with Bittman's "Green Salad with Soy Vinaigrette." The salad dressing was quite hot, even though I thought the amount of cayenne called for was minimal (not that I'm complaining).

As for the album, it was Thelonius Monk and John Coltrane. Now that is some seriously sophisticated music, the perfect garnish for a great meal.

Saturday, October 15, 2005

Pad Thai

Anybody who cooks Thai food has to grapple with this classic sooner or later. There seem to be as many recipes as cooks. I used Nancie McDermott's recipe from Quick and Easy Thai, which can be found here.

I cooked it with shrimp and pork. It made a tasty assemblance of varied ingredients; the fresh lime juice added a lot to it. The chore of chopping up peanuts with a regular knife made me wonder if maybe I should cave in and get a food processor.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Vintage noodles

Very vintage. Lala forwarded a link to this BBC story about the oldest noodles ever found; archaeologists found them in China, of course. If I weren't already planning to make pad Thai later, I'd whip up some lo mein to honor the occasion. Maybe tomorrow.

Stew: the gift that keeps giving

It's October. New Jersey is currently suffering under a coastal storm that refuses to leave (we had it last weekend, and now it's drifted back to us). It's gray, cold and gloomy. And soggy. I haven't been birding with The Lurker and Perfect Tommy for way too long. Bleah. So I made a pot of beef stew earlier this week and have been eating it ever since.

I started with Marnie Henricksson's recipe for red-cooked beef stew from Everyday Asian, but I made a few changes this time. I added chopped celery and carrots, as well as a bay leaf for the seasonings. Rather than using Chinese mushroom soy, I used leftover chashu broth. The stew juice ended up lighter is color as a result, so I really can't call it red-cooked this time. The result was a stew with a mild flavor dominated by the aroma of star anise.

In a belated note for music fans, WXPN is doing its countdown of 885 best/favorite albums as voted by its listeners. I submitted a hopelessly obscure top ten list and only two of my albums have made it in so far. It's fun listening in when I can and keeping track of the results.

Now back to your regularly scheduled food blog.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Happy birthday blog

That's right, today is this blog's first birthday. This lark has proved to be a cooking inspiration, a great way to keep track of things, and a fun excuse for writing. I hope the next year is at least as much fun.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Joy of chicken

On Sunday night, I took a foray into another cuisine. When I was little, I loved Greek mythology; a practical effect of that was eating at Greek restaurants as often as I could get my parents to go along with it. At some point, the fad for both myth and food ebbed, but lately I've started thinking about it again.

This was "Roast Chicken, Greek Style" from The Frugal Gourmet Cooks Three Ancient Cuisines. Marinate the chicken in half a cup of olive oil, the juice of two lemons, a tablespoon of oregano and salt and pepper to taste for an hour. Then roast it in a 375 F oven for an hour. About as simple as it gets.

I used a two-pound "baby chicken" from the Asian supermarket since I was just cooking for myself. It was a little bigger than their game hens, which seem larger than the game hens one finds in a typical supermarket. Anyway, the chicken cooked up very well, tender but not underdone. It was just small, maybe even a little small for one person.

Saturday, October 08, 2005

Salty rice

Last week I made a Vietnamese stir-fry that required extended prep. The recipe comes from Ha Roda's A Vietnamese Kitchen and it calls for "Marinated Meat," so I marinated some sliced pork for a couple of days. The marinade combines a teaspoon each of fish sauce, light soy, oyster sauce and hoisin sauce, plus half a teaspoon of salt, two teaspoons chopped garlic, 1/8 teaspoon of black pepper and two tablespoons of chopped onion.

After I finished marinating, I threw together "Stir-Fried Green Beans." The beans are sliced in half lengthwise and stir-fried for three minutes. Then you add a mixture of two tablespoons light soy sauce, 1/8 teaspoon of salt and half a cup of water, and stir-fry for three more minutes. Turn out of the pan, and stir-fry the marinated meat in the pan until it changes color. Add the green beans back in, heat through and serve.

The first night I had this, I had it solo. It was very intense and assertive, almost smoky-tasting. The next night I had the leftovers with jasmine rice, which did a good job of soaking up the salty juices. Even with the bland rice to accompany the meat and beans, it was still a strongly-flavored dish. This would be best in an arrangement of dishes with varied tastes, rather than standing on its own.

Saturday, October 01, 2005

Hedonistic seafood

If one looks at the index for this blog, one will discover an embarrassing paucity of seafood entries. My excuse, such as it is, is that seafood has been a luxury item for me for a while. Thankfully, that has changed for the moment, so tonight I cooked shrimp for the first time in what seems like forever.

I tried Mark Bittman's recipe for "Shrimp in 'Barbecue' Sauce" from The Minimalist Cooks Dinner. I know one of the most overused sentences in this blog has got to be, "This is a quick easy meal," but this really was (well, ok, other than the bit about peeling and deveining the shrimp).

Melt half a stick of butter in a pan over high heat. Add the shrimp and two tablespoons of Worcestershire sauce. Cook until done, season with salt, pepper and lemon juice, and serve. This isn't brain surgery here. Bittman attributes this recipe to New Orleans.

I probably used too much butter, since my "barbecue" sauce ended up being more like drawn butter with a sweet undertone. The idea is to have a smoky, spicy flavor, which comes from the Worcestershire sauce and pepper. Of course, I forgot to add the pepper and lemon juice at the end, so I doubt my dinner was what Bittman had in mind, but damn, it was great to be cooking shrimp again. Better yet, I have enough extra shrimp stashed in the freezer for pad Thai in the not-too-distant future.

Another new used cookbook

Thursday's lunch was my first try from another recently purchased cookbook, Charmaine Solomon's The Complete Asian Cookbook. Completeness is always a dicey thing to claim, but this tome does at least include recipes from many Asian countries. The thing that caught my eye was the inclusion of countries not well covered in my library such as Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia, Sri Lanka, etc. It even has a section on Indian and Pakistani recipes. The Singapore section focuses on Nonya cooking.

My first attempt was "Beef with Sesame Sauce" (Bo Xao Dau Me) from Vietnam. I picked it because the book randomly fell open to it and it looked good and simple. It was a success on both counts. Just stir-fry some garlic and beef in peanut oil, then add the sauce makings (beef broth, water blended with cornstarch, sesame paste and hot bean sauce). Cook through and serve with rice (though noodles would be equally good). Depending on what cut of beef you want to use, you might be advised to marinate first, but I used sirloin and skipped that step.

