Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Homemade Thai Curry Bento

This week's bento is courtesy of my enthusiasm after taking a cooking class over at Thai Fresh with chef and fellow foodblogger Jam from Thai Cooking with Jam. It was an incredibly fun time and full over great information about Thai food and ingredients. The class was a hands on so that meant plenty of time in the kitchen helping with the meal we all shared in at the end. If you've ever considered going, get off that duff and go, if you've never even knew it existed then you're just plain missing out.

Ok just a bit of stuff on curry making, above you will see two of the three curry pastes (Green curry on the left, Sour curry on the right) used in the box. This is where most of the magic happens. Homemade curry paste compared to can has a fresher/cleaner taste, I'm not sure if it's because some of the ingredients aren't perfectly ground as you would find in the commercial version so you can get some of the components or duh you're using fresh ingredients. (I think both) Either way to produce these wonderful magical pastes requires some dedication which equates to a minimum of 40 minutes pounding away on a mortar and pestle. I suggest a strong arm and glasses, paste in the eye once was enough for me to grab some goggles. The green curry pictured on the left was nearing it's finish. The sour curry on the right actually took a little less time, all of it's components were easily mushed unlike the galanga and lemongrass in the green. I got a lot of questions mostly regarding the use of a blender or food processor. I've tried my hand at this in the past and I specifically went to the curry class because neither machine produced the fine paste that I found in a can. Mortar and Pestle is the only home cook solution that can produce the texture and ability to break down fibrous ingredients. I've not tried it against my Blendtec, but I'm not sure I want everything I make afterwards to taste hot and spicy. (think smoothie, hmm.. wait..) If someone has a less intensive solution, I'd sure like to hear about it because being able to have fresh curry paste on hand would be extremely +1 yummy.

So in class our first curry was the Sour curry, you could either use the paste as a normal curry cooking down some watermelon rinds and tossing in some fish, or make a soup out of it. We opted for a simple soup. My version I omitted the shrimp stock and seafood and treated it more like a normal vegetable soup. Literally it's a rendition of Hot and Sour soup Thai style. This is easily a new favorite, it had a heck of a nice kick and it's easy to make. The soup itself is pretty good for you, there's nothing I can think of that I would consider bad simply, low cal, and veggies what's not to like.

Our first curry, the Massaman Curry like the green curry below is of southern Thailand origin. Most of the southern curries contain more fiberous and dry ingredients making for long pounding time on the mortar and pestle. Many of the incorporated spices are influenced by Indian cuisine. This tends to be a milder and somewhat sweet curry, since I had promised a bit of kick this bento and got an overwhelming response I felt I couldn't disappoint. I snuck in a few dashes of Naga pepper sauce. I know that doesn't mean much to most of you so I'll give you some perspective, a habanero rates somewhere around 100,000 to 300,000 scoville units of heat, the Naga pepper sauce rates at 1 Million scoville units of heat (hence a few dashes in a giant pot). I didn't notice the difference but apparently quite a few did go figure. To finish off the dish I added some some sweet potatoes, onions, and chicken.

I really love Thai curry it's very versatile you can pretty much stew anything together in curry. And if you're in a hurry you need only have a few items on hand. Canned curry is great, it's easy and convinent, just stock some coconut milk to go with it and you've got the basis for a great lunch/dinner. Fresh on the other hand you have to try at least once, I can understand if you're looking at the cost/benefit on spending lots of time on a mortar pestle versus opening a can in a restaurant in that case fresh might not be the way to go, but nothing beats the feeling of making something wonderful from scratch. This fresh green curry was no exception very delightful, I popped in some fried tofu, butternut squash, and Chinese eggplant. My only criticism is that I didn't grind the curry down enough there was still a bit of fibrous texture especially down at the bottom of the pot. And I think I went a bit overboard on the curry, I didn't detect enough heat (again) so I dumped in the whole batch. Apparently my taste buds are broken as my eaters had plenty of comments appreciating the kick. I suppose there were about 40 Thai bird chili peppers in the paste it was probably hot enough.

Really enjoyed making curry paste lots of fun and a pretty good workout. I'm pretty happy with how it all turned out and I've gotten some pretty positive feedback so I must have done something right. Anyhow, onto next week!

