Saturday, August 11, 2007

New Potato and Corn Chowder

I wanted something rich, but not overpowering. I wanted something savory and simple. I wanted a dish that harkened back to my childhood.

But mostly I wanted to avoid this:

That is my freezer. The thing sticking out of the right side is an ice pack I stuck in there three weeks ago. At the time, it was the only thing that would fit.

Luckily, our fridge is pretty empty at the moment since C. and I just got back from a week-long family reunion in San Diego and haven't had a chance to replenish our pantry yet, so the timing is ideal to defrost. Tomorrow we're planning on unplugging the poor beast, wedging a plastic tub underneath to catch the melted ice and crossing our fingers.

In the meantime I needed to use up as many perishables as I could. Beyond the jar of C.'s uncle's pickled jalapenos, a loaf of sandwich bread, and some long-neglected leftovers there wasn't anything except for a small carton of cream - just enough cream for a pot of chowder.

New Potato and Corn Chowder
serves 4-5 as main course

recipe adapted from NPR's Kitchen Window column

1 cup heavy cream

2 pounds new potatoes, scrubbed, de-eyed and halved

1 large yellow onion, chopped

1 clove garlic, crushed and trimmed

6 slices bacon

1 bag frozen yellow corn

4 1/2 cups chicken stock

1 tsp. ground mustard

1 tsp. salt

1/2 tsp. freshly ground black pepper

small nubbin of butter

1. In a large saucepan over medium heat, cook bacon until crisp. Pat the bacon with paper towels to remove excess grease and set aside. Drain off all but two tablespoons of the bacon fat remaining in the saucepan, then add the chopped onion and cook, stirring occasionally with a wooden spoon to keep it from sticking to the bottom. Deglaze the pan with a glug of chicken stock, making sure to get those nice caramelized bits of bacon and onion off the bottom so they incorporate into the broth. Add the potatoes, corn and remaining chicken stock and bring to a boil, then simmer until the potatoes are fork-tender, around 15 - 20 minutes.

2. While the soup comes to a boil, cut the bacon into thin slivers with kitchen shears or chop roughly with a knife. Set aside. In a small bowl, muddle the ground mustard, salt and pepper with a little of the cream so it forms an even paste. Stir in the rest of the cream and let sit until it reaches room temperature.

3. Remove around 1 cup of the potatoes from the saucepan and mash until smooth. After it's cooled a bit, add a bit of the seasoned cream and mash to incorporate it evenly. Keep adding cream for 1/4 cup's worth, then move the saucepan off the heat and add the cream and potato mixture to the soup. Slowly add the rest of the cream, taking care to stir it in. Top it off with the butter and let it melt, then serve with a generous pinch of the bacon slivers and eat it piping hot.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Salsa In Time.

I spent June 5th through the 8th tromping around Ashland, Oregon with two dear friends. After a heady whirlwind of Shakespeare, August Wilson and Chekhov, my comrades in arms and I drove back to the Bay Area, reading aloud to keep each other amused and awake. We had a splendid time.

Upon my return, C. informed me that I had made entirely too much food and most of it was past its prime, since I'd prepared four days worth of meals for two people rather than scaling down for C.'s solitary sustenance. Darn.

The next week or so won't be a terribly photogenic one, foodwise. In the interest of balancing out our cat's recent vet bills and using up whatever I can salvage from the week before, "thrifty" will prevail over "pretty." Tonight, though, after rummaging among the carefully organized inventory of groceries known as "that crap on the kitchen floor," I found one perfectly ripe avocado, a nectarine that somehow escaped the soggy fate of its fellows, a whole lot of oranges, and two roma tomatoes. The lentils and brown rice I made for our main course won't be appearing here, as it is a homely and shy dish, but the salsa is a bold, haphazard thing. I'm sure it won't mind being paraded around a bit.

Summer Salsa
I call it "Summer Salsa" and not "Whatever-the-crap-you-can-find-in-your-fridge salsa" because, by sheer coincidence, most of the ingredients I used are in season. It turned out fairly tasty.

3 cloves garlic, very finely minced

half a medium-sized yellow onion, finely chopped

1 ripe nectarine, diced into even cubes

1 ripe avocado, diced into even cubes

2 roma tomatoes, seeds and inner pulp removed and diced into even cubes

1 medium orange, sectioned, deseeded and cut into a roughly even dice

a drizzle of your best olive oil

Combine all ingredients in a pretty bowl. Have a large quantity of chips handy. Salt and pepper to taste.