I was a little worried about the sauce consistency as I cooked the ingredients; the cornstarch, although mixed smoothly with water, started producing lumps as it was added to the broth and pan (incidentally, I used chashu broth rather than regular beef broth). As it cooked and more ingredients were added, the consistency improved, though it never became what I would call smooth. The final result was tender beef in a savory sauce. The fire from the hot bean sauce was present but understated; the same was true of the sesame paste. The whole thing reminded me of other beef dishes such as beef with oyster sauce or soy sauce noodles with beef and greens; they are also beef dishes with an assertive gravy-like sauce, food that runs toward the heavier end of the Asian food spectrum.

This was one of those auspicious-seeming first recipes that seems to get a new cookbook off on the right foot.

Sunday, September 25, 2005

Better living through grits

Last night’s dinner was about successfully following someone else’s recipe. Today’s brunch was about following one’s own ideas. Ever since I fried up the pancetta for fettucini carbonara, I’ve been thinking that pancetta would go well with grits. This morning was the morning I essayed what I’ve come to think of as grits Italiano, a recipe not to be found in any cookbook that I’ve read (though I suppose the true grits Italiano would involve polenta, not grits).

While the grits were cooking according to the package instructions, I sautéed some sliced pancetta and fresh rosemary in some olive oil (regular olive oil, not extra virgin). When that was done, I removed the pancetta and as much of the rosemary as I could from the pan, then fried a sunny-side-up egg in the leftover oil/grease. Amazingly, the pancetta and grits were done at more or less the same time, so I mixed them up, then dropped the egg on top and broke the yolk so it could mix with the grits and other juices.

As always, there’s tinkering to be done in the future. I used too much olive oil, so I’ll reduce that next time. I’m still figuring out how to make grits with a consistency that I like; these were runnier than I prefer. Though rosemary is a strong flavor, it got lost in the final result, so next time I’ll add it later in the process, and probably augment it with some fresh lemon thyme and/or sage. But none of this is really the point.

The point is that after eating my homemade invented brunch, I felt mellow and content. I was full, but it was a “light full,” not the overly sated condition that often passes for full. The deeper sense of satisfaction I felt came from an idea that worked, a meal that came together in the same way that a good piece of writing can appear out of thin air and wind up on the paper. You don’t know where it came from, you just sat down to write something, but what came out of nowhere told you things you never realized. This is something totally different from following a recipe; if following a recipe is reading a map and getting where you meant to go (or not), this is drawing your own map and finding an unexpected treasure at the end of the path.

In the peaceful time after finishing the meal, I wanted for nothing. There was nothing I needed to do, no better place to be, nothing more to accomplish. It was enough. Life was enough, and life was good. It was a beautiful Zen moment that was better experienced than described; a kind of satori, perhaps. The fact that my mind is usually chasing after memories or plans or daydreams made the moment even more striking and unusual. The moment I got up to begin a load of laundry, it was gone and time started again.

In the vein of finding treasure unexpectedly in one’s own life, I’ll offer this post from Shauna at Gluten-free Girl. Some bits of her story remind me of things in my own life, though there are many differences as well. Read and enjoy.

Pork and cashews

It's not as though I really need more cookbooks. I'm sure my cookbook shelf is modest compared to many others (my mother has many more than I do, as does The Cruise Director, just to name two). But I went to Micawber Books last week and brought home two more cookbooks from their used section. Even though the cookbooks I already have are stuffed with bookmarks announcing the locations of recipes I want to try, last night I cooked something from one of my new used cookbooks, Ken Hom's Hot Wok. This cookbook was meant to accompany a tv series Hom did, and this book is the BBC edition, so it mentions things like aubergines and groundnut oil.

Last night's experiment was "Stir-Fried Chilli Pork with Cashews." You marinate the sliced pork in a blend of Shao Xing rice wine, light soy, sesame oil and cornstarch. From there, you stir-fry the pork (seasoned with salt and pepper) for two minutes, then turn it out of the pan. Next to be stir-fried are the cashews; after that you add some more rice wine, light soy, some hot bean sauce and sugar. Then the pork is returned to the pan and everything is stir-fried for another two minutes. It is intended to be served with rice and garnished with scallions, but I didn't prep enough to coordinate that much. No matter, as it worked out well. It reminded me of a less oily Sichuan spaghetti. The recipe calls for one tablespoon of the hot bean sauce, which is enough to add a good bite, but not so much as to make it too hot. You could easily add more or less hot bean sauce, to taste.

Hot Wok includes an assortment of dishes, mostly Asian or Asian-inspired. Heck, it might even inspire me to clean out my wok one of these days.

Friday, September 23, 2005

Late odds and ends

The combination of everyday busyness with a disinclination to cook anything exciting has led to a lack of entries here lately. I did try two Japanese dishes about a week ago, vegetarian spring rolls (from Hiroko Shimbo's A Japanese Kitchen) and beef and potato hot pot (from Victoria Abbott Riccardi's Untangling My Chopsticks, which is really a travel book with recipes). The spring rolls weren't too bad; the filling consisted of shiitake mushrooms, bean-thread noodles, garlic, bamboo shoots and scallions, with a beaten egg for binder. I had some of them piping hot from the oven and froze the rest. Although the rolls are supposed to look cylindrical when done, mine turned out more like little bite-sized envelopes.

My lack of success with potatoes continued with the hot pot. Ideally, meat and potatoes are simered in a sweet shoyu broth until the meat is tender and the potatoes are more or less melting into the thick sauce. I guess I needed to cook it longer to reach that level of consistency. Oh, well, edible but not exciting (though the broth turned out well).

I'll try to cook something this weekend. It's high time I got back into the swing of things.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Chilled chukasoba

Just in time for a return of hot and humid weather comes my stab at chilled chukasoba. If you like, it’s sort of a summer equivalent for ramen, but cool rather than piping hot. I used Hiroko Shimbo’s recipe from The Japanese Kitchen, but I made some changes in the accoutrements added to the noodles. Shimbo recommends veggies such as cherry tomatoes, bean sprouts and Japanese cucumbers. I decided to go with what I had on hand, so I substituted stir-fried shiitake mushrooms and bamboo shoots. Also added to the noodles was some chashu, which remains quite tasty, although it’s vanishing rather quickly. The noodles are a mix of chukasoba and bean thread noodles (aka glass noodles or cellophane noodles, among other things). They are covered with a sauce comprised of mirin, chicken stock, sugar, shoyu, rice vinegar, sesame oil and ginger juice.

