Monday, September 13, 2010

Garfield's Favorite! (Phibe's too)




Garfield, who is also from Indiana (or at least Jim Davis, his creator, is a Hoosier, via Fairmount), is one of the world's authorities on lasagna. That's a pretty good skill for a cat. So, today, after having been quiet for a long time, I wanted to post what I think is my best lasagna so far... Not that I will stop experimenting).
The recipe is really not so difficult, but preparation from scratch, which is what I did this time, does take time. You can use shortcuts, of course, which I will note as we go along. Ready?
From scratch, you'll need a pound of ground beef and a half-pound of pork sausage. I used Hormell spicy, but whatever you like... One medium onion and a half-bulb of garlic. Chop the onion and garlic fine. Saute the onion and garlic until translucent, then drain, while browning the ground meat. Drain the meat, then add the onion and garlic.
Add two cans of diced tomatoes and one small can of tomato paste, a can of black olives (chopped) and enough oregano, fennel, basil, taragon and other herbs to suit your sense of "Italian flavor." Let this sauce simmer for about a half-hour.
You'll also need a 16-ounce container of ricotta, a handfull of fresh parsley or parsley and cilantro, also finely chopped, and one large egg. Blend these together separately in a bowl.
Next is to grate at least 6 ounces of parmesan, 6 ounces of mozarella, and 6 ounces of gorgonzola or blue or whatever "sharp" cheese you favor. blend them together in a bowl.
While this is sorting itself out, bring to a boil a big pot of water with a splash of olive oil (to keep the pasta from sticking and the water from boiling over). Add six lasagna pasta chunks and boil for 8 minutes, poking gently to keep them from sticking. (This is for a 9 by 9 inch baking dish. You may need more for a bigger dish.)
The next trick is the layering of ingredients.
Begin with a layer of the meat-tomato sauce across the bottom of the baking dish. Spread it evenly, then top with the lasagna noodles.
Add the ricotta-parsley-cilantro-egg mixture, spread evenly, then top with another layer of lasagna noodles.
Add a layer of the three-cheese mixture, then another layer of the meat-tomato sauce, then another layer of lasagna noodles.
Finish with another layer of the meat-tomato sauce, then top with the rest of the cheese, adding more if necessary. Cover this with aluminum foil, sprayed with olive oil so the cheese won't directly touch the foil (so it won't stick)
Bake for 25 minutes at 375F (160C). Have a glass of wine, check your e-mails, then remove the foil, and bake for another 25 minutes, until the cheese is a nice golden brown.
Note:
I kinda over-filled my baking dish, so to prevent a mess on the bottom of your oven, place a cookie sheet or a sheet of foil beneath the lasagna dish for safety.
I served mine with a fistfull of garden-fresh green beans, some sliced green and red peppers, and toasted sesame seed, accented with artichoke, tomato, olives and fresh basil leaves. Of course, this is an Italian meal, so it wants more wine!
Enjoy

Monday, July 05, 2010

Naan desu ka?





For Independence Day, I wanted to depart a little from the typical fried chicken-potato salad fare and still stay within the same ballpark in terms of ingredients. The outcome was tandoori murghi (without the tandoor), a cooling raita salad, a spinach-potato curry, a chickpea (garbanzo bean) curry, mango-date chutney, and garlic naan, with not-too-sweet lassi to wash it down.
This menu has several advantages. First, it’s not hard to make if you have the right spices. Second, it is loaded with a variety of healthy veggies, as well as healthy protein. And maybe first again, it tastes great, and is well worth the advance prep (Most of the menu benefits from overnight marination.). The leftover chicken (if there is any) can be stored in the fridge, and the raita is like a salad that goes well with other summer fare such as hamburgers and hot dogs.
Familiar elements in this little menu are yogurt, lemon juice, cilantro, and cumin, onion, cardamom, garlic and ginger and other spices. From what I’ve learned from Indian friends, the blend of spices is a regional and often personal choice, and most cooks blend their own masala from different proportions of generally the same spices. The presence of tomatoes is also an option.
Tandoori chicken is basically barbecued chicken. A tandoor is a deep clay-brick-lined oven used in India to make naan (a flat bread) and skewered meats such as chunks of lamb or lamb sausage formed around long metal skewers and hung over the coals. The use of the tandoor for things other than bread seems to be a fairly recent (1947, according to some usually reliable sources) culinary device, so to speak. And because of the way it’s made, even without the traditional tandoor oven, it is tasty and juicy. If you’ve had dry tandoori chicken before, don’t be put off about trying this at home. Some Indian restaurants make up a big batch of tandoori chicken in advance and reheat it, which naturally makes it dry. What you make at home is almost certain to be better!
I won’t give the recipes here, but in the photos here, you can see that I used chunks of chicken breast. It’s best to use a cut-up whole chicken, skinned but with the bone in and stripped of fat. The important thing is to poke each piece of chicken with a fork in several places, deep, and to make slits around the chicken pieces. These operations help the marinade penetrate into the meat for that spicy, juicy quality it should have. The base for the marinade involves a masala, or blend of spices, dominated by cayenne pepper. For a typical three-pound chicken, I’d say the spice blend might be this:
3 Tbsp. cayenne pepper
1 Tbsp. paprika
1 Tbsp ground cumin
1 tsp. turmeric
1 tsp. ground coriander
½ tsp cardamom
½ tsp ground clove
½ tsp black pepper
½ tsp salt
To this spice blend, add the juice of two lemons, several cloves of minced garlic, 1 Tbsp. crushed fresh ginger, and ½ cup of plain (unsweetened) yogurt.
Mix this marinade until it is a nice even hot-pink color, then add the chicken pieces, rubbing the marinade into each piece. Place the pieces in a big zip-lock freezer bag, pour in the marinade, and seal the bag, letting out as much of the air as possible. Place the sealed bag in a bowl (just in case it isn’t completely sealed), and refrigerate it at least overnight.
The raita is simply a combination of diced cucumber, diced red (actually purple) onion, diced tomato, and chopped cilantro, mixed with a dressing of yogurt, cumin, a little lemon juice and a dash of salt. Blend all this together in a bowl, cover the bowl tightly and put it in the fridge with the chicken. If you can’t do all this a day ahead, at least marinate for an hour before serving. Raita is a necessary companion to a curry meal because the yogurt helps calm the “hotness” of curries.
My curries of choice were a spinach-potato thing called aloo palak, and a chickpea curry.
The mango chutney involves a ripe mango (The big Mexican variety are great for this), a half-dozen pitted dates, 2 Tbsp. lemon juice, 2 Tbsp. cider vinegar, ¼ cup brown sugar, half a red onion (the other half of the onion used to make the raita), ½ tsp. brown mustard, 1 tsp. cardamom, ½ tsp. cinnamon, and ½ tsp. ground clove. Cut the mango into thumb-sized pieces, dice the dates and onion, and blend everything together in a bowl, cover and put in the fridge beside the chicken and the raita.
The other seemingly fancy (but quite easy) element of the menu is naan. Naan is best baked against the side of a real tandoor, but you can fake it like I did, even in an ordinary electric oven. The trick is to find a good flat stone. I’m right beside the river, so that was easy, and I put it back when I finished (recycling stones is easy). The rock should be at least as big as a piece of pita bread, which is about the size your finished naan will be).
Preheat the oven to just short of broiling. This is about 500F in most ovens. Place the stone on the bottom rack of the oven at least 20 minutes before you’re ready to actually start baking.
The ingredients are 2 cups all-purpose flour, a packet of dry yeast, 1 Tbsp. sugar, 1 Tbsp. olive oil, a pinch of salt, ½ tsp. baking powder, ½ cup of warm water, and 3-4 cloves of garlic, finely chopped.
In a large bowl, combine the dry ingredients, blend well, add the oil and yogurt and mix all. Separately, dissolve the yeast in the warm water and let it sit for 2 minutes before blending into the other ingredients. You may need to add a bit of flour during kneading to get the right consistency, just a little bit sticky, but not too dry. Cover the bowl and let it sit for about four hours. Knead the dough again for a few minutes, then divide it into six parts (You can always freeze what you don’t use.)
Shape the dough segments into balls, sprinkled with flour, and knead in the chopped garlic. (for variety, you could also get fancy and use cilantro, mustard seeds, raisins, almonds or pistachios.)
With a rolling pin, shape the balls of dough into somewhat round pieces (a little long on one end makes it look more authentic) about a half-inch thick. Carefully stretch the dough over the stone and let it bake about three minutes. A baked naan will puff up in places. Remove from the oven and baste with melted butter or olive oil. The baked pieces can be kept warm in foil on the top of the stove until you’re done.
Naan is a great tool for scooping up the curry.
Lassi is a refreshing yogurt-based drink that comes out much like buttermilk. I made sweet lassi with ½ cup of plain yogurt and a cup of cold water, a sprinkle of cumin and a squirt of honey. Serve with ice! As with the other recipes, these amounts are approximate. I have never been able to drink just one.

