A short interlude concerning zucchini

Apparently there’s an age old joke in Maine that goes something like this:

Why do Mainers lock their car doors in the summer?

-To keep people from filling their cars with zucchini. 

In the late summer (squash season!) there’s a very real problem of too much zucchini.

People show up at their neighbors’ homes with buckets of zucchini…

There are tables set up in major junctions with piles of free zucchini…

People just desperately trying to get rid of zucchini.

Last night, we grilled the hell out of a bunch of zucchinis, and I could absolutely imagine doing that once a day for the foreseeable future.

I will do my part to help the poor Mainers with their overstock of zucchini.

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Cooking with friends: experiments with Mirin and Bok Choy

Pumba and I were at it again!

This time we decided to dip our toes into the world of Asian cuisine. Neither of us have much (read any) experience with this region. I did have that stint in Viet Nam, but the most I really got out of that in terms of cooking experience was a familiarity with their produce and some of their sauces. I pretty much made myself dishes I already knew how to cook substituting the Western ingredients I couldn’t find in South East Asia with their closest Asian cousins. You end up with strange dishes like glass noodles with sautéed shrimp and broccoli and pork with custard apple pan sauce.

So Gabs and I each picked a dish we wanted to try (one veg and one fish) and took a whack at preparing them.

Pumba took on the veg because that’s what she predominantly cooks for herself, and after the Wicker Park raw chicken fiasco of 2011, let’s face it, she just doesn’t really get off on cooking things that have the potential to cause food poisoning.

[N.B. It should be noted that thanks to a psychotic burst of energy and angst at 4am, the chicken was thawed,  recooked, then discarded and no one was poisoned.]

So first, the stir-fried bok choy with tofu and mizuna, expertly prepared by my former roommate.

What you’ll need:

  • 3 1/2 tablespoons soy sauce, divided
  • 4 teaspoons Asian sesame oil, divided
  • 3 1/2 teaspoons unseasoned rice vinegar, divided
  • 1 16-ounce container extra-firm tofu, drained
  • 2 tablespoons peanut oil
  • 4 green onions, chopped
  • 1 tablespoon finely chopped peeled fresh ginger
  • 2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
  • 4 baby bok choy, leaves separated
  • 12 cups loosely packed mizuna (about 8 ounces)

I always like to portion out the ingredients I need and prep the stuff that needs chopping or peeling.

So you want to cut up your baby bok choy into pieces you can either easily stuff in your mouth, or about proportional to the pieces of tofu. Dice your fresh ginger and green onions, and then finely chop your garlic. We couldn’t get mizuna so we used baby spinach since mizuna is texturally a lot like spinach (and the taste of spinach pretty much yields to whatever you cook it in.

First she fried the segments of tofu in the peanut oil.

We set those aside on some pieces of paper towel to get rid of any oiliness.

You can then prep your sauce in a small mixing bowl: Whisk 2 tablespoons soy sauce, 2 teaspoons sesame oil, and 1/2 teaspoon vinegar.

Then you get to start putting together your flavors for the stir-fry. Add 2 teaspoons sesame oil and place skillet over medium heat. Add green onions, ginger, and garlic.

Once that becomes fragrant (you’ll know when you hit that point, but it takes a little under a minute), add remaining 1 1/2 tablespoons soy sauce and 3 teaspoons vinegar, then your chopped bok choy. Toss until bok choy wilts. It should take about 2 minutes. We had to use the adult variety of bok choy (that’s all they had at Whole Foods) so it took a little longer. Add mizuna (read spinach) in 2 batches, tossing to wilt before adding more, 1 to 2 minutes per batch. Season greens with salt and pepper.

Then you pretty much throw it all together and it looks something like this.Simple as hell, right? That’s what we thought. We were somewhat daunted by the idea of cooking “asian” food. But we heard from a reliable source that what we made looked (and tasted) pretty great.

On to the black cod with mushrooms and sancho pepper:

We ran into to issues with this dish. Namely, the cod they had a Whole Foods looked sad and disheartened. So we chose a comparable white fish and chalked it up to experimentation in the kitchen. There was no sancho pepper paste either, so we just used Sriracha and cut our losses.

What you’ll need:

For broth

  • 1 cup water
  • 6 tablespoons reduced-sodium soy sauce
  • 2 tablespoons mirin (Japanese sweet rice wine)
  • 1/8 teaspoon ground sansho pepper (sometimes labeled “sansyo“), plus additional for sprinkling, or 1 teaspoon whole Sichuan peppercorns
  • 1 shallot, sliced
  • 3 garlic cloves, thinly sliced, divided
  • 2 teaspoons vegetable oil
  • 7 ounces fresh enoki mushrooms, cut into 3-inch lengths and spongy base discarded
  • 5 ounces fresh shimeji mushrooms (sometimes called beech mushrooms), spongy base discarded

And the fish, of course.

