Sunday, December 30, 2007

brain on vacation

I'm spending winter vacation in Hong Kong. I've returned to my standing hotel kitchen apprenticeship, where I've been passing my days in the company of various root vegetables. It's rather soothing. I can pretend law school is a distant bad dream.

My parents' kitchen is one of those places where cooking goes to die, so I may not resume posting until mid-January. Best wishes for the new year to all.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

squash risotto for time-travelers

First semester is over. I made it through exams alive. I decided to celebrate by cooking for Novel Food with my friends Meg and Deby. Unfortunately, I got my deadlines mixed up, so this entry is late. Mea culpa, mea culpa.

The Time Traveler's Wife is not a food novel. It's a love story with an unconventional premise. But Audrey Niffenegger writes food scenes beautifully, and Clare and Henry are always eating delicious meals. (There's a Thanksgiving scene with a Thompson's Turkey. Need I say more?) I chose to cook a meal based on the scene when Henry meets Clare's friends for the first time.

Clare is an abominable cook. Her friends, Charisse and Gomez, aren't much better. So Henry walks into Charisse and Gomez' apartment for the first time, only to find the kitchen a disaster area.

"It's a work in progress," says Clare.
"It's an installation piece," says Charisse.
"Are we going to eat it?" asks Gomez.

I look from one to the other, and we all burst out laughing.

The merits of takeout are briefly considered, but Henry takes a look at the mess, and declares that he can make something out of the ingredients. Dinner is a success:

One hour and forty-three minutes later we are sitting around the dining room table eating Chicken Risotto Stew with Pureed Squash. Everything has lots of butter in it. We are all drunk as skunks.

I love this scene because it sounds just like the sort of meal I might improvise myself. However, I had the luxury of planning out this meal, so I played with the dish a little. I didn't have any leftover roast chicken, which is what I'd use for chicken risotto, so I decided to make squash risotto with caramelized shallots, accompanied by forty-clove garlic chicken. We may not have been drunk as skunks by the end of the evening, but we probably could have knocked out a whole coven of vampires at fifty paces with our breath.

Squash Risotto with Caramelized Shallots

(Serves four as a side or starter, or one for two days straight)

Preheat oven to 450F. Take an acorn squash (or half a small butternut squash) and hack it into small pieces with a very large cleaver. Place the pieces on a baking tray, drizzle with a little olive oil, and put the tray in the oven.

Pour three or four cups of chicken or vegetable stock (homemade or storebought) into a small pan. Add a sprig of fresh thyme, if you have it. Set the pan on a burner on low heat.

Heat a generous slice of butter in a large, heavy-bottomed pot over low heat. Add three or four thinly sliced shallots, and a bunch of finely chopped scallions (dark green parts discarded.) Cook over low heat, stirring frequently, until the shallots smell sweet and have taken on a golden color. Add one cup of arborio or carnaroli rice. Stir until the rice is warmed through. Pour two glasses of dry white wine. Add one glass of white wine to the pot, and stir. Sip the other as you cook.

When the rice has absorbed the wine, turn the heat up a little and add a ladleful of stock. Stir until it has been absorbed by the rice, then add more. Continue this process (do not stop stirring) until the rice has reached the stage where it is soft enough to bite through, but still fairly hard. Remove the pot from the burner.

Pull the pan of squash from the oven. Let the squash cool enough that you can peel the skin away from the pieces without burning yourself. Add the squash to the risotto. Put the pot back on the burner, and continue stirring and ladling in stock. If you're starting to run out of stock, dilute it with water. (It won't affect the flavor of the finished risotto.)

When the rice is al dente (cooked through, but still has some bite), turn off the heat. Grab a wedge of Parmigiano-Reggiano and a grater, and grate a generous heap of cheese. Stir it into the pot. Serve with extra cheese on the side.

Friday, December 21, 2007

cookies from a restaurant to remember

The blogosphere is in the throes of a Christmas baking frenzy, and I've been feeling rather sorry for myself because I didn't grow up with any baking traditions and thus have no recipes to contribute.

