Mapo tofu

Chinese food. It’s a mystery. It tastes one way in a restaurant and completely different at home. Sure it’s a different kind of cooking or maybe it’s just a whole different world. I dunno. I got this recipe for mapo tofu from the New York Times. (You can see it here) And after a quick glance at the ingredients l felt like I didn’t have everything I needed so I went to 2 different Asian stores in search of such things as “spicy broad bean paste.” On the one hand I like shopping in foreign countries but these were far and away more foreign than most things I’ve encountered outside of the USofA.

$7,425 later I got home (and I will admit that I may have purchased some items just because I might have heard them mentioned on a YouTube or because the packaging was interesting) and a quick check with the recipe revealed that none of these were the right thing. When I’d asked a clerk at the one store he had no idea what I was talking about, granted it was really a Vietnamese store but I thought I’d give it a shot (mapo tofu is Chinese) and the other store where I may have had more success there were 80 people in line and the poor harried woman checking us out appeared to be the only person working so I wasn’t going to engage her in some kinda lame, “So, funny story, I saw this recipe in the New York Times—I have a subscription—but really only for the word games . . . do you play Wordle?” I just checked out without finding spicy broad bean paste (and believe me, I looked). I wonder if she’d noticed that I had an Edwin shopping bag with Japanese lettering on it so I could be, you know, at one with my Asian brethren.

Anyway, long story longer, I made the mapo tofu and as I imagined, it was nothing like the mapo tofu that we get in Chinese restaurants. Tofu, I dunno, tastes like nothing to me. It would have been fine without the tofu, or at least less tofu, more mapo.

Anchovy news

I had lunch last week with a fellow cooking blogger (and YouTuber) Charlie DeSando. (Blog here, and YouTube here). During our conversation the topic of anchovies came up—he is pro and I am con, in case that is not clear. Of course, he’s Italian so his stance, while repugnant, is forgivable. But later, when I talked enthusiastically about my love of pasta alla Norma, he reminded me that it contains anchovies as does puttanesca another of my loves so I can’t be all that anti-anchovy. Whatever.

So last night seemed like the right time to make it, puttanesca, I mean. I had all the ingredients even though I’m not exactly sure what a puttanesca recipe might be. I could have asked the google but I know I can wing it. Besides, everyone has their own idea of how it should be made just like recipes for chili and stew, but with puttanesca olives, garlic, onions, hot peppers, capers and anchovies are probably in the mix.

What isn’t in the mix, I’m pretty sure, is Boursin cheese which for no particular reason I dumped into the sauce. What the hell, I had some left over, seemed like it would work. And what unquestionably is not a part of the recipe is cooking the pasta in the sauce. I’m pretty sure doing this might get me kneecapped in some circles. What can I say? I’m lazy. Clean up is easier and cooking the pasta in the sauce gives it a creamier texture and the Boursin gave it a creamier taste. I topped it with Monterey Jack cheese, obviously another violation of some code or regalomento that may well get me barred from entering Italy. And while it wasn’t as pretty as it might have been, and there may be dire consequences, it was absolutely and totally delicious.

And in another quirky twist of something or other, the New York Times Spelling Bee pangram that day was anchovy.

Zoom dinner parties

A pared down version of the food group met, exchanged food stuffs and then went home to eat them in a surprisingly fun Zoom get together. I made dessert. Tangerine almond tartlets. As complicated food items go, this was right up there with the best. In point of fact, making this tart was on the opposite end of the difficulty spectrum from the pizza.

First there is the tangerine zest short crust pastry. Just the words alone give me pause. While I am sure I’ve made a “short crust” at some point in my life but it’s not a go-to item and whilst reading the ingredient list followed by the process “Add the tangerine juice micro-droplet by micro-droplet” is never the kind recipe I feel I can comfortably bulldoze my way through which is my go-to method of making most things. When I’d completed the crust and patted it into my tartlet pans (in a masculine way) I then had to make caramel using superfine (say what?) sugar, brown sugar and orange blossom honey—I didn’t have that but I have my sister’s honey and there was no one around to chastise me so I went with it.

