food

True Thai Taught in the slums & Perfect ChocoChunk Cookies

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I don’t hide the fact that I truly enjoy food. It’s part of the reason I have an all American waistline. I believe that what and how people eat can be very indicative clues to their culture and lifestyle. Two of my friends were recently able to go to different parts of Thailand. Part of their trip was a culinary experience and, after some digging around on the internet, they found a woman who would teach them to cook real Thai food in a very honest setting while in the slums of Bangkok. They brought these recipes back to the states with them and cooked them for us last night.

Needless to say, all the courses were beyond wonderful. The evening started with roasted silk worm larvae in sesame oil and cilantro. I can tell you that they tasted a bit like roasted tomatoes with the texture of steamed edamame. I can tell you this because that is what I was told. I’ve eaten crickets before and enjoyed them, but I could not bring myself to eat worm larvae. It was poor of me to at least not try it and I should have.

Next up was Pomelo salad. A pomelo, also known as a “Citrus Maxima”, is a giant grapefruit. Friggin’ huge. And delicious. Thai Pomelo salad is a dish normally called Yam Som – O; it’s fresh, flavorful, and filling on it’s own. The salad was made of pomelo, shrimp, coconut flakes, shallots, hot peppers, cilantro, and garlic with a dressing of lime juice, coconut milk and a dash of fish sauce. It was fantastic, the shrimp perfectly done, and the pomelo adding both sweetness and a bit of tartness that made the entire dish spicy and, yet, refreshing.

The third course in our evening was easily one of the tastiest things I’ve eaten all year. It was, to put it simply, amazing. The levels of flavor were such that I rarely, if ever, had experienced them before. It was a soup called Tom Kha: creamy coconut soup, with thin, small mushrooms that acted more like noodles, lemon grass, perfectly tender shrimp, and hot chili oil. This soup cleared your sinuses, but not in an unwelcoming way; I’m generally a coward when it comes to heat, but I could have eaten this until the cows came home. It was so flavorful that the spiciness was only secondary, though it helped that I had a beer to quell some of the heat. I wish I could have a big, heaping bowl of this soup right now and I’m not even hungry. It’s something that I know I will search for whenever I visit Thai restaurants in the future.

The main entree of the evening was classic pad thai, served with sugar, as it is the usual accompaniment to this dish in Thailand. Also, everything was eaten with forks and spoons, as it is not customary to eat these meals with chopsticks. Needless to say, dinner was fantastic.

Dessert was vanilla ice cream with fresh blended mango poured over the top. I don’t have a picture of that because I inhaled it. We ended the evening with excellent conversation and the Vice Guide to North Korea. I highly recommend watching it. It is on Netflix Streaming as well, so you have no excuse to miss out. Hey, have you watched Troll Hunter yet? I’m thinking of watching it again…

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Cookies Make a Baker a Better Person

So, I’m super picky about chocolate chip cookies. Often times I found recipes result in bland, merely sugary sweet crackers, and, all too commonly, these baked treats seem to come out of the oven flatter than Kate Moss’s chest. A few months ago I decided I’d had enough. I wanted to make a cookie that was just as delicious to look at as it was to eat, something fluffy and chewy, and just all around awesome. This led me to the America’s Test Kitchen recipe for chocolate chip cookies. I have yet to find any cookie recipe that even comes close to matching the quality of this one and every batch earns me accolades as a chef to those munching away on them.

First thing: This ain’t no TollHouse guide. Take everything you’ve ever learned about baking cookies and chuck it out the window. Fire it out of a canon into the sun, because it’s that worthless. Then preheat your oven to 375 degrees.

In a big bowl mix together 1/2 teaspoon baking soda and 1 3/4 cups flour. Then put it in the corner and forget about it for a while. Now comes the fun part: Take 10 tablespoons unsalted butter and melt it in a sauce pan. Melt it and then start swirling the pan, over heat, until the butter is browned and nutty smelling. You want your house to smell AMAZING? Bake these cookies. Just like the look and taste, even the aroma goes above and beyond in mouth watering goodness.

You then take this gorgeous, transformed butter and pour it over – you guessed it – more butter. In a heat proof bowl, mix the melted 10 tbsp butter with 4 more cold tbsp unsalted butter. Stir or swirl until everything is melted. Add 1/2 cup granulated sugar and 3/4 cup packed dark brown sugar to the butter. Have you figured it out yet? The base of this cookie batter is a caramel! I know, your mind is blown. Take a minute. Regroup. Then let’s get back to baking.

Once you stir in the sugars, the mixture will look pretty gritty. That’s okay, the magic of adding eggs changes everything. Remember, though: we’re essentially making a caramel, so one egg is okay, 2 yolks are better. To the butter & sugar mixture add one full large egg and one additional yolk, a dash of salt, and vanilla extract. I generally also add a 1/2 tsp of almond extract; I find its flavor helps keep the cookies from seeming too sweet and adds a little something unexpected to a well known snack food without getting too far from the basics. When it comes to the eggs, separate them with your bare hands. Do it. We all have sinks and soap. Use your hands. I bought a fancy egg separator from Crate & Barrel for $4 that is just shit. Doesn’t work at all. It would have been a better use of money to buy lottery scratch-off tickets. See the useless uni-tasker below. Just use your freakin’ hands.

