Sunday, November 28, 2010

Spicy Sweet Potatoes

My ingredient obsessions come from a variety of sources. It could be a droolworthy photo in a magazine that gets my wheels spinning, a particularly tempting selection at my local market, or in this case, a stunning side dish at the otherwise so-so Brown Sugar Cafe in Oakland. They serve a slightly spicy sweet potato puree that probably contains as much butter as it does vegetable, a bit of brown sugar, and just enough heat to keep the sweetness from becoming cloying. Ever since I had that meal, I've been grabbing a sweet potato or two at the market and seeing what happens. I'll toss a few chunks into a soup, serve them mashed with milk, sea salt, and a faint dusting of chipotle and cinnamon, but most often I'll make them in the manner described below, which is a wonderful change from the typical marshmallow-topped casserole that finds its way onto most holiday tables.

Sweet potatoes are packed with vitamin C and fiber, making them much healthier than the starchy white potato. I used them in place of potatoes in a recipe from Nigella's latest cookbook, not for health reasons, but because I think sweetness adds an extra element of interest in the spicy/sour balance of this Indian-inspired recipe. For a straight-up potato variation, you could try these spicy Indian fingerlings.

Spicy Sweet Potatoes
(adapted from Nigella Kitchen)
2-3 sweet potatoes (any variety), peeled and cut into small, evenly-sized chunks (about 1 inch cubes)
2 tablespoons olive or canola oil
2 teaspoons ground turmeric
1 teaspoon fennel seeds
2½ tablespoons cayenne pepper (Caution: very spicy!)
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1 teaspoon nigella seeds
1 teaspoon black mustard seeds
½ red onion, finely diced
1 lime
Salt to taste
Chopped cilantro (optional)

1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

2. Place the diced onion and juice from the lime in a small bowl to steep. Set aside for 30 minutes to an hour.

3. Mix all the spices and a few pinches of salt together with the oil in a large mixing bowl. Toss the cubed sweet potato into the spiced oil and mix well until pieces are completely coated.

4. Arrange the sweet potatoes in a large baking pan (large enough to hold all the potatoes in a single layer). Don't crowd them too much, or they will come out soggy instead of crisp.

5. Bake for 25-30 minutes. You can broil them for the last minute or so if you would like your sweet potatoes extra crispy.

6. Transfer the potatoes to a serving dish and scatter the lime-soaked onions over. You could also use some chopped cilantro here.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Wild Mushroom Risotto and Chilled Pea Soup

As you may have gathered by my two and a half-week absence, I did not make it to the next round of the FoodBuzz competition. Still, it was fun to try something different, and I did manage to console myself with a few croissants during a quickie trip to Paris (another reason for the radio silence). Meanwhile, have you checked out the remaining competition? Yum, Wow, and Zomg!

Now that I've gotten over the misery of defeat, I thought I'd blog a bit about the dinner party I put together for Challenge #3. I revisited a few of my old standbys: fig and blue cheese bruschetta,  brown butter brussels sprouts, and shaved baby artichoke salad with lemon-truffle vinaigrette, and then tried out a few new recipes to keep things interesting. In general, I find this to be the best formula for throwing a dinner party without losing your mind: Serve a few familiar dishes that you know will turn out well, but don't be afraid to get a little experimental with your guinea pigs guests. If all else fails, you can always order pizza.

My two new dishes were not 100% successful. Funnily enough, the cold soup that I served was a hit with everyone except me and my husband. I started with this as my base, minus the buttermilk, then spent the better part of half an hour doctoring it with lime juice and greek yogurt. It was perfectly edible, but it just didn't have any zing. Figuring presentation might save the dish, I served it in little pre-chilled shotglasses garnished with creme fraiche and chives, and everyone went back for seconds.
Cuteness saves the day

I also made a version of risotto with wild mushrooms and pancetta. It's a great idea to have a basic risotto recipe in your arsenal. You can change it up with just about any combination of ingredients that comes to mind: asparagus and lemon zest, shrimp, mint, and peas, spinach and goat cheese. In this version, the mushroom soaking liquid gets incorporated into the rice, which I thought would lend an amazing umami depth, but the whole thing turned out a bit bland, I thought. My husband, however, loved it. Which brings me to my number one tip for throwing a great dinner party: Invite unpicky eaters.

Basic Risotto Recipe (Inspired by Jamie Oliver)
After much experimentation, I have settled on a version that veers slightly from the original by adding fennel and pancetta to my base, and swapping out the arborio for carnaroli when I can find it. The key to making super-creamy risotto is to add the liquid very slowly, which is the reason risotto has a reputation for being difficult to make. Anyone who thinks that stirring a pan of rice occasionally for 30-40 minutes is off-putting should clearly never attempt to make biryani.

1 box of low-sodium chicken broth
Olive oil
3 shallots or 1 yellow onion, diced
1 fennel bulb, diced
Fist-sized piece of pancetta, diced (probably a smidge over ½ cup)
1½ cups of rice (arborio or carnaroli)
Generous slug of vermouth or glass of dry white wine
Sea salt and black pepper
Freshly grated parmesan cheese
Small pat of butter (optional)

1. Heat the chicken broth in a small saucepan until it comes to a boil, then lower the heat and keep it simmering while you make the risotto.

2. In a large pan (I use my wok), heat about a tablespoon of olive oil over medium-high heat, add the pancetta, and let the fat cook out a bit. Then add the vegetables (onion, fennel) and let them soften (about 3-4 minutes).

3. Throw in your rice and let it toast for about 3-4 minutes. You will see the grains turn from solid white to slightly transluscent. The Italians, naturally, have a poetic way of describing the perfect moment to add the wine: wait until the grains of rice seem to be crying out for liquid, and when you finally add a splash to the pan, it will let out a sospiro or "little sigh." Along with the wine or vermouth, add your first ladleful of hot broth (or mushroom soaking liquid if making the variation described below). Turn the heat down to medium low.

4. Over the course of the next 30-40 minutes, add the hot broth, one ladleful at a time. Allow each ladleful of broth to be completely absorbed by the rice before adding the next. Stir gently to massage the starch out of the rice. This starch creates the luxuriously creamy texture that binds the risotto together. Generally, if I am adding ingredients such as vegetables or cheese other than parmesan, I add them at some point during this 40 minute process...very near the end if it cooks quickly (goat cheese or spinach) and near the beginning if it takes a little longer (asparagus, green beans). Make sure any vegetables are chopped into smallish, evenly-sized pieces.

5. If you find that you have run out of broth and the rice is still too hard, you can add a little hot water in place of the broth. You want the rice to retain a slight bite, so around the half hour mark, start testing a grain or two until you have reached the perfect consistency.

6. Turn off the heat and stir in a generous handful of parmesan (or two, if your cheese-fiending husband is hovering), season with salt and pepper, and add the butter (if using).

Wild Mushroom Risotto (Inspired by Jamie Oliver)
This is a variation on the basic risotto recipe (above). You will need to add the mushroom soaking liquid at the end of step 3, so plan accordingly.

1 basic risotto (see above)
4 large handfuls of mixed mushrooms (I used portabello, crimini, and chanterelle). Remember that mushrooms shrink down considerably in size when cooked
1 large handful of dried porcini
Boiling water
Large handful of chopped flat leaf parsley
Juice of one lemon
Salt to taste
Good quality olive oil for drizzling

1. Soak the porcini in a bowl of hot stock or water (just enough to cover) for about 10 minutes. Meanwhile, clean and chop the mixed mushrooms into evenly sized pieces. When the porcini have softened, fish them out and cut them into small pieces, reserving the soaking liquid.

2. Add the mushroom soaking liquid in place of the first ladleful of broth when making the risotto. Continue making the rest of the risotto as usual.

3. In a dry grill pan, grill the wild mushrooms. Do this in batches to prevent steaming. Add the cooked mushrooms to a bowl and season with parsley, salt, and lemon juice.

