Monday, March 29, 2010

Spicy Pork Japchae

I cook noodles pretty much every day. So it doesn't take much of an excuse for me to try a new noodle recipe. It could be a new brand of noodle at my local market, a tempting photo in my blog reader, the fact that it's lunchtime. Any of these will do. So when one of my favorite food bloggers, Steph from Momofuku for 2, decided to throw a noodle party, that was more than enough reason for me to get cooking.

Steph and her co-hosts, Christine and Shao, picked dang myun, or Korean glass noodles, as the key ingredient. Unlike Chinese glass noodles, which are made from mung bean flour, dang myun is made from sweet potato starch. The resulting noodle is much chewier and, to my taste, more satisfying than Chinese saifun.
Dang myun is most commonly found in a Korean dish called japchae, so I went to my usual source for kick-ass Korean recipes, Maangchi. Even though there's quite a few fiddly steps involved, she breaks it all out really clearly, and makes the whole thing look enviably effortless. Of course, me being me, I made this version of jap chae extra spicy, adding both red pepper flakes and gochujang. I also left out all the sugar. Pretty much my go-to formula for adapting food to my taste is: recipe + spicy - sweet = tasty goodness.

Spicy Pork Japchae inspired by Maangchi
1 12 oz package dang myeon
1 tablespoon soy
1 tablespoon sesame oil

8 dried shiitake mushrooms
1 yellow onion
2 small carrots
4-6 stalks celery
1 zucchini
1 cup mung bean sprouts
4 green onions
Olive oil, for frying

½ pound of pork
½ tablespoon soy sauce
1 teaspoon sesame oil
Fresh ground black pepper

3 garlic cloves
1 cup mushroom soaking liquid
2 tablespoons red pepper paste (gojuchang)
2 tablespoons Korean red pepper flakes (do not substitute crushed red pepper)
2 tablespoons soy sauce
1 tablespoon sesame oil
Toasted sesame seeds (optional, as garnish)

1. Wash all of your vegetables. Peel the carrots. Soak the dried shitakes in boiling water for half an hour.

2. Slice your onions (both green and yellow) thinly. Cut the celery, carrots, zucchini, and shiitakes into matchsticks. Break the tails off of the bean sprouts. 
3. Marinate meat in the sesame, soy, and a bit of pepper.

4. Crush and mince the garlic. Mix in a small bowl with gojuchang, soy sauce, 1 tablespoon of sesame oil, and about a cup of the reserved mushroom soaking liquid.

5. Boil a big pot of water. Cook the noodles for three minutes (test by biting a strand). Drain & place in large bowl. Do not rinse with cold water. Add about a tablespoon each of soy sauce and sesame oil and toss well. The oil keeps the noodles from sticking together, and the soy seasons them.

6. Heat a little olive or vegetable oil in a wok or large pan. Stir fry carrots, celery, onion with a pinch of salt. As soon as vegetables have softened, dump them into the noodle bowl. Heat a little more oil and stir fry the zucchini and shiitake mushrooms for a few minutes. Then add the green onions and bean sprouts and cook for a minute longer. Dump these into the noodle bowl. Heat a little more oil in the wok. Stir fry the garlic and pork.

7. As soon as meat is cooked through (about 3-4 minutes), add red pepper flakes to the pan. Then add the noodles and vegetables back into the pan, pour the sauce over, and stir everything together until well incorporated.

Check out the other noodle party people here:
* Momofuku for 2 made braised short ribs with dangmyeong
* Christine and the Big Scary Kitchen made a vegetarian version of japchae
* Fried Wontons for You
* Jeroxie added some Szechuan peppercorns to her beef short ribs recipe. Yum!
* Yum-O-Rama made her dang myun nice and spicy, you know I'm a fan of that!
* Lovely Lanvin tweeted her recipe

Friday, March 26, 2010

Somewhat Spicy Massaman Curry

I'm a compulsive food shopper. All of my adult life, my friends and family have teased me that I'm stocking up for Armageddon. This comes in handy when you need to improvise an extra dish for an unexpected dinner party guest, or whip up a little something something as a midnight snack, but is somewhat less ideal when leaving town on a five day trip. I had a crisper full of vegetables and only one stomach. What to do? After perusing my ingredients, I decided on Massaman curry. Curries freeze well and are an excellent way to marry multiple vegetables, in this case, daikon, eggplant, and potatoes.

