Friday, July 31, 2009

Asian-Cuban Fusion, By Way of Pork Rib Stew

I got some more pork ribs the other day. I love them. They're great, they make awesome stews (if you don't barbecue them), and they're usually, pound-for-pound, quite inexpensive. These were "country style," which apparently means "boneless, very meaty, and not the usual part of the ribs that I'm used to with ribs." I didn't cry. They were also scary cheap despite being fresh enough not to scare me (I checked the dates and felt the meat -- all was in order). I intended to use them to make a Cuban-inspired dish (which basically means that I would use a lot of cumin, bacon, and some brown sugar despite not really knowing what the hell Cuban food legitimately tastes like), but then my lovely wife saw them and bought Shiitake mushrooms. That could only mean one thing (she loves that stuff): but I had other ideas!!! Oh, the quandary. I decided to compromise and do both at once, figuring they were "close enough" together to be alright. It worked well. Everyone was impressed (including my mom who doesn't seem to like anything with flavor, which this had a lot of).

Despite what I say up there, I've followed some fairly reputable Cuban recipes before, so I had an idea of what I was doing. Cumin is important, brown sugar helps, and I had a hankering for something a little spicy and was using "Cuban" to open the door to "habanero." Other than that, I went completely stereotypical with it and just included black beans and bacon (borrowing from my favorite real Cuban recipe: Cuban-style black beans, which have all of the aforementioned ingredients in them and are beautiful, especially over cumin-crusted pork chops sitting on top of cumin-scented brown rice with mashed sweet potatoes nearby... wow... and yeah, that's an awfully heavy use of cumin, which ties the dishes together). Essentially, I stole some of the ideas from the black beans and added them to the Asian stew, sans cabbage.

My ingredients and how I did it:

  • First things first, I crushed and finely chopped five (yes, five) cloves of garlic;
  • Then I chopped up all of my veggies, listed below, and seasoned my pork ribs (as detailed below also);
  • For the cooking, I started out with some bacon (four thick-cut strips of applewood-smoked bacon, actually) in my Dutch oven over medium-high heat and cooked it up until it was crispy (n.b.: For my European audience, by bacon I mean "streaky.");
  • Then I took that out and added about a pound and a quarter of "country style" pork ribs, although I'm sure any style would be fine, seasoned lightly with coarse sea salt, freshly ground black pepper, and ground cumin -- I seared them on both sides in the bacon oil;
  • Next I took out the pork and added the following veggies, all chopped up: two carrots in largish chunks, two stalks of celery sliced thin on a bias, a red sweet pepper (actually four Nardellos) chopped up, four ounces of white mushrooms cut into quarters, six ounces of shiitake mushrooms sliced thin, half a sweet onion sliced into thin semicircles, one fresh cayenne pepper (red) chopped into little pieces, and about an inch of fresh ginger sliced thinly. I cooked them for a few minutes until they were getting a little soft, added some salt, and then added the garlic and four bay leaves, letting it cook in for a minute or two;
  • To deglaze the pan, I added a fairly large amount of red wine vinegar and about a tablespoon of soy sauce and scraped up all of the toasted pork bits (gramines, I think, is the technical term) and then put the pork back in with about half a teaspoon of whole cumin seeds and several dashes of habenero hot sauce (to taste?);
  • I added about three cups of water at this point and stirred everything up;
  • Once the water boiled, I turned the heat down to a notch below medium and mostly covered the pot and pretty much forgot about it for about three hours (I think I wandered in to stir it about three times in that time);
  • About a half an hour before dinner time, I added a can's worth of prepared black beans (some of which I smashed with a spoon), rinsed well and a tablespoon of dark brown sugar;
  • To finish it, I took out the bay leaves, chopped up (pulled apart is more accurate) the very tender pork into bite-sized chunks, added about a tablespoon of olive oil, chopped up the bacon and put it in there, stirred everything around, and gave it a few more minutes to come together. I adjusted the salt and served it in bowls with a bit more freshly chopped (into small pieces) onion to a cheering crowd.
If I had wanted to, I could have stretched it over cumin-scented rice or served it with cumin-scented flatbread. The cumin-scented thing sounds fancy, but it's not. For the rice, add about a quarter of a teaspoon of whole cumin seeds to the rice when you start making it. For the flatbread, add about a quarter teaspoon either of whole cumin seeds or of ground cumin to your flatbread dough when making it (need a recipe for flatbread? Look here!). Now that I think of it... cumin-scented jalepeno corn bread might have been pretty good too... maybe sans the jalepenos.... Anyway, for more food I could have also served it with mashed sweet potatoes or, my favorite, sugar-and-dark-rum-glazed sweet potato home-fries (with just a hint of cinnamon -- whoa Nelly).

I don't know if the fusion was fair or not, but the dish came out very good and rather well balanced considering things. I liked it, at least, and so did everyone at my house. Sorry for the lack of pictures. I took one of the bacon frying, decided that was a dumb picture, and then forgot to take any more after that. Oh well... stew looks mostly like stew, even with black beans in it.

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Thursday, July 30, 2009

(Half) Wheat Sourdough Bread, from Scratch

I'm very excited about this post. I made my first loaf of sourdough bread today, and it turned out really good. What's really got me amped is that I made the starter from scratch too. For some reason, that just seems completely awesome to me because I always felt like sourdough bread would be something I had to have connections to get to make. Then I'd have a starter to take care of, and that would be an awful lot of responsibility. I might even end up having to find and hire a sourdough sitter if I wanted to go out or on vacation. I was pretty sure I didn't want all of that. Then I found out that I can make my own starter, and my curiosity teamed up with my unbridled enthusiasm to create and gave birth to my first loaf of sourdough.

I didn't get the idea for how to make a sourdough starter of my own out of a dream. In fact, I read it here. I even meant to poorly recreate the picture on his website, but then I didn't feel like doing it. Also, I'm not sure I did it quite right, though given the instructions, I'm not sure how I could have done it incorrectly. I mixed some unbleached flour with roughly an equal weight of water (yeah right, I used too much water... let's be honest here) and put in one of the outer leaves of a head of organic red cabbage. Then I covered it with another leaf of cabbage, finding the middle ground between the choices suggested in Ruhlman's blog, and let it sit for a few days. I didn't really have the faintest idea of what to do with it, so I fed it every morning when I got up and before I went to bed, hoping desperately that it wouldn't take off with crazy sourdough powers and make a mess of my kitchen while I slept or worked on my dissertation. After the forty-eight hours that are suggested, mine hadn't increased in volume at all but was quite bubbly and smelled rather strongly of sauerkraut with a reddish, purplish, slightly tan liquid on top that I dutifully stirred in every time I fed the starter. At that point, I took out the cabbage and decided that it was probably too thin to grow (I also realized that feeding it again was going to make it not fit in my container if it grew at all, so I composted half of it). I fed it, adding almost no water, and covered it with a towel. A day went by. Bubbly, stinky, not growing. Another day went by. Bubbly, stinky, not growing. Day by day, though, I increased the proportion of flour to water by just not adding water when I fed it. Then, I got up this morning and the container was almost full and had no residual liquid on top, indicating that it had more than doubled in size! Woohoo! It also had ceased to smell like cabbage gone funky and had obtained a mellow, subtly sour, very "make bread with me" kind of scent.

I was overjoyed. I was also scared. On the one hand, I wasn't sure if my baby starter was ready to make bread. On the other hand, I knew that if I left the container as it was, i.e. made no decision about what to do, it would outgrow its container within about three hours. Two and a half hours later, it reached the very top of the container (it was growing so fast I could almost watch it grow) and brought the decision to a point. I figured I should just try it. I was only out some flour and time if it went badly.

I split the starter in half since, once stirred, I had about two cups of it. Then I added two cups of flour, one cup being "white wheat" flour and the other being unbleached white flour. The first sourdough first rise and sourdough starterthing I did after that was feed the starter another half of a cup of flour, which caused it to spend the next four hours getting very big and then eventually shrinking back to a more manageable size (and delightful, more developed smell). Back to my bread, I put in a little water, a tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil, and some nice sea salt and worked it into a nice dough, which I kneaded duitifully and then covered and set aside for the first rise, which took about two hours because my starter is still a baby. Here's the result of the first rise posing with its "mother."

scored sourdough loaf before bakingOf course, I floured my working surface again, kneaded the dough again, and shaped it into an oblong loaf shape to prepare it for baking, putting it on my lovely pizza pan that isn't as good as a stone but is much easier to clean, lighter, and less likely to break. Then I scored it to help it rise, and it looked like this.

sourdough french bread fresh from the ovenI baked it in a 350 F oven for 35 minutes. Interestingly, I didn't know how long to bake a loaf like this, so I looked it up while it was baking and found out that 30 minutes is usually about right at the 35-minute mark. Since the page I looked at recommended 400 F for the oven, I figured I was okay. I was right on, actually. This is what it looked like when it came out.

sourdough french bread slicedSliced and served. I liked mine with fig preserves on it.

