Good Problems

Hey, thanks for hanging in there with the blog.  I am still doing some food-related show-and-tell, but finding other venues more fun than blogger.

This year I found various forms of micro-blogging, and realized that most of what I have to say about food is "yum!" or "Look, I made this!"  And sometimes the thought of writing up something substantial to go with that simple message took the fun out of the original experience.

Also, fitting in to a particular corner of the food/writing world is limiting.  I am tired of putting more effort into manufacturing a narrative about my life with images and words than I did into actually making food.

Most importantly, I'm finally getting busy with life here, and finding work that I like.

So, look!  I made baked oatmeal.  Yum.

See you on Tumblr, Pinterest, and Facebook.  :)

Sushi at Home

The first time I had raw fish was in Japan.  I was served family style strips of raw fatty tuna along with piles nori sheets and bowls of seasoned rice to make hand rolls at a private meal.  There was probably soy sauce available but I don't remember seeing wasabi or pickled ginger.  It was extremely simple.

My friend and I did ok with our first experience of sashimi, but didn't go in for seconds.  After waiting for the polite amount of time, one of the two older ladies sharing our platter turned to her friend and said something in Japanese that approximately meant, "I insist that you take the last of the tuna, since these American kids have such undeveloped palates."  And then they ate it all.  Fair enough.

Nat and I went through a bit of sushi phase, and it was really fun to practice by ourselves and with big groups of friends.  We used mats and presses and and saran wrap.  We put together crazy combinations and spicy sauces, glued together the insides of the rolls with mayo, and even deep fried rolls.  We made enormous, satisfying piles of rolls and impressive messes in the kitchen.  But I'm coming to appreciate the simpler approach of my first experience.  Sushi at home is going to be different, and I think in a way it can be better than sushi at a restaurant.

The main difference is that you can make up for the lack of variety, expertise and time by being really generous with the fish.  Our move closer to the ocean has opened up some options for us.  If you can, get fresh sushi grade raw fish.  Then don't go wild with combinations and sauces.  Sometimes the reason that restaurant sushi is fried and sauced so heavily is that the fish isn't fresh.  With great fish, even soy sauce should be used with restraint - just brush a small quantity across the fish, don't make a puddle that soaks through your rice.  Look for the milder version of soy sauce made specifically for sushi.  Uchi: The Cookbook is a great resource if you want to learn more.

Sushi rice can be hard to get right, especially if you don't have a rice cooker.  When I was constantly monitoring my rice in a pot over a gas burner, I found that the Han Kuk Mi brand of korean sushi rice worked better than the few other brands I tried.  Now that we have a rice cooker I feel like there's a little more flexibility.  Spreading the seasoned rice out on a baking sheet and fanning it helps it cool faster without getting smashed.

It takes chefs a long time to learn how to make delicious and presentable sushi rolls.  If you're learning, start with sushi bowls, or have everyone make their own hand rolls.  Make nigiri.  These options will get the same good flavors to your mouth faster, and keep the nori from sitting around getting soggy from the rice. (Toasting the nori helps too.)

I'm not saying not to experiment, or not to try to recreate your favorite roll.  We try something new every time - last time it was fresh shiso.  And I love looking at the recipes from Uchi for inspiration.  Just don't try to compete with a restaurant in variety and presentation, especially when you don't have the essentials under control.  That is a contest you will always lose.

Do you have any sushi advice for us?

Photo by jetalone, used under creative commons license.

3 cookbooks I want for summer

La Tartine Gourmande: Recipes for an Inspired Life is perfect.  The recipes remind me of Heidi Swanson's Super Natural Every Day but are a bit fussier for when you feel like a cooking project.  I am often so visually overwhelmed by the parade of idyllic photos on Bea's blog that I click away instead of scrolling down to inspect the recipe.  But in cookbook form, with one gorgeous full page photo per recipe, the photography is put to good use drawing your attention to the creative recipes.  I love how her food is defined by unexpected flavor combinations instead of the absence of ingredients she avoids.  Instead of a recipe for a gluten-free cake or muffins, she gives you strawberry, millet, almond cake with buttermilk or basil-zucchini muffins with comte cheese.  So in spite of the fact that the format is what drew me in, this recommendation isn't just based on style preferences.   Bea will expand your palette and maybe even inspire some kitchen experimentation.  The recipes cover lunch and dinner as well as baking, but baking in particular with these recipes will require you to use some ingredients you probably haven't worked with before.  It definitely won't duplicate the recipes in the cookbooks you already own.

Ripe: A Cook in the Orchard I estimate that Nigel Slater's tome on fruit has fifty pages devoted to just apple recipes (sweet and savory), but the basic recipes like apple crumble show you how to improve on traditional techniques to bring the flavor of those apples into focus.  It's deep and wide.