Traditionally, Massaman curry is a mild, creamy concoction, but you know I had to fix that. I used mostly japonais chilies with a handful of arbol chilies for extra heat. This yielded a moderately spicy curry. I might even go half japonais and half arbol next time. The recipe for curry paste yields twice as much as you need, so you can freeze the other half for a quick meal in the future. Or you know, for Armageddon...just in case.

Somewhat Spicy Massaman Curry
adapted from True Thai by Victor Sodsook
Toasted and ground spices provide the signature smoky-sweet flavor of Massaman. I don't need to tell you that this smells incredible.

1½ teaspoons cumin seeds
1½ tablespoons coriander seeds
Seeds from 2-3 cardamom pods (just smash the shells and remove the seeds)
2 whole cloves
¼ teaspoon whole peppercorns
¼ teaspoon ground cinammon

1. In a small, dry pan, toast the cumin, coriander, and cardamom seeds for a few minutes. They will start to smell quite fragrant and darken to a rich brown color. Do not let them burn.

2. Add the peppercorns, cinammon, cloves to the toasted spices and place everything in your spice grinder. Grind to a powder.

Spice mix (see above)
1½ teaspoons of shrimp paste
Roughly 12 cloves of garlic (a small head + a couple extra cloves)
2-3 shallots, peeled and roughly chopped
1 tablespoon galangal (about a 2 inch piece, peeled and cut into rough chunks)
1 stalk of lemongrass (remove the tough tip and outer layers and only use the tender white interior)
3 oz. of red chilies, soaked in hot water for 30 minutes (use whichever chilies you like based on the amount of heat you would like. Mild: California, Medium: Japonais, Spicy: Arbol)
Reserved chili soaking water

1. 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.

2. In the same dry pan that you used to toast the spices, heat the foil-wrapped packet of shrimp paste over medium heat. This heats the shrimp paste up and makes it extra stinky. Yes, that's a good thing. Heat the packet for about 5 minutes total, flipping it once.

3. In the bowl of a food processor, add the shrimp paste, spice mix, and shallots. Plop your peeled garlic straight into the food processor. I know you're supposed to chop it up a little first but I just let the processor have at it and it seems to work.

The galangal and lemongrass I give the processor a little head start on. Add them to the party too.

4. Now put in all your soaked chilies, reserving the soaking water in case you need it to ease blending. Process everything to a paste. Add chili soaking water to loosen the mixture if necessary.

5. Freeze half of the paste for later use. The other half will go into...

1 pound of beef stew meat, cut into chunks
1 medium onion, diced
3-4 potatoes, scrubbed and cut into rough chunks
1 large eggplant, washed and cut into large dice
1 daikon, washed, peeled, and cut into large dice
A little over ½ cup of Massaman curry paste (see above)
7 tablespoons fish sauce
1 14 oz. can coconut milk
1 tablespoon brown sugar (or more to taste. I do not like my food very sweet.)
1½ tablespoons tamarind liquid (I soak seedless tamarind paste in hot water for fifteen minutes, then throw the whole thing into a blender and blend. Then I freeze this liquid in ice cube trays for future use. You can also use tamarind concentrate).
Salt and pepper
Olive oil

1. I've never had my butcher cut my beef into chunks for stew before, because it didn't seem that challenging to cut up the beef myself. But this particular butcher offered, I said "why not?" and discovered the true benefit to having someone else cut your meat up for you: one less cutting board to clean! Season your beef pieces with a bit of salt and pepper.

2. Heat the oil in a large pot or Dutch oven. Cook your beef and onions for about five minutes, until the beef is browned on all sides. Remove and set aside.

3. It's a good idea to stock some coconut milk in your pantry. For Armageddon, naturally, but also because it gives the milk time to separate. When you bring it straight back from the store, the can gets all shaken up, and it's hard to separate the cream from the milk. Right now, what you want is the thick layer of cream floating at the top of the can. That is going to be your cooking fat. Skim it off, place it in your stew pot, and heat it over medium-high heat. Add the curry paste and stir constantly, letting the whole thing heat up and get extra delicious for a few minutes.

