How to Get from Broiled Fish to Sweet & Sour Tofu by Way of Tom Yom Soup

Returning once again to “cooking without a net” and “how to make great food out of what is around the house”, over the last few weeks a series of meals happened which, at least for me, illustrated this wonderfully.

I recently discovered that my not-so-premium local super market has a far better (and cheaper) fish monger than any of the Whole Foods or the HEB Central Market. They frequently have gorgeous, not chemical soaked, sea scallops for less than $15 a pound. They often have 21-25 count shrimp for under $10 a pound. They have the best looking salmon I’ve seen anywhere in Houston. They even have cod loin for what my spoiled New England years thinks of as a reasonable price. They’re also located basically across the street from my church, where I find myself several times a week.

What this means is that I’ve begun to stop in almost every occasion just to see what they have, and even if I don’t need it right away, I buy it. Which means my freezer is now frequently full of fish and shell fish.

Many moons ago, my go-to wow the crowd dish for dinner parties was a poached cod loin served with a mango habanero sauce — which I’d make my simmering fruit and peppers until they dissolved. With the move out of New England in ’07, my access to cheap, high quality cod dried up, and I never found another plump, mild fish that fit into this dish as nicely as the cod.

Then a month ago, I discovered barramundi. Which, if you’ve never had, you should find.

The other week, I also found ripe mangos and some epic Hungarian wax peppers (the latter at the local farmer’s market). This fish is a bit thinner, without being what I’d call a “flat fish”, so rather than poaching I broiled it. I broiled it with the fruit and peppers on top and all around. Once it was all cooked, the oils, fruit and peppers went into the food processor to become a sauce.

There was lots of left over sauce.

A week or so later, I boiled a pound of fresh water 21-25 count shrimp, in their shells, with a little fish sauce. I retained that boiled water, removed the shrimp to an ice water bath and shelled them. The left over sauce went into that broth and got reduced significantly. It was then served with fresh cilantro, rice wine vinegar, the shrimp and glass noodles. It made for an excellent tom yom soup.

After all the shrimp and glass noodles were eaten, there was left over broth.

Two nights ago I put a bag of Trader Joe’s “stir fry veggies” onto a silpat under a 375 degree broiler until they were thawed and dry. I also cubed a block of spongy tofu from CostCo (seriously, this is the best non-silken tofu I’ve ever worked with and you can get three packs very cheaply) and turned it golden in a wide sauté pan of canola and toasted sesame oil. Once golden, the veggies went in and got a little color.

Then the broth went in and the whole thing got dusted with sifted flour and simmered until thickened. This was also served over glass noodles.

Sadly, this is where the left overs gravy train reached its final stop.

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Tenser’s Vegan Disks

Yes, I know that I have made this joke before. I don’t care, it’s funny anyway. Novelty as a benchmark is the primary rhetorical fallacy of the 20th Century.

Besides, we’re going to use pita, not tortilla, this time.

At a loss for what to do with left over, stale pita bread? Tired of making pita chips to choke down with hummus? Me too.

Here’s a quick, easy solution to the problem.

The quickest, easiest way is to cheat and do the following things:

  • Go to Trader Joe’s and get a container of these:
    • Bruschetta (in the chill case in a white plastic tub)
    • Artichoke antipasto (glass jar)
    • Olive tapenade (either glass jar or clear plastic tub in chill case)
  • Acquire jar of simple vinaigrette salad dressing
  • Combine the three items from Trader Joe’s with just enough dressing to make the result easily spreadable

If you’re a bit more committed than this, get tomato, onion, garlic, fresh herbs like cilantro, parsley and basil, artichoke hearts [1], olives (mostly black and/or kalamata), olive oil, dressing vinegar (not white), and basic seasonings, and chop everything up finely (either by hand or in a food processor) and combine to recreate something similar to what is described above.

Variations on this topping can be made by including roasted red pepper spread (either including or removing the artichokes) and/or capers.

Spread the result of either approach onto old pita bread which are arranged on a baking sheet and slide into a 250 degree oven. Yes, that’s very low heat. The goal here is to drive moisture out of the bread and the topping without scorching the bread.

When the bread is nearly, but not quite, completely stiff, slide them back out of the oven, and top each disc with either a spring mix salad or simply baby spinach, change the oven into a broiler, and return the tray for just a couple of moments to wilt the greens.

I find it easier to slice the discs prior to cooking, rather than after, either in half or fourths. but you could just as easily serve the discs intact and let your adventurers sort it out for themselves.

What you end up with is something very much like a “fully loaded” veggie pizza, without any cheese. However, the oily texture and umami of the preserved vegetables ensure you won’t miss it.

 

If you’re interested in a dish which is not vegan, but is Lenten, you can add chopped, pre-cooked, crab or shrimp between the vegetable spread and the salad greens just before going under the broiler. 

