Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Remainders: Building Blocks of Creativity

I thought I'd close out the year by writing a bit on being creative in the kitchen. I find that working with underlying principles is the way to be flexible and turn out good food (or at least edible) with whatever you have on hand. This is a lot like how with learning a language, you need to learn grammar (cooking techniques, principles, theories) in order to flexibly and creatively express whatever you want to say (dishes) rather than just turning out stock phrases in response to stock situations (just following recipes).

Using excess components or leftovers can be a great way to get yourself thinking more creatively about how to cook with different ingredients. It's when we have constraints that we're forced to be our most creative, and having an ingredient or component you have to use is just such a constraint.

For example, pictured above are scrambled eggs with shrimp-infused chipotle salsa and spinach and duck fat fried potatoes. The salsa was excess from another dish the night before in which it was more of a soup/sauce, and it wasn't a big stretch to look it and think I could use it in a scrambled egg with salsa dish. There was too much fluid for the eggs to scramble right, so I put the salsa in the hot skillet first to cook down some of the soup. After cooking down somewhat, I added the spinach so that it could wilt. Then, in order to get nice curds in the eggs, I pushed the salsa and spinach to the side so that they wouldn't interfere with curd formation and added the eggs, proceeding to scramble as normal in the remaining two-thirds of the skillet area. As the curds formed up, I gently mixed in the salsa and spinach with the egg and finished up.

As for the potatoes, they were leftovers since I generally make enough for more than one meal when I cook (time savings). I just fried them another time to reheat and crisp the skin. Put them together with the scrambled eggs and you have a pretty nice breakfast.

Well, it's been another good year for growth and learning for me. I hope your 2013 was for you, too, and that you continue to stretch in 2014. Happy new year!

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Crispy Skinned Roast Pork Belly

Here we go! My results with this slab of pork belly were crispy without being too hard (to cut or to eat), so I'm comfortable sharing my approach now. (The black bits are charred bits of the flavoring rub I applied and not burnt belly.)

The last breakthrough was in a skin piercing technique I picked up from a duck recipe, actually (I'll blog about the duck next). I pierced the pork belly skin a lot more than is shown in the duck video. You need to pierce the skin a lot in order to let the fat escape as it cooks, allowing the skin to become crisp as the oil renders out, but you don't want to poke through to the flesh, as then moisture will come into the skin, preventing it from crisping up.

As I mentioned in my post on getting crispy skin on a pork shoulder roast, salting the skin to draw out moisture is another important step. Another thing is allowing the skin to dry, which letting your roast sit in its salt rub in the refrigerator is great for.

Here's a good post over at Serious Eats' Food Lab on what goes on with pork skin in getting crispy. Interestingly, Lopez-Alt doesn't call for any scoring, piercing, or separating of the skin in his pork shoulder recipe. However, his recipe for crisp pork shoulder takes 8 hours of slow roasting before a final burst of heat. I'd be curious to know more definitively about whether the skin piercing is really helpful/necessary or if it allows things to happen in a shorter time frame. In any case, it seems to have an effect just anecdotally at least.

So--this happened. A slice of crispy skinned pork belly with duck fat sautéed cabbage and sriracha sauce on a corn tortilla. Mmmm...

Here's my recipe for the crispy pork belly. Feel free to get creative with what else you add to the salt in your dry rub. With this go-round, my rub was paprika, ancho chili powder, minced garlic, salt, pepper, and a bit of brown sugar.

Crispy Roast Pork Belly

~2 lbs. pork belly
coarse kosher or sea salt
ground black pepper
peanut or vegetable oil
  1. Use a paring knife to pierce the skin all over without cutting into the meat. Do this by holding the knife almost parallel to the skin (flat side facing the skin so the planes of the blade and skin are nearly parallel) and pushing the blade into the skin in a motion that’s almost parallel to the skin. (see this video)
  2. Lightly salt skin to taste (about 1/2 tsp per pound of pork*), making sure to rub the salt into the cuts.
  3. Salt and pepper the meat portions to taste (salt on the meat portions is in addition to the 1/2 tsp per pound of pork that just goes on the skin).
  4. Set pork skin side up in a flat-bottomed dish and put in refrigerator until the skin dries out, or overnight.
  5. Remove pork from refrigerator and leave on counter at room temperature for 15-30 minutes to allow surface to warm up. Pre-heat oven, with a baking pan inside, to 500°F or as high as your oven goes.
  6. Once the oven is at temperature, remove the pan and put pork belly in skin side down. Roast pork for 15 minutes at this high temperature.
  7. Remove pork from oven and flip skin side up. Turn oven down to 350°F and return pork to oven to roast for 1 hour.
  8. After 1 hour, add a little water to the pan (to keep the fat from smoking during this last step) and turn oven back up to highest setting and roast for 10 more minutes. The skin should blister as it crisps up if it hasn't already.
  9. Remove pork from oven, slice, and serve.
*This is a loose measurement, since clearly the thickness of the meat portion beneath the skin varies a lot. The pork belly cuts I’ve been using have thick meat portions attached, though, so 1/2 tsp per pound is probably on the high side of the range of possibilities (pork shoulder has different proportions of meat to skin, of course).

Optional Accompaniments for the Pork
  • Balsamic onion marmalade
  • Ground white and black pepper mix
  • Hoisin sauce
  • Sriracha and soy paste or hoisin mix

It's best served immediately, but leftovers are great, too. Interestingly, the skin was still crisp even after resting and refrigerating in a tupperware container, unlike poultry skin which gets soggy as it rests as the moisture escapes from the meat. I'm not sure why this is. Maybe because with a slab of pork belly, steam can escape to the sides, while with a whole bird roast the only path of escape is through skin.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Steel Yourself

Success! Pictured above are a whetstone (this one's a waterstone, which uses water as the lubricant as opposed to oil) on the right and a leveling stone on the left, which is for keeping the surface of the waterstone flat.

So after a year's use, my knifes had started to noticeably dull and I started looking into options for sharpening (as opposed to steeling, which you should do at least every couple times you use your knife, with a honing steel). From what information I've found, though, paying someone else to sharpen your knives for you is expensive and often results in their ruining your knives or taking off a lot more material than necessary (leading to a shorter life for your knife). My chef's and paring knives are from Shun, who will sharpen your knives bought from them for free--but you have to ship them to Oregon, which ends up being pricey, too, if you want to make sure things get there and back safely.

