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.