Monday, June 26, 2006

Salt mine 2

As noted in the previous post, what was once challenging cooking has now become somewhat routine. Simply recording the results of recipes has also become somewhat routine, in terms of this blog. I continue to ponder how to shake things up a bit, but in the meantime, I'll blog a few more dishes in an effort to catch up.

The next "salt mine" dish was "Lemon Grass Chicken with Chilli" from Ken Hom's Hot Wok. This called for marinating some chicken thigh meat in a combination of two stalks of lemongrass (crushed and chopped), two tablespoons chopped garlic, half a teaspoon black pepper, two tablespoons fish sauce and two teaspoons sugar. Once this has marinated for 40 minutes or so, stir-fry the chicken and marinade ingredients in a tablespoon of peanut oil until the chicken is golden. Empty and drain the pan and reheat it without wiping it out completely. Once it's hot, return the chicken to the pan, along with two teaspoons fish sauce, one teaspoon sugar and one teaspoon chili powder. Stir-fry for three minutes more, then serve.

This came out quite salty, possibly because of the extra fish sauce content. There was nothing wrong with it, but it didn't thrill me, either. It's sort of a generic southeast Asian stir-fry, simple and relatively quick (apart from the marination). I suspect that I've cooked enough other meals using many of these ingredients that this one didn't quite step out from the crowd. Maybe a little tinkering and/or some other ingredients could give it more of its own personality.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Salt mine

I hate to say it, but sometimes cooking Asian food seems downright routine. I know that there are all kinds of nooks and crannies of Asian cuisine that I have yet to explore (most deep-fried dishes, cooking with Chinese preserved vegetable, making kimchi, making dumplings, steaming most things, to name but a few) but I guess I've fallen into a rut. I love to stir-fry. It's so quick and simple. But I guess that humanity does not live by stir-frying alone. I love to learn new things, so I guess it's time to start pushing the boundaries and giving myself challenges more often.

In the meantime, I've recently cooked a couple of dishes that fell well within the boundaries of things I've tried before. Both were more chili-laden than normal, but that wasn't a problem.

First up was "Shrimp with Roasted Chili Paste and Fresh Basil" from Nancie McDermott's Quick and Easy Thai. This is practically Thai convenience food, even in Thailand. All you have to do is stir-fry some chopped garlic in oil, then add the peeled shrimp and cook until they turn pink. Add three tablespoons of roasted chili paste or nahm prik pao (I used Maesri's), two tablespoons of fish sauce, a quarter of a cup of water or chicken broth (I used the broth) and a teaspoon of sugar. Continue cooking for another minute or two, then add a cup of fresh basil leaves. Toss, garnish with sliced red chilis and serve.

There really is nothing more to this dish than whipping up a fast sauce for some spaghetti. I'm sure you can make your own nahm prik pao, but using it out of the jar creates an experience more like heating some store-bought pasta sauce and doctoring it with a few extra ingredients. My Thai basil plants are not yet ready to supply copious amounts of leaves, so I used Spicy Globe basil from the garden instead. The end result was a thick and flavorful sauce. Like most things involving shrimp, this meal had its finger food moments as well.

The saltier dish from the salt mine will be considered in the next post.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Index changes

I've been pondering making some changes to the index for Seven Kinds of Soy Sauce. I think the ingredients categories have gotten so big as to be unworkable, although I do want to keep the vegetarian category. I'll also keep the categories for countries and cookbooks. One problem is that I can no longer change time and date of a post in Safari, which means I can't ensure that countries or cookbooks sort alphabetically. I did look at the interface in MS Internet Explorer, however, and that does still give the ability to edit post times and dates. I guess it's some sort of Safari-Blogger glitch.

So look for changes in the index soon.

Friday, June 02, 2006

Chicken broth and button mushrooms

Two meals, both involving homemade chicken broth and sliced button mushrooms. One turned out uninteresting, the other flavorful. It's amazing how you can cook with the same ingredients and arrive at totally different outcomes: it's sort of the antithesis of convergent evolution.

First, the unassuming meal. I made jasmine rice according to the instructions on the package, just substituting chicken broth for water. In addition, I scattered sliced button mushrooms on top of the rice, along with fresh rosemary and sage. I hoped this would lead to a flavorful rice along the lines of pilaf. What I got was bland rice (apart from the moments when I bit down on rosemary or sage). The chicken broth and the aroma of jasmine rice cancelled each other out. Forgetting the lesson I had previously learned from a bland pilaf, I didn't add salt as a pick-me-up. On the other hand, button mushrooms are considered a bland-flavored mushroom. What does it say about this dish if the button mushrooms were one of the most strongly-flavored components? They were steamed on top of the rice, and the steaming brought out every nuance of flavor.

Another night, another dinner. This time, I decided to have a pork chop with miso sauce and pasta on the side. Mark Bittman's "Pork Cutlet with Miso-Red Wine Sauce" recipe (from The Minimalist Cooks Dinner) has become a go-to recipe for me. The recipe is simple, which means that it's easily adapted to different ingredients. I've cooked it with pork and chicken, different varietals of red wine, red and white miso, sherry and, now, chicken broth.

Fresh from the chicken-broth rice debacle, I worried that the sauce for the pork chop would be uninteresting. Luckily, I was wrong. Perhaps the process of cooking down the sauce by half before adding the miso helped. Even before the miso was added, the sauce tasted deep and savory, almost like a beef broth. The miso added (as is its wont) a further layer of winy complexity to the sauce. The mushrooms took on the flavors of the sauce, then concentrated them further. My only knock against this incarnation of the miso sauce is that it was a little too salty, probably because I seasoned the pork chop with salt and pepper before searing it in the skillet. That's easily corrected. Once the sauce was done, I poured it over the pork chop and a pile of spinach fettuccini on the side. It vanished shortly after it hit the plate.

Thank you, Mr. Bittman. The next time I visit my parents, I know your recipe will provide a template for at least one home-cooked, delicious meal.


Once upon a time, there were two little pea plants. They lived in a clay pot with an errant maple seedling and some cilantro. It was an old and venerable clay pot that had been enjoyed by many previous plant inhabitants.

As spring wore on and slanted toward summer, the pea plants got bigger. They seized upon splinters from the deck railing to shore themselves up and steadfastly ignored the bamboo pole that had been put into the clay pot expressly for their use. They put out more and more tendrils. They climbed over the errant maple seedling. Finally, two little blossoms (one on each plant) made their appearance. There was much rejoicing.

The night the blossoms began to show, there was a furious thunderstorm. Other plants had to be rescued from the pounding rain and winds, but the pea plants stood fast. The morning after, they were still there, unbloodied and unbowed. All seemed well.

Then, after a trip to the Asian supermarket, the gardener looked onto the deck and gave a cry of rage. Something had dug up the dirt in the venerable clay pot! The gardener rushed outside to confirm the sad news. Yes, some evil creature had dug deep into the dirt filling the clay pot and totally uprooted one pea plant. The other still seemed rooted, but both pea plants were sadly wilting, their hopeful little blossoms now seeming like a cruel joke.

There were no muddy pawprints to point toward a culprit. Was it the neighbor's cat? Was it a wandering squirrel? Was it a Barn Swallow digging up mud for its nest? It wasn't a rabbit or deer, because they're not inclined to climb up to a deck. But what was it?

All I can say it that it's a good thing I don't own a gun. Hell hath no fury like a gardener whose garden has been tampered with. Thank you for allowing me to vent like this. Now back to our regularly scheduled food blog.