mouse melon cornichons

IMG_5395I snapped a shot of these quick pickles the other day because they were so cute. Made with tiny mouse melons, a.k.a. Mexican sour gherkins, a.k.a. cucamelons, a.k.a. Melothria scabra, I just cracked them open and lo and behold, these might be the best cornichons I’ve ever had, so I had to jot down the recipe.

The natural lemony tang in the mouse melons goes wonderfully with the tarragon, and the little guys stay crisp after a day or two in the brine.  If you’re growing these, you are sure to have tons of them like I do, so definitely put up a jar or two.  I simply used leftover brine from making dilly beans and two fresh sprigs of tarragon.

If I had had more, I would have tried lacto-fermenting mouse melon cornichons.  I made some really excellent ones with small pickling cucumbers this year, so I was kind of already full up anyway.

Edited to add:  The lacto-fermented cornichons were great.  A different taste — more deeply sour and less sharp, with a pronounced mouse melon flavor that’s hidden by the vinegar in the quick pickle.  They are holding up nicely with a couple of grape leaves in the single half-pint jar I put up.  Alas, the quick pickles turned mushy after a couple of weeks in the refrigerator, so be advised that you want to stick with the idea of “quick” with these guys.  A friend processed the quick pickle recipe at around 7 minutes, and his are holding up, though, so more experiments are in order if we want a shelf-stable vinegar pickle version.

Mouse Melon Cornichons

Makes 1 half-pint.

  • 1/8 cup canning salt
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 cup white wine vinegar
  • 1 teaspoon yellow mustard seeds
  • 1/2 teaspoon pickling spices
  • 2 sprigs tarragon
  • 2 cloves garlic, sliced in half
  • 2/3 cup mouse melons, blossom end scraped off with your nail

Heat salt, water, and wine vinegar to a boil in a nonreactive saucepan.  It will make too much brine, so use the rest for quick pickled cucumbers or cauliflower or peppers. Remove from heat.  To your jar, add the mustard seeds, pickling spices, tarragon, and garlic, then add the mouse melons.  Top with hot brine and seal.  Let cool on the counter, then refrigerate. Serve with sliced meats or cheeses and your guests will die of cuteness.

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homemade ketchup that tastes right

IMG_4035IMG_4032You forgot about the ketchup, didn’t you?  Turns out that being sad makes for great ketchup. Indeed, this year’s version was the ne plus ultra of ketchups.  OK, I mostly got lucky.

As my previous, lengthy post on ketchup describes, and I’ve mulled over in countless classes, ketchup’s balance of flavors is more about the craft than the mystery of the perfect flavors in Heinz 57.  I’ve been honing my ketchup technique for a few years now, focusing on the texture and the umami component. Until this year, I’ve been unhappy with the thickness of the ketchup, as you can see from the photos in the post.  But I think I’ve got that settled.  My ketchup doesn’t leak watery ketchup juice on the plate.  Finally.

Powdered vegetables are the secret to thicken the sauce. After the frustrating experience of cooking the sauce down for many, many hours and still having it leak, I was thinking about adding agar-agar or xanthan gum to help.  But it turns out I didn’t have to because my umami solution solved the thickness issue, too.  Last year, my ketchup was almost too bitter with celery and lovage seed, so I brought those levels down and rounded out the whole thing with onion powder, an absolutely essential component, and garlic powder. It transforms the ketchup from something that’s too sweet and sour and high note-y into a baritone boom-boom-boom.  It’s ketchup that tasts right; even better, I’d argue, than Heinz.  Yeah, I know that’s crazy-talk.  But it really is that good.

In fact, it’s so good, I might even add more powder next year: tomato and celeriac powder.  And if I dry and pulverize tomato peels when I process my next batch of tomatoes, as Joel MacCharles of the marvelous preservation blog, WellPreserved, suggests, it will help add more umami and heft.  And although I used my magic celeriac salt, I might be even more successful if I’m not too worried about the salt content and can fiddle with the unique glutamate that celery root always adds.

