Faster Than Takeout

This weekend we found Candy Cane sleighing down the side of the staircase:

And petting the reindeer in the Little People Christmas train:

This morning we found her taking pictures of the family as they walked down the stairs:

Yesterday was a very busy day filled with Christmas visits, Christmas shopping with a good friend, and knitting (I’m finally on Stocking #3). All that didn’t leave me with much time to cook, but I didn’t want to eat out, so I compromised with some quick fixes from the grocery store.

That’s pork schnitzel from the butcher section; I’ve had schnitzel before, even had it in Germany, but I’ve never had the pre-made pork version from the grocery store. I didn’t have high hopes, but it wasn’t half bad! In an effort to keep in quick and simple, I served it with eggs over easy and a prepackaged spinach salad with clementine wedges, strawberries, cucumber, goat cheese crumbles, and sliced almonds. Overall, it was quicker than ordering takeout, and also both cheaper and healthier!

Don’t Do This

So. Um. I messed up.

Last night for dinner, in an attempt to create a meal with the ingredients I already had on hand (despite my freezer becoming progressively emptier), I decided to grill some pork belly slices on my smoker grill. I’d done my research and it can be done, with apparently tasty results, too! I figured I’d serve it with tiny boiled potatoes and steamed spinach, i.e. what I had left in the fridge. So I prepared the meat, heated up the grill, and threw the strips on.

For the first four minutes (I set a timer), everything was going well. The pork belly was grilling nicely, changing colour from “uncooked” to “cooked” with a few grill marks, just as intended. So I flipped the strips, closed the lid, and set the timer for another three minutes, as directed. I popped back inside to deal with the side dishes while it cooked.

Then my hubby came through the door, having walked down the street from the bus stop, and asks me, “Are you barbecuing something? Because something smells really burned outside.”

Crap.

There was a MASSIVE flare-up on the barbecue while I was otherwise occupied. Smoke was billowing out of the chimney. When I opened the lid, the flames shot up higher than I was tall. Every piece of meat in on the grill was on fire.

I turned off the power to the grill, both to remove some of the fuel from the fire and because smokers have a fan that forces the air through the machine. Unlike a gas barbecue, which has no moving parts (or at least mine doesn’t), the fan on a smoker literally fans the flames, which I very much did not want. Then I grabbed the longest tongs I owned and pulled the charred remains of the meat from the grill, blowing some of it out as I removed it. Fuel sources removed, the fire died down and quickly burned itself out. At least I didn’t have to use the fire extinguisher. (Due to the construction of a barbecue, which is made to circulate air through, I couldn’t just throw a lid over it to starve the fire entirely of air, like you would with a grease fire on a kitchen stove.)

So here you have the cremated remains of what was supposed to be last night’s dinner. In an interesting twist of fate, the few pieces that weren’t completely charcoal were actually still pretty tasty. Despite my absolute fail this time, I think I may try to grill pork belly strips again. However, it will be the only thing I will do at the time and I will watch it like a hawk. Hopefully I am capable of learning from my mistakes.

Husbeast and the kids had Kraft Dinner and hot dogs in the end, while I had leftovers, by the way. After this debacle, I just didn’t have time to make another dinner from scratch.

Guinness Pulled Pork

Because I think that trying new things is important, and because I don’t think there’s such thing as ever truly perfecting a dish, I decided to try a new recipe for pulled pork the other day. On freebie day, someone had left a box of books on the side of the road, and one of the ones in there was Cooking With Beer: Quick & Easy from Publications International Ltd. (2010). One of the ingredients in the recipe was stout – there weren’t any brands mentioned (probably due to trademark or copyright issues), but whenever anyone thinks “stout” around here, one of the first beers to come to mind is “Guinness”. So that’s what I used.

Given that it was a beer-based recipe, I also used Bulls-Eye Guinness Barbecue Sauce (recently bought on sale for $0.99 a bottle), and I served it on my bread machine beer bread (you can find the recipe in yesterday’s post). I thought that this would be the perfect combination.

