Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Hot Off the Wok - Stir-fried Kai Lan with Shrimp

Kai lan (also known as Chinese broccoli or Chinese kale) is a leafy vegetable frequently used in Chinese cuisine, mostly as a stir-fried dish. It consists of large green leaves, thick stems and flowering buds similar to those found in broccoli. It is a very traditional Chinese ingredient (the name itself says it all) and is best cooked as a stir-fry dish or steamed (or boiled). When steamed, it is served with an oyster sauce and sesame oil concoction.

As for this stir-fry dish, here are the ingredients that you'll need:

1 lb kai lan (cut off about an inch or two off the bottom stem)
1/2 lb shrimps (shelled)
1/2 lb button mushrooms (quartered)
2 carrots (sliced)
1 teaspoon of minced fresh ginger
1/2 an onion (julienned)
3 cloves of garlic
1 teaspoon oyster sauce
Salt and ground black pepper to taste

Heat up some oil in your wok. Start by sautéing the onions and carrots until soft. Add the shrimp and cook until it turns orange-red. Then add the garlic and ginger and cook for another minute. Finally add the kai lan, mushrooms and oyster sauce. Mix up the ingredients in the wok well and add about half a cup of water and cover the wok. When the kai lan is tender, the dish is ready. Plate it and serve. Enjoy!

Thursday, March 25, 2010

The Flavor Bible

Every once in a while, someone would come up to me and ask if there is a single cookbook that I can do without in the kitchen. My answer would always be The Flavor Bible: The Essential Guide to Culinary Creativity, Based on the Wisdom of America's Most Imaginative Chefs by Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg. It is not a cookbook per se but is an essential guide for any aspiring home chefs looking to put their creative juices to the test and come up with great new flavors. The book goes through almost every imaginable ingredient--from herbs and spices to kobe beef and garam masala--and lists down all other ingredients that go well with it, highlighting the classic (and sometime surprising) pairings (listed as "Flavor Affinities" in the book) along with quotes from famous chefs briefly noting how they use said ingredients in their restaurants. This book can be perceived as a compilation of sorts but I see it more like an encompassing reference guide whenever I have a certain ingredient that I'm looking to use but can't think of what should go with it. Laid out in alphabetical order--starting with achiote seeds and ending with zucchini blossoms--The Flavor Bible is the only book I would need if I was stuck on a desert island with foreign ingredients on hand. It is MY essential guide to the culinary world. It should be yours too!

Highly recommended.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Asian-Style Chicken Stew - A One Pot Meal

I love one-pot meals. It not only makes cooking an easier process but at the end of the meal, there are less dishes to wash! One of my favorite one-pot dish is the ever popular chicken stew, only this time I'm making one with an Asian twist. Let's start with getting the following list of ingredients ready:

1.5 lbs chicken thighs, drumsticks and breasts
3 medium-sized carrots (diced)
3 Yukon Gold potatoes (diced)
3 stalks of celery (cut into 1-inch segments)
2 medium-sized onions (diced)
1 cup of frozen peas
4 cloves garlic (minced)
4 sprigs of thyme
2 bay leaves
2 sticks of cinnamon
1 teaspoon whole black peppercorns
1/2 tablespoon Lee Kum Kee Vegetable Stir-fry Sauce
1 tablespoon Shaoxing wine (Chinese rice cooking wine - sherry can be used as a substitute)
Salt or soy sauce to taste

Prepare the chicken pieces by removing the excess fat and the skin as well (if you don't like them). I would cut up the breasts into at least a couple of pieces to facilitate the cooking process. Now remember, all you need is one pot to do all your cooking in. Get your stock pot up to temperature with about 1 tablespoon of cooking oil. Start by sautéing the cinnamon sticks until you smell a nice aroma wafting through the kitchen. Then add all the vegetables (potatoes, celery onions, carrots, peas and garlic) and sauté until slightly browned.

