The Power of Uni, Brunch & Bocci, and Easter Lamb

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It was a fantastic weekend for Kitchen Monkey, culinary and otherwise. A trip on Friday up to Tampa to see a friend's MFA graduation art show unexpectedly turned into a free Saturday trip to Busch Gardens. A long day of rollercoastering was followed by a trip to Tampa's Ichiban restaurant, a very decent sushi joint that happened to have fresh uni, pictured above.

Uni is sea urchin roe, and it is not for the novice sushi eater. It has a taste that can be described using a combination of adjectives such as buttery, nutty, and slighlty fishy. But no description can really do the taste justice. The consistency and texture, however, is easier to describe. Think somewhere between a smoke oyster and a big loogie. The texture turns alot of people off, many others don't appreciate the taste. Still others are deterred by the price (I rarely see it cheaper than $2.50 a piece, and in NYC its often $5 a piece or more.) But learn to love it, and you will forever be in search of good uni.

Upon returning to Sarasota, I discovered in the mailbox a letter of acceptance to University of Minnesota Law School, which I didn't quite expect, but am very happy about. Its one of the top 20 law schools in the country, and I have a lot of heavy thinking to do in the next few weeks. For those of you who have been following along, DC suddenly doesn't seem to be quie as certain as I thought. I am going up there this weekend however to check it out. It will all come down to vibes at this point.

But getting back to food: immediately after my return on Sunday I went over to Nick's house for Easter brunch. It was fantastic. He made a frittata, some home fries, Ann made some excellent crepes, AJ made fried plantains, and Mary made some disturbingly delicious chocolate truffles. I brought OJ. After brunch we all played bocci on the back lawn.

That evening I had a few people over for lamb dinner. I marinated a leg of lamb in fresh rosemary, olive oil, mashed garlic cloves, lemon juice, and lemon peel. I also made a delicious salad of cucumber, tofu, and leeks, with a sweet miso dressing. Maybe I'll post the recipe later.

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Roasted Chicken with Mustard Rosemary Sauce (and a premature parting note to Florida)

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Since all odds point toward me leaving Florida for good within the next few months, I have begun to wax prematurely nostalgic about this strange, sun-washed paradise for the aged. For ten years I have lived here--longer by far than I've lived anywhere else. Yet I still have a hard time calling Florida home. Maybe its because when I arrived at the age of 20 I was planning on being here for no more than a year or two before leaving, and although this notion never changed, I somehow failed to make it out.

There are things I love about Florida. The laid-back atmosphere, the general and genuine friendliness of most people. The beautiful canopy of trees that covers the hilly streets of Tallahassee, where I spent the first five years. The eye-poppingly gorgeous beaches around Sarasota, where I've spent the last five. Amazing restaurants and fresh fish markets are abundant, and the produce is cheap, beautiful, and delicious. I love the prehistoric quality of Florida's state parks, where it seems as though at any minute Tarzan or a brontosaurus could come crashing through the woods. Or Tarzan riding a brontosaurus. That would be cool. Especially if the brontosaurus could shoot lava from its eyes.

There are things I don't like about Florida. I know that ageism is just another form of bias, but it is one that is difficult to avoid here. At least 1/2 of the cars in Sarasota are driven by old people who are either 1) confused, 2) on medication, 3) unable to see over the steering wheel, 4) trying to find a particular street, 5) yelling at eachother, or 6) all of the above. Also, grocery shopping is a real treat on a busy day, and if you don't want to spend an hour and a half in the store you are forced to navigate your shopping cart through aisles where grannies or grampies staring at rows of canned vegetables are stationed like grouchy obstacles in some Nintendo racing game.

I feel bad when my irritation toward Florida's old ones reveals itself. After all, it is a unique bias in the sense that, while I will never be an evangelical Christian, I will, probably, be old someday. At which point I will shake my fist at the arrogant young men who zip past me with their shopping carts--as though they had something to do that really mattered in the long run.

There are other things I'm not crazy about in this state. Without elaborating, let's just say the state is becoming a little too red for my personal tastes. And while southern culture has a wide array of charms ('cue!) that I never appreciated or recognized before living here, I have to say that, having bartended two dayshifts a week for a year at the ABC Liquor Lounge in Tallahassee (which is really southern Georgia,) a number of the less fortunate stereotypes of the south, do, like many stereotypes, exist for a reason.

