Archive for January, 2012

January 31, 2012

Five under 5: Pesto Pasta

I’m completely exhausted. I don’t know if it was all the Chinese New Year festivities or sleeping six hours each night for the past week, but I am toast—crispy and burnt. So, for the next week or so, I’m going to try to come up with five lunches that have five or fewer ingredients. This morning, I grabbed some leftover (already cooked) brown-rice fusilli noodles from the fridge, a handful of peas from the freezer and ran them both together under very hot water. Then, I warmed store-bought pesto (I like Buitoni) and tossed the peas and pasta in it. Lastly, I chopped some grape tomatoes and sprinkled it throughout the pasta. Lunch is done, and using just four ingredients: fusilli pasta, pesto, peas, and grape tomatoes. Yay! To turn this into dinner, all you’d have to do is grill some chicken or fish and serve  it alongside the pasta.

Advertisements
January 28, 2012

Chinese New Year – Making Almond Cookies

I could feel it. S was about to accuse of me of being a Food Nazi—again.

She told me that one classmate had Oreos for snack time earlier this week and another had Oreo ice cream in a cup. I was dumbfounded. Really? Now, was she telling me because she herself was shocked, too? Or because she was trying to say, “Mom, you’re the only parent who’s such a Food Nazi!” In either case, I was listening.

I would’ve had a hard time believing her, except that a few months ago I had chaperoned a school field trip. Boy, that was eye-opening! Mini-blueberry muffins, crunchy breadsticks, Pringles and little tiny cookies. That was the entirety one child’s lunch. Elsewhere, I got a glimpse of Pepperidge Farm chocolate-chip cookies bigger than the size of my palm, snicker doodles, and crackers galore—Cheez-Its, Goldfish, graham crackers. Oh my carb! Don’t get me wrong. I love a good carb as much as the next person, but many carbs make not a meal. Where was the protein, not to mention fruits and vegetables?

I thought the school had a no-sweets policy, but apparently it’s either not enforced or I was delusional. “They mean ‘No candy,'” S explained. “Told you you’re allowed to pack dessert.” I guess she was right. However, it didn’t change my lunch-packing routine. I always figured desserts were after-dinner treats, not after-every-meal goodies. But even I could see that perhaps I was being a bit, ahem, rigid.

So, I decided to surprise S with some homemade Chinese almond cookies. And I could feed them to her guilt-free under the guise of cultural heritage. We baked the cookies together, with C putting a blanched almond in the center of each ball of dough and S brushing the tops of the cookies with an egg wash.

     

S was positively giddy with excitement when she saw me slip a light, buttery cookie into her lunchbox the next day. But just as I was about to feel proud of myself for loosening up a bit, she asked me, “One? Can I please have two?”

Click here for the recipe for Chinese Almond Cookies.

 

January 25, 2012

Chinese New Year – Making Tea Eggs

I have memories of my mom making these eggs for me when I could barely peer over the stove. It didn’t matter that I couldn’t see the hard-boiled eggs bubbling in the pot, because I could smell them. The aroma of anise, cinnamon, orange peel and black tea would waft through the house as the eggs simmered hour after hour. I’d be so excited when she turned off the heat, but I would have to continue to wait. And as you know, waiting is not a children’s game. The eggs had to steep in the tea overnight, so the dark caramel color could penetrate the egg’s cracks and create a beautiful marbled effect. This takes coloring eggs to another level—and without the food coloring. Bonus: they’re incredibly easy to make.

In the morning, I would be the first one down the stairs because I wanted dibs on the eggs.  I’d examine all the tea-stained shells and find the one with the most cracks—but small, fine cracks, without large pieces of shell broken off. Those were usually the most beautiful inside. Then, I would carefully peel off the shell to reveal the art beneath. Egg after egg after egg, the anticipation never wore off. My brother and I would compare eggs, and like a typical boy he didn’t care that I had the prettier egg. But I did.