4. Add the cooked beef and onions back into the pot, along with any juices. Then add all your veggies (daikon, potatoes, eggplant), the rest of the coconut milk, the tamarind liquid, brown sugar, and fish sauce.

5. Top up with water and bring the whole thing to a boil. Then lower the heat and let simmer for at least an hour, ideally two.

6. Serve with steamed jasmine rice.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Brown Butter + Veggies = Love

I love vegetables. I will gladly eat them raw or steamed with barely even a dash of salt (or maybe a smashed clove of garlic in the steaming water) to enhance them. But there is something so very moreish about dousing them with nutty, unctuous brown butter. You know how the smell of sautéing onions makes everyone perk up and say "what smells so good?" Brown butter is that times ten. You will think you've died and gone to gourmet heaven. Plus, it's beyond easy to make. It's simply a matter of plonking a bit of butter into a saucepan, turning the heat onto medium-low, and watching magic happen.

Most of the recipes I've read say this alchemy occurs within 3-5 minutes. I use a little one-quart saucepan, rather than the wide skillet I've seen elsewhere, and this takes closer to 8 or 9 minutes for me. The first thing that will happen is the butter will start to foam. Then the clear liquid at the bottom will take on an amber hue. Most of the how-tos I've seen on the web come with scary-sounding warnings. Goes from perfect to burnt in seconds! Will become beurre noir if you blink! I was lucky enough to discover brown butter through the decidedly unhysterical Fields of Greens cookbook, and I make it, mostly unattended, with the merest glance now and then to see how things are developing. I strain the solids through a paper towel, squeezing the towel to get every drop of deliciousness out, but you can easily skim the solids with a spoon, or indeed, use it as is.

The nutty sweetness of brown butter really enhances vegetables that have a hint of bitterness. Brussels sprouts and cavalo nero are two of my favorites. Add the brown butter near the end of the cooking process, so it doesn't cook further.

Brown Butter
The butter really does all of the work here, but I swear you will feel like a genius the first time you make this. Though shortly afterwards, you may rue the knowledge that you are only ever ten effortless minutes away from a batch of brown butter. 

A smidge more than 1 tablespoon of butter (salted or unsalted)

1. In a small saucepan, preferably one that does not have a dark bottom (like mine does), heat the butter over medium-low heat. A white foam will appear after a couple of minutes.
2. Keep cooking until the liquid turns a golden amber and the butter begins to smell nutty. Remove from heat.

3. Strain through a paper towel into a bowl and discard the solids.

Brussels Sprouts with Brown Butter and Capers (inspired by a dish at Luna Park)
1 pound brussels sprouts (preferably on the smaller side)
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 tablespoons of capers
1½ tablespoons brown butter (see instructions above, but use a smidge more than 1½ tablespoons of butter to start)
Salt to taste

1. Wash, trim, and halve brussels sprouts.

2. Heat olive oil in a large saucepan (I use my wok) and swirl around so the cooking surface is well-lubricated. Add the brussels to the pan. Cook over high heat for a minute or two, until the brussels take on a bit of brown char, then lower the heat to medium and cook for about 5 or 6 minutes.

3. Drain the capers and pat them dry. Add to the pan. Cook for another 5-6 minutes. The brussels should be just tender, and the capers slightly crisp. Add brown butter to the pan. Mix well so that all the brussels are covered in brown butter goodness. If you used unsalted butter, you may need to add a pinch of salt at this point.

Cavolo Nero with Brown Butter and Currants (adapted from Fields of Greens)
Either curly or red Russian kale would also work here, as would swiss chard or spinach. Chard cooks in about half the time and spinach takes mere moments, so adjust cooking time accordingly.

1 bunch of cavalo nero (also called dino or lacinato kale)
½ tablespoon olive oil
1 garlic clove, minced
1 tablespoon dried currants
1 tablespoon brown butter (see instructions above)
Salt and fresh ground pepper

1. Stem the kale, either with your hands or a sharp knife. Discard the stems.

2. Soak the currants in a splash of boiling water. I've also made this dish with chopped dried sour cherries. Dried cranberries would also be tasty, and raisins might even work. Just use whatever you've got on hand.

