Wednesday, July 29, 2009

A different direction

Yes, I know — it's been ages since I last posted. A lot has been going on in the Not from a Box household, not least of which is losing my job and deciding to move to India while the Anthropologist finishes his research there.

I've been cooking a lot more now that my access to free meals has been discontinued. I just haven't been blogging. While I still adore photography, stopping to shoot every step of cooking — or even taking the time at the end to get a couple shots — has become less and less interesting to me. So has regularly posting about what I've been cooking.

Some of the things I've made recently:
whole wheat, flax seed, and strawberry pancakes
Meyer lemon pasta with zucchini ribbons and roasted cherry tomatoes
grass-fed beef patties with curry mustard on an arugula and mixed sprouts salad

I've also eaten fabulous fish wrapped in banana leaves from the Thai stall at the Temescal farmer's market, artichoke soup and warm sourdough at Duarte's in Pescadero, and duck confit hash with a poached egg at Angelle's in Napa. Among other things.

As I think more about my writing and where I want to go with it, I'm realizing that food writing is something I enjoy reading, but that I don't get as much pelasure out of writing about it specifically. I plan to write a travel blog while I'm in India, in which I will include my thoughts about culture, animals, riding on trains, interacting with people, and — of course — food. I'll post here from time to time when I want to share a particularly inspiring recipe or meal. And perhaps in the future I'll be once again excited about writing about food on a regular basis.

If you're someone who reads this blog, please drop me a line and let me know. I'd like to know you're out there.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Chew on this

While there are a handful of blogs I read throughout the week, I use the weekends to catch up with all the food blogs I've got on my list. In the midst of my reading, I stumbled across this on Michael Bauer's blog: a post and following discussion about foie gras, meat-eating, and the ethics of both.

Since the post focuses on a discussion that Bauer had with a vice-president at PETA, the comments go around and around about PETA's methods. I personally have some problems with the organization. While I'll happily "honk if you hate animal cruelty" when there are protesters outside the local KFC, I find PETA is often too preachy or too in-your-face. I don't know if the best way to convince others not to wear leather is to throw animal blood on them and their leather jackets. I also sometimes think the logic they use when making pro-vegetarian statements is faulty.

To be honest, I'm not a fan of anyone who tries to push their point of view on me. I have a problem with meat-eaters who are over the top, too (ever seen the website VegetariansAreEvil. com?). After reading all the comments on Bauer's post, I just wanted to put my hands over my ears and go, "La la la la!" I didn't want to hear any of it anymore: "There is just no physiological reason to eat plants if you don't want to." "You cannot 'respect' an animal by killing it and eating it." Seriously, people, just shut up, do some research, and eat based on informed decisions. There is no point in arguing or beating each other over the head with your opinions.

The post makes for interesting reading, though.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Meeting Molly

I left class early (on the very first day, no less) to make the hour-long drive to Capitola to see Molly of Orangette read from her new book at the Capitola Book Cafe. I went because her blog is one of the handful I read fairly regularly. I also went because I was hoping to find inspiration. I wanted to meet someone who had started a blog and was writing about food and had managed to find her way to writing for magazines and then to writing a book. Kind of like what I hope to do.

Her writing is very real, and what I mean by that is that you can actually envision someone — an actual person — who is sitting down at her computer, thinking about the food she makes and writing it all down for others to read. Molly as a person is very real, too. Just a woman in jeans and a ponytail. Maybe she's the person who you walk by on your way to the mail box. Maybe she works down the street from you and takes the same bus. I know it sounds silly, but I always think of authors as super people, like they have special abilities that elevate them above all of us normal humans.

So it was inspirational to go and meet her, to have her tell me to keep writing and keep blogging. That even though I feel, as she described, "like I'm just shouting into an empty room," it's good practice to write about what interests me and to keep at it.

So here I am, writing. And having a fine time of it, too. Thanks, Molly.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

Bring on the casserole

There has been little cooking happening in the Not From a Box household in the past couple weeks. This is due to a combination of two factors: As a result of tightening my money belt, I've been eating at work a lot more (read: free food). I also started a new medication recently which has almost entirely eliminated my appetite.

Despite that, I still managed to whip up a vegetable noodle casserole last weekend — because when I'm not at work, I have to eat something, right? It has all the elements of a traditional tuna noodle casserole, which is one of my favorite comfort foods, with broccoli in place of the tuna.

I don't know when I started to make tuna noodle casserole. It wasn't something I grew up with, though I have a vague memory of maybe eating it for dinner as a child. The recipe is included in one of my favorite cookbooks from my college years: Clueless in the Kitchen, and I think that when I discovered how easy and how good this casserole was, I added it my repertoire of go-to dinner entrees. It's very similar to a meal I would whip up for kids when I was doing in-home child care: macaroni and cheese (from a box) with tuna and peas. Also a good go-to meal.

Tip: If you want to buy organic and by-pass the Campbell's condensed soup for this recipe, make sure you get an organic soup brand that's thick enough for the casserole so as not to make it too watery. I opted for the Whole Food's 365 brand, which is lovely because it's full of chunky pieces of mushrooms and carrots, but it's not condensed, so my casserole had a lot more liquid in it than I would have liked. I should have sprung for the Amy's brand (at a whole $1.50 more per can!).

