Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Linguini Carbonara

Cookbooks always seem to mention carbonara (or "coal miner's pasta) as a classic and well-known dish, but I had never had it before I made it for myself about a year ago. Since then, it's become one of my favorites. How can you not like a pasta dish, the main ingredients of which are bacon, eggs, and cheese? If this were not so full of saturated fat, it would be my everyday go-to pasta dish. (there is a version made with zucchini instead of bacon that's quite good but not the same)

To make carbonara:

1. Boil water for 1 lb. long pasta
2. Cut 1/4 lb. bacon into small pieces (use the best bacon you can find; NOT honey smoked, the flavors will not work that well!)
3. Cook the bacon in 1 T. olive oil until crisp; drain and set aside.
4. Cook pasta; while the pasta is cooking, beat 2 eggs and mix in 1/2 c. grated parmesan (NOT the stuff that comes in a green can, although good pre-shredded is acceptable).
5. Drain pasta; toss with egg/cheese mixture, and bacon. Add lots of black pepper, and more salt if it needs it (bacon and cheese are both pretty salty, so you shouldn't need much).
6. EAT

Very simple. Don't worry, the egg cooks enough because of the hot pasta that it won't give you salmonella.

I'm making this tonight! (along with some more cooked kale, so I can feel less decadent)

Laab, Larb, Lahb...(and summer rolls)

This is the name of a Thai "meat salad" type dish. I was first introduced to the idea on eGullet, a web-based forum for all things food-related. They love laab-larb-lahb on eGullet - there is a whole discussion thread (many pages long) focused just on this one dish. After reading this passionate discussion, I ordered some lahb gai (chicken lahb) from Sri Thai (the restaurant just down the street) to see what all the fuss was about.

Lahb is delicious! The base is meat - chicken, beef, or pork - that's been ground or minced very finely, then cooked. The meat is then dressed with the usual Thai suspects (lime juice, fish sauce, hot chilis, a bit of sugar) and tossed with much cilantro, mint, and garlic. It's served on lettuce leaves (very pretty!) and alongside many fresh veggies, designed to cut some of the potent heat from the bird's eye chilis. I reccomend using cabbage leaves to scoop up this delicacy.

Anyhoo, as I really enjoyed Sri Thai's version of lahb, I decided I should make it at home. I used a recipe from Kasma Loha-Unchit's website. She has written two very good thorough books explaining Thai food (you can find them on her website). They are great books, and although they contain recipes, they also contain lots more information about ingredients, techniques, and culture - enough that I would call them more "books about Thai food" than mere cookbooks. Fun to read, too.

The lahb I made was ok. It was tasty, but I was not wild about it. The flavors seemed...muddled is all I can think of. Or maybe it was just not Sri Thai's lahb. From the eGullet thread, though, I have gathered that there is no hard and fast way to make this dish, and many individual preferences for how it should taste (not to mention many individual spellings! Gotta love transliteration). The key is the dressing, the "four flavors" (salty, hot, sour, sweet) and getting those balanced correctly. Kasma's recipe calls for the chef to use her own taste and adjust the flavors accordingly - I don't think I did that as well as I could have - I mean, I've just started to figure out how to salt things properly, and that's only one flavor!

Well, in any case, it was good - just not GREAT. I was surprised to find that I liked Sri Thai's version better - I'll have to order it again and see how I can improve my own version of lahb gai. You can bet I will be making this again. It's good on the protein, but there's little-to-no fat, lots of good-for-you seasonings (it's great if you've got a cold or congestion - you'll just sweat it right out), and encourages the consumption of many fresh vegetables. I just need a couple of good sharp Martin Yan-style cleavers to mince the meat next time...my dull knives take forever! I would buy ground meat, but it's usually fattier than I'd like for this dish, I think.

Now, summer rolls - these are SUMMER rolls, not egg rolls, and so they are not fried but enclosed in rice paper wraps. Good, and quick, now that I've learned some technique. We made the traditional Viet Namese summer rolls (carrot, pork, bean sprouts, etc.) to go with our lahb on Saturday. I couldn't believe it - they sell rice paper wraps at King Soopers! Amazing what you can buy at the corner grocery these days. Anyhow, summer rolls are quick eats if you have leftover fillings sitting around in your fridge. Otherwise, the prep takes a bit of time...slicing and grating, etc.

