Monday, April 25, 2011

Bulgur Peanut Kimchee Spring Rolls

Not only did I need to make dinner for the love of my life, but also snacks for the poker game, and like an idiot I mentioned spring rolls in the group email to the poker crowd. I was on the hook for spring rolls, but I didn't really have anything prepared for spring rolls other than the rice paper wrappers.

We had a little reticulated cabbage head, an onion, some carrots, ginger and jalapenos, so I cored the cabbage and made a julienne of the vegetables and ginger, building a slaw I could quickly pickle into a mock-kimchee. I used Jacques Pepin's method of making julienne of carrots: using a vegetable peeler, cut long strips of carrot, then stack them, roll them lengthwise and slice into thin ribbons. This gives a much longer, nicer looking julienne than using a grater. I also sliced the cabbage core thinly for more substantial texture. The pickling liquid for the slaw was some chopped garlic, Siracha, white vinegar, brown sugar, lime zest and sea salt. It was tasty but quite astringent, so I needed something else to constitute the body of the spring rolls. I could have used plain rice, but lately I've been using bulgur as a malty, nutty substitute for rice and decided the additional flavor would probably help tame the slaw.

I cooked the bulgur as a farrotto (grain cooked in the manner of risotto, by adding stock a little at a time so the grains develop a binding starchy component without deteriorating into gruel) using white wine and vegetable soup stock with saffron and bay leaf. I tried a little spoonful of the farrotto and it was fine, but when I ate it with the slaw the pungent slaw annihilated it. I needed something else to moderate the strong flavor, something rich and fatty like bacon or avocado, but we had nothing like that in the house. After pondering for a while, it occurred to me that I could use peanut butter, which is fatty and has a protein mouth feel. I grabbed a jar of Jif off the shelf and compounded a lump of peanut butter with some toasted sesame oil and tamari soy sauce. The peanut sauce worked marvelously to mediate the extremes of the granular, starchy bulgur and the crunchy, acidic slaw.

I built the rolls by laying down a bed of the bulgur, then spooning in the peanut sauce, adding the kimchee and topping it off with a broad basil leaf before rolling the whole package up. I ran out of bulgur after making a half-dozen rolls, but that wasn't nearly enough, so I made a second batch, this time adding a load of chopped parsley and basil for color, and so I didn't have to fiddle with the loose basil leaves while rolling them.

I made a dipping sauce of honey, mustard, soy sauce and sesame oil, and it had the effect of making the outside of the rolls taste interesting, which complimented the flavors on the inside.

The poker crowd were thrilled, but most of them live on a diet of Hot Pockets and Gatorade and don't possess critical palates. Heather ate her share, but said "they taste like something you made up." I can't really fault her observation. (v)

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Cavatappi with Peas and Dates

I've been using a lot of short pasta lately for these emergency meals. A confluence of circumstances make it so we have hardly any ingredients in the house, yet I have to make dinner nightly. I'm working most of the time so I don't have time to go shopping, and we're leaving town on Sunday for a week and I don't want to risk a bunch of fixings going bad while we're gone. As a result, I'm using dry goods, canned vegetables and whatever fresh ingredients I have left to consume before we leave town. Yadda yadda long story short, we're out of long pasta.

I've never been much of a fan of tomato paste as a base for pasta sauce. It tends to remind me of the heavy, wet red gravy served at suburban Mama Mia! Free Giant Garlic Bread! Meatballs As Big As Your Head! All You Can Eat Calamari! Half Price Pitchers On Mondays! Try Our Zucchini Poppers! Famous Tiramisu! Italian Restaurant! I cannot abide restaurants of this type. They debase our palates and insult our ancestors with watery matter piled in mountainous heaps and buried under granulated Kraft Foods "Parmesan." Screw this school lunch bullshit and get it the fuck away from me. Tomato paste is where that debasement and insult starts.

Still, we had no tomatoes left, and I needed to make something. I decided to make a very light sauce to bind some peas and diced dates to the pasta, and enrichen it with some tomato paste, but not enough to give me Mama Mia! douche-chills. I looked in the pantry for some herbs or spices to shift the sauce out of the suburbs and had to stop myself from grabbing the dried oregano. If any flavor combination defines pedestrian "Italian! American!" cooking, it's dried oregano and tomato paste. I settled on some cardamom seeds, which have a weird petrochemical/insecticide aroma that I love, and cannot associate with Mama Mia! After starting the sauce with some olive oil, diced onion, ginger and garlic, I added less than a tablespoon of the paste and let it caramelize with the onions. I incorporated about a half-teaspoon of honey at the beginning of cooking to induce a little color during caramelization. By cooking the paste dry I hoped to make the flavor a little less trivial. The dates were a substitute for bacon, since we had no mammal meats left in the house. They have a meaty body and a dark sweetness and mouth feel reminiscent of pork fat. I added the dates just before the pasta, so the date sugar didn't leach out too much and the pieces would retain their texture.