The results, though fine, left me wanting to tinker. I made enough sauce to qualify as a broth, but the strong vinegar taste was more suited to a smaller quantity of dressing. The sauce and noodles would be better complemented by blanched fresh vegetables rather than the stir-fried canned and dried ones I used. I used sliced ginger rather than grating ginger for ginger juice, so any ginger present in the sauce was at best an undertone. In an attempt to reduce complexity, I omitted the traditional shredded omelet garnish. Still, it was a good illustration of what one can use chashu for.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005


Chinese cuisine boasts a roast pork dish known as char siu. You can buy char siu (or barbecued) pork in any well-appointed Chinese grocery. When the Japanese took on this dish, however, they changed it a bit. The Chinese barbecued pork became Japanese simmered pork, char siu became chashu. Chashu is a popular topping for ramen, another Chinese-cum-Japanese dish.

Chashu requires pork belly, so I hied myself down to the Asian supermarket and got some. It's another simple meal; I used Hiroko Shimbo's recipe. Trim off the skin and put the pork belly chunks into a pot, covered with water; add four halved garlic cloves, an ounce of sliced ginger, two tablespoons of sake and 2/3 cup of shoyu. Bring to a boil, skim the foam and then simmer (covered) for 40 minutes. Turn off the heat and let sit for 15 more minutes. At that point, you have chashu plus chashu broth, both of which have many applications.

I promptly used the chashu for lunch in yakisoba. Tonight I had a lump of it just for itself and enjoyed that, too. The long simmering made the pork very tender, so it makes a tasty treat indeed. I anticipate making Thai fried rice with it, and when I told The Deacon about it on Sunday (coming back from a bagels and lox brunch at her place), she strongly intimated that I might want to consider making it for them when I next came down for a cooking adventure. Meanwhile, the broth can be a good starter for ramen, and I have ideas about using it instead of beef stock for certain Frugal Gourmet dishes.

In other news, Saturday night found me at the Americana Diner with the usual suspects (plus two) and I gave the Americana a chance to wow me with prime rib. It didn't quite come up to the Algonquin level, but it was still a fine, fine prime rib. And every time I have the house salad, I like it more.

Saturday, September 10, 2005

The garden in (almost) fall

It's been a VERY long time since I last posted a garden update, so I figured why not today? Actually, it's an idea that's been hanging around for a while, but I haven't gotten around to it.

The season is getting cooler, so it's time to put in some more cool-weather veggies. My lettuce kept going surprisingly well through the summer heat, but now it should come into its glory again; there are three good-looking Simpson Elite lettuces coming up as we speak. I've started planting spinach again, too. Most of my Asian greens have wound up feeding Cabbage White butterflies (or their caterpillars) and not me. I tried another pea plant, which has conked out, so I'll give it another shot. The hot peppers didn't amount to anything. The tomato soldiers on and I've saved some more seeds from it; I may get a few more tomatoes from it, if the remaining flowers are any indication.

In the Unwanted Predator Department, I've had to move my scallions inside because the neighbor's cat was coming over and grazing on them. They still seem to be alive, at least.

Both mint plants are doing pretty well, though the orange mint has aphids and I really need to do something about that. The sage plants are hanging on, but looking a little peaked. The lemon thyme and rosemary are still in great shape. After being repotted, the bergamot has started to establish itself better. I have tropical sage seedlings but not much more, since I probably planted them too late. The big herb success was Thai basil, which has produced abundantly and is reseeding itself hither and yon. I didn't get a lot of mitsuba before it went to seed, but it also is reseeding itself, and I've clipped off some of the seed heads to save (I'll do that with the basil, too). Finally, my attempt at adding cilantro to the herb garden was a complete failure.

It's a mixed bag, but that was all I expected from my first real year of gardening. Next year should be much more productive. I hope.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Ginger-flavored pork

Here's a light snack from Hiroko Shimbo's The Japanese Kitchen. She calls it "Ginger-Flavored Pan-Fried Pork," and says it is a popular lunch item in Japan. Just marinate some thin-sliced pork loin in two teaspoons of shoyu and two teaspoons of ginger juice for two minutes. Then pan-fry the meat in a blend of one tablespoon of vegetable oil and one tablespoon of sesame oil until golden. Serve with veggies (she recommends stir-fried bean sprouts) and white rice.

My pork wasn't thin-sliced; I chopped up some pork chops into cubes, more or less. I used chopped ginger rather than ginger juice, and hoped the juice would insinuate itself into the marinade. It was fast, it was simple and it was tasty. Even though my rice didn't turn out great (too gummy from not enough boiling), once I put the pork and sauce on top of it, the rice improved a great deal. I deglazed the pan with some sake, an adaptation that Shimbo doesn't include, but which got some of the nice pan juices out of the pan and onto lunch.

This was good hot off the stove and cold later on.

Sunday, September 04, 2005

Fettucini carbonara

The first recipe from a new cookbook is always a rite of passage. No collection can be judged by a single recipe, of course, but a good result gets everything off on the right foot. A disappointing result, on the other hand, brings doubt about one’s cooking abilities, book selection skills, or both.

A couple of weeks ago, I picked up Mark Bittman’s The Minimalist Cooks Dinner. I’ve been catching Bittman’s PBS show How to Cook Everything on an irregular basis on NJN tv. I like some episodes better than others, but some of the recipes look pretty good. In any case, when I flipped through the book, it looked like a good no-frills guide to cooking. Most dishes are western ones, but there are some Asian and Asian-inspired dishes as well. I also like the tips and variations for each recipe.

Yesterday, I decided to try Bittman’s version of pasta carbonara, which he lists as a variation of the “Pasta alla Gricia” recipe. Carbonara has historically been one of the things I buy as a frozen dinner, so the idea of making it for myself is attractive. I previously tried a Frugal Gourmet version of carbonara, but due to my use of 1% milk rather than whole milk, the results left something to be desired.

