Monday, October 6, 2008

no, i am not a foodie; yes, i like food.

If you've read at least a few other entries on this blog, you probably have accepted by now that for me, a good meal need not be presented in the form of Revolution on a Plate. I appreciate the subversive in visual art, in the workplace, and sometimes, in fashion. But when it comes to matters of consumption, I prefer straightforward. I avoid gustatory challenge, even, which explains half of the reason my most savored meal during my two-week tour of Beijing consisted of the four slices of supreme pizza I had at the Papa John's near Zhongguancun. You see, this is why I don't self-identify as 'foodie.' No, I am not a foodie; no, I would not like to try the steak tartare; no, really, please get that frog's leg away from me. No, I am not a foodie; yes, I like food. Please accept me for who I am. I'm not interested in putting snails (despite how buttery you make them), grasshoppers, or even chopped liver (despite your attempt to leverage laws of price perception by putting a $20 price tag on a chopped liver primi piatti) in my mouth.

So yeah, yeah, yeah, you get it: I'm not a risk-taker or -appreciator, even. Instead, my food-related choices are driven by two simple questions: How am I feeling, and what kinds of flavors and textures would either enhance (if I'm feeling good) or reverse (if I'm feeling crummy) my mood? I guess this is some form of emotion-based utilitarianism.

So last Saturday, at around 1 PM when I woke up, I asked myself how I was feeling. My answer: groggy, somewhat disoriented; in a haze. Then, what could I eat to reverse the grog, the disorientation, and the haze? Definitely not a cold bowl of shredded wheat squares. No, the implications of choosing to eat a bowlful of something so mild-mannered could be near fatal, could potentially intensify the haze. I needed something that marked a change from the usual Saturday morning breakfast. Some degree of kick was necessary.

What I ended up eating was very simple and very effective. I had toast topped with a slice of creamy Havarti and a generous amount of a fiery guac. A clove of raw garlic and several slivers of habanero provided the kind of kick I needed. How did I feel after this meal? Inspired, charged, and with complete clarity of mind.

I never eat just for the sake of eating. For me, eating is always purposeful, and meals are always designed to be precise in their effects. I am not a foodie, but that doesn't mean I don't have a food philosophy.

Fiery Guac, Perfect Atop Toast

1 ripe avocado
1 small handful of finely chopped onion
1 habanero pepper, sliced up into slivers*
1 small clove garlic, minced
1 or 2 wedges of lime

*Note: Be sure to either wear gloves or wrap your fingertips with plastic wrap when handling the habanero. Fiery guac is a good thing; fiery fingertips are not.

1. In a small bowl, mash together the avocado, onion, habanero slivers, and garlic.
2. Squeeze in the juice of 1 or 2 wedges of lime; season with salt and pepper.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

too legit to quit

Last Wednesday I hosted a legitimate dinner party. As in, were you to ask any of the 5 people who attended the event how they spent their eveing, I'm quite certain that they'd say, "I went to Merril's dinner party," and not merely, "I had dinner at Merril's." Legitimate. Dinner. Party.

The evening was successful; the menu well-planned. When you are preparing food for people outside of the ring of unconditional love that only your blood relatives can provide, you really need to make sure to choose dishes that you know you do well. Either that, or be prepared to accept criticism with grace. I'm not very capable of the latter, so I always opt for approach #1. In other words, if you've never made coq au vin before, one hour before a dinner party at which your boss will be in attendance does not qualify as an optimal time to make a first attempt. In the words of Biggie Smalls, "Try to keep it as real as possible." What he meant was, if spaghetti and meat sauce is what you do extremely well, serve spaghetti and meat sauce. A 2006 survey found that 8 out of 10 people would prefer a perfectly executed spaghetti and meat sauce to an overcooked and half-rancid lobster tails poached in butter. Go figure.

So last Wednesday, I stuck with what I know, and what I know is relatively difficult to screw up. I made a wild mushroom risotto, but stepped it up by drizzling white truffle oil into it at the end. I pan-seared rib eye steaks, cooked to a perfect medium-rare, and made a silky red wine pan sauce to serve it with. And finally, plain old Breyers vanilla, disguised as something more precious with the help of a homemade blueberry coulis. Legitimate. Dinner. Party.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

breaking the silence

For 15 years of my life, I was duped into believing that making frosting from scratch was an abominably difficult thing to do. When I was 10, I convinced my mother to buy me a small tub of Duncan Hines Chocolate Buttercream frosting, 10 minutes after convincing her to buy me a box of yellow cake mix. And over the course of the remaining years of my childhood, my adolescence, and my teenage years, I convinced my mother to buy me many boxes of things like semi-instant scalloped potatoes and fettucine alfredo, assuring her that all of these things would make for very interesting side dishes to pair with her kalbi and pot of kimchi jjigae.

