December 15, 2014

Tea Time & Thai Basil Chicken

"'Phoebe, we'd like some toast, and some of Mrs. Finch's raspberry jam, and chocolate cake, and ginger scones, and a big pot of tea, please?' instructed Charlotte, beaming at Phoebe. 'Ooh, and some of those nice chocolate biscuits, not those ghastly coconut ones, please.'" 
The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets, Eva Rice
Contrary to what my mother thinks, my sister and I are not the only people in the world who detest coconut. This book is living proof of it. As a person who suffers from chronic BHC (Burning Hatred of Coconut), I have to scan Thai restaurant menus with a vigilant eye. I basically skip over the curry section, because Thai curries are made with coconut milk (the most dreadfully fragrant form of coconut known to man).

Thankfully, most of the other dishes are safe. I recently discovered a new favorite, known as Wok Basil Chicken at Pure Thai. Basically, it's a minced chicken, stir-fried with string beans, chili, garlic, and basil. I think it either has a bunch of jalapeños or Thai chilies in it (or both) because it's pretty darn spicy.

The crunch of the string beans really helps elevate ground chicken to a level of fresh, flavorful fare. I created my own version with string beans (or, as I like to call them, "haricot vert" because it sounds fancier) and other veggies. I couldn't find any ground chicken at the store, so I used chicken thighs instead.

Wok Basil Chicken
1 onion, sliced
1.5 lbs. chopped chicken thighs or ground chicken
1 cup snow peas
2-3 cups of string beans, snapped in half
1 clove garlic, minced
3 jalapeños, sliced thin
handful of basil leaves
1 tbsp sesame oil
1 tsp chili sauce
1 tbsp soy sauce
2 tsp sugar
dash of fish sauce (optional, if you don't want to stink up your kitchen)

Heat a wok over medium high and add a drizzle of oil. Saute the onion and chicken thighs until the thighs are almost cooked, about 15 min. Add a bit of water if it seems dry.

Add in the rest of the ingredients and cook for another 5-10 minutes. Season with more soy sauce or salt as desired.

Serve over rice, with a tall glass of water...or milk, if your spice tolerance is as low as mine. :)

October 5, 2014

Cute enough to eat?

If you can't tell from the title, today's post is all about cute things.

Specifically, it's about how cute things make people act weird. Take, for example, the following passage.
"He reached in front of him and took both of Sybil's ankles in his hands. 
'I'm Capricorn,' he said. 'What are you?'"
—"A Perfect Day for Bananafish," J.D. Salinger
Seymour takes Sybil's ankles into his hands. Am I the only one who finds this strange, but also totally realistic? I'm sure there are a million different ways you could read this symbolically, but at its most basic level, I think it's just a good observation of human nature.

Dogs, babies and small children inspire odd behavior in adults. Most people wouldn't gape at strangers in the face, or coo at them, or reach out and scratch them behind the ears. Yet I see people doing these invasive sorts of things (and more) all the time, to babies and dogs they don't even know. Meanwhile, their moms/dads/owners look on, unperturbed (or so it appears). I suppose once you're a dog owner or parent, you give up some rights to privacy, simply because your dog or kid is just too darn cute.

I try not to infringe on strangers' personal space like that when it comes to babies or dogs. But I must admit that I gawk at people's food. I probably inherited this trait from my mother. It's tough—no, nearly impossible—not to peek at other the next table's order whenever I eat out. It may make me look like a creeper, but hey, if it helps ensure that I order the best thing on the menu, why not?

Do you know what I think of as the cutest pasta? It's a close tie between orecchiette and fusilli. But lately, fusilli has been winning. It also goes really well with tuna because the tuna gets caught in the nooks of the fusili.

A really corny person would chuckle and call this "two peas in a pasta" because there are two "peas" in it: peas and chickpeas. So that's what I'm calling it...because I am that person. It also happens to sound like "two peas in a pod" which, we all agree, is a cute expression. So, this blog post really is all about cute things. I warned you, didn't I?

Two Peas in a Pasta
1/2 lb. fusilli pasta
1/2 onion, minced
1 clove garlic, minced
16-oz. can chickpeas, drained and rinsed
1 tablespoon pesto
2 cans tuna, drained
1 cup frozen peas

Bring a large pot of water to a boil.

Meanwhile, drizzle olive oil into a large saucepan or wok and set over medium-high heat. Sauté the onion and garlic for about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.

When the pot of water comes to a boil, cook the pasta to al dente according to the package instructions.

Meanwhile, add the pesto, chickpeas and tuna to the saucepan/wok. Stir in the peas. Cook for another 5 minutes and then stir in the drained and cooked pasta. Turn off the heat and serve immediately!

August 5, 2014

Rereading John Cheever + Relishing Raisin Walnut Scones

"She liked to cook and to have the food she cooked appreciated and eaten, and whenever we saw her, she always urged us to eat. She cooked hot bread--crescents and brioches--for breakfast two or three times a week, and she would bring these into the dining room herself and say, 'Eat, eat, eat!' When the maid took the serving dishes back into the pantry, we could sometimes hear Anna, who was standing there, say, 'Good! They eat.' She fed the garbage man, the milkman, and the gardener. 'Eat!' she told them. 'Eat, eat!' On Thursday afternoons, she went to the movies with the maid, but she didn't enjoy the movies, because the actors were all so thin. She would sit in the dark theatre for an hour and a half watching the screen anxiously for the appearance of someone who had enjoyed his food."
—"Goodbye, My Brother," John Cheever

John Cheever's short stories are incredible. I am rereading them now, and they are just as good as I remembered. Even more impressive is that I enjoy them even though many of the characters aren't very likable...simply because they are so well written.

This cook, Anna, seems different, though. She sounds like a winner. She kind of reminds me of my aunt, too. My aunt is always trying to feed everyone, and she always thinks everyone is too skinny. 

Oh, to be served hot brioche every morning! Anna sounds like a godsend (or a devil, for dieters and diabetics). One of my mother's favorite breakfasts is raisin scones. I made a batch for her birthday this year, and I added walnuts because she's nuts about them (pun intended...haha). 

I don't know about you, but I like a scone with a bit of crunch on top. If you have turbinado sugar (sugar in the raw), sprinkle some on top of the scones before baking, and you'll be in for a real treat. I used regular granulated sugar and they still turned out great.

Ina Garten's recipe is the best one I've seen so far. Fluffy on the inside, with good crunch on the outside, these scones are decadent but still somehow manage to be light and airy...a winning combination found only in the best pastries. And with only two tablespoons of sugar in the whole batch, they are also not too sweet.

Here's the link to the recipe (also below). If you're craving carbs at their best, you won't be disappointed.

Raisin & Walnut Scones
adapted from Ina Garten
Yields about 14-16 scones

4 cups all-purpose flour
2 tbsp sugar, plus extra for sprinkling
2 tbsp baking powder
2 tsp salt
1 tsp cinnamon
3/4 lb. cold unsalted butter, cut into small cubes
4 eggs, beaten
1 cup cold heavy cream
3/4 cup raisins
3/4 cup chopped walnuts

Preheat oven to 400 °F.

Combine flour, sugar, baking powder, salt and cinnamon in a large bowl. Work the butter into the flour mixture with a pastry cutter or your fingertips until the butter is broken down into marble or pea-sized morsels. Fold in the eggs, cream, raisins and walnuts and mix until just barely combined.

