Sunday, February 27, 2005

Sliced sirloin in red wine sauce

I got inspired by Cuisine Capers and the recent recipe for venison tips over brown rice. However, I didn’t have four cups of fresh mushrooms (nor any venison) in the pantry. As a result, I decided to make a simple beef dinner with red wine sauce and mushrooms.

The last time I tried this kind of thing was for a vegetarian dish from Moosewood Restaurant Cooks at Home, and it came out way too watery. I also used shiitake mushrooms, and concluded that their dark earthy flavor was too intense to work well with a red wine sauce.

I went looking for a simple recipe for red wine sauce. Every recipe I found, however, was written for more meat than I wanted to use; I was just working with some sliced-up sirloin strips intended for a stir-fry. Normally, I turn up my nose at meat pre-sliced for stir-fries; I can do my slicing myself, thank you very much. What keeps me coming back to this meat is that it’s flat-out good beef that turns out very tasty when I cook it. As someone with a long history of boring overdone steaks and hamburgers behind me, I appreciate a cut of beef that can stand my lack of technique. Or maybe I’m just a better stir-fry chef than steak chef.

Finally, after scanning many recipes and a final trip over to trans Fatty’s post on finishing sauces, I decided to wing it. A basic theoretical understanding would have to be enough.

I started by melting a blend of olive oil and butter in the skillet; the butter chunks splattered quite impressively when they hit the oil. I browned the sirloin pieces in the hot oil and butter, then removed them. Then I added half a cup of red wine (Yellowtail merlot) and the soaking water from the porcini mushrooms. At some point, I added a teaspoon of cornstarch, which promptly turned into starch nuggets because I had neglected to dissolve it in fluid first. Oops! Another teaspoon of dissolved cornstarch and some mashing of starch nuggets with the spatula came to the rescue.

Once the sauce was hot and had reduced a bit, I added the porcini mushrooms. Then the sirloin pieces went in and I cooked them until they looked done, the sauce had reduced some more, and I got impatient (I’m starting to think I lack the patience to create really tasty creamy sauces). I poured it all over a plate of spinach fettucini.

It was fine for a first try without a recipe, but it needed something, as usual. Even with the cornstarch, the red wine sauce was more toward the au jus end of the spectrum rather than the gravy end of the spectrum (not that this is a bad thing, I just wanted something more like gravy). More mushrooms, less assertively-flavored mushrooms, would be a good addition. Maybe if I served it with mashed potatoes next time, the potatoes would soak up the sauce better than the pasta. Ah, well, it was better than I'm making it sound.

Friday, February 25, 2005

Panang curry rice

The index proved its worth today. I was eating my sandwich at lunch today, idly pondering what to have for dinner. I needed to use up some coconut milk, bamboo shoots and jasmine rice. A Thai curry seemed like the obvious choice, but what had I done in the past? Inspiration struck, and I searched through the SevenSoy index to find the random Panang curry entry. Before long, I was armed with a plan and ideas with which to tweak the dish. “THIS is why I wanted an index!” I thought, and, “This is SO cool!”

I mixed half a can of coconut milk with a cup of water, then heated it in the skillet. When it was hot enough, I added two heaping tablespoons of Maesri Panang curry paste, then a tablespoon of tamarind paste (inspired by an eGullet conversation on Thai cooking by mamster and Pim of chez pim). It tasted interesting but it was too soupy. I added the bamboo shoots and some shredded carrots and cooked them for a while, then added grated palm sugar to taste and two tablespoons of fish sauce. The sauce was starting to reduce by now. I added the rice (which completely soaked up the sauce), garnished it with sliced almonds, covered the skillet and simmered for five minutes. After the simmering, I added more garnishes: orange mint leaves and Maesri crunchy chili bits (nam prik klang dong). A few squirts of lime juice and it was done.

