Friday, August 24, 2007

Pork chop and sake-miso sauce

One of my favorite templates for a sauce is the one used in Mark Bittman's The Minimalist Cooks Dinner for "Pork Cutlet with Miso-Red Wine Sauce" (past variations on this dish can be found here, here and here). Mixing a cup of liquid and two tablespoons of miso is ridiculously easy, and the taste when one is done is excellent and downright complex in some cases (depending on the specific ingredients).

Saturday night I tried a new variation. My one "complaint" with this recipe is that it makes a lot of sauce, so this time I halved the amounts to half a cup of sake and one tablespoon of white miso. The sake I used was Momokawa's Ruby sake, a type that straddles the line between sweet and dry (leaning ever so slightly over into the "sweet" camp). As the sauce was reducing, I added about a tablespoon of unsalted butter and some shredded sweet basil leaves from the garden. This was poured over an inch-thick pork chop that had been liberally seasoned with salt and cracked black pepper, then pan-seared on both sides. I served the pork chop with some leftover homemade bread from last Friday's dinner at Lala's house; the bread had been intended to be French bread but it turned out lighter than that. I reasoned that it should still be good for sopping up the sauce (and even better than noodles or pasta for that purpose).

The results were excellent, one of the best versions of this recipe family that I've had yet. The sauce was rich but not overly heavy, the thick pork chop stood up to the sauce admirably, and the not-so-French bread made sure no drop of sauce went to waste. Well, ok, not all of the miso was totally taken into the sauce (you can see the lumps in the photo), but the infusion of butter, while doubtlessly not necessary, did a great job of smoothing the flavors out. The basil added that little extra zing.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Korean beef noodles

It's been a while since I made Korean beef noodles, mainly because I eat beef less frequently than I once did.

As always, the prep and assembly of this dish went swimmingly. Every time I cook it, I'm still amazing at how well the timing of the recipe works. The end result is a bowl of tender sliced beef over a bowl of spicy, savory noodles. The blend of garlic, scallions and chile makes the lips tingle without being excessively hot; if you wanted to raise the heat quotient higher, you could easily add more dried chiles. The dried chile is part of the recipe, but I think this is the first time I've prepared the recipe with it; it's definitely better than the Tabasco sauce I had been using since the chile infuses the oil with its spiciness.

I had hoped to illustrate this post with a photo but alas, none of them came out. Food photography can be an unforgiving pastime.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007


Sometimes a good restaurant meal can send you off in a new culinary direction. It's one thing to sort through cookbooks in search of interesting things to try, but quite another to be confronted with the dish in question.

Saturday night I had dinner with The Deacon at one of our favorite hangouts, Soonja's in Princeton. Soonja's features cuisine from various Asian countries. The Deacon had one of the "create your own noodle dish" entrees, while I decided to visit new territory. I've been eyeing the "Bi Bim Bob" in the Korean section of the menu for a while now. The beef and rice sounded interesting, but the mixed vegetables summoned up images of a plate full of broccoli (a frequent component of "mixed vegetables," in my experience). I don't like broccoli and avoid it as much as possible, but I decided to take a gamble.

When the plate arrived (after the steamed pork dumpling appetizer and accompanying miso soup), I was pleasantly surprised: no broccoli. Mounds of different ingredients ringed the plate; in the center sat the mound of minced beef while the rice, hidden, supported everything else. The plate was a colorful assortment: yellow egg slivers, dark green spinach, variegated green lettuce, coffee-colored shiitake mushrooms, pale bean sprouts and slivered daikon, and orange threads of carrot. It was almost too pretty to eat. The veggies were fresh and just barely cooked; the sprouts and daikon were dressed with a tinge of vinegar. The bibimbap (every place I encounter the name of this dish seems to spell it differently) was served with koch'ujang (Korean hot chile paste); I added a few dollops of chile paste to the dish, mixed everything up and dug in.

All in all, it reminded me of a very substantial salad. The veggies were the real heart of the dish, in the vein of many Asian dishes which use meat as favoring rather than the core of the dish. The mix of textures and tastes had plenty of variety and was welcome on a hot day. As I ate, I knew I had to make this a part of my cooking repertoire.

