Saturday, June 28, 2008

Hoity-toity Mac and Cheese

This is a mac and cheese I last made while on a ski vacation a while back. While my friends were on the slopes, I stayed in our cabin and cooked up some mac and cheese and tomato soup, with tons of kitchen equipment that I put in a hiking pack and carried through the woods and into our place. (ok.. it wasn't really Rocky Balboa training in the Soviet Union to fight Ivan Drago kind of labor, but I did have to carry my cast iron pan, my immersion blender, and all my food supplies through the woods in thigh deep snow) Sadly, Kay's Cabins near South Lake Tahoe in Kirkwood, California closed shop.

Anyway, California is cold and cloudy right now, and that is enough context for comfort food, especially with the discomfiting smell of Northern California forest wildfires wafting into my house.

Mac and Cheese

1 tbsp butter
1/2 cup celery, chopped
1 cup red bell pepper, chopped into 1/2 inch squares
1/2 pound penne pasta
1 1/2 cup half and half
1 1/2 cup whipping cream
1/2 pound cambazola (or other mild blue cheese), cut into small cubes
1/2 teaspoon celery seed
2 egg yolks
1/2 cup bacon, diced (optional for the non-veggie)
1 cup grated parmesan cheese

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.

In a pan, sauté the celery and the bell pepper in butter until just soft. Season with salt and pepper. Also, now is the time to fry up the bacon if you're using it.

Boil the pasta until al dente. While it is getting ready to boil, combine whipping cream, half and half and cheese until cheese is melted in a small saucepan, stirring occasionally. While the cheese is melting, beat the egg yolks in a separate, heat resistant bowl and set aside. After the cheese fully melts, stir in the celery seed and season with paprika, salt and pepper. Pour half of this mixture into the egg yolks, stirring constantly. And then return the egg yolk and cheese sauce mixture back in with the rest of the mixture.

After draining the pasta, mix the cheese sauce and the veggies (and bacon) in the same pan as the pasta. Transfer all of this into a baking pan. Top with parmesan cheese. Bake at 400 for about 20 minutes or until the sauce is bubbling and the top of the dish is beginning to brown.

I like to drizzle a little truffle oil over the whole thing when it's done. And I suspect shaved truffle will do nicely, but I'll only do that if somebody is nice enough to give me some truffle. Someone? Anyone?

It's a hoity-toity mac and cheese and I'm not apologetic about this all.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Thai-inspired Apricot Chicken with Coconut Rice

Apricots are here. Yay. I've never really made anything savory with apricots. Actually I don't usually use apricots--I prefer peaches and nectarines. So this apricot thingy is a first for me. This particular dish is inspired by one of my favorite Thai dishes, mango chicken. Apricots work pretty well as a mango substitute. They're similarly sweet, though apricots do not have the mango tanginess, so a little bit of citrus was needed for the sauce.

The sauce was a variation on sweet and sour. I suspect it would work just as well with fried fish rather than chicken. The banana leaf is not necessary, but steamed with the coconut rice, it gave the rice just a bit more fragrance.

All measurements approximate.

Stuff for apricot sauce:
6 apricots sliced and peeled (peeling is not necessary, but I wanted a more uniform texture)
1/2 cup cilantro chopped
4 tbsp soy sauce (I used half and half fine Japanese soy sauce and Filipino soy sauce, but any soy sauce would do)
3 tbsp ginger chopped
2 tbsp fish sauce
1 tbsp sake (rice wine vinegar is okay)
1 tbsp sriracha hot sauce
1 tbsp brown sugar
juice of 1/2 lime
zest of 1/2 lime

Stuff for chicken:
4 boneless, skinless chicken thighs, sliced thinly into strips
1 cup white flour
5 tbsp clarified butter
1 red bell pepper sliced thinly

Stuff for coconut rice:
2 cups jasmine rice
1 1/2 cup water
1 can light coconut milk
1 tbsp salt
1 small banana leaf (4 inches by 2 inches)

Place all the sauce ingredients in a food processor and puree. The desired flavor is sweet, salty, sour and spicy all at once. If it's too spicy, squeeze some more lime in there and add a little sugar. More fish sauce counteracts sweetness (be careful!).

Prepare the rice in a rice cooker. Just toss in all the ingredients, placing the banana leaf into the pot last. If you do not have a rice cooker, use a pot with a heavy lid. You might want to oil the bottom of the pan lightly so that the rice doesn't stick. It should cook for about 15-20 minutes.

In a flat container, drag the chicken strips around the white flour until all of them are covered. Fry them over medium-hot in clarified butter until golden brown on both sides. This should take about 5-10 minutes per chicken strip. You don't have to use clarified butter, but doing so reduces risk of burning the butter so I prefer the clarified stuff. Once the chicken is fried, remove from heat.

In another pan, (or the pan you used to cook the chicken with the butter cleaned out), place the fried chicken strips along with the bell pepper slices. Pour the apricot sauce in with the chicken and simmer over medium heat for about 10 minutes or until the bell pepper is soft.

