Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Singapore-style Stir-fried Rice Noodles

If you make tsai for Chinese New Year, you may end up with some leftover carrots and snow peas, as I did. Here's a simple recipe you can make to use up small bits of carrot, onion, scallions, peas and chicken. The Cantonese call it sing tsao chau mai fun, which translates roughly as Singapore-style stir-fried rice noodles. I'm not certain what makes it Singapore-style, though. It may just be the curry flavour!
As with all stir-fried dishes, ingredients are added in quick succession, so you should have everything prepared before you heat the wok. I slice my carrots thinly because I don't really like raw carrots. I also blanche the snow peas in salted boiling water, cool them with cold, running water, and then drain them. I marinate some sliced chicken with some salt, white pepper, sugar, soy sauce, curry powder and corn starch.
The rice noodles need to be soaked until they are quite pliable.
Heat a wok with some oil and add some minced garlic and the chicken. If you are using onions, cook the onions until semi-translucent first, then add the garlic and chicken. Brown the chicken and then add some water and cover the wok for a minute or two until the chicken is cooked. Add the rice noodles, sprinkle generously with curry powder, add a little bit of soy sauce, and mix thoroughly in the wok, stirring and turning constantly. Unless you use buckets of oil, rice noodles are going to stick unless you use a non-stick pan or wok, but a little bit of sticking is to be expected. (As long as you clean your wok while it is hot, the stuck bits will come right off.)

Lastly, add the your vegetables, such as snow peas, carrots and scallions.

Celebrate the New Year Together with Tong Yuan

I started a small series on Chinese New Year foods a while back, although I really didn't do all that much to celebrate this year. Some New Year foods are normally only available around New Year's. Others have become available year round, such as these sweet, glutinous rice dumplings, tong yuan. I love them at any time of year but, since they need to be served hot, they are especially nice in cold weather. The shape, and the sound of the words, brings to mind togetherness during the New Year with family and friends.

You can make your own with glutinous rice flour, water and various fillings (people did, of course, make these by hand long ago), but neither Moocow nor I have had much success getting the right consistency for the dumpling dough, and it's so much easier just to buy them in the frozen aisle at a Chinese supermarket! My favourite are the ones filled with black sesame paste.
Heat a pot of water (volume of water depending on how many dumplings you are cooking) add some brown slab sugar and a couple of slices of peeled ginger. When the water is boiling, add the tong yuan. They will sink, so stir them once or twice to prevent them from sticking to the bottom of the pot.
As they cook, the dumpling dough will expand and the tong yuan will start to float. At this point, the tong yuan should cook for another 3 to 5 minutes.
Serve them in a bowl with some of the sweet liquid, which you can drink as well. You really should eat them while they're hot, but be careful because the runny filling is very hot and very sweet, so you could really burn yourself. There's very little to compare with the pillowy-soft, chewy outside and the sweet and warming inside of a tong yuan.

Not My Mother's Slow Cooking

Ever since I started using my slow cooker last year, I've been wanting Not Your Mother's Slow Cooker Cookbook. When I had accumulated enough points on my Amazon credit card, I went and ordered a copy. My brother has also, marvel of marvels, recently bought a slow cooker of his own, and I wanted to try out simple, delicious recipes that I could pass on to him.

The first one is a corn chowder. Not too many ingredients, I thought. Well, I guess young men think differently. I think he was opposed to all the chopping of onion, celery and potatoes. Go figure. The chowder turned out very well, though. I will definitely make it for myself again.

I also tried a pork ribs recipe, that used mustard and molasses. At the time, my local supermarket was renovating, and I wandered the aisles (up and down, up and down, and I wasn't the only poor, lost soul) for almost an hour trying to find molasses. Finally, I went to another supermarket. The ribs were nice and tender, but the flavour was not spectacular. I'm not sure my brother would go out especially to buy molasses for a non-stellar recipe. So, I guess the search for college-aged-male-friendly recipes continues.

I would like to report, however, that I tried a favourite of Moocow's, truffle french fries. I bought some frozen french fries from the supermarket and baked them in the oven (really, it's rather miraculous how nicely they turn out!) and dashed a couple of drops of white truffle oil (which I bought in Seattle's Pike Place Market when I went there this past winter break) on top.
The aroma of truffles, and truffle oil, is very strong and heady, and rather unique. It may not appeal to everyone, and truffle oil is quite expensive (truffles, even more so), but I liked the truffle fries. I also sprinkled some of my truffle oil on top of a mushroom risotto I'd made, and it was wonderful.

