Monday, March 31, 2008

What I'm Making for Dinner - 3.31.08

More Asian Food!
Beef and Broccoli with Soba Noodles, Shrimp Egg-drop Soup

"Chinese again? Who eats Chinese food three nights in a row?"
"Um, how about one billion Chinese people?"
-Some old sitcom. The quote was better than the show.

As you might have guessed, I like Asian food. A lot. There are many ways to make Asian food quick, healthy and delicious, so it ends up on my table a few nights a week. This beef and broccoli isn't fried and bathed in sauce like the variety you get in restaurants, but eliminating the frying and the sticky sauce saves a lot of time and effort. The result is (I imagine) healthier and (in my opinion) no less delicious. I'm serving it with soba noodles, which are quicker and more interesting than rice, and an easy and flavorful soup.

Ingredient of the Day: Kecap Manis

I was in an Asian market once and overheard a woman confusedly asking the girl at the counter if she knew where to find "ketchup mayonaise". A Filipino friend had said it was the secret ingredient in her barbecue sauce, but this wasn't helpful with the cashier's limited English. I directed the woman to a tall bottle of thick, dark sauce. Kecap manis is a sweet, heavy soy sauce, about the consistency of molasses, with a slight toasty flavor. It is indeed very good in barbecue sauce, as well as in stir-fry, soups and sauces. Just a drizzle packs a lot of flavor.

Beef and Broccoli

2 tbsp. oil
2 tsp. garlic, chopped
2 tsp. ginger, chopped
1 lb. beef, cut in 2" strips
1 red bell pepper, in strips
1 head of broccoli, in small pieces
Rice wine
Soy sauce
Rice vinegar
1 tbsp. Kecap manis
Dash Chinese 5-spice powder
Salt and pepper to taste

Sautee garlic until golden and add ginger. Add beef and brown slightly, then add vegetables and cook for one minute. Add wine, soy sauce, vinegar, kecap manis and spices. Cook until veggies are tender. Adjust seasonings to taste. Serve with buckwheat soba noodles.

Shrimp and Egg-drop Soup

1 tbsp oil
1 tsp ginger, chopped
5 cups chicken stock
1 can baby corn, drained and chopped
1 cup of shrimp
1 egg
2 tbsp. Rice vinegar
Splash of lime juice
2 tsp. brown sugar
Dash of powdered lemon grass (can be found at Asian market)
Sprinkle of fresh cilantro

Sautee ginger in oil briefly, then add baby corn and stock. Bring to a boil, then add seasonings and shrimp. As shrimp are cooking, crack the egg into the soup and swirl it around as it cooks- this will create those thin 'ribbons' of egg. Bring to a boil and adjust your seasonings as desired. I like a more sour soup. If you prefer it sweet, add more sugar and ease up on the vinegar. Sprinkle with cilantro before serving.

Friday, March 28, 2008

What I'm Making for Dinner - 3.28.08

Fast Chinese

I have some leftover ground pork from last week's Ma Po Tofu that I froze. Sometimes when I have little bits of filling or ingredients, I pack and freeze them. So long as you use them within a few weeks, they're still fine. There's also some chopped turkey, cubed ham and a roasted beet in my 'ingredients' area of the freezer, awaiting next week's transformation into turkey croquettes, ham hash and borscht. Mmm...borscht...

For tonight, though, I'm making something fast and simple to tide us over until we get to a party later in the evening. Lots of greens and tofu will help us make sure we get our daily allowances of, uh, healthy things. And absorb all the vino we'll be drinking.

*Cook's hint: rinse Chinese vegetables and douse with rice wine to get rid of that "canned" taste.

Tofu and Asparagus Stir-Fry

2 tbsp. oil
2 tsp. garlic
1 block firm tofu, cubed
(I'm adding my ground pork here, but it's not required)
1 bunch of asparagus, cut in 2-inch pieces
1 can of bamboo shoots, drained
2 tablespoons Chinese spicy bean paste
Splash Chinese rice wine
Splash Soy sauce
Splash Rice vinegar

Sautee garlic in oil until golden brown. (Add ground pork here- cook until browned.) Add the tofu and stir, then add the asparagus. Add bamboo shoots, rice wine, soy sauce, rice vinegar and spicy bean paste. Stir all ingredients together until flavors are incorporated and vegetables are cooked, maybe 10 minutes. Serve with rice, if you like. I know I do.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

What I'm Making for Dinner - 3.26.08

Fake Paella

Ok, I'll admit it: I totally made up this dish based on what's in my fridge. Yes, I know it's not real paella- but that's what it resembles most. I could have called it Ad Hoc Arroz Con Pollo, but I didn't feel like it. I imagine many of you invent things to use up the stuff in your fridge. The ingredients that gave birth to this one were leeks, shrimp and chicken thighs.

