August 13, 2008

To the Surprise of No One...

After over a month without posting, ongoing photography issues, and a series of shakeups in related areas, the Dangerous Kitchen Laboratory is closing its doors for the foreseeable future.  When and if operations will resume is anyone's guess, at the moment.

For the time being, I would like to thank all the Dangerous Agents in the field, including those whose reports I have failed to transcribe here, as well as Former Housemate Phil for his photographic services and other housemates past and present for participating in my experiments, documented and otherwise.  Perhaps circumstances will allow work to continue and truly Dangerous cooking to be achieved, but until such a day, thanks for reading and remember: Cooking is just adding energy to food, so bring plenty of energy into the kitchen and interesting things will happen.

June 3, 2008

Chinese Eggplant with Okra

I am run off my feet this week, and sadly it is for the most part not in service of Dangerous culinary research, except in the sense of pursuing continued funding.  It's remarkable what a person will do to get by in this world.  Dangerous Kitchen business hasn't been entirely abandoned, but dealing with it can't be my highest priority right now.

I went to the Chinese Quarter this evening and I bought some Chinese eggplant, as is my wont.  I generally use Chinese eggplant even in Italian food.  It's just less work.  You never have to peel it, it doesn't matter that much if you under- or overcook it, and you can do pretty much all the same stuff with it; even eggplant parmesan if you cut it lengthwise.  The texture is never quite the same, but you might very well use it without those eating it realizing your deceit.

Tonight, just across from it, there was some okra - not something I ordinarily see in my 2nd favourite Vietnamese market - across from the eggplant.  I love okra, going back to the homemade gumbo I remember from my childhood, with "filé" picked under a full moon by...  Wizards, or something, I don't really remember what it said on the little jar anymore.  Anyway, I haven't had okra in ages, and as this was both cheap (rare) and not moldy (rarer than it should be), I grabbed some.

The thought of trying to actually make gumbo occurred to me, but it takes forever and I would have had to go further afield for the necessary meats and fishes, so instead I decided to just cook it with my new eggplant.  I cut the okra into thirds and threw it into a moderately hot wok with coarsely cut onions and garlic (two small and one bulb, respectively) and some sesame oil, and a great deal of black pepper - maybe a tablespoon?  No, that's crazy, but it was a lot anyway.  I stirred that once in a while while I cut the eggplant diagonally into slices about a centimeter thick, and threw that in while I cubed up the tofu and then added a little chili and soya sauce, and more black pepper.  Finally I added some canned tomatoes, covered it, and turned it down a notch or two.  I let it cook while I wandered off to do extraneous, non-Dangerous things, and after probably about ten minutes when the eggplant was easily cut with a blunt utensil I called it done.

I served it over rice and ate it with chopsticks; there was quite a bit of liquid from the tomatoes initially but the okra thickens it up remarkably of course, and there wasn't really any "broth".  It came out great - I might, in the future, consider adding even more black pepper, you almost couldn't have too much, but otherwise I don't think it needs any work.

May 24, 2008

Please Stand By

We here at the Dangerous Kitchen Laboratory have been experiencing some technical difficulties, particularly regarding our camera equipment - some recent photos have been so blurry that literally nothing is recognizable.  The issue is at least partly resolved, and posting will resume shortly.  Thank you for your patience.

May 10, 2008

Eggs Jǐnshàng

One of my favourite comfort foods is soba (the higher the buckwheat content the better) with Chinese broccoli and eggs over easy.  The soba should be al dente, and the Chinese broccoli boiled briefly and then sauteed (without oil, preferably) with soy sauce and black pepper.  The eggs are the most complicated part of the dish; first, you have to cook finely minced garlic and green onions in a very hot skillet in sesame oil and a little soy sauce so that the outside gets caramelized, and then reduce the heat a little, distribute the onions and garlic evenly over the pan, and crack the eggs over it.  When the eggs are done the yolks should be completely runny, and in fact it's ideal to have the white just a little runny as well, so the eggs are essentially done as soon as they've been flipped.  Other people might find the combination of textures a little off-putting, but when I eat it all is briefly right with the world.

In these trying times, however, one must tighten one's belt - not literally of course.  I don't eat less, but rather more of cheaper foods.  Note that the image at left contains, not delicious soba, but plain white rice, and ordinary broccoli (okay, that's not really a compromise, it's just what I bought this week).  Further notice that the whole thing is smothered in oyster sauce.

