Thursday, December 30, 2010

Spinach Bacon Quiche


I love eggs in just about any form, so it's inevitable that they show up on my table at all times of day. It doesn't hurt that they are so easy to prepare, which is a nice break from some of the other cooking projects I've had during the holidays. Sometimes I make bacon, egg and cheese sandwiches. Sometimes I have soy sauce eggs with rice or noodles. And then sometimes I bake quiche.

The first time I tasted quiche was in my seventh grade French class. Our teacher, Mrs. D, wanted us to absorb some culture as well as conjugations. She perched a beret over her curly auburn hair (it was clichéd even back then, although adorable on Mrs. D), read French poetry, played French records (so help me, I'll slap anyone who asks me what records are), and brought in Evian water and Brie cheese (they were exotic at the time). She also fed us quiche.

Since then, quiches have become hip, then passe, and now ... I don't know what their current status is, and I don't care. Just let me have the eggy, custardy, cheesy filling in a buttery crust. Did I mention the bacon? I'll be quiet for the two minutes it takes to inhale my share.


Ham and cheese quiche with broccoflower gratin and braised leek
A pre-made crust makes a quiche quick and easy. But since when do I do things the easy way if the hard way tastes better? For a while I've tried to master pie crust. Not because homemade is cheaper. It's sort of an obsession, my Dulcinea — the right combination of tender and flaky, not too crumbly, but not tough or too hard. Besides, I like the taste of butter, and pre-made crusts are made with vegetable shortening. I don't like shortening. It tends to leave a thin film throughout my mouth that I find unpleasant.

I've made some pretty good crusts, but I'm still experimenting. A recipe that I've been tinkering with for several months replaces one-third of the butter with olive oil (see recipe below). The olive oil helps coat the flour for a more tender crust. It's also more healthful, not that I'm afraid of a little butter or cream, as you can see from the quiche ingredients.

The vodka adds moisture to the dough without helping the gluten form. Gluten, which forms when water mixes with wheat flour, means structure, but it can also contribute to toughness. The vodka wasn't my innovation. A few years ago, Cook's Illustrated published a vodka pie dough recipe that attracted a lot of attention. For me, that dough was a little too wet and sticky to work with. But the idea of using vodka was good, so I incorporated that into my own crust.

Spinach-Bacon Quiche Recipe
Serves 4 adults

INGREDIENTS
1 crust (recipe below)
1 cup shredded cheese (I like to use a combination of cheddar and swiss)
1 package (10 ounces) of frozen chopped spinach, drained*
4 to 5 slices of cooked bacon, crumbled (or 1/2 cup chopped ham)
6 large eggs**
1/2 cup heavy cream (or creme fraiche)
1 cup milk
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper

DIRECTIONS
1. Preheat oven to 425 degrees F. Bake crust (recipe below).

2. While crust is baking, cook spinach, then squeeze out liquid. After removing crust from oven, immediately sprinkle half  to two-thirds of the shredded cheese all over the bottom of the crust and allow to cool on rack. Lower oven to 375 degrees F.
With fingers, break up the spinach and sprinkle it evenly all over the bottom of the crust. Drop bacon pieces evenly over the spinach, then the rest of the shredded cheese.

3. In a 4-cup measuring cup or in a mixing bowl, beat eggs. Add cream, milk, salt and pepper, and beat until combined. Pour mixture into the crust, taking care not to overfill. Depending on the size of the pie dish, you may have extra filling.

4. Place quiche on a baking sheet, then bake until center barely sets, about 40 to 50 minutes (adjust time depending on the oven). Serve with salad, soup or cooked vegetable. We recently had spinach-bacon quiche with leftover potato gratin and ham and cheese quiche with broccoflower gratin.

Use ham instead of bacon if that's what you have.
NOTES: *I've used cooked fresh spinach with good results. If you don't like spinach, omit the spinach and make a bacon and cheese quiche. Or you could do ham and swiss, smoked salmon and chopped fresh dill, or any other filling combination.

**Leave out a couple yolks to reduce the cholesterol.

Pie crust recipe for quiche
makes a 9-inch deep-dish bottom crust

INGREDIENTS
2 cups all purpose flour*** (275 grams, or a shade under 9 3/4 ounces)
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 stick (1/2 cup, or 4 ounces) butter, very cold, cut into half-inch cubes
1/4 cup olive oil
5 to 7 Tablespoons ice water (5 Tablespoons worked for me)
1 Tablespoon vodka
1 teaspoon vinegar

DIRECTIONS
1. Put flour and salt in bowl of food processor and pulse to combine. Add half the butter and all the olive oil, and pulse until the butter pieces resemble sand. Scrape down sides of processor bowl if needed. Add remaining butter and process until the butter pieces are about the size of peas. (If you don't have a processor, use your fingers or a pastry cutter to work butter into the flour.)

2. Dump contents of processor into a large (4.5 quart or 5 quart) mixing bowl. Put 5 Tablespoons of the ice water together with the vodka and vinegar in a cup. Using a fork, stir the liquid into the dough until it clumps. Give it a squeeze with a clean hand. If dough crumbles instead of holding together, add water, half Tablespoon at a time. If it holds together, shape into a disk, wrap in plastic and refrigerate at least 30 minutes.

3. After dough has rested, roll out and fit into a 9-inch deep-dish pie plate or a 9- or 10-inch quiche dish. Avoid stretching the dough while placing it in the pie plate or it will be more susceptible to shrinkage. Trim dough about 1/4 inch outside the edge of the pie plate. (I usually have enough extra dough from the trimmings to make a toaster pastry.) Then crimp the edges. Poke bottom with a fork and place in freezer 30 minutes.

4. With the rack in lower third of the oven, preheat oven to 425 degrees F. Bake crust until it turns golden, about 25 minutes. You may have to cover the perimeter with a pie crust protector or foil while the bottom bakes through. If the bottom starts to balloon up, pierce with the tines of a fork and use the back of the fork to press the bottom back down. (I haven't had this problem lately, but it could be just luck. If you want, you can line the crust with buttered foil weighed down with pie weights or dried beans for about the first 15 minutes.)

5. Remove crust from oven and set on a rack.

NOTES: ***I use King Arthur unbleached all purpose flour, which is available at my supermarket. There are other good flours, but if the protein content is different, they may require different amounts of liquid. I recommend weighing ingredients for baking, although I know it isn't always possible or convenient. If using cups to measure flour, I fluff the flour then spoon it into the measuring cup before leveling it with a straight edge, such as a knife.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Pineapple Isn't Citrus (Not that there's anything wrong with that)

A pomelo and lemons.

Since when is pineapple considered citrus? At least since yesterday for The Wall Street Journal, which featured a story and "recipes that unleash the sweet power of citrus," including instructions for fritters in which pineapple is the only fruit.

The reporter wrote, "It's fitting that chefs looking to play around with produce turn their attention to fragrant citrus—tangerines, pineapples, grapefruits, Meyer lemons and especially sweet oranges—when the fruits are in their prime." Pineapples?

I turned to my husband watching TV on the couch next to me and said, "This has to be wrong. Pineapple isn't citrus." Half listening, he asked, "It isn't?" His response surprised me. I had thought the differences were obvious. Oranges, lemons and other citrus fruits grow on trees, are mostly full of little sacks of juice (vesicles) and have fragrant, dimpled skin that's pleasant to touch. Pineapples come from a herbaceous plant, have a hard, rough skin and are crowned with a mass of spiky leaves. I opened my copy of "On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen," by Harold McGee, and confirmed that pineapples are indeed unrelated to citrus fruit.
I also did some online checking and came across questions from multiple people asking whether pineapples are citrus fruit. Apparently, people get them confused.

Yes, pineapples are fruit, as are oranges, lemons, grapefruit, etc. They pleasingly blend tartness with sweetness. They thrive in warm climates. But citrus plants are members of the family Rutaceae, and pineapples are members of the Bromeliaceae family, which includes Spanish moss and several common houseplants.

