Sunday, August 6. 2017
I took a break from the politics and music this past week to cook a dinner served Saturday. I started my "birthday dinner" tradition back in the mid-1990s, where I would take a national cuisine and try to make as many varied dishes as I could muster. I suppose the original idea was just to show off: the first two dinners were Chinese, which I largely figured out in the early 1980s while living in New Jersey. Then I moved on to Indian -- another old interest although I didn't get to be really good at it until the birthday dinners started up -- and then Turkish. Later on I started using the dinners as research projects as I attempted to figure out other cuisines: Spanish, Thai, Moroccan, Lebanese, Japanese, Iranian, Italian, Greek, Brazilian, Cuban, Russian.
I've long felt like Korean would be worth trying. I've dabbled a bit, mostly from working from Charmaine Solomon's The Complete Asian Cookbook. My first Korean food came from a restaurant in Cambridge (MA): small nuggets of intensely flavored beef. A decade later, I had a friend in Boston who several times fixed huge feasts of homemade Korean food. One of the first times I tried cooking at a relative's home, we bought beef short ribs and I marinated and grilled them. But I never got out of the rut of habitually ordering bulgogi when I got the chance. A couple years back I bought a copy of Young Jin Song's The Food and Cooking of Korea, but until recently it languished on the shelf.
A few months ago I decided to give it a go. I planned out a menu, and knowing I'd need some lead time I went ahead and made a batch of classic kimchi. I did some shopping to figure out what could be found, but we couldn't schedule the dinner I had hoped for, and I wound up making a "practice run" with what I had bought -- a pretty substantial dinner in its own right. I finally got a chance to go all out this week. I started shopping on Wednesday, and made the first batch of kimchi that night. More shopping Thursday, plus an emergency run on Friday. Cooked some things on Friday, and finished up on Saturday, producing the spread (not very artfully laid out) photographed below:
In addition to the Song cookbook mentioned above, I bought two more Korean cookbooks: Deuki Hong/Matt Rodbard, Koreatown: A Cookbook, and Maangchi's Real Korean Cooking. I ordered the latter after finding several promising recipes on the author's website. I built up a long shopping list with a tentative menu (16 dishes), noting what I already had and what I would need. Then I added various things as I looked through the books, trying to expand my options or just to get a sense of what's available. For example, I never found perilla leaves, bellflower root, or dried file fish (although I did something labeled "filetfish"); I found but didn't buy fresh burdock and dried fernbrake.
I started my shopping at Thai Binh, the largest Vietnamese grocery in town. They cover Chinese and Thai pretty well, with a smallish specifically Korean section where I had previously bought chili paste (gochujang), bean paste (doenjang), coarse chili powder (gochugaru), and coarse sea salt. They have a substantial produce section (although no water chestnuts this time) and a tremendous variety of frozen fish so I figured they'd be my best shot. Then I stopped at Dillons to get the beef, pork ribs, and some more conventional vegetables. Still, I came up short in several respects, so I googled for Korean groceries and found two more: Grace Korean-Japanese Market and Kimson Asian Food Market. I went to them on Thursday, and that evening went to Sprouts and Dillons. I didn't actually have much on the list by that time, other than English mustard, which I finally found at Dillons (Rock/Central).
Grace was small but had a couple things I hadn't picked up before. They also have a small cafe area which seemed pretty inactive. I picked up a couple "homemade" batches of seaweed and shrimp salads, but didn't particularly like either. Kimson only had about a third as much space as Thai Binh but was packed so they had almost as much stuff, including some things I had never seen locally (like frozen sea urchin for sushi). I wound up having to go out again on Friday -- Thai Binh and Dillons -- as I couldn't find the short-grain (sushi) rice I was sure I had plenty of.
Notes on the menu: Most Korean food is very hot (spicy, but aside from chilis, garlic, and ginger there are virtually no spices). The heat comes from chili powder, chili paste, or (much less often) chili oil or fresh peppers. I can barely tolerate hot peppers, so in all of the following recipes I either cut them way back or completely out (though I usually kept the garlic and sugar which are probably included just to draw out the heat). I thought about serving a hot sauce on the side, but doubted any of my guests especially wanted it. (The kimchis were still pretty hot in my book.) Also, virtually every Korean dish is topped with sesame seeds, which I also omitted (although I offered black sesame seeds on the side).
I'm reconstructing this from memory, so I may not even have the right cookbook for several recipes that appeared on multiple books. I did what seems like more than the usual mount of fiddling, not just to adjust the heat and avoid sesame seeds. I did quite a bit of fiddling with various sauces to get an appealing mix of tastes. And aside from the dessert it pretty much all worked. Interesting that the dishes with the highest-percentage leftovers were the kimchi (although the rice, which is usually the least popular choice, was most nearly wiped out).
I scratched a half-dozen possible dishes at various points in the afternoon. I had bought groceries to make: zucchini namul, buckwheat noodles, braised bean curd. I could have done a chives namul. I had more bok choy which I could have fixed with the bean paste. I had cucumbers which could have been used several different ways (but I didn't have time to do proper pickles). I could have made the extra jellyfish into its own dish (similar to the squid). I also had dried anchovies that could be given the squid treatment. I bought red and green bell peppers and can't remember what they were for. I have a piece of barbecued eel in the freezer. I could have taken some of the rice, dressed it with sugar and vinegar, and made sushi, topped with wasabi, broiled eel, and sweetened soy. (Would have been better than the dessert I served.)
There's a lot more Korean food I could have made -- something to try out later. I wanted to have lots of little things (Koreans call them banchan) rather than a big main course. That's why I didn't consider doing a soup or a combo rice dish like bibimbap. In fact, I didn't want to serve plain rice, even though that's the foundation virtually all Korean meals are built upon. I also figured I should stay away from obvious Japanese imports like sushi, teriyaki, and tempura (all common in Korea). I figured the bulgogi was essential, and what sold me on the pork ribs was the possibility of sticking it in the oven and forgetting about it. Similarly, the seafood salad could be made early and out of the way, and having those three dishes really didn't leave much room for chicken or fish. One thing I was tempted by but figured was too tricky and/or marginally weird was the raw blue crabs -- Thai Binh stocks them, and they basically get kimchi'ed for a couple days before serving, so they wouldn't have presented a logistical problem.
Figuring out the logistics is a big part of these large-scale dinners. In fact, this one was relatively easy, the first critical task figuring out what I could (and could not) obtain, and where to shop for it. The kimchis had relatively long lead times (pickles were already out of the question), so that determined when I had to start. I've done meals so complicated that I've mapped them out using charts, but this one wasn't that mind-boggling. After I made the kimchis, on Friday I cooked the seafood, roasted the sweet potatoes, steamed the spinach and eggplant, cooked the plain rice, made the squid, and marinated the meat. Hardest thing there (by far) was picking out the crab meat. I got up a little after noon on Saturday and started working through the little dishes -- the braises sometimes took an hour or more, but I could plate them when they were done. While the braises were going on I julienned the vegetables and dressed the salad, then put it back in the refrigerator. I usually get desserts out of the way early, but this one could be cooked anytime, and there was very little prep to it. The final push could hardly have been simpler: put the ribs in the oven, fix the fried rice, then finish the steak. And I could wait until the guests arrived to do the latter.
So, a pretty memorable dinner. Learned a lot while doing it. The guests seemed pretty pleased. The dog tried crawling into the dishwasher to help with the prewash. I won't try to get into the dinner discussion and all that, which for me was probably the highlight of the evening. Had some leftover ribs and sweet potatoes for dinner this evening. Have some people coming over Monday to help clean out the leftovers -- and maybe I'll cook some of the scratched dishes then. Hopefully Trump won't start bombing Korea by then. I was born during the Korean War. I'd hate to suffer through a second one.
