Presenting The Faux Gourmet!

The Faux Gourmet has been on hiatus for a while. I began this blog as a creative outlet during law school. After law school, I started other blogs on other topics and no longer needed this as a creative outlet, not to mention my diminishing free time.

But I kept cooking, kept taking food pictures and garden pictures, kept wanting to share the little tidbits of what I'd made. I occasionally did this on my personal blog (to which, I'm sure, people yawned and wondered when I'd post another cat picture). But I started to miss this space. Of all the blogs I have, this format, culled over several dedicated years and incorporating that adorable illustration by Sam Wedelich (see info the left) is by far my favorite.

So I'm back!

Expect short and sweet posts. Less food porn, more recipes and tips. If you want food porn you can look at any of the 5000 million existing food blogs. I don't have good lighting in my apartment and don't have time to style plates. I just want to make something yummy and eat it. If that sounds ok with you, stick around.

Looking forward to being back in touch!


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    Friday, November 30, 2007

    Dinner in 5 minutes or less, redux

    Faux gourmet lesson du jour: Shell out for a yummy ingredient today, make an amazing meal in 5 minutes tomorrow.

    Taste & See:Tonight I received an invitation to an event at the last minute. Fortunately the event itself was a mere five minute walk from my apartment, but I still had only an hour to make my 30 minute commute, eat, change, and walk over. Problem?

    If so, you clearly haven't read my faux gourmet entry about seared tuna steak. Luckily I'm just enough of a Superwoman to have thrown the other half of the frozen tuna pack from Trader Joe's in the fridge to thaw this morning [to see what I did with the first half, re-read the entry on
    seared tuna steak.] It took all of 5 minutes to whip up a quick spice rub while the pan got nice & hot, then sear it ever so briefly. I took in a few bites in between transforming from Friday scrub dress to all dolled up and made it to my event with time to spare.

    I bring it up not merely to convince you that it truly is that easy, but because the spice rub was surprisingly tasty. No, it was incredible. Genius. Perfection itself. However, I owe this feat in no small part to one of my brilliant discoveries from Food & Wine Weekend:
    Apres Vin Grape-Seed Oil.

    This new home-grown company from my beloved hometown makes the oil with grape seeds left over from all those wineries. The oils take on subtle hints of the different grape varietals' seeds [Chardonnay, Merlot, Reisling] from which they are pressed. As this chart, a photo I will no doubt reuse, illustrates, wine by itself occupies an enormous range of flavors:

    To the natural flavors inherent in the seeds are added a variety of other flavors to make some amazing combinations: Lime Reisling, Roasted Garlic Chardonnay, Chipotle Merlot, etc. According to the label, they're separated, dried & cold-pressed with European expeller presses. As a side note, I love the fact that we Americans tend to oooh and aaah over anything with the word 'European,' as if that added an automatic chic/class bonus. In any case, regardless of whether it comes from anything European, these oils are phenomenal. A few interesting facts:

    • Grape-seed oil has high amounts [relatively] of the good fat (polyunsaturated) & half the saturated fat of olive oil. It's also high in anti-oxidants.

    • You can use them as you would an olive oil, but they have a higher smoke point [485 degrees], making them more versatile for hot cooking.

    • The oils are made from what would otherwise be waste. And the 'waste' from the pressed grape seeds? Made into pure Merlot or Chardonnay flour.

    • Other products made from wine-waste by this company: wood stove pellets, paper & ink, and Chardonnay bio-diesel fuel.

    For more, see NPR's recent report. You might not believe me, but I know you believe NPR. The company's website also supplies recipes for their oils, in the unlikely event you run out of ways to experiment yourself. I had the opportunity to sample these oils at one of the many wineries visited during Food & Wine Weekend.

    Now, normally I would just take my free sample and run but these oils had something special. I was blown away by the potency of just a few drops of oil on a bread cube. My palate isn't the most refined, so I usually roll my eyes at the bougie olive oils samples at street markets and in fine food stores, but for once the oils actually came through with an undeniable burst of flavor. I happily used the fact that I probably consumed 10 oz. of the oils in free samples as an excuse to shell out for a holiday pack, five 10 oz bottles in flavors of my choosing in a lovely wooden crate:

    Which brings me full circle to that tuna. In case you forgot, I already raved about the tuna at approx. $4/lb. I used half a serving tonight, so $2 for the tuna. I rolled it in a mix of whole fennel seeds [I just bought a new bottle & was eager to use them!], white pepper, a splash of seasoning salt, a hint of red chili flakes and a bit of dried parsley. The total amount of spices was about 2 tbsps. Even though I just through it together at random, the mix complemented itself, and the tuna, perfectly. The red & green added a nice bit of colour to the tuna, while the fennel seeds provided a nutty undertone with the chili kicking in a nice lingering bite.