Friday, July 02, 2010

Suki na Mono



I can't say that I particularly miss Yoshinoya, the Japanese fast-food chain most familiar for its gyudon (stewed beef and onion, mostly, atop a bowl of white rice). But there is something nostalgic about being far from something so familiar. (When I was in Tokyo, I sometimes got similar cravings for Spam.)
Anyway, my hunger was for that familiar taste, with something more substantial in the way of flavors. I can't give a recipe, exactly, because the quantities are more a matter of taste than chemistry. But it begins with thin-sliced beef. It's not so easy to ask a supermarket butcher to basically ruin his lunchmeat-slicing machine by making 1/16-inch slices of sirloin, so I made do with prepackaged carne insalata beef, then sliced it thin myself at home. Another way around it is to buy sirloin, chill it to near-freezing, and slice it thin with a very sharp knife. The rest of the recipe is sweet onion (tama negi), scallions (naga negi), ginger (shoga), thin-sliced bell peppers, garlic, sesame oil, toasted sesame seed, soy sauce, brown sugar, red wine, sake, and corn starch.
Slice half of a medium sized onion thin, slice the scallions diagonally, thin-slice the peppers and ginger, chop the garlic, and marinate the beef, onions, garlic and ginger in a combination of the sesame oil, soy sauce, brown sugar, red wine, sake and corn starch. Drain the liquid and stir-fry the beef-onion-ginger combination on high heat to brown. Remove it back to the liquid. Wipe the wok or fry pan and stir-fry the peppers, then add the cooked meat-onion combination with the remaining juice. stir to thicken the sauce, then remove to serve over a bowl of rice. I use a combination of white and brown Japonica (short grain), but whatever rice you use, steam it with a quarter-cup of sake for outstanding flavor.
Garnish the bowl with some fresh cilantro and wash down with a beverage of your choice. This probably won't put Yoshinoya out of business, but it sure satisfies that craving for gyudon!
Gyudon has its roots in sukiyaki, a relatively familiar treat of beef (usually) and vegetables cooked at the table. It's hard not to think of Kyu Sakamoto's 1963 hit known outside Japan as "Sukiyaki," although the song had nothing to do with food. In fact, the song, which was the only Japanese-language song to top the Billboard Hot 100 in that year, is actually titled Ue o Muite Aruko (I'll Look Up When I Walk), which I guess has a hint of nostalgia in it as well. The sense of the song is that the guy singing holds his head up when he walks so his tears won't fall so fast. As happy as it may seem to those familiar with the original, and seeing Sakamoto smile while singing it, it's kind of a bittersweet feel-good song.
In the 1960s, Japan was finally emerging from its post-World War II trauma to the point many families were able to at least aspire to, if not yet own, the "Three Cs," (car, cooler -- air conditioner -- and color TV). Beef, for years an unaffordable luxury, was again within reach of most households, and sukiyaki was something a typical Japanese family could treat itself with.
So, for the poor salary-droid oyaji who drink themselves past the last train, the familiar orange Yoshinoya sign, usually near train stations (Yoshinoya took over most of the Dunkin Donuts chain's locations when that franchise went belly-up in the 1990s), gyudon has a nostalgic aspect well beyond its ability to take the edge off a night of too much sake.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Oil Mess Update: Howard's Tap Dance

In case you missed it, Tony Hayward, the embattled chief executive officer of BP plc, put in a hard seven hours on Capital Hill today, evading questions he had previously received from the congressional committee seeking to sort out responsibility for the mess that persists since the April 20 Gulf of Mexico oil-rig explosion. Hayward was widely expected to choose his words very carefully, to avoid being seen to accept any legal or moral responsibility for the deaths of 11 men who were on that oil platform or the ugly brown oil sludge that continues to coat the Gulf coast. And sure enough, he said next to nothing apart from acknowledging that there was indeed an oil rig mishap and that BP accepts its that it must at least help pay for the cleanup.
BP, as the world’s fourth-largest corporation, takes in huge revenues from its energy and other mineral exploitation worldwide. Even so, $20 billion (assuming the agreed-upon escrow fund is fully spent) is not chump change. So naturally, Howard would not want to be held accountable for any more losses. BP stock has already taken a hit, and this is from the impact of a leak at just one of the deep-water rigs BP owns or holds rights to globally. So, one would think, 60 days into this one particular mess, Howard would have spent at least the previous 59 days of “wanting his life back” in trying to determine what went wrong and whether it might go wrong again, possibly even worse, somewhere else. From his responses in testimony however, that seems not to be the case. He didn’t know this. He wasn’t responsible for that….. Bullshit Tony. You are the CEO. The buck stops with you. You may not have blown up the oil rig, and you probably didn’t know that the pipe on the seabed was going to be so hard to cap off. But you are a trained oil geologist and the executive in charge of all the people at BP who DO have the answers and the responsibility. So it is your bloody job to find out what went wrong and put a cap on that.
Compare, if you will, Howard’s verbal tap dance under oath today with what another CEO said in a globally televised address just a few days before:
“The one approach I will not accept is inaction. The one answer I will not settle for is the idea that this challenge is somehow too big and too difficult to meet. You know, the same thing was said about our ability to produce enough planes and tanks in World War II.” That was from Barack Obama, CEO of the United States, in his first address from the Oval Office since he became president. Obama was just back from another trip to the Gulf states hardest hit by the creeping oil sludge from Howard’s well. Granted, it was an address intended to show the president is in charge and maybe to help bolster sagging popular support. But it was devoid of any attempt to shirk responsibility or show ignorance. Howard and his handlers need to do some serious post-game reviewing of the videos on that one.
At the same time, I give Howard credit for staying focused, despite a surprise blow job from Republican Congressman Joe Barton of Texas, who twice apologized to Howard for what Barton called the “slush fund” BP agreed to post to help pay for the Gulf cleanup and recovery. Barton later retracted his remarks, under strong pressure from his congressional colleagues. But Barton, whose campaign fund includes at least $27,350 in donations from BP (according to Time magazine), really needs to have someone brand STFU in reverse on his forehead so each time he looks in the mirror, he will be reminded to watch his mouth. He certainly didn’t help his Republican colleagues who seemed earnest about a united effort to get to the bottom of the oil spill, so to speak. Perhaps that’s what we have come to expect from politicians in bed with Big Oil, but the spotlight on the Gulf of Mexico now should also help enlighten us all. Meanwhile, we should also hope that BP’s Howard will stand by one statement he made in testimony, that he is “focused on the recovery.” That’s what’s needed most.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Time Out: Yes, I'm Mad as Hell!

