Tuesday, January 26, 2010

All The Great Things

I've been feeling guilty. This might just be a general condition of my Catholic upbringing, but I prefer to think it is because of some actual transgression on my part. In November, I wrote 16 blog posts, more than every other day. Since baby arrived though, it's been tough. Not only because it is hard to find time to write, but because it even harder to find time to cook something that is worth writing about. I've been dying to try my hand at bread again, there is a can of malt extract that is calling for me to brew more beer, I've got three new cookbooks that are worth my attention and all around me the foodie universe continues to go on without me.

And, as I mentioned recently, there have been plenty of culinary failures in my house. No sense giving you a recipe to something that tasted like crap so there are a few blog posts that could have been but weren't due to performance errors on my part.

That said, there is lots of cool stuff going on in the world, and even a couple of success stories in my own kitchen. For instance, my cyber-buddy Chuck sent me a kick-ass wing recipe. It seems as though everyone and their cousin are discovering Sriracha for the first time, which only confirms my belief that the obscure things that I embrace fully will all sooner or later become super popular (note also that I brought back the high-five, brought back beards, brought back saying "rad", popularized premium tequila around 2002, and made it O.K. to prefer small batch Bourbon over Single Malt Scotch, which, at least in the North-East, was a pretty big deal). Sriracha is just latest example. We used to only find it in Asian specialty stores and the occasional enlightened Whole Foods, now it's on sale at nearly every neighborhood supermarket. Sriracha has now reached the pinnacle of popularity since being featured in the January 2010 issue of Bon Appetit. Since then, Sriracha recipes are everywhere. It's nearly impossible to watch the Food Network for 15 minutes without hearing a mention of Sriracha. So, I decided to give these wings a try, resolved to share my own wing recipe at the next convenient time. In the meantime I'll give you a recipe for crab cakes that, yes, calls for a dollop of Sriracha, but more importantly, will introduce you to Sriracha's more rustic cousin, Chili-Garlic Sauce.

The wings came out great. I ended up using lime juice instead of lime zest, which I think ended up amping up the lime flavor a bit, and not in a bad way. The wings were more or less perfect, any gripe with them would be merely stylistic. Of course, Chuck promised that they wouldn't be very spicy and I do disagree on that count. I loved 'em, but they weren't really for people who don't like spicy food. Just a warning. Then again, almost nothing that I cook is for people who don't like spicy food. Those people should go to Mickey D's for dinner.

Beyond my kitchen, I wanted to alert you to someone who successfully made french bread at home, rather than, like yours truly, merely attempting the endeavor twice and failing both times. OK, perhaps I am being hard on myself. My bread was totally better than store bought. But it didn't look like this! That is what I believe in the journalism business is called being "scooped". Looks delicious though and I think we all have something to learn from Kissmyspatula (not the least of which is that if I ever go to Paris, I should rent an apartment, rather than stay in a hotel).

Last but not least before we get to the crab cakes: These people make sausage! I love them. The world is better place when more people make sausage. And people who cure sausage, there is a special place in heaven for you!

Ok. Crab Cakes. Now, I make traditional crab cakes with the Worcestershire sauce and a bit of mustard served with tartar sauce. And it's great. But I wanted to do something different here. I did a few experiments and I ended up a spicy but slightly sweet teriyaki crab cake. They are necessarily smaller than regular crab cakes, mostly because I crisped the outside by frying them in oil. Normal crab cakes are also fried, but not as hot and not in deep oil. Mine were done in a pan of hot peanut oil. I wanted to crispness to lighten it up bit, which I think it did, although they are only as light as crispy fried food can be. I also tried just broiling the cakes and that worked as well. I served them with a dollop of sour cream and a dot of Sriracha on each cake. The sour cream was a superior choice to mayonnaise since my aim was to make the cakes seem less dense and heavy, which is my usual complaint about good crab cakes. (My complaints about good crab cakes are, obviously, different.) Upon completion, they were fantastic, lighter than normal crab cakes, and had a really unique and interesting flavor. Definitely worth trying if you are tired to the same old usual mid-Atlantic take on crab.

