Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Cooking tips

Here are five random cooking ideas I've learnt in my brief cooking obsession thus far.

1. The internet. It's totally underrated as a cooking tool (or simply not considered) by way too many people. Google is already answering all your other pressing queries, so why not try asking it what to cook? Try putting ingredients you have in your fridge in as your search terms, e.g. "carrot and tomato recipes" and see what comes up (I did this once, and ended up making tomato-carrot soup), or if you have an idea for something but aren't sure how to go about it or if it's a good idea, put that in, e.g. me and the pear bread pudding.

2. Rice. If you're in doubt about a good side dish, try rice; it goes with pretty much everything. Making rice intimidated me for the longest time, but it's pretty simple. After yelling at the mr. once for doing it wrong, I found boiling water first, then adding the uncooked rice and proceeding works best. Also, keep the lid on so it can steam properly. Experiment with different kinds too, basmati is great. If you want to funk it up a bit or more advice, I once watched a video on the Rachael Ray website with a how-to. (Note: Rachael Ray isn't in it, if you're worried about that). If you still have crunchy rice, add more water and let it cook more. It'll turn into normal rice eventually.

3. New ingredients. Branch out in your cooking repertoire by acquiring something new at the supermarket. Splurge a little if you can afford it, sometimes something simple like a new kind of vinegar or oil will really add a different (good different!) taste to your food. Especially with pantry supplies, you could end up useing them a lot and having them last for a long time (like spices).

4. Fruit with ice-cream. This is a good way to eat more fruit and make a fast dessert. I don't remember where I read it, but it created happy times in summer.

5. Roast. Make friends with your oven, the rewards are great. This is the most important thing I learnt from Veganomicon. You can throw most any vegetable in your (pre-heated) oven at 400 degrees F (205 C) on a baking sheet with a little olive oil and salt, and keep them in there til you can pierce them with a fork (generally 30 minutes for smaller things, 45 minutes to an hour for big things, like half of a giant pumpkin). Especially good for those pumpkins, sweet potatoes, carrots and pumpkins. Make sure to either oil your baking sheet or line it with some parchment paper.

Anyone have others to share?

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Great food books I read in 2008

Since I like lists, I thought it would be fun to do a few year-end type lists. Since it's already December 30, this will probably spill over into January. Oops. Let's be postmodern about this and acknowledge that the new year is just an arbitrary calendar date. This list is of food books (not cooking) I read and recommend this year.

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life. Barbara Kingsolver with Steven L. Hopp and Camille Kingsolver.
Kingsolver, a wonderful novelist (check out The Poisonwood Bible), chronicles her decision to move to a farm and dedicate a year to eating only food grown locally. There are meal plans, with recipes, by the seasons, along with essays from her 19 year-old daughter about her experience, and more background info about eating locally provided by Kingsolver's husband.

A Thousand Years Over a Hot Stove: A History of American Women Told through Food, Recipes, and Remembrances. Laura Schenone.
Schenone uses food as a framework with which to look at American history, women, and culture by looking at how people ate and women cooked. She begins with Native Americans, then follows through different periods chronologically: the pilgrims, immigrants from the old world, slavery, and through to the present day phenomenon of being too busy to cook.

Plenty: One Man, One Woman, and a Raucous Year of Eating Locally. Alisa Smith and J. B. Mackinnon.
It seems like the same premise as "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle" of eating locally for one year, but Alisa Smith and J. B. Mackinnon, a young couple, decide to define local as only things within a strict 100-mile radius. It's also a much more intimate account than the one offered by "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle."

The Language of Baklava. Diana Abu-Jaber.
A nice food memoir with wonderful recipes. Abu-Jaber is Jordanian-American and she recounts her life growing up between the two countries and cultures, while sharing the recipes for the food she ate along the way. I want to read more memoirs like this. Check out some of the recipes I tried here, here, and here.

The Lost Ravioli Recipes of Hoboken: A Search for Food and Family. Laura Schenone.
This book chronicles Schenone's effort to recover her family's authentic ravioli recipe. It got me thinking about our connections to the food we eat, definitely made me want to make ravioli, and inspired me to pick up her earlier book, A Thousand Years Over a Hot Stove (also on this list). (This book also prompted my "home food" post.)