Tony Hayward, as the chief executive officer of BP plc, heads the world’s fourth-largest corporation (and the third-largest energy company after Royal Dutch Shell and Exxon Mobil). That puts him squarely in the realm of world leaders, not shoe clerks. Indeed, Hayward has negotiated mineral rights with presidents and potentates all over the world. Not bad for a man who started out at BP as an oil rig geologist. He’s no dummy, despite his stupid-ass comments and stonewalling on the April 20 Gulf of Mexico oil-rig disaster. And he is not likely to be any less disingenuous when he and other energy executives appear in Washington, D.C., June 17 to testify about the mess.
I have interviewed corporate executives in my years as a journalist. I do not believe these people routinely lie. And they are not stupid. Well, when a fifth-grader says the dog ate his homework, I guess that counts as a lie. When a crook is confronted with the evidence of his theft, his natural response is to plead ignorance. So I guess that’s also a lie. Ok, yeah, corporate executives do lie, sometimes famously, but lies are not a natural response executives of publicly held corporations ought to make in unpleasant or uncomfortable situations. One of the smartest answers an executive could give when asked if his company has done something bad should be to say “I don’t know.” Yes, it is a lame-dick answer, but which is worse, being stupid, or being a liar? Hayward has so far chosen against taking the high ground.
Speaking of the ecological and economic disaster the encroaching oil leak is creating, Hayward famously told USA Today, "We're sorry for the massive disruption it's caused to their lives." Now Hayward is a well-educated native speaker of the English language, and even allowing for the British propensity to understatement, referring to this as “massive disruption” is like referring to World War II as a military skirmish. Even worse, however, in the same article, Hayward is quoted as saying, "There's no one who wants this thing over more than I do, I'd like my life back.” I am willing to bet my next Social Security check that the 11 men who died as a result of the rig explosion would like to have their lives back too. I’d bet those who survived but are still traumatized by the blast would like to have their lives back. I’d bet the families and friends of all those folks, as well as the families of Gulf and coastal fishermen and others who depend upon an oil-free environment for their livelihoods would like to get their lives back as well.
As I write this screed, BP says it aims to start burning some of the oil it is able to retrieve from the surface of the Gulf. Oh fine; we already killed off the biosphere of the Gulf region with tar balls and waterborne toxins still surging up from the broken undersea well pipe. Now let’s go ahead and kill off what’s left with airborne toxins from uncontrolled burning. Obviously, whoever comes up with these brilliant notions, while days go by without pursuing even the most fundamental common-sense responses, must be on some kind of methamphetamine IV. I smell “lawyers” in the brilliance of BP’s reactions so far.
Before this gets any more ridiculous, and without waiting for Washington to figure out which asses to kick instead of which to kiss, and in addition to the Henry VI approach of "The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers," I have some suggestions on things we can do to end this crap. Keep in mind that BP is not “just” an energy company. And even though BP shares have sunk in value, the real value of BP’s underlying assets – that is the value of BP properties if they were sold today on eBay, for example – is still an awesome amount of money by any standard. So:
1. One of the first responses is already under way on stock markets, where BP shares have lost at least 60 percent of their value since the April 20 explosion. As investors dump their shares, the prospects of long-term credit damage to BP in having to pay for the cleanup and related lawsuits has even spooked the institutions that hedge their investments with credit-default swaps. BP has a first-quarter dividend payout due in a week or so. Chances are good that more than 15 million British pensioners are going to suffer the impact on their payouts as well, as BP holdings are a large part of pension-fund portfolios in the corporation’s home country. Sorry, folks.
2. Accountability has obviously not been a useful tool against BP thus far. Even before the oil-rig blowout, BP was the worst offender of all corporations in the United States in terms of its safety record, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. OSHA had already accused BP of “willful violation” of its rules. Not counting the 11 deaths in the Gulf of Mexico disaster, BP had more work-related fatalities than any other company in the United States over the past decade, OSHA records show. Survivors of the Gulf of Mexico explosion have gone on record about the shoddy safety practices at that specific drilling site. But BP has oil and energy-exploration operations under way all over the world. BP public relations hacks have Hayward telling the world the company always puts safety first and foremost. Bullshit. Governments can, by executive order, have all those operations nationalized and shut down. Do it.
3. One way or another, United States taxpayers will be paying for the aftermath for many years. No matter how much BP may eventually be forced to pay toward the cost, it won’t be enough. Since BP is not, strictly speaking, a U.S. corporation (when taking into account the holdings that are part of the London-based BP corporate empire), let’s start with nationalizing all the U.S. assets of BP. By “all the U.S. assets,” I mean real estate, leaseholdings on exploration and exploitation within the territorial United States, hardware, pipe, storage tanks and vessels, office furnishings, toilet paper – all of it.
There are probably other steps that could be taken, but these three, I think, would be a good start.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Dogs & Suds


Over Memorial Day weekend, I satisfied (as best I could) a long-smoldering craving for chili dogs and root beer. The dogs were my own combination of chili, chopped onion and all-beef hot dogs on toasted whole-wheat rolls. The root beer came from a can, but at least I could come up with a frosted mug (Pour boiling water over the mug, then put it in the freezer compartment.)
Where I grew up, we had two A&W root beer stands, one on the north side of town, the other on the south side. Both made great Spanish hot dogs (chili dogs) and pumped that famous A&W root beer. I was happily surprised to find A&W root beer stands in Guam, Okinawa and the Philippines, too. Alas, the franchise has fallen on the same kind of hard times that wiped out other famous chains of the past (Howard Johnson's restaurants, once a Pennsylvania Turnpike treat, for example). Now, there is an A&W outlet beside a KFC (another once-good, now horrible food franchise) at one of the upper bench malls in Boise. But it's not the same.
I appreciate the background on the original A&W (see http://www.rootbeer.com), and I do think the modern version of A&W root beer is not bad. But it just ain't the same. For one thing, the companies aren't even the same. The drive-in chain has become a "full-service" operation, absorbed by Yum! Brands (which also owns Long John Silver's pseudo-seafood outlets), and the classic root beer beverage is mixed in there with 7-Up and Dr. Pepper (two other beverages that lost their identity long ago too) under the cleverly named Dr. Pepper/7-Up Inc. corporate umbrella. I can come up with a pretty good chili dog on my own, (and I've written previously about how to make a version of Kentucky fried chicken that the Colonel might not think is nearly as bad as what comes out these days under the brand that sullies his name). But I am really not up to trying to make my own root beer. There are other brands (Dad's, Barq's, Nesbitt's and Nehi (both of which made all kinds of other flavored soda pops back in the day), Barrelhead, and Weinhard's (which I think is the best commercial root beer nowadays). But I sure do miss the kind that came out of those big ol' barrels at the A&W drive-inn. The car hops were cute too. But that's another story.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Gyoza Party






A lovely young lady knocked on my door tonight while I was making gyoza. She was actually looking for a party in another building, but I told her she would be welcome to come back and have gyoza if the other place turned out to be less exciting. She did not return, of course, but the brief encounter reminded me that gyoza is a great party food, because the making is as much fun as the eating.
I point out briefly here that this is also a way to buy a bulk amount of hamburger and make a combination of things that can be prepared and frozen for later enjoyment. I got two pounds of ground beef and used half for gyoza and half to make mini meatloafs, of which I will describe later.
Gyoza is originally Chinese, but I learned it in Japan. You will probably learn much more than I can tell you by checking out the official gyoza Web site at www:gyoza.org. Nevertheless, we are now international enough to be able to make it almost anywhere, using prepared wonton/gyoza wraps. Almost anything can go into the middle. I loved a place in Tokyo's Jiyugaoka, in Setagaya-ward, famous for stuffing gyoza with all kinds of good stuff, from garlic to cheese, and preparing it as soup, steamed and fried, or deep-fried. Yum.
For a nice party food, it's easy to make about 60 gyozas (which are basically like ravioli, and I am fairly certain Marco Polo and friends must have brought the idea back from China, added tomato sauce and turned it Italian. I added a cup of finely chopped garlic, a cup of finely chopped mushrooms, a stick of finely chopped celery (you can use Chinese or Napa cabbasge or bok choy, of course), a couple of thumbs of finely chopped ginger, six or eight finely chopped scallions, for a typical mix. Add a tablespoon of corn starch, two tablespoons of sesame oil, two tablespoons of soy sauce, a tablespoon of five-star hoisin sauce, and a splash of sake. Moosh it all together by hand so all the ingredients are well blended.
Separate the wonton skins and spoon a blob of the mixture onto the center. wet half of the outer edge of the skin with water, fold together, then pinch tightly.
To cook, add a tablespoon of sesame oil and enough water to cover the bottom of a small fry pan. Add about 10 or 12 of the gyoza with a little space between each, cover and bring to a boil. Uncover, reduce the heat a bit, and allow the gyoza to brown on one side. Turn, brown again and they are ready to eat or put in a container to freeze for later enjoyment.
Serve with a combination of layu (chili oil), white vinegar and soy sauce.
Of course this goes great with beer or sake or Chinese plum wine. It is also a good appetizer to go with stir-fried anything, some egg-drop soup and a fortune cookie!