Sprinkle a clean countertop with flour. Pour the dough onto the flour and use a floured rolling pin to spread it to about an inch thickness. Cut the dough into triangles or form into roughly 3" diameter balls. 

Place the scones about an inch or two apart on greased cookie sheets. Sprinkle with sugar (turbinado sugar works very well, for added crunch). Bake for 20-25 minutes until golden brown around the edges. As Anna would say, it's time to "Eat, eat!"

July 24, 2014

Norwegian Wood + Wood Ear Noodle Recipe

Midori's cooking was far better than I had imagined it would be, an amazing assortment of fried, pickled, boiled, and roasted dishes using eggs, mackerel, fresh greens, eggplant, mushrooms, radishes, and sesame seeds, all done in the delicate Kyoto style.
"This is great,' I said with my mouth full.
'O.K., tell me the truth now,' Midori said. 'You weren't expecting my cooking to be very good, were you—judging from my looks.'
'I guess not,' I said honestly.
Norwegian Wood, Haruki Murakami
Doesn't that meal sound amazing? I would love to have Midori cook for me every day. But this passage also brings up another important consideration: Do we judge cooks by their looks? And should we?

We've all heard the saying, "Never trust a skinny chef." But my parents aren't hefty people, and they're two of the best chefs I know. So no, I do not judge a cook by his or her BMI. Instead, I take note of the way they talk about food. Do their eyes light up? Do they get breathless and start talking in run-on sentences about their favorite type of doughnut? Do they carefully lift strawberries to their noses in order to sniff out the best box?

These things, I think, are good indications that someone is a good chef.

Speaking of looks, what's this funny looking thing on the left?

Wood ear mushrooms! And indeed, they do look like trees' ears, if trees had ears. A package of these dried fungi will last you for ages. One of my favorite ways to prepare them is with noodles...specifically, bean thread noodles (also known as glass noodles, made from mung bean). Besides their soft, delicious texture, what's cool about these noodles is that they're gluten-free.

Available for purchase in Asian grocery stores and at Whole Foods, all you have to do to prepare cellophane noodles is soak them in water for about 30 minutes before stir-frying. You also need to soak the wood ear mushrooms before cooking them.

My parents always stir-fry this kind of noodle with shredded cabbage, and sometimes shrimp or some other protein. This recipe is infinitely adaptable to your tastes. I happened to make mine with wood ear mushrooms, shiitake mushrooms, cabbage and scallions because that's what I had on hand at the time.

Improvise, and enjoy!

Norwegian Wood-Inspired Wood Ear & Cellophane Noodles
handful of wood ear mushrooms
handful of dried shiitake mushrooms
3 bundles of dried cellophane noodles
1/2 head of cabbage
1 clove garlic
2 scallions
sesame oil and soy sauce
pinch of sugar
a small spoonful of chili sauce

Soak the wood ear mushrooms and shiitake mushrooms in a large bowl of warm water, so they are submerged, until soft (approx. 30 min). In a separate bowl, soak the noodles in warm water as well (should also take about 30 min.).

Meanwhile, slice the cabbage and scallions, and mince the garlic.

Heat a large wok and drizzle with oil. Add in the cabbage and garlic and cook until wilted, approx. 15 min.

Drain the mushrooms and slice them into bite-sized pieces. Add them into the pan with the cabbage.

Stir and continue to cook over medium-high heat. Drizzle with sesame oil and soy sauce. Add a pinch of sugar along with the hot sauce.

Drain the noodles and cut them into approx. 6" length strands (I just made a few rough cuts, no need to be too precise). Add them to the wok and stir fry until soft, another 20-30 minutes.

Taste and add more soy sauce as needed. Throw in the scallions in the final few minutes. Serve immediately (with more hot sauce, if desired).

July 10, 2014

The BFG's Not-Snozzcumber Soba Noodle Salad

"It starts always with a tiny little seed of an idea, a little germ, and that even doesn't come very easily. You can be mooching around for a year or so before you get a good one. When I do get a good one, mind you, I quickly write it down so that I won't forget it because it disappears otherwise rather like a dream. But when I get it, I don't dash up here and start to write it. I'm very careful. I walk around it and look at it and sniff it and then see if I think it will go. Because once you start, you're embarked on a year's work and so it's a big decision."
—Roald Dahl
In high school, one of my friends called me Big Friendly Girl, like the the Big Friendly Giant (BFG), because I was taller than most of my classmates.

Every time she'd call me that, I would think about snozzcumbers, which make their appearance in this gem of a book. Supposedly, they resemble cucumbers, but they taste horrific. I've never had a snozzcumber, but I imagine it to be something akin to what happens to a cucumber when it has grown moldy after languishing in my refrigerator too long.

One of my favorite ways to eat cucumbers is in the form of a cold noodle salad. Now that summer is upon us, I just want to feast on frozen grapes, cucumbers and watermelon all day. I despise humid weather, but there is one saving grace of blistering heat: it makes me appreciate the flavor of cold noodle dishes that much more. The following recipe is something that Sophie and the BFG would like as much as frobscottle, methinks. I hope you enjoy it, too.

The BFG's (Big Friendly Girl's) Cold Soba Noodle Salad
1 small bundle of dried soba noodles (I used these)
drizzle of rice wine vinegar
pinch of salt
a drizzle of sesame oil
1/2 Japanese cucumber (the skinny kind), chopped
1 scallion, sliced
1/2 boiled egg (find tips for making the perfect hard-boiled eggs here)

Cook the soba noodles according to instructions. Drain and rinse in cold water. Place in a large bowl.

Season with rice wine vinegar, salt and sesame oil. Mix in the scallions and cucumber. Top with the boiled egg. Go ahead and eat freely. The roar of the air conditioner will drown out the sound of your slurps.

June 24, 2014

What would Popeye eat for breakfast?

     "Breakfast is always the same, perfectly reliable, no decisions, no conflicts: orange juice, muesli, a three-minute boiled egg, a slice of buttered toast, coffee that I grind myself.
     There’s a tiny kitchen on the landing just outside my door, a cooker and a little fridge and a sink. Mr. Sandor uses it before me in the morning, Miss Neap comes after me. Mr. Sandor always leaves the cooker sticky and smelling heavily organic. I don’t know what he has for breakfast. Squid, maybe. Kelp."
Turtle Diary, Russell Hoban

Turtle Diary is a pleasant novel about two lonely British people who decide to save turtles from the aquarium.

Mr. Sandor's breakfast sounds mysterious. Smelly and sticky? Granted, that probably doesn't sound so appetizing to most people, but I eat that kind of stuff up. Fish sauce, garlic, onions...the smellier the better!*

Unfortunately, my breakfast is more like William's than Mr. Sandor's most days.

Oatmeal with blueberries, cinnamon, flaxseed meal, a smear of crunchy peanut butter, and sometimes a sprinkle of raisins. Not a bad way to start the day. But in a perfect world, I'd eat eggs for breakfast every day.
Scallion pancakes dipped egg and then pan-fried. Poached eggs over toasted English muffins. Scrambled eggs with ketchup. Maybe even breakfast soup.

In the above quote, the word "kelp" reminded me of a lovely idea for a savory breakfast: spinach egg drop soup.

