Friday, December 30, 2005

Four flavors

In southeast Asian cooking, a balance of four flavors is prized: heat from chiles or pepper; sourness from tamarind, lime or vinegar; sweetness from sugar; and saltiness from fish sauce or soy sauce. A well-made dish should demonstrate a complex interplay among these tastes, reaching a level as sophisticated as anything in French haute cuisine or in India's intricate spice blends. The other night I made a Thai dish with obvious sources for all these tastes, but proved that including certain ingredients is far from executing the dish at a high level.

The dish in question was "Tangy Bean Thread Noodles with Cilantro and Lime" from Quick and Easy Thai by Nancie McDermott. After preparing the bean thread noodles by soaking them in hot water, then draining and cutting them into shorter lengths, you stir-fry two tablespoons of chopped shallots and one tablespoon of chopped garlic in vegetable oil for a minute. Then you add a quarter of a cup of chopped meat of your choice (I used pork this time), toss, and add two tablespoons of fish sauce and one teaspoon of soy sauce. Stir-fry the meat until done, then remove from the heat and mix in the noodles. Let stand until it reaches room temperature (I omitted this step, opting to eat while hot) and add two teaspoons of sugar, one teaspoon of dried red chile flakes, and two tablespoons each of lime juice, chopped scallions, and fresh cilantro or mint. Wrap in lettuce leaves, if desired, to serve.

Rather than getting an interplay of the four flavors, I wound up with a single blended taste that wasn't bad, but wasn't tangy, either. It wasn't nearly as spicy as it should've been; maybe the omission of scallions (the ones I had on hand were played out) had something to do with it, but the chile flakes didn't live up to their end of the bargain, either. The other flavors seemed more muted than enhanced by the combination, as if they were cancelling each other out. I'm sure this wasn't the intent of the recipe.

Just another example of how you can cook a meal and follow the recipe, yet end up light-years away from the way the food "should" taste.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Odds, ends and a preview

I have a couple of odds and ends to catch up on blogging, so expect them in the next couple of days. This week so far has been uneventful, with chashu Monday night and chashu over fettuccini last night. I have a feeling that tomorrow's predicted rain will lead to a session of making oxtail stew. The Lurker sent me a report from the road yesterday; he and Perfect Tommy discovered that the Langhorne Krispy Kreme is now closed, alas.

The main reason I'm blogging this aimless entry, however, is to give you the heads-up on a new project I'm getting involved in. If you travel the food blog-verse, you may have run across references to the upcoming WellFed Network. WellFed is going to be group of blogs about food; each blog tackles a different topic and has a group of bloggers contributing to it. I'm pleased to announce that I will be contributing to two of the four WellFed blogs coming online in January: Sugar Savvy and The Spirit World (follow the links for a preview).

I will be blogging a column called "Asian Sweet of the Week" for Sugar Savvy; it is what the title says it is, a review of a semi-randomly-selected candy from the well-stocked shelves of the the local Asian markets. One of the other columnists is based in Asia, so that part of the world should have excellent coverage. Of course, the rest of the world has plenty of sugary treats to offer, so I'm sure there won't be a dearth of material.

The Spirit World is dedicated to alcoholic beverages other than wine (which will have its own WellFed blog); beer and cocktails have already made appearances. My occasional contributions will be in the line of reviewing Asian liquors (hm, I sense a theme here) as well as writing about cooking with alcohol, which is what I do with it most frequently. What is the difference between using sake and michiu in a stir-fry? I hope to find out.

It is always nice to be able to look ahead to new possibilities at the New Year. I'm glad to be involved in this project; it's a way of doing something a little different with my blogging. Meanwhile, of course, Seven Kinds of Soy Sauce will keep chugging along with its recipe reviews, digressions and occasional road food mayhem.

Sunday, December 25, 2005

'Tis the season

'Tis the season to find whatever good you can in a situation that may not be ideal. Rather than the day to sit down to a big family meal, today was the day to drive from Massachusetts to New Jersey (so that I can show up at work tomorrow). My parents and I did Christmas yesterday; my mom prepared a ham with mashed potatoes, gravy and various accessories. It turns out that lingonberry jam is even better with ham than cranberry sauce is.

