Thursday, May 26, 2011

Ginger Tofu and Bok Choy

Did you know there was an Asian grocery store 5 minutes from my house? I didn't. There could be one around yours, too, and you just don't know about it. You should check. It's quite the experience.

I was planning on making a regular old irreverent pan-Asian for dinner tonight, and didn't get across the parking lot after work before an Asian grocery store sprung up from the ground and stopped me in my tracks (well, not literally, or my car would have been flying through the glass storefront).

I decided to go in, expecting that I would shop Ina Garten-style: take a slow, meditative walk around the market, pretending that the aisle shelves are garden patches, humming softly to myself, describing produce items as "whimsical", casually picking up whatever looks fresh that day as if plucking it off a sun-ripened bush (arms linked with Alec Baldwin optional).

But this is not The Hamptons. This is the Yu Yu Asian Market on Waller Ave.

Luxurious browsing, I realized, is not a possibility. There are rows upon rows of little dried things in totally opaque packages that I cannot read, and probably would look just as foreign even if the label were translated in English. Whole 3' long dehydrated squids lying around. Flies swarming open bags full of chickens' feet. The whole place stinks with the odor of the live crabs crawling all over each other, which about make me jump out of my skin when I peer into their soggy cardboard box. The whole time I keep thinking it would be totally awesome if I had the prowess to kill my own crab, but I don't. Instead, I decide to get the two or three things in the whole place I actually recognize and get out as quickly as possible. (I also really had to pee).

Here was my small loot:

The moment I get home I realize that I don't actually know anything about this stuff, so I immediately begin typing all kinds of things into Google

how to drain tofu
how to cook tofu
how to chop bok choy
how to cook bok choy
what are enoni mushrooms
how to cook enoki mushrooms

First of all, the package of tofu had a promotional sticker for Kung Fu Panda 2, which made me LOL.
What I did was "dry fry" it according to this method, then marinate it for 30 min.
I like really firm tofu in a stir fry. Some takeout places call it "home style." Cut it up into triangles, thoroughly press in towels to collect the moisture, and then brown it low and slow in a dry pan. You've got to resist the temptation to move them around in the pan, otherwise they won't get that nice crispy texture on the outside. Don't forget to periodically press it with a spatula to get the extra moisture out (the article describes the sound as a 'sizzle' when the water hits he pan, but it's more like slowly letting the air out of a balloon).
Like I said, I like my tofu to be firm, but I always assumed that places generally deep-fried it. You'd be surprised how little fat is actually in this recipe. The dry pan method takes a while, but it's worth it. Once it comes out of there flattened, firm and crispy, it really soaks up that marinade and tastes delicious.

As far as marinade... as you can see in the photo, I actually bought a spice packet for yellow curry, but then decided to make my own flavor combo and save the yellow curry for a later time. Here is what I came up with.

Asian Marinade
1 Tbsp fresh grated ginger
2 cloves fresh grated garlic
1/4 cup soy sauce
1/4 cup canola oil
3 Tbsp sesame oil
1 Tbsp fish sauce
2 Tbsp rice vinegar
8 minced chilis, red, yellow, and green
sweet chili paste
3 Tbsp white sugar

Those measurements are rough; everything is pretty much to taste.
Of course you have to de-seed the chili peppers because they are HOT! We like things hot and spicy, but these raw peppers were making us sneeze and cough all over the place.
I slice them lengthwise like so and just remove the core with a small, sharp knife.

Here are the little enoki mushrooms out of their pack:
So baby-baby!
I guess they're a lot more delicate and cute than they are flavorful. They are best enjoyed raw or nearly raw, because otherwise they'll break.
To me they just add a nice visual element.

First I heated some oil with garlic and shallots. Washed the bok choy, chopped the stems up and separated them out from the leaves, washed it again. Stir-fried the stems 7 minutes, then the leaves: I stirred them around for 5 minutes along with 1 julienned carrot. Finally added the enoki mushrooms.
I finished it by adding the tofu and pouring the rest of the marinade overtop. So really it was like a wilted bok choy salad.

The one thing I would do differently next time is not cook the bok choy for so long--I think I over-steamed it in the pan, it could have had more crunch to it. The tofu was just perfect--about Asian restaurant-quality, if I'm allowed to say so myself.

I'd like to try this salad with a grilled white fish, too. Of course, you can always eliminate the fish sauce from the marinade and it'd be 100% vegetarian.
Served with fluffy white rice!

