Lemon-Tomato Pork & Asparagus Stir-Fry

I get stuck on cooking techniques, throwing different ingredients into the same rubric. Lately it is some lower-heat variation on stir-frying. I fry things on medium-high heat until they are browned, and then add a sauce, usually containing something sweet, which cooks a bit and possibly caramelizes while it coats the ingredients.

Maybe I liked this because I ate it like finger food with bread and a pool of salted olive oil, or because it was something fresh, not the same crap I find myself eating day after day. If I see another egg, another slice of buttered toast, another pancake, another bowl of yogurt with jam, another grilled cheese sandwich, or another salad of Costco greens, I might vomit. Or despair. Or more likely, something far less dire. That is the problem: alas, one cannot not eat for days and then have an occasional exciting gustatory experience. Life is so hard.

Strangely, I am not describing this as something disgusting. I’m not even describing it. I’m just saying that I liked it. Who the hell am I?

3/4 pound pork chops cut into 1/4inch thick pieces 1 small bunch asparagus chopped into 1 1/2 inch pieces.

Sauce 3 tablespoons cooking oil salt to taste (1/2 teaspoons?) a pinch or two of black pepper 1 1/2 tablespoons brown sugar juice of 1 lemon 3 tablespoons thick tomato sauce with scallions and chiles (this was something I had made for pasta--approximate using 2 tablespoons tomato sauce, 1 tablespoon tomato paste, and a little bit of hot sauce)

Combine all sauce ingredients in a small bowl. In a large saucepan on medium-high heat, begin frying the asparagus in cooking oil. After two minutes mix in the pork. Fry for ten to fifteen minutes, or whenever the pork is almost cooked through, stirring every few minutes. Add sauce and mix thoroughly for half a minute as it boils off a bit in the pan, then remove from heat.

31 March 2011

Rooibos

I would never have liked rooibos were it not for Tick Tock's packaging. When I was on a collage meal plan, there were an assortment of tea bags, one of which was Tick Tock. Drawn by the bold white lettering on red, the fact that it said "rooibos" and "caffeine free" at the bottom completely passed by my attention. In other words, I mistook it for a brand of black tea, possibly akin to English breakfast.

(Not that I actually remember, but mistaking it for proper tea makes a better story than, say, drinking it because I wanted to avoid caffeine and had heard about rooibos. Because the point I'm trying to make is the allure of the packaging, not the benefits of decaffeinated beverages or the goodness of rooibos. But at some point, whether before or after I discovered Tick Tock I’m not sure, I was avoiding caffeine, having decided that coffee did terrible things to me. But even on that point I don’t know: was I reacting against coffee or black tea?)

It was only after a few days of drinking it that I realized that it tasted a bit strange. And come to think of it the color wasn’t right either. But I kept drinking it because it was Tea Time. I wanted to live the little picture on the box of cake and tea in a black pot.

Let us obsess over this picture. The picture’s small circular frame doesn’t show much, but what little it does suggests a whole scene. Although the framing feels somewhat incidental, the necessary elements of Tea are there: a teapot, two cups (not one), a milk pitcher, and a sugar bowl. The blue-stripe teaware is ornate yet rustic and set on a wooden table. The cake, too, straddles fanciness and simplicity. Yes, it is layered and trimmed, but one does not have to be a patisserie to make this cake, just a cook. I am tempted to say that this is colonial Tea rather than English Tea, which is not particularly surprising because this brand makes much of its being “from the founders of rooibos,” who of course were in South Africa. So the picture may be imagined as an image of how “the founders of rooibos” drank their rooibos back in 1903. Before Tick Tock came to bring us rooibos, we are to understand, there was this scene.

But I’m interested in the cake. It takes up a great deal of the frame. And I can’t seem to read its three-dimensional aspect. The problem is the top, which looks like icing, except that it has these strange dark swirls in it, and the top edge is irregular. So perhaps it’s a very fluffy topping, like a meringue. Except that while the left edge and the shape of the top edge suggests that the cake is sloping, the cut on the right shows it to be straight. But if the top of the cake is flat, why are there dark swirls, and why is the top edge irregular rather than smooth?

More than anything else, though, I want to know what kind of cake this is. Because obviously whoever painted this must have had a type of cake he or she was painting. All I can say is that it is yellow.

I think it’s time to make a yellow cake and drink rooibos brewed from loose leaves, longing for my longing for Tea.

