Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Tastes like Thanksgiving

I had the day off after a very exhausting work event on Sunday so I hibernated in bed and felt warm and toasty all morning. By 3PM I figured I couldn't be lazy all day so I would make dinner, which I hoped would be a pleasant surprise for Andrew since he didn't actually know I had the day off.

I decided on a casserole, which felt very fitting with this onslaught of cold weather. Casseroles have always been something of a mystery to me. I think I've mentioned it here before, but growing up Chinese-American, it was rare for us to have just one dish as a meal. Even if that one dish was a mixture of a whole bunch of other things, it just wasn't seen at our table often, unless it was something like curry or stew or a big bowl of noodles. So whenever I heard about or saw other American kids eat a casserole or something of the like for a meal, it amazed me.

I couldn't understand their function or why or how or anything ... it wasn't until I got older and began to explore foods that I realized just how awesome a casserole can be. You can make it in advance. You can freeze it. You can supply Babe's farmer a whole week's worth of foods with a freezer full of casseroles (remember that scene in "Babe?") labeled with permanent marker and masking tape! You can add all kinds of crazy things that you love like mashed potatoes or ground beef or noodles or cheese. Everything fits neatly into one dish and if you get a nice Pyrex, it even comes with a lid!

So anyway, I went "All-American" with my casserole and even served dinner with pink lemonade. (That too always amazed me as a kid -- any beverage besides water or tea at dinner was like, Whaaaat? Milk?? Soda?? Lemonade? Juice?!) I decided to make a tuna casserole but added brussels sprouts for taste, nutrition, and bulk. Andrew seemed to like it and exclaimed that it "tastes like Thanksgiving!" Always a compliment. I got most of my research from this recipe I found online (especially the roux part) but as always, tweaked it to my own tastes.

Tuna-brussels sprouts noodle casserole


For the mixture:
Baby portobello mushrooms, sliced
Brussels sprouts, quartered
1 onion, chopped
4 cloves garlic, minced
Curly egg noodles, cooked al dente
2 cans tuna in water
Soy sauce
Chicken broth
Red pepper flakes

For the breadcrumbs:
Corn flakes, crushed
Cajun spice
Cheddar cheese
Olive oil spray

1. Cook onions & garlic until soft/translucent in 2 tablespoons of butter
2. Add mushrooms, cook until water is released from mushrooms
3. Add brussels sprouts and soy sauce, salt, and pepper to taste
4. Cook until water is evaporated
5. Remove mixture from heat
6. Heat 3 tablespoons butter in sauce pan
7. Add 1/4 cup of flour, whisk quickly
8. Whisk in 2 cups chicken broth and 1 cup milk to make a thick sauce
9. Remove from heat and add mushroom and brussels sprouts mixture into the sauce; add lime juice
10. Drain tuna and add to mixture
11. Add egg noodles and mix
12. Preheat oven to 375 degrees F
12. Oil a casserole dish and add the mixture
13. Top the casserole mix with the breadcrumb mix (breadcrumbs, spray with olive oil, add spices and cheddar cheese, and mix)
14. Put the casserole in the oven and cook for 15-20 minutes until the sauce is bubbling through the golden crust of breadcrumbs
15. Serve with lemonade/milk/soda/any other very American drink

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Late night stew

There are multiple reasons as to why it is 11PM and I am only in the first few steps of making a homemade beef stew. Andrew is sleeping but the smells are wafting through the house and even when I was taking a shower I could smell the bubbling stock creeping in under the door.

1) I feel guilty about going to a fancy, 3-course, late-night work dinner tomorrow leaving my husband to eat frozen pizza. Not that he can't/doesn't cook, but he cooked tonight and we try to lighten the load on each other.

2) I got my first pick-up of my CSA share which was a bounty of carrots (still white, not very flavorful), celery, soybeans, radishes, bok choy, and rainbow chard. Knowing that the next few nights are busy, I feel very pressed to make use of the fresh veggies ASAP.

