Tags: cooking


how to buy groceries

This is an post I've been meaning to write for years. I gave up on it a while back because most of my friends are better at cooking than I am; if you've ever worked in a co-op, worked kitchen in a restaurant, or (in Jon Good's case) were the restaurant, I should be learning from you.

But some of you aren't most of my friends. Some of you had rich parents who worked all the time and ate out every day, or have never been far from a cafeteria or company meal plan, or went to law school and never had time to learn, or were never taught because it was assumed you'd marry a nice stay-at-home girl (hooray old Taiwanese people oblivious to rapid social change in their own generation), or because Confucian values led your parents to believe that if you got good enough grades and made enough money all your other problems would magically go away. Those some-of-yous have been living off Hot Pockets and ramen and foil curry pouches since college, and it makes me sad.

A couple years ago I went to a Fourth of July barbecue at my friend Chris's place in New Jersey. There were about two dozen Taiwanese-American adults in their early twenties, male and female, medicine and law and business students mostly. I ended up being selected as the chef because I was the only person at the entire party who knew how to grill a hamburger. Or use a grill at all, for that matter. The only one. We had people who could do open heart surgery, people who could incorporate a business in the state of Delaware, people who could cite from 300 years of American common law by rote, and not one knew how to flip a circle of ground meat over when it turns brown. I didn't mind doing it--the burgers came out well, and I received many compliments. But damn.

Enough. Let's say you're tired of shaving years off your life eating like a freshman undergrad and you want to learn to cook. Let's say you look up recipes on the Internet sometimes, complicated alchemical formulae with exotic-sounding ingredients like "chevril" and "mirepoix," and you make them, and they're delicious. But you just can't be arsed to do it every day. It's so complicated, and takes so much time, and your fridge is always missing something you need or full of stuff from your last recipe that you don't feel like making again. You can follow directions to the letter--there's nothing post-NEHSers, in particular, do better!--but, to be honest, you have no idea what the hell you are doing. You can prepare mini-pizzas or bake a pan of cookies, but you don't know how to prepare lunch for tomorrow without a trip to the supermarket and a day in advance to prepare. You look up recipes for things you've eaten in cafeterias--shepherd's pie, beef goulash, enchilada casserole--and discover that all of it is more practical to make for a thousand people than for just one. And, stuck in a strange foreign country full of foods and ingredients alien to your parents' dinner table, you're not even sure you know what the hell Americans eat. (On everyday occasions, that is--not when they feel like going to Olive Garden.)

Or maybe you're just anorexic and spend lots of early mornings screaming at an empty fridge.

If this is you, I want to help. Because, God forbid, it's a miracle you've managed to survive this far without knowing what to do with food. I mean...it's like not being able to tie your shoes.

In this post, I'm not going to teach you how to cook. Your preferred cooking style is going to be highly dependent on what ingredients are cheapest and most readily available in your area, as well as what you enjoy eating and how much money, time, and effort you're willing to spend. I'm not going to teach you what to cook--quick, easy, simple recipes abound on the Internet, as well as in newspapers, magazines, and on the labels of the ingredients you buy. I'm not going to teach you how to boil a pot of rice without a rice cooker, roll sushi, blanch corn for enchiladas, or select a good zucchini at the supermarket--that niche is served marvellously by the most recent edition of The Joy of Cooking, the definitive one-book encyclopedia of American culinary heritage, which is a worthy and invaluable investment to anyone who doesn't have a living, traditionally-minded great-grandmother to inherit those traditions from. What I will do is set the table so you can learn how to cook. I am going to teach you how to stock your fridge, so that you never have to go hungry if there's food in it.

This post is not for those moments you need to impress a date or bring something fabulous to a potluck. This post is for those moments in which you open your pantry to make dinner and see nothing except a bottle of ketchup, three eggs, a tin of sardines, some dry rice, and half a tomato.

Which, I've come to realize, is just as important as being able to make something from a recipe.

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homemade pizza stones

This is from a cooking show, Economy Bites, put on by my friends Allie, Ben, and Daniel, and it is a pretty damned awesome kitchen hack. Being able to make your own New York style pizza in a conventional oven is pretty awesome but what really blows me away is how they used ceramic tiles to distribute the heat across the crust. Better living through science!

repertoire share: omurice!

