Sunday, February 28, 2010

Salt and Pepper Tofu

My wife and I are suckers for salt and pepper dishes. Any time we go to a Chinese restaurant for dinner, we have at least one salt and pepper dish. Although we both prefer shrimp, our niece is allergic to seafood, so we usually order salt and pepper spareribs. These are easy dishes to put together, consisting of a deep fried main ingredient that is later tossed with a stir-fired blend of minced shallots, garlic, ginger and peppers before getting a liberal sprinkling of a salt and szechuan peppercorn mixture.

The szechuan pepper and salt mixture is simply a two to one mixture of kosher salt to szechuan peppercorns. Heat the mixture in a skillet or wok over medium heat until you begin to smell the peppercorns. Cool the mixture and grind until you have a fine blend. Make enough so you don't have to make it each time you make a salt and pepper dish, but not so much that it loses its freshness. A 1/4 cup of salt and 2 tablespoons of peppercorns will make enough for 4 to 6 dishes.

Making salt and pepper tofu is a three stage process. First, cut the tofu into approximately 1/2-inch cubes. Allow the cubes to drain on paper towels for half an hour before deep frying them in batches, stirring to keep the cubes separate.

After removing all but two or three tablespoons of oil from the wok, briefly stir fry the shallot, garlic, ginger and chile mix until fragrant and beginning to soften. The blend can be varied to personal taste and preference. I like to use about a half cup of minced shallots (three to four) with a tablespoon and a half each of minced garlic and ginger. I adjust the amount of chiles I add according to their heat and who I'm cooking for. I might also add green onions, cut to 1/2 to 1-inch lengths if I have some fresh ones on hand.

As soon as the shallots begin to soften, stir in the tofu and mix thoroughly. Turn off the heat and add about 1 1/2 tablespoons of the szechuan pepper and salt mixture, stirring well to ensure even distribution of the ingredients. Serve with steamed rice.

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 Kits Chow. If you would like to participate or to see the secret ingredient, check who's hosting next month.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Lemon Ricotta Tart

I had been planning to make an orange tart for our bookclub dinner, but had some freshly made ricotta which I didn't want to go to waste. I had just made the ricotta for my lasagna, when I read the recipe and realized it didn't call for ricotta. Oops! I still had plenty of Meyers lemons on hand, so decided to make this tart, thinking that a lemon tart would make an enjoyably cheery winter dessert.

The crust for the tart is adapted from Baking with Julia. The filling is adapted from The New Regional Italian Cuisine Cookbook via the Accidental Hedonist. And the only reason I adapted the recipe is I misread it, including the juice of two lemons rather than one, as the original recipe calls for.

Pasta Frolla recipe (enough for 1 bottom crust)

1 cup flour
2 1/2 TBLS sugar
1/4 tsp baking powder
pinch of salt
4 TBLS cold butter
1 egg-beaten

Combine the first 4 ingredients into a mixing bowl and blend together well.
Cut up the butter into 8 pieces. Place it all in mixing bowl, and use a pastry blender to “cut” it into the flour until until it resembles coarse crumbs.
Make a well in the middle of the mixing bowl then pour the beaten egg in. Mix as best as you can with a wooden spoon and don’t worry if it still looks like a bunch of dry crumbs and clumps, it’s suppose to.
Dump all of the dough and crumbs onto a flat working surface, then knead the dough until it forms a smooth ball. It should come together very quickly once you start kneading it. Pat it into a disk,wrap in plastic, and chill for at least 30 minutes. It is now ready to be rolled out.

Lemon Ricotta Filling

4 Large Meyers lemons
2 eggs
1 1/4 sugar
16 oz Ricotta Cheese
2 Tbsp powdered Sugar
10 TBS water

Zest and juice two of the lemons.
Whisk the eggs together with 3/4 cup of sugar until smooth. Fold in ricotta, lemon zest and lemon juice. Mix until smooth.

Assembling and Baking

Preheat oven to 375º.

Roll out the crust and place in a 9-inch tart pan with removable bottom. Pour in ricotta filling. Bake for 35 to 40 minutes until filling is set.

While tart is baking, thinly slice lemons. In a saucepan, stir remaining 1/2 cup sugar into 10 tablespoons of water. Bring to a boil, then lower to simmer. Simmer lemon slices for 5 minutes in the syrup. Allow slices to cool in the syrup. Remove and dry the slices. Place atop baked tart. Sprinkle with powdered sugar. Slice and serve.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Beef Chow Mein

Although I'm not particularly fond of Hong Kong style chow mein with crispy noodles, being more of a lo mein type myself, it's a favorite in the family, so for the New Year's feast it made its way onto the menu. Crispy noodles topped with a saucy beef and vegetable mixture, beef chow mein takes a little preparation but comes together quickly. The components can be made ahead of time and the dish assembled at the last minute.

