Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Mushroom Workshop

Margy loves mushrooms. But I have to say, the mushrooms at ShopRite aren't nearly as good looking as the ones in Paris.

Still, my local supermarket has recently expanded its produce department in order to compete with the ritzier, more well-stocked stores in the area. This is great news, as I was able to find some nice dried porcini to give a boost to a big handful of less-distinctive white button mushrooms.

I decided to make a creamy pasta dish, so I called my mom for advice. She gave me great tips, like adding fresh herbs when sautéing the mushrooms, for both flavor and color.

I had a lot of fun making this dish, and I knew Margy would be glad to see some shrooms (I don't cook with them as much as I should), but I blew it right at the end by not using enough liquid. Though I believe pasta should never be drowned, it shouldn't be parched either. I had thickened the mushroom-garlic-herb-pancetta base (ah, always pancetta) with heavy cream and used some of the fettuccine's cooking water to expand the sauce, but I didn't use enough. And then, to make matters worse, I cooked too much pasta and just dumped all of it into the sauce to finish cooking. Tons of grated Parmesan at the end didn't hurt but didn't really help with this particular issue.

I am going to make this dish again very soon and try to address these shortcomings. I have a feeling Margy won't mind.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

A Clever Twist on Kidney Bean Stew?

Margy adores leftovers in a way I've never seen in another human being -- including my father, who until I got to know Margy was the biggest fan I'd ever met by a wide margin. But even he can get annoyed by the pressure that comes with having extra food lying around. "Now I have to eat that," he'll say sadly, blinking at a barely touched casserole of fish and tomato with a weary but strong sense of duty. Not Margy; she could eat the same thing for lunch and dinner all week long.

And so far she's doing just that, with her bean stew. I thought it might be nice to serve it with warm tortillas, steamed broccoli, and (leftover) brown rice. It was, and in fine stew fashion the dish tasted even better the second time.

But how is it going to taste the fifth time?

Monday, November 28, 2005

Margy Cooks! Kidney Bean Stew

For her turn at the stove, Margy chose a recipe from Peter Berley's book The Modern Vegetarian Kitchen.

Her sous chef put an end to the vegetarian part.

"Sounds like a great dish," I said, "but I bet it would be even better if you started it with some bacon or pancetta." No stranger to the almighty power of pork products, Margy saw my point, and opted for pancetta. In the end we agreed that it added a depth of flavor but that the stew would be just as good in its meatless version.

Making the dish was a lot of fun -- Margy, bossing me around the kitchen, soaked and then simmered some beans, added plenty of red wine and tomato paste, along with carrot, celery, onion, garlic, and fresh herbs, and threw the whole thing in a 275-degree oven for an hour and a half. She mixed in some cooked shell-shaped pasta at the end, and there was more than enough to feed us all week. You'll be seeing this stuff again...

Sunday, November 27, 2005

A Chopstick-Friendly Dinner

Necessity is the mother of invention, and I had some teriyaki sauce in the fridge that was going to go bad if I didn't use it soon. Not on my watch.

I considered this, I considered that, and then I just made teriyaki salmon again. This time, though, I added a few skewers of teriyaki shrimp as well. And the rice was this gorgeous Japanese short-grain stuff I got from my sister. It sticks together so nicely -- I don't think Margy and I grabbed as much as a spoon or fork to help corral anything our chopsticks couldn't handle.

On top of the fish are onions simmered slowly in teriyaki sauce until they become all brown and caramelized. I could start a blog just to write about those things every day.

Saturday, November 26, 2005

Another Tryptophan Fix

You know how it goes -- you gotta take advantage of Thanksgiving leftovers.

Friday, November 25, 2005

Twice-Cooked Bliss

On our return from Margytown, we needed something quick, easy, and devoid of turkey for night-after-Thanksgiving dinner. Remember my gushing a few days ago about how great it is to have preprepared meals in the freezer? Well, if these meals yield leftovers, life is too good to be true.

While Margy soaked in a hot bath, I took the leftover penne with meat sauce out of the fridge. I had some bread on the counter that was going stale, so rather than pitch it I chopped the crunchy crust into coarse crumbs, mixed them with a drop of olive oil, and threw them on the pasta along with lots of grated Parmesan. Tossed it in the oven at about 400 degrees for 40 minutes, covered with foil the first half of baking time and then uncovered so it would brown, and voila! Along with a salad -- dinner.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Thanksgiving in Margytown

Margy made me use a photo of my dinner (just pre-gravy, I'm sorry to say), calling it more photogenic than her own. Which is actually an important point, since the Thanksgiving cook, Margy's mother -- my mother-in-law -- told me the only reason she made a whole turkey rather than a breast was that I like the dark meat.