Vegetable noodle casserole

2 c whole wheat noodles, like penne or rigatoni
1 head broccoli, cut into bite-sized pieces
1 can condensed cream of mushroom soup
1/2 c frozen peas
1 c French fried onions (yes, from a can — you can also use 1 c bread crumbs mixed with a little olive oil)

Preheat oven to 350°F.

In a large pot of salted boiling water, cook noodles until just done. Add broccoli in the last couple minutes to parboil. Drain.

In a casserole dish, combine noodles, broccoli, soup, and peas. Sprinkle fried onions or breadcrumbs over the top. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes, until bubbly. (If the topping starts to burn, put a piece of aluminum foil over the top.)

Serves 2 or 3.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

It's kale-rific!

I was at Whole Foods one busy weekend afternoon. My nearly overflowing basket was full of crackers, eggs, milk, and different kinds of produce. I was standing in the bulk isle, stocking up on cornmeal, when an elderly woman walked by and remarked on the dinosaur kale that was spilling over the side of the basket.

"Do you like kale?" she asked.

"I love kale!" I said enthusiastically.

She went on to say that people no longer appreciate vegetables like kale, turnips, or other veggies eaten in eastern European countries. And, you know, she's right. Many people today know the basics — potatoes, carrots, broccoli, lettuce — but they don't feel the need to expand their horizons beyond that. (The same is true with fruit, of course. I recently watched a program where people were asked to identify the different fruits arranged on a table, and they had a hard time recognizing kumquats, pomegranates, and papayas. Again, if it's not a banana, apple, or orange, people don't seem to be bothered.)

I suppose I'm spoiled because I live in California and have access to so many kinds of produce. But there really are so many vegetables available in many areas of the country that simply don't get the recognition they deserve: Beets. Swiss chard. Leeks. And kale.

Poor kale. It's so nutritious and is very tasty when cooked properly. I like to sauté it until tender and crisp around the edges, then serve it with brown rice with peanut sauce on top.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Surprisingly delicious

This dish was inspired by one of my favorite food bloggers. By inspired, I mean he posted the recipe, and I followed the instructions. It is absolutely fabulous — and insanely easy to boot. Basically, you throw some broccoli on a baking sheet, roast it for a few minutes, add some shrimp, and roast it all for a little while longer. A squirt of lemon and serving it over rice makes it perfect.

You don't normally think to roast broccoli. This green bane of many children's existences is typically boiled or steamed, right? But roasting brings out qualities that you wouldn't usually experience when cooked the regular way: crisped edges, caramelized stems, and a sweetness that roasting seems to bring to all veggies. The AG isn't kidding when he calls roasted broccoli "the best broccoli of your life."

I doubted it at first. Boy, was I wrong. Try it yourself. You'll see.

Don't leave out the lemon!

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Going veggie

People often think I'm vegetarian. I'm not sure why this is. Perhaps they are buying into a stereotype? Because of course the girl who drives a Prius with the "Buy Fresh Buy Local" and "Coexist" stickers, doesn't wear leather, and buys from socially conscious companies would necessarily also be a vegetarian. But nope, sorry to dispel the myth: I am happily a meat-eater.

Why? I could go into biological and evolutionary reasons: that our teeth and digestive systems were designed to process meat. I could go into nutritional reasons: that meat contains essential nutrients that our bodies need that are hard to find in other foods. None of these, however, are why I eat meat. I eat meat because I enjoy it. It tastes good.

I don't eat pork. Pigs are more intelligent than dogs, and we don't eat dogs, do we? Cows, chickens, and fish are sufficiently stupid for my consumption.

So I've established that I love meat. I don't have to eat it all the time, and I certainly have been known to eat many meat-free meals. But it would be hard to go without it for a long period of time. Which is why I'm giving meat up for Lent. Since I was little, I give up something that would be a challenge to give up for a full forty days in the run-up to Easter Sunday. This year it's meat. I know I'll be able to do it, but it means no Thai green curry with chicken, no sushi, no chicken taquitos at Chevy's, and no burgers. I craved beef in India because very few people eat beef, what with the cow being sacred and all. But I made it through, and I'll make it through a meatless period just the same.

In the few days before Wednesday, when Lent begins, I plan to eat mussels over pasta, roast chicken, tuna noodle casserole, and finally, I'll have a nice, big hamburger to celebrate Fat Tuesday. And then my adventure as a vegetarian will begin.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

A new year of salads

One of my new year's resolutions — and the only one I've been really good about — is "eat better." With those buffet lunches at work, it's super easy to load up a plate with fried, cream sauce-covered, bacon-laden, and overall fattening foods. So I've been making more conscious choices when eating at work, as well as making a point to cook healthy meals at home. I'm feeling really good about it, and I'm feeling healthier, too.

Salad is a new regular addition to my daily diet repertoire, especially now that I've learned what I like and don't like in a salad. I most certainly don't like a salad made of romaine lettuce (I'm not a fan of those crunchy ribs). I prefer baby greens, like spinach. I like additions like edamame or chickpeas, pumpkin seeds, julienned carrots or beets, cherry tomatoes (in season), and sometimes croutons. And my new favorite dressing? One that is yogurt-based. I had a yogurt and herb dressing on a salad at work and really liked it. When I recreated it at home with plain yogurt and a few dried herbs, it was even better. Today, I had a salad with yogurt tangerine dressing that was surprisingly tasty.

The salad above was a light Sunday night dinner (after a heavy late Sunday lunch of steak and shrimp fajitas), consisting of baby spinach, tuna, sun-dried tomatoes, pumpkin seeds, and yogurt-herb dressing.