It couldn't be easier, really. Which is perfect for people who aren't fully awake yet, but still have to try to make breakfast.

Spinach Egg Drop Soup
1-2 tsp of powdered dashi (click here for more info)
2 large eggs, beaten
Handful of spinach leaves, washed
optional add-ins: shrimp/pork wontons, sliced scallions, white, flaky fish fillets, shrimp

Heat up a small saucepan with about 3 cups of water. Bring to a boil and add the dashi powder. Pour in the egg and bring to a boil again. Throw in the spinach leaves and stir. Add more salt if necessary. Turn off the heat and serve immediately!

May 6, 2014

A Woolf-worthy pumpkin chocolate loaf

Elizabeth rather wondered whether Miss Kilman could be hungry. It was her way of eating, eating with intensity, then looking, again and again, at a plate of sugared cakes on the table next them; then, when a lady and a child sat down and the child took the cake, could Miss Kilman really mind it? Yes, Miss Kilman did mind it. She had wanted that cake—the pink one. The pleasure of eating was almost the only pure pleasure left her, and then to be baffled even in that!
Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf
Virginia Woolf was right about one thing: Eating is a pure pleasure. But as much as I love food, I have to argue that if eating is the only pure pleasure we have in our lives, then it becomes a problem. There's got to be more to life than just eating.

It always makes me a little (actually, very) sad to read something and suddenly remember that its author decided to take his or her own life. I feel that way every time I read a Virginia Woolf novel, and also whenever I read David Foster Wallace's commencement speech. Strangely enough, I don't feel that way when reading Hemingway—there's something about his work that makes it seem like it's not really a surprise that he did something like that.

Such wisdom and such talent, gone just like that. The eerie thing about reading Wallace's speech is that he describes the mundane aspects of adult life to a crystal clear T. You can't help but wonder why he didn't take his own advice and try to rise above the awful boring routine life and try to "stay conscious and alive in the adult world." To be fair, he does say that it is "unimaginably hard to do this," but still. It's depressing.

While all of us are trying to carve out some uncertain meaning in our lives, one thing remains certain: We must eat. And if we must eat, then it might as well be a pleasurable experience. Am I right or am I right?

I decided to make a lovely pumpkin loaf even though it's spring, not fall, and this is traditionally a fall flavor. Pumpkins deserve to shine in the spotlight beyond the months of October to December. While I was making this pumpkin loaf, I experienced a moment of hesitation when it came time to contemplate the eternal question: To add chocolate chips, or not to add chocolate chips? Usually the answer is yes, because I'm a chocoholic.

Something magical happens to chocolate chips in a moist loaf like this (something that doesn't necessarily happen in cookies): The chocolate morphs into something delightfully velvety and adds just the right soft chunky texture to the loaf. I used Ghirardelli semisweet chocolate chips (yum). On a scale of zero interest to pure pleasure, this is definitely as pleasurable as food gets. I just know you're gonna Woolf it down (please excuse my cheesy pun).

Pumpkin Chocolate Chip Loaf
Wet ingredients
1 cup canned pumpkin
2 eggs
scant 1/2 cup oil
1/4 cup water
Dry ingredients
1 cup whole-wheat flour
1 cup light brown sugar
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp cinnamon
1/2 cup semisweet chocolate chips

Preheat oven to 350 °F. Combine wet ingredients in a large bowl. Add the dry ingredients and stir until just combined. Pour into a buttered 9"x5"x3" loaf pan and bake for 1 hour, until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.

April 20, 2014

A Quality Quinoa Tabbouleh

Mom hated plain food, and she loathed ground beef, which she had been forced to eat almost daily as a child. She bragged she hadn’t eaten a canned veggie since crossing the California state line. We ate a lot of salads, rice, chicken stir-fry, couscous, eggplant, fruit, homemade hummus.
Steal the North, Heather Brittain Bergstrom
Sometimes, being a kid is great. For one thing, you get to fall asleep on the long car ride home, instead of sitting behind the driver's wheel in traffic. But one thing that sucks about being a kid? You don't usually have much say over what's for dinner. (The tradeoff is that you do have to pay for it or cook it yourself once you're an adult.) I, for one, love being in charge of what I get to eat every day.

I discovered Heather Brittain Bergstrom through Narrative. Her short stories are real gems. Check them out if you get a chance! So when I found out that she had written a novel, I knew I had to read it. It's told from multiple viewpoints, and its characters are hit hard with more tragedies than one family should ever face, but they survive and they find small but incredible ways to make something good out of their lives. For instance, Kate makes sure that she and her daughter never have to eat the plain food that she was forced to eat during her unhappy childhood.

Before college, I never even tried hummus, never mind tabbouleh. Now I love them both. And I recently realized just how simple and easy it is to make tabbouleh at home.

Tabbouleh is usually made with bulgur wheat, but I had some leftover quinoa lying around, so I figured I'd substitute that instead. This tastes great with eggs, tuna or chicken in a toasted pita with a smear of hummus. Or eat it as a healthy appetizer on its own. 

Quinoa Tabbouleh
1 bunch parsley, chopped fine
2 small tomatoes, chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
1/4 red onion, chopped fine
1 medium cucumber, peeled and chopped
a drizzle of olive oil
juice of 1 lemon
3/4 cup cooked quinoa
salt and pepper, to taste

Mix all ingredients together until combined. Refrigerate and let flavors meld together for an hour or so.

Serve with protein of your choice and a warm, whole-wheat pita.

March 23, 2014

Mile-long* sweet potato noodle stir-fry

Oh I'm a fast dog. I'm fast-fast. It's true and I love being fast I admit it I love it. You know fast dogs. Dogs that just run by and you say, Damn! That's a fast dog! Well that's me. A fast dog. I'm a fast fast dog. Hoooooooo! Hooooooooooooo!
I can eat pizza. I can eat chicken. I can eat yogurt and rye bread with caraway seeds. It really doesn't matter. They say No, no, don't eat that stuff, you, that stuff isn't for you, it's for us, for people! And I eat it anyway, I eat it with gusto, I eat the food and I feel good and I live on and run and run and look at the people and hear their stupid conversations coming from their slits for mouths and terrible eyes.
—"After I Was Thrown Into the River and Before I Drowned," Dave Eggers

In high school, I wrote about Dave Eggers' A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius as my final project. I remember being awed by his confidence, his raw talent, his candor.

Hungry for more of his voice, I bought How We Are Hungry, one of his short story collections. The quote above is taken from one of the gems in there. Who else can make a dog sound wise yet simple-minded all at once? For that is how I imagine all dogs think and talk.

I love to run, too. And you know what one benefit of running is? You don't have to feel bad about eating carbs. Your body needs them to run, after all! One of my favorite carbs is noodles. I'm particularly fond of sweet potato noodles, the kind found in Korean japchae—but I recently started using these to make other dishes, too. These noodles are incredibly long (*not quite mile-long, but close enough), so most recipes will suggest that you cut them with scissors to make them easier to eat.

Feel free to substitute the fish cake with some other form of protein, such as chicken, pork, shrimp, beef, egg, or tofu.