That's pretty cool. I thanked her kindly, but still I doubt she understood exactly how important these matters are to me. (Out of respect, I was prepared to keep my whole-bird advocacy issues to myself if I had to, though it wouldn't have been easy.) I tried to let the chef see me go up for thirds, as a sign of my enthusiasm. I'm not sure she noticed, or heard my chair beginning to creak beneath me; she had a Belgian waffle, hot off the iron and sprinkled generously with powdered sugar, ready for me by 8:20 the next morning.

We drove home from Margy's hometown with the turkey's other leg wrapped in tinfoil. I made quick work of that one too.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Open Freezer, Boil Water, Eat

I must have been in some sort of France-induced cooking rut. Here we were, home for just a few days, and I already felt like avoiding the kitchen. This kind of thing does not happen.

But that's what freezers are there for: helping us avoid self-examination. I don't want to cook. Why? Is it jet lag? Could be. Maybe I left my mojo in... wait a second -- I have a freezer packed with food I made myself! I AM cooking!

Ah, precious frozen meat sauce. I just defrost it and make some pasta, and Margy is well fed. One grueling day spent hunched over the stove yields so many happy returns.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Vaguely Southeast Asian

According to an article I read last year, scientists have observed that animals instinctively try to give themselves the types of nutrition that they are lacking. For example, if they've gorged on protein, the next time they feed they will naturally seek roughage, or fat. That was me. I wanted to get Margy and me the things we didn't have in France. Like vegetables.

Mind you, I am not blaming France for this. I'm just saying that we had to let a few things go in order to focus on others.

So I knew I wanted something Asian, butterless, preferably with rice as the only starch. I thought I'd make Margy a squid stir-fry. She loved the idea.

It came out okay. I cooked the squid correctly -- meaning, fast -- which helps. But I was too laissez-faire with the sauce. I couldn't find the Mark Bittman recipe I was looking for as a guide, so I just combined what seemed like the right amounts of the right ingredients (lime juice, fish sauce, sugar, soy sauce, fresh chilies).

It was good, but it wasn't great. Next time I need a better plan, with more exact seasoning ratios. I like the inexact science of cooking, but sometimes it comes back to bite me. The important thing is, we got our vegetables. I had three helpings of green beans.

I hope one day I'll come home from Southeast Asia and want to eat a hamburger and french fries.

Monday, November 21, 2005

And Back to Pea Soup

Easy come, easy go.

On the trip back the plane food was even worse. No way am I showing you the funky little microwaved turkey and cheese sandwich they slipped us. But once we got to our place and took a nap, even though we were still feeling all flipped around, Margy and I had a hot bowl of the ol' faithful, split green pea, with some Stoned Wheat Thins. It was pretty good.

We were home.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Paris Journal: Le Vaudeville

We'll always have Paris.

Our last dinner of the trip was a late, hastily arranged affair due to Margy's torturous work schedule, but it was still a good time. I used the opportunity to tie up some loose ends, in the form of eating more oysters and snails; trying the classic frisée salad with bacon, croutons, and a poached egg; and finally devouring a profiterole with chocolate sauce. I don't think I'd be able to live with myself if I didn't get that last one accomplished.

Margy had dorado, that oft-appearing fish, with a sauce made with star anise, that oft-appearing spice. I think I liked the fish more than she did. The skin was crispy.

When the waiter came over with a coffeepot full of bubbling-hot chocolate sauce for the profiteroles you see here (which are filled with vanilla ice cream) and he began to pour the sauce slowly and dare I say suggestively over the puffs until they were about to swim away on a sea of chocolate, he looked at Margy's colleague and said, in French, "Let me know if there is not enough."

Paris, a bientôt!

Paris Journal: Sapporo Restaurant Japonais

Our hotel was in a neighborhood that's packed with Japanese restaurants. Day in and day out I would pass these places, usually either sushi/sashimi joints or noodle houses specializing in ramen, and look at their menus, trying to catch a glimpse of someone's lunch. Given my weakness for Japanese food and my need for an antidote to meals based on bread and butter, it wasn't a matter of if I'd duck into one of these inviting little nooks, but when.

One chilly afternoon, faced with the idea of chewing another sandwiche while sitting on a park bench, I made up my mind to check out Japan town. Five paces later I came upon Sapporo and looked inside. It was packed and humming. This will do. I walked in, waited ninety seconds for a seat at the counter, sat down, and asked for a beer. Ordering food was no problem -- when it comes to menus I speak much more Japanese than French.