There's something that feels really healthy about a eating a dish that is made up mostly of raw ingredients. Maybe it's psychosomatic, but I sometimes am put in a better mood by an especially good salad.

Monday, February 09, 2009

The Cook's Cannon (TCC) #1: apple pie

The first recipe every cook needs to know to make is something I've actually made and posted about briefly before. I don't think I've made an apple pie since then, although I have made "pocket" pies — which also was a while ago.

I'm not going to make one as part of this challenge, as I'm fairly happy with my pie-baking skills. I'm definitely far overdue, however, in whipping up an apple pie, so I will definitely plan on making one in the near future — perhaps the next time I can get to the farmers' market for heirloom apples.

I wouldn't be following Raymond Sokolov's recipe to the letter anyway. His pie crust calls for lard, which not only is a pork product (which I don't eat) but it renders the pie no longer vegetarian. I prefer the all-butter crust. I also like the apple filling to be seasoned with cinnamon, ginger, cloves, or other spices, whereas the book's recipe calls for only sugar.

I think that's part of learning to cook something: understanding that a single recipe may not be the one and final way to make a dish. Even Cook's Illustrated's "master" recipes are not necessarily my master recipes – as evidenced by the fact that their pie crust includes Crisco shortening, which I would never use. As I've said before, one of my favorite methods of cooking something new is to lay out several recipes for that one dish, then pick and choose ingredients and cooking methods that are agreeable to me.

Stay tuned for #2...

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Stocking up

Inspired by the Amateur Gourmet, I made some chicken stock today, featuring chicken backs. I usually make stock from chicken carcasses, leftover after making a roast chicken. In fact, I have one waiting in the freezer, which I only remembered after everything was in the pot (but that's okay — I'll just make more stock soon enough!). I enjoy making stock because, well, it's ridiculously easy, and it fills the apartment with a comforting and chicken-y scent. I also am of the belief that packaged stock is flavorless. While I've been known to buy boxed broth at the store, I decided it was high time I started regularly making my own to keep on hand in the freezer, so that I could infuse my food with as much flavor as possible.

Which is what makes this recipe so great: no need to wait till you've roasted a chicken to make stock. Considering I'm only cooking for one these days, the opportunity to roast a chicken doesn't typically present itself. (The carcass in the freezer is from a dinner party I threw before Thanksgiving.) Chicken backs are easy to come by. All you have to do is ask the butcher for them, and he'll go into the back to get them. I mean, all those other chicken parts come from a whole chicken, and the backs have to be somewhere, right?

Plus, chicken backs just look cool.

My adjustments to the recipe the AG used: I roughly chopped everything, instead of making everything all tidy and pretty like he did, since I was going to toss all the solids anyway. For that same reason, I included the onion skins and carrot greens. In fact, I've made stock with vegetable "leftovers" before — it's a great way to avoid wasting those parts when you don't have a way to compost.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

The "Omnivore's Hundred"

I love memes. I found the following on Foodie in Denial. It even includes handy links, in case you don't recognize something listed here.

I don't know how this person came up with this particular list. It apparently contains foods that "every good omnivore should have tried at least once in their life," which run the gamut from the processed (Hostess and McDonald's) to the gourmet (sweetbreads and Kobe beef) to the weird (crocodile and whole insects).

Well, you'll see:

1) Copy this list into your blog or journal, including these instructions.
2) Bold all the items you’ve eaten. [I starred mine because the bold doesn't show well.]
3) Cross out any items that you would never consider eating.
4) Optional extra: Post a comment here at linking to your results.

The VGT Omnivore’s Hundred:

1. Venison
2. Nettle tea
*3. Huevos rancheros
*4. Steak tartare
*5. Crocodile (once and never again)
*6. Black pudding
*7. Cheese fondue
8. Carp
9. Borscht
*10. Baba ghanoush
*11. Calamari
*12. Pho
*13. PB&J sandwich
*14. Aloo gobi
*15. Hot dog from a street cart
16. Epoisses
17. Black truffle
*18. Fruit wine made from something other than grapes (mmm, raspberry wine)
*19. Steamed pork buns (I prefer baked, though.)
*20. Pistachio ice cream
*21. Heirloom tomatoes
*22. Fresh wild berries
*23. Foie gras
*24. Rice and beans
*25. Brawn, or head cheese (I haven't had this since I was a child — my dad used to buy me a slice as a treat on Saturdays)
26. Raw Scotch Bonnet pepper
*27. Dulce de leche
*28. Oysters
*29. Baklava
30. Bagna cauda
*31. Wasabi peas
*32. Clam chowder in a sourdough bowl (one of my favorites)
33. Salted lassi
*34. Sauerkraut
*35. Root beer float
36. Cognac with a fat cigar
*37. Clotted cream tea
*38. Vodka jelly/Jell-O
39. Gumbo
*40. Oxtail
*41. Curried goat
42. Whole insects
43. Phaal
*44. Goat’s milk
45. Malt whisky from a bottle worth £60/$120 or more
46. Fugu
*47. Chicken tikka masala
*48. Eel
*49. Krispy Kreme original glazed doughnut
*50. Sea urchin
51. Prickly pear