Now, I get to pass on the tradition to my kids. I watched this morning as S painstakingly removed the shell of her tea egg. Her excitement mounted with each fragment of shell that came off. She was so pleased with herself when she was finally done. After admiring the intricacy of the design, she gobbled it up and asked me, “Can I take one to school, so everyone else can see what tea eggs look like?” After C peeled his egg, he asked me repeatedly, “How’d you do that?”

I love that the kids love tea eggs, and not just because I have such fond memories of my mom making them. Eggs are high in choline, which is essential brain food for growing children. Plus, the high quality protein in the eggs keep them full longer, gives them more energy and makes them more alert. Sure beats a handful of crackers or Pirate Booty.

Note: These do taste different from regular hard-boiled eggs, but it’s subtle. However, the fragrance of all the spices is pretty strong. When you bring that egg to your lips, you’ll get a nice whiff of anise, cinnamon and tea.

Chinese Tea Eggs

Ingredients:

12 eggs

4 TB of black tea leaves (or 4 tea bags)

1/2 cup soy sauce (or tamari, if you’re gluten-free)

2 tsp salt

1 TB sugar

1 cinnamon stick

4 star of anise

1 tsp. Szechwan peppercorns (optional)

3 strips of dried mandarin orange peel (optional)

Directions:

Gently place the eggs in a medium pot and fill with water to cover the eggs by 1 inch. Bring the pot to a boil and let it simmer for 5 minutes. Remove the eggs, but leave the water in the pot. Cool the eggs under running water. Using the back of a small spoon, or the surface of a hard counter, tap the eggshell to create cracks all over. You want to tap hard enough to make the cracks, but not so hard that pieces of shell start to fall off.

Add the remaining ingredients to the pot and bring to a boil. Lower heat and simmer for 10 minutes. Gently add the eggs back into the pot and simmer on low for three hours. Turn off the heat, and let the eggs steep in the tea overnight. Peel, admire beauty and eat.

January 23, 2012

Happy Chinese New Year! – Making Dumplings

Happy New Year! One of the best things about Chinese New Year is that it’s a 15-day event, starting on the first day of the lunar calendar and commencing on the fifteenth. What a great excuse to celebrate and feast for two solid weeks! Much of Chinese New Year, which is the most important of the traditional Chinese holidays, is about sweeping away any lingering ill-fortune and making room for incoming good luck. And one of the most important ways to do that is with food. Yes, you heard me right—food. What does that tell you about Chinese culture?

The Southerners have their black-eyed peas on New Year’s Day, and the Chinese have dumplings—among many, many other foods, such as fish, noodles, pork, duck, kumquats and sticky cake. Each symbolizes a different kind of good luck, whether it’s longevity, abundance, or progress in the coming year. In the case of dumplings, it’s wealth and prosperity, because they’re shaped like ancient Chinese money. So, if you want to be prosperous in the Year of the Dragon, you need to eat dumplings—lots of them.

I think every Chinese family must have its own recipe for dumplings, so there’s not just one way to make the filling for a dumpling. Also, there’s nothing difficult about making dumplings; however, it is labor intensive because of all the wrapping. But if you’re going to make your own dumpling wrappers from scratch, well, then you’re on your own. When I was growing up, my mom used ground turkey to make it a little healthier. But since we almost always do the opposite of what our mothers do, I’ve gone back to the old-school method of using pork. Either is fine.

First, you chop scallions, ginger, bamboo shoots, and napa cabbage into itty-bitty pieces. You can also add shitake mushrooms and cilantro. (On a side note: it took me years to realize that because napa cabbage retains so much moisture that I should salt them in a large bowl and then wring out all the moisture. This step keeps your filling from becoming soggy.) Then you mix it all into your ground meat, along with cornstarch, sesame oil, soy sauce, salt and white pepper and an egg or two. The best way to do this is with your hands. Yep, roll up your sleeves and sink those babies in.

