Thursday, October 31, 2013

Mexican Chocolate Snickerdoodles

Whether snickerdoodles got their name from German or are a result of New England whimsy, they are a popular cookie in the United States.  Traditional snickerdoodles are a variety of sugar cookie that are rolled in a mixture of sugar and cinnamon before they are baked.  My mother makes some that are excellent, perhaps not as popular in the family as her sugar cookies, but still mighty tasty.  They are chewy and buttery and bursting with taste of cinnamon.  As much as I like those traditional snickerdoodles, I wanted something a little different, something a splash of port or a dram of whiskey might accompany.

Mexican hot chocolate, for those who haven't had the pleasure of tasting it, is made with chocolate and cinnamon.  That being the case, chocolate snickerdoodles seemed a logical mash-up.  For anyone who has nibbled on a block of Ibbarra, these snickerdoodles will remind you of that moment of stolen pleasure.  Crisp, deep chocolate flavor with a hint of heat and spice, these are a cookie for adults.  Kids would probably love them as well, but it may lead them down a dark path.  I'm not suggesting it will lead to heroin or stumbling out of midtown bars at 9 in the morning, but it will change them.  They will suddenly find Barney and Rachel Ray too perky and upbeat.  After eating these, they won't want those overly sweet, insipid store-bought cookies that they beg for like mutant dogs happy for some post-industrial chemical scrap made by indentured orphans in a pollutant spewing factory in a smog blackened city in northeast China.  So it's up to you whether or not you share these with your children.

Mexican Chocolate Snickerdoodles

Cookie Dough
1 3/4 cups (8.75 oz) all-purpose flour
1 stick (4 oz) butter, at room temperature
2 oz unsweetened chocolate
1 egg, room temperature
1  cup sugar
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp ancho chile powder
1/2 tsp cinnamon
2 cloves, finely ground
1/4 tsp salt

Sugar Coating
1/3 cup sugar
3/4 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp cayenne pepper

Preheat your oven to 400º F.

To make the cookie dough, melt the chocolate and allow to cool.  Meanwhile, in a large mixing bowl cream the butter and sugar with a mixer until light and fluffy, about 5 minutes.  Stir in the cooled chocolate and the egg and use the mixer to get a homogenous blend.

In a separate bowl, combine the flour and the remaining dry ingredients.  Add this to the chocolate mixture in two or three stages, mixing well to make sure all the flour is incorporated into the batter.
Scoop out pieces of the dough and form approximately 1" balls.  

In a small bowl, stir together the 1/3 cup sugar, the cinnamon, and the cayenne pepper.  Make sure you mix these together well.  Roll each ball of cookie dough in the sugar mix and place on parchment lined cookie sheets, spacing the cookies about 2 inches apart from each other.  Using the bottom of a glass, a bottle of scotch, a saucer, or some other handy object with a flat plane, press down lightly on each ball of dough.

Place the cookie sheets in the preheated oven and bake for approximately 10 minutes.  Slide the baked cookies onto racks to cool.  

Pour a splash of port, a dram of Scotch, or even a glass of hazlenut flavored soy milk and realize how lucky you are and how grateful you should be for this moment, no matter how shitty the rest of your life may or may not be.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Saffron Pistachio Shortbread

Shortbread is one of those simple, yet satisfying treats.  It is one of those elemental baked goods, taking flour, butter, and sugar and transforming them through the heat of an oven.  This is a recipe that hints of Spain's past.  It is lightly scented and tinted with a healthy pinch of saffron.  It also includes some toasted pistachios.  Like all good shortbread, it is rich and hard to resist, but takes little effort or time to prepare.  I prepared it in the morning before going to class.

The recipe comes from The New Spanish Table by Anya von Bremzen, a cookbook that is full of a great number of good recipes.  She credits Melissa Clark for creating the recipe.  The original recipe calls for toasting raw, shelled, unsalted pistachios.  I simply used dry roasted unsalted ones that I got at Trader Joe's. 

Saffron Pistachio Shortbread
adapted from The New Spanish Table

3/4 cup shelled, unsalted, dry-roasted pistachios
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/3 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup confectioners' sugar, plus extra for sprinkling on the baked shortbread
1/2 tsp coarse salt
1 cup (8 oz--2 sticks) unsalted butter, chilled and cubed
1 large pinch of saffron, ground in a mortar, steeped in 2 tablespoons of warm water and cooled
1 TBS full-flavored honey

Preheat the oven to 350º F.  Position a rack in the center of the oven.

In a food processor, pulse the flour, sugars, and salt until mixed.  Add in butter, honey, cooled saffron water, and honey, and pulse until the dough just begins to come together.  Place in 9-inch square baking pan.  Press down to fill the pan with an even level of dough.  I find placing a sheet of parchment paper on top and pressing the dough down is the easiest way to quickly fill the pan.  Remove the parchment paper before baking.

Place the pan on the center rack of the preheated oven.  Bake for 35--40 minutes, rotating the pan halfway through the baking time.  Place the pan on a wire rack and let cool for at least 20 minutes before attempting to remove the shortbread.  While the shortbread is still warm, cut it into squares by cutting 6 strips lengthwise and 6 strips crosswise.  This will give you 36 1 1/2-inch squares.

