Friday, December 21, 2012

Kastengel--Savory Cheese Sticks

Santa don't want no cookies this Christmas Eve.  All that milk and sugar brings him down with a blood sugar crash, a Christmas day funk that lasts through New Year's.  So this year we're leaving him some kastengel and a glass of thick red wine, or maybe some scotch.

The Dutch didn't leave Indonesia much from 350 years of colonialism.  They were more interested in what they could take from the archipelago than in what they could contribute to it.  One thing they did leave was an appetite for kastengel.  Look at the ingredients and you immediately recognize they did not spring from the Indonesian islands.  Yet, kastengel are a favorite treat to celebrate Lebaran and other major holidays.  Cheesy, buttery, and utterly lacking in nutritional merit, kastengel make tremendous sense as a way to celebrate the end of a month of fasting. 

Kastengel are also a nice change from the overabundance of sweets following Ramadan and during the holiday season in the US.  Cookies are everywhere at this time of year.  Snickerdoodles, ginger snaps, candy cane meringues, almond crescents, and Russian tea cakes abound.  That Santa doesn't slip into a diabetic coma is a Christmas miracle in itself.  Leave a few kastengel in place of the usual cookies and Santa will be pleased.  He may even be extra good to you.

I had never heard of Nyonya Liem or Ibu Liem until Tjing asked me to make some kastengel, but a google search for kastengel resulted in her name appearing again and again.  So I adapted her recipe, simplifying its directions, and translating it into English.  I'm sure the cheddar cheese her recipe calls for is the Kraft processed cheddar that one can find fairly easily in Indonesia.  It makes a more decorative topping of the kastengel as it could probably be baked in a potter's kiln without melting.  A grated parmesan or other relatively dry cheese will produce similar results.  I used a mix of parmesan and a good English cheddar.

Kastengel ala Ny. Liem

I am giving the measurements most Americans are comfortable with; however,  I use a scale when making these as it just makes it easier.  The original recipe calls for equal parts butter and margarine, 150 grams each.

2 cubes butter (8 oz/227 gr), room temperature
6 TBS margarine, room temperature
2 egg yolks
1 tsp salt
3 1/3 TBS (50 ml) half and half
4 oz parmesan cheese, grated
4 oz cheddar/edam/gouda, grated

3 TBS (25 gr)corn starch
5 TBS (25 gr)powdered milk (the original recipe calls for full cream powdered milk, but I used non-fat as that is what is readily available in the US and it worked fine)
3 1/2 to 3 3/4 cups (500 gr) all purpose flour, sifted
1 tsp baking powder

Egg wash of egg yolks mixed with a little oil and water
Finely grated cheddar/parmesan cheese

In a large bowl, cream together the butter, margarine, and egg yolks.  Using a mixer, beat the ingredients for 3 to 5 minutes until light and fluffy.  Beat in the cream to further lighten the mixture.  Add in the cheese and continue to beat until thoroughly mixed in.

In another bowl mix together the dry ingredients.  Slowly add the dry ingredients to the butter/cheese mixture until all the flour has been incorporated.  You will have what looks like a bowlful of crumbly particles.  The dough will not come together until you press it together with your hands.

To make the logs, press together a handful of the mixture and roll it into a rope, like making a playdough snake.  You want the rope to be not quite as thick as an AA battery.  Using an AA battery as a guide, cut the rope of dough into pieces the length of a battery.  Place the cut pieces about 1 inch apart from each other on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper.

Once you have filled a baking sheet with the cut pieces, brush them with the egg yolk wash.  I make a wash with one egg yolk at a time and have found that will usually be enough for one baking sheet (about 50 kastengel).  Sprinkle the finely grated cheese atop the pieces.

Bake in a pre-heated 300º oven for about 20 minutes.  Lower the heat to 200º and bake for another 15 to 20 minutes until the kastengel are cooked through, but not really browned.

This makes a lot.  10 to 12 dozen.  The dough can be frozen.  Bring it to room temperature before attempting to roll it out and make the kastengel.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Sop Buntut--Indonesian Oxtail Soup

Sop buntut is not my favorite Indonesian dish.  It is, however, extremely popular on Java.  It is a soup that is at once hearty and delicate, the oxtails being a rich, surprisingly fatty meat, yet the broth is light and fragrant with spice.  As with Vietnamese Pho Bo, it is the broth that is the mark of a good sop buntut.

The broth should be clear and fragrant, not muddied from simmering the ox tail.  The spices--cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, pepper--should flavor the soup as the flute accents Sundanese gamelan.  Carrots and potatoes are included with the broth.  In most recipes the potatoes are simply added to the broth towards the end of the cooking.  I like James Oseland's method of frying the potatoes before adding them to the broth at the end.  It provides another note to the soup.

My wife, Tjing, is not much of a beef eater, but she does like sop buntut.  While oxtails are a cheaper cut in Indonesia, here in the US oxtails are relatively expensive.  I'm sure most Indonesians would consider it shocking that a kilogram of oxtails goes for around 95,000 Rp.  Considering the amount of bone and fat you get, they are definitely not a bargain.  Still, happy wife, happy life, so if Tjing wants some oxtail soup, that's fine with me.

Sop Buntut--Indonesian Oxtail Soup
(adapted from Cradle of Flavor)

2 1/2 pounds oxtails, cut into sections at the vertebrae
3 quarts water
1 2-inch piece of ginger, peeled and bruised
1 piece cinnamon stick
7 cloves
1 whole nutmeg, cracked into several pieces
1 tsp black pepper, freshly ground
1 TBS sugar
2 tsp salt
3--4 carrots, peeled and sliced on the diagonal about 1/4-inch thick
3--4 yukon gold potatoes, peeled and cut into 1-inch cubes
1--2 ripe tomatoes (I used cherry tomatoes), sliced into wedges
1 stalk of Chinese celery (seledri), finely chopped
2 green onions, white part only, thinly sliced
2 TBS fried shallots
2 TBS fried garlic slices
peanut or vegetable oil for frying the potatoes

In a large soup pot, bring the oxtails and water to a steady boil over high heat.  Use a spoon or a fine mesh skimmer to skim off any foam that rises to the surface.  After you have removed as much foam as possible, reduce the heat to medium-low and add the ginger.  Cover and simmer for about an hour.