I looked earnestly through Booksmith in Coolidge Corner for The Fresh & Green Table but couldn't find it.  (Honestly, I probably remembered the name incorrectly and walked right past it.)  Still, I would buy this sight unseen.  Even though I haven't been blogging about Susie Middleton's first book Fast, Fresh & Green recently, I still cook from it regularly and it's the first place I go when a new vegetable shows up in the delivery box.  Has anyone bought the second book yet?  Please tell me all about it, along with any other good cookbooks you've found recently.

P.S.  Book links go to Amazon - I get some spare change if you buy something.

One Dish Meal: Satay Shrimp & Roasted Cabbage

It's cool most days here, so my dinner cooking is still very dependent on roasting.  A March article in Bon Appetit was the inspiration for cooking both shrimp and cabbage on one baking sheet, pairing up a roasted vegetable with a main that can also be roasted, quickly, once the cabbage is done.

Roasted cabbage slices are mildly sweet and nutty, while still maintaining some crunch.  You can follow this basic recipe for roasted cabbage slices, but I also flipped them to encourage browning on both sides.  When you're roasting you don't want to pile the veggies on top of each other too much, but you can fit enough food for two on one big baking sheet.  Once the cabbage slices begin to brown and soften, you can scootch them over to make room for the shrimp.

For the shrimp, I followed this recipe for a satay marinade, but roasted the shrimp on the same pan, at the same 400 degree temperature as the cabbage, until they were pink and firm.

The combination of shrimp and roasted cabbage reminded me of the sweetness of dishes with peanut sauce.  Toss together the cabbage and shrimp, and top them with a sprinkle of chopped peanuts and a squeeze of lime, and possibly a dab of fish or soy sauce.

A Confetti of Flavors

So after all the hype about making hassenpfeffer, I feel a little silly for not realizing that this particular recipe wasn't going to work well just from reading it.  The sauce has bacon and wine in it, so it wasn't all bad.  But marinating the rabbit in an acid (vinegar) for a long time, as directed by the cookbook, is a bad move.  It made the meat tough and sour, so the rabbit was ruined before I even started cooking it.   The search for an authentic recipe continues.

Is there consensus on what traditional hassenpfeffer even is?  I've seen recipes that call for pickling spices, lemons, grape jelly, sour cream, or cognac to the sauce.   Another recipe would have me out scavenging the neighborhood bushes for juniper berries.  Bittman claims chocolate is a traditional ingredient, but the only other recipe I've seen that backs that up is a jugged hare recipe in Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's imposing tome on Meat.  Jugged hare is a rabbit cooked in its own blood.  Forgive me, I am not yet bored enough with food to eat blood sauce.

Usually I can at least compile a decent recipe from researching online, but for this one the ingredient lists are all over the map.  I might be curious enough to try again if I can find a better recipe, but I suppose a hunter's stew will always be somewhat improvised.

I had a bit more culinary luck on a recent visit to my friends in NY, where I was thoroughly spoiled with miso ramen from Momofuku noodle shop, a juicy burger from Joy Burger, and the amazing toasted marshmallow milkshake from Stand.

Watery Spaghetti and Hasenpfeffer

My extended family ate some really weirdly-sauced spaghetti when I was growing up.  Heavy on the ground beef and water, light on the canned tomato. When I, a polite and tactful child, told my cousin Andy that his mom's version of spaghetti was gross, he explained that it was German spaghetti, and added that he was proud to be German.  I was shocked by both of these assertions.  I think that Germans would also be shocked to hear that our puddle of meat spaghetti had anything to do with them.

Wherever the blame for German spaghetti belongs, it turns out that I do have German heritage.  My experience was that we didn't talk about being German or do anything that could be explained by being German, other than having a Christmas tree.  But some of the family names on both sides of my family tree, Minneman and Helfrich and Hunsberger, form the outline of a story that I am trying to understand.

Once I found a book lying around my grandparents' house, outlining the appropriate words for religious milestones with facing pages in German and English.  It turned out that it had belonged to my great-grandfather, a bilingual German Lutheran minister.  His daughter, though, wasn't allowed to speak German at home.  She lived through Prohibition, when of course all the beer gardens closed, which spelled the end of many Germantowns.  There was more than one war during her lifetime that made people suspicious of German Americans.  When she was young, her social circle was defined by the Lutheran young people's group.  It seems likely that being Lutheran probably became the last safe place for expression of her heritage, and very likely the last place where she heard any German public figures held up as role models.  She's my grandmother.  It wouldn't surprise me if her experience as a bit of an outsider was what gave her the strength to take an independent stance on occasion (she was the sole non-union teacher at her school), but she doesn't really talk about it.