So there. That's straightened out, and we can move on.

A nice way to use pineapple is in a banana pineapple cake from Bon Appétit. I skip the nuts and the frosting and add some extra drained pineapple to the batter. For me the recipe makes a dozen muffins and one 9-inch round cake. The cake is good served with a little whipped cream and sliced fresh bananas or strawberries. The muffins are good plain, served with a cup of coffee or tea.

For savory dishes, try pineapple in ham and pineapple fried rice or in sweet and sour pork chops.

A citrus recipe I like is for Tartelette's mini tarts filled with calamansi mousse and accented with candied kumquats. Kumquats regularly show up in a couple supermarkets in my area, and I found calamansi juice in the freezer section of my local Asian grocery store. If calamansi were unavailable, I'd experiment with Meyer lemons or Key limes.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Peanut Butter and Chocolate Financiers

Small squares of chocolate are hidden in the madeleine-shaped financiers.

Eggs are an important component of so many of my recipes, so when I found out about the salmonella outbreak in August and then the massive recall of eggs from two egg producers tied to the outbreak, I worried that the eggs I was feeding my kids were dangerous time bombs. I checked our refrigerator. Ours weren't part of the recall, but what if they were contaminated and got recalled later? I was also angry at the conditions FDA inspectors reported at Hillandale Farms of Iowa and at Wright County Egg, also in Iowa. I won't detail what the reports contain because you might lose your appetite, but you can see for yourself if you want to follow the links to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's reports.
I threw our eggs in the garbage and didn't buy more for about two weeks.

But it was too hard to stick to egg-free dishes. I paid extra for organic cage-free eggs, and after several weeks of no additional recalls, I relaxed a little.

Apparently I'm not alone.The Associated Press reported this week that egg sales are back up after dropping about 9 percent following the outbreak. On Nov. 30, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration said Wright County Egg, which recalled 380 million eggs after it was linked to the outbreak, could start shipping shell eggs to consumers again. Hillandale got the go ahead in October to start selling eggs again.

Still, for me it's hard to trust again, so I'll continue to avoid companies with a history of problems. (I also try to be more selective with meats and produce.) I know there are no guarantees (about a month ago, another company, Cal-Maine Foods, recalled eggs from a supplier in Ohio because of the potential for salmonella contamination), but I have dinners to make and desserts to bake, including the peanut butter financiers I found in "Rose's Heavenly Cakes," by Rose Levy Beranbaum.

Like eggs, peanut butter has a particular hold on me. I love it in cookies, cake, pie, chocolate truffles, milk shakes, sandwiches, soup, sauce for noodles — just about anything. So when I saw Beranbaum's recipe putting peanut butter into the little French cakes, I had to try them almost as soon as I bought her book.

I was not disappointed. Ground almonds and browned butter in the batter enhanced the peanut flavor and helped the financiers stay moist. Plus, I pushed pieces of chocolate into the center of each cake, just as I do for chocolate-surprise madeleines — not part of Beranbaum's recipe, but I don't think I need to explain why I did it.

If you like peanut butter, try this. The peanut flavor isn't overwhelming — it's not supposed to be candy, after all — but it's definitely there. And check out "Rose's Heavenly Cakes." The color photographs show such beautiful, and to me irresistible, cakes. You'll want to make them too if you're anything like me.

Peanut Butter and Chocolate Financiers Recipe
Adapted from "Rose's Heavenly Cakes"

INGREDIENTS
3/4 cup* (75 g.) sliced almonds (the recipe said preferably unblanched, but I had only some blanched slivered almonds and some unblanched whole almonds, so I used some of both)
10 Tablespoons (142 g.) unsalted butter, room temperature
1 1/3 cups (150 grams) powdered sugar that has been sifted and spooned into the cup and leveled (I didn't have this either so I used 150 grams of superfine sugar)
1/2 cup (57 g.) sifted, bleached all-purpose flour (I have only unbleached)
4 large (120 g.) egg whites at room temperature
1/2 teaspoon salt (because my peanut butter was unsalted)
3 Tablespoons (50 g.) creamy peanut butter (the book calls for Jif)
small pieces of chocolate that can be tucked into each financier

DIRECTIONS
1. Place rack in center of oven and preheat to 375 degrees F. To make sure my oven gets up to temperature and maintains it, I keep a baking stone on the lower rack and normally preheat about 30 minutes.
Prepare financier molds or tins (if not using nonstick, then brush with melted butter). I don't have financier molds, so I used madeleine tins, which yielded 24 cakes plus enough extra batter for three small tart shapes.

2. Toast the almonds on a baking sheet for several minutes. Watch them. You want the color to darken, but don't let them burn.

3. Melt and brown the butter in a small (about 1 1/2 quart) saucepan over low to medium-low flame. When the milk solids turn brown, remove from heat because they can burn and turn black quickly. Pour butter gently into a glass measuring cup (plastic would be a bad idea here) so that you leave behind the majority of the solids and end up with 1/2 cup of the melted butter. Put it in a warm spot to keep it melted.  (The book said to strain out the solids, but I have enough to clean without adding a strainer to the pile. When I'm competing on TV or writing a book, then I'll strain.)

4. Spin the almonds with the sugar in a food processor until finely ground. Blend in the flour and salt.

5. In a mixing bowl, beat the egg whites on medium speed until they look like the foam on a bubble bath (I used setting 3 on my 7-speed hand-held Cuisinart mixer, although I'd have used a nice stand mixer if I'd had it). Using low speed, beat in the ground almonds and flour. Beat in the melted butter using medium-low speed, then add the peanut butter and mix it in.

6. Fill molds about 2/3 full. I used a 1 Tablespoon rounded measuring spoon to put a 1 Tablespoon of batter into each madeleine depression. Then press a piece of chocolate into each madeleine, using the back of a spoon or your finger to smear a little batter over the chocolate to cover it. (You can skip this step if you don't want to hide the chocolate.) Normally I prefer dark chocolate, but in this particular recipe, I thought the milk chocolate pieces complemented the light peanut butter flavor better.

Bake until they turn golden. The original recipe, which used larger molds than mine, calls for a baking time of 15 to 18 minutes. Mine took 12 to 13 minutes.

7. Place the tins on a rack to cool for several minutes, then unmold the financiers onto the racks to finish cooling. (Unless you are using a silicone financier mold, in which case let them cool completely in the mold on a cooling rack.) Oh, and eat within a day or two. Beranbaum writes that they keep for three days at room temperature if you wrap them airtight in plastic wrap in an airtight container. I'm not sure in what universe they'd still be around after a couple days, so I don't bother.

 NOTE: *I changed several things in this recipe, including the type of almonds used, the type of sugar and the flour, so I weighed all the substitutions to make sure I was using the correct amounts. I think this was most important when using superfine sugar in place of the powdered sugar, because the amount (weight) obtained would have been significantly different for the same cup measurement (volume). That said, it's generally a good practice to weigh ingredients when baking even when making no substitutions at all, because on different occasions you can get different amounts of an ingredient, such as flour, even when using the same measuring cup. Weighing ingredients prevents that inconsistency.

Related: The Cornucopia Institute's Organic Egg Scorecard

Monday, December 6, 2010

Toaster Pastry Tussle

The pastry cools in peace, until my son and I go for it simultaneously.

It's been far too long, but at least I've been cooking and baking during my absence.

One of my favorite things was an impromptu Pop-Tart, er, I mean toaster pastry, that I made to use extra pie crust dough. I filled it with some pear butter sitting in the refrigerator.

I'm going to have to make a batch of dough just for these so that I have enough for everyone. My 7-year-old and I had a little tussle over this, and it wasn't pretty, the scene of a grown woman trying to sit on a little boy and wrestle away his treat. At the time it seemed fun. In hindsight, I'm not so proud of myself. But I let him keep at least half. I'm sure it was pretty close to half.

