Monday, January 29, 2007

Food fit for a quest

Sometimes I like to do extremely dorky things on the weekends, like play Dungeons and Dragons with the Anthropologist, a couple of people from the forensic anthropology department, and their partners. But this isn't the D&D you knew in junior high, with you and your friends sitting in the basement with a bag of chips and a box of soda. Three of the players (myself included) love to cook, so when we do potlucks, we are eating well.

For this game, I made enchiladas suizas and a banana tarte tatin. I didn't take any photos at all because I was in a rush to get it all done before we had to leave, but I can tell you, they looked and tasted delicious. The enchiladas had flour tortillas wrapped around sliced Quorn cutlets, a tomatillo sauce, and Swiss cheese, topped with a white sauce and more cheese. The tarte tatin was like a puff pastry filled with bananas Foster.

I like playing with these guys because I get to talk food with them. Cris, who made chicken marsala with sage, mushrooms, and red onions, recently mentioned wanting to get a pasta maker for her KitchenAid. When I expressed interest (and jealousy!), she said I'd have to come over and make pasta with her. That's something I'm looking forward to — because I've always wanted to make pasta from scratch. She also recognized that my enchiladas were based on a recipe she'd also used from Cooking Light. I love bonding over food!

Enchiladas suizas
serves 8

1 lb tomatillos (about 10), husked
2 jalapeño chiles
1/4 c loosely packed cilantro
2 cloves garlic
1/2 yellow onion, chopped
1/2 c sour cream (light, if you want), divided
1-1/2 c milk (whole or 2%)
1-1/2 tbsp flour
4 Quorn cutlets (one box)
8 flour tortillas
8 oz Swiss cheese, shredded and divided

Preheat oven to 350° F.

Place the tomatillos and chiles in a saucepan, and cover with water. Bring to a boil, and cook for 8 minutes. Drain, reserving 1/2 cup water. In a food processor, puree tomatillos and chiles with cilantro and garlic, adding water to thin if necessary. In the same saucepan, sautee onions until fragrant, then add tomatillo puree. Simmer for ten minutes, until reduced to about 1 cup. Remove from heat, and stir in 1/4 cup sour cream.

Put Quorn into a shallow dish, and microwave according to package instructions. When cool enough to handle, slice into thin strips.

In another saucepan, combine milk and flour over medium heat, stirring constantly with a whisk. Cook until thickened. Remove from heat, and whisk in remaining 1/4 cup sour cream.

Heat tortillas (in the microwave, in a dry pan, whatever). Spread 1/3 cup of tomatillo sauce on the bottom of a 9" x 13" pan. In each tortilla, place a few strips of Quorn, about two tablespoons of cheese, and a generous spoonful of tomatillo sauce. Roll up, and put into prepared pan. Top enchiladas with remaining tomatillo sauce (if any), the white sauce, and about 1 cup cheese.

Bake, uncovered, for 30 minutes.

Banana tarte tatin
(from Martha Stewart Living)
serves 8

1 sheet frozen puff pastry, defrosted
6 tbsp unsalted butter
3/4 c light brown sugar
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/8 tsp salt
5 ripe bananas, peeled and sliced lengthwise
1 tsp vanilla extract
2 tsbp dark rum
Creme fraîche, for serving

Preheat oven to 425° F.

On a lightly floured surface, trim puff pastry to a 12" circle. Place on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper and refrigerate for 15 minutes. Cut three 1/2-inch slits in the middle, and set aside at room temperature.

In an oven-proof skillet, melt butter over medium heat. Stir in brown sugar, cinnamon, and salt, and cook until amber, about 3 minutes. Place bananas in skillet, all lined up in the same direction, slightly overlapping (but don't worry if it's not perfect). Cook, without stirring, for 5 minutes. Sprinkle vanilla and rum over the top, and cook another 3 minutes. Place the puff pastry on top, trimming with kitchen scissors if neccesary.

Bake for 25 minutes.

Let cool slightly, then place a serving plate on top of the pan. Invert the entire thing, then lift the pan off the plate. If the tarte sticks, turn the pan back over and run a small spatula underneath the bananas, and try again.

Serve with creme fraîche, whipped or not.

(I would just like to note here that I just typed these two recipes from memory, which I think goes to show how easy they are to make!)

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Breakfast of champions

On the mornings when I don't have to rush off to work (which wasn't today!), I'm trying to eat more well-rounded breakfasts that won't leave me starving after an hour or two. After exhausting my possibilities with the usual breakfast fare of hot cereal, smoothies, and scrambled eggs, I decided to change things up and eat breakfast the way my Filipino relatives do.

I should mention here that I'm in the proces of giving up pork. After petting the pigs at the county fair in September and being reminded (yet again) by the Anthropologist of how smart they are, I decided that I really have to stop eating them. (As for beef and poultry, I still eat them because I think those animals are pretty dumb, and therefore okay to consume.) I still have sausages in my freezer, though, so I'm slowly eating those up. And occasionally, I order something at a restaurant that has bacon in it because I forget I'm not eating pig anymore — and man, it's hard to give up bacon.