Without the distinctive flavour of the soba, the dish overall was definitely lacking.  Although the fishy ("umami" is the technical term) taste of oyster sauce is nothing like the nuttiness of buckwheat, it fulfills the same role pretty well.  The two flavours are complimentary, at least to me - I often eat kasha with Worcestershire sauce.  Of course it goes very well with broccoli chinese or otherwise; I've actually started to use a little instead of soy sauce even when I do have soba, sometimes, although the result is heavier and greasier seeming.

(As you've already guessed, the photo is by the esteemed Phil once again.  Amazingly, he's very tolerant of my interrupting him during work to take arty pictures of my lunch.)

Danger: Tofu Pizza

I'm expecting an update on the struggle against fava beans any day now, but in the meantime I have received a message about putting tofu on pizza.

You've noticed by now that I use tofu pretty regularly.  Do not be deceived; the Dangerous Cook is not a vegetarian.  He does live with vegetarians, but he isn't usually cooking for them either.  That being said, tofu is an inexpensive and flexible source of protein, and it's very good if you know how to use it (and what sort to use).  I will further discuss the matter of tofu-for-meat-eaters some time in the future, but for now, I'll hand the reins over to agents in the field once again:

The idea for putting tofu on pizza (which even I, a tofu lover, admit sounds questionable) came from the somewhat pretentiously named but excellent cookbook "A Taste of Heaven and Earth" by Bettina Vitell. The first pizza we tried was kale and tofu and it came out well, but once you know the trick of sautéing the strips of tofu with garlic first you can use pretty much whatever other ingredients you want. The second time around I used more "traditional" pizza toppings along with the tofu - mushrooms and sun-dried tomato - substituting That Dutchman's Gouda for mozzarella. (I am still searching for Buffalo Mozzarella with no luck. According to the CBC, "Cow's-milk mozzarella is a ball of fresh cheese swimming in brine, pleasant as ice cream but absolutely tasteless. Made out of buffalo milk, instead, it becomes an altogether different matter," and I agree.)

The tricky bit has been using spelt flour instead of the whole wheat called for in the crust recipe. No matter how much extra flour I add it seems to come out too sticky to toss in proper pizza-crust-making fashion, so I've been forced to resort to a rolling pin. I don't know if you can tell from the picture but the cooked pizza is on parchment paper. According to a newspaper review of a local pizza restaurant this keeps the crust from getting soggy. Seems to work.
I've never taken so long eating a pizza that it got soggy, unless I actually left part of it for breakfast, but that's good advice.  I don't know if I agree that cow's milk mozzarella is "tasteless" per se, but compared to bufala it would certainly appear so.  If you can ever find buffalo mozzarella, it's more like a good parmesan - a little will flavour the whole thing, and if you added enough to use it for texture, you probably won't taste anything else.  It's fantastic, though, so that might not be a great loss.

May 9, 2008

Random Cutting! Blind Cookery!

If you've ever watched old samurai movies, maybe you were a fan of Zatoichi, the masseur turned blind swordsman.  You might remember the trailers for Zatoichi films, which at least in English contained bizarre exclamations like this post's title.  If you haven't watched any old samurai movies, well, this is a cooking blog so we'll discuss your cinematic shortcomings some other time.  The point here is that, although often emphasis is placed on cutting vegetables into nice, even, regular pieces, sometimes it's good to go the other way.  Early experiments with chopping vegetables "blind" did not go well, but fortunately you can achieve the desired effect with your eyes open.  Essentially an extremely course mincing, I think this was key to getting the eggplant just so in tonight's dinner: Vegetables in peanut sauce with lime-ginger tofu.

(Photo with my camera; the colours aren't as good, but Phil wasn't home.  It's better than the webcam, anyway.)

Tonight I decided to do a little blind cooking, that is, start carrying ingredients to the work area and come up with something on the way.  I had half a yam and some broccoli stems to use up, so those were in the first trip, and I snagged the egglant 'cause that doesn't keep so well.  I figured a stir fry was the only way to use those three things together, so I grabbed some stuff to make a (to be fair, somewhat pedestrian) peanut sauce.  Finally, I cheated a little - I'd gotten a couple of limes and some ginger with the specific idea that I was going to marinate tofu with it, so I brought all that out.  I marinated and fried the tofu separately, with chili paste and black pepper, and only mixed it with everything else after the heat was off.

The yam I cut pretty neatly into sticks and threw it into the wok with about two full bulbs worth of finely minced garlic, which was nicely toasted when the broccoli stems were peeled and cut up.  Then the "random" cutting of the eggplant - I almost always cut as I go - and straight in, along with a splash of soy sauce.  The peanut butter (I told you it was pedestrian) and my remaining chili paste go in as soon as the eggplant seems done, the heat is off as soon as the sauce is distributed, and then finally the tofu is stirred in quickly.  The results were excellent.

