February 26, 2010

Pad Thai-athlon

I’ve discovered that stir frying is just as much an athletic endeavor as it is a culinary one.  Please forgive the ridiculously frivolous pun, but I just couldn’t help myself.  A little too much Alton Brown lately, I guess…if there is such a thing as too much Alton Brown.  Thanks to his inspiration, as of last Saturday afternoon Brian and I are the proud owners of a  no-longer-shiny new wok. 
It all happened purely by chance, really.  We’ve been watching Good Eats fairly regularly the past several months.  It’s one of the few cooking shows we can both really get behind.  We love the historical and anecdotal nature of Alton’s lessons as well as the scientific insight he offers.  And his quirky, playful sense of humor is just an added bonus. 
We recently watched an episode entitled “Your Pad or Mine (Thai).” (See where I get it?)  We were really excited about it because Pad Thai is our favorite takeout food.  At $30 a pop for takeout, being able to make it at home sounded like a great alternative.  Aside from a few watered-down, Americanized attempts at “stir fry” and one very decent Cook’s Illustrated recipe (pictured below), I had never really attempted Asian cuisine. (I have always wanted to, but never took the time to seek out the proper ingredients and equipment.)  After watching the show, Brian and I talked about how great it would be to make Pad Thai, and then we promptly forgot about it and went on with our lives as usual.
Last Saturday, Brian’s latest search for musical accessories brought us to Guitar Center in Falls Church.  When what to our wondering eyes should appear, but a beautiful Vietnamese gateway, like a bright, shining Emerald City at the end of a long yellow brick road. (Yes, driving out to Seven Corners really is that much of an ordeal, and this place really is like a small city).
It was the Eden Center, which bills itself as “Northern Virginia's premier Asian center” and boasts approximately 120 stores. To the seasoned Asian-market veteran, this place may have many faults, but I thought it was amazing.   Our visit to Cho Saigon was my first time in a Vietnamese market (or any Asian market for that matter, unless street vendors in NYC Chinatown count, and I don’t think they do if all you’re buying is knockoff purses and cheap scarves).  I was like a little kid in a candy store and couldn’t take it all in fast enough.  There were all kinds of grocery items that I had never encountered before. (And an entire pig hanging behind the meat counter.)  I couldn’t read most of the packaging, and our ingredients list was somewhat formidable for a couple of first-timers at the end of a long day of errand-running,  but the sales people were able to point us in the right direction(s). 
On a side note, I am really appreciating my new phone’s ability to pull up recipes when I am at the grocery store and decide to make something on a whim.  I never could have recalled mung bean sprouts, preserved cabbage, tamarind paste, and palm sugar (among other ingredients) without it!  
While we were there we picked up an inexpensive wok and chopsticks (not Thai, I realize, but this wasn’t a Thai market either).  We finally got home after a couple more grocery-store stops.  (Is it ridiculous that it takes 2 or 3 different stores to find all of our groceries, even when we’re not making Pad Thai?)  I was still on a bit of a high from the market experience and, of course, couldn’t wait to start cooking! 
With Alton’s recipe to guide me, I went straight to work:
A few of the key ingredients.
Getting ready…
Getting set….
And go!
First the tofu is quickly fried, then removed, and set aside (1 – 2 minutes).
Then spring onions and garlic are cooked for about 30 seconds.
Then the eggs for about 30 seconds.
Then noodles, sauce, cabbage, shrimp, bean sprouts, and peanuts, with a quick toss between each addition.
The tofu is tossed back in for about a minute.
Then it’s plated and garnished with spring onions, bean sprouts, peanuts, and freshly ground dried red chili pepper.
It was really quite delicious, and I was pleased to note all the things I had done for the first time that day:  first Asian grocery store, first attempt at authentic Thai cuisine, first time cooking with a wok,  and first time cooking with tofu! 
Our second attempt a couple of nights later definitely went more smoothly, since I had a little experience.  We added chicken and halved the amount of tofu, dicing it the way they do at our favorite Thai takeout places.  If you try this version, be sure to cook the chicken first and remove it from the pan before frying the tofu.  I tried to add the tofu when the chicken had about a minute left to cook.   The tofu was just getting warmed through and wasn’t getting that nice sear on the edges.  I ended up taking them both out of the pan, separating them, and frying the tofu by itself.
Although it was wonderful the first time, we liked second batch of  Pad Thai even better.  The added chicken and diced tofu gave the texture and flavor a bit of a boost.  I also used a hand chopper to get the peanuts and shrimp a little more finely minced, which did wonders for the overall texture of the dish, making the sauce feel thicker and helping to bind everything together.
The wok, we have since decided, is coated with Teflon or some other nonstick coating.  The first clue that we we had something other than a high quality piece of equipment was when the outside coating started peeling off and caught on fire while I was preheating the wok for the second batch.  I spent the entire evening wondering if we were going to die.  Brian assured me that we weren’t going to die from two meals cooked on Teflon over high heat.  We are, however, retiring the wok and have plans to scour our local restaurant kitchen supply stores for one made of carbon steel. 
February 23, 2010

a simple meal

I’ve always appreciated the seasonal nature of the Catholic Church’s liturgical calendar.  There is a time for all things, and the season of Lent in particular always seems to arrive at just the right time.  After several months of  holidays and various other celebrations, Lent provides a welcome respite—the opportunity to eliminate unnecessary distractions and focus on the things that matter.    In that spirit, here’s a recipe for a simple, meatless meal.

