Thursday, May 30, 2013

Cornbread

I've been sick with bronchitis and asthma, and I've been feeling mighty low in spirits as a result. A long sickness does that to me. I'm doing better, but I'm still walking slowly and taking my time until I finally am all well. And finding little things to lift my spirits.

Like making cornbread.

A little history: my mom has baked cornbread all my life. Mom makes real cornbread, you understand: the kind with no sugar, baked in a cast iron skillet, coarse and corny. I never liked this stuff and did not eat it growing up, preferring the sweet, cakey versions you're most likely to encounter out in restaurants these days.

However, this last week I found myself poring over a favorite cookbook, Smokehouse Ham, Spoon Bread, & Scuppernong Wine, which has an entire chapter devoted to cornbread.  I love this book because it reminds me of the stories my mom tells of her growing up surrounded by an extended family along the Ohio River in Kent, West Virginia. And suddenly I wanted--I needed--to make cornbread, just like Mom's, the cornbread I never liked. 

So yesterday I stopped at Safeway after work, picked up some buttermilk and stoneground cornmeal, went home, mixed up some cornbread, and popped it in the oven in a hot cast iron skillet.

Then my house started to smell like cornbread and I almost cried.

Because I never actually liked this cornbread growing up, I never consciously noticed that warm scent that fills the kitchen while it bakes. I did yesterday, and the sensation was completely unexpected. I can only describe it in terms of cliches, I'm afraid: it felt like a big warm hug from my mom, welcoming me home. I genuinely felt teary.

I immediately called Mom to tell her that, even if this turned out to be the worst cornbread ever made by human hands, it was worth making just for this smell and the associated feelings that came with it.

But it wasn't the worst cornbread ever. In fact, it was delicious. Corny, coarse, the same bread I hated all growing up. Only now, inexplicably, I love it. And for some reason, it's soothed my spirit in a way that nothing has in a good while.



Don't forget the potholder OW!
Hot out the oven.
 



Smells like home.
Butter's melting.
  

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Two sick sods

See what I did there? "Sod" for gardening and "sod" for unpleasant or obnoxious person. This week at PQ and MB, you get both for the price of one, thanks to sinusitis, bronchitis, asmtha, and steroids.

Come to think of it, you don't get the sod for gardening, as we're flat on our backs and hacking our lungs out, and can't do a thing in the yard, perfect though the weather is for it. Instead, we remain on the couch, surrounded by prescription bottles, and wait for modern medicine to finally do its thing. In the meantime, we hope you are able to enjoy these lovely May days.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Mulch Boy and the Stone Circle


I’ve been suffering under the accusatory eye of Mulch Boy for over three weeks. You see, back during Mulch Madness, Mulch fulfilled an eight-year-long ambition, and he’s been he’s been anxiously waiting for me to document it ever since.

However, what with one thing and another (hospitalizations, out-of-town trips, work crises, dog vomiting) I’ve not got around to it. Until today. Mulch Boy, you can officially get off my back!

Eight years ago: this is when Mulch Boy and I went to Ireland for two weeks on our third date. (That in itself, as you can imagine, is its own story.) If you’ve never been to Ireland and your only image of it is a picture-postcard of green fields and sheep, you’ll be delighted to know that your image is pretty accurate. Yes, there are towns and cities, but mostly Ireland is just as green and idyllic and sheepy as you could possibly imagine (at least in the south where we spent our trip)

Also, it’s full of rocks.

Ireland is a very rocky place. Rock walls abound. Ancient forts and churches of free-standing rocks dot the landscape, enclosed by more rock walls. The Burren is an enormous expanse of rocks that encompasses 250 square kilometers.

And the island is simply awash in stone circles. We visited many of them during our two weeks in Eire, some easier to find than others.


StoneHEEEENGE!  (not really.)


Also not Stonehenge. This is Ireland, after all.




We don't need no stinkin' Stonehenge.
Some are more prominent than others
 
Is it any wonder then that Mulch Boy, good Boston Irish boy that he is, would come away with the desire to build his very own?

Needless to say, we don’t have the real estate to construct a circle on the scale of your average prehistoric druid. Still, the yard is pretty big, and The Big Bed in the front yard has quite a bit of area still waiting to be developed, so to speak. And as several of the stones in our beds had been liberated from their former positions (due to the plants finally growing in and actually hiding the rocks), Mulch found himself with a sudden source of sizable building blocks to finally build the monument to his heritage.

And so he did. Turns out I’m no longer the only rock obsessive in the household. Mulch Boy gathered all the crystalline rocks of a certain size together, plus four larger, darker stones that were to represent the four points of the compass. After placement of these latter stones, a lengthy process of arranging the quartz-like stones just right between them ensured.

Based on my research (i.e., a quick glance at Wikipedia), a dolmen is not usually found in a stone circle. However, Ireland is also ripe with dolmens and we liked them, so a dolmen became part of the design. Again, just the right stones had to be identified and employed until they were just right.

Behold! The Stone Circle of the Little Blue House.



A dinosaur, a stone circle, and a sheep:  yes, classy IS the word you were looking for!
Under the watchful eye of Margaret T. Rex.


Gerard, mighty among sheep.
Close-up, with genuine Irish sheep.


I made more foods!

And so I can truthfully claim to have lived up to my pledge to Mulch Boy to take over making dinner twice a week… at least for a week.
I realize that I can thank the new gas stovetop for my newfound enthusiasm for cooking. When we moved into the Little Blue House, it came with a glass-top electric stovetop. A terrible, terrible electric stovetop that made me wreck dishes I used to cook (figurately!) blindfolded. Couple that with my growing reliance on Mulch Boy’s cooking, and I realized that I have completely lost my confidence as a cook over the last few years.
Then came Monday’s success with the feesh. Suddenly, I felt like I had my mojo back, and was anxious to put myself to the test again. I decided I wanted pan-fried noodles, a favorite Chinese restaurant meal and one that I used to actually make with some frequency way back in the day, using this cookbook that I picked up at a used book store:

Well used but not well bound.

