In lieu of Foodie Tuesday, Meet: I'm a foodblog fangirl

You may think that my primary interest in food is rather conventional - that is, eating it.  But oftentimes for me the relationship ventures onto a whole other plane, one of sublime pleasure, spirituality, aspiration, exhilaration, and a rather deep and wholesome relief, like recognizing an old friend in a sea of strange faces.

As long as I can remember, I took special pleasure in reading about food, especially reading long descriptions of meals in novels.  One I remember very well appeared in Mary Stewart's The Crystal Cave, a tale of how the legendary Merlin grew from a boy to a powerful wizard.  

In this meal, Merlin had not eaten for days and after being bullied by some officers was taken into the care of Cadal, a kindly servant.  "Cadal served me himself, and even fetched fresh bread hot from the bakehouse, where the first batch had just come out for morning.  The soup was some savoury concoction of shellfish...smoking hot and delicious, and I thought I had never eaten anything so good, until I tried the chicken, crisp-fried in oil, and the grilled sausages, brown and bursting with spiced meat and onions.  I mopped the platter dry with the new bread, and shook my head when Cadal handed a dish of dried dates and cheese and honey cakes."

There is something about the sensory detail and the curiosity of what food was like in another time and place that gets to me.  I mean, doesn't that passage make you really want to know what a medieval honey cake tastes like?

These days I find myself reluctantly inspired by food bloggers who do what they do much better than I do.  Part of me wants to hate them because they are young-ish and seem to live the kind of lives I only dream about.  But I can't deny how transportive their writing and photography is for me.
  • Molly Wizenberg, aka Orangette.  Sushmita was the first to suggest I check out this blog. At first I found the lengthy entries and smug photography a bit insufferable, but I somehow found myself going back, which is saying a lot for someone who doesn't use Google Reader to keep track of blog-reading.   Molly's blog is not so much about food as it is about the experience, stories, and imaginings that surround food.  She's like a modern-day MFK Fisher.  For me, it was the introduction to her new book, A Homemade Life, that really struck a chord in me.  I completely agree with at least two things she said in it.  First, "Food is never just food.  It's also a way of getting at something else: who we are, who we have been, and who we want to be."  And second, "Like most people who love to cook, I like the tangible things.  I like the way the knife claps when it meets the cutting board.  I like the haze of sweet air that hovers over a hot cake as it sits, cooling, on the counter.  I like the way a strip of orange peel looks on an empty plate."  Incidentally, I go straight for Molly's regular column every month when my Bon Appetit arrives in the mail.  I'm going to try her recipe for gougeres sometime soon.
  • Carol Blymire, creator of French Laundry at Home and Alinea at Home. Anyone who has the discipline and foolhardy tenacity to cook their way through such ambitious works by such venerable chefs must be commended under all circumstances.  In her words: "I'm cooking my way through the Alinea Cookbook. Because I can.  I think."
  • Peter Hertzmann, who writes for A La Carte. I stumbled across one of his articles when looking for a good explanation of what is fromage blanc and what one can do with it.  His articles, released monthly, proffer a wealth of little-known facts and practical know-how, mostly based in the French discipline, for the intrepid home chef. So traditional and informative!
  • Ree Drummond, aka The Pioneer Woman: A city mouse transplanted to a cattle ranch.  Try scrolling through one of her entries really fast, and it's like watching a video demonstration of how things are done.  Pause briefly for explanations and answers. I like her crisp, delectable photography and focus on basic, good home cooking.
  • Genevieve Wang, my personal friend who likes muffins. She's one of the few people I know who meditates on and loves food even more than I do.  You know she's a kindred spirit when she attempted ~15 times in the past six years to replicate a special kind of Belgian waffle she tasted from a street vendor in Germany.
  • Elise Bauer, creator of Simply Recipes. For once, a blog that delivers exactly what it promises.  Straightforward and chock-ful of delicious recipe resources.
Keep in mind, the featured blogs above have a decided focus on cooking and creating food even more than eating it; restaurant blogs are in a separate category that I might treat in a separate post.