Once I got home in one piece and unpacked the car, it was time to try and cobble together a bit more of Christmas for myself. My inspiration was last year's solo holiday and dinner didn't fall far from that tree. I sauteed some porcini mushrooms in butter until they browned, then I added half a cup each of porcini soaking water and cooking sake. I cooked the sauce down and also added a teaspoon of cornstarch dissolved in too much water. When it had started to thicken, but there was still a good amount of juice, I poured it over some spinach fettuccini. Boy, that didn't last long. It really is heartening to be able to come home and throw a meal together that tastes so good. Even on a day taken up with other things, you can still make a little space and take a little time to treat yourself well. At least, I hope I can remember that in the future, because I tend to lose sight of it easily.

Happy holidays!

Friday, December 23, 2005

Perfectionism: the enemy in the kitchen

Well, here I am in balmy Massachusetts, where upended trees are still strewn hither and yon from the nasty storm that came through a few weeks ago. My parents had at least four trees come down in the yard but luckily none of them hit the house or did major damage. They did lose power for several days.

I haven't been up here since June, and I wasn't able to visit for the holidays at all last year, so it's nice to be here. One way to treat my parents is to cook a meal for them. Last night I thought I'd try "Garlic Fried Shrimp" from Marnie Henricksson's Everyday Asian. Of course, once I arrived in the kitchen, variables were introduced. My parents' electric range cooks hotter than mine. They picked up a bunch of veggies for the stir-fry although the recipe doesn't call for them.

The idea of the recipe is the Vietnamese technique of cooking garlic and onion down into a syrup (with the help of oil, sugar, fish sauce, salt and pepper). Once this is done, then the syrup is poured off and separated from the oil. The oil stays in the pan and is used to stir-fry the shrimp. Then the sauce is returned to the pan, heated through, and the shrimp and sauce are served over jasmine rice.

It was probably a mistake for me to try this technique (a new one for me) in a new kitchen with an audience I wanted to impress. The garlic-onion-syrup mixture quickly cooked down into something that looked more burned than anything else. I hacked as much of it as possible out of the pan and set it aside in a bowl. Then I started stir-frying the veggies, adding first the asparagus spears, then the sliced mushrooms, then the shrimp, then the pea pods. Stir-frying did pick up a lot of the burned crispy stuff left over from the sauce.

Then came the time to add the sauce back in, but when I attempted to scoop it out of the bowl, it came flying out and skated across the kitchen floor in a perfect imitation of a hockey puck. The mess had congealed and crystalized, doubtlessly abetted by the sugar. My mother opined that it was rather like a kind of candy, and even thought it didn't taste bad. All I knew was that it wasn't remotely what had been supposed to happen. Argh! So I just finished up the stir-fry and dumped the shrimp and veggies over the jasmine rice (which came out fine despite boiling over).

I couldn't think of the dish as a success since the end product was so different from what the recipe intended. But my parents loved it. I grudgingly had to admit that it was a successful meal, just not the successful meal that I had set out to prepare. And that's the real joy of cooking - those surprises that come along and teach you more about cooking than the tried-and-true comfortable dishes. Take the asparagus, for example. It was the first time I'd cooked asparagus, because I'm not a big fan of it. My dad loves it, though, so it went into the stir-fry as a treat for him. It came out perfectly done, crisp on the outside and tender on the inside. Even I liked it.

Someday, I'll try that recipe again and get it "right." But last night's meal will last longer in memory for its "imperfection."

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Kindred spirits

Normally when I mess around with my sidebar links, I don't notify the media. It's just routine cyber-housecleaning, nothing to get excited about. Clean out the dead links, add new interesting sites as you find them. But is something else.

I stumbled onto it while looking for info about Baby Star snacks. Then I saw the item about the closing of the first Massachusetts Krispy Kreme store in Medford. I e-mailed the link to Perfect Tommy and The Lurker; Perfect Tommy, of course, is a dedicated fancier of Krispy Kreme, while The Lurker is a not-so-innocent bystander sure to be amused by any of Perfect Tommy's excesses. Then Perfect Tommy e-mailed back that The Lurker should check out the fries section, with its mention of "the Chick-fil-A triad." It turns out these folks are obsessed with Chick-fil-A, too. The Lurker was happy they adore Chick-fil-A. Perfect Tommy was happy that they actually understand the batter-to-potato ratio for french fries, which he has been expounding about to an uncomprehending populace for ages. I like the Asian snack reviews (well, ok, and the Bugles review too), but on wandering through the site, I stumbled on this snippet from their explanation of how came to be:

"As for the name of the site, it has something to do with Jeremy's hunger for Trader Joe's taquitos (hideous things, really). The name stuck when the word found its way into a certain Simpsons episode, when one of the retirement home residents said "I want some taquitos" not once but twice in the same episode. Understanding Jeremy's logic in choosing that name for the site (not to mention understanding Jeremy's logic in general) is like getting from Point A to Point B by taking a side trip through Points C, E and F. You'll just have to trust us."