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The Gifts of the Season: Fresh Fruit and Vegetables from the Garden

As I mentioned in my last post and a few other times in the past couple of weeks, our garden is providing plenty for us. Today, it took a new turn and provided about a dozen cucumbers and almost as many melons, to say nothing of the seven hundred billion (slight exaggeration) (mostly cherry-sized) tomatoes that still need to be picked and were ignored since, at best, I can only carry a couple of melons at a time. Almost all of them were the fancy French charentais melons (a/the variety of cantaloupe), and almost all of them were picked because they split. The problem with these melons, as we've experienced it, is that it's hard to tell when they're ripe. Essentially, they're supposed to be mostly yellowish when they're ripe, but only two of the twenty or so that we've picked have reached "yellowish" before they split. I noticed on my cool analytic software that people wonder, like I did, why these melons split. I don't wonder, though. I find out. The reason is rain, which falls in bucket-sized drops here this time of year. When the melons are ripe or close to it, a sudden watering (like from rain) will cause the melon to swell faster than the skin can accommodate, and it cracks, usually along the bottom. All you have to do to see why is cut one of these melons and then take a moment to watch the stem where you cut it... it oozes clear, orangish liquid almost like a slow-flowing tap. That's why they split. Our solution has been to watch the weather and get out there pretty much as soon as possible after it rains. Usually some have already split, so they get cut and eaten forthwith. I don't know what to do with the eight or nine of them that I picked earlier today, though, along with our first watermelon (which we've eaten a little more than half of).

How did I know the watermelon was ready? It didn't split, but I found a handy guide online that indicated that if the stripes become less distinct, the bottom gets a creamy yellow color (instead of white), and the vine half withers, then it's probably ripe. Thumping on it gives a hollow sound, and comparing it against a larger watermelon that didn't make that sound told me that this one was probably ripe. It virtually cut itself (explosively) once I touched the knife to it, so I'm led to believe it too would have split had I not picked it after the torrential rains that fell yesterday and all night. It was pretty good, but more or less, it tasted like clean, pure rainwater. We were a little disappointed, but I wasn't fussed. I do wonder if they taste differently if picked on a day when there's been clear skies and hot sun for a few days straight.

So today, other than a cappuccino with my wife, I've had nothing to eat but fruit... lots of fruit: the gift of the season. I started with probably half a pound of cherries (I freaking love cherries, especially when they're $1.99 a pound)... I can't wait until our little cherry bush/tree starts making them (next year???). The rest has been melons... melons, melons, melons (since they split, they can't really just sit around). Later will probably be something involving cucumbers and tomatoes (a salad?). Eventually, though, I'll eat something more "solid" since my double-secret homemade sourdough starter (to be posted about soon) appears to be ready... I can literally almost watch it grow now. [Edit: soon is now!]

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Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Chicken and Homemade Pasta in Fresh Tomato-Basil Soup

I should create a new feature here: We grew too many tomatoes this year and can't figure out what to do with them! That was the main inspiration for tonight's dish... use some of these tomatoes without resorting to making tomato sauce or a big salad that is all tomatoes, peppers, and cucumbers (which is good with the right dressing -- red wine vinegar and oil, 1:2 ratio, a little seasoning salt, a little fresh herbs chopped up fine, and a tiny dash of sesame oil... wow -- thanks Uncle BAM). I also wanted to try something pretty minimalist.

Besides that, I did have a desire to try again to get shaved pasta (刀削面, dao xiao mian) right. Honestly, I did a little better by making the dough a bit more dry, but it was still too moist in the middle. That gave me a bit of a stir because it was just, just, just wet enough to really come together, so I'm going to have to fiddle with it more. I might have to add a dough conditioner like baking powder, but I'm certain JB didn't. Thus, I know it needs not be done to achieve a good result. Because all of my pictures are starting to look the same (stew-ish stuff cooked in a wok with the picture positioned in the upper left and very small), here's a photo of the finished product, larger and centered and stew-ish and in a wok. Mmm... it looks good.
chicken and homemade pasta in fresh tomato-basil soup with dao xiao mian or 刀削面What got me about this is that the noodles were actually more delightful to eat than the chicken was (even though it was good breast meat -- thighs probably would have been better). My favorite part, though, was the soup, which I drank straight from the bowl unashamedly after eating most of the stuff out of it with a fork. Here's how it went, feeding the whole family (myself, my wife, and two teenaged blond monkeys):

  • A pound and a quarter of boneless, skinless chicken breast cut into three-quarters-inch cubes or thereabouts;
  • About four or five medium cloves of garlic, crushed and chopped finely;
  • Half a sweet onion, chopped;
  • About five good-sized fresh tomatoes, cut into pieces roughly the same size as the chicken (some of mine were red; some were yellow-orange);
  • Probably what came out to 12 good-sized basil leaves, cut in a chiffonade (sounds fancy but is easy, see below or here);
  • Three leafy sprigs of fresh flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped;
  • About a quarter of a cup of extra virgin olive oil;
  • A healthy dash of red wine vinegar;
  • Salt to taste.
  • Two cups of flour worth of fresh shaved pasta (see the link for the recipe and process), cooked in salted water and drained.
First, I started boiling some salted water for the pasta because that takes a long damn time. Once that was on the fire, I made myself a cup of tea to sip on and chopped up the garlic. Then I made the pasta dough, setting it aside to rest and await my knife and hopes for a good outcome. Once that was done, I chopped up the onions and chicken, getting the oil hot in my wok (because it would kind of double as a stew pot and frying pan while allowing me to use a lid) about midway through, using medium-high heat and not letting the oil get to smoking. When everything was cut up and the pan was hot, in went the chicken and onions. I salted them lightly and let them cook a bit to get the chicken to "brown" a little on all sides. While that happened, I cut up the tomatoes, adding first the garlic and then a healthy splash of red wine vinegar when I figured the chicken had cooked enough. When they were cut, I added the tomatoes and salted them, and then I covered the wok, leaving all as it was until I heard it sounding quite vigorous in there. Then lowered the heat to just below medium and went out to pick the herbs from my garden. Upon returning with the herbs, I washed them and chopped them up, basil first, waiting on the parsley. To chiffonade the basil, stack up the leaves, roll them up into as tight a roll as you can, and then slice them thin, horizontally. I added the basil when it was cut, stirring and re-covering the wok at that point. That's when it started smelling crazy good, so I added just a bit more vinegar to pump the acidity (see below for an important note on this). At that point I chopped the parsley and then cut the pasta (and pinch-pulled about half of it) into the pot of now-boiling water, let it cook, and drained it. At that point, I put the cooked noodles into the tomato-basil soup and mixed everything around, checking the seasoning and acidity. After about another minute, I turned off the heat and added the chopped parsley on top. Serve in a bowl. Yum.

If I had it, there would have been freshly grated parmesian (reggiano, of course) or some other delicious dry, hard cheese. I didn't have any, but it would have been fabulous. Also, I think subbing out the chicken and subbing in beef (or, dare I dream, lamb) would have been excellent beyond measure in this dish.

The special note: Acid and fat offset one another to a certain degree in food, particularly soups, because oil is rich and acid cuts through richness. So... to make soup like the soup you pay $8+ a bowl for, you need to understand and capitalize on this. Your soup, to be $8+ a bowl, needs richness, so you need a decent amount of good-quality fat in there like e.v.o.o. or butter. Since this soup was not a bisque, I used olive oil. You'll need acidity to perk that up and cut through the fat (so your soup doesn't taste more like gravy). I used red wine vinegar and the natural acidity of tomatoes here, but balsamic vinegar, wine, beer, white wine vinegar, hot sauce, apple cider vinegar, etc. are all good for the purpose. You want to develop a taste for when the acid-fat balance is appropriate and aim for that routinely. Usually it means using more fat than you think you want in a soup and then waking it up with a little vinegar. Just remember the one and only "rule" (as far as I'm concerned) in cooking: you can always add, but you can never take away. Incremental is a good method to keep from screwing this up, let me tell you. Your gallbladder and "...but I don't like vinegar" center will thank me.

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Stan's Czech-Style Butter Beer Meat and Mashed Potatoes

I honestly don't know what to call this dish. A guy named Stan, who happens to be Czech, made it for me and taught me how to do it. I've since modified it -- without guilt -- because another Czech guy that happened to be present looked right at the dish, tasted it, and said "that's good, but it's not Czech." Stan countered by stating that his grandmother, who only makes Czech food, makes it, so it must be Czech. I just ate it happily because it tastes good.

This recipe carries a butter warning: it contains a stupid amount of butter. So that doesn't daunt anyone, note that butter is delicious, is strongly backed by really great chefs, and is quite likely a contributing factor in the so-called French paradox, so it might not be as bad as its reputation. Did I mention that it's delicious? It's delicious. Really, seriously, butter is delicious, especially in the form of a buttery sauce.

