Monday, March 30, 2009

Mmm.... Mexican-y...

I had this idea on Friday that I should really make some Mexican food over the weekend to celebrate no longer being really sick, but as Saturday seemed to bring the first (and as yet only) day of spring I wanted to do a version that was really fresh and light and springtime-y. In a very un-emmo-like move, I went grocery shopping without a list (!), and it worked out quite nicely. I came home with some beautiful salmon, some shrimp, gorgeous tomatoes from Russo's, and all of the other components I would need to make tortillas, guac, pico de gallo, and a nice marinade for the shrimp. Recipes are posted over at my other blog for anyone who is interested, but I'll put a couple of those pictures over here, too, since it's the only interesting non-rabbit-related thing I did this week...
I decided to make a finely diced avocado relish instead of my standard guac (using all the same ingredients but cutting them into a fine dice rather than mashing everything together) and it turned out pretty freaking awesome, not to mention really pretty.
I think I was being guided by the ol' WWTKD? (What Would Thomas Keller Do?) philosophy... It may seem like too much work for something that tastes very similar to a quick-and-easy batch of guac, but I have to say that it really did taste more spectacular than guac (even my own amazing version using the exact same ingredients) usually does, and a big blob of guac wouldn't look nearly this pretty on piece of grilled salmon:Speaking of my guac, the trick of putting your unripe avocados in a paper bag with bananas totally works. It's sort of amazing, really. Also, I stole my secret ingredient (roasted serranos) from the recipe in Rick Bayless's Mexico, One Plate at a Time cookbook, which is also where I learned to make fresh corn tortillas. This batch of corn tortillas was the best I'd made in a long time, most likely due to the fact that I re-read the recipe and noticed I'd been omitting a key step when making them from memory the last few times... Oops. They were still better than store-bought even when I did it sort of wrong, but they're fantastic when you do it right and not even all that time-consuming.
As I alluded to, the bright sunny Saturday that prompted me to put my sweaters and electric blanket into storage in the basement and start shopping for air conditioners gave way to more dreary cold weather by Sunday... but at least it's raining now instead of snowing, which means I don't have to dig my car out in the morning or scrape ice and snow off of my windows, so I'm still pretty pleased with the change. I think the snow may officially be over until next winter... After feeling pretty great on Saturday, Sunday also brought the Cold That Won't Die back to my respiratory system. I think it's been almost a month now, with the cold taking on various incarnations (sinus issues, chest congestion, sore throat, nausea and light-headedness) at various times but never fully going away... Arg. (My pico de gallo is shown below for lack of energy to find a more appropriate picture to insert.)
Overall, though, life is good. I can't believe it's already (basically) April. I've got tickets to some awesome concerts coming up in the next few months, including Kings of Leon (with The Walkmen!), The National, TV on the Radio, and Andrew Bird. It's pretty great to live in a city where all kinds of musicians come on purpose. Yay, Boston! Farmers markets should be opening up again soon, too, although Russo's has pretty much made me forget all about missing the Santa Barbara farmers' market. It's only 3 miles from my apartment, has the best prices on produce anywhere in town, and has amazing quality, too. I don't buy produce anywhere else anymore... Still, it will be fun to go support local farmers when the sun comes out for good...

Thursday, March 26, 2009


I was looking at one of the more awesome blogs around (The Bloggess), and was directed to a site where you can make your own movies. I have only played with it for about 5 minutes and I really should just go to bed now, but check it out. I suspect this will never ever get old...

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Random Thoughts on a Sunday Afternoon...

I've been pretty under the weather for the last few days, but modern medicine seems to be helping me out so far today so I figured I'd better post while I'm feeling up to it... Plus, this way I can blame the excessively random nature of this post on the fact that my head is all fuzzy... Here are my random thoughts for the day:

Speaking of being sick, it usually takes me a few days after I hit rock bottom to start taking any kind of cold medicine. I don't know if it's because I'm a scientist or just fundamentally screwed up in some way, but I tend to find my symptoms sort of fascinating, and I feel like if I take medicine then I won't be able to gage how sick I really am. Am I the only person who does this?
I saw a blind man jaywalking across a very busy street on Thursday. This strikes me as a really bad idea. I have some friends (you know who you are) who I used to mock for refusing to jaywalk even on quiet Santa Barbara streets, but even a hard-core jaywalker like myself wouldn't venture out into the middle of a busy street if I couldn't see what was coming at me... Crazy.
So, I think there are two kinds of pet owners in this world. There are the kind who find out that their pet rabbits are deathly afraid of the smell of cooking chicken and thus decide that they will never again make chicken stock (which fills the house with lovely chicken and ginger aromas for 2 hours), and there are the kind who aren't feeling well and think some Chinese Chicken Noodle Soup with homemade chicken stock* would be the perfect remedy, even if it means that the bunnies are huddled in the corner of their cage in fear for 2 hours. My feeling is that they just need to get over it. I went ahead and did laundry (which also freaks them out a bit) at the same time just to get all of the badness over with at once. Fish sauce and cooked chicken are the two aromas that scare the crap out of them. I've come up with a few theories, but their brains are very very tiny, so who am I to try to figure out what they're thinking...
Poor little guys... Below is a picture of what the bunnies looked like for the first hour and a half that the stock was simmering, after which I think they decided that if I was going to add them to the pot I probably would have done it already:
Homemade chicken stock is pretty amazing, but definitely takes a chunk of time so I pretty much only make it when it is going to be the highlight of a dish. I'm sure all of the things I make that involve chicken stock would taste better with homemade stock instead of the boxed stuff, but I'm not sure the improvement would be worth all the extra time... For this soup, though, the stock is definitely the star. While the stock is coming to a boil I prep bowls filled with chicken (I used $5 rotisserie chickens from Costco for the carcasses in the stock, and reserved the meat from one of those to use in the soup), bok choy, scallions, cilantro, red chillies, hokkien noodles, and a drizzle of sesame oil. When the stock is finished, you can season it with oyster sauce, sugar, and soy sauce then ladle it into these bowls for a yummy healthy chicken noodle soup, guaranteed to make any sick person feel a little better...
*I'm not going to bother posting this on my recipe page because it's really simple: Put 3 chicken carcasses in a large pot with ~16 scallions (halved crosswise), 2 small red onions (roughly chopped), a ~4-inch piece of ginger (sliced), ~10 cloves of garlic (crushed), and ~8 liters of water. Bring to a boil and simmer for ~2 hours. Remove solids, then remove fat either by using a fat separator or by refrigerating and skimming the fat from the top. For soup, heat 8 cups of stock and combine with 2-3 tablespoons soy sauce, 1 tablespoon oyster sauce, and a teaspoon of sugar. Ladle over chicken, noodles, and veggies to serve.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

The Problem with Convenience

I haven't posted anything (non-bunny-related) in a while because there's not a heck of a lot going on in The Life of Emmo these days... During the week I wake up, give the rabbits their morning spinach and carrots, head to work, come home, play with the rabbits, eat (delicious) dinner, watch one of the TV shows that I am sadly addicted to right now even though I should really just read a good book instead, then head to bed. By the weekend I tend to be so tired these days (still recovering from moving, I think) that my idea of a perfect weekend is sitting around doing nothing worthy of reporting... So, yeah... I've decided that I will occasionally post my musings about random food-related things (which actually has much more to do with the supposed theme of this blog than, say, the Bucs and my rabbits...).

