Sunday, January 30, 2005

Sichuan spaghetti

Bruce Cost calls this recipe "Chinese Egg Noodles with Pork and Hot Bean Sauce" in Asian Ingredients, but in the text of the recipe he says, "As a topping for fresh egg noodles, this simple ground meat dish makes a sort of Sichuan spaghetti." I’ve been calling it “Sichuan spaghetti” ever since.

I have been craving Sichuan spaghetti for a while, and I promised myself I'd make some this weekend. I did a big store run yesterday; both the Asian supermarket and the local high-end grocery, in that order. I had decided to get the perishables at the high-end grocery so that I could go straight home with them, so I didn't get ground pork at the butcher counter of the Asian supermarket as I normally do. Besides, it being Saturday, the Asian supermarket was very crowded. When I arrived at the meat section of the high-end grocery, I realized that they didn't have ground pork. Great snakes! How can a grocery not have ground pork? It was quite a shock, but I regrouped and decided to use chopped chicken thigh meat instead of ground pork. After all, on Friday night I had cold Sichuan pork rather than cold Sichuan chicken, because pork was what had been thawed for dinner. Maybe it would even things out.

When I started assembling the dish, a second shock was in store. I discovered that my jar of Lan Chi's Soy Bean Sauce with Chili was down to the dregs (guess I should've picked up another jar at the Asian supermarket after all). Not to worry, however, since I had a spare tin of Szechuan brand Hot Bean Sauce. The required five tablespoons of hot bean paste took care of most of that, though, so now I really do have to get more hot bean sauce.

After all the alarms and excursions, it turned out all right, though my propensity for adding the recipe's requested amount of the appropriate hot condiment left me thinking that it was a tad on the hot side. That's my own fault. On the other hand, the next time I make Sichuan spaghetti, I'm going to reduce the amount of peanut oil. Cost calls for quarter of a cup, but even with the ground pork, that makes the dish excessively oily for my taste (though still quite edible).

It really is a simple and adaptable recipe. Stir-fry chopped ginger (quarter of a cup) in the peanut oil for 30 seconds, then add the meat and stir-fry for two to three minutes (until it changes color, but not so long that it browns). Then add five tablespoons of the hot bean sauce (or an amount to taste, if you prefer) and two teaspoons of sugar, mix and cook for three to four minutes. Stir in half a cup of chopped scallions, turn off the heat and pour over your waiting noodles. Cost's recipe is written so that you make the sauce first and then you cook the noodles, but I cook the sauce and noodles at the same time, because I like being able to pour the sauce over the noodles right away.

To accompany the meal, I got a bottle of Pierre Sparr Gewurztraminer 2001. I've read in several places that gewurztraminer is one of the few wines that will work with spicy Asian food, so I wanted to give it a try. I'm happy to report that the experiment was a success. The gewurztraminer has a good amount of body for a white wine (I'm really a red wine person, I confess) and didn't lean too far to either the dry or sweet ends of the spectrum. Cold beer is probably still the ideal companion for spicy Asian food, but cold beer loses a lot of its appeal during chilly winter weather.

Thursday, January 27, 2005

Quiet time

Well, it's been quiet here for a few days. Much as I would like to, I can't really blame it on the approximately 15 inches of snow that fell over the weekend. Of course, the combination of snow, cold temperatures and an aged car mean I haven't been gadding about to the local markets and buying exotic ingredients. I can't even walk to the Asian supermarket right now because not all of the sidewalks between there and here have been shoveled. Maybe this weekend.

I've also been feeling uninspired in the kitchen lately, though forgetting to put meat in the fridge to thaw for dinner hasn't helped, either. Tonight I made easy orzo, which is just orzo with the "sauce" from easy noodles. The orzo clumped together like sticky rice; no doubt not a good thing for orzo but I didn't mind it. I had meant to use some porcini soaking water to boil the orzo rather than regular water, but I forgot.

At least I know this lack of inspiration will soon give way to another bout of fun cooking. At least, it had better. Maybe it's just cabin fever.