Leeks are a relatively new discovery for me. They have a mild oniony
flavor and a very nice sweetness. Leeks also make good friends.

Ad Hoc Paella with Leeks

2 cups rice, cooked in broth
1/4 cup oil
2 tsp garlic
2 leeks, cleaned and sliced into thin rings
2-3 chicken thighs, cubed
10-15 shrimp, cleaned
1/2 cup white wine
1/2 cup fish bouillon
1 can diced tomatoes, drained
Splash of lemon juice
Dash of cayenne pepper (if desired)
Salt and pepper to taste

Set the rice cooking and chop up your meats and veggies. In a large skillet, sautee the garlic until browned, then add the leeks and cook until soft and beginning to brown. Add the chicken, wine and bouillon and stir until chicken it begins to turn white. Then add your shrimp and the fish stock. Just before the shrimp and chicken are done, add the rice and stir together until all flavors are incorporated. Season to taste with lemon juice, salt and pepper, and any other seasonings you prefer.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Mmm, Nutraloaf!

Just Like Grandma Used to Jail.

I was just reading this article about a food product prisons have been using to discipline inmates who commit food-related infractions. You've got to give the prison system points for coming up with its name: Nutraloaf. I love it. Why didn't Pepperidge Farm think of that?

I have to admit, while it looks sufficiently nasty, in all honesty Nutraloaf doesn't sound unreasonably disgusting. According to the article, the ingredients are "a mixture of cubed whole wheat bread, nondairy cheese, raw carrots, spinach, seedless raisins, beans, vegetable oil, tomato paste, powdered milk and dehydrated potato flakes." Well, shoot, that describes most of what I eat on a given day. Some vegetarian restaurant in L.A. is probably charging $16 a plate for it. And this is what they feed people who fling poo in jail. It's interesting to note that in the attached poll asking whether or not readers thought this was cruel, 100% of those polled said no. Heck, I think those sentenced to Nutraloaf are getting off easy. If I were the warden, there would definitely be some anchovies, head cheese and Oreo cookie filling in there. Take that, criminals- I am the law!

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Summer Rollin'

Vietnamese Summer Rolls

Happy first day of spring!

In keeping with the vernal greening of the land (and after last night's spicy, saucy dinner) I could go for something fresh and cool. Vietnamese summer rolls are one of my favorite things to make; they look a lot fancier than they are, and they're so light and healthy-tasting I could totally pig out on them and still keep my dignity.

The skins can be found at most Asian markets and some fancy grocery stores. They're very easy to use- just fill a wide, shallow pan with warm water, and soak each skin until it's soft and flexible. Lay it flat, place a scoop of your ingredients a little off-center, and roll it up like a burrito.

I serve these with a simple sauce of chili paste and rice vinegar with a little sugar. Like, literally- just mix those three things.

Vietnamese Summer Rolls

2 cups cooked bean thread noodles, cooled
2 tsp sesame oil
1 cup shredded carrots
2 tbs rice vinegar
2 cups spinach
1-2 shrimp for each roll, sliced in half
1-2 sprigs of cilantro for each roll

Cook noodles and run under cold water till cooled. Work through a little sesame oil to keep them from sticking. Marinate shredded carrots briefly in rice vinegar. Soften summer roll skin in warm water, remove and lay flat on a damp cutting board. Arrange the ingredients in the following order: cilantro, shrimp, carrot, spinach, noodles- try not to overstuff. Fold up the short ends first, then roll the rest of the way so that you have a tight, neat little bundle. Try not to eat it before it gets to the plate.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

What I'm Making for Dinner - 3.19.08

Ma Po Tofu, Sesame Noodles, Veggie Stir-Fry

All the Chinese restaurants in my neighborhood are horribly American. One even has a neon sign reading "Chinese-American Food" in the window. If you're in the mood for some General Tso's, this isn't necessarily bad. However, I am lusting after lighter and spicier fare just now, and one of my favorite dishes is Ma Po Tofu. I'd ordered the sesame noodles in town before, and was seriously disappointed. Both of these dishes are easy enough to make, especially if you take the cheapskate way out and use a boxed sauce mix. It also pays to get acquainted with your Chinese market...

