Sunday, September 25, 2005

Better living through grits

Last night’s dinner was about successfully following someone else’s recipe. Today’s brunch was about following one’s own ideas. Ever since I fried up the pancetta for fettucini carbonara, I’ve been thinking that pancetta would go well with grits. This morning was the morning I essayed what I’ve come to think of as grits Italiano, a recipe not to be found in any cookbook that I’ve read (though I suppose the true grits Italiano would involve polenta, not grits).

While the grits were cooking according to the package instructions, I sautéed some sliced pancetta and fresh rosemary in some olive oil (regular olive oil, not extra virgin). When that was done, I removed the pancetta and as much of the rosemary as I could from the pan, then fried a sunny-side-up egg in the leftover oil/grease. Amazingly, the pancetta and grits were done at more or less the same time, so I mixed them up, then dropped the egg on top and broke the yolk so it could mix with the grits and other juices.

As always, there’s tinkering to be done in the future. I used too much olive oil, so I’ll reduce that next time. I’m still figuring out how to make grits with a consistency that I like; these were runnier than I prefer. Though rosemary is a strong flavor, it got lost in the final result, so next time I’ll add it later in the process, and probably augment it with some fresh lemon thyme and/or sage. But none of this is really the point.

The point is that after eating my homemade invented brunch, I felt mellow and content. I was full, but it was a “light full,” not the overly sated condition that often passes for full. The deeper sense of satisfaction I felt came from an idea that worked, a meal that came together in the same way that a good piece of writing can appear out of thin air and wind up on the paper. You don’t know where it came from, you just sat down to write something, but what came out of nowhere told you things you never realized. This is something totally different from following a recipe; if following a recipe is reading a map and getting where you meant to go (or not), this is drawing your own map and finding an unexpected treasure at the end of the path.

In the peaceful time after finishing the meal, I wanted for nothing. There was nothing I needed to do, no better place to be, nothing more to accomplish. It was enough. Life was enough, and life was good. It was a beautiful Zen moment that was better experienced than described; a kind of satori, perhaps. The fact that my mind is usually chasing after memories or plans or daydreams made the moment even more striking and unusual. The moment I got up to begin a load of laundry, it was gone and time started again.

In the vein of finding treasure unexpectedly in one’s own life, I’ll offer this post from Shauna at Gluten-free Girl. Some bits of her story remind me of things in my own life, though there are many differences as well. Read and enjoy.

Pork and cashews

It's not as though I really need more cookbooks. I'm sure my cookbook shelf is modest compared to many others (my mother has many more than I do, as does The Cruise Director, just to name two). But I went to Micawber Books last week and brought home two more cookbooks from their used section. Even though the cookbooks I already have are stuffed with bookmarks announcing the locations of recipes I want to try, last night I cooked something from one of my new used cookbooks, Ken Hom's Hot Wok. This cookbook was meant to accompany a tv series Hom did, and this book is the BBC edition, so it mentions things like aubergines and groundnut oil.

Last night's experiment was "Stir-Fried Chilli Pork with Cashews." You marinate the sliced pork in a blend of Shao Xing rice wine, light soy, sesame oil and cornstarch. From there, you stir-fry the pork (seasoned with salt and pepper) for two minutes, then turn it out of the pan. Next to be stir-fried are the cashews; after that you add some more rice wine, light soy, some hot bean sauce and sugar. Then the pork is returned to the pan and everything is stir-fried for another two minutes. It is intended to be served with rice and garnished with scallions, but I didn't prep enough to coordinate that much. No matter, as it worked out well. It reminded me of a less oily Sichuan spaghetti. The recipe calls for one tablespoon of the hot bean sauce, which is enough to add a good bite, but not so much as to make it too hot. You could easily add more or less hot bean sauce, to taste.

Hot Wok includes an assortment of dishes, mostly Asian or Asian-inspired. Heck, it might even inspire me to clean out my wok one of these days.

Friday, September 23, 2005

Late odds and ends

The combination of everyday busyness with a disinclination to cook anything exciting has led to a lack of entries here lately. I did try two Japanese dishes about a week ago, vegetarian spring rolls (from Hiroko Shimbo's A Japanese Kitchen) and beef and potato hot pot (from Victoria Abbott Riccardi's Untangling My Chopsticks, which is really a travel book with recipes). The spring rolls weren't too bad; the filling consisted of shiitake mushrooms, bean-thread noodles, garlic, bamboo shoots and scallions, with a beaten egg for binder. I had some of them piping hot from the oven and froze the rest. Although the rolls are supposed to look cylindrical when done, mine turned out more like little bite-sized envelopes.