Saturday, January 7. 2017
While rumaging through my old on-line notebooks, I noticed that in the early days (2001, a bit before 9/11) I felt few inhibitions about writing whatever happened to me or happened to catch my fancy. This included bits of music and politics, which later came to dominate the blog, but also books, movies, lectures I attended, dinners I cooked, and trips I took. After 9/11, and especially as the Iraq War approached in 2003, I started to take politics more seriously, and after I started Recyled Goods in 2003 and Jazz Consumer Guide in 2004 I found myself putting even more time and effort into writing about music. To some extent they soon crowded everything else out, but I also started having qualms about exposing myself too much on-line, and thought it would look more professional to focus. It had become a cliché that most blogs were nothing more than exercises in personal vanity, and I certainly didn't want to be viewed that way. I even came up with a plan to split the politics and music into two distinct websites, dusting off the old titles I had used for actual paper publications back in the 1970s: Notes on Everyday Life and Terminal Zone. I even had a fanciful hope that I might entice some of my old comrades into joining in, but alas that never came to pass.
Since the election I've been in a deep funk: not that I was in any way looking forward to Hillary Clinton picking her own cabinet of war criminals and Goldman-Sachs executives, but I really don't have anything deeper to say about the Republican stranglehold on government that "I told you so" -- in fact, if you want to read more on what's happening today go back to the notebook link above and scan through the literally millions of words on the subject I've written since 2001. I really did tell you so, repeatedly, rarely mincing words, yet obviously millions of Americans didn't get the message and couldn't figure it out on their own (as millions who also didn't read me nonetheless managed to do). So I can't point to much tangible satisfaction for all that work.
So over the last few weeks, as it's gotten nasty cold even here in the land of the "south wind," about the only satisfaction I've gotten has been in cooking the occasional nice dinner for friends. So I thought I'd break the usual Monday (music)/Sunday (news) rut and write about cooking, or at least jot down some notes on three recent dinners. None came out without a hitch, but most of the food was memorable, and those in attendance seemed to appreciate it.
I originally scheduled the first dinner for Sunday, December 18, but didn't realize we had another commitment that day. This was a party to honor Mary Harren, and it was suggested I fix something for it, but the only direction I was given was "finger food," and the only inspiration I had was to make cookies. I figured two batches (four dozen) cookies would suffice, and expected to have what I would need in stock, so didn't do any real planning.
I did two variations on the Thick and Chewy Chocolate Chip Cookies recipe from The America's Test Kitchen Family Baking Book: one with white chocolate chips and macadamia nuts, the other with dark chocolate chips and pecans. The basic recipe calls for 1.5 sticks of butter, 1 cup light brown sugar, 0.5 cup sugar, 0.5 tsp baking soda and salt, 2 tsp vanilla, 1 whole egg plus 1 yolk. (I fried up the leftover white for the dog.) Mix in the extras and bake 15-20 minutes at 325F.
I ran into a problem on the second batch: ran out of butter. It was brutal cold, so I tried to cheat. I had some Light Salted Butter that we were never going to use, so melted two sticks. (I figured what made it light was probably air, so more would get me closer, but I don't think that's all there was to it. I also cut back on the salt.) I also figured the dark chips and the pecans would help. They came out a bit off, with a slightly chewier texture, but not likely to draw much nitpicking from anyone else. On the other hand, we didn't get a chance. The event got canceled, and we were stuck with four dozen super-rich cookies.
Meanwhile, the first dinner was rescheduled for Tuesday, December 20. Just two guests: Kathy Jenkins, the widow of my next door neighbor Tony Jenkins, and her mother. I asked for a hint as to what to fix, and she said "chicken" and added "not spicy." My first thought was a Moroccan chicken tagine with lemon peel and olives, then I thought of another half-dozen superb chicken dishes. In the end, I figured the winner would be Roasted Chicken with Clementines & Arak from Yotam Ottolenghi's Jerusalem Cookbook, with its spectacular medley of tastes plus the fact that it's extremely easy to produce a stunning dish. With that I picked out three side dishes from the same cookbook, plus my Iranian cucumber-yogurt standby (better than Ottolenghi's cucumber-yogurt recipe). All four dishes could be done well ahead of time and served room temp (or chilled for the yogurt), so it's about as easy logistically as any possible meal. For dessert I decided to break out of the Middle East and go with an old standby, pineapple upside-down cake, topped with whipped cream.
I did my shopping on Monday, then got started that evening. I made the cake using a recipe I picked up from the web -- somehow I had misplaced my mother's recipe, and this one was terrific the previous time I had made it. Two differences this time: I started from a whole pineapple, so I cut exceptionally thick slices. I used a glass quiche pan which unfortunately was smaller than I really needed. I added some chopped pecans to the butter-brown sugar mix, and skipped the maraschino cherries. The recipe called for beating egg whites until fluffy and carefully folding them into the batter -- something I didn't recall doing before, but this time I came up with an exceptionally light batter.
But this time disaster struck: the cake appeared to bake nicely, but when I flipped it over it turned to mush, its juices spilling out onto the floor. After mopping up, my only idea to fix it was to scoop it back into the pan and bake it some more. I wound up giving it a good extra 30 minutes of baking time. When I put it back into the oven, it was effectively pineapple pudding (actually, quite tasty), and when I pulled it out it was more like cobbler. I tasted it: it was still rather mushy, but very sweet and a bit sour, an aesthetic disaster but a damned tasty one, so I decided to use it. I let it sit overnight before flipping it over. Next day I whipped some cream with a little sugar and vanilla to serve over it.
I bought a whole chicken plus a package of thighs, so I cut them up and prepared the marinade: ouzo, olive oil, orange juice, lemon juice, grain mustard, brown sugar, fresh thyme, fennel seeds, salt and pepper. The recipe calls for arak, but offers ouzo or pernod as substitutes. First time I made it I was able to find arak from Lebanon, but since I wasn't able to find it again, I picked up a bottle of ouzo as a backup. I also had two fennel bulbs, which I cut into chunks, and a bag of clementines -- I sliced about six into rounds, and juiced a couple more. They went into two freezer bags with the chicken and marinade, and into the refrigerator overnight, until I was ready to roast the chicken. At that point the whole thing is dumped into a roasting pan and tidied up a bit, to be roasted in a 475F oven for 35-45 minutes.
That evening I also made the cucumber-yogurt (mast va khiar): peel, seed, and dice two cucumbers, and salt them in a colander; chop 5-7 scallions, and put them into a second bowl, along with a handful each (about 1/2 cup) of golden raisins and black walnuts, plus mint (1 tsp dried or 1 tbs fresh chopped) and a sprinkle of ground white pepper; add 2 cups of plain yogurt (Greek Gods doesn't require draining like I used to have to do with Dannon); fold in the unrinsed cucumbers, check the salt, and refrigerate.
The three other Ottolenghi side dishes were: roasted sweet potatoes & fresh figs (I substitute mejdol dates, a big improvement); chunky zucchini & tomato salad; and parsley & barley salad. I made them the next afternoon, and pretty much had them done by the time to start roasting the chicken.
I think I had three small-ish sweet potatoes. I left the peels on, but cut them into wedges 3-4 inches long; dressed them with olive oil, salt and pepper, and lined them up on a foil-lined baking tray; roasted them at 475F for 25 minutes; lined them up on a serving dish. I pitted about a dozen mejdol dates and cut them into slivers (four per date), and tucked them around the sweet potatoes. I took a half-dozen scallions, cut them into 3-inch lengths (splitting the whites in half), sauteed them in olive oil, and dumped them (with the oil) on top of the sweet potatoes. I then drizzled a balsamic reduction (from a store bottle, although in the past I've followed the recipe and done it from scratch) over the dish, then sprinkled some soft goat cheese.
