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.