December 15, 2010 § 3 Comments
I’m not good at reading magazines. Every time I open one, a neurotic voice inside urges me to read every single word on every single page. For years, I felt guilty pitching a magazine into the recycling bin if I hadn’t read everything in it, even the articles I found boring. Which meant that magazines would pile up around the house, and I’d feel even guiltier.
So in a bid for self-preservation, I don’t subscribe to many magazines. But one I’ve subscribed to for as long as I can remember is Saveur. I love that I can be transported to 20 different states and nations reading one issue, and that every time I pick it up, I learn something new about a cuisine and a culture. It’s one magazine I thoroughly enjoy reading cover to cover, and for years, I’ve read through it soon after it landed in my mailbox.
Except lately. Somehow, I’ve gotten really behind in my Saveur reading. To lessen the guilt, I’ve been piling up the magazines in the closet — outta sight, outta mind. But then they became truly “outta mind,” until I realized that I had nearly a year’s worth of magazines squirreled away amidst the linens.
Just recently, I read the May issue…and with great interest, as it had a feature by Lillian Chou, who reconnected with her roots one stir-fried dish at a time in Beijing. I love Chinese food and learning to cook it well is another thing on my food-focused bucket list. Although my mother is ethnically Chinese, she and her family have hailed from Indonesia for generations, so growing up, she cooked gado gado (more on that dish here from Pepy of Indonesia-Eats) and nasi goreng (fried rice), not Chinese stir fries.
“A good wok is the foundation of good cooking: stir-frying is said to activate food with the wok’s energy.”–Lillian Chou, “A Stir-Fry Education,” Saveur
Reading about the women Lillian visited, cooking in simple kitchens often outfitted only with a blackened, seasoned wok; a wood-fired or gas stove; and a cutting board with a sharp cleaver, I was mesmerized. Taking in the descriptions of these women’s uncompromising focus on fresh, seasonal ingredients, impeccable knife skills yielding perfectly uniform, 1/8-inch thick strips of meats and veggies that will cook evenly and quickly, and elegantly efficient moves in their kitchens, and then seeing the step-by-step recipes for four simple stir-fries, I knew I had to try them myself.
I’ve tried three of the four, and the stir-fried tomato and eggs dish has become a staple in our home. When I made it earlier this week, I was thrilled that I got to use one of the jars of tomatoes I put up when they were at their flavor peak in September (see more about my 30-pounds-of-tomatoes extravaganza here), and that I could snip shallot greens from our new garden to garnish the stir-fry instead of having to buy green onions or chives.
Below are links to the recipes and my notes on them. For the original Saveur article, click here.
STIR-FRIED TOMATO AND EGGS – Recipe here
My Notes on the Recipe
1 — Trust the recipe when it tells you to heat the wok until it’s smoking. You need the heat to prevent the food, especially eggs and meat, from sticking to the wok.
2 — Because I used canned tomatoes that had been peeled, you can see from the photo above that my dish turned out soupier than the one on Saveur’s website. It’s still delicious. Since it’s nearly winter, I’m guessing you’ll use canned tomatoes too — I think it’s better to use tomatoes canned at their flavor peak than mushy, tasteless ones flown in from South America.
STIR-FRIED MUSHROOMS AND BOK CHOY – Recipe here
My Notes on the Recipe
1 — One of my favorite dishes at Charles Phan’s Out The Door is this one — even though it’s a Vietnamese, not a Chinese, restaurant, I always envied the technique with which the veggies were cooked. Every time, the bok choy would be crisp-tender, the mushrooms pleasantly chewy, and the entire thing melded together with fresh flavors. After trying this recipe, I’m pleased that I can now make this at home!
2 — I used fresh rather than dried shiitake mushrooms. I accidentally stir-fried them 3-4 minutes versus 2, but it was a lucky mistake: they browned deeply and became nearly crisp (think: skinny mushroom fries). Yum.
3 — It’s surprising how so few flavorings can yield such a tasty dish. I think the key is buying very fresh mushrooms and bok choy.