This is somewhat related to my post about frozen corn, I guess, but today I'm going to talk (rant?) about convenience foods. I am at the point in my culinary life where I am almost physically incapable of purchasing prepared foods. When I am forced to (such as when I wanted hummus but the movers hadn't delivered any of my kitchen appliances/utensils yet) it tends to make me extremely cranky. I feel ashamed even looking at the prepared foods in the freezer section... This, of course, is a bit extreme. I'm softening on this stance a little, like allowing myself to occasionally spend 99 cents on pitas rather than spending the time to make a batch of fresh pitas at home (which are one million times better, but do take a bit of time when you account for rising, oven-heating, etc...), but I still feel pretty strongly about it. A big part of this is that prepared foods so often taste SO much worse than fresh and home-made foods. I get to eat a little sooner, but I don't really enjoy the food so there's not much point. (A few years ago I thought there were more exceptions... I watched Martha Steward make jalapeño poppers from scratch and I thought she was a crazy-lady since the store-bought ones are just fine for what they are... then Dustin brought his famous bacon-wrapped smoked jalapeño poppers to my Rib Cook-Off and changed my mind completely. I'd so much rather serve people a smaller quantity of food that they'll still be talking about several months later instead of a pile of utterly forgettable store-bought drek.)
On the other end of the spectrum, I ate some pretty crappy meals when I was in college - things I can't imagine myself eating now. My meals were primarily inspired by poverty, convenience, and limited kitchen supplies, and it showed. A special treat that I remember as something that tasted pretty good (I haven't tried it in about 10 years, so don't hold me to any claims of deliciousness) was Tuna Helper. You see, Tuna Helper is totally awesome because you can buy it when it's on sale and keep in the cupboard along with the tuna that you got on a 12-cans-for $1 special, then you just need to add milk and you're all set. (Hamburger Helper, on the other hand, would require you to buy ground beef, which is way more expensive and less healthy than discount canned tuna and which you can't just keep in the cupboard.) I also ate a lot of frozen vegetables with rice and assorted prepared sauces and tried to get creative with various other canned and frozen foods. I was poor and had a schedule such that I often didn't get around to eating fresh produce before it went bad, so this is how I lived.
When I moved to Santa Barbara (and had a salary for the first time in my life such that I could even afford exciting ingredients like chicken!) I started going to farmers' markets and absolutely fell in love with the amazing fresh produce I found there. I had more time than I'd had at nerd school, too, and started to discover that you could actually make much higher-quality food at home than you could buy prepared, and for a lot less money. I set about figuring out how to make perfect hummus, and Steph and I amused ourselves by sitting on the floor in front of the oven watching our homemade pitas puff. We started experimenting with new food ideas (some healthy, some really really not) and by the time I moved to Melbourne we had a pretty solid repertoire of things we made the absolute best possible versions of. My days of Tuna Helper and Steph's days of Rice-A-Roni were a thing of the past.
I used to subscribe to a whole arsenal of cooking magazines, and Cooking Light was one of my favorites because you could go ahead and make any recipe you saw in there even if you weren't feeling dangerously under-weight (which is really not the case with some of the others...). What started to turn me off of Cooking Light was the amount of canned, jarred, and frozen foods in their recipes. Fresh garlic is cheap, takes no time to chop, and tastes infinitely better than the bottled minced stuff. Bottled roasted red peppers don't taste like roasted red peppers; they taste like nastiness. Frozen stir-fry-vegetable mix? Ew. I understand that I am not their demographic. I'm single, childless, and spend time in the kitchen for fun. I really enjoy prepping vegetables. (I only have to look as far as Stanley to remind myself that not everyone feels the way I do about spending a few hours in the kitchen.) I guess my issue is with the fact that sources like Cooking Light don't even bother suggesting fresh items (after which they could advise that you can substitute frozen/canned if necessary). The dumbing down of the food because you don't think soccer moms have time to mince garlic is exasperating. More and more prepared frozen dinners come out all the time full of unhealthy ingredients and with some gimmick so that you can feel like you cooked a proper meal. Maybe if we told people to use fresh ingredients they would try it some time and discover that it's actually cheaper (and often healthier) than using prepared foods and it's really not that much more difficult. They might also find that suddenly they're making food that's actually delicious, which is going to make it seem more worthwhile to spend the time preparing it in the future rather than reaching into the freezer for a bag of Lord-knows-what.
I think the biggest reasons many people avoid fresh foods is that they're not comfortable with them, they're not sure what to do with them, and they were never encouraged in any particular way to think they're a good thing. They grew up with parents who forced them to eat their (often cooked-to-death) vegetables, and they're surrounded now by a fast-food and convenience-food culture. We live in a freaking golden age for grocery-shopping, for Pete's sake. Farmers' markets are springing up all over the country and produce sections even in lower-end grocery stores have more variety of fresh produce than ever before. Jacques Pepin talks about when he first came to America from France and how the only way to get mushrooms in stores was in a can. You can buy 6 different kinds of mushrooms at my local grocery store, and 10 kinds if you go to my favorite produce store. Ten! It's insane how lucky we are, and yet we continue eat frozen and canned vegetables and prepared frozen dinners. We need to stop pretending that cooking with fresh food is just too complicated and time-consuming. It's just not.
In summary: Fresh and homemade foods are awesome. Totally and completely awesome.
Also: Yay, vegetables!

