Friday, July 27, 2012

Chicken in a pot

You have probably noticed that I don't write a lot about meat here. Sure, I use chicken stock like I use salt, but buying and cooking actual pieces of meat ventures into a totally unfamiliar territory. Part of this is philosophical: it was an ambiguous combination of the cruelty of the animal industry and the effects of eating meat on our health and the environment. The New York Times Ethicist column on eating meat presented some points on why it's ethical eat meat, but the winning argument, while incredibly compelling, was also rather unrealistic for many people financially and in terms of scale for our country.

In any case, some personal health reasons made it pretty much necessary for me to increase my meat intake. To be honest, I still don't like the idea of eating industrialized animal products but I definitely don't have the means to buy only humanely and sustainably-raised animals.

All that aside, it's actually been kind of fun to learn more about meat. I thought I would start by learning some really simple, staple recipes. Roast chicken seemed like a good idea until I remembered pretty much every dry, tasteless roast chicken I've had. So instead, I settled for a chicken in a pot recipe that would produce a more tender chicken.

You start by sauteing some vegetables and searing the chicken in a dutch oven:

Once it's browned on both sides, you throw it into the oven, and forget about it.

1 hour later.... voila!

Winner winner, chicken dinner:

This recipe produced possibly the tastiest chicken I've ever had. It's incredibly juicy and flavorful, with none of the dry texture that can happen, especially in the breast. Keep a careful eye on the temperature (the CDN instant read thermometer is a good, cheap one) to prevent overcooking, and I hope this dish changes your life just as it had changed mine.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

On learning to cook

This post is inspired by Tamar Adler's piece on cooking with leftovers, which encourages people to step outside of the cookbook and make delicious meals out of leftovers. The Amateur Gourmet does a really good job documenting this process as well. It's not as sexy as the first meal you make from all those fresh and delicious farmers market ingredients, but is definitely important to keep in mind when you have all but one stalk of a bunch of celery left in the crisper or half a can of anchovies.

Being able to come up with a meal using what's available is something I aspire to and is part of my definition of what makes a cook. I'm starting to get there, which means I saute whatever vegetables I have in the fridge and call it a stir fry or jazz up old soups and curries by adding a fresh ingredient or two. But I often get stuck in a rut by using ingredients the same way every time and don't do much with leftovers aside from taking them for a spin in the microwave.

What Tamar Adler describes in her article is the important process of putting ingredients in categories. What do I mean by that? It's important to understand that certain ingredients play similar roles in making a dish and may be used interchangeably. For example, garlic, ginger, scallions, leeks, and onions are all potent aromatics. They provide the flavor base for a dish and are often used in small-ish quantities at the beginning of the cooking process. So if you have any of those things lying around, you might use them in the same way. Similarly, all green vegetables such as spinach, chard, and kale have similar flavor profiles and can often be interchanged in a recipe. This way, when you look at a ingredient (say spinach), it's not just in the context of that one dish (a salad), you can also make it like you made that really delicious chard soup, or kale chip, or beet green pasta! And it's  knowing what roles ingredients play helps build a dish without a recipe.

Experimentation with ingredients and new recipes are opportunities to reformat and expand these categories. When you use ginger instead of onions as the aromatic, you learn how it changes the flavor profile of the dish. And then there are exciting recipes that teach you new ways to use familiar ingredients. The aromatics I mentioned don't always have to be used in the same way. Instead, leeks can be braised, garlic can be pureed into a soup, and onions can be the main ingredient of a hearty meal!

So, as important as it is to learn how to handle new ingredients and master techniques from recipes, there's definitely room to go off-book in day to day cooking. I know I definitely tend to make a big deal out of everything I cook, so this article was a good way to remember that cooking can be much more free-form than those perfectly styled and manicured recipes suggest.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Istanbul street food - sandwich edition

After living in the US for so long, it's easy to forget how prominent street food is in other cultures. With the exception of the occasional food truck and street fair in DC, it's rare to see open-air food hawkers. Living state-side, I miss the presence of chai-wallahs on the streets of India pouring tin cups of milky sweet tea and the roasted sweet potatoes that instantly warms one up in the bitter Beijing winter. And now, I find myself thinking of Turkish street foods with similar longing.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Kale pesto

Slowly, but surely, my kale-to-chard intake ratio is increasing. One day last week, I devoured an entire bunch of the dino variety in kale chip form and found myself with crispy green shards scattered on the couch, my hand coated in olive oil, craving for more. And for Mother's Day, I made the kale and mushroom risotto. 