Sunday, June 3, 2007

And we're back.

So sorry for the absence, folks, especially this early in the game.

Let's cut to the chase, then.

When I read Mark Bittman's piece on making your own burgers at home I decided to see if our food processor could take it. It came as an attachment with a blender I bought on eBay, and I would describe both as "needy." Where most food appliances of their nature obediently, even cheerfully do as they're told, my blender and food processor tend to whine and defy my every order unless I give the contents a lot of gentle prodding with a spoon. So I was a little apprehensive about grinding two pounds of pork shoulder for these stuffed pork burgers I made, but it turned out pretty good.

Stuffed Pork Burgers with Cast-Iron Skillet Corn
adapted from The Minimalist's Garlicky Pork Burgers and Inside-Out Lamburgers

For the burgers
2 lbs. pork shoulder (it may be called "pork butt roast," a term that always makes me snicker like the twelve-year-old boy I am inside, but it doesn't actually come from the butt)

7 cloves garlic

8 oz. monterey jack cheese, grated

half a bunch of chives

salt and pepper to taste

a large skillet to fry the burgers once they're formed or, if you're lucky, a grill

For the corn
1 bag frozen Trader Joe's sweet corn (not the roasted kind)

2 shallots

a good knob of butter

salt and pepper to taste

the other half of the bunch of chives

a cast iron skillet

kitchen shears

1. Leave the bag of frozen corn out to thaw while you prep the other ingredients. Wash and dry chives and mince fine. I like to use kitchen shears for this, since my chef's knife often needs sharpening. Trim, peel and mince the shallots into a fine dice. Set aside.

2. Mix half of the minced chives with the monterey jack cheese in a small bowl. Peel and mince the garlic and set aside.

3. Using kitchen shears, a proper knife, or really anything that won't slip out of your hands and kill you or any cats lurking hopefully at your feet, chop the pork shoulder into small chunks roughly 1/2" to an 1" cubed. In the food processor (I did this in two batches) grind the pork with the garlic, salt and pepper by pulsing on high until the meat is the consistency you want. Now, this is the tricky part. You don't want the grind to be too coarse, or the fat won't incorporate evenly into the mince, but you also don't want a porky paste. A happy medium is what we're going for.

4. Heat the cast iron skillet and the large skillet on medium to medium high heat. To form the burgers, take a handful of pork, shape it into a rough patty around 1/3" thick and form a shallow well in the center. Pat in a lump of the cheese and chive mixture (in the future, I will separate the cheese into the amount that I want in each burger so that if I run out of meat before cheese I won't contaminate the remainder) and cover with more pork, pressing the edges so the cheese won't leak out. Repeat until you run out (I made eight patties).

5. Fry the burgers in the large skillet. Meanwhile, melt the butter in the cast iron. Once the foaming has subsided, add the shallots. When the shallots are soft, Add the corn, stir with a wooden spoon to incorporate everything evenly, and keep an eye on it while you oversee the burgers. This is a very low maintenance side dish. Basically you're just stirring it from time to time to keep the kernels from burning. Once the corn is golden-brown and caramelized, add the chives and cook until they've softened but not lost their vibrant color.

6. Serve burgers plain or on soft rolls with a good mustard.

Makes roughly eight patties.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Last Meal (For Now)

I'm not exactly sure what happened. No, actually, I know exactly what happened.

C works as a game tester for a large company, which is not as glamorous as it sounds. For one, as he's had to clarify countless times, he does not "play video games for a living." Game testing usually involves long hours and tedious replay of the same level over and over, looking for any continuity errors or programming glitches that might upset gameplay. It's monotonous, eye-straining work, and he can't even really bitch about it due to the nondisclosure agreement he signed with his contract.

Occasionally international teams will collaborate on testing for a single title. A week ago Camden came home with a dour look on his face. His schedule has been adjusted to fit international timetables, and for the next month or so he works from (brace yourself, people, it's not pretty) seven PM to four AM.

His new schedule threw quite a wrench into what I'd hoped would be a smooth quarter. I had to drop the night class I'd been planning on taking with C, since he wouldn't be available to give us a ride and the bus doesn't run that late. Which meant the other night classes were moot as well. When I scrambled to sign up with late-registration for some online classes that had looked interesting, I found they were all full. So I have make excuses for yet another blank quarter on my college transfer applications, which look like they might be pushed back yet another year. D'oh!

