A Tale of Two Carbonaras

So I’ve had something labeled as carbonara twice this week (don’t tell my cardiologist). Both tasty, neither really carbonara.

The first was at a Marriott in the Washington DC suburbs, that was a big pile of creamy goo: way too much cream, way too much sauce in general.  Crisp bacon crumbles appeared to have been stirred into an alfredo-like sauce, as opposed to being the source for the richness of the dish.  It had peas, which I kind of like (yay, I ate a vegetable!) even if it isn’t traditional.  But having a huge amount of cheese-and-cream sauce, rather than an eggy coating on the noodles, is just wrong. Delicious.  But no, it’s wrong.  Very very wrong. (I made up for it the next night by introducing several people to the authentic Chinese joy that is eating at Joe’s Noodle House in Rockville)

Meanwhile, I’d bought a spaghetti squash the last time I went shopping, hoping to find another vegetable that Sue’s willing to eat, save a few carbs etc.  A couple days later, TheKitchn blog posted a recipe for a baked spaghetti squash carbonara.  Even though I could see it’s not traditional, it sounded like a nice meal.  So the night after I got back from the business trip, I microwaved a split, cleaned-out spaghetti squash, mixed it with eggs, ricotta, parmesan, salt, pepper, onions cooked with pancetta (the recipe called for standard bacon), and added a couple things I thought would be good: a little fresh sage picked from the garden (yes it’s winter in Chicago, but I can usually find a few decent leaves even here in Chiberia), and a pinch of fresh-ground nutmeg. Both go well with squash, and just added enough to enhance, not become the main flavor.

Verdict?  Not spaghetti carbonara.  Too quiche-like, and the squash loses its noodle-like texture in the 45-minute bake.  Nice flavors of egg, cheese and bacon, salty and not too rich. It’s make a great brunch dish. I only made a 3/4-size batch (my squash was smaller and I scaled everything else down), but it still was more than twice what Sue and I could eat for dinner.  It was really good cold for lunch today too.

Get the recipe from theKitchn, and add a little fresh sage and nutmeg.





Everything is Awesome: Props for my props!


Everything is Awesome!

A quick note comment I made on a post at theKitchn blog is listed as #2 on their post today, “Why Didn’t We Think Of That? 18 Genius Kitchen Organizing Tips From Our Readers

What is it?  Use of Duplo™ Lego™ bricks for stacking baking sheets for a party.  They’re dishwasher safe and weren’t doing anything else after my kids got too big for the simple Duplo stuff.  There’s still about 16-20 of these little squares in my kitchen cabinet for space-limited times such as parties.  Need to make several trays of chicken wings, taquitos, etc.?  Just stack two on each corner, and put another tray on top. Lather, rinse repeat.

I’d show a real-life use, but I’m 600 miles from my kitchen right now.

Duplo™ and Lego™ are trademarks of the Lego Group. There is no financial relationship between this blog and The Lego Group, except that I’ve spent probably a couple thou on sets for my sons, cousins, nieces and nephews over the years (and the Mindstorms for myself).

chermoula eggplant with bulgur

Bachelor Chow Honors Class – Chermoula Eggplant with Bulgur

It’s bachelor night again – the missus is at a professional meeting, and I had previously stocked the fridge with a couple eggplant: not sure what I’d do, but pretty sure I wasn’t going Chinese.  I was thinking miso with some fresh shiitakes, but I saw some chickpeas in the fridge, which made me think of looking at the Jerusalem cookbook by Ottolenghi and Tamimi.  The Chermoula Eggplant with Bulgur looked too good not to make (although there was an eggplant soup I’m going to have to try too), and I was only short a couple ingredients: preserved lemons and fresh mint.

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Spicy Curried Mussels

Bachelor Chow Honors Class – Spicy Curried Mussels

Sunday night was bachelor night – Sue was meeting some friends, so I’d be on my own, which means I can eat things she doesn’t like. So wandering the local market, I debated fish, squid, clams (thinking about clams with miso for a future edition of Bachelor Chow Honors Class)… and settled on mussels.  I probably should have picked up another leek — I thought I had two left, but only had one, and had enough mussels in a two-pound bag to overeat for dinner and lunch today.

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Shrimp DeJonghe with Beagle

True love means no restaurants on Valentine’s Day

For many years now, we’ve decided not to fight crowds for “special” (read overpriced and overdramatic) Valentine’s Day menus, and made dinner at home.  Which is why we had Steak ‘n’ Shake the night before.

