Team cooking outing

This afternoon, we had an office team building event at My Cooking Party, a cooking space that allows for classes and team events for schools and workplaces. We were split into two teams and each team got paired up with a professional chef, who would help “guide” us in the direction we’d want. Each team got one protein, one starch, and one vegetable, and had to come up with the most creative way to use each. At the end, two secret judges would evaluate each team’s dishes and decide upon a winner.

To be frank, there really wasn’t much creativity by the actual team members involved, as the chefs clearly had ideas in mind for what to do. I get why they set it up this way: the vast majority of people who take these classes have little to no experience cooking (New York City is the land of delivery, after all, and here, speed and convenience are king), so it would not be good to have a cooking competition where blind people are leading other blind people on a team. My team had shrimp, Israeli couscous, and string beans. The other team had skirt steak, potatoes, and spinach.

Our chef pretty much said, let’s make a pesto for the shrimp! And let’s also do a roasted tomato and vegetable stock based couscous! And who were we to object? I suggested using the ground coconut for a Kerala string bean sauté; he was not on board with this, and lightly suggested ginger-soy string beans. This excited everyone on the team except me. That just screamed “boring and predictable” to me. The other team ended up making a marinated skirt steak, French fries with rosemary oil, and buttered spinach. And somehow, they won despite how predictable their menu was, that their skirt steak was mostly well done, and at best, medium well in the center. The judges said that the fries were “creative,” but when did French fries become unique?

It was all fun in the end, and it was nice to be able to get out of the office and do something that wasn’t work related. But I didn’t really like that they made it sound like we had free reign to do whatever we wanted with the food and to be rated on our “creativity” when it was clear that we were at the whims of our assigned chefs and not our own minds. In that case, I would have preferred to just have assigned dishes with recipes per team and to eat everything together in the end. It’s either a real competition or not. It’s either with recipes or it isn’t. You shouldn’t have it somewhere in between.


Air-chilled vs. not-air-chilled chicken

Although I am open about my love for Costco, one thing I am not a huge fan of is their whole organic chickens. Although they are sizable, well-priced, and organic, the one failing they have is that they are not air-chilled. What does that mean? It means that instead of being hung and air-dried, they are instead packed in water and then sealed. What this ultimately results in is a massive amount of excess water (and thus wetness) when you defrost the chicken and get it ready for roasting. This causes problems if you are concerned with having extremely crispy skin. The only way to get crispy chicken skin is to separate the skin from the chicken flesh, and then make sure it’s as dry as possible by sopping out any excess wetness on the external surface (and in the cavity). Getting an air-chilled chicken is the faster and easier route to the holy land of crispy chicken skin. Having a regular chicken will result in spots that will never fully dry out, even if you leave the chicken uncovered in your fridge overnight (which I always do before roasting a whole chicken). Neither of the whole Costco chickens that were packed in water ever achieved the ultimate Crispy Chicken Skin status that I wanted. But tonight’s air-chilled Whole Foods whole chicken did.

And it was delectable and glorious. Though Chris complained when I served the breast first (when you roast chicken, the breast will always be the most succulent on the day of; and every day after that, it just gets worser and drier. That’s just white meat for you). “Why do we have to eat breast? Why can’t we just have all dark meat? F— breast.”

That’s not really how a whole chicken works…


Dreamy cream scones

With a short trip coming up that will have us leaving on Wednesday, I’ve been taking a quick inventory of all the things we need to finish in our fridge. One of those perishable items included a cup of heavy cream. One cup of heavy cream is perfect for one batch of scones, for which I already had all the ingredients for. I can’t even remember the last time I made scones, but I really love them — not the hard, heavy American-style ones, but the light, airy British ones that are a bit crisp on the outside and soft and fluffy on the inside. America’s Test Kitchen recipes are always keepers for me, so I went back to my tried and true recipe for their cream scones and added mixed dried berries to it. I kneaded the dough a bit, laid it out, and poked out the scones with my fluted biscuit cutter. They came out just as pretty and tasty as I remember from the last time I made them… which was years ago — much too long ago. They’re so easy and fast to make that it’s a shame I don’t make them at least once or twice a year. I’m definitely changing this now.

