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Eight years ago, when I arrived back in New York City after living in China for a year, I not only missed the chaos of living in close proximity to 1.5 billion other people — well, in reality, my town was a “village” of just eight-hundred thousand — but I also craved delicious bowls of my favorite street food, lamian.

I had lived on these hand-pulled noodles, and sometimes suspected that the rumors of opium-laced broth were true, as during winter nights, there was little that could take my mind off that delicious meal.

I Googled lamian immediately on my return, assuming that surely, in New York City, there would be an abundance of options. I was thrilled at the prospect of introducing friends to the wonder of lamian.

I was, however, shocked to find that in 2002 the search “lamian+new york” returned no results, so I spent the better part of a year on obscure sites and expat forums.

About six months later I found a brief mention of a hole-in-the-wall that served hand-pulled noodles. Lamian wasn’t specified, but I was hopeful.

I trekked downtown with a hungover friend in tow. We were the only non-Chinese in the restaurant and the other patrons regarded us with a look of surprise, especially when I used my rusty Chinese to order. I requested  lamian, but was corrected by the waitress, nui rou mian (beef noodle soup). The meal was tasty, cheap, and a close approximation, but it lacked the depth of flavor I was hankering for.

About that time, another American teacher, a friend I’d meet in China, called and casually mentioned a new cookbook, The Food of China. “The food actually tastes Chinese,” she noted. I quickly ordered the book and was drawn to the recipe for cinnamon beef noodle soup. While the recipe didn’t specify lamian, the combination of flavors looked right. One test and I was proven correct — I’d found my lamian!

There are now lamian restaurants throughout New York; however, I find many of the broths weak imitations of the first lamian I fell in love with. So here’s the recipe from The Food of China that I believe captures the complexity of flavors I’ve been searching for but can’t always find.

Although about.china.com has thorough instructions on how to hand-pull noodles, my level of coordination isn’t up for the task, but with this recipe I have mastered the broth.

Lanzhou Lamian (Cinnamon Beef Noodle Soup)

Serves 6

1 teaspoon oil

10 scallions, cut into 1″ pieces

10 garlic cloves thinly sliced

6 slices of ginger smashed  with the flat side of a cleaver

1 1/2 t chile bean paste (Togan Jiang)  *****need photo

2 cinnamon  sticks (primarily use cassia in China)

2 star anise

1/2 cup light soy sauce

2 lb chuck steak, trimmed and cut into 1 1/2 inch cubes

thick wheat noodles

chopped scallion and cilantro for garnish

Heat oil in large saucepan. Stir-fry scallions, garlic, ginger, chile bean paste, cinnamon and star anise until fragrant (1 mintue). Add soy sauce and 9 cups of water. Bring to a boil and add beef.Simmer covered for 1 1/2 hours, until beef is tender. Skim foam from surface of broth to remove impurities and fat. Remove ginger and cinnamon.

Cook noodles in broth, serve topped with chopped meat, scallions, cilantro and lajiao.

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I didn’t expect that two weeks after leaving San Francisco I’d find myself making Chinese dumplings from scratch on the side of a Texan freeway.

I-90 Dumpling Stop

Reading through my street food Google Alert, I was thrilled to discover that the theme of The Spice Cafe’s Monthly Blog Patrolling (MBP) was street food, hosted this month by Sia of Monsoon Spice. The task: make a street food recipe from a fellow blogger, write a post, and link to the original blogger. Having only just begun Streats and having a long list of bookmarked recipes to try, I was game—except that I was in the middle of a cross-country roadtrip.

The day after reading the MBP, David and I drove east from Tucson to New Mexico, and then South into Texas along I-10. We spent the night in Van Horn, a dumpy highway town where over half the single-story brick building had long-since been abandoned. Our motel, the Economy Inn, was economy—$41 for a room that reeked of cheap perfume and backed onto the train tracks. It was too unhygienic to even consider making the jiaozi and guotieh recipe I’d been aching to try from the Asian Grandmothers Cookbook blog.