Then comes the tedious part: the wrapping. I usually make 100 at a time and freeze what I don’t cook that night. This year, I thought I’d throw a little dumpling-making party for S and her friends. In exchange for cultural awareness, I’m getting free labor. The girls had fun and after the first 15 minutes, we had a nice assembly line going. Even with all the help, it took well over an hour to wrap all the dumplings.

The great thing about dumplings is that you can steam them, boil them or pan-fry them for potstickers. When you make such a big batch, you can do all three. Don’t forget to dunk them in some savory soy-ginger dipping sauce. One of my favorite ways to eat dumplings is in a bowl of noodle soup. And you know what? Instant ramen noodle is just fine. Simmer the dumplings with the noodles, add a leafy green and when it’s all cooked, sprinkle some scallions, cilantro and fried shallots over the top. You’ll have a soul-warming bowl of dumpling noodle soup. Go eat some prosperity already.

 

 

January 20, 2012

Chinese Noodles with Pork & Peanut Sauce

“Oww!!! Stop it!” S yelled.

“Give it back then,” C said.

“It’s mine!” S retorted.

“Aaaaargh! Give it now!” C screamed.

Sigh. I had lost count of the number of times I had heard this type of dialogue all day. All I wanted was to sit in a quiet room with a glass of Chardonnay and a big bowl of carbs. Carbs are so comforting. And really, any carb would do—pasta, mashed potatoes, a crusty French baguette. But with Chinese New Year just a few days away, I decided that noodles, which represent longevity, would be perfect. I love noodles! But I needed it to be easy and quick, because I wasn’t sure both kids would make it in one piece to dinner.

Williams-Sonoma has a simple and delicious Chinese noodle recipe that requires just a few staple ingredients. You brown some ground pork, add some green onions, garlic and ginger, followed by 2 TB of peanut butter, and then a mixture of chicken broth, hoisin sauce and soy sauce. The sauce thickens as it simmers and after it has reached the right consistency, you toss it with some cooked egg noodles (you could easily substitute spaghetti noodles). Dinner is done! I had set aside some beautiful baby bok choy to go with the noodles, but the battle between S and C had made its way into the kitchen and two little bodies were flying around me. There was no time to cook a separate vegetable. So, I reached for a bag of frozen peas and dumped half of it into the pot of boiling water which was cooking the noodles. I drained all of it in a colander and voila, it was a one-dish meal!

The recipe calls for some chili oil, but I just top my own heaping of noodles with it.

The craziness continued through dinnertime, between the kids taking bites of noodles. But I ignored the insanity and soothed myself with two servings of warm pasta and my long-awaited glass of wine. It was almost like being in a soundproof room.

There was plenty for S’s lunch the next day.

Chinese Noodles with Pork & Spicy Peanut Sauce (Williams-Sonoma)

Ingredients

1 cup low-sodium chicken broth

1/ 4 cup hoisin sauce

2 TB soy sauce

1 TB peanut or canola oil

3/4 lb. ground pork

Pinch of red pepper flakes

1 cup minced green (spring onions), white and tender green parts

1 TB minced garlic

1 TB peeled and grated fresh ginger

2 TB creamy peanut butter

1 lb. thin fresh Chinese egg noodles

1 tsp hot chile oil

Make the sauce

1. In a small bowl, stir together the broth, hoisin sauce, and soy sauce; set aside. Place a 12-inch frying pan over medium heat and add the peanut oil. When the oil appears to shimmer, add the ground pork and red pepper flakes and cook, stirring frequently, until the meat is crumbly and the color changes from pink to gray. Add 1/2 cup of the green onions, the garlic, and ginger to the pan and mix well with the pork. Add the broth mixture and peanut butter, stir well, and cook until small bubbles form on the surface. Cook until the peanut butter smelted and the sauce is slightly thickened, about 5 minutes. Remove the sauce from the heat.

Cook and drain the noodles

2. Bring a large pot three-fourths full of water to a rolling boil. Add the noodles all at once, stir gently, and cook until the noodles are tender, but still slightly chewy, about 2 -3  minutes. While the noodles are cooking, reheat the sauce in the pan over medium-low heat. Pour the noodles into a colander to drain, then shake the colander to remove excess water. Don’t let the strands get too dry, or they will stick together.