 

[1] I don’t recommend buying fresh artichokes, steaming them and breaking them down yourself, it is an enormous amount of work and the results are rarely as good as what you can get in a jar (or can).

Turn Your Head and Kofta

One simple way I’ve worked into my food thinking to try to ensure that more and more of the meat that I consume is at least vaguely ethical is by going out of my way to have cuts from animals which are less popular with the general public, and thus through sheer economic principles are less likely to have been industrialized. Lamb instead of beef, quail or duck instead of chicken, boar instead of pork… that kind of thing.

The good news for me, is that attending a church full of people of Arabic descent means that discovering lamb dishes, how to prepare them, and places around the city to get good Middle Eastern food (which, when done authentically, is almost always lamb, not beef) has gotten much easier.

Always budget conscious, and recognizing that eating ethical meat means spending a lot more per pound, I always have my eye open for budget friendly options. The most obvious budget friendly lamb option I’ve found is kofta (or kafta, depending on regional transliteration). This is a ground meat preparation which sort of straddles the fence between a sausage and a meatball; traditionally oblong, not spherical, not stuffed into a casing, and yet not cooked loose like Western breakfast sausage or scrapple, either. This preparation is typically cooked as a kabob, which is to say on a skewer, on a grill.

Kofta is, for me, a shining example of how Mediterranean cuisine somehow manages to have strong flavors, and use a lot of spices, and yet somehow everything still tastes like “itself”. Kofta tastes like lamb. And yet, it is anything but “plain” or “bland”. These are the kinds of food traditions I enjoy the most, and so kofta has become a fast favorite of mine.

I have found a few places around the city which serve phenomenal kofta wrap sandwiches, but of course, cooking at home is always cheaper than dining out, so of course I needed to figure out how to make my own kofta at home. And of course, I knew better than to ask any of the jadda at church for their recipe because, well, I like my ears to remain their current size, and in their current location on my head. Clearly, some deep nerd R&D was going to be required.

The first thing you learn when you start looking into ground meat preparations from the Middle East (such as gyro and kofta) is that the meat is ground much, much finer than one finds for Western sausage or meatball/meatloaf/burger preparations. During my early experiments I was inclined to ignore this detail, and I paid dearly with crumbling meat during cooking, eventually resulting in not only bad texture, but poor flavor. Yes, it is a very tricky business to put meat into a food processor and not end up with “pink slime” or some kind of wallpaper paste, but if you don’t own a grinding attachment for your pasta maker or stand mixer (and I don’t even own this hardware, yet, let alone have grinding attachments) you’re going to need to bite a bullet, develop a very adept pulse button finger, and tighten up the grind manually.

Part of the reason for this is that some of the primary ingredients you’re going to add to the meat are pureed raw onion and fresh herbs — which have a lot of water in them. A loose grind combined with a high water content is going to cause the crumbling during cooking that I was seeing.

Note, that yesterday I was making a variation on Italian wedding soup, but using kofta instead of meatballs[1]. If you want kofta for sandwiches or an entree, use all lamb, rather than the combination I have below.

So, enough foreshadowing, here’s the rundown.

  • quarter pound ground lamb
  • quarter pound ground pork
  • quarter pound ground chuck (not highly lean ground beef!)
  • half white onion, pureed and left to drain
  • four cloves garlic, pureed and left to drain (or prepared minced garlic, well drained)
  • large handful of fresh cilantro
  • large handful of fresh basil
  • salt, pepper, hot and smoked paprika, and sumac (or at least a zatar blend which includes it)

Puree your onion and garlic and set aside to strain. Coarse chop your cilantro and basil. Put your meats, dry seasonings, fresh herbs and pureed aromatics into a bowl and combine as best you can with a big spoon. Then, in small batches, add to a food processor and carefully work everything together more thoroughly (while making the grind on the meat finer without pulverizing it).

Form golf ball sized meatballs with the results. Arrange in a cast iron skillet and place beneath a broiler on high heat, but at some distance from the flame. Once one side is browned, drain the fat into a large cooking pot, turn the meatballs over, and put back beneath the broiler until the second side is browned, then remove from heat, drain fat again, and set aside, covered. Carry over heat will ensure they are cooked through safely.

Cook a batch of short grained rice, barley, orzo pasta or pearl couscous.

In the large pot where you put all that meat fat, add three chunked carrots, three chunked celery ribs, and the other half onion chunked, with liberal salt, on medium high heat. Once well wilted and soft, add two cartons of low sodium vegetable broth and a third carton of water. Let simmer until the vegetables all want to fall apart. Strain into a large bowl, put the vegetables aside (either to compost or to puree into a sauce base if you just can’t bring yourself to “waste” them), return the broth to the pot and add a bag of chopped spinach (I recommend working through it by hand to remove all the stems). Once the spinach is soft, you can serve your soup by filling the bottom of a steep bowl with your rice (or pasta or whatever you made), putting two meatballs on top of the rice, and then filling the bowl with broth.

