Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Bak Kua--Coin of the Realm

Anyone who has a taste for pork and has spent any time in Singapore has probably not only tasted bak kua, but has come to long for it. In searching for a recipe for this, I came across many accounts of people trying to bring the pork into the US only to have it confiscated by customs agents. This also happened to my wife and me one time, even though the clerk at the shop in the airport in Singapore assured us there would be no problem bringing it in. We were trying to bring some back for my sister-in-law, who could probably wolf down a pound of this in one sitting. We have bought it for her on occasion here in the US, but a four ounce package (which is two small strips) is several dollars. Worse than the expense, it just doesn't taste as good. I won't claim that my recipe is as good as what you get in Singapore, but it's better than the packages you find in your local Asian market.

Ideally, the sheets of the prepared meat mixture would be dried in the sun, like drying krupuk. This would be possible in Sacramento in the summer, but not at this time of the year. Instead, I did as others have done and did the initial drying/baking in a very low oven. Once the sheets have been sufficiently dried/cooked, they are cut into smaller pieces and grilled. The pre-cooked sheets can be cut and frozen, stored for a final grilling when convenient. Serve them with cocktails and prepare to be worshipped.

I include links to recipes I tried before coming up with mine. They are all very similar with slight tweaks. I haven't been able to find rose wine or licorice powder, so I substituted rose syrup and ground fennel. Dry frying star anise and grinding it to a powder might also work. It's a recipe that allows plenty of room to tweak to your own personal tastes.

One addition to my recipe that you won't find in the others is pink salt (sodium nitrate). I would suspect that the original recipe for bak kua included saltpeter. This preserves the pinkish color in cured meats and can be found in old recipes for char siu. Sodium nitrite has largely replaced saltpeter because it apparently does a better job of killing bacterial nasties. Its inclusion in the recipe preserves the rosy color of bak kua and that slightly hammy taste. Leave it out and the bak kua will still taste ok, but it definitely is not as attractive.

Bak Kua/Bak Kwa--Singapore Jerky

2 1/2 lbs ground pork (should have at least 15% fat--pork shoulder is good)
2 TBS fish sauce
2 TBS soy sauce
1 TBS hoisin sauce
200 gr brown sugar
3 TBS honey
2 tsp ground fennel seeds
3/4 tsp white pepper
1/2 tsp (3 grams) pink salt (sodium nitrite)
1 1/2 TBS vegetable oil

Mix ground pork with remaining ingredients. Cover tightly with cling-wrap and allow to marinate overnight. Spread mixture thinly on two jelly roll pans approximately 16" x 11". Put plastic wrap on top of the mixture and press down to spread as thinly and evenly as possible.

Bake the sheets in a preheated 180° F  oven for about 10 minutes. Carefully flip the sheets of meat over and bake for another 10 minutes. Remove and cut into photo-size rectangles or use a biscuit cutter to cut into "coins". Grill over medium heat on each side.

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Saturday, January 23, 2010

Dau Hu Chien Sa--Fried Tofu with Lemongrass

The first time I tasted this dish, I was working on Pulau Galang, an Indochinese refugee camp in the Riau province in Indonesia. After it first appeared among the dishes in the staff dining hall, it became a standard that was served several times a week. Not only was it delicious, but it was cheap and popular with all the staff.

When my wife and I moved to Vietnam for a year in 1993, the family we lived with occasionally made this for me when they learned how much I loved it. One of the older aunts in the house was (is) a devout Buddhist who was strictly vegetarian, and she often had this. Although I am too weak of the spirit to give up eating the flesh, were I to become vegetarian, this would be my go to dish. In fact, even now I would choose this over a grilled hamburger any day of the week.

Although this is a simple dish, it does take some time to prepare, especially if you don't have some sort of food processor. Chopping lemongrass is a chore. Chopping it finely takes a great deal of time and effort. And this dish requires a great deal of lemongrass for just four cakes of tofu.

I had tried to make this many times before I finally learned how to do it. I had always assumed the lemongrass and the tofu were cooked together. No. When you do this you end up with burnt lemongrass, and that's not a good thing. When we returned to Vietnam the summer before last, I asked our friend Phuong, whose family we had lived with, to show me how to make it. Not only did she show me, but during the several weeks we stayed with them she cooked it for us about every other day. Heaven!