Mini Calzones

I bought the most recent issue of Cuisine At Home. It's one of my favourite food and cooking magazines, but I don't normally buy it because the editors tend to assume that everyone's kitchen is equipped with a KitchenAid stand mixer and a large, powerful food processor. Those of us without such luxuries (myself included) would tend to find the recipes a little time-consuming. I couldn't resist their calzone recipes in this issue, however, and I ended up making mini calzones so I could freeze them for quick lunches at work.
The dough recipe was rather simple. You must, of course, allow time for the dough to rise. That's a picture of the second rising above, after I punched the dough down and divided it into two sections.
As the dough was rising, I started to make the filling so that it could cool down before I filled the calzones. I used three kinds of cheese: ricotta (not shown), boursin (my first experience of this soft cheese) and fontina (also a first, for me).
The filling had onions, eggplant and red bell peppers. And lots of cheese, of course!
I rolled out each ball of dough into a rectangle and placed three portions of around 1/3 cup of filling on the bottom half of the rectangle. Then, I folded the top of the rectangle down over the filling after brushing some water around each mound.
Then, I pressed down around each mound of filling and used a round cookie cutter to cut out each mini calzone.
I used the tines of a fork to seal the edges. After rolling out the second ball of dough, and re-rolling the scraps, I ended up with 10 mini calzones, which went onto a pan dusted with cornflour and into the oven.
A little time-consuming, but fun, and the results were very satisfactory, too! And it's the perfect non-messy lunch item, even though it would probably taste better reheated in an oven/toaster oven than in a microwave. Unfortunately, there are only microwaves at work (apparently, toasters are considered a fire hazard).

In Search of the Perfect Pie

Remember that pumpkin pie I made back in October, the one whose crust peeled away from the filling and fell down? I swore I would make another, better pie, and get the crust right. And really, I love pies, but can't really call myself a good pie baker. But I would love to be a good pie baker, and so I have been on the lookout for good pie crust recipes, and a good, all-purpose pie cookbook.

In the library, I came across a Joy of Cooking publication, All About Pies and Tarts. It has recipes from Joy of Cooking, but it also has photographs of the crust-making process. My friend, Anne, and I had a pie-baking party on February 1st, and we tried an apple pie recipe from that book. We used the flaky pastry dough recipe (which uses a combination of butter and shortening), and chose the apple pie recipe that involved pre-cooking the apples.
The pie turned out beautifully, if I do say so myself! Although I've been avoiding shortening (because of all the hydrogenated fats), it really does make the crust a lot flakier. Cooking the apple filling first meant that we didn't have to add any thickener (e.g. corn starch), so the flavour of the apples really shone through. We were able to drain away excess liquid coming out of the apples, so the filling wasn't too runny and the crust didn't become soggy, and the apples didn't shrink down anymore after baking, so we didn't have a gap between the top crust and the filling. I think I like cooking the filling first!
And, as I promised myself I would, I made another pumpkin pie. I used the Joy of Cooking pie crust recipe (as you can see, there wasn't quite enough to fit the deep dish pie plate). Following Moocow's recommendations, I blind baked it first, weighing the crust down with beans. I used the filling recipe I used last time, from The Essential Baker. After the adding filling, I baked the pie at 400 F (not as high as was called for in The Essential Baker, which had stated 425 F) for 10 minutes, and then reduced the oven temperature even more than in the recipe (which was for 350 F) to bake at 325 F for about 50 minutes.
Anne, who says that she is not much of a pie baker, either, gifted me with her pie shield, so my crust didn't burn this time.
And, look! The filling adheres to the crust perfectly. The pie also passed all taste tests, and the crust was nice and flaky, even at the bottom. I just wish I had time for more pie adventures!

Tofutsie Socks for Dad

Last week a coworker and I made a trip down to New Paltz to meet the other Hudson River Estuary Program staff members, and attend a staff meeting. Since Clare was driving, I brought along a new knitting project to start, one that I've been wanting to begin for a while.