To start things off, I sautéed some pancetta in a couple of tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil until it was browned and crispy. Then I removed the pancetta from the heat and started to cook the spinach fettucini I was using for this dish (rather than the more typical spaghetti). While the pasta was cooking, I mixed three beaten eggs, a half cup of grated parmesan cheese and the pancetta and its juice in a warm pot. When everything was done, more or less at the same time (the egg was even starting to set in the bottom of the pot), I mixed it all up and garnished it with some more grated parmesan and pepper.

It turned out to be a rich pasta dish, quite filling and almost decadent (thanks to the eggs, no doubt). There was nothing remotely thin about this sauce. I probably used more pancetta than necessary; a little less would’ve balanced the ingredient proportions better. At times, I tasted a somewhat bitter undertone; I suspect that this was due to the fact that I used relatively cheap olive oil, or perhaps to overheating it. I had thought that cooking with extra virgin olive oil was a no-no (because of its delicacy), but Bittman cooks with it regularly in this book.

So, based on yesterday’s lunch, this cookbook looks like a worthy addition to my library.

Sunday, August 28, 2005

Six of one

This weekend was distinguished (if that's the word I want) by two mixed successes of meals. Yesterday I attempted "Savory Yellow Rice" from From Bangkok to Bali in Thirty Minutes by the Laursens. The idea is to wind up with yellow rice seasoned by a blend of spices and cooked in chicken stock. The yellow color comes from turmeric, of course; other spices, added in slightly larger amounts, are coriander, cinnamon and cumin. Onions are also cooked with the rice.

Once too much cinnamon hit the skillet, however, it became clear that this yellow rice was going to be brown. I really should've measured out the spices ahead of time, rather than relying on my reflexes during the heat (sorry) of the stir-frying moment. Oddly enough, in the final analysis, cumin was the flavor that dominated. The rice cooked up just fine; it's basically a sort of southeast Asian pilaf. It just wasn't the most inspiring thing I've ever eaten. Then again, if I had made it to accompany another dish, it probably would've been fine playing a supporting role.

Tonight, with some sirloin thawed, I resorted to The Frugal Gourmet Cooks with Wine and tried adapting one of his rabbit recipes, "Rabbit in Vermouth." The main problem here was that sirloin cooks fast, while the recipe is a slow-cooker, requiring sauteeing, then extended simmering. With stew chuck or a relatively tough cut of beef, this would be pretty nice. As it was, I halved the cooking times and the sirloin, though overcooked, was not as tough as it could've been.

A brief overview: I sauteed the sirloin in four tablespoons of olive oil for three minutes, then added a sliced garlic clove and sliced onion and sauteed for five minutes. I added three tablespoons of flour, half a tablespoon of fresh rosemary needles, and a sprinkling of salt and pepper, then stirred the mixture. Then came a cup of vermouth. I stirred it all some more, let it come to a boil, then covered and reduced the heat. I let it simmer for about 25 minutes, tasted the beef and concluded it really didn't need to go any longer (the recipe calls for simmering for 45 minutes).

As I mentioned, the beef could've turned out tougher, and the sauce itself was very nice. It had a surprising lemon-like quality to it, perhaps from the olive oil. Whatever it was, there's plenty left over, which I will doubtlessly be using for various leftover-type dishes over the next few days.

Saturday, August 27, 2005

An observation

I was glancing over the "Recent Posts" sidebar and noticed that lineup included dishes from China, Japan, Korea, Thailand and Vietnam, not to mention the odd fusion concoction, one from The Frug and an Italian dinner out. I still have a long way to go, but it feels like a mark of progress that someone who just started out wanting to make Japanese food at home can cook from so many different cuisines in the course of a week or two. As I get more comfortable cooking cuisines relatively new to me, it is easier to mix them in with old favorite standbys. I guess it's all part of the process of becoming a good cook. Whatever it is, it's rather satisfying.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

Almond chicken

In contrast to last summer, when much of my cooking came from it, this year I've been cooking much less from Ken Hom's Easy Family Recipes from a Chinese-American Childhood. That's a shame, because it's a terrific cookbook. It did a lot to demystify Chinese cooking for me. Recipes are accompanied by reminiscences of growing up in Chicago's small Chinatown.

The other night I decided to renew my acquaintance with Easy Family Recipes. I picked one of the easiest, "Almond Chicken" (it can be done with cashews, too). Once the chicken is velveted, all you do is heat some oil, add light soy sauce, Shao Xing rice wine and the chicken to the wok or pan, then stir-fry for two minutes. Add chopped scallions and roasted whole almonds, heat through, and serve.

Velveting is a method of preparing chicken. Traditionally one uses oil, but I use water instead, in a variation from Hom. First you "marinate" the chicken pieces in an egg white, a teaspoon of salt and two teaspoons of cornstarch for about 20 minutes. Then you boil some water, remove the pan from the heat and add the chicken pieces. Cook, stirring, until the chicken turns white, about two minutes. Then drain in a colander.

Actually, I should've reread the velveting section before attempting the dish. I boiled the chicken too long, and didn't stir, so I ended up with some lightly charred chicken pieces (which were not too bad, surprisingly). The chicken was dried out from its velveting session, too, rather than having the moisture kept in by the egg coating. As almost always, I was too lazy to separate the egg yolk from the white, but even with the same kind of neglect in the past, I've gotten better results from velveting in the past. It's obviously time for a refresher course in Chinese cooking.

The stir-fry portion of the evening was eventful too, as I used too much oil and subsequently had much splattering when the cold soy sauce and rice wine hit the skillet. Whew. Finally, I grabbed the wrong bottle of soy sauce in my haste, and wound up using mushroom soy instead of light soy in the sauce. That didn't turn out too badly though.

Parenthetical note: I like to use slivered almonds in this dish instead of whole ones.

When time came to salvage the leftovers for lunch today, I wound up turning it into a salad. I mixed the chicken and almond pieces with some shredded iceberg lettuce and sprinkled some light soy sauce on top by way of a "dressing." It wasn't too bad, considering the haphazard nature of the exercise, but I should've bulked it up with more ingredients, since it left me hungry this afternoon. I'm sure that I could come up with a better dressing with a little more forethought and care. Oh, well, when your cooking disasters still turn out reasonably edible, I guess you can't complain too much.

