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Archive for April, 2010

Omelet
The title is inspired by my recent obsession with Lee DeWyze’s version of Treat Her Like A Lady from this year’s American Idol. (It’s definitely one of my guilty pleasures, along with McDonald’s 2-for-99-cents apple pies.)

As much as I love eating eggs, getting them right is one tricky business. Think about the stuff you do with eggs; cracking them with no bits of broken shells in the bowl; removing the bits if you failed to do so; frying them sunny side up without breaking the yolk; scrambling them and getting the texture right; boiling them with the yolks in the center; making an omelet with the filling actually inside the omelet; whipping meringue; and god, imagine poaching one. None of it is easy. Even cleaning a cracked egg on the counter is no piece of cake. (Any tips?)

The reason they are so difficult to handle is that these thin shells full of slimy liquid (sound very appetizing) are very, very sensitive to pressure and heat. Let’s take frying an egg for an example. You drizzle a little oil over the skillet and wait for it to get hot. Hmm, seems pretty hot. You crack an egg open, and with a loud sizzle, the egg whites start bubbling up on the edges. Crap, a tiny piece of the shell got in there. While trying to pick it out with your fingers, only failing and getting your fingers slimy, the whites turn opaque and solid, and now you have to dissect your egg into pieces or forget about it. Okay, given up on the shell, you attempt to flip it to cook the other side, somehow keeping the yolk intact, all nice and liquidy. Oh gees, the egg is stuck to the skillet. You try scraping the bottom with the flipper, and it comes off after a few rough jabs…only with the runny yolk all over the skillet now. Frustrated, you give it a couple of more flips and quickly down the rubbery slab of white and yellow swirls (something like this) before anyone witnesses your complete lack of cooking talent — I mean, it’s supposed to be as easy as making a cup of noodles, right?

Well, it’s not. Unless you are boiling them in water, eggs usually cook in a matter of seconds, and it requires a great deal of sophistication and speed to shape it the way you want. The bottom line is: they are sensitive and you have to be gentle and delicate.

Then how do you shape something like this French omelet?

Omelet

Whisk two to three eggs, then strain it through a fine strainer. This results in a smoother surface of the omelet. Mix in a tablespoon of cream or milk to soften it. Season it with salt and white pepper.

Heat a well-coated 6 to 8-inch round pan over medium-low heat with half a tablespoon of butter and cooking oil each. If you use butter only, the butter will make it burn easily (unless you are using clarified butter). If you use oil only, the pan will be too slippery and you will miss out on the rich flavor. Make sure you grease the sides too, by the way.

Turn up the heat just a bit, and pour in the egg mixture, reserving about a tablespoon of it. As soon as the edges start solidifying, scramble it into a chunky yet wet mixture. Thick chopsticks work amazingly well. You should be able to see the parts of it still runny and shiny. (If your heat is too low, your chunks will be too small and won’t give it enough volume. If it’s too high, it will be too dry to roll.) If the heat is too high and you see no runny parts, pour in the extra tablespoon you’ve reserved.

Immediately turn down the heat to low. Using a spatula, gently shape the mixture into a flat oval and push it toward the edge of the pan, away from the handle. Tilt up the pan slightly with your left hand, holding the spatula with your right hand (or the other way around, however you like). Keep it tilted so that the edge curled up against the side of the pan cooks first. Once the very bottom solidifies, using your spatula, gently fold in the edge into a curve. Push the omelet towards the edge a bit further, from the opposite side. Fold in the edge once more. Now just pushing it from the other side will make it naturally curl in, but repeat curling if necessary. Repeat until it’s completely rolled into a long football shape. Keep tilting your pan back and forth, rotating the omelet gently, to cook it thoroughly without overcooking a single side.

If you want to add filling, do it right after shaping the scramble mixture. Rather than just sprinkling it over, push it down a bit, as if you are tucking it in, to prevent it from falling out as you roll up the omelet.

