Random Happenings

Random notes and pics about events in the life of a not-your-typical Computer Science grad student. (Yes I am a nerd, but I don't live and breathe the SciFi channel, well maybe Stargate SG-1...)

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Are you a fan of jerky too?

Nathan told me this week (after watching another episode of our favorite cooking show Good Eats) that he wanted to make his own beef jerky. "Homemade beef jerky?" I thouht. Well, ok, I'll bite. "How do we make it?" I asked. His eyes lit up, he smiled, and said "All we need is a box fan and some air filters. We can get them from Walmart."

Huh? Certainly he can't be serious. A fan and some air filters? He saw my puzzled look, and said "I saw how to do it on TV --- it was on Good Eats." Oh, well that explains everything.

Yesterday afternoon we printed out the recipe and went to the store to buy our supplies. For the "software", we needed some beef of course (flank steak to be exact), some soy sauce, and some Worchestershire sauce. We had all the other spices already at home. For the "hardware" we headed to America's supercenter, Walmart (mostly because it is right next to our neighborhood). We bought the cheapest box fan money can buy, some air filters that were just the right size, and some bungee cords to hold the whole thing together.

The animation below documents the whole process from start to finish. First we cut the beef into thin strips, like bacon. Then we cured it in a marinade of soy sauce, Worchestershire sauce, honey, black pepper, onion powder, and red pepper flakes. After a few hours in the salty bath in the ice box, the beef is fully cured and safe to eat. Then, we wiped the excess marinade off and placed the strips in the individual grooves of the air filter. The last step is to dry out the meat so it has the right texture. For this, we strapped the air filters down to the fan with the bungee cords and let the beef bask in the breeze overnight. This morning our patience was rewarded, and we woke to the smell of beef jerky wafting through the house. I must admit that it was all a slightly strange process, but the jerky turned out great! Yum!

Friday, August 25, 2006

A pearl in every oyster

Last weekend Nathan and I went to Houston to visit my family and see Chuck one last time before he heads back to Texas Tech for the fall. Chuck requested seafood as his "last supper", so my parents treated us to McCormick & Schmick's.

The only one who had been there before was my dad. The food was unbelievable. The waiter told us they flew in fresh seafood twice daily. Twice daily! You can't get that in the "bustling metropolis" of College Station, TX.

The highlight of the meal for me had to be the oyster sampler appetizer. Oysters on the half shell hold special memories for me. Whenever my grandparents visited when I was growing up, my grandpa always wanted to take us out to dinner at Landry's for seafood. He and my dad loved raw oysters. I can't really remember a time we went to Landry's with them and didn't get a dozen oysters on the half shell. My brother and I would watch in awe as they would dab a little coctail sauce on an oyster, squeeze a little lemon over the top, smile and throw the oyster down the hatch without chewing. Wow! We were terrified, yet we wanted to try it too.

One time, when my dad thought we were old enough, he let us sit up at the bar with them. We were so excited! We were going to eat oysters just like them! Just like grown-ups! I remember putting my first oyster on my fork and looking desparately at my dad for some reassurance, "so... we just swallow them without chewing?" I asked. "Yup", he replied. Chuck and I looked at each other and thought, "well, it's now or never!" I closed my eyes, opened my mouth, and down the oyster went. I immediately thought "I can't believe I just did that!" Then, after the shock subsided, I realized that I really really liked it! That was it, I was hooked.

Now whenever I see raw oysters, I immediately think of my grandpa and my dad. Last weekend was no different when we ordered a dozen oysters. The cool thing was that we ordered three different kinds of oysters, so we (my dad, Chuck, Nathan, and I --- my mom doesn't care for them) could each try one of each kind. It was really fun! We tried them together, each in turn.

At first I thought I really wouldn't be able to tell the difference between them. An oyster is an oyster, right? Well, I was wrong and pleasantly surprised. They all came from Prince Edward Island, but they each tasted a little bit different:

  • Northumberland Oyster --- this one had a long, skinny shell. According to American Mussel Harvesters, Inc. (isn't the internet a beautiful thing), it has "a very clean and crisp taste with a milky fruity finish". I don't know about the fruity part, but we all thought that it has a good, delicate flavor. I really liked it.
  • Red Point Oyster --- this one had a pear-shaped shell with a point and the oyster meat was much bigger than the first one. It was good but very briny/salty; not our favorite one.
  • Summerside Oyster --- the shell wasn't very distinctive. It was somewhere in between the first two in terms of flavor. It tasted like the sea, but wasn't too salty. It was just right. It was by far our favorite one (although I really liked the first one too).
Well, there may not be a pearl in every single oyster, but they sure taste good and hold a lot of fond memories for me. Here's to the oyster!

Thursday, August 17, 2006

The miller family clan

Every summer (at least for the past few years), the Miller family has a small reunion of sorts around my grandma's birthday. This year was no exception and we all trekked to Dallas for a weekend of food, family, and fun. Here is a group shot of all of us together (except for Uncle Michael who couldn't make it this year), portrait-style, with our best faces on.