Let the shortbread cool completely before dusting with the reserved powdered sugar.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Grilled Pineapple and Shrimp Salad with Fennel Flower Crystals and Vanilla Coconut Dressing

Yes, that title is a mouthful.  Fortunately, it's a pretty tasty mouthful.  Although I've been slack in posting lately, I was intrigued by a challenge from  They are having a contest for bloggers to produce a savory dish from items they market that would more commonly be found in desserts.  Actually, I don't know that the fennel flower crystals even find their way into many desserts.
Besides the flower crystals and vanilla beans, the other two ingredients that were included were coconut sugar (drier and more granular than traditional gula jawa) and granulated honey, which is about ten percent honey together with sugar.  The granulated honey is said to provide the convenience of sugar, but with the richer taste of honey.  That is the one ingredient that I did not use in this challenge.

This salad has Asian flavors with a fennel kick.  I had thought the fennel flower crystals were just going to be fennel pollen, something I've tried before.  When I got the packet of flower crystals, I was stumped.  These are extremely fragrant and sweet, tasting like licorice-infused sugar.  How the hell was I going to use these in a savory dish?  Somehow I thought of salt and pepper shrimp, the Szechuan dish, which I have made with kumquats in the past.  Kumquats have a slight fennel taste, so I thought if I balanced the flower crystals with some salt, the fennel crystals might work with shrimp.

The rules for the challenge say only two ingredients need to be used in the recipe, and I knew I'd have no trouble using the coconut sugar, an ingredient common to many Indonesian and southeast Asian dishes, sweet and savory.  I've had some Thai dressings that used coconut milk along with lime and fish sauce, so I thought I'd see what adding a vanilla bean to some coconut milk together with lemongrass would do.  In as much vanilla complements pineapple, it seemed a good idea to add some grilled pineapple to the mix.  The sweetness of the grilled pineapple and shrimp called for some bitterness to keep things in balance.  Arugula seemed a good choice.

Finally, I thought some fried rice vermicelli (bihun) would provide a crispy accent to the salad and absorb some of the dressing.  When I was at the market, I noticed some banh uot kho, dried rice flakes, which I've never known to be fried.  I didn't know if they would fry up well, but thought that if they did, they might be a more interesting and attractive addition than the vermicelli.  They worked wonderfully, frying up like thin shrimp chips in a flash in hot oil.  I dusted them with a sprinkling of the fennel flower crystals ground together with some sea salt as soon as they came out of the fryer.

It should be noted that Marx Foods provided me with the samples used in creating this recipe.  Although they did not give me any money, the winner of the challenge will get a $100 gift certificate from Marx Foods.

Grilled Pineapple and Shrimp Salad with Fennel Flower Crystals and Vanilla Coconut Dressing

1 can coconut milk
1/2 cup water
3 stalks of lemongrass, sliced and pounded
1 Tahitian vanilla bean, split, the seeds scraped into the coconut milk along with the pod
1 TBS fish sauce
3 TBS coconut sugar

1/2 cup of the infused coconut milk
2 tsp lime juice
2 tsp coconut sugar
1 tsp fish sauce

To make the dressing, simmer the coconut milk and water with the lemongrass, vanilla, fish sauce and coconut sugar for about 30 minutes.  Remove from heat and let steep another 30 minutes or more.

Strain through a coarse sieve, allowing the vanilla seeds through but keeping out the lemongrass.  Mix 1/2 cup of the strained mixture with the lime juice, coconut sugar, and fish sauce.  Keep until ready to dress the salad.  (The remaining coconut milk infusion can be refrigerated--or frozen--for another time.)

1 pineapple, peeled and sliced into 1/2-inch thick slices
20 shrimp, peeled and deveined
3 cups arugula, washed and dried
2 shallots, thinly sliced
2 to 3 TBS mint, julienned
1 red jalapeno or other pepper with some heat
1 cup of dried rice flakes or rice vermicelli, fried in 350º F oil until crisp and puffed
1 tsp fennel flower crystals ground with 1 tsp kosher salt, for dusting the fried rice flakes
1 tsp fennel flower crystals for sprinkling on the shrimp just before serving the salad

Grill the pineapple slices on a hot grill for about 3 minutes a side until cooked.  Remove and cut each slice into eight pieces, removing the fibrous central core.  Thread the shrimp onto skewers, season lightly with salt and quickly grill them.  Be careful that you don't overcook them.

To assemble the salad, place the arugula on a deep platter.  Top with the grilled pineapple pieces, followed by the fried rice flakes.  Top with the grilled shrimp sprinkled with the fennel flower crystals.  Scatter the sliced shallots, mint, and red chili pepper.  Pour the dressing over and serve.

Don't add the rice flakes until you are ready to serve the salad.  If you add them beforehand, they will become soft and unappetizing.

I was afraid the fennel flower crystals might be overpowering, as they are quite strong when tasted by themselves.  However, I found that in the salad they were quite subtle.  It's possible that you might want more than one teaspoon's worth sprinkled on the shrimp when serving the salad.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Ayam Panggan Setan--The Devil's Grilled Chicken

While satay may be what comes to most people's minds when they think of Indonesian grilled chicken, it is not the only grilled chicken on the block in Java.  Indonesians have numerous ways of enjoying grilled yard bird, and in Indonesia the chicken very often is from a nearby yard.  Ayam kampung, village chicken, is a rangy, flavorful bird, smaller and generally tastier than its American free range cousin.  Throughout Indonesia one can find hawkers selling quarters of grilled chicken.  A whole chicken may not weigh more than two pounds, so the quarters are a nice bite.