3. In a large skillet (I use my wok), heat up the oil and add the garlic to the pan, stirring for about 15 seconds. Then add the kale. I usually just cook this in the water left on the kale leaves after washing it, but you can add a splash of water to the pan if necessary.

4. Toss for 4-5 minutes over medium heat, until kale is tender. Then swirl in the brown butter, drain and add the currants, and add a pinch of salt if necessary. Grind some fresh pepper over the top and serve.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Black Beans and Green Rice

I've been putting off writing about these two recipes for a few weeks now. First they got pushed aside for the suicidally spicy salsas that I made for the same meal. And obviously, I couldn't wait a single second to talk about the far flashier fire noodles—my mouth was still tingling with the phenomenal heat from that dish when I sat down and started writing about it. I got so desperate for new material that I tackled the sticky rice that I'd been putting off for four years. Anything to avoid writing about (yawn) beans and rice. So boring. They're the black flats of food.

But that commonplace, everyday practicality is exactly why a great recipe for beans and rice is so valuable. They go with everything. Unlike say, chicken biryani or zhong zi—dishes that only come out once or twice a year—beans and rice show up on my table at least once or twice a month. Their primary purpose is as an accompaniment to tacos and the like. But the leftovers are endlessly flexible: reheated the next morning for huevos rancheros or a breakfast burrito, used as the base for my super spicy chili, piled atop a big stack of nachos with all the fixings, or watered down into a black bean soup and served with wedges of lime. Suddenly those humble sides don't seem so boring anymore.

The common thread in all of the better Latin-American bean recipes I've tried is chipotles in adobo sauce and epazote. Epazote is a Mexican herb, believed to combat some of the (ahem) less attractive side effects of bean consumption. Tasted raw, it has an interesting, slightly astringent property, not unlike shiso or Persian basil. Cooked with beans, it adds a deep, funky note that is difficult to describe but somehow amplifies the flavor and complexity, transforming beans into beans. Imagine that last beans being spoken in a suave voice, not unlike the Old Spice guy's. Using lard as my cooking fat probably didn't hurt things either.

As for the rice, I've long loved Mexican red rice, but my husband, who is an otherwise wonderfully flexible eater, has a distinct dislike of tomatoes in any form. I know. When we were first dating, this led to all kinds of incredulous questions: Not even in salsa? Not even on pizza? Nope. Nope. The one exception, and brace yourself, because this is a weird one, is gazpacho. Don't even get me started. Which is why, even though I personally adored the Spanish rice from Simply Recipes, I kept the search going until I landed on the following arroz verde, with nary a tomato in sight.

Best Black Beans Ever (adapted from The Homesick Texan)
This makes a huge pot of beans, but the leftovers can be used in the many ways described above (or indeed, just reheated the next night for a double dose of deliciousness). Also, if you prefer a vegetarian version of this, simply use olive oil and vegetable broth in place of the lard and chicken broth.

2 cups dried black beans
1 tablespoon of lard (or other cooking fat)
1 onion, diced
4 cloves of garlic, minced
1 can chipotles in adobo, diced
A couple sprigs of fresh epazote, washed
2 teaspoons cumin
1 tablespoon tomato paste
Juice from two limes
4 cups of water
2 cups of chicken or vegetable broth
Salt to taste
Cilantro and queso fresco for serving

1. Pick over the beans for stones and broken pieces, then rinse the beans well, cover with cold water, and soak overnight. If you're making this the same day, which I pretty much always am, just soak the rinsed beans in boiling water for an hour.

2. Drain the beans.

3. In a Dutch oven or large pot, heat up your cooking fat for a minute, then add the diced onions and cook for about ten minutes, over medium heat. Add the garlic and cook for another minute. Add the chipotles and their sauce, the beans, and the epazote.

