June 7th, 2006


Experiments in reduced sauces.

In the last couple of days, I've been playing with a new-to-me cooking technique of reducing things to make sauces, and have been quite pleasantly surprised by the results -- and how easy it is to get something that tastes quite remarkable without a lot of effort.

Tuesday, we had some shrimp (on sale at the regular grocery, so not really the greatest for flavor), and suzanne suggested serving them over pasta. The problem was: what sort of sauce to use with them, since I didn't really have very much for ingredients of the sort I usually make cream sauces out of. In particular, the only cream we had was some leftover whipped cream from a pie a few days ago, which I probably could have made do with except that it had been sweetened. So I looked at what we did have, and ended up cooking a bit of crushed garlic in butter, and adding a single-serving bottle of white wine and a generous dash of lemon juice, and then simmering that for about ten minutes while the pasta and shrimp were cooking. The result was a reasonably good sauce -- it had thickened enough to stick to the pasta and shrimp, and had a good flavor though I think I added a bit much lemon.

So, last night we still hadn't gone back to the grocery and thus were left to do a "make do" dinner....
2 frozen skinless chicken breasts, thawed and cut up
1/2 green bell pepper
1 small yellow onion
1T olive oil
1 5-oz can of tomato sauce
1.5 cups leftover chicken stock, frozen
5-6 oz linguini
I started out by putting the frozen leftover chicken stock in a saucepan on medium-high heat, and when that had thawed and started boiling, I added the tomato sauce, and turned that down to a very low heat once it had reduced to maybe half its volume (6-8 minutes or so). Meanwhile, I started the linguini cooking, and suzanne chopped the onion and pepper and chicken. Those got sauteed, sequentially, in a bit of olive oil in a large frying pan, and added to the sauce as they were done.

This ended up startlingly good. The sauce was quite thick; a good fraction of the volume was made up of the onion and pepper even before I added the chicken. And despite the fact that the chicken breasts were pretty low-fat and added late in the process, and the broth was non-fat, the resulting sauce had the sort of silky-thick texture that normally would only come from vast amounts of heavy cream or chicken fat or butter or something like that. Unlike many of my sauces, it coated the pasta quite nicely rather than running off, and so was very effective despite there not being a lot of it.

I think I shall have to keep experimenting with this....


Book Meme

This one's come around again (via umprof), only mutated rather a bit from the original -- now it's wanting a blue book, and a full paragraph. The rules this time:
1. Grab the nearest book with a blue cover.
2. Open the book to page 86.
3. Find the first full paragraph.
4. Post the text in your journal along with these instructions.
5. Don't search around and look for the coolest book you can find, just the closest blue book.
In my case, I didn't have to cheat -- I knew what blue book I was hoping to find when I turned around, and indeed it was the closest (though I had to pass over a couple of dark navy books as being insufficiently blue): The Wonder Book of the Air, by Allen and Lyman, from 1936. It's an "everything a boy would want to know about airplanes" book, and thus a quite delightful view of what flying in the late 1930s was like -- including a whole chapter on a typical flight from New York to San Francisco.

For instance, one of the things I'd never really thought about was what an "airway" was, back before modern air traffic control. In 1936, it was a physical and tangible pathway -- a chain of small airports, spaced 30 to 50 miles apart, stretching from (for example) Chicago to San Francisco, with revolving light beacons every 10 to 20 miles, so that a nighttime flight was possible simply by flying from beacon to beacon all the way across the country.

In any case, page 86 starts off the chapter on "Why an Airplane Flies", which is usually one of my pop-science pet peeves. The common explanation invokes Bernoulli's law, which although perfectly applicable is somewhat complicated and doesn't really move towards something more obvious, and it ignores Newton's lawsthat would provide the obvious explanation of "the airplane gets lift because the wings push air down". This book, however, takes a quite different approach. The initial paragraph, which is the one to quote according to the rules of the meme, is:
Every boy knows that if a flat stone is skipped across the water, it will go quite a distance before it finally loses speed and falls to the bottom. If there were only some way of keeping up its momentum, the stone could be made to go on indefinitely without sinking, just as a surfboard bearing a man's weight may be kept on top of the water as long as a speedboat has it in tow.
The book then goes on to talk about this, but in a manner that doesn't reference physical laws at all in any obvious way. Air is a substance, just like water, only much less dense. And so in much the same way, an airplane that's heavier than air can keep aloft in air, just as a stone can stay on top of the water, but only if it keeps moving. The book then describes taking a paper fan, and moving it through the air, and feeling how it gets lift if one inclines it a bit while moving it. It's a very experiential sort of explanation, which relates the effect to everyday experiences and things that one can directly feel and touch and play with, and so it feels like a quite complete explanation even though it never mentions reactions or Newton or Bernoulli at all. There's probably an important lesson in there, that I often forget when trying to explain the physics of the things that I'm working on.