Thursday, March 30, 2006

Asian telephone: third call

Time for another round of my neglected game of Asian telephone. This time, the carryover ingredient from round two was sesame oil, and I went from Singapore to China. Thanks to Ken Hom's Hot Wok, I threw together a hot stir-fry he calls "Stir-Fried Garlic Pork."

Want heat? You've got garlic, you've got hot bean sauce, you've got scallions. Together, they ramped the dish up to the point that I had flashbacks to the last time I had steak sha zha jiang. The heat was raw and garlicky, like Chinese barbecue sauce. Whew.

First you slice up some pork and marinate it in a combination of one tablespoon Shao Xing rice wine, two teaspoons sesame oil and one teaspoon cornstarch. The recommended soaking time is 20 minutes, but I ended up letting it go overnight. Hom's original recipe has a step where the pork is stir-fried before the other ingredients and removed from the wok, but I omitted that. I just stir-fried three cloves of garlic, three chopped scallions and two teaspoons hot bean sauce in peanut oil for about 30 seconds. Then I added the pork and marinade, one tablespoon each of light soy, water and sesame oil; and one teaspoon each of Shao Xing wine and sugar. This I cooked for five or so minutes, then I poured it onto some leftover jasmine rice. Whew. Hot hot hot hot hot. But not in a bad way.

So, the potential ingredients for the next Asian telephone call are garlic, Chinese hot bean sauce, scallions, pork, Shao Xing rice wine and Chinese light soy sauce.

Monday, March 27, 2006

Khmer-ical food

Another meal, another country. To an untraveled American of a certain vintage, the word Cambodia summons up horrible images of southeast Asian wars. But Cambodia is a place that people call home and cook in. My current source for Cambodian recipes is Alford and Duguid's Hot Sour Salty Sweet, an excellent cookbook for those who seek regional trends in cuisines. The Mekong River is the book's backbone as it curves from China past Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. The book is full of travelers' stories, gorgeous photos and excellent recipes. I'm not a fan of the big coffee-table genre of cookbook, but this is an exception to that rule. I hope I don't wind up spilling fish sauce on the pages someday, but I suspect that the authors would be delighted if that happened. As pretty as the book is, it's grounded in real travels and real cooking. This is not one of those cookbooks that are all glitz and no substance.

So, as a way of expanding my culinary horizons, I decided to cook the recipe for "Khmer Stir-Fried Ginger and Beef." It's recommended as part of a rice meal due to the beef gravy that is a collateral result of the cooking process. The ingredients are minimal: half a pound each of sliced lean beef and julienned young ginger, three tablespoons of peanut or vegetable oil, three to four smashed garlic cloves, two tablespoons fish sauce and two teaspoons sugar. Stir-fry the garlic in the oil until golden, then add the meat and stir-fry until most of it changes color. Add the remaining ingredients and stir-fry "until just tender."

This meal was an object lesson for those who unplug the phone while they're cooking. The Lurker called while I was in mid-stir-fry mode. Normally, I'd call him back, but something in me wanted to live dangerously, and besides, we were cobbling together Plans for the following day. Since Plans are a rare and fragile commodity among our lackadaisical crowd, one really needs to seize the moment when the mirage of planning appears on the horizon. So I did the "shoulder holding the phone up to the ear" trick and continued stir-frying. I thought I carried it off pretty well, until I got off the phone, decanted the stir-fry onto the jasmine rice and realized that I had forgotten to add the ginger to the pan!

There was only one thing to do. I turned the burner back on, called the skillet back to active duty and stir-fried the julienned ginger in the leftover juices for a couple of minutes. Not the desired method, perhaps, but it did the job.

It really is essential to use young ginger for this dish. Its relatively mild taste means that you can use half a pound of it and not be overwhelmed by spiciness. Other than that, what you get is ginger and beef. It's a minimalist dish, where the quality of the ingredients makes a difference. I'm tempted to play with a few tasteful embelishments, but even without those, it made a pile of tasty simple food. You can't argue with that.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Signs of the season

Late this afternoon, I planted the first new things in this year's container garden. I planted some lettuce, some spinach and some mitsuba. We have a bit of a warming trend forecast for the next few days, so I decided to go for it. I would've planted the lettuce sooner, but the nights have been quite cold for the last week or so. As I rearranged dirt in the pots on my deck, I heard the Wood Frogs sounding off in the creek, another sure sign of spring. Wood Frogs, along with Spring Peepers, are the first frogs that start calling in the spring hereabouts.