Sadly, I wasn’t terribly thrilled with this pulled pork recipe. It had a nice flavour, but you didn’t really taste even the slightest tang of beer. Also, the sauce didn’t thicken very much; it was more like pulled pork soup than a proper sauce. And, in my case, it took way longer to cook than planned. I mean, the meat was cooked through by the specified time, but it definitely wasn’t soft enough to shred. Now, that might have been the fault of my oven, but overall the recipe just wasn’t up to my (admittedly high) hopes. All that being said, though, everyone ate their fair share, because there’s only so wrong you can go with pulled pulled pork on fresh bread.

The Continuing Quest for Great Ramen

I’m still working on getting the best ramen — especially the best tonkotsu ramen — possible in this neck of the woods. It frustrates me so that you can get decent, if not downright good, ramen on just about every street in Japan, and cheaply, too! It’s generally not considered fancy food. But here it’s practically gourmet fare, hard to find, and expensive.

So I’m still trying to make my own passable version. Overall, the best ramen broth I’ve made was shoyu ramen from page 8 of Simply Ramen by Amy Kimoto-Kahn (2016) (or her website easypeasyjapanesey.com. But my favourite type of broth is still tonkotsu, and to be frank it’s more than a little intimidating because there are so many steps that must be gotten just right. I’ve been trying to skip the cooking step on this one and just find a pre-made alternative, but I haven’t had a lot of luck.

Last night I made another attempt at using a pre-packaged soup base. I couldn’t even read anything on the package except “tonkotsu ramen” (what can I say, it’s been twenty years since I took Japanese lessons), and I am still kicking myself for not taking a picture of the packaging. The base came in what was essentially a bag, and was fully liquid. As with many other such things, I bought it at T&T.

The broth was okay I guess, but nothing spectacular. It was better than any of the dried kinds I’ve tried, but still not as good as the fast food places that I know for a fact use instant broth (I’ve watched them cook it). So yeah, nothing to write home about.

The noodles, were a bit soggy and floury. I’ve used this brand before (Nissin Frozen Ramen Noodles), and at this point I’m just using up what’s in my freezer. I don’t plan on buying them again.

The toppings, though, were really tasty. I made pork belly with soy sauce, a dash of sake, and a little bit of sugar. I think I could have gone a little bit lighter on the soy sauce (it was a little salty), but otherwise I liked this pork belly much better than the kind I have made in the past. I think what helped was that I browned it first, then added the liquids and let it simmer for a while. It really enhanced the flavour.

The other toppings included soft-boiled eggs, enoki mushrooms, thinly sliced carrot (made easy by using a veggie peeler instead of a knife), narutomaki (fish cake), green onion, and tobiko (flying fish roe). The toppings were tasty, complimentary, and easy to prepare.

It’s getting to the point now where I think I had best just start making tonkotsu broth and ramen noodles from scratch in order to meet my own standards. I’ve wasted so much time trying to find decent pre-made ingredients when I’m starting to think that they’re just not available this side of the pond. I think the next step is investing in a pasta machine. At the very least, I think I’ll be waiting for autumn to start making my own broth — since it takes so long and so much boiling, it doesn’t seem wise to start cooking broth during the dog days of summer if I can avoid it.

BBQ Ribs & Potatoes

The other day I had a desire both not to cook in the house and to try something new. Well, new to me in the cooking department, at least. I grabbed a rack of pork ribs from the grocery store, threw them in a pre-made marinade, and chucked them on the grill.

Although the meat was definitely edible, even tasty, I did discover that I had a lot to learn about cooking ribs because they ended up being rather chewy. When I’ve had ribs that other people have made, they always end up being fall-off-the-bone tender. I think I really needed to cook them low and slow to get that desired tenderness. Perhaps in a slow-cooker, or on a low setting on the smoker grill, once we get the auger fixed. Quick and dirty on the gas grill just isn’t going to cut it for the results that I’m looking for.

As a side, I made foil packet potatoes with garlic butter on the barbecue. They don’t look like much, but they were cooked to perfection and were packed with flavour. As a veggie, we had a quick leafy salad.

All in all, I would consider this dinner to be a provisional success. It wasn’t perfect, but everyone came back for seconds, and I learned something. It wasn’t bad for a first attempt, but I’m sure with practice I could do better.

