No time? No problem!

Some weeks just kick your ass ... hard.

This was one of those weeks for us. Just when we'd think we were getting back in front of things, BANG, something new cropped up to throw a monkey wrench into the schedule. Granted, it's these sorts of weeks which really test your mettle and dedication to cooking good, healthy meals instead of resorting to pre-packaged crap or take-out. So, I suppose it's a good thing to get a good ass-kicking to the schedule every now and again.

It's, at least, good for keeping me honest, right?

One drawback to the manic pace we're setting over here in the House of Whimsy is, blogs may not be as on-schedule as I'd like them to be. So, if you don't see something new on Thursday, it's probably coming soon or at least by Sunday when we have a bit more breathing room. Just a little heads up ...

The part where I can't even be bothered with frying eggs
Baked potato skin eggsYes, sometimes even making fried eggs for two is a bit taxing, especially when the appropriate larger frying pan recently went to cooking heaven and hasn't been replaced yet. Frying eggs one at a time and allowing for pan cooling time kinda sucks, really, when there is no time to dick about and it's already moving from breakfast into lunch time. But, fortunately, I had some leftover baked potatoes from an earlier virtually-no-work dinner (veg/yoghurt stuffed baked potatoes rock) and home fries are a no-to-low watch kind of thing.  So, I scooped out the potatoes, broke that up, mixed it with a couple of diced-up smaller potatoes, and seasoned to hang out cooking at LOW so I could give them a lazy stir whenever the urge struck. I heated the oven to 400º and popped the hollow skins in for a few minutes, then lowered to 350º. I cracked an egg into each skin, shredded a bit of gruyere left from the French onion soup I made the night before on top, and popped them in the oven for about 20 minutes or so, just until the whites were firm. By that time, the home fries were crisp enough to be NOM-worthy and plopped onto some left-over spinach from the soup's partner salad with the yolk-gushing, egg-filled skins. Huzzah! Relatively healthy, filling brunch with most of the food groups represented! Wheeeee!

Adventures in quickie cooking
Manic weeks are also a great time to pull out all those quick pan-sear kinds of meals, stuff you make a quickie marinade for earlier or the night before and give a brief sizzle in the pan when hunger kicks in. That was a BIG solution for us this week. It saved us from the expense of delivery dinner several times, which is a groovy thing. The way I look at it, the more we save on our day-to-day food budget, the more room we have to splurge when we do indulge in restaurant fare ... and if we've been really good boys and girls, the tab will nary make a dent in the overall budget, since we've saved far more than the average night out costs. This assumes we're not supping at Urasawa or the like.

The neighborhood market had some lovely looking papayas, which I had not played with up 'til now, so I was, of course, intrigued. Originally intending to just have some with yoghurt, I shifted gears once I tasted it. Instead, I scooped out the flesh of a half and gave it a whack in the processor, added mild Thai chili paste and soy sauce with a touch of the blasting hot chili garlic paste. Part served as a marinade for some pork chops and the rest was a nifty, savory/sweet/spicy salsa for the funky Thai-inspired tacos we made with it.

Here is the lowdown:

papaya marinade/salsa for pork or chicken**
1/2 fresh sm-med papaya
2 TBSP mild Thai chili paste (the kind with main ingredients of tamarind & garlic - I forget the brand I use, since I used the last of my jar, but if you shop at the Hollywood Bangluck market, it is the kind with the picture of a rather serious-looking Thai lady on the label.)
2 TBSP soy sauce
1 tsp hot Thai chili & garlic paste

** We liked this so much, I did the exact same thing with Ahi the next day but, because of the fishiness factor, used as extra TBSP each of mild chili paste and soy.

Give those a good spin in the food processor and marinate the meat in about 1/3 - 1/2 of it while reserving the rest.

Veg for the tacos

This lasted for both nights + lunch leftovers + a teeny bit left to add to salad

1/2 cabbage
3 carrots
1 bunch cilantro
1 bunch scallion
a small jicama (about 1 cup shredded)
rice vinegar - about 6 TBSP
sesame oil  - 3 TBSP
soy sauce - 3 TBSP
sugar - to taste (I think I used about 1 TBSP)

Cut the cabbage in small shreds, shred the carrots and jicama, and finely chop the scallion and cilantro. Combine them in a container with the "pickling" ingredients. Don't necessarily go by my exact ratio, since you might not like your veg as tart as I and yours might hang out longer, thus giving it more punch. Try adding a bit of each based on whether you prefer acidity, savory, or a bit more savory saltiness, or even sweetness.

Once you give your meat a quick trip over the burner, you're ready to chop it up, heat up some tortillas, and assemble tacos. We also added some avocado to the tacos, which made them even more sexy.

Kitchen MacGyverism
Another reality of ass-kicking weeks is you rarely have time to do proper grocery shopping. This is where your inner-kitchen-MacGyver really gets a workout. We all have random pantry items hanging about, leftovers, as well as unused ingredients ready to turn the bend into not-so-wholesome land. Why not use them for a relatively quick, not-so-taxing, yet tasty and healthy meal?

We had a couple of steaks the other night and, like good dietary monkeys, ate only a wee bit over a proper portion, leaving a nice amount for whatever else. Not wanting to go down the standard quick-solution fat + carb road and do steak sandwiches, I noticed I still had cabbage, sprouts, and carrots left from taco night and they weren't long for this world. I also always have the makings for a dashi broth and miso on hand, because it's just plain good. We also had some ramen noodles hanging about, since the good cheapie Chinese markets sell them in pretty massive quantities. SCORE! Instead of dull-ass sandwiches, we had a well-balanced, healthy and filling Japanese-inspired feast. EPIC CHEAP FOOD WIN!