The tiny dynamo of a woman who runs the place, in many languages, took my order and yelled it to the back line: "Yakisoba, s'il vous plaît!" Her red-dyed head streaking up and down the small room, she maintained a strict sense of order while still managing a wisecrack to break up her busy line cooks. Total pro.

This is the last of three solo lunches I had at Sapporo -- the house-special ramen, with gyoza. The pork broth was smoky, the noodles were al dente, and the two slices of roast pork on top were, I swear, the best pig product of any kind I had in Paris… right next to the crackling skin at Joël Robuchon's place.

"See you again!" the Japanese proprietress smiled and repeated on my leaving, adding, "Arigato, merci au'voir!"

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Paris Journal: Aux Fins Gourmets

The word got out: Margy and I were on the hunt for duck confit.

Finally, on Saturday morning, as our time in Paris was coming to a close, the word came back: Go to Aux Fins Gourmets. I do not know the man who recommended this place (his name is Eric; of that much I'm sure), but I owe him a great debt. Not only was this the best traditional French meal of our trip -- the food at Joël Robuchon's restaurant is glorious but not exactly traditional -- it was some of the most fun we've ever had eating out. We drank, we ate, we ate, we drank, we snapped tons of pictures (no flash, of course; let somebody else be the "ugly Americans"). Margy even ran into a friend. We had a ball.

And every single bite was delicious. There were a lot of bites.

Hours before dinner, as I casually strolled by Aux Fins Gourmets on my way to the Musée Rodin, just to case the joint, a curling yellowed menu on the door assured me that this is no cutting-edge establishment -- this is a classic. I chuckled as I wrote down the phone number, which seemed to be long out of date (it began with "BAB." and had only four actual digits). Our hotel concierge would later call information for the "new" number.

When we arrived for dinner and were shown our table up by the front windows, we knew only that we wanted confit de canard. Our friendly, deep-voiced waiter wore traditional formalwear and helped us make sense of a menu that was tempting us at every turn. For our first course we selected marinated white anchovies, because when I asked about them the waiter beamed. In an impressive example of Franco-American trust, he brought us an enormous ceramic crock full of firm, perfectly salted anchovies in golden olive oil and told us to simply take what we wanted -- with bread and, yes, butter -- and leave the rest. This being our appetizer, Margy and I were certainly capable of leaving nothing, but we wisely chose to save room for the confit.

You must rely on the photo to provide a description of the duck itself, as words fail me every time. To suffice for a proper report, let's just say that crispy skin, luscious fat, and tender meat combined in forkful after forkful of the very reason I was so excited to go to Paris. The potatoes weren't bad either. Some were crispy, some were crunchy, and some -- I still think of them every day -- were crispy, crunchy, and chewy in spots from a trickling down of duck fat. Just to push things over the top, the garnish was a mixture of parsley and garlic.

Dessert was crème brûlée, which I'm not even sure we ordered. By this point our waiter knew exactly what to do. Was the prune eau de vie his idea? Clever man! We love him forever.

And Eric, thank you.

Friday, November 18, 2005

Paris Journal: Restaurant Bimal

Every trip to a faraway land must include at least one dinner fiasco. Tonight we had ours. Somehow even our camera picked up on the out-of-focus nature of our Friday evening.

Margy and I had plans to meet up after she finished work, to grab a quick bite before going to a party she had been invited to. Though we had been told the party would feature some good homemade food -- and the idea of eating at the home of a local was quite tempting -- I was deeply skeptical. I pictured great crowds of people with whom I could not communicate and big empty bowls that had once held delicious things to eat. So we figured we'd deal with dinner first rather than fight a Frenchman over a forkful of lentil salad.

And then we lost our nerve. We decided to go straight to the party and eat there.

We waited around a bit after Margy finished work, eventually caught a cab, and then stood outside our destination trying to get the door code to work. When we finally cracked the code, climbed a wide winding staircase, and pushed through the door of a huge and majestic Paris apartment, we found exactly the scene I'd feared, only on an even larger scale than I'd pictured it. There were four big rooms packed with people sitting in front of cleaned plates and empty bowls. So Margy did a few quick double-kiss hello/goodbyes, and we left.

With the clock running out on dinner -- it was past 10:30 at this point -- we had to find a place to eat. Fast. Our standards slackened by the minute, and we considered the cookie-cutter sushi joints that for some reason dotted the block we were on. We even sat down at one, only to look at the mass-produced menus featuring bright photos of almost nothing but salmon, and bolted.

