Macaro/ons

Macarons

I first learned what macarons were last summer, when my friend Anne mailed me a box of them.

“Whaaat?” She had said. “You’ve never had one?”

I had maybe had the distinction between them and regular two-o macaroons explained to me once. Macaroons, with two os, are dense and squishy and made with coconut and almond extract. Macarons, with one o, are light, tender meringue-and-almond-flour cookies filled with a buttercream, chocolate ganache, or fruit filling.

The French macaron is a marvelous cookie. So is the not-French macaroon. That’s why I made both of them. A lot of food writers get really breathless over macarons, and I can see why. They’re expensive! They’re cookies with status: pedigreed pastry. They’re aloof, ethereal, and delicate, kind of like elves, or the idle rich. They’re also a pain in the ass to make.

I’d never made either style of macaro/on before writing this entry, and I must say, despite having my ten minutes of frustration with the double-os, they were nothing compared to the befuddling difficulty of the single-o macaron. The learning curve of the macaron is the Cliffs of Insanity from The Princess Bride.

I didn’t innovate anything you’ll see here; I don’t want it to seem like I wrote any of these recipes. The best I can do is gather together the hard-won experience of having made 70-plus macarons. I hope only to mitigate the frustration inherent in this kind of difficult artisan baking.

I am, at heart, a do-it-yourselfer. I tend to sniff at the notion that any and all difficult tasks are best left to professionals. I don’t mean to imply that I could perform open-heart surgery, or build a modern car. But I can disassemble a chicken carcass, and bake bread, which are two fairly simple tasks that most people outsource to entities outside the home. I nibbled the macarons Anne sent me and thought, “Hell. I could make those!”

I was right. I could make those. You can, too. But be warned, reader. Macarons are hard. They, like all pastry, are delicious because they’re made of labor. And you’re unlikely to catch me making them again, unless someone is paying me.

I made chocolate ones with Anne, several months after she first sent me that little box of deliciousness. Bakers use macarons to show off; they’ll work in all sorts of magical, floral flavors like rose hip and lavender. Anne and I filled half of our chocolate macarons with a straight chocolate ganache, and the others with a chocolate-blackberry buttercream. No photographic evidence of these exist, as we ate them all.

About a month later, my friend Kevin and I decided to attempt to recreate the magic, this time with lime and blueberry curd-filled shells, and using this recipe, except replacing ‘meyer lemon’ with ‘lime’, natch.

Here’s a step-by-step elucidation of the process.

Overall, when you make macarons, you want to be as hands-off as possible. Let them do their own thing. Leave them alone. Don’t fuss over them, but merely execute your duties to the macarons in a professional way, and they’ll probably come out right. Use a light, even hand.

Making the meringue: some recipes seem to call for cream of tartar, some don’t. I used an eighth of a teaspoon, though this recipe didn’t call for it. When you’re beating egg whites by hand, I say go for it; it’ll keep your eggy peaks nice and firm.

An important note about egg whites: when the recipe says to age the egg whites at room temperature for a day or so, do it. That’s not silly talk. The macarons I made with Kevin using aged egg whites, and the macarons he and I made using last-minute oops-we-screwed-up-the-second-batch fresh-from-the-fridge egg whites were significantly different; the former were much more well-behaved. I just put them in a little covered container on the counter a few days before. Why do it? I think it’s because egg whites whip higher when they’re at room temperature, just like they whip a little higher with the introduction of an acid (like potassium bitartrate/cream of tartar). It has something to do with enhanced protein coagulation; don’t ask me, I’m not a chemist. (But if I were, I’d just chuckle wryly and say it’s just a fact of human denature. Okay sorry moving on.)
Eggsceptional jokes there, Chief.

Having never made a meringue before, Anne and I, that first attempt, were unsure of what ‘stiff peaks’ might entail. I know this sounds snotty, but you’ll know when you hit stiff peaks. You don’t want to overwhip your whites, but an excellent indication that you’ve gotten the whites to the desired consistency is that you can hold the bowl full of meringue above your head, upside-down, and nothing will move. Feel free to try less extreme versions of this test, although I hear egg protein is excellent for rejuvenating the follicles.

That looks like Conan's hair.  Or Astro Boy's.

Mixing the macaron batter: just as when you might make an angel food cake, it seems to be the general consensus to use as few strokes as possible when incorporating the dry ingredients into the wet ones. This would be the point where you’d add your food coloring, if applicable.

And they say there's no blue food.

Pipe the batter into freezer bags, because who needs pastry bags? (Not I! But then, I have never had the need for any of those specialized pastry-bag tips, because if I make you a cake, it’ll be frosted simply and you’ll like it, damn it, even if there aren’t any frosting rosettes on it.) Pipe out the macarons, which should be about an inch in diameter, as the food52 recipe says; leave at least two inches between each round, and then leave them alone. Don’t put them straight in the oven – just… let them sit. Let them melt and flatten and sit and dry out a bit for at least half an hour. This is part of that macarons-are-weird thing. Don’t pay them any attention; just start piping out the next batch on another cookie sheet, on more parchment paper. I happened to be dog-sitting at my parents’ house when I was making these with Kevin, so we had about a half-dozen cookie sheets to play with; by the time I’d finished piping out on the last available cookie sheet, the first set was ready to go into the oven.

You’re looking for what’s called a pied. This is not a pied.

These were supposed to be blue.  They came out grey.  And crackly.

This, however, is:

I mean.  It's not a real foot.  I'd call it a pseudopod, but amoebas have those.

The bluish ones were made with unaged egg whites; the green ones were made with aged ones.

Another important thing: you’re in no hurry to get those macarons off the parchment paper. Kevin can attest to how much wallpaper-scorching profanity shot forth from my mouth when I pulled at a whole tray of macarons and not a one of them budged – a few of them tearing in the process. Not fun. Wait for the macarons to harden and cool; let the mountain come to Muhammad, as it were.

I must have spent six hours making macarons with Kevin, and eventually it started to feel cruel. I sent him home and threw the pastry bags in the fridge, resolved to return to the darned things the next day.

And found it to be a little bit easier, honestly! Maybe I was just working on autopilot, by then, but everything seemed to go very smoothly that morning – it might have been because I wasn’t trying to work on two macaron fillings with Kevin while simultaneously trying to diagnose a host of batter-based problems. You know, that probably was it.

seriously by this point I was starting to get sick of them.

Pretty soon, I had a handy pile of the damned things built up, and I set about filling them with their various curds (don’t ask me how to make blueberry curd. It wasn’t worth it. Just make or purchase some jam. Once I get me some blueberry juice this summer, come back and ask me again about blueberry juice, and maybe I’ll have a different answer for you.).

Despite possessing inferior feet, the blue ones still tasted totally delicious.

At long last, I probably ended up w ith about 40 or 50 of the accursed things, a princely and absurd amount of macarons to have. Fortunately, my girlfriend likes them. So does Kevin. Now, at about $2.50 a pop for your smaller, patisserie-made macarons, that’d run you about $150. Making these at home cost probably under $15. So I can see the appeal. But having an enormous pile of macarons like that is sort of a devil’s bargain, because they’re so delicious, but they’re pretty much made of sugar and cholesterol. Needless to say, they were gone within the week.

It's like a carousel!  A carousel of tasty.

Anyway, to recap:

1. Age the egg whites.

2. Use cream of tartar.

3. Let the piped macarons sit for at least half an hour before baking.

4. Let the baked macarons sit for at least half an hour after baking.

5. It’s perfectly okay to do the setup, fill your pastry bags, and then chuck everything in the fridge to do the next day.