Next, add the spices, including the sugar and salt, to the pot and continue to simmer, covered, for another 30--45 minutes.  The meat should be just beginning to come away from the bones.  Taste the broth and add salt to taste.

While the broth simmers, prepare the carrots and potatoes.  Bring a medium-sized saucepan of water to a boil.  Add the carrots and boil until just tender, two to three minutes.  Drain them in a colander and rinse with cold water.

Lightly fry the potatoes until they are light brown.  They should be just cooked through the center.  Drain on paper towels.

To serve, place some oxtail, carrots, and potatoes in a bowl.  Ladle in some hot broth.  Top with some wedges of ripe tomato.  Sprinkle with the fried shallots, fried slices of garlic, sliced green onion, and chopped Chinese celery.

Serve with rice and sambal.  Emping melinjo (melinjo crackers) are a nice accompaniment.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Burmese Shrimp Curry

I have very limited familiarity with Burmese cuisine.  It's a country I have wanted to visit, but I never felt comfortable contributing to a government that was so unabashedly oppressive to its people.  For years the military dictatorship used any and all means to crush the slightest dissent.  Recent reforms suggest that the country may be transitioning towards a more democratic government.  Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize winner and daughter of the man who negotiated Burma's independence from Britain in 1947, was released from prison in 2010 (she had been sentenced to 3 years hard labor because an American had swum across a lake to her house where she had been under house arrest for almost ten years; her sentence was commuted from hard labor to an additional 18 months of house arrest).  In May of this year, Suu Kyi was sworn in as a member of parliament.

While this apparent willingness to allow their people a voice is undoubtedly good news for the people of Burma, I fear Starbucks, McDonald's, and Pizza Huts may also be on their way to the country.  With the end of isolation, regional and cultural differences may also be threatened.  Traditional foods and customs come to be seen as quaint, out of touch with the modern world, kampungan, and are abandoned in favor of mass processed and marketed food that connects to the world outside.  One of the worst things I have eaten in Indonesia was a slice of Pizza Hut pizza that my nieces (whose mother is an excellent cook) pleaded for.  I still remember years ago when I was traveling in Padang (a city renowned throughout Indonesia for its food) and asked some teenagers where I could find the best food in town.  They thought about it and discussed it amongst themselves for a few minutes before telling me, triumphantly, "California Fried Chicken."  What will happen in Burma in 20 years?

Fortunately, Naomi Duguid has been visiting Burma and actively exploring its foods and markets for much of the last four years.  Burma: Rivers of Flavor, is her most recent cookbook exploring an Asian cuisine.  Having first gone to the country in 1980, Duguid's interest in and affection for the people and cultures of Burma are clearly apparent in the photographs and writing.  Like her previous books which she co-authored with Jeffrey Alford, Burma is as much an exploration and celebration of the culture and people of the country as it is of the cuisine.

Duguid's books are visually rich with photographs of the lands and people of her focus.  They are not traditional cookbooks that simply present a collection of recipes.  Cooks looking for elaborately staged photographs of finished dishes or step-by-step photos of how to prepare the included recipes may be disappointed by Duguid's Burma.  However, those who are interested in getting a glimpse of this long isolated nation will likely enjoy her anecdotal, informative approach.

The recipes presented in Duguid's book are straight forward, unfussy dishes.  Most of the ingredients can easily be found in any Asian supermarket.  Shallots, tomatoes, and various herbs (cilantro, lemongrass, Vietnamese cilantro (rau ram--daun laksa) are featured in many of the recipes. I have only tried a few of the recipes so far, but the book contains many that I look forward to trying.

I first served this shrimp curry with roti jala.  I have also served it with rice.  It is similar to sambal udang, but it is milder than most and contains no coconut milk.   For anyone put off by incendiary curries, consider giving this one a try.  

Shrimp Curry,  adapted from Burma: Rivers of Flavor

Generous 1 pound shrimp, peeled and deveined
1/4 cup minced shallots 
1 small clove of garlic, peeled and minced
3 TBS peanut oil
1/8 tsp turmeric
1 1/2 cups chopped ripe tomatoes or canned crushed tomatoes
3/4 cup water
2 tsp fish sauce
2 green cayenne chiles, seeded and minced, or to taste
1/2 tsp salt, or to taste
About 1/4 cup cilantro leaves (optional)
1 lime, cut into wedges (optional)

Rinse the shrimp and set aside.  (I boil the shells in water, strain and reserve the water and use this in place of the water called for in the recipe.) With a mortar, pound the minced shallots and garlic to a paste.

Heat the oil in a wok or a wide heavy skillet over medium-high heat.  Add the turmeric and stir, then toss in the shallot and garlic paste.  Lower the heat to medium, and cook, stirring frequently, about two minutes until softened but not browned.  Add the tomatoes and cook for several minutes at a medium boil, stirring occasionally, until the tomatoes are well softened and the oil has risen to the surface.

Add the water and fish sauce, bring back to a medium boil, and add the shrimp.  Cook just until the shrimp start to turn pink, then toss in the minced chiles, stir briefly, and remove from the heat. Taste and adjust the seasoning if necessary.  

Turn out into a bowl, top with the cilantro leaves, if using (and they certainly add to the dish), and put out lime wedges if you wish. Serve hot or at room temperature.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Roti Jala

I gather from my nieces that in recent years Malaysia has tried to claim credit from Java for the development of batik.  While I'll definitely side with Indonesia on this issue, I believe Malaysia gets the nod for roti jala.