Box Contents
  • Massaman Curry with Chicken and Sweet Potatoes
  • Green Curry with Tofu, Butternut Sqush, and Chinese Eggplant
  • Jasmine Rice
  • Thai "Hot and Sour" vegetable soup

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Irish Bento: Happy belated St. Patrick's day

To celebrate St. Patrick's day I decided on another Irish Bento, I figured this time around I wasn't going to do the traditional Corned beef with cabbage, been there done that. I figure, how hard is it to find some good traditional Irish recipes that were preferably healthy? Apparently this proved to be a pretty tough task. I started digging and found loads of cool ideas, when I started researching it turns out they were actually Scottish, or British. Worse yet the things I did find were all cabbage, stews or corned beef and always the potato. I was at a loss, until I remembered that I work for a global company. I pinged one of my coworkers in the UK office who happens to be Irish perfect! (I thought) The conversation went something like this (minor paraphrasing but the just think Irish accidents on his parts):

Me: "Hey, what do you guys eat in Ireland? What kind of traditional foods do you have? I'm trying to find something you don't usually get. I'm trying to do an Irish bento. All I'm seeing is potato stuff."
Him: "We don't lay claim to any cuisine! There's eating and drinking in the black gold! (Guinness beer). Hm well we eat loads of Potatoes, cabbage and bacon. You could do a corned beef with cabbage!"
Me: "You're not helping"
Him: "oh you can do a stew and you can lash some guinness in it. Roasts and Stews are a staple. Maybe you can make them some potato bread. I'm tellin' ya people would love the potato bread."
Me: "..."
Fortunately, perserverance does pay off. I eventually found cultural sights that gave me names of dishes and some recipes to work from. After a bit of work I think I came up with a reasonable menu. Being such a strong part of the culture, I could leave out the humble potato, so I went ahead and made something with it that involved other methods than mashing.

You'll have to live with the photo of the Spiced Beef above in the box. This dish is traditionally served cold on the buffet line during the holidays. I somehow missed taking a picture of it. I took an eye of round and rubbed it down with spices and quick cured it for three days (suppose to be seven, with some pink salt added much like curing bacon). It was then slow cooked for seven hours in none other than my friend's favorite: Guinness. I was quite curious about the results because eye of round does not have a lot of fat or connective tissue to break down. Seemed like everyone very much enjoyed it. The spices and Guinness did a good job of evenly seasoning the meat there was a lot of flavor in every bite.

The origin's of this dish are a but dubious, some claim Scottish, but I found some references that were backing Irish origins so I went with it. Pan Haggerty as you see on the right is a thinly sliced potatoes, topped with sweet onion and cheddar cheese, pan fried and finished in the oven. I underestimated how much two pounds of potatoes could produce (it was a tiny bag of potatoes) but when sliced thin two pounds made about two and a half of what you see in the picture (and the first two were double layer). Surprisingly the only really bad thing here is the cheese, and even then on a per serving basis there wasn't really all that much. Yes granted the starch/carbs from the potatoes aren't helping the bottom line.

This dish was named after a mountain Translated as: "The Mountain of Women" it's given name is Slieve Na Mbam. Apparently the reddish mountain top pokes out of the milky morning mist. I'm not quite sure why the mountain is of women, nor am I sure how carrots play into the whole thing, but like I said before, I was really searching for dishes and this one blipped my radar as unusual. I took some carrots and poached them in milk and finished it with a bit of cream and butter to thicken the sauce. Parsley usually goes as garnish for this, but the italian parsley's flavor was a nice complement to the dish. The normally somewhat sweet carrots are mellowed out nicely in the milk. I'm very pleased with this dish and will happily take it to my next potluck. Carrots are not normally on my seek out and eat list, but this dish definitely changes my perspective on them.

No dessert today, the sweets I found were just too overwhelming and I couldn't bring myself to put in the box as it was on the heavy side. Instead I opted for these Matter of Fact Peas. I believe the dish gets its name from the use of Marrowfat peas (I couldn't find any so I went with split peas). What are Marrowfat peas? Well they are mature peas that instead of harvesting at prime, are left to dry out in the fields. I'm guessing this was a natural way for them to preserve peas for the winter as this strikes me as a winter dish where you're re hydrating some peas and mashing them up. I figure this is the type of stuff little kids were made to eat (and hated), I personally really enjoyed them.

Another fun bento for me. I love to do my research and get a chance to take a closer look at a cuisine.

Box Contents:
  • Spiced Beef
  • Pan Haggerty
  • Slieve Na Mbam Carrots
  • Matter of Fact Peas

Monday, March 15, 2010

HomeAway Throwdown Bento

So in my previous post I talked about my work throwdown cookoff, and I saw no reason why I should take what our team produced and put it out as a bento. It's a fairly healthy, definitely quick to produce and well within budget. Besides, we didn't get any good close ups of the food from the throwdown, so I present my HomeAway Throwdown Bento. This will be a pretty short post don't have much time for yammering today.

