Saturday, February 27, 2010

Orange Peel Chicken with Shitake Mushrooms

Who needs Chinese take-out when you can make it yourself at home?  Of course, not being Chinese, there are a bunch of typical Chinese or Taiwanese ingredients that I just don't have in my kitchen.  But I have the next best thing... Japanese ingredients that are somewhat similar, and way more familiar to me. 

One night I decided (after hearing my husband complain for too long about how he wished he could be eating Chinese food instead of whatever American/Italian/Japanese/Austrian/Mexican concoction that I had made that night for dinner) to attempt making something vaguely Chinese.  I found a recipe for Kung Pao chicken online, but my husband being the super picky type, does not like "nuts" in his food.  Sigh.  So I decided to use the basics of that recipe to create something similar, that did not include nuts, and would incorporate the ingredients that I did have on hand.  Feel free to leave the orange zest out if you do not care for the flavor of orange peel.

Orange Peel Chicken:
2 small chicken breasts
1 c. shitake mushrooms
1/2 c. snow pea pods
1 large stalk green garlic

1 T. soy sauce
1 T. cornstarch
1 T. Mirin (Japanese sweet cooking wine)

Orange Sauce:
zest of 1 orange
2 tsp. sugar
2 T. rice vinegar
2 tsp. sesame oil
4 T. soy sauce
1 T. Mirin (sweet cooking wine)
2 tsp. cornstarch
1 tsp. korean red pepper 
1/3 c. chicken broth

1.  Cut the chicken breasts (or about 5-6 chicken tenders) into small bite-sized pieces.  Mix the chicken with the marinade ingredients and set aside.

2.  Zest one orange.  Mix the zest with all orange sauce ingredients and set aside.  Korean red pepper is flaked red chili pepper.  You could substitute with regular red pepper flakes, but I prefer the Korean kind.  Now, if you don't have Mirin in your kitchen, you could substitute with something like sherry, or a really sweet Moscato.  You could also substitute apple cider vinegar (or even regular white vinegar in a pinch) for the rice vinegar.

3.  Slice the green garlic stalks.  You can substitute with 2-3 stalks of green onion if you can't find green garlic.

4.  Wash the shitake mushrooms, discarding the stems as you go.  Cut each mushroom into quarters.  If you can't find fresh shitake mushrooms, you can substitute with regular fresh mushrooms.

5.  Clean and pick over the snow pea pods.

6.   Heat 1 T. canola oil in a large wok, on high.  Add the white part of the green garlic, and the chicken.  Stir fry until chicken is cooked.

7.  Add the mushroom, and stir fry 30 seconds.  Then, add the Orange Sauce.

8.  Stir, and add the remaining green garlic.

9.  When sauce is thickened and bubbly, add the snow peas and cook for about 30 seconds longer.

10.  Serve with steamed calrose rice.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Extra Tart Lemon Bars

I love lemons.  Growing up, we had a big lemon tree in the back yard.  It used to produce so many lemons that my dad would give bags and bags of them away to anyone who would take them.  For a special treat I would pick about 5 lemons off the tree, cut them open, and sit down with a bowl of sugar and eat them, dipping each slice into sugar.  (No wonder I ruined my tooth enamel!)  I loved the sour tart taste of the lemon combined with the sweetness of the sugar. 

Similarly, I like lemon bars to be tart and sweet at the same time - almost like I'm still sitting in my old kitchen eating lemons dipped in sugar.  Unfortunately, most lemon bar recipes that I've tried just don't seem "lemony tart" enough for me.  So finally, after many unsuccessful lemon bar baking ventures, I developed my own recipe for them, incorporating both lemon zest and lemon juice to give it a little extra kick.

Extra Tart Lemon Bars
3/4 c. unsalted butter
1/2 c. sugar
1 tsp. lemon zest
1/2 tsp. sea salt
2 c. flour
2 T. water

Lemon Filling:
4 eggs
1 1/2 c. sugar
3/4 c. lemon juice
1/2 T. lemon zest
1/3 c. flour
1/4 tsp. sea salt
3 T. powdered sugar (for dusting)

1.  Preheat your oven to 350 degrees.

2.  Zest and juice several lemons.  I used about 5 lemons to get 3/4 c. of juice.  (Make sure you don't get any bitter white pith into your zest - use only the yellow surface peel.)

