Tilapia Masala Curry and Paneer

👨‍🍳 Cooking in the Time of COVID 👨‍🍳

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Part Three of Tilapia, Three Ways.

As I write this, I’m realizing that this post and the two before it comprise an object lesson in dealing with diminished resources: a scarcity of supermarket selections, a food budget that is less lavish than it once was, and an energy level that seems to have gone missing in the light of living in 1984 in 2022.

So today’s tilapia challenge is a cheat as well.

I concocted a sauce that was akin to an Indian masala curry using canned tomatoes, tomato paste, onions, fresh chilies, garlic, ginger, yogurt, cream, and cilantro. The spices were ground, toasted cumin and coriander seeds, ground tellicherry peppercorns, turmeric, garam masala, cardamom, and mace plus a couple of Indian blends I had on the shelf.

The basmati rice was spiked with chopped onion sautéed in ghee along with a cinnamon stick, a clove, and some cumin seed and mustard seed. Raita and paratha on the side.

Paneer was an unplanned afterthought, but there it was in the cheese section of the supermarket and I’m not one to look a gift course in the mouth.

I pan-seared the fish and the paneer (paneer doesn’t melt) separately to get some serious browning and let them simmer in the sauce respectively.
So there you have it: three posts involving a three-pillared object lesson – and perhaps three wishes to grapple with it.
Stay safe, be well, and eat whatever it takes. ❤️

Tilapia, Indonesian Style and Pisang Goreng

👨‍🍳 Cooking in the Time of COVID 👨‍🍳

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Part Two of Tilapia, Three Ways.

Full disclosure: this is Indonesian-ish, because it’s a complete and utter cheat which explains why it doesn’t even have a proper name. One of the key ingredients in the sauce is nasi goreng paste from a jar (heavens!), the intended use of which is to facilitate a quick ‘n’ easy version of Indonesian fried rice. Its ingredients are onions, dried chilies, shallots, garlic, salt, palm oil, sugar, tomato paste, vinegar, black pepper and turmeric and it’s actually a pretty good product; I added a touch of kecap manis (thick sweet soy sauce) for sweetness and depth and some chopped peanuts for a little crunch. Onions and bok choy unused in yesterday’s Tilapia in Black Bean Sauce with Ground Pork post were the veggies of record; that little blossom perched atop the rice is a slice from the stem end of the bok choy.

As long as I was doing “Indonesian style” cooking, I decided to make pisang goreng (deep fried bananas) for a treat. (Yes, more comfort food.) The batter called for rice flour (although other types are widely used too), baking powder (some versions call for baking soda as well), vanilla sugar (my own touch), and salt, and I sprinkled the finished product with flaked coconut and a spicy coconut bumbu condiment I had in the freezer.

The inner workings; crispy on the outside, creamy on the inside.
More tilapia elevation to come….
Stay safe, be well, and eat whatever it takes. ❤️

Tilapia in Black Bean Sauce with Ground Pork

👨‍🍳 Cooking in the Time of COVID 👨‍🍳

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So I made a quick trip to the supermarket to grab whatever might be available and reasonably priced. (Sounds familiar these days, doesn’t it?) A large package of tilapia, far too much for a single meal but so persuasively priced, presented itself as a challenge.

I’ve said it before: tilapia is a widely available, bland tasting, poor excuse for fish. But I tend to think of it and other entry-level fish as an artist’s canvas: it’s essentially an uninteresting blank medium waiting to be turned into a masterpiece. Or in this case, dinner. So that makes it a good excuse for playing around with internationally influenced inventions where any richly flavorful fish would get lost in the sauce. Literally.

I decided to focus on Chinese, Indonesian, and Indian cuisines based primarily on whatever else looked fresh in the market and whatever seasonings and ingredients I had on hand. (Spices don’t keep forever and it’s always a good idea to try to use up what you have before it’s too late.)

So this is Part One of Tilapia, Three Ways.

First up, Chinese: Tilapia in Black Bean Sauce with Ground Pork. The vegetable components were onions and bok choy plus the usual ginger, garlic, scallion and chilies. The personality came from browning the ground pork followed by three different black bean sauces that had been keeping company in the fridge (still haven’t used them all up) plus chili sauce, oyster sauce, soy sauce, chicken broth, and a pinch of sugar, all stir-fried together and poured over the sautéed tilapia fillets.

