13 March 2011

Thai Red Curry Dish

The Thai lunch counter in Newell Simon Hall on Carnegie Mellon campus served one of my favorite, spicy, coconutty, middlebrow, rib-sticking dishes from that time in my life.  I don't know that I ever knew what the dish was called (if you do please let me know! can't find it either), but it involved tomato, beef, egg, and broad noodles with what had to be a red curry sauce.  I say "had to be" because it wasn't very saucy, but the dish was mildly pinkish in hue and had the right flavor for red curry.

I set out to try recreate the ladles-full of delicious that I remember so partially.  First step was to make a red curry, then stir-fry the beef, tomato, and egg, then sauce it, then finally plate it.  Nothing's easier.

Ingredients for red curry sauce

The Red Curry
Since I've never made red curry sauce before, I looked up a recipe on the web before heading to the store. Of course I made a few substitutions, to cut down the number of ingredients I had to buy, and to make it my own.  Though I'm not going to link the recipe (it's one of the first ones you'd see if you google "red curry"), I'm still going to indulge myself and explain the substitutions:

  • forwent fish sauce and substituted with extra shrimp paste plus some soy sauce. Yeah, I got fried shrimp paste (the jar on the right side of the photo), figuring it takes up less space in the fridge than fish sauce in case it sits there for the next few years untouched
  • excluded Tex-Mex chili powder and red chilies (called for fresh or dried flakes) in favor of a smoky Thai chili paste. I don't know why the Tex-Mex blend was even included in the recipe I found, since it's entirely redundant to other ingredients (cumin, chili, onion, garlic), and the recipe didn't call for a lot of it so substitution wouldn't impact proportions very much
  • used banana ketchup instead of tomato ketchup, expecting the somewhat different flavor to be more complementary to the coconut milk base
  • used pieces of jaggery instead of brown sugar since that's what I had on hand
  • replaced galangal with ginger, since I had that on hand. Since the ginger doesn't have the citrus notes that galangal is supposed to, and the recipe called for lime leaves that I didn't feel like looking for, I added zest and juice from one Persian lime (no zester, but scraping a small, serrated knife worked just fine).
The sauce was put together ahead of time, since the recipe only required a blender and no heating, and it would store just fine in the fridge till later. The jaggery was useful in the blender, as I waited for the rattling of the hard pieces to stop (i.e., they dissolved) as a signal to turn it off. The finished product was a little sweeter than I hoped, and a lot less red. I added some tomato ketchup in hopes of adding tartness and red color to the mix, but there wasn't a lot of change. Recognizing that there are a lot of strong flavors in the sauce that will need time to develop, I decided to stick the sauce in the fridge and leave it alone till I get to the rest of the cooking in the evening.

I realized after looking more closely at the curry recipe that it was intended for a baked dish, and I was going to use it to sauce a stir fry.  It didn't seem to be a problem though.  If anything what I made is thinner than the original with the lime juice and a little added water, so it should be fine.  It tasted fine.  Then, while off on other business, I remembered what happens when I eat raw onions and garlic (*burp*).  The sauce had to be cooked.

The Stir Fry

Flouring the beef wasn't the best idea
One thing I wanted to accomplish was to get the texture of beef that you find in Thai and Chinese cooking.  I'll cut to the chase and say that I took the entirely wrong path.  I cut chunks of stew beef into 1-2 inch pieces, about 1/8th-1/4th inch thick, then floured them (adding some turmeric and powdered chili to the flour).  This I fried in about an 1/8th inch of olive oil and some soy sauce, in a large teflon frying pan.  I don't have a wok at the moment, so flat surface frying was all I could manage.

While that was cooking up I put the curry sauce on, to cook the raw spice-veggies in it.  Now the oil in coconut milk does solidify in the refrigerator, so I had to spoon a stiff gel out of the blender container and into my large sauce pot.  It liquefied before it was lukewarm, and frothed within a few minutes.  The heat was reduced, and I stirred occasionally to keep it from sticking or drying on the walls of the pot. The onion and garlic were of course completely pulverized, so not too much cooking time was needed.

Bigger chunks of tomato next time
Now for the tomatoes.  I used half a dozen romas, split into 8 wedges each top to bottom.  I tossed these in with the cooked beef, and as soon as the tomatoes' liquid hit the meat's flour-and-spices coating (which had held up fine to frying).... I had glue.  Tasty glue, but gluey glue.  But all was not lost.  I added about a quarter of the red curry sauce.  I was planning on using more red curry, but it would have been overkill since hot glue is in itself a sort of sauce (I suppose!), and I ended up with a different sauce through the combination.

