Saturday, February 25, 2006

Five-spice game hen

Once in a while, you have to roast a chicken. It's not something I do as often as I could, especially given that it's so easy. Part of the problem is that I seem to have a similiar attitude about roasting chicken as I do about seafood: I want to cook it the same day I buy it. So I wander through the supermarket, or by the poultry counter at the Pennsylvania Dutch Farmers Market, and I see some nice bird. Then I think, "Oh, but I was going to make oxtail stew today," and that's the end of that.

The last time I was at McCaffrey's (the local high-end supermarket), I got a bitty little Cornish game hen because I'd been thinking about "Five-Spice Game Hens" from Everyday Asian. Ideally, one marinates and then grills these game hens, but I live in a condo where the management frowns on grilling. Luckily, the recipe includes instructions on roasting, so that's what I did.

First you marinate the game hen in a spice paste of three chopped shallots; two minced garlic cloves; two teaspoons of five-spice powder; half a teaspoon of cracked black pepper; three tablespoons each of fish sauce, rice wine and soy sauce; two tablespoons of palm sugar; and one tablespoon of sesame oil. Marinate the game hen overnight if you can; I put it in a freezer bag with the marinade and turned it periodically to try to make sure the marinade was fairly evenly distributed. Incidentally, the recipe is written for two game hens, but I roasted only one; I didn't attempt to reduce the marinade recipe.

Once the game hen is marinated (three hours being the minimum), bake it in a pan with a rack at 350 F for 45 minutes, then at 400 F for ten more minutes. Henricksson recommends that one split the game hens in half, but I opted to leave the game hen whole. Now that I think about it, that might be why the hen was undercooked, with the portions nearest the bone still quite pink when I removed it from the oven. The outside parts of the hen were done, however, very tasty and tender, so I just ate those. Maybe an oven thermometer is a worthy kitchen investment...

A few words on the provenance of the recipe: Henricksson says, "Poultry, five-spice powder, and a grill are a classic combination, seen time and again in Chinese and Vietnamese cooking." The inclusion of fish sauce in this recipe puts it squarely in the Vietnamese camp, but Henricksson stops short of ascribing this recipe to a particular country. I find a very similar recipe for "Shiu Ng Heung Gai (Oven Roasted Spiced Chicken)" in the Chinese section of Charmaine Solomon's The Complete Asian Cookbook; here the marinade is composed of Chinese light soy, peanut oil, rice wine, garlic, salt, ginger and five-spice powder. No analogous recipe appears in the Vietnamese section of Solomon's book.

Meanwhile, Ha Roda's A Vietnamese Kitchen has "Roasted Cornish Hens;" these hens are marinated in a combination of soy sauce, hoisin sauce, ginger, rice vinegar, fish sauce, garlic, black pepper and water. After roasting the hens for 40 minutes, Roda brushes a mix of one teaspoon honey and one tablespoon water over the hens, then returns them to the oven to broil for 20 more minutes or until golden brown.

So, I guess it's like barbecue: find your own special marinade and go with it.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Asian telephone refinement

Somehow, I thought the 200th post on my blog should be something special. But no, I'm going to waste it on a technicality.

I've concluded that, although Asian telephone is a fun game, it has ended up holding me back from cooking with my usual abandon (or what passes for it). I will keep playing the game, but I won't insist that every Asian meal follow the rules. The other night, I had all the right ingredients for Thai fried rice, but none of those ingredients were carryover ingredients from the previous Asian telephone meal. So I broke down and made Thai fried rice. I finished off the leftovers just now. Nothing extraordinary, perhaps, but a good solid meal, tastier than many meals. It's remarkable how fish sauce adds a bracing, almost astringent quality to a dish. It really seems to bring out pork's better qualities, in particular.

Sometimes, limitations provide a useful challenge and keep things interesting. But when they start getting in the way of something you enjoy, then you need to rethink things. So I'll keep playing the game, but I won't insist that every Asian meal I cook play the game.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Pretzel quest

Ever since I read this post over at words to eat by, I've had a hankering for Pennsauken Mart pretzels. I immediately forwarded a link to the post to Perfect Tommy, who promptly checked them out on one of his wandering trips. He has wandered past the location before, and suspects that the universe was trying to guide him to the pretzel mart. In any case, the pretzels earned the Perfect Tommy Seal of Approval and I became even more interested in checking them out.

A few weeks ago, we stopped at a Gaetano's in the same strip mall but the pretzel mart, alas, was closed. But on Sunday, we headed down to the southwest corner of Jersey again. The ostensible reason for this trip was a small flock of Brewer's Blackbirds that has set up shop on Supawna Rd. in Salem County, but a major subtext was pretzel desire. We lunched at a Wendy's and repaired to the pretzel mart for dessert. Lo, it was open. If there had been any doubt, the people sitting in their cars in the parking lot and eating pretzels would've removed the doubt.