So prep the veg, then make your broth. It’s super easy, and it fills your kitchen with delightful smells.

Bring water, soy sauce, mirin, sansho pepper (we added a healthy squirt of Sriracha), shallot, and one third of garlic to a boil in a 1- to 2-quart heavy saucepan, then simmer 5 minutes. Let broth stand off heat 10 minutes.

You are going to discard the shallots, which is a painful thing to do since they’ve just spent 10 minutes soaking up all that flavor. So we saved the strained shallots and decided we’d use them on sandwiches or in other dishes.

Once the sauce is made, you sauté the mushrooms in vegetable oil. 

That will go onto another sheet or two of paper towel and rid itself of its unnecessary oils.

Finally, you need to cook the fish. Pat fish dry and sprinkle with 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon pepper. Heat oil in a 12-inch heavy nonstick skillet over medium-high heat until hot, then sauté fish, skin side down, turning once, until golden brown, just starting to flake, and just cooked through, about 8 minutes. This depends on the thickness of your fillets and temp of the pan. You don’t want to overcook the fish, but you can tell when the fish is getting done by the color and texture it will take on as you observe the “raw” unflipped side.

Once your fish is cooked. you compile yourself a dish:

Et voilà! You have your meal. Enjoy.

Both recipes can be found at epicurious.com

The Existentialism of Mussels

“I don’t think I’ll last much longer,” my mother said putting down her spoon.

Well, it’s been nice knowing you, I thought, wondering if she was suddenly struck by an episode of food poisoning she knew to be fatal. At least we’ve established that those precooked mussels she’s had in the fridge for over a month -to which she calls attention every time she opens the fridge in my presence- were indeed not to be trusted.

This morbid moment proudly brought to you by the province of Québec, exporters of frozen seafood and grim moments of existentialism since 1975.

But let’s backtrack a bit.

“Is this really going to work?” asked my mother as we made slits in two cryovac-ed pouches of Sogel pre-cooked mussels hailing from Prince Edward Island (imported through Montréal). Yea, I turned cryovac into a verb.

As I sawed off the top bit of sealed plastic so it wouldn’t melt away due to contact with the coils of the toaster oven, I shrugged and went about my business of doctoring up a bath for the somewhat suspect looking mollusks being zapped in the microwave.
After scouring the fridge for things to embellish the greyish frozen liquid generously supplied by the purveyors in the package of frozen precooked seafood, I decided on pancetta, green onion and some garlic which I sautéed in clarified butter, seasoned with salt, hot pepper flakes and thyme then doused that with about half a bottle of dry white wine. Once the alcohol cooked out, I added a cup and a half of the chicken stock I had previously made from some unfortunate whole chicken I roasted.
After 4 minutes in the microwave, I tentatively checked the mussels. “I’m not sure what we should be looking for,” I offered “but at least we know they’re cooked.”
So I threw them in the pot with the makeshift sauce..
and hoped for the best.
———————————-
The meal itself turned out quite well.
The mussels did not kill anyone, or even give us food poisoning. In fact, they weren’t half bad. The fascinating thing about all this is that I have a strong bias against things that are precooked, and when possible, would rather just get live mussels from the grocery store.
And this is where I get existential. One of the things I like so much about cooking is the satisfaction of transforming something from its un-actualized (and sometimes inedible) state into an experience. If our lives are truly defined by the sums of our actions, existentially speaking, life then boils down to our experiences. In some ways, cooking is the most concrete experience of existentialism. With very little (a knife and in some cases a source of heat) coming between the person acting and the thing acted upon, we create an experience for ourselves and others that can truly change the way we nourish ourselves. When you cook, you’re taking control of every aspect of the experience that defines you.
While I suppose I see the merit in being able to safely keep 2 lbs of mussels in a tidy vacuum sealed pouch for months on end, somehow it takes away from the experience.
While we threw away the extra mussels and leftover fries, my mom did keep the one component I made from scratch: the broth I made to conceal the uninspired quality of those shifty little precooked Canadian mollusks that tried to rob us of life itself… if not by killing us literally, then by killing the experience.

Credit- The Goosefoot Experience

I’m not entirely sure where to begin my report on our experience at Goosefoot.

