Sunday, December 27, 2009

Coq au Vin (PTC-DS)

There are, I'm sure, a ton of French chefs who would take a look at Personal Trainer : Cooking's recipe for the classic Coq au Vin, and blow a gasket. "Where are the lardons?" they might cry. "Are they so stupid not to tell the cook which wine to use? Where is the stewpot? How can you make anything good with this one?!"

Mind you, they'd probably say the same thing about Julia Child's recipe for coq au vin. Although she uses lardons, she omits the long marinade time that the classic recipe seems to want, and that PTC to its credit includes. And the results actually work pretty well.

Ingredients: The recipe called for whole chicken legs, which is good because that happens to be the best part of the chicken for stewing. I opted for thighs, with bones and skin on.

Although PTC doesn't get specific about the type of red wine to use, I opted for a Pinot Noir from the Burgundy region of France, from Bouchard Pere et Fils. 12 bucks Canadian a bottle, which is pretty good for French wine. (It's pretty drinkable too.)

PTC includes the classic mirepoix of onion, celery and carrot, along with garlic, bay leaf and thyme for the marinade, flour, butter (for cooking the chicken), broth (they recommend veal, I used a vegetable broth because I had it on hand), and of course salt and pepper.

My personal addition: the lardons those strawman French chefs would have been protesting about. I cut up a couple of slices of side bacon into matchsticks for that.

Techniques: I must say, the idea of a marinade strikes me as a pretty good one; a way to break down the proteins in the chicken meat. For the amount I made, it took half a bottle of the Pinot Noir, before the marinating bowl was full.

When it came to cooking the chicken, I used my 14" skillet to melt the butter and fry the bacon bits, then coated the patted-dry chicken pieces in flour. (PTC recommends using a deep dish for the coating step, which is actually known as dredging; I wound up using a couple of Ziploc freezer bags to do a shake-the-pieces job.)

Once again, I came across PTC's penchant for overestimating the amount of liquid used for stewing. But I've gotten used to this by now; my best bit of advice is, add what you think is right.

Results: Very nice. The thing about stews is that they're pretty much impossible to overcook; the thigh meat was tender without being stringy, and the resulting gravy didn't have the bitterness I normally associated with the wine-cooking process.

I don't think I'd recommend this one for the kids (the wine, you know), but I'd rank this one as one of PTC's better efforts. Not authentic? Pah. Give the cook confidence by making this a few times, and then they'll be ready to tackle authentic.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

British Lamb Stew (PTC - DS)

I'm planning on a trip to London, England in a couple of weeks, so I figured I should try my hand on English cooking -- or rather, Tsuji Academy's interpretation of English cooking. Personal Trainer: Cooking has ten recipes listed under Great Britain, which is slightly startling (since English cooking isn't exactly all that well known), but intriguing. This British lamb stew turns out to be one of the easiest recipes in PTC.

Ingredients: How easy? Lamb leg meat, potatoes, onions, stock and seasonings. That's it, that's all. I used red-skinned boiling potatoes, a sweet onion, tetra-packed low-sodium beef broth and organic vegetable broth.

Techniques: Once again I wish PTC would be a bit more forward about its teaching techniques. The recipe requires you to cut up the lamb into chunks, then put them in a pot of water, bring to a boil -- and then turn the burner off, transfer the meat into a bowl of cold water for "washing," then pat dry on paper towels. I recognize the technique as parboiling, and I will say that it works rather well for getting rid of a lot of the scum that usually rises whenever I boil meat while making soup.

The other odd idea is that the recipe calls for the potatoes to be sliced into rounds, rather than cubed. I half suspect that Japanese potatoes must be about the size of golf balls; once again, proportions are going to have to be carefully double-checked by the cook during the preparation phase.

The actual cooking is easy-peasy: everything except what's reserved as a garnish into a pot for a couple of hours.

Results: This is one of the nicest things about lamb: it creates a very sophisticated flavour no matter what you do to it. It all worked incredibly well, with the moderate seasoning.

If you were using PTC to teach a kid how to cook, clearly this is one of the first recipes they should try. Simple chopping and boiling / simmering, simple ingredients, profound flavour for the steps you take.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Shepherd's Pie (WCJO - DS)

I suppose any baked meat dish with a mashed potato topping can be called a shepherd's pie, or "cottage pie" as the case may be. Having spent a great deal more time on Personal Trainer: Cooking than I'd anticipated, I figured it was time to give this one from What's Cooking with Jamie Oliver a proper tryout.

Unlike a lot of other recipes for shepherd's pie that I've seen, this one relies more on stewed and shredded meat than ground or minced. I guess that goes to Jamie's preferences for "rustic" or crude-looking dishes.

