White Linen and Lavender

Sunday, August 29, 2010

-Grapes growing for Syrah.-

A blog is supposed to be a personal project, an egotistical act that celebrates your own interests and life events. If other people decide to come and indulge in your stories essentially making you a one ring, Z-List tabloid of sorts then that's great. Every blogger always appreciates that.

-Jill and Alan, the happy couple.-

However, today, I wanted to share someone else's life, or, at least, talk about someone important in mine.

-Morgan Hill, California as seen from Guglielmo Winery.-

On the very first day of graduate school, in our very first class, I met two wonderful people. Kim, Jill and I sat next to each other in our Introduction to Literary Theory class due to familiarity and fear. We were drawn to sit down next to one another as we were the only blonds in the room and had decided to seek shelter in this frightening new voyage we had all embarked upon by surrounding ourselves with similar faces. By the end of the class we had all decided to get together for dinner to better know each other and to further complain about reading Joseph Conrad's, Heart of Darkness for the umpteenth time in our academic lives. While we eventually made friends with nearly everyone in our class the three of us carried a special supportive bond that's been indispensable to us all.

-Kim and I made sure that we matched for the wedding (BF got a free get-out-of-the-wedding pass this day.)-

It's four years later, and yesterday Kim and I attended Jill's wedding to a upstanding man named Alan. Held at a winery in Morgan Hill (it was, oddly enough, located across the street from the local High School) the wedding was intimate, simple, and clean. Freshly composed of white linens, hydrangeas and lavender it was one of those weddings most little girls dream about and preenact with courts of stuffed animals.

-Linen and lavender made for an elegant theme and tablescape.-

Jill looked beautiful, Alan looked stunning, and the parents looked proud. Of course, so were Kim and I. Congratulations, Jill. I love you lots; and may your marriage be as engaging, intelligent, and as fun as you are.

-Newly Married!-

-The cake was surrounded by wedding photos of family members from both sides. The pictures dated back generations.-

-Yes, there was a mariachi band. It was awesome. I normally don't care for it but this was beautiful, well composed, and completely appropriate if you know the couple.-

-Simple satchels of lavender for the guests as a thank you.-

Mirabelle Plum Sauce

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

-It's awesome having the hookup.-

One of the best kind of friends to have are the friends who know people. Whether this means connections in your line of work, access to back stage, or getting you hooked up with the best hair stylist having a buddy in the know is always a plus. I'm happy to have many such people in my life who are able to educate me, connect me, and help me blossom in both work and play.

My food blogging buddy, Lynn of Sacatomato, recently helped me with the latter. She knows a guy who has some trees that bear too much fruit. With this connection she was able to score me 8 pounds of plums to play with. Satsumas and Mirabelles, no less.

I've talked about Mirabelle plums here before. They're hard to locate in the U.S. and unless you know someone with a tree your chances of finding them are slim to nil.

For the most part, Mirabelles are a tad too sweet for me. Sugary, flowery, and just plain intense. After eating one or two I'm usually good for the year. That's why I spun them into a delectable spiced plum sauce perfect for ice cream, cheese plates, and pancakes. It's warm, floral, spicy, and fruity - everything a good fruit sauce should be. While you can use overripe plums of any variety for this I encourage you to try Mirabelles if you can find any.

-Star anise, cinnamon, and vanilla flavor this sauce. However, the flavors of the plums still stand out.-

Mirabelle Plum Sauce
I didn't skin these as the plums were too ripe to do so. However, Mirabelle skins are very thin and break down for the most part in cooking.

5 cups Mirabelle plums, chopped
3 cups sugar
1/2 vanilla bean, seeded
1 cinnamon stick
1 star anise
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1/4 teaspoon butter

Combine all the ingredients in a pot. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Skim off any foam that forms. Continue to stir for 30 minutes until the mixture has thickened. Pour into sterilized jars. Process for canning if you so desire or simply store in the fridge. Makes 4 1/2 - 5 cups.

