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Posts from the ‘Cooking up a Storm’ Category

Warm Delights

Finished product

When you’re not supposed to eat sugar, weird habits can pop up. Instead of taking the quality over quantity approach and indulging in something truly amazing on occasion, everyday junk food just starts looking more appealing.

On a late Saturday night in a Wegmans in Bridgewater, New Jersey I was drawn by the siren song of Betty Crocker’s Warm Delights. Sleazy. And only 150 calories per serving?

Clearly, molten cakes are popular with the masses. Domino’s now delivers them. Why not whip one up in the privacy of your own microwave? Convenience has its merits.

Betty crocker warm delights

I thought that you’d just pop a ready-to-heat container in the microwave. But no, you actually have to do a little mixing with hot tap water and get to squeeze caramel from a plastic packet. There’s something very Easy Bake Oven about the whole procedure.

And the end result was adequate. I wouldn’t say it was the best use of sugar and calories but if you’re a sad bikini bod obsessed Cathy who’s torn between nursing a pint of Ben and Jerry’s or Warm Delights while watching Sex and the City with no swearing on TNS, the choice is obvious.

Sunday Night Special: Saffron Chicken Breasts with Pea Shoots and Mint

Saffron chicken with snap peas

Hmm, I don't write much about cooking because it's boring. Coming from me at least. It's already asking a lot of strangers to read about what I eat in restaurants. That's why I'm always amazed at the wild popularity of recipe-driven blogs where comments can reach triple digits and book deals abound. Odd.

But I feel compelled to share the edible results of my Opposite Day experiment with greenmarket ingredients. I'm not spontaneous so the concept of picking up what's fresh on a whim and creating a meal is counter-intuitive. Plus, I don't tend to cook New American fare, which is what seems logical when confined to seasonal and local raw materials. I mean, coconuts and limes don't grow here. Chiles would be manageable, though.

I thought I could come up with something using the chicken, snap peas, pea shoots and mint I'd picked up. Needing guidance, I found Saffron Chicken Breasts with English Pea Purée, Pea Shoots and Mint and instead of making a bed of mashed peas, I tweaked Sugar Snap Peas with Mint and Orange  to use lemon as the citrus. But if I had known this was what I was going to make I would've bought parsley and green onions at the farmer's market, too.

After Grand Army Plaza, we just ended up going to our cheap no-frills stand by, Western Beef, anyway. It's a weird place, great for basics as well as Latino and Eastern European obscurities, but you won't find things like tarragon, Colman's mustard powder (on our shopping list), Fage yogurt or non-utilitarian cheese. I guess that's what Fairway is good for.

While inside the sizable  walk-in meat locker, I decided to buy $1.59 per pound skin on bone-in chicken breasts in plastic-wrapped Styrofoam to compare with the $5 per pound chicken piece (breast, wing and drumstick) I got at the greenmarket. That's not just a little more expensive, it’s leaps and bounds beyond. Three times more. Would I be able to taste the difference?

Chicken breast comparison

Side by side, the conventional chicken breast on the left was bigger, fattier and more yellow than the pinker, more petite fresh one on the right. Once cooked, though, these plus the other two regular breasts I sautéed, all started looking the same. James is dismissive of boutiquey meat so I gave him a standard breast and took the organic for myself.

I thought mine was more tender and super juicy, though I did miss the larger amount of crispy skin (partially my own doing, I’m not much of a butcher and mangled the skin when separating the breast from the leg). But then, I tasted James' and it was also moist and had good texture. Argh, we kept tasting mine hoping for a revelation but both conceded there wasn't a major discernable difference.

For me, flavor is prime. Of course, there's also something to be said for simply avoiding meat filled with antibiotics and chemicals, the product of an animal's miserable life. I'm just not ready to pay three times as much for that yet.

