Friday, July 31, 2009

Chop chae for the cowboy round-up

Last weekend I attended a surprising event.

There's an organization in the Bay Area called the Association of Chinese Cooking Teachers. My mother knows a woman who is a member and who has invited her to attend some of the get-togethers. They usually involve lunch or dinner, a food demonstration or lecture, and occasionally, western gear and line dancing.

I had trouble getting a handle on the confluence of these elements myself, and the husband was even more confused when I described the event I had agreed to attend with my mother last Sunday.

"It's an Asian-style potluck in Alameda, with a 'cowboy round-up' theme and line dancing. And we're supposed to come in western dress, because there's a costume contest."

"What?" he replied, blankly.

I didn't understand it either. I did know for a fact that I wouldn't be dressing up. My family, we are not dresser-uppers. I guess I might do it if forced to attend a Halloween party, but why would I be forced to attend a Halloween party?

Anyhow, costume or not, I agreed to go. When your 72-year-old mother asks you to attend a weird but harmless event within driving distance, you say yes.

We had to bring something for the potluck. She had gotten a recipe from my sister for chop chae.

Chop chae is a Korean vegetable-and-noodle salad. I'd had it before but never made it. Turns out it's kind of the dream dish to bring to a potluck, because it's simple and best if made ahead and allowed to sit overnight. Plus it can hang out on a buffet table for ages without wilting.

The noodles are cellophane noodles, or bean thread. Growing up, my dad, who was Chinese, called them by their Chinese name, which to me and my sister sounded like, "fence." I guess it did to my mother (who is Swedish), too.

"It's just vegetables, a tamari sauce, and fence," she said. She had come up to our place the night before to hang out and spend the night, and we were assembling the dish together.

It certainly came together in a flash. Of course, my mother had painstakingly julienned the carrots, shitake mushrooms, and onions earlier, which had taken the better part of an hour. By the time I came on the scene, we just soaked and cooked the noodles, whirled some tamari, garlic, and sesame oil in a blender, and stir-fried everything for 5 minutes.

It turned out fabulously. The noodles absorbed the salty sesame sauce, and the vegetables kept it fresh and light.

The event was exactly what it had purported to be. There were a lot of people, most of them over 50, many of them Asian but not all, and a good portion in cowboy costumes. The variety at the potluck was unmatched. I saw everything from curried chicken to Vietnamese spring rolls to clam chowder. The chop chae was a hit.

There was a dim sum demonstration, which we missed because we were running late, and a lecture that we skipped. But we did witness a dance troupe decked out in sequinned tops and cowboy hats line dancing at the end as we snuck out.

"That was odd," my mother said as we headed back over the bridge to the City.

I agreed. But it's always great to have a new potluck recipe to add to your arsenal.

Monday, July 27, 2009

The Hungry Dog's Fried Rice

After making Fire and Smoke Chicken, I had some leftover rice. There's only one thing to do with leftover rice, you know.

Now, lots of people know how to make fried rice, so I may not be enlightening anyone. But, I do make pretty good fried rice, and I can share with you a few of my tactics.

1) This is the most important one of all: you must use old rice. I'm talking about rice that has been cooked, cooled, and sat in the fridge for a minimum of one day, but preferably for a few days. Something happens to the rice. It gets hard and dry, which sounds awful, but makes for good fried rice. Trust me on this one. Never, ever use fresh rice.

2) Cook it over high heat and keep it dry. I just add a little Chinese cooking wine to soften things up once I've added the rice. You could use broth if you liked that better. Just use restraint. I think a lot of fried rice is soggy.

3) Don't rely too heavily on soy sauce for flavor. Use lots of veggies and bacon if you eat bacon, and salt and pepper. I only add a little soy sauce at the end. If you add too much, it turns the whole dish a weird tan.

4) If you're using an egg, scramble it in a separate pan and fold it into the rice at the very end.