Cooking for One (Continued)





I really loved Jamie Oliver's effort to persuade American families to stop feeding their kids unhealthy foods and to wake up to the horrible abuses of wholesome cooking being perpetrated on our young folks. Of course he's not the first or only person to point out the ridiculousness of the U.S. Government standards for school lunch nutritional balance (ketchup as a vegetable, two carbs, God-knows-what byproducts in prepared luncheon meats, etc.) But it was a much-needed reminder we do not have to be obese or stupid.
I have been lucky to know how to eat healthy since I was a kid. Over time, I learned how to cook and I have been able to help my daughter with her cooking skills as well. We know cooking is not only fun but almost a survival skill in a culture surrounded by convenience foods. In defense, I have been working on my own convenience foods, minus the mystery crap in "prepared" foods at the supermarket. I know I can make better-tasting, more healthy, attractive, nutritionally balanced meals than anything in the frozen-foods section at the supermarket. And it is waay less expensive.
I cook for myself, and supermarket quantities are often intended for bigger families. So, as I've said before, I try to plan my purchases and my menu to account for the difference and to minimize waste and keep down my Social Security-induced budget.
I recently got a bargain on pork tenderloin in bulk. I broke up the package of eight fairly hefty chunks of good meat and froze most of it. And I used one of the chunks to make two servings (hearty servings at that) of stuffed tenderloin.
Stuffing is easy. I make bread, so I saved some of it and crumbled it up, dried it at 150F in the oven, and added it to a cup of chopped onion, a cup of chopped celery and two cups of mushrooms, two tablespoons of butter (yes, butter is fine as long as you don't have too much at one time.), water to cover, and some herbs. I used rosemary and basil, rough-crushed black pepper and a dash of Worcestershire sauce. Bring to a boil, then reduce to simmer and stir.
I then cut the tenderloin pork in half horizontally, put the cooked stuffing into a 9x9-inch glass baking pan sprayed with olive oil, topped with the sliced pork, covered with aluminum foil and baked it at 350F (160C) for 40 minutes. I took off the foil and cooked another 20 minutes to brown the stuffing. This makes two hearty servings, one of which can be put in a container and stored in the freezer for at least a couple of weeks, so there is opportunity to make a lot of other recipes for the days in between.
I enjoyed one of the servings with a salad of fresh spinach and a whole tomato, hollowed out and stuffed with cottage cheese, and a side of mixed veggies -- green beans, peppers and onions.
The dessert is a raspberry turnover with vanilla ice cream. Is that bad?

Monday, May 17, 2010

Home Cookin'


My sister came by today with some homemade mushroom soup, part of the bounty of a mountain trek that yielded a whole bunch of morels. Blessed with this little surprise, I wanted to make a Sunday supper that would take advantage of the soup and clear away some leftovers at the same time. So this is not exactly a recipe, but an idea for a meal of country-fried steak, garlic mashed potatoes, mixed veggies, and a spinach-daikon salad.
Earlier in this beautiful day, I was thinking of reviving my long-lost bartending skills, and I wanted to start simple with back-to-the-basics margaritas and bloody Marys. So, the supper was washed down with what I think is a pretty decent margarita.
To replicate this supper, you'd need cube steak, potatoes, veggies of choice (I used broccoli, colored peppers and onion, garlic, flour, cream, an egg, butter, rosemary, basil and coarse-ground black pepper, a little kosher salt, some olive oil and canola oil.
The main event is country-fried steak, which is a way of turning a not-so-great piece of beef into a tasty main course. It is a cube steak, dipped in beaten egg, then dredged in seasoned flour and fried like frying chicken. The rest, as they say, is gravy. (To actually make gravy, use the leftover flour-herb mixture and the leftover frying oil from the steak to make a roux, add milk and season to taste, stirring until thick. I didn't make gravy this time because the garlic mashed potatoes stand nicely on their own.)
First, peel and rinse potatoes. I recommend two or three fist-sized potatoes per serving. You will also need garlic, at least two or three cloves per serving. Rinse the potatoes, cut into small cubes, add minced chopped garlic, a dash of salt, and enough water to cover, and cook the combination. Bring the water to a boil, then reduce the heat to simmer until fork-tender
Meanwhile, with the backside of a hefty knife, whack the cube steak on both sides. It will look big, but will cook itself back down to size. Add a tablespoon each of canola oil and olive oil to a big frypan and heat. Dip the cube steak in well-beaten egg, then dredge in a bowl that has at least two tablespoons of flour, a teaspoon each of rosemary and basil, a half-teaspoon of ground black pepper, a dash of salt and whatever other herbs strike your fancy. A little Worcester sauce is not a bad addition. Coat both sides of the cube steak with flour, then gently place in the frypan of hot oil to brown on both sides. Remove to drain the oil, then place on foil in a 325F oven while dealing with the rest of this meal.
When the potatoes are done enough, remove from heat, drain, mash the potatoes and add at least a tablespoon of butter and enough cream to make the potato-garlic combination smooth. Bring your veggie medley to a boil, reduce to simmer, drain and add a bit of butter. Shake the pan to coat with butter.
I then ladled out some of that nice mushroom soup (mushrooms, potatoes, butter, onion, salt and pepper) into a bowl and microwaved for a minute, then sprinkled a little dill over it to serve.
By this time, it's easy to plate the cube steak (country-fried steak), add a couple of scoops of the garlic mashed potatoes, and the veggies. I made a little salad of fresh spinach and daikon, made a simple dressing, and felt pretty good about cleaning the fridge while also having a tasty combination of healthy foods for supper.
We will deal with the margarita recipe in a future posting.
Sidebar
I mused earlier about the challenge of cooking for one, or more specifically, buying for one and managing to minimize waste. I remember as a kid being reminded that other people in the world don't have it so good, and for all the progress we've made in the decades since then, we in rich countries still haven't found a way to balance our gross excesses against the poverty, ignorance and hunger of too much of the rest of the world.
I'm not on a feed-the-poor kick here, but I do think it is a good idea to do what we can, and we can at least try to cook in ways that reduce our own sloth and minimize waste (and waist).

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Stuffed Peppers




One thing I miss about Japan is the opportunity to cook for and get critical opinions from friends. Here, I am mostly cooking for myself, and, frankly, I am not the best critic of my own cooking. Another factor that I deal with here that was not a problem in Tokyo (because there were always people to share my food with) is that I am cooking for one. So I am still learning how to handle portions and minimize leftovers.
In one way, I am lucky to live near Winco, a giant, 24/7 supermarket that has almost everything I need to cook any kind of cuisine. On the downside, Winco tends to be a family-oriented supermarket, which means large-quantity portions of things like meats and poultry, so I have to plan ahead to break down and freeze big portions into small portions.
So, fast foward to today, when I decided to make stuffed peppers. This was partly because I hoped to use the balance of colored (red, green and yellow) bell peppers I used to make the Thai shrimp salad described in the previous blog.
With everyone's involvement, I could reduce some leftover brown rice, plus the leftover peppers, and dine in style.
Here, rather than a recipe, I will say that I used 1/3 of a pound of ground beef. Usually, I buy in bulk, then divide the meat into one-third pound portions that I can freeze as patties. In an emergency, I can make a hearty cheeseburger. If there is more time, I can thaw the meat and use it to make something more fancy.
I also make larger portions of brown rice. That way, I have some for curry in a hurry, and some in the freezer for a shot at curry or some other treat. I could also use a fistfull of frozen green beans, since a bigger portion would have meant more leftovers.
So, here I am with the meat all cut and frozen, then a portion of brown rice.
I also had a tomato that probably would not have survived more than two or three days, so I thought I'd stuff it, too.
In short, then, we have one whole green bell pepper and two partial colored peppers (one red, one yellow) and one tomato. I added tomato paste, garlic, basil, oregano, thyme, cilantro, rosemary and thyme to one thawed beef patty, added a cup of cooked brown rice, about a tablespoon of chopped garlic, a generlous splash of Worcester sauce, and a bit of salt and pepper and mixed it up. I spooned the rice-meat mixture into the pepper portions, and added a little grated mozarella and grated Parmesan (equal portions) sprinkled over the top of the meat. I put the leftover mozarella-Parmesan into the hollowed-out tomato, put the peppers and tomato into a glass baking disy with a splash of olive oil and a bigger splash of red wine, and put it in a 350F oven for 40 minutes.
I would say it was delicious. I also wish I had a second opinion.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

