Friday, July 25, 2008

No Itadakimasu to Spam Sushi

An open mind is an important asset. I consider myself an open-minded person, especially when it comes to food, so at the mention of Spam Sushi instead of shuddering like a saner person might of, I thought why not?

Many forces collided in my life to result in my lack of judgment. First, I am under a considerable amount of stress trying to ready my life and household goods for a cross-country move in 10 days. Therefore, I am desperate to clean out my pantry and freezer, so I just happened to have a few sheets of nori and some sushi rice that needed a purpose. Second, I am an NPR junkie, and I happen to see an online profile of a new cookbook called Hawaii Cooks with Spam, which was intriguing , exotic, and kitschy all at the same time. I have a weakness for just such things. Third, that week's Food section in the newspaper happened to be about the come back Spam is making in these economically depressed times. This was a sign. In retrospect, this was a very ominous sign.

I am no stranger to sushi rolling. I love making sushi what I don't love is paying up the nose for sushi grade fish on my let's-finance-a-several-thousand-mile-move-this-month budget. However, this recipe from Hawaii Cooks with Spam was fatally flawed from the beginning. Although I followed the directions for cooking the rice perfectly, the end result was crunchy. Trying to salvage the pot of rice, I added more water and cooked longer. This resulted in slightly mushier rice than I would have liked. The rice dressing was also problematic. Usually I use a mixture of rice vinegar, sugar, and salt, that is more tangy than sweet. This recipe called for equal parts vinegar and sugar in addition to mirin. I substituted the mirin for some plum wine I happened to have on hand, but that couldn't have screwed up the recipe that badly because the dressing was still sickenly sweet.

Aesthetically, the rolls came out perfect. They would have tasted better had I omitted the Spam and just rolled plain cucumber in them. I don't want to be a food snob here, but when your frame of reference for sushi is maki rolls made with firm, velvety, slabs of yellow fin tuna that melt in your mouth upon impact, then a cold, coagulated slab of assorted pork product is not only sacrilegious, but just plain disappointing.

While the NPR profile author, Neva Grant claims "the taste of Spam is not detectible in Miura's roll. An unwitting diner might think it was a chewy bit of avocado or maybe a very pink piece of egg," this is not true, and even if it were, the texture alone is enough of set back for this roll.

I have eaten Spam and enjoyed it in an illicit thrill sort of way. It's not nearly as bad as I previously thought, and I was thinking back to summer camp hazing rituals that involved Spam. You don't want to know the details. Spam is too World War II, Donna Reed-esqe to succumb to Asian fusion. It's best served with Velveeta and perhaps some scrambled eggs because sometimes, keeping things in their proper place is the right thing to do. Spam is sushi is wrong in so many ways.

Muriel Miura, the author of Hawaii Cooks with Spam, "suggests that after slicing it up into rolls you say 'Itadakimasu,' which means 'thank you for this meal' in Japanese." I, however, think it would be best to say no itadakimasu to this one. Yet I am intrigued by Miura's Spambalaya recipe...

*Thanks to Marianne for the photo

Friday, July 18, 2008

Molly Wizenberg's "Fluff Piece"

If any of you read Wizenberg's July article in Bon Appetit, and were a bit atheistic in your belief that homemade marshmallows could be not only easy to make, but more delicious than their store-bought counter parts, than I'm here to proselytize.

The process is quite simple. You dissolve some unflavored gelatin in water in the bowl of a stand mixer. Meanwhile, you boil a simple syrup of water, sugar, and corn syrup. When that mixture is hot enough, you drizzle it into the mixing bowl, while whisking. At first, there's a grayish sludge sloshing around, but soon, billows of sticky marshmallow fluff erupt in a manner reminiscent of the Stay-Puff marshmallow man in Ghost busters.

Then the mixture gets patted into an oiled, aluminum-foil lined pan. This is the hardest part. The marshmallow is still quite hot at this point, and it strings out and sticks to EVERYTHING but preserve. Wetting my hands and rubber scraper with cold water, helped considerably.

And, hey, I wasn't complaining about not being able to get the beater clean, because what I couldn't scrap off, I ate off.

Then the marshmallows need to set up at room temp for at least four hours. I left mine overnight. Then, I dusted the marshmallows with a mixture of powdered sugar and corn starch (Wizenberg calls for potato starch, but I couldn't find it in Boise supermarkets.) You cut into slices, and viola!

Amazing marshmallows! The fresh creaminess of these marshmallows is quite startling they're so good. I made s'mores with these and the way they toasted was almost like creme brullee. A wonderful, golden, caramelization that just isn't possible with store bought marshmallows.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Hands On Pasta

There's nothing quite like cleaning all the dust bunnies and skeletons from your closet to make you realize just what kind of person you are. As I'm tossing my superfluous material positions in the every growing mound marked for Goodwill, I'm unearthing eras of my hobby life. There was the handmade paper phase, the hand-bound journal phase, the acyclic paint phase, the scrap booking phase, the Fimo clay phase, the beading phase, the homemade head band phase, the hemp jewelry phase, ACK! All of that crafting equipment adds up, but I will never toss the pasta maker my mom handed down to me.

