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.

Red Cooked Chicken (soy sauce braised chicken)
Serves 6

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)

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.

Soy Sauce Eggs

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

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.

Soy Sauce Braised Tofu

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

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

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)

 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:

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?"


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.


"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

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)

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.
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