BitterSweet

An Obsession with All Things Handmade and Home-Cooked


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A-Maize-Ing

Put down the pumpkin spice latte. Step away from the Halloween decorations. Summer isn’t over yet, for crying out loud! The kids may be back in school, but the days are still bright and warm, full of the very same glorious produce we were enjoying mere days ago. Why rush into the next season while there’s still so much to enjoy in this one?

Case in point: fresh corn. There’s simply nothing else like it, and it can never compare when purchased off-peak. Now is the time to get your fill or hold your peace for another year. That means an ear of corn a day by my estimate, if not more. I simply can’t get enough of the stuff, crisp and sweet, straight off the cob with a light pinch of salt.

Fresh corn doesn’t stick around long though; what remains after the height of the season is but a shadow of its former glory. Watery, starchy, a waste of valuable stomach real estate, corn eaten any other time of year guarantees disappointment. As threats of the approaching seasonal shift grow louder, it’s simply not enough to enjoy a few bites a day. To really get a proper fix that will hold you for a full year, you can’t hold back.

That’s why my current favorite corn preparation not only involves tossing crisp kernels with supple strands of homemade pasta, but incorporates the very essence of corn right into the noodles themselves. That’s right; fresh corn pasta.

No more difficult to fabricate than any other dough, this unique formula incorporates both whole corn and cornmeal along with the standard wheat flour base, yielding a satisfying, toothsome structure with a genuinely flavorful soul. No one could ever accuse this noodle of being bland, even when eaten straight out the boiling water.

The best way to do justice to such a simple, pure product is to leave it alone. In essence: don’t screw up a good thing. Toss the cooked noodles with good olive oil or just the barest veil of pesto, along with a handful of fresh seasonal vegetables, and let it do the rest of the work. Such unique noodles are special enough to speak for themselves, much like superlative fresh corn does in the first place.

Anyone else out there still clinging to summer, or simply feel that the autumnal push is just a bit too aggressive? Pull up a chair and have a bowl of pasta with me. You’ll forget all about that nonsense after one bite.

Fresh Corn Pasta

1/2 Cup Corn Kernels, Canned and Drained, or Frozen and Thawed
1/2 Cup Aquafaba
1 Tablespoon Olive Oil
1 Teaspoon Salt
2 Cups All-Purpose Flour
1/2 Cup Finely Ground Yellow Cornmeal

To Serve:

Pesto
Fresh Corn Kernels
Cherry Tomatoes, Halved

To make the pasta, place the corn kernels, aquafaba, oil, and salt in your food processor. Puree, pausing to scrape down the sides of the container as needed, until completely smooth. Add in the flour and cornmeal and pulse to incorporate. It shouldn’t take long before the mixture turns into a cohesive dough. Turn it out onto a lightly floured surface, press it into a ball, and cover it loosely with a clean towel. Let rest for 10 minutes to allow the gluten to relax before proceeding.

Divide dough in half, covering one of the portions once more with the towel. Focusing your attention on the other half, knead it lightly until smooth and press it into the rough shape of a rectangle. Break out the rolling pin and roll it out to about 1/8th – 1/16th of an inch in thickness.

Lightly flour the entire length before rolling it loosely and gently to make a short scroll to can be cut in one stroke. Use a very sharp knife to slice the noodles to your desired thickness; about 1/4-inch for fettuccine or 1/8-inch for linguine. Toss the noodles with additional flour to keep the strands separate.

Hang the fresh pasta on drying rack (in a pinch, I’ve used metal coat hangers) for at least two hours to dry. Repeat with remaining half of the dough.

If preparing the pasta well advance, allow it to dry completely, about 8 – 10 hours depending on the humidity in your kitchen, before storing it an airtight container or zip top plastic bag.

To cook, bring approximately 4 quarts water to a boil. Add pasta and cook for just 2 – 3 minutes, stirring occasionally, until firm but tender. Drain but do not rinse.