My favorite summer rolls were actually an experiment made the next day. I had a little bit of leftover pork, and also some leftover cooked kale and garlic. I thought, "hey, pork and greens are a trad. southern thing, aren't they?". Minced up the pork, drained the pot likker off the greens, soaked a rice paper wrap, and...VOY-LAH, as they say in the non-Francophone west, a delicious Asian Soul Food delicacy. It was even tastier than I had hoped!

Monday, February 14, 2005

"Tapas", and serenity from puttering in the kitchen

Usually I try really hard to simplify meals - on weekdays, I don't have a lot of time or energy to cook dinner, so I only make a main and vegetable. However, this weekend, I really wanted to make several (somewhat) labor-intensive snacks (not quite tapas, but in that spirit) for a light Sunday dinner.

Here's what I made:

- Provencal marinated olives
- Duxelles on rye toast
- Roasted chickpeas w/ olive oil and lemon
- Dried figs with chevre, pecans, and honey

YUM to all of them! It was actually not all that labor-intensive, except for the duxelles.

For one thing, I made the marinated olives a day ahead. I was really excited about these, as they helped me use up a can of green olives that had been sitting around in the cupboard a long time. I didn't particularly care for these olives - they were brined, but not very much, so they tasted flat and not very appealing. Turns out they were perfect for marinating! "Provencal" seasonings, as far as I can tell, involve fennel and citrus. These olives were marinated in balsamic vinegar, garlic, crushed fennel seeds, olive oil, pepper, and orange zest. I was skeptical when I tasted the marinade, but the olives turned out great! (sorry, can't remember exact quantities for the marinade; figure it out!!)


Now, the duxelles (and the serenity): "duxelles" is a fancy name for sauteed mushrooms. However, in order to make true duxelles, you must mince the mushrooms. Since my knife skills are so lacking, it took me a long time to mince a pound of mushrooms! I was probably a lot neater about it than I needed to be. About halfway through, I was tempted to get sloppy, until I realized that I had nothing better to do but mince carefully. So, carefully mince I did. It was actually very zen and relaxing once I accepted how long it was taking. The duxelles turned out great, and I think I might make an omlette with them later - there is plenty left over. To make duxelles: mince a pound of mushrooms; put some butter or oil in a pan, sautee about 1/4 cup onions, scallions, or shallots for 5 min.; add the minced mushrooms. Cook until the mushrooms have given up their liquid, and then cook until that liquid is almost all evaporated. Season with salt and pepper, add chopped parsley if you like. Good on toast, stuffed in things, wherever!

I'm so glad I like mushrooms now.


The roasted chickpeas didn't QUITE get crisp like the cookbook said they would, but they were tasty enough (and nutritious), so I'll likely try again and see if I can get a better result. They're easy to make : 2 c. cooked chickpeas, 1 T. minced garlic, 3 T. olive oil, salt and pepper. Heat the oven to 400; put the oil on a sheet pan; add the chickpeas, garlic, salt and pepper; move the chickpeas around so they're covered with oil and in one layer. Roast the chickpeas 15-20 min., shaking the pan every 5 or so. Cool, season w/ more salt, lemon, olive oil. Good, but I love chickpeas.

VERDICT: the jury's still out. I may need to refine my technique.

This was dessert, and hardly counts as a recipe. I got the idea from Mollie Katzan, but I've seen it repeated in various forms elsewhere. Basically, take a dried fig and cut a slit in it; open up the slit; put in a nice chunk/dollop of chevre (that's goat cheese, but not a salty or strong-tasting goat cheese); nestle a pecan on top of the cheese (you can use walnuts or almonds too, there are no rules!!); drizzle with honey. If it sounds weird to you, well, it did to me too - and it's not weird at all, but DELICIOUS. And fairly nutritious for a dessert.


"Tapas" are easy; and I love appetizers more than any other course, including dessert; they are so pretty looking, and you can eat them with your hands! I think I might make this "snacky" dinner a Sunday night tradition.

Thursday, February 10, 2005

Weird Asian produce in my future?????

I'm so pumped.

I remember complaining to Mom and Dad last month? week? about my lack of garden space and my longing for tomatos, among other things. It really WAS torture to get all these catalogues for heirloom seeds and not be able to think about planting a-one of 'em - or at least to have to limit myself to varieties that would do well in pots.

Well, that may all change very soon. I was poking around on the City of Fort Collins website and found out that the city DOES run a community garden. It's located down in the south end of town, which is a drawback, but otherwise it sounds perfect. $35 fee with a $15 deposit (to be refunded at the end of the season), and 150 square feet of organic garden space. They'll till it for me, and I get access to water supply and compost bins.

