Saturday, July 29, 2006

Falcon Ridge food 2006

Last weekend I attended the Falcon Ridge Folk Festival. Last year, I critiqued some of the food (both bought on the midway and brought from home) in this post. This year, things were much the same, with a few alterations.

Most noteworthy was the absence of Myron's Number 1 Yakitori, my favorite food vendor at the festival. I was counting on his iced jasmine tea, pork dumplings and yakitori to get me through the long weekend. Darn! However, in a sort of "bad news, good news" scenario, Asian food was represented at the festival this year by a Thai stand called Thai Jasmine selling satay, noodles and rice. The satay was large pieces of chicken on long skewers, bigger than Myron's typical chicken skewers. The satay sauce was very mild, but there was an assortment of condiments available to doctor one's food; I went for the sri racha sauce. Mmmm. I also tried their pad Thai noodles, which were very tamarind-y but otherwise unassuming in flavor. Again, there was a generous portion by traditional Falcon Ridge midway standards; portion sizes seem to be increasing.

Other stands I visited included Sunflower Farm (slab of pizza), Angelo's (shrimp in an basket with cocktail sauce) and the Berkshire County 4-H Fair Association (ice cream). The 4-H stand was loaded with fascinating-sounding ice cream flavors, but the only one I got to was the ginger ice cream, which I have been longing for since last year (really) because I didn't get a chance to try it then. It was rich and mild, creamy with little bits of ginger scattered through it.

I streamlined my selection of food brought from home because of the things that didn't get eaten last year. I expanded the rice cracker selection with arare wrapped in nori seaweed; for some reason, the nori gives me a little pick-me-up on hot days out in the field. In the ultimate salty snack category, I brought some Bugles. I brought an assortment of teabags, as usual; the sencha was what I ended up drinking, which is probably no surprise. I also packed lunch for Thursday (the first day of the festival); that was leftover Sichuan spaghetti.

Food-wise, I survived the festival pretty well. There were no major headaches or dehydration (thank you, Gatorade). The weather helped some too, as a slow-moving cold front took its time going through the area. This led to clammy, misty conditions and occasional rain showers, but the advantage was that we didn't spend the entire four days baking in the sun. So it turned out pretty well (though I wouldn't have said as much during the Saturday afternoon downpour, when I was drenched, sleep-deprived and seriously annoyed).

Can't wait until next year!

Hijiki and mushrooms

Yesterday, I was in search of something light for lunch. Braised hijiki seemed like a good start, but I didn't have any abura-age on hand. What I did have was some sliced button mushrooms. I ended up using the normal recipe for braised hijiki, just substituting the mushrooms for the abura-age and sake for the mirin (I had some leftover sake, too).

This turned out to be such an easy and appropriate twist on the classic recipe that I'm almost embarrassed I didn't think of it before. Sliced button mushrooms, like abura-age, absorb liquids and concentrate flavors in sauces. Substituting sake for mirin made the sauce less sweet, which isn't always a bad thing. I poured everything over jasmine rice, which sopped up the sauce better than noodles would have done.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Tea matters

A few days ago I blogged about some nifty teabags from Shirakata Denshiro Shoten. Well, of course I forgot to go into the reason for the pyramid-shaped teabag. I admit that I was so thrilled by the notched tag designed to be latched onto the rim of the teacup that it clouded my priorities. In any case, the teabag design is so that tea leaves can circulate more freely in the teabag. This is supposed to allow larger tea leaves to be used, and a taste more similar to that of loose tea.

I don't know if it's the teabag design or just the fact that this is good-quality tea. I've been careful brewing it, too; normally, I have a bad habit of letting my teabag steep until the cows come home. In any case, these teas are very nice indeed. The aroma of the steeping tea perfumes the kitchen. The sencha (plain green tea) has a wonderful extra sweetness that reminds me of some green tea candies I've tried. The roasted aroma of the koujicha is good, too, but I find I prefer the sencha. Now, even though I already have genmaicha, I want to try this maker's genmaicha. Judging from these other two teas, it should be worth it.

My other recent tea adventure involves a visit from The Dancer last week and a trip to the Asian supermarket. We both splashed out on goodies, one of which was a big bag of Thai tea mix. I don't know how many times I've strolled down the tea aisle before, but I never saw this mix on previous trips. Either I've been really inattentive, or this is just one of those little stocking mysteries the Asian supermarket is prone to.

Once we got back to my place, there was no question that we were going to make a batch of Thai iced tea. We followed Nancie McDermott's instructions in Quick and Easy Thai. She recommends boiling four and a half cups of water, stirring in 3/4 of a cup of the Thai tea mix and removing it from the heat to cool. She also advises adding 3/4 of a cup of sugar at this stage, stirring to dissolve it, but we opted to add sugar to taste later on.

Once the tea cooled a bit, we strained it and poured it into two big plastic ice-filled cups (we didn't wait for it to cool all the way because we were impatient). Then we added sugar and evaporated milk to taste (McDermott suggests 3/4 of a cup of tea and three to four tablespoons of evaporated milk per glass). The straining process ended up being messy and I think we'll handle it more elegantly next time (if only to spare various kitchen equipment from the prodigious staining qualities of this mix once it has steeped). It didn't matter, though; it tasted just like it does in a Thai restaurant. Mmmmm. The Dancer doesn't drink caffeinated tea often, so this very strong brew gave her a good buzz. I was rather wakeful that night, too, but I don't know whether to blame the tea or general life distractions.