For the zucchini-tomato salad, I started by cutting three zucchini and three tomatoes in half; I brushed the cut ends with olive oil, and seared them in a very hot cast iron skillet until they were blackened. I then took the zucchini and tomatoes and put them onto a foil-lined baking sheet, cut-side down; roasted them 20 minutes at 425F; cooled and coarsely chopped them. I mixed the dressing: yogurt, garlic, lemon zest and juice, date syrup, black walnuts, mint, parsley, salt and black pepper; then folded the zucchini and tomatoes in. I thought this was overly sweet last time I made it, so was careful with the date syrup this time.
For the parsley-barley salad: cover 1/4 cup pearl barley with water and boil for 30-35 minutes. On the side, crumble the feta cheese and dress with olive oil, za'atar, toasted/crushed coriander seeds, and cumin. Mix the barley with chopped parsley, chopped scallions, roasted cashew nuts, a diced green bell pepper, and dress with allspice and lemon juice. The recipe suggests plating the salad and topping it with spiced feta, but I just mixed the two together, and checked the salt and pepper.
This had all proceeded smoothly until just after 5PM when I was warming the oven up, planning on having the chicken come out of the oven at 6:30. Then the power went out, leaving me without a main course -- or amenities, like lights. We conferred and decided to go ahead. The power came back on just moments before the guests arrived, so I turned the oven on and we had four lovely dishes for a first course. The chicken was ready an hour later, and I served it straight out of the roasting pan without bothering to reduce the juices. So it wasn't optimal -- I probably should have let it brown a few more minutes to crisp up the skin, and the reduced juices would have intensified the flavor (especially the fennel), but having waited so long I went with the short cut.
Finally, we finished with the pineapple upside-down mess, topped with whipped cream. It was pretty ugly, but scrumptious. After dinner I did reduce the pan juices and poured them over the leftovers. They reheated nicely.
Second dinner was December 24, Xmas Eve. Ever since my parents died I've cooked that evening, usually just for my sister and her son. That was the plan this year, but Kathy messed up the dates and planned some sort of pot luck get-together for her friends that evening, and Ram was off with his girlfriend's family. So we wound up inviting Kathy's friends to our place for my dinner. Only the vegan brought food, which was just as well given that I didn't even have a salad she'd deem edible.
My only idea going into the dinner was that I had a duck in the freezer that needed to be cooked. I remembered that I had once attempted to fix a Thai panang curry duck -- it was my favorite dish at a Thai restaurant we used to frequent in Brookline (Sawasdee). I've done some Thai cooking but not a lot -- did a birthday dinner once but I can't find mention of it in my notebook (2003 is probable; did Moroccan in 2002, nothing in 2004, feijoada in 2005, Peking duck in 2006 -- note there says I had done Thai, and I know I've only done it once), and I make pad thai rather often. So I thought I'd try panang curry duck again, plus a pad thai, a couple side dishes, and our traditional Amish date pudding for dessert.
Problem is I've had to extrapolate a recipe from various sources. I have several panang curry recipes (and looked up a couple more on the web), and sort of mixed them together. Not fond of hot chilis, I limited myself to one long serrano (seeded), which I pounded into a paste with garlic, galangal, lemongrass, cilantro stems, coriander and cumin seeds (ground), shallots, shrimp paste, lime zest and leaves, peanuts, salt, and white pepper. The night before, I defrosted the duck, pricked the skin, and rubbed it with roasted Szechuan pepper-salt and paprika, and propped it on a rack in a baking dish. I put it into a 450F oven, which 15 minutes later I turned down to 350F, and roasted it for another hour or more, until it read 180F at the thigh bone. Next day I chopped it up, more or less Chinese-style.
I opened a can of chickpeas and picked the skins off. I peeled two sweet potatoes, cut them into 3/4-inch cubes and steamed them until barely done, about 8 minutes. To finish the dish, I fried the curry paste in a little oil, then added two cans of coconut milk. I probably should have added chiffonaded lime leaves and adjusted the seasoning with a little palm sugar and fish sauce, but wasn't paying enough attention to the recipe I was improvising on. I added the chickpeas and sweet potatoes, then finally the duck and cooked a few minutes to get it evenly heated through. Then I added a handful of chopped Thai basil, and it was done.
Earlier that afternoon I put the side dishes together: cucumber salad, water chestnut salad, and sweet & sour eggplant salad. The cucumber was peeled, seeded, sliced, salted, and rinsed, then dressed with sugar, fish sauce, and lemon juice. (Recipe calls for a grated onion, chilis and prawn powder, but I don't recall using them.) The water chestnuts were peeled and sliced thin. I mixed them with a can of crabmeat and a can of tiny shrimp, lime juice, roasted peanuts, fried garlic and shallots (both bought that way), half a serrano chili, and cilantro. I made a dressing with tamarind juice, fish sauce, brown and regular sugar, and poured it over everything.
I roasted three Japanese eggplant -- it took about twice as long as the recipe called for. I made a chili-tamarind sauce from dried shrimp (softened), garlic, shallots, a serrano chili, tamarind concentrate, fish sauce, palm sugar, and peanut oil, and added that to the chopped eggplant, along with a finely chopped stalk of lemongrass, more shallots, lemon juice, cilantro, and mint. The three salads were done early and out of the workflow.
That just left the pad thai. I thawed and peeled two pounds of large shrimp (recipe calls for 1/2 pound, but expects other meat; I usually do one pound, but with extra guests I decided to scale up everything but the noodles). I soaked some dried shrimp -- they add a little crunch to the garlic. About 40 minutes before cooking, I soaked 8 oz. of thin rice noodles. I mixed up a batch-and-a-half of sauce: 6 tbs sugar, 9 tbs white vinegar, 6 tbs fish sauce, 2 tbs ketchup. I cut a bunch (plus a couple extra) scallions into 2-inch lengths, and split the white ends. I broke four eggs into a bowl and mixed them with a fork.
The stir fry goes fast: I heated my largest skillet, added some peanut oil, about 8 cloves of chopped garlic, the dried shrimp, then the large shrimp. When they were mostly cooked, I added the sauce, brought it to a boil, then added the noodles, stirred to coat, and covered the pan for a couple minutes. I lifted the cover, stirred to evenly coat the noodles, pushed them to one side and poured the eggs into the other, flipping them as they set, then scattering them throughout the noodles. Then I added the scallions, stirred some more, and finished with dish with a couple handfuls of chopped peanuts. I use Victor Sodsook's True Thai recipe mostly for the sauce, leaving out all sorts of complication (especially the usual bean sprouts). Sometimes I add a little sesame oil, but this time I didn't.
This effectively worked out to about half of my old Thai birthday dinner, but was more than enough food for eight people. I referred to three cookbooks: Sodsook, Su-Mei Yu's Cracking the Coconut, and Charmaine Solomon's trusty Asian Cookbook (my first, its binding now failing, but she does an admirable job of saving these cuisines from excess complication). Thanks to a large Vietnamese population here in Wichita, it's pretty easy to get ingredients -- only problems I had were cilantro roots (I used stems and ground seeds) and kaffir lime leaves (I bought "lemon leaves"). I could have bought Thai bird chilis, but felt more comfortable working with serranos.
I made the date pudding the night before. I found the recipe in the newspaper long ago, and copied and adapted it. Pit and chop two cups of mejdol dates, put into a bowl with 2 tsp soda and 2 tbs butter, cover with 2 cups boiling water, and let soak for an hour. Mix two eggs, 2 cups sugar, 2.25 cups flour, 1 tsp vanilla, then add 5/8 cups chopped black walnuts. Bake in a 9x13 cake pan at 275F for about 50 minutes (more like 70). The middle collapses as it cools, so you get cakey on the outside, pudding in the middle. Make a caramel sauce with 1.5 cups brown sugar, 2 tbs cornstarch, 1 cup water, and a dash of salt, boiled 6-8 minutes. Stir in 2 tbs butter, 2 tbs cream, 1/2 tsp vanilla, and 1/8 tsp maple extract, then dump it on the pudding. Let it all cool, then whip 1.5 cups heavy cream with a tsp sugar and a half-tsp vanilla, and spread over the pudding, and refrigerate. Probably the richest, certainly the most delicious, dessert ever concocted.