3.  Pulse butter, sugar, 1 tsp. lemon zest, salt, and flour in a food processor, until coarse crumbs form.  If needed, add up to 2 T. water to bring the mixture together.

4.  Press the crumbs into a 13 X 9 inch glass baking dish.  Bake for 20 minutes.  Meanwhile, prepare the lemon filling.

5.  Mix eggs and sugar in a bowl with a fork.

6.  Add lemon juice, 1/2 T. lemon zest, salt, and flour and combine with a whisk, and set aside.

7.  Once crust is golden brown, remove and decrease oven heat to 300 degrees.

8.  Pour the lemon filling over the hot crust, and return to the oven.  Bake for 30 minutes.

9.  Remove from the oven and cool.  Once cool, sprinkle with approximately 3 T. powdered sugar and cut into squares.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Prize-winning Spammy Gyoza. That's right. Spam!

Last weekend was my friend's bridal shower.  We were asked to bring one of our best dishes to share, and a copy of the recipe for the bride-to-be.  The bride-to-be was going to choose her favorite food item, and the winner to receive a special prize.  I resolved to win this contest... and I decided I was going to win it using spam.  Yup.  Spam.

I don't know what it is about spam that arouses so much passion.  Amongst Americans, spam is kind of like a folk hero - people love to wear spam T-shirts, make jokes about spam, talk about spam... but when it comes to actually eating it... "No, thank you!"  (unless you are in Hawaii).  In Asia, however, spam is a culinary delight - and in Asian circles, spam is not a joke ingredient... but serious yumminess.  So the night before the shower, I embarked on my spam wonton journey - and the results were surprisingly good!

At the bridal shower, after sampling the various offerings, I realized my main competition for the win was my friend Christina's delicious Thai chicken curry (for which she substituted plain yogurt for coconut milk to add creaminess and reduce fat content).  Another possible competitor... fried glass noodles with beef.  Hmmm.  I wasn't sure how she was going to judge, but when my friend announced that my Spam Gyoza was her favorite - I was glad that I had followed my instincts and used spam to add flavor to the dish.

So here it is, my prize-winning recipe:

Pork & Spam Gyoza:
1 can of Spam Lite
9 oz raw pork loin (2 small pork loin chops, fat trimmed off)
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 stalks green garlic (or green onion), chopped
8 shitake mushrooms, stems discarded, minced
1 egg
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. black pepper
1 tsp. soy sauce
2 tsp. sesame oil
1/2 c. panko breadcrumbs
1 pkg. won ton skins

This recipe will make approximately 48 wontons.  You may substitute green onion stalks for the green garlic - but if you can find it, green garlic imparts a better flavor.  The Spam gives the gyoza a little extra something - I know it sounds weird, but it's really good.  According to the spam can label, it's "crazy tasty" - and I agree. 

1.  Mince the garlic, shitake mushrooms, and slice the green garlic finely.

2.  Roughly chop the pork loin and Spam.  Dump the meat into the work bowl of a food processor, and pulse until ground into a rough paste.  Add the garlic and pulse a few more times to combine.

3.  Put the meat mixture into a mixing bowl, and add the green garlic, shitake mushrooms, egg, panko breadcrumbs, and all seasonings.  Mix thoroughly.

4.  Take a tiny spoonful of the meat mixture, and microwave for 45 - 60 seconds until cooked.  Taste to check seasonings, and adjust if necessary.

5.  Lay a square won ton skin in the palm of your hand, and moisten all edges with a little water, using your fingertips.

6.  Fill the won ton skin square with a heaping teaspoon of the meat mixture.  You don't want to use so much meat mixture that you have a hard time sealing the gyoza... but you don't want to use too little either - that would be a very unsatisfying bite, leaving you to wonder, "Where's the beef?"  Or in this case, "Where's the spam?"