Keep in mind that most of this doesn't apply to Miami, which is in many ways another world from the rest of Florida, and one that I've only experienced briefly (including a trip to the Miami Zoo to see some monkeys, most of which were seriously depressed and not half as charming or personable as the monkeys and gorillas in the DC Zoo. I demand happy caged animals, damnit!)

When eating Ramen, struggling with a daily commute, or glooming through the rainy, cloudy murk of DC, I will undoubtably miss Florida and the easy, pleasing life of leisure I've led here.

Florida, we had a good run.

What does all of this have to do with Roasted Chicken with Mustard Rosemary Sauce? Nothing. Here's the recipe:

Roasted Chicken with Mustard Rosemary Sauce (easy and delicious)

3 -4 lb. whole chicken (I used a brand of whole chicken called "Smart Chicken." Its organic, free range, air packed, and very tasty, although if it were all that smart, would it be in a package waiting to be eaten? Hahaha. I slay me.)
1/4 cup Dijon mustard
1/4 cup xtra virgin olive oil
2 Tbsp chopped fresh rosemary

1) Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Mix the last three ingredients in a bowl. Arrange chicken on a rack in a roasting pan.
2) With half the mustard mixture, coat the sides and top of the chicken. Use a narrow spooon to slide spoonfuls of mixture underneath the skin of the chicken breast. Smoosh around.
3) If you're lucky like me and have an electronic probe thermometer, slide it into the meatiest part of the thigh. When it reads 175 degrees your chicken is ready. With a chicken this size it should take an hour and a half at most. With a 7 or 8 pound chicken it will take up to 2 1/2 hours, the last hour of which you'll want to cover the top of the chicken with tinfoil so as not to burn it.
4) baste occasionally with some of the mustard sauce and the drippings if you like. Or use the dripping later to make a little gravy, but this chicken is succulent enough that it shouldn't need gravy.
4) I also sliced some large potato wedges, carrots, and cut a small onion into quarters, then tossed them in the rest of the mustard mix and arranged them on a baking sheet. About 1/2 hour after putting the chicken in I slid the vegetables in under the chicken. They were delicious.

If you have any chicken left over the day after, its delicious cold tossed with some greens and a light viniagrette.

This recipe came from Bon Appetit, October 2001. I made adjustments to the measurements.


Oyakodon - Japanese Comfort Food (Recipe)

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See the soft, somewhat dream-like glow of the oyakodon? This is a natural result of its deliciousness translated through the power of digital technology. Or maybe the steam from the hot rice fogged up the lens a little.

You've all heard of the Chinese egg & chicken dish called "Mother & Child Reunion" (inspiration for the Paul Simon song of the same name--no lie). "Oyakodon" pretty much means the same thing, but its taste is distinctly Japanese, with a sauce made of mirin, soy, caster sugar, and dashi stock. So long as you have these basic ingredients (along with rice vinegar and sake) you can make a host of Japanese dishes, but this is one of my favorite and certainly one of the easiest. Serve over short-grain steamed rice, preceded by a simple salad topped with your own ginger dressing (see recipe below)

For those not in the know:

Mirin: a sweet, low-alcohol content rice wine
Caster sugar: finely granulated sugar. You can use regular refined sugar and put it in the food processor it for a minute or so (thanks to Nick for that tip)
Dashi stock: a stock comprising bonita flakes (skipjack tuna) and konbu (kelp). Homemade dashi is delicious, but can be expensive to make. You can buy insant dashi stock granules --dashi-no-moto -- in many Asian markets.

serves 3-4

1 lb. boneless chicken breast or thigh meat, cut into 2-inch chunks
1 large or 2 medium onions, sliced
3 large eggs, whipped

1 1/2 cups dashi stock (if using dashi-no-moto, mix 1 Tbsp. in 1 1/2 cups of water)
2 Tbsp. soy sauce (preferably light soy sauce)
3 Tbsp. mirin
3 Tbsp. caster sugar
1 Tbsp. sake (optional)

1) heat large sauce pan (with lid) over medium high heat. Mix together sauce ingredients and pour into pan. Add onions and spread in an even layer. Let cook for 4-5 minutes until they start to soften.
2) Add chicken in a single layer over the onions, cover tightly and let cook for 5 minutes. Turn chicken over and cook for another 5 minutes.
3) When chicken is cooked through, pour the beaten eggs evenly over the top and allow to cook for about 1 minute. Remove from heat and allow the eggs to cook a little more. You don't want the eggs to harden too much, they should be cooked, but still be ever so slightly runny.
4) Serve over short-grain, steamed Japanese rice (ratio: 1 1/4 cup water per 1 cup rice)