Even worse, though: I can't cook.

C's reasoning is this: the one meal I cook regularly, almost every day, is dinner. Since he won't be home to share dinner with me, he feels guilty at the idea of "making [me] slave over a hot stove" only to immediately box up the meal for his lunch, while I eat my portion alone. A little melodramatic, perhaps, but I do feel less enthusiastic about cooking when he's not here. Which is really a pity, now that spring has really arrived and all its bounty is brimming in the markets. Maybe I'll start mustering up the energy to start cooking dinners for myself this week, but for now I just feel too disoriented by these bizarre hours to do much of anything but order Thai food and surf the Internet.

Still, I've found ways to weasel in a little time in the kitchen. I get up an hour or so after C gets home and rustle up some bacon, eggs, and oatmeal. And for you, dear readers, I offer up the last nice dinner I made for C:

Spring Pantry Pasta
This is basically a dish of my own invention, if I can even call it a dish. The beauty of pasta recipes is how malleable they are, how simple it is to showcase specific ingredients and flavors as they shift with the seasons. The sauce is based on pasta carbonara, but beyond that I kind of went crazy. Leeks were on sale for $0.99 a pound, so I threw in four of those; C loves peas, and even though the produce market was out when we got there (boo) I've found that Trader Joes' frozen peas are actually comparable to fresh, depending on how they're used. Throw in some crumbled bacon and an aging yellow bell pepper that had been languishing on my counter for a few days and we had a meal to carry us through the dreary takeout-laden weeks to come.

- 4 slices bacon, diced fine (I find chilling the bacon for a few hours before slicing helps get more uniform dice)
- 4 leeks, pale parts only, rinsed free of grit and sliced into thin rounds
- half a bag of Trader Joe's frozen peas
- 3/4 cup to 1 cup cream or half and half
- 1/2 cup chicken stock
- 1 onion, diced into roughly 1/4" cubes
- 3 plump shallots, diced fine
- 3 cloves garlic, minced fine
- 1 small yellow pepper, julienned
- 1 egg, well beaten
- 16 oz. fresh pasta (I used lemon and cracked black pepper tagliatelle from a local pasta company)

1. Thaw peas and set aside. In a medium saucepan, fry bacon over medium heat until crisp and brown. Using a slotted spoon, fish out all the bacon and let drain on paper towels. Leave in as much of the bacon fat as you can stand.
2. Add leeks, onion, garlic and shallots to the pan and saute until translucent and tender. If they look like they're browning too quickly lower the heat and continue.
3. Add bell pepper and peas and saute until evenly incorporated and partially cooked, about five minutes. Lower the heat to low. Once the saucepan has cooled a bit, add the cream and stock and mix. Gradually increase the heat until the stock just barely simmers.
4. In a separate, larger saucepan, heat water for pasta. Be sure to salt the water well.
5. Once the cream is pretty warm, SLOWLY spoon about a tablespoon into the bowl with the beaten egg, mixing rapidly with a fork or whisk all the while. This is to temper the egg. It's important that the hot cream is added gradually, so the egg isn't shocked by the heat and curdles. Once about 1/2 cup liquid has been used to temper the egg, take the saucepan with the sauce off the heat and add the tempered egg to the saucepan. Stir to evenly incorporate the ingredients and add salt and plently of freshly cracked black pepper to taste.
6. Cook the pasta according to its directions and drain.
7. Plate and serve immediately, with crumbled bacon on top.

Tuesday, April 3, 2007

Pleating For Mercy

When I lived in North Carolina there wasn't a large Asian community that I can remember, especially compared to the Bay Area, where I live now. Still, my parents quickly assembled a core of Korean friends they met through work or church or at the one Korean supermarket/deli, the one that everyone went to because, well, it was the only one.

At the time I resented having to spend weekends at my parents' friends' houses for drawn-out dinner parties and potlucks instead of going to my friends' dinners and potlucks, but looking back I realize how much my taste for certain foods and rituals was shaped by those evenings. At first everything was really cozy, since most of my parents' friends were, like them, teachers or students at the universities. We would gather at someone's apartment, each family bringing a side dish or beer and, if it was a (Korean) holiday, all the women would help the hostess make mandu. I don't know why the men didn't help make the mandu. They might have been too busy manfully watching TV. (When we weren't gathered for a holiday or birthday, we were usually watching the World Cup.)

