Fool for Pho

Citizen Chef and I share several passions. Good cooking, fine dining, a nice wine, those he and I share in common.

The obscene man-crush on Fabio from Top Chef isn’t a shared feeling; though I do feel that Fabio is a great chef.  (news on the Fabio front)

Another thing that we share is our inspiration for, and enjoyment of, is Pho. Pho (pronounced “Fuh” by most people – actually, the pronunciation is a variable as far as I can tell, as no one pronounces it the same way twice) is a world famous Vietnamese noodle soup involving beef and beef related products swimming with some rice noodles and a nice clear beef broth. That is Pho Bo (aka Beef Soup). There is also a chicken related Pho, but that could be another post. So for our purposes, we are going to concentrate on the beef soup.

This is the Pho I made!
This is the Pho I made!

Now you may be asking yourself, “Self, why would Squidlegs really like a Vietenemese dish since he is not, pretty obviously, from said region of the world?” And you would be asking yourself a very good question. And I have an answer for you… And yourself. Recently on the wonderful “Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations,” there was an episode where he and his old boss from his restaurant in New York got up early just to go eat a good bowl of Pho for lunch. Yes.. There was that much waiting around. But they both agreed that it was worth it. If Tony says something is that good, I gotta go try it. I was inspired. I ran right out and… Well I totally forgot about it. Forgotten, until Citizen Chef came back from vacation, talking about Pho and how it was pretty darned good.

So then he and I had to try it together. On his home turf, we made arrangements to go try a good Vietenemese place near by. But it was closed the night we were going out. So his town actually had a second Vietenemese restaurant. Off we went. And it was pretty darned good.With some spring rolls and slow food delivery, we made a good time of it and enjoyed the food. We also made commitments that he would try the place we were going to be trying and that I would try the one restaurant in my neck of the woods. I managed to pull one over on Citizen Chef though, because two nights later, I went to other restaurant in his town and tried Pho again. Sneaky, aren’t I? It was pretty good. I thought that the broth, one of the key components, was a little lacking, but I did get this batch of Pho to-go, so I may have missed some of the nuances in the really hot broth or fresh noodles. I also tried the restaurant in my home town and, again, while good, wasn’t great! so the quest continued.

Now, all of the above was a set up for me telling you that I have the secret to good American Pho. I say American Pho as I am sure many of our Vietnamese readers or friends will tell you that no one over here can really get the ingredients or knows the secrets of real Pho. But this stuff is pretty damned good if I do say so myself. I found this recipe online (please check out the full page for the recipe… it’s somewhere in the middle.) All of the pictures in this post are from my attempt at cooking this, but the writer of the blog above also has some great pictures.

Finished Broth
Finished Broth

THE BROTH
2 onions, halved
4″ nub of ginger, halved lengthwise
5-6 lbs of good beef bones, preferably leg and knuckle
1 lb of beef meat – chuck, brisket, rump, cut into large slices [optional]
6 quarts of water
1 package of Pho Spices [1 cinnamon stick, 1 tbl coriander seeds, 1 tbl fennel seeds, 5 star anise, 1 cardamom pod, 6 whole cloves – in mesh bag]
1 1/2 tbl salt
1/4 cup fish sauce
1 inch chunk of yellow rock sugar (about 1 oz) – or 1oz of regular sugar

Char: Turn your broiler on high and move rack to the highest spot. Place ginger and onions on baking sheet. Brush just a bit of cooking oil on the cut side of each. Broil on high until ginger and onions begin to char. Turn over and continue to char. This should take a total of 10-15 minutes.

Parboil the bones: Fill large pot (12-qt capacity) with cool water. Boil water, and then add the bones, keeping the heat on high. Boil vigorously for 10 minutes. Drain, rinse the bones and rinse out the pot. Refill pot with bones and 6 qts of cool water. Bring to boil over high heat and lower to simmer. Using a ladle or a fine mesh strainer, remove any scum that rises to the top.

Boil broth: Add ginger, onion, spice packet, beef, sugar, fish sauce, salt and simmer uncovered for 1 1/2 hours. Remove the beef meat and set aside (you’ll be eating this meat later in the bowls) Continue simmering for another 1 1/2 hours. Strain broth and return the broth to the pot. Taste broth and adjust seasoning – if you want a little more flavor, add a few dashes more of fish sauce, large pinch of salt and a small nugget of rock sugar (or large pinch of regular sugar).

Everything ready for the broth
Everything ready for the broth

THE BOWLS
2 lbs rice noodles (dried or fresh)
cooked beef from the broth
1/2 lb flank, london broil, sirloin or eye of round, sliced as thin as possible.
big handful of each: mint, cilantro, basil
2 limes, cut into wedges
2-3 chili peppers, sliced
2 big handfuls of bean sprouts
Hoisin sauce
Cock sauce (Sriracha)

Prepare noodles & meat: Slice your flank/london broil/sirloin as thin as possible – try freezing for 15 minutes prior to slicing to make it easier. Remember the cooked beef meat that was part of your broth? Cut or shred the meat and set aside. Arrange all other ingredients on a platter for the table. Your guests will “assemble” their own bowls. Follow the directions on your package of noodles – there are many different sizes and widths of rice noodles, so make sure you read the directions. For some fresh rice noodles, just a quick 5 second blanch in hot water is all that’s needed. The package that I purchased (above) – needed about 45 seconds in boiling water.

