Sunday, May 22, 2011
I can make pad thai
When it comes to cooking I fancy myself an advanced intermediate. Gumbo, pasta, salads, pizza, fried chicken, etc. are all above average. With a decent recipe, some time to shop and execute, there's nothing I can't make, usually pretty well. I strive to make meals which are better than what I'd get ordering the same dish in a restaurant and I've been able achieve that more often than not. I've even added in some baking recently, turning out a few birthday cakes for Reen and a random batch of cookies here and there.

A simple motivation is wanting to be able to cook the food I like, at home, on demand and for cheaper than I'd pay at a restaurant. One of the earliest dishes I tried out was pad thai. This was during our first stint in northern VA, more than 10 years ago. Being street food, and very quickly served in any thai restaurant, I thought this would be an easy one to learn. There are a preponderance of recipes out there for reference, most of which say the same things: mix sauce, prep ingredients, soften rice noodles then fry everything up. Garnish with ground peanuts and a lime wedge.

God bless Maureen for eating every attempt that I offered up, but over the past 10 years I can recall only a single plate that was up to par...and I wasn't able to repeat that success. Each version was edible, sometimes even tasty, but I could never get the noodles themselves correct and the sauce correct at the same time. It must be the longest standing effort to get a dish consistently good that I've undertaken.

Two of the recipes I've tried are shown below, with the requisite battle stains demonstrating their use.

From Joy of Cooking...not really that bad actually, despite being based on western pantry items.

My desperation is revealed by this well worn recipe from Wolfgang Puck. In hindsight, perhaps not the best chance to find a reliable recipe.

To date, I've only written down two recipes* for documentation in the family recipe box. But tonight, a third is getting the star treatment.

I've successfully made pad thai about 3 times in a row now, with the ease and confidence one has when there's finally no more trial and error going on during the execution. I really know I've arrived because the results each of the 3 times were consistent with each other.

Here are the basics that I've got down and will leave the details (how much garlic, how spicy, what herbs you'd like, egg or no egg) to each individual. Those things are a matter of taste and difficult to mess up.

The number one issue here is how you soften the dried noodles before frying. You must soak them, not immerse in boiling water as you'd do with pasta. And the soaking water must be cold, not warm or hot. I assume it's an issue with activating the gluten in the noodles, but stick with cold water to avoid a mushy/clumpy/broken noodle mess for dinner.

I was convinced that the problems I was having related to how I was cooking the noodles once they were softened. The heat of the pan, length of time in the pan, amount of oil, amount of water...all the while, prepping my noodles in warm or hot water because it was a little faster. Now that I'm starting with cold-soaked noodles, they are wonderfully forgiving as far as the details of cooking go.

A second, smaller improvement I've found is to buy the skinnier rice stick noodles which are about 1/8" wide. The bottom one in this photo. This is more an item of preference as opposed to the hot/cold soaking mentioned above.

For a standard serving of 4 oz/100 g of dried noodles:
1 Tbl light brown sugar (palm sugar is more authentic if you've got some)
1 Tbl fish sauce
1 Tbl tamarind concentrate

Have a little water on hand to help the noodles along when frying, add sauce about 1 minute prior to noodles finishing up so that the fish sauce gets cooked and the sugars begin to caramelize.

And that's it. The rest is window dressing and a bit of practice to perfect it to your own tastes. Enjoy.

My first attempt at making hotdogs yielded something that was really stomach churning. I can't actually say if it was inedible, because I didn't taste it. I had worked for a good 3+ hours preparing these and once 'done' I promptly threw them in the trash and took the trash out of the apartment to the dumpster. That was nearly 10 years ago now and I haven't tried to make hotdogs since.

The other blinding failure was an attempt at Coq au vin, the classic french dish of braised poultry. Another long session, which yielded a brownish purple mass with the rock hard feel of an over-inflated football. I did taste this one and would not have served it to a dog.

* the two originals in the box are a chile flavored sloppy joe type dish which I termed a Sloppy José. Served on a cheap white hamburger bun with a slice of american cheese metled on top. Awesome.

The second is a penne pasta with a cajun cream sauce, shrimp, chicken and smoked sausage. This was borne from a restaurant dish that Maureen liked and I was able to recreate (dare I say..improve?) at home. A pasta based jambalaya if you will.
Sunday, April 04, 2010
country ham...the conclusion
I did well at changing the water in the cooler twice a day, once before I went to work and again in the evening before bed. I just used water from the hose each time.

I added ice to the water for the first two days but none at all on Saturday. Temps were in the low 70's that day and for a time I was concerned about the ham spoiling. In the end it was fine. I've come away with the impression that the average country ham is quite the resolute object, both physically and chemically. If cured properly, the ham should prove largely immune to the nasties that would go to work on a raw piece of meat floating in coolish water for a day.