*52. Umeboshi
*53. Abalone
*54. Paneer
*55. McDonald’s Big Mac Meal
56. Spaetzle
57. Dirty gin martini
58. Beer above 8% ABV
59. Poutine
*60. Carob chips
*61. S’mores
62. Sweetbreads
63. Kaolin
64. Currywurst
*65. Durian
*66. Frogs’ legs
*67. Beignets, churros, elephant ears or funnel cake
*68. Haggis
*69. Fried plantain
70. Chitterlings, or andouillette
71. Gazpacho
72. Caviar and blini
*73. Louche absinthe
74. Gjetost, or brunost
75. Roadkill
76. Baijiu
*77. Hostess Fruit Pie
78. Snail
79. Lapsang souchong
*80. Bellini
*81. Tom yum
*82. Eggs Benedict (my favorite thing to order for brunch)
*83. Pocky
84. Tasting menu at a three-Michelin-star restaurant.
*85. Kobe beef
*86. Hare
*87. Goulash
*88. Flowers
89. Horse
90. Criollo chocolate
*91. Spam
*92. Soft shell crab
93. Rose harissa
*94. Catfish
*95. Mole poblano
*96. Bagel and lox
97. Lobster Thermidor
*98. Polenta
99. Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee
100. Snake

Score: 62. Not bad.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Avoiding disaster

This week is going to be a long week. One of my co-teachers is out on vacation part of the week, and my other co-teacher has a knee injury and can't move around too much in the classroom. Yay. To lift my spirits, I decided to do a little baking in the form of a loaf of chocolate banana bread.

It was inspired by a recipe in the latest issue of Sunset magazine. But instead of a classic banana bread recipe with cocoa added to it, it substituted prune puree for the butter and included such things as walnuts and chocolate chips. Which I didn't have. I did have, however, two frozen bananas and a brand-new container of Green and Black's Organic baking cocoa.

A small aside here: A lot of chocolate is produced in not-so-friendly ways. In fact, much of the chocolate in the more commonly known brands is from plantations where they pay extremely low wages and employ child slave labor. I highly recommend buying chocolate from companies that support fair trade and organc growing practices, which would include Green and Black's, Dagoba, and Endangered Species. Sure, it costs more — but isn't it worth it to know your chocolate wasn't harvested by child labor?

To make the bread, I used my usual banana bread recipe and simply added the 1/2 cup baking cocoa from the Sunset recipe. Into a large bowl went the dry ingredients, and into a blender went the wet ones. It wasn't until I began to mix the two together that it occurred to me that perhaps I had misread the amount of flour — and as I stirred and saw that the dry ingredients were not fully incorporating into the wet ones, I already knew what my mistake had been. Two mistakes, actually. The first was that I used 1-3/4 cup flour instead of the 1-1/4 in the recipe. The second was that by adding 1/2 cup cocoa, I should have reduced the amount of flour. So there was far too much flour in the bowl than necessary.

I panicked slightly. Considering how much my fancy organic cocoa cost, even on sale, there was no way I could just throw out the batter. Although I had used melted butter as the lubricant in the recipe, I decided that canola oil would do the trick to moisten the mixture enough. I poured in some, then a little more, until the batter was dense but combined. If I'd had another banana, I would have thrown that in, too. But I didn't.

I put it in the oven to bake, crossing my fingers that it would all come out okay. Halfway through baking, the apartment smelled wonderful, and I figured there was still hope that the bread would be fine.

It took a little longer to bake than as directed in the recipe, so while the middle was still not completely baked through, the sides were drying out and nearly beginning to burn. The resulting bread wasn't perfect, but it was quite tasty, especially with a smear of cream cheese on top.

I've already told my co-teacher J that I plan to make a blueberry cream cheese coffee cake next week. Let's just hope I can manage to do it without any mishaps!

Chocolate banana bread
(adapted from Clueless in the Kitchen by Evelyn Raab)

1 c all-purpose flour
1/2 c sugar (feel free to use less, particularly if your bananas are especially overripe)
1/2 c baking cocoa, sifted
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 c melted butter or oil (I used butter this time)
2 bananas
2 eggs

Preheat the oven to 350°F.

In a large mixing bowl, stir dry ingredients together. In a blender, add all the wet ingredients and blend until fully combined. Stir the wet ingredients into the dry.

Pour the batter into a well-greased loaf pan and bake for an hour. Test the bread with a toothpick or wooden skewer; when it comes out with only a few crumbs clinging on, it's done. Turn out onto a wire rack and let cool.

Serve with cream cheese, if you so desire.

Monday, February 02, 2009

Food challenge 2009

In years past, I've chosen one or two foods that I had wanted to learn to cook. Two summers ago, it was ice cream, followed by an autumn of pies. Last year, I was tackling bread, until I was distracted by, well, life — and the intense heat of summer. (I'll definitely have to come back to that one, especially since I got the book Bernard Clayton's New Complete Book of Bread, as recommended by my cousin Deb, bread-baker extraordinaire.)

This year, I'm declaring three different food challenges I'd like to take on:
1. Cheese (mozzarella and paneer).
2. Perfect fried chicken.
3. Almost every recipe in The Cook's Canon 101 Classic Recipes Everyone Should Know. (I say "almost" because I don't eat pork, so Fresh Ham with Star Anise and Jambon Persillé are out. But Pork Vindaloo can easily become Chicken Vindaloo or some such thing.) My idea with this one is not to necessarily follow the recipes to the letter; instead, I'll use my favorite cooking method of gleaning from multiple recipes at once.