Macaroons

MacarOONs, on the other hand, are a completely different animal. The only thing they have in comon with single-o macarons is that they contain almond in some fashion; in this case, a little extract.
Ooo look at me trying to cop the food52 photo style.  Note that we don't actually use that whole coconut for anything in this recipe.

Macaroons you can be rougher with. Macaroons, I discovered, you can squish. I made these with my girlfriend Carolyn, and we used SassyRadish’s recipe, which had pleasant results once I doctored it, but I found it a bit too fiddly to my liking.

Sassyradish’s recipe calls for you to coagulate the mixture over simmering water before you form the macaroons; I’m not sure if this is necessary.

Bowl over troubled waters

I loved the flavors in her macaroons – mixing the vanilla and almond extracts is a heavenly aroma! – but after cooking the coconut/egg/sugar/extract mixture as directed over the stove (as though it were a lemon curd or a hollandaise sauce), I found that the macaroons were not terribly moist. Every other macaroon recipe Carolyn and I inspected afterwards (Lynn Rosetto-Kasper’s, Irma Rombauer’s, Martha Stewart’s) didn’t ask any pre-cooking of me; Martha Stewart’s suggests that you moisten your hands before forming each one. This is an excellent idea.

Mixy, mixy.

I had little luck with the gentle approach with these macaroons; they came out best when I compressed them well in my hands and popped them in a no-nonsense fashion onto the baking sheet.

Thumbp.

Following the advice of Samantha at the marvelous Gene’s Sausage Shop on Lincoln, I grated some white chocolate with a microplane.  Then I pressed a dimple into each macaroon, filled said dimple with the grated chocolate, and topped it with a few hulled pistachios.

I kind of want people to start using 'pistachios!' as an interjection.  "Oh, pistachios!  I left my keys in the apartment."

After I engaged in the somewhat fiddly dance of the rotating sheet pans as Sassyradish suggests, the macaroons came out light, pleasant, delicate, cirsp, and tasty.

Awww yeah.  Look at 'em go.

Now. Single-o macarons took a helluva lot more effort to express than double-o macaroons, and you can be sure that I spent about an hour making the double-os, rather than eight to ten making the single-os.

Also, being rather a messier cookie, macaroons are kinda hard to make ugly.  Check it out!  Look at how well they hold up to scrutiny:

So, of course, coconut macaroons are easier, and I gladly endorse their home construction, but meringue macarons are much, much harder, and if you want to go in after them, I advise you to set aside a whole weekend. Hell, throw a macaron party; invite three or four friends over to make them with you. Just be prepared to spend an entire day with them.

Good luck!  Stay hungry, America.

A Quick Note on Quesadillas

I’ve been taking tons of photos and writing entries long-hand in my notebook.  So there are more entries to come in this blog.

 

But I’d like to give some attention to Martha Rose Shulman’s latest entry in her Recipes for Health for the New York Times: that’s right.  Quesadillas.  As you probably do not remember, several years ago, I instituted my Kitchen Axiom Number Five: With a little imagination, anything can be a quesadilla.

It’s been borne out for me over the past set of years, but it’s always nice to see someone say, in print, “Quesadillas make a great destination for leftovers.”  Creative use of your leftovers is sensible, frugal, and sometimes unexpectedly rewarding.  Of course, everything I could say about quesadillas could be said about fried rice.  But that’s another entry.

-D

Thai Red Curry Macaroni and Cheese

Or,

Necessity is the mother of culinary insanity.

 

So I moved.  I live in the city of Chicago, now, in a lovely apartment, with a kitchen that pleases me, in a neighborhood I am swiftly coming to adore.  And last night, I did something I rarely do, which was to improvise a completely new dish.  I was half-heartedly fumbling through the kitchen for something to make for dinner around 5 PM, and I looked at the contents of my refrigerator:

  • A gallon of milk
  • half a package of shredded mozzarella from the spinach lasagna I made last week
  • approx. 2 oz of red curry paste in a little saran-wrapped cup
  • a red pepper
  • a bunch of cilantro

as well as a couple of artichokes, some carrots, and some parsnips.  I put an artichoke over a steamer (30 minutes) and made an aioli while I schemed (non-franco-traditional.  Egg and oil and tons of garlic and some dried tarragon and a little bit of coarse-grained french mustard and salt and pepper, whisked until mayonnaisey).  I figured if whatever I made for dinner completely failed, I’d at least have an artichoke to retreat to.

I did this because the idea had already begun to coalesce in my head that a macaroni and cheese dish had to happen, and it had to use the curry paste.  And this seemed to me at once a wonderful and a terrible idea.  But living in St Louis, the idea of combining thai curries and mozzarella cheese was not foreign to me, and I decided, “To hell with it!  LET’S DO THIS THING.”  To my surprise and delight, it worked.  I think the idea is to make sure not to use too much cheese, or to use any cheese more powerful than mozzarella (an aged provolone would be, I think, a terrible idea in this case).

I didn’t really write down my measurements, but for a 9×13 inch casserole pan, I can give you the approximate amounts.

The Set-Up

You will need:

  • 2 tablespoons of red curry paste (I use Maesri brand)
  • 2 tablespoons of all-purpose flour
  • 2 tablespoons of vegetable oil
  • Approx 1 & 1/2 cups milk
  • 1 cup shredded cheese
  • 1 lb elbow macaroni noodles
  • 1 red pepper, diced fine
  • 1/2 cup cilantro, chopped
  • a pot for the pasta, a 2-quart saucepan for the curry-cheese sauce, and a 9X13 casserole pan for the finished dish

The Heist

Macaroni and cheese, in its most anatomical sense, is just elbow noodles tossed with a sauce mornay, and then baked.  Sauce mornay is a béchamel with cheese in it.  A béchamel is milk with a roux in it.  If these words sound like gibberish to you, don’t worry.  I’ll decode them.  I’m also being pretty simplistic, but let’s face it, none of us are French hotel chefs, circa 1870, so I don’t think the specter of Escoffier is going to float through my door and begin thwacking me about the giblets with a rolling pin.

A roux: an equal proportion of fat and flour, cooked over low heat to crack open the starch molecules in the flour – a thickener.

A béchamel: a white sauce made by thickening scalded milk with a roux. One of the French Mother Sauces.

A sauce mornay: a béchamel with cheese in it!

So.  When you’re making a roux, it’s important to remember to cook the roux over really low heat; this isn’t the sort of thing you can just set up and walk away from – you have to keep your eye on the saucepan, and stir frequently.

Normally, when I make the sauce base for a macaroni and cheese, I start by sautéing the aromatics – the garlic and the shallots.  I can’t think of anything more aromatic than sautéing curry paste; it’s how a Real Curry begins, too.

0. Start heating your pasta water – I tend to salt mine pretty heavily, but yeah, do what you like.  Preheat your oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit.  As you make the sauce, cook, rinse, and drain the pasta.  Grease the pan.

1. Heat a saucepan and add a little oil – drop your curry paste into it and begin to poke it around with a spatula, let it sizzle for about a minute over medium heat.  Reduce the heat to medium-low and add the flour.  Stir gently, but assiduously.

You'll roux the day!

2. Eventually, your roux will turn into a sort of thick, bubbly paste.  This is good.  This is very good.  It’ll probably take about five to seven minutes for this to happen.Squinch. 3.  Add the milk.  Stir or whisk for many minutes to get the lumps out, and let it cook – don’t let it come to a boil, because you don’t want to make the milk taste funny.  It should go from looking like this:

A pan full of milk with some red lumps in it

to this: a pan full of orange stuff that is of a uniform consistency

 

4.  Stir in your cheese, and stir gently.  Add a little more milk, if necessary (or! oh ho!  some pasta water.  Added starch and a little bit of flavor.).  Cook over low heat until your sauce has reached the desired consistency – thick, but not too thick, and not too stringy, either.