Then I grew up, which meant that I stopped thinking that transforming a cup of boiling water, a small slab of butter, and a boxful of flakes into a steaming pile of mashed potatoes was a very wonderful thing. And even more significantly, I developed a love for reading recipes. I really do believe that most of the people who think that cooking is difficult must have read fewer recipes than those who think that cooking is easy. (Yes of course, there are other obvious factors to consider - e.g. he who reads more recipes is likely to be more interested in cooking and more likely to have put more effort in and/or engaged in cooking more frequently - this is also not a doctoral thesis but a blog.) I'm pretty sure that one of the main reasons why Betty Crocker is still in business and Semi-Homemade with Sandra Lee has any viewers at all is that Betty and Sandra are keeping hush-hush about the fact that many things, including frosting and mashed potatoes, are not difficult at all to make from scratch!

Last week, when I took on the task of making a birthday cake for a very special boy, I made cream cheese frosting, which is both very easy to construct from scratch and very delicious. The below recipe is totally foolproof, so try it, and spread the good word.

Cream Cheese Frosting with Toasted Coconut

Cream cheese frosting is a heart-warming complement to a simple but rich chocolate cake. For my special occasion, I made the Old-Fashioned Chocolate Layer Cake from The New Best Recipe.

1 8-oz. block cream cheese, room temp.
1 stick unsalted butter, room temp.
3/4 cup powdered sugar
1 1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/2 cup shredded coconut
1 tablespoon brown sugar

1. In a pan, melt 1/2 tablespoon of butter over medium heat. Add the coconut and brown sugar; stir occasionally until the coconut is toasted and has taken on a deep golden color. Remove coconut from pan and set aside.
2. In a medium bowl, beat butter with a mixer on medium-high speed until light and fluffy, about 2 minutes. Add cream cheese, and beat until well-combined and fluffy, about 2 minutes more. Add sugar and vanilla, and beat until combined, about 2 minutes. Fold in coconut.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

sweet dreams of pesto

When I hear that someone doesn't like something as faultless as pesto, I must say, I become a little bit concerned about the current and future state of our world. I always thought pesto to have that rare combination of qualities that characterize those things that I like to call “objectively good.” Pesto, puppies, and buy-one-get-one-free offers. Objectively good.

So tonight, something crazy happened. I made a pesto that really is more than just a pesto. Correction: I made a pesto that is more than even a pesto. I made a pesto that I would like to go ahead and call “objectively amazing.” As in, this pesto is so amazing that I have had only a pea-sized amount of it, and I swear to God, that is all that I need. (At any rate, it’s 2:45 in the morning, and eating more than a pea-sized amount of pesto would be even weirder than making pesto at 2:30 in the morning, right?) Really though, I’m not joking! (It really is 2:45 in the morning.) The tiniest bit of that pesto, and the toasty, garlicky charm of the taste it left behind in my mouth, will surely inspire sweet dreams for me tonight.

Objectively Amazing Pesto

This recipe, only slightly adapted, comes from The New Best Recipe, of which I am henceforth devout, devout follower.

1/4 cup pine nuts
3 medium garlic cloves, unpeeled
2 cups packed fresh basil leaves
1 cup packed fresh flat-leaf parsley leaves
7 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 teaspoon salt
pinch of pepper
few tablespoons grated Parmigiano-Reggiano (optional)

1. Toast the pine nuts in a heavy skillet over medium heat, stirring frequently, until just golden and fragrant, about 5 minutes. Remove nuts from skillet.
2. Add the garlic cloves to the empty skillet. Toast, shaking the pan occasionally, until fragrant and the color of the cloves deepens slightly, about 7 minutes. Let the garlic cool, then peel and roughly chop.
3. Bruise the basil and parsley using a mortar and pestle. Alternatively, put the herbs into a heavy-duty plastic ziploc bag and pound the bag with the flat side of a meat pounder or rolling pin to bruise the leaves.
4. Blend the nuts, garlic, herbs, olive oil, 1/2 teaspoon salt, and pinch of pepper using a food processor or hand blender. Process until smooth but slightly chunky. (I don't like my pesto totally pureed down.) Mix in Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese if desired.
5. Taste; season more with salt and pepper as desired.

Picture: Cover the pesto's surface with either plastic wrap or a thin layer of olive oil if you want to store it in the fridge for up to 3 days.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

the best 36-hour lockdown ever

At around 10 pm on Saturday night, Somi and I were one glass of Syrah down, and it had become very clear to us that we needed a snack. To two Koreans with healthy appetites for both food and drink, this came as no surprise. Koreans even have a word for food eaten as accessory to drink: an-joo. Traditionally, Koreans chase down their soju and bad domestic beer with snacks like dried squid and peanuts, kimchi pancakes, and spicy cod roe stew. Naturally, we would have been happy to pair any of these things with our bottle of Syrah. However, we live in Boston, and these are not the sorts of snacks that just show up on your doorstep when you need them to.