    To that I added the crowning glory, 1 tbsp ApresVin Merlot Fume' grape-seed oil, which provided a disproportionately delicious smokiness and kept the tuna moist. A $10 10 oz bottle contains 25 tbsps, so my splurge was a mere forty cent investment in this meal. And what a worthwhile investment it was!

    Sunday, November 25, 2007

    Correction & Wine Weekend Preview

    First, let's get business out of the way. Thanks to my friends P & S who, after reading the Giow Ba Mee Moo Dang entry from a while back each reminded me that luk chin refers not to fish balls, but to meat balls generally. To get fish balls, you have to order luk chin bla, bla meaning fish. That said, I have found I tend to get fish balls when I just say luk chin, so you may be safe [if you like fish balls, that is] either way.


    Second, and more exciting, I spent this weekend at this fun event. More than 50 other wineries in the area feature annual Thanksgiving weekend food & wine pairings, with many wineries bringing out reserves, barrel tastings, and new wines just hitting the shelves. My dad is the proverbial "town doc" and my mom works in the town's [only] schools. Between the two, they know just about everyone and it is always a treat to scurry from winery to winery where the wine-makers and pourers are family friends. The winery below is a long-time family favorite where the middle school ex-principal & my childhood baby-sitter both work and always give us [secret] great discounts.

    We also had a great time playing with the family golden retrievers at Chinook & tasting wine from the Sunflower series to fight Sarcoma Cancer at Willow Crest. I can't launch into a full description now but I look forward to writing about the wine & food I sampled all weekend long.

    As my friends in New York and California hear all too often, I'm proudly from a premier wine-growing region. While flipping through [the admittedly not-renowned for wine reviews magazine] Consumer Reports at my uncle's place after Thanksgiving dinner, I was happy to note that Washington Wines, along with more than a few from my town, were hogging spaces in the top ten. If you want a more reputable source, buy yourself a couple bottles of Washington wines after I finish my account of the weekend's festivities & see for yourself.

    The Washington wine industry began in the 1900s with the technology that is responsible for every single tree in my town: irrigation. It survived Prohibition by selling to the Catholic Church. [I think even the most secular of my New York friends can thank the Church for that.] Apparently the whole industry temporarily collapsed after those snotty Californians went all the way to the Supreme Court to knock down Washington's laws protecting local wineries and open up the market in 1969. According to an article in Wine Spectator, the "generic" wineries fell & a mass market California winery [ie, they place adds in every cooking magazine I've ever read] began to dominate. But things have clearly picked up since then. There are at least 30 wineries in the vicinity of my 5,000 person town alone and Washington is the second largest wine producing state in the country. [And just because California is three times as big doesn't mean the wine is better!]

    Three years ago, my town saw the entry of another remarkable piece of technology. I think this blurb from a neutral observer tells it best:
    "October was a momentous month for the 5,000 residents of Prosser, in eastern Washington's Yakima Valley wine region. The town--home to 12 wineries, including Hogue Cellars and Snoqualmie Vineyards--received its first full stoplight. Turns out the increase in wine tourism (30,000 to 40,000 people visit each year) led to a need for better traffic control. "I never thought I'd see the day," said Hogue cofounder Gary Hogue, who was born and raised in Prosser. He's going to see it at least once more. The town will add a second traffic light this spring."
    Yes, ladies & gentlemen, we're headed for the big time now.

    Wednesday, November 21, 2007

    Gaeng Hang Lay

    A bit different than the Thai curries your momma makes, Gaeng Hang Lay combines the best flavors the North has to offer.

    Taste & See: This curry from the capital of the old Lanna kingdom is more complex than spicy. The curry paste packs healthy doses of a number of particularly fragrant herbs and spices which, when left to simmer for a good while [or left in the fridge overnight] create shivers of delight.

    I used to live in a little po-dunk province in Thailand called Nan. My host used to make a thick, earthy base in which she'd simmer tough pork on the bone for hours. I would smell it all afternoon, staring maddeningly at the clock. While the spicy sauce did its work, we'd go to the little "Fitness" center in the public park and work up an appetite. Oh the joy that filled my heart when we stepped back into the house, filled as it was with a sweet, full aroma, and sit down to heaping bowls of rice topped with chewy pork covered in delicious Gaeng Hang Lay.