7.  Fold each square over horizontally, forming a long rectangle.  Pinch the edges closed, sealing out any air, and haphazardly forming pleats at the top as shown.

8.  Stack the gyoza side by side on a parchment lined baking sheet until you finish.  This recipe will approximately fill about 1 package of wonton skins (48 gyoza).

9.  You have the option of steaming, pan frying, or deep frying your gyoza.  Today, I decided to pan fry them.  You will need to work in batches.

10.  Heat a large wok with 1 tsp oil on medium.  Place 12 gyoza into the wok and cook for 2-3 minutes until golden brown on one side.  Make sure you have a large lid that will fit the pan or wok.

11.  Flip the gyoza, and cook for 2-3 minutes until golden brown on the other side.

12.  Add 1/4 cup of water to the center, and as the water sizzles, place the lid on top, trapping the steam in the wok.  Steam the gyoza for about 1-2 minutes, until all the water has evaporated.
13.  Work in 4 batches, until all the gyoza are cooked.

If you prefer to deep fry them:  Heat about 3 inches of canola oil in a small pot, and when the oil is hot, drop 3-4 gyoza in at a time.  Deep fry on medium heat until golden brown.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Year of the Tiger: Red Velvet Cupcakes

Happy Lunar New Year!  Yesterday marked the beginning of the year of the Metal Tiger.  I'm not a big fan of fireworks, but since most Lunar New Year celebrations incorporate the color red prominently,  I decided to celebrate this occasion instead with some Year of the Tiger Red Velvet Cupcakes. 

With 2 bottles of red food coloring in the batter, these cupcakes are guaranteed to be a bright rich red.

Red Velvet Cupcakes:
1 stick (1/2 c.) unsalted butter
1 1/2 c. sugar
2 eggs
1 tsp. vanilla
1 tsp. salt
10 oz. cake flour (or 2 1/2 c. + 5 T.)
2 T. cocoa powder
1 c. buttermilk
1 tsp. baking soda
1 T. white vinegar
2 oz (two 1 oz. bottles) red food coloring

1.  Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.  Line 18 muffin tins with paper liners.

2.  Cream the butter and sugar.  Add the eggs and vanilla, beat well.

3.  Mix in the cocoa powder and salt.

4.  Weigh 10 oz. of cake flour on a kitchen scale.  Or, measure 2 1/2 c. + 5 T. cake flour.  If you must use all-purpose flour, only use 2 1/2 cups.

5.  Slowly add the flour and buttermilk into the butter mixture, blending on low speed with a hand mixer.

6.  Sprinkle the baking soda onto the vinegar in a small cup, then stir into the batter.

7.  Dump the two 1 oz. bottles of red food coloring into the batter, and slowly mix until combined.

8.  Fill muffin tins 2/3 full with batter.

9.  Bake for 18 - 20 minutes, or until done.  Make sure not to overcook, or the cupcakes will be dry instead of moist.

10.  Cool on a wire rack for 1 hour.  When completely cool to the touch, frost with cream cheese frosting, adding decorative sprinkles if desired.

Prepare the Cream Cheese Frosting while cupcakes are cooling.

Cream Cheese Frosting:
1 stick unsalted butter
1 box cream cheese (8 oz)
1 tsp. vanilla
3 c. powdered sugar

1.  Cream the butter and cream cheese.  Mix in the vanilla.

2.  Slowly add in the powdered sugar, mixing on low speed.

3.  Put a star tip into a plastic pastry bag, or use a ziploc bag with the corner snipped off.  Fill with frosting.

4.  When cupcakes are cool, pipe frosting in a circular pattern starting from the outer edge.

5.  Sprinkle cupcakes with red decorating sugar if desired.

Friday, February 12, 2010

"You used what beans?!?!*!!" Chili, Cornbread, and you're grounded for 1 week!

When I was about 12 years old, and gaining more confidence in the kitchen, my mother decided that this would be a good time for her to quit cooking.  Overnight, I became the household "dinner chef".  I enjoyed meal planning, and often accompanied my mother to the market to do the grocery shopping.