Eggs, culantro, Thai basil
To add some freshness to the cooked flavor, I mixed in a handful each of torn culantro and Thai basil leaves. I also made a plain three-egg omelet, cooked till completely dry, and mixed that in too so that it broke up in the sauce. I'd intended to add the egg directly to the stir fry, but now it would have just aggravated the flour problem and I would have had cake.

While all the stir frying was going on I boiled a half-pound bag of flat rice noodled labeled, "Rice Flake".  These took about as long to cook as a campanelle or similarly sized wheat flour pasta.  These were drained thoroughly then added to the sauce + stir fry concoction.

What I ended up with was reminiscent of the meal I partially remember, but not quite there.  Not only did the beef not need flouring, it needed to be tenderized.  I think on the next go I will throw some papaya with the stew meat for a day or two in the fridge, try to slice it thinner, and use a mallet after I slice it. The tomatoes were cut too small, there weren't enough of them, and they cooked too long so that all I had was tomato skin and the rest of the fruit was disintegrated into the sauce.  And there wasn't enough egg at all.  On the plus side, the flour didn't step on the flavors too much and even though it wasn't what I was aiming for, and I committed a couple judgment errors along the way, it was quite palatable.  I ended up with enough for dinner tonight and lunch tomorrow.

The plated product
Since I still have about a quart of very tasty red curry sauce, I'm going to have to try something else with it soon; most likely that will be a second, corrective attempt at this dish.

08 March 2011

Vladimir's Czech Restaurant

A few years back my friend Sourav and I were out at Point Reyes for a day of getting sand blown at us and looking at elk from a very far distance.  It was a nice day in the country, and being peckish from our trek, we decided to stop in Inverness to grab dinner rather than wait till we got all the way back to civilization.  Inverness is a little salty burg along the Tomales Bay, and therefore right on top of the San Andreas fault.  The last thing we expected to find there was a Central European hunter's delight restaurant!  Nor anywhere within a 100 miles of the California coast for that matter (on account of the hippie-ness, we supposed in our East Coast-based presumptions about California).  But Vladmir's Czech Restaurant turned out to be just that.

So we drove up, went in, and sat down.  Upon inspecting the menu we found there were exactly 6 choices.  All $25, all fixed plates.  Sourav got the duck, I got the rabbit.  I think that day the other selections were golden hind, basselope, aurochs, and coelacanth.  I forget.  In any case we both got exactly the same potato and same veggie with our fleisch.

And, all praise unto Wotan, was it lecker!  (I shall use German words, primarily because I don't know any Czech).  I've only had rabbit a few other times in my life, and don't remember being particularly impressed with Foo Foo stew, no matter how good a job Glenn Close did in promoting this other white meat back in the 80s.

Rabbit does not really taste like chicken; it tastes like chicken-flavored mammal.  My memory is vague to be honest, but I remember being quite pleased with the half a cottontail carcass I was presented with.  There was definitely some wood or charcoal involved in the roasting of this lagomorph, as was the case with the veggies.  The potatoes I don't remember, except that they were complementary to everything else.  Since it was bone-in bunny I got a little anatomy lesson too.  The long, flat muscle meat between a couple of the larger bones wasn't that tasty or pleasant to chew, but there was a fair amount of tender meat in the surface muscles, and I was sated.

All in all, it was very well-prepared, simple, authentic woodland grub.

So now we're full up on God's little creatures, and ready to pay.  We busted out the old debit cards and sallied up to the bar (whence resided the Cash Register).  Here Vladimir says, "Czech or cash only."  To which we said, in unison, "Wait, what?"

Seriously, the guy didn't take plastic of any sort, Visa commercials be damned. 

Granted we had no cell phone coverage out there (in 2006-ish), but we were still hopeful to find some modern trappings.  Northern California, remember?  Dot commers and bankers lurking in every nook and cranny.  Nope no credit cards.  Vlad didn't trust'em.  And we didn't have cash.

Since Sourav was driving, he went off in search of an ATM.  There was one at the grocery store across the street, but it had been broken for some time.  I sat at the bar and drank diet cokes and chatted with Vladimir.  He told me stories about listening to short wave radio when he was a younger man in post-war Czechoslovakia.  He hated communists, as I recall.  But he didn't trust capitalists either.  He was quite an interesting fellow who'd had a chance to do something different in life, and I was glad to have a chance to talk to him.  