Remove the contents of the pot into a big bowl temporarily and let's sauté the chicken next. When the chicken turns slightly brown, add the vegetables back into the pot and stir to mix everything up thoroughly. Add the thyme, bay leaves, whole black peppercorns, Shaoxing wine and stir-fry sauce and stir again. Let the pot simmer for about 3 - 5 minutes and then add enough water to just cover almost all the contents in the pot. Cover and bring down the heat to medium low and let the pot simmer for about 45 minutes or until the chicken is cooked.

Taste the stew and season with either salt or low-sodium soy sauce. If the consistency of the stew is watery, you can use 1 -2 tablespoons of corn starch slurry to thicken it. And there you have it, a one-pot Asian-style chicken stew.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Sun-dried Tomato Cream Sauce

Here is an easy-to-make pasta sauce that is rich, creamy and most of all, full of flavors. The main ingredient in this sauce is sun-dried tomatoes, a staple in Italy but more of a gourmet food item here in the U.S. Originating from Italy, sun-drying tomatoes was a process that was used as a way to store tomatoes for the winter. Sun-dried tomatoes are exactly what its namesake implies: ripe tomatoes that are left out under the sun to dry out. Under the circumstances, these tomatoes can lose up to 90% of its original weight. In fact, if you have excess tomatoes growing in your home garden, it is easy to sun-dry your own tomatoes. For anyone who is concerned about the tomatoes losing its nutritional value after sun-drying, have no fear as the tomatoes are still able to maintain a good level of both vitamins A, C and E as well as its low-sodium, low-fat content.

Getting back to our sun-dried tomato cream sauce, here are the ingredients needed to make it:

8 oz. sun-dried tomatoes (julienned)
2 plum tomatoes (deseeded & diced) - optional
3 fresh basil leaves (or 1 teaspoon of dried basil flakes)
1/2 teaspoon of dried oregano
Half an onion (diced)
5 cloves of garlic
1 tablespoon of ketchup
3 cups of heavy cream
1 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1 tablespoon of white wine
4 oz. unsalted butter
Salt & pepper to taste

Start off by melting the butter in a saucepan. Add the onions and cook until softened. Next, add the garlic and sun-dried tomatoes. Cook for another minute and then add the ketchup, basil, oregano and white wine. Let the mix simmer for a few minutes and then finally add the heavy cream and Parmesan cheese. Stir, taste and season with salt and pepper. Simmer for about another 10 minutes to let all the ingredients come together.

And there you have it, your very own sun-dried tomato cream sauce that goes very well with any kinds of pasta. I suggest adding pork sausage and spinach to the sauce and pasta. The sauce holds well in the refrigerator for about a week. So making a large batch of maybe a quart will enable you to use it for 2 -3 meals, which should make meal planning for the week much easier.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Belacan Pork Loin with Sambal Asparagus

As a follow on to my previous blog post of making sambal belacan, here are a couple of dishes that are easy to make and utilize the same ingredients. First, the belacan pork loin, a variation of the more common belacan chicken, a dish that I enjoyed throughout my childhood. All you need to do before cooking the pork loin is to marinade them in a mix of the following:

2 teaspoons of belacan (toasted and grounded)
2 eggs
1 cup rice flour
1 teaspoon of ground black pepper

To replace rice flour, regular all-purpose flour can be utilized as well but the outer coating surrounding the pork would not be as light and fluffy. Also, no salt is needed as the belacan is pretty salty to begin with. Add the above ingredients in a mixing bowl and thoroughly mix with a whisk. Cut the pork loin (1-1.5 lbs) into slices of 1/2-inch thickness and let them marinade for no less than an hour. The marination process allows the flavor to penetrate the pork and infuse itself into the meat naturally.

