Sunday, December 27, 2009

Christmas Eve Dinner Recap

This year was my husband's and my first Christmas as a married couple, so it seemed appropriate to host my family's annual Christmas Eve dinner for the first time ever. I thought it would give my mom a nice break, but my ulterior motive was a chance to try out some party food recipes that I'd been filing away for just such an occasion. Here's what I served:

Crudites with homemade tzatziki (pretty much prepared as printed on Smitten Kitchen plus mint, minus vinegar, and hands-down the best tzatziki any of us have ever tasted), Trader Joe's pastry pups *blush*. We also served some smoked salmon and Italian cheese that my mom brought over.

Cambodian beef salad
This is one of my standbys (via Nigella Lawson) and it couldn't be simpler. Just grill a steak (I do mine medium rare), then mix the pan juices with juice from two limes, two serranos (finely chopped), one shallot (thinly sliced), two tablespoons of fish sauce, one teaspoon of brown sugar, and a handful of chopped mint. Drizzle this dressing over some salad mix, with the slices of steak served on top. To turn this into a main course, just add a handful of cooked bean thread noodles. They will soak up the crazy-addictive dressing and add some heft to the salad. This salad was decimated by the end of the night.

Tiny twice-baked potatoes
...because everything tastes better when it's teensy. I had the worst time scooping out the insides of my halved Yukon Golds until I landed on the following technique: fold a paper towel into quarters and place in your left hand (to protect it from the hot potato). Grab the potato firmly with the protected hand. Using a demitasse spoon, break into the center of the potato about a centimeter from the edge and work your way around the outside, sort of scooping as you go.

Mash the centers with about a cup of sour cream, a handful of chopped chives, 5 pieces of crisp, crumbled, applewood-smoked bacon, and the leaves from a few sprigs of thyme. I also added about ¼ teaspoon of salt. Restuff the potatoes, top with Parmesan, and cook in an oven at 450 for about 15 minutes. The original recipe came from Fine Cooking. Do you like how I pretty much doubled the suggested amount of bacon?

Spaghetti squash with lemon-ginger dressing
This was kind of disappointing on two counts. I accidentally overcooked the spaghetti squash, so it wasn't quite as crunchy as I like it. And the infamous Otsu dressing that I found mentioned on about 101 food blogs wasn't tangy enough for my taste. I preferred this dish the first time I made it, with a super simple ginger/rice vinegar dressing, the details of which I naturally cannot recall right now.

Brussels sprouts and pancetta (from the Lucques cookbook)
I love the veggie dishes at all of Suzanne Goin's restaurants, so it makes sense that her recipes for veggies would pretty much rock. Heat up two tablespoons of olive oil and two tablespoons of butter in a large pan (I used my wok). Cook the cleaned brussels in the oil/butter mixture for about 4-5 minutes. Take two shallots and four cloves of garlic and blitz them in the food processor. Add this and about ½ pound of finely diced bacon or pancetta to the pan. Let the bacon get crispy. Add ¼ cup of balsamic vinegar and 1 cup of homemade chicken broth. Let reduce to about ¼ cup of liquid. Taste and add salt if necessary. This was fabulous.

Two roast ducks from Chinatown
We saved the bones for duck broth, of course.

My sister Jen provided the dessert, which was a chocolate cake and pumpkin pie from Prolific Oven.

The best part? There were hardly any leftovers, so I got to return to my regularly scheduled daily dose of soup noodles the very next day.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Winter Solstice Soup (Tang Yuan)

Going to college was a real eye-opening experience for me. I never realized how great I had it at home, until I was introduced to dorm food. Our cafeteria served a hodgepodge of mystery meats, overcooked veggies, and inedible starches that were half a step above t.v. dinners. Even more shocking to me was how many of my fellow students seemed to be ecstatic about the offerings. I'd come from eating amazing home-cooked, multi-course meals that were both tastier and healthier. To say I found the dorm food disappointing would be a massive understatement.

So in a way, it was inevitable that I would learn how to cook. It was a necessity if one wanted to eat well on a student's budget. And even now, when I can afford to eat pretty much wherever I want, I still prefer a home-cooked meal at least 9 out of 10 times. This winter solstice soup epitomizes the best of home cooking: clean, comforting, tasty food that you just can't find in a restaurant. My mom used to make this only once a year—per Chinese tradition—on the winter solstice, and I would look forward to it all year long. This year, I finally attempted it on my own, and frankly, it may get bumped up to a regular dish, tradition be damned.