Yesterday I made Thai fried rice with chicken thighs. I've been using Nancie McDermott's recipe from Quick and Easy Thai, which really is quick and easy. I love the clean taste of the fried rice; there are few ingredients apart from chopped onion and garlic, meat, fish sauce, beaten egg, sugar and jasmine rice (of course). Last night I didn't even use the chopped scallions. As the meat stir-fries in the pan, it leaves some fond (the brown stuff on the bottom of the pan), but the rice sops it up so that it adds more flavor to the finished dish. The chicken thighs were by far the most assertive part of the dish, almost in an unbalanced way, but when I had the leftovers for brunch this morning, it all tasted good. Thai fried rice really is an excellent way of dressing up leftovers without a lot of effort, and winding up with a tasty meal. It's also an excellent lesson in the "less is more" style of cooking.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Liquor = sauce

Sometimes, I think the best thing about alcohol is that you can cook with it. "Sauced," of course, can mean that one has had too much fruit of the vine. On the other hand, fruit of the vine (or its relatives) can also help make a phenomenal sauce.

Well, ok, so last night's sauce wasn't phenomenal. I picked up a mix of fresh "gourmet" mushrooms at the supermarket (shiitake, oyster and crimini) and decided to make a liquor-based sauce and pour it over spinach fettuccini. The sauce template I used was Mark Bittman's miso-red wine sauce; it is proving to be a very flexible base for sauce improvisation. I used up the last of my vermouth (3/4 of a cup) and added 1/4 of a cup of cooking ch'ongju to eke out the required one cup of liquor for the sauce.

I tasted the sauce as it was cooking down and thought it wasn't sweet enough. In went a tablespoon or so of sugar, and then, after another taste, a tablespoon or so of mirin. That did the trick. I poured the sauce over three thin pan-seared pork chops.

It's not that it was bad; I'm sure plenty of people would've enjoyed this extemporaneous sauce. But it didn't quite do it for me. The final result had almost as bright and aggressive a taste as some candies have; the combination of the sweet liquor blend and the deep wininess of the white miso resulted in too much going on, tastewise. The mushrooms picked up the flavors strongly; delectable, if you like that sort of thing, but too intense if you don't. I guess that the next time I try something like this, I'll go for the "less is more" approach.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Hijiki and pretzels

A while back, I blogged about chicken hijiki noodles. That dish consisted of somen noodles simmered in chicken stock and garnished with hijiki. Thursday night I took chicken, hijiki and noodles and wound up with something different.

It was hardly rocket science; I just took the traditional recipe for hijiki simmered with abura-age and substituted sliced chicken thighs for the abura-age. Once the chicken had simmered for ten minutes, I removed it from the skillet and cooked the sauce down to taste. The reduced sauce thickened just a bit without the aid of anything like cornstarch; the flavors intensified as well. The final result was rather sweet; if you want a sauce that isn't so sweet, reduce the amount of sugar you add to the shoyu broth. Adding some seasonings (such as herbs of your choice) to the broth would probably give an interesting dimension to the sauce.

I served the finished dish over wide egg noodles from the Pennsylvania Dutch famers market. The chicken pieces almost seemed glazed from the sauce (possibly due to the high sugar/mirin content) and they had a sweetness similar to the sweet chicken teriyaki I remember from Iroha. The dish had a nice contrast between the luxurious sweetness of the sauce and the earthier tones of the hijiki and the chicken thigh meat.

Most of the solid components of the meal were gobbled up Thursday night, but I was left with some sauce. That got called into play yesterday on a scouting trip for the World Series of Birding with The Lurker and Perfect Tommy. As we drove up and down Rt. 130, vainly searching for a Chik-fil-A for lunch, I finally weakened and pulled out my "bag lunch;" a plastic container of jasmine rice sopping up the remaining chicken hijiki sauce. I was just finishing the rice by the time we finally located the Chik-fil-A; I tried not to feel too smug (probably unsuccessfully).

