Sunday, May 29, 2005

Messy frittata

Given my chronic difficulties with presentation, a frittata is something I've put off trying to cook. The Moosewood Restaurant Cooks at Home has several interesting recipes for frittatas, but so far I've always had an excuse not to try them. Tonight, the excuses ran out and I tried the "Simple Frittata." This involves sauteeing potatoes and onions, adding garlic and an herb (rosemary was the one I chose), then adding the beaten eggs and letting them set.

It didn't come out too badly, though by the time it left the skillet, it was in pieces. I doubt it was sufficiently browned, either. It tasted fine, however, and now I'm ready to try the "Asian-Style Frittata" at some point.

Perfect Tommy and the perfect chicken sandwich

I'm starting to think that I should've named this blog "Seven Kinds of Soy Sauce and Jersey Fast Food." It's these birding trips. The actual trips are one part nature study, one part performance art, one part reality tv, one part Talmudic debate, one part kitsch appreciation... Perfect Tommy is really the one who should have a blog for all his rants, non sequiturs, Proustian reminiscences and restaurant reviews, but he prefers delivering his stream-of-consciousness ramblings to The Lurker and me. I can't possibly do justice to them.

Chick-fil-A is a southern-based fast food chain that has a bit of a presence in New Jersey. The Lurker, whose thing is fast-food chicken sandwiches, has been raving about them for some time, but every time we drove past the one on Rt. 130 in Hamilton, it was closed. Finally, the stars were aligned correctly yesterday and we were able to stop there for dinner.

Both Perfect Tommy and I had the basic sandwich, which is a fried piece of chicken breast on a buttered bun with two pickles. The chicken was pressure-cooked and moist, the breading was not too hard and not too soft. It was not excessively spicy, just nice and simple. The butter added a bit of decadence, while the pickles gave a complementary sour note (uh oh, this is sounding like a wine description). Another thing the chicken was not was greasy. All in all, it was a tasty chicken sandwich, a step up from what I expect at a fast food place. Oh, yeah, the waffle fries were generous, potatoey and also not greasy.

Judging from the "wow"s emanating from Perfect Tommy's end of the table, he was having another food religious experience. When questioned whether this was better than Krispy Kreme, he immediately said no, it wasn't. He said that the Krispy Kreme experience was transcendental, while Chick-fil-A gave a more earth-bound sense of well-being. The Lurker and I were just grateful for some sense of well-being, since Perfect Tommy's mood had gone sour ever since we had spotted a Pizza Hut Italian Bistro in south Jersey earlier that afternoon. This is apparently Pizza Hut's attempt to go upscale, complete with more subtly-colored buildings, but Perfect Tommy was incensed by the pairing of "Italian" and "bistro," since "bistro" is of course French. This whole episode linked back to a previous trip's rant about Olive Garden and real Italian food, but I'll spare you that for now. Then again, you can probably find similar rants in cyberspace anyway.

While two-thirds of the table were appreciating their chicken sandwiches, The Lurker was inhaling his chicken strips with "Polynesian sauce." "Polynesian sauce" is a takeoff on sweet-and-sour sauce, but with most of the sour removed. The result is sort of a tomato-fruit blend with what seems to be just a touch of something like cayenne. I've never been a big fan of sweet-and-sour dishes, but this sauce was more down my alley.

So that was Chick-fil-A, finally. It goes into the register as another fast-food place worth stopping at, if the opportunity arises.

Friday, May 27, 2005

Bad bad bad

This gardening thing has definitely gotten out of control. After getting out of work early due to the holiday weekend, I stopped off at the local high-end grocery on the way home. I had intended to pick up a few staples like milk and orange juice, but right there in the front were the potted herbs. Damn!

I've been meaning to get a rosemary plant, so that was a no-brainer. But there were so many other possibilities. Sweet basil. Various sages. Dill. Parsley. At least two varieties of thyme. Oregano (well, ok, I'm not a big oregano fan, so that wasn't much of a danger). Etcetera, etcetera.

In addition to the rosemary, I left with lemon thyme and a variegated sage (to replace the sage that died earlier this spring). But I'm still thinking back to the sweet basil and the parsley. And the dill. Ai yi yi.

Thursday, May 26, 2005

One from the past

Back in late April, when I was drowning in busyness and malaise, I cooked a dish that I totally forgot to blog. I decided to post a quick note about it since I've been catching up lately.