The noodles I used for my New Year's dinner were actually thinner than those in the photo. The process for cooking them is the same. First boil the noodles for few minutes, rinse with cold water and drain. Toss with a teaspoon of oil to keep the noodles from sticking together. Heat a half cup of oil in a wok or skillet and fry cakes of the noodles for about 3 minutes (until they are golden brown) on both sides. A pound of fresh noodles makes three eight-inch cakes.

For the beef, I used flank steak. Cut the beef against the grain into thin strips. Marinate a half pound of beef with two teaspoons of soy sauce, about a tablespoon of rice wine, and a half teaspoon of cornstarch. After marinating for at least 30 minutes, stir fry the beef until it is no longer pink. Remove the beef from the wok.

In the now cleaned wok, stir fry whatever vegetables you wish to add. For the New Year's dinner I included bok choy, shitake mushrooms, onion and red pepper. Don't over cook the vegetables. Then add two cups stock (I used chicken from the bones from ayam kodok) along with a tablespoon of oyster sauce mixed with two tablespoons of water and two teaspoons of cornstarch. Once the sauce thickens, return the beef and pour over the fried noodles.

Get the flash player here:

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Pork and Green Bean Lettuce Wraps

This Sunday is not only Valentine's Day; it's also the first day of the lunar new year. Although I'm Caucasian, born in Sacramento, with Irish blood and Scotch whiskey coursing through my veins, I celebrate Lunar New Year as much as I celebrate Thanksgiving. For the last eight years my wife and I have been hosting the traditional family dinner at our house. This came about in part because my wife's cousins left Indonesia after the riots there in 1998. The riots, in which the military reportedly played a role, targeted Chinese, with mobs attacking Chinese neighborhoods and businesses. My wife's cousins were in Jakarta during the rioting and spent several harrowing days and nights fleeing and hiding from mobs. They were finally granted asylum here in 2002. They will have their citizenship interview this month.

Although I had hoped to put together more posts before the dinner with recipes for some of the dishes that will be served, I just haven't found the time. I should have planned this several months ago, but so it goes. I'll try to get a post or two in before the dinner, with others to follow. Kim and Hong at Ravenous Couple and Bee at Rasa Malaysia whose sites you are doubtless aware of, have had the foresight to preview some of the dishes they will be serving for the New Year's Dinner. Check them out for some interesting ideas.

Pork and Green Bean Lettuce Wraps
Adapted from Every Grain of Rice; Blonder and Low
A printable version is available here.

1 head iceberg lettuce
1 lb boneless pork shoulder, minced
1 tsp cornstarch
pinch of sugar
2 tsp light soy sauce
1 TBS shaoxing wine
1/2 lb green beans, or long beans
1 TBS peanut oil
1 medium Asian pear, peeled and diced
2 TBS oyster sauce
1/3 to 1/2 cup hoisin sauce

Refresh the lettuce in ice water for a few minutes. Separate and dry the leaves. keep the leaves chilled until ready to serve.

Marinate the pork with the cornstarch, sugar, soy sauce, and rice wine from 30 minutes up to 2 hours.

Par boil the beans in boiling water for about 2 minutes. Drain and shock in an ice bath. Drain. Cut into 1/4 inch pieces.

Heat a wok over medium-high heat. Add the oil. When the oil is shimmering, add the pork and stir-fry, breaking up the pork with a spatula. Cook until the meat is no longer pink.

Add the green beans and stir fry for 2 minutes. Stir in the diced pear and the oyster sauce and cook 30 seconds more, coating meat, pear and beans thoroughly with the sauce. Remove the mixture to a serving plate.

To serve, each diner places a teaspoon or so of hoisin sauce on a lettuce leaf, adds the meat mixture, then wraps the lettuce around the meat and eats.

Nb. The original recipe calls for long beans and water chestnuts. If you can get fresh water chestnuts, they are wonderful--crisp and sweet. Canned water chestnuts have a decent crunch, but their flavor is totally different, tinny and starchy.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Cajun Gougeres

While no more than a blip on the screen in the rest of the world, the Superbowl is a major media event in the United States. Imagine the finals of the World Cup combined with a live rock concert supported by all the major international conglomerates. The Superbowl is not so much a sporting event as it is a spectacle. People with no interest in the sport, the game, the teams, or the players watch the game simply because everyone else is and it will be the topic of discussion the next day or two at work. The Superbowl is excessive, and if there's one thing America is good at it's excess.

