Standard Pages (they don't change often)

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The difference one letter makes

This article in The Serious Eats blog reports that Michele Obama is out to eliminate food desserts. When in fact, she's out to combat food deserts, regions in urban America with little access to fresh food (at least in that self-declared dependent lifestyle). No matter what, I love the fact that there's a White House blog, and it uses current generation technology to communicate with the people of America. 

And that the First Lady cares about healthy eating. 

Googlefu PastaFail

You all know that orzo is, right? Basically, it's pasta that shaped like rice. So that they look like rice grains. You can get dried orzo in all sorts of markets. But I am really curious - how does one make orzo? Specially on an industrial scale. Most pasta shapes can be traced to some kind of extruder, be they macaroni or fettucini, ziti or even the funky farfalle (bowtie). But orzo mystifies me a bit. The shape, although small, isn't obviously the product of an extruder, unless the die hole is capable of enlarging and shrinking as the pasta dough goes through it.

As with any modern age, I plumb the internet search engines looking for the process behind the manufacture of orzo - and come up with a lot of recipes of how to cook pre-manufactured orzo, but none on how to make it. Is it even possible to make orzo at home?

So, dear readers, do you know how orzo originated? How is it made originally (no, not from a box in a supermarket)? And how is it manufactured in factories?

Monday, February 22, 2010

Regional cuisines

Once, on a trip, I was introduced to what was proudly considered the most "authentic" Chinese restaurant in town. No slight on the quality of the food, but the menu featured sushi, pad thai, and wonton soup. Many people can't tell the difference between the different ethnic cuisines, unless they're in pretty broad strokes - of course, in America, Chinese food is often not even Chinese. But just as there are American regional cuisines, from gumbo to bagels to cedar planked fish to pemmican, the great major ethnic cuisines from from large countries with regional specializations, but are often lumped together, or not spoken of at all.

At least in the case of Chinese cuisine, mainstream America has started grasping the nuanced differences betwen Sichuan or Cantonese cooking; here in Houston, we are even lucky enough to have a restaurant that specializes in Uyghur cooking - halal dining. But the other night, I spoke to someone who said, "I don't like Indian food."

Which is a pretty broad statement. India is a huge subcontinent, with many major regional cuisines. Indian cooking is as varied as the heavily vegetarian Gujarati cooking (I don't often see dhokla served in Houston, despite our huge IndoPak population), to the more sophisticated Bengali set meals. And then there's Goa. Goan cooking was heavily influenced by the Portuegese, and thus, surprisingly includes pork as an ingredient. You'd think this should settle well among Texan palates.

Despite our proximity to Mexico, we don't really celebrate the diversity of Mexican cooking styles - we are so heavily ensconced in Tex-Mex that the more localized flavors of Oaxaca, Sinaloa, or Baja have a hard time finding a foothold in the perception of Mexican cooking. Same can be said for Filipino or Thai or Malaysian cooking, where the regional specialties of Cebu, Pampanga, Issan, Chiangmai, or Langkawi seldom surface.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Clever, or not really?

From the blog, Apartment Therapy, comes this tip of using a walnut to buff out dings in wooden furniture. But the comments complete the story: first of all, since it's really the oil that's doing the job, any number of nuts can be used to the same effect (locals here in Texas may want to use pecans as a point of domestic pride), but I think the bigger point to be made is that people with nut allergies may be in danger of such furniture. So, perhaps simple mineral oil would suffice.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Words for delicious

Formally, the word for delicious in Japanese is "oishii", and we in Houston have a restaurant so named, known for inexpensive but acceptable sushi. Oddly enough, when eating something particularly tasty, most Japanese exclaim "umai!".

As it turns out, we have a restaurant in town called Umai. We paid it a visit on a recent cold and rainy night, and it's a good choice for that weather. Umai is pretty distinctive in the Houston culinary landscape: it's a Japanese restaurant that is not a sushi joint. Oh, sushi is still listed on the menu, but the selection is very limited, in a tiny section of the large menu, and just primarily to makizushi. 

