Thursday, November 29, 2007

Ignore title of last post below. Back to catching up...

You want a picture? Well, too bad. I forgot my cameras from the dorm (which were locked up for holiday), so I will compensate with a generic food pic. Anywho, continuing with the blog...

dum Dum DUM!!! Finals are coming up in 2 weeks! Should I be studying for the classes that have continually kicked my sorry behind? YES! Should I begin writing a 10 page analysis on Asian food rituals that I have no utter idea what to write about even after my professor said my proposal had no legitimate thesis? YES! Should I begin to set myself into hibernation mode and eat excessive amounts of carbohydrates to store during the weeks before finals? ... PROBABLY NOT! ... Well, if the carbohydrates are tasty...

So what have I been doing the last few weeks?

Pretty much everything opposite to what I had declared I should be doing. With the exception of the last one, though I'm not sure whether that's a good thing.

So, let's get caught up. How was your Thanksgiving? Did you enjoy the break? Did you dream of steaming gingersnaps dancing out of the oven? Wait, I did. Anywho, did you take a lot of pre-Thanksgiving naps and post-Thanksgiving naps? Did you meet family you haven't seen for a while to share that beautiful meal?

My Thanksgiving came off without a hitch. My original intent was to reflect those famous words of Thoreau: "Simplify, simplify, simplify". I don't remember when, but I have become the official menu planner of Thanksgiving. The first few times, I was eager to impress and made a bountiful selection of complicated dishes. I made spice brined turkeys (with the fact that I didn't have a cooler so I had to buy ice and perpetually wake up in the middle of the night to put more ice around the pot of brine and turkey). I tried to upgrade my family's ritual green bean casserole to sauteed fresh green beans with garlic and bacon (only to realize that I was the only one who ate it). I made curried cubes of yam to boost the typical yams with marshmellows (realizing later on that I should have used raw yams instead of the canned-"I'm ready to be mashed real good" yams). I even made mac-n-cheese from scratch (but was soon notified that a deep dish casserole is the way to go when baking the cheesy pasta. Wide shallow pans make each bite really really crispy/ kind of inedible).

So this year, Thanksgiving was going to be typical foods that everyone in the family would eat. Salt and pepper roasted turkey, old fashion Campbell's green been casserole with a healthy spread of crispy French's onions, sweetened baked squash, cool and refreshing cranberry sauce with whole cranberries, Pillsbury crescent rolls, roasted marinated beef (for the non-turkey eaters. Yes, I've got those in my fam), cheesy mashed potatoes with bacon bits, sauteed asparagus, buttered mushrooms, and caramelized brussel sprouts, and finally steaming corn bread apple sausage stuffing. It was probably my easiest Thanksgiving ever. On actual Thanksgiving day, I spent more time mastering my skills on the drums for Rock Band (it's a game that you should play, but not while you're trying to make an appearance of studying for finals) than I did for the cooking.

But alas, there must be at least 1 failure to a Thanksgiving meal. For me- cornbread. You see, I really love cornbread. It not only looks beautiful and smells so nice as it steams its enticing aroma throughout the house, but its taste is also so very delicious. Cornbread can be so diverse- from cheesy and savory and sweet and chewy. It's like I have a new date and a new chance to be familiar with it each time. Best of all, there's nothing better than receiving a warm embrace from this rich bread. But all good things must come to an end.