The pasta went in a little underdone with a ladle of the boiling water, and with a few minutes of high heat, the sauce coated the cavatappi nicely without hanging out in a puddle. I decorated the pasta with olives, pumpkin seeds and grated parmigiano. Good thing we have a lot of pumpkin seeds or I'd be sprinkling the pasta with pennies or cigarette butts or something. (vg, v without honey or cheese)

Friday, April 15, 2011

Galletti With Peas in Pepper Sauce with Tapenade

I really need to go grocery shopping. Every night Heather needs to be fed, but we have fuck all left for ingredients, so I end up making these random-element meals and hoping they aren't gross. Tonight I boiled the last of the galletti and made a tomato-free sauce of butter, onions, red pepper, peas and garlic. The sauce was rich and had a nice heat, but was a little dull and one-dimensional. I made a quick tapenade by chopping some wine-cured olives, capers and honey, and piled a little on top of the dressed pasta. I garnished with some toasted pumpkin seeds, which added a nice crunch.

I didn't have any fresh herbs, or I'd have chopped some and with a little olive oil and black pepper, might not have needed the tapenade. We're also out of olive oil. (vg)

Monday, April 11, 2011

Tomato Ditalini Soup and Toasted Cheese Sandwich Soldiers

I love tomato soup. I made this, like virtually all meals lately, after midnight when Heather reminded me that neither of us has had dinner. I chopped a small sweet onion and softened it in a heap of butter in a heavy pot along with a couple mashed cloves of garlic and about a tablespoon of grated fresh ginger. Once the onions were soft, I added some rice flour to make a sort of roux and about a teaspoon of dried Mexican oregano, crushed. When that had cooked a tad, I threw in four plum tomatoes and a canned chipotle pepper, cut into 1/2-inch dice. I let them all cook until just shy of drying out, then added a can of whole peeled tomoatoes, a tablespoon each of Worcester sauce and thai fish sauce and about a pint of chicken stock. When it all came up to a boil, I  buzzed it with a stick blender.

How did people make soup before stick blenders? They are the absolute stone cold nuts. You can fuck up a soup real bad and a stick blender will totally make it presentable. Having a stick blender is like a cheat code for Call Of Duty: Soup.

When the soup was fantastic, I added about a cup of ditalini pasta, which are the little tube segments about the size of a pencil eraser and brought it back to a boil. The ditalini add a nice toothiness to the soup and the pasta texture goes nicely with the butter. Ten more minutes on the simmer and boom, great soup.

Made a couple cheese sandwiches on Italian bread in the toaster sandwich basket and cut them into little dunkable sticks. I didn't dress the sandwich with olive oil as I do sometimes because we were out of olive oil. Note to self: get more olive oil. A little grated parmigiano on top and my reputation was safe. (vg without fish sauce, v also substitute oil for butter and no cheese) 

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Potato Tomato Galletti

Tonight's pasta was an exercise in making food out of nothing. We had a couple of tomatoes, a couple of new potatoes and some other pasta standby stuff, so it wasn't too bleak, but I didn't have anything substantial in the larder.

While the galletti were boiling I fortified some Irish butter with some olive oil, peeled and chopped the potatoes and started them cooking, a sort of half-saute, half-poaching in a significant amount of butter, along with some diced sweet onion and a couple smashed garlic cloves. When the potatoes had some color, I added a couple of chopped plum tomatoes. I like the combination of tomato and potato, but I was never able to make a decent pasta sauce that combined them until I abandoned the convention of using peeled, canned tomatoes for the sauce. Fresh tomatoes sauteed seem to hold together better, and with some black pepper, the vegetal brightness of the tomato seems to work well with the rich combination of butter and potato starch. That combination is what makes the sauce come together nicely when I add the pasta and a little pasta water. The starch from the potato and the starch leeched into the pasta water act as a thickener while the butter forms a nice emulsion. After tossing the pasta to coat it, I added some shaved parmigiano and finely chopped chives. These were not winter chives, just normal from Jewel chives. I don't think I've ever used chives on pasta before, but they have a natural affinity for both potatoes and butter, and it tasted great. (vg)

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Plan B Croquettes and Green Goddess

Heather was hungry, and I had some chicken thighs in the fridge. Chicken these days isn't that tasty unless you get an expensive artisanal hand-raised bird, but in a pinch, I'll use supermarket chicken thighs, the only part of a modern commercial bird that still tastes like a chicken. Thighs are a nice balance of meat, skin and fat, and the knuckle of bone in there is why they have better flavor. Normally I like to brine chicken overnight before cooking it to improve the flavor, but there was no time for that. I put the oil on to heat and made a breading by mixing a little smoked paprika and vindaloo curry powder into rice flour and cornmeal, and added a little shredded coconut, which goes nicely with curry. I made an egg wash to dunk the chicken and bind the breading with a couple of eggs, Siracha, Worcestershire sauce and minced garlic. I set-up a breading station on the countertop and went to retrieve the chicken. Unfortunately the chicken was still frozen. I had moved it to the fridge from the freezer the day before, but it was still rock hard.