Instant Pot commentary after three uses

The latest version of the 6-quart Instant Pot is definitely finicky to say the least. It needs enough water in it so that the bottom doesn’t burn and give you the very common and much dreaded “burn” message, but “enough” water is very subjective depending on what you are cooking. I already ruined vegetable biryani on Saturday, but after two more tries in making black-eyed pea curry and an Indian-style eggplant called baingan bharta, I’ve realized that there are certainly glories in having this “instant” pot. Beans and eggplant cook incredibly quickly. All my cooking for yesterday’s dinner was done by 3:45pm, and I cannot remember the last time I made a full meal on a Sunday when I was ready that much in advance of dinner time. I barely even knew what to do with myself. Do I clean more? Can I read? Write another entry on this blog? Who knew that laborious and time-intensive cooking could be shortened so much?!

I’m still wary of cooking rice in it, though, unless I try the “pot in pot” method, which of course would require yet another accessory, which I’m not sure I want to invest in quite yet. I will likely be keeping the rice cooker we have for now until I figure out how not to burn rice in the Instant pot main pot.

Instant Pot craze

Even though I enjoy cooking a lot and have since I was a teen, I realize that I tend to overlook a lot of terms and definitions that I shouldn’t. For example, I didn’t realize until three years ago that there was a difference between a slow cooker and a pressure cooker; I thought those terms were just interchangeable. So when I finally invested in a slow cooker early in 2015, I was disappointed when I realized that a pressure cooker was what I really wanted, and I made a mistake purchase; quicker cooking, quicker results, quicker broths, faster extraction of flavor from bones. But I made do with my mistake purchase… I got a lot of use out of it cooking beans, making stock, stews, mashed potatoes, even butter chicken and Hyderabadi biryani. It was a good 3.5 years that we were active together.

But then lo and behold, shortly after I bought my slow cooker in 2015, I was late to join the band wagon and learn about the Instant Pot, this crazy cooker that could do seven different things: pressure cook, slow cook, steam, saute/sear, make yogurt, make rice, and warm food. And then I realized that I made a huge, huge mistake: I just bought an appliance that would have zero resale value given the millions and millions of people who either want or have an Instant Pot.

So Amazon Prime day came this week, and the Instant Pot is the cheapest I’ve ever seen it at $58.99. So we obviously got it, plus a couple accessories. I’m planning to test it out by making egg and vegetable biryani this weekend. But now my dilemma is: who is going to buy my slow cooker? Is it even able to be sold?

Post-India trip food cravings

Since we’ve come back from India, deciding what to eat has been pretty difficult. At work, I’m lucky to be able to get Seamless ordered from any place within the delivery radius of our office, but even that has been a (first world) struggle in deciding what I want. I think part of the reason I can’t decide is because I keep thinking about all the flavors and textures I had during our India trip, and I honestly would prefer to just continue eating different variations of that while here. But alas, that isn’t quite possible, especially in the Flatiron area where my office is.

