Monday, November 29, 2010

Tuna Tartare with Kaffir Lime Leaves

 The deliciousness of my recent ahi carpaccio prompted me to make this tuna tartare.  Like the carpaccio, this is a dish I've had in the past with beef.  While there is an understandable reticence on the part of most Americans to consume raw beef and raw eggs, steak tartare is a treat that I enjoy.  Using impeccably fresh tuna in place of the beef and yolks from quail eggs, this was every bit as tasty as the ahi carpaccio.

I used a tomato paste can to serve the tartare on a layer of diced avocado.  The raw yolk added another dimension of lusciousness to the tartare.  For those concerned about consuming raw yolk, it could be hard boiled and then grated, or left out altogether. 
We are lucky enough to have a kaffir lime tree that seems to be thriving in our back yard, so getting fresh kaffir lime leaves is not a problem.  Their presence can overtake a dish though, and with something like ahi tartare you want to make sure the lime leaves don't detract from the simple clean taste of the tuna.  I found three leaves for a half pound of fish to be plenty, imparting a tropical citrus taste but not overpowering the other ingredients.

Tuna Tartare with Kaffir Lime Leaves

1/2 pound sashimi grade ahi tuna, small dice
1-2 shallots, depending on size, finely minced
3 whole kaffir lime leaves, midrib removed, finely minced
salt, to taste
avocado, small dice
quail egg yolks (optional)
chili oil (optional)

fried wonton triangles

Lightly toss together the diced tuna, minced shallots, and minced lime leaves.  Using a small tomato paste can, biscuit cutter, or similar cylinder with approximately 1 1/2 inch diameter, place a half inch of lightly salted, diced avocado in the bottom of the cylinder.  Top with 3/4 to 1 inch of tuna mixture.  Press down and push onto a serving plate.  Repeat.  You should have enough to make about four separate tartare towers.  Top each tower with an egg yolk, if desired.  Chili oil may be drizzled around the base of each tower.  Serve with fried wonton triangles.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Giving Thanks

Despite its excess, its gaudy commercialization and celebration of intemperate consumption, Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. It is not the food, for I don’t particularly care for turkey or pumpkin pie, but the communal celebration, the sharing a meal with the people who matter in my life, that holds Thanksgiving’s appeal.

I am fortunate in that most of my close relatives live nearby. My mother lives about 7 miles away in the house I grew up in, a house she and my father bought in the early 50s. My brother and his wife live 3 or 4 miles from her. My sister and her husband, in whose house we will celebrate Thanksgiving, live about half an hour drive away up in the foothills. Two of my wife’s cousins and a nephew live about a mile from us. Although we get together in different combinations many times throughout the year, on Thanksgiving we all gather together for a few hours.

The absence of a loved one—a soldier deployed overseas, a family member who has moved away or cut off contact with others, a hospitalization or death—the void of this absence resonates at Thanksgiving like at no other time. We come together to share our blessings, to bask in the company of each other. That absence reminds us of both our good fortune and our loss, evoking memories of Thanksgivings past and awareness of losses to come.

The foods of Thanksgiving, the familiar dishes we return to year after year, anchor our celebrations. While some pimp the traditional with whatever the current culinary rage might be—cranberry foam on spherical turkey ravioli with bacon crusted Brussels sprouts—most of us long for the comforting reassurance of the dishes we remember from when we were children, and were loved and protected from the world. We might not like the green bean casserole with cream of mushroom soup and fried onions from a can, but if that is what we had as children, we find comfort in its presence on the table.

This Thanksgiving we will be missing someone special. I’ve known my sister-in-law’s mother, Teddy, since I was in high school, when Richard Nixon was President and we were still fighting the Vietnam War. She has always been an extremely gracious, giving person with an unflappable air of calm about her. While my sister-in-law might be raging or bubbling over with excitement, Teddy would always murmur, “Oh, Lisa,” or “hmm, hmm. That sounds wonderful.” Over the years, Ted and Fred (my sister-in-law’s father), have been extremely generous towards our family, welcoming not only my wife, but also her extended family of cousins, nieces, and nephew.

Teddy passed on all her cooking skills to her daughter, so it’s fortunate that Lisa married someone who likes to cook. Otherwise, Lisa would be living on a diet of canned, boxed, and frozen food. Teddy tells of the time she cooked her first Thanksgiving turkey and was so pleased to find the turkey came pre-stuffed, not realizing until after it was cooked that the neck, gizzards and liver weren’t intended as stuffing.

