Wednesday, February 28, 2007


Sorry about the lack of posts. I've been working on the draft of my Master's thesis, which is due in a couple weeks. I've been making time to cook, but not to write about it! So I leave you with this photo of a mountainous apple pie that I made a while back (the Anthopologist said, "It's huge! You have to take a photo"), and I promise I'll tell you all about the end of my pie-making challenge, which I officially wrapped up earlier this month.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

The cat who came to dinner

Sabriel likes to be where the people are. Which often means he comes to the kitchen table when the Anthropologist and I are sitting at it. While he also enjoys walking around on top of the table or lying on top of something we're trying to read, his favorite is to take our seat when one of us gets up. Here he inspects a bowl of sweet and sour tofu and wonders if chopsticks would make good cat toys. (They roll when batted, so they do!)

In honor of the start of the year of the boar tomorrow, I thought I'd mention my pride in being able to make a good sweet and sour. I got the recipe from a cookbook my mom gave me a few years ago, Every Grain of Rice (which, apparently, is already out of print and goes for upwards of $55 on Amazon!). I do love a good sweet and sour pork or chicken or even tofu, and I've even found myself craving it from time to time. This recipe does not call for the meat (or tofu) to be coated in a thick, heavy batter, which I really like, and it makes the best, all-purpose sweet and sour sauce I've ever tasted outside of a good Chinese restaurant. (I make it all the time as a dip to accompany my fried shrimp and shiitake wontons.)

Sweet and sour pork was one of the first Chinese recipes I'd ever tried to make — wonton soup and scrambled eggs with ketchup and green onions being foods I'd made previous to that. It made me realize that Chinese cooking is not all that difficult and led me to other yummy, "homestyle" dishes such as long-life noodle soup, tomato beef chow mein, and pan-fried prawns in ketchup sauce.

I realize that, for a lot of people, it's much easier just to order take-out from a nearby Chinese restaurant — but, like with all home-cooking, I like being able to control what ingredients go into my meals, and I like having the satisfaction in knowing I can make something that most people wouldn't even bother to cook.

One of the families I work for is spending the day today with the grandparents to celebrate Chinese lunar new year, and then I'm watching the kids while the parents celebrate Tet, the Vietnamese new year, with Andrea Nguyen, who is cooking up a delicious-sounding meal. (What I wouldn't give to be there, too!) Perhaps tomorrow I'll go with the Anthropolgist to the Golden Buddha, a slightly fancier Chinese restaurant that I haven't been to a long time but which is absolutely delicious. Or I'll make my favorite sweet and sour, trying the sauce over fried fish this time for a little twist.

Sweet-and-Sour Pork
(adapted from Every Grain of Rice: A Taste of Our Chinese Childhood in America by Ellen Blonder and Annabel Low)

1/4 cup water
1/4 cider vinegar (although I often use red wine vinegar)
1/2 cup firmly packed brown sugar
2 tablespoons ketchup
1 tablespoon cornstarch mixed with 3 tablespoons water

oil for pan frying (peanut oil is recommended, but I use canola)
1 pound pork from the shoulder or boneless country-style ribs (or chicken breast or tofu — see Note), cut into 1-inch cubes
2 tablespoons cornstarch
1 bell pepper, cored, seeded, and cut into 1-inch squares
1/2 medium yellow onion, quartered and separated into layers
1/2 fresh pineapple, cored and cut into 1-inch chunks, or 1 cup canned chunks (or 1 fresh mango, peeled and cubed)

To make the sauce, combine the first four ingredients (through ketchup) in a small non-aluminum pan. Cook over low heat, stirring occasionally, until the sugar dissolves, 3 to 4 minutes. Stir in the cornstarch mixture, bring to a boil, and cook over medium-low heat until the sauce is thick. Turn down heat to very low and keep warm.

Heat about an inch of oil in a deep skillet (I use cast iron). Dredge the pork (or whatever) in the cornstarch, then divide into three batches. Put the pieces from the first batch into the oil (if you try to put too many into the pan at once, the meat will be crowded and won't become crispy). Cook 4 to 5 minutes, until browned, turning to brown evenly. Cut through one piece to test for doneness; it should be white and opaque. Remove the meat and let drain on a cookie sheet lined wth paper towels. Repeat with the next two batches.

In another pan, heat a tablespoon of oil. Add the pepper and the onion and stir-fry until the onion is wilted and transparent, 4 to 5 minutes. Add the meat and pineapple (or mango) and heat through for a couple minutes. Add the sauce and cook 1 minute longer.

Note: If you use tofu, be sure to drain it really well by pressing it between two plates and weighting it down, like with a heavy book or a large can, for several minutes. Water-logged tofu won't fry well.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Let's check this one off the list

Everyone always talks about Chez Panisse. The name keeps popping up in the newspapers and in the food blogs I read. I keep hearing about how good the food is and what an impact Alice Waters has had on food and the way we eat.

That settles it. I simply must go.

