Sunday, November 6, 2011

Sunday Night Dinner

I'm currently making a pan roasted chicken breast with a garlic thyme butter. I will serve it sliced over spaghetti squash and fresh spinach tagliolini. With more garlic and olive oil (and maybe a little more butter, because I love the texture of butter on pasta).
I don't own a cast iron skillet, so I'm making do with an oven proof skillet in which to first pan sear the chicken then bake it to doneness at 400 degrees (15 or 20 minutes). The benefit of this method is that you get a nice brown crust on the chicken, making it look all the more appetizing and have a nice textural contrast between crispy skin and juicy meat.
This is my first time making spaghetti squash. I cut it in half, removed the seeds, brushed it with olive oil and put both halves face down on a baking sheet in the oven for 15 minutes, also at 400 degrees. I'll scoop it out and toss it with the pasta to serve. The green pasta and yellow squash should be visually appealing.

It turned out simple and tasty: chunks of juicy chicken, al dente pasta and the sweet fresh taste of the squash. The pan juices, sauteed onions and butter became a light sauce. The squash and pasta didn't mix as easily as I'd have liked, I will have to explore why. I will be making this again, perhaps with some thinly sliced roasted poblano peppers tossed into the pasta.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Perfect Guacamole

There is no good reason to buy already prepared guacamole. It is quite easy to make a delicious version if  you start with good ingredients. Buy fresh, whole avocado, serrano or jalapeño chilies, red onion, garlic, cilantro, lime and salt.

The avocado must be ripe enough to be springy when you squeeze a little, but not squishy or soft. The chilies should be firm and intensely colored whether green, red, or both. Serrano chilies tend to be spicier, but it varies greatly from chili to chili. If you want a serious kick go for the habaneros (with caution, please). Red onions and garlic heads should not have any soft spots or deep discolorations. Cilantro should be green and lustrous, not brown and wilty. Heads up, cilantro and parsley are not the same thing, so ask if you aren't sure. Limes should be firm but not hard, smooth skinned and bright green.

I’m being deliberately vague about quantities, but the ones I mention are for one large avocado. Taste your work often with a spoon, not chips. The salty chip will skew your perception of the flavors.

Dice the garlic first and let it breathe while you chop up everything else. One clove should be plenty.
Slice the avocado(s) all the way around the long way (from the pointy end to the round end then up the other side) then twist the halves a little to pull them apart. Be gentle! To remove the pit, firmly put a knife in it as if you want to cut it in half and pull it out.
Use a spoon and scoop the flesh out into a bowl, avoiding any blackish parts. Smash the avocado with the tines of a fork until it is chunky. You might need to add a little water (but just a dribble).
Roll a lime against the counter, putting pressure on it with the flat of your hand. This releases the juices and softens the lime to make it easier to squeeze. Cut it in half and squeeze half over the avocado. Set aside the other half to add as needed for moisture and to prevent the avocado fro oxidizing (turning brown).
Dice the chilies and add them. Remove some or all of the seeds before dicing to control the level of spice, although since I like it hot I leave them in. Use one jalapeño or a couple serranos at most.
Dice a quarter of a red onion and add it (you can add more later if necessary).
Add the garlic.
Tear off a small handful of cilantro, wash it and roughly chop it. Add it to the bowl.
Still using the fork, mix everything up and gently mash. If dry, add more lime or water.
Salt to taste. Add more of anything that it needs until you love it.

Sprinkle a little queso fresco on top to serve with chips. Put it on top of tacos, quesadillas or tortas, turkey sandwiches, gazpacho…really on anything that you think would be tasty.

If you don’t like anything that I’ve included, I give you permission to take it out. Get creative with your guac: put fruits like mango or peach in it for a tropical vibe, add kumquats or oranges for a citrus kick…anything goes. But remember, if all variations fail you, the classic version above will always be delicious.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Paris, 2010

While in Paris last year for a Political Science program, I obviously prioritized my palate and stomach over everything except museums. Despite the plethora of markets, cafes, restaurants and street food, I found myself craving a gourmet burger to the point of pain. Not a hamburger crepe, which Monsieur Chef at the crepe stand on the corner thoughtfully offered, nor a hamburger on baguette, nor un Big Mac, s'il vous plaît. I wanted a burger like those at Burgermeister in San Francisco (one of my favorite burgers ever): thick and juicy, with top quality ingredients. I thought through all the details of my potential burger, from which buns I would use from the patisserie on the corner to specific cheeses and cuts of bacon. This being Paris, some burger elements are more available (and affordable) than others. Luckily, I don't like ketchup or tomatoes on a good burger, so the terrible winter tomatoes were not an issue.