It seemed that the best option was for me to sharpen my knives myself--which I wanted to try doing anyway. With the help of some online resources, I bought a medium grit waterstone and leveling stone and gave it a shot, and it seems to have turned out fine for me. At least, my knives are cutting like new again and aside from having lost some cosmetic sheen from the sharpening (I didn't bother polishing), I don't think I did anything bad to them. No chips in the blades.

Here a couple guides I found useful:

Kenji Lopez-Alt at Serious Eats has a good overview of what you need to know about the different options for sharpening and the different grits of waterstones. He also gives instructions on how to do the sharpening itself.

However, I found Yoshikin's (they make Global knives) method made more sense to me in getting even pressure along the whole blade. Though, maybe Lopez-Alt's is better for a smoother transition along the curved part toward the tip of the blade? Anyway, Yoshikin's worked for me.

I ended up going with just a #1000 grit stone since that gets you a sharp edge for normal use and cutting meat without dulling too quickly. Korin (Japanese tableware and knife store) discusses (see the note on the side titled, "Benefits of a #3000 Grit Stone") how fine grit stones will get you razor sharp results, but which dull more easily. The finer the grit, the longer it takes to remove material from your knife, too.

[Update:] Also check out Korin's helpful how-to video's on YouTube here. Thanks to Matt for telling me about it!

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Omelettes: No Need For Non-Stick

We've all done it before: had to scrape a carpet of egg off the bottom of our skillet when trying to make an omelette (though those browned bits are tasty). America's Test Kitchen recommends just using a non-stick skillet since it's easier to avoid getting eggs stuck in them. But what if you don't want to use non-stick cookware because: (1) you can't get as good of browning/deglazing with it, (2) you can't safely heat it as high as all-metal cookware without worrying about degrading and leeching chemicals, (3) it doesn't last as long as all-metal cookware, and (4) it just takes up more space and costs more to have more cookware? Well, I'm here to tell you that you can easily

There is a simple trick to make it so your eggs don't stick: bring your eggs to room temperature before cooking them. Or at least warmer than just out of the refrigerator. And of course this is assuming you've properly heated your pan and oil before adding in your eggs.

How do you do that? Well you could let the eggs just sit for maybe 10-15 minutes, but I find that the fastest way is to submerge them in a bowl of warm water for a couple minutes until they no longer feel cold to the touch. Once they're at that point, your ready to go.*

Actually, this principle applies to meat, too, and tofu. Basically, if your food is too cold when you put it in the hot pan, it's gonna stick. So let your meat or tofu or whatever (or the exterior at least) warm up somewhat before cooking by letting it rest outside the refrigerator for a while, 10-30 minutes depending on how warm the ambient air is.** Or, you could apply the same principle as the uncracked eggs in warm water--if your meat is conveniently vacuum sealed in plastic (or in a ziplock bag with the air squeezed out), you could put the package in a container of warm water to speed things up (also handy for thawing more quickly). I find that the time it takes me to prep other ingredients is a convenient window of time to let the meat/tofu come to temperature, though, so I don't bother with a warm water bath if it's not frozen.

Finally, what's in my omelette? This one was fried black beans (frijoles refritos), quick-steamed spinach, and chipotle tomatillo salsa. The spinach I steamed using a microwaving technique I learned from Bayless's Mexican Everyday. The basic idea is to put whatever vegetable you want to quickly steam/parboil in microwave safe bowl, sprinkle with water or add several tablespoons water depending on how much you're cooking, and then cover with a microwave safe plate or plastic rap with several holes poked in the top to allow steam to escape. Then you just microwave on high until the veggies are done. For this tiny amount of spinach I only needed 30 seconds. For a pound of broccoli you might need about 3 minutes. It's a very handy technique!

Have a great Thanksgiving, everyone!

*Tangentially, check out Kitchn's post on whether refrigerating eggs is necessary.

**DON'T set out frozen meat and wait for it to reach room temperature. It'll take so long that the outside will start to grow harmful bacteria before the center thaws. Let it thaw in the refrigerator instead before proceeding.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Making Mexican

So I've been working through Rick Bayless's Mexican Everyday lately, and it's been a really excellent introduction to Mexican cooking (and first forays into Latin more broadly) so far. Because Bayless wrote this book with everyday cooking in mind, the recipes have been very accessible, yet still very flavorful. It actually fits well with my general approach to cooking in terms of the level of complexity: the recipes aren't for beginners or those who really only have time to unwrap and microwave a frozen entrée, but doable on a weeknight, or ahead of time making larger batches when you've a larger time window.

It's definitely helpful that I found a Latin grocery store nearby where I can buy most of the more specialized ingredients needed, a lot cheaper than I could in a mainstream supermarket, too (if they carry it at all). A lot of work with chilies, dried or otherwise, a lot of garlic, and other spices worked into salsa, marinades, and rubs, as well as salad dressings (though I'm guessing that's maybe more Bayless bringing Mexican into a more Western food context with salads?). I've worked with my food processor (well, the food processing attachment of my hand blender) a lot lately to make these sauces of various sorts.

The great variety in the flavor of the different chilies has been fantastic, and one of the big things that has struck me as I cook with the book. One of my favorite things about learning new dishes from various cuisines is that moment when I catch a whiff of a browning chili pepper, or sautéing dried shrimp and scallions, for example, and recognition of something familiar that I've smelled before in restaurants hits me. 

It's great that you can make a batch of dressing and then refrigerate it for use over time, though. Very handy for time efficiency (as is making enough for leftovers broadly). Dressings (vinaigrettes mainly) have definitely been something I'd been meaning to explore more, as on a more conceptual basis, they are very versatile flavoring components. Reduce the oil content and you've got a marinade or sauce for cooking with. And other than oil and vinegar of some kind, you're really free to put in an infinite variety of things. Tom Colicchio's Think Like A Chef illustrated this concept for me, too, in the variations on vinaigrettes he presented (putting in roasted tomatoes, or braised artichokes, and other ingredients).