It is a luxury and a matter of priorities. I prefer spending my money on restaurant dining.  It reminds me a bit of my mom’s perception of therapy (which to my knowledge, no one in my family including myself have ever really participated in, not that they/I couldn’t use it). She once mentioned almost wistfully, “that would be fun,” meaning paying for self-discovery and analysis is something self-indulgent that rich people do. In the same way, I view organic meat as being for other people.

Sunday Night Special: Fish Head Curry

Mystery fish

Who says Twitter is good for nothing? Every time I get back from Singapore (ok, I've only been three times—I'm not trying to make it sound like it's a regular part of my life) I intend to try making a fish head curry only to instantly forget after quickly getting caught up in NYC again.

Thankfully, I was re-reminded by a tweet from The New York Times' Pete Wells, about the glory of fish heads. Who knows what he ended up doing with his piscine score? I knew exactly what I would do after getting my hands on a nice meaty specimen.

Where he picked up a $15 tilefish, I was limited to what the Chinese market I happened to stop by had on offer: a 99-cent-per-pound mystery breed. I have next to zero capability for discerning fish species by sight so I asked what kind of fish these came from only to hear, "fish head!" in response like I was the dumbest person on earth. (I felt the need to mention I'd recently made a fish head curry while doing a phone interview with Zak Pelaccio and when he asked what kind of fish I'd used, I lied and said snapper because I didn't want to admit my fish ignorance. He then said I should've used something oily like salmon. I'd agree with the oily, though I've never had a salmon fish head curry. Then this morning I read about the kerfuffle involving Mark Bittman using overfished red snapper and realized that I’m not only incapable of  identifying fish by sight, but the imaginary me also cooks endangered species) No need to press the matter and I'd only be out a couple bucks (plus lots of prep time) if the fish sucked.

Its face seemed a little slim and long with a little fleshy appendage that mimicked a goatee. Fish heads I usually see curried are fuller, broader. The dreaded red snapper is often recommended in recipes and I’ve also seen a call for threadfin, which I don’t think are common here.

One of these days I'll learn that no matter how many cookbooks I possess or experience I have with eating the cuisine, Malaysian-Singaporean food will never taste the same in my hands. Seriously never. I'm stymied as to what causes my food to always turn out flat and dull. I can't attribute it to lack of fresh ingredients because my Thai and Chinese food usually turns out pretty good. I'm clearly doing something wrong.

The first issue was deciding on a recipe. Every one I found was slightly different so I adapted a few based on what sounded right. Fish head curry uses dry spices, not a fresh paste or rempah, since it's a Singaporean specialty of Indian origin. Ok, there's also a Nyonya version but the curry everyone associates with Singapore is served at Indian restaurants and not so much at hawker centers.

Therefore, you need curry powder and lots of it. One thing I've discovered is that Malaysian recipes often specify the type of curry powder you need, none of that generic madras business. They seem to have two distinct blends: fish and meat. I picked up packets of each on a visit to Kuala Lumpur but that was a few years ago (perhaps the first step on my route to dull food was using old spices). It seems that main difference is that fish curry powder doesn’t contain clove, star anise, cinnamon and cardamom like the meat version.

The recipe I was following called for five tablespoons and unfortunately, my little packet only contained around four. So, I spent a bit of time grinding and making my own supplementary powder based on the recipe below, which I've left as is. Even cutting down those numbers by a third, I ended up with two whopping cups of the stuff, used an entire bottle of coriander seeds and still came up short. Grams to ounces confuse me. I had no idea what an insane quantity I was concocting until it was too late. I filled up the spice grinder with dried chiles three times and still didn't have the 50 grams per my digital scale!

You also might want to know about "curry seeds," which are called for in many recipes. From what I understand this is a blend of whole fennel seeds, cumin seeds, brown mustard seeds, fenugreek and black dhal in proportions that I’m not sure about. I didn't have the dhal.