Miso broth
* when making dashi and miso broth for the first few times, you may find your mileage varies from what I like to use ... it's all about how YOU like your broth, so tinker, add more stuff or add more water ... it's your bowl o' soup, after all! *
6 cups water (you can substitute some or all with chicken broth if you want a bit richer flavor)
kombu - big, fat seaweed (I usually use a wider piece about 4-6" long or 2 skinnier about the same length for this qty)
katsuobushi - dried bonito flakes/shavings (I usually use about 3 decent handfuls for this qty)
miso paste (I usually use about 3-4 TBSP for this qty)

* bonus veggie/vegan version ... you can also make a kick-ass vegan broth by substituting shitake mushrooms for katsuobushi. Then, you'll have another awesome ingredient for your soup, too! *

Put the water into a pot with the kombu and heat at MED to MED-HI. Just before it hits a boil, remove the pot from the heat and allow to steep for about 15 minutes. You can do a bit less if you like a milder flavor.

* You'll know when it has hit the right time to steep because little, teeny bubbles will be ringing the edges of the pot and you'll see some very mild disturbance to the surface. Don't sweat it if you miscalculate and hit a boil, it's not the end of the world ... really. You may just want to add a few TBSP of cold water so the broth doesn't steep too aggressively. Otherwise, if you dig a stronger seaweed flavor, let it rip ... you can always adjust later if it's a tad strong.  *

Once that's done, remove the kombu** and add the katsuobushi. Return to the heat and do exactly the same, allowing it to get just almost to a boil, then removing from heat to steep for 15 minutes. Strain it ... now you have DASHI!

Return the dashi to the heat, this time you can go on HIGH. Put your miso into a little bowl and add some broth as it's warming to loosen the paste into a thick broth-like liquid. Once the dashi broth begins to bubble, remove it from the heat and add the miso mix.

You've just made MISO SOUP!

Now, your broth doesn't have to be so spartan as all that (though it's nice to know it's delicious when it's that simple). Sometimes, when I'll be using some of my broth to reduce and make a dipping sauce for soba, or perhaps I just want a bit more flavor, I'll add some slices of fresh ginger to the water or some scallion whites, maybe some sesame oil near the end ... you get the picture. It's all about what flavors you want to accent your soup.

* a quick tip ... If you plan to reduce, especially with a stronger reduction like dipping sauces, add the miso at the end. Also, it's a good idea to wait until the end to add ingredients which might get too potent by reducing, like soy sauce or vinegar. Ideally, reduce just plain old dashi, perhaps with a bit of shitake or other flavors which concentrate well. *

Once you've got miso soup, you can assemble a nifty bowl with leftover meat or fish, some shredded or leftover steamed or fresh veg, scallions, noodles, a bit of wakame (another fab seaweed product, usually called "dried sea vegetable") ... the possibilities are endless.

And that about-to-turn-the-bend veg? I chopped and shredded those fuckers and gave them a toss in a hot pan with some soy, sesame, shao hsing (yeah, I mixed Chinese with Japanese ... sue me!), a bit of onion powder, and a few healthy shakes of rice vinegar. It was a nice, crunchy flavorful side to the umami goodness of the soup.

And the best part? I didn't buy one new thing to make it! Hot damn, I love cheap good eats!

** A tip for my fellow cheap bastards ... If you hate to waste good future ingredients, pop that cooled-down kombu into a baggie and whip it out in the next couple of days to wrap around or even stack with fish or meat as it cooks for a bit of added Japanese flavor, especially when you have a relatively acidic or soy-based marinade or a fishier type of fish. This works great in your steamer or wrapped in foil in the oven.

Finally! A few extra minutes to cook!
spicy savory beef & yam stewThere was at least one day when I had a few extra minutes to spare for dinner prep work. It wasn't a lot, so it still had to be something pretty easy without too much fussing or chopping. The round-the-corner market had some really nice beef shanks at a good price, so I thought I'd take a stab at making my own version of a sexy-ass dish I usually order from one of our favorite delivery Chinese places, a spicy, savory beef dish with sesame and yams. Except, not having the time or inclination to fry stewing/soup meat in itty-bitty slices, I figured, why not make it into a stew version? So, that's what was for dinner.

And it was REALLY good, too. Must say, I'm still at the point of wanting to do some tinkering with it, because I think it can make the leap from sexy to foodgasmic with a little finessing, so I'll refrain from recipe posting just yet. But I will throw out the basic gist, so if you might like to try it, it's a good jumping off point, anyway.

The main ingredients: 2 beef shanks (about 1.5#), some beef stew meat (chuck about 1.5#), a flavor mix for the stewing liquid (red wine vinegar, sesame oil, soy sauce, shao hsing, fresh grated ginger, ancho chili powder, worcestershire sauce, minced garlic, scallions, a little chili garlic paste, and a little touch of fish sauce), a can of tomatoes (no juice added to the pot), some sesame seeds (I'd have used tahini if I had some handy), and beef broth. Then, once the meat was done (about 2.5 - 3 hours of stewing after browning), I added yams sliced thick on the mandolin & regular potatoes sliced thin (to break up and thicken some), and a bunch of mushrooms.

This was some sexy-ass food ... I can't wait to give it another spin and nail it! In the meantime, there is at least some groovy food porn.

Well, holy hell, that's a lot of talking about food for a week with virtually no time to cook. Hopefully, next week will be more food-y and less word-y.

Get ready, next week I have a bit of, "You ate WHAAAAT?" coming up. Tonight's dinner will be baby octopus fried karaage style (because Japanese pub food ROCKS!) ... just to give you an idea of what's in store. Until the next one ... happy food alchemy!