Often the Valentine’s Day dinner will be lamb chops (Costco’s loin chops the shape of the Great Pyramid of Cheops are a frequent feature)… this year I said, “Wow, it’s been a long time since we’ve had Shrimp DeJonghe.” The point is that it’s a lot more romantic to serve each other.

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Begin the Tagine – A Slow (Cooker) Dance

Monday night, I had an urge to make a tagine – the sweet warm spices, long cooked to make a relief to this endless Chicago winter. I didn’t have time to prep it before the workday ended, so it got put off to Tuesday.

There’s something amazing about the profile of sweet spices that appears in Persian and Moroccan cuisine (with a few similar dishes in the Indian and Middle Eastern kitchens). Fruits, cinnamon… and meat?  In the words of Anthony Bourdain, “Yes, Please!”

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Alton Brown’s Ten Things He’s Pretty Sure He’s Sure About Food

Alton Brown Edible Inevitable

We caught Alton Brown’s “Edible Inevitable” tour last Saturday night.

Big fun. Music, comedy, and food demonstrations of unusual size.

One of the highlights is the latest version of AB’s “Ten Things I’m Pretty Sure I’m Sure About Food.” I know I don’t have these in order, but here they are:

  1. Chicken don’t have fingers
  2. Learn to salt
  3. Trout does not belong in ice cream
  4. The most important thing to learn to cook is eggs
  5. The best cook in the world is your spouse
  6. The most important piece of equipment in your kitchen is the table
  7. America, Heck Yeah
  8. Raisins are always optional
  9. Wash your mushrooms
  10. Never eat an airport shrimp cocktail


The Dish

Pantry Raid Empañadas

It started with a pot of gold. Vegetable oil. After last weekend’s dinner party, we had a pot of oil that had been used to fry some sesame seed-covered, chocolate-filled glutinous rice flour doughnuts (From Ching-He Huang’s China Modern). Not wanting to dispose of it, a couple tablespoons had been used over the next few days for whatever cooking was done, but it’s still about four cups of oil.

We’re trying to eat sensibly this season, and so deep frying isn’t the first thing on our minds.  But as the week wore on, we kept seeing the darn pot and wondered what we could do with it.

“Empañadas!” I suggested.  Sue thought that was a stellar idea, then suggested baking them (healthier that way). So no help for the oil crisis, but a delicious dinner with really very little effort.

The crust came from one of our all-time most reliable cookbooks, Nicole Routhier’s Cooking Under WrapsIts doughs, wrappers, and fillings have been all delicious successes, and we’d made empañadas from her recipe before, as the crust comes out golden brown and delicious, and is easy to work with and not the least bit fragile.  The filling was a grab bag from the fridge, freezer and pantry: Ground beef we’d portioned out as hamburgers from the freezer, the last of some Manzanilla olives and a jalla-yo (no pain in the jalapeños from the supermarket) from the fridge, some slightly shrivelled grape tomatoes from the counter, the dregs of a bottle of wine, spices, and it’s dinner.  Many picadillo recipes call for raisins, but as Alton Brown says, “Raisins are always optional.” Six empañadas made a hearty dinner on a cold winter’s day.

The Dish

Pantry Raid Empañadas

Crust (Adapted and halved from Nicole Routhier)

Makes 6, 6″ pastries, feeds two hungry people or six appetizer portions.

1 Cup (100g) all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp (2.5g) sugar
1/4 tsp (1.25g) salt
2 Tbs (25g) cold shortening
2 Tbs (25g) cold unsalted butter
1 beaten egg, divided in half
2 Tbs (28ml) ice water

  1. Combine all ingredients except the water  and egg in a food processor.
  2. Pulse until just combined.
  3. Combine half an egg with the water, add to the processor with the motor running, until it just comes together
  4. Turn the dough out onto a floured surface. Wrap in plastic and refrigerate for 30 minutes


(filling is generous, there were some leftovers)

10 oz (280g) ground beef
1 small onion, finely diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 tbs (28ml) olive oil
1/2 cup (100g) finely diced tomatoes (I used some grape tomatoes that had sat on the counter too long)
1/2 cup (100g) green olives with pimento, chopped
1 jalapeño chile, seeds removed and minced
Large pinch of ground allspice
1/2 tsp (2g) cumin
2 tsp (10ml) ground ancho chile
1/2 tsp cayenne or other hot chile powder (I used sun-dried XXX-hot Chimayo chile from Potrero Trading Post — truly awesome stuff)
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 cup (120ml) red wine (can use white, or stock, or water)