Ingredients: And right away, I ran into some trouble. The WCJO recipe calls for small amounts of pork, beef brisket and duck legs. At the supermarket where I shopped, duck legs weren't available, and the beef and pork were packed in amounts more suitable for a Scout troop. On a weekend camping trip. Where more friends were invited. In other words, too much for a single person. (If ever people wonder why more single people don't cook for themselves . . . )

What this meant was, instead of pork, beef brisket and duck legs, I wound up using bone-in stewing lamb, veal cubes, and chicken drumsticks. The supermarket did have smoked turkey legs, which I considered, but then I had a look at the ingredients on the package, and changed my mind. The drumsticks might be from battery hens, but at least they were chemical free.

The other vegetables were simple enough: carrot, celery, potatoes and parsnips. It was the last one, used as a mash along with the potatoes, that I elected to try out.

Techniques: The recipe called for open stewing of the meats, along with the carrot, onion and celery, in a combination of red wine and beef broth, in a 350-degree oven for about three hours. Giving it some thought, I figured I'd try another method for stewing: a slow cooker. Which meant frying the ingredients first, then deglazing the skillet.

Eight hours later I transferred the meats to one of my Corningware pyroceramic baking dishes, taking care to remove as many of the bones as I could. The vegetables went as well, but not so much the remainder of the cooking liquid. The potatoes and parsnips were boiled and mashed with butter and S&P, spread on top of the dish and dotted over with rosemary sprigs, and then I put the lot into the oven.

One thing I have to add about WCJO: I really missed the interactivity that was available in PTC. The audio, especially, was sorely missed: all you have are paragraphs that flash up. And once you complete the dish, you don't really get much by way of congratulation. It's something JO should think about, next time he tries putting his name on a cooking game.

Results: Not bad at all. The lamb and the veal were nice and tender, the chicken picked up quite a bit of flavour and the potato/parsnip topping got a nice crispy surface.

Leftovers the next day were interesting. I'd saved the stewing broth in a jar; after a day in the fridge it had turned gelatinous, which I hadn't expected. Put the gelled broth in a microwaveable dish along with some of the leftover pie, and the nuked results were quite satisfactory as a quick dinner.

Well, if I had to make a potluck contribution, this dish is definitely an option for me. I'd call this a pass: better than PTC's chili dish, but not quite on the level of that mulligatawny soup.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Salade Nicoise (PTC - DS)

I am informed, via one of Julia Child's DVDs, that Nice used to be a part of Italy until the 19th century, which is why the dish Salade Nicoise resembles an Italian antipasto plate.

I can well understand, then, why Salade Nicoise would be included in Personal Trainer: Cooking. There has always been great emphasis put on the presentation of a dish, in Japanese cuisine; it goes to the same esthetic that we see in the art of ikebana, and why Japanese mothers take such great care with the preparation of bento lunches. And a great deal of Salade Nicoise's appeal happens to be in its eventual presentation.

Ingredients: There's not all that much deviation between the ingredients listed in PTC and those listed in Mrs. Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking: green beans, boiled potatoes, boiled egg, lettuce, tomato, tuna, olives, capers, and a dressing made with Dijon mustard and red wine vinegar. The only real difference is that PTC uses green bell pepper, which is absent from Mrs. Child's version.

This time out, however, I decided I'd rely on my own interpretation of portions. One of the reasons why I don't eat salad at home very often is that, most of the recipes I have for salad make enough for five or six people -- which goes bad after a few days. So this time out, I elected to try to shrink the proportions down to something suitable for 1 or 2 folks. PTC has no allowances for this (they bring it down to three people, minimum), so I made a few guesses.

Techniques: This is nowhere near as complex as PTC's recipe for Boeuf Bourgignon, but I can understand why Salade Nicoise isn't made all that often: boiling beans, potatoes and eggs can be quite time-consuming. Which is why I opted for a boiling shortcut.

I have a Chef's Choice electric hotpot. Works just like an electric kettle, only it has a very wide opening on the top, which means I can actually use it to cook stuff. I elected to boil the egg and the potato at the same time: slip both in, switch on, let it automatically switch off once it boils, fish the egg out after 10 minutes and the potato out after 20.

In retrospect, I probably should have left the egg in for 2 to 5 minutes longer. After 10 minutes the yolk had barely set, which is fine if you're eating a hard-cooked egg straight out but doesn't work as well if you're using boiled egg as an ingredient: the egg tends to fall apart when you apply the pressure of a knife to it. The potato, on the other hand, turned out all right.