If you find yourself with an abundance of kale, lucky you! There are so many ways to have fun with the vegetable. Recently, I've been whipping up batches of kale pesto, which is more than enough to convince me that basil is not the only pesto-worthy vegetable. The pale-green sauce is substantial from the kale, creamy and tangy from the goat cheese, and has just enough of a zip from the garlic and shallots to make the whole thing pop. I've been putting it over pasta and using it as a dip for bread and crackers. I'm sure it would also make a great base layer for a fancy crostini. 

Saturday, May 19, 2012


My mom and I arrived in Istanbul yesterday. Taking the time difference into account, our traveling took 24 hours and contained 5 full meals (1 at Dulles, 3 on the plane, and 1 in Frankfurt). I guess that's the good thing about traveling east, you sleep less and eat more.

Immediately upon arrival, we left our hotel in the Old City, scuttled past multiple century-old structures, and took the train over the Golden Horn to find something to eat. We found a place called Saray Muhallebiçileri (102 Istikal Cad. Beyoğlu), an old school patisserie/kepap shop for dinner. I think the lentil soup and the kebaps were pre, but it seemed like the desserts were the main attraction. Mom and I shared a künefe, which was apparently the specialty of this particular shop.

The dessert was fried thin vermicelli noodles surrounding a lump of soft cheese and soaked in honey syrup (I think), and it was incredible. It was the right combination of slightly stretchy cheese and crispy noodles softened by the sweet, buttery syrup. If we weren't already absolutely exhausted by our travels and the sleep deprivation, I'm sure we would have ordered another one.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

The vegetables of my labor, part 2

When I first moved to DC, I wrote about a pick-your-own farm in Upper Marlboro, MD that lets people work in the fields for vegetables. It was back-breaking work -- carrying 50-pound bins of squash from one end of the field to the other in the blazing July sun was no walk in the park. But the vegetables were always worth it. Unfortunately, I didn't get a chance to work there last summer with all the med school-related things going on. But now that I do have all this free time on my hands, I've found a way to work for vegetables once more, and right in the city, too!

There's a stand at the Dupont Circle farmers market called Next Step Produce, which has absolutely phenomenal vegetables. And now, I work there on Sundays in exchange for some of the best produce I have ever eaten. (Frankly, calling it work is totally overstated because it's an absolute joy to be outside on Sunday morning and talk about vegetables) Here's one bag of stuff I carried home after one Sunday:

Clockwise from the left: Swiss chard, bag of mushrooms, leeks, Kabu turnip greens, sunchokes, turnips, spinach, sweet potatoes, erba stella, and oat groats.

I took a page out of Tamar Adler's book about during vegetable prep over the weekend and found that it made cooking during the week a lot easier. I wash, dry, and ziploc my greens once I get back from the market so I can grab whatever combination of greens for salads or sautes on the spot without having to go through the trouble of washing anything. But unlike Tamar, I don't cook everything at once because it's nice to eat freshly-made stuff at least once before resorting to leftovers, right?


So over the past few months, my already-sufficient vegetable intake has skyrocketed. And because the greens often cook down quite a bit and are so tasty, it was easy to eat a lot of it. In the very beginning, I found myself simply sauteing the vegetables in garlic, olive oil, and salt. This was a really great way to cook unfamiliar vegetables because it gave me a sense of their taste, texture, and how they behaved in the cooking process on their own.

But despite how good they were, after a few weeks, if I had to eat another plate of simply sauteed veggies with rice I was going to hit myself over the head with my skillet. So recently I've been experimenting with many greens-intensive recipes, and it's been mostly successful! There are more vegetables coming, so stay tuned.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Irish soda... cake?

While I was revisiting UVA this past weekend, I had plenty of time during those somewhat tedious but necessary question-and-answer sessions to think about the prospect of going back to school. It's hard for me to be more excited, but I will definitely miss certain things about my time now. For instance, these past two years have made me realize the extent of my affinity for domesticity. I organize and clean when I'm stressed, shop for groceries when I'm bored, and cook pretty much around the clock. And today, I got back to my apartment early just so I could have more time to bake bread and read the Sunday newspaper. Going back to student-mode will certainly be a transition from these carefree days with nothing hanging over my head.