Why? Well, sometimes when one meets cornbread and gets along with it very nicely, cornbread throws a curveball and introduces you to its twin. Not identical, but fraternal. Cornbread's twin seems very agreeable, if not as good as cornbread. It has the same promise of delight and tastiness, and so one decides to pursue a more "intimate" relationship. Just to (literally) spice things up in the relationship, one adds some parmesan cheese, kernels of real corn, chilli and garlic powders into the mix, and tops it all off with provolone shavings. The twin of cornbread goes to a spa for a 30 min. treatment in a 400 degree oven, so one is gracious enough to wait. I mean, why wouldn't you if you knew what great things will come from a little patience? So all is well and the twin comes out, freshly baked and begging to be, well, in nicer terms- "taken advantage of". This one particular individual wants nothing more than that. After releasing the twin from its loaf pan and then slowly slicing it into a nice chunk, allowing the twin's aromas to produce its seducing powers, one takes a bite. The first bite is strange, a little awkward. But that must be natural as it is only the first experience to what seems to be a promising relationship. So, eager to explore, a second bite is taken. This time, a sense of nagging trouble is arising. The taste bud friends of this individual had approved of cornbread immensely, but the introduction of its twin is somewhat lackluster. The taste buds, though nice and polite, express their concerns about this new bread in one's life. They warn, "It's not that we don't like cornbread's twin. It seems very nice, it's just that... well, you two don't seem right for one another". One heeds the thought, but persists because the taste buds just don't know cornbread's twin that well. Cornbread was already so good; it would be very difficult for anything, even its twin, to make a better following impression. So one takes the third bite. But, one realizes that their friends' warning may have some substance. Cornbread's twin starts to show characteristics that one had not noticed before. Why does the twin seem so pale? Why does the twin complain that it is being ignored? The feeling of doom is now ever present as one faces the reality: Cornbread's twin is not the "one". One knows that it is time to end it- 4 bites is as far as one will go, but a fifth one might give the wrong impression. So, after enduring the wretched fourth bite, one breaks the news to cornbread's twin. "It's not you," one states, "but it's me. I just can't eat you anymore." The twin is visibly upset as it had been sliced, but cannot go back to its original form. One offers some help and introduces the twin to various friends and family member with the false hope that someone else will take a liking to cornbread's twin. But steaming trays of crescent rolls have dropped by at the same time the twin is out, so the twin remains untouched and unloved. Though one knows it's wrong, enough is enough. One asks the twin to leave the premises and puts the twin in the trash to go about its own business. It has been afterall a few days and one has been kind enough to lend the twin a helping hand (but certainly not mouth). So the relationship is over and one can only hope cornbread will come back in all its glory and wonderfulness.

So, what did win this year's first and probably-not-annual-because-I-just-came-up-with-this-thought best dish of Thanksgiving meal? Surprisingly, the stuffing.

I'm not a stuffing person. It's just not done in my house. In the past when friends have gushed about their family's stuffing (or dressing for Southerners), I'd reply with, "You crazy person! That's crazy talk- stuffing ain't good!". My reaction was not necessarily unjustified. I did do my best to make stuffing for Thanksgiving- from using packages that gauranteed deliciousness to making it from scratch myself. But the end result would prove very lacking as the only person who'd eat it was my brother (who doesn't count because he eats anything).

Nevertheless, stuffing IS traditional. So I whipped out my pseudo-Apple laptop (I put an Apple sticker on top of the real brand's logo) and looked up for traditional stuffing. I found two recipes- one using toasted/stale cornbread with the traditional soaking of broth while the other one using a bread pudding method where eggs and cream were ladled over the bread, allowed to soak, and then baked. As I have previously digressed, I am a lover of cornbread, so I was intrigued with the prospect of incorporating it into stuffing. Additionally, I had never made bread pudding in my life, but I have tasted it. And while I have always eaten the broth-soaked stuffing, as previously stated, I still was not a convinced fan. The mad scientist that I am (or at least that I pretend to be with a chemistry degree I am currently pursuing), I did a Frankenstein and tied these two recipes.... TOGETHER! Sans evil scientist laugh though- my friends say I laugh as if I'm choking, which is (sigh...) hardly intimidating.

Southern Cornbread Apple Sausage Stuffing- bread pudding style
Adapted from Gourmet Magazine November 1997 Sausage, cranberry, and corn bread stuffing and Jimmy Dean Maple Sausage Corn Bread Pudding
Note: I know this blog is specifically for single people who are in their 20s and provides ideas for single servings, and this recipe is definitely the antithesis, but it's a holiday recipe. Spend the holidays with friend and families- not by yourself! That's just sad and lonely :)

1 large loaf of baked sweet cornbread
1 roll of sausage (I used an original flavor brand-name sausage, but if you like fresh sausages use 3 while discarding the outer membrane)
2 medium apples (any can be used)
3 ribs of celery
1 large onion (yellow or white or red)
7 baby carrots or 2 normal carrots
1/2 tbsp dried oregano
1 tsp red chili flake
4 eggs
1/2 c orange juice
1/2 c chicken broth
1 c milk
1 tbsp parmesan cheese
1 tbsp butter

Equipment: 1 large baking sheet, oven, stove, spatula, large baking dish (glass or metal, must not be shallow or less than 2 in. in height), cutting board, chopping knife, large sautee pan, bowl, fork, measuring cups and spoons, aluminum

Preheat oven to 350° F.

Cut corn bread into bite size pieces and transfer to baking sheet in 1 even layer

Toast the bread cubes in the over for 20-25 min until mostly dried out and brown.

While bread is toasting, chop the vegetables and fruit into bite size pieces. Set aside.

Heat sautee pan on medium high heat and place the sausage in the pan. Cook sausage thoroughly while breaking it into little chunks with a heat-resistant spatula (5-8 min).