This sock (of which you can see the cuff) is going to be made of South West Trading Company's Tofutsies sock yarn, and it is made from soy protein and chitin (the material that invertebrate shells and exoskeletons are made of). Chitin has natural anti-bacterial properties, so the wearer's feet are less likely to get smelly (since the odour is due to bacteria).

The only problem with this yarn is that, unlike wool yarn, it isn't very elastic. Moocow bought some, too, and she ran into the same problems, where she cast on (to follow a pattern) a recommended number of stitches, and ended up with a cuff that was way too big. I'm not following a pattern, although I did start with a gauge swatch that included both ribbing and stockinette stitch. The sock still seems a little bigger than I would like. It might be all right for the leg, but I'm thinking of decreasing by a couple of stitches toward the ankle so that they won't be baggy.

Da Vinci Proportioned Scarf

Last year, Moocow and I visited The Yarn Tree in Brooklyn, which was a wonderful experience. At the time, our younger brother had tagged along, and he surprised us by being very patient as we went a little crazy. And, for the first time in living memory, he actually took some interest in some yarn, and requested that I knit something for him!

So, although the luscious Blue Sky Alpaca Duotones was more expensive than I would have normally thought to buy to use for a scarf for him (if he throws this in the washing machine, it's a goner!!!) I bought two skeins.

I looked around for scarf patterns and stitch patterns that I thought me might like, and knit some swatches to see what needle size I would need. He was very vague about his preferences, though.

Then, recently, I was teasing him about his "monkey arms." Of course, he is very tall and skinny, so all his limbs are rather long, but I was certain that his arms were on the slightly-abnormally-long side. Well, when he told me that he hated short scarves, and that he wanted one that would be long enough to wrap comfortably and still reach down further than his armpits, we decided that what he probably wanted was a scarf as long as his arm span. So, of course, I took a tape measure and measured his arm span, which turned out to be around 6 feet 4 inches.

Have you ever seen a picture of Da Vinci's sketches of human anatomy, in particular the one of a man with his four limbs outstretched, drawn within a circle? Well, basically, an average person's arm span is that same as his height. My brother is 6 feet 4 inches tall, so I guess he doesn't have monkey arms after all.

He and I agreed on the My So Called Scarf pattern. However, when I realised how long this scarf had to be, I also realised that I didn't have enough yarn! When I went online to order more from The Yarn Tree, I discovered that this colourway had been discontinued. Slight panic ensued, until I located more (on sale) at Kpixie. So, with disaster averted, I cast on and started knitting at the beginning of this month.

With such a bulky yarn, and size 15 needles, it's been growing rapidly as I have been able to knit on the bus to and from work. It's already almost as tall as I am, and I'm 5 feet tall. ^_^

Bayerische Sock Finally Finished!

First of all, allow me to comment upon the difficulty of taking a good photograph of a sock that you are wearing on your own foot. It is impossible to get the angle quite right.

But I have finally, finally finished this second sock of the second pair that I knit for my Sockapalooza 4 pal, Dawn, who has been incredibly patient. I finished it over President's Day weekend. Back in August, I sent her a pair of summery socks and the first of this pair of Bayerische socks, with an IOU for the other one. I was so sure that I would have this second sock finished in time for cold-weather wearing.
Although it is still cold and snowing here in Albany (it's really been coming down for the past two days), however, my roommate (who is from Texas, where Dawn is) tells me that winter is over down south, and Texans have been enjoying 80-degree weather. Bummer, on two counts.
I love how these socks have turned out, even though they took me forever to finish. I don't know if I'll ever knit them again, though, even if I would love a pair for myself. And there are so many other sock patterns out there that I want to try knitting, and so little time!

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Year Cake

What is more evocative of Chinese New Year than New Year cake, or nian gao? In the mornings or afternoons of the first few days of the New Year, as you're at home with family, or braving the cold to go visit relatives to greet the New Year with them, you will often find nian gao being fried up and served. Slightly sweet, slightly chewy, slightly melt-in-your-mouth, it is difficult to imagine a Chinese New Year without it.

These days, most people buy a round of nian gao from the supermarket, or a Chinese restaurant. At this time of year, they even serve it in the restaurants when you're having dim sum. Not all nian gao is made equal, however. Some manufacturers put in copious amounts of red dye (red being a lucky colour); I would avoid any pink- or red-looking cakes.

