Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Note to self: do not open a restaurant

Michael Yates just posted an excellent piece on the political economy of restaurant work in a capitalist society at Cheap Motels and a Hot Plate. It reminded me, no matter how much H and I occasionally fantasize about turning my modest skills as a chef into some kind of food-based independent business, that the main reason I devote so much time and energy to cooking (both cooking itself and research — reading cookbooks, watching cooking shows) is that it gives me the opportunity to engage in some unalienated labor.

I was also excited to read that Yates, one of my radical idols, also likes to watch cooking shows on TV — though, I have to admit, the competitive aspect of shows like Top Chef have always turned me off.

Also yesterday I was reminded of the modestness of my cooking skills. I wasn't planning to do anything particularly inventive for dinner — fish and chips, in fact: pan-fried tilapia, oven fries (I use the Cook's Illustrated recipe from volume 66, which is a bit complicated but worth it), and our staple winter salad of shredded cabbage, golden raisins and almond slivers, dressed with olive oil and a little salt and pepper. But I had also checked Hot Sour Salty Sweet out of the library and was reading about the cuisine of the Mekong, and had recently, on a whim, purchased some sichuan pepper. I decided to make some Chinese pepper salt (pan-roasting the sichuan pepper with flake salt, then grinding it together) — the aroma in the kitchen was enticing, and I started thinking about using it to flavor the fish (well, for the adults).

Tasting the pepper salt, I thought it probably needed something to complement it, like a dipping sauce. I didn't think a fish sauce base would work very well, and I didn't have any limes, so I ended up using equal parts clementine juice and soy sauce, adding a few drops of sesame oil and some chopped scallion. This was the successful part of the meal.

My great mistake was using corn starch to coat the fish (another experiment). Well, it wasn't that great of a mistake — the kids definitely liked the crisp crust on their non-sichuan-pepper-flavored fish. But, of course (and I should have thought this through), you can't mix a seasoning like crushed sichuan pepper into a corn starch coating the way you can into a flour coating. The cornstarch is too thin; it adheres to the fish but brings precious little pepper (or salt) along with it.

A decent meal, all and all, but needs some work before I can really publish a recipe, and, of course, I'll need to stop making these kinds of mistakes before I open that restaurant...

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Individual tuna pies

A great way to dress up cheap tuna packed in water. This is loosely based on a recipe from Penzey's Spices. It makes two servings (in this case, for the adults — the kids got chicken strips from the freezer tonight) and could be doubled and all made in a 10-inch pie pan (kind of like how the original recipe is made). If you don't have creme fraîche on hand, sour cream, or a mixture of sour cream and mayonnaise (again, like the original) would probably work. I'm guessing a bit on the filling ingredient amounts, since I used the leftovers of a sauce from the Christmas salmon — the key thing is you want the filling to be a bit more creamy and liquid-y than your average tuna salad; it will firm up in the oven.

1 can tuna in water, drained
1/2 cup flour
1/3 cup shredded cheddar
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp paprika
2 TBSP butter, cold
about 1/4 cup creme fraîche
about 1/4 tsp dill, dried (or 3/4 tsp fresh)
about 1/2 tsp capers, chopped up fine.
butter, for greasing pans

1. Preheat oven to 400. Butter two 4-inch ramekins.

2. Mix together flour, cheddar, salt and paprika in a mixing bowl. Cut butter into small pieces, add to the flour mixture, and cut together with two knives until it resembles coarse meal with a few pea-sized chunks.

3. Meanwhile, drain tuna and flake with a fork. Mix tuna together with creme fraîche, dill and capers.

4. Put about one quarter of the flour mixture in the bottom of each ramekin. Tilt the pans so the sides get at least a minimal coating of crust, then press the crust left in the bottom down slightly.

5. Spoon half of the tuna mixture into each ramekin, then top with remaining flour mixture.

6. Bake for 25-30 minutes, until topping is golden. Remove from oven and let cool for 10-15 minutes before serving.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Turning your leftover roast beast into a tasty pasta sauce

So this Christmas, we reverted to the traditions of my mother's New England family, and had roast beef for Christmas dinner. Since my sister has been not eating red meat for a few years, it's been awhile. (In addition to the roast beef, we had a filet of salmon, which worked out nicely — the resting time for the roast was just enough time to crank the oven heat up and roast the salmon).

However, on account of having two main dishes (our kids were also preferring the salmon), the limited selection at the grocery store we patronized last Saturday, and the general state of the economy, I ended up buying a small top round roast rather than the more extravagant standing rib roast that I've cooked in the past:

... and, between the top round's high proportion of connective tissue and my chronic tendency to undercook things, there was a lot of, well, quite rare and chewy meat which didn't get eaten Christmas day.

So last night I made the leftovers into a rich pasta sauce:

1. Cut leftovers into 1" chunks and brown them well in a little fat (I used bacon fat, because I had some on hand and was feeling decadent, but olive oil would work too). Make sure you don't crowd the meat; I did this in about three batches.

2. Remove meat from the pan, add a little more fat if there's not some left in the pan, and then add 1 cinnamon stick and 1 bay leaf; toss in the fat for 20-30 seconds.

