November 2008 Archives

Bleak Landscape
By Lydia on November 23, 2008 4:55 PM| | Comments (0)
Yesterday felt like an exercise in servility. I kept my "nod and smile" face on for hours longer than usual. Part of this was the fault of the Chez, as I catered a wedding during which most of my work was saying, brightly, "More sangria, sir?" and pouring, pouring, pouring. My only respite was sneaking into the dishtank to get sloppily trancelike and wait for the hours to roll by. Just call me #1 Dish-bitch.

Earlier, though, my nods were in full swing: "Gee, I bet it would be great if we just executed everyone convicted of a crime... Right from the courthouse to the gallows?... No, I don't suppose we'd kill all that many innocent people... Sure, I guess that's just the way the cookie crumbles."

I was sitting in a strip mall Mexican restaurant called Las Cazuelas, across the street from the Standale Meijer, staring alternately at a Sponge Bob Square Pants video playing on the TV for the owner's kids and a pretty awsome mural of a quaint South American house with waterfall. I was trying not to hog the chips and salsa in the middle of the table, but they were really good, and I hadn't had any breakfast. Also, its hard to moderate when your normal diet tactics include talking too much to eat, and I was simultaneously trying to not hog the conversation. OK, that last part was a lie. I was having no trouble not contributing to the discussion of crime rates and capital punishment.

I was out for lunch with Ted, his dad and his dad's wife. Hanging out with Ted Roper Sr. and his wife is a very different time than hanging out with Ted's mom. With her its all about the Bud Light Lime and the games and the smoking. With him, its more like meeting your boyfriend's dad.

The restaurant was pretty good, actually. It had all the ambiance you might expect from a strip mall, but the waitress was pleasant and prices cheap. I had flautas, which were crisp without being hard, and the chicken inside was nicely seasoned. They came with refried beans and rice, and were topped with chopped iceberg lettuce, a couple tasteless tomato chunks, and some pre-shredded cheese. The beans and rice were fine, but I found them lacking any distinct flavor, and the flautas could have really benefited from some lime or a bright tasting salsa. Without, they were simply unbalanced. The lettuce and tomato on top were an uninspired attempt at a vegetal note, and maybe if the tomato had not been supermarket quality it would have been welcome, but iceberg lettuce was only standing in for crunch, and the flautas themselves were doing that just fine. If it were me, I would have chosen some onion and cilantro instead. More flavor; good crunch. As to cheese, if it had melted over everything it may have worked, but it seemed more like a garnish meant for color as it stood. As it was, the cheese added no discernable flavor, and a not quite welcome stringy texture. I always feel like I can feel the powdery coating on these pre-shedded cheeses. I spooned a great deal of the house hot sauce over, but found not much of heat, or flavor, in it. It was only mildly disappointing, however, as the food was good, just too plain: no zing. Maybe the plate could have used some green chile sauce from Ted's enchiladas, which were snuggled under a blanket of the stuff, but Ted is territorial about all things green chile, so I didn't pry.

I ate my whole plate, slow as I could, but I was still embarrassed to see Bonnie pushing half of her quesadilla around her plate ten minutes later. Why do I never feel like a lady when I finish my food? Probably my Scarlet O'Hara complex flaring up.

I leave for Russia tomorrow. I am going with my dad, as a "Marketing Associate" with his company, for the World Meteoralogical Organization conference in St. Petersburg. Seriously, he made me business cards. I'm official. I plan to eat a lot and tell you all about it. Wish me luck, I am a little nervous! I'll be back Sunday.
On Pasta. (Noodles)
By Lydia on November 15, 2008 6:32 PM| | Comments (9)
My grandmother used to say "pasta" "pahsta" like "patrimony." My mother once told me that this was because she wanted everyone to know that she wasn't quite comfortable with that word; she was not that kind of lady. I grew up saying "noodles," and "spaghetti" was also a blanket term for any kind of noodle.  I have grudgingly accepted the use of more specific terms, but I still think its dumb when someone says something like, " Oh, I had a great fusili last night."