On Thursday, when I was calling all my aunts and uncles to wish them a happy New Year (it took over an hour and a half), one of my aunts suggested that I make my own nian gao, saying that it was very simple. Well, she told me how and, indeed, it sounded very simple.

Nian Gao recipe (provided by Hing-Yuk Lau Chan)

Ingredients (to make two rounds of nian gao):

1 lb glutinous rice flour
5 slabs of brown, rock candy sugar
3 Chinese rice bowls full of water (around 3.5 cups)

Make a light syrup by heating the water and sugar together in a saucepan until the sugar has melted. There is no need to reduce the liquid; this syrup is not meant to be thick.
Place the glutinous rice flour in a large bowl. Very gradually, add the syrup, mixing well after each addition. Aim to produce a smooth, lump-free batter. After all the syrup is added, it should resemble pancake batter.
Divide the batter evenly between two shallow, round containers that have been brushed with vegetable oil. I used 8-inch round baking pans. At this point, you can decorate the top with a dried, red date and/or some lotus seeds if you like. If you plan to cook the nian gao in the microwave, use glass or plastic containers. My aunt suggested that I use two takeout containers, the kind we often get from Chinese restaurants, and told me to cook the nian gao on the high setting in the microwave for around 8 minutes. Now, I don't know about you, but I have been trying to cut back on microwave usage, because I don't believe that it's healthy. In particular, I no longer put plastic containers in the microwave, so I wasn't about to zap my nian gao in plastic for a full 8 minutes! Either use a glass container, or do what I did, which is to use the more traditional method of steaming.

Make sure that there is plenty of water heating in your steaming vessel, because steaming takes much longer than microwaving! I used a wok with a metal rack set in the bottom to hold the pan above the water. Place your containers of nian gao batter into your steaming vessel and steam for 60-90 minutes. You'll want to check the water level once or twice, to make sure that you still have enough liquid. It pays to keep a kettle of hot water available, so you don't reduce the temperature of the steaming water too much when you add liquid.

You'll know that the nian gao is done when it has become slightly translucent, and there are no pale, batter-coloured patches left. If your nian gao isn't done after 8 minutes in the microwave, cook it for another 1 to 2 minutes.The top of the nian gao may have developed bubbles and become uneven while cooking. Brush the bottom of a large plate that fits into your pan/container with oil (or use the smooth bottom of a glass) and use it to press down on the top of your nian gao while it is still warm, to smooth it out. Cool the nian gao to room temperature, and then chill in the refrigerator overnight.Whether you're cooking your own nian gao, or nian gao you bought from the store, the process is the same. Slice your round of nian gao into pieces roughly 3/8-inch thick and approximately 2 1/2- by 2-inches in size. If your slices are too thick, the outside of your nian gao will burn before the inside heats properly.

In a bowl, lightly beat an egg. Heat a pan and add a little bit of oil. Dip each slice of nian gao in the beaten egg and place them in the pan. Pan fry for around 1 minute on each side, until the nian gao is heated through, develops a slight crust on the outside, and is soft and pliable, but still retains its shape. You don't have to dip the nian gao in egg if you are vegetarian. The egg just helps to prevent sticking.
Eat your nian gao while it is still hot and soft and chewy, but be careful not to burn your mouth! My roommate, and people at work, for whom I've made nian gao say it reminds them of french toast. I am happy to report that, although my round of nian gao wasn't as hard (think of a round of parmesan cheese) as what you buy from the store, it fried up beautifully and tasted great.

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Happy Chinese New Year!!

Happy Chinese New Year! I wish you and your families good health, longevity, prosperity, success in all your endeavours, and fulfilment of your heart's desire. I haven't posted since last year, according to the western calendar, but I thought the lunar New Year would be a nice time to start again. I have a lot of catching up to do, since I haven't been idle, but I'm returning with a little series on Chinese New Year foods.

Chinese New Year is one of my favourite times of the year. You can get together with family, eat lots of good food, receive lucky money (!), and remember all the interesting and wonderful traditions that are part of the Chinese culture.

