July 2009 Archives

 

The July Daring Bakers' challenge was hosted by Nicole at Sweet Tooth. She chose Chocolate Covered Marshmallow Cookies and Milan Cookies from pastry chef Gale Gand of the Food Network.

If you were to ask me what my least favorite cookie was a month ago, it is quite likely I would say Milanos — I just don't care for them. Marshmallow cookies, on the other hand, I am quite fond of. So the outcome of this month's Daring Bakers challenge, which had us making both, was quite a surprise for me: the Milan Cookies were not only easier and more satisfying to make, but turned out to be incredibly delicious. The Chocolate Covered Marshmallow Cookies, on the other hand, were frustrating at every turn, and the results were still imperfect. (I am sure that the recipe is not at fault here, just me!)

My Milan cookies, which took just minutes to throw together, were softer and more flavorful than their store-bought brethren. The depth of citrus and dark chocolate and the delicate madeleine-like flavor of the cookies harmonized perfectly, while I find regular Milanos' flavor flat and sharp, and their texture dry.

Unfortunately, I can't say the same of the marshmallow cookies. I used very nice ingredients, so the results taste alright, but unfortunately, just about everything else about them went wrong. While I did eventually get some serviceable, if rather flat, marshmallow cookies made, I struggled at every turn. First, it seemed like the recipe made far too many cookie bases. Then my runny marshmallow had trouble staying on the cookies and firming up. I decided to temper my chocolate topping rather than add oil, and even though I've done that many times with no problems, on this project it took me two tries, and even then the chocolate coating was a little soft. I was so glad to be done with these cookies, I just chalked all my troubles up to the humidity and sat down with a beer and a plate of those delicious Milan cookies to recover from the stress!

 

This weekend I decided to take a trek out to the rooftop farm that everyone is talking about. (Yes, even though it's probably the most local my food could get without stealing from a neighbor's tomato patch, it's still all the way across Brooklyn, in Greenpoint, so it qualifies as a trek.) The farm runs a produce stand every Sunday, located in a dim little office on one of the upper levels of the warehouse building under the farm. The stand currently has a small selection of herbs, greens, peppers, and a lot of nasturtiums. The best part was definitely the chance to climb up and see the garden itself — surprisingly small, but packed to the gills with flourishing plants (and camera crews).

I picked up some chard, and together with some wild purslane from the Grand Army Plaza Greenmarket, I made a "rustic" pesto of sorts — without a food processor or blender, I simply minced the greens with olive oil and salt. It was nowhere near as pretty as a real pesto sauce, and it tended to stick to the bowl much better than the pasta, but it was full of fresh green flavors.

 

Remember back when I made gouda? Yeah, neither did I, it was fricking ages ago. I was almost shocked to find it, safely tucked away in its red wax coating, when we got back to the states and sorted through our kitchen stuff. It took us another month or so after our return to actually open it up, which meant that it had been aging over nine months — a bit longer than most gouda you find in the supermarket.

The cheese was on the tart and dry side of a regular gouda to begin with, thanks to my over-zealous pressing method, so maybe I should call it a "gouda". Whatever its real classification, the extra few months of aging did amazing things for this cheese. It was richer, stronger, and more nuanced than the block we tasted last December. It had even developed those delicious amino acid crystals that you find in a good parmesan (or good aged gouda). The only problem? This was the last block! I guess it's about time to break out my awesome cheese-press and make another batch.

 

This week's local meal was a free-range pork chop from Wilklow Orchards, steamed baby artichokes, and corn on the cob. Everything was purchased at the Grand Army Plaza Greenmarket. Nothing exotic, but quite tasty. I would say that it was another great summer meal, but I used an oven-grilling method to cook the pork, which resulted in kitchen conditions that roughly approximated the surface of the sun. I think I'll stick to the stovetop method in the warmer months from now on.

 

Well, this is it, officially the very last post about our trip to Asia. After three months of beautiful temples, significant historical sites, and baffling metropolises, I can truly say that our view of the world has drastically changed. Our understanding of history, culture, and foreign relations is wider and more complex, and our memories of the places we saw and people we met will always be with us. Plus, my confidence in my ability to navigate difficult and confusing situations has skyrocketed. And I hope that my work in the kitchen will be more diverse from now on as well.

As amazing as our trip was, by the time we got to the airport in Hong Kong, I was ready to be back in my mother country. I was excited by the prospect of our own beds, hot showers, and routines. (And I am almost as excited now to be able to stop talking about the trip and go back to this blog's original focus, cooking.)

I never missed American food while we were in Asia, and I could count on one hand the western meals we ate there. The few western dishes we did have were mediocre imitations at best (except the french fries, which somehow manage to be pretty decent most places), so it would have been a mistake to try to fulfill any culinary longings for home we might have had. That said, the minute we touched down on American soil, all my absent cravings appeared with a vengeance and I made a beeline for the airport concessions. Which, considering what we all know about airport food, means I had it pretty bad for some Yankee chow.