3) I'm feeling very wired from my 6:15 spin class. Not sure why, but sometimes exercising at night makes me very awake instead of exhausted.

4) The cold, misty rain of October has crept in on us after a second Indian Summer and I was struck by the instantaneous desire for stew.

Beef stew is so hearty and full of nostalgia. There's both Chinese beef stew and then the more European/Americanized version of it that my mother used to make on cold Autumn nights. I love both but tonight it is the heartier, beefier, thicker Americanized stew that evokes feelings of being some pioneer man coming home from tramping around in the snow, knocking the snow off his boots, and sitting down to a steaming bowl of stew that was cooked over the fireplace. Or, that is, at least what I used to pretend when I was a kid.

I still have no idea how Mom made her stew and I don't attempt to recreate it. I just remember it was so delicious and full of onions and big chunks of beef and carrots. She would toast bread and slather butter on it (one of the few times we were really into butter) and we would dip it into the stew, letting the butter melt and slip off a little while the bread got soaked.

One Halloween Mom served me and my friend the stew before we headed out for trick-or-treating. I don't remember what I was dressed up as, but my friend was a witch. She had terrible table manners and I remember seeing her look up at me with her witch's hat, a ring of reddish-brown broth stain around her mouth, and a big, happy grin as she wiped her mouth with the back of her witch's robe sleeve.

Tonight's stew (tomorrow's dinner) has the following:
Beef (top layer chuck??), cut into chunks
Carrots -- two stalks diced, the rest chopped
Celery -- two stalks minced, the rest chopped
Potato, chopped
Onion, chopped, with a handful set aside
Garlic, crushed
Parsley (fresh)
Oregano (dried)
Rolling Rock canned beer
Olive oil
Red wine vinegar
Soy sauce
Black pepper
White pepper
Corn (??)

1. Heat olive oil, throw in onions and garlic, sauté for 5 minutes
2. Add beef, stir
3. Add a little Rolling Rock, red vinegar, soy sauce, black pepper, white pepper
4. Add minced carrots, minced celery, parsley, and oregano
5. Cover and let simmer until beef tender

That's where I'm at right now. After all of that magic happens, it's just a matter of adding the carrots, celery, potatoes, and onions to cook. Then spice it up and ready to serve. I'm planning on adding some leftover couscous from last night's dinner and maybe some frozen corn. Not sure yet.

I'm also contemplating just finishing the "stock" now and then finishing the rest tomorrow morning. If I stay awake any longer I'm going to eat something regardless of how late it is b/c dang, my mouth is salivating. Those smells and memories are powerful!!

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Jambalaya, my way

A few nights ago I was awoken by an extremely aggressive lone mosquito and the intense desire for jambalaya. A strange desire, considering that I've only had the dish once in my life and that time around it wasn't even very good. But something triggered in me and all I craved was a spicy blend of sausage, rice, peppers, and tomatoes -- so badly that I couldn't sleep for the rest of the night.

The desire for the dish continued, despite several evenings of plan derailment. In fact, I was deterred from my plans for so long that by yesterday I had pretty much given up on the idea of attempting to make the dish. However, I had a horrible Tuesday full of out of control hormones and the disappointment of reality and decided that I would have to go home and do at least one thing for myself no matter how much of an effort it took.

So I stopped by the store for some groceries, was harassed by a small child in galoshes, got home, and promptly poured myself a glass of pinot noir.

Like I said, I've only had the dish once and after a minimal amount of research (aka looking jambalaya up on Wikipedia), I came up with something that hit the spot and managed to use up a bunch of ingredients leftover from other cooking endeavors that would otherwise have gone to waste in the kitchen. I also felt quite triumphant because I was able to use a can of Rolling Rock that my husband regrettably purchased months ago but has sat, undrunk/undrank, in our cupboard for quite some time.

