Pasta is the best. It cooks quickly and simply, doesn’t need much to make it great, and is the medium for any number of wonderful sauces. I had a request from my most important taste-tester for a basic pasta sauce post, with one tomato and one oil-based recipe, so here goes. Both recipes have very few ingredients, so the quality of them is really important, particularly the tomatoes, olive oil, and most importantly the pasta. If you’re going simple, you might as well spend a little extra to make sure the dish is as good as it can be. And it can be really, really good. Also both sauces come together in the time it takes to cook the pasta and can be adapted to any situation or ingredient you might encounter.

Easy Pasta Sauce v.1: Olive Oil
Serves 1 hungry person, 20 minutes

1/2 pound pasta (preferably something a little interesting in shape)
2 Tbsp. of your best olive oil, extra virgin if you have it
2 large cloves garlic, thinly sliced or minced
Salt and pepper, freshly ground if possible
Parmesan cheese

1. Start your water boiling, salt it well (1 Tablespoon at least). When it’s boiling and the pasta’s in, pour the olive oil into a small sauce or frying pan and turn the heat to low. Add the sliced garlic. It should NOT FRY, seriously don’t let it start frying, you just want it to cook lightly.

2. When the pasta’s ready (keep it al dente), drain it and pour the drained pasta back into the pot you cooked it in. Pour the olive oil and garlic onto it while still hot and stir the whole mix. Plate it, add salt, pepper, parmesan to taste. That’s it.

•••

Easy Pasta Sauce v.2: Tomato
Serves 1 hungry person, 20 minutes

1/2 pound pasta (preferably something a little interesting in shape)
1 cup canned crushed tomatoes (with basil is good)
2 large cloves garlic, minced
Salt and pepper, freshly ground if possible
Parmesan cheese

1. Once the pasta’s in, put the tomatoes in a saucepan over medium heat. When it starts to simmer/boil put the garlic and seasonings in. Simmer for a few minutes to cook the garlic.

2. Drain the pasta, add the sauce, plate, top with parmesan. Not so bad, huh?

Advertisements

Hot Pot Night in Hong Kong

“Sunday, you come to hot pot with me and my friends! Hong Kong style!”

Helen Shih-Chan is family of family of friends of my family (long story) who, along with her husband, is an overly generous Cantonese woman of about 60. I can never never refuse such an offer to eat with locals.  So off I’m am taken to a fluorescently-lit restaurant in what used to be the Walled City of Kowloon. I ignore the stares from the other patrons (as usual, I’m the only westerner there), and I quickly meet our fellow diners, the lovely Mr. and Mrs. Ng.

Upon arriving at the table, the waitresses install two simmering pots into the square table openings; one pot with water and quartered tomatoes, the other with a darker liquid and floating cilantro.

“No English here. I order,” Mr. Chan says to me as he checks off dishes on his paper sheet filled with Cantonese characters.

“Yes. She eat anything,” Helen assures him. (They had fed me duck feet and pig snout two days earlier.)

And soon enough, the dishes of ingredients start arriving: raw sliced beef, frozen meatballs, raw dumplings (similar to wontons in the States but a million times better), and various fish balls. And the cooking begins! Into the broth Mrs. Ng and Helen start dumping ingredients. Next come even more plates of raw dumplings, sliced fish, pigskin, squid, and other unrecognizables. And the chaos really begins! Steam is rising from the pots, arms and chopsticks are flying everywhere, dunking raw meat, passing plates, serving dumplings left and right, dipping cooked bites into the soy and chili sauce. Helen deposits steaming hot meats and fishes into my tiny bowl. “Its hot! Its hot! Don’t eat yet!”

After proper cooling, it is all delicious; especially the seafood dumplings and the meatballs. My bowl is filled over and over again since “no” isn’t a valid answer at this dinner table.

“Cow has four stomach. This is just one,” Mr. Chan tells me as he places a rubbery sting-ray looking item into my dish. “Its good!” he says.

No… It’s not.