Monday, August 22, 2005

Lemongrass pork noodles

When flipping through Ha Roda's A Vietnamese Kitchen, I hit upon another recipe to try. It was billed as "Grilled Pork Noodles," but instructions are given for baking or frying the noodles as well. It's pretty simple; just marinate the pork and bake at 350 degrees F for about 25 minutes. When done, serve over rice stick noodles.

The marinade is more involved than the marinade from Marnie Henricksson's similar lemongrass pork chops. Roda calls for fish sauce, soy sauce, hoisin sauce, oyster sauce, garlic, onion, scallions, lemongrass (of course) and black pepper. Both recipes recommend marinating the meat for at least three hours, but I skimped on that this time.

Another thing I skimped on was garnishes. I should've topped it with sweet-and-sour fish sauce, cilantro, mint, peanuts and bean sprouts, but the smell of the baking pork was so wonderful, I just pulled it out of the oven, dumped it on the noodles and had it as is. It was quite edible in spite of that.

The following night I added a few things, including the sweet-and-sour fish sauce. Roda gives a recipe for it; essentially it is fish sauce augmented with rice vinegar, sugar, garlic and a Thai hot pepper. The additional seasonings add an interesting depth to the fish sauce; I have a bottle of it in the fridge, so I will be trying it with other dishes in the future.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Off-the-cuff beef yakisoba

In spring, I raved about a particularly perfect version of beef yakisoba. Last night, I came up with a less labor-intensive version of the same thing, with no loss in taste. I just took some sliced sirloin and stir-fried it in peanut oil, then added chukasoba noodles and a sauce composed of two tablespoons of shoyu, two tablespoons of kotterin and one teaspoon of sesame oil. The taste was every bit as good as the marinated version I tried in spring.

Monday, August 15, 2005

Hot Korean salad

Tonight I tried my first recipe from Hi Soo Shin Hepinstall's Growing Up in a Korean Kitchen. It's a fascinating book about growing up on a farm/estate in Korea, though some of the recipes are not what you would try at home. It is good to learn how to make homemade soy sauce and toenjang (fermented soybean paste), but how many will want to make enough to last a family of five for a year?

What I did was on a much smaller scale: I tried "Leaf Lettuce Salad." I diverged from the recipe by serving the dressing over some pea shoots from the Asian supermarket rather than lettuce, but this would go well with all kinds of greens. The dressing mixes soy sauce (I used shoyu), minced scallion and garlic, ch'ongju (Korean rice wine), rice vinegar, salted shrimp (I used dried shrimp powder), lemon juice, sesame oil, toasted sesame seeds, red pepper flakes and black pepper. As one might guess from that suite of ingredients, this is a hot, garlicky salad dressing, but it was not as hot as I feared. For once, I did not reduce any of the hot seasonings, since lately I seem to want more heat in my food, not less. Think of it as a spicy vinaigrette, with maybe a hint of a shrimp undertone at times. It was refreshing, and I'm sure I'll use it again.

Too many nights on the town

The problem with having a night on the town is that then you have to come home and blog it. Add normal tiredness and other things taking up one's time and, well, here's a telegraphic version of three meals out I've had in the last week. All deserve more time and space.

Tuesday night: Masala Grill in Princeton with Lala and company. Shrimp tikka, lamb biryani, palak paneer, plus other stuff I'm forgetting. All was excellent; my lamb biryani was a little spicier (hotter) than I expected but that was probably due to my lack of Indian food knowledge. Collectively, the symphony of spices from the various dishes we shared ended up being a little overwhelming to me. Indian food 19, Winslow 2.

Saturday night: Olga's Diner in Marlton, a far-famed real diner (according to Perfect Tommy, who is up on these things). It was the aftermath of a birding trip on the hottest day of the year. Bring your appetite if you go to Olga's; our entrees were accompanied by two vegetables, soup and salad bar and added up to enough food to serve a small army. Perfect Tommy and I honored separate sets of Florida memories by having the broiled grouper, while The Lurker had the Virginia ham. The grouper was lovely and flaky, served with drawn butter. The beef barley soup was surprisingly refreshing on the hottest day of the year, but we were in an air conditioned diner and evening had fallen by then. Perfect Tommy gave his vegetable soup high marks.

Sunday night: dinner at Lala's. Lala's husband served up this Thai recipe for chicken satay from ImportFood. It was very tasty; the cucumber sauce that accompanied the chicken was a piquant palate-clearer.

There, I think that covers it for now.

Saturday, August 13, 2005

The Frug does it again

The Frugal Gourmet leaves a mixed legacy of cuisine and scandal, alas, but at least the recipes are still good. Last night I tried "Chicken Pieces with Lime" from the original The Frugal Gourmet. You can find the recipe here, though there is no attribution to the recipe's source. It's another simple recipe in which you coat the chicken pieces with the olive oil, lemon juice, thyme and pepper, then bake.

I used four leftover pieces of chicken from a kosher chicken I bought a few months ago (the pieces were in the freezer), two breasts and two wings. For the thyme, I used lemon thyme from the garden, which I thought would add a nice touch to this lemon and lime infused dish. And yes, I didn't have fresh lemons or limes in the house, so I used those little bottles of juice instead, which is probably a mortal cooking sin.

If so, it didn't seem to matter, as the chicken turned out extremely well. It was moist and tender, with nice crispy skin. It was also quite flavorful. The Frugal Gourmet concocted this recipe to show that salt was not necessary to good cooking, but honestly, it was so good when it came out of the oven I almost didn't need the lime juice that replaces salt. The prep was easy; about the most time-consuming thing was pulling the thyme leaves off the sprig I had picked. Then I baked the chicken for a little more than an hour, until the chicken was cooked to the bone (it may have taken a little longer to bake because the breasts were probably not completely thawed when they went in the oven). No matter. This is a winner that will definitely remain in the repertoire.

Friday, August 12, 2005

Lemongrass not-chicken

Last week I got a new cookbook, a Vietnamese one recently published by Hippocrene. A Vietnamese Kitchen by Ha Roda chronicles family recipes, particularly those from her aunt Bac Kit, a retired chef. The recipes range from authentic Vietnamese fare to dishes influenced by the family journey to America and Bac Kit's career as a chef in the new country. The family's story is well told, and there is additional information about Vietnamese culture, but the main thrust of the book is the recipes (almost all illustrated by a black-and-white photo).