In 2002, I lived in a small town in China and taught English to 5- and 6-year-old xiao pengyou (lit. little friends). I lived on jiaozi, guotieh and other street foods, hence my interest in the genre. Since my return, I’d yet to replicate the crisp, brown bottoms and doughy skins of this Chinese staple, but the Asian Grandmothers Cookbook blog looked set to change that with its insistence on home-made dough.

Economy Inn, Van HornNot certain how I’d participate in the MBP, I doubted the quality of the only market in town, two blocks north of the motel on the desolate road running through Van Horn. With afternoon thunderstorms approaching, we trekkedNew Mexico Chilies to Pueblo Market where I was happily surprised at the variety (if not quality) of its produce and the myriad of local New Mexican chilies. Yet I still refused to cook in the Economy Inn.

Leaving Van Horn on I-90 East, the scenery changes dramatically as the highway cuts through yellowed fields which abut old volcanic hills. Twenty miles on, I saw a shaded picnic spot—that was where I’d cook dumplings.

In Van Horn, I’d bought the ingredients needed for the dumplings but not the dipping sauce as, during my time in China, I became very partial to my own dipping sauce—Zhenjiang Vinegar, a famous, sweet, back vinegar from a neighboring town with chopped chili, ginger and cilantro. As Pueblo’s was lacking in the Zhenjiang Vinegar department, I made my dipping sauce using soy as a substitute. It lacked the sweet tang of the vinegar, but the local chilies gave the sauce its requisite kick.

Cooking in a picnic stop on a propane stove wasn’t easy, but the filling of the dumplings was straight-forward, and my makeshift cooking surface (a cookie sheet I’d bought and washed) worked. The dough kept drying out in the 90+ degree Texan heat as there’s no humidity that far west, resulting in clumsily shaped dumplings.

But, as David and I sat down in our picturesque spot with trucks and Border Patrol rushing past, and dug into freshly made dumplings, I knew I’d found the recipe I’d been craving since I left China.

Dumplings in Texas

Recipe From Asian Grandmothers Cookbook Blog (My photos from Texas)

Ellen Chou’s Pot Stickers

Time: 1 to 2 hours (depending how nimble your fingers are at making the pot stickers)
Makes: about 40

DOUGH:
2 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 to 1 cup lukewarm water

FILLING:
1 pound ground pork (2 cups)
2 cups finely chopped napa cabbage (half a medium cabbage)
1 stalk green onion, finely chopped
1 teaspoon minced fresh ginger (about 1/2-inch)
1 tablespoon soy sauce
2 teaspoons plus pinch of salt
1/4 teaspoon white pepper
1 teaspoon sesame oil
3 tablespoons vegetable oil

In a large mixing bowl, combine 2 cups flour with 3/4 cup water. Mix well with a wooden spoon until it starts to come together, adding more water if necessary. With your hands, form dough into a rough ball. You want the dough to be pliable but not stick to your fingers. Sprinkle a little more flour if dough is too wet. The dough won’t feel smooth at this point. Set the dough ball in a bowl, cover with a damp towel and let it rest while you make the filling.Chopping Ginger

Place cabbage in a medium bowl and sprinkle 2 teaspoons salt. Mix well. Taking a handful of vegetables at a time, squeeze water out. Or wrap cabbage in batches in a cheesecloth or non-terry towel and wring dry.

In a large bowl, combine pork, cabbage, green onions, ginger, soy sauce, salt, white pepper and sesame oil. Mix well with Makeshift Workspacechopsticks or a set of clean hands. Set aside.

Make the wrappers. Knead dough for several minutes until it is smooth all over. Divide it into 4 balls. Knead each ball individually for about 30 seconds. Roll each portion into a log about 5-inches long and 1/2-inch in diameter. Pinch off 9 or 10 even walnut-sized pieces. Dust with flour as needed.

Filling DumplingsRoll each piece into a ball and flatten into a disc between your palms. Place flattened disc on a well-floured surface. Starting at the bottom edge of the disc, use a Chinese rolling pin* [I used a Yosemite mug] and roll from the outside of the circle in. Use your right hand to roll the pin as your left hand turns the disc anti-clockwise. So the sequence goes: roll, turn, roll, turn. Roll each disc into a circle about 3-inches in diameter. Don’t worry about making a perfect circle. Ideally, the wrapper will be thickerCrimping Dumplings Shut in the middle than on the edges.

