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Monday, February 28, 2011

Cooking Under a Deluge

Photograph by Lance Sabbag
February has come and gone, as you are well aware, and with it many plans have not come to fruition.

It is a common adage in kitchens that if you put something on the menu, you should deliver, regardless of how difficult it is to execute. My menu for the month of February included much more than I was able to put forth, and for that I apologize. I do not deign to be so important to all of you that you have been hanging on my every post, but I still do feel that I have shirked a certain amount of responsibility that I promised to you.

The month contained three notable successes on my part, though. One was a test-run of serving food at the Phoenix Café, during their Up in the Aether event—this was the debut of the Baozi, a very, very successful little experiment, and a lesson in making recipes to fit your crowd. I could have served many more than the 16 buns I was able to create.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Chinese Steamed Buns-Baozi

Baozi are a common food in China—and indeed across the Asian region—because they are simple, simple to make, and easy to eat. They have existed in Asian food culture since time immemorial, and come in an astounding number of varieties, filled and empty. The fillings range from custards and bean pastes to cooked meat and vegetables, making the basic technique at the heart of making baozi a very, very versatile piece of knowledge.

I have decided to create two kinds of baozi for this little post, because I am serving them at a local Steampunk event, and I don't want to bar anyone from enjoying the fruits of my labor. Therefore, one will contain a mixture of sautéed vegetables, and the other a sort of Cha Shao-style (Cantonese barbecue) pork filling.

Baozi are made with a soft, simple dough—yeast, water, flour, sugar, and a small amount of salt are combined, allowed to rise, and then kneaded with a small amount of baking powder before being shaped into the buns, filled, proofed, and steamed.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Dinner Party

Bartending, on the other hand, is a job
full of thanks and contact with people.
Photo by Don Watts
Being a cook is not an easy job. You work in a small, hot, dangerous space for a long time, and if you're doing things right nobody who is consuming your food should interact with you for more than a few minutes when, and if, you go out to take your curtain call—because, in truth, there is not a single soul who does not like to be applauded.

When someone appreciates your work, therefore, it is always a remarkably pleasing experience, and to be asked to produce a dinner party is a sign of confidence and a recognition of talent. Being a cook can be a rewarding job.

I've been asked to create a simple dinner party for the most frequent and prolific customers of Off the Beaten Path Books. Five courses at the most, simple, but delicious. It's scheduled to go off on the 25th of this month, three weeks from today.

It's a chance to strut my stuff for paying guests, to push the limits of the space in which I will cook, and—of course—to make delicious food with a historical flair.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Steamed Dumplings-Mantı

Mantı are a popular dish in Central Asia and the Middle East. Depending on where you find them, their exact shape and size vary, but in many respects they are similar in fashion to Baozi. The main difference is that while Baozi are made with a yeast dough, Mantı are made with something much closer to a pasta dough. Both dishes are steamed, however, making them quite similar in function and in creation, if not in form.

Mantı are typically filled with a beef or lamb mixture, similar to the boreks from earlier, and steamed until the dough wrapper and the ground meat inside are cooked. Many regional varieties exist, as the dish spread across its geographic area with nomadic tribes. Most are served with a yogurt-garlic sauce, sometimes with sumac, hot red pepper powder, or dried mint, sometimes with other sauces and spices.

Monday, February 7, 2011

An Excerpt from the Journals of Graf Georg von Ziger

February 7th, 1874. Ochamchira, Abkhazia, Russia.

Traveling to have the Halcyon refitted in Timbuktu. Departing Archangelsk was an enjoyable experience—the ladies out with handkerchiefs a-waving for us were motivation to redouble our efforts in the destruction of piracy. We have landed today in Ochamchira, a coastal town on the Black Sea.

Captain Thibodeau has granted us 1 day's shore leave, and I have spent it among the lowest of the low. Dockworkers, prostitutes, clockwork pickers... the criminal element seems to like me when I am not in uniform.

Walking the streets with a group of ruffians who called themselves the "zavodnoĭ ubiĭtsy"—they say it means "clockwork killers"—I began to grow hungry. I commented upon this state to my newfound companions and they escorted me to one of the more cosmopolitan corners of the poor quarter, a through-way for the sailors, aviators, and travelers—poor and wealthy alike—going between the Zeppelin docks and the rail depot. A man stood on the corner, a small boiler beside him. It appeared to be powering the machinery of a workhouse, but he had managed to vent some of the steam through pipes to a series of plates in front of him. On each stood a stack of pans with perforated bases, appearing to be some sort of straining device, like a colander, but flat-bottomed, like a fry-pan. These pipes and plates served to direct the steam shunted from the engine up through the perforated pans, providing a steaming apparatus usable for cooking.

Street food is fascinating. The gentleman, having characteristics both of a Chinaman and a Turk, was cooking several items in the various plates. Buns, dumplings, and even meat items were being prepared for sale—at reasonable rates—to the passers-by, rich and poor alike. Simple food, but delicious. I made note of the different foods I ate, and I have endeavored to re-create the recipes in the kitchen of the Halcyon.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Ice Carving

Ice carving is a part of the Culinary Arts, just like fruit carving, cake decorating, and buffet arrangement.

Admittedly, you do not usually eat carved ice—it's had chainsaws and chisels and drills all over it, been torched down with a giant blowtorch—and its purpose is typically aesthetic rather than nutritional.

Yet, the artistry involved in ice carving is something that leaves me in awe. Some of my friends competed this past weekend in the 2011 NICA Collegiate Championships. On the right, you will see a picture of a robotic angler fish, with a propeller for a tail, gears and a lightbulb as a lure, and a clean, beautiful body with big teeth.

This was the team carving done by two of my friends. It took the gold medal for the team carvings.

I'm honored to know these people, and to have the opportunity to marvel at their skills.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

A Culinary Commentary: Utilization

The Buffalo Hunt
From Native Americans
There's an old story—perhaps you learned it in grade school—saying that the Native Americans used every part of the buffalo when they killed it. This story is meant to highlight the decadence and wastefulness of Western culture, in contrast to the noble, in-touch-with-nature Natives. Besides its obviously orientalist trappings and its exclusion of non-plains tribes (I don't think the Mi'qmak, Ojibwe, or Potawatomi were hunting buffalo in the woods and northern lakes,) it is also a patently disingenuous statement: Classical Western Cuisine contains hundreds of uses for many parts of pretty much every edible animal.