At one point he says that since he's opened the restaurant in 1960 he'd only been stiffed on a bill twice.  Since credit cards had become more popular over time, and he was in a pretty remote location, he'd adopted a policy of letting people mail him a check if they didn't have cash.  He said he's received checks from cash-less diner from as far away as Maryland.  No worries to him, he'd only been stiffed twice.  So now he tells me.

Meanwhile it's 30, 45, 60 minutes since Sourav left.  I tried to reach him on the cell phone, but for aforementioned reasons that was an exercise in futility.  Roaming charges do not apply if there's no signal at all.  (This situation may have changed in the intervening 4+ years.)

Vladimir's in 2009
(IJ photo/Jeff Vendsel)
There's a crew of college-aged folks taking up a long table in the middle of the restaurant, I think celebrating someone's birthday.  They were boisterous, and drinking beer out of what had to be a 3-liter glass boot.*  Seventy-five minutes now and no Sourav.  I'm starting to think that I'm going to have to wash dishes and sleep behind the inevitable potbelly stove in the back room.  Finally after a full hour and a half, my South Asian compadre shows up.  I have no idea where he went, but I note for future reference that Vladimir's is 45 minutes from the nearest working cash machine.  The post-tweeners were brewski'ed to a high volume by now, and as much as I'd enjoyed alternately talking to Vladimir and staring at his walls, it was time to go.  All in all, it was a good evening and I got a story out of it.

What brought this memory up was an article I just read, from almost two years ago, that also brought news I hadn't heard.  Sadly, Vladimir Nevl died in the autumn of 2008.  God bless him.  His restaurant still goes, run by his daughter now.  If you are ever out to hike at Point Reyes or kayak on Tomales Bay, stop at Vladimir's and grab a dinner of game meat.  You won't regret it.

*Edit: downgraded boot size after a little looking into it.

06 March 2011

Chicken-Mushroom Soup,
Part II

Mushrooms & onions for the freezer
After some consideration I decided definitely to split the original mushroom-onion concoction. I drained & conserved the liquid (about an hour in a colander in the fridge) then scooped out most of the onions and wood ear, trying to leave somewhat less than half of both and nearly all of the enoki in the portion for today's soup. I'll freeze the broth and excluded veggies for use in a future dish.

I bought another pound of white mushrooms, chopped them fine in a blender with water, and put the resulting slurry on the stove to cook with just a little salt.

One chicken's worth of meat
The chicken pot had to be reheated to deal with it. The fat had solidified around the chicken and on top of the broth in the fridge, and the broth itself had gelled (presumably due in part to the added fenugreek and mustard, and largely to the hydrolyzed collagen - a.k.a. gelatin - rendered from the bones and skin through boiling). After bringing to a boil and then allowing it to cool to where my fingers were safe, I separated the chicken meat and discarded the bones an skin. I chopped half of the big hunks across the muscle grain, and the other half along the grain.  Then I fished out the few remaining large pieces of chicken from the stock and ran the warm broth through the blender to smooth it out and help emulsify the fat.

While letting the new mushroom broth simmer (and man does it smell mushroomy!), I re-boiled the blendered chicken broth with a little salt and a large sprig of rosemary.  The smell of cold chicken made me decide to change course with the spicing - more a gut reaction than anything else.  Both broths simmered for about 60-90 minutes. (I didn't mean to let them go so long but got caught in conversation with a neighbor.... fortunately they were on very low heat, so they just concentrated and didn't burn!)

Everything in the pot, ready
for the final simmer.

Now comes time to combine ingredients.  I reconstituted the chicken-garlic-rosemary stock to about 2 quarts and brought it back to a boil.  Here I added a couple tablespoons of black pepper and about twice as much tumeric to brighten up the yellow color of the broth.  With a little less than a quart of concentrated mushroom broth, I mixed that in with the chicken stock a cup at a time till I got the desired flavor combo (actually ended up using all the mushroom).  Then all of the chicken meat, the half of the original mushroom-onion combo that didn't go into the freezer went into the pot first, the bok choi, potato, and carrots.  Lid the pot, bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer, then go watch some TV.

I checked the flavor occasionally, which became much fuller after the veggies started to add sweetness and bitterness to the broth.  After an hour of simmering I felt like it could use diluting, so added about 3 more pints of water.