That's it! The beauty of fried rice is that you can use whatever you have at hand. If you've been reading this blog, you know that's kind of my style. In general, I use the following things, because I pretty much always have them on hand: carrots, celery, onion, garlic, ginger, bacon, egg, frozen peas, Chinese cooking wine, and soy sauce. Oh, and make sure to fold in the peas right toward the end so they don't get mushy.

That's it!

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Fire and Smoke Chicken

If there's a single food that reminds me of my dad's cooking, it might be Fire and Smoke Chicken. While the name is a misnomer (there is neither fire nor smoke involved in the preparation), the chicken does turn a deep burnished reddish brown, with delightfully crisp skin and a little heat from crushed red pepper.

We're not sure why it's called Fire and Smoke Chicken. My sister thinks my dad got it from a cookbook called "Fire and Smoke." My mom speculated that he might have just named it that for dramatic flourish. In our family's cookbook, the recipe appears, but called, dully, Oven Baked Chicken, a name that conjures up chicken breasts baked in cream of mushroom soup, not the crackling, sweet and slightly peppery Fire and Smoke Chicken of my childhood.

Everyone who has ever tried this recipe goes crazy for it, and it couldn't simpler. You can use a whole chicken cut up, as my dad did. My sister likes to make it for potlucks and parties and use wings. I do it with whole legs or simply thighs. I think the only rule is that the chicken should have bone and skin. Otherwise, you really don't get the full experience.

Last week I served Fire and Smoke Chicken with plain rice, and made extra for fried rice to go with the leftovers later. The chicken is good hot, room temperature, or cold.

Fire and Smoke Chicken

1/3 c. soy sauce
1/3 c. rice vinegar
1/4 c. brown sugar
1/4 c. granulated sugar
3 T. hoisin
3 cloves garlic, smashed
2 T. peanut or vegetable oil
1/4 t. crushed red pepper flakes

1 cut-up chicken or 8-12 pieces of your choice

Combine all marinade ingredients and pour over chicken, turning to coat. Marinate 1 hour, turning 2 or 3 times.

Preheat oven to 325. Place chicken skin-side up on a baking sheet lined with foil. Bake 15-20 minutes. Turn and baste. Increase the temperature to 350 and bake 15 minutes. Turn and baste. Increase temperature to 375 and bake 10-15 minutes. Baste. Finally, with skin-side up, broil 2-3 minutes to get the skin crispy.

This marinade can be used for pork, duck, or shrimp.

My dad used to boil the marinade on the stove and serve it alongside the chicken at the table. Probably not everyone would agree that that's safe to eat. But, that's what my dad did and we ate the chicken and the sauce and no one ever got sick. So, it doesn't scare me.

Up next: fried rice.

Monday, July 20, 2009

A good risotto, and a lesson (re)learned

This weekend was a mixed bag. Let's start with the good stuff.

Friday night: sweet summer corn risotto with tarragon. I've been making risotto for a long time. My mother gave me a risotto cookbook in college when I moved into my first off-campus apartment. I quickly learned the basic method, and in the many years since I've made a lot of varieties: risotto with tomatoes; risotto with wild mushrooms; risotto with lemon; even a crazy fuchsia beet risotto, which I liked but to which the husband said firmly afterward, "Too beety." He won that one.

Mostly I make risotto with whatever I have at hand. It's such a flexible dish, you can use almost anything. There are a few ingredients, though, that I think of as staples: shallots, good white wine, and softened butter or mascarpone to stir in at the end.

On friday I used my basic recipe and toward the end folded in two shucked ears of corn and some tarragon. At the very end, when the heat was off, I stirred in mascarpone and grated lemon zest. It turned out perfectly, complex and bright, especially alongside two little pink pieces of salmon the husband had picked up at Good Life.

Saturday night: roasted pork loin with cherry-port sauce. I won't get into much detail about the pork itself because I always do roasts the same way: slather them in rosemary, salt, pepper and olive oil and roast at 425. Simple and fool-proof.

It was the sauce that tripped me up. That night, I was feeling a dangerous mix of confident (I'd made a fig-port sauce before with fabulous results), thrifty (I had another sack of cherries to use), and a little reckless (cocktail hour had come and gone). I pitted some cherries and threw them in a saucepan with some port, chicken broth, honey, rosemary, a cinnamon stick, salt and pepper. I put it on to simmer and came back in 30 minutes. It was gorgeous and deeply red, I noticed, but not as thick as I would have liked.