4. Now add the water and broth, bring to a boil, then turn the heat down and simmer, covered, for about an hour.

5. After an hour, test a bean. It should be nearly cooked. Al dente, if you will. Fish out and discard the epazote. Add the cumin, tomato paste, lime juice, and salt to taste. Then cook for another 20-30 minutes. The first night, I like to serve these whole, with the merest smidgen of their cooking liquid. To change things up, you could blend them with an immersion blender when you reheat the leftovers. Either way, they are excellent topped with a bit of fresh, chopped cilantro and crumbled queso fresco.

Green Poblano Rice (adapted from Rick Bayless)
The first time I made this, I didn't realize that poblanos are labelled pasillas in most California markets, so I substituted several Anaheim peppers, which are also quite tasty. Either way, the basic method makes a really lovely, flavorful rice. Vegetarians can easily substitute vegetable broth for the chicken broth. The original recipe makes a very wet rice, so I reduced the amount of liquid slightly to get my preferred consistency.

1½ cups chicken or vegetable broth
2 poblano chiles (sometimes labelled pasilla) or other green, mild chiles, stems and seeds removed, and roughly chopped
3 serrano chiles, roughly chopped
12 sprigs of cilantro
1 tablespoon of canola or olive oil
1 cup of rice (I used long-grain, but Bayless recommends medium grain)
½ white onion, cut into small dice
5 garlic cloves, minced
Pinch of salt

1. In a medium-sized saucepan, combine the broth and chiles (poblanos and serranos) and bring to a boil. Then lower the heat and simmer gently for about ten minutes, or until chiles are quite soft.

2. Pour this mixture into a food processor or blender, add the cilantro (stems and all) and blend to a smooth puree. You can strain this puree if you like, but I make mine more rustic style (read lazy) and just use it as is. Salt to taste.

3. Wipe the saucepan clean. Heat the oil on medium and add the onions, followed by the rice. Cook these for about five minutes, until the onion has softened and the rice has taken on a chalky appearance. Add the garlic and cook for a minute longer.

4. Add the blended chile liquid to the saucepan, stir together with the rice, then cover and cook over medium-low heat for 15 minutes. Uncover and check your rice. It should be nearly cooked (if not, cover and continue heating for a few more minutes). When rice is just about done, turn off the heat and let it stand, covered, for 5-10 minutes. Fluff with a fork and serve.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Chicken Gyros with Homemade Tzatziki

I'm not saying that I'm the greatest cook ever, but I can certainly claim to be at least 3x better than I was a year ago. The thing I love about cooking is the fact that it's almost immediately rewarding. It's not one of those skills like learning a language or an instrument where it takes months of hard work and practice before you get a payoff. And yet, for something so simple to pick up, cooking offers endless challenges and variety. I can't imagine ever learning everything there is to know about it.

The other day, I got a serious craving for chicken gyros. Just a couple of years ago, I probably would have just looked up a place on Yelp! and jumped in my car. But now that I'm hooked on cooking, it didn't even occur to me to go out. First of all, I desperately wanted to revisit the killer tzatziki from Ina Garten by way of Smitten Kitchen. Second, I'm training myself to like fennel, and I wanted to use some in Nigella's Greek salad. Though not technically a gyro (I'm not really set up for spit roasting in my house), the marinated, pan-grilled chicken was just as juicy and flavorful as the rotisserie version. I knew all the chords I needed to make music. This came together super quickly and was light, summery, and delicious. Exactly what I was craving.

Note: Start this about an hour and a half before you plan on eating. The chicken and red onions need to marinate (and frankly, the tzatziki benefits from a bit of a rest as well). The timing should go: marinate chicken, marinate red onions, take a wine break, make tzatziki, assemble and dress salad, grill chicken and heat pitas. Total hands-on cooking time is about half an hour.

Greekish Grilled Chicken
I am constantly refilling the chicken broth pipeline in my house, so I bought a whole chicken and deboned it, saving the carcass for broth. This could easily be simplified by buying packaged thighs and/or breasts.

4-6 skinless, boneless chicken pieces (legs and/or breasts), cut into chunks about 2 inches across. Make sure none of the pieces is too thick.
Half a red onion (save the other half for the Greek salad)
⅔ of a very juicy Meyer lemon, juice and zest (see the instructions for clarification)
Leaves from 6-8 sprigs of fresh thyme
1½ tablespoons olive oil
Salt and fresh-ground pepper

1. Peel the onion and cut in half lengthwise. Place the flat side on the cutting board and slice into very thin rings, discarding the end pieces. You may want to go ahead and slice the other half for your salad now. 