I tried "Burmese-Style Red Lentil Soup" from From Bangkok to Bali in Thirty Minutes. Ever since I ate at Rangoon with friends a couple of winters ago, I've been impelled to find out more about Burmese food. The night market noodles at Rangoon were particularly excellent, but everything was tasty. Unfortunately, life has not been conducive to my goal of tossing everything else aside to concentrate on Burmese food. The best I can say is some of my pan-Asian cookbooks have scattered Burmese recipes included in them.

The soup is very simple, essentially a mix of red lentils (masoor dal in Indian food terms) with garlic, ginger and turmeric simmered in water. The end result was fine, but a little bland. On the other hand, Burmese cooking stresses garnishes, and I didn't garnish the soup with anything (the recipe recommends sesame salt and crisp-fried shallots). If I found the soup bland, it was my own fault for not garnishing it as I should have done. Maybe next time.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Chicken korma

I really feel guilty about blogging this, but I'm going to go ahead and do it anyway. Last night, I made chicken korma. Before you get all enthused, let me point out that all I did was stir-fry chicken pieces in some canola oil for a few minutes, open a jar of Patak's korma sauce, dump the sauce into the pan and simmer for 20 minutes (recipe from the jar label). When it was done, I served it over jasmine rice. I wound up with a big pile of food that will give me leftovers for the next couple of days. I can scarcely call it real cooking, though.

Despite my on-again, off-again relationship with Indian food, chicken korma is one of the dishes I like. I think I first discovered it thanks to an Ethnic Gourmet frozen dinner that was out of this world (Ethnic Gourmet was still Taj Gourmet back then).

Last night's version of chicken korma was quite good, but the sauce was a little sweeter than what I'm familiar with, almost too sweet for my taste. The interplay of the spices in the sauce was terrific, however. Today I'm annoyed with myself for forgetting that I had a jar of ghee in the fridge; it would've been much better to use that rather than the canola oil. Oh, well, maybe next time.

Jersey Freeze

By Sunday, it had all the hallmarks of a lost weekend. Sorting through graphic novels had turned, as it always seems to, into rereading them. I was restless. I wanted to do something. Rereading ElfQuest all weekend was not going to satisfy that urge. So I dropped an e-mail to The Lurker and Perfect Tommy asking them if they wanted to go birding.

The trip to Sandy Hook provided a perfect excuse to wander all over Monmouth County for an afternoon. When we were ready for dinner (actually, first we wanted to go for ice cream, then dinner got added on to the program), we started looking for likely places. When Jersey Freeze crossed our ken, Perfect Tommy started raving about it having been on tv and so forth. We turned around and decided to check it out.

Jersey Freeze is famous up and down the east coast for its soft-serve ice cream; it is even featured on Ice Cream Unwrapped on The Food Network. Dinner was a more immediate concern, however, so we went into the wing of the building that promised food.

A glance at the blackboard behind the counter showed a mixed romaine salad on offer, a good sign. The Lurker and I ordered burgers, while Perfect Tommy got a chicken cheddar sandwich. The burgers were real handmade patties, good and juicy. My bacon burger was topped with three big strips (slabs, actually) of the best-looking bacon I’ve seen in a restaurant for a long time. The buns were real. The fries weren’t greasy. Perfect Tommy, our most severe restaurant critic, said his sandwich was very good. We hadn’t expected much from the meal, to be honest, since Jersey Freeze is a humble sort of roadside place and its fame is for ice cream, not food. We were very pleasantly surprised, however.

When we sidled up to the ice cream counter for dessert, however, things took a turn. There were only four flavors of ice cream listed, black raspberry being one. Unfortunately, they were out of the black raspberry. Forced to choose between eating famous ice cream and eating black raspberry ice cream, Perfect Tommy chose the latter, so off we went on our quest. What ensued was a session of wandering all over central Jersey while trying to remember the locations of ice cream places we had eaten at in the past. We finally ended up at a Friendly’s, which is probably some kind of heresy. Perfect Tommy didn’t care, though, because he got his black raspberry. I had a pistachio cone and The Lurker opted to be good. In any case, I have a feeling that I’ll be back at Jersey Freeze in the future.