Rice (cooked slightly al dente)
1 large onion, sliced
4 cloves of garlic, chopped
5 stalks of celery, diced
1 green bell pepper, chopped
1 yellow bell pepper, chopped
2 small tomatoes, chopped
1 package sundried tomato chicken sausage, cut to size of your desire
tomato paste
1 can very bad beer
parsley, minced
chicken stock
cajun spice
olive oil

1. Heat olive oil in a large pot. Add onions.
2. Saute onions, add garlic and celery.
3. Add sausage.
4. Add tomato paste and water down with bad beer.
5. Let this stew/cook for a while while adding salt, pepper, and cajun spice to taste.
6. Add peppers and tomatoes.
7. Add rice.
8. Add chicken stock.
9. Add minced parsley.
10. And that's pretty much it -- let cook until desired thickness and consistency.

The dish was so incredibly easy with such good results! Next time I'm going to add shrimp or scallops and possibly some beans? I'm still not sure if what I made was jambalaya, but what I do know is that it felt so good to cut and chop and just focus on cooking while forgetting about all the other crappy components of the day. Cooking/creating is therapy and thankfully, has results that can feed you for the next day or two!

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Expanding on a memory: Shepherd's Pie

When talking/writing about food, I often talk about my comfort foods, family traditions, and recipes that are reliable to me and when creating them, evoke a feeling of happiness and security. For Labor Day, I went another route -- the route of experimentation and the attempt to successfully compose a dish that is largely a mystery to me: shepherd's pie.

Shepherd's pie is actually a strange kind of comfort food for me -- it calls back to very strong memories of a time in my life that, when I think back upon it, still seems quite surreal. Between the ages of 15 and 16, I lived in the 16th arrondissement in Paris, France with my dad. My dad had been relocated there for work and his company had offered to pay for my education at a premiere American/International school. We jumped at the opportunity. Fifteen was a fascinating time for me; growing up, I was a weird kid (who's to say that I'm not anymore?) and had a hard time socializing. Moving to a new city to a new school where the kids were used to students coming and going, I had a second chance to learn and utilize social skills. Up until then, all the people I knew were from the same town and anybody who did move into our insignificant zip code were from places similar. In Paris, I met kids who came from all corners of the world, united by one quality -- we were all nomads traversing the awkward land of being an expat AND a teenager. To this day, my time in France signifies a time in my life when I learned how to open up to others and actually enjoy what happened as a result.

I had an Irish-American friend who had a lovely apartment, family, and a dog named Lucy. Going to her house always provided what I, for that year, had exchanged for my newfound surreal independence. At my modernly furnished apartment near the Roland Garros stadium, my dad and I ate our meals at a granite bar and for days at a time, he would be out of town for work. I would have the freedom to wander Paris as if it was not the City of Lights, but just some regular old humdrum city. I had my first cellphone, my first laptop, and my first allowance. I was allowed full access to the subway and free range of the city. My mother was an ocean away and I only felt her warmth over the phone. My sister was in college and my friends on the other side of my IBM Thinkpad. It was a strange, but exciting, life so when I was over my friend's house, after riding a rickety elevator to her apartment, I was thrown back into the atmosphere of family and siblings and furniture that belonged to the family.

One day her mother offered us shepherd's pie. I had never heard of such thing and expected something sweet. Instead I was amazed at the concoction I was presented. Despite always loving Chinese and other Asian cuisines by default, this so called pie brought together everything I loved about non-Asian food. Ground beef, peas, corn, buttery mashed potatoes. I was impressed.

Since that day I have probably only had shepherd's pie once or twice but it's never stuck to me the way that shepherd's pie in France did. It reminds me of so much goodness -- the home of my friend, the experience of that year, the exploration into new relationships, foods, tastes, and cultures. I think because that experience was so unique to itself, I never attempted to make shepherd's pie although I have certainly thought about it.

