Archive for March, 2010

Seasons Change

First Out

With all of the on again, off again weather we’ve had lately, it’s no wonder my green thumb has been itching to get started.

The Shelf

A little over a week ago, I spent the better part of the day preparing and seeding all of my tomatoes, peppers, strawberries and various beans.  Conveniently, the grow lamp-equipped shelf that the Everyman bought me for Christmas a few years ago made it pretty simple to start plants from seed without tying up window space.  This is important because it means it’s less likely that the cats will interfere with the delicate plants (generally speaking, they don’t like the super bright lights).

The top two shelves are usually pretty safe from kitty mischief, but this year they’ve been rather interested in the goings on of the bottom shelf, which in past years I haven’t used.  Because my ambitions for the garden this year are a little bit outsized, I had no choice but to use all 3 levels to light up my seeds, though.  There have been several instances since I installed the little seedlings in the shelving that I’ve come home and found paw sized dents in the plastic wrap tent that’s meant to hold moisture in.  Then, one morning I came down to find an ominous yellow puddle floating on top of the plastic wrap.

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Turning Winter Into Spring (Or Why I Would Never Survive On The Atkins Diet)

Combining The Seasons

Firstly, I apologize for having such a one track mind lately, but I’ve really, really, really been enjoying messing around with the new pasta maker.  Heaven knows I already loved pasta a great deal before I started to make my own, so fresh made has only managed to amplify that passion further.

The other night I intended to finish the rest of a batch of semolina dough by trying my hand at ravioli, so I’d carefully rolled out sheets and set them aside as we waited for someone to pick up a set of keys.  I hadn’t wanted to start cooking on the off chance that we’d be sitting down to dinner just as they decided to show up, so I’d only started my prep. Of course, the visitor ended up being late, and staying much longer than expected, so by the time I got back to the pasta, most of the edges and ends were dried out and brittle.  Lesson number one with pasta; always cover the dough when you’re not working on it.  Since we’d been waiting so long to eat neither of us wanted to wait any more, so we ended up getting some takeout that night instead.  Not that it mattered at that point, because I was significantly non-plussed by the whole situation.

After we were sated, I decided to try and salvage what was left of the supple dough and work it into a pasta for the following day’s lunch.  I had a rather large bag of frozen chunks of braised oxtail in the freezer that wasn’t getting used as quickly as I would’ve liked, but given that my grocer had delivered a 5 pound bag of oxtail when I’d ordered them and I’d braised the whole lot because it sounded just as easy to do 1 pound as 5, it was understandable.  Nonetheless, I knew oxtail would form the base of the sauce.  Peering around in the fridge, I also came across the flesh of a roasted acorn squash I’d been meaning to use, and some leftover fennel fronds.  Rooting around a little bit more, I unearthed a jar of pickled ramps from last spring that astonishingly had not been opened yet.  Grabbing a tub of creme fraiche for good measure, I started tossing all of the disparate ingredients together into a pan to warm up.  In the time that it took for the sauce to heat and come together, I cut the pasta dough into rough noodles, and dunked them into the pot of boiling water.  After their quick bath, I retrieved them and tossed in the pan with the sauce.  Adding a sprinkling of chopped pickled ramps and fennel fronds to the top, I portioned it up for lunch and put it away.

The next day at lunch, as I took the first bite I marvelled at the clever combination of bi-seasonal ingredients.  Standing in for winter was the oxtail and acorn squash, giving body to an otherwise lightened dish.  The fennel fronds and ramps practically sung of springtime and the creme fraiche managed to tie everything together.  It probably wasn’t the greatest thing I’ve ever made in my life, but at the time in that moment, with the warm sun beaming down on me through my office window, it was pretty damn fantastic.

I would suggest you try just such a combination to help usher in spring.

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It’s Michael Pollan’s World, We Just Live In It

Generally speaking, I’m an avid supporter of Michael Pollan.  He’s charming in that I-look-just-like-scrawny-vegan-Moby kind of way.

Ironically though, it seems there has come a point when even I am all Pollan-ed out.