Once you have your blends ready to go and your vegetables and aromatics prepped, the rest is easy. There aren't really any shortcuts since we don't have brands like Prima Taste here that sell ready-to-use mixes that aren't half-bad (I've tried a few of them). I'm loving this fish head curry "party pack." Now, that's my kind of party. James is trying to finagle a way to get his company's Singapore office to send us a bunch of these packets. I'd be curious how the fish head curry blend tastes because…well, my rendition didn't end up impressing anyone.

Fish head curry

My pot of fish was wrong, even by looks (and I don't just mean that it's ugly anti-food porn). The consistency of the liquid should be thinner, oilier and ruddy. Mine was creamy even though I thinned it down with water. James insists the versions we had in Asia didn't contain coconut milk. I agree that they seemed sharper and soupier but every recipe I found included at least a little coconut milk. I would go easy on it.

The fish, itself was mild and inoffensive. I'm sure it could've been fresher but it was amazingly cheap. This whole dish probably cost under $8 (if you only count the portion of the $2.89 bottle of decimated coriander seeds that were actually used for this). Even at such a bargain, I'm going to lay off the Singaporean experimenting for a while because it's too much effort for lackluster pay off.  But I feel compelled to write out a recipe, anyway, because I don't think that was the problem.

1 whole fish head, about 3 pounds
1 tablespoon mixed curry seeds for fish curry (optional)
1 thumb-sized piece of ginger, chopped
3 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
2 onions thinly sliced
5 tablespoon fish curry powder made into a paste with 1 /4 to 1 /2 cup water
10 okra pods
3 tomatoes, quartered
10 chiles slit into half lengthwise
20 curry leaves
1 /2 to 1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon sugar
1 tablespoon tamarind mixed with 1 cup water
1 cup coconut milk
5 tablespoon sunflower oil        

Fish Curry Powder
250g coriander powder
60g cumin powder
150g chilli powder
30g turmeric powder
20g black pepper powder
10g fenugreek powder

Rub fish head with salt, then wash and pat dry. (I’m just repeating what I’ve read everywhere. Rather than seasoning with salt, this step seems intended to remove “fishiness.”)

Heat oil in a wok or saucepan, add the curry seeds and stir fry over high heat for two to three minutes till the seeds pop. Add garlic, ginger, onions and stir fry till fragrant. Add the fish curry paste and brown over low heat, till oil raises to the surface. Sprinkle water if the paste begins to burn.

Add the coconut milk, tamarind juice, salt, sugar and curry leaves. Bring to a boil, stirring. Add the fish head, along with okra, tomatoes and chiles.

Simmer for 15 minutes or until fish is cooked.

Adapted from Sylvia Tan's Singapore Heritage Food and the Singapore Tourism Board

Maybe it's impossible to perfectly replicate Singaporean fish head curry in Brooklyn. I've suspected as much and Laura Shapiro's recent post, "Food Doesn't Travel" reinforces this notion.

Sunday Night Special: Pig’s Ear Salad

Pig ear salad

In a thrifty attempt to work through all of the odds and ends that have accumulated in my two freezers (yes, two) before allowing myself to buy any new perishables, I found a stash of pigs’ ears. Waste not, want not.

It’s strange that dull gray supermarket ground beef that’s been lazing around in a deep freeze for months doesn’t bother me but these large (much larger than I realized from the packaging) fleshy flaps gave me pause. Hooves and even chicken feet don’t bother me much, but these ears seemed so lifelike.

I originally bought them to recreate the pig’s ear salad I had at Resto, which I now believe is also served at Irving Mill.

The salad part was straightforward. The original uses escarole. You could use any hearty greens. I happened to have some aging mesclun in the fridge and beefed it up with big handfuls of arugula.

Tarbeis beans are a French cassoulet bean. Not something I keep around the house though I did have flageolet, a common substitute. It was too late for soaking so a can of ordinary cannellini sufficed. I’ve never made cassoulet, maybe I’ll muck that up on a future Sunday before it gets too warm for such heavy food. I think I’d better hurry.