Tasty Ginger Dressing
(serves 4)

1-inch piece of ginger, peeled and chopped roughly
1/2 medium-sized carrot, peeled and chopped roughly
1 clove garlic, peeled, chopped roughly
1 tsp. caster sugar
2 Tbsp. seasoned rice vinegar
1/4 tsp. sesame oil
3 Tbps. soybean (vegetable) oil
1 tsp. sake (optional)

blend all ingredients except vegetable oil in a small food processor (if you only have a large food processor, quadruple the measurements and have lots of leftover dressing) until smooth, then add the vegetable oil slowly while blending.


Saffron Pancetta Risotto

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This risotto turned out to be the best I've ever made, and you should try making it, or one similar to it--if, that is, you don't mind standing next to a hot stove for 45 minutes making circular motions with a wooden spoon or silicone spatula. I find the stirring to be quite relaxing, especially when you assign the task to someone else while you sit down with a good book. When they (inevitably) complain, you may choose to remind them that they, having no kitchen skills beyond the boiling of water, are lucky to be the benefactor of your culinary wisdom and should be grateful of the opportunity to work on their underdeveloped triceps. However, you should resist the temptation of this response, since at best you will have to resume the stirring yourself, and at worst will have to dodge behind the papasan to avoid a hurtling, goopy spoonful of hot risotto.

I was kind of winging it, so the measurements are just estimates. The main thing is to keep an eye on it, add more liquid whenever it boils off, and keep stirring, stirring, stirring. Add whatever ingredients you like, but I have to say pancetta (Italian-style bacon), white wine, and romano all complement eachother excellently and make for a great, creamy-textured risotto.

The risotto was served with red wine-braised veal liver and onions, a request from a friend who mentioned that while it was tasty, it was not quite as good as the liver they ate in her native Kazakhstan, made with some sort of sour cream sauce. We also made some wine braised chicken cutlets for her boyfriend, who, forgivably, doesn't care for liver. No pictures of the liver or the purple chicken unfortunately, since I'm still getting used to the focus features on my new digital camera and the pics came out rather blurry. Visualize the purple chicken on your own.

2 cups arborio risotto rice
5 cups chicken stock
1 cup dry white wine
1/4 pound pancetta, sliced into small strips
1 medium sized onion, diced
1 carrot, peeled and diced
1 clove garlic, minced
1 Tbsp fresh thyme, minced (or 1/2 tsp. dried thyme)
1/2 tsp. saffron threads
1/2 cup grated romano
salt & pepper
2 Tbsp. olive oil
1 Tbsp. butter

1) Start by heating a sautee pan over medium heat and add the pancetta, stirring occasionally, allowing the fat to cook off, then remove the pancetta to a plate and add garlic, carrot, and onion. Sautee until onion is a light golden brown and set aside.
2) Heat olive oil and butter in a large sautee pan, add the risotto rice and stir to coat. Add about 1/2 cup of white wine and continue stirring until wine has cooked off. Add another 1/2 cup wine and repeat process until wine is gone, then continue process using chicken stock, 1/2 cup at a time. It will take roughly 40 minutes for the rice to cook to perfection, and you may not need all of the chicken stock, or you may need more. The rice should be creamy, but with a slight firmness. As I mentioned, you or someone else MUST stir the risotto the entire time.
3) Once the rice is just about cooked, add the thyme, pancetta, onion mixture, and saffron. Stir for about another 5 minutes.
4) At the very end, add the romano (or asiago or good parmesan) and stir for another minute off the heat.
5) Enjoy.


Baked Polenta (with Ragu Alla Bolognese)

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First off, a hearty thanks to Meg of Too Many Chefs for featuring last week's lamb-bit as one of their "posts of the week." The site is a "group" food blog, with a wide variety of topics in the posts. Check it out, great content and a cool, somewhat retro design.

Now then, this little work of deliciousness pictured above was my attempt to use the coarse-ground cornmeal that has been sitting in my cupboard for over a year. I still haven't returned Nick's copy of Marcella Hazan's Essentials of Italian Cooking, so I began searching it for polenta recipes. To my delight there was a recipe for this baked polenta (its a bit like lasagna, only with sheets of polenta instead of lasagna noodles), which required ragu alla bolognese. I just happened to have a container of it in the freezer from a batch I made several weeks ago.