Do yourself a favor and try to buy Asian stuff at an Asian store. Not only is it more likely to be the real thing, but your supermarket probably charges double and triple for the basics. Mine sells a can of bamboo shoots for $3.99 that goes for $0.69 at the Chinese place next door.

Another case in point: Szechuan peppercorns. Tough to find. Available at Williams-Sonoma for $10.99 a jar. Available at your oriental market for $1.39.

Now, going into an Asian grocery store can be a daunting experience for the uninitiated. Here, with pictures, are what I consider the most essential Asian ingredients:

Soy Sauce

This is Kimlan Dark soy sauce. Try it and you'll find it has a ton more flavor than whatever you usually get, along with less salt.

Chinese Cooking Wine

Usually made from rice, this wine lends a distinctly Chinese flavor. If you try to make Asian food with Pinot Grigio, you may get weird results.

Rice Vinegar

Depending on the brand, rice vinegar may have more or less kick. I like the brand pictured- the popular Maruchan brand is milder, but also good.

Sesame Oil

Use this as a flavoring- it has a wonderful aroma. But don't try to fry things in it! Sesame oil burns easily and is best added last.

And now without further ado...

Ma Po Tofu
1 tbsp oil
2 tsp garlic
2 tsp fresh ginger, chopped
1/2 lbs ground pork or beef
Splash of Chinese cooking wine
1 box firm tofu
1 packet of Ma Po Tofu mix (Lee Kum Kee brand is great)
1/2 tsp Szechuan peppercorns (if you want extra spice)
1 tbsp scallions, chopped

Sautee garlic and ginger in oil, then add ground meat and cook until brown. Add a splash of wine, the tofu, sauce and seasonings. I usually tinker with the flavoring, adding soy sauce, rice vinegar and sesame oil as needed. You can also add peas to this dish for a touch of green. Cook everything together on low heat until the tofu has absorbed some of the flavors. Garnish with scallions.

Sesame Noodles - can be served hot or cold

1/2 lb cooked Chinese wheat noodles
1 tbsp oil
1 tsp garlic
1/4 cup soy sauce
1/4 cup rice vinegar
Splash of Chinese Cooking Wine
2 tbsp sesame paste (available at Chinese markets)
2 tbsp peanut butter
1/2 cup water
1 shredded carrot
1 cucumber, thinly sliced
2 tsp sesame oil
sesame seeds and/or toasted peanuts

Sautee garlic in oil and add sesame paste and peanut butter, wine, soy sauce and vinegar. Sesame paste may thicken, so add water as needed to keep a smooth, saucy consistency. Once the sauce is smooth and the wine has cooked off, add freshly boiled noodles, carrot and cucumber. Toss together and garnish with sesame seeds or peanuts. Add chopped scallions if you like.

California Cooking

And now for something completely different...

I just came back from a lovely weekend in California. Having grown up in New York, there is definitely something different about the West Coast, and among the best things to recommend it is the food. California takes a different approach to cooking, and I wish I had been in a situation to experiment. Things that make the Golden State a taste sensation:

  • Fresh (and local!) produce rules the day.

  • A cleaner environment makes for yummier food.

  • More daring use of delicious nuts.

  • Wine and wine tasting in scenic vinyards.

  • In-And-Out Burger. I love it.

I hope to return to Cali one day, but with a skillet in tow.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

What I'm Making for Dinner - 3.12.08

Curry Trifecta

I was going to make a lasagna, but need to stay late at work. So instead I'm making a trio of quick and easy Indian curries. Now, I don't make any claims as to the authenticity of these dishes, as they are wholly invented. But they are made with ingredients purchased at an Indian grocer, so it is plausible that people of South Asian descent are, in fact, eating them right now.

