Sunday, October 25, 2009


 I had been planning to make some rendang for some time before I finally got around to it. As much as I hunger for it, I only make it four to six times a year. A quintessentially Indonesian dish--slow, incredibly rich yet unpretentious, spicy with a steady heat that sidles up to you--it's a dish that demands your time and attention. Essentially a stew that is simmered until almost all the liquid has been absorbed or cooked off, like many stews it seems even better the next day.

I first tasted rendang on a picnic in Java. I had only been in the country a few weeks when one of my students and her husband took me to Sarangan, a mountainous lake in Central Java. Vivi was originally from Solok, a small town near Padang in West Sumatra where rendang originated. The rendang that Vivi made was from beef and beef liver.

Liver is something I abhor. My gag reflex kicks in whenever I have to eat it. The first bite of rendang I had was simply beef. Then I got a piece of liver. Even rendang could not disguise that distinctive texture and taste of liver. However, the sauce was so luscious I didn't mind at all. Vivi had made a large batch (rendang is not a meal to cook for two) and I could have eaten all of it by myself. When they dropped me off at my room later that evening, Vivi and her husband gave me a pint or more of leftovers (half of which I ate as soon as I was alone). The rest I ate the next morning, cold, and it was still phenomenal.

Several years later, I got the chance to visit Padang, and even made it to Solok where I met Vivi's mother. Padang was a quiet, unassuming city, much quieter and more sparsely populated than cities in Java. It was a wonderful city to visit, one I hope to return to again some day.

The recent earthquake there apparently caused extensive damage. At least 3,000 people died as a direct result of the quake. People who had little were left with nothing. It is hard for us in the United States, especially those who have never been in developing countries, to appreciate how so many who have so little can face such devastation. The disasters attract our attention and sympathy for a minute but then we're distracted by the next bit of fluff, a shiny ballon drifting over a desert, or the pop star du jour's latest meltdown. We can't bring ourselves to acknowledge that but for the luck of being born where we were, we too could be facing such loss.

In the face of such disasters and poverty and children dying for want of clean water or mosquito netting, it seems almost obscene to be blogging about food. I don't know quite how to reconcile my feelings about this dichotomy. I have put in some time volunteering to help people less well off than I, but is that enough? What's the point of sharing recipes? Perhaps people tasting the food of a country will take a moment to think of the people in that country. Perhaps it's just a selfish act. I don't know. Any ideas or feedback is certainly welcome. In the meantime, here's Vivi's recipe for rendang.

A printable version of the recipe is available here.

Vivi’s Rendang

3 pounds chuck roast cut into 2 inch cubes
2 15 oz cans coconut milk
2 cups water

1/4 to 1/3 cup finely chopped or ground red chilies (can use sambal oelek if fresh hot red chilies aren’t available)
1 head of garlic (about 50 grams), coarsely chopped
6--8 shallots (about 150 grams), coarsely chopped
5 kemiri (candle nuts)
1 tsp coriander seeds, ground
1/2 a nut of nutmeg, ground
5 cloves, ground
1 two-inch finger of turmeric, peeled and chopped (2 tsp ground turmeric)
3 thumbs of ginger, peeled and coarsely chopped
1 thumb of laos (galingale) peeled and sliced
1 tsp kosher salt

3 daun salam
6 kaffir lime leaves
2 stalks of lemongrass, bruised with a pestle

Pulse the chilies, shallots, garlic, spices and salt in a food processor until you have a somewhat smooth paste.

In a dutch oven or similar pot, mix beef and spice paste. Add coconut milk, water, salam and kaffir lime leaves, and lemongrass and bring to a boil over medium heat. Lower the heat to maintain a steady simmer and stir every fifteen minutes or so. Open a beer, or the beverage of your choice, turn on some good music and relax. Like good barbecue, the secret to good rendang is cooking it low and slow. You can’t rush it.

James Oseland, in his excellent book Cradle of Flavor, recommends using a shallow, wide pan to cook rendang to speed up the evaporation process. I disagree for two reasons. One, I think you just need to give it the time it needs. Two, as you get near the end the oils tend to sputter and pop; with a shallow pan you will find your kitchen spattered with turmeric freckles.