The photos in this post are just a couple of the (delicious!) things I've been making from Mexican Everyday. At the top is cochinita pibil on corn tortillas with lime marinated red onions and habanero hot sauce. The second is a great, homey chicken-rice with black beans and garlic tomato salsa. And the third is a sweet potato salad with carmalized onions and chipotle dressing over arugula.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Simple Roast Parsnips

Woah! I may be late to the party, but freshly roasted parsnips are delicious. A close relative of carrots, parsnips have a similar texture, but are tougher and require a bit longer of a cooking time. They're also a little less sweet and have instead an almost floral taste to them. I'm not sure how to describe it, but it's more complex than carrots' flavor.

If you haven't already, give 'em a shot!

Here's a simple and delicious preparation:

Simple Roast Parsnips
(this recipe can be made vegan by replacing duck fat with a vegetable oil of some sort)

1 lb. parsnips, peeled, roll-cut into large chunks
6 cloves garlic, unpeeled
2 TBS duck fat or other oil or fat
salt to taste (~1/2 to 1 tsp)
1/4 tsp dried oregano
1/4 tsp dried rosemary, crushed or chopped
  1. Pre-heat oven to 400 F.
  2. Add parsnips and garlic cloves to a roasting pan (they should sit in one layer; don’t crowd the pan or they will steam instead of roast). Melt duck fat in a small bowl in the microwave (or any fat that is solid at room temperature, such as pork fat or coconut oil). Pour over the vegetables in the pan, sprinkle with salt and herbs, and toss to coat evenly.
  3. Roast in oven on the middle rack for about 30-40 minutes, or until a fork easily slides through the parsnips. Toss vegetables every 15 minutes while roasting. When finished, if desired, squeeze the roasted garlic out of their skins and toss with the finished vegetables. Serve while still hot.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Intermediate Microwave Technique and More Savory Oatmeal Variations

Yup, I'm still groovin' on savory oatmeals, every day. Here's what I've been into most recently: lightly salted oatmeal with spinach, a dash of white pepper, and topped with a drizzle of sesame oil, fried shallots (using prepared fried shallots you can find at southeast Asian grocery stores), and a quick soft-cooked egg. A pinch of curry powder is optional and also good. Check out my recipe below.

My process with oatmeal and the egg is done with time efficiency in mind since it's my breakfast before work every day. The oatmeal takes advantage of my "pro-est oatmeal tip", and I cook the egg using an intermediate microwave technique which I'm finally going to blog about now! I didn't before because, well, it doesn't necessarily look the prettiest, and I'm guessing many of you will be leery of using the microwave for eggs. But the results are good, quick, easy, and easier to clean up by far than cooking an egg separately on the stove.*

Basically, setting the power level of your microwave at some level below its default maximum level, you can safely cook food as delicate as an egg. Yes, that's what that "Power Level" button is for! Generally, you'll be able to set the level in increments of 10%. So power level 1 is 10% of the max level, 2 is 20%, etc. If you have a 1000W microwave, power level 1 gives you 100W, and so on. The thing is, microwaves differ in terms of their wattage, so you'll have to look on the inside walls of your microwave to see what its wattage is (something like 800W, 1000W, 1.60 kW, or whatever it happens to be). And of course, at a lower power level, you need to set a longer time.

*I did try cooking the egg in with the oatmeal for a while, which is even simpler as far as equipment involved, but I didn't like the results.

[Update: plastic wrap is unnecessary. Don't bother! Unless you're still testing the timing and are worried about an exploding egg.]

Savory Oatmeal with Spinach and Fried Shallots
Makes 1 serving

1/2 cup (50 grams) rolled (old fashioned) oats
~4/5 cup (200 grams) water

~1/3 cup plain soymilk
~1/4 tsp salt, adjust to taste
large handful of spinach

dash of white pepper
(optional: pinch of curry powder)

sesame oil
fried shallots
  1. Add oats and water to a small saucepan and heat over medium to medium-low heat. Let it cook until some of the water has cooked away and the oatmeal is starting to “bubble” (little pockets of air will be escaping, but you won’t see bubbles since the water level will be below the oatmeal level).
  2. Add soymilk and salt, stir to mix into the oatmeal, and bring to a simmer.
  3. Add spinach, white pepper (and optional curry powder), stir in and cook until thickened to your preference (cook longer for thicker oatmeal).
  4. Pour oatmeal into a bowl, drizzle with sesame oil, add soft-cooked egg, garnish with fried shallots, and enjoy.

Microwave Soft-Cooked Egg

1 egg
~1/3 cup water

1.    Add water to a ramekin or small microwave safe bowl and crack egg into the bowl. Lightly salt if desired.
2.    Microwave for around 3 minutes at about 400-500W power level.**
3.    Drain water, and you have your cooked egg.

** You’ll have to figure out how to set the power level on your microwave and experiment a bit to get a sense of what power level and timing gets you what level of doneness for the egg. The 1-10 setting should correspond with 10-100 percent of the maximum W of the microwave (hence, power level 4 on a 1000 W microwave would be 400 W). This is, of course, also affected by the amount and temperature of water added and the temperature of the egg when it’s put in to microwave. If you need a specific doneness, then you’ll want to nail down all these parameters.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Chipotle Pepper Sauce

Do I know what I'm doing? Nope! But it still tastes good.

So I recently discovered chipotle peppers. Or more accurately, finally tried working with them after seeing them mentioned in recipes occasionally. Have you smelled sautéing chipotles? Oh man--makes me want to eat the air.

I just made a simple sauce by sautéing onions with chipotle and ancho peppers, garlic, cumin, cinnamon, and a little white wine, and then immersion blending them coarsely. Combined with the pan-fried pork chop brought out a fullness in the flavor that wasn't there in the sauce alone. I'm not sure why, but the sauce smelled much fuller than it tasted alone--kind of like teas smell richer than they taste to me.

Well, in any case, I've got my eyes set on Rick Bayless's Mexican Everyday to start exploring Latin cuisine. Maybe I'll get some insight there. The book seems like just what I'm looking for, as everyday cooking should give me understanding of the flavors and techniques that are foundational to or capture the essence of the cuisine (Mexican, specifically, in this case), which is what I look for rather than aiming at particular dishes. But we'll see. I'll be blogging.

