Sunday, August 31, 2008

Traveling to Tibet

I finally made good on a promise I had made to myself when we moved to Bloomington several years ago. Given that the country's only Tibetan Cultural Center is located here and the town can boast of having not one, but two authentic Tibetan restaurants, this has long seemed like a valid aspiration.

After speaking with several people around town, I decided to go to Anyetsang's Little Tibet Restaurant. Luckily, this small eatery sits on Fourth Street in Bloomington, where the annual 4th Street Festival is held every Labor Day weekend. And guess what weekend this just happens to be. Looks like I can stroll through the artists' booths and eat great food all in the same day. Sounds like a plan to me. Come along to Tibet with me...

Slipping between a couple of artists' booths, I found my way to the sidewalk and the gateway to Tibet.

In this case, a piece of Tibet is located in a tiny, old house. I chose a table in the corner of what surely used to be the living room.

Don't you just love the small restaurants with their small budgets?

I opted for the Momo, which are steamed dumplings filled with minced beef and onion and secret spices. Two dipping sauces were served on the side: warm soy sauce and a spicy sauce of hot chilis, cilantro and green onion. Lentil soup was served as a first course and I chose to have a Mango Lassi with my lunch.

My lentil soup arrives. The lentils had been mashed to a pulp and the soup was filling without being heavy. Despite the heat of the day, this was a delightful dish.

Ah, my Mango Lassi has been freshly made. Smooth and rich and creamy with a wonderful fruity flavor.

A lassi is a yogurt based drink that was first developed in northern India. Several different flavors can be incorporated in the refreshing drink, making it a versatile beverage.

Now the Momos with the dipping sauces have been presented to this grateful diner. Essentially, the Momos are really not all that different than a steamed dumpling that one might find in a good Chinese restaurant. This should not be all that surprising, as Tibet has long ago adapted dishes from neighboring China, India and Nepal.
What I can tell you about this meal is that I really enjoyed how the subtle flavors of the Momo were accented by the dipping sauces. My favorite sauce turned out to be the special spicy sauce.

While I ate my lunch I spent some time taking in the ambience of the small restaurant.

The small pictures on the mantle show the Dalai Lama with people who are presumably the owners of this establishment.
I'm so glad I took the time out of my schedule to visit Tibet.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Friday Night Fajitas

I was suddenly struck by the realization that not only had I never made fajitas, but I had never even eaten them before. Well, there is no time like the present to rectify such a glaring oversight.

For my first foray into fajita fixings, I opted to go with the traditional beef filling. However, chicken, pork and shrimp are also equally at home in fajitas.

After searching online for a suitable recipe, I decided to start with Paula Deen's recipe for Gold Medal Sizzling Fajitas. However, as lime was my choice as the citrus for the marinade, I substituted the lime for the lemon that the recipe called for.

For the marinade I mixed together the juice of half a lime, 1/2 teaspoon onion powder, a dash hot sauce, 2 tablespoons canola oil, 1/2 teaspoon whole cumin seeds, 1/4 teaspoon black pepper, 1/4 teaspoon salt and one clove garlic, minced. I could not find skirt steak in the grocery store, so I purchased a flat iron steak for this meal.

After mincing the garlic, add a bit of salt and use the side of the knife to scrape the garlic across the board. The salt works as an abrasive to help break down the garlic as you scrape and smash the garlic with the knife.

Add the garlic to the marinade and put the meat in one hour before cooking. This thin of a cut of meat does not need to marinate very long.

And now we move on to the vegetable portion of the dish. Here we have 2 green onions, a Vidalia onion, half a red bell pepper, and an orange bell pepper.

I cut 1/4 of the Vidalia onion into slivers. I used half of the orange bell pepper and the half of the red bell pepper that was left over from an earlier dish. I sliced the green onion in half lengthwise and cut them into 4 inch pieces.

I wrapped a few tortilla rounds in aluminum foil and placed them in a warm oven while I cooked the fixings.

Quickly sear the meat over medium-high to high heat. Set aside and allow to rest a couple of minutes.

Add the vegetables to the hot pan and heat through. As I am not a fan of mushy vegetables, I did not leave the vegetables in the hot pan for very long at all.

Remove to a serving dish as you turn your attention back to the beef.

I sliced the beef across the grain. In deference to my husband's tastes, I returned the meat to the still hot pan for a mere 30 seconds to further brown the meat.

You may recall from my last post that I had made fresh tomato salsa. At this point it's a simple matter of laying out some meat and vegetables on the warm tortilla and topping with sour cream, shredded cheese and homemade salsa.