A poached egg is the crowning glory. I overcooked my yolk, sad since I love lots of warm runniness. But I’m not a perfectionist, I could never be a recipe tester with all of my impatience. A semi-set yolk wasn’t ideal but I wasn’t going to toss it out considering this whole exercise was to use up stagnating ingredients not create more waste.

Pig ears

The tricky part was the ears. I had no idea they were so tough, my normally adequate knife barely sawed through the double-ply slabs.

After a trip in a wok full of hot oil, my ribbons were crisped to brown, maybe a little too dark. Cooked slower and longer in subsequent batches and tossed with salt, they still ended up all crackle, little chew. Maybe Resto had special fatty, tender or possibly smaller or younger ears. Theirs felt like a wonderful bacon-crouton combo. My recent experience with pigs’ ears outside of Resto (at A Lorcha in Macau) were also very crunchy and cartilage-heavy just like these.

Even though I’ve never knowingly eaten chervil, I’m convinced that licoricey herb appeared in the original. No chervil at Fairway (nor frisee—maybe I’m doing something wrong because I can never find frisee). Instead, I added minced tarragon to a Dijon vinaigrette.

This dish would’ve been much better with lardons. Of course everything tastes great with lardons. Pig’s ears take more finesse, which I have yet to master.

No Comment

Libbysfruitcocktail Commenters are an unruly bunch. I don’t have a particularly social site but from what I can tell much time is spent spelling you’re as your, calling people douches and/or haters and accusing innocents of hailing from the Midwest (Ohio, more specifically).

Even The New York Times, which used to remain fairly civil (due to firm monitoring, I suspect) has become hotbed of angriness lately. I do appreciate how the economy has somehow whipped what might have been ordinary citizens into a pissy frenzy, dour as I am normally.

The tragedy of people who had six-figure salaries now resorting to $12/hours jobs? Idiots who should’ve saved more when they were making the big bucks. (I concur.)

Children whose parents can’t afford to pay for their reduced public school lunches being given cold cheese sandwiches and fruit? Cry babies who are lucky they get fed at all. (Harsh, but I can see their point.)

The “Frugal Traveler” bemoans the lack of Saigon boutique hotels in the $50 range? Pick from: sounds like you should rename your column to The Affluent but Cheap Traveler, I suffered through hell in Vietnam and it sounds like you’re a pansy or hey, dillweed why do you think you’re too good for a $5 a night fleabag backpacker hostel like I enjoy? Sheesh, rich folks. (Ok, I totally don’t agree with these attacks. I’m middle-income, luxury-averse but do value well-priced wi-fi, air conditioning and minimally stylish accommodations when traveling. So what?)

But my favorite breed of commenters are the assholes who’ve never seen a recipe they didn’t want to mess with. This weekend I was browsing croquette recipes because, you know, that’s what I do for fun on a Saturday afternoon. Wine and Ham Croquettes, a fairly traditional seeming Spanish recipe compelled me to click.

And unwisely seeking the advice of strangers, I immediately came to this doozy from a Westchester resident:

“Not a bad ham croquette recipe but I found it a bit bland. I added 2 tablespoons of maple syrup, a teaspoon of cinammon [sic] and a small can of diced pineapple chunks which made all the difference!”

My god. This sounds like someone who thinks raisins gussy up celery and peanut butter and considers fruit cocktail topped cottage cheese a legitimate dessert. Remind me to never eat Spanish food in Yonkers.

Tortas and Lomitos

Tacos rico pierna torta

I wouldn’t exactly call it an epiphany but Saturday I woke up (I’d like to say bright and early but it was more like 11:30am) with the strange and sudden urge to know more about Mexican food. Not just to eat it, that’s easy (despite all of the transplanted complainers who seem incapable of looking beyond lower Manhattan), but to cook it more too, maybe even learn more about the cuisine first-hand (I know Oaxaca is a gastronomic destination but I’m thinking Merida).