I’ve read The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defence Of Food… who hasn’t, nowadays?  And I’ve seen Food Inc, King Corn, Death On A Factory Farm and others of their ilk that deal with the myriad problems affecting our global food systems.  But when I was browsing at the bookstore this past Christmas, I saw the latest tome in the Pollan repertoire, the slim and succinctly titled Food Rules.  To be frank, after thumbing through the pages I couldn’t bring myself to buy it for exactly 3 reasons;

1) It really struck me as “Food – For Dummies,” or rather a distilled version of his previous 2 books

2) I’m not keen on ideas once you start labelling them as “rules” because my inner anarchist says no, not to mention it makes it sound like some kind of slapdash lose-10-pounds-quick diet plan

3) It would be preaching to the choir since I try to maintain a diet centred around real food already, anyway

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The Butcher, The Baker (The Candlestick Maker?)

Knife

Last month before my birthday, the Everyman admitted that he was at a loss for gift ideas for me.

Since I’m the type of person who will generally buy anything I need for myself as I happen to need it, at first I couldn’t think of anything to tell him.  Aside from that, I hate suggesting to people what to give me, because a) it ruins any semblance of surprise and b) if you want to buy me a present, you should know me well enough to pick something out on your own, otherwise you shouldn’t be giving me a present in the first place.

But, as the date continued to approach he didn’t seem any closer to coming up with an appropriate gift, so I threw out a couple of thoughts, one of which was to attend a butchery session at Cowbell.  I did want to go, but I wasn’t really expecting him to take me up on it because it would mean there wouldn’t be anything for me to open (which is what I find most fun about presents to begin with), but shockingly, he did.  He even opted to leave the gift open ended, so I could choose the butchery session that most appealed to me because they offer classes in just about every kind of animal the restaurant uses on a rotating basis.

For those who aren’t in the know, Cowbell is one of Toronto’s premiere local food bistros, who not only preach nose to tail, but practice it as well by buying whole animals and employing an in-house butcher to break them down in the restaurant’s basement.  Since they bring in a whole animal nearly every week, approximately once a month they offer a class where you can follow along as butcher Ryan does his thing.  There was a class being held on my birthday to break down a red deer (one I would have loved to attend) but we didn’t find out until it was too late (while we were there the day of for my birthday brunch).  Several weeks later we visited with the Everyman’s brother and wife for dinner, and when we enquired we were told that the next session was going to be a Tamworth pig.  It sounded interesting (and we love pork), so the Everyman signed the 2 of us up.

Fast forward to this past Sunday, when we (and the other participants) assembled in the dining room at 7:30, while the restaurant was offering Sunday roast dinner.  After being introduced to Ryan, we were led on a tour of the restaurant, making a quick stop at the kitchen to meet that nights’ staff, though unfortunately chef Mark was not in attendance.  After the brief hello, we descended to the basement to get started.

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The King, In Cake Form

King Cakes

Several months ago, the Everyman and I took a shine to a British cooking show called Come Dine With Me.

Come Dine With Me’s premise is to get 4-5 strangers together and let each of them host a dinner party over the course of a week to compete for a $1000 prize.  The guests at each dinner party secretly vote on how each other has done once the parties are over, and whomever’s party has the highest score at the end of the week is the winner.  As you can imagine, hilarity often ensues.

One of the segments of the show that occurs with some regularity is the wandering around the house bit.  While the host is busy assembling appetizers, the guests are typically left to roam free around their house, being nosy and poking into private things.  It was during one such segment that the Everyman and I saw a guest pull an Elvis cookbook off one of the host’s shelves.  I’m not sure what it was about the book that captivated him so much, but the Everyman was absolutely enthralled by it.  At that moment I secretly took it upon myself to try and find him a copy.

After a few weeks, I managed to surreptitiously find Fit For A King in England (it’s long since been out of print) and presented it to him on a recent weekend.  Little did I know at the time of purchase that he had no intention of actually cooking from the book, but rather thought it was an interesting coffee table curiosity.  Generally speaking, I didn’t intend to cook anything from it either, being that Elvis wasn’t exactly known for his healthful lifestyle.  Then, one day when the Everyman was paging through the book reading me tidbits of various recipes, he came across one for peanut butter buttermilk bread.  I was immediately intrigued by the idea, and filed it away in the back of my mind for later.

This past weekend I decided to revisit the idea, but instead of baking it as a bread I opted to make a dozen mini cakes.