I was very pleased with the curry. It was hot, sweet and tart, all at once. The tamarind flavor was lost in the final dish, but the mint leaves added a surprisingly strong punch. I’m not sure the almonds added anything useful to the curry. In any case, it worked out very well and yes, I have leftovers.

Thursday, February 24, 2005

A brief note

This business of flaking out during the week and blogging retrospectively has really got to stop. I know life has been busy, but still. There are things I'd like to blog about.

The short form of this week includes getting four different meals out of the ground pork from the Pennsylvania Dutch Farmer's Market, which is a record. They were all stir-fries involving slightly different sauces and noodles, and all were great. They would've been kind of routine to blog, however ("Ok, tonight I used the new fancy wide Chinese noodles instead of udon."). I do love the new fancy Chinese wide noodles, but recooking the same dish with minor variations in ingredients is not exactly scintillating to write nor, I suspect, to read.

My tomato plant keeps putting out flowers but until it puts out two or more at the same time, they aren't going to get pollinated. Feh. In good garden news, however, I can start planting seeds in a few days. I can hardly wait.

Oh, well, I guess I'd better go decide what's for dinner tonight.

Saturday, February 19, 2005

Dutch treat

Living in New Jersey means that, with a little research and persistence, you can probably find people from just about any culture in the world. The culinary benefits of this are obvious; it would be a lot more difficult to cook Asian if I were living in other places where a wealth of real Asian ingredients is hard to find.

There are plenty of other cultural groups here, though, and today I visited a different local “ethnic” market. I’ve wanted to visit the Pennsylvania Dutch Farmer’s Market in Kingston ever since I heard about it, especially since it’s not too far from home. Since they have very limited hours, this takes a little preparation or luck. I decided that since it was a sunny afternoon and I had some errands to run anyway, I’d drive by and see if they were open. At worst, I’d get to take down their hours from the sign on the door.

Luck was with me, since I arrived while their working week had about an hour to run. Many of the meat cases had been completely cleaned out, but I was able to get a pound of excellent ground pork. I needed butter, so I got a big hunk of unsalted sweet butter. Being the noodle addict I am, I bought two bags of dried egg noodles; one of wide noodles and another of more spaghetti-like dimensions. I hurried by the abundant pies and sweets in an attempt to not make the trip too unhealthy (or too expensive, for that matter). There was a decent selection of winter vegetables and I’m still regretting not getting the beautiful head of romaine I walked past. I also got some candles.

The market has different sections and a register for each section; you pay for your purchases in the department where you get them. The staff is composed of Mennonites from Pennsylvania. The fresh produce comes from farms in Pennsylvania, though packaged goods may come from farther afield; my noodles hail from Ohio. Not only can you buy a wealth of food there, you can also buy various crafts or even furniture. If you just want to stop in for a snack, they have a lunch counter, too.

Dinner was the ground pork, sautéed in the butter and mixed with shoyu, mushroom-flavored soy, mirin and sesame oil, then served over the wide egg noodles. I’ll be back to that market, I’m sure.

Friday, February 18, 2005

Sinfully decadent leftovers

Tonight I finished up the braised chicken and noodles from last night. I heated the leftovers in the skillet while boiling up some more rice flakes to sop up the sauce. The rice flakes weren't quite as sublime as last night's rice flakes, I think because last night's sat for a while before having the sauce poured over them. They probably dried out a bit and were able to soak up the sauce more effectively.

Having said that, dinner was still mind-blowingly rich and decadent, even before the glass of sherry that put it over the top. I should probably go on a bread and water diet for the next few days to recover. Whew.

Thursday, February 17, 2005

Laotian (?) braised chicken with Thai noodles

Sometimes I feel guilty about blogging. "Why," I ask myself, "would anyone want to read what an anglo in central Jersey has to say about cooking Asian food, when there are so many real Asian food blogs out there?" I love Asian food, but it is hardly my birthright or heritage. So many people out there know so much more than me. Does the world really need one more well-meaning American indulging in cultural appropriation?