4. Once risotto is cooked, serve each person with a dollop of risotto, a portion of the grilled mushroom mixture, and a drizzle of olive oil over the top. Serve with freshly grated parmesan for people to sprinkle on if they wish.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Crossing the Bridge Noodles (The Classics)

This is my round 2 entry for FoodBuzz's Project Food Blog Challenge. Please vote for me between September 27th and 30th so I can keep moving forward!
It may sound like I'm angling for an unfair advantage here, but despite the fact that I'm ethnically Chinese, Chinese food is the cuisine that I'm most intimidated to cook. I'm fourth-generation American: I grew up in an all-white neighborhood, the closest thing I have to a second language is French, and the first dish my mom taught me to make was spaghetti with meat sauce. I didn't even attempt to cook Chinese food until I was in my late 20s, and somehow it always came out tasting like European food with soy sauce on top.

In order to make sure I was really getting into the spirit of Challenge #2, I decided to attempt something truly unfamiliar to me: Yunnanese food. Yunnan is a province of China, located on the southern border, but its cuisine has not made many inroads in the United States the way Cantonese and Szechuan food have. I've never even tasted Yunnanese food, much less attempted to cook it. Still, I've read all about their famous Crossing the Bridge Noodles many times in the course of my extensive noodle research, and I pretty much jump at any excuse to discover a new noodle dish.

The chicken broth was incredibly familiar to me; it's essentially the same broth I use to make my basic Chinese chicken noodle soup. But several of the other elements were new to me, particularly the Chinese ham, which is a specialty of Yunnan. Here in the States, we can substitute Smithfield ham from Virginia, which has a lovely, smoky taste. The noodles I tracked down after looking at a couple of helpful Flickr photos indicating the general shape and size. Lastly, I faced my bĂȘte noire in the kitchen: squid. My one experience cleaning squid (slimy, disturbingly anthropomorphic) left me feeling like a contestant on Fear Factor, and I don't seem to know the secret to keeping it super tender instead of rubbery and overcooked.

Crossing the Bridge Noodles (adapted from The Food of China)
Finding a recipe for Crossing the Bridge noodles was surprisingly hard, which is probably a reflection of Yunnanese food's relative obscurity outside of China. A Google search didn't really yield many helpful results. I found versions in three of my cookbooks, and stuck quite closely to the one in The Food of China, which looked like the most authentic of the three.

1 chicken carcass
3-4 stalks of green onion
3-4 slices of ginger
Water to cover
Salt to taste

1. Place the bones from an entire chicken (I also like to use the wings, as their meat isn't useful for much else) in a 4-5 quart stockpot and add the green onion and ginger. Add water until the chicken is barely covered.

2. Bring water to a boil, skimming off any scum that appears at the top. Cover with a lid and turn heat to low. Simmer for an hour to an hour and a half.

3. Add salt to taste. I added about a teaspoon of kosher salt.

Optional You can save the chicken skin and fat from the carcass, render it in a small pan, and spoon the fat over the finished noodle dish. All of the recipes I read said this step was unnecessary, but I tried it, since I had all the ingredients handy. It maybe added a bit of richness and depth to the broth, but probably isn't worth making an extra dirty dish for.

Traditionally, the meats are cooked in the actual bowls at the table (similar to the way rare beef in pho is served). Because I was unfamiliar with the dish, I chose to play it safe and cook it before serving. Cooking the meats via residual heat (vs. at a full boil) definitely gave them a lovely tender texture, making this my first successful use of squid!

1 package fresh rice noodles (or dried rice sticks)
½ pound large raw shrimp, peeled and deveined
½ pound squid tubes
1 chicken breast
½ pound Smithfield ham or similar (Bayonne and Serrano are good substitutes)
8 dried shiitake mushrooms
1-2 stalks of green onion, cleaned and sliced
Two generous handfuls of bean sprouts, rinsed well

1. Slice all the meats (shrimp, squid, chicken, ham) into small slivers. You will be using the hot broth to cook these, so they must be fairly thin.
2. Soak the mushrooms in boiling water for half an hour. Squeeze dry, remove the stems, and cut the caps into slices.

3. Bring a pot of water to boiling, then cook the noodles according to package instructions. If using fresh noodles, they will only need to be dunked for about 10-15 seconds before straining.

4. Transfer a little under one cup of broth per serving into a small saucepan, cover, and bring to a boil. As soon as the broth comes to a full boil, drop in the sliced meats, turn off the heat, and let stand, covered, for about 2 minutes, or until the meat is cooked through.

5. To serve, place a small handful of sprouts in the bottom of a bowl. Top this with a bundle of cooked noodles. Then add a spoonful of cooked meat and shiitake mushrooms. Lastly, spoon over about a cup of hot broth and scatter with sliced green onions. Serve with spicy chili oil.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Thai Green Curry (Ready, Set, Blog!)

This is my first entry for FoodBuzz's Project Food Blog Challenge. Please vote for me between September 20 and September 23 so I can advance to the next round!

I've been blogging for nearly a year now, and in that time I bought a food processor, learned to love fennel, made my own noodles from scratch, and became the number one Google search result for niu rou mian. Yum. Yet up until fairly recently, there was a huge division between the things I liked to eat (pretty much anything ethnic, spicy, or seasonal) and the things I actually cooked (easy, convenient stuff like pasta salads and simple stews). Starting this blog was a big kick in the pants to learn how to make the food I love, no matter how intimidating, complicated, or unfamiliar.

This past year has been like a crash course in cooking from the best possible teachers. I've been gathering inspiration from Suzanne Goin, Thomas Keller, Fuchsia Dunlop, and Nigella Lawson, not to mention some of the most droolworthy food blogs available (see my links list to your right for some truly kick-ass sites), and of course, from the woman who gave me noodle fever in the first place, my mom. Cooking comes from a naturally generous place, the desire to feed and delight others, so it makes sense that cookbooks and food blogs are virtually overflowing with useful information. The thing I've loved most about joining the food blogging community is how freely everyone shares their secrets, from the invaluable photography tips of Steamy Kitchen to the refreshingly honest confessions that Momofuku for 2 makes about her mistakes as well as her successes.

To sum up how far I've come, I can't think of a better dish than Thai green curry. Where once I would have reached straight for my Mae Ploy paste, I now know that ten minutes with some fresh herbs and my handy-dandy food processor makes all the difference. Of all the Thai curries I've tackled in the last year—yellow, red, Massaman—green curry benefits the most from freshly-made paste. The zesty lime and lemongrass and fragrant cilantro pop in a way they just can't if they've been sitting in a plastic package for months on end. That said, you can freeze the second half of this paste for a surprisingly quick dinner some other night.

Thai Green Curry Paste
(adapted from True Thai by Victor Sodsook)
1 tablespoon of coriander seeds
½ teaspoon of anise seeds
12 peppercorns
1 whole head of garlic, cloves peeled
3 inch piece of galangal, peeled and cut into chunks
2 stalks of lemongrass (remove the tough tip & outer layers and only use the tender white interior)
1 tablespoon of shrimp paste
Peel from half a lime (save the lime for adding to the curry below)
Generous handful of cilantro stems (save the leaves to garnish your curry)
12-20 serrano peppers (depending on the level of heat you prefer. I use about 20, with fiery hot results)
6-8 shallots, peeled and cut into chunks

1. Toast the coriander and anise seeds in a dry skillet for about 3 minutes, then grind in a spice grinder.

2. Take a piece of tin foil, maybe about 6 inches wide and fold it in half so that it's roughly square. Place the shrimp paste in the center of this, then fold the foil in half again, sealing the edges. Basically you want a double-layer of foil surrounding the shrimp paste so you can toast it.

3. In the same dry pan that you used to toast the spices, heat the foil-wrapped packet of shrimp paste over medium heat. Heat the packet for about 5 minutes total, flipping it once.

4. Place all ingredients in a food processor or blender and process to a chunky paste. The quantities above make about 2 cups of curry paste, of which you will be using half. The other half can be saved in the refrigerator for up to a week, or in the freezer for considerably longer (Sodsook says one month, but I've used three-month old paste with perfectly fine results).