When sausage is nearly done, add chopped veggies and fruit. Season with salt&pepper (appropriately- I used 1/2 tsp salt and 1/2 tsp pepper to suit my own tastes) Sautee everything for 5 min or until veggies begin to soften and brown slightly.

Remove pan from heat and let mix cool.

When bread is completely toasted, remove from oven. Do NOT turn oven off- set it at 375° F

Place the bread cubes in the sautee pan with the veggie and sausage mixture. Mix thoroughly so ingredients are well distributed.

In a bowl, mix eggs and liquid ingredients and season with salt&pepper (I used 1/2 tsp salt and 1/4 tsp pepper), and oregano and red chili flake. Set aside.

Butter a baking dish and carefully pour and spread the bread mixture. Pour the liquid mixture on top and press the bread so that the liquid is absorbed. Let this sit for 10 min. Right before placing the dish in the oven, sprinkle the top with parmesan.

Cover the baking dish with a sheet of aluminum foil and bake in oven for 30-35 min covered.

Carefully remove the foil (beware of steam!) and let the stuffing bake for anther 5-10 min or until the cheese has slightly browned.

Serve the same day (and hot) or let completely cool and place in fridge for up to 2 days before reheating in a 350 degree oven for 30 min.

Can't wait till the next break...

Thursday, November 15, 2007

A cure for the windy blues...

Food, obviously.

A tough week has just come to an end for me. A lot of work piled as my fall semester slowly came to a close. So today's post is a bit pathetic when compared to the previous, but my brain is recovering from overuse and the weather was surprisingly bitter. So, as the title suggests, I will wrap myself under my duvet cover, turn on some mindless tv (a movie perhaps?), and let my eyes rest for a bit.

More will come once I get the feeling back in my brain...

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Ahead of the game...

While getting ahead of school work hardly ever happens, I do try to keep the rest of my life somewhat organized. ... Or not - depends on who you ask really. Say I'm organized to my wonderful roommate and lovely mother and their faces get red as they start gasping for air after laughing really hard. So, to be more specific, I'll say that I like to be organized with my food.

As much of a hassle as it may be, the cooking process and the glorious results ease my anxieties and worries. I don't like to describe it as "therapeutic" (the word seems to sterile and impersonal to me), but rather, the whole cycle of creating something delicious with a bit of effort and then tasting and enjoying what's been created is simply lovely.

I am active as I cook - from tossing the pasta with a spatula to chopping an onion to release its pungent aroma. I am aware as I cook - from changing the dial of the stove to checking the tenderness of a steamed stalk of broccoli. I am creative as I cook - from adding just a little bit more soy sauce to a peanut curry dish to making a new dish with last night's leftovers. For me, these qualities of cooking makes me feel fulfilled. This fulfillment makes me feel happy. And thus, cooking is happiness for me.

The happiness that accompanies my cooking is something I'm realizing is important to integrate more within my daily life. I usually try to fight against it, rationalizing and quelling the urge by reminding myself of the dish washing and multiple journeys that take place when cooking in a dorm setting. And most of the times, I do succumb to my feelings and end up buying something or eating snacks in place of a meal. But, in my gut, I know that the flavor of these purchases or munchies lose a bit of the soul. They are devoid of me and my influences and preferences. This food isn't for me - it's for someone who doesn't want to take the time to be me.

To be fair, I enjoy eating out on special nights and I do enjoy snacking (70% dark chocolate anyone?). :)

But, food, in its most basic form, is a source of nourishment. This nourishing comprises of the physical (the body), the emotional, and the spiritual. If either one of these components are missing in the food that I eat, I'm not really nourishing my whole self.

Thus, to lead back to the premise of this post, I want to be able to nourish myself physically, emotionally, and spiritually through my food more often. Though I know that some nights in my future have cookies for dinner or a microwaved day old bagel, I figure that I owe it to myself to at least do the best that I can. Thus, I'm beginning the process of organizing my food which essentially means early preparation.

Like the rest of America (it seems...) I like chicken. It's a reasonably healthy protein and a very versatile ingredient for multiple dishes (like salads, pastas, sandwiches, quesadillas, etc.)

However: raw poultry i+ a mini fridge = pretty much lots of bad things can happen

Over the weekend, I went to the grocery store and picked up some chicken tenders. When I got back, I opened up the package of tenders, put them in a plastic bag with some dijon mustard, salt, and pepper. After marinating them for a bit, I cooked them, but only till they were 75% fully cooked. I wrapped a proper portion of chicken with cling wrap and then aluminum foil. Afterwards, once they were lukewarm (around 10 min), I placed them into the freezer.

