Tuesday, September 14, 2010

a thought from mark bittman

ah, the joys of a food processor. i dream of the day i own a state of the art food processor.

September 14th's "The Minimalist:"

The Food Processor: A Virtuoso One-Man Band

i will most definitely make dumplings all the time as soon as i own one of these puppies.

there are few more pleasurable things in life than a sharpened knife

tonight i took a break from my routine of work, post-work errands, home, crash, sleep and actually came home at a decent hour. my roommate from the month i lived in a barrio in managua, nicaragua during a semester abroad is crashing on my couch tonight so i felt like it would be a good time to cook dinner in large proportions, to feed both me, her, and me in the next few nights.

the menu: broccoli steamed (not really sure what my methodology qualifies as) with garlic, eggplant with garlic and hoisin sauce, cashew chicken with red peppers, and couscous and scallions (i don't eat rice). this is, obviously, influenced by the years i spent around a chinese dinner table.

first and most importantly was the glass of chardonnay that i was hankering for all day -- it was a very long tuesday that was preceded by a very long monday. you can always start a meal right by having taken the time to pour yourself one.

the menu seems complex but is really rather simple and i think i threw it together in about 30 minutes (give or take, as it was a bit impeded by the drinking). i don't eat rice (only on rare occasions), so i replace rice with couscous.

broccoli and garlic:
heat olive oil
add chopped garlic
add broccoli crowns
add water
add salt
add soy sauce paste
add white pepper
cover with lid and let steam/cook until broccoli is crisp but cooked through

eggplant with hoisin sauce:
slice eggplant into bite size pieces (i like to slice width wise into rings and then quarter the rings)
heat olive oil
add chopped garlic
add eggplant
add water if necessary
add a pinch of coarsely ground black pepper
let eggplant cook until soft
add hoisin (i like lee kum kee) sauce (2-3 tablespoons)
let cook until eggplant is cooked through and soft
add tablespoon or so of cornstarch, stir
cook until cornstarch is mixed with sauce

cashew chicken with red peppers:
cube organic, boneless chicken breast (1-2 pieces), place in bowl
add chardonnay
let the chicken and chardonnay sit for at least 10-20 minutes (prepare the chicken first, then do all the other dishes before preparing the cashew chicken with red peppers dish)
in the meantime, dice red peppers
add a tablespoon or two of cornstarch to the chicken and chardonnay, stir until cornstarch is dissolved
heat olive oil
add a small amount of minced garlic
add chicken, cook until about 2/3 done
add red peppers
add a few dashes of soy sauce, a generous amount of sesame oil, a hint of sweetened rice vinegar
add cashews
stir until chicken is cooked through

couscous with scallions:
pour a cup (or whatever quantity you so desire) of couscous into a bowl
set an equal amount of water to boil
thinly slice a stalk of scallion (green onion)
add half to the boiling water, the other half to the uncooked couscous
when the water boils, add to the couscous
let sit for 5 minutes
add olive oil
fluff with fork

serve all the dishes together, family style preferred. with wine, even better.

thoughts: next time i might add slices of chicken or tilapia (with cornstarch, to keep it from flaking) to the eggplant. or maybe even shrimp! i had shrimp in my freezer (deal: $5.99 a pound!) but i was too lazy to thaw/defrost it.

make sure your knife is super sharp, it makes everything ten times more pleasant.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

tonight i hate cooking

sometimes the stars are misaligned and things just don't go well. or sometimes you're just so freakin' hungry and weak from the hunger that cooking is the most daunting task and once you lose your focus, everything goes reeling out of control.

i'm sitting here trying to eat this bowl of peanut butter sesame noodles with carrots, cucumbers, and eggs but the cooking experience was just so irritating that i've lost my appetite.

after work i went for a run and during the entire run all i could think about was food and how hungry i was because i really didn't have much to eat today (coffee, soup, granola bar). at around 96th street i decided that i was done and was set on making these noodles, so i headed back to 62nd and forced myself to do some long-procrastinated errands before i stopped by whole foods for the few ingredients i needed to make dinner.

when i got to the columbus circle whole foods, it was -- as always -- swarming with people and i began to feel weaker and weaker as the run and the low caloric intake caught up with me. i circled around and around looking for cucumbers until i finally gave up and asked. i was pointed in the right direction but they were buried under a whole bunch of eggplants and when i finally got to them (having first knocked over three or four eggplants and bumped into people with my gym bag, bags from the pharmacy, and dry cleaning) they were sad and wrinkled and old. i finally found the best of the worst and then went in search of bean sprouts but for the life of me could not find them. i finally gave up my search even though i had a deep hankering for them and proceeded to get a bottle of sparkling water, scallions, and eggs. then i stood in line for 20 minutes just to buy these 4 damn ingredients. i was already feeling annoyed.

