Ma Jiang Mian (Sesame Noodles) Both Sichuan and Taiwanese Style

Cold sesame noodles are one of the great unhealthy pleasures of Chinese cuisine.  You are covering noodles with oil and sugar.  The fact that the bastardized version of this dish in America is often portrayed as a refreshing and light dish is a bit puzzling as it’s harder to come up with a non-dessert that is less healthy.

Anyways here are two versions, one with chili oil and one without.  I have bifurcated these as Sichuan vs. Taiwanese but it’s not a hard rule.  The other major difference is that the Taiwanese version is more nut forward while the Sichuan style is a soy sauce noodle with a bit of sesame paste.

Sichuan Sauce (mostly taken from here)

4 Tbsp Soy Sauce
1 Tbsp Sweet Soy or 1 Tbsp Dark Soy and 1 Tbsp brown sugar
2-4 Tbsp Chili Oil goop
2 Tbsp Sesame Paste
2 Tbsp Zhenjiang Vinegar
1/2 Tbsp Sesame Oil
2 cloves of garlic, grated
(optional) 1/2 tsp of ground Sichuan peppercorns

Taiwanese Sauce
4 Tbsp mix of Sesame Paste and Peanut Butter
2 Tbsp Soy Sauce
2 Tbsp Black or White Rice Vinegar
2 Tbsp Sugar or Brown Sugar
1 Tbsp Sesame Oil
2 cloves of garlic, grated

Instructions:
Mix sauce ingredients, adding hot water as needed to reach desired consistency.  Toss with prepared thin wheat noodles and any toppings (cucumbers, carrots, bean sprouts, scallions, cilantro, red sweet pepper, peanuts, etc.)

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Star Wars the Force Awakens: History’s Greatest Monster

My wife and a friend saw this movie yesterday, seemingly among the last people on Earth that had not already seen it according to the box office.  I was mostly pressured by our friend; it was not something I found myself urgently needing to see at normal ticket prices.  Also, in general I don’t understand using theaters as a social event.  I would much rather eat and socialize.  It was particularly awkward because afterward my wife and I expressed our disgust with the movie, while our friend seemed to enjoy it.  Just another potential pitfall of seeing a movie with friends.

Anyways, our friend is not alone in his praise of the film.  It currently sits at above 90% on both critical and audience scores on Rotten Tomatoes for instance and Star Wars fans seem generally pleased.  I am of course floored at the response.  Where has all the vitriol the prequels generated gone?  This movie is at least as bad as Phantom Menace and a far sight worse than the other two prequels (which I enjoyed a good amount).  Apparently “fans” just wanted a slavish rehash of the original trilogy (OT).  George Lucas was apparently trying too hard by giving us a new story.  Unoriginality is only a minor sin, however, the real problem is that J.J. Abrams has made a potemkin village out of the OT.  Here are all the surface attributes of the films presented again but in a vastly inferior form.  It ends up like a horrible parody rather than a comforting homage.

Now before I entered the film I had already read a few articles documenting the very strong parallels between the film and A New Hope. However, I was still surprised at just how closely it aped ANH with a few things thrown in from the rest of the OT.  I am not sure how much it pays to rewrite what is written elsewhere in depth.  I will just talk about some particularly bad ones here.

One that stuck out at me was that the three major planets in the film are a desert world (like Tatooine), a snow planet (like Hoth) and a jungle world (like Endor), so the imagery is not even new or exciting.

For the main Sith villains we have an unsightly and pale old guy (like Emperor Palpatine) and a young man that wears a a voice altering mask (like Darth Vader) but for no functional reason.

Many criticized the heavy-handed political exposition in The Phantom Menace, but it was an integral part of the storyline.  The Force Awakens is so light on exposition that it never comes up with a plausible reason for why the universe is back to the status quo that presided at the beginning of A New Hope.  We have something called the First Order (essentially the old Empire) that appears to be the foremost power in the galaxy and a scrappy under-powered Resistance (the Rebels).  There is also an inchoate new Republic, but they are quickly eliminated in the film.

What happened after Return of the Jedi?  Everything that was accomplished in the OT has been rendered moot.  The Republic is so ineffectual that they allow the remnants of the Empire to build a new Death Star in secret.  Yes, they built a new superweapon inside a planet and nobody noticed.  It’s also never clearly explained how the Resistance and the Republic are connected or why there is need of a Resistance in a galaxy where the Empire was defeated and a new Republic exists.