5.  At this point, your pasta should be done, and your oven should be preheated (you did pay attention to instruction #0, didn’t you?  There’s no reason you can’t cook a pot of pasta while this sauce bubbles away).  Mince a red pepper very fine, mix the cheese-curry sauce with the macaroni, and throw in that red pepper, too.

God that's a lot of food.

Plop this all into your casserole pan.

6. Bake at 375 for 15 minutes, then remove and let cool.

7.  Serve with a healthy pile of cilantro, if you’re into that kind of thing.

 

and I am!

Man!  You never know what you’re going to find yourself coming up with.  The creaminess of the cheese sauce complements the sharp, poky angles of the curry paste, which has these angles of lemongrass and ginger and galangal that poke through.  It’s hot, but it’s not Too Spicy.  It’s weird! It’s adventurous.  But it turned out pretty damned good, if I do say so myself.

Give it a try!

Chicken-and-Mushroom Baozi

Or,

“Ming SIGH.”

I was really excited the first time I got hold of Ming Tsai’s Blue Ginger cookbook last year, and even moreso when I started leafing through the recipes – so many inventive fusings of high Chinese cooking and French technique – french-style braised chinese shortribs, shrimp and cabbage potstickers, duck two ways with garlicky mashed potatoes – oh, how delightful they sounded!

Imagine my disappointment when I tried to cook one of these, however, and discovered that it didn’t work as written.  Blue Ginger is a damned sloppily-edited cookbook, one of the sloppiest I’ve ever owned, to be frank.  Only by a determined application of intuition did I shape the following recipe into the dish it is supposed to be.

I know how it must be: you’re a successful chef, your restaurant’s doing well, and you’ve got a well-liked PBS TV show.  Maybe you don’t oversee the adaptation of your restaurant’s recipes to home-cook proportions.  Or maybe you’re doin’ it yourself and you haven’t hired a copy-editor.  I understand, too, that chefs are not authors and that I should afford them some slack.

However, when a recipe won’t work as printed, because of obvious clerical errors, i can’t help getting irritated.  For example, the instructions for the dough in this recipe advocate adding up to five more cups of additional water, depending on the humidity of the region.  What I think Tsai meant to say was five tablespoons.  Five cups of water in this dough would give you very thin paper-mache.

Anyway.  This is all to say that this is mostly Ming Tsai’s recipe, still, with a few emendations thrown in by yours truly.  With that in mind, let’s get a’crackin’.

So, first of all, what are baozi?  They’re those little steamed buns that you get for dim sum (AKA Cantonese brunch, AKA the greatest meal in the universe AKA get some next weekend, for God’s sake).  Usually they’ll have red-roasted pork (char siu) or shrimp or any number of other delectable fillings.

These steamed buns are chicken and mushroom.  I have been lately given to understanding that several of my friends do not like mushrooms.  I’m not sure what could be substituted here instead of mushrooms; little else approximates their meaty, woody flavor, their soft unctuousness, their delicate sylvan squish.  I dunno.  Consider tofu.  Or consider EATING MUSHROOMS.  Heretics.

Ingredients

Dough

  • 2 tbsp sugar
  • 3/4 cup warm water
  • 1 1/2 tsp active dry yeast
  • 1 1/2 tsp vegetable shortening, lard, or chicken fat
  • 1 cup whole wheat flour
  • 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

Filling

  • 2 tbsp canola/peanut oil
  • 1 tbsp garlic, chopped fine
  • 1 tbsp ginger, chopped fine
  • 1 lb mushrooms (button, crimini, shiitake or some combination thereof), chopped small
  • 1 lb ground chicken
  • 1/3 cup chopped green onion (or, as Tsai suggests, chives)
  • 1 tbsp sesame oil (or, as Tsai suggests, truffle oil)

Directions

The Dough

Note on flour: You may use all all-purpose flour if you want, but I find that the buns are a little bit TOO light and fluffy for my tastes, then.  I don’t know.  Maybe I’ve gotten too granola lately.

1. Melt your fat in the warm water, add the sugar, and then add the yeast to proof.  While you wait for this, consider grinding the chicken, if you haven’t gotten it pre-ground.

I use chicken fat as a happy medium between lard and vegetable shortening, which I like to think is a fine compromise between guilt (also known as saturated fat) and flavor.  Besides, it makes the dough itself vaguely chickeny, which I like.

2. When the yeast has proofed, add a scant teaspoon of salt, as well as the flour.  Mix until a ball forms.  If necessary, add up to 5 tbsp of water.  Let this sit while you prepare the filling, maybe about half an hour.

Lookit it grow!

The Filling

Mark Bittman recently wrote a paean to the wonders of the food processor.  Chief among his glad little cries was that he never again had to buy ground meat at the store.  He’s right.  Per pound, ground (dark meat) chicken made at home will be about $1.50 cheaper than the (generally breast meat but who’s checking besides the USDA?) ground chicken purchased at your average butcher’s counter.  And no grocery stores that I’ve ever been to grind their own chicken in-store.  It’s only beef that grocery stores process in-house, and even that’s kind of rare.

If e. coli outbreaks worry you (and they really should), stop buying factory-ground meats and grind them yourself.  Your kitchen may be messy, but it’s unlikely to contain the deadly strains of e. coli that end up being mixed into industrial-process ground beef.  Generally, there haven’t been a whole lot of chicken recalls for e. coli, but I’m not saying they don’t happen for other reasons.  So grind your own.  Hell, what were you using that food processor for, anyway?  The annual pesto-making jag?  The once-a-year latke binge?  I bet you don’t even use it to grate huge quantities of cheese, do you?

Not that I don’t advocate good and responsible knife skills, but why deny yourself the convenience of the food processor?  However, if you’re a lazy spendthrift, and you went ahead and bought pre-ground chicken (or you didn’t buy or inherit a food processor), you may disregard the preceding jeremiad, and I hope you enjoy your salmonella, you heedless son of a bitch.

If you are grinding your own, be sure not to process the chicken into a paste – I cubed mostly-thawed thighs and pulsed them until no large masses of meat remain.  You want it to be an even consistency, but you don’t want it to be a gummy, gluey mass.  Says me.

Oh but that looks ... actually quite terrifying.

Set this aside, and wash your hands, my friend.

1. Chop your mushrooms finely – ‘dice’ might be overdoing it, but you want the pieces fairly small.  (Mince, however, your garlic and ginger).  I may enjoy getting a sudden spike of aromatic exploding in my mouth, like unto a zesty grenade, but I don’t know if you do.  For even distribution, chop the aromatics nice and fine.

2. Heat a wok or a skillet and oil it once it is hot.  Quickly stir-fry the aromatics until they become fragrant – about one minute.  Then add the mushrooms.  Stir-fry 10 minutes over medium heat.  You could even turn it to low and vaguely pay attention to them, while doing other kitcheny things.  I understand that this is very un-chinese, and therefore not really stir-frying.  But I like to be gentle to mushrooms.  After all, what have they ever done to you?  Cook them until they’ve released and then reabsorbed their liquid.

Oh man that's a lotta mushroom.

3. When the mushrooms are cooked, add your choose-your-own-adventure options (that is, scallions/chives and sesame/truffle oil), and the soy.  Taste now, because you won’t be able to in a minute.