There are a couple of pointers about crab cakes in general that are worth considering. The first is that you get what you pay for with crab (I find this to be true of most food, except at the farmer's market). Want crappy crab cakes? Buy crappy crab meat. Want excellent crab cakes? Buy excellent crab meat. End of story. Second, use too much bread and your cakes can be dry, but use too little and they are hard to cook and don't stay together. If the pan is consistently spitting hot oil towards your eye (yeah, that really hurt) then your cakes are too wet, add more crumbs. Third, here is a great opportunity to use day or two old french bread for breadcrumbs. You can sub with a canister of 7 month old breadcrumbs, but it's better with better ingredients.

Terriaki-Chili Crab Cakes

16 oz. Premium Crab Meat
2 Eggs
1 1/2 cups packed French Bread Crumbs
1/4 cup Chili-garlic Sauce
1/4 cup Teriyaki Sauce
1 Tbsp Fish Sauce
1/2 cup Mayonnaise
2-4 Shallots, minced
2-4 cloves of Garlic, minced

For frying, 2 cups of peanut oil

In a large bowl, combine crab meat, eggs, chili-garlic sauce, teriyaki sauce, fish sauce, shallots, garlic, and mayonnaise. Mix well with a large fork or spoon. Next, mix in bread crumbs with your hands. Be sure all the ingredients are evenly distributed throughout the mixture, especially the bread crumbs and egg.

In a medium-sized cast iron skillet or another pan with high side walls, heat peanut oil to about 300 degrees. Pack the crab mixture into little egg shaped cakes. The cakes should also be approximately the size of an egg. Gently place each crab cake into the hot oil and cook for about 1 minute on each side. Cook the cakes in small batches so as not to cool down the oil too much.

When each cake is crisp from frying in oil, remove the crab cakes and place them on a foil covered baking sheet. Bake the cakes at 275 degrees for about 20 minutes if there is any concern that your crab cake is raw on the inside. This is generally only an issue if you oil is very hot but your crab cake is too large. The outside will be cooked but the inside will be raw.

Serve with sour cream and Sriracha. Alternatively, serve with sliced avocados and whole basil leaves. These make a great appetizer, or will serve 4 as a main course.

P.S. - I finally a logo for the site, I know its not perfect but it's a good start. Hopefully I'll get a chance to clean it up at some point in the future.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Food Co-op

I finally did it. I joined a food co-op. We got our first delivery yesterday, mostly the basics: celery, carrots, some apples, and pineapple among other things. As of right now, we're just trying it out to see if we like it. I kind of like the idea of getting a box of vegetables and being challenged to try new things with it.

I'm also trying to begin doing Meatless Mondays. Lent is coming soon, and I'll be meatless on Fridays too during Lent, but as a general matter I've always found the Lenten Fridays to be precisely the days when I could use a steak. Monday is more a detoxification day. But, to be sure, I'll be doing both this Lent. I've actually given up meat entirely for Lent in the past, but I found that if the purpose of the Lenten fast is to get some perspective, then I somewhat miss the point if I spend 40 days feeling hungry and moody. Yes, I admit it. Going without meat made me cranky.

Anyway, back to vegetables. Once I got all this nice produce, I wanted to put together something that would use some of the veggies that I already had, as well as show off some of nice reds and greens in peppers and leaks (peppers and leaks that needed to be eaten soon, or thrown out). I also got a good deal on some wild caught shrimp at the supermarket, so I wanted to use that too. Of course, Fuchsia Dunlop comes to the rescue again. Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook, people! Get it! You need it!

I just flipped through the index for "shrimp" and found a nice recipe called "Fisherman's Shrimp with Chinese Chives". That was enough to inspire me. I fried up the shrimp in a small cast iron skillet so that I could get the shrimp deep into the oil without using a gallon of the stuff. Oil ain't free you know. I cooked some red peppers and leaks in a separate skillet and combined them at the end. If I had to do it over again, I would have actually never combined the fried shrimp with the veggies. Instead, I should have just put the shrimp on top of the veggies in the dish. Mixing them up with the moist vegetables made the shrimp a little less crisp than they were when I first fried them. It was still pretty fantastic though. Here's the recipe.