A crepe-like bread to accompany curries, roti jala is not something I have actually come across in Malaysia or Indonesia.  I first became aware of it several years ago when I bought a copy of Authentic Recipes from Malaysia, which calls them lacy Indian pancakes.  Named for its fishnet resemblance, roti jala is traditionally made with a special funnel with four or five spouts to form the net-like pattern.  I was at a Sundanese restaurant last summer that had several varieties of the funnels as decoration on its walls, suggesting that, at least in the past,  roti jala was enjoyed in Java.  The funnel I use is an inexpensive plastic one that I picked up in Singapore.  One could get much the same effect with more effort using a plastic squeeze bottle.

The recipe here is adapted from Resep Klasik Jajanan Pasar (Classic Market Snack Recipes), which contains 270 recipes for snacks that are often sold in Indonesian markets.  As supermarkets supplant the traditional markets, some of these snacks will undoubtedly disappear. One of the interesting things about the book is that one of the co-authors is a Japanese woman, Tomomi Kimura, who was studying at UGM in Yogya.  She collaborated with a catering company in compiling the recipes.


Roti Jala

1/4 cup thick coconut milk
1 3/4 cup water
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp salt
1 egg, beaten
pinch of turmeric (optional)
vegetable oil to grease the pan

In a bowl, whisk together the coconut milk, water, salt, turmeric (if using), and egg.  Gradually whisk in the flour until you have a smooth batter, about the consistency of whipping cream.  Strain the batter through a fine sieve to remove any possible lumps.  This is important if using a roti jala funnel because even the smallest lumps can clog the spouts.

Heat a large non-stick skillet over medium heat.  Pour in a splash of vegetable oil and rub it into the surface with a paper towel.  Ladle some batter into the funnel (if using), holding the funnel about a half-inch to an inch over the skillet.  Move the funnel in circular pattern to form a lacy, fishnet-like crepe.  Cook until the crepe is set and the edges begin to lift and curl from the pan.  Slide onto a clean plate.  Roll or fold into eighths.  Continue until all the batter is finished. 

This makes about 16-20 crepes.  Serve it with curries or other saucy dishes.  I served it here with an excellent Burmese shrimp curry from Naomi Duguid's Burma: Rivers of Flavor.  I'll be posting my take on this dish soon.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Nasi Tim Ayam Jamur--Steamed Rice with Chicken and Mushrooms

Nasi tim ayam jamur is a dish that qualifies for Indonesian comfort food.  A Chinese influenced dish, it is not widely seen on menus outside of Java.  In fact, it's a dish I don't recall seeing very often in restaurants on Java.  If you do encounter it, it's likely to be in a city with a fairly sizeable Tionghoa population.

It is not a difficult dish to prepare, and it has the added benefit of being a dish that can be assembled ahead of time and served when you are ready.  It can be made as a communal dish or in individual servings.  Traditionally it might be served with acar (a cucumber and carrot pickle), but since I had recently made some do chua (Vietnamese pickled carrot and daikon), I served it with that.  A quick stir fry of caisim (choy sum) with chilies and garlic completed the meal.

I used a whole chicken in preparing this dish, using the breast for this dish, the wings and legs for some ayam pong teh, and the backbone and ribs to make the chicken stock.  Tjing doesn't care for chicken breast usually, so this is one way to make it palatable for her.  You could, of course, just buy some boneless, skinless chicken breast (or thighs), and use some canned low-sodium chicken broth instead of making your own.

Nasi Tim Ayam Jamur
printable recipe

1 whole boneless, skinless chicken breast
2 cups rice, rinsed and drained
4 cups chicken stock (divided)
1/2 lb fresh mushrooms (in Indonesia, fresh straw mushrooms are the mushroom of choice, but you may choose to use oyster, button, shitake, or other mushrooms--I used shimeiji, Japanese brown beech mushrooms, because they were available and cheap)
4 TBS oil (approximately)
5 cloves of garlic, peeled and finely minced
1-inch slice of ginger, peeled and finely minced
1/2 tsp ground white pepper
2 TBS oyster sauce
2 TBS kecap manis (sweet soy sauce)
1 TBS kecap asin (regular soy sauce)
4 green onions, sliced

Cut the chicken into small cubes.  Chop the mushrooms so that they're about the same size as the pieces of chicken.  Heat a wok or skillet over medium high heat and add about 2 tablespoons of oil.  When the oil is shimmering, add the ginger and garlic and fry briefly, not allowing them to brown. Stir in the chicken and fry for about a minute before adding the mushrooms.  Add the oyster sauce, kecap manis, kecap asin and white pepper.  Cook for about a minute longer.  Remove from heat.

In a sauce pan, heat 2 tablespoons of oil over medium high heat.  Stir in the rice.  Stir well, making sure all the grains get coated with oil.  Add 2 1/2 cups of the chicken stock.  Stir and bring to a boil.  Once the stock comes to a boil, cover and remove from heat.  Allow the rice to absorb the liquid, about 10 or 15 minutes.

In heat proof bowls (you may choose which size you prefer--I have used both 1 1/2 cup ramekins and 3/4 cup ramekins) place a layer of the chicken mushroom mixture on the bottom.  Top this with a layer of rice to the top of the ramekin or bowl.  Spoon an additional tablespoon or two of the chicken broth over the top.  Place the filled bowls in a steamer and steam for 15 minutes.  The bowls may be filled earlier in the day (or a day earlier) and steamed when you are ready for dinner. 

To serve, invert a plate over the top of a ramekin.  Holding on tightly to both, flip them over, tap on the ramekin, and the chicken and rice should release, forming a mound of deliciousness on the plate.
Traditionally, a cup of the broth seasoned with the slices of green onion is served along with the rice.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012


The iconographic image for Bali is a line of women on their way to temple balancing platters tiered with fruit, flowers, and woven offerings.  Even in the still photograph there is movement, a sense of the women’s rhythm, of their calm grace.  Their kebayas, fluorescent against the green of rice paddies and rain forests in the distance, shimmer in the stillness.  The first time you encounter such a procession of women in Bali, it catches your breath, the beauty of it, the recognition of the baseness of your own pitiful existence. 