Since I’d left the fillets in one piece, I should have plated it better if I had been attending to the presentation instead of my appetite. Still, it was a decidedly tasty dish – no complaints.
More tilapia elevation to come….
Stay safe, be well, and eat whatever it takes. ❤️

Kung Pao in the Time of COVID

👨‍🍳 Cooking in the Time of COVID 👨‍🍳

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As a hedge against renewed COVID angst and the current wave of Kafkaesque national politics, I’m cleaving to this course again for a little while, just until the omicron spike subsides. (Some say the graph is shaped like an ice pick but I can’t help seeing it as an inverted hypodermic needle.)

Because I ran out of Ben & Jerry’s but I did have chicken and crunchy peanuts on hand, Kung Pao will have to do for today’s comfort food.

In addition to those two ingredients, I added red bell peppers and scallions along with dried chili peppers, Sichuan peppercorns, garlic, ginger, and yibin yacai (preserved mustard greens) for the aromatic flavor burst component, and sugar, soy sauce, Shaoxing wine, Zhenjiang vinegar, and Guizhou fermented black bean chili sauce to keep it together.

And apropos of keeping it together, I can’t help but wonder if it’s possible that between the red bell peppers and the green scallions, I was subconsciously trying to keep Christmas around a little longer.
Stay safe, be well, and eat whatever it takes. ❤️


I’m not one for watching teevee, but lately, for a number of reasons, I’ve had too much time on my hands. As I was flipping through channels I didn’t even know I had, I came upon a what I assumed was a rerun of The French Chef, Julia Child’s archetypal 1960s cooking show. Turns out it was a re-rerun in the form of a new PBS cooking show, Dishing with Julia Child, a paean to the grande dame of TV chefs – and despite my reservations, it was every bit as entertaining and educational as its progenitor. It featured celebrity chefs José Andres and Eric Ripert doing play by play and color as they “watched” her program on a mockup of a retro TV screen. Not only is the concept too cute by half but it also solved the technical problem of the difference between 60s broadcast television’s 4:3 aspect ratio and today’s 16:9 frame.

In this episode, she was preparing the iconic French dish, sole meunière. Now, I seldom do any French cooking – it requires more patience than I can muster and more proper training than I possess – and when I do, I never post about it, even if I’ve snapped a pic of the aftermath. But I do make basa meunière from time to time since basa is inexpensive and the dish requires very little patience and even less proper training – dredge in seasoned flour, pan fry in brown butter, plate with capers, lemon and parsley, take photo, consume. It reminded me that I had a couple of photos hanging around from my Cooking in the Time of COVID series that I had never posted (I don’t really do French cooking, right?) so here are the consequences.

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I had been playing around with truffle fries as an accompaniment. A toss of steamed veggies on the side, because how much Fried can you eat? (Don’t answer that!)

Served with some incredible simply roasted honeynut squash. (I sang its praises in part of my Winter Squash Deep Dive series here.)
Finally, a use for the “French” tag in a post – marginally at least!

Japanese Curry

👨‍🍳 Cooking in the Time of COVID 👨‍🍳

It’s been a minute since I posted any homemade Japanese food but since I cooked up this Japanese curry and it wasn’t bad, I thought I’d share. Actually, the word “homemade” might be something of a stretch: the sauce comes from a package, specifically the quick ‘n’ easy, rather ubiquitous S&B Golden Curry Sauce Mix, the hot variety – and for “hot”, read medium.

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Yes, Japanese curry is a thing; as a matter of fact it’s considered to be one of the country’s top two national dishes (the other being ramen) which are only then followed by sushi and miso soup. From The Japan Times: “The spice mix known as curry powder and curried dishes were most likely introduced to Japan via the Anglo-Indian officers of the royal Navy and other stalwarts of the British Empire. They were among the first Westerners the Japanese came into contact with, after Commodore Matthew Perry landed his Black Ships at Kurihama in 1853, opening the country to the world after hundreds of years of isolation. Since this new dish came from the West, as far as these Japanese travelers were concerned, it was classified as yōshoku (Western food)….”