Here's the ingredients. The way I did it last night is given, Stan's recipe (which I used as a skeleton for this one) is in italics. Everything in Stan's recipe is in my recipe. It fed all of us, so around 3-4 people will be served by this dish.

  • About a pound to a pound and a half of chicken or pork cut up into little pieces;
  • 1 leek or half of a small sweet onion, chopped;
  • 2 cloves garlic, crushed (first) and finely chopped;
  • half a fresh, red Cayenne pepper, finely chopped;
  • a big handful of chopped green or red cabbage (I used red for the first time last night, and it worked well);
  • about a quarter of a cup of chopped sweet peppers (because I have a bunch of them from our garden);
  • the leaves of a few sprigs of fresh Thyme, chopped;
  • half a bottle of Czech beer (meaning Stan uses Czech beer and I don't care what beer I use);
  • 1-2 sticks of butter, depending on how you do things (I used 1 for the meat and some more for the potatoes.. I just dropped in the whole stick into the meat mixture at the proper time and said aloud "taken care of" with a grin on my face about how ridiculous it seems to do that kind of thing);
  • a little milk or cream (because more milk fat is what this recipe requires to be good);
  • a little oil;
  • approximately 10-12 medium sized potatoes or the equivalent, boiled and mashed;
  • salt (and pepper) to taste;
As with everything on here, this is really easy. Cut everything up first, starting with the garlic. Put the chopped up, peeled (that's Stan's way) potatoes into a pot of cold, salted water and start to boil them. Meanwhile, heat some oil in a rather deep pot over medium high heat, and put the meat in with some salt, cooking until it's just browned on the outside. Add the veggies to that. Let it cook for just a moment and then add the beer. Stir the pot and cover it, reducing the heat to about medium. Stan let's that cook until the potatoes are ready, so the meat gets quite tender, and then pours most of the liquid out of the pan and into the sink, adding most or all of a stick of butter to replace it. I don't do that. I pour it off into a pan, but about half a stick of butter in with the meat, and put the other half into that pan to make a sauce, like a loose gravy (which could be thickened by adding a slurry -- equal parts water and cornstarch mixed until relatively smooth -- or pouring the liquid into a blond roux -- combine equal parts flour and oil and cook over medium-high heat until it starts to brown just a little). There's too much flavor in that liquid to waste! I want that liquid to reduce. Then I add some of it directly to the potatoes with the milk (cream, what-have-you), a little more butter, and some salt and pepper to make proper mashed potatoes. To serve it, put the potatoes on a plate, put the meat over the top, scooping up as much of that meaty butter as you can get, and pour the gravy/sauce over the top of everything. It probably is served best with some steamed veggies like broccoli and a hearty chunk of (homemade?) bread (with butter, of course) on the side. Nice.

A note about Stan's way: Stan says that the proper Czech way to do this recipe is to make sure there's much less meat than veggies. In particular, there should be a lot of potatoes, outstripping the quantity of meat several times over. The Czech way is to have lots of potatoes with a little meat and sauce. Apparently he's serious about this because when he made it for us, I was in charge of the potatoes. I made what seemed like a nice pot of mashed potatoes, though nothing spectacularly huge, and Stan made me make another batch to add to it. He said I'd barely made enough potatoes for one girl to eat (this would have been for five adult men) and gave me a proper description of the mountains of potatoes that flow forth on every Czech plate. Maybe make more potatoes than I recommend. They also shouldn't be too fussed up with bacon, cheese, and all of that. The potatoes here should taste like potatoes, he says. I think I agree because the sauce is ridiculously rich what with the enormous amount of butter in it.

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Tuesday, July 28, 2009

JB's Beef and Leek with Homemade Noodles (Mian)

beef and leek chinese food with homemade noodles 刀削面 dao xiao mianThis dish is apparently pretty typical for home cooking in the Beijing area in China, although the noodles were supposed to be shaved noodles (刀削面, dao xiao mian) instead of what I made due to inexperience. Either way, the fresh pasta is approximately a billion times better than stuff that is dried in boxes, and it's easy enough to make from flour and water that there's not a lot of need to feel like it shouldn't be done. Now this dish is both very nice and reminiscent of what is frequently served in Chinese restaurants and called "Mongolia beef" although without all the pepperiness and with the mellow flavor of (a lot of) leek. It's quite excellent with lamb as well, as I can attest since I had it from JB's wok that way several times. Like essentially everything on here, it's also quite easy to make and a people-pleaser. My dish fed the four of us (both kids are girls, so if you have boys or are feeding adults, you'll probably need to make slightly more than this, particularly in the noodle department).

I used for the stir fry:

  • One and a half pounds of beef steak, cut very thin across the grain (like almost deli-meat thin);
  • Two leeks, washed thoroughly, washed again, peeled, cut, washed again, and then cut up into quarters lengthwise and into inch-long sections, using all but perhaps the last quarter of the green part (this is quite a pile of onions and looks intimidating), then rinsed again (leeks are sandy);
  • Two Nardello peppers, cut to match the pieces of leek in size;
  • Two cloves of garlic, crushed and finely chopped;
  • About an inch of ginger, finely chopped;
  • Two tablespoons soy sauce;
  • A half teaspoon or so of red pepper flake;
  • Two tablespoons of peanut or canola oil;
  • Salt to taste.
For the noodles:
  • About two cups of all-purpose, unbleached flour, sifted into a bowl;
  • a half teaspoon of salt;
  • Roughly 2/3 of a cup of water (enough to make a proper dough);
  • 11 gallons of elbow grease.
The first thing I did to make this was crush the garlic and chop it up (always do the garlic first to get more health out of it). Then I did the ginger and the leek, followed by the pepper. I transferred all of the veg except the garlic and ginger to a separate plate, started a pot of salted water to head toward boiling, and cut up the meat next, taking care to trim the fat and to slice very thin and as neatly across the grain as I could. Essentially, I wanted my pieces to come out roughly a half-inch wide, an inch or so long, and as thin as I could comfortably cut it. That took a little while, so the water was getting close. I set all of this aside next to start making the pasta dough. In hindsight, I maybe should have made the pasta dough first, but I'm not sure about that. Making the dough is easy: put the flour and salt in a bowl, make a depression in the middle, pour in most of the water, stick your hand in, and mix it up. It sticks to your hand, and then as the dough starts to come together, it starts to come off. If not, add more flour and keep going, rubbing it off your hand. You want this dough to be a little on the dry side. Mine was a little on the too-wet side, which had rather bad consequences later. Once the dough comes together, roll it out of the bowl and onto the counter and knead the heck out of it for about 5-10 minutes. You just want it to relax, not to be something you can pull into fancy pulled noodles (you have to knead that for over half an hour). Longer kneading times lead to chewier pasta, but it depends on how much time you have and are willing to invest. JB didn't knead his forever, so I didn't knead mine for very long either.

Set the ball of dough aside to rest while you start the stir fry: oil in the pan over high or medium-high heat until it's hot. Add the meat first and stir it around a little, adding the garlic and ginger soon after with a little salt. Stir that around a little and add the rest of the veg. Mix things together nicely, add some salt for the veggies, and pour in the soy sauce. I turned the heat down to medium-high at that point and covered it while I started to make the noodles.

Ideally, with shaved pasta, you take a sharp knife and shave chunks of dough off directly into the boiling water: easy as can be. When the noodles have cooked for a few minutes (sometimes they seem to float, sometimes not), strain them and they're done. The problem is that my dough was too wet, so the sharp knife (which I sharpened and which was therefore, indeed, very sharp) wouldn't finish the job; the noodles kept sticking to it or failing to cut all the way off the lump of dough. That was no good. I used JB's "finishing the dough" trick from the beginning to deal with that problem. Basically, I squeezed the dough thin and tore it off with my fingers, tossing it into the boiling water. Squeeze, tear, toss; squeeze, tear, toss; etc. After about two minutes, the whole lump of dough was in the water boiling away. After about two or three more minutes, it was cooked as lovely homemade pasta.

In China, it's typical to serve this stuff the Chinese way: all of the stir-fried stuff would have been uncovered, stirred, and adjusted for proper seasoning, and then it would be put into a large serving bowl in the middle of the table, possibly with a spoon in it for spooning up the greasy, delicious "gravy" at the bottom. Each person would get a bowl of noodles and add from the serving bowl according to their wants. I just dumped the drained pasta into the wok, turned off the heat, and stirred it around with the stir-fry (which is also acceptable, apparently). That seemed to work really well and is what you see pictured at the top of the page (there aren't more pictures of this exciting dish because the camera was otherwise employed while I was cooking it). It's way good and quite easy, so I hope everyone tries it out.

