Sunday, May 31, 2009

Shrimp Mediterranean Crostini

A simple yet flavorful appetizer, this crostini is easy to prepare with little fuss, as long as you have the right ingredients. Start with a baguette and cut it into slices, with the thickness of the bread depending on your own preference. Rough chop artichoke hearts and poach some peeled shrimp until they turn red. Next, chop up some fresh garlic and fresh thyme.

To assemble, brush some olive oil or butter on the baguette slices and place the chopped fresh garlic on top. Season with salt and pepper. Bake the crostinis ever so slightly in the oven to get a little crunch into them. Now, add the cut artichoke hearts and place a cooked shrimp on top of each crostini. Now finish each slice with some crumbled feta cheese, fresh thyme and drizzle with some extra virgin olive oil. They are now done and you have yourself a crostini with some flavorful Mediterranean flavors. Other Mediterranean ingredients that can be added to this crostini include capers and kalamata olives.

Alternatively, all the ingredients you see here can be coarsely blended together with a little butter to bind them together. All you have to do is spoon a good helping of it onto your baked crostini and serve.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Steamed Salmon with Tamarind and Ginger

Tamarind may not be a common cooking ingredient used here in the U.S. but in Asia, tamarind is widely used in many cuisines especially in India and the South-east Asian countries of Thailand, Vietnam, The Philippines and Malaysia. Tamarind is also popular in Africa and Mexico. Among the many dishes that include tamarind as an ingredient are chutneys, curries and even some drinks, desserts and candies. Many of you may not be aware of this but the ever popular Worcestershire sauce contains tamarind as well.

The two parts of the tamarind tree that is of any culinary use is the pulp of the legume-like fruit (see right) and the leaves (used to perfume and flavor soups). Tamarind is known for its tart and sour taste (with a slight hint of sweetness), which is sourced from the ripened fruit and is available commercially in the form of a concentrate or fresh pulp (the seeds are included as well). In both forms, water should be added to obtain the tamarind juice that's commonly used in cooking.

Start off by seasoning the salmon fillet with salt and pepper and place it in a deep casserole dish. For this particular recipe, tamarind juice is added to the casserole, together with sesame oil, fish sauce and ponzu sauce. Ponzu is a Japanese citrus soy sauce and using it here instead of just regular soy sauce adds a little acidity that is just suitable for seafood (in our case, salmon). Usually, when fish sauce is used, soy sauce is not. In Thai cooking, fish sauce is the source of saltiness in dishes, which just negates the use of soy sauce or for that matter, salt. However, here I'm adding ponzu as well just for that extra acidity bite. Cut some ginger slices and arrange them on top of the fish and also in the liquid. I also added some sliced tomatoes and mushrooms to provide extra ingredients to this dish. Now, put the casserole in a steamer pan, close the lid, turn on the heat and let it go for 30 minutes or until the fish is cooked (depending on how thick the fillet is). If you have a thick piece of fish, I suggest you score the meat with a knife so that the middle part of the fish will cook faster. In the meantime, chop up some garlic and sauté until brown. Also, julliene some scallions and soak them in cold water and set aside.

When the fish is cooked, remove the ginger slices, transfer it to a serving dish and pour the yummy liquid over the fish, drenching it with lots of flavor. Now, arrange the tomatoes and mushrooms around the plate and spoon the sautéed garlic over the salmon to provide some crunchy texture. Finally, use the scallions as garnish around the plate and on the salmon itself. And there you have it, a healthy dish of steamed salmon with tamarind and ginger.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Creamy Lobster on Puff Pastry

In the early 19th century, before the commercialization of lobster gathering, these succulent crustaceans were considered poor man's food, plentiful and easily available (they would wash on shore by the hundreds and harvested from tide pools). Lobsters were gathered by poor families and fed to servants by their colonial masters. However, by the mid-1800's, lobsters slowly became highly prized and sought after by the masses, with commercial lobstering going into full swing along the coast of Maine. As expected, overfishing of lobsters soon became a big problem and only after strict conservation laws were enacted to protect the industry that the species became sustainable again.

