Category Archives: What’s Cooking

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The Simplicity of Homemade Ramen

We may be hitting the last few weeks of ramen season — a steaming bowl will be much less appealing once the weather warms up — so get your ramen fix now.  (That goes for pho and Chinese hot pot, too.)

Inspired by my recent dining experience at Sakuramen, I decided to give it a whirl and try making my own version at home. Turns out, it was surprisingly easy.

First things first: throw away those flavor packets that come with the packaged ramen. You don’t need them, and besides, they’re loaded with sodium and who knows what else.

Basically I just winged it. Started by heating up low-sodium chicken stock and tossing in a few star anise. (Careful with them — they’re strong, a few go a long way.)  Added about a tablespoon of soy sauce, and a generous squirt of the Korean hot pepper paste, Gochujang.

Once the broth came to a boil, I broke in the noodles and cooked them for about 3-4 minutes. For the toppings, it was a hodgepodge of whatever was available in my kitchen — in this case shrimp, kimchi, spinach and shiitake mushrooms.

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Rachael Ray would be proud, because this was most definitely a 30-minute meal.  My broth was a far simplified version of what you’d get in a restaurant, but I thought it tasted pretty darn good.

The beauty of the dish is that you can add whatever toppings you like. It’s your own version — do what you want. As long as you create a decent broth, the rest is foolproof.

Sure, it’s still worth venturing out for ramen when you want the really good stuff.  But on a Tuesday night when you’re tired after a hard day at work?  The home version does just fine.

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A Surprisingly Great Dinner From a Tube of Polenta

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Have you seen these polenta tubes in the supermarket?  They’re everywhere, and I always scratch my head as to what exactly you’re supposed to do with them. I’ve made polenta before and the steps never involved forming it into the shape of a sausage.

But Eureka, now I get it!  I found this New York Times recipe the other day, and finally the polenta tube made sense.

The recipe is for grilled polenta on a spicy tomato sauce with fried eggs, and it’s a keeper.

All I did was cut the polenta tube into rounds and throw them on the griddle until they browned on both sides.

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The sauce of diced tomatoes, onions, garlic, capers and olives came together in minutes.

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For my own addition to the recipe, I roasted kale with garlic cloves and olive oil until the kale was crispy.

The last step was to fry up a few eggs.

The tomato sauce went on the place first, followed by the grilled polenta rounds. I piled a small mound of kale onto the polenta, and placed the fried egg on top.

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So good.

I store all my digital recipes on Evernote, the notetaking software service and app.  This one got an asterisk next to it, for “Favorites.”

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A Leftover Ham Bone Makes Amazing Soup

I’ve decided the best part of Thanksgiving leftovers isn’t the turkey, it’s the ham bone (assuming you have a ham).

My cousin Vivian sent me home from Thanksgiving a few weeks ago with a hefty, meaty bone. I don’t often go out and buy a ham bone or hock, so this was a treat, and I put it to good use.

Soup!

I anchored the bone in the middle of the pot and simmered the soup of pinto beans, kale and spinach for about an hour and a half, until the meat was ready to fall off.  Then I removed it from the pot.

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Stripped off the meat and put a small amount back into the soup. The rest went into plastic bags and into the freezer for future use.

Gave the soup a taste. Ohhhhh, happy day!  It was one of the richest, most flavorful soups I’d ever made, and it had nothing to do with me, and everything to do with that ham.

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Christmas is next week. Save the ham bone. Always save the ham bone.

 

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Learning How to Make Bread

Anyone who saw me on the Woodley Park-bound Circulator bus last Saturday saw a guy holding a death grip on a plastic bag filled with bread. I was guarding that steaming bag like it was a small child. After spending almost six hours at CulinAerie’s artisanal breads class, I’ll be damned if anyone was stealing the fruits of my labor.

I loved the class. LOVED it. Learning how to make bread on a relaxed Saturday? What could be more fun?

Nice setup at CulinAerie. 16 students, several assistants, the instructor, and a TV monitor so that people in the back could follow along with what he was doing.  Our instructor, Chef Matt Finarelli, was great: articulate, laid-back, patient and knowledgeable. The man knows his bread.

Over the course of the class we made San Francisco sourdough, baguettes, focaccia and oatmeal scones. The more I learned, the more I realized what an art form bread making is. There are so many factors to consider, and subtle changes can lead to big variations in the final product.

God’s gift to bread making? The Kitchen Aid mixer.

Chef Finarelli said the breads could be mixed by hand, but I think you’d have to have Popeye forearms to make that a reality. The breads started in similar fashion — proofing the yeast, mixing it with the bread flour and salt, kneading the dough, proofing the dough… Some doughs were drier (focaccia and baguette), while the sourdough was wet, sticky, and goopy — a five year old’s dream.

This was the focaccia dough after it had been mixed and kneaded. It plumped up like a melon.

My partner’s and my focaccia coming out of the oven. It had been brushed with olive oil and sprinkled with chopped herbs and grated parmesan.

For lunch, we used our still-warm focaccia as bread for sandwiches. Delicious. Doesn’t get much fresher than that.

The trickiest bread of the day — the San Francisco sourdough. Sourdough requires a “starter” — a living, breathing, yeast organism that has to be “fed” regularly like it’s a pet. The starter gives sourdough bread its distinctive flavor. Chef Finarelli has kept his starter going for seven years!

Here’s how our sourdough came out. We didn’t score the “X” marks on top deep enough, but it still looked okay.

Especially the crusty underside.

Here it is split open.

Our baguettes before going into the oven. Mine’s on the left. I started getting OCD about the shape, trying to form it just right.

Came out a little crooked and with an open seam on the bottom.

And the oatmeal scones. Very simple to make and so good.

Of the four things we made, the one I’d do most regularly at home is focaccia. It wasn’t overly complicated and Chef Finarelli said it freezes the best of all the breads. I’ve already used it several times this week for paninis.

There’s an immense satisfaction that comes from reaching into the freezer and pulling out a bread that you made with your own two hands. I think it’s because bread is so elemental. It’s one of the world’s oldest foods, represented in almost every culture. If you can make bread, you can feed yourself and feed others. Hell, it’s the staff of life.

I’m already looking into buying a scale and a baking stone. This could be the beginning of a lifelong obsession.

CulinAerie
1131 14th St. NW
Washington, DC
202-587-5674

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First Time Making Pipa Tofu

Pipa tofu is a dish rarely found on a typical Chinese restaurant menu. I know this because if it were on the menu, I’d order it all the time. Mashed soft tofu — often mixed with ground shrimp or pork — formed into an oval shape and fried. Served with a light sauce over mixed vegetables. That my friends, is good eating.

After wolfing down the excellent pipa tofu at Chalin’s recently, I was inspired to make it for myself. A quick Google search turned up several recipes, including this one, and this one. My version was sort of a combo of both, based on what I had in my kitchen.

The first step was to steam some bok choy.

While the bok choy steamed, I mashed up a block of soft tofu with chopped scallions, a pinch of salt, a little cornstarch and about 8-9 minced shrimp.

Then I heated up canola oil in a wok, formed the mashed tofu into oval shapes (the name comes from the shape of the pipa, a traditional Chinese instrument), and carefully lowered them in batches into the hot oil. This part’s a little tricky because they’re so delicate and easy to break.

Only took a few minutes for the tofu to turn golden brown. Out they came onto paper towels to drain, and in went the next batch.

You can see that I mishandled a few and deformed their oval shape.

Threw some baby corn and peas into the steamer with the bok choy, put together a light sauce of soy and chicken stock, thickened with a cornstarch slurry, and dinner was ready.

Chinese comfort food.