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Monday, July 27, 2009

The Art and Science of Cooking Well

Cooking is an art with scientific principles behind it. The fast food industry has taught us that, at least: if I take these identical things and cook them in this identical way then I will get an identical result regardless of whether the cooking is done by a top chef or a complete boob. Science, as a gateway to technology, opened the door for the mechanization of food preparation because cooking can be regarded as a science in many ways (predominantly chemistry with some biology/ecology thrown in from time to time). For me, though I have scientific training, cooking is an art.. a discipline with few, if any rules, in which the formulas (recipes) are suggestions that can never actually get you anywhere great although they'll get you somewhere nice every time.

Cooking well is a multisensory experience that requires attentiveness and background. Things have to smell right; they have to feel right; they have to look right; the cooking often enough has to sound right, and in the end they have to taste right. All of that has to come together for cooking to come off well. The recipe matters only a small amount in comparison, and once those things are understood, one no longer needs to pay attention to much else. I, in fact, usually invent recipes in my imagination, tasting the ingredients in my head before I put them together and then being able to realistically predict what will happen when those things meet in a bowl or a pan. In that way the process feels very organic and natural, not contrived or forced. Getting there is a matter only of acquiring some knowledge, experiencing it for yourself, experimenting a little, and (the secret to all of my success in any of my endeavors) paying attention to the process and results.

Here's how the five usual senses play a role in my cooking, along with a note about the one rule that cannot be forgotten (probably the only rule in cooking, I think, once you're comfortable with it):

The Only Real Rule: What Goes In Usually Can't Come Out
This is simple but has profound implications in the kitchen. If you add too much salt, the only remedy for that problem, really, is to upsize the entire recipe, which often enough is impossible. Too salty usually is just too salty (and if you're a hard-core like I was in my early days, you eat it anyway to teach yourself why too much salt is a mistake to avoid). Typically, play by the equivalent formulation of this rule: you can always add, but you can only rarely take away. If your soup gets too thick, add more water. If you make it too thin from the beginning, enjoy your thin soup (reducing it will probably destroy the character of whatever is in the pot that isn't liquid and pouring some off will pour out all of that flavor resulting in a smaller amount of thin soup with more chunky bits). This rule pertains particularly to the following: salt, seasonings, and spicy stuff (hot sauce or peppers or whatnot). If you go too far with those, then you've definitely gone too far. "Enjoy" what you have, and learn something from it!

Touch: It Has to Feel Right
A good stew, for instance, can be wrecked by cutting the vegetables into pieces that are the wrong size. Things that are cooked more quickly are even more sensitive to this problem. In particular, attention should be paid when cutting up the ingredients to create a proper mouth-feel with them. You don't have to cut everything to the same size, but you should cut every carrot in a dish, for example, to roughly the same size and shape. That will ensure even cooking and a more consistent, pleasant mouth feel. You don't have to play that way, but you want things to come out well. Similarly, you should pay attention to how long or short you should cook something. Some things, like broccoli, are better a bit crunchy. Some things are not so good crunchy, like potatoes. Other things, like rice and dried pasta, have to find the right place: too short is bad and too long is also bad. Feel is particularly important when making dough. If you don't develop a sensitive touch for the dough, then your bread is going to suck. That's just how it goes. Of course, things aren't so complicated... you just have to feel what you want to feel. For instance, if your dough is grainy, logic should tell you that your bread will be grainy. If a grainy-feeling bread is what you're after, rock on. Otherwise, work it more to see if it smooths out.

Smell: It Has to Smell Right
One particular gift of our evolution is that our noses are awesome at telling us if something is going to make us sick. Pay attention to how your ingredients smell. I smell all of my ingredients in the store to make sure they smell nicely... before I buy them. If something smells bad (unless it's supposed to smell bad), then it probably won't taste good. In fact, the smell that something gives off makes up a huge component of its flavor (odor is very complex while taste is very simple, speaking of how our body reads and interprets these things -- more when I talk about taste), so by smelling something, you can open the door to imagining how it will probably taste (with some exceptions). Much of the imagination that goes into cooking well is connecting with how scents and flavors will combine in the finished dish, something you can only start to imagine if you know the scents and flavors of the particular ingredients along with how they tend to change as you cook them (e.g. onions). For produce and meat, always pay attention that it smells fresh. For produce in particular, try to pick things that smell like something... a lot of big agriculture delivers produce to the grocery store that doesn't smell like much because it was picked days or weeks too early for shipping. Guess what... it won't taste like much either.

Sight: It Has to Look Right
I had a conversation once with a close friend that I never really understood until I started cooking a lot (not that he cooked!). He said he'd rather have a very nicely prepared meal that looks very elegant and lovely than a very well put-together date, that looks very elegant and lovely, to share it with. For him, how the food looked was of high importance! I just didn't (and still partly don't) understand why he feels that way, but I do realize that good-looking food enhances the experience tremendously. Seriously, look at this guy's strawberry tart and try to tell me that you don't want to bury your face in it (actually, look at a lot of his food.. it's so freaking beautiful that I can tell it's delicious without any of my other senses getting in on the act). Try to think about how your food will be presented and do little things if you have the capability and the time. Good-looking food carries with it the expectation of good-tasting food, and that expectation can enhance the perception of the flavor that you know you made really good via all of your careful efforts.

Hearing: It Has to Sound Right
This is really mostly to do with the cooking process... the sound can tell you a lot. For instance, I can now know by the sound they're making alone that my vegetables, when I sautee them to make some scrambled eggs dish, are ready to feel a little vinegar (i.e. the sauteeing business is done). Getting this skill is experience. That's it. Go cook. Pay attention. Notice that when your onions are turning translucent, e.g., they don't sound like they did when you first put them in the pan. The sounds your food makes when you're cooking it tells you a lot about the temperature of the pan (initial sounds) and residual water content of the food (during any frying exercise). In other related news, I used my Moka pot yesterday to make a lovely cup of rather burned pseudo-espresso because I couldn't use my hearing to judge things: my wife was doing dishes, I was making bread, and the kids were simultaneously watching a movie, listening to a radio, and talking their (and our) heads off. That thing makes very specific sounds that tell you when to turn off the heat. I never heard it make any sounds over all the din in the kitchen, and so the beverage came out tasting a little toasted. I still drank it.

Taste: It Has to Taste Right
This is obvious. It's also the simplest and the most profound part of cooking well. The flavors of the ingredients have to combine appropriately, the acid/fat/sweetness/saltiness balances must all be proper to create the satisfying, appropriate flavor that you're after (be that rich or bland or something in between). Experimenting, paying attention to the other senses as you go along, and cooking a lot will get you better and better at this part of things. Understanding how taste works helps a lot too.
Essentially, we have a few basic flavors that we can taste and that's about it: sweetness, sourness, saltiness, bitterness, savoryness, and hot (like hot peppers hot -- pungent is a more accurate word). As far as taste goes, there is very little variation in how we perceive things: sour is sour is sour. Thus, combinations of those things make up a big component of taste. Nearly as important is smell. We get a strong olfactory component from our food (our noses are aimed straight at whatever would go in our mouths, and then inside, the two are connected), and we can detect and identify literally millions if not billions of distinct scents. Taste makes up the bulk of the experience while smell fills in the gaps (taste is the melody and the bass and the percussion, and smell is the harmony, if you like music). Furthermore, it's valuable to know that a little salt goes a long way in one respect: salt has the function (in addition to tasting salty) of making other flavors more accessible to your taste buds, i.e. the right amount of salt doesn't taste salty, it makes things taste more like themselves (i.e. it's a "flavor enhancer").

Intuition, Ispiration, and Imagination: It Has to Seem Right
Here's where good cooking becomes great: intuition on how to combine ingredients, inspiration on what things to make and how to make them, and imagination both to try to create something new as well as to play out how it will come off in your mind before you start cooking, while you're cooking it (so you can adapt as needed, mid-process), and while you're putting it onto the plate (it has to look right...). Don't be afraid to try something new once you've got a basic idea of how things work and how your ingredients taste, smell, and feel. That's where the really good stuff happens.

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Sunday, July 26, 2009

Hummus and Yogurt Flatbread

This entry will feature two recipes that work great in conjunction: hummus (this time plain) and flatbread (this time with yogurt in it because I wanted it to be more like naan).

