Thursday, March 26, 2009

I've Got Sole

This isn't really related to the kinds of posts I normally do, but I thought I'd throw this out there anyway. I love puns. I love wit. And I'm in the process of trying to develop my own t-shirt graphics. So as my husband and I were brainstorming for ideas with which to make a chef section, I came up with "I've Got Sole," which I obviously turned around and used for the name of my blog. Well, today I finally finished the shirt!

For your viewing enjoyment...

If you'd like have a look at the rest of the website, or if you'd like this on a shirt (I've got one for you lady-killers, too), go here. I don't have a chef section yet, so I've Got Sole is with the funny shirts. Hope you like it!

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Mussel Madness

I have a confession. The only reason that we ever put a mussel into our mouth was because it's one of the lesser taboo foods, like whole fish or pork skins. It's one of those foods that many Americans eat, but most wrinkle their noses at and say, "Ew. No, I would never eat that." We were indulging in a particularly adventurous phase, eating sea urchin sushi and soft shell crab for the first time, when we decided to try a seafood risotto dish containing fish, clams, scallops, shrimp, and of course, mussels.

We didn't love them at first bite. The risotto was served in a tomato sauce that just didn't do it for me with all the seafood. But we decided to be as objective as possible, and when we learned that mussels were cheap at Sea Products, Inc., we decided to give them another go -on our own terms. I'd come across a recipe that Ruth Reichl, editor of Gourmet magazine, thought was w
orth putting on her webpage, so we gave it a shot. How can you go wrong with a recipe from the ultimate foodie???

Turns out... Mussels are wonderful! The bigger ones, especially, were rich and buttery. The white wine added life and essence to every briny bite. I'd been right to buy a pound and a half: we consumed every last morsel, licking our fingers, and then looked forlornly into our empty bowls. Luckily, we'd thought to buy a crusty baguette with which to mop up the delicious wine and butter sauce laced with teasing hints of our long-gone bivalves.

I have to say, the best part is how inexpensive they are to make. Sea Products, Inc. makes it a habit to sell wine at more affordable prices, so I paid 10 bucks for a bottle of Pomelo Sauvignon Blanc. Butter and onions are something I always have on hand, and a bottle of wine will last through at least four separate mussel-making occasions. At least. Especially for us, because we don't drink alcohol. And mussels are a scant $3.00 a lb, plenty for two people. So for the better part of a week, I can feed us both for about $5 to $6 a night.

Not that I would eat mussels every night of the week. They're good but not that good. I'm just sayin'.

Storytime! Once upon a time, I bought mussels for the first time. Unfortunately, it didn't even occur to me that they were alive. I took them home, slid them into the fridge still wrapped in their plastic and paper, and didn't touch again until the next day. Needless to say, most of them suffocated. Some of them were barely holding on, but I ran them under water to try to revive them. They closed up in relief -then opened again as they relaxed in death. What could I do? I called my friend/chef's-heart-twin-separated-from-me-at-birth and invited her to the funeral.

Mussels in Wine and Butter
(as adapted from Ruth Reichl's recipe, found here)

1 to 1 1/2 lbs mussels, clean and debearded

2 shallots, chopped
1 small clove garlic, diced
1/4 cup butter
3/4 cup white wine

Remove mussels from fridge and check each one to mak
e sure they are closed. If they aren't, tap them generously. If they close, set them aside to be cooked. If they don't close, throw them away.

Melt butter over medium heat. Add shallots and garlic and saute until golden. We did this in the bottom of a pot, instead of a pan or skillet that you would have to transfer the ingredients from.

Add the wine and cook for one minute. Add the mussels to the pot and cover with a lid. After about five minutes, lift the lid and begin removing the mussels that have opened. I say do this at five minutes because mussels should not really cook longer than six, and it will take you a minute to remove the ones that have opened. After six minutes, throw away any mussels that have not opened.

Divide the mussels into bowls, dish onions and wine sauce over top, and ENJOY!

*Notes!! Because mussels are such interesting creatures...
-You can only cook mussels that are alive. That's the way it go
es, so find your local seafood market if you have one.
-While in your fridge, they may open to try to catch their breath. They are only dead if they don't close again when disturbed.
-DO NOT run your mussels under water to try to revive them or see if they'll close! Inhaling fresh water will kill them. I had about eight of them die in my fingers before I learned what was happening...
-Last, but not least! After you buy them, take them home immediately and remove them from whatever they're packaged in. Put them into a bowl with an inch of cold water in the bottom, ice cubes on top if you have any, and covered in a wet towel. (I've read so many different ways to keep mussels that I basically combined all of t
hem. Can't go wrong now, can I?) They should keep for about two days after purchase, but I would eat them as soon as possible. I don't even shop for mine until the day I'm ready to make them.