Lobsters are usually cooked either by steaming or boiling. Unless you have steaming pans readily available, boiling is the easiest method to use. Using a stockpot, first bring the water to a rolling boil and then add the lobster, submerging it entirely. Let it boil for 15-20 minutes and the lobster should be cooked. Remove the lobster from the pot and stick it in ice cold water for about 15 minutes so that the lobster would not continue cooking and become rubbery. Shucking lobsters take practice and after shucking literally 100's of lobsters on my job, I was able to shuck the two that I have here in under 3 minutes. I then used the discarded lobster bodies to make lobster stock, using the same pot of water that was used to boil them. This way, you make full use of every part of the lobster and the stock is something that I can use to make Newburg sauce or even lobster bisque in the coming days. Set the shucked lobster meat aside in the refrigerator for now.

To make the creamy sauce, you need butter, heavy cream or half and half, flour as a thickening agent, shredded parmesan cheese, dry sherry, frozen peas, diced red bell pepper, diced shallots (or onions), diced carrot, diced potato, celery, mushrooms and salt and pepper to taste. First, melt the butter in a sauce pan and then add the shallot and all the vegetables and cook until they become soft. Add the flour (same amount as the butter, if 4 oz. of butter, then add 4 oz. of flour) and cook for a couple of minutes. Next, add the sherry and then the cream or milk. Cook until the sauce thickens. Finally add the lobster meat and parmesan cheese and cook for just 2-3 minutes until the cheese melts. You are almost there.

For the puff pastry, it is as easy as going to your local supermarket and buying a box of puff pastry sheets. Cut them in any size or shape that you want and just bake them in the oven at 450F for about 20 minutes or until the shells become golden brown. Now arrange the puff pastry on a plate and pour the creamy lobster sauce over it. To make the presentation look better, gather the big chunks of lobster meat and place them on top of the puff pastry, highlighting the main ingredient. Top it all off with a sprig of parsley and there you have it, Creamy Lobster on Puff Pastry.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Egg Noodles with Fried Wontons, BBQ Pork & Stir-Fried Baby Bak Choy

In South-East Asia, mainly Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore and the Philippines, street food vendors or better known as hawkers are major purveyors of some of the best-tasting food in those countries. Forget about your 5-star hotels with their high-end restaurants. If you are searching for some of the most delicious food, you need to leave your hotel, go down into the streets and sit with the locals. Experience the myriad aromatic smells of the various types of spices, the almost unbearable humidity and best of all, eat food that would make your taste buds jump into overdrive. Fans of the Travel Channel's food shows, Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern and Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations would know what I mean.

One of the more popular street food in Malaysia is Wonton Noodles or sometimes also known locally by its nickname, "tok-tok mee." "Mee" in the local language means noodles and "tok-tok" is actually the sound that the hawker makes by hitting two small pieces of bamboo together to attract customers. So, as you can imagine, like Pavlov's dog, whenever I hear that distinct clanging sound, my mouth starts salivating!

This dish has several components to it and is really not as hard to make, just time consuming. They include the fried wontons, the BBQ pork, the baby bak choy and the noodles. All the ingredients used here should be readily available at your local Asian grocery store. They include yellow egg noodles, wonton wrappers, sweet soy sauce, sesame oil and hoisin sauce.

The filling for the wonton is made up of pork, shrimp, carrots, onions, garlic, soy sauce and pepper. Puree all these ingredients in a blender and place a tiny dollop in the middle of the wonton wrapper. These wrappers come in two shapes, round and square and either one is fine. Fold all sides into the middle and pinch them together. If they don't stay closed, wet a finger with water and moisten the tips and press them together again. Repeat for however many wontons you wish to make. Heat up a pot of oil and start deep-frying them until golden brown and then set them aside to cool down.

Next, let's work on the BBQ pork. First, marinate the pork fillets in the sweet soy sauce, 5-spice powder, pepper and set aside for an hour or so. Get a pan hot and pan roast the fillets until done. Finish it up by glazing the pork with honey to get the sweet BBQ flavor.