I am torn between believing I'm either a dilettante of the worst kind or else I'm just a person who gets immeasurable pleasure from making things with my hands. While I'm not sure which way the scales tips for me, I do know one of the most tactile, most thrilling things to do with your hands in the kitchen is make hand-rolled pasta. Home-made pasta delights all the senses from its golden eye-popping hue, to its earthy, egg and wheat pungency, to its Play Doh-like squish, to the small squeaks of the rolling pin or pasta machine. If you make your own pasta, your rewards are more than in taste alone. It's a relaxing, meditative process.

After mixing the dough, you roll it out thin. Here's a sheet of pasta dough after being rolled through the pasta machine 7 or 8 times. You can do the rolling by hand with a rolling pin, and your pasta will still turn out great, it will be more heartily rustic, and it will take a bit more time.

This time, I decide to make spaghetti. I also have an attachment that will cut fettuccine. If you don't have a pasta machine, you'll want to fold your rolled-out dough over itself until it's a roll of about four inches, then you cut through all layers at once, and when unrolled you have single, long strips of pasta.

Even though some recipes will tell you to dry your pasta for several hours before cooking, I've found that it's fine to toss in a pot of boiling water immediately. Do not refrigerate unless it is completely dry, or the spaghetti will turn into a gray, mush when cooked.

I've played around with several different pasta recipes. I've found that recipes that call for all semolina flour have a too course of textures. Recipes that demand a combination of all purpose and semolina flours with a dash of olive oil produce the results closest to store bought, dried pasta. But what's the fun in that?

The hands down, best pasta recipe is also the simplest. My mom gave it to me years ago, and it goes like this:

Hand-Made Pasta Dough

2 eggs, beaten (organic, free-range eggs are preferred)
generous dash of salt
enough AP flour to form a dough the consistency of Play-Doh

Beat eggs and salt together. Gradually add flour until desired consistency is reached. (If you wrap the dough in plastic wrap and refrigerate for about 30 minutes, the dough will be slightly easier to work with, but it's not necessary.) Roll out by hand or with pasta machine and cut into desired pasta, or drop into soup by teaspoonfuls to make egg dumplings. May take slightly longer than store-bought pasta to cook. But it's worth every extra minute.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Vicarious Home Cooking

So I'll admit it, my kitchen has been in a bit of the doldrums lately. Without air-conditioning and with equatorial 100-degree weather bearing down upon us, using heat by which to change the color, texture, and flavor of a food, also know as cooking--well--it's just not as appealing as say, reading foodie books while sprawled on the couch with a fan blasting my face.

I just read Laurie Colwin's Home Cooking (1988). Colwin's book is classic American food writing. Last year, an anthology borrowed the title of her essay "Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant," which was originally published in Home Cooking.
Sure Colwin's not as elegant as M.F.K. Fischer, but then really who is? And, even though Colwin has a sort of bossy, no-nonsense tone that sometimes grated on my nerves, I still loved every minute of reading. It is a rare thing to read a twenty-year old book, but still feel it is timely and relevant amidst flashy food trends (and not charmingly archaic like Fischer's older works). Although, I couldn't help but think that the book reads more like a series of blog postings. The book is set up as small vignette essays, illustrated by charmingly old-school (think Moosewood Cookbook) drawings.
Colwin is homey precisely because my mother cooked like this in 1988 when I was still in elementary school. At the same time, Colwin makes me feel homey and old fashioned. For instance, Colwin admits that "unlike some people, who love to go out, I love to stay home" (3). Yes! I agree. Colwin writes of her love for baking bread. Yes, me too! Colwin takes a definitive stance that fried chicken should only be cooked with Wesson. Of course, absoultely, she's right! Colwin was crazy enough to bone a chicken. OMG! ME TOO! The similarities piled up like a stack of Tarot cards as I read. Colwin's stance on roasting red peppers, making potato salad, and chicken salad sandwiches was my view entirely. Colwin just might be my long lost gastronomic twin!
Sadly, the serindipidy bitterly ended when I read the "Bitter Greens" chapter. This essay is devoted to rapini. I planted rapini in my garden this year, so I was thrilled as I began to read about how Colwin discovered this strange vegetable. My mouth watered at her description of baked chicken, golden and basted in its own fat with creamy buttery polenta to contrast the pungent, bitter bite of the rapini.

But, when I finally roused myself from my heat induced stupor, from the cool embrace of my couch, my rapini had bolted. The edible baby broccoli-like fronds had transformed themselves into tough, woody stalks. (Rapini should look like immature stalks of broccoli with leaves attached. Notice how mine look like wanna-be green beans.) The rapini was ruined by the heat.
So vicariously, Colwin gave me rapini, when my own failure to harvest it earlier resulted in the loss of the whole crop. Maybe I have been spending too much of my summer on the couch...