After the addition of the eggs, the directions get a little picky. Whisk the mixture for 30 seconds. Then let it sit for 3 minutes. Do this 2 more times, so that you whisk a total of 3 times, 30 seconds each time. The batter will completely change from dark brown and gritty, to thick, golden, smooth, and shiny. Also, make sure you don’t taste the batter at this point. It tastes just like a gooey, somewhat liquified Werther’s Original candy and you may not be able to stop guzzling it once you start.

Now you can add the caramel mixture to the flour and baking powder. Try to incorporate everything together without over mixing. Limit your stirring with a spatula or wooden spoon for right around a minute. Finally, add 1 1/2 cups of Ghirardelli bittersweet chocolate chips. It really is best to use these. The different in cost between those and any other brand is minimal. They melt much better in the cookies as they’re flatter, thinner, and larger, and have a better flavor. They really make a difference in these cookies.

You may find the batter to be so buttery that it is difficult to get the chocolate chips to stick to it. I find that essentially cutting the chips into the batter and gently folding everything helps embed the chocolate into the batter without over mixing anything. After trying this recipe with regular chocolate chips, I can tell you first hand that the shape of the Ghirardelli stick much butter to the batter. You may have to get pretty handsey in forming these and it really does seem like a lot of chocolate. And there’s a good reason for that: It is a lot of chocolate.

At this point, the original recipe states to divide the batter into sixteen servings to make rather large cookies. I don’t like my cookies that big, so I generally make 20, 8 per cookie sheet, and 4 on the final. They’re still very large cookie, but not crazy in size. I bake them for 5 minutes, then rotate the cookie sheet in the oven and cook for an addition 5 – 7 minutes, just until the edges are barely turning brown. If you can master pulling them out of the oven at the right point, you wind up with a chewy cookie with a bottom that is crunchy due to being caramelized and crisp. It makes for an amazing treat and added punch to an already fantastic treat. And, like a child, I enjoy mine with milk.

Butternut Squash Bisque

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I love lobster bisque. After attempting to make it at home I decided I hate the cost of the ingredients. And cooking lobster and shrimp shells down into stock makes my home smell like low tide. Recently at a cafe in Austin I had out-of-this-world Tomato Bisque. It was truly great, much better than I ever thought it would be. If I hadn’t been eating lunch with the CEO of my company I would have totally stuck my head in that bowl and licked it clean. The thing about tomato bisque, however, is that it’s too similar to the tomato based sauces I make and it’s not Autumnish enough for me. I live in the capital of Texas, a place that – thanks to global warming – is now completely void of all seasons. There’s Lesser Summer during November through March, and then Seventh Circle of Hell Summer April through October. Take today for example. It’s November 13th and it’s 87 degrees out. Awesome. Yes, I mean that sarcastically. The leaves that have turned color have only done so because we’re experiencing a multi-year long drought and all plant matter turns brown and shrivels when it dies. There’s no romance about it.

In an attempt to relive the New England fall weather of my wasted youth, I try to make Autumn occur in other ways. I burn Apple Cinnamon candles, I hang my dust covered fall coats in easy to reach areas, I obsess over brown leather boots. And I begin a half-assed love affair with the butternut squash.

Butternut squash is….meh. It’s okay. It’s no fennel. But, you know, it tries and it’s very Fallesque. So, I decided to make Butternut Bisque.

All the recipes I read were all very sweet or too plain: Butternut Squash & Brown Sugar Bisque, Butternut Squash & Cinnamon Bisque, Mother’s Basic Butternut Bisque. I wanted something that emulated the Tomato Bisque flavor, but used Butternut squash as it’s base. So I started with bacon.

Well, that’s not entirely true. I started by roasting the squash and then half way through adding carrots to roast with said squash. One decent sized squash peeled & cubed, which made about 4 cups, and, roughly, 1 cup carrots.

Please excuse my half eaten lunch in the back round of the above picture. Austin, like most major US cities, has quite the “China Town” area and we found a little Vietnamese place that does AMAZING pork buns. So good.

I roasted the squash for 45 minutes at 500. After 25 minutes, I added the carrots. Once the 45 minutes of roasting was up, my house smelled fantastic – like Mega Fall – and my squash/carrot mixture looked like this:

I suppose I could have roasted the squash and carrots while prepping the other parts of the recipe, but I finally found the minikit detector in my Lego Star Wars video game and was just flying through levels. Once the squarrots were out of the oven, it was time to get down to business.