Now let's set the pork aside and prepare the asparagus. Here's what you will need:

1 lb. asparagus spears (with the ends removed and cut into 2-inch segments)
Quarter of an onion (julienned)
2 cloves garlic
3 -4 oz. dried shrimp (hydrated and rough chopped)
1 tablespoon sambal belacan

Get a wok working by heating up 1 tablespoon of vegetable oil. Start off by sweating the onions together with the dried shrimp. Next, add the garlic and cook for another minute. Add the segmented asparagus together with the sambal belacan and throughly mix and cook until the asparagus is tender. By now, you'll notice a strong and spicy aroma coming from inside the wok.

Now let's get back to the pork that has been marinating. Get a small pot of oil heating, with enough oil to fill up to at least a couple of inches of the pot. When the temperature of the oil comes up to 400F, you can start deep-frying the pork slices. With the thin pork slices, it shouldn't take too long to cook. When the pork turns golden brown, it is ready. Remove from the oil and let it sit on paper towels to drain the excess oil.

These two dishes are perfect when enjoyed with just plain white rice. As with any Malaysian meal, it will definitely not be complete without a side of sambal belacan as a spicy condiment!

Bon Appétit!

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Sambal Belacan (Malaysian condiment with a nasty kick!)

Very popular in the South-East Asian countries of Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore, sambal is a chili-based sauce that is most often used as a spicy condiment that goes with just about anything and everything served in those countries. What started out as an ubiquitous sauce used mainly in traditional Malay dishes, sambal has inevitably found its way into the cuisines of Malaysia's multi-cultural society. For instance, one's morning can begin with a kick start when sambal ikan bilis (crispy fried anchovies cooked with sambal) is served as an essential accompaniment to nasi lemak, a rich coconut milk and screwpine leaf-scented rice breakfast dish. It is also a must-have condiment when eating the hearty Indian-Muslim specialty of nasi kandar, a rice-based dish served with your choice of as much as 20 or more different types of curries and kormas. Not to be left out, the Chinese community in Malaysia has also embraced the spicy sambal as an essential sauce that goes with most anything, be it fried noodles or rice or even in soup-base dishes. Even the very traditional Hainanese Chicken Rice dish (hailing from Hainan province in China) is served with its own version of sambal, one that comes with the inclusion of minced ginger and garlic.

Now that we know what sambal is, what about belacan? Well, it is certainly not for someone with a weak stomach or nose. Like the infamous durian, the thorny fruit whose smell has often been described as resembling a dirty toilet or wet socks, belacan has its own unique pungent aroma. Made from sun-dried ground shrimp, it is left to ferment for days before it is sold in the shape of brown rectangular blocks. To Western noses, belacan can be pretty unappetizing but when combined with sambal, it creates a new dimension of smell and flavor. The smokiness and decidedly strong aroma provides a nice counterpoint to the spiciness of the sambal, unapologetically showcasing what South-East Asian cuisine is all about: strong flavors with just a little uneasy pungency. Belacan is quite a rare item here in the U.S. and can only be found in certain Asian specialty stores. It can be quite hard to procure unless you have the right connections!

Growing up in Malaysia, no meal is complete without sambal belacan. It is easy to make and can last up to a week in the refrigerator. Here is what you need:

2 oz block of belacan
8 red jalapeños (deseeded)
3 - 4 Thai bird chilis (deseeded)
3 tablespoons of fresh squeezed lime juice
1 teaspoon of sugar
Salt to taste

First, the belacan needs to be toasted. Be careful to turn on your stove's hood ventilator because the pungent smell will permeate just about everywhere (just ask my kids as they head out the door to escape!). When softened, you can either use a mortar and pestle to ground it up or just cut it into smaller cubes to get it ready for the food processor. Traditionally, sambal belacan is prepared exclusively on a mortar and pestle but less than a minute in a modern food processor should provide the same result as well. Some people like their sambal belacan a little on the chunky side where you can still make out tiny pieces of the various chilis. And this is achievable only on a mortar and pestle. When using a food processor, pretty much everything is shredded fine (just like what you see in the picture above). So, just add all the ingredient above into the food processor and voila! sambal belacan.