Just how a certain subset of white dudes seem unable to resist an Asian girl, I have a fetish for the food (though I rarely dabble in the Korean or Japanese realms). It’s illogical and uncontrollable. Maybe I’m drawn to noodle soups, dumplings and curries because of their very foreignness. Though by that logic I’d also be a goulash or fufu fanatic, which I’m not. I think it’s the complexity of a spice blend or layers of sweetness, salt and spice that appeal. How lots of mixed up tastes blend into something exciting. But that’s not unique to Asian cuisine.

My resistance to Latin American food, Mexican specifically, stems from the feeling that I should know more about it. I wasn’t really raised with it, it wasn’t served in local restaurants growing up and I certainly wasn’t handed down any kitchen wisdom from a knowing abuela (nor an Anglo mish-mash grandma—to this day, I can’t recall my mom’s mom who’s still very much alive, cooking anything, period, let alone notable. My only memories involve puffed wheat cereal from enormous 99-cent store plastic bags, slicing Neapolitan ice cream from a rectangular carton into slices with a knife, and a mock apple pie) and yet it seems really accessible. I mean, I could be south of the border in a few hours by plane and even communicate with people (on a very rudimentary level, to be sure) when instead, I fantasize about locales that are literally my polar opposite where chitchat is futile.

I think that’s the scary thing. No one expects a foreigner in Malaysia or Beijing to know everything or to be able to speak Malay or Mandarin. You risk looking like a stupid American even when trying your best. But cultural floundering feels more shameful in a country so nearby, and one with which I share a heritage.

While cobbling together ingredients in Sunset Park for dinner, I discovered that epazote is easy to come by while recado rojo is not (they even sell the Yucatecan paste on Amazon so it’s hardly obscure). I (or rather James) had to make it from scratch.

Tacos rico torta

In the mean time, a torta was in order. We stopped at Ricos Tacos. My sugar and starch limiting means very few sandwiches in my life. But sometimes you simply need something gut-busting between two pieces of bread, in this case a fluffy bolillo. My pierna was a serious mess, only compounded by the copious amount of string cheese, avocado, beans, pickled jalapeños, and yes, mayonnaise, normally my nemesis. But just like with the banh mi, my aversion is waylaid by overall awesomeness.

I wouldn’t say that Ricos Tacos specialty are tortas, that’s just what I wanted. That might be the advertised tacos arabes, a take on schwarma stuffed into a pita. Maybe next time.

I can say that intrepid DVD hawkers know no ethnic boundaries. African-Americans tend to stick to subways and blankets strewn across sidewalks while Latinos and Chinese ladies prefer the restaurant-to-restaurant roaming approach. I have no interest in discounted copies of Hotel for Dogs, though that doesn’t stop genuinely interested others from completing transactions while eating.

What seems to be uniquely Mexican are roving bands setting up shop in tightly packed eateries. No stage or prior arrangements necessary; these are not Filipina entertainers. We happened to be sitting near the door, therefore entitled to an accidental front row seat when a five-piece band, accordion, stand up bass and all, decided to give the jukebox a run for its money. No one seemed to mind. There’s no way this wouldn’t wreak havoc anywhere else outside of a subway car.

Because one can never have too much pork (I’d already eaten two strips of bacon as breakfast), dinner was to be lomitos, based on a recipe from Diana Kennedy’s Essential Cuisines of Mexico. This was thrifty because we used leftover scraps from the Super Bowl ribs that had to trimmed St. Louis style.

Beans and lomitos

These were eaten with soupy black beans and corn tortillas. Simple. Not the prettiest, but tasty.