A little while ago, my mom gave me some longanisa, or sweet Filipino sausage. For breakfast over the weekend, I sliced two of those interestingly red sausages in half lengthwise and cooked them up in a cast iron skillet. After they were browned and curled, I removed the sausages and drained off some of the fat, then threw in some leftover rice — not to fry it, but just to reheat it and soak up the grease. Typically, any sort of meat and rice my mom serves is accompanied by tomatoes, but since it's winter, I decided to make some kale instead, seasoning it with soy sauce and sugar. Not Filipino in the least (actually, making greens that way is Japanese-inspired), but still good. The meal was delicious and definitely filling.

I like eating a big, mid-morning meal, especially since early breakfasts are too early and I almost never have time for lunch. I'll have to find an appropriate replacement for the sausages once I run out of them, though.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Tools of the trade

How could I have failed to mention making this gorgeous trifle? Such is the life of she who works full-time and is a student part-time: not entirely enough time to cook food and write about it! This delectable dessert was produced for a post-Christmas dinner party I hosted for two of the families I work for — the child care provider's equivalent of having the boss and his wife over for dinner. Thank you, Martha Stewart, for the recipe for this triple chocolate-peppermint trifle, which included layers of milk chocolate pudding, white chocolate mousse, and chocolate cake soaked in Godiva liqueur. There was even enough leftover to share with the Anthopologist when he came back from the holidays — and you can bet we enjoyed every last crumb.

I bought the trifle bowl specifically for the purpose of making this very trifle. Even if I never use it again (though I can't imagine not making this again, despite it being rather labor-intensive, or another type of trifle, for that matter), it's completely paid for itself already by just looking really cool upon presentation.

Some other kitchen gadgets came in very handy in making the trifle. I have an ancient hand mixer that I use for most baking projects. I don't even know how old it really is, since I found it in the back of the cupboard when moving out of my freshman-year apartment. When no one claimed it, I took it for myself. Honestly, it's not the best mixer one could have. It beats eggs and whips cream just fine, but it struggles with creaming butter. I've been eyeing a KitchenAid version, but it's not a priority at the moment.

The mousse was made courtesy of my brand-spanking-new Cuisinart food processor, which the main family I work for gave me for Christmas. This thing is enormous and makes food prep a magical experience. Seriously. For the same dinner party, I also made fried shrimp and shiitake wontons. The last time I made them, I chopped the mushrooms and shrimp into little bits by hand, with a large knife. This time, I threw all the ingredients in the bowl, pressed the paddle a couple times, and done — in all of ten seconds. (If you are the proud owner of a food processor, I don't need to tell you how much easier it makes things.)

Another new gadget, which I bought for myself with some Christmas money, was a digital kitchen scale, which came in very handy when the recipe called for six ounces of chocolate and the label on the chunk I had bought said, "0.64 lbs." It's also great for obtaining precise amounts when cutting a recipe in half that calls for 10 to 12 ounces of musrooms. I sort of bought it on a whim (I really wanted a KitchenAid stand mixer but realized that I still can't afford one), but I've used it numerous times and I actually kind of get a kick out of using it.

Other useful kitchen tools aren't as fancy. After needing to crush candy canes for a couple of different recipes and not being very efficient at doing so, I finally pulled the small hammer out of the hardware drawer and gave those candies some good, hard smashing before sprinkling them over the trifle. A hammer is also useful for pounding the peels off of garlic, but typically, I'll use a knife unless I'm keeping the cloves whole.

All this work for one dessert! But let me tell you, it was well worth it.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Sweet and sour... stamps?

Word on the street (or, rather, the farm) is that China is releasing a special stamp in honor of the Year of the Pig. How special, you ask? When you scratch and sniff the front, it smells like sweet and sour pork. But wait, there's more! When you lick the back, it tastes like sweet and sour pork, too.

I am so absolutely intrigued by this and must taste it for myself. In fact, I asked the Anthropologist to ask his good friend who is doing research in China to send some (obviously, unused) over — so I'm hoping to find some in my mailbox in the future.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

How shrimp makes a meal

One of the Christmas gifts I received this year was Andrea Nguyen's Into the Vietnamese Kitchen. Besides being an awesome cookbook, this was an extra special gift because one of the dads I work for tested many of the recipes for the author and even built a wooden mold for the sticky rice cakes, which is pictured in the book. (Also, even though she probably doesn't remember me, I went to a Beck concert with the author, her husband, and some mutual friends two summers ago. These little brushes with the celebrities of my world are very exciting to me.)

I'd woken up this morning wanting nothing more than a simple bowl of soup for breakfast. When I wake up early and have to eat breakfast right away, the only things that sound appetizing to me are light, warm, comforting foods. Miso would have been preferable. Alas, I had no miso paste in the house. (I settled for a quesadilla instead.) I then spent the rest of the day craving more Japanese food and wanted desperately to stop in at Pink Godzilla after work for an ocean salad, udon soup with tempura, and some unagi nigiri. But, since I'm trying not to eat out more than once a week, I went home instead to my mostly empty refrigerator.

And whipped up some Vietnamese food.