What can I tell you? The veggies were done to perfection, the meat was tender and flavorful, with just the hint of lime and garlic in the background. Even the house smelled wonderful afterwards.

Oh wait! I had also made some Jasmati rice for a side dish. It was very nice with some veggies over the top.

Now, why in the world did I wait so long to make such an easy and tasty meal? Oh, now I remember: I think it had something to do with the objections that my dear husband raised when I told him what I was making.

His response afterwards? He liked it. I must be doing something right.

Why Bother?

As I was making some fresh salsa for tonight's dinner, my mind went back over a conversation I had recently with some very nice ladies. I had happened to mention that a few days earlier I had made three different salsas and was very pleased with my efforts. One lady asked why anyone would ever make their own salsa when one could simply buy jarred salsa at the grocery store. As the other fine ladies quickly agreed with that statement and immediately turned to discussing their favorite brands of jarred salsas, I wisely decided that my time and energies were best spent elsewhere. Besides that, I happen to have a healthy sense of self-preservation.

And now I would like to present my personal argument for why you should bother with making fresh salsa. Is there truly any comparison between the two? I know what my choice is, what is yours?

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Culinary (Mis)Adventures

There is no doubt that food and flavors play a huge part of our lives. Memories of mom standing in front of the stove, churning out food for the family are etched in our minds and imprinted upon our psyche. And it is easy to see that this experience can easily lead us to either absolutely love or merely just tolerate food.

My own memory conjures up the acrid smell of canned spinach, heartily doused with distilled white vinegar, boiling away on the stove. It subsequently took me several years to be able to subdue the automatic gag reflex from that particular culinary memory. Coincidentally, it also took several years for me to realize that I do in fact love spinach. Raw spinach. Preferably paired with some red onion, sliced Crimini mushrooms, a few pieces of crisp bacon and dressed with a warm bacon vinaigrette.

Likewise, it has taken me half my adult life to learn to truly appreciate mushrooms. But, given that my entire childhood experience with the fungus came in the canned form, you must forgive my reticence for embracing the ‘shrooms. Nowadays? Give me some lovely Criminis on a fresh salad or lovingly sautéed in a bit of good olive oil and butter, and I am in heaven. Even better yet, sauté some morels when they are in season, and you will understand my new found joy.

We did not have a lot of money growing up, so we had to make do with what we had. My parents were either very fond of beef heart or it was dirt cheap, because it was a common dish in my house. My parents would try to pass it off as steak, but I always knew. How could I not know? What can I say about beef heart? It is a strongly flavored meat, tasting more of beef than even the most pungent aged piece of steak. Beef heart is also incredibly tough. No surprise there, given just how hard the heart must work to keep the creature alive long enough to reach the slaughter house.

Oh, and then there is the aromatic dish of liver and onions. I know of no other dish that is more likely to chase vermin and loved ones out of the house than that one. One of the first things I told my husband 25 years ago was that I would never make him liver and onions. If he wanted the dish, he’d have to go elsewhere for it because he would never have it at home.

I do know of one dish that might give liver a run for its money, though. Occasionally, we’d camp with a large family who were known for one dish in particular. Boiled beef tongue. Early in the morning the father would start the fire while the mother prepped the tongue and cut the vegetables. The tripod would be set up, with a large kettle of water hanging over the fire. The tongue and the various veggies would then be tossed in and the fire would be tended throughout the day, as the tongue needed that long just to become palatable. That particular shade of grey is forever etched in my mind and not in a good way. Perhaps it was good, but the color combined with the smell of the cooking dish was more than enough to turn me away from enjoying the experience.

Looking back now, I realize that my mother seemed to have been oblivious to the fact that vegetables came in any other form than canned. We only had fresh corn on the cob when it was given to us or we children were directed to snatch some field corn from some unsuspecting farmer’s field. Potatoes, iceberg lettuce, carrots, celery, cucumbers and onions are the only vegetables I can recall us having had fresh back then. Though it certainly could be that more simply wasn’t available in the grocery stores thirty or forty years ago.

Likewise, the only fresh fruits I can recall from my childhood were bananas, grapes, oranges and grapefruit. Lemon juice came in a bottle, while peaches, pears and pineapple resided in cans.
There is also the matter of spices and herbs. Never did my mother’s kitchen cabinet contain more than iodized table salt, ground black pepper, ground cinnamon, garlic salt, onion salt, ground nutmeg, oregano and whole cloves, which were only used to stud a whole ham. Today, my kitchen contains no fewer than sixty different herbs and spices. In addition, I grow several herbs and harvest them for use in making my own Herbes de Provence blend.

