27 March 2009

Oddles of Noodles

Not long after I met Christiane, I was reading one of her menus when I asked her to describe her sesame noodles. Chalk it up to my Oklahoma upbringing, but I'd never had this dish before. I was half embarrassed that I hadn't even heard of it.

I knew that it was an Asian dish, but beyond that I knew nothing. When I was in elementary school, there was a strip mall bordering our subdivision, and nestled in the middle was a Chinese restaurant. I don't know the actual name, and frankly in that place at that time "Chinese" was the ubiquitous term for anywhere that served fried rice and egg drop soup. This helps explain some of my perceptions I later learned to label as misconceptions. Like the time I asked my roommate Joan, who is Filipino, if she grew up using chopsticks (before you think I'm a complete idiot, she was eating with chopsticks during this conversation). The Jersey girl told me she didn't start using them regularly until she moved to San Francisco for grad school.

I am proud to say that I learned more in college than how to fill a Blue Book thanks to friends such as Joan. I came to understand there are thousands of variances in Asian cuisine. In fact, to think otherwise would be like thinking that all North American food tasted the same. And, of course, we recognize that even here in the United States there are variations of the same dish from region to region, such as how Memphis barbecue is different than Texas barbecue and New England chowder is different than the bowls full of it we eat on the Oregon coast. And then there are even those dishes that slip in and catch the tidal wave of hip just by being fresh and new.

That's how sesame noodles came to us. According to a New York Times story, sesame noodles, or Szechuan noodles, became popular in New York in the 1970s and '80s as a fun, flavorful new take on Chinese takeout. They are typically served cold and soon became a new standard in Chinese food - at least in that corner of the country.

Today there are lots of recipes out there for sesame noodles, which now are just as frequently called peanut noodles. Many of those recipes include nothing more than peanut butter, soy sauce and chili oil. And many of them aren't nearly this good. I can't say how this recipe holds up to the New York dish, but I can say that I haven't met someone who doesn't like these noodles. Don't feel daunted by the long list of ingredients. Most of them are things you may already have in the pantry, and even if you don't, they don't spoil quickly.

And as if this dish needs to be any more appealing, it is easy to make and can be refrigerated until serving. That makes them perfect for a busy day, leftover lunches or a picnic in the park. You can serve them naked except for their sauce or top them with sliced peppers, green onions and black sesame seeds. When I make them as a dinner, I top them with lots of steamed veggies.

Szechuan Noodles
From Ina Garten

6 garlic cloves, chopped
1/4 cup fresh ginger, peeled and chopped
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1/2 cup tahini
1/2 cup smooth peanut butter
1/2 cup good soy sauce
1/4 cup dry sherry
1/4 cup sherry vinegar
1/4 cup honey
1/2 teaspoon hot chili oil
2 tablespoons dark sesame oil
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 pound spaghetti

Place garlic and ginger in food processor. Add remaining ingredients, except pasta, and puree to a smooth sauce.

Cook pasta until al dente (do not overcook as pasta will absorb the sauce as it sets). Drain well.

Combine sauce and pasta until pasta is thoroughly coated. Refrigerate until ready to serve, giving it about 15 to 20 minutes to come up to room temperature before eating.

Top with sliced bell peppers and green onions.

23 March 2009

Cookie Craving

Last night over wine and fondue on a girls' night, we began talking about our favorite cookies. It was the perfect opportunity to profess my renewed love for the just-out-of-the-oven cookie. Really, who doesn't like a warm, gooey cookie? Pair it with some ice cream, and that's my idea of the perfect dessert.

Recently I've started stocking my freezer with balls of cookie dough that are just about 10 minutes away from that perfect dessert. It's a tip from the pros. Make one batch of dough, bake off just what you need (OK, want) at that point and freeze the rest. It's a technique that will pay off tenfold, I promise. Instead of having a heaping mound of cookies as a result of one afternoon's craving, you'll get your fill then and have more for later. And not only does this trick settle a late-night sweet tooth, but it could also make a great, easy dessert for a casual dinner party with friends. A cookie fresh out of the oven could rival the most pretentious of cakes or pies.

Of course, you can buy premade cookie doughs at the grocery store, and many of those aren't bad, but this method would allow you to make any kind of cookie you like. Below I've listed a recipe for a great chocolate cookie that is meant to be eaten warm. It also happens to pair quite nicely with a good scoop of vanilla ice cream.

To freeze cookie dough: Make cookie dough following recipe directions. Shape dough into appropriate size balls, discs or cut shapes based on recipe instructions. Place dough on cookie sheet, making sure no cookies touch. Place in freezer loosely covered for approximately 30 minutes to 1 hour or until frozen. Transfer frozen dough balls to freezer bag or storage container. To bake, remove however many cookies you want from the freezer and allow to rest at room temperature for about 15 minutes and then bake as recipe instructions indicate.