Toss the noodles with the sauce

3. Add the drained noodles to the pan with the sauce. Using 2 wooden spoons or spatulas, toss the noodles until they are evenly coated with the sauce and the pork is evenly distributed. Add the remaining 1/2 cup green onions and the chile oil and toss to distribute evenly. Serve right away.

January 17, 2012

Kale and White Bean Soup

After last week’s Frito Pie, I decided we needed to cleanse our system with kale. Lots of it. Yay for super foods! That’s why I was instantly sold when I came across this kale and white bean soup from Epicurious.com. It calls for one whole pound of lacinato kale.  And soup was just the thing, in the midst of a few cold chilly days. Yes, contrary to popular belief, it can get quite brisk in San Diego.

The recipe uses dried beans, but you could just as easily substitute canned ones. If you opt for canned, I recommend that you add the beans towards the end, at the same time as the carrots. Otherwise, your beans will disintegrate after all that simmering. Instead of kielbasa, I chose a smoked chicken sausage with apple and chardonnay from Trader Joe’s. It’s lower in fat, but I think ultimately it was also lower in flavor. Next time, I’ll stick with kielbasa. Last bit of advice: don’t leave out the piece of Parmigian-Reggiano rind. It gives the soup so much richness and depth.

Even if your kids aren’t big fans of kale, I recommend that you try this recipe. Once kale is cooked in a soup or stew, its flavor really mellows out and turns from slightly bitter to sweet. S had seconds for dinner and then asked for it for lunch the next day. C only had one serving, but licked his bowl clean.

CLICK HERE for Epicurious.com’s Kale and White Bean Soup recipe.

January 13, 2012

Recipe Makeover: Frito Pie!

I never thought I would, but I did. And I blame it on the Texan I’m married to. Once or twice a year, my husband gets a faraway, wistful look in his eyes as he recounts how he and his childhood friend used to open a can of chili and pour it into a bag of Fritos.

“Mmmmm,” he’d say. “Frito pie. Those were the days.”

I’d respond with a roll of the eyes and a groan.

For me, Frito pie is right up down there with a tater-tot casserole or a green bean casserole made with Campbell’s cream of mushroom soup and Durkee French fried onions. It just seems antithetical to all things culinary and nutritive. But, love drives you to do strange things.

I heard my husband’s story again over Christmas, so it was fresh in my mind when earlier this week Saveur featured its version of Frito pie on its Facebook page. I thought, I have to see this recipe. The recipe comes from Mabel’s Smokehouse, a barbecue restaurant in Brooklyn, NY. Initially, I had my doubts—because what do New Yawkers know about barbecue and Southwestern food, right? But I was impressed with how heavy handed they are with the spices in their chili. They throw in 2 tablespoons each of cumin, chili powder, black pepper, oregano, 1 tablespoon of paprika and garlic powder, and 1 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper. At the least, I would have a very flavorful chili. So I decided to challenge myself to a Frito pie recipe makeover. Why not take gas station fare to a much higher level, and at the same time let my husband revisit some of his fondest childhood memories?

I substituted half the ground beef with ground elk to make it healthier, and I also added a can of kidney beans so the chili wouldn’t be so meaty. If I were to do it again, I would add two cans of beans. As the chili was simmering and thickening, I cut up 5 ounces of kale into thin ribbons and threw them into the pot. I know, I know. But, really, no one could tell. Lastly, though this is probably sacrilege to Frito pie aficionados, I substituted Trader Joe’s Organic Corn Chip Dippers for Fritos. They’re basically an organic version of Fritos. Seems silly, but it soothed my conscience.

The Frito pie was a hit! No surprise, right? My husband topped his with sour cream, shredded cheese and lots of sliced jalapeños. Meanwhile, the kids couldn’t get over the fact that they could eat corn chips with dinner. In my family’s eyes, I was Top Chef.

