Sunday, August 27, 2006

Rice-stuffed game hen

I love cooking Cornish game hens but once I start eating them, I remember how much work it is to disassemble such a small bird. A couple of nights ago, I tried another game hen recipe, this one from the Frugal Gourmet's original cookbook.

Frug called this "Game Hens with Lebanese Dressing." The dressing is really stuffing; "dressing" makes me think of salads. The recipe is written for four game hens; I cooked one hen and halved the stuffing ingredient amounts. First off, you saute half an onion (sliced) in a tablespoon of butter until the onion is just starting to brown. I discovered that my butter was all played out, so I used olive oil instead. Once the onion has browned, add half a cup of rice, a cup of water, some pine nuts (1/16 of a cup, if you really want to halve the recipe precisely), quarter of a teaspoon each of allspice and cinnamon, and salt to taste. As this cooks down (I let it go until most of the water was absorbed), it looks dirty from the spices, but I suppose it really shouldn't be called "dirty rice."

Anyway, once the stuffing is done, pack it into the cavities of two game hens (if you have one, like I did, you can just use the rest of the stuffing on the side). Set the oven to 325 F and cook for an hour. Frug recommends serving the hens split in half, but I didn't do that.

The stuffing flavor was rather subtle, but nice. The spices and pine nuts added sweetness but not in an excessive way. The chicken juices made their way into the rice as well. Most of the skin was done to a paper-like brittleness that was very chewy; I probably should have brushed the skin with something (honey would've been good, and would've fit with the other ingredients) to keep it a little more moist.

All in all, it was a little something different in terms of roasting a bird, and very simple.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Dithering quesadilla

I've been dithering about making quesadillas for a while. I pulled out How to Cook Everything and Moosewood Restaurant Cooks at Home and compared their quesadilla recipes. I dithered over the exact amounts of ingredients, the exact technique (use two tortillas or fold one over?). I thought about making them for breakfast, then was unable to motivate myself to get out of bed to chop the ingredients up.

The real problem was that I'd never made anything like quesadillas before, and I knew it was going to be a bloody mess in need of massive tinkering. Since I'm a perfectionist at heart, that was ample excuse to postpone quesadilla-making. Until today, that is. Today I made one for an afternoon snack.

I laid down one tortilla in an oiled skillet over medium heat. Then I added grated cheddar cheese, chopped onion, chopped button mushrooms and salsa. I topped the assemblage with another tortilla and toasted the quesadilla for two minutes. Then I flipped it and toasted it for three minutes. When it was done, I slid it onto a plate. I didn't follow Bittman's ingredients exactly, but I did follow his method of assembling the quesadilla.

Well, it was a revelation. Some of the filling squeezed out between the tortillas and the bottom one was a little soggy from the combination of the ingredients and the oil in the pan. I didn't care. It tasted terrific. When I finished it, I was sorry I hadn't made another, but of course I hadn't done that because, well, what if I didn't like it? It never fails.

I wouldn't call this authentic Mexican cuisine (not by a long shot) but I am glad I overcame my quesadilla dithering.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Corn on the cob

It's that time of year again. When I drive around the area, I see cornfields full to bursting of tall cornstalks, their tassels waving in the wind. Although I live in a part of New Jersey that has more than its share of McMansions, townhouses and condo developments, some of the local farms are in farmland preservation programs. When one drives local roads, one has to be alert to the possibility of encountering a tractor tooling along the road like a tortoise. I'm sure others find that an inconvenience, but I don't. I think of it as something that adds value to the neighborhood.

There are farm stands scattered about of course, but in this area, even supermarkets sell corn and other produce from local farms. Yesterday I was at the supermarket and saw some corn from a farm in Monmouth Junction. After some hesitation (my corn-boiling pot is on the small side), I succumbed and got five ears.

Once upon a time, my dad told me the perfect length of time to boil corn. As I recall, this was in response to a Garrison Keillor monologue where Garrison divulged his perfect length of time to boil corn. My dad's response was, "Oh, no, absolutely not," or words to that effect. Maybe it was a cultural difference between Minnesota and Michigan (where my dad grew up). In any case, I wrote dad's recommendation on a piece of paper and promptly lost the paper. It's probably still here somewhere, stuck in a box full of other random pieces of paper.

So there I was last night, with two husked corn ears and a pot of boiling water, trying to remember the magic formula.

The ears themselves were a study in contrasts. They were a mix of white and yellow kernels. One was as regular as a city's grid street plan, while the other's rows wandered crazily across the ear. I'm tempted to say one ear was Midtown and the other was Downtown, in the oldest part of town, but comparing corn ears to the New York City street plan seems so wrong, in so many ways.