Speaking of the Death Star, did we really just recycle this superweapon for a third time in the same series?  They destroyed it in Force Awakens in an unholy mashup of ANH and RotJ.  Here there is a vent (ANH) that is the weakpoint that someone eventually flies into with a ship to destroy the weapon from the inside (RotJ).  Let us not forget the ridiculous “planning” meeting where the Resistance, who are again caught entirely unaware of a planet-sized weapon, conjure up a scheme for its destruction in less than five minutes.  Recall that in ANH, the heroes at least had to secure vital intelligence about the Death Star for the Rebels in order to enact its destruction.  Not so here, the First Order leaves the same vulnerability and the Resistance knows exactly how to exploit it.  There is no feeling of dread around this weapon like the original Death Star.  It’s just another checkbox on the list of things they need to copy from the OT.

The new weapon makes even less sense.  It is built in a planet (why?) and it needs to eat suns to power itself.  The original Death Star was quite capable of destroying planets without eating suns, so what is the point of this new one?  Also eating suns seems like a pretty horrific superweapon by itself.  They should just have left it at that.

Apart from the Death Star, there are other examples of inept handling of familiar plot events.  For instance, once again Han Solo leads a team to disable shield generators on the Death Planet’s surface (ANH and RotJ).  In the OT these are tense sequences in the heart of the enemy stronghold.  Here, the heroes literally just waltz in with little fuss.  In fact the entire place is very empty, until just after Han’s death where Stormtroopers suddenly appear out of thin air.

Speaking of Han’s death, this was a pale imitation of the power of the Kenobi and Vader meeting in ANH.  There the meeting is pregnant with all the shared history of master who feels he failed his apprentice.  Here we have a father meeting his fallen son, which is not a terrible premise.  However, Kylo Ren is a terrible whiny character and we know of no fathomable reason why he is on the Dark Side (since, again, this movie eschews all exposition).  Second, what is Han hoping to accomplish here?  At best, Kylo relents and is then executed for his previous crimes?  Why does this take place on a catway over a bottomless pit except as a nod to Empire Strike Back?  The encounter of father and son is a potentially good one but the movie has given it no emotional heft.  The reaction from the audience is not at a son killing his father, but of Han Solo, beloved character, dying.  This means you did it wrong.

Before I move on to the new characters, I want to point out the piss poor plot.  Essentially everyone wants a map that Luke Skywalker left as to his whereabouts (reminds me of the search for Yoda).  Why did Luke leave anyway?  Why did he leave a map to his location?  Has he been waiting on the same planet for years looking forlornly out to sea in solitude on a rocky island?  Why do they need him anyway?  I feel like he is going to be an imitation of old Kenobi, because we needed another carbon copy of a character from ANH.  Of  course all of that is sidetracked for the last 1/3 of the film when a Death Star appears out of nowhere that the heroes need to blow up.  Again everything just feels shoehorned in because the movie must retread every previous plot point.

I have also seen a lot of love for the new characters introduced.  I don’t get it.  Poe is barely in the film, so why the adoration?  Finn has potential as a man fighting back against years of indoctrination by a horrible regime, but none of that is on display in the film.  Mostly he sounds stupid a lot of the time, yelling obvious comments or inane questions and generally being fairly inept.  If he is in Sanitation for the Death Planet then why was he with the soldiers massacring innocents at the beginning of the movie? Also he brings up a lot of inconsistencies about Stormtroopers.  If they are clones of an elite bounty hunter and trained and indoctrinated from birth then why are they so ineffective?

The worst new characters are the two force users.  Kylo Ren is so poorly drawn that nothing he does makes any sense.  His temper tantrums are ridiculous shows of adolescent whining and are actually used for a slapstick moment.  Filmmakers take note, don’t make your villains into the butt of jokes.  Joss Whedon did it in Avengers to Loki and it undermined his effectiveness.  Finally he shows himself to be woefully incompetent at every turn, even losing to Finn (a non-Jedi) and Rey (untrained force user) in the final battle with a terrible sloppy fighting style.  All of this despite apparently besting Luke Skywalker and his Jedi already.

