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Thursday, April 29, 2010

Weeknight Cooking

 I read an article today about cooking at home by my latest hero, Michael Ruhlman.  He makes the case for taking an hour at the end of the day to cook something and sit down to eat it, together.  His point is that "fast and easy" an idea pushed by popular food magazines, tv shows and the 'big food' industry is not really what the goal should be.  And I agree, to a point...

We all have those days.  I had one this week.  You know the ones where you're just simply tapped out by the end of the day?  Drained of energy, the thought of creating a meal is the furthest thing from your mind.  It's exhausting in and of itself.  Just the thinking part.  Familiar, right?  That's when "fast and easy" comes into play.  The way I try to get around the exhaustion is by picturing what I'd love to have someone (umm, that person will most likely be me...) put on a plate in front of me.  What am I hungry for?  What do I crave?  Just the act of picturing what I'd like to eat is usually enough to get me thinking...and then calculating what we have in the refrigerator or pantry...and then whether I should swing by the store for supplemental ingredients on the way home.  And before you know it, I've successfully avoided the dreaded Trader-Joe's-Frozen-Pizza trap.  No shame in that.  We've all been there.  But we can do better.

So, here's some 'fast-and-easy' and I'm not embarrassed to tell you about it, because I've had it in restaurants.  For those of you who live and die by the microwave.  Listen up.
You WILL NOT be needing Mr. Wave tonight.  Walk right past and put a small saucepan of water on the stove over medium heat and keep reading.

Lately, we seem to always have asparagus in the refrigerator.  (A sure sign that it's spring.)
You can too, if you store it the way I do.   I think I remember seeing this on an episode of  Julia Child years ago.  (I searched for it, but couldn't find it, so here's one that is just plain fun to watch.)  Depending on how large your bunch of asparagus is, use a small mixing bowl, or glass measuring cup and fill with an inch of water.  Prop up your asparagus in the water, like a bouquet of flowers and cover loosely with the plastic veggie bag you brought them home in.  They will keep like this, in your refrigerator, for at least a week.

This next part perhaps says more about us than I'm comfortable with, but what the heck.  We almost always have some prosciutto in the fridge...or, even better in my opinion, Serrano ham.  I can't explain the direct correlation between being a happy person and having prosciutto at the ready, but that's the eternal mystery of the joy of cured pork products.  They just bring Happy into the house.

So, now we have asparagus, some kind of ham deliciousness and the third component is even easier.  Eggs.  The ultimate super food.  I LOVE eggs.  Or, as Woody Allen says to Diane Keaton at some point in Annie Hall..."I luuuuurve you".   I mean 'them'.  Eggs.  You know what I mean...

These are your three main ingredients.  What you will do is roast the asparagus in a super hot oven (after tossing them with a teaspoon of olive oil and some salt and pepper) for a mere seven to eight minutes.  (If you'd like to get fancy, you may toss a small handful of chopped shallot over the asparagus in the remaining minute or two of roasting--I've talked about this before...the fragrance of roasted shallot is heavenly and totally worth keeping a couple shallots on hand at all times.)

In the meantime you will poach, or soft-boil an egg.  (My favorite methods are below.)

Open your package of ham or prosciutto and then plate things up in this order:
Asparagus.  Top with egg.  Drape the ham.  Drizzle with extra-virgin olive oil and then a sprinkle of balsamic or sherry or champagne vinegar.  (Don't mock me -- I am a vinegar freak and keep almost every variety of the stuff known to mankind on hand.)  Add a sprinkle salt and pepper, to taste.  Sometimes I even add a little dab of Dijon mustard, which then mixes into a little dressing almost when you break into the egg for that first bite.  Very tasty.

A nice crusty bread is delicious with this.  Or, if you're like me, you toast up the two-day old french loaf sitting on the counter and slather with butter.

Ta- dahhh.  YOU are now eating something delicious that did indeed only take but a few minutes to prepare, but is NOT a frozen pizza.  Just looking at this plate is enough to lift your spirits and those of your loved ones.