I'm hoping these challenges will keep me cooking. As I said on a Facebook meme that's going around: "Despite the fact that I love to cook and write a food blog, my cupboards are fairly bare. I eat at work during the week, and weekends are an exercise in scraping together meals with whatever I can find in the freezer." It's time to spend more quality time in the kitchen!

Sunday, February 01, 2009

Fry time

Have I mentioned lately that I love fried foods ? When I went over to a friend's house for cocktails and appetizers, I was happy to learn the nibbles would include make-your-own egg rolls — or won tons, depending on how you wanted to shape them. The filling was chicken and cabbage, and the result was crisp, hot bites that went well with sweet and sour sauce. J&J have a deep fryer, which makes the act of frying so much easier. When I fry, it involves a cast iron pan, a splatter screen, and lots of paper towels to mop up the mess. Which means I don't fry very often. I may have to look into getting a deep fryer at some point — so I can learn to make a perfect fried drumstick.

But I digress.

It was also fun watching everyone roll their own egg rolls or won tons. T and I both make our own versions (I have two: a shrimp-filled won ton and lumpia, or Filipino egg roll), so maybe what's called for is an egg roll cook-off!

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Potluck cupcakes

We had a family classroom potluck last night. For the longest time, I debated what I was going to bring. We're the Screwbean Mesquite room (all the rooms are named after trees), so I joked that I was going to bring "screw beef" — beef shaped into a spiral. Aware that that was merely a pipe dream, I decided that I needed to settle on something people would actually eat. Cupcakes are always a safe bet, so cupcakes it was.

But what kind of cupcake? Chocolate? Black bottom? Lemon-frosted? It didn't help that the latest issue of Martha Stewart Living has an article featuring many varieties of cupcakes — making the decision process even more difficult.

Then, over at Vanilla Garlic, help arrived. It came in the form of a recipe for a carrot, cardamom, cashew, and bourbon cupcake. It's a mouthful to say — and a tasty mouthful at that. The cakes are moist, and the addition of bourbon and cardamom works really well here. The frosting was a little too sweet, but I think that's true in general of cream cheese frosting.

I made a few adjustments, first by making them into cupcakes "bites," using mini cupcake tin. This reduces the baking time to ten minutes per batch. I also cut the recipe in half, making three dozen mini cupcakes. Also, I omitted the cashews, as I work at a site that is nut-free.

They definitely were a hit. Next time, Petit Pois Muffins.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Pakora and other fried things

One of my favorite foods is anything fried: fried chicken, fried zucchini, fish and chips, fried won tons, and on and on. So, of course, I was very happy to find out that Indian street food included a delicious snack called pakora. Pakora is basically just about anything dipped in batter and fried — most commonly bread, paneer, and vegetables such as potatoes, cauliflower, or bell pepper. The pakora-walla ("pakora person") cooks up his tasty goods in bulk, then sets them out on newspaper to be sold. When it's time to be dished up, often the pakora or other fried foods are put back into hot oil to be reheated. Then again, sometimes they're not.

On the train to and from Shimla, we often hopped off when the train stopped to buy the fried goods that were on sale. At one stop, twenty rupees (about forty cents) got us two samosas with a generous squeeze of Indian ketchup. (One samosa at my local farmers' market is three dollars, so this was an exciting purchase for me!) Elsewhere, we had bread pakora — just plain white bread, battered and fried.

At the Amber Fort outside of Jaipur in Rajasthan, we had the best samosas I'd ever eaten. The food at the stall had been sitting out for who knows when, the flies were abuzz, and the samoses weren't reheated. But the crust was crisp and buttery, and the potato filling was nicely spiced. I was so glad we had eaten there, even though I joked that I was risking traveler's sickness for a pocket of tasty fried goodness.

Another fried food I discovered was at an expansive market in Delhi called Dilli Haat, which included goods and foods from every state in India. Lunch included momos, little deep fried dumplings filled with chicken. They were served with a bowl of steaming broth, which was quite bland but felt warm in the tummy. As recommended by the Anthropologist's friend, our guide through Dilli Haat, we made a mix of hot sauce and vinegar to dip our momos in. The wrapper crunched as I bit into it, and the sauce packed a much needed punch to the delicious but not particularly remarkable filling.

A word about street food and food in general in India: It's important to be careful when you're traveling abroad and eating food cooked in a stall or on the street. But don't let the fear of getting sick prevent you from having an amazing culinary experience. The truth is you are going to get sick. No matter how careful you are. I was fairly cautious, didn't drink the tap water (or use it to brush my teeth), avoided eating meat from street stalls — and I got mildly sick anyway. When you're in a country that's very different from yours, it's hard to avoid stomach bugs that your system isn't used to — unless you're determined to not eat anything that isn't from a three-star or above restaurant. Which would be too bad because you really would be missing out on a lot of new and wonderful foods.

Friday, January 23, 2009

For the love of shrimp

After writing about delicious Goan shrimp the other day, I decided it was high time I defrosted the shrimp I was saving in the freezer. I had gone to the farmers' market the day after I got back from India, with shrimp as a high priority on my grocery list. It was the wrong time of year to get shrimp caught off the Pacific coast, so instead, the shrimp available was caught off the coast Texas. Which was fine with me. It was still fresher and more beautifully ocean-scented than anything farmed in Thailand (which is where most frozen shrimp available in the States comes from — plus the farming practices are destroying the ecosystems there).