Of course, we had a little bit of trouble getting the automatic timer set up just right on the camera. Here is an unexpected shot of us all taken by surprise!

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Bombe's away!

My friends Olga and Roger just got married last weekend. (Yea!) As part of the festivities, we had a wedding shower/party thing at my house. Roger's sister and I decided to serve fruit, cheese, and dessert. What could get better than that?

I hadn't made many real desserts in a while, so I was really looking forward to it --- I was ready to go all out. Nathan and I have been working on eating healthier and losing weight. We've experimented with some protein-fortified puddings and pies, but those don't count as dessert. (I know it sounds pretty aweful, but the puddings are really not as bad as you'd think.)

I asked Olga what were some of her favorite desserts. Of course, she had no trouble coming up with a few: cheesecake, tiramisu, and chocolate. "Hmm, something chocolate", I thought... I remembered how much she loved the Chocolate Amaretto Mousse Bombe we had at Cafe Eccell. That's it! I'll make one!

A little easier said than done since I've never made a bombe before and have only seen one made on TV. Of course, the one on TV was for a cherry bombe instead of an amaretto bombe. I searched and searched, but I just couldn't find exactly the right recipe on the web. So, I decided to make one up, piecing together bits of different recipes I found.

While I absolutely, positively, love, love, love to cook, I have to admit that I am a recipe girl. I rarely venture from the safe haven of the recipe card into the wild unknown. I am getting better, but I am not quite at the "let me just whip something up from what looks good" stage. I hope to get there one day.

Lucky for Olga, my bombe experiment actually turned out pretty good and didn't blow up in my face! (Ha, ha, very punny.) It was devoured at the party. Every time I looked up, someone was getting just one "last" helping. Chocolate is pretty hard to resist, expecially when it is laced with almond liquor.

Given the overwhelming results, I decided that it is only fair and just to share my recipe with all of you. I have to warn you, though, just looking at the ingredient list could make you want to head straight for the gym! It's not playing around.

Chocolate Amaretto Mousse Bombe

  • 1 c. sugar
  • 1/2 c. butter
  • 4 eggs, separated
  • 1/2 c. half & half
  • 1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
  • 1 tsp. almond extract
  • 2 Tbs. Amaretto (or up to 1/4 c. depending on how happy you want it)
  • 3 c. heavy cream
  • 16 oz. semi-sweet chocolate
  • toasted almonds for garnish on top
Line a medium/large (freezer-safe) bowl with plastic wrap, leaving a little bit extra to hang over the edge. Put the bowl in the freezer to chill. (This bowl will determine the shape of the bombe.)

Melt 6 oz. of chocolate. Set aside.

Fill a large bowl with ice. Place a medium bowl inside the large bowl. Set aside. (These bowls will help the eggs in the next step cool down quickly.)

Put the sugar, butter, egg yolks, and half & half in a saucepan over medium heat. Stir constantly until it comes to a slow boil. Boil for 2 minutes, stirring constantly. Remove from heat and strain into the medium, iced bowl. Stir until the mixture is cool.

Add the vanilla, almond extract, and Amaretto into the egg mixture. Slowly (a little bit at a time), add the melted chocolate into the egg mixture. (If you add it too fast and the chocolate is hot, you could have scrambled eggs instead of mousse.)

Whip 2 c. of heavy cream to stiff peaks. Fold cream into the egg mixture.

Whip egg whites until stiff. Fold egg whites into the egg/cream mixture. (At this point you have chocolate amaretto mousse. You could stop here and put it into fancy dessert dishes or wine glasses and chill in the ice box. Not a bad way to go.)

Remove the plastic-lined bowl from the freezer. Put the mousse into the bowl and smooth out the top. Put back in the freezer and chill 6 hours or overnight.

After the mousse has chilled, melt the remaining chocolate and cream in a saucepan over medium-low heat. When the chocolate has melted, remove from heat and let cool a little. The chocolate should not be hot, but still pourable. (Now you have an incredibly decadent ganache that you can use to top other things like cakes or dip strawberries in. Yum!)

Put a wire rack on top of a sheet pan. (I like to line the pan with foil for easy cleanup.) Take the bowl of mousse of out the freezer and invert it onto the wire rack. (If you have trouble getting it out, just run some warm water on the outside of the bowl; that should loosen things up.) Pour the ganache over the inverted mousse. Sprinkle the bombe with the toasted almonds. Put back into the freezer to chill.

To serve, just slide two flat spatulas underneath the bombe to release it from the wire rack. You can then transfer it to your favorite platter. Enjoy!

Monday, August 07, 2006

The dog whisperer

My husband's new nickname is "The Dog Whisper." Last night was just like an episode out of a similarly named show on National Geographic or a scene out of The Horse Whisperer.

Every few months, it's time to pest control the inside and outside of the house. I did the outside and Nathan did the inside yesterday. The chemicals can be a tad intoxicating, so we crank up the fans to hurry the smell along.