27 March 2011

Caramelized Onion Tart

3 large onions

3 tablespoons olive oil

pinch of salt

1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper

1 tablespoon brown sugar

1 tablespoon lemon juice

1 tablespoon tamari

2 tablespoons water

1 unbaked tart shell

Slice onions radially into slices roughly 1/2 inch wide at their widest point. In a large saucepan on medium-high heat, fry onions with olive oil, brown sugar, salt, and black pepper. Mix to coat onions with oil. Stir and scrape pan every few minutes, allowing the onions to brown between stirring. After roughly ten minutes reduce heat to medium. After roughly another twenty minutes reduce heat to medium-low. It's not important to be exact about these timings; the important thing is to have the heat at such a point that it deeply browns but does not quite blacken the onions. As the onions brown and reduce, they burn more easily. When they're mostly dark brown, add lemon juice, tamari, and water, and scrape pan thoroughly with spatula to deglaze. Remove from heat. Spread caramelized onions evenly in tart shell. Bake at 400 F for ~30min.

22 March 2011

A Particularly Rough Day in the Life of a Saucepan

Sometimes, I wish I could taste. Almost every day I'm filled with substances that my owners find flavorful. And sometimes I imagine what it would be like to be them. But I know that it is their place to taste, and mine to hold and to heat. Well, no, I don't actually heat--something else heats me and I heat the things my owners eat.

I have my good days, and I have my bad days. It's hard to know which are which. There are the days I luxuriate in the darkness of the cupboard, and days I reach a several hundred degrees, containing fireworks of oil and water within my walls. Of course, there are those times I'm left in the sink filled with grime and water for hours or days.

Today was nuts. I was not in the sink an hour before being scraped clean in a rush and thrown back onto the heat. It takes some time for me to warm up. My owner threw slabs of butter onto my surface, and I turned them to golden puddles. I don't normally melt butter at this temperature. It was bit invigorating. Sugar weighed down on me. This is why I'm made of metal, and not, say, paper. A paste of sugar and butter scraped me like sand as he mixed it. But it takes something much worse than sugar to actually scratch me.

There were apples, too. It all became molten soon enough. Wet apples clung to my surface and, cringing, I burnt them. At such moments I feel a pang of regret and anger at myself or at my owner, I can't say which. It is his neglect but my flesh. I got the feeling he was being especially negligent today, because rather than carefully maintaining the arrangement of apple pieces held within me, the spatula was flung every which way as he mixed them into a messy pile. Beside me I heard the frantic motions of a rolling pin. It did not take long for the molten sugar to begin to burn. There is something in the way it bubbles that gives it away. Atop me he threw brown scraps of dough like the ad-hoc furs of some barbarian. Most of the gaps were closed before I was thrown in the oven.

Waiting in the oven is different than the usual kinds of waiting I do--waiting in the cupboard, waiting in the sink--because, like him outside in the kitchen, I am anticipating being removed from the oven. In the cupboard and in the sink I don't get so anxious because I know I could be there for a long time. I'm never in the oven for very long, though I never know exactly how long. I keep wondering if the crust is browned enough, if he will be satisfied with how the crust looks. He opened the oven at least a dozen times during my stint in the oven this time.

When he finally did take me out, he ran a knife along my walls, as he usually does, to detach the crust. I do wish he would find a better way to flip me over. It makes me nervous being spun about like that, although honestly at some level I hope he does slip, drop everything including me (I'm metal, I can take it), and spill burning tart all over him. But yet again, he didn't. He did burn himself on my handle though. I suppose you could say I burned him. But really, he should've known better. I wonder why he's so clumsy today.

Like I said, just a quick scrub and I was put back at it.

As the ripping sounds of vegetables being sliced apart reverberated through my metal curvature, I became increasingly hot. Oil slipped across me, pooling on one side. This is why I have walls. My owner dropped the sliced vegetables onto me, and I made them sizzle. I could feel them slumping and sweating against me. What does a shallot taste like? A heap of broccoli interrupted my speculations. He didn't let the shallots develop their flavor, he was hasty. He usually leaves onions, which are similar enough to shallots, sauteeing for much longer. He was acting strangely.

The vinegar and olive brine barely touched me, becoming puffs of steam on contact. He covered me up, trapping clouds in my interior. Water collected in droplets inside my cover, and streamed down the sides. More water was splashed in from a cup, and more. Vapour spat out my sides.