Spoon about 2 teaspoons of filling into the center of wrapper. Fold wrapper in half over filling to form a half-moon pocket and pinch shut.

Repeat until all the dough or filling is used up. Set pot sticker down firmly on a parchment-lined tray seam-side up so that dumpling sits flat.

Heat an (8- to 10-inch) non-stick skillet overFrying Dumplings medium-high heat. Swirl 3 tablespoons vegetable oil into the bottom of pan to coat evenly. Place about a dozen dumplings in a single layer seam-side up in the skillet and brown for 1 minute.Frying Dumplings

Add 1/2 to 3/4 cup water to the pan, depending on its size. Cover immediately and steam 9 to 10 minutes, until all the water evaporates. The bottom of the pot stickers should be golden brown and crisp but not burned. Remove pot stickers with a spatula and serve on a plate with bottom side up.

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Home-made Sauerkraut

Last week I moved from my little cottage in San Francisco, and for two weeks before the move, our cottage stunk of rotten, moldy towels. It would be easy to imagine that the stench was due to a damp towel forgotten in a dark corner of my bathroom during the in the craziness of moving and quitting my job, but truth be told, the stench was emanating from a dish on the top of fridge. I was making sauerkraut.

I’d read that home-made ‘kraut elevated even bland, rubbery dogs and their Heinz-made, generic accompaniments to something worth craving. Clearly I love my dogs, and since I wasn’t about to attempt this forecemeat dish from start-to-finish, I settled on testing out sauerkraut.

The recipe is simple. I modified it from this site:

1. Boil utensils and crock pot (or glass dish as I used) to sterilize.Cabbage for Sauerkraut

2. Slice/chop cabbage and mix with salt at a ratio of 1 1/4lbs cabbage to 1 tbs of salt.

3. Mix thoroughly as the salt will draw water from the cabbage, creating its own brine. If there is not enough brine, mix 1 quart of water with 1 tbs of salt to made additional brine and add to the cabbage. (I needed no extra brine)

4. Once cabbage is ready and the brine has formed, lay a thick plastic bag across the surface of the kraut and then place a plate (sized to rest on top of the sauerkraut) and weights (tins of food work well) on top of the plastic. This weight will ensure the sauerkraut stays submerged in its brine, keeping it from molding.Submerged Sauerkraut

5. Ferment from 1-4 weeks depending on the temperature in your kitchen. Aim for a 65-75 degree kitchen. I fermented for two weeks at about 75 degrees.

I followed the directions, adding sliced organics carrots and two arbol peppers for some kick, yet my kitchen stank.

Two weeks later, when the smell was unbearable, we headed up to Sonoma for a weekend away and decided on grilling–the perfect chance to test the sauerkraut. As I was unsure that my ‘kraut was even edible, I found another “live” sauerkraut at Whole Foods and discovered a jar of Safeway brand in the back of my ‘fridge–enough ‘kraut for a taste test.

3 Sauerkrauts

While the stench of the fermented sauerkraut was overpowering, the flavor was divine. It struck a nice balance between, tart, funky and salty with a satisfying crunch that store-bought brands miss. In comparison, the Safeway sample tasted blandly of vinegar. You’d never have guessed that there was cabbage in the jar of lank, beige strips. The “live” Alexander Valley Gourmet Sauerkraut was so salty it could have been mistaken for seaweed–far from lust-worth. The home-made condiment was the clear winner though I’m not sure how often I can test my boyfriend’s patience with a stinky house.

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Rondon Post CardI was thrilled to receive a postcard from one of my closest friends who, after a few years of being a very successful lawyer, realized that suits and contracts weren’t for her. She quit a year ago, has been traveling round the world and currently lives near a beach in Costa Rica.