Immediately toss with pesto and fresh vegetables and enjoy!

Makes 2 – 4 Servings (Paired with a Salad or Soup to Make a Meal)

Printable Recipe


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Cold Noodles For Hot Days

Call it ramen 2.0, or perhaps a limited summer edition of everyone’s favorite noodle. Chilled ramen dishes are nearly as abundant and diverse as hot renditions, but are overwhelmingly underrated, uncelebrated and overlooked, in favor of more familiar preparations. Not all soups must emerge from the kitchen with a plume of steam, nor gently charred and still radiating heat. When it already feels like you’re standing in an oven just by opening up the front door, nothing hits the spot better than a refreshing bowl of ramen on ice, no matter the flavor.

They start out just as before, made of the very same stuff as their hot brethren and cooked in the same fashion. The difference is that after reaching the perfect state of toothsome tenderness, the spry young strands are immediately plunged into a shock of ice-cold water, simultaneously arresting the cooking process and dropping the temperature down quite a few degrees. Expertly guided once again by acclaimed chef and noodle master Philip Gelb, the results were practically instant- But clearly far superior.

Confronted with a bowlful of fresh, naked noodles, the options of embellishment are simply overwhelming. Every Asian culture has their own unique summertime staples that color the humble alkaline noodles with a rainbow of different flavors. Starting simple, the Japanese tsukemen truly allows the delicate nature of this handmade pasta to shine. Plunging mouthfuls into a bowl of deeply savory chilled broth, topped with a light smattering of scallions and a touch of wasabi for a bright finish, each mouthful is an essential experience of cold noodle elegance.

Kongguksu, hailing from Korea, might be the least known ramen preparation in the western world. It is a great shame that its popularity is not more widespread across the states, as it has no equal when it comes to both refreshment and satisfaction. Floating in a sea of homemade soymilk, enriched with sesame and almonds, ramen noodles are treated to a bath of rich, creamy soup. Ice cubes are tossed right into the bowl to keep things cool, through and through, ensuring that the first taste will be just as brilliant as the last. The secret is all in the soy beans, of course. Taking the extra step of removing the hulls creates the most silky texture imaginable. Though tempting, don’t even dream of taking a shortcut and buying prepared soymilk; once you’ve gone through the trouble of making your own ramen, soaking a few beans should be no big deal.

Finally, bringing the heat through bold spices but no actual fire, Szechuan Sesame Noodles are the most intense yet crowd-pleasing way to cool your noodles. Infused with lip-tingling, mouth-numbing Szechuan peppercorns, there is nothing subtle about this dish. It’s an in-your-face, action-packed thriller that will keep you on the edge of your seat from start to finish. That intense flavor can be adjusted according to preference, but the whole point of this dish is to make you sweat to maximize the cooling effect. It’s scientifically proven that sweating is actually one of the most effective ways to beat the heat, and this Chinese staple will definitely yield delicious results.

It would be impossible to pick one favorite from these three completely unique takes on the cold ramen noodle. Luckily, Chef Philip was generous enough to offer his recipes for all of them, so you don’t have to choose. Bear in mind that each preparation will need a new batch of ramen noodles and serve about four hungry eaters.

Now there’s no reason you can’t keep your cool this summer, and still do it in good taste.

Ramen Noodles

Bring 2 quarts of water to a rapid boil. Drop in noodles and cook for about 60 seconds. Once the noodles are al dente, rinse in cold water to immediately stop the cooking process.

Japanese Cold Noodle Dipping Sauce

Dipping Sauce:
1 2/3 Cup Kombu Dashi (Seaweed Stock)
1/2 Cup Sake
4 Tablespoons Soy Sauce
1/2 Teaspoon Salt
1/2 Teaspoon Palm Sugar

Optional Additions:
Sliced Scallions
Grated Daikon

Wasabi or Karashi (Hot Mustard)

Place all the ingredients in a saucepan. Set over medium heat, bring to a boil, and simmer for 3 minutes. Let cool and chill completely before serving. Add in as many of the optional ingredients into the sauce as desired, to taste, or set them out in small bowls for diners to mix into the sauce at will.

