Thursday, September 29, 2011

Homemade Soup

I decided to continue with my investigation into the Maya by playing a PBS special on Netflix called “Cracking the Maya Code.” And while that was loading, I poured two cups of water into a pot on the stove, added one packet of condensed chicken broth, a generous amount of garlic powder, and a few shakes of dried onion. (Of course, this is easily made vegetarian by omitting the chicken broth.)

Letting that simmer on the stove on medium for a few minutes filled my kitchen with the beautiful aromas of garlic and onion. Bliss! Next, I went through my surprisingly well-stocked freezer for vegetables. Into the pot went a handful of frozen broccoli, then a fist or two of frozen mixed veggies (from Meijer, so no lima beans).

Mostly vegetables at this point, I returned to my Maya documentary and let the mixture continue to simmer on medium-high, hoping to saturate the water with tasty vegetable flavors in addition to the base of weak chicken broth. After a bit, I added a few splashes of salt, pepper, parsley flakes, and celery salt, then let it simmer longer. I also added a little more water – about ½ a cup – because the vegetables were taking up so much room in the pot.

I looked through my recipe book for a simple dumpling recipe, which I found and then decided not to make. I was just feeling too tired and was nearly ready for a nap. Curling up on the couch, watching the cracking of Mayan hieroglyphs, and sipping some veggie soup sounded like enough to me.

The flavor turned out to be rich and savory, despite such a simple makeup, and took only less than half an hour to make.

Incidentally, while I was enjoying my homemade soup, I learned of the beauty of the Mayan written language. Not only could a scribe express himself in words, but with many sounds being represented by a different glyph, he could also show off his artistic flair. Brilliant! It rather reminds me of calligraphy, or illuminated manuscripts. The writer in me dances with glee! I wonder if the internet has a Mayan alphabet tutorial I can immerse myself in... Maybe I will uncover some Mayan recipes for future blogs. I wonder if they made soup.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Gone Bananas

Many, many moons ago, I put three bananas into the freezer to one day be made into banana bread. Lately, my roommate Kimmy and I had been discussing banana bread, probably because the bananas in the freezer were not only black, but shriveling in on themselves. Since I've been feeling sick lately, unable to stay at work more than 6 hours at a time, I decided to take it easy and sleep as much as possible last weekend. But when I started to feel a little better, I put on a NatGeo documentary on the pre-classical Maya (what? I'm a nerd) and flipped through my recipe books for a banana bread recipe. Finding a very simple one requiring 7 ingredients that I happened to have on hand, I decided to push my energy and give it a go.

The first ingredient is a ½ cup of shortening, which I refuse to use because it's indigestible by the human body, so I substituted butter instead. I sat on the floor in front of the TV and creamed together the butter with one cup of sugar, then added two eggs, one at a time, then the three shriveled bananas (thawed in the fridge over night and squeezed from their gushy peels) followed by dashes of baking soda and salt.

Once it was all thoroughly mixed together, I sprayed canola into a glass bread pan and poured in the gooey mixture. Before popping it into the oven for 35 minutes on 350 degrees F, I sprinkled some brown sugar over-top. I considered also shaking on some walnut pieces that I've had in my cupboard for about a year, but I decided against it because I don't much care for nuts in my baked goods. (Yes, I realize that sounds like a metaphor. One I may have to use in a story some day.)

I am very pleased that I was able to make yet another tasty item from the odds and ends of my kitchen. (And to learn that the pre-classical Mayan civilization, often historically thought to be a myth, was likely brought down by deforestation.) I haven't gone grocery shopping for quite some time now in order to force myself to seek out the things lost to memory and hiding in the dark corners of my cupboards. Or on the shelves in plain sight. Whatever. I think next I shall make soup. It's the only thing that's been sounding good lately. And, as they say, tis the season!

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Behind Chinese Take-out in America

Inspired by my two recent blogs, I Say Tomato and ...Awesome Chinese Food, and having been told all of my life that what we eat here is totally not what they eat there, I decided to investigate Chinese food in America. 

It turns out that a lot of what we generally think of as Chinese cuisine is based on Southern, or Cantonese, cooking. Chunks of meat and vegetables, rich sauces, fried rice, even dim sum come to us from this region of China where stir frying is quite popular. However, being in a foreign region with different ingredients available (fresh is key, here), some substitutions are made. Broccoli, carrots, and layered onions are not native to Chinese cuisine. In China, they use so-called Chinese broccoli, a leafy cousin of Western broccoli that has a more bitter flavor, daikon, a large radish, and green onions, respectively.