My Thai


I have recently been on a Thai-food kick. With at least five Thai restaurants in Boise, including one just down the street, you might think it wouldn’t be necessary. But I like to remind myself that, even though I am in the part of the world where the deer and the antelope play, I learned a lot from my Asian experience, and keeping the distinctive character of different kinds of Asian cuisine is, for me, at least, important. Too much “fusion” can cause confusion.
So, after making not-bad red curry last week, it was time to make a shrimp salad. I might have been thinking about the impact of the horrid BP oil rig explosion and leak in the Gulf of Mexico and what it means for the shrimpers and the availability of shrimp. “Enjoy it while you can,” I guess. I wonder what the sailors felt after they dined on the last dodo?
Anyway, shrimp salad is basically shrimp and “salad,” and Thai shrimp salad means using a dressing that blends those essential chilis, ginger, garlic, sugar and I confess to using Japanese mirin and sake) and Thai nampla (fish sauce). Similar kinds of fish sauce are commonly used in Thai, Vietnamese, Lao, Cambodian and Philippine recipes.
The shrimp can be any kind, but of course they must be peeled, stripped of the poop vein and tails (unless you really like the tails). I used frozen Pacific jumbo shrimp. Plan on at least one cup of shrimp per serving, anyway. The shrimp I used were precooked, so I soaked them in water to thaw, drained, then soaked them again in sake (Japanese rice “wine”). Soaking in a cheap white wine also works, but sake gives a distinctly “Asian” taste.
Ingredients
The “salad” part of the salad includes:
1. Fresh ginger root (See how to select it and how to peel it: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6TQfU1J8fN8
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mLchfULS_jg&feature=related
2. Green onions (scallions!) http://homecooking.about.com/od/cookingfaqs/f/faqscallions.htm
3. Daikon (Literally “giant radish root,” but a good one is not “hot,” but rather pleasantly mild. Learn more here: http://whatscookingamerica.net/DaikonRadish.htm
4. Bell peppers (I use green, red and yellow to add color. The different colored peppers also have distinctive flavors. Learn more about their merits and nutritional value here: http://www.ourhometownfoods.com/nutritionInfo_MultiColoredPeppers.htm
5. Carrots (Rinse and scrape the outer skin gently away)
6. Celery (Rinse and peel away the “strings” )
7. Garlic (The amount can vary, depending on your taste. Garlic with the veggies is optional, but you definitely need it for the dressing. See Jamie Oliver’s advice on how to peel and chop garlic here: http://www.jamieoliver.com/about/jamie-oliver-videos/how-to-prepare-garlic )
8. 1 cup (or more) chopped fresh cilantro (coriander ) http://www.gourmetsleuth.com/Articles/Exotic-Herbs-Spices-and-Salts-639/cilantro.aspx
The Veggie Prep
The most time-consuming part of the recipe is the preparation of the vegetables into matchstick-sized pieces,. Rinse, cut into pieces about 2 inches long, then slice them as thinly as possible, lengthwise. Here’s the technique: http://www.wonderhowto.com/how-to-julienne-vegetables-properly-191427/view/
For the Dressing
(and this is also a great sauce for Thai-style buffalo wings)
1. 1 cup water
2. 3 tsp. corn starch or tapioca-root starch
3. 3-4 cloves finely chopped garlic
4. 1 Tbsp. powdered chilis
5. ½ tsp. cayenne pepper powder
6. 1 Tbsp fresh-squeezed lime juice
7. 1 Tbsp. honey (Or more)
8. 2 Tbsp. fish sauce (Learn more here: http://www.thaifoodandtravel.com/features/fishsauce1.html

The Dressing Prep
Dissolve the cornstarch in ¼ cup cool water. Set aside
Add the remaining ¾ cup water in a sauce pan, heat to a boil and add the remaining ingredients, stirring to smooth. Reduce heat and add the dissolved starch, stir until the sauce thickens (About 1 minute). Remove and adjust the taste by adding honey (I added brown sugar) or more lime juice and fish sauce to enhance saltiness.
Allow to cool in the fridge before adding to the vegetables.
Combine the matchstick vegetables in a large bowl and toss by hand.
Drain the shrimp and add to the vegetables. Toss again to combine. Pour the dressing over the shrimp-vegetable combination. Garnish with more coriander and thin-sliced lime pieces.

Enjoy

Saturday, May 08, 2010

Yet Another Cheeseburger






My favorite among various claims as to who came up with the first cheeseburger is Lionel Clark Sternberger, who, according to Time magazine, "experimentally dropped a slab of American cheese on a sizzling hamburger while helping at his father's sandwich shop in Pasadena, thereby inventing the cheeseburger." That would have been in 1924. Of course we also get a lot of negative stuff about cheeseburgers, so it's interesting, and perhaps ironic, to note the Time obit for Sternberger also notes that he died at the age of 56 of "complications following diabetes."
Nevertheless, I suppose cheeseburgers (basically a hamburger with cheese) are one thing we can cite as typically "American" food, in the sense that it's probably what people think of first, just as we think first of sushi as Japanese food or spaghetti as Italian or sauerkraut as German.
As long as we're stuck with it, we might as well make the best of it. So, "experimentally," I offer another alternative cheeseburger recipe. If you want more recipes for cheeseburgers, plus a lot more information about cheeseburgers than you would probably ever need, try the cheese-burger.net site.
This particular cheeseburger involves the following ingredients:
1/2 pound of ground buffalo (or lean ground beef with as little fat content as possible)
1 or 2 strips of bacon
1/2 a wheel (sliced through the middle, in other words) of Camambert or Brie cheese.
A handfull of finely chopped garlic
Rosemary and basil to taste
Red wine
1 Tbsp. olive oil
Coarsly ground black pepper

The prep

Form half the ground meat into a circle, forming an edge with a spoon. This will be the "container" for the cheese wheel.
Chop the mushrooms and combine with the chopped garlic, rosemary and basil and add to the ground meat base.
Form the other half of the ground meat into a circle and place it over the bottom, patting the two together so they are sealed. Apply the bacon strip (or strips) around the edge of the meat patty.
Add the olive oil to a cast-iron skillet. I have a small one about 7 inches in diameter, which is just right for this project.
Place the patty in the center of the skillet.
Sprinkle a splash or two of red wine over the top of the patty and add the black pepper.
Bake in a 350F (160C) oven for at least 30 minutes (for medium-rare) or longer, depending on how well-done you want it.
Remove the baked patty from the fry pan (gently, with a spatula) and allow the excess juice to be soaked up by paper towels, or drain on a cooling rack.
That's it. This burger is fine with or without the lettuce, pickles, tomato and so on, and works well on crusty bread, most likely washed down with the rest of that red wine.
You may also want to look at the entry on french fries here as a side.

The pictures show the way to build up the edge of the first meat patty like a pie, to hold the cheese and the mushroom-garlic mixture before adding the cover layer of meat.

Read more: http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,870712,00.html#ixzz0nIbPQY24

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Western Food


One of many nice things about being where I am (Boise, Idaho, along the Oregon Trail) is that I can get good grub without investing and arm and/or leg. And the good grub includes what I will call, for lack of a better term, "Mexican food," which is hearty and healthy, although too much of what I am promoting today would probably not be considered "heart-healthy." This is a Western Omlette, and I consider it good for any meal of the day (also good as a hangover remedy). Now don't confuse this with the classic omlette (http://www.metacafe.com/watch1317423/how_to_make_the/perect/omlette/), although the advice on the video about how to prepare a "normal" omlette is just fine.
No, this one involves three eggs instead of two, to provide the foundation for supporting salsa, sausage, cheese, green onion, garlic and random herbs and spices (cumin, chili powder, smoked paprika, chipotle, cilantro, black pepper and a tiny bit of salt).
You will need:
3 eggs
Olive oil
Cheese (sharp cheddar, Cojack, Longhorn, Monterey Jack, for example)
Fresh cilantro (finely chopped)
2 green onions (chopped)
Garlic (3-4 bits, finely chopped
Half-pound hot Italian sausage (tart it up with sage, chili powder and cumin)
1/2 cup salsa (I'll assume you know how to make salsa for now, but will provide a decent salsa recipe in another posting).
Optional: Sour cream or cottage cheese
2-3 corn tortillas, toasted.
The process
Add 1 Tbsp. olive oil to a small (6-7 inch diameter) fry pan. Over medium heat, break up and brown the sausage, adding sage, cumin, green onion and garlic. Drain and set aside.
In a small bowl, beat the three eggs with a handful of chopped cilantro. Add a dash of black pepper. (NOTE: The flavors all come together eventually, but what you add to the eggs will affect the first flavor "hit" when you take a bite.
Add 1 Tbsp oilive oil to the same fry pan. Stir in the egg-cilantro mixture. Quickly place slices of cheese over the egg mixture, then spread 3-4 Tbsp of salsa over the center of the mixture, add about half the sausage and let the omlette cooke over low heat. Flip deftly (when the egg is cooked enough, it should slide in one easy piece to one side of the pan, making it easy to fold in half, then fold again. Don't worry if the cheese and "stuffing" dribbles out. It's all good.
For plating, break up the tacos on a plate, then roll out the omlette. Cover with the rest of the salsa and sausage. Serve with some sour cream or cottage cheese.
In the picture, you'll see I had mine with a bowl of Marion berries and yogurt, coffee, and a tequila limeade. It goes together quite well.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Country Fried Chicken