Simple tasty chicken (ahead of time)

1 package of chicken (tenders, breasts, thighs- whatever you like)
1/2 tbsp dijon mustard
1 tsp salt (per 4 oz of chicken)
1/2 tsp pepper (per 4 oz of chicken)
1/2 tbsp olive oil (per 4 oz of chicken)

Equipment: sautee pan, stove, plastic bag (preferably 1 liter sized bag), measuring spoons, tongs or spatula

In the plastic bag, mix half of the olive oil, all the mustard and spices together by sealing the bag and massaging the ingredients so that they are well mixed.

Add the chicken to the bag, seal the bag, and massage so that chicken is well covered. Let this marinade rest in a fridge for 30 min or on a counter top for 10 min max. If you place it in the fridge, give the chicken around 5-10 min to get the chill off. The fridge marinating method may be longer, but the marinade intensifies the longer it is in contact with the chicken, so I'd recommend the slow marinating method for more flavor.

Setting the stove to a medium heat, add the other half of the olive oil to the sautee pan and let it heat.

When the pan is hot (but not burning hot), place the chicken on the pan and let cook for 2-3 min per side (so that the chicken's surface gets nice browning but it isn't entirely cooked).

Remove the pan from heat and let the chicken rest until it is lukewarm.

Package the chicken in appropriate portion sizes with plastic or cling wrap. Then wrap the bundles with a layer of aluminum foil. Place these portions into the freezer.
-The aluminum foil adds extra barrier of protection to prevent the dreaded freezer burn
-Don't forget to date the food (by date, not the literal going out and sharing a glass of wine, though chicken does taste good with a delicious wine sauce. Date as in put the month, day, and year on the wrap with a permanent marker)

When you do get hungry:

Remove the foil from a portion of chicken. Either let the chicken rest in the fridge overnight (place the chicken in a sandwich plastic bag in case juices spill while defrosting). Or defrost in the microwave by placing it in the appropriate microwave setting.

Place the chicken on a dish and cook it for 2 min (for tenders) or until fully cooked (the original cooking should have cooked the chicken mostly, so it shouldn't take more than 5 min to fully cook in a microwave once the chicken is defrosted).

So, vooila! I've got chicken that will beckon at my call for the rest of the week!

How so? Well, pretty much a portion of chicken can be defrosted in the fridge and microwaved for eating (which only takes 2 min.)

So why not fully cook the chicken. In past experience, fully cooked protein that's been freezed and then re-heated has had something funky going on in the taste department. Yet, when I fully cook it (in the microwave after defrosting), I get the original flavor sans funkiness. But if you feel iffy about that, cooking it all the way is also fine if that's what you prefer.

This method of prep has really been effective for me. I find myself more excited about eating and most of the preparation is done since I don't have to worry about handling raw meat and then cleaning and cooking on a stovetop.

I'm slowly understanding how food, cooking, and eating affect my life... It's pretty cool, right?

Saturday, November 10, 2007

The taste of a mother's hand

Strange title isn't it? As I sit in a classroom, technically trying to study for a lab exam and recovering from a bout of mid-terms-gonna-kill-me-itis, I find myself thinking about my mom's cooking. No matter how many times I've seen my mom cooking her standard set of delicious dishes and no matter how many times I've tried to mimic them (even getting her to taste each layer of the marinade after each turn of the spatula), the taste of my cooking can never replicate hers. It is only after my mom puts a tweak here, a dash of soy sauce there, or waits a couple of more minutes, the flavors exclusive to her are revived. It seems as though it is not the ingredients that create the taste, but my mom's practiced hand that exudes that perfect flavor in every single one of her dishes.

Since leaving the "nest", I sometimes feel as though I'm beginning to lose some of mom's influence. I've strayed from my norm and have greatly expanded my tasting repertoire , ranging from authentic Vietnamese pho to a Sevillan take of tapenade. As adventurous and independent as my new discoveries have been, I also feel a sense of insecurity. Nervous questions arise about my place in this world, about my identity, and about who I want to be later on. But, the most scary question that I find myself asking is: "what if mom and I aren't as close as we were before?"

I'm slowly realizing that there's nothing to be worried about.

Last Saturday, after running errands (like picking up groceries to restock the emptying mini-fridge), my mom whipped up a warm lunch to sooth my low grumbling stomach. Mom's a seasonal eater- cold buckwheat noodles in an icy broth with lightly vinegared vegetables for summer, steamy bowls of stewed radish, garlic, and beef for winter. In this fall weather, mom made rice noodles steeped in warm chicken broth infused with onions, garlic, and spinach. Just before I took my first slurp, mom topped off lunch with julienned strips of an egg omelet. Before I knew it, my bowl was empty, but my heart felt full of the warmth and love only a mother could give. I felt grounded, comfortable, and happy.