    For the longest time I thought it was a product of my host's imagination, as I had never seen anything comparable at restaurants. Since then, I have learned that my coveted curry is called Gaeng Hang Lay and hails from Chiang Mai. According to a fellow Thai food blog, it probably came to Thailand via Burma (hin means curry in Burmese), and is common communal festival dish in the north of Thailand, especially among the Shan ethnic group. The simplest iteration of the curry is pork fried in a mix of chilies, ginger, shallots, garlic and thua nao khep, or dried, flattened soybeans, as well as the hang lay spices. See notes below for more specifics.

    Before I left my village home, I made sure to get my host's recipe. One day we sat down together and chopped up a storm: hunks of galangal and ginger, reedy stalks of lemongrass, round shallot bulbs like little purple golf balls, and pesky miniature cloves of garlic with paper thin peels.

    With such a mix of raw ingredients it would be hard not to cook good food. In my host's version, everything is finely chopped and pounded in a mortar and pestle, with a handful of roughly chopped ginger sticks tossed in. We did not pre-marinate the meat, use coconut milk or tamarind, or top the final version with peanuts. The finished product was a bit woodsy; chomping through the sinuous pork covered in gobs of curry paste felt like something one should do after a full day chopping down trees or roping cows.

    I have cross-checked my host's version against several other recipes and come up with a few alterations/variations. Some use coconut milk, albeit in much smaller quantities than the soupy curries you typically think of, and tamarind paste. In mine, I relied on the good ole' blender to do the work for me instead of a mortar and pestle. I also used chicken pieces rather than pork, marinated in a fish sauce/spice rub the night before. Finally, I provided a bowl of toasted peanuts and Thai basil leaves for crunch and contrast at my guests' discretion.

    A few notes on ingredients:

    [Peanuts] If you're toasting your own peanuts, broil for just a minute or two, til you see the nuts start to brown. Immediately take them off the hot pan when you remove them from the oven or they'll continue to brown and burn, and you'll set off the fire alarm [as I did the other night] and have to toss the blackened peanuts and start from scratch.

    [Substance] You could use this curry paste for a variety of substantive fillings- red pepper and potatoes, tofu, chicken, pork, beef. The pork cut traditionally used is called moo sam chun, or 'three level pork,' because it has meat, fat and skin. It is the pork belly fat cut of meat. I'd avoid seafood- imho the paste is too strong to allow the flavors of seafood to shine through. I think potatoes make a better vegetarian substitute than tofu, as the flavor is better absorbed, but this tofu version was nonetheless quite delicious.

    [Galangal & Lemongrass]
    Galangal is a cousin of ginger but a bit tougher and spicier. Its often in large slices in tom kha gai, a coconut milk soup often found at US Thai restaurants. You can often get galangal and lemongrass stalks at Asian market, but if not, look for powders as substitutes. Not perfect, but better than nothing.

    [Heat] You can use dried red chili peppers, though I recommend soaking in hot water a bit first to get them soft enough to blend into the paste. I used bird chilies, approximately 1 for every two people who will be eating the curry [or, about 1/4 the amount of galangal, ginger and lemongrass used.] Personally I could do a bit spicier, but it is always easier to add heat than tone it down later.

    [Spice Powder] Gaeng Hang Lay powder, the spices used in the marinade, is available in packets in the US [see the yellow & green pack in the photo of the marinade] but you can make your own with equal parts turmeric, cumin, mace and coriander. If you don't have mace it won't kill you.

    [Tamarind Paste] I also added a few tbsp's tamarind paste as an experiment, based on one recipe I found that included it. You can make it by boiling tamarind pods or buy it pre-made. It has a rich sweet and sour flavor that I thought would complement the other flavors well. The end result was pretty tasty, so at worst the tamarind didn't ruin it.

