Sunday, November 27, 2005


I'm one of those tiresome folks who is descended from one of the English people who landed on Plymouth Rock in 1620. My blog handle, in fact, is derived from one of those people. Thanksgiving is a lot of things to a lot of people, but to me it's always been a family occasion: an anniversary of an arrival in a new place, but also an occasion to honor the native people without whom the Pilgrim settlement would never have survived. Some contemporary Native Americans find that a troublesome legacy (and I don't blame them), but I think of a hard winter in a new country, when the English transplants were sick and dying, and the native people did what any decent human being would have done; they offered help to their new neighbors. That they were repaid so poorly is one of history's tragedies.

Thanksgiving found me alone again this year; partly from circumstance, partly from inclination. I turned to Mark Bittman and the Pennsylvania Dutch Farmers Market. Bittman's recipe for "Turkey Thighs Braised in Red Wine" (from How to Cook Everything) seemed just the ticket, and the farmers market was happy to supply a turkey thigh (one thigh is plenty of meat for one person). The seasonings ranged from porcini mushrooms to juniper berries, all simmered in some Ravenswood Vintners Blend Zinfandel. This would qualify as another "hearty food" kind of dish, with the dark thigh meat standing up to the intense red wine quite well. I added a twist to Bittman's recipe by frying some bacon in the pan first, then browning the turkey thigh and simmering; just to add a little something extra to the sauce. Not your typical Thanksgiving meal, but more than adequate and suitable for a festive special occasion.

Dessert was the traditional pumpkin pie, also from the Pennsylvania Dutch Farmers Market. On Friday, I introduced The Deacon to the market; she has been seeking a good meat counter ever since her favorite butcher shop, Heinz's, closed a few years ago. During my tour, I noticed a new heap of Mennonite and Amish cookbooks in the furniture-and-tchotschkes section; that definitely spells trouble.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

High-test stir-fry

The problem to be solved for last night’s dinner was what to do with half a package of abura-age before it went bad. This is what I came up with:

Take half a package of abura-age and one sliced piece of bacon; stir-fry in a tablespoon of peanut oil for about three minutes. Add two cups of bean sprouts and another tablespoon of peanut oil; stir-fry for another couple of minutes. Add cooked Chinese egg noodles and stir-fry for a minute. Add sauce composed of half a tablespoon of Chinese barbecue sauce, one tablespoon Chinese light soy, one tablespoon oyster sauce and one teaspoon of sesame oil. Blend ingredients, heat through, and serve.

The addition of the barbecue sauce was inspired by this post over at dcfüd. Although some of the other ingredients involved are hardly shrinking violets, the barbecue sauce made them all run for cover. Even though I used a minimal amount of barbecue sauce, my lips burned from the heat of the sauce. Whew. That really is virulent stuff.

Not the most refined meal ever, but a good way to use up odds and ends.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Bacon coma

I guess my recent infatuation with good ol' wholesome American cookin' may be getting a little out of hand. Yesterday on the way home from work I stopped off at the Pennsylvania Dutch Farmers Market (they have expanded hours due to the impending Thanksgiving holiday). Last week, I had eyed the bacon there but had not bought any. Over the weekend, I mentioned their bacon to The Lurker, who gave it a rave review. That sealed it; last night I bought a pound of the maple-honey bacon (among other things).

This morning's breakfast was about five slices of the bacon (big slices) and two eggs sunnyside up, fried in the bacon grease. The entrancing aroma of maple sweetness still permeates the kitchen hours later (not that I'm complaining). The bacon was every bit as wonderful as the aroma promised. But after breakfast, I had to go lie down for a while. Whew! What a knockout! Some farmhand I'd make, if I eat a stick-to-your-ribs meal like that and am impelled to take a nap, rather than go chop a cord or two of wood.

I fantasized about making some bacon gravy and searched online for advice. I found several odes to bacon grease; here and here are just two examples. My surfing emboldened me enough to pour off the remaining bacon grease from the skillet and save it. This has got to be the road to perdition that I'm starting down. I need to remember the title of this blog and start making some nice light stir-fries again.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Terra incognita: breakfast

I'm one of those people who usually thinks of breakfast as a pastry and a cup of tea, if that. Half the time I do without. Sure, I've read all those stories extolling breakfast as the most important meal of the day, but when you're in a rush to get to your job (such as it is), it's easy to toss all that out the window.

Well, recent history has made me rethink that idea. It started with the Christmas Bird Count scouting trip two weekends ago. I just fried a couple of eggs, nothing fancy. By midday, everybody else was hungry and I was still fine. This past weekend, The Lurker, Perfect Tommy and I scouted access points for the Batona Trail in the Pine Barrens. We met for breakfast at the Pennsylvania Dutch Farmers Market, where I had my new favorite, gravy over home fries. That kept me going well into the afternoon.

I think there may be something to this breakfast stuff after all.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Shrimp and mint

I've accumulated some shrimp recipes that I want to work through, and this week I decided to try Mark Bittman's "Shrimp, Roman Style" from The Minimalist Cooks Dinner. I used the variant of shrimp over pasta. Bittman says this recipe is normally used for tripe, which takes a long time to cook, but using shrimp requires much less time.