In the end the ham soaked for about 42 hours. God help me but I did taste the smallest bit of ham water from the cooler prior to draining it for the last time. I couldn't taste any salt so I figured that while things were likely still in a hypotonic state, the osmotic pressure had abated to the point where further soaking would yield deminishing returns vis-a-vis reducing the salt content in the ham.

Here's a pic of the ham after leaving the cooler and being rinsed again. The smell is still an important detail here since from the start this thing never smelled "good". It did not smell spoiled or rotten either, but there is a cloying/earthy/meaty aspect to the smell that is quite unique and not very appetizing. The soaking lessened this smell but it never disappeared completely.

From here I inserted a probe thermometer, filled the pan with about 2 inches of water and added some brown sugar, pepper corns, allspice berries and cinnamon. I covered the whole thing with heavy foil and put it into a 400 degree oven for 30 minutes, dropped the oven to 250 and went to bed. It went in the oven just prior to midnight on Saturday night.

When I checked the temp at around 7am Sunday morning, it read 170 degrees (at bit higher than I'd have liked) so I turned off the oven and took the pan out, leaving it uncovered to cool while we went to church and breakfast.

When I first woke up I'll admit to being sad that the house smelled like the odd smell, but just in the background, was the familiar and welcome smell of sweet porkiness, familiar from times Dad and I have finished pork butts off in an oven. This familiar smell was the first ray of light that helped make me feel like this experiment might actually yield something edible.

Here it is out of the oven and cooled.

From here I sharpened up my boning knife and went to work cutting off the skin and fat from around the ham. The fat was mostly rendered, but still a bit tricky to get a good clean trim without nicking the meat below. The trimming process took about 15 minutes.

Here is a pic with the skin and fat removed...and for the first time the object starts to look like food. Perhaps not hugely appetizing, but when I got done I was happy to see that it looked like ham.

And now the final step was to carve out some slices, which I did again with my boning knife as I don't own a carving knife. This was not too tough, following advice I read in multiple places about how to carve a whole ham. I did at least as well as this guy, although the glaze/coating on the ham he's working on makes clear that I have plenty to learn in other arenas.

In the end, I thought it tasted very good. The meat is very lean and pretty dry; the thin slicing helps make it easier to chew. The flavor is intensely...hammy and only later does the salt shock your palate and back of your mouth. After eating a few slices, I had an odd feeling in my tummy because of the salt intake. But as soon as that faded, I wanted to have another bite. I find myself snacking on the leftovers now as I write this.

We served a dry reisling with it, which I think went well due to the sweetness. Reen also made a salad with strawberries and a raspberry vinaigrette, again the sweetness of this helped round out the whole meal.

The common application of serving thin sliced country ham over biscuits with white gravy would be really great I think. I look forward to trying that soon. Soup is also another likely candidate for how best to use the huge amount of leftovers.
Wednesday, March 31, 2010
wooo pig Sooeee!
Mom and Dad Holland are coming up for Easter this weekend. In celebration of our newly sprouting Virginia roots, we'll be taking a turn at preparing a country ham for dinner which is a first for me.

Smithfield - a Virginia tradition

14+ lbs, cured, peppered and smoked. Some small bit of mold on the areas not covered with skin. The smell is strongly of smoke and pepper. I scrubbed the entire outside under running water to remove the mold and any surface residue. This picture is right out of the bag, prior to the scrubbing.

After fretting about not having a food safe 5-lb bucket to soak the ham in, finding Alton Brown's suggestion of using a cooler was a welcome piece of advice. It's Wednesday night now and this will come out to cook on Saturday night, so it'll soak for roughly 36 hours. I plan to completely change the water twice a day.
Thursday, December 06, 2007
more nerd please
I recently read The Kings of New York, by Michael Weinreb which is a book about a top highschool chess team from New York City.

It chronicles a year in the life of the Edward R. Murrow chess team. The interest in this story is that the team is a dynasty of sorts, winning multiple national titles over the past decade, despite the fact that Murrow is a public school. The students on the team are from vastly different backgrounds, quite often from immigrant parents who are struggling to make a stable life for themselves in the US.

About halfway through the book Reen asked how I was enjoying it. I said it was fine, but that there was too much stuff about how Murrow was a unique school and the backstory of each student player and the inner working of the NYC public school system and the politics of disadvantaged youth etc. etc.

I wanted more chess. He writes that the kid traps a grandmaster level player with a surprise move. That sounds cool, why not show the details in the book? A few graphics of the positions and some annotation on the crucial moves maybe. There's precious little of this in the book. Almost none in fact. And so I told Reen that the book was fine but it was all human interest stuff. It didn't have enough chess.

Reen reminded me that not having a lot of chess would be considered a bonus by a large majority of the readers. I conceded the point and we both marveled at what a nerd I am.