My maiden voyage with this cookbook turned out to be "Lemongrass Chicken." Chopped chicken is marinated in a blend of fish sauce, soy sauce (I used Chinese light soy), rice vinegar, honey and oyster sauce; this marinade is additionally spiced with lemongrass, salt, garlic, onion, ginger and black pepper. I also added some Tabasco sauce, since Roda admits she prefers to reduce the heat in her recipes.

After the chicken has marinated for at least half an hour, it is cooked over high heat for ten minutes, along with the marinade. This led to a near-burning experience as the marinade was absorbed by the Quorn tenders I was using instead of chicken. Just in time, I got to add half a cup of water, stir, then cover and simmer for 20 minutes. When done, the chicken is garnished with scallions and served with jasmine rice.

I had high hopes for this dish, and indeed it was very simple to cook, but the taste wasn't quite to my liking. I'm not sure whether it was the mix of spices, not using real chicken meat, or just the near-charred quality; maybe it was a mix of them. Maybe it was even the hopeful chef's relative lack of familiarity with real Vietnamese food. In any case, the final result was a very strongly flavored dish, even when mixed with the jasmine rice. That probably can't be helped when using ingredients like fish sauce and oyster sauce. In any case, I will definitely try this again with real chicken, and I look forward to cooking other dishes in the book and developing my taste for Vietnamese food.

Saturday, August 06, 2005

Wherefore art thou?

I've been dying to get back to Romeo's since I first ate there after a birding trip with The Lurker, Perfect Tommy and The Blonde Bandit. It's a pricey Italian restaurant, but everyone agreed that the food was more than worth the money. This was a neat trick, given that Perfect Tommy's Italian ancestry makes him even more demanding of Italian food than he is normally.

We will pass over a tedious interval of low cash flow and segue to Thursday night, when I decided I needed to give myself a treat. I took myself back to Romeo's and had a fabulous meal. I ordered the chicken milano special and man, was it good. The thick sherry sauce was so creamy it was almost cheesy (but not in a bad way). The chicken was tender, the way my mom cooks it. The sun-dried tomatoes had a winy intensity that mellowed nicely when combined with a mouthful of pasta. The mushrooms were tender and perfectly done. The service was impeccable. All in all, it was a great meal. I can't eat like that every night (and wouldn't want to, frankly), but once again, Romeo's delivered. It did take a little bit longer than expected to get my doggie bag, but that was no big deal (or so I thought).

Last night I got out my leftovers to reheat and indulge some more. When I realized that my chicken milano had been transformed into chicken and pasta with mushrooms and marinara sauce, I realized that a mistake had been made; too late to repair it, though. I had been seated near another solo diner and we had both finished our meals, asked to have the leftovers wrapped up and requested our checks at about the same time. The two doggie bags had been switched by mistake. An understandable mistake, I guess, but particularly disappointing because the meal was so good and I had so been looking forward to finishing it off the day after.

I'll be back at Romeo's, I know, but next time I'll pay a little more attention to what happens to the doggie bag.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

The three i's

They would be porcini hijiki fettucini, which I had for dinner Sunday night. The combination of porcini mushrooms and hijiki seaweed hit me, for some reason, and the more I thought about it, the more intriguing it got. I used the sauce from porcini fettucini. In practice, it was as interesting as in theory, but the bright taste of the porcini contrasted too much with the earthier hijiki (if something from the sea can rightly be called "earthy"). This is going to require more tweaking in the future, but if I get everything properly balanced, it could wind up being really good.

Monday, August 01, 2005

Night(s) of the living noodles

Even I never thought I could get a bowl of leftovers through the better part of one week, but I reckoned without Chiang Mai curry noodles. This dish hails from the northern part of Thailand and finds its roots in Burmese cooking, according to Real Thai, but Thais have adopted it for their own and have worked some changes on it. The recipe I used came from Quick and Easy Thai, and can be found here.

I followed the recipe the first night (apart from not making the deep-fried noodle nest intended to garnish the dish). The next night, I decided it needed some more noodles, so I cooked some rice flakes and tossed them into the curry. Also not bad, though a curry with two different kinds of noodles was probably overkill. The following night, I thought the remaining curry needed another infusion of starch to make up for the noodles that had been eaten, so this time I made jasmine rice and stirred it in. I froze a portion of that version, and that was what went to the Falcon Ridge Folk Festival with me. The meat I used was chicken thigh meat.

This made a good solid meal (well, ok, several good solid meals). It was a relatively mild curry in terms of heat. The chicken thigh meat complemented the sweet coconut milk-based curry nicely. Another winner from my latest favorite cookbook.

Sunday, July 31, 2005

Festival food

Last weekend I went to the Falcon Ridge Folk Festival with some friends including The Lurker and The Dancer. It has become a tradition for us. We camp on the farm where the festival is held, which makes it very convenient to catch all the music one could want. Since we camp, we bring some food with us; the rest we buy on the midway.

Stuff I brought this year included:

*Gatorade - essential for long days outdoors, especially in summer.
*seedless green grapes - quick doses of food and fluid in an easily managed package. Unfortunately, the sun, heat, and trips in and out of the cooler are hard on them, and some always go to waste.
*Stella D'oro Marguerite breakfast cookies.
*an assortment of tea bags - I only drank the Ten Ren ginger tea and Good Earth Original tea this time.
*two small bottles of Caravelle Thai tea - delicious!
*arare - Japanese rice crackers labeled "Friendly Pack" in a blue and white bag.
*butter cookies from the bakery at the Asian supermarket - tasty but on the dry side.
*Goya Maria cookies - not eaten during the festival, so I'm been snacking on them this week.
*Chiang Mai noodles that would not die – lunch on Friday, but more about them in the next post.

One of my favorite things about FRFF is Myron's Number 1 Yakitori. I discovered Myron's sauces in the supermarket and was quite happy to buy them off the shelf (my favorite is the tsukeyaki). Then I was strolling the FRFF midway in 1997 (my first visit to the festival) when I spotted a red stand selling yakitori. It was Myron himself. Boy, did that make me happy.