Third dinner was Wednesday, December 28: our annual Hannukah dinner ritual. No menorahs, no old tales of Hebrew military prowess, just an excuse to fry up a batch of potato pancakes (latkes). The main course is quite simple, but they're best when served hot off the griddle, so I spend most of the dinner over a hot stove while everyone else enjoys themselves. But I've also developed a repertoire of side dishes to go with them, and added a few wrinkles this year.
The main things you need are sour cream and applesauce. We buy the former (Daisy), but I've learned to make the latter. I take four gala apples, peel, quarter, and core them, and put them in a saucepan with 1/4 cup sugar, 1/2 cup water, 1/4 tsp cinnamon, and the zest of one lemon. Bring it to a boil, cover and simmer for 15 minutes, then uncover and cook most of the liquid away. Add a little cinnamon, and mush with a potato masher. (I adapted this from The Gourmet Cookbook, which called for twice the sugar, half the cinnamon, and 2 tbs calvados -- an apple brandy, a very Gourmet touch. I don't know apples, so promptly forgot what I bought. Looking at charts they could have been honeycrisp instead of gala -- both seem to be good sauce choices.)
I also like to serve cured salmon. This year I got a 2-lb slab of Canadian, skin on, dusted all sides with 3 tbs of kosher salt, put it in a freezer bag and refrigerated overnight. Next day I washed it off, found it wasn't too salty (if so, soak until it isn't), and sliced it thin. It's basically homemade lox without the smoke (which turns out not to be very important; commercial nova or scottish lox is "cold smoked" at temperatures below 85F, which means they're depending on the salt, and not the smoke, for texture, preservation and bacteria prevention).
I also make chopped liver, and while Joan Nathan's recipe served me well for many years, Ottolenghi's is even better: hard boil 5 eggs, and set aside; slice 2 cups of onions and sauté them, until dark, in duck fat (reserved from above). Move them using a slotted spoon to the food processor bowl, then sauté the chicken livers until they are cooked through. Add them to the food processor. Peel and grate four of the eggs and add them to the food processor, along with 4 tbs of dessert wine, 1 tsp salt, and 1/2 tsp black pepper. Pulse to chop (don't overdo it). Garnish with the other egg (grated), scallions and/or chives. I make this every year, but as we all know chopped liver is best spread on fresh rye bread, so I thought I'd make some rye bread this year.
One thing I am not is a practiced breadmaker, so I figured this task to be a learning experience. I decided to try two different recipes, both from Joan Nathan, scaled down to produce one loaf each. Both involved starting the night before. The pumpernickel called for creating a starter the night before (1 tbs dry yeast, 1 cup water, 1/4 cup white bread flour, 1/4 cup rye flour), then mixing the dough proper the next day. The rye bread recipe mixed that dough the night before: 1.5 tbs dry yeast, 1 tbs honey, 1/2 cup water (let this proof), 3.5 cups rye flour, 3.5 cups white bread flour, 1 tbs salt, 1 tbs sugar, 3-4 tbs caraway seeds, 2 tbs vegetable oil, about 1.5 cups lager beer. I halved this, tried mixing it up and kneading it in my horrible KitchenAid mixer, hating it more and more, eventually kneading it by hand (and suspecting the whole thing was way too dry, but what do I know?). It did rise though, and I punched it down, shaped it to fit the loaf pan, cut diagonal slits on top, and let it rise again.
Meanwhile, I screwed up the pumpernickel. I mixed up the dough: 1 tbs dry yeast, 2 tbs honey, 1-2/3 cup water, 3-1/3 cups rye flour, 2 cups whole wheat flour, 2 cups white bread flour, 1 tbs salt, 2 tbs caraway seeds (in both cases I ground the seeds up), 4 tbs oil, 4 tbs dark molasses. Again, the mixer was awful, and the dough seemed too dry, so I added more (and more) water. Then I remembered the starter, added it, and found the dough was too wet (but at least much easier to knead). I let this rise, punched it down, formed it to fit the loaf pan (tearing off an excess bit), cut orthogonal slashes, and let it rise again. The pumpernickel rose about 50% more than the plain rye bread, filling up the loaf pan nicely. I beat a raw egg and painted the tops of both loaves, and sprinkled some whole caraway seeds on top.
The recipes called for different baking temperatures/times, but I decided to standardize on the pumpernickel: 350F for 1 hour (the rye called for 375F for 50-55 minutes). I put a bowl of water on the lower left rack, and the two loaves on the top rack, near the middle. They came out looking and smelling like rye bread, the pumpernickel a bit larger and softer (but, contrary to expectations, no darker than the rye). Both were more than acceptable.
I also usually serve herring in sour cream and in wine sauce, the two kinds it's possible to buy here. I would, of course, prefer to dress my own herring -- as I did, for instance, when I brought some maatjes back from Buffalo last summer, but that wasn't an option this time. However, I did find some smoked herring packed in olive oil in a middle eastern store, so I had the idea of drying that off and making a mustard sauce for it. I found a Swedish recipe online and adapted it. I was out of whole grain mustard, so used Dijon then ground up some black mustard seeds and mixed them in. I used light olive oil instead of grapeseed. I tried whisking up an emulsion with vinegar and egg yolks, and failed. I put it aside, disgusted, then tried again later and it worked fine -- I've read that those yolks have to be room temperature, something I should remember in the future. Not perfect, but not bad.
As I said, the latkes were straightforward. I chopped three onions, and put them in a large bowl. I peeled five russet potatoes, soaked them in water, then ran them through the coarse grating disc in the food processor, then used the knife to chop them into small bits. I mixed the potatoes in with the onions, and added five eggs, salt, and pepper. I should have put a piece of plastic wrap in to keep the potatoes from discoloring, but they would wind up being browned anyway. I took a large frying pan and an even larger griddle, heated them up on the stove, added oil, and ladled out 3-to-4-inch discs, flipping them once they set and browned, then piling them onto a paper-towel-lined plate, to be served as fast as they came out. Don't know how long it took to work through them all.
I rarely make dessert for latke dinners, but decided to try a couple of things this time. Ottolenghi has a recipe for pears poached in wine and cardamom (and saffron), which seemed like a good choice. I also tried Nathan's reiz kugel, but somehow didn't get it to thicken sufficiently, so it resembled a thin, cold, sweet soup. My one real disappointment, although like the pineapple upside-down mess the taste was close to right, so the embarrassment was mostly aesthetic.
Of course, I rarely cook like this for just the two of us. For one thing, I almost never have the ingredients I'd need for a dinner with three or more dishes, so I have to go out shopping -- and in some ways that's the hardest (certainly the most unpleasant) part of any meal. One thing I like about inviting guests for dinner is the engineering aspect of planning the project, envisioning how the whole dinner fits together, figuring out the logistics, especially how to manage my own time so each meal comes together smoothly. Practice has made me better at that; also steadier and more resourceful as things (as they inevitably do) go wrong. These dinners give me a sense of accomplishment that little else in my life these days offers. But more basically, it's simply a pleasure to offer other people pleasure, and I can fairly say that each of these meals did just that. And they remind me of one of the central truths of our times: there is an extraordinary amount of knowledge at our fingertips, and much of the material world is easily (and economically) accessible if we just know what to look for, and to expect. I think, these meals prove that much.