I like to add a dash or two of fish sauce, but that’s just me, bastardizing the cuisines of the world to suit my ghoulish, demoniac whims.  (Forgive me.  I just read an H.P. Lovecraft collection.)

3. Turn off the heat.  Wait five minutes for the mushroom mixture to cool. Upend the contents of the wok into a bowl, and spatulate your ground chicken into that bowl.  The chicken is raw; obviously you can’t taste your filling now.  Think of what you’ve got now as a fresh sausage filling, to be used within three days of its creation, or frozen.

Why don’t you cook the chicken with the mushrooms?  Because the buns are steamed, and it takes as long for the dough to cook as it does for the chicken to reach a safe temperature.  You also couldn’t really form the buns with cooked sausage, not as well.  And it would be overcooked and chewy and kinda gross.

Now.  You could stop here.  You don’t have to make the buns.  The filling described above makes a fantastic protein base for fried rice, for example.  You could use it anywhere you might use a pork sausage (although spaghetti sauce might be stretching it somewhat, given the flavor profile).  Less so if you used truffle oil – why would you bury that flavor?

You could make burgers from this stuff, crumble it on pizzas – I don’t konw.  Go nuts and report back to me.

Meanwhile, let us sally forth with the rest of the recipe.

Bun Assembly and Steaming

Bao dough is a yeast-risen dough, but it’s not exactly a bread.  It contains fat, but neither is it a biscuit.  It… I dunno.  It’s a bun.  I’m not sure why I brought it up; let’s move on.

1. Divide your dough into as many pieces as you can – you should be able to get about 20 to 25 balls, about 3/4-inch to 1/2-inch in diameter.  Flour a great big surface, your favorite rolling pin, and a smallish plate.  Roll out the dough into thin rounds, maybe 2 1/2- 3 inches in diameter.  Flour each one lightly and start stacking them on the plate.  This will take a while.

Floomf.  Use AP flour to roll out the dough.  Whole wheat, as I discovered, makes things a little too firm and proteiny to work with.

2. Now commence filling the buns; atop each dough round, place a teaspoon or two (no more than a tablespoon) of filling in the center, and fold the dough up around it, bunching up the folds into a neat little package.  You needn’t be fancy here; it simply has to be bunched closed.  Mine look like little hobo bindles, without the sticks.  Pinch them closed and set aside to rise.

Try not to overfill the bundles.

3. Actually, I like to let them rise on the steamer racks.  I use a cheapo bamboo steamer that I bought at a chinese grocery store (approx $15).  Admittedly, these things are sizable, so if space comes at a premium in your kitchen… I’m, uh… still working on a solution for you.

But letting the buns steam on the bamboo is a bad idea, because they’ll stick.  So what I like to do is lay down three or four pieces of Napa cabbage (or, as you can see, fork-pricked tin foil) over the steamer tray, and oil them assiduously before placing the buns on there to rise.

4. Allow the buns to rise for 30 minutes while you heat several inches of water in a large pot, big enough to place the steamer basket over.  The buns should rise a little, and maybe double in size if you’ve got ‘em in a reasonably warm place.

5. Steam for 17 minutes or so.  They’re done when the buns are glossy, and the filling is firm and cooked all the way through.  Remove the whole steamer basket assembly from atop the pot and place on a plate.  Carry this plate to the table to serve; it’s more fun that way.

Feeds four or five people quite happily for dinner, and two for dinner and again for breakfast and lunch.

Or one person for several absolutely wonderful days.

These buns freeze really, really well; simply place them on baking sheets and insert into the freezer.  Once hard, pop them off the sheets and store in freezer bags.

Well.  I’ve spent enough time workshopping this recipe.  I don’t think the buns need any kind of sauce, but I suppose if you wanted to you could whip up something with rice wine, soy sauce, pepper flakes, and scallions – I think it’s scarcely necessary, though.

C’mon copy-pasting foreign characters, go!

食飯! (sik fan; let’s eat!)

Tell me how this recipe works out for you.  I’d love to hear what you do with it.

-D

Carbonade

There is a Belgian dish, which I do not make, called Carbonade Flamande – a Flemish beer stew made with beef (the Wiki tells me that it’s Vlaamse stoofvlees in Flemish).  I make a variation.

If ever there was a meal that qualifies as Emergency Food, this is assuredly it.  The first time I made this meal in college for anyone besides myself and my carnivorous roommate was after a large outdoor concert my alma mater holds called WILD – Walk In, Lie Down.  We had returned from campus as the weather began to get nasty.  We were all going to go our separate ways for dinner when the tornado hit.  The roads were unsafe for walking, much less driving, and most of us had been drinking, and it was raining really hard.  So we decided to take shelter in my apartment.

Continue reading “Carbonade”

On the growing of things.

In the course of my brief experiment with agriculture, I have come to enjoy gardening a great deal.

IMG_8025

Indulge my bourgeois frothing for a second, please: I very much enjoy the feeling of working in the earth, of trimming and pruning and making things grow.  It is a work, it seems to me, unrivaled in its honesty; I love the idea that I can help coax something green (or red, or orange, whatever) out of the ground.  I can often be found in my garden in front of the house, filthy, on my hands and knees, coated in mud, weeding or trimming or making the dirt squish between my toes (there is something to be said for gardening barefoot.).

Okay.  Rank sentimentalism over.  However, I do not recant for a minute my belief that gardening is cheap, easy enough, and immensely enjoyable.

I began the garden in June of this year, eyeing our sandy, tufted, long-ignored lawn, with an intent to rip it all up and build a plot in its place.
“You’ll need to rent a rototiller,” my mother had said.  I was just getting established in the house, didn’t know anyone then – I asked around at the local hardware stores – the ones with nurseries – and they didn’t rent ‘em.  I’d have to drive 40 minutes into another town to rent a rototiller, spend some 80 bucks, and lug the great big thing about somehow in the spacious but relatively shallow trunk-space of my compact automobile.  This wouldn’t do.

There is a very particular kind of laziness that sets in when a man does not keep regular hours.  Don’t get me wrong: I work, but I keep no set schedule.  I have no office save for my own home, or wherever a writing surface happens to be.  This laziness compels me not to leave Michigan City just to rent a rototiller.

“Do I even need a rototiller?” I asked myself.  “Hell, what good are they, anyway?”

The gardener’s manual I bought suggested that a gardener rototill her first plot, because to till by hand on unbroken ground was a “backbreaking labor.”  Heh.

“Hell,” I thought.  “I could surely stand a little of that, couldn’t I?”  I ran over to Big Lots, bought some work gloves and a pitchfork, and made ready to strike the earth! (Sorry.)

That weird amalgam of laziness and heretofore-unblossomed cheapskatery drove me to till by hand.  I would not recommend such a chore for one person, for a garden exceeding, oh, 25 square feet.  My garden is about 30-some square feet, and, well, while my back remains unbroken, I don’t think I’d do it again so readily next time.  Lukcily, I don’t need to: the ground only needs to be broken up to a depth of about a foot the first time you till it, so I read, and after that, it’s more superficial tilling to aerate the topsoil.

Shortly after breaking ground, June 14 The completed plot, two days later - June 16

I mixed in three bags of organic soil, pitchforked it all into an indistinguishable mass, and started prepping for planting.  I also started composting around this time, rescuing lawn clippings, dead leaves, and vegetable leavings.

