Thursday, March 31, 2011

Potstickers with Curried Skins

Potstickers are comforting and timeless.  They can be made in minutes with packaged skins, add a few minutes more for homemade skins.  Although good packaged skins certainly make acceptable dumplings, fresh skins elevate the potsticker to another level.  Making your own skin allows you to vary the thickness of the wrapper according to your own tastes.  Some people prefer thinner, gyoza-like skins, whereas others like a more substantial wrapper.  Either way, you can make a couple of dozen skins quicker than you could run over to the store to pick up a package.  The taste and texture are also superior to what you might purchase.

As much as I like a traditional potsticker, these curried skins make a nice change of pace.  They also produce a lovely, saffron hued dumpling.  I'm not sure that I'd include them as part of a Chinese dinner, but as a stand alone appetizer with cocktails they are outstanding.

I used a pork, shrimp, and mushroom filling for these, but you could certainly adapt the filling to your own particular tastes or dietary restrictions.  The curry taste from the skins is prominent, but not overpowering.  Paired with a gin and tonic, what's not to like?

Curried Potsticker Skins
(recipe adapted from Dim Sum by Ellen Leong Blonder)

1 cup all purpose flour (plus extra for dusting the board)
2 tsp curry powder
pinch of salt
approximately 7 TBS lukewarm water

In a medium-sized bowl mix together ingredients until combined.  Turn the dough out on a well-flour board and knead until smooth. You want a fairly stiff, yet still pliable dough.  Roll into a 12-inch cylinder; then cut in half, giving you two 6-inch cylinders.  Dust with flour, cover with plastic, and allow the dough to rest for about 20 minutes at room temperature.

When ready to make the skins, cut each cylinder into 12--15 equal sized slices.  On a well floured surface roll each slice to form a 3-inch circle.  Fill with the filling of your choice.  Crimp the edges of the formed dumplings tight.  Note that when making your own skins, you don't need to moisten the edges of the dumplings with water to seal them as you do when using purchased skins.  Set filled dumplings on a well floured board or plate while you fill the remaining skins.

To cook the filled potstickers, heat a skillet and add 1 tablespoon of oil.  When it is almost smoking, arrange potstickers in the pan as close to each other as possible without touching.  Fry for 2 to 3 minutes on medium heat being careful not to burn them.  

When the bottoms are browned, pour in a half cup of water, cover the pan, and reduce the heat to low.  Simmer for about 5 minutes, until most of the water has evaporated.  Uncover, raise the heat to medium/medium-high and cook for another couple of minutes until all the water has evaporated and the potstickers are brown and crispy.  Serve warm with a soy and vinegar dip.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

An Apple Cake from Kyrgyzstan

One of the benefits of being an ESL teacher is that students sometimes share foods and recipes from their native countries. We usually have a potluck about once a semester, and some days students just happen to bring in some food to share.  Whenever there is a dish I particularly enjoy, I do my best to get the recipe from the student.  As I generally teach the lower level learners, from literacy level to beginning low, this can sometimes be a challenge.  Occasionally, as with this recipe for apple cake, the directions are simple and straightforward enough that writing the recipe is not difficult at all.

Until recently I had been teaching a small group of students in a makeshift classroom on a troubled high school campus.  The idea behind the class is that I would teach the parents of struggling students who would then realize the value of education.  Unfortunately, most parents who have children who aren't doing well in school probably don't really give a damn.  And the majority of those parents are native speakers of English.  Many immigrants may be struggling with the language, but one of the primary reasons they have come to the United States is get an education for their children.  Among the few students the class attracted, one was a parent of a child at the high school. Ironically, Fatimah--not her real name--recognized the school was not very good and was doing all she could to get him transferred to another school. 

Fatimah is a middle-aged woman from Kyrgyzstan.  Her father was Tartar and her mother Russian.  In Kyrgystan she was a businesswoman, operating a shop that sold Swarovsky crystal.  Although her husband has been here several years and is currently working on an MA at the local university, Fatimah and her children have just been here since last August. 

Most of the nearly 300,000 Russian speaking immigrants in the greater Sacramento area are evangelical Christians.  Although I have had many students from Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan (as well as Russia, Ukraine, and Moldova), Fatimah is the first Muslim student I have had from one of the former Soviet republics.  While many students from the northern countries have a dour, almost humorless affect, Fatimah, like many other students I've had from the "Stans", has a very upbeat and cheerful outlook.