One of the iconic images for me of Java is the jamu lady, resplendent in a vibrant, lacy kebaya, a length of batik wrapped as a sarong around her legs, a basket slung by a selendang from her shoulder, drifting along dusty streets, an apparent lightness to her step and being.  In heat that sucks the breath from you, these women move as if untethered to this earth.  They are their own best advertisement, a testimonial to the tonics they peddle.

Jamu is a traditional herbal tonic popular throughout Indonesia, but especially in Java.  Although it seems to be on the wane in the larger cities, jamu is still widely consumed in the rural areas.  Western medicine and pharmaceuticals seem to be supplanting the use of jamu among the younger population, but many Javanese still tout its virtues.  Long before the arrival of Viagra (knock-offs of which are widely distributed as "pil biru"--the blue pill), there was a jamu to treat limp dick.  There are also mixtures to keep women's juices flowing and preserve their youth, elixirs to keep their men from straying.

Tjing's childhood home, the house we still return to when we return to Java, was a jamu shop.  Customers would come in, say what ailed them, then sit on stools along a bar while Tjing's mother or aunt would prepare  tonics to remedy their complaints.  The mixtures were mostly prepackaged, a blend of various herbs that would then be made into drinks that also contained raw eggs and honey.  When I first visited the home in 1993, the bar was still set up and some customers still drifted in although it was no longer an active shop.  Until the last year or so, if you wanted to give a becak driver directions to the house all you had to do was to mention it was the cap Jago shop on Patimura (cap Jago being the brand of jamu that was sold there and featuring a sign with a rooster which still hangs outside the house).  

Too much of the world now seems familiar.  The uniqueness of place is vanishing as one small village becomes no different from another half a world away.  The Big Mac served in Kediri is not dissimilar to one you might have in New York, Moscow, or Lodi.  As smaller communities long to join the dominant world, they sacrifice pieces of themselves.  Regional foods disappear; newscasters all speak with the same generic accent.  That jamu ladies still tread this earth is something to give thanks for.  Seeing them, their baskets laden with bottles and packets of jamu, a pail for dirty glasses grasped in their hands, brings a recognition that this is Java, that it is a unique place graced by these women, that this land is unique, that here, in this everyday world, there is still that which we might recognize as sacred.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Curried Butternut Squash Tartlets with Maple Bacon Topping

Butternut squash and curry seem to have a natural affinity, as do bacon and maple syrup. Add a ready to bake puff pastry shell, a little brown sugar and cream cheese, and you have a sweet and savory dessert that is ready in minutes.

Peel and thinly slice a small butternut squash.  Saute the slices in butter with some madras curry powder until just softened.  Combine a couple tablespoons of cream cheese with brown sugar.  Spread this on some thawed puff pastry shells that have been rolled out to 5-inch circles.  Overlap about four or five slices of the squash.  Bake in a hot oven for twenty minutes.  Top with crisped pieces of bacon in a reduced maple syrup.  Bake another five minutes.  Remove from the oven.  Cool and serve.  I suppose you could serve with ice cream, but they are awfully good by themselves. A more detailed recipe is below.

Curried Butternut Squash Tartlets with Maple Bacon Topping

1 package of Pepperidge Farm® Puff Pastry Shells, thawed
1 small butternut squash, peeled and sliced into thin slices (1/8 inch thick)
2 TBS butter
3 tsp good quality madras curry powder, divided
8 oz cream cheese, softened
6 TBS brown sugar
4--6 slices of bacon, crisped and broken into small pieces
1/2 cup maple syrup

Preheat the oven to 375º F.

In several batches, sauté the slices of squash in a skillet with the butter and 2 teaspoons of the curry powder.  Cook just long enough to soften the slices slightly, about 3 to 4 minutes.  Remove to a paper towel lined plate and cool.

Stir the brown sugar into the cream cheese, making a smooth, uniform mixture.  

On a lightly floured surface, roll each pastry shell into a circle about 5 inches in diameter.  Place the pastry circles on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper.

Spread 1 to 2 tablespoons of the cream cheese mixture on each of the rolled out shells.  Top with five slices of the butternut squash, overlapping them in a circular pattern.  Bake the pastries for twenty minutes. 

Meanwhile, in a small saucepan stir together the maple syrup and the remaining teaspoon of curry powder.  Reduce the maple syrup by about half.  Stir in the pieces of crisped bacon.

After the tartlets have baked for twenty minutes, top with the maple syrup glaze.  Return the baking sheet to the oven and bake for an additional five minutes.  

When done, remove and cool for at least 15 minutes before eating.  May be served warm or at room temperature.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Rengginang--Fried Rice Crackers

When I made some sambal serai--lemongrass sambal--a few weeks back, I thought it needed something other than some grilled food to accompany it.  The sambal is great with a meal, but I wanted to be able to enjoy it as a snack.  Rengginang--which are a kind of rice cracker made from sticky rice--make a perfect accompaniment.  They are light and savory, easy to make, and store well.

Rengginang are nothing like the tasteless puffed rice crackers that were popular with dieters many years ago.  Who knows, maybe they are still popular.  Nutritionally, they were equivalent to eating styrofoam. Unfortunately, styrofoam probably tastes better.  Rengginang taste like toasted rice with a hint of garlic and shrimp.  In Indonesia you can also get a sweetened version, but I've always been partial to the savory ones.  While they are usually about 3 inches in diameter, you can find platter-sized ones that are 10 inches or more across. 

Making these is a multi-step process, but it is not difficult.  Soak, steam, mix, steam, dry, and fry.  There's also a little grinding of garlic, but those are the basic steps.  While I like a little sambal with mine, you could really use them with almost any dip, especially salsas.  The dried disks can be stored until you are ready to fry them.  The fried rengginang will keep for at least a week in an airtight container. 