2. Combine red onion, thyme, olive oil, maybe a teaspoon of salt, and a few grindings of black pepper in a bowl large enough to hold the chicken pieces. Wash and zest the lemon. Then cut the lemon open, but instead of two even halves, go for a ⅓ - ⅔ split. Squeeze the bigger half into the marinade, discarding any seeds. Add in all of the zest. Mix well, then toss the chicken pieces in this marinade and refrigerate, covered, for at least an hour or up to overnight.

3. Heat a heavy-bottomed pan over medium-high heat. Grill the marinated chicken pieces for about 5-6 minutes, turning as necessary. You may need to do this in batches.

Greek Salad (adapted from Forever Summer by Nigella Lawson)
Though Forever Summer is one of Nigella's shortest cookbooks, it's the one I turn to most often. Just about every dish I've made from it is a winner, with results that belie the minimal amount of effort involved, and all the recipes are well within reach of the beginner cook.

½ red onion
½ teaspoon of dried oregano
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
1 tablespoon good quality olive oil
1 bulb of fennel (optional)
1 English cucumber, washed and seeded
2 tomatoes
¼ cup of crumbled feta
¼ cup of pitted kalamata olives
Washed salad greens (I used arugula)
⅓ of a juicy Meyer lemon (the other ⅔ is for your chicken marinade)
Salt and fresh-ground pepper

1. Slice the red onion thinly, if you haven't done so already when making the chicken marinade above. Place in a bowl along with the vinegar, oil, and oregano. Season with a little sea salt and black pepper. Leave this to steep for about two hours (you can get away with one hour).

2. After the onions have been steeping for about an hour (during which time you can make the tzatziki), chop your cucumber into smallish chunks.

3. Slice fennel thinly with a sharp knife or mandoline, discarding stalks and the bottom of the bulb. The trick to liking fennel, I've found, is to buy the smallish bulbs (about the size of a large pear) and slice it very, very thinly. It adds a lovely crunch to your salad, and the anise-y flavor provides an interesting herbal note.

4. Slice the tomatoes into quarters and then quarter each of the quarters, so you get very thin wedges. Spread these out on a plate or chopping board and sprinkle with a pinch of sea salt.

5. In a large bowl, toss salad greens, cucumbers, fennel, tomatoes, and olives. Then add the onions and their marinade and toss thoroughly. Squeeze the smaller half of the lemon over the top and toss again. Finally, scatter the crumbled feta over the top.

Tzatziki (adapted from Smitten Kitchen)
1 English cucumber or 4 Persian cucumbers
14 oz. (just shy of two cups) Greek yogurt
¼ cup sour cream (or creme fraiche, which is what I tend to have in the house)
Juice of 1 lemon
1 tablespoon minced fresh dill (or mint, or both)
1 clove grated garlic
1-2 teaspoons sea salt (to taste)
Fresh ground pepper

1. Seed your cucumber(s), leaving the peel on. I find that a demitasse spoon is the perfect tool for seeding cucumbers. Grate on the large holes of a box grater or use the grating blade on your food processor. Squeeze any excess water out with a paper towel.

2. In a medium-sized mixing bowl, combine yogurt, sour cream, lemon juice, vinegar, cucumber, dill and/or mint, garlic, salt and pepper. Mix well. Let rest for 15 minutes for the flavors to develop.