  1. Heat a saucepan over medium-low heat. Add olive oil, allow to heat up.
  2. Add onion, and a pinch of salt. Allow to sweat (not brown)
  3. Add garlic, chile and beef. Turn heat up to medium, and stir to make sure the meat is all browned, about three minutes.
  4. Add the ground spices and salt and allow to mix into the meat.
  5. Add the olives and tomatoes, and wine
  6. Partially cover the pan and turn heat to low, allow the flavors to mix and the tomatoes to break down, about 15 minutes.
  7. Remove from heat and allow to cool completely before filling pastries
    Picadillo filling


  1. Preheat oven to 375F /190C.
  2. Put parchment paper on a cookie sheet
  3. Divide dough into six portions
    Rolling dough
  4. Roll each portion into a disc about 5-8″ across, depending on how thick you like the crust (thinner will be more fragile)
  5. Spoon about a third of a cup (70-90ml) of meat mixture onto one half of the dough, keeping well away from the edges
    add filling
  6. Pull the dough over the top of the meat, and pinch the edges to seal
  7. Brush the dough with the other half of the egg
    crimp edges, brush with egg
  8. Bake until golden brown and delicious, about 16 minutes in a convection oven, probably more like 20 or so in a standard oven
  9. Serve with sour cream (we used greek yogurt), salsa, optionally guacamole, chopped cilantro and/or guacamole

And yes, that pot of oil is still sitting on the counter.

That’s not Kung Pao! (but this is)

I really want to memorize the following Chinese phrase:

Zhè bùshì gōng bǎo jī dīng. Nǐ de zǔxiān huì gǎndào xiūchǐ.
(That’s not Kung Pao Chicken. Your ancestors would be ashamed.)

The number of times I have ordered Kung Pao chicken in a Chinese restaurant and not received it is, sadly, far too often. My first exposure to it, and Sichuan cooking, was a place called Mandarin Village in Northbrook, IL, in the mid 1970s (but long since gone). My favorites there were Kung Pao Chicken, and Beef with White Onion.  The latter was a sesame-oil-rich dish with sweet sauteed onions, really very basic.  And the Kung Pao? It was also oily, and spicy, garlicky, with a hint of sweet and a hint of vinegar. Chicken. Peanuts. Scallions.  That’s it.

Only a couple places in Chicagoland are capable of it, and since they make so many other great Sichuan dishes, I don’t tend to order it (Lao Sze Chuan in Chicago’s Chinatown and elsewhere, and Asian Bistro in Arlington Heights). Everyone else makes the following errors, that basically boil down to “any old stir fry, with peanuts and chiles added.”

  • Vegetables by the dozens. Mushrooms, peapods, onion, bell pepper, carrot, bean sprouts, broccoli and that dreaded celery.  I can tolerate (and even like) some bell pepper and other crunchy veg, but this should be all about the chicken.
  • Slices of bland chicken breast. Nope. It should be precise cubes of thigh. It needs to taste of poultry.
  • Bland bland bland. Partly because all those veg are in there, and lousy chicken, but mainly because there’s not enough garlic and ginger, too little chile, and no vinegar. This shouldn’t be a mouth-searing spicy dish, but it should be pleasantly hot.
  • Glop. Too much cornstarch. This shouldn’t be a typical Chinese brown sauce.

So, I make it at home, using Fuschia Dunlops version, with a couple changes. The first time I made it from her book, Land of Plenty it was a revelation: This is the flavor I’ve been missing for about 30 years. I make this regularly, adding a bit of veg to fill it out and add more crunch — a separate green vegetable would be the right way, but this makes it a little easier for weeknight dinner.

Kung Pao Chicken

Serves 2 or 3. Adapted from Fuschia Dunlop.