I’m indebted to several sources for this recipe.  The base is from the tested standard recipe for spicy ketchup in the Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving, and auxiliary recipes provided by the OSU Extension Master Food Preserver program (with which I am affiliated as a MFP volunteer), with improvements by Linda Ziedrich in Joy of Pickling and Joel of WellPreserved’s methodical, patient, multi-year series of posts on tomato sauce and ketchup.  The WellPreserved family processes over 400 lbs. of tomatoes a year, so I’m pretty convinced they can teach us a few tricks.  Mine diverges from all of these sources a bit in method, but don’t worry, it’s still safe.  It only changes some techniques to make things easier on the cook and some spices to enhance the flavor. Oven roasting adds flavors and removes much of the water without the need to boil for hours.

If you’ve canned Ball ketchup in the past, you’ll notice I half their recipe, approximately half a lug of tomatoes.  Quite frankly, I don’t eat that much ketchup, and this amount fits in my oven and stockpot much more easily.  I don’t have to do anything twice. Also, I can in half-pint jelly jars for ease of use.  If your family eats a lot of ketchup, you should double the recipe and can in pint jars.   If you decide to double my recipe for the standard amount, though, be warned you’ll need a huge pot, more sheet pans or two overnight sessions for roasting, and longer time cooking down the purée.

Some of the ingredients are not common.  From Joel, I take the idea of adding a Japanese pickled plum (umeboshi) to the ketchup for umami.  For a recipe my size, he’d add a tablespoon of umeboshi vinegar, but I only had the plums.  I grow bay, lovage, and my own cutting celery for seed, and as mentioned above, make my own celery salt, so I have these things on hand. Hell Dust smoked dried peppers are awesome; buy them here.  But if you can’t, it’s ok to use others if you can find them.

The vegetables are the best quality, either my own or from local farms, and I use Bragg cider vinegar. If you are shy about spiciness, don’t use fresh cayenne peppers from Thistledown Farm as I did.  Good ripe red mild frying peppers are fine.  I used mostly my own tomatoes (paste and others) and some ‘Scipio San Marzano’ paste tomatoes from Good Food Easy to arrive at the proper weight, but I strongly suggest using only paste tomatoes.

Feel free to improvise on the spices, but not on the ratio of the tomatoes, vegetables, vinegar and sugar.  This ratio was tested for safe canning by the USDA-affiliated folks.

Update, 2015: Use baking parchment paper on your aluminum pans when roasting the tomatoes, and it will prevent etching or staining.

Ketchup That Tastes Right

Makes 7-8 half-pints, depending on tomatoes and reduction time.

  • 13 pounds paste tomatoes
  • 1 tablespoon homemade celery salt (or regular salt with some celery seed in it)
  • 1 large onion, chopped
  • 5-6 cloves of garlic
  • ½ cup chopped red hot peppers (e.g., cayenne)
  • 1 umeboshi (optional) or a little soy sauce or anchovy paste for umami
  • 2 fresh bay leaves
  • 1.5 cups cider vinegar
  • 2 cups brown sugar
  • 1 tablespoon salt
  • 1 tablespoon onion powder
  • 1 teaspoon garlic powder
  • 1 teaspoon Hell Dust smoked pepper flakes or smoked paprika

Spice Packet:

  • 1 cinnamon stick, broken in half
  • 1 fresh bay leaf
  • sprig of lovage
  • 2 teaspoons whole cloves
  • 2 teaspoons whole allspice
  • 1 teaspoon celery seed
  • 1 teaspoon coriander

Equipment Note: You’ll need cheesecloth for the spice packet; several sheet pans; and a food mill or grinder.  If you have a grinder, great.  I’m guessing you do not.  A food mill is fine.  You might also opt to just blend in the skins and seeds, which will add a slightly bitter flavor and grainier texture to the final product, but I like a smooth ketchup so I use the food mill.

Instructions:  Wash, cut off stem end, and slice tomatoes in halves or quarters.  Toss them in some salt.  Oven roast them in a single or double layer on sheet pans in a 200-degree oven overnight or for at least 4 hours.

Move tomatoes to stockpot and add chopped onion, garlic, red peppers, umeboshi, and two bay leaves.

Simmer for 3-5 hours, stirring frequently, on very low heat, until the tomatoes break down and the onions and peppers are very soft.  Cool purée until you can handle it. Discard the bay leaves.

Now for the part that’s a pain.  Be patient.  Wax on, wax off.

Press the purée through a food mill to remove the skins and seeds.  Take your time.  Really press out all of the flesh from the skins.  You might even knead and squeeze the skins with well-washed hands to extract every bit you can.  This is important because most of the umami flavor in the tomato is in the flesh near the skin and the seeds.  Consider saving the skins/seeds for dehydrated powder (see note above and instructions).

Add the purée to a deep stockpot, because it will spatter all over the stove if you use, say, a 5.5 quart dutch oven L.  Add the vinegar, sugar, salt, onion and garlic powders, and Hell Dust.  Prepare a spice packet by placing the whole spices in cheesecloth and tying the top of the bundle with kitchen twine or similar.

Cook down the purée for another 4-5 hours over very low heat, stirring frequently.  The thicker it gets, the more likely it is to burn, so watch it carefully and scrape the bottom of the pan when stirring.

IMG_4036 The ketchup is ready when it clings like paste to your spoon, and when you mound it up on a plate, it doesn’t leak juice out.  (Joel describes four tests for ketchup thickness if you’re truly concerned.)  As you see above, last year’s ketchup has a bit of juice pooled around it; this year’s is much thicker and more appetizing, more paste-like.

You might food mill the finished product yet again before a final simmer before canning if you want an even smoother texture, but it’s pretty smooth as it is.

About 30 minutes before completion, set up your canning equipment. Wash your jars, rings, and lids, and heat the lids according to the package instructions as you’re heating up the waterbath canner.

Spoon the hot ketchup into jars carefully and pressing down product with a spoon to reduce air bubbles, leaving 1/2-inch head space.  Wipe rims of jars and adjust lids and rings.  Process in a waterbath canner for 15 minutes for half-pints or pints.  Do not process in quarts.

Important Timing Notes: it is easier to do this process over several days, refrigerating the purée in between.  Day 1: prep and roast the tomatoes.  Day 2: cook down the tomatoes with vegetables, mill the tomatoes, and add spices.  Day 3: cook down the purée into ketchup, then can it.

And more good news: tomatoes improve if you let them sit out and further ripen for up to four days after purchasing.  Joel notes that his sauce yield was dramatically improved by riper tomatoes.

separate two eggs: blossom end rot ketchup

IMG_4004The rain was ill-timed, for sure, and my garden is at risk.  Water has been an issue all summer.  Hubris and the bottom falling out of my life goaded me into believing that an overhead watering system was much easier than taking the time to put in the soaker hoses this year, so I’ve got powdery mildew shrouding the leaves of squash and cucumbers, cantankerous wilt encroaching on the tomatoes.  The soaker hoses I did lay down and test in June were either fixed too many times to work properly or just didn’t work at all.

My own eyes seem to be malfunctioning, too.  After those unspeakable hours when my beloved sidekick and best buddy had gone from seemingly healthy to “when they’re this far gone they usually don’t make it,” when I suddenly, terribly, intimately, finally understood the keening wail and hear-tearing grief of the ancient Greeks, they stopped knowing how to cry.  Something broke inside my head, and tears seemed to flow at their own will.

They didn’t come when I needed to feel some iota of resolution of a good life put to rest in the days that followed, stumbling around on the beach and begging for a sneaker wave to come take me.  They came and come while driving down Willamette or stepping into the fish market or making coffee or brushing my teeth, just enough to wet my eyes, and then go away again.  This pain births itself from you and rends you and makes you incomplete, absolutely paralyzed, sitting on your chest and not moving until — one hopes — it decides to climb down and go possess someone else.

You spend all your time still with the fear that there’s no consolation over the loss of a pet like him, and no longer consolation in your life. Instead of getting better, it just gets heavier and more leaden and more unreal. Even my subconscious has given up; the one fleeting glimpse of him I had in a dream I completely lost it and begged him to come back to me, saying what I had said thousands of times but not pleading, not in such high, hysterical, desperate tones: Come here, baby! Momma needs you!

It’s easy to say sorry about the job, sorry about the husband, sorry about the thousand other things you lost this year, just as easy as it is to compartmentalize these terrible things and deal with them one at a time as a series of tasks.  But no, we really don’t even know how to be sorry about the uncanny child-friend-mate-comfort blanket-lover-shadow bond one forges with a bright-eyed and utterly devoted feline with whom one has such a singular connection; we don’t know how to move beyond it…

And I’m just now getting around to mulching.

I moved the tomatoes to my Dissertation Draft Memorial Bed in the front of the house and the plants are gloriously erect and massive this year.  Huge, promising fruit have been developing well. There’s a grafted ‘Mexican,’ big luscious ‘Brad’s Black Heart,’ three ‘Amish Pastes’ sadly of the small and genetically muted variety, a nice ‘Carol Chyko’s Big Paste,’ my standard ‘Black Krim’ slicer, a ‘Hungarian Heart (which originated around 1900 in Budapest, like many good things), stalwart ‘Slava’, green and yellow ‘Grubb’s Mystery,’ Dawson’s Russian Oxheart,’ bright orange slicer ‘Kellogg’s Breakfast,’ and a deep yellow salad tomato, ‘Summer Cider Apricot,’ that I bought in a moment of weakness and don’t regret because of the unusual acidity.

At the first signs of blossom end rot, a virus we see every year on tomatoes as we transition from wet spring to dry summer in the Willamette Valley, we lay out calcium.  I’ve done it for years with ground eggshells dug in and dried milk watered deeply into the soil.  The first few tomatoes can be affected, but after they’re plucked and discarded, the rest are usually fine.

But this year, with the new bed and onslaught of trauma and my tragic confidence in watering methods against all portents from the gods, I didn’t see the early signs early enough.  Now most of the plants are infected, those big beautiful green lobes rotting from the bottom up like, well, there’s no point in veering off into the metaphorical direction, since you already get it.

I’m trying to cut my losses, then, with blossom end rot ketchup.  Safe canning practices say one’s not supposed to can with blossom end rot tomatoes, since the virus messes with the acidity, and since my crop is so damaged this year, I decided to make a batch of ketchup, which has enough acid and sugar added that slight variations in tomatoes don’t really matter.  And a little bitterness and salty tears just improve ketchup anyway.

And for sauce and paste and salsa?  I picked up a lug of organic ‘Scipio’ paste tomatoes from the good folks at Good Food Easy/Sweetwater Farm in Creswell, who are operating a farm stand on Sundays from 10-2 at 19th and Agate.  I ate one directly from the box and it was full and meaty and sweet and good.  Apparently, it’s also known as ‘Scipio San Marzano’ and ‘Astro.’ I’d warn folks off the regular ‘San Marzanos’ we grow in the valley.  It’s usually not hot enough and they take so long that they’re nothing like Italian ‘San Marzanos.’

Want the ketchup recipe?  Click here.

IMG_3421Boris Badenov Levin, RIP. 1997-2013.