So we went down our list of options. Option #1: Sandwiches from Parish Cafe. Mmm, smoked turkey with bacon, havarti, and cranberry sauce would have been, no doubt, on the level of Divine Revelation. However, getting these sandwiches would have required leaving the building, and that made them much less appealing. Option #2: Buffalo wings from Rock Bottom Brewery, only about a block and a half away. Buffalo wings arguably meet all key an-joo criteria, but did we really want to know what Rock Bottom Brewery gets like on a Saturday night? Ew, most probably not. Also, going there would mean leaving the building. Option #3: A white spinach pizza from Upper Crust, purveyor of the kind of pizza with the kind of toppings (baby clams, portabello mushrooms, eggplant, asiago) that make Bostonians feel warm and fuzzy about themselves. The only problem was, our level of self-awareness is decently high, meaning we knew that we'd probably eat the whole pie between the two of us, and warm and fuzzy we certainly would not be feeling afterwards.

At this point, I peeled myself off the couch and walked over to the kitchen, to see what, if anything, the fridge would yield. Sigh. Wasn't looking good. A lonely block of tofu, a tub of Greek yogurt, a small jar of capers, butter, o.j., 2 leftover andouille sausages, half a pint of grape tomatoes, and an onion. Sigh. And then came the Divine Revelation: 2 leftover sausages, half a pint of grape tomatoes, and an onion?... thrown in a hot pan and jazzed up with some spices, that could be delicious! So that's exactly what we had. I sliced up the sausages and sauteed them with slices of onion, added equal amounts of chili powder, cayenne pepper, cumin, salt, and pepper, and threw in the grape tomatoes near the end. And I have to say, the resulting snack was everything that we were looking for, especially with a bit of ketchup and sriracha on the side. Thank God for lockdowns.

Friday, June 20, 2008

25-y.o. SAF seeks PWD with lots of heart and a mushy center.

Being single is so great. My grocery bills have been slashed in half, laundry day comes around far less often, the toilet seat is never up, and I can watch as many TiVo'ed hours of Martha as I want! I have so much independence now, and I never have to worry that I'm living for someone else, because, well, take a look around: there is no one else. Who are we kidding? Being single can really suck. Even the sunniest of dispositions, when confronted with prolonged solitude, can fall vulnerable to strange and scary behaviors. They can be known to launch into 5-minute-long screamfests when their taxi driver makes one wrong turn, ignore their mother's phone calls, and drink too much at office functions. The dark side.

They let their food blogs go tragically neglected for months, until a well-meaning friend will one day say in a quiet, kind of timid voice, "You might as well start writing again; I mean... what else do you have going on?" (She was kind of right, because this feels good, and that's nearly all that matters at this point.)

Dramatics aside, I am tempted to say that the simple dinner I had tonight just might have saved me. It was easy enough not to have been planned, yet at least flavor-wise, complex and rewarding enough to leave a lasting mark on my tastebuds and tummy. It was the Perfect Weeknight Dinner, the very one that I've been searching for all these years.

Ah. To be single.

Butternut Squash and Pumpkin Ravioli with Butter and Garlic

Pre-made butternut squash and pumpkin ravioli from Whole Foods (of course, any kind of ravioli will do, and even a plain fresh pasta like fettucine would make for a simple and delicious meal)
1/2 tablespoon butter
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 clove garlic, minced
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1 tablespoon grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
10 grape tomatoes
Pinch of salt & pepper

1. Follow the directions to cook your pasta. Mine took about 5 minutes.
2. Once the pasta is cooked, drain the water out of the pot, but leave a few tablespoons of the pasta water behind - it will help get your sauce going.
3. Return the pasta to the pot with the small amount of pasta water over low heat. Add the butter, olive oil, garlic, and Parmiagiano-Reggiano. Stir the pasta around until the butter is melted.
4. Add a pinch of salt and pepper and a light dusting of nutmeg to the pasta.
5. Plate the pasta, and top with halved grape tomatoes.

Picture: Fresh pasta from Whole Foods, a single girl's best friend.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

one man's trash is another man's treasure

This morning, I woke up, and my mission was clear. I needed to roast some chicken and eat a leg of it for lunch along with a salad of baby spinach, marinated artichokes, slivers of roasted red peppers, grape tomatoes, cucumbers, and dried cranberries. You do not ignore a mission like this, especially not when you know that this lunch will be approximately the only good thing to happen to you over the course of the imminent workday.