Sunday, May 22, 2005

Simmered hijiki tofu

Checking the expiration date on my package of firm tofu yesterday made me realize that I had to use it up or else. Time to throw something else together. What I ended up with was the following:

Stir-fry some hydrated hijiki in oil for a couple of minutes. Then add a cup of dashi, three tablespoons shoyu, three tablespoons sugar and two tablespoons mirin. Add sliced tofu, bring to a boil, then cover and lower heat. Simmer for ten minutes.

The sauce was a bit thin; I probably should’ve cooked it down some more to make it more intense. Having said that, it was still a good sweet shoyu broth. There was a bit too much oil, but that was because I started with a little too much peanut oil in the pan. I adapted the shoyu broth from Hiroko Urakami’s broth in her recipe for braised hijiki, just substituting dashi for water. I finally have real mirin back in the house, too, thanks to a trip to Whole Foods.

Southeast Asian sauté

On Wednesday (I think, it was a long week) I cooked one of my favorite dishes for the first time since starting this blog. It’s Marnie Henricksson’s “Southeast Asian Sauté with Shrimp, Spinach, and Coconut Milk” from Everyday Asian. I’ve never cooked it with shrimp but usually use chicken; this week I used Quorn tenders. It’s pretty simple. First you stir-fry some garlic and ginger in oil for a few seconds, then you add some fish sauce and spinach and continue stir-frying. This is the moment when the pan starts splattering like a demon. Then you add the meat and finally, a mixture of half a can of coconut milk and half a cup of water. On top of this, you add some precooked noodles (Henricksson recommends udon because its consistency takes the sauce well) and heat through.

This was a red-letter meal because I harvested some spinach from the garden for it. Of course, the spinach cooked down into little green bits, so it was lost in the final reckoning. Moral: next time use more spinach. The Quorn tenders worked well in this dish; they had a little more flavor than the chicken breast meat I normally use. The overall taste of the dish is rather mild; on one hand very bland meat (or tofu) will make it boring but on the other hand something like beef is too strongly flavored. On this occasion, I got some toasty bits on the pan while stir-frying the Quorn tenders, so that added more of a reddish tint to the meal (as well as more flavor) than usual.

This sauté reminds me of Italian pasta meals with a cheese-based sauce, such as fettucini Alfredo. The coconut milk is curdled by the fish sauce, and becomes a creamy cheese-like sauce.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

World Series of Birding

Twenty-four hours, one county, 99 birds, two home-cooked meals. Saturday was the annual World Series of Birding sponsored by the New Jersey Audubon Society. The idea is to see as many bird species as possible during 24 hours, all in the state of New Jersey. Participants take pledges from sponsors (so many cents per bird species seen) and contribute to NJAS or the conservation cause of their choice.

Since this is not a birding blog, I will spare you the gory details but instead focus on the food. I have learned from hard experience that a long day birding requires good food and drink. Underfueling the body leads to headaches, nausea and general debility. When I was recommended Gatorade after a near-heatstroke event, it changed my birding life. Clif Bars are also good birding food. The real clincher, though, was the day I made some chicken donburi, froze it, then brought it along for WSB. That was a couple of years ago and though it wasn’t what you might think of for breakfast, it kept me going all day without headaches or wimping out in the doldrums of the afternoon. I was sold. Freezing the food ahead of time and letting it dethaw keeps it cool and unspoiled for a long time. This is important when you’re careening all over the state, far away from reliable refrigeration.

This year’s food was a multipart event. Breakfast was chicken donburi, but made with porcini soaking water rather than dashi. It was very tasty, and the leftovers were still good earlier this evening, several days after they were originally dethawed. Maybe I’m courting salmonella, but so far I feel fine. Plus I have unused dashi ice cubes in the freezer, ready for some other dish.

The second course was a portion of beef yakisoba. Boy, that was good. Finally, we wound up for a dinner break (we must be getting old, normally we don’t stop for food on a WSB) at the Clinton Station Diner. The Lurker and Perfect Tommy had sandwich-type things (sorry for the lack of specificity, but staying awake nearly 48 hours straight really does a number on your memory), while I just ordered breakfast (at 10:00 PM!), two eggs sunnyside up and home fries. I look forward to getting back to this diner under less extreme circumstances, because everyone gave their meal high marks.

