9pm dinner for one: I made some delicious chicken.

It took longer than usual, but so worth it.  Marinate fresh chicken tenderloins in salt and white pepper and a splash of olive oil.  Brown sliced onions in oil, then add sliced apples (mine was fuji) and let them cook down, then add sliced mushrooms and let them all cook down.  Add chopped rosemary.  Chicken.  And a splash or two of white wine.  Salt liberally (or to taste), and add some black pepper or cumin seeds for spice.  

The only thing I forgot was garlic, but it was still SUPER tasty.  A bit sweet, tart, salty, savory all together. Served over brown rice.

8pm Sunday supper for two

Izzy came over and we were both wanting something warm and comforting (I had a stomachache after a weekend of indulgent eating), so we pooled the contents of our fridges and made some tasty noodle soup.  

Used miso paste as a soup base and boiled udon noodles in it for some body.  Added some Chinese veggies, leftover Costco chicken, ahi tuna, enoki mushrooms, and tofu.  Topped with toasted seaweed and a perfectly soft-boiled egg.  Very simple and tasty.

9pm supper for one/Late Foodie Tuesday: I made this beautifully simple fennel salad but forgot my camera so you'll have to take my word for it.

I hadn't had much experience with fennel before I started working at G.  Mostly the chefs there braised or sauteed it, and I decided I didn't like the texture or the flavor - too stringy and unpleasant, like celery, but even tougher.  

I've been kind of flirting with the idea of giving fennel another try, mostly because I see it so often in the market, and because the frond-y part of it resembles dill, which is one of my favorite herbs.  Finally I figured maybe fennel would taste better raw and sliced paper-thin, like green bell peppers do (I hate green peppers cooked.  So brash - yuck!).  So I bought a bulb the other day and figured I'd find a way to make it work.
Let me tell you: if you think you hate fennel, try it shaved, or sliced paper-thin, in a bright and fresh salad.  You might need a mandolin to get the job done, or if you're careful like me, you can just slice it yourself.  

I took a cue from my go-to Molly Wizenberg, and also the lady at Simply Recipes, both of whom I can rely on to bring me simple and delicious recipes.  I knew what I had to do:
  • Trim, wash, and slice one fennel bulb paper-thin
  • Juice a lemon (which I got fresh from my coworker's tree)
  • Make a dressing with the lemon juice, some good Spanish olive oil, salt, pepper, chopped parsley (which I grow right in my kitchen).  I like to whip the dressing separately before tossing in with the salad to kind of "fluff" it up.
  • Add some bright and colorful watermelon radish, sliced thinly, for contrast.
  • Toss everything together with some grated parmesan cheese
I have to say it was a beautiful thing when I was done.  the slices of fennel were layer-y and translucent, but had a strong flavor of licorice and a pleasing crispety-crunch.  The lemon did a lot to cut through the strong herbiness of the fennel, and the parmesan gave it this yummy savory quality that made me want to gobble up a giant bowlful of the salad.  

Instead, I exercised some restraint and ate half of the salad I made with half a pita bread and some Costo chicken.  Dee-lish.

Early Foodie Tuesday: Okra, I fear you no longer.

I feel that most people have some story about a traumatic encounter with okra.  Most notably about the slime that leeches out into soups and stews anytime okra is involved (scientific name: mucilage).  And about the rather unpleasantly large and alien seeds, the strange pod-like shape, the inexplicable fur that sometimes covers them.  It's like a product of another world.

I remember having to help my mom pick out okra as a kid in the grocery store, and she showed me how to look for unblemished pods with tips that bent easily without breaking.  I remember the sticky way it clung to my knife when I sliced it.  So I'd sworn off okra early on, deciding it was the most disgusting of strange vegetables, and could only be consumed one way: breaded and deep fried.  I never thought I'd come face to face with it again, least of all in my very own adult kitchen.

In general I try to give things a second chance (as with eggplant... or in the case of "juicy pear" Jelly Bellies, about twenty chances.  And I still hate them!).  It was Milk Pail Market that convinced me to try again with okra.  They had this small crate of the vegetables in an obscure corner of their produce section, but I saw immediately that the okra was uncommonly fresh, pretty even, with smooth and elegant ridges, very little fur, and a slight purple sheen.  They were quite sexy.  Despite myself, I quickly filled a bag with them and bought them.