This was all well and good. Until...I borrowed the audio version of Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon to listen to on my drive to PA for Thanksgiving. The book is standard thriller fare, a la Clancy or Grisham. The plot centers on both the codebreaking of WWII and data encryption in modern day computers. But where Clancy is beloved for his detail in describing the weapons and military machinery, Cryptonomicon is renowned for it's detail in describing the mathematics of the codebreaking and encryption schemes.

The book is on many a nerdy must-read list and so I was looking forward to 'reading' it during the drive. What I had overlooked however is that the audio book I had was abridged. Instead of simply omitting portions, there was a voiceover narration used to describe the plot points of what was being skipped. So while I greatly enjoyed the conceit that the main character befriended Alan Turing at Princeton, when the story continued on to their code breaking effort for the Allies, the details were completely omitted. The voice over would explain: "meanwhile, back at Bletchley Park, the team had a major breakthrough with the German naval cryptographic codes..."

AHHH!! The details of that breakthrough are exactly what I'm listening to this book for and they gloss right over it. And it was the same thing with the modern day digital encryption stuff. Just a passing mention from the narrator and then back to John awkwardly trying to express his feelings for Amy. Curses. To be honest, without these bits of nerdery to keep my interest, they story itself was quite poor and I didn't listen to the final 2 tapes to even see how it ended.

Again I was foiled by an effort to make something more broadly appealing than it ought to have been. I suppose it's my own fault for not seeing that this version was abridged. I'll know better next time.

Final nerd item, but this one is a test. Feed the hungry and improve your vocabulary all at once!

Free Rice. My score hovered around 40 for the most part and I maxed out at 42. I even have the screen-cap to prove it. I got the next word shown correct too. Yay me! Leave a comment with your score.

p.s. if the quiz was spelling the words instead of knowing their meaning my score would be about 23 I think.
Friday, September 28, 2007
about ryan
are you enjoying the Women's World Cup? If you missed it, there was quite a bit of controversy involving the US v. Brasil match which was played Thursday morning.

The short version is that the US had won their last 51 games in a row, during which Hope Solo was the starting keeper for 40 of them. She had started in all 4 WC games, allowing 2 goals in the first match and then 0 goals in the past 3 matches. Two days prior to the game vs. Brasil, the US coach Greg Ryan, announced that he'd be starting Briana Scurry (36 year old former starter, probably the best keeper ever in the woman's game in her prime) in place of Solo for this match.

The team was thrown into disarray, the media hounded the coach and players for the two days leading up to the game and then Brasil proceeded to demolish a sluggish US side, winning 4-0.

so here's an email I received from Jason earlier today

So, is Greg Ryan as big a dope as he's being made out to be?

Two issues here:

1) The US would most likely have lost that match anyways. Even without the GK controversy and the awful call for a red card on Boxx and the own goal. Brasil didn't just show that they've closed the talent gap, they showed that there's a gap in the other direction at this point. They were amazing.

2) As for mr smartypants, he should be fired immediately after the 3rd place match. The Olympics are next summer and it would be scandalous if he's still coaching them. The last minute goalkeeper change was indefensible. There is not a single scenario in which this was a good idea. It's on par with Steve Sampson (everyone's favorite OKIADB) kicking the serving captain off the US Men's WC team in 1998 and then benching 2 of the veteran defenders en route to a last place finish in France.

In addition to the goalkeeper issue, you have the inexplicable substitution of 2 defensive players when the team is already down 3-0.

And finally you have the fact that Ryan badmouthed the Brasil team days before this match, saying that during a recent game between the two sides that Brasil had just fouled the US the whole time and didn't try to play real soccer. Multiple Brasil players and the head coach cited these comments by Ryan as strong motivation for their team.

So not only did Ryan seemingly choke under the pressure of this match and throw his team into disarray, he also provided prime content for the opponent's locker room, giving them something to rally around.

So yes Jason, despite his success over the past few years with the team, Ryan folded like a paper fan, make a series of inexcusable decisions and is every bit (and more) the dope that he's being made out to be.
Wednesday, September 19, 2007
hawks vs. gulls
-fledgling soccer team builds stadium on the shores of Lake Ontario
-team recieves excellent support from local fans, despite poor performances on the field
-the local seagulls also develop a strong interest in the goings on at the stadium

sounds like your typical love story to this point, right? Well check out what happens next....

-team employs a hawk named Bitchy to watch over the stadium and keep it clear of seagulls. A real, honest-to-goodness, 4-foot wingspan, if you fly in here I'm seriously going to kill and eat you, carnivorous raptor.

Just another reason why soccer is the greatest game in the world.
Friday, August 31, 2007

I had another rough day at work yesterday. I had to visit all the beaches in Chatham. What a drag.

And now we're heading on vacaction for 2 weeks. Hooray!

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  • country ham...the conclusion
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  • more nerd please
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