Mandu, the Korean word for dumpling, are similar to gyoza in the way they are pleated and stuffed. However they're not usually panfried. I remember we usually steamed them and served them with a delightfully vinegared soy dipping sauce, or we added them to dduk gook, a comforting soup made with a mild clear broth, thin strips of beef and gim (nori toasted with sesame oil and salt), and rice cakes.

While my mandu are probably not strictly traditional since I'm still not entirely sure of the recipe my mom makes, I used:
- 2 packs wonton wrappers
- 2 pounds ground pork
- 2 tablespoons fresh ginger, finely minced
- 6 large cloves garlic, finely minced
- 1 bundle chives, minced (I like to use my kitchen shears for this; my knife is sharp, but right now I only have a couple crappy plastic cutting boards and trying to get clean cuts on chives just ends up bruising them)
- 1 egg, beaten
- salt and pepper to season
- 2 tablespoons sesame oil
- 1 - 2 cups fresh shitake mushrooms, diced fine (I tend to use more but I know these suckers are expensive, so I leave the precise amount up to you)
- 2 tablespoons mirin (rice wine) or good cooking sherry
- 3 tablespoons soy sauce
- 1/2 a pound fresh shrimp, peeled, deveined and chopped (optional)

For the mandu assembly station:
- kitchen shears
- bowl of cold water to seal the wrappers
- bamboo steamers
- cabbage leaves to line the steamers

Yield: roughly 75 mandu

1. Recruit your slave labor. Homemade mandu are labor intensive, which is why they're usually reserved for holidays and large family gatherings.
2. If the wonton wrappers are square, trim them into circles. They dry out, so keep a lightly damp paper towel over the ones that are not in use.
3. Prepare the filling: in a large mixing bowl mix the pork, ginger, garlic, chives, sesame oil, mushrooms, mirin, soy sauce and shrimp, if using. Use your hands to mix or, if this is absolutely unacceptable, a couple forks. You pansy. Once the ingredients are evenly combined, add the egg and mix in to bind.

4. Line the steamers with washed cabbage leaves. Set a pot of water on the stove to boil.
5. Time to assemble! Spoon a small lump of filling into the center of each mandu wrapper, maybe two teaspoons or so. You want to leave enough room around the edges for you to pleat and seal the mandu effectively. To pleat the mandu, dip a finger in the bowl of water and wet the edge of the wrapper, a good thick smear. Don't use so much water that it makes the wrapper soggy, but don't skimp. Fold one side of the wrapper towards the other so it seals very loosely. Then pinch the edge into pleats, moving towards the center, making sure there aren't any openings or air bubbles as you go.
5. Place the mandu in the steamer, taking care to avoid letting them touch each other. Once the water is boiling, reduce the heat to a gentle simmer and place the mandu-laden steamers onto the pot. Steam for about eight to nine minutes, until the filling is cooked through but still tender. Serve, and remember: neglecting to feed your slaves can lead to insurrection.

Friday, March 30, 2007

Fresh Start (Again)!

This is the seventh blog I've started.

I used to be a really diligent blogger when I had THINGS TO SAY and NEEDS and DESIRES and DREAMS and I started in, oh, my sophomore year of high school. Yes, I was one of those. Please stop laughing.

Pubescent durm und strang aside, I really enjoy blogging as a medium. I think almost half of my reading diet - that's books, newspapers and magazines - is composed of blogs. Being part of that community has always felt exciting! Great! Terrific! But that didn't stop the last six blogs I wrote from trickling off into nothing. Was it because I outgrew it? Or maybe because I tried to keep up the "candor" and "vivacity" (read: TMI) of my first blog, which could legitimately be used as blackmail against me if I ever become famous? Perhaps the subjects I tackled were too heady, too vast for my wimpy gray cells: art, beauty, the quiet desperation of a life of community college and data entry. Why bother? If I'm going to kvetch I have a captive audience at home; my cat's not going anywhere.

But FOOD! TEA! BOOZE! These are things I can always talk about. So it might be a while before I go back to baring my purple-prosed soul, but this is a venture I can anticipate knowing I won't falter. My appetite will never waver!

The inaugural recipe: How To Roast A Chicken.

My boyfriend and I started our relationship long-distance. I live in the Bay Area, he lived in the cesspool known in the vernacular as "Los Angeles." We were eighteen and stupid. It was probably the best decision of my dating life. Also, thanks to all those airplane tickets, the most expensive one.