The star of the soup is the sticky rice dumplings, also know as yuan, which are kind of like really chewy gnocchi. They are usually served in sweet soups (red bean, for example) as a dessert. But I prefer this satistfying, savory version.

Winter Solstice Soup (aka Tang Yuan)
I cooked a pork bone in some existing home-made chicken broth. If you were to make this broth from scratch, you would do the following:

Bones from a chicken carcass
One or two meaty pork bones
Water to cover
3 stalks of green onion
3 slices of ginger
¼ cup of Chinese rice wine (michiu)
Salt to taste

1. Place all your bones, as well as the ginger and onions in a large stockpot. Cover with water.

2. Bring water to a boil. Then skim off any scum that appears. I highly recommend investing in a cheapy scum skimmer, a nifty gadget I learned about on Steamy Kitchen. A spoon will suffice, however.

3. After the initial skim, add the rice wine, lower the heat, and simmer for at least an hour.

4. Salt to taste. Remove the bones, ginger, and onion, reserving the pork bones for their meat.

½ daikon, peeled and cut into 3 inch chunks
8 shiitake mushrooms, sliced (I used fresh; if you use dried, you will need to rehydrate them in warm water for about 20 minutes)
3 lap cheong (Chinese sausage), sliced
Reserved pork from making the broth (removed from the bone)

Place ingredients in the broth and cook over medium heat for half an hour.

DUMPLINGS (enough for two)
1½ cups of glutinous rice flour
Roughly ½ cup warm (just under boiling) water

Place rice flour in a medium-sized mixing bowl. Add your water a little bit at a time until it forms a dry dough, stirring with a chopstick. The dough should be about the consistency of play-doh and should not stick to your hands. I ended up using about just a smidge over ½ cup of very warm water. Set the dough aside to rest, covered in plastic wrap, for about half an hour.

After half an hour, pinch off a marble-sized piece of dough and roll it between your palms until it forms a ball. If you have slave labor kids, this is a perfect project for them. Place rolled dumplings on a plate, making sure they don't touch.

Boil a pot of water. Once the water is boiling, drop the dumplings in, one by one. As soon as they float (it should be about three minutes), they're done. Remove with a slotted spoon.

Place about a dozen dumplings in the bottom of a soup bowl. Spoon a few ladles of soup on top. Garnish with cilantro and fried shallots.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Choucroute Garni

I'm Chinese, and my husband is French. As I mentioned in my last post, this can lead to a subtle East/West tug-of-war during mealtimes, but more often, it leads to wonderful new discoveries. I introduced my spice-loving husband to the incendiary Szechuan hotpot, a dish he now requests with frightening regularity, and he has enlightened me about dozens of obscure cheeses, fed me my first bite of pigeon (a revelation), and given me a glimpse of French home-cooking, including this tasty dish.

Choucroute garni is a dietitian's nightmare: loaded with sodium, sausages, and a full pound of bacon. Still, on a cold winter's night, it's pretty hard to beat. The smoky meat and spicy sausages are complemented by hot mustard and sauerkraut, with bland, comforting potatoes providing a welcome respite from the assault of salty flavors. Most of the recipes I read during my research make an intimidating 8-12 servings. Here, I present a more manageable version, which feeds four very hungry eaters.

Petit Choucroute Inspired loosely by Martha Stewart

3 pounds good quality sauerkraut (I used Bubbies from the bulk bin at Rainbow Grocery)
8 baby Yukon Gold potatoes
1 small yellow onion, sliced thinly
1 pound smoked bacon (I think I would use half of this next time)
2 smoked pork chops
4-5 assorted smoked sausages (I used bratwurst, Lousiana hot link, and andouille. If using uncooked sausages, you will have to cook them before adding them in step 7 below.)
2 cups of low-sodium store-bought chicken stock
1 cup of dry white wine (I used sauvignon blanc.)