As the liquid reduces you need to reduce the heat and stir more often. The rendang is done when the sauce has been reduced to a thick paste and is a chocolate brown.

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Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Wha tha pho? Pho Ga--Vietnamese Chicken Noodle Soup

Although I lived in Vietnamese refugee camps several years, lived in Vietnam for almost a year, and could eat Vietnamese food every day for the rest of my life without complaint, I am not wild about Pho Ga (Chicken Pho). I like it, mind you. I would take it over its American counterpart any day of the week, but it is not something I ever find myself thinking I must have soon or my life will seem diminished. Sadly (for it is surely wrong to have such attachment to food), I do have these thoughts about other foods such as bun rieu, rendang, soto ayam, and pizza.

Still, this month's Daring Cooks' Challenge was Pho Ga. Although the challenge actually provided a simplified recipe, I preferred to go old school, charring the ginger and onion, the whole bit. So I followed this recipe. While it didn't convert me to a pho ga fanatic, it did produce as tasty a pho ga as I have ever had.

With the change in weather in Northern California, this recipe couldn't have come at a better time. It was a delicious meal for a cool, windy evening. For anyone thinking Vietnamese food is too difficult to cook at home, this soup proves that wrong.

The October 2009 Daring Cooks’ challenge was brought to us by Jaden of the blog Steamy Kitchen. The recipes are from her new cookbook, The Steamy Kitchen Cookbook. Thanks to Jaden for this delicious challenge. I look forward to trying out other recipes from her cookbook.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Thai-spiced Chicken Toast Rounds

I'm a whore.

Let me rephrase that.

I'm an ESL teacher for a school district that has looted its own adult education program to mitigate budget cuts the state legislature has forced on the district's K-12 program. As a result, there has been a 26% cut to the adult education program, eliminating scores of part-time teaching positions, although not a single administrative position has been cut (despite closing down one school). In order to preserve administrative positions, there has been a Byzantine reshuffling of administrative oversight so that the ESL department at my school is not done by the principal who is actually based at my school, but instead is handled by the principal of the closed down school who is now based at a high school that was closed down several years ago. Honest. Although this principal was successfully sued by a former vice-principal for, in part, asking him to alter data to get more funding, she still wields power in the district. Under her direction, our department has been told to forget the curriculum that has been developed over many years and to focus on EL Civics, a federally funded program that is so poorly managed that it practically invites fraud. So instead of focusing on teaching my students what they truly need to learn, I teach them to pass the assessments. Ka-ching!

In other words, I'm a whore.
But I'm not a cheap whore. As a friend of mine has been heard to say, "You can call me an asshole, but you can't call me a cheap asshole." In other words, I have my standards.

All of this is to explain my entry to be one of six Nature's Pride "Bread Ambassadors." Should my entry be accepted, Nature's Pride will cover the cost of my hotel room and travel expenses to the Foodbuzz Blogger Festival in San Francisco. Although it probably isn't the wisest strategy to announce my entry by proclaiming I'm a whore.

In truth, I bought my loaf of Nature's Pride Healthy Multi-Grain Bread. I do have a coupon for it, but I didn't want to feel cheap, so I bought my loaf. And it was good. It's a very fresh tasting, springy loaf with a natural nuttiness. I made a wonderful chicken salad sandwich with it. Alfalfa sprouts, shredded leftover gai yang with pepper coriander paste mixed with just enough mayonnaise to bind it together, and tomato slices. Truly delicious, but not worthy of an embassy posting.

Still, it got me thinking. So I decided to use some of that Thai flavor to make an appetizer akin to shrimp toast. Instead of frying the toast, I adapted the method Susana Foo uses in her cookbook to make shrimp toast. This produces a tasty, crisp toast that is not saturated with oil as the traditionally fried toasts are. To be honest, I prefer the fried version, but the baked version is very delicious and probably much healthier for you.

