Lettuce Wraps with Amazing Sauce

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Lately I've been making an effort to eat more at home, which has been a challenge. It's tough for home cooking to compete with the cheap and delicious food that can be picked up and eaten anywhere without messing up the kitchen. Having the fixings for these lettuce wraps in the fridge makes me look forward to coming home for lunch. They also pack nicely, if you have a fridge at work. Poach half a chicken breast in water or chicken stock, simmering for about 20 minutes, until just done. Shred chicken with a fork, salt, and moisten with a little cooking water. Chop a teaspoon of chili, and mix in for flavour if desired. The chicken keeps for a few days, well packed and wrapped in the fridge. Wash one medium or two small heads of leaf lettuce and pack leaves in a covered container in the fridge. They should stay crisp for a couple of days.

The 'amazing sauce' of the title is one of the coolest accidents lately in my kitchen. It's inspired by the sauce Koreans use on lettuce wraps, but I didn't have den jang (Korean fermented soybean paste) and didn't want its overwhelming funkiness for this anyway. So I ended up mixing equal parts tahini, Korean hot pepper paste, and rice vinegar. The sauce has heat and sharpness but the tahini keeps it in balance. I tried spreading this sauce on tofu before baking, and it was great. I would eat fries dipped in this, or a hard boiled egg. The sauce keeps well covered in the fridge; just mix in extra vinegar if it is too thick.

This amount of chicken and lettuce is good for 2-3 lunches, with a side of rice.

Never Throw Out Chicken Fat

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

After making a batch of chicken stock from a whole bird I skimmed nearly a cup of fat from the top, planning to save it and try to find a way to sub it for expensive butter. A few days later at the market I picked up a pound of shredded potatoes. At home, I melted a tablespoon of chicken fat into the potatoes with half a teaspoon of salt, until I could toss everything together. I spread the potatoes in a pan and roasted them uncovered for twenty minutes at 200 C (about 400 F) . They came out of the oven browned in a pattern that showed my oven's hot spots in scientific detail. No matter, I mixed them up with tongs and the contrast between the soft and crispy ones was a big part of the appeal.

If you are shredding your own potatoes, a benriner is best for getting the long, square shreds. The potatoes brown easily so should be watched during the last few minutes of cooking. This is a side dish for two, or a snack. Excellent sprinkled with vinegar.

White Fungus Soup

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Many servers at local restaurants these days recommend their white fungus soup (银耳汤), which I never had the habit of eating before coming to China. It has a cooling effect on the body which makes it perfect for summer, and many other health benefits. I started ordering it a lot because I found it delicious. The fungus itself has an extremely mild flavour, but the texture is quite interesting and it turns the soup gelatinous. It is served sweet and cold and often is mixed with fruit. I added goji berries to this bowl, but my favourite addition these days is chunks of fresh watermelon. Anyway, if white fungus is new to you, give it a try - it is inexpensive, beautiful, good for you, and has all kinds of mouth interest going on.

Soak a fist sized lump of white fungus in water to cover for a few minutes; drain and rinse. Boil in another three cups of water with 1 tbs rock sugar, then simmer for ten minutes or so until soft. (Can add goji berries or other dried fruit during simmering.) Chill and eat cold. Keeps for a couple of days in the fridge.

Grape Crisp

Thursday, July 23, 2009

One of the easiest and best tasting ways of enjoying fruit in the summer is to make a crisp. They are also good for using up less than perfect fruit. I've been making at least one crisp a week this summer, starting with apricots, then sunset coloured mixes of apricots and plums, then peaches. The latest amazing local fruit to turn up at the markets has been bunches of very round and purple seedless grapes. They are eaten by squeezing them out of their sour skins and have a deep grape flavour. I've never made anything with cooked grapes before but wanted to try them in a crisp.

