Sunday, August 31, 2008

Norma's Peanut Sauce

When I was in high school, there was a teeny tiny (4"5 or shorter) ancient woman that attended my church. Her name was Norma. She was originally from China, but had married a Swiss gentleman ages ago and followed him back to Geneva, Switzerland. Norma was incredibly enthusiastic and energetic -- she would practically jump up and down with enthusiasm when greeting someone, and her face was enchantingly expressive. I had always found her endearing, but she progressed to "ridiculously cool" status when I learned that, before she retired, she had worked with the big Swiss grocery store chain (Migros -- a less pretentious version of Whole Foods that also sponsored cultural events, etc.) to produce a Chinese cookbook. Then, one Thanksgiving (2002?), Norma brought this dish to the church potluck, and we all fell in love. My Dad wouldn't let her leave until he had the recipe.

It's a very simple peanut sauce that takes 2 minutes to prepare, and requires only pantry staples. Kind of like Fried Rice, it goes great with any and all veggies. Perfect for the middle of the week when you can't be bothered to go to the grocery store. I've had this dish at the Thanksgiving Church potluck, at my 18th birthday party (it feeds masses of people!), at an ex-boyfriend's 21st birthday party (great for college students!), and whenever I'm caught staring at the fridge without inspiration. What with grad classes starting this past Wednesday, there was no way Do and I were going to cook anything elaborate mid-week, let along make it to the grocery store. Norma's peanut sauce it is!

On that note, given our drastic reduction in free time (I'm still dumbfounded at the quantity of reading that my Profs expect! And I thought college loads were bad.), Do and I are starting a new category: "30min or less." Should be pretty self-explanatory. Also, don't expect us to be posting more than a couple times a week. Really.

I haven't seen Norma since, oh, 2005 at least. I hope she's okay. When I was the college, the church emailed all current and past members for ideas for a community cookbook, and I sent them Norma's Peanut Sauce. They really, really liked it.

Here's to you, Norma.

Norma's Peanut Sauce
(enough for 1.5 lbs of pasta)

1 cup peanut butter
3/4 cup light soy sauce
1/2 cup hot bouillon
2 Tbs lemon juice or vinegar
2 Tbs honey or sugar
2 Tbs chopped ginger
2 Tbs chopped garlic
1 Tbs Sesame oil
1 Tbs cornstarch
1/2 tsp chili paste or sambal (or simply cayenne pepper if that's all you've got)

Mix everything in a saucepan and heat for two minutes.

Serving suggestions: Sauté a ton of veggies (corn, bell peppers, broccoli, toasted sesame seeds... I like chinese cabbage) and add to the sauce, and serve over pasta or potatoes.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Brownies, Milk, and Lots of Good News

First off, our new dishwasher arrived and, after some trials and tribulations (the electrical socket you see by the sink is dead, apparently, so we had to buy an appliance extension cord), it's working! We had the same model in Chicago, but I'd forgotten how big it was because our D.C. dishwasher was teeny tiny. How luxurious to be able to load things like mixing bowls or pans! We submitted our tea pot to a renewal of its baptismal vows, and it came out cleaner than it's been in three years. All that grunge that accumulates in the spout? Yeah, all gone.

I feel like a liberated woman. Better go burn some bras in People's Park or something.

The second good news is that Orientation has been going really well. Thanks for everyone who wrote in with encouragement! Perhaps because my field attracts applicants with a few years' of post-collegiate work experience, my new classmates are a lot more friendly, mature, and socially graceful than I was expecting. (Ask Do about his classmates sometime. Shudder). The coursework sounds extremely exciting, and (halleluja!) we have amazing medical/vision/dental coverage (working in the health field last year really taught me to appreciate that). My first class starts in four hours. Exciting!

And finally, I got a job offer from the Prof of my dreams. She's the director of this (very sexy) institute that tries to bridge the gap between academia and communities in need, facilitating research projects that will bring tangible benefits to lower-income neighborhoods. I have been lusting after this institute ever since I first looked into Berkeley two years ago, so this is very, very exciting. Daunting, because I'll have plenty of opportunities to impress or disappoint this Prof (I'm also enrolled in two of her courses this semester), but exhilarating.