Tattoos are rare among the Russian speaking immigrants, save for the occasional crude army tat that some men have.  Fatimah has a prominent abstract tattoo of intertwining geometrical shapes on her left shoulder.  Curious, I asked her about tattoos in Kyrgyzstan.  She told me that while some younger people have them, most people don't approve.  She got hers a few years ago, when her husband was over here and she was still in Kyrgyzstan.  "I like," she said, "so I get.  I don't care what people think.  My husband very surprised when he see. 'Why?,' he ask. I tell him I think it's beautiful, so I get.  I am 35 years old when I get.  I old enough to do what I like. My son not like, no understand.  My daughter happy, smiling, says it beautiful."

Last week this class was shifted to the morning, allowing me to return to a much larger class at the adult school.  Even though I am pleased not to have to travel between schools anymore, not to have to tell students that they couldn't come to class until the school completed a criminal background check on them, not to have to lock up whiteboard markers and erasers, and to have a regular class of more than a handful of students in a real classroom, I felt bad abandoning those students. 

On the last day of the class, Fatimah brought an apple cake she made.  It's one she makes frequently for her family, she said.  Apples, flour, eggs, and sugar, it is made without oil or butter.  Still warm from the oven, it was a delightfully moist, not too sweet cake.  It was a lovely treat on a bittersweet ending to the class. 

Oil-free Apple Cake

3 to 4 apples, peeled and thinly sliced
3 to 4 eggs, beaten
1 cup of all purpose flour, sifted
3/4 to 1 cup of sugar
(I added about 1/2 teaspoon of freshly grated nutmeg)

Preheat oven to 350º F.  Line the bottom of an 8-inch round cake pan with parchment paper.

Mix apples with sugar, using less sugar for sweeter apples, more for tarter apples.  Stir in beaten eggs.  Stir in flour and mix well.  Pour batter into the prepared cake pan.  Bake 30 to 40 minutes, until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.  Cool.  Sprinkle with confectioner's sugar and serve warm or at room temperature.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

French Apple Tart--Tarte aux Pommes

The hard part of maintaining a food blog is not the work involved, which is considerable, it's finding and establishing the rhythm of cooking, taking the pictures, writing, and posting.  It takes time to find that rhythm while still balancing the other demands in one's life: work, love, friends, household chores, and alcohol. I might be able to put off doing some chores, but that evening cocktail is not to be trifled with.  This is why most of my posts are written early in the morning, usually several hours before school starts.

Like anything that demands a certain amount of discipline, running, for example, or studying a foreign language,  any break in the routine of maintaining the blog makes it that much more difficult to get back into the rhythm of posting.  It's always easy to find an excuse to put off writing up a post, to find something else that needs to be done, an additional hour of sleep perhaps, or an episode or two of 30 Rock that you hadn't seen yet.  Having found myself in a work-and-state-of-affairs-of-educational-funding-in-California-induced-funk, I decided I needed a brief break from blogging.  I didn't realize how difficult it would be to pick it up again.  It's like Michael Phelps after a few weeks of hitting the bong and then jumping back into the water.  Whoa! Dude, 100 meters seems like a mile!

Tarte aux pommes is an elegant looking, relatively simple and straightforward apple pie.  Although it holds no candle to my mom's apple pie, it is a very delicious dessert.  The apples are not masked by an excess of sugar or cinnamon as sometimes happens in apple pies; they are front and center in this tarte.  A fan of thinly sliced apples rest on a bed of a lightly sweetened purée of sautéd apples.  It seemed a fitting dessert for our book club's discussion of Parrot and Olivier in America.

For the crust, I used the recipe from The San Francisco Chronicle Cookbook.  It really is, as advertised, the perfect pie crust.  Don't use a food processor to do this.  You can, but by the time you do the clean up, what's the point?  This is something that can be done so easily in a bowl with a fork. 

The Perfect Pie Crust

1 cup unsifted all-purpose flour
1/4 tsp salt
3 TBS chilled, unsalted butter, cut in 6 to 8pieces
1/4 cup shortening, chilled, also cut in pieces
3 to 4 TBS ice water (I use a cocktail shaker to chill the water and easily pour a little at a time.)

Mix together the flour and salt.  Cut in butter.  Then cut in shortening.  Sprinkle with the ice water, a tablespoon or so at a time and stir.  Add just enough water so the mixture is moist enough to gather together in a ball.

Wrap the ball of dough in a sheet of plastic wrap and press into a CD sized disk.  Chill in the refrigerator for at least 2 hours.