Ladling: Bring your broth back to a boil. Line up your soup bowls next to the stove. Fill each bowl with rice noodles, shredded cooked beef and raw meat slices. As soon as the broth comes back to a boil, ladle into each bowl. the hot broth will cook your raw beef slices. Serve immediately. Guests can garnish their own bowls as they wish.

Everything needed to make a good bowl of Pho
Everything needed to make a good bowl of Pho

There are a couple of notes about the recipe above.

  • I used flank steak and I got a little over a pound. I used half for the broth and then shredded it for the actual bowl and then thin sliced the other half for the “raw’ portion that gets cooked by the broth.
  • The broth is really fatty if you use soup bones, so at one point my kitchen looked sort of like the soap-making scene in “Fight Club,” but without the chemical burns. Just fair warning, you will want to use a ladle and get the first inch to two inches of liquid off the top of the broth before proceeding to the second 1-1/2 hour simmer. I actually poured the liquid into a seperator and out of 4 cups of liquid, had less than a cup of broth, all of the rest was fat.
  • It doesn’t say to, but I toasted the spice pack before I put it together. I recommend that. It was really nummy!
  • This is not a race, take your time. It will take a whole afternoon to make this.
  • While I was at the store getting items for this dish, I found some beef/tendon meatballs in the asian frozen food section. I highly recommend that in addition to the other meat in the dish. You boil them for 15 minutes right out of the freezer and cut them in half and put it in the soup bowl, as I did. I really encourage you to add this, as it brings a great flavor and texture to the game.
  • There are a couple of other condiments that you should consider.
    • Chili Garlic Paste (found in asian sections of big grocery stores, or oriental food markets
    • Beef Paste, found in the same place
    • Fried Minced Garlic, which I actually didn’t find, so I didn’t try it, but I have had it in a restaurant and it adds another layer of flavor.
  • About the hoisin and “cock” sauce (so called because of the rooster on the bottle, get your minds out of the gutter!), you don’t see it in the photos, but I did add it. It is about a tablespoon of each, but that will spice it up, so you may want to use less of the cock sauce.

So that’s it. The secret to great Pho. It was awesome and I am not just saying that because I gloating. Though I am. It was just really, really good. And once the excess fat was removed, it is even pretty healthy. I hope you try it and enjoy!

Squidlegs

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Get to know your nearest Scot(ch)!

Author’s note: This was originally written months ago. I have decided that the time is right to post this before MM sneaks in and fills the front page with more recipes (who ever heard of recipes on a cooking blog?!?)

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While on a flight to California for the ultimate in geeky conferences (Blizzcon), I decided to try to explain a fascination that I have had for years. While I have been geographically close, I have never been to Scotland, nor do I have (as far as I know) any Scottish blood flowing through my veins. But since I have been a teenager, I have had a fascination with Scotch Whiskey.

That is not to suggest that I started drinking Scotch as a teenager, because I didn’t. Heck, I didn’t hardly drink anything (Dad, I hope you are reading this, and believe me). As a teenager, I actually had a part in a play which mentions “Chivas Regal” as a sign of “making it” in life, as in “sitting back and sipping Chivas”. I always had this picture in my head of a dignified gentleman, sitting in a high backed leather chair with a small string quartet playing Mozart in the background as the man sipped a small glass of Scotch, smirking, very pleased with himself, all the while.

My first experience with Chivas Regal, a blended Whiskey (not from a single malt, more later), was not the idyllic situation that I had planned. I poured a glassful (perhaps a water glass was too big) of Chivas and took a big gulp. Up until that point in my life I had tasted pretty normal liquors. Dr. McGillicuty’s, Jaegermiester, Goldschlager, Beer, Wine Coolers, etc. are pretty normal upper teens and lower 20’s fare, right? But, I can not possibly describe the burning and coughing and hacking that followed my first taste of Scotch. If any of you have thought, “I like Rum and Cokes… I should just try Rum straight up!” you may have experienced something close. The fact was, I HATED it. I thought to myself, “If this is making it, I don’t want to.” That first bottle of Chivas, minus that virginal glassful, lasted me many, many moons after I first tasted it. But so powerful is memory that I couldn’t get my original, utopian, vision of what Scotch was supposed to represent in my life out of my head.

Then I discovered the real truth. The key to unlocking the secrets of Scotch: 7-up and ice! (Or, Sprite if you prefer.) These wonderful add-ons to my Chivas tastings prevented (or allivated, a much more desired effect) the burn of the alcohol of the whiskey, while sweetening it and making it much more palatable. For those of you, like me, who feel strongly that you have become an adult (finally!), and that you should be able to enjoy sip of Whiskey (Bourbon, Irish, Scotch or Kentucky) without gasping for breath for 10 minutes afterward, try a little 7-up and a couple of ice cubes with it. Things will proceed much more smoothly.

Ok.. Here’s the basics that you need to know about Scotch Whiskeys (as a beginner myself, I would never try to advise a true connoisseur of the libation, I let a wiki do that… http://www.wikihow.com/Taste-Single-Malt-Scotch):

1) There are, to an American, two different types of Scotch Whiskey. The first, and most common, is the “blended” Scotch. Dewers and Chivas are two examples of a blended Scotch. The second type, while much more pricey and snooty, are not that different. They are called Single-malt Scotches. The difference between these two is pretty easy to distinguish. Blended whiskeys come from more than one different kind of malt and/or barrel of whiskey. Single malts are made with a single malt (usually grown nearby) and casked all at once, however there can be flavor differences even between two different casks (again, more later). The biggest thing to remember about point one is that Single-malt Scotches are usually MUCH more expensive and usually have a defining characteristic that make them specifically tasty for a certan palate. Blended Whiskeys are usually a good place for beginners, smoother and not as full of character, and then you can move into single-malts as you decide what you like and don’t.

