Friday, April 23, 2010

Homage to the Bouillon Cube: Chipotle Prawn Tom Yum Rice Noodle Soup

It looks as good as it tasted - bouillon cubes and all. :)

Chipotle Prawn Tom Yum Rice Noodle Soup. That's a mouthful - literally and figuratively.

It sounds insanely complex, and daunting to most people who have never made Tom Yum Soup. Luckily for them, it is actually really easy to make - especially if you happen to have a nice big, healthy collection of bouillon cubes in your pantry.

"Bouillon cubes?!"
you say, outraged.

Why yes. Bouillon is a cook's best friend. Or at least this cook's. I've been using bouillon cubes (or their granulated equivalent) in all my cooking since I can remember, and so did my mother, and her mother, and her mother before that (maybe it's a Mexican thing?)...

Wow! I can hear the "absolutely-positively-always-make-your-own-stock-even-though-it's-a-time-consuming-process-and-should-therefore-be-saved-for-a-rainy-babyless-day" purists in outrage now: shock, horror, blasphemy and all that jazz!

But I ask you: is it really so bloody horrible to use bouillon cubes? They are inexpensive, convenient, and pack a punch of flavor that almost any dish will benefit from.

"But what about all the salt?!"

"And what about all the preservatives?!"

Good points. Which is why I figured I'd go ahead and explore the bouillon cube a little bit and find out for myself what the real story behind these little foil-wrapped cubes of salty deliciousness actually is. Let the salt-licking begin!

* * *

Bouillon Cubes: Blessing or Blasphemy?
history intermixed with ever-humble opining
4 points to ponder

4. Broth, Bouillon or Stock?
Technically speaking, "bouillon" is a French word for a "broth" or "stock." Interestingly, the verb "bouillir" in French means "to boil," which is a clue as to the traditional process of making a broth or stock: extended boiling of aromatics (herbs and vegetables alike), meat, and meat carcasses or offal to create a savory, flavored water which is then the base for sauces, soups, stews, etc.

The difference between broth, bouillon and stock is nebulous at best, but actually just boils down to one simple thing: salt. Stock has no added salt, broth has some added salt, and bouillon has a huge amount of added salt (even going past the 50% mark at times).
Stock is the stuff you boil up at home and use as a base for sauces etc., broth (essentially salted and seasoned stock) can be served on its own as a soup and usually comes in a can if you do purchase it, and bouillon is a heavily seasoned, processed product bought in cubes or granules which needs to be rehydrated at home.

Bouillon is primarily marketed by three big brands: Maggi,
Oxo* and Knorr, with the first two being the original companies to commercialize bouillon cubes in 1908 and 1910 respectively. image credit

3. Why a CUBE? And what kinds of "portable soups" are out there?
The bouillon cube made its entrance onto the culinary scene a long time ago. An American physicist and inventor named Count Rumford is credited with inventing this "portable soup" as it was called, back in the 19th century for the Duke of Bavaria. But it has been around much longer than that, with nomadic cultures having also used it far before that. source credit

I suppose the idea of a cube comes down to sheer portability and convenience. The cubes fit tightly into a small cardboard box and stick neatly in a pantry. Not to mention they are incredibly easy to dissolve in warm or hot water, saving time and space.

There is a shocking plethora of flavor variety in the Bouillon Cube world. In my pantry alone I have several interesting variations - some of them "ethnic" and others just boring old "staples." The sky is the limit when it comes to portable, inexpensive, salty flavorings. And I, for one, have taken advantage of that fact.

A small sampling from my personal bouillon collection & where they came from:

Chicken Bouillon (my go-to staple), Chicken & Tomato Bouillon, Vegetable Bouillon (for vegetarians), Beef Bouillon, Beef-rib Bouillon (Mexico), Beef & Chipotle Bouillon (Mexico), Shrimp Bouillon (Mexico), Fish Bouillon (Mexico), and, of course, Tom Yum Bouillon (Singapore).