The other part that actually involved what I'd consider "cooking" was the making of the dressing: combining Dijon mustard with vinegar, salt, pepper and olive oil. PTC uses both plain and extra-virgin olive oil; I substitute corn oil for the regular one and it seemed to work out all right.

One thing I did notice with this recipe: while PTC will tell you how to do a technique, it won't necessarily tell you a term if it doesn't think you need to know. For example, it told me to boil the cut green beans briefly before chilling them in ice water. That particular technique is called blanching, and yet PTC doesn't mention it at all. (I can sort of understand why; the intended audience of inexperienced cooks wouldn't necessarily want to know such a cooking term if it got in the way of their trying to cook.)

Everything else was simply flower-arranging; since it was just me, I didn't care all that much, but if I do a potluck I'm pretty sure I'll do it much differently.

Results: If I were a teenager making this for the first time, I'd call it a success. I'm a middle-aged man, though -- and yet I'd still call it a success. It's very hard to screw up a salad; the only way to do that is to use stale or past-due ingredients. I'd call this one a keeper.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Boeuf Bourgignon (PTC - DS)

A couple of weeks ago, I picked up Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Volume 1. (Yes, I know. I wouldn't've thought Meryl Streep and Amy Adams would have gotten me interested in French cuisine, but there you go.)

As it happens, it's a fortuitous purchase, because now I have something to compare Personal Trainer: Cooking's French recipes with. And so we'll begin with Julia Child's recommended beginner recipe: boeuf bourgignon, or beef stewed in red wine.

Ingredients: I found I only had to make one substitution: the recipe called for veal broth, but I opted for beef broth instead. (There's a sub-module in PTC for actually making veal broth, but I felt that since it does say beef broth is an adequate substitute, why not go for it and save myself some hassle?)

As for everything else, it's a bit surprising but PTC's ingredient lists matches Mrs. Child's ingredient list almost to the letter. PTC also has an additional element that Mrs. Child's doesn't: a bouquet garni. It's fortunate that PTC explains how one is done up, because that's a term I don't think the game's intended audience could be expected to know.

Techniques: I have to admit, this is so far the most complex recipe that PTC has thrown at me. The first phase involves marinading the beef in red wine and a mirepoix of carrot, onion, celery, garlic and bouquet garni for a minimum of 5 hours. Which meant for the first time, I used PTC's save function: you can pause in the middle of the recipe, turn the DS off, and when you turn the game back on again there's a new icon you tap that lets you resume where you left off.

It's worth pointing out that Mrs. Child's recipe doesn't call for a half-day marinade. That's because her technique calls for a true stewing, i.e. cooking meat over low heat for 2 to 3 hours. PTC is more of a braise, which means high heat in an oven for slightly under 1 hour.

This was also the first time I actually learned something from PTC, in this case how to peel baby or pearl onions (it involves a warm-water soak for five minutes, trim and peel.) The learning of techniques, I found, was quite easy this time out.

A note about plating: the European method (as advocated by Mrs. Child) involves serving directly from the stewpot. PTC, on the other hand, is quite conscious of its original Japanese clientele: the meat and vegetables are placed in separate bowls, and the sauce is then poured over each. That's a very Japanese method of serving stewed dishes.

Results: Well, this is the first time I tried doing a Bourgignon, and I have to say, allowing for the water content (I probably should have given the sauce more time to reduce) it tasted pretty good. The meat was chewy but not tough, thanks to the marinade, and there was no alcoholic harshness from the wine.

I suspect that if I were to make Mrs. Child's bourgignon, the PTC recipe would come in second in comparison, but for now I'll give the Tsuji Academy a pass on this one.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Chili Con Carne (PTC - DS)

I really have to admit -- this was the first time I was ever tempted to accuse Personal Trainer - Cooking of base fraud. Seriously, when you look at the ingredient list, if you know anything at all about traditional "chili con carne" you'd have a hard time wondering how this particular version deserves the name.

However . . .

We have to keep in mind that the recipes here were developed by the Tsuji Academy, whose main function in society is to teach Japanese homemakers (and other foodservice professionals) how to cook. This is, therefore, a cultural artifact -- in the same way that a McDonald's hamburger, in Tokyo, isn't going to taste the same as a McDonald's hamburger in Des Moines. This is the Japanese interpretation of a typical American dish, tamed for the palates of Japanese schoolchildren and citizens who have a rather sensitive palate. (What the Japanese consider "suicide hot," we would call "moderately spiced." Keep that in mind.)

Ingredients: Perhaps I should explain to you what this recipe doesn't have, and you can make a judgement that way. What it doesn't have: Cumin. And chili peppers, either in fresh or powdered form.