Also pictured above and below are potato wedges roasted in duck fat. I wanted to see what all the fuss was about with duck fat, but it didn't really jump out at me, at least in the quantity that I used. The potatoes were delicious, but not particularly decadent, as I was led to believe. So far, duck fat seems similar to chicken fat, to me at least, with an excellent roundness to its flavor. But maybe I just didn't use enough, as I went with my usual light coating, which was about one-quarter (a quarter!) of what some recipes online called for. I mean, if you're gonna dump that much fat into a dish, of course it's going to taste rich.

Recipe and more pics below.

Simple Chipotle Pepper Sauce

3 oz. chipotle peppers in adobo sauce (about 1/2 a small can), roughly chopped
1 dried ancho chili pepper, soaked in hot water until softened (15-30 minutes), stem and seeds removed, roughly chopped
1 small onion, diced
3 cloves garlic, sliced
1/2 tsp ground cumin
1/4 tsp ground cinnamon
1/4 cup white wine
salt to taste
lime juice to taste

1 TBS peanut or other neutral flavored oil
  1. Heat oil in a small saucepan over medium high heat until it slides easily around the pan. Add onion and sauté until beginning to brown.
  2. Add garlic, chipotle, ancho chilies, cumin, and cinnamon, and continue sautéing for a minute or two, until spices have darkened.
  3. Add white wine and bring to a simmer while stirring and scraping browned bits off the bottom of the pan.
  4. Remove from heat and either use a hand blender or pour ingredients into a food processor to make the sauce. Adjust salt and lime juice to taste. Serve as a sauce or dip with chicken or pork, or on roast potatoes, for example.

In the dishes below, I spooned the sauce over the pork chops, whereas above, I tried adding the sauce to the pan as the pork chop was finishing, and tossing the pork chop in the sauce in the pan. I didn't particularly prefer one approach over the other, though spooning it over the pork chop was a little more moist.

Also in these pics is braised kale with green cardamom and coriander--which turned out to pair very well with the chipotle pork.  This was not planned, but rather a happy accident.

On a side note, kale stems take a long time to become tender if you're trying to braise them. It goes faster if they're just completely submerged in boiling water (but then the leaves cook quickly). Best to keep stems and leaves separate and add leaves late, though I'm still inclined just to toss the stems. I only went with them this time because I bought a giant bag of pre-cut kale that included the stems. Hmm.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Go West, Young Man...Then South

Pan-roasted herbed leg of lamb

I'm trying! In the past, my cooking has generally been largely southeast Chinese/Taiwanese home cooking with some other Asian cuisines, as well as basic Western dishes and techniques, like roast meats and vegetables and various other dishes. But recently I've been trying to explore Italian a little more concertedly, as you may have noticed by my referencing Hazan's Essentials cookbook, and Colicchio's Think Like a Chef (though that's broader than just Italian).

Pan-roasted lamb on braised cabbage with saffron risotto

I like learning and expanding my familiarity with different ingredients and approaches, which is why I want to reach into other culinary traditions. Italian seemed like it would offer more available to me than, say, French, which has a very heavy reliance on dairy products. I've been able to pick out dishes that don't rely on dairy or wheat, or that can omit them easily or just require a small vegan "butter" substitution. However, after working through some (cheeseless) risotto, frittata, vegetables, braises, and roasts, I'm finding that even Italian has too much dairy and wheat reliance for me to get very far into its repertoire. Lots of simmering and braising in milk and/or cream, lots of cheese I'm leaving out, bread crumb toppings and coatings, deep frying, clearly having no pasta of any sort, and I'm not a fan of the gluten-free substitutes for wheat products; powdered starches probably aren't too good for you as blood sugar spiking agents, themselves. Vegan cheeses are weird tasting. And I'm finding that butter tastes cloying in its richness to me in a way that pork, chicken, and duck fat do not (I haven't cooked with tallow and rarely eat beef). Maybe it's because I haven't had much of it in several years.

I like Hazan's zealous devotion to simplicity in her recipes. I've liked what I managed to put together. But I feel it's time to explore other culinary traditions, as I'm reaching the end of my rope already as far as the broad strokes go with Italian, due to my dietary restrictions.

So I'm looking next toward Latin American cuisine. It's something I've starting looking more toward as I realized that I can have all their masa/corn based things, and of course rice. So if I can avoid their cheeses and butter (the destroyer of all culinary avenues [see Indian]), I should probably have a good area to explore.

Any recommendations on Latin American cuisine cookbooks? Any nation/tradition.

Pan-roasted chicken thigh with Italian salsa verde and mashed sweet potatoes

[A tangential note, but I'm approaching this post as my musing back on Italian.
The ingredients are more expensive than Southeast Asian cuisine's ingredients, despite my image of Italian as being a less "elite" and hyped-up cuisine than French, for example. The thing is, I wonder how much is a function of its being richer parts of the world that consume Italian cuisine, thus driving prices higher. But let's be serious, here: $4/pound for Arborio rice? And it's only packaged 1-2 pounds a unit so there aren't even much bulk discounts?]

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Butternut Squash and Chard Soup

Whew! Snatched "mmmm" from the slack jaws of "meh" on this one. Alright, so it would've been fine flavorwise, but I seem to keep overcooking squash when I've been simmering it, lately. With a good range of techniques in your toolkit and adaptive, creative thinking, you can adjust what your doing to respond to unintended outcomes in your cooking. 

I was preparing a second iteration of a successful kabocha squash, chard, and bacon dish I'd prepared, trying butternut and simmering it instead of roasting the squash since I wanted a moister result. Well, as mentioned, I ended up simmering the squash too long, and it had turned too soft to have a satisfying chunkiness in your mouth. So rather than have a soup with too-soft vegetables swimming in it, I decided to go for a nice, thick puréed soup instead.

I adjusted the spices and seasoning and pulled out my hand-blender (they're fabulous, as I've raptured before). The crispy bits of pork I garnished the soup with were pancetta rather than bacon, since I had some extra on hand. Pancetta's basically the same thing as bacon, but not smoked. Check out this explanation over at theKitchn.

Mmmm...stay on your toes, and don't be afraid to adapt!

Here's what I did for this dish:

Butternut Squash and Chard Soup

Omit pancetta/bacon to make this recipe vegan.