Now, let's move on to the baby bak choy. Stir-frying it is easy. Get a pan hot with some oil. Sautee some garlic and shallots until they start to turn slightly brown, then add the baby bak choy together with a little oyster sauce. Cover the pan with a lid a a couple of minutes and the vegetable is done.

Finally, the egg noodles. Get a pot of water boiling and place the still-crunchy noodles in the pot to rehydrate and soften. When it is not crunchy anymore, toss it with some sweet soy sauce, hoisin sauce and sesame oil.

Now, you are ready to assemble this dish. Arrange everything on the plate and drizzle some sesame oil on the bak choy. Also, shake some black pepper onto all the components on the plate and finally, garnish wtih some julienned scallions. And there you have, a delicious meal that is sure to wow your guests or even your own spouse!

Honeydew with Tapioca Pearls in Sweetened Coconut Milk

A very refreshing after-dinner dessert, this concoction is a popular South-East Asian favorite, patented after the Taiwanese bubble tea craze of the 80's. The one ingredient that many may not be familiar with is the tapioca pearl, the tiny ball-like jelly that you see in the photo. As the name suggests, these tiny pearls are made from the root vegetable, tapioca. It can also be known by its other South American names like yuca or cassava. The best thing about tapioca is that it is gluten-free and is sometimes used as a thickening agent. Commercially, processed tapioca can normally be found as tiny balls or pearls but is also available as larger-sized pearls as well.

Before using these pearls, soak them in water for an hour or so. Bring a pot of water to boil and turn down the heat to a simmer. Now add the pearls to the pot and start stirring gently. Immediately, you should see those white-colored pearls turn opaque and later on, translucent. As soon as those pearls become translucent, they are done. Pour them onto a sieve and run cold water over it to remove the starch. The end result should be tiny translucent balls that are ready for consumption.

Now, prepare the coconut milk by heating it up together with some water, sugar and a pinch of salt. When you get it to your desired sweetness, turn off the heat and cool it down in the fridge. Next, cut your honeydew melon into cubes and refrigerate. When all the ingredients are sufficiently cooled down, you can now assemble them. Start with the honeydew and then add the tapioca pearls. Finally, top it off a couple of good scoops of that sweet coconut milk. You can also replace the honeydew with any other kinds of fruit like mango or cantaloupe. You can even use flavored jello if you want. If you are so inclined, add a scoop of vanilla ice cream on top to make it even yummier! Go crazy!

Hainanese Chicken Rice

Growing up in Malaysia, specifically the island state of Penang which is renowned for it hawker or street food, this dish is truly comfort food for me. As anyone can attest to, their Mom makes the best comfort food, and this dish tastes best when prepared by my own mother.

Originating from Hainan province in China, this dish was brought to the Straits Settlements by Chinese immigrants back in the 19th to early 20th century. The Straits Settlements comprised of South-East Asian port cities like Penang, Malacca and Singapore, which are located along the Straits of Malacca, a narrow strait dividing the Indonesian island of Sumatra and the Malay peninsula (Malaysia).

The secret to this dish is the oil extracted from the chicken when boiled. Start with a whole bird and boil it in a pot together with a mirepoix (French cooking technique of adding celery, onions and carrots to make stock). Before that, cut the piece of fat that is usually hanging off the cavity end of the chicken. It will be used to flavor the rice. To get the best result, slow boil the chicken for approximately 2 - 3 hours to extract the most flavor out of the chicken and vegetables. Remove the whole chicken and continue boiling the stock and reduce it by a third so as to concentrate the flavors.

Next, prepare the rice by soaking in water for a hour or so. Drain it and oil a pan with the chicken fat that was obtained earlier together with some sesame oil and chopped garlic. Now toast the rice in the pan for a few minutes and transfer it to a rice cooker. In replacement of water, use the chicken stock to cook the rice.