These two elements, really, are what make a Western chili, and are far more important than even the argument about "beans / no beans." Cumin provides the "backbone" of traditional Western chili, no heat in and of itself but the point on which flavours can mount. And "chili" without the actual "chili" itself?

Which is not to say that there aren't spices for this recipe. There is paprika. And here, again, PTC doesn't get too specific, because there are two types of paprika on the market now: sweet, and hot. Since this is chili after all, and since I've got it to start with, I opted for the hot one. There's also cayenne, and if I wanted to up the heat factor to Western tolerances I'd double the amount recommended for both.

What else is there? Well, there's carrot, which isn't that unusual. There's also "frankfurter sausages" (a.k.a. hot dogs), which will raise some eyebrows; however, considering that such a thing as the chili dog does exist, and considering that hot dogs are actually quite popular with Japanese children (homemakers do make fake octopi out of them), it makes a certain amount of sense. There's also white wine, which gives the impression that the Tsuji Academy essentially thinks that chili starts out as a French soup. (And they use chicken stock, as well.)

Techniques: I did learn my lesson from previous recipes, which is that you shouldn't trust the recommendations that PTC has for cooking utensils. Here, the recipe called for a skillet. Unless you've got a real big one, trust me: a Dutch oven makes better sense.

The process starts out as a mirepoix: you cook finely chopped onion, carrot and garlic until tender, then add ground beef, tomatoes (canned, with canning liquid), white wine, bay leaves and flour (for a thickener). Put in broth, add beans and sliced-up weiners, cook for at least 15 minutes, spice with cayenne, paprika, salt and pepper and serve. No particularly fanciful techniques are called for, which is the way it should be for Western chili; but this is the type of recipe where long stewing won't hurt anything.

Results: Well, I'll be honest. What I'm tasting here is a bean-and-wiener stew with ground beef. I cannot honestly call this a true chili, though I might justify the moniker by saying it's Japanese chili. You really miss the cumin and the peppers with this one. It's still edible, and I might serve it to schoolkids, but no way I take this to the International Chili Society as a potential entry.

There are better chili recipes out there; even one from a comic book. I'm afraid I'll have to call this one a fail.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Mabo Dofu (PTC - DS)

This particular recipe allowed me to discover something: Mabo Dofu (Szechuan-style spicy meat with tofu) is one of those recipes where a screw-up in preparation doesn't matter; it all still tastes good.

Tofu has a better reputation, today, than twenty years ago when we in the West knew it as a health-food substitute for meat. The explosion of Asian cuisine, particularly Szechuan, has given it a boost in popularity.

However, that one trait of Personal Trainer: Cooking -- the tendency towards uniformity in describing ingredients -- can work against you when it comes to tofu preparation. But I'll discuss that in the ingredients section.

Ingredients: There's a slight difference between Japanese tofu and Chinese tofu, with the extra-firm version of the former being more delicate and refined than the same version of the latter. Thus the latter is more suitable for the stir-fry technique (and thus, this recipe) than the former. And if you live near an Asian foods market, fresher tofu is especially good to get.

Thing was, I was shopping at a store that didn't have fresh tofu, but the Japanese stuff that's available in tetra-pack form. I used two of these for this recipe, which is less than what was called for (by weight) but not by volume.

The thing that might throw people about this recipe is the use of chicken stock. It does serve a purpose, of course, in that it dilutes and blunts the spiciness of the jarred chili sauces you will use for this recipe. Perfectly suited for Japanese palates, but the next time I follow this one, I'd cut the amount of stock called for in half.

Techniques: Here, I admit, is where I screwed up. Big time.

There's a step in PT:C where you're supposed to stir in chili sauce along with the pork when you stir-fry the latter. But this occurs in the middle of the step-describing process; the previous bit was talking about building up a thin gravy-type sauce, which is meant to be added after the beef has been stir-fried. And I didn't see that until it was too late.

Short version: I dumped the gravy-type sauce in with the ground pork, instead of the small amount of chili sauce. As a result, the pork was boiled, rather than stir-fried.

Now I could blame the instructions for not being clear enough about this, but it turns out there's a small photograph of the chili sauce being added to the beef. So the instructions were clear; this just happened to be my particular screw-up.

Results: Still edible. Pretty good, in fact. But that's not to say it's still a screw-up: imagine how much more flavorful ground pork would have been if it had been browned (by the stir-fry) rather than boiled.

For a while I was debating whether or not I should write this recipe up. PTC doesn't particularly care, of course: there's no real feedback mechanism on what to do about a screw-up, after all, there's just a checkmark that you've cooked the recipe, and that may result in something else being unlocked in the program. It's a game function, after all.

