Marshmallow + microwave = ?

Chris loves marshmallows and it’s partly because he discovered a magical property of theirs back when he was a youngster. Apparently, when you microwave marshmallows, they not only balloon in size, but they become the easiest way to make taffy ever.
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Braised short ribs two ways

French-style Asian-style

I have a special place in my heart for beef stew (from fond childhood memories of Chinese beef noodle soup) but braised short ribs are threatening to knock beef stew from its pedestal. Read more of this post

Blog as recipe archive

I use my blog pretty randomly, posting essays on the culture of science, photo galleries from hiking trips, and the occasional here’s-what-I-did-in-the-last-three-months-since-I-last-blogged. To those who wish I only posted essays, sorry — I know myself and it ain’t going to happen. In fact, I’ve been meaning to document more of my culinary experiences but even this has been a challenge for me; three hours of cooking and eating dinner at 10 PM does not put me in the mood for blogging. (Especially when a purring cat curls up on your lap.) But my “system” of index cards, scribbles torn out of notebooks, and sauce-stained printouts simply isn’t tenable. So over the next month or so I’m going to attempt to catch up a bit on some of the recipes we’ve tried and do a better job of archiving them online.

Let that be a warning to those who could care less about cooking. :)

Sydney International Food Festival: Flags

Whimsical, clever, beautiful and delicious – what more could you want? Food is a common denominator across the world!

Char siu pork, or Doing what I can about swine flu

In this heightened state of alert, I’m doing what I can about swine flu… which is, basically, not much. Because we as individuals can’t do too much about it besides wash our hands, cover our mouths, exercise, eat healthy, and get enough sleep – all things we should be doing more or less regularly anyway. No, I did my part by cooking up a couple of pounds of pork in the best way I (now) know how – Chinese barbecue style.

There’s meaty American barbecue slathered with thick, nostril-clearing sauce. Stripped down Korean barbecue with its more delicate, sweet marinade. And then there’s Chinese barbecue – the best of both worlds. The sauce is thick, but roasted on so that it caramelizes and becomes a part of the meat itself. It is sweet, yet savory; spicy, yet subtle. The flavors of hoisin, soy sauce, rice wine, ginger, and garlic melt together to create an olfactory experience that is enough to make you pause with amazement but not enough to stop you from devouring piece after piece.

I grew up eating what’s known as “char siu” pork (pronounced more like “chao sao” in Mandarin) but it was never something I thought about making at home. I don’t remember my mom ever making it, though she would often make Peking duck, something that seems much more fancy (but really isn’t, apparently). Char siu pork is like meatballs – a comfort food that is as natural in leftovers as it is freshly made. In fact, I was most used to it as the filling for my favorite snack – char siu bao, or sweet barbecue pork buns – or as a topping for noodle soup. But I always had it pre-prepared in those dishes, and never really saw the original roast it came from.

That changed last weekend, when I suddenly decided I needed to make char siu bao. Ironically, I’m too lazy to drive 45 minutes to the asian market to buy ready-made char siu bao, but not too lazy to go to Safeway down the street and then spend a good 6 hours making the damn things from scratch. So I got a couple recipes to reference for both the bao (buns) and the char siu, and had a good old mashup time of it.

Here’s the eventual recipe I ended up with, adapted from here and here:

For the char siu pork:

  • ~ 3.5 lbs boneless pork shoulder
  • 2-3 cloves garlic, minced
  • ~ 1 T ginger, peeled and minced
  • ~ 1/2 C rice wine or sherry
  • ~ 3/4 C hoisin sauce
  • ~ 1/2 C soy sauce
  • ~ 1/3 C honey
  • a dash of five spice powder

Cut the pork along the grain into long strips 1.5-2 inches wide and about 6-10 inches long. Combine all marinade ingredients, then place with the pork into large ziploc bags. Make sure the pork is coated evenly and then seal, removing as much air as possible from the bags. Marinate in the refrigerator overnight (or at least a few hours).

Place a rack on the lower third of the oven and preheat to 375 deg. Fill a pan (or two, depending on amount of meat) with 1/2 ” water and place a metal rack over it. I used two 9×13″ pans with cooling racks with slats about 1/2″ apart. Arrange the meat strips on the rack(s), reserving the marinade in a small pot.