I've heard people suggest that the complete "assimilation" of massive numbers of German-Americans can be a hopeful example to other countries struggling with immigration issues, including Germany.  But the assimilation of my family was motivated by acute pressures to avoid public Germanness, the kind of pressures that made my great-grandparents believe that their children would have better lives without German accents.

What is a more American experience than being an immigrant or the child of an immigrant under pressure to assimilate?  We, the immigrant people, the new nation, the country with the constant identity crisis?  We are still becoming America.  If we could collectively remember the whole story of immigration, then maybe we would stop perpetuating the ugly parts.

It's probably very American to make a hobby of learning about your cultural roots, making up narratives and links to the past partly because many of the stories of my family are lost to time and intentional forgetfulness.  Whatever it even means to be German-American: all that the German-Americans could agree on right before the world wars was making sure their kids could speak German and preserving their freedom to drink beer.

Given that, maybe it's not so silly to try to begin reconnecting to my heritage through making peppered/pickled rabbit, enjoying a good weihenstephaner, and someday trying to remember how to make Grandma Clamme's laborious thinly sliced egg noodles.  Since I'm as German as German spaghetti.

With apologies to my aunt, who taught me valuable life skills like washing my hands before cooking, and didn't make anything else that tasted bad to me.

This is Mark Bittman's marinade for Civet of Rabbit, or Hasenpfeffer.  See how I thought this recipe turned out.

2 cups of red wine (I chose Pinot Noir)
1/2 cup vinegar, apple cider or red wine
1 carrot, chopped
1 onion, chopped
1 rabbit
Salt and pepper

1.  I am being lazy and thawing the rabbit in the marinade.  Eventually you'll want your rabbit in pieces, so if your rabbit is thawed go ahead and cut it into pieces.

2.  Place all the ingredients in a gallon bag or another container that will allow most of the rabbit pieces to be covered by the marinade ingredients.  Marinate in the refrigerator for 8 hours to 3 days, turning occasionally so all the meat gets soaked through.  

Happy New Somewhat Arbitrary Measure of Time

My only resolution for this year is to eat more green leafy things.  Not out of guilt for the amazing fried seafood in Florida, or the comforting pecan caramel rolls in Ohio.  No regrets over vacation.  I came home with a whole bag of kitchen gifts - a bulk supply of saffron and other spices from K&S in Bangkok, and a kitchen scale so I can work on making make my recipes more friendly to non-US readers.  How lucky am I, right?

Last semester we probably had greens once a week.  But, after vacation we needed a ton of groceries to restock the empty fridge.  Nat came with me to the grocery store to help carry things, went down an aisle I usually avoid to grab some frozen spinach, and discovered a wonder of modern food science.  You can also get chopped frozen kale.  A small discovery, but now we have a giant hoard of basically instant greens, and I am eating them almost every day.

I know I'm prone to getting excited about and then sometimes giving up on ambitious projects - last year I resolved to run a half marathon (I did!) and read 52 books (do blog articles count?) and to sort through all of our belongings before our move (I did) and post a certain amount of articles each month on the blog (hit or miss). Generally I like challenges, big ones with concrete goals and deadlines.  Enthusiasm lasts only so long and deadlines help you ride that wave before it is spent.  So yes, this is a phase.  But maybe I can turn the phase into a habit.

Right now I am helping collect recipes and nutrition tips for getfit@mit, which is a really well-designed program that helps members of the MIT community make healthier habits.  That's all I really want out of "more greens."

If I made my normal style of resolutions for this year, I would have mapped out a plan for a superwoman who would get an awesome job, join Crossfit, regularly go rock-climbing, and do yoga, while cooking all our meals from scratch, writing a book, earning a DSLR camera and then getting good at using it, learning Italian, taking adventurous biking and culinary vacations (p.s. I don't bike yet), regularly going out to posh restaurants and parties and concerts in attractive but playful incarnations of "the feminine", and having great totally functional and supportive and delightful relationships with everyone.  But there are variables in the future that I can't control.

A lot of people each year make a resolution to find a better job, and don't succeed.  And I'm going to say it, I don't care that it's angsty:  It was heart-breaking to get to the end of this year and not have reached my main goal.  My somewhat artificial deadlines have caused me grief, along with sometimes motivating me.

With the "more greens" resolution I think I've managed to find a goal and a mindset that is both a good change and a kind change.  A possible change.  Today I can take care of myself.  I can make Collards & Kale soup with Saffron Butter.

No recipe forthcoming.  Sometimes there's no recipe for what you are making.

Good luck on your resolutions, whatever they are!