However, when my husband (b/c I have one now) suggested it for a dinner, I decided I would go for it. Fundamentally shepherd's pie is basic and easy; there can't be too much of a challenge to it. Some of the recipes I researched called for canned vegetables and canned mushroom soup while others called for elk or crushed fennel. I read through a bunch of recipes before heading out the grocery store. The results of my grocery/ingredient list were:

- 1 pound ground beef
- 1 large and 1 small white onion
- 2 large carrots
- frozen peas
- frozen corn
- frozen french cut green beans
- 4 cloves garlic
- tomato paste
- 6 russet potatoes
- rosemary
- parsley
- dried oregano
- butter
- milk
- regulars: salt, pepper, olive oil
- Worcestershire sauce
- soy sauce

This was something that definitely requires prep work. Can't cut and cook at the same time. It takes a while, but it ultimately makes the experience more cohesive.

1. Chop onions and carrots.
2. Mince garlic.
3. Peel potatoes. Cube.
4. Mince rosemary and parsley.
5. Microwave frozen peas, carrots, and green beans. Drain.

1. Heat up olive oil in a large and deep sauté pan. Add onions, garlic, and carrots (in succession with a little bit of time between each addition). Salt and pepper.
2. Add ground beef and brown (10 minutes).
3. Meanwhile, boil potatoes in salted water until soft (10-20 minutes, depending).
4. When ground beef is browned, drain (but retain) the juice.
5. Return beef to heat, add tomato paste and spices. Add Worcestershire sauce, soy sauce, dried oregano, salt, and pepper to taste. Simmer.
6. When the potatoes are soft, drain water (a little left over is okay). Add about 3 tablespoons butter (or more, depending on preference and quantity of potatoes), salt, and pepper to potatoes and mash. After mashed, add milk and whip. I learned from my dad to always soften and thin your potatoes with milk. No water!
7. Preheat oven to 375 degrees F.
8. The ground beef should have little juice -- if there is any, drain it. Spread the ground beef as the first layer.
9. Add the second layer: the mix of peas, corn, and green beans.
10. Using a spatula, dollop the mashed potatoes as the third layer. Be sure to dollop and then smooth out the potatoes, otherwise, the veggies will mix into the mashed potatoes and ruin the layered effect. Use a fork to make a nice cross hatch design. (I'm not sure what purpose this serves other than aesthetic, but it's definitely worth it!)
11. Pop into the oven for 30-35 minutes.
12. Meanwhile, return the juice from the ground beef to heat. Add a little more Worcestershire sauce, soy sauce, salt, and pepper. Mix some cornstarch with water and whisk into the juice (for gravy, duh). Whisk.

The result was quite beautiful and delicious. I was very happy with the results and found a great satisfaction in taking a memory and expanding on it.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Every now and then

For a while I used to think that I was the only one who did this: buy instant ramen and then add an egg and veggies for an almost instant meal. I kept this meal a secret because as someone who believes in a) the beauty of real cooking, b) fresh, healthy ingredients void of corn syrup and things I could not pronounce, and c) never eating a meal that comes out of a box/packaging (unless you're an astronaut), here I was buying ramen that is 3 for a dollar (!!!) and actually eating that for a meal. There was always a lot of guilt and secrecy when I snuck into the neighborhood Foodtown and picked up the ramen.

However, I think one night I tipsily let it slip to my friends that this is what I was eating during a week or two dry spell of cooking. To my amazement, I was NOT the only one who was and has done this. Apparently everybody knew about "fancy ramen" and my shame began to dissipiate. However, I did recognize that the 3 for a dollar ramens you buy in the grocery store are packed with MSG and lots of other unknowns so I decided to head to the HMart in Ktown and look for a ramen that was perhaps slightly more authentic and a little bit more made for the Asian palette.

I have yet to find an instant ramen that lacks MSG but I did discover Shirakiki Japanese Style Noodle which has less MSG than others and all the ingredients I can pronounce and know what they are. And to top that, it tastes awesome and in the directions encourages that you add vegetables and other things to amplify the taste of the noodles! Packaging that alleviates guilt! Amazing.