This is a dish I've never found on any Vietnamese menu. I never had it in Vietnam, except at the house where we lived. I did find a recipe for it in a cookbook I found in Vietnam, but that recipe added five-spice, which I feel detracts from the dish.

Try this along with some baby bok choy stir-fried with garlic and some jasmine rice. You won't miss the meat.

Dau Hu Chien Sa--Fried Tofu with Lemongrass

5 stalks of lemongrass, tough outer layers and green tops removed
2--3 cloves garlic, finely minced (optional)
1 small red chili, seeded and finely minced (optional)
4 cakes of fresh tofu from an Asian market (if you buy tofu in plastic tubs, cut the loaves of tofu into slices a little more than 1-inch thick)

Heat about a half cup of oil in a nine-inch frying pan, preferably non-stick or well seasoned. Shallow fry tofu on both sides. Make four slices three-quarters of a way through, or make an X three-quarters of the way through each cake of tofu.

Finely chop the lemongrass. Pour off about half the oil. Add the lemongrass, garlic, and chili, and fry until golden and crisp. Add a slight sprinkling of salt to taste.

Stuff the fried lemongrass mixture between the "leaves" of tofu. Serve with steamed rice.

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Thursday, January 21, 2010

Semur Daging--Javanese Beef Stew (of a sort)

My mother makes a very good beef bourguignon, as well as a killer beef stroganoff. They were dishes I always looked forward to while I was growing up (and anytime she makes them now when I am fortunate enough to be there for dinner). But my wife doesn't care for beef much, so I don't cook it too often. When I do, I usually cook rendang, empal, rawon, or some other Indonesian dish. Semur is one of those Indonesian beef dishes that my wife enjoys.

Although commonly perceived as being spicy, a lot of Indonesian food is not particularly hot. Very often heat is introduced in the form of sambal, a chile based sauce. A typical serving of nasi rames might have a meat dish, a vegetable dish, tempe or tofu, a boiled egg, rice and a selection of sambals. Semur is one of those Indonesian dishes that incorporates several indigenous spices but forgoes the heat of chilies. It is a relatively easy stew-like dish that can be served as a main course to a simple family meal, or be a part of a multi-dish ristaffel.

Likely a Dutch-influenced dish ("smoor" meaning to smother in Dutch), semur is a slow braised stew redolent with spices that made Indonesia such a colonial prize. There are countless variations to semur, and the spices used reflect the cook's cultural background. In as much as my wife is ethnic Chinese from Java, the recipe I use contains star anise as well as cloves and cinnamon, which may not be found in other recipes. My wife also insists semur needs to have cellophane noodles, though I haven't seen them listed in other recipes. In short, semur invites you to tailor the dish to your own personal tastes and preferences.

Semur Daging

2 1/2 to 3 pounds boneless beef chuck, cut into 1-inch cubes
3/4 cup minced shallots
2 TBS oil
2 TBS minced ginger
1 1/2 tsp minced laos
1/2 nutmeg, grated
2--4 star anise
1 3 to 4-inch piece of cinnamon
5 cloves, ground
2 tsp salt
2 salam leaves
4 cups water
4 TBS kecap manis
2 tsp vinegar
3 roma tomatoes, cut in 1/2-inch dice
2 to 3 yukon gold potatoes, sliced crosswise 1/2-inch thick
1 bundle cellophane noodles, softened in hot water
3--4 hard boiled eggs, peeled

Fry the shallots in the oil about a minute. Stir in the ginger, laos, nutmeg, star anise, cinnamon, cloves, and salt. Add the beef, stir and cook for another five minutes or so. Pour in the water, add the kecap manis and salam leaves, and bring to a boil. Cover and simmer on low for an hour to an hour and a half, until the beef is tender.

Some people add the potatoes raw and let them cook in the stew. I like to brown them by lightly frying them first and adding them the last fifteen minutes of cooking, along with the tomatoes and eggs. Add the cellophane noodles near the end of the cooking time.

Just before serving, stir in the vinegar. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Ayam Kodok--Stuffed Whole Boneless Chicken

Ayam kodok is not an everyday dish. It's for when you want to pull out the stops. It's a dish sure to impress. And while it may seem complicated and difficult, it really isn't that difficult to pull off.

Ayam kodok, which translates as frog chicken, gets its name from the way the chicken looks when it's deboned. Pull the bones from a chicken while keeping its skin intact and the result is something that looks remarkably like a frog in its general shape. The dish is essentially a galantine as a mortician might make it.

