Thursday, August 22, 2013

Peas the Norwegian Way

You may not remember this, but back in February of 2011, I devoted the entire month to Scandinavian cuisine. I started with what became one of my most favorite desserts to make because it is so freaking delicious, rommegr√łt, or "sour cream porridge." Trust me, it is anything but sour. This past weekend, I decided to revisit that region of the world by once again checking the book Cooking the Norwegian Way by Sylvia Munsen out of the library. 

I chose a simple recipe that I miraculously had all the ingredients for, right down to the fresh parsley growing on my balcony! Here is an image of the ingredient list. I'm sorry the quality isn't better; my new phone isn't as good at taking photos as my old one was.
Note: "erter" meas "peas" in Norwegian.

As of Sunday, when I made this, I had worked 11 days in a row and was feeling extremely burned out. I dropped the bag of frozen peas on the floor, luckily losing only about 1/4 cup worth to the garbage, then later spilled my dinner all over the table and my laptop. A little landed in my lap, too, but not real damage done. Anyway, on to the making of the peas.

After cleaning up the spilled frozen peas on the floor, I boiled 1 tablespoon of butter in 1/2 cup of water in my large sauce pan. I like to err on the side of too large, and in this case, I really could have used my smaller pan, maybe even a frying pan. 
Meanwhile, I shredded 1 cup of lettuce to be added to my bowl of 2 cups of frozen peas. This was harder than I thought it would be. I had the last vestiges of a head of lettuce in my fridge I thought would be perfect, but I think I didn't have the proper shredding tool, because I ended up with a pile of mush that did not come close to 1 cup. Oh well, I thought, and added it to the bowl anyhow. Then went in the onion, leftover from Greg's baked mac 'n cheese. Next, I went out to my garden to snip some fresh parsley. I particularly enjoyed this part because I usually end up using dried parsley. But since Greg planted us a garden, I have been able to use fresh-from-the-plant, which is super flavorful and smells divine. 

So the peas, lettuce, onions, and parsley all went into the pot of water and melted butter, which I had turned down to medium. I did a few grates of freshly ground pepper and sea salt. Recipes always say "to taste," but how am I supposed to know until it's cooked? I am not a big fan of either salt or pepper, so sometimes I just skip this part entirely. Not tonight, though.

I let it all cook for 10 minutes, which is precisely how long it took for the water to evaporate and the onions to begin sticking to the bottom of the pan. 

The flavor turned out to be pretty good. I credit the peas and onion combination for this. I am not really sure what the lettuce was for, though I suppose if I had used packaged pre-shredded lettuce, or chopped it thinly rather than shredding it, and used the actual recommended 1 cup, I might have understood better. I'm not going to tell you to leave out the lettuce. I will say I don't feel it added much to the dish. I would probably make this again, as I am always on the lookout for new ways to make vegetables more interesting, and the flavor was really pretty good. (The Danish creamed vegetables are still my favorite discovery in this vein.)

Man, these pictures are really terrible! I came across my digital camera the other day. I will have to give that a try for next time. 

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Grilled Mac 'N Cheese

All right, I may have been a little misleading with the title on this one. I was trying to combine grilled cheese sandwiches and macaroni and cheese into one subject. Since I picked up a number of shifts at both jobs that past couple of weeks, I haven't done a lot of experimenting in the kitchen. I am gearing up for it, though! I went to the library today and picked up a small stack of children's cookbooks. What? Children's cookbooks are my favorite kind because they are simple, easy to follow, and require few ingredients. Seriously! Check them out. Especially if you want to experiment with foreign cuisines.

It was also recently my boyfriend Greg's birthday. I picked him up a new cookbook called Grilled Cheese Please!: 50 Scrumptiously Cheesy Recipes by Laura Werlin. Greg has spearheaded a few Game Night dinners that have been dubbed "Fancy Grilled Cheese Night," and there enough recipes in this book that piqued my interest while I glanced through, that I thought we could have some fun making them at home. Our "Fancy Grilled Cheese Nights" were pretty fancy, but this book will kick it up a notch!