This is actually an awesome little Chinese cookbook, from back before “celebrity chef” was a recognizable term, and the discovery that I could make my own extremely credible pan-fried noodles at home was a revelation to my recently college-graduated self.
This week, however, my craving wasn’t for the dish as described in the book (with chicken, shrimp, and boy choy), but for simply the crispy noodles with mushrooms. Lots and lots of mushrooms. This inspiration came from our trip to Super H Mart last Sunday, where you can find, among other things, packages of fresh wood ear mushroom and whole fresh shitakes, both of which I snatched up on impulse.
Thus, last night I found myself doing something I almost never do: improvising on a recipe. Here’s what I did, followed by some tweaks I’ll try next time.

Pan-Fried Noodles with Mushrooms Mushrooms Mushrooms
(Adapted from the Crispy Pan-Fried Noodles recipe in Jean Yueh’s Dim Sum & Chinese One-Dish Meals)

1 lb fresh thin Chinese egg noodles
½ cup cooking oil, preferably peanut because of the high smoking point
12 oz package of whole fresh Shitake mushrooms
8 oz (?) package of fresh wood ear mushrooms
1 bunch of scallions
Sauce
5 teaspoons cornstarch
1 tablespoon oyster-flavored sauce
1 tablespoon soy sauce
½ teaspoon sugar
1 ¼ cups chicken broth
1 tablespoon sesame oil
  1. Cook noodles in boiling water for 2 minutes, then quickly drain well in colander and rinse with cold water. Let stand in air until ready to fry. The original recipe says the noodles will be even better if you do this a couple of hours ahead of time; mine “rested” for probably a half hour in the colander on a plate on the counter.
  2. Rinse mushrooms; slice shitakes. Slice scallions (the entire things, white and green) into 1-inch sections. Mushrooms and scallions can all wait together in one big bowl till needed.
  3. Mix together all the sauce ingredients in a bowl.
  4. Heat your wok or giant fry pan to fiery, then heat ½ cup of oil until it’s beginning to haze. Drop a bit of noodle or scallion in; if it sizzles, you’re ready.
  5. Gently drop half the noodles in the hot oil, spread out like a pancake, and fry until golden and crisp on one side (depending on your stove, 5-10 minutes). Flip the noodle “pancake” (a big spatula and some tongs are helpful here) and fry the other side until it, too, is golden and crispy. Remove noodles and drain on paper towels, then transfer to an old cookie sheet and keep warm in a low oven. Repeat the process with the other half of the noodles.
  6. Heat a couple of tablespoons of cooking oil in the wok to the same sizzling stage, then throw in the big bowl of mushrooms and scallions. Stir-fry for about 2-3 minutes.
  7. After giving it a good stir, add the sauce mixture to the wok and stir the whole thing until the sauce is thick and translucent. (This will happen quickly.)
  8. Drizzle the sesame oil on top of everything, give a stir and taste. For more salt, sprinkle some extra soy sauce.
  9. Have your spouse transfer the fried noodles to a serving plate, then pour delicious mushrooms and scallions and sauce on top. To serve more easily, consider cutting the noodles into portions. The noodles will be crispy outside and tender inside, and the sauce will soak in and make them a little chewy, too.

What I Will Do Differently Next Time

The proportions were a bit off because the original recipe called for 8 ounces of noodles, whereas I picked up a 16-ounce package--thus, not quite enough sauce. Still, we ate it all, much to our shame. Therefore, rather than just make the correct amount of noodles next time, my plan is to increase the sauce by 50%, plus add a tad more soy sauce at the end to taste. I may also substitute spicy sesame oil for regular, just to see how the extra bite shakes things up.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

I cooked some feesh!

Mulch Boy is the designated cook at the Little Blue House. He's a born cook and a good one, and unlike me, he brought to our marriage a routine of cooking an actual full dinner for himself every night. Meat, starch, and veg, the whole shebang!

I, on the other hand, had popcorn and chocolate milk for dinner every Monday night. You see the difference.

It's not that I couldn't cook, or even that I didn't like to. I actually DO like to cook, very much, and lord knows I love to eat. But the routine of coming up with and making an actual meal? Every night? Not so much. You can imagine how lucky I felt when upon landing a catch such as Mulch. Talk about a meal ticket!

So upon making our home together, we divided our household labors, with Mulch taking on responsibility for the cooking and kitchen cleaning, and me taking most of the rest of the house and its associated chores.
However, even the most enthusiastic chef gets tired of the daily grind, and Mulch Boy is no exception. Especially after the last few challenging weeks, Chef Mulch needs a break.

Mulch Boy, I am publicly declaring to the Internet that I will take over at least two dinners a week. May the Interwebs strike me where I stand if I fail to uphold this pledge. (At the very least, if I fail you can out me here and my 26 followers can chastise me publicly!)

And I started last night! I made fish (aka, feesh). Not just any old feesh, either:  DELICIOUS feesh. It was even a little FANCY. In fact, it was this feesh right here. I used sea bass instead of tilapia because we had bought a big piece for cheapies on Sunday at Super H Mart, but other than that, I followed the recipe to the letter.


tilapia with scallions and black bean sauce recipe
Okay, mine didn't look that artful, but still.  TASTY.

It was super-easy, and super-fabulously good, too! I say that not to toot my own horn, but because it was so easy and good, I feel the need to share the recipe and declare: if you (like me) have been afraid to cook feesh, try this recipe and gain confidence. It is very flavorful, and NOT spicy unless you shake a little sriracha sauce on your serving at the end.

Invasive