Omurice (蛋包飯)! A cheap, quick, and filling Japanese dish made entirely from Western ingredients, this and regret are the only good things to come out of the Pacific theater of the Second World War. This simple meal is a staple of my diet these days, since it can be made with stuff left over in a near-empty fridge and lends itself to limitless variation.

1 cup uncooked rice, any variety (or substitute leftover takeout fried rice and skip step one)
2 large eggs
1 slice American cheese (optional)
Optional toppings: Diced tomato chunks, bacon bits, finely diced ham, roast chicken, pork cubes, browned hamburger, very finely chopped asparagus, sauteed mushrooms, leaf spinach...anything in your fridge, really

  1. Put the rice and 2 cups filtered water in a rice cooker, and let it steam. (Don't have a rice cooker? Buy one--the lower-end models are only about $20 and you will never have to deal with nasty crunchy undercooked rice ever again.)
  2. Chop up whatever toppings you can scrounge up. Anything will do as long as it is diced into really small pieces, is already cooked, and goes well with eggs, tomato, and rice. (Remember, though, that soy sauce and cheese do not mix!) Toss them together in a small bowl so you have a nice little topping salad.
  3. As soon as the rice starts to boil, crack open the eggs into a different small bowl and whisk with a fork until uniformly yellow. Add a small amount of cooking oil, to prevent them from sticking to the pan. Get a SMALL skillet on the stove--size is important; you don't want the diameter to be significantly bigger than your serving bowl--and add a small pat of butter or just enough oil to cover the bottom of the pan if you swish it around. Heat this oil on high heat until it starts to sizzle.
  4. Pour the eggs into the hot skillet. They should turn into an omelette almost instantly. Continue to cook the eggs just long enough for most of the omelette to turn solid--don't worry if there's still a little bit of runniness at the top. Do not flip. You only want one side of the omelette browned, for reasons that will make sense later. Take off heat when done.
  5. When the rice is done, immediately pour it into a wok or large skillet. Stir in just enough cooking oil to keep random grains of rice from burning onto ungreased parts of the pan--shouldn't be much, maybe a teaspoon or so. Add toppings. Stir-fry over high heat. (High heat is important--the rice is already cooked; you're just getting it very, very hot.)
  6. Once the rice begins to sizzle, drizzle a generous amount of ketchup into your fried rice, and stir until the rice turns pink. Yes. I am completely serious. Not fresh tomatoes. Not spaghetti sauce. Not tomato paste. Ketchup. I have tried all the aforementioned alternatives and none of them have the right tang. This is not a price-saving substitute, it is the real deal--it's what they actually use in Japan. How much you use is up to you; for me two hot dogs' worth is enough--that's about two or three packets depending on the fast-food restaurant. Just don't skimp too much. Ketchup has a strong taste but it cooks away almost immediately, and it takes a lot of ketchup to cook in a perceptible flavor to this quantity of rice. Finding the right balance can be tricky. Experiment.
  7. When the rice has just started to brown, immediately scoop it into a bowl.* Put a cheese slice on top of the rice if you like. Quickly but carefully lift the omelette out of the small skillet and dump it runny side up on top of the bowl--yes, on top of the bowl. Tuck the edges of the omelette into the bowl, so you have a nicely browned egg top over your rice, somewhat similar visually to the puff pastry on top of a fancy French soup. Let sit for about twenty seconds, so that the steam rising up from the super-hot rice can finish scrambling the raw egg as it drizzles into the rice, melting the cheese slice into a rich yellow sauce in the process.
  8. Garnish by drawing a smiley face with the ketchup on top of the omelette. THIS STEP IS MANDATORY.
  9. Serve.

Total prep time: about twenty-five minutes. Serves one.

Yes. I know. It's just a ketchup-based stir-fry with an omelette on top. But it looks kind of fancy, is cheap, fills the stomach, and tastes so good.

Interesting alternative: Use a small jar's worth of alfredo pasta sauce instead of ketchup, fill with spinach and sauteed mushrooms, and garnish with shrimp fried in butter. Will have to try this one sometime.

* Taiwanese restaurants will do this fancy thing where they'll mound the rice onto a plate with an ice cream scoop and fold the omelette around it in a sort of vagina shape. Fuck that shit. The egg will be too tough to penetrate with either chopsticks or a fork, and once you get it open you'll be chasing individual grains of rice all over the plate since fried rice doesn't adhere to itself. Looks far more impressive if you use a bowl, anyway.
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god's gift to bears

Tonight, on a lark, I made pan-seared salmon and steamed sweet potatoes. I have never made either of these dishes before.