-Excellent with blue cheeses as a stand-in for honey.-

A Do Nothing Day of Lemon Ricotta Gnocchi

Saturday, August 21, 2010

-A perfect Late Summer - Almost Fall dish.-

I don't have to do anything today. Nothing. My errands are all done. I have no real work waiting to be finished. I actually balanced my checkbook and took care of my finances on Thursday. So, I can choose to do nothing.

It's a pleasant change not to have to bake or cook for a potluck, dress up for a party or dancing, or drive all over town. As I write this the clock says 5:22 PM and I have yet to take a shower, and the back of my hair is still standing tall and fanned like a rooster's tail, the same as it was when I woke up around ten this morning.

It's fabulous really. Having a day to do nothing rarely ever happens to me anymore. Often I have far too much on my plate and recently I've been heaping on a few extra helpings. As much as others point this out to me my usual response isn't that I have too much on my plate but rather my plate is simply too small.

-After a few minutes I already have the dough resting in its first log form.-

After I loafed out of bed I wrapped myself in a blanket and took some green tea and toast smeared with homemade jam on the patio. The bees were humming around the tomatillo plants whose vines had begun to reach across the entire garden gaily livening the space up with hundreds of green and purple paper lanterns. There was a small, slightly chilly wind that made the blanket and tea all the more enjoyable. It was like a San Francisco summer morning; evidence that Summer was soon about to end and Fall about to begin. I made a mental note to pick up some figs at the Farmer's Market the next day, the brisk air being the sign they were now ready.

The chill air and empty schedule gave me energy and I was still a bit peckish. I decided I would make some gnocchi. Generally a food I consider perfect for colder months the weather seemed to be an auspicious sign that today was a day for making gnocchi. Of course, not all gnocchi has to be starchy and heavy (well, heavy for gnocchi). Ricotta gnocchi is the lighter cousin of potato gnocchi, not to mention far easier and faster to prepare. The task usually occupying only 20 minutes or so.

-Cutting the ropes of dough into pillows of gnocchi.-

I dug out the leftover ricotta from the fridge that we had kept around for when we made jam earlier in the week and set it aside to come to room temperature. (Whenever I make jam I take the foam skimmed off from the cooking jam and pour it over small bowl of ricotta or cottage cheese as a sweet treat, a little trick I picked up from my grandmother's old cookbook.) The cheese, plus the zest from an extra lemon that hadn't been used in yesterday's plum sauce, would form the flavor base for the gnocchi.

The gnocchi dough is simple and slightly messy but easily made even within the crowded confines of an apartment galley kitchen. Once set they cook up in about two to three minutes. Poofy, light and sweet, tasting of lemon and cheese they best imbue the tastes and textures of two seasons on your tongue.

-A bench scraper is a godsend for cutting up gnocchi and makes cleaning afterwards a breeze.-

I ended up serving these as simply as I made them: with a quick pesto made from a bit of garlic and some basil from the garden whizzed together with lemon juice and olive oil in the food processor. It was then topped with a bit of grated ricotta salata, a form of ricotta cheese that's pressed, salted, and dried making it perfect for finishing off any pasta dish.

After the gnocchi was ready I took a small plate of it to the couch and buried myself under the blanket again. I had kept the windows open to let the same refreshingly cold air circulate the room to invigorate it a bit. I popped on an episode of Weeds and let the cats conquer my lap in the name of naps while I ate my meal. My day was over, and, aside from gnocchi, I had no other plans. It would be a satisfying Saturday.

-The results of my do nothing day.-

Lemon Ricotta Gnocchi
Recipe adapted from Pasta Sfoglia

1 cup all-purpose flour
1 1/2 pounds whole milk ricotta cheese
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 egg
2 tablespoons finely grated lemon zest

1. Spread the flour out on a clean, dry work surface. Place the ricotta, salt, black pepper, egg, and zest on top of the flour and lightly knead it with your hands bringing together all the ingredients. Gently knead the dough into an 10-inch log and allow it to rest a few minutes.

