Thursday, July 24, 2014

The hpnotini

Simple. Refreshing. Lethal.

P.S. Kids, don't try this at home: that's oleander, which is poisonous.

Those are the three words that I would use to describe a cocktail I call the Hpnotini, a potent blend of Hpnotiq liqueur, vodka and blood orange bitters. Usually I would eschew blue (especially curacao) because of childhood trauma over the Ty-D-Bol Man, but Hpnotiq, when served in the proper glass and blended with vodka, looks like cool sea water, soothing and capable of sailing you far, far away. Far enough away to feel like you’re on vacation in your own back yard.

The recipe is simple:

Combine equal parts Hpnotiq and good-quality vodka (start with 2 oz. each), plus a splash of blood orange bitters. Blend ahead of time and chill (along with the glasses), or pour over ice in a shaker, shake for 30 seconds and then strain into a beautiful stemmed glass. Garnish with an edible flower, if you wish. That’s all you need to sail away on your back yard vacation.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

High end lo mein

I don't pretend to know anything about Chinese cuisine, and I know even less about Chinese cooking.  But I know I like noodles and I know what tastes good.  And this tastes good:

Sharp-eyed folks will notice the non-authentic kaffir lime leaf that I used for garnish.

Of all the Asian cuisines, Chinese is probably my least favorite. Never mind that my beloved epicurean grandfather was first to introduce me to moo shu porkwhich I love to this day.  Or that every time my family went out to a restaurant for a meal (especially after a funeral), it was to a Chinese restaurant and I loved spinning the lazy susan as I watched all those bejeweled plates and bowls of rice whirl by.  Or even that stir-fry cooking is fresh, fast and usually a healthy choice for dinner.  I have my reasons.

I'm sure that part of the reason I do not truly enjoy Chinese food is that because to me, it lacks the intrigue and seduction of cuisines from India, Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia and Burma, which typically rely on bold spice combinations, bright fresh herbs and chilies to make an impression.  There are times that I like to experience an assault on my palate, and Chinese food generally does not accomplish that.

But after reading a wonderful book last year called A Tiger in the Kitchen by Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan, in which the author writes with humor and openness about her lacking of cooking skill and her need to connect to her family (something that happened when she began to learn to cook her family's recipes), I became more interested in Chinese cuisine and made several of the recipes in her book.  You can find out more about Ms. Tan here on her beautiful blog.  Be sure to try her grandmother's recipe for Chinese Gambling Rice, which is not found in her book.  The story behind how it got its name is charming.

Reading Ms. Tan's book also made me want to revisit some of the Chinese cookbooks that I've managed to collect over the years.  These cookbooks have all been given to me and they've collected dust on shelves more than the other cookbooks I own. The one book that I seem to reach for over and over again is Ming Tsai's Blue Ginger, a compilation of recipes from Tsai's Wellesley, MA restaurant of the same name.  In this cookbook lives a recipe entitled "Chicken Chow Mein My Way."  I have used this recipe over and over as the basis for several dishes throughout the years because the combination of flavors in the marinade is so delectable.

Lap cheong, or Chinese sausages

Tsai's recipe is the basis for a noodle dish that I like to make that I call "High End Lo Mein."  It's not an expensive dish to make, seems to be infinitely alterable, and tastes like a million bucks.  You can make this lo mein with as much or as little variation in protein as you'd like.  You can substitute pork for the chicken, omit the shrimp and add crab or lobster, omit the Chinese sausage (which isn't always in my pantry), alter the vegetable ratios, add sugar snap peas or snow peas, and etc.  But one thing you should not do is tamper with the marinade ingredients.  Why?  Because they are perfect just the way they are.

And I think you'll agree.  Try it and let me know what you think:

These noodles pair well with a caramel-y, sweeter ale or beer.  Or you could choose a crisp sauv blanc.

High End Lo Mein

     Adapted from Ming Tsai's 1999 cookbook Blue GingerClarkson Potter Publishers.