1 tablespoon simple recado rojo
2 tablespoons Seville orange juice or substitute
2 pounds boneless pork, cut into ½-inch cubes
2 tablespoons vegetable oil or pork lard
12 ounces tomatoes, finely chopped
½ green bell pepper, finely chopped
2/3  cup finely chopped white onion
2 teaspoons salt
1 small head of garlic, unpeeled
1 whole habanero chile or any fresh, hot green chile
2 to 2 ½ cups cold water, approximately

Dilute the recado rojo with the orange juice and rub it into the pieces of meat. Set aside for about 30 minutes to season.

Heat the oil in a skillet and fry the tomatoes, pepper and onion together over fairly hight heat, stirring well and scraping the bottom of the pan from time to time, for about 10 minutes. Add the salt and set aside.

Toast the whole head of garlic on a griddle or comal, turning it from time to time, until it is browned on the outside and the cloves inside are fairly soft. Toast the habanero chile.

Put the meat into a large, heavy saucepan with the water, which should barely cover the meat. Add the tomato mixture and the toasted, unpeeled garlic and chile and bring to a boil. Lower the heat and simmer the meat, uncovered, until it is tender—about 1 hour. (The sauce should be of a medium consistency; if it appears to be too watery, turn the heat higher and reduce quickly.) Serve hot.

The Cardinal Rule

Ah, Super Bowl. The perfect excuse to drink too much on a Sunday and fry the heck out of things. Luckily, the lack of an F train (could a subway line possibly be more useless? And don’t say the G, it’s always come through for me) didn’t dampen spirits or scare away guests. 

Buffalo wings

Of course there were wings. And unusually hot this year. I think someone got carried away with the cayenne pepper.

Vietnamese wings

My annual plea for non-Buffalo wings was finally granted this year. I never man the fryer but I do try to influence what gets dipped into the bubbling oil. This Vietnamese-ish recipe came from the chef of Pok Pok, a Portland Thai restaurant that I always read good things about but have never tried because I am bad and never visit my hometown. Thai food is not enough of a draw, I’m afraid. These were sweet and salty. I would’ve liked to have eaten more than one.

Smokies wraps

I’ve never made wiener wraps out of Lit’l Smokies in my life, and then the one year I do someone brings a big pack from Stew Leonard’s. Call them lowbrow if you will but there was not a single piglet in a blanket left by the end of the evening.

Salt and pepper ribs

An attempt to recreate the salt and pepper ribs at Irving Mill was not unsuccessful though not exactly the same either. These were braised in soy-orange juice blend, which added a touch of sweetness. And the finishing lime squeeze added more citrus punch, as you can see pulp got all over the place. As you can also see, the pile was decimated by the time I realized ribs had been brought out. The crisp-and-tender interplay was right on.

Vietnamese summer rolls

Trying to balance the fried with the fresh, I made Vietnamese rolls (there wasn’t an intentional Vietnamese theme), some with pork belly and shrimp, others with smoked tofu. The vegetables included bean sprouts, lettuce and carrots. I just can't bring myself to use rice vermicelli, a crime akin to rice inside a burrito. For dipping there was a hoisin-peanut sauce based on White on Rice Couple’s recipe and a nuoc cham that used both lime juice and rice vinegar. Maybe a little too tart? You could make 50 of these (think I made around 35) and they will still all get eaten. 

Avocado salsa

Also, a Japanese-flavored avocado dip/salad with jicama, watercress and wasabi-soy dressing for the sake of variety. I figured others would bring guacamole (for the love of god, don’t say guac) and sure enough two showed up bearing the chunky green gift.

No photos of the two cakes that were randomly brought from New Jersey Wegmans by two different people. Everyone in the know goes to Wegmans.

For whatever reason, certain party-goers watch the smaller downstairs TV instead of the big HDTV in the living room. The 30-or-so seconds delay between analog and digital becomes apparent when wild screaming bellows from the basement and nothing exciting happens for upstairs until half a minute later.

I don’t even follow sports. I just like having people over, drinking and making food (not the cleaning, however. James went on such a scrubbing and mopping rampage that he’s now physically sick. I honestly don’t think the average person notices dirt the way he does). However, guests did get riled up as evidenced in this video documenting the downstairs/upstairs divide. I had no idea such fervent Cardinals fans were in the house.