I had always been a fan of Chili Cheese fries at the mall, and even though I had never made it before, I thought maybe now was the time to try making Chili?  Somehow I convinced my mom to purchase a small plastic bottle of Gebhardt Chili powder one day at the market.  She probably only agreed to buy it because it was less than $1.00, I think.

A few nights later, I decided to attempt making chili.  We had ground beef in the freezer, onions in the pantry, and now... chili powder.  But what about the beans?  Sadly, I hadn't been successful getting my mom to agree to buy beans along with the chili powder.  What was a chili-craving 12 year old to do?  I searched high and low in the pantry... and found half a bag of dried Azuki beans (small red Japanese beans).

I'm not sure how long this bag of beans had been sitting there in the cupboard behind stacks of ramen packages and the year-old G.I. Joe cereal that my brother had never finished.  We ate Azuki beans all the time... in seki-han (a Japanese bean and sticky rice dish), as a sweetened filling in mochi, as a topping on snow cones... but these treats were bought at restaurants or Japanese markets, and were never home-made in our house.  I never saw my mother actually cook Azuki beans before.... and frankly, I don't think she knew how.

I took the Azuki beans and boiled them for several hours until they were finally soft.  (I didn't know you were supposed to soak dried beans before cooking them.)  And I made my chili.  Everyone loved it, except my little brother, who had sworn to hate everything that I cooked.  Across the dinner table, my dad said to me, "Hey, this chili is good!  But where did you get the beans?"  I happily declared, "Oh these are the Azuki beans from the cupboard!"

Have you ever seen the scene from the Exorcist, where the little girl's head spins 360 degrees, and she has a demonic look on her face?  My mom slowly turned her head toward me, and from the look on her face, I thought her head might start spinning around like that, and we might need to call for a priest.  Umm... I guess I didn't know any better, but apparently those were some really expensive Azuki beans imported from Japan.  Oops.  I thought my mom was going to kill me - and in the end, I was grounded for a week. What a price to pay for a chili craving!

However, I did learn some valuable lessons that day:
1.  Homemade chili is way better than canned, and easy to make.
2.  Maybe it's not a good idea to let your little kid watch "the Exorcist" on HBO re-runs?
3.  Definitely don't make chili with your mom's secret stash of $30 Azuki beans.**

(**Not sure if $30 was the actual price, but I'm trying to reconstruct the value of the beans from the horrified image of my mother's face that still lingers in my head to this day.)

This chili recipe is earthy and hearty.  It pairs perfectly with a nice warm slice of cornbread, on a chilly winter day:

Azuki Bean Chili
1/3 c. dried Azuki beans (or small red kidney beans)
1 lb. lean ground beef
1 medium onion, chopped
3 c. peeled, diced tomato plus juices
2 c. chicken or beef broth
1 c. water
2 - 3 T. chili powder
2 tsp. cumin
2 tsp. ground sage
1 tsp. cayenne pepper
1 tsp. garlic powder (not garlic salt)
2 tsp. sea salt
2-3 T. sugar
1/2 tsp. black pepper
1/2 tsp oregano
1 tsp soy sauce
2 T. ketchup

1.  Soak the beans overnight (10-12 hours in advance) in 2 cups of cold water.  After soaking, drain, and bring to a simmer in 4 cups of fresh water, cook for approximately 1 hour or until soft, adding water if needed.

2.  Brown the ground beef in a large pot.  Drain off all grease by soaking up with several paper towels.

3.  Add chopped onion and saute with salt, black pepper, and garlic until soft.

4.  Add tomatoes, cayenne, chili powder, sage, cumin, oregano, sugar, ketchup, soy sauce, and chicken broth.  Simmer for 30 minutes.  Taste for seasonings, and add more salt, sugar, or chili powder if needed.

5.  Add cooked beans, and simmer, covered, 30-45 more minutes, adding extra water if needed.  

The chili is done when it has a "saucy" consistency - thick, and rich and no longer watery or soupy.  If you want to eat it Asian style, serve it on top of a scoop of steamed Calrose rice.

But in America, what is chili without cornbread?  Here's the recipe for cornbread that I have developed over the years.  I like my cornbread on the slightly sweet side, with just a little kick of cayenne.  You can omit the cayenne pepper if you're not a fan of spice.