This is the perfect description of a birding trip (or heck, even just a conversation) between The Lurker, Perfect Tommy and myself. I'm not sure whether I'm heartened to find others like us on the internet, or scared.

Well, I just finished my bag of Baby Star chicken-flavored Crispy Noodle Snack. Time enough to end this post!

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Sesame-ginger stir-fry

This recipe comes from one of my more recently-acquired cookbooks (Ken Hom's Hot Wok), but it reminds me of a Frugal Gourmet recipe that I've been cooking (and fiddling with) for years. That Frugal Gourmet recipe is "My Cousin David's Hot Szechwan Chicken." Oddly enough, Hom's recipe is also named after another person; it's called "Peter Ng's Sesame-Ginger Chicken." Hom’s recipe claims no Sichuan influence; instead he tells us that Peter Ng was born in Malaysia of Chinese descent.

The techniques of the two dishes are similar; first you marinate the chicken meat, then you stir-fry. In the present case, the marinade consists of two teaspoons light soy sauce, one teaspoon mushroom soy sauce, one tablespoon Shao Xing rice wine, a half teaspoon each salt and black pepper (I omitted the salt), one teaspoon sesame oil and two teaspoons cornstarch. This marinade is a bit more involved than The Frug's, which just calls for light soy sauce, sherry and cornstarch. Hom directs that the meat be marinated for 30 minutes, The Frug gives no time limit.

This stir-fry is a bit different in that it calls for a blended oil in which to stir-fry, instead of straight peanut oil or vegetable oil. The blend is one tablespoon peanut oil and two teaspoons sesame oil. This technique of blending sesame oil with regular cooking oil is used in Japanese cooking for tempura, but I haven't previously encountered it in Chinese or Chinese-influenced dishes. It doubtless is used here to help produce the sesame flavor of the dish.

Stir-fry three tablespoons of ginger (Hom calls for shredded, I just chopped mine) in the blended oil for a minute, then add the chicken and stir-fry until the chicken starts browning. Then add the following ingredients: two tablespoons mushroom soy, two teaspoons sugar, one teaspoon salt, half a teaspoon black pepper and 150 milliliters stock.*

* Digression: My copy of this cookbook is the British edition, so it includes metric fluid measurements. Two-thirds of a cup is roughly equivalent to 150 milliliters, but I just measured it out in a cup with metric amounts on one side.

After stir-frying for a minute, cover the pan and simmer for eight minutes. When the simmering is done, uncover and raise the heat to reduce the sauce. Once the sauce has reduced to several tablespoons, add two tablespoons of Shao Xing rice wine and stir-fry for about two more minutes. Garnish with scallions and serve.

The Frug’s recipe is a straight stir-fry without sauce reduction and simmering. His sauce ingredients are sherry, mushroom soy, brown sugar, sesame oil, Worcestershire sauce, water and cornstarch. Both recipes result in a flavorful thick sauce with a certain tang to it, sort of an example of culinary convergent evolution. Hom’s sauce is almost syrupy by the time it’s done, with a dark brownish-red color that brings to mind Chinese red-cooked stews. The dark color comes from the mushroom soy, of course, but sesame and ginger, as the recipe’s title indicates, are the dominant flavors. The strongly-flavored chicken from both recipes goes well with either rice or noodles as a setting.

This meal was like meeting an old friend in a new guise. I’ll definitely be making it again.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Sauce follies

Building on my last major meal, I decided to take the sauce and pour it on some spinach fettuccini for dinner. Half a cup of real sake, half a cup of chicken-turkey stock, no seasonings. I sauteed some porcini mushrooms in a bit of vegetable oil first. Once the mushrooms had absorbed most of the oil, I added the sake and stock. I subsequently added a teaspoon of cornstarch, but this didn't thicken the sauce in any significant way. I reduced the sauce for a while, then poured it on the fettuccini.