Someone else cooks the turkeys for our Thanksgiving dinners, but Teddy’s cranberry jello mold has been a fixture for many years. Although Teddy won’t be able to make it to this year’s gathering, her jello will be there. As difficult it sometimes is to please Tjing’s demanding palate, she loves Ted’s jello salad. Fortunately, Tjing requested the recipe from Teddy several years ago, and, of course, Teddy graciously passed it on. Shopping for the ingredients this week, I was unable to find either the Cranberry Jello or the Raspberry Jello called for in the recipe. I substituted Black Cherry Jello for the cranberry and a generic raspberry gelatin for the Jello brand.

Holiday Jello Salad
(recipe courtesy of Teddy)

1 large pkg Cranberry & Fruit Jello
1 small pkg Raspberry Jello
3 cups boiling water
1 can whole berry cranberry sauce
2 small cans mandarin oranges, drained
1 large can crushed pineapple plus juice
1/2 cup chopped walnuts

In a large bowl dissolve the two jellos in the boiling water. Add cranberry sauce and stir to dissolve. Stir in mandarin orange segments and pineapple. Mix in walnuts. Pour mixture into jello mold(s) and chill until set.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Mexican Spiced Lava Cakes

 Who doesn't like a lava cake?  Properly made, they are light clouds of rich chocolate with an oozing core of molten ganache.  While easy to whip up, they do require a reliable oven and careful attention to timing.  However, even if you miss the mark a little as I did with these, they still taste wonderful.  Chocolate with chocolate, butter, cream, sugar, flour and eggs, what's not to like?

These were another book club dessert.  They preceded a spirited discussion on home-schooling that nearly resulted in the dissolution of the book club.  As spirited discussions are no strangers to my family's get-togethers, I was surprised to hear several of the participants were too upset to want to continue to meet every six weeks or so.  I like to think I could even be civil with Dick Cheney were we to get together once every six weeks,  although I would ask him to check the shotgun at the door.  Matter of fact, it would be my pleasure to serve this dessert to Cheney, but he'd have to get his own transportation to the hospital if it triggered yet another cardiac arrest ; )

The book we had read for that night was The Lacuna, by Barbara Kingsolver.  Since much of the book is set in Mexico, I prepared a Mexican meal for the night.  To give a Mexican twist to the lava cakes, I adapted a Ghiradelli recipe by adding some cinnamon and ancho chile powder to the molten centers.  Both complement the chocolate nicely and are not in such quantities that they overpower the chocolate, remaining more a back note than a jarring blast.

(makes 2, can easily be doubled or tripled)

for the molten centers
1 ounce dark chocolate (I used Trader Joe's Pound Plus 72% Belgian Dark Chocolate Bar)
2 TBS whipping cream
1 tsp ancho chili powder (available in Mexican markets and many supermarkets)
1/2 tsp cinnamon

for cakes
2 ounces dark chocolate
1/2 stick butter (4 TBS)
scant 3 TBS sugar
1 egg
1 egg yolk
1/4 tsp vanilla extract
2 TBS cake flour

To make the centers, melt the chocolate and whipping cream in a double boiler or in the microwave.  Stir in the ancho powder and cinnamon until completely mixed.  Chill this mixture in the refrigerator.  When chilled, form into two balls.

Preheat the oven to 400º F.  Butter 2 six-ounce ramekins.

Melt dark chocolate and butter together in double boiler or microwave.  Whisk to thoroughly incorporate the butter into the chocolate.

In a small mixing bowl, use an electric mixer to whisk egg, egg yolk, sugar and vanilla until light, about 5 minutes. Gently fold in the chocolate mixture and flour until just incorporated.  Pour the cake mixture into the prepared ramekins.  Press a chocolate ball into the center of each ramekin.

Bake about 10 minutes, until cakes are firm.  (My oven is terribly erratic, making it a guessing game each time as to when the cakes will be done, anywhere from 7 to 12 minutes. )  Let cakes sit on a rack for 3 to 5 minutes.  Run a knife between the edge of the cakes and the ramekins.  Invert a plate on each ramekin, flip plate and ramekin over, remove ramekin and serve.  Garnish with powdered sugar, raspberry coulis and fresh raspberries.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Soft-Shell Crab--Cua Lot Chien Bot

As a child, I had heard of soft-shell crabs from my parents, who were both originally from the East Coast.  Although I don't remember being fond of any kind of seafood before our family lived in Malaysia for a year in 1966, the concept of a soft-shell crab always fascinated me.  It seemed so brutal and perverse to wait until the animal was at its most vulnerable stage to harvest and devour it.  That there was this small window of time when the crab's exoskeleton was defenseless against a predator's appetite always held some allure for me.  This was not an everyday dish.  This was special.