Just to bring this full circle back to food, I have a new "All Time Favorite" recipe to share with you. We spontaneously had our Chinatown friend over for dinner a couple days ago, and ended a raucous conversation on the State of Science Research Funding with straight-from-the-oven brownies and milk. It was a new recipe, clipped from an Nytimes article years ago but forgotten in a file somewhere. What a success! The brownies were really, really decadent. Not at all cakey, or even frudgy, these are "almost as dark and dense as a chocolate truffle," as the author of the original Nytimes article put it (the photo to the left is from the original article).

These brownies use less butter, chocolate, and eggs than my stand-by brownie recipe (ironically, clipped from the same Nytimes article but tested years ago), but they also bake for half as long and are plunged into an ice bath post-oven to prevent over-cooking.

Just what the doctor ordered. Now, off to my first day of classes!

Nytimes' New Classic Brownies
Adapted from “Alice Medrich’s Cookies and Brownies” (Warner Books, 1999)

Time: 40 minutes

8 tablespoons unsalted butter
4 ounces unsweetened chocolate
1 1/4 cups sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 eggs
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
2/3 cup lightly toasted walnuts or pecans (optional).

1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Line an 8-inch-square metal baking pan with foil. In top of a double boiler set over barely simmering water, or on low power in a microwave, melt butter and chocolate together. Stir often, and remove from heat when a few lumps remain. Stir until smooth.

2. Stir in sugar, vanilla and salt. Stir in eggs one at a time, followed by flour. Stir until very smooth, about 1 minute, until mixture pulls away from sides of bowl. Add nuts, if using. Scrape batter into prepared pan and bake 20 minutes.

3. Meanwhile, prepare a water bath: Pour ice water into a large roasting pan or kitchen sink to a depth of about 1 inch. Remove pan from oven and place in water bath, being careful not to splash water on brownies. Let cool completely, then lift out and cut into 1-inch squares or wrap in foil.

Yield: 16 brownies.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Panzanella: a Balm for Grad School Phobias

Grad school starts tomorrow. I'm spazzing out.

I wish I could tell why I'm spazzing. It's not the the material, it's not the return to the papers-and-problem sets rhythm of life, and surprisingly it's not concern that Do and I are going to lose our daily dinners routine. I think it's the people. I'm worried about the social networking component, which seems ever so much more important in a Masters program than in college. I'm talking about the semi-professional relationship building, not the making new friends part. Eep! My tummy is churning just thinking about it. Maybe I should crawl back into bed and read sci-fi.

I've been leaning towards comfort food recently. Surprise, surprise.

Panzanella started as a way to use up leftover Sourdough, and ended as summer's equivalent of beef stew (insert your go-to winter comfort food here). This Italian salad is fresh and flavorful and light, yet also satisfyingly filling (because of the bread). It's the perfect summer dish: it uses leftovers, it's fast, requires no heat, it's beautiful, and it's so good that Do had to restrain himself from adding it to our "All Time Favorites" list. (He's worried that we use the term too liberally. I think that we just cook damn fine food on a regular basis).

And it's addictive. Maybe we'll start a new category, a tier 2 All Time Favorites, and label it "Addictive." As in, you can't keep yourself from going back for seconds, and thirds, and fourths....

The flavor is great. You know how satisfying it is to dip your bread in oil&vinegar at an Italian restaurant, while you're waiting for the food to come? Top quality bread, dripping with yumminess but not soggy (Do feels very strongly that soggy = bad). Add the crunch of red onion and the freshness of basil, the lightness of cucumber and a whole lot of perfectly ripe summer tomatoes. It's summer in a bowl.

Panzanella from Gourmet Cookbook
Serves 4-6.