I recall childhood days when the family would go on vacation to Florida the hard way, driving through the scenic hills of Kentucky and Tennessee the hard way (before the Interstate network). Once, we stopped in Kentucky overnight at a motel that had a pool (remember this was in the 1950s) and was lined with knotty pine paneling. In the morning, a piped-in wake-up call included chirping birds and crowing roosters. But the real treat was supper the night before. It was the original Colonel Harlan Sanders Kentucky fried chicken (before being spoiled by takeovers and franchising). I never forgot the taste of that fried chicken, although I have had many other kinds of fried chicken just as good in their way, and I keep trying to get my recipe closer to what I remember that 1940s version tasted like.
There were two things about the Colonel's cooking method that made it special. One was the pressure-frying technique, followed by baking to drain the excess oil and enhance the crispiness. The other was the blend of herbs and spices. I want to say it involved 15 different herbs and spices, but I'm honestly not sure.
I use the "mom's old-fashioned" technique of double-coating and shaking the chicken pieces in a paper bag to evenly coat the flour mixture. I also use a "tempura-like" technique of adding corn starch to the flour mixture to help enhance the crispiness.
Ingredients
One chicken, cut up, skin on. Or a dozen legs, four breasts, or similar combination of your favorite chicken parts.
3/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 cup corn starch
1/2 tsp. paprika
1 tsp. garlic powder
1 tsp. oregano
1 tsp. sage
1 tsp. rosemary
1 tsp thyme
1 tsp dried cilantro
1 tsp crushed black pepper
1/1 tsp cardamon
1/2 tsp powdered clove
1 egg
1/3 cup whole milk
1/2 cup canola oil with two Tbsp. butter (no substitutes, sorry.)
Technique
Beat the egg and milk in a glass pie pan or other flat dish
combine all the dry ingredients into a paper grocery bag. I use double-bagging for safety.
Dredge the chicken pieces one by one on all sides and drop into the bag with the flour mixture. Shake the bag (hold the bottom).
Remove the chicken pieces, dredge in the egg-milk again and drop back into the bag, shake again.
Heat the oil-butter mixture in pressure cooker. Carefully drop in the coated chicken pieces. Cover and seal (5 pounds pressure is enough. If you don't have a pressure cooker, a good skillet will do, but reduce heat and cover with aluminum foil to prevent spattering). Cook about 10 minutes to brown, turn the pieces and repeat.
Remove the pieces from the oil and place on a baking pan with a rack to allow the excess oil to drip away. Cover with aluminum foil and bake at 350F for a half-hour, turn the pieces and bake another half-hour.

The accent for the fried chicken is twice-baked potatoes.
I use Idaho bakers. Wash and pat-dry the potato. Cut the skin on top of the potato to create a vent. Bake in a preheated 350F oven for one hour.
Remove the potato and carefully cut a large opening in the top (hold the potato for this, because it's not easy. Use a baking mitt, of course!) Scrape out the potato into a bowl, add 1 Tbsp. of butter (or sour cream) and mash the potato with a fork. Add a little cream or milk to get the desired consistency. Whip the mixture, then spoon it back into the potato skin. At this point, you could add a piece of cheddar or some cream cheese to the top of the mashed potato. Place on a piece of foil to prevent dribbling the cheese on the bottom of the oven and return the potato for another 35 minutes, or until the cheese is slightly brown.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Pizza Without the Crust



Here's a little twist on a comfort-food favorite, mac and cheese. This is pizza macaroni and cheese. Basically, it is all the stuff you would put on a deluxe pizza, but swapping out the crust for macaroni. I'm not sure that there's any dietary advantage to this, but it is a way of having some pizza-like stuff handy without actually making a pizza (or without resorting to those too-salty ready-made frozen pizza snack things.)
I do this with a pound (440 grams) of ground beef. You could use pepperoni, sausage or ground turkey. I also used shell macaroni although any kind of pasta will do. I would say one cup of shells for a pound of meat.
Ingredients
1 lb ground beef (or your favorite pizza meat)
2 cups shredded mozarella cheese
1 cup black olives (sliced)
1 cup stuffed green olives (sliced)
2 cups mushrooms, sliced
1 medium onion, chopped
4-5 chunks of garlic, about half a clove for my taste, chopped
1 medium bell pepper, sliced thin
1 medium red bell pepper, sliced thin
2 medium tomatoes (chopped) or 1 can diced tomatoes
1 standard jar of Ragu pizza quick sauce
Herbs: To your taste, oregano, Italian parsley, basil, rosemary, black pepper, red pepper.
2 Cups pasta shells or macaroni elbows
1 cup shredded parmesan cheese
Olive oil

Tools:
! large glass baking dish
Spray bottom and sides with olive oil
Preheat oven to 350F (160C)


Instructions
Saute the onion and garlic until translucent. I use olive oil,
Brown the beef (or cook whatever meat you choose if not precooked)
Combine the meat, onions and garlic with the other ingredients.
Add the pasta sauce. (I pour a little leftover red wine into the jar, seal and shake to help get whatever sauce may be hiding inside. This also makes it easier to clean the jar for recycling).
Add herbs to taste.
Bring a pot of water to a rolling boil and add two or three drops of olive oil. This will help keep the water from boiling over and will also help keep the macaroni from sticking to itself. Drop in the pasta shells and boil about 8 minutes, stirring now and then.
Drain the pasta and add it to the meat-other stuff mixture, stirring in the mozarella.
Spread the combination over the baking dish. Cover the mixture with parmesan. I confess I cheated and added more sliced tomatoes and a layer of thinly sliced mozarella on top too, then sprinkled some dried oregano over it before baking.
Bake for about 30 minutes, or until the cheese develops a health bronze color.
That's it.

I scooped some out for the second picture, above, to help show the combination of color and texture of the finished pizza-mac.

Friday, April 16, 2010

One Year Out


Today is tax day, one calendar day ahead of the first anniversary of my return to the U.S. after a very long time in Japan. And, since it was indeed a very long time -- roughly half my life, so far -- re-entry in another place has been at the least interesting, with a fair bit of trauma in the process. I am grateful to my sister and others who have helped minimize the emotional decompression, but I have to say I am, apart from getting a break in terms of language, still something of a gaijin in my own land.
Most of that is my own doing. To be honest, I am enjoying the time I now have to read, to experiment more with my cooking, and to watch movies I missed while in Japan. I do get out, especially in the beautiful spring that is gradually unbuttoning to reveal the beauties of nature. (sounds sexy). There are cherry and other blossoms in Boise, Idaho, although not the kind that people sit under with obento and beer. I will celebrate my year with a good steak and a glass of red, contemplating the changes.
What changes? Well, I'm solo. I sleep when I want and wake when I choose. I grind my own coffee beans. I don't have a wife, a house, a car, a job. I have more music than ever. I ride my bike along the river. When I've finished this entry, I will go out on the balcony to clean out the planting boxes, sweep the carpet and make sure the lounge chair is in shape for a summer of people-watching.
One significant adjustment is economic. As I am now at the tender mercies of the Social Security system, I get buy on about one-tenth what I was making in Japan. Even with the difference in costs of living here and there, that is quite a change. And because the United States has no discernible "health care system," I am forced to take care of myself, which means I am more conscious of the importance of a healthy lifestyle. I can say that it is possible for a single old fart like myself to get along on Social Security, but it means doing without a lot of things I took for granted in Japan. I still enjoy wine, and there are lots of good, not-too-expensive wines available, but I drink less of it. I probably exercise more, since feet and a bicycle are my most common means of transportation.
I am busy. I am conducting a course in literary appreciation for adults, which requires a fair amount of reading and research. I have another Blog that deals with the course, too. I brought next to nothing with me from Japan, but I have acquired some sturdy second-hand furniture that makes the apartment comfortable. I have just signed a new lease, so I will be here for at least the next year. It's probably too big for one person, but I'll hang on to it until I know what my daughter's plans are when she's out of college.
What's up for the second year? Well, I do plan to learn blues harmonica. And I do have the book, which I am thinking about now and then, but have not started, pending conclusion of the course I'm teaching. I will have to spend less on concert attendance in the year ahead, but I hope I can make up for that by devoting more time to rebuilding the guitar player skills. And I'll keep cooking.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Valentine's Day