    How to make the curry:

    Part I: Marinade

    Mix about 3 tbsp Gaeng Hang Lay powder with about 5 tbsp fish sauce [contrary to the picture, it really is fish, not squid] and 3 tbsp palm sugar [also easily available at Asian grocery stores; substitute brown sugar if necessary
    Pour over about 2 lb of desired meat [or other filling]
    Store in refrigerator at least 30 min, preferably overnight

    Part II: Curry Paste

    equal parts ginger, galangal, and lemongrass; for proportions above I used aprox 1/4 cup of each; I used half the amount of garlic and twice the amount of shallots
    in food processor or blender together with 2 tbsp palm sugar, 1 tbsp shrimp paste [this can stink but lasts forever; keep in the fridge tightly closed] and 1 tbsp sweet soy sauce [Indonesian style, thick and syrupy]
    until it makes a paste with applesauce-like consistency. I had about 1.5 cups of paste in the end

    Part III: The Curry

    a little oil in a pan and add chicken in its marinade
    Add a few tablespoons of coconut water/milk [not the heavy cream] to tenderize the meat as it begins to cook
    Stir in a few tablespoons of curry paste, more or less depending on how intense you want the flavor, once meat has begun to cook
    the whole thing for as much time as you have, at a minimum letting the meat cook through fully [I also used tofu as my vegetarian alternative, which cooks much faster]
    Add a bit more coconut milk if you like it creamy, or add coconut milk or water if the sauce reduces too much.


    NB: This recipe is a bit time consuming for all the chopping involved- but oh, so worth it. How about making it with friends Stone Soup style? Have everyone bring a half cup of one item chopped, blend it as soon as people arrive and put the curry on to simmer while you enjoy a round of beer & poker. You'll definitely want beer with this curry, btw; its a hearty, warm your tummy through and through kind of meal and a light beer provides a great complement.

    Tuesday, November 20, 2007

    A Good Use of Calories: Fried Bananas

    One of the best ways to blow a diet, period.

    Taste & See: Deep fried banana and taro are often sold at the same grease-splattered, sizzling, carts drawing you in despite yourself with the smell of pure indulgence & a bit of sugar on top.

    You know that blissfully hot, crunchy texture of biting into something good and deep fried? And the soft, squishy sweet bliss of biting into a creamy dessert? Imagine them together: crunchy hot outside, squishy sweet inside. This, my friend, is gluay tod, or fried bananas.

    There are also fried taro, and the occasional fried other things, like sweet potatoes, but I forget what they're called. There are also a couple varieties within the banana family-- whole fatty bananas covered in crispy bits, banana logs with just a bit of batter, etc. etc. I recommend a mixed bag-- just wave your hand over the whole batch and smile -- and you can see for yourself what you like.

    Now you have to be careful. Get them cold, hours after the vendor has fried 'em up and placed them on a wire basket to dry, and you may think I'm telling you lies. They get a bit cold & limp and they're just not worth the oil they're cooked in. But get a fresh batch ["are they fresh" = sot mai?, fyi] and they are to die for. So full of oil you might die, eventually, but you'll have a big fat smile on your face when you keel over.

    Bananas are usually about 10B for a bag [see above] of more fried goodness than you probably need.

    Tuesday, November 13, 2007

    Faux Gourmet: Seared Tuna Steak

    Two minutes, two bucks: the perfect ace-in-the-hole.

    Taste & See: It is as cheap as chicken & may actually be easier than heating up frozen vegetables, but definitely has a huge advantage in faux gourmet, the category that most concerns us: seared tuna steak hands down maximize both impressiveness & laziness. For those who read my little fridge challenge from last week, I am sorry to say the photos turned out horribly. I think I cook a little better than I photograph what I cook, or I'm just still getting used to the utter lack of natural lighting in my little NYC box of an apartment. Instead, I will reveal another of my Faux Gourmet secrets: 2 minute seared tuna steak. Seriously. Two minutes and you too can look like you know how to cook.

    All you need:
    Frozen tuna steak [Trader Joes always has Ahi steaks for about $4.50/lb]

    [If you have or want to invest in fresh tuna steak, you can obviously use that instead].

    All you need to do:
    Throw it in your fridge in the morning so it defrosts and when you're ready for dinner, get a frying pan real hot and toss on the tuna steak for a minute on each side, no oil. That easy.

    Well, ok, I like to sprinkle some spices/herbs on top. If I had potted herbs I'd chop up a bit of thyme & rosemary, add some black pepper, and roll the tuna steak over it. Given my lack of natural lighting, my herb garden is now no longer with us.

    I do however, have one of those spice roller caddies with about twenty spices hanging out of it- you know, the kind you get for $15 at Costco that has approximately four useful spices and otherwise consists of celery salt and "poultry spice," whatever that means. Well, tonight it meant that for perhaps the first time ever,
    "Seafood spice" got some play. Seafood spice consists of a mix of salt, paprika, sugar, lemon, black pepper, garlic, onion. You could also just try whatever you have: a little salt, a little pepper, a little something adventuresome.