For the sauce, start with the chicken stock, add soy sauce and sesame oil and heat it up until it simmers. Now, cut up the whole chicken into manageable pieces and place it on a plate. Pour the sauce you've just prepared over it and sprinkle the top with sliced scallions and ginger. As a condiment, puree some red chili peppers and ginger, then add lime juice and sugar. Scoop the rice and you have yourself an authentic Malaysian/Singaporean favorite, the Hainanese Chicken Rice.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Grilled Shrimp Salad

Great as a healthy lunch meal, this grilled shrimp salad is easy to make, delicious to eat and has a beautiful and clean presentation--perfect for a lunch date on a perfect and sunny spring day like today. All the ingredients to make this salad are easily available and it doesn't take more than 15 minutes to prepare and serve.

I love the spring mix salad, which is made up of baby lettuce, romaine, chard, radicchio, frisee, spinach, red mustard, arugula and kale. This mix is readily available at your local supermarket. I add in cucumber slices, red onion, plum tomatoes and wanton strip croûtons. Toss the salad with balsamic vinaigrette and set aside. Be careful not to overdress the salad as the dressing can be very strong.

As for the shrimp, simply season with salt and pepper and marinate them in any sort of dressing. A good one to use is a honey ginger dressing that is just so yummy. I also have a herb oil marinate on hand which is made up of chopped up thyme, rosemary, basil, oregano and sage. Simply throw them on the grill and cook until the shrimp turn red/orange. Plate the salad, sprinkle some shredded cheddar and Monterey Jack cheese on top and arrange the grilled shrimp around the salad and you have the perfect dish for a perfect spring day out on the lawn.

Berries Pastry Dessert

Now this is a dessert that anyone can sink their teeth into! Apart from the pastry cream, the rest is pretty easy to make and assemble. For the base, it's as simple as buying ready-made puff pastry shells from your favorite local grocery store and baking it on a cookie sheet. Once done, scoop some pastry cream on top of the shell, add your berries (in this case, it is strawberries and blackberries), whip cream and top it off with a sprig of mint.

Alternately, cut the shell horizontally in half, add your pastry cream and berries on top of the bottom half, enclose with the top half, add whip cream and top it off with a blackberry and mint. Simple, simple, simple! Not to mention delicious as well!

Monday, May 18, 2009

Braised Haddock with Escarole and Portobello Mushrooms

Escarole is a broad-leaved endive (as opposed to curly endive or frisée) and is most often utilized in Italian cooking. It is less bitter than the other vegetables in the endive family and is most similar in taste to radicchio and chard. In terms of cooking, escarole is very much like spinach, in that it shrinks down to almost nothing when cooked for a long time. So the secret is to buy a little more more than you think you need.

To prepare the braising liquid for the haddock, I simply cook the onions, garlic, tomatoes, portobello mushrooms and escarole in some marinara sauce. You don't really need much of the sauce as the escarole exudes water when cooked. Add salt and pepper to taste. This process should take just about 5 minutes.

Now prepare the haddock fillet by seasoning it with salt and pepper. Also, remove the skin if you haven't done so. Place the fish in a shallow oven pan and add the braising liquid together with its vegetable contents. Heat your oven to 450F and start cooking. Depending on how big of a fillet your haddock is, the dish should be cooked in around 20-30 minutes.

Haddock is a wonderful fish for this braising method of cooking. It is able to absorb the braising medium and take on the flavor of the escarole. Serve the fish together with the vegetables and some of the braising liquid. It should make for a pretty delicious meal. Best of all, it is so simple and should take less than 40 minutes to prep and cook. What a time saver!

Spicy Calamari Tossed in Marinara Sauce

Squid is a popular item in many restaurants, especially the fried variety. In the culinary universe, squid is better known by its Italian name, calamari. Popular as a snack or appetizer, fried calamari is easy to prepare and delicious to eat. Dipping a morsel in some spicy sauce and popping one in your mouth is as enjoyable as stuffing a handful of popcorn or nachos in your mouth while watching the Super Bowl.