Hummus, simply put, is a ripoff at the store. It is about five times as inexpensive to make if you have the tools (a food processor is nice here), it tastes fresher and all around better, and it leaves the opportunity for you to experiment with it (hummus is another "platform" dish, like scrambled eggs, in my house upon which many exciting, delicious experiments are performed). Nice. Did I mention that it's crazy easy? No? It's crazy easy to make. Here's what's in it:

  • 1 can of garbanzo beans (chick peas) or preferably the equivalent quantity that you boiled up yourself in salty water;
  • 1 medium-small clove of garlic (choose the size according to taste);
  • the juice of half a lemon;
  • more extra virgin olive oil than you're probably going to like to hear about;
  • about a tablespoon of sesame seeds or sesame tahini;
  • a little salt (to taste);
  • usually a little water;
  • optionally garnish with fresh, chopped parsley.
How do you do it? Crush the garlic and peel it, cutting it roughly if you want to. Put the sesame seeds in the food processor and run them until they start to break up (that doesn't always really happen and certainly doesn't matter any). Add the garlic, salt, some olive oil, half the lemon juice, and around half of the garbanzos and give it a whirl. Don't overload the food processor! If it starts to incorporate nicely, then you're lucky. Chances are, you'll need more oil or a little water to get things to come out fairly smooth at this point. Add either, according to your tastes (note: olive oil, if you're unaware of it, has a flavor that is distinctive and somewhat peppery... try drinking a spoonful of oil straight sometime so you know what you're working with). Do pay attention that using too much olive oil will make your hummus taste very much like olive oil, but adding too little oil leaves your hummus tasting a bit too much like plain garbanzos. Scoop most of this out of the food processor (unless you have a big one, in which case, you don't have to do this in two steps) and into a bowl and then repeat it until all of the ingredients have been added (for one can's worth of beans in a small food processor, two goes is enough). Be sure if you do this in more than one step to stir well in the bowl since the two halves probably won't taste quite the same. Sprinkle freshly chopped parsley across the top. Done.

Flatbread is one of life's greatest joys, I think, both to make and to eat. It's very simple, perhaps one of the oldest foods and probably the oldest form of leavened bread, and it offers a wide variety of experiences by subtly changing the ingredients. Like any bread you make by hand, it is a lot of work. Luckily, any flatbread recipe will double as a great pizza crust recipe if you want to take it that way instead. Like pizza crust, flatbread is best if it's a little chewy, which means developing gluten, which means serious elbow grease is required to do it right (if you do it by hand).

Now bread-making is considered to be a science as much as an art, and so recipes are usually followed hard and fast, using careful measurements, always by weight, and precise proportions. I don't do that. There's a few reasons: I don't have a scale, it's less adventurous, I have worse results generally, and I think it's largely crap because factors like the humidity and temperature affect the outcome. If I'm going to have to adjust anyway, then I don't want a formula. A rough guide is fine, and then I can finish it by feel. That's more personal anyway. Here's a rough guide, in walk-through format with pictures!

making flatbread flour and bloomed yeastThis is where it always starts. Sift some flour (here 1 cup and a half) into a bowl. In a measuring cup, put a packet of yeast (rapid rise is pretty good for the purpose), a little sugar (agave nectar in this case), and about a quarter of a cup of warm (~90 F) water. Then wait. The yeast has to "bloom," which means activate. You can tell it's ready when it's got foam all over the top of it almost another quarter of a cup thick.

making flatbread dough slurry batterUsing a wisk is my favorite way to get the gluten started. After adding the yeast and water to the flour, add more water (and in this case 5 heavy dollops of plain, whole-milk yogurt because this is yogurt flatbread), and start to wisk. You want the mixture to have the consistency of rather thick pancake batter, so add more water or flour until that's about right. Mix vigorously with the whisk for about 15 minutes, stirring one way for a while and then the other (like a Harry Potter potion) to start to develop gluten. Note that this would wreck pancakes for the same reason.

making flatbread dough rise risenOnce you've whisked the fire out of it (the fire will go into your forearms and hands), let it sit somewhere warm for about an hour. It should roughly double in volume in that time due to the activity of the yeast. This is a good time to make your hummus, for instance, as I did. The picture shows the result after it sat for an hour.

making flatbread dough knead too stickyWhisk again. Add salt (about half a teaspoon, probably) and (optionally) some oil (olive oil is great for pizza crusts, maybe a tablespoon or two, a tablespoon of finely chopped up sweet cream butter went into this dough). Add flour. Whisk. Add flour. Whisk. Etc. until it gets too thick to whisk. Add flour (rough guide: 3 flours; 1 liquid starts to come together nicely). I stuck my hand in too soon and it was too sticky. Remedy: add flour. If the flour won't incorporate, add water. You're making bread here, not a rocket ship.

making flatbread kneading doughAfter you get all of the sticky mess off your hand and incorporate it back into the dough and you find the proper mixture of flour and water (it should be a little sticky but not awful unless you leave your hand still in it for too long), dump it out of the bowl, getting as much stuff out as you can, and begin to knead it on a clean surface. If it's too wet (really sticky), add more flour. If it's too dry (crumbly), add a few drops of water at a time until it feels about like you'd imagine it should (like slightly sticky Play Doh). Knead by folding it and pushing it away from you. Use body weight.

making flatbread dough not ready knead moreAt first, it will do this when you stretch it, i.e. tear and be all grainy looking. It's also springy and unresiliant. It's not ready. Knead it more, beating it and rolling it and messing with it however you like. If you're good at kneading, this will take about twenty minutes. If you're not good at it, you'll need at least a half an hour of this party. You want the dough to come out smooth and relaxed, like it just had a nice massage. The change is very noticible. For chewier bread, keep going after gets that way.

making flatbread dough is ready to cutRoll it into a ball when it's nice and relaxed (look how chill it is here) and let it rest for about 10-15 minutes. Seriously, you just beat the crap out of it (or lovingly massaged it) for a good while... you want it to perform for you right now? Get real. Let it relax for 10-15 and try to get the gunk off your hands and have some sports drinks to put yourself back together (you might need most of that time to do it).

making flatbread cutting dough with knifeFor making flatbreads, you'll need to break the dough up into more manageable pieces. For a pizza crust, you can skip this step if you want to make a big-ol' pizza. For miniature, single-serve pizzas, get a knife of some sort and cut your dough. Here, I'm cutting it in half, but I did that a bunch of times (eight) to get sixteen (in this case) roughly same-sized wedges of dough. If you want bigger breads, cut it into fewer pieces. If you want smaller breads, cut it into more pieces. Again, this isn't the space shuttle; it's bread.

making flatbread dough ballsHere's some of the wedges and some being formed into little balls. Notice they're not all the same size because I'm not perfect (or I like variety?) and because it doesn't matter. These are roughly the size of golf balls, though. There's no need to turn them all into little balls right away, but eventually all of the wedges will pass through a ball-shaped phase. This is when you should put a skillet or grittle on medium-high heat to get it ready for cooking these little beauties.

making flatbread pressing out rolling doughPress the balls out into flat shapes. I don't really use my fingers much for this (more the heel of my hands and the backs of my hands unless I feel like rolling them out with a glass bottle or rolling pin), but the pictures using other parts of my hands made it looked bad. This was totally posed. You should probably push out two or three of these at any given time and have two or three little balls rolled up and ready to go at any given time while cooking.

making flatbread cooking in panHere's one cooking in the pan (after it was flipped). Cook them about like pancakes, which means they cook on one side for a few minutes (3 or so in a hot pan), get flipped, and get similar treatment on the other side. Smaller breads can be cooked two or three at a time in a large pan like this. You want them to look a little toasty and feel cooked-through if you tap on them.

making flatbread finished loaves and doughHalfway done! Notice I have a few little balls of dough prepared, a few little (unevenly sized) flat, pressed-out doughs, and a plate on which I'm gathering the finished products (which could be kept in a warm oven to keep them hot, but they stay really hot that way). If the dough seems to be drying out, it doesn't really matter unless it crumbles when you try to flatten it out. If that happens, add some water to your hands and knead the doughballs in your hands again and then press them out. ...not a spaceship....

finished yogurt flatbread with fresh homemade hummus and a lemonAt last, at last, they're all cooked (actually, the last two were in the pan when I took this), stacked on a plate, sitting next to a bowl of the hummus I made with some parsley and a lemon for garnish. The lemon promptly was squeezed into my water and the sprig of parsley eaten as soon as this photo was snapped. Then we got down to business and ate it up, no utensils required.

A fun variant on the flatbreads (or little pizzas) is that they can be cooked on a grill to create grilled flatbread. That's good stuff, but we don't have a grill anymore. Grilling bread seems weird, but it's really, really a good idea. Make sure your grill is clean and the fire is burning clean (if it's wood or charcoal) before you put the dough on there, though. Summertime perfection!

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Coffee Roaster Review: Vienna Coffee Company

Since I had cappuccino and cereal for breakfast this morning (cereal can be good!), I didn't make anything particularly exciting to talk about. I did, however, realize that I've been meaning to say something overall about our local coffee roaster: Vienna Coffee Company (coffee experiments will be on hold for a while because I broke my French press doing dishes the other day, but really I cracked it being careless about six months ago, and it's survived until now without leaking a drop). Despite my lack of a specific coffee review, I will note here that I wish I could do one properly because I have some of my current favorite from Vienna: a blend called Kaldi's Dance, the name referring to the legendary story of coffee's discovery by a goatherd named Kaldi watching his goats behaving very energetically after eating some ripe, red coffee berries. A proper review will follow sooner or later, but for now, I'll suffice it to say that it's my favorite from Vienna and that the description on their website (find the link to it on this page, roughly halfway down) more or less nails it: "complicated, earthy, etc."