How did it go? Well...omfg. Not the acronym. The syllable. Omfgggg!

Oh man. My quality of life has improved by an objective 20% now that I have both of these dishes in my culinary repertoire.

I think I see, now, why pan-seared salmon is one of the favorite fancy home-cooked meals of yuppies having each other over for sex dinner. It's dirt simple--slather a raw salmon filet in olive oil, slap it down in a skillet over high heat with some cheap white wine (ADD THE WINE FIRST the skin on your forearms will thank you), and flip it over with a spatula after it starts to look done. Not much different from flipping burgers, really, and exactly the same as frying up a chicken cutlet. Takes maybe eight minutes. And yet, with some lemon juice and some salt and pepper, it tastes as fancy as anything you'd get from a restaurant--nice and crisp on top, smooth and flaky and succulent all the way to the bottom. It says a lot that, even though this was the very first time I've made it, and I undercooked one side and burnt the other, it was still beyond delicious. Fuck it, man, I don't blame those yuppies. After eating this I feel good enough to make love. Even though I don't have anyone to make love with.

It's a shame that salmon costs so much that I can only eat it when the supermarket puts it on sale ($3.78 for half a pound!), but...well, I guess that's the yuppies' fault, what with salmon populations declining and all, and salmon-eaters like me making it profitable to deplete the wild stocks instead of farming. That, and the bears. Damned bears. Grr, Smokey! My silvery, fleshy jumpy thing! Mine!

And sweet potatoes...strange as it may sound, they're one of the foods from Stevenson that I really missed. Yes, they were always dry and stiff from sitting under a heat lamp too long, but they were a tasty and welcome alternative to the usual starches (pasta, white potatoes, that granulated stuff whose name I don't remember). Since the main two things I've been eating since I moved to New York have been whole wheat bread and plain white rice, tonight's sweet potato was a similarly welcome change of pace. I'm amazed at how easy it was--boil some water in a pot, put the unpeeled, washed potato in a perforated tray above the pot, and cover the pot and let it simmer for 30 minutes. Steamed, sweet, soft, and delicious with a pat of butter. Just like how you'd make steamed broccoli, or steamed cauliflower, or steamed carrots--goodness, how I managed to survive so long without a steamer pot, I may never know.

I'm in heaven. I'm in heaaa-ven. Doo doo doo-doo doo-doo doo-doo doo-doo dooooooo....
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life's little pleasures #11

Making mushroom and asparagus fettucine alfredo, and unexpectedly having it turn out perfect. Not just edible, but really, really good. :D

Been playing Rune Factory: A Harvest Moon Fantasy obsessively. As the name implies, it's what you get when you put a generic Japanese fantasy RPG and a bizarrely popular farming sim franchise into a blender and set it to "disintegrate." Those two genres don't sound like they'd mix very well--and they don't. They removed none of the standard Harvest Moon trademarks (you have a farm, some upgradable farming tools, some sheds for livestock, a town to buy seeds and socialize; you can gradually court one of several townswomen into marriage by bribing her with baked goods), and, indeed, you could play this game indefinitely without ever doing any of the RPG stuff. What's new is the addition of a few generic RPG dungeons, which you must fight through to advance the plot and finish the game. The catch is that swinging your sword or using attack magic depletes your Rune Points, of which you have a finite amount to use per day, and once those are gone they will start depleting your HP. For most of the game, the only feasible way to restore Rune Points is to grab these little blue Rune Orbs that appear once a day above every 3x3 patch of unharvested crops. Therefore, the only realistic way to beat most of the dungeons is to clear and till fields inside them, slowly cultivating delicious vegetables inside these monster-infested underground death traps until you are producing enough Rune Orbs per day to support a trek to the end. (The concept is, for lack of a better word, insane.) You will have to balance these endeavors with maintaining your farm at home, however, as all farming-related actions (hoeing, watering, cutting grass, etc.) use up Rune Points also. And then there are other potentially lucrative tasks you can do in the game's resource-rich dungeons, like fishing, mining ore, or gathering cooking and crafting ingredients to use at home--all of which use Rune Points.

