"There is no love sincerer than the love of food"
George Bernard Shaw, Man and Superman (1903) act 1

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Delayed Gratification

Sometimes the hardest thing to do is to put off for tomorrow what we want for today. But when you are like me - ambitious to a fault and prone to taking on too much at a time - the ability to delay gratification is absolutely essential.  I am brutally reminded of this today as I struggle through the aftermath of a really fun but really late night with my girl.  And I had things to do today dammit!

Friday, December 21, 2012

How to stir-fry at home (skip the wok - really)


The first thing you need to do is throw out every useless bit of info you have read in English language cookbooks about how to stirfry. I spent almost 10 years crippled in my asian cooking adventures by an inability to properly stirfry.  The bottom line is that a western style home oven is simply not intended to be used for stirfry.  Analogously the traditional Chinese kitchen does not have an oven for baking.  How would you explain how to make a traditional dish like a birthday cake to someone that did not have an oven? Traditional Chinese cooking is done over an open fire using a “pit stove”.  The wok sits into a hollow opening and is literally surrounded by fire produced from small pieces of wood.  The result is a high intensity heat which is beyond even the most advanced stoves available on the market.  Western style stoves heat the bottom of the pan; Chinese style stoves heat the whole thing.  Every cookbook I read tried to adapt the stove to the traditional pan (i.e. the Wok).  This doesn’t work and is one reason why home cooks have a hard time reproducing Asian food.  The right way to do thus is to adapt the pan to the stove and the cooking method.   I learned this after many, many failed attempts to do the opposite. 

I finally solved this problem through sheer necessity.  I lived in the country for many years. I had electricity, phone and internet delivered to our home, but no gas.  Some of my neighbours have these giant propane bulbs that they use for their stoves.  To my mind that is like setting a giant stack of dynamite next to you front door (do people really realize gas can ignite?)!    Once every few months a big truck made it's way up my ponderous gravel road, and refilled the tanks with fuel that originated deep in the soil of Alaska or Wyoming or wherever.  This is one of the many places that the local food philosophy is in direct contradiction to gourmet orthodoxy.  My electric power came primarily from the many hydropower dams which choke the Columbia river and its tributaries.  As an environmental scientist, this does give me some real problems, but at least it is pretty local (I can make it to the first dam in around 3 hours) and renewable-ish.  As I have said before however, my cuisine is not a finished product – it is an ongoing process.  So for me, advantage electric.

The second piece of the stir-fry puzzle fell into place when, I, as the ‘grandson that cooks’, inherited the entire cast iron collection from our family farm – I have about a dozen now.  I also have fancy all-clads, Le Creusets, and Chantals, but the ones I use day in and day out are my cast irons, especially the full size skillets.  The last piece of the puzzle is oil – You need a lot of oil - I used to canola oil before I went paleo but now use coconut oil.  I visit friend’s and family's kitchens and see tiny bottles of oil on the shelf.  This will not work if you really want to cook Chinese food.  Stir-fry requires a lot of oil, but what people fail to realize is that much of it won’t be eaten with the dish.  When stir-frying, you should expect to leave a good portion of oil and other liquids at the bottom of the dish.  This is unlike a sauteed dish, and I believe this has been a source of great confusion for many home cooks. 

So, let’s bring this section to a close.  Get yourself a cast iron skillet, turn the heat to high and leave it there, and when it is really hot (I use my finger to test), add a really healthy amount of oil or other fat, wait until it shimmers and form into miniature waves (about 3 seconds if your pan was the right heat to start with), then add your aromatics (ginger, chile, onion, garlic etc) in the order in which you want the flavor to be emphasized.  For example, if making a strirfried lemon chicken, I would start with the lemon peel; if making a spicy shrimp dish, I would start with the chile.  Add ingredients in the order specified in the recipes below.  You will (almost always) be leaving the heat at or near the highest setting for nearly the whole time.  The subtle control of heat you get with a gas stove is totally unnecessary at this point – what you want is a consistent and really hot heat.  If you are constantly fiddling with the heat, I suggest that you step back (maybe after that night’s dinner) and rethink what you are doing, as it is not really necessary.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Thai Style Chicken Wings Three Ways

Pok-Pok is a Portland OR Thai restaurant that has no equal in the region.  It is real, flavourful Asian food.  One of the signature dishes is called Fish Sauce Chicken Wings.  It is made using a standard Chinese Cooking technique that involves deep-frying meat and then briefly stir-frying it with aromatic ingredients such as ginger, scallions, and garlic (the so called Chinese Mirepoix), soy sauce, chile, vinegar and sugar. 