When I got home, I pulled out Hi Soo Shin Hepinstall's Growing Up in a Korean Kitchen. There was indeed a recipe for "Pibimbap," but I quickly realized why I hadn't bookmarked the recipe: all those ingredients! All that chopping! Well, I didn't care now. I'd seen what bibimbap was like and that gave me more incentive. So did this recipe for bibimbap from evil jungle prince, who made the point that bibimbap is a great use for leftovers. Homemade bibimbap is sure to appear in my kitchen soon.

Saturday, August 04, 2007

Back in the kitchen

One of the reasons I started this blog was to keep notes on my various culinary efforts. Despite the recent hiatus in posting here, I haven't stopped cooking, but I've also grown to realize that I miss being able to refer to those notes. So here I am again.

Another thing that's been going on lately is more non-Asian cooking. For example, a few nights ago, I wanted something quick and easy, but something more than a packaged meal. It finally dawned on me that I could toss together some "Pasta Alla Gricia" from Mark Bittman's The Minimalist Cooks Dinner. Just brown some chopped bacon in olive oil (I didn't have pancetta on hand), reserve the bacon and its juices, cook your pasta (again, capellini was what I had on hand, so that's what got used). When the pasta's done, add the bacon and juices plus grated Pecorino Romano cheese. The result is fast, tasty and gives the pleasure of cooking your own food without a lot of work.

Not that I've turned my back on cooking Asian food, by any means. I've been enjoying reading and cooking from Fuchsia Dunlop's Land of Plenty and Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook. That last dish I tried was from Land of Plenty, namely "Chicken with Chiles." I made a few changes in the recipe, most notably skipping the initial velveting step and treating it as a straight stir-fry.

Aromatics are important in this dish; it calls for dried red chiles, garlic, ginger, Sichuan pepper and scallions. Of course, I only have ground Sichuan pepper, so that burned when it hit the hot oil (whole peppercorns are preferred). None of these seasonings are meant to be eaten; they're there to flavor the oil. Again, I kept the pan too hot, so there was little oil to be had by the end of the proceedings. I had a cup of chicken broth on hand, though the recipe doesn't call for it, so to keep the pan from drying out, I made sort of a pan sauce from the chicken marinade (dark and light soy sauce, Shao Xing rice wine and salt) and the broth. In the end, the chicken meat had complicated spicy flavors, very intense but still a light meal. Serving this over a lot of white rice would be a good idea.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Twice-cooked pork

The classic dish of China's Sichuan province, according to Fuchsia Dunlop, is twice-cooked pork. Like any other widely-regarded and cooked meal, there are many different variations on the recipe. The basic plan is to parboil pork belly then stir-fry it with sauce and vegetables.

I tried Dunlop's version of this dish and have been eating leftovers from it since then. The final result was a little too oily for my taste (but when you're dealing with pork belly, maybe that's par for the course). No, wait, scratch that last parenthetical comment: braising pork belly for Japanese chashu does not lead to a greasy result. Hmm.

Boiling the pork, then stir-frying it, distills the essence of porkiness. It also leads to a rather chewy result. This is not normally a problem, but when one is trying to have a quick birding meal (and one's compatriot has already finished his sandwich), chewy is not a good thing. Duly noted.

On the other hand, the sauce was divine. Dunlop recommends 1 1/2 tablespoons of hot bean paste, 1 1/2 teaspoons of regular Sichuan bean paste (made with broad beans, aka fava beans, rather than soybeans) and 2 teaspoons of fermented black beans. I'll have more to say on the bean pastes in another post, but the result for this dish was deep and savory. I liked the sauce to the point that I would happily make it for some other application, but then it might be missing the extra dimension of rendered pork belly fat. C'est la vie.

