Thursday, January 26, 2006

Meme: Too much information

Well, obachan was looking for willing tag-ees for a meme, so I had to volunteer, just to help her out. So here we go, some completely irrelevant information for y'all:

1. Mountains I have climbed include Mt. Monadnock in New Hampshire, Cadillac Mt. in Maine, Mt. Scott in Oregon and Utsjoki Ailigas in Finland.

2. I used to play the dulcimer a little bit.

3. H. P. Lovecraft is (was?) a distant cousin of mine.

4. My first word was "kih-kih," that is, "kitty."

5. I know how to read tarot cards.

6. I used to listen to Jean Shepherd on WOR when I was a kid.

7. I'm an off-and-on collector of model horses.

8. I was one of the hordes of people who saw a Boreal Owl in Central Park last winter.

9. One of this year's projects is to hike the Batona trail end to end with The Lurker and Perfect Tommy.

10. I was in the stands when Len Dykstra won game 3 of the 1986 National League playoffs with a homer.

Friday, January 20, 2006

And now, a word from our sponsor

Well, more a word from the Apologist-in-Charge. Although I have some drafts of posts lined up in the queue here at SevenSoy Central, I have been quite remiss in finishing them off. You see, I got a new refurbished laptop the other day and it has been quite the distraction. Transferring my e-life from my older machines to the fancy schmancy new one will take some time, but getting back into the swing of blogging is definitely a priority.

Incidentally, you can check out my weekly column, "Asian Sweet of the Week" on Mondays over at Sugar Savvy.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Meme: Five cooking challenges for 2006

Oh, goody, a meme! Crazy Gaijin of Cooking in Japan (aka Nihon no Ryori) tagged me with this one, which provided a lot of food for thought. In December 2004 (yikes, has it already been that long?!), I blogged some food-related resolutions for 2005 (intermittently kept), but this year I hadn’t really thought about it. Well, now I have.

1. Make every dinner a dish worth savoring. Every dinner, even those workaday weekday dinners: in fact, especially those dinners. It’s understandable to take the path of least resistance, especially when tired or stressed out from work (which seems to be my normal state of mind these days, alas). But opting for routine in those situations leads you down the slippery slope. At those tired or stressful times, one simple way to make yourself feel better is to fix yourself a special meal. It doesn’t have to be fancy-special or time-consuming-special; it just needs to be something that requires a little bit of thought and care, or maybe just some Zen time chopping garlic or onions without thinking. Falling into routine is a way of turning off the things that make you happy by seeking refuge in the overly familiar. Making a special meal is a way of saying yes to the things that make you happy. Saying yes to those things always makes life better, but it’s often surprisingly difficult to do.

2. Eat more vegetarian meals. Asian cuisines are well-adapted to those seeking a vegetarian diet; if you want to make a stir-fry with no meat, it’s pretty easy to do. For a carnivore, I eat vegetarian more than I would expect, without trying too hard. It would be worth it to push that envelope a little further.

3. Away from the general toward the specific: I want to learn how to make Swedish meatballs.

4. Another specific challenge: use my bamboo steamer.

5. Finally, Asian telephone. This idea struck me as I was toying with this meme, and I loved it immediately. Cook an Asian meal, any Asian meal. Then take one ingredient from that meal and cook another Asian meal, from a different country or culture’s cuisine. Continue ad lib and see where you end up. I think the seed for this one may have been planted by Hot Sour Salty Sweet, which is a great book about regional cooking in southeast Asia. The book does an excellent job of showing the similarities and differences in the cooking of the different peoples who call the Mekong River area their home. Sure, I already have recipes for pad Thai and beef pho and Chiang Mai noodles, but Hot Sour Salty Sweet gives a deeper context than many cookbooks.

Oh, gosh, now I need to tag some folks.