I'd post a recipe, but I used an olive oil-butter crust that I'm still developing. I'll get that posted as soon as I have that figured out a little better. But you don't need a recipe from me to make these. All you need is some dough, jam (or chocolate, or hazelnut spread, or cinnamon sugar), and an oven or toaster oven.

Cut the dough into squares or squarish rectangles, add a bit of filling, fold and seal. A little goes a long way. The pastry should look pretty flat. If you overfill it, it will ooze its filling. Not that that ruins it or anything. Poke the top with a fork to allow steam to escape, and bake at 350 F until golden. Just make sure to bake more than one.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Easy Peasy Split Pea Soup

Soups are a good way to use leftovers and prevent waste.

 Coincidentally, Tara Parker-Pope in The New York Times writes about wasting food just as I'm on a kick to use up leftovers instead of forgetting them.

Now that we have a preschool tuition to pay that we didn't last year, I've had to be much more conscious of our expenses, including groceries. It's easy to underestimate the cost of food, especially if you buy a little here and there throughout the week without keeping track. When you're paying attention, you realize how much the costs add up.

It isn't as though I suddenly realized wasting food was ... well, wasteful. I always peel and eat broccoli stalks, use celery leaves in a soup or stew, and cook beet greens and other veggie parts that some people throw away. I'm the only one in the house who'll eat toast made from the heel of a loaf, so I turn the ends into homemade breadcrumbs, which go into meatloaf that also incorporates leftover chopped spinach. Leftover sausage gets cut into small pieces and tossed with pasta, olive oil and broccoli rabe or beet greens. Even so, all too often I rediscover — too late — a forgotten container or a bunch of leeks in the vegetable drawer that have mushified. (Yes, I know it's not a real word, but it's a real problem.) It's easy to grab bunches of things that look amazing at the farmers market and then have no time that week to get to it all.

And that was usually my problem. I had no plan for many of my food purchases, and once they got stored at home — in the produce drawer, the pantry, etc. — it was "out of sight, out of mind." For the past couple weeks, I've been working harder on changing my habits, making sure to plan ahead what I'd prepare during the week and write my shopping list accordingly. If something I hadn't planned to buy was irresistible, I made sure to think what I'd make with it and when to do so. If something tempted me, but I couldn't think of what to make or when during the week I'd have time to get to it, then I resisted the urge to take it home.

Along those lines, I made a pea soup this past week, partly because the weather turned cold and partly because I had impulsively (old habits die hard) bought big bags of organic carrots and potatoes. Hey, they were on sale. I started out pretty well by prepping and roasting the potatoes and carrots the day I got them home. For me half the battle is not putting them in the bottom drawer of the refrigerator and losing track of them. That evening we had the veggies with roast chicken for dinner.

The next day we ate some of the leftover veggies. A couple days after that, I noticed the container of potatoes and carrots starting to migrate farther back into the fridge, getting ready to disappear behind a wall of yogurt containers.

Extra veggies can go into almost anything. I like to use them in pasta, omelets and quiches, and soups. A couple soups that take little effort and time are pumpkin-red lentil soup (to use up extra pureed pumpkin or other cooked squash) and split pea soup (to finish off potatoes, carrots and ham, if you eat meat).

Vegetarian Split Pea Soup
Serves 8

INGREDIENTS
1 Tablespoon olive oil
1 onion, chopped (about half to three-quarters of a cup)
2 small cloves or 1 large clove garlic, chopped (about a Tablespoon)
pinch of salt
1 bag dried split peas (1 pound, or about 2 cups)
2 quarts (8 cups) vegetable stock*
leftover cooked carrots (I had about a cup, but more or less doesn't matter)
leftover roasted potatoes (again, as much as you have or want)
salt

DIRECTIONS
1. In a medium (about 4 quart) pot over medium heat, stir together oil, onion, garlic and pinch of salt, and cook, stirring occasionally, until the onion turns translucent. Lower heat if it starts to brown or burn.

2. Inspect peas, discarding any stones or bad-looking peas. Put peas and broth into the pot of onion, bring to a simmer over high heat, then reduce heat and continue to simmer until peas break down and become soft, about 45 minutes.** Add carrots and potatoes, and heat about 5 minutes more. Taste and add salt and pepper if needed.***
 
NOTES:
* Normally I'd use water and simmer the soup with a ham hock or pieces of leftover ham, but when I don't have ham or just want a vegetarian version, I like to use vegetable stock or broth for the flavor. Use vegetable scraps to make broth and freeze ahead of time. I also keep on hand vegetable bouillon cubes. Chicken broth makes a good substitute if you aren't vegetarian or vegan.
** I think most recipes call for half or all the soup to be blended with an immersion (stick) blender or in a traditional blender. I like my soups to have some texture, so usually I don't blend.
*** Other seasonings you could use include a teaspoon of chopped fresh thyme leaves added with the carrots and potatoes, or a bay leaf added with the broth, or a teaspoon of curry powder added to the onions about a minute before the broth and peas are added. Experiment with what you like. My roasted carrots often are tossed with lemon zest and a lemon vinaigrette after coming out of the oven. If I were using plain carrots, I'd probably also add a little lemon to the soup.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Asian Lettuce Wraps


I love easy meals, and I love meals the kids will eat. I'd say lettuce wraps filled with this sweet and savory, barely tangy filling falls into both categories. I don't have time to nag anyone to eat, and I hate - really hate - to toss perfectly good food in the garbage. An added bonus is this recipe is budget and health conscious, especially when some of the meat is replaced with textured vegetable protein.

Thank goodness this meal comes together for me every time (including today). It's been a rather accident-prone week and a half. I've been dividing my attention among the kids, some work, cooking, etc., and the lack of focus resulted in some newbie disasters. An apple tart Tatin that I've made for years just wouldn't work. I burned the caramel on the first tart. The second tart ended up under-caramelized. I burned my wrist on a hot pot. I'll spare you the entire list. I'd rather not talk about it now.

But this week is already going better. After all, Halloween - one of my favorite holidays - is around the corner and I've already gotten my skull lights out and set up. And tonight's dinner is done.

RECIPE
Asian Lettuce Wraps
Serves 4-6

INGREDIENTS
1 Tablespoon oil (canola or peanut)
1 teaspoon sesame oil
2 teaspoons grated fresh ginger
1 1/4 pounds to 1 1/2 pounds ground turkey (or beef)*

1 Tablespoon oil
1/2 medium onion or 1 shallot, chopped
5 medium or 3 large cloves garlic, chopped

2 Tablespoons brown sugar
2 Tablespoons low sodium soy sauce**
1 Tablespoon fish sauce (I use Three Crabs brand)
1 teaspoon sriracha sauce
1 teaspoon rice wine vinegar
2 or 3 scallions, chopped
1 cup cooked carrot, diced***

8 to 12 lettuce leaves (Boston and red leaf lettuce work well)
garnish: mint or Thai basil leaves and lime wedges to squeeze over filling

DIRECTIONS
1. Heat 1 tablespoon oil in a deep 12-inch skillet or wok over medium-high heat, add ginger and ground meat, and cook until just done. Remove meat to a bowl and cover to keep warm. Return pan to stove, reducing heat to medium-low.

Add onions to pan, then make sauce.
2. Heat the other tablespoon of oil, add onions, and cook for 1 minute. Add the garlic, and keep cooking until onions start to turn translucent. While onions and garlic are sweating, combine sugar, soy sauce, fish sauce, sriracha and vinegar. When onions and garlic are translucent (they can just be starting to turn golden at the edges), add sauce, scallions, carrot and cooked meat to pan. Stir until sauce is thoroughly mixed throughout meat. Remove from heat.