Making a crisp is more of a technique than a recipe: peel and chop fruit into the pan; add a little sweetener; add minute tapioca to thicken; make and sprinkle the topping; bake. I don't use a lot of sugar for either the filling or the topping; it is meant to be a breakfast or snack, not dessert. I peeled a large bunch of grapes into a glass pan (8X8 pan would work) and drizzled them with 2 tbs honey. I figured I had about three and a half cups of filling plus juice, so stirred in two heaping tablespoons of minute tapioca. The grapes were really juicy so I put them in the oven to bake for ten minutes at 350 degrees, covered with foil. (If your filling is too juicy when you put on the topping, the topping will sink into it.) Meanwhile I rubbed together the crisp topping. An estimate of the ingredients: 1 cup flour, 1/2 cup large flake oatmeal, 2 tbs icing sugar, 2 tbs butter, 1/2 tsp salt. I took the crisp, which was starting to thicken, out of the oven, sprinkled the topping over the surface and returned the pan to the oven to bubble away for another ten minutes.

A perfect-consistency crisp is when the filling just starts to bubble over the sides, like so. Serves 4.

White Beans and Tomatoes

Thursday, June 25, 2009

One of the great things about Italian cooking is there are so many simple methods and combinations that result in something amazing. I made these beans twice in a week, once for company with the stuffed peppers. I didn't have any sage, which is traditional, so I used oregano.

Warm two to four cloves of crushed garlic in three tablespoons of olive oil (can use less if you want) until garlic is browned. Discard garlic and add two cups of cooked white beans, tossing until beans are warmed and coated in oil. Add four to five large tomatoes, diced, to the pot with 1 1/2 teaspoons of salt and one tablespoon of dried oregano. Bring everything to a boil, then simmer for about twenty minutes. Taste for salt again, and if you prefer to use fresh herbs add them now. Serves 4. Pictured with biscuits made from a whole grain version of biscuit mix.

Stuffed Peppers

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

This recipe eliminates everything I disliked about stuffed peppers as a kid. Instead of large, bland bell peppers the smaller, spicy green chilies (like a hatch chili) are used, which have a chance to soften and char in the oven. Milk soaked bread crumbs instead of rice round out the filling. Ground pork is used instead of ground beef, which is cheaper where I am. These peppers are are a great make-ahead and can be picked up and eaten out of hand at room temperature.

Wash and half five green hatch chilies, cutting out the stems and seeds. Mix half a pound of ground pork (not too lean) with half as much milk soaked bread crumbs. Add one teaspoon of salt, half a teaspoon of pepper, and one tablespoon grated Italian white cheese (Parmesan, Asiago, whatever you have in the fridge). Mix well and press a layer of meat mixture into peppers. Oil a baking pan and arrange peppers in one layer. Cover peppers loosely and bake for ten minutes at 350 degrees; remove cover and turn oven up to 400 degrees. Bake for another ten minutes. Serves 3.

Chunky Apricot Sauce

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

A few apricots on my counter were getting soft - I'd bought them dead ripe - so I made them into a sauce to eat with my morning oatmeal. The flavour of apricots is very distinct, but they pick up other seasonings well. A couple of slices of fresh ginger would work really well in this sauce. The flavour of cinnamon would have been great, but I only had powdered and wanted a seasoning that would not dull the gorgeous orange colour. In the end, I just used a little vanilla.

To make it, drop five or six medium apricots in boiling water for a few seconds, then put into cold water to loosen the skins. Take skins off fruit and chop roughly. Put apricot pieces in a saucepan with 1 tablespoon of honey and simmer just until softened. You may need to add water if you are using less ripe fruit. Remove from heat, stir in 1/2 tsp of vanilla extract, and cool. Store in fridge for up to 4 days. Stir into your yogurt or oatmeal in the morning.

Many will prefer a much sweeter sauce; you can add more honey or sugar if desired. I topped the fruit with a drizzle of sweetened condensed milk.

Mini Brownies

Thursday, May 14, 2009

I recently taught a Chinese friend to make these brownies. She was very excited to watch them bake through the door of my little toaster oven. "They're expanding, and giving off the most amazing smell! So wondrous!" I asked her why Chinese people don't often eat sweet things. She told me that people are concerned about weight problems, but added sweet things make people feel happy. It's true.