The flour he sprinkled in just turned to tiny lumps. My task was basically done, then just a container into which more was dumped: shrimp, salt, pasta. For a moment he slides me back onto the heat, but takes me off again. That's it. I've been left in the fridge ever since. I'm used to waiting.

18 March 2011

Caramelized Onion, Olive, and Mozzarella Tart

This tart went from whatever to tantalizing to whatever. I wanted to make it because I wanted to write a blog post about it. But I soon became interested in the process of making it although I was not particularly looking forward to the result. Chopping and cooking the onions helped me think; the world became spacious with the sound of frying onions. But I was not salivating yet. That happened when I put the assembled tart in the oven. I wanted to eat it. I rejoiced: this was an achievement. Was it as good as I anticipated? No, not really. Too much of too thick of a still somewhat doughy crust. The whole thing was just ridiculously heavy, and I thought the cheese actually detracted from the caramelized onions. And I’m not sure the olives were necessary. If I made this again I would use four onions instead of two for the same size tart, I would not use whole wheat pastry flour in the crust (I ran out of all-purpose flour), and I would not add olives or mozzarella. And wine might be a nice addition. Or something else a little fruity. Maybe tomatoes, or even apples.

In the morning the cheese has hardened into a tough, dry scab. This tart has a very short shelf life; it lasts from the time it begins baking until it’s tasted. But I nibble on the caramelized onions, which never needed to be packaged and garnished at all.

15 March 2011

7th Annual Oregon Chocolate Festival

Booths, whether they are in a market or in an event, whether selling food, trinkets, or political causes, have always frightened me. I think this has to do with how supermarkets taught me to approach transactions. In a supermarket, the closest one comes to interacting with the seller is in the checkout line, and there the cashier hardly cares what one buys. I have a feeling of relative freedom in a supermarket because nobody is watching me, or at least only a very general someone. I am just one among many customers in the store at any given moment, and no employee is really in charge of the place; they just work there. In a small shop, on the other hand, I find myself running toward some secluded corner first, to collect myself before, if i have to, making the foray to where I can be seen. There is nothing keeping the employee or proprietor of a small shop from being interested in whatever I’m doing, even though, in all likelihood, they are not interested. Booths are the worst: everything I do can be seen, and we might even chat about it.

When I see booths I think of the two open markets that happen weekly in Ashland’s warmer months. Markets of this sort in the U.S. today are part of a more general trend of rejecting bits of postwar capitalism in favor of The Way Things Used to Be, or taking the Old World to the New. The boons of the 1950s have become the horrors of the new millennium: processed foods are bad, supermarkets distance us from our neighbors, agricultural technologies are poisonous. The list goes on, and each horror has given rise to a burgeoning alternative. Although some of them are more nostalgic museum pieces than anything else, these are all good things, I think. But even if the rigors of economics accept them, I’m not sure I entirely can. The mores of the supermarket have been encoded into my being.

So when I discovered that the chocolate tasting part of the Chocolate Festival consisted in visiting a bunch of chocolate vendor’s booths, I was scared. What was I to say? How was this interaction supposed to happen? How could I approach the booth without its occupants noticing? Would they be annoyed that I obviously wanted to eat their samples and nothing more?

I clung to the water spigot, downing draughts of ice water as if it were booze and I were drinking courage. Then I began walking around and around trying to work up the nerve to approach a booth. I was grateful for the vendors who, without preamble, thrust chocolatey things into my hands. Sometimes there were conversational spielers who asked me questions, brave souls. Not trusting my capacity to keep up my end of the talk, I would flee from these when first possible.

One time my flight led me up the hotel’s stairs, trying to distance myself from the festival, only to reencounter it. There was some sort of barely polite spat between a chocolatier, or maybe a chocolate company representative, saying that the Chocolate Festival screwed up the description of his company. Or something. Or it was put in the wrong category. Or he entered it into the wrong category, and thus lost the contest. Part of the Chocolate Festival is a judged chocolate contest. It’s a big hullaballoo, I imagine. He called the mistake “very embarrassing for me.” They argued for ten minutes, saying the same things over and over, while I sat on the stairs a floor above them. Nothing could be done, there was nothing he seemed to want or could want other than to let them know that they will never be forgiven. And the staff he was bitching at, in turn, could only apologize for their alleged error, and self-justify.