1 large butternut squash, peeled, 1-inch cubed
3 cloves garlic, sliced
1 TBS ginger, minced
2 TBS peanut or vegetable oil
3 cups vegetable stock, or enough to just cover squash in pot

1 bunch chard, washed, chopped, leaves and tough stems separated

1/2 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp ground coriander
dash of white pepper
salt to taste

several ounces pancetta or bacon, fried until crisp, crumbled, for garnish
  1. Heat oil in large stockpot until oil slides smoothly over the surface. Add squash and sauté to brown for a few minutes.
  2. Add garlic and ginger and stir-fry until fragrant.
  3. Add chopped chard stems and stir-fry until coated with oil.
  4. Add enough vegetable stock to cover the squash, bring to a simmer and cook for several minutes, until tender.
  5. Add chopped chard leaves and cook until softened.
  6. Add cumin, coriander, white pepper, and adjust salt to taste.
  7. Use hand blender to purée soup. Add more vegetable stock to adjust thickness of soup to taste. Serve while hot with crisp pancetta or bacon garnish.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Easy Roasted Fall Vegetables

Must be fall 'cause the winter squash are back in stores! Who doesn't love the hearty, mouthfilling sweetness of roasted or braised winter squash? (Put your hand down.)

What makes it even better is that it's so simple to put together a fall vegetable roast; all you have to do is cut them up, toss with oil, and pop in a 425F oven for 30 minutes, turning them halfway through. If the squash is ripe, it should be sweet enough by itself not to need any other flavoring, though it can be nice to add some in, like cinnamon and ginger, or garlic and herbs, maybe some cumin, or brown sugar, or whatever you want.

It's great also that other fall vegetables like carrots and sweet potatoes will cook in the same time at the same oven temperature, so you can mix them together and get some variations-on-a-theme going in your vegetable roast.

Oh, also, the squash pictured above is called a "Red Kuri" squash or ウチキクリuchikikuri in Japanese, meaning, much more poetically, bashful or reserved chestnut. Red kuri's, like kabocha squash have soft skin that is completely edible once cooked. Don't toss the skins out!

Got any favorite seasonings for roasting squash?

Easy Roasted Fall Vegetables - Base Recipe

1/2 medium kabocha or red kuri squash, seeds removed and cut into large chunks with skin still on3 large carrots, roll cut into large pieces
(the vegetables will shrink while roasting so don’t cut any of them too small)
[other recommended fall vegetables to consider adding to the mix or replacing others with: butternut squash with skin removed, sweet potato, parsnips]

vegetable, peanut, or other neutral flavored oil

suggested seasoning ingredients:
pinch of salt
1/2 tsp each of cinnamon and ground dried ginger
1/2 tsp ground cumin
4-5 whole, unpeeled garlic cloves and 1/2 tsp dried thyme
coconut oil or butter and brown sugar

Note: the proportions here are just an example. Feel free to adjust them to your needs.
  1. Pre-heat oven to 425F while you do the prep work.
  2. Add vegetables with just enough oil to lightly coat the vegetables, and seasoning ingredients of choice in a medium baking pan and toss to coat. Pan should be large enough to hold vegetables in one layer. If not, divide vegetables into multiple pans. (Line pan(s) with aluminum foil if desired for easy clean up afterwards.)
  3. Put pan on rack set at upper third of oven and roast for 30 minutes, turning the vegetables halfway through. Serve hot, room temperature, or even chilled.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Will's Red Braised Lion Heads

I'm finally writing this one up after sitting on it for a while--it's a good one! Remember that red braised lion head (hongshao shizitou) recipe from a while back? Well, I've made further modifications, pulling in some insights drawn from a certain "Japanese-style hamburger" (wafuu hanbaagu) recipe and my reactions to another shizitou dish at a restaurant in Richmond, VA (that one wasn't red braised).

The key difference is that I mix in tofu with my ground pork to make the meatballs. However, I think it's important to use medium to firm tofu rather than silken. This makes the meatballs very tender--without feeling insubstantial. This was the thing I didn't like about that Richmond restaurant's shizitou; you didn't feel like you were biting into anything.

Also, I think the dusting with starch in the previous version I posted is an extra hassle that doesn't really add to the dish. I include some starch to help bind the meatballs, but they don't need a coat of starch on the outside to hold together.

Here's my new version:

Will’s Braised Lion Heads 紅燒獅子頭

lion heads
1 lb. ground pork
1 lb. soft tofu (but not silken)
(8 water chestnuts or 1 carrot, large mince, optional)
3 scallions, minced
1 TBS ginger, grated
2 cloves garlic, grated
4 TBS water (one for each quarter-pound of ground pork)
2 tsp sesame oil
1 TBS rice wine
1 tsp salt
2 tsp tapioca starch

1 TBS peanut oil

braising soup
1 TBS dark soy sauce
3 TBS light soy sauce
1 TBS brown sugar
1 1/4 cup chicken stock

potato flour slurry
2/3 tsp potato flour
2/3 tsp water

Sliced scallions for garnish
  1. Combine potato flour slurry ingredients in small bowl and set aside.
  2. Combine braising soup ingredients in another container and set aside.
  3. Wrap tofu in a non-terry kitchen towel or cheesecloth and squeeze out as much fluid as possible (discard the fluid).
  4. Combine lion heads ingredients in a large mixing bowl. Mix well and form into large meatballs about 2.5” in diameter.
  5. Heat skillet or wok over medium heat with peanut oil. When oil slides easily over the cooking surface, add meatballs carefully and brown on all sides, rolling and turning very gently.
  6. Gently add the meatballs to a 2- to 3-quart pot (or sand pot, sha guo) and pour in braising soup ingredients. Simmer on low for 1.5 hours, turning meatballs halfway through.
  7. When done, carefully remove meatballs to a plate. Reduce braising liquid to taste. Stir potato flour slurry to re-suspend the flour in the water, and add slurry in a stream while stirring the sauce until liquid is thickened, coating spoon thickly, but still runs.  Pour sauce over lion heads and garnish with scallions.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Ribs However You Like 'Em

In the process of trying out Marcella Hazan's (Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking) broiled pork rib recipe, I did some looking around at other people's methods of choice in roasting pork ribs (there are infinite variations and opinions, of course) and was reminded of this basic truth in cooking:

People will say that this or that way of cooking a dish is the right way to do it, but when it comes down to it, the best way to prepare a dish for you is the way that tastes best to you.

