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.
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

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.