So on Friday night, I made a masoor dal, a lentil stew, to satiate my dal cravings. Then, on Saturday, I made a version of the minced string bean dish that Chris’s grandmother’s servant made for us. It’s called green bean thoran and is a very common vegetable side dish in the state of Kerala, where Chris’s family on both sides is originally from. It was purposely different than the one the servant made, but still tasty and what I wanted. And then today, I made a version of Indian-Chinese vegetable fried rice. Unfortunately, it tasted nothing like the Indian fried rice we had at the Intercontinental in Mumbai, where we were able to enjoy a few gorgeous breakfasts. I remember asking the server and then the chef what spices were used in their fried rice that was part of their breakfast buffet, and they insisted no spices were used, just salt, pepper, chilies, and broth powder. We have no idea what spices were in the broth powder. Ugh. I even tried doing multiple variations of Google searches for “Indian Chinese fried rice recipe” that yielded zero even partially promising results. Lastly, I defrosted the organic chicken I had gotten from Costco a few months ago, spatchcocked it (removed the backbone, and for the very first time, which I was terrified of doing… It was actually harder than the videos made it look. You really need to apply some elbow grease even when you do have a pair of kitchen shears, which I specifically bought for this purpose), and rubbed home-blended garam masala spices over it, then roasted it whole for dinner. After seeing how quickly a whole chicken roasts (35 minutes!) in the oven with its backbone removed, I may never roast a whole chicken with its back bone in ever again. This was truly dinner-changing.

Now, I’m wondering what will be next: Kerala fish fry? Double-rise dosa? Cabbage poriyal? The list of things I want to make has only grown exponentially since this trip has concluded.

Persian lentils vs. Indian lentils

I had imagined that for my parents-in-law arriving today that I would prepare a Persian themed meal for them, and so I picked up just over two pounds of New Zealand lamb loin chops while they were on sale at Whole Foods this week. Well, apparently I didn’t think this through and thought two pounds of meat would be more than enough for the four of us… but I didn’t factor in that the weight was mostly in the bones. So I had to think of another protein that would fit my Persian theme. Since my pantry is filled with so many different types of legumes, I decided upon a Persian lentil stew that seemed fairly straightforward and easy to make.

The funny thing about this as I studied the recipe is that Persian lentils are prepared very much the same way that Indian lentils can be prepared; the only major difference seemed to be in the fact that in the Indian lentils I am used to making, there’s always ginger and hing, whereas in this Persian recipe, there’s no ginger or hing, and cinnamon is added at the end. It actually gives a slight sweet and pleasantly spicy note to the lentils that I’d never thought would work before, but I really enjoyed. I could completely see how this could be Persian comfort food in its simplest form.

I showed the lentils to Chris, and he said, “That’s Indian.” I responded, “No, it’s Persian.” To which he responded again, “Same shit.” I guess it kind of is. Persians and Indians and Pakistanis were once one people, and now they’re different… but the spices they use are pretty much the same.


The vastness of Mexican cuisine

Chris had a last-minute desire to take a cooking class while in Oaxaca, so we got lucky last night and got confirmed for a cooking class today at Casa Crespo just a couple blocks away from our hotel. Lo and behold, when we arrived, we discovered that it would actually be a private cooking class since no one else had signed up that day. We started the day having a quiet chat over Mexican hot chocolate and fresh breads with the owner and cooking instructor Oscar, who runs the restaurant, which does only private tasting menus and special events, plus cooking classes. We chatted about things we’d like to make, things I had made previously in the cooking class I’d done eight years ago here, and what we’d accomplish today. We made two different moles, a chocolate-based one that is considered a special occasion/wedding mole, a red mole without chocolate, steamed in wrapped parchment paper with rabbit, calabaza (squash blossom) and Oaxacan cheese-stuffed tortillas, yellow tortillas from fresh masa, squash blossom and squash stuffed tamales, salsa verde (Chris’s baby), salsa rojo of three types: worm, cumin, and avocado leaf, guacamole with fresh mango, shrimp and vegetable soup, and avocado ice cream.