When it was time for The Dancer to go, we split the tea powder. The only thing I wish is that I had a recipe to make a glass at a time; on the other hand, maybe the thing to do is brew the tea in quantity, stash it in the fridge, and then dole it out as necessary, just adding the milk (and sugar, if wishing to add it later in the process) when serving.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Soy sauce and fish sauce

Soy sauce and fish sauce are not often found in combination. I've seen the occasional comment recommending a substitution of soy sauce for fish sauce, but it seems to me that if you want to cook Thai (say) and can't find fish sauce, you should pick another cuisine to cook. Both sauces add salt to a meal, but their other aspects are so different that they are not interchangeable.

I recently got some of Lonely Planet's World Food guides. (My series overview for Food, Bound can be found here.) Though these books are mainly travel guides, they do include recipes. I was reading the World Food guide to Thailand when I stumbled across a recipe for "Kung Phat Khing" or "Prawns Stir-fried in Ginger." It looked tasty and simple, and it called for a combination of soy sauce and fish sauce. According to the guide, it's a Chinese-style dish adapted to Thai-style cooking. Because it looked so delicious and simple, I grabbed the book and took it into the kitchen for a really off-the-cuff brunch.

Stir-fry some chopped garlic and ginger in vegetable oil until golden. Then add three tablespoons chicken stock, one and a half tablespoons fish sauce, one tablespoon soy sauce and half a teaspoon sugar. Cook until bubbling, then add eight large shrimp (shelled), eight straw mushrooms and two scallions (sliced into two and a half inch lengths). Add a sliced hot chili at this stage for more heat, if you like. Stir-fry until the shrimp are opaque, then serve.

I made minor substitutions of porcini soaking water for the chicken stock and sliced button mushrooms for straw mushrooms. The final result was very tasty. The combination of the fish sauce, soy sauce and porcini water gave the sauce an extra savor of a quality that I usually find in beef stir-fries.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Creaky chicken

Last night I had dinner with LaLa at Ya Ya Noodles. Perfect Tommy has been raving about Ya Ya's "creaky chicken" lately; it seems to have become one of his favorite treats for dinner. Thus it was that both LaLa and I were eager to try it. We decided to share two entrees between us; LaLa's choice was "soft tofu with winter mushrooms."

The creaky chicken has a hot and spicy asterisk next to it in the menu, but despite the occasional tinge of chili heat, it was not that spicy. LaLa was somewhat puzzled because she said it was the same as the chicken and ginger she'd ordered from Ya Ya the last time she'd eaten there. Despite those quibbles, we found that that it was, indeed, quite delicious. The thin slices of ginger added some bite to the rich savory sauce. The chicken morsels were perfectly done, moist and tender.

The soft tofu with winter mushrooms was also excellent. This dish had the classic "wok hay" smokiness; the tofu chunks were velvety soft and melted in one's mouth, while the mushrooms were juicy. They were dressed in a light brown sauce, thinner and milder than the creaky chicken sauce.

It was a great dinner out. It's probably just as well I don't live closer to Ya Ya Noodles, because then it would become a serious temptation.

Friday, July 07, 2006

Nifty teabags

The last time I wandered through the Asian supermarket, I sauntered down the tea aisle. One thing that caught my eye was an assortment of teas from Shirakata Denshiro Shoten in Japan. I passed on the genmaicha (green tea with rice, a wonderful blend), since I'm still working through a batch I bought in Rockefeller Center, oh, too long ago. I ended up picking the "houjicha" (roasted green tea). The box was almost a cube (in contrast to the oblong tea boxes that are the rule in these parts). It was a little pricey. But it was worth it.

Well, yes, the tea itself was quite good. But the teabag design was what I found fascinating about this tea. The teabag has what is called a pyramid design; rather than having the top and bottom edges of the teabag being aligned, they are turned at 45 degree angles to each other, so that from the side, the teabag looks like a triangle (or pyramid, if you prefer) (look at the website above for a photo).

But it gets better. There's a notch in the paper tag attached to the teabag. Now, this might seem insignificant to you, but I'm one of those people who is always trying to fish the teabag tag out of the boiling hot tea (and burning fingers as a result). Maybe it's something about my pouring style, who knows. In any case, when I saw that these teabags had a notch so that you can attach them easily to the rim of your teacup, I was sold. And it even works in real life, too! At last, the tea-drinking experience need not be tainted by burned fingers. I hope this innovation catches on, and soon.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Soy-simmered fish

Yesterday I decided to try a recipe I've had my eye on for a while, Mark Bittman's "Fish Simmered in Spicy Soy Sauce" (from The Minimalist Cooks Dinner). The simmering solution I came up with was one-third of a cup of Chinese light soy sauce, two-thirds of a cup of water, seven scallions sliced into two-inch lengths, one dried chili and two teaspoons of sugar. Bittman advises the cook to vary the proportions of soy sauce and water based on how salty the soy sauce is. Since Chinese light soy is very salty, I added more water.

Once the solution was boiling, I added a flounder fillet that had not completely thawed out from its sojourn in the freezer. It was a little long for the big skillet, and rigid while it remained partly frozen. As a result, turning the fish over to cook both sides was an adventure; I have to say that it was a miracle more of the simmering liquid didn't end up all over the stovetop and the floor. I cooked the fish until it was done, and flaked beautifully when a fork was applied.

In a theme that has been evident in my recent cooking attempts, the fish was tasty but too salty for my taste. The next time I try this, I'll use a different type of soy sauce and probably taste the simmering solution just to make sure. The dried chili did not add any detectable heat to the sauce, so next time I'll probably add some hot bean paste or hot chili paste to the sauce. The scallions turned out bitter, for the most part, so I think I'll substitute shallots next time. Finally, some chopped ginger would be a great addition to this dish.