2 Tbs. cornstarch
1/4 cup dry sherry
1/2 cup good quality oyster sauce (such as Panda Brand)
1 Tbs. finely chopped fresh ginger (I grate mine on a Microplane)
I bunch scallions, both white and green parts, sliced 1/8 inch thick
1 tsp. freshly ground black pepper, plus more for correcting seasoning
1 Tbs. sambal oelek
1 lb. chicken, preferably cut from legs and thighs, cut into 1/2 inch pieces (I have used boneless chicken breast and also pork butt with good results)
1 lb. fresh or dried lo mein noodles, or fettucini or broad rice noodles
5 Tbs. grapeseed oil
6 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
2 cups fresh shiitake or domestic mushrooms, quartered
lap cheong, or Chinese sausages cut into small dice
4 heads baby bok choy, or one head Napa cabbage, cored and cut into 1/2 inch slices
2 stalks celery, cut into 1/2 inch slices
2 medium carrots, coarsely grated or thinly sliced on a mandoline
1/4 to 1/2 lb. small cooked shrimp, thawed (I use frozen peeled and deveined salad shrimp, 150/250 count), or an equal amount of crabmeat or lobster, cut into 1/2 inch pieces
1/2 cup rich chicken broth
sliced scallions or cilantro, for garnish

1.)  In a large bowl, combine cornstarch and sherry and mix well.
2.)  Stir in the oyster sauce, ginger, scallions, 1 tsp. black pepper and the sambal oelek.
3.)  Add the chicken, stir well to coat with the sauce and marinate covered and refrigerated for at least 2 hours and preferably overnight.
4.)  Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil.
5.)  Meanwhile, fill a large bowl with ice and water.
6.)  Cook the lo mein noodles in the boiling water until al dente, approximately 5 minutes for fresh noodles and 10-15 minutes for dried noodles.
7.)  Drain and transfer the noodles to the ice water; when noodles are cold, drain again and toss with 1 Tbs. of the oil.  Set aside.
8.)  Heat a wok or a large skillet over high heat and add 2 Tbs. of the oil; swirl to coat the bottom of the pan.
9.)  When the oil shimmers, add the garlic and the mushrooms and stir-fry until the mushrooms are soft, about 4 minutes; remove mushrooms and garlic and set aside.
10.) Add the remaining 2 Tbs. oil and when it is hot and shimmering, add the chicken, lifting it from the marinade with a slotted spoon, reserving marinade for later use.
11.) Stir-fry chicken until almost cooked through, about 6 to 8 minutes, adding the Chinese sausage in the last minute of cooking the chicken.
12.) Now add the bok choy, celery and carrots and stir-fry until crisp-tender, about 3 to 4 minutes.
13.) Add the remaining marinade and the chicken broth, stir well to incorporate, then taste and correct seasoning with salt and pepper if necessary.
14.) Add the shrimp and then the reserved mushrooms and the noodles.
15.) Stir to coat noodles well, heating through, about 5 minutes.
16.) Garnish with scallions and cilantro, if desired, and serve with extra sambal oelek on the side, if you wish.  Serves 4 to 6 people.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Mr. Foo's posthumously famous Chinese chicken wings

Mr. Foo was a quiet little man who walked his quiet little dog in his quiet little neighborhood. He lived in a little white house with black shutters and the curtains were always drawn; no light was ever seen from the street. Mr. Foo was very quiet, and while his neighbors had parties, played Motorhead blasting loud into the early hours of the morning, or had cookouts with lots of beer and ruckus on the 4th of July and such things, he never did. No one knew anything about Mr. Foo, when he had come to live in the neighborhood, nor where he had come from.

Mr. Foo drove a small white car.  Maybe it was a Smart car, maybe it was a Fiat or even a Toyota--no one really knew because he came and went so quietly.  His garage door was never open except when he left his house in his little white car, and then he shut it immediately.  No one ever saw him come or go from his front door or his garage.  Other people left their garage doors open--sometimes all day and night--and you could see a glimpse of how they lived because of what was (or wasn't) in their garages.  But not Mr. Foo, who was very quiet and practically invisible.