The polenta was easier to make than I might have imagined, and turned out quite well. The ragu was combined with a quickly-whipped-up bechamel sauce. The only thing I added to the recipe was the sprinkling of sauteed mushrooms and onions over the top, but I found these to be unnescessary. Distracting even.

I won't post the recipe here. You should buy the book. Its fabulous, and many people feel content to consider it the authority on Italian cooking, and everything I've made from it turned out wonderfully (in fact, I've got a stew cooking at home right now, also drawn from this book--and yes, its lamb stew).

The drawback to me telling you all of this is that Nick is going to want the book back now.


The Search for a Great Lamb Stew (Episode 2- Tunisian)

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Look at that face. Who could eat something so cute? Well, me for example. Eschewing foods based on their cuteness seems odd to me. Is it any more humane to eat a fish just because most of them are rather ugly and alien-looking? If you had been in the Donner party would you really have gone for craggly Old Man Johnson instead of young, plump Sally Smith? OK, bad example. I'm getting way off track here.

I love lamb, but at this point in my life can't typically afford the ultra-expensive, ultra-tasty rib or loin cuts, which are often $10 a pound or more. Sometimes I'll go for the more cost-effective whole legs, but that requires enough people to eat it all and defray the cost. So, that leaves me with the tougher, fattier cuts such as shoulder blade chops or fore shanks. These cuts are still capable of producing great dishes, but they typically require more trimming and a long cooking time, usually in liquid.

I'm talking about stew here people. Sure, it requires a little more foresight, since minimum cooking time should be a couple hours, but many stews are fairly simple to make, and lamb is perfect for a lot of them.

One of my favorites, and of the easier ones to make, is lamb stew provencal, but I wanted to try something different, and so found this recipe for a Tunisian-style lamb stew in Bon Appetit. It was rather delicious with some adjustments (I used a lot more spice than they did and used chicken stock instead of water--also, they use way too many onions). The dominant flavor is cardamom, which I love. You can use previously ground cardamom if you have to, but add less than you would using fresh. If you use fresh pods, simply crush them open in a mortar and throw the whole shebang in the stew. Once they've cooked for a few hours they'll be tender enough that you can eat them if you like. I like. Served over saffron rice (also with cardamom-no pods this time, just seeds) mixed with toasted pine nuts.

I'll be making more lamb stews in the near future. If you know of one that would knock my socks off, please send it to me!

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Tunisian Lamb Stew
serves 2-4

1 1/2 pounds lamb, trimmed and cubed
1/2 tsp ground cardamom (or preferably whole cardamom pods crushed)
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1 hot red pepper, minced (or 1/2 tsp. cayenne pepper, less if you're heat sensitive)
1/4 tsp. ground cloves
2 Tbsp. vegetable oil
2 cups chopped onions
2 tsp. minced peeled ginger
1 cup chicken stock

1 cup dried apricots, chopped
1 tsp. white wine vinegar
1 tsp. sugar

1) crush/grind the first four spices and toss with lamb pieces to cover, set aside in fridge for 1/2 hour.
2) Heat oil in large pot on medium high, add onions and sautee until translucent, add lamb and a pinch of salt. Sautee until lamb is brown (5 minutes or so)
3) Add ginger, stir, sautee for 1 minute
4) Add chicken stock, bring to boil.
5) Cover, reduce heat to low and simmer for anywhere from 2-4 hours
6) With slotted spoon, remove lamb and onions and set aside. Turn heat to high and boil juices for 10-15 minutes. When reduced, add apricots, vinegar, and sugar, reduce heat to medium high, and cook for 3-4 minutes.
7) Return lamb and onions to sauce and cook long enough to heat them back up.
8) Serve over rice cooked with ground cardamom, saffron, and pine nuts.


The Busiest of Times

Hello monkeylings,

As you may have noticed, I haven't been posting much lately. This is due in part to how incredibly busy I've been with work, financial aid applications for law school, etc etc. and partly because most of my recent meals have been rehashes of previously posted recipes (such as the never-fail ragu alla bolognese and lamb stew provencal). I did make some a very large and very tasty homemade batch of split pea soup with lots of bacon. If you want some, I still have two containers of it in the freezer.

I will be posting again soon, later this week I plan on making one of my favorite dishes for a group of friends. Its an Iranian dish called fesenjoon, and its outrighteously good.

And one other thing. Dr. Biggles of Meathenge passed along this photograph, which is just too bizarre not to spread around. Somebody please explain.

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