Thursday, March 26, 2009

Bad Day, Great Lunch

I have always wanted to be one of those people who loses their appetite when they're upset. These are the people who snarl phrases like "How can you eat at a time like this?!" in movies. These are the people who burst out of their depression cocoons looking like beautiful, lithe butterflies complete with jutting hip bones. I am not one of those people. I emerge from a bad mood looking like a two year old: crumbs in my hair, smeared chocolate on my cheeks and brie on my breath.

So today, when I was hit with a bad case of the the blues, I pointed my Prism in the direction of the International District. I took my melancholy self out for a meal that I have been saving just for me. I needed to be alone. Well, alone with a plate of Vietnamese noodles.

Huong Binh is the perfect place to go when you're in a funk. The wait staff is sweet, but not overly chatty, and chances are you won't run into anyone you know. Stuffed into a Jackson Street strip-mall, the only decorations are a string of Chinese lanterns and a random, but oddly comforting, "I Love You" poster featuring a giant red rose.

I ordered the Banh Uot Nem Nuong, rice rolls with pork meatballs, and added a skewer of charbroiled pork for good measure. This, my friends, is serious fast food. I opened my book, read a single page, and Tada! a tray of food was placed before me.

Turns out, a single page was all I needed. When eating alone, I usually occupy myself with a book, a magazine, a soy sauce label, anything really. But this meal was so entrancing, so flavorful, so delicious - I felt compelled to pay strict attention to the textures, the flavors, the assembling - and simply enjoyed my lunch, distraction free.

Rice rolls are actually long sheets of soft, squishy rice noodles folded into bundles. In this case they were sprinkled with crushed peanuts, green onions and topped with warm skewers of tender pork meatballs (I expected the dense, rubbery, fat laced, bouncy-balls usually found in pho - and was relieved and delighted by these juicy orbs) and chunks of grilled pork. A huge pile of cilantro, Thai basil and lettuce leaves comes alongside the dish, prompting you to create different combinations of herb-lettuce-noodle-meat until the plate is licked clean. A little bowl of tangy nuoc cham rounds out the meal, and it was liberally spooned over everything, along with generous dabs of fiery, brick red, hot sauce.

With every tongue awakening bite, I felt myself relaxing and feeling just a little bit better. By the time I got up to pay my $6.50, I was able to communicate with humans again. I told the lady with the bright red lipstick and heavily painted eyelids how much I enjoyed the meal. She chirped: "Oh good! You need try more! You come back tomorrow!"

Tomorrow! I ran across the street to Saigon Deli and handed over a $5 bill in exchange for a BBQ pork banh mi and a pack of five rice noodles rolled with shrimp. You know, just in case I'm in a bad mood tomorrow.

Monday, March 23, 2009

The Only Reason I Want to Turn 40

I am a gal who loves a dip with her chip. That's why I like parties so much. The chances of chips and dip are high. The chances of multiple chips with multiple dips are even higher!

So when I heard that my friends, Cathy & Sean, were planning to build a 40 Layer Dip for a 40th birthday party - I immediately started pricing plane tickets to California. Unfortunately, there is no frequent flier program for dip lovers, so I was forced to live the dip dream through the magic of digital photos. And so will you!

This tall drink of water includes layer upon layer of deliciously disgusting combinations like bacon, fish sticks, hash browns and guacamole. Oh, and that big empty section? That's the air layer. You know, for trendy people on the Master Cleanse.

But one very important question remains. How do you successfully navigate your chip toward those 20 bottom layers? I'm thinking creepy, elbow-length plastic glove. This season's hottest accessory for any dedicated dipper.

Seven layer dip? HA! That's for babies. I can't wait to turn 40.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Confessions from a One Bedroom Apartment

To say I eat well is an understatement. Us food obsessed folk tend to make sure we fill our bellies with a healthy assortment of deliciousness, on a daily basis. But, of course, it can't always be caviar – or even carnitas. Sometimes, when I am alone in my apartment, I fall victim to some secret cravings. Things I only eat alone, with the blinds closed, and a Sex and the City disc in the DVD player. Now is not the time to judge. I see you out there! Eating Lil Smokies. Cold. Straight from the package.

Confession #1: Sour Cream.

I first discovered I had a serious problem back in 2004. I was entertaining a friend in my apartment when she popped into the powder room. By the time the bathroom door clicked shut, I was hunkered down in front of the fridge spooning the tart, creamy condiment into my mouth. I realized I had actually been waiting for her to leave so I could dive head first into my sour cream stash. My endearing love for sour cream had turned desperate, and something had to be done. I couldn't buy the stuff for six months after that. It was just too dangerous! I would take down half a carton in minutes flat, a dribble of spicy Tapatio on each white bite. Now I respect the sour cream. I eat it in moderation. Well, by my standards. I still enjoy a couple spoonfuls, straight from the container, while standing in the guilty, glowing light of the refrigerator.