Regularly shaped pieces of eggplant have their merits, in a parmesan say, and there is the argument that if they are too differently sized they won't cook uniformly, but the eggplant tonight came out beautifully and it wasn't uniformly cut at all, ranging from long and thin to almost cubes.  I did ensure it was within certain limits by cutting it into circles about three or four centimeters thick first, and then "mincing" that, but you couldn't really tell by looking at the end result.  This was also about the fastest way of cutting up eggplant for a stir fry I've found that gave such good results.

Coming soon: Comfort food only I find comforting, and another report from Dangerous agents in the field.

May 6, 2008

"Breadcore"? Seriously?

I'd like to thank my housemate Phil for the excellent photos in this post (look at that tomato!).  Hopefully I'll get him to take more pictures for me in the future, so they'll actually look like food instead of blurry nightmares.  You should see the originals - better than the actual food.

We had a little potluck in the Dangerous Kitchen as a going away party for one of my housemates (he landed an artist's residency in a remote locale - I'm such a hip Montrealer).  I used to go for old standbys for potlucks, because I thought people might not appreciate being experimented upon, but that wasn't very Dangerous.  The Dangerous Cook is always experimenting with something, and a potluck is the ideal circumstance to do so.  To be fair this has backfired once or twice, but everyone knows eggplant is tricky and the element of risk is what makes cooking fun!

Of course, learning from mistakes is what differentiates experiment from screwing around, and I have learned that sometimes it's important not to be too ambitious with my researches when working with human subjects.  I decided to go with a fairly safe extension of previous work this time.  I was obsessed with variations on the theme of baked pears for quite a while, stuffed with tofu, cheese, chocolate, etc, and topped with pastry, so I decided to just try inverting that.

My initial intention was to make a ratatouille with pears, but some of the guests I knew did not care overly for tomatoes and we ended up deciding that it would be nice to do "summery" dishes, so I wanted to make it a little lighter.  In the end I roasted a midsize eggplant, a few zucchini, a few Anjou pears, and some tofu with onions and garlic in the oven to make the filling.  As is my habit I used the eggplant as the canary, as it were; when it's done, everything is.

The pastry itself was store-bought, since as I am largely incapable of measuring ingredients or timing things precisely I am hopeless at making my own.  President's Choice Butter Puff Pastry is more than acceptable among friends, though, if you suffer from my same deficiencies.  This is particularly true if you liberally cover it with a good old gouda, pretzel salt and additional butter.  A few artfully arranged, very thin tomato slices serve as a reminder of what I originally planned:

I made two of these, each baked for about twenty minutes, and they came out beautifully, well received by all and really not that much work (except that I had a bit of a hike to get more pastry for the second one).  The pear made the filling a little sweet, particularly since the peeled roasted eggplant doesn't come out bitter at all to counteract it, but it's still very much an entree and vegetarians and meat-eaters alike were well satisfied.  A totally successful trial.

The guests did name it "Breadcore" by popular vote - another demonstration that democracy has no place in the kitchen.  I didn't have a better name (or any name) in mind though, so I'm rolling with it.  I tried to explain that the bread was on the outside, but what can you do?

May 3, 2008

Danger: Fava Beans

I recently received a report from dangerous agents in the field about the uncertain nature of Fava bean preparation.  Some names are obscured because it makes me feel like a secret agent:

We went to the Mid-east Food Centre (not a great middle-eastern grocery btw) to buy ingredients for fava bean salad. The canned fava beans all contained some kind of additive, and B was hesitant about buying them so I said if he really didn't want to we could get dry beans instead. After we got home I looked in our cookbooks and on the net for cooking instructions for dry fava beans and found what seemed to be the accepted method. So yesterday I spent the day sorting, rinsing, boiling, soaking, re-boiling and simmering the fava beans for the prescribed amount of time. With the beans cooked and cooling in the cooking water (as per the instructions) we chopped parsley, made tahini sauce (after ruining the first batch of roasted garlic - put it in the toaster oven and promptly forgot about it, only to remember it after about an hour sitting in the living room wondering where the burning smell was coming from. Did you know that garlic left in an oven turns into little brown garlic rocks?) and then dumped the beans into the strainer, only to discover they were a complete mess. About a third seemed to be okay, another third were like little hard shells full of mush, and the rest had turned into an unsalvageable mix of empty husks and loose much. At which point your ever helpful father looks in the Sundays at Moosewood cookbook (a cast-off from C when she moved to [a Middle Eastern country]) and comes up with this gem: "Although fresh fava can be found at some Asian markets, they are not available in Ithaca, so we have never used them. Also, the course brown dried favas available in our markets have tough hulls and cook unevenly. So we experimented with canned favas - with good results."