Indonesians have an approach to cooking chicken that I have not seen elsewhere.  It's one that particularly makes sense for food vendors that have limited or no access to refrigeration.  Rather than simply frying or grilling the chicken, the birds are first simmered in a spiced liquid until cooked and the liquid reduced.  Sometimes the liquid is merely water with salt and other spices.  Other times coconut milk is used.  The cooked pieces of chicken can then be finished to order.  For kaki lima (the pushcarts hawkers use to transport and cook their foods) sellers, this allows them to get out orders fairly quickly and not have to worry about keeping raw chicken refrigerated in the tropical heat.

Precooking in the seasoned liquid also results in a moist, well spiced piece of chicken.  It is essentially cooking in a brine.  For a picnic or when you want to prepare chicken to feed a crowd, this method allows you to have a large quantity of chicken ready to finish off on the grill in minutes.  Consider it Indonesia's answer to sous vide.

When you see a restaurant or warung advertising ayam panggang setan, the only thing you can be assured of is that the chicken is going to be spicy hot.  Some places may simmer in coconut milk, others may not.  The sambal may use red or green chilies.  It may be suuuppperrrr pueeeedas (the more drawn out the syllables, the hotter the sambal) or simply pedas betul.  If you don't want or can't get a beer with it, have some young coconut juice.  This is one of the dishes that would likely be served with sambal lalapan

Ayam Panggang Setan

2--3 pounds of chicken pieces (I like thighs)

Spice Mixture:
5 shallots, peeled and chopped
3 cloves of garlic, peeled
2 inch piece of turmeric, peeled (or use 1 tsp ground turmeric)
3 kemiri (candlenuts)
1 TBS kosher salt
1 tsp peppercorns

3 lemongrass stalks, roughly chopped and pounded
6 kaffir lime leaves
half a thumb of galangal (laos) sliced and pounded
3/4 cup water

8 large red chilies
8 Thai red bird chilies
7 shallots, peeled
5 cloves of garlic, peeled
1 tomato
1 tsp salt
1 tsp shrimp paste (terasi/belacan), roasted
2 TBS vegetable oil

kecap manis

In a mortar or food processor, grind the ingredients for the spice mixture into a fine paste.  Mix the chicken pieces with the paste.  Add the chicken with the lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, galangal and water to a wok.  Simmer over medium heat until the chicken is cooked and the liquid has been absorbed/cooked off.  The chicken can be cooked ahead to this point and then held until you are ready to grill.

In a medium saucepan, boil the chilies, shallots, garlic, and tomato a few minutes until softened.  Drain.  Heat the oil in a frying pan or wok and briefly fry the boiled ingredients.  Process in a blender/food processor until smooth.  Add the salt and shrimp paste and pulse until incorporated.

Although you can grill the chicken directly over coals, as they would in Indonesia, I prefer the indirect approach, which allows you to lacquer chicken with the sauce.  In a Weber kettle grill or something similar, prepare a bed of coals on one side of the grill.  Brush both sides of the chicken with kecap manis and then brush on the sambal.  Place the chicken pieces skin-side up on the opposite side of the grill.  Cook for 10 to 15 minutes, until well browned.  Serve with more sambal and rice.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Peach and Nectarine Tart

After a month in Indonesia visiting family, Tjing and I returned to summer here in Northern California.  It's the towards the tail-end of the season for stone fruits, and peaches and their clean shaven cousins, nectarines,  are at peak sweetness.  Going to the farmers market the morning after we got back, I picked up several pounds of perfectly ripe yellow peaches and white nectarines.  Although they were fine eaten fresh without any adornment, I decided to use some to make this tart which I came across while surfing the web in Java.  I liked the simple directness of the tart, its focus on the fruit, but I thought I'd give it an Indonesian tweak by using some lemongrass kaffir lime pepper jam instead of the red currant preserves it calls for.  I thought a touch of heat with the fruit would be a nice touch.

Other than using demerara sugar instead of white sugar to sprinkle on the fruit, and the substitution of the kaffir lime chili jam for the red currant preserves, I stuck to the Times recipe.  The crust is a straightforward pate sucree, a crust that is pretty much foolproof.  As the fruit is front and center, it's important that you use the best that you can find.  I wouldn't attempt to make this tart with any fruit that you wouldn't be as happy eating fresh. 

I served this with some crème fraìche, as suggested in the original recipe, but a good vanilla ice cream would also go well with it.  It is also fine just on its own.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Vietnamese Peach Salsa

I don't recall ever eating a peach in Vietnam.  Here, in northern California, peaches are abundant and deliciously sweet in summer.  Although I never cared from them much when growing up, I've become very fond of them in recent years.  I particularly enjoy white peaches, which have an ambrosial sweetness.  This recipe came about when I was chewing on some rau ram (daun laksa) and thought it would be an interesting match with peaches.  I was right.

This salsa would be great with grilled fish, chicken, or pork.  It also goes nicely with arugula for a quick summer salad.  Here it is simply served with Vietnamese sesame rice crackers--banh trang me--which I crisped in the microwave.

As with most salsas, this is quick and easy to prepare, and tastes best the day it is made.  You could certainly add more shallots, make it spicier with more chilies, or vary it to your taste.  The rau ram should be easily found in Vietnamese markets.  It is the herb that makes this a Vietnamese salsa for me.