Kate and I bonded while living in Paris in 2002, over our shared love of food—dinners with my home-stay mother Victoire, crepes from Costas, extravagant mixed cocktails from our friends’ bars, prix-fix bistro lunches, market specials and the like. When I told Kate about this blog and my attempts to chronicle the street food I eat at home and around the world, she excitedly emailed me about the fresh mango and coconut treats she was buying off the street in Costa Rica. And three days later I received a postcard with a recipe for a traditional Costa Rican and Nicaraguan soup, Rondon.Costa Rican Stamp

Rondon is patois for “run-down” as the cook needs to run-down or chase the ingredients necessary for this fish soup. The ingredients and ratios in this soup are flexible and should be adjusted to suit personal taste and available ingredients. For example, I couldn’t find breadfruit so I substituted potato.

Rondon Recipe

The soup was sweetly flavored, although the combination of coconut milk and so many starchy ingredients was too rich for me. Also, I had misgivings about adding the fish in the first stages of cooking, but I decided to follow the recipe—bad choice. The fish was over cooked and disintegrated into the soup as fish-flavored flakes.

Rondon Ingredients

But the soup still had excellent flavors and with the following modifications it would be an easy dish to make and well worth serving. It would be a chance to impress dinner guests with typically Central American flavors:Rondon cooking

1. Ñame=yam, Ñampi=taro

2. Use a ratio of 1:1:1 for the liquid, coconut milk, chicken stock, water

3. Chop onion in quarters

3. Add few cloves of crushed garlic with the onion

4. Add 5 additional stalks of thyme when you add the liquid

5. A handful of jalapeños, sliced in half, will give the soup a spicy edge (clearly I like my food spicy)

6. Add the fish into the soup at the end and cook ’till just opaque and still tender, 5-10 minutes.

7. Serve with fresh ground pepper and slices jalapeños.

Rondon Soup Served

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I’ve spent the past week looking into al pastor recipes and noticed that there’s no typical recipe out there. Each has it’s own blend of ingredients and most are dumbed-down for the home cook by using pork chops or sliced pork loin marinated, cooked and chopped up rather than a large chunk of meat roasted. The pineapple juice, responsible for this dish’s unique flavor, is prone to burning due to its high sugar content so while I wanted to roast my dish, I worried it would become a charred, burnt mess. I figured I’d try a braise.

I coerced a few friends over to test the recipes that follow and everyone approved.

Al Pastor Recipe

The pork butt is a fatty cut of meat, but a 3-hour braise will render most of this fat and turn the meat a mouth-wateringly tender dish.

Ingredients
2 ½ lb. pork butt, fat not trimmed
3 T canola oil

Marinade
2 arbol chilies* dried or fresh
4 guajilo chilies* dried or fresh
10 tepin chilies* dried or fresh
1 chipoltle chili* dried or fresh or tinned
1 bay leaf—only if re-hydrating dried chilies
Juice of 1 orange
1 c pineapple juice
1 yellow onion
5 cloves garlic
½ t ground cloves
1 t ground cumin
Salt and ground black pepper to taste

To Serve
Corn or flour tortillas
Tomatillo sauce (recipe follows)
Smoky Red Salsa (recipe follows)
Chopped onion
Diced pineapple
Cilantro
Limes

*This is a combination of chilies based on what I could find in my local stores and me trying to re-create the spiciness and complexity of the dish I’d tried at the taco truck. But if these aren’t available this link describes flavors and substitutes.

Season roast with salt and set aside.

If your chilies are dried, place in a saucepan with enough water to cover and a bay leaf. Bring to boil and turn off heat. Allow them to soak until soft, about 10 minutes. Discard the bay leaf and water.

For both fresh and dried chilies, removed the stems and seeds to taste, as the seeds are very hot. I kept the majority of the seeds when I cooked this dish; however, I had a very spicy meal. To temper the heat, discard the seeds of the chilies.

Place all marinade ingredients except for the pineapple and orange juice into a food processor. Process until well blended. Add additional water if the marinade is too dry and season with salt and pepper. Marinade pork overnight.

Pre-heat oven too 270 F.