Amidst this frenzy I start to wonder what this large untouched plastic bowl of lettuce and cabbage is doing to my right. “That’s for after,” Helen says. And sure enough when the numerous plates of meat are all devoured, into the pot goes all the vegetables along with rice noodles. I sit there skeptical as to how they will turn out: they are cooking them to death! But when the softened watercress and cabbage land in my bowl… Damn. They are the most flavorful greens my mouth has met! The flavor of all those boiled animals has hopped into that lettuce like I have never experienced. This order of operations makes sense after all.

Many Asian countries have communal hot pot dishes: shabu-shabu in Japan, jigae in Korea, suki in Thailand, and a hot pot of mostly lamb in Mongolia. They all have their own respective dipping sauces as well. According to the unbiased opinion of my local Hong Kong hosts, Hong Kong’s hot pot uses the greatest variety of  meats and ingredients and is supposedly all around the best tasting. Three weeks into my Hong Kong semester and this was certainly an exciting meal that I will never forget.

Cantonese lesson from a non-Cantonese speaker:

jan ho-may ”  =  that was delicious

It’s the ultimate comfort food. Butter, carbs, cheese, it’s sort of hard to go wrong with such a fantastic combination, but there’s a science to making a successful mac and cheese. I’ve only just begun a long and exciting journey towards perfection of this pillar of homestyle American cooking, but, I must confess, I cheated.

My grandfather has been a mac and cheese enthusiast for lifetimes longer than I have. “Papa’s making mac and cheese!” was an often repeated exclamation in my house and remains a cause for celebration. His recipe toes the line between gourmet and homey in just the way you hope it will, and for me sets the bar by which all others are judged.

When I first called him for the recipe he gave me amounts like “a little flour” and “a bunch of cheese.” Maybe the fact that I’m his descendent allows us to communicate in this way. Now these approximations are, in all fairness, the way he (and I in his footsteps) cooks, but a recipe they do not make. So I’ll try to quantify these measurements while still preserving the freeform spirit of the recipe, forgive me Papa.

Papa’s Mac and Cheese
1 hour, serves ~6

1. Cook 1.5 pounds penne, rigatoni, or other smallish tubular pasta until fully cooked but firm. Before draining reserve about 1 cup of the cooking water.

2. Melt 2T butter in a large saucepan over medium-low heat, when fully melted add 1T flour and stir until the flour is incorporated and the texture is smooth. You now have a roux.

3. Gradually add 3/4 cup heavy cream, 1/4 cup at a time, stirring after each addition until the mixture is smooth and even.

4. Add, a handful at a time, 1 pound of shredded sharp cheddar (or more if you want it really cheesy), again stirring after each addition. While you’re waiting for the cheese to melt add some seasonings (mustard, salt, pepper, and a pinch of nutmeg are pretty standard).

5. Once fully melted, combine the sauce with the pasta and mix until each piece is coated. Butter a large (13”x9” or so) baking dish and pour the pasta/cheese picture into the pan, spread it out to fill. Pour 1/2 cup or more of the reserved pasta water over the entire operation, depending on how moist it looks.

6. Top with breadcrumbs and/or more shredded cheese, bake at 400 for about 20 minutes or until the top is golden and crunchy. Let it sit for at least 10-15 minutes before serving.

For the past semester and a half I’ve been a part of what is rapidly becoming one of the great Cornell traditions. Akin to streaking the Arts quad or gorge-jumping, Calzone Club is an institution. Until recently it was institution dependent on a local Italian-Greek restaurant that was the original genesis for the club, but we’ve had a breakthrough…

Homemade calzones. Not only are they easy and inexpensive, they are arguably better. Having complete control over dough and fillings is thrilling, almost terrifying at times, and completely awesome. Also cases of beer are much more economical than buying it in a restaurant (always something to keep in mind).

Basic Calzone Dough (makes 2 large calzones, probably enough for 4 people)

5 cups AP or bread flour
1 tbsp. kosher salt
1 tsp. sugar
2 tbsp. olive oil
2.5 cups lukewarm water mixed ahead of time with
1 tsp. dry yeast

Combine water and yeast, allow to sit for ~10 mins. Mix together all the remaining dry ingredients, then add yeast mix. Stir until shaggy and sort of combined, mix in olive oil. When the dough is sort of cohesive, turn it onto a counter and knead for ~5 minutes until smooth. Allow to rise in an oiled bowl with saran wrap, 1.5-2 hours until doubled in size.