Face it, if you are in love, being alone on Valentine's Day is really, honest-to-God lonely! I know there are lots of things that should be on the menu when dining with the one you love--oysters, roast beef, asparagus, strawberries, chocolate, lavender and mint--but what do you eat when you're alone? Regular readers of this blog will know by now I am not the kind of guy to eat something from a can or a TV dinner. So today's solo Valentine's Day dinner was salmon.
I am learning about "plating," which is the presentation of food on plates. So I was practicing today not only with the menu but with the presentation of the meal. I try to use flowers, usually, but today was sort of an off day for that, since most of the flower shops are pushing Valentine arrangements. I'll wait a bit. Meanwhile, I could at least arrange the table for a Valentine mood.
Then there is the actual food.
The main item is salmon. This is salmon first seared with olive oil, then slowly poached in white wine.
While the poaching was going on, I quartered and boiled some baby Dutch potatoes. I also blanched some asparagus spears. Asparagus is supposed to be slightly aphrodisiac. I only know it is good in spring.
I also had a flash of inspiration from memories of vacations to Florida and having my very first shrimp cocktail at Howard Johnson's. The restaurant chain, famed for its franchise on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, and especially for its 28 delicious flavors of ice cream, no longer exists. Like so many once-good ideas that got bastardized by corporate greed, Howard Johnson's lost touch with its family core audience and fell by the wayside, so to speak. There were once carrot curls and parsley sprigs and really classy but not-expensive choices on the menu. Pierre Franey was contracted to provide advice on cuisine and the franchise briefly had a lock on the niche, only to lose it, of course!
I digress... anyway, the shrimp cocktail. So I made my own.Shrimp, boiled in white wine and lemon juice, drained, chilled. Mixed ketchup, horseradish and a dash of soy sauce.... A bed of greens, with some cross-cut green onions.... Not bad at all.
I also sliced some baby tomatoes and added them to a few mixed herbs for garnish for the main plate.
The only other minor touches were some sliced garlic for the potatoes, with olive oil, salt and pepper. And I made a little blue cheese-cream cheese accent for the asparagus, with rose peppercorns. I sprinkled dill on the salmon and paprika into the shrimp before putting it over the salad greens.
A little Pinot grigio and we are there. Or I should say I am there, alone!..... sigh.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

This Spud's For You




I will always respect people who work at fast-food places, because that was how I learned the secret of crisp french fries. French fries are not necessarily French, by the way, although the origin is based on the deep-fry approach to cooking things. Many people get cravings for french fries, but can't seem to get them to come out crispy at home.
It's not hard, but it does require the Boy Scout approach to cooking: Be prepared. Prepare several hours in advance, and you are all but certain to turn out crisp, golden-brown fries at home too. The "secret" is rinsing, blanching, and chilling (or freezing) before the finishing fry step.
Since I'm in Idaho, I have all kinds of good spuds at hand. The variety doesn't matter much, because the rinsing will get rid of most of the excess starch, which is what makes home-fried fries soggy. Peeling also ensures that all the fries will be crispy. Leave the skin on if you like, but the pieces with skin will not be as uniformly crisp. Cut the potato into stips. About one-quarter inch on a side seems to be the optimum for uniform cooking, but we're not measuring here.
Put the cut potato pieces in clear cold water for about an hour, changing the water a couple of times to rinse away the leeched potato starch. I then put the potato pieces on paper towel to blot away excess water.
Blanching can be done in a fry pan, with enough oil (I use a blend of nine parts canola and one part peanut oil for taste, to cover the bottom of the pan about one-quarter inch deep. You don't need to use a deep-fry vat. Heat the oil (medium-high is usually enough). I drop a test potato piece in first. It should quickly bob to the surface bubbling. Add potatoes to cover the bottom of the pan, but don't overload. It's better to make two or three small batches. Blanching should cook the potato to a translucent color, just as the edges start to turn color. Remove the potato pieces, drain away the oil and place in a bowl, cover and refrigerate for at least an hour. An overnight stay in the freezer compartment works even better.
After the potatoes are blanched and chilled, they are ready to be cooked in hot oil. Finishing to a nice golden brown takes just a few minutes per batch. Drain the pieces and sprinkle with a little salt and you're in homemade french fry heaven.

Sunday, February 07, 2010

Curry Favor



There is still some dispute about the origins of curry. It is widely considered to be of south India origin, with the word coming from Sanskrit. Certainly curries in their many forms are among the most widely popular cuisines. I was thinking about this while making some Vietnam-style curry (Cari ga Vietnam). There is plenty of time to think about such things while making curry, because curry-making invariably takes a long time to do right.
At the heart of curry is the combination of spices. India has garam masala, and all curries worthy of the name involve some proportions of cumin, ginger, coriander, peppers and turmeric. Different masalas use different kinds of pepper, but usually chilis of some kind. From the aroma, I tend to think curries all over the world start with the basic spice combination, however, and the Vietnam-style curry has lemon grass and perhaps more ginger and garlic than others. The kind I make is also more of a soup than curries from India.
Of course centuries ago, curries spread throughout India and Asia and on to Africa, largely through trade in the spices that make them so appealing. Now, fortunately, thse spices are readily available in most supermarkets. I was fortunate to have some chilis and other spices from Cambodia to help with this, and the Boise Co-Op, which has almost everything for making almost anything, had the nuoc mam (fermented fish sauce) to make it more identifiably Vietnamese (although similar kinds of fish sauce are as common as ketchup in the Philippines, Thailand and throughout most of Southeast Asia.
So, here is a basic recipe for Vietnam-style chicken curry to serve six to eight people. It can be served with pho (noodles) or rice.
Ingredients
2 Tbsp. oil (I use half canola and half olive oil)
1 whole chicken, cut into pieces.
1 medium onion, cut into chunks
4-5 cloves of garlic, chopped
2 shallots, sliced thin
1 thumb-sized piece of fresh ginger root (peeled and sliced thin)
1 stalk lemon grass
4-6 Tbsp. curry powder
3 carrots, sliced
2 large potatoes, peeled and sliced
1 green or red bell pepper, sliced thin
2 bay leaves
2 kaffir lime leaves
2 Tbsp fish sauce
1 (or more) chili, chopped fine. You may want to remove the seeds first, depending on how hot you like it and what kind of pepper you use.
1 14-ounce can coconut milk
1 chicken bullion cube
1 vegetable bullion cube
1 bunch cilantro (coriander)
Water to cover

Preparation
Heat the oil in a large pot, adding chicken pieces and onions. Stir and cook until the onions are translucent. Remove and set aside.
In the pot. Stir in garlic, ginger, shallots, lemon grass and the curry powder, adding the bell pepper and carrots. Return the chicken and onion to the pot, add the fish sauce, pepper and bay and lime leaves and add water to cover. Add the potatoes, bring to a boil and add the coconut milk. Reduce heat to simmer about an hour.
Remove the chicken and strip and discard skin and bones. I then shred the chicken meat, but that’s optional. Return the chicken to the pot and simmer an additional half-hour.
I’d say it’s ok to have some ruou can about this time. That’s Vietnamese rice wine. Beer is also good, but I’d recommend Tiger (Singapore) or San Miguel (Philippines) over Vietnamese brands.
Serve over white rice with fresh chopped cilantro (coriander)
I am having mine with a side salad made of boiled shrimp, chopped red, green and yellow bell peppers, chopped onion and chopped cilantro, in a dressing of ginger, red pepper, vinegar and brown sugar, mirin and a dash of soy sauce, drizzled with fresh-squeezed lime juice.
I have not yet had all the regional possibilities of curry, but I’m eager to try. I can say that so far, it seems that Indian curries are more like stews or what Americans think of when having chili. These are fairly thick gravies, (with or without meat) and veggies, especially beans or other lentils. The curries of Cambodia, Thailand, Laos and Vietnam generally have more broth. Japanese curry is sweeter and much less spicy-hot than most.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Microwave Cooking


Yes, not everyone has all the pots and pans and parts for cooking as seen on “Iron Chef.” So for my daughter, and for others who may be working with limited resources, here are some recipe ideas that involve a microwave range and a minimum of other things.
Of course there are many other places to look for similarly simple microwave recipes. One good one is from the makers of Glad brand bags. Their site (http://www.glad.com/simplycooking/steaming.php) has neat (as in not messy) ideas. Another site is http://www.microwaverecipe.net/.
That said, here are some of my own tried-and-tested ideas. Keep in mind that cooking times may vary depending on the power of your microwave range. Be sure to use microwave-safe dishes in the range and be careful handling foods just out of the microwave, as they will be hot hot.
Meatloaf
Ingredients:
1 lb (440 grams) lean ground beef or ground turkey
1/2 cup crushed cracker crumbs
2 large eggs
½ cup ketchup
1 small white or yellow onion, chopped
3-4 cloves of garlic, chopped, or ½ teaspoon garlic powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce or soy sauce
Preparation:
Mix ingredients in one bowl, form by hand into a loaf shape in a microwave-safe baking dish. Cook on high for 3 minutes, rotate the dish halfway and cook another three minutes, then rotate again and cook another 4 minutes. Let set in the range for 4 minutes before serving.

Sweet Potatoes
Ingredients:
1 sweet potato
1 Tbsp butter
1 Tbsp sour cream (optional)
Preparation:
Wash and scrub potato. Poke the skin several times with a fork and place in the center of the range turntable. Cook on high 6 minutes. (add about 3 minutes for each additional potato if making more.)
Slice the potato in the middle and mash with a fork. Add the butter. Microwave an additional 30 seconds. Serve with the sour cream for a different taste.