Recently I've been making mini versions of most sweet and dessert recipes; it is a great way to stretch a recipe. Small portions are stingy, but mini are cute and just what you want of something rich and sweet. For these brownies, you melt half a cup of butter, and stir in 3/4 cup of sugar, 1/4 cup cocoa, and two eggs mixed with 1 tsp of vanilla. Then stir in 3/4 cup of flour mixed with one teaspoon of baking powder , 1/2 teaspoon of salt, and half a cup of toasted walnuts (optional). Spoon into two dozen mini muffin pans and bake at 180 deg C for twelve minutes, or until just a little soft in the middle. The recipe is enough for an 8*8 pan, if you don't have mini muffin tins. You will have to cook them a few minutes more.

If you want icing, melt 100g good chocolate and stir in icing sugar, starting with 1/2 cup and adding tablespoons, until spreadable. (I didn't measure the sugar). Can top with leftover toasted walnuts, shown, or coconut if desired.

Fresh Soybean Dip

Sunday, April 26, 2009

This is a thick, spreadable dip with a great mild colour and flavour. It is very good with chips, bread, vegetables, and crackers. I used to make a version with feta, but feta is really expensive here and I thought I would try a similar recipe using cream cheese.

Bring 1 1/2 cups fresh shelled soybeans to a boil with 3 cloves garlic. Boil together til mostly tender and pour drained soybeans and garlic into a blender with 1/2 cup cream cheese, 2 tsp salt, and the juice of one lemon. Blend very smooth; you might want to add some bean cooking water to thin it out. Taste and add more salt if necessary.

Spring VI: Watercress Sandwiches

Sunday, March 15, 2009

In the E.B. White novel Trumpet of the Swan, a swan named Louis stays at the Ritz hotel and orders watercress sandwiches. He eats them without the bread, but since reading that book I've always associated watercress sandwiches with luxury even though it is as affordable as any other green this time of year. Somehow I got talked into buying an enormous bunch of watercress today at the market, and the first thing I made was watercress sandwiches. It might be hard to tell from the picture, but the bread is from a mini loaf (labeled 'Children's Bread'); this sandwich is a bit smaller than palm size.

Spread one slice of fluffy white bread with mayonnaise and another with butter. You can use either, but I like the combination of both. Pile very fresh, crisp, dry watercress leaves between the slices and enjoy.

Spring V: Tatsoi Salad with Ketchup and Mustard Dressing

Saturday, March 07, 2009

Tatsoi is a fantastic vegetable to eat raw. It has a strong flavour without being bitter, tough, stringy, or tooth-coating like spinach. Mixing up a salad dressing from whatever is in the cupboard is a great way to enjoy spring greens, and I wanted something a spicy and a little sweet - something that could stand up to the tatsoi.

I tried using Chinese tahini in the dressing, but it seized up every time I added another ingredient. I later learned this is completely normal, I had just never run into it before because every time I've used tahini it was in a blender recipe. Cooking 'unplugged' definitely helps you develop a deeper feel for ingredients.

A creamy dressing of mayonnaise mixed with ginger juice and a little sugar tasted fine, but too much dressing clung to the leaves and made the salad soggy. (Everyone has food quirks - I happen to hate leafy salads that are too wet. The greens have to be bone dry before I will dress them. I even use a hair dryer.) This vinaigrette worked much better - 1/2 tbs olive oil, 1/2 tsp prepared mustard, 1 tsp ketchup, 1/2 tbs white wine vinegar, and a pinch of sugar, just enough for one bowlful of leaves.

Spring IV: Ginger, Carrot and Fava Bean Salad

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

While walking by a table of preserved food at the market, I saw a cold dish that combined carrots and fava beans in a spicy, sour dressing. It was simple but very bright and appealing, and I decided to try carrots and favas in a salad together. My market sells the fava beans already shelled and peeled, but you can leave the peel on if desired (the cold dish in the market had whole beans).