Note: this makes far more broth than it does meatballs. But, broth keeps, meatballs don’t. Be prepared to make additional batches of meatballs (and cook more rice/pasta) to finish off the broth — or to store the broth for later use in sauces and gravy.

[1] Traditional Italian meatballs are one part pork, one part lamb and one part veal. I refuse to eat veal, and so I substitute ground chuck (rather than a highly lean ground beef) to ensure that I have enough fat content to keep the balls moist during their time under the broiler.

Sour and Spicy Sea Bug Soup

Strictly speaking, the Lenten fast is not “vegan”. Vegan is a contemporary term and does not really correlate directly to what is and is not proscribed during this season. For example, honey is always permitted during this time. Also, aquatic animals which have neither spine nor fins (shellfish, basically) can be consumed. This seems to be a quirk of culture. “Oil” is specifically off limits, because in the ancient Byzantine Empire, fine oils were eaten more or less alone as a feasting food, while shellfish were essentially viewed as “bait”. So yes, in today’s world, during Lent, you can have a $30 lobster, but not a $0.50 hot dog, and still be “fasting”. In the Gamer Geek world we call that “rules lawyering” and it isn’t seen in any better light in the faith than it is at the gaming table.

Why am I talking about this? Because today’s recipe involves shrimp, and I didn’t want to confuse anyone. My wife is out of town for a few days, which means I can cook seafood in the house without her complaining about the smell or running around casting “scented candle” spells everywhere (which make me sneeze).

One concession I made to the Lenten season was that I bought a bag of block frozen shrimp (better quality than individually frozen, actually, just more frustrating to get thawed out for use) rather than fresh, to keep the expense down. For this recipe, though, you want shell on, raw shrimp. Ideally you would make this recipe with fresh, whole shrimp. Whole as in heads and legs intact. Shrimp shells and brains contain an enormous amount of flavor which is ideally suited for sauces and broths. However, I’m unaware of a way to get frozen shrimp with the heads still on, so I had to settle for shells intact but headless.

Shellfish should get cooked one of two ways: as hot, fast and brief as possible, or as slow and low as possible. Given that I was starting with something frozen, I had to opt for the latter. I used a stainless skillet for this, and the glass lid with the vent hole from my pasta pot just happens to fit onto this skillet. So, I put the shrimp into the pan with the lid on over very low heat, and turned them over from time to time. This cooking is going to create a lot of water in the pan. Keep this. Hence the lid. Once the shrimp are cooked through, put the shrimp into a bowl in the freezer and transfer the resulting liquid into a large sauce pan.

In a food processor or blender combine stewed tomatoes, roasted garlic, lots of lemon juice (lots), a couple tablespoons of white vinegar, heavy coconut milk, fresh cilantro, a generous amount of “rooster sauce” (or similar sriracha type hot sauce) or a combination of hot peppers and honey/sugar, and kimchee if you have some (I make my own approximation of this as a source of probiotics).

Once the shrimp have cooled, shell them. Put the meat aside, and put all the shells into the sauce pan where your retained liquid is. Add a carton of vegetable broth. Bring to a simmer and allow to simmer for a long time. Strain, and dispose of the now thoroughly depleted shells. Add the blended items and bring back to a simmer. Make adjustments with lemon, vinegar, honey and heat to create your desired level of “ouch”. If you have access to kaffir leaves, add them during this simmer stage. Be sure to remove them before serving.

Put shrimp meat into a bowl and pour hot broth over them. This will warm them through without making them over cooked and tight. I recommend serving this with either glass noodles or rice noodles. Prepare them separately and add them to the bowl with the shrimp, and then pour over the broth.

Just don’t forget to cast an immunity to fire spell on yourself before digging in. And to have a breath mint after.

Mediterranean Vegetable and Grain Salad

This was last week’s offering for the pot luck dinner. Much less work than tonight’s dish.

One cup of the same old baked barley I’m always talking about. 375 degree oven, 3 cups of water, one hour. Blah blah blah.

While that is cooking, in the food processor combine

  • a dozen cloves of roasted garlic (I make huge batches of this by getting bulk peeled garlic at Costco)
  • lemon juice (a fair bit)
  • olive oil (to match, you’re making a dressing)
  • red pepper flake
  • smoked paprika
  • salt & pepper
  • sumac
  • thyme (dried)
  • sesame seeds
  • cumin
  • oregano (dried)
  • cilantro (dried)

Render that into a dressing.
Course chop the following (either in the processor or by hand)

  • green, black and kalamata olives.
  • artichoke hearts
  • one can stewed tomatoes
  • capers

Toss the barley (after it has cooled and been fluffed) and the chopped veggies with a can of garbanzo beans and a can of black beans. Toss in the dressing.