Unrelated footnote: the leftovers made lunch while The Lurker and I were birding around Cape May County, but dinner led us to Applebee's, a chain we haven't visited in some time. We both had burgers and although the server told us that our burgers were going to be better done than not (i.e., no pink), the resulting burgers were very good (even for a medium rare fan like The Lurker). The char was terrific and the flavor equally so. My burger was a "Bruschetta Burger," and it turns out that putting some diced tomato, basil, garlic and mozzarella on a good burger makes a very nice entree. The rosemary-seasoned fries were just a plus.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Another tweak to donburi

The joy of a hearty, simple dish like donburi is that once you've mastered the basic technique, it's easy to start changing some of the variables and experimenting. The other night I followed my usual recipe for chicken donburi but used chicken thighs rather than breast meat. Knowing that this would give a stronger flavor to the completed dish, I decided to use shrimp stock as the base for the broth, rather than dashi (shrimp stock recipe from Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything). I also added a few drops of pepper sherry to the broth.

As expected, the shrimp stock enhanced the darker flavor that chicken thigh meat gives to donburi. The pepper sherry was not noticeable in the broth, so I guess I need to use it less timidly next time. I'm still deciding if I like it this version of donburi or not, but playing around like this is part of what you do when you start making a dish your own. Besides, donburi is forgiving.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Hijiki somen

I haven't been cooking as much as usual lately, but last night I wanted something more than pasta and sauce from a jar. After a bit of dithering, I decided to have some hijiki. What I ended up doing was my usual recipe for braised hijiki but I used somen noodles rather than abura-age. I just put the dry somen into the pan and let it braise along with the hijiki. The noodles did a good job of soaking up the sweet shoyu broth (somen noodles are normally cooked by letting them steep in broth, rather than boiling them separately). In the end, the noodles probably gave the dish more body than it normally has; not a bad thing on an evening when a spring sleet storm was clattering on the windows. Then again, a sleety evening probably calls for mizore nabe.

The next time I try this braised hijiki variant, I might zap it with a bit of pepper sherry to add just a bit of heat to the broth's sweetness. I suspect that might be a good combination.

Friday, February 02, 2007

Serious crunch

I've finally succumbed to the Fuschia Dunlop movement. After hearing uniform praise for her books, and upon the occasion of the publication of her latest (Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook, which treats Hunanese cooking), I finally bought both RCC and her first book, Land of Plenty (that takes on Sichuanese cooking).

(I apologize for the length of that last sentence. The offender will be dealt with.)

Always one to start at the beginning and work through to the end, I began reading Land of Plenty. As I read, I recognized one of the field marks of a new favorite cookbook: I found myself thinking, "That sounds good," or "That wouldn't be hard to make," as I paged through the recipes. The first one that got the nod was "Pork Slices with Black Cloud Ear Fungus." This is a stir-fry combining marinated pork, cloud ears, celery and chiles.

The marinade worried me, because the version that uses cornstarch calls for six teaspoons of cornstarch along with two tablespoons of water and a teaspoon of Shao Xing rice wine. (There's also a half teaspoon of salt involved.) This meant that the marinade was more viscous than liquid, but I dutifully lathered it over the pork slices as instructed. I didn't have Sichuan pickled chiles on hand, so I substituted some of the serrano chile pepper puree from Suzie Hot Sauce. I also substituted homemade turkey stock for the suggested chicken stock.

I needn't have worried, because the stir-fry cooked up just fine. The pork gets stir-fried first in a third of a cup of peanut oil, then the excess oil is poured off to leave about two or three tablespoons, the usual amount for a stir-fry. Then add chopped ginger, chopped garlic and the Sichuan pickled chiles (if you have them) and stir-fry briefly until they become aromatic. Now the sliced scallions, chopped cloud ears and sliced celery go in, also to be stir-fried briefly. The final step is the addition of the sauce which is based on a quarter of a cup of chicken stock, with a quarter of a teaspoon salt, an eighth of a teaspoon ground pepper and one and an eighth teaspoons of cornstarch (three-quarters of a teaspoon of potato flour, which Dunlop frequently uses in her recipes). Heat through and serve at once.