3. Add about 1/2 cup each of finely diced onion, carrot and celery. Cook for 5-7 minutes, until well browned. Add some chopped fresh rosemary and 1 clove garlic, minced. Sauté for 15-30 seconds.

4. Deglaze the pan with a good splash of white wine, scraping the bottom to incorporate all the browned bits into the sauce. Add any meat juices from the contained you stored the leftovers in, and enough stock to make a saucelike consistency (beef would probably be best, I used turkey because that's what I had, chicken or veggie stock would probably be ok. I've also used leftover soaking liquid from reconstituting dried mushrooms with great success). Return meat (with any accumulated juices) to the pan.

5. Cover and cook over low heat for a couple of hours, adding stock and/or water as necessary to keep it from drying out:

6. After you've basically cooked the meat into submission, remove the chunks of meat to a cutting board. Remove and discard the cinnamon stick and bay leaf. Now is a good time to start boiling the water for your pasta. Chop the meat up fine, then return to the pan:

7. Keep the meat mixture simmering until pasta is cooked. I used homemade papardelle (really wide noodles). If you're using storebought and can't find papardelle (I can't find storebought papardelle around here), use the widest noodles you can find — fettucine, farfalle, or wide egg noodles:

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Vermont/Chinese turnip cake

I'm preparing to make this tomorrow (all up until the frying step) for a party on Friday, so I thought I would copy the recipe over from my old MySpace blog...

This is an adaptation of a variety of recipes for "Chinese turnip cake" which I found on the web. According to the Chinese food section of "," these savory cakes (which are steamed and then cut into slices and fried) are traditionally served during the Chinese New Year.

What makes it "Vermont?" First, it's made with good sturdy New England turnips, not the Chinese radish (related to daikon) which the real thing is made with and which is customarily mistranslated as "turnip." It's also vegetarian (vegan, actually, if you're keeping score at home). I've substituted salted carmelized onions for the dried shrimp and Cantonese sausage/Chinese bacon called for in other recipes.

Turnips (I used 3 softball-sized, about 2 lbs total)
Dried shiitake mushrooms (a good handful)
One large yellow or white onion
Two green onions
Bunch cilantro
2 c. rice flour
2 tsp salt plus extra for onions
1 tsp sugar
oil for frying

1. Soak the mushrooms in water just to cover for 30 minutes. Drain, reserving the liquid and straining it through cheesecloth if it's got lumps of dirt.

2. Peel turnips and grate coarsely. Put in saucepan with water just to cover, bring to a boil and simmer 30 minutes. Drain, reserving the liquid.

3. Chop yellow/white onion, and fry in a decent amount of oil in a wok or saucepan over medium-high heat until nicely browned and crispy. This will take about 10 minutes. Sprinkle generously with salt, then remove from pan, draining excess oil.

4. Once mushrooms are rehydrated, remove stems and chop caps finely. In a separate pile, chop green onions and cilantro together. Heat small amount of oil in wok or saucepan over medium-high heat and stir-fry the mushrooms for a few minutes. Add the green onions and cilantro, stir-fry an additional 20-30 seconds, then add a splash of sherry, stir together for a few seconds, and remove from heat.

5. In a large bowl, whisk together the rice flour, salt and sugar.

6. Add enough of the turnip broth to the mushroom-soaking liquid to make 2 cups. Add to the flour and stir to make a smooth batter. Add the cooked turnip shreds, the onions, and the mushroom mixture to the batter.

7. Turn into a cake pan (I used a 8 1/2" springform). You'll need for the cake pan to be able to fit inside a larger pot (I used a 12" calphalon dutch oven) so that it doesn't touch the sides and can be suspended above simmering water. I placed two metal jar lids in the bottom of the pan. If the pot's lid is flat, wrap it with a towel to absorb moisture so it doesn't condense and drip down on the top of the cake.

8. Simmer for one hour, approximately, until cake is firm. Check periodically to make sure that the water doesn't all evaporate.

9. Remove cake from pan if it's easy (i.e, with a springform), let cake cool, and refrigerate for at least a couple of hours.

10. When ready to serve, cut 1/2" to 1" thick slices off the cake and fry in oil over medium-high heat until nicely browned on both sides. Garnish slices if desired with chopped green onions, cilantro, or napa cabbage.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

The best description of deer hunting, ever

The usual procedure, as I understand it, is for them to hide in small structures called deer blinds. They throw corn around in front of the deer blind. They swig bourbon from hip flasks and suppress homosexual yearnings until some hapless ungulate wanders by and starts eating the corn. Then they blow its fucking brains out.

From my new favorite blog, I blame the patriarchy (and who wouldn't?)

Monday, December 01, 2008

Pretty pictures

My first attempt at paella — and damn it was tasty. A quick weeknight version, made with a couple of Italian sausages and a handful of shrimp, frozen peas, canned artichoke hearts and roasted red peppers from a jar.

This is a flatbread with delicata, kale, cheddar and Italian sausage. I sliced the delicata into very thin rings and sautéed in olive oil.