Kon Gook Soo / Kongguksu (Cold Soybean Noodle Soup)

1 Cup Dried Soybeans, Soaked Overnight, Rinsed and Drained
2 Tablespoons Raw Sesame Seeds, Soaked Overnight, Rinsed and Drained
1/4 Cup Raw Almonds, Soaked Overnight, Rinsed and Drained
6 Cups Cold Water
1 Teaspoon Salt
1 Teaspoon White Pepper
1 English Cucumber, Julienned
Crushed Ice, as Needed

Cook soybeans in 1 quart of boiling water for 15 minutes. Rinse and drain. Place soybeans in a bowl, fill with water, and gently rub the beans until they split and the hulls come off. The hulls will float to the top and can be easily discarded while draining the water. Remove at least 90% of the hulls.

Add the hulled and drained soybeans to a blender along with the sesame seeds, almonds, and cold water. Puree on high speed for 2 minutes and chill this mixture until very cold. Add salt and pepper, stirring well and adjusting seasonings to taste, as needed.

Divide the cooked noodles between four bowls. Place a handful of ice in each, and top the noodles with sliced cucumber. Pour the soymilk on top and serve immediately.

Cold Szechuan Sesame Noodles

Sesame Sauce:
1/2 Cup Kombu Stock
1/4 Cup Roasted Peanuts
1/4 Cup Toasted Sesame Seeds
1 (or More) Fresh Thai Chili
2 Teaspoons Minced Garlic
1 Heaping Teaspoon Szechuan Peppercorns, Toasted
3 Tablespoons Soy Sauce
1 Tablespoon Dark Chinese Soy Sauce
1/4 Cup Palm Sugar
1 Tablespoon Chiankiang Vinegar
1 Tablespoon Rice Vinegar
1 Tablespoon Minced Fresh Cilantro
1 Tablespoon Szechuan Chili Oil

Garnish:
English Cucumber, Slivered
Scallion, Chopped
Beansprouts

In a blender, add all the sauce ingredients and puree until completely smooth. Chill thoroughly.

To serve, toss together the noodles, sauce, and all of the garnishes desired. Serve immediately.

Each Preparation Makes 4 Servings

Printable Recipe


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Top Ramen

When fresh noodles meet hot broth, some sort of strange alchemy occurs. It’s easy to understand the allure of ramen, and yet mysteries still abound, lurking at the bottom of each steaming bowl, compelling slurp after slurp as if the secret might be hiding in that very last spoonful. How on earth can such simple, humble ingredients meld together into something so sublime? Where exactly do those immense, throat-gripping savory flavors come from? Which came first; the pasta or the soup?

I paid a visit to my friend and accomplished chef Philip Gelb in hopes of answering these questions and gaining some insight on the way of the noodle. The promise of ending up with a taste of fresh, handmade ramen may or may not have been the primary excuse for attending his often sold out class. Either way, I got much more than I signed up for, which is the essential wisdom behind this dish.

It turns out that like most foods, there is no magic going on behind the scenes. Rather, the foundation is built upon quality ingredients that are treated with respect, prepared with the utmost care to coax out their full potential. The richest, most umami-infused broth you’ve ever splashed across your palate contains a minimal number of components, but is slowly simmered for a number of hours, allowing the water to reduce while the latent flavors to naturally emerge and intensify.

Ramen masters jealously guard the formulas to their patented brews, but even the die-hard fanatics rarely make their own noodles. Without means of mass production, the temptation to cut corners by sourcing acceptable starchy options is understandable, and indeed Sun Noodle provides very good ramen noodles for approximately 90% of the trendiest shops around the US. No, that’s not an overstatement, but the honest truth. Few other manufacturers have mastered the art form quite like the Hawaii-based company, eliminating a huge amount of labor for innovative restaurateurs nationwide. No matter how good this high standard may be, still nothing compares to the delicacy of a fresh ramen noodle made by your own two hands- And perhaps a pasta roller if you can afford the luxury.