No one knew anything about Mr. Foo or what he did, whether he had a job, or was a reclusive movie star, or a retired CIA agent, or even had more money than Fort Knox buried in his basement, because he was so quiet.  He never talked to his neighbors and they never talked to him.  While other people in the neighborhood visited with each other over their fences, exchanged tomatoes for zucchini in the summer and homemade cinnamon buns or a pot of beef stew for firewood in the winter, Mr. Foo and his life remained a mystery.  Except mysteries only count when people are interested in them.  And sadly, it seemed that people weren't interested in the mysteries of Mr. Foo.

Mr. Foo came and went apparently as he pleased, and apparently unnoticed.  He took walks twice daily with his little dog, white with black spots, but always at times when no one else seemed to be on the street.  His dog never barked and always obediently walked with Mr. Foo on the red leash that kept Mr. Foo and his dog tethered together.  Mr. Foo was meticulous about cleaning up whatever little surprises his little dog left on the sidewalk, making sure that nothing was amiss or out of place.  And when at home, Mr. Foo was never in his back yard or his front yard, even though the grass was neatly trimmed and there were never any leaves under the only maple tree that grew in his front yard.  Mr. Foo was never seen coming or going.  Or, if he was, no one ever seemed to care.

Besides walking his dog twice a day, there was one other ritual that Mr. Foo had.  Every Friday night, precisely at 5:30 p.m., Mr. Foo would take Table Number Five at Madam Moo Shu's Chinese Restaurant, located right downtown across from the Rexall Drug Store.  Madam Moo Shu's was a small, narrow and dark space with red flocked wallpaper on the walls and Chinese paper lanterns with red tassels that hung over each table.  Mr. Foo would take his place at Table Number Five and fold his hands patiently, not even looking at the menu that was offered him.  He didn't look at the menu because he always ordered the same thing: Chinese chicken wings.

Mr. Foo loved Madam Moo Shu's Chinese chicken wings.  He would order one dozen, along with a Mai Tai cocktail, and would eat those chicken wings very slowly and very deliberately, savoring every morsel and leaving on his plate nothing but a pile of little chicken bones.  Then he would clean his fingers very carefully with Madam Moo Shu's red cloth napkin (delivered weekly, along with the red tablecloths), and just as slowly and deliberately, drink his Mai Tai cocktail.  Mr. Foo would always eat the maraschino cherry and the slice of orange, leaving the cherry stem and the orange rind lying neatly by his glass.  When there was a little paper umbrella in his Mai Tai (which was not always, just sometimes), he would carefully fold the umbrella up and also leave it lying by his glass, as if some other little creature living at Madam Moo Shu's Chinese Restaurant might need it in the event of a sudden downpour, having stumbled upon it later that night after everyone else had gone home.

One Friday, Mr. Foo did not appear at 5:30 p.m. The waiter who normally served Mr. Foo on Friday nights, an older gentleman named Freddie (who had a sad, droopy handlebar mustache and a thin-as-watered-down-soy-sauce combover), thought this was odd, having served Mr. Foo Madam Moo Shu's Chinese chicken wings every Friday night since he could remember coming to work for Madam Moo Shu.  Nor did Mr. Foo appear on the next Friday, or the next, or on any day thereafter.  Freddie became concerned and mentioned that he had not seen Mr. Foo in several weeks to Madam Moo Shu herself.  Madam Moo Shu, who was not only the proprietress but also the head cook, felt very kindly toward Mr. Foo.  Once, on a cold, raw and blustery winter night in 1987, Mr. Foo had asked Freddie to relay a message to the cook that he, Mr. Foo, liked the Chinese chicken wings very much and would always order them on Friday nights at 5:30 p.m. (along with a Mai Tai cocktail--paper umbrella or no paper umbrella).

