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.