My garden began with four tomato plants and a dusting of herbs; a little market opened up near my house, and a woman there sold plants that she had started from seed, ready to plant.  I bought two varieties of tomato – Sweet Baby Girls (a cherry tomato), and Black Krim (a Crimean Black tomato).  I also bought three kinds of peppers – sweet bells, an unidentified chile, and habaneros.  I planted the tomatoes, caged and staked ‘em.

Well, it didn’t look like much at first.

Not much.

Some of my neighbors took to calling me Farmer Dave, though I hadn’t much to show for it (I think they were making fun of my exuberance.  I deserved it.); all I had was a scanty patch of brown dotted with green.

I decided the time was right to stake a claim on my garden as mine.  And what does a garden need?  A scarecrow!  Yes.  So I dug this old wooden goose out of the basement and installed it in the garden.  Its wings flap in the wind.  I am certain that it terrifies the crows, because I have yet to see a single one.

The red, baleful stare of don't-screw-with-me

Then the first flowers started appearing on the tomatoes!  And then tiny buds!  and then TINY TOMATOES!  HA!  Sweet victory!  “Go, go!” I cried (What.  You’re supposed to talk to your plants.  Shut up.)

The goose sees all.

Daww.  These are the Sweet Baby Girl tomatoes. This is the rather larger Black Krim.

Tiny, budding peppers!  YES.

Then I bought the cucumber plant.  You’d think this would be a zucchini story.  I bought a zucchini plant.  I planted it.  It grew.  Big whoop.

But I get the feeling that my fairly late start (mid-to-late June) has retarded somewhat the growth of my zucchini monster.  It’s still manageable, but I don’t have fruit yet; it might have to do with the heat of the late summer.  I don’t know.  I’m not an expert.

No, the beast to rear its head was the cuke, man.  I fell into my daily watering routine once the garden was laid out and planted, and sometime in July, the cucumber began to slither.  I had anticipated my zucchini doing something immense and terrible, so I planted it alone in the corner, away from the rest of the plot.  I reserved the cucumber no such space; do recall this is my first time growing anything.

Everything in the lower third of the image is CUCUMBER PLANT.  That respectably-sized fellow in the rear right is the zucchini.

Some little tendrils sprang out from the vertices of the plant, wrapped themselves into tight helixes, and spiraled up into cute green peaks.  But others lit out for open space and found it occupied, taken up by tarragon and thyme.  So the tendrils snaked ‘round the stems of these herbs and commenced throttling them.

In the cucumber I have a plant that does its own weeding.  of course, it also tried to wrap its little tentacles around its own stem.  Plants are dumb.

So I moved my tarragon over a ways, and disentangled the far reaches of the cukevines from my thyme (which, ladies, no man may steal).  Problem solved.  Except that the cucumber is, like spiky.  It has thorns!  Why did nobody tell me this?  I thought cucumbers were, like the least offensive vegetable you could grow, but the thing that sprouted forth from the spent flowerbud was this wicked green truncheon-looking thing, the sort of prop that a leather-clad prod in a bad sci-fi movie from the 80s might use to menace Kurt Russell (or perhaps Patrick Swayze, in Steel Dawn. God, what a … no, there are no words.).

SHEER TERROR.

But does not a plant have needs, like unto a man?  Doth not drink, not eat?  As far as I can tell, a plant needs nitrogen at its roots for sustenance as much as it needs water, sunlight, and oxygen.  I’m no agricultural engineer, but I think, if I remember my nitrogen cycle correctly, sympathetic fungi at the roots of a plant convert the nitrogen into other nutrients, which the roots sop up.  I think.

Anyway, my little plot was doing splendidly, but I wanted to ensure a good yield on my crops, so a few days ago, I decided to amend my soil.  I wasn’t going in for the big-bag fertilizer; it made me uncomfortable – I’m just not sure where that stuff comes from.  So, like I said, I composted, and after about six weeks, my eggshells, potato peelings, and carrot shavings had turned into rich damp earth (thanks to a plastic garbage can and a coupla handy worms.  I haven’t completed my rotating compost tumbler yet.  Patience, friends, patience.)  I layered this goop, this wet, handsome earth (and to my surprise, it smelled wonderful.   I quite liked it) atop the roots of my plants and watered it assiduously, muttering, “Drink, my children, drink!”

I am preparing to harvest my first cucumber now – it began as a terrible, spiky bolus, a wicked, prickly cactus-babe.  Now, mature, it has begun to mellow.  Its prickles have de-prickled.  Now there are only tiny bumps.

The chiles are surprisingly fiery.  And adorable.  Can you help me identify them?  The card that came with them just called them “Chili Pepper Red – HOT”.  And that’s not a thing.

IMG_8619

The first pepper I harvested!  The others have been significantly larger.

The tomatoes – the few early adopters of red faces and vine-retiring dispositions – have been the sweetest I have ever tasted.  It’s enough to make a fellow wish for a bumper crop.

IMG_8642

Beach Glass Count (I sorta slacked off with this): 202 pieces.

IMG_8278

Salsas.

Sorry about the delay, everyone!  I’m here.  I’ve been pretty busy, what with the tending of the garden, and the visiting of the friends, and all that.  But it certainly stands to reason that I should tell you how to make the guacamole and mango salsa I’d hinted at in the last entry.

It’s pretty damn simple, really.

The Way David Makes Guacamole

  • 3 avocados
  • 1/2 an onion, diced
  • a large handful of cilantro, minced
  • juice of one medium lime
  • 1 small tomato (optional)
  • a few dashes of hot pepper sauce (optional)
  • salt

1. To open an avocado: slit through the avocado with a knife, running the blade around the pit in the center.  Put the knife down.  Twist apart the halves of the avocado as though they were the halves of an Oreo cookie, and then use a spoon to pop out the pit.  (Some people thwack the pit with the knife, and twist.  I think this is rather unnecessarily dangerous.)

2.  Spoon out the flesh of the avocado, then plop it, peremptorily, into a mixing bowl.

3.  Dice an onion, bunch up the cilantro and chop it finely. At this point, it would behoove you to chop the tomato and add the hot sauce, too.  Squeeze the lime over this mixture.

This should be enough.  Maybe.   4.  Mash and combine.  I like my guacamole chunky, not smooth, so I use a potato masher to get everything smushed together, and I don’t do it for particularly long.  40 seconds at most, I should say.  Salt to taste.

I find this appealing on practically everything.

How David Makes Mango Salsa 

  • 1 ripe, fragrant, luscious mango, roughly chopped
  • 1/2 onion, chopped
  • another handful of cilantro
  • juice of a lime or two
  • 1/2 of a jalapeno pepper, seeds and ribs included
  • salt

IMG_80131.  Follow standard mango-disassembly procedures: cut off the bottom to create a flat surface.  Stand mango on its end, and slice along the large seed on either side to expose the two large lobes of flesh.  Then cut off the peel with a butter knife.  Chop the mango.  It should be kinda difficult to cut, owing to the way mangos get all slimy and unctuous when ripe.

2. Chop the onion!  Mince the cilantro.  Mince the jalapeño really small.  Dump all of this in a mixing bowl.

3. Squeeze the lime or limes over the salsa, and salt to taste.  I do think both the mango salsa and the guacamole need a little salt to really pop, but I’d understand if you were feeling salt-averse, owing to a familial tendency towards hypertension.  Compensate with more lime juice.

Mangos are probably my favorite fruit (but they exist in stiff competition with blueberries, blackberries, cherries, and peaches.), and I like them exceedingly ripe and fragrant.  If you can’t smell a mango (and, personally, I think some of the esters in there remind me of turpentine, but only inasmuch as turpentine reminds me of mango.  if that makes sense.), you certainly can’t taste it.  It should be relatively firm, but yielding. 