Green Curry with Chicken, Eggplant, and Sour Bamboo Shoots
(adapted from True Thai by Victor Sodsook)
Once you've made the basic paste, you can use pretty much any ingredients you like for the actual curry. I've also served this with grilled vegetables, pork and kabocha squash, tofu and baby corn. Let your appetite be your guide. 

1 pound of boneless, skinless chicken, sliced into slivers (you can use thighs or breasts or a mix of the two, depending on your preference)
1 large eggplant or 7-8 small Thai eggplants, cut into chunks
1 package Thai sour bamboo shoot (you can substitute regular bamboo shoot if you don't like/can't find the sour version), rinsed and sliced
1 can of straw mushrooms, drained
1 5.6 oz. can of coconut milk (or 14 oz., if you prefer a creamier curry)
1 tablespoon palm or brown sugar
3 tablespoons fish sauce
4-6 serrano peppers sliced in half
2-3 cups of water
Handful of Thai basil
Handful of minced cilantro leaves for garnishing
Juice from one lime

1. If you're planning on cooking Thai food on a regular basis, it's a good idea to stock some coconut milk in your pantry. When you shake the can too much, the milk and cream combine. Letting the can sit for a day or two allows the cream to rise to the top, and that's what you want to use as your cooking fat. Skim off the top layer of cream and put it into a large stew pot or Dutch oven. Heat over medium-high heat and add your curry paste, stirring constantly for five minutes or so. It will become wonderfully fragrant, and pretty much puts a smile on my face and a grumble in my tummy without fail.

2. Add sliced chicken to the pan and let cook on all sides for a few minutes. Then add the rest of the coconut milk, sugar, fish sauce, eggplant, and serranos, and add enough water so the vegetables are nearly covered. American restaurants tend to serve thick, creamy curries, but I fell in love with the soupier curries we got in Bangkok, so I tend to use less coconut milk than many recipes call for and thin the curry with some water. Bring to a boil, then lower the heat and simmer for about 10-15 minutes, covered.

3. Taste the curry and adjust as necessary. Want more heat? Add some minced serranos. More sweet? Add a dash more sugar. Now put the bamboo shoots and straw mushrooms in the pot to heat them through. Simmer for another five minutes. Turn off the heat and stir in the Thai basil until it's just wilted. Then add the juice of one lime and stir it so it's mixed in completely.

4. Garnish with minced cilantro and serve with steamed rice.  

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Brown Rice Bowl of Love

I'm not the kind of girl who can eat a salad and be satisfied. I need some substance to my meal—a grilled chicken breast or a medium-boiled egg at the very least. Transforming a basic salad into a brown rice bowl is the perfect way to turn a starter into something that will actually fill you (meaning me) up.

This particular dish was inspired by a trip to Costa Rica, and as you can see, it's as lovely to look at as it is to eat. Tucked away in the lazy little town of Montezuma, Cafe Organico is a wonderful vegetarian restaurant that feels like it belongs in Santa Cruz or San Francisco. I fell in love with their colorful Bowl of Love and promptly came home to try and create something similar. It's been in my regular rotation ever since.

Brown Rice Bowl of Love (Inspired by a dish at Cafe Organico)
The instructions below are for two servings, but like most salads, it scales easily. Even though this is the perfect solo meal, I always make at least two servings because it works out better in terms of portioning. Pretty much everything keeps well (beets, brown rice, black beans, avocado) for a second helping of love the next day.

2 ripe tomatoes
2 golden beets
1 ripe avocado
4 hearts of palm
2 handfuls of arugula or other salad greens
1 cup of brown rice
1 can of black beans

1½ tablespoons apple cider vinegar
Few drops sesame oil
½ tablespoon mild-flavored extra-virgin olive oil
Pinch of sea salt

1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Scrub beets well. Then drizzle a bit of olive oil over each one and wrap tightly with foil. Bake in the oven for 45-50 minutes, until they are easily pierced with a fork.

2. Cook brown rice according to package instructions (I cook mine in a rice cooker).

3. 15 minutes before rice is done, drain and heat black beans in a small saucepan over medium-low heat.

4. While beans are heating, quickly prep the rest of your veggies: slice the hearts of palm, tomatoes, and avocados, and rinse and dry the arugula. Remove the beets from the oven and peel their skins. Slice the beets.

5. Place all of your dressing ingredients in an airtight container (like a jam jar or small Snapware) and shake well. Dress the arugula. If you're only eating a single portion, dress half of the arugula and save the rest of the dressing for the second serving.

6. To construct your bowl, make a bed of brown rice and place a mound of black beans in the center. Arrange all your veggies around the edges and dig in.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Pasta Bolognese

As I mentioned in my last post, the keywords in my kitchen lately have been quick and easy. Still, I've missed the experience of really immersing myself in an elaborate recipe. I've been dying to get my hands dirty, try something new, and cook up something blogworthy. So the second I had a long, lazy Sunday afternoon in front of me, I decided to make a batch of pasta bolognese.

A good red sauce and a glass of wine is pretty much all it takes to make me happy. Unfortunately, I married a bonafide tomato hater. So I've spent the last few years collecting delicious pasta recipes that are completely tomato-free. Still, it's been my not-so-secret mission to convert my husband over to the side of justice and all that is good in the world. Bolognese was clearly the solution. Unlike the bright, assertive tomato flavor of a marinara, the tomato in ragu bolognese is tempered by the addition of rich, creamy milk. The whole thing simmers for a couple of hours, mellowing to an earthy, comforting sauce that even a tomato hater will crave.

My husband had two heaping bowls. The only "failure" of the entire undertaking was how effortless the recipe turned out to be. After chopping up the veggies and browning the meat, I looked at the recipe, did a double take, then looked again. "Is that it?!" I said out loud, feeling vaguely cheated of the relaxing chore of cooking. 15 minutes of work, then an hour and a half of twiddling my thumbs. Consider the quick and easy streak unbroken.

Pasta Bolognese (inspired by Mario Batali)
The orange-clogged one has yet to lead me wrong on a recipe. The only minor change I made was to substitute fennel for the celery and beef for the veal. I also cut down on the fat a bit. Between the meat and the pancetta, there was plenty of fat in the pan to keep the sauce rich and flavorful.

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon butter
1 pound ground chuck
1 pound ground pork
1 carrot, diced
1 medium onion, peeled and diced
1 fennel bulb, diced
1 clove garlic, sliced
¼ pound pancetta, diced
Just over half of a small can of tomato paste
1 cup milk
¼ cup vermouth or 1 cup dry white wine
Salt to taste
Grated Parmesan cheese, for serving

1. In a large, heavy-bottomed saucepan (I used my 5½ quart Le Creuset), heat the oil and butter, then add the carrots, onion, and fennel and cook over medium heat until the vegetables are soft but not browned (about 10-15 minutes).

2. Add the beef, pork, and pancetta and cook over high, stirring to keep the meat from sticking. Cook until the meat is browned.

3. Add the vermouth, then add the milk and tomato paste and simmer, covered, over medium-low heat, for 1 to 1½ hours. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

4. Serve over pasta of your choice, with plenty of Parmesan for scattering over.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Fig and Prosciutto Pizza

I apologize, I've been an absentee blogger. Nine (!!) months ago, I decided to start this little blog because I had a lot of free time on my hands. Recently, things have taken a turn for the busy, which is great for my life, but not so great for my blog. And it's not just blogging that has dropped off precipitously. Trust me when I say that you wouldn't want to read about the things that have been taking place in my kitchen this past month. Some jarred sauces are involved. I may have eaten a bag of jalapeno chips for dinner one night. Don't judge me.

In short, lately the keyword has been convenience. Luckily, there are solutions that fall somewhere in between potato chip dinner and four-hour long noodle project in terms of effort. Pre-made pizza dough, available at many supermarkets (including Trader Joes) is a real time-saver. Add some creative toppings, and you have a dish that's tasty enough to serve any day of the week.

Fig & Prosciutto Pizza (Inspired by Todd English)
I added mozzarella to the mix to make this pizza extra cheesy. I think straight blue cheese would have been a little too intense for my taste. I also threw some dressed arugula on top, which added a really nice tart/bitter edge that offset the sweetness of the fig jam.

