Sunday, October 15, 2006

Tomato Paste Is the Bane of My Existence

I hate wasting food. I get very upset when neglected veggies go bad because I can't get to the back half of the frig because there's just too much damn crap. Sam's even worse, though, because he'll drink sour milk. He'll smell it, shrug his shoulders, and pour it into his cereal. "Eh." It's both adorable and horrifying.

Tomato paste vexes me. It's commonly sold in little cans, and since most dishes call for a mere Tablespoon or two, what do you do with the rest? Well, because I hate wasting food, I just use the whole can. Or, if I know I'm going to make something in the next couple of days with it, (since I'm crazy and plan out dinners a week in advance) I'll scoop the excess into Saran wrap and refrigerate it. Oftentimes, I'll forget about it and find a little treat weeks later...

To get rid of the "rawness" of the paste, though, you must cook it thoroughly. For example, in making my pizza sauce the other day, I started with anchovies, a mirepoix (2 parts onion to 1 part celery and onion), and tomato paste. Just make sure it doesn't burn, as it gets bitter. If you add paste to an already simmering pot of sauce, you'll never quite get rid of the rawness, but it's not so bad. It's just not gourmet. Amateur move, in fact. Your guests will be asking, "Why is there no depth to your sauce, Lillian?" and you'll respond, "What? I live in Singapore and would never make my own pizza sauce!" and I'll say, "Lillian, you must move back to Los Angeles!" and so forth. Whaaa? I digress...

I also have a tube of tomato paste, but I don't like it as much. It's never quite as fresh as the canned stuff, but it's fine in a pinch. Funny, how canned stuff is often times better than "fresh." I prefer canned tomatoes, especially, when they're out of season, although here in California it's hard to know what's in and out of season.

I've been getting recipe requests and other questions about food, and sometimes not about food. Please don't be shy. Comment away.

In the words of Jacques, happy cooking!

Friday, October 13, 2006

Dinner with Jodie

Photo: Endless supply of vegetable skewers, drizzled with olive oil and seasoned with sea salt and freshly ground pepper

Foster, that is. OK, so I didn't REALLY have dinner with her, but she sat at the table next to ours at AOC (on 3rd St. and Crescent Heights), so that kinda counts, right? I couldn't check out her calves, though, since she was wearing pants. Apparently they're AMAZING. I must admit I was a teeny bit star struck, although I didn't start crying and hyperventilating like that one time, in band camp, Jacques Pepin came over to my table, placed his big, strong, deft hands on my shoulder and whispered into my ear, "How's the food?" in his thick French accent. Muy caliente.

Speaking of food, dinner was excellent, but I can see how it could be hit or miss, depending on the dishes you order. I would recommend getting the cheeses and the chartucerie. Most excellent. And of course, some red wine(s). Random--I recently learned on NPR that the master cheese makers in the world are mostly women.

I haven't been able to cook very much this past week. In fact, I've been eating leftovers from a BBQ we had this past weekend, so I'm on the last of the vegetable skewers. In spite of what some of you may think, I actually WORK...sometimes. I'll be out of town next week, but hopefully I'll be able to try some unique alligator dishes where I'm going.

I love sheep's milk cheese!

Monday, October 09, 2006

Chocolate Rum Buttercream - Need I Say More?

Photo: Frosted Cupcakes

Sometimes a girl's gotta have her chocolate. I don't know why, and I don't understand why it's women and not men who have these cravings. Or are there men out there who enjoy a truffle every now and then? Guys? A little insight? Brycey baby?

To sate my chocolate desires, I decided to make yellow cupcakes with chocolate frosting. The cake itself, though fluffy and yummy, in this case is just a cleaner and more civil way of delivering the chocolate into my mouth (although licking chocolate from the palm of the hand is much naughtier).

To make matters worse, I grated some 70% cacao chocolate (Valrhona of course) using my Microplane over some of the cupcakes. Although providing a more complex texture to the cupcake, I preferred those without the extra shavings, as they interfered with the sexy silkiness of the buttercream. The combination of rum and chocolate makes it extra shiny like my hiny.

Wish you could have a bite (of my cupcakes, not my hiny you perverts)!

PS In a taste test, I must admit that Butter Golden Recipes from Betty Crocker and Duncan Hines provide a fluffy, light yet very flavorful cake, and it takes a quarter of the time. So if you're lazy and uncultured, make it from the box. No one will ever know, except for snobby foodies.

Friday, October 06, 2006

Split Pea 'n Ham Soup

Photo: Quyen's Split Pea and Ham Soup with fresh thyme

I grew up in a Vietnamese household eating mostly homemade Vietnamese food with the occasional spaghetti with meat sauce or hamburgers. I'm not complaining at all, and in fact, my mom is quite the inspiration in the kitchen. However, I'd never tasted the likes of Campbell's Split Pea and Ham Soup EVER. Chicken noodle...maybe. Well, today I popped my split pea, and I'm never going back.