Friday, January 21, 2005

Apprentice sauce chicken

Argh. Yesterday I got a chicken at the Asian supermarket, because I knew I had to replenish the master sauce and figured I might as well cook a chicken while I was at it. Once I got over my fascination at how the chicken was articulated (if I moved the leg, the toes would move) and got it into the pot, all seemed well. Once I started augmenting the sauce so it would cover the carcass (no dice, really, since the carcass insisted on floating), I realized I had used up all my Chinese light soy sauce and had no replacement bottle in the pantry. That was very upsetting, and I may have to go out in tomorrow's impending snowstorm to rectify the problem. My stopgap fix was to use shoyu, which is more or less halfway between Chinese light and mushroom soy.

Once I got the chicken out of the pot, I realized that though the skin was a beautiful even brown color, the bird was not cooked through. Argh!!! So I boiled a pot of water and put the carved chicken pieces in to finish them off.

It was definitely not the most inspiring meal I've made. I've got more chicken meat to deal with tomorrow, and some more chicken parts to add to the stock pot, whenever I decide to launch into making chicken stock from scratch, but the master sauce mastered this cook tonight. Maybe I should've stuck with last night's donburi leftovers.

Thursday, January 20, 2005

Donburi in the donabe

My donabe was an extravagance. I was wandering the crockery aisle at the Asian supermarket last spring when I saw this wonderful green donabe, painted with lucky cat vignettes. The lucky cat motif is of a cat lifting a paw (or both), often with stylized gold coins nearby. The image symbolizes abundance and prosperity.

The only problem was that the donabe was a lot of money for someone without a steady income. I waffled and finally left it. But the next time I was in the supermarket, I went to see if it was still there. There were acres of rice cookers and Chinese clay pots, but the donabe was nowhere to be found. I was crushed. I realized that, even though it was a lot of money, I had really wanted it. Now I would never see it again. It was very disappointing.

I did my other shopping and took one last longing pass through the crockery aisle. There was the donabe. How had I missed it the other times? What had it been hiding behind? No matter. I took it home.

A donabe is a Japanese earthenware pot. It is made of clay that can take a direct flame; the top part is glazed but the bottom is not. Sudden temperature extremes can shock it and crack the clay, so it needs to be treated with some care. I’m still kind of paranoid about cooking with my donabe, particularly because it’s a beautiful object I would’ve been happy to put on a shelf and admire. But tonight I used it for its intended purpose.

Tonight I cooked donburi in my donabe. It took a while to get things started, because I heated it tentatively. Then I started getting a little impatient and turned the burner up to the middle of the medium zone. After I started smelling something (not the food) burning, I hastily turned it down a bit. I finally got a decent boil going, covered the donabe and let the donburi simmer. In the end, the donburi was fine, but it took much longer than normal to cook. Someday I’ll get the hang of cooking with the donabe. But I still love it anyway.

Parenthetical note: rather than using the last few dashi cubes in the freezer or figuring out the right amount of water to mix with the powdered dashi concentrate, I used porcini soaking water as the stock in the donburi. It wasn’t bad.

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Garden report 01.18.05

Short but sweet, with two exciting developments in the SevenSoy Greenhouse.

1. Mitsuba is perennial in USDA hardiness zone 6, so I can plan on planting mitsuba this spring and keeping it going over the winter. Find out lots more about mitsuba here.

2. My indoor tomato plant is showing unmistakable signs of incipient flowers. Flowers, of course, turn into tomatoes eventually. Given that we are in the midst of another nasty cold snap, I'll continue to be skeptical about the possibility of indoor tomatoes, but it's starting to look like it might really happen, at least in a nearby parallel universe.

In other news, emboldened by Debbie over at words to eat by, I'm working on an index for this blog. The more I blog, the more I want such a handy reference tool. It turns out it may not be all that difficult, other than requiring a lot of cut and paste work.

Monday, January 17, 2005

Back on the chain gang

Birding with Perfect Tommy isn’t just a hobby, it’s an adventure. Take yesterday. We had whittled the day’s possibilities down to two: chasing a rare bird in western Pennsylvania, or a different rare bird on Cape Cod. Perfect Tommy was leaning towards the Cape, which is insane for a day trip from central Jersey. Then he discovered that a couple of Waffle Houses range as far north as Pennsylvania. Just like that, Pennsylvania became our destination. As usual, The Lurker and I were content to trail along in the Perfect Tommy slipstream, just because it’s so entertaining.