To bone the chicken, start at the neck. Loosen the skin around the wings and breast and cut the wings at the joint, freeing them from the body. Slip a boning knife under the skin and cut it loose from the back. The skin is most firmly attached to the spine of the bird. As you loosen the skin, pull it down over the breast. When you get to the thighs, cut them loose from the body. Take your time so you don't tear the skin. Push out the first joint of the wing (the drumette) and scrape the meat from the bone. Twist the bone to remove it from the elbow joint. To remove the drumstick (the leg of the chicken) use the back edge of a cleaver to break the bone about an inch from the bottom. Push the leg up and pull it away from the skin. Scrape the meat from the bone and reserve.

Once the bones are pulled from the bird, it is stuffed with a force meat mixture and boiled eggs. While in most of Indonesia it might be stuffed with ground chicken, I prefer it with some ground pork, guaranteeing a moist interior. Although usually just chicken eggs are used for stuffing the cavity, I also put one quail egg in each of the legs and wings. Cutting into the chicken and revealing the eggs is a fun little surprise for diners.

Force Meat Stuffing for Ayam Kodok

4 quail eggs, boiled and peeled
4 chicken eggs, 2 of them boiled and peeled
chicken meat from the boned chicken
3/4 lb ground pork (I used several Hmong sausages that I had on hand)
2 oz of cellophane noodles, softened in warm water
4 shallots, chopped
4 cloves of garlic, chopped
2-3 chilies, chopped (optional)
2-3 TBS fish sauce
2 TBS kecap manis
black pepper

Cut chicken into one inch pieces. Add two raw eggs, pork, noodles, shallots, garlic, et al (everything except the boiled eggs) to food processor and pulse to make a homogenized mixture. Lay the chicken in a roasting pan, or dish for steaming, and proceed to stuff. Stuff the wings with some of the meat, then press in a quail egg and stuff in more of the meat mixture. Do the same for the legs. Stuff the main cavity with the rest of the mixture. Push the two boiled chicken legs down the middle of the breast, surrounding them with meat. The reconstituted chicken will be flatter than when it still had its bones, rather more frog-like in appearance. It is now ready to be baked or steamed.

Some recipes call for steaming the chicken before baking it. If you do this, you can prepare the chicken up through the steaming stage, then refrigerate or freeze it before the final roasting in the oven. This time I skipped the steaming and simply roasted the chicken in the oven the whole time. It took approximately an hour and 15 minutes in a 400º oven.

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Thursday, January 14, 2010

Southwestern Samosas

I'm a terrible procrastinator. Or, an excellent one, if putting off doing everything until the last possible moment makes one an excellent procrastinator. It was the threat of deadlines that enabled me to get through college. Without them, I'd probably still be struggling through introduction to linguistics. I'm the clown driving through the drive-through lane at midnight on April 15th to file. Not my taxes, my extension.

As part of the Foodbuzz Tastemaker Program, I received a bottle of Pace salsa some weeks ago to try to incorporate into a recipe. I thought I should do something more than simply top a bunch of tortilla chips and sprinkle on some cheese. I decided I would get to that later; there was plenty of time.

Recently I got a post from the Foodbuzz Editorial Team reminding me to submit my Pace recipe by January 15th. Huh? Oh yeah, that jar of salsa that I got. I had totally forgotten about it! But I like salsa, and I've bought Pace before; it's actually a decent salsa, and especially in winter when fresh tomatoes (and I don't mean the tasteless supermarket variety) aren't available. But I had to post my Daring Cooks challenge by the 14th. Oh, f....!

One of my Christmas presents was Andrea Nguyen's Asian Dumplings. It looks to have a lot of recipes that I'll enjoy, and one that immediately appealed to me was the recipe for samosas. I've always enjoyed samosas, but sometimes they're greasy. To make my southwestern samosas I used the recipe for flaky pastry from Nguyen's book and it was wonderful, as well as quick and easy.

You could take the southwestern samosas in different directions depending on your diet and tastes. If I had some Spanish cured chorizo on hand, I would have included that with the potatoes and beans. You could also use fresh, Mexican style chorizo. You could also add avocado.