It is a true challenge to the home chef to recreate favourite fried dishes. I have done a lt of deep-frying at home.  I have never really enjoyed it.  It is a huge mess; it costs a lot for the oil; it is a pain to dispose of unusable oil; who has a pan big enough to cook everything at once?; the Frier (aka the cook, aka me or maybe you!) is so busy frying that they don’t get to eat their fill.  Although on rare occasions I will consider deep frying, I will not do it on a regular basis.  Unfortunately, I really, really love fried food.  With that in mind, I have developed three separate recipes which recreate the spirit if not the letter of Pok-Pok’s dish.   They all use basically the same ingredients, but they are each cooked a different ways

Roasted – For the Winter - 1

Heat oven to 400 F, cut each wing into two pieces at the larger joint, and add to a shallow roasting pan.  Toss with oil and seasonings.  Cook about 30 minutes, tossing the wings every five to ten minutes.  The result will be akin to a braise, but by the end they should have caramelized and absorbed all of the liquids.  Your pan will be a sticky mess, but the wings will be delicious.  Be sure to serve a lot of napkins.  Although I serve citrus with pretty much everything, it is especially necessary here.

Four Wings, cut at the joint
Neutral oil or lard
Soy Sauce
One Head of chopped garlic
A thumb sized piece of ginger, chopped
Salt if needed
Lots and lots of ground pepper (1/8 cup)
Fresh Lime Wedges

Stir-fried – For the Spring - 2

This is the closest to the traditional Thai dish recipe.

Heat a pan to smoking hot on high, and oil wait till it shimmers.  Add your chile sauce, ginger, and then wings.  Cook until the wings start to brown and are cooked to safety.  Add your garlic, stir 15-30 secs, then your fish sauce (5 secs) and then your sugar.  Stir until the wings take on a delicious caramelized exterior.

Four Wings, cut at the joint
Fish Sauce
One Head of chopped garlic
A thumb sized piece of ginger, chopped
Salt if needed
Fresh Lime Wedges

Grilled – For the summer - 3

This is great for the summer, and honestly works well with a whole chicken or other parts only if that is what you have.  Ideally the wings would have been marinated for 24-48 hours, but you can also do it up while the coals are starting.  Start your charcoal grill as normal.  Marinate the wings and simply grill as usual, cooking until done.  Then toss with the fresh herbs.  Serve with lime of course

Four Wings, cut at the joint

For the Marinade
Fish Sauce
One Head of chopped garlic
A thumb sized piece of ginger, chopped
Crushed tomatoes

Chopped Cilantro, Rau-Ram, and/or basil
Salt if needed
Fresh Lime Wedges

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Simplify, Simplify, Simplify

A primary goal of this blog is to share with you the techniques in detail that I have come up with to make Asian Cuisine work for the home chef.  I have a lot of cookbooks, and to be honest a lot of them contain instructions which are simply ridiculous.  Stir-fry is a great example, and possibly the one that gives home cooks the most trouble.  I am not sure if it is arrogance or simple ignorance, but as far as I can tell, many formally trained pro chefs don’t know how to actually cook at home.  This attitude is exemplified on the food porn which has permeated TV over the past decade.  Every ingredient is available (and pre-diced!) and dozens of pots and pans (all of them gleaming All-Clads) the walls.  You can make as big a mess as possible because who doesn’t have a dishwasher?  Some kind of vagrant?  The stove is ten times hotter than what a normal person has – and of course it is always, always gas.  In fact, it is almost as if having an electric stove is like some kind of stigma, as if the home chef shows by having an electric stove that they aren’t serious enough about their little hobby, and should stick with frozen pizza and top ramen.  I am happy to tell you that when it comes to asian cuisine, an electric stove is in my opinion equivalent but different than gas.  Read the stir fry section to find out why.

Likewise, the home chef gets lumped into one of two categories: the one who wants to spend two days obsessing over crazy minutiae like removing the green parts from garlic or browning a whole chicken on the stove before roasting it (I guarantee it browns just fine with only the heat of the oven) or the frazzled working mom who has only 30 minutes a day to prepare a healthy meal.   I am happy to spend three days straight cooking (or three weeks if I can find the time), but I refuse to waste my energy on pointless steps usually dreamed up by long dead French chefs whom I believe suffered from some type of dementia due to the lead content of their wine bottles.  The time saved by pruning out pointless and over-challenging cooking steps can be applied to more important tasks such as (for example) the following:

  1. Lavishing attention on a lovely woman
  2. Planning the next days meal – for me this often entails taking a pack of meat or seafood out of the fridge and brining or marinating it.
  3. Making stock from leftover bones
  4. Preparing home made sauces that you can use for weeks to come
  5. Adding dessert to the menu
  6. Making a bread starter
  7. Brewing beer
  8. Making cheese
  9. Jarring tomatoes
  10. Starting seeds for your vegetable garden
  11. Preparing and then drinking intricate cocktails 
This is just a first list of all the things you can do with the time you save by focusing on what really matters in your cooking.  The result will be a much more complex cuisine overall, although many of the dishes will be simple (if not always easy to prepare).  I simply do not understand the logic behind spending two days or more preparing a complex dish with a half dozen cooking steps (ahem cassoulet) that uses canned broth and tomatoes.  Spend your time making fresh broth, jarring tomatoes, and then just eat the confit on its own.  It isn’t that I dislike French Food particularly, it is just that I don’t have time for it.  Likewise, I am not interested in Cantonese banquet cooking where the chef spends hour carving flowers out of radishes or layering steamed vegetables to look like a dragon.  