In the end, I've decided to do the write-up, including my own error. Fact of the matter is, if you're someone just learning to cook -- which is whom PTC is directed at, after all -- you're going to screw up somewhere along the line. And it won't be the type that you'd predict; even something as mundane as a brain-fart -- which, apparently, is what happened to me -- could result in something either disastrous or different than what was intended. Just be aware of the possibility, that's all I'm saying.

Monday, July 13, 2009

German Potato Salad (PTC - DS)

Old timers may remember the TV sitcom Happy Days, in particular an episode where the patriarch Howard Cunningham (the portly wise dad played by Tom Bosley) brought home a hundred-pound sack of potatoes, so that mother Marian could make potato salad for Mr. C's company picnic.

That episode in particular ended with the entire family trucking in bucket after tub of leftover potato salad. The problem, apparently, was that Mr. C's favorite potato salad was made with mustard and onion instead of mayonnaise.

I couldn't help but recall this episode when I came across this particular recipe in Personal Trainer: Cooking. This salad does use mustard and onion, as well as white wine vinegar. (There is, in the American section of PTC, a recipe for American-style potato salad which (I think) does use mayonnaise, but for now let's try the German version.

Ingredients: One of the faults I can find with PTC is that sometimes the programmer leaves things a bit vague. For example: cooking oil. Does that mean olive, or something lighter like peanut or corn? PTC doesn't say; I opted to use canola oil.

The oil forms a dressing along with white wine vinegar, Dijon mustard, Italian parsley, and salt and pepper. Here I confess I made a substitution: I thought I already had a bottle of wine vinegar at home when I went shopping for ingredients, but it turned out to be red wine vinegar. So I decided to use apple cider vinegar, and crossed my fingers.

This genericness was also troublesome when it came to potatoes; the recipe called for large ones, but not which type. Red potatoes, from PEI, might have been the natural type, since PEI reds are meant for boiling; I opted for regular white potatoes instead. And I used a Spanish onion.

Techniques: This turns out to be one of the easiest recipes, in terms of technique. You boil the potatoes for 20 minutes with skin on, then peel and slice into quarter-inch half-moons. The pictures give the impression that you could peel the skin off with your fingers; that may be so, but that struck me as a bit too time-consuming. Using a peeler worked okay, although the softened skin tended to plug up the peeler.

Onion gets chopped fine, then prepare a dressing with a second pan using vinegar, mustard, and cooking oil with seasonings. Then you lightly heat the chopped onion in the dressing before pouring the results over the potato slices, then toss, cool, toss again with the chopped parsley, then serve.

One thing: you might get the impression, due to the step-by-step nature of the way PTC describes things, that this could be a time-consuming thing. Not so: there's nothing to stop you from chopping up the onion and the parsley during the 20 minutes that the potatoes are boiling, or even getting the dressing ready during that time.

Results: Using the cider vinegar combined with the Dijon mustard resulted in an odd smell that might turn off some people, but when I tasted the resulting potato it seemed fine; just a little bland. Doing more seasoning, and using a proper vinegar, might have resulted in something stronger, but I'm not going to complain about the taste of this one.

This recipe is definitely one to do if you're just learning the basics of cooking: just using a straight chop with a knife, and using the stove. Basic skills result in an acceptable picnic dish.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Yang Zhou Fried Rice (PTC - DS)

I've been making fried rice ever since I first started living on my own. Mostly it's based on a recipe from chef Stephen Yan (from his Wok With Yan cookbook), but since then I've done a few variants, based on techniques I've seen in other Chinese cookbooks and TV shows.

Personal Trainer: Cooking has a recipe for Yang Zhou fried rice, essentially their version of what's more commonly known in the West as Yeung Chow fried rice. I figured it wouldn't hurt to try it out.

Ingredients: The basics for Yeung Chow fried rice are rice (of course), plus char siu (a sweet-sauce basted, roast pork also known as BBQ porty), and shrimp. PTC lists these ingredients, plus peas, eggs and green onions which are common enough. What isn't common are dried, rehydrated shiitake mushrooms, Chinese soup stock and boiled sliced bamboo shoots. Certainly I'd never tried those before, and so I figured this would be interesting.

A note about the rice: because this recipe uses boiled rice, a common enough staple in Japan, PTC also includes a sub-recipe for how to cook rice. Handy for the beginner cook with a minimal kitchen. Since I already have a rice cooker I settled for making 4 cups of Uncle Ben's converted, rather than use the calrose rice that PTC lists as its default.