Greg, unsurprisingly, opted for a hot dog, which was probably a good choice, since our layover was in O'Hare, and his meal was slightly less disappointing and overpriced than the other options.

To accompany my junky yet heavenly meal of doughy, over-cheesed bagel and ambrosial Jamba Juice, I also grabbed some traditional junky reading material, something which I actually had missed pretty consistently throughout the trip. I tried reading Chinese fashion mags, but it just wasn't the same!

 

This month's Daring Cooks Challenge is being hosted by Sketchy's Kitchen, and features a recipe from the Alinea cookbook — Skate, Traditional Flavors Powdered. This project marks my first foray into molecular gastronomy, and it was an excellent entry point, since it is relatively simple and requires no special equipment. The skate is poached in a butter and water emulsion, served on top of butter-poached green beans and fresh banana, and dusted with a banana and browned-milk powder. Alongside are three flavor powder accompaniments: cilantro-parsley, lemon-sugar, and caper-onion.

Of course, just because it requires no special equipment doesn't mean that I had any of it on hand. Such exotic things as microwaves and coffee grinders still exist in a special limbo for me, a limbo called a storage shed in another state. So, I had to dehydrate the ingredients for the four flavor powders in this recipe in the oven, and then grind them by hand with a mortar and pestle.

The only problem with this approach is that the flavor of the powders depend on the particle size. Try putting a piece of dehydrated cilantro in your mouth &mdash it tastes like a dry leaf. But grind it to dust, and it becomes a flavor explosion. Unfortunately, it is impossible to get truly dust-like powder in a mortar and pestle. The cilantro and parsley powder was worst in this regard: if I had any food science books on hand (storage again), I would explain why, but my guess is that it has to do with the large ratio of cellulose to flavor compounds. The other powders all tasted great at a slightly larger particulate size.

So, how did it taste? Amazing. Seriously, this dish got the best reviews I think I've ever received for something that wasn't 90% sugar. The browned milk and banana powder complemented the tender and buttery skate perfectly, and the fresh banana and green bean combo was also surprisingly perfect. The powder assortment let you choose the tastes of each bite: rich, sweet, tart, or fresh. The caper-onion powder was the crowd favorite, its pungent flavor setting off the rich, lobster-like fish. We ended the evening by dipping fingers directly into the bowls of extra flavor powder, like grown-up Lik-M-Aid.

 

It's been a little hard to tell what's local the past couple weeks, as we've been splitting our time across three states. Traveling also puts a dent in one's kitchen time, so it's no surprise I've been slacking a little bit around here. But I found the perfect local food to accompany my slacking: fresh sugar snap peas grown by Greg's parents. I single-handedly decimated several vines while standing in their garden in the fresh thunderstorm-washed summer air, and have been toting along the rest of the bounty for snacks ever since. Here I am with my new best friends in the grass next to the Prospect Park ball fields, where their fresh sweetness washed away the summer heat and the dust that billowed up from the occasional runner sliding home.

 

On the very last night of our trip, in between finding our hostel (located in the Mirador Mansions, a building in the mold of, and neighbor to, the infamous Chungking Mansions) and repacking our souvenirs for the airport, we met up with some family and friends for one final Chinese-style banquet. The food was delicious, and everything seemed familiar and nostalgic, even dishes that were new to us, like the delicate little puff pastries filled with tender pork.

The meal, and the expat audience, provided the perfect opportunity to reflect on our experiences. They asked us all the questions we were prepared for (Were we sad to go? Were we happy to be done with the hostels and trains? Yes to both.) and some we weren't (Would New York really satisfy us after seeing the streets of Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Tokyo? We couldn't be sure, but so far the answer is a resolute yes!). They also asked the most incisive questions about what sort of things we had learned from our travels, what kind of thoughts would we be taking away with us.

While we were talking, I realized that the way our trip had most deeply influenced me was in seeing differences in attitudes towards physical possessions. In many places that we visited, consumer goods are scarce, nothing is considered disposable, and every resource is used and reused to its absolute limit. In others, anything imaginable can be bought, but consumers are reserved in their purchasing habits and tend to prefer owning fewer, more durable items. Still others are more similar to America's own culture of conspicuous consumption and disposable goods. The same held true for edible goods: how about a hand-raised peach, sold for $12 and wrapped in swaths of non-recyclable plastic, compared to chicken feet from a chicken raised in a backyard and used to make stock before being eaten?

I am still looking for the right balance between these attitudes in my own life, so these observations were very valuable to me, even though I still haven't fully absorbed their implications months after returning home.

We continued to linger over our discussion after dinner at Honeymoon Desserts, which specializes in sweet fruit and jelly soups. I had vanilla ice cream in a mango-pomello soup, while Greg had this green tea ice cream in a vanilla soup with something that I suspect is basil seeds. The menu doesn't specify and our friends' theory was tapioca, but either way, they added a pleasant variety of texture to the sweet, refreshing soup.

This blog is licensed under a Creative Commons License.