Why do "real chefs" hate them? Or do they? *suspenseful intake of breath*
Traditionally, and probably still for the most part today, "real chefs" would not be caught dead using a bouillon cube in their food. Definitely not in a restaurant. And even if they did use the odd Oxo cube at home, they'd probably never admit it. My guess is it has something to do with not being labor-intensive or elitist enough, but of course they'll all say it comes down to flavor. :)

Not so these days. Not only have I seen several cooking shows where celebrity chefs have admitted to "shortcuts" such as stock cubes and microwaves at home and in the professional kitchen (*GASP!*), but now the infamous and widely lauded Marco Pierre White of Hell's Kitchen has actually made a commercial advertising my favorite brand of "portable soup": Knorr.

Admittedly, it's a commercial for "stock pots" (or easy, take-home demi-glace) which are kind of like the royalty of bouillon cubes in that they are neither cubes, nor powder form, but hey, it's a start. It's stock made easy for the home cook. And with low-sodium, low-fat, better flavor and no MSG, I think it's about as good as a "bouillon cube" is ever going to get.

So there you have it, with a professional celebrity chef endorsement, I think that gives all the purists official permission to let their hair down for once. :)

1. Why should home cooks thank their lucky stars for them?
I think making stock is a beautiful thing. My official-chef-man brother-in-law takes as much joy in doing it as is humanly possible, and every year at Christmas time I know there will be, first, the tantalizing smell of veal broth and bones, followed by an intensely rich broth, which days later becomes a syrupy, savory, delicious sauce accompaniment to prime rib. It's an art, and one that deserves applause and lauding for the time, effort and skill involved in perfectly it.

Sadly, I don't have four days to spare every time I want to make gravy, or chicken soup, or even just a sauce for my veal piccata. So I use bouillon cubes. They take two seconds to grab from the pantry, and if you reduce the amount of salt you put into the completed dish, you aren't really over-seasoning. Not to mention, I truly believe that when cooking with meat-extract you get a richness in your food that is simply missing if you only use salt. You heart it time and time again on cooking shows, and taste it time and time again in bouillon-missing households.

Let's be glad we have the option to both make our own or throw a few granules in. It's the kind of gastronomic freedom that opens up Chipotle Prawn Tom Yum Rice Noodle Soup up as an option for a "quick" weekday lunch. I thank my lucky stars for that.

*Funny story about the Oxo Tower on the Thames river in London: they were told by authorities that neon signs reading company names were not allowed on the building, as they would be a blight to the up-and-coming Southern Bank area. Despite this Oxot constructed a tower atop their factory with a pattern that read "O X O" in bright red, neon letters. When confronted by the authorities, they claimed it was an entirely "decorative pattern" of naughts and exes. Cheeky.

* * *

Brenda's Bouillon-ridden
Chipotle Prawn Tom Yum Rice Noodle Soup

Serves 2

This soup is a combination of Vietnamese, Thai, Mexican and who knows what else. It is a classic "this is what I had in my kitchen so I'm gonna make it" dish that is as much a risk as making souffles the first time you meet your boyfriend's parents. Luckily I never did that, but had I, I'd hope it would come out as well as this soup did.

Despite having three bouillon cubes in it, it is not overly salty, and the cilantry flavors the broth really nicely. I like to add lime juice and sriracha sauce to it at the end as a nice kick. Both Southeast Asians and Mexicans like to add sour and hot sauces to their soups, which is one reason I love Tom Yum Soup. No, the bouillon is not a perfect substitute for making real Tom Yum soup with fresh lemongrass, kaffir lim leaves, fish sauce and galangal, or even a good pre-made paste, but it did the trick. And the rice noodles are perfect because unlike other noodles they don't swell up or get soggy in a broth. Perfection in a bowl.