Rengginang--Fried Rice Crackers

1 kilo glutinous rice (approximately 5 cups)
6--8 cloves of garlic, peeled, and pounded to a paste
2 tsp salt
1 tsp terasi (optional)
2 TBS ebi (dried shrimp) soaked in hot water for 10 minutes, drained, and pounded to a paste (optional)
400 ml (1 3/4 cups) water

Soak the rice in water for two to four hours.  Drain, then steam the rice for 15 minutes.  Remove the rice to a large bowl.

In a mortar, pound the garlic, salt, terasi, and ebi (if using) into a smooth paste. Stir this paste into the 400 ml of water.  Pour this into the partially steamed rice and mix well.  Allow the rice to absorb the seasoned water.

After 15 to 20 minutes, when the rice has absorbed the added liquid, return the rice to the steamer and steam for another 30 minutes.  Remove the rice from the steamer and form into disks about 1/4 inch to 1/2 inch thick (.5 cm to 1 cm). 

If you live in a warm, sunny climate, place the disks in a single layer on some sort of rack or porous surface and allow them to dry.  This may take several days.  I hurried the process by putting them into an oven which I turned on to the lowest possible setting.  I meant to turn the oven off after five minutes, but forgot, so I dried them a little faster and at a higher temperature than was ideal.  Still, they fried up fine.  If you have a dehydrator, I would think that would be ideal for drying these.

Once dried, they are ready to be fried.  Heat oil in a wok or other pan to around 385º, maybe a little hotter.  Slide a disk into the hot oil.  It will sink to the bottom, but should rise almost immediately.  Cook in small batches.  Each only takes twenty seconds or less to cook.  The important thing is to have the oil hot enough so that the disks will rise to the surface almost immediately.  If the oil is too cool, the disks will remain on the bottom and you will have a hard, unpleasant cracker.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012


Some cookies aren't for kids.  Not that they won't eat them, but they would prefer something less complex, a more straightforward sugar rush.  These gingersnaps would go as well with a lowball of scotch as a glass of milk.  I first made them to use for the base of a cheesecake that I topped with some pineapple, banana, and coconut jam that I recently made. Since the recipe makes two logs, each of which yields 20--24 cookies, I put aside one log in the freezer to bake at a later date.  That date came due last night.

This is a very easy recipe that comes from David Lebovitz, or at least I discovered it on his site.  The actual recipe is apparently from Alice Water's The Art of Simple Food.  I made some slight changes to the recipe, adding cloves and nutmeg, options that the original suggests.  For the cheesecake base, I didn't top the cookies with the coarse sugar, but I do like the crunch it adds to the cookies.  I try to avoid having too many sweets in the house, so I am unlikely to make these very often.  I know if they were in the house, I would be unable to resist them. Anyways, I'm out of scotch.


2 cups (280 g) flour
1½ teaspoons baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1½ teaspoons ground ginger
½ teaspoon ground black pepper
4 whole cloves, finely ground
1/2 freshly grated nutmeg
11 tablespoons (150 g) butter, salted or unsalted, at room temperature
2/3 cup (130 g) sugar
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
¼ cup (80 g) mild-flavored molasses* (sometimes called ‘light’ molasses)
1 large egg, at room temperature

Coarse sugar crystals (I used Trader Joe's Turbinado Raw Cane Sugar) for topping the cookies

In a medium bowl mix together the flour, baking soda, salt, and spices.  With a mixer, cream the butter until fluffy before gradually mixing in the sugar. Add the vanilla, molasses, and egg, and mix until thoroughly incorporated.  With the mixer running, gradually stir in the flour mixture until you have a smooth, uniform dough.

Divide the dough in half.  Roll each half on a lightly floured surface to form two logs, each about 2 inches in diameter.  Wrap each log in plastic wrap and freeze or refrigerate until firm.  (At this point, you may keep the logs in the freezer for up to three months before baking, and you now have something that is every bit as easy to use as those refrigerated cookie tubes you see in the supermarket.)

When you are ready to bake some cookies, preheat the oven to 350º F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper; one baking sheet should suffice for one log.  If you are expecting company, have a large family, or should be checking yourself into a clinic to deal with your overeating issues, line two baking sheets and get it done with.

Slice the logs into 1/4-inch thick coins of dough.  If topping with the coarse sugar, pour about a quarter cup of the sugar into a small bowl.  Firmly press one side of a sliced round of dough into the sugar.  Place the sugared rounds on the parchment-lined baking sheet(s), sugared-side up.  

Bake for 10 to 14 minutes.  Let cool on the baking sheet for two minutes before transferring to a cooling rack.  Enjoy.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Sambal Serai--Lemongrass Sambal


Sambal is a part of just about every Indonesian meal.  Sambals can be cooked, raw, with vegetables or proteins, complex, or simple.  Some varieties can be found here.  Sambal ulek (usually seen in markets with the Dutch spelling, sambal oelek) is the most basic of sambals, simply freshly ground chilies and salt.  Sambals may be served alone as a snack, or as an accent to spark grilled fish or fried chicken.  You decide how much sambal your bowl of soto needs, but no soto is complete without it.

Sambal sereh is a cooked sambal that is a great accompaniment to grilled chicken, but also tastes great as a dip for rengginang or krupuk.  Although not for the faint-hearted, the level of heat can be adjusted by the types of chilies used.  Here in Sacramento, the Asian farmers market--a few blocks west of the official Sunday farmers market--finds the stalls overflowing with a variety of  chilies, some hot, others blistering.  Cabai rawit--bird chilies--are particularly hot and can be found throughout the year in local markets.  Cabai keriting--curly chilies--are hot, but not as hot as cabai rawit.  They are rarely found in local markets or at other farmers markets, but they do appear in late summer at the Asian farmers market. 