Another thing that keeps me going on long birding days (or long days at outdoor music festivals, for that matter) is grapes. A big bunch of chilled green grapes provides a perfect snack. It’s food and drink, all at once. Plus they come in manageable portions.

Monday, May 09, 2005


The garden has been busy in the last few days. On Friday, my remaining indoor starts started sprouting, so now I have hot pepper, bergamot and Thai basil seedlings. On Saturday, right on schedule, the Asian greens mix started sprouting as well. The spinach leaves are getting big enough to be considered "baby spinach," so I can probably start harvesting it soon (I need to thin some leaves anyway).

Friday, May 06, 2005

Sesame noodles

I have this perfect fantasy of sesame noodles. I envision a bowl of steaming golden noodles, like really good beef yakisoba, imbued with the aroma and flavor of sesame. It would be the most wonderful thing, at least it would be if I could create something like that.

In real life, I’m not much of a peanut butter fan, and sesame paste’s resemblance to peanut butter in texture and (surprisingly) flavor puts me off. My first try at sesame noodles was Marnie Henricksson’s recipe of the same name from Everyday Asian. It was fine, but the strong nutty flavor of the sesame paste and the peanut-butter consistency of the sauce was not what I expected. Why can’t sesame noodles taste more like sesame chicken? I know, maybe the radical differences in cooking technique used to reach each destination have something to do with it. (It was a rhetorical question.)

Last night, I decided to give sesame noodles another try. This time I used the Frugal Gourmet’s recipe for “Chowed Noodles with Pork and Sesame Sauce” from The Frugal Gourmet Cooks Three Ancient Cuisines. Interestingly, his recipe for the sesame sauce (from his “Shredded Sesame Chicken”) is not too different from Henricksson’s sauce; the main difference is The Frug’s addition of Chinese red vinegar and chopped scallions to the mix of sesame paste, garlic, ginger, light soy sauce, sesame oil, pepper oil and sugar. The dishes are also assembled differently, which I discovered when I really read the directions for pan-browning the noodles. Once I realized that those noodles were not going to be given two hours to dry on an oiled broiling rack, it was clear some changes would be made. When I read further and saw how many ingredients were supposed to be cooked in the pan, taken out, then returned to the pan later, it was even clearer that I was going to take the lazy cook’s path to sesame noodles.

So I cooked some Chinese egg noodles, then pan-fried them. I extricated most of them from the skillet, then poured in a bit more oil and stir-fried the chopped garlic and salt upon a steadily browning bed of noodle fragments which had stuck to the bottom of the skillet. I added chicken pieces (I discovered at the last moment that the only pork I currently have is a lonely pork chop) and stir-fried them. Then I put the noodles back in, along with some chicken broth ice cubes. Once the broth was assimilated by the noodles, I poured everything into a bowl, added the sesame sauce (which I had made separately) and mixed well.

Given the similarities in the sauce ingredients, it wasn’t that different from the Henricksson version. Again, it was good, but did not approach my fantasy of the perfect bowl of sesame noodles. I’m starting to think my fantasy is more trouble than it’s worth.

Sunday, May 01, 2005

Garden report 05.01.05

It's been quiet here lately. Life has been busy and discouraging lately. I haven't been motivated to cook anything special.

The garden continues along, though I have yet to harvest anything from it. The big success story so far is the spinach, which is growing well. The two mints are also very rambunctious. This week I moved most of my plants out onto the deck to stay, since nighttime temperatures have risen out of the 30s. The mitsuba is still inside because it seems a bit frail. I repotted it a few days ago. The lettuce is also not as far along as I had hoped it would be, but it finally seems to be doing better. Some of the red lettuces are getting the red color in their leaves.

About a week ago, I planted some snow peas, and today I planted some seeds from an Asian stir-fry mix, as well as cilantro. The stir-fry mix includes bok choy, mizuna, komatsuna, mibuna, red romaine lettuce, red kale and celtuce. Since I haven't tried most of these greens before (at least, not knowingly), I look forward to finding out which I like best.

My indoor starts have been slow, but I finally saw a seedling in one of the pots today. I neglected to mark the pots when I planted my starts (oops), so I'm not completely certain, but I think it may be a hot pepper.

Tonight I plan to make some porcini marsala fettucini. Something so easy and delicious is always a morale-booster.