Or so I thought. I may not have any baking traditions, but I do have one recipe to share. It comes from the original Prunier's in Sydney, and I'm sharing it partially in the hopes that I'll find someone else out there who remembers the restaurant and its manager, Aldo Zuzza.* Prunier's played enough of a role in shaping my foodie identity that it merits a post or two of its own, so all I'll say is that it was my absolute favorite restaurant in Sydney, and if Aldo hadn't decided to retire to the Hunter Valley and open a vineyard, I might never have agreed to my parents' decision to relocate to Hong Kong.

These almond cookies were served with coffee or tea at the end of every meal at Prunier's. Aldo gave me this recipe on Prunier's last night in business, scribbled out on a sheet of paper torn from a waiter's notepad. He gave me just the ingredient list, so I sorted out the method on my own. The measurements have been converted from metric.

Prunier's Almond Cookies

(Makes an awful lot, but the dough freezes. Bake only as many as you want to eat.)

1 1/2 sticks butter
1 cup sugar
1 1/2 cups flour
1 cup slivered almonds
2 eggs
1/2 teaspoon vanilla essence
1/2 teaspoon Grand Marnier

Cream sugar and butter together. Mix in the flour gradually. Add the slivered almonds, eggs, vanilla essence, and grand marnier. Mix gently. Shape the dough into squarish logs about one half-inch in diameter, and chill in the freezer until firm. (Dough will keep, frozen, for a month or so.)

Preheat oven to 400F. Cut the logs of dough into thin slices and arrange them on a baking tray. Bake for 5-8 min, until the cookies are golden. Cool. Serve with coffee or tea.

*Prunier's changed owners, underwent a renovation, and became an abomination that serves trendy, mediocre, overpriced food. If you'd like a dining experience akin to that of the original Prunier's, head to Darcy's in Paddington.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

education of a young glutton: recipe scrapbooks

If you were to judge by the way I cook, you'd guess that most of the dishes I prepare have only the barest acquaintance with written recipes. And you'd be absolutely right. I might go online and double-check the ingredients for something I'm making, but very rarely do I ever set out to prepare dinner with a recipe in hand.

That doesn't mean I don't keep recipes around, however. I do have a respectable collection of cookbooks. And I have recipe scrapbooks. Lots of recipe scrapbooks.

I started clipping and scrapbooking recipes at the age of twelve, when I lived at home and the closest I ever got to cooking was frying the occasional breakfast egg. I would dive for the paper on Saturday mornings, because the Saturday issue of the Sydney Morning Herald contained the Good Weekend magazine, and the Good Weekend magazine contained recipes.

In retrospect, I have no idea who the staff of the Good Weekend intended as their target audience. The recipes ranged from straightforward ("Moist Roast Chicken") to upscale ("Zucchini Flower Risotto") to exotic ("Spring Rolls with Nuoc Mam") to impossibly esoteric ("Seared Kangaroo Tenderloin with Beetroot-Onion Jam.") There was no discernible logic in the way the recipes varied: one week the issue might contain a recipe for a basic apple pie, and the next there would be a recipe for white peach sorbet that involved sugar syrup measuring 28 Baum on a saccharometer. Shopping for ingredients could be as simple as making a trip to the supermarket for pork chops, or as complicated as visiting all the specialty food shops in Sydney to hunt down a "bush chook" (emu). And this was all in the mid-90s, well before the foodie movement really began.

Whatever the intended audience, it probably never crossed the minds of the Good Weekend staff that they were participating in the culinary education of a frustrated young glutton. They introduced me to chachouka and tiramisu. I learned about techniques such as tunnel-boning a leg of lamb and baking whole fish in rock salt. Those recipes offered a world beyond Kitchen Sink Soup and spaghetti with jarred sauce, and clipping and pasting them into scrapbooks was an act of hope. I promised myself that someday, I'd cook my way through all of them.