Cookbooks Worth a Look

Check out my list of Accessible (Mostly) Southeast Asian Cookbooks on Flashlight Worthy. Yes, people still read books.

And to All a Good Night

I've spent many of my ten December twenty-fifths in NYC sitting in apartment alone. Last year I did the classic movie and dinner with a couple friends (I still think I'm scarred from Juno). This year I was just going to cook a shitload of Thai food for myself (yes, I had to take advantage of James being out of town, now that he's boycotted Thai food for six years) then decided to throw an impromptu mini-party after finding out that a ton of people (ok, nine is a ton in my world) I knew were staying in town this year. I enticed six to come to Carroll Gardens for Christmas.

I don't do Christmas in a big way, which is to say I'm not a huge participant in gift exchanges. When I hear others discussing present-buying for a slew of cousins, in-laws and other loose extended family members, I'm bowled over. Call me a scrooge but I only buy gifts for my mom, sister and boyfriend. I might swap trinkety things with a few friends, but that's it. Hence, my haul is not mammoth. Get what you give.

Christmas haul 08

This season, I got flowers and tons of cheese, six Snowdonia cheddars from my sister and chevre d'argental, gres des vosges and humboldt fog plus quince paste from James. I've noticed that after being diagnosed with diabetes this year I've received lots of flowers and cheese on occasions I would normally get candy. I could really go for a box of See's right now but I do love dairy products very much. (I've pretty much given up on even a vaguely healthy eating regimen until January anyway. I relinquished my salads, yogurt and oatmeal, no sugar routine on Thanksgiving en route to S.E. Asia and have yet to resume the bothersome strictness. I did start running again this week now that I've finally gotten that pseudo-SARS out of my system after self-medicating with Mexican Cipro.)

Also, a digital SLR, which has me a little unnerved. I haven't even used it yet, if that's not obvious from the murky photos below. Blog-wise, the thing is that you'd think nicer restaurants would require nicer photos but there's no way in hell I'm pulling out a chunky camera in say, Le Bernadin. That's just too dorky (I was going to say gay but that new Think Before You Speak ad campaign has wisened me up to such hurtful language, though until they produce anti-retarded PSAs, I will continue to use that immature adjective). Until I'm embolded, I'm more likely to take pretty photos of tacos or pork buns.

I can't forget bath salts with Japanese delicate pretty boy illustrations that I love so much, socks with an anthropomorphic corn dog and Goldlion antibacterial striped toe socks. Goldlion is a weird obsession of James'. On our first visit to Singapore in '03 he bought a pair of Goldlion (a Chinese brand that seems geared towards middle aged men) pants at Takashimaya and now we always find the Goldlion section at Asian department stores, whether it be Wing On, Isetan, Robinsons or Tangs.

Cramped kitchen mise en place

Ok, onto the food. Prepping is no small feat in your typical Brooklyn kitchen, and I crammed in a little mise en place next to the coffee maker and toaster. I had all four burners occupied and every inch of counter and fridge space (inside and on top) filled to capacity. But apparently, tiny kitchen cooking is all the rage. And I've always suspected that people with giant islands and Viking ranges are the least likely to use such luxuries.

Coconut pumpkin soup

I don't know that it's actually traditional, but the coconut-pumpkin soup from old standby Hot Sour Salty Sweet is always a hit and one of the only concessions I made to my poor vegetarian diners. I used butternut squash because Wegmans is too fancy to carry Caribbean staples like calabaza (they do sell truffles, however) which I'd normally employ. I also pureed half of the squash into the broth and kept the other half in whole cubes rather than the keeping it all cubed. I like the orange on orange.