Anyway, we came up with this:

I believe that is a traditional 80/20 ground beef, gruyère, and thick-cut meaty bacon. Delicious. Seriously, it was great...or maybe I was desperate for some burger goodness. But my friends and I were all thoroughly satisfied by our DIY Parisian burger, so it was a success.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Commodity Fetishes and Fantasy Girls

This DoubleX article about the possible correlation between women’s sexual liberty and men’s achievement bothers me for two central reasons. The first is how it links the notion of a sexual economy in which the man buys sex at a market rate to numbers that suggest women want marriage and babies. The article then suggests that women are ‘underselling’ their sexual capital in order to fulfill their desire for marriage etc., such that the man whose commitment they purchase is varying types of underachiever. Following the logic, I am left with a society of women so desperate for the paradigmatic American family that their standards have just melted away.

The second is the idea that women’s substantive empowerment in all arenas, including the bedroom, actively creates conditions that demotivate men. I don’t disagree at all with the ostensible thesis of the article, which is that men still have the upper hand in hetero premarital relationships. I do find it a bit scary that at one point it argues that more women means more “feminist” sexual permissiveness and thus, more male satisfaction. Feminism, or at least sexual openness, is thus just another way for women to satisfy the male fantasy, while a regressive focus on filling the Lacanian ‘feminine lack’ through marriage is the logical secret to men’s achievement. In a Freudian or Lacanian psychoanalytic framework, desire is the motivator of all describable acts, meaning that without the tantalizing pull of the ‘unassailable’, sexually unavailable woman, the man has nothing to strive for and thus becomes a PBR-swilling, entitled twerp. Or so the psychological logic of the article suggests.

The sexually available woman, who for whatever motive is willing to enter into the sexual relationship, gives a man exactly what he wants according to his fantasy. But with the mystery of “Woman” so easily plumbed, he has no reason to struggle for sex or anything else. According to this construction, women who know what they want and aren’t afraid of their sexuality are apparently holding men back. Or to be even bolder, feminists are holding men back.
The article is not so explicit, but in the past year I’ve seen a few variations on a theme in which the rise of women in the culture and economy threatens the very necessity of maleness. There was even an issue of The Atlantic magazine that worried whether the further growth of women’s power in North American society would make men obsolete. One thing they share, regardless of the sex of the writer, is a more traditional masculine perspective where a man locates his worth in his career, his family and his wealth. This new trend of worrying about the future of males seems to ask, if women’s success only makes life worse for men, then what is the worth of women’s success?

Frankly, I dislike being asked to question the worth of my success because twenty something boys are supposedly underachieving. Also, I’m not waiting for a man to commit to me, nor am I sexually ‘cheap’ (even at the ripe old age of twenty-two). But perhaps that’s just me.

Really though, I know some pretty cool young guys who are down to have relationships, but want to wait on the ‘serious’ part of those relationships (i.e. cohabitation or engagement). Maybe the young women in the article have expectations that are inconsistent with the guys they date because the guys are inappropriate choices. But maybe those bad choices are because women feel sex is bad unless it happens within the context of a ‘serious’ relationship, but they don’t act upon that feeling because modern women are expected to be more open to casual encounters. That second expectation finds support from both feminist and macho perspectives precisely because modern notions of sexual appropriateness mean easier fantasy fulfillment for men along with more sexual empowerment for women. We’re describing young women whose relationships are dissatisfying because they are made to feel like bad women for succumbing to the powerful expectation that sex is the norm in all relationships, regardless of how sexually active they wish to be.
Patriarchy isolates women from fully occupying their sexuality by confusing us all, women and men, with wildly contradictory messages. First it teaches us that sexual women are bad, but then it dictates that men should only value women for their sexual function. Combine that with the aftereffects of the sexual revolution for both sexes, and you have women who have been encouraged to act bad as long as doing so gets them a husband, and men who expect women to be sexually receptive without demanding respect.