Stir-Fried Sweet Potato Noodles With Fish Cake
1 12-oz. package of dangmyeon (a.k.a. glass or sweet potato starch noodles)
1/2 cup minced chives
1/2 medium onion, chopped
2 carrots, minced or grated
1 clove garlic, minced
1/2 cup chopped fish cake (straight from the freezer is fine)
Sesame oil
Soy sauce
Roasted Sesame seeds

Boil the dangmyeon in a pot of water according to the package instructions. Drain and toss in sesame oil. Set aside.

In a large wok, heat olive oil and chives, onion, carrots, garlic and fish cake. Let cook for 15-20 minutes or until carrots are slightly softened. Toss in the cooked dangmyeon and drizzle with some soy sauce and sesame oil. Toss in the sesame seeds. Stir until everything is combined and the noodles are heated through, another 5-10 minutes. Serve immediately.

This dish makes a ton of servings—enough for 4 hungry people who need to stock up on carbs to run, or 6 normal people. Tastes great heated up in the microwave the next day. Do not serve straight out of the refrigerator, because the noodles harden when they're cold. But once heated, they become soft and chewy again.

March 18, 2014

Last suppers

My mother said he came in from work that night and ate a big supper. Then he sat at the table by himself and finished what was left of a bottle of whiskey, a bottle she found hidden in the bottom of the garbage under some coffee grounds a day or so later. Then he got up and went to bed, where my mother joined him a little later. The next morning whens he looked in on him, he was on his back with his mouth open, his cheeks caved in. Gray-looking, she said. She knew he was dead—she didn't need a doctor to tell her that.
—"My Father's Life," Raymond Carver
This essay is tinged with regret, confusion and sorrow—many of the emotions most of us experience when we try to think and write about our parents. When I read it, I thought about what I'd like my last meal to have been. The thing about last meals is that you never get to have another one. So you had best make sure it's darn good. I've given it a lot of thought, and I'm pretty sure that mine would include a large plate of roasted brussels sprouts and linguine with meat sauce. It's my favorite supper.

Roasted Brussels Sprouts
1 lb. brussels sprouts, trimmed at stalk and cut in half lengthwise
4 cloves of garlic, cut in half
Olive oil
salt & pepper

Preheat oven to 400 °F. Spread the brussels sprouts and garlic in a large baking dish and drizzle with about 2 tablespoons of olive oil. Sprinkle with salt and pepper.

Bake until tender in the middle and slightly charred around the edges, about 40-45 minutes.

Linguine with Meat Sauce
1 large onion, chopped
2 cloves of garlic, minced
1 lb. lean ground beef (or turkey)
2 carrots, minced
2 celery stalks, minced
1 box of mushrooms, washed and sliced
1 lb. dried linguine
1 25-oz. jar tomato sauce (the 365 Organic Eggplant is pretty good, in my experience)
1/2 cup milk
Red pepper flakes, salt and pepper, to taste

In a large skillet, saute the onion and garlic in olive oil over medium-high heat until fragrant and translucent (about 5-10 minutes). 

Add the ground beef and cook until no longer red. Add in the carrots, celery and mushrooms and let cook until carrots are tender (another 15 minutes or so).

Meanwhile, bring a large pot of water to a boil and cook the pasta to al dente by following the directions on the package. Reserve about 1/2 cup of the cooking water before draining the pasta.

Add the tomato sauce to the skillet and stir until combined. Once it's bubbling, stir in the milk and reserved pasta cooking water. Season with red pepper flake, salt and pepper until it tastes as hot, salty and peppery as you like.

To plate, spoon pasta sauce over the linguine and add brussels sprouts on top. Dig in!

March 8, 2014

On cake, cornbread and Claire Messud

The first summer I spent in New York, I fell in love with the Whole Foods in Columbus Circle. I thought it was as captivating as a trip to the top of the Empire State Building.

To this day, I still drop in specifically to pick up a square of their cornbread...especially if I can find a middle piece. I adore middle pieces because the edges are a bit too dry for my liking. I've always liked my cornbread to be moist and sweet, more like a cake than a bread. If you agree, for the love of god, read on.

Marie Callender's makes an excellent one. Whole Foods' cornbread is much along the same vein. Plus, it's rarely more than $1.50 a piece, making it an affordable and satisfying snack for a stroll in Central Park.

This morning, I had an intense craving for cornbread. But rather than make the trek up to Whole Foods, I decided to make it at home. Turns out that cornbread tastes even better when you don't have to change out of your pajamas.

Sweet, moist and crumbly, this cornbread is like a light and fluffy yellow cake, only a bit heartier because of the addition of cornmeal. Life is too short to eat dry cornbread.
I thought I could get to greatness, to my greatness, by plugging on, cleaning up each mess as it came, the way you're taught to eat your greens before you have dessert. But it turns out that's a rule for girls and sissies, because the mountain of greens is of Everest proportions, and the bowl of ice cream at the far end of the table is melting a little more with each passing second. There will be ants on it soon. And then they'll come and clear it away altogether.
The Woman Upstairs, Claire Messud
As the quote above illustrates, life is also too short to deprive yourself of dessert. This cornbread may be dessert-like, but that doesn't mean you have to wait until you finish dinner to eat it. Since it's technically got "bread" in the name, you can treat it as an appetizer. Dig in, before the ants steal what's rightfully yours.

Cake-Like Cornbread
1 cup cornmeal
1 cup cake flour (or all-purpose)
3 tsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
1/2 cup brown sugar
2/3 cup milk
2 eggs, beaten
1/2 cup oil

Preheat oven to 400 °F. Grease an 8"x8" square pan and set aside.

Combine the cornbread, flour, baking powder, salt and sugar in a large bowl. Work out the clumps of sugar with your fingertips if necessary. Pour in the milk, eggs and oil and stir until just combined.

Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake 20 minutes, until golden brown around the edges. Insert a knife in the middle; it should come out clean. If it doesn't, let it bake for a few more minutes (mine took about 25 minutes).

March 2, 2014

Vegetarian breakfast burritos

"Mine eyes smell onions; I shall weep anon."
All's Well That Ends Well, William Shakespeare
Perhaps it's the Californian in me, but nothing makes me perk up at brunch like the words "breakfast burrito."

In reality, it's so very simple to make this at home. Plus, when you make it yourself, you can customize it however you like, without annoying the waiter/waitress with your special requests and substitutions. As our pal Shakespeare would say, you can make your breakfast burrito just as you like it. Ba-dum-bum.

This recipe below makes enough filling for 3-4 good-sized burritos. It's definitely great bang for your buck—I think the ingredients cost me about $4 (even in New York, where groceries are redonkulously expensive).

I would have added corn to mine if I had any on hand. You can use whatever beans you like (or no beans at all); I used pink beans. Sliced avocado would also be a divine addition, methinks. So get thee to a stove and whip up some of these fantastic breakfast burritos, stat.

Vegetarian Breakfast Burritos
1/2 large onion, chopped fine
1 clove garlic, minced
2 small tomatoes, chopped
15 oz. can beans, rinsed and drained
4 large eggs
1 boiled Yukon Gold potato, cubed
1/4 cup chopped cilantro
Seasonings: dash of salt & pepper, hot sauce, and/or Magic Unicorn salt
Whole-wheat tortillas
Monterey jack cheese, sliced thin

Drizzle oil into a large skillet and cook the onion, garlic and tomatoes over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally. Add in the beans and stir.