I went meatless, and didn't regret it. I made a half-dozen samosas without cheese, and another half-dozen with cheese. Both tasted great. I probably wouldn't make them with cheese unless they were to be eaten while still warm, but both tasted good cold. It's just that the cheese didn't add that much extra to the cold samosas to justify the extra fat and calories.

Southwestern Samosas

2 TBS olive oil
1/2 onion, chopped
2 yukon gold potatoes, boiled, skinned, and cut into 1/4 inch cubes
2 tsp cumin, ground
1 cup Pace™ salsa
1 cup canned black beans, drained
3 ounces of pepper jack, cut into 1/4 inch cubes (optional)
salt, to taste

Heat a skillet over medium heat. Fry the onion until translucent. Add the potatoes and cumin. Fry for a minute or so and then add the salsa and black beans. Fry until somewhat dry. Salt to taste. Allow to cool and add cheese if you want.

Stuff the wrappers, moisten edges with water and seal. Fry for approximately 10 minutes at around 350º. Drain and allow to cool for at least five minutes before eating.

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Daring Cooks Pork Sate

The January 2010 DC challenge was hosted by Cuppy of Cuppylicious and she chose a delicious Thai-inspired recipe for Pork Satay from the book 1000 Recipes by Martha Day. This month's Daring Cooks' Challenge called for pork sate. Although Indonesia's sate is well known, the recipe identified the challenge's sate as Thai. Sate in Thailand actually appears to have immigrated north from Malaysia, and as it moved north from the Muslim influence of the south, pork (taboo to Muslims, of course) became an acceptable meat.

In Indonesia, which has some 216 million Muslims out of a total population of around 240 million, pork sate is not usually found outside of Bali and Chinese communities. Although in Bali pork sate is now served with peanut sauce because that's what tourists expect, most Indonesians eat pork sate with sambal kecap--a sauce of kecap manis, lime juice, garlic, shallots, and chilies. I must say that I also prefer sambal kecap with pork sate. Peanut sauce somehow doesn't complement the pork sate. In the photo, peanut sauce is on the left, sambal kecap on the right.

I'm having a hell of a time getting photos, what with the shorter days and my teaching schedule. As a result, I thought I'd wait until there's more light to do a proper posting on sate babi (pork sate) as I know it. For the challenge, I used a marinade from a cookbook I picked up in Indonesia many years ago for a generic meat sate (beef, lamb, or goat). I much prefer Sri Owen's first cookbook, Indonesian Food and Cookery, even though she had to make many compromises when she wrote it because of the difficulty of finding Indonesian ingredients at that time.

I served the sate with a peanut sauce and sambal kecap, but I think I was the only one in the house who actually tried the peanut sauce. It just doesn't belong with pork sate.

Sate Daging (recipe adapted from Indonesian and Thai Cookery by Sri Owen)

3 shallots, thinly sliced
2 cloves of garlic, pounded to a paste in a mortar
1 TBS coconut vinegar
2 tsp coriander, ground
1/2 tsp cumin, ground
2 TBS light soy sauce
2 TBS vegetable oil

1 lb pork shoulder, cut into 1/2 inch cubes
8--12 bamboo skewers, soaked in water several hours

Mix all the ingredients for the marinade in a bowl. Add the meat and stir well. Marinate for at least two hours.

Skewer the meat and grill over a hot flame for 6 to 8 minutes, turning several times. Ideally, you should grill over charcoal, but a gas grill is ok.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Put the Lime in the Coconut

Although I'm not really all that into desserts, I've been pretty much designated the dessert person in my book club. I could bring a chocolate tart every time and there would be no complaints. (Well, maybe from my wife.) But I try to mix it up some and bring different types of desserts.

Tonight's effort is a variation on a lemon pudding cake I like. I normally cook it in one larger vessel, but for tonight I thought I'd try individual ramekins. While I don't generally test recipes out on guests, this is for the book club, and they'll pretty much eat anything I put before them ;-). I sampled one and found it a little drier than my usual recipe. Whether this is because of baking it in individual ramekins or the use of coconut milk, I don't know. I do prefer a moister, more pudding-like cake.

Coconut Lemon-Lime Pudding Cake

1 stalk lemongrass, lower half only, outer leaves removed
4 kaffir lime leaves
1 can of coconut milk, Chaokoh brand is what I prefer
3 TBS butter, softened
3 eggs, separated
1/2 cup flour
1 cup sugar
7 TBS lemon juice
zest of one lemon, finely grated
pinch of salt

Preheat oven to 350º.