Really, it sounded TOO perfect. I was positive that all the slots had already been snapped up. Turns out it isn't true! I emailed the lady and she got right back to me - there are 8 slots left. EIGHT! But they will be filling up fast, so I'm going to get my application in as soon as I can.

I really cannot wait. I got this heirloom seed catalog that has SIX pages of melons, most of which I have never seen nor heard of before. And FOUR pages of tomatos divided by color. It's going to be hard not to overdo it. I need to go down to the site itself and see what I'm working with, so I can start thinking. Heck, I'm already thinking! I've got to find some way of starting seeds (I think) so that I can grow all this fabulous stuff I keep seeing pictures of. I don't have a greenhouse or growlights, so it will take some work. And I'd like to grow some flowers, too, along with the vegetables and herbs. Don't want to be too inundated with produce we won't use.

I'm so happy I could just burst. We won't be picking plots until Saturday the 5th. Too long to wait!!! I want to start planning my plot now!

Monday, February 07, 2005

Salmon, and thoughts on rare meat

I'd never had wild salmon (I don't think) before Saturday, unless you count maybe a piece of sushi here and there. It costs twice as much as the farmed stuff, which gave me pause. On the other hand, the signs on all the farmed salmon saying "color added", and the sort of scuzzy taste of the farmed fish (it tastes sort of soapy to me), also gave me pause. So, since I was alone and free to stink up the apartment as I pleased, I decided to spring for some wild salmon. I got it from King Soopers - previously frozen, but I don't think it's salmon season and it looked better than the (more expensive) Wild Oats stuff.

Mark Bittman's The Minimalist Cooks Dinner had a good-looking recipe, "Roasted Salmon with Spicy Soy Oil". And yea, verrily, it was sublime. Wild salmon IS quite a bit better than the farmed stuff. No soapy taste, just fishy (naturally) pink goodness. The searing/roasting technique in the recipe was very easy - heat the oven to 500, heat my iron skillet on med. high, add a bit of oil, sear the fish for about a minute, then pop it in the oven for 6 minutes more.
Meanwhile, I sauteed some garlic and red pepper flakes in some grapeseed and sesame oils, then added some soy sauce. This got drizzled on the fish when it was done.

As I said, the searing/roasting technique worked wonderfully. I got salmon fillets cooked rare, but with crispy skin. As I was tucking into my slab of fish, I realized that I have really gotten to like rare meat. Maybe it was my conversion to sushi that did it, but now I like rare pork (don't worry, Mom and Dad, trichinosis is virtually non-existant in modern pigs), rare fish (it would have been a travesty to overcook that salmon!), and rare beef (mmmmmmm, bloody). In truth, it almost always tastes better than the well-done stuff. No longer do pink juices freak me out (although pink chicken still gives me the willies). Rare burgers are a little questionable; I have to really trust the quality of the place to get one.

It helps too, to realize that the bad bacteria lives on the surface of the meat, not in the interior. Therefore rare meat is fine health-wise (unless it's ground, then ya gotta be careful) - a good hard sear will kill all those little buggers on the outside and leave you pink tasty goodness inside.

Plus, it takes less time to get from fridge to table!

Thursday, February 03, 2005

Contemplating the end of butter in my life?

Okay, not really. I love butter. The fact is, though, that I love it maybe too much. And full-fat sour cream, and full-fat yogurt, et cetera et cetera. I am quietly appalled that my parents did not expose me to this (fully). I was able to at least get ahold of the stick stuff at G-ma's house, but it didn't taste particularly good to me, having laid out on the table all day...now, it amazes me that I ever lived without it.

As days get longer, though, I start to realize that the days of swimsuits and shorts are close at hand. And that I can't fit comfortably into many of my pairs of jeans. This saddens me. I'm not basing my self-worth on my weight, but I am cheap and don't want to buy new clothes. I don't feel like I need to hide my body, but at the same time, I'm not too keen on expressly showing it off anymore.

Two culprits here: butter fat. Sendentary job.

This is not the complete end of butter, but I need to cut back. Good-bye, full-fat Brown Cow everyday (sniff). Good-bye, mindless eating. Hello olive oil spritzer thingy. Hello six a.m. exercise (I hope and pray).

Man, I hate posts like these. I sound like every two-bit whiny dieter out there.

At least the Farmer's Market will be back in a few months and I will have exciting finds to talk about. I can't wait.