Molten Chocolate Cookie
adapted from Guittard Chocolate Company recipe

2 Cups Dark Chocolate Chips

3 Tablespoons butter

2 Large eggs

1/2 Cup Sugar
1/2 Teaspoon vanilla
1 Cup all-purpose flour
1/2 Teaspoon baking powder

Melt chocolate chips and butter in a double boiler over low heat, stirring until smooth and thick. Remove from heat and set aside to cool.
In a large mixing bowl, combine eggs, sugar, salt and vanilla. Beat on high until mixture is a pale yellow and slightly thick, about 2 minutes. Mix in chocolate on low speed, stopping to scrape the bowl. Slowly add flour and baking powder on low speed just until incorporated. Cover dough and refrigerate for 15 minutes. Scoop dough into balls and either bake immediately or freeze. Bake in a 375 degree oven for about 10 to 12 minutes. The outsides should be crusty and the inside will remain soft and gooey.

16 March 2009

Biscuit Perfection

I have my dad to thank for my addiction to breakfast. I can't imagine heading out the door for the day without sitting down to at least a bowl of cold cereal. As a kid, I used to sit down at the table with Dad to enjoy our breakfasts while I often read the back of the cereal box and he read the paper. My older sister was part of this ritual until she reached junior high, and my mom was usually headed home from working the night shift as a nurse when we were eating breakfast. As my mom's jobs changed and my sister moved out, Dad and I were still sitting down together in the mornings to enjoy breakfast.

I still can't manage a day without breakfast, and when I married Seth he worked a swing shift. That meant those morning meals were our only time together. So, we started our own tradition of a hearty breakfast. These days I prefer oatmeal or a simple fried egg on top of a piece of toast, one of Dad's dishes.

On weekends, though, we typically have a bigger breakfast. Many of those mornings include Seth making some scrambled eggs while I bake biscuits. It's hard to beat the salty, flaky, buttery taste of a great biscuit. When a friend finds out about my biscuit passion, they usually assume it was something I was raised on -- a country girl from Oklahoma probably had lots of biscuit breakfasts. It's true, my mom did make biscuits a lot. But, just like a lot of moms, she made the Bisquick variety. In fact, I remember disliking the canned version most of my friend's moms made. The Bisquick version was the standard in my book.

Somewhere along the line I stopped buying Bisquick myself. I found a recipe in my Better Homes and Gardens cookbook that I liked. My early attempts at biscuit-making weren't necessarily great, but I could tell that I should strive for a new standard. Lots of biscuits out there, including Bisquick's, bake up a little stiff and end up with the crumb of a cake doughnut. To me, a biscuit should be a soft, pillowy bread with buttery layers that flake apart with the ease of a fork. My mom taught me that: A good biscuit is fork split -- no knife required.

After much practice, I can usually turn out a biscuit I think is pretty darn good. Much like making any pastry, though, the recipe can only get you so far. Technique is important. You don't want all the butter to melt before baking because it's that process that creates those lovely layers as the melting butter creates steam pockets in the toasty oven. And also like may other pastries, biscuits need a dab of butter on top to help them brown.

There are several things I've learned along the way that help make a better biscuit such as popping the unbaked dough in the freezer for a few minutes before baking will help them rise better because the butter will be good and cold. And don't turn your biscuit cutter, just press it straight down and pull it back up. Turning causes one side to fall. And after cutting your biscuit rounds, dip both sides in melted butter for a lovely golden crispness. The unbaked biscuits of this recipe even freeze well, so bake up what you want and throw the remaining in an airtight container for a quick baking later.

I think once you have one of these biscuits, you could find a reason to make breakfast a habit in your house, too. They're great on their own or split 'em open and make a little biscuit, bacon and egg sandwich. That is a breakfast worth repeating!

Flaky Biscuits
adapted from Better Homes and Gardens

2 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for working with dough

1 tablespoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon cream of tartar

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup butter, cold, cubed
2/3 cup milk

2 tablespoons butter, melted

In a food processor combine dry ingredients and cubed butter. Mix, pulsing until mixture resembles coarse crumbs. If you do not have a food processor, use a pastry blender to combine ingredients. Dump flour and butter mixture into a mixing bowl and add milk. Combine with a spoon. Turn out dough onto well-floured surface. Work dough into a ball and use a rolling pin to roll dough out to about 3/4 of inch thick. Use a biscuit cutter to cut rounds, or using a knife cut square biscuits. Dip cut biscuit tops and bottoms in melted butter and transfer to baking sheet. Place biscuits in freezer for at least five minutes (I place the entire baking sheet in there). Bake biscuits in 450 oven for about 10 to 12 minutes or until golden brown.

Variation: Add two teaspoons of sugar to dry mixture and zest of one lemon or orange. In cut dough, make a thumb print and put a teaspoon of berry jam into each depression. Make a glaze with citrus juice and powdered sugar to brush on the top of baked biscuits.