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Chicken Pot Pie (In The Sky!)

Fillicious

It’s been unseasonably warm here in Toronto during the last 7 days, with temperatures ranging from 14 to 19 throughout the week.

It’s been so warm in fact, that it’s had many people decrying the arrival of spring.  I for one am sceptical on that front.  Not that it matters much to me anyway, since I’ll be departing on a tropical vacation soon.  Nonetheless, it’s certainly not enough to get me planting out of doors or packing away the winter boots just yet.

One thing it was able to inspire me to do though, was to create a pot pie.  Even if winter might not be quite over, it’s pretty clear that we’re getting to the tail end of it, which means heavier, heartier fare is becoming less and less desired or appropriate as each week moves on.  That being said, as far as I could remember, I don’t think I had ever made a pot pie before, though I’ve certainly made my fair share of chicken stews with dumplings, which are pretty much just pot pie filling without the vessel.  It seemed almost ludicrous to me that I had never bothered to make one, since chicken pot pie rates up there as one of my most favourite foods, but also one I don’t eat very often.  For the record, I can’t even recall the last time I had one before this, which seemed like reason enough to follow through with it.  Fortuitously, I’d received an email recipe from Chow recently that sounded like just the ticket, so I planned to work on it when I got home that night.

Of course, as I read through the recipe I realized I was missing several things; peas and pre-roasted chicken being the most noticeable exceptions.  I wasn’t ready to let go of the idea though, so I went rogue.  Instead of adding the peas, I just increased the carrots, celery and potato all to a cup.  For the chicken I opted to take the liquid that you’re supposed to simmer the chicken in, substitute buttermilk into it so that it would keep the meat moist and tender and poach boneless, skinless chicken thighs in it until they were cooked through.  Once everything was cooked and creamy, I assembled the pie as directed and topped it with a yummy puff pastry lid.  45 minutes later, I was in pot pie heaven.

The Everyman was so fond of the pot pie that he went back for thirds that night, and then proceeded to request it in his lunch bag every single day until it was all gone.  I’d say it was a winner.  Unfortunately, since he also asked me to keep this one in the regular rotation, I imagine it’s possible that I’ll be in the kitchen sweating my arse off over some pot pie filling this summer.

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One Upping Rusty And Jerome…

The R&J

As I’ve surely mentioned here many times before, I’m a huge fan of breakfast.

Unfortunately, the Everyman is not, and mostly prefers to eat his first meal of the day around noon-ish on the weekend, which typically leaves us at a frustratingly inedible impasse.  Due to our differing opinions on the matter we don’t go out for brunch all that often, either.  Our first few visits to The Hoof Cafe when it opened were a noticeable exception, but that was mainly because the Everyman trusts Grant and also knew he could get un-breakfasty items if it came down to it (and it often does).  After we went to Cowbell brunch for my birthday, the Everyman was visibly smitten with the Rusty and Jerome I ‘d ordered (pictured above in its combo plate of apple pear compote-topped waffle, meatloaf, beans and sausage, bacon, toast and eggy glory) and beermosas too, but the simple fact is no matter how good the food is (and it IS fan-freakin-tastic) some days you just don’t want to travel across town to eat.  We’ve returned for brunch several times since then, but I still occasionally get intolerable cravings for breakfast that won’t quit in the interim.

One such yen hit me with full force just the other day.  Being that it was the middle of the week, it was unlikely that I would have the chance to go out for brunch the following day, so I contemplated the next best option; breakfast for dinner!  Growing up, I had a friend whose dad would make breakfast for dinner one day a week, and whether it was pancakes, waffles or eggs I always loved eating dinner at their house on that day.  We never really did anything like that in my home, so dinnerfast felt a little bit foreign and strangely like luxury.

After rummaging around in the fridge and finding the remnants of a carton of buttermilk, I began searching the internest for a decent buttermilk pancake recipe.  My gaze immediately gravitated towards this, but was also enticed by this, too.  Knowing the Everyman as well as I do, I was certain that if he chose the buttermilk pear option I’d have to find a suitable side dish to go with it to counter the sweetness, since he’s not a great lover of sweet breakfasts especially.  As I wracked my brain over possible complements, out of nowhere an idea came to me.  Why not make a salty hash with his favourite meat (prosciutto)?