Cauliflower with Mustard Sauce
Ingredients:
1 head cauliflower, cut into florets
½ cup real mayonnaise
¼ cup Dijon mustard
1 cup cheddar cheese, shredded
Preparation:
Place cauliflower into microwave-safe casserole dish, cover with plastic wrap and poke holes in it Microwave on high 6 minutes.
Combine mayonnaise and mustard in a small bowl, then spread over the cauliflower. Sprinkle shredded cheese over the top, microwave again about 2 minutes, or until cheese melts.

Chili

Ingredients:
1 Tbsp. salad oil
1 Lb. (440 grams) lean ground beef or turkey
1 medium-size onion, chopped
1 or 2 large cans (7 oz. each) diced green chiles 1 can (14 1/2 oz.) regular-strength chicken broth
1 can (14 1/2 oz.) tomatoes
1 teaspoon ground allspice
1 teaspoon each ground cumin and ground coriander
2 teaspoons dry oregano leaves
1 large can (about 28 oz.) kidney beans, drained
Preparation:
Pour oil into a 3-quart microwave-safe casserole; tip casserole to coat bottom evenly with oil. Crumble meat into casserole; microwave, uncovered, on high setting for 3 minutes, stir, then cook for another 3 minutes. Add chiles, broth, tomatoes and liquid, spices and herbs, cover and microwave on high for 5 minutes. Add beans and stir. Cook uncovered on high for 7-8 minutes, stir, and cook another 7-8 minutes. Cover and let stand for 5 minutes before serving. Serve with our cream or plain yogurt, cheddar cheese and fresh cilantro (coriander)

Chocolate Volcano Cupcake

Ingredients:
4 Tablespoons cake flour
2 Tablespoons sugar
2 Tablespoons cocoa
(Or four Tablespoons of Nestle’s Quik or similar chocolate drink mix in place of the sugar and cocoa)
1 standard Hershey’s chocolate bar, broken into small bits (or a half-cup of chocolate morsels)
1 egg
3 Tablespoons milk
3 Tablespoons oil
1 microwave-safe cup or mug
Preparation:
Mix flour, sugar and cocoa, egg, milk and oil in the mug. Press the chocolate pieces into the center of the mixture with a spoon.
Microwave on high for 3 minutes. Wait one minute before opening the range, to let the cake rise, then settle. The chocolate pieces will be melted inside the cake.

I'll add more. Other recipe ideas are always welcome!

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Ethnic Pride and Joy


A good conversation re-starter is to ask other guests, "If you had to subsist for the rest of your life on just one country's cuisine, which country would you choose?"
Putting national pride aside for a moment, it would still be difficult to nail down any one country, I think, although French friends may disagree. Certainly, high up in the food chain (so to speak) would have to be Italian.
Keeping in mind that Italy is a long country that extends from waaay up in the alps to waay down into sunny Middle Earth, Italy certainly does have an excellent variety of foods and flavors, and can draw from a wide range of ingredients for a wholesome, well-balanaced, and delicious range of foods. I'm still not sure whether ramen and spaghetti have the same heritage, and certainly Italian wine can compete with the best in the world to wash down whatever bounty is offered.
Since Saint Valentine's Day is approaching, and love is in the air, to one degree or another, I wanted to set the table and dedicate a meal to love. And Italian is, to me, at least, the most romantic of cuisines. (Sorry French folks!)
Certainly there is plenty of pasta to choose from, but for this meal, I chose ravioli. These are little pockets of flavor, which could be cheese, meat, vegetable, or any combination, best served with a counterpoint sauce. In this case, the sauce is tomato-based (northern and central Italy), with garlic, mushrooms and Merlot. There are four cheeses (Mozarella, Gorgonzola, Parmesan and Ricotta) in each little pasta puff.
And there are the meat balls. I'm not Italian, and I know there are all kinds of delicious variations on the ingredients, but these are ground beef (not hamburger), with three kinds of chopped onion, garlic, and colorful bell peppers, mushroom, egg, bread crumbs, whole black peppercorns, basil, cilantro, Italian parsley, thyme, rosemary, and a dash of salt, all squished together in golfball-sized balls and baked for about 45 minutes at 350F (160C). I found a zuchini hiding in the vegetable drawer, so I sliced that, blanched it, drained the water and added butter and grated Parmesan. For variety of color, texture and a range of vitamins and minerals, I built a little salad from a pile of sprouts, slices of bell pepper, some fresh herbs and spinach and a few baby tomatoes, cut in half and splashed with an oil-vinegar-parmesan dressing.
This, as with most Italianate food, should be washed down with a hearty red.
So what makes it a Valentine meal? Well, I forget, exactly, but maybe the red tomato sauce (tomatoes are also called love apples, after all!). Or maybe I was just in a romantic mood at the time.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Soup's On


When I was in high school, I was pressed into cooking for myself and my sister. Something out of a can got boring very quickly. So I began to experiment and improvise. As much as I enjoy making things from scratch, I have to confess some very good things have been made with Campbell's soups as a base. Last night, I wanted something simple and came up with this one. It's a shrimp bisque with green peas over rice. Nothing fancy at all, but the taste is not bad.
Begin with Campbell's tomato soup. Add four tablespoons each of sour cream and cream cheese and blend it into the soup base, add a splash of white wine, and set it aside. Now simmer two cups of frozen peeled shrimp in a saucepan of water and white wine, with a dash of salt. This helps kill the "frozen" taste. Drain the shrimp and add to the soup mixture, and simmer the combination.
Cook a cup of frozen green peas. I just use water with a bit of salt, boil quickly, drain, then add a teaspoon of butter.
I usually have some leftover plain white rice in the freezer, but I'd just say that when you boil rice, replace about one-third of the water with sake and then boil. This really brings out the flavor.
The rest is easy.... remove the soup-shrimp from heat and spoon it over as much rice as you can handle. Sprinkle the green peas over the top and it's ready to eat.
To show off a little with the presentation, I spray olive oil in a bowl, then spoon rice into the bowl, pat it and turn it over into a bigger bowl. This adds appeal for other rice-related dishes like curries or stroganoff, too.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Plain of Fancy



If you've ever watched Iron Chef or similar cooking-competition shows, you are probably impressed by the presentations and the often unconventional combinations of ingredients the contenders come up with. The innovations are a refreshing departure from the familiar meat-and-two-veg meals most of us are brought up on. The familiar, such as the roast beef, potatoes and gravy and peas here, are in the realm of "comfort food" we return to. But the unfamiliar, or the familiar put together in different ways, can be even more appealing. And it doesn't have to involve expensive ingredients or very complicated preparation. For example, consider the salmon dinner here. This is a salmon filet with blue cheese and blueberries. The baby potatoes are boiled, then seared and sprinkled with ground dried mushrooms. The asparagus is on a bed of bean sprouts. In the background is a very simple appetizer of tofu with soy sauce and a little ground ginger, sprinkled with chopped green onions.
I think we (men, women and children), should all learn as much as we can about how to prepare things from scratch, just as I think we should be able to tie our own shoes, build a fire, sew on a button or make good chocolate-chip cookies. But it does not mean I think we should always do everything from scratch just because we can. Watch the Iron Chef-type shows and you will see the featured chefs have assistants. There is a lot of chopping and blending and boiling and searing and such that takes a lot of time. And that's great.
But with this salmon dinner, for example, I used two pots--a small stainless saucepan with lid to boil, then sear the potatoes, and a small frypan with a lid to sear, then slow-simmer the salmon. The bean sprouts were simply rinsed and drained. The asparagus spears were individually flash frozen, so I "cooked" them by microwave for 30 seconds and sprinkled a little sesame oil on top. The potatoes were cut at quarters and about halfway through, boiled, then seared at high temperature with half olive oil and half canola oil, then sprinkled with salt and ground pepper and dried mushroom before serving. The salmon was also frozen, cut from a big slab. I sprayed the filet with olive oil and sprinkled the skin side with salt and pepper, squeezed a lemon and a lime over the top, then seared it skin-side down, adding a splash of white wine and covering, reducing the heat to simmer until it was done.
The "fancy" sauce is blue cheese, crumbled with a tablespoon of mayonaise (real, not salad dressing!), and a dribble of lemon juice. After spooning it over the salmon, I added several frozen blueberries. Yes, frozen.
The decoration is just salad herbs, a bit of red bell peper, and thin slices of the lemon and lime. It has the combination of eye appeal, color, texture, flavor variety, and healthful ingredients that all meals (ideally) should have, and cost perhaps $1 at most for the ingredients. I'd say that makes it almost qualify as "comfort food."