    Whatever you do, let that tuna steak hit the pan and sizzle for a good minute. Flip it over and give it one minute more. That's all, cowboy. Well, use your judgment, of course, and if you don't like it rare cook it as long as you like. But a minute per side is about all you need to sear the outside and keep the inside tender and juicy. It may look more rare than you think you like it but I promise, the inside is going to keep cooking a bit and if you hold yourself back you'll be rewarded for your restraint. Voila: two minutes, two dollars. Even you can do that.

    If you really want to get fancy, you can ring your tuna steak [the one below was made with fresh chopped herbs when my kitchen knew better days] with sliced tomatoes, add some of the couscous referred to in Friday Night Food Club
    , previously, and top with small scoops of chevre [a soft goat cheese] & a dollop of hummus sprinkled with pine nuts. Nothing you can't get at TJs.

    If you really want to get technical, here are some more tips:
    • Don't cover the tuna or it will get hard
    • Let the pan get real real hot before you add the tuna for the perfect sear
    • Look at the flakes of the tuna to see how far in it has cooked- 1/4 inch all the way around is just about right
    • Slice the middle to see if it is done- the inside should be red and raw
    Fellow food blogs share recipes for Tuna 102 [Seared Tuna Steak with Daikon Dressing & with Roasted Red Pepper Sauce, respectively] if you want to take it to the next level & turn your new-found tuna searing skills into an entire dish.

    Friday, November 9, 2007


    Re:Persian Food

    Thanks to my friend, D, for providing an update on the Persian food entry from July.

    D says the the rice dish with tumeric, chicken and something like cranberry should in reality contain saffron instead of turmeric. Restaurants sometimes use turmeric instead of saffron, because saffron is expensive and turmeric makes the rice color better, but he doesn’t think they should be allowed to get away with it. The dried fruits my friend didn’t know the name of are currants.

    Hopefully D will show me some good Persian food in NYC soon, and I'll be back with a more informed update and better photos. Stay tuned!

    Thursday, November 8, 2007

    Giow Ba Mee Moo Dang

    A bowl of heaven, served up at any old street vendor in Thailand.

    Taste & See: Getting from


    As if ordering in Thai weren't enough of a challenge, a persistent problem for even the most sign-language adept tourists and ex-pats in Bangkok is, I imagine, connecting the dots from a finished product you see people eating on sidewalk tables to (English) menu-less vendors with mounds of raw materials lining the streets. After a while you begin to decipher the more familiar parts of the code; you see blender, you think fruit smoothie; you see wide flat pan and rice noodles, you think phad thai; you see skewers of chicken, you think, skewers of chicken. And with the abundance of smoothies and phad thai, it is tempting for newbies to remain in the "what I have had back home" comfort zone.

    But maybe one day your Thai friend shows up at work with a tasty snack you'd never have know to try but can't stop munching on. Or maybe the someone else who always did the ordering while you just ate blindly moves away. Or maybe one day you just wake up and think, I'm going to stop being a sheep, I'm going to eat something I can't pronounce, I'm going to live a little!

    And you come to me for help. Good. Admitting you have a problem is the first step. I'm here to help you move from admiring on the sidelines to your own place at the table with the eaters with their hands dirty and smiles on their faces. In short, I'm here to help you learn to decipher the code of Thai street food, one noodle dish at a time.

    Thailand's noodle soups are collectively known as "Goyteow." They're ubiquitous throughout the country and available at all hours of the day; have a bowl for lunch with your workmates at the goyteow stand that is bound to be across the street, have one after a few hours of clubbing has you in the mood for a 3 AM snack. There are endless varieties, but today I'm pleased to present my personal favorite, a soup of Chinese origins colloquially called Giow ['g' as in go; 'ee' as in tree, 'ow', as in 'ow, you hurt me']. A Giow stand generally looks like this fine establishment, up the road from my old apartment in Bangkok. NB: The chef's apron [you see the straps in back] certifies that he makes food "happy & healthy," aka, it is clean and safe to

    I used to think Giow was a rare kind of goyteow. I knew one little noodle stand in the village where I lived that made smashing Giow, and I'd moto by there daily at lunch to see if the noodle-lady had fresh wontons left. Whenever they saw me, they knew in advance what I wanted and would should out the daily wonton-report as I approached. Heavenly were the days I got my big, steaming bowls of Giow.