Grate enough fresh ginger to produce 1 tbs ginger juice. Mix ginger juice with 2 tbs white wine vinegar, 1 tsp white sugar, 2 tbs olive oil, and 1/2 tsp salt. Cube half a pound of carrots and boil for a couple of minutes, then add 1/2 lb shelled fava beans and boil til together until beans are just tender. You want the carrots and beans to finish cooking at the same time and still be a little crisp.

When vegetables are finished cooking, drain well and toss immediately with dressing. Let the dressing soak in as the salad cools. Can be eaten at room temperature or cold; serves 4.

Spring III: Mixed Noodles and Mushrooms

Had a very frustrating morning trying to make a dressing for tatsoi salad. Got a surprise carrot and bean salad out of the experience, which will be appearing soon, and then made myself this for lunch - oven roasted mushrooms on top of fresh noodles mixed with herbs and seasoning. The sauces are black Chinese vinegar and tian mian jiang (sweet wheat paste, or sweet Beijing sauce), and sesame oil. All should be easy to find if you have a Chinese market near you, and should be inexpensive.

For each person: Start by chopping 1/4 lb of mushrooms and sprinkle olive oil and salt on them, then pop in the oven for 15 min. on an uncovered pan. When they are nearly done put 1 tsp tian mian jiang, 1 tbs black vinegar, and 1 tsp toasted sesame oil in the bottom of your serving bowl. Chop up one handful fresh herbs. (I used Thai basil and the last of my teeth. Can use something milder like watercress too.) I would normally mince half a clove fresh garlic to add, but my garlic was very seedy looking so I added 4 cloves sliced garlic, with the bitter core of each clove discarded, to the pasta water. Garlic is totally optional here. Cook 100g fresh noodles in the boiling salted water til tender, then drain, then toss into bowl with seasonings and stir up til noodles are coated. Top with mushrooms and dig in.

Spring II: Teeth

Monday, March 02, 2009

The market project is proving a little more challenging than I thought. I figured I could pick something out, ask the vendor what it is and how to prepare it, then go home and try to find the characters and a simple recipe. However, in order to find out what things are I have to translate the vendors' Sichuanese into standard Chinese (change F to H, L to N, fourth tone to second tone, and sometimes that doesn't even work....) and vegetables are named very differently in different areas of China.

These little red bundles of sprouts were too beautiful to resist, though at Y5 for a tiny bundle they were pretty expensive. The vendor called them chun ya, or 'spring teeth' (Web searches revealed that 'tooth' is often mixed up with the word for any small, fresh shoot or baby leaf that emerges in spring) and told me to mix them with fried eggs. Then my North Chinese friend came over, gave me a completely different name, and said to chop them very fine and mix with cooked noodles. (Update: Correction - Chinese name is 椿芽, and never rely on market vendors to tell you accurate characters. Pronunciation is the same.)

Anyway, I sauteed them in a little butter and used them to make Eggs in the Middle: lentils on the bottom, then scrambled eggs, then the sprouts on top. They were good this way but also mild enough to eat raw, so I will probably use them uncooked next time.

Spring I: Fresh Noodles and Pea Shoots with Butter

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Spring farmer's markets are full of young new vegetables and greens that are only available for a few weeks. FC is pleased to present a series of spring market recipes that will appear from now til the end of March.

This mix of fresh noodles, pea shoots,and butter is very quick and easy to eat. My market has these green tinged 'vegetable' wheat noodles that are supposed to be extra healthy, but any fresh wheat or egg noodles will work.

For one person: Bring a saucepan of salted water to a boil. Meanwhile, chop a big handful of pea shoots into 1 inch pieces and melt 1 tbs butter in a serving bowl. You can use less butter if you want, but if you end up using olive oil for this recipe I don't want to hear about it. Add 100g fresh noodles, and wait until water comes back to a boil. Add the pea shoots to the water, and wait just until water starts boiling again. Drain well, shaking off the water, and pour into the bowl with melted butter. Stir up to coat noodles and pea shoots with butter. Serve with a squeeze of lemon.