For example, in my family, we try to be vegetarian on the first day of the New Year. No doubt this practice has its origins in Buddhism and, although my family isn't Buddhist, we observe this tradition because it isn't such a huge sacrifice, especially when you have a wonderful vegetarian dish to look forward to!

At home, we just call this dish tsai, which means vegetarian food; at this time of year, it clearly refers to this one dish that Moocow and I look forward to. We usually end up making a huge wok-ful, because everyone in the house has some, and we can have more throughout the day, or the next few days. It is very simple to make, and nutritious as well. The most important thing is to have the right number of ingredients, and the right kinds.

During the lunar New Year, everything has to be lucky and auspicious. Red is a lucky colour, as are most even numbers (though not four, which sounds like the word for death!!). The numbers eight, nine, ten and thirteen, especially, are considered lucky, so we make sure that we have one of those numbers of ingredients in the tsai.

This year, I soaked some dried shiitake mushrooms and wood ear fungus, which are always featured in my family's version of this dish. I keep the shiitake water because it contains a lot of flavour, and can be used instead of chicken broth. The snow peas and carrots are for colour and sweetness.
At Moocow's suggestion, I also soaked some dried lily bulbs, which signify togetherness at this happy time of year. They, and the small, red dates, are also slightly sweet. I never actually eat the red dates, but I like how they look. When I brought the tsai in to work the other day, however, two people said that they liked them.
You'll also want to soak some vermicelli (also known as cellophane or mung bean noodles). Normally, we would also want to put in a fungus called fat choi, which seriously resembles hair. It adds a certain flavour to the dish, and is very lucky because it sounds a lot like the word for prosperity. However, in recent years I've learned that this particular species may have been overharvested. It has become more difficult to acquire, and I certainly wouldn't want to be responsible for driving it to extinction, so I didn't use any.
Clean some napa cabbage and cut it into bite-sized pieces. You should cut them slightly larger than you would expect, because they shrink a little as they cook. Then, one of my favourites, is the dried tofu skin. You buy it in packages, and they're hard, brittle spears that you need to soak for a while (at least an hour), otherwise they won't cook properly. After they've soaked and softened, you can cut them into bite-sized pieces.

So, have you been counting? I had nine ingredients in my tsai this year. You can also put in peeled and sliced rounds of lotus root, sugar snap peas, snow fungus, or even dried oysters (soaked). "Dried oysters!" you might say. Yes, they aren't vegetarian. Somehow, though, they are kosher for this dish. Why? Well, my father had a story about how the Buddha called all the animals to a meeting (perhaps it was the one to invite them to the New Year's banquet, which decided their order in the Chinese zodiac) and, while he was talking, he had his staff in a pool of water. When he was finished and lifted his staff to leave, he found that some oysters had attached to it. This made the oysters "clean" and special in some way. I'm still not sure how it makes it all right to eat them, but there you go.

So, heat some oil in the wok and put in a couple of slices of peeled ginger. Then, stir-fry the carrots and snow peas and the wood ear fungus with a little bit of salt. This helps to keep the colours nice and bright. Don't stir-fry the shiitake mushrooms, though, because they can become tough. Set aside the carrots and snow peas. In the wok, with the wood ear fungs and ginger, add the napa cabbage, shiitake mushroom and tofu skin. Add a little bit of salt and some soy sauce and cook over medium heat until the napa cabbage is tender. The cabbage should release quite a bit of liquid as it cooks, but you may need to add water. If you have the water from soaking the shiitake mushrooms, use that.

Once the napa cabbage and tofu skin are cooked to your liking, add the red dates and lily bulb. Cook for a minute or two. At this point, I adjust the seasonings a little, with salt, soy sauce, a little bit of sugar, and white pepper. Then, add the vermicelli and mix it into the other ingredients well. You will probably need to add liquid in at this point. The vermicelli cooks quickly, so cook for just another three or four minutes. Taste, and adjust seasonings again, if it's necessary. At the end, add the snow peas and carrots back in and mix it all together. By this point, it's probably a huge wok full of food, and will give you quite a workout!

Serve it nice and hot, either on its own, or with rice. This is a dish that keeps well for a couple of days in the refrigerator. When you reheat it, either in a pot or in the microwave, be sure to add a little liquid. If you reheat it by steaming, that won't be necessary.