Monday, March 15, 2010

The Cove and the Rising Mercury

At the recently concluded 2010 Academy Awards, The Cove won the Oscar for Best Documentary and at the same time, struck a glancing blow to the Japanese whaling industry and the despicable and heinous practice of culling dolphins for food in the deceptively tranquil Japanese coastal city of Taiji. A few weeks before the awards show aired, NPR (National Public Radio) ran an interesting interview piece with the director of The Cove, Louie Psihoyos. The interview piqued my interest not just for the intrigue of the documentary's main subject matter but most importantly, its clear message for ocean and cetacean preservation and also the imminent dangers of a poisonous element called mercury that has inevitably found its way into our food system. It has opened my eyes to the dangers of mercury in our seafood and also quite frankly, changed my perception of eating delicacies like tuna sashimi. For a chef, this is like a giant blow to the head since I now can't and won't prepare, cook or serve one of my favorite foods. The Cove is certainly a must-see documentary for just about everybody, not just environmentalists or animal lovers but also for people in the food industry, especially environmentally- and socially-conscious chefs.

In this post, I would like to talk about the clear and present dangers of mercury levels found in many fish that has found its way onto our dining tables. As all of you may know, mercury is a toxic heavy metal that at high levels, will cause a debilitating disease known as mercury poisoning that can cause horrific damage to the brain, kidney and lungs. It is especially dangerous to pregnant women and young children. The main source of mercury ingestion is unfortunately through the seafood that we consume everyday, especially the larger and long-lived predator fish like tuna, shark, swordfish, marlin and bass. Through a process known as biomagnification, these predator fish slowly accumulates the amount of mercury in its system over a long period of time as it preys on other smaller fish, which ingest the mercury found in our polluted seas and lakes. And since mercury is non-soluble and does not degrade over time, the mercury in these predator fish will reach alarming levels the longer it lives and eats.

There is a "Special Features" segment on the DVD of The Cove that tells the story of a group of Japanese scientists who experimented with just eating tuna for a whole month, kind of like what filmmaker Morgan Spurlock did in his documentary Super Size Me when he ate nothing but food from McDonald's for a whole month and demonstrated the ill-effects of it. As you may have guessed, the levels of mercury found in these scientists was nothing short of alarming. And the worse part is, their mercury levels shot up even more when they consumed the expensive sashimi-grade blue-fin tuna when compared to the cheaper tuna meat. This revelation made me heave a sigh of relief because I've not had tuna in months since it was way too expensive to purchase. I guess I should thank the crappy economy for my good fortune!

So pass the message along and stop or reduce your consumption of these predator fish. It is only through the mass conscious efforts of consumers, chefs and other people in the food industry that can inevitably change the way business is run. Let's do our parts and save the environment for our children and their children and at the same time, save ourselves.

Monday, March 8, 2010

The Love Child of Aloo Gobi and Palak Paneer: Aloo Palak!

What happens when you don't have all the right ingredients to make a specific dish? Well, you adjust and improvise, of course. What started out as an endeavor to recreate one of my favorite Indian dishes, aloo gobi, became a small exercise in kitchen improvisation. Aloo gobi is a Punjabi dry curry delicacy made with potatoes and cauliflower. This is a dish that was made famous in the hit crossover British-Indian movie, "Bend It Like Beckham."

Assuming that I still had half a head of cauliflower in my refrigerator, I noted down all the other aloo gobi ingredients that I had to buy from my weekly grocery shopping trip. When I was finally ready to make the aloo gobi, it was only then that I found one of the major components--the cauliflower--was missing. Then it hit me that I had already used it a couple of days before. Duh! So what am I to do without any cauliflower? Rummaging through the refrigerator, I found a block of frozen spinach. On a whim, I decided to substitute the cauliflower with spinach instead, which essentially turns the dish into aloo palak! "Aloo" is the Hindi word for potato while "palak" (as in palak paneer, the well-known spinach and paneer cheese dish) means spinach.