Now, someone who was more clever, or at least someone who learned from past mistakes, might have considered that swapping one fruit for another doesn't always work. In this case, the original recipe I was using as a base called for dried figs, while I was using fresh cherries. Dried fruit is different than fresh fruit, in that it's, you know, dry.

In addition to feeling confident, thrifty, and reckless, I was also feeling stubborn. Although I could tell the sauce wasn't ready, I pureed it in a blender, adding butter for glossiness. Beautiful, vibrant color! Runny though. I put it back in the pan and I let it simmer for another 15 minutes and finally drizzled it over the roast. The husband, who does not care much for sauces, thought it was fine. I was pleased with the flavor but wholly disappointed in the thin, watery consistency.

The lesson here, is twofold: 1) dried fruit works better for these kinds of things and 2) learn from past mistakes. For heaven's sake, that's what I have a blog for, isn't it?

There were other good things to eat throughout the weekend--scones, a grilled eggplant salad, and pasta with shrimp and tomato-cream sauce. But, I have no pictures of those. Sometimes I just can't be bothered with the picture-taking. I make it, and then I eat it, period. That's just the way the Hungry Dog rolls.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Anything pesto

You know how I don' t like to waste food, right? I've attributed this to thriftiness, the bounty of our weekly produce box, and I've also blamed it on my parents. Well, whatever the root, the fact is, I've been known to use up some pretty old vegetables, whipping them into new dishes with varying success.

The other night while rooting through our fridge I discovered some broccoli from a couple of produce boxes ago. It was mostly green but a little yellow too. I held it over the compost bin for a few minutes, debating its fate. Then I had an idea.

I trimmed and blanched the broccoli in salted water, then shocked it to set the color. I chucked it in the food processor with some Italian parsley to enhance the green, a handful of toasted walnuts, garlic, olive oil, and lots of salt. Voila! Broccoli pesto!

I threw penne into the still-boiling water, and just toward the end added a handful of frozen peas. Tossed the penne and peas with the pesto, using some reserved pasta water to make it silky. Then I added parmesan cheese and tossed it again.

The final, winning touch, though, was toasting up some bread crumbs I'd made the other day with some herb slab past its prime. I served the creamy green pasta in white bowls and sprinkled golden bread crumbs over the top. It was just the right amount of garlic, balanced by little bursts of sweetness from the peas, with a happy crunch from the crumbs.

"What do you think?" I asked the husband, who generally does not like pesto, and who looked alarmed when I described the recipe to him in advance.

"It's really good," he conceded. "But wouldn't it be even better with some pork?"

Well, who can argue that any pasta dish wouldn't be improved by some salty bits of pancetta or ham? Surely not the hungry dog. But, the recipe was a definite success. And now I have a new form and method for vegetables that need reincarnation. It turns out you really can make pesto out of almost anything.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Cherry Morning Cake

Here is the the recipe for the Cherry Morning Cake I posted about the other day. It is from The McCall House Bed & Breakfast in Ashland, Oregon. Next time I would sprinkle a little bit of sugar over the top before baking, as it calls for in the Raspberry Buttermilk Cake, because it lends a pleasing crunch to the top. Really, these cakes are very similar.

1/2 c. (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened
2/3 c. plus 1 T. sugar
2 eggs
1 t. vanilla
1 c. plus 1 T. flour
1/2 t. salt
1 t. baking powder
1/2 c. milk
1 T. lemon juice
~1/2 c. pitted cherries or other stone fruit of your choice

Preheat the oven to 350. Lightly spray the bottom and sides of a 10-inch tart pan with removable bottom with nonstick spray.

In a medium bowl, beat the butter for several minutes on high. Add 2/3 c. of sugar and beat for a few minutes more. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Beat in vanilla.

In a smaller bowl, whisk together 1 c. flour with the salt and baking powder.