I don’t think I can really imagine anything that mango salsa or guacamole won’t make better.  Breakfast cereal, maybe.  Although guacamole on oatmeal would probably be delicious.

Carnitas.

So, gentle reader.  You will recall that I, at one point, possessed sixteen pounds of pork shoulder.  This was prior to the three-day power outage that ended on June the 21st, which I like to call The Great Thaw; it forced me to cook everything in my fridge.  By the time power had resumed, I had plenty of leftovers to keep cool, which was just as well.

But (you are probably slavering in desperate anticipation to know), what was it that I cooked?

Well, it’s in the title.  Carnitas.  Ay, gentle friends, it was that noble reconfiguration of pork shoulder, from raw hunks of flesh to sweet, crisp, cooked hunks of flesh – or, if you prefer, sweet, crisp, cooked stringy gnarls of flesh-fiber.

No, wait, that sounds hideous.

Let me start over.  Carnitas are delicious, dear reader.  Delicious enough that I could stand to eat them for lunch and dinner for about a week after The Great Thaw.  You know what, I’ll just shut up and show you the pretty picture, to get you to keep wanting to read:

See?  Now does it sound gross?

Now, this recipe comes from the estimable Lisa, the Homesick Texan, but she gets it from Diana Kennedy, the grande dame of Mexican cookery (she’s English.  No, I know.).  Kennedy has long been a stickler for authenticity, but Lisa does say this isn’t a particularly Michoacan recipe, because it’s not cooked in lard, or at least not in enormous, bronze kettles full of lard.  Relative merits of lard against other fats aside, I tend to perceive any lack of enormous, messy cooking vessels full of hot fat as a bonus in my kitchen, because that business is messy, and I live alone and I haven’t the patience.

I should also like to mention that this recipe is absurdly simple.  Like, leave the room-and-take-a-nap simple.  You may not believe me as of this paragraph, but this recipe is so leave-it-alone idiot-proof EASY that I could pretty much do it in my sleep.

How easy is it?  I’ll show you.

The Set-Up

you will need:

  • a dutch oven or other 6-quart cooking vessel
  • 2-3 lbs of pork shoulder, cubed (or an equivalent weight of chicken thighs, boned and skinned, though not cubed)*
  • 2 tsp salt
  • 1 cup orange juice (I prefer mine pulpy and without added calcium.  That stuff tastes faintly chalky and after cooking with several varieties, I think an unadulterated, pulpy grovestand-style orange juice fits the bill for this recipe.)
  • 3 cups of water

And that’s it.  Any other amendments that you’d like to make (say, cumin, chile powder, coriander, whatever) are yours to choose.  It’s great as it is, but you can change it.  Go ‘head.  I trust you.

Now, on to making the damn thing.

The Heist

1. Place 6-quart dutch oven on stove.  Add pork, water, orange juice, and salt.  Stir gently, and place under medium-high heat.

It is perfectly acceptable to use meat straight from the freezer

2. Bring the pot to a boil, and then simmer uncovered for the next hour and a half to two hours, depending on how big your chunks of pork are.  If you’re using chicken, you can probably cut this time to about an hour and twenty minutes.  What you’re looking for is complete collagen breakdown; when fished out of the broth, a piece of meat should be extremely soft and tender.  The fat should have no bite to it whatsoever: it should be squishy.

You shouldn’t lose more than an inch or so of water.

It should go from this to this!

And don’t stir it.  Don’t do anything to the cookpot.  Just let it bubble quietly.

3. After the meat has reached the desired consistency, it’s time to get rid of all the liquid!  The pork cooks two ways in this carnitas recipe: it is first stewed, and in this stewing, some of the fat renders out.  Then, in the second stage of cooking, the carnitas crisp up in their own fat.  It’s sort of like an inverted braise.  In braising, you sear first, and then stew, like you would for a beef bourgignon or a goulash.

So.  Crank up the heat once again under the carnitas, and boil off all the liquid.  Or at least, begin to. You’re gonna want to let it go crazy for about thirty to forty-five minutes, but check on the levels from time to time.  Once the liquid has reduced by about three-quarters, bring the heat back to medium-low.

Note how opaque the liquid is.  See the following.

Once the liquid starts getting opaque, that’s when you want to start hovering over the pot, at medium-low heat, to watch and make sure you’re not burning anything.  That opacity quickly becomes clear, rendered fat.

IMG_8010

4. Once the water’s all gone, and the liquid fat has clarified, bring the heat as low as it goes.  Brown in fat by stirring very, very gently.  Now, you could go two ways here: you could leave the carnitas in chunks (the Texan way), or stir it ‘round the pot to get it into those wondrous, stringy fibers.

Important note: the following picture is only of a small sample, set aside to be stirred and stringified.  You lose a good amount of mass in the carnitas through cooking – they lose a good amount of water – but not as much as this picture would suggest.  (Thank you to Josh, for pointing out the visual discrepancy.)

much like that.

Serve on warm corn tortillas with guacamole, sour cream, mango salsa, and tons of fresh cilantro.  (Guacamole and mango salsa recipes forthcoming.)

It’s a beautiful thing.

* a note on fat: Pork shoulder is among the fattier cuts of pork commonly available to the home cook (though it’s got nothing on belly, which I haven’t even attempted to buy or cook yet), and you will find a great thick layer of fat, most times, on the underside of the roast, which is actually the skin-facing-side.  It’s about an inch or so of subdermal fat, and, in the context of this recipe, it is your friend.  When trimming the shoulder, reserve about a handful of small pieces of fat and throw them into the pot with the leaner tissue.  You need a little bit of pork fat for this dish to be successful, and that should just about do it.  Throw out or save the remaining fat, as is your wont.

We have home-brew!

48 bottles of beer in my basement; 48 bottles of beer...

A fuller post to come; I’m spending this Independence Day weekend with my friends Rafa and Becca.  They’re coming up here to celebrate the Fourth of July, and I probably won’t be blogging much until after the weekend.

But I bottled it!  I bottled the beer, a process which was laborious, messy, and fun.  The floor of the kitchen ended up coated with a thin film of beer, which I then spent the next several hours mopping.

You may call me Grand High Poobah and Chief Bottle-Washer

But I’ve got beer!  I brewed it, I bottled it, I even tasted some!

I felt so cool, siphoning beer out of a giant plastic bucket into a mug.  Made me feel like... like a man. 

And, holy crap, it tastes like beer!  It’s not really and truly Ready To Drink yet, because I have to let it condition/bottle-carbonate for a week (I added some more sugar.  I’ll explain later).

But as for the taste, it’s pretty much exactly how I hoped it would turn out: it’s crisp, citrusy.  Wheaty!  I rate it a success, ladies and gentlemen, and that’s when I tried it it warm and mostly flat.

And I’ve got 48 bottles of it.  You comin’ over?

Bottles seen here, doing Janelle Monae's "Tightrope" dance

Thai Red Curry

Or, “Gaeng Warfare”.

I make no pretensions to be a master of Thai food.  Of the Asian cuisines that I’m conversant in, I know perhaps the least about Thai food.  Then again, I’m only ‘conversant’ (by which I mean, I’ve only cooked dishes from) the cuisines of China, Japan, and maybe once-or-twice of Vietnam.

So, y’know, take this recipe with a grain of salt and a dash of fish sauce.  Thai home cooks?  Speak up!  Teach me your ways.