Thai basil has a slight anise flavor.
Serve ground meat together with mint or Thai basil wrapped in Boston or red-leaf lettuce leaves, two per person. It also is good served with a salad of napa cabbage or a bowl of mai fun (rice stick) noodles.

NOTES:
* To decrease the amount of meat in our diet, I also have made the filling with a combination of ground meat and textured vegetable protein, or TVP. For this recipe, I use 2/3 pound (0.67 pound) ground meat and 1/2 cup dried TVP (available in the bulk section of a health food store and in small packages at some supermarkets). The TVP I buy looks a little like coarse panko crumbs. To reconstitute the TVP, pour 1/2 cup water into a 1 cup glass measuring cup, place the cup in a microwave and bring to a boil. When the water boils, remove the cup from the microwave, stir in the 1/2 cup TVP and cover. When the onions are nearly done, stir in the TVP and allow to cook a minute or two, then add the rest of the ingredients.
** To make this dish wheat free, use a soy sauce that does not include wheat as an ingredient.
*** I use cooked carrot left over from another meal. If there is no cooked carrot, use 1 cup shredded or julienned raw carrot. It can be added to the onion about a minute before returning the cooked meat to the pan or stirred in last, depending on whether you want the carrot cooked at all. If you don't like carrot, you could use an 8 ounce can of water chestnuts (finely diced) or some chopped bamboo shoots.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

What a Sack of Chips



People don't complain when they think something sucks. Why bother? It wouldn't make a difference.

Or so I thought.

But then Frito-Lay caved like an empty bag when customers bitched about the noise from biodegradable Sun Chips packages. The company's going back to using the old bags for all flavors of Sun Chips except the original.

Power to the people!

So why am I all "What the f?%!" ?

Well, I can't help wondering what these folks were doing — were they wallowing on the couch, their orgy of consumption drowning out the music from "Dancing With the Stars"?

Maybe I'm too harsh. It is pretty complicated to grab a handful of chips or even a bowl. And just because I never noticed the noise from my own bags of SunChips doesn't mean they aren't a major public nuisance.  The bag haters must have good reasons for saying, "Screw the future."

Like this one. Say I'm driving to school one afternoon to pick up my son, with a Sun Chips bag in my lap, because God knows, the car could break down and leave me stranded like "Survivorman" in the desert. So I grab some chips — you know, to build my body's reserves — and I can't hear the radio over the f?%!ing bag! So I lean over to find the volume and BOOM! What was that? A car? A small child?

Screw the future!

At a movie my SunChips bag starts crinkling, just as Julia Roberts starts a romantic scene with Javier Bardem. A mob of fans leaps from their seats to bludgeon me with copies of "Eat, Pray, Love."

And what if I had to snack at church? For God's sake, what if I worked on a bomb squad?!

Thank God something was done!

Now maybe we can move on to whatever's just below Sun Chips on our list of priorities. Maybe — and this is just a shot in the dark — we could demand that oil companies do something to prevent giant oil spills. Or how about food safety laws to prevent outbreaks like the one that sickened thousands of people who ate salmonella-contaminated eggs.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Posole, and a Little Sous Chef


Posole, a hominy and pork soup, uses inexpensive shoulder, or Boston butt.
Posted at 4:09 PM
This past weekend my 3 year olds were sick — and crabby and irrational. And that's different, how? Oh, right. It's even more fun for their 7-year-old brother to rattle their cage. All. The. Time. Think "monkey house on Mountain Dew." The sun was shining, the air was crisp, and the universe had launched its plot to drive me mad. It was working.

As I started on a pork and hominy soup called posole, the kids tussled over a little car. Someone yelled in pain. I glanced over. No blood. Good. None of them normally cared about the car, but this particular afternoon two of them chased the car snatcher, yelling and knocking through the kitchen like Capital One barbarians. The moment I leaned into the fridge, someone rammed my backside, nearly planting my nose in the onions.

I snapped at the younger two as I chased them toward the basement. "You're going to play downstairs and be happy, right now!" To big brother, I ordered, "You. You stay with me!"

"I'm bored!" my son whined immediately.

"Here, peel this onion," I blurted. I just knew he'd bicker and I'd lecture him ... But he accepted the two halves of the Vidalia, sat at the kitchen table and started pulling off the outer layer.

He wasn't arguing. He always argued ... to play the Wii, play his DS, watch Sponge Bob, avoid homework, delay bedtime, ... But he wasn't. We weren't.

"Here," I said as the band of tension around my shoulders loosened. "Have another one."

At the kitchen table, we fell into a rythm. I cut an onion lengthwise, he peeled the halves and handed them back, I chopped.

"What's this for?" he asked?

"I'm making posole, you know, that corn soup you asked about last week."

"All right!"

Like me, he gets stoked over Mexican food: homemade tamales, flaky empanadas or our little invention, taco nachos - hors d'oeuvre sized "tacos" made of tortilla scoops, taco filling and cheese. Recently he had asked for "that corn soup" — the cumin-flavored soup of pork shoulder and hominy that we had eaten a lot last winter.

We started chatting about little things, school and food. "Do you want to help cook?" I asked as I turned the heat on under my Dutch oven. "You can bring a chair to the stove."

"Yeah," he said, unusually engaged.

"Ok, first pour in the oil," I instructed, handing him the olive oil and a small measuring cup. "Then you can dump in the onions. Stir them a little until they get soft and more clear. And make sure you don't lean too close or your T-shirt'll catch fire."

I stayed at his right hand, ready to save him from immolation, but he worked carefully. He measured and added the seasonings and I put in the pork and broth before tucking the pot into the oven for a couple hours.

He asked if I was putting the soup into my blog. Sure, I planned to write about this. Could he do it too? Could he! When I helped him start his blog, I'd been hoping he'd practice a little writing instead of playing with the Wii so much.

He spent the next half hour or so putting thoughts into words, checking spelling with me, asking if I could help load a picture into his blog.

I didn't need the soup to warm me inside.


The posole that we made Sunday includes apple, the tarter the better. It won't be too fruity. The apple dissolves into the soup. You could also try adding a strip of orange peel (remove the pith, which is the white fleshy part). If you have time you could use dried posole in place of the ready-to-use canned hominy. My son and his siblings happily emptied their bowls, no argument.

Posole Recipe
Pork Shoulder and Hominy Soup
Serves 4 to 6

INGREDIENTS
1/4 cup olive oil (or canola or corn oil)
2 onions, chopped
3 large cloves garlic, smashed with side of knife
1 apple, roughly cubed or diced
1 Tablespoon dried oregano
1 Tablespoon chili powder
3 pounds pork shoulder (mine was cut as "country style ribs")*
1 quart (4 cups) low salt chicken broth (or homemade pork broth if you have it)

1 to 2 Tablespoons cumin
2 (15 ounce) cans hominy, rinsed and drained
salt and pepper

roasted pepper (poblano, jalapeno or bell pepper)

optional garnishes: cilantro sprigs, lime wedges, crispy tortilla chips or fried tortilla strips, shredded lettuce or shredded cheese, sliced avocado, roasted tomatillo salsa

DIRECTIONS

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
Add oil to Dutch oven over medium flame. Cook onions, garlic and apple over medium to medium-low heat until onions soften and turn translucent.
Add oregano and chili powder and stir into the onions. Cook one minute.

2. Season pork with salt and pepper, then add to pot. Pour in the chicken broth and bring to a simmer. Cover and place into the oven until pork easily pulls apart, about 2 hours.

3. Remove soup from oven, and let sit covered 30 minutes. Remove pork and pull apart with two forks or your fingers. Discard fat.**
Return pork to pot, stir in 1 Tablespoon cumin and the hominy. Taste. Add more cumin and salt and pepper if needed. Simmer covered, over low heat, for 20 minutes more.

Top with strips or pieces of roasted pepper. Also add other garnishes as desired.