Before deciding to defrost my ziptop bag of shrimp, I had actually been craving Chinese take-out. Once I determined that I ought to spend my hard-earned money on groceries instead of grease, I decided to make two of my favorite Vietnamese shrimp dishes: cabbage and shrimp soup, and shrimp simmered in a caramel sauce.

I've posted about the soup before, though this time for the broth, I used half water and half chicken broth (which was about to go bad). It was fine, though it didn't do any favors for the cabbage-shrimp flavor that makes this soup so good. It also smelled a little funny, but I realized that the intermingling scents of the shrimp and the cabbage were just playing off each other in an odd way. I happily ate it up despite that.

The other dish is one of my all-time favorite shrimp recipes — other than this one, of course. The very first time I ever made shrimp in caramel sauce, it was so good that I couldn't put my chopsticks down. Besides being delicious, it's ridiculously easy to make, once you've got the caramel sauce prepared. The recipe for caramel sauce makes quite a bit, and it's shelf-stable, so it keeps practically forever in a jar with a tight-fitting lid.

Truth be told, I haven't eaten a whole lot of Vietnamese food. When I was in grad school, there was a great Vietnamese restaurant around the corner, where I would order the "clay pot" (which contained chicken, shrimp, onions, and green beans in an amazing slightly sweet sauce, all over rice) and a Vietnamese coffee (which kept me awake and jittery for the rest of the day). I've also had the charcuterie that a Vietnamese friend brought to a dinner party — the soft pâté-like spread on slices of baguette was completely addictive. I guess my point is that when I make things from my Vietnamese cookbook, I don't have many taste experiences I can compare it to. Which isn't a problem, really. More of an observation.

I also want to add a small note here: Do not fear fish sauce. Fish sauce, the dark brown, salty, and yes, fishy condiment used in southeast Asia and the Philippines, adds a unique flavor that you can't get from adding, say, salt. It appears in both the soup and the caramel shrimp recipe. When I add to the pan while cooking, the fragrant smell of fermented fish always puts a smile on my face — because I've learned to appreciate what this sauce brings to the food I eat. Like salt, only a small amount is ever used to season any dish, so I'm not asking you to drown your meal in fish sauce. But do give fish sauce a chance. You'll be glad you did.

Shrimp simmered in caramel sauce (tôm kho)
(from Into the Vietnamese Kitchen by Andrea Nguyen)

1-1/2 pounds shrimp, peeled and deveined
1-1/2 tbsp fish sauce
2 tbsp caramel sauce (recipe follows)
1 small yellow onion, thinly sliced
1/2 tsp pepper
1-1/2 tbsp canola or other neutral oil
1 green onion, chopped

In a shallow pan, combine shrimp, fish sauce, caramel sauce, and 1/8 tsp salt and bring to a simmer over high heat. Add the onion and pepper and stir to distribute ingredients evenly. Continue cooking over high heat for another 10 to 14 minutes, or until the shrimp have turned an orange-brown.

As they cook, the shrimp will release their juices to combine with the other ingredients. Expect a strong boil throughout and turn shrimp occasionally with a spoon. If the pan appears dry, add a little water. The juices eventually concentrate into a mahogany-colored sauce. When the shrimp are done, there should only be a few tablespoons of sauce left. (When I make this recipe, the sauce often evaporates away, even though I only make two servings and use all two tablespoons of caramel sauce. I often add a little extra caramel sauce as well as water when this happens.)

Turn off the heat, add the oil, and stir to coat. Add pepper to taste. Transfer to a serving bowl and sprinkle with chopped green onion.

Serves 4.

Caramel sauce (nuoc mau)

3/4 c water
1 c sugar

Fill a large bowl with water so that it comes partway up the side of a small, heavy saucepan.

In the saucepan, put 1/4 c water and all the sugar and place over medium-low heat. Stir to ensure the sugar dissolves. After about 2 minutes, stop stirring and let the mixture cook undisturbed. About 7 minutes into cooking, bubbles with cover the entire surface and the mixture will be at a vigorous simmer.

After about 15 minutes, the sugar will begin to caramelize and deepen in color. When smoke starts rising, around 20 minutes, remove the pan from the heat and slowly swirl it. The sauce will turn darker. When it is the color of black coffee or molasses, put the put into the bowl of water to stop the cooking. Add the remaining 1/2 cup water. After the dramatic bubble reaction ceases, return the pan to the stove over medium heat.

Heat the caramel, stirring until it dissolves into the water. Remove from heat and let cool for 10 minutes before puring into a small heatproof glass jar. Set aside to cool completely. Cover and store indefinitely in your kitchen cupboard.

Makes 1 cup.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Recreating Goa

I was excited when, while exploring a bookstore in Delhi, I found an Indian cookbook for only Rs. 250 (about five dollars). It included gorgeous photos, and by the end of the trip, I had eaten or had at least heard of many of the dishes featured in the book. I was happy about the idea of bringing the flavors I'd tasted in India home to my own kitchen.

Because I had loved it so much at the beachside hotel in Colva and at the restaurant with the poor service in Old Goa, I chose Goan fish curry as the first recipe I would make. I was hoping for a real winner of a meal; however, that was not meant to be.

The first thing I should have noticed, which would have told me the recipe was not going to turn out the way I expected, was that the curry in the book was a golden color. Every curry I'd eaten in Goa was red. I didn't really question this, though, and dutifully followed the directions, starting by sauteeing the onions and adding turmeric, ginger, cumin, and coriander to the pan.