Add the dry ingredients to the butter mixture in two installments, alternating with the milk. Do not overmix.

Transfer the batter to the prepared pan, spreading it evenly. Let it rest while you prepare the topping.

Pit the cherries and place in a small bowl. Add the lemon juice and remaining T. sugar and toss. Add the remaining T. flour and toss until the cherries are evenly coated. Arrange them on top of the cake.

Place the tart pan on a baking sheet and bake on the middle rack for 35-40 minutes, until the cake is golden and springy to the touch. Cool for at least 20 minutes before removing the rim of the pan. Without removing it from the bottom of the pan, place cake on serving platter and cool for another 10 minutes before slicing.

Notes: 1) The recipe didn't say how much lemon juice to use, so I used about a T. which may seem like a lot. But it turned out fine for me. 2) My cake was perfectly done after 33 minutes. 3) My boss (who gave me the recipe) has now made this many times and sometimes sprinkles sliced almonds over the top, which I think sounds delicious.

Let me know how it turns out!

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Rage against Giada, and some meatball soup

I was late to cable TV. We never had it growing up, nor did I have it all the years I had roommates, nor when I lived alone. The husband and I finally got cable in 2003, and it was then that I discovered the Food Network.

I fell deeply. I watched hungrily as Mario Batali turned out fresh pasta and braised rabbit; I felt a kinship with the sweet but nerdy Sarah Moulton; and I developed a mild crush on Tyler Florence, who reminded me of a frat boy that figured out early on that the best way to get girls is with food. I got hooked on Jamie Oliver in spite of the lisp that worked my last nerve, and I endured the irritating Michael Chiarello because I couldn't argue that his food looked damn good. And I became a huge fan of Giada de Laurentiis. I watched her show and bought her cookbooks and tried not to pay attention to the long list of ways in which she was better than me (prettier, richer, more glamorous, more successful). I was a loyal fan of Giada, and of the Food Network.

Now the Food Network is different, though, and when I say "different" I mean "bad." Most of the shows aren't even about cooking. Sarah and Mario are gone. Tyler Florence has a narcissistic show about his favorite foods. Jamie's on, but at weird times, like early Saturday morning. And Giada has a new show.

Giada at Home is annoying. As if it wasn't enough that she's super-gorgeous, wildly famous, from a cool Hollywood-via-Italy film family, and married to a clothing designer for Anthropologie, I now have to observe her cooking her perfect food in her immaculate white kitchen in my Malibu dream house.

It's a little much for those of us prone to jealousy.

Last Saturday, post-cake, I masochistically found myself watching Giada pack up an adorable picnic lunch for her husband and baby. They then drove to an idyllic spot where Giada and her husband literally fed pasta salad to each other while the baby gurgled happily. I was ready to lose it.

Luckily, the Barefoot Contessa was on next. Now, some people might get incensed by Ina Garten. It's not like she's keeping it real in her sprawling, shingled home in the Hamptons with the perfect herb garden and double-oven kitchen. But she doesn't try hard to show you how great she is. She's just smart and relaxed, and her food always looks incredible.

Ina was making Italian Wedding Soup. We decided to try it the next night.

Readers, I highly recommend this soup. For one thing, the meatballs are baked not fried, and dropped on a cookie sheet rather than carefully rolled and shaped. They're quick and not messy. The recipe calls for ground chicken and chicken sausage, but I used ground turkey and pork sausage because that's what I could get at the butcher. The recipe also calls for tiny star pasta. I'd always wanted a reason to buy some of these little guys.

The soup was satisfying but not heavy and had a good balance of flavors. It was further improved by the fact that I'd actually made homemade chicken stock earlier in the day, a rare occurrence. The recipe calls for dill, which I left out, since as I mentioned recently, I'm not big on dill. This is a great, rustic soup for a night when you want something comforting, but it would also be excellent to serve to company. After all, who wouldn't like meatball soup?

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Hangover cake

I should not have even considered baking a cake this morning. Last night, feeling froggy because it was friday and actually sort of nice out, we decided to go to Nopalito. We knew it would entail a wait, so we purposely arrived at 6:30, hoping we would only have to fight off the infantile and the geriatric.

Unfortunately, a crowd of hipsters had the same idea. The very charming host told me it would be an hour or maybe more. Well, we'd gotten ourselves down there, found parking, and were already dreaming about the carnitas. We were committed. We snagged the two places at the "bar" (which is not really a bar but a small counter where you can perch awkwardly as you try earnestly not to get in the way of the staff) and settled in. Well over an hour and a steady stream of Tecates and strawberry sangrias later, we were seated. In addition to being a little hopped up on booze, we were pretty hungry. We immediately ordered sturgeon tacos, quesadillas with squash blossoms, carnitas, and enchilada con rajas.

This morning, we should have eaten yogurt for breakfast. But for weeks our oven has been out of commission and we'd finally gotten it fixed. I'd been storing up a list of things I wanted to roast or bake as soon as it was usable, and at the top of the list was Cherry Morning Cake.

This recipe was given to me by my boss, who had it at a bed and breakfast in Ashland, Oregon called The McCall House. She loved it so much that she got the recipe and made me a copy. We got a huge sack of Bing cherries in our produce box this week, and as soon as I saw them I knew what to do with them.

This recipe is very similar in ingredients and style to the raspberry buttermilk cake I made last month. The core difference was that this one calls for milk instead of buttermilk and cherries instead of raspberries. Also, it's baked in a tart pan.

Like most people who like to cook, I have certain tools and utensils that I love and use almost every day (my Globe knife, my Le Creuset dutch oven), and then there are tools I look for reasons to use because I like them so much, like my tart pans. I have two, one a small rectangle and one 10-inch round. I'm not sure why I like these pans so much, I guess just because they guarantee a pretty fluted edge. They can make the most pedestrian desserts look fancy.

The Cherry Morning Cake turned out just as I hoped, light and fluffy. And though it defies logic, somehow having a sweet little cake helped mitigate some of the lingering effects of the Tecates and the sangria. It certainly went excellently with coffee. However, the texture was not so different from a clafoutis, which makes me think that you could easily call it Cherry Evening Cake and serve it with ice cream for dessert.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Sockeye salmon with sweet corn relish

This one's a quickie, because I'm supposed to be working from home right now, and I actually have a fair amount to get done. But writing grant proposals is not as interesting as writing about the awesome wild sockeye salmon I had last night.

Now, anything that has "sockeye" as part of its name is a winner in my book. But what made this dinner truly delicious was the sweet corn relish with purple basil, and for that I need to give a long-deserved shout out to my CSA, Farm Fresh To You.

We've been getting a produce box from FFTY for nearly two and a half years now. We started off getting a box every other week, but about 6 months ago we switched to every week in an effort to eat less meat and more vegetables. The funny thing is, we get a regular-sized box. I think households of two usually get a small box, but clearly we are not a typical set of two.

Every week I take it as a personal challenge to use all of the produce. This has led to many good and a few dubious dishes. I find winter produce tougher to be creative with; for months we were getting loads of cabbage and kale, and after awhile all I could manage was sauteing it dully in olive oil and garlic, or throwing it into yet another soup. But in the summer, all the produce feels like a treat, and all of it seems to go together effortlessly. Last night's warm corn relish consisted of sweet white corn, red onion, orange lipstick peppers (really!), and purple basil cooked in butter. It took about 10 minutes and made a sunny little bed for the sockeye salmon, which is a stunning shade somewhere between watermelon and cantaloupe. Summer on a plate!

Eating less meat will continue to be a struggle for me; I can't quite reconcile my omnivorous self with my soft-hearted, animal-loving self, but having beautiful, seasonal produce delivered to my door is a step in the right direction.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Pork chops, inspired by the Evergreen Dinette

My mother, though born and raised for much of her young life in South America, learned to cook in a teeny town in Michigan, where her parents eventually moved and owned a restaurant, the Evergreen Dinette. My poor mother spent many evenings of her high school years not only waiting tables but cooking at the old Evergreen, making her share of burgers, pork chops, and meat loaf. No wonder it sent her running for Manhattan, then Europe, and then finally San Francisco.

