How Asian Food Turns Me On

I love the flavors associated with Asian cuisine.  When I was a child my mother would take me to many restaurants to sample the fare, but at home until I was almost grown she shied away from cooking with these flavors.

One day when I was around twenty I went into the cabinet and the refrigerator and pulled out every Asian sounding ingredient I could find.  By now my mother was stocking besides the teriyaki sauce, and soy sauce most American’s kept in their fridges – rice wine vinegars, wasabi powder, garlic-chili sauce, etcetera – but I had never seen her create something with them.

I went to town not keeping track of how much of anything I was placing into a bowl.  Like the first trip to a sundae bar by yourself as a child, I attempted to put one of everything on my plate.  In the end the chicken I was making turned out overly salty and the sauce was too runny from lack of cornstarch and way to many vegetables – but I was excited, turned on.

From them on I was hooked.

Creating a new dish is a high for me.  For someone other than me to actually enjoy it just puts me over the edge.  I take pleasure in playing with salty-sweet combos and pushing edges on what people think they like, forcing them to try new things against their will.  I have found that in many instances people are like my uncle who insists he detests the flavor of onion – but who loves everything made for him with onion that he cannot detect with his eyes. 

To be truthful I know nothing about the proper way to cook Asian food.  I don’t have a book on it, I haven’t watched a program on it – nonetheless I continue to report back to the flavors and play around like in a sandbox, unabashedly and full of joy.

Such a playtime romp went on today as I prepared Beef with Plum and Black Bean Garlic Sauce.  I simply decided on a protein and then went and looked for Asian flavors I enjoy and asked them to come over and play in my sandbox.

The following is what came about;

 

Beef and Soba Noodles with Plum and Black Bean Garlic Sauce

Ingredients

1&1/2 lb of Thin Sirloin Tip Steak (thinly sliced into approximately 2 inch strips)

2 Packages Chuka Soba Noodles (angel hair pasta could be substituted)

3 Cloves of Minced Garlic

1 Inch of Minced Ginger (more or less depending on your fondness of ginger)

1 Yellow Pepper Cubed

2 Cups Broccoli Florets

1 Medium Sweet Onion

6 Scallions (more or less to taste)

1 Can Water Chestnuts

1 Can Baby Corn

¼ Tsp Red Pepper Flakes

1 Tbsp Black Bean Garlic Sauce

2 Tbsps Plum Sauce

1 Cup Chicken Stock (you could use beef but I enjoy the lightness the chicken adds)

1&1/2 Tbsp Cornstarch

¼ Tsp Hot Oil

½ Tsp Sesame Oil

2 Tbsp All Purpose Flour

Salt and Pepper to Taste

3-6 Tbsps Vegetable Oil

Directions

I started off by blanching my broccoli both for color and to start the cooking process.

Salt and pepper beef strips and then lightly coat in flour, shake off excess.

Preheat a large skillet with half the vegetable oil (use the other half for the second frying if needed) in it over medium high heat.  Add the beef in two batches.  Brown the meat and reserve to plate for later use.

At the same time put on a pot to boil for the noodles, follow the package directions for times.  Mine took three minutes to cook.

Reduce heat to medium and add the sweet onions, yellow peppers, garlic, ginger, and red pepper flakes.  Cook for approximately 4 minutes (depends on doneness of vegetables you prefer).

 

While the vegetables are cooking in a mix together the plum sauce, black bean garlic sauce, hot oil, sesame oil, and chicken stock.  After making sure all the ingredients are incorporated whisk in the cornstarch and set to the side.

 

 

Add the broccoli, water chestnuts, baby corn, and scallions – let them cook for about one minute. 

Return the beef to the pan 

and pour in the sauce.

Mix and make sure each item is coated.  Turn heat to low and cook another three minutes.

Turn the heat off, add the noodles, and toss to coat.

Plate and enjoy.

 

 

I enjoy the mild flavors in the dish.  There is nothing to salty, or to acidic as some recipes insist on using vinegars and prepared sauces that are vinegar based.

I hope you try it and I hope you enjoy it, and don’t tell me you can’t find any of the products I listed in here.  I checked the local Wal-Mart and if a Wal-Mart in the middle of New Hampshire is carrying all of these products – even soba noodles than I hope everyone can find them.

Trust me they are worth the investment.

The Great Pudding Debate

Have you and your friends/family quarreled over which version of a product on the market today is better?  It would be harder to imagine not having the occasional tiff than not with the multitude of versions of food products out there.  Such a debate sucked me in recently.