Oh yes, you know you want to try it. You'll be so glad you did.

See, even Jackie wanted a piece of the action! She didn't care that they had long been devoured by those big mammals she lives with.

Tom Kha, He's a Funny Fellha

"I hate people who are not serious about meals. It is so shallow of them."
-The Importance of Being Earnest, Oscar Wilde.

I have no idea what actually prompted our foray into Tom Kha, the Thai coconut soup that disappears so fast. It could be because of that one day we came across a crab coconut soup that was so similar. Or it could be because of Cha Da Thai, around the corner, where I tasted Tom Kha for the first time out of a hot pot and have been hooked ever since. Whatever the reason, Steve and I seasoned our wok for the sole purpose of getting it ready to make Tom Kha.

Because we were so new to Asian cooking in general, Tom Kha was our learning curve. Boy, did we have some trouble! The first time we used no stock, only coconut milk. We used packaged (but real) crab, button mushrooms, and an oily red curry paste. It was a start but I wouldn't even call it Tom Kha in any sense of the word. Plus, the amount of curry paste it called for gave us the runs the next day. (I'm sorry, is that TMI?)

Several months later, we thought it would brilliant to try to make it for eleven people during the family vacation. Following the advice of the woman at the local Asian market, we used dashi instead of seafood stock. Big mistake. We'd finally been able to locate straw mushrooms but not lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves or galangal. We tried lime juice and regular ginger as substitutes, but as you can imagine, the entire flavor was off. Needless to say, Steve and I were embarrassed. Frustrated, we set the idea aside.

After getting our feet wet at our local Asian market, Asia Grocery, we decided to try again. I mean, who can really stay away from fragrant coconut milk riddled with earthy mushrooms and sweet little tomatoes? Knowing we could get the ingredients we really wanted encouraged us to push forward! The result was highly satisfactory.

For the Tom Kha, we purchased half a pound of raw shrimp at Sea Products, Inc. (If you use shrimp, the soup is called Tom Kha Goong. If you use chicken, it's called Tom Kha Gai. Just a little trivia for ya!) We got our shrimp ready for cooking by picking off their legs, cutting and peeling their shell back and removing the vein. It was the first time we peeled and deveined shrimp, and it really is just as easy as I made it sound.

We then combined two cans of coconut milk with 16 oz of seafood stock and some fish sauce (or nam pla, in Thai). We also put in slices of galangal and the peels of a zested lime, a suggestion from the guy at Asia Grocery after he told me he didn't have kaffir lime leaves. Steve then squirted in the juice of half a lime and stirred in some white sugar.

After letting them heat up and simmer for a few minutes together, we used a strainer made specifically for the wok and strained out the galangal and lime peels (nobody wants to eat those). We then threw in a can of straw mushrooms and twelved roma tomatoes. (You should know I like to make up words. In other words, I cut the roma tomatoes into 12 pieces.) Just before we considered the soup finished, we slid our shrimp in and boy, do those babies cook up fast! We then served the soup with fresh cilantro on top.

The soup was amazing! It was by far the closest we've come to the delicious soup they serve in Thai restaurants. The shrimp absorbed the lime juice so that when you bit in, a citrusy hint of the sea peeked through the creamy coconut. The mushrooms, though canned, still grounded the soup with an earthiness. The tomatoes added sweetness. And our bowls were empty in about five minutes. (In case you're wondering, that's cold Jasmine tea.)

As good as it was, it still needs work. We refuse to stop here, at "good enough." Too many people are happy with good enough. If we serve this for anyone else, we want them to leave with the memory forever imprinted on their minds. I don't want people to say, "Well, that was fun." No, I want them to say, "Yes! We're eating at Steve and Kirsten's!" So next time, I would like to use grape or cherry tomatoes. I would like to use palm sugar instead of white. I will definitely add my coconut soup, stock and fish sauce together the night before and let it sit. Our leftovers the next day were so much more complex and integrated. And we need to work on balancing the coconut milk/stock ratio. And, of course, I want to remember my lemongrass!

You might notice a couple of things:
1) We used very little measurements. Thai cooking is difficult to put into measurements. There are different variations and strengths in certain things like coconut milk and fish sauce. To tweak our recipe, we're going to increase our seafood stock in order to cut down on the thickness of the coconut milk. This could backfire if we use a different, and therefore thinner, brand of coconut milk. Fish sauce is something you should taste test. Start small and work your way up. You'll know when you get that sweetsalty goodness you're looking for in the background.
2) No curry. Tom kha is a lot like many other popular dishes; there are different variations. Some people use shiitake mushrooms instead of straw. Some people add scallions. Some people use brown sugar instead of white, or no sugar at all. I even saw a tom kha drink at the Asia Grocery that contained coriander in it's ingredients. For our part, Steve and I like to leave the curry out.