It's the spices that make the curry, and the ones I named above are generally included in the "curry" spice mixes that one often finds at the local grocery store. (I also know this because I usually make my own curry spice mix, but that's another post.) Which should have also clued me in to the fact that I wasn't really making the Goan curry I knew and missed. It was really just curried fish.

And that would have been fine, too, but for some reason, it tasted pretty bland. So for dinner I had bland curried fish. Not really what I was hoping to sit down to.

I researched Goan fish curry recipes and discovered what my recipe was missing: tomato and tamarind, to be precise. In making the Goan curry the first time around, I also opted to omit the green chili, simply because I didn't have one on hand. Would three ingredients elevate the flavor to true Goan fish curry status?

Stay tuned for round two...

Monday, January 19, 2009

When I was in India...

Despite that all my posts this month have referenced India in some way or another, I have yet to actually regale you with tales of the food there. And there was certainly food to be had: Good, bad, and mediocre. Biryanis, naan, kulfi, and kebabs. Spicy, salty, sweet, and savory. India has all these things and more.

I will first tell you about the hands-down best food I ate during my five-week stint abroad.

You may be looking at the above photo and thinking, "That's not India." Because "India" probably conjures images of elephants and camels, crowds of people in bright clothing on the banks of the Ganges, or grandiose buildings like the Taj Mahal. But that photo right there was most certainly taken in India — the part of India that is tropical, hot and humid in December (when, despite what us Westerners might believe about India, it gets cold in the north), and has sparkling blue water, white sand, and palm trees galore.

Goa is a tiny little state on the western coast of the country. Originally colonized by the Portuguese and now a haven for both retired European tourists and hippies of all ages, it was different from anywhere else I went in India. It's laid-back, has beautiful sunsets, and has the freshest seafood I've ever eaten.

On our first night there, which was Christmas Eve, we found ourselves wandering the road that ran alongside the beach in Colva, the village just south of the village we were staying in, feeling rather hungry. As the sky darkened and we weren't quite sure where we were going, we came upon a hotel/restaurant called Sam's Crow's Nest. It was still fairly early for dinner, being that it was only 6:30 (the locals eat around 9pm), so the place was mostly empty, which generally gives me reason to pause and question what my culinary experience is going to be.

Our appetizer, however, was amazing. We ordered Sam's Golden Prawns, and they were the best battered and fried shrimp I have ever eaten in my entire life. I'm not kidding. The coating was light and crisp, and the shrimp inside was perfectly cooked and so — for lack of a better word — shrimpy. The freshest, most delicious shrimp taste a little bit like clean, clear ocean water, and that's exactly how these tasted. To top it all off, they came with a dipping sauce of mayonnaise blended with carrots. Simple? Yes. Crazy delicious? You bet.

Our entree was a pomfret curry, which was not photoworthy because it was simply pieces of a local flat fish in a red Goan curry sauce. But it was amazingly good. I couldn't stop raving about the food at Sam's the entire time we were in Goa. And no matter how many times we ordered battered shrimp elsewhere, they never compared to Sam's Golden Prawns.

Even better, however, was our lunch the following day. To celebrate Christmas, we staked out two lounge chairs under an umbrella at a beach shack on Betalbatim beach, about a mile walk from our hotel. We had beers, we read, we collected shells along the water — and we couldn't believe it was actually Christmas. The day's fish and shellfish offerings were written on a large blackboard in the shack itself, and without inquiring about prices, I ordered the tiger prawns to share.

What arrived were the biggest prawns either of us had ever seen. The guidebook had noted that there were shrimp in Goa as big as your fist, and they weren't kidding. The prawns had been grilled, topped with a little butter, and served with a side of bright yellow fries.

They were fresh, tender, and tasted of the sea, almost like eating little lobster tails. I was so happy that all that needed to be done to them was grill them — because the prawns were already so good on their own. They most certainly had been caught just off the coast that very morning. With every bite, I couldn't stop exclaiming how fabulous they tasted. We ate every last morsel, and I was sad when we were done.

When we finally got around to actually looking at a menu, we discovered that our taste bud extravaganza cost 800 rupees — about 16 bucks. And sure, that's what you would expect to pay at a restaurant here in the States. But we'd been eating meals that cost that much (or less!) for two, including drinks and appetizers, so we were a little shocked at the expense of those lovely tiger prawns. In the end, though, we were glad we didn't know how much they cost in advance because we would have never tried them. And, after all, it was Christmas.

I still think about those prawns, both small and large. If I ever make it back to Goa someday, I fully intend to indulge on tiger prawns as often as my wallet allows — and to go back to Sam's and eat there as often as possible.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Making use of leftovers

To be honest, I'm not a fan of leftovers. When food sits in the cold for eight, twenty-four, or forty-eight hours, it changes the composition of what was once something edible and delicious. Rice and pasta get hard. Meats dry out. Veggies go limp. Flavors mutate.

But sometimes there are leftovers. In these hard economic times (and in general, really), it would be silly to waste such perfectly good — well, decent — food. After picking me up at the airport, my mom brought me back to her house for a turkey lunch. I ended up being sent to my own home with a ziptop bag of meat and a container of mashed potatoes.

Finding a way to use the leftovers was easy at first. I made a version of shepherds pie, with seasoned, chopped turkey and peas, topped with the potatoes mixed with Parmesan. I found other uses for the turkey meat, which I'm not remembering right now. But the rest of the mashed potatoes remained, in a little plastic tub that once held Smart Balance spread. (Thanks, Mom, for reusing containers.) After a few days, I knew I'd better find a use for them before it reached the point where they were too far gone to be eaten.