Gluten-free Girl

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Pennsylvania road food

An after-the-fact note about a couple of eateries I visited with The Lurker and Perfect Tommy on a trip to Pennsylvania in search of a rare bird (not to mention some Ikea scouting).

Yocco's Hot Dogs: Perfect Tommy is a hot dog fan, and his craving lately has been for Yocco's, a mini-chain in the Lehigh Valley area. The hot dogs are rather thin, which is why the average serving preferred by aficionados is two or three dogs. Each hot dog is dressed in chili sauce, onions and mustard. I wasn't sure how easily digestible the hot dogs and their topping would be, so I only ordered a single with a side of fries. I needn't have worried; it went down just fine. The fries were crinkle-cut and not greasy.

That evening, when we'd finished wandering around Ikea, we stumbled onto a sports bar called Champps, another chain (albeit of the bigger, glossier, less homespun sort than Yocco's). Both Perfect Tommy and I had the "Shanghai steamer," an assortment of pork, shrimp and chicken dumplings served with dipping sauce. It was pretty good, all told. I tend to avoid ordering Asian-style dishes in western restaurants (particularly chains), because who knows what their interpretation of Asian food will be like. But the dumplings were fine and the teriyaki dipping sauce was fine. The "Thai peanut slaw" that accompanied the dumplings turned out to be your basic cole slaw with just a hint of peanut flavor in the dressing. It was definitely not the assertive symphony of tastes that is a hallmark of real Thai food.

The most amusing moment of the evening (for the three of us, anyway) was when our server read off the night's specials, including a special martini, the "Flirtini." All of us ordered Cokes, since none of us are "swingers" by any stretch of the imagination. That poor waiter, little knowing he was offering a Flirtini to three of the least flirtaceous people one could find anywhere. Oh, well, that's life.

Monday, January 09, 2006

Gai lan three ways

My dislike of broccoli was crystallized in one of my earliest memories, a memory that has turned into a favorite story to tell and retell. I was in nursery school and it was lunchtime. The teacher went around to serve us our meals. When she got to me, she asked me if I wanted "a big tree or a little tree," while offering a selection of broccoli. I replied that I preferred not to have any trees at all. Unfortunately, this was not an acceptable answer. I remember that I was sent to sit in the corner for the rest of the afternoon because of my insubordination, but to be honest, that memory may refer to a punishment for a different transgression that just got matched up with the broccoli showdown. The brain can be funny that way.

In any case, I hate broccoli and have for a very long time. Both the taste and the consistency turn me off. I was a picky eater in childhood, and broccoli was only one on a long list of disliked food items. Mushrooms. Lima beans. Peas. Collard greens. Okra. I have come to reevaluate mushrooms in adulthood, but I think part of that is becoming familiar with different types of mushrooms such as shiitakes, porcinis and tree ears. Broccoli remains on the no-go list, however, along with lima beans. This summer, I had peas fresh off the vine from my garden and realized that they really were so much better than other peas, like every gardener says. Collard greens and okra are yet to be officially reevaluated, but that day will probably come soon.

Chinese cooking boasts an assortment of cabbages and bitter mustard greens. One of these is variously called Chinese broccoli, Chinese kale, gai lan or kai lan. Perfect Tommy loves the stuff, singing its praises when it's served in a simple stir-fry. After hearing him rhapsodize, I grudgingly agreed that I would try gai lan at least once. After all, it wasn't exactly the same as regular broccoli. Maybe there would be some subtle difference in its taste that would make it acceptable to this broccoli-hater.

I recently got a new cookbook called Shiok! by Terry Tan and Christopher Tan. Shiok! is a big colorful paperback dedicated to Singaporean cooking; it contains a panoply of recipes showing the cross-cultural fusion cooking that is the culinary heritage of Singapore. When I came across a recipe called "Stir-fried Beef with Kai Lan," I knew what I had to do. I bought a bunch of gai lan from the Asian supermarket, thawed some stir-fry sirloin and prepared to do battle.