The Indonesian recipe that I adapted this from calls for 100 grams of cabai keriting.  I used about 80 grams and added a gypsy pepper, a mild red pepper.  This made for a very hot sambal, but one that I can still enjoy just eating with rengginang.  If you prefer a milder sambal, use fewer of the curly chilies and more of the gypsy chili or red bell pepper.  I suppose vegetarians could leave out the dried shrimp and terasi, but the sambal would be less complex.  Terasi (belacan) is an acquired taste, but once you've become accustomed to it, you will long for it.

80 grams (a good handful) chilies  (cabai keriting, but any hot red chili may be used), seeded
1 mild red pepper
3 cloves of garlic, peeled and minced
2 tsp ebi (dried shrimp), soaked in 2 TBS warm water for a few minutes and drained
1 tsp salt
1--2 TBS gula jawa (palm sugar)
1 TBS terasi (fermented shrimp paste)
3  tomatoes, roughly chopped
2 TBS vegetable oil
3/4 cup of water
2 stalks of lemongrass, outer leaves removed, crushed with a pestle and tied into a knot

In a blender or food processor, process the chilies and red pepper until you have a fairly smooth paste. Reserve.  Grind the garlic and salt to a smooth paste in a mortar.  Add the drained ebi, gula jawa, and terasi and grind with a pestle until smooth.  Add the tomatoes and continue to grind until all the ingredients are well mixed.
Heat a frying pan.  Add the oil and then the tomato and garlic mixture.  Fry until fragrant, then stir in water.  Add the chili paste and lemongrass. While stirring, cook over low heat until the mixture thickens.  Ideally, you want a sambal that is moist but not too liquid.  Scrape as much of the sambal as you can from the lemongrass.  Suck what remains on the stalks and count your blessings.

Serve the sambal with grilled/fried fish or chicken.  Or add to an omelet.  Or use as a dip for crackers, chips, krupuk, or rengginang.  Any way you serve it, you will enjoy.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Pineapple, Banana, and Coconut Jam

Every year since I started this blog a few years ago, I have participated in Steph Chows Jam Exchange.  An annual event that takes place each summer, the exchange is a chance  excuse for me to make up some jam.  Although I like various jams and have enjoyed those I have received in the exchanges, Tjing and I rarely eat it.  We are not real big on breakfast, but if we do bother to have something more than a piece of fruit, we are more likely to have fried rice or a bowl of noodle soup than a piece of toast with jam. So, besides giving away most of the jam I make, I try to come up with other ways of using it.

One of the jams I made this summer was from Christine Ferber's Mes Confitures.  This book has a collection of a number of intriguing combinations for jams and preserves, most of which I'll probably never get around to unless I start making more than one or two batches of jam a year.  The translation of the recipes is sometimes suspect, and the conversion between grams and dry measurements seems a bit off, but the ideas for different jams are inspiring.

I wasn't sure that banana would work in a jam.  I thought it would probably turn to a brown and unappetizing mush.  I also don't like coconut in cakes, cookies, or candies.  For some reason, dried coconut triggers the gag response in me.  I do, however, like fresh coconut--which this recipe calls for--and the combination of pineapple, banana, and coconut seemed like it would make a nice tropical jam if it came together.  Thankfully, it did.

Since our toaster gave up the ghost some time ago, I wanted some way to use the jam to good effect.  I thought it would give a tropical flair to some cheesecake, but wanted something in a more manageable size.  Using a one-inch diameter biscuit cutter, I cut rounds from a ginger-snap crusted cheesecake and topped those with a spoonful of the jam.  The eight-inch square cheesecake produced 16 bite-sized rounds (and some delicious scraps to snack on).

adapted from Mes Confitures 

400 grams of fresh, ripe pineapple, cored, cut into eighths lengthwise, then cut into 1/3-inch thick slices
500 grams of bananas (4 average bananas), sliced into rounds a little more than 1/2-inch thick
200 grams grated fresh coconut (I used frozen coconut I bought at an Asian market)
3 1/2 cups sugar (672 gr)
juice of one small lemon

In a large saucepan combine all the ingredients and bring to a simmer.  Stir well and make sure the sugar is completely dissolved.  Remove from heat and pour into a non-reactive container.  Cover and refrigerate overnight.

The following day, pour the liquid from the mixture back into the saucepan.  Bring to a boil and stir until the temperature reaches 221º F.  Add the fruit and coconut and continue cooking for five minutes or so.  Check the set of the mixture.  Put the jam into hot, sterilized 1/2 pint jars, seal and process in a water canner for ten minutes.

**  Ferber's recipe calls for 3 3/4 cups or 800 grams of sugar.  800 grams actually comes to more than 4 cups of sugar.  I found that 3 3/4 cups is a tad too sweet for me.  I would consider using less, but not sure if that might not affect the jam when canning.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Gokar Kencana--Ayam Goreng-Bakar--Surabaya

Bantam chickens are a breed of chicken that originated in West Java.  A smaller breed of chicken, they are, according to Wikipedia, a popular breed for suburban homes in large part due to their decreased need for space.  That such a chicken should originate in Java is fitting as it is one of the world's most densely populated islands.  Not quite one third the size of California, Java has almost 4 times the number of people as California, just over 136,000,000.  Good luck getting lost on Java; travel half a mile from any spot and it seems there is another cluster of homes.

While tempe is probably the most readily available source of protein on Java as it is cheap enough for everyone except perhaps the most abject poor, chicken is the most common meat of the Javanese diet.  Ayam goreng, sate ayam, soto ayam, and ayam panggang or ayam bakar can be found on just about any street.  Go hiking to get away from the masses and you'll probably find a hawker who has carried his grill and chicken up the mountainside to cater to hungry hikers.  A cold beer is a rare find, but a piece of freshly cooked chicken is never more than a few minutes from wherever you might be.

