Saturday, February 20, 2010

Let's Take Stock - Versatile Chicken Stock

One of the most useful ingredients in a kitchen is none other than versatile chicken stock, a flavorful and fragrant cooking liquid that can be utilized in soups and sauces, as a braising liquid, etc. Restaurants produce their own supply of chicken stock by the tens of gallons each week and so can you, albeit on a much smaller and manageable scale. I find myself using maybe one or two quarts of chicken stock a week in my daily cooking and that's about the amount that a regular home cook really ever needs.

While its versatility cannot be ignored, chicken stock is not an expensive endeavor at all. All you are using are really mostly scraps collected from your daily cooking. Here're what you need:

1 -2 lbs. of chicken bones (washed, fat removed)
Carrots, Celery, Onions (25%, 25%, 50% respectively)
2 sprigs of thyme
2 bay leaves (dried or fresh)
1 bunch parsley stems
1 teaspoon peppercorns (optional)

Chicken bones can be obtained when you remove the chicken meat from the bones during cooking. Wash the bones thoroughly to remove most of the blood and fat, which serves no purpose at all but produce a dirty byproduct (also known as scum) that must eventually be scooped off anyway. As you slowly accumulate these bones, you can store them in your freezer until you have enough to make your stock.

The combination of carrots, celery and onions is known as mirepoix in culinary circles. It is used most often for making stocks and braising meats and serves the purpose of providing even more body to a liquid already deeply flavored by the bones. To keep cost down, I supplement the mirepoix with scraps from the three vegetables produced in the course of my daily cooking. These scraps include carrot skins and the ends of carrots, onions and celery that would otherwise be discarded. There is nothing fundamentally wrong with using these throwaway parts in making stocks because they would be eventually thrown away anyway after all the flavors have been extracted from them. Just make sure you wash them first to remove any grit or dirt. Also, in place of onions, you can even use the white-colored root ends of scallions.

Getting the stock started is as easy as placing all the above ingredients in a stock pot and filling it up with cold water. The amount of water should be enough to just immerse everything. Too much water and the stock will be too thin. Turn on the heat and let it come to a slow simmer. Do not stir the ingredients while the pot is simmering as this will disperse the scum that usually accumulates at the surface. Every thirty minutes or so, use a spoon to remove the scum. Continue simmering the pot for about 2 - 3 hours (depending on how big a pot you are making) and the chicken stock should be ready. All you need to do now is to strain the liquid from the solids. Let the stock cool down to room temperature before storing it. Chicken stock can be stored for about 1 - 2 weeks in the refrigerator or up to a month in the freezer.

Be careful not to over-reduce the stock. Believe it or not, contrary to popular belief, some flavor is lost when chicken stock is over-reduced. If you need to reinforce the stock, make another batch of chicken stock using existing chicken stock in addition to water.

Now you can enjoy homemade chicken stock in your everyday cooking!

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Happy Chinese New Year 2010!

Gong Xi Fa Cai!

Today, February 14th 2010, is not only Valentine's Day, it is also the first day of Chinese New Year. Based on the Chinese lunar calendar, CNY celebrations start on the first day of the new moon and end with the Lantern Festival 14 days later. The lunar calendar goes on a 12-year cycle, with each year named after a certain animal. This year, it is the Year of the Tiger, the third animal in the cycle. According to traditional beliefs, a person's personality and traits are profoundly influenced by which of the 12 Chinese zodiac signs that they were born in. Tigers are physically powerful, gracious, independent and extremely bold animals and Tiger babies are known to be lucky, friendly, resilient and loving but also selfish and incorrigibly competitive.

Growing up in the state of Penang, Malaysia, the Teh household celebrates each Chinese New Year with a rousing reunion dinner on the eve of the holiday. This is a long-held tradition that is practiced by Chinese communities all over the world. Family members from all over will return to their ancestral home, usually the home that they were born in, to attend this all-important dinner. It is a chance to not only pay respect to the patriarchs and matriarchs of the family, usually parents or grandparents who might still be living there but also of course, to feast on traditional dishes.