2) There are about as many different kinds of Scotches as there are Scotsmen. Actually… There may be more Scotches (especially if you include butterscotch). Scotland itself recognizes 6 different varieties of single-malt Scotch. These are based on where, in Scotland, the Whiskey is made. Here’s a tip: If you are new to Scotches, avoid Speyside or Islay scotches, unless you have a weird craving for sucking on bandaids (I kid you not!). The reason for all of the variations? Malt, peat and mixture. When you mix different malts with different peats and waters, the outcome in favors can be varied from the aformentioned bandaids to the smoky salitness of the sea. The Scots also have this talent for taking used things, in this case, barrels, and re-suing them, and potentially making them better. What they do is take wine or sherry or even bourbon casks and fill it with the new Scotch. These all wood barrels can’t help themselves, they let out some small bits of their previous inhabitants flavor. So you get sherry oak notes in the tasting, or you will taste the chocolatey goodness of a fine Pinot in your Scotch. These casks become standards that also give you different tastes. This is the point where you have to buy many different scotches and see what you like and don’t like and start doing your research to see what else you might like. Drinking Scotch begets drinking more Scotch. Consider yourself warned!

3) More expensive scotches do not mean better scotches. Remember that bandaid thing I mentioned above? That comment came from the fact that I bought and tried a couple of Scotches that I really thought were going to be something special because they were priced that way. Spending $75/bottle on a Scotch is a good way to drink a bottle that you think you have to like, but don’t. Then again… When I was younger and more easily impressed with my accomplishments, I passed some certification exams and obtained my MCSE from Microsoft. (This was back in the NT 4.0 days for those of you who know what that means). After getting my cert, I decided to reward myself with a bottle of 25 year-old MacCallan. At the time, that bottle cost $175. So, how good does something have to be to warrant spending $175/bottle? Well. This bottle was so TOTALLY worth it! One of the bestest (note: do not use this word at wine or Scotch tastings), smoothest, mellowest, yet with character, liquors I have ever drank. This was before the distillery was bought out by Japanese investors, which hasn’t degraded the flavor, merely changed it and the price. That bottle lasted me over a year and unfortunately, it was not shared with my friends. Mostly because my friends didn’t want to appreciate the sublte flavors and texture, or like Citizen Chef, has yet to meet a Scotch they liked. But also because I hadn’t realized the cardinal rule of all Whiskeys, which is that they are much better shared with friends. Was that bottle worth the much higher price than $40-$50/bottle of most single malts? You bet your sweet bippy it was. I still rank that beverage as one of the best that I have ever had the honor of tasting. Does that mean you have to spend $175/bottle in order to enjoy scotch. Not hardly. Find yourself a good cheap “house” brand and go for it. There is no shame in getting yourself a merry little buzz on Dewer’s at $15/bottle instead of buying the 30 year-old MacCallan or other high faulutin’ brand.

Long story short… Buy yourself a fine Scotch and enjoy. Just remember the basics. Good Scotch should be enjoyed and shared. It should not be a “Bataan death march” for your, or your friends’ mouth and throat. Add some soda if you need to. Ice also helps. A little water is often used, even by Scotsmen. But in its purest form, a good Scotch in a nice glass (you don’t have to use crystal or anything fancy, but avoid plastic or paper for this!) really does help you feel like you have “made it!”

Enjoy!

Squig Legs

Travels in Asia

Preface

Whenever I watch Anthony Bourdain or Alton Brown go to a new and exciting place that they have never been to and eat the foods there, they are always quick with a pithy saying or have the perfect adjective for describing how something tastes. I realize that the reason for this is often editing; and in many cases, long nights with a writer. But I can not help but feel inferior when I go on a great culinary journey as I did this year and am stuck without the right words to say to express exactly how good the food really was. I am still going to give it a try here, so sit back and try to enjoy the trip. It should be somewhat shorter than my trip and hopefully you will hear a perfect adjective somewhere in here. Without further ado, here is my take on the foods of Malaysia.

A year in the planning and several thousands of dollars spent; on Monday, June 9th (around 11am) my wife and I found ourselves being picked up by an old friend of mine at the Kuala Lumpur Budget Airline Terminal in Malaysia. For me, it was a culmination in a five year wait to introduce the women I love to the food I grew to love while working overseas many years ago. Let me just add that if one is interested in going to Malaysia to experience all of these great flavors, one should be prepared to spend A LOT of time in an airplane (and in our case, an airport). The flight that took us from Minneapolis to Tokyo (2/3 of the way to Malaysia) was 12 hours in the air. (Not overall time with boarding and taxing and stuff… No sir. This was from wheels up to wheels down!) I should also add that my wife and I had to spend 5 hours sitting in the Bangkok International Airport with all of our luggage while we waited for the airline check-in to open (due to a bonehead move on my part). But forget all of that, forget the smell of my unwashed (for almost 2 days) feet. Forget that my wife and I barely had 4 hours of sleep between the two of us in the past 36. We were at our travel destination, at last!

A brief background interjection here: In 2001, I began a 3 year working relationship with a certain Mr. Eng Keong How starting in Singapore and then over the years, moving to Malaysia. I did Linux training for him and helped him arrange train the trainer courses in Singapore, and all over Malaysia. One of the first students of these classes was William (more about both of these guys later in the articles). After four visits to these guys in their home court, I knew what to expect food-wise, and though I tried to verbally prepare my wife for the onslaught, she was not ready for the mass of food that my old friends threw at her.