Some people wrap their ribs in foil and go for low and slow. Others say you must parboil the ribs before you roast or grill. Some say the silverskin must be removed from the backs of the ribs while others cut slits, and yet others prefer to leave them intact. (I happen to like gristle, and there are nutrients there not present in the meat, too.)

I'd kinda fallen into the assumption that low and slow was superior since, well, "proper" barbecue must be done low and slow over many hours, large roasts need to be cooked low and slow over several hours to break down, and braises of tough cuts also need to be gently simmered over long cooking times for the collagen to break down into rich deliciousness. But sometimes you like more body to your meat. One internet commentator's description of foil-wrapped roasts as resulting in "mushy" meats reminded me that it's all really very individual and subjective. De gustibus non est disputandum. Case in point, my brothers prefer cooking noodles to a very soft consistency rather than the ever-hyped al dente. (I happen not to prefer mushy noodles.)

What brought all this about was that Hazan's recipe called for broiling the rack of ribs for a mere 25 minutes, turning it several times. It seemed like rather a short time to cook a cut of bone-in meat. (Pork short-ribs need to braise for longer if you want the meat to almost fall off the bones.) So that's why I did a lot of looking at other people's approaches. In the end, I decided that I already knew how wrapping in foil and going low and slow would turn out, so this time I'd trust Hazan and see what her approach yielded. And Hazan's approach yielded utter deliciousness in a relatively short time. The loin-back ribs I had really did only need 25 minutes to be done. The meat wasn't falling off the bone, but was tender and juicy, and had a little crispness at the edges thanks to not wrapping in foil and cooking under a broiler. (Though, I wonder how things would have turned out with spareribs, as Hazan's recipe called for, rather than the loin-backs I had. Loin-back ribs are less fatty and more tender, meaning they'll cook through more quickly...)

At the end of the day, you should cook things how you think they taste best. Of course, it's good to listen to other perspectives; maybe you'll like them, too. But if your preferences don't link up with the generally accepted "best practice", whatever. This is where new ideas and developments come from. And where family and personal recipes come from.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Appreciating Texture in Food

Chef Ming Tsai makes a very interesting point about the importance of textures in Chinese food in a way that doesn't really exist in Western cuisines:


Monday, September 16, 2013

Ramen Field Guide

A thorough guide to the range of ramens out there, for enthusiasts and neophytes alike:


Saturday, September 14, 2013

Pineapple and Thai Basil Muesli

Pineapple and Thai basil are a good combination. Try it!

Above was my crazy idea for my post-run snack. I've taken to letting some rolled oats soak in soy milk and a bit of water (the water keeps the resulting muesli from being too thick and almost sticky) while I run so I can have a bit of carbs immediately ready to eat when I get back. This bridges the time until I can shower and eat a fuller meal.

This was another one of those moments when I look at what's on hand and it just strikes me that, "Huh, that seems like it'd work well." I was thinking along similar lines to adding mint to fruit, though Thai basil adds a more complex twist than mint, which I think is less of a flavor stretch from the sweetness of fruit. The touch of sourness in pineapple works particularly well with the Thai basil.

Next time I'd cut the pineapple into smaller chunks, but otherwise it was great.

(The proportions in the recipe below are for a full serving. I have half of that for my post-run snack.)

Pineapple Thai Basil Muesli

50g rolled oats
100g soy milk (sweetened, or unsweetened soy milk + your choice of sweetener to taste)
splash of water
bite-sized chunks of pineapple
Thai basil leaves
  1. Combine rolled oats, soy milk, and water in a bowl and let sit in refrigerator for at least 30 minutes to let the oats absorb the fluid and soften.
  2. Add pineapple and Thai basil to the bowl and enjoy.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Creamy Frittata

I've always liked frittatas, along with similar dishes like quiche and omelettes. But the eggs turned out so creamy in my own first attempt at a frittata* that I've become a new devotee. That frittatas' ingredients and technique are pretty simple to execute is another point in their favor. I've been exploring Italian cuisine via Marcela Hazan's compendium, Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, and her method, I must say, is my favorite that I've tasted (not that I've had a ton of frittatas). Basically, you need to cook the egg gently so that it doesn't get overcooked and dry out and firm up. (Similarly, the time I first got the timing and technique right on scrambled eggs was a revelation for me, too.)

In contrast with Hazan's approach, however, a "mistake" I made with my zucchini actually turned out to be a plus in my opinion. I'd absentmindedly tossed my uncooked zucchini in with the other ingredients in the egg mixture rather than letting them cook through and brown first with the onions. However, as a result, the zucchini was tender but still had a little body to them at the end rather than just being soft like everything else. I thought it was a great textural contrast, though the extra flavor from browning would have been nice, too. It's a trade-off.

Looks like there are several different approaches people take with cooking the top part of frittatas, though: baking, flipping it and staying on stove top, and broiling. Any one have thoughts? Broiling makes sense to me--it's easier to cook the top without overcooking the rest of the frittata, which has already been cooking on the stovetop, and maybe looks neater at the end than if you flipped it.

Here's what I did:

Frittata with Zucchini, Tomatoes, and Basil

1 onion, thinly sliced
2 zucchinis (medium-small), sliced 1/4-inch thick
2 plum tomatoes, peeled raw, seeded
2 handfuls fresh basil leaves, torn into large pieces
5 eggs
salt and pepper to taste
olive or other cooking oil

skillet with all metal body required for broiling step so the handle doesn’t melt
  1. Heat 2 TBS olive oil over medium-low heat until oil slides smoothly over skillet. Add onions and some salt, cover, and cook until onions have softened and begun to brown and turn golden.
  2. While onion is cooking, prep other ingredients, beat eggs with a little salt, mix tomatoes (and zucchinis if not opting to cook them with the onions first—this results in zucchini with more body at the end)
  3. [Optional: add zucchini to onions in pan and continue cooking until zucchini has become tender and started to brown.]
  4. Remove onions (and zucchini) from skillet and mix in with the egg mixture.
  5. Return skillet to heat over low heat. Add another TBS oil and heat (or butter to melt and just begin foaming) before adding egg mixture into skillet. Cook until egg has set except the top surface is still runny.
  6. Place skillet under broiler about 6” away from the heating element, and cook until top of frittata has set and edges have just begun browning. Remove from oven and serve out of the skillet in slices.