But down the stairs among the booths, any dissonance between chocolatiers and festival is invisible. In the end it is largely self-destructive to try to signal one’s dissatisfaction with the means of enunciation one is given. Although occasionally it can be quite lucrative.

Somehow, despite my skittishness, I managed to make my way to each booth. Well, I was guided through the gauntlet by a Chocolate Festival veteran. She said she has “plenty of taste but no standards.” This also describes my relationship with chocolate rather well. I am by no means a connoisseur, but some things I sampled at the festival, for whatever reason, I reacted viscerally to. Everything there tasted like chocolate--well, okay, the raw chocolate didn’t quite--but some things surprised me. Some of the most memorable bites follow.

There were the delightfully gooey, dark truffles from Branson’s Chocolates. I completely agree with their purveyor who said that’s how she likes ‘em, disdaining the stiff variety of truffles.

There was Lillie Belle Farms’gorgonzola chocolate spread. Contrary to their cute purple logo, they revel in trendy chocolate juxtapositions. There was chocolate with bacon, chocolate with tons of hot chili, and chocolate with local gorgonzola cheese. This last was like milk chocolate, but sharp with mold and saltiness.

Then we move on to the weird and the nonchocolate. Linda Shumate of PremRose Edibles was quite insistent on having everyone try her rose preserves. “It’s like eating rose water,” I said, which she seemed to find somewhat insulting. ”Which one?” I think she thought I was humoring her and that I hated the stuff, but actually I love it. It is a piece of high confectionary (or in the parlance of this blog, “pastry”) to simmer down enough rose petals to create a heavily perfumed preserve. Or whatever is done with the rose petals. I’m ignorant as to how it’s made. I imagine the arcane, perverse chemistry of “Perfume”.

Finally there was Zorba’s raw chocolate green tea ginger truffle, which is as much a mouthful in taste as its name. It was more than visceral. It eviscerated. Its green powdery coating puckered my mouth with intense bitterness. It tasted not of confectionary but of medicine, and made me feel like I had been given an inebriating dose of healthfulness. I felt dizzy. It was spectacularly awful.

There were a lot of raw chocolatiers at the festival. Jen Moore at the Jem Chocolates booth was chatty. “Have you ever experienced raw chocolate before?” she asked as I chewed on my sample. Of course. I should have guessed that one doesn’t have, taste, or try raw chocolate, one experiences it. She went on to tell me that raw chocolate is rich in nutrients. I blinked. Silly me, eating chocolate for pleasure. Roasting chocolate brings out the tannins she said, and hides the nuttiness of raw chocolate. She was one I eventually fled from. It turned out later that my ambivalence was as visible as I had feared. The second time I found myself there she said I (unwittingly) gave “good feedback.”

But I think, unlike booths, I dislike raw chocolate on principle. Every raw chocolatier seems to deal in the discourse of Truth. Processing and cooking chocolate corrupts its true healthful nature and noble flavor, turning it sour with tannins. I do find raw chocolate’s flavor refreshing in contrast to conventional chocolate’s intensity, but raw chocolatiers seem eager to take the word ‘raw’ literally and convince us that it’s better because it’s more real. Maybe I don’t understand because I just haven’t put enough effort into overcoming my entrenchment in industrial comforts. Maybe if I wrapped my head in hand-spun cloth, dressed entirely in Indian imports, renamed myself, and converted to Sikhism (in that order and not the reverse), I too would feel raw chocolate’s goodness.

10 March 2011

Brown Sticky Asparagus

~24 asparagus stalks 2 cloves garlic 3 tablespoons butter 3 tablespoons maple syrup 1 tablespoon soy sauce

Smash garlic cloves, peel, and then chop finely. Chop off hard ends of asparagus stalks (~2in?). Melt butter in large saucepan with a thick bottom on medium-high heat. Throw in garlic and fry until golden brown. Remove garlic to a small bowl, keeping as much butter in saucepan as possible. Pour maple syrup and soy sauce into small bowl and stir together. Begin frying asparagus in saucepan. Coat well with butter. Stir every two minutes. The goal is to get them brown or charred on as many sides as possible, and to cook them until soft. Once they are soft enough to your liking, pour in liquid mixture, remove from heat, and stir asparagus around to coat them. The liquid should boil off very quickly and caramelize a bit from the latent heat of the pan. Serve immediately.