1/2 lb day old crusty sourdough bread (or another thick, dense bread), cut into 3/4" cubes (6 cups)
4 large tomatoes (1 1/4 lb total), cut into 3/4" pieces OR 2 pints of cherry tomatoes, halved
3/4 seedless cucumber, cut into 1/2" pieces.
1/2 cup diced red onion
1/2 extra-virgin olive oil
2 Tbs red wine vinegar
1 clove minced garlic
1 tsp salt
1/4 tsp freshly ground black pepper
2/3 cup thinly sliced fresh basil leaves.

Stir together bread, tomatoes, cucumber, and onion in a serving bowl.
Whisk together oil, vinegar, garlic, salt, and pepper in a small bowl. Add to bread mixture, along with basil, and toss to combine. Let stand at room temperature, stirring occasionally, for 20 min before serving.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Fancy Corn Chowder and Homemade Sourdough

I read somewhere that you can recognize novice cooks because they overspice everything. ...Yeah, that would be me. And here I was wondering why I seem to do so much better with heavy autumn and winter dishes. Delicate herbal accents, unembellished purity of produce, not so much. More of a heavy, complicated stew kind of girl, myself.

That unwillingness to let natural bounty shine unadulterated came back and bit me in the arse with this soup. In my defense, the official name doesn't sound delicate ("Chilled Corn and Sun-dried Tomato Chowder with Goat Cheese-Chive Croutons"), and the recipe is as complicated as an Indian curry and as pretentious as one of St. Julia's gems. Which was exactly what I was looking for, with time on my hands and an itch to reestablish my alpha-dominance over the kitchen. A nice, elaborate recipe to conquer.

(Side note: the fridge still works, but Sears mucked up our dishwasher order. Delivery got pushed back from Wednesday to Saturday. sigh).

The recipe comes from SF-based Chronicle Book Publishers' The Wine Lover's Cookbook. A dear friend gave Do the book two Christmases ago to feed his wine pairing fetish. (The year before that, she gave us our copy of Silver Palate... a very dear friend. Whom I just learned is a regular reader of this blog. :) Hi MM!). The cookbook has breathtakingly beautiful photographs. The recipes are erudite and stimulating, along the lines of Gourmet or Food&Wine. The type that surprise you as you scan the ingredient lists, and generate visions of very special events at expensive restaurants. The only disappointments so far have been the few "mainstream" dishes (everyone already has a favorite version of penne with sausage and mushrooms, for example), while the erudite recipes are truly the stuff of fantasies. Or, my fantasies at least.

Really, the recipe would not have been that complicated... but why buy a sourdough baguette when I've got a neglected sourdough starter waiting in the fridge? Why spend an hour in the kitchen if you can spend twelve? I should mention that this heroic starter was a spawn of my father's, and has been very mistreated since it left his custody. Refrigerated only in the evenings during our cross-country road trip, ignored during move-in week, and then abandoned in a defective fridge while we went on vacation. When I finally fed it just before leaving, it scornfully burped starter all over the inside of the fridge. No hard feelings, it was entitled to a fit of displeasure.

It took a day's worth of coaxing, but the results were spectacular. The bread is dense, the crust is almost French, and the flavor is complex. Really, really impressive. Do consider trying this at home, either by stopping by my place to pick up some of my starter, or purchasing your own King Arthur Sourdough Starter (where my father got his). If you're brave and/or cheap and what to create your own sourdough starter, then power to you. I tried last spring and ended up with a soggy mess... but maybe I'll pawn some blame off on the quality of D.C. airborne yeast.

Anyways, the soup itself was very fancy and delicate, and it would have been exquisite if I hadn't botched it by overspicing it. The tarragon-corn combination (which, Mr. Goldstein insists, pairs wonderfully with a buttery American Chardonnay) is insightful, the sun-dried tomatoes are elegant, and the goat cheese croutons were our favorite part (credit goes to my amazing, heroic starter, whom I love very much. pet, pet.). Unfortunately, I got overenthusiastic with the tarragon and the result was somewhat overwhelming. Good, but overwhelming.