So what about Vienna Coffee overall? I love that it's local. I respect that it's better than any other coffee I've run into without having to do a mail-order or a direct import via my brother who lives far away near a very good coffee roaster. I appreciate it usually a couple or three times a day. I just wish they'd put a roasting date on their bags because I'm not clear on how fresh their coffee is when I get it. Granted, I get it at a store, or occasionally by showing up at their roastery, so perhaps mail-order is different. I suspect not, though, and real coffee geeks really want to know when their coffee was roasted because they know that stuff is perishable and diminishes in brewing quality quickly after a short peak period.

I've probably tried three quarters of their caffeinated, non-flavored coffees (I don't usually do flavored coffee and don't believe in decaffeinated coffee, which might even be quite bad for you). I probably would have tried them all by now, but since I rarely keep notes (I'm not a serious coffee taster, just a serious coffee enjoyer), I can't honestly remember for sure which ones I've had and which ones I haven't. I do know that I haven't had a bad one yet, and the descriptions they provide are quite accurate. I'm certain that the freshness of the coffee I've had from them varies from quite properly fresh, to "fresh enough" most often, to "I think this is probably pretty old, relatively speaking." It's consistently better than essentially all of the crap in the grocery stores, though, including in most cases fancier places that tend to carry decent or good coffee. It doesn't, however, quite compare with a giant like Dancing Goats Coffee (formerly Batdorf and Bronson, having changed their name to match that of one of their best blends) or some smaller places I've found that are quite awesome: Bluebottle Coffee Co. (San Francisco, California) and Milagro Coffee Y Espresso (Las Cruces, New Mexico). It more than makes up for that, however, by being 1) local, 2) less expensive, and 3) quite good in its own right and excellent when it's properly fresh, which Dancing Goats and Milagro are consistently able to produce because it's part of their fundamental coffee ethos.

I'm glad to see that Vienna Coffee is featured in a lot of local restaurants here too. Though this list is not nearly inclusive, I know for certain that it's featured at the Tomato Head (which is awesome for well-crafted, healthy, hippy-style, cafe-style food) and at a local coffee shop called Grounded, which might have one of the best coffee-shop names around, not to mention superior atmosphere and great desserts and whatnot.

Overall, I give Vienna Coffee Company an eight out of ten in terms of ten-point scales that don't really mean anything. I'd probably give it a ten if they had roasting dates on their bags, but I'm probably pretty easy to get a ten out of (along with a half dozen suggestions for ways to make that ten really stand).

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Saturday, July 25, 2009

Vanilla Milk and a Lovely Vanilla Smoothie

I'm a total sucker for flavored milk drinks. I don't know why that's the case, but ever since I was a kid, the perfect desert has always been a milkshake, or in the lack of ability to acquire such a thing, a glass of chocolate milk. When I broke my arm and busted my chin in a bicycle accident as a teenager, I lived on chocolate milk for about a week. When I had my wisdom teeth pulled as an older teenager... yep, chocolate milk for about a week. When I need a special treat or a little pick-me-up when I'm at the store or on a road trip: a quart of chocolate whole milk usually does the 1000-calorie trick for me (Note: I always feel bad after I down a quart of whole milk, but I always look forward to doing it again). In London this summer, I almost danced to find out that they have more than just chocolate in their list of flavored milks to choose from: chocolate, strawberry, vanilla, mint (I didn't try that... seems kind of gross), fancy chocolates, blends of the previous, and... my favorite... banana milk. Why banana milk isn't in the U.S. is confusing and irritating to me. Children would love it. I would love it. Essentially every person in the country would be happier! I hope my voice is heard on this matter, and this beverage makes its lovely little vaguely yellow way here (particularly if I get a little commission or at least some free banana milk out of the deal).

Anyway, I have a secret recipe for vanilla milk that I actually like better than chocolate milk. It's way simple and damn near perfect in all ways: healthy, satisfying, refreshing, delicious, etc.

  • Fill a glass as high as you desire with whole milk (other milk would be okay if other milk is okay to you);
  • Add good vanilla extract, maybe half a teaspoon or something (just a little is fine but don't be a total cheap-o);
  • Add about a tablespoon of (preferably grade B) maple syrup (yes, maple syrup);
  • Stir;
  • Attempt to drink it slowly;
  • Fail at that and chug it anyway;
  • Probably make another one.
This can be done with sugar, but maple syrup makes it both better and healthier. The choice is clear if it's available. This could also be done with a vanilla-flavored syrup (like for flavoring coffee), but what guarantee do you have that the vanilla in it is as good as the vanilla that meets my standards of "good vanilla extract?" Also, what is the likelihood that said syrup is made from maple syrup (especially grade B, which has more flavor and more nutrition, i.e. is a win-win situation)? Zero. Get the real stuff.

If you like smoothies as much as I do, then you can thicken this up by adding yogurt. Since yogurt is sour in comparison with milk, you get to (not have to) use more maple syrup (or add some sugar). You could use vanilla-flavored yogurt, but their vanilla is probably less good than yours, their sugar probably isn't maple syrup, and your kids will probably eat all of your not-plain yogurt before you get to it (ours, at least, don't like the complication of having to add things to yogurt to make it taste like candy and avoid it almost entirely). I usually go 50-50 on the milk-yogurt ratio, but if I'm feeling like a thicker smoothie, I use more yogurt. If I'm feeling cheap (all too often), I use less yogurt since yogurt costs, ounce for ounce, about 6.72 times as much as milk (given the prices at the store tonight while I was there). Homemade yogurt is cheaper (same as milk, essentially) and easy, but honestly, I'm just too lazy to do it consistently.

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Friday, July 24, 2009

Garden Pasta

I don't really know what to call this, but it's good. I borrowed the idea from something JB made while I was staying with him, and it seemed to come out nicely. Even the kids liked it (when I was pretty sure they wouldn't). We currently have a serious tomato surplus coming from our garden, and so perhaps the most useful bit of this entire meal was that it used up a fair number of them without falling back on the "I'll make spaghetti sauce" plan.

JB's recipe, I think, couldn't be simpler. It seemed to me that he scrambled eggs with a little ginger and garlic and then dumped a huge pile of raw, quartered tomatoes on top, made everything hot, and served it with a bowl of noodles. I expanded on it a bit, and since I didn't feel like making noodles from scratch just now, I used whole-wheat medium-sized shells. Here's the recipe, which fed four with some leftovers:

  • Eight eggs, scrambled in a bowl;
  • Half an inch of fresh ginger root, finely chopped;
  • Two cloves of fresh garlic, crushed and finely chopped;
  • A mess of tomatoes, meaning six or eight medium ones or the equivalent, cut into large bite-sized pieces;
  • Two Nardello peppers, chopped (substitute red sweet peppers);
  • A quarter of a medium onion, chopped, or a few spring onions, peeled, sliced lengthwise, and chopped into inch-long sections;
  • A 13.25 oz box of whole-wheat pasta, medium shells shape (didn't these used to be 1 pound boxes?);
  • Two splashes of red wine vinegar;
  • More canola, peanut, or olive oil than you probably feel comfortable with;
  • Salt, to taste
This really was easy. I put some salt in a pot of water and set it to boil to cook the pasta (always salt your pasta water). It takes a while to boil a pot of water these days, so I start that before I even start chopping up the veg. Then I cut up the garlic (always first) and the ginger, then the onion and peppers and set those in one pile. After that, I washed and cut up tomatoes until almost the whole board was covered with them. That's when I put the eggs in a bowl and added some salt and one of the splashes of vinegar, whisking it together. The water in the pan was getting hot but not boiling then, so I went and grabbed my wok and put some oil in it (not too much yet), putting it over medium-high heat and letting it get good and hot [note: olive oil smokes at a lower tempreature than canola or peanut oil, so probably don't use olive oil for this part or pay more attention if you do]. That's when I added the eggs and started to scramble them in the wok. That's when my pasta water finally got hot enough (whew, I didn't think it was going to work out at that point) and I poured in the pasta and stirred it. When the eggs were almost completey together and starting to brown a little on the bottom, I broke them apart a bit and moved them to the sides of the pan to leave an empty spot in the middle. Insert more oil than you're comfortable with (olive is good now because it's one of the bases for the "sauce"). I put the onion, garlic, ginger, and peppers combo in that oil and let them sizzle a little for a minute or so and then stirred them in with the eggs. After another minute or so, I added the tomatoes, some more salt, and another splash of that vinegar. After stirring it, I covered the wok and let it cook for a few minutes while I drained the pasta. Once the pasta was drained, I removed the lid from the wok, stirred everything around to make sure things were getting good and hot in there, and added the pasta on top with a bit more salt (I have a big wok; it helps!). Finally, I stirred it all up, checked for seasoning, adjusted it, and served it up.