And in a way, I have. I didn't follow the recipe exactly, but I made zucchini flower risotto regularly during my semester in Rome. I've stuffed my own pumpkin ravioli and roasted many chickens. I've learned to steam artichokes and bake flourless chocolate torte. I still turn to my recipe scrapbooks for ideas, even if I don't follow them to the letter when I cook.

I'm still adding to those scrapbooks, bit by bit. I tore this recipe from a New York Times Magazine several months ago, and baked it on a whim tonight. (I originally wanted to bake a soufflé, but I lacked a suitable baking dish.) A cross between a crepe and a Yorkshire pudding, it's incredibly easy to make, and there is something wonderfully appealing about the way it comes out of the oven, all puffy and golden.

David Eyres Pancake
This recipe appeared in a Times article by Craig Claiborne.
2 eggs
½ cup flour
½ cup milk
Pinch of ground nutmeg
4 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons confectioners’ sugar
Juice of half a lemon
Fig or blackberry jam, pear butter or any kind of marmalade, for serving (optional).
1. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. In a mixing bowl, lightly beat the eggs. Add the flour, milk and nutmeg and lightly beat until blended but still slightly lumpy.
2. Melt the butter in a 12-inch skillet with a heatproof handle over medium-high heat. When very hot but not brown, pour in the batter. Bake in the oven until the pancake is billowing on the edges and golden brown, about 15 minutes.
3. Working quickly, remove the pan from the oven and, using a fine-meshed sieve, sprinkle with the sugar. Return to the oven for 1 to 2 minutes more. Sprinkle with lemon juice and serve with jam, pear butter or marmalade. Serves 2 to 4.

Friday, December 14, 2007

mini pie revolution: chicken, fig, and mushroom pies

These pies began their existence as pastry-wrapped chicken stuffed with figs and mushrooms, an idea that came about when I was reading about Beef Wellington instead of paying attention in Criminal Law class two weeks ago. I first tested out the recipe when Matt and I had dinner with Bill, with mixed results.

I liked the dish in theory, but it didn't quite come together in practice. The fig and mushroom stuffing turned out beautifully, all dark and rich with hints of sweetness. Unfortunately, there was too much chicken, and it didn't quite work with the pastry. It needed more tinkering, so I went back to the drawing board.

I thought about puff pastry instead of plain butter pastry. I thought about pounding out the chicken thighs and rolling them with the fig and mushroom mixture. I thought about ditching the pastry entirely, and just making plain roast chicken with fig and mushroom sauce. And then I stopped thinking, and the answer presented itself.

The dish didn't want to be pastry-wrapped stuffed chicken. It wanted to be chicken, fig, and mushroom pie, and it wanted to be baked for the Mini Pie Revolution. I obliged, of course. Who am I to argue with my food, particularly when it's having an identity crisis?

(Matt gets credit for the photos, and my gratitude for sparing me another fight with the damn digital camera.)

Chicken, Fig, and Mushroom Pie

I'm providing the recipe for just the filling, because pie pastry is one of those things I am not going to attempt to give a recipe or directions for. I use a basic butter pastry recipe. I have no brilliant secrets. The Joy of Cooking will give you better instructions than I can. You can also find helpful advice at the Mini Pie Revolution Headquarters.

(Fills six single-serving pies baked in jumbo muffin pans. You can also skip the pastry, and serve this over rice.)

Melt a generous slice of butter in a heavy-bottomed pan over low heat. Add a bunch of finely chopped scallions (dark green parts discarded - use them for scallion pancakes), and stir until softened and fragrant. Finely chop a container of baby bella mushrooms, add them to the pan, and turn up the heat. Scatter with dried thyme. Add a splash of sherry or dry white vermouth. Add a large handful of finely chopped figs, and bring the mixture to a bare simmer.