Make a well in the center of the pan and crack the eggs into that space, one at a time. Gently break up the eggs with a wooden spoon and wait until the eggs have somewhat solidified before slowly incorporating them into the rest of the pan.

Stir in the potato and season with salt and pepper and hot sauce, or whatever seasonings you like. Sprinkle the chopped cilantro on top and stir until evenly distributed. Turn off the heat. At this point you can either serve by itself, or over rice, or start to assemble your breakfast burrito.

If you're going the burrito route, here's how you prepare your tortillas.

Arrange a few slices of monterey jack cheese on a tortilla and place on a microwave-save plate. Microwave for 30 seconds or until the cheese melts.

Spoon about 1/2 cup of the prepared egg and bean filling into the center of the tortilla. Roll up the burrito and enjoy by itself or with a side of salsa. :)

February 28, 2014

Super-soft, dreamy whole-wheat cookies (made w/ coconut oil!)

Like most people who feel slightly guilty about their rate of cookie consumption, I've always been curious about whole-wheat flour. If I'm going to enjoy dessert, I might as well try to make it as healthy as possible, right?

Coconut oil has also piqued my interest of late. I detest coconut—everything from its texture to its aroma. But I kept coming across blog posts and articles touting the health and beauty benefits of coconut oil. Finally, I decided that I had to see for myself.

I finally took the plunge and purchased both items at Whole Foods: Organic 365 100% whole-wheat flour and Dr. Bronner's virgin coconut oil. Unfortunately, the coconut oil definitely smells like coconut (no surprise there, I guess), but not to the point where it's overly offensive.

I decided to kill two birds with one stone (so to speak) by using whole-wheat flour and coconut oil in one recipe. For my experiment, I chose a chewy whole-wheat cookie I found on AllRecipes. The original recipe didn't call for coconut oil, but I thought it would do well in this application, and I'm happy to say that it came out wonderfully! And strangely, it almost tastes buttery, even though there is not a speck of butter in it. In fact, I've gobbled up three cookies in the course of writing this blog post. What can I say? Writing makes me hungry.

Whole-wheat flour is great here. I was worried that it would make the cookie tough, but in this recipe, it just makes it taste slightly more nutty (and texture-wise, like whole wheat bread, it's definitely more fibrous than a cookie made with white flour).

This cookie is cake-like and soft, the perfect accompaniment to a cup of almond milk. I think it would also taste great with some chopped walnuts thrown in, to complement the nuttiness of the whole-wheat flour and coconut. I think you could even make it vegan by replacing the egg with ground flaxseed and water. The best part? I don't feel guilty about eating this as a snack or breakfast, because it's almost like having a slice of whole-wheat toast.

I really must marvel at my progress—I've come so far since my childhood days of chomping Fruity Pebbles and pound cake for breakfast. I really have.

Soft, Chewy Whole-Wheat Cookies (Healthier Butterless Snickerdoodles)
adapted from AllRecipes
Yields ~30 cookies
1 cup loosely packed dark brown sugar
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 cup organic whole kernel virgin coconut oil
2 tbsp almond milk
1 tsp cinnamon
1 egg
2 cups whole wheat flour

Preheat oven to 375 °F.

In a large bowl, whisk brown sugar, baking powder, salt and baking soda until uniform. Add the coconut oil, almond milk, cinnamon and egg and stir until combined. It's OK if it looks a little crumbly. Add the whole wheat flour and stir with a silicone spatula until it looks uniform. Test out the dough by trying to form it into a 1" ball. If it seems too dry, add a little bit more coconut oil or vegetable oil. I had to add about a teaspoon, but your dough may be moist enough.

Form the dough into 1" balls and place them about an inch apart on lined cookie sheets.

Bake for 10-12 minutes. Transfer to a cooling rack and let cool (or enjoy while still warm). Pour yourself a glass of milk and congratulate yourself on making such a healthy dietary choice. You're really winning at life, y'know?

February 23, 2014

Chinese-Style Bibimbap

She was still not home after seven, and there was no call. The meat and vegetables were ready and waiting, so that I could cook them the minute she came in. Not that I had any great feast in mind: I would be stir frying thin slices of beef, onions, green peppers, and bean sprouts with a little salt, pepper, soy sauce, and a splash of beer--a recipe from my single days. The rice was done, the miso soup was warm, and the vegetables were all sliced and arranged in separate piles in a large dish, ready for the wok. Only Kumiko was missing.
The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, by Haruki Murakami
I cherish the moment when I've finally finished slicing and dicing all my vegetables. It means that the hard part's over, and I'm that much closer to my reward: a hot, tasty meal.

I love Korean food. Especially because the older I get, the more spiciness I can tolerate. Bibimbap is a fun word to say. Be. Beam. Bop. But I digress.

I used to think that the whole dish was quite mysterious, so I never attempted to make it at home. But then I realized the secret to making it at home. Do yourself a favor and get thee to an H-Mart (or other Korean supermarket) to purchase a container of gochujang, the red fermented chili sauce that goes on this dish. Plus, Wikipedia even says it provides vitamins! Now that you hold the key to bibimbap, you can concentrate on customizing this dish to your liking.

I used Chinese broccoli stems because I adore their crunchiness (also great in fried rice), but you can use whatever vegetables you happen to be craving. Traditionally, this is served with a fried egg on top, but I opted for a perfectly hard boiled egg instead (see here for directions on how to make those). I also used slices of char siu because I happened to have some on hand, but I imagine this would also be delicious with beef or chicken. Serve with a nice helping of kimchi, which will echo the fermented flavor of the gochujang, and the crispiness of the Chinese broccoli stems.

Chinese-Style Bibimbap
Ingredients (makes enough for several servings)
1 medium onion, minced
1 clove garlic, minced
2 squash, sliced into half moons
Stems from 1 bunch Chinese broccoli, sliced thinly
1/2 cup frozen or fresh corn
1 tbsp gochujang (more for serving)
Drizzle of sesame oil

Ingredients for assembly of one serving
1/2 cup cooked brown rice
a few slices of cooked protein (such as char siu, chicken, flank steak, baked tofu)
1 soft-boiled egg

Heat a large wok over medium-high heat. Drizzle oil into the pan and add the onion, garlic, squash, Chinese broccoli stems and gochujang and saute until the squash and onion are softened but the broccoli stems are still slightly crisp (about 15 minutes). Add a drizzle of sesame oil and turn off the heat.

Arrange your cooked rice into a bowl along with the meat/tofu, egg and about a cup of the vegetables. Add more gochujang as needed, if you'd like the flavor to be spicier. Enjoy!

February 16, 2014

C is for Cookie, F is for Feelings

Baking was no different than anything else; there was a right and a wrong way to do it, and no room for forgiveness of one's mistakes. While she had waited for the meringue to brown in the oven, she had wondered if the bile, fury, and scorn she was baking into every bit of this particular Nilla wafer pudding would manage to affect its flavor.
Red Hook Road, Ayelet Waldman

What an interesting theory! Does our state of mind get baked or cooked into whatever we're making at the time? Can gnocchi or chocolate cake or cinnamon buns taste like sadness or bliss or love or hate?

If this is true, then the oatmeal cookies I made last night taste like what I felt: sleepy and content.

But to people who have less sensitive taste buds, these cookies will just taste downright addictive.