So they became potato soup. It's a fairly natural progression from mashed to soup: just add some more liquid and some flavor enhancers. There's no point in even posting a recipe because it was so simple and can be adjusted to your personal tastes. Basically, I sauteed some onions and garlic in a little olive oil, then added the potatoes to the pan with enough chicken broth and a little heavy cream to thin it out. I sprinkled in some dried thyme and seasoned it with pepper and salt (because my mom hadn't put in a lot of either into her potatoes). Then it was done. Once in the bowl, I threw on some sesame seeds and a drizzle of olive oil.

And there you have it: mashed potato soup. It made for a nice lunch with a salad to accompany it.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Satisfying my pasta cravings

While I enjoyed the food in India, there were lots of times that I missed eating foods from home: salads, Thai food, tuna sandwiches, hamburgers. I had a running mental list of things I would eat once I returned home.

In the first week that I was home, I made this recipe two nights in a row. That's how good it was. And really easy, too! I subscribe to the weekly newsletter, The Splendid Table, and last month, they included a recipe for "true fettuccine alfredo." Besides pasta, it consisted of three major ingredients: butter, cream, and Parmesan. That's it. I don't know why it never occurred to me how simple an alfredo sauce is — and to think of all those years in college when I would buy this kind of sauce in a jar!

The one change I made from the original recipe was to not add salt at the end of cooking. I included the salt the first night, and it turned out to be too salty. Considering that the pasta cooks in salted water and then salty Parmesan is added, extra salt at the end is simply redundant — and far too much.

This is not the kind of dish that's going to help you lose those last five pounds. If that's your goal, you probably don't want to eat this two nights in a row. But, if you can risk the calories, you may just want to eat this as often as you can.

Pasta with alfredo sauce
(based on a recipe from The Splendid Table)

1/2 c dry pasta (I used bowties because I wasn't in the mood for the long shapes)
1 tbsp butter
1/3 c heavy cream
1/2 c grated Parmesan cheese

Boil pasta in well-salted water according to package directions.

Meanwhile, melt butter in a large pan. Set aside while pasta cooks.

When pasta is ready and drained, reheat butter, and add cream. Add pasta and stir to allow cream to absorb. Remove from heat, and add cheese. Stir. Add more cheese if desired. Season with ground pepper (and herbs if you like — I added herbes de Provence) to taste.

Serves one.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

New blog, old blog

I've known about my friend A's blog Foodie in Denial for a while now, but I only really took a good look at it yesterday. And now I'm here to say that everyone needs to read it. It is fabulously written and includes gorgeous food photographs. In fact, I'm extremely jealous of how wonderful a site it is, but I'm recommending it anyway because it deserves a larger readership. So go check it out. What are you waiting for?

In other news of the blog world: Around the time of my last post of 2008 (back in September), I learned about the death of a fellow blogger. We would read each other's blogs and swap comments, and it was really nice having a regular reader! Even though I didn't know her personally, I was incredibly saddened, and at first, my lack of posting was due to knowing that someone I had met through my blog had died. You can read the tribute and also look at all the yummy things she cooked and posted at her blog, What Did You Eat?

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Breakfast potatoes

While I was in India last month, one of the things I liked to order for breakfast was eggs and "finger chips." It was on almost every menu and was as simple as it sounds: a fried egg or two with a pile of piping hot French fries, accompanied by a bottle of Indian-style ketchup. There didn't seem to be much in the way of Indian food for breakfast (I gathered that breakfast was not the most important meal of the day there), as most of the breakfast items seemed to be created for Westerners: porridge, pancakes, omlettes.

On my last day there, the Anthropologist and I were going to have breakfast in Paharganj, the neighborhood where the hippies and backpackers hang out, so I could have some eggs and fries while I people-watched. It didn't end up happening, alas, and I returned home craving a plate of potatoes with ketchup. For breakfast the day after I got back, I made my own version of eggs and chips: one fried egg and a large helping of pan-crisped potatoes. With ketchup, of course.

I discovered this method of making home fries through trial and error. With the guidance of Dad's Own Coookbook, I'd made home fries several times, but every time, the potatoes ended up soft and not crispy at all — and if they did crisp a little, the good part would end up adhering to the bottom of the pan, breaking off from the rest of the potato, and burning. I eventually figured out what I was doing wrong: using a pan that was too small and that was not non-stick. I now make my potatoes in a non-stick griddle plan, which has lots of surface space for one or two portions. I also use plenty of olive oil, so that each side of the potato has some fat to fry up in.

Crispy potatoes
serves two

four to six Yukon Gold potatoes, depending on their size
olive oil
salt and pepper

Cut the potatoes into quarters (or sixths, if they're very large). Place in a pot of cold water and bring to a boil. Parboil for 10 min. Drain.

Heat a non-stick pan large enough for all the potatoes to have plenty of breathing room. Add a little oil, then the potatoes. Move each piece so that a flat side is resting on the pan, and leave until the potatoes turn golden on that side. Repeat with all remaining cut sides, adding a little more oil each time you turn the pieces. Move the potatoes around slightly so they don't stick and also so that they get coated in the oil.

When golden and crispy, season with salt and pepper and whatever spices you like: paprika, chili powder, or even cumin.