A couple of minutes later we shrugged and chose Bimal, an Indian and Pakistani joint near all the sushi houses. It was fine, if nothing spectacular. We picked a vegetarian menu of samosas, palak paneer (spinach and Indian cheese), and dal makhni (lentils), and washed it down with a bottle of the Beaujolais Nouveau that had been grandly unveiled the previous evening. The wine does not have a great reputation, but after seeing innumerable signs announcing its arrival and hearing little local bands play raucous odes to its potency, how could we resist? It actually went well enough with Indian food.

So in the end, as far as dinner fiascoes go, this one could have been much worse.

Paris Journal: Il Cardinale Pizzeria

CFM has always focused on dinners, but I thought I'd make an exception for this lunchtime treat. Plus the photo came out too well not to share.

This is the "Regina" at Il Cardinale, the pizzeria counterpart to an Italian gourmet shop/restaurant near our hotel. The toppings are mushrooms and slices of fantastic ham. As I sawed away at the pie I watched the local color come and go, always chatting with the Parisian pizzaiolo, who treated one of his regulars to a great-looking multitopping sandwich made from pizza dough and baked in the small oven next to his work station.

Afterward I brought my leftover pizza to Margy at work, and she devoured it in seconds.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Paris Journal: La Mousson

Cambodian food in Paris? Oui!

This wonderful little place, fragrant with the enticing aroma of jasmine rice, was right next to our hotel and provided the perfect break from all that meat and bread and potato and butter. The charming host, with a silk ascot coiled around his neck, shook my hand warmly and guided me from my desired prawns with chili sauce (I was missing spicy food something awful by now) to his suggestion of prawns with Cambodian spice. Of course I assented. No matter what, I knew we'd be getting those juicy European prawns whose heads I so love to suck. Yeah, I hoped for more than three of them, but what can you do. The dish was rich with lemongrass -- called citronella by the host, bringing to mind mosquito-repelling candles -- and the prawns were as succulent as I'd hoped. We also had wonderful steamed shrimp and pork dumplings (which came with a chili paste that we mixed with a soy-based brown sauce) and a coconut milk curry bursting with galangal root.

Dessert was green tea ice cream that was quite different from the Japanese version in that it contained the unmistakable presence of coconut milk. The ice cream was garnished with a delicious not-too-sweet sesame cookie. And we tried a lovely digestif of Chinese rice wine, which I believe is called Mee Ku Lu. It reminded me of grappa (which I actually like).

From this single foray into Cambodian cuisine, I would put it close to the more familiar Thai food that we love so much. And Margy and I would definitely recommend La Mousson to those looking for something a bit different on the Paris dinner trail.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Paris Journal: L'Ardoise

I'm afraid this is not true cooking for Margy, as the poor kid had to work so late (yep, she was in Paris for work, not just play) that I was forced to dine without her. Anyway, she had a so-so late-night café meal, not really worth writing about.

After spending the day and evening at the Louvre, I tried the Fodor's pick L'Ardoise, a homey storefront joint not far from the Rue de Rivoli. I believe the name means blackboard, and in a spiffy touch the waitress simply sets a big board in front of you that lists the day's prix fixe choices.

My main course was venison (steak de biche) au poivre. Eating steak au poivre was one of my goals for the trip, and I thought venison, which I like but rarely order, would be a nice twist on the theme. It was indeed, but the sauce wasn't peppery enough for my taste. The Australian couple next to me, with whom I chatted throughout the meal, said they too found the peppercorn presence to be generally muted when they'd ordered steak au poivre in Paris. The potato galette was beautifully crisp, but I have to admit that by now I was getting tired of the richness of traditional French food -- the smell of butter was starting to make me woozy, and I was homesick for vegetables. So I guess you could say I misordered, but I didn't want to miss out on the classics.

Yet after the steak, a warm apple tart, butter level be damned, served with vanilla ice cream, slapped me in the face and warned me to remember where I was. It was magnificent, with little blackened bits on top. At this moment I rue the fact that I was too full to finish it. Let me try again. I'll eat it all!

It was now time for Margy and me to take a little break from hearty French fare, but we'd be back. Would we ever be...