It was my first time at a Waffle House. Perfect Tommy even e-mailed links to preparatory reading on Saturday night to supply context for the outing. It seems that the Waffle House has a kind of mystique and even has released a couple of CDs devoted to Waffle House-themed songs. Perfect Tommy was very disappointed that the CDs weren’t prominently displayed for sale at the Waffle House we visited.

Well, cut to the food. The eggs were eggs, the coffee (highly lauded in some quarters) was just decent coffee, the bacon pieces were big but dry. But the hash browns were pretty good. They weren’t what I expected: I’m used to hash browns made up of chunks of potato with more breading. These were lightly grilled and made up of golden strings of potato. They were much lighter than I expected, which was a good thing because they were huge. Then there were the grits, which were just about perfect. They weren’t runny and the grains were distinct and almost crunchy. They were the best grits I’ve had in quite a long time.

The solid meal kept us going for most of the cold day’s birding, but eventually supper had to be taken care of. We wound up at a Charlie Brown’s where, coincidentally, we had eaten almost exactly a year before on another birding trip to Pennsylvania. This happenstance was roundly hailed as cosmic synchronicity at its best. Last year, The Lurker had been so pleased with his baby back ribs that I vowed to have some should we ever return. Well, I ended up having the mushroom prime rib instead. It was an inexcusable splash-out, but I never cook steak at home, because the results are unimpressive and it costs too much money. I’d rather spend even more money once in a while to go to a restaurant that will do it right. Prime rib is the main reason I will never become a total vegetarian. Plus, the leftovers I brought home were dinner tonight, so I got two meals out of it.

I feel kind of guilty blogging about chains but I have to credit good food where I find it. Sometimes that happens to be at a chain restaurant. I love learning to put together a good Asian meal, and I love eating at unique restaurants, but there's something to be said for a chain that knows how to do certain things right, just so long as you don't mistake that for the entire universe of food.

Friday, January 14, 2005

Something fishy

When an American starts cooking Asian food, there are all sorts of "inscrutable" ingredients to deal with. Sure, you can stick to relatively safe stuff like teriyaki sauce, but be warned, somewhere out there natto is lurking. The Chinese have substances like bird's nests and preserved vegetable. It's tempting at this juncture to make some inappropriate comment about these quirky ingredients but every culture must have its own equivalents. I mean, what's more inscrutable than grits? (Let me hastily add that I like grits.) In any case, I've grown to enjoy some of these ingredients, such as fermented black beans. Others are taking longer for me to get used to.

Fish sauce has been one of the more difficult ingredients for me to handle. Not that it's tough to cook with, mind you; you just pour it into the pan or wok and there you are. The stuff just smells to high heaven. Open up your dictionary to the word "nasty" and there is a picture of a bottle of fish sauce. It is the bottled essence of fermented fish, and one wonders what possessed someone to try such a stunt. Someone did try it long ago, because the ancient Romans knew it as "garum."

I've read more than one Asian cookbook that indicated that shrimp paste was the ne plus ultra of horribly aromatic foodstuffs. Well, I've cooked with shrimp paste more than once and it just smells like shrimp being stir-fried to me. Well, ok, shrimp being stir-fried does smell like old sneakers, but it doesn't bother me. The fish sauce is relegated to the back corner of the fridge, however, carefully hidden behind anything else that can be stuck in front of it. Not that I really need to keep it in the fridge; as befits a substance so virulent, it has a prodigious shelf life.

Unfortunately for this simplistic picture of the universe, I noticed tonight that my bottle of fish sauce is getting low. Not to worry, however, because there's a brand-new bottle in the pantry, just waiting to be called upon. I was cooking "Thai-Style Sweet Pork" from From Bangkok to Bali in Thirty Minutes, except that I substituted chicken for the pork. The dish is simplicity itself; stir-fry chopped garlic in oil for a few seconds, then stir-fry the meat for two minutes, add fish sauce, palm sugar and pepper, and cook until heated through. When done, pour over a pile of jasmine rice.