Separate Two Eggs is my new, very occasional series about a lonely single woman eating sad meals alone. Or not. It’s really just a way to continue to queer food writing and add diversity to Mommy-blogging and monogamous couple-oriented fare (not that there’s anything wrong with that).

silky wild plum jam

IMG_3945Well, the bright side is that I keep getting tiny signs from the universe that there’s a branch over my head just laden with juicy, impossibly blueberry bloomy blue fruit, ripe for the plucking.  It’s just a matter of timing and overcoming myopia and finding a stable ladder. I’m trying, and so far I’ve been pelted on the head a few dozen times and threatened by an overhanging spider and infested with earwigs and ants enjoying their lunch.  I’m pretty sure something dropped down into my bra and bit me where the sun don’t shine.  But always a little fear in pleasure, in possibility.

So. Jam. To measure the sugar you need and get a sense of the yield, you’ll need to imagine how the plums will reduce to a purée once cooked. I filled a standard colander with 5 and a half pounds of small plums, and used 4 cups of sugar in a single 5-quart pot. It yielded 7 half-pints. Your needs will vary.

This jam is all about found fruit, especially the ornamental “cherry plums,” the golfball-sized drupes that cover those pesky feral plum trees that spring up all over the place, including your yard. I had a yellow one in Berkeley, cut down a red one in my yard in Eugene, understood when the neighbors cut down the burgundy-foliaged one in their yard.  It also works for Damsons or Santa Rosas or any juicy, smallish fruit fresh from the orchard.  The recipe is adapted from Linda Ziedrich‘s damson plum recipe, in fact.  I kept the flavor simple, as it really can’t be improved.  You might add a slug of slivovitz at the end, or perhaps a tiny bit of clove.

You won’t be cooking this one terribly long, a blessing in the heat. Plums have plenty of pectin; that’s the silky texture. Wild plums have clingstone pits, so plan on cooking them in and straining them out later.

Silky Wild Plum Jam

I like what plum skins do to jam, coloring and flavoring it, but if you strain them out with a food mill, the jam will be a wonderful soft, clean, pure texture — perfect on skin, as a friend says.

  • Small cherry plums
  • Sugar (3/4 cup per cup of plum purée)

Rinse ripe plums just after picking, and place in covered pot with a bit of water (no more than a half cup).  Simmer for about 10 minutes until the skins burst, then uncover and stir, pressing the flesh down with a spatula or spoon. Simmer for another 10 minutes until plums have fallen apart.  Pits may or may not rise to the surface.  You will be lucky if they do.

Remove from heat and let cool enough to handle.  Skim, strain, and squeeze the pulp from the skin and pits.  You might try a mesh colander or a food mill.  This process may be difficult and messy, as some plums won’t yield up their pits easily, so you may find even a food mill ineffective.  If worse comes to worse, don a pair of food service gloves and pluck the pits out with your fingers, squeezing them to get all flesh off.

Once you have a pot full of delicious pulp, measure it.  For each cup of pulp, add 3/4 cups of sugar and begin the jam process.

Wash your jars, rings, and lids, and heat the lids according to the package instructions as you’re heating up the waterbath canner.

Cook jam down over medium high heat until it thickens and passes a gel test (perhaps 15 minutes?), stirring very frequently and scraping the bottom of the pot.

Remove from heat and let sit for a couple minutes.  Skim foam from top. Spoon the hot jam into jars carefully to reduce bubbles, leaving 1/4-inch head space.  Wipe rims of jars and adjust lids and rings.  Process in a waterbath canner for 10 minutes.

separate two eggs: guide to dining out alone

Nighthawks, Edward Hopper, 1942.
Nighthawks, Edward Hopper, 1942.

Separate Two Eggs is my new, very occasional, series about a lonely single woman eating sad meals alone.  Or not. It’s really just a way to continue to queer food writing to add diversity to the Mommy-blogging and monogamous couple-oriented fare (not that there’s anything wrong with that).

One of my pleasures in life is eating alone at bars in nice restaurants.  In many ways, I prefer it to eating at a table with five of my closest academic colleagues.  (Yes, academics, it’s ok to laugh.)  I’d relish the opportunity when I wasn’t separated, and now even more so as I’m disentangling the strands of two lives.  It makes me feel at home and part of the business end of a restaurant, while giving my business to them.  And through this activity, I’ve really grown to love the people who put food and drink on our public tables.