Roasted Winter Tomatoes with Penne and Feta

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Winter tomatoes don't really satisfy in salads and sandwiches but cooking them brings out their best. Tomatoes are very handy for quick meals like the always great Fried Eggs and Tomatoes (the pre-China version on my blog looks hilarious to me now, but the recipe still works.) Another way to get flavour out of stiff winter tomatoes is to roast them.

Cut two tomatoes into wedges and place on baking sheet or foil. Drizzle with 1 tbs olive oil. Bake in medium (350F) oven, uncovered, for 15-20 minutes until softened and starting to blacken.

Boil 3/4 cup dry penne in a lot of salted water until tender, then toss with tomatoes, 1 tbs feta (dice if using very solid cheese), and 1 tbs bacon bits if desired. (I am using leftover ma la bacon; spicy works really well with these tomatoes!) Serves one.

Ma La Bacon and Apple Compote

Bacon is one of the easiest things to make and eat in the morning, especially if you cook it in the oven in two stages - par cooked in advance and then finished off crispy the next day. I've been experimenting a lot with ma la seasoned bacon lately. Ma la (麻辣) is a characteristic flavour of Sichuan cuisine - Ma means numbing, from Sichuan pepper and La is heat from ground red pepper. Adding all the seasoning during the par cooking was easiest but the ma didn't really come through. The best version had hot pepper added during par cooking and Sichuan pepper during the final stage cooking.

Ma La Bacon: Separate half a pound thick slices of bacon and sprinkle with 1 tbs coarse red pepper powder. (Korean kochu jang would work great.) Wrap in foil or place in covered container and cook slowly until the fat is mostly melted, about 20 minutes in a medium (325-350 degree F) oven. It is okay if the slices overlap. You can pour off some of the fat at this stage if you are going to finish it within a day; if you are going to store the half-cooked bacon longer keep it submerged in fat. Shortly before serving lay bacon slices flat on foil or a ridged pan, sprinkle with 1 tsp Sichuan pepper, and heat in a hot oven (400-425 deg f) for 10 minutes until crisp and fragrant. If you are serving a bacon and egg brunch this is enough for two; if you are making crepes as shown and provide another filling it will serve four.

Apple Compote: Peel and chop two large or three medium apples, and bring to a boil with 2 tbs apple juice or apple vinegar over medium heat in a covered saucepan. Add 1 tsp cinnamon if desired. Turn heat down and simmer for 5 minutes. Taste for sugar - I never add any, but some like it very sweet. Makes 1 1/2 cups and keeps 1 week in the fridge.

Roasted Greens

Sunday, January 25, 2009

The method is not new to FC, but the vegetable is (so new, I am still not sure what the stuff is.) Last Thursday I hit the farmer's market late, already hungry and looking for something to throw together for dinner. I hadn't eaten any vegetables all day and a pile of feathery leafed precut and washed greens caught my eye.

Pepper: "Hey, what is this stuff?"
Vendor: [incomprehensible sichuanese]
Pepper: "How do you cook it?" (The reply is usually a one-word answer - stir-fry, soup, stew...)
Vendor: "Stir-fry!"
Pepper: "How about soup?"
Vendor indicates no.

Strange. Pepper picks off a leaf and nibbles. The clean-breaking leaf and slight bitterness put this in the brassica family. Some kind of kale?

After getting home I piled a few handfuls of greens on a baking sheet and drizzled them with 2 tsp olive oil and 1/2 tsp of salt. I put them in my toaster oven at 180 deg C for ten minutes, or until they started to smell toasty. I have not yet met any green thing that loves to be roasted as much - the feathery leaves darkened, the firmer stems held their shape and got juicy, and the in-between parts got melting soft.

If anyone can help me figure out what the plant is, please leave a comment! My latest guess is young youcai.