Our challenge protein was a pork tenderloin. We went with a Herb crusted pork tenderloin with a mushroom red wine demiglace over roasted fennel. I figured you could see the sauce in the bento picture above, the pork right out of the oven is a much more yummy looking picture. One of our teammates added the idea of studding the pork with slivers of garlic, a great tasting idea. The other team didn't use their fennel so we liberated it from their ingredients tray and gave it a good home with the pork. The roasting process cut down on the licorice flavor (which I'm not a fan of) and made it very mellow with a good amount of texture. I finished this with some Australian pink salt. Our winning team walked a way with a set of fancy salts that we used during the competition. To be honest, I did a side by side tasting and it is very subtle... I couldn't necessarily tell you what the difference is and even then I may have imagined it. I'll have to study this more.

Next up, green beans stirfried with pancetta. Short and sweet not much to say about this one. Finished this one with some of the Himalayan pink salt.

Last we did a parmesan polenta topped with Grape tomatoes in a champagne vinaigrette. This combo was actually an accident, we had one small pint of tomatos (we thought we had more) and were going to serve the tomatoes as a salad/side to give our plate some nice red color to go with everything. As it turns out plating the creamy polenta with the sour tang of the vinaigrette was *perfect*. You also got some nice texture from the tomatoes. A very happy accident and good thinking from the team. This one we used the fleur de sel and finished with the Himalyan pink salt.

I punked out on dessert (since we weren't asked to make any at the competition) and went with a nice box of biscottis that happened to be individually wrapped. Nothing special there, just a low calorie dessert.

Sorry for the sparce and quick post today. I have a blogger event to dash off to but wanted to make sure to get up my post today.

Box Contents
  • Herb Crusted Pork Tenderloin over Roasted Fennel with Mushroom red wine demi glace
  • Green Beans Sauteed with Pancetta
  • Parmesan Polenta with Grape tomatoes and Champagne Vinaigrette

Thursday, March 11, 2010

HomeAway Cookoff throwdown

So at work they decided a good team building exercise was to pit our development management team against each other on a head to head cooking throwdown at Central Market. I have to say I was a bit intimidated by the prospect of a cook off, for one reason or another everyone decided I had some sort of advantage whereas, I just wanted to not look bad. We had visiting managers from across the globe and I was certain that there had to be a few ringers in there, besides when does having a blog qualify me to be any sort of cooking expert. There were a large number of us and above you'll see me and my teammates. A motley crew of foodies (as luck would have it) and all very capable and fun to cook with.

We were kept in the dark about the format until we arrived in the kitchen over at Central Market. We were presented with two trays of ingredients a common "shared" ingredients section and an empty kitchen. We were to cook in shifts, the first shift was to create two different types of bruschetta and one salad for all 25 of us (three judges, one presentation plate, and the rest audience), shift two was to do the same with and a minimum of an entree (pork tenderloin was the protein) and choice of starch. We would be judged on taste, presentation, and creativity. The two teams would also be put through a blind ingrediants identification test and a kitchen tools quiz for additional points. The coin toss to determine shift was a trivia question: What plant is the vanilla bean from? Luckily two hands shot up from our side and we provided the answer of Orchid (yes there are three subspecies that produce the bean but let's not get too technical here).

We opted for Entree and starch. Somehow it worked out that our team had one former restauranteur (and excellent cook she taught me Persian cooking), one Culinary academy graduate, two excellent home cooks, four eager do anything folks, and me. Quite the mix and of course potentially too many chefs in one kitchen. It turns out the mix was perfect, we looked over the ingrediants and quickly figured out what we would produce. Everyone's ideas came through in our menu.

Here's where my time on the blog kinda helped me out. I use to be one of those cooks by feel type people, it's great, you get some awesome results tweaking your way to the end dish and it's necessary towards the end to get things just right. But I've learned that consistency and ratios are very important things if you want to get through cooking for a large number of people also organization and having a battle plan makes things go smoothly. I quickly wrote up the battle plan for all of our dishes and everyone signed up for tasks and I handed out loose recipes so that we could get it all coordinated and done in 45 mins. I have to admit it's the first time I've been able to let go of cooking everything in a kitchen and quell my natural instinct to throw everyone out. (That's me with the "what the hell am I in for look" at the beginning.)

The result? A fabulous dish (I'll get into that in a second) and even more important a very fun time had by all. I was in charge of putting together the demiglace, and watched over the coordination in general. (actually two of us were "sweepers" helping where we could). It came out great, everyone had enough guidelines to put together the dish, but each component had the personalizations of tastes that made the concert whole. We even got the plating assembly line with a final plate wipe and service. It was definitely busy (at somepoint there's a video of me tossing and saute-ing one skillet while trying to hold a pot of green beans as someone was trying to make adjustments.) but everyone had a blast.

