Tuesday, August 24, 2004

Two Great Chinese Cookbooks

When I was first out of college and had that heady experience of running the kitchen for myself, I'd never really had any Chinese food. My gourmet parents didn't cotton to all the chopping that they'd have to do for any sort of Asian cooking. All I needed was one time at a fairly authentic Chinese restaurant and I was hooked. Naturally, I turned to books...

Irene Kuo has been called the Julia Child of Chinese cooking and she deserves the title. This is the cookbook I used to teach myself Chinese cooking and it has every technique I have ever seen mentioned in any other Asian cookbook. Kuo writes so clearly that there is not much need for illustration, although there are some when describing cutting techniques and ingredients. More importantly, she has a love for her craft that comes through clearly and makes you understand why various techniques even matter. There is a plethora of recipes, many of which are amazingly simple to yield such authentic results. She rightly points out that there is much more than stir-frying to Chinese food and proceeds to instruct in red-cooking, shallow frying, and much more that adds timing flexibility many may not expect from Chinese cooking. Many of the recipes are very simple but the flavor is authentic. If you've ever been interested in Chinese cooking this is the only cookbook you'll ever need.

This is another favorite that shows how simple and easy Chinese cooking can be. Ken Hom gives some of the recipes that his working mother used to put together 4-course meals in an hour, night after night when he was growing up in Chicago's Chinatown. He worked in his uncle's restaurant and also gives us a lot of recipes for those long-time American favorites ... both the restaurant menu version (for Americans) and the "secret menu" version (for Chinese patrons). Hom has been teaching cooking for a long time and it shows. These are very accessible and will please everyone in your family. Believe me, if Hannah likes these meals, then anyone will!

Friday, August 20, 2004

Ingredient Alert

Don't you hate it when you read about some wonderful new food, try it, and then love it? You'd think that I'd quit trying these new, usually expensive treats but nooooooo, I fall for it every time ... and then I'm hooked. Here are the latest "must tries" I've found at the Central Market.

Fage is a brand of authentic Greek yogurt that comes in 0%, 2% and full fat. The Dallas Morning News food section highlighted Fage's packaging of yogurt with Greek honey that you can drizzle on top. Well, I was at least smart enough to buy the yogurt separately and drizzle it with my own honey. Fage's package has a very small amount of yogurt for the same price as their regular 7 ounce package ($1.99 - ouch!). I got the full fat yogurt (in for a penny, in for a pound) and what a treat it was. It is as thick as sour cream with a slight tang. Drizzled with honey it is luscious. I can't afford the price ... or the fat ... very often but, believe me, I'm gonna get this as often as I can. Next up is to try the lower fat versions.

All birds are raised on a 100% natural diet and cooled individually with purified, cold air. This process also preserves the quality of the meat. That's the technical mumbo jumbo. What I noticed was less fat, intense flavor, and firm texture that retained moistness. This is one great chicken. Naturally, you don't get this without a price but I used to pay a lot for organic chickens that didn't come up to these standards. I was sucked into trying it by a woman who practically forced it on me, swearing by the quality. Now I'm pushing it just like that woman at the store. It is habit forming. You have been warned!

Saturday, August 14, 2004

Julia and Me

When I heard that Julia Child had died I only had a mild interest. True, I love to cook (and eat!) and the only cookbook of hers that I own, The Way to Cook, is fabulous. However, she's not one of the personalities in which I ever took any interest, she was able to enjoy her life to a grand age, and she died in her sleep. So, good on her, but none of it really mattered to me.

Thinking about it later, though, I realized that I owe more than I knew to Julia. She had tremendous influence over my parents. They were gourmet cooks who delighted in experimenting with new recipes and eagerly read all that was written by Julia Child, James Beard, Craig Claiborne, and other food mavens of the time. In fact, they threw themselves into the gourmet movement with such gusto that we never ate such "common" things as Meat Loaf, Macaroni and Cheese, or Tuna Noodle Casserole. For that, we had to go to my grandparents' house. At home we consumed exotica such as curry, squid or Mexican food. It was a given that my brother would request Chiles Rellenos for his birthday. This was not your typical Kansas kitchen of the 1960s. I grew up with a respect for authentic ingredients and food of all sorts that was engendered by pioneers like Julia Child.

Although my siblings and I all have found our own definite cooking styles, we all share a love for good food and are not afraid of the exotic. My brother can throw together Dolmas with the practiced speed of a Greek housewife. My sister thinks nothing of throwing a party for over a hundred of her husband's co-workers and makes everything by hand. I, myself, have raised children that routinely request Pesto Pizza (with home made crust and pesto) for birthday parties. They then carry on the legacy by pushing it on their friends who will ask if we're having "green pizza" when they come over.