Then came the challenge of how to actually cook them.  But to my Brazilian friend and coworker Thais, the answer was obvious: Frango com Quiabo, or chicken with okra, that quintessentially Brazilian dish traditionally served with polenta.  There was very little that was traditional about my version of chicken and okra.  What I ended up making was more like a cross between frango com quaibo and chicken gumbo. but it was still tasty and not slimy.

Southern cooks swear that adding a spoonful of vinegar to a gumbo gets rid of the offending sliminess of okra.  Indian cooks swear by pre-frying the okra, which sort of "cauterizes" it and eliminates any slime.  For good measure, I did both-- I readied some hot oil in a pan, dropped in my okra, and added two spoonfuls of white wine vinegar on top.  Before long it became obvious that the most important thing was to make sure the okra was frying cut-side down, and to fry it on both sides.  Given the size of these okra slices, it was kind of labor-intensive and involved standing watchfully over the pan with a pair of chopsticks, ready to turn the slices over before they burned too much.  When you first place a slice of okra over a hot pan, it will dance.  That is the slime burning away.  You'll know the slime is gone when the okra stops dancing and starts browning.  It's kind of up to you how browned you want it.  As it was my first time doing this, I accidentally let the okra sit too long in the pan and some of the slices got almost black.  I took them out of the pan and set them aside.

In a separate pan, I sweated a small chopped onion in oil with chopped garlic.  I added small pieces of boneless/skinless chicken thighs (if this were a traditional dish, I would fry whole bone-in pieces of chicken until they were golden brown) and gave them a few healthy shakes of cumin and adobo seasoning.  Don't ask me why the adobo; it probably had no place in this dish but it felt right.  And, because I didn't quite have enough of the chicken, I added a sliced sundried tomato chicken sausage.  I'm sure Brazilian cooks would object.  When the meats were cooked through, I added some homemade chicken broth to make a saucy-sauce, and dusted some flour in to thicken it.

When it was all done, I added the okra back in and gave it a good stir.  Perfect.  Served over some brown rice, it was a nice comforting thing to have on a Sunday evening.

Note: I got some tips on technique from this YouTube video that is a bit hard to follow (not just because it's in Portuguese), but gives a basic idea:

10pm supper for one: Gnocchi in egg sauce and purple carrot stir-fry

If you meet a picky eater who won't eat his/her veggies, maybe you ought to try feeding that fussy-fuss some PURPLE VEGGIES.  Because they are so much fun, and tasty besides.  You may already know I have a penchant for purple things that normally come in other colors.  I should clarify: I have a penchant for purple vegetables that normally come in other colors.  Bruises and other bodily injuries do not count.

I got these gorgeous purple carrots from, where else, Berkeley Bowl market.  I love getting things there that I can't get anywhere else.  I was dismayed to see that the purple color was so delicate - even rubbing the carrots too vigorously while washing took away a lot of the color, so I didn't even bother peeling them.  

I thought maybe like potatoes and bell peppers, the purple color would turn brown upon cooking, so I tried a couple bites of raw carrot and made a face.  I do not like raw carrots.  So I cooked it.  With sliced zucchini, mushrooms, and lots of garlic!  The purple color ended up holding well, which made me happy. I'd say it was a delicious success.  Lovely earthy texture, and the flavors went so well together I just wanted to shovel it in my mouth and dish some more.

Anyway, for starch I was attempting to make a supposed carbonara sauce and failed, but it was still tasty.  I even browned the butter before frying my gnocchi in it.  But the gnocchi were much too hot, and as soon as I dumped my egg/parmesan mixture, it curdled and became scrambled eggs.  I tried to thin the mixture with some pasta water but it was a no-go.  Scrambled eggs they were, and scrambled eggs they remained, with delightful little lumps of potato gnocchi.  Finished off with some salt and pepper, it still made a wonderfully simple and satisfying dinner.

Foodie Tuesday: Sofrito, for Cuban-style black beans

This journey began with Versailles Cuban Food in Culver City, where I first fell in love with that magical combination of black beans and fluffy white rice.  Each by itself is pretty good, but together they become more than the sum of two parts.  Don't ask me why a Cuban place is named after a French landmark.  Just ask me how delicious their food is, and I'll give you an answer: VERY.