By the way, I took a break from writing this afternoon to whip up a small dinner-for-two, something very simple and basic. I had some frozen pacific cod in the freezer, so I semi-thawed it, and cut the thicker chunks in half (so they were about 1/2-inch thick). I opened a can of fire-roasted diced tomatoes, added a little sugar, about 2 tbs capers, juice of one lemon, and 15 or so pitted green olives (cut in half). I Mixed that sauce up, spooned it over the fish in a baking pan, sprinkled panko bread crumbs on top, drizzled a little olive oil, and baked it at 400F for 40 minutes. Meanwhile, I stir-fried lima beans (fordhooks) for a side dish, using Irene Kuo's recipe (from The Key to Chinese Cooking): thaw, sizzle in some oil, sprinkle with salt and sugar, add chicken stock and cover to steam about five minutes, remove cover and boil off the excess liquid, and drizzle a little toasted sesame oil to finish.
At some point I should probably go back and jot down the remaining recipes -- a few that do already exist in my online recipe file: Mast Va Khiar, Panang Curry Duck, Phat Thai, Water Chestnut Salad, Amish Door's Date Pudding, Baked Fish with Capers and Olives, Stir-Fried Lima Beans, Pineapple Upside-Down Cake; also note that virtually all of the Ottolenghi recipes are online somewhere -- and add the appropriate links, but I wanted to the flow and process more than to provide a guide to duplicating these dinners.
Monday, December 5. 2016
I ran behind in writing this, so I'll have to postpone Music Week until tomorrow (Tuesday). Unfortunately, nobody I'm aware of thought to take any pictures of the event below, and the evidence is now far gone. Without such documentation, I reckon we're already entering the realm of myth. I figure the least I can do is to write this event up, to establish some sort of paper trail.
Friday night the Peace and Social Justice Center here in Wichita had its annual dinner and business meeting. My little part in that was to plan and direct the menu, preparing food for 62 guests. I spent much of last week hashing out the menu with Janice Bradley and Leah Dannar-Garcia. Leah and I went shopping on Wednesday. I spent about thirteen hours on Thursday at home prepping and in some cases finishing dishes, while Janice and Leah did their own home prep. On Friday about 1 PM we met at Lorraine Avenue Mennonite Church, along with several other people (Pat Cameron, Gretchen Eick, Kathy Hull, Russ Pataki) where the dinner would be held, and started cooking. By 6 PM we had dinner ready to serve. We put small bowls of appetizers and bread on the tables so people could start noshing. And we set up a double-long table for people to serve themselves with the main dishes. The menu was mostly Mediterranean, with dishes from Spain, Italy, Greece, Turkey, Israel and the Arab countries, plus one salad from Iran:
The recipes (follow the links) were typically scaled 2 times for the appetizers and desserts (more for the hummus and fruit), the salads 2-3 times, the main dishes 3-4 times (8 lbs fish, 16 lbs chicken). The main thing that limited the scaling was the size of cooking and serving dishes, although several dishes were limited by shopping -- I didn't buy nearly enough kalamata olives, so had a single one pound recipe of tapenade and had to buy extra for the salad. The salads ran out first -- possibly because they were first in the serving line, but we could have fixed another batch of the horiatiki and mast va khiar and served it in the same large bowls. The root vegetables fit neatly into two deep baking dishes, the fish into two shallow ones, and the chicken was optimally packed into my largest pot (16-inch diameter, 6-inches deep).
I made two trays of mutabbaq, and cut them into 60 2.25 x 2.5-inch pieces, so only a couple people missed out. We served them at the counter, on plates, and let people add fruit and/or cream. (I was surprised to see people dolloping the cream on top of the mutabbaq.) The cream, which I had borrowed from a "berries and cream" recipe, was exceptional -- we should have made a second batch. We had a couple cups of caponata and a couple pints of cacciatore left at the end, plus hummus and fruit -- Janice overscaled while I erred on the low side -- but I didn't hear complaints about not cooking enough.
I think it's safe to say that it all came out delicious -- one could even say fabulous. Also that the mix of dishes worked and the tastes complemented one another. (The desserts offered a mix of sweet, tart, and creamy, none of which were overly heavy.) We could have done a better job of pointing out which things were vegetarian (or vegan), which dishes had dairy or gluten or nuts or some other real or imagined hazard -- we published the menu, but that was hardly self-explanatory.
The last few years we had the dinner catered, using various Mexican and Middle Eastern sources, nothing especially memorable. Further back, we tried pot lucks, and I made large main dishes for a couple of those -- jambalaya and cacciatore are the ones I remember -- which often produced better food, but were also inconsistent and chancey. This year, when the board decided to try another pot luck, I suggested that a planned and assigned menu would work better, maybe something Mediterranean like the Ottolenghi menu we fixed for an Alice Powell memorial dinner, but a bit broader (and simpler). Leah, who runs a small organic farm east of town, suggested a seasonal fall menu, which I was fine with, but when I spelled out my proposal she embraced it, and provided invaluable support.
Also invaluable was the kitchen and equipment provided by the church. They had a 10-burner range (which we barely used), with two ovens (exactly what we needed), large baking dishes and bowls, lots of counter space, ample dishes and flatware, and a terrific dishwasher for cleaning up. We also had about the right mix of people helping out. If we were to do it again, the one change I would make would be to get together in that kitchen the night before and do the meze and prep together rather than dividing them up and working at home (especially as I had taken on most of that work myself -- by the end I was so exhausted that I wound up knicking myself a couple times cleaning up a knife). Friday had moments that seemed like chaos, but I managed to keep everything lined up and moving along properly, so it all came together at the appointed time (6 PM).
Also, other people (especially Leah and Russ) took over the clean up when I wore out. I got in line after the salads were gone, and wandered in and out of the actual meeting. The guest speaker was Maxine Phillips, a former executive editor of Dissent Magazine and a vice chair of Democratic Socialists of America, who blogs at religioussocialism.org. She spoke about "Forced Migrations and US Immigration Policy." I didn't catch enough of this to comment, but I will risk saying two things:
Unfortuantely, the 2016 election, especially of Donald Trump to the presidency, promises nothing constructive on this front. Indeed, if Trump does manages to reduce immigration it will probably be more due to making our own country less livable than to enforcing draconian laws, and even less to making the rest of the world any less treacherous.
I'm afraid I have rather mixed views on immigration. As someone whose most recent foreign-born ancestors came to America nearly 150 years ago, and whose family preserved not one shred of previous ethnic identity, I've never had any sentimental attachment to the notion that America as a melting pot of immigrants. Nor do I have a problem with the idea that a nation has a right to control its borders and limit immigration. I'll also note that the one period of history when Americans seemed to exhibit the greatest care for one another -- at least in the sense of moving furthest to the left -- was in the 1930-40s, when immigration was largely halted. One wonders whether loosening immigration restrictions in the 1970s didn't contribute somehow to the nation's rightward drift since 1980. (That nearly a third of last year's Republican presidential candidates had at least one foreign-born parent is troubling, to say the least.)
On the other hand, I've known dozens of immigrants, most real fine people, credits to our communities, and they've helped to broaden and deepen our lives. One way, of course, was to share with us the range of food we made for this Peace Dinner (plus a great many other dishes we couldn't include -- things we can explore further in future dinners). Admittedly, most of the immigrants I know are professionals, many citizens, pretty much all with their legal status in order. The only problem I see is with those lacking proper documentation, mostly because their lack of proper credentials leaves them open to exploitation, and that less because I'm sympathetic to their plight than because their vulnerability allows those in power to be more abusive -- and not just to undocumented immigrants.
But Trump's anti-immigrant tirades are not some isolated tick. They are wrapped up in all sorts of mutually reinforcing hatreds meant to appeal to the vanity of increasingly marginalized white voters -- at least those sucker enough to overlook the obvious architects of their demise: the barons of industry and finance, whose pillage of the economy has made everyone more vulnerable. But we need to recognize that what makes this tactic work is how effectively mass fears have been stoked through decades of war. The only way to break that cycle is to insist on peace, which is why organizations like out Peace Center are so important. Please consider a contribution.