Serve over the coconut rice.

This was my entry to the Leftover Queen's July Royal Foodie Joust. This as well as other bloggers' recipes can be found here.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

June 14 is National Strawberry Shortcake Day

June 14 is my mother's birthday. But I didn't get to celebrate with her because she's 3,000 miles away. Instead, I gave her a phonecall and I visited Santa Cruz's Swanton Berry Farm to get myself some of their strawberry shortcake.

Just a short drive of a few miles north of Santa Cruz on Highway 1, right on the Pacific coast, is Swanton Ranch. I initially wanted to bike up and eat my shortcake there but the thought of the ride back to Santa Cruz after pigging out on strawberry shortcake deterred me from doing just that. I chose the easier route of hopping in the car and going there.

Swanton Berry Farm is a 100% union shop (their farmstand shop is all about Cesar Chavez). All the farm workers are part of the United Farm Workers. All their produce is also organic and the berry varieties they offer are better tasting, lower yielding berries. They do great work, and their strawberries are beautiful.

Aside from the fresh berries, they do u-pick and they make great jams. But today's not about jam-- Swanton sells strawberry shortcake in ready-to-go plastic tubs in their chiller. I got a couple to take home.

The shortcake was perfect. The cake itself wasn't excruciatingly sweet. It was just right. The berries didn't taste like anything was added to them to boost their flavor. They were fresh yo.

Swanton Berry Farms: union labor + organic strawberries = delicious strawberry shortcake

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

June 13 is Kitchen Klutzes of America Day (or "How not to make binatog by burning your house down")

I'm a little early for this celebration, but I feel that celebrating it is apt. June 13 is Kitchen Klutzes of America Day.


1) Go to FoodBuzz Featured Publisher dinner at Gochi Japanese Tapas in Cupertino. Enjoy wonderful and inventive tapas Japanese-style. Try the pizza (on a very light cracker-like crust), the onigiri yaki (with salmon mayonnaise), the fried chicken with eggplant and the delicious unagi fried rice. Meet a few great folks from FoodBuzz (thanks folks!).

Yaki Onigiri, much better than my own attempt

2) Go home and try to make binatog. Binatog is a Filipino snack made from hominy, sugar, coconut and milk, served sort of like a corn parfait.

3) Turn on the wrong burner on an electric stove and not notice that a different burner from the one you intended is glowing red.

4) Smell the noxious fumes from burning dish towel.

5) Panic.

In addition to not leaving a dish towel directly on a burner (gas or electric), do not leave microfiber dish towels on hot stainless steel pot lid, or else they will smolder and ruin your pretty, stainless steel pot lid.

By the way: the binatog attempt failed because ignorant as I was about how to prepare hominy, I did not boil my dried corn in lime-water to remove the corn germ. I will try again this weekend.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

June 6 is National Doughnut Day: Beignets New Orleans-style

Beignets from scratch

Spending my last afternoon of vacation just sitting on my ass, I decided that I could be more productive with my ass-sitting by injecting my ass-sitting activities with some ass-growing assistance. In a fortuitous twist of fate, I heard it through the grapevine that June the 6th is National Doughnut Day. And so for the sake of ass-sitting/ass-growing multitasking (and perhaps fueled at a subconscious level by my hosting of two Canadians at my house the previous night), I decided to celebrate this great day by making donuts.

But which donuts to make? I've always loved how airy Krispy Kreme donuts are, and I knew that they make yeast-raised donuts, as opposed to the cake donuts common at Dunkin Donuts (which are painfully absent in California). But for today, I decided beignets were right. Donuts need not have holes after all.

My trusty Joy of Cooking by Rombauch and Becker, et al. had a recipe for beignets that called for butter and four eggs. Additionally, I found several recipes online, most notably this one at the New Orleans Cuisine Blog. These were two very different approaches to the beignet-- the Rombauchs' recipe would no doubt be cakier and denser. And the NOLA Cuisine Blog recipe would be fluffier. I chose the latter-- I like the fluff. My only change was an increase in the required sugar because I like my donut dough on the sweeter side.

And just in case those flopped, I also got a box of the famous New Orleans Cafe du Monde beignet mix as an emergency backup.

I invited Elsa and Sean over so that I could have companions in my celebration, and so that I could have people around to keep me from eating all the donuts myself and passing out in the kitchen, waking up in the morning on the floor with powdered sugar all over me.