I can take or leave a store bought instant pudding mix any day.  They never seem to sit on the palate as well as the original thing.  However I do not always want to play around with heating milk – or dealing with my old, occasionally temperamental friend – chocolate, as this occasion would have required.

To once and for all settle the instant chocolate pudding debate it was decided upon that three brands would be purchased.  Using the same carton of milk and blind taste testing system a group of us would taste and rate the pudding on several categories, finally tallying up the results and arriving at a designated winner.

The three puddings chosen were Jell-O, Royal, and Wal-Mart’s Great Value.  We purchase a brand new bottle of milk and returned home for the testing. 

To secure the test so no one knew what pudding was being eaten at any time the following measures were taken;

-         One of us went into a room, opened up the packages and numbered the envelopes with the number 1, 2, or 3. 

After the envelopes were returned this person again left the room and another individual not knowing which number belonged to what product opened the envelopes and emptied them into an identical container which was marked A, B, or C – and then tapped the envelope number side up so no one could see the number.

-         The pudding was mixed in front of all so that everyone could rate the ease of preparation factor (since it was instant pudding we thought this to be an important factor).

 

-         Next the pudding was allowed to set and cool in the refrigerator while we made up ballots.

 

-         The pudding was brought to the table and were judged from 1-10 on the following;

1.      Ease of Preparation

2.      Overall Taste

3.      Overall Look/Color of Product

4.      Texture

5.      Smell

6.      Finally we guessed which brand the pudding was

-         After the tasting was done each ballot was tallied and then combined to come up with the following results.

Pudding B received the highest (averaged) score with a 38

Pudding A came in second with a (averaged) score of 25

Pudding B came in third with a (averaged) score of 23

We all guessed that pudding A was the generic Wal-Mart brand.  Most of us were wrong, however on which was Royal and which were Jell-O brand. 

                        Pudding B was Royal

                        Pudding A was Wal-Mart (a real surprise to us all)

                        Pudding C was Jell-O

The Wal-Mart pudding was a surprise to us because none of us picked it as our favorite in any category except ease of use.  It blended together the quickest and set up the fastest garnering high numbers from all.  The overall taste was sweet with no real discernable chocolate flavor.  We wondered if we thought it was “chocolately” because we knew it was supposed to taste that way.  The color was found to be a very plain and flat brown, but it was rated high in texture with creamy being a defining adjective used.

The Jell-O pudding after looking at the math came in last right behind the Wal-Mart based on its preparation issues.  It took the longest to come together of all three, and since we were basing it on the “instant-ness” of the product it rated low on all ballots.  However we believe that the extra whisking was a reason for the high numbers in texture with velvety being one of the adjectives used to describe it.  The taste seemed to be where most people veered – you either loved it or did not.  Some said it was a perfect blend of the sweet mixing with coco powder, hitting your tongue at the same time – while others felt that it was overall to strong with the coco powder and had the flavor of chocolate syrup right from the bottle.

The Royal pudding won out because it could be viewed as easy to use falling in between the two in preparation speed – most likely also helping it with its texture that was described as silky.  It was received the best in color and overall look by having a warm red tone mixed in.  With flavor it seemed to be as split as the Jell-O only this time between people who enjoyed the mix of sweetness and coco powder and those who thought it was slightly too sweet.

In the end did this end the great debate?

Well you could say that. 

You see we each now know what our favorite instant chocolate pudding is and trust me we all enjoyed the pudding we liked best.

Yet I’m sure that soon enough we’ll be trying to win each other over to “our” side of the pudding debate.

What was my overall pick?

Jell-O, and no matter what anyone says I’m sticking to it!

We all enjoyed this so much that we want to make it a regular event.  So if you have any thoughts on food you want taste tested let me know.

What French Toast and Eggs Taught Me About Life.

Isn’t it nice when you get a break in life that you weren’t even expecting, no matter how big or small a smile comes to your face? 

 

Such a thing happened to me today. 

 

In the grand scheme of things this would be a petite break.  One, however, upon reflection I have learned something from.

 

I love to cook for other people.  I do not like to cook if it is only going to be.  Why?  I’m not really sure but it has always been this way.  Yesterday I suggested to my roommate that I make her French Toast (a favorite of hers) since she didn’t have to work as a start to her relaxing day.  She of course accepted happily and it was decided.  She went back to watching television and I started to think of what was in the house that I could use to make the toast itself a bit unique or to flavor the syrup.  I went to bed deciding on regular cinnamon flavored toast with strawberry and orange flavored syrup. 