To Serve:
1. Heat a few pitas in your toaster or oven.
2. Let everyone make their own sandwiches, with chicken, tzatziki, and the dressed veggies from the salad. You can also serve with harissa (either store-bought or homemade) if you want a bit of heat.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Mahogany Fire! Fire! Noodles

I may have mentioned this once or twice, but my husband and I like our food spicy. Knock your socks off, burn the house down, call the fire department, spicy. So when I found a recipe in my favorite Thai cookbook described as "a fire-eater's favorite," I bookmarked it immediately. Then, the other day, when I was checking out the hot pepper situation at New May Wah, I bagged some real beauties: tiny red Thai chili peppers, the plumpest and most promising I've seen in the States. The Thai peppers in many markets look like most of the life has already gone out of them, but these had firm shiny skin, and some were only about as long as my fingernail.
The recipe calls for thirty chilis, and I've long had the habit of doubling or even tripling the spice called for in recipes. Still, one of the two hottest meals I've had before now was Thai food (do you like that foreshadowing?), so I thought I'd play it safe and add only forty chilis. As soon as I opened up the blender of pulverized chilis and garlic, I started coughing uncontrollably. This would freak some people out, but I took it as a very good sign.

In addition to increasing the heat to a death-defying level, I cut some of the sugary elements and added snow pea leaves, which are my current vegetable obsession. Our fridge is constantly packed with food, meaning space is at a premium. Therefore, ingredients that can do double or triple duty get priority. Pea leaves are truly versatile, working equally well in soup noodles and stir fries. They have a pleasing sweetness that shines unadorned, but their overall flavor is neutral enough to play nicely with others.
I'm not going to lie. The resulting dish was fiery hot. The first bite felt completely manageable, but after a full serving of noodles, the heat had built to a nearly unbearable level. Both my husband and I were blowing our noses and wiping the tears from our eyes. It was a wonderful meal.

Mahogany Fire! Fire! Noodles (Adapted from True Thai by Victor Sodsook)
40 small, red Thai chilies (30 if you feel like being a wuss about it)
10 cloves of garlic (this worked out to exactly 1 head of garlic for me)
2 cherry tomatoes (optional)
1 pound fresh rice noodles (sold in Asian markets; I buy them presliced)
1 tablespoon canola oil
6 boneless, skinless chicken thighs, cut into small strips
2 tablespoons fish sauce
1½ tablespoons sweet soy sauce (I used kecap manis, which is the Indonesian version, the Thai version is called see-eu wan)
1 tablespoon oyster sauce
1 can bamboo shoot strips, drained
1 bunch Thai basil, washed and stemmed
4 cups of pea leaves, or other leafy greens, washed and stemmed

1. Wash and stem the chilies. Then place all of them, along with the peeled cloves of garlic into a food processor or blender. Since these ingredients are so dry, I threw in a couple of cherry tomatoes to make blending a little easier. Blend to a smooth paste. Be extremely careful about washing your hands after handling the chilies or chili paste. Here's a photo. Looks spicy, eh?
2. Most of the recipes I've read involving fresh rice noodles call for you to loosen the noodles in a colander with hot water. Whenever I try this method, about half of the noodles stay stuck together (especially if they've been refrigerated). Here's my foolproof method: Put the noodles in a large mixing bowl and fill that with boiling water. Then take a pair of chopsticks and swish the noodles around gently until they completely separate. Try and work somewhat quickly, or the noodles will start to get mushy. Drain the noodles and pat them dry with a paper towel, so they'll form a bit of a char when you stir fry them.

3. Place all of your ingredients within easy reach of your wok. Turn your vent on. You may want to open a window as well.

4. Get the wok piping hot, then add your oil, followed by the scary red chili paste. Stir fry this for about 30 seconds, then add the chicken and toss until it is no longer pink, about 4-5 minutes. Add the fish sauce. Now add the noodles and stir fry for about a minute, making sure the chili sauce is well mixed in. Add the soy sauce, oyster sauce, bamboo shoots, pea leaves, and Thai basil and stir fry for another minute or two until all ingredients are mixed well and the pea leaves and basil have wilted slightly.

5. Serve with a pitcher of ice water or cold beer, and a box of tissues.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Chinese Sticky Rice

A jamillion years ago (that's a real number), on another blog, I made a resolution to complete a few goals before year's end. I called it six in '06. Okay, so it was four years ago. I wanted to go on a girls' trip, take a cooking class, get a short story published (even if it was in some teeny-tiny publication), hire a personal trainer, learn how to make sticky rice, and buy or make some art for my walls. I managed to knock out trainer, art, and cooking class within the allotted time frame. And I've since taken multiple girls' trips, written some stuff I've liked for some pretty big websites, taken pole dancing lessons, volunteered at a farm, brought my Omnivore's 100 score up to 83, lived in another country, met a guy, got married...a lot has happened. But that darn sticky rice has been hanging over my head this entire time.

