Thursday, July 30, 2009

Weekend Wokking--Cheese Us!

As a foreigner living and working on Pulau Galang, a refugee camp in Indonesia, I had to go to Singapore every 3 months to renew my visa. Singapore is one of the great cities in the world for people who like to eat. There is such a dynamic mix of Chinese, Malay, and Indian food, with fresh seafood and a general level of cleanliness that is almost scary. Some people complain that Singapore is too sterile, that the government is overbearing in eliminating what it perceives to be social ills, and too strict in meting out punishment, but after three months in a refugee camp the visa trip to Singapore was always welcome.

I had several routines that I always followed when I went to Singapore. One was to have roti telor (a sort of brioche-like tortilla--a roti canai with an egg added--that is served with a side of curry gravy to dip in) and kopi-o-kosong (black coffee, no sugar) each morning at a small kedai kopi on Serangoon Road. Sadly, on my visit to Singapore last year I discovered the kedai kopi has closed.

The other routine I had was buying a bottle of wine and some decent cheese and crackers as soon as I arrived. I would take these to the hotel, check-in, run a warm bath, then sit in the bath drinking the wine and eating the cheese and crackers. Cheese is the one food I long for when I have not had any for awhile. I don't mind not eating meat, don't really miss alcohol or even coffee if for some reason it is unavailable, but I do miss cheese if I haven't had it for more than four or five days.

I was happy, therefore, when Darlene of blazinghotwok chose cheese as this month's ingredient for Weekend Wokking. Cheese is wonderful choice as there are so many varieties and so many different ways it can be prepared and dishes it can be used in, from salads to entrees to desserts. Since it is summer and tomatoes and chiles are at their peak in the local markets, I decided to make chile rellenos.

A good chile relleno is light, pillowy, not greasy, ripe with the flavor of a mature, flame broiled chile and oozing a core of monterey jack or queso Oaxaca. It has been simmered in a light sauce of tomatoes, broth and onions and is bursting with the flavor of a summer garden. Although relatively easy to prepare, it seems difficult to find decent chile rellenos in restaurants. They inevitably are too greasy or heavy, or sodden with a thick sauce. Like tamales, they should only be ordered if you know the restaurant knows how to prepare them right.

Some people use a beer batter for frying the chiles, I use one with eggs. I think the advantage of the egg batter is that reheating the chile rellenos in the tomato sauce puffs them up instead of having them simply absorb the sauce. I have even had pretty good success in the past of frying up a large batch of chiles, freezing them, and reheating them in the sauce. The recipe itself is from a cookbook originally published in 1944; I have the 75th printing, published in 1972, when I bought it. The title is Elena's Famous Mexican and Spanish Recipes. It's written by Elena Zelayeta, who apparently became blind somehow after immigrating to the US and opening a restaurant. Her style is straightforward and simple.

Chile Rellenos
One or two Anaheim or Fresno chiles per serving
1 egg to every two chiles
1 TBS flour to each egg
pinch of salt
Monterey jack or queso Oaxaca
oil for frying

1 onion minced
2 cloves of garlic, minced
2 TBS oil
4 cups of chopped tomatoes, or one 28 oz can of crushed tomatoes
3 to 4 cups of chicken or vegetable stock
2 tsp salt
2 tsp oregano
pepper to taste

Char the skins of the chiles over an open flame. When skins are thoroughly blackened, place in paper bag or covered bowl and let them rest ten to fifteen minutes. Rub the charred skin from the chiles. Cut a small slit near the top of each pepper and remove most of the seeds. Don't worry if the chiles split wide open; the batter will seal the cheese inside when you fry them. Cut the cheese in lengths about 1/2 inch thick and slide into the chiles.

Separate the eggs. Whip the whites until you have soft peaks. Fold in the beaten yolks,salt and flour. Dip the stuffed chiles in the batter and fry in hot oil until golden brown on both sides. This should take about four or five minutes. Drain on paper towels.

To make the sauce, fry the onion and garlic in the oil until translucent. Add the tomatoes, then the stock. Season with salt, pepper, and oregano. Simmer for 15--20 minutes, probably less if using canned tomatoes.

When you are ready to serve, heat the fried chiles in the simmering sauce for about five minutes. The peppers can be fried well ahead of time and heated in the sauce just before you eat. I am a pretty good eater, and I find one chile relleno to be a perfectly adequate serving size.

I'm submitting this recipe to Weekend Wokking, a world-wide food blogging event created by Wandering Chopsticks to celebrate the multiple ways we can cook one ingredient. The host this month is Yasmeen at Health Nut. If you would like to participate or to see the secret ingredient, check who's hosting next month.