NOTES:
Use leftover meat to make pulled-pork sandwiches.
* You can get two meals by cooking once if you use a larger package of meat than you need for soup. When I cook extra pork shoulder, I like to use the meat for pulled-pork and cucumber sandwiches or for a meat sauce to go with pasta.
** You can remove more fat from the soup by skimming the oil from the top before returning the meat to the pot. If you make the soup a day ahead, you also can refrigerate the soup separately from the meat and then spoon off the fat that collects on the top. When ready to serve, put the pork back into the soup, add the cumin, hominy and any needed salt and pepper and simmer.

Below: My son wanted to demonstrate mixing in the hominy.

Friday, October 1, 2010

World's Smallest Stuffed Pepper


Posted at 2:22 PM
Among the peppers I've gotten from the farmers market were a few miniature bell peppers. I wasn't sure what I'd do with them at the time. They were just so cute I had to take them home with me.
Finally I decided to fill them with some leftover empanada filling, a bit of cheese and a little green tomatillo salsa.

Unfortunately there were only three. As for the other peppers ...
... the jalapenos got chopped for salsa, the large bell pepper got roasted for a pasta salad, and the poblanos and banana peppers got charred, skinned and reserved in the freezer. I can use them later for a posole or more empanada filling.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Cheap Dinner: Soy Braised Chicken (Hong Shao Ji)

Hong shao ji, or red cooked chicken, is a bargain meal.
Posted at 5:14 PM
Why did the cook cross the supermarket aisle? To get to the chicken calling, "Cheap, cheap!"

One of my supermarkets was selling drumsticks this morning (and still is) for 89 cents a pound, so I had a great reason to make one of my favorite comfort foods, hong shao ji (红 烧 雞), or red cooked chicken. Not counting the braising liquid, the per-serving cost of the meat came to 52 cents per adult serving, and 26 cents per child. That's cheaper than a single fast food chicken nugget, plus tastier and lower in fat, too.

If you make soy sauce eggs and tofu (recipes below) with the leftover braising liquid, you can stretch out the meal into even more servings.

What I like about this dish is you basically dump everything into the pot and get a delicious result.
That's how my mother cooked this dish, which we also call soy sauce chicken, and that's how I've been making it since I started cooking. Why mess with a good thing?
If you're a fan of oven braising, pressure cooking or slow cooking, by all means, try it your way and let me know how it turns out.

RECIPE
Red Cooked Chicken (soy sauce braised chicken)
Serves 6

INGREDIENTS
1 cup low sodium soy sauce
1 1/2 cups water
5 cloves garlic, smashed and paper (skins) discarded
5 scallions, cut into 2-inch pieces
1 Tablespoon fresh ginger, grated, or 1-inch piece sliced into coins
1 to 2 Tablespoons brown sugar or honey
1 teaspoon Chinese five spice
1 stick cinnamon (optional)
2 whole star anise (optional)
a strip of orange peel without the white pith (optional)

3.75 pounds chicken drumsticks (my package had 13 drumsticks)

DIRECTIONS
1. Combine everything but the scallions and chicken in a 4-quart pot or saucepan. Add drumsticks and scatter scallions over the top.

If needed, add 1/4 cup extra soy sauce plus 1/4 cup extra water to nearly submerge chicken pieces.

2. Bring to boil, then reduce heat to very low setting, cover and simmer until very tender, about one and a half hours. The meat pulls easily off the bone.

Serve with steamed rice, a vegetable such as long beans or bok choy, and soy sauce eggs and tofu (optional, recipes below). Drizzle chicken and rice with some braising liquid.

You can also take 1 cup of the braising liquid and reduce it by half for a more intensely flavored, slightly thicker sauce.

NOTE: You can cool the braising liquid, skim chicken fat from the top and freeze the liquid to use another time.
To cook a smaller package of chicken legs (usually 5 drumsticks or 4 thighs), halve the rest of the recipe and use a 2- to 3-quart pot.

RECIPE
Soy Sauce Eggs

INGREDIENTS
braising liquid from soy braised chicken
6 soft boiled eggs with shell removed

DIRECTIONS
Place braising liquid and eggs in a small (2 to 3 quart) sauce pan.
Bring to boil over high heat, then reduce flame to medium low and simmer uncovered 15 minutes. Remove from heat, cover and let sit 10 more minutes before serving, or let cool and store refrigerated in some braising liquid.

NOTE: If you want the flavor to penetrate more, you can prick the whites of the boiled eggs all over with the tines of a fork. Be aware that if you overdo it, the egg can fall apart.

RECIPE
Soy Sauce Braised Tofu

INGREDIENTS
braising liquid from soy braised chicken
1 block firm tofu (14 to 16 ounces)

DIRECTIONS
Cut tofu into 1/2-inch to 1-inch cubes and stir them into braising liquid from soy braised chicken. Bring to simmer and continue to braise for about 15 minutes or longer if desired.

NOTE: Soy sauce eggs and braised tofu can be cooked in the braising liquid together.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Eye Candy

Posted at 3:24 PM
This is one of the vendors' tables at the Bloomington, IL, farmers market (this morning).


It may be tiny compared with those in New York City or Paris, but it has its gems.

I got enough long beans to double my recipe — after one of the vendors collected the loose ones that had fallen in the bed of his truck — and I nabbed a creamy sheep's milk cheese called Ewe Bloom made at a farm in Champaign, IL. It's buttery and also a little pungent. Not exactly Reblochon — I'm in the middle of rural Illinois, not the Alps — but satisfying with a slice of ciabatta and a glass of pear cider.

More long beans! I never know if certain goodies will reappear.

The cheese is local, but I have to admit, the cider and grapes aren't.
 I also grabbed some peppers because they were so pretty. I don't know yet what to do with them. Sorted by color in baskets, they beckoned like jars of jewel-toned jelly beans do to young children. I was a kid in a candy shop.



I'll miss the market (especially the cheeses) when it closes for the season next month.


Related: Farmers markets have proliferated — the U.S. Department of Agriculture counted 6,132 this year compared with 2,863 in 2000 — and vegetables raised nearly a quarter of a million dollars at Sotheby's in New York City this week. But people in this country seem to be ignoring public health officials' advice to eat more vegetables.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Farmers Market Fakes

These white radishes were grown locally.


Posted at 8:00 AM
One of my favorite vendors at a Saturday farmers market in Bloomington, IL, posts pictures of his crops and livestock on the farm's blog. Customers get monthly tours during the growing season. It's the real deal. They see for themselves where their long beans and shiso come from.

Purple and green long beans
When many of us head out to farmers markets tomorrow morning, how do we know all the vendors grew what they sell? Is the "pesticide-free" produce really free of unwanted chemicals?

A Southern California television station's investigation (video below) uncovered vendors at multiple farmers markets who falsely claimed to have grown what they were selling. The investigation found that three of five samples of "pesticide-free" strawberries contained pesticides, according to lab tests; one had four pesticides. I choose to be optimistic that the majority of vendors are honest. But if produce-savvy Californians could be fooled, so can anyone else.

The station, NBCLA, asked operators of farmers markets how consumers can protect themselves. They said shoppers should get to know the vendors, ask where the food was grown and, if vendors say the produce is pesticide free, ask what methods they use for pest control. The market operators said to avoid vendors who can't give specific answers or don't want to respond to questions.

That said, I know where my long beans came from. And I know where they went ... fast. (I got the last half pound of beans at the farmers market, but I'd have at least doubled the recipe had there been more.)

Long Bean Stir Fry
serves 2

INGREDIENTS
1 teaspoon canola or peanut oil
1 clove garlic, smashed*
1/2 pound long beans, cut into 2-inch to 4-inch segments (depending on preference)
1/4 cup water
1 Tablespoon soy sauce**
2 slices cooked bacon, crumbled (optional)

DIRECTIONS
 1. Heat oil with garlic in non-stick skillet*** over medium high heat for just half a minute. Add long beans, stirring to coat with oil, then add water, cover and let steam.