Of course, S wanted Frito pie for lunch. After all, that means she gets to eat more of those corn chip dippers! How can I blame her? Because I confess: I’ve turned into a Frito-pie convert.

Here’s the link to the recipe at Saveur.com:

Frito Pie

January 12, 2012

Brie, Brie and More Brie!

S is going on a field trip today, so that means she needs a completely disposable lunch. That’s a struggle for us, because S typically prefers a hot lunch. But I have a surprise for her. And honestly, it was new to me, too. We had some leftover bagels in the freezer from the weekend, and then I remembered I had bought Brie at Trader Joe’s earlier this week. I usually steer clear of it because I can eat the whole creamy mess myself. This time, I put back the triple cream variety in favor of double cream. It was hard, but I do try to keep my children’s virgin arteries in mind. At my house, we call it “butter cheese.” It’s one of the few soft cheeses S loves (because she has a special relationship with butter), so I put it in my cart, hoping to come up with something creative for lunch.

When I was in England, I had more than my share of Brie and tomato sandwiches. But tomatoes don’t hold up so well in the lunchbox. On the other hand, apples do! And I have a bunch of them, thanks to my CSA. I lightly toasted the bagel, arranged pats of “butter cheese” on each half, followed by thin slices of apple. On one half, I even put a few slices of turkey. I’m sure I’ll get feedback from the peanut gallery later this afternoon.

I could have packed another turkey and avocado sandwich, but I have to come up with another 50 or so lunches before I get to 108. Help! I’m not even halfway there and we’re already past the halfway mark of the school year. If you have any ideas, please send them along. The Lunch Diva is starting to lose steam.

January 9, 2012

Portobello Mushrooms Stuffed with Spinach and Goat Cheese

Okay, I did not pack this for S’s lunch. She hates mushrooms. If she thinks she sees so much as a sliver of one in her food, it stops her cold in her tracks. However, C loves, loves mushrooms. And he’s not picky about the variety, and whether they’re raw or cooked, so he happily eats plain button mushrooms (which he piles high on his plate at a salad bar), shitakes, creminis or big fat portobellos. I love that he loves them because mushrooms are packed with vitamin B-2 and D, copper and potassium.

After picking C up from preschool today, I decided we’d head home for lunch. I knew there were two portobello mushrooms waiting for us in the fridge. They were left over from a vegetarian craving I had the other night. I didn’t want meat, but I still needed something hearty. Portobellos were the answer. I first made the stuffed mushrooms a couple years ago for my book club, and they were so good I bookmarked the recipe.

The portobellos are first marinated in olive oil, balsamic vinegar, garlic, soy sauce and a few sprigs of fresh thyme. Then, they’re roasted gill-side down in the oven for 15 minutes. After that, you flip them over and stuff them with a mixture of spinach, goat cheese, parmesan cheese, onions, chopped mushrooms and breadcrumbs. Simply leave out the breadcrumbs if you’re on a gluten-free diet. It won’t change the consistency much. Put them back into the oven for another 15 minutes. The result? A perfect umami flavor.

As strange as this might seem, I’ve been eating the leftover portobellos for breakfast. I top each with an over-easy egg for a dense, low-carb meal.

As for S, she got turkey and avocado on an everything bagel.

Here’s the link to the recipe at Epicurious:

Portobello Mushrooms Stuffed with Spinach and Goat Cheese

January 6, 2012

My Favorite Noodle Dish—Ever

This is that dish. Which dish? That dish. The one you pine for when you’re away at camp for the very first time. The one you want every time you visit home. The one you crave at midnight when you’re seven months pregnant. Yes, that dish. The one that makes everything in the world right again, because it’s comfort and home wrapped in a warm bowl. For some of you, it might be lasagna, chicken pot pie or your mom’s fried chicken. For me, it’s this Chinese noodle dish, better known as “wat tan hor” or “char hor fun” in Cantonese. I grew up with it in Singapore and Malaysia, where you could get it at every hawker center in town. Even though my mom never cooked it, it holds a special spot in my heart—and, well, my gut. A delicious egg gravy with seafood and vegetables is poured over pan-fried rice noodles to create gastronomical bliss. It’s something you wish you could bathe in. Before fluids were outlawed on airplanes, I used to have my mom buy the dish from a little hole-in-the-wall in Atlanta and bring it to me when she came to visit.