STIR-FRIED PORK WITH LEEKS – Recipe here
My Notes on the Recipe
1 — I used regular, rather than dark, soy sauce, and while my version didn’t turn out as deeply-hued as the one on Saveur’s site and likely would not be called authentic by the Beijing ladies featured in the article, my husband and I still enjoyed it.
2 — I also didn’t belabor the pork slicing. Instead of 2-inch by 1/8-inch strips, mine were probably more like 2 inches by 1/4 inch. I cooked the pork about 4 minutes instead of 2, and it turned out great.
History and Nutritional Info
Bok choy: This member of the Chinese cabbage family has been cultivated in China for 6,000 years. A 1-cup serving of shredded bok choy has only 10 calories and is a significant source of vitamins A and C, folate, and calcium.
Leeks: Leeks have been cultivated since the time of the ancient Egyptians. Romans thought leeks would improve your singing voice; Emperor Nero was nicknamed Porrophagus (leek eater). Leeks are an excellent source of vitamin C, folate, vitamin B6, iron, fiber, and antioxidants that enhance cardiovascular health.
When in Season and How to Select, Store, & Prepare
Bok choy: In S.F., in season year-round. Select bok choy that have bright, fresh green leaves with no brown spots or wilting. Store bok choy in a plastic bag in your refrigerator for up to one week.
Leeks: In S.F., in season year-round. Select leeks that are firm, straight, and less then 1 1/2 inches in diameter (bigger ones are more fibrous), with dark green leaves, white necks, and no yellowing, wilting, cracks, or bruises. Store fresh leeks unwashed and untrimmed, wrapped loosely in a plastic bag to retain moisture, in your fridge, for one to two weeks. When preparing leeks, remove tough outer leaves, cut off the root, and slice leeks in half lengthwise. Fan out the leeks and hold them under running water to wash out all of the dirt (often, dirt will be hiding inside the leeks’ layers and folds). Most recipes call for the white and light green portion only and tell you to discard the dark green tops. I trim off the very top bit, then slice the dark green portion very thinly and use in stir fries, or I use the dark green parts for stock.
How to Grow Your Own*
I haven’t grown my own bok choy or leeks, but I am going to try planting leeks early next year (if it ever stops raining). I’ve read that bok choy is a bit trickier, since it attracts slugs and snails in hordes, which take up residence in our backyard as if they own the place. So I’ll probably rely on my friendly farmers’ markets for our bok choy needs, at least this coming year.
How & when to plant leeks: Sow seeds outdoors (in S.F.) January through March. Direct-seed 1/2 inch deep and 1/2 inch apart, then thin seedlings to 3-6 inches apart. You can also plant purchased seedlings to get a head start.
How & when to harvest: Pull up baby leeks whenever you need them. For mature leeks, dig them when they are at least one inch in diameter, usually in September. Harvest as needed throughout winter but finish picking by March or they’ll go to seed.
*Adapted from Golden Gate Gardening by Pam Pierce, p. 230
November 30, 2010 § 19 Comments
Growing up, my grandma hosted our extended family — some years, up to 25 people — for every holiday. On Thanksgiving we’d eat her mushroom stuffing and bring a veggie side dish to share. For the past few years, my grandmother shifted some of the holiday hosting responsibility to my parents (who did Thanksgiving) and aunt and uncle (who handled Christmas).
This year, my husband and I took on the mantle and hosted our first family Thanksgiving. My husband’s parents, brother and sister-in-law and their two-year-old, my parents and my grandparents all flew in to celebrate together.
I guess it could be a little daunting to host your first family holiday get-together, but I was just excited. Obviously, I love cooking, and cooking for 11 allowed me to make things that aren’t physically possible for my husband and me alone to consume before they go bad. I also enjoy showing my love through cooking. It’s a trait I learned from the women in my life — my mother would cook my favorite Indonesian chicken soup and sukiyaki (a Japanese stew) when I came home from college; one grandma would make lodeh, an Indonesian vegetable soup when I came to visit; and the other grandma would bake pumpkin bread or lacy oatmeal cookies for afternoon snacks. And finally, I was pumped to add a few tiny twists to the traditional menu (including time-shifting the holiday from Thursday to Saturday, as my dad had to work on Friday).