(I got the roasting times from an Epicurious or Gourmet recipe but I can’t for the life of me find the page again, so here’s my best rememory of it…)

Roast for 15 minutes. Meanwhile, heat the marinade to a simmer for a few minutes, then turn off the heat. Baste the meat with the marinade, then roast for another 15 minutes. Baste the meat generously on both sides, turn meat over, and roast for an additional 20 minutes, basting once or twice in the middle. Turn the oven temp up to 400 deg, baste the meat with the remaining marinade, and roast for about 10 minutes or until caramelized. Place the meat on a cutting board and cover with foil for about 10 minutes. Then allow to cool before slicing or shredding for use in soups, char siu bao, or to eat as is. When you’re done, it should look like this (except try to slice across the grain…):


I was pleased with how red the outside of the pork got, since a lot of accounts I read claimed that it was difficult to achieve the vibrant red color you see in the stores. Some recipes had red food coloring, which just seemed weird to me. Thankfully, the visual experience matched the taste and smell I was used to. I’m really rather impressed that my first try at making char siu came out so well!

For the bao, I used this recipe as the base, which includes prepraring the char siu filling as well as the dough for the bao. I modified the filling slightly (still for 24 buns):

  • ~ 1 lb char siu pork, cut into 1/2 cm pieces (err on the side of small)
  • ~ 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1/2 a white or yellow onion, minced
  • 1 scallion, minced
  • 1/4 C soy sauce
  • ~ 3 T brown sugar (I only used 2 T but I think it could have been sweeter)
  • ~ 1 T cornstarch dissolved in 2 T water
  • ~ 2 T oil

Heat the oil in a large wok or skillet. Add the garlic, onion, and scallion and saute until soft but not browned. Add the pork and saute for a minute or two. Add the soy sauce, sugar, and cornstarch mixture and saute quickly until glazed. Allow to cool before filling buns.

For the buns, I followed the recipe exactly (note, just up to step 3, then go back to the previous recipe for the filling). Instead of foil wrappers on the bottom, I might try waxed paper next time (not sure how this will stand up to steaming though, so maybe parchment paper?), because the buns are great to freeze and microwave later as a quick snack but removing the foil bottoms is a pain. Here’s the final result:

img_1264 img_1256

Unfortunately, the bao wasn’t exactly what I was hoping for – it was basically the kind of bao you would use for normal bao of the ground pork and chives variety, not the fluffy, soft bao I wanted with my sweet char siu. I think I need to look for a bao recipe that uses milk to achieve that. Then there’s also the other kind of char siu bao – baked, and golden colored, which is the kind I grew up with. I’m pretty sure that’s an egg-based bread.

I’ll definitely experiment with both kinds until I get it right, but we’re already almost out of char siu from filling the baos and using some for noodle soup. Guess I’ll need to make more of that again, too. :)

Mmm… pi

I bet the ancients didn’t know just how delicious Pi could be. And I simply can’t pass up an opportunity to mix food and geekiness together. Since today is Pi Day (3.14), clearly I had to bake a pi, ahem, pie. Nothing fancy – we had apples lying around and some store-bought crusts already in the fridge, so apple pi(e) it was. Happy Pi Day!


Ciabatta shouldn’t usually be this challenging…

… but if you’re me, it means a two hour quest for lava rock and an explosion in the oven.

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I started baking bread once or twice a month about two years ago but I’ve yet to make my own starter (necessary for sourdough) and until today had yet to make a serious attempt at recreating the brick oven environment needed for truly great bread. Believe me, fresh bread is always great, but I was always a little disappointed with how quickly the crispness of the crust disappeared as the loaves cooled. I still liked baking my own bread, but there was something missing in the end product.

