Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Rejiggered Sichuan spaghetti

Sometimes laziness has a payoff. I've been cooking Sichuan spaghetti for a while, and pretty much sticking to the original recipe from Bruce Cost's Asian Ingredients. But the other night, when I cooked dinner later than normal, I left a few of the extras out and wound up liking it even better.

All I did was stir-fry some ground pork in peanut oil until it changed color, then added four tablespoons of Lan Chi's Soy Bean Sauce with Chili and stir-fried some more. When done, I dumped it over some Chinese egg noodles. No extra chopped ginger or scallions, no sugar added to cut the hot sauce, no sesame oil tossed with the noodles, nothing.

This minimalist presentation threw the spotlight onto the meat and the hot bean sauce, and both were up to the challenge. In particular, this meal provided an opportunity to enjoy the complexity and depth of the sauce. The earthy flavor had a sort of wininess to it; the fermented beans were oddly reminiscent of not-too-sweet chocolate. Of course, it was lip-tingling hot as well. It was a rich savory meal that prospered, rather than wilted, from cutting out some of the extra ingredients. It was even better the next day after sitting in the fridge.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Mushroom noodles

It seems like I've been living high off the hog lately (or at least been eating too much beef), so last night I went vegetarian. I topped some egg noodles with mushrooms and sauce. I sauteed some sliced button mushrooms in a couple of tablespoons of olive oil until they were cooked through, then added half a cup of water, and shoyu and mirin to taste. This cooked down into a sweet sauce not unlike that in simmered hijiki with abura-age, a similarly light vegetarian dish. There was no recipe involved; it was just a matter of taking available ingredients and doing something simple with them.

I should insert the usual comments about tinkering with the seasonings because the sauce was a little on the sweet side, but I did find it tasty, and it served its mission of being a light yet satisfying dinner.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

More herbs

The season of danger has arrived; the potted herb plants have arrived at the supermarket. After agonizing over the candidates yesterday, I succumbed to temptation and brought two plants home. One is a Spicy Globe basil, with a nice lemon fragrance. The other is cilantro, which will require careful repotting. Of course, once I brought the cilantro home, I realized that its foliage resembled a tiny seedling that has mysteriously appeared in the big clay pot. I guess I planted some cilantro seeds in there on a whim and forgot all about it. Oops. Some gardener I am. Then again, given my total lack of success with cilantro last year, I'm not expecting much.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Turkey cutlet and purple mushrooms

No, they weren't some crazy controlled substance. It's just that sliced button mushrooms turn purple if you cook them in a red wine sauce.

Easter isn't one of the big holidays in my house, but it does provide an excuse to cook a nice meal. I pulled a turkey cutlet out of the freezer, thawed it and cobbled dinner together. I drew on Mark Bittman's recipe for "Sauteed Chicken Cutlets with Quick Sauce" for inspiration (the recipe can be found in How to Cook Everything). The main impulse for the meal, however, was my idea of what might work; the recipe served as a useful sounding board for my ideas rather than the blueprint for the dish.

I began by melting some butter in the big skillet. Then I seared the cutlet on both sides over higher heat. I lowered the heat and sauteed the meat until it had cooked through but still had a bit of pink in the middle. I then set the oven to 200 degrees F and put the cutlet inside on a baking sheet to keep it warm while I made the sauce. Better underdone than overdone at this stage, according to Bittman.

Some more butter went into the skillet and then I sauteed the mushrooms until they had darkened. Then the wine (Bogle Cabernet Sauvignon) went into the skillet along with some chicken stock (half a cup each). I added salt and pepper to taste, as well as about a teaspoon of crushed fresh rosemary. In the initial stages, the sauce tasted somewhat thin, but as it cooked down, it got more intense in flavor.

In the meantime, I had cooked some spinach fettuccini. As the sauce reduced, I pulled the cutlet out of the oven and put it on the plate along with the fettuccini; it had produced some juice while sitting in the oven, so I added the juice to the skillet. That did the trick of adding a little something extra to the sauce's flavor. I let the sauce reduce a bit more, then poured it over the cutlet and the pasta.

The most startling thing about the result was the intense purple color of the mushrooms. It was the sort of tint you'd expect from a bottle of food coloring. Then again, anyone who's ever tried to get a red wine stain out of fabric might be forgiven for thinking that that's precisely what red wine is. Despite the brightness of the color, the flavor was less intense than a previous red wine sauce I've made using Zinfandel; no surprise there, I suppose. Next time I try something like this, I might add some balsamic vinegar or lemon juice for a more complex flavor.

The cutlet itself had a nice crisp browned coating but was tender and just slightly moist inside; just the right consistency. Its plain flavor made a good foil for the sauce and pasta. It made a fine meal for a special occasion, and wasn't half bad as a dish cooked mostly off the cuff.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Garden update 04.18.06

First off comes the news that my part of New Jersey has moved from USDA Hardiness Zone 6 to Arbor Day Foundation Hardiness Zone 7 (a warmer zone). See the Arbor Day Foundation's map of Hardiness Zone changes between 1990-2006 for more details.

The weather has warmed up around here enough that most of the plants have been put out onto the deck. My tender tropical sage seedling is still inside, as is the rosemary plant. Meanwhile, a couple of lettuce seedlings are poking up. No spinach has been heard from yet, so I planted more. One mitsuba seedling is growing. Oddest of all is the seedling in one of last year's Thai basil pots, which looks suspiciously like Thai basil. Since this pot sat out on the deck all winter, a tropical seedling from an herb such as Thai basil should not be growing in the pot, but there it is.