Now, shall we enjoy some cheesy cheddar goodness?
Omelet

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Stir-fry noodle with Chicken and mushroom
I’m not sure exactly how many hours I spend online everyday, but it’s a lot. Usually start with my email. Then I see a Facebook notification for me being tagged in a photo. I click on the link, check out the photo and decide to keep me tagged. Then I read through newsfeed. Someone posted a Youtube link. I laugh out loud at the hilarious video. Then I see more intriguing videos on the side. I click through some more, and move on to Twitter. Do a quick skim through all the tweets. Come across a tweet about German wines and freak out that I no longer remember whether Auslese means harvested later than Kabinett or not. Do a quick search online and read through all the relevant Wikipedia articles articles. Then someone IMs me. Oh, I also have to catch up on some of the blogs on Google Reader now…crap, now I’m either late to work, didn’t get my laundry done before bed, or just feel bleh from being on computer for so long.

Same thing for my kitchen. As much as I love working in the kitchen, sometimes I have to hold myself back. Otherwise, it always turns out like tonight.

Feeling hungry, I walked over to the kitchen. It was already past 8 p.m., and since I had made plans for some wine drinking around 10, I was going to do just something quick. I saw a bag of ramen in the cabinet. Hmm, what could I add to make it somewhat healthy. I opened the fridge and started going through it. Expired milk, chuck. (Damn, that bottle cost me $3.50.) Slightly moldy cheese. (Ugh, I hate a busy week when I have no time to cook.) Then I see half an onion. Also a plastic container of leftover zucchini and shitake mushroom. Score. Oh, and the chicken I worked on last night. Duh.

Now I had a big pile of “extra” stuff on my counter, and it felt like a waste to contaminate them with dry instant noodles and MSG. Okay, let’s make some stir-fry. I chopped some garlic and ginger, mixed them in with soy sauce, sugar, lemon juice and black pepper. Marinated the chicken and mushroom in the sauce. Chopped the rest of the veggies.

Then I realized I didn’t have rice. Do I have noodles? After going through the cabinets for a while, I found an almost-empty bag of spaghetti, but I didn’t want something like the “Shanghai Pasta” dishes they sell at the big-name family restaurants. (What a name. I hated the “Asian Salad” McDonalds carried for a while. Just because it had “Mandarin” oranges and some “Chinese” croutons? Give me a break.)

All right, time to test how handmade noodles taste in stir-fry. I started mixing some flour and water to make the dough. Now it was almost 9 p.m., and I was supposed to be done with dinner half an hour ago and getting ready to go out. Oops.

By the time I finished, I had to call up my friend and invite him over to finish the leftovers and drink wine in my PJ’s. I guess it turned out for the better in the end. And the dinner turned out tasty, especially with a glass of refreshing Riesling.

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Who knows why, but, last night, I felt like practicing deboning a chicken for my upcoming “Western cuisine” practical.

A whole chicken, check. An empty plate for the bones, check. A sharp knife, check. (Not shown to keep my blog PG rated.) Target time, 15:00.
A whole chicken

Bam. My time, 13:42.

Deboned chicken

FYI, there are many other ways to do it. But I wanted to practice filleting the entire half a chicken without cutting off the thighs first. Here’s a great video I happened to find on Twitter, right after I decided to debone one. He does it in 5 minutes, of course, while pausing and talking too.

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More ducky photos

By popular demand, here are the rest of the pictures from the Beijing Duck dinner:

Slices of duck liver. Tasted like other game livers I’ve had before. Very soft.
Duck liver

Duck hearts. It was actually quite tasty.
Duck hearts

Here’s a slice of the duck’s skin, with a layer of fat. Its flavor is incredibly rich (and very oily, of course). Quite a treat.
Duck skin with a layer of fat

Here’s the actual meat. They slice it with a pretty thick layer of skin attached, adding more depth to the taste.
Beijing duck

And…here’s the head. Click to enlarge, only if you really want to see it.

Cooked duck heads

By the way, the restaurant gives you a certificate for the duck you eat. It makes sense, since you’ll be leaving with the duck in its entirety in your tummy after the meal. I forget, but our duck was something like Duck Sold no. 1321057265981?

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Duck feet in Beijing

More pics of the duck posted here


I’ve been getting up at 5:30 in the morning to make it to my 6:30 cooking classes on time. There are four different cuisines offered, and I’m learning to make some Korean food. This morning’s challenge was raw beef. Well, to be exact, “육회” in Korean, or “beef sashimi” translated. It’s strips of raw beef seasoned with the six staples of Korean seasoning — salt, garlic, green onions, sugar, and ground sesame seeds and sesame oil — then served with pear slices and raw egg yolk to mix it in (how more raw can you get here). Here are some pictures of it for those who are skeptical that it’s a real dish.

