Monday, August 29, 2011

That's Pass-Tee, Not Pay-Stee

In Michigan, the pasty has become synonymous with the UP (that's the Upper Peninsula for those out-of-state folk, and pronounced like it looks, "yoo-pee"). I've been told they are difficult to make, and I have yet to try. But eating one was one of our major objectives when Kimmy and I crossed the Bridge into Yooper country this past Friday. This was not our first time eating pasties, but since they are, to my knowledge, nonexistent below the 45th parallel, we had to eat a pasty while we were there. 

On Saturday, we made the beautiful drive from our hotel in Houghton up to Copper Harbor, essentially the northern-most tip of the Wolverine State. If one wanted to travel even further north, there is a ferry from Copper Harbor to Isle Royale, practically on Canada's doorstep, but we had neither the time nor the money. The sky was beautiful and serene, and Lake Superior was gorgeous. Copper Harbor is small (some would say teeny tiny), yet not without its charm. 

We stopped for lunch at a cute little restaurant and were served by a cheerful waitress with an unidentifiable northern European accent. (I'm bad with that region when it comes to accents.) Both Kimmy and I had been craving pizza, but were determined to eat a pasty, so we ended up ordering one of each, then splitting them with each other. The pasty was delightfully flaky and the gravy was superb. The little cheese pizza as also a treat! There were at least two kinds of cheese and a small assortment of herbs (basil was among them) sprinkled on top, giving off a mouthwatering odor. A hodge-podge lunch, and delicious!

Afterward, we stepped into a little gift shop attached to one of the little old motels that line the area by the dock. There I stumbled upon something a coworker had ordered me to buy during my trip: thimbleberry jam. Wikipedia says, "Thimbleberry fruits are larger, flatter, and softer than raspberries, and have many small seeds. Because the fruit is so soft, it does not pack or ship well, so thimbleberries are rarely cultivated commercially." It goes on to relate that thimbleberry jam is a specialty of the Keweenaw (kee-weh-naw) Peninsula, where Copper Harbor is located. I bought two little jars of jam (because thimbleberry products are expensive and I could barely afford the trip, let alone souvenirs) - one for me and one for my coworker who had gone on about it at some length. 

Another place we accidentally stumbled upon (despite being told about it by friends from the area) was the Jam Pot, a little bakery and preserves store run by monks. I bought a jar of black currant jam WHICH I AM SO EXCITED TO PUT ON TOAST and a mystery baked good that turned out to taste much like a peanut butter and jelly brownie which chocolate chips. In other words, wonderful. Kimmy bought what I believe is a gingerbread cupcake with lemon frosting. (None of the baked offerings were labeled, and it was more fun not to ask.) She ended up not liking it very much due to to its unfamiliar flavor. I don't blame her. When I came across my coworkers months ago dipping ginger snaps in lemon curd, I thought they were insane. (They were men, so I didn't think they could be pregnant.) The new ice cream we sell at work is lemon ice cream with bits of ginger snaps mixed in, so I surmise that this flavor combination is perhaps unique to this region, and possibly German-related.

Thus ends part one of my whirlwind tour of the UP. Expect another, and be sure to check out my Life from Ann Arbor blog this Friday for details of our other exploits. I promise you a ghost story.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Holy Zucchini, Batman!

As I have posted before, my roommate Kimmy works for a family that owns a backyard farm. This is where I got the tomatoes to make the homemade marinara! Well, they also gave us a zucchini - the biggest zucchini I have ever laid eyes on. No joke. Kimmy does not like zucchini, so it was up to me to turn it into something!

I remember growing up with zucchini in the garden and my mother baking zucchini bread, which I don't think I liked very much because what on earth was a vegetable doing in bread? Turns out zucchini is actually an immature fruit, though in cooking it is treated as a vegetable. Incidentally, elsewhere in the English speaking world, zucchini (an Italian word) is also known as courgette (the French diminutive for the word "squash."). 

There would be no zucchini bread coming from my oven (though I am no longer averse to its taste), so I turned my attention to what I had lying around the kitchen and came up with a box of garlic couscous that my mother had given me ages ago. I figured the two could easily be combined, but I conferred with my associate the Internet just to check for recipes. And indeed I found one!

Since the flavor packet in the couscous box was already garlic flavored, I skipped the minced cloves. I also don't own red pepper flakes and wasn't about to buy any, so those were also abandoned, as well as the mint for the same reason. 