About 3/4 lb (340g) boneless, skinless chicken thighs (breast permissible, but not as good)
3 cloves of garlic, chopped, and an equal amount of ginger
5 spring onions
4 tbs oil, divided
1/2 cup (50g or so) bell pepper, diced to 1/2″ (1.5cm)
1/2 cup (50g or so) carrot, cut into 1/2″ (1.5cm) cubes
about 10 chiles de arbol (if you can find Facing Heaven chiles, drop me a note)
2/3 cup (75g) roasted peanuts
½ tsp (2.5g) salt
2 tsp (10ml) soy sauce
1 tsp (5ml) Shaoxing wine (or dry sherry, but get the wine)
1½ tsp (7.5g) potato flour or a little more than that in cornstarch
1 tbsp (15ml) water
3 tsp (45g) sugar
¾ tsp (4g) potato flour, or a little more than that in cornstarch
2 tsp (10ml) soy sauce
3 tsp (15ml) Chinkiang vinegar — THERE IS NO SUBSTITUTE
1 tsp (5ml) sesame oil
1 tbsp (15ml) water


  1. Trim any large pieces of fat from the chicken, then place it in the freezer in a single layer, for a half-hour to an hour to make slicing easier.
  2. Remove the stems from the chiles, and break into 1-2″ pieces, trying to keep as few of the seeds as possible
  3. Remove the whiskers from the scallions, and cut 1/2″ rounds, only into the areas where it’s still a solid round (I go a bit past the pure white, but not much).
  4. Place in a small bowl with the chopped garlic and ginger. You don’t want pressed garlic or grated ginger here, but chop into small pieces.
  5. Slice about half of the remaining greens parts of the scallions into very thin rings — about 1/4 cup (60ml) is plenty.
  6. Mix all the sauce ingredients together in a measuring cup.  Add the starch last, sprinkling while you stir vigorously, or you’ll get potato-starch dumplings.
    I keep meaning to try this with the starch left out, to see if I get the oily texture of Mandarin Village, but I never remember when I’m reading from Dunlop’s book.
  7. Remove the chicken from the freezer and dice into 1/2″ (1.5cm) pieces, trying to keep everything the same size.
  8. Place chicken in a bowl. Add the marinade ingredients and toss to mix. Allow to sit while the rest of the preparation is done
  9. Heat a wok on high heat for at least a minute. Add two tablespoons of oil, and allow it to heat up for 15 seconds or so. 
  10. Add the carrots and peppers, and stir-fry until they’re tender but still crisp. Remove to a serving dish.
  11. Add the remaining 2 tablespoons of oil, allow to get back to temperature.
  12. Add the chiles and allow to toast for about 15 seconds.  You can remove these to the serving dish to avoid scorching.
  13. Add the chicken and marinade, and spread in the wok.  Don’t stir too much initially, you want a little searing.  Turn them after about a half-minute, then stir fry until just opaque.
  14. Add the garlic, ginger and scallion disks, stir fry for a half minute
    This is another of the essential steps: cook the garlic and ginger at the start, like most stir-fries, and their flavor is mellowed out by the time the chicken is done. This keeps the garlic and ginger flavors strong.
  15. Pour the vegetables and peppers back into the wok and add the sauce (stirring first to distribute the starch), stir fry until it thickens
  16. Add the peanuts and scallion greens and serve

Note: Dunlop calls for Sichuan Peppercorns to be toasted with the chiles. I’m not fond of their texture (Sue feels even more strongly about that), and it’s not a big part of the flavor here.  You can add them, or a sprinkle of Sichuan Peppercorn Oil.

I just made a double batch of this last weekend for a party and thankfully had leftovers which I discovered in the fridge today… but I never got around to taking a picture when it was fresh and hot.

Filling the Fridge – Sweet and Sour (Extra: Soy-Pickled Shiitakes)

As we continue our exploration of the dark reaches of the fridge and what you need to stock a brand new one, let’s look at the sweet and the sour.  A lot of sour (vinegar) is in my spice/pantry cabinet, but that’ll come later. I’m still avoiding spicy, although a few of the items on today’s list cross that line.

Oh yeah — the previous creamy and fatty dressings post probably should have included Butter as Essential.  I have Margarine too, but that’s a bonus. It’s mainly there for when my kosher-keeping daughter-in-law is around, and there’s a dish that calls for butter with a meat-based meal.

Some of the sweet things below are dessert or breakfast, some are more savory. Asian spicy food seems to be complemented by sweet flavors. Some are homemade.