Sweet, nutty, crumbly and chock full of chewy oats, these cookies are like a bowl of peanut butter oatmeal that you can take with you on the go. Maybe not quite as healthy or wholesome, but much more likely to satisfy your cravings when you need a quick sugar fix on a Saturday night. You probably already have all the ingredients for this recipe, and the cookies will be ready in less than 30 minutes. It's a no brainer.

Oatmeal Peanut Butter Cookies
Yields 14 cookies
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup chunky peanut butter
1 egg
1 tsp vegetable oil
1 1/4 cups quick oats
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp cinnamon

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Stir brown sugar and peanut butter until evenly mixed. Add egg and canola oil and stir until combined. Fold in the oats, baking soda and cinnamon until it all becomes a smooth mixture. It will be very dry. 

Drop tablespoons about an inch apart on a cookie sheet.

Bake for 10-15 minutes until golden brown.

Texture: crumbly, not chewy or crispy. 
Flavor profile: sweet, salty, nutty

February 11, 2014

Moove aside, margarine...butter is better

Away Laura flew, still holding her piece of bread-and-butter. It's so delicious to have an excuse for eating out of doors, and besides, she loved having to arrange things; she always felt she could do it so much better than anybody else.
—"The Garden Party," Katherine Mansfield
When the girl returned, some hours later, she carried a tray, with a cup of fragrant tea steaming on it; and a plate piled up with very hot buttered toast, cut thick, very brown on both sides, with the butter running through the holes in it in great golden drops, like honey from the honeycomb. The smell of that buttered toast simply talked to Toad, and with no uncertain voice; talked of warm kitchens, of breakfasts on bright frosty mornings, of cosy parlour firesides on winter evenings, when one's ramble was over and slippered feet were propped on the fender; of the purring of contented cats, and the twitter of sleepy canaries.
The Wind in the Willows, Kenneth Grahame
As both of these passages indicate, butter is a wonderful companion when you're seeking a cozy and delightful time. I grew up eating margarine, not butter, on my bagels—Blue Bonnet, Imperial, I Can't Believe It's Not Butter...whatever brand was cheapest or on sale. It wasn't just cheaper than butter; people believed it was healthier, too.

This perhaps explains why I still enjoy its particular flavor, but since that whole nasty business of the trans fats has come to light, I've replaced it with butter, its original, more wholesome cousin—and I've discovered just how delicious it can be. Better late than never, right?

I don't like butter in my vegetables, but I do love it on my carbs. In particular, I enjoy it on a toasted cinnamon raisin bagel, or a slice of whole-grain toast. And who knows? Maybe someday I'll progress to more creative outlets like coffee.

For now, I'll stick with cookies. Oatmeal chocolate chunk cookies, to be precise.

The best part about these cookies? Since they have oats in them, you can eat them for breakfast without feeling (quite as) guilty. :)

I've also had luck freezing the dough and baking it up whenever my inner Cookie Monster awakens. If you'd like to follow suit and freeze some of the dough for later use, feel free! Just follow the directions as written, but instead of dropping the tablespoons of dough onto the cookie sheet, place them on a plate or tray (making sure they're spaced out enough so that they don't touch one another) and freeze until solid, about 1 hour. Then transfer to a resealable bag or container and freeze until you're ready to bake them.

Tasting notes: This cookie is cake-like, but satisfyingly chocolatey. Especially if you use high-quality chocolate like this one:

85% cocoa. Mmm. I found this brand at ALDI for a good price. I think it was about $2. Worth every penny. I broke it up into chunks for this recipe, but you can feel free to substitute chocolate chips if you like.

Oatmeal Chocolate Chunk Cookies
(adapted from Allrecipes)
Yield: 14-18 cookies

1 stick unsalted butter, softened
1 cup brown sugar
1 large egg, beaten
1.5 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp salt
1 cup dark chocolate chunks

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

Beat the butter and sugar together until smooth. Add the egg and stir until combined.

Mix in the rest of the ingredients and stir until combined.

Drop rounded tablespoons onto a cookie sheet and bake for 10-12 minutes until golden brown and crisp around the edges.
Pour yourself a glass of milk and dive in!

February 9, 2014

A Souper Duper Way to Use Leftovers

"A delicious odor came from a pot on the gas stove. He lifted the lid. Brown meat juice bubbled up through carrots and onions, and a stick of white celery swam like a fish."
—Sweet Thursday, John Steinbeck
In the above passage, Doc comes home to find that Suzy has been making stew for him in his home. What a welcome surprise. I can't think of a more wonderful way for someone to make my heart melt (and my stomach grumble).

Soup is one of those comfort foods that's as low-maintenance as you're going to get. It's even easier if you have some leftover scraps from the fridge, calling out to be transformed into something extraordinary. I love leftovers. Mostly because I love snacking on them.

As for leftover ingredients like the last bits of meat on a rotisserie chicken, or the remainder of a pint of heavy cream leftover from making pumpkin pie? I love those for a different reason: They force me to get creative in the kitchen.

After the aforementioned pumpkin pie adventure, I had some heavy cream leftover, and I didn't want to throw it out. It pains me to throw out perfectly good food. So I came up with this chowder recipe, and it was pretty darn tootin' tasty, if I do say so myself. You don't have to be a mathematician to understand this formula: Leftover Chicken + Leftover Heavy Cream = Awesome Chowder. 100% success rate. (Granted, the sample size is 1, but still!)

Leftover Chicken Corn Chowder
Serves 2-3 appetizer-sized portions
1 onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 ribs celery, chopped
1-2 carrots, chopped
2 Yukon Gold potatoes, cubed
1 red bell pepper, cubed or minced
1/2 cup frozen or fresh corn kernels
1 tbsp Better Than Bouillon (or 3 cups chicken stock)
Leftover, cooked chopped chicken meat (about 1/2 to 1 cup)
1/2 cup heavy cream
Salt and pepper
Blue corn tortilla chips and/or avocado slices, to serve

Drizzle oil into a 2.5-qt. stockpot and set over medium high heat. Cook the onion, garlic, celery, carrots and potatoes for approx. 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the red bell pepper, corn, and enough water (or chicken stock, if using) to cover by about an inch. Boil for 20-30 minutes until the carrots and potatoes are tender. Add the chicken and cream and turn heat down to medium. Add salt and pepper (or Old Bay, if you have it) to taste. Cook until slightly thickened (shouldn't take long). Serve with tortilla chips or avocado slices (or both!).


  • Use turkey meat or no meat at all if you want it to be vegetarian. 
  • Season with Old Bay instead of salt and pepper (it enhances the celery flavor). Add shrimp if you want to pursue the seafood theme.
  • Crumble in some tortilla chips shortly before serving, so they'll be somewhere between soggy and crisp as you dig your spoon into this creamy, hearty soup.

February 3, 2014

Reader, I baked a pumpkin pie.