* * *

6-7 cups of water
1 cube Chipotle Beef Bouillon
1 cube Shrimp Bouillon
1 cube Tom Yum Bouillon
2 cloves garlic, crushed
small handful of cilantro, rinsed
1 half small onion
Oyster Mushrooms (about 100g, or 1 large handful)
2 baby bok choys, stalks separated
1/2 lb (500g) prawns or medium shrimp (don't have to be peeled)
1/2 package of dry rice noodles (available at Asian supermarkets)

1. Heat the water in a medium pot and add the bouillon cubes, cilantro, garlic, and onion. Allow it to come to a boil, then cover, reduce heat to low and allow to simmer for 20 minutes. Make sure the bouillon cubes are completely dissolved by stirring occasionally.

2. Taste the broth and adjust seasoning with salt and pepper. Remove the garlic, onion and cilantro stalks.

3.Add the bok choy and oyster mushrooms and allow to simmer for 5 minutes more, covered.

4. Add the rice noodles, prawns and recover. Turn off the heat and allow it to sit for another 10 minutes or until the prawns are cooked and the noodles are soft.

Serve with chopsticks and spoon, and garnish with chopped cilantro, fresh lime juice and Sriracha sauce for an extra kick.
Follow Me on Pinterest

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

My Big Strawberry "Jam": The "Good Mother" Always Wins.

Eating freshly picked, wild mountain strawberries in Italy:
the essence of summertime.

It's been a funny Spring so far. The weather isn't nearly as warm by now as I'd hoped, but April has been a-buzz with happiness and business of all sorts with my mom's visit and Roman's fast-approaching 1st birthday. To call this Spring serendipitous would almost be an understatement, what with unexpected volcano eruptions that have stranded my Mom in London, and a new home on the horizon (more on that another day :) ).

Nevertheless, I look forward to this time of year for many reasons, as I have already mentioned. But one of the quieter, less tectonic, and more delicious reasons is early-season British Strawberries.

They start popping up right around now (mid to late April) and go on in fine form well-through the end of summer. They are red, juicy and sweet at this time of year, unlike the orangeish-white flavourless variety you get the rest of the year. And they are the perfect finger food for mothers and babies alike. Roman is a, serious, unabashed strawberry-eating-monster. I like my baby beasts that way.

My personal history with
strawberries is a long and varied one. Its emotional range is that of an annoyingly melodramatic opera, the likes of Madame Butterfly: there's been love, there's been hate, there's been unnecessary and depressing butchering of delicate, stupidly unsuspecting creatures (in no particular order). And that, my friends, is exactly the reason for the Strawberry "Jam" I'm perpetually in: what is the good, the bad, the ugly? - and who comes out on top as the berry best strawberry experience of all?

* * *

The Strawberry "Jam": The Berry Best and The Berry Worst
a life of Strawberry angst

5. HATE: Strawberry-Cheesecake-Topping
I must have been about seven or eight years old the year that my mom made that infamous strawberry cheesecake. I'm not sure why, but cheesecake in my family was revered as the dessert to end all desserts - the holy of holies. If you could make a good cheesecake, my family both loved and revered you, and for that reason if there was ever a reason to make a dessert from scratch, there was inevitably a cheesecake in the fridge.

On this particular occasion my mom made a New York style cheesecake topped with a
strawberry compote/syrup thing. I think she must have bought the strawberry topping pre-made because it was that bright, unnatural red color that you see on supermarket cakes and maraschino cherries, and had a sticky, oozy syrupy look that most people find appetizing. image credit

It was sitting on the top shelf of the half-split refrigerator, right at my eye-level, when I opened the door to get the milk for breakfast. And it beckoned loudly to me, strawberry scent and oozy syrup just begging to be eaten. I took a shamelessly large strawberry off the top with a large dollop of reddish syrup and quickly shoved it in my mouth before anyone could catch me. I was suddenly gripped by a horrific need to retch combined with an instantaneous case of the sugar-shakes. It was the sweetest, syrupiest, ooziest, strawberriest flavor I'd ever had, in a disgustingly unnatural way...I was so freaked out that for almost twenty years I avoided eating strawberry jam, compote, syrup - anything strawberry flavored except for fresh strawberries - completely.

4. LOVE: Bonne Maman Wild Strawberry Conserve
After being scarred by the strawberry cheesecake topping, it took a good mother to bring me back to the path of salvation.