It was so fascinating to learn about all the different Mexican herbs that we never bother or even consider using in the U.S., like yerba santa leaves, squash blossoms or calabaza, avocado leaves (which have an incredibly fragrant and very distinct flavor). But at the same time, it made me a little sad that these things aren’t readily available back home. Even in the Mexican markets that I’ve visited on occasion in Spanish Harlem or in Corona, Queens, when you see things like dried ancho or pasilla chilies, while they are still tasty and delicious once fried, heated, or steeped in boiling water, they completely lack the in-your-face bold fragrance that the ones in the markets here do, and the reason for that is obvious: they’re just fresher here and closer to the source. Then, there are all the ways to prepare the endless varieties of dried chilies: fried in oil, dry charred, steeped in hot water (which I’ve done a few times back home to make sauces like harissa). It was also eye-opening to learn about all the different types of tortillas and tamales: the massive, main-meal-sized Oaxacan-style tamales that are filled with mole and chicken or another protein, thick masa, shaped into a large block, then steamed in banana leaves. Then there are the ones we know better back home, which are more appetizer-sized, just a few bites, with some fresh salsa verde, pork, and masa, steamed in corn husks. Then, there are the tortillas for tacos: yellow, red, blue corn; stuffed with minced herbs or vegetables or blossoms, pure with just soft, supple masa. The varieties just keep going on.

“There are many, many types of tortillas,” Oscar said, smiling, when I asked him how many exist. “Too many to count.”

The vastness of Mexican cuisine, or Oaxacan cuisine in this specific class’s case, never seems to end, and to me, it’s like we’ve just touched the surface. I wish we could be more exposed to this back home and see Mexican cuisine for more than just tacos and carnitas.

Sous vide steak

Chris’s brother got us a sous vide precision cooker as a belated wedding gift the summer after our wedding, and because our apartment was small and had no outlet near the stove, Chris forbade me from using the precision cooker until we moved into a new apartment. Well, lo and behold, we did move into a new apartment last summer, but I felt intimidated by the precision cooker even after reading extensively about how to use it, and finally sucked it up and used it today.

I bought Australian grass-fed ribeye steaks on sale at Whole Foods last week in anticipation of this experiment given that most of the people I know who have tried sous vide have said that the first time always has to be steak for the most impressive results. Some people do fish, others do eggs, but a big hunk of steak is always the most dramatic.

After an hour and a half in the sous vide bath at 129 degrees F, I think it is safe to say that these steaks were pretty much perfect. After a quick sear on my cast iron and getting smeared in butter, they were pretty much perfect. The sear isn’t as apparent as it is if you just cooked it on a pan, but the inside was exactly the right texture. And since they were Australian steaks, the meat was a bit more chewy than the American cuts of steak that are grain fed and finished.

I rarely cook steak at home, but now I know that when I do, I’ll always use this sous vide precision cooker. It was much easier than I thought it would be, and the time spent waiting for it was completely worth it. The actual “work” that’s put into it is actually quite minimal since you can pretty much set it and forget it until it’s done. That’s definitely cooking that a lot of people can get behind.

Sardines and anchovies

Sardines and anchovies are oftentimes considered the lowest on the food chain because they are some of the tiniest fish you could eat. They don’t have the worries of mercury behind them the way swordfish do, nor do they have the massive farming issues that salmon does. I’ve really gotten into sardines in the last couple of years, but anchovies, for whatever reason, have intimidated me because of how naturally salty and fishy they are. I love them in authentic caesar salads, but in my actual cooking, I generally steered clear of them.

But then I found a Sicilian recipe for Sicilian pasta with sardines, anchovies, fennel, and toasted bread crumbs, and it attracted me immediately. I’ve been actively trying to use ingredients recently that I’ve been avoiding or ignoring, everything from dried Mexican chilies, fennel, cabbage, and now anchovies. This would help me expand what I’m comfortable with. It gets boring to always cook the same cuisines or the same dishes, and I get bored extremely easily with almost everything. I’ve made a number of Italian dishes, but have never made anything Sicilian. So I took a chance and actually made the dish today, and it came out incredibly well. The anchovies’ saltiness really spread, but just enough and without being overwhelming. I just used a small tin. I barely added any additional salt to the dish, and it turned out perfectly. Even Chris was skeptical but was convinced after he had a few bites. It’s the little wins that get me excited in the kitchen.