cool food for warm days

Through the winter months, I dream of warm food. There are afternoon lattes, tea, and hot chocolate, greedily assembled as my cheeks thaw out from the wind-whipped walk home. There are soups and stews simmering away on the stove. There are filling one-pot meals, spicy burritos, and steamy risottos.

And then suddenly, out comes the sun and up go the windows. Mac n’ cheese gives way to crispy wraps and salads of all stripes — the last thing you want to do in a hot apartment is turn on the oven.

But best of all, the outdoors once again becomes your dining room. From cookout to picnic, patio to porch, good food is more about portability than presentation. In the summer, I can say that about myself, too.

This past weekend I indulged. The last exam I quite possibly might ever write was over by 5 p.m., and half an hour later I was settled on my couch with Mark Bittman. His book at least.

I had an eggplant in the fridge and a dinner guest on his way. I needed inspiration. Seeing me paw through my cookbooks again, after an insane semester, must have been a rare sight: Mark (the other Mark, my Mark) pointed out how sexy it was to see me dreaming of cooking again.

By the end of my kitchen dalliance, I’d made a selection of tapas to share: caponata (eggplant salad), sushi-style spinach rolls, and this tangy, refreshing soba-noodle salad. A few slices of crusty sourdough bread, some spreadable feta and black olives made the little spread into a veritable feast.

We wanted to stay in all evening and let the rain patter outside the open windows as we digested. And so linger we did.

The next day, I added some julienned carrots to the leftovers to cart to a birthday barbeque in the park down the street. Beer, ultimate frisbee, and pinatas carried us into the twilight, smudged in charcoal’s magic scent.

It couldn’t have been better preparation for my 10-mile “Mountain Goat” race the next morning. Good food in the belly restores the body. This weekend, I traded in my law text book for a long Saturday morning tea on my friend’s porch, my computer screen for a cutting board, and the gym for a game of Ultimate frisbee.

Productive? Not so much. But perfect in every other way.

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the chi of kimchi

If only there was something yummy and exotic that made itself. Something you could just quickly cut up, stir, and plop in a container, only to turn out 5 days later in a delicious new guise.

Wait! There is! It’s called kimchi, and for its tart and tangy goodness we can thank the Koreans.

I’m seeing Korean food turn up everywhere. On the pages of Bon Appetit, on food blogs, and even in the New York Times. It’s even gone fusion, with a Twittering taco truck that brings mobile eats to its loyal followers. Kimchi is so important that the Korea Aerospace Research Institute even developed space kimch. Why? To accompany the first Korean astronaut to the Russian space ship, Soyuz, of course.

I can’t remember when I first tasted kimchi, but it wasn’t too long ago. I then started buying some locally-made stuff, available at the Central New York Regional Farmer’s Market, in all sorts of shades and styles. Being the fermentation freak that I am, my next thought was  “OK, my turn.”  Anyone who’s been to my apartment has seen the various fermenting things lying around my house. And before you run away scared, know that each one of them is darn delicious.

Food that is fast, easy, healthy and given to leftovers is manna for me right now. Finishing up my masters leaves little time for poring over new recipes (sad face #1), therapeutic vegetable chopping (sad face #2), and Zen-like-stove-top stirring (sad face #3). To this sorry state came my new friend kimchi.

The fabulous ferment did not only arrive to a dire, time-crunched situation, but to a household with a brand-new mandolin. Picked up for a steal of a deal on Amazon with Christmas money, this Japanese slider-knife is a miracle in a drawer. With this little beauty and a far superior recipe, my second batch of kimchi turned out much better than my clunky, over-garlicked first batch.

What, you may ask, is kimchi? It’s a Korean side dish with an inimitable taste, yet a Korean proverb reads, “if you have rice and kimchi, you have a meal.” To me, it’s crunchy ribbons of daikon and carrot folding over each other between layers of ruffled Napa cabbage. It’s chilies melding with garlic and ginger, and crisp veggies fermented to perfection. Served at room temperate over fried rice or a plate of egg rolls, or just eaten out of a jar, kimchi is a great snack full of healthy probiotics.

Best of all, the do-it-yourself kind pretty much does it itself. Just make sure you don’t spill it all over your gym bag.

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spiced bangladeshi mung beans and rice

I didn’t intend to post on this, but it begs to be shared. Born from the need to make lots of healthy food to sustain us through a busy week, it materialized one afternoon between work sessions. The recipe is from a former roommate, and it’s the kind of thing you’ll almost always have the ingredients for.

Usually when I think of mung beans, bean sprouts jump to mind. But this showcases them as the meaty, chewy legume they were born to be. OK, maybe beans don’t have destinies, but we can pretend. You can find them dried in Asian grocery stores, and all they need is a couple hours’ soak.