I have to admit that I have not made an extensive study of fresh soft pretzels. Most of my pretzel experience comes from those brittle little sticks you find in bags at the supermarket. Given that, these pretzels really were a revelation. Hot out of the oven, meltingly soft, studded with salt like sesame seeds on the crust. God, were they good. I had one immediately and saved one for later in the afternoon. By then the crust had hardened, but the inside was almost as soft as ever. A wonderful snack for any occasion, but particularly excellent finger food for birding.

Thanks for the tip, Debbie!

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Cooking with the ancients

This meal hails from last week, actually. A minor section of Charles Pellegrino's Ghosts of Vesuvius (which I'm currently reading) includes the line, "Romans living on the Bay of Naples in A.D. 79 enjoyed pizza, hamburgers, and chili dogs." That summoned up an image of a Roman predecessor of Perfect Tommy raving about the chili dogs at Iachus' stall near the baths and dragging his bemused friends off to sample them. After The Lurker wondered if the line was just a rhetorical flourish, I started thinking about ancient food and what we know about it. I found some sites with Roman chef Apicius' recipes but have yet to track down the chili dog recipe. I'm tempted to do a series of posts about researching the food alluded to by Pellegrino, but I suspect that it's old news to others. Heck, Slice touched on the ancient pizza issue not long ago, so I think this ground has already been covered by others better than I could do it.

This historical reverie led me back to The Frugal Gourmet Cooks Three Ancient Cuisines, which includes Roman recipes. Interestingly, the recipes he gives are not as timeless as "pizza, hamburgers, and chili dogs" might indicate; after all, garum or fish sauce was a favorite Roman condiment, and according to Apicius, it went into the so-called "hamburgers." On the other hand, the most off-putting recipes I've come across in a Frugal Gourmet cookbook are the ones from colonial America in The Frugal Gourmet Cooks American, which is much nearer to us in time (and to some of us in geography and culture) than ancient Rome. Go figure.

After all of that, I cooked an ancient Greek shrimp recipe from the Frug. "Shrimp Ananius" goes back to a poet whose work survives only in fragments. He may have invented the "satyric iambic verse called Scazon," or maybe his contemporary Hipponax did instead. In any case, I guess one of his surviving fragments is a shrimp recipe that the Frug likens to "yuppie food from the Upper East Side of Manhattan." Now there's timeless food for you.

This is one of those pathetically easy recipes. Boil a pound of shrimp in one cup each of dry white wine (or beer) and water for two minutes; the water-wine mixture should have half a teaspoon each of marjoram and salt added. I used frozen shrimp, so I boiled it a little longer. I also used Shao Xing rice wine since I had it on hand. The result was rather subtle in flavor; perhaps I would've gotten more of it if I had shelled the shrimp before boiling them instead of leaving the shells on. I would've preferred a stronger flavor from the dish, but it's hard to complain too much about a shrimp dinner, either. It might not make a bad appetizer, like shrimp cocktail.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Asian telephone: second call

If I were the sort of person who booked plane tickets on a whim, last night's dinner would've led to a trip to Singapore. For my second installment of Asian telephone, I took oyster sauce and Shao Xing rice wine as my carryover ingredients from China to Singapore. I have a feeling that I'll be doing a lot of cooking from here in the upcoming months, as Singapore is a perfect link between the cuisine of China and the more tropical regions of southeast Asia. Not only that, I have an interesting recently-acquired cookbook (Shiok! by Terry Tan and Christopher Tan) filled with tempting recipes.

Last night's dinner was "Beef Hor Fun." This is one of those substantial beef and noodle dishes that can be found in many Asian places: beef yakisoba, Korean beef noodles and soy sauce noodles with beef and greens are other examples of the genre. I think the beef hor fun may have been the tastiest of all of them, however.

Hor fun are wide rice noodles; I only had narrower rice noodles on hand, so I did the best I could with them (I probably should have used rice flakes instead). The recipe does call for the widest rice noodles you can find, and the noodles were under-represented in the final dish, so that will have to be corrected next time around. The beef is sliced sirloin and is marinated in two tablespoons each of Shao Xing rice wine, sesame oil and oyster sauce, plus one and a half tablespoons of grated ginger and a teaspoon of black pepper. Marinate between half an hour and three hours; I probably let it sit for about two and a half hours. Add two teaspoons of cornstarch to the beef and marinade just before starting to cook.