Parenthetical note: I really need to get a digital camera. That way this post would've been adorned with a photo of cornfields and another of the two husked ears in all their contrasting glory.

I thought the magic number was either seven or eleven minutes, but eleven seemed too long, so I plunked the corn into the pot and went for seven. I suppose I could ask my dad for the magic formula again, but that would be too easy. At the end of seven minutes, the corn came out of the pot, steaming hot. I applied the butter and waited for the corn to cool off a little. I've been trying to reduce my butter intake lately, but I splurged for this meal. I know there are lots of other good things you can put on corn, but corn on the cob with butter is the way I grew up doing it.

When I bit into the first ear, I knew I'd chosen correctly. It was perfect.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

The latest version of sesame noodles

I wrote about my fantasy of the perfect bowl of sesame noodles in this post some time ago. Last night I looked at the available ingredients in the cupboard and fridge, considered my lack of desire to cook, and decided to try Mark Bittman's "Cold Noodles with Sesame Sauce" from The Minimalist Cooks Dinner.

Bittman's sesame sauce consists of half a cup of sesame paste, a tablespoon of sugar, quarter of a cup of soy sauce, a tablespoon of rice vinegar and a tablespoon of sesame oil. Combine these ingredients; season with hot sauce, pepper and salt to taste; then pour over cooled, previously-cooked noodles. Garnish with sliced scallions.

Once I prepared this version of sesame noodles, I felt I was getting closer to the perfect fantasy, but the real sticking point that was bringing me crashing back to earth was the sesame paste. Even a smooth paste seems to have a bit of grittiness (if only a subliminal grittiness), and it really is astonishingly close to peanut butter. In addition to Lala's suggestion of using cashew butter instead of sesame paste, I may start trying sesame sauce mixes with a bit of sake or mirin to smooth things out and sweeten them up. Clearly the only thing that will do is for me to concoct my own version of sesame sauce.

On the other hand, the leftovers are on the docket for dinner tonight, and I expect they will be more than adequate for that purpose.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Packing an Italian lunch

Sometimes (especially when I feel particularly cheap), I like to make my own lunch to bring along on birding trips. The best method of doing this is to cook dinner the night before and make sure plenty of leftovers are available. Not only does this mean there's one less thing to deal with in the morning when I'm trying to get myself on the road, it also means that if dinner disagrees with my stomach, I can put together Plan B for the trip. Intestinal issues are bad enough when you're at home; when you're on a birding trip and may be miles away from a pit stop, they can be catastrophic.

My birding pal The Lurker, like many, just packs a sandwich or two when he feels the need to brown-bag it. You might ask why I don't bring a sandwich. For some reason, I just don't make them for myself any more. I used to pack them frequently when I worked in New York City. Of course, these were the most boring sandwiches you could imagine: two slices of generic bread and some lunch meat completed the picture. Sandwiches just don't excite me, I guess. Besides, something like Thai fried rice seems to do a better job of keeping me going during the day.

Yesterday we went off to Delaware in search of shorebirds at Bombay Hook and the avian celebrity of the moment, a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher. I knew I wanted to pack a lunch, so I picked out a simple pasta recipe from Anne Casale's Italian Family Cooking, "Linguine with Shrimp." However, I didn't get to cook it until yesterday morning.

I didn't follow her ingredient proportions exactly because I was just cooking lunch and not wanting leftovers for a change. I sauteed three sliced scallions in a blend of a quarter-cup each of olive oil and butter for two minutes, then did the same with some garlic for a minute and a half. Then, in went the peeled shrimp, which I cooked over high heat until they turned pink. Then I turned the heat to low and added a few spritzes of lemon juice and a teaspoon of torn basil leaves; once this was heated through, I added half a teaspoon each of white pepper and salt, stirred a few times, then poured it over spinach fettuccini. By the end, the scallion bits were fairly brown and the sauce was rather oily, so I minimized the proportions of those ingredients when I dished it into my lunch container. I did add more sauce than I would normally, just to keep the pasta moist while it traveled around in the morning. The kitchen smelled wonderful, but it was time to run out the door.

Lunch found us at a Wendy's in Smyrna (along with everyone else in the county, it seemed). While my accomplices in crime waited on line to get their fast food, I started sampling my lunch. It was quite good; one unexpected thing I enjoyed was that the shrimp had cooked long enough to get a few little crispy brown bits on their edges. That made them extra tasty. When Perfect Tommy finally arrived at the table, carrying his Wendy's salad, he was able to guess the ingredients in short order. Later on, he suggested adding grated parmesan to top the dish, which sounds like a nice addition in the future. By the time The Lurker got to the table, my lunch was all gone, which meant that I wasn't the last one finishing my meal for a change.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Raw cacao

Last week, my pal The Dancer stopped by to pick up some educational reading before her imminent trip to Iceland. Since I've always been a fan of Nordic climes, I've accumulated a pile of books on various Nordic topics. What I didn't expect was that she would present me with an envelope of raw cacao beans (shelled and flattened, apparently). I opened the envelope, sampled one and staggered back from the recoil of its flavor force.