Cloud ears are essentially flavorless, but they have a very crunchy texture, and their black color can add a dramatic accent to a plate. When combined with the sliced celery, also a crunchy ingredient, it gives this stir-fry a very crunchy quality indeed. This contrasts with the moist morsels of pork. The savory sauce just ties the whole thing together. I was very impressed with the ease with which this dish cooked up, and I also enjoyed a new combination of ingredients for me. If this is any indication, I'm going to enjoy cooking from this cookbook quite a bit.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Only in Japan

Natto. Fermented soybeans. Very healthy, yet the sort of food that will make the unprepared run screaming into the hills. It's the slimy surface. Natto might be an acquired taste, but maybe it's more a food that you need to grow up with. It's the Japanese equivalent of lutefisk.

I had natto once, served with rice. The sliminess was difficult to deal with, of course, but apart from that, it wasn't bad. I keep telling myself I need to try natto again, but I haven't quite gotten around to it.

Natto has become the centerpiece of a great food scandal in Japan, because excessive health benefits were claimed for the slimy soybeans. Maki has a good post summing up the situation at i was just really very hungry.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007


If you want to find out more about what happened to these vegetables (red bell pepper, celery and onion) after they got chopped up, go over to Paper Palate and read about skillet Creole chicken fricassee.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Suzie Hot Sauce

Perfect Tommy is one of those connoisseurs of substances measured in Scoville units. He likes hot stuff. In our meanderings along the Delaware River, we have frequently wandered by the little town of New Hope, Pennsylvania, home to all kinds of quaint boutiques. One of these stores is called Suzie Hot Sauce and it specializes in - you guessed it - hot sauce. Perfect Tommy has been pining for a chance to visit for ages, but whenever we've passed by, either the store hasn't been open or Perfect Tommy hasn't been in the mood.

Today's birding trip found us cruising by Suzie Hot Sauce a few minutes before 5 PM. Perfect Tommy was in the mood, there was a parking place, and in short order, we were in. The small store was absolutely stuffed with all manner of hot sauces and spicy condiments, several grades of hot pretzels for taste-testing purposes, chile-laced chocolate, Creole sauce mixes, you name it. There was a corner devoted to Asian hot sauces, but most of these were things I had seen in the Asian supermarket before. If you don't have an Asian market nearby, however, this could be a useful resource.

Since the store was closing at 5:00, there was no way we could scour the shelves with true discernment. We did our best, however. Perfect Tommy got some of the aforementioned chile-laced chocolate, some hot and spicy Cajun chips (which didn't last long), some hot pistachio brittle, some serrano chile puree and a small bottle of Cholula hot sauce. I was a little better and limited myself to the serrano chile puree, Tony Chachere's Creole seasoning (if only I'd had it last week) and some Outerbridge's Original pepper sherry. The woman behind the counter raved about the pepper sherry as I checked out; I told her I'd read about it and was curious to try it.

I also tried some of the hot pretzels. I worked my way up to the X hot level (the top is XX hot). I thought I handled it pretty well, but the burn turned out to be a slow-building one, and my stomach muttered at me for a while afterward.

As Perfect Tommy and I acted like, well, kids in a hot sauce store, The Lurker stood back and watched with his usual amusement. He is not a fan of spicy food, and so was immune to Suzie Hot Sauce's temptations.

All three of my purchases will doubtless liven up stir-fries and other dishes in the future. Better yet, I can now research hot sauces on the Hot Sauce Blog and have a hope of finding some of the obscure ones.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Roast chicken

Sunday night was an excuse for frivolity with The Cruise Director, The Fireman and family. The Deacon and The Frog Collector also stopped by. The Cruise Director put yours truly to work in the kitchen slicing onions, boiling green beans and offering advice on when to add ingredients to the saute pan. The main course was roast chicken with a nice peppery crust. Rather than a rack, the chicken was roasted on a bed of vegetables. This eliminated the problem of the chicken sticking to the bottom of the pan as well as providing a tasty side dish.

To say the chicken was moist is an understatement. When it came out of the oven, The Fireman held it over a bowl to allow it to drain for over a minute before putting it on the carving board. Once carving commenced, however, the cutting board quickly became awash in chicken juices. A turkey baster was pressed into emergency service for "reverse basting" and more chicken juices were added to the discard bowl. On the bright side, there is sure to be some excellent chicken stock in the offing. Besides, the chicken was tender and moist.