Take your rice noodles (fresh or previously cooked) and stir-fry in three tablespoons of vegetable oil and two tablespoons of dark soy sauce for two minutes (I used Chinese mushroom soy, although it better fits the Tans' definition of "thick dark soy sauce"). Brown the noodles slightly and remove from the pan; my noodles were browned more than slightly, and left a brown crust on the pan surface, but they didn't actually burn. Add one more tablespoon of vegetable oil to the pan and stir-fry the beef for two minutes (I added the marinade as well, though there are no specific instructions about this). Add 150 milliliters (2/3 of a cup minus a tablespoon) of water and the noodles to the pan and stir-fry for another minute, then add three sliced scallions and cook for 30 seconds (I omitted the scallions since the ones I have on hand are looking long in the tooth). Serve with pickled green chiles, if you have them on hand (not to worry, Shiok! has a recipe for them, too, though I didn't serve them last night).

It's hard to put my finger on it, but this was truly delicious. I stir-fried the beef a bit longer than was recommended, just to thicken the sauce some. The sauce was a wonderful beefy gravy with excellent flavor, thick but not so copious it drowned the other ingredients. The rice noodles (as befits their chameleon-like nature) soaked up the other ingredients and transformed themselves into more beefy goodness. The beef was done to medium, not medium-rare as is often the case in stir-fries like this. If you're a "meat and potatoes" kind of person, this might be a good Asian dish for you to try.

So, for our next episode of Asian telephone, potential ingredients include beef, rice noodles, ginger, sesame oil and Chinese mushroom soy. Since the carryover ingredients for this step were Shao Xing rice wine and oyster sauce, they probably should be disqualified for the next go-round. Ingredients like black pepper, cornstarch and vegetable oil (oh, and water too) seem generic enough that they should be disqualified as well. I expect the "rules" for Asian telephone will evolve as I play the game.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Fettuccini with carrots and mushrooms

Whenever I walk into a supermarket and find Italian ingredients in the "Ethnic" or "International Foods" section, it gives me a turn. I grew up in northern New Jersey and in that setting, Italian food isn't anything foreign (not like French or Mexican or Japanese food). Italian food is just normal food. Spaghetti, pizza, fettuccini, lasagna, bologna, salami, get the idea. Now, growing up as I did in a non-Italian family, I doubt our spaghetti was particularly authentic, but long before I got interested in cooking, I already had a lot of Italian words in my lexicon. To me, it will always be part of the normal culinary scene.

To make a long story short, I got to talking cookbooks with my mom around Christmas, and she recommended Anne Casale's Italian Family Cooking as a good basic Italian cookbook. It even has a recipe that is very close to an eggplant dish that one of our neighbors used to make; this neighbor came from a Sicilian background and shared some of her recipes with my mother, who still has them. For my first try at cooking from a dedicated Italian cookbook, I didn't tackle eggplant (never one of my favorite veggies) but made a pasta recipe for spinach fettuccini topped with carrots, mushrooms and pancetta.

The carrots are julienned and boiled until barely tender; the less said about my julienning ability, the better, so I just sliced them. One heats three tablespoons of olive oil in a pan over medium heat and adds three tablespoons of butter. Then one adds in succession: diced pancetta, sliced scallions, and the carrots, cooking each until tender, between one to two minutes apiece. Then one adds sliced mushrooms (I used regular button mushrooms) and turns up the heat to medium-high to cook for about a minute (until the mushrooms start giving up their juices). Season with salt and pepper to taste, remove from the heat, and stir in some minced parsley (I omitted the parsley). Serve over the spinach fettuccini.

This is a fairly simple dish in execution and taste. The centers of attention are the pasta and the vegetables; the butter and pancetta are there to provide flavor accents only, not to dominate the dish and turn it into something luxurious. I'm sure it could be adapted for any assortment of seasonal produce, or one could omit the pancetta and turn it into a vegetarian pasta (maybe as easily as substituting reconstituted dried porcini for the pancetta). I have to say the result didn't make me jump up and down in excitement, but it was a perfectly respectable solid dinner. It's so easy to throw a canned sauce over pasta, but it's almost as easy (and likely healthier) just to cook up a few toppings and turn them into a light sauce like this.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Asian telephone: first call

Well, we're off to discover whether this 2006 cooking challenge will be enough to hold my interest for the rest of the year. In order to make it count, henceforth every Asian meal I cook this year will follow the rules of Asian telephone, as composed on a whim for a meme post: take one ingredient (at least) from an Asian meal and use it to cook another meal from a different country or culture's cuisine.

The first entry comes from China via the Frugal Gourmet's first cookbook: "Shrimp and Fungus." The fungus in question is the tree ear, an unassuming object that resembles (in its dried form) a crumpled-up bit of burned paper. Once hydrated, it expands dramatically in volume but has no taste worth mentioning. On the other hand, it supplies a prodigious and enjoyable crunch to any dish in which it appears. The black tree ears can also add a dramatic note to the appearance of a meal.