 

When I woke up in the morning I could smell warm potatoes and wondered what was going on.  My friend being the wonderful person that she is had gotten up and decided to surprise me with breakfast.  No she would not be making French Toast but eggs, hash brown patties and toast but a meal none the less.  I have to tell you the food was delish and I was happy to not have to cook or clean (yippie) the dishes that come with cooking.

 

 

 

It was only afterward that I realized I was annoyed with her.  I could not for the life of me figure out why.  I was angry with myself for being upset with her for doing a nice thing.  I had to sit and think for quite a while to come up with the following;

 

I cook for people because I care about them.  Food is my chosen way to express comfort, attention, and warmth to those around me.  It also gives me attention.  When I make a meal for someone with them particularly in mind it doesn’t matter if I think thyme would go in the dish – if they don’t enjoy the flavor I’m not going to put it in there, and things like that may not be noticed by anyone but me – but that’s a shot of love in there.  I realized I don’t cook much for me alone because there is no social component and thus no fun in creating/taking the time to make a wonderfully put together meal that no one else is going to share with me.

 

So I was annoyed because basically when it comes to food I’m selfish.  I wasn’t able to garner all the glory that day in my special way, and I wasn’t able to take the coward’s way of showing love with a well composed dish. 

 

I wonder how many other cooks out there use their food as a way to say I love you, with out having to actually say the words? 

 

I know words don’t taste as good as French Toast, but I think in more ways that matter they feed us more than we often take the time to think about.

What to do With Mascarpone

This week mascarpone cheese was on sale and I knew that it must come home with me.  My mother fostered in me a love very deep for mascarpone whether sweet or savory.  It makes the simplest desserts with just some sugar and lemon zest sandwiched with Nilla wafers, or the moist decadent cheese cake.  

Enough with the dessert tangent.

I knew that I could purchase a tub and be able to use it for both a main dish and a tempting dessert.  So here is how I choose to use my cheese.

Chicken thighs were the meat of choice for my client’s dinner.  She really enjoys the flavor of dark meat and I enjoy the forgiveness it has toward me – sometimes I get distracted and a breast may not retain the same level of juiciness or tenderness that thigh meat can. 

I decided that I wanted to make a rich and silky chicken with vegetables that could be served alongside or on top of a starch.  At first egg noodles crossed my mind but the soft texture would offer no contrast in textural context so I decided on couscous – smaller than rice but same multi piece action. 

I went toward flavors my client likes and that I know meld with chicken, fresh rosemary, the trinity of carrots, celery, and onion, and I used red wine to draw out the depth of the meat flavor in the dark meat, and the mascarpone went in at the end to help finish the dish and give it its silky texture.

 

When it was all done I was proud of my humble dish.  It made me think of a simple supper my grandmother might have made in my youth.  When Amanda tasted it she remarked that it was great and tasted like the inside of a chicken pot pie – not what I was aiming for but from her it was high praise.

So here is my recipe for today.  I call it Rich Chicken, but Amanda calls it Inside Out Chicken Pie

Ingredients

 

1 Chopped Spanish Onion

1 Carrot Peeled and Diced

1 Stalk of Celery Diced

1 Pepper Diced

5 Cloves of Garlic Minced

1-2 Teaspoon(s) of Fresh Rosemary (depending on your taste preference)

2 Tablespoons Flat Leaf Parsley Chopped

¼ Cup Cubed (small) Pancetta

3 lbs Boneless Skinless Chicken Thighs (breast meat could be used if you prefer a lighter flavor)

1 cup Mascarpone Cheese

2 tbsp Olive Oil

¾ cup Red Wine

¾ Cup Chicken Stock

Flour to Dredge Chicken

1 pinch of Red and Pepper Flakes

¼ Tsp Sugar

Salt and Pepper to Taste

Directions 

In a large pan (I prefer a heavy Le Creuset) heat 2 tbsp olive oil over medium heat.  Add the pancetta and render for 4-5 minutes till they are browned and crispy.  Remove the pancetta from the pan and hold. 

Salt and pepper the thigh meat and dredge in flour while the pancetta is rendering.  Add the meat to the pan after pancetta removal and brown for a few minutes a side.  Move the cooking chicken to the sides of the pan and add the carrots, celery, onion, peppers, and mushrooms to the middle of the pan with a pinch of red pepper flakes.  Cook two minutes add garlic and rosemary, sauté over medium-low heat for approximately five minutes.  Add salt and pepper and mix all together.