Saturday, January 2. 2016
Thought I'd share a recipe I evolved for two since I tried it last night, working mostly from memory and hunch, and it came out marvelous. My original idea was to write it up and mail it to a cousin, but then I thought of a couple more people who might enjoy it. And then it dawned on me that I could just as easily post it here for the masses who read this blog.
The basic recipe is "Baked Fish with Capers and Olives" from Nancy Harmon Jenkins, The New Mediterranean Diet Cookbook, which I've transcribed and annotated here. That recipe calls for two pounds of fish to serve 6-8. I picked out three filets from a bag of frozen pacific cod, probably a bit less than 1 lb. I also had two Yukon gold potatoes on hand, so I peeled them (not necessary) and cut them up into a rough 1/2-inch dice. Put them in a bowl, added some extra virgin olive oil (about a tablespoon, a generous amount), salt and pepper. Also coarsely chopped three cloves of garlic, added to the potatoes, then spread them out in a 9x12 baking dish (effectively oiling the dish). I placed the fish in the middle of the pan, moving the potatoes to the side.
Heat the oven to 400F. In the same empty bowl (no, I didn't wash), I put one 14 oz. can of diced fire-roasted tomatoes, a teaspoon of lemon juice (not fresh, but do it right if you want), 1/2 teaspoon of sugar, about two tablespoons of capers, and about one-half cup of green olives (from the Dillons olive bar: large, pitted, no stuffing; cut in half lengthwise). Stir this mixture up, then spoon it over the fish. Sprinkle bread crumbs on top. (I used "gluten free" but you can probably find something better.) Finally, drizzle a little more olive oil on top (I used about 2 teaspoons).
Bake for 35-40 minutes, by which the potatoes should be done, the sauce bubbly, and the fish flaky. The recipe above also promises browned bread crumbs, but mine stay pretty white (although they do add some texture. And that's it: about 10-12 minutes of prep, plus the wait while it bakes. You could add a green salad -- I'd probably do horiatiki (Greek)  or panzanella (Italian)  or maybe fattoush (Lebanese)  depending on what I had on hand (or some ad hoc mix, since they're all pretty compatible).
If the fish is frozen (and not very thick) you don't even need to thaw it out. Fresh tomatoes would be more work, and unless they're home grown aren't worth the trouble (use them in the salad). Use any kind of flaky white fish -- you can probably get away with farm fish like swai or tilapia but it won't be as good as cod. I suppose you could try this with salmon, but I'd rather do something else with it . Bluefish should work. Catfish might -- I've never tried baking it . For salt cod, try this (it's a fair amount of work, and a staple that was once cheap enough to feed to slaves but isn't anymore).
 Horiatiki (Greek) salad: toss together romaine lettuce, cucumber (peeled, seeded, chopped), red onion (chopped), tomatoes (cut into wedges or chunks), bell pepper (any color, sliced thin), kalamata olives (pitted), feta cheese, parsley, anchovies, capers (most of these are optional, but it won't be recognized as a Greek salad without the lettuce, tomatoes, olives, and feta; the capers aren't in Jenkins' recipe). For dressing, use 1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil, juice of 1/2 lemon, 1/2 teaspoon dried oregano, salt and pepper to taste: shake it up, pour it on, and toss.
 Panzanella is an Italian salad with bread -- ciabatta works well, cut the crust off and dice it; mix it with shopped tomatoes so it starts to get mushy (it should blend into the salad, not stand out like croutons -- nothing against croutons). Also use romaine lettuce, red onion, cucumber, and basil (again, more or less -- the bread and tomatoes are key). Not in the recipe, but you can add some grated parmesan. For dressing, use 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil, 1/4 cup red wine vinegar, 1 tablespoon balsamic, salt and pepper.
 Fattoush is another bread salad, from Lebanon, but here you want some crunch: traditionally use toasted pita bread, although I'd rather make croutons from French bread than use those pita crisps that show up at most local restaurants. (The best I've made was with Turkish pide bread, which is not the same thing as pita.) Use romaine lettuce, cucumber, radishes (chunked), scallions (chopped), tomatoes (chunked), parsley, mint (again, more or less). Jenkins calls for pickles ("plain brine-pickled cucumbers, not sweetened or heavily flavored with garlic or dill"), which isn't a bad idea but I'd rather add capers, and I'm surprised she didn't include olives (kalamata, pitted, coarsely chopped) and/or feta. For dressing, crush a couple garlic cloves in some kosher salt, then add 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil, 1/4 cup lemon juice, and 2 tablespoons of ground sumac.
 The easiest thing to do with salmon is to marinate it in teriyaki sauce (equal parts, e.g. 1/4 cup each, regular soy sauce, sake [Japanese rice wine], and sugar) for half an hour, then skin-side down broil it 6-10 minutes (or until it browns on top and flakes), brushing it with reserved marinade midway. If no skin, turn it over midway. I usually make rice (sometimes fried with ham and egg) and stir-fried lima beans with it, although there are lots of other options -- unfortunately, they almost all take longer to cook than the salmon.
Of course, there is much more you can do with salmon. I've had several guests tell me that Barbara Tropp's Clear-Steamed Salmon with Ginger-Black Bean Vinaigrette was the most delicious meal they had ever had. The ingredient list can be daunting -- my secret is Chef Chow's Szechuan Hot Bean Paste, which as far as I can tell is no longer sold (I've bought two jars in my life, both in NJ, one when I lived there in the early 1980s, the other when I moved back in the late 1990s -- I use it sparely but I'm almost out). But the techniques are pretty straightforward: marinate the salmon, steam it (over onion and spinach), mix up a big bowl of vinaigrette in the food processor, and spoon it over the steamed fish.
 I don't think I've ever made catfish from a recipe. I grew up on fried catfish, some of which I personally caught (well, not many). So I can do that, but nowadays what I prefer is dredge it in flour, sautee it in olive oil infused with a couple crushed cloves of garlic, and season with salt and pepper. Usually serve that with pasta. In fact, add some preserved lemon peel, chopped garlic, and capers to the oil I cooked the fish in and use it to sauce the pasta. Actually, you dump the pasta into the pan, put the fish on top, spritz it with lemon juice, and garnish with parsley.
Jenkins' book has become my go-to standard for Mediterranean, although I also use Claudia Roden, Paula Wolfert, Sarah Woodward, and lately Yotam Ottolenghi -- also Penelope Casas for Spanish, Marcella Hazan for Italian, and Tess Mallos for Greek and Middle Eastern. (Whoa! Just checked those names and discovered that the latter three, all in their 70s, died in 2012-13. Roden and Wolfert are also in their 70s. Don't know about Woodward, whose short but well-illustrated Classic Mediterranean Cuisine is a perfect first book on the subject -- and my still-best sources for a dozen or more recipes I've made many times, from Paella Valenciana to Imam Bayildi).
Someone once told me that if you can read a cookbook, you can make anything. I would like to think I've shown that to be true.
Friday, October 1. 2010
Porkalicious: My People: Click through for picturs of a new spice rack my brother built. Handy, nice use of space, looks like it'll hold forty average-sized jars, and that it's already close to capacity. I've seen carpentry plans for shelves like this, but I'm already tight for space between the countertop and cabinets, so I never thought it'd work that well. Still, a clever idea, especially if you have the space -- and their kitchen is about twice the size of mine.
Scroll to the bottom and you'll see the spice rack I built. It holds 80 jars, of which about 70 are currently in use. Still haven't moved everything in, but I buy bulk spices and load it up when I need something. The three handles to the right are attached to pull-out units, each with three shelves. I keep flour, sugar, oils, vinegars, soy sauce, nuts, coffee, some cereal, and more spices back there. Range is barely visible to the right, countertop and sink to the foreground. Not much countertop space there, but the handle visible pulls out an extension covered in black laminate.
