A few weekends ago I had to go into work on the weekend (which is one of the things that I dread most), so I dragged my boyfriend along to grab lunch afterwards. Hehe the 30 minute walk to work in the cold weather is a bit more bearable when there's someone with you, and a hot lunch afterwards is great incentive for both parties :) Unfortunately when we were leaving my workplace and making the 10 minute walk to the Indian restaurant for lunch, the weather reared its ugly head. It was cloudy as I left my work, and then a minute later it began to rain, just a few droplets at first, then a little more, with the wind picking up dramatically. I was getting blown over, when next thing I knew, there was a gust of small snowflakes, which then turned back into rain. But no, the sky couldn't make up its mind, and in the next minute, the rain became a wall of little tiny ice pellets, flying sideways with the strong wind. Within literally a few minutes, I could no longer see ahead of me… the icy rain was coming down so hard and dense that it was completely white-out conditions. I was caught right in the midst of it all, and the icy rain came pelting down so hard that my face felt like it was being battered with needles, and I had to take cover next to a building before running the rest of the way to the restaurant yelling "ow ow ow!" the whole way there. Crazy weather I tell you! Of course, minutes after I was seated, the icy rain turned to a falling blanket of giant snowflakes, and another few minutes after that, bright sun. What a storm!
Anyway, we were getting lunch buffet at the Indian restaurant, which is called Royal Bengal. They serve mostly Northern Indian and Bengali cuisine, even though I don't really know what that really means hehe. Indian buffet is always a good time, because well first it's all you can eat, and that's always exciting for students living on a budget, but also because I don't eat Indian food often and it's fun to have something different every once in a while. The prices uses to be great, with the lunch buffet costing about $6 on weekdays and $7 on weekends (more meat dishes), and over the years it has risen gradually, to the point where weekend lunch is now $9.50 per person, which is at the threshold where I would not be willing to pay for it if it went any higher. Luckily MIT and Harvard students get a 10% discount, but honestly that's like less than $1 off, so it's not that much of a difference. So that particular weekend they were serving goat curry, fish tikka masala, and fish curry as their specials. The usual fare includes chicken tandoori, aloo gohbi (cauliflower and potatoes cooked with tomatoes, onions, herbs and spices), vegetables curry, daal (a creamy lentils dish), samosas, vegetable pakoras (battered and fried pieces of cauliflower usually), and some fresh vegetable salad with chutney and pita bread available on the side. Yum, here's my first platter of goodies. I try to get a little of everything, but I have to admit I'm not very good with spicy food, so I try to stick with less spicy stuff or else I'd be drinking water like crazy. I usually get a generous portion of the lentils, and some masala item, as they are mild and help give a little buffer to the spicy curries :)
The other thing I really like about Indian buffet is their rice pudding, which is called badami kheer. Indian style rice pudding tends to have a harder rice kernel (not as soft and mushy as English rice puddings) and a more liquid milk that makes the pudding a very refreshing dessert, especially after the spicy entrees. Served cold, it's usually flavored with cardamom, almonds, and raisins, although I try to avoid picking up the almonds and raisins since I like the pure texture and flavor of the rice with the milk. I grew up loving the Kozy Shack style of rice pudding, topped with a healthy bit of cinnamon, and while that is still one of my favorite comfort desserts, I am always looking forward to the Indian rice pudding each time I'm at Royal Bengal. Mmm yum.
Other things I've had lately include a good deal of homecooked meals. On the day that I got back from my latest NYC visit, my boyfriend had prepared dinner for us, which I thought was a really nice gesture especially after my long bus ride back. He pan fried together some onions and a bunch of garlic marinated pork chop medallions, which were thin and juicy with a slightly crispy layer of thin cornstarch. We ate them with rice and a side of garlic stir fried broccoli, and it was a great satisfying meal to come home to after a long day traveling. It's really nice to have someone there who can pick up the cooking when you just don't have the time for it (I had been thinking of getting fast food for dinner when he called me on the phone to let me know he was making dinner – good timing!).