When I was growing up my mother made dinner every night from scratch, and probably 3 out of 7 nights we ate some kind of noodle. It was our staple carbohydrate. The sauce took some usual forms: Stop And Go, Normal, Pesto, Cream, Meatball, and Cheese were probably the most frequent. Stop And Go was a very simple red sauce with fresh basil, this was pretty much my favorite, and I hated it when my mother would sauce the pasta in the bowl rather than on individual plates, as I thought I was getting less sauce. Normal  and pesto are pretty clear descriptions, but Normal must have some chopped celery and carrot in it. Not a lot, but a little. I have since learned that chopped celery, onion and carrot is called a mirepoix, and is the basis for lots of French dishes. Here they should be chopped finely and cooked til tender, so they are barely detectable in the final product.

Cream sauce was really more of a spur of the moment lunch dish, mixing milk or half n' half with butter and garlic and parmesean. My sister who must have a hot meal 3 times a day makes this All The Time. Meat, and hence, Meatball, was a fairly rare occurance. Maybe we ate meat once or twice a week, counting breakfasts and lunches as well. To this day, I dislike almost every meatball except my mama's. Cheese really means Macaroni And. My mom makes the kind where you make a roux with butter and flour and milk and cheese (technically called mornay sauce) and then put even more cheese on top and when it bakes up the top gets golden and brown and crusty. Yum. 

Yes, there were others. We had forays into clam sauce and spicy sauce and whatevs, but last week I was reading Bitten, and Mr. Bittman was talking about how one should always have in the fridge a quantity of cooked greens, to be mixed into various dishes including pasta. What? Has everyone been eating greens with pasta and I never knew about it? That sounds kind of good, and really good for me. Well, I made some tonight and it kind of blew me away. It was way better than "kinda good, but good for me." It was delicious. On the off chance that I was not the only one who missed the memo, here is an apoximation of my recipe:

Who Knew Noodles with Green

1 quantity mustard greens (or any like kale, collards, turnip, beet, whatev)
couple cloves garlic
red pepper flakes
some kind of onion ( I used leeks cause I had them handy, but normal yellow onions are cheaper)
liquid (water, white wine, whatever beer you're drinking, stock/broth dry vermouth)

        ---- A note on dry vermouth. I do not make myself martinis, but I think this is indispensible. It keeps forever and can do what white wine does in almost every instance. Don't drink white wine? Don't want to open a whole bottle that you know is going to oxidize in your fridge before you get desperate enough to drink the damn thing? Buy a bottle of white/dry/French vermouth. My bottle of Gallo cost me $3.99(!!)  and it'll last you forever. Vermouth is just a fortified wine, the fortifications keep it good longer, good for us!----

some pasta
cheese if desired

Start the pasta water first, as the greens cook in less than half the time it'll take the water to boil. Make pasta. Cook garlic/onion/pepper flakes in oil. I used a couple anchovy filets too, cause the can was open and I love that shit. When browned and smelly throw greens and liquid in. Scrape bottom of pan so nothing burns and you get the good stuff up. Cook til wilty and tasty-looking. Throw pasta in with greens and toss. Serve in bowls, and top with cheese. I used crumbly, mild farmer's cheese, Friendship brand I think, and available at Russo's, but you can use romano, parmasean, or nothing. It does lend a creaminess that I likes a lot. Maybe if we all petition Martha's they will start carrying it.

I love that with noodles only a 10 minute output of energy effectively guarantees a good dinner, probably with leftovers. I am thinking now of the woman I saw at Meijer's today with her cart stacked solely with Lean Cuisine frozen entrees. Does that woman know those aren't really good for you? Does she know that it takes more time to boil water than make dinner? Watching people's carts makes me a little sad and a little ill. I know there is something of a trend toward local food and the like, and that's great, but is the message really getting to the people who need it? First we have the hard task of convincing them that the preparation and consumtion of a meal is a worthwile and unintimidating venture. I think this needs to happen before the kids grow up thinking that toaster pasteries, mac and cheese in a microwavable pouch, and processed lunch meats are not only good food, but the only food.