Green chicken curry

I didn't have time or energy to make green curry paste from scratch though I would have if I were making fewer dishes. I adapted a recipe from It Rains Fishes and used chicken instead of pork, Japanese eggplant instead of Thai, apple and pea (this did bother me) and added bamboo shoots just because I like them. This didn't turn out to be anything special, what tasted spicy the night before turned out to be fairly mild on Thursday. I still think it was better than anything I could've ordered in Carroll Gardens, though.

Pork belly with long beans

Pork with snake beans and chile paste is really pork belly with long beans as a garnish. I've had pad prik king pork and beans in restaurants before and the meat to vegetable proportions are more balanced. For this recipe, though, I followed one from Classic Thai Cuisine that calls for 7 ounces of pork to 2 ounces of long beans. I tripled that but kept the same meat-heavy ratio. And it was damn good, if I do say so myself. Either you're passionate about fatty pork or you're not. There's no pretending there's anything healthy about it.

Catfish papaya salad

Traditional catfish mango salad became catfish papaya salad. I was lucky enough to find green papaya at all. I usually avoid making these salads and have ended up using green apple in the past. Deep frying is kind of a pain at a party because I don't have one of those open kitchens made for entertaining and you get stuck cooking in an isolated kitchen while everyone is eating in the living room (James has mentioned this same problem with Super Bowl and buffalo wings, he never gets to watch the game). With that said, I think this was very successful and the perfect combination of crispy, crunchy, hot and sour. Maybe my favorite dish. I used a recipe from Dancing Shrimp that doesn't appear to be online anywhere.

Beef panang curry

Karen astutely noticed beef was absent from my planned menu and brought a rich panang curry. It made me wish I had gone with my original plan to make panang instead of green since green can be soupy and dull in the wrong hands, i.e. my hands. Though it may seem so, I'm absolutely not a control freak, I love it when people bring food to my parties (ahem, as long as it fits the theme).

Lettuce wraps

Mario brought vegetarian lettuce wraps with peanut sauce. This was also much appreciated because I didn't want the meat-averse to starve.

Christmas sweets

Jane, always an avid baker, made cookies and confections and Jessica crafted a vegan pumpkin pie, which was odd because I've never known her to bake. She forgot the whipped cream but we all survived because Sherri brought vanilla goat milk ice cream. Sure, goat milk product cancel out animal-free nature of vegan pie but the combo is surprisingly good.

Seven bottles of wine, a six-pack of Singha and countless You Tube videos of people falling and portapotty users in Japan getting punked later, I deemed the Christmas party a success (I mean, in my head, that's not something you declare aloud unless you're a freak). Though for me, the highlight was when Norbit came on HBO. Nothing like Eddie Murphy in a fat suit to put me in the holiday spirit.

Once again, it has became apparent that I'm averse to including humans in photos, both myself and others. This is absolutely not intentional or any sort of backlash to endless Facebook party pics. I just forget. Maybe this could be a 2009 resolution, as opposed to resolutions as I am, to focus more on people than food in the new year. We'll see.

So Dishy

Green bean salad

I just accidentally discovered a perfect Thanksgiving side dish. Unfortunately, it will have to wait until next year to be put into play.

I was trying to use up leftovers in the house so things won’t rot while I’m out of town. Cooked turkey breast and green beans led me adapting a chopped wing bean salad, a favorite that I make occasionally.

After adding more coconut milk than called for (there’s no way the whole can will get used up by Thursday so I increased the ¼ cup to one) and a topping of fried sliced shallots and garlic, I was struck by the resemblance to green bean casserole. In fact, I thought the same thing last time I made this dish. I’m forgetful but consistent.

All you would have to do is remove the poultry and swap coconut milk for cream of mushroom soup. You could even use the classic French’s fried onions. Once diners got over the shock of a cold dish rather than a warm bubbly one (who needs hotdish, anyway? I'm not from the Midwest) there would probably be a few holiday converts. At least I’d hope so. Traditionalists might still balk at fish sauce and chiles on the Thanksgiving table.