Yes, I ate my frittata over steamed white rice. What?

*unless you count a Filipino torta I tried making once, which is basically the same thing.

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Simpler Can Be Better

Sometimes simpler is better. And sometimes...it's just simpler. I take a similar view toward simplicity versus complexity in cooking as in art, namely, that they're just different ends of a spectrum of approaches. It matters a lot what you're trying to do in a piece (or dish). The more elements and the more details included in a piece, though, the more convoluted it can be, and you can end up confusing things rather than improving things. With colors as with flavors, too many things working inharmoniously together results in "muddiness".

There's a dish in Chinese cuisine, liang ban huang gua, that is a marinated cucumber salad. Pictured above, I added in red bell pepper. And while the flavors didn't clash, I didn't feel like the peppers worked with the marinade to produce a harmony of flavor greater than the sum of its parts. There've been other times I added vegetables that probably shouldn't have been added and made things worse. Simpler can be better. But of course, when complexity is done well, it's really impressive.

I've started reading Gulp, by Mary Roach (it's great so far: interesting, you learn things, and written with some lightheartedness), and there's a great passage early on where the author is speaking with Sue Langstaff, a sensory analyst who is a consultant to the brewing industry (she smells and tastes things to tell clients what's wrong and what they could do to improve things). Langstaff warns against "equating complexity with quality", noting that all the long lists of descriptors attached to wines are just marketing. She also intriguingly asserts that she'd pick a Budweiser over an IPA since it's very well made while IPAs are not "sitting and sipping" beers but rather are better for having with food.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Will's Tofu Stir-Fry

I am not a fancy cook. I'm a home-style cook. This description of Vietnamese food (which the VietFest website pulled from Wikipedia) resonated with my own approach to cooking:
"[T]he ingredients for Vietnamese food are often very inexpensive but nonetheless, the way they are cooked together to create a yin-yang balance make the food simple in look but rich in flavor."
Well, minus that bit about the yin-yang balance. Actually, I think this description of inexpensive ingredients, simple in look, but rich in flavor applies to other East and particularly Southeast Asian cuisines, too.

I must say, though, sometimes I think I'm actually getting pretty good at this home-style cooking thing. I improvised this tofu stir-fry with materials on hand and it turned out the textures and flavors were particularly harmonious and bright. I wrote down the recipe immediately after eating, and it's included at the end of this post.

Of course, the more "rustic" traditional fare of European cuisines can use cheaper ingredients than what's generally on offer in restaurants these days, too. I'm trying to start exploring more of Italian cuisine now, or at least what parts don't involve wheat or dairy, or where they are minor components and can be dropped or subbed out. I'm scanning and picking out parts of Marcella Hazan's tome to try...hmm, very ingredient driven--the quality of your ingredients will make or break your dishes, whereas with East/Southeast Asian cuisines, there tends to be more in terms of spices and sauces involved.

Speaking of not being a fancy cook...here's a pic of my melding two chicken fricassee recipes in Hazan's book. Though, she calls for browning, so technically they're actually braises and not fricassee, which sautées without browning before "braising".

Here's the tofu recipe:

Will’s Tofu Stir Fry

1 block (14-16 oz.) medium-firm tofu, pressed, cut into 2 cm cubes
2 carrots, peeled, sliced on diagonal
1 bunch scallions, cut into 5 cm segments
1/2 cup grape/cherry tomatoes, halved

2 tsp fish sauce
1/4 tsp brown sugar

fried shallots/onions for garnish
poached or fried egg on top, bibimbap style
  1. Heat oil in wok until it slides smoothly over wok surface (hot). Add tofu and brown on several sides (the crispy outside is key!).
  2. Add carrots, lightly salt, and continue occasionally stirring.
  3. Mix fish sauce and brown sugar together and add to wok, using the fluid to release tofu if stuck, and deglaze.
  4. Add tomatoes and scallions and toss until scallions have heated through and are bright green and softened. Remove from heat and serve immediately.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Italian Fried Rice?

It actually works really well! I had a couple chicken thighs, but not enough to want to braise or do a dish that centered around the meat, so I decided to go for a fried rice. I didn't have any veggies on hand for it, though, except a portion of an Italian-flavored salad that I'd made previously (modified from this recipe). It had zucchini, yellow squash, tomatoes, olive oil, balsamic vinegar, basil, oregano, and scallions (it's a good one!), and I thought, "hell, why not?"

It turned out to have a really nice, round flavor to it, I think because of the uncooked olive oil that came in when I added the salad in. But also, the basil and oregano with chicken harmonized well. Tomatoes added some brightness, and the squashes with their skin some good textural contrast.

Try it out! Or try other ethnic cuisine* inspired fried rices; I mean, you know many other east and southeast asian cuisines have fried rices, too, right? And then there's paella, and risotto's just another step away.

*Don't think Italian is ethnic? Why not? Ethnicity doesn't mean "group of people who are not of Western European descent", and we're all foreign to someone else. As Tyler Cowen says, "All food is ethnic food."Alright, alright, so in common usage in American English we have a certain concept around the term "ethnic food", but think about this in the back of your mind when you're talking about it.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Mint Your Melon

For a quick, simple way to add a little extra something to your melon, be it watermelon, cantaloupe, honeydew, or other sweet melon-y fruit (or combination), just toss it with chiffonaded mint! Delicious.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Roast Pork Shoulder: Crispy Skin

O beautiful, for criiiispy skin / for amber waves ooof...skin...

I finally got a great, crisp, flaky pork skin on my shoulder roast! Eating this does not feel healthy, but it tastes rich and delicious. The trick is that you need to salt the skin (and not put your oily, moist marinade on the skin, but under it rubbed into the meat) to draw out moisture so that it crisps up when roasting. There's a lot of oil in the skin, though, which makes it feel very rich in your mouth. Plus the salt. I prefer it on rice or probably congee would be good, too--good textural contrast (which is why you tiao, aka "Chinese donut", goes great with congee, too).