As a child, eating out was a rare treat. I could count on one hand the number of times a year we did go out to eat. But even then, the ‘treat’ was to eat industrialized cafeteria food that was worthy of any hospital. To this day, green Jell-O has a special place in my heart.

Now that I have finally grown up, I have come to appreciate food in a way I never could have imagined as a child. Now I will hunt out new vegetables to try. Now I watch hours of cooking shows, hoping to learn new techniques and recipes. Now I read food blogs and learn how other home cooks approach the matter of food. Now I will search diligently in books and on line for any way to put a new spin on an old favorite. I can also tell you that I am the proud owner of sixty-three cookbooks, including two that I have written. In addition, I have two books on culinary adventures written by Anthony Bourdain.

I will admit that the journey to culinary awareness is not always easy. For instance, I recently purchased broccolini for my family: we hated it. Despite assertions that it has a milder taste than traditional broccoli, we found the opposite to be true. And while I liked the roasted Brussels sprouts I made, my family begged me to not ever make them again.

There have also been times when I have wanted to try a new recipe, even going so far as to purchase all the necessary ingredients, only to chicken out and return to the familiar. It can often be a leap of faith to mess with what already works.

Reality also jumps up and plays havoc with our culinary experience. Learning that chicken was causing most of my asthma attacks has greatly changed my eating habits. It’s no longer a matter of simply ordering whatever sounds good on the menu or blithely picking out a packaged product at the grocery store. I have learned that I must ask questions and demand answers when eating out. And given that I absolutely adore Asian foods, the language barrier can present a bit of a problem. I strain to read the fine print on packages at the grocery store since I really don’t want to go to trifocals just yet. But I somehow manage, and I am learning that there is indeed life beyond chicken. Who knew?

At about the same time, my college-age daughter began to develop an aversion to processed foods, resulting in many upset stomachs. Thus, between my allergy and her aversion, very little in the way of processed foods now finds its way into our home. I make my own stocks or buy the better quality boxed stocks. I use herbs and spices rather than seasoning packets. We make macaroni and cheese from scratch rather than from a box. Sauces are often assembled rather than poured out of a can or jar. Salad dressings are usually made from scratch and lemon and lime juices come in round containers that must be squeezed and that can be zested rather than the top unscrewed. I use kosher salt or sea salt for cooking and table salt is reserved just for the table. Semi-Homemade Cooking with Sandra Lee is regarded as the last true sitcom on television rather than a real cooking show.

Then, there are the precious times like last night. That morning I seared a beef rump roast in olive oil and seasoned with kosher salt and black pepper before placing in a slow cooker. A bit of chopped Vidalia onion and garlic cloves were added along with homemade turkey consommé. The beef happily simmered away for several hours before I removed the roast to a plate and the consommé to a saucier. The consommé reduced over high heat while I pulled the beef apart by hand. Once the consommé had reduced by 2/3, I added catsup, Worcestershire sauce, red wine vinegar, white wine, hot sauce, brown sugar and ground cayenne pepper. By a happy coincidence, the sauce was finished cooking by the time I had finished burning my hands, er pulling the beef. Everything then went back into the slow cooker for another couple of hours. My daughter told me that this was one of the best things she had ever eaten. She said it was so good that the beef could be eaten as is, without the bun. We have subsequently been put on notice that she has laid claim to the remaining beef. Believe me when I tell you that it is best to just walk away at this point. No point in risking one’s life here.

And still the desire and the need to improve and broaden our culinary horizons beckon and we keep reaching. There are always new foods, new techniques, new recipes to try. What will be our new favorite food?

In the end, food is the great unifier in life. It is what brings us all together and it transcends language barriers, political and sociological differences.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

On the Proper Care and Maintenance of Hummingbirds

It is doubtful that there exist more delightful creatures than hummingbirds.* These high-energy creatures dart and zip around as if they are fueled on pure sugar. Oh wait, I guess they are...

*Yes, I realize that your dear pet is very cute, but this is my blog post and we are talking hummers here.

Hummingbirds seemingly spend most of their waking hours searching out sweet nectar, and are easily lured to your garden by the addition of a hummingbird feeder or twelve.
Now I know where all the hummingbirds in our area have gone. Apparently, all the daylilies are here too.

These little things are extremely territorial.

"Hey! That's my sugar water!"

"Tough, I was here first!"

"Oh yeah? I'll fight you for it!"

Um, yeah. I admit that my hummingbird translation is a bit rough, but you get the idea.

Let's move to the proper food for hummers.

