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Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Cooking with information

I was reading this post on Slashfood, where the author wistfully remembers before the age of the internets, when people would keep cookbooks, and write annotations on the edges of recipes to keep track of modifications, essentially preserving a history of how the recipe got adapted to a family.

And I thought - what we need is a concurrent versioning system for the kitchen!

Something that keeps the history of the recipes and their edits in place. WikiCipes? Heck, if the group is small enough, this could be done in Google Docs.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Duck vs. Chicken

A few days ago, I managed to find a vendor for cage-free chicken and duck eggs. I bought half a dozen of each. I must admit, I've never worked with fresh duck eggs before, I've tended to get them already cooked or processed in some way.

Salted duck eggs are literally soaked in a saturated brine for an extended period of time until the proteins salted out, and then boiled briefly. The yolk from this preparation is rich and deserves its place among gourmet ingredients like bacon, batarga, caviar and foie gras which provide a fatty flourish to dishes.

Then there is the alkalinized century egg, fermented in lye for months to generate a dark ammoniacal egg absolutely delicious in congee. The dark color, however, often frightens experimental diners of the Western ilk.

Then, there is the infamous balut, an embryonated duck egg boiled and served in the Philippines and other parts of Southeast Asia, often considered one of the most extreme dishes in the world.

But what does the fresh egg look or taste like? Let's find out.

Here is a free range chicken egg to the left, and the duck egg to the right. The duck egg is a bit more elongated, and the shell is sturdier. But what's inside?

Here they are, cracked into a bowl. I suspect that the chicken egg isn't all that fresh, despite being free range, since the albumin was a bit watery. The duck egg was nice and thick, though, staying high above the surface. Notice the significantly larger and deeper colored yolk. The albumin looks milkier, too, but that could be because it was fresher. The little blood spot on the duck egg may indicate that this is a fertilized egg, and could have been made into a balut!

Let's cook!

A simple preparation, sunny side up on butter. Ah, look at that rich orange color of the duck yolk. I slide the prep out to a plate...

A final flourish of salt and pepper, and breakfast is served.

Okay, this may be one of the most indulgent breakfasts I have had in a while. That said, the real character of a duck egg is the yolk - rich, flavorful, I really should try using it in ice cream. The while may make a good meringue, I don't know.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Stream of roaming

I had a suddenly aborted Saturday evening plan. I was stuck roaming the city a bit, so I decided to go to the new mega-HEB on Bunker Hill and I-10. This massive super-supermarket has been written about before, but color me impressed. Best prices I have seen for clementine oranges, now in season. There's the cheese decorating counter - think cake decorating, except for wheels of brie. But I had to partake of the thing that I haven't seen in any other store in Houston before: on demand, freshly ground, whole wheat flour. With choice of getting soft wheat or hard winter wheat, natch. Goodness gracious, I can't wait to bake with the stuff.

Now you've got my attention.

Over the salad dressing aisle is a wooden locked case of balsamico tradizionale. Complete with $150 a bottle price tags. My heart skipped a beat.

It went downhill from there, I ended up buying more things than I planned (since when was there such a preponderance of eggs gathered from free roaming chickens - with a fairly minor premium on the price? Either the prices of factory farmed eggs have gone up, or someone has figured out a way to machine gather those eggs.).

No luck with kettle corn, though.

To recuperate, I am having a snack and a chai at Te House of Tea. Food and WiFi, what could be better? Apparently, tonight is swing dancing night, could be interesting. Here's the dance floor, as they cleared out the tables for people.

Friday, December 26, 2008


I will rarely write about wine, because I don't partake of alcohol. It's one of the few restrictions I take by choice; there are obviously some health benefits to it (although some may argue the "red wine good for you" stand, but I tend to think that's a case of wishing certain things to be true before they're proven significant). And although I am often requested to justify my stance, I don't impose my views on others.

But I am not alone. True, we are in the minority, nondrinkers are quite often in the same ignored category that people with peanut allergies reside. And for some, abstinence from alcohol stems from reason as profound as allergies (say, pregnant women). As I have written before, though, this is not a deprivation of any significance; believe it or not, one can easily enjoy a diversity of cuisine in absence of alcoholic beverages. Yet chefs openly describe their difficulty in accommodating teetotalers with the same derision some French chefs hold for vegetarians. In many categorizations, "Food and Wine" belong together like some enforced Siamese twinning, even though many of us are in no way interested in the wine part. And that includes the cooking part. Maybe it's because of the reverence we hold for the French culture and its contribution to encoding cooking into recipes.

I am learning that there is a spectrum to gourmands and "foodies" (loath as I am to use the word) - to some, wine constitutes an optional flourish to the food, a counterpoint that pairs well, but certainly does not supplant the experience of dining. And then, there's the other side, where wine and it's affiliated airs are what defines a cultured palate. And on that end of the spectrum, food is merely present to accentuate the wines in use.