Pork Belly Onigiri

Boyed up by not having messed up dinner over the long weekend, I decided to try a recipe that has been on my to-do list ever since I saw it on Tasty Japan: Pork Belly Onigiri (English translation in the video comments). The simplest onigiri is just a palm-sized ball of sticky rice, shaped by hand or pressed in a mould, and served cold. Often, they have a filling (such as canned salmon or barbecue eel), and they are served with a sheet of nori (the same seaweed that wraps some kinds of sushi), which makes them easier to grasp. They’re one of the most ubiquitous snacks you can find in Japan. You can buy them at nice restaurants, but they’re also in the cooler of every corner store and even in vending machines.

These pork belly onigiri definitely take it up a notch when it comes to complexity. First of all, there’s a whole soft-boiled egg in the middle, which means that the rice balls are going to be a lot bigger than the standard kind. Also, they’re wrapped in pork belly (the same cut of meat as bacon, but not cured), fried, and then a sauce is added.

My pork belly onigiri were very tasty, even though I couldn’t find any shiso leaves at a store in my area, and hence had to omit that ingredient. However, all but one of my onigiri fell apart in the final stages of cooking. I think it was because the pork belly I had at home had been thick-sliced at the butcher shop. Really, what you want is something as thinly-sliced as cheap bacon, not the thick cuts that are better in tonkotsu ramen. It’s totally possible that I just might not have squeezed the balls firmly enough before frying them.

In addition, despite cooking the soft-boiled eggs for exactly the amount of time recommended, they ended up being hard-boiled instead of soft. Should I try this recipe again, I think I will deliberately undercook the eggs a bit so that when they cook a bit during the frying stage, they’ll end up perfect in the middle.

Each one of these onigiri was a meal in and of itself; my kids couldn’t finish theirs, and my husband and I were very full after eating ours. I think they might make a nice appetizer if they were made using quail eggs instead of chicken. Quail eggs being a pain in the butt to peel, let alone getting the timing right for soft-boiled, I don’t think I’ll be trying that myself any time soon. Overall, this was a fun meal to make and it was very tasty, even if my end result was far from perfect. I would definitely recommend giving it a go.

My Food is Problematic

So the thunderstorms that they were predicting throughout the day yesterday never happened. Instead, we had drizzle all day that just upped the humidity so that when the sun finally came out, your clothes stuck to your skin and your face became greasy with sweat almost instantaneously. Well, at least the heat and humidity were predicted correctly, and I had planned a meal that could cook out in the garage where it wouldn’t heat up the house: pulled pork in the slow cooker, fresh white bread in the bread machine (simply the herb bread recipe minus, well, the herbs), a few slices of lactose-free cheese, and a grocery store salad. Easy peasy.

Except that at about 4:40pm, right before the bread was scheduled to start its baking cycle and near the end of the pulled pork’s cooking time, the power went out. Blips being what they are, that didn’t concern me too much until 45 minutes had passed, at which point I realized that it wasn’t going to come on again any time soon.

We looked into multiple options, such as borrowing a neighbour’s power (that wouldn’t work, the coverage on this outage was pretty large and affected 1,000+ people), cooking on the barbecue (with nothing thawed and nothing that I had started being barbecue-friendly), and going out for dinner (just like the other 1,000+ people who suddenly couldn’t cook dinner). Eventually we settled on driving over to my parents’ place and finishing cooking dinner there. Of course, to do that I had to wait until my husband got home so we could all go together, which added to the wait. By the time we arrived, the capacitor or backup battery in the bread machine had flattened and it couldn’t be re-started from the same point in the cycle. I mean, at least it hadn’t started baking, since it’s more or less impossible to finish cooking a half-baked loaf over an hour later… So I had to bake the bread in the oven, which was totally opposite of the point of using the bread machine in the first place! And I had to finish the crock pot meal inside my parents’ house, when the whole plan was to cook outside to avoid the heat. Not only that, but in all the hooferah I forgot to pick up the salad!

In the end, almost two hours late, the dinner was the pathetic-looking thing pictured above: bland and boring and entirely without even the semblance of vegetables or fruit.

My string of bad cooking luck definitely needs to end soon. I am becoming disheartened.

On the bright side, at least the power was back on for us by 8:00pm or so, when they’d predicted it wouldn’t be up before 1:30am Friday. But I understand that at least half of the 1,000+ customers affected by the outage didn’t get their power back until the wee hours of the morning, so it could have been much worse.