So, a definite yes to cooking at home... and if it's 'fast-and-easy' on occasion, that's okay by me.

Soft-Boiled Eggs 
adapted from David Tanis' A Platter of Figs
Heat a small pot of water over medium heat and when the water approaches a gentle simmer, slip the eggs carefully into the water.  Keep at just a bare simmer for 10 minutes.  Meanwhile, fill a medium mixing bowl with some ice cubes and cold water.  Remove the eggs and place into the bowl ice water.  Cool for a minute.  Take the eggs out and crack on all sides -- do not peel just yet -- before returning to the water for another couple minutes.  (This way the peel practically slides off.)  Quarter and place over your asparagus.

Poached Egg
(don't worry, it's not as tricky as you think)
Half fill a wide pan with about 4 inches of unsalted water.  Add a couple tablespoons of white vinegar, and bring to a boil.  Break an egg into a ramekin or small bowl and tip it gently into the pan at the point where the water is bubbling.  Repeat with your other eggs (but don't poach more than four at a time).  Poach for about 2 minutes.

Using a slotted spoon or small skimmer, lift out the first egg and press the outside edge lightly to check if it's cooked enough.

Poached eggs get those little extra swirls or strands of white on the outer edges so I usually put them on a plate and just trim the edges with some kitchen shears or a knife.  Voila.  The egg is ready to top your asparagus.
Bon Appetit Everyone!

Sunday, April 4, 2010

An Evening with Friends

"We're turning off all the lights!"

In what seemed like the blink of an eye, our apartment plunged into darkness this past Saturday night and then gradually developed a warm glow, as a group of our friends went around lighting candles.

The fact that this all took place in the moments before I was to commence making Pad-Thai-for-the-First-Time-Ever made me more than a little nervous.  Who knew Earth Hour, the global let's-all-turn-off-the-lights-for-an-hour call to action on climate change, was to coincide with Asia Night at our house?

Asia Night was an idea my friend, K., and I came up with as a way to experiment with some Asian recipes we'd always wanted to try.

Steve was in from the get go -- initially signed as our resident Rice Master (authentic sticky rice was definitely on the menu) and then coaxed into the role of Dessert/Ice Cream Guy.  (How can you not love the man?!)

An invitation went out:

Intrepid friends -- come traverse the world of Asian cuisine with us!
Menu-planning took place the week before at our favorite local Asian dining spot, for inspiration.  Our menu was far-ranging and ambitious.  I started calling it Asian Jumble Night.

Spring Rolls
Both K. and I adore spring rolls--fried or not--and we tend to order them whenever we're out together and see them on the menu.  The goal was to re-create the clean tastes we love with the rice paper wrapper, non-fried version and two traditional dipping sauces:  the clear, zippy nuac cham and the creamy, zesty peanut sauce.

Chicken Soong
Steve and I are fans of this delightful Chinese appetizer, which features finely minced or ground chicken, kicked up, so to speak, with tangy notes of citrus and the crunch of finely minced vegetables, sauteed together and then served in lettuce cups drizzled with Hoisin sauce.  It was a favorite at our regular Chinese food spot in Chicago, Ben Pao and we were determined to re-create it for Asia Night.  (Upon reflection, I realized it was kind of a Chinese version of Sloppy Joe, and who doesn't love a Sloppy Joe?)

Thai Fish Cakes
This recipe caught my eye in a cookbook that I've mentioned here before--local chef Cindy Pawlcyn's Big Small Plates.  The photos looked amazing, the combination of ingredients tasty and well, it didn't remind me of Sloppy Joe!

Nam Phik Awng
This one was all K.
After returning from a Laos vacation last year, she couldn't stop talking about a delicious dish she'd tried there and her efforts to track down some kind of recipe were akin to a quest of sorts.  It's a kind of stew, using tofu or ground pork, served with sticky rice (itself an art form!) and steamed vegetables.  You make a small ball of sticky rice with your hands and then dip into the sauce, alternating with steamed vegetables. K.  was a woman on a mission to recreate one of her favorite food memories and Asia Night was the place to do it.  (Her description of it got me to thinking've got it... Sloppy Joe, again, but hey, it was all good.)