Here in Houston, we have an emerging market for wine bars, and I can paint two examples of either end of this spectrum. On the first, I would nominate Catalan, where I was able to enjoy a pleasant meal without feeling pressured to even look at the wine list. On the other hand, the younger 13 Celsius only offers nibbles that promote drinking wine. I had to look hard at the meager food menu there to find anything worth ordering...and eventually gave up. The staff pretty much gave me the diplomatic answer that they don't really welcome nondrinkers in a wine bar. And while I see their point, when dining and drinking are a social cornerstone, this discrepancy in accommodation can drive an unintended wedge. This is one area, where I respect the maverick Charlie Trotter for treating nondrinkers on equal footing as drinkers.

By the way, let's put this old myth out of the way - alcohol does not cook completely out of most dishes when they are used. In fact, stewing can evaporate maybe 70% of the ethanol after extended cooking - and that quick flaming barely touches it.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Of limequats and faux kumquats

On a recent trip to the farmer's market, I found a stand selling small round orange citrus fruits which were labeled "kumquats" - although not in the characteristic oblong shape. On a table a little further down, the same fruits were labeled "limequats".

Neither were right, of course. These vendors were peddling calamansi (aka, calamondin) - yes, that's a wikipedia link, but at the moment, it seemed pretty accurate. Anyone biting into a calamansi expecting a kumquat may come off a little disappointed. Okay, I did that :).

A tart and wonderfully floral fruit, it is quite versatile, used everywhere you would use a lime or a lemon. Except, being so small, there really isn't much juice in one fruit. Everywhere in Southeast Asia, savory foods are presented with a cut half of a calamansi for squeezing over as a final acid flourish. Calamansi and soy sauce are a natural pairing, and can be used as a marinade for fish or chicken, and a final saucing component for almost anything sour - fried noodles are made complete by a final sprinkle of calamansi juice and fish sauce.

Calamansi mixed with honey and diluted with cold water is a refreshing drink during hot weather. I have heard of calamansi margaritas being a great success, as well as a new base for pate de fruits.

Behold my newest experiment: calamansi poundcake. Well, I am a little reluctant to call it a poundcake, as I don't really use all that much butter in it, and have cut down a bit on the flour for a more tender crumb. I also relied a bit on whipped egg white to provide the some of the rise. I could probably use more baking powder, as the acid from the citrus would provide plenty of bubbles. About the most labor-intensive part of the process is squeezing and seeding enough calamansi to get the half cup that went into this cake. So, I think a basic calamansi loaf cake would do as a name.

I don't really follow a recipe, but this isn't too different from a basic cake, just adjusting for the acid with baking soda.

Monday, December 22, 2008

From a miracle to the little screen

With thanks to Stephanie of the local Chowhounds group, I learned that last week's episode of CSI:New York featured the use of miracle berries as an accessory to murder. I went through the trouble of watching the episode, and this is pretty much my review of the show.

I'll be writing about things that could spoil the show for you. I haven't figured out how to hide that stuff behind a "click here for details" tag. My apologies, but it can't be helped. Please skip if you don't want to be spoiled, and have plans of watching the show. It can be streamed directly from

Okay, with that out of the way, let's talk about how they used this interesting fruit as a plot device. If you didn't know, miracle berries have this amazing property of making you taste sour and bitter things as sweet, and as such, have become the cornerstone of "flavor tripping" parties. Here in Houston, we've had at least three such parties in the past, and they've been very popular. The writers imagined that someone who is under the influence of miracle berries will be unable to taste a poisonous substance being slipped them. Never mind that people have used tasteless or easily disguised poisons before - like iocaine powder :). But I am getting ahead of myself.

The plot is that a girl was killed through internal saponification by ingestion of large amounts of sodium hydroxide that she couldn't taste because of the miraculin.

Oh geez. The problems with this plot. And the efforts they go through to try to make pretty actors look smart.

First of all, I don't think the writers have ever been to a flavor tripping party. Attendees don't consume large quantities of any one item, they tend to keep on tasting all sorts of things. Not likely that the girl would have drunk the amount she was required to kill her.

But, moreover, they don't understand the properties of concentrated sodium hydroxide. An abject lesson to everyone - a concentrated alkali like sodium hydroxide is quite a bit more dangerous than an acid because it will dissolve protein. Like, oh, the mouth and esophagus. In the episode, they make it like as if it didn't go to work until it got to her stomach. Secondly, that much base will dissolve the polymer gasket of a blender - and the thing should leak like a mofo. Thirdly, in a smoothie? That much NaOH would have reduced all the proteins in that mix to a viscous mass - and easily detectible on texture alone. And lastly, they make it like the sodium hydroxide somehow has a purity profile that can be tracked. Yeah, right. Sodium hydroxide is a very simple compound, and is consumed in the saponification reaction - it's not like some exotic compound that can be signed like a bullet. They couldn't have had the evidence they needed to convict.