There was another book I was debating whether or not to get for Greg by Laura Werlin, Mac & Cheese, Please!: 50 Super Cheesy Recipes. I find this amusing because two nights ago, I came home to Greg having made baked mac and cheese for dinner. He said he took a recipe from Alton Brown, then modified it with the things he wanted, onions and turkey bacon. It was quite delicious! And another use was finally found for those panko (Japanese bread crumbs) that have been in my cupboard for over a year. (Yaaaay!!) I think this shows that Greg doesn't need a book's help to make awesome mac and cheese, so I am glad I didn't go with that one, as tasty as the recipes do look. 

If you are a fan of these two cheese dishes, definitely check your local library or book store and see if you can track these books down. The pictures are big and colorful, and the recipes are pretty straight forward. The ebooks run abut $7.69 and the physical books are $16.99. 

Cheese on, my fellow cheese-lovers!

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Onigiri: Japanese Rice Balls

Ever since I learned how to make onigiri (also known as omusubi) after my study abroad stint in Japan back in 2003, onigiri (balls of rice with some kind of filling generally, but not always, wrapped in nori, dried seaweed) have been one of my favorite snacks. I love tuna salad onigiri combination so much that I often skipped the rolling process all together and just mixed tuna with mayonnaise and spread it over white rice, eating it with a spoon. 

As much as I love the tuna (or "sea chicken mayonnaise" as it was called when I bought it from the Lawson convenience stores), it is far from the only kind of onigiri out there. When a friend told me that he hates onigiri because  he doesn't like tuna, I was stunned. That's like saying you don't like pizza because you hate pepperoni. Pepperoni is a very popular pizza topping, but certainly not the only choice. I happen to dislike ham and pineapple, and pizza is still one of my favorite foods. To help him overcome his prejudice, another friend and I decided to make an onigiri buffet for our New Year's party that year. We had tuna and mayonnaise, of course, because it is very popular, but also teriyaki salmon, baby corn, carrot, shrimp, and even Spam filled onigiri! Everyone had a good time trying them, and we had even more fun making them.
Years later, I ran into another crazy onigiri story. My boyfriend Greg had never had savory onigiri, only onigiri filled with red bean paste and other desserts. WHAT?? Not only had I never heard of filling onigiri with anko (sweet red bean paste), the internet agrees that this is a very strange choice for filling. Personally, I think it sounds terrible, and I love anko. One of my favorite ice creams is red bean! The only people I have seen online putting red beans into rice balls are gaijin (foreigners), so I wouldn't put any faith in it. Onigiri is supposed to be a little bit salty, not sweet. The site I just linked to explains that before refrigeration, the people of Japan discovered that they could make rice last longer by packing it around salty things, like pickled plums (a very traditional rice ball filling). 

Anyway, I decided to show Greg what real onigiri is, though since he hates seafood, I was at a loss as to what a good example would be for him. My immediate thoughts were tuna and salmon, which wouldn't work (they are my two favorites). I didn't think he'd be too keen on the Spam onigiri either. We grow cucumbers in the garden, but they aren't the most interesting (or flavorful) filling on their own. Greg looked up on the internet for some good ideas and came across Korean barbecued beef. Perfect! So yesterday, Greg set up the slow cooker to cook the Korean barbecue while I took care of slicing cucumbers, cooking two batches of rice in my rice cooker, and mixing the tuna and mayonnaise for myself. I also carefully ripped up the nori sheets into strips. We had the big square kind made for sushi rolls, making them much too big for wrapping onigiri.