1 packet active dry yeast
3/4 cup warm water (110 degrees F)
1/3 cup sugar
1/2 tsp salt
1 egg, beaten
1/2 cup evaporated milk
3 1/2 - 3 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/8 Cup Shortening
About 2 -3 inches of vegetable oil in a saucepan
Loads of powdered sugar

I won't reproduce the instructions anymore as they can be found in the blog post I refer to above. It seemed in the end that my donut dough didn't flop. And I found myself with a boxful of Cafe du Mond beignet mix unopened. I decided to make those anyway so that I could compare the homemade to the mix. The ones I made from scratch were definitely fluffier and plumper. But they also tasted yeasty. Maybe if I switched to a different yeast I could lose the sour undertones produced by the yeast, and I'll have to look into that in the future. The cakemix donuts were also tasty and did not have the yeasty flavor. They were also less sweet. I don't know which ones I prefer. My from-scratch beignets I feel more warmth towards because I pored over them, urging the yeast to bubble and froth, but the New Orleans French Market Cafe Du Monde beignets made me want to have crawdads and okra. So in the end, it's a toss-up.

All told, I think I ate about a dozen donuts in the past twelve hours. I have powdered sugar all over my clothes and all over my kitchen and I'm still sitting on my ass.

Cake-mix beignets

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

National Burger Month Day 31: Sirloin Burger with Seared Foie Gras and Shiitake Stirfry

Is this really it? Thirty-one days of burger-influenced gluttony are finally over. I am both saddened and elated to be done with this thing. I think I will not do a month-long food celebration for a long time, no matter how wonderful the food I wish to celebrate is. On the other hand, the past month has been a good time. It's really funny how community formed around little round patties of chopped stuff, even if people didn't particularly like little round patties of chopped stuff.

For my last burger of the month, I wanted to do the most indulgent burger I could do. I figured that I would try to replicate Daniel Boulud's extravagant burgers, but from the outset, these were impossibilities. Boulud makes a burger with Kobe wagyu beef, braised shortribs, truffle and foie gras. I cannot get wagyu beef easily, and I do not want to spend $75 for 2 ounces of black truffle. So instead of doing an exact replica, I tried to incorporate whatever I could.

My burgers were made with grass-fed organic sirloin that I milled myself. These were seasoned simply with salt and pepper and grilled to medium. I topped each burger with foie gras, which I seared on a griddle to get the juices running. On top of this, I placed some sliced shiitake mushrooms which I stir-fried in truffle oil (which were my closest substitutes for real truffles). Finally, I shaved some gruyere over the whole works.

The mushrooms and foie gras definitely gave the burgers added depth and richness. The burgers, unfortunately, were underseasoned (I could've sworn I salted the bejeezus out of them). But in the end, the flavors worked pretty well together.

I think that with these foie gras burgers I came full-circle with this whole burger challenge. I started with those delicious James Beard burgers that I thought were the very essence of burger. I didn't know I'd blog the whole thing the way I had. Along the way, we departed from our predefined calendar and with the help of enterprising grill-partners, turned out some pretty wacky burgers. This evening's burgers were very much like those first ones I made, but dressed up some. The sirloin was as simple as those first, James Beard burgers were. The foie gras and the shiitake did not take away from the essential meat.

I don't think I can look at burgers the same way again-- certainly not after 31 days of minced meat (with some potatoes and tofu thrown in). But finally I can now cook something else for dinner.

Yesterday, I went to the nearest In-n-Out Burger joint. My guests wanted to try them out as they didn't have In-n-Out in New York. So I obliged, despite saying that I wouldn't touch burgers again for the foreseeable future, having just done thirty-one days of them. I ordered what I used to order at In-n-Out: a cheeseburger animal style with fries well done. Back before my burger endeavor, I used to think that In-n-Outs were terrific burgers. But yesterday I was astonished at how mediocre they are. In-n-Out is just another fast food burger.

National Burger Month Day 30: A day for leftovers; A duo of decidedly non-kosher lamb burgers

To those people (one or two at most, I am sure) who are even keeping up (out of sheer boredom I am sure) with my observance of National Burger Month, I apologize for being remiss in my blog updates. The parental units are visiting burger headquarters and all sort of work has gone into schlepping around town entertaining the guests. Through this all, I remained dedicated to the last two days of National Burger Month and I did really end with a bang. This post is a little catching up with the month update.

NBM Day 30 was supposed to be part of my trifecta of triumphant burgers for closing out the celebration (day 1 was my döner burger). I planned to make a Filipino Crispy Pata burger. Crispy Pata is a Filipino dish where they poach a pork shank for a while, and then deep fry it, hence adding the crispy to its name. I had elaborate plans for procuring a pork shank, boiling it, then chopping it up into bits before forming patties for the deep fryer. Unfortunately, I couldn't find a pork shank in time, and with the impending parental visit, had barely enough time to clean the house, and no time to make day two of my trifecta of triumphant burgers for closing out the celebration. All I had were leftovers.

Stupid me, I didn't label my minced meat. I didn't know if I was making a pork burger or a lamb burger, and my nose is not sensitive enough to tell apart one batch of uncooked meat from another. So to solve my identification problem, I just made the pork sleep with the lamb-- the perfect unkosher combination caught in a bout of interspecies melding. I topped the frankenburgers with more leftover stuff-- spinach, tomatoes and goat cheese. The results wasn't bad at all. I made a duo of frankenburgers, one in a traditional bun and the other in a pita.