Charlotte Bronte knows it, I know it, and you know it, too: While some of us have the self-restraint to say no to a "circlet of delicate pastry," others of us could never resist. I fall into the latter camp. Perhaps it was this same self-restraint that drove Jane to run away instead of succumbing to her desires and living with Mr. Rochester in sin. You've got to give the girl credit for listening to reason...but that doesn't make up for the fact that she's crazy for denying herself the pastry in the below passage:
Bessie had been down into the kitchen, and she brought up with her a tart on a certain brightly painted china plate, whose bird of paradise, nestling in a wreath of convolvuli and rosebuds, had been wont to stir in me a most enthusiastic sense of admiration; and which plate I had often petitioned to be allowed to take in my hand in order to examine it more closely, but had always hitherto been deemed unworthy of such a privilege. This precious vessel was now placed on my knee, and I was cordially invited to eat the circlet of delicate pastry upon it. Vain favour! coming, like most other favours long deferred and often wished for, too late! I could not eat the tart: and the plumage of the bird, the tints of the flowers, seemed strangely faded! I put both plate and tart away.
Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte
Speaking of self-restraint (or lack thereof), I am moving this month...which means that it doesn't make sense for me to buy anything right now. But we always want what we can't have, don't we? Oh, how I find the consumerist, materialistic beast in me wanting things. Unnecessary things. Like a microwave rice cooker (cool...but I have a rice cooker already). And this egg and muffin toaster (once again, cool...but an impractical use of counter space).

So, when my coworkers decided to organize a pie potluck in honor of National Pie Day (Jan. 23), I wanted to buy things that would help me make a buttery pie crust. Like a food processor. And a rolling pin.

Then I snapped out of it and decided to find a way to bake a fantastic pie without buying either of those things. Spoiler alert: I succeeded!

This marked the first time I made a pie all by myself. In the past, I always thought it was too complicated to make every component from scratch. But once again, Martha Stewart saved me from my deluded perception of reality. Making a pie can be almost as easy as, well, eating it. Especially if you opt for a press-in shortbread crust. Plus, it's like eating a cookie and pie at the same time. Two desserts with one stone, er, pie.

Before embarking on my pie adventure, I did plenty of research on The Kitchn (which posted an intriguing take on pumpkin pie made with filling that was smoothed out in the food processor, cooked and pressed through a strainer, and then finally poured into a warm crust). But, (1) I didn't have a food processor, and (2) it seemed far too complicated for a first-time pie baker like me. I think pumpkin pie should be easy, or you won't enjoy it as much later. I didn't alter Martha's recipe much; just upped the amount of cinnamon and ginger to ensure a flavorful filling. This pie was delicious, if I do say so myself. Is it irresistible enough to entice the Jane Eyres of the world to eat? I think so. Scratch that. I know so. Bake one and see for yourself.

Pumpkin Pie with No-Roll Crust
adapted from Martha Stewart
Shortbread Crust
6 tbsp unsalted butter, softened
1/4 cup brown sugar
2 large egg yolks
1 1/2 cups flour
1 tsp salt

15 oz. can of pumpkin puree
1 cup heavy cream
3/4 cup brown sugar
1 tsp salt
2 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp ground ginger
2 large eggs, lightly beaten

First, prepare the crust by mixing the butter with the sugar and yolks until combined. Work in the flour and salt with your fingers until the dough is crumbly. Press into a 9" pie pan. It will not seem like enough crust, but just press it as thin as you can without making holes in the crust. The crust should be able to go up the sides at least a little bit. Freeze for 20 minutes. Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.

Bake the frozen crust for 12-15 minutes. Let cool. Meanwhile, prepare the filling.

To prepare the filling, whisk all ingredients together until smooth. Pour into the cooled crust until it reaches the edges (you may have extra filling that you can save for a mini pie). Place the pie pan on a cookie sheet or baking sheet and bake for 65 to 75 minutes (mine took 75 min., but your oven may be hotter). How do you know when it's done? It should still be slightly jiggly but mostly firm.

Let cool on a wire rack and refrigerate overnight (or at least 6 hours).

January 30, 2014

4-Minute Chinese New Year Cake

Mrs. Bretton, as a rule, disapproved of sweet cake at tea, but still the request was urged,—"One little piece—only for him—as he goes to school: girls—such as me and Miss Snowe—don't need treats, but he would like it."
Graham did like it very well, and almost always got it. To do him justice, he would have shared his prize with her to whom he owed it; but that was never allowed: to insist, was to ruffle her for the evening. To stand by his knee, and monopolize his talk and notice, was the reward she wanted—not a share of the cake.
Villette, Charlotte Bronte
Wowza. The little girl in this story loves Graham so much that she would procure some cake for him, and then let him have the whole thing to himself! I can't imagine loving someone that much. Just kidding. Kind of. Side note: Mrs. Bretton sounds like an uptight broad. I wouldn't want to hang out with someone who disapproves of sweet cakes at tea. What kind of a rule is that?

Villette may never be as famous as Jane Eyre, but I enjoy it just as much. I wonder what kind of cake they would have had with tea back then. I'm fairly certain that it's not the same kind of cake I'm going to talk about today, because they were in England and I'm going Chinese route today, in honor of the New Year. But I'm sure that Graham and Polly and Lucy Snowe would have enjoyed this cake if they had known about it.

Chinese New Year is upon us, which is perfect timing, because one of my favorite desserts of all time is nian gao. It literally means "year cake," so perhaps you've also learned some Chinese today. Who knew that being interested in dessert could be so educational?

When I was younger, my family would buy a big, circular red bean nian gao from the Chinese supermarket. When we got home, my dad would diligently slice it up into rectangles. Next, my mom—the official frymaster in our family—would dip the rectangles into a bowl of beaten eggs and fry them in oil until they turned golden-brown and crisp on the outside, and gooey on the inside. I still remember the joy of sinking my teeth into each soft, sweet, red-bean-speckled square. A purely heavenly way to celebrate the new year.

Later on, in more health-conscious years, we discovered that we could simply microwave the squares of nian gao, and they would soften up enough to be able to eat. No frying necessary! Imagine all the calories and time and labor we were saving (especially my mom, who had to do most of the work). I do miss those days of enjoying that crispy egg-dipped version, but I must say that I really enjoy the convenience. (Plus, my mother's frymaster skills didn't get passed down to me.)

About two years ago, I discovered how to take things one step further. Instead of buying it refrigerated from the supermarket, I could make it from scratch—in 4 minutes!

Here's the recipe again. In less than 10 minutes, you'll be enjoying your very own New Year cake (this makes enough for 2 or 3 servings). You don't even need a steamer. Just a microwaveable bowl, some plastic wrap, and 3 ingredients (one of which is water).

4-Minute Red Bean New Year's Cake (年糕)
1/2 cup mochiko (sweet rice) flour
1/2 cup + 1 tsp water
1/3 cup sweetened red bean paste

Mix all ingredients in a microwave-safe bowl until they form a smooth paste. Cover tightly with plastic wrap and microwave on high for 4 minutes. Let cool and cut and roll into balls, if you so please. Spread more red bean paste on top if you like red bean as much as I do. Otherwise, enjoy as is!

January 28, 2014

Sky-high Lentil Stew

There was a death on the plane back to London. It was the woman beside me.I didn't know it could happen like that. I mean, I knew, but I didn't believe it.
We pushed our seats back at the same time, our eyes met, and we laughed. We'd both ordered vegetarian meals. "I hate this food," she said. "But I like getting it before everyone else."
Mr. Fox, Helen Oyeyemi
If I were a vegetarian, my kryptonite would probably be the smell of bacon frying in a pan. I would also lust after a hearty bowl of beef noodle soup. A lot. But you know what would make it all worth it? Getting to enjoy my meal before all of the many, many meat-eating passengers on the plane. Of course, you don't actually have to be vegetarian to request a vegetarian meal on your flight. As Mr. Fox points out, it's a secret that comes in handy if you're the type of person to get hungry at high altitudes.