Cut four boneless chicken thighs into bite-size pieces and brown them in batches in a large pan over medium heat. When all the chicken has been browned, transfer it back into the pan, add the fig and mushroom mixture, and cover with chicken stock. Bring the contents of the pan to a boil, then turn the heat down to a steady simmer. Reduce until the chicken is bathed in a light sauce. If necessary, add salt to taste. Let the mixture cool. Fill your pies, and bake until the pastry is golden. These go nicely with sautéed spinach or poached leeks.

pies, postponed

Mini-pies didn't happen last night, thanks to yesterday's snowstorm and a traffic snarl that stopped my bus from running. We'll try again tonight.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

my mind? it's scone

Remember how I said there wasn't going to be any cooking until Thursday? Well, I lied. I underestimated the toll my Civil Procedure exam would take on my mental health. Instead of holing up in the law library in the company of my Con Law casebook this evening, I invaded Matt and Nathaniel's kitchen and tinkered further with my scone recipe.

This time I used a mixture of all-purpose and self-raising flour, and found the texture much improved. The scones are now more bready and less fluffy. I was short on raisins, so I added a little brown sugar for sweetness. I left out the egg because there were none in the fridge; I don't think its absence made much of a difference. I also had a happy accident: I forgot to change the oven temperature from the default setting, 350F, to 450F. The scones took longer to bake, but remained soft on top. (At 450F, the tops of the scones go rather hard.)

I haven't reached the perfect scone yet, but I'm getting closer.

Better-Though-Still-Not-Perfect Scones

(Based on a biscuit recipe from Orangette. Makes about 15 scones. They go stale quickly, so you'll want to have other people around to eat them.)

Preheat the oven to 350F. Oil a cake tin. Get out a large mixing bowl.

Dump one-and-a-half cups of self-raising flour, one-and-a-half cups of all-purpose flour, and a quarter-teaspoon of salt into the mixing bowl. Take three-quarters of a stick of chilled butter and cut it into small pieces. Rub the butter into the flour until the mixture resembles coarse breadcrumbs. Stir in three tablespoons of brown sugar. Mix in a half-cup of currants or raisins.

Measure out one cup of whole milk plain yogurt (I recommend Stonyfield Farms) and stir in one-and-a-quarter cups of milk. Add this to the dry ingredients, and stir until the mixture comes together in a very wet, very sticky dough.

Dump a half-cup of plain flour into another bowl. Use a quarter-cup measure or an ice-cream scoop to portion out lumps of the dough; dust them in flour, and pack them into the cake tin. Brush the tops with milk. Bake in the oven for 45-50 minutes. Serve warm with butter and jam.

Monday, December 10, 2007

prima facie burdens? I'd rather write about dim sum

It's exam period, and I am stressed. I have exams in Constitutional Law and Civil Procedure this week, which means I'm up to my eyeballs in notes about strict scrutiny, rational basis review, burden of production, summary judgment, and other weighty concepts. There won't be any cooking between now and Thursday, which is when I'll take a breather and attempt to cook for either Novel Food or the Mini-Pie Revolution.* I can't manage anything more involved than putting cheese on bread for the next few days, and to tell you the truth, even that might be pushing it. I foresee a lot of takeout in my immediate future.

Fortunately, I don't have to resort to pizza delivery or overpriced sandwiches from the law school café. Not when I can make a quick trip to the food court at Super 88, and get food from someplace like Dim Sum Chef.

A food court might not sound like a good place to get dim sum, but what Dim Sum Chef lacks in ambiance, it makes up for in freshness. With the exception of the pudding desserts, everything is made to order.

I'm particularly fond of their dumplings, both steamed and pan-fried. The shrimp and spinach dumplings have thin, chewy skins, and are plump with succulent shrimp. The Shanghai-style dumplings have a meat and vegetable filling bathed in rich, flavorful broth. And the pan-fried steamed dumplings are deliciously soft and fluffy underneath a lightly crisped exterior.