This lunch isn't new. Mom's made it many, many times. Yet, those same feelings arise within me. No matter how many diverse flavors I've tasted, the same traditional food prepared by mom always ends up being the best. In a way, that's how my life is becoming. I am growing- progressing as a human being, sister, daughter, and individual. But, at the same time, being at home, surrounded by the family and friends I love, are things that are the most important to me. No matter where I go in life, these are the people and place where I can always go back to and feel the same love and acceptance.

It's like this story my mom recounted
: The wife loved her husband so much that she spent hours trying to make a perfect meal for him. When asked, her husband said that he was nostalgic for his mother's cooking, describing it as the best food he ate in his whole life. She cooked meal after meal, slaving away over the details and preparation, trying to replicate his mother's cooking. But after every meal, the husband would say "too salty", "too bitter", "too tough", and other criticisms. So frustrated, the wife went out and had coffee and small chit-chat with her friend. She confided in her friend and declared that she would divorce her husband if he gave one more criticism to her meals. So concentrated was she in her discussion, the wife realized that she only had 30 min till her husband would return home from work. She went home and in her haste to cook dinner on time, she ended up burning the food. "Aha!" she thought, "he can't possibly like this so I'll have a reason to leave him for sure". She served her husband the burnt food and waited for his response. Just after he had taken the first bite he shouted, "This is the best dish that you have ever made me!". The husband's mother had always burnt the food, yet being raised with that cooking, it was that particular burnt flavor that was perfect to the husband's taste buds.

single 20 serving Version of Mom's warm noodle soup

1 15.5 oz can low sodium chicken broth
1 medium onion
1 clove garlic
2 stalks of green onion
1 tsp Japanese dashi (powdered soup stock- available in Asian food stores or the international section of a grocery store)
1 c. baby spinach
1 egg
dash of salt

2 oz dried rice noodles

For sauce:
1/2 tsp sesame oil
1/4 tsp red pepper flake
1 tsp soy sauce
1/2 tsp minced green onion

Equipment: saucepan, stock pot, cutting board, knife, measuring spoons, ladle, spatula, strainer, stove, microwave, microwaveable container, small container for sauce

Pour a lot of water into the stock pot that will be used to boil the noodles. Cover the stock pot (so the water will heat up faster as the heat will be more concentrated) and set it to high.

While the water is getting hot, chop green onion stalks into small ringlets (reserving 1/2 tsp for the sauce)

Slice onion into long and thin (around 1/2cm) julienne strips

Roughly chop peeled garlic clove

Put the onions and garlic into the saucepan with the chicken broth and dashi. Put the soup on medium heat and let cook for at least 10 min. until onions are cooked through.

In a small dish, mix all the ingredients for the sauce thoroughly. Set aside.

When stock pot water is at a rolling boil (big bubbles), add a handful of salt to the water (do NOT put salt in before the water is boiling- the pot's surface can get eroded). Then add the rice noodles, mixing them apart with a spatula so that the noodles don't sit together.

The rice noodles cooking time varies (mine were ready after 6 min) so read the package instructions for ideal cooking times.
-The noodles should be cooked "al dente" (literal translation: "to the tooth"), meaning that they should have a chewy consistency and have a hint of rigidity, erring on the more undercooked side.
-If your noodles are soggy and totally limp, you've gone too far.
-If your noodles can stand mostly upright or has a hard time falling down when you hold them up, the noodles need a little bit more cooking.

When ready, drain the noodles in a strainer and hit them with a washing of cold tap water so that the cooking process is terminated. Strain excess water from the noodles and place the noodles in a large serving bowl.

Crack the egg in the microwaveable dish and scramble with a dash of salt using the spatula (or fork or whatever does egg scrambling best). Microwave the scrambled egg for 1-1.5 min on high.

Once the egg is cooked, carefully take it out onto the cutting board and julienne (cut the egg into thin strips).

Add the spinach in the soup and let cook for 30 sec. Remove the saucepan from heat.

Pour the soup into the bowl with the noodles. Top the dish with the julienned egg and serve with the sauce. Ladle as much of the spicy sauce as you'd like to adjust the soup flavor to your personal liking.

(Chopsticks are recommended, but not required while eating this noodle soup. Try using that hand coordination!)

There will always be good food with the most exotic flavors and spices. Likewise, life has its different turns, drops, and climbs. But in the end, the best food is mom's food. And in life, people and places that make me feel like myself are the things that will be the closest to my heart...