Roll out the dough on a lightly floured surface.  Place into a 9-inch tart pan.  Prick the bottom of the crust with a fork.  Line the shell with parchment paper and fill with dried beans or pie weights.
Bake in a pre-heated 425º oven for 10 minutes.  Remove the parchment paper and weights, and bake for another 3 to 5 minutes until the bottom is lightly browned.  Allow to cool before adding the apples.

I used two varieties of apples for the filling.  I used golden Mutsu for the purée, and Granny Smith for the top.  Any good, tart apples would work.

To make the purée, core, peel and slice three to four apples.  Sauté the apples with  a tablespoon of butter, a squeeze of lemon, a sprinkle of cinnamon, 2 tablespoons of panko breadcrumbs and about a 1/4 cup of sugar, more or less to your taste. Cook until the apples are soft enough to mash with a fork.  Mash into a chunky purée and cool.

Core, peel, and slice another 3 apples for the top of the tart.  You want the slices to be a uniform thickness.  Melt 2 tablespoons of butter in a skillet and saute the slices until just slightly softened, three to five minutes. 

Spread the purée of apples on the cooled crust.  Fan the slices of apples in a decorative pattern on top of the purée.  Sprinkle with several tablespoons of sugar and bake in a 375º oven for around 25 minutes, until apples are soft and lightly brown. Sprinkle with powdered sugar before serving.

This tart is best served the day it is baked, but I found that it still tasted very good the next day.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Calamari with a Sweet Hot Sauce--Cumi Goreng Pedas Manis

When I was working on Pulau Galang, the Indonesian refugee camp for refugees from Vietnam and Cambodia, I had to make regular trips to Singapore every three months to renew my visa.  All of the foreign workers in the camp had these special three-month visas rather than the typical one-year work visas so the government could easily prohibit us from returning to the camp if we caused any trouble.  As Singapore was just a couple of hours away by boat, and the process took three days, it was a nice break from the camp and a welcome change from the dining hall routine.

One of the dishes I have enjoyed on different visits to Singapore is the fried baby squid (although I think it's probably baby cuttlefish).  These are whole, baby cuttlefish that are first deep fried and then finished in a sweet sauce.  Done right, they are delicious.  Unfortunately, I've sometimes had them when the cook didn't do right by them and I was faced with a pile of cloyingly sweet, rubbery aliens from the sea.  Squid is one of those dishes that either is cooked right or is a disaster.  If the first time someone tries squid, the cook fucks it up, that person will probably never try squid again.

When I usually cook squid, which is not often, I use frozen squid, as this is what is most often available.  A few weeks back I noticed that Sunh Fish, where I buy most of my seafood, had some fresh squid in their case.  I didn't buy any at that time, but made note of it so that I might take advantage of some fresh squid next time they had some in when I was there.  That day came a few days ago and I bought a couple of pounds.

I had planned to make some grilled squid, cumi panggang, but when I got the squid home and cleaned them, I felt they were too delicate for such an approach.  Once cleaned, there were around thirty squid to a pound.  The bodies were extremely thin walled, about the thickness of a slice of skin from a careless moment with the mandoline.  Although I didn't think I could do them justice on the grill, I knew they would be great fried.

I intended to try the recipe from  The Food of Singapore, a book that I generally like.  After frying a few pieces of squid following its recipe, however, I decided to ditch that recipe and try my own approach.  The original recipe calls for a marinade in a batter of curry powder, cornstarch, soy sauce, and egg.  The fried squid tasted good, but didn't have the delicately crisp exterior that I prefer.  Discarding the wet ingredients, I kept the curry powder and cornstarch, and added some rice flour.  Dredging the squid in this mixture provided just the taste and texture I was looking for.

The sauce is even simpler.  To a half cup of Yeo's Sweet Chili Sauce, I stirred in about two tablespoons of kecap manis Cap Nonya. This was heated in a wok and then the fried squid were added and tossed with the sauce to coat.  The result was at least as good as any squid I've ever had in Singapore, or anywhere else.  If you like calamari, this is a dish I would definitely recommend.

Crispy  Fried Squid in a Sweet Hot Sauce

2 pounds small, fresh squid or 1 pound cleaned, frozen squid, thawed
1/2 cup cornstarch
1/2 cup rice flour
3 TBS curry powder
2 tsp sugar

oil for deep frying

1/2 cup Yeo's Sweet Chili Sauce  (I prefer Lingham's, but it wasn't at the market I went to on this day)
2 to 3 TBS kecap manis
water, as needed, to thin the sauce if necessary

Clean the squid and remove the eyes and beak from the tentacles.  Lightly score the inside of the bodies in a crosshatch diagonal pattern and cut into strips.  Dredge the prepared squid in the cornstarch mixture.  Fry in batches in hot oil for about 30 seconds.  Drain on paper towels.

