Sunday, January 23, 2005

Thoughts on Stir-Frying

I made a stir-fry for supper today. Nothing particularly special: beef, broccoli, carrot, celery, baby corn, onion. I made enough to last out the week.

Most Chinese cookbooks, and more than a few web resources (for example, here) can tell you all about the technique. I just thought I'd put down a few amplifying thoughts:

1. Contrary to popular belief, you don't need an actual wok to do a good stir-fry. A few years ago, when I went car camping for the weekend, I used the big pot of a T-Fal camping set to stir-fry some bell peppers with ginger and garlic. Worked great. Any high-sided skillet (with sides more than an inch high) will work for a stir-fry, if you don't have a wok.

2. Generally, fresh vegetables work much better than frozen in a stir-fry. Frozen vegetables have liquid in them, and when the liquid thaws, it does something to the vegetable tissue that makes them soggy. It's especially noticeable for larger cut veggies like broccoli and carrots, but is less of a factor for smaller ones like peas. A good stir-fry leaves the vegetables tender but still with a bit of a crunch to them.

3. Meats for stir-frying should be marinaded. A good marinade will tenderize the meat and let it cook fully without going dry. It's a good idea to use a marinade that doesn't impart a strong flavor, which is why a red wine marinaded is a no-no.

4. The ideal size for cutting ingredients should be such that you can pick up an individual piece with a chopstick or fork and stick it in your mouth without undue distortion in the cheeks.

5. If you want to use noodles with your stir-fry but can't get fresh Chinese-style egg noodles, then thin pastas like vermicelli or capellini/capelli d'angelo (angel's hair) will work just fine. When using dried pasta, break it into 6-inch lengths before you boil it; when the pasta is al dente and ready, drain and toss into the wok, mixing with the stir-fry just before serving.

6. Fresh ginger is preferable to the powdered kind, but the shredded stuff in a jar will work okay in a pinch.

7. An electric stove doesn't heat up at the same temperature as a natural-gas stove. Which means it'll take a few minutes longer for an electric to heat the wok to the ideal stir-frying temperature.

8. Speaking of heat: if you're planning on buying a non-stick wok, read the packaging carefully. If you see a warning that says not to use maximum heat, don't buy the wok; you want the thing to take the highest setting on your stove.

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

P.G. Wodehouse's Jeeves Special

This past Sunday I bought Wodehouse: A Life by Robert McCrum. A comprehensive biography of The Master, it reminded me of my high school days when I read a Jeeves novel and imagined myself in the Jazz Age.

In my college years, when I got to know beer (and Wild Turkey) for the first time, I picked up Wodehouses The Inimitable Jeeves. his first collection of short stories featuring Bertie Wooster and his incomparable valet. A passage from the story "Jeeves Takes Charge" is worthy of note because my first experiences with beer and whiskey also coincided with my first experience of hangovers:

"If you would drink this, sir," he said, with a kind of bedside manner, rather like the royal doctor shooting the bracer into the sick prince. "It is a little preparation of my own invention. It is the Worcester sauce that gives it its colour. The raw egg makes it nutritious. The red pepper gives it its bite. Gentlemen have told me they find it extremely invigorating after a late evening."

I would have clutched at anything that looked like a life-line that morning. I swallowed the stuff. For a moment I felt as if somebody had touched off a bomb inside the old bean and was strolling down my throat with a lighted torch, and then everything seemed suddenly to get all right. The sun shone in through the window; birds twittered in the tree-tops; and, generally speaking, hope dawned once more.

I actually tried this one out. Bartenders will say that the passage here describes a "Prairie Oyster," the common name for any hangover remedy using a raw egg yolk. It works on the principle that pain in the throat will overcome pain in the head.

Nowadays, of course, I know better. Hangovers can be avoided by drinking lots of water at the same time that you down your alcohol, since dehydration plays a major role. But once in a while, when I'm in a hurry to get out of the house, I make my own version of the Jeeves special as a pick-me-up. I change one detail in that I dilute the one egg with V-8 vegetable cocktail; my preference is to use the new low-sodium formula since that one has more vitamin C than the regular type. (And while I realize the risk of salmonella poisoning, I haven't really suffered all that much from consuming an egg raw--at least compared with the headache and raw stomach of a really powerful hangover.)