2. When water has evaporated, check bean for doneness. If they need more cooking, add a couple tablespoons more water and cover again until you hear the sizzling that lets you know it has evaporated again.

3. When beans are done, add soy sauce and bacon, toss until beans are coated with sauce, then remove from heat.

NOTES: * Sometimes I use chopped shallot in place of or in addition to garlic.
** You can try a teaspoon or two oyster sauce in place of soy sauce.
***If you use a regular skillet or a wok, you may need to use a little more oil.

View more news videos at: http://www.nbclosangeles.com/video.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

I'll Be Looking at the Moon, But I'll Be Seeing Mom

Moon cakes (月餅) range from traditional to cartoon inspired or ice cream filled.
Posted at 2:18 PM
When I was a girl, my mother's monthly loot from the Chinese grocery store occasionally included moon cakes. Red bean or lotus seed paste filled a tender layer of thin dough molded into shapes with symbols I didn't understand. A full moon of yolk, from a preserved duck egg, virtually glowed at the heart. Its slight saltiness highlighted the filling's sweetness.

My mother used to smile as her thin fingers unwrapped a cake. Food is life — feeding, an act of love. She'd carefully cut it into little wedges, like precious slices of birthday cake, measured perfectly equally for me and my sister. Mom often recalled some tidbit from her own childhood in Taiwan.

Back then, I didn't listen too closely. I also gave little thought to the treasures she'd brought home. They were like salt or pepper — just there.

Years later, living more than a thousand miles from Mom, I suddenly needed to know. One day I shouted into the telephone in hopes her hearing aid could pick up my voice: "What do you call those little cakes with the lotus seed and egg yolk — moon cakes?"

"What?"

I raised my volume. "Remember — moon cakes? What do you call them?"

She finally got it. "Oh, yue bing."

What were they for? She said something quickly in Chinese — a blur of sound slipping past.

"What?"

"Mid-Autumn Festival," she repeated, this time in English. I tried to ask more about the festival and update her on her grandkids, her little bao baos — precious babies. I yelled into the phone; she didn't understand. I tried again; she couldn't catch anything. We may as well have been on different planets. Feeling bad for her, frustrated that she still refuses to try a new hearing aid, I shouted that I'd e-mail her via my sister, back in New Jersey.

Since then I've learned the festival takes place on the 15th day of the eighth lunar month. This year, that occurs tomorrow, Sept. 22. One traditional story describes how a legendary figure gained immortality and became the Lady of the Moon. On the evening of the 15th day of the eighth lunar month, you're supposed to eat yue bing while gazing at the full moon.
In another story, set during the Yuan dynasty, rebels sent secret messages via moon cakes to organize an uprising against Mongol rule on the 15th day of the eighth month.

Now the goodies convey auspicious messages such as "longevity."

Recently, moon cakes have evolved. In cosmopolitan areas, you may be able to find theme cakes shaped like children's cartoon characters. Others feature gelatin, foie gras or ice cream. These little cakes make for big business in Asia. But not in central Illinois. I've been unable to get any, modern or not.

I long for a traditional yue bing. I'd call Mom, but she wouldn't hear the phone ring. I close my eyes, imagine my teeth sinking into the dense filling as my mother nibbles her morsel while chatting. For a moment, I try to let the sweetness take me home.

Monday, September 20, 2010

One Potato, Two Potato ...

Potato latkes, the edges still shatteringly crisp.
 I was making a gratin Dauphinois and realized I had cleaned and peeled too many potatoes. I couldn't just slice and pile them into the baking dish; that would make the gratin too deep.

What to do if you have too many potatoes? Or should I say, what not to do with extra spuds? Celery root and potato mash? Fries? Wedges? Gnocchi? Potato leek soup? Lemon bacon potato salad?

This time I wanted latkes. I love the light crisp edges that shatter as you bite into them. This version of latkes does not use flour, so it's great for anyone with wheat allergies or gluten intolerance. If you don't want to eat them right away, you can cool them and freeze them until you need them. They're great as an appetizer with sour cream and applesauce (or even better, creme fraiche and smoked salmon or caviar), as a side dish with eggs for brunch or dinner, or as a midnight snack.

Potato Latkes
makes 6 potato pancakes

INGREDIENTS
3 medium-large yukon gold potatos or 2 smaller russets*
1 shallot
2 (3-inch) sprigs thyme
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
1 egg, beaten
canola oil (enough to pour 1/8 inch to 1/4 inch deep in a skillet)

DIRECTIONS
1. Peel and grate potatoes into a bowl or quart-size measuring cup of cold water (to prevent discoloration).

A little shredded carrot added to the mix.
2. While potato sits in water, finely chop shallot and place in a larger (2- or 3-quart) bowl.

3. Remove leaves from thyme stems and put into bowl with shallots.

4. Drain potato and place in a clean, dry kitchen towel. Roll and squeeze as much moisture** out of potato as possible. Place potato into the large bowl with the shallot, thyme, salt and pepper, then mix with just enough of the egg to coat the potato shreds.

5. Heat about 1/8 inch to 1/4 inch of oil in a skillet until it gets hot (not smoking) and place a forkful of the potato mixture into the oil and gently flatten to make a roughly 3-inch pancake. You can cook just one smaller latke to test the oil before making the rest, if you want. Cook until the edges are deep golden brown, then turn over the latke and cook the other side. If the edges turn dark or black too fast, lower the heat a bit.

6. Remove latke to a rack and sprinkle lightly with salt.
Serve immediately, or cool the latkes, then freeze them, separated by parchment paper, in an airtight container. They can be reheated in a 400 degree oven on a cooling rack set on a baking sheet.

NOTES: * Variations include mixing grated carrot or sweet potato together with the potato. You could also incorporate another vegetable such as shredded zucchini; just make sure to lightly salt and drain it and squeeze out as much moisture as possible. In place of the shallot, you can add leek chiffonade, grated onion or chopped scallion.
** If you have a salad spinner (I don't), then you can try using that to take out excess moisture. If more liquid collects at the bottom of the bowl while you're cooking, scrape the remaining potato mixture out of the puddle and up onto the sides of the bowl.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Watermelon Strawberry Smoothie


When I was studying in Aix-en-Provence, France, there was a little hole in the wall called Crepes a Go Go where I'd regularly stop to pick up my lunch, usually an egg and spinach filled crepe with a smoothie on the side. What I liked best about it was that I could choose the fruit and they would take my chosen fruits, a whole kiwi or pear or peach, and peel and cut it right in front of me before tossing the pieces together with some strawberries and ice into a blender. It didn't get fresher or tastier than that.

For some reason, it took me several years to make my own smoothies. I don't know why. They were easy to throw together and I'd seen it done a hundred times. But I guess it just wasn't part of my repertoire until I got together with my now-husband. He was a runner who made his own smoothies, and suddenly something clicked. I decided I'd make my own blended drinks too.

The usual was simply banana with a little yogurt, soy milk and honey (plus sometimes a spoonful of protein powder). But whenever there was some extra fruit lying around, into the blender it would go, along with a few ice cubes and juice too.

Now I deliberately buy more fruit than we can eat right away so I can blend the extra into a drink.


Watermelon Strawberry Banana Smoothie
Serves 2 adults or up to 4 children

INGREDIENTS
1 cup frozen strawberries
1 cup frozen watermelon (watermelon cut into 1 inch pieces, then frozen)
 1 small banana
1 cup juice (any kind you like)
1 cup vanilla soy milk

DIRECTIONS
Place all ingredients into a blender and process until smooth. If mixture is too thick to blend, add a 1/4 cup to 1/2 cup more juice or soy milk.