Still reading:

Culinary Artistry. Andrew Dornenburg and Karen Page.
This book is changing the way I think about food. It seems more directed towards a high-end chef, but it's still fascinating reading. It discusses whether cooking can ever be an art, has charts for which ingredients go well together, and discusses how important presentation really is to a dish - turns out a lot of chefs think that sprig of rosemary stuck in the middle of your pasta is silly. The cool thing is the authors interview a bunch of different chefs, so you're exposed to a variety of opinions on each topic.

It Must've Been Something I Ate. Jeffery Steingart.
This is a funny collection of essays by Vogue food critic and his continual quest for great-tasting food, like hitting a dozen boulangeries in Paris for perfect baguettes. He's obsessed, and teaches you a few things along the way.

One more I didn't read this year but still recommend: The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan. It traces the journey of your food from farm to table. I posted a review of it here.

Finally, the following is a list I found of "farm to fork must reads" in this newspaper pamphlet-thing about a Seattle harvest festival. I'm planning to read a few more on this list.

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life. Barbara Kingsolver. 2007.
Closing the Food Gap: Resetting the Table in the Land of Plenty. Mark Winne. 2008.
Hope’s Edge: The Next Diet for a Small Planet. Frances Moore Lappe and Anna Lappe. 2003.
Hungry Planet: What the World Eats. Peter Menzel and Faith D’Aluisio. 2005.
In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto. Michael Pollan. 2008.
Meals to Come: A History of the Future of Food. Warren Belasco. 2006.
Organic, Inc.: Natural Foods and How They Grew. Samuel Fromartz. 2007.
Omnivore’s Dilemma: a Natural History of Four Meals. Michael Pollan. 2007.
Plenty: One Man, One Woman, and a Raucous Year of Eating Locally. Alisa Smith, J.B. MacKinnon. 2007.
Slow Food Nation: Why Our Food Should Be Good, Clean, And Fair. Carlo Petrini. 2007.
What to Eat. Marion Nestle. 2007.

PS: You can find a cool list of food memoirs to read here at the NPR website.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

If you're looking for a way to while away yet more hours on the great internets with food-related stuff, check out It has stories, weekly top ten lists, recipes (some of them are even vegan), really useful forums, and video tips. When I was up all last night jet-lagged, I went through their review of the year in food. Lots of interesting stuff in there, from California's proposition 2 on increasing space for farm animals to how quinoa is the new 'it' food.

Also check out a piece they have on reinventing table settings - they invited a bunch of designers to go wild with arranging dining tables. Pretty neat.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Baby it's cold outside

I got in from Cairo two days ago. It was a good trip, although it feels now a little too brief. I left Seattle cold, but unfrozen, and return to find it transformed - my first experience with snow. Walking outside yesterday morning - carefully armored in thermal, wool, boots, and a duvet-like coat - felt like an acid trip.

My plans to glean cooking tips while away mostly fell flat, but I did procure some regional goodies, orange blossom water and rose water, which are meant to impart a subtle flavor to desserts.

I also bought an Egyptian cookbook, "My Egyptian Grandmother's Kitchen: Traditional Dishes Sweet and Savory," originally in Arabic but translated into English. I haven't tried any of it's recipes yet, but I have enjoyed leafing through it, especially since it has full-color photographs for every double page spread. For an idea of what a big chunk of Egyptian cooking is about, there is an entire chapter in the book dedicated to stuffed vegetables. Dolmas, potatoes, eggplants, tomatoes, and cabbage rolls are but some of the contenders for stufffing.

Yesterday I cooked, which I did precious little of back in Cairo. A quinoa salad with grape tomatoes and romaine lettuce dressed with a watered-down soy mayonaise I made two weeks ago from Hot Damn & Hell Yeah. The quinoa made it more filling, and the mayo made it creamy. So it tasted good and looked aesthetically pleasing too what with the contrasting colors, but my photos weren't so hot.