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Monday, July 27, 2009

Daring Bakers Challenge for July

The July Daring Bakers' challenge was hosted by Nicole at Sweet Tooth. She chose Chocolate Covered Marshmallow Cookies and Milan Cookies from pastry chef Gale Gand of the Food Network.

One of the first things I learned to bake was cookies. I never cared for Oreos, Chips Ahoy, or other such cookies one could purchase in the typical American supermarket. They tasted of too much sugar and too many chemicals and the chocolate in them seemed to have trace amounts of heavy metal. I never bought into the Twinkie defense, but I could see how a steady diet of mass produced factory baked goods might sink one into depression. So I learned to bake my own, mostly chocolate chip and peanut butter. As much as I still enjoy a good chocolate chip or peanut butter cookie, I rarely bake them any more because I don't need to have a dozen or more cookies tempting me to eat them. I'd much rather fix something I can have a drink with than something sweet. It's all a matter of priorities.

So of course this month's challenge was cookies. And not just one recipe, but two, and each with its own chocolate covering or filling. Marshmallow cookies have never appealed to me. Even as a kid, I thought these were too sweet, too much an insidious attempt to disguise sugar in just another form. Milanos, however, were a different story. These were a factory baked cookie that I liked. Indeed, I think I have liked all the Pepperidge Farm cookies I have tried. Crisp thin buttery wafers sandwiching a thin layer of chocolate, Milanos go very nicely with a cup of coffee. Of course, one cookie provides something like half the recommended caloric intake for an active teenager for a day--and I am neither a teenager nor particularly active, so I have done my best to stay away from these cookies.

I halved the recipes for the cookies and ganache for the Milans, but wish I had halved the ganache recipe again. While it is very tasty, it makes far more ganache than is needed to fill the cookies. My recollection of the Pepperidge Farm Milanos is of a very thin layer of chocolate. The Gale Gand Milans were delicious, but make sure your gym membership is up to date or you have a horde of children to devour them unless you want to gain a quick five pounds.

The Mallows, a cookie base topped with homemade marshmallow and dipped in chocolate, resemble s'mores in taste. The cookie base is not too sweet and complements the marshmallow and chocolate. Although the process of making these cookies is quite involved, they were not terribly difficult.

One of the problems I have with the Daring Bakers challenge is that I would not normally post a recipe that I had tried just once. I think I really need to try almost any recipe several times before I am comfortable with it. However, I am not about to make eight dozen cookies to get all the details right. I think the marshmallow topping would have been better if the instructions had suggested letting the sugar/corn syrup mixture cool for twenty minutes or so before whipping with the egg whites, or else letting the whipped mixture set for some time before topping the cookies. Also, although I made just a half recipe of the cookies, I had 3 dozen cookies. The full recipe states it makes about two dozen cookies--something is wrong here.

Of the two cookies, I definitely preferred the mallows. I don't know that I would make them again anytime soon, but they were a tasty cookie. The Milans were ok, but truthfully, Pepperidge Farms makes a superior cookie.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Rempeyek--Fried Crisps

Rempeyek, often simply called peyek in Java, are rice flour based crisps that are wonderful with beer or other adult beverages. The most common is rempeyek kacang--peanut rempeyek. Peanuts are added to a batter of rice flour, garlic, salt and other spices, and then the batter is ladled onto the side of a wok and after a minute the lacy crisp is nudged into hot oil and fried. Rempeyek are also popular in Malaysia, but they are more likely to contain cumin and to be cooked slightly thicker in a saucer-like mold. Small fish--ikan teri or ikan bilis--are often added to the batter. In Java they also make rempeyek bayam, dipping bayam (Indonesian spinach) in the batter and frying it--kind of like tempura. In Cepu, Central Java, where I lived for several years, they would make rempeyek with flying ants on nights when there was an abundance of those insects--I believe it was during nights of unusually high humidity and the insects would swarm around street lights.
The key to producing light, lacy rempeyek is to slowly ladle the batter on the side of the wok above the oil line. For this reason you want to use a gently sloping wok. For a demonstration of how to do this, watch this video, which also provides a slightly different recipe.

Rempeyek Kacang--Peanut Crisps
(recipe adapted from Indonesian Food and Cookery by Sri Owen)

250 grams (8 oz) peanuts
2 kemiri (candlenuts)
2 tsp ground coriander
1 clove garlic
1 tsp salt
1 cup water
120 grams (4 oz) rice flour
vegetable oil for frying

Pound the kemiri, coriander, garlic, and salt in a mortar until you have a fairly smooth paste. Mix the paste with the rice flour and then slowly stir in the water. You should have a fairly thick, cream-like batter.