(Early) Foodie Tuesday: Fromage Blanc

Yesterday, I met up with a couple friends to hike Muir Woods for the first time (and struck another thing off my To Do List).  We decided to do yuppie hiking--a term I first heard from vchu--that is, went with our packs full of provisions for a gourmet picnic at the top of the mountain.  Jenny brought the wine and grapes, Beth brought the chocolate and apples, and I brought the bread and cheese.

On Friday I went to my lovely neighborhood market and perused their cheese selection.  When on sale, you can get a better deal on cheese there than at TJ's.  I decided on a $1.50 block called English Huntsman (Double Gloucester with blue stilton in the middle) and a $1.99 pot of fromage blanc from Traderspoint Creamery in Indiana.  I knew nothing about either cheese; I just got it because it said "soft spreadable cheese" and that sounded good.

What we found was a delicately light and fresh-tasting creamy cheese, a little bit like fresh ricotta if you've ever had that.  The reason it tastes so fresh is that it isn't aged at all, though it's cultured, a bit like yogurt.  Beth was surprised it had herbs in it because she has only seen it served straight-up with jam, and not on bread.

I did a bit more digging and found this very informative article about all the different ways to make and use fromage blanc, also known as fromage frais, such as:
  • In a dessert, layered with fruit syrup, coulis, or preserves
  • In chocolate truffles
  • In a fromage blanc cheese tart
  • In slices (after it has been drained more), with blueberry-cassis reduction
  • With herbs and spread over toast or bread, like we had it
I don't know if fromage blanc is easy to find where you are, but if do find it, give it a try!  Or you can try making it yourself (instructions in the article above) with some whole milk, live cultures, and cheesecloth.

Foodie Tuesday: Eggplant is growing on me

I really hated eggplant until recently.  And not because I didn't give it a really good chance.  I tried it grilled, fried, baked, steamed.  I realized that sometimes, it was insufferable (stringy, bitter, flavorless), and sometimes, it was pretty good (mushy, but in a good way).  I started to tell people, "I'm not crazy about eggplant, but it depends how it's prepared."

Then, I "discovered America," as my mom would say.

I realized that it wasn't exactly eggplant I hated unilaterally, but American eggplant.  You know, the huge fat kind, usually found sliced into thick circles and either grilled or baked into chewy eggplant parmesan.  There's something about it that makes it rather noxious.

I realized I really like Chinese eggplant (the long thin kind, sometimes called Japanese eggplant), especially the way, har har, the Chinese cook it.  I'm not being racist, I swear!  I find Chinese eggplant to be more tender somehow, with an uncanny way of soaking up all the flavors you bathe it in, whether it be spicy garlic sauce, or curry, or teriyaki.

Tonight, I decided to branch out a bit and tried Italian eggplant prepared the way my former Iraqi roommate did it (see below): sliced thin lengthwise, then toasted on the pan with a generous drizzle of olive oil, and salt and pepper to taste.  It came out delicious, just tender enough on the inside and a bit crispy around the edges, like a slightly roasted, thicker banana chip or something.

Do you know how many kinds of eggplant there are?  At Berkeley Bowl the other weekend, I saw no less than 5 kinds (pictured below). The Italian I bought, and then American, Chinese, Thai, and Indian. Crazy.

Foodie Tuesday: Cauliflower, the way nature intended

"Cauliflower?" you ask.  Because it's one of the most ordinary vegetables out there.  What I wanted to point out though, is there is a certain way to cook it that really takes it to another dimension.  People might try to stir-fry, steam (bland!) or eat it raw (shudder!), but what the Google cafes taught me is that the only way to really eat cauliflower, except perhaps pureed in a soup, is to roast it.

Somehow, roasting cauliflower brings out a beautifully flavorful sweetness, and the texture is the perfect mix of tender and a bit crispy on the edges, and the whole experience is altogether extraordinary.  It's like meeting a completely new vegetable.

Did I mention I also got an entire, gigantic head of cauliflower at the local Mexican market for only $1?