As a culture, we still believe strongly in the redemptive power of marriage; strongly enough that a so-called hooker can become a “good” woman, erasing a history that discomfits mainstream culture, or a mistress can become a fairly respectable political wife. Though they are vivid, antithetical to the American family and definitely not virgins, becoming someone’s wife redeems them. In the movies, bad women have been redeemed from Hitchcock’s Marnie to Pretty Woman, and the way they take the leap into respectability is a nice wedding and a future of channeling their sexuality into sex with the husband. Marnie isn’t saved by her marriage, per se, but her husband imagines their forced marriage will reform her wild ways. When she resists his imposition of values and does not want to have sex with him, he (perhaps) rapes her. He has fulfilled his part of the bargain by marrying her and thus saving her from herself and so he takes his due by insisting upon the sexual relationship. He is owed sex because he saves her from living out her life as a bad woman.
If girls grow up secretly believing marriage is what saves women from being floozies, then of course they’ll be disappointed when sex is frankly expected of them and not treated as part of a process of emotional involvement. Marriage is hardly an option in most sexual relationships, utterly defying the cultural bifurcation of femininity into sex object or wife.
Ultimately, the issues at hand follow a common thread. They ask: does women’s success always have to be at the expense of men? Can we talk about this without blaming women somehow? What do you think?

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Feria Gastronómica Pictures

Plaza Tupac Amaru in Cusco, which I visited in early August 2010. Read the original post.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Here's that Tasty Jalapeño Cheddar Cornbread!

An Assault on Everyone That Has Sex. Seriously.

"Did you hear? The House voted to bar Planned Parenthood from federal funding. They cut funding for HIV tests, cancer screenings, birth control, and more, putting millions of women and families at risk. We can't let it go unanswered. It's time for you and me to stand with Planned Parenthood. Sign the open letter to the reps who voted for this bill -- and to the senators who still have a chance to stop it."

I have to say it. Preventing people from knowing that they have choices, that their lives don't have to be dictated by a lack of reproductive care- including abortions!- is treating them as if they were less than human. Not everyone has private insurance or adequate coverage or even lives where one can easily and discretely get reproductive care from a quality healthcare practitioner. And now even more people will be denied access to these critical services. Tell me my body land, to be annexed and legislated upon? Is it a dangerous commodity to be regulated? My body is not imperial territory, and just in case you forget, there is already a resistance brewing in me. I hope this country doesn't continue down this road, but I worry.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Jalapeño Cheddar Cornbread

Today I was craving some savory cornbread, so I decided to do a twist on jalapeño cheddar bread. I use the basic recipe from the back of Quaker cornmeal since it has just enough sweetness and is fairly fluffy. This time, I didn’t quite have enough cornmeal, so I upped the flour content hoping that would produce more cake-like bread. I added a few handfuls of what Dominick’s/Safeway calls ‘Mexican blend” finely shredded cheese, which is mostly cheddar, and a big handful of diced green bell pepper.

Originally I wanted to use a blend of jalapeños and green pepper, but the amount of pepper I like in my cornbread would be overwhelming with spicy peppers. Instead, I was generous with the bell pepper (you could use red, or any other peppers you like) and added some chili powder, salt and pepper to them before folding them into the batter. I greased a 9x9 pan with oil because butter has a lower burn temperature, and set the timer to 20 minutes (the low end of the recommended bake time). I find that the shorter time is plenty in my oven, and my cornbread comes out just golden on the top and sides.

I sliced it up right out of the oven even though I know you’re supposed to let it rest. I'll be smelled too good to wait. As I had hoped, the texture was fluffy and light and the taste was all corn and peppers. The cheese added a creamy element that balanced the bite of peppers, handily emphasized by the pat of butter I put atop my steaming slice. It was delicious and I will definitely be making this delectable snack again-maybe with a pot of chili.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Pho 888

Though I can’t say I’ll do it more than strictly necessary, the journey up to Andersonville was made thoroughly worth it by the bowl of pho I had at Pho 888. Like many great Asian spots, the space itself is forgettable and filled with odd surreal prints, silk plants and clippings from newspapers attesting to the quality of the soup. My friend ushered me in claiming that this was the “best pho I’ve ever put in my mouth” so I was reservedly hoping for a treat. We had to wait for about fifteen minutes in the steamy, fragrant interior, but at 8:30 pm on a Friday in a ten table restaurant it wasn’t a terrible inconvenience. Another party had called ahead to set aside a table, which struck me as a bit over the top for a casual noodle spot.