So, since some of you asked, and in case any of you need ideas for your winter holiday gatherings, here’s our menu and my plan for preparing everything in time (here: Stephanie M’s Thanksgiving 2010 Menu & Plan) and a photo-log of our first Thanksgiving, where we made nearly everything from scratch.
Our kitchen sink clogged the night before everyone arrived. Awesome. So my brother-in-law, in charge of injecting and deep-frying the Cajun-spiced turkey, resorted to doing his duties in the bathroom sink.
Lots of Soft Scrub used after that!
For appetizers, I didn’t make cocktail nuts because most recipes have some form of sugar, and I didn’t want to exclude my grandpa, who has diabetes, from being able to eat them. So I roasted these simply, at 275 degrees Fahrenheit for 20 minutes, mixing each batch of nuts in half an egg white before tossing with seasonings. (There’s nothing like freshly toasted and hand-ground pepper — more on that in a later post.)
I also mixed and baked my husband’s favorite, gougeres — cheese puffs made from a choux paste, an eggy batter flavored here with Gruyere and cracked black pepper.
I used the method from Simple Bites (recipe below) to roast the heritage breed turkey, because it was similar to my favorite simple roast chicken recipe (I’ll post that someday too).
After melting sliced leeks in butter for 35 minutes, cubing and toasting challah into croutons and layering both with an egg, milk and nutmeg custard and snipped chives and thyme…
…I realized I’d miscalculated our oven height by half an inch. With the 11-pound turkey in there, there was no way the bread pudding was making it inside. Hubby had the brilliant idea of putting the bread pudding on the grill.
Meanwhile, my brother-in-law lowered the other turkey into the deep fryer…
And after some snacking and chatting, the turkeys were ready to be carved and served with fresh cranberry sauce…
…dinner was served, and before it was over, I had become a turkey convert. I’ve never liked turkey, but the hype about the heritage turkey is true: the meat was denser and more flavorful, and the salt crust and initially high oven heat crisped the skin delectably.
As expected, people were stuffed. But we valiantly moved onto dessert…
We also had pumpkin cupcakes with cream cheese frosting, made from a recipe by Elizabeth Falkner of Citizen Cake, Epic Roasthouse and Top Chef.
By the end of the night, we’d used most of the dishes and silverware we owned, there was a vat of peanut oil in my backyard, and I was dead tired. But it felt amazing to have hosted our first family holiday, to have both of our families together instead of having to choose, and to have everyone happily and lovingly fed.
In case you want to make any of these yourself, here are links to the recipes or recipe sources (click on the food items):
Leek bread pudding - From the ad hoc cookbook (though I’d double the amount of leeks in the recipe)
Walnut pie, very easy yet elegant and delicious, made without the chocolate
Apple pie - From the Joy of Cooking cookbook (though I use 3 pounds vs. 2 1/2 pounds of apples and increase the other filling ingredients by 25% too)
Vanilla bean ice cream – From the ad hoc cookbook, using the KitchenAid mixer ice cream attachment
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November 22, 2010 § 9 Comments
I had a blast in Oz (a.k.a Australia) and New Zealand, in large part because I ate quite well. Reflecting on why I enjoyed my culinary adventures so much, I realized that there are certain things we do while traveling that I could distill into five tips that anyone can use to eat well while traveling. I thought I’d share them below, and I’d love to hear yours!
1 — Try something you’ve never had.
This is the easiest eating-well-while-traveling tip to offer, because no matter where you go, it’s likely they eat something there that you haven’t — whether it’s hush puppies in North Carolina, live squid that’s still undulating on the plate in Tokyo or, in my case, spatchcock in Melbourne and Marmite in Auckland. And while you may not always hit the jackpot in deliciousness, at least it’s an adventure.