Madam Moo Shu, after receiving Mr. Foo's message from Freddie, crept out from behind the stove and peered though the beaded curtain into the murky dining room.  She saw a small, slight gentleman sitting at Table Number Five.  Or rather, she saw the back of a small, slight gentleman's head sitting at Table Number Five.  But that is all she saw.  She was not able to see much else, because not only was the dining room dark, there were orders in the kitchen piling up.  Her assistant was in the weeds (a charming restaurant colloquialism that means not only not being able to keep up the pace but also being dreadfully, hopelessly clueless), having been newly hired just that week and not knowing yet how to make the gravy for the Egg Foo Yung.  So back to the kitchen Madam Moo Shu scurried.

When Freddie told Madam Moo Shu that Mr. Foo had not been at Table Number Five for several weeks, Madam Moo Shu also became concerned.  And so, later that night, after the last plates of Spicy Cashew Pork, Mongolian Beef and Shrimp Lo Mein were served and all the dishes and pots and woks were washed and put away, Madam Moo Sho and Freddie closed up the restaurant and got into her 1966 powder blue Lincoln Continental and went for a drive to find out what had happened to Mr. Foo.

But Madam Moo Shu and Freddie had traveled only 4 blocks when they both looked at each other and realized that neither one of them knew where Mr. Foo lived, nor did they know anything about him, for that matter, except that he had come to Madam Moo Shu's Chinese Restaurant every Friday night at 5:30 p.m. and had always ordered one dozen Chinese chicken wings and a Mai Tai cocktail.  And so Madam Moo Shu turned her 1966 powder blue Lincoln Continental around and she and Freddie very dejectedly returned to the restaurant, where they silently nodded good night to each other.  Madam Moo Shu drove home to her 8 cats and her split level red brick house on Wisteria Street and Freddie walked the four blocks to his very simple, very bare second floor apartment on Florida Boulevard.

Several weeks later, a small, obscure paragraph appeared in the obituary section of the local paper.  A Mr. Wang Ping Foo, age 68, of Cherrydale Avenue had passed away, leaving behind no immediate family or survivors, save one little white and black dog named Fushi.  Madam Moo Shu was sure that this was the same Mr. Foo who had come to her restaurant each Friday night at 5:30 p.m., sat at Table Number Five and ordered one dozen Chinese chicken wings and a Mai Tai cocktail.

Madam Moo Shu, as it turned out, was so distressed about Mr. Foo's passing that she enshrined Table Number Five, allowing no one to sit there ever again.  She burned a pineapple-scented candle at the table while the restaurant was open and scattered several paper umbrellas over the table top.  She also decided to have her menus reprinted, renaming her Chinese chicken wings "Mr. Foo's Posthumously Famous Chinese Chicken Wings."  These chicken wings, incidentally, have won many awards in many chicken wing cook-offs, which Madam Moo Shu likes to enter in her spare time.  When she is not reading Cat Fancy, that is.

Being a personal friend of Madam Moo Shu, I was able to convince her to share her recipe, as a tribute to Mr. Foo.  We would like everyone to remember Mr. Foo fondly, and to enjoy these chicken wings frequently in his honor.  And it wouldn't hurt to raise a Mai Tai cocktail in his honor one bit, either.  Find a good recipe here.  I hope you have those little paper umbrellas.

Mr. Foo's Posthumously Famous Chinese Chicken Wings

You can find ingredients for these delicious chicken wings in just about any supermarket.  Sambal oelek is a chili and garlic paste that is typically found in the international or Asian food section.

Although you can bake these wings soon after tossing them in the sauce, I think they taste best after soaking for at least 8 hours.

1 dozen whole chicken wing drumettes or wing sections
3 to 4 Tbs. sambal oelek (to your taste)
1 1/2 Tbs. honey
1 1/2 Tbs. dark soy sauce
1 tsp. freshly grated ginger
 sliced scallions, for garnish
lime wedges, for garnish

1.)  Wash chicken wings and pat dry; set aside.
2.)  In a medium-size bowl, combine sambal oelek, honey, soy sauce and grated ginger.
3.)  Toss chicken wings in sauce until well-coated; cover and chill for at least 1 hour and up to 24 hours.
4.)  When ready to bake, bring wings to room temperature and line and jelly roll pan with foil.
5.)  Preheat oven to 425 degrees.
6.)  Arrange wings in a single layer on the cookie sheet, separating them so that they can crisp evenly.
7.)  Bake for 30 to 40 minutes, depending on the size of the wings.  When done, wings should be cooked to the bone and nicely caramelized.
8.)  Arrange wings on a plate and shower with sliced scallions and lime wedges.  Squeeze lime juice over wings before serving.  Serves 2 to 4 people for a light meal or appetizer.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