Like most of the recipes you’ll see on the blog, this will be mostly an approximate recipe.  Believe me, I’m certainly not anti-recipe, but I think that once you cook for long enough, you handle the larger issues (cans of coconut milk, pounds of pork), and the smaller measurements – that is, the seasonings – will take care of themselves.  This is because I follow Kitchen Axiom Number 7.

David’s Kitchen Axiom No. 7: Taste, taste, and taste again.

There is really no way to know whether or not a sauce or a dish or a batter is really truly right and proper without tasting it.  There’s no shame in this, and to me, there’s nothing gross about it.  Ask a real chef; they definitely taste your food before it goes out.  I’m not saying they stick their fingers in it, and they probably use new spoons each time, but if your business is to supply consistent product (as it is the business of a line chef at a restaurant), you have to make sure you’re making everything the same way.

Recipes are a guide for the home cook, but by no means a religious text that cannot be contravened.  Yes, of course follow it verbatim the first time, because otherwise you have no right to complain about it not tasting right.

So, keep all of this in mind as I give you this recipe, and a little of what I know about Thai curries.

I’ve been treating curries sort of like stews, which means I’ve been applying the western/French mindset toward ‘em.  Probably I’m supposed to treat the meat more like a stir-fry, and cook it separately and add it in later, but here’s how I make it, and I’m sure someone will come along and tell me it’s not authentic.  So, with any hope of True Authenticity evanescing like dew at noon, let’s get to it, shall we?

The Set-Up

You will need:

  • a tablespoon or less of red curry paste (maybe 2 teaspoons)
  • oil or fat
  • an onion, sliced
  • a jalapeño pepper, chopped fine (or, if you’ve got ‘em, I suppose 1 or 2 little birds’-eye chiles, also chopped fine)
  • two cans of coconut milk
  • some pork shoulder, maybe 1-2 lbs
  • vegetables (in this case, green peppers, though they should’ve been red), perhaps a cup or two, thinly sliced (such as thin coins of carrot, thin slices of zucchini, mushrooms, whole baby corn, whatever)
  • Fish sauce
  • CILANTRO.
  • and a cast iron dutch oven, or a large 5-6 quart pot of some kind.

Inasmuch as I’ve read, the first thing you want to do with a curry (and indeed, pretty much the first thing you want to do in almost any recipe) is activate the aromatics.  This is what I’m talking about with the purpose of recipes: look beyond the numbers and identify the qualitative patterns.  Cooking is a series of chemical processes, but it is not baking; you can handily afford to be a little less imprecise if you have a handle on the core mechanics of a recipe.  Now, if you decided to throw in an extra teaspoon of baking soda to your Irish soda bread batter, you would no longer have Irish soda bread; you’d have a low-grade oven explosive.  If you decided to throw in another teaspoon of thyme into your beef bourguignon, you’ve still got beef bourguignon (and even if you decide to use white wine instead of red burgundy, you’ll still have a stew, even if it’s not beef bourguignon).

But I’ve been rambling for much too long, and there haven’t even been any pictures yet!

The Heist

1. Sauté the aromatics: heat your pot over a medium-low flame, and heat the oil (and perhaps some salt) in the pan, until the oil starts to shimmer.  Then add your curry paste.

Some people make their own curry paste.  I don’t make enough Thai food to really merit it, and I’ve still got so many cans of the stuff that I haven’t yet deemed it necessary.

Don't let it burn.

Sauté this, stirring frequently, for about a minute or two, until it gets really fragrant and lovely.  Then add in the onions and the jalapeño, and cook until the onion is translucent, and everything is coated in the curry paste.

See, it's getting a little translucent.

2. Now, I remembered something at this point (this was before I had unpacked my books, so I was doing a recipe from memory): it’s customary to sauté the aromatics in a little coconut cream (that is, not coco lopez or sweetened coconut – that’s cream of coconut.  It is easy to get confused.  Coconut cream is a more concentrated coconut milk), to cook the coconut cream until its fat had rendered and was serving as more of the oil, really.

Well, I didn’t have coconut cream, I just had coconut milk, so I cracked one of the cans and poured in … probably less than 1/2 cup of the coconut milk, right on top of the aromatics.

You want to add just enough so that you're not boiling your aromatics, but still sauteing them in the coconut fat, dispersing the chile heat throughout the fat.  Capsaicin is really fat-soluble.

Reduce this until it’s hardly anything, just a slight film of coconut-fat covering the bottom of the pan, along with the oil and the curry paste.

3. Add the pork (or, if you’re not a pork person, chicken thighs or beef chuck).  Mine was frozen, so I defrosted it just enough to turn it from ice-cube to pliable.  Stir-fry the pork for a bit, until the outsides are no longer pink; you should not be concerned about cooking it through at all.  Just cook the outsides so that the pieces don’t stick to one another, or the bottom of the pan.  That’ll be five to ten minutes.

I get antsy putting up these in-process photos, because I don't think I photograph raw or semi-raw meat very attractively.4. Add the remaining can of coconut milk, plus another (so this recipe takes around 30 oz, or 880 mL of coconut milk.  Two 14.5 oz standard cans of coconut milk is, admittedly, a lot, but I see nothing wrong with using low-fat coconut milk.  Using one can of coconut milk, and a can’s-worth of chicken stock (about a cup and two thirds) would also probably work, but you won’t end up with the dish at the proper viscosity; it’ll be a lot soupier.  If that’s how you like it, that’s fine!  I’m sure it’d work.

I like taking pictures like this, where there's no visible can, and it just looks like it's raining coconut milk.  Well, it does to me.

5. Bring to a boil, then simmer on low for about an hour to an hour-and-a-half.  it should get to looking like this.

To me, that looks attractive.  I can understand how someone else might feel differently.  It is nothing without the smell; the smell is GLORIOUS.

At some point, you’re going to want to put in a teaspoon or so (maybe more; I used many healthy dashes) of fish sauce.  I have an enormous bottle, shown here next to the standard Clean Platter Comparison Lemon™:

Phú quôć, man!  I'm gonna start using that as an exclamation.  Yeah, I know it's a place.There is no way I am likely to go through a 24-ounce bottle of fish sauce in … I mean, that bottle should last me four or five years, at least.

Some of you are probably not familiar with nam pla, or as it’s called in vietnamese, nước mắm.  It’s fermented anchovy extract, and exceedingly salty.  It also smells, well, some would say, “terrible.”  I would say, “musky”.  But the difference that fish sauce makes in pretty much anything you add it to is absolutely incredible.  When you’re making this curry, smell what you’ve got going on in the pot.  Take a deep breath and remember the scent.  Then add the fish sauce.  Then smell the dish again.  It won’t smell musky or terrible or fishy, but it will smell a lot deeper, a lot more compelling.  Fish sauce doesn’t bring its own flavor so much as it supports other flavors (we call this glutamic, savory power umami. By we I mean Japanese people.  I am not Japanese.).  What I’m saying is, if you think fish sauce is too gross to use in your kitchen, you are sorely missing out.  I’m going to start using it in non-asian applications (chicken stock, hamburgers), and seeing what happens.  After all, I live alone.  Nobody’s going to complain about it but me.

6. Slice your vegetables; you’re going to throw them in about ten to fifteen minutes before you kill the heat and stop cooking.  The harder the vegetable (carrot, parsnip, broccoli), the thinner you ought to slice it, to go along with the less firm veg, so that it all cooks at the same time.

I think this was about two peppers.  Maybe two and a half.

Throw in your vegetables, and stir briefly.  If you extract a piece of meat from the stew at this point (because, remember, you should be tasting the stew once every hour or so, or whenever you season it.  Not a lot!  just a little), it should be fall-apart soft; this meal should probably be eaten with a spoon.