Caramel is something I am not familiar with and it frightens me. Possibly because the one time I recall making it I tasted it not realizing how hot it gets and burned the roof of my mouth right up into the prefrontal lobe of my brain. Not to mention that cooking shows are always issuing dire warnings about the dangers of caramel burning or crystallizing or seizing, requiring incessant brushing down of the sides of the pan with water, or in this case tangerine juice. I’m not really sure what happens because it never actually seems to happen on these shows. And it didn’t happen to me either but that didn’t stop me from being on high alert the entire time I was making it.

Once that was made I added toasted almonds to it and put that mixture into the crusts to bake—the little strips of paper are in the molds so that I can pull them out of the pans after they’ve baked, a trick I learned on The Great British Baking Show. It worked very well.

We had Ottolenghi eggplant dumplings (recipe) and NYT chicken thighs with tarragon (recipe) both of which were outstanding. The tartlets (Food52-recipe ) were pretty and I guess they were OK but really not the kind of thing I’d prefer for dessert. In fact I’d have preferred to have had more of the chicken and dumplings than waste my caloric intake on these.

The harvest begins

When I was a kid and we went around most of the time starving and eating things that were available in our and neighbors gardens, like onion tops, raspberries, tomatoes and rhubarb I made the discovery that if I ate raw rhubarb, which I loved, my lips swelled up painfully, split and bled. It took me 3 or 4 helpings of rhubarb to realize what was happening. Years passed before I discovered that cooked rhubarb did not have this effect on me. I don’t know how I managed to discover that since…cooked rhubarb…meh.

Well now I have a goddam rhubarb plant in my garden and it’s one of the few things I don’t have to fight off pests to get to so I decided to make something edible with it. A random cruise through available recipes on the google brought me to rhubarb upside down cake in the New York Times by Melissa Clark. You can read the recipe here if you are interested in an overly complicated recipe for something that has the flavor impact of poached zucchini.

The recipe calls for “1.5 pounds…about 4 cups” of rhubarb. I’m not sure what alternate universe of rhubarb Melissa is living in but my exactly 1.5 pounds of rhubarb made nearly 7 cups. (In the picture below I am holding leftovers from the 1.5 pounds with the 4+ cups in the background.) Then begins the process of creaming butters, sifting flours, “working lemon zest into the sugar with your fingertips,” (I hate that kind of shit), adding the eggs one at a time “scraping down the bowl with each addition,” (kill me), adding the flour 1/4 cup at a time (Are you fucking kidding me??). Eventually and with a great deal of fuss and bother (and a hideous amount of mess) I got the damn thing in, and then eventually out, of the oven.

It was fine. It didn’t quite look like the New York Times version. (I am so sure!!) But no one complained. At least not to my face.

Lenten goals

Valentines Day fell on Ash Wednesday this year. Bummer for all those chocolate lovers, romantic steak dinners, champagne, the fuck ever. Christ. 

I remember the days of giving things up for Lent. The vast relief on Sundays when you could eat (candy mostly) again. I bought a steak to have on Valentine’s Day (alone, watching cooking pre-taped cooking shows) but then other things intervened and I ended up making it on Friday. In Lent. Super-not-good Catholic Church-wise. Father Whelan, the pastor of our parish would be horrified. When, in its infinite wisdom, the Catholic Church allowed us to eat turkey on the Friday after Thanksgiving he was forced to announce it in church the Sunday before but he added, “I hope you choke on it.”

The recipe, well, procedure really, was in the New York Times and it worked perfectly. Brown on one side, flip and roast in the oven at 400. I ate it with ho-made steak sauce and a challah bun. (and salad of course) it was perfect and I didn’t choke on it. The problem though is that the lingering smell of the fried meat and fat dogged me for 2 days as a Lenten reminder of my misdeeds. I should stick to grilling outside.

I saw this post on Instagram and it made me laugh out loud. 

Giant crinkled chocolate chip cookies

Melissa Clark in the NYT said these were good. They looked good so I just HAD to try them. They seemed so simple. Good Lord what a process. Making the dough was not such an issue since it pretty much happens in one bowl, but measuring them all out (3 oz each) and them rolling them into balls, freezing them for 15 minutes then, while they bake you have to continuously open the oven, pick up and drop the cookie sheets, banging the sheet to create the “crinkled” look of the cookies.