Spicy Garlic Fried Shrimp with Peppers and Leaks
Loosely adapted from Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook by Fuchsia Dunlop

1 lb. Shrimp, uncooked, cleaned, and de-shelled.
2 Tbsp. Flour
1 Egg White
1 cup Peanut Oil
1 tsp. Apple Cider Vinegar
1 tsp. Crushed Red Pepper
3 cloves fresh Garlic, minced
1 tsp. Fish Sauce
1 Red Pepper
1/2 of a Leak

Gently mix shrimp, egg white, and flour in a medium bowl to coat the shrimp. In a small pot or skillet, heat oil to around 300 degrees. Cook the shrimp in the oil in small batches for a few minutes on each side until the shrimp is crisp and fully cooked. Remove the shrimp from the oil and set aside on a paper towel.

In a separate, larger skillet, saute sliced leeks and thinly sliced red pepper in peanut oil over high heat. When the peppers start to soften up, add the minced garlic. A minute or two after the garlic is added, mix in fish sauce, vinegar, and crushed red pepper with the leaks and peppers.

Remove the vegetables and lay them along the bottom of a bowl or serving dish. Put the cooked shrimp into the large skillet and gently mix around the pan in order for the shrimp to soak up some of the seasoning and juices left over from the vegetables. Arrange the shrimp on top of the vegetables. Do not cover, otherwise the steam is likely to make the shrimp soggy.

Friday, January 15, 2010

I Make Broth and I Take Pictures

I gather that noodle bowls are all the rage at Momofuku, or something like that. I've got the Momofuku cookbook now, but haven't had a chance to take a look at it yet. Anyway, I took some pictures the last time I made ramen and they were probably some of the best pictures I've ever taken of anything, so I had to show you the pictures and tell you about one of my favorite lunchtime treats. I took a bunch of other, unrelated pictures that came out pretty well too and have scattered them throughout the post. Hope you like them!

It all started because whenever I eat something that I really like, I want to make it myself at home. I can't just have a favorite place to get pizza. I eat the pizza, and then I want to go home and make my own. And then, of course, once I make the pizza at home, then I need to make the sauce myself, and then the dough. Before long, I'll be trying to figure out if I can manage to make my own cheese (By the way, I haven't made my own cheese yet, but I'm still young and I emphasize the word "yet").

One reason I seem to keep drilling down to make the ingredients is because I think I can make it better myself. Of course my spaghetti sauce is better than something from a jar in the supermarket! Duh! But I find that I've been doing this more and more often now in order to avoid preservatives and all of the other bad stuff that is in almost anything that is not a fresh, raw ingredient.

Lately, for this very reason, I have been obsessively making broth. No, seriously, I've been tending to my broth almost everyday for months now. I have two batches going now, my Chinese pork broth, inspired by Fuchsia Dunlop's recipe for "everyday broth", and my chicken broth, which I use to make chicken soup and as well as flavor a whole slew of dishes, including one of my favorites: roast chicken with gravy.

Dunlop gives us a vivid description of "everyday broth" in her Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook, my favorite cookbook. It is a broth consisting of all sorts of meats, especially pork, which is kept simmering all day everyday. That's right, all day every day. It gets replenished, and it gets used. Street vendors cook street food in their everyday broth, which adds flavor to the meat, and adds some flavor to the broth, sort of a symbiotic relationship between sauce and entree. Dunlop claims that some everyday broths have been sustained for entire lifetimes, up to 50 years of taking some and giving some. And, of course, it is claimed that the older the broth and the longer it has been sustained, the better the flavor.

As for me, I keep mine in the freezer, and I thaw it and give to it and take from it as needed. It is seasoned with a little soy sauce, some fresh ginger, and five spice powder, then I strain it through cheesecloth to keep it nice looking. Add whatever you want though.

One of my favorite things to make with my everyday broth is ramen. Imagine all of the succulent goodness of a Cup Noodles, with none of the MSG and sodium and preservatives and god knows what else. Once you have the broth, it takes about 10 minutes to have a steaming hot bowl of deliciousness.

Freestyle Ramen

2 cups Everyday Broth
1 Leek
Ramen Noodles (any noodles can substitute)
1 Tbsp Soy Sauce per bowl
1 Tbsp Oil
optional: Chili-Garlic Sauce, Radishes, Scallions, Chicken, Pork, Egg, etc.