Take tonight's dinner. I decided I wanted to try Bruce Cost's "Laotian Braised Chicken with Shallots and Cracked Black Pepper" from Asian Ingredients. I've cooked this before, but it came out too salty; it was also one of the first dishes I ever cooked using fish sauce, so that threw me.

Once I decided on the menu, I got a little more curious about Laotian food. To say it has a low profile in the States is a vast understatement (though apparently there are a couple of restaurants in Philly that serve it). I did a Google search and found that most of the hits ran to reviews and sales links for a handful of Lao and partial-Lao cookbooks. There were a few restaurant reviews. But one phrase seemed to recur with worrying frequency: Laotian cooking doesn't use coconut milk. Since Cost's braised Laotian chicken leans heavily on coconut milk, I began to wonder whether I was cooking an Authentic recipe.

The most detailed information I found was in a review of a cookbook called Taste of Laos. The review is here, should you care to peruse it. I couldn't begin to paraphrase it, but it sounds convincing and makes me want to learn more about Laotian cooking.

Asking someone completely clueless about Laotian cooking to judge the authenticity of a dish claiming this nationality is probably too much, so I got back to the actual cooking. In spite of halving the recipe, there was still way too much food, especially sauce. I suppose I could have reduced the sauce further than I did, but I got impatient. I browned the shallots, scallions and chicken pieces in a cup of peanut oil, then poured out most of the peanut oil so I could stir-fry the chicken in the oil and coconut milk. Progressively, one adds water, shallots and fish sauce, then covers to simmer for about ten minutes. I omitted the chili peppers and settled for some Tabasco sauce, which was completely lost in the final product. I also omitted the initial step of salting the chicken pieces and letting them sit for half an hour. This time it wasn't salty at all, but probably sweeter than the recipe intended.

Once the dish is done, you are supposed to serve it over the scallions, but I decided to use Thai "rice flake" noodles instead. These were the big discovery of the evening. I got them at the Asian supermarket when attempting to find an equivalent for some wonderful wide egg noodles I had at a restaurant called Aroma in Franklin Park. The rice flakes are brittle large triangular pieces of vermicelli, for lack of a better description. When cooked, they rolled up into tubes like penne pasta. Tasting one was a rude shock, however, as it tasted like tap water. Bad tap water.

Eventually the rice flakes were done and I poured them into a big bowl. When the chicken and sauce were done, they went on top of the rice flakes. And what a change in the rice flakes! Now they had a wonderful buttery, egg noodle-like consistency, very rich and decadent. Like vermicelli, they take on the nature of the sauce or soup in which they are cooked. I will definitely be looking for more rice flakes when I go to the Asian supermarket next. Mmmmm!

So, whether or not the recipe was authentic to start with, it sure wasn't when I got through with it. But it was quite tasty.

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Tofu with Chinese black bean sauce

The porcini tofu teriyaki did a good job of using up some of the tofu I needed to use, but I needed to finish the job. I was thinking about something involving Chinese black beans and found just what I was looking for in Moosewood Restaurant Cooks at Home. A Moosewood cookbook was a good choice to find a tofu recipe, since it's a vegetarian cookbook (though this cookbook includes some fish recipes). I chose "Mushrooms with Chinese Black Bean Sauce," although I needed to make some substitutions. I didn't have the recommended fresh mushrooms, so I decided to use bamboo shoots, which have a similar consistency. There's no molasses around here either, but I reasoned that if kecap manis' best substitute is maple syrup, then it would do as a replacement for molasses. And I completely ignored the need for a green or bell pepper.

It was a solid, decent meal, though once again an opportunity to remember that tofu is not the most thrilling ingrediment on earth. Maybe with all of tofu's other virtues (easily digestible source of protein, a mainstay of vegetarian cuisine, ability to take on the character of the ingredients around it), it doesn't need to be thrilling.