So here it is, a confession: I eat meals out of packages. Sometimes I'm just too tired, too hungry, too lazy, or too annoyed to actually get out the cutting board, knives, pans, and ingredients to make myself a meal. And now that I've worn my stomach on my sleeve about it, I discover that thousands of others are doing the same too! So right now I'm enjoying a big bowl of this instant ramen that I made when I got back from my run. I had come home and was shaking out of hunger and had begun to start the task of making a meal and then decided, what the hell, every now and then it's okay to eat this junk and it's not even entirely junk when you add an egg, two handfuls of spinach, and top it with some kimchi.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Color me curry

Weekends of sun and nothing to do but lounge around and eat are my favorites. Last Saturday, as if to taunt us later during this miserable gray and cold week, was frigid but blasted with sunshines. Andrew and I lazed around the house until we started hankering for some food. I was hit by the desire for waffles, so of course I jumped onto Yelp and found a diner just a few blocks north with rave reviews for their waffles and prices. I scarcely travel north of my apartment even though I know Washington Heights is full of good food and every time I do wander north, I'm reminded by just how much I need to take the time out to explore my hood and its surrounding area!

We ambled over to Coral Diner where I was delighted with the quiet upstairs space and dreamed of days I could spend reading and studying there with an endless cup of coffee and the option to satisfy whatever study-worthy craving I was hit with (when I work, I incessantly snack). I had a delightful waffle -- fluffy on the inside with the right amount if crisp on the outside drowned with a little too much syrup (that warranted a raised eyebrow and comment from my ever loving fiance). Andrew had a burger which he said was good but I didn't try it -- although I did eat all his fries when he went to the bathroom. I can't even really remember what we talked about but it was just a perfect happy diner moment with a kid peeking at us from the booth behind us.

There we decided to invite Andrew's friend Ryan over to the apartment for dinner (yes, we're the kind of people who plan our next meal while we're eating our current meal -- I get it from my grandmother, that's for sure). Ryan grew up with Andrew but I had never met him. Regardless, he's been helping us out with our wedding website (along with two other friends) and has done such a great job for us. I decided on something hearty and something I hadn't done in a while -- curry.

I don't really know where I got my curry recipe from but I think I'm just combining all of my favorite elements of different curries I've had to come up with some mutt curry that really satisfies my palette. We walked off our heavy brunch to my neighborhood C-Town, a grocery store that I've always seen but never been into. It wasn't too bad and we made some friends (aka a mustachioed lady who butted into our conversations and made Andrew reach for things for her) and I was pleased with their bunches of fresh basil with the roots still on them.

Ryan came over when I was on my 3rd glass of Chardonnay and the curry was simmering on the stovetop. It was so nice to finally meet him and for some reason, I like seeing Andrew in his element with his friends -- reconnecting, planning a camping trip, talking about things that don't necessarily involve me. The curry was served over brown "Texmati" rice (Texas-grown brown basmati?) and I don't even know if the guys liked it but I was happy, although I could have probably done with more coconut milk.

After dinner I felt like we were lacking a dessert, especially because Ryan had brought a wonderful sparkling wine to celebrate (belatedly) our engagement. So I dashed outside, grabbed a brownie mix, whipped that up, burned myself on the oven, and voila -- dessert for everybody. Sometimes you got to just go with the flow and make something out of a box.

And that, my friends, is a good day. Sleep, eat, cook, drink, eat. Happy happy, color me curry!

- Chicken breast, cubed
- Golden potatoes, cubed
- Carrots, peeled, cubed
- Red pepper, seeded and diced
- Spanish onion, sliced thinly
- Frozen peas
- Garlic, minced
- Coconut milk (2-3 cans)
- Curry powder
- Chili powder
- Black pepper, fresh ground
- Salt
- Fresh basil
- White cooking wine
- Olive oil

1) Marinate chicken breast in white wine.
2) Heat oil in a large pot that will accomodate the curry. Add garlic.
3) Add onions, cook for 3-5 minutes.
4) In a separate pan, heat olive oil and add cubed chicken. Cook through. Add to pot.
5) Add potatoes and red pepper.
6) Add coconut milk.
7) Add spices to taste (I'm pretty heavy with them b/c the potatoes will soak up a lot of the flavors).
8) Simmer on low heat until potatoes nearly cooked through.
9) Add carrots, frozen peas, and basil.
10) Simmer until ready to serve.
11) Simmer over white or brown rice (brown is better!). Serve with Sriracha!