Meanwhile, some of this year's new plants have arrived, if only in seed form. I ordered seeds of green shiso, upland cress and holy basil from Nichols Garden Nurseries. In addition, they sent me a free packet of carrot seeds (Scarlet Nantes variety) for the Garden Writers Association Plant a Row for the Hungry initiative. Given my novice gardening skills, I'm not sure how many carrots I'll really be able to contribute to the neighborhood soup kitchen, but I'll give it a go.

When I was on Cape Cod for the holidays, my mother gave me some Black-seeded Blue Lake bean seeds. I need to set up some sort of framework before I plant them, but my mother says they're a good variety that's very easy to grow. I hope so, since I haven't done the bean thing before. I've also planted some peas from last year, so we'll see if they produce anything.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Citrus shrimp

With the current holidays, I was looking for some excuses to cook a few special meals. I've been looking for something a little different, not just another variant of fried rice (though that has served me quite well lately, and I have more leftover jasmine rice waiting for its shot at the fried rice big time). Thursday night I decided to go to southeast Asia via Mark Bittman's The Minimalist Cooks Dinner. The recipe in question was "Shrimp Cooked in Lime Juice."

This is a quick stir-fry. After stir-frying a teaspoon of chopped garlic and red pepper flakes (to taste) in the cooking oil, you add a mixture of half a cup fresh lime juice, a quarter of a cup sugar and a tablespoon of fish sauce. This should be blended beforehand and added to the pan as a unit. Once the sauce reduces by at least half and has become syrupy, you add the peeled shrimp. Cook until the shrimp are pink, adjust the seasoning, and serve with cilantro for a garnish.

I quickly ran into trouble when my fresh limes turned out not to be terribly juicy. I managed to get a quarter of a cup of juice out of four limes (I guess they just weren't ripe enough) and added water to get the desired half a cup of liquid. As a result, the sauce was not as sour as it should have been; it had a light, sweet citrusy flavor instead (almost like candy).The red pepper flakes quickly scorched in the cooking oil and added none of their heat to the final meal; perhaps real fresh or dried chilis would be better than powder in this sort of recipe.

That said, the shrimp were tasty and there was enough sauce to flavor the jasmine rice, but not so much that it turned soupy. If I try this again, I'll make sure I have the requisite amount of lime juice on hand, and I might play with the seasonings to make the flavor more complex. I think a bit of tamarind would be an excellent addition, for example.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

East meets west

Last night I continued my ongoing series of Thai fried rice meals by trying what can only be described as a fusion dish: Canadian bacon fried rice. Although Canadian bacon (or what we USA-ites call Canadian bacon) is not the first thing you think of when you think of Asian food, using it for flavoring in fried rice fits well with this dish's basic philosophy. After all, the meat is intended to give some extra flavor to the rice, not to be the meal's focal point. Some sliced Canadian bacon (or any part of the bacon-ham family) works well in this role.

The only problem is that I had intended to save some for lunch before today's planned hiking trip. Alas, it was so tasty I ate it all last night.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Another day, another blog

Before I got into cooking, I already had a long history with the first great love of my life: books. I started reading early, and have never stopped. I usually have multiple books going at once; some of the current entries include Through Asia by Sven Hedin, Prints and People by A. Hyatt Mayor, My Famous Evening by Howard Norman and Some of the Dharma by Jack Kerouac. Writing stories, telling stories and reading stories have been abiding joys in my life, even when other things weren't going so well.

When I got into cooking, I discovered a whole new category of books to read, and to make it even better, many cookbooks rise beyond the purely utilitarian into the realm of good wordsmithy, or even literature. Well, now there's a blog devoted to food and books about food. It's called Food, Bound and it's part of the WellFed family. Better yet, I will be blogging for Food, Bound; I'll be reviewing cookbooks and cooking test recipes from them, which isn't that different from what I do here at Seven Kinds of Soy Sauce.

Monday, April 03, 2006

Smug about stew

The other day, when I was making oxtail stew, it was a warm sunny spring day. It was the sort of day when one questions whether stew is necessary at all. After all, stew and warm weather are not known as one of the great "perfect together" combinations.

Today started sunny but cool, clouded up, and now is raw, rainy and brisk. Now I can reheat my stew leftovers and feel downright smug. Ah, spring.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

Pasta sauce comes from a jar

Well, that's my attitude. I can buy Newman's Own marinara or vodka sauce and have a lovely meal. But I'm trying to change my ways. It really doesn't take any longer to cobble together a homemade sauce than it does to open a jar...at least, if you pick the right homemade sauce.

Last night's pasta of choice (as it often is) was wide egg noodles from the Pennsylvania Dutch farmers market. The brand is Mrs. Miller's Homemade Noodles. They're very addictive, even though I know I can make my own. I was out of bottled pasta sauce, so I figured, why not throw together some of my own?

I sauteed some porcini mushrooms and sliced chicken breast in olive oil. When the pan started getting dry, I added the porcini soaking water and some crushed fresh rosemary. When the chicken seemed done, I fished the solids out of the skillet, then cooked the remaining sauce down some. To add a little sweetness to the juice, I also added about a tablespoon of mirin. The result still tasted much more of porcini than of mirin. All in all, rather tasty but not too rich. The chicken breast was bland, as is its wont (that's why I've been using chicken thigh meat more lately). Fit Fare had a good post about livening up chicken breast recently. Maybe the next time I try this sauce, I'll add some marination to the recipe. In the meantime, I'll just inhale the aroma of simmering oxtail stew drifting from the kitchen to perfume the entire condo. Mmmmm.