Wednesday, February 18, 2009

A Trip to the Orient

Monday night, it was time to knock off another couple of countries. I changed Israel's blintzes to cover Ukraine. In hearing from a couple of people, it was suggested blintzes are Eastern European and my own independent research suggests Russia and Ukraine are where blintzes are heavily consumed. I didn't want to toss Russia away on blintzes--I want to learn to make a really good beef stroganoff--so although I haven't changed the post except for the title, blintzes are now Ukraine.

Anyway, I hadn't done 80 plates in almost a week, and if I am going to get through this project, that's not gonna fly. So I was at Borders the other week and found a cookbook, The Essential Asian Cookbook, for a whopping $5, so I picked it up. It's kind of exciting because the book contains recipes from a number of smaller countries and "weird" countries, like Pakistan and Singapore, where you might have a hard time finding good recipes. So I'm excited about this book for that reason too! Because we had people here to help with the baby's room, it seems like a good time to make the 80 plates meals--we always have waaaaaaaaaaaay too many leftovers and can never eat them all, which is kind of disheartening to throw away food like that. So if anyone's starving and has a country request, please plan to come to Fredericksburg for dinner. Seriously.

Also, Manda, if you're out there, do you still want these ham hocks? They've been in my fridge, but they don't seem like the type of thing to go bad. I've got 'em if you want 'em. Cindy, I don't have your email address to send you the beef wellington recipe, so I'm going to send it to you this week via Facebook.

Ok, so we read through the new cookbook and looked through the freezer at things that we needed to get rid of. There was a pork tenderloin in there, so we chose to do China and make Pork with Plum Sauce as well as stir fry vegetables. I wanted to make something from another country, so we selected Japan and as a dish, chicken teriyaki. This allowed us a couple main dishes and some veggies, plus lots of food for hungry builders. I was also going to make shrimp toast, but I just got to feeling like it was all too much and I'd never really attempted making 3 dishes before, much less 4 of them, so the shrimp toast got put to the side.

Unfortunately, we got so stinkin' busy, I didn't get the brown rice into the steamer till nearly 6:00, which meant that dinner wasn't really going to be ready till 8:00. I would have prefered white rice, but we didn't have any and it's not WW approved. So I let the brown rice cook. Besides, Lucas was taking a nap, Judy was doing something on the computer and I had Dottie's undivided attention, which I didn't mind at all.

Alas, an hour elapsed and I decided I'd better get cracking on dinner. I decided to do the pork and veggies first and then do the chicken second. But you know me, timing is not my thing and I should have done exactly the opposite. The chicken took twice as long to cook--less time to prep but more in the pan time.

Overall, however, these dishes were an absolute snap compared to the foods I've been preparing--the ease with which they were done was a real breath of fresh air. We're talking 15 minutes prep, 15 minutes to cook, and we're done. So let's hear it for Chinese cooking!

So, I did the veggies first. As you can see from the picture of my assembled ingredients, I did have shiitake mushrooms, but due to a food allergy, I was obliged to leave them out. Otherwise, the directions were quite simple: chop up veggies, fry them in a little oil, add some chicken broth, corn starch and sauces, and voila! Only, I suppose I was feeling over confident. And I did it wrong.

As I chopped each vegetable, I put it in a bowl. When I was done, I mixed them all together--I liked the color of them and how they all looked so nice together. Plus, it's not often I get to cook with fresh green beans, so I was enjoying that.

But once I did this, I read, "Fry carrots first, then add remaining vegetables." And I was going to be damned if I was going to pick out all those little carrots that I'd so thinly and lovingly sliced up. So I just threw them all in together. Basically, it was carrots, red pepper, and green beans. I heated the oil and put in some garlic, which I let soften and then I fried the veggies for 2 minutes or so, before it was time to make the sauce.

The sauce was comprised of a little bit of cornstarch dissolved into some chicken broth, to which was added a little bit of superfine sugar, sesame oil, and soy sauce. I mixed it all up and poured it over the veggies, letting it cook down a bit and thicken up to a nice sauce. It smelled so great that I had a feeling it was going to be a homerun. Of course the recipe said, "Serve immediately" but that was impossible due to the fact that the rest of dinner was not even close to ready. So I clamped a lid on the pot and threw it in the oven to wait it out.

One of the reasons I have trouble with cooking more than one thing at a time is that my work space is approximately 3 feet square. The ingredients pictures I take are taken on what amounts to all the counterspace I have for cooking. The area to the left past the kitchen sink is taken up by the mixer, canisters, coffee pot, and to the right past the stove is where I set up my electric frying pan, which is often in use for these recipes. If I'm not using the stove top, I'll put the electric frying pan on the stove and give myself a little more room to work. Otherwise, space is at an ultimate premium.