Saturday, February 12, 2005

Crab cakes

The Lurker and I went to Maryland for lunch today. Well, not exactly. The Lurker eats to live, so it's unlikely he would go out of his way for any sort of culinary nirvana. He's remarkably tolerant when Perfect Tommy or I start going on about our own culinary nirvanas, but only because he finds it entertaining. So, to be more accurate, The Lurker and I went to Maryland for a rare bird, and we had lunch when we got there.

This particular bird went well with lunch because it's a gull which has staked out a dock behind a crab house in southern Maryland for several years. Inside the crab house, there are framed newspaper clippings about the scene of dozens of birders descending on the quiet hamlet of Sandgates just to see this gull. There's also a framed plaque from the American Birding Association thanking the owners of the crab house for being such excellent rare bird hosts (yes, there is such a thing as a rare bird host). Then again, when a bird brings in as much business as this one must have done over the years, it's no wonder the owners of the Sea Breeze are willing to share some of their seafood with the celebrity gull, who has been nicknamed Shrimpy.

When we pulled up at the Sea Breeze, our friends Phil and The Sherpa were waiting for us. They were in on the initial gull madness, but were quite happy to return to the scene of past glories. After a brief search, The Lurker spotted Shrimpy perched on a piling behind (heresy!) the other crab house next to the Sea Breeze. We admired Shrimpy and noted all the field marks that make this gull not exactly the same as all the other gulls hanging out on the bay, at least until Shrimpy flew out of sight. Mission accomplished, we trooped inside to render our thanks to the Sea Breeze.

This was my first opportunity to have a real Maryland crab cake right on Chesapeake Bay. I know that there are crab cake connoisseurs out there who bring almost as much rigor to it as wine mavens. Since I'm an inherent know-it-all, I wish I was a crab cake connoisseur, but I have to confess my ignorance in this case. I also have to admit that I hate passing judgement on restaurants, because when something is off, I'd just as soon give them the benefit of the doubt (unless it's something really bad).

Having said all that, the crab cake platter was an enjoyable and filling meal. Maybe the crab cake didn't have huge lumps of crabmeat in it, maybe the coating (carapace?) was much harder than expected, maybe the seasonings were mild. But it hit me right at the time and kept me satisfied for an afternoon of more birding. The fries were ordinary (but they mopped up the tartar sauce just fine), and I was too full to get to the cole slaw. Ever the landlubber, The Lurker had a basket of chicken fingers that he pronounced "edible," but then, have chicken fingers ever gotten gourmet treatment? The Sherpa raved about the crab soup she had the last time she was at the Sea Breeze, but today she found it disappointingly salty. Phil had a broiled fish that looked marvelous and was deemed “ok.” We had a great view of the water from our table, so we kept getting distracted by passing birds. I'm sure the crab house is used to patrons snatching up binoculars at odd moments by now.

At least now I can say I've had a genuine Maryland crab cake.

Friday, February 11, 2005

Porcini tofu teriyaki

Yes, it's time for another stab at fusion cooking here at SevenSoy Central. Be very afraid.

I was faced with the necessity of using up the remains of Wednesday night's teriyaki sauce, as well as using a cake of firm tofu before its expiration date in a few days. I was able to scrape out a surprising amount of chicken-infused teriyaki sauce from the skillet; it was promptly bottled and stuck in the fridge. I've found that Newman's Own salsa jars are excellent storage units for the oddments of sauces and whatnot that accumulate around my kitchen.

Tofu and teriyaki were a good Japanese combination; I thought shiitake mushrooms might be a good authentic addition, but I wasn't sure whether the strongly-flavored shiitakes and the teriyaki sauce would work together. Finally, I decided to brave the unknown and use porcini mushrooms instead. I suppose I'll burn out on them at some point but right now they're in the top ten of cooking ingredients here.

I marinated the tofu in the teriyaki sauce. Meanwhile, I hydrated the porcinis and then sauteed them in their own soaking water. Finally, I added the tofu and marinade to the pan and cooked everything until I thought it was probably done.