Even though they say “spatchcock” as if it’s a breed in Melbourne, actually, it’s not a type of bird but a method of preparing one. It’s a small chicken whose backbone has been slit out and that has been flattened to reduce cooking time. This one, braised in an onion and herb gravy that we sopped up with bread at a tapas bar, was incredible.
And in Auckland, I was introduced to the salty, umami joys of Marmite, a yeast-based, nearly black spread. The friends with whom I was staying made me something I can’t wait to replicate if I can find Marmite here: wheat bread spread with Marmite, topped with a slice of cheese and broiled in the oven. My new favorite way to start the day.
2 — Give something you normally don’t like another chance.
On my travels, I often find that I enjoy something that I typically don’t eat at home because it’s done differently or better. Case in point in Melbourne and Auckland: muffins. I never, ever order muffins in the U.S.; personally, I find them too sweet, too dry and/or too big. But a raspberry, walnut and honey muffin looked unusually tasty at a cafe in Melbourne, and I was glad we ordered it: it was more like a moist tea bread than the American muffins I’d had, it had just a hint of sweetness and it wasn’t alarmingly gargantuan. In Auckland, they serve you muffins warmed, split in half and accompanied by a generous pat of butter — which, let’s be honest, makes it pretty darned hard not to like them.
3 — Notice the little differences and give them a whirl.
There are a lot of cafes in Melbourne and Auckland, and at each of them, I always saw “flat white” above “latte” on the menus (a flat white, it turns out, is similar to a latte — espresso and milk — but has slightly less milk and is cheaper). And when we went out for coffee and dessert post-dinner in Auckland, I noticed that my friend ordered a flat white with a marshmallow. So, I gave it a whirl and thoroughly enjoyed it: a grown-up version of the classic hot chocolate-marshmallow combo, made even better by the fact that the marshmallow was one of those dense types, versus the air-puffed sugar pellets you typically get in grocery stores here.
4 — Sample something locally grown and artfully made.
Given my general preferences when it comes to eating, I of course couldn’t pass up proffering this tip. Discovering what the area you’re visiting is known for gives you a new taste sensation, teaches you something about the local culture and offers you the opportunity to support a local business. About 30 minutes outside of Auckland at Bees Online, we experienced how local, artisan honeys could enhance a variety of dishes:
5 — Get yourself invited to a local’s home for dinner.
Okay, this could be difficult. And I cheated on this one a bit as I stayed with friends in Auckland, so eating dinner at their house wasn’t exactly a challenge. But dining, or even drinking, with locals on their turf often gives you the chance to try food and beverages traditional to, or suited for, that geography and to forge or renew friendships.
In Auckland, my friend cooked a traditional lamb leg roast for dinner one night. Funny enough, we ate the lamb roast the same day that we strolled among sheep in a large paddock in Cornwall Park — a unique experience, as it’s a green space smack dab in the middle of the city.
We ate the tender, juicy meat with gravy made from lamb drippings and roasted veggies. My favorites were caramelized onions and kumera (a New Zealand sweet potato), perfectly crisp on the edges and soft and sweet inside. While we enjoyed my friend’s expert cooking, he shared fond memories about how his mother would make this meal for his family growing up (though she’d make even more food — what you see below plus three types of potatoes!).
But even if you don’t get invited to a local’s home for a meal, you can adapt and apply this tip anywhere — for example, when we spent a week in Sonoma, California for our summer vacation, we sought out a small, family-owned winery for a tasting and discovered new wines we now love, learned more about that particular area of Sonoma and forged a connection with that family (click here for that story).
What are your favorite ways to eat well while traveling?
Journal Cafe, 253 Flinders Lane, Melbourne, Australia. Click here for more info
Frasers Cafe and Espresso Bar, 434 Mt. Eden Road, Auckland, New Zealand.
A big thanks and dedication of this post to my dear friends, Paul and Reiko Kennedy, who generously hosted me and made sure I ate so well in Auckland. And if you’re interested in more photos of MoVida’s excellent tapas, or my non-food photos of Melbourne and Auckland, see them on Facebook here.