I try to carry this attitude forward into the rest of my life.  A primary goal for the coming year is to strip unnecessary complexity and look for ways to treat myself to more and more time to grow and explore.  This is an example of how the same lessons that help us in the kitchen are also valuable in the rest of our life.    This is the primary message I hope to convey.  Think for example of the countless hours spent decorating a house with lights one week and removing them the next.  To my mind there are so many more ways to spend this time wisely, some of them listed above (especially #1).  Focus on what matters to you, not what someone else tells you is important.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Sushi is Humbling

Tobiko, Kampachi, Albacore, Salmon Roe, Wasabi
So I am a pretty damn good cook and in general the food that I make turns out really, really good and overall quite impressive.  This is great right?  With minimal effort and almost any set of ingredients I can throw together a delicious pro quality meal.  Every once in a while however I decide that I want make Sushi at home.  I absolutely love sushi.  There is nothing I would rather eat and/or cook that great seafood and sushi is the gold standard.  It is also expensive as hell and it’s hard for me to get enough.  So maybe once or twice a year for the past 15 I decide to give it a whirl at home.  And every single time I come away profoundly humbled by the experience.

Meticulous prep and a razor sharp knife
This time the impetus was a date with a bona fide professional cook who also totally loves sushi.  Unlike me she had not made it before and we were both generally excited to fill our bellies with as much raw fish as possible.  I spent the afternoon shopping and prepping before she finished work and made it to my place for dinner.  By then I had started the rice (which all sushi aficionados know is the most important part), and prepped out fresh grated Wasabi (the most expensive item of the night BTW), a cucumber salad, and various veggies for rolls.

Remaining of course was the actual cutting of the fish.  Anyone who has had sushi before gets the basic idea.  Rice, fish, veggies, wasabi, seaweed and soy in various combinations.  I won’t bother giving explanations for how to make it as I am not a true expert and the info is available elsewhere.  Here are a few key things I learned or was reminded of though.
  •  It’s hard to have a conversation while making sushi. It really requires one’s full attention to not make an ass of one’s self in the process.
  •  Practice a few times with just the specific rice because each brand and even harvest is a bit different.  I used a new to me brand and the rice came out just a touch sticky for my taste.  Perfection is a hard note to hit and to make great sushi everything must be just right.  It all starts with the rice.
  • Even a very skilled chef can be humbled by cutting fish for sushi.  
  •  It’s hard to calibrate the right amount to make.  I suggest not doing more than 2/3 C of rice per person and doing a fair bit of sashimi.  It’s easy to make too many rolls or nigiri.  I ended up with a plate of leftovers I gave to my neighbor.  Not too efficient.
  •  Hard cider and sushi is a nice combo (I liked pear the best).
  •  I didn’t realize how sloppy my knife skills were until I did this.  Try cutting a perfect rectangle out of a piece of seaweed with a chef’s knife.  It is not easy and you really notice the errors.
Now I probably won’t make sushi again too soon so it’s unlikely I will be mastering this anytime soon.  What it really reminded me though was that it is easy to become complacent.  I plan to take this mindset into my  next meal and really focus on fundamentals and continued excellence in flavor and technique.  Its easy to take the easy road to save some effort and stop growing as a person.  This is true in the kitchen and true in life. 

So with all of that the end product was delicious even though it was not meticulously perfect.  We had fun so my mission was accomplished.  Sushi is a great date and something every serious cook should try sometime J

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Never stop growing

Why it’s never enough

If you lift like I do, you know that there is no end to your growth in the gym.  You look forward to gym day and do everything necessary to prepare – you make your shakes, eat extra during the day, prepare a badass playlist and are sure to get your sleep the night before.  What you don’t do is put the bar down unless you are absolutely unable to continue.  This is a perfect microcosm for the process of self growth in general and the mastery of Food Game in particular.  It’s tempting to come back from the gym and whip out some lame roasted chicken breasts with salt and pepper and potatoes or even worse grab some low grade low value prepared food for too much money.  Now I am really focused on eating as much as possible in the hours after my workout, so I understand the desire to whip something out.  But if you do this you have lost an opportunity to better yourself and in the process eat something awesome.  I firmly believe that the best thing Game can offer is a motivation to self improvement.  The attention of a beautiful woman is intoxicating, and the stronger your fundamentals the better you can pull.  So when I came home tired at 8 pm after a crazy work day and giving 100% at the gym I settled in to 45 minutes of focused high level cooking.  It does help to have experience and skill in the kitchen to create food like this in this time frame of course, but that is why we practice.  Just like we are always seeking growth in the gym we must seek that in all areas of our life.  Few are as rewarding as food, because at the end of all that cooking we get to eat, and if we eat right we grow stronger and stronger.

A simple weekday meal ready to stirfry