Because the class starts so early in the morning, my breakfast is usually what I make in class. When I was taking the “Western” course, some of my breakfast involved fried fish, roasted chicken, or meatballs. I had no problem. Heck, I even downed a 8 oz steak one morning (it was a long class).

But today, I couldn’t do it. I have had it once — a tiny piece that was a size of a sesame seed. I do eat and quite enjoy a huge variety of raw fish, but the fleshy red color of raw meet, with no brownness to it, is too literal. I start imagining the actual living flesh of the animal being butchered and all. Why would you eat it when there is so much good food around, including cooked beef, with all that Maillard reaction goodness?

Speaking of strange things to eat while there is already so much good food, I was served more “weird” parts of animals during my business trip to Beijing than I had ever been in total in my entire life. At a famous Peking Duck restaurant, the table barely had any room left for the actual duck meat (meat as in the white fleshy part I’m used to), after they had already filled it up with duck heads with duck brains and duck tongues, duck liver, duck hearts, duck feet, duck skin, duck broth, duck something else, duck another something else, and more ducky stuff. For the adventurous foodie I claim to be, I tried them in the order of extremeness. After rounding off the feast with the feet (which tasted a bit like jellyfish…which may be another extreme for many), I really thought all the ducky parts I just ate would somehow all get together, turn into a duck and climb out of me (reminded me of the movie Alien and I felt damn sick for a moment).

They all tasted all right. They were all new flavors and textures, expanding my eating experience. In fact, I did enjoy the hearts quite a bit and had more than two (it was cooked, FYI). I must be more qualified as a foodie now, right?

But how far does one go to experience new tastes? Who the heck thought of eating duck feet in the first place anyway? What about shellfish, the slimy stuff in rock-hard shells? What about chestnuts in its dangerously spiky shell and another hard, rubbery layer inside? Were people that hungry? I guess it’s hard to tell now, when you no longer question whether the strange creature you’ve tumbled upon is edible or not because you are so starving.

Truly babbling tonight. What’s your most adventurous eating experience?

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Handmade noodles
One of my absolute favorite books from childhood is Little House on the Prairie. I’ve probably read it more than a hundred times, although I never kept exact count.

My favorite part of the book is where Pa builds a new house from scratch, all by himself. As his little daughter describes how he sets up the logs so that he could ax out the joints at perfect ninety-degree angles, how he smoothes down the entire wooden floor with his hand to make sure there would be no splinters for the girls, and how he oh-so-masterfully crafts the roof with a single beam at a time, I could feel my heart speed up and hands tighten around the book, while visualizing every part of the house in great details. When Pa completes the house by putting up the last shingle to the roof, I’d close my eyes and imagine myself dancing around in the big wooden house, with my bare feet on the smooth floor.

Growing up, I felt just as enthusiastic about the real-life opportunities to do things from scratch, whether it was making Elmer’s glue, growing cherry tomatoes, knitting a scarf, or growing my own tub of Lactobacillus delbrueckii subsp. bulgaricus and Streptococcus salivarius subsp. thermophilus. (Figured it out yet? It’s yogurt.) One time in college, I dedicated the entire spring break to experimenting with making soymilk, tofu, and butter.

So what’s all the fuss about? I might as well just get my own cattle to milk my own milk, huh. Oh and build the ranch he will live on…Well, it’s mostly about curiosity, self-empowerment, and commitment.

For the curiosity part: can you tell which one is almond in this picture? Then, do you know what an almond tree looks like? (Yes, it comes from a tree — see here) So much of the stuff I consume gets delivered to me entirely polished and manufactured (sometimes overly) that I usually have a very limited view, mostly to its final stage, of its life cycle. And this magazine article I read once, entitled “Finding the roots”, fueled my curiosity to learn more about the rest of the cycle. The journalist goes on to talk about the “disconnected roots” by industrialization and specialization, and that the efforts to connect them are worthwhile to expand the scope of the understanding and experience of our consumption. For instance, rather than limiting ourselves to appreciating the “fresh yet dark hazelnut aroma with a slight hint of smoke and chocolate” of the coffee, go beyond to find out where the beans come from and how they are grown, harvested, roasted, and brewed. It’s no longer the same cup of coffee, when, as you close your eyes to take a sip, you can picture the beans ripening on the other side of the world, the beans being slowly roasted to dark brown over time, and the barista intently keeping the water temperature at 200F degrees.