  

Add ¾ cup red wine to pan and stir the bottom of the pan for brow bits.  Reduce the wine in half.  Add chicken stock, and stir to combine all together.  Bring the liquid to a boil and drop heat to a simmer for ten minutes to condense liquid.  Stir in 1 cup of mascarpone the parsley, and sugar.  Simmer 4-5 minutes.

Season to taste.

Reintroduce the pancetta.

I also know that it reheats well because Amanda ate it for supper last night – that’s always important in today’s world.

PS I even incorporated the marscarpone into my “Blondies” that I made yesterday.  So I got to use it for both of my fav ways. 

Happy Blonde Brownie Day!

Happy Blonde Brownie Day!

Blonde brownie up close

Did you know that there was a blonde brownie day?

 

Neither did I, but there it is and it happens to fall on today – January 22.

 

I found this tid bit of info out while surfing around the web looking for random food intell.  While it is not a national holiday I thought celebration of the brownie in either form to be wonderful inspiration for a morning of baking and a chance to learn some food history. 

 

“Blondies” are thought to have been baked and enjoyed before the brownies full of chocolate flavor we love today.  Food historians believe this based on cookbooks.  I bet you have never considered your collection of cookbooks to be a contemporary historical of the gastronomical enjoyments of our time – but it truly is. 

 

These aged cookbooks show the major ingredients of “blondies” were butter, and brown sugar – like the components of butterscotch candies which were well enjoyed in the mid nineteenth century.  There were cookbooks whose directions showed a mixture of butterscotch candy ingredients mixed with flour and a leavening agent.

 

Historians seem to agree that chocolate flavored brownies came into popularity in the twentieth century’s start when mass production of cocoa and chocolate became widely available and much more affordable. 

 

Knowing all of this I sat down this morning and wrote a recipe for Blonde Brownies that I really like.  The smell was delicious in the house and the taste was fantastic. 

Blonde brownie1

Blonde Brownie Day Brownies 

Ingredients

6 Tbsps of Unsalted Butter

2 Tbsps of Mascarpone Cheese

1 Tbsp of Milk (I used Skim)

1 Cup of Light Brown Sugar

1 Egg Beaten

1 Cup of Sifted Flour + 1 Tbsp (I used All Purpose)

½ Tsp Baking Powder

2 Tsps of Vanilla

½ Cup of Finely Chopped Walnuts

1/8 Tsp Salt

4 Tbsps Chopped Hershey’s Chocolate Bar

Directions

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

 

Butter and flour (I use the Crisco + flour spray) an 8×8 cake pan and set aside.

 

Combine the butter, mascarpone, and milk in a sauce pan over low heat (I use a heat diffuser to ensure that the dairy products won’t scorch) till butter and mascarpone melts.  Once this happens remove from heat.

 

Add the light brown sugar (you can use dark but I enjoy the light color maintained by the light color of the sugar), beaten egg, and vanilla until combined thoroughly. 

 

Combine the flour (minus the one extra tablespoon), baking powder, and salt into the now wet sugar mixture.

 

Take the extra tablespoon of flour and toss with the walnuts (I picked this up from Ina Garten that this will help suspend the nuts or chocolate evenly throughout).  Now incorporate the nuts and flour into the mixture.  Stir well.

 

Pour into the 8×8. 

 

In half of my brownies I placed the chopped chocolate on the top of the brownie for my friend who enjoys chocolate mixed into her “blondies” as many people do.  I wanted mine “pure”.

 

Bake for 25-29 minutes based on your oven – of course check for a clean toothpick or knife.

 

Let the pan cool and then slice into bars or 2x2s.

Blonde brownie 2

So make brownies blonde or otherwise and enjoy – after all it is a holiday.

 

Thanks to http://www.foodtimeline.org/foodfaq.html#blondies – for the history facts.

How Hot/Cold Bags Brought Silence to My Food Journeys

Hot/Cold Bag

Have you seen these Hot/Cold bags before at the store?  I had noticed them hanging off of freezer door handles for over a year before I broke down and bought one.  I was shopping an hour south of home and located a flavor of sherbet my father had been desperately seeking for months; I knew I had to bring some home.  I didn’t have high hopes for the bag but I hoped it would at least keep the product somewhat cool so that dad could have some cold soup by the time I reached home.

 

To my amazement when I arrived home it was as rock solid as frozen delights are usually found at the store.  Still I was not immediately converted.  My mother had taught me that if I knew I was shopping a distance from home that I should always bring a cooler with me.  While this may seem silly to some up in New Hampshire where I live the closest grocery store is a fifteen minute drive and it’s not even the “good” one.