Scant 1/2 cup blue cheese (I used Point Reyes)
1 fist-sized ball of fresh mozzarella
4 slices of prosciutto
1 ball of pre-made pizza dough
3 green onions
6 oz. jar of fig jam (I used Blue Chair)
Flour for dusting
Olive oil for baking pizza

2 large handfuls of arugula
1 teaspoon balsamic vinegar
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
2 tablespoons best-quality olive oil
Pinch of sea salt

1. Leave the dough on your countertop for about half an hour, so it can come up to room temperature. You should also refrigerate the mozzarella for at least half an hour, or until it is firm enough to shred.

2. While your dough/cheese are warming up/cooling down, slice the prosciutto into bite-sized pieces, rinse and dry the arugula, clean and thinly slice the green onions.

3. Preheat your oven to 525 degrees Farenheit.

4. Flour a cutting board well. I find it easier to split the dough into two pieces, rolling each one out into a rectangle about 12" by 8". As you can see from the photo, I use the term "rectangle" very loosely. This makes a fairly thin crust (but not cracker thin). Place a piece of tin foil on a baking sheet and lightly oil the foil. Set one of your rectangles of dough on the foil. Repeat with the other piece of dough and a second baking sheet.

5. Rope your husband into shredding the mozzarella while you are rolling out the dough. Then mix the shredded mozzarella together with the crumbled blue cheese.

6. Assemble both pizzas in the same way: first spread a little less than half of the jar of fig jam over the surface of the dough. I used the entire jar of jam to make this, but next time I would leave back about two tablespoons. Break up any large pieces of fig with your fingers. Scatter half of the cheese mixture generously over the jam, leaving about an inch around the edge to accommodate the ooze from melting. Then top with half of the green onions and prosciutto. Repeat with the second pizza.

7. Place pizzas in oven for 15-17 minutes. While they are cooking, make a quick vinaigrette with red wine vinegar, a splash of balsamic, olive oil, and a pinch of sea salt. Dress the arugula and set aside.

8. After 15 minutes or so, your pizzas should be done. The crust will be slightly browned at the edges and the cheese will be bubbling hot. You should be able to lift the pizzas off of the foil very easily with a spatula. Top with dressed arugula, slice, and serve.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Sweet Corn and Chanterelle Soup

I have a serious weakness for simple pureed vegetable soups. Done correctly, they capture the essence of their main ingredient: sweet spring peas, creamy butternut squash, or roasted red pepper, for example. Some people's eyes light up when they see artisanal cocktails or a great cheese selection on a restaurant's menu, but spotting a sweet corn soup with smoked shrimp is what set my stomach rumbling on a recent excursion to Frances, a newish restaurant in Castro that's been getting rave reviews. It was by far the best course of the evening, and not one week later, I found myself craving another bowlful of summery corn soup in the worst way.

For my base, I used a recipe by Alice Waters. Cooking a seasonal soup with just a few ingredients screamed of her style to me, and this recipe really delivered. I added my own little twist, garnishing the soup with a dollop of creme fraiche and chives, and a handful of sauteed chanterelles. The result was like summer in a bowl.

Sweet Corn and Chanterelle Soup (adapted from The Art of Simple Food by Alice Waters)
2 tablespoons butter
4 ears of fresh shucked corn
1 medium-sized yellow onion, diced
1 quart (4 cups) of water
Two large handfuls of chanterelle mushrooms
Splash of olive oil
3-4 tablespoons creme fraiche
1 tablespoon snipped chives
Salt to taste

1. Melt the butter and cook the onion over medium heat in a heavy-bottomed pot for about 15 minutes. Do not allow the onions to brown. Season with a healthy pinch of salt.

2. Meanwhile, in a prep bowl, hold a shucked ear of corn upright and remove the kernels with a small, serrated knife. Repeat with the remaining ears of corn.

3. Add the corn kernels to the onion/butter mixture and cook for 2-3 minutes. Cover with 1 quart of water, bring to a boil, then lower to a simmer and cook for 10 minutes.

4. While the soup is cooking, clean and slice the chanterelles. Heat up a splash of olive oil in a small frying pan and cook the chanterelles with a pinch of kosher salt for about 3-4 minutes, or until they are soft.

5. Puree the soup in batches. Waters suggests passing the puree through a mesh strainer, but this step is a little too "restaurant-y" for my style, so I left it as is. Salt to taste. I added about three more pinches of salt.

TO SERVE: Place five or six mushrooms in the bottom of a bowl and spoon over about a cup of soup. Then add a generous dollop of creme fraiche and scatter some chives over the top. Some fresh cracked black pepper is excellent here.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Green Garlic and White Bean Bruschetta

Is there anything better than a farmers' market on the cusp of summer? After a long winter of squash, potatoes, and winter greens, suddenly the market is overflowing with the season's first tentative tomatoes, soft fuzzy peaches, tender asparagus, and sugar-sweet English peas. Some late spring treats, like green garlic, show up only briefly and disappear by the time summer is in full swing.
Green garlic has a milder taste than the mature bulb, with a hint of grassy greenness that's similar to a spring onion. You can use the whole plant, stem and all. I bought a bunch and used it all week, in any dish where I would have normally used garlic: fried rice, pasta primavera, and this delicious white bean bruschetta. I splurged and topped the bruschetta with bottarga, which lent a welcome salty tang, but this would be equally delicious with massive, fluffy heaps of grated pecorino.

Green Garlic and White Bean Bruschetta
1 15 oz. can or jar of good quality cannellini beans
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 stalk green garlic (Note: if green garlic is not in season, you can substitute 1 fat clove of garlic)
Pinch of sea salt
½ ounce of bottarga (optional) or 1 cup grated pecorino cheese
8-10 leaves of basil
Large batard or similar loaf of bread

1. Slice the bread into 1-inch thick slices and place the slices in a grill pan over medium-high heat for about 4-5 minutes a side. You can do this dry, or you can brush olive oil on each side, depending on your preference. You will need somewhere between 6-8 slices for 1 can of beans.

2. Cut off and discard the root end of the green garlic. Mince the bulb and stem finely. In a small saucepan, heat the olive oil and cook the green garlic for 3-4 minutes over medium-high heat, until it is soft and fragrant. Do not brown the garlic.

3. Add the cannellini beans and warm through. Blend the cannellini/garlic mixture in a food processor or blender, adding a pinch or two of salt to taste. I left the consistency a little chunky.

4. Chiffonade the basil by rolling all the leaves into a fairly tight roll and cutting them into thin strips. Wikipedia has a helpful visual.

5. To assemble the bruschetta, spread a couple of tablespoons of the white bean puree on the toasted bread. Then sprinkle on a few ribbons of basil. Lastly, grate a generous amount of bottarga or pecorino cheese over the top.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Kale and Red Cabbage Slaw

I’ve blogged before about my ever-growing cole slaw repertoire. I’ve tried Burmese, Thai, and Indian twists on the American classic, recreated the excellent version from Leon in London, and tested countless other variations that didn’t quite make the cut to share with you. But call off the search, because this is it. The ultimate. The humdinger. The cole slaw I’ll be eating at least once a week all summer long. Just assembling the ingredients sparked my appetite. The vibrant ribbons of dark green kale and deep purple cabbage, highlighted with a smattering of bright white corn and crumbled cotija cheese, are as pretty as a still life. And the incredible dressing is tangy, vibrant, and totally mayo-free. 
I’ve already served this slaw alongside tacos and atop a brown rice bowl, but it would pair equally well with burgers, grilled salmon, or roast chicken. It’s terrifically versatile, and the kale and red cabbage are such sturdy vegetables that this doesn’t get soggy and wilt like other cole slaws. I never would have stumbled onto this recipe, except that I’ve been obsessed with The Family Chef, an unlikely gem of a cookbook from some personal chefs to the stars. This is normally the kind of thing that triggers my gag reflex, and yet having cooked from the book for months now, it's how I want to eat every day—healthful, flavorful food that’s not incredibly elaborate or expensive. (The book is also absurdly cheap at Amazon right now, I'm seeing used copies for under $3).