For dessert we visited the Pennsauken Mart pretzel shop. This time we had to wait a few minutes for pretzels to come out of the oven (along with other hopefuls). When the pretzels finally arrived, the fellow who put them into the brown paper bag for me warned, "Be careful, they're hot." Boy, were they! They were fresh out of the oven and too hot to touch without a towel or other protective device. Perfect Tommy admonished us not to close up the paper bag, lest the steam get trapped inside and condense on the pretzels. When we got back out to the car, a perfect plume of steam was emanating from my pretzel bag (but it was a cold day). I held off as long as prudence indicated, but as soon as I could, I started on that first heavenly pretzel. They really are great birding food.

Monday, March 13, 2006

Cutting the heat

I know that beer is a popular beverage when one encounters hot and spicy food but I may have found an alternative. Tonight I made Sichuan spaghetti but wasn't in the mood for beer. Instead, I had a glass of apple cider from the Pennsylvania Dutch Farmers Market. It was amazing. The cider practically eliminated the burn from the Sichuan spaghetti almost immediately.

Maybe an apple a day keeps the capiscin away too? Nah, it can't be that easy.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Yakisoba out of the bottle

Cooking yakisoba these days is about the quest for the perfect sauce. I've come up with some pretty good versions (just check the index for some past attempts) but none of them quite have that beefy, just a bit greasy goodness I remember from Dosanko.

Walking down the aisles of the Asian supermarket is perilous for a sauce lover. There are bottles and bottles of all kinds of sauces, all gleaming with a come-hither luster. All of them promise wonderful meals: savory meat and noodles, lightly stir-fried veggies gleaming with just the lightest veneer of sauce to add flavor to the dish without drowning it. Who knows which bottle holds the secret? They all whisper their promises, while the cold voice of the conscience admonishes that homemade sauces without preservatives are really the best. The temptations increase in the Japanese aisle, where the sauces are not only tempting in their own right, but often come in beautifully designed little vials that would not be out of place in a well-appointed wizard's cabinet of potions.

So I thought to myself, 'Why not try a bottled yakisoba sauce? Maybe it'll hold the perfect sauce secret.' I came home with a bottle of Otafuku Yakisoba Sauce, which also advertises itself as a suitable garnish for stir-fried veggies, hamburgers, noodles and fried rice. The lengthy ingredient list includes some potentially scary stuff (high fructose corn syrup, MSG), extracts from much of the animal kingdom (oysters, chickens, pigs, fish, scallops, shrimp and yeast into the bargain) and fruits and vegetables (everything from peach to garlic).

I followed the recipe on the bottle wrapper (yes, this is a bottle that comes in a plastic wrapper). Due to a glitch in preparation, I wound up with both chicken breast and shrimp ready to be cooked that night. Mixing meats like that is more of a southeast Asian thing, but I decided to go with it. Maybe it would lead to a yakisoba as big as the Ritz. I doubled my allotment of chukasoba noodles to make sure the proportions of meat to noodles were correct.

I stir-fried the shrimp, chicken and some sliced button mushrooms and onions in a bit of vegetable oil about five minutes, then added the cooked chukasoba and heated it through. Then I added a third of a cup of the yakisoba sauce and cooked everything for about three more minutes. I served it out onto plate and tucked in.

It wasn't bad, but it left me a little disappointed. I'm starting to think that one of the components of my perfect yakisoba sauce is beef juice, so the absence of beef from this yakisoba posed a problem. The bottled sauce itself had a sort of sweet-and-sour fruity note that can be found in things such as Chik-fil-A's polynesian sauce. So there I was, eating a home-cooked meal and thinking of fast food. Not the desired impression, to put it mildly. Then again, I probably eat more fast food than I should. It wasn't bad, it made great leftovers and a "brown-bag" lunch for a couple of days, but I think I prefer my fumbling homemade attempts at the perfect yakisoba sauce. Cook and learn.

Not that that means I'll ever be immune to the siren song of the sauce bottles at the Asian supermarket.

Monday, March 06, 2006

Garden musings 1

When I started the blog, I posted regular garden updates. Somehow, all that fell by the wayside. Maybe I was too ambitious, trying too many different things in my first real year of gardening. I certainly didn't end up harvesting homegrown lettuce for salads every night, which was a disappointment. Now spring is looming, however, so that means I have to plan for this year's garden. Let's see what the verdict was on last year.