Once I ran the options by him, he immediately began salivating over the potential of what we began referring to as who hash (a la The Grinch).  When we arrived home from work I mixed up the pear pancake batter so that it could rest, and began grating potatoes and onions and dicing prosciutto.  The whole meal came together quickly, and before I knew it I was serving up a beautiful puffy pancake that resembled an upside down cake with a side of crispy, crusty prosciutto speckled hash.

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Hello, I Love You, Won’t You Tell Me Your Name?

Complete

During the past few months I’ve become increasingly entranced by the idea of making my own pasta.

While achieving ribbony, hand cut noodles has been a work in progress, I’ve slowly but surely become more proficient, bit by flour-covered bit.

As such, I’ve been on the market for some form of pasta machine, but ever since my snafu with the stand mixer pasta attachment, I haven’t been in much of a hurry.  I’ve also been told they can be quite expensive, so I didn’t want to plunk down any cold, hard cash until I was absolutely certain it wasn’t just a passing fancy.  In the interim, pastas have been made with some regularity in our household by using the old fashioned method of rolling pin plus sharp knife.  Rustic for sure, but still extremely satisfying when compared next to your standard out of the box fare.

So, while the Everyman and I were out shopping for our upcoming trip, it occurred to me to stop into a housewares store to check if they happened to sell pasta makers.  In the first store I was out of luck, but ducking into the second as we headed towards the exit, not only did I find a pasta maker, but it was the last one, and a floor model at that, so for all intents and purposes it was a steal.  The only catch was that it didn’t come packaged, which meant that a) there was no manual, and b) it took the clerk 20 minutes to try and figure out what the SKU was so they could enter it into the cash register.  But, for a mere $20 I certainly wasn’t complaining.

Semolina Dough

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The Lexicon Of Food Snobbery

Ah, eating.

Aside from the simple act of breathing, there isn’t really any other consumptive requirement that equalizes society more (because we all have to do it or else we die).  So, it seems only logical to me that as a species we should be more than a little preoccupied with the W5H of our food.  If essentially (we’re talking extremely drilled down here) nourishment boils down to a matter of life or death (do I have food enough to eat or will I go hungry?) why wouldn’t you want to concern yourself with it to the nth degree?  If you were to ignore the question of food for long enough, it’s possible that your own survival would be at stake as your body began to starve.  Yet for some odd reason the people who do consider these things aren’t the norm, and instead are labelled foodies; an insipid little word which inspires disdain even amongst those who would fall into such a category.  As such, foodies have become culinary outliers, a fact easily proven by watching the eyes of non-foodies glaze over whenever someone who appreciates food discusses the intricacies of their favourite edible creation in their vicinity.

There’s an inordinate number of people in the world who would consider me to be something of a food snob based primarily on the fact that I am very selective about what foods I will allow into my body.  But I’m not a snob; far from it, actually.  It’s simple, really.  If it doesn’t taste good, it’s not coming in, that’s all there is to it. Why is it that having passion for any subject has become synonymous with snobbery? I’m not as big a hater of the word foodie as most people either (obviously), but I generally try not to frame myself through definitions of character or personality.  I grew up in a house, in a place, in a family that professionally and socially cooked and placed a high value on food and kitchen table camaraderie.  Subsequently, I was nurtured and engaged in food myself, and to this day not only do I love to cook but I relish eating, too (surprisingly, I don’t love to eat nearly as much as I love to cook, though).  To me that’s normal and not something I regard as smacking with even the slightest bit of pretension.  Rather, I think of food and cooking and eating as elemental, because it unites us with our forebears via its commonality.