As for other substitutions, I used ham instead BBQ pork, and low-sodium tetra-packed chicken broth for the Chinese chicken stock. PTC also lists jumbo prawns; as a substitute I used frozen small shrimp that I thawed with running water in a colander.

Techniques: The thing to remember about Chinese cooking is that it's usually characterized by very careful preparation of ingredients followed by a super quick cooking time. In PTC's case, this meant rehydrating the mushrooms, chopping up the bamboo shoots and green onions, chopping up the now-moist mushrooms, cubing the pork and the prawns, simmering the mushrooms, bamboo and prawns in the chicken stock, reserving a bit of the stock to mix with soy sauce and sesame oil, beating the eggs. You then pour the eggs into a hot frying pan or skillet, put the rice in just as the eggs are starting to set, and start stir-frying. During the stir you add the chopped up bamboo, prawn and mushrooms that were used in boiling the stock, then the pork, then the green onions, and then the seasoning. Once the seasoning's been added, stirred in and evaporated, you're good to go on the serving. Nothing really controversial about it or hard, apart from the usual microphone idiosyncracies.

Results: After having tried this, I think I would have left out the boiling stock / mixing seasoning bit. It doesn't really add anything that I can tell, and you have another saucepan to wash up afterwards. (I should say that, after trying out this recipe, I did try a variant, mixing the sesame oil with the eggs and then stirring the raw egg into the rice during the stir-fry phase, as well as tossing the shrimp, mushrooms and bamboo shoots straight in without the boiling in stock. The mushrooms and shoots wound up having a slightly stronger flavour, but it wasn't really overpowering the shrimp or the ham.

Since I have enough experience frying rice that I can pretty much cook it without a recipe, I don't need to cook this one again. And if I were a beginning chef using this recipe, I'd definitely leave out the stock boiling / seasoning steps (you could also leave out the mushrooms and shoots, but that's just a matter of personal preference). Fried rice is a hard dish to make because it's a test of how you master simple techniques; there's no need to complicate things further.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Chili Con Carne (WCJO - DS)

The British, it seems, are just as enthusiastic about chili con carne as America normally is. Why else would Heston Blumenthal include it among his dishes for the second In Search of Perfection series?

So it naturally follows that Jamie Oliver would have a version, which he included in What's Cooking with Jamie Oliver for Nintendo DS. And what's it like? Well . . .

Ingredients. You know that old saw about beans in chili being a hanging offence in Texas? Well, if such people were to see Jamie's recipe, they'd draw and quarter him too.

You see, in addition to red kidney beans, there's sweet potato in Jamie's chili.

Sweet potato?!

I had to check around about this, and yes, there are recipes around for chili with sweet potato. Usually, though, they're for vegetarian versions of chili. And since this one uses ground beef it's definitely one for the unusual, "not quite the done thing" type of dishes.

Variations? Well, the recipe here called for ground cumin. I have cumin seed; if you bruise it with your hands by rubbing vigorously it'll work just fine. Cilantro and green chile pepper are listed for a garnish; I didn't bother with the former but got the latter. I didn't have smoked sweet paprika, but Hungarian hot struck me as being more appropriate for a chili anyway.

Techniques: Well, this is a "cook on the stove-top / bake in the oven" cooking style dish. Meaning the perfect opportunity to try out my new Corningware Stovetop 3-litre casserole dish.

This is the old-fashioned Corningware, the type known as pyroceramic cookware that works on both direct heat (stovetop) and oven without cracking. And, as it turns out, 3 litre is just enough room for everything to go in.

None of the steps are too intricate, and apart from the sweet potato (which go in cubed) none are surprising, with one exception: I had thought the green chile would be going in as part of the cooking process. Turns out it's a garnish. Oh well.

One last thing. Although it's not listed in the ingredients, the recipe calls for the chili to be served on top of rice. (Which leads me to suspect that somehow Mr. Oliver may have confused chili with gumbo.) It probably would have helped matters if Jamie were a bit more specific about the type of rice to be used.

Results: Over calrose rice, with a dollop of sour cream, this chili was -- well, it was okay. Over converted rice, with green onion chopped and sprinkled on top of the sour cream, it was much better. The sweet potato didn't really clash; in fact, it came out with a very nice texture. But I'm still not convinced that it adds anything, any more than adding a regular potato to chili.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Mulligatawny Soup (WCJO - DS)

It's probably oversimplifying matters to suggest that any soup with curry as a predominant flavor could be called mulligatawny. The recipe in What's Cooking with Jamie Oliver is a beef curry-flavoured soup.

