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

salt
2 tsp fish sauce
1/4 tsp brown sugar

optional:
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.