Vietnamese Peach Salsa

3 to 4 peaches, peeled and diced (I used a mix of white and yellow freestone peaches)
3 TBS chopped rau ram
2 TBS lime juice
1 TBS shallots, peeled and finely chopped
1 TBS young ginger, grated or finely minced
2 tsp granulated sugar
1 tsp fish sauce
2--4 thai chilies, seeded and minced
2 kaffir lime leaves, central vein removed, finely minced

Mix ingredients together in a bowl.  Wait 20 minutes for flavors to meld. Can be made several hours ahead of time, but best served the day it is made.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Shrimp Stuffed Squash Blossoms--Hoa bí nhồi tôm

Stuffed squash blossoms are a seasonal treat.  I love the Italian version with ricotta and mozzarella, and am equally fond of these Vietnamese inspired blossoms.  I first tasted ones similar to these in Can Tho, on our last visit to Vietnam several years ago.  The ones we had that night were good, but a little heavier than this version.  I believe the stuffing for them was a pork and shrimp forcemeat.

Even in season, squash blossoms are ephemeral treats.  Within a day they wilt and wither.  When I spot some good ones at the farmers market, I cannot resist them.  Never mind if I had other plans, when squash blossoms are available I will make something with them.  These shrimp stuffed ones go nicely with an evening cocktail.

I have made these with a thicker batter, but prefer this lighter, virtually transparent shell.  It provides a crisp skin to the blossoms without detracting from their delicate nature.  The shrimp stuffing is fragrant with kaffir lime leaves and young ginger.  I do not coat the zucchini with any batter at all.  I accompanied these with a simple nuoc cham for dipping.

Shrimp Stuffed Squash Blossoms--Hoa bí nhồi tôm
printable recipe

12 ounces peeled, deveined shrimp, chopped
2 TBS minced shallots
1 TBS minced young ginger (if unavailable, use half or less of mature ginger)
1 garlic clove, minced
2-3 kaffir lime leaves, central vein removed, finely chopped
1/2 ounce cellophane (mung bean) noodles, softened in warm water, chopped
2 tsp fish sauce
1/2 tsp sugar
1/2 tsp white pepper

12 squash blossoms, with or without baby zucchini attached

 1/4 cup rice flour
2 TBS cornstarch
1/2 tsp salt
ice water

oil for frying

In a food processor, pulse the shrimp mixture until well mixed.
Remove the stamen from inside the blossom, rinse and drain.  Pat dry with paper towels.
Put the shrimp mixture into a pastry bag.  Pipe a tablespoon or so of the mixture into the squash blossoms.  If the blossoms tear, just press against the shrimp filling to hold together.

Heat oil to the depth of about 2 inches to 350ºF. 
In a small bowl, add enough cold water to the rice flour, cornstarch and salt to make a thin batter.  Using the zucchini as handles, dip the stuffed blossoms into the batter. Slide the battered blossoms into the hot oil and fry for about three minutes.  Remove from the oil and dry on paper towels.  These are best served warm with some nuoc cham for dipping.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Tofu with Tomatoes and Thai Basil

With several eyes of round curing for some bresaola and some freshly sliced coppa sitting in my refrigerator, I can hardly be confused for a vegan.  I am a creature of the flesh and enjoy eating meat on a fairly regular basis.  At the same time, I enjoy tofu and tempe.  While the bresaola is curing in the fridge, I have a batch of tempe coming together in the oven (off, with the oven light on).  I'm complicated.

Actually, I am a slave to taste.  If something tastes good, I'll eat it.  While I admire  vegetarians and  vegans for their adherence to a diet that does without meat or animal products, I savor the taste of grilled pork and a succulent piece of brie.  Although fish sauce was foreign to my childhood, my enjoyment of life would be lessened without it.  The same with tofu and tempe.  My first tastes of tofu were probably as a dish that would be good for me, and I was underwhelmed.  It wasn't until I experienced it in refugee camps in Malaysia and living in Indonesia that I came to appreciate tofu.  That my wife is from Tofu City (Kediri) in Indonesia may be another reason for my fondness for tofu.  Tempe is probably unfamiliar to most Americans, and that is a shame.  What's worse is that most will only taste the health food type of tempe that is commonly available in the United States.  Javanese tempe is simple and exquisite.  It is the protein of the masses in Indonesia, and a good piece of tempe is every bit as ambrosial as that buttery piece of brie.

I can understand vegetarians and vegans abhorrence for meat.  As much as I might enjoy a quivering steak fresh off the grill, they view it as a moral abomination; I get that.  It's not going to make me enjoy my steak any less, but I understand how disgusted they may be by my choice.  Perhaps there's a Hell where pigs will be grilling pieces of my flesh on a spit, flames rising and dancing from the dripping fat. Oh well.

What I can't understand is how animated some meat eaters get about vegetarians and vegans.  They refuse to eat vegan dishes on principle.  Indignant perhaps that vegans would have them sentenced to Hell, they denounce the trappings of veganism as righteously as fundamentalists of one religion decry another.  "I'll eat a salad as a side, perhaps, but forget that tofu."  Tofu is viewed as an inferior meat, a poseur, and vegetarians should accept some of the blame for this in that too often tofu is used as a meat substitute.  However, if you appreciate tofu for what it is, a velvety flavor sponge, you can enjoy it just as much as that grilled steak. 

For vegans, vegetarians, and gastronomic agnostics, this is a wonderful dish.  You could spice it up by adding some minced chilies, but even without the chilies it is full of flavor.  For a variation, you can use nuoc cham (fish sauce with lime, garlic, and chilies) in place of the soy and vinegar based sauce in this recipe, but then it would no longer be a vegetarian dish. 