Before we start, I should mention some of these ingredients. They include pre-packaged curry mixes. These are commonly used in India and require none of the effort of buying, crushing and mixing individual spices. You can find them at any Indian store. Amchur powder is made from unripe mangoes, and adds a nice tang without the acidic qualities of lemon juice or vinegar. If you can't find it, lemon juice is fine. The ginger referred to here comes crushed in a jar and has a distinctly Indian flavor. The red lentils are small and orange when raw- they turn yellow as they absorb liquid and basically become a paste, making for a thick, satisfying soup. I like to garnish my Indian food with chutneys, including coriander, coconut and mango chutney, available at Indian supermarkets or large grocery stores. I'm also fond of achar (mango pickle) and lemon pickle, both very strong condiments, and delicious if you can handle the kick.
You can add coconut milk or plain yogurt to any of these recipes for a creamier variation.

Channa Masala- basically translates as "chick peas in spices".
2 tbsp. oil
1/2 onion, chopped
1 tsp. crushed ginger
1 can of chick peas, drained
1 tbsp. Channa curry powder
1 tsp. amchur powder
1 cup chicken stock

Sautee the onion in oil until golden brown, then add ginger.
Add chick peas, sprinkle with curry powder and add in
the stock. Season with amchur powder to taste. Cook on
low heat until all ingredients are incorporated.

Eggplant Curry -'Jalafrezi' and 'Garam Masala' curry
powders and pastes work well here. Always feel free to
add more if you want a stronger flavor.
2 tbsp. oil
1 tsp. garlic
1 eggplant, diced
1/2 onion, chopped
1 med. can diced tomatoes
1 small can tomato sauce
1-2 tbsp. curry powder/paste
salt & pepper
lemon juice
fresh cilantro

Sautee the garlic in oil and add in the onion, cooking until
golden brown. Add in the eggplant and sautee until browned.
Add in tomatoes, tomato sauce and curry mix. Stir, turn heat
to low, and cover. Simmer, stirring occasionally, for 20-30
minutes. Season with salt, pepper, lemon juice and sugar to
taste. Toss in fresh cilantro before serving.

Traffic Light Lentil Soup - I totally invented this, but I like it.
And it's red, green and yellow, like a traffic light! See? Ha ha? Ok,
fine, I'm corny...
1 tbsp. oil
1 tsp. garlic
1 tsp. ginger
1 red pepper, diced
1/2 cup frozen green peas
1 cup red lentils
curry powder- your choice
5 cups chicken stock
amchur powder
salt & pepper

Sautee garlic in oil until lightly browned. Add in ginger
and red pepper and sautee for 2 minutes on medium
heat. Add in lentils, curry powder, and chicken stock.
Bring to a boil, then turn down heat and simmer, stirring
occasionally, until lentils are cooked- odds are they will
mostly dissolve as they cook. Add in green peas and
cook just until done- stop before they begin to lose their
color. Season to taste with salt, pepper and amchur
powder or lemon juice.

Monday, March 10, 2008

What I'm Making for Dinner- 3.10.08

Stuffed Portobella Mushrooms, Hearty Vegetable Barley Soup, Spinach Salad

Since I only have two portobella caps, the remainders of
these vegetables will go into the soup and the salad. The
recipes for the mushrooms and soup are below. As for
the salad, hey, it's a salad- throw some dressing on it.

Sausage-Stuffed Portobella Mushrooms
2 portobella mushrooms
1 tbsp olive oil
1 tsp garlic
1/4 onion, chopped
1/4 red pepper, chopped
1/4 zucchini, chopped
1/4 cup shredded carrots
1/4 cup frozen peas
1/4 cup dry sausage, chopped
1/2 can tomato paste
1 egg
1 tbsp balsamic vinegar
Salt, pepper, Italian seasoning (if desired)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Chop up all vegetables. Whirl sausage in a food
processor if possible, or chop very fine. Mix
everything together in a bowl. Rub some oil on
the portobella mushroom caps and stuff them
with the mixture. Bake for 20 minutes. Eat.

Hearty Vegetable Barley Soup
1 tbsp oil
1 tsp garlic
the rest of the onion, pepper, zucchini and carrot
1/4 cup hulled barley
6 cups chicken stock
Seasoning to taste

Heat oil and sautee garlic over medium heat until
lightly browned. Sautee onion until brown, then
add other vegetables and cook for 2 minutes. Add
barley and mix in, then add chicken stock. Bring
to a boil, then simmer for 30 minutes, or until the
barley is fully cooked. Season with salt, pepper,
lemon juice or whatever herbs you prefer.