Like I said earlier, if one really wanted to kill the girl through poison, there are so many other ways to do it, requiring less stuff (fugu liver, anyone?), less messy, and more likely to succeed. I give them kudos for bringing in miracle berries in a plot, but man, the writers should at least try them to learn their effects before writing. This is the first time I have watched CSI:NY, and I must say, I was incredulously giggling most of the way. Never mind the serious tone, this is a major comedy.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Tubericious redux

Holiday meals are as much about tradition as they are about gathering (perhaps the familiarity of tradition is what really engenders the sense of comfort in the holiday season), and the invocation of tradition often results in enshrining bad cooking. Case in point - sweet potatoes.

I've had the sorry mushy orange affair coated with sticky marshmallows before, and have met far more detractors of the casserole than people who look forward to it -- and the latter sound mostly pleased with the excuse to eat something decidedly dessert as a "vegetable" and thus, "healthy".

What a way to murder a perfectly okay ingredient. Moreover, so many think of this as the only way of preparing sweet potatoes, and thus, come to the conclusion that they don't like sweet potatoes. And dread having to prepare them for the holidays.

Of course, one difficulty with that conclusion is that the orange fleshed mushy thing is by far the least interesting of such tubers. Pictured is a yellow fleshed Japanese sweet potato, and the purple Okinawa sweet potato. Both are vastly superior to the orange sweet potato in flavor and texture. Simply roasting these in their skins, and serving hot with a little butter and salt is an eye opening experience for people who have been traumatized into disliking sweet potatoes. I have prepared a gratin with the Japanese yellow fleshed variety - simply slice thinly, and toss with red chile flakes, salt, olive oil, garlic, and heavy cream, then layer in a baking dish, and bake until cooked through. Many requests come from that.

I am plans of making some kind of soup from the purple. But it is so delicious just baked, I don't know if I'll have the materials ready :).

Thursday, December 18, 2008

For the adventurous cook in your life

To round out your shopping :).

fail owned pwned pictures
see more pwn and owned pictures

Restaurant: Banana Leaf

I had dinner tonight with some of the local Chowhounds (with a tip of the hat to Chris for doing the bulk of the organizing), including famous food explorer Jay Francis at a somewhat new Malaysian restaurant Banana Leaf. I didn't take any pictures, because there was plenty of snappage going on anyway :) - I am sure those photographs will get on the web soon enough. The place isn't that large, but the menu is incredibly expansive. It took quite a while just to get through the list to decide what was worth trying. So, with six of us at the table, we ordered:

  • while waiting, Peggy ordered some atchat - pickled vegetables
  • some satay beef was ordered, but I personally think they're the least interesting of Malaysian cuisine
  • three different kinds of roti (bread) - roti canai, roti telur (egg stuffed), and roti with meat stuffing
  • oyster omelet
  • hainan chicken rice
  • curry fish head stew
  • beef rendang
  • penang laksa
  • flounder grilled in banana leaf
  • kangkung with belacan
Our attempts to cap the meal with an order of ais kacang was futile, but they provided complimentary dessert in the form of a warm coconut and purple rice porridge. Jay passed around cans of a Korean persimmon and cinnamon beverage. Quite nice. Malaysian cuisine is very diverse, and we couldn't sample it all. I would have wanted to try the bah kut teh, but I think it would have been too much. Heck, what we ordered was already too much. Plus, the menu is a bit of a culinary minefield for me. But of what I could have, I enjoyed. I liked the beef rendang, the beef itself was well cooked, if a bit milder than I expected.

I'd like to go back and try a few other things on this menu. I'm impressed that given the size of the menu how well executed the dishes were.

Oh, the picture? Those are dried persimmons. It's a reminder of a conversation over dinner.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Great idea

I could so use a moffle right now. What's a moffle? It's a mochi cake cooked in a waffle iron. What's mochi? Well, that is worth posting about - it's a type of rice cake.

The basic concept of pounded glutinous rice cakes is found in various East Asian cultures, mochi being the Japanese version, but also nien-gao in Chinese, tikoy in Filipino, and tteok in Korean. The sweetened versions are associated with the lunar New Year festivals, but savory applications exist.

Such rice cakes are chewy, sticky, and quite filling. But by cooking it in a waffle iron, it develops a crispy outer crust and a meltingly warm interior. Wish I knew a moffle maker in town :).

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Feeding gailan to a Mexican

Last night, I brought a Mexican friend over to Fufu Cafe over on Bellaire and Beltway 8, who then left it up to me to order the food. When I ordered the spicy beef noodle soup, he inquired if it was a thick soup or a brothy one.

I told him it was like caldo de res with attitude.