Finally, we come to the main character who will draw obvious comparison to Luke Skywalker.  Rey has no personality. Luke Skywalker who is a cliche of the naive, ignorant boy pining for adventure and awed by much of what he sees at first.  It is cliche, but it is an inherently enjoyable one.  Rey in contrast, is already competent, is rarely surprised (some throwaway comment about a forest planet is about all we get) and has an inexplicable reclusive nature such that she wants to get back to Jakku. Rey is accused of being a Mary Sue because she is so damn good at everything.  The problem is there is no explanation of where she acquired these skills.  She appears to have been living alone eeking out a subsistence life from scavenging parts on a frontier world.  Yet she knows advanced engineering and is highly proficient in spaceship piloting and melee combat.  She knows the Millennium Falcon better than Han Solo after a few minutes.  Somehow, she speaks a bunch of languages, including Wookie and droid.  It takes her literally no training to use advanced force powers like Jedi mind tricks and she bests Kylo Ren in sword combat despite never wielding a lightsaber before.

Many concede she is a Mary Sue, but then point out that Star Wars is always full of Mary Sues.  Strangely they use Luke to show this despite being a complete contrast. Luke is pretty incompetent for most of the first movie, even Stormtroopers are dangerous.  When he gets some skills he gets a bit puffed up before Vader brings him low in the second movie.  Even in the third movie he is the weakest of the known force users, triumphing not because of his skills alone.  Yes he does defeat the Death Star in the first movie despite little piloting experience, but he did use the Force.  Hitting a target accurately is a far more believable “use of the Force” than Rey using it to defeat Kylo Ren, who is also a Force user.  The better example would be Anakin in The Phantom Menace who as a little boy is also an engineering and piloting genius like Rey.  Except that I and almost everyone else hated him in the first movie for these very Mary Sue like qualities.  I am sure Rey will develop more as Anakin did, but here she is boring.

A few other minor things bothered me about the film.  The comedy almost always failed.  The action scenes were pretty poor in general and further degraded by how similar they were to scenes in past Star Wars films.  The final and only lightsaber battle in the film was a travesty with Kylo Ren lazily swinging around against untrained combatants.  The makers of the film boasted about how they were using real props rather than CGI for many things, but the film looks pretty shoddy in places and the visuals have none of the imagination of the previous films and the prequels, despite their age, seem to be of better technical quality.

Finally, for whatever reason the Star Wars setting annoyed me far more in this movie than in prior movies or games.  Everything from droids that don’t speak to the incongruity of desert hovel worlds with easy space travel bothered me.  Nobody writes anything down apparently because Jedis are myths despite being a prominent organization for millenia up until very recently.  I was always aware of the shoddiness of the Star Wars settings , but I could always excuse it in the face of a good movie.  However, the Force Awakens is not a good movie.  Apart from the above criticisms, it is hard to convey just how bad the movie is from moment.  Almost nothing works here, from the utterly predictable plot to the vapid character interactions to the inert action sequences.

J.J. Abrams is a good director and a dedicated fan of Star Wars and yet in my opinion has tarnished the film franchise in way George Lucas could never have dreamed of.

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Easiest Mole Poblano

4 ancho chiles,
4 guajillo chiles,
2 pasilla chiles,
½ cup raisins
3½ cups chicken broth
1 onion, cut into 1-inch pieces
¼ cup vegetable oil
2 tablespoons tomato paste
5 garlic cloves, peeled
1 minced canned chipotle in adobo sauce
1/2 cup sliced almonds
1/4 cup peanuts
1 slice hearty white sandwich bread, torn
into 1-inch pieces
3 tablespoons sesame seeds
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon dried oregano
½ teaspoon dried thyme
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon ground cumin
½ teaspoon ground coriander
½ teaspoon pepper
1/4 tsp ground cloves
1/2 tsp ground fennel seeds
2 ounces bitter or unsweetened chocolate, chopped
coarse
1 Tbsp of dark brown sugar
4 pounds bone-in chicken pieces

Preheat oven to 325 F.  Toast chiles in microwave for 15 to 20 seconds.  Seed and devein.  Combine dried chiles and raisins with 2 cups of stock.  Microwave until boiling.  Meanwhile combine 2 Tbsp of oil and all other ingredients except chocolate and chicken in food processor.  Drain chiles and raisins, reserving liquid and add chiles and raisins to food processor. Process until a smooth paste forms, adding stock as necessary to loosen.

Add 2 Tbsp of oil to a pot or Dutch oven and heat on medium until shimmering.  Add paste and cook and stir for 3 minutes.  Add chocolate to pot and incorporate completely.  Transfer pot to oven for 30 minutes, stirring every 10 minutes.

Remove pot and add reserved and remaining stock.  Add chicken and bring to a simmer on stovetop.  Either finish in oven or simmer on stovetop, removing chicken as each cut finishes cooking.  Season with salt, soy sauce, fish sauce and additional sugar as needed.