So I ended up just chopping some green onion and sautéing that with chunks of zucchini in the last of my olive oil. Once the couscous was done, I tossed in the zucchini and green onion mixture et voilà! Strangely, a little on the bland side, so I later sprinkled some salt on the leftovers, but other than that, I thought it was quite tasty and felt perfectly safe feeding it to my boyfriend alongside pan-fried chicken strips.

There was so much zucchini, though, that I only ended up cooking about half of it. The rest is sitting in slices in my fridge. I thought I'd cook them up in olive oil with some salt and pepper over top and call it good. Since I am leaving for a weekend in the UP tomorrow and I don't want the food in my fridge to go bad while I am away, I have been going through trying to eat all the leftover pieces that collect too easily.

Due the aforementioned vacation, my next food update will probably be about the food we ate there. Expect pasties. Who knows what else we will find?

Monday, August 22, 2011

Could I Have a Muffin or a Scone?

Today's blog title is a direct reference to the TV show from my childhood Freakazoid! and the mini-segment "Lord Bravery." I simply could not resist!

About a week and a half ago now, Kimmy and I decided to go blueberry picking in Dexter because I missed picking berries while I lived in California, and she had never been. We came home with over 1 lb of fresh blueberries and a million mosquito bites. Kimmy requested blueberry cheesecake, but I didn't thin that I would need all for the berries for cheesecake, plus I didn't know how to make cheesecake, so one day, inspired by a new product we sell at work, I decided to make blueberry scones.

My grandfather used to make scones, but, lacking his recipe, I used this one instead. Naturally, I made a few substitutions/alterations. I still don't have baking powder and (again) used the baking soda and cream of tartar combo that I learned from making the Irish cream cupcakes. I also ended up using the organic vanilla half and half that I bought from Whole Foods a few weeks ago instead of regular old non-flavored half and half, which I think added a delightful richness to the scones. My usual flour is whole wheat which does alter the flavor a little, I think, rendering food a little more earthy in flavor that doesn't really bother me because I am not much of a purist.

The recipe instructed me to make round patties (basically) then cut the scones like a pizza into triangles. I skipped this step and just molded the scones by hand. The first one turned out a perfect triangle, and everything went downhill from there. (Scone dough is highly sticky!) Luckily, this did not seem to affect the flavor at all, and licking dough from my hands is half the fun of baking things myself.

Sadly, we are still experiencing some serious ant problems, and I kept having to shoo the aggressive little buggers away while I was preparing the scones in the kitchen. I really hope that this problem is solved soon. They're getting into everything!

Stay tuned for more blueberry creations. Maybe I will even figure out that cheesecake.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Boiling Your Food in a Bag is Fun

When I lived in Japan, I survived on boil-in-a-bag food. Curry (mild), cream stew (potato or corn), spaghetti sauce (pasta sold separately), everything I could buy in a skinny box holding a silver packet of goo, I bought, put over rice or spaghetti noodles, or simply shoveled in my mouth with a spoon. The best part of this genre of meals is not the ease of its preparation (boil the silver packet in a pot of water on the stove, then pour out, or simply squeeze out goo, then microwave hot), but that I could buy nearly all of it from the 100 Yen Shop. (Poor college student was I.)

I had thought that when I left Japan, I was also leaving behind my boil-in-a-bag meals. Then I found Trader Joe's and their $1.99 Indian boxed food. Yes, please! 

I admit that the palak paneer looked pretty disgusting when I cut open the silver packet and squeezed it into a microwave-safe bowl. Incredibly disgusting. Luckily, I've had the frozen version and know it's actually a pretty tasty dish, so I went ahead and heated it up anyway. 

The paneer was somewhat lacking in flavor, but even having made it myself, I have to admit it's not the most flavorful cheese I've ever tasted. Also, it was not in the slightest spicy, though that doesn't bother me much considering I don't terribly enjoy spicy food. From what I remember of tastings including the other boxed Indian dishes (of which there are a surprising many), the others are similar in intensity.

So if you want a quick, cheap Indian food fix, the boxed meals may or not be for you. The frozen Indian dinners include rice and taste more authentic, but they also cost more and you seem to get slightly less than from the box. I had some frozen garlic naan already, so that was a good accompaniment to the palak paneer, but if you were, say, at work on your lunch break, the frozen boxed meals are more satisfying.

Man, now I really want some Japanese curry. Or better... kuriimu shichuu!* Where is that Japanese market in Ann Arbor again?

