Archive for the ‘Side Dish’ Category

Crispy Potatoes, Cheesy Spinach

October 1, 2009


Ingredients: potato, spinach, butter, olive oil, flour, milk, lemon, aged Gouda, black pepper, salt.

I’m not sure if my dinner here qualifies as an actual meal or just 2 side dishes on one plate. This exact dilemma comes up quite a lot as a vegetarian, at least in my experience. It’s so hard to let go of the protein-veg-starch model. At any rate, the potatoes and spinach came out very tasty and satisfying.

To make the potatoes, I cubed them (with skins intact) and tossed them in olive oil, salt, and pepper. Then I scattered them on a foiled baking tray and popped them in the oven for an hour. Halfway through the cooking I shook them around because the bottoms were getting much browner than the sides. This procedure worked out fine, but I suspect there are better ways to achieve evenly-browned roast potatoes. Anybody have tips for me?

For the spinach, I simply made a Mornay sauce (Béchamel plus cheese) and drizzled it into the pan where my thawed frozen spinach was cooking. The Mornay was really tasty. My cheese of choice was a grainy aged Gouda, which has a marvelous caramel flavor and a sharp bite. Then, as I usually do with anything heavy & creamy, I added a little lemon juice at the end to freshen it up.


Sesame Cucumber Salad

September 24, 2009


Ingredients: cucumber, onion, rice wine vinegar, palm sugar, sesame oil, black sesame seed, chili flake, salt.

This was the first time I’ve made a vinegar-based cucumber salad. It worked out so well for me that I can’t imagine not making another variation sometime soon. The process was fast, easy, and lots of fun (I keep my santoku knife super-sharp). The end product was absolutely lip-smackingly delicious, and way healthier than most of the stuff I’ve been eating recently.

For this salad, I started by making a simple vinaigrette. I used rice wine vinegar, which is so mild (and tasty) that you can practically drink it straight. I sweetened this with palm sugar (which has hints of smoky caramel), salted to taste, and whisked in just a bit of toasted sesame oil. That stuff is heavenly, but less is more. I decided then to add a pinch of hot pepper flakes, as a complimentary accent to the vinegary tang.

Next, I thinly sliced half a fresh white onion and got it soaking in the dressing. I followed that with an even-more-thinly sliced cucumber. I was worried at first that the raw onion would be unpleasant or overwhelming, but the acid in the vinaigrette broke it down sufficiently. I finished off the salad with a sprinkle of black sesame seeds, then let it sit in the fridge for about half an hour.

Timing is fairly important here. A little wait is required in order for the flavors to marry each other and penetrate the cucumber. However, I noticed that when I came back for seconds a few hours later, the cucumber’s water had escaped and flooded into the vinaigrette, significantly diluting its intensity. If I were to make this farther ahead of time, I’d want to pre-soak and pat-dry the cucumber slices before dressing them.

Janssons Frestelse (Swedish Potato Casserole)

August 29, 2009


Ingredients: potato, onion, cream, butter, bread crumbs, Swedish pickled sprats

Janssons frestelse (Jansson’s Temptation) is a curiosity of Swedish cuisine. What a strange name! And such strange flavor to boot. But for the locals, this potato casserole is pure husmanskost — comfort food, home cooking. No smörgåsbord (traditional Swedish buffet) is complete without Janssons frestelse, especially around Christmas time.

The name Janssons frestelse is actually a reference to a Swedish movie from 1928, which was popular at the time of the dish’s invention. I find it funny because “temptation” implies that the casserole is some kind vice, in the vein of Chocolate Sin Cake. Janssons frestelse certainly does require a boatload of cream to make, and is otherwise a giant pile of carbs, but I don’t think such things have ever been considered sinful here (or anywhere else in Europe). The name was catchy though, and has persisted long after the movie was forgotten.

Texturally, this dish is pretty similar to a cheesy potato gratin. Tastewise, I can think of no comparison. The unique flavor profile comes from ansjovis, which you might think means “anchovies.” You’d be wrong, but you’d be in the warm company of hundreds of semi-tragically mistranslated recipes. An ansjovis is a fish, but tastes nothing like French/Italian anchovies. It’s a type of herring, and it’s sold pickled in tins with a very specific spice blend, including white vinegar, sugar, salt, cinnamon, allspice, bay leaf, ginger, clove, and sandalwood. See, I told you there was no comparison!