Main thing I need is something better for holding cooking tools like spatulas and forks and flippers. I have an idea for building a rack where the paper towel holder is now.
Tuesday, June 8. 2010
Matthew Yglesias: When Did Fried Chicken Get So Hard? Well, pace Yglesias, I did come from a family that served pan-fried chicken two or three times a week, and where relatives on both sides served fried chicken more often than not. It was invariably served with gravy, often on bread or biscuits rather than mashed potatoes (which I loathed), usually with green beans and/or corn. I learned to make it from my mother, although I never quite got her method of cutting the chicken up. (Instead I came up with my own, which splits the back into four pieces after separating the limbs, then goes Chinese on the breast, dicing it up into eight pieces for smaller shares and more surface area, but the wishbone gets lost or butchered in the process.) As for frying it, all we ever did was dredge it in flour, salt, and black pepper, then fry it in some fat, browning it good at first then covering the pan and letting it steam until done. Pull the chicken out, add some flour to the drippings, mash together until smooth, add a lot of milk, bring to a boil to thicken, season with salt and pepper, and you're done. I never had precise measurements on the flour and milk. Mom never cooked with pepper, which took something away, but she may have made up for it with salt. Later on she reduced the fat to chicken trimmings in a non-stick skillet. I usually use a little vegetable oil, certainly less than a quarter inch.
I've never actually seen this recipe in a cookbook, although it seemed universal as I was growing up. Chicken skin is moist enough to hold the flour without the aid of milk (which we used for fried round steak) or egg (which we used for baked pork chops, but more often we fried them naked). You can add more herbs and spices, but just because Colonel Sanders needs them doesn't mean we did. You can vary the fat: I think vegetable shortening was my mother's original choice -- she probably grew up using lard, but I can't recall anyone in my family using it. I've used bacon grease and duck fat, and they sure don't hurt, and when I make dishes like cacciatore -- which is basically fried chicken in a shallot-mushroom-tomato sauce -- I use olive oil, which would probably be good, if not authentic, on its own. These days I only make fried chicken when I'm feeling really nostalgic. It isn't hard, but it does take a little more than an hour. Ruth Reichl has a buttermilk recipe I should try some time just for reference, but I doubt if it will improve upon my memories.
Sunday, March 1. 2009
Got the following letter from a Bart Smith, presumably a Wichita resident, in response to my Wichita Eats post. Smith makes some suggestions, mostly new to me, and raises a question about lox.
The Vietnamese restaurant on Pawnee is Pho Hot, just east of I-135 (2409 E Pawnee). I tried it again last week; wasn't very pleased, but in fairness I have yet to bring myself to order the noodle soups that everyone else in the restaurant orders.
I've eaten at Sweet Basil a couple of times. It's certainly not bad, but it's not that great either. I suppose one could argue that I've been jaded by living in New York and working next door to a very fine Italian restaurant there, but thus far I prefer Carrabba's and the late Macaroni Grill.
Regarding lox: you can pick that up at almost any Dillon's. I prefer the oak smoked farm-raised atlantic to the brighter sockeye, even though a chemical assay of the former might be disturbing. These come in 4 oz. packages, about $5 each. The higher-end Dillons have some more expensive packages that are somewhat nicer. I prefer Scottish style, which is dry-salted and smoked with oak. Traditional lox -- the kind that's so hard to find any more -- has been cured in a wet brine, leaving it very salty. More common nova lox is less salty, and there are other variations, such as Scottish. It's also possible to find gravlax, which is cured in salt, sugar, and dill -- basically a Swedish innovation. One brand I particularly like is Ducktrap, but I haven't found it in any stores in Wichita.
On the other hand, the important thing is the salt cure, not the cold smoke. The latter adds a bit of flavor but is hard to do without cooking the fish. The salt cure, on the other hand, could hardly be easier: take two pounds of fresh salmon filets; sprinkle with three tablespoons of coarse kosher salt; wrap in plastic and refrigerate for 12 hours, turning occasionally to redistribute the juices. Wash the salt off. If the fish is too salty, soak it in cold water (or multiple washes of cold water) until you get the salt right. You can then use it like lox. It will keep in the refrigerator wrapped up for a week or more. The fresher the fish, the better, of course, but I've gotten good results every time I've tried.
Tuesday, January 20. 2009
My niece Rachel Hull put out a RFC for input to a post she intends to do for our favorite food blog, Porkalicious, on choice spots to eat in Wichita. She lists her own as: Artichoke [pub food], Jack's [a burger stand across the street from North High], Saigon [Vietnamese], Beacon [don't know], Connie's [Mexican], N&J's [Lebanese], and "the Mexican popsicle guy." She lives in DC, so her list is a bit dated -- Jack's burned down a year ago, but may come back under new management -- and (shall we say?) nostalgic. She welcomes info on bakeries and shops, and suggests avoiding non-local chains (while professing love for Schlotzky's and Jason's Deli). My response, more a quick brain dump than a considered analysis:
Sunday, November 23. 2008
Haven't written much the last few days, and I'm likely to soft-pedal the politics for the next few weeks -- unless, of course, the lame duck decides to strut his stuff. The transition is boring, the post-election analysis even more so, and the propagandizing borders on the ridiculous. I trust that Obama will do pretty much what he wants, and that predictions from certain quarters that he will opt for socialism are downright foolish. The only interesting thing about Clinton as Secretary of State is that it would signify that she understands that she's never going to be able to run for president again, and perhaps more importantly that she understands that it's no big deal. After running such a pissy campaign, she came out of the convention gracefully, and has been a Mensch ever since. (Of course, once she starts hiring people like Richard Holbrooke I'm likely to have second thoughts here.) I can't even get worked up about Gates, although that hasn't been in the news much lately -- does that mean the deal is done or dead?
The New York Times continued to beat its war drums today. They followed up on last week's "A Military for a Dangerous World" editorial with six letters -- five even more hawkish than the editorial, the other mildly demuring that European countries, after having experienced WWII firsthand, no longer go in for such nonsense. Then they recruited a bunch of "experts" to offer advice on how best to salvage the empire in Iraq and Afghanistan: Donald Rumsfeld, Ahmad Chalabi, Frederick Kagan, Anthony Cordesman, Peter Mansoor, Linda Robinson, and token dissenter Rory Stewart. If Ike Eisenhower were still around, he'd be warning us about the threats to democracy of the military-industrial-New York Times complex.
We've started another round of home improvement work, which is taking a lot of my time, disrupting my life in many ways -- not least of which is that I'm having to get up way too early, without managing to make any compensatory adjustments at the end of the day. Three big projects on the house: 1) cover the remaining wood outside the house with vinyl siding; 2) rebuild the electrical system, replacing the service entrance, panel, and as much of the really old wiring as possible; 3) remodelling the kitchen. The first two will mostly be done by contractors. The siding people have been working for a little over a week, and should be done in 2-3 days. I'm meeting with the electrician tomorrow, and will try to get that scheduled over the next couple of weeks. The kitchen work will mostly be done by a friend and I, so no doubt will be the biggest, slowest, and ugliest of the projects. We do have a good general plan, but still need to make detailed drawings, select (above all else) a range, make some decisions on cabinets, flooring, etc. I figure it'll probably take two months, although I've already procrastinated that much. Nothing gets done until you get started.
Meanwhile, the old kitchen is still somewhat functional. I tried making Chinese on Friday, and it turned out pretty well. The final menu was:
I used to jot more about personal things like this down in my online notebook, but that gave way as the blog became more ambitious politically -- sensitivity, no doubt, to the common charge that blogs are little more than personal indulgences. I've long figured my website to be more of a public filing system, where I keep stores of data of personal interest to myself, and make it publicly available on the off chance that others may find some of it useful. The recipe section is a good example. I started it to make it easier to look up some things, like my mother's chicken and dumplings recipe. Occasionally, I mentioned dinners in my notebook, and the recipe section grew to document them. At some point over the last couple of years, I wearied of the old format, so started to work up a new one, which should make it easier to index by cuisine, source, and ingredients. But I didn't make much progress, so one thing this dinner reminded me of was that unfinished work.