My lack of success with potatoes continued with the hot pot. Ideally, meat and potatoes are simered in a sweet shoyu broth until the meat is tender and the potatoes are more or less melting into the thick sauce. I guess I needed to cook it longer to reach that level of consistency. Oh, well, edible but not exciting (though the broth turned out well).

I'll try to cook something this weekend. It's high time I got back into the swing of things.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Chilled chukasoba

Just in time for a return of hot and humid weather comes my stab at chilled chukasoba. If you like, it’s sort of a summer equivalent for ramen, but cool rather than piping hot. I used Hiroko Shimbo’s recipe from The Japanese Kitchen, but I made some changes in the accoutrements added to the noodles. Shimbo recommends veggies such as cherry tomatoes, bean sprouts and Japanese cucumbers. I decided to go with what I had on hand, so I substituted stir-fried shiitake mushrooms and bamboo shoots. Also added to the noodles was some chashu, which remains quite tasty, although it’s vanishing rather quickly. The noodles are a mix of chukasoba and bean thread noodles (aka glass noodles or cellophane noodles, among other things). They are covered with a sauce comprised of mirin, chicken stock, sugar, shoyu, rice vinegar, sesame oil and ginger juice.

The results, though fine, left me wanting to tinker. I made enough sauce to qualify as a broth, but the strong vinegar taste was more suited to a smaller quantity of dressing. The sauce and noodles would be better complemented by blanched fresh vegetables rather than the stir-fried canned and dried ones I used. I used sliced ginger rather than grating ginger for ginger juice, so any ginger present in the sauce was at best an undertone. In an attempt to reduce complexity, I omitted the traditional shredded omelet garnish. Still, it was a good illustration of what one can use chashu for.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005


Chinese cuisine boasts a roast pork dish known as char siu. You can buy char siu (or barbecued) pork in any well-appointed Chinese grocery. When the Japanese took on this dish, however, they changed it a bit. The Chinese barbecued pork became Japanese simmered pork, char siu became chashu. Chashu is a popular topping for ramen, another Chinese-cum-Japanese dish.

Chashu requires pork belly, so I hied myself down to the Asian supermarket and got some. It's another simple meal; I used Hiroko Shimbo's recipe. Trim off the skin and put the pork belly chunks into a pot, covered with water; add four halved garlic cloves, an ounce of sliced ginger, two tablespoons of sake and 2/3 cup of shoyu. Bring to a boil, skim the foam and then simmer (covered) for 40 minutes. Turn off the heat and let sit for 15 more minutes. At that point, you have chashu plus chashu broth, both of which have many applications.

I promptly used the chashu for lunch in yakisoba. Tonight I had a lump of it just for itself and enjoyed that, too. The long simmering made the pork very tender, so it makes a tasty treat indeed. I anticipate making Thai fried rice with it, and when I told The Deacon about it on Sunday (coming back from a bagels and lox brunch at her place), she strongly intimated that I might want to consider making it for them when I next came down for a cooking adventure. Meanwhile, the broth can be a good starter for ramen, and I have ideas about using it instead of beef stock for certain Frugal Gourmet dishes.

In other news, Saturday night found me at the Americana Diner with the usual suspects (plus two) and I gave the Americana a chance to wow me with prime rib. It didn't quite come up to the Algonquin level, but it was still a fine, fine prime rib. And every time I have the house salad, I like it more.

Saturday, September 10, 2005

The garden in (almost) fall

It's been a VERY long time since I last posted a garden update, so I figured why not today? Actually, it's an idea that's been hanging around for a while, but I haven't gotten around to it.

The season is getting cooler, so it's time to put in some more cool-weather veggies. My lettuce kept going surprisingly well through the summer heat, but now it should come into its glory again; there are three good-looking Simpson Elite lettuces coming up as we speak. I've started planting spinach again, too. Most of my Asian greens have wound up feeding Cabbage White butterflies (or their caterpillars) and not me. I tried another pea plant, which has conked out, so I'll give it another shot. The hot peppers didn't amount to anything. The tomato soldiers on and I've saved some more seeds from it; I may get a few more tomatoes from it, if the remaining flowers are any indication.