A peach of a creme brulee

Every month, when I host a wine tasting in my home, I like to send my guests off with something sweet.  It's a nice way to extend the convivial atmosphere that's developed over the course of the afternoon and it encourages guests to linger for a while longer.

Although I post an announcement of the wines and food pairings we'll be enjoying during the tasting, I will rarely post the dessert.  That's because I like it to be a surprise, and I like to see what inspires me, sometimes just shortly before the tasting starts.

For our June tasting, what inspired me was the fragrance of peaches as I walked by a huge display in the produce section of my local HEB.  That sweet, almost nostalgic fragrance reminded me of spring and of peach cobbler, peach pie, peach and raspberry crisp, peach melba--all of the delectable desserts I've made with peaches in the past.

But I didn't want something tried and true.  I wanted something inspired.  So when I got home, I sat down at my computer and typed "peach desserts" into my Google search box.  Scanning down the list of titles, one in particular caught my attention: Peach Creme Brulee.  The original recipe called for grilling peach halves, then topping with sweetened sour cream and brown sugar before caramelizing and serving.  That seemed like something that could work for my wine tasting dessert course because I could make and serve it in individual portions, even doing much of the prep ahead of time.

But the recipe itself seemed a little dull.  So I did what I normally do: I "Vindalooized" it.  Instead of grilling peach halves, I sliced them and macerated them in a little lemon juice (to retain their color) and a generous splash of Domaine de Canton.  You've heard me wax eloquent about this liqueur before--it is truly heavenly not only to sip on its own or in cocktails but to add to fruit desserts.  And although grilling the peach halves would have added a dimension of flavor, it was not the dimension I was seeking.  A couple of hours' soaking in premium ginger liqueur was what I wanted.

Now, about the sour cream originally suggested in the recipe: boring.  I had a container of mascarpone in the fridge and had made some creme fraiche earlier in the week.  Combining those two things, adding some vanilla bean paste and some finely chopped crystallized ginger would bring the "custard" to life.  Then, instead of plain brown sugar, I would crumble some muscovado sugar over the creamy topping because, to me at least, muscovado sugar is the best brown sugar in the world.

Crystallized ginger

Image from Dean and Deluca online catalog.

Muscovado can be light or dark; I used light since the dark variety tends to have a much stronger molasses flavor.

Because I wanted the creme "custard" to retain its structure and not be too runny, I planned to spoon it cold from the fridge onto the room temperature peaches.  Then, after putting the muscovado sugar on the top, instead of broiling as the original recipe instructed, I planned to use this handy little gadget:

If you don't have one of these nifty little things, maybe you should get one.  I find it indispensable for so many tasks, from caramelizing citrus peel for cocktails to charring cherry tomatoes indoors.  If you have plans to eat a lot of creme brulee--traditional and otherwise--in the future, this is the tool for you.

This dessert puts peaches and creme brulee over the top.  It has a lot of good things going for it besides how great it tastes: it's easy, it's partially do-ahead with some last minute details and it's impressive and pretty at the table.  And can you imagine it with Fredericksburg peaches?  Yeah, I can.

Peach Brulee

This is not your hum-drum creme brulee and canned peaches. In the words of one of my guests, "It's amaaaaaazing."  Inspired by an original recipe provided via Linda Larsen of Busy Cooks.