Ok enough what did we make? Pork Tenderloin crusted in herbed sea salt topped with mushroom red wine demi glace, Creamy polenta with tomatoes tossed in Champagne vinaigrette finished with Himalayan pink salt and finally Green beans sauteed with Pancetta and shallots.

That was definitely a fun time, and a great creative "team builder" exercise that I don't mind doing again. (beats the "trust fall", you know what I'm talking about).Oh yeah did we win? well that's not important, it's having fun.... Ok yeah we won. (go team sparky!) Thanks Alex (one of our French team members) for taking the awesome photos.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Lexington Style Pulled Pork BBQ sandwich Bento

If there's one thing that people are passionate about it's bbq, everyone's got their opinions on the best, sauce, beans, coleslaw, what counts, what doesn't and then there's the basic arguement of beef versus pork. If I've done my reading and research correctly, most of the rest of the United States think pork when talking BBQ. Being a Texan, all I've really known is beef bbq. In fact, most places around the world call any method of slow cooking beef, Texas style bbq. A little history: the first BBQs in America during colonial times were pork bbqs, this was because pigs tend to be easy low maintenance animals that can be left out semi wild and caught and eaten when especially when times were tough. Althought there are many stories on the background at least one account tells us that American Indians understood the concept of cooking meat long over low heat. It is also told that the Spanish were the first to bring the noble pig to America. Between the two we have bbq.

Being that this blog is all about new culinary horizons, I decided it was high time I investigated barbecue outside of my great state of Texas. I targeted my search on North Carolina, it seems to be a state of high contention over the subject of bbq even having four major differences in sauces based on region. It seems the melting pot for all of these disagreements can be found in Lexington, NC where the various different styles can be found and just happens to be near the center of the state. Onto the food!

We'll start with the star of the show, Lexington style pulled pork. Granted, I cheated a bit here, I don't have a smoker anymore (gasp, I know right?) so I had to make due with an oven. Thanks to the fine folks at Cooks Illustrated (one of my favorite publications), I was able to lean on all their research and experimentation to get the perfect pulled pork from an oven. How is that possible you ask? Here's the short answer on the process: Start with brining the pork (cut in two large pieces of course) with some liquid smoke. Then apply a wet and dry rub, and bake fully sealed on low heat over a few hours. Next, to develop the bark you uncover and go back into the oven. You have maximum bark, apparently a premium for pulled pork, by having cut the pork butt into two pieces exposing a lot of surface to the rub and heat. As you can see in picture, it came out really amazing. As I took the pork off the trays was they literally fell apart in the move to the cutting board. Today's bento concept is like my DIY falafel bento, it's an assemble your own sandwich kinda thing the pork is component one.

Coleslaw, you love it or hate it, and most people I know hate it. Down south typical coleslaw is mayonnaise based, creamy and generally not well thought of. This particular coleslaw is purely vinegar based, it's very similar to one of my favorite coleslaws from the Salt Lick here in town. (if anyone can figure out or has a draft of their recipe, I would be eternally grateful). Here the dressing is more of a vinaigrette with celery seeds and you pick up some spice from the white onion that is well camouflaged in with the cabbage. It's got more similarities with Sauerkraut than it does with it's mayo based slaw cousins. Other versions of this vinegar based coleslaw include some with the vinegar based bbq sauce, or straight up ketchup. I left a tub of bbq sauce so that my eaters could optionally add it to the slaw or the pork when assembling their sandwich.

These bbq beans actually come from a fairly famous restaurant in Lexington that was featured on Food Network. It's curious in that instead of the normal ranch style pinto beans it's a blend of three different beans. I cooked it with some of my maple cured bacon and added some of the mustard based bbq sauce from last week as well as the vinegar NC style sauce. Very tasty and I'm very glad to have some leftover.

Finally I made some homemade banana pudding. After about 30 mins on the stove I was quite convinced that the pudding was never going to thicken and setup. Sure enough a bit of time in the fridge and it thickened beautifully. I've never made pudding from scratch it was an interesting experience. Kinda like making a custard. I'll admit, I was ready to dash off to the grocery store and pickup a box of instant if necessary. This was probably the most labor intensive item on my lunch today. Sorry about the picture, I didn't have a good way to take a picture of the pudding and it's layers without just showing you the in-progress assembly of the pudding.

Very enjoyable lunch to produce this week, I'm glad for the leftovers as the pork was delicious! As I said the pudding was the most labor intensive item on the list, but the whole box was quite time consuming. Early polling from my eaters indicates good results.

Box Contents
  • Lexington Style Pulled Pork
  • North Carolina style coleslaw and bbq sauce
  • BBQ beans
  • Homemade Banana Pudding