As I intimated above, I find fish sauce to be a vile substance, but just about every dish I've cooked using it has been tasty indeed (the one exception was due to excessive salt, not to any fault of the fish sauce). Something about it gives a clean sparse flavor that lets the other ingredients in a dish take center stage. It has a bracing quality that is difficult to define, but which I'm learning to recognize as I build a track record of cooking with it. Tonight's dinner was no exception. I even found myself relishing the rice which had soaked up the pan juices. Much as I hate to admit it, I’m beginning to like fish sauce.

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Porcini bliss

Tonight I made "Turkey with Mushrooms and Marsala" (see this post) without the turkey. It was almost as good as it was the last time. It's pretty simple, too.

dried porcini mushrooms, rehydrated and chopped (as many as you like)
2 tablespoons butter
1/4 cup porcini soaking liquid
1/4 cup marsala
pasta of choice

Saute the mushrooms in the butter until browned. Add the soaking liquid and marsala, and continue to cook until the sauce reduces. Pour over the pasta and try not to gobble it up too fast.

This didn't last too long. Even after it was gone, I was wandering around the condo inhaling the aroma of the dish. I try not to cook with butter too often, but this was a worthy exception. Tonight's pasta of choice, as it was the first time I had this, was Al Dente's spinach linguini. It's very spinachy and a good contrast to the marsala sauce.

Monday, January 10, 2005

Cold Sichuan chicken redux

A while back, I posted about my adaptation of the Frugal Gourmet's "My Cousin David's Hot Szechwan Chicken." Tonight I tried the old version of the dish, the one I made before I had so many different kinds of soy sauce and when I used cooking sherry rather than Shao Xing rice wine (the cooking sherry had dust on top of the cap, it's been so long since I've used it). I didn't marinate the chicken (mainly due to laziness and lack of decisiveness about what I was having for dinner), so it tasted lighter than usual. Other than that, it was the tangy dish I remembered, the one that makes me gobble up the noodles before the chicken.

Saturday, January 08, 2005

Yakisoba on the road

Today I went birding with The Lurker, Perfect Tommy and The Blonde Bandit. The full-day trip demanded some decisions about lunch and, given a mid-morning start, I decided to bring a lunch instead of buying one. I made some more yakisoba this morning and tweaked the sauce some. I've made yakisoba enough times to know that I have the basic technique down; I just need to tinker with the sauce. Today's sauce:

1/3 cup shoyu
1/3 cup sake
several dashes of Worcestershire sauce
1 tablespoon oyster sauce
grated palm sugar to taste
1 teaspoon sesame oil

I stir-fried some chopped shallots in peanut-canola oil, then stir-fried napa cabbage and shredded carrot for 2 minutes. I added some cashews (a mix of non-roasted and roasted, mainly because I needed to finish up the non-roasted ones) and stir-fried for one more minute. Then I added the chukasoba noodles, poured the sauce over the other ingredients and simmered in the covered skillet for 5 minutes.

I was pleased that my first attempt at reinventing the sauce came out so well. It was very tasty, though the perfectionist in me thinks that Worcestershire sauce and oyster sauce in one dish is redundant. The sesame oil tied everything together, and the cashews were the perfect added touch (they were a spontaneous inspiration). The sauce was less liquid than the one from the other night, which only used 1/3 cup shoyu, 1/3 cup sake and some sugar. Go figure.

After a full day of birding and frivolity (mostly the latter), dinner was at the Americana Diner in East Windsor, a local favorite. Perfect Tommy considers the Americana to be a "Tier 3" diner, the top category in his rating system. Such praise from Perfect Tommy does not come easily; the Americana is the only known Tier 3 diner (though the Shoreline Diner in Guilford, CT, may be a Tier 2.9). The complementary bruschetta was the right light opening for the meal. I had the open-face roast beef sandwich, which was slathered with thick gravy and accompanied by spicy, slightly chunky mashed potatoes. Also included was a cup of the soup du jour; I chose minestrone which turned out to be tasty and not too heavy. There was an abundant expanse of broccoli (plus some cauliflower, green beans and carrots) on the side of the sandwich. Although I don't eat broccoli, it didn't go to waste because The Blonde Bandit took it home with her for use in future salads. As usual, everyone was full of praise for their meal. I have yet to have a bad meal at the Americana. Looking around on the web, I see I'm not its only fan.