Bouquet Garni:
15 black peppercorns
1 teaspoon coriander seeds
10 juniper berries
3 whole cloves
2 bay leaves
2 whole, peeled garlic cloves

Note: I made this in my 5½ quart Le Creuset Dutch oven, which was perfect. Any heavy-bottomed large pot with a tight-fitting lid would probably also work.

1. Rinse sauerkraut in cold water and drain well.

2. Most recipes call for goose fat or lard, but seeing as I had a pound of bacon earmarked for the pot, I cooked the bacon in about ½ tablespoon of olive oil to render the fat and then removed the bacon and set it aside. Cook onion in bacon fat until soft, about 7-8 minutes.

3. Add wine, chicken stock, and a cup of water to the pot. Stir. Add in the drained sauerkraut. Add the smoked pork chops and reserved bacon.

4. Place all the spices, etc. for the bouquet garni into a metal mesh spice ball. Put this in the pot.

5. Bring everything to the boil, then turn the heat down and cook, covered, at a strong simmer for an hour.

6. In a separate pot, boil water and cook the potatoes for about 15 minutes (depending on their size), or until they are just slightly undercooked. You will finish these off in the choucroute pot.

7. 20 minutes before serving, place potatoes and smoked sausages in the pot and heat through.

8. Serve with assorted spicy mustards and bread for sopping up the juices.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Oxtail Soup Two Ways

There is a tiny tug of war that sometimes takes place between me and my husband at mealtimes. Though we're both extremely open-minded eaters, when it comes to the food we really crave, he tends to lean towards European cuisine, while I prefer Asian. Tug of war is an exaggeration; we generally have no problems agreeing on what to eat. Still, it's nice to find a versatile dish like this oxtail soup, which is easily transformed into a delicious Italian meal one night, and an equally amazing Vietnamese meal the next.

This was my first time cooking with oxtail, and I'm a huge fan of the results. A long, but mostly hands-free cooking time will turn this cheap cut into some of the most tender, succulent, moist meat you've ever eaten. I used my basic broth-making technique, but I pan-roasted the oxtail a bit first for extra flavor. This broth forms the backbone of the two simple soups I'll describe below. Ideally, you would make this the night before, to simplify the defatting process.

Oxtail Broth
5 pounds of oxtail (ask the butcher to cut it into pieces)
Water to cover
1 tablespoon of olive oil
½ cup of dry red wine
3 slices of ginger
1 yellow onion, peeled and halved
Salt and pepper

1. Rinse and dry the oxtail bones. Season with salt and pepper.

2. Heat the oil in a large, heavy-bottomed stockpot. Brown the bones in batches, about 5 minutes per side. Set oxtail aside.

3. Deglaze the pot with red wine. Then add the oxtail bones back in, along with any juices.

4. Cover bones completely with water. Add ginger and onion. Bring to a boil.

5. Skim off any scum that appears. Note: you should always skim scum off as soon as it appears. If the scum is allowed to remain in the broth as it cooks, it will give your soup a "dirty" flavor.

6. Turn heat to medium-low and simmer for 3-4 hours. Add water if necessary. Salt to taste, erring on the side of undersalted (you will be adding a salt component in both of the soup recipes below).

7. Discard ginger and onion. Remove the oxtail and store separately.

8. Refrigerate broth overnight. In the morning, remove the layer of congealed fat from the surface. If you are unable to make the broth ahead of time, you can remove most of the fat by skimming the surface of the broth with a spoon.

White Bean and Kale Soup (inspired by a dish at Flour + Water)

1 can of cannelini beans
1 bunch of kale
About 1 cup of peeled, diced daikon (roughly half a daikon root)
Olive oil
1 garlic clove, sliced
2 bay leaves
8 cups oxtail broth (and some of the oxtail used to make the broth)
Soy sauce

1. In a medium-sized saucepan, heat the olive oil and cook the sliced garlic for about a minute (do not brown).

2. Add the broth to the saucepan, along with the meat from about 15 pieces of oxtail, the diced daikon, and the bay leaves.

3. Rinse the kale and and remove the stems with a sharp knife. Blanch briefly in boiling salted water.

4. Add blanched kale and drained can of white beans to the soup. Cover and continue cooking over medium-low heat until daikon is tender (about 20 minutes).

5. Remove the bay leaves, then season with soy sauce (about a tablespoon) to taste. Soy sauce will enhance the color of the broth.