Kale and Red Cabbage Slaw (Adapted from a recipe by Jewels and Jill Elmore)
Though the original recipe suggests rice vinegar as a substitute, I highly recommend tracking down coconut vinegar. It added a terrific tartness to the dressing and has become my new secret ingredient. I found a bottle at Rainbow Grocery. You can look for it in your local health food store, or online.

1 bunch of kale
½ head of red cabbage
¼ cup chopped cilantro
1 ear of white corn
¼ cup crumbled cotija cheese

1 shallot, peeled and minced
3 tablespoons fresh lime juice (about 1 lime)
3 tablespoons coconut vinegar
2 tablespoons best quality olive oil
Pinch of salt
1 teaspoon of ground cumin

1. Wash the kale and separate the leaves from the stems using a sharp knife or by tearing it with your hands. Slice the leaves into thin ribbons and dry well. Discard the stems.

2. Core and wash the red cabbage. Slice into thin ribbons and dry well.

3. Husk and wash the corn and cut the kernels off with a sharp knife.

4. In a large bowl, mix the cabbage, kale, and corn, along with the cotija cheese and cilantro.

5. Mix all the dressing ingredients together (I like to use a small jar with a lid or a tiny Snapware container and just shake them all up). Toss the slaw with the dressing and let sit for ten minutes for the flavors to meld.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Spicy Chicken Noodle Soup

Here in the U.S., we only get access to the tip of the noodle iceberg. It's a sad state of affairs for noodle lovers like myself. Even in San Francisco, the noodle dishes we can easily find numbers at about a dozen: pho, wonton noodle soup, ramen, spicy beef noodles...the greatest hits, if you will. If you want to explore further, say, sip some bun bo hue, or savor a bowl of laksa, you need to hunt those treasures out. And some dishes, like the following spicy chicken noodle soup, are simply unavailable no matter how hard you look.

But let's say you're a true fanatic, and you just have to get your spicy chicken noodle fix. Well then, clear your calendar, because these noodles take two weeks to make. Just kidding. Sort of. It takes about half an hour of work to make this dish, but you will need to wait two weeks for the chilis to cure. Is it worth it? To borrow a word, abso-f*cking-lutely.

The steamed chicken is tender and flavorful, with just the faintest fragrant hit of rice wine, and the ruby-red chilies infuse the broth with a scalding heat that's at the teasing edge of discomfort. Though the ingredients are deceptively simple, the results are unlike any noodle soup I've ever eaten, and that's saying something.

Spicy Chicken Noodle Soup (adapted from Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook by Fuchsia Dunlop)
I was craving the bland, slightly sweet crunch of slivered bamboo shoots in this dish, but the original version does not include them. This makes enough for two bowls of noodles.

1 boneless, skinless chicken breast
1 teaspoon minced ginger
1 tablespoon shaoxing wine
¾ cup slivered bamboo shoots
1½ teaspoon chopped salted chilis (see recipe below)
2 bundles of rice, egg, or wheat noodles (I used mai fun)
3 cups homemade chicken broth
2 big handfuls of fresh, washed vegetables (I used pea sprouts, but spinach, baby bok choy, or almost any green veggie would work).

1. Fill a medium-sized pot about halfway with water and bring to a boil. Cut the chicken into bite-sized chunks. Blanch the chicken briefly (just until the water returns to a boil, which should be under a minute). Drain.

2. Mix the chicken, ginger, rice wine, chilies, and bamboo shoots in a heatproof bowl. Add about an inch of water into the pot you used to blanch the chicken and place a collapsible or silicone steamer inside the pot. Balance the bowl on top of the steamer and cover the pot with a tight-fitting lid.
3. Steam chicken over high heat for about 20 minutes, until it is entirely cooked through.

4. Meanwhile, in a separate pot, heat your broth. Fill yet another pot with water (this is not a dish for those without dishwashers) and bring to a boil. Cook your noodles according to package instructions. In the last 30 seconds or so, add your veggies to blanch them.

5. To assemble each bowl: Place a bundle of noodles in the bottom of the bowl. Top with chicken-chili mixture and blanched vegetables. Ladle broth on top.

Hunanese Chopped Salted Chilis (adapted from Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook by Fuchsia Dunlop)
I happened to have a bunch of leftover Thai red chilis lying around from a homemade sriracha making experiment, and this was the perfect way to keep them from going to waste. You can use milder chilis if you prefer. For more ideas about what to do with these, see how Sea Salt With Food uses them.

1. Take a pound of fresh red chilis. Wash and dry them very well.

2. Chop the chilis into small pieces and place them in a bowl. Add 3½ tablespoons of kosher salt. Mix well.

3. Place the chili-salt mixture in an airtight container and add another ½ tablespoon of salt in a thin layer on top. Seal the container and store in a dark, cool place for a couple of weeks. Once opened, store the container in the refrigerator, where the chilis will keep for months.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Pineapple Raita and Green Mango Pickle

To me, no Indian meal is complete without all the accompanying sides. My standbys are a little raita to cool things down, a little pickle to perk things up, and of course plenty of fluffy, fragrant basmati rice. Don't think of these sides as entire extra dishes to cook. They're more like condiments, and each shouldn't take much longer to whip up than a salad dressing.

Ideally you'll make the pickles the day before, but these unusual quick pickles can actually be eaten as soon as you make them. Please note that the key ingredient, green mango, is quite different from the sweet, ripened mango you commonly see in stores. Green mangoes are firm, with pale yellow interiors, and a tart flavor that contains no trace of sweetness. I found these green mangoes at the Indian grocery store attached to Vik's Chaat House. Berkeley Bowl also carries them. In lieu of a green mango, you could try making this with the hardest, least ripe mango you can find.
The raita is reverse engineered from a version that we had at Sakoon in Mountain View. You can make many versions of this simple salad, playing with different spices like mustard seeds and coriander, or substituting fennel, cucumber, or slightly wilted spinach for the pineapple. The pineapple version, however, is particularly refreshing and unusual, with a subtle sweetness that really plays well with the spicy, earthy flavors of an Indian curry.

Green Mango Pickle (adapted from Veggie Belly)
1 green mango
1 tablespoon canola oil
1 teaspoon black mustard seeds
2 pinches asafoetida
1 teaspoon turmeric
2 teaspoons red chili powder (or cayenne)
¼ teaspoon fenugreek seeds
Scant ¾ tablespoon salt

1. Peel and dice the green mango into ½ inch pieces.

2. Heat a small skillet and toast the fenugreek until it becomes fragrant (about two minutes). Transfer to a spice grinder and grind to a powder.

3. Place the mango in a bowl, and mound the turmeric, chili powder, and fenugreek powder on top.

4. In the same skillet you used to toast the fenugreek, heat the oil. Add the mustard seeds and once those begin to pop, quickly add the asafoetida.

5. Pour the hot, spiced oil onto the mound of dried spices. Add the salt. Stir well. You can eat immediately, or seal in an airtight container and refrigerate. The flavor will intensify over time. I actually preferred this in its earlier stages, but my husband loved the super salty mature pickle. NOTE: My batch kept for about a month. Go Snapware!

Pineapple Raita (inspired by a dish at Sakoon Restaurant)
2 cups Greek yogurt (I used non-fat)
Healthy pinch of salt
Juice from half a lime (or more, to taste)
Generous ¼ cup of very finely diced fresh pineapple
Handful of cilantro leaves, minced
1 teaspoon cumin seeds

1. In a small, dry skillet, toast the cumin seeds until they begin to darken and turn fragrant (about a minute). Transfer to a spice grinder and grind to a powder.

2. Reserving a small amount of pineapple and cilantro for garnishing, combine the cumin with all the other ingredients and let sit for ten minutes for flavors to meld. Top with the reserved garnish and serve. 

Monday, May 17, 2010

Naga Hot, Hot, Hot Wings

Is there a more perfect party food than hot wings? They're cheap, easy-to-make, and people go completely kookoo for them. The only way to make hot wings even better, in my book at least, is to make them hotter. Enter naga hot sauce. The infamous naga is the hottest known pepper on the planet—a blistering three times hotter than the habanero (that's forty times hotter than the wimpy jalapeno). These peppers are guaranteed to make even the most experienced spice eater break a sweat, so you know I was dying to cook with them.