Simple Roasted Cauliflower

Cauliflower, cut into florets
Crushed garlic
Salt & pepper
(optional) Parmesan cheese for sprinkling at the end

Wash and cut cauliflower.  Drizzle olive oil.  Toss with garlic, salt and pepper to taste.  Roast at 425 degrees for 20-25 min.  Remove from oven and sprinkle parmesan, if desired.

Foodie Tuesdays: Chinese Noodles Part 1, Types

It's been well over a month since my last installment of Foodie Tuesdays, a series in which I try to highlight one somewhat obscure yet interesting food item and tell you something you might not know about it. 

So here you go--Chinese noodles.  I want to talk specifically about Chinese noodles not just because the Chinese invented them, but because I think they demonstrate an awesome diversity rarely found in other cuisines.  It's like they can made noodles out of anything they can grind, mix with water, stretch and boil.
  • 1-2 My favorite noodles in the world, Uigher laghman (or hand-pulled noodles) originating in Xinjiang province
  • 3-5 Garry's favorite, knife-cut noodles (dou xiao mian, a northern China specialty), cut rapidly from a big lump of dough.  Plus pan-fried jian mian or cut noodles.
  • 6-7 You mian, or oil noodles, a peculiar specialty of the Shaanxi province.  Oil and flour formed into rings and steamed in honeycomb formation.  To be pulled apart with chopsticks and dipped into spicy sauce.  Chewy and delish!
  • 8 Cat ear noodles, another Shanxi specialty.
  • 9 Suoman, another Xinjiang specialty, fried noodle squares in spicy sauce.
  • 10 Traditional Lanzhou-style lamian, or hand-pulled noodles from Gansu province.
  • Mung bean based noodles. 11 Dried dongfen, or bean threads. 12 Fried bean threads in Korean japchae.  13 And wide, flat mung bean sheets.
  • Rice noodle varieties: misua (14-15), or rice threads, 16 Fujianese bee hoon or fried thin rice vermicelli, 17 Cantonese maifun, 18 thicker rice vermicelli, 19 lai fun, 20 Cantonese beef chow fun, 21 rolled rice noodle sheets.
  • 22 Serik ash, a yellow Uigher noodle from Xinjiang that is made into rounds and cut into strips
  • Egg noodle variations: 23 fresh egg noodles, 24 pan-fried, 25 deep fried crispy egg noodles

Foodies Tuesdays: Chinese Noodles, Part 2: Specialties

Noodle specialty dishes
  • Hokkien (Fujian) ban mian, hand-rolled egg noodles served in sesame butter sauce and soup, sometimes w/ fried anchovies.
  • Traditional Sichuan dan dan mian: Consists of a spicy sauce containing preserved vegetables, chili oil, Sichuan peppers, pork, and scallions served over noodles.
  • Re gan mianbreakfast fare from Hubei province. Hand-pulled wheat-based noodles over which a mixture of soy saucesesame paste, pickled vegetables, chopped garlic chives, and rice vinegar is poured.
  • And many peoples' favorite, zhajiang mian (more info), a Beijing-style dish with thick wheat noodles and a mixture of ground pork stir-fried with fermented soybean paste.

Skipping Foodie Tuesday but giving you: Egg-white Quiche

I had almost 1 dozen egg whites to use up after I used the yolks in my eggnog.  The other day I was at Costco and saw egg white quiches and knew that's exactly what I wanted to make, esp. since I had an extra pastry shell in the freezer. 

I was very vigilant about the pastry shell this time--I pulled it out halfway through baking to poke out the air bubbles forming.  I sauteed broccoli, onions, and mushrooms before adding them to the bottom of the pastry shell.  Sprinkled goat cheese, then laid out 6 slices of canadian bacon on top, and then poured in my egg/milk mixture.  Next time I would use more egg and less milk, again.  Topped with the rest of the goat cheese and a bit of mozarella.  Turned out a beautiful golden brown!

Foodie Tuesday (1 day late): Inquiring minds want to know

I have a very important question for you all.  One I have been wondering for a long time.

At what point does a butter cookie become a sugar cookie?