Thursday, November 8, 2007

The Disaster of November 8, 2007

On the morning of November 8, 2007, at 10:11 am in a dormitory of a residential hall, a great disaster occurred. As recalled by a resident, "[it] was the worst thing that could ever happen... Like ever... For real,".

The day started normal enough- chilly weather in the forecast, birds chirping about, college students pressing the snooze button for the third time. Yet, as the clock turned to that fateful 11th minute of the 10th hour of the 8th day of November, the catastrophe had turned the world upside down into pure chaos.

A half full bottle of red wine vinegar exploded its acidic content within the large drawer holding essential baking goods, tupperware, and a box of instant hot chocolate. Within the first minute, there was only confusion as there was little information disclosed about the severity of the disaster. It was only until the dormitory government issued enforcements from the packet of napkins that the true nature of the spill was realized.

Within the first five minutes, 10 napkin fatalities were reported. Most of the fatalities occurred in the save and rescue period when all the residents of the drawer were evacuated. Though only two residents were reported injured (the flour bag was stained with some vinegar while a tupperware lid was soaked), the napkin rescuers were hit most drastically by this red wine vinegar catastrophe. After the government had officially declared that the disaster had been cleaned and the enforcements retreated, the final victim count was at 25 napkins.

The reactions to the government response of the issue has been mixed. Many residents praised the swift action and the bravery displayed by the paper napkins. However, more residents say that the accident could have been prevented if the cap of the bottle was properly screwed. Others, questioned the organization of the drawer to begin with. An anonymous resident explained, "[H]ad the drawer been organized, [the red wine vinegar disaster] could have been cleaned efficiently and effectively". In spite of such complaints and curiosities, there has been little response. The government spokesperson has yet to officially issue a statement in regards to the government's handling of the recovery effort as of yet.

The future of the dormitory is still shaky as the effects of the red wine vinegar are still unknown. Dr. Googlethis of the University of Internet stated that the spill would benefit the overall sanitation of the drawer and the floor on which the vinegar spilled. "However," Dr. Googelthis assessed, "usually the white distilled vinegar brands have been used, so it is still very unknown whether the effects will be beneficial or not".

Whatever the outcome, all the residents hope to return to normalcy. All victims have been buried in the cemetery of the trash bin due to fears of contamination and further stinkage. While these napkin heroes will be soon forgotten, the stench of the vinegar certainly will not.

-The single20serving Blog Observer

Monday, November 5, 2007

With every defeat there is triumph...

Really salty popcorn can mess the tastebuds...

I've fallen under the general college trend that good food must also include free food. Many fellow peers have adopted this policy, even to the extreme that some students arrange their extracurriculars based on the clubs and organizations that entice members with boxes upon boxes of greasy pizza. I cannot lie- I've gone to some functions with little to no interest in making new buddies, but rather for grabbing a can of soda pop and a lukewarm slice of cheese pizza (ham and pineapple if I'm lucky).

However, this free food policy has a way in backfiring all my good intentions. I either end up with a bad tummy ache (and a head full of guilt- calories!!!) or just a really acidic and greasy aftertaste on my unintended victims, the tastebuds.

Alas, last night was another dreadful reminder as to why I shouldn't slack off and surrender good taste for something just because it's "free". It was also a cruel reminder as to why I should always listen to that little angelic yet, whisper of a voice, that keeps on telling me, "A little effort goes a long way".

Let me digress and recount the whole story. It started after I had celebrated a successful meal made in 3 min (which I shall discuss later- this post needs a happy ending afterall). But, I was made aware that there would be a viewing of a movie with the addition of free drinks and popcorn. I hardly eat theater popcorn since the price does not justify the fake butter and loaded salt content, but the word "free" seemed to overshadow the other descriptions like "these are college kids popping popcorn and dumping whatever seasoning comes with it, so you really, really think this is going to taste like anything good?". I was swooned my the romantic idea that I would go out under the evening sky and hold a warm bag of freshly popped corn as the coolness of the autumn air embraced me, and then hear the wonderful cracks and taste the soft hint of corn as I munched on the popped kernels. Oh, if only I had known how wrong I was...

Essentially, after a 1 min walk to return to my dormitory, I gave up on the, at best, lukewarm remnants of salt with some pieces of popcorn and promptly threw it away in my garbage bin. Though the wretched corn was physically gone, it haunted my hands, lips, mouth, and tastebuds. The skin on my phalanges stung was the salt seeped into the crevices of weekly papercuts and nail bites as my palm was greasy and reeked of the fake butter substance. My lips cracked as the salt devoured whatever moisture was left, and my mouth felt uncomfortable with the pieces of kernels slitting through the cracks of my teeth. And finally, the worst of the worst, my tastebuds were in torture as the extreme mess of salt, oil, and whatever things they put in that fake popcorn, launched a merciless invasion. Oh, why oh why did I do this to myself?

