Thursday, September 16, 2010

New Routines, New Ideas, New Places

Despite being out of school for oh, so many years, I still see the beginning of school as the real beginning of the new year. Perhaps even more so this year than usual due to the biggest change we've had in this household in quite a while. Healthier son has gone off to college! Apart from the obvious adjustments required of his loving family, his departure has also spurred a sea change in my grocery shopping and cooking, the details of which I am just starting to explore.

I guess the first piece of this is quantity. Each time I'm in the grocery store or at the farm stand I have to remind myself that I am cooking for 1 (probably more like 1.5 by actual volume!) fewer at mealtime, and to restrain myself. No need to buy a tub of hummus each week or make quite so many chicken thighs. One pound of pasta will now provide two full dinners instead of one and a lunch. I'm guessing Trader Joe's, source of most of our snacks, will notice a drop in the amount of nuts, dried apricots and Dunkers they sell each week.

The next piece is taste. Healthier daughter is not a happy flesh eater, unless said flesh has been pulverized, ground or chopped such that it's origins are incognito. She will eat chicken sausage, or any kind of sausage, really, ragu, diced prosciutto, even the occasional hamburger. She will pick at salmon and the odd piece of chicken, but she does not really enjoy most fish, meat or fowl. While refraining from giving up those few meats she cares for and actually calling herself a vegetarian, she eats a mostly vegetarian diet. This is in almost direct contrast to healthier son, who in grade school advised me that for his lunch, he really liked "a meat sandwich." Everyday.

As a result of these disparate tastes, I strive for a happy medium between the two in my cooking. I'm noticing now that what I must have done without even realizing it was to make a primarily vegetarian meal, with some fish, chicken or meat either on the side or easily separated. Pack some some extra veggies in to the meal, add some alternate proteins, provide a little meat or fish and cross my fingers. Some nights one or the other might be slightly disappointed at the meal, but generally, everyone ate pretty well. I no longer (except on school breaks) have to compromise. Meat boy is off in St. Louis (where I hope he'll eat some vegetables) and veggie girl can be appeased.

One area I am finally hoping to explore in depth is Asian cooking, with the emphasis on vegetables and grains or noodles. I recently read Fuchsia Dunlop's memoir with recipes, Shark's Fin and Sichuan Pepper, and purchased The Asian Grandmother's Cookbook. I also had a successful visit to the library where I bagged 5 or 6 books on Chinese, Japanese and Korean cooking to augment a couple I have on Chinese cooking: Kylie Kwong's Simple Chinese Cooking and Alford and Duguid's Beyond the Great Wall.

I know that whatever I'm cooking at home is much lower in fat and calories than when we eat out, but what I'm still trying to figure out is how to reduce the sodium in many of the recipes and techniques even further. I already use lower sodium soy sauce, but there is quite a bit of sodium in fish sauce, miso paste, and kimchi.

I recently purchased a couple of jars of kimchi through Food52's shop. This is some delicious artisanal kimchi from Mother-in-Law's Kimchi, (MILKimchee) a small, new producer out of New York. The owner uses her mother's family recipe to produce her product.

A few days after ordering my kimchi, a package arrived with two pint jars of bubbling, living Napa cabbage kimchi, already lightly fermented. Fed Ex man did not ring the bell, so it sat outside on my porch overnight in ninety degree plus weather and when I found it the next morning the ice packs were long melted. After frantic emails back and forth with MILKimchi, I was reassured that the kimchi was fine, just a little more fermented due to the heat. I stuck it in the fridge for another couple of weeks, until one night when I was looking for a lighter dinner for three.

Kimchi, for those of you have not yet been introduced to its pleasures, is basically spicy, pickled and then fermented cabbage. Somehow, the fermented cabbage is good for digestion, and while mostly vegetable, often includes some kind of fish, either anchovy or dried shrimp. MILKimchi also contains some beef stock, so if you are kosher or vegetarian, take a good look at the ingredient list when you're buying kimchi. My daughter loves kimchi.