Myron’s stand sells an assortment of food. You can get beef teriyaki or chicken yakitori on rice, chilled noodles in spicy peanut sauce, pork or vegetarian shumai, and iced jasmine tea. The shumai in particular are highly addictive. If you want to doctor your food, a full assortment of Myron’s sauces is available, along with sriracha sauce. More than one musician playing the festival has lauded Myron’s food from the stage; I remember the Waybacks waxing eloquent about the shumai when they played Winterhawk (FRFF’s currently inactive sister festival) a few years back. If you want a souvenir, Myron will be happy to sell you bottles of sauce to take home.

This year I had the chicken yakitori; it was tender on the inside with not too much char on the outside, skewered with green pepper and onion and served on white rice. I also had the delectable pork and leek shumai and a teriyaki sirloin special without rice (a little on the rare side but not enough to cause trouble).

One quibble about Myron’s is the smallish portion sizes, but that is not uncommon on the midway (and besides, it makes portions easier to carry around). A number of stands bucked the trend this year by serving up big platters of food (then again, Sunflower Pizza has always offered huge slabs of pizza). Since the festival audience is a captive one, prices tend to be on the high side (at $8 for a pulled pork sandwich from the barbecue stand, The Lurker regretfully said no). Vegetarian food has always been well-represented at the festival, but those of us who require meat to get through a long camping weekend have been left wanting more. Not this year. There was barbecue, there were chicken fingers, there was a new Cajun stand.

Since I wasn’t there for the whole festival, I missed some places I normally visit. With all the Gatorade, I never needed a smoothie for emergency rehydration. I never had a morning blast of cappuccino. I missed Sunflower Pizza and never got around to sampling the ginger ice cream at the 4-H stand. I did get catfish cakes at the Cajun stand. The cakes were small, mild and of falling-apart consistency; the accompanying remoulade was also mild but tasty and a good complement. The “Cajun slaw” served on the side was a mix of sliced peppers, onions and radishes in a vinegary sauce – not bad, but not quite what I was in the mood for. I wanted to go back and try some of the other Cajun food, but that didn’t happen either.

Finally, in an indication that I may be doing something right in the diet and exercise department, I was able to hike up the steep hill without huffing and puffing for the first time ever. We camp on the hill and the stages are at the bottom of the hill, so the trek back up to the campsite is never a welcome prospect. Even though there are shuttle buses, one always ends up climbing the hill more often than expected.

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Chicken and Thai basil

Last night I made another recipe from Quick and Easy Thai. It really was quick and easy, not to mention delicious. It was "Chicken with Fresh Basil." There is also a version of this recipe in Real Thai. You can find the recipe here.

Although the recipe calls for holy basil, I used Thai basil from the garden. It added terrific flavor to the chicken and sauce. I only used one chile, and could've gone higher on the heat with no ill effects; on the other hand, my last bite of the meal involved one of the chile pieces and boy, was it hot! It was good, though. The sauce was dark and rich, but not overbearingly so. Yet another winner from this cookbook, which has been a real pleasure to cook through so far.

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Return to the blog

Well, no, I hadn't deserted it. It's just that when life gets a little busy, the blog is often put on the back burner (as it were). I've been cooking, and have a few new things to blog, but I haven't gotten around to it yet. More stuff soon, I promise.

Sunday, July 17, 2005

Return to Soonja's

This post actually belongs earlier in the week, on Tuesday night, but the mood has been up and down, mainly thanks to my aging car. But I try to keep my non-cooking woes out of this blog as much as possible, so on to Soonja's.

It's been a while since I've really eaten out for any reason other than a birding trip. On Tuesday, though, I decided to celebrate my hopefully solvent future. I also wanted to thank The Deacon for her various forms of support, so I treated her to dinner at Soonja's Restaurant in Princeton.

Soonja's is a small pan-Asian style restaurant much favored by the local populace. We got there early on a Tuesday in July, however, so we practically had the place to ourselves. Later in the evening, and at times when the university is in session, that would be a neat trick indeed. Soonja's features dishes from Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Thai cuisines. They have an extensive sushi menu. They also have a "create your own noodle dish" option, which is what The Deacon had on this visit (she chose soba noodles, chicken, and ginger scallion sauce). Although The Deacon doesn't do raw fish, she had the oshinko maki (Japanese pickle) roll for a first course.

In keeping with my recent reading on Korean food, I had beef bulgogi. This was the first time I'd had bulgogi and I was impressed with the rich smoky flavor. The bulgogi was served with rice, vinegared bean sprouts and slivered carrots with a touch of sesame oil, and miso soup. I had a tempura appetizer as well. It was very generous (8-10 pieces), mostly vegetables with two shrimp. Unfortunately, this tempura didn't come up to the quality of past favorites such as the tempura from the Fuji in NYC or from Sukeroku in Little Falls. The batter on the shrimp was not light and fluffy, but more of the consistency one would expect from conventional fried shrimp. The batter on the veggies was much better.

As for beverages, The Deacon had a pot of oolong tea, while I indulged in a sweet Thai iced tea. We were too full for dessert, alas. Maybe next time, because there certainly will be a next time (and next times after that). Soonja's provides an assortment of good Asian food from several different countries. The atmosphere is casual and enjoyable (one quibble: the lighting is on the dim side). It's definitely one of my favorite local restaurants.

Monday, July 11, 2005

First tomato of the season

Late last season, I planted some seeds from my patio tomato plant. I kept it growing through the winter. There were several diebacks, times when it seemed done for, but new green growth always kept coming up from some part of the plant. Come spring, I put it out on the deck and watched it flower (as well as drop some flowers). The payoff finally came today when I picked a small, cracked but ruby red tomato off the plant. I sliced it up with some homegrown lettuce and had a homegrown salad. It may have been a small tomato (bigger than a cherry tomato, smaller than a plum tomato) but it had the rich ripe flavor that homegrown tomatoes are known for.

Best of all, there are more tomatoes coming on. I guess I'll have to save some of these seeds too.

Sunday, July 10, 2005

Shopping spree

It was inevitable. As I read through Growing Up in a Korean Kitchen, I kept encountering new and unfamiliar ingredients. The Korean aisle in the Asian supermarket started exerting a gravitational pull. I made a list. But wouldn't you know it, yesterday's supermarket trip was made on the spur of the moment, and who knows where the list is.