In Surabaya this summer, Tjing and I enjoyed a lunch at Gokar Kencana, a family restaurant specializing in fried and grilled  chicken. Anyone familiar with Indonesians fondness for acronyms might suss out the restaurant's focus (ayam GOreng) and (ayam baKAR).  In addition to chicken, the restaurant also serves fried and grilled gurame.

The restaurant is located in a suburb near several of Surabaya's universities, Universitas Airlangga, ITS (Institute Technology Surabaya), and Universitas Muhammadiyah Surabaya.  A spacious patio covered by an arching roof, the restaurant would seem to be a great place to grab a meal before or after classes.  It's much more upscale than the typical warung or rumah makan, but the prices seemed very reasonable at around 1500 rp for a serving of a quarter of a chicken with rice.

The fried chicken is not the KFC style with a crisp crust that absorbs grease, but the Indonesian style of chicken that is first simmered in coconut water with a mix of spices before being fried.  This results in a flavorful piece of chicken that is moist but thoroughly cooked without being greasy.  The grilled chicken includes some honey in the mixture that it is basted with while being grilled.  It is grilled on a custom made grill that uses briquettes rather than the lump charcoal that is more commonly used in Indonesia.  Both the fried chicken and the grilled were extremely tasty, as was the fried gurame.  Although I enjoyed all the dishes, I preferred the grilled chicken and its accompanying sambal.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Zucchini Ratatouille Roll-Ups

While I don't derive pleasure from killing any living beings, I do derive pleasure from their deaths.  This is true for anyone who eats of the flesh.  Were I a nobler human being, one further along on the path to transcendence, I suppose I would be a vegan and eschew all animal products.  Let the bees enjoy their honey!  Let the foxes eat the hens eggs!

Alas,  I am but a base creature who savors the flesh of other creatures.  Smoke the bees out of their hives and harvest their combs.  Break those eggs and fix me a frittata.  Flay that beast so that I may have a belt and shoes.  Much as I might wish I were more enlightened, I am borne with the desire for blood and marrow. 

I have evolved enough that I do not insist on animal sacrifice for every meal.  I am a big fan of dairy products, but they need not be present in every dish.  Fresh, seasonal vegetables properly prepared are no less satisfying than a well cooked piece of meat.  Salt and pepper tofu is not better than salt and pepper shrimp, but can be as delicious.  In summer in northern California we are blessed with an abundance of great produce.  This appetizer takes advantage of the local bounty.

Having recently received some wonderful zucchini, Japanese eggplant, and tomatoes from a former colleague who has been forced into retirement by an adult education program managed by a mean-spirited and vengeful drunk, I decided to try these out.  The filling is not a true ratatouille, but a simple sauté of the vegetables you would find in one.  Unless you possess amazing knife skills, a mandoline is needed for slicing the zucchini.  The zucchini are grilled, allowed to cool, and then rolled around a spoonful of the sautéed vegetables.  The end result is a tasty appetizer packed with the flavors of summer.

Zucchini Ratatouille Roll-Ups

1 medium size zucchini
1 large red pepper
1/2 yellow onion, peeled, finely chopped
3-4 tomatoes
2-3 Japanese eggplant, chopped into a small dice
1 clove of garlic, peeled, minced
3 TBS olive oil
salt, to taste
1/2 tsp --1 tsp herbs de provence
chives (I used garlic chives because I had them in) blanched and drained
finely julienned fresh basil (optional)

With a mandoline, slice the zucchini lengthwise into pieces about 1/8" thick.  You will have some odds and ends of zucchini leftover.  Cut these into a small dice and reserve them.  Brush the zucchini slices with olive oil and grill on a medium hot grill 4 to 5 minutes.  You don't want to overcook these, but you do want to have good grill marks on at least one side.  Remove from the grill and cool.

Char the pepper on the grill.  When the skin is blackened on all sides, place in a bowl and cover with plastic wrap for fifteen minutes or so.  Rub the charred skin off the pepper.  Cut the pepper into a small dice.

At the same time the pepper is on the grill, char the tomatoes.  They will probably take less time.  Peel and chop into small dice.

Heat the olive oil in a sauté pan.  Add garlic and onions and cook until softened, but not browned.  Add the eggplant and continue cooking until softened. Stir in the reserved zucchini bits.  Add in the diced peppers and tomatoes along with the herbs de provence, season to taste with the salt, and simmer over a low heat until almost all of the liquid is cooked off and you have this wonderful ratatouille jam.  Remove from the heat and let cool.  If you like, julienned basil is a nice addition.

Take a heaping teaspoonful of the vegetable mixture and place on the wide end of a zucchini strip.  Roll up and secure the roll by tying it with a blanched chive.  These can be made several hours before serving.  Serve at room temperature.

Obviously, this recipe is very flexible.  Use what you like and adapt it to your taste. I got nine slices out of the zucchini.  There was more filling, but I ended up just eating that by the spoonful.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Steamed Silken Tofu with Ginger, Green Onions, and Cilantro

It might seem odd that after spending much of the summer in Kediri, self proclaimed Kota Tahu (Tofu City) in Indonesia, that one of the first things I cooked upon returning to the States was this silken tofu dish, but this is not something you generally find in Indonesia.  I first tasted something like this dish some years ago in Kuala Terengganu in Malaysia. Tjing and I were at a rather unassuming Chinese restaurant and decided to give it a try.  It was a surprising burst of flavor against the backdrop of the silken tofu.  I have never come across the dish at any other restaurant.  Web searches have been fruitless as well.

When Andrea Nguyen's Asian Tofu came out, I eagerly purchased it hoping to find a recipe for the dish in it.  Alas, although her book has many delicious recipes (and the silken tofu I used in this recipe is made following her directions), it doesn't have this recipe in it.  She has several recipes using silken tofu cold, but nothing like that dish we had in KT. 