Day 1 in Kuala Lumpur

So Mr. How picked us up at the airport. I should mention that Mr. How used to be a tour guide and he is very passionately in love with his country. He is (and should be) very proud of almost everything Malaysians have done and knows where to go to show them off. We started with a short tour of the policital center (where they had just recently moved the Prime Minister’s palace) and Technology center (where the Dell/Microsoft/HP/etc buildings are all congragated). But enough up the touristy stuff.. Where’s the food? You may be asking yourself. Actually, I was surprised that we didn’t get food stuffed into our face from the moment we arrived, but we actually waited at least an hour after our plane touched down. Mr. How took us some place he hadn’t even taken his family to yet, so this was a new find for him. We had some nice dishes at a local hawker (think Mom and Pop food court as it is the closest thing we have here) place. Chicken Feet soup anyone? Actually.. It was pretty good, though the bones in the feet make it a little difficult as a first dish to really get into using chopsticks. The broth was perfect though. Very clear and quite tasty. The rest of that first meal was all things fish paste related. Far be it for me to complain, since I love fish paste, as does my wife. Fishballs, stuffed squash blossoms, and everything else was pretty good except this one plate which had something really, REALLY sour in it and it messed up any of the oral Feng Shui I had going on with all of the other good food. My wife and I were so out of it from dehydration, tiredness and jet lag that we didn’t remember to get a picture of this meal.

That night, after a much needed 4 hour rest and showers; we got to meet an old food favorite of mine, Bakut Teh (pronouced BAKUTAY). Roughly translated, it means “Meat and Bones with Tea” and it is a wonderful dish of long slow braised pork with Chinese herbal “Medicines” – the Chinese believe just about every herb and aromatic is a medicine, which works for me! It is a simple dish and it is simply served with rice and tea and these wonderful little soft croutons for sopping up the gravy. Unless you have A) smelled this dish, or B) tasted it; you simply have no idea how good pork can be, even in a ramshackle makeshift restaurant.

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This particular batch was made with ribmeat, which was a different consistency than the shoulder meat that I am used to in this dish. There is a reason that after two solo visits and this joint visit with my wife that this is my second favorite dish in all of Malaysia. The pork is “falling off the bones” done and the braising liquid as you can see in the picture, is full of the oils and fats from the pork.

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You can also see in the picture a plate of our usual veggie which was just lightly stir-fried with sesame oil and some soy and then sprinkled with some crunchy bits. Notice near the top of the picture, the big bowls of garlic and chilies? The smaller white dipping bowls with a combo of those chilies, that garlic, and some soy (and sometimes a vinegary sauce too!); that’s your basic Malaysian condiment selection. You dip everything into that custom-made mixture and enjoy! With a nod toward Rachel Ray, Yummo! (Sorry, it really describes that dipping sauce.) The green bowl contains soft croutons and the blue bowl has some of the “gravy” with some croutons soaking in it. My wife interrupted me mid-dunking. The two brown pots contain the actual dish and the smaller of the two actually has some organ meats in it, I think you can make out some stomach on top on the right hand side. Thanks to my seriously messed up cropping, you can only see part of the teapot (Tea is a very important part of this meal!) but you can see that we were drinking tea with this meal out of little glasses, though you can’t see the ice that we used to keep it cool. If you look to the very left of the picture, you will see something I thought was interesting. You can see the white spoon handle, and next to it on the table are the remnants of some of the ribs. It is common practice, if the restaurant doesn’t provide a bone bowl, to simply use the table to get rid of parts you can’t eat. It is really too bad that they haven’t developed a way for smell or taste to be captured into a picture, because this really is great food. Later in the trip, we were given the special Chinese herbal “sactchels” for making Bakut Teh at home. I will keep you posted on how it turns out.

After some more touristy stuff (like visiting the KL Tower – think Space Needle in the middle of a city in the middle of a jungle), we stopped off at a stall which served shaved ice with syrup called Aic Kachang and it was declared “a very cooling thing”. The Malaysians are very concerned about the body staying cool, which for someone of my size is virtually impossible if I venture outside at all. The tempurature when we touched down was about 90 with about 70% humidity, at about 9pm when we were eating this dish, it was about 85 and 80% humidity. Again, my wife and I were fading fast and we didn’t think to take any pictures. I have had numerous deserts like this all over the pacific, but this was the first one with a “surprise” in the bottom. Apparently, they put a hollowed out section of the ice first and then fill it with sweet beans, jellies (think thin strips of finger jello), and beyond all food common sense, kernels of corn. Then they pile the shaved ice on top and put two different kinds of syrup on it. One was a fruit syrup, my wife thought it was maybe lychee, and the other was a condensed milk (or perhaps coconut milk, there were “discussions” about this between me and my wife, but it was never discovered and every food vendor does it differently). It was almost a sweet and savory kind of ice cream dish. Especially when you bit into a red bean and jelly at the same time. This wasn’t our first exposure to corn overseas. In fact, earlier in the night, we saw a food cart with a blazingly sign selling cups of corn, with or without butter. Nothing else.. Just corn. I am from the midwest, and I didn’t have to travel over a day in the air to eat something I could have at home, so I avoided most of it. But the sweet corn kernels in the shaved ice, which quickly turns to a sweetly flavored soup in the Malaysian heat (even at night), was actually pretty good. I wouldn’t make it at home, except to freak out my friends, but it wasn’t bad. Of course, Mr How could never let us survive with just some shaved ice, so along with that, we had some satay…

