Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Spicy celery tofu salad. Trust me.

A few months ago this salad came up in my blog roll, and it looked good enough that I watched the video and then shared it on Facebook. It just struck me as appealing – very simple and light and tasty.

Now, don't get all weirded out by the presence of tofu in this dish. Or celery, for that matter. Their combination with a spicy infused oil makes it all worthwhile.

Here's what you need:
  • 1 cup of peanut oil
  • Some fat slices of peeled, fresh ginger
  • A stick of cinnamon (I used a piece of really yummy Vietnamese cinnamon from the lovely White on Rice Couple.)
  • Three cloves
  • A teaspoon of coriander seeds (which I ended up skipping because I only had ground coriander. Whoops)
  • A teaspoon of cumin seeds
  • 4 star anise
  • A tablespoon of Sichuan peppercorns (mine are ordered online from The Spice House. Most reputable spice places will have them, and Asian markets. You probably won't find them at Safeway.)
  • 1/4 cup of red chili flakes
  • A couple roughly chopped scallions (optional)
  • 1 bunch Chinese celery, thinly sliced
  • 4 to 6 ounces pressed tofu, thinly sliced
First you'll infuse the oil. Just throw all the spices (and optional scallions) into the oil, bring it to a hearty simmer, then turn off the burner and let the whole thing steep for an hour or three.
You'll end up with a very orange oil. Strain it into a container you can save in the fridge (you'll have more than you need for one dish).

Now slice up your tofu. This is pressed tofu, and you can get it in five-spice flavor if you want a little extra kick, or you can get the plain. If you can't find a package that specifically says "pressed tofu," you can also get baked tofu or a tofu cutlet (I've tried both). Sometimes it's labeled "dry tofu." It's almost meaty, it's so firm. It won't fall apart when you slice it.

(I found a nice blog post that expounds on pressed tofu engagingly: Here.)

The other thing you need to chop up is Chinese celery, if you can get it. If not, you can use regular celery, but it won't be as intensely flavored. Chop it in bite-sized pieces, wash it thoroughly (it can be really sandy) and blanch it (so it's less tough).

Toss the celery and tofu together with a little salt, then drizzle the infused oil over it and enjoy! It's spicy but also light and refreshing. Just the antidote for all that holiday gorging.
Jen at Use Real Butter made this before I did. The scallions are her addition. She varies some other things as well. So you can see it's a pretty forgiving recipe. Once you have that jar of oil, you can drizzle it over other things, too.

I'll warn you, though: Don't try to make popcorn with it. If your pan gets too hot, you'll create your very own tear-gas cloud in the kitchen. Fun!

Friday, December 24, 2010

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Animal planet

We're still encouraging Jackson to go in the water. Lucy, too, but she's made it pretty clear that she suspects treachery, so we don't push it. Plus, the weather's gotten colder.

Which means Lucy seeks out sunbeams.
Both dogs also seek out the cats, when they can. The cats know it's not safe to come downstairs. The dogs know they will risk our wrath if they go upstairs. So there's a lot of mutual eyeballing through the spindles.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Kung pao chicken: easy and delicious

I've long been a fan of kung pao chicken, especially from Crazy Asian Cafe. It's hearty and spicy, and I can usually get three or four meals out of one dinner order (the secret is making fresh rice at home for the leftovers).

The Sergeant likes kung pao, too, and he recently asked if I might try making it. Conveniently, I ran across a recipe the very next day, on the New Asian Cuisine blog. The recipe is from Grace Young's Stir-Frying to the Sky's Edge.
The ingredients are mostly available at any grocery. You can substitute dry sherry for rice wine, which I did. If you want to cook Chinese food regularly, you should have a bottle of Chinkiang vinegar on hand, but you can use balsamic if you have to. I also prefer to use low-sodium soy sauce, and cashews instead of peanuts.

And it's worthwhile to invest in a stash of Sichuan peppercorns (I got mine from The Spice House).

Sichuan peppercorns aren't pepper at all, but the husk of a seed. They are not hot but do make your tongue tingle. Until recently, their import was banned because they could carry a disease dangerous to citrus crops. (When I was in China, I offered to bring some back for my dad, but he declined. He feared he would like it too much and never be able to get any more.)

You'll want to toast the peppercorns and then grind them. Just shake them in a pan over medium-high heat until they give off a little whiff of scent, then crush them in a mortar or in a spice grinder.