In the Unwanted Predator Department, I've had to move my scallions inside because the neighbor's cat was coming over and grazing on them. They still seem to be alive, at least.

Both mint plants are doing pretty well, though the orange mint has aphids and I really need to do something about that. The sage plants are hanging on, but looking a little peaked. The lemon thyme and rosemary are still in great shape. After being repotted, the bergamot has started to establish itself better. I have tropical sage seedlings but not much more, since I probably planted them too late. The big herb success was Thai basil, which has produced abundantly and is reseeding itself hither and yon. I didn't get a lot of mitsuba before it went to seed, but it also is reseeding itself, and I've clipped off some of the seed heads to save (I'll do that with the basil, too). Finally, my attempt at adding cilantro to the herb garden was a complete failure.

It's a mixed bag, but that was all I expected from my first real year of gardening. Next year should be much more productive. I hope.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Ginger-flavored pork

Here's a light snack from Hiroko Shimbo's The Japanese Kitchen. She calls it "Ginger-Flavored Pan-Fried Pork," and says it is a popular lunch item in Japan. Just marinate some thin-sliced pork loin in two teaspoons of shoyu and two teaspoons of ginger juice for two minutes. Then pan-fry the meat in a blend of one tablespoon of vegetable oil and one tablespoon of sesame oil until golden. Serve with veggies (she recommends stir-fried bean sprouts) and white rice.

My pork wasn't thin-sliced; I chopped up some pork chops into cubes, more or less. I used chopped ginger rather than ginger juice, and hoped the juice would insinuate itself into the marinade. It was fast, it was simple and it was tasty. Even though my rice didn't turn out great (too gummy from not enough boiling), once I put the pork and sauce on top of it, the rice improved a great deal. I deglazed the pan with some sake, an adaptation that Shimbo doesn't include, but which got some of the nice pan juices out of the pan and onto lunch.

This was good hot off the stove and cold later on.

Sunday, September 04, 2005

Fettucini carbonara

The first recipe from a new cookbook is always a rite of passage. No collection can be judged by a single recipe, of course, but a good result gets everything off on the right foot. A disappointing result, on the other hand, brings doubt about one’s cooking abilities, book selection skills, or both.

A couple of weeks ago, I picked up Mark Bittman’s The Minimalist Cooks Dinner. I’ve been catching Bittman’s PBS show How to Cook Everything on an irregular basis on NJN tv. I like some episodes better than others, but some of the recipes look pretty good. In any case, when I flipped through the book, it looked like a good no-frills guide to cooking. Most dishes are western ones, but there are some Asian and Asian-inspired dishes as well. I also like the tips and variations for each recipe.

Yesterday, I decided to try Bittman’s version of pasta carbonara, which he lists as a variation of the “Pasta alla Gricia” recipe. Carbonara has historically been one of the things I buy as a frozen dinner, so the idea of making it for myself is attractive. I previously tried a Frugal Gourmet version of carbonara, but due to my use of 1% milk rather than whole milk, the results left something to be desired.

To start things off, I sautéed some pancetta in a couple of tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil until it was browned and crispy. Then I removed the pancetta from the heat and started to cook the spinach fettucini I was using for this dish (rather than the more typical spaghetti). While the pasta was cooking, I mixed three beaten eggs, a half cup of grated parmesan cheese and the pancetta and its juice in a warm pot. When everything was done, more or less at the same time (the egg was even starting to set in the bottom of the pot), I mixed it all up and garnished it with some more grated parmesan and pepper.

It turned out to be a rich pasta dish, quite filling and almost decadent (thanks to the eggs, no doubt). There was nothing remotely thin about this sauce. I probably used more pancetta than necessary; a little less would’ve balanced the ingredient proportions better. At times, I tasted a somewhat bitter undertone; I suspect that this was due to the fact that I used relatively cheap olive oil, or perhaps to overheating it. I had thought that cooking with extra virgin olive oil was a no-no (because of its delicacy), but Bittman cooks with it regularly in this book.

So, based on yesterday’s lunch, this cookbook looks like a worthy addition to my library.