The Teh family reunion dinner consists of a community style hot pot or more popularly known locally as "steamboat." For those of you who may not be familiar with this style of food, it is most like the more familiar Japanese hot pot variant, shabu-shabu. When I was much younger, the "steamboat" vessel was heated with burning charcoal and as the years went by, electric versions eventually replaced those old relics. Here is a picture of a traditional charcoal-powered steamboat:

A steamboat dinner consists of a heated pot filled with delicious chicken or pork broth/stock made early in the morning and left to simmer for hours. And around this hot pot are various raw food components like sliced chicken and pork, shrimp (usually with the head intact), scallops, fish balls, squid, quail eggs, rice noodles, chicken liver, oyster mushrooms, Chinese cabbage, etc. The dinner usually starts off with everyone adding their favorite food items into the broth. While waiting for the broth to get up to temperature and start cooking the food, dinner conversations usually range from updates about what everyone is up to these days to the latest neighborhood gossips. As you can imagine, the more food is cooked in the broth, the more flavorful it becomes. So, by the end of dinner, we'll end up with the most intensely tasty soup that can be used for an impromptu soup noodle dish in the coming days.

Without a doubt, the reunion dinner steamboat is food heaven and certainly my favorite food memory come every Chinese New Year. To this day, I am still trying to recreate this dish with my own family here in the United States. And I am slowly getting closer to perfection each and every year.

Here's wishing everyone a prosperous new year and good health to all! Have a great Chinese New Year!

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Herb-Roasted Pork Loin over Chorizo & Tomato Sauce Pasta

Here is a family meal that is not only yummy-licious but very hearty as well. I am usually an advocate of meals that can be made in 30 minutes or less but I just had to make an exception here due to an exciting idea for a pasta dish that took root when I came across pork tenderloins that were on sale at my local grocery store. It takes about an hour or so to prepare and cook but I assure you, the end result will totally be worth all the effort. Besides, Valentine's Day is just around the corner and this will be a great dish to impress your sweetie with.

There are three components to this dish: the pasta, the sauce and the pork tenderloin. I usually start off by preparing the pasta before anything else. Get a pot of salted water going on the stove. While waiting for the water to come to a rolling boil, get the pork tenderloin prepped. If there is a layer of fat on the pork, you have the choice of removing all or only part of it. My advice is to leave some of the fat on the piece of loin in order to have it slowly melt away while roasting, which acts like a natural baster for the pork and helps keep the meat moist. Here are the ingredients that I used to coat the pork tenderloin:

Olive oil
Salt & Pepper
Garlic and onion powder
Paprika (plus a little cayenne pepper if you like a little heat)
Dried thyme and oregano flakes
Coriander powder

Rub the olive oil all over and liberally salt and pepper the entire tenderloin. Next, coat it with the rest of the ingredients, making sure you cover all sides of the meat. It is now ready to go into the oven (pre-heated to 400F) uncovered. Depending on the size and thickness of the tenderloin, you might be looking at between 45 minutes to an hour of roasting time.

Okay, at this time, the salted water must be boiling away in the pot. So let's start cooking the pasta (it can be either linguine or spaghetti). As usual, all pasta should be cook until al dente, removing it from the pot and cooling it under running cold water just before it is cooked all the way, leaving just a little firmness as you bite into it. Pour some oil over the pasta and mix it well as you set it aside to cool down. This will prevent the pasta from sticking to each other.

Let's now move on to making perhaps the most important component of this dish: the chorizo and tomato sauce. I am using the Spanish pork sausage, chorizo as a way to enhance the flavor of the sauce. The heavily spiced chorizo imparts a distinct smokiness and a little bit of heat that is just a wonderful taste to behold. Here are the ingredients that you'll need to make the sauce:

2 medium cans of whole peeled tomatoes.
4 cloves of garlic (crushed, not minced)
1/2 an onion (julienned)
3 tablespoons white wine (Sauvignon Blanc or Chardonnay)
Chorizo (15 - 20 slices)
4 - 5 fresh Basil leaves (or 2 teaspoons of dried basil, whichever's readily available)
2 sprigs of fresh thyme
1 bay leaf
2 tablespoons Olive oil
Salt & pepper to taste

In a medium sized pot, start off by sweating the onions in olive oil until it becomes soft. Add the garlic and chorizo and continue cooking for another 2 - 3 minutes or so. Deglaze the pot by adding the white wine and scrape the bottom of the pot to get the bits and pieces of chorizo that's been left behind. Now, add the tomatoes and all the herbs. Crush the tomatoes with a slotted spoon and stir the pot well, finally bringing the heat down to a simmer. Continue simmering the pot and let all the ingredients cook slowly. If the sauce becomes too thick too quickly, add some water and continue cooking some more. Finish it by seasoning with salt and pepper. Remember to remove the bay leaf and sprigs of thyme when the sauce is done.