I also tried a mushroom-barley soup from How to Cook Everything Vegetarian. I succumbed and bought it before I left, and I have to say it's a pretty good investment so far, a nice basic guide to all kinds of things you might want to do in the kitchen (soups, salads, bread, and charts with information on vinegars, nuts, etc), with simple, fast recipes. I was looking for a book to tell me how to deal with any vegetable the CSA box might throw my way, and it seems to fit the bill. The soup was good, it was my first use of pearl barley, and it was nice and toothsome. I used cremini mushrooms mixed with dried shittake, and there were carrots and potatoes thrown in too.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Not-Tella Rolls

A few days ago I made the not-tella from Veganomicon - and it turned out great! Since I didn't have the hazelnut extract, I consulted the internets, which revealed by way of this recipe at Su Good Sweets (linked from the Bittersweet blog) that increasing the vanilla extract would do it (I upped it to half a teaspoon).

I wanted to experiment with the nutella (i.e. find a new way to eat it, it's great on fruit and toast) so I followed a recipe for cinnamon rolls and spread the not-tella instead of a sugar cinnamon mix. Expectations for the rolls were sky-high but they turned out a bit too hard and dry, I think because I kept them in the oven after baking to stay warm.


I'm going to be gone for two weeks, so I think blog posting will grind to a halt during that time. The hope is I glean cooking secrets of the middle east while on vacation (Egypt, the motherland).

Saturday, December 06, 2008

What happened to the pumpkin?

At the end of my last post I mentioned I had a never-ending pumpkin and was considering my options. Feeling energetic, I went ahead and tried pumpkin ravioli. There seemed to be two problems: the dough too dry and stiff and my lack of a rolling pin. In retrospect it's very easy to say, "don't go there," regarding ravioli if you don't have a rolling pin, but at the time, I thought it was at least worth a winging it attempt with a bottle used instead of a rolling pin. Lesson learned, and I plan to invest in one soon. I did form ravioli of a kind, but the doughy wrapper was more akin to the thickness of a sandwich. The filling was great though. (Note: I don't blame the recipe for my unhappy ravioli, which was from Plenty magazine.)

Much more successful was the pumpkin chocolate-chip bread from Vegan Knitting (adapted from the VWAV best pumpkin muffins). This turned out really well, I even subbed apple sauce for the oil (adding 1 tablespoon of oil) to no detriment.

I still had about a cup worth of leftover pumpkin so I threw it in the freezer to be dealt with later. Not to mention since I was only able to make about six ravioli from the dough (despite doubling it), I had leftover pumpkin filling too, but I put that in leftover phyllo. Those adventures are for another post though.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Fried Oatmeal

Stumbling across the internets a while back, this idea of frying oatmeal at a blog called Fuss Free Flavours presented itself. You have to soak the oatmeal with a little milk and flour the night before, which is not a big deal but requires a little forethought. Last night there was a long bout of insomnia, so mixed it up. Used some carrots and green onions for the vegetable portion. It turned out to be interesting, a good addition to the repertoire of weekday morning breakfasts, not to mention a new way to prepare oatmeal, although the oatmeal could've used a little more frying.

Besides that there is about 1/6th of a large roasted pumpkin sitting in the fridge wrapped in clingfilm, patiently waiting for its fate to be decided. Options include an "undercover cornbread" at Vegan Explosion where the pumpkin is a secret ingredient, pumpkin chocolate chip bread at Vegan Knitting (an adaptation of VWAV's pumpkin muffins), and pumpkin ravioli in an article with ideas for a vegan thanksgiving at Plenty magazine (scroll down). Bets are on the pumpkin chocolate chip bread.

Side note: anyone heard of this website called Vegetarians are Evil? Just discovered it last during the insomnia. Crazy stuff, brings up a certain mustachioed leader of Germany in WWII.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

on the minimalist chef

An interesting profile of "the minimalist chef" Mark Bittman was written up here at the New York Observer. Bittman maintains the New York Times food blog Bitten and has authored "How to Cook Everything" as well as "How to Cook Everything Vegetarian." I own neither, but think I want to get the latter sometime.

Although not a vegetarian, Bittman is akin to Michael Pollan in encouraging everyone to eat less meat for environmental reasons, but too bad his blog doesn't focus on veggies more. Still, I've found lots of good ideas there, like parsley sauce and cornbread. There are also frequently non-cooking yet food-related posts about things like farming that I like. I'm still waiting for his post on the 50 best cookbooks - his readers responses with their suggestions are here. Yes, Veganomicon was suggested many times, but Vegan with a Vengeance not as much.

Occasional art, comics, food, and other things of less interest to the general public.