2. Lightly dust a clean, dry work surface with flour. Cut the log into four equal pieces. Gingerly, lightly, roll each piece into a 1-inch thick piece of rope. (You may have to cut the rope once or twice to keep in manageable.) Cut the gnocchi into 1/2-inch pillows. Lightly dust with flour.

To Cook: Place gnocchi in boiling salted water. When the gnocchi have floated to the top, allow them to cook for another two minutes, then remove with a slotted spoon and serve.

To Store: Place gnocchi on a baking sheet in a single layer and place in the freezer. Once frozen place in an air tight container. Thaw an hour before cooking. Stores for 2 weeks.

To Serve: These are best served simply. A basic tomato sauce tossed with some white wine, capers and garlic is a wonderful way to dress these. Alternatively, a simple basil pesto is also perfect. Top with a bit of grated ricotta salata, Parmesan, or even Pecorino Romano for a bit of bite. An extra dash of lemon zest will go a long way as well.

-The recipe makes enough for multiple servings. So a short amount of work lets you feed many or gives you plenty of gnocchi for future meals.-

-Feel free to not use the lemon zest, or if you want to mix it up use orange zest instead.-

Related Post: Sweet Potato Gnocchi Recipe

Cheese Profile: Dill Havarti

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

-Dill makes everything better. This includes Danish cheeses.-

When I'm sick I rarely ever eat anything other than juice, water, and chicken broth. If I have to eat something, it'll usually be fruit or lightly sauteed vegetables. Meats, grains, and dairy weigh me down and make me feel like my body has to spend extra energy breaking that food down. Energy that would best be spent healing from sickness and exhaustion.

Still, after a bowlful of blackberries or your sixth plum all that sticky sweet juice and tart skin gets a bit weary. It's usually then I decide it would be a good time to break open that little tupperware that's been sitting in the back of the fridge. Inside it, wrapped in paper, is a wedge of Havarti heavily flecked with dill. I'd been keeping it around to let it age a bit, which lends it a slight hazelnut flavor; however, in this case, delayed gratification be damned. I was tired, cranky, and hungry.

Cutting into it I noticed the irregular holes and the verdant shag as flecks of drab green dill fronds flare out. The smell is fresh and intense, even slightly mentholated. Something, finally, to wake me up from my sickly stupor.

Biting into a piece banishes all the sugar and acid from the fruit and replaces it with a fatter flavor. Dill Havarti is indeed sweet in itself, barely lactic, and tastes of butter, butter, and more butter. not the kind that comes to you in a stick but butter that's been recently whipped from raw, heavy cream.

-Havarti with dill is a fantastic cheese that pairs well on any cheese plate, matches many wines, and works well in many sandwiches and salads.-

The dill imparts its flavor throughout. The presence of certain molecular compounds such as apiole and carvone - these are responsible for the flavors of parsley and caraway, respectively - are abundant in dill and thus lend the cheese a very green taste. Slightly warming, slightly bitter, the dill contrasts against the fat and salt of the cheese and gives it layers of intensity much like a well composed salad where you're able to taste every intriguing ingredient in one bite.

Truth be told I was eager to get out a skillet and whip some of it into a quick grilled cheese. However, I was more eager to crawl back into bed before my next coughing fit. I sliced off another chunk of cheese, grabbed a dill pickle (I like to layer similar flavors) and snatched a few blackberries. I wasn't sure if the meal was provincial or slightly hobo/college student-esque in its whatever's-in-reach composition, but it suited me fine regardless.

Dill Havarti is a unique cheese if anything. It pairs well with things it probably shouldn't. From raspberries to lamb it possesses a wide range of flavors and tastes that make it compatible with many foods, so regardless if you're sick of other cheeses or just plain sick it will match whatever meal you're able to throw together.

-A cheese that's shaggier than your grandma's outdated carpet.-

I Bet Prison Food Does Suck

Saturday, August 14, 2010


I stared at the text message a little bit longer, before quickly throwing my eyes back on the road. Generally, I keep my phone off when I'm in the car as my driving skills are already bad enough without the extra distraction. Still, for whatever reason, it was on and sitting in the car door. The text was one of the most shocking and surprising I had received in the last while. This was because I had heard rumors that the sender was either living in Redding, in prison, or dead.