When I moved to London I discovered two things:
1. That Matt is a voracious consumer of toast and jam
2. That refusing to try strawberry jam based on one experience twenty years ago was a little ridiculous, given my "always-try-everything-once" food mantra

On a whim (and Matt's insistence), I picked up a jar of Bonne Maman Wild Strawberry conserve for the fridge. It took me months to build up the courage to actually try it, but once I did I couldn't believe what I'd been missing all those years. This jam was not too sweet - in fact it was slightly tart. And it had the delicious combination of small and large strawberries that made it both aesthetically pleasing to the eye and gastronomically very acceptable to the palate.

A small bonus was in the pretty shape of the jar and red-white gingham lids which give it a French-country flare I find iressistible, despite its widely commercialized and distributed nature. I loved it so much I started keeping the jars to put my freshly grown and dried spices in, and ended up even saving the jars to use as a cute, rustic set of picnic lemonade glasses.

In the competition for "best" anything - the "good mother" always wins. : )

3. UNNECESSARY BUTCHERING: Homemade (pectin-less) Strawberry Jam
And speaking of strawberry jams and irrational moves on my part, despite refusing to eat strawberry jam, I decided a couple of years back that I would try to make my own one September, inspired by a deceptively easy strawberry jam recipe on an episode of the Barefoot Contessa.

My best friend Monica's birthday is in September and that year I decided to make a batch of strawberry jam and jar it in my laughably miniature NYC kitchen, then send it to her all the way in St. Louis. Six punnets of strawberries (four of those having ended up in the trash) and three attempts later, I had two diminutive jars of runny but delicious strawberry jam.

It took me several hours of slave work and throwing away two perfectly good jam batches to realize that when jolly little Ina says that the lemon juice in the recipe will "thicken" the jam, she means that in the loosest of terms. Yes, lemon juice is a natural thickener and preservative, but unless I'm missing something here (or not cooking the jam long enough) it sure doesn't give you that gelled-up store-bought jam look or feel. In fact, my jam was so runny you had to use a spoon to put it on the toast (not that I would know really as Matt ate it all). Next time I go the way of homemade jam, I will use the stash of pectin that now permanently resides in my bodega.

And for the record, Monica got the jam safe and sound, and despite also noting the runny consistency, I think, ate it all. : )

2. DEPRESSING BUTCHERING: Tiptree Wilkin & Sons' Little Scarlet Jam
I am a Bonne Maman-fiend, as I stated above, and so I rarely deviate from that brand when buying jam (unless I go for St. Dalfour's or an artisanal brand I've found somewhere special). But I'd read about the strawberry jam to end all strawberry jams in my Olive Magazine a couple of months ago, and when the season started this year I decided to splurge and get some.

Tiptree Wilkin & Son's Little Scarlet Jam is about twice as expensive as any other jam in the supermarket for a couple of reasons. The brand is more expensive because it is kind of the typically British "we've farmed the land for over 300 years..." type deal that tugs at the heartstrings of the gastronomically emotional like myself. Whereas a jar of Bonne Maman Strawberry jam will cost you £1.99 at Tesco, a jar of Little Scarlet is £3.49. Why? I'm not sure.

You can read more about the intensely flavored diminutive strawberry only grown on the Tiptree estates here. As for me, I find it syrupy sweet to a fault, and not nearly as aesthetically pleasing as the aforementioned good mother (though I do kind of like the Tiptree labels). Call me a fool, call me simple and unsophisticated. I'm never paying that much for a jam I hate again.

1. UNSUSPECTING DELICATE CREATURES: Strawberries, Pineberries, and Strasberries
In the UK there is a hierarchy of supermarkets (as in all places, I suppose). And within that price-fighting, quality-changing hierarchy exists an internal hierarchy of "best strawberries."
I won't go into too much detail, but here's how the supermarkets play out in my mind:

Best quality but most expensive goes to Waitrose.

Average quality but best value goes to Tesco.