After years of tinkering with flavor profiles and targeting them to local tastes, Japanese curry came of age, a countrywide comfort food that exhibits little similarity to the Anglo-Indian dishes that gave rise to it. Inside the box, you’ll find blocks of curry sauce mix, essentially an instant roux packed with all the typical flavorings. The instructions couldn’t be simpler: stir-fry chunks of your protein of choice (I used beef) along with some vegetables (onion, carrot, etc.) in oil for 5 minutes, add water, bring to a boil, and simmer for about 15 minutes.

Now if you do any cooking at all, you will immediately recognize that there’s no way red meat is going to tenderize during that meager interval, so put your optimism back in the pantry, take out your patience, and let the dish simmer covered for a good deal more time until the meat is actually tender. Then turn the heat off, break the curry-roux bricks into pieces, add them to the skillet, and stir until the sauce mix has dissolved completely. Simmer and stir for another 5 minutes or so.

I kicked up mine with some yuzu shichimi togarashi (seven spice mixture) that includes dried yuzu peel and red chili pepper and topped the rice with furikake. Raw scallion is a good foil for cooked beef and more important, I had some on hand, so why not?

Stay safe, be well, and eat whatever it takes. ❤️

My Beef with Stroganoff

👨‍🍳 Cooking in the Time of COVID 👨‍🍳

Top Round London Broil was on sale at my local supermarket and the memory of Beef Stroganoff, an economical comfort food from my youth, came to mind: budget beef, sautéed mushrooms and savory gravy over noodles – what could be more fundamental? I’ve been tossing this together for so many years that the idea of consulting a recipe never crossed my mind, but since my obscenely large collection of cookbooks has been gathering cobwebs of late, I reasoned that a quick memory refresher couldn’t hurt.

The exercise brought me up short, however: every recipe I came across emphasized how “the quality of the beef makes the dish excel” and to “use filet mignon or ribeye…nothing less”. What? Slather filet mignon or ribeye in gravy? Now, where I grew up this preparation was considered a frugal approach to stretching meat; as a matter of fact, even to this day in my world, a great gravy is what makes the dish. So I returned the books to their dusty shelves and proceeded with my tried and true methodology:

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I seasoned the meat with salt and plenty of freshly ground black pepper and in a hot cast iron pan, seared it in a mixture of butter (for flavor) and oil (so the butter wouldn’t burn), flipped it once, and let it rest while I made the gravy.

In the same pan, I sautéed onions, added sliced cremini mushrooms, garlic, S&P, removed them from the pan, made a roux in it (nothing unique – standard rouxles apply), and used a very rich beef broth I had in the freezer plus Worcestershire sauce, Dijon mustard, and dill. When the gravy had thickened, I would have customarily added sour cream at that point, but there was Mexican crema in the fridge and I swear it was even better than sour cream in this application and may become a new component of my “recipe” (such as it is).

After the meat had had a chance to rest, I sliced it thinly (prudent if it’s a tough cut)…

…folded it into the gravy along with the vegetables and ladled it over boiled, drained noodles.

A side of roasted Brussels sprouts rounded out the meal.

I don’t care what they say – I think this is a dish fit for a czar!

Stay safe, be well, and eat whatever it takes. ❤️

Cinco de Mayo – 2021

Since it’s Cinco de Mayo, I found myself musing about some of the Mexican dishes I’ve cobbled together over the past year or so of quarantining and hyper-conscientiousness. I’m hopeful that my 👨‍🍳 Cooking in the Time of COVID 👨‍🍳 series will be drawing to a close soon – but for just a little while longer, I’m still proceeding con cuidado.

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Chicken Mole. Shredded chicken, sautéed onions and the like combined with a packet of Mole Rojo Oaxaqueño (took the easy way out that time) topped with some crema Mexicana. (BTW, stay tuned for a post about the subtle differences among commercially available Mexican, Salvadoran, Guatemalan, and Honduran cremas.) In the back, rice cooked in chicken broth along with onion, garlic, red bell pepper and achiote for color; freshly grated cotija cheese sprinkled on top. On the side, black beans, corn, and jalapeños with red pepper, onion, garlic and spices including Mexican oregano and Tajín.

And what did I do with the leftovers?

¡Las quesadillas estaban deliciosas!

For a side dish, I made esquites, the Mexican street food favorite: grilled corn with garlic, jalapeños, scallions, cilantro, crema and lime juice topped with crumbled cotija cheese and Tajín.