The northern, colder, drier regions of China (including Beijing), where wheat is the staple rather than rice, give us the familiar wheat noodles, "pancakes," and dumplings. Lots of onion, garlic, soy sauce, and oyster sauce (which I need to add back to my repertoire). 

The eastern, or Shanghai, region of China uses both rice and wheat and a lot of seafood due to its proximity to the ocean. They also grow sugar in this region, so the food is often sweeter than elsewhere and includes pastries that I desperately want to try now. 

The new popular trend in American Chinese restaurants is Szechuan, the western region of China, which offers up some heavy spices introduced to China via the Silk Road from India. I immediately think of Szechuan chicken, which I cannot eat, and which the internet tells me is not nearly as spicy as it would be in its native home. 

While reading through Wikipedia's entry on American Chinese cuisine, I found a quote from a Chinese restaurant owner in Massachusetts that Chinese food in America is "dumbed-down" for the blander American palette, and does not constitute a cuisine all on its own. He also says, "American Chinese restaurants typically try to have food representing 3-5 regions of China at one time, have chop suey, or have 'fried vegetables and some protein in a thick sauce,' 'eight different sweet and sour dishes,' or 'a whole page of 20 different chow meins or fried rice dishes.'"

I feel better educated going into a Chinese restaurant in America now. Hopefully knowing the basics of the four main regions of Chinese cuisine will help me make tastier choices. (Szechuan is right out.) 

For further quick reading, check out Four Regions of Chinese Cuisine and Chinese Regional Cooking Styles.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Hill of Beans

A little while ago, I purchased a can of bean salad from Meijer out of curiosity. Traditionally, I make my own from scratch with balsamic vinegar, olive oil, garlic and occasionally some spices. In addition to an array of beans that change pretty much every time I make it, I sometimes also add a can of sweet corn. (It's tasty, trust me.) 

So last night when I wanted to bring a side dish to game night, I pulled out the can of bean salad, which ended up tasting "meh" at best. So I added one can of cannellini beans and one can of green beans, tossed, tasted and still thought it tasted pretty meh. In went the balsamic vinegar, olive oil, garlic powder (because that's all I have), and a dash of salt. Flavor went way up! I sealed it all together in a Tupperware container and set it in the fridge to chill and marinate. 

I am not as satisfied as I would have been had I made it from scratch and let it marinate overnight, but for a "Quick! I need something!" dish, I think it turned out all right. Kimmy decided that she did not like bean salad cold and would like to heat it up, but she hasn't done that yet, so I cannot report on its resulting flavor. I suggested to her that if we have a can of corn, she add that to the mix. (I swear, corn in bean salad is really tasty!) 

I do lament not having the garlic olive oil on hand. That would have been a smashing addition! Perhaps next time, when I definitely will buy all the beans separately and do this thing up right. Yeehaw!

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Mother and Child Reunion

Lately, my cupboard and fridge have been a bit jumbled with odds and ends of food everywhere. The fun part is sorting it and finding what I can put together. Last night, I managed to cobble together oyakodon, a simple Japanese dish mostly comprised of chicken and eggs. I don't now where I got the recipe since it has been copied into my recipe notebook for so long, but here it is:

4 cups of steamed rice
2 chicken breasts or 4 chicken thighs chopped
1 onion, finely chopped
2 cups soup stock - dashi or chicken when there is no dashi
5 tbsp mirin
4 eggs, lightly beaten
10 tbsp soy sauce
5 tbsp sugar

I usually only make 2 cups of steamed rice because 4 cups really is a lot of rice! Last night I used 1 chicken thigh and 3 chicken breast tenders because that is what I had left in my freezer. The only onion I had was wilting leftover green onions, and I never have dashi, a soup stock traditionally made from boiling kelp and tuna, though many recipes exist, so I used chicken broth instead. Mirin is a sweet sake used in Japanese cooking, though it was once drunk in the Edo period. (For all you nerds out there.)

The basic cooking instructions are let the broth, mirin, soy sauce, and sugar come to a boil in a large skillet. Add the onion and chicken, reduce heat and allow to simmer for 5 minutes. Then gently pour in the eggs, stir slowly to mix it all in, and cover well, or in my case, let the largest lid you have float on top for 5 to 7 minutes, or until the egg appears to be cooked through. The chicken should also be fully cooked at this point, but it isn't a bad idea to check it by slicing open a few pieces. Serve over rice and enjoy!