Tofu with Tomatoes and Thai Basil

4 or 5 blocks of Chinese tofu (approx. 4" x 4" x 1")
2 cups of cherry tomatoes, larger ones slice in half, smaller ones left whole
1/2 cup of Thai basil leaves
1/4 cup minced shallots
3 cloves of garlic, minced
scant 1 cup of water
2 TBS soy sauce
1 TBS rice vinegar
2--3 tsp sugar

1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 cup rice flour
2 TBS corn starch
1/2 tsp salt

oil for frying

Cut the tofu in 1/2-inch to 3/4-inch cubes.  Drain on paper towels.  Make a batter by mixing together the flours, corn starch, salt, and water in a bowl until the consistency of heavy cream.

Heat oil to the depth of 1 1/2 inches to 350º F in a wok or other vessel. Working in batches, dip the cubes of drained tofu in the batter and then gently fry in the hot oil, stirring to keep the pieces from sticking together.  Each batch should take about two minutes to produce golden brown cubes that retain custard-like centers.  Remove the fried cubes and drain on paper towels while frying the rest of the tofu.

Remove all but several tablespoons of oil from the wok.  Fry the shallots and garlic until just softened.  Add the cherry tomatoes and fry for a minute or two.  Mix together the water, soy sauce, vinegar and sugar.  Taste and adjust for a sweet/sour/salty tang.  Add this to the tomatoes and shallots and increase the heat so the mixture is boiling vigorously.  After the mixture has reduced some, stir in the tofu.  When the liquid is absorbed and the tofu is heated through, stir in the basil leaves.  Remove from heat and serve.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Salted Mustard Greens

Mothers-in-law are an apparently universal source of jokes and vitriol.  I've had students from countries throughout the world tell me jokes about mothers-in-law.  I've also heard tales of their viciousness and oppression.  If one were to believe the lore, mothers-in-law transform from ordinary women (if such beings can be said to exist) into a chupacabra-like beast that can suck the blood and life-force from a marriage.  The metamorphosis is said to start with the planning for the wedding, mildly annoying at first, eventually becoming a heinous monstrosity that feeds on slights and rips the flesh from marriages.

It may seem odd then that I regret never having met my mother-in-law, who died before Tjing and I began seeing each other.   I have had the pleasure of meeting her two sisters, both of whom have been very kind to me.  The older one, who also enjoyed cooking, clips recipes and gives them to me when we visit.  Both sisters have good senses of humor, and from all accounts Tjing's mother also managed to maintain her sense of humor and to raise a remarkable family in difficult times.

It's hard for non-Indonesians, and perhaps for younger Indonesians, to appreciate the difficulties of being identified as Chinese in Java, especially in the 60s.  Although my mother-in-law was an Indonesian citizen whose family had been in Indonesia for several generations, and my father-in-law was born in Indonesia, their children did not become citizens until the 80s.  At one point, Tjing's mother was tempted to destroy the birth certificates and her marriage license so that her children would be citizens.  Had she been recognized as the sole parent, her children would have her rights of citizenship passed on to them.  As children follow the husband/father, since Tjing's father was not recognized as a citizen, none of his offspring could be.  He refused to have his children be identified as bastards in order to procure citizenship.  Tjing finally managed to get her citizenship shortly before going to Galang.

After the fall of Sukarno in 1965, between 100,000 and 1,000,000 people were killed, most of them in Central and East Java.  While the targets were ostensibly communists, who were blamed for the failed coup that led to Suharto's ascension, Chinese were also slaughtered in huge numbers.  The town where Tjing's mother was born was largely Chinese and was virtually wiped from the map.  In the following years, Chinese publications and the studying of Chinese were banned.  The Suharto government forced assimilation on the Chinese by erasing cultural ties.  While cleansing them of their Chinese cultural heritage, the policy did not integrate the Chinese Indonesians into the mainstream of society.  There was a limit on the number of ethnic Chinese allowed to study at universities and to work for the government.  The limit was also imposed on multinational companies. 

In this hostile climate, Tjing's mother raised four children and ran a jamu shop.  All children, including her daughters, went to university.  While her life was confined to Kediri and surrounding towns, she ensured that Tjing was able to study in Yogya and enabled her to live and work in Galang.  For Americans this might seem like no big thing, but without her mother's support, Tjing's father would have never allowed Tjing to go to Galang.  Later, when Tjing was offered a full scholarship by the Australian government to get her Master's in Canberra, it was her mother that allowed Tjing to accept the scholarship.  While Tjing was completing her degree, her mother was discovered to have cancer that had already reached a very advanced stage and died within days of entering the hospital, before Tjing was able to get back to see her.

One of the reasons I regret not having known Tjing's mother is that in addition to having a good sense of humor, she also was a skilled cook.  Unfortunately, Tjing didn't take much interest in learning how to cook from her mother.  She can describe dishes her mother used to make, but is very fuzzy with the details.  Rice with salted mustard greens is one of her dishes that Tjing sometimes makes.  Her mother used to make the salted mustard greens, but Tjing didn't know how, so this is my attempt.  They turned out pretty good.  They are certainly cheap to make, and we much prefer them to the ones available in the market that are made in China.  I don't quite trust the safety of Chinese food products.

The recipe I used came from HungerHunger, a blog based in Kota Kinabalu.  Her recipe called for drying the greens before salting them and using water from rinsing rice.  Other recipes omit the drying and use just plain water.  While I'm sure the other recipes may be just as good, HungerHunger's approach seemed much more like what I imagine Tjing's mother would use.  The only change I made was in the drying time, cutting down the amount of time because of Sacramento's heat and low humidity.

Salted Mustard Greens

Several bunches of Chinese mustard greens (I got eight for a dollar at the farmer's market)
water from rinsing rice
glass jar

Wash the mustard greens to remove any dirt.  On racks or strung together and hung, dry the greens outdoors until thoroughly wilted.  This took about 24 hours in 92º heat with low humidity.