I'd consider going vegetarian if every vegetarian meal tasted as good as a well made lentil stew. My lentil stews have evolved a lot over the years. I started out with green lentils and a tomato base, and then I fell in love with the texture of red lentils. Red lentils are magical things. They cook more quickly than brown or green lentils. And when they break down, they create a consistency that's lusciously creamy.

My favorite lentil stew is made with red lentils, and seasoned with curry powder. This McCormick one is pretty darn tasty. I vary the mix of vegetables from time to time, depending on what I have on hand. Sometimes I add mushrooms. Sometimes I add celery. But I always include onions, carrots, and tomatoes. It's one of the most satisfying vegetarian meals around. Adding potatoes also helps thicken and bulk up this stew, making it even heartier. Best of all, this recipe makes a bunch of stew—enough for dinner for two, and plenty of leftovers. Add a perfectly hard-boiled egg and a dash of tabasco sauce, and call it tomorrow's lunch. Your coworkers will be jealous as the plane passengers who didn't have the foresight to choose the vegetarian option.

Lentil Stew
2 stalks celery, chopped
3 carrots, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 large onion, chopped
2 small tomatoes, chopped
1 cup of sliced mushrooms (white button or bella, whatever you have)
2 Yukon Gold or red potatoes, cubed
8 oz. red lentils, rinsed and drained
Curry powder, salt and pepper to taste

Drizzle a large stock pot with olive oil and cook all of the vegetables for 10 minutes until softened and the onions are opaque.

Add the lentils and enough water to barely cover the vegetables and lentils. Stir and cover. Turn the heat down to medium-low. Allow to cook for about 35 minutes, stirring occasionally. If it needs more water, add more water. Season with curry powder until it tastes just how you like it. Enjoy your flight, and relish the idea of eating your meal before all of the other passengers are served theirs.

January 26, 2014

Perfectly Hard-Boiled Eggs

The egg came in a white coffee cup. He chopped it with the edge of a spoon, asking if I'd ever tasted a four-minute egg. I ate a spoonful and I loved it. No other egg was ever that good. I told my father, hoping we could share it. But he slid the whole cup down, the spoon in it, without looking at me and signaled the waitress for another egg.
Anywhere But Here, Mona Simpson

I'm not a fan of soft-boiled eggs (but I love those distinguished little egg cups!). A measly four minutes of cooking time yields an egg that's waaay too jiggly for my taste.

I prefer barely-hard-boiled eggs. By that, I mean that I like the yolk to be solid but slightly opaque, and the white portion to be quite tender...and not at all rubbery. The other night, I made one of these eggs to top my spaghetti and bean curd (pictured above). Side note: Is it odd that I've begun using pasta instead of noodles in my Asian dishes? It's cheaper and more widely available. Last time I went home to my parents' house for the holidays, I noticed that they had replaced their usual Chinese noodles with angel hair pasta. Great (or similarly genetic) minds think alike, I guess!

Anyway, back to the important stuff: eggs. I've discovered a technique for making the perfect hard-boiled eggs. It does not require setting the timer more than once. Most techniques require you to cover the pot at some point, and for some reason, my pot is missing its lid. So, I perfected a method that doesn't require a pot lid.

Ready? Here's how I make perfect hard-boiled eggs.

Fill a medium pot with plenty of water (enough to cover the eggs after you add them later on). Bring the water to a boil.

Once the water has reached a rolling boil, turn down the heat just slightly and carefully drop in however many eggs you want to make, one at a time. I use a wooden spoon to carefully drop the eggs in, just to make sure they don't crack.

Leave the heat on medium-high and set the timer for 10 minutes. Drain and rinse with cool water. Peel and consume right away or refrigerate, unpeeled, for up to a week (at least, according to the USDA...I always gobble mine up by that time).

Bonus: These eggs are not just delicious, they're also really easy to peel. Yay!

January 19, 2014

Almost-as-good-as-Grandma's Scallion Pancakes

"For breakfast she was given bread toasted over an open flame, sweetened yogurt, a small banana with green skin. Her grandmother reminded Deepa, before she set out for the market, not to buy a certain type of fish, saying that the bones would be too troublesome. Watching Bela try to pick up rice and lentils with her fingers, her grandmother told Deepa to fetch a spoon. When Deepa poured Bela some water from the urn that stood on a little stool, in the corner of the room, her grandmother reproached her.
'Not that water. Give her the boiled water. She's not made to survive here.'"
The Lowland, Jhumpa Lahiri
As always, Jhumpa Lahiri brings up a few points that are relevant to my own second-generation upbringing. In this case, she reminds me to reflect on how family ties weaken between generations and continents. Indeed, how can they not? One lives in America and the other in Asia. One uses forks, the other uses fingers. Just like Bela felt disconnected from India and her grandmother in the above passage, I have definitely experienced moments of feeling excluded from my relatives in Taiwan, whether it's my unfamiliarity with the colloquial language, or something else. 

One thing I don't think I'll ever do as well as my grandmother is make scallion pancakes. I don't know if it's because I was born and raised in America, or if it's just that I need more practice. What I do know is that I just can't seem to get them right. Maybe I'm missing the magic touch, but I'll keep trying again and again until I get better at it, in memory of my grandmother. She was awesome at making these. My sister used to ask her to make them with extra scallions every time, because she loved the oniony flavor. Turns out that complying with this request was no easy feat. If you add too many scallions, the dough gets too wet to roll out. I have no idea how my grandmother managed to get it to work. Perhaps it's some magical power that only grandmothers have. Or maybe I just need to try a new recipe.

The following is one humble granddaughter's attempt at making one of her favorite Chinese dishes, in memory of her grandmother. They turned out decent, but definitely not grandmother-worthy. Give me a few more decades and maybe I'll get the hang of it.

Scallion Pancakes
Yields two 7" pancakes

1 cup flour
1/2 cup boiling water 
1/2 cup finely chopped scallion greens (save the whites for an omelette or some other use)
Sesame oil

Step One: Using a wooden spoon, combine the flour with the water, adding the water a little at a time. You may not need to use all of the water. Stir until you have a dough that's somewhat uniform, not sticky. If it's too sticky to knead, you've added too much water. In this case, add more flour until it's dry enough to form into a ball and knead. Knead on a lightly floured surface for approx. 5 minutes. Place the dough in a bowl and cover with plastic wrap. Let rest for 30 minutes.

Step Two: In the meantime, chop the scallion greens and set aside.

Step Three: Divide the dough into two and roll each one out into a 7" disc. You can eyeball this if you have super Grandma-esque skills, but I used a cheery yellow ruler because I wanted to make sure.

Step Four: Drizzle the disc lightly with sesame oil and distribute with fingers. Sprinkle half the scallions across the surface of the disc. Roll up the disc.

Step Six: Shape the roll into a spiral and tuck the end underneath to form a tight ball. Then flatten the whole ball back into a disc. Repeat the process with the other disc of dough. 

Step Seven: In a skillet, pan fry each disc in a few teaspoons of oil until golden brown on each side. Sprinkle with salt and enjoy.