"Huh," I muttered not so much surprised, but rather bemused and slightly annoyed. While you would think that a return to the living, or prison, or Redding would effect a more intense reaction generally I never cared for this person to begin with. Instead this felt like what it would feel to realize a mouse stole the cheese from a trap and escaped unharmed.

"What is it? Who's it from?" asked BF.

"Someone I hadn't heard from in a long time and, honestly, would rather not hear from at all," I said.

"Then why is the person in your phone?"

"Oh, I keep everyone in my phone. Even people I don't like. That way I know which calls to ignore or answer. Plus, I usually nickname people who are acquaintances in my address book - that way when and if they call I don't have to play twenty questions or pretend I remember who they are." Of course, if someone is dead I would normally take them out of my phone but since the fate of my texter was only dead via one third a rumor I, thankfully, kept the number and knew not to engage it.

"So who is it?"

"His name is L, a drug dealer friend of my Ex. I assumed L was dead, in prison, or in Redding. Though, given, those options are kind of the same thing." I replied matter of factly. "At least I can scratch dead and prison off the list. As to why this person is trying to get a hold of me I have no idea, nor do I care."

Never being one to really text and drive I deleted the text with a few rapid taps of my finger and tossed the phone back into the pocket of the car door.

A few minutes later my phone beeped at me again. My face scrunched up with puzzlement. I quickly glanced at the screen.

It read, "I've been reading your blog. It's good. Just got out of jail. Food there sux."

Wow... really?

I guess the rumor had been 1/3 true. It wasn't all that surprising.

L had been a major source of crystal meth hookups in Sacramento for years. Apparently, he was the guy who moved the drug directly from the source. He would distribute it to other dealers and take a large amount of profit since he was the central hub. To call his operation lucrative would be like calling the moon just a rock in the sky. He told me once he was making about $20,000 a month, and judging from his lifestyle this wasn't an exaggeration. A brand new Nissan Z and multiple pairs of Armani glasses with the shoes to match gave credit to his claim.

I came to know L through his friendship with my Ex - a friendship that was based partly out of similar music interests and amateur dabbling in the art of DJ'ing techno music (I know, I know...), and partly out of an emotional additiction to smoking crystal on the weekends. (The major contributing factor to the breakup with the Ex.) This meant that I begrudgingly made the acquaintnce of many pieces of the Nor Cal Tina Machine, L being one of the key cogs that kept it moving.

After the break-up I cut off nearly all contact with the Ex, and, so, did I as well with any of his friends. The only reason L's number was in my phone was due to the fact that my Ex had given it to him during a time his phone had been stolen from some tweaker.

So, L was in my phone. I never kept in touch with him. After all, he wasn't my friend. Honestly, I found him to be shady, dirty, and skeazy. Like a character out of Hunter S. Thompson novel he was a person of primal Id - pure impulse with an incongruous lucky streak that seemed to imbue him with great success at what he did. For someone who lived a life often characterized by poor decisions and frazzled psyches I had to give it to him that he knew how to run a business. More importantly, he knew how to manipulate and control his hazy, often disjointed, customer base and worker flow. Still, any luck at all in this black market, let alone skill to function in it, seemed fragile; it was a sand castle you knew was would collapse once the water came in, washing it away in one grand, ugly crash.

Eventually the wave came. From what I understand the cops busted in and razed the place taking away a sizable amount of product before carting him off to a expedited trial and prison. It seemed odd to be out so soon, but then again I didn't care to know the details.

Without a second thought I deleted the text.

L was never really a part of my life. I did my best to make sure of that and I prefer it this way. I appreciate his reading the blog and letting me know. I hope it's given him something to do or some sort of solace. However, I have a feeling that the compliment was probably an empty volley in order to engage me for, I don't know, information... whatever. It doesn't really matter.

"Hey," I look over to BF, "we have some ears of corn that need to be used and we have those green beans. Serve them with some fried eggs and salsa verde? It'll use up some of the chilies and tomatillos growing in the garden. That work for dinner tonight?"