The siu mai aren't quite to my taste - they're on the large and meaty side, while I prefer them bite-size - but the pan-fried turnip cake is excellent: the squares are crusty and golden on the outside, and meltingly soft on the inside, flecked with dried shrimp and tiny cubes of salted pork. The steamed tripe is fragrant with slivers of ginger, and agreeably chewy. And while it's not a dim sum dish per se, I have a soft spot for the steamed rice with sweet Chinese sausage.

If you want the full dim sum experience, you're better off at someplace like China Pearl. But if you, like me, find that shrimp dumplings and pan-fried turnip cake are just the thing to fuel an afternoon with Marbury and Madison, Dim Sum Chef is the place to go.

*There shouldn't even be any blogging between now and Thursday, but I have to preserve my (in)sanity somehow.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

meme: who are you, and what are you doing here?

Passed along by Ann of Redacted Recipes. I've been saving this so I'd have something to post during exam period.

How long have you been blogging?
Since the end of October.

What inspired you to start a blog, and who are your mentors?
I've been reading food blogs since college. I started my own shortly after I started law school, as a way of keeping myself sane. (Or keeping myself crazy, if you prefer.)

Mentors? Food mentors? Well, I can tell you that I have a food fairy godfather named Uncle Rick, but that won't mean much until I tell the full story. (All in good time, I promise.)

Are you trying to make money online, or just doing it for fun?
Oh, I'm definitely not making any money off this. I have a regular readership of about fifteen people, and most of them are my long-suffering guinea pigs friends.

Tell me three things you LOVE about being online:
1. It's comforting to know that there's a world out there full of people who love food.
2. Seeing (and drooling over) what everyone else is cooking and eating.
3. Talking to other people who love food.

Tell me three things you STRUGGLE with in the online world:
1. Food photography is painful. Digital cameras are evil.
2. Page design is not my forte. I still need a real header, don't I?
3. I'm oh-so-slightly paranoid that my professors will find this blog and have all their suspicions confirmed.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

singing the praises of the humble beet

Take a moment to pity the beet. It's a sad, unloved vegetable, doomed to a lonely corner in the produce section next to the rutabagas and the brussel sprouts. It gets a bad rap: soggy, mushy, and flavorless, with the added bonus of creating indelible stains on fabric. The beet is also classed amongst foodstuffs that are Good For You, and as any child will tell you, "good for you" is another way of saying "tastes bad."

I like beets. Granted, I also like tripe stew and cold tongue sandwiches, so the average American might take my opinions with a grain of salt. But I imagine I can persuade you of the beet's appeal more easily than I can entice you to try offal.

Boiled, the beet is everything its detractors make it out to be: soggy, waterlogged, and thoroughly unappealing. Roasted, the beet becomes deliciously tender, with a mild, almost buttery sweetness.
It's right at home next to roast chicken, and it makes for an excellent burger topping in winter, when tomatoes are mealy and lacking in flavor.*

In the salad below, roasted beets are paired with tangy goat's cheese and toasted walnuts, and served over a tangle of greens in light vinaigrette. It's simple, but visually arresting. You could serve it with roast chicken, but it's a perfectly satisfying light lunch on its own - and heart-healthy, too.

Roasted Beet, Goat Cheese, and Walnut Salad

(Serves one. Best prepared and eaten while wearing old or dark clothing.)

Preheat the oven to 400F. Scrub and peel two medium-sized beets. Cut them both in half; cut each half into quarters. Place the beets in a cake tin and cover with foil. Roast for an hour or so, until the beets are fork-tender. Uncover, and set aside to cool.

Meanwhile, toast a handful of walnuts in a heavy-bottomed pan over medium heat until fragrant. Season with a sprinkling of salt.

Whisk olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and a dash of ground mustard together in a big bowl until well-incorporated. Toss with arugula or spring mix, or mâche (lamb's lettuce) if you can find it.

Scatter the beets, walnuts, and a handful of crumbled goat's cheese atop the greens. Grab a fork and dig in.