Should I rattle off all the reasons Goosefoot is a unique restaurant? Or should I take you course by course through Chef Chris Nugent’s incredibly well thought out menu? Do I give you the inside scoop, straight from the chef’s mouth, on where to shop for groceries? (Oh, I’m onto you, all food obsessed people are constantly on the prowl for the best places to shop.)

I know! I’ll start by saying Chris Nugent has some sort of psychic ability…. he came out for a tableside chat during one of the dessert courses [that’s right, for all of the sweet toothed folks of Chicago, there are two of them not including the cheese course] and he flat out asked: you’re a soup person, aren’t you?

Sure, that could have been a shot in the dark, though that would imply that he randomly goes up to all his diners guessing, carnival attraction style, what their favorite dishes and preparations are…and since he’s not in the least socially awkward, it has to be that he has a 6th sense for taste.

It would explain plate after plate of visually stunning culinary innovation.

If I had to choose one word to describe Chris Nugent’s menu, it would be assiduous. Not in an overly fussy sort of way either. The vibe of the restaurant as a whole is laid back, casual and very upbeat. The celebratory ambiance could have stemmed from the 6 birthdays being celebrated that night, but I get the sense that Goosefoot is no stranger to birthdays. I’d imagine this is exactly the kind of place you would take a food loving friend for a festive meal. To my right were seated a chef (celebrating his birthday) and his date, and to my left sat a professor (also celebrating a birthday) with his wife.

But back to assiduity. The attention to detail within each dish, but also when it came to the conceptualization and orchestration of the meal as a whole, was astounding. It seemed as though each dish was meant to play off some aspect of the one before or after it. Clearly a lot of thought went into the menu planning, and it paid off. After not one but two amuse-bouches, we were taken on an intricate 8 course journey.

It’s true that you eat first with your eyes, and in some cases it was almost a pity to destroy the presentation by eating. But I sucked it up and ate every bite off every plate. My favorite courses were (unsurprisingly) of the seafood persuasion.

The lobster had a delicate curry sauce and was paired with flavors and textures (hubbard squash and licorice root) that meshed perfectly with the dominant flavors of lobster and curry.

The loup de mer (French sea bass) was also perfection on a plate. Perfectly cooked and served with a meyer lemon sauce with tapioca pearls and sunchokes. I only wish I could have requested a double portion!

Of the remaining courses, the angus beef was the most straightforward (not a bad thing!) The chestnut soup with white alba mushrooms and truffle essence and the quail with spiced beluga lentils as well as one of the dessert courses struck me as more playful and innovative. Each had elements that could have been featured on the pages of Modernist Cuisine. Hell, the soup has “smoke” listed as an ingredient. The cinderella squash with nougatine and spice meringue was also a prime example of how to use modernist techniques to play with textures without assaulting your diner with them.

Chef Nugent clearly knows how to innovate without intimidating and that’s sometimes a fine line to tread.

For those of you who read all the way through this post muttering “will she just get to where the chef buys his groceries?” that time has come.

Chef Nugent told me to check out Harvest Time Foods on Lawrence right next door to Goosefoot, and after my own trip there I urge you to do the same.

A Holiday Roast Beast…

…and a big huzzah to those who got the Grinch reference.

Every Christmas it is my privilege to spend a week with my slightly crazy family in California. It’s not just the (welcome) climate change that makes it a privilege, but the opportunity to pin down exactly how inevitable it was that I turned out as batty as I did!

This Christmas marked the first time that I was able to go to a family gathering feeling 100% confident that I am moving in the exact right direction with my life. I may not be galloping out of the gates, but I know I must be doing something right when upon hearing of my new proposed vocation, the family assigned me to cook for all of them. You know you’re on the right path in life when being forced to feed over a dozen hungry family members actually sounds like the best way to spend your days. It’s also encouraging that I get paid to document every triumphant success or epic failure of the process.

I love everything about food, especially being able to be in proximity to those who are truly gifted at preparing it. It seems only natural that I put in my time writing about those who do it so much better than me. I have big plans [top secret, sorry] of ultimately selling the entirety of my soul to this fickle industry, but until I do, I might as well enjoy experiencing others’ great food while I have the time.

But today it’s time to document one of my own feasts, prepared over the holidays:

Pork loin with pear and shallot, roasted fennel bulbs and Thomas Keller’s savory bread pudding with leeks.

I figured apples with pork is getting a little tired… so I decided to use pears (slow down, crazed adventurer!) I know, I know, it’s not the biggest departure. It turns out that they compliment pork nicely AND since their meat is a little more delicate and pulpy than that of an apple, browning them in the sauté pan yields a lot more fresh pear juice for your pan sauce.