6. Serve with nice, crusty bread.

This soup invites endless variations: You could add barley or short pasta, substitute diced potatoes for the daikon, or replace the kale with either escarole or spinach. 

Faux Pho for Four

2 cups of bean sprouts
Half of a white onion, sliced into very thin rings
1 bunch of Thai basil
8 cups of oxtail broth
16 pieces of cooked oxtail (from making the broth)
Fresh rice noodles (or dried pho noodles, if fresh are not available)
4 jalapenos
2 limes
Fish sauce

1. Heat broth along with oxtail pieces in a medium-sized saucepan. Add about a tablespoon of fish sauce.

2. Clean bean sprouts with a thorough rinsing. Then snap off the yucky, threadlike root ends (see picture).

3. Soak noodles (if using dry noodles), or rinse and separate fresh rice noodles. Cook according to package instructions. Dry will probably take about ten minutes in boiling water, fresh cooks in about a minute.

4. Drain noodles and place a bundle in the bottom of each soup bowl. Place a handful of bean sprouts and a couple rings of onion on top.

5. Slice jalapenos on the diagonal. Cut limes into wedges. Place on a plate along with the washed Thai basil.

6. Serve pho, allowing people to garnish their own bowls with basil, jalapeno, and lime. Add a dash of sriracha if desired. I found that the jalapeno (as long as you use a whole pepper) adds a surprising amount of heat, while still allowing the flavor of the broth to shine through.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Spicy-Sour Pork Ramen

In my attempts to convert my husband into a noodlemaniac like myself (or at least someone who will tolerate eating soup noodles several times a week), I have taken him to countless noodle shops. We’ve sampled and slurped our way through just about every variety of Asian noodle, and ramen has had the highest hit rate. My husband hearts Katana-ya, dreams about Gomaichi, and even sneaks in secret trips to Ippudo without me. Of the three, his favorite is definitely Gomaichi, with its sour-spicy sung hon men, an oddly addicting variation that neither of us has ever seen anywhere else. Since the idea of having only one source of any favorite food makes me break out in a sweat (not to mention that Gomaichi is located in Honolulu, a fair skip for a bowl of noodles), I knew I had to try and recreate the dish at home.

Sung hon men appears to be Gomaichi’s original invention, so I had to work off of some traditional tan tan men recipes and find a souring agent independently. I experimented with rice vinegar and blended ume plums before landing on limes. I wasn’t able to get the exact smoky, savory depth of Gomaichi’s broth, but this home-cooked version has a lightness that is, in its own way, just as nice. Incidentally, tan tan men is the Japanese version of the Sichuanese dan dan mian, which is another of my favorite noodle dishes (there are so many).

Tan Tan Men (an ongoing experiment, inspired by Gomaichi)

Pork Broth
2 pounds of meaty pork bones
Water to cover
3 green onions (washed)
3 slices of ginger
1 teaspoon black peppercorns
1 or 2 star anises
¼ cup Chinese rice wine (Michiu)
Salt to taste

1. Take 2 pounds of meaty pork bones (ask the butcher to hack them up for you) and place in a large stockpot. Fill pot with water until bones are just barely covered. Add ginger, green onions, peppercorns and star anise (you may want to place these last two in a mesh tea/spice ball for easier removal).

2. Bring to a boil and skim off any scum that appears. Add rice wine and lower heat to a simmer.

3. Simmer for at least an hour (preferably two), skimming off any scum that appears. Salt to taste.

Pork Topping
1 tablespoon of peanut or canola oil
¾ pound of lean ground pork
1 tablespoon of minced (or grated) ginger
3 serrano peppers, finely sliced
2 minced garlic cloves (or you can use a garlic press; I won’t judge you)
2 tablespoons of Chinese spicy bean paste
1 tablespoon of Chinese sesame paste
1 tablespoon of cayenne or Indian red chili powder (or less for those more sensitive to spice)
½ cup of slivered zha cai (Szechuan preserved vegetable). Rinse slivers thoroughly; they will be too salty otherwise.  
1 tablespoon roasted and ground Szechuan peppercorn (optional)

1. Heat oil in heavy-bottomed frying pan over medium-high heat.

2. Add ginger and serranos and stir until fragrant (about one minute).
3. Add garlic. Stir. Add a touch of pork broth if necessary, to loosen the mixture.