Conclusion: a potential gem for buttery Chardonnay pairings, a fancy summer dish (didn't have one for the repertoire), worth repeating if only to discover what it tastes like when I follow the instructions.

Now I've got to figure out what to do with all this leftover Tarragon. Which I'm not sure I like all that much.

Chilled Corn and Sun-dried Tomato Chowder with Goat Cheese-Chive Croutons
Serves 6

4 ears yellow sweet corn
1 1/2 Tbs olive oil
2 cups chopped sweet onions (Maui, Vidalia, or Walla Walla)
1 Tbs chopped fresh tarragon (no more)
1 tsp ground cumin
1/4 tsp ground turmeric
1 1/2 tsp minced lemon zest, separated
1 32oz carton of chicken stock
3/4 cup white wine
2 garlic cloves
3/4 Tbs fresh lemon juice
1 cup fresh sour cream
3/4 cup sun dried tomato halves (packed in oil, drained, and chopped)
Salt and Pepper
4 oz fresh goat cheese
1 Tbs minced chives
1 sourdough baguette, cut on the diagonal into twelve 1/4" slices
  1. Set the oven to 350 degrees. Set garlic cloves on an aluminum sheet, drizzle with olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Cover in aluminum foil, leaving a hole for air to escape. Roast for 45 min.
  2. Meanwhile, remove the husks from the corn and, using a serrated knife, remove the corn from the cob by scraping down the cob. Reserve the cobs.
  3. In a large soup pot, heat olive oil. Add onions, tarragon, cumin, turmeric, and 1 tsp lemon zest and sauté for 8min. Add corn, reserverd corn cobs, stock, and wine and bring to a full rolling boil. Reduce heat and simmer, covered, for 12 min. Removed cobs with tongs and discard.
  4. Once the garlic is roasted and cool enough to handle, squeeze roasted garlic out of the skin. Add roasted garlic, lemon juice, and sour cream to the soup. Using an immersion blender, purée the soup. Add the sun-dried tomatoes and rough chop. Stir thoroughly and season to taste. If you prefer a cold soup, refrigerate it for 3 hours.
  5. Mix goat cheese, chives, and 1/2 tsp lemon zest. Refrigerate until needed.
  6. When ready to serve, spread goat cheese mixture onto sourdough slices. Put under broiler for 5 min, until goat cheese starts to color slightly. Divide soup in bowls, place two croutons in each bowl, and garnish with chopped tarragon.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Living off of Fried Rice

Do and I got back from vacation last night to our beautiful, FUNCTIONAL FRIDGE. Thank Goodness: that week without it was pretty miserable. Since daily grocery runs à la Parisienne were out of the question (no grocery stores within reasonable walking distance, and Do's schedule was too swamped to drive), we were reduced to cooking out of the pantry (ramen, anyone?) or surviving on take-out. It was pretty impressive how quickly food, in our imaginations, was reduced to fuel. In case this ever happens to you, let me recommend fried rice.

As innumerable other bloggers have pointed out, fried rice is tasty, quick, and a great way to use almost-dead veggies (read: clean out your fridge before vacation). It's more of a technique than a recipe: scramble eggs, remove. Sauté misc. veggies, add leftover rice, add soy sauce and/or oyster sauce, add scrambled eggs. Voilà!

But! Now that we are back from vacation and our fridge works, and I've still got another seven days of freedom left, expect lots of tasties in the near future. Whole Foods had fresh sardines in from Monterey today...

Monday, August 4, 2008

The Good, the Bad, and the Terrifying

The good news is that we're getting a dishwasher. Thank God. That's an hour of my day that I can spend on other things. ETA Thursday.

The bad news is that our fridge died, again. This time for real. One of my projects today will be cleaning it out. Gross. Thankfully, the landlords come back from vacation today and the fridge is on warranty, so hopefully this problem will get dealt with sooner rather than later. In the mean time, it's not dissimilar from living in a third world country. Or college, given the plethora of take-out and ramen.

The scary news is that we're hosting a party tonight. Casual, but still. With no fridge and no dishwasher. This'll be exciting.