Today I tried to overcome the crust problem. The secret to a thicker and crustier crust is steam; in the past, I’d tried tossing a few ice cubes on the floor of my oven but evidently that didn’t work. I was also trying out a new recipe for ciabatta (from the excellent Wild Yeast blog) and I was determined to get the crust right, so while the loaves were proofing for the final time, I went out in search of lava rock and a baking stone. First stop, Bed Bath & Beyond two blocks from my house. No baking stone, even though they advertise one on their website. Second stop, the local nursery – no lava rock. Third stop, the local Orchard Supply Hardware. They carry lava rock but unfortunately were out of stock. Fourth stop, the Home Depot a couple towns over – 20 lb bag of lava rock, check. Fifth stop, the Crate & Barrel on the other side of town – only a small baking stone, not the larger size I needed. Sixth stop, Williams Sonoma in the high end mall next door to the Crate & Barrel. Expensive baking stone, check. Two and a half hours later, I hurry home to get the oven going.

This is where the disaster happened. You hear this warning all the time, but for some of us common sense takes inconvenient sabbaticals. You see, I put the lava rocks in a Pyrex baking dish and put this on the floor of the oven. 475 degrees later, I slid the loaves in, and poured a cup of hot water in the dish.

It exploded.

Duh. Glass doesn’t like temperature changes. And no matter how hot the water is from the tap, it’s not going to be 475 degrees. So now I had glass and lava rock all over the floor of the oven and I sure wasn’t thinking about steam anymore! (Luckily, the glass was all contained in the oven and none of it flew out when it broke.) So we scooped most of the lava rock into a metal pan and set the pan on top of the shards, poured some more water over the rocks, and hoped for the best.

After all that, the ciabatta seems to be fine. I’m mad at myself for sacrificing a dish and making a mess but the crust is definitely crustier and I’ve definitely learned a lesson. And now that I’ve seen what steam can do, there won’t be any going back.

Anyone need 18 lbs of lava rock?


Respecting food, respecting ourselves; or Put down that Hot Pocket before you regret it

Photo by wonderfullyrich on Flickr

Photo by wonderfullyrich on Flickr

Regret what, you wonder? No, not the searing pain that accompanies biting into the microwaved pastry filled with molten lava. No, no. To those who are passionate about wholly sustainable agriculture like Joel Salatin, processed foods like Hot Pockets and Cocoa Puffs are the gastronomic equivalent of a one night stand with a stranger, what he calls, “prostitution food.” A self-proclaimed “Christian libertarian environmentalist capitalist lunatic”, he says that eating is the most intimate act we do outside of marriage, and should be given the same respect and consideration. What modern industry has done, however, is distance people from their food and break that intimate connection, such that few people these days give any thought to what they’re actually eating and where it comes from. But for food, which we put daily into our bodies, there should be a courtship, a relationship – and a romance.

Photo by roboppy on Flickr

Photo by roboppy on Flickr

To this end, Joel has spent the last few decades continuing what his parents and grandparents started: emotionally, economically, and environmentally-sustainable farming. Their farm is called Polyface, and it is built around the concept of polyculture – emulating natural diversity and ecosystems to produce food. The traditional way of doing this is through planting multiple crops in the same space. Polyface does it by controlling symbiotic interactions between different food animals and their environment in a way that more closely resembles their natural relationships. This results in healthier, happier animals and habitats, and healthier and environmentally-friendly food.

Michael Pollan’s excellent book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, highlights Polyface Farm and catapulted Salatin into the public awareness, such that Salatin now keeps a busy speaking schedule. He spoke with gusto at Stanford tonight to a packed auditorium riveted by his passion for sustainable farming and the eloquence with which he told the farm’s story. Nuggets of wisdom interspersed throughout his talk went hand in hand with irreverent illustrations of concepts and unrepentant jibes at the various evils of the status quo, including the “US-Duh” (USDA). A few of the more thought-provoking portions of the talk included:

The importance of multipurposing. Portable, easily adaptable tools that are still highly tuned to their specific environment but derived from multi-use components. This has corollaries to web-based and computational tool development.

The importance of community. Specifically a return of crafting, such as lumber milling and butchering, to the community and the consequent return of awareness, accountability, and appreciation for the products we consume that our industrialized society has lost. Like above, this also has corollaries to tool development, namely that transparency and an invested community are good.