The interior of the place is brand spanking new, and modern in sentiment. I liked this accent wall framed by a collection of smooth black river stones. 

I applaud that the menu focuses on aspects of Japanese cuisine that is largely ignored, or at least sadly glossed over in other restaurants in the area. Most of the main part of the menu offers grilled fish or meats that can be ordered a la carte, or in "bento-style" sets with salad, soup, and three variable appetizers. We tried the miso glazed sea bass which was succulent. Among the sides, we were most impressed with the pickles; Japanese pickles, particularly those that rely on rice bran (nukazuke) are again rarely seen in Japanese restaurants, but are a commonplace item on the Japanese table. 

The menu also lists a sizeable ramen and udon section, including the mysterious "Umai ramen" with little explanation. When I quizzed our pleasant server, we were informed that it is in fact, two different kinds, one soy sauce based, and another pork bone based -- sounds like the more traditional ramens that rameniacs rave about online. I've resolved to go try them eventually - but decided to taste the more untraditional spicy beef ramen, to compare it to the other interpretations of spicy beef noodle soups found around town. 

The broth was indeed spicy, with a burn that warms the back of the throat. I was a little concerned that it wasn't boiling hot - as most ramen served is - but as it turns out, it was to avoid overcooking the slices of beef tenderloin in the broth, which were tender, and toothsome. I do have a nitpick about the noodles themselves, which seemed a little gummy and tended to stick together, as though they were pre-cooked, and left to sit a while.

All in all, our initial visit to Umai was quite good, and, given the very approachable prices, we'll be back. We may have one of the few true ramen shops in town. 


Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Food and propaganda

We have a lot of truisms thrown at us daily when it comes to food. Some are quite nebulous - "ginger builds your immune system" - and others are just accepted as valid. For example, that the premium paid for produce bought at a Whole Foods is justified for quality, as opposed to say, a Walmart. But is it?

Colby Krummer writes at the Atlantic, where produce from both Walmart and Whole Foods were used to prepare restaurant quality meals, and subjected to blind tasting among different judges. Some of whom are avid food activists of a sort. The results were by no means unanimous, but surprising.

-----spoiler below -------

Diners frequently chose produce from Walmart as better tasting than the items from Whole Foods (albeit to some surprise and chagrin). Granted, it was just one test, but it was telling.

Bear in mind, though, that the Walmart produce can often be as expensive as the Whole Foods stuff.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Conventionally breaking

Judging from the responses of Robb Walsh's blog posting about eating radishes with butter for breakfast, people have a hard time entertaining what is appropriate for breakfast. More than any other meal, breakfast seems to be shrouded in ritual; perhaps because, unlike other meals, this one is predicated on a biological happenstance: it's the first meal eaten after sleeping. I was once asked if Asian peoples ate rice at all meals - to which I replied in the affirmative.

"Even for breakfast?!!???"

was the response.

Of course, not that that is particularly odd even in American practice - what do you think Rice Krispies are made from? - but somehow, a lot of "mainstream" folk have very prescribed ideas of what breakfast food can and should be. Even interviews of Mark Bittman and his self imposed "vegan before 6" diet revealed that breakfast was the meal he struggled with the most, as the usual litany of milk, eggs, bread, cured meats and cereal seems to dominate the psyche. Truth be told, of course, one can eat anything for breakfast. Cold pizza is a standby, but pho is wonderfully bracing as a wakeup, as is the tang and shock of tenzaru soba dipped in wasabi broth. You can get your eggs and milk in the form of ice cream; throw in bacon, and it's a meal.

But yes, fried rice is devised as a way of using up leftover rice; and is frequently the object of breakfasts. That and congee.

And speaking of rice, celebrate the Lunar New Year with the glutinous rice cakes:

Japanese -> mochi
Chinese -> nien gao
Vietnamese -> banh chung
Korean -> tteok
Filipino -> tikoy

Peace and prosperity be unto you.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

The floral citrus

A couple of months ago, on a tip from a chef friend of mine, I found yuzu stocked at Central Market. An unusual citrus better known in Japanese cuisine, I hear that it is being cultivated now in California. The specimens I found weren't all that great looking, but beggars can't be choosers.

