Monday, May 14, 2007

Food for thought

The Anthropologist took the qualifying exams for his Ph.D. last week. The week before that, he mentioned that it was traditional for the student to provide his committee of professors with something to nibble on during the exams. Wanting to help -- and also wanting an opportunity to show off my cooking skills -- I told him not to worry about the food, that I'd take care of it.

The Anthropologist's committee chair had recommended finger foods, like veggies and fruit. I think she didn't want the Anthropologist to have something else to have to worry about. Little did she know, that he has a girlfriend who makes even the most simple foods fancy. I did include fruit and veggies -- I just gussied them up a bit.

I decided on a simple but filling menu: pesto chicken salad on rosemary focaccia with roasted red peppers, blue cheese-stuffed endive, and tropical fruit salad with ginger syrup.

The fruit salad came about because I saw that fresh pineapples were on sale. I never get to buy a fresh pineapple because, well, I'm allergic. (It's too highly acidic, so I can only eat one or two pieces.) I got so much joy out of cutting it up: it smelled so fragrant and tasted so sweet. I think preparing the pineapple was the highlight of this entire cooking endeavor.

I was a little nervous about how the food would be received. I've never met any of the people who would be eating it, so I didn't know what everyone's tastes in food were. But the containers I had sent off with the Anthropologist came back empty, which is exactly what a cook wants to see!

Incidentally, the Anthropologist passed his exams. Not thanks to my food, of course, but I think I at least put his committee in a good mood with a tasty meal.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Breakfast discovery

Lately, on most mornings when I'm not running out the door late, I eat a bowl of hot cereal. I have it down to an exact science: 1/3 cup of Bob's Old Mill organic 10-grain cereal, 1 tablespoon of flax seed (which brings it to a total of 12 grams of fiber — this is not for the weak of intestines!), 1/2 cup of water, and 1/4 cup whole milk. The trick is not to stir it at all, just dump everything in. This gets microwaved for two minutes, then sits for a few minutes to cool. I've found that if you stir too early, the cereal becomes thick and clumpy, which is not at all how I like it. Now, add a spoonful of sugar, followed by a healthy dash of cinnamon. (This final addition began when I read an article about the correlation between the consumption of cinnamon and a reduced risk of diabetes.)

Today, as I took the jar of cinnamon down from the cupboard above the sink, I eyed the ground cloves. Ground cloves, I thought. They taste good with cinnamon. So I added a little pinch. You know what tastes good with cinnamon and cloves? Ginger. In it went. The result? Just a hint of spice, like gingerbread.

I love gingerbread. Why hadn't I thought of this before?

I wonder what other spices work well in hot cereal.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Like Christmas

On Wednesday, I received a package in the mail. It was a medium-sized box, but it was heavier than it looked. I was on my way to work, so I brought the box with me to the car. Finally, at a stop light, I opened up the top with my house key. Inside, it was like Christmas: five hardcover cookbooks.

I have a huge collection of cookbooks. This probably comes as no surprise, considering how much I love food and cooking. But when I go to friends' homes or look around the houses I work in, I find that most people have maybe a handful of cookbooks that fit neatly in a small space in the kitchen. In comparison, I have a small, three-shelf bookcase that holds something like 36 books. That's not too many, is it? (And that's not including the few I managed to purge out and am trying to sell on Amazon — plus the ones I just got!)

A few weeks ago, I received an ad for a cookbook book club, which offered four books for fifty cents a pop. Fifty cents! All I had to commit to was a purchase of three more books in the next two years. I decided to take advantage of their "buy your first book now" deal, which came at half the price. So for about $35, or the cost of one hardcover cookbook, I got five. Am I the only one who finds this an incredibly awesome deal?

As for those two other books I'm supposed to buy? I've already ordered one more.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

The wedding banquet

When I heard my cousin was getting married, I immediately began looking forward to the reception. His new wife is Chinese, and so I knew that I'd finally — after drooling over other people's stories of the food at Chinese wedding receptions — get to experience the deliciousness that is a multi-course banquet.

It took a while for the food to actually happen. The invitation said 6PM, and when I got there late at 7:30 (because, man, it takes forever to curl my hair, plus there was zero parking thanks to two receptions that were happening at the restaurant), there was still another hour wait before food was served. It was well worth the wait, though, because it was good. This wasn't your usual Americanized Chinese fare, like the take-out I'm eating at this very moment: chow mein, almond chicken, or sweet and sour pork. I hate when people use the word "authentic" to describe food (and I'm not even going to get into why that is), but this was what I think of when people talk about "authentic" Chinese food.

There was much discussion the day of the wedding about the exact number of courses that were going to be served. I heard the total was anywhere between seven and eleven. Here is the actual total:
• Cold barbecued meats, including char siu, duck, and chicken.
• Deep-fried crab and shrimp balls, with little crab claw "handles."
• Scallops and shrimp with snow peas and candied walnuts.
• Shark fin soup (which I did not eat because most shark fin comes from endangered sources).
• Lobster with a heavy butter sauce. (A very labor-intensive dish because we had to shell the lobster pieces ourselves.)
• Abalone and sea cucumber with shiitake mushrooms. (My brother commented that sea cucumber is like "the Jello of the sea." It does have a very, um, interesting texture, and I can only ever eat one bite when I have it.)
• Steamed fish with green onion.
• A very simple fried rice with bits of shrimp and crab.
• Taro root paste with sweet syrup and dried fruits.

Nine courses! Which left only enough room at the end to have two bites of the bright green wedding cake.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

The simplicity of pasta

The thing I like best about pasta is that you can dress it up in so many ways. It's even better when it can be done simply, as evidenced by many of the pasta recipes in Deborah Madison's The Greens Cookbook, which feature only a handful of ingredients and require little work to prepare.

Last week, I made fresh spinach pasta (from the farmers' market) with asparagus, peas, and saffron cream. In fact, it was so good, I made it two nights in a row. By the second time, I was already able to throw the dish together without looking at the recipe.

I don't usually like peas, but then, I'd always had the kind that come frozen in a bag. These peas came in their pods, fresh from the market, and I have to say it was rather satisfying to shell them. They were sweet, not at all mushy, and went very well with the pasta and sauce.

The original recipe calls for tagliatelle, but any long flat pasta works fine. Fresh is best, too, because it soaks up the cream sauce better than dried pasta.

Fettucine, asparagus, and peas with saffron cream
(adapted from The Greens Cookbook)

1 lb fresh pasta
1 lb thin asparagus, cut into short rounds
1 lb peas
1/8 tsp saffron threads, covered with a couple tbsp water to make an infusion
1 tbsp butter
2 shallots, finely diced
1-1/2 c cream

Bring a large pot of water to a boil.

Melt the butter in a wide sauté pan, and gently cook the shallots for several minutes, until soft. Add the cream and saffron infusion, bring to a boil, reduce slightly, and season with salt.

When the water comes to a boil, cook the asparagus for about 4 minutes, then remove and add to the cream sauce. Cook the peas for 6 minutes, scoop them out, and add them to the sauce. Next cook the pasta (taste for doneness). When done, add to cream, turning to completely coat. Serve with parmesan and pepper.

Serves four.