After all the squid has been fried, heat the chili sauce and kecap manis in a wok or pan that  can easily accommodate the squid.  Toss the squid briefly in the heated sauce, plate, and serve.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Pardon this interuption--a minor rant before carrying on

This blog is primarily about food, in particular food I like to cook.  Having had the good fortune of living in Southeast Asia for a number of years, some of those years in refugee camps and others in large cities and small towns, there is a bias towards food of that region.  Although many people think the title of the blog suggests it to be about coffee, I had never had much luck getting good coffee in Java, or elsewhere in Indonesia for that matter, until my visit last summer.  Indonesia produces a lot of great coffee (not too much in Java), but finding a good cup is definitely a challenge.  Probably the best I enjoyed was a cup of café den at a coffee shop in the refugee camp on Pulau Galang.  So, no, this is not a blog about coffee.

I cook because I enjoy it and because it makes good food affordable.  My wife and I are both teachers, teaching adult education, and, despite what some politicians suggest, are not living high on the hog thanks to our union contracts.  Besides my full-time day job teaching, I also teach a couple classes at one of the local community colleges.  Despite having M.A.s and years of experience in our field, neither of us enjoys a particularly lucrative contract.  We do, however, have jobs we love.  We both enjoy our students (most of them) and our colleagues (many of them) and don't particularly loathe our bosses; at least one of us has a boss we actually respect.  This blog is a creative outlet for me, a way for me to think about something other than how to get students to recognize subject-verb agreement or write a coherent thesis statement.  I never wanted it to be a reflection of my daily life, my struggles and successes.

Still, life sometimes intrudes.  I have not posted anything for some time not only because I've been busy with my classes, but because I've just been so goddamn frustrated.  Frustrated that my wife, who's one of the best teachers I've ever worked with, is losing her job because her district has decided to scrap its adult education program.  Frustrated that although the district will no longer be offering adult ESL classes, the state is still going to be funding the district for the program at the same level it was funded two years ago when it was much larger.  I'm frustrated that this is happening to programs up and down the state of California and nothing is being done about it.

Yes, the economy here is rotten.  The state legislature is dysfunctional and programs are being cut right and left.  GOP representatives are refusing to allow voters to vote on whether or not to extend some minimal taxes rather than gutting social and educational programs that have already been cut to the bone.  The state is still funding adult education programs, but allowing districts to abolish the programs and shift the funds to K-12 programs.  At the same time budgetary pressures on the community colleges are forcing them to limit the lower level ESL classes they offer.  Adult immigrants who don't arrive in California fluent in English are going to be limited to their ethnic enclaves.  As people are stuck in separate neighborhoods with fewer chances for advancement, as our communities become more insular and stratified, resentment will grow among everyone.

"Why don't these people learn English?" This is a fairly common sentiment among many Americans, a people not exactly renowned for their multilingual abilities.  Indeed, listen to the average American who is a native-speaker of English  speaking on the street and you might wonder what  his first language is.  To learn a language beyond the survival level of expressing basic needs, wants, and abilities takes time and study.  Some people seem to have this idea that all the immigrants coming here were illiterate field hands or trash pickers in their countries, people with little or no education who should be thanking Jesus every day that they now get to live in the greatest country on earth.  They don't realize that the cook in their favorite Chinese restaurant was an engineer or teacher in China.  When a person's language skills are limited, others treat him as if he were a child, no matter that he may have been a doctor in his native country.

In 2002 Time magazine designated Sacramento the most diverse city in the United States.  They gave it this designation not based on the number and variety of immigrants living here, but on the social, economic, and educational success the various ethnic groups achieved in this city.  A lot of that success starts at the adult education level with students getting a foothold by learning basic English skills. In 2004 the ESL program in our district was awarded a Program of Excellence designation by the California Department of Education.  Next year our budget for the year, if the tax extensions are passed, will be less than the cost of 20 seconds of air time during the Superbowl.  If the tax extensions are not passed, there will likely be no program at all.

So, yes, it has been a little hard to get up any enthusiasm for taking pictures and writing about food.  Still, what else is to be done?  I just hope that the next time someone complains about these goddamned immigrants who don't learn the language he does something about reopening the goddamn classrooms and allowing them to learn.

Soon, a brand new post about food. Yum.