(*cream stew)

Emergency Potatoes

When I looked in my cupboard the other day, I was dismayed to find my bag of potatoes soggy and leaking. In fairness to the potatoes, though, I can't remember when I bought them, and I had intended to use them up well before now. Upon closer inspection, I really only lost two or three potatoes to old age and mush. Even so, I decided I needed to cook these babies up and get them out of my cupboard before they all melted.

Since the breakfast burritos had worked out so well, I decided to just do sliced potatoes seasoned with herbs and call it breakfast. (I had run out of most of my usual breakfast items and was incredibly hungry.) I didn't see my larger frying pan, so I just did multiple batches in my smaller pan.

First, I set some garlic olive oil to simmering, then carefully placed in enough slices of potatoes to cover the bottom. Next, I sprinkled on some salt, then dried chopped onion pieces followed by a few dashes of dried basil. Finally, I covered the pan with a metal lid and let the potatoes brown. Once the first side was done, I stirred the potatoes and flipped them over to brown the other side, as well.

(I learned from my brother years ago that the trick to browning potatoes is to keep them covered. How he learned this, I don't know. Possibly through trial and error?)

I repeated these steps, adding in more oil when it looked a bit low in the pan, until all the potatoes were cooked and no longer in danger of being thrown in the trash due to spoilage. Since there were so darn many, I shared some with Kimmy, but even between the two of us we could not finish them all, so I took the rest into work with me for dinner as a side dish to my pasta marinara leftovers. (Starch overload!)

Perhaps not the most nutritious breakfast in the world, but the crunch of the exterior and mush of the potato's innards was most satisfying. And I no longer have to worry about potatoes going bad in my cupboard. Huzzah!

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Marinara Sauce... From Scratch!

As I previously mentioned, I obtained some free tomatoes that were begging to be made into something tasty. Thus, I searched the internet for a recipe for marinara, a simple tomato sauce originating in southern Italy that translates to "mariner's" sauce. (Perfect for pirates, eh?)

I used this recipe courtesy of the Food Network and chef Curtis Aikens. The first thing it calls for is peeled and seeded tomatoes. Well, crud. I remembered from all of the years of my mother's cooking that peeling tomatoes involved boiling them, but how and for how long? eHow to the rescue! I set a small pot to boiling, then plopped in about 5 tomatoes at a time for a few minutes each group, then fished them out and placed them in a bowl to cool. Many had started to peel themselves. For those that didn't, I put thin slices in and the skins came right off. Seeding a tomato reminds me of seeding a pepper, but much easier!

Once that was accomplished (and my kitchen looked like the location of strange lab experiments), I chopped the tomatoes and placed them in my medium-sized pot, setting the burner to medium-low. I ran out of regular olive oil about halfway through measuring out the quarter cup, so I finished with my lovely, darling, delicious garlic flavored olive oil, which meant I didn't need to add garlic, which was good because I didn't have any outside the powdered variety. 
I didn't have fresh basil, so I used most of my canister of store-bought dried basil, however I did have freshly dried parsley from my little parsley plant, which I think added greatly to the rich flavor of the resulting marinara. I think I probably put in too many herbs, but honestly the flavor was just fine - quite delicious, actually! 

First, I spread the finished marinara on a slice of Tuscan pane with shredded mozzarella on top. Kimmy tried toasting hers while I ate mine soggy and glorious. Then I was still hungry and we were almost out of bread, so I made some fusilli pasta (shaped like a corkscrew) and managed to get it perfectly al dente! I finished off the meal with a glass of Riesling and thoroughly, thoroughly enjoyed my relaxing evening.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Fresh is Best

My roommate recently got a job as a mother's helper for a family that has a backyard farm and wonderful vegetable garden. Since they are away on vacation right now, she has been tending the garden and feeding the chickens for them. Curious about this set-up, I accompanied her one day, and I was not only impressed, it gave me ideas! 

Not that I can turn our apartment's courtyard into an organic garden just yet, nor do I think I could regularly slaughter chickens for dinner, but it's nice to see how the system works, and with the family away, those beautiful ripe tomatoes and green beans were going to waste. The ground was literally littered with bright red tomatoes with smashed in sides and mold starting to overtake them. It was tragic! So I rescued a few that were ready to fall from the vine and ferried them home in my bag. (I was told the family wouldn't mind since they weren't there to eat them, and the tomatoes and beans would go bad well before they returned from their vacation.)

I haven't decided what to do with the tomatoes yet, but I was thinking perhaps some homemade marinara sauce is in order. I'm pretty sure most of the tomatoes I saved were of the roma variety (my favorite), and the parsley I put in the fridge to dry a month ago is all ready to be used. It's a shame I already boiled and ate the green beans (alongside mac 'n cheese with a hot dog cut up in it because I'm classy) since a quick search online for marinara recipes brought up a recipe for something called "green beans marinara." I am intrigued.