Confession #2: Secret Tortilla Behavior

Hours after dinner, if I'm at home and snuggled up on the couch with some good food porn (Bon Appetit) or a new culinary memoir (just finished My Homemade Life by Seattle blogger orangette), my taste buds begin to beg for something salty. As I am a girl with little willpower, they never have to beg for long. I slide off the couch, pad into the kitchen, and snatch the ever-present sack of flour tortillas off the top of the refrigerator. Flick! The gas burner comes to life and I drag the tortilla over the flame, until it is warm, toasty, chewy and freckled with charred brown bits. Here's where it gets weird. I drizzle truffle oil over the tortilla. I sprinkle Bacon Salt on top of that. It's like Mexico meets Food Snob meets White trash. One is usually not enough.

Confession #3: Kraft Macaroni & Cheese

Show me the home of an American child, and I'll show you a pantry brimming with the Blue Box. Word has it, some infants are clutching the Kraft in their tiny, pink, clenched fists when they squeeze themselves out of the womb. Despite the general food snobbery (truffle oil, homemade macaroni and GOAT cheese) I have an every-now-and-then weakness for this insanely comforting, fluorescent orange, treat. But so do a lot of people. The confession? I have to eat the entire box in one sitting. It's the law. But first, I usually gussy her up. A few flakes of tuna, a handful of peas, a crank of the pepper grinder, maybe a splash of Tapatio (have you noticed a trend) and she's good to go. But I'm no good to go anywhere. Except to bed. Pharmacists should cook up a batch, cram it into one of those plastic orange pill tubes, and prescribe the shit to insomniacs.

So, what's your poison?

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Got time? Make Tamales!

In my private moments, I like to fantasize about having a Mexican mother who insists on spending hours, days, maybe even weeks (it's only make-believe so it's okay to turn my imaginary mother into a slave) behind a stove, cooking me authentic Mexican dishes. While I love the annual dose of matzo ball soup my own (read: not Mexican) mother cooks up, a cold slab of gefilte fish ain't got nothin' on a pan of fragrant chicken enchiladas. Sorry real mom.

So last weekend I decided to take matters into my own hands, and become my own Mexican mother. I then waved my magic wand and turned my entire cooking club into a gang of Mexican mamas, and together we went to work on making a whole lotta homemade tamales.

Tamales require several hours to make, but the end result is so completely worth it. A tamale fresh from the steamer is the moistest, most tender you'll ever taste. We stuffed most of ours with fork-tender, red chile-tinged, pork but accommodated the lone vegetarian with a roasted poblano chile, jack cheese and black olive version.

Tamales are best tackled by a hungry group, so get your posse together and get cooking!

Red Chile Pork Tamales
Recipe adapted from Rick Bayless
Makes about 18 tamales

For the Pork:

16 large (4 ounces) dried guajillo chiles: stemmed, seeded and torn into pieces (They actually had these at the Queen Anne Safeway. I was shocked and impressed.)
4 garlic cloves
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1/4 teaspoon cumin
1 1/2 pounds lean, boneless pork (preferably from the shoulder), cut into 1/2-inch cubes

In a blender, puree the chiles, garlic, cumin, black pepper and 3 cups of cold water. You may have to do this in batches. Push the fiery-looking red puree through a sieve and into a big pot with the cubed pork. Add another three cups of water and a bunch of shakes of salt. Bring this to a boil then drop the heat to medium/medium-high and reduce until it becomes a nice, thick sauce. This could take about an hour and a half. Stir often. Taste and add salt if needed. It will be needed. When the pork has sucked up most of the liquid, shred with a fork and let it cool to room temperature.

For the dough:

I bought a bag of Instant Corn Masa Mix (also available at Safeway). Mix 2 cups masa mix with
1 1/2 cups warm water or broth, 1 teaspoon baking powder, ½ teaspoon salt and 2/3 cup lard or vegetable shortening. I went the shortening route, and you'll need to whip it with a hand mixer until fluffy before mixing it into the dough. It should be moist, but not too loose.

The Wrappers:

Get a bag of dried corn husks. Soak them in cold water for about 20 minutes. You'll need two or three husks per tamale, depending on their size.


Take two corn husks (bigger are better) and lay them down so that the wide end of each overlaps by a couple inches. Spread masa dough over the husks, no more than 1/8 inch thick, leaving a wide border on all sides. Spoon a thin line of pork down the center of the masa. Fold her up like a burrito, smushing the masa together to hide the filling.

The tamales will need to steam in a big pot (a steam basket, flat metal veggie steamer, or bamboo steamer all work) for about an hour. You will probably have to add more water – so keep a close eye on the pot so it doesn't burn!
Leftover, refrigerated, tamales can be brought back to life with a revitalizing 15 minute steam. Don't you dare warm them in the microwave!

Top your little beauties with a scattering of cilantro, a dollop of sour cream and a splash or three of Tapatio or fresh salsa.

Finally, wave your magic wand and un-Mexican-mother yourself. Savor a tender tamale. Que Beueno!