Salads like this taste best if allowed to mellow overnight, but taste just fine after a couple of hours setting up. Served immediately upon combining, they will seem flat in a way you can’t put your finger on, somehow.

Why Do Druids Sell Fresh Herbs Only in Huge Bunches?

Maybe this is only a problem for those of us who rarely cook for more than two people at a time. But when I’m buying fresh basil, or cilantro, or parsley, I really (really) don’t need three quarters of a pound of cilantro. After you’ve put that quarter cup of chopped herbage into your recipe, what do you do with the rest of the bunch before it is fit only for the compost?

Mint is easy. You put it in the food processor with sugar and just enough water and you then have a great simple syrup for your spirituous libations.

Rose mary, sage, and other heartier greens should be wrapped in towels and dried. This way they keep a long time, and work more or less just as well — sometimes better.

But the delicate greens like basil, parsley and cilantro? What do you do?

Step one is to find an art supply or restaurant supply shop (do not go to a dedicated cooking store as these are almost always very over priced, especially that one you find in upscale malls that seems to be named after a California grape growing region) and to purchase a few squeeze bottles of a reasonable size. You know, the kind that look like they should have ketchup or mustard in them. But get clear ones if you can, not the red and yellow ones, to avoid confusion.

Next, put your herbs, one at a time please, into your blender or food processor with high quality olive oil. High quality, but not the super ultra premium stuff.

As a bit of a tangent, let’s talk about olive oil. Everyone loves to talk about fancy extra virgin olive oils. Everyone loves to find those free samples in the grocery store with bits of bread to taste oils that come in tall, skinny, dark green glass bottles which are the equivalent of a single barrel scotch or a regional wine. This stuff is not for cooking. This stuff is for eating. Yes, by itself, with bread. These high end oils have unique, strong flavors that don’t belong in food, but do belong in your belly. Heck, when the Orthodox fasting rule excludes oil, what it means is this kind of oil, the stuff you’d break out for a feast of some kind, not eat everyday. Why not everyday? Because that skinny glass bottle costs $20 or more, that’s why not. But our culture has even gotten a bit weird about cooking olive oil, as well. TV chefs of the variety that make me question the way men think about women and also drive me to drink like to get all sassy about their “ee vee oh oh” when they’re cooking. Behold as I wave my magic wand and make you disappear (that’s a remote control joke). As a rule of thumb, the higher the quality of the olive oil, the lower the smoke point is. Thus, the better it is, the less useful it is for cooking. Now, I’m not saying you should start doing all your cooking with canola or vegetable shortening. I’m just saying that there’s nothing wrong with those big cans (or big plastic bottles) of fairly generic extra virgin olive oil or even olive oils that are not extra virgin, or even virgin. This stuff is cheap. It has a high smoke point, and you can get more than 20 ounces of it at a time, which is good. This is what you’re supposed to cook with. Sure, it isn’t prestigious, but that’s because you aren’t going to put it out on the table in a clear dish for dipping bruschetta into. You’re going to use huge glugs of it at a time to make your food cook better and taste better. And you don’t want to go broke in the process. I cook almost exclusively with olive oil. We keep small amounts of sesame oil in the house for certain Asian dishes, and we have some extremely high smoke point stuff like safflower around for the wok, and baking gets done with something more neutral than olive oil. But if I’m cooking, I’m cooking with olive oil. Like my “go to” preserved vegetable items, I buy this stuff in bulk at the warehouse store. Seriously. There is no shame in this. You may find that many dishes actually taste better with a cheaper olive oil that brings less flavor into the mix. Try making steel cut oats one morning with that top shelf stuff and tell me it isn’t better with the cheap stuff.

Sorry, tangent over. Put your herbs into the blender or food processor with some of your good but not great olive oil. There’s a balancing act here, much like making the simple syrup with the mint, where you want just enough of the herb and the oil so that neither really dominates the mix. Store this in the squeeze bottle in the fridge. This will now keep much longer than fresh herbs do, but gives you a way to cook with fresh herb like flavor without wasting huge bushels of green leaves in the compost every two or three days. Just remember to take the bottle out and let the oil come up to room temperature before trying to use it, or it won’t come out of the bottle. Also remember to put it immediately back into the fridge when you’re done.

If you want to make an amazing salsa-type dip, dice up your veggies (onion, tomato, tomatillo, garlic, chili &c.) and then dress them with a bit of cumin, salt, and your cilantro oil. No nasty leaves in your teeth, and still that great, fresh, green lawn clippings flavor! Or, make an Italian cold salad with white beans (cannellini) and your basil oil.