The first way was to follow the cookbook. Mix the beef with two teaspoons each of cornstarch and light Chinese soy sauce, and one and a half tablespoons of Shao Xing rice wine. This is a marinade, but there are no cookbook notes on letting the beef sit in the solution, so do what you will; I mixed it up and threw the beef into the skillet. Fry some garlic and ginger in oil, then add the beef and stir-fry for a minute. Add the gai lan and stir-fry for two more minutes. Then add one and a half tablespoons of Shao Xing rice wine, two tablespoons of oyster sauce, one tablespoon of sesame oil, a teaspoon of black pepper and four tablespoons of water. Stir-fry until the sauce thickens, then serve.

It was pretty good, but the gai lan was bitter. In cooking terms, it behaved much like spinach because the expanse of leaves quickly cooked down to a fraction of the volume it had started with. The next evening I served the leftover gai lan and remaining sauce (the beef was taken care of pretty quickly) with jasmine rice. Good, again, but the gai lan was still bitter. So I finally tackled the leftover gai lan and rice with the Thai fried rice recipe from Hot Sour Salty Sweet by Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid (another new cookbook treat). Yes, the gai lan was bitter, again.

While driving up to The Lurker's for a weekend birding trip (more on that later), I told Perfect Tommy about my gai lan experience. He mentioned parboiling the gai lan to remove the bitterness. I guess I'll have to try that next time.

One's friends can lead one so astray. A food my parents never could have gotten me to eat in childhood becomes worthy of the benefit of the doubt because a friend (long after childhood) recommends it. I don't know if that's scary or fitting.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Be fed well

Yep, it's official. The WellFed Network is up and running. Go over there and have a look. Not only am I looking forward to blogging for it, I'm looking forward to seeing other people's great posts on the member blogs.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Korean spaghetti

This meal got its start from Sichuan spaghetti, which came from Bruce Cost's Asian Ingredients. I've had some Korean soybean paste and hot pepper paste sitting in my cabinet for a while, but many of the recipes in my main Korean cookbook (Growing Up in a Korean Kitchen by Hi Soo Shin Hepinstall) are fairly intricate, with lots of ingredients. I haven't really dived into it yet. So, I decided that the thing to do was to cook a more generic stir-fry with these ingredients, just to get a feel for them.

Sichuan spaghetti turned out to be a good choice to try these new ingredients. Rather than using five tablespoons of Chinese hot bean paste, I used three of the Korean soybean paste and one of the hot pepper paste (not knowing quite how hot it was beforehand). The soybean paste clumped together in the pan, a little too sticky for this treatment (but then, would you stir-fry miso unadulterated with some thinning agent like water? No); I added some ch'ongju to deglaze the pan a bit.

The end result was very similar to Sichuan spaghetti. The main difference was that it wasn't as oily. The Sichuan spaghetti contains not only the oil used to fry the ingredients but also oil from the hot bean paste; there was no additional oil from the combination of Korean soybean paste and hot pepper paste. On the other hand, the soybean paste wasn't the right consistency to stir-fry alone, and mixing two ingredients for the sauce adds an extra step that the hot bean paste makes unnecessary. I suppose one way around the consistency problem would be to mix the soybean paste and hot pepper paste with water or some other fluid; that would improve the consistency of the sauce, in stir-frying terms.

In any case, it was an interesting experiment, and it did give me an idea of what to do with the Korean ingredients. The hot pepper paste will probably become the go-to source of heat for certain stir-fries; not as vinegary as Tabasco sauce, nor as powdery as cayenne or red pepper flakes. It has a wine-dark purplish color that led my fevered imagination to ponder combining it with red wine for a bizarre variant of traditional European sauces. The soybean paste resembles a particularly chunky, earthy version of miso; the misos you tend to find in the store are smoother, without obvious bits of bean in them.

Any meal that takes an "exotic," hitherto unknown ingredient and makes it comprehensible is a winner in my book.