To make calzones:

Turn the dough onto a floured surface and cut it in half. Stretch one of the halves into a roughly rectangular shape, keeping it thick enough to hold the toppings. Then, go crazy. Mozzarella and ricotta are de rigueur, but all sorts of vegetables and meats (cook them first) will be amazing. Save the sauce until after it’s cooked (at 400 for about 20 mins or until golden). You’re going to like it.

Learning to cook can be an arduous, often-frustrating task that only proves worthwhile at the end of a long (hours or years, maybe) journey. It’s an incremental process that takes serious and long-term effort to finally reach the effortlessness of experienced kitchen-goers, no one will tell you it’s easy.

That being said, anyone can learn with just a few simple tools (the internet is an indispensable one) and a little bit of dedication. Like anything it’s helpful to have a foundation of techniques and ideas to gradually progress to more complex and freeform culinary tasks. Find someone you trust who won’t judge your inexperience and ask them to start from square one and work your way from there until you’re familiar with the basics. If you can handle chopping and sautéing and boiling and a few others, you can cook almost anything. Buy a decent recipe book and you’ll find a world of foodie opportunities.

Yes, cooking can be hard. In fact it can be really terribly hard even for those people that do it as a serious hobby or on a daily, professional basis. Occasionally a recipe doesn’t come out right or some ingredients might not behave the way you want them to, but these are just further challenges on the quest to becoming a “good” cook, however you might define that. As you improve you’ll rely less and less on explicit directions and more on your own intuition and ideas of what works and what doesn’t , which recipe makes the best mac and cheese, the easiest tomato sauce. Trial and error will always be your best research tool. And no matter what, understand that cooking should be first and foremost enjoyable, particularly when it’s for those who will be happy no matter what you end up concocting.

A moment of silence please. According to an article in the Huffington Post, researchers have determined that oysters are “functionally extinct,” meaning they no longer play significant roles in most of the ecosystems where they were once naturally abundant.

Fortunately the harvesting and cultivation of oysters is still alive and well, meaning they won’t be absent from your next event deserving of the most sensual and elegant of mollusks. Keep them in mind today when you’re stuffing atomic wings and terrible beer down your throat, the oysters won’t be celebrating…

Purple carrots do a lot of the work for you, making the photo interesting in subject matter alone, but think about the composition and lighting nonetheless.

I’m not a great photographer. The only time I had any real training in the subject was in high school when I took introductory photo and darkroom techniques. It wasn’t the most subtle or well-developed program ad certainly didn’t have any component about food. So, everything that I’ve learned has been through trial and (lots of) error as well as the advice of a few generous and considerably more skilled friends.

The most important thing when taking a photo of your culinary creations is the light. Assuming you have a decent camera (I use an entry-level Canon DSLR) you’ll need to either find or create suitable light to highlight your subject and produce the depth and texture that makes the food pop on whatever print or electronic medium you’ll eventually use to display the photograph. I try, whenever possible, to use natural light from nearby windows, but this is not always possible. Yes, you can take decent photos with the overhead lights in your kitchen, but try putting a lamp nearby, behind the camera. The industry calls this a “fill” and it softens the harsh fluorescent shadow you’ll most likely encounter with purely artificial light.

Framing is just as important, and can really elevate you from amateur to professional status. As a general rule the food should fill most of the frame, or at least be centered enough to be the focus of the image. Until you start composing elaborate backdrops and sets for your food (I’m not there yet, and don’t know if I ever will be), keep the scene simple: a plate or display surface, some garnishes, your meal front and center. With just a few elements in the photo your depth of field will be even more pronounced. The carrot photo above almost takes this too far, but having some background or foreground blurry is not at all bad, and can give the photo far more impact.

Again, I’m not a pro and I’m probably not even qualified to give photography advice, but who cares? I like a few of the photos I take and try to emulate the components in those that I think work particularly well. You can certainly do the same. Play around, Rome wasn’t built in a day.