I used chicken breast because that seems like what most Americans prefer, never mind that it lacks the flavor of thighs. The breast does make a nice farcé that is easily piped onto the toast rounds. Taste the chicken mixture by frying a spoonful before baking and adjust the seasoning as needed.

Thai-spiced Chicken Toast Rounds
(makes 50 1 3/4 inch appetizers)

10 slices of Nature's Pride Multi-Grain Bread or Country Potato Bread

1 pound of boneless, skinless chicken breast, cut in 1 inch pieces
1 egg white, lightly beaten
5 shallots, peeled and chopped
5 cloves of garlic, peeled
3 TBS cilantro roots or 4 TBS cilantro stems
2 TBS whole white pepper, finely ground
2 TBS fish sauce
1 1/2 tsp sugar
2 TBS olive oil
6 fresh water chestnuts, peeled and diced
2 TBS diced red pepper
2 TBS finely chopped garlic chives

1 bunch of garlic chive buds, blanched in boiling water for 20 seconds, shocked in ice water and drained
2 TBS black sesame seeds

Using a 1 3/4 inch diameter biscuit cutter, cut five rounds from each slice of bread (you may not get five perfect rounds, but it should be close). Bake the rounds on an ungreased baking sheet in a 250 degree oven for 20 minutes. Remove from the oven and increase the oven temperature to 400º F.

In a food processor, finely chop the garlic, shallots and cilantro roots or stems. Add the chicken, pepper, fish sauce, sugar, oil and egg white. Pulse until you have a fairly smooth paste. Transfer the paste to a bowl and stir in the water chestnuts, red pepper and garlic chives. Fry a teaspoon-full and adjust seasonings as needed.

Brush one side of the toast rounds with olive oil and place on a baking sheet, oiled side of the toast down. Using a pastry bag, or plastic baggie with the corner cut out, pipe the chicken paste onto the top of the toast rounds.

Cut the tops of the garlic chives with the buds to a length of about 2 inches. Tie these into loose knots and place on top of the chicken topped rounds. Sprinkle with black sesame.

Bake in the 400º oven for 8 to 10 minutes. Best served warm, although they may be served cold.

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Sunday, October 4, 2009

Pork Adobo

Many, many years ago when I was an undergraduate at Humboldt State University, I shared the back half of the upstairs of an old house with several different roommates. Although Raul was not one of my original roommates, he certainly was my favorite. He was brilliant, easy-going, talented and had good taste in music. He also was a decent cook, certainly an upgrade from the roommate he replaced, a very nice young woman whose recipes always included condensed cream of mushroom soup. Raul's parents were from the Philippines, so he brought something different to the table when it was his turn to cook.

I'm sure that when he made his mother's pork adobo that it was the first time I had ever tasted fish sauce. He must have brought the fish sauce up with him from Sunnyvale because I'm sure it wasn't available in Arcata in 1977. I know the dish floored me. Such a simple dish, yet so full of flavor and richness.

When I realized I still had time to get in an entry to this month's Weekend Wokking, I knew it would have to be Mrs. T's Adobo. Vinegar is at the heart of this dish and cuts the richness of the pork. The finished dish tastes like tangy, moist carnitas. It's wonderful with plain rice and a side of stir fried greens.

Mrs. T's Adobo (as I remember it)

3 to 3 1/2 lbs pork shoulder, cut into one and a half inch cubes
3/4 cup vinegar (I think Raul used palm vinegar; I use coconut)
1/3 cup soy sauce
1/3 cup fish sauce ( I use Vietnamese 3 crabs brand)
2 1/2 heads of garlic, coarsely chopped (the garlic disappears into the sauce)
1 TBS whole black pepper
a couple of bay leaves
water to cover meat, and another cup to add later after most of the original liquid has been reduced to a thick sauce.

Combine all ingredients except for the water and marinate from one to three hours. Place ingredients in pan and add just enough water to cover. Bring to a boil, then let cook at a moderate simmer, uncovered, for several hours until the liquid mostly evaporates and the pork begins to brown in the rendered fat. Careful you don't scorch the pan at this stage. When the pork has been browned and lightly crisped, add the cup of water and stir for several minutes to get a nice gravy-like sauce. Remove the fat on the surface and serve the adobo with rice and greens.