Actually, this is similar to the Chinese way of steaming fish.  The tofu is steamed and then sprinkled with finely julienned ginger and green onions, sprinkled with a vinegar-laced soy sauce dressing and chopped cilantro, and then drizzled with smoking hot peanut oil.  The oil flash cooks the herbs and adds a richness to the tofu.  This is one of those dishes meat eaters and vegans can both enjoy.  Indeed, this is one of those dishes that could actually get meat eaters to concede that a vegan diet might be possible, were all vegan dishes this tasty.

Silken Tofu with Ginger, Green Onions, and Cilantro

1 block of silken tofu, sliced into 1-inch thick rectangles
4 tsp kecap manis
4 tsp black vinegar
3 tsp soy sauce
1 inch piece of young ginger, peeled and finely julienned
2 green onions, cut into 2-inch lengths, finely julienned
1/2 cup cilantro, roughly chopped
1 tsp sesame oil
2 TBS peanut oil

Place the tofu on a plate, place half the ginger and green onions on top and steam for 8 minutes.  

Drain accumulated liquid from the plate.  Mix together the kecap manis, vinegar, and soy sauce.  Pour this mixture over the steamed tofu.  Sprinkle the remaining ginger, green onion, and the chopped cilantro on top.  Heat the peanut oil in a small pan until it is smoking.  Add the sesame oil and then drizzle this over the tofu dish.  Serve with steamed rice.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Returning to Galang

I first went to Pulau Galang in October, 1987.  Located southeast of Singapore, Pulau Galang was the primary refugee camp for Indochinese refugees (predominantly Vietnamese) in Indonesia.  Established in 1979 during the first wave of boat people fleeing Vietnam, Galang had served as a first asylum camp and a reprocessing center for refugees accepted for resettlement in the United States.  By the time I arrived in 1987, the reprocessing center (where refugees going to the US spent six months in language and cultural orientation classes) had closed and those refugees sent to similar camps in Phanat Nikhom (Thailand) or Bataam (the Philippines).  So when I arrived, Galang was only a first asylum camp, with a population of about 8,000--10,000 refugees.

This was neither my first time in Indonesia nor my first time in a refugee camp. I had previously worked in camps in Malaysia in the early 80s.  After that, I had taught at the national oil and gas training academy (AKAMIGAS) in Cepu, Central Java for several years.

Although very different from Pulau Bidong, going to Pulau Galang felt very familiar.  For one thing, I was reunited with Tom and Mike, some friends I had worked with in Malaysia.  Mike was the program director and Tom was another supervisor.  As teacher-trainers/supervisors in Malaysia, we had much closer contact with the refugees, as the schools in the camps there were almost entirely staffed by refugees.  On Galang only some of the very low level classes were taught by refugees, with most of the teaching being done by Indonesian teachers who were graduates of universities and teacher-training programs in Indonesia.  They were all able instructors and made my job very easy.  It was on Galang that I met Tjing, one of the teachers I supervised. Six years later we got married, so Galang was a special place for us.

This summer we went back to Indonesia to visit family.  Spending most of our time in Tjing's hometown of Kediri, we had brief visits to Bandung and Jakarta where her brothers and their families live.  We also arranged for a short visit to Galang, where we planned to meet up with Ing, another one of the teachers from Galang.  Unfortunately, Ing bailed on us a week or so before we were to meet, conscientious as always about her commitment to her job.

When it was still functioning as a camp (it was finally closed in the mid 90s), Galang was isolated, difficult to get to.  The only way to get there was by boat, and without a camp pass provided by the local authorities no one was allowed onto the island. Few refugees landed directly on the island, most landing at smaller islands scattered nearby, many times after being pushed off from Malaysia or Singapore.

Today the story is different.  With a series of bridges that now connect Galang to Batam, getting to Galang is now a simple drive of a little more than an hour from Batam.  When we were living and working there Galang seemed so isolated from nearby islands.  Going to TJP for the weekend was a treat and staff had to reserve a spot on the boat early if they wanted to go.  Now, hordes of tourists from Batam and Singapore drive to the island to spend weekends on the beaches.

Visiting Galang now, I realized how much effort it took to build the camp and provide the infrastructure.  Other than the places of worship--several Buddhist temples, the Catholic church, a small mushola--and a small museum with artifacts and photos of ceremonies that took place in the camp, there is little to see of the camp itself.  For people who had never been there in the 80s,  it would be hard to realize what life was really like in the camp.  The schools, the barracks, the staff living quarters, coffee shops and stores have all been engulfed by vines and vegetation.  There is little sense of the dynamic, vibrant community that the island once harbored.

The Site I pagoda, Quan Am Tu, has been completely renovated.  When I left in 1989 it had been abandoned and was succumbing to age and the elements.  The walls and ceiling were beginning to collapse.  With a view of the harbor in the distance, the temple was a place I used to walk to some afternoons to get away from the camp.  Geckos scrambled up the planks of the walls.  It was a place of great tranquility.  In renovating the pagoda, the old structure has been replaced.  The new pagoda is a structurally sound building, but reflects more the Chinese Buddhist community in the area than the pagoda that was built by the refugees.

As much as I wanted to enjoy our return to Galang, I left feeling somewhat disappointed.  The museum has an interesting collection of artifacts left behind by refugees, including numerous religious icons of Quan Am (goddess of mercy) and the Virgin Mary, and hundreds of pictures of visiting dignitaries, but little that shows everyday life in the camp.  There are no photographs of the barracks, the schools, coffee shops or stores that were in the camp.  While the two jail cells have been preserved, none of the schools have.  There is one wing of barracks away from the road that has not been overgrown by vegetation, but it will soon be swallowed by the relentless vines that cover the island.  I left the island feeling disheartened so little of the daily vibrancy of the camp had been captured.

I'm including some photos of the camp from the time when I was there.  I hope that others may have more pictures to show of the day to day activities in the camp.   I would invite anyone with pictures of the camp who would like to share them to post them to the Facebook group Galang camp.