The Modified Jeeves Special

V-8 low-sodium cocktail
Worcestershire sauce
Tobasco sauce
1 egg

1. Break the egg into an old-fashioned glass.
2. Fill to desired level with V-8 vegetable cocktail.
3. Add Worcestershire sauce until you achieve a dark color on the surface, then add a few drops of Tobasco sauce.
4. Stir until a uniform dark color is achieved.
5. If suffering from a hangover, drink rapidly.
6. If reading a Wodehouse passage, wait until your eyes have finished bouncing off the walls before collecting them and putting them back.

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

On Bean Thread Noodles

As part of my New Year's resolution to try new things, I've been doing some cooking with bean thread noodles.

Harusame noodles, they're called in Japan. They're also known as cellophane noodles or glass noodles because when they're cooked they're pretty translucent. I can see why people are reluctant to try them; in their dry form they look like the thin paper hair used to pad out certain packages for shipping. But don't let that put you off.

For one thing, these are pretty convenient for single people; one bundle or packet (these are sold in packs of 2-ounce bundles) easily feeds one person. For another, these are pretty easy to cook; five minutes in boiling water and you're good to go.

Taste? That's the part that you have to make up your mind on. They don't really have a taste to speak of, unlike regular angel hair pasta or egg pasta. It's the same thing with rice noodles. What this means is that bean-thread noodles aren't meant to be eaten alone; you need to either put them in a soup or use them to carry a flavorful sauce such as a curry. You use them more for texture than for taste. (Texture is actually pretty nice, like angel hair.)

I tried them out with spaghetti sauce. It's not quite the same texture as spaghetti, but the noodles carry the sauce pretty well in spite of their thinness. (A meaty sauce like mine works better with thicker pasta like spaghetti than with angel hair.)

I'll find out some more culture-appropriate recipes for these, but if you see bean-thread noodles in your grocery (they'd be in the Chinese foods section) don't be afraid to give them a try.

Sunday, January 09, 2005

Nero Wolfe's Trout Montana

Mystery buffs who also like gourmet cooking will always have a warm spot in their hearts for Rex Stout's detective, Nero Wolfe.

The Nero Wolfe's mysteries are remarkable not just because of the plots (which are serviceable though not memorable) but for the way Stout delineates and realizes his characters, especially Wolfe and his assistant, Archie Goodwin. A key component is the attitude towards food.

Wolfe is, of course, a gourmet. Archie knows good food (he's a live-in assistant after all) and can describe a complicated recipe with a straightforward grace that's earnestly appealing. Try to imaging Philip Marlowe writing a restaurant review and you'll get the picture.

Of course, there's a Nero Wolfe Cookbook around, published around 1975 by Stout's book publishers at the time. Most recipes for dishes that appear in the Wolfe canon are included, including this one described in the novel Death of a Doxy. Wolfe has been invited to dinner at a ranch, which he accepts in order to interview some witnesses, and he asks Archie about the featured main course:

"What is a real Montana trout deal?"

"The first real Montana trout deal -- that is, the first one cooked by a paleface -- was probably at the time of the Lewis and Clark expedition, fried on a campfire in a rusty pan with buffalo grease, with salt if they had any left. Since then there have been hundreds of versions, depending on what was handy. There's an old-timer in a hardware store in Timberbrug that says that for the real thing you rub bacon grease on a piece of brown wrapping paper, wrap it around the trout, with the head and tail on and plenty of salt and pepper, and put it in the oven of a camp stove as hot as you can get it. The time depends on the size of the trout. Mrs. Greve got her version from an uncle of hers who was probably inspired by what he had left at the tail end of a packing-in trip. She has changed two details: she uses aluminum foil instead of wrapping paper, and the oven of her electric range instead of a camp stove. It's very simple. Put a thin slice of ham about three inches wide on a piece of foil, sprinkle some brown sugar on it and a few little scraps of onion, and a few drops of Worcestershire sauce. Lay the trout on it, scraped and gutted but with the head and tail on, and salt it. Repeat the brown sugar and onion and Worcestershire, wrap up the foil around it close, and put it in the oven. If some of the trout are 8 or 9 inches and others are 14 or so, the timing is a problem. Serve in the foil."