The links above are in the new format -- two were updated from the old format, the others new additions. Aside from the yams, they're all dishes I've made before: the green beans dozens of times; the crabs, scallops, and rice close to a dozen times. While the recipes are the most useful info for me, at some point I should write more on how I pick these things, and how the dinner comes together. Cooking Chinese is typically a lot of prep work, followed by a short but feverish fire drill, leaving a huge pile of pans and prep plates and bowls. For this particular meal: aside from the ham (which started first and cooked pretty much all day) and the cake (done conveniently the night before), everything else took 5-6 hours of prep, followed by about 30 minutes of stir fry. Four dishes made use of the deep fryer, but they were all in the prep stages, and that was all cleaned up and out of the way before the real action took place.
Chinese is pretty easy to cook once you:
The scallops dish is a good example. The fresh water chestnuts required a trip to Thai Binh, by far the largest Vietnamese grocery here -- a stop at the more convenient Broadway Market didn't produce them. My pantry has all the Chinese staples -- wine, soy sauce (thin and dark), several kinds of vinegars and sugars (although the palm sugar turned out to be petrified), spices, bean sauces, dried things, etc. -- so I rarely have to think about them. But I don't have dried orange peel, so just picked up a fresh one, cut the peel off thin with a vegetable peeler early, and set it out to air dry. Marinaded the scallops the night before. A few hours before the dinner, I velveted them in water, put them in a bowl. Peeled and chopped the water chesnuts, put them in a bowl. I deep fried the spinach, put it on a paper towel. Piled all the aromatics (garlic, ginger, scallions, 3 dried chili peppers) on a small plate. Mixed the sauce in a little cup, and the sauce thickener (cornstarch and chicken stock) in another. None of those steps were big, and only the water chestnuts were ugly. I could take breaks to check mail and switch CDs and what not. Then, about the time the guests arrived, all I had to do was finish the dish: heat up the pan, swirl some oil, dump the aromatics in, stir, add the sauce and water chestnuts, stir, add the scallops and thickener, stir a bit more, scrape the whole thing into a dish, garnish with the spinach. Took less than 3 minutes to finish a spectacular dish.
Aside from the ham, only the eggplant took as much as 10 minutes on the range -- much of it covered, so I could fry the rice at the same time. The crabs were even easier: just dust them in cornstarch, brown them, and dump the pre-mixed sauce (including cornstarch to thicken) on top, swirl around, and serve (garnished with a bit of cilantro). The ham is the other kind of easy: something you put in the pot and just let cook, basting it once in a while, as much to catch a better whiff of the spices as anything else.
Friday, March 28. 2008
I just posted an updated recipe page on something called Eretz Israel Cake. Joan Nathan published the recipe in her cookbook, The Foods of Israel Today. I've made it three times now, and the latest was possibly the best cake I've ever made. The ingredients include marzipan, dates, and lots of oranges -- touted as the taste of the land of Israel. Of course, under a different twist of history it could just as well be Land of Palestine Cake.
I made it for a potluck dinner we had to discuss Sandy Tolan's remarkable book, The Lemon Tree: An Arab, a Jew, and the Heart of the Middle East. Seemed like an appropriate thing to bring.
I've long had a section on the website here with a collection of recipes, mostly cribbed from cookbooks with minor annotations. One reason is just that it gives me easy recourse to look up old favorite recipes, especially when I'm travelling and don't have access to the usual cookbooks. But I've only updated the cache occasionally, and right now it's in limbo between two designs and indexing schemes. A lot of things should be there but aren't, but if you rummage around you'll find some very good recipes -- mostly international (Spanish, Turkish, Indian, and Chinese are staples here) plus a few down home favorites (like my mother's chicken and dumplings).
I also have a website section for books -- another longterm, slow-evolving project, although I've been giving it a lot more attention lately. The link above to The Lemon Tree puts you there. I originally started collecting comments I had written on books I've read, but that soon evolved into collecting quotes (with or without annotation). Most of these have been posted at one point or another in the blog, but they're more accessible in the books section. The page on The Lemon Tree should give you a pretty broad sense of the book.
The books section currently lists 35 books on Israel. I've read two-thirds of them (plus a few others, some showing up in other categories). A couple more are on my shelf, and a few more are books that I've written something about based on a review (e.g., Dennis Ross, who is very, very low on my reading priority list). Tolan's book is especially good for how it personalizes the conflict, but also for the extreme rigor of its writing. Avi Shlaim's The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arabs is probably the best general history up to 1998 or so, but it misses the Barak-Sharon destruction of the Oslo Peace Process. Richard Ben Cramer's How Israel Lost: The Four Questions has a lot of insight into the politics of perpetual war in Israel, although subsequent events have overtaken him as well. I don't think anyone has taken full account of how morally corrosive the Bush administration, with W's dead certain faith in the clarifying power of force, could have been to Israel. (The news today from Iraq, along with Bush's musings on the need to confront outlaws, are one more instance of this mindset.)
At some point I should add cookbooks to the books section, and cross-reference the recipes. Nathan's cookbook is rife with Israeli propaganda, as well as Israeli glosses on mostly middle eastern recipes, plus a few specialties of Arik Sharon's wife. Still, the Eretz Israel cake is a wonder. Like Bashir and Dahlia's lemon tree, it's something we all can savor.
Thursday, October 25. 2007
Made birthday dinner tonight. I don't recall clearly when this tradition started -- sometime in the mid-'90s, although I must have missed a year or two along the way. The early ones were meant to give me a chance to explore interesting cuisines in some depth, usually with a dozen or more dishes. This one was just based on the recollection that I hadn't had mariscada in green sauce in quite some time. That's a Spanish dish, so it was tempting to pile on the tapas. I usually fix potatoes with it -- fried is what I'm used to in restaurants, but I usually slice them thin like chips and roast them. I wound up fixing rice instead -- felt like it would be easier than fried and better than roasted. Originally thought I'd fix green beans as a side vegetable, but they looked awful, so I picked up some asparagus and mushrooms, figuring I'd find a recipe. Thought I'd have a chopped or mixed salad, but didn't get to either. Did find a jar of piquillo peppers, a chunk of rather tough chorizo, and some manchego cheese, so tried to work them in. The recipes come from Penelope Casas, mostly from Delicioso! The only new ones for me were the asparagus and mushrooms. Menu looked like this:
I'm way behind in updating my recipes section, but half or so of these recipes are posted already.
Wednesday, August 15. 2007
I cooked dinner on Sunday. My niece, Rachel Hull, was in town, so we got together what we could find of the family. I had been browsing cookbooks a few days before, and a Moroccan chicken and olives tagine caught my eye, so it was on my mind when the dinner opportunity came up. I thought I'd serve it with couscous and a salad. I wound up with a bit more: a carrot salad, an eggplant salad, a quickie shrimp dish. Wasn't too hard, and came out exceptionally well. (Of course, it did help that I already had harissa and preserved lemons in the frig.) I was pleased enough that I finally spent some time retooling my recipe section (see here), adding the new recipes. The new setup should be easier to maintain and to add to, better for indexing (e.g., by ingredient). Still have some work to do there, plus a lot of old stuff to migrate forward, but it felt good to do some programming.
We also took some pictures. I'm not much on website pictures, but I figured that would fit the style of my nephew Mike's blog, so I asked Rachel to take the pictures and my recipes and put them all together in a post. The boiling pot picture is actually just the sauce for the chicken as I was trying to reduce it. The salade niçoise leftovers got piled on top of good bread for pan bagnat.