You start off by frying some fragrant spices in oil, add your beans and rice, top it with some water and set it to simmer. It’s that easy, and it all happens in one happy wok. It’s incredibly low-maintenance, great for a busy work day.

It’s hard to get sick of this (even after day 5) because you can dress it up in so many different ways. By adding sweet caramelized onions, a sliced hard boiled egg, and a side of yogurt, it becomes like an Indian curry—a platform for all sorts of tasty additions. You could make fried rice out of it one evening, and wrap it up in some flatbread with slices of baked tofu the next.

Sometimes a bowl of beans and rice, redolent of mild chai, can remind you that it’s good to be alive. Perhaps that’s a stretch, but it makes me appreciate the simple things.

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ramen makeover for one

Tonight is Masters Eve. With two orientations behind me and a year of work ahead, I thought I’d mark the occasion with an “ode to the student life” post. I bring you the quintessential Ramen noodle–with better hair and make-up, or at least nutritional profile.

I ate a lot of meals alone during the month of June. In order to help pad the marital pockets, my hubby and I embraced a mutual separation over the course of last month to go off and make some money. My journey took me to a rural area of New York State where I house and pet sat for three weeks. Having a nicely stocked kitchen and a 24-hour farm stand five minutes up the road helped combat any lurking loneliness.

When it got really bad I snuggled up beside the ice-cream maker. Oh Cuisinart, I’m afraid that you don’t love me as I love you! Yup, it made for some good company.

The problem with eating upwards of thirty meals alone in the span of three weeks is that you can’t possibly savor each and every morsel. Sometimes you’ve just gotta get the job done: food from fridge to bowl to mouth: Hello, Ramen. It’s been awhile.

But I could not respect my body and eat it from the packetquickly reconstituted and slathered with oily seasoning–at the same time. And so I proceeded to try adding vim and vigor to the Old Faithful of undergrad meal supplements. Ramen, meet your new friends vitamins A through D, iron, magnesium and calcium. I know they’re strangers, just give them a chance, ok?

And then, in the great realm of coincidences that is the Internet, days after discovering the possibilities in that shiny crunched up packet of dinner-for-one, Mark Bittman posted this story on how to cut food costs when you’re feeling crunched. There it was, first in a long list of great tips, instructions for revved-up Ramen. Common knowledge by now I suppose.

As one commenter notes on Bittman’s blog, Ramen noodles aren’t very good for you no matter how you slurp ’em. I must agree; there are countless other great noodles out there — refrigerated Udon, rice vermicelli, Chinese noodles, Japanese soba noodles — which are just as fast. Ramen is in fact kind of a rip-off if you think about it, excessively packaged to boot. But we had a cupboard full of it (which I will maintain that I did NOT bring to this marriage!) and I had fun transforming it into something new that I might never eat again.

Yet again, classes start tomorrow…

So if you find yourself lonely, hungry, uninspired and without a Cuisinart to cuddle, bring a pot of water or broth to a boil. Throw in some chopped vegetables (I had carrot, purple cabbage and kale) and cook until tender. Then add a package of miso paste (available at Japanese grocers and much better for you than the conventional seasoning), some chopped green onions, a splash of soy sauce, and a final drizzle of toasted sesame oil.

I was surprised at how satisfying my concoction ended up being. As I dined in a candle lit house all alone, the soup comforted me with plainness interrupted by vibrancy. I even managed to page through Saveur and Gourmet’s sophisticated temptations while I ate, emerging at the other end nourished by simplicity in the face of the refined.

sushi for the scattered

Sometimes you just don’t have time for a sushi party. Sometimes, when you’re surprised with July in the guise of April cool food is what you crave. Add to the mix an apartment that manages to keep itself 8 degrees hotter than the day’s high, and no one’s getting this good looker anywhere near her cooker. (All this was reported before Darling Husband brought home a portable air conditioner. No more boiled Jenny for dinner! And forgive me for calling myself good looking; I just couldn’t resist the saying.)

When the conditions are so, it is time for scattered sushi:

The other day a brief but precious rainfall interrupted some steady summer temperatures with a (I didn’t actually say this in April, did I?!?) refreshing cool. I seized the opportunity to turn on my stove – something I don’t dare when it’s over 25 (77 for the Yanks) – to make some sushi rice. I have a foolproof recipe that I swear takes half the time it does in any fancy-pants rice cooker.

At dinner time all we had to do was slice up a third of a pound of fresh salmon Mark darted out to grab, a half avocado, some scallions, a red pepper, and a bit of cucumber and our dining room morphed into our very own sushi bar. A funky paper lantern recently purchased from the Ottawa IKEA, and a bottle of French Chenin Blanc from an empyreal friend rounded out the meal nicely.

