Sunday, March 23, 2014

Crisp Roasted Broccoli

Turns out roasting is a really great and easy way to prepare broccoli. I don't think I've had crisp broccoli before (unless you count fried breaded broccoli), but was pleasantly surprised by the crispy fringes of the florets that came out of the oven. All you have to do is cut the broccoli into bite-sized florets, toss with some oil, and roast for 15-20 minutes in a 500F oven. Toss with salt to taste.

Check out the Brussels sprouts/broccoli section of Kenji Lopez-Alt's great primer on roasting fall and winter vegetables. I've tried this with Brussels sprouts, too, but don't like the results anywhere near as much. Certainly you do manage to avoid the off-putting sulfurous aroma, but the Brussels sprouts just ended up mushy for me. After refrigerating, they regained a more pleasing texture. But I was hoping for something like the showstopping, crisp fried Brussels sprouts I've had before. Guess you have to fry them to get that.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Pho Success!

The broth was perfect this time! I think the key point was to be sure not to skimp on the rock sugar. I'm not saying to use extra, but don't use too little, either. This is hard to be precise about because of rock sugar's irregularity and its coming in hard, discrete rocks. I suppose if you have a scale you can weigh them, but if they're not right, you still have to imprecisely break the rocks. Anyway, it's cooking, not baking, so you don't need to be super precise. Just don't skimp on the rock sugar.

Also of note to discuss is that this time I used oxtail to make the stock. A friend suggested it because of its high gelatin content and its having meat on the bones for flavor. The caveat is of course that oxtail costs more per pound than other parts you could make the soup with. So now that I've gotten this great rendition out, next time I'm going to go back and see if I can get the same result using beef toe plus a cheap slow-cooking cut of beef. One thing I noticed was that the meat on the beef neckbones I used last time were very tender and packed with flavor. So toe for gelatin plus brisket or whatever cut of meat is cheap and slow-cooking (and flavor rich) seems to make sense. I wish I had beef shank readily accessible.

You can see my previous post with other thoughts here.

More on "Authenticity": Wramen

It's an interesting question at what point a variation of a dish has been stretched so far that it can no longer be considered a member of that dish set. A recent article in the Seattle Times referenced a blog post by Jay Friedman proposing that we distinguish between ramen, which is to be "authentic" (my quotation marks), versus Wramen, for when someone is trying to create something new.

Now, I definitely have strong puristic tendencies and appreciate the desire make such a distinction. You get into a bit of eye-rolling territory when restaurants slap together their own me-too fancy or homey high-concept versions of whatever is the latest hip dish or cuisine without really appreciating what actually goes into traditional versions of that dish and its culinary context. Ramen is the obvious example, but consider also maki sushi (which Friedman also mentions), tacos, pizza, and I think bibimbap shows potential to have this trend, too.

However, I also highly value creativity and appreciate the arbitrary nature of setting down bright line definitions of dishes and cuisines. The same dish will vary between individuals, and approaches evolve even within one individual over the course of time and as we are exposed to new things. I'm glad Friedman makes sure to express that he likes both ramen and Wramen. It's not that taking foods and ideas out of their existing boxes is a bad thing. Rather, there's a point beyond which you can't really call a noodle dish "ramen" anymore. Or beyond which you can't call a dish "Chinese food" anymore. Or beyond which a dish is really a variation of a hamburger steak or a sandwich and no longer a "hamburger". And of course the next question is "where is that point?" And that's another subjective and arbitrary question to ponder.

But wait, you say, pizza, in all its crazy diffusion has become a unique American product distinct from its Italian prototypes. And that, I think, is exactly what Friedman wants to distinguish: American takes on ramen, or Wramen, as opposed to traditional versions of it.

Where I think Friedman runs into trouble, though, is the question of why it is that all the creative exploration and evolution of ramen in Japan--which is ongoing--is all automatically "authentic" while foreign explorations are not. If a Japanese chef adds real Chinese cha shao (which is roasted) to a ramen instead of Japanese cha shuu (which is braised and actually is a sweeter version of what is called kong rou in Chinese), would it be "authentic"? Because Friedman calls out one Seattle chef's take on ramen that has Chinese cha shao and kimchi brussels sprouts as being Wramen. Or was it the kimchi brussels sprouts that made it Wramen? If a Japanese chef had put that together would it still be Wramen? Or would that be Jramen? Or ramen?

Ultimately nomenclature and classification is useful in that it enables us to discuss and compare things meaningfully. But I'm not sure getting people to say "ramen" and "Wramen" is going to help.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Jicama Celery Salad

Wow, this was a surprisingly awesome salad. Surprising because I'd never made it before or even worked with jicama before. Too bad all we've got to look at is this half-demolished ruin...wait, people like looking at those, too, right? I'm just going to muse on the various things that went into this salad for this blog post, and the loose recipe is at the end.

Celery was the breakout star in this salad, to my surprise--actually, the celery's role in making the salad great was the big surprise. You need to make sure to peel off its stringy fibers, though, and then it's got a great crispness and doesn't get in the way of enjoying the flavors and textures of the salad. For some reason it just really harmonized and came out well with the lemon, balsamic, and egg.

Jicama is great! It's actually a lot like some varieties of "Asian pears" in both texture and flavor. A little harder, though, and a little more mild in flavor. In this salad it was nice in that the celery and jicama echoed each other in texture, but had a nice contrast and harmony in flavor. Next time I'd cut it into thinner "matchsticks" for use in the salad. Maybe 1/4-inch-ish rather than the 1/3-inch-ish I had here.

Spinach I find has a stronger flavor than other salad greens and a certain...spinachiness that for me works best with balsamic vinegar's stronger flavor and sweetness, as opposed to rice vinegar, which I like better with the chard/baby kale/spinach mix I had previously been buying.* But with just a little balsamic, the spinachiness of spinach and the sweetness of balsamic are both tamed and balance each other out wonderfully.

*Spinach is cheap by itself! And I have something like this simple salad as part of my complete breakfast every morning, so that's a big plus.

Jicama Celery Salad

a couple handfuls of spinach
jicama, peeled, cut into long 1/4-inch-thick matchsticks
celery, peeled, cut same length as jicama
a good squeeze of lemon juice
drizzle of olive oil
drizzle of balsamic vinegar
an egg, soft-boiled, fried, or poached (you want a little yolk still to be runny)

Toss all ingredients together and enjoy.