Tuesday, May 24, 2011



At the farmers' market this guy had some baby cucumbers labeled as "pickles". I was meaning to get cucumbers anyway. You can imagine how that sign just lit the spark on that pickle-making urge that I get sometimes. (what, you don't?)

The first [and only other] time that I tried making refrigerator pickles was a disaster.
okay, it wasn't that much of a disaster.

I followed a recipe, [Aha! Mistake #1],
not paying attention to the fact that my Mason jars were about an eighth of the size that they needed to be.
The recipe had these really tedious instructions--cut the cucumbers a certain way, salt them according to very precise measurements. Drown them in a boiled vinegar solution, refrigerate for exactly 2 weeks; in the meantime, take them out and shake them vigorously for a minute each day.

At the end of the two weeks I took them out to try, and you can imagine my horror that they were too sour, soft, and downright mushy!
Turns out,
I had used at least 8 times as much vinegar as I was supposed to, so they basically broke down into a pickle mush.Needless to say, they sat uneaten in the refrigerator for about four months until I had the heart [and stomach] to pour them out.*
*See below post on not being able to throw away food.

What I really wanted the whole time was crisp,
barely pickled cucumbers. Like Claussen, or the ones at Ted's Montana Buffalo Burger.

Don't act like you don't know what I'm talking about.

(How do they
do it?)

Here is my new attempt at refrigerator pickles. This time is a little different for two reasons:

1. The cucumber.
Last time I used "regular" cucumbers, the big, dark green ones from the grocery store. Apparently, since the sign at the farmers' market advertised these as being specifically for pickles, these will be more appropriate. Not so big and full of water to begin with.
2. The brine.
Since I am only making a tiny batch of pickles in my teeny tiny jars, I am not just going to drowning them in vinegar. Instead, to each jar I added just 1 Tbsp white distilled vinegar to 1 cup cold water. Plenty diluted for a slow, crisp fermentation.
Seasonings (Per 16-ounce jar)
1 Tbsp Kosher salt
1/2 tsp mustard powder
1/4 tsp dill seeds, whole
5 black peppercorns, whole
1 tsp fresh minced garlic

Some other things you could use, depending on what's on hand:
red pepper flakes, mustard seeds (they look so cute in there!), celery seeds, fresh dill.

This time I didn't have those wonderful little lids with the rubber seals, so I just used a layer of tin foil under the screw top. It's not air-tight, but since these are not brining for the whole 2 weeks, they don't really need to be. In fact, I think I'll try these cuties tomorrow and see what good a little picklin' has done them.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Cooking For One

With Katie out of town all week, I have been... well, mainly pouring myself into our treasure trove of restaurant leftovers, but even paradise has its expiration date.
I am also working on cleaning out the 'fridge, something that gets done far too infrequently.
(Because, honestly, who wants to confront the the answer to the question of whether or not the mold cultures in that 1/2-gallon tub of spoiled [but chilled] meat and veggies have yet developed slavery and cuneiform? No, thanks.)

StillTasty: The Ultimate Shelf Life Guide

I am always saying that grocery sizes are too arbitrary.
Now, if I were cooking for a family of four to six, which is what all portions are exactly measured to accommodate, then grocery packaging would fit my needs and waste might not be such a problem.

Cooking for two is fine--if you accept that just because you wanted spinach three weeks ago does not mean that you wanted spinach every. single. meal. for the rest of the time that it would take for two to finish off that circus tent sized bag before the spinach in it turns funky.

One is even worse.

Luckily there are a few things that I keep on hand at all times that virtually don't go bad:
tortillas, cans of beans, and salsa.
Violà. We also have these adorable little single-serving baking dishes that I'm always daydreaming about making individual lasagnas in. And, well, enchiladas are like the lasagna of Mexican. ...right?
And now, I bring you:

Totally Unauthentic but Totally Cheap and Good Enchiladas for One

The Sauce:
I browned some garlic and onion in a pan. (don't all recipes start out that way?!) Stirred in a few tablespoons chicken stock and some canned salsa verde. Unfortunately I didn't have any chilies, but I spiced it up with: ground chipotle, chili powder, cumin, and a dash of oregano. Chopped in some cilantro and stirred it around with extra hot sauce and salt.

bambambambam. In the oven for 20 minutes.