Why did I want to make these? I dunno. It’s the month of pain, my need to make dessert (that I am not going to eat) kicks into overdrive. I even used all my vanilla sugar for these. Not that I could notice any kind of difference there (I may have eaten one, or possibly 2). I also made 2 batches, one I used baking soda, the other baking powder, again, no diff.

They were good, but thesewere better. Smitten Kitchen.  Just sayin.’ 

Lemon bars with olive oil

It seems like a lot of the things I cook begin with the remains of something I just cooked. In this case Meyer lemons. Left over from the vile Lymonnyk I made last week. Those lemons cost a fortune and I wasn’t about to waste them. These were very juicy and I thought, incorrectly it turned out, that I could get away with just the 1, even though the recipe calls for 4 to 6. The recipe, linked here to the original in the New York Times by Melissa Clark (I love her), calls for a shortbread crust covered with lemon curd, neither of which I had ever made. I ended up going back to the store to get a few more lemons.

Cue the disaster music. Filled with dread, I poured flour, salt, sugar and butter into a food processor. And then after 3 minutes of processing I had essentially sand. I’m like WTF?! But after some direction from the Royal Mounted Indian Food Police who seems to know more about short bread than I, (and, to be fair, he had already made it, gave me the recipe and coerced me into making it) I continued to process it and it formed into something one might loosely associate with dough which I then pressed into the pan and baked.

The making of the curd was a little trickier than I’d imagined. Maybe not so much tricky as unknown. I didn’t recognize the process, and it was complex; whisking, stirring, boiling—BUT ONLY FOR ONE MINUTE OR YOU WILL RUIN IT—straining, but I muddled though. The recipe called for the addition of olive oil, the “grassier and pepperier” the better and I’d just brought back a $400 bottle of grassy, peppery olive oil from Italy. The stuff makes you cough it’s so peppery. Perfect, I thought.

Um hm, perfect, I thought, it made the raw curd smell very, very strange. Like something I’d-not-like-to-eat strange. But once it was baked, however briefly, that smell went away and it turned out to be luscious and delicious. I’d make it again. Although it is unlikely I’ll have a bunch of leftover Meyer lemons anytime soon, if I can help it.

Happy facts

I worry about where my food comes from. What it means for me. The planet, for the poor cow who gave its life. So when articles like this come around I am heartened.

Canned fish is good for you. And the environment.

Grass fed beef is better for you and most likely the animal has been raised humanely.

Good and bad news

“The strong warnings against salt and cholesterol are not well supported by evidence. . .The warnings against red meat are louder and more forceful than they need to be . . . we’ve actually been reducing our red meat consumption for the last decade or so. This hasn’t resulted in a decrease in obesityrates or deaths from cardiovascular disease.”  New York Times

Red meat is not the enemy < click there to read the whole thing. It is an article from the New York Times. (It is written by someone from Indiana so right there I am suspicious on many levels.) But what is says basically is: All things in moderation.

Of course, disease is not the only reason we have to think about our meat consumption, there’s also this:

“For instance, on a per-kilogram basis, beef is associated with more than twice the carbon emissions of pork, nearly three times that of turkey and almost four times that of chicken, according to the Environmental Working Group.”  New York Times

And carbon emissions are not the only problem, animal waste that seeps down the Mississippi has caused an enormous dead zone in the Gulf of Mexicothe size of Connecticut.

I wish I didn’t have to think about this. On the one hand I don’t eat a lot of beef and when I do I try to make it organic blah blah blah. But this isn’t about organic it doesn’t seem to me. (And the proper treatment of animals is a completely different issue that concerns me even more than whether or not it’s organic) What I’d like here are guidelines. How often can I eat beef? What’s good? Once a week? Once a month? If I don’t eat any meat for 3 days can I eat beef the other days? What about cheese? Wine? Isn’t there a carbon footprint for those too? 

I’m relatively good at following rules. I need some. The problem is that I don’t think I will be happy with whatever those rules turn out to be.