4 medium fresh, ripe peaches
juice of 1/2 lemon
1/4 cup Domaine de Canton ginger liqueur
1/2 cup mascarpone, at room temperature
1/2 cup creme fraiche (you can substitute sour cream if you wish)
1 Tbs. sugar
1/2 tsp. vanilla bean paste (you can substitute vanilla extract if you wish)
1 Tbs. finely chopped crystallized ginger
muscovado sugar, for caramelizing (you can substitute dark brown sugar if you wish)
fresh mint leaves, for garnish

Special equipment: ramekins or creme brulee dishes; kitchen torch, such as a Roburn Micro Torch

1.)  Bring a medium-size pot of water to a boil, then reduce to simmer.  Place peaches in hot water for 1 to 2 minutes, then remove to a plate with a slotted spoon.
2.)  When peaches are cool to the touch, remove skins, then slice peaches into a medium-size bowl.
3.)  Drizzle lemon juice over peaches and toss gently with a spoon to coat.
4.)  Add ginger liqueur to bowl and mix gently.  Cover bowl and set aside, storing in refrigerator if you plan to assemble dessert later.
5.)  Combine softened mascarpone and creme fraiche in a small bowl with a fork or whisk.
6.)  Add sugar, vanilla bean paste and crystallized ginger to mascarpone mixture and blend well.  Cover bowl and place in refrigerator for about 30 minutes to stiffen mixture.
7.)  To assemble: divide sliced peaches and their juices evenly among four ramekins or creme brulee dishes.  Place mascarpone mixture on top of peaches, dividing evenly among the four dishes.
8.)  Sprinkle muscovado sugar generously over the mascarpone mixture.
9.)  With a kitchen torch, caramelize the sugar in each dish briefly.  Garnish with fresh mint leaves, if desired.  Serves four.

Monday, May 26, 2014

La paloma rosada

La Paloma is perhaps one of the oldest, most popular and most-recorded songs of its genre. Its sweet, lilting melody has been sung and played by musicians all over the world and conveys romance, nostalgia and the tension between love and loss.  You've doubtless heard this song many times, in many incarnations.  One of the most exquisite modern-day versions is by Greek singer Nana Mouskouri:

Ms. Mouskouri also sings La Paloma as a duet in French with Mireille Mathieu and also with Julio Iglesias in Spanish.  You will be able to find many other versions of this piece, both instrumental and vocal, after a quick search on the internet.

Was it romance, nostalgia and loss that were on my mind when I embarked on my weekend mixology adventures?  Heck, no!  It was my love of grapefruit and tequila, some inspiration from a tequila-loving friend, and my perpetual quest to develop thirst-quenching warm weather cocktails that refresh without that pesky interaction between too much heat and too much alcohol.

Like its musical cousin, the Paloma cocktail is extremely popular in Mexico.  In fact, some sources (including Bon Appetit) say that the Paloma is more popular than the margarita. And also like its musical cousin, there are many versions of the Paloma cocktail.  It can be made with grapefruit soda or sparkling water, with white or pink grapefruit juice, include lime juice, have added sugar, or the glass can have a salted rim.

To me, the most refreshing versions are those that are less sweet, so I've almost always made my Palomas with grapefruit juice and club soda or seltzer, and sans salt on the rim of the glass. Recently, a new friend suggested grapefruit bitters in tequila, so I thought these two ingredients were the perfect starting point for a new cocktail: La Paloma Rosada, a light, refreshing blend of pink grapefruit juice, grapefruit bitters and sparkling water.

You can get grapefruit bitters at most well-stocked liquor stores (I found mine at Spec's) or order online.  Even by themselves in a icy glass of sparkling water, they add a depth and sophistication without sugar.  And if you make this cocktail without the grapefruit bitters, it is still delicious and refreshing.

I used sparkling mineral water, but you can use club soda or seltzer--whatever is available to you.  Or, if you prefer just straight grapefruit juice and tequila, knock yourself out.  And remember your drink will have more knock-out potential as well.

If you want to salt the rim of the glass, use kosher salt, which looks much more beautiful than table salt.  But do garnish with fresh grapefruit slices and a sprig of mint. They make the drink really attractive.