Perhaps in a more philosophical perspective, this bad food experience lends itself in the discussion of how food is not simply a physical substance but an effector of numerous bodily and emotional functions. While I was immensely pleased with my efforts and flavors of my previous meal, the popcorn disaster pretty much wiped out all pleasant thoughts afterward. It's funny, but also amazing how powerful food can be.

So, now that I've purged myself of that experience, single 20 serving perseveres onto better things like this wonderful White beans and tuna in tomato sauce. As aforementioned, I prepared this dish in a period of 3 min. How? It's all in the preparation...

Over the weekend, I set aside time to cook for the upcoming week. I made large quantities of dishes, stored them in plastic bags, and froze them. The beauty of this system is that the effort put in over the weekend produces immense awards over the long week. The white beans and tuna is just one simple example.

2-15.5oz can cannelloni beans
1-15.5oz can chopped tomatoes
1-8oz can tomato sauce
1/2 medium onion
1-4 serving packet tuna (packed in water, but oil is even more flavorful though more caloric)
1 1/2 c. chopped broccoli (frozen or fresh)
1 tbsp chopped garlic (or 2 cloves fresh garlic that's been minced/chopped very finely- don't substitute garlic powder- it just isn't the same)
1 1/2 tsp. dried basil flakes (3 tsp fresh basil)
1 tsp. dried oregano (2 tsp fresh oregano)
1/2 c. red wine (or water or broth, but if you use wine, choose something you'd drink)
3 tsp salt
2 tsp. olive oil

Equipment: stove, large sautee pan with top, spatula, knife, cutting board, can opener, strainer/sieve

There are two options in making this recipe: 1. is the very simple and humble "dump and stew" method while 2. is the "dump little by little, develop flavor, and stew" method. If you're in a time crunch and can't bother standing in front of the stove for longer than 10 min. go with option 1. The flavor of the dish will be less developed, but refreshingly simple and rustic. If you need some cooking therapy and have got the time to invest, follow option 2. The flavors will become more enhanced through the layers of caramelization and stewing.

Both options should follow these steps:

Open cans of tomatoes and sauce, set aside.

Open cans of beans, pour beans into a strainer, and rinse under water (if your tap water is drinkeable, go ahead and do this under tap) until the beans are relatively clean of any gooeyness.

Open the tuna packet and drain any excess fluid.

Chop the onion (and broccoli if you're using the fresh variety) into small pieces (they don't have to be excessively small, but smaller than bite size)

Option 1.

Heat the pan to medium high.

Add oil and then literally dump all the ingredients into the pan. Mix the ingredients thoroughly.

Set the heat to medium and cover the pan. Let stew for 5-10 min.

Option 2.

Heat the pan to medium high heat.

Add oil and let heat until a small piece of onion slightly sizzles in the pan. Once it's properly heated, add chopped onions and 1/2 tsp of salt (out of the 3 tsp required in the recipe).

Cook onions until slightly browned and add minced garlic. Let cook for 1 min. until slightly brown.

Add the tomatoes and sauce along with the spices and the 2 tsp of the salt&pepper. Mix thoroughly and cover the pan. Let the sauce stew for 5 min.

Add the drained tuna and mix into the sauce, making sure to break up the chunks. Cover the pan and let the sauce stew for another 5 min.

Finally add the broccoli and white beans. Add the last portion of 1/2 tsp. salt and incorporate thoroughly into the sauce.

Cover the sautee pan and let the dish stew for 3 min (trying not to overcook the broccoli).

Once you've completed the cooking portion of either option, you can dine or store this dish. The recipe makes a generous servings for 4-5 people (6-7 if serving as a side dish).

To store, let the dish cool till cool enough to handle (aka lukewarm). Store appropriate portions in plastic bags. While sealing the bags, try to push out as much air as possible since less air will lessen the degree of oxidization and make the bags a lot more flexible when fitting them into a freezer (or a freezer like mine that's built into a mini fridge). Freeze the bags and pull out whenever you're in the mood for white beans and tuna in tomato sauce.

I usually take a bag out the night before and put it in the fridge to defrost. Once defrosted, I place it in a microwaveable dish and cover with a napkin or paper towel. I heat on high for 1 min, then mix the sauce, and re-cover and heat again for another 1 min on high in the microwave.

Thus, the prep for this dish is extensive in the beginning, but is well worth it at the end when all I have to do is just heat in the microwave. Very simple, and very satisfying when I've got the pitfalls of free food to counter...

Saturday, November 3, 2007

NIBBLE, Nibble, nibble...

When everything else in the world (mid-terms anyone?) seems pretty "blah" and boring, bold flavors and spices can give a special boost to all the monotony. Though a lover of peace and soothing silence, sometimes I get the need to randomly sing bad songs 8 octaves higher or pretend to do the moonwalk with my slippers on a bamboo mat. These quirks might make a stranger run for the door, but it somehow keeps my insanity in check and makes me remember that I'm alive. Also, as I am in the 20s range of the life-spectrum, my mom always tells me, "It only goes down hill from here". So, since living is so short, why not add a little bit of fun?

That's why I decided to make something I've never made before: chutney

However, the catch was that I needed to use what I had on hand: mainly onions. Most of the recipes I had researched on chutney used raw onions, but as much as I can take a kick from some strong flavors, raw onions would be more like a jack hammer being slammed into my face. Nevertheless, determined to try something new, I persevered and decided to mix various aspects of different chutney recipes to create my own rendition. It's not traditional by any means, but it's quite delicious.

I caramelized the onions, mellowing the flavors to reveal their deeply sweet undertones. Red pepper flakes with a dusting of curry powder and cardamom countered the sweetness, but only to find harmony within a splash of tangy vinegar. With the chewiness of chopped dried cranberries, the chutney was reminiscent of all the Indian foods I've cherished, yet still had a hint of myself in it.

Caramelized Onion chutney on Walnut toast with mozzarella

3 medium onions
2 tsp olive oil
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp pepper
1/2 tsp curry powder
1/4 tsp cardamom (or mixture of cinnamon, allspice, and nutmeg)
1/2 tsp dried basil (add 1 tsp of fresh basil if that's what you have on hand)
1/4 tsp red pepper flake
3 tbsp red wine vinegar (or whatever vinegar you have on hand)
1/4 c dried cranberries
1 loaf walnut bread
1 medium-sized ball of fresh mozzarella (or a mild cheese that melts well)
2 tbsp olive oil for bread

Equipment: knife, cutting board, sautée pan, spatula, baking sheet, stove with oven and broiler

Slice the onions into half pieces. From there, slice them into thin 1/2-1cm slivers.

Chop the dried cranberries into small dices, set aside.

Heat the pan over medium heat with olive oil. Add all the onions when the pan is hot enough for the onions to sizzle.

Add all the spices (salt&pepper, pepper flakes, curry and cardamom)

Fry the onions for 1 min, and then put the pan on medium-low heat. Let the onions cook slowly and stir occasionally over 7-10 min or until the onions are golden brown and soft.
-Do not let the onions fry because they will get black and pretty darn untasty.
-You want a gentle sizzling sound as they're caramelizing.

Set the stove to medium high heat.

Add the vinegar and stir the onions together until the vinegar's liquid has been soaked into the onions and there is no extra liquid coming out (~2-3 min)
-Warning: Don't put your nostrils anywhere over the onions when you add the vinegar. Unless you have a high tolerance for intense scents or you've got a major case of congestion, this will wipe your sinuses clean!

Add the cranberries and cook for 1 min to let them warm.

The beauty of chutney is that you can eat it however you please to eat it. Be it as a tasty garnish on top of grilled meat or like me, as a great nibble when your mouth gets a little bored and your tummy is starting to whine.

For the nibbles:

Slice a loaf of walnut bread into crostini (think mini toast) sized pieces.

Slice a ball of fresh mozzarella (or whatever mild flavor cheese you prefer) into slices that accommodate the amount of toasts.

With 2 tbsp of olive oil, brush each side of the bread (just use a spoon- ladle oil and spread) and place on a baking sheet.

Set the oven to broil and place the bread slices. Be wary and watchful as each broiler has different intensities and the closer your bread is to the broiler, the faster it toasts. My bread took 1.5 min to toast, so aim to check your bread at the 1 min mark.

Flip the toasted sides with the untoasted sides and place in broiler to toast again.

Once toasted, place a helping of the chutney and top it off with a slice of cheese.

Return the bread to the broiler and take out once the cheese browns and melts (~1 min)

Chutney can be saved in the fridge for around 3-5 days, but it's also a great freezer item. I put them into plastic bags with appropriate portions and freeze the bags. Whenever I'm in the mood for chutney, I defrost and reheat in the microwave (a staple item in my life).

The upcoming week is going to be rough, so this chutney might just be the thing to enliven me...