L-Train, one of my best friends, and I have birthdays in June that are a day apart. I think this year we will have to go out on the town, pretend we are not paying off enormous student loans for one night, and splurge on some delicious food. The restaurant offers one fixed-price menu every night — which is kind of a cool idea and means you show up and eat what's offered to you. It does worry me a little because my friend is not a red meat-eater, and it's sort of a toss-up as to whether the main course will involve meat, chicken, or fish. And if you think you can just look at their menu during that week and show up on the night of a particularly attractive menu, you are sadly mistaken. Dinner is by reservation only, with reservations accepted beginning a month to the day you wish to go.

Am I going to let that stop me? I will get those reservations! I'll convince L-Train to play the food lottery and hope for the best! Because, dammit, I'm going to Chez Panisse.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Making soup in the dark

There are certain types of food that I feel especially proficient at: Italian (pasta, pizza), Mexican (enchiladas, tacos, huevos rancheros), and, of course, American (baked mac and cheese, roast chicken, hamburgers). I can even do a little bit of Americanized Chinese (sweet and sour pork, oyster beef and brocolli). But there are some areas in the food world where I feel my skills fall short — or, at least, where I have little experience.

Using Seductions of Rice as a guide, I recently attempted to make a bowl of udon soup. Actually, all I had to work with was a recipe for dashi, a broth made from kombu and bonito flakes. And I didn't have any bonito, having no Japanese markets nearby (which is one of the things I greatly dislike about living in Santa Cruz — no Asian grocery stores!). So I made a variation of dashi, using kombu and dried shiitake mushrooms.

My local natural foods place sells kombu in bulk, and this was the first time I'd used it. Unlike mild, sweet nori, kombu smells just like the seaweed that washes up on the beach and lies around in the sand: kind of stinky. I didn't let that stop me, though, and even later used the briefly-boiled kombu to make a black kombu relish, which I have yet to try.

Once the dashi was ready, I realized I had no idea what to do next to make my dream of udon a reality. I have cookbooks for all sorts of foods — West African, Filipino, Vietnamese, Chinese, and, of course, the usual tomes of "everything" the author assumes you'd want to cook (How to Cook Everything, for example) — and while I've learned a lot from the Food Network, the shows typically showcase foods that are European or Euro-American. I'm pretty much in the dark when it comes to Japanese cooking. So I did what any hungry cook worth her salt would do: I made up the recipe on the fly.

I mixed a little miso paste into the dashi. Then I chopped some napa cabbage and green onions and put them into a bowl over some cooked udon noodles. I poured the hot miso over everything, then added the mushrooms that had been used to make the broth as well as some sliced fish cake. The result was, well, decent. Not as satisfying as going to the Pink Godzilla and ordering a bowl of udon with tempura, but it tasted okay and was filling.

It's high time I got a book on Japanese cooking, considering it's pretty much my favorite kind of food. I know it's probably easier to just go to a restaurant, but there's something really gratifying in being able to recreate the food at home.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Puppy Bowl!

The Super Bowl? What's that? Yesterday was all about Puppy Bowl. I'd been looking forward to it since I saw the commercials on Animal Planet around Christmas. As I've said elsewhere, how can you not love puppies running around a miniature football field, tumbling about, and just looking really cute? I had a whole afternoon planned, complete with snacks to accompany hours and hours of puppies.

I made Glorified Frijoles, using a recipe I got from The San Francisco Chronicle a few years back, and a cheese dip made with Velveeta. Yes, I know. Processed cheese food is just about the exact opposite of whole food. But I have a slight obsession with gooey, neon orange, fake cheese, and I'd never cooked with a brick of Velveeta before so I was kind of excited about it. These were served with soy and flax seed tortilla chips, which I thought would make the whole thing slightly healthier.

I end up making a ton, which I thought I would have to eat all by mself, until the Anthropologist returned from the Seabright Brewery, having not found a place to sit, with a friend in tow. So it was a good thing I'd made so much!

Glorified Frijoles
(adapted from a recipe by
Jacqueline Higuera McMahan)

1/4 c diced onion
1 clove garlic, minced
1 15-oz can refried black beans with jalepenos
4 oz cream cheese, cut into small pieces
Chile powder, to taste
1/2 c shredded sharp cheddar cheese
(The original recipe also calls for chopped fresh tomato, which I omitted because they are out of season, as evidenced by the sad, yellowish specimens at the grocery store. But go ahead and add some if you like.)

In a small saucepan, saute the onion in olive oil until fragrant. Add garlic and cook for another minute. Add beans and heat through, then stir in cream cheese until combined. Add chile powder and cheese, and cook until "volcanic."

"Posh" Velveeta dip

4 oz Velveeta cheese, cut up into small pieces
1/4 c jarred salsa
1/4 c sour cream
green onion, sliced
cilantro, chopped

Put cheese food, salsa, and sour cream into a microwave safe bowl, and microwave for about 3 minutes. When melted, stir in green onion and cilantro, mixing to a smooth consistency.