"Yeah, sounds good," smiled BF.

Yeah, I bet prison food does suck.

Boysenberry-Brown Butter Financiers

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

-Garrett McCord vs. The World. And does so armed only with baked goods.-

So far this has been one of those weeks where it feels like the universe is against me, where every major celestial body in my life is aligning into a constellational "Screw you." It's quite awesome really. One might find some sort of value in that much attention. I guess I should feel special.

This is a stark comparison to last week where everything seemed to be going so well. Yet within a short time span life suddenly began to suck. This then proves just how cyclical life can be; luck changes in an instant with dizzying and unpredictable speed. Right now, I just happen to be on one of those major downswings. (Seriously, like a greased up razor-lined water slide, this week.)

I know that everything will eventually turn around, I just have to be patient and proactive in changing things for the better. So, in the meantime, I try not to funk myself out too hard. I've always been one of those solve-your-own-problem kind of guys and do my best to reassure my own stormy thoughts rather than hoping happiness will simply drop in my lap. I do this through reading a good book, snuggling with the cats, maybe taking a night out in the middle of the week to meet friends for a movie, and cocktails are always a welcome pick-me-up. However, more often than not, I'll resort to baking.

-It turns out that boysenberries, at least to me, are pretty much the same as blackberries. (Maybe I just got some bad ones?)-

I decided to start flipping through some of my baking cookbooks. Realizing that David Lebovitz's new book was still sitting on my shelf unused I picked it up and started looking for something that would sparkle, something that would brighten my mood, and something foolproof as any slip-up would probably tip me over the edge.

David's blackberry - brown butter financier recipe was the perfect candidate. Requiring just a few minutes with a food processor I was able to pop together a simple tea cake with the nutty taste of brown butter. While I had no blackberries I did have a few baskets of boysenberries that I had procured at the market. (I had picked them up to see if there was really a difference between the two. In my opinion, not really).

The cakes, thank god, turned out perfectly. Simple and bright - just what I needed.

The week still has a few days to go and so far things haven't really turned around yet. Still, when eating my cute cakes things, for a moment, seem a bit better.

Boysenberry-Brown Butter Financiers
Adapted from David Lebovitz's Ready for Dessert

7 tablespoons of butter
140 grams of almond flour
100 grams of sugar
70 grams of powdered sugar
45 grams of all-purpose flour
pinch of salt
4 egg whites
1/2 teaspoon of almond extract
1/2 teaspoon of vanilla extract
6 ounces of boysenberries

1. Preheat an oven to 400F and butter a 12-slot muffin tin.

2. In a saucepan melt the butter over low heat. The butter will crackle and sizzle a bit. Continue to cook until the butter turns amber-colored. This will happen quickly and the butter can go from browned to burnt in a second so keep a close eye on it.

3. In a food processor or blender mix together the almond flour, sugars, flour, and salt. With the motor running add the extracts and egg whites. Pour in the warm brown butter through a wire strainer to keep out the blackened, burnt butter solids at the bottom of the saucepan. Mix until smooth.

4. Divide the batter evenly amongst the muffin slots. Press a few boysenberries into each cup. Bake until golden brown, about 18-20 minutes. let cool for 10 minutes, then tip the cakes onto a wire rack to cool completely.

-Here's to better weeks.-

That's How He Rolls

Monday, August 9, 2010

-The secret ingredient is love. (And wasabi.)-

There's a popular sushi place nearby called Arigato that I frequent whenever I need a quick hit of sushi. In fact, Arigato is where most people in my part of Sac go for their fish fix. I can call up my order at any moment - every self-respecting Sacramentan has the menu memorized, it's one of the ways we identify our own - and pick it up in about ten minutes. My usual: a Spicy Johnny Roll and a TNT Roll. If I'm dining in I'll grab a bowl of miso soup and some hot tea as well.