Photo by wonderfullyrich on Flickr

Photo by wonderfullyrich on Flickr

The importance of disturbance for progress. Polyface does this by using the natural habits of animals to stimulate new plant growth. “Two steps forward, one step back” might be one way to encapsulate it; another might be the acknowledgment that things usually have to get worse before they get better. But it’s really that short term disruption is a good way to jump-start progress, whether it be ecological or social.

The importance of creating value. Salatin is all for preserving the environment, but he believes that the way to steward resources is to create value. He does this, for example, with wood by harvesting some of it (sustainably) for firewood which he sells to local customers who come by to pick it up.

Your users are your greatest allies. The way things are done at Polyface are still a minority viewpoint, even (or especially) in their local area. The neighboring farms don’t tend to approve of their practices, and so the Polyface community consists mostly of their customers, who believe in its mission and are invested in its success. This translates to any company or group providing a service or a product – build a good relationship with your consumers, because it’s going to be your users who are your friends, and likely not your peers.

The significance of group behavior. Cows act and interact differently with their environment and each other when in a group. So do people. We can use this fact to our advantage, and we have.

The folly of industrialized goals. “Bigger, fatter, faster, cheaper” are not necessarily noble, and are not always the traits you want.

Acknowledging all the steps in the cycle gives you better appreciation for the end product. Salatin illustrated this in two ways: one, by showing absolutely adorable pictures of baby bunnies – which elicited oohs and awws from the audience – followed by pictures of rabbits being dressed and cleaned, and two, by unapologetically stating that a favorite activity of theirs is to cook and give homemade sausages to the children of vegetarians at their food festivals. He says that they’ve actually converted a lot of vegetarians back to eating meat by convincing them that their philosophy of farming is sustainable and responsible.

Photo by questa on Flickr

Photo by questa on Flickr

In addition to these overarching concepts were a couple choice statements, such as:

“When your neck is bigger than your head, you’re a freak! And Nature weeds you out!” – qualifying a statement he made saying that the average age of death for NFL players is 57 years, which itself was said in regards to his statement against “bigger, fatter, faster, cheaper.”

“It’s a one night stand – it’s prostitution food!” – as explained in the first paragraph, in regards to modern processed food.

“Our pigs have a great life and one bad day.” – apparently how Michael Pollan sums up the life of a Polyface pig in his book.

“It’s how we respect and treat the least of us that determines how we respect and honor the greatest of us.” – commenting that we cannot truly respect ourselves until we respect the earth and the organisms that sustain us.

This is the gospel that Joel Salatin preaches, and it speaks to a growing hunger many of us have for meaningful and socially responsible living. It is still a minority viewpoint, but Joel’s hope is that a new generation of holistic, environmentally-conscious farmers will arise, elevate the once respectable vocation from the “redneck hillbilly” reputation it has come to wield, and bring romance back into people’s relationship with food. As I learned today, he’s a man on a mission, he does not shy away from controversy, and even if you don’t agree with everything he says, you can at least respect him for his respect for all of nature’s facets, no matter how ordinary they seem to us at first glance.

Photo by wonderfullyrich on Flickr

Photo by wonderfullyrich on Flickr

The gustatory voyage, an interlude

(Part of the Blog for Darwin blogswarm)


Few things make you appreciate food the way making it yourself does. One food I don’t particularly appreciate is cake – I’ll eat it, but I prefer my desserts chewy and unfrosted. So I decided to take the occasion of Darwin’s birth to temper my sweet indifference, and made him a birthday cake. Not the pour out of a box add an egg into the oven kind, but an honest to goodness full-on buttercream frosted layer cake from scratch.


img_0140eFor this special event, I used Dorie Greenspan‘s “Perfect Party Cake” recipe – a white cake that sounded simple, elegant, and delicious. Lemon zest and lemon extract adds a special touch. For the base, I followed the recipe exactly, using buttermilk where it gave the option. While baking, however, I may have pulled the two rounds from the oven a couple minutes too soon; a toothpick inserted into the middle came out clean, but the tops probably should have been a bit springier. No matter, I popped them out to cool and set to work on the frosting.

