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.