While I may not eat some foods because I don’t think they taste good (the vast majority of processed foods would be a perfect example) I don’t believe that being discerning is sufficient grounds for being labelled snobbish.  My brand of food fascination is a blend of a quest for authenticity over watered down fare, tempered by occasional bouts of obsessive compulsive behaviour.  Case in point; I can be just as easily satiated by a $4.50 baby cow sandwich from Commisso Bros. as I have been with the $275 a head tasting menu at Eigensinn Farm – it really just depends on the situation.  The cost of food is irrelevant when you consider the rich tableau of atmosphere, companions and occasions that formidable memories are born of.  For instance, in Chicago I desperately wanted to visit Alinea, but it was something that time just wouldn’t allow.  It would have been a meal costing several hundreds of dollars I’m sure, but the cheap and dirty food from Fat Willy’s Rib Shack that formed our last taste before getting back on a plane was just as appreciated as Alinea would have been because it too was prepared with passion.  In that respect I’d say I’m closer to a culinary egalitarian, really.  Put simply, I enjoy good food.  Whether I cook it for myself, or I pay someone else to cook it for me, taste integrity is unanimously the mitigating factor in what I choose to eat.  Though realistically, as much as I’ve come to enjoy restaurant food, 99 times out of 100 I’d much rather cook something for myself because only I understand precisely how I want that something to taste.

In fact, I personally believe that people who choose not to cook are the true snobs, because paying someone else to do something you don’t want to do reeks of superiority.  At some point during the 1950′s, cooking went from being perceived as a nurturing part of a decent home life to being painted as an intolerable chore.  Cue the montage of ads about liberating women from the drudgery of their kitchens by replacing home cooked foods with frozen dinners and ready meals to make my point for me.  Or this quote from a recent article in The Toronto Star For me in recent years, cooking has been a bit like dentistry: I hear there are people who still do it themselves but it just makes me shake my head sadly.” (I know it comes from an article about the Slap Chop, but I find such a sentiment disheartening still). I’m not going to disagree with the fact that cooking and preparing food from scratch is hard work.  You’re reading the website of a girl who cooks her own food, bakes her own bread, cures her own meat, preserves her own jams and churns her own butter, so believe me when I say I do understand.  But look instead at what’s been lost.  Society has become so far removed from the taste of real food that manufacturers can layer on salt and fat and sweet and chemicals just to make their food seem palatable because most people are unfamiliar with how delicious unadulterated food can be.

Paying someone else to prepare your food (either via restaurant or the shelves of the supermarket) is rife with undertones of servitude.  With the obvious exception of celebrity chefs, cooking is still considered one of the humblest professions out there, staffed mostly by uneducated masses.  And before you start to disagree with me, consider for a moment what other profession requires you to work 80 or more hours per week on your feet for such meagre and thankless pay?  Or think on the fact that many of the unsung heroes in a kitchen are immigrants who are just thankful to be gainfully employed, even without the benefit of sick days, vacations, etc.  Cheffing is hard, brutal work that many attempt but few prevail at, and it certainly is not an industry for the weak.  Yet, why don’t we acknowledge their legitimacy when we’re basically putting ourselves into their hands by outsourcing our food to them more and more each day?  Again, it sounds like snobbery to me.  The clincher for me is that more often than not, the people who cook mid to high end food do not make enough money to even patronize the places they work at themselves.  How’s that for irony?

At a time when The Food Network feels it needs to add a whole other channel to accommodate a demand for additional programming, it would seem that what we eat should be a more important topic than ever.  Instead, it’s been shown that more people love to watch food television than actually cook anymore, with the backlash of artisanally-minded people like me still somewhat in its infancy.  But it doesn’t have to be.  Taking food into your own hands is not an indicator of snobbery, it’s an opportunity to exert a modicum of control over what you want to eat instead of letting Big Food (or anyone, really) decide that for you.

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Bait And Switch (Or Why I’m Not Above The Occasional Culinary Subterfuge)

Parsnipity Spelt Cake

Sometimes I come across strange recipes on the internet that I just can’t help but test out in my own kitchen.  I become inordinately fascinated by these culinary oddities, with a fixation that won’t be satisfied until I taste them for myself.  Of course, in order to get the Everyman to try many of them, I generally have to leave out certain salient details that might give him pause.

Case in point would be when this particular recipe popped up in my RSS, gleaned from the Serious Eats column The Crisper Whisperer.  I’m sure that by the time he finishes reading this post I will have received a call or an email about this particular cake and his personal thoughts on it, but when he asked me what it was last night I simply uttered “spice cake”.