Still, for all their appeal, I didn't get the chance to try soft-shell crab until 1994 while living in Saigon.  By the time the Gastronomer discovered the crab shack in 2008, prices had risen considerably from what they were in 1994, but the food there is still worth every dong.  I believe the cha gio were 5,000 dong (about 35 cents) when we first ate there and the soft-shell crabs were similarly priced.  I know the beer bill was always higher than the food bill when it came time to pay. And beer was cheap.

When I was picking up some ahi from Sunh Fish on Broadway, I noticed they had some boxes of soft-shelled crabs in their freezer.  The crabs come five to the box,  have already been cleaned,  and are ready to cook once they thaw.  Although they couldn't really compare to the ones in Saigon, at a little under $2 a piece they were worth a try.

I was tempted to make a sort of soft-shell crab po' boy sandwich, or with a tamarind sauce, but in the end decided to go with a crispy fried version served on top of a meatless yum woon sen containing several types of mushrooms.   Although I was pleased with how the crabs tasted, I think fried food never tastes as good when you are the one doing the frying.  More importantly, they were a hit with Tjing, who has a particularly unpleasant memory associated with Quan 94 in Saigon.

The recipe is adapted from Authentic Recipes from Vietnam.  The use of soy sauce results in a dark batter; replacing the soy sauce with a tablespoon of fish sauce would probably produce a lighter, more attractive batter.

Crispy Soft-shell Crab

1 tsp sesame oil
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1 tsp grated ginger
2 tsp gound white pepper
1 tsp salt

1 cup all-purpose wheat flour
1 cup rice flour
1 cup water
1 TBS rice vinegar
2 TBS soy sauce (see note above)
1 tsp oil
1 tsp sugar

soft-shell crabs
flour for dusting the crabs
oil for frying

Mix the first five ingredients together and marinate the crabs in this mixture for 30--45 minutes.

Mix the ingredients for the batter, aiming for a thin, pancake-like batter.  

Dust the marinated crabs in flour, then dip in batter before frying in oil at 360º--375º.  The crabs will have a lot of moisture and may spatter while frying, so be careful.  I found I could comfortably fry two crabs at a time in a wok.  

Serve with Thai sweet chili sauce, nuoc cham, or tamarind-ginger dipping sauce.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Vietnamese Ahi Carpaccio--Ca Tai Chanh

While I am a fan of traditional carpaccio made with raw beef, and I also enjoyed bo tai chanh on several occasions while living in Saigon, Tjing doesn't like cooked beef and raw beef makes her shudder.  So I decided to eliminate the beef and use ahi for this dish.  The combination of the ahi with the herbs is delicious and makes an impressive starter.

The one requirement for this dish is sashimi grade ahi.  Sunh Fish in the Asian Food Market is where many of the local sushi restaurants in Sacramento get their fish.  The quality of the fish is excellent and they are just as responsive to individual customers as they are to their restaurant buyers.  They are also one of the few places I know of in Sacramento that you can find fresh squid.

The key to this dish is pristine ingredients.  Assemble the components and let diners appreciate the simple clean tastes of the herbs with the raw ahi.  

I served this with sesame cracker (banh trang me), but I could also see serving it with banh hoi brushed with scallion oil.  I had to take the pictures at night, so they are less than ideal.

Vietnamese Ahi Carpaccio--Ca Tai Chanh

1/2 pound sashimi grade ahi tuna

2 TBS lime juice
2 tsp fish sauce
scant teaspoon of sugar

1 shallot, sliced lengthwise with a mandoline to get paper thin slices
1/4 cup mixed herbs, finely sliced or chopped,
1 TBS young ginger, finely minced and briefly fried

Slice tuna into pieces 1/4 inch thick.  Place one slice between two pieces of plastic wrap.  Gently pound with a meat pounder (or rolling pin, wine bottle, or sauce pan) to about an 1/8 inch of thickness.  You don't want these to be paper thin.
Place fish in saucer with lime juice mixture for just a few minutes.  With good quality ahi there's no need for the lime juice to "cook" the fish.  

Place the slices on a plate,  and top with sliced shallots, herbs, and minced young ginger.  Serve with sesame crackers, banh hoi, or whatever you like.

I am submitting this to Delicious Vietnam #7, a monthly blogging event celebrating Vietnamese food.  Founded by Anh of A Food Lover's Journey, and Kim and Hong of Ravenous Couple, Delicious Vietnam welcomes submissions from bloggers around the world.  To learn how you might participate, click here.  The roundup for Delicious Vietnam #7 will be hosted by Nina, of the blog MissAdventureAtHome.  The submission deadline is November 14, 2010.  For full details on how to participate, please go to the Delicious Vietnam page at Ravenous Couple's blog.  Check out the roundup to find the details on who will be hosting Delicious Vietnam #8.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Soto Mie

Soto is found in numerous forms throughout Indonesia.  Soto ayam, chicken soto, which has numerous varieties itself, is my favorite soto.  The very best soto I've ever had comes, of course, from Rumah Makan Murni in Cepu.  In my two years of living in Cepu, I probably had soto ayam at RM Murni at least three times a week.  I've had good soto elsewhere in Indonesia, but none better than what is served in Cepu.