Friday, January 07, 2005

Garden report 01.07.05

Yes, Virginia, there will be a garden; I got some seeds in the mail today from Nichols Garden Nursery. I can look forward to Thai basil, cilantro, mitsuba, scallions and mixes of lettuce and Asian greens; the local butterflies can look forward to bergamot and butterfly weed. The spinach is back-ordered but should arrive in a few weeks. Add that to the amaranth and tropical sage seeds, and I need to get organized fast. When to start seeds? What air and soil temperatures to look for, and when do they occur in central Jersey? How much potting soil do I need, and how many more pots? Etcetera, etcetera. Luckily, there are plenty of county extension offices and gardening sites on the web.

I want to add a link to Kitazawa Seed Co., even though I probably won't be ordering from them this year. They're a little pricey for me right now, but they have a detailed catalog (complete with recipes) full of Japanese heirloom vegetables and various Asian herbs and vegetables. The catalog has been a great reference in my research.

In real plant gardening news, I repotted the spearmint not long ago and it looks like I gave it a shot of steroids or something. Since it's been in the new bigger pot, the stems have bulked up and the new leaves are much bigger than the old ones. I guess it was feeling cramped, but no more. Its vitality is encouraging.

Wednesday, January 05, 2005

Ode to krumkaker

“A little piece of heaven,” is one description of them. Krumkaker (pronounced KROOM-ka-kuh) are trumpet-shaped cookies. The batter is cooked on a griddle or iron, then rolled around a wooden cone to shape it. The iron has an intricate relief pattern that is transferred to the cookie. One way to eat them is like an ice cream cone filled with cream and berries.

I became familiar with this traditional Norwegian delicacy thanks to The Lurker. Every December, his mother bakes batches of assorted cookies. The Lurker would often show up at seasonal gatherings with a tin of krumkaker in tow. The big tin is zealously guarded, because not many tins are suitable for transporting the brittle krumkaker. Before long, krumkaker became one of the highlights of my holiday season. Every year, I try to take home as many as I can get away with.

This season, I discovered that krumkaker make a lovely dessert combined with candlelight and Bailey’s Irish Cream. Their crisp lightness is a joy to savor and is always gone too soon, just like the holidays. Their ornately-patterned trumpet shape brings to mind some sort of edible Christmas tree ornament. One of these days, I’ll get a krumkaker set and try making some of my own. In the meantime, I’ll enjoy the last few crumbs of this fleeting krumkaker season.

Tuesday, January 04, 2005


Back in the good old days, when I worked in New York, the world was my oyster, and money was no object (especially when I saw a book I wanted), I ate lunch at Dosanko a lot. Dosanko was a Japanese noodle shop in the west 40s. I lived for the beef yakisoba and the wonderful salad with (I later learned) a great ginger dressing. Unfortunately, Dosanko moved, I got my own place, and money became something to be hung onto as long as possible. But I still love yakisoba.

I've got several recipes for it. I've tried Hiroko Urakami's recipe, and have not tried Hiroko Shimbo's (mainly because Shimbo's is a fancy version calling for ingredients like shrimp and scallops). I've also had the Maruchan instant version; it's a package of noodles and powdered sauce. You just add veggies, pan-fry and serve. The Asian supermarket sells them in bundles of three; any ramen fan will find them rather familiar. But tonight I tried Marnie Henricksson's version from Everyday Asian.

Like most yakisoba recipes, it includes standbys like napa cabbage and grated carrot. The sauce is a blend of shoyu, "rice wine" (I used cooking sake) and sugar. Although the recipe calls for pork, I made it with chicken tonight, since that was what I thawed out for dinner. It was less oily than the fondly-remembered Dosanko version (no surprise there) and rather tasty, with a more liquid broth. Not the same as in the old days, but pretty good in its own right. The leftovers will be lunch tomorrow.

The one problem with yakisoba is that pieces of carrot, cabbage and noodles tend to wind up all over the stove. Maybe I'd be a neater cook if I cooked yakisoba in the wok rather than the big (but not big enough) skillet. Still, cleaning up the stove is worth it when the final result is tasty.

Monday, January 03, 2005

Master jello?