I actually tried this recipe out, after some modifications. It works pretty well, especially if you use a sweet onion as opposed to a sharp one.

Well, we may not be able to get ahold of fresh trout from Montana, but frozen rainbow trout from Idaho is available, already cleaned but with head and tail (and fins) intact. Once thawed, they'll do nicely.

The ham's even easier to get hold of -- the pre-packaged sliced meat from Maple Leaf, Schneider's or Oscar Meyer will work just dandy, and it's the right thickness and size. As for the temperature of the oven and the timing, The Nero Wolfe Cookbook provides a guideline with Wolfe's famed recipe for truite au four Montbarry, which will serve our purposes.

So here goes:

Nero Wolfe's Trout Montana

2 trout per person, de-scaled and gutted but with head and tail intact (if frozen, thaw overnight in the refrigerator)

Per trout:
3 tsp minced onion
1 slice sandwich ham
2 tsp brown sugar
Worcestershire sauce

1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

2. For each trout, tear off a piece of aluminum foil. The foil should 1 inch longer than the trout on each end, and about 4 times the width (dorsal to ventral fins). Lay the foil on a flat surface, shiny side up.

3. Put down the ham; cover with 1/2 tsp brown sugar and 1 tsp onion and some drops of Worcesteshire sauce.

4. Lay the trout on the top half of the ham slice and stuff its cavity with 1 tsp onion, salt and pepper and more drops of Worcestershire.

5. On the top of the trout, sprinkle on the remaining brown sugar and minced onion, and add salt, pepper and a few more drops of Worcestershire.

6. Wrap the foil tightly around the trout. You want to try to position it so that the ham slice covers the trout's cavity.

7. Once all the trout are wrapped, bake for about 20 to 25 minutes. (Larger fish will need more time in the oven. If you're making more than 4, add 3 minutes to the baking time for each extra trout.)

8. Serve in the foil on a plate. Each diner unwraps his or her trout.

Friday, January 07, 2005

On Not-So-Instant Oats

There is currently sitting in my cupboard a tin of John McCann's Steel-Cut Oats. I think I bought it because I was reading a historical cookbook (Lobscourse and Spotted Dog) and I wanted to know what "stirabout" (which is another name for this sort of porridge) tasted like. This would have been about, er, 6 years ago.

One nice thing about oats in a tin: long shelf life.

Last week during one of my stay at home days I tried making some. This is when I realized these were a niche product: they take at least half an hour to cook. That pretty much makes it a weekend food; it's not practical for an Urban Possum who's not a morning person to spend half an hour cooking breakfast. It also thickens up pretty well, even when you cut the recipe in half (the instructions on the tin are for cooking 4 servings). It's also a lot more thicker than instant oatmeal.

Taste? With milk and honey (liquid as opposed to spreadable) it was actually pretty nice. Not to mention appropriate for a winter breakfast with negative-degree temperatures outside. It's also pretty chewy, even when thinned out, but it's a pleasant sort of chewy, like when you're thinking about something; the appropriate attitude for the Saturday paper with the weekend comics in it.

Now this type of oatmeal isn't something I'd eat every weekend (I tend to prefer more savory items for breakfast) but I do plan to eat this more often -- and not just because oatmeal can help reduce cholesterol. (If you want to discourage a Real Man from trying something new, tell him it's good for his health.)

Incidentally, I apologize for not posting here more often. My only excuse is that there aren't that many recipes that I've known and tried. It's one of my resolutions for 2005: try new recipes and add the better ones to my cooking repertoire. When I come across one I like, I'll let you know.