*Beetroot is a traditional hamburger topping in Australia, as are fried eggs. Unlike Vegemite, which I only grudgingly acknowledge as a foodstuff, I wholeheartedly embrace the "Oz burger" as an icon of Australian cuisine.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

stress kitchen: black forest tiramisu

My response to stress is to cook. I like to joke that my thesis may not have done much for my research or writing skills, but it did wonders for my baking. I spent senior year of college tinkering with scone recipes, fussing over shortbread, and experimenting with such mad inventions as salt caramel soufflé. (The idea has potential. The theory needs work.) Every time I had an upcoming deadline, I'd fetch another pound of butter from the freezer. I didn't thank Cabot or King Arthur in my acknowledgments, but it's quite possible that I should have.

Finals are looming, so it shouldn't come as a surprise that I think about food even more than usual. Matt and I had another dinner with Bill tonight, so I took the opportunity to test out an idea that I've been ruminating upon for the past few months: Black Forest tiramisu.

My problem with Black Forest torte is that there's too much cake, not enough filling, and never enough cherries. It's also far too sweet and heavy. I like the essential concept, but not its usual incarnation. I set out to fashion a tiramisu with all the flavors of a Black Forest torte instead: deliciously sour cherries, lightly sweetened mascarpone cream, and thin slices of bitter chocolate cake, liberally drenched in alcohol-spiked cherry juice.

I had a hell of a time trying to find a recipe for the sort of chocolate cake I needed, probably because I needed the sort of cake that would be considered a serious failure if judged solely upon its own merits. The cake is in this recipe for two reasons: one, it adds the bitter note that contrasts with the sweet cream and the sour cherries, and two, the alcoholic cherry juice needs something to soak into. To satisfy these requirements, the cake should not be palatable on its own. In fact, it should be damn near inedible on its own.

I found a recipe for a basic chocolate cake, bumped up the cocoa content, and slashed the sugar content by three-quarters. It wasn't as dry as I would have liked (leaving it an extra day to turn stale would probably have helped), but it worked well enough for a first attempt.

The finished product was deemed a success. (It helps that Bill loves cherries.) The cake was not quite as bitter as I wanted, but all the other elements were right: the sourness of the cherries, the sweet, almost nutty quality of the marscapone cream, and the sharpness of the cherry-rum liquid. It wasn't bad for a first attempt. I promise that the photograph below does not do it justice.

Black Forest Tiramisu*

(I will err on the side of caution and say that this is a recipe not for one. My guess is that it will freeze successfully, but I have yet to test out the theory.)

For the cake: Preheat oven to 350F. Grab a big mixing bowl, and sift together one and two-thirds of a cup of all-purpose flour, one cup bitter cocoa powder (the darker the better), one-and-a-half teaspoons of baking powder, and a half-teaspoon of salt. In a second mixing bowl, cream together one stick of butter and a quarter-cup of sugar. Beat in two eggs and a teaspoon of vanilla extract. Stir in the dry ingredients, thinning the mixture with one-and-a-half cups of milk, until well-incorporated. Divide the batter between two cake pans. Bake for 30-35 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Leave to cool.

For the mascarpone cream: Whip together one tub of mascarpone, one pint of heavy whipping cream, and a quarter-cup sugar until the mixture becomes thick and stiff. (You can also add a touch of sweet liqueur, if you like.)

For the sour cherry mixture: Open two fourteen-ounce cans of pitted sour cherries (griottes) in water. Drain off the liquid into a small saucepan, and reserve the cherries in the bowl. Reduce the liquid in the saucepan to half its original volume over low heat, and add two or three tablespoons of sugar, just enough to sweeten it slightly. When the mixture has cooled, add a generous splash of light rum or kirschwasser. (Austrian recipes use rum, German recipes use kirschwasser. I had rum on hand, so I used rum.) You can add a splash of rum to the cherries too, if you like.