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Paris Journal: L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon

"That was before I was born!" said our waitress, who'd asked if Margy and I had been to Paris before. I'd told her yes, I'd been there twenty-one years ago. "I am just twenty," the server added. But like everything else at this incredible two-year-old food shrine from famed restaurateur Robuchon, she was terrific. Her explanations of the complicated tapas-sized dishes and her suggestions for both food and wine were spot-on. This was our one true Paris blowout -- though honestly even a bottle of eau is expensive in the City of Lights -- and it was one of the best restaurant meals Margy and I have ever had. It was one of those dinners where we kept looking at each other with wide eyes and shooting each other little grins.

The place itself sets the tone for the excitement that's found on the plate. There are no tables, just endless counter seating that wraps around the room, putting the open kitchen at center stage. Every little detail is taken into account: The high stools are more comfortable than they look, the silverware is sleek and inviting (I can't wait to put this fork in my mouth, I thought), and there are even little hooks beneath the counters so you can hang your bag and keep it out of the way.

And the color scheme is almost as striking as the food. Everything at L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon -- atelier means workshop -- is in black or red, or both. The eight or so cooks in front of us were clad entirely in black, as they whizzed almost silently around what looked like an enormous griddle with adjacent burners. Margy and I drooled over the dazzling array of red pots and pans they were using, including tiny Le Creuset saucepans (at least we assumed they were Le Creuset).

Here's what we ate. Everything was perfect.

  • Dorado, or daurade, tartare made with fromage blanc, served with a grilled slice of bread, and topped with radish sprouts
  • Grilled calamari with chorizo, tomato, and grilled baby artichokes
  • Sardine escabèche on melba toasts with tomato confit, topped with greens, with spicy mustard on the plate
  • Langoustine raviolo with black truffle sauce
  • Braised pork in mustard sauce with a crispy piece of pork skin on top and a dressed heart of romaine on the side, served with a small red pot of the creamiest, most wonderful mashed potatoes ever crafted (we suspected that potatoes accounted for oh, about fifty percent of what was in there; the rest was pure richness)
  • Grilled baby lamb chops au jus with roasted garlic and fleur du thyme, also served with mashed potatoes
  • For dessert (pictured -- look at that stone plate!), a Chartreuse liqueur soufflé with a scoop of pistachio ice cream dropped into the center

    Since most of the dishes featured seafood, we chose a white wine -- Cot. Charitois Dom. de la Vernière. Luckily it went well with our meat choices. And we couldn't resist finishing off with a quick eau de vie, to which we were quickly becoming addicted.

    I'm pretty sure I thanked everyone who worked there a little too profusely as we walked out, but when I've eaten well I feel no need to play it cool -- even in one of the world's coolest cities.
  • Monday, November 14, 2005

    Paris Journal: Le Dauphin

    This place was recommended by our hotel concierge and turned out to be very good. Its Southwest French cooking emphasizes meat grilled alla plancha, which I thought was a Spanish term but I would hear again a few times in Paris. This is Margy's dinner, playfully called "La Mer" on the menu (mine was "Le Boucher"). It included half a lobster and pieces of tuna, salmon, dorado, and cod. You can see some fantastic pesto (pistou) on the plate. The sauce on the tuna is something we kept running into: a brown sauce flavored with star anise. And Margy's still not totally ready for star anise.

    At the very top of the photo is a small round dish of potato gratin that accompanied the plancha entrees. It really packed a wallop.

    I amused the staff by assuming the men's room was downstairs (isn't it always in big European cities?). Wandering around down there rather than trying to speak a few words in French, I bumped into the red-haired chef. I gave him a shrugging "Twa-let?" and he laughed and brought me back up.

    Sunday, November 13, 2005

    Paris Journal: Le Grand Colbert

    There's something I like about a meal that requires its own equipment.

    Most such meals involve shellfish, and Paris brasseries often feature huge, ornate platters of all manner of mollusk and crustacean. In this case the coolest and most necessary tool was a sharp needle that you twist into a minuscule snail shell and which usually comes out holding a quarter of a bite of delicious meat. But there were other utensils, like a cracker for the langoustine and crab claws and a long thin fork for the larger snails. Like surgeons, we kept changing tools as needed. "Cracker... needle... foreceps..."

    Then we just surrendered and used the long thin fork for everything. The snails were the best, followed by the shrimp -- big succulent pink ones and tiny grayish brown ones that I ate whole like popcorn.

    Margy had steak tartar for her main dish, and we watched our British waitress (I had told her she speaks English very well before I learned it was her native language) add onion and pickle and Tabasco to a huge mound of very fresh looking ground beef. In the end it was enough to feed two hungry Dobermans, but Margy did her best.