It is really simple and straightforward and therefore, can very easily become bland. It is important to balance the tastes and flavors -- this is definitely something that you have to keep on taste testing and tweaking.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Friends, Fajitas, and Feeding

There is a man named Jorge Munoz who, for the past 7 years, has been cooking and delivering hot, fresh, and free meals to migrant workers in Jackson Heights, Queens every single night at 9:30PM. My fiancé Andrew, our friend Jon, and I have visited him a few times with donations of rice, oil, sugar, pasta, and other staples in bulk. Since he cooks upwards to 140 meals a day, Jorge is in constant need of donations.

It’s been a few months since we’ve brought any donations to Jorge so last Tuesday night, Andrew, Jon, and I went to visit him. Jon, who also happens to be an amazing photographer, just returned from nearly 3 months in Central America working with several NGOs. Since Jon just got back and I wanted to hear his stories (and compare, since I studied abroad for a semester in Central America), I had them over for dinner beforehand.

Andrew came up with the genius idea of FAJITA NIGHT and we all simultaneously salivated over the idea and got really excited. I sent the guys a grocery list and by 5:30PM my stomach was grumbling with anticipation and hunger. Andrew and Jon pulled up to the front of my office just as I was leaving and when I got in, I remembered that my friend JC (also my best friend in the Peace Corps) had just gotten back from her Spring Break trip to Guatemala that morning at 3AM. I figured she must be exhausted and not at all in the mood for cooking dinner, plus it would be fun for all of us to talk about our shared experiences. So I called her and it worked out perfectly, she was just leaving work and walking on the street that we were going to drive down. We managed to scoop her off the street and brought her to my apartment for the commencement of Fajita Night.

It. Was. Amazing. Andrew marinated the steak in soy sauce, pepper, fresh garlic, garlic powder, cornstarch, and fresh lime juice. That sat for about an hour in the fridge while I prepared the rest. For the pico de gallo, I threw together chopped tomatoes (with the pulp removed), chopped red onion, a few cloves of garlic (minced), cilantro, sweet yellow corn, and a finely chopped hot pepper. I added some salt, ground black pepper, and because I simply cannot resist the allure of Asian ingredients, two capfuls of Marukan sweetened rice vinegar. I served my guests some Jameson on the rocks and demanded JC stir the pico de gallo. I think she was okay with that.

Then I thinly sliced up white onion, green peppers, and red peppers. This was thrown into a pan of hot olive oil and cooked until the onions were translucent. I sprinkled a generous amount of cumin and Korean red pepper and salted to taste. Shortly afterwards, Andrew cubed the steak and cooked the steak to perfection using the skillet I had cooked the onions and peppers in. Meanwhile, we heated up the authentic soft corn tortillas – it is so essential to a successful fajita night to have proper corn tortillas.

(thanks for the photo, jon!)

The house was alive with chatter about our travels, shared experiences, unique experiences, and just a general, happy camaraderie. There is such joy and satisfaction in having a nice, lovely home full of wonderful, interesting people while the rooms fill up with the smells of homemade meal. When everything was ready, we gathered round my tiny table and gobbled fajita after fajita, relishing in the fresh ingredients, the perfectly tender and marinated beef, authentic corn tortillas, and the sheer bliss and privilege of being able to make good, wonderful food in abundance. In the end we could have all eaten 5 more but alas, the food came to an end.

With great satiated effort, we cleaned up, wiped down, and then packed ourselves into Andrew's truck. We dropped (an exhausted) JC off and then headed out to Jackson Heights to help out Jorge, the man who remembers how food feeds not only the hungry belly but also the weary soul. His cooking has united him with these men and because I know that they are here to eat, not to make conversation, I stand aside and watch the way food and feeding unites people, ties them together, shows our universality.