Two things to keep in mind when making onigiri: 1) always use short grain white rice - they don't call it sticky rice for nothing! 2) always wet your hands between forming balls - they don't call it sticky rice for nothing! The general steps are as follows:
  • Be careful to let the rice cool before you pick it up. I have actually burned my palm making onigiri before because I didn't give it enough time. I honestly put my rice in the fridge or freezer once it is done in the rice cooker and keep occasionally stirring until it is cool enough to hold in my hands. You don't want the rice cold, but you don't want to burn yourself either. Trust me.
  • Wet your palms. I mean it, this rice is sticky! Also sprinkle salt into your palm. I am told this helps with the sticking, but it also helps bring out the proper flavor. If you burn your palm from rice that is too hot, the salt doesn't help the pain. 
  • Take a little bit of cooled, cooked rice and flatten it in your damp, salted palm.
  • Put a bit of your filling on the middle of the flattened rice in your palm. I had chunks of cucumber (julienned is also great), canned tuna with mayo, and shredded Korean barbecued beef. The beef was the hardest because it was so long. A small dollop is easier.
  • Put more rice over the top of your filling. 
  • Squish. Okay, not squish exactly, but use your free hand (which I also suggest wetting down) to squeeze the rice together rather like you are making a snowball. If you've never made a snowball, this part might be harder for you. The idea is to get the rice to stick around the filling. This is why using short grain white rice is key. It will stick to anything, most especially itself.
Nori, or dried seaweed, is traditional, but not a requirement. Greg thought it tasted funny with the barbecued beef (I didn't mind it, but I am also more used to it), and didn't wrap his with seaweed after that first one. Toasted sesame seeds are another common onigiri wrapping, and also pretty tasty. I like to save wrapping with seaweed until right before I am about to eat them, especially if the onigiri are still warm, because the seaweed will absorb the moisture and get limp instead of crispy. 

Sometimes onigiri is also grilled or toasted. I have never had it grilled, but I bet it would be very tasty with the barbecued beef filling! I have toasted them in a toaster oven before. I used to stockpile onigiri from the convenience store in my mini fridge in my apartment in Japan and vivify them by sprinkling water over-top, then popping them in the toaster oven for a minute or two. They were still good! 

So, in conclusion, just as sushi is not always made with fish, onigiri can also be made with land animals. Or vegetables. Or nothing if you really just want to eat a chunk of rice. (I'm not judging.) But red bean paste? I'm not so sure.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Frozen Strawberry Bars

One of my favorite desserts at Trader Joe's are the Strawberry Fruit Floes, basically fruit put into a blender and frozen into bar-form. There's another similar frozen dessert bar I get from Meijer every once in a while, but I prefer Trader Joe's for its simple ingredients. So simple, in fact, that I decided to make them myself!

Of course, my favorite place to find recipes is Pinterest, so I immediately headed there. And boy, did I get results! All of the recipes were quite similar, if not identical, so I don't see much point in linking to any one in particular as I will be repeating the very same thing here with my own small variation. (More sugar.)

I really would liked to have used fresh berries, preferably from a farm. I just didn't have the time or resources at the time I decided to make these, so I went ahead and picked up two 1lb bags of frozen berries from Meijer instead. After they thawed in a bowl in my fridge, I drained away a lot of the juice. I then added two tablespoons of sugar, mixed thoroughly to coat the berries, let it sit for one episode of the Daily Show covered (so as to deter the bugs that have invaded my kitchen), then pulled out the blender.

All of the recipes I checked said to do this, though I don't know why: add a small slosh of lemon juice. What is the lemon juice for? Is it a preservative? *shrug* Anyway, following that into the blender was the bowl of sugar-coated berries. It took about 5 seconds to reduce it all to liquid, making it quite easy to pour into my popsicle molds. I was a bit leery of how this would turn out given the less than ideal results from my last attempt at using these molds, Nutella Creamsicles, which did end up very tasty, they just wouldn't stay on the stick and had to be dug out with a butter knife. 

I let the mold stay in the freezer for about 4 or 5 hours. I usually prefer to leave things overnight, but I really wanted to try one! And it seemed solid when I squeezed it. Maybe the water-base was more ideal than the milk-base since these were very solid in 4 hours and I only had to run the mold under hot water for a few seconds before the frozen bar slid right out. 

It wasn't exactly like store-bought, but it was close. A little tart, I thought. It was real fruit, though, and that is what I wanted. For the next batch (because 4 popsicle molds isn't enough for any recipe I try, apparently), I added a couple more tablespoons of sugar and blended again in the blender. This time, it tasted a lot like homemade strawberry jam, and I was very okay with that.

Strawberries are my favorite berry after blueberries, so I am happy with these frozen strawberry bars. I just can't help wondering what else I can make. Could I make a blueberry frozen bar? Maybe a frozen blueberry lemonade bar. I never see blueberry lemonade. Raspberries would probably lend themselves well to this treat, though I am not a huge fan of raspberries because of their high seed count. Maybe peaches, or mangoes! Papaya? The more I think about it, the more ideas come to me. Now that I have confirmed there is nothing wrong with my popsicle molds, this should be an interesting summer.