Finally, after a good long simmer it's ready to cool and store (fridge half, freezer half).  I was worried about their not being enough green in the soup so I got some chard while picking up extra mushrooms.  I'm glad I didn't feel compelled to use it, because I was a little worried over how its unique bitterness would play off the other flavors.  I'm familiar with using other greens in soups and stews, but chard is an unknown to me.  I'll have to use it soon tho, so perhaps chard in the next project!  I also got some pasta stars for starching up the soup in case it was too thin, but felt in the end that the long strands of enokitake and chicken meat (from the pieces I chopped along the grain) were plenty of texture.  The contrasting texture of the stars would have been overkill, and the extra starch might have been ruinous.

It is a perfectly tasty and serviceable soup for lunch leftovers over the next week or two.  A very nice flavor and texture palate dominated by chickeny goodness.  Unfortunately the mushroom broth didn't stand out as much as I'd hoped, and the rosemary doesn't seem to be making much of a palate appearance at all. I'm glad I didn't try to curry it up after all with coriander and chili.  I think if I'd skimmed some chicken fat before blendering the stock, or doubled up again the amount of mushroom stock, it would probably be more the balance flavor combo I was going for.  Live and learn.

The final product

Out of this project I learned (or was reminded of) a few things:
  • Be careful with starting in multiple pots -  it might have been a more successful flavor combination if I'd worked with the chicken and mushrooms as one broth, and I might not have been compelled to overuse the onions to bolster the mushroom stock in the first place
  • Pureed mushroom sounds like an excellent starting point for the next soup!
  • Keep it simple.  I got caught up in trying to fix a mistake and ended up buying ingredients I didn't need for the project at hand.  I'll make use of them, but I'm glad I exercised restraint in not adding the chard or pasta till I saw how the original plan (albeit with slightly different proportions than intended) turned out.
With the workweek nigh upon us I may post a quickie about one of my favorite low-effort bachelor chow meals.  I've gotten tired lately of the particular dish I'm thinking of, but in the interest of journalism I may have to give it a go.

Chicken-Mushroom Soup, Part I

The various parts
I've assembled most of the potential components.  From upper left:
  • Spices - may only use tumeric and a little chili powder,  will decide in process on the coriander and additional fenugreek. Salt and pepper not pictured (but will be included in conservative quantity).
  • Chicken and broth.  I prepared this the other day and refrigerated.  Boiled for 5 hours from frozen.  Added a few cloves of garlic and some fenugreek and mustard (mostly for their emulsifying properties).  Will re-heat, remove chicken meat from carcass and toss the skin and bones.
  • Chopped carrots.  Probably more than I need.
  • Mushroom onion broth.  Also prepared ahead of time.  Finely chopped white mushrooms, wood ear fungus torn into smaller pieces, and enoki mushrooms.  Probably too many small, whole white onions.
  • A couple potatoes, chopped, mostly for thickening.
  • Baby bok choi, chopped stems, whole leaves.  May need to add more greens later, particularly if I split the mushroom broth.
I'm a little concerned about overdoing it with the onions.  The broth was very mushroomy till the onions started to cook down; then it started to taste like french onion soup.  I think I may go get more white mushrooms and enoki and double that broth, then freeze half for later use.  I only added wood ears because the market had fresh ones for fairly cheap, which I don't see often. I'll figure that out tomorrow when I put it all on the stove.  Fortunately I live a 5 minute walk from numerous tiendas with interesting produce sections, so real-time adjustments are no problem.

Will post final product tomorrow!

05 March 2011

Food in Fluxus

This is not a cooking post.

It's an eating post. This is an old instruction written by renowned Fluxus artist Ken Friedman.  You may have come across it on other blogs or web sites.  I am re-posting it here for your own good.  I only ask that if you receive any toys along with your food to give them please, one each, to the first children you see after you have completed the instructions in proper order.

Fast Food Event

Go into a fast food restaurant.

Order one example
of every item on the menu.

Line everything up
in a row on the table.

Eat the items one at a time,
starting at one end of the row
and moving systematically
from each to the next.

Finish each item before
moving on to the next.

Eat rapidly and methodically
until all the food is finished.

Eat as fast as possible
without eating too fast.

Eat neatly.
Do not make a mess.


First Post: This is a cooking blog

Hi Jerks:

I'm starting a cooking blog!  But I'm not gonna be nice about it.

I like to experiment.  I don't care for reading recipes, except to get a sense of proportions and maybe figure out flavor combos.  I'm not writing recipes, I'm writing process.  I make a gawd-awful mess of the kitchen when I cook.  And sometimes I completely fail.  But often enough I get a damned good dish out of the deal.

I'm working on a chicken-mushroom soup right now, will debrief - with photos - over the weekend.  Just wanted to get the first post out of the way.  Introductions made, ceremony stood upon, now let's get on with it.