Monday, October 29, 2012

Time For Something New

When you're tired after a long day, it's so easy to stay in a food rut and eat the same thing you always do when you're exhausted.  In my case, that's either a bowl of chocolate chip cookie dough or take out from a Thai restaurant.  I've been trying to eat better since the beginning of October and I've actually been doing a pretty good job.  It was easy to stop ordering take out when I was tired, but a little more difficult to break the habit of eating something sweet.  Things are slowly progressing, for which my digestive system seems to be grateful.

But I really miss Thai food.  It is so good - spicy and savory and the tastes combine perfectly with the textures of the ingredients.  Although I can't eat the really spicy dishes anymore, like papaya salad, I can still have the savory ones.  Several weeks ago I decided it was time to try making my favorite at home: pad see ew.

Of course it turned out that pad see ew is one of those dishes that you really can't recreate exactly at home.  You need a well-seasoned wok with an industrial strength stove to get restaurant-style pad see ew.  Most of the Thai cooking blogs I looked at said that you can do a pretty good approximation at home if you're patient.  I was pretty nervous about trying to make pad see ew after reading all of this, and I figured that I'd give it a try and it would be terrible and that would be that.

Unexpectedly, pad see ew is really easy to make at home.  The blogs are right - the taste isn't exactly the same without the high heat but it's definitely edible and tastes similar to a restaurant's version. 

Restaurant-style pad see ew: my version got pretty close.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Gnocchi: Not As Italian As You'd Think (+ Pesto)

There's a very simple rule for eating pasta: thin pasta, thick sauce; thick pasta, thin sauce.  You eat gnocchi with a thin sauce, even though it's not pasta.  Gnocchi are little dumplings, not noodles.  They're usually listed with the pasta on the menu at Italian restaurants and sold with pasta in grocery store, which creates some confusion.

There really isn't a stereotypical "Italian" dinner any more than there is an "American" dinner.  Sure, some Americans really do eat green bean casserole made with Campbell's cream of mushroom soup and hamburgers for dinner in the same way that some Italians really do eat tomatoes and mozzarella and chicken cacciatore with tiramisu for dessert.  But there is considerable regional differences in both American and Italian cooking which makes it difficult to say what Americans or Italians "eat for dinner".  Most cookbooks and travel magazines do the best they can, writing very broad descriptions that aren't wrong but aren't really right, either.

In these descriptions, an Italian dinner has a lighter first course which is usually some kind of pasta/gnocchi/soup and a heavier main course which is a meat dish.  Gnocchi may not be pasta but it is cooked similarly and used interchangeably with pasta in the first course.

Most people know the potato version of gnocchi, but they can be made with lots of ingredients, including ricotta, flour, and pumpkin.  Tuscany has a version of gnocchi called malfatti, which are ricotta and spinach dumplings.  The idea of small dumplings made from flour was spread across Europe by the Roman empire and most European countries have some version of them. If you've ever had spƤtzle, then you know what I'm talking about.

Although potato gnocchi are the most commonly made version of gnocchi, potatoes are not indigenous to Italy and weren't introduced until the 16th century.  Many of the food items that we consider to be historically Italian are actually made with foods from the New World, like tomatoes and potatoes.  When new food items became available, Italians worked them into their older recipes which is how we get pizza with tomato sauce or potato gnocchi.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

What's In A Name? Flour Does Not Smell As Sweet

At some point, we've all discovered that the same food can have different names.  The name for soda (or pop or tonic or soft drinks or...) is a big one in the US, and everybody thinks that everybody else's regional dialect has a silly name.  I personally believe that calling all sodas "Coke" is just plain ridiculous.  This snippet of a real conversation I heard in a diner illustrates my point:

"I'd like a Coke."
"Sure, what kind?"
"A 7-Up."


It's not just soda, of course.  A milkshake in New England is (or used to be) a blend of milk and flavored syrup and not a blend of milk and ice cream.  That is a frappe - except in Rhode Island, where it's a cabinet.  I learned about frappes ten years ago, which is also when I figured out what the name "frappuccino" was supposed to mean: frappe + cappuccino.  Nobody has explained why a coffee chain that's from Seattle is naming things using a strictly New England regional name.

There's also regional brand name differences, such as Edy's/Dreyer's, Best Foods/Hellmann's, and Arnold/Oroweat.  Then there's differences in names between countries that supposedly speak the same language.  In the UK, cilantro is called coriander and zucchinis are courgettes.  We have also borrowed a lot of words in English and have ended up changing the meanings: in Italy, peperoni are bell peppers and salame piccante means pepperoni (the American version).

But some food name differences are important and really don't mean the same thing.  Take the word "flour": in the US, flour generally means wheat flour and any other type of flour is called "plant flour" to indicate what plant it was made from.  However, there are many different types of wheat flour and you shouldn't use a different type unless you know how to adapt a recipe for substitution.

The key difference between wheat flours is the amount of gluten.  Gluten is a protein that is found in wheat and other relatives, such as rye and barley.  It helps dough to rise and keep its shape and makes the dough elastic, which is why bread is chewy.  In general, savory dough recipes use flours with more gluten and sweet dough recipes use flours with less gluten.

There are six classes of wheat in the US (durum, hard red spring, hard red winter, soft red winter, hard white, soft white), and the types of flour they produce are different.  Not surprisingly, the hard wheat types are best for yeast breads and the soft types are best for pastries.  Durum is the hardest type of all, and is used to make pasta.

This is what your bread started out as.