I made these wings in batches, both in a 425 degree oven, and under the broiler, and the broiler version was hands-down the best hot wing I've ever eaten. Extra crispy skin, tender meat, and just enough heart-pounding heat to keep you reaching for the next adrenaline rush. Cool off with the traditional accompaniment of celery sticks and a mayo-free blue cheese dip.

Naga Hot, Hot, Hot Wings
3 dozen wings
2 tablespoons of butter, melted
1 5 oz. bottle Frank's Original Red Hot sauce
1 tablespoon Dave's Insanity Ghost Pepper sauce
Salt and Pepper

Celery Sticks
Blue Cheese Dip (see recipe below)

1. Prepare the wings by removing the wing tip (freeze these for making chicken broth), then cutting the wing in two along the joint. Season the wings with salt and pepper.

2. In a small bowl, melt the butter (about 20 seconds in the microwave) and mix with the two hot sauces. Taste and make adjustments if necessary.

3. Coat the wings well in the hot sauce and let marinate for half an hour at room temperature (or up to a day in the fridge).

4. Position your top shelf fairly close to the broiler and turn your broiler to high. Arrange the wings on a rack in a baking pan. Broil for about 8 minutes per side, until chicken is cooked through. I did this in batches of 12 at a time so the wings were all piping hot when served.

Mayo-Less Blue Cheese Dip
1 cup sour cream
1 cup Greek yogurt
Healthy pinch of salt
1 cup crumbled blue cheese (I used Bleu D'Auvergne)
1 tablespoon champagne vinegar

Mix all ingredients together in a bowl.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Spiced Up Chicken Tikka Masala

It's probably pretty hypocritical of me to follow up my Kung Pao chicken post with possibly the most famous faux ethnic dish in existence, chicken tikka masala. But I can't help myself. Chicken tikka masala is what first turned me onto Indian food. It's a creamy, savory, and spicy concoction that, properly prepared, can taste just as complex and layered as an authentic Indian curry.

Traditionally this dish does not have the fiery heat of a vindaloo or that other Anglicized Indian dish, phal, but you know I had to fix that. I used a mixture of fresh chilies and my magic ingredient: Indian red chili powder. I use this spice so much when I cook, that my husband actually joked: We'd better hope there's nothing unhealthy in it. Uh, whoops. I guess I should switch over to domestically-grown chili powder at some point.

I've made this recipe with both cream and whole milk. The cream is more traditional, but I hardly ever have any in the house and it makes the whole dish milder anyway, which means adding even more lead-laced chili powder to balance things out. I also changed the recipe a bit to make this a one-pot dish, but you can certainly grill the chicken separately and add it to the warmed sauce as Jamie Oliver suggests in the original recipe. You will also need a small pan to heat the mustard seeds. Whenever I cook Indian food, I find it useful to dedicate one small pan to toasting spices and making tarkas anyway. Just give it a quick wipe with a damp cloth or paper towel between uses.

Spiced Up Chicken Tikka Masala (adapted from Jamie's Dinners, by Jamie Oliver)
Please note, as with most of the recipes on this site, the amount of chili indicated is way above average. Unless you are the kind of person who has developed multiple strategies for ordering spicy food in Mexican, Thai, and Indian restaurants, start with half of the amount suggested and work up from there. 

6 cloves of garlic, peeled
3 inches of fresh ginger, peeled
4-5 fresh chilies (I used serranos that had turned red from sitting around for a week)
Olive oil
1 tablespoon black mustard seeds
1 tablespoon hot paprika
1 tablespooon ground cumin
1 tablespoon ground coriander
2 tablespoons garam masala
1½ tablespoons of Indian red chili powder (or cayenne)
¾ cup plain yogurt
1 whole chicken, skinless, deboned, and cut into bite-sized chunks (freeze the wings and carcass for chicken broth)
1 tablespoon ghee or butter
1 medium onion, peeled and sliced finely
2 tablespoons of tomato paste (you can freeze the rest)
Salt to taste
½ cup of whole milk or heavy cream
Handful of fresh cilantro, chopped
Juice of 1-2 limes

1. Toss the garlic, ginger (cut it into a few pieces first) and chilies into a food processor and blitz until it's a coarse paste. You could also mince them all with a knife, if you're not lazy like I am.

2. Heat a splash of oil in a small frying pan and add the mustard seeds. Once they begin to pop (after about 30 seconds), add them to your ginger/garlic/chili paste. Then add all your spices (paprika, cumin, coriander, garam masala, and chili powder). Now. Pay attention. If I told you that I messed this part up not once, but twice, would that make you respect me less? Take half of the spice mixture, I repeat, HALF, and add it to a bowl or ziplock bag large enough to hold your chicken pieces. Add the yogurt, mix everything together, and marinate the chicken in this for half an hour or so. This would be a good time to get another dish started, like dal or raita.

3. After the chicken has been marinated for a bit, take a large pot or dutch oven, melt the ghee or butter in it, and add the sliced onions. Now, picture my expression when I got to the next step and saw that I was supposed to add the other half of the spice mix—you know, the half I remembered to save—to the onions. Cut to me frantically preparing a new batch of spice mix and making a very unhappy face. Add the half of the spice mix that you, genius that you are, were smart enough to set aside.

4. Cook the onions and spices for 8 minutes or so over medium heat. Then add the chicken pieces and brown them on all sides for another 8 minutes. 

5. Now add the tomato paste, 2½ cups of water, and salt to taste. Place a lid on the pot, turn the heat down to medium low, and let the whole thing simmer for 30-45 minutes.

6. Just before serving, stir in the milk (or cream), chopped cilantro, and lime juice.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Real Kung Pao Chicken

My first date with my husband only lasted a couple of hours, but in that short time he managed to inform me that he hated sunshine, karaoke, coffee, San Francisco, and Chinese food. Item for item that was pretty much my go-to response for the "things I love" section of the multiple dating social networking sites I belonged to at the time. I guess it's true what they say about opposites attracting. Still, you'd better believe I launched my campaign to convert him to a Chinese food lover as soon as the words were out of his mouth. It started with the really easy-to-like stuff: homemade potstickers, wonton soup. Soon he was seeking out the best Szechuan hot pot with me. These days, I make Chinese food nearly once a week and he always goes back for seconds.

I understand what his problem was. There's a lot of bad, greasy, Americanized slop out there masquerading as Chinese food. Some of the top offenders—beef with broccoli and egg foo young come to mind—aren't even based on actual Chinese dishes, while others, like Kung Pao chicken have been watered down beyond all recognition. Instead of the slightly-sweet, gloppy-sauced hodgepodge you get from your local take-out, picture wok-charred chicken in a sea of smoky red chilis, finished with a tongue-tingling dose of Szechuan peppercorn. If this doesn't convert you into a believer, nothing will.

Real Kung Pao Chicken (adapted from Land of Plenty by Fuchsia Dunlop)

2 boneless chicken breasts
3 cloves of garlic, minced
Equivalent amount of minced ginger
4-5 green onions, sliced thinly
1 tablespoon of canola or peanut oil
½ tablespoon cayenne or Indian red chili powder
1 tablespoon of Sichuan peppercorns
Large handful (at least 10) dried red chilis (I used de Arbol)
Large handful of roasted unsalted peanuts

2 teaspoons light soy sauce
1 teaspoon Shaoxing rice wine
1½ teaspoons corn starch

1 teaspoon dark soy sauce
1 teaspoon light soy sauce
1 tablespoon black Chinese vinegar
1 teaspoon sesame oil
1 tablespoon chicken stock or water

1. Cut the chicken into bite-sized chunks. Mix all the marinade ingredients together, making sure the corn starch is completely dissolved. Then marinate the chicken for about 15 minutes.

2. With a pair of kitchen scissors, snip the chilis in half. Place these, along with all of your other ingredients (garlic, green onions, ginger, chili powder, peppercorns, peanuts) near the wok.