Just scratching the rind of the fruit reveals a heady floral aroma unlike most citrus encountered in the typical US market. Yuzu finds its way in a number of Japanese preparations, where the juice is mixed with soy sauce to make ponzu, or the rind is mixed with mixed with spices to make yuzu togarashi. I decided to bring these as a present to BBQDude and family in our most recent cooking adventure at the Great Western Casa McBardo. We decided to crack open Pichet Ong's Asian Inspired Desserts as a reference for using the yuzu, and chanced upon his recipe for yuzu soufflé, which called for an amount of yuzu juice. Alas, when we sliced open the fruit, we discovered that they were very seedy, and yielded very little juice. Fortunately, we had some Meyer lemons to make up the difference - an acceptable substitution. 

Ong's recipe is peculiar for a souffle - it incorporates a bit of flour in it, so it really is hybrid with a cake. But it offers the spongy airiness of a soufflé, while at the same time offering the stability of cake. Unlike a regular soufflé, we had the luxury of prebaking these early, and letting them sit until the end of the meal before plating - and they were fine.

Well, more than fine, really. Unmolded, the dessert separates out into this beautiful and tasty two toned textural layers. 

We plated it with a bit of reserved yuzu zest, and a simple berry compote. 

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

The Science of Sushi

The Science of Sushi | The New York Academy of Sciences

One of the things I rarely prepare at home is sushi, at least, not the classical form. It's too involved, and too steeped in tradition, and numerous debates have ensued with regards to its history, authenticity, or its palatability - certainly the ubiquity of American supermarket maki is creating a paradigm for what a lot of Westerners think sushi is: raw fish wrapped in a cocoon of sticky mushy rice and a soggy film of seaweed, to be dipped in soy sauce and wasabi, and munched with ginger.

Well, I'll reserve judgment about that. But at least this great podcast focuses on the science behind the sushi.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

With homage to the red berry

You know, cranberries are oddly considered a holiday item, although really, few fruits freeze so well, and should be readily available year round.  Think peas, only redder. And tarter.

As it is, BBQDude of the Great Western Casa McBardo has a heritage cranberry sauce recipe, and during my last visit, there was lots leftover. So I took my inspiration from an episode of Working Class Foodies, which was itself a collaboration with Cathy Erway of Not Eating out in NY, a great blog for cooking inspiration, and made cranberry/rosemary crumble.

I must say, cranberry and rosemary do go very well together. The recipe is rather easy, forgiving, and the resulting bars keep well, taste great straight out of the fridge and will a glass of milk. 

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Abandon hope all ye who diet

Dark chocolate covered dried banana chips. I need say no more.

Actually I can't. Too busy munching.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Kabocha and Miso

Kabocha is a type of winter squash, often called a Japanese pumpkin. It's usually green on the outside, with a yellow flesh. It is texturally firmer when cooked compared to other winter squashes, and also has a pleasant, sweet potatoish flavor. And a good foil for the umami of miso. 

In this preparation, take a small kabocha squash, and peel it. This takes a good sturdy sharp knife, but even so, you can cheat by par-baking the squash. That means sticking it in a hot oven for about 10-15 minutes, and then cooling it. This softens the outside enough to peel easily, but won't cook it through just yet.
Cut it open, and remove the seeds and "guts" :). Cut into wedges, and throw into a plastic bag. In the meantime, make a mixture of miso, mirin, grated ginger, brown sugar, sesame oil, and salt. Some cayenne would be good, too, if you want some heat. Pour this into the bag, and squish it around, making sure that the squash gets coated well.

Pour it out onto a parchment or foil lined sheet pan, arrange the slices into a single layer, and put into a preheated hot oven - 200°C should do nicely - and cook for about 15 minutes, or until the outside caramelizes into a nice glaze.

Sprinkle with chopped scallions and sesame seeds, and serve