And let me say at the outset that this is why DS game users buy WCJO. Not because they want to learn how to cook; WCJO presumes that you already know enough to use a stove, fridge and sink properly. No, you buy WCJO because you're a fan of Jamie Oliver and want a pocket-sized version of one of his cookbooks. (Seriously, I don't think I've ever come across a cookbook of his that isn't smaller than a packaged ream of letter-sized paper.)

Well, let's get on with it then:

Ingredients: And already we see a big difference between WCJO and Personal Trainer: Cooking. Even allowing for the fact that this is a spicy soup, the variety and volume listed ensures that bland, this ain't. Half a dozen garlic cloves, ginger, chili peppers, curry powder and black pepper, in proportions certainly much bigger than what Tsuji Academy would suggest.

As for modifications, the only one I made is a personal one: I'm not a big fan of cilantro, and so I left it out of this one.

Technique: WCJO also enables the microphone function in the Nintendo DS, so you can scroll from screen to screen simply by saying "Next" or "Previous." It's not as sensitive to other sounds as PTC, but it will also scroll automatically, which could be a problem if you're in the middle of a particular cooking step.

Now since this is a soup, preparation isn't all that hard: get a big enough saucepan, put it on heat, put in the solid ingredients, cook, then put in the liquid ingredients and seasonings, cook some more. The one step that surprised me was the one to puree the soup with a stick blender (or a food processor), for a smoother soup. I personally like my soups to be a bit on the chunky side, but to each his own. I have a Braun stick blender, which still works well after ten years; it still does a pretty good job.

Results: The recipe says to use natural yogurt for a garnish. I definitely call this a necessary step, but that could be because I used a bigger chili pepper than was illustrated or available from Jamie's garden. In other words, this is definitely a good-eating winter soup.

Unlike PTC, WCJO doesn't keep track of how many times you made a particular dish. Which is okay, because remember, PTC is more geared towards teaching, while WCJO isn't.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Tagliatelle with Meat Sauce (PTC - DS)

In the Bologne region of Italy, the local pasta dish is known as ragu, cooked chopped meat on pasta. It's the basis for the dish commonly known as spaghetti bolognese, only in Bologne the pasta used isn't spaghetti but tagliatelle, a slightly wider version of fettucine. Personal Trainer: Cooking has tagliatelle with meat sauce listed in its Italian section; I decided it'd be worth a try.

Ingredients: The only real surprise, here, is the use of flour as a thickening agent. Otherwise the ingredient list is pretty familiar: you start with a soffrito of carrot, onion and celery, then add ground beef, wine, canned tomatoes (because it's winter in Canada, fresh ones just don't have the intensity of flavour), some stock and some seasonings.

The major modification I made was using ground lamb as well as beef, mainly because I thought a stronger meat profile would be good. I also left out the called-for broth, because -- well, you'll see when I explain.

Technique: Here, I think PTC made a serious error in its equipment list. For making the sauce, the recipe calls for using a frying pan. Honestly, that's a bad idea, because the recipe requires you to have at least 4 cups of liquid in addition to all the other ingredients. A 4-quart saucepan or Dutch oven would be a far better choice.

Preparing the soffrito went well enough; a little too much noise when I was chopping the carrot (which tended to confuse the DS) but all went well. Ditto with the browning of the ground beef and the ground lamb. About the time when I added the tomatoes and red wine, however, I started worrying about overflow. It became pretty obvious that the 13-inch chef's pan I was using wasn't tall enough to accommodate the stock called for in the recipe.

The recipe called for a simmer for 20 minutes with the lid on. Great, except that there was too much liquid in the sauce as it was. I compromised: 10 minutes with lid on, rest of time with lid off, and I'd let it boil while I made the tagliatelle.

No, PTC doesn't actually have a recipe, at this point, for making fresh pasta; they recommend a package of dried tagliatelle instead. I just figured that, since I have a pasta machine that I don't use as often as I should, and a paper recipe for making egg pasta, I should try it. After all, how hard could it be?

Um -- long story short, I wound up boiling up some dried angel hair pasta. No, it's not the ideal match for this type of meat sauce, but it was what I had in the pantry.

Results: Pasta disasta aside, it wasn't bad. Using lamb as well as beef added a good note, I think.

If you've never made Bolognese sauce before, this is a good basic recipe. However, there is a nicer one from Heston Blumenthal that, while a lot more complicated (and a lot more time-consuming), yields a more flavourful accompaniment to a pasta dish.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

New England Clam Chowder (PTC - DS)

The first recipe I'll talk about here is New England Clam Chowder, from Personal Trainer: Cooking. There are tons of recipes and variations for this clam-and-dairy soup, so it's very hard for a nit-picker to point an accusing finger and yell that it's not "authentic" -- whatever that means in this day and age. Which is why it's a natural inclusion for PTC, which is after all aimed at a more generalized audience than WCJO (i.e. an audience that's a bit more timid about actually making stuff in the kitchen).

