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 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.

January 15, 2014

Tuna Helper, All Grown Up

When I was a little girl, I had big dreams. One of them was to find out what the heck a tuna noodle casserole tasted like. (Yes, I was an ambitious kid.) Asian parents just don't make such a thing—or at least mine didn't. It seemed to be an ordinary, run of the mill dinner in many of the children's books I read.

Then something magical happened: I discovered Tuna Helper in the grocery store. To my amazement, it looked like a shortcut to finally tasting this exotic food for myself. I convinced my dad to buy it, and when we got home, I immediately started preparing it for dinner. Its creamy, savory sauce was unlike anything I'd ever had before. I was in love.

Not Tuna Helper.

In retrospect, perhaps my taste buds were also influenced by a shade of vanity, for it also happened to be the first meal I ever made for myself, by myself.

To my chagrin, I didn't get to eat Tuna Helper ever again after that night, because no one else in my family enjoyed eating it as much as I did.

Recently, I've been craving comfort food, cut from the same cloth as my glorious Tuna Helper dinner all those years ago. I've been trying to avoid instant foods with questionable ingredients, which meant no actual Tuna Helper. And to be honest, I have no idea if the 2014 me would still enjoy Tuna Helper as much as I did a decade ago (sorry, Ms. Crocker!). That meant I had to make a homemade version. I was a little anxious that it wouldn't come out right. I never make creamy foods at home. I never cook with milk.

But a part of me was aching to take the plunge and experiment. Roald Dahl knows what I'm talking about:
With the kitchen to himself, Lexington straight away began experimenting with dishes of his own invention. The old favourites no longer interested him. He had a violent urge to create.
Pig, Roald Dahl
I did a little research and discovered that most recipes called for a can of cream of mushroom soup. This disappointed me. I didn't want to go down that route, and luckily, the from-scratch alternative seemed easy enough: stir a couple of tablespoons of flour with milk, and then heat and stir until it gets thick.

After jazzing up the recipe with garlic, onion, a ton of frozen vegetables and some Sriracha sauce, I'm happy to report that I'll never lust after Tuna Helper again. Instead, I'll crave this homemade version. It turns out that making this convenience food from scratch is quick and easy. Making it from scratch is also more economical. This recipe makes a ton of servings...definitely enough to feed you plus a hungry roommate or boy/girlfriend—and you'll definitely have leftovers to bring for lunch the next day. No wonder all those literature-dwelling American families made it for dinner so often! We should all take a page from their book. Pun intended.

Wholesome Tuna Noodle Casserole
8 oz. elbow macaroni (or any dried pasta you prefer)
1/2 large onion, chopped
1 clove of garlic, minced
6 tbsp flour
1 cup + 2 tbsp fat-free milk
1 cup frozen mixed vegetables
2 cups frozen or fresh broccoli florets, chopped
1 tomato, roughly chopped
Sriracha, hot sauce, salt, pepper to taste

Cook macaroni to al dente and drain, reserving about a cup of the pasta water.

While the macaroni's cooking, drizzle about a tablespoon of oil in a large skillet and saute the onion and garlic over medium heat for about 5 minutes. Add in the flour and milk and stir until it thickens. If it seems too thick (it probably will), add some of the pasta water to thin it out.

Add in the frozen vegetables, tomato and broccoli. Stir until the vegetables are no longer frozen (about 10-15 minutes), and the sauce looks nicely creamy. Add the cooked macaroni and more pasta water if the sauce still needs to be thinned out. Season with Sriracha, salt and pepper to taste.

Serve immediately, and enjoy!

January 9, 2014

The Fastest Omelette Ever

This probably makes me sound like an amateur in the kitchen, but I feel you should know the truth about me. I love the microwave.

As a kid who ate TV dinners for lunch every day during summer vacation, I relied on the microwave for my livelihood. To this day, when I walk into a hotel room and I see that it's equipped with a microwave, it makes me feel a little more at home—even if I don't end up using it during my stay.

The microwave, my friends, is not just for heating up leftovers. Here are a few of my favorite things to make in the microwave:

1. Mochi
2. Oatmeal
3. Eggs

All of these are made in a fraction of the time it takes on the stove, while dirtying only one dish instead of an extra pot/pan.

Reading The Goldfinch reminded me of all the funny little snacks and summertime lunches I used to make for myself when my parents weren't home. In the book, Theo goes through periods where he's either ravenous or he has little to no appetite. One of the parts I enjoyed most about the book was that Hobie makes simple but appetizing creations for Theo whenever he needs to recover from a traumatic event. Aside from being a good listener, it's his way of comforting Theo. His choice for a hungover Theo is a simple breakfast of poached eggs and an English muffin. Sounds like a lovely reason to get up in the morning and start your day fresh.
On the eighth morning I woke sweat-drenched after four hours' bad sleep, hollowed to the core and as despairing as I'd ever felt in my life, but steady enough to walk Popchik around the block and come up to the kitchen and eat the convalescent's breakfast—poached eggs and English muffin—that Hobie pressed on me.
The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt
For the rest of us who don't have a Hobie to make us "the convalescent's breakfast," might I make a suggestion? The microwaved omelette. Quick, healthy and satisfying, when you want something to eat, but can't muster up the strength to even think about washing a saucepan or turning on the stove.

The Magical Microwaved Omelette
1. Beat 2 large eggs in a large microwavable bowl. Choose a bowl that's large because the egg will puff up in the microwave and you don't want it to spill over.

2. Microwave on high for 1 minute and check. If it's still a little runny, keep microwaving in 20 second increments until it's done.

3. Season with salt, pepper and perhaps a dash of hot sauce, salsa or tabasco, and enjoy. Toast an English muffin to go with it, if you're feeling adventurous.

Disclaimer: This "omelette" is definitely not Jacques Pepin-approved (and probably isn't even technically an omelette). It definitely won't satisfy people who are picky about having their omelettes slightly runny. If you're a fan of eggs in all forms (even well done and rubbery), then this will suit you just fine.

Thanks to the almighty microwave, you'll go from raw eggs to a fluffy omelette in 2 minutes. Even if those are the two most productive minutes of your day, you could do worse.