Calamari is usually bought frozen from the seafood section of your local grocery store. Cleaning and preparing the squid for cooking may not be as enjoyable as eating it but it has to be done. To skip this task, you can buy calamari already cleaned and ready to go. Even though it is more expensive, it may be worth it not having to spend extra time cleaning these cephalopods. The body is usually cut cross-section into rings and together with the tentacles, are the only edible parts of the squid.

For this appetizer, I forgo the usual method of preparation (deep fried) for an even easier way of cooking calamari. Start by sautéing shallots, garlic and red pepper flakes until slight brown. Add the calamari and cook for just a couple of minutes until the squid turns opaque or white. Be careful not to overcook the calamari because they will turn rubbery and chewy. Scoop one or two tablespoons of marinara sauce together with some chopped fresh basil leaves and toss all the ingredients together. Sprinkle some chopped parsley and grated parmesan cheese on top and it is ready for serving.

There's little doubt that this dish would be a popular appetizer at any dinner party.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Red, White & Clams

The word "clam" is typically used to describe edible bivalve mollusks known as hard clams or quahog. In the culinary world, hard clams are named according to their sizes. The smallest ones are known as countnecks and as the sizes get larger and larger, they come to be called littlenecks, topnecks, cherrystones and finally, the largest ones are called quahogs. Littlenecks and cherrystones are usually available as raw bar fare, served raw on the half-shell and eaten with tabasco, horseradish or cocktail sauce. The quahogs are usually not as tender and is commonly minced and used in New England clam chowder and are also served as stuffed clams. As a side note, soft-shelled clams, also known as "steamer clams" is popularly steamed (of course) and served with butter.

Littlenecks are also used in dishes like clams casino, in stews or soups and pasta dishes. Here, I am outlining the popular Clams with Linguine or Linguine with Clam Sauce pasta dish. For good measure, I've made two versions of this dish, White and Red Linguine with Clam Sauce (the latter comes with the addition of tomato products).

I started off with approximately 1.5 - 2 lb. of littleneck clams. The clams need to be washed before cooking in order to remove any sand or sediment that might still be clinging on to the shells. Also, start a pot of boiling water (with plenty of salt) for cooking the linguine. As usual cook the pasta until al dente. Mince some garlic and onions and cook them in bacon fat. Add some minced clams, dry white wine, butter, red pepper flakes and some store-bought clam broth to the pot. Bring to a boil and add the littlenecks. Cover the pot and simmer until the littlenecks open up (which means that they are cooked). Add more water if the liquid level goes down too low. For the red version, add a can of peeled tomatoes when you add the littlenecks.

After the clams open up, toss the linguine into the delicious mix and adjust the seasoning with salt and pepper. To serve, remove the clams and plate the linguine first. Now, arrange the clams around the plate and sprinkle with chopped parsley. And there you have it, two versions of Linguine with Clam Sauce, a New England favorite.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Mother's Day Surf & Turf

Nothing conveys one's love and deep appreciation to one's mother more than a scrumptious plate of food that is lovingly prepared and elegantly presented. This Mother's Day, my wife, a mother of three, received just such a gift, a Surf & Turf dinner made up of a whole Maine lobster and a sirloin steak (as shown above).

Maine lobsters are known the world over for its succulent flesh and sweet, flavorful taste. Lobsters are highly adaptable to the Maine coastline because of its cold, clean water and rocky coast, which provides both shelter from predators and also plenty of small prey to feed on. A major contributor to the state of Maine's economy, lobsters are harvested year round. In order to protect the industry and maintain enough stock of this crustacean for generations to come, sustainability becomes an issue and laws regulating the industry were enacted. Lobsters can only be harvested if they exceed a pound and a quarter in weight. Also, breeding female lobsters that carry eggs on their underbelly (also known as berried) are prohibited from being harvested as well.