In case you were wondering about the title to this entry, it's a reference to the word oyakodon itself. Oya means "parent" and ko means "child." Don tells you what kind of dish it is, served in a bowl over rice. So together, oyakodon is literally "parent-child-bowl." And yes, the song by Paul Simon, "Mother and Child Reunion," does come from this dish. Simon saw it, or a similar dish, on a Chinese restaurant's menu. Oyakodon is Japanese.

Being a fan of Japanese cuisine, I do happen to have mirin lying around my cupboard, but I understand if other gaijin (foreigners) do not. It is not very expensive, however, and I picked mine up from the international aisle at Meijer alongside the soy sauce, so neither is it difficult to find.

I hope you enjoyed another foray into Japanese cooking. Happy eating!

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

I Say Tomato

I work with some very clever people who love food. I often find in the break room new and different dishes of combined ingredients that never would have occurred to me. The other day, someone had prepared whole wheat couscous with chickpeas, pine nuts, sun-dried tomatoes, and masala simmer sauce. It had obviously been stewing in the crock pot for a while, but it was still quite flavorful when I spread some on a piece of bagel. 

With it's similarity to many previous dishes I made in January, this dish struck me as being very Indian. It also got me wondering. Why do so many Indian dishes call for tomatoes, a plant that came from the Americas? I thought I'd research tomatoes online and see when they were introduced to India.

Tomatoes originated in South America and were spread to Europe possibly either by Cortes or Columbus. What is known for certain is that the Spanish distributed the plant to their other colonies abroad, including the Philippines, which is how the tomato was introduced to Asia. This took place up to 500 years ago, plenty of time for the tomato to take root in Indian cuisine. Nowadays, China is the world's largest tomato producer, and India comes in at number four.

At the time that the Spanish were spreading this happy little sun-loving fruit, the Mughul empire was flourishing in India, the source of much of what we think of as Indian cuisine today with the addition of seasonings and nuts. Mughlai cuisine is also known for its use of dried fruit and its richness of flavor. One Mughlai dish is biryani badshahi, made with seasoned rice and mutton. (We sell a frozen biryani at work that is vegetarian and absolutely wonderful!)

Many more dishes that are common to foreigners were invented during the period of British rule. The curry spice was developed in order to aid the British in making Indian-like cuisine, which they had fallen in love with. (Some speculate that the dish butter chicken was invented toward the British appetite.)

If you would like to read a brief overview of Indian cuisine dating back to 2000BCE, click here. And for a much more in-depth analysis, check Wikipedia

Thursday, September 8, 2011

You Can Tune A Piano, But You Can't Tuna Fish

At work yesterday, we had a rather interesting demo item that caught my attention: canned tuna in olive oil with wasabi mayonnaise, dried cranberries, and roasted whole cashews. The combination of spicy from the wasabi mayo and sweet from the cranberries made for an interesting, not all together unpleasing contrast in the mouth. I am still not a fan of wasabi, so if I were to make it myself (and I probably will because it was darn tasty), I would substitute conventional mayo and perhaps a dab of mustard for a tang, but no sinus-clearing bite.

This fancy tuna salad reminded me of chicken salads I have had in the past. (At Tea Haus in Ann Arbor, they offer a chicken salad made with curry and raisins that I think might also translate well to tuna, and I intend to try it one of these days.) I never would have thought to put cashews in tuna or chicken salad, though, so I decided to see what suggestions the internet had for tuna salad.

The first recipe I came across is posted over at Allrecipes and includes chopped celery, which I have seen in chicken salad a number of times, but I don't think in tuna salad. Aside form the celery and tuna, I believe I have all of the ingredients for this one, and when I head to Meijer tomorrow to buy cat litter, I may pick up these two ingredients. (And bread. I'm fresh out of that, too.)

Cooks.com has an intriguing, rather involved suggestion for a tuna fish sandwich that promises to be "magic." Minus the jalapenos, I'm totally down. Green onions, bean sprouts, white mushrooms, oh my! And let's not forget the lettuce, tomato, and cheese. (Heck, I'd eat a lettuce, tomato, and cheese sandwich all by itself!)