The best part about this soup is that it's so cheap, and it goes a looooooong way. My peas cost $1. That's 7.75 Rand. Or 1.58 Singapore Dollars. Or 50.3 Afghanistan Afghanis. It's manic. And the ham only cost $5.

Anyway, it's so good. I feel like I've really now just arrived in America. Oh wait, I was born here. It reminds me of Sam's gramma's house in southern Virginia, where we fish, hike, and shoot guns. Good times.

Back to the soup, though. It did take nearly 4 hours to make, but it was worth it. I tried drizzling in a little balsamic vinegar to contrast with the richness of the soup. Delicious. You can also try lemon. Drop a little acid. Go ahead. It's OK. Just a little.

I think I was hallucinating last night because my herbs smelled like weed and my carrots like cocaine. Weird.

OK, I'm going to make yellow cupcakes dressed in chocolate rum buttercream frosting.

Wish you could have a bite,

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Buttermilk Fried Chicken

Pic: Quyen's Buttermilk Fried Chicken

On Monday morning, looking out into the calm that is the Puget Sound, I had the urge for some fried chicken. So, a day and half later, I made some for myself (and others.) I wanted it Monday night, but it's best to soak the chicken for several hours, so I had to wait until Tuesday. Ugh. So annoying.

Before heading to the gym for my plyometrics session, I butchered the whole chicken into 8 pieces using my beautiful 9” chef’s knife, leaving the skin on, of course, and prepared the buttermilk brine. Buttermilk, sugar, salt, bay leaves, garlic, and paprika made up the brine. I left for my workout wearing my AWESOME “I survived the blackout – NYC 2003” T-shirt which, using only a pair of shears, I’d crafted into a muscle T by cutting off the sleeves and expanding the neck. I am so f-cking cool.

After 2 hours of non-stop aerobic and anaerobic exercise without any water whatsoever, I figured I’d burned enough calories to deserve some fried chicken. So, I poured about 2 cups of canola oil into my Le Creuset braising pan, turned up the heat to medium and let it heat consistently to about 375 degrees (190 Celsius), even though my thermometer just broke. I also set my oven to about 200 degrees (90 Celsius) to keep the cooked pieces warm. A trick you can also use to determine whether the oil is just right is putting a wooden spoon into the oil and seeing whether little bubbles form on contact.

To prep the chicken, I let it drain a little to take some excess off, then dipped it into a mixture of flour, pepper, paprika, and cayenne (whatever spices you like), and shook off the excess again. I then dipped the pieces into ANOTHER mixture of egg, baking soda (bicarbonate), baking powder and buttermilk, then dipped it again into the flour mixture. Double dipping is perfectly acceptable here. Just try not to lick your fingers, please.

By now my oil was just right, I hoped, and after placing just a couple pieces of chicken into the oil I waited patiently. When adding meat to oil, make sure you don’t overcrowd, as that will bring down the temperature of the oil, and you don’t want that to happen now, would you? Anyway, I fried the pieces for about 7-9 minutes per side, depending on thickness of the piece, then flipped them for another 7-9 minutes.

I let the meat rest on a wire rack to get rid of excess oil, placed it in the oven to stay warm while I fried up the rest of the meat, and made the accompanying dishes—green salad and a French style potato salad. Unlike a mayonnaise-based salad, this potato salad is a much lighter, healthier alternative.

First you slice potatoes into about 1/4” thick discs, boil them in salted water with some garlic cloves for about 7 minutes or until al dente, and drain, reserving a little of the liquid. To the liquid I add whatever fresh herbs I have on hand, which last night consisted of dill, thyme, and parsley. I then added some white wine which we were drinking with dinner, tarragon vinegar, whole grain mustard, olive oil, and salt and pepper to taste, and tossed everything together. Very simple, but delicious and “healthy”—don’t be stingy with the herbs. They’re the stars of this dish, the potatoes just a vehicle for them.

Judging from the reactions of my guests, I think the dish was a hit. The skin was crispy, not oily, and the meat tender and juicy. Even if you’re a vegetarian, doesn’t that sound tantalizing?

Wish you could have a bite,

PS I think I sated my desire for fried chicken for at least a couple years.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Lemongrass Is the New Lavendar

I knew that God was trying to tell me something when the TSA confiscated my L’Occitaine Lavendar Hand Lotion on my way home from South Africa. As I squeezed as much lotion onto my arms and body as I could without garnering too many stares, I bid my lotion farewell.

Since then I haven’t bought any new lavendar products. I recently bought a new lemongrass and sage deodorant. Has anyone noticed that NOBODY sells deodorant for women? Everything is anti-perspirant, and being a hypochondriac, I recently decided that anti-perspirant isn’t good for me, so now I smell like a man…or an herb garden.

Anyway, my next phase is herb infused products, be it shampoo, lotion, tea, or deodorant.

Lavendar is SO passe.