Not much for frosting, and aghast at the amount of butter that went into it, I cut the buttercream recipe in half and made a batch of fresh whipped cream to substitute (not exactly healthier, but I love whipped cream and at least I don’t have to see the sticks of butter going in). I probably stopped mixing the buttercream mixture too soon before adding the lemon juice since I wasn’t sure what “thick and smooth” meant and I was getting impatient (really? 6-10 minutes of mixing?!), but afterward I was able to beat it into more of a frosting consistency (oh, that’s what thick and smooth means!). Making whipped cream is always a test of patience as well. Times like these I wish I had a stand mixer – I did a good 20-30 minutes of hand mixing for this! All for you, Mr. Darwin.

img_0142eThen came the most dreaded part – sawing the cake rounds in half. Terrible visions of lopsided, crumbled cake fragments filled my head, but I did fine. Not wanting to push my luck, I opted to leave the second round alone, as it wasn’t quite as thick. Then came the fun part – assembling and decorating the cake! Alternating cake rounds with layers of raspberry jam and whipped cream, I topped off the final round and the sides with the buttercream frosting. My first buttercream frosted layer cake! Adding another first, I tried the baker’s trick of using a Ziploc bag to pipe a border of whipped cream around the top. Now, what to put on the blank canvas? A drawing of the Beagle or a beagle? A map of the Galapagos islands? A phylogenetic tree? I settled on the birds that inspired Darwin’s theory of speciation. Finally, I finished the decoration with fresh berries, rather than coconut as the recipe suggests.

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Below is the recipe transcribed from Greenspan’s book, Baking: From my home to yours, with my variations.

For the cake:

2 1/4 cups cake flour
1 Tbsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1 14/ cups buttermilk (or whole milk)
4 large egg whites
1 1/2 cups white sugar
2 tsp grated lemon zest
1 stick (8 Tbsp) unsalted butter at room temperature
1/2 tsp pure lemon extract

Center a rack in the oven and preheat to 350 deg F. Butter two 9×2″ round cake pans and line the bottoms with a round of buttered parchment or wax paper. Put the pans on a baking sheet.

Sift together the flour, baking powder, and salt. Whisk together buttermilk and eggs. Put the sugar and lemon zest in a large bowl and rub together with your fingers until the sugar is moist and fragrant. Add the butter and beat at medium speed for a full 3 minutes, until the mixture is very light. Beat in the extract, then beat in 1/3 of the flour mixture. Beat in half of the egg mixture, then half of the remaining flour mixture, then the rest of the egg mixture, and finally the rest of the flour mixture, beating until well incorporated each time. Beat the batter for an additional 2 minutes to ensure that it is well mixed and aerated.

Divide the batter between the two pans, smooth the tops (you might try making a slight depression in the middle to reduce doming), and bake for 30-35 minutes, or until the cakes are well-risen and springy to the touch. A toothpick inserted into the centers should come out clean. Transfer the pans to cooling racks for about 5 minutes, then remove the cakes from the pans, peel off the liners, and let cool completely right side up.

To make the buttercream (for top and sides only):

1/2 cup white sugar
2 large egg whites
1 1/2 sticks (12 Tbsp) unsalted butter at room temperature
1/8 cup fresh lemon juice, strained
1/2 tsp vanilla extract

Put the sugar and egg whites in a medium heatproof bowl and fit it over a pan of simmering water. Whisk constantly over the heat until the mixture feels hot to the touch, about 3 minutes. Remove the bowl from the heat and beat the mixture with a whisk or hand mixer at medium speed until it is cool, about 5 minutes. Add the butter 1/2 stick at a time, stirring with a spatula. Once the butter is all in, beat the buttercream on medium-high speed until it is thick and very smooth – the consistency of frosting – about 6-10 minutes. If the buttercream curdles or separates, just keep beating and it will come together again. Gradually beat in the lemon juice on medium speed, waiting until each addition is absorbed before adding more. Finally, beat in the vanilla. Press a piece of plastic wrap against the surface of the buttercream and set aside.