Pasta with Garbanzo Beans and Vegetables
printable recipe

Serves 4.

8 oz whole wheat pasta (any short pasta shape)
1 can Garbanzo beans, drained and rinsed
1/4 cup water or vegetable broth
4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
4 cloves garlic, minced or pressed
2 teaspoons fresh rosemary, chopped*    
8 oz frozen broccoli, thawed (or any green vegetable; I think spinach or peas would be good)
salt and freshly ground pepper

Bring a 4-qt pot of water to boil.  Generously salt water and cook pasta until al dente.  Drain and set aside. 
Meanwhile, in a food processor, combine about 3/4 of garbanzo beans, 2 tablespoons olive oil, and water or broth.  Process until smooth.

In medium sauté pan, heat one tablespoon olive oil over medium heat.  Add garlic and rosemary and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds.  Add broccoli, stirring gently, until heated through.

Stir in garbanzo bean puree.  Add pasta  and remaining whole garbanzo beans and toss over medium heat until well combined. 

Remove from heat and season to taste with salt and pepper.
Serve.  Drizzle with remaining olive oil.

*Feel free to substitute another herb, dry or fresh.  I used fresh rosemary because I had in on hand.

February 21, 2010

i heart cookies

It case it wasn’t already obvious, I love any opportunity to make decorated sugar cookies.  Here’s a brief look at Valentine’s Day Cookies 2010.
IMG_0604 IMG_0617 IMG_0621 IMG_0599IMG_0606IMG_0612IMG_0628IMG_0632 IMG_0635IMG_0636 IMG_0640
IMG_0654IMG_0655IMG_0658 IMG_0659 IMG_0660 IMG_0677 IMG_0678 IMG_0690IMG_0695 IMG_0692IMG_0700 IMG_0707IMG_0717  IMG_0733
And since I didn’t post the entire thing last time, here’s the recipe for my favorite cutout sugar cookie.
Cutout Sugar Cookies 
printable recipe
1 cup unsalted butter, softened
1 egg
1 ½ tsp almond extract
1 cup sugar
2 Tbsp milk
3/4 tsp baking powder
2 ½ cups flour
Colored sugar, glaze, or frosting for decorating (optional)
Combine butter and sugar in a large bowl.  Beat at medium speed until creamy. Add egg, milk, and almond extract. Beat until all ingredients are thoroughly combined.  Add flour and baking powder. Beat on low speed until well mixed.
Divide dough into quarters. Wrap quarters in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least one hour (preferably 3 hours and up to 2 days).
When dough has chilled preheat oven to 400°F. Working with one piece of dough at a time on a floured surface, roll to desired thickness (1/8” to 1/4”) with a floured rolling pin. Cut with cookie cutters and place 1” apart on a cookie sheet (use parchment paper, if desired).
Bake for 7-9 minutes. Cool 1 minute on the cookie sheet before transferring cookies to a cooling rack.
Decorating:  You can use one or both of the frostings below. If using both, let the glaze dry before decorating with the buttercream.
printable recipe
3 cups Powdered sugar
2-4 Tbsp Milk
1 tsp Vanilla extract (or to taste)
1 tsp Almond extract (or to taste)
Food coloring, if desired
Add milk until desired consistency is reached. Glaze should be thin enough that you can drizzle it over the cookies, but not too thin or it will just run off or make the cookies soggy.
I’ve discovered that the neatest and easiest way to apply the glaze is using a pastry brush. (I use a different one for each color). You can also drizzle it over the cookies or pour the glaze onto a plate and dip the tops of the cookies in it.
Also, feel free to add other extracts to flavor the glaze (orange and lemon are both good).

Buttercream Frosting 
printable recipe
1/3 cup unsalted butter, softened
3 cups confectioner’s sugar
1 ½ teaspoons vanilla extract
1-2 tablespoons milk
1 tsp Almond extract (optional)
Food coloring
Blend first two ingredients; then add the vanilla and milk. Separate frosting into smaller bowls and mix in food coloring. Put frosting in decorating bags and pipe onto cookies!
(Add more or less milk for desired consistency – a slightly stiffer frosting is better for piping.)

P.S.  Check out my other Valentine's Day project on cueriosity.