Arigato's sushi isn't exactly ephemeral, eye-opening, or even all that great, but it is half-price all the time. Furthermore, they're located in a middle class area of a lower class neighborhood and providentially near the California State University, Sacramento campus where hungry students roam. A combination of low prices and locale have made it a commercial success. They're now open until midnight and recently revamped the decor from J-Pop hip to a throwback Vegas-eighties kitsch that make me wish I would go spontaneously blind when I walk in the front door.

Still, one can't complain too much. The food is palatable and affordable. Any eater can certainly do worse.

Having a source so close I was surprised when BF mentioned that he wanted to learn to make sushi. While he's adept at the grill I had never seen him actively pursue a type of cuisine that I hadn't sort of nudged him into myself. It was downright surprising, if not just a bit odd. This was culinary equivalent to the president suddenly coming out to the press room to say we would invade Denmark. It just sort of left me in a "Wha?" state.

I encouraged him but with a slight of eye I rolled the plan as nothing more than a simple passing feign of interest. Yet he spent days watching tutorials online and asked me to help him do research to find a comprehensive sushi cookbook. I unburied an old sushi knife I had received in a conference goodie bag years ago (I had never used it due to its frustrating slant and bevel that made it perfect for cutting through sticky rice but useless for any other task). I explained he could line one of my bamboo placemats with plastic wrap and use that in place of a traditional bamboo roll.

The day came when he told me he was going to make sushi for dinner that night. I smiled and played the thankful food blogger, happy for a night off from cooking and happy for a potential blog post. Yet I had no high hopes that this would be anything grand.

-Better than any restaurant.-

I arrived home from work to find the kitchen a disaster. Plates and bowls stacked upon each other, starchy rice covered everything, at least four knives were strewn about haphazardly. I thought to myself that this is why I hate when others cook in my kitchen.

Yet, as I glanced at the counter I saw rolls of neatly trimmed ribbons of dark pink salmon stacked next to batons of cucumber and avocado. The air was sweet with the smell or rice, chilies, and soy. I realized I might have been a bit quick to judge. Apparently, he had made sushi.

BF motioned me to the table. Sitting on a plate were the handmade sushi rolls which looked, well, like sushi. This isn't to say it wasn't what I was expecting, it's just that I didn't know what to expect.

They were humble looking. Unlike the kaleidoscopic rolls you see in a restaurant covered in ruffles of avocado and buried in tobiko these where simple, dressed with a basic chili-mayo sauce. Next to the plate was a bowl, surprisingly, gratifyingly, of freshly grated wasabi. (I despise the phosphorescent blobs of wasabi served at 99% of sushi houses. It's all raw heat. The fresh wasabi was a horseradish with rumbling pungency that perfectly balanced the buttery flavors of the fish and fruit tucked in the rolls.) Lastly, there was a bowl of soy dipping sauce mixed with a bit of sugar and chili.

Taking a pair of chopsticks I rubbed a bit of the wasabi over the roll and then plucked it up for a quick dip in the soy before popping it in my mouth.

Lord, I forgot just how simple sushi is supposed to be. It's a cuisine born out of impoverished beginnings. You don't need the deep-fried, crab covered, unagi sauced, lemon spritzed jumble that defines modern, American-style sushi. Homemade in a small batch BF had crafted rolls that highlighted their ingredients. Rice, fish, cucumber, and avocado. A few condiments on the side to compliment these basic ingredients completed the experience. This was some of the best sushi I had ever eaten.

Even economically this meal was amazing. Once the key ingredients had been purchased - rice, vinegar, and nori, which would last for months - the rest was easy. BF estimated that considering how cheap sushi fish was, even at its freshest, the cost was minimal. After buying a pound of salmon, plus an avocado and a cucumber he realized he could make about six eight-piece sushi rolls, each roll coming out to a total cost of about $1.50.

I've requested that he continue to learn to make sushi of all kinds. My hope is to be spoiled rotted with fresh fish.