I have a couple of comments about satay and I want to air them out right now. On a recent episode of Top Chef, they served something called satay and I didn’t understand it. It did have “satay-like” elements, but there are a couple of specifics to satay. 1) It has to be grilled, usually slow grilled and fanned so that the coals don’t burn the meat. And 2) It must have a peanut sauce! This is where Top Chef confused me, as almond butter doesn’t come close to a spicy peanut sauce except, of course that it is also a nut well sort of. We won’t even get into the whole “peanuts are not nuts” thing. Satay is usually the name of the sauce, often a closely guarded secret like rib rubs. And it is ALWAYS peanut-based. In fact, many Malaysians often refer to satay sauce as peanut gravy. Even vegetarians like satay, as they (as do I) consider the sauce the satay, not the meat or style of cooking, and they will dunk small bits of red onion and cucumber into the sauce and gnosh away happy as can be without a single grilled thing in their mouths. SO, grilled meat with some sort of ground nut mixture does NOT equal a satay. Ok?!? Rant over.

… All of that being said, the stall that was open at the time that we went, was middle of the road on their sauce. The two different grilled meats (chicken and port) were good. But it wasn’t great. The sauce was peanuty, but not very spicy. A quick dose of chilies brought the heat up for me a little. Keep in mind that the grilled meats of a satay don’t really have the smokiness of a normal US grilling as they don’t let the charcoal smoke much and the meat is more slow cooked over the fire than quick roasted.

One more side note, the BEST satay I have ever had was in Singapore. THEY know satay! I have had my fair share of satay in Malaysia and while it is usually good, it has never been as good as the stuff I had in Singapore. The funny thing is that in the states, the most common type of restaurant to serve Satay is a Thai restaurant. But we didn’t have any satay or see any satay hawkers in Thailand. (More about this later when we get to the Thailand part of the trip).

After our first day and some great foods, it was off to a very hard (the Malaysians believe in extra firm mattresses), but needed, bed for me and the Misses and a sense of wonder as to what the next day would bring.

Look for Part 2 soon(tm)

Amateurs guide to Tea

Tea has many important benefits, such as the ability to grant superpowers and correct the mistakes you make in your daily diet. Speaking seriously, I drink 4-10 cups of tea each day. I keep a stash of tea at work and a smaller stash at home, since I don’t want to drink too much at night. I have no interest in being a snob about tea, first because I could get schooled by someone who really knows their stuff and second because that’s useless. I want more people drinking tea for their enjoyment, not less.

For those of you who think “I don’t like tea”, I can think of two reasons why. One, you simply never will like tea and that’s ok. Two, the tea you’ve had to date is bagged. There’s nothing inherently wrong with bagged tea except that so much of it contains little tea, mostly twigs and leaves, and is usually too black if its black tea and a total lie if it claims to be green or white tea. I’m going to try to organize this post by your familiarity level with tea.

1. Tea Equipment (the boring part)

If you’re at home, a boiling pot will do just fine. You can buy a metal infuser at most grocery stores, near the tea and coffee, or in any shop selling tea.

For work purposes, I microwave a cup of water. You’ll have to do a bit of experimentation since all microwaves differ. If you have bottled water, use that, otherwise try to use filtered water. If you have to use tap water, use cold water and simply microwave it longer at lower power. For most tea, you don’t want the water boiling anyway, if its letting off steam it’s fine.

2. Beginner: You’ve had the occasional cup of tea, but you don’t like it much. I can fix that.  Let me try to guess what you might like:

Iced Tea: Since summer is approaching, this is a great idea.  Use a Lipton bagged tea, and buy a lemon or two.  If Lipton has some new brand specially made for iced tea then use that, otherwise normal bagged Lipton is from Sri Lanka, the stuff they use is usually sold loose as Orange Pekoe or Ceylon Orange Pekoe or something similar.  It’s not orange flavored or anything like that, the name refers to the color.  The term “pekoe” describes the two-leaves-and-a-bud pick from the tea plant.  Put enough ice in a pitcher to make yourself happy, some sliced lemons, and use two bags for every 8 oz cup of brewed tea you use.  If you prefer sweetener, add it to the iced tea hours later.  If you prefer sugar, put about 8 oz of water in a saucepan with 2 tablespoons of sugar, stir that up and get it boiling to make a nice syrup for the iced tea.  Let it cool a bit and dump it in the pitcher.

Hot tea, something to wake you up:  If you’d like to try loose, I recommend an oolong.  Go to a place where you can see the tea leaves, you want a green looking oolong. If it smells like grass, fantastic.  If you’re using bagged tea, the important part of oolong (and anything green or black) is to take the bag out after the steeping time on the bag.  If you leave it in you’ve got a bitter-tastic cup of fail.

Hot tea, something at night to calm you down:  I highly recommend rooibos.  If you’re getting bagged rooibos, try to find one that isn’t too expensive (it’s generally not) and isn’t flavored.  Regular rooibos is just great, the trick is to use a lot.  Use twice as many bags as the box recommends, more rooibos is always always better.  Plus when you make it stronger (no caffeine at all, relax) you can add cream and sugar and you’ve got yourself what they call in South Africa a “red latte”.