Of course, no internet adventure is complete without a trip over to Wikipedia, where we learn that "[i]n the United States, 52% of canned tuna is used for sandwiches," and that tuna salad may also be prepared with olive oil, salad cream, or yogurt in place of mayonnaise. Interesting, but I think I'll be sticking to my good old natural, non-wasabi infested mayonnaise for the time being. But if any of my readers are into spicy/sweet, I say give this one a try! If you don't like tuna, I am sure you could substitute chicken. 

Dang, now I need to go add "canned tuna" to my shopping wish list.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Let's Jam

I mentioned before that I bought thimbleberry jam and blackcurrant jam from the Jam Pot in Keweenaw. While camping this past weekend, I brought along a jar of the thimbleberry jam and was happy to be able to try it on a slice of tasty bakery bread. And boy, was it ever delicious! Seedy like raspberry jam, but a hundred times sweeter and more pleasing, at least to me. I am not sure I can compare the taste to any known berry. I suppose it reminded me of a mulberry, but it's been a very long time since I have eaten mulberries, so that may be off.

This morning for breakfast, I opened up the blackcurrant jam and spread it on bagels. The currant had a less sweet, more tart flavor than the thimbleberry, but it was also quite tasty. Blackcurrants are quite high in vitamin C and gained popularity in the UK during WWII when oranges became scarce. I am not the most fond of oranges, so I guess I'll just have to eat blackcurrants instead to keep me from getting sick this season. Oh darn!

In the break room at work the other day, there was a basket on the table with peppers, tomatoes, and some other garden vegetables with a note telling the reader to take some. I don't like peppers (the note warned they were quite hot to boot), so I took a tomato, thinking I could include it with eggs for breakfast. I've decided that I should start my days with more protein and less carbs from cereal and breakfast bars. I also had a lot of leftover green onions from the zucchini and couscous, so I threw those in with the eggs, too, along with some parsley and a dash of salt.

Coupled with the blackcurrant covered bagels, it was a most satisfying meal!

Thursday, September 1, 2011

A Hearty Breakfast and Awesome Chinese

First, I'd like to promote this great little bar/restaurant in Paradise, MI called the Yukon Inn. Kimmy and I stopped in on our way to the famed Shipwreck Museum of Whitefish Point, aka the Graveyard of the Great Lakes. For $6, I got a plate piled high with two eggs, hash browns, two strips of bacon, and two pieces of Texas toast. For another $1 I ordered hot chocolate; Kimmy got orange juice. There was so much food that we couldn't finish our plates, though we put in some good effort. 

The plates and the tableware were disposable, which was both amusing and slightly annoying to my fancy city-raised environmentalist butt. (The cups were re-usable, however. Or at least, this is how I remember it.) The atmosphere was fantastic, though! Built like a log cabin with real dead animal heads mounted on the walls, and one cute plushie moose head. One of the deer over the bar was decorated with Christmas lights, thus Kimmy dubbed him the "Party Deer." (I realize this may sound horrific to certain people reading my blog. Those people should probably never visit the UP.) There was also a jukebox and a few old arcade games. Yeehaw!

I honestly can't remember any food after that until our return drive when we followed the GPS south from Mackinaw City to Cheboygan for Chinese food at the Indo-China Garden Restaurant (they also serve Thai). Seriously the best Chinese food I think I have ever had. The egg rolls were small, but packed with flavor, and the cashew chicken that I ordered came swimming in an amazingly delicious brown sauce that I could not eat enough of! The staff was friendly and talkative (we were still in Northern Michigan, after all) and very attentive. 

I noticed that the second review on Yelp disses the place for not being authentic, but I have to wonder if this person has ever had real Chinese food before, and not just the stuff they pass off as Chinese at most restaurants. Kimmy, who has been to China, said that this is the first restaurant she's been to State-side that served her food that looked like what she ate in China. I would compare it to a place I once ate at in Chinatown in Chicago, though I'd have to visit again to adequately contrast the two. (I was disappointed with the food in Chinatown in San Francisco. It seemed like stereotypical food they feed to foreigners anywhere in this country, unless I was getting steamed buns, which is what I quickly learned to do.) 

So if you are in the general vicinity of Mackinaw City and are craving Chinese food like we were, I highly suggest driving the 20 or so minutes to Cheboygan and giving this place a try. I would love to return and try their pad thai, the only Thai dish that I will willingly subject myself to. Nothing against Thai food or the Thai people, but they are overly fond of lemongrass and spice that makes my tummy want to commit suicide. I'll try to stick to mango when I visit the country.