4. Add ground pork and mix well, breaking up any large pieces with a spatula.

5. Add spicy bean and sesame pastes, cayenne pepper, and Szechuan peppercorn (if using). Incorporate all seasonings well. Cook for about 2-3 minutes.

6. Add zha cai. Mix well and continue to stir until pork is cooked through. Turn heat to low and cover to keep warm.

Noodles and veggies
1. Clean any veggies you plan on adding. I like Shanghai bok choy hearts. Fresh ramen noodles are available at many Asian markets. I use noodles labeled “wonton noodles” and I always look for the freshest looking noodles available.

2. Boil a large pot of water. Cook noodles according to package instructions. Fresh ramen noodles take about two minutes, which is coincidentally how long Shanghai bok choy takes. I cook both at the same time, in the same pot. Cooking times vary depending on the vegetables/noodles being used.

1. Place noodles in the bottom of your bowl with veggies on top.

2. Place a generous scoop or two of spicy pork topping on your noodles.

3. Add two ladlefuls of pork broth.

4. Garnish with a couple sprigs of cilantro. Squeeze the juice of half a lime into the bowl (or a whole lime, if you prefer your soup very sour).

Leftovers: Pork with Preserved Vegetable Soup

Should you be lucky enough to have any leftover pork broth the next day, here's an easy noodle dish that you can make with the meat from the bones.

2 cups of homemade pork broth per person
Meat from pork bones (used to make broth)
¼ cup slivered zha cai (rinsed, so it's not too salty)
Noodles (fresh Shanghai noodles are perfect here, but feel free to substitute with any noodles you have on hand)
Vegetables (I like Shanghai bok choy hearts)

1. Cook noodles according to package instructions. You can boil your veggies in the same pot. Cooking time varies depending on the vegetables/noodles being used.

2. In a separate pot, heat the meat (removed from bone and roughly shredded) in the two cups of broth.

3. Drain noodles/veggies. Place in a bowl. Add slivered zha cai.

4. Pour hot broth/meat over.

5. Season with spicy chili oil to taste.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Thailand Recap

Thailand. What can I say? The beaches were beautiful, the people were friendly, the food was phenomenal. And what's more, it was fundamentally different from anything I've ever tasted before. I think food nerds have a tendency to seek out the new and undiscovered, and Thailand had that in spades. Even familiar dishes like pad kee mow and som tam were revelations. And the regional foods satisfied cravings I didn't even know I possessed.

Three or four of the meals that we had in Bangkok surpassed anything I've had in the United States (and S.F. and L.A. are no slouches when it comes to Thai food). Even the worst restaurants that we ate at in Bangkok rivaled the best of what we can get over here. Down south, things took a bit of a dive in quality, but we still had a couple of outstanding meals. Overall, the thing that struck me most about eating in Thailand was the incredible balance between salty, sour, bitter, sweet, and spicy. During the truly great meals (and there were many) each bite of every dish was slightly different from the last. The balance of flavors was such that the taste of a dish constantly evolved, managing to stay fresh, new, and exciting. Thomas Keller has famously said that the first bite of a dish is the best, and that by the third bite, one's enjoyment is considerably diminished. But Thai dishes done right are like experiencing the first bite over and over again — heaven for those afflicted with food ADD, like me.

My sister gave me the best advice before our trip. Though we'd heard lots of negative things about Bangkok, she encouraged us to stay for at least a few days, because the food there is the best in Thailand. Not only did we love Bangkok (interesting ethnic neighborhoods, cool shopping districts, nightlife, and cultural sights), but she was completely right about the food.  We actually rearranged our travel plans to get extra time in Bangkok at the end of our trip. I highly encourage anyone planning a trip to Thailand to not use Bangkok as a stopover, but as a destination in its own right.

Favorite things consumed would be the spicy wing bean salad at Ruen Mai in Krabi, the heavenly moist Issan bbq chicken at Khrua Rommai in Sukhumvit (Bangkok) and the incredible seafood pad kee mow at Raan Jay Fai (of NYT fame) near Chinatown (Bangkok). To ask for food Thai spicy, make sure to say "phet phet" when you order.