What makes everything better? Bacon. What makes everything even better-er? Cooking everything in bacon fat. I took 2 strips of center cut bacon, threw them in the bottom of a heavy pot and rendered the shit out of them. It looked like this:

Once I felt enough fat had cooked out of the bacon, I removed what was left of the strips. I then added 2 large, finely chopped cloves of garlic, 1 stalk of roughly chopped celery (something I’d leave out in the future, truth be told), and half of a white onion, chopped. I cooked those over medium heat until they were tender. It took about 8 minutes, so I had a cup of tea. It looked like this:

That’s my favorite mug. It was free and had some website name on it. I scraped all the letters off accept for the “O”, which I edited into a “C”, for the first letter of my married name. It’s great.

Anyway, once the other veg was tender, I sprinkled 2 tablespoons of flour over everything to help absorb all those fabulous flavors and to act like a thickening agent, stirring continuously for about three minutes. I then added only 3 cups of chicken stock. What I should have done was mixed in 2 cups chicken stock and 2 to 2 1/2 cups vegetable stock, but hindsight’s 20/20. I added the squash and carrots and let everything just hangout to reach a boil. Upon hearing the boil, I sprinted down the hall from my bedroom video game fest back to the kitchen, and I added 1 bay leaf and about 2 tablespoons of freshly chopped parsley. I turned the heat down to a simmer, and left the bisque there to think about what it had done. About 30 minutes.

Once the half hour of sensational simmering had passed, I removed the pot from the heat to let it cool.

It’s not glamorous, I know. Like in war, these are simply what the realities of making a bisque look like, and it’s not pretty. Once the bisque cooled I blended the ever loving crap out of it with an immersion hand blender. I love that thing. Of course, it splattered most of my kitchen orange, but it worked like a charm. I probably could have kept things cleaner if I wasn’t also watching Troll Hunter on Netflix, a fantastic import from Norway that I highly recommend. Super entertaining. Yes, there’s subtitles; I don’t want to say what I think about people who won’t watch a movie just because there are subtitles. Troll Hunter is great. Watch it.

Once the bisque was at a smooth, bisque-like consistency, I added about 2/3 cup of heavy cream. Sure, this is optional, but when I say “optional” in reference to heavy cream, I don’t really mean it. I also like to swirl in a little more cream, or even just regular milk on top when I sit down to a bowl ‘o’ bisque, so I didn’t go throwing a full pint of heavy cream in all at once, like I had read on many recipes. I then garnished with a sprig of parsley and a piece of the uber cooked bacon.

It was good, it really was. You can tell from the picture it was a bit on the thick side, and when I reheat the rest I may throw in that extra cup or so of veggie stock I’d mentioned, but other than that my husband loved it and I…liked it…You know what? I’m just not a huge fan of butternut squash. Probably because it’s not a lobster.

Fat Monkeys Have All the Luck

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Like all people who have “tried every diet” and suffer being “fat from birth”, any miracle drug completely excites me. Part of that is because science amazes me. Much of the pills we take come with both positive and (many) negative effects, many simply cannot be good for the human body, but we take them anyway in a desperate attempt to achieve whatever it is we’re seeking. After all, even placebos are often more than 10% affective. When one views medical science’s studies, failures, and new policies of the past 100 years – hell, even in the past 50 years – they surpass the previous 1000 years by leaps and bounds. And there’s something very mad-scientist about everything. I like to believe that it’s all for the betterment of mankind, but medicine, like American Universities, are now merely businesses with the prize being cash and not an advanced human population. We’re a people of instant gratification so we jump at cures, damn the long term affects.

I am no different, and I might carry a little shame, but not enough to stop me from getting in line for the following drug, if it one day winds up on the market. The good people at the Medical School at the University of Texas at Houston have developed an injection that kills blood vessels that feed fatty deposits. This means the blood vessels shrivel away, the fat is starved and then reabsorbed into the body, at which time the lucky recipient urinates or sweats out the excess just like regular weight loss. While all animal testing has its ethical issues, it is good news in the medical world that this drug is proving so effective on monkeys, as frequently drugs that may test well in the first stages (on rats) may not work well during the next point of testing, on our cousin primates. The drug may also help with insulin resistance.

I assume UT Houston purchased the primates from lab supply centers, and then fattened them up with a healthy diet of American junk food and Lifetime Television. I imagine they might have even turned binge eating in front of the BoobTube into a sort of drinking game with food instead of booze: Every time there’s an episode of Golden Girls on, the monkeys get cheesecake. A made-for-television movie featuring Jennifer Love Hewett would warrant a pizza and a pint of cookie dough ice cream. Designing Women means fried chicken and bourbon. Paradise… But I digress.

Once their test subjects had the “fatty deposits” necessary, testing began, and thus far has been excitingly successful. The average monkey on the injection lost 11% of their body weight in a month, an amount most humans struggle to lose and keep off within a year’s time. The placebo monkeys only lost a maximum 1% and their thighs now make a shwishing sounds whenever they wear track pants.

Much to the chagrin of curvacious ladies everywhere, the next stage of testing will be on humans, but only on men with prostate cancer. It is not clear why this would be and the NPR article offers no explanation. It has occurred to me, however, that this might be so that in the event of complications, i.e. death, the scientists would have the option to say “Oh, the cancer killed them. P.S. the drug is now for sale through Phizer.”