So let's first start with the ingredients that you'll need to make aloo palak:

1 lb Yukon Gold potatoes (peeled and 1/2" dice)
1 block of frozen chopped spinach (by all means, use fresh spinach as a substitute is possible)
1 medium can diced tomatoes
3 cloves garlic
2 teaspoons of minced fresh ginger
1/4 of a red onion (small dice)
Cilantro leaves from about 10 stems (chopped)
2 teaspoons coriander powder
2 teaspoons cumin powder
1 1/2 tablespoons of turmeric powder
1 teaspoon chili powder (cayenne is also acceptable)
1/2 teaspoon fresh ground black pepper
3 cloves
3 cardamom pods
1/2 cup coconut milk
Salt to taste

Start off by cooking the ginger and onions in a hot, oiled skillet for about 2 minutes. Add the garlic and continue stirring for about 30 seconds. Next, add the potatoes plus all the spices and stir the mixture well so that the spices coat everything in the skillet. Pour in about 1/2 cup of water , stir again, turn the heat down to medium low and let it simmer for approximately 30 minutes or until the potatoes become tender. Every five minutes or so, stir the contents of the skillet and add a little water if the pan gets too dry. In the last 5 minutes of cooking, add the spinach, the coconut milk and season with salt. Just before serving, add the chopped cilantro. As a companion to the dish, you can serve with with warm naan bread or roti paratha.

For anyone interested to learn more about Indian cuisine, one of the best cooking books on the subject is 660 Curries by Raghavan Iyer.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Be Brave and Brine!

Go to any restaurant and order a chicken Caesar salad. Most of the time (not all, mind you), the slices of grilled chicken that accompanies the salad will be well-seasoned and moist. Have you ever wondered how these restaurants are able to consistently not overcook the chicken breast? It is not just because they have skilled chefs cooking the chicken. Yes, it does take some amount of skill and experience not to overcook meat but it has more to do with widening the cooking window just a tad wider so that the margin of error is bigger, which helps tremendously especially when it is a busy restaurant. Anyone who has experienced grilling or roasting chicken breast before will know that it is just as easy to produce a dried-out piece of meat (essentially a hockey puck!) as it is to break the yolk in a sunny-side-up egg preparation.

The secret, I learned, is to place the meat in a brining liquid for a period of time before cooking. Brining, a process similar to marination, is an oft-overlooked step in the cooking process that really helps to keep the meat that you are cooking not only moist but seasoned as well. Brining, of course, takes some time--usually about 30 minutes or more--and this may be why many of us busy home cooks do not do it. When you have to juggle kids, work and getting dinner ready, who has time to brine their meats, right? I totally empathize with the notion of hurried parents struggling to put a nutritious meal on the table. I too go through it every day! However, just a little effort in brining goes a long way in improving the flavor of your dishes. Trust me.

As many of you already know, brining is an essential step when preparing the Thanksgiving roast turkey and is most typically used for chicken and pork as well. Other meats like beef and lamb are not usually brined because they are almost always cooked to a medium-rare to medium temperature (thus losing less moisture) and do not gain much benefit from brining.

So how does brining work? First, let's talk about what goes into a brining liquid. The universal formula is a combination of 2 parts salt and 1 part sugar. In addition, you can (but not necessary) add pickling spices which typically consists of cinnamon sticks, black peppercorns, cloves, allspice, juniper berries, mustard seeds, bay leaves, dill seeds, coriander seeds, whole mace and dried red pepper. McCormick sells good pickling spice and should be widely available in most local supermarkets. To every quart of water (cold), you add 1 cup of salt (preferably a combination of 3/4 kosher and 1/4 table salt) and 1/2 cup of sugar. One quart is sufficient for one pound of food, just make sure that the meat is submerged in the liquid. Brining time should be no less than 30 minutes and not more than 8 hours.