La Paloma Rosada

2 oz. freshly squeezed pink grapefruit juice
2 oz. tequila blanco (you can use reposado if you wish)
3-5 dashes grapefruit bitters (such as Fee Brothers or Scrappy's)
sparkling water
fresh grapefruit slices, for garnish
mint leaves, for garnish

To a tall glass filled with ice, add the grapefruit juice, the tequila and the bitters.  Fill to the rim with sparkling water and garnish with grapefruit slices and mint leaves.  Makes one cocktail.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ 

Here are the lyrics to the refrain of La Paloma, in Spanish and English: 

Si a tu ventana llega una paloma,
trátala con cariño que es mi persona.
Cuéntale tus amores, bien de mi vida,
corónala de flores, que es cosa mía.

If to your window happens to come a dove,
treat it with loving care, for it's my own.
Tell her your love affairs, my loving one,
and crown her with flowers, for she is mine.

          by Sabastian Iradier, ca. 1963

Friday, May 16, 2014

Got dopamine?

Several years ago, I realized that sugar could be my heroin.  To be more precise, sugar, combined with the right amount of salt and fat, is my China White.  Now, thanks to those pesky, determined research scientists, we know why, since the dopamine receptors that get stimulated during heroin use are the same ones that get triggered by sugar and fat.

So, now you know that I am a closet sugar and fat addict.  And every once in a while, I go on a binge.  But I don't want a mainstream sugar fix--I want something with a little panache. Like these Coconut Cashew Curry Rice Krispies Bites.

Sweet, spicy, salty, rich and exotic, these treats make my dopamine receptors light up like a pinball machine and it's hard to stop reaching for more.  My dirty little trick is to cut them very small (about 1" square) so I can have several and feel totally decadent about it.

No unusual ingredients here, get them at your local grocery.  Easy, fun and elegant at your next cocktail party.  Rice Krispies and martinis?  You bet!  But when you share them with your friends, they won't know whether to slap you or kiss you since they'll be hooked too.

Coconut Cashew Curry Rice Krispies Bites
           ~~inspired by an idea in Food and Wine Magazine~~

5 Tbs. unsalted butter, plus more for greasing pan

One 16 oz. bag miniature marshmallows

2 Tbs. mild curry powder (such as Madras-style)

1/4  tsp. cayenne pepper (optional)

1 tsp. kosher salt

1 c. toasted coconut

3/4 c. salted cashews, roughly chopped or smashed with a mallet

9 c. puffed rice cereal, such as Rice Krispies

Butter a 9" x 13" baking dish or a sided sheetcake pan (1" depth).  In a large kettle or 6 qt. Dutch oven, melt 5 Tbs. butter.  Add the marshmallow and reduce heat, stirring with a large spoon (avoid using plastic, it may melt) over low heat until marshmallows are melted. 

Stir in the curry powder, cayenne, kosher salt and toasted coconut, blending well.  Remove from heat, then add the cashews and puffed rice, stirring until completely coated.

Scoop the mixture into the greased baking dish and press into an even layer.  A nesting pan on top of a greased piece of waxed paper or foil laid over the top of the mixture is a great tool to use to press down evenly and to make sure mixture reaches into the corners of the dish.  Let stand at room temperature until cool and firm, about 45 minutes.

Invert the mixture onto a work surface and using a sharp knife, cut into 1" squares.  Makes about 6 dozen squares.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Dinner in a box

Several weeks ago, an offer for a mail-order dinner from a company called plated popped up in my Facebook feed.  It seemed like a pretty good deal: for the cost of shipping and handling (which was $20) I could get the ingredients for a meal for four people, delivered to my door.  I could cancel my membership any time.  Ordering was easy and I had my choice of several delivery dates. There was a choice of several menus; I chose the Basil Beef Bowl with Quinoa Stir-Fry.

One of the obvious appeals of plated is that a fairly inexperienced home cook could put together a dinner and look (and feel) like a competent cook; other reasons for purchasing ingredients from plated might be the time saved shopping and searching for recipes, as well as sprucing up a tired recipe repertoire.

Before this service came along, I remember having a friend who, when she wanted to impress a new date with a "home cooked meal," would purchase take out from one of the better restaurants in town, transfer all the food to her own baking pans and skillets, dispose of all the take out containers and then cleverly mess up the kitchen to make it look like she had been cooking all day.  Plated is much more sophisticated than that!