I remembered that I'd wanted to try the napa cabbage and shrimp soup, and I happened to have napa cabbage in the crisper and shrimp in the freezer. The recipe really was as simple as that, with just some onions, fish sauce, and water to round it out.

While I was wondering if soup would be substantial enough for dinner, I began flipping through the book and happened upon the recipe for egg, shrimp, and scallion pancakes. I took a wilted green onion out of the fridge, threw some more shrimp in some water to defrost, and grabbed the last couple of eggs. Being properly Asian, I also put the rice cooker on — because what is Asian food without rice? The pancakes are super easy to make and require a few simple steps: scrambling some eggs, combining the other two ingredients, and panfrying until golden.

I sat down with a bowl of hot soup, followed by the pancakes, which I dipped in a little fish sauce mixed with soy sauce and ate over rice. My only complaint is really my own fault: that I didn't wait long enough for the soup to cool and burnt my tongue!

Napa cabbage and shrimp soup (canh caikim chi nau tom)
(adapted from Andrea Nguyen's recipe to make 2 to 3 servings — and to suit what I had on hand)

1/2 small yellow onion, thinly sliced
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 tbsp fish sauce
3 c water
2 c sliced napa cabbage (1/4-inch-wide ribbons)
4-6 shrimp, peeled
freshly ground pepper

In a large saucepan, heat a little oil over medium heat. Add onion and cook gently until fragrant and soft, about 4 minutes. Add the salt and fish sauce, cooking for 30 more seconds. Add water and bring to a boil. Add the cabbage and return to a boil. Lower the heat and simmer for 5 minutes, or until the cabbage is soft and the soup is golden. Drop in the shrimp and cook until pink. Add pepper and extra fish sauce to taste. (I added about a tablespoon or so more fish sauce.) Serve immediately.

Egg, shrimp, and scallion pancakes (trung chien tom)
(adapted from the original to serve 1)

6 shrimp, peeled
2 eggs, beaten
1 scallion, white and green parts, chopped
canola or other neutral oil for frying
fish sauce or soy sauce for serving

Put the shrimp in a bowl, add the eggs and scallions, and mix well. Pour thin coating of oil into a nonstick frying pan. Place over medium heat and heat until a drop of egg immediately sizzles and bubbles upon contact with the oil. To make each pancake, spoon about 2 tablespoons of egg mixture into the pan, making sure that two shrimp are included in each portion. Don't crowd the pancakes. When the edges are browned and lightly set, turn it over carefully with a spatula. Fry for another minute, until browned. Transfer finished pancakes to a plate and keep warm while you make the rest. Serve with fish sauce for dipping.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Inquiring minds want to know

Not that I feel I'm an expert on all things chocolate, but when I realized my response to the following comment was getting a bit lengthy, I thought maybe I should just make a post out of it.

In response to my last post, Michael Doss wrote: "What can you suggest to a guy with underdeveloped chocolate tastes? I generally enjoy M&Ms, don't care for Hershey Bars, and See's Candy is usually just fine for me. Oh, and I like milk chocolate — dark chocolate, to me, is like fine, very expensives coffees or liquers — good, but not something I enjoy as my 'everyday'."

My best advice is to just try what's out there. I don't necessarily eat the fanciest of chocolates. I love See's, too, and those Dove Promises — you know, the ones that come with little "fortunes" printed on the inside of their foil wrappers. Once, I did try some organic dark chocolate with mint creme, which was very expensive and, therefore, eaten very slowly over a period of time. Was it any better than, say, Hershey's Special Dark? Well, yes, actually. But I can tell the difference mostly because I've spent so much time eating different brands of chocolate. (For example, American Cadbury's versus British Cadbury's? No contest: the original British stuff wins hands down. Although, for nostalgic purposes, the little Cadbury eggs with the candy shells that come out at Easter here in the States are one of my favorite kinds of chocolate.)

I don't always agree with my fellow food-obsessed writers in terms of what is or isn't "good" chocolate. I once read a review that said Ghirardelli milk chocolate was "middle-of-the-road" with an "old, mushy flavor." Which I think is completely wrong, especially since I recently made an absolutely delicious chocolate pudding out of that very same product. And the hot chocolate sauce that was poured over the homemade vanilla ice cream in the photo above? Made with semi-sweet chcolate chips from both Ghirardelli and Nestle. The result? Perfectly acceptable. And I mean that in the most positive way.

Because, honestly, I'm not a chocolate connoisseur. Really. I'm not the connoisseur of anything, to tell you the truth. (For instance, I couldn't tell you the difference between a Parmesan cheese aged 15 months or 20 months. I'm not that kind of "foodie.") I just know what tastes good to me, and I know when something is really excellent the first time I taste it. And who isn't happy with ribbons of chocolate drizzled over melting vanilla bean ice cream, no matter what the quality?

So to go back to what I said originally: Eat chcoclate in all its forms. Try a new brand here and there. You never know what you'll find. Try some fancy truffles with rainbow colors painted on their tops and flavors like curry or key lime. Pick up some Toblerone or some of that Scharffen Berger stuff everyone's always raving about. I honestly don't think there's any way you'll be disappointed.