Well, that was depressing. Do any of you have favorite pasta stories/recipes?

Bibimbap Now
By Lydia on November 9, 2008 11:24 AM| | Comments (5)
Making new things is always intimidating for me. I don't have any innate sense of flavor, and my handle on technique is sometimes shaky. Add to that the recent arrival of an alpha cook in my kitchen and we get an Even More Nervous Lydia.

Yesterday I made bibimbap for the first time. As previously mentioned in posts about Seoul Garden and Marado Sushi, bibimbap is a Korean dish. Rather, it is the Korean version of "rice with stuff." It is a little like stir-fry, a little like pilaf, but with much more textural contrast and just as much freedom to experiment. It is basically a big bowl of rice with toppings laid on top, often in a pie chart style. Almost always there is a raw or fried egg on top, and always there is gochujang (sp?) a spicy sauce made of fermented bean paste, garlic and chiles. You mix the whole thing together before eating it with kimchi, pickled vegetables and the like. Yum!

I spent the day before work watching Gossip Girl and mandolining. If you have never used a mandoline let me be the first to warn you, it wins the award for kitchen tool most likely to lose you a finger. I had this incident once making gahar halwa, and let me tell you, that lovely burnished color wasn't just carrot... In any event, as long as you do not drink while operating and Do Not Watch TV you will be ok. They are very very handy time-savers. The mandoline is basically an angled blade set in a plastic board. You slide the vegetable along the board, and the blade slices perfectly every time. There are also removable blades to make matchsticks or strips instead of slices. I made quick machsticks of carrot, slices of cucumber and turnip, and didn't cut myself once!

The sauce was a combination of hot red peppers, garlic, salt, pepper, a roux of oil and flour for texture and a couple of anchovy filets for that fermented-ish stank. Anchovies, I think, are done a great disservice by those who do not understand their use in combination, especially in sauces. Even if you don't taste the anchovy, it lends a depth, and a funk, that is indispensible in many dishes.

I also chopped some green onion on the bias, chopped more chunks of turnip, some of apple, and cubed portabella mushrooms and a small eggplant. The eggplant got marinated in a combination of fish sauce, tamari and olive oil. I would have used sesame if I had had it, but instead just sprinkled some seeds on and gave it a good toss. The mushroom got dressed with oil and chopped garlic. Those went into the fridge in seperate containers along with all the crunchy vegetables. The turnip and apple I was trying to make into banchan, the accompaniments of pickles. Turnip strips were covered in salt and sugar and water and left to cure. I sauced chunks of turnip with oil, chopped chiles and maple syrup. Apples got cayenne, paprika, and lots of black pepper. Last I made a very ginger-heavy mix of turnip and apple. I pretty much was hoping that one of them would be good, but not expecting miracles of turnip transformation. Then I just threw it all in the fridge to wait for after work.

I got out really late, as there were many rabid country music fans swilling vodka-cranberries and mowing hummus before the Reba Macintire/Kelly Clarkson show. Barf. (Barf to vodka, barf to $8 pesto hummus, an assumed barf to Reba, but no barf to KC's hit "Since U Been Gone.") When I got home I just made a bunch of sticky rice and set Ted to work doing the real cooking. I mean, of course, the part where you put the eggplant in the saute pan and do that flippy thing to stir instead of, you know, stirring like a normal person. That's OK, I used my time to make him a Facebook account and a gmail. Welcome to the Internet, Ted. When everything was done we arranged the pie chart and fried an egg.
Well, it was good. There were different textures and colors, certainly. Next time I will omit the cucumber, as it was overwhelmed by the bean sprouts in crunch and the green onions in flavor. I will use more mushroom and less eggplant. I will make the sauce spicier. I will remember the kimchi in the fridge and eat it. Also, I will make this as a great use of leftovers instead of spending the better part of a day on it. And that's really the intent here. The combination of ingredients should be happenstance, but sensible, making an easy dish that's more than the sum of its parts.