Now we come to the fun part: assembly. Take each cake round and slice it horizontally into three layers. Don't worry if they're not even. Get a large, deep dish (glass or ceramic) and place one of the cake layers in the bottom. Drench the cake with the cherry liquid - make sure it gets really soaked through - and cover with a layer of cherries. Top with a layer of cream. Repeat the process two or three more times with the remaining cake layers, cherries, and cream. You'll probably have leftover cake, which is fine. You can freeze it and use it to make more tiramisu later. Cover the tiramisu with plastic wrap and chill in the fridge for several hours. It can be left overnight, if you want to make it the day before.

To serve: Decorate with grated chocolate. Carve out portions with a big serving spoon. If you were particularly generous with the alcohol in the cherry mixture, you may want to hold off on giving seconds to anyone who's driving home.

*This could arguably be called "Black Forest trifle," but a search on Google reveals that such a designation is reserved for an abomination involving chocolate cake mix, chocolate pudding mix, and cherry pie filling from a can. Besides, it doesn't quite satisfy the definition of trifle, because it contains no custard.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

improvised noodles

When Matt and I cook together, it tends to be French or Italian-ish fare, because those are the cuisines we're most familiar with, preparation-wise. We don't do much Asian cuisine, because Matt knows very little about preparing it, and my parents, as previously mentioned, were much better at teaching me to eat other people's food. But last night, in a dramatic departure from our usual habits, we attempted to make yakisoba.

When Matt expressed a craving for noodles, the first noodle dish that came to my mind was the yakisoba I had at Wagamama a few months ago. Yakisoba are Japanese stir-fried noodles, and I know the theory of stir-frying well enough that I was willing to attempt them.

Getting the necessary ingredients was the first hurdle. I headed to Super 88 with the aim of finding udon noodles (despite the name, yakisoba are made with udon rather than soba), bean sprouts, and yakisoba sauce. The noodles and the bean sprouts were easy to find; the yakisoba sauce was trickier.

Super 88, it turns out, has an entire aisle devoted to sauces belonging to various Asian cuisines. (And some that don't... why do they sell Kraft Barbecue Sauce?) I couldn't find anything specifically for yakisoba, so I went with the closest thing - some sort of Kikkoman-brand sticky sauce - and hoped for the best.

Unfortunately, we didn't get to find out if the sauce would work or not. Somehow, the sauce didn't make it into the shopping bag with the other ingredients, and I didn't realise until it was too late to return to the supermarket.* So we improvised instead.

As I've said, we don't cook much Asian food, so we only had the barest basics to work with: soy sauce, lemon juice (we had no vinegar), and sugar. The results were surprisingly good. The sauce wasn't very sticky, and could have been more salty, but the vegetables in the dish - onions, red bell pepper, and carrot - added plenty of sweetness, and the lemon juice gave it a slightly tangy finish.

I'm afraid our success may have given Matt ideas. Watch this space. There might be more dabbling in Asian cuisine in the near future.

Not-Quite-Yakisoba Stir-Fried Noodles

You can play around with what you add to this dish, depending on the season and what you have lurking in the crisper drawer. The vegetables I've listed are just there to give you a starting point.

(Serves one, with leftovers.)

Ingredient check: one package udon noodles (raw or precooked), one white onion, one red bell pepper, one large carrot, a bunch of scallions, a few handfuls of bean sprouts, and depending on your dietary preferences, either tofu cubes or a piece of chicken (preferably thigh.) If you're trying to make something approaching yakisoba, you'll also want a bottle of yakisoba sauce. If you're improvising the way I did, you'll need soy sauce, brewed vinegar (or lemon juice), sugar (brown or white), and perhaps some honey.

If you're improvising the sauce, get a measuring jug and mix up a quarter cup of soy sauce, a little less than a quarter cup of vinegar or lemon juice, and enough sugar and/or honey to make the mixture somewhat sticky. Taste it. You may need to adjust the ratios a little. It should be salty-sweet and a little tangy.