Asian greens - fodder for Cabbage White butterflies. This year I think I'll stick to buying them at the Asian supermarket.

Bergamot - did ok for a while, then was taken down by a whitefly infestation. I might try some of last year's seeds to see if any of them still have some punch.

Cilantro - did not want to play at all. This will be another supermarket item this year.

Hot peppers - another failure. (I sense a trend here)

Leaf celery - hey, it's still alive! Not only that, it's flourishing pretty well. I just need to use it more in cooking.

Lemon thyme - hit hard by the whiteflies, but I cut it back severely over the winter and it's now coming back, albeit somewhat hesitantly. I love the strong flavor of the tiny leaves, so if I can't keep this plant going, I'll probably pick up another one. I'd also like to try some other sorts of thyme, of which there are many.

Lettuce - my main lettuce pot was initially seeded too thickly and I didn't have the heart to thin the seedlings, so none of them did much. Once I planted seeds more sparsely in other pots, they grew bigger. Inconsistent watering led to sometimes bitter flavor. I'll try lettuce again this year, but I think I need to work harder to ensure its success.

Mitsuba - finally, an out-and-out success. The mitsuba has grown well and abundantly, and reseeded itself to boot. I was also able to save seeds from last year's seed heads. This year I'll test whether it really is hardy in Zone 6 by planting a pot to be left outside come the winter.

Orange mint - also badly hit by whiteflies, also severely cut back. Being a mint (unfazed by just about anything), it's recovering nicely, though I think it's just about outgrown its current pot. I also planted a runner in another pot which, after an iffy start, seems to be regrouping and thinking about world domination, as mints will do.

Peas - one wonderful sweet peapod and that was all she wrote. I want to try some more peas this season (which means I'd better hurry up and order them!).

Rosemary - a supermarket herb plant that has survived. It's hard to balance the extremes of too much and too little water, but it's started putting on new growth lately. Probably my most-used culinary herb, next to the spearmint.

Sage - hanging in there, which is more than I can say of the variegated sage (R.I.P.).

Scallions - the neighbor's cat has an unfortunate taste for scallions, so they're not going back out on the deck any time soon. Another lovely thought that will be a supermarket purchase this year. I still have scallions growing, but they're so tiny and threadlike after nearly a year, it seems rather pointless.

Spearmint - cut back, bouncing back happily, frequently used in tea. A success.

Spinach - another success. This did really well for me early last season. I want to plant even more of it this year.

Thai basil - did very well until those whiteflies showed up, and persisted pretty strongly afterward. I was able to save seeds from last year's crop, so I'll be planting it again this year. And lots of it.

Tomatoes - the plant that survived last winter gave me a few tomatoes but nothing much. I have seeds from it, but I probably should've planted them already. I'll probably just get a tomato plant at a garden center this year.

Tropical sage - I finally got around to planting some of this late last season. One tiny little seedling has poked up and not expired yet. If I'm lucky, it'll still be around in the fall, when western hummingbirds come to call in New Jersey.

Saturday, March 04, 2006

A few links

Apologies for the paucity of entries here lately. It's been a combination of busyness and exhaustion, along with making oxtail stew earlier in the week. When you make oxtail stew, it tends to keep you going for most of the rest of the week. I'm finishing it off as I blog this, actually. It's a good hearty meal, very appropriate for chilly, not-yet-spring weather, as well as for stressful mundane life. This batch of oxtail stew wasn't cooked down as much as usual, so I made a pile of jasmine rice the other night to sop up the juices. That worked like a charm.

Since I've been so remiss on the content front lately, I'll offer up a couple of posts I found interesting, as well as germane to the theme of this blog. Barbara at Tigers and Strawberries posted this on soy sauce, the patron condiment of this humble little blog. If you've ever wondered why one bottle of soy sauce isn't enough, here's your answer.

While you're stocking up on soy sauces at your local Asian market (if you're lucky enough to have a local Asian market), you might want to check out the cookware aisle, especially if you're value-conscious. Barbara reports on Williams-Sonoma's upscale marketing of Asian cookware here (this time for Paper Palate. She makes some interesting points.