  • Maple Syrup. Grade B if you can get it — it’s now going to be called Grade A Dark (rolls eyes). Here’s one that shouldn’t have an ingredient list.  It’s just maple syrup. Currently what I have is a jug from Costco, but I’ve been very happy with a Vermont producer called Jacques Couture, at http://www.maplesyrupvermont.com/
  • Pickles – Klaussen kosher or garlic dills.  Usually we just get the whole pickles, since we can slice them, but you can’t put sliced ones back together again. Sometimes there are hamburger dill chips, but I’m not a fan.
  • Relish. I’m a big fan of Vienna/Chipico’s radioactive-green stuff, don’t care as much about the darker-green variety, although there’s a bottle of that too.
  • Hoisin Sauce – Perhaps this should have been in the salt/umami list, but I consider its sweet to be more powerful (it’s used at least as much as an Asian ketchup as Sriracha is)
  • Jelly/Jam – We’re not big jam eaters, and certainly not with peanut butter, but you’ve got to have some. Right now it’s Smuckers’  Strawberry, and a Fig Jam we bought for cheese (a Port Jelly also held a position of prominence for this purpose while it lasted)


  • Sundae fixin’s – Hersey’s syrup, maraschino cherries (need to find me some real ones in Maraschino liqueur), homemade chocolate and caramel sauces
  • More pickled things – These are all homemade: Preserved lemons for Morroccan, pickled mustard seeds as a sandwich spread (Momofuku recipe), soy-pickled shiitakes (also Momofuku), Cathy’s sauerkraut. Sour veggies brighten a sandwich or meat, have something like this around. Pickle relish, and various spicy things (soon, I tell you, I’ll list the spicy stuff) fit this bill.
  •  Barbecue Sauce – Right now there’s a bottle of Lum Taylor’s I picked up when a shop was closing, and Sweet Baby Ray’s (my wife’s favorite). Don’t use while grilling, use it on the side if needed, or on a turkey sandwich.
  • Tamarind Chutney – Mainly for samosas and similar Indian snacks, and especially for my Indian Seven Layer Dip, which I’ll have to make again soon and post here.  Other chutneys and such will be mentioned when I get to Spicy.


  • Duck Sauce and Sweet Chile Sauce – can probably get by with packets from takeout
  • Dark Sweet Soy / Kecap Manis – Essential to make dishes such as Pad Se-Ew (Thai wide fresh rice noodles with beef and broccoli), but I don’t make that often
  • Tomato Jam, Vidalia Onion Jam: The former homemade, the latter from a farmer’s market
  • Tare – Essentially Japanese BBQ sauce. The brand I have is kind of weak on flavor, but to make Momofuku’s version takes most of a day. Useful for homemade ramen.
  • Tonkatsu Sauce – Basically a thick, sweet worcestershire, for Japanese pork cutlets.  We don’t make that as often as we used to, maybe we need to

Sweet might be addictive, but sour really wakes up your mouth. Pickled items should be around just about every meal, especially as garnishes or appetizers. You wouldn’t think of a charcuterie plate without cornichons, or nachos without pickled jalapeño rings. Momofuku’s soy-pickled shiitakes are something really special, especially as they were developed as something to do with the dried, rehydrated mushrooms that had been used to develop broth. They’re sweet, sour, and umami. I keep meaning to puree them into a ketchup-like sauce. They’re great on sandwiches, ramen, salads, or just grab a couple slices with a fork.

Recipe: Soy-Pickled Shiitake Mushrooms

4 cups dried shiitake mushrooms – get these at an Asian grocer or you’ll need a home loan
1 cup sugar
1 cup soy sauce (it says light, but I don’t stock light, and it works fine with regular)
1 cup sherry vinegar (I’m not sure if it would be significantly different with wine vinegar; I’ve found the best prices for this at World Market)
3-4 inches of fresh ginger, peeled and sliced lengthwise
2 cups of soaking liquid (see below)

Soak the mushrooms in very hot (just-boiled) water for about a half-hour (you may need something to weigh them down to keep them in the liquid). They won’t be as soft as fresh ones, but they’ll expand beyond this in the steps below. Scoop them out with a slotted spoon, then strain the liquid through a fine strainer to make sure there is no dirt or grit. Keep 2 cups of the liquid. Tear any stems off the mushrooms and throw them away. Using a poultry shears or knife, cut into 1/4″ slices.

In a medium saucepan, place the sugar, soaking liquid, soy and vinegar and bring to a simmer to dissolve the sugar.  When it’s dissolved, add the ginger slices and mushrooms.  Simmer gently for about a half-hour, then allow to cool. You can discard the ginger, but I don’t see any reason to do so.

The recipe says it makes about a quart, I got three pints out of this. Pack into containers and cover with the pickling liquid, which is pretty good on its own as a salad dressing.