Green Papaya Salad
Steve was not thrilled with adding this one to the menu, but K. and I insisted.  The wrestling match between K., the papaya and a mandoline was definitely not for the faint-hearted, but the resulting salad was lovely.  A cool and refreshingly crisp respite from all the spicy food on the table. 

Pad Thai
Hands down, my favorite Thai dish, I've been obsessed with the idea of to giving it a try at home from the moment I read Chez Pim's blog post:  Pad Thai for Beginners.  The only intimidating factor was that the recipe is designed to be cooked in the way of traditional Pad Thai --which is to say, like the Bangkok street food it is--a couple servings at a time, in a hot wok.  Call it Short Order Pad Thai.  Yikes.  

The invitations went out.  Web sites were studied.  Cookbooks were consulted.   "Hot Sour Salty Sweet:..." a gorgeous book on Southeast Asian cooking K. received for Christmas a few years ago provided most of our guidance and inspiration.  A variety of shopping trips to various Bay Area Chinatown's (we are so lucky to have them in multiples here) to track down ingredients took place and before you knew it, the kitchen was full of people, laughter and the sound of a sizzling wok on a Saturday night.  Everyone pitched in and helped chop and as it turned out, we would cook up one thing, eat, drink, and then continue cooking, eat, drink, etc... 

Our friend, S., pretty much stole the show with her brilliant Apple Soju Cocktail.  A refreshing drink that gets a little sparkle from tonic water and crisp flavor from little matchsticks of Pink Lady apples--it was incredibly delicious and got things off to a great start.  

Each dish came with a story and our friends all enthusiastically embraced the jumble-y nature of the menu as we cooked our way through the evening together.  The Chicken Soong was a hit.  The sticky rice steamer K. ordered specifically for the party did double duty as cooking vessel and conversation piece.  The Nam Phik was definitely Sloppy Joe-like and fantastically good, served with the rice and beautifully steamed vegetables.  The Thai Fish Cakes turned out a bit messy, falling apart as I attempted to turn them in the saute pan, yet still tasty.  I made my way through two batches of Pad Thai-to-order without incident and the results were delicious.

Unfiltered sake and Beer Lao helped weave it all together...and are probably the reason we completely forgot to make the spring rolls (d'oh!!) until late into the evening.  Oddly enough, we'd made the spring roll sauces, but not the spring rolls. 

As we sat around in the candlelit semi-darkness (we decided to extend Earth Hour past its initial sixty minutes), eating Steve's insanely good Asia Night ice cream creations (Toasted Coconut ice cream, Mango Sorbet and Kaffir Lime Sherbet) I looked around at my friends feeling almost overwhelmed by happiness.

The usual talk of how sharing food brings people together seemed profoundly true to me in that moment somehow.  (Maybe due to my second glass of sake?)  It reminded me of something Bay Area chef David Tanis writes in of my favorite new cookbooks, A Platter of Figs and Other Recipes.  In a section he calls "The Case Against Restaurants", he makes the point that getting a group of friends together in the kitchen to cook a meal is a far more memorable and important way to enjoy the food and each others company than sitting down in a restaurant and I couldn't agree more.  There was a certain magic happening in our home kitchen last Saturday.  It was filled with a kind of camaraderie that seemed boundless as we joined millions of others, turned off the lights and ate a meal together by candlelight.  And by the way...I've been thinking about next year's Earth Hour...
...prepare yourselves for India Night!

Choc-tee!  Kampai!  Yung sing! Chia!

Cooking notes/Additional Recipes:
Web links above are pretty much self-explanatory.  I recommend reading Pim's Pad Thai blog post several times before cooking to familiarize yourself as well as one, or even two Apple Soju Cocktails, for courage.