2.  Intermediate:  You drink tea a few times a week, and you’d to try some more.

Iced Tea:  You might be ready to try something a little fancy.  Flavored green teas make great iced tea.  If you can go to a place with loose tea then try to get something that looks green and smells nice, if you can’t, go online or go to the store and get a green flavored with a citrus, or a regular green and add plenty of lemon.  If you’re going to the store, Rishi makes some good loose teas, if you’re going online, try Teavana or Adagio or Stash Tea, all are great.  Follow the same directions as above, except this time try to steep something loose or a good bagged green with orange flavoring.

Hot tea, something to wake you up:  Some good black teas are Keemum, anything with the word “Imperial” (trust me, its a form of black) or an oolong.  If you’d like to use an english or irish breakfast tea, or anything with the word “breakfast” or “grey”, keep in mind that these teas are designed to be swamped with cream and sugar or sweetener.  They are teas blended to be very, very strong and bitter by themselves.  They can be great with a hearty breakfast with milk and sugar.

Hot tea, something for the afternoon:  Again, an oolong is great in the afternoon.  If you’re using bagged tea, another thing to remember is that cloudiness is bad.  It either means something is in your water or more likely, something is in your tea, like twigs and bits of non-tea that got in there.  Switch to another brand.  If you get to smell the oolong, fresh and grassy smelling means its nice and green and mellow, otherwise it should have a clear reddish color.

Hot tea, something to relax with:  You can try some lightly flavored rooibos if you like, I also recommend a cup of white tea.  Two or three cups of white tea and you’re back up again, but one cup doesn’t have enough caffeine.  White tea is nice in that you can let it steep as long as you want.   It should be a clear yellow color.

3.  Advanced: You have a few cups of tea per week, you’ve tried a few different teas and you generally like tea:

Hot tea, something to wake you up:  You’re used enough to tea to try the subsitution of 3-4 cups of green instead of your morning coffee/caffeine drink.  A few cups of green tea doesn’t give you the instant jolt coffee does, it ramps up and keeps you perked for a couple hours.  It’s great.  You also don’t get jittery, like you can from coffee/espresso.  I recommend trying some loose, unflavored green teas until you find something you like.  A favorite of mine is Dragon Well, aka liongjin (spelling may differ).  The risk with unflavored green tea is that you may find you want to change the brand/store you buy green from.  A lot of brands and stores will use lower quality green (or black/oolong) teas and mask the quality change with extra heavy flavorings.  Again, the key here is fresh and grassy.  When you finally open the package, it should smell like nature.  It should have a clear yellow to orange/reddish color.  You may need to buy a few small samples until you find the thing you like, but when you do, you won’t switch from it.  I buy dragon well by the pound now.

You may have noticed a few things from reading this.  For one, I don’t recommend any “decaffeinated” teas.  This is because unfortunately in tea, they still haven’t found a way to remove caffeine from tea without also removing much of the flavor.  You may also have noticed I specify a clear color to any tea.  This is because many bagged teas are in fact leftovers from the loose tea.  This isn’t bad in itself, but sometimes bagged tea brands will allow twigs and other bits into the tea, and you’ll get cloudiness when you steep the bag.  You shouldn’t settle for that.
If you’d like a nice breakfast tea and don’t like english breakfast, irish breakfast, or earl grey (or lady grey or any other “grey”), try a darjeeling.  They can be quite nice.  Again, english teas, darjeelings, and chais are meant for cream and sugar, not by themselves.  They’ll either be bitter or spicy.

And if you find yourself with leftover steeped tea in a pot or cup, get in the habit of keeping a pitcher or bottle around you can throw the remaining tea water into.  You’ll find it makes a nice iced tea, this “leftover pitcher”.  I keep one in my fridge and dump all sorts of leftover tea pots in there, I get some interesting blends.

If you have specific questions I’d love to address them further!

The Great Scallop Debate

Seafood (especially scallops), when prepared properly, can be some of the tastiest morsels you have ever eaten without a lot of time consuming preparation. However, done improperly, words like “rubbery”, “fishy” and “icky” spring to mind.

With that said, I live in Wisconsin. You know, “Frozen Tundra”? “The Great Northwoods”? Pretty far from an ocean in any direction. Which means that the seafood that I can get my hands on typically comes from a freezer section. Up until a few years ago, my typical seafood purchase had the name of a certain lady on it. I have moved up since then to whole shell-on prawns and frozen crab. Hey… Alton says frozen crab is “okay!”

Scallops, on the other hand, are a very recent addition to my culinary skillset. I have made HUGE scallops even for fancy dinner parties and close friends thinking that the size was important to correct cooking methods. Boy was I wrong. If you haven’t heard of the difference between “Dry” and “Wet” scallops, here’s the scoop:

“Wet scallops are commonly treated with Phosphates which is a preservative. When scallops are soaked in phosphates, they absorb water making them weigh more and thereby costing you more. (Take in mind, that you are paying for added water.) The absorbed water evaporates during cooking and, in turn, shrinks your scallops leaving them smaller, dry and somewhat tasteless. Furthermore, the added water does not let scallops brown properly during cooking. It is generally easy to discern treated scallops as they will usually appear snow-white in color.

Comparison of Scallops

Dry scallops are all wild and natural. They are not treated with any chemicals whatsoever. They are harvested directly from the ocean, shucked on deck, then immediately frozen on the boat to capture their quality. Dry scallops caramelize naturally during cooking to a golden brown color that is very attractive when serving. And, as you might have guessed, there is no cost-added water weight with dry scallops. Dry scallops generally have a natural vanilla color. ”
– Taken from http://www.fishex.com/seafood/scallops/scallops-dry-vs-wet.html

“Pishaw,” says I! “I am going to take whatever scallops are the biggest and best bang for the buck.” Without knowing it, I was setting myself up to make not only sub-par scallops but also making more work for myself.