Don't forget to start a pot of rice! Then get the chicken marinating (I prefer thigh meat, which the Whole Foods butcher took off the bone for me. Very cheap and convenient). Then chop up all your vegetables. The recipe calls for red bell pepper. I added zucchini. You can also include water chestnuts and bamboo shoots. Measure out anything else you're putting in the dish.
As with any stir-fry dish, you need to get all your ingredients lined up and ready to go before you heat your pan. If it's the first time you've cooked a dish, it can be handy to have an assistant read off the directions. Stir-frying goes so fast, you need to stay on top of the cooking steps.
You also want to have a good exhaust fan. Especially when you throw those chiles into the oil. Hoo-ah! It's a very pungent dish.
And a very tasty one! This recipe turned out great. Very bright and fresh. Not too spicy; I used four chiles but will probably use more next time. And it really was easy.
Go check out the recipe and give it a try!

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Making pasta with a machine

When you get married, it's a good time to ask for the kitchen gadgets you've always wanted. We had most of the basics already (but were delighted to get a decent toaster finally!), so one of the fun things I asked for was a pasta maker, the Imperia SP 150.
It's amazingly easy to make your own pasta, especially with the machine. I wish I'd learned that years ago. Clean your counter well, make a mound of a couple cups of flour (I used all-purpose, but you can do many combinations of flour types), make a well in the mound and crack three or four eggs into it.
Mix the eggs a bit with your fingers, then start mixing in the flour from around the edges of the eggs. A bench knife is handy for keeping the well from getting too big.
You'll end up with a fairly shaggy mess, to which you can add a sprinkle of warm water if it feels too dry. Knead the dough for a few minutes until it gets a little smoother. I have to stand on a stepstool so I can really lean into it, but I don't try to get the dough perfectly smooth since the machine will take care of that.

Then cover the dough with a damp towel for 20 minutes or so (in other parts of the world you may not need to use a damp cloth, but Denver is super-dry). Clean your prep area, set up the pasta machine and fix yourself a drink! I've been enjoying Jack & Coke lately.

After the dough has rested, divide it into three or four balls and roll out one of them so it's flattish enough to feed into the pasta machine on the widest roller setting. Keep the rest of the dough covered up.

Run the dough through six to eight times on the widest setting, folding it in half or thirds after each time. It will start feeling quite silky and smooth. Then start dialing down the rollers and run the dough through a couple of times on each setting.

Eventually, you will end up with a long, very thin sheet of pasta. Can you imagine trying to get it that thin by hand?
You may need to improvise a place to hang your pasta to dry (especially in a damp climate; you don't want the stuff to stick to the cutters). The microwave door will do in a pinch.
Once you've processed all the dough into sheets, you're ready to cut it into whatever shapes you like. (This is also a good time to start your water boiling.) This pasta maker came with spaghetti and fettuccine cutters. I'm going to look into some of the other options, too.
The Sergeant made a hearty mushroom-based pasta sauce, so I opted for the sturdier fettuccine noodles. Since I was cooking them right away, I didn't hang them up to dry.
Fresh pasta takes only a couple of minutes to cook, so make sure your pasta and other dinner items are ready before you put the noodles in the water.

Buon appetito!

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Sunday, December 12, 2010

We got a tree

Next year I'd like to go cut one down – lots of the parks and public lands allow tree-cutting to help thin the forests. But that wasn't in the cards this year. We went back to the carnie lot that springs up nearby. They had a new office trailer this year, and some fresh-faced younger employees. They even got a Santa. He was out next to the highway yelling "Ho ho ho!" He had a hip flask to keep him company.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Martha Wrap? Really?

I did a double-take at Safeway the other day. "Martha Wrap???" It's a brand-new product, foil lined with parchment paper. According to the Martha test kitchen blog, it's "perfect to use when roasting vegetables or fruit, cooking en papillote, and lining baking sheets. It’s great for reheating leftovers in the oven and perfect for wrapping up left-over baked goods."

But for most of those tasks, plain parchment paper or plain foil works just fine. So why would you spend more for this stuff? ($5 for 40 feet.) Has anyone tried it?

