Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Happy Holidays

Holiday time is challenging... we try to do too much in too little time, we want each moment to be perfect, and we want desperately to sleep and just to enjoy ourselves. I try not to get bogged down in the hubbub but to do the things that are important. This is why I no longer try to make Christmas cookies. This balance isn't always perfect, but I do my best.

To that end, this blog has gone by the wayside this past bit. It's not that I haven't thought of you, dear readers, but that I prefer to prioritize recovering from the stomach flu, wrapping presents, cuddling my family or actually cooking at any given moment. Last night, I preferred not to care why my internet connection wasn't working, once I discovered Darling Husband working on the problem. Ah, I thought, well, he's already fixed our hot water heater this week, surely I can fall asleep sure in the knowledge that all will be well.

And all was well. This is the kind of security I love in the parent/child relationship. It's not a child's job to worry about bills or the security (emotional or otherwise) of his parents, home or family. I'm blessed to have parents who not only realized that but were in a position to make that true. I hope to do the same for Baby Girl. I'm lucky to have a husband in whom I can put blind faith in like that from time to time, too, when being a grown up is not high on the priority list.

Here are some blog posts I've contemplated: how my daughter hates my quiche but loves my mother's, despite the fact that I make it as close to hers as I know how. Our Christmas Eve dinner, which we made for Darling Husband's family. My awesome culinary Christmas present from Darling Husband and the things I've made on it. Tonight's gumbo.

I might get to some of these in the future. I might also have other stuff to write about, and will forget about them. Either way, darling readers, I haven't forgotten about you. I'm just enjoying my holidays, enjoying being a stay-at-home mommy for a week, enjoying readjusting the pace of my world a bit, enjoying watching the snow fall and not caring too much about the roads. Be well, be safe, and if I don't see you, Happy New Year. May it bring us all peace, joy, health and happiness-- and a good meal or two. :o)

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Thai food, baby!

Okay, so many of you know my very favorite take-out food is Thai. (And my very favorite Thai restaurant is Thai Cuisine in Bloomfield, a cute neighborhood in Pittsburgh.) If you live in Erie you know there is no Thai food to speak of (there used to be Thai fusion at PaperMoon, but that didn't count and besides, they're closed--more's the pity). And that was sad...


Located on North Park Row, right next to Catfish Kitchen and just a bit West of Bertrand's, Khao Thai is now open! I think they've been open a couple of weeks now. They have a small eat-in area which is nice and reminds me of a cross between a diner and ethnic food eatery (actually, it reminds me of this little family Greek food place near the Steeler's stadium that caters to the Steeler's croud and so serves spanikopita and also burgers, gyros and a breakfast buffet).

We opted to take-out, as it fits in better with Baby Girl's disposition and schedule. There were 54 items to choose from, including a kid's menu, I should mention. Baby girl didn't partake, but they offer grilled chicken over fried rice, honey marinated flank steak and also rice noodles stir fried with egg in a sweetened soy sauce. It's nice to see a kid's menu in a place like this, although I couldn't tell you if it was any good.

We had poh tak (seafood soup) which had gigantic muscles, scallops, shrimp and calamari in a lemongrass and lime broth. It was very flavorful, with shards of ginger and thai basil leaves. As a soup, though, it was a bit of a challenge, as the broth was so forthright we couldn't have much of it.

We then had bangkok beef, which was highly fragranced slices of flank steak, pan fried and topped with raw ginger. It was melty tender and wonderful, served with pickled vegetables that set off the flavors wonderfully. They reminded us of the pickled ginger you get with sushi.

Finally, we had drunken noodles. I'm not sure what was drunken about them (the menu didn't say) but they were lovely. Big fat rice noodles with basil leaves, onions, a little tomato and a lot of flavor. It was comfort food in anyone's language.

The food was very nice and the service fine, although we ordered a large soup and got a small. That being said, considering the small, we didn't want the large. It wasn't the mind-altering, life-changing experience I'd built it up to be in my head, but it was a very nice meal and I anticipate many more as we work our way through the menu. Give it a try!

Here's the scoop:

Khao Thai Restauraunt
36 North Park Row

fax: 454-4096

Free delivery within 3 miles with a $15 minimum purchase

Open Monday through Saturday, 11am until 10pm.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Poshy Mac

Darling Husband created comfort food of the Gods tonight. I was feeling a little funny and under the weather, so he whipped up homemade gourmet mac and cheese. He used cellentani noodles (big spiral tubes) and a made-from-scratch bechamel with cheddar and grueyere cheeses. To top it off, he put cornflakes and more cheese. The best part, though, was the lardons of pancetta. It was goey, crunchy, chewy and wonderful and just right for this blizzardy day. Thank you, honeybear!