when i got home, the third floor walk up seemed to be equal to everest and when i finally got inside i practically collapsed. at this point i really should have just eaten the leftover pizza in the fridge (trust me, i don't always cook) but i was on this weird psycho mission to cook dinner. when i finally set some water to boil i got started but then my phone kept on ringing and dropping calls and making beeps and clicks at me -- sometimes i feel too connected to the world and hate that my phone has to remind me every time i have a call, text message, BBM, instant message, Facebook message, etc. i also hate that i don't know how to ignore it and i allow it to drive me batty.

as i progressed in my cooking, i just got more and more irritated as my foot started to itch and i couldn't unitch it and then i remembered that i don't have a vegetable peeler (how have i survived without one for so long??). i couldn't julienne fine enough and i kept dropping things and then i scalded the eggs. the peanut butter wouldn't thin and my foot kept on itching. i mean, it couldn't be THIS DIFFICULT when this is supposed to be a fast and easy meal!!!! by the time i finally finished cooking i hated my life and food and everything and that's when i started writing this. but then my hunger took over my hate and i scarfed it down and while the veggies are a bit on the large side, it's not bad.

well, that's that and i'm feeling better now and if the starts were aligned and my foot wasn't so damn itchy, this is how you would do it:

chinese style noodles (by this i mean the thick, "homemade" style kind)
organic, pure crunchy peanut butter (no added sugar)
bean sprouts
1 clove of garlic
rice vinegar
soy sauce
sesame oil

1) boil water for noodles. cook noodles according to package. when noodles are cooked, drain and toss with a generous amount of sesame oil.
2) peel and julienne carrots and cucumbers. be sure to de-seed the cucumbers before julienning (i like to cut it in half lengthwise and scoop out the seeds with a teaspoon). set aside.
3) use some of the boiling water to thin the peanut butter. stir the peanut butter until it reaches a thin, creamy consistency.
4) mince garlic. add to peanut butter.
5) heat a medium skillet and bring the heat to low. crack the eggs, beat, and pour onto the skillet, spreading it out thin and evenly on the skillet. pop any bubbles that form and let the egg run through the holes to create a fluffy egg pancake. remove from heat and cut into strips.
6) put the noodles into a large bowl and add peanut butter sauce. add a few capfuls of rice vinegar (according to taste) and a few dashes of soy sauce. toss the noodles.
7) top the noodles with the carrots, cucumbers, and eggs.
8) chop up the scallion and add to the noodles.
9) serve with a dollop of sriracha on the side, according to preference.

if you don't drop anything and scald the eggs and fail in every single way possible, this should take no more than 20 minutes to do. fast and easy and healthy -- especially if you use peanut butter with no added sugar. i like the bits of peanut in the crunchy peanut butter but if you don't like that texture, using creamy peanut butter would serve better. in the past i've also included slices of golden mushroom and boiled chicken but that's under ambitious circumstances and clearly, today, just making dinner was an ambitious goal in and of itself. yeesh.

Hamburgers for the in-laws

Last Sunday, my boyfriend proposed to me during a lovely outing to The Cloisters and since then life has been a flurry of activity as we get prepared to throw the biggest party of our lives. Of course we are very focused on making sure that the food and drink is amazing (and, you know, that we're well prepared for marriage!), but in the meantime we needed to have an "in-law convention" and figure out our budget, game plan, and guest lists.

My parents volunteered to host the convention at their lovely house in Princeton, NJ and Andrew suggested that he and I cook dinner for our prospective future in-laws. This was a very nerve-wracking idea but at the same time, I felt like it would show our sincerity and it would be a nice gesture. At first we had some grandiose ideas of steak and homemade gnocchi and then I contemplated a Chinese-style beef noodle stew but all of these things would wind up being too stressful for something already kind of stressful so we decided to go a bit more low-key and Labor Day appropriate and went with hamburgers, potato salad, and clams casino.

It was a lovely and perfectly temperate day and when we got to the house, my mom was already bustling in the kitchen preparing a beautiful fruit salad. She had champagne grapes, red grapes, strawberries, green grapes, and slices of mango artfully placed in a glass bowl and she quipped that while she doesn't really like to cook, she certainly loves to arrange. There was also boiled peanuts (very Chinese) and steamed edamame to entice our appetites. AND of course their fridge was stocked with beer and we had our choices of Yeungling, Red Stripe, and Corona.

Cooking in their kitchen was a welcome change from my itty-bitty kitchen in Harlem and there was plenty of room to move around and loads of counter space to prepare on. It was a fun environment as we all had our individual cooking projects but we talked and bantered and it was one of those quintessential bonding-in-the-kitchen moments.