When I sit at the bar, I can lazily watch the process, keep an eye on the kitchen, see the exasperated glances pass between servers, exchange pleasantries with the most important people in every restaurant, the ones who are literally running the show.  Directly served by a bartender or two, I can ask about new specials and get recommendations and hear tidbits of news from the wine distributors who stop by.  Time is less of an issue: I can eat at the bar at 4:30 because I haven’t had lunch, or 9:00 because that’s a much more reasonable dinner time.  There’s always a bit of drama, a bit of sadness.  Life pivots and spins on the fulcrum of the bar.

And there are plenty of people like me.  Not just friends of the bartender or middle managers awaiting tables with their weary wives, but traveling businessmen, an occasional doctor, a former waitress who’s back for the weekend, a tattooed dude just in for a beer, an older lady who just wanted a glass of gris and a salad, a couple who just moved to town, an aging hipster chick reading a book. There’s usually a musician or an artist, and occasionally someone looking for a new friend. Sometimes you talk to these people, sometimes you don’t. IMG_3888IMG_4567IMG_3074

It’s a nice place.  You’re inspired by the food and you let them take care of you, trust they’ll do you right.  You don’t do anything stupid, like ask for vegan mayonnaise or no peppers or gluten-free fish and chips or a glass of ice for your lovely Provençal rosé that the proprietor just told you was his favorite of the season.  You don’t announce what you don’t like or let your kid smear food all over the floor or undertip.  In short, it’s a civilized island in a sea of everything else.

Which is exactly what dining alone is all about.  The person who really made me think about my right and privilege to eat at a bar alone was Jeff Morgenthaler, while still at the late lamented Bel Ami.  He told me once that his job was to make everyone feel comfortable at his bar, even the single woman reading a book.  And he’s absolutely right in doing so.  Single women shouldn’t have to feel like barflies or weirdos eating at the bar alone.  And they shouldn’t be harassed or feel unsafe, but take pleasure in what is sadly still a radical feminist joy in not wanting the oppression of company, relations.

Sometimes I grade papers; sometimes I edit a paper; sometimes I focus too much on my iPhone; sometimes I talk with actual people.  But there’s no real pressure in a hospitable bar.  If you are single and not an asshole, you should try it some time.  And if you see me, say hello.

salt and shiso

IMG_3859One wouldn’t think an herb so fragile and leafy as shiso (aojiso or ohba, sometimes labeled as perilla or beefsteak) would take kindly to salt, but it does.  If you grew a plant or two this year, consider making the traditional salted pickle from Japan, or a shiso kimchi from Korea.  Personally, I’m partial to the clean, simple flavor of the salted shiso, but have enjoyed both.  Either lasts for several weeks to months in the refrigerator, but quality is best after at least a few days of curing.

In Japan, red shiso (akajiso) is used as a dye for umeboshi, pickled plums, and a delicious addition to pickled cucumber or eggplant.  It’s also dried and used as a furikake, or crumbly delicious crunchy topping for morning rice.  Mmmm.

Why don’t I eat more Japanese breakfasts?

Because I don’t have a Japanese wife to make them, duh.

Ah, right.

Green shiso leaves are chiffonaded and mixed in with rice, or used to wrap bits of ground chicken breast and pork and grilled.  I often pick a few leaves and eat them with rice, using them like those little nori strips that are now popular with the nutritionist crowd.  The basil-anise-Thai basily green flavor is exquisite, and again I urge you to grow your own, as the stuff in the market is rare, expensive, and fades quickly. I’ve grown two kinds of the green shiso: one that has a purple underleaf, and one that doesn’t.

It is also preserved, most successfully with salt, but sometimes with soy and a little garlic. One can also use the seeds fresh or salted, but I scatter them in my herb bed for another crop.