Every ticket purchased a few precious days with C, but these retreats came with the requisite tedium of waiting in the airport for the plane to arrive. Since I don't drive, getting to and from the airport involved a lot of planning. I often arrived hours early, wandering around and practically drooling for something to do.

One afternoon, after an obscenely overpriced cup of coffee, I wandered into the SFO bookstore. I glanced without interest at the fiction and essay sections, usually my favorites but not a good choice in an airport setting. I needed something I could pay half my attention to, to keep me occupied for the 2.135 hours before my flight started boarding. A finely crafted narrative couldn't stand up to the frazzled attention span that comes with checking one's watch every four minutes. I get kind of anxious at airports.

Anyway, Thomas Keller's Bouchon was displayed prominently in the belly of the store and I fell for him immediately. I had no idea who he was or that the French Laundry existed beyond dirty clothing. In France. But you've seen the cover - that rich glass of wine, the crusty little loaves lying carelessly around its base, the arresting typeset of the title. The sheer weight of it impressed me. Flipping through, I looked eagerly for something I could make for C in his anemic apartment kitchen and found myself feeling like I was lost in the mall. Emulsions? Reductions? Why was everything being pushed through a sieve? Why was this supposedly casual fare plated so pristinely? Why did he expect you to do the same? It looked like my trip would be based on takeout until I saw the recipe I jotted madly in my notebook forty-six minutes 'til boarding and that has defined how I roast a chicken to this day:

1 small chicken, around 3 pounds
kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper
lots of paper towels
a baking dish and roasting rack
20 inches or so of kitchen twine
kitchen shears

1. Preheat your oven to 450 degrees farenheight.* Pat the chicken REALLY REALLY DRY. I'm not kidding. One time when I was out of paper towels I used my hairdryer. Make sure to get as much moisture out of the cavity as you can - if there are giblets, reserve for gravy.
2. Generously salt and pepper the cavity and truss the chicken according to your preferred method. Salt and pepper the outside - I believe the verb Keller uses is "rain" - more generously than you think you'll need.
3. Roast for 1 hour to 1 hour 20 minutes. I like to roast it breast down, since the juices will then run over them and keep them moist and C and I prefer to eat the dark meat first. Once the juices run clear, remove from oven and place chicken and roasting rack over something that will catch the pan juices. Using a large spoon, or by simply tilting the pan, baste the chicken in the pan juices and let rest for 15 minutes. If you like, before basting chop some fresh herbs into a fine mince and sprinkle over the chicken. Remove the oysters immediately and gobble them down - you cooked them, they're yours. Serve the rest to your lucky companions.

Do you see how lovely that is? You baste the thing ONCE. You open the oven door twice - once to put the raw chicken in and once to unveil it in its golden, crisp splendor. I do a couple things differently in the recipe I posted than the book, obviously, since a) I've made it so many times my own cooking idiosyncracies have taken over and b) I don't like getting sued, but for the most part it's all here. It goes without saying that the quality of the chicken you use is crucial to the result - that Safeway Butterball won't do here. While I kind of hate the Whole Foods in our area for drawing the well-heeled bougie-booj through its doors like moths to an overpriced flame, I do like that their staff knows where the meat comes from, that the chicken is cage free or free range, and that almost every month they have a phenomenal sale on said chicken.

The other great thing about this recipe is how open to variation it is. Those giblets you reserved earlier? Make a gravy. The fresh herbs you chop up and sprinkle on the bird before drowning them in those glorious pan-drippings? Try replacing them with minced tea leaves.

Two teas that work particularly well with roast chicken:
1. Earl Grey: if you like fruity notes and that tannic edge with your meat, this is surprisingly good. Try serving the chicken with a small bowl of some bright red jam - aesthetically appealing and delicious and not nearly as crazy as it sounds.
2. Lapsang Souchang: yielding a rich red cup, redolent of bonfires and smoke, this is a natural match for a roast chicken, or practically any roast meat.

And the requisite picture:

This is the first chicken C and I shared, and though it was far from the last we still made an occasion of it. I'd just landed, after all. We feasted on pomegranate seeds and wine and that lovely chicken slathered, as Keller recommends it, with fresh butter and a good mustard - the perfect accompaniment to the Lord of the Rings Extended Edition DVD, or a homecoming.