To make a Janssons frestelse is very simple. Open a tin of ansjovis (which you can actually find for sale in the commissary at IKEA) and mix the brine with 2 cups of cream (or a mixture of milk and cream). Fill a casserole by alternating layers of shredded potato, ansjovis fillets, and thinly-sliced, skillet-browned onions. Pour in the seasoned cream, not quite filling the casserole but close enough so that the potatoes can soak it up. Then sprinkle bread crumbs all over, followed by a drizzle of melted butter. Bake for an hour.

I can understand someone not caring for Janssons frestelse, but to my foreigner’s palate, it’s absolutely delectable. There is no taste of fish whatsoever, just a pleasant savory fullness. In fact I love the vibrancy that happens as my tastebuds try to figure out whether or not this is a dessert.

Another nice thing about Janssons frestelse is that it tastes just as good from the fridge as it does from the oven – surely the mark of a great casserole!


August 5, 2009


Ingredients: Napa cabbage, carrot, bamboo shoot, scallion, garlic, ginger, Thai dried chilies, glutinous rice, sugar, nam pla (fish sauce), salt.

Served with: white rice, sesame seeds, cucumber, egg, tofu marinated in soy/sugar/sesame oil.

I am a bit afraid to write this post. Kimchi is fiercely beloved by Koreans, and Koreans are a fierce bunch. They take their kimchi very seriously. Some of them read this blog, which means I have to do right by this spicy little side dish, or face consequences. I’m … probably in no physical danger, but I do want to keep my friends. After all, they introduced me to kimchi in the first place, and for that I’m thankful.

So, what is kimchi? It’s essentially a pickle made from Napa cabbage and/or other veggies. I’m going to pause and rewind here because until recently, I thought that pickle specifically referred to a salt-processed cucumber. Actually, when I was a kid, I didn’t think pickles and cucumbers were related at all. They sure tasted different! Eventually, I figured out that one comes from the other. Now, of course, I get it that a similar process can be applied to pretty much any food item, and that it can be done at home.

The basic idea is that perishables will not perish if they are kept in a salty, acidic environment. What does happen is fermentation, whereby “good” bacteria break down the natural starches and sugars in the vegetables, producing pleasantly sour lactic acid. This is also good news for the digestive tract, because the fermentation process has already done half the work. There are health benefits, too. Pickled vegetables are considered quite good for you, providing all the nutritional benefits of raw food. Kimchi in particular is supposedly one of the healthiest foods on the planet.

Making kimchi is labor-intensive and involves days of waiting around for it to ferment, but the steps are simple and the end result is certainly worthwhile. It’s incredibly spicy and pungently sour, but also salty, and a bit sweet. The garlic and fish sauce give it a nice savoriness too. My favorite way to enjoy kimchi is as pictured above, with some fresh cucumber slices, plenty of rice, and a just-barely-fried egg (so as to coat everything with runny yolk). This week I had some fresh tofu on hand, so I marinated that in soy sauce, sugar, and sesame oil, then pan-fried it and served it with the rest. This kind of presentation is called bibimbap (“mixed meal”) in Korean, and is a ubiquitous menu choice when dining out.

The first stage of making kimchi is to brine the cabbage. I washed and chopped 2 heads of Napa cabbage (did you know this comes from China, not California?) into a large bowl, then covered the pile with a small mountain of coarse salt, followed by enough water to submerge it. This needs to sit for while, so I left it overnight and continued working the next day.

I washed and drained the brined cabbage, and added to it ample julienned strips of carrot, bamboo shoot, and scallion. The bamboo was an experiment that turned out great; I’ll definitely be using that again next time. I have also used daikon radish in the past, which is a more traditional kimchi veggie, but I honestly don’t care for its flavor.

The last step is to make a “starter” for the kimchi, like a baker would for a loaf of bread. This calls for a paste of glutinous rice flour. I didn’t have that, but I did have some glutinous rice, so I buzzed it around in an electric coffee mill until it couldn’t get any finer. [Doesn’t that sound like R&B-speak?] I boiled the rice powder gently, along with some sugar and a decent quantity of fish sauce, to make a thick porridge, which I then let cool. Next I pumped a few cloves of garlic and a hunk of ginger through a press and into the pot. Last but not least came the chili flakes. It’s incredibly important to use the right kind, that being Korean gochugaru, which is bright red and fluffy. You don’t want any seeds in the mix, and it has to be mellow, because you’ll be using a huge amount of it. Sadly, I couldn’t find any gochugaru in any of the stores here, so I substituted a handful of whole dried Thai chilies, which I deseeded by hand and pulverized in the coffee mill. I knew from experience that I would not be able to use very much of the Thai chili, for fear of rendering the kimchi inedibly spicy. In the end, I picked a good heat level, but there wasn’t much of that vibrant red kimchi color to be found.