-Hello, little sushi.-

From Sichuan to Tien Tsin

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

-The flavors of Sichuan, China.-

While I rarely ever post about it I actually cook a lot of traditional Chinese food. It's what I was taught to make by a few Chinese friends and their families way back in college and since then it's pretty much stuck as my go-to cuisine due to its ease of preparation, general frugality, and intense flavor using a limited amount of ingredients.

For most non-Chinese people traditional Chinese food is a bit out of the way as it requires a number of somewhat unheard of or exotic ingredients that will only be used once, usually for a recipe seen in a magazine or on a website that sparked some one-shot culinary gung-ho. Afterwards, the bottle of oyster sauce and jar of chili bean paste is quickly forgotten on shelves behind the olive oil and two kinds of Pam.

The things is is that once you have the ingredients and learn how to really utilize them they become indispensable. I can't think of what I would do without my chili garlic paste, dark soy sauce, or Chinkiang vinegar. They've become part of my everyday pantry, and I use them for any number of dishes the same way another person might wield shallots or vegetable oil (which, incidentally, are also part of the Chinese pantry).

-Molten heat in a tiny package.-

Personally, I've always been drawn to the fiery broths, stir fries, and street side style noodles that the Sichuan (also Szechwan and Szechuan) Provence is so well known for. Chinese food expert, Fuchsia Dunlop, points out a common Chinese saying about Sichuan food: shi zai zhong guo, wei zai si chuan; which translates as "China is the place for food, but Sichuan is the place for flavor." It's a phrase I hesitate to argue against, particularly because the Sichuanese have a particular knack for taking a variety of tastes and weaving them into delicate patterns of flavor. Certain spices like garlic, scallion, star anise, ginger and any number of fermented bean pastes and chilies prepared in any number of ways are key to these carefully layered concoctions. Indeed, Chinese chefs boast twenty-three distinct flavor combinations (some entertaining examples are lychee flavor, strange flavor, and hot-and-numbing flavor).

To cover all these ingredients and flavors would require another blog so I thought I would talk about two of the defining pepper spices of Sichuan style cuisine: Sichuan peppers and Tien Tsin peppers.

Sichuan Peppers
Sichuan peppers are the most distinct flavor that characterize, even define, Sichuan cuisine. These peppercorns are the dried pepper husks of a shrub that grows in Northwestern Sichuan. Their knobby, pink, almost clam shell appearance is distinctive in the spice world. The seeds looks like average black peppercorns, but hardly contain any flavor. The pepper husks are lightly roasted before use to release their oils and heighten flavor in dishes.

For years, the United States banned the import of Sichuan peppercorns because of their potential to carry Citrus Canker, a bacteria that had wiped out scores of citrus trees in China and the U.S. Department of Agriculture was being cautious of. In 2005, the USDA lifted the ban but cautioned that all imported Sichuan peppers had to be pasteurized beforehand.

Sichuan peppers aren't hot in the traditional sense in that they don't create a burning sensation or have a pungent flavor. Rather, they have a woody, citrusy flavor that causes a tingly numbness (think of the buzz created on your tongue from a carbonated drink, or the lingering tickle of Novocain when it begins to wear off). This is caused by hydroxy-alpha-sanshool, a molecule common in the Zanthoxylum genus of evergreen shrubs.

This particular flavor is prized in Sichuan cuisine and is often paired with sweet, salty, and savory flavors but is most often seen mixed with hot chili peppers to create an intriguing layer of heat and numbing which excites the palate and encourages a pleasurable sensation. They are often added near or at the end of the cooking process in order for them to retain their flavor and numbing qualities.

Most people aren't too familiar with the spice the first time they try it and may not know what to look for or how to identify it in a dish. As such they may add too much and overpower a dish making it extremely medicinal and bitter. If you are first encountering a Sichuan pepper try the following experiment: pop a pepper in your mouth and chew it gently two or three times and then spit it out. Wait a moment and then you will notice the lemony, woody flavors followed by a slow, creeping tingle on your lips and tongue. DO NOT chew a few of them for an extended period of time. Seriously, you will hate yourself.

