Recipes for inspiration in the kitchen
Recipes for inspiration in the kitchen
IT’S THANKSGIVING WEEK! I’m that excited that I have to type it in all caps. I’ve said it many times before: Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday of the year. Most get four days off, the weather is lovely, there is no pressure and stress of gift-giving, and all you do is watch/play football and stuff your faces with comfort foods.
I’m bringing food back! It’s been quite a long while since I posted a recipe. But I recently got a brand new PolyScience immersion circulator, something I’ve been eyeing for quite some time, and now our kitchen has become a 24-hour sous vide factory.
I’m still learning the ins and outs of this beautiful machine, but I thought I’d write about the first food item we cooked in the immersion circulator: New York strip steaks. Now, the strip is not my favorite cut because it’s rather lean when compared to the more marbleized (and, thus, fatty) ribeye. But that’s what we had on hand (because I like variety, and I always get ribeye), and I was anxious to try out the Creative series immersion circulator. The first two strip steaks were cooked at 138°F for 2 hours, and they came out to a medium well. They were good, but not the medium rare I love.
So the second time around, the strip steaks went in for 90 minutes at 130°F. And these were quite possibly the most tender strip steaks I’ve had outside a five-star steakhouse.
I’ve been on a fresh homemade pasta kick lately. That’s because I just bought a Mercato Atlas Wellness 150 pasta maker (yes, it’s made in Italy). I’ve been wanting to try my own hand at pasta-making at home, and Luca from this season’s ”MasterChef” recommended me this particular brand, saying he’d gotten it as a wedding gift and loved it.
And now, I do too. The hubster’s eyes brighten every time I bring the pasta maker out of the closet because, well, being a guy, he likes anything mechanical. So it’s nice to have such an eager helper in the kitchen while making pasta. So far, I’ve made two types of pasta: a mushroom duxelle stuffed ravioli topped with a white wine tomato and basil sauce; and angel hair with shrimp, garlic, tomato, and white wine sauce. (We’ve had an influx of tomatoes in our garden this summer, so I’ve been constantly putting them in my pasta dishes.)
I haven’t posted a recipe in a while. It’s mainly because most of the things I’ve been cooking lately are recipes going into my cookbook (which, I might add, is slated to publish in May). So, of course, in order to entice you to buy the cookbook, I can’t be posting them all over the web, right?
It’s August, and that means it’s the dead middle of the dog days of summer. So what do you do with these dog days? You eat cold fish, that’s what. And not just cold fish but raw fish.
In a recent “MasterChef” episode, Felix lovingly assigned me a beautiful whole salmon. Salmon is one of those fish that I love to eat raw but can’t stand cooked. In the form of sushi or sashimi, I gobble it up. Even smoked, I’ll throw it on some bread with cheese and herbs. But cooked? I can’t stand the stuff. I think it’s dry and foul-tasting. I have yet to taste a cooked salmon that I could call delicious. (This is a challenge for you folks now; give me a cooked salmon that can stand on its own next to some beautiful sashimi.) I groaned when I realized which fish Felix had given me because my mind was immediately sent reeling into oblivion: while I would love to serve the salmon raw, Kaimana from the top 100 had not been given an apron for his out-of-this-world tuna tartare because the judges said serving it raw showed no cooking technique. And so I was torn. I decided to bake a salmon filet but not before slicing off the fatty belly to set aside in case I got the guts to follow my instincts and make a tartare or a roll.
Alas, a big FISH FAIL for me in that challenge. I went against my intuition and served the judges something I myself would hate to eat—breaded baked salmon and rice—while leaving the beautiful salmon belly to rot on the side of the Boos block.
After that day, I learned to never again doubt my instincts, always cook what I love, and not worry so much about what the judges wanted. I figured that if I followed my palate, I would fare better because I’d actually believe in my dishes and have pride in what I put on the plate.
As an “in your face” to salmon, I recently made salmon poke to not only redeem my crappy salmon dish but also to avenge for Kaimana’s raw audition dish. My poke was only a fraction of his tuna’s goodness, but I enjoyed eating it all the same. Obviously you can use ahi tuna in lieu of the sashimi grade salmon—ahi tuna is more common to this dish anyway—but I wanted to put a twist on the tradition.