Anyway, we were seated and given a pretty extensive menu including several styles of noodle soup and other entrees. I went with a traditional pho with rare round-eye steak and well-done flank steak, served in the Southern Vietnamese style with lots of bean sprouts, fresh Thai basil, jalapeños and lime. The broth was clean but richly beef flavored, complex with star anise, cinnamon, onions and just a little fat. Who knows what else contributed to the delicious taste, but I would happily eat bowls of that broth every day. The thin rice noodles were the perfect texture, slightly chewy and resistant to the teeth instead of the mushy noodles common at lesser establishments. The beef was lean and of decent quality, particularly the tender flank steak. My friend had a grilled beef pho in which the meat had a lovely sweet smoky taste that infused the broth. I’ll order that if I ever get sick of the traditional pho…unlikely as that is. I ate the entire bowl (almost) and left feeling delightfully replete.

Pho 888 can be found at:
1137 W Argyle St (at Broadway St)
Chicago, IL 60640
Neighborhood: Andersonville/Uptown
(773) 907-8838

I believe it is open until ten, at least on Fridays, and is BYOB. For those of you on CTA, it is literally down the block from the Argyle Red Line stop. Check it out!

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Learning about Hunan delights

While I was in San Francisco for the holiday vacation, I visited with a family friend at his restaurant, Henry’s Hunan. I have been going to Henry’s since I was a baby, as have many of my friends from the city. The food is comforting in its consistency, surprising in its authenticity, and totally delicious. They make perfect dumplings, soul-warming soups, intensely flavorful spicy entrees, and the best chow mein ever. I don’t particularly like chow mein because it tends to be insipid, a little gooey and with nothing in particular to recommend it unless you are one of those picky people who only eat the most basic item on any menu. I also suspect chow mein is completely americanized and has little to do with authentic food from any region in China.

However, Henry’s chow mein is really tasty. The noodles are fresh, the sauce is a little spicy, salty and complex, the vegetables are perfectly cooked. They make a few variations, including curry and Chinese smoked ham and vegetable (which is my favorite). It is basic comfort food that anyone will love, and its not bad for you either (provided you have veggies in it).
Because I only ever eat chow mein at Henry’s and because the proprietor knows I miss his food terribly when I am in Chicago, I was given the sterling chance to hang out in the kitchen and learn to make certain dishes including the chow mein. This may have been the highlight of my vacation…along with baking a couple of splendid cheesecakes, Christmas Eve, king crab and caviar, but that is another story.

I learned that chow mein is simple but its success depends on the noodle and good timing. Fresh egg noodles are key and they should be cooked to tenderness (not mushiness) in advance, tossed in a little oil and chilled. This is the critical step I have always been missing when experimenting with noodles, when I invariably end up with a stuck together mess. It prevents stickiness and clumping. The rest of the ingredients amount to whatever you feel like stir-frying, but it is important to cook any meat you’re adding in the pan first, then take it out before the noodles go in. You add it back when the noodles and veggies are almost done, right before adding sauce. Once the noodles are in, gently toss the mixture as it heats. I would tell you about the sauce, but I think it’s a trade secret…suffice to say you could use a little soy and chili flakes and it would turn out just fine…

I haven’t made it on my own yet, but I plan to this weekend and I will report back on my results. I also learned the technique for getting the dumplings crispy on one side and steamy on the rest and the myriad uses of hot beans, or fermented soybeans. More on that later, once I’ve attempted all these wonders.

Henry’s is a family run enterprise with several locations. The website lists three, but I frequent one particular outpost at Church St and 29th that isn’t mentioned due to its newness. By my reckoning, the Church St. restaurant is the best for atmosphere, management and general deliciousness (I may be biased, but I think it justified). Order the onion cake, Mo Si or Hot and Sour soup, the braised rock cod, tofu with bok choy and of course, any chow mein. They also make this strange but excellent concoction called “Diana’s meat pie,” which consists of a savory ground beef mixture, lettuce and (I think) parmesan in between two onion cakes. It sounds unlikely, but boy is it good. Really though, you can’t go wrong…