Chewy, soft, and bouncy in all the right ways, the ramen noodle gets its great acclaim from its inimitable texture. Though traditionally imparted by kansui, a solution of potassium carbonate and sodium bicarbonate that serves to toughen wheat proteins and create the signature mouth-feel for these distinctive strands, a more accessible alternative can be found right inside your kitchen cabinet. Philip smartly induces the same sort of chemical reaction in standard baking soda by burning it in the oven. Aromatic in a less than pleasant way, he recommends doing this step in bulk so that you only need to suffer the fumes once. You may question your sanity as the stench rises in growing waves, but you must persevere through the pain! The rewards on the other side of this acrid wall are great. The difference between alkaline noodles and plain old spaghetti are like night and day.

Toppings are another discussion entirely, but my impression is that pretty much anything goes. Consider it the pizza of noodle soups; strong opinions about what is “right” and what is “wrong” are prevalent among purists, but if it tastes good, there’s no reason not to indulge. For this demonstration, key additions include deeply savory shiitake mushrooms, fried tofu, spicy pickled bean sprouts, and roasted cabbage. Crazy as it may sound, a whole head of cabbage is simply rubbed with olive oil and tossed in a slow oven for two hours, yielding an impossibly buttery and dare I say meaty morsel that very well could steal the show in a lesser bowl of soup.

The beauty of this combination, though, is the perfect balance of ingredients. Each addition is a strong player in its own right, capable of standing up to competing flavors without drowning each other out. While some continue to argue about whether it’s the noodles or the broth that makes the bowl, the real secret is that it’s neither. It’s the bigger picture of the dish altogether that makes ramen so great, and anyone focusing on just one piece of the puzzle is bound to be disappointed. Sure, it’s quite a bit more work than tossing a quick-cooking block of instant ramen on the stove, but every eater owes it to themselves to try the real deal at least once. You will never regret the time spent when you consider the true satisfaction gained by fabricating each and every facet by hand.

Homemade Ramen
By Chef Philip Gelb

Ramen Noodles:

1 Cup Semolina Flour
1 Cup White Flour
1/2 Teaspoon Sea Salt
1/2 Teaspoon Burnt Baking Soda*
3/4 Cup Water

*Burnt baking soda is needed to alkalize the dough. Place approximately 1 cup baking soda on a sheet pan and bake at 250 F for 1 hour. Store in an airtight container for a few months.

Mix both flours, salt and burnt baking soda. Add water and stir well. Knead by hand for 20 minutes or until very smooth and pliable. Wrap tightly and refrigerate overnight.  Bring dough to room temperature and knead again for 10 minutes. Wrap tightly and let rest 1 hour. Roll out noodles to desired thickness and cut into thin strands.

When ready to eat, drop noodles in rapidly boiling water for about 1 minute or till desired texture. Serve immediately.

Makes 4 Servings

Kombu Stock:

Water
Dried Kombu
Dried Shiitake Mushrooms
Yellow Onion
Scallion
Fresh Ginger
Celery
Carrot

Place all ingredients in water to cover, add heat, bring to simmer, lower heat, cover, simmer for 2 hours. Drain all solid parts out.

Optionally, roast some or all the vegetables first for a darker, richer flavor.

Experiment by adding other vegetables such as cilantro, pumpkin, sweet potato, celery root, parsnip, lemongrass, and so forth as desired.

Soup:

12 Cups Kombu Stock (Above)
1 Cup Mirin
3/4 Cup Sake
1 1/2 Cups Soy Sauce

Combine all ingredients, bring to simmer and cook 5 minutes to burn off some of the harsh notes of the alcohol. Balance with more shoyu or mirin if needed, to taste.