To explain how brining works, I have to get a little scientific and explain the process of osmosis and diffusion. In nature, things tend to want to keep to a state of equilibrium. The law of diffusion states that molecules like to flow from areas of greater concentration to areas of lower concentration, thus evening out the concentration and achieving equilibrium. When submerging a piece of raw meat in a brining liquid, which has a much higher concentration of salt and sugar, those molecules will flow into the meat, whose cells contain lesser concentration.

Next is the process of osmosis. It is the turn of the water molecules to flow from the outside (the brining liquid contains more water) and into the meat (the cells have less water concentration), helping to start the meat out with more moisture. The salt and sugar also interacts with the meat proteins to form an invisible barrier that captures and holds moisture better. So brining helps in two ways by keeping the meat moist and also well-seasoned during cooking. When removed from the brining liquid, the meat should be washed thoroughly under cold running water. Pat it dry with paper towels and let it air-dry for a few minutes. This step is essential for poultry if you are looking to get crispy skins during cooking.

Now that we know the benefits of brining, meals could and should be planned a little ahead of time. I understand that this is not always possible due to time constraints but as I mentioned earlier, a little effort does go a long way in improving the flavor and quality of your dishes.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Yo Quiero Beef Taco!

Without a doubt, most of us remember the wise-cracking chihuahua from the Taco Bell commercials of yore, spouting the the now-legendary catchphrase, "Yo Quiero Taco Bell!" or "I want Taco Bell". The popularity of the taco has boomed in the United States ever since wily entrepreneur Glen Bell opened his first taco stand in San Bernadino, CA, experimenting and perfecting the process of delivering delicious tacos to the masses, much like what McDonald's had done to the hamburger many years earlier. Along the way, Taco Bell, for better or worse, brought Mexican food into the mainstream, launching a south-of-the-border food craze that hasn't abated since. The taco is a simple traditional Mexican dish made up of a tortilla shell (either wheat or corn) wrapped around a particular type of filling (usually beef, pork or fish) and today I'll show you how to make a simple beef taco with everything that can easily be found in your local supermarket.

Here's what you'll need:

Beef filling:
1 - 1.5lb of fresh ground beef (makes between 8 - 12 tacos)
1 onion (small dice)
5 cloves of garlic (crushed and minced) or two teaspoons of garlic powder
1 green/red bell pepper (small dice)
3 teaspoons of cumin powder
1 teaspoon of coriander powder
1 teaspoon paprika
1/2 teaspoon chili powder
Salt & pepper to taste

4 fresh tomatoes (or whole peeled tomatoes that comes in a can)
1/2 red onion (small dice)
Juice from 1 lime
1 green jalapeno (small dice; bell peppers can also be used if you want to tone down the heat)
Cilantro leaves (chopped)
Scallions (green portion, chopped)
Salt & pepper to taste

Sour cream
Romaine lettuce (julienned)
Monterey Jack and cheddar cheese mix

And finally, the taco shells. I like to use the hard-shell corn tacos because I like the crunch. It's like biting into a giant tortilla chip! You can buy these shells off-the-shelf at your local supermarket. Depending on your preference, soft tortilla shells are also widely available in different sizes.

Start off by first making the salsa. Just add all the prepared ingredients listed above and mix them up well. Add salt and pepper to taste and you are good to go. Just store the salsa in the refrigerator for now while you prepare the beef.

To make the beef filling, first sweat the onions until soft and cook the garlic lightly. Now, add the beef into your skillet together with the cumin, coriander, chili and paprika powders. Cook the beef and when it is just about done, add the bell peppers and season with salt and pepper. At this point, keep tasting and add more cumin if you prefer. Remove from the skillet and set aside.

Before serving, lightly heat up the tacos in the oven. Keep a close eye on the tacos because they burn easily. Now it is time to assemble our taco. I usually go with the beef at the bottom, then a dollop of sour cream, followed by the salsa, lettuce and finally, the cheese. You can serve your tacos with extra salsa and tortilla chips on the side.