One of the things I wanted to set up on my patio at this apartment was a tomato plant. I think it's a little late in the season now, but I am newly resolved to get something working next year. I think my parsley plant has unfortunately had it, though I continue to coax it back to health and hope that it recovers. I believe we still sell basil plants at work, so maybe I will finally pick one of those up, as well, and I can have an indoor winter herb garden. The last kitty I shared an apartment with disliked the taste of basil, so maybe the cats here will avoid it, too!

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Burrito Strikes Again

Back in December of last year, I wrote about throwing together quesadillas and burritos when low on resources. I've come up with an addition to that list: breakfast burritos. This all started with a somewhat new product at work called the breakfast scramble that is comprised of scrambled eggs, potatoes, cheese, and maybe some other things. I don't recall exactly.

When this product first arrived, we heated it up and used it to make breakfast burritos, which I thought was pretty ingenious. Simple, tasty, and a pretty darn healthy way to start the day! The scramble is only $1.99, but it's also so simple, that I could not justify paying even that price when I can make it myself, rendering it probably even healthier.

I still had a bunch of potatoes from when I made torijaga last week, so I put them to quick use in my breakfast burrito, slicing them thin, then cooking them in - oh yes! - garlic olive oil. I also sliced some more onions, also leftover from a few different dishes, and threw them in the pan, as well.

Once the onions were soft and the potatoes browned, I cracked in three eggs (two just didn't seem like enough with so many potato slices) and stirred that in until thoroughly cooked through. 

After that, I just briefly heated some whole wheat tortillas up in the microwave to make them more pliable, spooned on the scramble, sprinkled on some shredded cheese, and folded over the tortilla. Yay, breakfast! 

Some excellent additions to this simple meal are salsa, sour cream, guacamole, hot sauce (*blech*), or anything else you might desire. You can also grill the burrito a little on both sides after it's assembled to make it crispy and stay together better. This is quick, easy, delicious, and a hell of a lot healthier than my new usual cereal. 

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Chicken and Taters - Japanese Style!

Since my family and I don't generally eat beef, my mother and I both have modified a number of recipes by substituting turkey or chicken. The Japanese dish nikujaga (meat-potato), Japan's version of British beef stew, is just such a dish. Using chicken instead of meat (beef or occasionally pork), I make what I have dubbed torijaga (chicken-potato). It's a ridiculously easy dish that takes about half an hour to make.

First, assemble the ingredients: potatoes (cubed), chicken (thinly sliced), onion (chopped), sugar, soy sauce, and soup stock. The recipe I copied down into my notebook doesn't include amounts, so I suggest using your best judgement for how much you want to make. I've included pictures so you can see what I did. It made about two servings, both of which I ate. You can use a chicken breast or, as I did this time, two chicken thighs, which I think I actually preferred.
First I cup up a handful of onion. The recipe says to cut the onion into 2x2x3cm pieces, but as you can see in the picture, I didn't do that. I've discovered that it is difficult to be so precise with onions. Once they were sliced, I tossed them in the frying pan and moved onto the potatoes, which also wanted to be cut into 2x2x3cm chunks. Much easier to do with potatoes! I had a bag of small potatoes, and ended up cutting up 3 of them. How many you need greatly depends on what kind of potato you use. Again, use your best judgement, and I have provided a picture.
The potatoes followed the onions into the pan, and were soon followed by the sliced chicken thighs (again, you may use a chicken breast if you prefer). After letting everything sizzle together for a few minutes, add enough water to more or less cover everything. Then add 2 tablespoons of soy sauce, the same amount of sugar, and a dash of soup stock of your choice. Cover the pan with a lid and let it cook for about 20 minutes or until the potatoes are soft. The recipe doesn't say what setting, but I set my stove to medium heat.
There you have it! Quick, easy, and good for you! Torijaga. Or nikujaga if you don't use chicken. Or chicken and potatoes if your Japanese isn't so keen.

If you are interested in more home-cooked Japanese meals, check out Washoku: Recipes from the Japanese Home Kitchen. And if you enjoy the ease of throwing everything into a pot on the stove and letting it cook, try Japanese Hot Pots: Comforting One-Pot Meals.

I hope I've shown that Japanese cooking is FAR more than raw fish, and sparked an interest in a few people. Go forth! Cook! Consume. Ja ne!