With the oil already getting hot I needed a plan B, so I decided to make croquettes. I quickly chopped some ham, salami, prosciutto, onion and parmigiano and loaded it into the food processor. I pulsed it dry for a while, then added the flavored egg wash and pulsed it to incorporate. I turned the mixture into a bowl, and added enough of the breading mix to give the croquette some body, then formed balls, dredged them in the coconut breading and fried them. The coconut darkened more than I would have liked, but otherwise they came out okay and tasted pretty good. If I hadn't started out on a chicken trajectory I would have put more thought into the croquettes, probably processing the meat finer and adding cream, yogurt, ricotta or another enrichening element, but for an emergency plan B they were fine.

They needed a sauce, but I didn't have anything prepared, so I made a mock-green-goddess dressing with some mayonnaise, mustard, vinegar, salt, pepper, honey and chopped parsley and cilantro. I would have liked to include some tarragon, mint or basil, but I didn't have any. The dressing was okay if a little bland, but it kept the croquettes from being too dry, which was its main purpose anyway.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Penne with Plums, Bleu Cheese and Ham

Got home from poker and Heather was trapped under Bacon the cat. She could barely see her crime TV and barely get to her laptop. When she saw me her eyeballs opened wide like I was the allied army liberating her from Dachau. She was so weak she was barely able to whisper "...starving..."

Lately I've been experimenting with rich, strong flavors balanced with lighter, acidic fruit. I made a nice pasta with gorgonzola, apples, bacon and onion, and I thought plums would work in place of the apples, being similarly tart. I got water on for pasta and made a base for the sauce with some olive oil, chopped sweet onion, garlic and diced smoked ham. When all that was hot and sweating, I diced a plum and added that. I was concerned about the color running and getting muddy, but the plums basically kept to themselves and caramelized nicely. When the pasta was still a little firm I transferred it to the skillet with the sauce ingredients, along with about a third of a cup of the pasta water, which helps to bring the sauce together. I could have used a little white wine or stock, but the ham, garlic and bleu cheese were such strong  flavors that to have any hope of tasting the plum I should avoid any more complicating elements. I cooked the pasta in the sauce for another few minutes, and once I added the pasta water the plum color did start to run a little, which may explain why people don't use plums in pasta that often. When the pasta water was mostly absorbed, I added the bleu cheese and tossed it until it softened and became partly incorporated as a sauce.

I plated the pasta and dressed it with some chopped parsley, toasted pumpkin seeds and a coddled egg yolk. I put an egg in with the pasta for the last few minutes of cooking. I did that because the eggs were in the refrigerator, but if I had a room-temperature egg I may have just floated the yolk on the pasta and let the residual heat denature it a little. I like using egg yolk to help bind a sauce that has chunky elements like the ham and plum dice in this one. A little snowfall of parmigiano was the last bit of business before I served it to Heather.

The reviews were unfortunately focused on the toothiness of the pasta, which was apparently a little too firm. Prior to tasting the pasta, one of the customers reported "hating" it, while another said "you know I hate raw pasta all I can taste is raw pasta," but the harshest comment was "Why did you make pasta I can't eat? You should have tested it." There were a few other comments, and possibly even some returned after trying the pasta, but unfortunately I missed them as I had left the room to watch Baseball Tonight on TiVo.

[edit] Late-returning reviews were much better. Flattering even.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Special Ramen for Late Dinner

We had a fantastic dinner at the Midytte - Hunter house, ribs done in the bourgeois style Tim has been experimenting with, smoke-braised in the barbecue with a fantastic rub, served with baked potatoes dressed with sour cream and winter chives and some delicious spinach, finishing off with excellent espresso and homemade berry-citrus ice cream. We then came home and did nothing for the rest of the evening, which made Heather hungry. Knowing I can't compete with the ribs she politely asked for 
special ramen. Special ramen is regular four-for-a-buck ramen noodles with the broth dolled up a little. While th noodles are cooking, I fortify the broth with some soy, thai fish sauce and vegetable boullion. In the bowl, I beat an egg yolk with a little Siracha, vinegar, minced garlic and sesame oil. When the noodles are done, I drizzle the soup into the egg, beating it to incorporate it. This is where it sometimes goes wrong and the egg curdles into a sort of stracciatella, but last night it worked fine and the broth just got slightly thicker. The egg has the effect of holding the flavors in suspension in your mouth so they linger a little longer, particularly the garlic and sesame, and combined with the fish sauce and soy, gives the soup a nice umame quality. I loaded the noodles in and chopped some fresh ginger, parsley and cilantro for a garnish and the soup made its way into Heather. If I'd had some scallions or winter chives, they would have been cut very fine and scattered on there too. Heather uses a fork for ramen, which I find really awkward so I use takeout chopsticks, but I used to have a couple sets of nice Japanese hashi that were perfect. I lose everything don't I. I wish I didn't lose everything little and cool.

I've had magical ramen in Japan, and pretty good ramen in the US at a few specialty shops and Japanese markets, so I know this is not legit ramen, but I've always liked the way a couple of extra ingredients and five minutes can make even pre-packaged bachelor fodder like this into something tasty. Tonight I'm playing poker until pretty late, but when I get home I could make another one of these in a few minutes. (vg without fish sauce, v without egg)