Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Adventures in Gardening (Portland edition)

Although the weather has been gray and rainy, inside and outside my apartment there are signs of spring.  I've been keeping a close (maybe obsessive) eye on my little egg cartons and am very pleased to report that several of my plants have germinated.  

Here are the times to germination so far:
Basil: 5 days
Chamomile: 4 days
Thyme: 4 days
Sage: 5 days (although there is another that hasn't come out yet)
Nasturtium Swiss Chard: 5 days (ditto)
Cilantro Nasturtium: 7 days (ditto)

I'm a little worried about the parsley and chives; none of them have come up yet and I only worry because the seeds are a few years old.  I wonder if I need to buy new seeds.  The catnip hasn't come up yet either, but that was for Tony and he has no clue so it's fine.  Today, I poured some boiling water over more parsley seeds and will try to plant them tomorrow.  Can't hurt I think.  When I looked back on my old notes, I saw that I had planted the parsley previously in August, when it was quite warm, so it could be the cooler temperature is keeping things a bit slower.

Since cilantro grows a long taproot, I moved my little plant into a recycled milk carton (8 inches deep).  Hopefully it will thrive, I love cilantro and it's been the one plant that's been rather hard for me to grow.  I plan on drinking a lot of milk and collecting these cartons as I think they will be useful to maintain all the herbs individually.  So excited about the basils though, and everything else!

Update (03.31.11): ACK!!  I think I must have mixed up my cartons when I was planting the seeds.  What I thought was cilantro was actually nasturtium, what I thought was nasturtium was swiss chard and today I found the cilantro.  Thank goodness the seedlings look quite different from each other.  This means I must quickly finish off the rest of my milk so I can move that real cilantro...

Meanwhile, things are growing quite well outside too.  I love these little pink sprouts that have appeared.  I wonder if it is lolla rosa lettuce?  I'm finding them so cheery and utterly charming.  I'm probably supposed to thin them out, but I don't really have the heart to in this case.  So I am just going to let all the lettuces fight it out themselves and hopefully it will work out for the best.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Moka Pot Coffee

I used to make my morning coffees in a little French press; it was just big enough to make coffee for one person.  A few months ago however, I was careless and it broke into a million pieces.  Undaunted, I opened my cupboard, took out my moka pot and carried on.  That is until 2 weeks ago.  I've had my moka pot for a while and the insides were starting to look toxic so I decided to clean it out with vinegar solution.  All the instructions I read online said to simply run the vinegar solution through as if you were making a regular pot of coffee.  Simple enough.  Except when I make coffee, eventually I'll hear a little sputtering noise and also smell the coffee.  That's usually how I know it's done.  This was not the case with the vinegar and by the time I remembered anything about it, the handle had melted off.  It seemed incredible to me that I managed to live 5 years in Philly without breaking so much as a glass (although I did fling a 1/4 cup measure into the dark irretrievable recess between my oven and wall) and now less than 6 months in Portland I managed to wreck my two main coffee makers.

However, I'm back in business again.  Above is Tony inspecting the new moka pot.  Here is my typical morning routine:

Moka Pot Cafe Au Lait

Fill lower chamber with Brita filtered water (up to the line).  Place the funnel into the chamber.  Grind 2 tbs of whole coffee beans using finest grind setting.  Shake coffee grinds into the funnel.  Screw top chamber on and place on stove over very low heat (flames should remain under the pot).  Turn off when you hear sputtering sound.  Take out favorite mug and fill a little less than halfway with whole milk.  Heat in microwave for 30-40 seconds.  Using a little hand held foamer (left by your ex-boyfriend a million years ago), create a little foam in your cup.  Pour moka pot coffee into mug.  Enjoy!

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Rainy Portland

I've been feeling vaguely listless and housebound all day long.  It's not really like me to feel this way because usually I have an interest I am pursuing in a single minded fashion.  Today though, I mentally ran through all the possibilities and didn't feel like doing any of it.  Quite strange.  In the end, what is getting me through today is a bit of cleaning and watching my plants grow and Manuelo swim around.  It's funny to think that you can actually watch plants grow, but it's true!  This morning when I checked, I only had 2 new sprouts, but as the day went on, I found more and more new ones.  It's exciting to see them grow right under my nose.

Last night I made a simple cake from a recipe I found here.  I had a bit of it for breakfast with strawberry jam, but the combo was far too sweet for me.  My cafe au lait doesn't look appetizing but it was quite tasty.  I like to make foam on the top with my little handheld foamer.

The purpose of the cake was to use up the 6 leftover egg whites I had from making ice cream (because God knows I shouldn't be making any more sweets right now while I have ice cream in the house).  While I can throw away a single egg white with no feelings of guilt, I can't seem to throw away 6.  Next time I will freeze the whites for a rainy day (oh wait, every day in Portland is rainy).  