Use one tablespoon of kosher salt for each bunch.  Rub the salt well into the greens.  Place the greens with the salt into a large glass jar or container.  

When you make a pot of rice, reserve the water from the first rinse to pour over the greens. Make sure the water completely covers the greens, placing a weight on them if necessary.  

Store at room temperature for 5 to 7 days.  After that, keep in the refrigerator for longer storage.  I vacuum pack the bunches in small bags after using several of the bunches rather than keeping them in the large jar.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Kue Bika Ambon

Spend any time in Indonesia and you will soon learn the importance of oleh-oleh.  For those fortunate to visit other places, it is expected that they return with some oleh-oleh to share with family, friends, and coworkers.  These may be trinkets such as key chains or handicrafts, but the most popular oleh-oleh are local foods.  Flights from Jogya have passengers carrying boxes packed with gudeg.  Take the northern express train across Java and you will be pressed to buy dodol, wingko Babat, and other local flavors.  

Foods don't have to be a specialty of the place you travel to in order to be suitable oleh-oleh.  If they are unavailable locally, they are valued.  When the first McDonald's opened in Jakarta, I saw people flying back to Surabaya and Jogya with bags of burgers as oleh-oleh.  The same thing happened with Pizza Hut.  These international brands have an allure that is difficult for me to understand.  I would much prefer a fresh plate of even average tahu lontong to a five-hour old Big Mac or slice of pizza.  Of course, those were the old days.  Now even Kediri has its own McD's and Pizza Hut (where you can get a pizza with canned tuna, creamed corn and mayonnaise, ugh!).  

Kue bika Ambon is a cake famous not from Ambon, but Medan in North Sumatra.  It is the oleh-oleh of choice for people who have visited Medan.  Unlike western cakes which are made from wheat flour and have a delicate, crumbly texture, kue bika Ambon is made from sago starch and has an odd, slightly gelatinous texture.  Leavened with yeast,  and flavored with kaffir lime, pandan leaf, and lemongrass infused coconut milk, it is unlike any other cake I have ever tasted. While I must say I still prefer a European style cake, I can understand the attraction of kue bika Ambon.  Both its flavor and its texture are delightfully distinctive.


The difficulty with making this cake in the United States is that for best results you should use sago flour/starch.  While tapioca starch is readily available, this is made from cassava.  It is an acceptable substitute for sago flour in most recipes, but I believe it may not work as successfully in making bika ambon.  I have tried several recipes, and ones that I substituted tapioca starch for the sago flour called for in the recipe were not as successful.  This recipe uses a sponge of wheat flour as well as some glutinous rice flour to produce a much more satisfactory result.  This is adapted from the Indonesian recipe found here.

Kue Bika Ambon

(Since getting a digital scale, I find it much easier and more reliable to measure most ingredients by weight.  I know many people prefer to measure by volume, so I include both measurements.)

100 grams (4/5 cup) all-purpose flour
125 ml (1/2 cup) lukewarm water
2 1/2 tsp yeast

300 ml ( 1 1/4 cups) coconut milk (I use Chaokoh canned coconut milk)
1/2 tsp powdered turmeric
12 kaffir lime leaves, shredded
2 stalks lemongrass, bruised
2 pandan leaves (we can get these in Sacramento; if you can't, don't worry)
1 tsp salt
300 grams (1 1/3 cups) sugar
225 grams (1 4/5 cups) tapioca starch
25 grams (2 1/2 TBS) glutinous rice flour
7 large eggs

In a bowl, dissolve the yeast in the warm water.  Add a pinch of sugar, then stir in the flour.  Let this sponge rest while you prepare the other ingredients.

Pour the coconut milk into a saucepan.  Stir in the turmeric.  Add the lime leaves, pandan leaves (if using), lemongrass, salt, and sugar.  Bring to a simmer, stirring to dissolve the sugar and salt.  Turn off the heat and let the mixture steep while cooling slightly.

In a mixing bowl, stir together the tapioca starch and rice flour.  Add the risen sponge and use a mixer to thoroughly incorporate the starch mixture into the sponge.  Add the eggs one by one, making sure each is completely mixed in before adding the next. 
Strain the solids from the coconut milk.  You should have about 450 ml (a scant 2 cups) of liquid.  With the mixer running, slowly add the strained coconut milk to the batter.  Continue to mix for about 15 minutes.  

Grease an angel food cake pan, or a 9" by 13" baking pan.  Pour the cake batter into the pan and let it rest for 2 hours.

Bake the cake in a 325º F oven for 40 to 50 minutes. 

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Nasi Padang in West Java

Many Indonesian restaurants outside of Indonesia offer a rijsttafel option on their menus for diners wishing to try a variety of Indonesian dishes.  Popularized by the Dutch during their colonization of Indonesia, rijsttafel (rice table) is essentially an Indonesian buffet, with a large array of dishes for the diners to enjoy.  According to Wikipedia, the rijstaffel banquet enabled the colonial masters to showcase the variety of dishes from the islands throughout the archipelago that were under Dutch control.  After Indonesia gained its independence following WWII,  anti-colonial backlash caused the rijsttafel to fade away from Indonesia.