Pour into glasses or cups and serve immediately

Friday, August 20, 2010

Egg-Free, Make that Dairy-Free and Fat-Free Too, Vegan Banana Ice Cream


Just as the chicken shit was hitting the fan and hundreds of millions of eggs were being recalled, I was playing around with an egg-free, fat-free, dairy-free "ice cream" recipe I had seen bouncing around the Internet for a while.

To be precise, I probably shouldn't call it a "recipe" because it's just one ingredient. But really, this frozen banana whip does taste like ice cream -- even my picky 7 year old thinks so.
The best part is that I haven't met a kid who doesn't like it and it's great for everyone -- meat eaters to vegans -- unless you're a banana hater. (Do they exist? Like unicorns, I've heard about them but come on ...)

No sugar is added, which is great for diabetics. Like most ice cream, it's wheat free, soy free and gluten free, so fine for celiacs. There is no cream or milk, thus no dairy for anybody who has a milk allergy or intolerance, and did I mention no fat? And there are no eggs, which is perfect right now, unless you WANT that side of salmonella with your dessert. All right, I concede that tomorrow, I'll probably use eggs in my next dessert. But I'll be checking the latest details on that growing egg recall first and making sure the dish is cooked fully.

Eggless Banana Ice Cream Recipe
Serves 4

INGREDIENTS
4 to 5 ripe bananas, depending on size

DIRECTIONS
1. Peel bananas, making sure to remove all strings. Cut into pieces (mine were from half inch to an inch), put them in a gallon-size freezer bag (or lay them on a layer of parchment on a cookie sheet or place in a non-stick 9 x 13 cake pan) and freeze the banana chunks at least an hour.

2. Put banana chunks into a food processor and whiz. At first the pieces will be rough chopped. Then they will be more finely chopped, and often resemble couscous. Keep processing (stop and scrape banana down from sides of processor as needed) and eventually the banana will become smooth and whipped, much like a soft serve ice cream or a churned ice cream that hasn't fully set.

That's it. Serve in a cone or in a bowl. You can top it with chocolate syrup, chopped peanuts or with hot fudge and whipped cream.

NOTE: The first time I made this, there was a distinct bitter aftertaste. When I made this again, it was fine. The second time I used organic bananas that were fully ripe (no green tinge, lots of brown freckling, but not black and mushy), and I was particularly careful not to allow the little strings to go in with the banana chunks.

Some people add a couple tablespoons of peanut butter to their banana ice cream. Some also like to make it chocolaty with a little cocoa powder. I personally think that Nutella would be fab.

Related: The Cornucopia Institute's Organic Egg Scorecard

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Chinese Pulled Pork Sliders, or Non-traditional Gua Bao

Pork shoulder makes a great substitute for belly in this sandwich.


Until I learned about the Momofuku eateries in Manhattan and eponymous cookbook this year, I hadn't realized that Chinese pork sandwiches, a popular menu item, were so appreciated here in the states.
Momofuku's creator, Korean American chef David Chang, apparently knows a good thing when he tastes it and has shared his discovery.

Of course in my case, he would be preaching to the converted. Yesterday I was craving some Taiwanese gua bao, made of pork belly, pickled greens, a little crushed sugared peanuts and steamed buns, but around here there aren't any restaurants making that kind of food, traditionally served streetside from a cart. I have no better luck even finding a simple slab of pork belly. My supermarket never, I mean NEVER, carries slabs — just tiny packages of thin-sliced belly. But yesterday while I was picking up a few groceries, the packages of pork shoulder, my go-to economy cut, caught my eye. Hmmmm ... I love Taiwanese pork belly buns. I love Southern pulled pork.

At that moment I decided that Southerners don't have to be the only ones to claim pulled pork as their birthright. I would do a Chinese pulled pork shoulder as the filling for my homemade gua bao. For the braising liquid, I would go with something similar to the one for my soy sauce chicken.

I didn't have the pickled greens on hand, either. Tradition already out the window, I decided the shiso greens would have to stand in for the picked greens, or suan cai. It was a good choice. The shiso gave the sandwich a note of herbal freshness contrasting with the rich salty sweetness of the braising sauce. I had some honey roasted peanuts that I planned to crush and sprinkle on the meat, but ... ahem ... I mumble ate mumble them ... something happened to them while the pork was braising.

For the bun, I didn't have time or a steamer available to make my own from scratch, so I pulled a package of man tou from the freezer. My gua bao ended up being something like a Chinese pulled pork slider. I managed to take a picture just before I finished off the last one.

Chinese Pulled Pork Sandwich Recipe

INGREDIENTS

1 1/2 cups low sodium soy sauce
1/2 cup red wine
3/4 cup water
1/4 cup packed brown sugar
1 shallot, chopped
3 scallions, cut into 1 1/2-inch pieces
2 cloves garlic, smashed
1-inch piece ginger root, cut into thin slices
1 teaspoon Chinese five spice

2 pound pork shoulder (aka butt roast)

DIRECTIONS
1. Combine all ingredients except pork in a medium saucepan. Stir sauce over medium-high heat until sugar dissolves, then add the pork, turning to coat with sauce, and bring to simmer. Reduce heat to low, then cover and let simmer until pork is fall-from-the-bone tender, about 3 hours.

2. Allow to cool, covered, until pork can be handled.

3. Reserve one cup of braising liquid and bring it to a boil in pan until reduced to a thick, almost syrupy consistency. Meanwhile, pull pork meat apart and discard pieces of fat. Toss pulled pork with reduced sauce, and when ready, serve pork in a steamed bun (available in the freezer section of many Asian grocery stores), garnished with pickled greens or fresh greens, if you prefer.
If buns are unavailable, serve rice or noodles.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Yep, It's Pesticide Free

I've enjoyed going to the local farmer's market every other Saturday morning even when the offerings are pretty much what I see at the supermarket. After all, the stuff is about as close to homegrown as I'm likely to get. I have a black thumb (I'd be on trial for attempted genocide if plants had legal rights), and if somebody else didn't grow it, I'd probably starve.

The one drawback for a city / suburban wimpy girl like me is that there's a little too much nature in natural. Last week when I washed the locally grown broccoli, I found a few — make that two dozen — locally raised caterpillars or grubs or whatever those green things that live on and eat broccoli are called.

Alrighty. Nobody said it's easy being green. I pulled my chopsticks out of a drawer, and went to work plucking out the little buggers — very gently because I don't know if I can stand the feeling of squishing another living being — as if my grilling a steak or braising a pork shoulder is somehow morally different. Why the heck aren't I vegan?

Being natural apparently means spending 40 minutes cleaning broccoli. Because not only did I pry a dozen juicy green residents of various sizes from my veggie, I also had to pull apart each floret into miniscule pieces, submerging them in a big bowl of water, and discovered an equal number of well-hidden stowaways who would have become the meat component of the dish had I not been so persistent.

What was I thinking? After about an hour total of cleaning and cooking the broccoli with a few crushed cloves of garlic, my three kids devoured the entire bowl, leaving nothing for me and my husband. And that's the reason I don't want poisonous pesticides in our food.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Everything Is Edible ONCE

Lambs quarters are delicious, like spinach, according to descriptions on television and on the Web that I've seen earlier this month. I love, love, love my greens, including spinach and collards, so the idea that a prolific weed could be not only free but also fabu-licious and nutritious got me so excited I was ready to throw on my sneakers and run out the door with a big bag like some hunter-gatherer ancestor tens of thousands of years ago.

At the same time, I'd be oh, so up-to-the-minute in the locavore movement by locally harvesting uncultivated, or foraged, foods (ie. weeds).

"You can use them in gourmet and delicious ways and make really amazing dishes," Iso Rabins, founder of ForageSF, told the San Francisco Chronicle in a story yesterday about the foraged food movement.

But like my hunter-gatherer ancestors, I must have some instinct for danger. I don't know why, but a little voice inside said, "Not so fast," and I decided to do a little digging into the Internet before digging into my yard last week.