    Saturday, November 12, 2005

    Plane Food

    I have nothing to say about this, except that it was rather generously called "lasagna."

    Friday, November 11, 2005

    USA Burger

    What do you do for dinner the night before you split for Paris?

    You grill Margy some burgers. And look at those potatoes! Crispy, crunchy. I think I'm on to something.

    Stay tuned for updates from France -- if I can find a good Internet cafe...

    Thursday, November 10, 2005

    Fry That Rice

    Margy and I eat a lot of rice.

    I keep several different kinds on hand at all times: basmati, jasmine, brown rice, sometimes short-grain sushi rice. I like to make extra for leftovers, as a bowl of reheated rice can easily become the foundation of a quick lunch, requiring just a bit of dressing up. Sometimes we have so much rice flying around that I'll open the fridge and see several containers of different rice leftovers. This is when I get excited. This is when I make fried rice -- a shape-shifting staple in our house that Margy adores.

    Of course, you can use any kind of rice, in any amount, for this. I get a special thrill when I convert simple leftovers into something altogether more interesting -- feeding us and saving food! -- so I let the amount of rice in my refrigerator dictate when I make the dish. Just be sure to use "older" cooked rice. Freshly boiled rice has too much moisture to retain its individuality in the face of bold flavorings and searing heat.

    I don't have a recipe for fried rice, so it's always different. And that's half the fun. I usually do a few things the same way, though. I use a skillet, but obviously a wok would be great. I always start by cooking a couple of beaten eggs (protein) in a tiny amount of vegetable oil. I break up the egg and remove it. Then lately I've been sautéeing some finely chopped bacon or pancetta (more protein, plus fat, saltiness, and flavor) in a little more oil, and once it's beginning to brown I add a smallish amount of chopped onion, minced garlic, grated or minced ginger, and minced fresh chilies. High heat is good for all of this, but don't let things burn. If I have carrots lying around, I mince one of them (vitamins and color) and add it at this stage. I usually splash a bit of Thai fish sauce on the mixture as it cooks. This is when Margy walks by and says, "That STINKS!" And it's true -- but the pungent fish sauce cooks off quickly and leaves behind deep oceans of flavor.

    So that's your base. Try adding other things if you like. Just try to figure out how long they'll need to cook, which will suggest how small to chop them and when to add them to the pan. Firm tofu (more protein) cut in small pieces is great. I used to put green veggies like broccoli in fried rice, but I found they competed too much with the other stuff, so now we just have a vegetable on the side. The one exception is string beans, which are the perfect addition when sliced into tiny rings and added with the carrot.

    The last steps: I put the egg back in the pan to heat it up. I microwave the leftover rice to take the chill out of it, then dump it over the other stuff and carefully mix it all together. I lower the heat, pour a few good tablespoons of soy sauce over the rice, and again stir it all together. Here I used toasted sesame seeds and a squeeze of lemon at the very end, but I prefer a shot of lime juice (I didn't have any). A garnish of cilantro leaves is also terrific.

    This time I had enough leftover rice to have leftover fried rice. What could be better? Margy's having it for lunch.

    Wednesday, November 09, 2005

    Teriyaki Time

    I was talking to my friend K, who said he'd made some salmon with teriyaki sauce. Of course then I couldn't stop thinking about teriyaki, not until I brewed up a batch. Naturally I would opt to use it with salmon too, since this is a match made in heaven -- and Margy loves taking leftover salmon teriyaki for lunch.

    Two things about teriyaki sauce:

  • The bottled kind is almost never any good.
  • Making it at home is so easy that you should never have to bother with the bottled kind. A recipe follows this post.

  • My goal was to have a proper feast in the middle of the week, since we'd been eating so many leftovers and takeout meals recently. In the end I made a wonderful dinner that seemed fancy but was actually really simple and quick. If you already have the teriyaki sauce on hand and you choose white rice rather than long-cooking brown rice, this could easily be a 30-minute meal. Here's what I did in the hour before Margy came home:

    I put the brown rice on -- set it and forget it, basically. I started cooking the teriyaki sauce. I rinsed and trimmed some asparagus, tossed it with olive oil, salt, and pepper, and spread it out on a cookie sheet for roasting. I sliced an onion for my superdelicious side dish, teriyaki onions. The sauce was ready by the time Margy walked in, her eyes widening as she saw what was going on. ("There'll be leftovers, right?" she asked, just a little nervously.)