I seasoned the gargantuan piece of meat with a lot of salt and pepper about 45 minutes before I intended on getting back around to messing with it. The pork loin was so gigantic that I had to cut it in half to be able to sear its sides in a pan before putting it in the oven.

Then in a bowl, I mixed enough olive oil to coat the meat with fresh thyme and minced garlic. Simple. DONE. I trussed the loin and smeared the mixture of oil, garlic and thyme on the beast and then seared each side of the loin until achieving that pretty brown quality you want to see. To borrow a word from my dad, the “grumph” will fall off the meat. (If you haven’t gleaned from the context… grumph refers to the non essential though tasty bits of garlic and thyme that you lose to the pan).

I chose not to clean the pan before I sautéed the pears and shallots in it. After transferring those elements to the platter (which I served “as is” to accompany the pork) you’re left with a wonderful assortment of juices and flavors swimming around in the pan. I added a few cups of pear nectar and a bit of chicken stock for saltiness. I sprinkled in some flour to get a more dense consistency, oh and a (rather large) slab of butter.

As for the remarkable savory bread pudding, you can find it on epicurious.com or, if you’re really committed (and you should be!) to trying out Keller’s recipes… go ahead and purchase Ad Hoc at Home.

With that, I leave you with the idea of roasted fennel bulbs (halved) which we brushed with oil and dashed with salt as the final touch on a meal that turned out to be deceptively easy to pull together!

Behold the bulbs:

Who Ate My Potstickers?, I Was Told There Would Be Ham… and other tales from beyond the operating table.

Vignettes from the last two weeks of my life:

December 5, 8am: No food or drink since yesterday at noon. No coffee. I wonder if it counts if it’s administered intravenously… Worst. Day. Ever.

December 6-9: I was wrong. This is WAY worse. Don’t speak to me, don’t even look at me. The thought of interaction makes my throat want to jump out of my body and run away.

December 10, 10am: Apparently your body acclimates to a strict diet of codeine and shaved ice. Will try to eat soup tomorrow.

December 11, 7pm: Christmas party. There is ham. Can barely swallow water, but might steal the leftover ham and weigh the possibilities of making a ham smoothie. Need. Ham. Now.

December 12, 3pm: Still no ham, puréed peach and ice is taking its toll.

December 13, 1pm: scrambled eggs… puréed with water. Can I get a side of puréed bacon?

December 14: Venture out of doors to get chinese food. Order egg drop soup, eat entire bowl meant to serve a family of 4. Take potstickers home in carry out container with another gallon of egg drop soup for tomorrow.

December 15, 7:30: Egg drop soup for lunch… dinner time. Tore apart fridge, one question remains to be answered: Who ate my potstickers?

December 16: Can someone explain to me why everything tastes like gummy bears?

December 17: Mentally and emotionally preparing myself for the prospect of Honey Baked Ham (Round 2) at one of three holiday parties I must attend.

December 18, 4pm: I was told there would be ham. Holiday Party #2 boasts a beautiful spiral cut ham…. I watch it being glazed…. I watch it emerge from the oven… and I have to leave to make it to the next party without so much as a mouthful of the glorious beast.

December 19: Still sour about the ham.

Thanksgiving, revisited

On those things for which I give thanks:

-This year, it seemed more difficult to determine what tops my list of things for which I am most thankful. Maybe it was the hectic holiday plans that had us driving to Cherry, IL  then back to Chicago in 5 hours (it takes 2 hours to drive there and another 2 to drive back), not to mention a second day of thanksgiving, a leftovers version, with our close family friends.

But I stop and think.

This chaos I’m using as an excuse to not find thanks, really just means that we are surrounded by family and great friends. No complaints there.

-Then I allow myself to consider the surgery I have scheduled in the coming week. Great timing? Right in the midst of the holiday season… sweet.

But I stop and think. 

This is a minor surgery to rectify a rather debilitating problem I’ve been dealing with that knocks me on my ass every time I am around someone who has the sniffles. No more chronic strep throat and bacterial infections in my throat after December 5th? No complaints there.

-Oh, that’s right, I get to spend my holiday season explaining why I’m single.

But, again, I stop and think. 

This is the first time in close to a decade that I have not been attached to someone who ultimately ends up not quite panning out (or worse!) Perhaps it’s time to reevaluate the necessity for constant companionship at an age when I can barely evaluate what comes next in my own professional and personal life. How can I possibly hope to make another person happy when I haven’t mastered how to make myself happy? No complaints there.