It was tasty, but not remotely what happened when I tried this the last time. It is really funny (peculiar is maybe a better word) to see how the same ingredients and techniques can lead to very different outcomes. I guess that's one reason to keep cooking; if it was completely predictable every time, would it be as much fun? Well, ok, I'm an amateur cook, not someone who wants to open a restaurant any time soon. Unpredictability adds spice to the amateur's life, while to the hopeful professional, it probably means something's gone wrong. Careers are built on consistency.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

The best ingredients

There's a cooking truism to the effect that a meal's quality depends directly on the quality of the ingredients. The freshest produce and meat, unadulterated seasonings; all of these will combine for a fine meal. Reality being what it is, however, every cook without unlimited time and an unlimited bankroll (i.e., most of us) has to make certain tradeoffs. Sometimes these tradeoffs can be downright idiosyncratic. In my case, I hardly ever cook with frozen fish; I want it as fresh as I can get it, or at least bought the same day I eat it. On the other hand, I think nothing of buying beef, pork or poultry and tossing it into the freezer until I want it. Go figure.

Yesterday I tried making a variant of rosemary chicken. I started with the big skillet, which had had bacon fried in it recently (the bacon has no further part in this meal). I added a bit of vegetable oil to eke out the traces of bacon grease and the remaining crusty bits, then stir-fried quarter of a cup of sliced onion for a minute. Then I added some sliced chicken tenderloin and stir-fried until it had mostly turned color. The onions and chicken picked up the browned bacon leftovers from the skillet quite nicely, cleaning the pan up. I then added half a cup of homemade Chinese-style turkey-chicken stock, brought it to a boil, and did the same with half a cup of sake (the real stuff, not cooking sake).

I removed the chicken pieces with a slotted spoon and got to work on the sauce. A bit of salt and pepper to taste livened it up a bit, as did half a teaspoon of sliced fresh rosemary. From there, I just reduced the sauce. As it reduced, it remained close to the "au jus" end of the spectrum, so I added a teaspoon of cornstarch to thicken it up. This did the trick and soon I was pouring the chicken and the sauce over a big pile of jasmine rice.

The sauce tasted wonderful as it was bubbling away in the pan, but it was quickly lost in the pile of jasmine rice, becoming a mere shadow of a memory. This threw the spotlight squarely on the chicken which, it quickly became evident, was not quite ready for prime time. It was tender and moist, but it had an off-putting cardboard-like aftertaste. It was still edible, but clearly it had sat in the freezer a little too long.

Little details mean a lot. The sauce was perfect, but there was too much rice to absorb it. The meat was the right consistency, but just not fresh enough. On the other hand, there's reason to be hopeful. With just a few minor changes, last night's disappointment is sure to become another evening's beautiful centerpiece.

Friday, December 09, 2005

2005 Food Blog Awards

Just reminder that it's that time again: time for the 2005 Food Blog Awards! I thought voting was tough last year, but this year, there are even more great food blogs out there and I have less free time to read them. Ack. It really is hard to pick favorites when you know you will leave out many deserving contenders.

Trot over to The Accidental Hedonist and nominate your choices by December 16. Then the esteemed judges will review the contenders, come up with a slate of finalists and open them up to votes from December 21 to December 31.

If you have a food blog, good luck!

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Vietnamese hash

Well, ok, so the classic form of hash seems to require potatoes. My mom's hash definitely involved potatoes. But the thing I threw together Monday night seemed so hash-like, I couldn't say it was anything else. It's just that rice took the starch place of honor, rather than potatoes.

I improvised off of Ha Roda's recipe for "Egg and Pork Stew" in her cookbook A Vietnamese Kitchen. Marinate about a pound of ground pork in two tablespoons of fish sauce, one tablespoon of light soy sauce, one tablespoon of oyster sauce, some salt and black pepper to taste, one teaspoon of sugar, two tablespoons of chopped onion and two teaspoons of bacon grease. Stir-fry the pork for a minute or two, then add leftover cooked rice (about a cup) and stir-fry for another minute.Then add the egg and stir-fry. On the second day, I threw this over some rice noodles. On the first day, it was fine by itself.

I doubt it’s really hash, and it’s definitely not authentic Vietnamese food. But it turned out to be a tasty way of using up odds and ends.