The Korean form of shiso (kkaenip, sometimes called ‘sesame leaf’, Perilla frutescens var. frutescens) is a different strain of the Japanese perilla (Perilla frutescens var. crispa) and the ornamental perilla (coleus).  See a good picture in the LA Times here.  If you can find it, use it for kimchi.

IMG_2339Salted Shiso Pickle

The recipe couldn’t be easier.  Pick the largest leaves of your fresh green shiso, then sprinkle a little sea salt on each leaf, stacking leaves in a container. You might weigh them down (as I did above, with ocean beach stones) or not.  Let cure in the refrigerator for a few days, then enjoy for months.

IMG_2340IMG_2336

Shiso Kim Chi

You will need to make a souse, but this recipe doesn’t ferment the kim chi like cabbage or radishes.  It’s milder and softer, perfect for summer.

  • 3 cups medium to large shiso leaves
  • 3 tablespoons very thinly sliced red onion
  • 3 cloves fresh garlic, minced
  • 3 green onions
  • 3 tablespoons julienne carrot
  • 2 teaspoons sugar
  • 2 tablespoons fish sauce
  • 1 tablespoon powdered Korean red pepper
  • 1 teaspoon sesame seeds

Prepare the shiso leaves by rinsing them, if necessary.  Prepare the vegetables for the souse.  Thinly slice the red onion and mince the garlic; thinly slice the whites and greens of the green onion; julienne the carrot. Toss the vegetables with the sugar, fish sauce, red pepper, and sesame seeds.

Layer every two shiso leaves with a bit of the sauce, gently rubbing it into the leaves evenly.  Leave some souse for the top of the pile, press down gently, cover, and refrigerate for at least a week.

the best in donut shop thai food

IMG_3676
Cashew chicken at It’s Thai Food

Thai food in a donut shop seems to be the new Thing, since we’re largely ignoring the supermarket-donut-quality ridiculous sugarbombs at Voodoo and the “cronut,” which I simply don’t have the heart to Google and understand. Yelp tells me that they’re selling Thai food at donut shops in Santa Barbara, CA, Lawton, OK, and Annapolis, MD, so something cool is sneaking around urban centers and infiltrating small towns.  I love it.

And being on top of trends, I’m pleased to report that we have not one but TWO donut shop Thai places, and one of them is actually good.

I taste-tested both of them in a quick and dirty fashion, ordering a classic dish at each, Chicken Cashew stirfry (or perhaps pork, if I was scared to order chicken).

IMG_3684Master Donuts in Springfield (3177 Gateway), is in a little strip mall across the street from the big box annexes fringing the mall on Gateway.  The dish came out heavy with salt and very little flavor I could identify as Thai, including the taste of fish sauce.  There were a few tiny, broken pieces of raw cashew sprinkled on top of steamed low quality, tasteless pork swimming in soupy liquid and some tired steamed vegetables.  The rice wasn’t good, either, a cheap Chinese variety.  Although everyone was polite to me, the place was silent and heavy and almost sterile and cold. Neither the cook nor the clerk could care less about the food or their work, it seems, and the atmosphere was so toxic with unhappiness I left as soon as I could.  Avoid.  Not even worth the $6 an entree price.

IMG_3688IMG_3675It’s Thai Food was a different story. Inside Lee’s Donuts (1950 Echo Hollow Rd Ste A) in the same mall as Big Lots, it used to be a food cart in the parking lot, but they moved inside the restaurant.  It’s Thai Food is run by a couple, with the wife as cook and the husband as extroverted front of house.  A cute kid shows up now and again, playing quietly in the back. It’s an extremely modest place with no ambiance and a TV in the corner, with a constant stream of customers.