I had latched onto the idea that sticky rice was really hard to make. In our family, we only have it twice a year—at Thanksgiving and Christmas—so it's a dish I associate with spending all day in the kitchen. Add to that the fact that in '06, my cooking repertoire was pretty much limited to pasta salads, simple soups or stews, and the occasional roast chicken, and sticky rice was starting to seem like the impossible dream. Fast forward to 2010. Now that I've made my own noodles, chicken biryani, and a full-on cassoulet, I figured sticky rice should be a snap. And guess what? It really is. Just think of it as a giant chopped salad that you throw into your rice cooker.

You need to soak your sticky rice (often sold in packages labeled sweet or glutinous rice) for a few hours before starting. Then collect all the items you want to include. I used a fairly traditional mix of shiitakes, chinese sausage (lap cheong), pork sausage, water chestnuts (for crunch), and garlic, shallots, and green onions. I also threw in the Untamed Feast wild mushrooms that I won in February's Beet and Squash You competition, just to keep things interesting. Other popular add-ins are dried shrimp and sliced pork butt. Of all of these, the only thing that was somewhat labor-intensive was peeling and chopping the fresh water chestnuts, so if you're feeling lazy, just skip that ingredient. I think the extra ten minutes is worth it, because I like the fresh crunch it adds to the otherwise soft and sticky ingredients.

Should I start a ten in 2010 list? It would pretty much look like this: remodel the first floor of our house, followed by nine recipes for noodles.

Chinese Sticky Rice (Nor Mai Fan) 
2 cups of sweet rice, soaked for 2-3 hours
1 tablespoon canola oil
2 cloves of garlic
3 shallots
2 stalks of green onion
3 links of lap cheong (or two, if you're not married to a meat fiend)
2 links of pork sausage (I used bratwurst from Trader Joes)
1½ cups mixed mushrooms
10-12 fresh water chestnuts, peeled and diced
1¾ cups water and/or mushroom soaking liquid
1½ tablespoons low-sodium soy sauce
Chopped green onions and cilantro to garnish

1. Before you do anything, make sure you start soaking your rice. This will take 2-3 hours.

2. Mince garlic, dice shallots, slice green onions. Chop up your lap cheong into small dice.

3. The wild mushrooms kind of got lost in the dish, so I'll probably skip them next time, and just use shiitakes. If you're soaking dried mushrooms, submerge them in just enough hot water to cover, let them sit for half an hour, and save the liquid to add to the rice. Dice mushrooms.

4. If you're using water chestnuts, peel off their tough brown skin, along with any mushy or rotten bits with a sharp knife, then dice. Don't make these too tiny, or they won't retain their crunch. Definitely do not substitute canned water chestnuts. These are watery and soft and will ruin rather than improve the texture of the final dish. A few stalks of diced celery would make a reasonable substitute.
5. Heat oil in a large wok, then add the shallots. Let them get slightly brown, which should take about four or five minutes. Toss in the garlic, and then start squeezing in your pork sausage, throwing the casing away. Break the sausage up into small pieces (I like to use two wooden spatulas for this step) and cook until browned on all sides. Toss in the rest of your chopped ingredients: mushrooms, green onions, water chestnuts, lap cheong, and give them a quick stir.

6. Drain your rice. Dump this into the pan and mix well with the other ingredients. Then turn off the heat and transfer the whole mixture to your rice cooker. If you soaked mushrooms, pour the reserved soaking liquid into a measuring cup. As you pour (slowly), check if there's any grit from the mushrooms in the soaking liquid. Stop pouring before the grit makes it into the measuring cup. Add enough water to make 1¾ cups total. Add this to the rice cooker. You can also just use water for this step.

7. Add soy sauce. Hit cook. This took half an hour in my rice cooker.
8. Serve into individual bowls and scatter chopped green onions and cilantro over the top.

Stay tuned! At some point, I plan to tackle the much more complicated zhong zi.