Sunday, April 29, 2007

Bonding over the stove

There's nothing better than cooking with friends to get back into the swing of being in the kitchen. When I was in college, I cooked fairly often with friends, but in recent years, it's a rare occasion that I have the opportunity to do so. Last weekend, I went up to Cris and Taylor's apartment in San Jose for a cooking extravaganza. When I got there, Cris had a number of cookbooks and magazines spread out on the kitchen table and was planning what to make for our dinner feast. After much discussion, the three of us finally settled on a menu:
• Pizza with chicken sausage, mozzerella, ricotta, and yellow tomatoes with an herb crust.
• Mixed greens salad with baked goat cheese.
• Risotto bianco with basil-spinach pesto.
• Flank steak with "brandied" mushrooms.
• Berries with amaretto whipped cream and chocolate sauce.

After a quick trip to the grocery store to pick up the items they didn't have on hand, we each took charge of various parts of the meal. Taylor got to work on the pizza by browning some chicken sausage, Cris started making the pesto, and I put the blackberries and strawberries in a bowl to mascerate with some Meyer lemon juice and honey. Nothing we cooked with was organic, although some of the produce had come from their local farmers' market. And, you know, while I might usually object to eating that way, I'm not about to start lecturing my friends about their eating habits. This was the very first time we'd ever cooked together, and they aren't familiar with my food philosophy. I know we'll cook together more in the future, and over time, I'll start talking more about why I eating organic and local is important to me. I don't expect to change anyone's mind, but maybe next time, I'll be the one doing the shopping and I can show them how much better tasting organic foods are.

I was also in charge of the steak and mushrooms, but since that needed the least amount of time to cook, I helped Cris with her risotto, since I've made risotto like a million times. She said it was nice to cook with someone who knew what she was doing, as the other friends she's cooked with are still only learning to cook. I thought it was pretty nice myself — the three of us did a sort of dance as we worked around each other, using each other's utensils, ingredients, and stove space.

My contribution was from Tyler Florence's latest cookbook and required little more than pan-grilling some steak (we opted for the cheaper flank), sauteeing whole crimini mushrooms, then making a brandy cream sauce. Since no one wanted to spend ten bucks for an entire bottle of brandy, I used red wine instead. Easy — and ridiculously delicious.

The pizza was done while we were still working on the main course, so we ate slices of pizza and drank glasses of white wine while we stirred and grilled and checked for doneness. Finally, we were ready to sit down for the meal. There was tons of food and lots of red wine. I was so full that I couldn't finish everything on my paste — and there was still dessert to go!

We sat around the living room for a while, digesting and playing a board game called "Kill Dr. Lucky." When we were finally ready for more food, Cris whipped some cream, I kept an eye on the melting chocolate in the microwave, and Taylor opened the bottle of raspberry wine that we'd gotten at Trader Joe's. The wine was surprising, because I'd had raspberry wine before but it didn't taste like this one did. It was like drinking a glass of liquified raspberry jam, and I mean that in the best possible way. It's definitely a wine I would buy again. Only Cris and I had the berries with cream and chocolate; Taylor opted for a Dreyer's ice cream bar instead.

It was an excellent way to spend an evening: cooking, eating, having good conversations with friends. I left with a tupperware of leftovers, plus a book and some graphic novels that Taylor wanted me to read. I definitely look forward to more adventures in cooking with these guys.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Back in the kitchen

In the weeks since I began writing my thesis, I stopped being interested in cooking. It happens to the best of us, I suppose: Suddenly, there is no thrill to be gotten out of taking out the pots and pans, and grabbing take-out becomes a regular means of procuring nourishment. After doing this for several weeks, I decided that it was high time I got back in the kitchen, and as of yesterday, I decided that I am not going to eat out for one month. (Exceptions include special occasions, like my cousin's wedding in two weeks, and if someone else is paying.)

So I began cooking again by whipping up what has become sort of a go-to dish for me: Andrea Nguyen's asparagus and shiitake stir-fry. I first ate this last year at a house where I was doing child care; the dad was test-driving the recipe for the author. He made it using yard-long beans instead of asparagus, and the fact that I actually wanted to eat string beans when they were prepared this way assured me that this was an excellent recipe. (This was also how I first heard about Nguyen's book.) I've since made it myself a number of times, using both beans and asparagus, and I once turned it into a main dish by throwing some tofu in. This morning, I made a light lunch of it by putting it over rice and topping the whole thing with a fried egg.