Nasi Padang is one of the precursors of the rijstaffel.  In a Padang restaurant diners are served numerous dishes to accompany a plate of rice.  Although it is originally from the Minangkabau of West Sumatra, nasi Padang is served in restaurants throughout Indonesia.  It's my understanding that because the Minangkabau are a matriarchal culture, with property passing down from mothers to daughters, the men move away and create their own businesses.  As a result, go just about anywhere and you can find nasi Padang. 

Nasi Padang restaurants not only offer a great variety of dishes, they are also cheap.  While as many as twenty dishes may be served, you are only charged for those you eat.  Plates that contain distinct cuts of meat, such as the plate with two pieces of rendang, are priced per piece.  For a satisfying meal as a reasonable price, it's hard to beat a Padang restaurant.

As much as I appreciate the merits of Padang restaurants, I am not a real aficionado.  I'm generally happier with a simple plate of good tahu lontong or a bowl of soto ayam, than with four or five indifferent dishes. It may be that I associate nasi Padang with buffet restaurants, an association that is not really fair, for I've seldom been disappointed by the food at a Padang restaurant.

  Last July while visiting Tjing's brother's family in Jakarta, we took a day trip to a remote area in West Java.  Although it was during Ramadan, we found a small nasi Padang restaurant open in one of the small towns we passed through.  One of the things I appreciate about Java is that even Muslim restaurants remain open during the fasting month, their windows covered and doors closed so as to not tempt faithful Muslims, but aware that there are customers who are not fasting.  Religion always has seemed a personal choice to me, and I can't understand how any person's belief in one religion or another gives him (or her) the right to insist that others follow the tenets of that religion.  It seems to me that if you believe so strongly in the truth of your God, show a little faith and humility and allow Him (or Her) to sort things out in the end.  Just sayin'.

In any case, the food at this restaurant was outstanding.  The rendang, ayam goreng, sambal kentang, and kari telor (egg curry) were all excellent.  They also had a dish of terong buncis (eggplant with green beans) that was remarkable.  It was just a small restaurant beside the road in one of the towns we drove through that day (more than eight hours of which were spent driving to and from our destination), but it was one of the better meals I had last summer.  I believe our tab for lunch came to 50,000 rupiah for the four of us (a little over $5). 

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Nasi Ketan Mangga "Istemewa"--Special Mango Sticky Rice

There are three stories about her visits to me in Indonesia my mother likes to recount.  Her favorite one is when I failed to meet her at the airport in Jakarta (I still insist she gave me the wrong date, telling me she would be arriving the next day) and she waited outside the terminal in Jakarta for several hours, the afternoon becoming night.  Another favorite is how my maid, when I returned home after teaching, would make sure that the standing fan in the living room was directed towards me, even if it meant turning it away from my mother.  The third story she likes to remind me of is about the breakfasts at the government mess where I lived in Cepu. 

The food at the mess was mediocre at best, but I said she and my father could get fried eggs for breakfast if they wanted.  I had to go to work before they had breakfast, so I left that as a suggestion.  Well, I forgot to mention that the eggs were fried early in the morning, when breakfast was generally served.  At 9:00 or so, maybe three hours after they had been cooked, the fried eggs were cold, rubbery, and probably coated with a film of congealed palm oil.  Not the breakfast my parents were hoping for.  Just as my mother can remember details from a lunch date in November, 1940, she cannot forget those eggs.  And she makes sure I will never forget them as well.

Nasi goreng istemewa (special fried rice) can be found throughout Indonesia.  While it may be eaten any time of the day, Indonesians prefer it for breakfast. There are countless variations of nasi goreng, but what makes it special is the sunny-side-up egg that is served atop the fried rice.  As my mother could tell you, an egg fried hours before it's served ain't all that special.  Unfortunately, it's not that unusual to get just such an egg on top of your fried rice in some places.

It was the idea of nasi goreng istemewa that inspired me to try this dish.  Sticky rice with sweetened coconut milk and mango is a popular dish in Thai restaurants.  It's similar to bubur ketan hitam, a popular breakfast dish in Bali, but has the added attraction of mango.  Breaking out my molecular gastronomy samples, I decided to top some sticky rice with a coconut and mango "egg".  The white of the egg was made from sweetened coconut milk and a pinch of agar agar.  The yolk was a sphere of mango puree made in the molecular gastronomy fashion from mango puree, sodium alginate, and sodium citrate that was set in a calcium chloride bath.

While I was pleased with how the "egg" looked, the yolk was not as intensely mango as I'd like.  In fact, it needed the fresh mango to rescue the dish.  If I try the dish again, I will try to make a more concentrated puree to intensify the mango flavor. 

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Laksa Betawi

Laksa Betawi is an Indonesian variation (more specifically from Jakarta--Batavia--which is the center of Betawi culture) of curry laksa or laksa lemak which is popular in Singapore and Malaysia.  Less spicy and simpler than its cousins across the straits, laksa Betawi is a lush, savory soup.  Made with coconut milk, it is richer than soto ayam, the chicken soup that is popular throughout the archipelago, but not quite as rich as opor ayam.

Like soto ayam, laksa Betawi is a meal in itself.  Usually served with lontong, it contains both chicken and shrimp.  The shrimp may be dried (ebi), or fresh.  In Indonesia it includes kemangi, lemon basil, but here in Northern California kemangi can only be found during the summer months, so I substituted Thai basil.  Rau ram (Vietnamese coriander, daun laksa in Malay), which is the herb of choice for curry laksa, would also be an acceptable substitute.  While it does not call for chiles in the broth, it would typically be served with a sambal, allowing each diner to spice it up to her preferred level of spiciness.