It was a thoroughly edible meal, but I found myself disappointed. Teriyaki and porcinis, on their own, are wonderful tastes. Brought together, each lost its particular character (teriyaki's sweet strength, the porcinis' smokiness) as it blended into an undistinguished whole. If I tried this again (and I probably will, because now it's a challenge), I would either add a carefully-crafted combination of seasonings, or vegetables to provide a variety of consistencies to the bite.

Thursday, February 10, 2005

Not exactly teriyaki

In the vein of sukiyaki, sort of, last night's effort was a take-off on teriyaki. It started with some thawed chicken. After the usual bout of indecision, I asked myself why I couldn't mix together the usual components of teriyaki sauce and cook the chicken in that broth. No contrary answers being forthcoming, I went ahead and did it.

It's kind of surprising I didn't think of this long ago. I used Hiroko Shimbo's recipe for teriyaki sauce, which is one of those recipes that leaves the kitchen smelling like a Japanese restaurant. I simmered the chicken in the teriyaki sauce ingredients, rather than marinating or grilling or even baking. It smelled a little sharper than the last time I made teriyaki sauce, I think because the sake had a drier flavor than expected. I used Gekkeikan rather than the cooking sake but, interestingly, the Gekkeikan was somewhat sharper and drier in flavor than other bottles of the same brand I've bought recently. Even more confusing, the Gekkeikan seemed a little sweeter when sampled the following evening, but later went back to being drier than normal. Maybe I'm just losing my mind.

An index, at last

Finally, there is an index to this blog. I expect to refine it over time, but for now, you should see a link to it at the top of the food links on the sidebar. Enjoy.

I've wanted to blog various meals over the past few days, but haven't gotten around to it. Expect some post-dated entries soon.

Monday, February 07, 2005

A tale of two mushroom soys

I have two bottles labeled "mushroom soy" in my kitchen, but they are not the same. The Chinese mushroom soy is very dark and flavored with molasses. The Thai mushroom-flavored soy is just that. I bought it on a whim, but have not yet encountered a recipe calling for it.

As not uncommonly happens in my kitchen, a rare bird forced the issue. To make a long story short, an extreme rarity showed up in eastern Pennsylvania and I wound up chasing it with The Lurker and The Blonde Bandit. Since we left mid-morning, I was able to throw together the most random of stir-fries before driving over to The Blonde Bandit's for a rendezvous.

I used abura-age as the protein component of the dish since (as usual), there wasn't any meat thawed. I opened up the bottle of mushroom-flavored soy sauce and sampled it. As advertised, it was a mushroom-flavored soy sauce, and very tasty, too. I used it as the base for a random stir-fry. I mixed some of it up with Shao Xing rice wine and sesame oil, and stir-fried the abura-age in the sauce. As the sauce bubbled up, I added some Chinese mushroom soy to give the sauce some depth, then added more mushroom-flavored soy and rice wine. It was a matter of watching the sauce's consistency in the pan, then adding more liquid (or not) as seemed appropriate. I poured it over leftover rice from Friday night and it all worked out well. Better than the chase, in fact, since we didn't get the target bird.

After our unsuccessful chase, I went to The Cruise Director's and The Fireman's for a Super Bowl get-together. The Cruise Director provided some excellent beef stew, The Deacon brought cookies and a very decadent cake for The Fireman's and The Frog Collector's birthdays. Unfortunately, I flaked out early because of the long day, but The Cruise Director sent me home with a CARE package of stew which made a very good lunch the following day.

Saturday, February 05, 2005

Successful steak sha zha jiang

And it’s about bloody time, too, is all I can say.

One of the first books I bought upon moving here was Bruce Cost’s Asian Ingredients. I figured I would need some guidance now that I was living in a place where my nearest market was an Asian one that carried foods way beyond the bounds of what I knew. Not only was Asian Ingredients very educational, it emboldened me to try things that, left to my own cautious devices, I never would have tried. One of these was Chinese barbecue sauce or sha zha jiang. It was one of the things I got because Cost raved about it so.