So now we are left with a composter full of cooked beans, a half full jar of dried beans (which we will never use), and full containers of chopped parsley and tahini sauce. But no fava bean salad.

Sounds like a lot of trouble.  Personally I don't actually care for Fava beans, even from the can, but perhaps that's because I can't get them to come out right either.  I doubt there's really a dish you couldn't replace them with chickpeas in, though, so why go to all the trouble?  For the Lecter reference?  Not worth it.  The Dangerous Cook advocates taking chances, but for greater rewards than this.

Readers may have noticed the rate of posting on this blog is pretty slow; for example, this was supposed to have gone up yesterday and my agents had already written it for me.  Please rest assured steps are being taken to rectify this situation.

April 22, 2008

Sauce: Salmon w/ Dried Mint

I eat a lot of rice, because it's cheap and we have an automatic rice cooker (yes, I'm often that lazy).  Recently I bought just a little piece of salmon, because I love it but, as the rice I mentioned above indicates, I try to keep my food budget down most of the time.  To make it last, I made sauces out of it to have over rice.  The first night I minced maybe a quarter of the salmon very fine and used it practically like a spice to flavour tofu and green beans in a stir fry, but tonight I used the greater part so I got to make it a bit more central.  I decided I felt like Italian.

Then I noticed the mint on my shelf.  It's dried, and it's old, so it's not strong at all; in fact I could barely smell it - which was perfect.  It's much more subtle than fresh mint would have been, and a good couple of teaspoons of it, mixed with a pinch of tarragon, was absolutely the key.  The sauce would have been nice without it - tomatoes, zucchini, and a corner of the old Gouda (as good as parmesan) my parents brought me from Nova Scotia - but the mint, in particular the old, dried, weak mint, was exactly the hint to make it a bit interesting to me on a night when I wanted something just slightly more exciting that comfort food.  Very slightly, in fact it's almost just an aftertaste, but it certainly makes up for the fact that that bowl is still mostly machine-cooked white rice.

April 12, 2008

Kasha as a metaphor for something

There is an informal personality test, of sorts, with three questions: Your favourite pet, favourite wild animal, and favourite food.  Asked these questions one day in university I responded to the last quite honestly with kasha (toasted buckwheat groats).  The young woman administering the test expressed a preference for a kind of spicy soup.  If you're familiar with the test in question, you understand why I might regret my answer.

I stand by it, though, because buckwheat is awesome.  I grew up eating it in my mother's kasha varnishkes which I to this day reproduce as best I can; I'm told kasha's an acquired taste, and I guess I acquired it.  Like the movie Torque, no one I've introduced to it has taken to it quite the way I do, but I continue to evangelize.  There's going to be quite a bit of kasha, as well as soba (100% buckwheat soba is amazing, though costly) to be found in my coming posts here.  It's easy to make, filling, flexible, and as a dry good it appeals to my desire not to go grocery shopping too often.  Most of all, though, I just enjoy the distinctive nutty flavour and like garlic I think it goes with just about everything.

There will also be a lot of spicy soups, though; in fact, expect to read about the two in combination once in a while.  Let it not be said that I didn't learn anything in university.

April 5, 2008

Thai Honeydew

This may not be the most dangerous way to start, but we'll get to that.  We'll get to that.

Honeydew melons were on sale at the dep on the corner recently and I was for some reason immediately struck by the possibility of a soup.  I went the Chinese Quarter for everything else and a couple of days later I gave it a shot.

The soup was a pretty standard affair otherwise, coconut milk, green onion, garlic, red peppers, silken tofu; rice stick prepared separately.  The melon, once I'd scooped it out, I added at two different times.  First I chopped the majority of it up into moderately small pieces (say, thumbnail sized) and fried it in sesame oil with the garlic and the white parts of the onion for a little bit before throwing in the red pepper and adding the coconut milk and a couple of cans of water.  I let that cook a bit while I cubed the tofu, which I added with chili paste.  The remainder of the melon, left in the original scooped-out form, I threw in at the last moment with the green parts of the onions.  The rice stick of course I just soaked in hot water to soften it, as I presume the Chinese directions on the package instruct.

In hindsight I would probably use more melon and go a little easier on the coconut milk - the end result was extremely rich and could have been a little sweeter.  The roughly 3-to-1 proportion of chopped vs. scooped melon was about perfect, though.  I might like to try the same idea with seafood instead of tofu sometime, as well.  The main thing I learned from this, however, is that half a melon makes a lousy soup bowl.  Good ideas for dishes sometimes start with terrible ideas for presentation.