Makes 7 Servings

Topping Options

Roasted Cabbage:

1 Whole Head Green Cabbage
Olive Oil

Rub cabbage generously with olive oil and wrap tightly with aluminum foil. Roast at 350 for 2 hours. Let cool completely before slicing thinly.

Quick Pickled Sprouts

1 Pound Mung Bean or Soybean Sprouts
2 Quarts Boiling Water with 1/8 Teaspoon Baking Soda Added
2 Tablespoons Rice Vinegar
3 Tablespoons Soy Sauce
1 Tablespoon Toasted Sesame Oil (FOR SPICY SPROUTS add hot chili oil instead)

Plunge sprouts into boiling water. Immediately remove and rinse well under cold water. Place blanched sprouts in a bowl and add vinegar, soy sauce, and oil. Toss to coat.

Shiitake Mushrooms

6 – 8 Dried Shiitake Mushrooms
1 Cup Kombu Stock
1 1/2 Tablespoons Granulated Sugar
2 Tablespoons Soy Sauce

Bring water to boil with sugar and soy sauce. Add shiitake and cook over medium-low heat until the liquid evaporates.

Slice each mushroom into several sections. Use one mushroom per bowl of soup.

Tofu

1 Pound Firm Tofu, Drained
Oil for frying

Cut tofu into 1/4-inch wide strips and pat dry. Deep fry tofu till crisp.

Printable Recipe


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Cashew Cache

In honor of labor day and what might be summer’s last hurrah, the only suitable recipe to share would have to be one cool customer, unencumbered by complex procedures or obscure ingredients. Luckily, I have just the dish to fit that bill.

Step away from the stove! Raw, vegetable-based noodles are the key to beating the heat and simultaneously lightening up this satisfying savory treat. Delicate strands of carrots and cucumbers mingle together in crisp tangles of “pasta,” as vibrant as they are flavorful. Inspired by classic cold sesame noodles, the Chinese takeout staple has graced my table countless times but never in such a fresh format.

Cashew butter takes the spotlight for this round, adding a unique nuance to the nutty, lightly spiced sauce. Deceptively simple in composition, it doesn’t sound like anything particularly special on paper, but one taste and you’ll be hooked on that creamy cashew elixir, lavishing it over everything from salads to grilled tofu and beyond. Although you may end up with more than you need for this particular dish, trust me: It won’t be a struggle to polish off the excess in short order.

Carrot Cashew Noodles

Cashew Sauce:

6 Tablespoons Smooth Cashew Butter
1/3 Cup Vegetable Broth
2 Tablespoons Braggs Liquid Aminos or Low-Sodium Soy Sauce
2 Tablespoons Rice Vinegar
2 Teaspoons Light Agave Nectar
1 Teaspoon Toasted Sesame Oil
1 Clove Fresh Garlic, Finely Minced
1 Inch Fresh Ginger, Peeled and Grated
1/2 – 1 Teaspoon Sriracha

Carrot Pasta:

5 Large Carrots, Peeled and Shredded with a Julienne Peeler or Spiralizer
1 English Cucumber, Peeled and Shredded with a Julienne Peeler or Spiralizer
2 Scallions, Thinly Sliced
1/3 Cup Toasted Cashews, Roughly Chopped

This dish comes together very quickly and doesn’t keep particularly well once assembled, so make sure you’re good and hungry before you begin!

Start by preparing the sauce. Place the cashew butter in a medium-sized bowl and slowly add the vegetable broth, stirring constantly to loosen and smooth out the thick paste. Simply add the remaining ingredients, whisk thoroughly until homogeneous, and set aside. Kept separately in an air-tight container, the sauce should keep in the fridge for 1 – 2 weeks.

To finish the dish, toss together the carrot and cucumber noodles and begin by adding about half of the sauce. It may be difficult to combine everything with tongs or a spatula, so don’t be afraid to get in there and mix it up with your hands. Add more sauce as needed (don’t forget that carrots and cucumbers come in all different sizes, so your mileage my vary), incorporate the scallions, and toss to combine.