Season some olive oil by browning a tablespoon of chopped garlic over medium heat. Bittman adds 6 dried red chiles to this step as well, but I used some Korean red pepper powder and added it later, while the tomatoes were cooking. After browning the garlic, turn off the heat for a minute, then add chopped tomatoes to the pan. I used some plum tomatoes, less than the four cups Bittman calls for. They were also less juicy than regular tomatoes, of course, which affected the sauce's consistency. In any case, bring the sauce to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer. Stir occasionally and season with salt and pepper if desired. By the time I was ready to add the shrimp, the tomatoes were starting to soften.

Cook the shrimp for about about five to ten minutes, until they're pink. Adjust the sauce seasonings if necessary, then stir in a cup of chopped fresh mint leaves. Dump over pasta and serve.

Bittman says the sauce should have the consistency of "a moist, almost soupy stew," but because my tomatoes weren't that juicy, I wound up with chunks of tomato instead, sort of a sauce in parts. I can't say it mattered to me, however, because it tasted just fine. The mint gave an almost electric zing to what would otherwise have been an ordinary Italian-style tomato sauce. It was a good change on Italian food as usual, as well as another dish whose taste outstrips the effort involved in puttting it together.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

The cook's weaknesses

I've been cooking long enough to realize that I have certain weaknesses. Last night's cooking session exposed a number of them:

1. The tendency to expect a side dish to function as an entree, due to an unwillingness to cook more than one thing at once.
2. Using less of the main ingredient in a dish, but all of the sauce, leading to something swimming in sauce.
3. A tendency to let the attention wander a bit.

So that was my attempt at "Not Your Mother's Green Beans" from Moosewood Restaurant Cooks at Home last night. Too much dressing for the green beans, pine nuts more burned than toasted, and a side dish thrust into unwanted prominence as an entree.

The dressing is composed of a quarter of a cup each of balsamic vinegar and olive oil, plus a chopped shallot and two tablespoons of fresh parsley, basil or chervil (I used Thai basil). This is poured over some boiled green beans and then toasted pine nuts are stirred in. The right main dish would make this an elegant side indeed. Another mark against my meal-planning skills. I also noticed that the balsamic vinegar and olive oil did not want to mix with each other.

This was one of those "cook and learn" meals.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

List of excuses

Yes, it's been quiet here lately. It started with a weekend out of town last weekend, then a cold which has spent the subsequent week (and has yet to depart). November is also National Novel Writing Month, just for another distraction. It never ends.

Earlier this week, my intent to make southeast Asian saute hit an unexpected roadblock when I discovered my two remaining cans of coconut milk had solidified into something like coconut cream. It was disappointing because I was all set to liven the saute up with chopped tomatoes and mushrooms. I decided to regroup and turn it into a more Chinese stir-fry. After seasoning the oil with garlic and ginger, I stir-fried sliced chicken breast for a minute, then added the tomatoes, spinach and mushrooms and stir-fried for a couple more minutes. In went the udon, and then in went the sauce (two tablespoons each of Chinese light soy, Shao Xing rice wine and oyster sauce, plus an overly generous teaspoon of sesame oil and too much Tabasco sauce). It worked out ok, and was more pungently garlicky on the second day when I had the leftovers for lunch, for some reason. Not quite what I had intended, but not a bad plan b. I'm still not sure what the deal with the coconut milk was, though.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

More hearty fare

Readers of food blogs probably know better, but I suspect that many Americans still consider vegetarian food to be an anemic assemblage of bean sprouts, lettuce and vegetables that you eat because they're good for you, not because they taste like something you would want to eat. Last night, I made my second try at "Pasta with Porcini Mushroom Sauce" from Moosewood Restaurant Cooks at Home, and I can report that this is vegetarian food with a heft that ought to please any meat-eater, especially one fond of red wine sauces.

The last time I tried this, I didn't cook the sauce down enough, so it ended up way too soupy. Last night, I cooked it down a little too much, because I was alternating cooking the sauce with composing an e-mail to The Lurker. Multi-tasking can be good in a kitchen, but not when it extends itself out of the kitchen entirely.

The basic method: soak some dried porcini in a cup and a half of boiling water. Meanwhile, saute a cup of chopped onion in two tablespoons of olive oil for ten minutes, then add two cups of sliced fresh mushrooms. Also add a teaspoon dried marjoram, four teaspoons fresh sage and a dash of salt. While this is going on, cook some pasta; linguini or fettuccini would be good for this but I used spaghetti last night. When the mushrooms begin to soften, add the porcini, then stir in a tablespoon of flour or cornstarch, 2/3 of a cup of red wine (I used Ravenswood Vintners Blend Zinfandel again) and a tablespoon of shoyu. Simmer until the sauce thickens, then pour over the pasta. Garnish with parmesan and/or fresh cracked black pepper, if desired.

The cookbook says, "This is an earthy, rich-tasting pasta for a hearty fall or winter meal," and that's no lie. The combination of red wine and mushrooms in sauce is classic with beef, of course. It works just as well with pasta, too.