——–

So I suppose that for which I’m thankful this year is the support and warmth that emanates from my sometimes chaotic but always dependable group of friends and family who have already offered their professional services, keeping me well stocked with homemade broths and ice cream for the flip side of this surgery, and who keep me busy and engaged with this time I’ve come into now that I can finally think about what I want out of this fleeting, infinitesimal blip of a thing I am fortunate enough to call my life.

 

 

Credit- Trying new things

When I woke up this morning, I didn’t think to myself: “Gee, I think I’d like to chew my liquids today.” So why, you might ask, did I purchase a Kombucha with seeds and other undesirable things floating around in it? I just reread that sentence. I’d like to note that I’m not talking about the standard odds and ends floating around in Kombucha… 

I’m talking about a whole new level of raw and fermented materials. There are more seeds in there than raspberries used to infuse this beverage.

That said, I wanted to try it. And here’s why:

1. I like weird things. I have never refused to eat anything, at any time…. even when I lived in strange places, where PETA has no voice and venom is a fairly normal ingredient.

2. There was a sale on Kombucha at Whole Foods. It was 2 for $4, which led me to believe that if ever there was a time for me to try the strange new Kombucha, it was now.

So I got myself my standard and awesome Kombucha, the tried and true, and went out on a limb and purchased the seedy “chia” variety as well.

Let’s just say, not all limbs are sturdy.

It’s not that is was undrinkable, it was just rather unpleasant to drink. It was almost like drinking tapioca pudding. You had to actually chew the gelatinous liquid. Not really my thing, I guess.

Not to mention, it didn’t have that fermented Kombucha taste I have grown to love. And it wasn’t “naturally carbonated” so really none of the perks.

And that’s all she wrote.

Credit- Taking Bourdain up on fishery recommendations

I would like to take a moment to thank the parties from many centuries ago responsible for smoked fish. I’d also like to extend a hearty congratulations to those establishments who are able to prepare battered and fried fish that taste like something other than dough. I might as well also thank Anthony Bourdain for his recommendation to drive to a shack on a bridge just a few miles from the Indiana border. And a final hoorah to my whimsical and adventurous equal who agreed to hop in my car at noon on a Monday to investigate Calumet Fisheries, one of the last standing smokehouses in Illinois.

It may not be a whole lot to look at, but there’s actually something very appealing about making the trip down here. My mother called the landscape a hybrid of Chicago’s industrial past and a scene from Mad Max. As you can see from the sign, it’s located at “95th at the bridge.” The fact that they listed their address as such tickled us. You’ll all be relieved to know that this brand of humor was not lost on my Canadian counterpart for this adventure.

They really do get jokes! I kid, I kid. He knows I’m joking…

Anyway, they have all sorts of smoked fish to sample and a friendly staff. The guy who helped us out used one breath to poke fun at my driving (yeah I may have backed up at a somewhat rapid speed to snag a parking spot on the bridge… hey, they’re hot commodities!!) and then in the next breath told us all about the different fish, allowing us to sample a few things to make sure we got exactly what we wanted!

As it turns out we wanted smoked sturgeon, smoked peppered salmon and fried perch. He let us try the famous smoked shrimp, and they were fantastic, but we went another direction. Of the three things we got, we were the most impressed with the salmon. In fact, though we inexplicably had four plastic forks between the two of us, we deep sixed the forks entirely and started ripping into the smoked fish with our teeth. It got kinda feral… think last piece of fish in the Lord of the Flies.

The (deep) fried perch was great. When batter is involved, you run the risk of getting a mouth full of greasy dough instead of fish, but they nailed it here. My companion, being from Port Dover and thus from an area where perch practically jump out of the waters onto your plate, knows his perch. Even he had to admit it was some mighty tasty perch.

Note, in the photo to the left, that this was apparently before we “misplaced” all of our forks and reverted to animal instinct.

The smoked fish really was delicious!

Our favorite was easily the Salmon. We were told that the salmon had just come out of the smoker and thus was still sort of warm, which may have impacted our opinions.

We both agreed that the smokiness of the salmon was not matched by that of the sturgeon which was quite a bit cooler having come out of a day’s worth of refrigeration. I sent the leftovers back with the man who clearly should investigate a career in hand modeling based on his masterful pose (left) showcasing the smoked salmon.

He’ll have to fill me in on how the smoked sturgeon tastes room temp! It sure looked like it should taste AT LEAST as good as the salmon, don’t you think?!

Oh, and for the record, yes I am crediting this in the travel section. We traveled well outside the comfort zone of most Chicagoans (totally worth the 17 mile trip) AND we took local streets most of the way home to check out South Chicago. I’m not saying I’m Magellan or anything, but damn if I’m not claiming this as travel!