To make the whipped cream:

1 cup heavy whipping cream, chilled
1/8 cup white sugar
1/2 tsp vanilla extract

Combine the cold whipping cream, sugar, and vanilla in a medium bowl. Beat on medium-high speed until stiff peaks form, about 10-15 minutes (chilling the bowl may speed up this process). You want the whipped cream to be fairly thick.

To assemble and decorate the cake:

Prepare about 2/3 cup raspberry jam by stirring vigorously to loosen.Using a sharp serrated knife and a gentle sawing motion, slice each cake round horizontally in half (if the round is at least 1 1/2 inches thick). Put one layer cut side up on a cake plate or cardboard cake round. Spread it with the jam, then cover with a layer of whipped cream. Top with another cake round, and spread again with jam and cover with a layer of whipped cream. (Repeat if you have 4 total cake rounds.) Place the last layer cut side down on top of the cake and frost the top and sides with buttercream.

To finish this lovely cake, decorate with your favorite icings, cake decorating pens, more whipped cream, fresh berries, mint leaves, chocolate curls – whatever floats your Beagle!

The gustatory voyage of the Beagle, part 1

I have a soft spot for food writing in books that are not about food. Experiments in living off the land in My Side of the Mountain, the expansive feasts put on by the woodland creatures in the Redwall series, the culinary culture of the Lenape Indians – the depictions of food and food preparation in these stories are what stand out in my memory.

So to commemorate Darwin’s 200th birthday this week, I’ll highlight some of my favorite culinary passages in The Voyage of the Beagle, Darwin’s diaries describing the years he spent traveling around the world as the naturalist on board HMS Beagle. I’m only part way through, so consider this part 1.

It is often the case that Darwin exposes his wry humor when speaking of food. Take, for example, his description of the difficulty they sometimes had in procuring food from their hosts:

On first arriving it was our custom to … ask the senhor to do us the favour to give us something to eat. ‘Anything you choose, sir,’ was his usual answer. For the first few times, vainly I thanked providence for having guided us to so good a man. The conversation proceeding, the case universally became deplorable. ‘Any fish can you do us the favour of giving?’ — ‘Oh! no, sir.’ — ‘Any soup?’ — ‘No, sir.’ — ‘Any bread?’ — ‘Oh! no, sir.’ — ‘Any dried meat?’ — ‘Oh! no, sir.’ … It not unfrequently happened, that we were obliged to kill, with stones, the poultry for our own supper. When, thoroughly exhausted by fatigue and hunger, we timorously hinted that we should be glad of our meal, the pompous, and (though true) most unsatisfactory answer was ‘It will be ready when it is ready.’

Contrast this with a sumptuous dinner hosted by a well-stocked relative of a member of Darwin’s party just a few days later:

[The] profusion of food showed itself at dinner, where, if the tables did not groan, the guests surely did; for each person is expected to eat of every dish. One day, having, as I thought, nicely calculated so that nothing should go away untasted, to my utter dismay a roast turkey and a pig appeared in all their substantial reality.

When describing the animals he encounters, Darwin sometimes includes a note about its culinary value. For instance, the meat of the water-hog (Hydrochoerus capybara), the largest living rodent in the world, is apparently “very indifferent,” though it supposedly tastes like pork and is considered a delicacy today. Of an aggressive carrion-eating bird, the Polyborus Novae Zelandiae (probably a species of Caracara), Darwin writes, “the sealers say that the flesh of these birds, when cooked, is quite white, and very good eating; but bold must the man be who attempts such a meal.”

Photo by kaptainkobold on Flickr

Photo by kaptainkobold on Flickr

Neither of these sounded particularly appetizing, but later on Darwin mentions that armadillo is “a most excellent dish when roasted in its shell.” I <3 roasting, so this claim prompted me to search for recipes online – pointless, in retrospect, since I lack the means to procure armadillo in suburban California. At any rate, all I could find were some armadillo-inspired dishes and a bare-bones fact sheet confirming that people do indeed consume armadillo roasted in the shell. Ah well. Now I know what to ask for when I visit South America, or, hey, even Texas!

Original photo by SDCDeaCerte on Flickr

Original photo by SDCDeaCerte on Flickr

It’s said that the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach. So Happy Birthday, Charles – can’t wait to learn more about you through your culinary adventures!