Lightly pound or chop the peanuts. Some people like bigger pieces; my wife insists they should be coarsely ground.

Heat the oil in a wok to about 350º. Sprinkle several teaspoons of peanuts into a ladle of batter. Draw the ladle around the side of the wok above the oil. You are aiming to form a thin skin of batter just above the oil. After about thirty seconds, nudge the peyek off the wok into the hot oil. Cook for a minute or so, and then carefully lift the finished crisp out of the oil and drain on paper towels.

As long as you don't live where there's high humidity, the crisps should last several days stored in a cannister--if you can keep yourself from devouring them.

An even lighter crisp can be made with bayam. Simply dip the leaves in the batter and fry.

If you use ikan teri (ikan bilis), cut back on the amount of salt in the batter.

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Thursday, July 23, 2009

It's Happy Hour Somewhere

I am not a particularly religious person, but I religiously have a drink, or two, in the late afternoon, early evening. When I lived in Jakarta the call for evening prayer from the mosques around my house coincided nicely with my evening cocktail. Outside the mosques vendors sold various fried snacks such as tahu pong, kripik tempe, tahu isi, and kripik ubi (click here for a picture of a typical cart). I would often pick up something to have as part of my evening communion. It is the snack that tempers the evening cocktail; without it, one is merely drinking.

After what has been a ridiculously cool summer, the temperatures have finally climbed up to the century mark, with a high of 107º. This is the perfect weather to enjoy gin and tonics. So it was time to whip up some savory bites to enjoy with them.

Krupuk are tapioca based fried crackers that are usually made with fish or shrimp. The best shrimp ones come from Sidoarjo in East Java. The best fish ones come from Palembang in Sumatra. Ones made in Vietnam or China are of a coarser, inferior quality, with a higher ratio of tapioca to shrimp. You can find both the shrimp and fish krupuks in decent Asian markets here in the States. The shrimp crackers are hard, pale almond-colored plastic-like disks. The fish crackers look like coiled nests of white plastic spaghetti. After frying briefly in hot oil, the crackers puff and expand several times their original size, like those sponge animal capsules you can buy for children. The finished crackers are delightfully light and crisp.

You can also make your own krupuk. The process is surprisingly easy and you are assured of having the highest quality cracker. You can also tweak the basic recipe by adding your own flavors. I added kaffir lime to mine. There are several recipes on the internet, but they all more or less follow a 1 to 1 ratio of shrimp to tapioca flour/starch. I've tried the Kuali On-line recipe and the David Thompson one, and while I prefer the ease of the former, I liked the taste of the latter. My version is a kind of mash-up of the two.

Krupuk Udang--Prawn Crackers
250 grams raw, peeled, deveined shrimp, chopped
250 grams tapioca flour
2-3 cloves garlic
1 tsp salt
1 tsp white pepper
2 TBS fish sauce
1/2 tsp sugar
water, as needed

oil for frying

In a mortar pound the garlic, salt and pepper to a smooth paste. Add chopped shrimp and pound until you have a sticky mass. Transfer to a bowl. (If you have a stand mixer, use it. I don't and mixing this by hand is quite labor intensive.) Stir the tapioca flour into the shrimp mixture. Add the fish sauce and sugar. Incorporate the flour and shrimp until you have a very homogeneous mass. Knead the mass until you have a firm, smooth, solid dough, a process that will probably take a good ten minutes. You're ready when, as Terri writes in her blog, the dough "feels like pressing your arm...soft yet firm." If too firm, add some water and knead some more.

Roll the dough into two six inch logs about 2 inches in diameter. Wrap the logs in plastic wrap and steam for 30 minutes.

When the steamed logs have cooled, slice as thinly as possible. They should be translucent, no thicker than a nickel. I've tried slicing with a mandolin, but the nature of the dough makes this difficult. A deli-style meat slicer would probably be ideal, but a good sharp knife works well.

The coins of dough now must be dried several days. I simply dried mine out on the patio, but you could use a dehydrator I suppose. They must be thoroughly dried before frying to puff up correctly. Once dried, you can store them until you are ready to fry.