Back in June, we breakfasted on some kimchi fried rice with a fried egg on top while at the Ferry Building market in San Francisco. As a riff on that, I scrambled a few eggs like I would for any old fried rice and then removed it from the pan. I then added a few diced mushrooms and sliced scallions to a thin sheen of peanut oil (canola would be fine and healthier, too). Once the mushrooms softened a little I added about a cup of diced kimchi and some roughly chopped pea shoots I had lying around. As I tossed it through the pan, it got a little dry so I added about a tablespoon of lower sodium soy sauce but chicken stock would work well too and would be lower in sodium. Next came the rice and I tossed it all together and let it cook for a little while. I then added the cooked egg back in for a quick toss and after turning off the heat, mixed in a couple of teaspoons of sesame oil and garnished it all with some roasted sesame seeds and some nori flakes. Delish!!

This is a relatively healthy dish, what with the brown rice and vegetables. The kimchi, despite its slightly higher than I'd like sodium count, is still a very healthy food. Eggs are no longer the bad guys they once were with regard to cholesterol, though I did scramble them dry so I didn't have to worry about the recent salmonella scare. Already roasted sesame seeds and nori flakes can usually be purchased at an Asian market, though neither is necessary. And, this can be made in no time if you use frozen brown rice or if you make the rice ahead and have it in the refrigerator.

Quickie, Healthy-ish, Kimchi Fried Rice

(serves 4)

6 eggs, lightly beaten

2 tablespoons peanut or canola oil, divided

4 ounces mushrooms, sliced thinly

4 or 5 scallions, sliced thinly, reserve a small amount for garnish

a few handfuls of roughly chopped pea shoots, thawed frozen peas or snow peas thinly sliced on the diagonal

1 cup kimchi, thinly sliced (I used one made with Napa cabbage)

4 cups cooked and cooled brown rice (this is a great place to use frozen brown rice. I used two bags and slightly undercooked them in the microwave so that they were just warmed but not steaming hot)

1 - 2 teaspoons sesame oil

sprinkle toasted sesame seeds or toast your own briefly in a dry pan

sprinkle nori flakes (if you have them)

1. Set a large skillet or wok over medium heat and once heated, 1 tablespoon of the peanut or canola oil and then the eggs. Either scramble or let set a little like an omelet and flip so fully cooked. Once cooked, remove eggs from pan to a plate and set aside. If you've done the omelet way, slice into thin strips.

2. Wipe out pan and add the other tablespoon of oil. Raise heat to medium-high and cook the mushrooms until they soften. Add the scallions and pea shoots (or substitute) and cook a minute or two. Add the kimchi and rice and stir fry for another 3 or 4 minutes, until all contents have warmed through and are well combined. If the mixture seems dry, add a splash of soy sauce or chicken stock or even water.

3. Add the eggs back in and toss gently and let re-warm briefly.

4. Turn off heat under pan and add 1 teaspoon of sesame oil. Add more to taste.

5. Garnish with remaining scallions, sesame seeds and nori.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Yiddishe Mama

Chicken Fricassee was one of our favorite Jewish holiday dishes growing up and one that I never stopped to think much about. I still make it once or twice a year, usually for Passover and Rosh Hashanah. During Passover, we'd eat it with matzoh farfel sprinkled on top and for Rosh Hashanah, it was our dinner the evening of the first day, a supposedly lighter meal as we'd been eating all afternoon with friends. It's also great for an appetizer before your pre-Yom Kippur meal.

Last week, as I was shopping for the ingredients to make this, I started wondering about the unlikely name of this dish. This fricassee bears no resemblance to the French dish of the same name. According to the Food Lover's Companion, fricassee (FRIHK-uh-see) is a dish of meat (usually chicken) that has been sauteed in butter before being stewed with vegetables. The end result is a thick, chunky stew, often flavored with wine. Chicken? Check! And that is the end of the similarities. Certainly there is no butter as this evolved out of a kosher house. And, a vegetable has never entered this dish as far as I'm aware.

My family's chicken fricasee was a tomato based stew, of sorts, which featured parts of the chicken we normally do not eat today: necks and gizzards (pupiks in Yiddish). To this epitome of Yiddishe cucina povera, my forebears would add some wings and a little flanken (top rib - which is similar to short rib, just cut across the bone instead of alongside). Preparation required cleaning the gizzards of their greenish skin, cutting the flanken into bite sized pieces, and browning both prior to adding any other ingredients. Once the meat and gizzards were browned, they went into a large pot, were covered with tomato sauce, sugar and lemon juice, and simmered for a couple of hours. The chicken necks and wings went in after an hour or so for the last hour of simmering. Salt and pepper were added, to taste, at the end.