Slice your onion into rings; cut the rings in half and break them up. Slice the bell pepper into strips, and julienne the carrots. Chop the scallions finely. If you're using chicken, cut it into small chunks. If your noodles are raw, cook them according to the directions on the package. If they're precooked, carry on.

Heat a generous quantity of oil in a wok or a deep pan over high heat. Toss in the onions. As soon as you can smell them, throw in the bell peppers and the carrots. Stir with a spatula or a wooden spoon. When the vegetables have softened, add the scallions, and then the tofu or chicken. Pour over some of the sauce and stir vigorously.

Add the noodles and the rest of the sauce, and stir until everything is well-coated and heated through. Toss in the bean sprouts, and mix them in. Serve immediately. Scallion pancakes are a nice accompaniment.

Note: I add the bean sprouts last because I dislike the soggy texture of fully-cooked bean sprouts. If you prefer them soft, though, throw them in as soon as the tofu or chicken has cooked through.

*I'm embarrassed to say that this isn't the first time that's happened. The people at Whole Foods were very nice about refunding my money the time I forgot an entire chicken.

scallion pancakes, and why the fire alarm is not my friend

I have a confession to make: I set off the fire alarm at least twice a month when cooking at Matt and Nathaniel's. Their kitchen suffers from the rather unfortunate combination of an extremely sensitive fire alarm and a highly ineffective exhaust fan. On the one hand, we can be certain that they'll be safe if a real fire should ever occur, but on the other, dinner often comes with a side of ear-splitting, high-pitched beeping.

Still, the risk doesn't stop me from frying things over high heat. It's almost a given that if I crash on their futon on a Friday or Saturday night, there will be something fried for breakfast the next morning. Today it was scallion pancakes.

I made scallion pancakes last night to accompany yakisoba (which merits an entry of its own), and I had enough scallions left over that it only made sense to use them up by making another batch this morning.

The scallion pancakes I'm referring to are not the dainty, anemic little pancakes served with dipping sauce in American Chinese restaurants.* Scallion pancakes (cong you bing) are a subspecies of a larger class of pancakes (bing) found in Northern Chinese and Beijing cuisine.

A scallion pancake without the scallions is a lao bing. A pancake with filling is a xiar bing. "Pancake" is really a misnomer, because they're made from dough, not batter. "Flatbread" is a more accurate description. Still, whatever you call them, they're solid and hearty, and make for quite a satisfying breakfast.

Scallion Pancakes
(cong you bing)

Depending on your dietary preferences, you can make these with vegetable oil, butter, or lard. They can be eaten plain, or served up alongside fried eggs.

(Serves one hungry person. Makes two large pancakes.)

Grab a big mixing bowl. Dump in two cups of flour and a pinch of salt. Make a well in the center, and pour in one cup of hot water. (Not cold. This is important.) Stir with chopsticks until you have a soft dough. Add a little more water if the dough seems dry. Let it rest for half an hour.

Wash and dry a bunch of scallions, and chop them finely. (Use the leftovers for soup, or maybe yakisoba.) Divide your dough into two lumps. Cover one with a damp cloth. Take the other, and roll it out very thinly on a lightly floured surface. Brush the dough lightly with the oil of your choice. Take a bunch of scallions, and scatter them over the dough.

Roll the dough up into a tube, jelly roll-style. Take the tube and shape it into a coil. Squish the coil into a disk. Cover this disk in plastic wrap, and repeat the process with the other lump of dough.

When you're ready to fry the pancakes, roll out the disks to a 1/8th-inch (4mm) thickness. Heat oil in a skillet or a heavy-bottomed pan over high heat, and drop the pancake in. Fry on one side until crisp with golden brown spots, then flip it over and do the same to the other. Remove from heat; sprinkle with salt and cut into wedges. These are best eaten standing next to the stove - that's where you'll want to be when the fire alarm goes off, anyway.

*American Chinese restaurant, n. The province of crab rangoons, chop suey, and General Tso's chicken. Not to be confused or compared with "Chinese restaurant in America."