Korean stuff I bought: pine nuts, hot red pepper paste, cooking wine, napa cabbage and boiled oyster mushrooms. Only a start, involving items that I knew were featured frequently in the cookbook and which I remembered clearly enough that I felt comfortable buying them. The dried bellflower root and boiled fernbracken got put back due to a need for further research. I wasn't sure if the soybean paste was really fermented soybean paste (toenjang), so I left it, too.

I also learned a lesson regarding the usefulness of reference sources when shopping at the Asian supermarket. Growing Up in a Korean Kitchen describes a host of ingredients, but in generic terms (no brand names, in other words) and the Korean names are given as English transliterations, not in Korean characters. Asian Ingredients often does give brand names and even descriptions for the items it recommends, but it is weaker on Korean ingredients than on Chinese or Japanese. As a result, I was left trying to puzzle out English names on bottles and boxes, knowing full well that an English description on an Asian container may fall woefully short of a useful title. I may have to teach myself the Korean alphabet. This is the sort of thing that makes me think that a "cheat sheet" of Asian characters frequently used in food labels (Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Thai, etc., etc.) would be a really helpful item.

While at the Asian supermarket, I also got more usual items such as ginger, firm tofu, abura-age, Chinese broad noodles, Thai chiles and green tea ice cream. I was also able to confirm that the ducks at the Asian supermarket are half the price of the ones at the Pennsylvania Dutch Farmer's Market, but I had suspected as much anyway. The cutest incident I witnessed was when a dad picked up a big angled luffa and pretended it was a snake. His kids gleefully pretended they were terrified of the "snake." Just in general, there were piles of gorgeous-looking produce; it was very difficult to walk past all of it.

Saturday, July 09, 2005

Mussamun curry

Another week, another Thai dish. This time it was "Mussamun Curry Beef with Potatoes and Peanuts" from Quick and Easy Thai. Real Thai has another version of this which is much more labor-intensive (plus the book includes a recipe for homemade mussamun curry paste, rather than recommending the store-bought variety). You can find lots of recipes for mussamun or massaman curries on the web.

The mussamun curry paste is more like an Indian curry, with its complex interplay of spices and a fairly restrained chile bite. I substituted duck stock for the suggested chicken or beef stock. The beef wound up being overcooked, with an almost fishy flavor (I guess from the seasonings). That said, it wound up tasting pretty good; the curry sauce was smooth, sweet and flavorful. Last night I had the curry straight (it was almost soup-like), but today I poured it over rice. I may have to stop using my big Pyrex bowl for such meals, however. It conducts heat so well that it's impossible to pick up the bowl when it's full of steaming hot food. If one has a dining room table, it may not be such a big deal, but since I usually eat my dinners curled up in an armchair (aka "the comfy chair"), it presents a problem.

Monday, July 04, 2005

More than wonderful

When faced with the challenge of throwing together lunch for a trip with The Lurker and Perfect Tommy yesterday, I decided to go the Thai route. I had spare rice, I had leftover Kaga-style duck. It was time for fried rice. I followed my last version of Thai fried rice; the only changes were that I used the leftover duck, I added spinach, and I threw in an extra splash of fish sauce at the end to get more of the flavor bits off the skillet.

This fried rice turned out so well I might have to make duck Kaga-style in the future just so it's available to make fried rice. The flavorful bits of meat added the right accent to the rice; the duck wasn't overpowering this time, it was part of a complete balanced dish. The rice was great, partly because the delicious teriyaki-type sauce on the duck made its way into the rest of the dish. This was a real winner.

Friday, July 01, 2005

Too wonderful

Tonight's dinner really made me appreciate Japanese meal-planning. What a westerner might call an "entree" is only one of several dishes; it is augmented by rice, soup, a pickle or other vegetable offering. The portions are small and create a medley of tastes and visual impressions. No platters heaped with gigantic helpings of a single food here.

Dinner made me appreciate Japanese meal-planning because, as usual, I didn't follow it. Getting one kind of food on the table taxes my coordination level enough; making a dinner involving several different things is too much effort and planning. Most of the time, I'm only cooking for me so it doesn't matter. But when you make a sinfully rich meal like duck Kaga-style, too much of a good thing can be too much (though it was also wonderful, as Mae West once noted).

I adapted this recipe from Hiroko Shimbo's The Japanese Kitchen. Well, ok, I left out the step of searing the duck breast first, but Shimbo herself says she added this step to the recipe. Omitting it was probably the right decision tonight, since I bought a whole duck at the Pennsylvania Dutch Farmer's Market and carved the breast meat myself. Since my poultry-carving skills are rudimentary at best, I was pleased I didn't make more of a mess than I did.

Slice the duck breast, flour it in a blend of regular and buckwheat flour, then leave the sliced meat to sit for 20 minutes at room temperature. Meanwhile, create a broth from two cups of dashi, one cup each of sake and mirin, half a cup of shoyu and two or three tablespoons of sugar (I used three since I was using cooking sake).

When the meat is ready, add the green parts of two scallions and any extra duck skin or fat you have trimmed from the meat to the broth and bring to a boil. Once the broth is boiling, remove the scallion greens and duck skin or fat from the pot. Add the white parts of two scallions, dip the duck meat in flour again, and add it to the pot. Let it cook until done, about two minutes.

When the broth was cooking all by itself, the kitchen already smelled wonderful. By the time I was sampling the duck, it was heavenly. The rich sweet sauce was wonderful, like teriyaki sauce but even more so. It actually reminded me of the chicken teriyaki they served at Iroha, a Japanese restaurant that used to reside in midtown where Sapporo is currently located. I don't know what they did to that teriyaki sauce, but it was sweet and rich in a way I've never encountered since. Until now, that is. Hmmm.

Of course, given the duck's thick fatty skin, I could feel my arteries clogging with every bite. I'll probably need to go on a tofu diet after this. Whew. The amount of what I ate was small, but it was heavy.

Wonderful as this dish was, eating it by its lonesome was too much. It really needed to be served with a bowl of miso, some rice, a pickle or salad to cleanse the palate, and some green tea. Then it it would even be more perfect, if such a thing is possible. Then the duck's richness would be set off by simpler foods with complementary or contrasting tastes. Live and learn.