When I make fricasee now, there is none of the cucina povera about it. My husband and kids never cared for the boney chicken necks and wings, so I switched to skinless drumsticks. More recently, I learned that the gizzards were unappealing to them as well, so I sometimes leave them out. When I do use them, I use half as much as I used to. I either add in extra boneless flanken or some meatballs. I play to my audience! My ancestors' budget stew has evolved into a $60.00 pot of sweet and sour short ribs.

In doing some research last week into this dish, I've discovered that not only does this dish not resemble a French fricassee, it doesn't even resemble a typical Jewish one. In fact, it seems that somewhere along the way one of my Grandmothers or Great Grandmothers conflated fricassee with a sweet and sour dish. My family's created an amalgam of the two, keeping the chicken parts while using the flanken and sweet and sour sauce.

Arthur Schwartz' Jewish Home Cooking and Joan Nathan's Jewish Cooking in America were helpful in my research. I think Arthur Schwartz and I must be related because his recipes are so similar to my family's. My family's fricassee is most similar to his family's Sweet and Sour Flanken.

Our recipe is a simple one, with very few ingredients and only one pot needed, although I choose to use a second pot to cook the gizzards if I use them. Feel free to sub back in the gizzards and necks if it's to your taste. If you'd like the cleaning instructions for the gizzards, just drop me a message in the comment section. Nose to tail cooking is trendy right now!

This dish just gets better with time, so if you can, make it a day ahead and let it sit in the refrigerator overnight. An added bonus is that when chilled, the fat will rise to the top and you can easily skim it off the next day.

Grandma Penzner's Chicken Fricassee

(serves 10 or so)

3 -4 pounds of first cut top rib from a kosher butcher, trimmed of large pieces of fat and cut into bite sized pieces. Leave some meat attached to each bone, but you can cut some of the meat away from the bone, too.

1.5 pounds boneless top rib, trimmed of large pieces of fat and cut into bite sized pieces

48 - 53 ounces strained tomatoes (I use either Bionaturae which comes in a 24 ounce jar, or Pomi in a 26.46 ounce box. Either way I use two. I throw a half cup,sometimes more, of water into the jars or boxes after emptying them into the pot, swish it around and add that in too - helps get the last bits of strained tomatoes out. It's a little harder to do with the boxes! With a dish like this I'm not sure how much it matters, but both these brands have no added sodium)

1/4 cup sugar (I use natural cane sugar), more to taste

1/4 cup fresh lemon juice, more to taste

1/2 tablespoon salt, more to taste

pepper to taste

6 - 8 chicken drumsticks or one dozen wings. I like to take the skin off the drumsticks.

1. Brown the flanken in a large, heavy pot over a medium-high to high flame. Do not crowd the pieces, even if it means doing the browning in several batches. After each batch is finished, remove the pieces to a bowl and set aside.

2. When all the meat is browned, put it all back into the pot, and add the strained tomatoes, sugar, lemon juice, salt and a few grinds of pepper. The sauce/water should cover the meat. If it doesn't, add a little water to the pot. Let it come to a boil, then lower the light to keep the contents at a steady simmer. Scrape up the bits that might have gotten stuck to the bottom of the pan during the browning.

3. After about an hour of cooking, taste and see if the sweet and sour flavor seems balanced. Add more sugar or lemon juice by tablespoons. Taste for salt and pepper.

4. Add the chicken legs or wings (if using wings, I like to brown them before adding) and continue to simmer about another hour.

5. If possible, let cool and refrigerate overnight. Skim fat and reheat to serve. Delicious with challah and/or rice.

Friday, September 3, 2010

The Plumpy’nut furor: International food politics in action

Marion Nestle gets the jump on an article to be published in this Sunday's New York Times magazine. This is what happens when we trust corporations to solve hunger and obesity issues:

The Plumpy’nut furor: International food politics in action