This whole process really bothers Audrey who paces around the house whining occasionally. She is a notoriously quiet dog --- unless a squirrel happens to be running through our yard --- so we could tell she was really upset. We had always assumed that she was really upset about the chemical smell. It makes sense, she's a dog.

Last night, though, she just couldn't get comfortable. We tried distracting her with a bone, but she didn't care to even lick it. It was then that Nathan got inspired. He said, "I wonder if it is the ceiling fan cranked up on high that is bothering her..." It was astounding. As soon as we put the fan back down to medium (the usual setting), she was absolutely fine!

It turns out that he remembered something he read in a really interesting book on animals and autism called "Animals in Translation". In the book, the author discusses how things most normal human beings don't notice can really bother animals and people with autism. For example, all fluorescent bulbs flicker, but most people don't notice or can't even see it. It is glaringly obvious and distracting for many autistic people. In this case, for Audrey, it was the ceiling fan. The fan in our bedroom is on medium all the time. (That way she gets air circulation in her crate while we are away at work.) Because the fan was on high, it was really bothering her. Turning it down fixed the problem immediately.

Even though he got the idea from a book, I still call him "The Dog Whisperer" because I read the book too and I didn't remember the answer.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Travel to the far east without leaving your kitchen

A new Asian market/grocery opened up in College Station near our house. All the Chinese grad students in my lab have been waiting on pins and needles for it to open. We have a pretty large Asian grad student population here at Texas A&M, and they all have had to drive to Houston to get the ingredients they need. (We actually have another Asian market, but it is tiny and, from what my classmates tell me, not well stocked.) Now the wait is over and the market is finally open. So, Nathan and I decided to check it out this weekend.

When we first walked in, it was a little like stepping into a foreign country as we were clearly the only Americans there. What fun! The store is huge and has everything! They have nice looking sushi for cheap, produce I don't really recognize, and aisles upon aisles of ingredients labeled in Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and more. The only thing that broke the cultural illusion was the blaring Tejano music playing behind the meat counter --- the two Hispanic men working behind the counter were clearly in charge of the music selection.

Nathan and I were inspired to try some new things, so we decided to take a food tour of the far east. We started in China with bao, steamed buns filled with pork "BBQ" that you typically get in a dim sum restaurant. I admit that we bought them pre-made from the frozen foods section, but all my Chinese friends do the same.

Then we traveled to Japan with Japanese Udon Noodles. It took a little bit of doing to find all the ingredients since we can't read Japanese, but we did it, and here they are:
1. flower chives
2. baby bok choy
3. mirin (rice wine)
4. dried mushrooms (we think shiitake)
5. eggs
6. dashi powder (like fish stock)
7. shrimp balls (yes, that is what they're called)
8. kamaboko (fish cake)
9. green tea cakes (for dessert later)
10. udon noodles (the star ingredient)
We did make some substitutions in the recipe like adding baby bok choy with the spinach and replacing the leek with flower chives (because I've always wanted to try them). It actually turned out surpisingly tasty and was very easy to make.

We finished the meal in Taiwan with some traditional cakes, some flavored with green tea and some flavored with honeydew melon. They are really yummy and a lot like a Fig Newton, just with an Asian twist.

So, all in all the trip was wonderful and we didn't have to deal with jet lag. I highly recommend going.

Central park jazz

Another great thing about New York City is that you can find good, live music almost anywhere. Here are some jazz players performing in Central Park. It's really fun to walk through the park and listen to the different musicians play. Every evening, there were at least three different groups of musicians playing in Washington Square Park just outside the NYU dorms we stayed in. We have some live music in College Station, you just have to look harder to find it!

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Homage to "cooking for engineers"

A few weeks ago, Sara introduced me to the website Cooking for Engineers. Basically, an engineer out in Silicon Valley wanted to keep track of his recipes and cooking notes so he started a blog to record his kitchen adventures. I've had a lot of fun reading it, so while I was cooking dinner tonight, I thought I would make a few cooking notes of my own.

For dinner, I made "Basil-Steamed Shrimp with Soba Noodles." It was super easy, fast, and really delicious. I got it from a recent issue of Everyday with Rachel Ray. (It's a really fun cooking magazine where most of the recipes are easy and fast.) Of course, I added a few more shrimp than in the recipe.

The first step is cook the soba noodles in a pot of boiling water for about 8 minutes.

The next step is to prepare the bamboo steamer: (1) prepare the aromatics --- place a layer of basil across the bottom of the steamer, sprinkle green onion, ginger, and orange zest on top; (2) place peeled, uncooked shrimp on top of the basil; (3) add the veggies --- I used red bell pepper and shiitake mushrooms.

(oh so pretty!)
Then heat some vegetable broth in a large pot/wok. Once it is simmering, place the steamer on top.
After about 6 minutes, the shrimp are done. Then put the cooked soba noodles in the broth to heat them up.
Top with some extra green onion and you are ready to eat! Yum-O!