Weekend WokkingI'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 Darlene of Blazing Hot Wok. If you would like to participate or to see the secret ingredient, check who's hosting next month.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Soto Ayam

Soto Ayam, the flavorful chicken soup from Indonesia, is what I used to eat for lunch three to four times a week when I lived in a small town in Central Java for several years from 1983 to 1985. I would usually have a half portion of that or of gado-gado at Rumah Makan Murni on Jalan Diponegoro in Cepu. Occasionally I would have the Opor Ayam, but I was almost always torn between the gado-gado and the soto. To this day, I've never had gado-gado that approaches that made by Tien and her sister at Rumah Makan Murni. Their soto ayam was also the best I've ever had, but I've enjoyed many other versions that have been almost as good.

Soto Ayam is a dish that lends itself to regional variances. It is, after all, chicken soup, and each town seems to have its own idea of what to include in it. Some include cloves in the spices; others use cumin or even cinnamon. As long as your broth is decent, whatever version of soto you try is going to taste good.

Soto is personalized by how you choose to garnish it. Fried shallots are a must (and they should be relatively fresh, not those awful things in plastic containers you can buy in Asian markets here). I also like fried garlic in mine. A drizzle of kecap manis and a squeeze of lime are also standard. A dab of sambal is usually added with the kecap and lime. Chopped cabbage, bean sprouts, and Indonesian celery are other elements to add or omit according to personal preference and availability. Quartered, boiled eggs are usually included in the bowl. I always used to have soto with the lightest, perfectly fried krupuk ikan Palembang when I lived in Cepu. My wife loves it with potato chips. Serve it with rice or slices of lontong.

Soto Ayam (adapted from Cradle of Flavor by James Oseland)

1 chicken, quartered (free-range is preferred, but I used a fresh supermarket chicken)
2 1/2 quarts water
2 stalks fresh lemongrass, lightly pounded
6 to 8 fresh kaffir lime leaves
1 tsp kosher salt

Spice Paste
1 1/2 tsp white peppercorns
2 TBS coriander seeds
1 tsp cumin seeds
6 shallots, coarsely chopped
3 cloves garlic, chopped
5 kemiri (candlenuts)
1 "finger" turmeric, peeled and chopped (1 1/2 tsps ground turmeric)
4 slices of laos about the size of quarters (galangal)
1 thumb of ginger, peeled and chopped

3 TBS oil
2 oz bundle of soun (cellophane noodles), soaked in boiling water for ten minutes or so until softened. Drain and cut in half or thirds.
1 TBS lime juice

Recommended Garnishes
chopped cabbage
bean sprouts
boiled eggs
chopped Indonesian celery
kecap manis
fried shallots
potato chips

Prepare the broth by covering the quartered chicken with the water. Add the lemongrass and kaffir lime leaves. Bring to a boil, then lower to a moderate simmer and cook for about 45 minutes, skimming foam from the surface every ten minutes or so as needed to get a clear broth.
Remove chicken from broth and allow to cool. Tear into small shreds and reserve. (You may include the skin or not according to your preference.)

Grind the pepper and seeds in a coffee grinder or in a mortar with pestle until finely ground. Add other ingredients to the mortar and continue to grind until you have a smooth paste, or use a blender or small food processor. You want to have a fairly smooth paste without small pieces of garlic, shallot, turmeric, ginger or laos.

Heat the oil in a two quart saucepan and fry the spice paste over medium-low heat for about five minutes, until the paste begins to separate from the oil. Ladle a little of the broth into the pan with the spice paste. Stir and add this back to the pot of broth, along with the shredded chicken and lime juice.

To serve, put cellophane noodles into individual bowls. Ladle broth onto the noodles and allow diners to select which garnishes they prefer. In Indonesia this is usually served with a bowl of rice or lontong which diners then eat with the soto.
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