I poured the kimchi starter over the cabbage, then used my (plastic-gloved) hands to mix it up well. At this point, it was time to seal the kimchi in an airtight plastic container, set that aside in a dark room, and relax. Kimchi needs about 3 days to ferment in its own juices. I know that sounds scary, but you will not die from leaving kimchi in the closet. You will merely help it achieve its pickly goodness, after which you will assist it to the nearest refrigerator shelf, where it will last for several weeks.

Corn on the Cob

July 31, 2009


Ingredients: corn, onion, butter, parsley, dill, lemon, salt, black pepper.

The season’s first corn on the cob arrived this week. I eagerly snatched up a couple ears and prayed that they would taste as good as they looked. I was not disappointed. These were sweet, crisp, firm, and succulent, the kind of corn on the cob that reminds me not to settle for the canned variety.

The standard way I prepare corn on the cob is to shuck them, snap them in half, then boil them in salted water for around 6-8 minutes. Afterward, if it isn’t too inconvenient, I like to sit them on a grill for a few more minutes to get some color and aroma. Then I melt butter in a tupperware container, add a fair amount of salt and pepper to it, roll the ears around in it, and serve.

This time, I was feeling indulgent (or perhaps I just felt like showing off for the blog). In addition to the steps I mentioned above, I also added parsley, dill, and a squeeze of lemon juice to the seasoning mixture. After their butterbaths, I sprinkled the corn cobs with crunchy rostad lök (roasted onion). This is a very popular condiment in Sweden, somewhat similar to Durkee French Fried Onions, and usually accompanies the traditional street food of korv med mos (hotdog & instant mashed potatoes).

The corn on the cob turned out fantastic. It was excellent quality corn to begin with, and the nice herby tang of lemon & dill truly complemented its flavor. I was also pleased to notice that just a bit of those crunchy onions really brought out the natural crisp texture of the corn.

Salmon Fried Rice

July 19, 2009


Ingredients: white rice, salmon, green peas, onion, bean sprouts, bamboo shoots, cabbage, egg, soy sauce, corn starch, rice wine vinegar, salt, black pepper, sesame oil, peanut oil, butter

Fried rice is an excellent way to use up leftover rice that has hardened in the fridge. In fact, you can’t really make it properly with freshly-cooked rice, which just gets mushy in the wok. Fried rice is also an opportunity to use up small quantities of vegetables. This is a very savory dish, and always includes scrambled egg, so I don’t usually bother to include other proteins. This time, however, I really wanted to try adding salmon. It turned out okay but wasn’t necessary at all.

I started by cubing and marinating the salmon in a solution of corn starch, rice wine vinegar, salt, pepper, and a dash of soy sauce. This is stir-fry standard operating procedure. The idea is to provide a velvety protective layer for the pieces, so that they do not scorch when subjected to a flaming wok. Do not skip this step, as it is essential for that soft restaurant-quality texture. You can, however, use vermouth or white wine instead of rice wine vinegar.

After quickly frying the salmon chunks in a bit of peanut oil and setting them aside, I scrambled 2 eggs in the wok, then removed them as well. Next up were the veggies: first the onions, then shredded cabbage, followed in a few minutes by canned bamboo shoots and frozen green peas (neither of which need much time to heat up). All of that went into another bowl beside me, after which I gave the bean sprouts some alone-time in the wok. I like doing those last because I want them to be seared but still have plenty of “tooth” left (I suppose this term comes from al dente, “to the tooth,” when pasta is ever-so-slightly undercooked).

Before frying the hardened rice, I made sure to break up all the clusters that had formed. This ensures even cooking. Once the wok returned to high heat, I tossed the rice in, followed by a small hunk of butter. Then I did that cool Iron Chef move a few times, where you hold the handle sturdily with one arm and flick the wok contents up in the air (then catch everything). Note that it’s important to let the wok sit on the burner for a few seconds after each toss, because the metal cools off very quickly.

After a few minutes of those antics, I returned everything to the wok and splashed in some soy sauce, which was hungrily soaked up by the rice and began to form a nice brown crust underneath. I finished off the fried rice with a swirl of sesame oil (for aroma) and some imaginary scallions (since I ran out of real ones).