Americans could probably learn to love soccer, if someone could just figure out a way that we didn't actually have to watch the games and could concentrate on beer, food, or diet commercials. How can we be expected to watch something for 45 minutes at a time without interruption? Jeez! A major draw of the Superbowl is the commercials shown during the game. In order to increase profits, the NFL (National Football League) increases the number of commercials shown during the game, and increasing the half-time, to make the game itself a mere distraction. Being the most watched TV event of the year, the network is able to charge premium prices for the commercial breaks. This year CBS is reportedly charging $3.1 million for every 30-second spot. In other words, in five minutes the network will make more than the $30 million being cut from my school district next year.

Of course, if we're going to watch several hours of commercials, we need to fuel ourselves for the endeavor. In neighborhoods across this great nation, people with gather in bars and in homes to drink and eat to glorious excess. More avocados are consumed this weekend than in any other weekend of the year, more than 43 million pounds, according to the New York Times. People try to relate the food to the teams involved in the game, and that isn't a problem for one of this year's teams, the New Orleans Saints. New Orleans has a long and distinctive history of celebrating good food, good eating, and good times. The Colts, however, are from Indianapolis, not exactly a foodie's Mecca. This is not to say there's no good food coming from Indianapolis, but it's more famous for it's racetrack than its cuisine.

I don't mind having an excuse to drink and eat, so I tend to celebrate the Superbowl in the American manner even if my team (the 49ers) hasn't been to the show for a few years now. I'll be watching at my brother's house this year. We tend to go for quality rather than quantity, so we'll have a pretty nice spread I'm sure. In addition to bringing kale chips, grilled Treviso radicchio with balsamic vinaigrette and homemade ricotta, I'm going to bring some Cajun gougeres to send some love to the Saints. Manning and the Colts are expected to win, but I'm pulling for the underdog Saints. Besides, if I were for the Colts, what would I bring? Cheeze whiz on Wonderbread?

Cajun Gougeres

1/4 cup butter (1/2 stick)
1/2 cup water
pinch of salt
1/2 tsp ground cayenne
1/2 cup flour

2 eggs

1/4 lb tasso ham, minced
1/2 cup corn kernels (preferably fresh, but frozen will do)
1 cup shredded sharp or extra sharp cheddar
1 TBS grated parmesan
1 green onion, minced

Preheat oven to 375º.

In a cast iron or stainless steel frying pan, dry fry corn kernels over medium high heat until nicely browned, about 10 minutes. Cool.

Bring water, butter, salt and cayenne to a boil in a medium sauce pan. Dump in the flour and beat vigorously with a wooden spoon until the mixture comes together and begins to pull away from the sides of the pan. Remove the pan from heat and beat in one egg at a time, waiting until the first egg is thoroughly incorporated before beating in the second egg.

After the second egg has been incorporated and the mixture is smooth, stir in the remaining ingredients.

Drop by teaspoonfuls on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Space about 1/2 inch apart. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes until golden.

Get the flash player here:

Monday, February 1, 2010

Sambal Bajak

Sambal bajak--pirate sambal--is a great sambal to serve with grilled or fried chicken or fish. It's a robust sambal that should have a nice balance of shallots and chilies. There are probably nearly as many variations as there are said to be islands in Indonesia (over 16,000), and each surely has its supporters. I prefer a sambal that is straightforward in its heat and spice, but this one I'm posting is mellowed somewhat by the inclusion of coconut milk. This is something more akin to sambal bajak Caribbean, a rather tame sambal you might find at Disney World. If I could find hotter peppers, it would be better, but now is not the time of year to find the best peppers. Still, it is a pleasant accompaniment to grilled chicken and actually tastes good as a dip for crudites.

Sambal Bajak (from Sri Owen's Indonesian Food and Cookery)

10 Red chillies
1 slice terasi
10 shallots
5 cloves garlic
3 kemiri (candlenuts)
3 TBS vegetable oil
salt, to taste
1 tsp gula jawa or brown sugar
1 cup thick santen (coconut milk)

Take the first five ingredients and process them into a fine paste. In Indonesia this would traditionally be done with a mortar and pestle, but a food processor is quicker and does an adequate job. Saute the spice paste in the vegetable oil for a few minutes, then add the salt, sugar and santen. Simmer on low for 20 minutes and finish by cooking on a high flame, stirring constantly, for 1 minute.

The sambal can be served hot or cold. Let is cool before storing it.

If you used your food processor to make it, make sure you wash the bowl and chopping blade thoroughly before using them for anything else, or you may get an unexpected kick from the chillies in the sambal.

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 Wandering Chopsticks. If you would like to participate or to see the secret ingredient, check who's hosting next month.