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Okay, readers...

My loving mother bought a new fridge after her old one gave up the ghost at age 15ish. Her new fridge is fantastic and I'm quite jealous. It's one drawback is that it's smaller, capacity-wise, than her old one.

But out of adversity comes presents for me! I went home with a bag of frozen foods and a bag of fresh goodies.

Now, here's the challenge: what can we make?

Here are the ingredients:

  • Fresh kale
  • Swiss cheese
  • Provolone
  • Fresh pasta sheets (frozen)
  • Puff pastry shells
  • Puff pastry sheets
  • Parsnips
  • Frozen edemame
  • Frozen bell pepper strips
  • A whole zucchini
  • A whole eggplant
  • Walnuts
  • Limes

Dear readers, what might you make? I'm not envisioning one meal containing everything, but Darling Husband and I are brainstorming possibilities. Post your ideas! If we make them, I'll post pictures. :o)

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Cheddar that can almost drive

Did you hear about this? NPR and others ran stories about this aged cheddar (15 years old!)which is selling for $50 a pound. If you haven't read about it, please check it out; the gist is this small cheesery (my word) let more than a thousand pounds of cheddar age beyond anyone's rational expectation and is selling it.

I loved hearing this story, but I wish they had found someone other than this man--the owner of Hooks Cheese Company--o interview. I have nothing against Mr Hooks (aka Mr Cheese), but he's obviously the guy in charge and not the master cheesemeister. If he was, he would be able to make attempts to describe the cheese.

Mr Hooks asserts that the cheese is not bitter, not acidic, has no off flavors but is very flavorful. In one interview, he says it has more of a cheddar flavor. In another, he says it has lost the acidic cheddar flavor. Well, I'm confused.

If you're selling it for $50 a pound, you must be able to justify that amount. Perhaps there are enough cheese aficionados to buy up all 1,200 pounds of it (that's $60,000 worth of cheese). I realize his NPR interview wasn't meant to be a sales pitch. Describing the taste of food isn't exactly easy, particularly if it is unusual. But listen to vintners or those who brew beer. There's a whole language to it. I refuse to believe that you can age a cheese for 15 years and only be able to describe it in the negative.

Compare his blah description (or non-description) to that of the Francis Ford Coppola Winery's description of their Sophia Blanc de Blancs: Delicately fruity and delightfully refreshing, Sofia Blanc de Blancs is a rare blend of Pinot Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc, and Muscat. The crisp flavors of apples and pears are made brighter by a hint of citrus and honeysuckle. Elegant in character, this wine is lightly textured and vibrant through the finish.

Or, to Samuel Adams Boston Lager, described by their company as: Full bodied and complex. Carmel sweet balanced with distinct citrus and piney notes. A strong, smooth finish and mouthfeel.

Perhaps Mr Hooks should take a note from the Wisconsin Cheese website, by the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board. They, in fact, feature him and his wife, Julia, and note that they have been making cheese for 35 years. Perhaps he's not just the owner. Maybe he's just not well spoken in interviews. However, Wisconsin Cheese describes cheddar as follows: As Cheddar ages, its texture, flavor and performance change: Mild Cheddar has a firm, elastic texture. It slices, shreds and melts well. Medium Cheddar has a texture that is slightly creamier than mild, with a fuller Cheddar flavor often described as brothy. It slices, shreds, melts and blends well into sauces. Aged Cheddar has a texture both crumbly and creamy, with a flavor often described as beefy. It shreds and melts well.

It's possible (although, to be honest, I feel I'm bending over backwards at this point) that Mr Hooks was just employing words that have meaning in the industry and in common vernacular. The same Wisconsin Cheese site has a glossary of cheese terms. In it, bitter is described as "a sensation that is typified by the aftertaste of grapefruit peel". Acidic is "A descriptive term for cheese with a pleasant tang and sourish flavor due to a concentration of acid. By contrast, a cheese with a sharp or biting, sour taste indicates an excessive concentration of acid which is a defect." Indeed, even his negation of off flavors has some merit, as "off" is defined as "A term referring to undesirable flavors or odors too faint or ill-defined to be more precisely characterized." So, Mr Hooks was saying his cheese ISN'T these things.