3. Combine all of the sauce ingredients in a small bowl, mix well, and taste. Adjust seasonings if necessary.

4. Turn on your overhead vent. Heat up a tablespoon of oil in your wok over high heat and wait for it to get fairly hot. Add the chilis, cayenne, and Szechuan peppercorn and stir until they become fragrant and darken slightly (about 2 minutes).

5. Add the chicken pieces to the wok and stir them around, making sure you maintain a high heat. Break the pieces up, then add the ginger and garlic and stir fry for a few minutes until the chicken is nearly cooked through. Add the green onions and stir for another 30 seconds.

6. Give the bowl of sauce a final stir, then add it to the hot wok. Mix well so that all the ingredients are coated. Add the peanuts, give another stir, and serve, piping hot.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Ma Po Tofu

Ma po tofu is hands down one of my favorite Chinese dishes. Spicy chili-red sauce, creamy chunks of tofu, and a tongue-tingling dose of Szechuan peppercorns form a combination that's improbably comforting and exciting at the same time. For years, cooking this dish at home meant reaching for a box of House brand ma po tofu sauce. But I'm going to let you in on a little secret. Making the sauce is the easiest part of what is already an easy-to-make dish. The results will taste a thousand times better, not to mention give you control over just how spicy, salty, or ma la you dare to go.

The essential ingredient for Ma po tofu is Szechuan peppercorn. For those who have never tasted it, it's unlike anything else, more of a sensation than a flavor. It imparts a slightly fizzy, numbing feeling, which is called "ma la" in Chinese and is completely different from the more common spiciness we associate with chilis. The other ingredient that will have a big impact on your dish is the chili paste. You want to use your favorite brand of dou ban jiang. I like to bump mine up with a healthy dose of red chili powder to truly sweat-inducing spice levels. 

Normally Fuchsia Dunlop is my go-to source for Szechuanese recipes, but I was disappointed with the results I got from her recipe. Rasa Malaysia's version was a much better starting point for me, but I still ended up making a few tweaks. I really like the funky depth that the fermented black beans add, so I tripled the amount she uses. I also like to add a bit of ginger to balance things out. It's really all about what flavors you prefer, so experiment with the proportions. Traditionally this dish is served in a pool of ruby-red oil, but this lightened version, while less authentic, is probably more palatable to the average American.

Ma Po Tofu (adapted from Rasa Malaysia)
2 blocks of silken tofu
½ pound of lean ground pork
3 tablespoons of chili bean paste (dou ban jiang)
3 cloves of minced garlic
Equivalent amount of minced ginger
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1½ tablespoons of Indian chili powder or cayenne
1 tablespoon of Szechuan peppercorn
2 stalks of green onion, sliced
1 tablespoon of canola or peanut oil
1 tablespoon of black fermented beans, rinsed and pounded. Note: Fermented black beans come in jars, cans, and plastic bags. You are looking for the bagged variety.
1. Heat up the oil in a large wok and stir fry the ginger and garlic until they become fragrant, about 1-2 minutes. Do not let the garlic brown.

2. Add the chili bean paste to the pan and cook for another minute. Add the pork, along with the chili powder and soy sauce. Break up the pork and mix well with all the sauce ingredients. Cook for about 4-5 minutes, until pork is cooked but not at all dry. Add the black beans and about ½ cup of water.

3. Drain the tofu well and slice it into chunks (I just cut it right inside the plastic container). Slide the tofu into the wok and allow it to simmer in the sauce for 3-5 minutes, until it is completely heated through and the sauce has thickened slightly.

4. While the tofu is heating, toast the peppercorns in a dry pan over medium heat for a few minutes, until they darken and release their fragrance. Do not let them burn. Grind in a spice grinder and scatter over the tofu, stirring once or twice to mix it in. Tip: A few months ago, I started saving the spent peppercorns from my chili oil, running them through my spice grinder, and keeping them in an airtight container in my fridge. I use them any time a recipe calls for toasted, ground peppercorn, and actually prefer their flavor, which is somehow less abrasive than the dry-toasted peppercorn. 

5. Scatter green onions over just before serving.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Ghetto Raclette

It started with a hangover. I'd gotten a bit too celebratory at our previous night's party and was groggily scanning my Google Reader when I stumbled upon this, which was pretty much looking like the thing that was going to save my life at that particular moment. Unfortunately that photo was taken in New York, 3,000 miles away, and nacho cheese-covered kimchi duk bok ki is not exactly a dish you can find at your neighborhood Korean joint. At this point, I was craving melted cheese like a fiend, and my husband, who craves cheese in all forms on a daily hourly basis was more than happy to empower me to follow my dreams of cheese, sweet cheese.

I floated a vague suggestion to make raclette, and before I knew it, my cheese-addicted husband had whisked me into the car and straight to Bed Bath and Beyond, where he attempted to fork over $120 for a raclette machine before I could come to my senses. Unfortunately, they didn't have one in stock. And it was 6 p.m. on a Sunday, which meant any place that would carry such a thing was now closed. But I don't let a little thing like lack of gadgetry stand in the way of my food cravings. We grabbed all the necessary ingredients and headed back home to rig up some ghetto raclette.

The $120 machine, as far as I can tell, consists of some metal cheese melting pans and a grill for accompanying vegetables. So I grabbed two tiny cast iron pans and my grill pan. It must be said that I could not find a single web result that told me how to make raclette without the machine, and yet, this was so very, very easy. In fact, it hardly even merits a recipe. Boil some potatoes. Grill your vegetables of choice (I used red pepper, asparagus, and fennel). Lay out some cold, cured meats. You absolutely must have cornichons. Their sharp, sour bite cuts some of the heart-stopping fattiness of the cheese-smothered potatoes.
Now for the ghetto raclette bit. Look for cheese labeled "raclette." Gruyere, Morbier, or Tallegio would work as substitutes, but raclette shouldn't be overly difficult to find. You'll want about half a pound of cheese per person. Slice the cheese into pieces about ½ an inch thick. Place one cast-iron pan per person over a medium flame on your stovetop. The pans should be fairly small, otherwise the cheese will spread out too much as it melts, resulting in a thin, gooey mess. I used five inch pans. Then place one piece of cheese in each pan and let it sit for about 3-4 minutes. Once the bottom has formed a nice crust and the top of the cheese is soft and melted, scrape underneath the cheese with a spatula and flip the whole thing onto the boiled potatoes on your plate. At this point, depending on how quickly you eat, you can place another piece of cheese on the pan (like my husband) or turn the flame off and take a break (like me).

Note: the pans looked completely trashed when we were finished, but after a few hours of soaking, and a fairly brief wash-up, they were as good as new.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Salted Fish and Chicken Fried Rice

Part of my birthright as a Chinese person is a certain fearlessness when it comes to trying unusual foods. Head-to-tail eating, stinky, fermented flavors, gelatinous, gooey textures, I say: bring it on. My ex-boyfriends, not so much. My sister and I once ordered this delicious, but somewhat pungent fried rice at a meal with our two boyfriends at the time. Both guys took one whiff and told us we were welcome to all of it. "It smells like feet," my date added, just in case his unmistakable "eww gross" face had gone unnoticed.

Luckily, I've moved on to a more stink-tolerant significant other (in fact, being French, and a cheese fiend, you could even say he's stink-seeking). The salted fish is actually far more subtle than it smells, adding depth and dimension to an otherwise plain dish. The effect is very similar to the salty dose of anchovy in a good Caesar dressing. And in fact, this dish also features Romaine lettuce and eggs, so you can almost think of it as a remixed Caesar salad. 