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Quest for Lime Leaves and Other Not-So-Adventurous Adventures

This last weekend ended up being far more hectic than I had intended. This was due in large part to the fact that I had to drive all over tarnation on Saturday in search of lime leaves. I started out at the Allston Super 88, which was supposed to be a great Asian market. It's pretty big, but there is some construction going on right now so it seemed sort of empty, too. I asked in the produce section about lime leaves and the first two people had never heard of them (at least not in English... we seemed to have a communication barrier). The third person suggested that I try lemongrass, then told me that nobody in town carries lime leaves. At that point I left without exploring the rest of the store further, feeling a bit exasperated. (I get disproportionally irritated when people recommend ridiculous substitutions...) I then tried a small Asian grocery in Newtonville (near Waltham) that a co-worker had told me about. I asked about lime leaves (they don't carry them), then asked if the owner knew of anywhere else that might carry them. He replied that nobody sells them, adding "If anyone sold them, I would sell them." This was disheartening, so I returned home resigned to reworking the menu that I had been planning so that it would now be lime-leaf-free, inclined to believe the two people who had told me that nobody here sells lime leaves...
I went to the secret giant grocery store a block from my apartment to get some other ingredients and decided to ask there (because I'm stubborn) if they knew of anyone in a 20 mile radius who sells lime leaves. Thy had never heard of lime leaves, but suggested Russo's (noting that Russo's has pretty much everything... which is true...). I hadn't considered this option, since not even the Asian groceries carried them, and I was a bit skeptical after my morning of failure, but I called up Russo's and, sure enough, they sell lime leaves! Overpriced lime leaves, but lime leaves nonetheless. The menu was back on track, and things were looking up, even if it was 4 hours after I had planned to finish my grocery shopping when all was said and done. The whole experience definitely made me miss my produce people in Melbourne and Indo-China Market in Santa Barbara. Sigh... I'm going to have to start checking out the farmers' markets here when the city thaws out a little.
On Sunday a friend from Santa Barbara who teaches at UMass Lowell came out to join me for lunch. Like last weekend, it was good to catch up with a friend since I haven't met many new people here yet. Unlike last weekend, our "drive down Moody Street and pick a random restaurant" approach didn't work out so well. We ended up at India Mahal for the lunch buffet, and it all tasted sort of... American. Even the Saag (one of my very favorite things) sort of tasted more like your grandma's creamed spinach than like an Indian dish. Everything across the board was sort of under-seasoned and the seasoning that was there wasn't particularly reminiscent of Indian flavors. There are like 3 more Indian restaurants within a mile of my apartment that I still need to check out, so I definitely won't be returning to this one any time soon.
Sunday night I started the marinades for what was going to be my delicious dinner on Monday (and as long as I had leftovers after that). Whenever I'm craving Vietnamese food,I make my version of Bun Cha (grilled pork with shallots, fish sauce, and palm sugar) and also a dish that's apparently called Ga Chanh Roti (chicken marinated in lime leaves, scallions, and honey). The chicken I tend to eat on its own, since I don't want to mask the delicate lime leaf flavor with too many competing tastes. The pork is one of my favorite dishes to make, and doesn't even require ingredients that you have to drive all over town in search of... It probably helps that I am a huge fan of fish sauce, but I love how the palm sugar, shallots, and fish sauce all complement the pork so beautifully, especially with a nice char from the grill. One of my favorite components of Vietnamese food is the presence of lots of fresh herbs, and I like to serve the pork with a pile of herbs, bean sprouts, cucumbers, and carrots wrapped in a lettuce leaf and accompanied by a hot-sour-salty-sweet dipping sauce (made from lime juice, fish sauce, sugar, and crushed red pepper flakes). I was too exhausted last night to be bothered with lettuce wraps, so I ended up making a salad with all of the components that usually go into the wrap (drizzled with a little of the dipping sauce) and that was pretty fantastic, too. Recipes are here if anyone is interested.
By the way, I am totally loving my new grill, which is by far the nicest grill I've ever owned. I don't even mind that in order to use it on Monday night I had to first deal with 6 inches of accumulated snow...
Yummy (Emily-style) Vietnamese food definitely helped to (mostly) wipe away the memory of lame "Indian" food and of my exhausting search for lime leaves, but I'm certainly ready for a lazy weekend doing absolutely nothing more strenuous than reading a good book, shopping for easy-to-find groceries, cooking up some more yummy food, and marveling at how adorable the bunnies are. Only two more work days to go... In my daydreaming moments, my brain is starting to plan a trip to Vietnam some time in the next year so that I can find out what the food is really all about...