Steep the lemon grass and two of the kaffir lime leaves in the coconut milk in a pan over low heat for half an hour. Strain and cool the coconut milk.

Mix flour and sugar together.

Microwave the other kaffir limes for about 40 seconds to 1 minute, until crisp. Crush in mortar or spice grinder to make a fine powder. Stir into the flour mixture.

Whisk the yolks and butter together until smooth. Add in the cooled coconut milk, lemon juice, and zest. Stir the flour mixture into the coconut milk mixture.

Whip the egg whites with the salt until soft peaks form. Fold them into cake batter.

Pour the batter into individual ramekins or a 1 quart baking dish. Place into a roasting pan that can accommodate them and create a bain marie by adding boiling water until it reaches half way up the sides of the ramekins.

Bake for 25--30 minutes. With tongs, remove the ramekins from the bain marie and allow to cool on racks. May be served warm, room temperature, or cold.

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Monday, January 4, 2010

Pea Shoot Soup

The last time I truly celebrated the western New Year in the manner traditionally associated with it--excessive drinking, wild partying, and lascivious lusting--was in a universe far, far away in both space and time. I was single then, with a liver that could rope-a-dope all night long. Living overseas, I didn't drive, and even better, 95% of the drivers didn't drink. Now, New Year's Eve is a night I almost dread. I fear the both the exuberance of young drunks rutting in clubs and their driving on the road. I find most of my friends are the same. We hunker in our homes now, share a nice dinner and perhaps some champagne with friends or family, and almost weep when we listen to Dick Clark trying to count down the last seconds of the receding year.

I do, however, celebrate Lunar New Year. For the last ten years I have invited family over to celebrate with a multi-course meal. It is kind of like Thanksgiving, but without the football, and with more food. It started out relatively small, with only eight or nine guests, but has grown as more relatives have moved to the area. I think there will be sixteen people this year, but that includes our godson, who is not yet one year old. In addition to the challenge of seating sixteen people in our dining area, there is the greater challenge of cooking for this many people. As I do all the cooking, I need to select a variety of dishes--with some that can be made ahead of time and served cold, others that can simmer on the stove, some that will be grilled, and still others that have to be fried at the last moment. Although there are several dishes that are always requested and reappear year after year, I try to vary the menu from one year to the next. One year I cooked only Vietnamese dishes, and other years I have done only Chinese. This year I will most likely do a few of each. (One of the benefits of being a Gwei Lo (Cantonese for ghost), Bule (Indonesian for albino--whitey), or Liên Xô (Vietnamese for Russian--that's what Vietnamese usually thought I was when I lived in Vietnam in 1994), is that I don't have to adhere to tradition. I can cook what I feel like, although my wife makes sure that the meal ends with fish.)

In the next couple of weeks running up to the New Year, which falls on February 14th this year, I will be posting some of the recipes I will be serving or am thinking of serving for the dinner. Because the cooking on the day itself is so hectic, I thought it makes more sense to present the dishes beforehand. Some of the dishes may not actually make it to the dinner menu, but most probably will. Any suggestions about dishes that I should include would be appreciated, but I don't know if they'll make it onto the menu either.

I usually don't serve soup, simply because of the logistics. I don't really have the tureens for serving that much soup. Also, we are sitting around rectangular tables rather than round ones, so serving is difficult. However, if the pea shoots are still available at the farmer's market, I may try to serve this soup this year. It's quite easy to prepare and can be finished just before serving.

Pea Shoot Soup

1 pound pea shoots, sorted and washed
4 to 6 ounces skinless, boneless chicken breast (shrimp or scallops could be substituted)
1 egg white
2 to 3 tsp cornflour
6 cups chicken stock
2 roma tomatoes, peeled, quartered, all seeds and pulp removed
salt and white pepper to taste
a few drops of sesame oil (optional)

Cut chicken into cubes and place in a food processor. Pulse until finely chopped. Add egg white, cornstarch, and a pinch of salt and process to a smooth paste.

Place teaspoons of the paste between leaves of the pea shoots. Bring stock to a full simmer. Add the pea shoots and cook for five minutes. Season to taste with salt and white pepper. Place the soup in a tureen. Arrange the quarters of tomatoes like flower petals on top of the soup. Sprinkle with a few drops of sesame oil if you wish. Serve.
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