This is probably the easiest cake I've ever made.  The flavor reminded me of the Burnt Sugar cake from Joy of Cooking and the texture was quite nice.  I would probably cut down on the sugar in the future though, as it was quite sweet.  A little teaspoon of vanilla extract would be nice too I think.  The recipe called for a bundt pan, which I don't own so I split the batter into two 9x5x3 loaf pans, because I didn't know how much they would poof up.  Now I think a single loaf pan ought to be fine.

Egg White Cake (adapted from nami nami)

6 large egg whites
250 grams sugar (next time use less)
160 grams flour
1 heaped tbs corn starch
1 tsp baking powder
100 grams melted butter (not hot to touch)

Whisk egg whites with 2 tbs of the sugar until very thick, pale and foamy.  In a separate bowl, mix the rest of the sugar and the dry ingredients together.  Fold gently into the egg white mixture (you will end up with a strangely rubbery sort of batter).  Fold in the melted butter.  

Bake in buttered bundt pan (or single loaf pan) at 350F for 30-40 minutes.  

Saturday, March 26, 2011

New Wall Decorations - Fat Red Bird

I'm really pleased with how my sofa wall is progressing.  Yesterday I added two more pieces, a knitted blue fabric in white frame and a painting of a fat red bird.  I'd been knitting that piece off and on; it came together very quickly.  I left the plastic cover off the frame so you can touch the fabric if you wanted to.  It is all about the texture.

Because this turned out so well, I was immediately inspired to make another piece for the wall.  Hauling out my long forgotten painting supplies, I decided that a spot of red on the wall was in order.  And so, very carefully, I painted out a fat red bird.

I really love this bird, it turned out exactly the way I imagined (which never happens).  I think the wall is getting close to done; I don't want to overcrowd it with things.  Maybe two or three more touches is all it really needs now.

Ferret-Made Gifts

Last night I came home a little out of sorts because I was sporting a headache and a heavy feeling in my limbs.  Was it the onset of a cold?  I shuffled into my building and checked the mail as usual and found a little box for me!  The present was from Ferret and receiving it lifted my mood immediately so that it was with the most cheerful feelings that I entered my apartment.

Inside the box I discovered several little soaps for me to try.  He sent me lavender, mocha, black vanilla, citrus, grapefruit, sleepytime and wake up rosemary.  I don't actually know which is which because they were not labeled, the two black ones are supposed to be mocha and black vanilla though.  And last night I used the wake up rosemary and enjoyed it immensely.  I love getting presents!

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Homemade Vanilla Ice Cream Is Off The Hook

When I accidently melted the handle off my moka pot a couple of weeks ago, I placed an order for a replacement on amazon.  Of course I was 5 cents short of qualifying for free shipping (why do they always do that!) so I promptly starting shopping for something else I needed to bring my order up (oh that's why).  It occurred to me that I needed a new ice cream machine.  I was given my Krups ice cream machine ages ago by a friend and since then the lid has somehow warped so that it doesn't stay locked down during churning.  This is understandably rather infuriating.  Since I've used my sister's Cuisinart with good results, I decided to get that one.

It was actually the purchase of this ice cream machine that prompted me to buy more vanilla beans than a single girl can use.  Except, now that I've made this vanilla ice cream, I'm no longer sure I won't use them all.  I may get very fat in the process though.  As always, I came across this recipe first on use real butter's site, although I've been hearing really excellent things about David Lebovitz's book, A Perfect Scoop.  And for good reason, this ice cream is divine.

If I owned an ice cream scoop, that picture would probably look better but I don't really care because the less you want, the more for me.  What impressed me the most (after the flavor) was how delicious it was straight from the freezer.  My past experience with homemade ice cream led me to expect a rock hard chunk of cream that would have to be left out for a while before it became remotely scoopable, but this ice cream was perfect.  The texture is like Haagen Daaz ice cream, no lie.  I'm rationing this out very strictly to myself but I confess, it is very hard to resist.  

In related news, while I was making the ice cream custard I also made some vanilla syrup (I have over 100 vanilla beans).  This picture is really bad but it's the best I can do at the moment because I don't want to expend more effort.  I promise, the syrup does not actually resemble pee.  Anyway, I've been adding to my morning coffees sometimes and it is nice.  

Vanilla Ice Cream (adapted from Perfect Scoop via use real butter)

1 cup whole milk
3/4 cup sugar
2 cups heavy cream
pinch of salt
1 vanilla bean, split in half length wise
6 large egg yolks
3/4 tsp vanilla extract
ice bath (I just chilled some water in the freezer while making the custard)

1.  Warm the milk, sugar, 1 cup of cream and salt (do not boil!).  Scrape out the seeds from the vanilla bean and add that to the milk mixture.  Throw the bean pod in too.  Cover and remove from heat, steep for 30 minutes.

2.  Pour the remaining 1 cup of cream into a large bowl and set a mesh strainer on top (important!  I ended up overcooking my custard a little so had to strain out some cooked egg). 

3.  In another bowl, whisk the egg yolks.  Then add the milk mixture from step 1 very slowly, while whisking the yolks continuously.  When everything is mixed, pour back into suacepan.  Heat again over medium heat, stirring continuously, until the custard thickens and coats the back of your spatula.  

4.  Pour custard through the strainer into the cream.  Add the vanilla extract and cool the mix over the ice bath.  Chill the mixture completely in the fridge (I left mine in for 24 hours because I have a job).

5.  When ready to churn, remove the vanilla bean and follow your ice cream machine's instructions.  You can rinse and dry the vanilla bean and throw it in some sugar to make vanilla sugar.  

Vanilla Syrup (adapted from Cook's Illustrated)
1 cup water
1 cup sugar
1/2 vanilla bean with scraped beans (I used a whole one because as mentioned, I have 100+ beans)

Combine sugar and water and heat until sugar dissolves completely.  Bring to a simmer and add vanilla bean pod and seeds.  Simmer for 4 minutes and then let cool.  Can strain out into a jar or not once cool (I didn't).  Keep refrigerated. 

The Lettuce Seeds Finally Germinate and Other Things

Of course, right after I planted my strawberry plants, the lettuces decided to germinate.  I took a few pictures but they were sort of impossible to capture decently because they are so small.  My lil ole point and shoot can only do so much after all.  But basically there were several new sprouts all over the place this morning and it is likely there will be more tomorrow.  I'm secretly extremely pleased they came up after all.

Tonight I sowed the parsley seeds that had been soaking in water overnight.  Parsley is supposed to be rather hard to germinate and some people even recommend pouring boiling water over them.  I am hesitant to do this and since I've had good results in the past just by soaking with water, I opted to do that.  I ran out of strawberry containers though, so I simply set my egg cups in a very shallow bowl and lightly covered with a piece of plastic wrap.

I'm trying to be very consistent about blogging, but sometimes I don't have any cohesive post in mind.  Since it's my blog and mostly for me to enjoy, I'll just have these hodge-podgey posts whenever I want.  This blog is overall pretty hodge-podgey anyway since it's just a collection of things I enjoy.  Therefore, I will switch gears from gardening and talk about dinner now.  

I met up with a couple of friends for dinner and they took me to Bete-Lukas Ethiopian Restaurant in Southeast Portland.  I've only had Ethiopian food a few times in my life, but I've always enjoyed it.  I'm not usually a big fan of eating with my hands, but it's really the only way to eat this, and the spongy slightly tart bread  is perfect for wrapping around bites of this and that.  I don't remember the names of the dishes we got to share, but I chose a lamb dish and a yellow split pea dish.  Everything was just delicious and the company was too.  I don't eat out often because I enjoy cooking and eating my own food; so whenever I do go out, it feels like a celebration.  I like that feeling and it is especially heightened when eating with sympathetic folk.  So thanks to B and S for a very enjoyable evening.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Starting Seeds Indoors for Noobs

5 garlic plants and 3 strawberry plants
Yesterday Laurie gave me three little strawberry plants from her garden.  She was trying to give me many more than that but I had to decline since my balcony space is so limited.  If I could though, I definitely would have accepted more since I love strawberries.  I didn't have time to prepare a new container so I just ended up planting them in the same container I had already sown the lettuce, nasturtiums and swiss chard in.  Since there were no signs that any of these were germinating, I figured the strawberries might as well go there, and if the others do decide to pop up I'll deal with them then.  The garlic went into shock a bit a few days after I planted them and the leaves got droopy.  But I think they are now recovering; a couple of the leaves turned yellow but the rest seem to be green and sticking up all right.

Little strawberry plant up close
Today I'm spending the morning and early afternoon at home awaiting my amazon delivery (ice cream maker and replacement moka pot, yay!).  It was the perfect time to start my seeds.  I'm no expert on this, but I had some success in the past doing it this way, so I thought I would share my method.

Starting Seeds Indoors
cardboard egg carton (do not use styrofoam!)
potting mix (seed starting mix is much better but I couldn't find it anywhere near me this year)
a large bowl
empty strawberry cartons (or similar)
repurposed trays (I used a couple of meat trays that had been washed well and a random plastic lid)

I've tried both starting seeds in egg cartons and toilet paper cardboard rolls and the egg cartons were by far the easier method, at least for me.  So first, roughly tear out each little cup from the carton so you end up with 12 cups.  I usually make a little snip with scissors if I have to and then use my hand to divide them out.  Using scissors, trim away the excess so you wind up with little neat cups as shown below.  Using a paring knife, make a drainage hole in the bottom of each cup.  Set 6 cups inside each strawberry container and then set that atop a tray.

If you don't trim the edges you can still fit some in, but it'll be a little harder.  Now pour out some potting mix into your bowl and add some water.  Mix it so it feels nice and wet.  Using the spoon, add some to each cup. You want to pat it gently in, but don't pack it tight.  You want the mix to be loose so the tiny roots can establish themselves.  I also add some water to the tray so that the egg cartons get wet too.  

Now you're ready to plant seeds.  Most of the seeds I plant are quite tiny.  Chamomile and thyme seeds are ridiculously hard to distinguish.  Do your best and drop two tiny seeds in each cup.  I like to space them a little bit apart.  I do this as insurance, in case not all the seeds germinate.  Some of my seeds are a few years old so this seems like a good idea to me.  If they both germinate, you will have to sacrifice one so the other can thrive.  Trust me on this, I dithered once between two basil seedlings and they both stayed smallish; finally I got rid of one of them and the other one shot up.  It's worth it.

So to plant, I drop the seeds in the cup and then push them gently down a little with my chopstick.  I tend to ignore whatever the package says and just plant them about as deep as the seed diameter.  This is much easier than doing it with your fingers.  To cover the seeds, I use the chopstick to push a bit of dirt over them.

When you are done planting one strawberry carton, close the lid and set on a sunny windowsill or under lights.  The strawberry cartons are nice because they keep some of the moisture in, but also allow air to circulate through.  I always water the tray so I don't disturb the seeds.  The water wicks up from the bottom.

And that's all!  You can see my ghetto and unstable setup in this picture.  I need to figure out a more stable way to mount that light.  My seed cartons are actually further away from the light than it needs to be at this stage so I will be stacking some books under them to bring them closer to the light.  When the seedlings have three set of true leaves (the first set of leaves are the seed leaves), you can transplant them to larger containers.  The beauty of the egg cups is that you just plant the whole cup and you won't have to worry about disturbing the seedling at all and the cardboard will decompose.

Swooning Over Tasty Korean Dinner

Brillat-Savarin said once (oft quoted) that "The discovery of a new dish does more for human happiness than the discovery of a new star."  I say, no contest!

Tonight I put together a marvelous dinner consisting of my newly made kimchi, bulgogi (both recipes are from the Kitchen Wench, whose site is an incredible source of delicious Korean and non-Korean recipes), some chopped broccoli tossed with a wee bit of sesame oil, and green tea.  I think cooking really must be one of the most rewarding activities in the entire world.  The whole time I was eating I was just stunned that I'd made all of it. Ok the chopped broccoli was not really impressive but I felt like my meal required a third dish (vegetable) and I was fresh out of any vegetables at the moment aside from frozen broccoli.  Sue me.  Fortunately, the Kitchen Wench has a whole list of tasty and appropriate side dishes and I will be making all of those as soon as is humanly possible.  The dish I really have my eye on though is Kimchi Chigae.  I always get the seafood version of that whenever I'm at Kunjip in New York.  Since I now live 3000 miles away from Kunjip and I've had a hard time finding anything that compares to it, I hope to be able to generate a comparable version.  If anyone can show me the way, it's the Kitchen Wench!

Monday, March 21, 2011

Christmas in March

I've been buying a bunch of things online recently and two of my packages arrived today.  The first was from Brambleberry and contained the thing I needed to make soaps for my sister's baby shower.  I plan on making oatmeal milk and honey bars to give as favors.  Since shipping is pretty pricey, I threw in some other items as well, to make it more worth it (I think that's how they get you to buy more stuff!).  All in all, in addition to the fragrance I needed, I also got three 3oz size lotion dispensers (will be useful for traveling), some crushed walnut shells and apricot seeds to try out as exfoliants and a lavender fragrance oil.  Brambleberry also included a sample scent, wakeup rosemary.

My second package was from Vanilla Products USA (ebay store).  I found out about them through the simple dollar's homemade gift series and it was also through this that I became interested in making soap.  But I digress.  I wasn't interested in buying vanilla in bulk until I bought a replacement ice cream maker (which will arrive tomorrow).  Suddenly though, the idea of fresh vanilla ice cream (my favorite flavor) could not be resisted, but my thrifty nature balked at paying the exorbitant prices they charge in the supermarkets for beans.  So I recalled this post and ended up buying 1/2 pound of Gourmet A Madagascar Bourbon Vanilla Beans for $26 + $5 shipping.  Vanilla Products also threw in a free pack containing 1/4 pound of Grade A Tahitian Vanilla Beans.  So how many beans did I get?  

Here we have the Madagascar beans.  The color here is not quite right, they look rather more black than brown.  And they smelled incredibly divine, just like warm vanilla.  Wonderful.  And there were 71 beans!  Some of them might have been stuck together so I may have more than that.  As for the Tahitian beans, they were shorter in length and there were about 45 beans in the pack.  I found the scent of these rather strange, sort of floral?  I'm not sure what to do with these.  As suggested on the package, I quickly triple wrapped each type of bean in plastic and then stuff them in different ziplock bags and stored them in my cupboard (cool dark place).  Cook's Illustrated suggests wrapping them (individually!) in plastic, putting them in a zip lock bag and then storing in either the freezer or refrigerator.  I may split them up and try each method to see...I certainly have enough beans.  There will be no individually wrapping though, that's just insane.

So basically, I have more vanilla beans than one person could possibly use.  Some of it will go to the Bunny and my mom and I think I will give some to Laurie since she's been gifting me with plants.  I plan to make vanilla extract and vanilla ice cream and possibly creme brulee, but what does one do after that?  Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Homemade Kimchi

For this delightful recipe, I owe the Kitchen Wench.  She was also the source (via use real butter) for the bulgogi recipe I like so much.  I guess I don't know if the kimchi recipe is delightful because I just made it today and it still has to ferment, but it smelled amazing when I was mixing it up so I'm pretty confident it's going to be a lot better than the supermarket kimchis I've been buying lately.

Before I started on the zhong zi, I actually prepped my napa cabbage.  This was pretty easy, divide the napa into quarters length wise, plunge in salty water, and then sprinkle the leaves with more salt.  There are a few things I would do differently next time.  First I would cut the kimchi into smaller pieces at this stage instead of later, because after all the water in the napa is gone it's a little harder to cut.  Second, I would probably wash off the salt a little earlier next time.  I did about 5 hours and maybe next time I'll do 4 hours since I like more crunch in my kimchi. (Ok, after tasting this I'm not changing a damn thing.  It's so good as it is).

After this, I washed the napa thoroughly in a couple washes of water and then squeezed whatever water I could from the leaves.  Then the leaves were left to drain while I made up the spice mix.  Unfortunately, when I was shopping for ingredients, I bought rice flour, thinking it was the same as the rice powder.  After perusing a few other sites, I realized that I needed sweet rice flour, which contains gluten.  Regular rice flour does not.  So, I decided to substitute all purpose flour instead, which at least has gluten.  Once mixed up, the spice mixture resembles a paste, which surprised me for some reason.  While the recipe says to blend the onion, pear and white radish into a pulpy liquid, I got very little liquid, it was mostly pulp.  I also discovered that the blender will not blend any of these things so was reduced to running through little bits at a time through my mini-food processor.

And then once all mixed up, into the jar it all went.  I was very pleased to find that it all fit into my one jar.  I had some daikon radish left over so I chopped those into small pieces and mixed them in.  I think I should have salted them like the napa, but at this point, I wasn't going to wait another several hours just to throw in a few of these guys.  The jar is currently sitting in my laundry closet, can't wait to try!

(My only fear is that the kimchi might end up being too salty.  Kitchen Wench says not to buy the chili powder that already has salt mixed in but I forgot about that when I bought mine.  Of course, mine has salt mixed in.  I haven't noticed this warning on any of the other sites so I'm hoping this will not affect the results...)

Also, I'm completely impressed that Kitchen Wench and her mom make 10 napa cabbages worth of kimchi every month.  Much props to them.

UPDATE (1 day later): I just tried a bite of the kimchi and man oh man it's good.  Definitely the right amount of salt.  I ended up having some for dinner (with Kitchen Wench's bulgogi recipe) and it was just incredible.  I'm contemplating making more kimchi this coming weekend because now I'm afraid of running out!  This recipe is perfect.

Kimchi (adapted from the Kitchen Wench)

1 head napa cabbage
1 1/2 cup salt (I don't know how much I actually used though)
4 cups water

1.  Cut the cabbage into quarters, remove the stem.  I would cut my cabbage into smaller pieces also at this point.

2.  Combine 1/2 cup of salt with the water.  Plunge the napa through, one quarter at a time, making sure the water touches everything.  Drain the water and then sprinkle salt over each leaf, focusing on the white stems.  I just had my salt next to me and pressed my fingers in the salt and then ran them over the white part of the leaves.  I figured the green parts already went through the salty water and that would be enough.

3.  Let the napa sit for 5-6 hours (I would do less next time) and then rinse the leaves in clean water a couple of times and squeeze the water out.  Let drain for 15-30 min.

Spice Mix
1 tsp sweet rice flour
1/2 cup water
1  cup Korean chili powder (gochugaru, not flakes)
1/2 cup fish sauce
2 tbs white sugar
6 green onions, sliced into 1-2" pieces
5 cloves garlic crushed 
1 knob of ginger, grated (I food processed both ginger and garlic) 
1/4 nashi pear, cored and peeled (I used bartlett)
1/4 onion
200 g white daikon radish

4.  To make the spice mix, combine the rice flour and water in a little pot and cook until the mixture is very thick.  Let cool.

5.  While the porridge is cooling, blend the garlic, ginger, pear, onion and radish together.  When the porridge is cool, add chili powder, sugar and fish sauce, then pear mix and green onions.  Combine well.

6.  Mix the napa leaves with the spice mixture with your hands, making sure all the leaves are well coated.  Press the mixture down into an airtight container and store in a cool dark place to ferment.  Make sure to leave some space on top to prevent overflow.  Taste it after 3 days, and if the leaves tastes slightly tangy, soft but with some crunch and spicy, then place in your fridge.  I haven't gotten to this part yet but I plan to taste it after 1 day to see what it is like.

Zhong Zi

I have been a very busy bee today, immersed in a culinary adventure.  The first thought I had when I woke up was, yay zhong zi!  I tried to be good about taking pictures, but was still rather sporadic about it.  Fortunately, I got the recipe from use real butter and SHE is phenomenal at picture taking.  So for clarity on any point, please visit her site.  You should visit her site regardless, because she is an amazing cook and photographer.  Her site has really become my go to site for recipes.

Yesterday, I prepared the meat filling and set the rice out to soak.  There are no pictures of this sadly.  What I did manage to do though, was to burn the meat a little to the bottom of my pot.  I don't know if my heat was too high or maybe I just didn't need to take it out to 30 minutes as the recipe suggested.  Will keep a closer eye on things next time.  Fortunately, it wasn't too bad and most of it was salvaged.

This morning, I popped out of bed like a loon and fried the raw rice together with the dried shrimp, soy sauce and bit o salt.  I like peanuts so I added some when I made the filling, but next time I think it would be better to add the peanuts to the rice mixture.  It was kind of a drag digging around for peanuts in my filling mix to make sure some got incorporated into each zhong zi.

After that, I boiled the string (I cut each about 26 inches and that worked out all right, but next time I"ll go for 30 inches.  I think the string should be reusable, just boil again and lay them out to dry) and the bamboo leaves in my large stockpot.  I only filled my stockpot halfway with water because I didn't want to wait forever for it to come to a boil.  Next time I'll fill it up almost all of the way because I had some bits of bamboo sticking out and it was a drag.

Next it was time to wrap!  For this step I highly recommend you head over to use real butter's site.  I scrutinized her pictures closely and still had trouble.  I think I got better toward the end but these were not very easy to wrap.  The unsightlyness of my zhong zi fortunately, did not affect the outcome however.  I only stashed one piece of meat and a piece of mushroom with each zhong zi, but next time I'll add more.  For some reason, the ones I'm used to buying always had very salty meats and mushrooms so I was afraid to add too many.  I found the meat and mushroom to be perfectly seasoned in these though, so will have no scruples in adding more in the future.

It seems incredible that you can spend a bunch of time making these and they are not immediately edible.  But such is life.  The recipe recommends either boiling in water for 1 hour or steaming in a pressure cooker for 30 minutes.  I tried both methods and I think the texture of the rice in the boiling method was much better.  Perhaps I needed to steam longer; the rice in the steamed ones were tender, but not as soft and sticky as the boiled ones.  The feel of grease was also a little too much.  Again, this might be because I didn't steam them long enough, but since boiling turned out so well, I will be sticking with that method in the future.

The one shown here is the steamed one.  You can see that the rice doesn't look as soft as it should be.  In any case, the zhong zi were delicious overall.  I've already eaten 3 (with some soy sauce sprinkled on them).  I've frozen the rest of them (for me the recipe made 11.  I played around with wrapping single leaf zhong zi and two leaf zhong zi so I have two leaves left over).  Make sure the zhong zi are cooled before freezing in zip lock bags.  I remember I used to just microwave frozen ones to heat them up, but I imagine you can steam them too.  I have some filling leftover so I'm totally soaking more rice now to make more.  I love having a stash of these in my freezer.

I think if dumpling making was Part I in my journey of becoming a traditional Asian grandma, zhong zi would be Part II.

Zhong zi (adapted from use real butter)

3 cups sweet rice
20+ bamboo leaves (use 2 for bigger zhong zi)
butcher's string (at least 24 inches, I think 26-30 is best)

1.  Rinse the rice until the water runs clear.  Soak overnight.  Drain the rice.

2.  Rinse the bamboo leaves and boil the leaves with the string for 5 minutes.  Remove and drain.

Meat Filling
1 lb pork belly
3 tbs soy sauce
2 tbs fried shallots (found in Asian grocery)
1/2 tbs shaoxing wine
1 tsp sugar
1/4 tsp ground pepper
5 Chinese black mushrooms (rehydrate in boiling water, remove stems, slice in quarters)

3.  Cut the pork belly into 1 inch thick pieces.  Marinate the pork for 30 minutes with the soy sauce, shallots, wine, sugar and pepper.  Add the mushrooms and simmer (on very low!) with the lid covered for 30 minutes. I recommend making this ahead of time so your life is not overwhelmed by zhong zi.

Rice Mixture
4 tbs vegetable oil
1/4 cup dried shrimp, chopped (or buy really little shrimps)
1 1/2 tbs soy sauce
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp ground pepper
as many raw peanuts as you like

4.  Heat the vegetable oil in a large pan and cook the shrimp until fragrant.  Add everything else and stir until well mixed.

5.  To wrap, take two bamboo leaves and partially overlap them.  Make a cone and add some rice then some meat filling then more rice*.  Bring the top part of the leaf down and tie it all together with string.  This step takes quite a bit of practice and you may end up with something interesting looking still.  But as long as there is no rice falling out, it's probably ok.

6.  To cook, put the zhong zi in a large pot and cover with water.  Bring to a boil then turn the heat to low and simmer covered for an hour.  Serve hot with soy sauce!

*Note: you can also add some salty duck egg yolk in here.  Sometimes I find them too intense, but I may add a little next time, probably just a quarter of one.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Sunshiny Saturday With Only a Little Rain

The weather this week really got to me; for the first time, I understood what people meant when they said that it rains a lot in the Northwest. I don't know if I was lucky or maybe I was traveling too much to notice, but I didn't find the rain too bad this winter. Sure there was always drizzle, but the sun frequently peeked out and there were many days of perfect dryness. This weekend I decided not to go to lab at all but to spend my time being domestic instead. Before I can dive into cooking though, I had to finish my leftovers. So you see above, my last bowl of broccoli cheese soup. It's hard to cook for one person sometimes because my enthusiasm for a dish wanes considerably once I've had it more than 3 times in one week. I didn't quite finish this bowl, but it was enough to assuage my conscience.

For an early lunch I had my last piece of chicken and fixed a bowl of noodle soup from the drippings. I was completely out of vegetables (yay! no waste!) and my bowl of soup looked very sad without any green for company. Fortunately I did have a bunch of scallions and one sliced thin was the perfect addition. This was eaten with a great deal of hot chili garlic paste of course. Perhaps it's the weather, but I've been leaning toward my own version of comfort foods this week. That means noodle soup and chicken roasted with soy sauce and garlic and the simple pasta in my last post. I like noodle shaped things.

Fueled by my leftovers, I was ready to tackle Fubonn supermarket. The first time I went (was it a month ago? more?) I spent a lot of time just walking around and staring. So many things I'd never seen before (and I am no novice when it comes to the Asian supermarkets). This time though, I was shopping for a purpose and therefore took a more focused approach. My goal this weekend is to make zhong zi (recipe from use real butter) and kimchi (recipe from the kitchen wench). Very excited about both.

Sometimes I think the reason I became a scientist is because I enjoy working with my hands. I love making things and doing things and therefore enjoyed benchwork. Cooking from scratch fulfills a similar need and has the added benefit of generating delicious things you can't buy. I don't like very persnickety recipes (boil this tablespoon of what have you in one pot, another cup of something else in a different pot and three other things in three other pots, etc), but I don't mind cooking things that take time. Spending a couple of hours making dumplings is time well spent; if the outcome is tasty the process feels satisfying. And even if the outcome is not perfectly tasty, if the potential is there, then you make a note and adjust the next time. I like that part too, of putting my own stamp on a recipe. Cooking is an ever-evolving skill for me and it's exciting to go new places, as I become more practiced and more confident in my abilities.

Broccoli Cheese Soup (adapted from all recipes)

2 (10 ounce) packages frozen chopped broccoli
4 cups chicken broth
3 tablespoons butter
1/2 onion, chopped
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
2 cups milk
8 oz processed cheese food (eg. Velveeta), cubed
4 oz or more extra sharp cheddar cheese, cubed
salt to taste

In a large pot over medium heat, simmer the broccoli in the broth for 15 minutes. In a separate skillet over medium heat, melt the butter, add the onions and saute for 5 minutes, or to desired tenderness.

Add the flour to the onions and stir well, forming a pasty substance. Gradually add the milk and whisk until thick. Add this mixture to the broccoli mixture in the pot and stir well. Then add the cheese, stirring until melted. Finally, add the salt. (Note: Be careful not to let the soup boil or the cheese will break down).
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Friday, March 18, 2011

Assorted Wines

Right before I left for Israel, I spotted a nice groupon for wineinsiders.com. I never used groupon before, although of course I'd heard of it. Since I've taken to drinking wine very regularly, I decided to go for it (the deal was $25 for $75 worth, a $50 saving) and joined groupon just for this deal. I didn't get around to purchasing any wine until after my trip but I ended up getting the 28th anniversary mixed 12 pack. It's very exciting to have so many wines delivered to my door; I don't own a car so I always have to grocery shop rather carefully (my arms are pretty puny). I used to lean toward drinking beer, and to be honest, the size of a beer bottle suits my tolerance more than the size of the typical wine bottle. But in Philly, I had a corner store that stocked many excellent beers, and here in Portland I have to walk a ways. So wine is for home and beer is for going out. So far I've only tried the pinot grigio and I can't say much about it because oops, I know nothing about wines. So I'll be honest and just say that I don't find it that special but it is nice to have with dinner.

And speaking of dinner!  Tonight I fixed a favorite standby of mine, pasta with garlic and cheese.  I guess it's probably a standby for everyone, I'm not special.  I like it because in addition to being super fast and easy, it also delights the taste buds.  The directions are:

Boil some thin spaghetti or linguine in a pot until al dente.  While the pasta is cooking away, grab a few cloves of garlic and chop (imagine your bowl, imagine how much garlic you'd like to see in your bowl, number your cloves accordingly).  When the pasta is near done, heat a dollop of olive oil in a little pan and cook the garlic a bit.  Grate a bunch of parmiggiano reggiano cheese.  Fish out the pasta with tongs, toss in the garlic and olive oil, the grated cheese and sprinkles of salt.  Fin.

I recommend eating this rather quickly because I think the cheese gets kind of weird after a little while.  Cook's Illustrated could probably explain why to you, but I'm a bioengineer/biologist, not a food scientist so you'll be getting no explanations from me.