    Only later did I find that Giow is all over the place; you just have to know what to look for in a street cart. All you need to do are find the following components, then ask for "Giow Ba Mee Moo Dang" and prepare to be happy.

    1. [Giow] Giow means wonton. The wontons are usually made to order, tiny wonton wrapper stuffed with [usually] a pork/green onion filling.

    2. [Broth & Noodles] The base of Giow is pork broth, served in big metal tubs, and Ba Mee, or egg noodles, usually piled fresh in the window and dunked in the hot broth for just enough time to soften & cook. Some people [tiny Thai women] skip the noodles in favor of fitting into child sized clothing, but I think the chewy yellow noodles are certified comfort food. I also do not wear child sized clothing, but I'm happy, and this is a food blog, so what do you expect? Definitely go for the noodles.

    NB: You can order it dry, or 'hang,' which means you get all the sauces poured on top of the noodles but no broth, advisable if you are eating with someone you don't want to see you drip broth all over your chin. I like it with the broth on the side, spooned in little by little to loosen up the noodles.

    3. [Meat] Another option is Moo Dang, or red pork. You'll see big hunks hanging in the window. You can have your soup with both Giow and Moo Dang, usually for an extra 5 B.

    4. [Fish Balls] I'm not wild about them, but some people love Luk Chin, or fish balls. Wish I could give more of a ringing endorsement, but to me the rubbery blobs with occasional bits of fish gristle don't get me going. But see for yourself; no fair turning them down unless you give it a shot [and some people do make decent versions of it].

    5. [Veggies] Usually chefs will toss in a bit of Pak Kana, [kale?] a dark green leafy vegetable with fibrous stems. It is chopped to order, and like the Ba Mee, Moo Dang and Giow, dunked briefly in the broth.

    This ingenious method of cooking means cooks just have one continuous pot from which they can cycle hundreds of made-to-order bowls of soup in an evening. This talented fellow never stops moving. He's probably juggling about 5 distinct orders at any given time, constantly putting new servings of noodles in the broth while putting finishing touches on bowls his wife then serves to eager customers sitting on small tables behind the cart.

    6. [Crunchy wontons] The finished soup is usually topped with a few crispy wonton bits, which promptly lose their crisp factor upon touching broth. If you order soup to go, I advise skipping the crunchy wontons, unless you like limp, greasy things.

    When ordered to go, the dry parts of the soup are packaged neatly in a paper wrap and tied up with rubber bands.* This is what you have to look forward to at home:

    *Look for an entry on how street foods are packaged soon!

    All of these ingredients form the building blocks, but Giow wouldn't be complete without the condiments. Chopped green onion & bean sprouts may make an appearance. Expect a dousing of sugar, fried garlic & red onion pieces, and some thick, sweet soy sauce ["Indonesian" style, if you're buying at a US Asian store]. You can decide for yourself if you want to spoon white vinegar [a bit spicy from sliced bird chilies soaked in it], red pepper flakes, or more sugar. This version of Goyteow does not use fish sauce, but maybe a bit of soy sauce for salt. Put it all together: amazing meal, 25 B.

    And whereas I've never actually had satisfying normal Goyteow outside of Thailand, since Giow is of Chinese origins you can get it at Chinese and Vietnamese [Pho] restaurants in the US. I had some last months from a Vietnamese place in inner city Oakland. Remote Thai village to inner city Oakland . . . the culinary side of me is loving our shrinking world.

    Sunday, November 4, 2007

    What's in the Fridge?

    What do you get when you cross a fridge full of leftover ingredients and a good imagination? Read on.

    Taste and See: Today's entry has no restaurants, no street stalls, not even a finished product to photograph. Instead, inspired by an upcoming dinner I'm hosting, today I take on the challenge of whipping up something tasty from the contents of my fridge. No grocery trip, no asking the neighbors for a cup of sugar. Just me, my imagination, and a fridge full of half-used, unrelated food.

    I specialize in what I like to call faux gourmet: making something you could get somewhere fancy in even the tiniest NY kitchen when the budget and time constraints of . . . well, we know who we are. I have never been one to follow directions [images immediately flash to mind: dad screeching 'cut with the knife away from you!', smoke filling the kitchen I set on fire when I left the rice cooking too long, etc.]. I prefer to cook creatively, which gives me plenty of room to discover shortcuts. Which I need, not merely because of aforementioned constraints, but also because I don't really do ramen and frozen peas. Maybe I have a refined palette, or maybe I'm a food snob, but I'm a food snob who pulls herself up by her apron straps and, alla Project Runway, makes it happen.