 

 

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Two Winter Minestrones

I heartily recommend the article on Serious Eats about minestrone.  However, that is most decidedly a summer dish and we are in the middle of a cold winter.  As such I have made two variations using winter produce that turned out great and I document for posterity.

As for cooking method.  I cook long. I like mushy vegetables and as such I see no reason to cook beans in a separate pot.  Just chuck everything together.  Also I use chicken stock rather than water and added some smoked pork.

First:
4 cloves of garlic
2 onions or replace one with a leek
2 Thai bird Chiles
1 Tbsp Red Pepper Flakes
4 celery stalks
1/2 lb of carrots
1 rutabaga
1 head of savoy cabbage
1 28 oz can of whole peeled tomatoes

Second:
4 cloves of garlic
2 onions or replace one with a leek or fennel
2 Thai bird Chiles
1 Tbsp Red Pepper Flakes
4 celery stalks
1.5 lb of carrots and parsnips
2 sweet potatoes
Small bunch of kale
1 14 oz can of whole peeled tomatoes

 

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White Bean Gumbo?

Lately I have tried to make my lunch for the week on the weekends for a number of reasons.  One it is typically healthier.  Two, it’s way cheaper.  And three, I really don’t like most of the options for lunch where I work.  Also it gives me an opportunity to cook more which I do enjoy.

Anyways I need something that makes a lot of food and is a complete meal with adequate protein and vegetables.  This leads to stews and stews with legumes because they kind of straddle the line as a good protein source and psuedo-vegetable.  Below I adapt gumbo by replacing some of the meat with white beans.  I also use a dry roux to avoid the excessive amount of oil in a typical gumbo.  With the bean starch, roux and okra this “gumbo” will thicken up nicely.  I like it spicy so adjust accordingly.

1 c flour

2 onions
3 celery stalks
2 poblano or green peppers
spicy chilies to taste
4 garlic cloves
1 tbsp of thyme

1 tbsp of black/white pepper
1 tsp smoked paprika
1 fruity dried chile (e.g. ancho) toasted and ground
1/2 tbsp red pepper flakes
1 tsp celery salt
2 bay leaves

2 lbs chicken thighs
1/2 lb dried white beans of choice
8 oz smoked pork (andouille, smoked pork pieces, even bacon) in bite size pieces
1 lb fresh or frozen okra cut to preference

Instructions:
Soak beans overnight in salty water with 1/4 tsp of baking soda.  Drain and rinse.

Toast flour, stirring occasionally, in 425 oven for 40 to 55 minutes until color of  ground cinnamon.  Set aside and then lower oven to 300.

Brown chicken thighs in pot and remove.  Dice first block of produce and saute until softened.  Add spice block and stir constantly for about 30 seconds.  Add 2 quarts of chicken stock and scrape bottom of pot.  Add beans and bring to simmer.  Transfer pot to oven or simmer on stove, partially covered for 45 minutes.  Whisk a bit of broth little by little with darkened roux until homogeneous paste forms.  Add flour paste, meat and okra to pot, return to simmer on stovetop adding additional stock if needed to submerge.  Partially cover and return to oven for an additional 45 minutes.  Remove pot from oven and remove chicken thighs.  Season gumbo with salt/umami boosters and hot sauce/vinegar.  After chicken cools shred and return to pot and serve.

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Boston Cream Pie

I love Boston cream donuts and I did have one spectacular version of this dessert at a restaurant in Chicago (Bavette’s).  So it is about time I go about it myself.  Traditionally a sponge cake is used for this dessert, but I get tired of sponge cakes so I am going full on moist tender buttermilk cake.

Cake taken from Baking for All Occasions, pastry cream from Flavor Flours.

Buttermilk Cake:

1 3/4 CUPS (7 OUNCES/200 GRAMS) CAKE FLOUR
1/2 TEASPOON BAKING POWDER
1/2 TEASPOON BAKING SODA
1/4 TEASPOON SALT
2/3 CUP (5 1/2 FL OUNCES/165 ML) WELL-SHAKEN BUTTERMILK
1 TEASPOON PURE VANILLA EXTRACT
5 1/2 OUNCES (1 1/3 STICKS/155 GRAMS) UNSALTED BUTTER, AT ROOM TEMPERATURE
1 1/3 CUPS (9 1/4 OUNCES/260 GRAMS) GRANULATED SUGAR
3 LARGE EGGS, LIGHTLY BEATEN

Center a rack in the oven and preheat the oven to 350 degrees f. Butter a 9 by 2 3/4-inch round springform pan, then flour it, tapping out the excess flour. Or, lightly coat with nonstick spray and flour the pan. Line the bottom with parchment paper.