The nice part about this dish is that the veggies don't really break down into a sauce, but they give off enough juice to kind of flavor the whole dish. Thus, you get a nice coating of flavor on the pasta, enough to make it not plain, and still big bites of very fresh-veg tasting tomatoes throughout. It's really a pleasant way to showcase tomatoes from your garden or local market and enjoy a rustic meal perfect for brunches, lunches, dinners, or mid-afternoon "tea."

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Thursday, July 23, 2009

Coffee Brewing Time Experiment: Vienna Coffee Eithiopian Harrar Longberry

I did the coffee experiment that I wrote about this morning, and I learned several things. I'd like to share what I learned before I get to my experience with the coffee.

  1. I should have eaten first;
  2. I know why coffee tasters spit;
  3. I need more identical mugs;
  4. Drinking coffee really fast does something to your body with caffeine similar to what chugging a bunch of beers does to your body with alcohol... hits you hard, fast, and suddenly. Zoooooom!
So... what can I say about the experiment and how I did it?
The Method: I took as many identical mugs as I could muster (which is 3 at my house because we have kids), and then I prepared my French press with a rather coarse grind of the coffee. I poured water in fresh from the boil: approximately 210 degrees Fahrenheit, and stirred with a plastic spoon. After about thirty seconds to allow for bloom, I stirred again and put in the plunger. Then, watching the timer, I poured two ounces of the coffee (using a measuring cup) every 30 seconds starting when 2 minutes had elapsed. I tasted them sequentially. I also set aside a little (in different cups) to compare at the end: 2 minutes, 4 minutes, and 6 minutes brew times for that comparison.
The Coffee: Vienna Coffee Co., Eithiopian Harrar Longberry Horse, medium roast
The Smell of the Beans: This coffee has a rich, satisfying scent that begs to be brewed. It's quite exciting and characteristic of a pleasant breakfast or afternoon coffee.
The Smell of the Brew: The website mentions that this coffee smells like a fresh-cut blueberry muffin, and insomuch as a coffee can smell like a blueberry muffin, I'd agree with that statement. If you're not really into coffee, then you'll maybe barely notice it. If you're really into coffee, then it's rather prominent.

How The Flavor Develops
  • 2:00: The coffee is a little flat and weak with a slight sourness to it compared with what I'm used to from a medium roast after two minutes. There's almost no hint of the blueberry muffin flavor present, though the smell is already clear.
  • 2:30: Body has started to develop, and though still a bit on the sour side, the brew is far more balanced at this point. It was much more pleasant than the previous brew. Otherwise, it was generally the same.
  • 3:00: The body of the coffee felt much more developed by three minutes into the brewing time, and most of the sourness had disappeared leaving a pleasant, if light, balanced cup. The blueberry scent was prominent and even noticeable in the flavor profile.
  • 3:30: Repeat the last time marker's notes, increasing in each way from the previous time.
  • 4:00: I think this is probably when this coffee hit its peak at this particular starting temperature. The cup was very balanced, all of the aromas were present, the blueberry muffin scent and flavor were fairly obvious, and there wasn't really a trace of sourness or prominent bitterness.
  • 4:30: This was very similar to the previous time, though the blueberry muffin notes were diminishing and were replaced instead with a more robust, black-coffee bitterness, though the brew was still quite pleasant at this point.
  • 5:00: Though the coffee was still fairly good at this point, most of the subtlety was lost to the black-coffee flavor. It seemed to be taking on a woody taste at this point which wasn't completely pleasant.
  • 5:30: The woodiness of the flavor definitely increased since the five-minute mark. The coffee's enjoyability is definitely on the downhill by this point.
  • 6:00: At this brewing temperature and time, the coffee has lost most of its magic and subtlety and actually tastes quite woody and flat. This is too long at this heat.
Recomparing 2, 4, and 6: The notes made above at the 2, 4, and 6-minute marks were all drastically exaggerated tasting them directly next to each other. At full brewing heat, this coffee certainly wins with a 4-minute brew. Very short brews make a cup that's unbalanced toward sourness with an undeveloped body and flavor profile, and excessively long brews allow a bitter woody flavor (it tasted kind of like I added sticks from my yard to the grindings) and a flat cup that begs for milk and sugar to try to even it out.

Important Note: My brother has had a good deal of success with brewing this coffee over the 5-6 minute range using a significantly cooler starting temperature (180-190 F). I'm too jacked up to want to conduct that experiment now. My recollection of the experience is that the blueberry notes are vastly more prominent that way, surviving even the addition of cream and sugar, thus allowing for a very pleasant breakfast cup.

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A Coffee Experiment and Other Things To Come

I've been thinking about this blog a lot in the past few days, and so I've come up with a number of things that I've decided I'm going to add to it, in addition to the recipes and descriptions of the quasi-gourmet cooking I do. Here's a list!

1. A Coffee Experiment
This gets its own bold title because I will probably do it in an ongoing fashion if I have success with it. I'll be bringing the science fair to what I already know about brewing coffee, using my French press as the equipment. If you aren't aware, brewing time and temperature greatly affect the flavor of the brew, even using the same beans and the same grind on those beans. Being unaware of this is a good sign that you either use a drip machine (which allows for no such experimentation in an easy way), don't drink much coffee, get your coffee out at places only, or follow "rules" way too closely and never screw something up (like setting a timer for your coffee). Basically, I'll grind some coffee, start making in my French press, and pour off about two ounces every thirty seconds or so until it's gone, starting at about 2 minutes. Then, I'll describe as well as I can how the flavor profile of that particular coffee changes. People all over the world will benefit (if you tell them about it by having them link to the relevant posts)! I'll get really jacked-up because I'm not spitting out my coffee. Everybody wins! (Interestingly, I've never done this myself, though I did come up with the idea on my own, but I told my brother about it. He seems to like it and has learned much from it.)

2. Coffee Reviews
Since I apparently drink a lot of coffee (two cups a day, sometimes, one cup or zero on other days... so, seriously, not that much) or am at least really attentive to what coffee I do drink, I'm going to do some reviews of the different kinds of coffee that I drink. I'm no professional taster, but I'm getting kind of snobby. I'll try to use real language to describe what I taste too. In so much as it varies, I'll do what I can to review different coffee roasters as well, though since I'm a fan of local stuff, that will be kind of limited.

3. (Mostly Local) Restaurant Reviews
I don't eat out at restaurants a lot and here's why: I frequently feel like I can make something better at home for cheaper without the shitty atmosphere that many restaurants pay consultants a lot of money to be able to provide. Also, I know what goes into my food when I make it at home, which is definitely not the case out at a restaurant. Still, I go out from time to time, mostly because I could use a break from cooking or need some new inspiration or because I'm out of groceries and find a restaurant more appealing than Kroger, which I usually have to go to after the restaurant. Anyway, my wife describes me as critical, which I amend to be "fairly critical," by which I mean "yeah, I'm critical, but I'm fair in my criticism because I know what I like and what I don't and am good at paying attention to things." I'll let you know what I think of places I eat, then you can make more informed decisions before you go to your favorite restaurant and order the exact same thing you always get just like you were going to before you read my thoughts on it.

4. "Iron Chef: College Apartment"
I might be committing copyright infringement by calling this feature "Iron Chef," and in using those words I mean no disrespect and do not intend to steal any of their business. Still, I learned to cook by watching the Food Network instead of doing my homework in college. Being in college, I lived in a college apartment, which was always poorly stocked. Being in a poorly stocked college apartment with the Food Network for a guide, I was able to cook up some rather tasty things by making very clever substitutions and by just making stuff up as I went along. That started the joke that if I was ever on Food TV, I'd have to be on a special episode of Iron Chef in which things were kind of reversed: instead of having a well-stocked pantry will all kinds of standard and gourmet items, the chefs would find themselves in a scantily stocked, poorly organized college apartment and would still have to perform. It would be called "Iron Chef: College Apartment" and would be a true testament to the cooks' abilities. This theme carries over for me a lot because I sometimes find grocery shopping to be a chore (see #3 above; note that once I'm there I take forever to shop and usually greatly enjoy my shopping experience). Sometimes I make planned-out things; often enough I'm still doing the college-apartment thing. I'll try to make a regular note of when I'm tossing stuff together with three parts inspiration, three parts luck, and one part suitable ingredients.

Look forward to these features and possibly others in the near future! In fact, watch for today's first installment of "Coffee Experiment" where I'll be commenting on the changes in the Ethiopian Longberry Harrar from our very own local Vienna Coffee Company.