      

In my family, we’ve renamed it Fat Noodle, after the thick, flat rice noodles that are in the dish. For years, I resigned myself to only getting to eat it whenever I visited home or went overseas. But then, one day I decided I had to try to make it myself. The first few times, it was embarrassing. Yes, it was edible, but nothing like the real deal.

      

After tinkering with a little more rice wine here and and a tad more oyster sauce there, I created something close to the perfect combination. I learned along the way that the secret to a good egg sauce is to turn off the heat immediately after cracking the eggs into the wok. Then you stir quickly, but with just a few strokes to break up the egg. If you leave the heat on, the sauce curdles and gets lumpy.

In my recipe I use shitake mushrooms, which is not traditionally in the dish but I think it adds a nice butteriness. Admittedly, my version of Fat Noodle is not as good as what you get in the streets of Penang, but it’s more than a respectable substitute. And definitely good enough to make you blow your low-carb diet. Added bonus: it’s gluten-free. Yes, the kids love it, too—especially as leftovers in their lunchbox.

The recipe follows the photo. If you don’t like seafood, try chicken, pork or beef.

Wat Tan Hor (Pan Fried Rice Noodles with Egg Gravy and Seafood)

Ingredients

Noodles

1 package of fresh rice noodles

1 1/2 TB light soy sauce

1 1/2 TB dark soy sauce

1 1/2 TB peanut oil

Seafood

1 lb. large shrimp, peeled and deveined

1/2 lb. large scallops

2 tsp. sesame oil

1 tsp. garlic, minced

1/2 TB peanut oil

Gravy

1 1/2 TB garlic, minced

1 cup carrots, sliced 1/4″ thick on the diagonal

6 oz. fresh shitake mushrooms, stemmed and sliced

1/2 lb. baby bok choy, cut into bite-sized pieces

4 cups low-sodium chicken broth

3 TB oyster sauce

1 TB soy sauce

1 TB Shao Hsing rice cooking wine

1 tsp sugar

3 1/2 TB cornstarch

3 large eggs

Separate the noodles into individual strands and place them into a bowl. Heat 1 TB peanut oil over medium high heat in the wok or pan and put in a third of the noodles. Sprinkle 1/2 TB light and dark soy sauce over the noodles. Stir-fry to keep the noodles from sticking. Remove the noodles after they turn a light brown color. Make sure they’re heated all the way through but not overcooked, otherwise they’ll get mushy. Repeat with the next two batches of noodles and add peanut oil as necessary. Set aside and cover with foil. Wipe out wok.

Toss the shrimp and scallops with the sesame oil and minced garlic. Heat 1/2 TB peanut oil in wok over high heat and stir-fry shrimp and scallops until just cooked through, 2 to 3 minutes. Remove with a slotted spoon. Wipe out wok.

Stir 1 cup chicken broth, oyster sauce, soy sauce, rice wine, sugar and cornstarch in small bowl. Set aside.

Heat 1 TB peanut oil over medium high heat in the wok. Add the garlic and stir-fry quickly for 15 seconds. Add carrots, mushrooms, stems of baby bok choy and stir-fry for 1 – 2 minutes. Add the bok choy leaves. Pour in three cups of chicken broth. Bring to a simmer. Add the shrimp and scallops back into the wok. Stir chicken broth-oyster sauce mixture and pour into wok. Wait for it to simmer and thicken into a gravy. Crack the three eggs into the wok, turn off the heat and stir quickly with just a few strokes to mix the egg into the gravy. Do not overcook the eggs or the gravy will turn lumpy.

Put a helping of noodles on a dish and ladle the warm gravy over it. Indulge.

%d bloggers like this: