23 February 2007

Durban Curry

My mother has had an article on Durban Curry published by fiery-foods.com. It's a great article. Check it out.

17 February 2007


I gave myself thirty-five minutes on Saturday to bash out a tirade. I got about five hundred words into it and was stuck more firmly in a morass of competing arguments than I've ever been. Funnily enough, the question of the best food to eat is a little bit complex. So, I'm taking it as a sign that my second shot at a tirade has also resulted in exhaustion. Michael Pollan's "Unhappy Meals" (registration required, but it's still free, thank god) article in the NYT Magazine summed most of it up for me, though his mistrust of science has been rightly panned.

Here's a few thoughts that've been kicking around my head:
  • Your kitchen (cuisine) is a cottage industry and an expression of you and your culture. There are corporations and industrial chains out there which are competing with your cottage industry. There's a historical analogy here. American home cooking : American agribusiness :: Indian saris : British textile mills.
  • There's a lot of putting up or shutting up that needs to go on to undo the Walmarting of American food. If you want to live in a neighborhood with a butcher shop, you must buy your meat at that butcher shop whenever possible. If you want the option of going to farmer's markets, you need to go to farmer's markets as much as you can. If you want good food rather than fast food, demand good food. This will cost you more money. Consider it a "character tax". Decide how important eating well is to you and use your money and time accordingly. (The Italian analog here, which came to me several times while living there, is that if you want to be able to get anything you want on Sunday, be prepared to work seven days a week.)
Of course, when the food industry can produce such wonders as Guinness Marmite, it really saps my ire.

15 February 2007

The Wondra of It All

Anonymous said...

Seriously, how can the some guy who prepares rabbit from scratch use Wondra to make macaroni and cheese?

A Disappointed Reader

So, I've ruffled a feather by recommending Wondra flour as a method for equaling the convenience of Annie's or Kraft mac 'n' cheese while using whole and wholesome ingredients. I wasn't clear, Disappointed Reader, whether the quibble was with Wondra itself or using it for mac 'n' cheese.

If the problem is with Wondra flour, it's not processed with chemical additives. It's just pre-cooked. It's a shortcut, for sure, and not as good as real white sauce or bechamel, but it's no different than using instant oatmeal or cream of wheat. And not that this is the stamp of total legitimacy, but Jacques Pepin uses it liberally in his excellent series, "Fast Food My Way." And if it's good enough for him, it's good enough for me. (He also uses cream of wheat to thicken a soup, which I think is just cool.) If the quibble is with using shortcuts or non-authentic ingredients, I think I made clear in my post about Texas Crispers that I'm not above using processed food as part of a meal if it's convenient and helps to round out, complete, or speed up a wholesome, tasty meal made with whole foods.

If the problem was specifically using it for mac 'n' cheese, I do understand the pain I've caused. Mac 'n' cheese arouses strong feelings. Let me just be clear here that I was not putting "Wondra-mac" forward as my canonical mac 'n' cheese recipe, but as another option, easier for the cooking-challenged than making a white sauce. I'll do a real Macaroni and Cheese recipe someday when I have the time.

If we shadows have offended... and so on.

Just for the record, though, I did make mac 'n' cheese with Wondra last night and it was great. I prepared a Valentine's Day dinner for M. The main dish was Engagement Lamb, breaded using Wondra flour. The side dishes were creamed leeks and spinach, thickened with Wondra flour, and Vermont sage-flavored cheddar mac 'n' cheese, made with.... you guessed it!

Everything was good. I used bread crumbs from my home-baked, no-knead Lahey bread to bread the lamb, and I gotta say it was just a little disappointing. The breading just wasn't as good. I'm going to stick to the original recipe of ground rusks, semolina and butter.

The mac 'n' cheese was great. I made it with Barilla rotini, milk, butter, Wondra, salt & pepper, Dijon mustard, and a good amount of finely shredded sage-flavored cheddar from the Grafton Village Cheese Company in Vermont. I wouldn't have made it this way--indeed, I wouldn't have considered mac 'n' cheese at all--except for the recent post about Annie's, and the need to test out what I'd already put forward. The pasta soaked up all the sauce. It looked pretty much bare, but had a cheddary, sage-spiked richness to it. Was it Macaroni and Cheese? No, not really. If an Italian friend was visiting the country and wanted a representation of American macaroni and cheese, I'd definitely make a real cheese sauce. But, was it a good side dish? Absolutely.

I want to thank you, Disappointed Reader, for keeping me honest. In fact, getting this comment this morning has really made me look at my attitudes toward food and cooking and how I've communicated them. Maybe I haven't been clear enough as to what I'm about. I thought I could get away with just putting up the best and easiest of what I make and eat. There's a lot of stuff I make that doesn't make the blog. I guess I thought I could get away with not putting up a jeremiad, but I guess I was wrong.

Next: Tirade.

14 February 2007

Three posts today?

Yes, truly this is a great day. Here's the long promised scan of my picture in the New York Times.


So I mentioned to M while we were taking a walk in the woods that I wanted to start reading the Oxford Companion to Food again. She said, "What letter did you leave off at?" I said, "B..." Which sounds bad, but I finished the letter B this morning and realized that I was more than an eighth of the way through the book (120 out of 867 pages), even though I was only two letters through the alphabet.

I wonder why this is. Why this front-loading? Is it some sort of encyclopedist's fatigue, where you start off all diligent but by the time you get to N, you begin to leave out entries and summarize? Who really cares about "nougat" anyway?

Or is it maybe that if two words are synonyms with equal claim to being a topic heading, the one closer to A is the one that gets the heading?

Either way, it's good to have "bummalow" behind me and I'm looking hopefully toward "zuppa inglese."

13 February 2007

Kill da wabbit! Kill da wabbit!

OK, so I guess I should weigh in on the latest thing to run through the food blogging world: Anastacia Marx de Salcedo's indictment on Salon of Annie's Homegrown. Surprise, surprise! Turns out the friendly alternative to Kraft's blue box is actually less about what goes into it than it is about how its buyers want to identify themselves: healthy, skeptical of big business, organic, classy. So, basically: rich, liberal, white, upper-middle class.

OK, I had the skeleton of a jeremiad all typed up, but it's all just so exhausting to rail against things.

The one thing I'll say is that there's an awesome convenience food out there called Wondra flour. The Salon article ends with a recipe for white sauce. Wondra flour is processed with malted barley flour to not clump and to dissolve instantly in hot or cold liquid. How it's able to do this without a slew of toxic additives is beyond me, but it's true. The ingredients are flour, barley flour, and vitamins like riboflavin and such. They've even put a recipe for One Step White Sauce on the back. Here it is:

1 cup cold milk
2 tablespoon Gold Medal Wondra Flour
2 tablespoon margarine or butter
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon pepper

  1. Heat all ingredients to boiling over medium heat, stirring constantly.
  2. Boil and stir 1 minute.
1 cup sauce.

Cheese sauce:
Add 1/4 teaspoon dry mustard and stir 1/2 cup shredded Chedder or American cheese into hot sauce until melted.

So, I think this is a good candidate for the easiest homemade crappy mac 'n' cheese known to man. I dunno, though, that dry mustard in the recipe seems kinda fancy. Might have to axe that. I'll give it a shot and let y'all know.

12 February 2007

Ochazuke Redux

So M and I spent a weekend at The Four Seasons Inn in West Dover, Vermont. Fireplace and jacuzzi in the room, very relaxing, very nice, and a very good breakfast. It's run by a lovely English expat couple, Ann and Barry, and their family.

I spent good part of our relaxing weekend delving into The Folk Art of Japanese Country Cooking by Gaku Homma. It's a quirky book. My friend Brian left it on my desk for a week to peruse at my leisure. Of course, I didn't get to it and so he took it back. If I'd taken even a cursory look through the book and at the back cover, I would've quickly seen that this book was written by the founder of Denver's Nippon Kan, the Japanese cultural center, aikido school, and restaurant all rolled into one. I've eaten at Domo (the restaurant) several times! It's the first place I had yuba, the tofu skin that's so much better than tofu. Anyway, the book sat on my desk until Brian had to take it back.

Then, to get it through my head that this was something I'd enjoy, Brian finally bought me a used copy. I read half of it this weekend, and it's a strange mix of reminiscence, folk wisdom (read: superstition), warnings against folk wisdom (read: common sense), impossibly simple recipes, impossibly complex recipes. Sort of like this blog.

The book brought me back to one of my culinary obsessions: ochazuke. Not, mind you, because ochazuke is treated, or even mentioned in the book, but because it was a primer on Japanese country culinary terms. Country people need to preserve food naturally, so pickles (zuke) come up a lot. For instance, umezuke are pickled plums. Wouldn't that make ochazuke some sort of pickled tea? This recipe for ochazuke, which I oddly found on Nigella Lawson's web site, sorts out that confusion, and makes it clear that pickles are an essential part of the dish, which they were when I had it in Japan, but have never been here in the US. Though I've always ordered pickles to go along with it.

The above-linked recipe sort of cuts to the core of what I want ochazuke to be in my world. I like the image of "pawing through the fridge" and making do with what's on hand. That's what we did last night. This recipe makes a great choice for something substantial after a long trip because it's made entirely from the pantry, but is somehow wholesome and fresh-tasting, maybe through some sort of Japanese halo effect.

We arrived home at 8pm and were eating by about 8:30. I pressure-cooked some brown rice, which gives it a nice, substantial texture, and used genmai-cha, the japanese green tea with brown rice in it (and in this case, popped sorghum seeds). There's something bitter and unsatisfying about the tea I've been using, though. I think maybe Chinese green tea might be a better option, as it's less grassy. That might be sacrilege to purists, but I've started to realize that the thing I'm chasing here is not the perfect ochazuke, but the perfect ochazuke-style meal for my and my fiancee. I feel fine putting whatever I want in it. I served along with it:
  • arare maki nori (seaweed-wrapped rice crackers)
  • wasabi
  • bonito flakes
  • shredded nori
And that's where the traditional ended.
  • Rather than salt or a flavor packet with tons of MSG, I ground up a fish-flavored stock cube in a mortar and pestle with a little Wondra flour to loosen it to granules. Still salt, still MSG, but a little more on my terms than just tearing open a packet.
  • We tore open and flaked some smoked salmon given to us by some friends from the Pacific Northwest. It was awesome. We used a tiny bit and it went a long way toward providing flavor.
  • I put in some wasabi green peas, mostly because the wasabi powder I got from Sunrise Mart kind of sucks. I love the crunch of the wasabi green peas and they have enough of a hit of wasabi to satisfy me.
Honestly, I liked this version a lot more than any other I've made before, and it was easier and more fun for M and I to assemble our own little dishes, and more satisfying with the brown rice than with white. Bonito flakes add a sly smokiness, but honestly I could skip them altogether, as they end up papery in the broth without adding as much flavor.

We ate some kosher pickles from Gus' Pickles on the Lower East Side right before we had dinner. We should've just chopped them and had them as garnish. A bit of sliced omelet would also have worked very well.

I also would like to try this with some barley in the mix with the brown rice. Really, now we're getting far away from ochazuke in its pure form, but as long as it keeps getting better and we keep liking it, I'm up for that.

That smoked salmon's still in the fridge, so we might take another swing at this tonight. And more on Gaku Homma's odd treatise later.

06 February 2007

Delice Sauce

My mom has come through with her recipe for delice sauce.

"Delice Sauce is 1 cup of bechamel sauce with about 2 tbsp ketchup, 1 tsp vinegar and a pinch of curry powder."

Thanks, mom!

Despite the above looking a lot like the way I rattle off my recipes, it's not how my mom usually rolls. This is her just dashing something off in an email, probably from Italy, definitely from memory. When she really wants to talk about food, though, she's a real pro. My mom's cookbook, linked below, is a collection of some of the most thoroughly tested recipes I've ever encountered. She managed to weather the low-fat "revolution" without ever sacrificing her dedication to taste. The hundred recipes in this book were culled from over four hundred favorites, each whittled down to reasonable amounts of fat without sacrificing flavor, and they're all fantastic. You can follow them to the letter and they will return great results every time. It's a great testament to my mother that she can have this kind of precision and marshal the kinds of resources necessary for real recipe testing, but when necessary can just rattle off a list to help out in a pinch.

Oh, and after all that work, she donated the entire book to charity.

05 February 2007

Sotsuji Karaoke

OK, WARNING. Another non-food post about karaoke. I risk alienating my readership of ten, but whatever. I have something to say and it's important:

I note that the Wikipedia entry for karaoke has a pre-existing meaning for "kamikase karaoke".

A popular game using karaoke is to randomly type in a number and call up a song, which participants take a turn to try to sing as much as they can. In some machines, this game is pre-programmed and may be limited to a genre so that they cannot call up an obscure national anthem that none of them can sing. This game has come to be called "Kamikaze Karaoke" in some parts of the United States and Canada.

I've done this before. Last time, I got "Here I Go Again" by Whitesnake and, I think, held my own. Really, though, the metaphor doesn't extend. Still, it was a fair bet that someone was going to come up with a meaning for this phrase.

The other variant I've heard is sometimes called "dare-oke." In this variant, no one selects their own song. They rather select songs for each other, and sing to the best of their ability the song selected for them by their so-called friends. This is kind of "omakase karaoke". I refer to the practice in sushi restaurants of putting yourself in the chef's hands. But the word "omakase" comes from the Japanese for "entrust" or "protect," and with "dare-oke," you are definitely putting yourself in the hands of people who are not going to protect your honor. They will likely do anything they can to humiliate you.