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Freezing Spring

According to what I learned from my elementary school days, the months of the seasons are as follows:

Summer: June, July, August
Fall: September, October, November
Winter: December, January, February
Spring: March, April, May

So technically, it should be spring and I should be greeting lettuce seedlings.  Unfortunately, right after I planted the suckers (direct sowing into my container on the balcony), the weather dropped to low 40s and it has rained incessantly.  This recalls something else I learned: March comes in like a lion and out like a lamb.  So despite checking obsessively the past few days, I still have no seedlings.  Perhaps I should have learned something from living on the East Coast for so many years, which is that the seasons often fall along these lines:

Summer: May, June July, August
Fall: September, October
Winter: November, December, January, February, March, half of April
Spring: the other half of April

This year though, while I am shivering under multiple sweaters, my friends back East are scootering all over the city in light jackets.  You know who you are!  

I have seen nary a fly all day so I think I will start some plants indoors this week, wish me luck.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011


1) I've floated various ideas around for decorating the wall above my sofa, changing my mind with the winds. In Israel, I picked up a postcard (the three men you see on the bottom) from the souvenir shop lady who kindly arranged a ride for me to Ein Gedi and I bought a photograph from a lady at the crafts market in Tel Aviv (graffitti bird next to fire hydrant). Since the frames in no way match the white one and the topics are varied, I've now decided to just add whatever I like gradually to the wall and hope it looks all right at the end. I'm currently knitting a piece of blue yarn together to put into yet a different white frame.

2) Portland has been quite quite cloudy white and rainy recently. I can't tell if it's Portland winter or Portland spring. Someone told me summer doesn't start here until July 4th; I hope he was exaggerating. The other day I looked out my windows though and spotted this crow (or raven? whatever, a big black cawing bird). He called to his friends for a while, but since they wouldn't fly to this roof, he decided to fly away and join them on theirs.

3) The urge to grow things has become almost unbearable. I can't start any seedlings indoors yet, not until my flies all die off. I think next weekend I ought to be able to. But I started a container outside and have sown lettuces, swiss chard and nasturtiums. The long green shoots you see here are the garlic bulbs Laurie gave me. It's the first time I'm growing garlic and I'm very excited. I think I probably crowded everything too much in the container, but there were just so many things I wanted to grow. The things (except for garlic) in this container will not survive the heat of summer so when that time comes, I will fish them out and plant new things. I plan to dedicate a second container just to herbs and would like a third for a squash plant.
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Monday, March 7, 2011

Travels in Israel and a New Perspective on Life

I got back from my conference Saturday night and although I'm woefully jet-lagged (a condition not helped by my crazily affectionate cat), I feel refreshed and renewed. It's funny that I used to think of myself as someone who didn't much care for traveling. This changed in 2010, because I had to do so much of it, and somewhere along the way I realized that I was loving it - the adventure of being in new places, experiencing different cultures and sights and smells. I've decided that going to new places is something I want to keep doing, even if it's just new places in the US and even if it's just by myself. This was the first time that I ever visited a place alone and it was not scary and it was also not lonely. Granted, I was only actually alone for the first and last segments of my trip (and almost everyone in Israel speaks at least a little English, plus the country is quite safe for women) but I think this is something I can do. And I'd rather do it alone than not at all. So I think I will try to plan one trip a year at least and save my pennies for this. Owning a house of my own used to be my major financial goal, but I think traveling might top that now. From this trip too, I found out that I am more of an outdoors person than I thought. I loved hiking in the desert canyon and eating around a fire and running my hands over rough and smooth rocks and scrambling through streams. It makes me wonder what else I might like.

I've also decided to treat the place I'm living (currently Portland) as a city I'm visiting. Because when I live somewhere, I tend not to be terribly adventurous once I find some places I like. I tend to stick to those places and not venture to look at the rest. When I'm visiting a city though, I explore and roam and sample as much as I can and that is something I should be doing here. When I leave Portland, I should know it like the back of my hand. In Tel Aviv, I went to the art museum and had a really grand time. (Actually, my visit coincided with some kind of Israeli art event so I got some free wine and strawberries dipped in yogurt. I may also have wound up in the background of some kind of show, because there was a camera crew wandering around and many trendy arty looking people). I used to go to museums and galleries when I lived in New York, and for some reason I never did this when I lived in Philly. It's ridiculous that it took going to another country to remind me that this is something I enjoy. But now I remember and so next weekend I will take myself to the art museum here for a leisurely afternoon. And once a month I will try a new restaurant. And when it gets warm here again, I will go on hikes, because I am now a person who likes to go on hikes.

I'm not going to do a detailed post of my travels because that will just be too much and too boring, although I kept a diary of sorts for myself. Above are representative images of the three places I visited: Jerusalem, Ein Gedi and Tel Aviv. They were each remarkable in their own ways and I wish I had had more time. Each place had a strong sense of history but to generalize: Tel Aviv was modern, Jerusalem was religion and Ein Gedi was nature. Tel Aviv was a city after my own heart, jumbly and energetic, with a lovely beach and markets and shops. It was a very walkable city and I spent my day walking everywhere.
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