Flying Fish and Pesto

Pics: Q's Pesto Chicken Pizza, Fishmongers throwing a salmon at Pike's Fish Market, funny sign at Pike Market, monkfish (aka poor man's lobster) sign at fish market

Just got back from Seattle, Washington, home of Pike's Fish Market where they throw fish around. Coincidentally I ate at a restaurant called Flying Fish which totally blew my mind. It was amazing, and trust me--coming from me, an extremely judgmental foodsnob, that’s quite a review. Seriously, even the cocktails rocked. So here's what I had:

Fried Oyster Caesar Salad
Smoked Cod with Horseradish
Grilled Swordfish with Spaetzle and Tarragon

Salad--I always think it very classy when restaurants serve Caesar Salad with whole leaves of romaine lettuce, although hand-shredded lettuce is also very tasteful. Each leaf was delicately smothered in a light dressing which I assume was composed of the standard caesar dressing of raw egg and anchovy. (FDA warns that women who are pregnant or nursing should avoid raw egg products.) The croutons were perfectly toasted (also hand-shredded) and the oysters melted in your mouth, not a second beyond al dente. Crispy on the outside, delicate on the inside. Heaven all around.

Cod--If there's one thing I've never attempted at home, it's smoking fish. First of all I don't have a smokehouse, and second, I don't have the time or space to build one as I live in Los Angeles. The smokiness of the cod was offset by a delicate horseradish sauce, with just enough bite to compliment but not overpower the fish. I almost came after my first bite, but then realized I was in a public space. Divine.

Swordfish--It is now politically acceptable to order swordfish. Due to overfishing, these fish were on the endangered species list for quite some time. However, this doesn't mean you should order it wherever you go. I, for one, have not had swordfish in several years, and ordering it yesterday felt very very naughty. Who’s a naughty girl? Who’s a naughty, naughty girl? The FDA also warns of potential toxicity from methylmercury in this fish. (Tuna also has high levels of this toxin.) So don't eat it every day, and if you do choose to eat it, get a steak and grill it because this fish was meant to be grilled. Yum. Or, if you're feeling fancy, slice it really thin and roll it up to make "involtini." I'll blog about that later. Anyway, the swordfish at FLYING FISH was perfect. It was served with spaetzle, which added beautiful texture to the dish as a whole. Both the fish and spaetzle gently yielded to each bite, yet held its integrity like Custer.

What blew my mind the most about this dish, however, was the tarragon part of it. Now I've made tarragon with chicken, potatoes, seafood, you name it. But I've NEVER thought to cook it whole as a side dish. Tarragon has a slightly anise scent to it, and is very subtle, which makes it a perfect herb for seafood. (That’s why you don’t put cheese on seafood—it’ll overpower it.) Anyway, the cooked herb lent a somewhat bitter green taste to the dish, which gave it a new layer of complexity. Who would’ve thought? Brilliant. Also, I drank a pale ale with it, which washed down the dish better than a pinot grigio could have. That slight accent of bitterness got me. I’m hooked. (No pun intended.)

OK, that’s enough. Next time you’re in Seattle, you MUST dine at FLYING FISH. Just don’t walk down Pike St. at night alone…CREEPY!

Wish you could have a bite,

PS My pesto chicken pizza turned out great. The pizza stone didn’t crack, either. Here’s my own recipe for pesto. Take it or leave it. I don’t really measure anything when I cook, (only when I bake,) so if you guys want exact measurements, email me.

Bunches of washed and FULLY DRIED basil
Pignoli, or pinenuts (or walnuts if you must)
Couple cloves of peeled garlic
Fresh lemon juice
Grated parmesan or pecorino cheese
Crushed red chili flakes
Olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste

In a dry sauté pan, toast your pine nuts over low heat until the fragrance fills your kitchen and your roommates ask, “Wow, what is that amazing smell you brilliant cook?” They burn FAST, so make sure the flame is low and shake the pan frequently. Set aside to cool.

In a food processor add your basil leaves, garlic (optional), pinenuts, chili (optional), some sea salt, freshly ground pepper, and a couple of squeezes of lemon juice and blend until coarse. With the machine still running, drizzle in the olive oil until the desired consistency. You don’t want your pesto to look too oily, so stop the machine before it’s too late. I personally prefer it creamy and spreadable.

Stir in freshly grated parmesan or pecorino cheese. Taste and season accordingly. I like to store mine in a sealed container with a layer of saran wrap pressed right onto the surface to help with color and freshness. Try this with ice cream as well to prevent crystallization.

Basil tends to oxidize rather quickly, so when you notice the brownish top layer, it’s fine, just a little ugly. The acid in lemon juice helps slow down oxidization, and I also like the brighter note it brings to my pesto. If you want really green pesto to stay green, you can add Vitamin C powder to it—plus it’ll prevent scurvy. OR, you can add a little spinach to it, but I’m still scared of ecoli. Try making pesto with other herbs, or even artichokes. Enjoy!