This past summer we visited my wife's brother's family in Jakarta.  While I am about as fond of Jakarta as I am of Los Angeles, one of Jakarta's attractions is its culinary mix from groups throughout the archipelago who come to the capital in search of livelihoods.  The massive influx of citizens from throughout Indonesia has created pockets of distinct cultures and hawkers selling their foods.  Unfortunately, traffic is so horrendous in Jakarta that this pockets are about as accessible as the interior of Kalimantan.

Like many folk living in Jakarta, my in-laws generally eat out at least once a day.  Cooking in a cramped kitchen over a two-burner propane stove is not just wearisome, it is hellish in a house without AC.  A quick stir-fry, boiled eggs, fried chicken,  or soups might be prepared early in the day to be enjoyed by the family later, but no meal is prepared to be eaten just after being cooked.  And when guests impose themselves on the family, there is little choice but to go out to eat.

As an air conditioner sales representative, installer, and service technician, my brother-in-law, Ming, knows Jakarta and the surrounding areas well.  He is without a doubt the best driver I've ever ridden with and seemingly knows all the back alleys and short cuts throughout Jakarta.  In the course of learning all the arteries of the city, Ming has also discovered remarkable warungs and restaurants.  One day he told us he had a job that he had to check on outside of the city, a new housing development on the ever expanding outskirts of the megalopolis.  If we wanted to come, he said, there was a rumah makan that sold excellent soto mie.  

Soto mie is an interesting soup.  Consisting of a spicy beef broth with noodles, cabbage, seledri (Asian celery), and sliced risoles that have been filled with rice vermicelli and fried, it's a dish anyone trying to stretch a rupiah might enjoy, the risoles being cheap yet flavorful while adding some additional body to the soup.  It's also a dish that suits the cooler clime of Bogor where it is said to have originated.  Although I still much prefer soto ayam, soto mie will definite get some play during the fall and winter months here in northern California.

The recipe is adapted from 668 Resep Masakan Khas Nusantara dari 33 Provinsi by Yullia T and Astuti Utomo.  (PT Agromedia Pustaka, 2008)

Soup base
150 grams shallots, roughly chopped
6 cloves garlic
1 tsp black pepper
6 kemiri (candlenuts)  dry roasted, unsalted macadamia nuts may be substituted
2 salam leaves
1 stalk of lemongrass, cut in half and lightly crushed
1 2-inch piece of ginger, crushed
2 quarts beef broth made from the beef ribs
salt to taste

11/2 lbs beef back ribs
12 oz fresh noodles, cooked and drained
1/4 head of cabbage, thick core removed, finely sliced
6 risols, sliced into 1 1/2 slices
3 stalks of seledri, finely sliced
1 green onion, finely sliced
emping goreng (fried melinjo crackers--these may be found, unfried, in Asian markets)

In a 4 to 6 quart pan, brown ribs on all sides.  Add 3 quarts water and bring to a boil.  Simmer for several hours until meat can be easily pulled from the bones.  Remove fat from the broth.  Cut meat into small, bite-sized pieces.

In food processor or blender, puree shallots, garlic, pepper and kemiri.  Fry this paste along with lemongrass, salam leaves and ginger until softened and fragrant.  Add beef both, bring to a boil and reduce to a low simmer while preparing risols.

Once risols have been filled and fried, assemble the soup.  Place some noodles, cabbage, beef, and tomato slices in individual bowls.  Add simmering broth, sliced risoles and a scattering of seledri and green onion.  Serve with emping and sambal.

Risole filling
80 grams rice vermicelli, softened in hot water, drained
2 cloves garlic, finely minced
1/4 tsp white pepper
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp instant chicken broth (optional)
1/4 cup water
risol wrappers/eggroll skins
oil for shallow frying

Risole skins
1 cup flour
11/2 cups water
1 egg
1 TBS oil
1/2 tsp baking powder

Beat all the ingredients for the risole skins together.  You want a thin batter.  Add more water if necessary to thin the batter.  Fry like crepes in non-stick frying pan or crepe pan.  

To make the filling, briefly fry the garlic until softened and fragrant.  Add remaining ingredients and cook until the water has been absorbed/evaporated.
Place a couple tablespoons of filling into a risole skin. Roll like eggroll/burrito/cha gio and shallow fry filled rolls (several rolls can be fried at a time) until golden brown on all sides.