Once I recovered, I stuck them in an empty jar that had once contained Paul Newman's salsa. A few days later, I opened it, took a whiff and staggered back from the aroma. This raw cacao is strong stuff.

When I told Perfect Tommy about what I'd scored, he told me I could make my own chocolate. I regarded this with suspicion since the idea of making sweets summons up images of molten sugar, hot pans and potentially nasty burns. Seeing my look of aversion, he followed up with the suggestion that I could just keep them in the jar and show them off to sundry guests as a curiosity. This sounds much safer, at least until I find some recipe that I'm willing to work with.

Friday, August 04, 2006

Singapore fried rice

It was time for yet another variation on fried rice. Singapore got the nod this time, thanks to a recipe for "Shrimp Fried Rice" from Terry and Christopher Tan's Shiok!. Stir-fry some chopped garlic in vegetable oil; then add two eggs, let nearly set and chop them with the edge of the spatula. Toss in the shrimp (shelled) and stir-fry for two minutes, then add the cooked rice, one tablespoon of Chinese light soy and half a teaspoon each of black pepper and salt. Stir-fry about three more minutes until everything is cooked through. Pickled chilis are the suggested side dish.

This ended up much like Thai fried rice, even though the Singapore recipe adds the eggs sooner and doesn't beat them ahead of time. The one problem with the final dish was that the chopped garlic burned, so I'll have to be more careful next time. I also added more pepper than necessary, which didn't help.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Going Italian

Ah, Italian food. Whenever I get a little tired of fish sauce or soy sauce, I can just readjust my attention to tomatoes, basil and garlic. Rather than noodles, I can have pasta. Olive oil goes into the pan, not peanut oil, and one sautes rather than stir-frying. Well, ok, maybe the differences between some of these things are judgement calls, but Italian food is a good way of satisfying myself when I want "normal" food.

The first recipe I cooked from Mark Bittman's The Minimalist Cooks Dinner was fettuccini carbonara. I thought it worked out well, but there were a couple of things I wanted to tweak. I got my chance to do that recently when I used Bittman's recipe for "Pasta alla Gricia," which is the base recipe from which the carbonara recipe "deviates." The interesting thing was that my tweaking didn't make any difference. I substituted regular olive oil for extra virgin olive oil because I thought the extra virgin olive burned and gave the carbonara a bitter undertone. Apparently the oil was not the culprit, because the pasta alla gricia had the same taste. Perhaps I cooked the pancetta too hard and too long? Pasta alla gricia is a simple dish (which is what attracted me to it on the night in question); cook the pancetta and pasta, combine them, then serve after stirring in some Pecorino Romano cheese. This was the first time I'd cooked with Pecorino Romano cheese and that, too, seemed somewhat bitter to me (though I'm the first to admit I'm not the world's biggest cheese fan).

The other night, I was looking for another simple pasta recipe. This time I used Anne Casale's Italian Family Cooking. I settled upon "Bucatini with Plain Tomato Sauce," although I used spinach fettuccini for it as well (it was the pasta I had in the house). For the sauce, one slowly sautes half a cup of chopped onion in a blend of two tablespoons each of olive oil and butter until soft but not brown. Add two large garlic cloves, halved, and again saute until soft but not brown. Add a 28 ounce can of crushed concentrated tomatoes, one and a half tablespoons of minced fresh basil, half a teaspoon of sugar and one teaspoon each of salt and pepper. Bring to a boil, then turn heat down to low and let simmer, partially covered, for about 25 minutes. Casale recommends lots of stirring during these stages of sauce creation, but I stirred only occasionally and it didn't seem to hurt the end result. After the 25 minutes are up, let the sauce rest for an hour before cooking the pasta. I just cooked the pasta and dumped the sauce on top of it, although Casale gives slightly more involved directions for how to combine pasta and sauce.

This was very tasty. The sauce was mild and tomatoey (just what you want this time of year) and was very easy to make. The onions give it a bit more depth, but still make it sweet rather than spicy. This would be easy to tweak in various directions, as well. There was plenty for leftovers the next day. With results like this, I'm definitely emboldened to try Italian cooking on a more consistent basis in the future.