Tien Tsin Chili Peppers
Tien Tsin peppers are named after the province in which they're grown, Tientsin (which is the romanized spelling for Tianjin). The chili is also known as chao tian jiao, or "facing heaven" chilies as they grow pointing upwards. They're short, fat, and a lacquered burnt-red color. They're also incredibly fragrant and have a slight Italian red-pepper flavor which, at the same time, is both quite pungent and musky.

These peppers are sun-dried and quite light, but contain a high number of seeds. Shaking one you'll hear a loud rattle as they violently bounce around waiting to be released. Don't be fooled by their size though, these chilies are extremely potent. While the flavor lies in the dried fruit, the seeds are searingly high on the Scoville scale. Some recipes may ask you to toss the seeds so that the pepper only lends the flavor of the fruit. The seeds are incendiary and if not reigned in with a steady hand can easily overpower a dish.

To use them just snip them in half or grind them into course flakes. For soups and stews many people just toss in a chili or two whole to flavor the broth. Often times people may substitute a Thai chilies which are even hotter and will make a dish inedible. If this is the case use a third of the number of Thai chilies you would use in place of Tien Tsin chilies for a recipe.

-The prettiest of peppers.-

These spices are becoming quite common in Asian markets and can easily be purchased at affordable prices online (I use Penzey's). I encourage you to try your hand at using these spices and giving some traditional Chinese cooking - like Kung Pao Chicken - a shot.

The Garden Guardian: An Introduction

Sunday, August 1, 2010

-"You have food for me?"-

When BF moved in he brought along to our humble household another cat, bringing us to three people and three felines. Meet Sassy, aka: Grumpy Cat, Garden Guardian, and Scratchy Meows (scratchy not in regards to any clawing but rather her coarse voice, like she's been gargling sand).

She and BF adopted each other years ago when a family abandoned her after they moved. She belonged originally to the young daughter of that family who carried Sassy along like a purse all the time and forced her to stay outside with other, meaner neighborhood cats. (This girl is also the one who, natch, named Sassy.) As such she's not much of a snuggler, though she will when she deems you worthy enough. Furthermore, she despises Cid and Eat Beast, often swatting and chasing them when they enter her personal bubble.

It's actually all quite comical. Eat Beast's sole mission when Sassy, an outdoor cat for the most part, is allowed in the apartment is to sniff her butt and become best friends. Sassy wants no part of it and hates Eat Beast with every fiber of her being. Eat Beast confuses this hate as an invitation to play wrestle. This makes Sassy hate Eat Beast even more and causes her to chase him down and swat him mercilessly. I find this hilarious as Sassy was declawed years ago so Eat Beast just sort of stands there and takes punches to the face completely unfazed and without understanding that no, this is also not an invitation to play wrestle.

-Under the Zebra tomato canopy stalks the mighty hunter.-

Being an outdoor cat Sassy is now queen and guardian of the garden. Any toads that meander in past the fence are swiftly dealt with. Lizards and even snails are put to death after a bit of batting. If there was ever a possible uprising of mice or rats I have yet to hear of it as Black-Ops Sassy has probably snuffed it out.

With so little sport left she now spends her days rolling in the dirt, chilling under the shade of fruit heavy tomato plants which have grown far out of control, or chewing on my mint which gives her astonishingly fresh breath for a cat. She's the ruler of her domain and we're simply her serfs; we till the land while she stretches out across a bed of pennywort amused at our labor and wondering why on earth we aren't petting her simultaneously.

When we do let her inside she's just as ravenous and wanting as Eat Beast for people food. However, where as Eat Beast paces and waits and nudges for food he knows isn't his Sassy is more resolute. She doesn't hope to get some of your food, but rather she walks up and takes what she knows must be hers. She'll simply jump on the table and waltz straight to your plate to grab what she wants without a second thought. In the kitchen she's constantly underfoot and, I think, plotting to kill me mid-prep by tripping over her so she can pilfer to her stomach's content. I chastise BF for being the one to encourage this behavior before we met.

So once again my family has grown. Though, next time it does, I hope for a dog with table manners.

-"Soon, I will murder da hoomins and da Fat Kitty."-

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