    I preheated the broiler, and put the onions in a pan with a ladle of teriyaki sauce, under medium-low heat. The trick is to cook them slowly for 10 to 12 minutes and let them get all sticky and irresistible. Then I threw the tray of asparagus into the hot oven above the broiler, laid individual-serving-sized pieces of salmon, skin side down, on the broiler pan (which I coated with a tiny bit of canola oil to prevent sticking), brushed the fish with teriyaki sauce, and put it under the broiler. Twice during the 7-to-8-minute cooking time I basted the fish with sauce and put it back under the flame.

    This, of course, is an inexact science. The fish was done before the asparagus, so I took it out and put the veggies under the broiler for a minute while I arranged the plates. The asparagus ended up perfectly cooked.

    You have to try this.

    Recipe: Teriyaki Sauce

    I've seen versions that call for more mirin (a sweet Japanese cooking wine -- it's not something you'd ever actually drink, at least not the kind I've used, Kikkoman Aji-Mirin) than sake, but I'm a sucker for sake. After experimenting a little, I've settled on equal parts mirin and sake.

    This sauce can be brushed on fish, shrimp, chicken, or beef while it's being grilled or broiled, and it's also great with vegetables. Whatever you're using it with, teriyaki sauce seems to go best on foods that cook quickly, as the sauce can burn near a flame. If you're using bigger cuts of meat or chicken on the bone, you can always start to brush the sauce on in the middle of cooking.

    Makes a little more than 1 cup

    3/4 cup mirin
    3/4 cup sake
    1/2 cup soy sauce
    4 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon sugar

    1. Simmer mirin and sake in small saucepan over medium-low heat for 5 minutes.

    2. Add soy sauce and sugar, stirring until sugar is dissolved, and cook over medium-low heat for 25 to 30 minutes. Sauce should maintain a slow, steady simmer and thicken just a bit by the time it's done.

    3. Let sauce cool. It can be kept for a couple of weeks in the fridge.

    Tuesday, November 08, 2005

    Colonial House

    Tonight, the Quaker Oats pilgrim cooked for Margy.

    She had my cauliflower soup for lunch, though.

    Monday, November 07, 2005

    Cauliflower Chemistry

    Make a pureed soup -- you'll love it.

    This is my first, and I'm already hooked. A friend at the place where I used to work (!) gave me a recipe for creamy cauliflower soup, in which a gloriously rich texture is achieved by pureeing the soup base and adding more goodies afterward. Let me explain, and you'll see how you could not possibly go wrong.

    You begin by browning some sliced chorizo sausage in a pot. You remove the browned meat and soften some onion in the rendered chorizo fat. Then you add chicken stock (I used Swanson brand, which my mom recommended as her preferred canned chicken broth; she was right -- I liked its subtle flavor much better than Campbell's or College Inn's), lots of chopped cauliflower, and a bit of sliced potato. Once the vegetables are tender, you puree the contents of the pot in a blender until smooth. Doing this in two or three batches is the easiest way.

    Chorizo browning aside, this is when things got interesting. Ladling great steaming portions of tasty stuff into a blender is fantastic, but it's even more fun to pour a thick, hot puree back into the pot and see an incredibly sensuous and substantial soup take shape before your eyes. It was one part chemistry, one part alchemy, and one part magic.

    Frankly I could have added salt and stopped right there. Besides, my supply of cooked chorizo was dwindling by the minute as I nibbled away at it. But wait, there's more: I turned the heat back on beneath the puree and added 2 cups of small cauliflower florets (set aside from the single large head I used for the soup), a bunch of washed and chopped spinach, the juice of a lemon, and what was left of the chorizo. Awesome.

    Margy came home to a bowl of hot soup and a warm slice of good bread and thought I was a magician. Nope -- maybe an alchemist at best.

    Sunday, November 06, 2005

    Conservative Chili

    As tempting as it is, I'm not commenting on anyone's political views here. This is a food blog, not the place to make fun of those who don't share our opinions about the country and the world. Unlike some people, I'd like to think Margy and I are above that.

    I am merely discussing the main dish at Margy's cousin's house, a chili that one might consider a bit more "conservative" than Margy's own, discussed here in depth a few days ago. There was no cinnamon or chipotle pepper in this version, but I'm happy to say it was quite tasty and delivered a healthy little kick. The corn bread was a nice touch too. And I love the eye-catching stick of butter in this shot. Though I've been cooking with butter more and more -- just enough of it to enrich certain dishes -- I never spread it on anything outside the occasional pancake or waffle. Still, there's something homey about butter that just says "eat!"