Asparagus and Shiitake Mushroom Stir-Fry
Man Tay Xao Nam Huong

1 1/2 pounds asparagus, woody ends trimmed and cut on the diagonal into 2-inch pieces
6 to 8 dried shiitake mushrooms, reconstitued (Nguyen recommends soaking them overnight, but I put them in hot water for 15 to 30 minutes, and they turn out fine) and cut into 1/4-inch strips

1/2 tsp sugar
1-1/2 tsp fish sauce
1 tbsp oyster sauce
2 tsp canola oil
1-1/2 tbsp water

In a large pot filled with salted, boiling water, parboil the asparagus for one minute. Drain and rinse under cold water.

Mix the last five ingredients together to make the sauce.

In a large skillet, heat 1-1/2 tbsp oil over medium heat. Add asparagus and mushrooms and stir-fry for about 3 min. Stir sauce, then add to the pan, stirring to distribute evenly. Cook for another minute, until only a little sauce is visible.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

"Bizarre" foods?

I generally only turn to the Travel Channel on Tuesday nights (to watch Taste of America while I'm making dinner), so I've never actually seen the show Bizarre Foods, although I've seen the ads and can imagine what it's like: some American guy goes around the world and eats the sort of stuff that would completely gross out the average meat-and-potatoes person.

After writing my post on "ew" foods, I went to the show's site to find out just what exactly this guy has consumed. I found a quiz, asking the common eater to choose the "top 10 most bizarre foods" the host has eaten. The options include items that I think are pretty innocuous, like durian, menudo, and haggis — all of which I've eaten (although the durian wasn't so great). The foods I would object to, if they were ever served to me, were things involving grubs or worms and something called nutria, which apparently is a "large semi-aquatic rodent." Ick. But the voters did not agree with me on the rodent thing, as only 7% thought it was the most bizarre. The worms were actually winning the poll, with a score of 25%, followed by haggis, at 18%. Haggis? Is it the sheep's stomach thing that weirds people out? How is that any more bizarre than eating a rodent? I suppose I'm just biased because I actually enjoy eating haggis, preferrably with a side of tatties and neeps (mashed potato and mashed turnip) and a pint.

Then I saw that the site featured the foods he had eaten when he was in the Philippines. Not all of it was necessarily "bizarre": shrimp pancakes, frog legs, rambutan, lumpia, snails, tuna collar. He, of course, had balut, which is pretty weird but which he described as "duck eggs with legs." To be more precise, it's a fertilized egg with a nearly-developed embryo inside, which is eaten like any old hard-boiled egg. My mom used to feed us balut when I was little, and I remember it being delicious, although I didn't want to have to see the tiny bird's body on the plate. To be honest, I don't think I would eat it now, unless my mom was around to dispose of the objectionable component. (Cooked poultry heads kind of freak me out.)

The list goes on with things like cheese ice cream (which I've seen at the Filipino markets here; I don't know what the draw to that sort of flavor is and may have to try some), sinabawang balut ("balut soup with cow’s feet"), cricket adobo, and dinuguan. That last one is something that always appeared at family gatherings — and I have to say I've never liked it. Perhaps it's because my mother called it "chocolate pork" when I was growing up, and it definitely did not taste like chocolate. Dinuguan is pork or pork innards stewed in pork blood. Considering that I now like blood sausage, I may have to give the stew another try, although my family doesn't make it very often anymore.

My point, I suppose, is that the "gross-out" factor is pretty relative, especially when you're someone who eats or has eaten the things a show is claiming are "bizarre." But then, Bizarre Foods really isn't for those people, is it? Perhaps it's for those meat-and-potatoes viewers for whom sushi would be a culinary stretch — shows like this often like to "shock" the average viewer. On the other hand, maybe this show can be seen as educational, showing us that almost anything that can be eaten is eaten by someone somewhere in the world — and, in that case, can serve to make these "bizarre" foods a little less bizarre.