Oh, there is still one more secret ingredient that will be sure to bring the sauce into a whole new dimension. You will notice some jus left behind on the pan where you roasted the pork tenderloin. Adding this jus to the sauce will not only incorporate incredible flavors into it, nothing else will come close!

Now you are ready to assemble the dish. Heat up the pasta in the microwave and plate it. Next up is the sauce. Spoon a liberal amount of it onto the top of the pasta and sprinkle it with a mix of grated mozarella and parmesan cheeses. Slice the herb-roasted pork tenderloin and lay them on the plate leaning up against the pasta. Finally, garnish with chopped scallions.

Bon Appétit!

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Panko-Crusted Tilapia with Sweet Soy & Ginger Sauce

Without a doubt in my mind, the fresh water-dwelling tilapia is a highly underrated fish. People like to gush about the fabulous texture and taste of the Chilean sea bass, the Alaskan halibut or even the Pacific wild salmon but the heart-healthy tilapia can offer the same nutritious and delicious meal without breaking the bank. The old adage of you get what you pay for doesn't necessarily apply here. Its freshwater habitat, together with extensive aquaculture production practices may have unfairly rendered the tilapia to the rank of over-abundance, hence the reason why this fish is held in such low regard among seafood connoisseurs and general foodies alike. However, the almost neutral taste of its subtle yet flaky white meat certainly cannot be overlooked. The term neutral, when applied to food taste may not seem to incite much, if any excitement at all but when prepared properly and with the right companion ingredients, can enhance the flavor of the fish without losing its original character.

Through my rather unscientific experimentation of seeking the best way to cook the tilapia, I finally zeroed in on this deep-fried panko-crusted preparation. It seems to elicit the best reaction among the few people that have had the chance (or misfortune) to sit through my several Dr. Evil-like tilapia concoctions.

First, let me start off by describing how to prepare the tilapia, which employs the standard breading procedure of flour, egg wash and breadcrumbs (in this case, we are using the Japanese panko breadcrumbs instead). You'll need:

3 tilapia fillets
1 cup all-purpose flour
2 large eggs (add 1 tablespoon of milk or cream and beat)
1 1/2 cups of Panko breadcrumbs (seasoned with salt and pepper or a little cayenne pepper)

I find that it is very important to season the fish first with salt and pepper before you start breading. As the tilapia is very neutral tasting, over seasoning helps to bring the flavor out even more. Get a wok or a fryer going with a decent amount of vegetable oil (enough to cover the entire fish when deep frying). Heat up the oil to about 400F. Start by rolling the fish in flour, then the egg wash and finally coat it with the seasoned panko. Drop it gently into the oil and let it cook for about 5 minutes or until the exterior crumbs turn light brown. This is when you should pull it out onto a paper towel-lined plate to drain the excess oil. As the fish continues to cook (carryover cooking) while it sits on the plate, you will notice that the browning of the crumbs will get a little darker. So you should prejudge how dark you want the fish to be when you pull it out of the oil. Repeat this procedure with all the tilapia fillets. Set them aside when you are done as you prepare the sauce.

For the sauce, you'll need:

3 tablespoons of sweet soy sauce
1 tablespoon of fish sauce
1 tablespoon of rice cooking wine
1 tablespoon of soy sauce (add more as needed)
1 medium-sized shallot (minced)
Ginger (1 inch in size) (minced)
2-3 cloves Garlic (minced)
1/2 - 1 cup water
1 teaspoon of cornstarch (to thicken the sauce if needed)

Start off by heating 1 tablespoon of oil in a skillet. Cook the shallot and ginger until fragrant, then add the garlic. Cook for another minute and then deglaze the skillet with the cooking wine, scraping the skillet as you go. Add in the sweet soy, soy and fish sauces and the water. Bring the sauce to a boil and then put it into a simmer as you reduce the liquid slightly. Taste and adjust the seasoning as you go. You are looking at a balance of sweetness and salt. When you've achieved that balance and if the sauce if still too liquid, you can certainly thicken it with a little cornstarch. Remember to dissolve the cornstarch first in cold water before adding it into the sauce. Bring the sauce to a final boil while you continue stirring. At this point, the sauce is ready. All you'll have to do now is to reheat the tilapia and prepare some scallions as garnish for your plate. I'm using lettuce leaves as a bottom liner to place the fish on. Spoon the sauce over the fish and and top with the chopped scallions. You are now ready to serve your panko-crusted tilapia with sweet soy and ginger sauce.