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.