The beautiful thing about roasting poultry is that it is extremely easy, and once you are done with the roasting, you happen to be in a very good position to make something that tastes like something you would eat at a nice restaurant with handsome and well-mannered waiters in addition to 15-dollar glasses of Petit Syrah. Yes, you guessed it! I am talking about gravy. And what makes this gravy-yielding technique even more wonderful is that cleaning my roasting pan would have been ten times more difficult if I had had to try to get all those brown bits off with a sponge and dish soap.

However, you really cannot extend the same logic / apply the same approach to every situation in which you find little brown bits clinging to a surface. When in doubt, use your brain. Or call me. Or ask WikiAnswers; they seem to know a lot. That could be decently funny though: imagine scanning the menu at your favorite restaurant and seeing, "Grilled rack of lamb with reduction of red wine and residue from last night's dinner plates." An avant-garde restaurant in Boulder, Colorado once had such a menu offering and only one out of six food critics who reviewed the otherwise irreproachable eatery pronounced the entree to even be edible!

Many people derive a certain pleasure from watching their gravy reduce down until it is about as thick as Greek yogurt. I realize that I'm not into that. I prefer cooking it down until it is thick enough to be called a gravy by some, but also thin enough to be called a jus by others. (Just so I don't mislead anyone, among a sample of 100 study participants, it was in fact found that only 15 participants used the word "gravy" in their description of what they saw; the other 85 used the word "jus.")

I'm actually not sure what I'm going to do with my gravy-jus. I could always pour it straight over a nice hunk of the chicken I roasted this morning, but I could also whisk some cream into it over the stove and then pour it over a nice hunk of the chicken I roasted. Or I could saute a nice mix of wild mushrooms in a saucepan, pour some of the gravy-jus in, let it cook down a bit, and serve alongside a small, tender steak. Or I could saute a nice mix of wild mushrooms in a saucepan, pour some of the gravy-jus in, whisk some cream into it, and dump the creamy mushroomy chickeny goodness over a plate of fresh pasta. Ooh. Mmm. I think I will stop there, because that one sounds like a winner.

Simple Roast Chicken with Gravy-Jus

Note: This is not a very precise recipe, but before you start badmouthing the blog, please understand that roasting chicken is not like running a DNA microassay. Trust me, it's okay to let yourself relax here.

Some chicken (legs, breasts, or if you are feeling like a rockstar, the whole bird)
Some herb(s) (I used dry thyme, but rosemary is quite nice with chicken too)
Some olive oil
Some low sodium chicken broth (the amount really depends on the size of your roasting pan – just keep pouring until all brown bits are concealed and the broth is about 1 cm deep) – for my 9x13 roasting pan, I used approx. 2/3 cup
1 tablespoon butter
1 tablespoon flour
Some pinches of salt for the chicken
Some pinches of salt for the gravy-jus (this amount depends on the amount of chicken broth you are using, of course) – for my 2/3 cup of broth, I threw in about 2 big pinches


Phase 1: Roast your chicken. (if you're in rockstar mode and are doing a whole bird, i'd recommend taking a pointer or two from Martha)

1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
2. Trim the chicken of any excess fat and rinse it under cold water. Pat dry with paper towels.
3. Put the chicken in your roasting pan and coat with olive oil. Season generously with salt and pepper on both sides, and also give both sides a good sprinkle of whatever herb(s) you are using.
4. Cook chicken in your 400-degree oven for about 25 minutes. Then reduce the temperature to 350 and cook for another 10 minutes. After 10 minutes, stick a knife in the chicken. If the juices run clear, your chicken is done.
*At this point, if you are me, you will put one leg of the chicken in a container and the rest in your refrigerator. You will leave the roasting pan with its brown bits in the oven, because you are late for work. You will then grab your chicken leg, along with some greens, and you will rush downstairs, where your cab should be waiting for you. Or so you hope.

Phase 2: Make your gravy-jus.

1. After you've taken the chicken out of the pan, pour in some chicken broth, and use a plastic or wooden spatula to scrape all of the brown bits off the surface of the pan.
2. Put the panful of broth with brown bits suspended into your 350-degree oven. Let it sit in there for a few minutes, then remove the pan. (If you aren't me and you didn't leave the pan to ist in your oven all day and you were able to easily scrape all the brown bits off of the pan, skip this step.)
3. Pour the broth and brown bits into a saucepan; bring to simmer.
4. Whisk in 1 tablespoon of butter and 1 tablespoon of flour. Season with salt and pepper.
5. Allow the broth to reduce down for about 5 minutes until slightly thickened, whisking occasionally.

Picture: Ready to reduce.

Picture: We're almost there.