Over the years we’ve all come to acknowledge carrot cake, sweet potato pie and zucchini muffins as relatively commonplace dessert-type offerings, but up until this point I’d never seen or heard of a parsnip cake before.  Between the fact that I was vaguely intrigued and disgusted by its very existence, and the fact that I had a half bag of parsnips lounging around our crisper not getting any younger, I decided it had to be done.

Just Batter

The recipe began simply, calling for all the usual suspects that come to a batter party (flour, sugar, eggs) but I immediately began making changes and substitutions.  Where there was once flour I replaced it with spelt, and a cupful of allergenic walnuts became a measure of porridge oats, while white sugar was traded for brown.  Then, just because I felt the guilt of attempting something healthy (yes, I suffer from the opposite form of guilt, not for eating badly, but from trying to eat too good) I threw in a small handful of dark chocolate chips – just because.

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Rabbit – It’s The New Pork

Ragu

I think I’ve pretty handily established how much I’ve come to enjoy cooking and eating rabbit during the last 6 months.

Coincidentally, rabbit’s profile and status has been elevated in the media lately, with some even going so far as to dub it the “gateway” animal to raising their own food.  I wouldn’t necessarily go to that extreme, seeing as I have enough small, stinky animals coexisting with me as is, but I do love to suck the meat off the bones of the occasional, delicious hare.  No longer just a popular protein for immigrant fare, rabbit it seems is beginning to come into its own, whether the mainstream is ready or not.

So, it was without hesitation that I purchased a few whole rabbits on my last 2 trips to The Healthy Butcher, even though I had no particular plans for their meaty little carcasses at the time.

Since then we’ve had rabbit braised in red wine over polenta, a ginger mustard stewed rabbit, and most recently a succulent rabbit ragu (pictured above).  We generally don’t eat a whole lot of red meat or pork on a regular basis (it’s typically one or the other about once every 2 weeks), so rabbit has been a refreshing way to break up the monotony of a diet riddled with vegetarian meals, pastas and poultry.  It’s gamey, yet mild and faintly sweet, lending itself to numerous preparations; small enough to be cooked relatively quickly, while also capable of being braised for many hours.  In our house, one might even go so far as to say that rabbit is the new pork belly, or even the new chicken!?!

While sautéing the base for said ragu on a Sunday not too long ago, I stopped to reflect on a time when I used to think ragu was merely a brand that came in a jar, and how unlikely it would’ve been for that younger me to consume a bunny rabbit (nigh on 25 years ago, I’d reckon).  Oh, how things (and opinions) have changed.  After a 6 hour simmer, the ragu I craftily prepared with a jar of my own preserved bruschetta (subbing in for canned tomatoes) melted down into the perfect, wintry sauce for blanketing a bed of hand cut egg yolk noodles.  It wasn’t the first, but it’s sure to be but one of many delicious rabbits I’ll sit down to over the course of the rest of my life.

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The Serious Mash-Up

Brothy Goodness

One of the main reasons I made a stop at Sanko this weekend was to pick up ingredients for a simmered soybean side dish that I’d read about over at Serious Eats and had been wanting to make for nearly a week and a half.  The Everyman is no fan of soybeans, but the dish sounded just perfect for me to bring to work as a relatively healthy afternoon snack, so I’d been mentally drooling over the umami-ish combination ever since.

Of course, while I was there I couldn’t help but grab a few other odds and ends that I had no specific intentions for, other than random experimentation.  Shopping in Asian stores is always fun for me, because oftentimes packages contain minimal English, so you don’t always know exactly what you’re going to get.  It’s like playing culinary roulette, just not deadly.

Rehydrated Soybeans

Once I got home with my mysterious bounty, I began prepping the dried soybeans so that the following day I could complete the recipe, while visions of deliciousness danced in my head.

Coincidentally a few days prior I had made another Serious Eats recipe, this time for something called velvet chicken, which sounded similar to san bei gi, otherwise known as 3 cup chicken.

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Interesting Things Purchased Today

New Stuff

I went to the Japanese importer Sanko down the street from my house today.

Aside from the fact that the staff kept looking at me like I was horribly out of place, I came away with a good haul of stuff for some experimentation later this week.

Here’s a small sampling of the bounty to pique your interest; it includes udon, kombu, mirin, bonito and a seaweed/sesame sprinkling concoction.

Yum!

Until next time…