Here’s the difference between the two donut shop Thai places: It’s Thai Food is actually a real neighborhood joint, with pictures of customers and letters on the walls, a menu that aims to educate with photos, and kind service-oriented ownership.  I overheard the owner talking about the increase in overhead for donut supplies to a regular customer, and it seems times are tough.  But then I heard him saying that when neighborhood kids come in for a donut and they don’t quite have enough cash, he gives them the donut because they clearly want it.  (And just a note to the few people who are excited by that: don’t be a dick and try to take advantage.  Instead, do what the customer did, give an extra buck or two in tips to offset the cost of this kind man’s charity.)

Anyway, wow, I’m getting grumpier and grumpier writing this.  Sorry.  The food at It’s Thai Food (top picture) is really the most appetizing of all the low-budget Thai I’ve tried in the past couple of weeks.  The cook uses dark soy to help caramelize the chicken, and the dish boasts an appetizing array of peppers and mushrooms.  It was too salty, a common problem for Thai food, but it tasted quite good, better than many of the more standard Thai places in town.

There were a number of less common dishes being served that didn’t appear on the written menu, especially noodle dishes, so I’ll be back.  I really appreciated little touches like the kind of odd aluminium foil boat in which my meal was served, clearly added so the sauce wouldn’t soak into the paper plate below, and the little cone full of fried tofu which helped keep it crisp.  The peanut sauce, something I don’t love, was actually notably better than average so I took it home to use as a dip with green beans. Also served: Eugene’s heroine, aka teriyaki chicken, and a few common dishes that would draw the same crowd: yakisoba noodles and orange chicken and kung pao. Prices were a skosh higher than at Master’s but still cheap — my entree was $7.50.

On a slightly different trend-spotting note, please be aware of our two Thai food carts.

I found Drumrong Thai to be adequate when I went a few years ago, and found the atmosphere in the middle of a hot triangle in the middle of two busy streets in the Whiteaker stifling and loud, plus it took forever to get my food, so I haven’t been back.  It may be better now; it’s been a few years.  Let me know.

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Cashew pork at Ubon Thai

Ubon Thai out on Highway 99 (670 Hwy 99) — a joint that many people swear by as authentic and wonderful — was ok.  It was, contrary to popular belief, not a rare outpost of different types of Thai food but the same stuff you get elsewhere in Eugene, a collection of Americanized standards using packaged shortcuts just like every other place uses.  It’s cheap, fast food, really, and there’s nothing wrong with that.  And it must be a great relief to the neighborhood, which is a depressed area way out on the way to the airport.  And to their credit, they’re honest about the prefab nature of the curries; you can see the plastic tubs of Mae Ploy curry pastes lined up above the prep space.  If you want to taste the difference that homemade curry pastes make in a final dish, go to Noodle N Thai in Springfield on Main around 5th.  There, you’ll start to learn about the wonders of authentic Thai food.

The vegetables in the stirfries are all a melange of pre-cut carrot, onion, broccoli, peppers, and snow peas, and they serve really standard dishes and the usual yakisoba.  They really need to remove the broccoli from the mix. Broccoli, a substitute for gai lan, has no place in Thai food and it’s revolting once overcooked and soggy in sauce.

Nevertheless, the cook has a pretty good palate, if my single dish (the same cashew stirfry with pork I ordered elsewhere, hold the broccoli) is a guide.  Way too much liquid pooled up on my plate and waterlogged my rice, but the dish was good enough, cooked at too low a temperature but still decent.  The fresh spring rolls had larger-than-average rice noodles in the stuffing, which was odd but not a dealbreaker, and the spicy peanut sauce was peanut sauce with spice in it.  Nothing unusual and a bit of a disappointment, given how much it was talked up. Oh well.

The atmosphere I did find oddly charming, mostly the outdoor plaza space surrounded by plants and tinkly sparkly things than the somewhat claustrophobic attached house interior, but they’re welcoming spaces.  Ubon is run by a couple, she of Thai extraction and he not, and they’re terribly nice.  I’d probably go again if I were in the neighborhood, and I’d urge them to branch out into more interesting territory in the specials, at least.  Different vegetables and not so many in one dish would be really welcome, as would be regional delights.