You can tell good black beans when you spoon them over a small pile of rice and they sort of just fall slowly over themselves in this luxurious mix of sauciness and mashiness.  And when you taste them, it's got this pleasingly soft mouthfeel and thickish texture, and the cumin starts to make happy little zings across your brain.  At least, that's what cumin does to MY brain.  Cumin is hands down my favorite spice, ever.  Who needs illegal drugs when there's cumin around?

Anyway, I've tried over the years to replicate that amazing flavor at home, with very little luck.  I remember the first time I bought a pound of dry black beans from the local Mexican market, feeling so proud of myself, only to be so disappointed when I tasted my first batch of beans and found them upsettingly sweet and nothing like Versailles' Cuban-style black beans in flavor or texture.

A friend from Jamaica tsk-tsked me and told me I should NEVER UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES put onions in with black beans.  No onions!  Only garlic, and lots of it!  But when I tried her method, it still didn't come close.  She also was the one who insisted that "plantains" be prounounced plantin's, as in, "I'm plantin' a garden."  I have never heard anyone else pronounce it this way, but it stuck with me.

More recently I was absolutely determined to find a really authentic recipe for cooking Cuban-style black beans.  I was dubious of most recipes that called for not only onions, but bell peppers, which is one of my least favorite vegetables.  That is, until my search led me to this series of how-to videos on YouTube, by Expert Village. Let me tell you, this is quite possibly the world's most infuriating how-to video, because what should be a 24-minute demonstration is inexplicably chopped into 1-minute segments that are not labeled in order (part 1 of 24, part 2 of 24, etc).  That meant sitting through this annoying 6-second introduction 24 times.

However, in my grim determination I watched all 24 one-minute clips, mostly out of order, and trusted my instincts to help me put the story together. And the secret I unearthed was this: SOFRITO.

I'd never heard of sofrito before, but I learned that it's the Spanish and Latin-American equivalent of mirepoix, an aromatic combination of super-finely chopped onions, bell peppers, and spices that serves as the base for many soups, stews, and sauces.  At last, here was the key to that hauntingly delicious flavor I'd experienced at Versailles.  Despite my reservations about bell peppers, after cooking them down with spices I realized that their bitter brashness balanced the sweetness of the onions well, and it is absolutely what pulled all the flavors together.  That, and a WHOLE BIG MESS OF CUMIN.
So my super dumbed down version of how to make Cuban-style black beans involves:
  • Putting your pre-soaked black beans (about a pound) on the stove to boil, on high, with a few big chunks of bell pepper, 1-2 bay leaves, and enough water to cover.  Optional: you can use chicken stock instead of water, but adjust your salt accordingly.
  • Processing about 1 bell pepper and 1 small onion along with 2 cloves garlic (optional) in your processor or with your nimble fingers and a sharp knife.
  • Adding the vegetables to a small fry pan along with a good amount of olive oil and spices (cumin, oregano, black pepper, garlic powder, about a teaspoon or tablespoon each depending on how much you're making) and salt (start with a cautious amount; you can always add more later). This is your sofrito.
  • Cook the sofrito on medium heat until it is nicely rendered down, stirring occasionally, about 20 min.  It should be dark greenish-brown and greasy-looking and very fragrant.
  • Check your beans.  When they are fat and swollen, and starting to crack open, they are ready to receive the sofrito.
  • Take the beans and sofrito off the heat.  Mash the beans a bit, leaving about half of the beans whole, then add the sofrito and mix.
  • Add a spoonful of sugar to the pot and mix.  THIS STEP IS CRUCIAL.
  • Add maybe a quarter-cup of red wine and a splash of vinegar.  This step is nice-to-have for additional flavor but not as crucial.
  • De-glaze the pan you used to cook sofrito with a little red wine; add everything to the pot of beans.  Also a nice-to-have but not crucial.
  • Return pot to heat and simmer on low, partially covered, for several hours until the soup is super thick and creamy and yummy.  Or move the whole mess to a slow cooker, set it, and forget it.  Check back to see if you need to adjust the amount of liquid, spices, or salt.
  • Serve with fluffy white Cuban rice and your choice of Cuban meaty deliciousness.