Chicken Soong
adapted from Big Bowl Cookbook
makes 10-12 lettuce packages
NOTE:  This is a wonderful lettuce wrap starter. I would even make it for dinner.  The cool, crisp lettuce leaves make the perfect transport for the zesty, fresh-tasting filling.  Don't skip the lemongrass -- it totally gives this dish citrusy zing.  It's really an easy dish to prepare, once you have your ingredients prepped and assembled, you're simply creating,  well...a Sloppy Joe of sorts.  Delicious!

2 tablespoons fish sauce
1 tablespoon sugar
2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 cup peanut or vegetable oil
1/4 cup red onion, diced
2 tablespoons sliced scallion
2 tablespoons diced fresh red chile pepper
1/2 cup finely diced celery
1 tablespoon chopped lemongrass
2 tablespoons chopped water chestnuts
3/4 pound ground chicken thigh meat
1 teaspoon cornstarch mixed with 1 tablespoon water
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon chopped fresh Thai basil
1 tablespoon chopped fresh mint
2 tablespoons fresh whole cilantro leaves
1 kaffir lime leaf, julienned
8 to 10 crisp Bibb/Butter lettuce leaves

Hoisin sauce for drizzling

Dipping Sauce
3 1/2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
1 teaspoon minced fresh garlic
2 tablespoons sugar
1/4 cup fish sauce

Prepare the filling:
Mix together the fish sauce, sugar, lime juice and salt and set aside.

Heat a wok or large skillet over high heat and add the peanut oil.  When the oil is hot, add the onion, scallion, chiles, celery, lemongrass, and water chestnuts and saute, tossing over high heat for 30 seconds.  Add the chicken and continue to cook until the meat changes color.

Stir in the fish sauce mixture and bring to a boil.  Stir the cornstarch and water mixture to combine and drizzle into the pan.  Continue to stir until the chicken mixture has a clear glaze.  Remove from teh heat, stir in the black pepper, basil, mint, cilantro and kafffir lime leaf.  Toss to combine and remove to a small decorative bowl.  Place this on a larger platter and surround with the lettuce leaves.

Combine all the ingredients for the dipping sauce and place in a small serving dish.
To eat, use a lettuce leaf as a cup, drizzle with hoisin sauce and then spoon some chicken mixture into the lettuce.  Fold like a taco, dip in sauce and eat.

Nam Phik Awng (Chili Paste Awng with Pork)
Serves approximately 8
NOTE:  This dish is known as a jeow in Laos and northern Thailand and is eaten as a condiment for steamed green vegetables.  Tofu is a good substitute for the pork.  We served it with sticky rice and steamed cauliflower,  chinese broccoli forgetting to use the Napa cabbage that is still in my fridge!

1 small head of garlic cloves, peeled and chopped
4 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 tablespoon fermented chilli soy bean paste (available at Asian markets)
1/2 pound minced or ground pork (or tofu)
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 teaspoon (or to taste) chili paste
2 large tomatoes, chopped
water or stock to adjust mixture to a thick, salsa-like consistency
1 small bunch spring onion, green tops only, chopped finely, for garnish
a few sprigs of cilantro, for garnish

Heat the oil in a hot wok or skillet over medium-high heat.  Toss in the chopped garlic and stir fry briefly.  Remove the garlic if it is browning too quickly.  Add the fermented soy bean paste to the oil, squishing the paste down so it cooks, but does not burn or stick.  Add the minced pork or tofu as well as the garlic if you've set it aside.  Add the sugar, soy sauce and tomato.  Flavor with the chili paste.

Simmer, stirring occasionally, until the meat and tomatoes are cooked and integrated with the other ingredients into a rich, chunky sauce.  Add water or stock to thin if necessary.  Taste and adjust seasoning.  Stir in the the cilantro and spring onion tops.

Keep warm in a low oven while you prepare the steamed vegetables and sticky rice.
Steam the vegetables for five minutes or less, to keep them vivid green and retain crispness.

Serve on a large platter with rice and sauce in side-by-side bowls and the vegetables arranged on the platter.

To eat, ball up a small amount of sticky rice and dip, alternating with the steamed vegetables.