In a large Dutch oven, or oven-safe pot with tightly fitting lid, heat 3 T of oil until hot. Scrape excess marinade off meat and sear until brown on all sides, about 10-20 minutes. Once browned, reduce heat to low and pour the marinade into the pot. Add pineapple and orange juice and enough water to almost cover the meat. Bring the liquid to a simmer, cover with lid and place in the oven. Braise for 3 hours, turning twice. Meat should be tender enough to shred with a fork and the liquid will be reduced by two-thirds.

Shred meat and serve on tortillas with smoky red salsa, tomatillo sauce, diced pineapple, chopped onion, cilantro and a squeeze of lime.

Tomatillo Sauce
Ingredients

Vegetable oil
8 tomatillos, husked and halved
2 Serrano chilies, stems and seeds removed and halved
4 cloves of garlic
1 bunch of cilantro
Squeeze of lime
Salt and pepper to taste

Place first 3 ingredients on a baking sheet, lightly brush with oil and roast at 450 F for 15-20 minutes until slightly charred.

Blend in a food processor with remaining ingredients.

Smoky Red Salsa
Ingredients
4 vine-ripe tomatoes, diced
1 medium red onion, one half diced, one half sliced
2 tinned chipotle chilies
1 bunch of cilantro
Vegetable oil

Brush the sliced red onion with oil and roast at 450 F for 15 minutes or until browned. Dice.
Mix roast onion with all remaining ingredients. Blend half the mixture in a food processor for a chunky salsa consistency.

For more salsa inspiration check out Clay’s Kitchen.

Strawberries are in season, so for dessert I served my friends vanilla-bean custard hidden under strawberries.

Vanilla Custard Recipe
2 cups of heavy cream
1 vanilla bean, split lengthwise
4 large egg yolks
5 T sugar

Heat cream and vanilla bean in a heavy saucepan till almost simmering. Scrape seeds of the vanilla bean into the cream and discard pod.

Whisk egg yolk and sugar in a bowl. Slowly whisk in a few tablespoons of the hot cream mixture to temper the yolks. Continue adding the cream slowly and whisking well so the egg doesn’t curdle. Once the cream is mixed into the egg yolk mixture, return to the saucepan. Heat over a low heat, stirring constantly till mixture thickens. The custard will thicken further as it cools.

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Since eating fresh Dungeness crab from Fisherman’s Wharf this weekend, I’ve been thinking of little of else—dreaming of wandering along the Embarcadero back to the crab and chowder stalls. But I haven’t had the time, so instead I dug out a favorite crab recipe of mine: Fresh Fettuccine with Creamy Crab Sauce.

While the author waxes lyrical about one of my least favorite wines—a local chardonnay—I’ve made the recipe a few times and always use something other than chardonnay with spectacular results (usually, whatever’s open in the fridge). The creamy, anise-y flavor of the sauce is an addictive compliment to the sweet, briny crab.

FRESH FETTUCCINE WITH CREAMY CRAB SAUCE

This recipe was created by Chronicle staff writer Tara Duggan.

Ingredients

3 tablespoons unsalted butter

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1/2 leek (white and light green parts only), washed well and thinly sliced

1 shallot, minced

1/2 cup Chardonnay

12 ounces fresh fettuccine

1/2 pound fresh lump crabmeat, picked through for cartilage

3/4 cup heavy cream

Salt and pepper to taste

1 tablespoon minced fresh tarragon

INSTRUCTIONS: Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil for the pasta.

Melt the butter in a large skillet, then add the oil and heat gently. Add the leek and shallot, then saute gently until very tender, about 15 minutes. Add the wine and simmer for about 2 minutes.

Cook the pasta according to package directions. Drain, reserving about 1/2 cup of the cooking water.

As the pasta cooks, add the crabmeat and cream to the sauce, and simmer gently until just warmed through, about 2 to 3 minutes. Season with salt and pepper, and remove from heat.

Combine the pasta, sauce and tarragon with a sprinkle of salt and pepper. If needed, add some of the reserved cooking water to thin the sauce.

Serves 4 to 6

PER SERVING: 415 calories, 14 g protein, 35 g carbohydrate, 23 g fat (11 g saturated), 120 mg cholesterol, 142 mg sodium, 2 g fiber.

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