The problem with this is I hate having to get the cooler and clean it, never mind the clanging it makes as it sways drunkenly around the back of the car.  So for a very long time I shopped at the sub-par establishment and cooked a simple routine of dishes. 

On a whim I broke from tradition and decided to give the Hot/Cold bag a shot.  I made a week’s list of foods and off I went thirty minutes south to have a shot at fresh produce and people who actually know what cuts of beef I’m talking about. 

I have to admit that I shopped a little shyly planning on purchasing milk and other generic cold items closer to home, but I shopped unabashedly at the meat counter picking up pancetta, and some chicken.  When I reached the produce section I was near tears at the beauty and quality of the vegetables.  I greedily grabbled large bunches of greens, asparagus, herbs, and lettuces not having any plan as how to incorporate them into my menu for the week.  I was like a woman marooned on an island only able to eat fish for years and finally able to sink her teeth into a prime cut of beef.

At the checkout my checkbook was unhappy but I refused to let it upset the delirious high I was on.  Out at my car I placed all of my cold items carefully into my special bag and made sure each of the snaps clicked.  I placed the bag in a foot well to prevent unnecessary bouncing and ran episodes of the Food Network through my mind trying to think of what to do with my bounty.

It’s been over two years since that escapade into the Hot/Cold bag territory and I’ve never looked back.  I mention it to all of my friends and relatives as a great piece of equipment.  Just stick it next to the front door and take it back to the car next time and you’re ready to shop at a moments notice – you don’t need ice – you don’t need heat packs, it simply works with the heat or cold from the items in the bag.  For the ware and tare you get out of each bag I say its well worth the small investment and in the end when they need to be turned out to pasture they don’t owe you a cent.

Best of all – they don’t clang in the back of my car.

What Amanda Is Eating This Weekend

Amanda's Meal This Weekend

Amanda loves pork.

Amanda really loves potatoes.

Amanda isn’t really a fan of vegetables.

So I have to walk a fine line all the time with her, but it’s worth it for me because it’s a chance to learn for me. 

The stars were aligned for this meal this weekend.  Not only had it been a few weeks in between pork dishes but pork chops were only sale at the market I like to frequent.  To top that I received a supply of four new cookbooks in the mail this week, one of them being Giada De Laurentiis – Giada’s Family Dinners (which I had been hoping would be under the tree for Christmas). 

While I was reading the book I came across page 96, and Parmesan-Crusted Pork Chops. 

Had I mentioned that Amanda loves cheese?

Well Amanda loves cheese.

So I saw it as fortuitous and decided to plan a meal around the sale product and the flavor in Giada’s recipe.  My first thought was rosemary and garlic roasted potatoes spears.  I was banking on this thought while I was at the grocery store, but I came across some lovely yellow and orange peppers that I decided if I pan fried with a bit of olive oil and finished with a tablespoon of white wine vinegar in the pan for the last minute of cooking would provide a tang as well as a great color to the plate.   Picking up the peppers I knew that would have to change my idea for potatoes because as my mother had always taught me I shouldn’t have multiple items of the same size and shape on a plate.  Creamy mashed potatoes dressed with nothing more than real butter, milk, salt, and pepper is a delicious canvas for the pork and the peppers to rest on and texturally it shakes up and lands along nothing else I’ve set aside for her dish. 

I like to try and get two vegetables on any plate I make.  This way I can give two different flavors and my hope is to never bore people with my side dishes.  So to go with the parmesan pork I thought onions caramelized in butter tossed with green peas would make a wonderful addition.

With almost all dishes that I make I’m asked for some sauce, but I also know that Amanda is conscious of her weight.  So I decided to go for something high in flavor and low in gravy laden fat.

Mushroom No-Gravy  Ingredients

1 – 8 ounce package Cremini Mushrooms

1 – 8 ounce package Shitake Mushrooms

2 tsps butter

1 tbsp olive oil

Salt and Pepper to Taste

Directions

Clean off and dice all of the mushrooms

Heat a medium skillet over med-low heat.  Add the butter and olive oil.  Once the pan is heated add cleaned and diced mushrooms.  Do not add salt and pepper yet as it will stop the mushrooms from obtaining the rich brown color of pan gravy we are looking for.  Sautee the mushrooms for several minutes (everyone’s cook tops are different mine took about six minutes) till they have reached the deep brown then salt and pepper to taste.  Cook another minute.

Serve warm over whatever you wish.

Add it all together and you get Saturday and Sunday’s suppers for my friend Amanda.