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.