Variable quality and good value goes to Sainsbury's.

Questionable quality but downright cheap goes to ASDA.

The shady economy has definitely increased competition and forced Waitrose to lower prices and even create an "essentials" store-brand range (which I LOVE!), but you still find better brands, and more interesting foods there. And as far as the best strawberries go, there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that Waitrose has the best looking and tasting.

Pineberries and Strasberries: mmmm-mmmm weird (and good).

And as the icing on the cake, they are also innovative. As of a couple of weeks ago Waitrose launched the introduction of a fruit I didn't even know existed until last month when I read
this blog post: the pineberry.

It is a white strawberry. It looks like a strawberry but smells and tastes like a pineapple! I'm dying to try these and lucky for me, my local Putney and Wandsworth Waitrose branches will both have the coveted lovelies available during the season. In reading about all this I learned that modern day commercial strawberries, though originally native to north and south America, are actually a hybrid created in Europe by the British and French, and that the pineberry is one part of that hybrid. Little Scarlet (strawberries were called "scarlets" in the old days) is the other.

In addition to the pineberry, Waitrose also introduced Strasberries not long ago - a combo of strawberries and raspberries. Delicate and brightly colored, these berries have also been beckoning to me from their shelves. Perhaps I'll try one. Here's to hoping it's not a scarring experience.

Follow Me on Pinterest

Friday, April 2, 2010

Berlin: The Best and Wurst.

Welcome to...


I love surprises.

I'm the type of person who will go great lengths to surprise someone. And when there's an occasion for gift-giving, or nice-doing, I will almost always take the path of inevitably more work, trepidation and greater-resistance over just asking for gift-advice or preference.
Maybe it's arrogant on my part to assume others will feel the same way, but I'd wager that most people would agree there is little as satisfying as seeing that momentary but thrilling facial expression when someone is genuinely and fortuitously surprised...birthdays, anniversaries, but most of all, random n0-apparent-reason surprises are my favorites.

Matt surprised me last week when he called and, out of the blue, said, "Wanna go to Berlin?"

Sure, he'd be in a conference. And sure, I'd be left to my own devices with the midge. But two days later, I found myself on a plane, sipping champagne, HELLO Magazine in hand, talking to a freakish-serial-traveler while Matt sweated it out in economy with a not-so-midget in his lap. *shameless grin* And that's only the trip there! There was oh-so-much-more to our little surprise trip to the capital of the great Deutsche "vaterland."

And here is that "so-much-more" in list form. : )

* * *

Berlin: The Best and the Wurst
a list of our top 5 doings

5. World's Largest Cylindrical Aquarium - whaaa?!
LinkI didn't really know what Matt meant when he said our hotel lobby housed the above mentioned, but man was I blown away when I walked into the lobby. Twenty-five meters high and 11 meters wide, this aquarium is no joke. There are parrot fish, blowfish and bonafide scubadivers in there cleaning the sides with a suction holder (so they don't float off) and a sponge.

The Aquarium and its base in the lobby of the Radisson.

It costs over 11Euros to go up in the elevator that takes you through the aquarium which is technically part of an Aquatic Center next door to the Radisson (screw that!), but as a patron of the hotel you get an almost equal view simply going up the elevator to your room. So I went up the elevator a lot. Roman loved staring at the fish, although I have to admit to being even more obsessed with it than him, having had my fair share of fish-owning adventures.

I mean, if you're going to stay in a big corporate-ish hotel, why not make it an interesting one?

4. Honey, can we go to Bavaria for dinner tonight?
YES, I do like cheesy Bavarian restaurants complete with women dressed in dirndls and men dressed in lederhosen. (And yes, I do know Berlin is not Bavaria.) I have no qualms admitting that. And not that I have anything against eating pig knuckles or ham hocks, but I was not leaving Berlin without getting some good-ass Weisswurst.

So sue me - I get a great thrill from holding a giant stein of German pilsner in my hand while shoving copious amounts of sausage, boiled potatoes and sauerkraut into my dainty but ravenous little pie hole! And speaking of pie - bring on the apfelstreudel mr. accordian-player man!