I mean, they both have butter AND sugar in them right?  I assume that one cookie has more butter and the other has more sugar.  I did a little digging and what I came up with, is that butter cookies are a lot simpler: flour, butter, sugar.  They are often in biscuit form or pressed, and of Danish origin.  Sugar cookies are a bit more involved, calling for things like baking soda and eggs and whatnot, plus they tend to be rolled out, cookie-cuttered, and decorated (frosted) for the holidays.  Who knows where they originated, but they were perfected by German Amish people in Pennsylvania, and became PA's official state cookie.

What happens when there are equal parts sugar and butter?  Have you then made, as my friend quipped, a 'bugar' cookie?

I bet Reggie has an answer for this.

Anyway, enjoy the pictures below, including buckwheat butter cookies, brown butter cookies, decorated flower sugar cookies, "soft and chewy" sugar cookies, basic sugar cookies, and a lolcat!

Foodie Tuesdays: A well-seasoned wok.

Garry used to live with someone who is a cook and a baker, and I was inspired by this traditional carbon steel wok I saw hanging from her rack of pots and pans.  My family had only ever used nonstick woks, and I was in need of a really good one after a bad experience with a cheap IKEA wok that kept flaking bits of nonstick coating into my food.

I was in Walmart the other day and came across this carbon steel wok for about $16.  I thought, what a steal!  Haha, no pun intended.  I glanced over the seasoning instructions and they looked simple enough.  I gave it a chance.

I took it home and the shiny smoothness of it made me happy.  I was excited to get started with the seasoning.  Here's how I did it:

1. Fill wok about 2/3 with water.  Set on the stove and boil for about 10 min.
2. Drain wok and scrub with scouring pad and hot, soapy water to remove protective coating.
3. Immediately season.  Use 1-2T cooking oil and place over medium heat on the stove, using a paper towel to distribute oil evenly on wok's interior surface.
4. Tilt wok occasionally to heat sides as well as bottom of the wok. (This is where I screwed up.  I tilted the wok to one side and then went to eat some dinner.  When I got back to the wok, I had burned an ugly brown area onto one side of the wok and spent the next half hour or so scrubbing it desperately to get the burned stuff off.  It never did completely come off.)
5. After 10 min, take off heat and let cool.
6. Repeat steps 3-5 about three or four times. (Yes, very time consuming.  Who knew this was so much work!)
7. Wok is ready for use!
8. After initial seasoning, DO NOT wash wok with soap.  Just use hot water and a scrubber.  Coat wok with oil before storage to prevent rusting.  If rusting occurs, scrub off with hot soapy water and repeat steps for initial seasoning (which, considering how much work it was to begin with, should deter anyone from being so careless as to let their wok rust up).

I'm excited for the yummy stir-fries I will be making with my new wok!

Made that leek tart I've been fantasizing about.

Ever since I read that article in Bon Apetit and learned how to make leek confit (see the Foodie Tuesday post about it), I've been wanting to try the recipe for Belgian leek tart that was featured in the article.  It just sounded like the perfect marriage of so many of my favorite things: buttery pie pastry, eggs, leeks, and cheese.  What's not to like, right?

In case you were wondering, the basic difference, that I can see, between a savory tart and a quiche is the egg-to-cream ratio.  I put a lot of dairy into this... 1/2 c. 2% milk (the recipe called for whole) and 1/2 c. heavy whipping cream.  But the recipe only called for 1 egg and 1 egg yolk.  I threw in 2 whole eggs, and if I had to do it again, I would probably throw in more, because I was craving a quiche. 

I decided against making the crust from scratch because a) life is too short, b) I don't have a food processor to cut in the butter, and c) Trader Joe's has these lovely ready-made pie crusts in the freezer section.  So I relied on good ole TJ's.  I think I used too big a pan though, because the crust, while nicely crimped in the first photo (and dutifully pricked all over), did not cling to the edge and shrunk abominably upon baking.  It was ok though, I didn't have a Springform pan anyway, so I was going to go with more like a leek pie or a frittata with crust.  Haha.

I added 1 small zucchini to spice things up a bit and I really like how pretty it turned out!

PS. The recipe called for aged goat cheese but I couldn't find any so I just used regular goat cheese.  Next time I will try something a lot more pungent.