Anyway, I digress. Time to make the pork! Another lightning fast recipe, this one involving pork tenderloin. (I was in such a rush, the ingredient photo is blurry--SORRY! Man, that pisses me off.) Anyway, the basic gist of this one is that you fry up some onions and garlic, slice up some pork tenderloin, fry it up, put it and the onions together in the pot, and put some sauce on it. The longest part of making this was frying the pork.

I dredged the pork in a little bit of cornstarch--the recipe called for something called 'corn flour', which I hope is what cornstarch is because that's what I used. The sole mistake I made in this recipe was that I fried the onions in garlic in the full amount of oil called for the whole dish, as opposed to the one tablespoon. However, I was able to salvage the oil when I drained off the onions and not have to use more.

Before and after shots of the beautiful pork

The last picture there shows the pork in the sauce, which I made by just mixing together hoisin sauce, plum sauce, a little bit of sugar, and some soy sauce, and pouring it over the pork and letting it thicken.

It was at this point, I was starting to notice a disturbing side effect of working with all this hot oil, which is that my kitchen was beginning to look as if it had been at the Exxon Valdez spill site. There was oil EVERYWHERE. I need to get one of those spatter guards. It was crazy. My new cookbook--thank God I only paid $5 for it--it's totally wrecked with oil. If you look at the next picture, you'll see it everywhere.

On to Japan and the chicken! I put the pork in the oven with the veggies and turned my attention to the Japanese section of the cookbook. We had decided to make chicken teriyaki from Japan. I would have been willing to be a bit more adventurous with something like udon soup, which I know my friend Joe LOVES and it'd be nice to know how to make it for him, or something else, but in fairness, I also have to cook for my audience, and my audience declared chicken teriyaki the most acceptable of the recipes from Japan, so that's what we decided to have. The recipe, again, was super simple--a minimum of ingredients and a minimum of fuss, but this time there was about 40 minutes of actual cooking. Consequently, we decided to have a "chicken course" later--i.e. I would dish up the Chinese food as soon as I got the chicken cooking.

It was time to make the sauce for the chicken. The sauce called for soy sauce, mirin, and sugar. Basically, you boil it until the sugar breaks down and it gets a bit thick and then pour it over the chicken, which you have fried up in (what else?) oil. I decided to use the superfine sugar since I already had it out and it seemed like it would not be as grainy, even though it was supposed to melt anyway. I cooked it all down and whisked the heck out of it with my whisk, and it was done!

Meanwhile, I'd been frying up some chicken drumsticks. Now, here again is where we are going to have to start taking creative license with these recipes. None of us likes chicken with skin and bones on/in it. However, I wanted to stay true to the recipe, so I used drumsticks. I think I'm going to have to start sticking with boneless, skinless chicken breasts or thighs. Just my thoughts on the matter. Because we've just gotten so used to eating chicken that way that to eat otherwise is unappealing to all of us.

Anyway, I fried up the chicken legs and poured the sauce over them. Then I clamped the lid on the pan and let it simmer for 20 minutes while we ate. It was time to call the troops to dinner and get ready to eat!

Up first was pork with plum sauce, stir fried vegetables, and brown rice. Everything smelled great, so I was definitely hopeful that we would have a great meal. I had inadvertantly forgotten to make the ever present mashed potatoes however! The General really wanted mashed potatoes, so I jumped up and put them on the stove to cook before we got down to business and ate. Fortunately those little instant mashed potatoes cook up pretty quick, but I wasn't waiting before we ate. He'd just have to get his potatoes in a bit. Of course we had to photograph the ceremonial first bite. The General declared it "Good". Then he made a terrible face and said, "This is the face he makes when he likes something!" So I took a picture of that face and here it is:

Then it was time for the rest of us to have a plate and dig in! I am not exagerrating in the least when I say that we were very nearly licking the plate that the pork was on. It was so freaking good. We ate all the onions, we ate the pork, we scraped the sauce onto the rice. It's a shame that tenderloin was only 1 pound, we could very easily have eaten twice that much. The veggies were excellent too, but the pork was a total homerun. We will definitely be incorporating that into our regular menus, no doubt about it.

By the time we'd finished, the chicken was done. It smelled really good, but when we actually ate it, it didn't taste like anything all that special--just tasted like chicken. It was unfair to eat it after we'd devoured the pork so voraciously and it was so flavorful. I got a little of the teriyaki sauce from the pan and poured it over the chicken and it helped, but it was such an anemic flavor compared to the pork, that it was not something we ate. We each picked at a leg, gazing longingly at the now-empty pork plate, and then gave up. I cunningly packed all the legs into a to go box for them to take home. Mwahahaha

So that was our most recent trip around the orient, bringing our total countries to 11. We are now more than 13% done with our quest to travel the world, and by and large, it's gone very, very well. We've both tried new things and made old things a new way, and it's been a lot of fun! We have a request in for Trinidad, which I am researching and this weekend we will hit SWITZERLAND! Wahooo! I also got a pile of actual recipes from Israel, so I'm trying to decide which one of them to prepare. Stay tuned!

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