Commercial mixes are available for hummingbird feeders, but it is easy (and cheaper) to make your own.

Here, we have the ingredients. Four parts water to one part granulated sugar. Red food coloring is not necessary; the hummers will find the sugar water without the coloring.

It is very important that honey never be used. Honey is poisonous to hummingbirds.

Heat the water to boiling before adding the sugar. Stir the mixture until the sugar is dissolved and turn off the heat.

Allow the sugar water to cool down to room temperature before filling the hummingbird feeder.

We still seem to be at an impasse here.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

In Hot Oil

I decided to make something very different last evening, using a cooking method that we rarely use. That's right folks, it was a fried-foods-palooza!

I have boneless tilapia fillets in the freezer and potatoes in the pantry. Fish and chips, anyone? Except... let's make pommes frites instead of regular french fries (English chips).

I have three russet potatoes for three people. While peel-on french fries are delicious, my husband prefers his peeled, so the good wife peels the potatoes.

Now, this is one of my tricks to stress-free cooking: I go into the kitchen in the afternoon and do a lot of the prep work then, so that come dinner time all that is left is the actual cooking.

Since these potatoes will be sitting a while before they cook, I submerge them in water so that they don't turn brown.

More prep work: here we have the ingredients for the fish. Cornstarch will coat the cut fish so that the wet batter will stick to the wet fish.

Beer, Old Bay seasoning and Beer Batter Mix combine for the batter.

I took three tilapia fillets out of the freezer.

Slice each fillet crosswise into 1 to 1-1/2 inch strips. Notice that I used my fish cutting mat in order to eliminate cross-contamination.

Coat the tilapia strips with corn starch and store in the refrigerator until needed.

Mix together the batter according to package directions. I also added a bit of Old Bay seasoning for additional flavor.

Hmm, daughter Kelley has been craving fried pickles. I think I'll have to add this to the menu.

Inspired by Rosie Hawthorne and some recipes online, I decide to make a blue cheese dip for the pommes frites and the fried pickles.

I mixed together equal parts mayonnaise and light sour cream and added in a pinch of ground cayenne pepper, a dash of Frank's Hot Sauce, 1/3 finely diced celery, a couple of tablespoons of minced red onion, minced celery and parsley leaves. Lastly, I stirred in enough crumbled blue cheese to suit.

Into the refrigerator this goes. Heh, I sound like Sandra Lee.

And finally we get to the cooking. First, I heated the oil to 300 degrees and cooked the potatoes for 3 minutes.

Take out of the oil and drain. This is the first step to making pommes frites, which are twice-fried french fries.

After the oil has been heated to 350 to 375 degrees, it's time to start cooking the rest of the food.

First, daughter Kelley coats the drained and dried pickles in the batter and adds them to the oil.

Set aside to drain.

Next comes the fish. Remember to not crowd the pan and don't over-cook the fish.

You know, the cook needs a snack to sustain her through the tedious cooking process. Don't mind me as I snack on these lovely fried dill pickles.

After the fish was finished cooking, I began frying the pommes frites a second time. Unfortunately, this is also about the time my old electric skillet decided that it was tired.

The first clue was that despite giving the oil plenty of time to come back up to temperature, the french fries just wouldn't brown. Indeed, they ended up a bit greasy, which is a sign that your oil is not hot enough.

The second clue was when my daughter went to pull the plug out of the outlet only to find that the plug was almost too hot to handle and sparks flew as she disconnected the plug from the outlet. In addition, there is now a scorch mark on the face of the outlet.

I don't need to tell you that the skillet went into the trash after it had cooled.

Now, I need to figure out how I am going to replace it. Do I get a dedicated deep fryer? Hmm, but we only deep fry foods a very few times a year. Do I get another (this was my second) electric skillet? Or do I lay out a nice wad of money for a heavy dutch oven? Decisions, decisions...

And by the way, this was delicious, even with the drama. A nice pea salad rounded out the dinner. But I do think that I will stick to just frying my french fries once from now on.

Off to Asia for Lunch

My daughter and I had to go to town today for school supplies for her and food for all of us. We decided that we would also take this opportunity to go out to lunch together.

Did I mention school supplies? Might I also mention that many of the students for Indiana University have arrived back in town? Describing the stores as impassable just might give you a hint as to the chaos that we had to endure while we shopped. Well, while the townies might not appreciate the annual invasion of college students, I am sure that the retailers are ecstatic.