Poke (pronounced POH-kee) is a common raw fish salad eaten in Hawaii where the fish are super fresh and therefore celebrated. I like to eat my poke on sheets of nori (seaweed), won ton crisps, or sesame crackers. It’s super easy to make and delicious and healthy. The only downside is you’ll have to splurge a little bit to buy the fish but you’ll still be saving lots of dollars making it at home rather than ordering it in a restaurant. Just remember to use a very sharp knife to cut the fish, and employ a clean single slice as to not butcher the beautiful piece of fish you’d just spent $$ on. And remember if the Blind can [not] Cook it, so can you.
At the beginning of summer, I’d cooked a special farewell lunch for my grad program friends: Cajun stuffed Cornish hens, dirty rice, and Brussels sprouts with candied bacon. For dessert, I kept with the Louisianan theme and served homemade beignets and Cafe du Monde New Orleans-style coffee with condensed milk, just the way Vietnamese people love to drink it.
While I grew up around Cafe du Monde’s ready-to-brew coffee grounds (which came in those notorious mustard yellow tin cans that afterwards became every Vietnamese family’s piggy bank/knickknack holder), I didn’t have my first beignet until college when I went to New Orleans for Mardi Gras. I visited the brick-and-mortar Cafe du Monde and did what all the other tourists did: sat in the open-air cafe and sipped on steaming chicory drip coffee with the powdered sugar from the three beignets snowing all over my mouth and lap. It was a heavenly combination of flavors, and boy, all I can say is those French sure know their fried desserts.
Beignet, which literally means “bump,” is the French version of the American fritter. I love to eat them with powdered sugar and honey. They should be pillowy on the inside with a very light crunch on the outside. Before “MasterChef,” I always got my beignets from local shops. But then I learned how to make them from scratch, and there ain’t nothin’ like a beignet fresh out of the fryer. My friends gobbled them all up, their faces and fingers covered in white. If it hadn’t been for food coma written all over their eyes, they would’ve been mistaken for a bunch of cokeheads. Try these out, and let me know what you think. If the Blind can Cook it, you know you can too.
Brussels sprouts, as they’re named, are of Belgian and Roman origin. They resemble miniature heads of cabbage, and while that may not sound appealing, Brussels sprouts are one of my favorite vegetables of late. They’re nutritious and delicious with their anti-cancer properties and earthy, nutty flavor. Overcook them, and they’ll be gross. But when made right, Brussels sprouts offer just the right balance of texture: tender yet crispy. So forget those soggy, bland, dull gray Brussels sprouts of yesteryear. Roast and/or broil them, and you’ll get some stellar sprouts. My foodie twin, Sherry, fed me Brussels sprouts tossed with candied bacon and a classic homemade vinaigrette, and I’ve been dreaming of them ever since. The candied bacon combine both salty and sweet components and add an oomph of flavor to the Brussels sprouts. Then the vinaigrette pushes it into bliss with the acidity edge. Serve them as a first course salad or as a vegetable side component like I did with the dirty rice stuffed Cornish hens. If the Blind can Cook it, so can you.
With the end of crawfish season comes a need to find other ways to fulfill our Cajun cravings. In my last post, I tried my hand at making dirty rice. And now here’s how to up the flavor in that rice. Try stuffing it in a Cornish hen. Juicy goodness will drip into the stuffing during cooking, adding an even more savory dimension to the rice.
Cornish hens, despite their names, could be either male or female. They are a hybrid breed of chicken growing no more than five weeks and weighing no more than two pounds. Their meat is sweeter and more tender than regular chicken, and they cook quicker, too, making them choice for entertaining.
Because I’d gotten rid of my roasting pan, we had to MacGyver one out of a tin pan, aluminum cans, and rolled up balls of foil. By placing these cans and foil balls loosely in the pan and setting the hens on top, the juices will trickle between the gaps and collect at the bottom instead of directly underneath the hens, thereby keeping them from getting soggy. Ghetto-rigged brilliance.
I used ready-made Cajun seasoning instead of making my own just because I already had it in my spice drawer. You can try making your own by mixing to taste kosher salt, ground black pepper, cayenne pepper, paprika, garlic powder, and onion powder.
The Cornish game hens came out not as spicy as I’d hoped (I suggest liberally rubbing on the Cajun seasoning), but it was still a good complement to the dirty rice. I served each person half a Cornish hen with extra dirty rice and a side of roasted Brussels sprouts (recipe coming soon to an entry near you). Pretty simple yet really tasty. Come on, if the Blind can Cook it, so can you.