Sift together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt onto a sheet of waxed paper; set aside. In a small bowl, stir together the buttermilk and vanilla; set aside.

In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the butter on medium speed until it is lighter in color, clings to the sides of the bowl, and has a satiny appearance, 30 to 45 seconds. Increase the speed to medium-high and add the sugar in a steady stream, stopping the mixer occasionally to scrape down the sides of the bowl. Continue to beat on medium speed until the mixture is lighter in color and fluffy, 3 to 4 minutes.

With the mixer on medium speed, add the eggs, 1 to 2 tablespoons at a time, beating after each addition until incorporated. If at any time the batter appears watery or shiny (signs of curdling), increase the speed to mediumhigh and beat until the batter is smooth again. Then return to medium speed and resume adding the eggs, beating until smooth, stopping the mixer as needed to scrape down the sides of the bowl.

On the lowest speed, add the flour mixture in three additions alternately with the buttermilk mixture in two additions, beginning and ending with the flour mixture and mixing only until incorporated after each addition. Stop the mixer after each addition to scrape down the sides of the bowl.

Bake the cake until it springs back when lightly touched in the center, a wooden toothpick inserted in the center comes out free of cake, and the sides are beginning to come away from the pan, 30 to 35 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack and let cool in the pan for 5 to 10 minutes.
Slip a small metal spatula between the still-warm cake and the pan and run the spatula carefully along the entire perimeter of the pan. Release the springform clasp and remove the sides. Invert a rack on top of the cake, invert the cake onto it, and lift off the bottom of the pan. Slowly peel off the parchment liner, turn the paper over so that the sticky side faces up, and reposition it on top of the layer. Invert another rack on top, invert the cake so it is right side up, and remove the original rack. Let cool completely.

Coffee Pastry Cream:

6 tablespoons (80 grams) sugar
2 tablespoon plus 2 teaspoon superfine white rice flour or 3 tablespoons Thai white rice flour
2 cup milk
4 large egg yolks
1.5 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
4 tsps of instant espresso

Set the strainer over a bowl near the stove. Whisk the sugar and rice flour together in a small heavy-bottomed saucepan. Whisk in about 2 tablespoons of the milk to make a smooth paste. Whisk in the egg yolks until smooth; whisk in the rest of the milk and instant espresso. Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, sweeping the bottom, sides, and corners of the pan to prevent the mixture from scorching.

When the mixture begins to simmer, set a timer for 5 minutes and continue to cook and stir, turning down the heat if necessary to barely maintain a simmer.

Immediately scrape the custard into the strainer. Stir the custard through it, but don’t press on any bits of cooked egg that may be left behind. Scrape the custard clinging to the underside of the strainer into the bowl as well. Stir in the vanilla extract. Let cool for about half an hour, then cover with wax paper or plastic wrap pressed directly against the surface of the custard to prevent a skin from forming. Refrigerate until chilled.

Chocolate Glaze:

4 ounces heavy or whipping cream
1 tablespoon corn syrup
4 1/2 ounces chopped dark chocolate or semisweet chocolate chips
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

Bring cream and corn syrup to simmer in small saucepan over medium heat. Remove from heat and add chocolate. Whisk gently until smooth, 30 seconds. Let stand, whisking occasionally, until thickened slightly, about 5 minutes.  Add vanilla.

Complete Cake:

Slice cake in half height-wise.  Spread pastry cream on top side of bottom half.  Place top half on top.  Drizzle warm glaze over top.

 

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Berbere/Mitmita Spice Mix

This is my amalgamation of recipes that combines these two spice mixes.  The latter is supposed to be something of a garnish to maintain the pungency of the spices, but I am lazy and just put them all together.

2 tsp. coriander seeds
2 tsp. fenugreek seeds
1 tsp. black peppercorns
tsp. whole allspice
1 tsp ground cardamom
4 whole cloves
1 tsp garlic powder
5 dried puya chiles
3 tbsp. kochukaru
12 tsp. ground nutmeg
2 tsp. ground ginger
12 tsp. ground cinnamon
spicy dried chiles to taste
My understanding is that real Ethiopian is spicy as hell, so put in as many spicy dried chiles as you think you can handle.  Also I use Korean chile powder as I find it more closely mimics Asian chiles and it has more flavor/spice than paprika.
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