This recipe should be more inspirational than instructional. The important thing about freestyle ramen is that the broth be homemade. If you haven't already strained your broth, make sure you do so. It really makes the broth look nicer.

Beyond that, all there is to it is heating up your broth to a near boil, cooking your ramen in boiling water (not in the broth!), and slice up your leek. In each bowl, I add a dash of soy sauce, a dash of oil, and a dash of chili-garlic sauce (Sriracha is a fine substitute). Then I put in the leaks and any other fixins that I have lying around that might be good. Then I fill each bowl 3/4 of the way up with cooked ramen noodles. Last, add the broth. You can mix up the bowl a bit then to get the chili sauce and everything evenly distributed. Another way to do it is to add a dollop of Sriracha at the end. This not only flavors the broth, but also makes a nice garnish.

If you are using anything that really needs to be cooked before consuming, make sure you do that before adding it to the bowl. Egg is borderline. If your broth is hot enough, it will probably cook the egg, but it is kind of gross if it doesn't, so better be safe than sorry. If you do add raw egg to it, at least take the egg out of the fridge 20 minutes before using it so that its a little on the warmer side.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Epic Failure, but then Brie

Since the arrival of our son, dinner has taken on a whole new meaning. At a time that now seems like distant, ancient history, the Mrs. and I would sit at the table over my painstakingly-crafted meal, say grace, and enjoy a fine meal and polite conversation. That was then; this is now. Now we scramble to make sure that both of us actually got to eat dinner. Usually I stuff my half-assed edible concoction into my mouth quick enough to give my baby-mama enough time to eat her food while it is actually hot. We have tried just having dinner while the little one is sleeping, but in a horrible twist of fate, he has taken after his old man and decided that sleep is optional and, to some extent, to be avoided.

That's not to say that I haven't cooked anything. I've made some stuff here and there when I can. But the stakes are higher now. I have to do more with less. Sometimes, it works. As a present to the Mrs., my mom bought her a small wheel of baby brie. It is a guilty pleasure of ours and something that she couldn't have while pregnant. Something about raw milk, I guess. Well, when we decided to have the brie, I couldn't just bake it and leave it at that. I wanted to make it special. And I did. The recipe below is the story of a long awaited wheel of brie, and a sauce made out whiskey and pecans. Hell yes.

But before we get the recipe, I have to confess of my colossal failure in the kitchen the other night. I had a great idea for a food experiment that I thought my wife would like, and that would have made a great post on the blog: Sweet Potato Pierogies. I'd made the dough, run it through my new pasta maker, and shaped some nice sized dumplings of sweet potato, seasoned with nutmeg and cinnamon. Well, I came, I saw, I sucked. What a disaster. Something was wrong with the dough. The memory of chewing and chewing and chewing and chewing on the same piece of pierogi dough is something that will haunt me for at least another hour and a half.

With the pierogies, I baked a Pollok fillet in red wine,some shallots, and garlic. It seemed that the fish cooked, but the wine didn't reduce, the garlic and shallots were almost raw, and none of the flavors melded together at all. What crap. I ended up just fixing up some mac and cheese out of the box to tide us over.

There are fresh new victories in my future. Of this, I am sure. But that night's meal was no such victory. Makes me want to stick my face in some Brie... Mmmmmm..... Brieeeee.

Baked Brie with Whiskey Pecan Sauce

1 shot of bourbon
2 Tsbp butter
1/3 cup of chopped pecans (mortar and pestle will do the trick)
2 Tsbp brown sugar
1 small wheel of brie

Preheat oven to 250 degrees. While the oven is heating up, now is a good time to chop or crush your pecans if they didn't already come that way. I used a mortar and pestle and it worked fine. A big sharp knife would be fine too. Once the oven is pre-heated, put the brie in an oven safe dish or plate and bake for 20 minutes or so. You'll probably notice the top of brie rise up as the cheese on inside melts. I like it super melty, but if you just want it soft, bake for less time.

While the brie is baking, in a small sauce pot melt the butter over low heat. Add bourbon to the melted butter. Once the whiskey starts to boil, whisk the sugar into the mixture. Next add the pecans. Be sure not to over cook, but boil until it is the desired consistency, say 5-10 minutes.

When your brie is baked, pour your sauce over the brie. Serve with crackers or french bread.