Anyway, I never liked the self-destructive aspect of calling it "kamikaze" or the violent "blitzkrieg" or any of those martial idioms we've come up with before. I've been looking up words like "refreshing" or "plunge" or "quick" to try to come closer to what we're doing here. Any Japanese speakers who would like to help name this thing we've started doing are invited to help.

In Praise of Poaching

No, not that kind of poaching, the kind where you cook something in gently simmering water or stock. In an episode of "Fast Food My Way," while describing his recipe for pollo tonnato, which is based on chicken breasts poached in a court bouillon (a light vegetable stock), Jacques Pepin tosses off a bit of kitchen wisdom: that you can also poach a whole chicken in court bouillon the way he does the chicken breasts. Add the whole chicken, simmer ten minutes, switch off and leave to poach forty-five minutes. It's something I always wanted to try, so on Friday I just went ahead and did it.

A big pot filled with boiling water out of the electric kettle.
A couple teaspoons salt.
A couple carrots, chopped up.
An onion, coarsely chopped.
The top of a head of celery, leaves included.
Three bay leaves.
Some white peppercorns.

Brought this to a rolling boil for about five minutes and added....

A whole chicken. I used a Murray's minimally processed bird, about 5 lbs. I took the giblets out, but didn't do anything else, didn't even wash it, as it was going into boiling water anyway.

The coolness of the bird killed the boil. I brought it back to a gentle simmer and left it for 10 minutes, partially covered. I then shut the heat off, covered fully, and put the timer on for 45 minutes and walked away. When I came back, the breast meat registered 170F on the thermometer. I did this out of curiosity, not necessity. I could've futzed for another fifteen minutes and it would've been fine.

I pulled the bird out, and then let it cool on a platter. That's it.

I've turned this into several different dishes. After about 15 minutes, I went at it with a paring knife, separating the legs from the body, and slicing and pulling the breast meat off. All the skin went back into the pot. As the bird cooled, I stripped all the meat off that I could and returned the bones to the pot. I simmered the bones, skin and poaching liquid together for about a half hour, then left it to cool. I've been using this delicious stock for a few dishes as well.

Here's some great things about poaching:
  • energy-efficient. If you're looking for lower power bills, it's maybe better to turn off a few lights, but water conducts heat much more efficiently than air. The amount of gas you'd use roasting a chicken to done in one hour would be at least triple what you'd use to poach. Even better, you can use your electric kettle to boil the water, making this recipe...
  • cool. There's not a lot of extra heat flying around your kitchen, so this is a summer recipe. Boiling down the poaching liquid to stock makes it a good winter recipe as well.
  • forgiving. Fish is less forgiving, but there's a lot of wiggle-room in this recipe. The predictability of using water's boiling point as a heat source and thermostat means there's less variability in the heat being put into the food, which also makes poaching...
  • precise. The boiling point of water varies with altitude and salinity, and a simmer is anywhere from about 185 to 200 degrees Fahrenheit, but these variances are minute compared to the variables introduced in roasting, braising, and sauteeing by the nature of the heat you're applying, the weight and material of the cooking vessel, etc. Poaching in a cheap aluminum pot is the same as poaching in anything else. Heck, you could do this recipe in a rice cooker if you wanted. The water's always about the same temperature, and the water's really the only thing touching the food.
Next: What I did with all this good food.

01 February 2007

Kamikaze Karaoke

Couldn't find my mom's cookbook to get the shrimp delice recipe. I'll try again tonight after Kamikaze Karaoke.

I came up with this idea after leaving a karaoke night relatively early. We were doing karaoke with my friend Rob's dad and we got out of there at 11pm, went somewhere else and had a sedate drink. In bed by midnight. No problem. Also, I noticed at the karaoke place that before 8pm Sunday through Thursday, private rooms were only $4 per person per hour, as opposed to $8 after 8pm. A light bulb went on. We could use the price jump as a stopping point and get out of there in a reasonable amount of time. So, no interminable procession of 80's songs, no huge bills, no hangovers. Here's the rules:
  1. Leave work at 6pm sharp.
  2. One hour only. From the moment we enter the room, it's a hard stop at 60 minutes.
  3. Two drink maximum.
  4. Everyone must sing.
There's sort of a three-to-five-person maximum with this sort of thing. Sixty minutes means fewer than a dozen songs, probably, so with more people, the total cost increases and the songs per person decrease. Three people pay $12 for 12 songs. Four pay $16 for 12 songs. And so on. If more people want to go, there's always the possibility of getting two rooms and changing up the mix at 30 minutes.

Karaoke Duet on 35th St has small private rooms, and they offer the deal, so that's where the magic happens. The amount of resolve needed to put down the mike at 60 minutes is gargantuan. Strength, fail me not.