Anyway, about this bread. I'm still working on a yeast bread with a sponge starter recipe, which happens to require an entire weekend of babying. Since I haven't had a free weekend in a while I thought I would try out some faster soda breads in the mean time. I got this particular recipe from Melissa Clark, and frankly, I don't know what to make of it, because it's definitely not bread. If I were to serve it as dessert, no one would object. The recipe calls for only a third of the butter and sugar I usually put in my cakes, making it a little less tender and moist. But the upside is that the tangy buttermilk flavor and the hearty texture really come through, and it's nice to have a lighter cake once in a while. But what will I eat with my soups and salads this week? No, not cake, of course not.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Roasted mushrooms

I've been working at a stand at the Dupont farmers market on Sundays in exchange for minimum wage and vegetables (more on that later), and sometimes I get to take home some mushrooms from the vendor next door.

Having only really had packaged supermarket mushrooms (except for this one time!), I was blown away by the taste and texture of these fresh and organic ones. First of all, I've always thought that I don't like raw mushrooms because they taste like styrofoam, but these mushrooms, even when raw, taste incredibly tender and flavorful.

Aside from using them in risottos, my new favorite way to eat mushrooms is definitely roasting them in garlic and butter. It's quick, relies mostly on pantry ingredients, and tastes phenomenal. The mushrooms soak up all the flavors from the butter, garlic, lemon juice, and briny capers to acquire a wonderfully juicy and meaty texture.

The mushrooms make a great side dish with bread to sop up the sauce, and if you feel a bit guilty about all that butter, the dish also makes a great salad-topper. After all, it has all the components of a great dressing, and a little butter never hurt a salad.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012


I've been staying up past my bedtime baking bread.

I know, I know -- it's pretty edgy. (That was what you were thinking, right??) But seriously, folks, I've been thinking about learning a new skill or two, and now with all this free time on my hands, I can finally get started! While I'm pretty adept in the kitchen and can pull together a decent meal on most days,  I want to delve deeper and get really good at something. Bread-baking seems like a sensible idea since the product is a kitchen staple and is easily gift-able (friends, get ready!). Plus, after dabbling in it in the past, I would like to have it be closer to second-nature instead of something I have a 50% success rate at.

Despite simplicity of the ingredients, baking bread seems rather like voodoo. Not even going into specific recipes, the number of ways to go about it (knead or no knead? Starter or no?) is totally mind-boggling. And even after settling on a basic recipe, understanding how all the variables interact just seems to take experience and practice.

My first loaf was a Joy of Cooking basic white bread, which didn't use a starter but needed plenty of kneading. But despite my heavy-handedness, I had a tender loaf with a fine crumb. I finished the entire loaf in two days, eating it for breakfast, lunch, and dinner -- it was that good!

The only downside to making bread in house is the time it takes. Many of the recipes I've seen requires checking on the dough every few hours, making baking bread a commitment. But almost always, the results are worth it -- there really is nothing like the smell of bread baking in the oven or the satisfaction of smearing butter and honey on a still-warm loaf. I'm so excited about my new journey to becoming a bread baker!

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Mushroom and kale risotto

Risotto is a labor of love, which I guess makes it fitting for this time of year. It usually involves standing over a stove and stirring the pot's contents for a good half hour. As someone who makes rice by sticking everything in a rice cooker without a second thought, I've always been a bit baffled by the effort involved in making rice the Italian way. But the results are always worth it -- having a creamy, rich, and flavorful pot of rice instantly soothes my tired stirring arm.

I made a butternut squash risotto last winter, but it was so rich that it was hard to eat for multiple meals during the week. This mushroom and kale risotto is the exact opposite. It derives its flavor from the mushroom broth and is lightened by all the vegetables, which offer a nice contrast in texture to the rice. There is also less cheese involved -- just enough to contribute to the dish's creaminess. And for garnish, I used a bit of fresh thyme, which added a hint its fresh, citrous-y flavor to tie the mushrooms' earthiness and the savory Parmesean together.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Roasted carrot and red lentil soup

With this winter's unpredictable temperature, I haven't entered full-on soup mode like I did by this time last year. But after today's flurries (!), maybe this means that I can forget that there are cherry blossoms down the street and cook as if it's actually winter?

This soup is so comforting and good. I love that the red lentils fall apart after absorbing all the flavors of the stock. I love how the three peppers add multiple dimensions of spice. And I love the roasted onions and carrots' subtle sweetness, which perfectly balance the kick from the peppers. Sop up the soup with a piece of crusty country bread or sourdough, and make it again and again.

Happy 2012!