Of course, we are a bit more ecumenical than my parents. Basic American standards like Macaroni and Cheese or Tuna Noodle Casserole do appear in our households. When I think about it, I realize that this too is true to Julia's legacy. When she came to Dallas, one of her favorite restaurants served Tex-Mex and basic Texan food. She told the owner that she always got taken to fancy places when really she enjoyed every kind of food. As long as it was delicious, she never shunned any sort of food ... even Meat Loaf.

More than that, she enjoyed living life to the fullest and she didn't sweat the small stuff, as in the famous incident during the live TV show when she dropped the chicken on the floor, picked it up, and kept on going ... and that is the most important legacy of all. It is one I hope to pass on to my children. So, thank you, Julia. I pray that you are enjoying a heavenly feast now that puts all your earthly ones to shame.

Friday, August 13, 2004

And On The 8th Day She Rested

We've done a final count and since last Saturday, Rose has churned out 18 ... count 'em -- 18 ... kinds of cookies! That's got to be several hundred cookies I have in my freezer. As the weekend approaches I'm going to do my best to redirect all that creative energy into something that I can use ... main dishes. Tomorrow we're making Brunswick Stew. Some for us and plenty for the freezer.

Tuesday, August 10, 2004

And The Baking Continues

Last night while I was at a meeting, Rose made Orange Creams (mmmmm, my favorite so far). Today she's added Spicy Oatmeal Cookies, Crackled Chocolate Cookies, and Orange Shortbread (got to use up the rest of that orange somehow, dontcha know?). We just got back from another run to the store to pick up nuts, sour cream, bananas ... you know, basic baking supplies. The funny thing is that we all like cookies but don't really eat many of them at a time.

We probably shouldn't be surprised now that I think about it. I guess this actually is how most crafts get tackled in this house. For months, Rose knitted muffler after muffler, giving some away and selling others. Hannah now has a complete jewelry making kit and goes on jewelry jags. Luckily, cookie production was put on hold for a bit while Rose reorganized the freezer and both girls cleaned out the art supply shelves. I guess as long as the freezer has room, the baking can continue. We're gonna be the most popular house around while this goes on!

By the way, all the recipes so far have come out of my favorite cookie book, Cookies Unlimited by Nick Malgieri. Everything either of us have made from it so far always turns out great.

Kitchen News

Is anything better than a trip to the restaurant supply store? Other than a trip to a bookstore, that is (no shopping tops that for me). Its like half price heaven there. Rubbermaid spoonulas were $1.95 instead of the $4.00 through a catalog. Heavy duty plastic forks and knives were $3.45 per 100 instead of the grocery store's price of $1.49 for 24. I'd buy those restaurant size boxes of foil if only I had somewhere convenient to keep them. I only go once a year but I'm so happy after I come home. Its the simple things in life, right?

Monday, August 09, 2004

Baking Frenzy Reported

We just got back from the store from a trip to resupply the flour, butter, sugar, storage bags ... you get the idea. Not only did Rose make Lemonade Cookies and Peanut Butter Chocolate Thins yesterday but this morning she whipped up some Molasses Cookies and St. Nicholas Cookies. I'm going to be well supplied whenever guests drop by, that's for sure. But I'm running out of storage space ...

Saturday, August 07, 2004

Important Cooking Tip

[Names have been changed to protect the forgetful.]
If you don't add any sugar to Peanut Butter Refrigerator Cookies they taste like:

Dorothy Ellen: These taste like flour.
Gemma Elizabeth: They taste worse than flour. I like flour!

Inevitably in our household this leads to quotes about the time Homer Simpson was sitting on his couch dejectedly eating from a bag of flour:

Marge: Oh Homie, don't you want your sugar sack?
Homer, mournfully: I don't deserve any sugar.

Its an ill wind that blows no good, though. I won't have to buy any dog treats for a while!

Monday, August 02, 2004

Ingredient Alert - Pluots

Let me just say that if anyone has a chance to try a Flavor Burst Pluot they should grab it. They are well named ... the closest thing to a Sweet Tart in a crisp, fruit form that I've ever had. Ours came from the Central Market but I'd bet they can be found at places like Whole Foods also.

UPDATE: I just remembered these actually are called Flavor Grenade Pluots ... all the more reason to try one, eh?