We survived the mass pile-ups in the aisles, the lines, the parking lots as well as the traffic, and headed out to a nice little restaurant near by. I have gone to the Sunny Palace restaurant once or twice before and have even blogged about it, but for some odd reason, I tend to forget that it is there. Odd that, given that I have always enjoyed the food there and have found the staff to be very helpful, even with their limited knowledge of the English language.

I woke up this morning with a sudden hankering for Korean Barbecue Pork. Now, I found this craving to be rather strange, given that I have never had that particular dish before. Oh well, who am I to argue?

Once we were seated I decided to order the Boneless Pork Ribs with the Pork Fried Rice. I had the choice of three soups: Wonton, Sweet and Sour, or Egg Drop. I decided to go with something different this time and ordered the Wonton Soup after I verified that chicken stock was not used in it.

My daughter misses having chicken at home, so she ordered the General Tso's Chicken with Pork Fried Rice and Wonton Soup.

The Wonton Soup arrives.

Each bowl had three pork-stuffed wontons, some strips of pork and diced scallions.

We both loved this soup and not a drop of soup was left in the bowls.

My daughter's General Tso's Chicken with the Pork Fried Rice. You really must thank her for allowing me to photograph it before she set into the dish.

And now may I introduce my Boneless Pork Ribs and Pork Fried Rice? This was just what I had in mind.

I will definitely have to remember that this place is here. Although, I couldn't help but notice that besides a couple of people who left soon after we arrived, we had the restaurant to ourselves. I do hope that this was just a slow time for them and not a normal occurrence.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Can You Say Frittata?

Do you remember the roasted turnip and potatoes from the other night? I had a bit left over and decided that a frittata would be a great way to use the remainder.

May I introduce today's players? Here we have olive oil, salt, black pepper, the leftover roasted vegetables, shredded sharp cheddar cheese, diced onion, fresh flat-leaf parsley, thyme, oregano, chives and the eggs.

Oops, my darling daughter called and is on her way home. So two more eggs will be needed, as I am using two eggs per person for this dish.

First, I heat the roasted veggies and the onion in the olive oil over medium-high heat on the stove top.

Meanwhile, beat the eggs and season with salt and black pepper.

Pour the egg mixture over the sauteed veggies and turn off the heat.

Sprinkle cheese and the chopped fresh herbs evenly over the frittata.

Place in a preheated 325 degree oven for about 15 minutes, or until the egg mixture is set.

Mmm, this is looking good.

Very good.

The nice thing about frittatas, besides the fact that they are just so easy to make, is that there are many options for fillings, such as ham, sausage, or mushrooms. Just make sure that any meats are cooked before adding to the frittata.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Let's Talk Turkey - Roulade

I finally broke down and bought a real meat mallet and I was itching to try a recipe that actually required the use of said mallet. But what to make? Well, we haven't had turkey in a while, so I bought some turkey cutlets that I could play with.

As often happens, I simply could not find a recipe for turkey roulade that I liked, so I made up my own recipe. Come along and watch the fun.

Let's see: we have three turkey cutlets, some Dijon mustard, 2 pesto portions, thinly sliced deli ham, and provolone cheese slices. Since my daughter loves her mozzarella cheese, I used that for her turkey roulade.

Place a turkey cutlet between plastic wrap.

Then pound away. See how letting a bit of aggression out works?

Spread some Dijon mustard on the cutlet.

Add the ham slices...

Next, the nice pesto...

And finally add the cheese.

Roll tightly and place in the refrigerator for a couple of hours. This helps the roll to hold its shape and I didn't need to tie the roulade.

Now we cook. I seasoned with salt and black pepper before searing the roulades on all sides.

At this point, I put the pan in the oven and let the turkey roulades finish cooking. Once the internal temperature reached 165 degrees, I pulled them out of the oven and covered for 5 minutes. Notice that the turkey roulades stayed in a nice roll all through the cooking process.

I think we have a winner. The pesto and Dijon mustard added a nice bite to the roulades, while the ham and cheese added more flavor to the turkey.

Meanwhile, I got busy with a side dish. I had been wanting to try a turnip dish, but knew I would have to sneak it into my unsuspecting family's dinner.

Clockwise from left we have a turnip, red potatoes, a carrot, a russet potato, vidalia onion, some freshly dried rosemary and the remaining red onions from my garden (they were supposed to grow up to be scallions, but they apparently decided to skip that step).

This was also a great way to clear out my produce bin.

What a colorful mix. Add salt and pepper and toss with olive oil. Bake for one hour in a 350 to 375 degree oven.

After 30 minutes I added some sliced crimini mushrooms and returned the pan to the oven.

Hee, hee. No one even asked about the turnips. I'm good, oh yeah.