My box arrived on a warm Saturday afternoon, while I was running errands for several hours.  I knew by the time I got home, the box would have been sitting for several hours on my front step.  I was a little concerned about how long it had been sitting there without being brought inside, but I needn't have worried.  There were two large ice-packs inside a foam-filled Mylar-lined box and everything was cold and fresh, especially the two portions of flank steak sealed in heavy-gauge plastic packs.  I would assume that the company would have shipped this meat from a frozen state in order to insure maximum freshness.

There was a lot of food; in fact, it turned out that there was food for much more than four servings. That meant that we had leftovers, something that some folks may not like, but I happen to appreciate it since I often arrive home during the week too late and too tired to be imaginative in the kitchen.  Plated doesn't require much in the way of imagination, but it does require your attentiveness to detail and your willingness to work your way through the procedures.

Since each dinner is shipped in units of two servings, I had a chance to compare the two sets of ingredients for consistency.  One set had two onions, the other only one, but all the other ingredients seemed to be evenly and generously.

From a conscientious consumer's prospective, I wasn't thrilled with the amount of packaging for things like sriracha sauce (which came in plastic packets), honey (in small foil-topped plastic tubs), and soy sauce (which came in a multitude of tiny plastic squeezable fish).  There were a lot of plastic bags as well, and even though I typically will reuse or recycle heavy plastic bags, I would have liked to have seen the ingredients put into something that was biodegradable and less wasteful, since many people I know do not reuse or recycle plastic bags.

The labeling was clear on all the ingredients and the fresh ingredients were grouped together separately.  There was a large 8" x 11 1/2" card, printed on two sides, that gave step-by-step directions.  The pictures for each step appeared to be helpful and to clearly illustrate what the cook was to do.  There was also a picture of the finished dish.  The directions were clearly written and easy to follow.  A person with little kitchen experience should have no problems following the directions, nor identifying the ingredients in the box.

From the perspective of an experienced and competent cook, however, I thought that the directions and procedures could have been improved in two distinct ways.  First, when cutting the flank steak to prepare for marinating, it would have been a lot easier to cut the beef thinly if the instructions had directed cooks to partially freeze the beef first.  Even with a very sharp knife, it was hard to cut the flank steak well without freezing.  Most home cooks, especially those who do not cook ambitiously, do not have very sharp knives and flank steak is harder to cut than some other cuts of beef; dull knives also tend to cause more accidents when foods are harder to cut.

Also, the instructions called for cutting the beef before any of the other vegetables, presumably without using separate cutting boards.  Obviously, because the meat needed to be marinated before anything else was prepared, it needed to be handled first.  However, either the directions should have instructed readers to use two different cutting surfaces, or to cut the meat after the vegetables, which would not have affected the length of time it took to make the meal in a significant way.  I'm a stickler for separate cutting surfaces for meats and other foods.

The directions also asked the cook to wipe the pan out after stir-frying the quinoa and vegetables before cooking the meat.  With some of the flavor clinging to the pan from the sauce ingredients, I decided to not wipe the pan out, leaving that flavor for stir-frying the beef.  The applied heat is not so hot that it would burn the residue and I thought that this was an extra and unnecessary step.

When the dinner was completed and plated, it was attractive and appealing.  I had extra Thai basil in my garden, so I was able to garnish the plates, and the wedge of fresh lime was also attractive and added a lot of great flavor to the finished dish.

Would I purchase from plated again?  Even though my experience was positive, it's not likely I would be a subscriber to this service.  I cook well enough on my own and frequently tackle far more ambitious cooking chores than the dinner I prepared with the help of plated.  In addition, the cost of these dinners when paying full price on a non-promotional subscription service is too steep for me to feel like I'm getting a good value.

If you check the on-line feedback from plated customers (as I did), you will notice there are mixed reviews.  It seems that just as many people had bad experiences as those who had good ones.  My experience was fun, interesting and pretty tasty.  I would love to hear from those of you who decide to give plated a try.