For this Surf & Turf, I fired up my trusty Weber charcoal grill and grilled both the steak and the lobster. The lobster's tail hold the majority of the meat and it should be separated from the head and split down the middle. While a pound and a quarter lobster may yield only approximately 5 oz. of meat, it may be the best tasting 5 oz. of meat you might ever eat. Simply salt, pepper and oil both halves of the tail and throw them on the grill. As for the claws, crack the two claws with the blunt end of your knife (so as not to dull the blade) and lay them on the grill as well. Clean the insides of the lobster head thoroughly and put it on the grill as well. The head makes a great presentation item on the plate.

As for the steak, I chose a boneless rib-eye cut, grilled to medium temperature. The steak received the salt and pepper treatment together with some Worcestershire sauce marinade. Simple yet tasty. To finish off this dish, I made some garlic butter and melted it over the lobster meat before serving. Going for a more elegant presentation, I used dressed field greens as the base for the lobster meat. Cut a piece of lemon and add it to the plate to complete the final presentation.

Mothers all over the world would be thrilled with this dish! Good luck!

Panko and Scallion Fried Soft-Shell Blue Crab

The one unique characteristic of crustaceans (crabs, lobsters, shrimp) is its hard outer shell. In order for these creatures to grow, it has to shed its shell and replace it with a new and bigger one every year, much like how a snake sheds its skin. This process is known as molting. When this happens, the molting animal is very vulnerable and has only a soft shell covering its body. The soft shell will slowly harden over time. Between the months of May and July, Maryland blue crabs start molting and before the shells harden, they are harvested and sold as soft-shell crabs that are quite a delicacy. And the best thing about soft-shell crabs? The entire crab is edible: legs, claws, body, everything! Absolutely nothing is wasted.

T'is the season for soft-shell crabs and I've managed to get my hands on four of these delicious crustaceans. There are two popular ways to cook soft-shells: deep frying or pan frying. For this dish, I opted to deep fry them as they really look spectacular when coated with Japanese panko crumbs and deep frying them until golden brown in color.

However, before we start, the crabs need to be "prepared" for cooking. Soft-shell crabs are usually sold live and they have to be cleaned. Using a pair of sharp scissors, start off by snipping across the front portion of the crab, mainly the eyes and mouth area. Then lift the pointy side flaps and remove the gills with the scissors. Finally, turn the crab over and on the rear end, remove yet another flap. I know that this may not be most people's idea of humanely killing an animal but this is the most efficient way to do it and it is done in most restaurants.

Now that the gory deed is done, let's prepare for deep frying. You will need three mixing bowls, one to hold the egg wash, one for the flour and the third one contains the panko crumbs. For this dish, I added chopped scallions strips and also traditional Old Bay seasoning to the panko. Get your deep fryer nice and hot. First coat the crab with egg wash, then flour, egg wash again and finally, the panko crumbs. Deep fry them until golden brown and you have yourself a deliciously crunchy and mouth-watering dish.

As a side dish, I blanched some asparagus and cooked up some mushrooms, shallots and garlic with a touch of cream and dry sherry. Serve the fried crabs on a bed of field greens and voila!, a dish that would definitely be the center of attention at any dinner party. Dig in!

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Biryani Rice Served with Chicken Curry

Indian cuisine is well-known for its menagerie of exotic spices that bequeath the dishes from this sub-continent its unmistakably potent and spicy flavor. An unforgettable feast for all your senses, Indian curries and assorted spiced rice may be the most basic components of a typical Indian family's daily meal but they are oh so delicious and sweat-inducing! For this entry, I will outline how to make the spiced rice.

The spiced rice you see here is known as biryani, popular in South Asia and parts of the Middle East. To make biryani, start with basmati, a variety of long grain rice, cultivated mainly in India and Pakistan. Notable for its fragrance and flavor, basmati is highly suitable for this application. Before you even attempt to make biryani, make sure that you have the following special spices on hand: cumin, coriander, bay leaves, tumeric, cloves, fresh ginger (pureed), cinnamon (not powder but sticks), paprika, mint leaves, cardamom and ghee (or regular unsalted butter if ghee is not available). Ghee is a type of clarified butter that is typically used in Indian cooking and it adds great aroma and taste to any dish.