09 March 2009

Carrots on the side

Yesterday was one of those days when the weather can't make up its mind. Growing up in Oklahoma, a statement like that would typically be followed up with a damage description. Like the hail damage my mom recently got on her car or my in-law's fence that just blew over onto their neighbor's car.

Here in the Northwest, even when the weather is wacky, it's still typically benign. Last night the television news anchors kept talking about hail. I finally realized they were referring to the sleet-like pellets no bigger than a peppercorn. In my book, you can't call it hail unless it's at least the size of a marble, and don't expect sympathy unless we're talking golf-ball sized.

So, given that we had some sunshine mixed in there, I'd say yesterday was a fair weather day. Especially when you consider that extra hour of daylight, teasing us with the long, warm days yet to come. It was reason enough for us to pull out the Weber grill for dinner. We grilled turkey burgers and carrot sticks. I often cook oven fries to go with burgers, but since we'd tried Burgerville's Rosemary Shoestring Fries earlier in the day, we decided to go a bit healthier for dinner.

Carrots are something I've always got in the fridge. They keep longer than most veggies, are available year-round, and they are so versatile, they can easily go from appetizer to side dish to main. I didn't care for carrots as a kid, but that was because I mostly ate them raw. I still don't care for them raw, but wow, a little heat does a carrot good. My go-to side dish is to roast or grill carrot sticks tossed in olive oil, salt and pepper. The dish is so easy to prepare and it turns a hard, somewhat flavorless veggie into a slightly sweet and salty bite.

Forgo the baby carrot sticks, which are wasteful seeing that carrots don't grow in tiny, uniform shapes. Just buy the plain old, dingy orange carrots. It literally takes a few seconds to peel them, and then you can cut them into sticks, on the bias for a nice bite-size pieces or shred them. You can even use your peeler to create beautiful carrot ribbons that are fun in a salad or a long-cut pasta dish. Just as when cooking anything, you'll want to cut them uniformly so they will evenly cook. And when they are done cooking, toss them once more in a bowl with a bit of salt. I bet you'll be surprised just how good a carrot can be. Around here, at least, we didn't miss the fries!

Grilled Carrots Peel and slice carrots into fairly uniform-sized sticks by cutting carrot in half and then either halving or quartering those pieces. Toss in olive oil, salt and pepper. Place on a hot grill, rotating to grill on all sides. Toss once again with salt. Serve warm or room temperature as an appetizer or side dish. Variations: Prepare carrots with same method and cook in a 400 degree oven instead of grill until carrots cooked through and slightly caramelized. Add dried herbs or minced garlic to olive oil for flavor variations.

01 March 2009

Fish and chips, not fries

Last week I headed to the kitchen to make dinner, looking forward to cooking the cod fillet I'd picked up. I looked at a couple of potatoes daring to me they'd take root if I didn't do something with them immediately. I planned on throwing the fish in a foil packet in the oven with lemon, butter and salt and pepper.

And right then, my healthy fishy meal was diverted. I pulled out the mandolin and started slicing potatoes. Maybe, I thought, I'll make them au gratin, layered with cream and cheese. That seemed like a lot of work. Plus, my fish was going to cook so quickly, why would I want to wait on potatoes to cook? Then, without a thought, I pulled out a large pan and the vegetable oil. I would make chips to go with my fish. Yeah, chips. If I'd have thought about it too long, I would have probably thought that sounded like a silly idea, too. There's the whole I've-never-made-potato-chips factor combined with the I-never-buy-potato-chips motto. But hey, just because I don't eat McDonald's doesn't mean I don't like hamburgers.

So, I heated oil and, working in small batches, slipped the thin slices of potato into the pot. I turned the chips as needed to help them brown better. I was a bit nervous about them not being crisp enough, so I let them get pretty well-browned. I wasn't bothered by this, though, because think about how different a Kettle chip looks compared to the thin, pale Lay's version. As the chips came out of the oil, I placed them in a bowl lined with paper towels, dusted them generously with salt and tossed.

They were a divine burst of crispy, salty yumminess. And what a treat. Plus, the already heated oil gave me a great excuse to fry the fish. So, we had fish and chips for dinner. It was the kind of meal I remember being very excited about coming home to as a kid.

I'd give you a more formal recipe if I thought I had any expertise with this dish, but I don't. But I will say, it's not as hard as you may think, and, if you approach it like I did, with very little thought, I think you'll find it's actually easier than you could imagine. Just heat some oil (I'd suggest some type of veg or peanut oil) and slice potatoes using a mandolin. Once the oil bubbles rapidly when a potato slice is added, it's hot. Turn to brown and remove when golden. They will continue to brown slightly once removed from the oil. Salt immediately after removing. Serve 'em warm or room temp. I'd give you advice on storing them if I thought you'd need it, but I'm guessing you'll finish them before the day is done!