Laksa Betawi

1/2 chicken, preferably free-range, cut into 4 pieces
8 oz medium shrimp, peeled and deveined,  shells reserved.
2 salam leaves
1 stalk of lemongrass, crushed with side of a cleaver or a pestle
1/2 inch cinnamon
2 whole cloves
1 can of coconut milk (I prefer Chaokoh brand)
4 cups of water
2 TBS vegetable oil

Spice Paste
4 oz/120 gr peeled shallots (Indonesian recipes usually call for a certain number of shallots, but Indonesian shallots tend to be uniformly small, about the size of two garlic cloves.  In the US, sometimes you can find the smaller shallots, but more often much larger ones are available.)
5 cloves garlic, peeled
4 kemiri
1 inch fresh tumeric, peeled
1 1/2 tsp coriander seeds
1 TBS salt

To complete the bowls
2 cups beansprouts
4 oz rice vermicelli, cooked
2 hard-boiled eggs, peeled and quartered lengthwise
Kemangi, Thai basil, or laksa leaves

Grind the spice paste ingredients until you have a fairly smooth paste.  In a large pot, heat the vegetable oil and stir-fry the spice paste until fragrant.  Add the shrimp shells and the pieces of chicken.  Lightly brown the chicken before adding the salam leaves, lemongrass, cinnamon, cloves, coconut milk, and water.  Simmer, covered, about 45 minutes, until the chicken is cooked and can be easily shredded. 

Remove the chicken from the broth.  When it has cooled enough for you to handle it, remove the meat from the bones and pull into shreds.  Add the shrimp to the simmering broth and cook just until done.

When you are ready to eat, place some vermicelli, shrimp, chicken, and beansprouts into individual bowls.  Ladle the hot broth over the ingredients.  Add the kemangi or basil leaves and a slice or two of the hard-boiled eggs. 

You may choose to serve this with slices of lontong in place of, or in addition to, the rice vermicelli.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Lumpia Basah Khas Bandung--Fresh Lumpia Bandung Style

In the United States, most people think of Filipino-style fried lumpia when they hear of lumpia. Long, thin spring rolls packed with pork and shrimp and fried until crisp, Filipino spring rolls are delicious, but they are a totally different animal than these fresh lumpia from Bandung in West Java.  Lumpia basah are more akin to the popiah you can find in Malaysia and Singapore.  Essentially a crepe with a sweet/savory filling of jicama, beansprouts, and eggs, these are a cheap, satisfying snack hawkers sell in Bandung.

As they are not fried, lumpia basah could be considered a healthful snack.  With bean sprouts and jicama both being low in calories and relatively high in fiber, these lumpia can be enjoyed without feeling guilty.  The various components of the lumpia can be prepared ahead of time, but they should not be assembled until shortly before you eat them.  If they are assembled and rolled hours ahead of time, the wrappers are prone to split and come apart. 

Although you could purchase the lumpia wrappers from an Asian market (look for "pastry wrappers" made in the Philippines in the frozen section) making your own is not difficult.  The frozen ones are very thin, but they also are more brittle, without the flexibility of fresh wrappers.  The recipe I use for the skins does not produce as thin a wrapper as the commercial ones, but Tjing prefers it to the frozen ones.

Lumpia Basah Khas Bandung--Fresh Lumpia, Bandung Style

For the wrappers
1 1/3 cups (200 grams) all-purpose flour
3/4 cup + 2 TBS (200 ml) water
2/3 cup egg whites (5 to 6)
1 tsp salt

In a medium bowl, mix together the flour and salt.  With a whisk, stir in the egg whites. Then add half the water, stirring until fairly smooth.  Whisk in the remaining water and continue stirring for about five minutes.  Set the mixture aside and allow to rest for at least 40 minutes.

Heat a non-stick frying pan over medium-low heat.  Lightly brush with oil.  Ladle enough batter in to form an 8-inch crepe, using the bottom of the ladle to spread the mixture as needed.  As soon as the edges begin to lift from the pan, flip the crepe and cook briefly on the other side.  Each crepe should take about 25 to 30 seconds total.  Continue until all the batter is used.  This should make around 10 wrappers.

For the filling
1 jicama (about 1 pound/ 450 grams) peeled and cut into matchsticks
2 cups beansprouts
2 eggs, lightly beaten
3 1/2 ounces (100 grams) palm sugar (gula jawa), grated
1/3 cup water
1 tsp +/- salt
2 TBS tapioca starch
7 cloves of garlic, pounded to a paste
1 tsp ground white pepper
2 TBS oil

In a large pan that will hold the jicama easily, dissolve the palm sugar in the water and bring to a boil. Remove two tablespoons of this syrup and mix with the tapioca starch in a small bowl.  Add the jicama to the remaining sugar mixture and stir to coat well.  Cook over medium heat until the liquid is absorbed, and the jicama has softened and browned.

Heat a wok or large frying pan.  Add the oil and stir-fry the garlic and white pepper until fragrant.  Stir in the beaten eggs and scramble them.  After eggs are lightly scrambled, stir in the cooked jicama.  Cook for a minute or two before adding the beansprouts and salt.  Taste and adjust the seasonings if necessary.  As soon as the beansprouts begin to become limp, transfer the mixture to a bowl.

To assemble the lumpia, spread the bottom half of a wrapper with a spoonful of the tapioca starch thickened syrup.  Place a generous amount of the filling atop the wrapper.  Fold and roll like a burrito, folding in the two sides and then rolling until enclosed.  If you like, you can cut them into three or four pieces, but I think they're best enjoyed by scarfing the lumpia whole, bite by bite.