Start by washing the basmati rice and drying it on a paper towel. Then chop up some garlic and onions and brown them in a pan with ghee, together with one or two cinnamon sticks and the pureed ginger. Cooking the cinnamon this way draws out the oils and smell of the spice. Then add the rest of the special ingredients I mentioned above together with some water. The tumeric and paprika will give the rice a nice yellow and red color. Bring these ingredients to a boil and add the washed basmati rice together with salt and pepper to taste. Cook everything (make sure to evenly coat the rice with the fragrant mix) for a few minutes and then add the correct cups of water (depending on how much rice you used) to the pot and cover. To give extra body to the biryani, I add raisins and green peas to the mix as well. Cook on low heat.

Serve the biryani together with some chicken curry (made separately) and you have yourself an authentic Indian meal.

Springtime Berries Dessert

A super quick yet fresh and decadent dessert, this potent concoction is made up entirely of fresh berries like strawberries, blackberries, blueberries and raspberries. It's springtime, so these various berries are in abundance and are perfect as an after-dinner dessert. An excellent source of vitamins and antioxidants, these berries offer a healthy and delicious choice.

The tartness of the berries contrasts well with the sweet and creamy sauce, which is made up of sour cream, fine sugar and your choice of liquor (which gives this dessert that extra punch). Choices of liquor include dark rum or any types of fruit-flavored liqueurs. Fine tune the amount of sugar and alcohol according to your taste. Top it with a sprig of fresh mint leaves and you have yourself an elegant yet easy-to-make dessert that should impress all your friends. Although I used a wine glass for serving, a much better vessel would be a margarita glass, with its bigger opening for easier access to the fruits.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Cinco de Mayo Fruit Salsa

The Mexican holiday, Cinco de Mayo (Spanish for "5th of May") is coming up in a couple of days and I thought I should whip up some refreshing salsa to celebrate the popularity of Mexican cuisine here in the United States. Salsa refers to any type of sauce but in Mexican cooking, salsa is most often identified as a spicy, tomato-based sauce used as a dip. Typical salsas usually contain tomatoes, chili peppers, onions, lime juice and cilantro. Types of salsa include salsa roja or red sauce, salsa verde or green sauce and salsa cruda (pico de gallo) or raw sauce where the ingredients are not cooked. Even mole (with the addition of chocolate and nuts) and guacamole can be considered a type of salsa.

Here, I've decided to put a twist on the salsa by making a fruit-based salsa. The ingredients include pineapple, peach, red onion, cilantro, red bell pepper, jalapeño and fresh lime juice. As the base for the sauce, I pureed some peach and pineapple slices. In addition, a shot or two of flavored tequila would provide an additional punch to the salsa. The important thing is to let the salsa sit in the refrigerator for a few hours so that all the ingredients can marinade and come together.

Just serve the salsa with some warm tortilla chips and you can have yourself a refreshing snack that's so easy to put together.

Ancient Chinese Stir-Fry Secrets

Stir-frying is a Chinese method of cooking that is easy to do and requires very little preparation. All you need to do is to cut up the vegetables and meat that you intend to use for your stir-fry and you are ready to go. I like to use a combinati0n of snow peas, carrots, scallions, red bell peppers, cauliflower, broccoli and bean sprouts, as they are not only flavorful when cooked together but is also pleasing to the eye, with the various mix of colors. As for the choice of meat for stir-frying, pork (cut into thin strips) and shrimp are popular choices. Stir-frying large chunks of meat is not advisable as you want this dish to be quick and easy and not having to cook the meat for 30 minutes to an hour is a good thing. To provide additional flavoring to the dish, one can add a touch of oyster sauce, rice cooking wine and instead of using salt, try soy sauce instead.