On another occasion, I was jonesing for fish tacos and it wasn’t even the officially sanctioned el martes. Besides, it gave me an excuse to break out the comal and make salsa cruda. There’s nothing auténtico about these, but they were a cinch to prepare. Pan seared fish, cut into chunks and set into a taco shell along with avocado, shredded lettuce, shredded cheese, and a bit of crema, all awaiting some homemade salsa to do the heavy flavor lifting.

The salsa cruda started by charring white onion, tomatillos, tomato, and jalapeño on a comal – shown here mid-blister. Added rehydrated dried ancho and chipotle chilies, cilantro, garlic, lime juice, olive oil, salt, and a pinch of cumin and Mexican oregano. I chopped it all by hand because a blender or food processor creates a thin salsa which is fine but I prefer some crunch.

The finished product. And last but not least…

¡Feliz Cinco de Mayo!
Stay safe, be well, and eat whatever it takes. ❤️

Crispy Prawn Chilli

👨‍🍳 Cooking in the Time of COVID 👨‍🍳

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At least that’s the way that Heng’s spells it on their label, and orthography notwithstanding, this stuff is outrageous.

On a recent visit to a market in Sunset Park’s Chinatown as I was ogling the infinitely many sauces and condiments, I couldn’t help but spot this product with its flashy reflective gold label. I suspected it might be a fishy requisite that could take its place beside the jumbo jar of spicy chili crisp in the fridge and I was not disappointed.

Remember when you first heard about sriracha and soon began dousing everything in sight with it – until you heard about spicy chili crisp and started slathering everything in sight with that? That’s where I’m at with Crispy Prawn Chilli now: I’ve even incorporated it into a dressing for seafood salad. There are other brands, of course (it’s not a new creation) just as Laoganma has its challengers in the spicy chili crisp division and Huy Fong has among sriracha rivals; Heng’s is a product of Malaysia.

The label lists its main ingredients as soybean oil, chilli, shallot, garlic, dried shrimp, sugar and salt; it’s spicy but not overly so, crispy and shrimpy, and can be used as a condiment at the table or in a stir fry as in this hastily flung together dish. For its maiden voyage, I decided to do a stir fry with Chinese cauliflower and peanuts to ensure that the prawn flavor wouldn’t compete with another protein in future applications, but now that I’ve experimented with it, I don’t think it would present a problem any more than fish sauce turns a dish “fishy”. Got a little delicate brown char on the cauliflower which played well with the crunch of the peanuts and the crispness of the prawn chili.

The verdict: delicious!

It’s also available in Fish and Cuttlefish versions, so now it’s back to Chinatown to sample its mates. (As if I needed an excuse. 😉)

Stay safe, be well, and eat whatever it takes. ❤️

Friends with Benefits

👨‍🍳 Cooking in the Time of COVID 👨‍🍳

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I am genuinely fortunate that I have a couple of wonderful neighbors with whom I have become actual close friends. When they needed to go away for a week, they asked if I would water their plants, even though they are aware that I am far better at cooking with things that grow in soil than I am at caring for them (I have chronic black thumb syndrome). If that isn’t optimistic trust, I don’t know what is.

Anyway, just before they left, they generously made me the beneficiary of a sack of perishable upscale groceries that they thought might not survive until they got back. I love this. It’s like opening a basket of mystery ingredients on Chopped.

Among other surprises, I found a fennel bulb, a few strips of Applewood smoked bacon, and fresh quail eggs. Since I have too much time on my hands (help!), I decided to see what I could make out of the trio. I thought the delicate anise flavor of the fennel would contrast perfectly with the smokiness of the bacon, and I could use both the sturdy bulb and the feathery fronds in the dish. I decided to slice the bulb horizontally into planks and roast them because I could coax a bit of sweet caramelization out of them and roasted veggies always work. I butter-poached the quail eggs and set them on top of the fennel rounds, topped them with crumbled crispy bacon, added a few fennel fronds for garnish and a hint as to what lay beneath – and Bob’s your uncle, here’s the result: a seriously tasty treat made from components I likely would never have purchased for myself.

I truly like this couple a lot. But I wouldn’t hate it if they’d go away more often. 😉
Stay safe, be well, and eat whatever it takes. ❤️