You don’t have to know how to make sushi for this meal. All you need are the ingredients for sushi, and you’re set. However, once mastering this meal, it’s just baby steps to the real thing. But when you MUST HAVE SUSHI NOW and aren’t feeling picky about appearances, this is a noble substitution — not to mention aesthetically pleasing in its own right, the ingredients in your bowl distinct in their raw purity.

Instructions follow, but for those of you interested in making the rolls and all, check out my collection of how-to videos:

  • over the pond these women win for the best accents, best rice making info, and great rolling advice.
  • In this one the chef does it a little differently than we do, using a half sheet of nori instead of a full. But he has some great tips I can’t wait to apply, like spreading the rice and cutting techniques.
  • this one is haphazard but cute, reflecting how I usually roll it.
  • this one provides incredibly thorough steps on how to make nigiri.
  • You want to learn fast? this one will teach you, in true Japanese rapid-fire form!

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matcha tea cakes

After indulging in a round of excellent sushi, there’s nothing I appreciate more than the nutty finish of a palm-sized mug of green tea. From genmaicha to gunpowder, green tea chases dynamites, bakudans and spicy tuna like nothing else on the market. It’s kind of like cappuccino after a great plate of pasta. It just works.

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That’s why I decided to make these green tea cupcakes for our sushi soiree last Friday. I’ve tried a few recipes and wanted to share the best ones I’ve found. They’re moist and light and boast a shade of jade that commands attention rather than being unappetizing. (I didn’t have our good camera at the party so if you’re disagreeing with that statement, please envision a grassy hue…there you go, perfect.) Keep in mind they also pack a punch of caffeine: not to be consumed while operating heavy machinery.

I didn’t have time to whip up the matching icing, so I used a container of leftover chocolate pudding, whipped cream and cinnamon. Accompanied by Mel’s mochi ice cream (new sen-SA-tions in and of themselves), these will heretofore be my chief post-sushi craving.

Because it’s crucial to understand the context of something as esoteric as the revered cake-in-a-cup, following are some pictures of the events leading up to said cupcake-mochi extravaganza:

Our resident fishmonger expertly skinning salmon; I’ll snare ya an skin ye biys!
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The women slaving away for their sailors (though the personal pay off wasn’t half bad)
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This was top-tier stuff

These little cakes would be a decadent enough item for a refined luncheon (such a funny word) or wild enough for a St. Paddy’s day green-themed party. Take your pick. When it comes to green cupcakes, it’s really all in the decorating.

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Spoony Sundays #2

Gooooood evening and welcome to the second edition of Spoony Sundays, where we forsake forks and knives for that most graceful of utensils. This week our tastebuds will be given quite a run around. First we’ll dip our spoons into the smoky-spicy soup pots of the south and then lift bowls overflowing with lip-puckering eastern infusions.

The first black bean soup I made was off the label on a can of (you guessed it) black beans. It was one of the easiest recipes I’ve ever made— beans, corn, salsa, lime juice and some cumin. In spite of its delicate simplicity though, I eventually had to face the hard fact that my “I just moved out on my own” bean soup was lacking a little something something.

The kind of soup I was after is hearty and rugged, dark and a little bit dangerous. The kind I picture cowboys and frontiersmen rigging up over campfires and eating out of dented tin pots. I couldn’t find any recipes in the latest issue of American Cowboy, so I turned in the opposite direction: Food and Wine. (Like I always say, when the guys in boots let you down try the ones in kitchen clogs.)

F&W’s Mexican Black Bean Soup got an 8 out of 10 out of me. I’m beginning to see how you really need hefty meat stocks for true depth of flavour, but I just didn’t have a ham hock laying around for that kind of recipe. The blob of green on garnishing the soup is my improvised a cilantro-cream.

My second guest tonight is Mandarin Hot and Sour Soup from the Moosewood Restaurant Celebrates cookbook. By the way, if you have trouble coming up with menu plans for parties and special occasions, this is a great book. I can’t wait to try their chocolate-filled calimyrna figs (when such a specific craving next overtakes me).

But before I proceed with extolling the joys of recreating a slightly foreign favourite, I just have to introduce you to the woodear mushroom, or auricularia auricula-judae for short. There he is, making his debut appearance on my blog and in my life. Good to have you, auricula. You were a delight to work with, so slippery in my hands and on my little Asian spoon.

My first attempt at Hot and Sour soup — something I’ve only had the pleasure of enjoying at a Chinese restaurant — was gratifying even if for that reason alone. I also don’t own a mandoline, so julienned carrots came about via a slightly longer, zen-like process (old-fashioned chopping). I still ended up with some pretty nice looking carrot matchsticks — an evocative technical term if I ever heard one. The woodears and bamboo shoots came from our local Asian market.

Both of these soups are thick, simple to prepare, and use affordable ingredients. Both can be made vegetarian or even vegan, and both respond well to flashes of creativity and flourishes of genius. As some of you already have, please let me know if you try these out and how they work for you.

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