    Tonight presents a special challenge. I'm not content to spread my faux gourmet gospel if it means writing up a massive shopping list and tromping out in the cold at the last minute. It's not [only] that this girl is a bit keeks, [my personal shortcut for Thai word keykeyet, meaning, a little too lazy to be bothered right now], but I must confess I take an inordinate pleasure in using things up, and making something beautiful while so doing. And my tiny fridge didn't have room for any more food anyway.

    So, what are the raw ingredients? In no particular order, I had [small portions of, and edging towards expiration] the following:

    -approx 1/2 cup cream cheese
    -2 eggs
    -approx 1 cup brown rice
    -1/2 can tomato puree
    -4 slices provolone & 4 oz chevre cheeses
    -6 green onions
    -8 button mushrooms
    -a hunk of ginger
    -lemon juice
    -1 orange pepper
    -3 chicken breasts
    -an onion
    -vegetable broth base
    -1/2 can pumpkin puree
    -1/2 jar applesauce
    -1.5 cups 2% milk
    -approx 1 cup sour cream
    -about 12 big sage leaves

    *I didn't chop all the garlic in the recipes below. Trader Joes sells pre-chopped garlic in jars. You'll never again have to question whether time spent chopping up garlic is worth it; throw it in!

    Now, I'll confess upfront I didn't limit myself strictly to the fridge; any self-respecting faux-gourmet needs to have on hand basics like olive oil and Spanish paprika. You don't have Spanish paprika? What are you doing reading a food blog? OK, that was a joke. But seriously, shell out a little for some good spices and olive oil next time you go shopping, and when you finding yourself stuck with spaghetti and tomato sauce, you'll be shocked at what a dash of some Spanish paprika can do.

    So, back to the task at hand: Cooking dinner. What would you make? I came up with

    Curried Pumpkin Soup
    Moroccan Style Chicken Breasts
    Brown Rice Tart with Cheese Tomato Filling


    do it yourself:

    Now that you've had some time to think about I'll share my recipes, and Tuesday when we dig in I'll let you know if they're any good. :)

    1. Curried Pumpkin Soup
    [thanks to Seth Ryan Winery from Columbia Valley, Washington, for the original]

    Melt about 2 tbsp butter and some chopped garlic in a big saucepan
    Saute some 1 chopped onion til your house smells real good
    Season with 2 tsp curry powder
    Stir in a about 2 cups vegetable broth, 1/2 large can pumpkin puree, 1/2 cup applesauce, pinch salt, pepper & nutmeg, & 1/2 cup Gew├╝rztraminer wine [Yes, I did have it on hand . . . no cheating here! You can use any white, but G-miner is nice because it is a bit spicy . . . dangerous, if you will. Goes well with curry.]
    Cook about 10 minutes
    Add 1 cup milk and cook 5 minutes more.
    Adjust amounts of liquid & cooking time to make thicker/thinner. Blend in food processor, optional. Serve with sour cream.

    Checklist: pumpkin, onion, veg broth, garlic, applesauce, sour cream

    2. Moroccan-Style Chicken Breasts
    [thanks to Cooking Light, October 2000 for the original]

    Part 1: Chicken
    Mix 2 tsp cumin, 1 tsp cardamom, 1/2 tsp salt, 1/2 tsp cinnamon, 1/4 tsp red pepper, 1/4 tsp black pepper
    Rub chicken chunks with spice mixtures and store in ziplock bag for quick cooking day of dinner

    Part 2: Sauce
    Saute garlic, chopped up ginger & olive oil with chopped up pepper
    Add chopped up button mushrooms when pepper is soft
    Stir in about 1 cup tomato sauce & 1 tbsp lemon juice + a dash of all spices used above; stir till mushrooms are soft

    Part 3: Day of
    Cook chicken in a dash of olive oil
    Reheat sauce over stove, adding 1/2 cup vegetable broth
    Serve together

    NB: I substantially revised this dish from the CL version; theirs called for making the sauce in the same pan as the chicken was cooking and serving it as a single dish. I have vegetarians coming so I separated the two. I also completely obliterated the contents of the [chickpea & zucchini based] sauce CL described, so if it doesn't taste good you can always hunt out the original recipe.

    Checklist: orange pepper, mushrooms, chicken breasts, tomato sauce, veg broth, lemon juice, garlic, ginger

    3. Brown Rice Tart with Cheesy Tomato Filling
    [Even though I altered this recipe more than the CL one, I will still credit "The Essential Vegetarian Cookbook" for giving me a method of getting rid of old brown rice in a tasty fashion.]