Salted Fish and Chicken Fried Rice
The key to any fried rice is to cook the rice 1-2 days in advance. This allows the rice to dry out a bit in the refrigerator, so it can fry properly. The fish is available, unrefrigerated, in most Chinese markets and will come in a plastic bag like the one pictured below. I have not personally tried this, but it's my hunch that a tin of anchovies would also work perfectly in place of the salted fish.
1½ cups jasmine rice, cooked a day or two in advance (this should yield a little over two cups of cooked rice)
1 tablespoon of minced ginger
2 eggs, beaten
1 piece of salted fish, roughly the size of a deck of cards
1 boneless, skinless chicken thigh, finely diced
1 heart of romaine lettuce, washed and shredded
2 green onions, sliced thinly
Salt to taste
Peanut or canola oil

1. Prepare the salted fish by cutting off a chunk that's about the size of a deck of cards. The remainder of the fish can be stored in a Ziplock bag (you may want to double bag it to prevent the smell from taking over your entire fridge). Soak this chunk in warm water for an hour or two. When it's finished soaking, pat it dry and dice it into small pieces.

2. Gather all your ingredients near the stovetop. In a wok or large pan, heat up a splash of oil and quickly scramble the two eggs. Remove to a plate when the eggs are just cooked through, but still shiny and loose.

3. Heat up another splash of oil and add the fish and ginger to the wok. Give these a quick stir, then add the chicken pieces. Cook these together for about four or five minutes, until the chicken is nearly cooked. Then add your rice to the pan, along with another splash of oil if necessary. Add a generous pinch of salt and move the rice around in the pan, breaking it up and making sure the grains get coated with the ginger and fish-infused oil. You want to actually fry the rice, getting it nice and toasted from the hot pan, so keep stirring to make sure every piece of rice comes into contact with the cooking surface.

4. After 3-4 minutes of frying the rice, slide the cooked eggs in and break them up. Then add the shredded lettuce and green onions, stir until just wilted (about 30 seconds), and remove from heat. Serve immediately. You can serve this with fermented bean curd for a double dose of stinkiness.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Triple Fennel Sausage Pasta

I love lemony pastas. Something about the bright zing of lemon just perks up a dish of pasta, much like the slight tartness of tomato does. My go-to pasta before discovering this one was an even simpler combo from Nigella Lawson—just barely toasted garlic, steamed asparagus, a handful of chopped parsley, a couple of cups of cooked orzo, and olive oil and lemon juice over all. This recipe by Jamie Oliver is somewhat similar, only swapping the asparagus for spicy sausage, which is sort of like switching from coffee to crack cocaine. Oliver recommends getting the best quality sausages you can find, which for me means the housemade spicy Italian sausage from Bi-Rite.

I bumped up the fennel from the original recipe by adding a fennel bulb to the base and then sprinkling on some fennel pollen at the end, making this a triple fennel pasta. The only other contribution I have to Mr. Oliver's fine recipe is the following tip: breaking up the sausage in the pan with two wooden spatulas works about 10x faster than using the back of a wooden spoon as he suggests. Just sort of use them like extensions of your hands and smash and tear the meat apart with the front edges, not the flats, of the spatulas.

Lastly, I use a splash of vermouth in place of the glass of white wine, not because I'm not a wino, but because I prefer reds. Vermouth keeps forever, so you can always have it on hand without worrying about finishing the bottle. The other option would be to pour the remainder of any opened white wine into an ice cube tray and save it for future cooking projects.

Triple Fennel Sausage Pasta (adapted from Jamie Oliver)
1 tablespoon fennel seeds
1 fennel bulb, diced
1 tablespoon fennel pollen
½ tablespoon crushed red pepper (or to taste)
Olive oil
3-4 best quality spicy Italian sausage
1 tablespoon dried oregano
About a shotglass of vermouth
Zest and juice of 1 lemon
1 lb of good quality fusilli
Handful of parmesan cheese, freshly grated (plus more for serving)
Handful of parsley, stemmed and roughly chopped
A small knob of butter (optional)

1. Smash up the fennel seeds and chile flakes in a spice grinder or mortar and pestle and set aside.

2. Put a large pot of water on to boil and add a few generous pinches of salt. Then, heat a splash of olive oil in a large heavy-bottomed pan (I use my wok). It should be large enough to hold all of the pasta later, which likely means it's the biggest pan you own.

3. Add the fennel to the pan and cook for 2-3 minutes. Then start squeezing the sausages out of their skins into the pan. Use the double spatula trick described above to break the meat up. Wait for the meat to take on some color (a few minutes), then smash it up even further. You want the sausage to cook up into little, crispy, flavor-packed bits that will sneak into the spirals of the fusilli. Add the fennel seeds and chiles and cook over medium heat for 10-12 minutes, or until the meat is caramelized.

4. While you're waiting for the meat to get nice and crispy, check to see if your water is boiling. Once it is, add your pasta and cook according to package instructions (likely 8-10 minutes).

5. Stir in the oregano, then pour in the vermouth (or a glass of dry white wine). Allow the alcohol to cook off for a few minutes, then turn heat to low while you wait for your pasta to finish cooking. Once pasta is cooked al dente, drain it, reserving a bit of the cooking water. Add the cooked pasta to your pan of sausage. Then add parmesan, parsley, fennel pollen, lemon zest and juice, and a bit of butter, along with a few spoons of the pasta cooking water. Mix well, making sure you get all the yummy bits from the bottom of the pan.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Spaghetti with Baby Artichokes and Caper-Mint Sauce

It's rare to find the person who doesn't like artichokes. Brussels sprouts, broccoli, spinach, all have their detractors. But artichoke is an exceptionally likeable vegetable, albeit packaged in a prickly, difficult exterior. Artichokes tease you, offering only the tiniest morsel of pleasure per petal until you make it all the way down to the coveted heart. It's a reward that tastes all the better for being delayed.

Baby artichokes, on the other hand, put all the effort of getting to the edible bits squarely in the hands of the cook. Cleaning baby artichokes isn't all that hard once you get the hang of it, and as Nigella often points out, there's something slightly meditative about repetitive tasks in the kitchen.  Look for artichokes that are on the smaller side (they are less likely to contain a choke). I've also found that the rounded ones with tightly packed leaves have a better taste and texture than their pointier, looser-leaved brethren.  
Spaghetti with Baby Artichokes and Caper-Mint Sauce (adapted from Gourmet, June 2008)
The original recipe is for the artichokes alone, but that seemed pretty heavy to me. So I added some spaghetti the first time I made this and never looked back. That's right, I added pasta to make this dish lighter. It all makes sense in my head.

About a dozen baby artichokes (they should be roughly the size of lemons)
Large handful of dried spaghetti, preferably artisanal
½ a lemon
Olive oil
Salt to taste

1 small tin of anchovies in oil (or about 6 fillets), diced finely
A few sprigs of fresh mint (about 15 leaves), chopped
2½ tablespoon of capers, drained and roughly chopped
1 tablespoon champagne vinegar

1. First, prep the artichokes. Prepare a bowl of acidulated water to prevent the artichokes from browning as you're working (this is just cold water with a squeeze of lemon). Then take an artichoke and remove all the tough outer leaves until you see the pale yellow leaves at the center (should only be 2 or 3 layers down).  Cut off the tips of the leaves, leaving the bottom ⅔ of the artichoke intact. Cut off the stem at the base. Halve the artichoke, remove any choke with a paring knife or small spoon, and place both halves in the acidulated water. Continue with the rest of your artichokes.

2. Bring a large pot of water to the boil. You will be blanching your artichokes briefly and then reusing the water for your pasta, so make sure your pot is big enough. Once the water is at a steady boil, add your (drained) artichokes and cook for about four minutes. You do not want to overcook them, as they'll be hitting the grill next. Remove from the water and pat dry.

3. Heat a large grill pan. Bring the pot of water back to the boil and add a generous amount of salt (about three healthy pinches) for cooking the pasta. Add the pasta and cook according to package directions (probably around 7-9 minutes).

4. Toss the artichokes with a tablespoon of olive oil, then lay them on the grill pan. Cook for about 3-4 minutes per side over high heat. Meanwhile, mix all of the sauce ingredients together.

5. Your artichokes should be cooked just a few moments before the pasta is ready. Toss the artichokes quickly in the sauce, letting them soak up all the flavors. Then drain your pasta, reserving a cup or so of the cooking liquid. Combine the pasta with the artichokes and sauce, loosening with a bit of pasta water if necessary. Dig in.