I think it's time to replenish the master sauce. When I boiled it tonight, it reduced to a thick, viscous liquid. It still smells like its anise-infused rich soy sauce self, but if I don't add some more of the core ingredients soon, it's going to solidify.

Incidentally, when I told The Cruise Director about the fusion cuisine post on New Year's Eve, she correctly (and inconveniently) brought up western-inspired Japanese cuisine, a whole genre of Japanese food unto itself. This post will give some more context.

Saturday, January 01, 2005

Cooking on the ship of fools

It was an interesting New Year’s Eve in the kitchen. I meandered southward to join The Fireman (The Deacon’s brother), his wife The Cruise Director and house guest The Pessimist for a cooking session before the main New Year’s Eve gathering got under way.

Incidental note: by rights, my title should be The Pessimist but since I’m blogging this, someone else gets the title. No, I don’t understand it either.

The Pessimist got her secret blog identity because of her skepticism about the pork buns. We were using a recipe out of a King Arthur flour cookbook (very authentic, I know) for steamed Chinese pork buns. The idea was to christen The Fireman’s and Cruise Director’s new bamboo steamer. My contributions were the Shao Xing rice wine, peanut oil and chopped ginger, along with mixing duties for the ground pork filling. The Pessimist got stuck with bun assembly, which involved flattening marble-sized dollops of the dough and adding a bit of the filling, then closing them up. The dough was extremely sticky and the pork filling tended to ooze out of the buns. Things did not look auspicious as The Fireman ignited the stove, got a wokful of boiling water going and set the bamboo steamer on top. Still, after all that labor, we agreed that we had to give it a try.

The second course was a stir-fry, so I got busy chopping as the buns steamed. I’d brought napa cabbage, shiitake mushrooms, chicken tenderloin and bamboo shoots; baby corn was contributed by the host kitchen. Actually, I had help on this, as The Pessimist was willing to be a sous-chef. As I agonized about whether the last laggard shiitake mushroom had hydrated enough, I got elbowed aside by the hosts, who realized that the unattended wok had by now boiled nearly dry and was grilling the bamboo steamer.

It was a sad picture. The bottom of the steamer was burned and the buns had a tenacious grip on the bamboo. The Fireman pried the buns off with a spatula and they were plated in a sorry-looking heap. Hope glimmered as The Fireman disposed of those buns so badly burnt that they couldn’t be detached from the steamer without ripping them open, but pronounced them edible. The rest of us cautiously sampled the buns. Amazingly, the overly sticky dough had fluffed out and was now light and airy. The filling was nicely cooked. They had actually worked out all right, though the steamer was in need of some rehab after its baptism of fire. The Cruise Director got out some hoisin sauce and pronounced the combination of bun and sauce excellent.

That culinary misadventure out of the way, it was back to the stir-fry. I took over the vacated wok and put together what was essentially a random stir-fry. The thing that threw me off was that I had more food to work with than normal. I had trouble finding free surface area to cook the chicken with all those veggies in the way. It cooked slowly until I got annoyed enough to turn the temperature up sharply; from there, things went fine. The liquid to cornstarch ratio was out of balance, so there I was at the table, complaining about the sauce while everyone else was telling me how wonderful it tasted. The sauce never thickened, but pouring a stir-fry with a liquid sauce over udon works.

So, our culinary ship of fools managed to work out ok, in spite of ourselves. When The Lurker arrived later, with a Great Big Sea DVD and a big tin of his mother's krumkaker, we were all pretty silly. But the krumkaker deserve their very own post.

Garden report 01.01.05

It's a warm new year in central Jersey with bright sunshine and temperatures in the 60s. I took the opportunity for a little garden work. I cleaned out some pots from last year and will order some seeds soon. I added some potting soil to my indoor tomato plant, which is growing by leaps and bounds. I've seen websites that imply you can really get tomatoes indoors in winter, but I'll believe it when I see it.

Last week, both my ginger plants up and died, so I cleaned out those pots too. I was happy to discover that the roots had substantially increased in size from the little sprouting nubs of gingerroot that I originally planted. I'll have to get a bigger pot the next time I plant some ginger sprouts, but in the meantime, I'll be able to enjoy some homegrown ginger. Now that is a happy outcome indeed for someone who doesn't live in a tropical climate.