To return the favor, I was in charge of dinner on a night when Greg had to meet with some classmates for a group project right around dinnertime, so that he could come back and we could have dinner ready to eat before like 9pm. Even though cooking alone takes a while since prep time and cooking time can't be cut down by doing both simultaneously (not very well anyway), I really do like having total control over our tiny kitchen space and trying my best to multi-task while planning out what I wanted to make. I definitely relish in the execution of my dinner plan. That's the thing about cooking which makes it so different from baking. For the most part, at least in Asian cuisine, you never have to worry about perfect portioning of ingredients. A dash here, and spoonful there, and a sip of what's in the pot are really the only things you need. Everything else is just trial and error (and execution via familiarity) until you get things to be exactly (or close to) how you want it to be. It's difficult to mess up… as long as you're not burning anything.
There's so much personality in each dish, so much room for variation, that I honestly believe no two dishes I ever make come out the same. Which is fun for me, but I guess difficult for many Westerners to manage, since so often Western cooking is governed by recipes (even when they don't really need to be). That said, I believe cooking is a very intimate thing, and one that you can really only improve on with experience and a flair for experimenting. Whenever I ask my mom how to cook the dishes she likes to make at home, she can never spit out a recipe for me. Never. She'll just insist that I come and watch her cook, and she'll be able to rattle off the general steps, just never the amounts of the ingredients used. And now that I've done a bit of cooking myself, I know just how true that is. When you're just adding and adding an ingredient until you get that satisfactory taste, you definitely lose track of how much is going into the dish. Anyway… heh tangent.
So that night I made a simple cabbage and bacon dish, which is one of my go-to dishes for fast and fool-proof cooking. First off, cabbage must be the world's easiest vegetable to cut. All I do is rinse it, peel off the outer layer, cut the head in half. Then I cut out the stem and proceed to cut the half-head horizontally and vertically in just a few fell swoops before the entire thing is cut into a bunch of small rectangles, since the head holds together so well. So fast! Then I sizzle up some bacon until it's a little bit crispy, and I set that aside. I leave the oil from the bacon in the pan to cook the cabbage with, until the leaves are nice and soft and a bright light green color (the parts closer to the stem will stay a light yellow color). A dash of salt goes in, and then I throw the bacon pieces back into the pan for a quick twirl and it's ready to serve. I personally think cabbage is just as tasty without the bacon, but my boyfriend really likes it with bacon, so I throw some in to humor him. Cabbage just has a great mild but slightly sweet flavor that makes for a nice refreshing vegetable side for most dishes I think.
The other dish I made was improvised on the spot because when I reached into the fridge after defrosting my chicken thighs, I realized that the mushrooms I had intended to use for a nice chicken and mushroom dish were moldy. Fungus growing on fungus is some nasty stuff. So plan B was to use whatever else was in the fridge that could be used to make a chicken dish (and honestly, there wasn't a lot that day). I had onions, carrots, and two small tomatoes. So I cut those up, and softened up the onions and carrots in a skillet while the chicken was cubed and marinated with salt, sugar, white pepper, rice wine, onion powder, garlic powder, cornstarch, and soy sauce. When the carrots were 2/3 of the way done, I threw in tomatoes which soften pretty fast, followed by the chicken, and let that sear to just a bit underdone before adding in some water to make a sauce. For the sauce I used soy sauce and hoisin sauce to achieve a balanced flavor that was neither too salty nor too sweet, something similar to a teriyaki but with a stronger hoisin flavor which made it a rich and rounded sauce. Finally I added a cornstarch slurry and brought the sauce to a boil until it thickened slightly.
You know… it boggles my mind, but how DO people come up with names for their dishes? Like the one I improvised above, I wouldn't know the first thing to call it other than just describing what it is. Who came up with the names like scallopini and casserole? Pad thai? General Gau's? I'm going to call this… hoisin chicken… even though the translation into Chinese makes it mean seafood chicken lol. What, I'm not good at making up names! :P
For Chinese New Year, which I apologize for not having had any interesting entries about despite being Chinese and enjoying its cuisine (I just don't have the ingredients to make those special new year's dishes), I spent the day eating something pretty normal. Greg had the chance to grab a big family dinner in Chinatown though, and brought back some leftovers for me which included a beef clay pot dish, some taro fried duck, beef with tofu, and Cantonese style chicken. He also brought back some dessert that one of his relatives picked up at an Italian bakery… some mini cannolis! Mmm I love cannoli… it has the most interesting texture combination – crunchy outer shell with a creamy but gritty ricotta-like filling. The big cannolis can be a big daunting to handle in one sitting, but the mini ones are great for a bite-sized dessert :)