Now onto the self-empowerment part: it’s very simple — you have complete control and no longer have to decide between the options your grocery store gives you (or freak out when they run out it).  You can make your own marshmallows, in the exact color and shape you want. You no longer have to decide between the little ones and the big ones; you can make both. You no longer have to buy a whole bag of pink ones just to use two for Valentine’s Day;  you can make just the two you need.

The most recent motivation to do things from scratch is commitment. I’ve come across a number of chefs (and other professionals) who are insanely dedicated to achieve the desired quality by utilizing self-empowerment. It’s not uncommon to hear about restaurants owning their own farms or chefs doing their own shopping to get the best ingredients. The desired quality could be taste, being organically grown, or something else. Whatever it is, it’s truly inspirational to hear my favorite mochi store’s owner grows her own rice to “get it right”.

So I made my own noodles tonight. Just the consistency and the thickness I wanted. While surfing online after dinner, feeling proud of being so connected to the roots, of course I read about Bob del Grosso milling his own durum flour to make good pasta. Time to get my own farm.
Homemade noodles
ps. Oh, did I mention it’s also fun and much tastier?

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Burning thighs. Burnt sauce.

No photo today. Sorry (but I spent over two hours on drawing something myself last night, so I feel somewhat justified).

I’m obsessed with yoga — well, to be exact, Yogalates which is yoga plus Pilates (just learned that’s actually someone’s last name). I’ve been doing it regularly for a little over a year now, and it has really gotten me stronger and much more flexible. However, some of the poses don’t feel any easier, especially the ones that require solid balance, like the warrior pose. They are physically easier, obviously because I have done them a hundred times by now and my muscles are stronger, but over time, I’ve realized balancing is all about focus.

In today’s class, the instructor told us to get into the warrior pose — with one leg stretched far behind, the other leg bent at knee, your arms straight up, and your spine forming a big, smooth arch (warning: it’s much harder than it looks and you might hurt your neck). I first got the legs in the right positions and tightened every muscle to stay stable. I put my arms up straight, with my legs slowly starting to shake. Now the part where it requires most focus — slowly bend backward. Starring at the ceiling intently, I was battling all the distracting thoughts. The second I bring it back to the ceiling, it would wander off to wondering what to eat for dinner. Back to the ceiling. Then off to the email I have to finish when I get home. Back to the ceiling. Then off to regretting stepping on the scale this morning (trust your jeans rather, I know). My legs were shaking more. Back to the ceiling, damn it.

Then someone farted and I completely lost it. Yes, it happens occasionally in these yoga classes while people are trying to let loose. I tried five more times but fell five more times. Now I was left frustrated and sweaty, with burning thighs from all those lunges.

Cooking classes is another place where I have to really exercise my focus muscle. On one of the weekday mornings, I was attempting to make some blonde roux for soup. It’s butter and flour stirred together in a hot, dry pan until it’s “mocha-brown” (whatever works), and you have to be extremely careful not to overcook it (as if dark brown butter is already not overcooked). It could get too dark in matter of seconds, and the instructor was constantly reminding us to pay attention to the color. In fear of burning it, I was cooking it over very, very low heat, and it was taking a while. My legs and back were starting to get stiff from having been standing up for hours, and I was getting tired of stirring. Then someone said, “Damn, it’s snowing again?” and I turned around and looked out the window. Wow, big flakes for April, I thought.

I swear, it was not more than two seconds. Maybe one and a half even. Yet, somehow my roux decided to cook faster and burn itself during that two-second window. It was now just a shade too dark, and of course, my soup stuck out like a sore thumb when everyone else handed in theirs. The instructor pointed at mine and said, “Looks like the roux was cooked for a little too long.” Yes ma’am, a little too long. Two seconds.

Burnt stuff aside, I enjoy the focus game because it’s darn rewarding when you nail it. It’s like…wait, what was I gonna write?

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