Cost’s top pick was Lan Chi brand, so that’s what I bought. Its ingredients are listed as “fish, chili, garlic, salt, soy bean oil, small dried shrimps, peanut powder, spice, rice bran” on the label. I can’t begin to describe the taste. It is extremely spicy and has a very strong, almost harsh flavor. This sauce goes beyond just having a bite to it; the jar might as well get up and chase you around the room, it’s so intense.

I tried cooking Cost’s recipe for “Sliced Steak with Sha Zha Jiang” twice, but both times it gave me a very upset stomach. This was unfortunate, because as I ate it (before the digestive problems set in), I got the feeling that sha zha jiang was a taste I could acquire. Maybe having it every week would be a bit much for such an aggressively-flavored dish, but it was something I wanted to keep in my repertoire. So I decided to try it again last night, with a few modifications.

Cost’s recipe calls for stir-frying the beef in a cup of peanut oil (velveting), then turning it out of the pan and starting over in a clean pan or wok by stir-frying quarter of a cup of chopped chili peppers, quarter of a cup of chopped shallots and a scallion in two tablespoons of peanut oil. To reduce the complexity of the process, I decided to turn it into a simple stir-fry, rather than velveting the meat and then cooking the rest of the ingredients. So, I stir-fried the scallion and shallots in two to three tablespoons of peanut oil, then added the beef. (I omitted the chilis to lower the heat of the dish slightly.)

I stir-fried the beef until it started to look mostly done; this was a little difficult because the beef was marinated in two teaspoons of cornstarch, a tablespoon of mushroom soy and a tablespoon of sesame oil. The dark color that the soy sauce imparted to the beef made it harder to judge the meat’s doneness. As I stir-fried, the big skillet developed a nice-looking brown tint from the meat and marinade juices.

After I had cooked the beef for what felt like an adequate time (maybe a little more than three minutes), I added the remaining sauce ingredients. This worked out to be one and a half to two tablespoons of sha zha jiang (reduced from three to four), one teaspoon of sugar and two tablespoons of Shao Xing rice wine (altered from one tablespoon of the wine and one tablespoon of chicken stock). I did not add the recommended half-teaspoon of salt. I stir-fried this for a few minutes and, as the sauce and pan juices started bubbling up nicely, I added more rice wine to create a more liquid sauce. I didn’t measure the wine, just poured what looked good into the pan. It might have been about half a cup or somewhat less. I cooked it down until the sauce reduced to a fairly thick consistency (sort of like a good oyster sauce), then served it over Chinese egg noodles.

Although my stomach muttered to itself into the evening, there were no more serious results, which was a major improvement over past history. I think I’ve found a way to have my sha zha jiang and eat it too.

Tuesday, February 01, 2005

Thanks, Marnie!

Tonight’s entrée was Indian Spice-Rubbed Pork Chops from Everyday Asian. The rub is a blend of paprika, turmeric, black pepper, salt and cayenne pepper. Although this is intended to be a grill dish, I baked the pork chops and they turned out excellent. The rub, as advertised, kept the pork chops moist. It was spicy but not incendiary.

I’ll take this opportunity to praise Marnie Henricksson’s Everyday Asian, one of my favorite cookbooks. Since I bought it in September 2003, I’ve cooked 17 of the recipes in it (it’s a small book) and not one has been a dud. The recipes are very well written; you are never in doubt about what to do next or how to assemble a dish. The recipes cover Asia from Japan to southeast Asia; most are fairly authentic, but there are a few fusion-type dishes (such as tonight’s pork chops). Henricksson ran a noodle shop in the Village and I have to say I’m sorry I missed it when I was in New York more often. She does like her food a little hotter than I do, and the amounts are often more than one person needs, but apart from that, I love this cookbook. The consistent high quality of the results of these recipes earns high praise from me.