German food is nothing if not unpretentious. Driven by meat and starch it is sure to please anyone whose up for heartiness on a plate and in a glass. One of my more pleasant moments on this trip was when, having finally given up on finding that "perfect foodie German restaurant" due to a reality check involving a squealing 11-month-old, we caved and hit up a large, comfortable, child-friendly place right smack-dab in the middle of Freidrichstrasse. If you're looking for pretty darn decent food at cheap prices, and a little bit of a cheesy tourist ride with regards to over-the-top Bavarian decorations, Maximilians is your place.

Hey, ain't no shame in doing it every once in a while. : )

3. Seeing the Many Splendid Sights of Berlin
Berlin is impressive. Not just because it's a beautiful city where old seamlessly meets new, and not just because there are numerous - almost countless - historically significant traces and remains that boggle and wow both the historically-minded and the ignorant tourist alike. It is impressive because all these things together valiantly thrust themselves in the face of crummy half-winter weather and sometimes (more often than not, actually) awkwardly-abrupt Germans to make it one of Europe's most fascinating and pleasant places to visit.

Checkpoint Charlie, Berlin wall, Holocaust Memorial

The best and coolest sights we saw were Checkpoint Charlie, The Berliner Mauer (Berlin Wall), the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, the Brandenburg Gate, and the Reichstag. I highly recommend staying in Mitte (I stayed there 10 years ago on my first visit to Berlin, actually), East Berlin. From there all of these things are within reasonable walking distance - if you don't mind walking. I probably walked a good 6-8 miles on the one day of sightseeing we had, and my feet ached for a couple of days, but it was well worth it.

The Reichstag

2. The Reichstag Dome

The highlight of my and Roman's historical sightseeing day was, without a doubt, The German Reichstag, or parliament building. Not only is it an awesome and imposing example of neoclassical architecture at its best, but it is a seamlessLink combination of old and new, modern and classical, historical and present-day.

When the building and its hallmark glass and steel dome (constructed in 1894) were damaged by a fire and air raids during the World Wars, the Reichstag fell into disuse and disrepair. And it wasn't until 1990 when renowned British Architect Norman Foster (who brought the amazing Millenium Bridge to London) took over the restoration job that the new, super-futuristic glass dome with a 360-degree view over Berlin was built.

The line we never stood in. *grin*

Every day hundreds of people line up at the front to make the ascent to the famed glass dome that now tops the once crumbling Reichstag. But true to German efficiency, those who are handicapped or have a small bratty child in tow can skip the line entirely and head on up to the Dome in minutes' time by using an alternative entrance. SCORE!!!

Roman and I went up once during the day for photo ops (he slept through it all, of course) and then came back with Matt at 9:45pm to witness the view under the stars. It was breathtaking, both times - both because of the view and climb up the dome!


*chanting with pumping fists*
Whenever I travel anywhere I make it my business to find out what is the most typical thing to eat and drink there. In New York it was hot dogs from Gray's Papaya, in Chicago it was deep dish pizza, in Berlin it was Currywurst.

I won't bore you with details about Herta Heuwer and her curry-ketchup concoction during World War II. The bottom line is, somebody came up with the idea to combine two things I love: curry and sausage. And the rest is history - no really, there's a freaking museum!

I asked for recommendations from locals on where to get the best Currywurst in town. The answer from the taxi driver, the waiter and the otherwise annoyingly snooty concierge was exactly the same: if you want to try this unofficial national dish, the only place to do it right is Curry 36.

Don't let the snazzy website and silver storefront fool you: these people know their sausages and curry ketchup and dish it out with Soup-Nazi-esque efficiency. And whether you get it with bread or "pommes" (fries), it is a damn good (and shockingly cheap) way to get a little piece of authentic Berlin grub.

And who knows, you just might be pleasantly surprised. : )

* * *

Oh and not to forget, of course...

Happy Easter Weekend Everyone!
Follow Me on Pinterest