    Part 1: Crust
    Mix 1 cup brown rice, 2 eggs, and 2 chopped up slices of provolone cheese
    Stuff into bottom of small pan [I used springform cheesecake pan, all I have]
    Cook at about 400 for 15 minutes

    Part 2: Filling
    Mix 1 can diced tomatoes, 4 oz chevre cheese, a dash olive oil & lemon juice, 1 tsp chopped up garlic, 6 chopped up green onions, and 12 chopped up sage leaves
    Spread over rice crust
    Pour over filling 1/2 cup cream cheese + 1/2 cup milk, blended with a dash . . . Spanish Paprika
    Bake 1 hour at 350.

    Checklist: Rice, eggs, provolone cheese, chevre sage, garlic, lemon juice, green onions, cream cheese, milk


    Thursday, November 1, 2007

    Waterfall Food

    Get your hands dirty eating a real Thai country picnic.

    Taste & See: Nam tok, or waterfalls, all seem to have the same food in Thailand: som tam, gai yang and kow neow. I had been telling my friend about this en route to our weekend get-away to Khao Yai, a national park not far from Bangkok where we planned to hike to a few waterfalls. I was looking forward to chowing down on these tasty treats after climbing back up from the base of the falls, my face still wet with the spray. I was also looking forward to validating my claim. I've had waterfall food at Nam Tok Erawan, in Chiang Mai, in Nan, in Chiang Rai- and I was willing to bet Khao Yai would be no different. Sure enough, we found the perfect waterfall spread at the Visitors Center cafeteria.

    1. Som tam starts with fresh bird chilies, garlic and palm sugar ground with a mortar and pestle. Some fish sauce and lime juice are also added. Thais eat it very spicy; if you don't want it too hot spicy you'd be better off saying you don't want it spicy at all; it will probably STILL have a few chilis; we asked for a little spicy, and our mouths were burning. Not spicy is "mai pet".

    The main salad is made of tomatoes, lime, cucumber, shredded papaya; notice how the round fruits are stacked carefully in pyramids. High marks to Thai som-tam vendors for presentation.

    Optional add-ins include whole, raw crab; tiny, dried shrimp; and roasted peanuts. If you don't want the crab, which is pounded into 'bite-sized' parts and eaten shell and everything; or the shrimp, which add fishy, salty bursts of flavor to the salad, just say "Mai ow puu [crab] goong-hang [shrimp]" or just point.

    On the side, cabbage, green beans, various raw leaves are served to freshen the mouth and add a nice earthy contrast to the intense sweet-sour-spicy flavour of som tam.

    Som tam is usually about 20 B, including fresh raw vegetables on the sides.

    2. Gai Yang is grilled chicken. Some things are universal. The Thais do it especially well, IMHO. It is usually served with a sweet, but not spicy, chili sauce on the side.

    Gai yang is usually about 20-30 B a piece; We had half a chicken for about 60 B.

    3. Kow Neow is sticky rice, a short grain starchy rice that is made by boiling water under the rice, which sits on a bamboo tray, absorbing the steam. It gets sticky and translucent when it is done, with a slightly sweet flavor. It is usually rolled into a ball and dipped in sauces, or used to pick up a bit of som tam.

    Kow neow is usually about 5-10 B a serving.

    4. Nam Prik: To commemorate entering a new region of Thailand, Isan [the Northeast, more rural, poorer], we also had a very northern/north-eastern dish, a plate of raw or steamed veggies with a bowl of nam prik, or chili sauce. This sauce wasn't particularly good; some sauces are mild but can be very, very spicy, so try a small amount first. Common veggies include chopped cucumbers, boiled bamboo, small eggplants, and raw long green beans. Again, it provides a fresh contrast to other, more heavily-sauced dishes, or an alternative to mystery-meats if you're with a host who orders Northern delicacies like frog and raw-meat salad.

    Our plate was about 20 B.


    Khao Yai National Park & Visitors Center; approximately 3 hours from Bangkok by car. We rented a car from Bangkok; the trip took about three hours and the car was extremely useful for going at our own pace to the man viewpoints and waterfalls scattered throughout the park. The visitor's center has a huge parking lot and there are numerous hotels of all qualities between Pak Chong, the closest city [on Highway 2] and the park's northern entrance, a drive of about 14 km.