To begin with, my dad provided a couple of bottles of wine (including a stellar riesling) from his increasingly stellar wine collection as well as amazingly delicious hamachi kama (Japanese cuisine: the grilled jaw/cheek of yellowtail tuna) served with ponzu and scallions for an appetizer. This is one of our family's all time favorite foods and apparently we even get these cuts of tuna from a special dealer -- you can't just get them in the store. My dad lived in Japan for a while when he was a young boy so he is well versed in Japanese cuisine and it is always such a special treat when we have hamachi kama. It is a meal in and of itself!

Following the hamachi kama were Andrew's clams casino and I wish I had paid more attention (but I couldn't because I was preparing food too) to what he was doing because it was a symphony of tastes and I couldn't get enough. I don't know much about seafood, especially products with shells and this was thoroughly impressive. What was even more impressive was that he managed to portion it all perfectly; a common problem that I face is that I always make too much or too little but he managed to have the exact amount of everything. I am so grateful that I will be marrying a man who can cook.

My contribution was the hamburgers and potato salad -- once again, two dishes that I know are a sure thing because I've done them on numerous occasions. One thing that I've learned over the years is that when you need to 100% impress, go with something you know you can do. Friends are always a good guinea pig group, but future in laws seems like an audience that you should feed with confidence.

My hamburgers are a hit at home but this was the first time I was making so many patties so, in true Angelica fashion, I once again over estimated and wound up buying nearly 4 pounds of ground Angus beef. This resulted in 12 patties! As always, I never really know how much of everything I put into my food, I do it by feel, taste, and knowing my ingredients. So first I took the ground beef and dumped it into a large mixing bowl. Then I took a bag of Cape Cod reduced fat kettle chips (reduced fat is better because there is less salt) and smashed them up into fine crumbs. I use these as a kind of breadcrumb and also in this way, I don't actually ever have to add salt to the mix (which I feel like sucks out the moisture in the meat). Following this, I minced up about half a bulb of garlic and 2/3 of a large yellow Spanish onion (or a small one, I guess). The last main component is chopped portobello mushrooms (I prefer mature portobellos, not baby bellas). I don't really skimp on any of these ingredients as they really provide taste and texture to the burgers. Of course the main star is the beef, but I would say that for 2 parts beef there is 1 part onion and 1 part mushroom.

Into this mix I added soy sauce paste (I like Wan Ja Shan), Worcestershire sauce, red pepper flakes, ground black pepper, minced fresh parsley, and a generous dose of finely grated parmesan cheese. Three eggs were beat and then added for cohesion and then I mixed this all up by hand, trying to avoid handling it too much because I've heard that the more you handle it, the less likely it will stick well in patty form. I usually then take a small sauce pan and heat it up and taste test -- I very rarely get the right taste down on the first try so I'll cook up a small amount and then add more of the sauces and spices until it tastes just right. After everything was mixed up, I let it refrigerate for at least an hour. Dad grilled these babies up and we topped them with Swiss cheese, onions, romaine lettuce, and tomatoes.

The side dish was potato salad -- simple, but certainly not the healthiest! First I set a pot of salted water to boil and then I take russet potatoes (5 -- again, overdoing it) and chop them up into small cubes. When the water boils I dump them in and let them get soft but not so soft that when I later stir them they become mashed potatoes. You still want some form of the cube so keep an eye on them and don't let it over boil. In the meantime, I hardboiled 5 eggs (set salted water to boil, then add the eggs and let boil for 10 minutes, drain afterwards). When they were cool, I peeled them and cut them up into cubes. I then boiled (briefly) carrots and frozen peas. (When short on time, frozen peas and carrots are fine, but for some reason I prefer to boil my own carrots, but peas are great either fresh or frozen.) I also chopped up some Yellow Spanish onion and a bunch of mini pickled gherkins (aka cornichon). I also usually cube some ham but this time around we had dashed around the grocery store and it was the one ingredient I forgot. When the potatoes were ready, I drained them and added in all the just mentioned ingredients, along with a generous heaping of mayonnaise and dijon mustard. I added ground pepper and minced parsley for taste and mixed it all to the desired consistency. Something to remember is that the more you stir, the creamier it gets. After everything was all mixed up, I threw this into the fridge until sufficiently cold.

So we feasted like kings and followed it all up with tiramisu and tea for dessert. It's a surprise that after all of this we were able to stay awake to discuss the logistics of the impending wedding. If one thing is for sure with my future in-laws and my parents, it's that neither Andrew nor I will let the other starve! It was a perfect Labor Day meal that reflected both our American and Chinese/Asian tastes. Moreover, since I live in the city now, it was the rare chance to have something grilled. I love the smell of a charcoal grill and it certainly felt like the last hurrah of Summer, as some trees are already changing color. Soon it will be pies and stews and hot pot and turkey. How time flies, and the craziest part -- by next Labor Day, I will be married!