UPDATE: Concluded that this is, in fact, baby youcai. (No thanks to another vendor today, who just kept repeating "It's just a vegetable. Vegetable. You stir-fry it. Stir Fry!") Our local supply has already mostly matured past the stage where it can be prepared like this, but I will enjoy it while it lasts.

Eggs In the Middle

Friday, January 16, 2009

Since moving to a kitchen without a flat bottomed frying pan, I don't make Eggs Cooked On Top of Things that often. I've switched to Eggs in the Middle, which lends itself much more easily to the wok.

On the bottom is home fries, or leftover cabbage and lentils, or sauteed celery and tomatoes, or in this case a buckwheat, caramelized onion, and mushroom concoction that didn't quite make the blog (may, with tweaks, in the future).

In the middle are two soft scrambled eggs, cooked in a little butter with some salt and pepper added. I love scrambled eggs but they have a portion perception problem - even soft scrambled tend to cook down and they look like not a lot of food. At the diner where I used to work we always served customers three eggs instead of two if they requested scrambled. Piling the eggs on top of something else makes them look like more.

On top is fresh salsa and chopped olives. You could use cheese (particularly great is salsa/feta combined), pimentón, capers, chopped green onions, or whatever will look nice and not clash with whatever is on the bottom. (I once made home fries with hot peppers mixed in, then put the salsa on top and it was more fire than one wants for one's first meal of the day.) This combination (buckwheat, eggs, salsa and olives) was so good I had to stop myself from making and eating another plate.

Potato, Cheese, and Onion Perogies (well, just the filling)

Monday, January 12, 2009

Perogies have been on my mind for a while, since they have comfort food status in my area of Canada (Edmonton through Northern Alberta), and I knew I would have to make them if I wanted to eat them. I can't remember ever making them at home - we always bought them frozen or had them homemade by an amazing neighbour. I decided to try a basic filling of potato with onion and fresh white cheese (sometimes sold as baking cheese) that is tangy and a little thicker than sour cream. Drained, thick Balkan style yogurt or lebnah would work as well.

Boil 1 kg of potatoes, peeled, until soft and mash. Dice and caramelize one large onion in a little oil. Add 3/4 cup of fresh white cheese and onions to potatoes with 1 tbs salt and 2 tsp of pepper. You will have a generous 1 kg of filling.

Near me is a dumpling and noodle shop where I can always buy fresh three inch dumpling skins, and that is what I used for the wrappers. I definitely encourage this if you have the option; if not, you can use another recipe for the wrappers or use frozen dumpling skins (though they often use an egg based dough and will end up more like ravioli then perogies). Or, dare I suggest, layer the filling in a 9X13 pan between cooked lasagna noodles, cover with more onions cooked in melted butter, and heat through covered in a 350 degree F oven.

Filling the perogies took my unpracticed hands the better part of an hour (notice my not very neat seals). It's a good job for sharing, or something for your hands to do during a movie or game. Each skin held not quite two teaspoons of filling, and I ended up with about eighty perogies, which will serve ten generously. To cook, boil in plenty of salted water until they float. Eat with sour cream and bacon bits, or chopped green onion, or more onions cooked in butter. They freeze well too - don't thaw before cooking.

Apple Dumplings

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

With a bulk box of puff pastry I had lots of material for experiments, and tried a few different treats using apple. My favourite ended up being the simplest - pieces of apple with a sprinkle of sugar and cinnamon, wrapped in the pastry and baked. These are an ideal project for kids.

Take two squares of puff pastry, about 15 cm square, cut into quarters, and roll thin. Peel, core, and quarter two apples. On each square of puff pastry place one apple piece and add 1/2 tsp sugar and 1/4 tsp cinnamon. Wrap each apple piece in pastry square and place on baking sheet, seam side down. Poke a hole in the top of each dumpling and bake for 10 minutes at 200 degrees C, then ten more minutes at 175 degrees C. Watch carefully so that they don't get too brown. Each person you are serving will want at least two.