    Saturday, November 05, 2005

    Pizza in a Pinch

    It was my first proper meal with Margy in what seemed like a week, but thanks to New York City traffic I didn't even cook for her.

    My plan was to drive through town after a great hang with my relatives and get home to the burbs in time to make dinner, but southbound traffic didn't let that happen. However, due to the magic of cell phones I was able to take advantage of this hideous delay by scooping up my girl at the train station and giving her a ride home. When we reached our destination, we were hungry enough that grabbing a pizza seemed like our only option.

    The pie was the local "old reliable," not nearly as good as Mama's (or Margy's), but there when you need it and tasty enough. Because we dig anchovies but prefer just a scattering, we pulled our usual trick: We order a pie with half sausage and put our own anchovies on the plain slices, reheating them quickly in the oven.

    And though we usually drink beer with pizza, this time we picked up a bottle of A Mano 2003, from Italy's Puglia region. Apparently it's like a zinfandel, and it was excellent -- deep and full bodied but light enough to balance nicely with the salty pizza. I think it was like 10 or 11 bucks. Margy and I recommend it for sure.

    Friday, November 04, 2005

    Schlocky Maki, (Not Quite) Saved by Seaweed

    Are you sensing a theme this week?

    Maybe I'm distracted, maybe I'm drunk... whatever the case, I most certainly am not cooking for Margy, and this troubles me. What you see here are the remnants of takeout sushi, which I had when I got home (late) after my last day at work. It was a weird day, and a crappy dinner. I don't expect magic when I bring sushi home -- sushi should be eaten the moment the chef finishes massaging it into shape -- but this was even worse than usual. Enormous pieces, sub-par cuts of fish, and rice that was so gummy it could have doubled as rice pudding. I didn't even finish it. Of the dozens and dozens and dozens of times I've had sushi, one of my favorite eats, I could count the meals I haven't finished on one hand.

    What you see here, the seaweed salad (next to a big tub of pickled ginger), was the best part. Margy, who dared to go out with her friends on my last day at the office, had stolen the camera, so the sushi itself shall remain just a bad memory.

    Thursday, November 03, 2005

    Tequila Mockingbird

    Uh, does gobbling a handful of somebody else's french fries count as having dinner?

    I didn't think so. That's why you see this array of powerful beverages, along with their most unnecessary accoutrements. It's like a lineup in the Blaggard's Pub holding cell. The scotch here on the left was mine, but the tequila seemed so exotic and enticing that I made the switch as soon as I could. (Which was pretty soon.) I can tell you here and now that Patrón Silver really rocks.

    This was actually taken at my work going-away party. I simply had to leave in order to focus on cooking for Margy. The girl needs to eat!

    Case in point: Blaggard's refused to cook for Margy on this evening. Kitchen closed, blah blah blah. Such shoddy treatment, after so many graceful offers of fine, fine tequila. So we had a grape fruit roll -- a gift from our pal Johnny -- on the train ride home.

    Wednesday, November 02, 2005

    Defrosted Chicken Masala w/Spinach & Basmati


    Sometimes the urge to eat trumps the urge to take pictures.

    Homer says it best, right here.

    Tuesday, November 01, 2005

    Pea Soup Chronicles

    I have to come clean: I've made pea soup a bunch of times without learning anything.

    The soups are fine. They do the trick. Margy likes them pretty well. They're just not as good as those I aspire to equal or even surpass. My pea soup, for instance, is inferior to the one you find at your local NYC Pax deli. And I can't quite deal with that.

    I start with bacon, or ham hock, or pancetta. No problem there. (This time it was bacon.) I sauté the meat and render its fat, and then I add finely chopped onion, carrot, and celery. This time I also threw in a large clove of minced garlic. Once I've added rinsed dried split peas and water, I salt and pepper the brew and sometimes toss in a hint of spices like cumin and coriander. There's nothing wrong with any of this, but I need to up the ante, get some more flavor going somehow.

    I think I have to try using stock instead of water, or at least a combination of the two. Looks like it's time to roast a chicken. I'll keep you posted.

    A side note: This salad reflects the last weekend of my town's farmers market. As if setting the clocks back weren't depressing enough, now I have to suffer a lack of locally grown produce. The arugula I bought most Sundays (here mixed with spinach) was unparalleled, and the tiny beets that Margy found so adorable will be greatly missed. I tried to give my purveyors (even the pompous Red Sox fan among them -- where did she come from?) a cheerful "Have a great winter," or "See ya next season," but inside I was bumming out big time. I'm going to hang on to those last few fingerlings for a while, just for old times' sake...