Start off by sweating the onions and garlic in a wok. Add your choice of meat and cook it all the way through. Stir in some soy sauce, oyster sauce and some water and then add your hardy vegetables like carrots, red bell pepper, cauliflower and broccoli. Mix together everything in the wok and cover it to let the vegetables cook. To finish off this dish, add the vegetables that would wilt quickly like bean sprouts, snow peas and scallions and cook them together for just a couple of minutes. Add more water if you need to. To thicken up the sauce a little, use a touch of corn starch slurry (not too much or everything will clump together and be a starchy mess). You can also crack an egg into the sauce to thicken it up and give the sauce a unique texture.

For this dish, I'm also using cooked rice noodles and pan-frying them until they become crispy. This Hong Kong-style dish can be found in most Chinese restaurants. Now, arrange the noodles on your serving platter and pour your stir fry over it and you have yourself a delicious, easy-to-prepare meal for the family.

Above is another example of a stir-fry with another set of ingredients. You can practically use any type of vegetables that you want and not have to worry about it being conceptually wrong. That is the beauty of a Chinese stir-fry--there is no wrong or right way, as long as it turns out delicious in the end.

Shhhhhh......and that, my friends, is the big, ancient secret.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

The Wild Ones: A Tale of the King and the Pretender

Known for its high content of protein, vitamins and the much-publicized Omega-3 fatty acids (ALA, DHA, EPA), salmon is a popular fish for many consumers due to these health-related properties. Salmon can be divided into two species, the Atlantic and the Pacific. Here in the United States, Atlantic Ocean salmon is typically farm-raised while the Pacific Ocean species are wild. The majority of salmon that one buys from the local grocery store is farm-raised Atlantic Ocean salmon and can be found all year round. Wild Pacific Ocean salmon is more exclusive and is only available at certain times of the year, making it a much-sought after menu item. Tests have also shown that the levels of Omega-3 fatty acids are much higher in wild salmon than the farm-raised one. These and other factors have contributed to raising the price of wild-caught salmon to almost twice as much as its farm-raised cousin.

Three popular examples of wild salmon that usually find their way to market are the Sockeye, Coho and King (or Chinook). Found mostly in British Columbia, the King salmon is the largest of the Pacific Ocean species, able to grow to well over 30 lbs. Here, I have grilled a 1 lb. fillet of first run King salmon. This is still early in the season for wild salmon and the fish caught at this time of year usually would not have shed the fat that was gained over the winter months, making it an even more delectable meal. The meat of this fish exhibits are much darker shade of red than the typical orange of Atlantic salmon. This color difference is due to the fish's diet. Like sashimi-grade tuna, which is popularly consumed rare or medium rare, salmon is slowly gaining popularity in this aspect of consumption as well, more so when it comes to wild salmon. For such a great specimen as this one, undercooking it is highly recommended. Overcooking and drying out the meat would be a major sin. For people who may be squeamish about eating raw food, I would suggest a medium-well temperature that should still preserve the moistness and the incredible flavor of the King salmon.

Before grilling, I made an herb oil marinate that I generously lather all over the salmon. This marinade consists of fresh herbs like thyme, rosemary, sage, oregano and also garlic. Simply ground up these ingredients and add olive oil and you have yourself a nice fragrant herb rub that can be used on almost any kinds of grilled meat or seafood. In addition to the marinate, season the salmon with salt and pepper as well.

If you notice in the pictures above, there is a yet unknown piece of fish residing next to the beautiful piece of salmon. It is a shark steak, typically mako. While it may look like a swordfish steak at first glance, shark meat is less dense and just a little flakier than swordfish. It is a hardy fish and the meat should be cooked all the way through. Like the salmon, generously rub the herb marinate on both sides of the shark steak, season it with salt and pepper and start grilling.

For this presentation, I also grilled sweet corn and tossed a Caesar salad to go along with the meal. With just a little pink in the middle, my wife and I thoroughly enjoyed the slightly oily, moist and sweet flavor of the King salmon. Even our youngest daughter, who is a very picky eater, kept taking bites out of the salmon. Grilling the salmon with the skin on is highly recommended as the fat content between the skin and the meat is released into the meat and helps keep it moist. And if the skin is grilled until it becomes crispy, it can be a delicious accompaniment to the meal.

Without a doubt, the King is alive and well!