Monday, May 19, 2014

UnRecipe: Asian Creature of Habit

A friend had mentioned, just based on the endless photos I post on the social media-verse, that I pretty much cook only Asian food. Really? Is that the cuisine profile most people associate me with?? (blog name notwithstanding) I'm sure I've cooked other things! I thought about it for a bit and realized, jeeze, it really has been a while since I've cooked a meat loaf or anything the average American/Western European would consider "dinner." Not that cooking primarily Asian cuisine is a bad thing -- 1.3 billion Chinese can't be wrong -- it's just interesting to get an outsider's perspective of what's cookin', if all you saw was a social media feed of what's on the menu. So the unsurprising truth is OUT: I'm totally an Asian Creature of Habit when it comes to cooking. Apologies to Mr. Wasabi, who probably just wants a grilled cheese sandwich now and then.

Even when it's not Asian food, it looks like fried rice or stir fry - Photo by Wasabi Prime

I certainly don't apologize for cooking within a cuisine comfort zone. I think something as simple as a stir fry is one of the most "use everything in your fridge" meals you can make, since it's just a mish-mash of vegetables and protein, cooked quickly, and served on its own or atop rice. You don't need to get fussy with the flavoring, just a bit of soy sauce, and some sugar and vinegar to balance out the sweet-savory ratio.

But yeah, looking at just a random snapshot of my Flickr account, I was like, holy crap, I guess I do cook a lot of Asian-looking food. 
So, I thought, OK, let's try and be more mindful about changing things up for quick weeknight meals when I'd normally hit the "Stir Fry" button. One of my new quickie meals is seared vegetables with sausage over toasted barley. Which I call Euro-Fried Rice. Because, yeah, it looks like fried rice. Maybe not so far from the Asian hemisphere of cooking. But no soy sauce is present, I swear.

I will say I've been trying to get to know different whole grains. Quinoa and bulgur have become new favorites, and I'd always hovered around the dry pearl barley in the grocery store. I've had it at restaurants, usually accompanying heavier proteins like slow-cooked beef short ribs, or anything meaty with a gravy that needed sopping-up. Even without a roast beast to accompany, pearl barley is a nice toothy grain, with a nutty flavor. My favorite way of preparing it is to follow the package directions,which is like cooking rice on a stove, let it dry a bit in the fridge to remove excess surface moisture, and then spreading it out on a sheet tray and toasting it in the oven. It just adds a slight dry crispness to the outside.

I take whatever vegetables I have in the crisper, saute them in a pan with some olive oil, salt and pepper, and top the cooked/toasted barley with the vegetables. I'll add cooked sausage for protein, or just leave it as-is for Meatless Mondays. If I have Parmesan, I'll sprinkle the top with shavings, just to add some extra flavor and a bit of a flourish. Sure it kind of looks like a fried rice/stir fry concoction, but it has the earthy, nutty flavor of the barley, mixed with all your favorite vegetables, lightly seasoned. Clean, simple, done!

Quickie Spanish stew with olives, chickpeas and chicken - Photo by Wasabi Prime
Stews are something that I can rely on that won't feel too far along the Asian persuasion, but I get tired of the same old beef/root vegetable stew. I like using chicken for stews since it's a quick-cooking meat and doesn't require all-day stewing to get that same fork-tenderness, and more specifically, chicken thighs for its richer flavor. I threw together an UnRecipe Spanish-inspired stew. Why Spanish? I had leftover pimento olives and while there's really nothing intensely Spanish about that, that's what I called this dish.

In a cast-iron stew pot, I seared some roughly chopped chicken thighs seasoned with salt and pepper, and set aside, then seared some chopped vegetables like carrots, onion and celery in the drippings, with a little more olive oil. I used some chicken stock to deglaze, added canned chickpeas and the chicken back into the mix, and let it simmer for about a half hour, just to marry the flavors and for the stock to reduce a bit. I added dry seasonings like some nutmeg, cumin, dry oregano and thyme flakes, along with some smoky paprika. I also added turmeric powder, which doesn't add a ton of flavor so much as giving the whole dish an intense golden color. The chopped green olives were added towards the end, so that they didn't get too mushy, and they added a nice briny finish For richness, I added plain yogurt, although sour cream would work, too. It gave it a creamy thickness. It was good on its own, or served atop quinoa. A Spanish-inspired chicken stew was a nice alternative to the usual beer/beef stew.

Making stuff that doesn't feel like it has to be eaten with chopsticks - harder than you'd think! - Photos by Wasabi Prime
So consider this post more of a Progress Report, letting you know that I am, and will always be an ongoing project when it comes to cooking, which I guess is the point of having a blog. While I'll never give up my habit of buying tofu on a near-weekly basis, or always having a bulk-sized bottle of soy sauce and rice wine vinegar, I do want to say I try now and then to make food that doesn't have to be eaten with chopsticks. Unless you want to, of course.

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