I was a wee one when I had my first taste of dirty rice, and it was from Popeye’s. Something about the deep savoriness of this mean little concoction made it one of my favorite Cajun dishes. (For a quick lesson on the difference between Cajun and Creole food, visit my entry on crawfish boils.) And then I found out years later that offal is what makes dirty rice taste so damn good. Who knew? A recent food trend is food that used to be considered less palatable, I.e. Food the lower socioeconomic levels partook in. Think the leftover parts of an animal—offal—such as livers, gizzards, oxtail, feet, snout, ears. For vegetables, think collard greens, mustard greens, cabbage, brussels sprouts, and so on. And so with this trend, we see a rise in these sorts of ingredients becoming gourmet. And with the gourmet status comes the hefty price tag. So what can you do? Learn to make it yourself.
A handful of friends from my Creative Writing Program at UH recently graduated. And while they were becoming Masters of Fine Arts, I was off trying to become a MasterChef. Alas, I am sad to see some of my bestest writer buds move away on to bigger and better things, but I cherish the past four years we’ve had together. There were many discussions about literature, the writing craft, existentialism, and just about any possible subject under the sun and even beyond. (Because, you know, us writers are just so deep.) So as a farewell/graduation/appreciation celebration, I wanted to share myself and cook a meal for them. After all, they spent the last four painful years reading pages and pages of my manuscripts; the least I could do is finally give them something good to ingest.
I know the basic gist of dirty rice involves poultry offal—namely livers and gizzards—the trinity (two parts onion to one part celery and one part bell pepper); and rice. My next door neighbor, who makes a bad-ass dirty rice every year for our day-after-Thanksgiving leftovers potluck, promised to cook it with me one day, but I figured I’d try on my own first before I learn his secrets and then meld all of it together into one superpower dirty rice.
So here you have my first run at dirty rice. Yeah, I was brave to experiment on my friends, but I know they love me enough to still be my friend even if the food tasted bad. Luckily, the dirty rice was pretty darn good. And it tastes even better if you let the flavors melt together overnight. I used this to stuff some slutty chickens (as Chef Ramsay calls them)—more on that next time. Till then, make a vat and share; it’s an easy recipe for a crowd. If the Blind can Cook it, you can too.
Valentine’s Day is just around the corner. I can’t even remember the last time I was excited about V-Day. Maybe in middle school when carnations and candy-grams were sold, and the more you collected, the more popular you looked. How lame and superficial now that I think back on it. But those were the woeful days of adolescence, I guess.
Now that I’m thirty-something and have a permanent Valentine, Valentine’s Day has turned into a consumer-driven joke of a holiday. It’s not even really a holiday. We all still have to go to work on Tuesday. Double-lame.
I realize this post is sounding cynical. But in reality, I feel like every day should celebrate those we love. Not just spouses and significant others but parents, cousins, friends, and pets. Why should it be just one day a year that we do something nice for those we love? Indeed, Valentine’s Day exists only to make Americans waste their money on bouquets and stuffed bears and to make the singles feel worse. Bah humbug.
People ask me what my husband and I are doing for V-Day. A few years ago, I enjoyed going out to a nice restaurant. Then it would be just going out to any restaurant and engaging in the act of conversation and communion together. This year, I just want to cook a meal at home with my hubby.
Last time, I gave you lamb chops. But if you’re not that fancy food kind of person, here’s a less expensive yet just as tasty alternative. What is more romantic than Italian food? Ever since we bought a bread machine, we’ve enjoyed making our own pizza dough at home. The possibilities are endless for pizza—you can virtually top it with anything you see lying around in your fridge. That’s the beauty of it. Lately, my favorite toppings for homemade pizza are prosciutto, arugula, and fresh mozzarella. After our pie at San Francisco’s Pizzeria Delfina, I became a fan of arugula. I used to dislike this leafy green because of its bitterness, but now I find the dry taste a good balance to richer, fattier foods (like prosciutto). Maybe I’m all growns up now. **Tear**
If you get the right fresh ingredients, this simple pizza will blow you away. So go ahead, score some points with your Valentine by way of the stomach. Or if you’re single, indulge yourself. If the Blind can Cook it, so can you. Buon appetito!