If you’re eating this with rice (which you absolutely should), I would start it around the time you prep your vegetables, or a little before.

7. When your vegetables are softened, you can add the cilantro.  Now, me, I like a lot of cilantro.

That's not enough.Kill the heat, chop your cilantro roughly, and add it in to the curry; the cilantro will pretty much liquefy; the stalks will turn limp, the leaves will shred like wet tissue paper. To me, that sounds heavenly.

Now, I left this on the stove a little too long, so it started to lose its vibrant color, and turned a little green.  But it’s still delicious!  Serve with rice, sliced radishes, maybe a squeeze of lime juice, and, of course, more cilantro.

IMG_7814

Now, I adapted this (very broadly, don’t blame her) from a Thai cookbook – Nancie McDermott’s Real Thai: The Best of Thailand’s Regional Cooking, which, for my money, is an excellent cookbook.  I’m still teaching myself about Thai and Chinese food, really.  I’m still trying to get my head around the patterns and systems of these cuisines.  So bear with me.  If you know anything about thai home cooking, I’d love to have feedback!  All I want to do is learn, and have you lot learn with me.

-D

Juiced.

An immense, comma-shaped storm struck Northwest Indiana and Southwest Michigan on Friday afternoon, thwacking the region with 70 mph winds for a brief but terrible several hours.  Just shy of 100,000 homes lost power, though nearly all of them have power again now; myself, I regained power only at around 3 AM this morning.

Wasn’t good.  Compounding the ungoodness was the arrival of my parents, who brought with them a lot of perishable food; we had figured that power would be restored in a matter of hours.  We were wrong.  It was hot and uncomfortable, and we had to keep running out to buy ice to stuff coolers and the freezer with coldness.

That said, I got a lot done with my parents here!  I did most of the major planting in the garden (post to come), I cleaned up a good portion of the house with Mom, and I… *snif* this is almost painful to say:

I cooked the rest of the pork roast.  Remember that IMMENSE hunk of meat from a few entries ago?  I only bought it about two weeks ago, and had it in the freezer.  I got about six or seven separate dishes out of it, I’d say, and the way in which I’ve been preparing pretty much all of it (long, slow braising or simmering) tends to cook out most of the water and break down the collagen in it, and that takes out a goodly portion of the weight; I’d say, of the 16 pounds of pork I started with, I ended up with 6-8 pounds of cooked meat.  But the point still is that I have a crap-ton of carnitas in my fridge.  Yeah, that recipe will come, too, along with recipes for mango salsa and a fairly basic guacamole.

With power finally restored this morning, I celebrated by baking some French bread in my (BRAND NEW) oven (! post to come about it later); I brought a loaf over to one of my across-the-street neighbors as a gesture of hello-I-am-living-near-you-ness, and she, in return, granted me the privilege of using her compost!  I have not yet built my enormous, terrifyingly wonderful PICKLE BARREL COMPOSTER (see this post).  I happily took her up on her offer; I think that probably means I have to give her more loaves of bread, but I’m perfectly okay with that.

Beach Glass Count – 120 pieces!

I don’t really feel like saying anything else of substance today, because I’m really tired – I started clearing out another part of the basement, I did some gardening, and I drove nails into wood today, just like a grown-up would.  I also even sawed something.  Very briefly.  It made me feel exceptionally manly.  Again, very briefly.

But hey! Let me tempt you with photographs of blog entries to come!

Thai red curry!

IMG_7799IMG_7814  

Newly-installed magnetic knife rack!

IMG_7969

A morning walk to (and along) the beach!

IMG_7938IMG_7948

Gardening!

  IMG_8034

CARNITAS (and its attendants, Guacamole and Mango Salsa).  Oh my god I think you will like this recipe.  (Note to my fellow would-be food photographers: shoot in natural light as often as possible!)

IMG_8067

Brewing

or,
The Blind Leading The Blind*

*except there’s alcohol involved, which kinda makes it worse

As I mentioned, Jack came to visit on Monday, and I pressed him into service, painting parts of the basement, and starting a batch of beer with me.  Jack was such a fine guest, and such an able hand around the house, that I wonder if I might not slip some of my other friends the king’s shilling, and trick ‘em into coming out here to help me work on the house.

Honestly, though, by the time that happens, I’ll probably have finished excavating the basement and turning it into my workshop.  I never really imagined having a workshop before moving out to the house, but now I’m enthralled with the idea.

ANYWAY beer.  The home-brewer makes beer not in an enormous steel tun, but rather in the smaller, handsome glass vessel known as a carboy.  Jack’s father, Jim, lent me his long-unused brewing kit, in exchange for a six-pack of whatever I make (I think this is a fine arrangement).  Here is that carboy, a five-gallon model:

A carboy.  Also a carboybox.  A carbox.

Five gallons is pretty standard for home-brewing, because, for chrissake, how much more would you want?  5 gallons is 640 ounces, is 53 12-ounce bottles of beer, and if I didn’t have eager friends to descend upon the damned things like locusts, I’m not even sure I could drink 53 bottles of anything in a summer.  Could I?  Not beer.  I like beer, but not enough to drink one a day for two months.  That’s just not the sort of drinker I am; I might have two beers in a week, but even that is rare.

Then again, I’ve never really had much beer in the house before, so I may yet drink my words.

That’s sort of irrelevant at present, though – I’m sure I’ll meet enough people out here, especially in the local brewing crowd, who won’t pass up free home- brew.  I make that statement assuming everything comes out all right with this batch.

Continue reading “Brewing”

Jack was here!

And we had numerous adventures.

It’s raining now, and Jack took off for home, but it was a big day!

An expanded post and pictures to come, but, today we:

  • went to goodwill and bought some crummy clo*thes for painting in
  • bought some spray paint
  • started a batch of beer (! a post to come)
  • painted a titanic number of shelves in the basement (so that I can finally unpack all of my books, by god!)
  • went for a lovely little walk on the beach
  • and had some really, really fantastic fish-and-chips and beer at Shoreline.  I think I’m going to love this place.  It’s two minutes from the house, a pint of one of their ten (TEN) home-brewed beers is $4, and their fish and chips ranked among some of the best I’ve ever had.

Anyway, I’ll post soon about the projects that Jack and I worked on, as well as my own progress on the garden (because, Gentle Reader, I’ve started a garden, and I’ve got the aches to show for it).

For now, I give you the Beach Glass Count.

Beach Glass Count, June 15:

72 pieces.  I’ve been beachwalking every morning for the past few days, but I haven’t been a’blogging.  But at last count, it was 36.  So the BGC has doubled!

This is the greatest news ever.See you tomorrow.

-D

Brewery-business

Once I get the basement squeaky-clean (which, I think, will take a mop), I’ll begin making my homebrew.

But I checked out the Shoreline Brewery and Restaurant on Wabash St., here in Michigan City, because they’ve got a homebrew shop.  I don’t have any empty bottles yet, and though I’ll probably buy a six-pack or two of beer in the next couple of weeks, I know I won’t have enough to bottle 5 gallons of beer, so I might need to buy some empties from them (although I’m sure I could convince my neighbors to save their empty bottles for me instead of putting them in the recycling bins.).

But during my visit, I had a nice chat with Tiffany, the woman who was running the homebrew shop; she invited me to come out tonight to meet a bunch of the local homebrewing crew, who get together at the brewery to talk shop and hang out every week or so.  I might make some friends out here!  Is my status as a hermit threatened?  (Does that really bother me?)

-D