Then came the crispy rice noodle pancake with beef and gailan (Chinese "broccoli"). Which he said reminded him of a very tasty sopes or huarache.

Perhaps there are more analogs in Mexican cooking in describing Chinese cooking than I thought.

Accepting food restrictions

Amidst all the doom and gloom of the global economic downturn, one bright spot of culinary happenstance: the price of lobsters are historically low. Given the traditionally luxurious place the crustacean plays on most tables, many are touting this to be a special holiday treat. Unfortunately, it's one that I will not be joining in. That's because I am allergic to crustaceans.

That statement is often greeted in mixed company with sighs of sympathetic pain, like as if I were truly deprived. Yet deprivation is not the issue; despite my allergies, I have always felt that I had a huge array of foods to choose from and explore. My bigger problem lay in trying to avoid contamination, particularly in cuisines where use of shrimp products is used ubiquitously without thinking about the consequences (for example, did you know that shrimp is often used in making kimchi?).

While vigilance against contamination is the necessary cross that allergen sensitive people have to bear -- and I am glad that a celebrity chef like Ming Tsai is trying to make restaurateurs aware of the dangers of cross contamination -- the second burden is one of culinary tradition. People who are sensitive to gluten find themselves in a difficult position in many Western cultures because cooks can't imagine meals without incorporating wheat in it. But the truth is, by expanding one's culinary limits, you can easily create wonderful meals and snacks without gluten quite easily. Granted one will not have the economy of scale from mass production, but one should not restricted imitating the arts developed using gluten.

This means that I don't see the real value of trying to spend extra to develop gluten free pasta bread when perfectly acceptable rice noodles are available. Of course, they aren't direct substitutions - that would produce an inferior product. Instead, accepting that a food group isn't food - and thus, a whole cooking style should be developed - results in more coherent meals. Attempts at imitation are rarely successful. And just reinforce the idea of deprivation.

So, me, I am not going to try to pretend that monkfish is lobster and make bisque. I'm cooking something else entirely and enjoying it for its own sake.

Monday, December 15, 2008

A variation from the conventional

So, I had written about the use of various grains to make porridge. How about a variation on a theme? What is pictured is a congee I prepared using purple short grain rice. This version of rice is used in Thai cuisine, and is so darkly purple, it will stain some pots. It isn't heavily processed, still possessing the bran layer, and thus provides a very nice nutty flavor and a strong chew. Most recipes that use purple short grain use it in sweet applications (it makes a very nice coconut custard rice pudding). I had decided to experiment with using it in a savory application.

This congee required that I boil the purple rice with sufficient water, and allow it to completely hydrate overnight. I then added some precooked short grain sushi rice, and cooked it until the sushi rice broke down and gavie the congee it's characteristic creamy texture.

I served the congee with a dash of sesame oil, and a sprinkling of chopped scallions, to accompany some sweet and sour spicy chicken. Although it was a savory dish, I do think that the inherent flavor of the rice is complemented with some sweetness.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

On grueling gruel

One of the most versatile cooking styles all over the world is the creation of different gruels or porridges. Basically, one takes a grain of one type or another, and cooks it in sufficient liquid for the starches to release and thicken the dish. One could argue that such porridges are a type of soup, although that may be stretching the definition a little. A wide variety of grains have seen use as porridge - oats (oatmeal), corn (polenta/corn meal mush), wheat (farina aka cream of wheat), and arguably the most versatile is rice, in the form of congee and a myriad other names (jook, burbur, lugao, ambeh). The photograph is a preparation of congee I made with a chicken broth base, and bolstered by green soy beans (edamame) and sliced century eggs (pidan). I've seen porridges made using spelt, and perhaps other grains. The porridge is so ubiquitous in world cuisine, I think it may be the universal comfort food. Easy to prepare, cheap, and so varied in application, from sweet to savory, it may hold its own as a subcuisine.

I hope to write about additional ideas on making porridges, and my own ideas on making them. For now, some excellent postings on other blogs about rice porridge.

Over at Eating Asia, they write about the creamy and cruncy concoctions in Indonesia. Minimalist writer, blogger, and vlogger Mark Bittman posts a recipe for savory jook on his site, although I think jook is far more forgiving than he makes it out to be. And Pepper over at Frugal Cuisine posts a number of congee related articles. I am linking to the most recent one, and follow the trail. She has some great ideas.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

The start of a new blog is an interesting study in anticipation and paradox. On the one hand, it's a wonderful opportunity to set up exciting new ideas, and I am coming in fresh with all sorts of plans. However, the key to a successful blog are regular (and if possible, frequent) updates and postings, and that means that the first posting will get the least readership as it scrolls down.

So, I'd like to reserve and budget my energy as I optimize my blogging platform. This blog plans to focus on food, and cuisine.'Nuff said for now.