The argument falls apart, however, when we look up "flavorful." I did find "flavor," which is described as follows: A general term for the taste cheese presents as it is eaten. Flavor is detected in the mouth and also by the nose. Flavors, in order of ascending aggressiveness, are described as faint (fleeting), mild (light or bland), pronounced (distinct) or strong (intense). Flavors may also be described by the tastes they resemble, such as nutty, salty, buttery, fruity and peppery. Flavor is categorized by initial tastes as well as by aftertastes.

SEE, Mr Hooks? So many words to choose from!

To be fair, The Hooks Cheese Company website has some description of the cheese. Starting with the 1 year old cheddar (A colored cheddar that has a nice flavor, a little sharper than our medium cheddar. This is what most stores would call a sharp cheddar,) it progresses:

Hook's Two Year Sharp Cheddar A white cheddar that is a little sharper than our one year cheddar.

Hook's Three Year Sharp Cheddar A colored cheddar that is starting to show the nice acidic sharpness with a good cheddar flavor.

Hook's Four Year Sharp Cheddar A white cheddar with a nice, sharp cheddary flavor.

Hook's Five Year Sharp Cheddar An extra sharp cheddar with a nice, full flavor.

Hook's Six Year Sharp Cheddar An extra sharp white cheddar with a nice full cheddar flavor.

Hook's Seven Year Sharp Cheddar An extra sharp cheddar with some calcium (calcium lactate) crystals that add a little crunch. This cheddar has a lot of flavor and is a little smoother than the Five Year.

Hook's Eight Year Sharp Cheddar An extra sharp white cheddar with a lot of flavor.

Hook's Ten Year Sharp Cheddar Our 10 year cheddar won 1st place at the 2006 American Cheese Society Show, the only 10 year cheddar to get a 1st place in this, or any competition. It has more calcium crystals than our 7 year cheddar. It has a full, rich cheddar flavor and a smooth finish.

Hook's Twelve Year Sharp Cheddar Our 12 year colored cheddar has a lot of calcium crystals and a great, rich cheddar flavor.

... Look, I appreciate the attempt, and there's probably a subtle difference between years, but years 5, 6 and 8 pretty much said the same thing.

I have no doubt that this is a fantastic cheese, and even worth it's price tag. After all, whether or not something is worth the money is usually determined by whether or not people will pay it. Certainly there are those who would buy it for the novelty, or for the snobbery, or for the curiosity. I guess I'm disappointed that the interviewers never pressed the point that is begging to be pressed: what does a 15 year old cheese taste like? For me, $50 better buy me a lot more than not bitter or off tasting.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Meatless Beatle

This one's for you, Sir Paul.

Sir Paul McCartney has asked the European Union to consider adopting Meatless Mondays. Al Gore, climate change experts and other environmentalists are also urging people to eschew meat once a week. Why? According to its proponents, a reduction of meat consumption can positively affect greenhouse gas production, river and stream pollution, water consumption, and dependence on fossil fuels. Dr. Rajendra Pachauri, chair of the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has called eating less meat "one of the most important personal choices we can make to address climate change."

The push to eat locally produced foods (thereby cutting down on gas consumption and emissions) is good for the environment and also the local community. We like to support local businesses when we can. For two years, we tried to belong to a CSA, but it failed two years in a row. The first year, there wasn't enough interest. The second year, there weren't enough crops. Maybe we need to pick another farm, although Farmer Troy seems like a very agreeable fellow.

This newer twist, to eat local, sustainable plant based products, goes that much further. Sir Paul and others want governments to be the ones to take the bull by the horns to reduce consumption. So far, Baltimore, MD public schools are on board, as is Covington, KY. Globally, it's picking up popularity in Canada, Brazil, Belgium, Taiwan, Finland and Tel Aviv, Israel. Exactly what each of these places is doing for the movement, I'm not sure, but they all seem to support it.

Changing one's personal eating habits for the sake of the greater good is not a new idea. Meatless Monday, in fact, is a term from WWI when our government encouraged us to do our part to help the war effort. It seems generations before mine were much more willing to give things up for a cause. I think we were less cynical about government then, in those pre-nixon days. What do I know about it, though? I'm only 30.

Darling Husband and I didn't actually discuss joining in with Meatless Mondays, and I'm not sure we've officially decided to do this. It just so happened that Monday's dinner was meatless. It was not, however, entirely vegetarian and certainly wasn't vegan. It could've been, but we weren't thinking about the connection until the very end. Sorry, Sir Paul.