I'm still not managing to get the salty rub/marinade to penetrate to the more central regions of the roast, though. Cutting deeper slits into the meat and making sure to rub the seasoning into the cuts helps, a four- (or more) pound roast is pretty big, and it may not be possible to get to the inner regions. So that's why you eat it all together, slices from the outside to the inside, giving you the more seasoned and crusted outside to the falling-apart insides.

Continuing to tinker, so I don't really have a good recipe of my own yet. But Googling "pork shoulder roast" will bring up plenty of different approaches, including the ones I've been looking at.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

China's Culinary Diversity

Here's an article in the Atlantic discussing some very cool research going on studying China's diverse regional cuisines and what determines the links between cuisines.

And for the more data-minded, some more detailed discussion of the methodology over at MIT Technology Review.

Check 'em out!

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Tofu Skin Rolls

Trying new things. These are (browned then) steamed rolls with skins made from very thin sheets of tofu--a dim sum classic. Filling is commonly pork with bamboo and black mushrooms (aka shiitake). You can buy tofu skins (called fu zhu, "bean curd bamboo" in Chinese, or yuba, "hot water leaf" in Japanese) in dried form, which needs to be soaked in water to rehydrate. Once rehydrated, the skins are very delicate and tear easily. As this was my first time working with it, I had some issue with not knowing which way to cut and unfold, since the sheets are dried folded. This meant a fair amount of undesirably placed tears and shreds. Which was fine--I had more than I needed to use the filling I'd prepared, and just used the rest in a vegetable stir fry.

The filling for these kinds of foods (the other main ones being dumpling and meatball related) used to seem dauntingly time-consuming to me. But I've since gotten used to the preparation of the filling, itself--it's actually the outsides that are more troublesome, for dumplings of various sorts. Fortunately, with tofu skins, you don't have to go through the hassle of measuring and mixing the wrapping ingredients yourself; just rehydrate and go (unless you're crazy and want to make them yourself!). It still takes some time, though, working with the delicate skins, and then browning the outside to seal the flap, before finally steaming. Though, maybe you don't really have to brown the rolls before steaming...

I was concerned that the wet skins would sputter and not brown well, but surprisingly, they actually brown (without sticking!) really easily. Hmm...not sure why. Maybe because they're so thin.

Anyway, check out Chichi Wang's recipe here, which I loosely followed, along with this one from Susan Wong. Note you can just pan-fry the rolls to brown the outsides and seal the flap instead of deep-frying like Wang does, as Wong's recipe shows. However, Wang is right that you only need steam for 15-20 minutes on high (or at least, it was definitely done at 20 minutes for me). You can also just deep fry your tofu skin rolls instead of steaming, and there are recipes for that online, as well.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Pretty Picture: Beer

Mesmerizing light.

(Gluten-free, of course.)

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Banh Maki

So...this happened. :) "Banh Maki" because it's banh mi ingredients in a maki zushi. (I also considered titling the post "banh mushi"...sounds funnier, but also like mushy.)

Concept is good, but I need to tweak ingredients and technique. My pickling solution for the Vietnamese pickled carrots and daikon was too weak. I'd pick a little less salty a ham next time. Also would add cilantro, but didn't have it on hand for my quick experiment. Wish I had kewpie mayonnaise, but that's not essential. Sushi rice'd be nice, but more trouble than I'd want to put into what should be a relatively convenient lunch to make.

Here's a good resource on all you need to know about making and rolling sushi. Wish I'd found it before this trial. I've just been going off the casual technique I learned from my grandma and mom! Not that it really matters for casual diners.

Anyway, I just want to say, today we celebrate our great nation that allows such wonderful culinary creativity and coincidence of cultures to conspire! Happy 4th, everyone.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Za'atar Oatmeal

I sure post a lot about oatmeal. But oatmeal's great, very versatile. And here's another thing to try with your oatmeal: za'atar. There are a lot of little variations in the abundant recipes you can find online, but most basically it's ground sumac, thyme (or oregano, or something else, or some combination), sesame seeds, and salt. Unfortunately, I have issues with sesame seeds (yeah...), so to get a bit of sesame flavor in without setting off my allergies, instead I drizzled a bit of sesame oil in with the other ingredients. Brilliant! (Sesame oil doesn't cause me any problems, so it must be some other element of sesame seeds--likely a protein, as they're often the allergen in foods.)

For protein and more substance to my breakfast, I added a soft-boiled egg. Mmmm--but there are few things you could add an egg to that it would actually clash with. Usually egg makes things better with its richness--egg in and of itself doesn't have a lot of flavor to it. Add a little salt and the egginess starts to come out more, and it goes great with savory dishes and salads. At the same time, it's also an essential ingredient in desserts.

Speaking of versatile foods, za'atar is very versatile, too, going in all sorts of Middle Eastern dishes and meshing with all sorts of foods.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Monday, June 10, 2013

Pro-est Oatmeal Tip

Today, I bring you the pro-est oatmeal tip:

You can start your oatmeal in cold/cool/whatever-temperature-it-comes-out-of-the-tap water, no problem.

This simple fact actually makes a huge convenience difference, to me at least. Now you can just measure out your water and oats, put it on the stove and away you go! No need to break up steps into measuring water and putting that on to boil first, which means you have to pay attention to when the water boils to add your oats, ideally being aware when it first starts boiling so as to minimize your time spent and water lost boiling (which could put your measurement off). I mean, come on, we're trying to get some food in our bellies on our way out the door to work/school/conquering-the-world here, amirite?

I first thought to try this after reading Kenji Lopez-Alt's Food Lab article on how you can let your pasta soak in cool water before cooking it without any difference in product due to the two phase process of cooking pasta: hydration and cooking. Sounds like a handy tip for those of you who eat pasta regularly.

And now, some oatmeal pics:

I loves me some savory oatmeal. This one is with a Thai spice blend that my roommate had, with a microwave soft-boiled egg (another super convenient technique I may post about) and cilantro.

Also, I've really cut down on my sugar intake (which was already low). Breakfast was kind-of the last bastion of sweet foods in my diet. But I don't add sugar to my oatmeals anymore, buy only unsweetened soymilk (which is kind of a pain since most have some added), and stick to cold cereals with the lowest sugar content when I do eat them.

My go-to oatmeal flavoring is now cinnamon with a little paprika or other ground chili pepper of some sort, and a bit of ground dried ginger (and a pinch of salt, of course, to bring out the flavors).