10 March 2011

Soup of Leftovers and Throwing Stuff in the Oven

Let’s talk about how meals happen. Because we are sitting down to a nice chat, and you’re the most indulgent listener ever, just dying to hear whatever half-baked spiel that crawls out of my mouth. You see, dear reader, for the most part making food happens out of desperation for me. I am horrible at planning ahead, and when I’m busy as I have been recently, I do the cognitive equivalent of grabbing whatever is within reach. Or I literally grab the nearest things in the kitchen. At such times, some basic forms of cookery are necessary frames to keep it all from getting too unmanageable both mentally and logistically. The past two days indicate that apparently I have at least two such shortcuts on hand: make soup of leftovers, or throw things in the oven. Probably I don’t have them on hand or in head at all, but somehow, thankfully, they happened.

Soup is probably the most well-trod way of using up leftovers. A lot of various things suddenly become commensurate when thrown in a pot of water or stock. I made soup of leftovers because I saw refried beans, fried kale, cooked ground beef, half an onion, a tortilla, and some mushrooms in the fridge, and I thought “soup!” And of course because it’s me, before any water came into the picture I browned onions, mushrooms, and garlic in some oil. And there was quite a bit of chili powder. And some possibly ill-advised cumin. (I couldn’t help but think of the overpowering odor of Rufus’s chili.) I know, these details outside of a recipe have you rapt, don’t they? Little did you know I’m trying to snuff you out in a blizzard of Irrelevant Facts.

A tangent: I actually have no clue what I’m doing when it comes to seasonings. (Or, well, anything really, but seasonings especially.) I am either falling into strange habits, experimenting blindly, or being minimalist (salt, pepper). The thing is, I only understand how flavors go with other flavors in the negative. If I’m putting things together I’m thinking sure, I guess this might taste good together, maybe. But suggest to me a combination and often you’ll get a response of “ew,” or an extremely ill-masked dubious look. I apologize for this particular knee-jerk of mine.

Anyway, throwing stuff in the oven seems initially like a wonderfully lazy option. But I always end up babying the stuff. Tonight the stuff was pork chops, onion, red pepper, and mushrooms. Pork chops cook quickly, apparently, because they were done in about half an hour, at which point I thought nooo they must be browned! and turned the oven to broil for five minutes. Then I put them on a plate, and continued to bake the soupy vegetables. Of course, I may as well have put them in a pan on the stove for all the stirring I did. Must’ve opened the oven five or six times. The problem was that the vegetables released a lot of water, thus stewing the pork chops rather than roasting them, and thus no sear. Maybe pork chops roasted with vegetables is just not to be. The only viable method I can think of is to suspend the poor things on a wire rack above the roasting vegetables, and basting them in the vegetable juice a few times. But that just sounds wayyy to involved. Although it can’t really be more involved than what I did this time.

Sorry, no recipe. Come on, you don’t really want a recipe for Soupy, Overcooked Pork Chops With Roasted Vegetable Topping, do you? There was once a time when this blog was about perfecting techniques and recipes. It has since devolved into me babbling about whatever the hell I feel like, sometimes connecting it to what I happened to have cooked recently. The defining change is that intentionality has left. I no longer cook things to post them on my blog. I cook what I cook, and sometimes take photos to keep the possibility of blogging about it open. In this case I forgot to take a photo of the roasted things, and instead you just get these photos of the uncooked ingredients arranged in the pan to go in the oven.

4 March 2011

Scraping the Bottom of the Barrel: Photos

One of the many pear tarts that never made it here. Or maybe this one was apple?

What happened to the beet frosting? It frosted a nonwheat spice cake.

1 March 2011

Beets and Parsnips.

Beets and Parsnips, roasted. Ugh, what a phase.

One of the many pear

One of the strangest meals. Those two white patties are ground turkey with egg, flour, chiles, garlic, onion, and... some other stuff, possibly. Those are just boiled potatoes to the right. The sauce, really, was the tasty part: spicy brown butter sage cream sauce.

What happened to the

A biscuit made entirely with yogurt for liquid. Yogurt had the effect of keeping it a little toomoist. It was also very dense.

Collard green stems with olive oil, garlic, paprika, and red wine vinegar.

Using wikipedia as a guide, stir-frying is my favorite thing these days. This red cabbage and bok choy was stir-fried with soy sauce, lemon juice, brown sugar, hot sauce, garlic, ginger, and sesame oil. That omelete is yellow, isn't it?