Ingredients: Now bear in mind that this recipe isn't from some obscure game programmer geek in Japan riffing off of Iron Chef. PTC's recipe database comes directly from the Tsuji Cooking Academy,] which trains both homemakers and professional chefs in the art of cuisine. (One of their principals, Shizuo Tsuji, wrote a classic cookbook called Japanese Cooking: A Simple Art, which is enamored by Nigella Lawson, among others.) So the recipe is written up by professionals, but at the same time it's geared towards a Japanese palate -- which tends not to be as appreciative of super-spiced foods as we are in the West.

Anyway, there are no surprises in the ingredient list: clams (of course), onion, potato, carrot, bacon, butter, stock (I used Campbell's Organic Chicken for this review), milk and cream. (Crackers and Italian parsley are listed, but as garnishes at the end.)

PTC illustrates its recipes with photos, so the clams used here were pretty big, even when canned. Canned baby clams are easier to come by than canned surf clams, so I used that.

Here I should say that using the shopping list function in the grocery store works just as well as using the one provided by WCJO. One major difference: there's a function in PTC that lets you look up a recipe based on the shopping list you've just completed. Very handy, if you don't carry your DS with you all the time.

Techniques: One thing PTC does during the step-by-step process is list the equipment used at the start of each step (i.e. a knife and block during the chopping phase, a saucepan during the actual cooking phase). If you've had a lot of experience cooking, you might find that annoying, but for novices I can see that it'd be an important feature.

There is a slight problem that you'll have to get used to: PTC's microphone function may be a little too sensitive, interpreting everything as a voice command -- including the sounds of the knife hitting the chopping block, getting bowls out of the cupboard, and so on. However, unlike WCJO, hands-free use is very easy, so long as you take care to enunciate when speaking to the DS.

As for the techniques themselves, they were pretty much standard: no fancy cutting techniques or equipment required. One step that I never encountered before when making clam chowder was a step to skim off the foam, which appears when adding the stock. (A nice feature of PTC is that, when prompted by voice, you can get more details on a technique or step, such as why it's important to skim the foam off a soup that was meant to be cream-based.)

One step that I think they left out: during the chopping phase (onion, potato, etc.), unless you're dumping the ingredients straight into the saucepan, you're going to want some bowls or containers to put the chopped ingredients in, until you're ready for the actual dumping. This is pure common dog for someone already used to working in the kitchen, but it's still a handy step to remember.

Results: Well, I did say it's a fairly standard recipe. You're not going to blow anyone's taste buds away with this one, but at the same time it's very satisfying. Especially when compared with chowder out of a can, which tends to be sodden with soggy vegs and all too heavy on the salt.

If I wanted to modify it, I might have added chopped celery at the same time as the onion and carrot. I might also add a pinch of something spicy -- curry powder, say, or nutmeg. Not too much, just enough to deliver a hint of a kick. (I did mention that Japanese palate tends to be a bit bland.)

Would I make this recipe again? Easily, with the modifications mentioned above. I'd call it a good beginning.

Welcome to Nintendo Chef!

One of my New Year's resolutions was to make some recipes from Nintendo video games. Right now, I have two of them, both for Nintendo DS: What's Cooking with Jamie Oliver (which I'll refer to from now on as WCJO -- hey, since I'm here, it's a natural that I have this) and Personal Trainer - Cooking (which I'll refer to as PTC).

It occurred to me that some folks might be interested in how these videogame recipes actually turned out. After all, you wouldn't necessarily expect something off a Nintendo DS (which people still perceive to be -- let's be honest -- a school toy) to be as culinarily exciting as something from, say, The Joy of Cooking. But since the purpose of these particular games is to get people cooking who ordinarily wouldn't go near a stove, it would seem a good service to let people know how things turned out -- with much more than a mere videogame review.

Hence, this blog.

I'll be alternating between recipes from WCJO and PTC, and each review will take the following format:

Ingredients. I'll discuss the ingredients from each recipe, with notes on any modifications I've made either due to availability problems or personal preferences.
Techniques. I'll talk about the steps in preparation each recipe requires, and comment on the difficulty (or other problems that crop up) with each recipe.
Results. This is the part that people care about: is the resulting dish any good, or not? I'll let you know.

There are over 200 recipes in PTC, and 100 in WCJO. I suspect this blog won't be lacking in updates for some time to come.