During my childhood, my parents split the cooking, which I now realize was pretty unusual for a 1970's household. The truth was, my dad liked to cook, and he got home earlier than my mom did, so it increasingly made sense for him to do the bulk of the cooking during the week. He made mostly Chinese food for a long time, but later branched out into Italian, Indian, and Japanese.

My mother did more of the weekend cooking. The food I associate with her is decidedly 1950's American: baked ham, beef stroganoff, salads with iceberg lettuce and bottled French dressing. No doubt these were some of the dishes she dutifully churned out from the Evergeen's cramped and steamy kitchen. Later, she got adventurous, and whipped out chicken kiev, homemade gnocchi, and a heartbreaking dish called Crying Leg of Lamb, in which the meat is roasted over the potatoes, which makes them salty and crispy and unarguably lamby. As much as I loved it, I felt terrible eating that dish, because all I could think of was the weeping baby lamb as I dipped each forkful into cool green mint jelly.

But what I associate most with my mother's cooking is pork chops. Pork chops weren't chic the way they can be now; at the time, they were probably cheap, which is why we had them a lot. She would pan-fry them and serve them with mushrooms and a creamy sauce.

I still love pork chops. They are as malleable as chicken, and super quick. I make them the way my mother made them, but I also make them with a speedy tomato sauce, or with marsala, or with apples. This weekend, I decided to go with plums, since we had a lot to use up. I threw together a plum compote, with red onion for bite, brown sugar for sweetness, and a cinnamon stick for warmth. I let it cook briefly, as I didn't want the plums to lose their shape or color.

It turned out tangy and spicy and a little bit sweet. Not a far cry from the pork chops and applesauce the patrons ate the Evergreen Dinette probably ate--maybe just a bit brighter and fresher. I guess you could call it an updated classic.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Summer squash soup with fresh herbs

Sometimes, at the end, or near-end, of a long week, all you can do is make a simple soup.

First of all, the husband and I have basically been sick for a week. Then, as you know, I've been selected for jury duty. You'd think in a city of more than 800,000 people, the odds of me being selected three times in about six years would be slim to none. A fellow juror remarked after I told her this, "Well, you have a good face for it." I'm not sure if my face reads "wise" or "chump" but here I am, serving on a criminal trial.

It's been more interesting than the previous civil trials I've served on. This one has spurred some emotions. There are four charges, two of which are throwaways, and two of which are important. In deliberations, which began yesterday, I've gone from feeling proud of the great weight with which we all seem to carry our duty-- to frustration with some jurors who seem practically goofy--to impressed with the rigorous minds of some of my peers--to shocked at how people can see evidence so differently. It's been eye-opening.

We've been serving some half days and some full days. As luck would have it, my office isn't far from the courthouse, so it hasn't been too much of a hassle to check in in the morning and sometimes at lunch. But, it's still made for a lot of running around.

Last night when I got home, the husband was already there, stretched out on the couch, watching baseball. I sank into the couch next to him and let the day roll off me. We were at the start of a long weekend, which is a good thing, but both of us felt exhausted.

"Soup tonight," I said to the husband, and he nodded.

My basic recipe is from Mark Bittman, though I doubt he came up with it either. Saute onions or shallots in butter and oil, add whatever vegetable you have, along with some potato to thicken it, cook for a bit, add stock and seasoning, simmer. Puree. Add cream or not.

What I had vegetable-wise was a ton of gorgeous little yellow summer squash. I softened a diced purple onion, added the squash and banana fingerling potatoes, some garlic, and let it go. After blending it with my handy-dandy immersion blender, I added the final touches--a bit of cream, and grated nutmeg. Hunting through the fridge, I unearthed some chives and basil, which I snipped and chiffonaded respectively.

Served in shallow white bowls, the soup was a mild, buttery yellow, brightened by the fresh herbs. Slabs of levain on the side for dipping, glasses of wine. A soft finish to a bit of a rough week.