Here’s the deal when you buy frozen scallops or “fresh” scallops from a grocery store counter; they are almost always “wet” scallops. Dry scallops will almost always be labeled “dry” in some way on the packaging. It isn’t a requirement, but even frozen dry scallops usually specify it on the package. Now… If you are doing some small bay scallops in a cream sauce to throw on top of some pasta, you aren’t going to notice any appreciable difference (other than texture) between wet or dry. However, if you are going to try to sear a scallop, please learn from my mistakes and only get dry scallops! A fishmonger or good butcher with seafood connections should be able to get you dry scallops without breaking the bank.

I managed to find a small handwrapped package in frozen seafood section of the local “mega-mart” and it was labeled “Dry” right on the sticker. There wasn’t a drastic price difference between it and the jumbo scallops in a commerical package right next to it. But scallops have never been a cheap purchase. I think the package of seven very large dry scallops went for $10. And they may have been re-frozen.

Now I have made a number of what I thought were seared scallops before. But before I used the dry scallops, I hadn’t really done it successfully. These scallops seared beautifully, and the smaller of them were done perfectly in the middle at the same time as a golden sear was finished on the outside (about 2 minutes per side). If you get a package of widely different sizes, like I did; I discovered something else that was kind of handy. Once properly seared, if the center still feels too raw, place a single scallop on a microwave safe dish and cook it in the “nuker” for a max of 30 seconds. It doesn’t seem to change the flavor and for those who really can’t appreciate semi-raw scallops, it makes a big difference in the texture of the center.

So, standard searing practices (really high heat, stainless or cast iron, high smoke point oil, don’t over-crowd the pan, rotate once only, etc), a bit of sea salt for each scallop, a very light pinch of extra fine sugar over all of them and using dry scallops will lead you to a very happy place. Please note: Even dry scallops will need to be wiped off with paper towels before cooking in order for the sear to take. If you see any funny looking white liquid in the pan around the outside of the scallops, more than likely, they have been treated and will not really sear.

Pepper, especially white pepper, should be added to the top of the scallops only after they are rotated once. If you are going to want a buttery flavor -and let’s face it… Who isn’t going to want some buttery goodness? – wait until the very end and add room temperature (or melted) better to the pan right before you are going to remove the scallops. Lemon should be squeezed on by the taster, or for purists, left off completely. Serve the scallops with some cous cous or rice pilaf and sit back and enjoy.

Panko Crusted Tilapia with Tangerine Honey Sauce

Ok so this is something I made up in my head. A dish I really liked at this excellent mediterranean restaurant was a fish I no longer remember, on a bed of greens served with fennel. Several permutations in my head later, we’ve got this.

Ingredients:

  • Natural honey (the cloudy stuff, though your normal clover honey should be fine)
  • 1 tangerine
  • 1 stick butter
  • 2 tablespoons flour
  • Sea salt (I like the gray stuff)
  • 6 tilapia fillets (add more for hungry people/more than three people)
  • Panko bread crumbs (they’re Japanese – they might be in the international section of your grocery store)
  • 1 pkg bitter greens (anything with baby spinach and/or arugula)
  • 2 eggs
  • EVOO
  • 1 Fennel Bulb

(Note: I also used a side dish of frozen roasted potato wedges and baked them in the oven. Feel free to add an easy side dish of either salad or some sort of potato based on your preferences. A baked or microwaved sweet potato would also go great with this dish.)

The first thing you’ll want is time. You don’t want to rush this since the sauce needs low heat. Start there first. Melt about 3 tablespoons of butter in a small pan on the lowest setting on your burner. Once melted, add 2 tablespoons of flour and stir that in. Let that sit while you prepare the other things.

Dust the tilapia fillets with a little itty bit of flour. It’s ok if the fillet isn’t completely covered. Dip in egg, then push it into a bed of panko bread crumbs, and push some more crumbs on top. Place in a pan with a tablespoon of butter and just a little EVOO. Fill the pan with fillets and let them cook for about 7 minutes on medium heat. When you flip the fillets over you should see a nice light to golden brown color. Let them cook another 6 minutes.

Now peel the outer layer of the fennel bulb and chop it into thin slices, it will come apart like an onion. Throw in a pan with some sea salt, pepper, and EVOO or 1 tablespoon butter, let this cook on medium heat, stir or shake the pan occasionally. Let them cook down. They won’t carmelize like an onion, but they will get floppier.

Now your first batch of fish is done. Remove the fillets and wrap in aluminum foil to keep warm. Prepare a second batch, same as the first, but add a dash more oil or half a tablespoon of butter (a thin slice). Repeat your earlier work.

When the second batch of fish is cooking, add 1 tablespoon honey to the sauce. Stir it in, it may take a few turns, and then add 1 to 2 tablespoons of butter, depending on how thick it looks. Squeeze out the juice of the whole tangerine (I did this in slices) into the pan and let it sit on the lowest heat. Stir occasionally if you see the butter separating.

Once the second batch of fish is done, remove and put in aluminum foil. Take out the first batch of fish, which should still be plenty hot, and place on a bed of the bitter greens on a plate. Add the sides of fennel and whichever other sides you’ve used. Let the sauce cool a bit before pouring on the fish, serve.

rich-tilapia.JPG

Oh, Monkey Gravy!