Essentially, what looks on the outside like a one-player MMORPG is actually an elaborate exercise in opportunity cost. Do you go farming or dungeoneering? Do you plant your crops in the dungeon or at your farm? Which crops? Do you go fishing at the pier, where you get fish more suitable for cooking, or in a nearby dungeon, where you get fish that are worth more at market? If you tame a water elemental and force it to water your crops, is the extra daily cost in monster feed worth the Rune Points you normally spend on watering? Should you risk a run to the end of the dungeon now, or spend a few more days getting that spinach garden ready to harvest? All of these decisions will affect your gameplay experience, and the wonderful thing about the game is that there are no wrong answers.

Some of the Brooklyn-native Oberlin creative writing major turned editing assistant cabal (formerly referred to in this journal as the Brooklynites, though I don't use that term anymore because it's extremely confusing) threw a "VD Awareness Party" on Valentine's Day. Ironically, I couldn't go because I was sick. Gave me a good excuse to spend that day alone, though.

a little early for thanksgiving?

I am very disappointed that there are only 44 Google hits for "turfucken."

However, I was pleased to discover that there are seven hits for "bustergophechiduckneaealcockidgeoverwingailusharkolanbler."

And, of course, there are lots of hits for tetrafarmacum.

Other recent random Google searches:
  • folding duck
  • i am made of meat and rage
  • the devil reads pravda (82 hits, all of whom think they're terribly clever)
  • n00btube
  • i eat ponies for breakfast
  • violence bonanza
  • fuck'n'duck
  • deeply troubling birthday parties
  • Pol Pot Pie (ouch, how unoriginal--1,370 hits!)
  • fist vs. fist
  • nasal douche
  • sexy humans (warning: the image search produces progressively more disturbing results)
  • deskwarrior
  • angry meatball land
  • motherfructose
  • bananananananana (it seems like no matter how many "na"s you add, there are always hits)
  • magna cum laden (GOOGLEWHACK!)
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    vegans, look away

    Bacon cheeseburger Hamburger Helper is the most complicated dish I know how to make. This isn't a jab at my cooking skills--for something that comes in a box, Hamburger Helper is damn complicated. But there are few things more deliciously American on a cold winter day. Especially if you add your own personal touches, like diced tomato chunks, steamed onions, and a dash of dijon mustard. One batch can last me three meals, if I ration it right, and the saturated fat alone will fend off starvation for days.

    Actually, I take that back. Hamburger Helper is a scam. It's like stone soup--the best stuff comes from outside the box, and you're the one who does all the work. All you get when you buy a box of Hamburger Helper is a couple cups of dry macaroni and a packet of dehydrated cheese sauce. If you made Hamburger Helper without the box and used the same recipe on dry pasta, melted cheese, and maybe some spices (basil? paprika?) instead, you'd have a similar--nay, superior--meal, and it would take just as long and leave you with just as many dirty utensils to clean up.

    Also, while one would expect it to be emasculating, there's something downright studly about scrubbing a filthy bathtub half-naked.

    This message brought to you by capitalism.

    yakitate! taiwan

    When they say 蔥油餠 is fried dough, it's not a cultural euphemism. It's not a reference to the most unique part of the process (as the sweet dessert Americans call fried dough is). It's the complete and literal truth. It's dough, plain dough. Fried. Nothing is added except vegetable oil and chopped green onion, flattened into a pancake and fried. No baking, no yeast. It's exactly as the name implies in Chinese: green onion plus oil plus flour.

    I know this, because I just made some. From scratch. By accident.

    Minus the green onions, the batch I made is the exact same thing, down to the crispy crust and the chewy texture. Even without soy sauce and rice vinegar to dip, the taste is unmistakable. Worse, it's the best 蔥油餠 (minus 蔥) I've ever had--better than the stuff my favorite street stands have been making for decades. Maybe it's because it's freshly made?

    It's delicious, but I feel slightly cheated. (No wonder they sell it for so cheap...)

    (update) Wait. This is indeed the same stuff I've had at roadside stands, but I just remembered there is a better variety, only served in nice restaurants. There's a layered texture to theirs, and it's uniformly crisp, and the center is soft but not doughy, and is full of little air pockets for trapping sauce. Perhaps there is some technique to this dish that I have not yet mastered. That makes me feel a little better.
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