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Neighborhood surprise: Budapest Bistro

I have had a mental block about Budapest Bistro. Had dinner there once, maybe 10 years ago, thought it was just OK. I rarely saw more than a couple of tables occupied in the evening. I wondered how they could stay in business, year after year.
The Sergeant wondered about the place, too. "How come we've never gone there?" So we went a few weeks ago. And had a pretty nice dinner.
For starters, you know I like a good cosmopolitan. That's my go-to drink when a mojito doesn't seem a likely option. The Sergeant tried some palinka (a plum brandy, like slivovitz). The cosmo was better for sipping. I think the palinka is best tossed back as a shot.
Some fried mushroom caps were a tasty appetizer. They're stuffed with feta cheese, breaded and fried, then served with a tarragon-garlic-mayo sauce.
One of the specials was stuffed cabbage leaves with a saurkraut cream sauce. "You had me at saurkraut," I told the waitress. The leaves were stuffed with a mixture of beef and rice. They were quite large (and the mashed potatoes were generous), so I saved one for lunch the next day. Good plan.

The Sergeant got the beef goulash, which he said was tasty. He wants to go back and try the chicken paprikash, too.

Sorry the photos are so poor. The light was rather dim.
Finally, we shared a dessert of sweet-cheese palacsinta, a crepe filled with cottage cheese, orange and lemon zest, in a warm vanilla sauce. Yum.

Most apps are $8-$9, and entrees are $15-$19. The service was friendly and competent. We're glad to have found another neighborhood place we can walk to – and stumble home from!

Budapest Bistro
(Warning: The site plays music. The pause button's on the left side, under the navigation menu.)
1585 South Pearl Street
Denver, CO 80210-2634
(303) 744-2520

(P.S. You might want to opt for a table instead of a booth. The booths have wobbly, knobby backs.)

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Back to Izakaya Den

Continuing with my summary of recent restaurant visits. (Note: I've been to Izakaya Den once before, in 2007 with Mom, soon after it opened)

Also on the pricey side but a better value (for us, anyway) than Colt & Gray, is Izakaya Den, especially if you get a seat at the sushi bar.
Lots of activity to watch, and a greater variety of dishes to share and enjoy. You might think $12 is a lot to spend for a cocktail (I sure do), but really, this Shochu Breeze is the equivalent of two drinks and boy, does it pack a punch!
We shared some kind of roll, maybe dragon? to start.
I had nikumaki – asparagus & burdock root salad wrapped with thinly sliced beef striploin. Super YUM. The Sergeant had duck udon soup.
We shared a panna cotta dessert. It was not particularly memorable. (In hindsight, we could have gone across the street to Pajama Baking Co. for some gelato.)

Izakaya Den is trendy and popular, and they pack a lot of people in. People watching is good there, but it can be quite noisy, so don't expect an intimate conversation (one reason I like the bar – sitting side by side makes it easier to talk). If you are driving there, you can get valet parking from the guys at Sushi Den on the opposite corner. Izakaya Den and Sushi Den are both owned by the Kizaki brothers. One of these days we'll try their revamped Ototo restaurant (formerly Den Deli) on the third corner.

Izakaya Den
1518 S Pearl St
Denver, Colorado 80210
(303) 777-0691

Monday, December 06, 2010

Dinner at Colt & Gray

Though I've been eating out fairly regularly, and taking pictures along the way, I haven't had the drive to document each place. So now I've got a backlog of restaurant photos. I'll try to catch up over the next few days. Some of the entries may be short.
We were trying to go to the new Euclid Hall but couldn't find cheap parking downtown on a Saturday night. Duh. So we headed to Colt & Gray, another place I'd heard about. The restaurant was warm and bustling, and the service friendly. Nice decor, too. The Cuban cockatails were tasty, as was this cioppino. But it's a little overpriced for Denver. We paid $40 each for just a small cocktail and entree. No appetizer, no dessert. I'm glad we went, but we probably won't go back.

Colt & Gray
1553 Platte Street #120
Denver, CO 80202-6103
(303) 477-1447

Saturday, December 04, 2010


Reba questions my taste in Christmas decorations.

Friday, December 03, 2010


With a new spray nozzle on the shower, I no longer have an excuse not to bathe the dogs when they get stinky between grooming appointments. Jackson in particular gets very, um, doggy-smelling. His white fur also shows the dirt more. As the Sergeant likes to say, he looks like a well-loved stuffed animal that's been left outside for while.
I haven't bathed him at home before, but he still knew to suspect treachery when I hauled him into the bathroom and forced him into the torture chamber. Still, he didn't struggle during the bathing process.
What a brave doggy!

Happily, it's super-warm today (68!), so I didn't have to dry him off much. Just hustled him outside for a romp.
Now he looks all pretty, and smells good, too!

Lucy's next. Mwa-ha-ha.

Thursday, December 02, 2010