Thursday, January 6, 2011

Food Vogue

I've said it plenty of times that food can be a medium to express art. This depends on both the artisan making it, and the person eating it to be discriminating enough to expect expression as well as nourishment. If you want to get really nerdy and pedantic about it, think of another form of art that stimulates all five senses. See your food, smell your food, taste your food, feel it's texture, and maybe even hear it crunch or sizzle. I'm not making some bid to make food more or less than it is, but even if we're not talking about haute cuisine, we can still have a dialogue about changing food trends.

Even for relatively young folks like myself, I can remember a time when eating a bit of strange involved three flavors: Italian (generic red sauce over a mound of spaghetti and...meatballs, remember them?) Chinese (chop suey and fortune cookies are as American as apple pie, guys), and Mexican (Hamburger meat and plastic cheese on a pre-formed Dorito). In relatively short term, we've evolved.

My God, have we evolved. Now we've got sushi available at almost any grocery store and college dining halls, my workplace cafeteria serves gyros, and my alma mater's strip of bars and restaurants adjacent to campus has the bizarre distinction of having a Thai restaurant across the street from - wait for it - another Thai restaurant. When was the first time you tried hommous? Now, it's arguably a bigger mover at grocery stores than the ubiquitous french onion dip. I tend to follow these things a bit and nerd out, so I'm hip to little trends like people putting strange foods in arrangements that look like tiny ice cream cones, which Thomas Keller pioneered. Two years ago, sliders became "in". Last year, everybody made fancy hamburgers. This year, it's predicted that hot dogs will be the next gussied up street food.

Sometimes I have to wonder whether it's awesome this is happening, or if I'm becoming a slave to fashion, just of another kind of fashion. Am I going to find myself in a cold sweat at 3AM trolling Urbanspoon for some new local restaurant to land on the scene? I don't want to be that guy. I'm no Patrick Bateman. Patrick Bateman was a serial killer, and that ain't cool. But this kind of stuff does interest me, and does find me wondering where the trends will go, and if they'll be worth following. You probably won't find me pulling hairs out over molecular gastronomy taking a shot at a Moroccan tagine, but you're kidding yourself if you don't think we'll be looking at an even more diverse food scene even in five years. Welcome to flavor country.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Making stock

Sometimes I'm glad I have a deep freeze.

Today would be just such a day.

You see, every once in a while, we roast a bird in our house. Usually a chicken, but sometimes the occasional turkey too. Once everything is carved out and parcelled into whatever dishes we're making, the bones are saved and put into dated freezer bags and tucked into the deep freeze, in anticipation of a backlog building up. Once I have enough (usually 4 chicken carcasses, or two chicken carcasses + 1 turkey carcass or 2 turkey carcasses, you get the idea!) I pull out the bones, arrange them on a baking sheet, and let them get toasty on 400 degrees for an hour, usually alongside a carrot and maybe half an onion. I take those out, cram them into my stock pot (sometimes violently, if it has trouble fitting) and pour about 12 cups of water in. My mom also got me a big mesh ball thing for putting herbs and aromatics into to flavor stocks, so I finally put that to use today as well. The stock I made will be used in pho, a Vietnamese noodle dish vaguely similar to ramen, so I flavored it with ginger, bay leaf, and green onions. When it's ready for showtime, it'll also get a little fish sauce and sugar, but that's for later.

I put my stock pot on a low simmer for a good two hours, all the while trying to press down the mass of bones a little farther down the pot, so everything is as submerged as possible. I kept the heat just under a boiling threshold, and after it was done, I carefully removed the small graveyard's worth of spent bones into a quadruple-bagged disposal, so I can keep it separate from our punk cats that just love to tear into neglected trash. The stock was then strained, skimmed repeatedly, and returned to the pot to reduce by a bit, until the flavor and seasoning were just right. After that, I poured the stock into a few storage tubs, and tucked them into the fridge for use later. The last thing I'll have to do before using them is to check tomorrow for the fat that will rise to the top and harden. After I remove that, I'll have a good ten cups of the best stock on earth, ready to do my bidding.

It's a bit of a ramble I guess, but if there's a moral to the story, you should probably be a miser with whatever kind of bones, shells, and stuff like that whenever possible. It's something that now comes natural to me and my wife, and when the payoff comes, it's always worth it.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Adventures in the Asian Market

Last summer, a friend of mine piqued my curiosity with a trip down to one of our city's many Asian markets. I think what caught my attention was the big bin advertising live bullfrogs for sale in both English and Chinese. Now, as a self-respecting southerner of sorts, I've never had an aversion to eating frog, but the markets I get it at usually sell them, well, hacked off at the hind quarter, ostensibly ready to batter and fry, as a southerner is liable to do. I was intrigued. I had to go.

Trouble was, I'm an awful driver. Purely terrible, even with GPS holding my hand. I wound up at an Asian market, sure enough, but the wrong one. A small, forgotten little corner store tucked into a service road near one of those strange shaved ice shacks that somehow still manage to stay in business. Alas, no mysterious live bullfrogs. Not even any power in the shop, as the store owner was having a very heated one-way argument with an Alabama Power guy over what seemed to be a botched wiring job. I settled for some very affordable napa cabbage, a tall boy bottle of oyster sauce, and I went home defeated.

I moved on to other things, namely trying to find awesome carnicerias in whatever barrio I could uncover. Found myself a ready supply of the finer things in life, like beef tongue and tripe. For the moment, my attention was suitably diverted. I made tacos. Lots of tacos. Tacos for potluck events, tacos for friends, tacos for family. Sure, there were other things (the usual work week curries, to name one), but I think it's safe to say that a good chunk of 2010 was spent flipping corn tortillas.