This is a simple recipe that I've wanted to try for quite a while but have never quite gotten round to. Marinate the shrimp in a teaspoon each of Chinese light soy and Shao Xing wine (the Frug calls for sherry), along with half a teaspoon grated ginger (as usual, I chopped the ginger; I really need to get a ginger grater one of these days). Stir-fry a crushed clove of garlic in two tablespoons of peanut oil for a few moments. Then add the shrimp and stir-fry until they change color (the Frug calls for shelled shrimp but I cooked mine in shells because, well, because I guess I didn't read the recipe carefully enough!). Then add the fungus and cook for a few more minnutes, until everything is heated through. Now add two tablespoons each of chicken broth and oyster sauce, plus half a tablespoon of cornstarch mixed with half a tablespoon of water. The Frug also calls for a pinch of sugar, but I forgot about that. Cook until the sauce thickens then serve over noodles or rice.

My sauce never did thicken because I added the shrimp marinade along with the shrimp. I turned this into a fusion dish because I wanted spinach fettuccini; I also used porcini soaking water rather than chicken broth. Then there were the mistakes mentioned above. It didn't matter. The sauce was delicious yet subtle, well worth licking off the shrimp before I peeled them. It could easily be kicked up a few notches with the addition of hot sauce or chiles. The combination of pink shrimp, green fettuccini and black fungus looked great; the varied textures also were a treat.

So, for our next installment of Asian telephone, some ingredients to consider include shrimp, tree ears, garlic, Chinese light soy, Shao Xing wine and oyster sauce; any of these for an Asian dish not from China. Hmmm.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Chicken and shiro-sherry sauce

I liked Mark Bittman's miso-red wine sauce so much that I decided to retool it a bit. Rather than using red miso and red wine to make a sauce for pork, I substituted white miso (or shiro miso) and sherry to make a sauce for chicken thighs and mushrooms.

Brown a half-pound of chicken thighs in a hot skillet, then add sliced button mushrooms. Saute until chicken turns white and mostly cooks through, then add a cup of cream sherry (I used Hartley and Gibson's cream sherry) and two tablespoons of white miso (it helps if you smash up the miso some before adding it, so it will dissolve faster). Cook the sauce down by at least half, then turn out onto a plate of pasta.

This was a decadent dish. I've cooked with marsala quite a bit, but I can't remember trying a real sweet sherry sauce. This one delivered the goods, so much so that it induced a post-dinner coma. The mushrooms soaked up the sweet sauce, and were intensely flavored as a result. The dark meat of the chicken thighs stood up to the strength of the sherry flavor better than a milder cut like chicken breast would have done. When I try this again, I'll probably serve it over a flavored pasta like spinach fettuccini in order to add another taste element (this time I used wide egg noodles). If I really want to quibble, I would say that a well-chosen herb and some lemon juice would also add a bit of zing to the sauce, but even without that zing, the sauce was excellent. A keeper.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Stuff I haven't blogged lately

Now that I think about it, that title almost sounds like a meme. Anyway, here are some things I haven't blogged lately:

1. Finishing off a pot of oxtail stew on the electric range when the power went out during a storm. The power stayed off for a couple of hours, so I got to eat a not-quite-reduced-enough bowl of stew by candlelight and the ambient light from the sliding glass door. Luckily, the stew was almost done when the power cut out.

2. Making mizore nabe for The Deacon and The Frog Collector when they came over to my place a couple of weeks ago for Sunday dinner. The mizore nabe received high marks, but as usual it didn't quite turn out the way I wanted. I guess I'll keep playing with it and experimenting with it until it becomes my own.

3. Making an egg stir-fry from Ken Hom's Easy Family Recipes From a Chinese-American Childhood. Hom says dishes like it were probably the antecedents for the Chinese restaurant institution egg foo young. The final result was much like scrambled eggs with bean sprouts and sliced onions added in. It struck me as bland and unexciting, but that's really my fault because I didn't add the chopped tomatoes called for in the recipe. That would've livened things up considerably.

4. Last weekend, I made my first foray into the Philly cheesesteak universe by having a "mini" plain steak at Gaetano's Steaks in Maple Shade, NJ. Perfect Tommy has been raving about this place for a while, particularly the bread (which really was wonderfully incredible). He also gives the meat high marks, since it's actually thinly-sliced steak, not processed beef product. It really was great stuff going down, but unfortunately for me, it didn't settle well and we had to make an emergency pit stop on the way home. I'm not sure what upset the intestines, but it was a huge pile of beef, which may have been enough all by itself.

There, I think I'm caught up for now. A little later, I'll post about last night's dinner, chicken and shiro-sherry sauce.