My mother bought too much baby bok choy, and so gifted some to us. We chopped it into 1 inch pieces (it was remarkably teenaged for being termed "baby"-- much larger than I expected it to be. Many baby bok choy are the size of your palm. These were 3x as large, but still significantly smaller than traditional bok choy) and stir fried it with matchstick carrots, bamboo shoots, baby corn and scallions. Darling Husband was in charge of tofu and sauce. For the tofu, he first pressed much of the liquid out of it using a cutting board and a jug of cider for weight. Then he cut it into somewhat flat squares and fried it, getting a nice, crispy texture and producing tofu that didn't fall apart when stirred into the dish. For the sauce, he used sambol olek, oyster sauce, sugar and black vinegar. I made rice, flavoring it with a few dashes of ground cayenne and a couple of frozen cubes of turkey stock.

The turkey stock and the oyster sauce negates the vegetarian idea. The imported vinegar, sambol olek, oyster sauce and non-local corn and bok choy blew the whole reduction of fossil fuels thing out of the water. Sorry, Sir Paul. We'll plan ahead next time. In the spirit of cutting back on our meat consumption, both in terms of buying meat (we had considered pork for the dish) and consuming meat (health benefits), we did seem to do that. So I think it's a move in the right direction, as far as Meatless Mondays is concerned.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Pass the pudding

Problem: One large ziplock bag containing about a dozen small dinner rolls, given to us as leftovers by loving family.

Solution: Savory bread pudding. Or stuffing. Or, if you prefer, chunky strata.

What's the difference between these things? There isn't much of one. When you take bread, bind it with egg and milk, mix in some veggies or other items, then bake it... well, pretty much you've described each of them. Strata tends to be more slices of bread supersaturated with scrambled egg mix, then baked and sliced. Stuffing tends to be a bit dryer, and made with hunks or cubes. (I am, by the way, calling a dish "stuffing" that probably should be called "dressing," as it's never quite stuffed into anything. But it could be. Poultry, acorn squash, pork, the list goes on.) The British, by the way, would call all of these "puddings." They're very liberal with the word, whereas Americans get a bit touchy about it.

Our dish involved a bit of sage stuffing left over in the freezer. It went into the pan straight from the freezer, the way I remember my mother doing with ground beef. Perhaps food scientists would tell us not to do this (who knows?) but it's kinda fun to flip the frozen block, scrape off the cooked and defrosted part with your wooden spoon, wait a moment or two, then flip it back and repeat on the other side. It certainly makes for a fine crumble, which worked well for this use.

I tossed the cubed rolls into the drippings from the sausage, having first turned off the heat. Then I added in some craisins, golden raisins, leftover corn kernels (I was just scanning the fridge at this point) and cut up some leftover sweet potato fries. It looked very lovely and colorful in the pan. To bind, I stirred in two eggs which had been beaten with a bit of milk, pepper and herb seasoning mix. It was an odd amount for any pan I could think of, so I improvised a vessel out of foil and set it inside my big lasagna pan to bake.

The finished product was a bit crumbly--I might've used more egg mixture, which would've made more of a cohesive dish. Flavor wise, though, I can't complain. The sausage added a nice complexity and permeated the bread with that yummy comes-from-grease-but-not-greasy flavor, while the dried fruit was like punches of color on the palate. Craisins, particularly, are both tart and sweet and so do double duty. The sweet potato fries had started off creamy soft and caramelized, and became even more so. They were the softest part of the dish. Darling Husband and I felt the corn, however, was the surprise hit of the day.

I am a fan of such "puddings" and recommend making them with various combinations of ingredients. Cornbread? Yum! Chestnuts? Yum! Grated zucchini? Yum! Cubed squash? Yum! The list goes on and on.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Panini power

What do you get when you put brie, arrugula, pastrami and creamy artichoke spread on soft Italian bread and toast it on your George Foreman grill? A really kickin' panini with an ecclectic flavor profile which, never the less, works. The brie became melty and gooey but retained what Darling Husband lovingly calls "brie funk," and was a fantastic cement for the sandwich. Pastram was another of Darling Husband's ideas. I had suggested roast beef, but the salty cure and smoke that is pastrami worked surprisingly well in the sandwich.

We served with butternut squash soup from a container. It was much, much thinner than our home made and had a lot of stock flavor. That being said, it was more refreshing, too. In the future I might add a bit of hot sauce or 5 spice powder to the soup.