Good thing I did. Apparently, many delicious and very healthful weeds have some rather unhealthful -- make that poisonous and potentially deadly -- doppelgangers.
Hello!

Lambs quarters, which I was ready to run out and grab, apparently look pretty similar to deadly nightshade. At this point, I'm expecting some experienced forager or botanist to write me to say, "Puh-leeze! It's easy to tell the difference." I'm sure -- once I get the chance to learn properly what both look like. But I've never knowingly seen nightshade outside of Internet pictures, and I've read accounts of other people making the mistake.

That got me to to thinking that there must be other green treats that an inexperienced forager or gardener could confuse with a dangerous double -- especially as more people I know seem to be into growing and picking their own food. Some of my findings:

Purslane -- A sprawling succulent that contains good nutrients including omega 3 fatty acids.

Spurge, above, looks like purslane
Hey! I've seen that all over my flower bed, near my lavender.  But looking more closely, I see there are two types of weeds that appeared to be likely candidates. Which was the purslane? Good thing I double, then triple checked -- and checked some more. Mixed in were plenty of specimens of a weed called spurge, which is -- you guessed it -- poisonous. It isn't AS deadly as some things you could ingest, but it's still important to become familiar with the real thing versus the imposter.

Wild carrots, aka Queen Anne's lace -- This pretty and purportedly edible weed has a very evil twin, also in the carrot / parsley family, called poison hemlock. Yep, it's the same thing that killed Socrates. They look enough alike and hemlock is so poisonous that even after I familiarize myself with them, I think I'll steer clear. This spring, a Tacoma, Wash., woman died of apparent hemlock poisoning after putting the plant into a salad, thinking that it was something else, according to a county medical investigator. A Bellingham, Wash., man also was poisoned but survived after picking hemlock from his garden because it looked like one of the vegetables he had planted. Hemlock resembles several members of the same plant group, including parsley and parsnip, and it grows all across the United States.

Ramps -- These wild leeks can resemble the toxic lily of the valley. Similarly, you don't want to mistake death camas for wild onion or wild garlic.

Blue violets -- The leaves and flowers are edible, but the rhizome is poisonous. Poisonous  larkspur and monkshood may look similar to violets to some of us city-suburban folk.

Wild grapes -- Don't confuse wild grapes with potentially deadly moonseed.

I could go on and on, but I think I made the point. Don't eat anything unless you are absolutely certain that you know it's safe.

When I was younger, ignorance was bliss, and I didn't know it was potentially dangerous. I used to snack on wild blueberries and strawberries growing in the woods around my home. Where the yard met a bit of open field, I'd chew leaves of sorrel to let the sourness start the juices flowing in my mouth. In the same fields grew beautiful stands of Queen Anne's lace -- aka wild carrot -- or so I thought. Luckily I didn't try it, because I didn't know back then that it could have been hemlock -- aka the last thing I ate.

Nowadays, I highly recommend a bit of education before picking something and popping it into your mouth. Check out the local university extension to find out if there is a plant expert or class you can hook up with to learn about the plants you're interested in before going off on your own to forage.

You may also like:

The Foxfire series of books got me interested in living off the land when I came across them in the late 1970s.

The New York Times' Ava Chin discusses gathering shepherd's purse, a wild member of the mustard family.

New York-based naturalist "Wildman" Steve Brill maintains a web site where readers can forage for more information on wild edibles.

Update added Sept. 26, 2010: A cautionary tale of "The Mistaken Mushroom," by Mark Vonnegut.
Added Oct. 11, 2010: Chef Jonathon Sawyer is sickened by foraged mushroom.

In the following audio report, New York public radio station reports on foodie-foragers Marc Matsumoto and Jonathan Landau, who hunt for such wild goodies as fiddleheads and ramps.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Ma Po Tofu


Last night, I was about to scrape the last bite out of my daughter's bowl and into my mouth when she shouted, "NO, NO, NO!"

Whoa. You'd have thought I was swiping the kid's precious ice cream, or her lovey, Yang Yang ("Lambie"). I was simply trying to help her clean up the dregs of her ma po tofu. I couldn't blame her. The recipe is really tasty, and she wanted that last spicy bite herself. But she's only 3 years old, which makes me secretly proud of the little chip off of mommy's block. Her brothers don't love the dish as much as she, but they will eat it without me tying them down and sticking a funnel in their mouths, which is quite an accomplishment when you have picky kids.

I can't remember a time when tofu wasn't on the menu when I was growing up. Tofu stir fried with ground meat in a soy, oyster sauce, garlic, ginger concoction. Or tofu cooked with hard-boiled eggs in the braising liquid from silky soy sauce chicken (or red cooked chicken, similar to Chairman Mao's supposedly favorite pork dish, hong shao rou). When my parents took us to a Chinese restaurant, occasionally we'd get ma po tofu, a spicy, irresistibly savory dish.

Oddly (to me), when I was telling a neighbor friend some years back about how much I liked bean curd, she made a face, wrinkled her nose and looked as though she were going to gag. About 20 years older than I, she'd grown up in a Sicilian-American family and made it her mission to introduce me to lamb, real "gravy" (I was surprised to learn it was a tomato sauce and not some brown, roux-thickened meat juice) and other Italian-American delights. In response, I used to tease her that if all Italians had been intimidated by Chinese food, they wouldn't have learned to make noodles. (No, I don't really think that's true.) If only I'd learned to make ma po tofu back then. She may have discovered how enjoyable and satisfying (for me, addicting) spicy bean curd can be.

The following recipe owes a huge debt to Jen Yu of UseRealButter.com. I checked out numerous recipes online, but her version is the one that used ingredients that were close to what I could easily get my hands on in central Illinois (unfortunately I haven't found sichuan, aka szechuan, pepper corns). She also includes bamboo shoots (bless her!), which are among my favorite foods, especially when thinly sliced and packed in chili oil. (In the batch pictured above, I used a small can of bamboo strips packed in water that I sliced crosswise. Just add more chili bean sauce or some hot chili oil if you want more heat.) I made some minor adjustments to her recipe based on what was in my kitchen and made sure it wasn't too spicy for my kids to eat. Another good recipe for those who want an authentic flavor is Fuchsia Dunlop's ma po tofu in her book "Land of Plenty." For a peek, take a look at Serious Eats.

Ma Po Tofu
Serves 4

1 Tablespoon peanut or canola oil
1/2 pound ground pork (or beef or turkey)
1 teaspoon grated fresh ginger
1/2 cup chopped scallion (white parts only, greens reserved for garnish)
1/2 cup chopped bamboo shoots (I used a small can of bamboo strips)
2 cups chicken or beef broth/stock
1 Tablespoon chili bean sauce (dou ban jiang)
1 Tablespoon black bean garlic sauce
1 rounded teaspoon fermented black beans (optional)
1 Tablespoon sesame oil
1 Tablespoon soy sauce (optional -- omit if broth is salty)
2 blocks tofu (about 24 to 28 ounces), cut into 3/4-inch to 1-inch cubes
2 teaspoons cornstarch mixed into 1/4 cup water (slurry)

DIRECTIONS
1. Place 1 Tablespoon peanut oil in a wok or a deep 12-inch skillet over medium-high heat and stir-fry ground meat just until it is no longer pink.
2. Add chopped scallion whites and grated ginger, and saute with meat about 30 seconds.
3. Lower heat to medium, add remaining ingredients except the cornstarch mixture, and stir until combined. Allow to simmer 10 minutes and add slurry. When sauce thickens, cover ma po tofu and remove from heat.

Serving suggestions: Ladle over white rice, and serve with cooked napa cabbage.

Variation: Stir in 1/2 to 1 cup frozen petite peas at the end.
If you want a meat-free dish, you could use textured soy protein in place of the ground pork (or beef or turkey).
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