Move the mixture out onto a serving plate, top with chopped cashews, and enjoy!

Makes 2 – 3 Main Dish Servings; 4 – 5 Side Dish Servings

Printable Recipe


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The Pouch Principle

No matter what the actual dish in question is, prepared, shelf-stable meals are often labeled  across the board as unhealthy, or even worse, unpalatable. To cast such a wide net across this vast category of edibles only does a disservice to the eater, putting scores of undiscovered flavors firmly out of reach. Sure, fresh is indisputably best whenever possible, but between busy schedules, budgetary constraints, and unreliable kitchens, this alternative becomes a prime option. Especially for the traveler with little more than a microwave at best, such handy shortcut meals are an absolute godsend.

One company producing pouches of higher quality than most is Tasty Bite, a staple in the vegan and vegetarian marketplace for almost a decade. Offering East Asian delights across countless country borders, it’s an easy introduction to the unique palate of spices that perfumes these unique cuisines, without needing to hunt down a restaurant willing to go without their ghee. Although there’s typically a package or two stashed away in my pantry in case of emergencies, I had no idea that Tasty Bite made more than just entrees until they landed on my doorstep. Now delving into the world of sides, there are scores of flavorful starchy options to pair with your punjab, if you so wish.

One of my favorites has always been the Channa Masala, a mildly spiced chickpea stew found on any Indian menu that’s worth reading through. This particular rendition bears incredibly tender, creamy chickpeas in a lightly tangy tomato sauce. More flavorful than hot, the pepper is played down while the sweeter, warmer spices perfume the dish. Whole spices lend occasional pops of flavor; toasted cumin or coriander seeds add concentrated bursts of flavor into different bites, keeping the eating experience exciting.

Plated on a bed of Thai Lime Rice, I was taken aback by just how delicious those unassuming grains were. A focal point in its own right, the rice leads with a strong punch of lemongrass, enhanced by the richness of coconut milk. Granted, the texture fell a bit more on the side of mushy than I would prefer, but for a dish that’s merely nuked for a minute and ready to go, you can’t beat that complex flavor.

Punjab Eggplant, another common stable of Indian cooking, tortures me to no end. Though I long to dig in with abandon, eggplant does still make my throat burn, so I passed the torch over to my mom for this taste test. She noted that the spice level was high enough to make her nose run, although there was still a notable sweetness about the sauce. The greatest failing here was the largely homogenous, pulpy texture, perhaps something that could be remedied with a pairing of crunchy crackers or flatbread instead of rice.

Of course, I just had to go the more traditional route and add Ginger Lentil Rice into the mix. Though this rice has the same soft qualities as before, the lentils poses a pleasantly surprising firm bite. Dyed a brilliant yellow thanks to the turmeric-imbued curry powder, aromatic ginger essence does take the lead, just as promised. Much more interesting than your average “bean and rice” side dish, I would venture to say that it could even be considered a full meal in itself, thanks to the effortless combination of nutritious proteins and starches.

Previous unbeknownst to me, Tasty Bite has also begun serving up Asian noodles in their iconic pouches. Sampling the Kung Pao Asian Noodles with high hopes, I’m sad to report that the noodles themselves proved predictably overcooked, well past the stage of aldente. Painted in a tangy, punchy sauce, toothsome peanuts and water chestnuts do introduce a bit more character to the combination, if not quite the structure I so craved. Balancing sweetness, saltiness, and spiciness, it’s nothing too complicated or challenging; easy comfort food for the harried eater. However, I can’t say I would readily venture into the realm of noodle pouches again in the near future. There’s still a way for the technology to go to prevent the texture downfalls inherent in the pasta.

Sharing a world of flavors that will satisfy hunger pangs in a minute flat, it doesn’t get any easier than a quick meal whipped up courtesy of Tasty Bite. Just fire up the microwave and dig in.