Still, I'm loathe to stay on one trend for too long. The lure of the Asian market never left me. My wife got me into rolling our own sushi, and got me hooked on that for a good month. Seeing a good idea, she bought me a very nice sushi cookbook, and in a one-two punch, a Vietnamese cookbook. Being a sucker for regional-specific stuff like that, I tore through that book in a day. I was hooked. My wife and I made arrangements with my friend and his girlfriend for a little weekend excursion.

The Super Oriental Market was a strange sight when we first pulled up. It was in a building that, half a lifetime ago, used to be a Quincy's steakhouse. You know, the ones with the big yeast rolls, and the back quarter of the establishment set up as a sun room for whatever reason. The glass windows and doors leading in were nearly completely obfuscated with ads, fliers, and the sort of things you'd expect at any other corner store or bodega. Some bored-looking lady chain-smoked on a picnic bench outside while a couple of kids ran around and fussed. In the abandoned parking lot, a few green patches permitted a few scrawny exotic trees to grow, which looked a bit beaten-down by the nasty winter we'd so far endured.

Upon entering, it was dark, cluttered, and smelled of fish. When I say fish, I don't mean that off smell that you get from stuff that's been neglected for a day or two and is going south. I mean it smelled of nice, fresh fish. And sure enough, to our right there was a wall of delights from the sea. Live eels, live crabs, prawns, snails, conch (OMG), flounder, and lobsters. The lobsters (my wife's favorite) were both enormous and cheap. At $9 a pound, they completely undercut Publix's atrocious $15 / pound, and my wife picked one out that was nearly five pounds!

Adjacent to the lobster tank, I also spotted my holy grail:

Live bullfrogs! The staff was rather busy (and I couldn't quite justify buying any at that moment) so I saved any questions on preparation for another trip, but it was still awesome to see they had them. I'm sure I'll have them for another time. Besides, it was lunchtime, the gang was getting hungry, and the market just so happened to have an in-market restaurant, the Red Pearl. We decided to tuck in for a little strange.

This hot little number is "Crispy salted baby fish with peanuts". I wasn't sure what to expect (well, I was thinking maybe anchovies or something) but it sure wasn't this. Each one of the noodle-like things in that picture is some kind of fry, ie, literally a baby fish. You can't see it from the picture, but they're the whole fish, including the head, eyes, and all. The taste was a bit like a seafood version of a pork rind, and was mixed well with peanuts and very potent chili peppers. Tasty with rice, but a little on the dry side. Still, fun to dabble in.

My wife got a Szechwan style chitterling hot pot, which was a wonderful bit of comfort food. Hot pots have always reminded me of a slice of old school Americana, and the old fashioned sunday pot roast, just different. Very filling stuff.

After we ate, we decided to get back to shopping in earnest. Most of it was window shopping, since we could only afford to shop for a few things we'd be able to use immediately, and for things that would keep, that we could use for future cooking projects. I loaded up on the jarred and bottled necessities for further Asian cooking: fish sauce, japanese curry packets, oyster sauce, dried shrimp, bean sauce, noodles of all sorts, rice paper, and much more. We picked up a few things we were sure we could dispatch, like quail eggs (finally, I find somebody around here who sells them!), gio lua for making Vietnamese banh mi and a whole rabbit. We were tempted by this little guy, a la A Christmas Story, but decided to save the "smiling Chinese turkey" for another day.

We even dabbled in a few of the non-edible items. In the sun room section of the building, they had a dizzying assortment of serving dishes, utensils, and the like. I priced out their woks, which were too expensive for my liking, and gawked at some fantastic looking serving dishes that would probably have to wait for another day. I couldn't resist a $15 chinese cleaver that was very heavy, very sharp, and full tang. Total bargain on that one.

At the end of a good two hour shopping romp, we finally wrapped things up and checked out. In a random act of kindness, and I think as some consolation for a couple of wide-eyed idiots coming into the store and spending a hefty chunk of change, the lady at the register threw in a jar of chinese rice-coated peanuts (in "pizza flavor") for free. Totally unexpected and awesome.

Of all my discoveries of strange little markets in and around this city, I have to say this was the most fun trip to a market I've ever had. I'm well good and spent for this month, but I look forward to going there again next month, and hopefully many more times in the future.


Since I'm a little sleep deprived, I forgot to put the link to the market's website on here, so lemme correct that now:

Sunday, January 2, 2011

I don't believe in resolutions

What's it been? Seven months now?

Yeah, My bad.

I'd like to tell you I have some big excuse about why I haven't posted. Like, I was backpacking through Europe & the Middle East and didn't have a spare moment to write anything, or I moved to some faraway land without internet. Nothing so interesting. Mainly, I've been working like a dog, and when I do remember to write anything of note, I usually pull the ultimate lazy move and just put a picture and a blurb on Facebook. It would be awesome if I had some way to cross-pollinate from FB onto this blog and vice versa, and I'm sure there is, but in my old age I've become rather confused by modern technology. I was throwing pics from my iPhone onto Photobucket, but even that fell by the wayside.

The good news is that I'm getting back into the swing of things. New Year's resolution? Naw. I don't believe in them. Those usually go kaput by the time Valentine's Day rolls around anyway, so I'm not setting a goal for the sake of the new year. I am, however, redoubling my efforts in the kitchen, and while I may not have anything good to say every day, I figure I ought to have enough content to put something worth reading up every week. Maybe I go seven days a week, maybe I go one. Either way, once I get back in the habit of dumping recipes or just random food talk on here, it'll get easier I'm sure.

And to wet your appetite, here's something random from the months I've been away:

Mussels over lobster & saffron risotto. A tradition of sorts. My wife gets a lobster on her birthday, and I use the carapace to make stock for a little something the day after. First time cooking mussels, that was pretty fun.