Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Adventures in cooking

So, the Trophy Wife was out the other night, doing Engelbert Humperdinck's opera "Hansel & Gretel" for the schoolkids of Gallup, New Mexico. (That's the Engelbert Humperdinck who was writing fairy tale opera's for children in the 1890's, not the one who was singing crap pop music for the soulless masses in the 1960's.) She's been doing this with Opera Unlimited for just shy of five years now.

So there I was, my son and I, left to my own devices for dinner. Not the first time - I am a passable cook; although not nearly as good as the Trophy Wife, I can follow a recipe with the best of them. ("Recipe" being a moderately important word here, though. I don't have a lot of instincts for cooking, so if I don't have a list of ingredients and instructions, it might be best to have the pizza place on speed dial.)

But we really had no idea what we were going to eat, and Christopher went rummaging in the pantry. The first thing he turned up was a can of Spam that dated back to when Luke headed off to the Marines. (For some inexplicable reason, both my sons like Spam.)

The second thing he turned up was a can of chipotle peppers in adobo sauce. And he put these two cans on the counter and grunted in his pidgin Neanderthal "Make food." Then he wandered off to finish digging the pit-trap for the mastadon.

I looked at the two cans for a minute, as they sat there on the counter, mocking me. And I decided to go with a really simple application. I cut the Spam into five slices, put them in a skillet to sear slightly on each side, and dumped the chili's in on top of them.

The first thing that hit me was the smell - it was like barbecue sauce, only good. (Sorry, I'm not a big BBQ sauce fan - that doesn't mean I'm a bad person, does it?) After I flipped the Spam slices, I poured some red wine in on top, and let it cook it down a little. Then I just served it over rice.

Then Christopher and I sat there, watching the fourth Die Hard movie (easily the best since the first one), and reveled in our pain.

See, my wife isn't exactly a fan of spicy food (and when I say "not a big fan of," what I mean is "kind of a wimp about"), so I've cut way back on my capsaicin consumption over the last two decades or so.

In case you aren't aware, chipotles are just the smoked version of jalapeno peppers. So not the hottest thing out there, but once you've worked your way through four or five of them, the built-up heat gets pretty intense. Take a drink, the heat just goes downstream, without lessening at the top at all.

The thing about capsaicin is that it clings to everything. I once picked up a bottle of some seriously kick-ass hot sauce when I was helping a guy move, and I didn't know that he'd spilled some on the outside. An hour later, after washing my hands once, I rubbed my eye where some dust had gotten in. I was reasonably certain that I was going to go blind (possibly by plucking my eyeball out to stop the burning).

The smokiness of the chipotles was mostly overpowered by the adobo sauce, but the heat? Not even close. It was awesome; we both ended up with a chili high that had us laughing at each other for no good reason.

(It's amazing, as puritanical as some people are, that chili's haven't been banned yet.)

Capsaicin has a number of uses other than tormenting the cowardly gourmands. It's one of the main chemicals in one of the varieties of mace (specifically, the one referred to as "pepper-spray," by some weird coincidence), and a number of pain ointments use it as a key ingredient (for example, a product called Capzasin).

Oh, and one final note. I'd forgotten that, when you severely overindulge on chili peppers, you need to understand that everything goes somewhere. And capsaicin doesn't always break down as readily as you'd expect in the digestive system.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that the next day, you'll be sitting on the toilet, and it will feel like somebody coated their finger in Capzasin and shoved it up your butt. Just a thought.

But then, last night, I took my first crack at making soba noodles. And that is a truly weird experience.

There's all kinds of good reasons to eat soba noodles - they're made from buckwheat instead of processed white flour, and, you know, the less processing of your food the better, right? Plus, they're high in fiber, which is something everybody needs on a regular basis (so to speak). And in one study, it was shown that buckwheat lowered the serum glucose levels in rats by 12 to 19 per cent. And with growing numbers of diabetic Americans, that might just be something to pay attention to.

Now, the package instructions were pretty much written by a crazy man. Basically, you bring the water to a rolling boil, toss in the noodles, and keep the heat cranked. When the water tries to boil over, pour in a cup of cold water, and when it tries to boil over again, kill the heat. Rinse.

And boil over it did. (Or actually, it tried to - I was just too fast for it.) I suspect it's the variety of starch that buckwheat throws off, but it's pretty damned similar to boiling a pot of detergent. It foams up like a mad dog chewing a can of shaving cream.

It's the insane way to deal with soba. People who cook their soba that way will probably also serve it by reaching into the boiling water and pulling out handfuls of noodly goodness.

Fortunately, a little research found me a food blog by an ex-pat Japanese woman living in Switzerland (hey, welcome to the 21st Century), who shows us a more reasonable way to cook soba. (Possibly, in fact, too controlled, approaching anal-retentive; I mean, come on! "hold the noodles over the water and sprinkle them in strand by strand?" Really?)

Basically, boil the water (or broth - whatever), toss in the noodles, stir... hell, it's her story, let's let her tell it.
Bring the water back up to a gentle boil, then lower the heat so that the water is just simmering. (This differs from the ‘rolling boil’ that’s recommended for pasta.) If the water threatens to boil over, add about 1/2 cup of cold water (but if you lower the heat to the gentle simmer, and have a big enough pot, this shouldn’t be necessary). Cook for about 7 to 8 minutes, or following the package directions (for thinner noodles 5 to 6 minutes may be enough. Test by eating a strand - it should be cooked through, not al dente, but not mushy either).

At this point, you may want to reserve some of the cooking water. This is called sobayu (そば湯), literally ‘hot soba water’, and many people like to add it to the remaining soba dipping sauce at the end of the meal to drink like soup!

Drain the noodles into a colander. Immediately return them to the pot and fill the pot with cold water. When you’re draining the hot water you may notice that it smells quite ‘floury’. This is what you want to get totally rid of.

If the noodles threaten to flood out over the pot, put the colander on the pot to hold the noodles down. Leave the water running for a while over the noodles.

Once the water and the noodle are cool, start to ‘wash’ the noodles. Take handfuls and gently swish and rub them in the water. Your goal is to wash off any trace of starchiness or gumminess on the noodles. When you’re done the water should run clear.
She goes on to talk about presentation and stuff, but basically, it's noodles. You know the drill, right? Then just rinse them when you're done. They'll be fine.


Anonymous said...

Little known fact: Engelbert Humperdinck (the crap pop one) toured with Jimi Hendrix in 1967.

I'm a big fan of this crappy blog of yours, and I mean that most endearingly. Steve

Nameless Cynic said...

At age 113, I would've been really impressed with Opera Humperdinck touring with Jimi. That'd be epic.

But thank you for your kind words. I only dip into scatology... well, probably far too often, now that I think about it...

Andrea said...

Did you ever spend time in the south pacific? Apparently spam over rice is a Hawaiian favorite. I've never been, but I know some natives.

The addition of spice is great. I would suggest going throwing in some Thai peppers next time. I personally am a BIG fan. The first salsa I made had 3 habeneros mixed in. Yes, I blended three entire peppers in. Tasty, but a wee bit much. Certainly you can extrapolate the digestive experience, as you demonstrated with your amazingly non-euphemistic description of your day-after-chili paragraph. But experimentation is the only way to grow and learn, right?

Good luck in your cooking ventures!

Nameless Cynic said...

Heard that. My older son got stationed in Hawaii (and complained about it, because he'd wanted Japan - you can't please some people, you know?), and Anthony Bordain's No Reservations did a show on Hawaii shortly after that. You know, syncronicity and stuff. We discovered that there's even a uniquely Hawaiian Spam sushi.