Seriously, what is it about beans and cheese? They just mingle together so naturally and wholesomely. I remember when I was a kid and on a special night when my dad was making dinner we would have "Cheesy Bean Things." It was basically just a tortilla with refried beans and cheese, folded in half and deep-fried in tons of oil until the whole thing practically fused into one grease-mass of dripping, cheesy deliciousness. Looking back on it I think he probably salted them, too. Best vegetarian kids' dinner ever.

There. 20 minutes. Melty, gooey mass of flavors that looks like vomit but actually tastes like a black bean enchilada.
Oh, and NO amount of jalapeno death sauce is too much on anything, period.
I don't know, though, I think the way the onions in the sauce caramelized in the oven may have made them the star of the show over beans in this one.

"Onions might have crossed from being just a veggie MVP into being an over all food MVP, but it keeps getting nudged out by cheese"
--as so eloquently Tweeted by Amber Davis

Tuesday, May 10, 2011


Fresh herbs are the hallmark of early summer eating. The smell of freshly cut grass overwhelms the exhaust from the lawnmower. The baby leaves that are sprouting up in my mom's garden are so bright-green and tender, and it is almost--almost--good tomato season in Kentucky.

Here's what's really good in early May: sweet ear corn.
Corn on the cob is always good, especially grilled, but here's a new idea I spotted in the magazine Fine Cooking: raw corn off the cob, sauteed with browned garlic and shallots and finished with butter and chopped fresh dill. Fills the house with a delicious fragrance and comes out so yellow and sweet, each herbed kernel popping in your mouth and exploding with little buttery secrets.

The kosher salt and ground pepper are only an afterthought; the dill really brings out most of the freshness.
The flavor of dill says,

"wheee! it's sunny! take the trash out barefoot! leave the back door open and let all the bugs in! those dandelions will look great in a vase on the table!"

I made an accompanying salad, with a homemade citrus vinaigrette:Spinach, yellow bell peppers, shaved red onion, and, of course, sprigs of fresh dill.

Citrus Vinaigrette
1 part fresh lemon juice
1 part plum vinegar*
1/4 tsp sesame oil**
1/4 tsp Sriracha hot sauce

* an interesting hand-me-down from when my sister gave me all her old kitchen stuff. ever want that back, sis?
** careful on amounts of the really overpowering sesame oil. It is delicious, but I know from experience that a little goes a long way.

Meanwhile, Katie threw a beautiful salmon fillet on the charcoal grill and left it covered on low heat about 10-15 minutes. We are still figuring out our grill. It cooked perfectly, but with much distress on our part.


I love the charcoal flavor, so I threw some bread on there to toast up and scoop it onto together. All good things.

One perfect bite.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Gee wiz, school's out!

Hooray, I have officially finished my undergraduate education!

Remember how I said I was going to practice making the classics to learn what real cooking is all about?

Behold, I present to you the beautiful June Cleaver dish that Katie and I fixed last night while listening to country songs about tractors and knockin' back cold ones.

I'm still not comfortable enough cooking steak to warrant buying one that's any good, so these $3 chops were pretty tough. But whatever we did to the outside of it tasted wonderful.

Spice Rub

1 Tbsp. salt
1 Tbsp. pepper
2 tsp. smoked paprika
1 tsp. allspice

Sprinkle a thin layer on both sides of the steak before pan frying in some olive oil on medium heat.

Then Katie made this delicious and brilliant sage butter to go on top.

Sage Butter

2 Tbsp. butter
1 clove garlic, very finely minced
2 tsp chopped sage, dry leaf or fresh
1 tsp lemon peel
1 sprinkle salt

Mash everything together with a fork. Set aside to serve on top of the steak.

Broccoli Sauce
2 Tbsp soy sauce
1/2 tsp worchestershire
1/2 tsp rice vinegar
1/4 tsp Sriracha

Mix all ingredients in a small bowl. Drop broccoli in boiling water for 2 minutes. Strain and return to pan. Add sauce along with the rest of the spice rub for the steak. Steam, covered until al dente.

Mashed Potatoes
The best part about mashed potatoes is that they are so easy. Forgiving proportions make it pretty difficult to screw up. If you haven't figured out how to make mashed potatoes taste good, you must be forgetting one of 3 ingredients: salt, butter, or garlic. I like to boil several whole cloves of garlic along with the potatoes and mash them up together.

Just some good old-fashioned eatin'.

Golly! I even ate all my vegetables!