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Wednesday, July 22, 2009

JB-Inspired Pork and Potato Stew

I found a half a pork roast in my freezer yesterday. I had forgotten about it apparently, and in finding it, I was almost as excited as if I had found a $10 bill in my pocket when I put on my pants. Giddy-up! It immediately gave me an idea: modify JB's Beef and Potato Stew around the pork roast, and it was brilliant. The recipe is nearly identical, mutatis mutandis, although I tossed in a little this-and-that to play to the pork:

  • Roughly one and a half pounds of pork loin, chopped into bite-sized cubes (trimmed of fat? Yeah right. I'm with Emeril: pork fat rules!);
  • Six medium-sized Yukon gold potatoes, peeled and chopped into bite-sized cubes;
  • Two stalks of celery, washed and sliced on a bias;
  • Half a head of napa cabbage, roughly chopped;
  • Two medium cloves of garlic, crushed and finely chopped;
  • An inch and a half of ginger sliced thin into rectangular slices;
  • A quarter of a sweet onion (I'm out of spring onions), chopped;
  • Eight or ten white mushrooms, cleaned and quartered;
  • 2-3 tablespoons peanut or canola oil;
  • 1-2 tablespoons soy sauce;
  • salt to taste.
The process is almost identical to that for JB's beef and potato stew also. Cut up everything but the potatoes and cabbage, heat the wok over high heat, sear the meat, add the veggies and some salt with some of the soy sauce, cover and stew over medium-high heat while the potatoes are peeled and chopped. Once they're prepared, chop the cabbage up and add it with the potatoes and a little salt, stirring well. Cover the wok again, and once it gets properly stewing (steam coming out from around the edges, stir again and cover, dropping the temperature to medium. Continue to cook it this way, stirring occasionally, until the potatoes are cooked through (ten or fifteen minutes). Adjust the seasoning in terms of salt and soy sauce and enjoy! For extra authenticity, serve it Chinese-family-style (see the bottom of this post).

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Scrambled Eggs Sandwiches (Sweet Pepper and Tomato Flavor)

We eat a lot of scrambled eggs sandwiches at my house, and we do so because they're very good, quite filling, and entirely appropriate for essentially any meal of the day. After trying to describe the process of making these beauties to a friend, I realized that I'd probably have to write an instruction manual to make it clear. Here's an attempt at that, using the recipe I made today with Nardello peppers and tomatoes from our garden:

Ingredients (for two sandwiches):

  • Four large eggs;
  • Four slices of bread, toasted;
  • Two Nardello peppers (substitute approximately half of a sweet bell pepper), chopped into small pieces;
  • Six cherry tomatoes, chopped;
  • Half a fresh, red Cayenne pepper from our garden, finely chopped;
  • The leaves of a tiny sprig of fresh rosemary from our garden, finely chopped;
  • A splash of red wine vinegar;
  • 1 tablespoon of canola or olive oil (or butter... mmm) for cooking;
  • 1-2 tablespoons of mayonnaise;
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste.
The process is rather simple once you get it (like it is for everything I make), but describing it without pictures makes it tough to get. Thus, this is going to be a photo journal of the process!

ripe Nardello sweet frying peppers Here are the Nardello peppers on the cutting board, getting ready for chopping. Aren't they pretty? Seriously, they are.

cooking down peppers and tomatoes for gourmet scrambled egg sandwichesOnce everything is chopped, I added it to a pan over medium-high heat and added salt and the vinegar. Usually I wait on the vinegar, but since tomatoes were involved, it was going to get very juicy anyway, so I went for it. Observe that if you added the eggs now, it would be sloppy. This is too wet, so it has to cook down for a few minutes.

cooked down tomatoes and peppers for gourmet scrambled egg sandwichesAfter cooking (with some occasional stirring) for a few minutes, much of the liquid has concentrated and evaporated, making the mix eggs-ready. At this point, I turn the heat down to just above low and let the pan cool for a moment before cracking the eggs directly into the pan. Once in, I salt them lightly and vigorously stir them around with a spatula, scrambling them in the pan and mixing them with the veggies. Then I turn the heat back up. Don't forget to do that... the result is not so good.

shaping gourmet scrambled egg sandwichesAhh, the action shot! This is the key to the whole process. As the eggs start to come together, use the spatula to push them into roughly the shape of two slices of bread, as shown (this is the hard part for people to get). It's not as hard as you might imagine. Lightly salt the top of the eggy rectangle when it's formed, and let it cook for a few minutes to really solidify. The bottom should be browning a little bit here. This is usually when I start toasting the bread. Make it a square and ignore the next step if you're only making one sandwich.

gourmet scrambled egg sandwiches flipped and cookingOnce it has cooked for a little bit and seems to be coming together rather nicely, use the spatula to cut it down the middle into two pieces. Scoot the spatula under the halves carefully and make sure it detaches from the pan (which really almost has to be nonstick). Flip each half and let them cook on the other side. Observe the beautiful, golden brown caramelization. That's good, not burned.

gourmet scrambled egg sandwiches on the bread and mayonnaise with Nardello peppers Charentais melon and teaOnce the wet side has had a chance to cook a little, slide the spatula under a half and deliver it onto the toast, which should have popped up by now. Mayonnaise is optional, but without it or some other kind of sauce, the sandwich will be quite dry. You could add other things like fresh veggies here if you wanted, but we usually don't. Close up the sandwich at this point and cut it in half. Then enjoy it.

Oh... and notice some of the cornucopia from our garden in the background of the last picture. There are real benefits to growing your own produce!

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Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Scrambled Eggs with Maitake Mushrooms and Spring Onions

I had about half of that maitake mushroom left over from the other night's stew adventure, and last night I figured out a way to put it to good use. I think of scrambled eggs as a bit of a platform that I've explored in a wide variety of ways, replicating in the past flavors such as pizza, Italian sausage, Thai curry, and a number of other culinary experiences.

This morning I decided to let scrambled eggs feature the rest of that maitake mushroom, and as long as I was going Asian with it, I figured I might as well do it right. This recipe, which has another fancy, ten-plus-dollars name turned out really well, as I kind of expected it would by trying to imagine the flavors combining as I lay in bed last night drifting off to sleep. It has the added distinction of being perhaps the first recipe I've ever made that uses Chinese five-spice appropriately (something every wannabe gourmet buys and can't figure out how to use once they smell or try it). Here it is, to serve two people lightly:

  • Four large eggs (I'd prefer jumbo, but we have large);
  • 4 oz. maitake mushroom, chopped
  • 2 spring/green onions, washed and peeled, split lengthwise and cut into half-inch-long pieces;
  • 1 clove of garlic, crushed and finely chopped;
  • a quarter of an inch fresh ginger root, sliced thin and then chopped finely;
  • a dash of sesame oil (go light... use half as much as you would think a "light drizzle" is... this stuff is potent and will overpower the dish quickly and easily);
  • a splash of rice vinegar;
  • a half teaspoon sesame seeds;
  • a dusting of Chinese five spice (go light... this stuff is potent too... use just less than you think is not really enough);
  • salt to taste;
  • 1 tablespoon peanut or canola oil.
Here's how I did it: First, I chopped everything, starting with the garlic because the longer garlic sits in the air after being chopped and before being cooked, the more health-promoting properties it has (they are produced by injured garlic via enzymes that are destroyed during cooking, leaving behind only the health-promoting compounds but none of the machinery to make more of those). With everything prepared, I heated the oil in a nonstick skillet over high heat because Asian cooking seems to often feature searing things with crazy high heat. Once the pan was hot, I dumped in all of the veggies except the ginger and garlic and immediately salted them lightly to draw out some of their moisture (I don't like sloppy, slimy eggs, so I need my veg to give off its juice early in the cooking process). After a couple of minutes during which I lowered the temperature to just above medium and stirred, I added the garlic and ginger and let that cook in for a minute or two before adding a splash of rice vinegar and a very light drizzle of sesame oil (this stuff is potent, so again, go light). I let this cook down for a couple of minutes to drive off some of the moisture.

That's when it's time to add the eggs. There are two ways to do this: my way and my wife's way, the latter of which I typically use because it's just easier. "My way" is the proper French way: break the eggs into a bowl, lightly salt them and season them otherwise, whisk until smooth and no longer stringy, then add to the pan). "My wife's way" is to crack the eggs straight into the pan and scramble them there. That gives a nice mixture of fried egg-whites taste with scrambled eggs and is quicker while requiring less cleanup. It's also less proper and results in less fluffy eggs. It's your call. Seriously, it doesn't matter much. When I use my wife's way, I lower the temperature of the pan seriously for the egg-cracking part of the process so they don't fry too much and then raise it again once I've lightly salted the egss and mixed them around fairly well in the pan. Then I scrambled the eggs until they were pretty much done and added the sesame seeds and a very light dusting of Chinese five spice. After a quick stir and another minute to dry them out some more (I prefer my scrambles dry to wet) and mix the ingredients, I served them up.

It came out quite nicely... well enough, in fact, that I was strongly encouraged to rush in here and add it to the blog. Enjoy!

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