Fry the crackers several at a time in hot oil. The crackers will sort of curl and unfold in the oil, expanding as they do so. Each batch takes maybe 30 seconds or so. The cooked crackers can be stored in an airtight container for at least several days.
They can be enjoyed alone, or with dips. They are the perfect accompaniment to a tall, cool gin and tonic.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Thai Me Up Chicken Corn Cellophane Noodle Salad

I somehow stumbled across the Paper Chef challenge yesterday and thought I'd give it a go. Apparently modeled after the Ironchef series of TV fame, the idea is each cook must prepare a recipe from four ingredients selected by the previous Paper Chef winner. The ingredients are revealed the first full weekend of the month and the challenge must be submitted by noon the following Tuesday. It turned out that I had the four ingredients required for this month's challenge, so I thought I'd see what I could do. This month's ingredients were corn, chicken, almonds, and fish sauce. This combination suggested to me a Thai or Vietnamese style salad although I also considered fried rice. Cellophane noodles are frequently used in Thai salads and have the wonderful quality of absorbing and distributing the dressing to each bite of the salad. This salad could be served as lettuce wraps or, as I have done, simply on top of several leaves of romaine lettuce.

Chicken and Corn Cellophane Noodle Salad

4 chicken thighs, skinned, boned, and cut into 1/2 inch dice
2 red peppers, roasted, peeled, and cut into 1/2 inch dice
2 ears of corn, shaved, about 2 cups of kernels
6 to 8 green onions, cut into 1/2 inch lengths
1/2 cup slivered dry roasted almonds
6 kaffir lime leaves, finely julienned
1 2 ounce bundle of cellophane noodles soaked in hot water until soft, drained, then cut in 2 inch lengths
3 TBS oil

1 TBS kecap manis (Indonesian sweet soy sauce)
1 TBS fish sauce (I prefer 3 Crabs, a Vietnamese brand)
2 cloves of garlic, minced

Marinate chicken in kecap manis, fish sauce and garlic for several hours or overnight.
Stir fry chicken in hot wok with 2 tablespoons of oil until just cooked. Remove chicken to a clean bowl. Add another tablespoon of oil to wok, then green onions. Fry about 20 seconds, then add red peppers and corn. Cook for two to three minutes over high flame, stirring constantly. Add chicken back to the vegetables and stir to mix thoroughly. Turn off heat and stir in almonds and lime leaf slivers. Fold in cellophane noodles, then pour dressing over and mix well. Serve several tablespoons full on individual iceberg lettuce leaves or on top of a plate lined with romaine lettuce.


2 TBS Thai sweet chili sauce
1 TBS fish sauce
juice of 1/2 a lime
1 1/2 tsp finely minced ginger
2 TBS water
sugar to taste

Mix ingredients together in a jar and shake well.

Thanks to Kristina of Former Chef for hosting this month's challenge.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Grilled Vegetable Salad

Although there are times traditional mayonnaise based potato salads taste good to me, in general I avoid them. Too often they are uninspired conglomerations of glop, with nothing to pique one's interest or appetite. Comfort food perhaps--if your idea of comfort is a massive intake of carbohydrates, fat, and cholesterol--but unappetizing. On the other hand, grilled vegetables with cherry tomatoes in a basil vinaigrette are a Koko Taylor soul shake shout out to summer. Wang dang doodle indeed.

The inspiration for this recipe is from the Fields of Greens cookbook, a collection of vegetarian recipes that even meat-eaters can enjoy. Although I am hardly vegetarian, this is one of my favorite cookbooks. From salads to desserts, its recipes are creative, attractive, and delicious.

Grilled Vegetable Salad
Vegetables of your choice to grill
Baby new potatoes
Green beans, boiled 2-3 minutes until just cooked
Cherry tomatoes, halved

Wash new potatoes. Place in foil with 3 to 4 peeled cloves of garlic and 1/4 cup of oil. Close foil packet and cook on grill over indirect heat for about 40 minutes. Open packet, remove potatoes and slice in half when cool.

Slice zucchini in half lengthwise. Brush zucchini and potato halves with reserved oil from potatoes. Grill over medium-high 3 to 5 minutes until just cooked but still firm. Cut zucchini into 1 to 2 inch pieces.

Combine grilled vegetables with green beans and cherry tomatoes. Pour basil vinaigrette over and turn vegetables gently to cover evenly. Plate and serve.

The salad can be served warm, at room temperature, or chilled.

Basil Vinaigrette

6 TBS extra virgin olive oil
2 TBS rice wine vinegar (Fields of Greens calls for champagne vinegar)
1/2 cup fresh basil leaves
1/2 tsp salt
1 clove of garlic, coarsely chopped

Put all ingredients in a blender and puree until smooth.