This is one of my personal favorites. A good monkey gravy goes well with chicken, but even better with some succulent turkey. Since you’ll go to some trouble for getting the monkey gravy, use good quality turkey cutlets from the store-the gravy will do the rest!

Oh, Monkey Gravy:

* Monkey: This is the difficult part. Western culture, specifically their laws, are pretty restrictive when it comes to monkeys. You can’t find them in the wild here, and the ones left either belong to science labs or zoos. They’re registered and have to be treated in accordance with animal cruelty statutes. So here’s my strategy:
* $12,000 US Dollars
* 1 Passport sized photo

First book yourself a flight to Paris. Take a train down to the capital of Spain, whatever that is. There’s a dude there, in a bar. I forget the name, but it has a picture of a lady singing on the door. Tell the bartender you’re there for “Louis” and buy a drink, it’ll be a while. In an hour or so, a man will come in and go to the bathroom. Go back there and hand him $1,500 and the passport photo. He will give you a number to call and tell you to call tomorrow. Call the number, they’ll tell you where to go, and you’ll find your new passport waiting for you. Now with your new passport, book a flight to Africa. Any of them will do. Once off the plane, you will need to steal 1 monkey. They are literally everywhere, it’s not too difficult to find them.

The important part here is to be picky. Most species of monkey are 70% hair. Hair is not tasty, you don’t want it in your food. I recommend chimps. Mountain Gorillas also work, but they’re harder to stuff into a suitcase. That’s the next part, pick your monkey and get him into a suitcase. Buy some butter at the store to get it in there if you’re having trouble. If they don’t have butter, get whatever looks oily. If they click at you, don’t be concerned, that’s how they speak in Africa. If there’s a revolt, make sure to bribe the guards when you get to the airport. Now get back to Spain, take the train back to France, and get rid of your fake passport before coming back to the states. Check your suitcase once in a while, you don’t want your monkey to die after all that trouble.

Once home, open the suitcase and feed your monkey some bananas. They like them. Shave your monkey to get rid of any hair. Now give the monkey a hat and a typewriter, and wait for him to type a recipe for gravy. Once he does, make the gravy and enjoy.

What? You thought… You’re horrible!!!!

Barbecue

If you want to know if a barbecue place might be good, ask when they started cooking when you get there. If they cook your dish around or near the time you order it, its probably not good barbecue. See good barbecue is not grilled, not cooked quickly-its cooked indirectly, and for hours. The emphasis needs to be on the hours. An optimal barbecue setup is having meat on a rack or some other permeable setting, displaced from the fire/heat source, and all this in some sort of container so you get a lot of nice smoke. The point of all this, aside from flavor, is that you get meat that falls off the bone. If you have to use your teeth to tear at the flesh on ribs, they weren’t barbecued well.

Unless you plan to set your couch on fire and hang meat from the ceiling, it’s unlikely that you have this setup. Your oven is the next best thing. Kept at 325 for several hours, it can make the difference between charcoal grilled mess and tasty, barbecue mess.

I’ve used the following recipe with some success:

Ribs with BBQ sauce:

Sauce:

* 4 tbsp EVOO
* 4 tbsp chopped garlic
* 1 cup red cider vinegar
* 1/2 cup soy sauce
* 2 cups ketchup
* 2 cups honey
* 1/2 cup strong black coffee or instant espresso or espresso
* Black Pepper

1. Saute the garlic in the olive oil
2. Add everything else
3. Store in fridge (do this at least a day ahead of time)

Ribs:

* 2 racks baby back ribs
* Gray sea salt
* Black pepper

1. Preheat oven to 325
2. Rub the ribs on both sides with the salt and pepper
3. Cut so you have approximately 7″ pieces of ribs
4. Cover a nice big cookie tray with aluminum foil
5. Stack the ribs on a metal pan so they form a sort of pile of ribs, but not directly on top of each other (think like you want to make a house-contains the heat!)
6. Cook for at least 2, maybe 2.5 hours, moving the ribs around every half hour so they all get to be in a different spot (cook more evenly)
7. Place the ribs on a grill (or heated pan on the stove) on very low heat, and baste with the sauce. Baste again every 10 minutes, both sides for each piece of ribs. The important thing here is that the grill is on very, very low heat-as a test, see how long you can keep your hand near the heat. If you’ve gotta pull away in less than a minute, its too high!
8. After at least 3 bastings, serve. If you want a stronger flavor, baste a few more times before serving.

Notes:

Sauce: The sauce given is not the only sauce that can be used with ribs, obviously. If you would like to make your own sauce, great. If you’re trying a store-bought sauce, save yourself the trouble of icky tasting ribs: heat up a little bit of the sauce, throw in a tiny bit of salt and pepper, see how it tastes. A lot of “barbecue” sauces in the store are actually just sugared ketchup to give a tangy taste with fried chicken, etc. They would not do well on actual barbecued foods, since the sugar would burn on the grill.

Salt: Sea salt is all the rage right now, the problem is a lot of it is…well…expensive salt. Nothing more! See purified sea salt is still just table salt, even if it has bigger grains. The point of getting sea salt is to get the dirty stuff. It might be a little more expensive, but its worth it. Part of the reason so many of us crave salt is that we’re actually craving the minerals that are supposed to come with salt-but we don’t get them because the white salt is nothing but sodium chloride. We want other minerals! The dirty sea salt, any color but white, has other minerals and a tiny bit of that salt will actually do more to make your body (and taste buds!) happy than a pound of the white stuff.