Mika's Cornbread

1 1/2 c. yellow cornmeal
1 c. flour
1 tsp. sea salt
1 T. baking powder
1/2 c. sugar
2 eggs
1/2 c. oil
1 1/2 c. lowfat milk
1/4 - 1/2 tsp. cayenne pepper
2 T. unsalted butter

This cornbread comes out best if baked in a 10 inch cast iron skillet.  My Lodge cast iron skillet has been around for many years... and will probably still be around for many more - it's virtually indestructible.  If you don't have an iron skillet, I recommend you get one!  They are great for baking cornbread and pineapple upside-down cake, and also turn out perfectly seared stove-top steaks.  But if you don't have one, you can certainly substitute with a 9 inch round cake pan - but your cornbread will be lacking the wonderful golden brown crust that comes from the iron skillet.

1.  Preheat your oven to 400 degrees F (205 degrees C).  Place your iron skillet into the preheating oven.

2.  Sift all dry ingredients (cornmeal, flour, baking powder, salt, and cayenne pepper) in a large bowl with a whisk.

3.  Combine the sugar, eggs, oil, and milk in another bowl and whisk to combine.

4.  At this point, put the unsalted butter into the heated iron skillet to melt.

5.  Pour the wet ingredients onto the dry, and whisk to combine.

6.  Pour the prepared batter on top of the melted butter, in the preheated pan.

7.  Bake for 22-25 minutes, until golden brown.  Lightly touch the top with a clean finger to test for doneness.  The edges of the cornbread should have pulled away from the sides of the pan.

8.  Cool for 5 minutes, then turn out onto a cutting board.

9.  Cut into wedges, and serve.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

The Dark Green Impostor: Japanese Pumpkin (Kabocha) Bread

Everyone always asks me for my "Pumpkin Bread" recipe.  The truth is, the recipe is just average - there is nothing special about the recipe itself.  Any oil-based pumpkin bread recipe will yield approximately the same results.  So why does my "Pumpkin Bread" always receive such rave reviews?

Secret #1 lies in the type of "pumpkin."  Instead of regular American sugar pumpkin (or the nasty orange slime from a can) - I use the Japanese winter squash called Kabocha.  "Oh, well, that's just great," you might be mumbling to yourself, "Where am I supposed to get that????"  Pretty much any Asian grocery store will have it.  I've also seen it, for a slightly higher price, at health food stores (like Whole Foods, Henry's, Sprouts, etc.), and sometimes even at the local supermarket chain. 

Kabocha (Cucurbita maxima akehime), commonly known as the "Japanese Pumpkin", has a richer, sweeter, earthier flavor than your average orange American sugar pumpkin (Cucurbita pepo).  (Sorry, couldn't resist the urge to let my inner botanist out for a moment.)  The outer shell is not orange - it's GREEN - dark green, sometimes with light green or golden stripes down the side.  The dark orange flesh inside has a magical sweet potato like quality to it - and is often prepared in Japanese homes slow-simmered in broth, and served plain.  (Trust me, you don't need to add fancy spices or sauces to a properly ripened Kabocha!)

Secret # 2 involves allowing the Kabocha to mature after harvest (or in my case, picking it up from the market).  Usually, I will leave a Kabocha on the kitchen counter top for at least a month before roasting it. This step helps to develop the flavor of the kabocha, and enhances the sweetness.  But you don't really have to wait this long... most of the grocery store Kabochas have probably been sitting around for awhile anyway.  

Be careful when cutting open a Kabocha - it's really hard and very tough to cut through.  Use your sharpest, biggest knife, and proceed with caution.  Cut it in half, vertically, then scoop out the seeds from the inside.    Bake the kabocha halves for 1 hour in a 350 degree oven, cut side down on a baking sheet lined with foil.  Let it cool for several hours before scooping the pulp into a plastic storage container.

An averaged sized kabocha will give you enough pulp to make this recipe 2-3 times.  If you have extra kabocha, you can put it in a Ziploc freezer bag, squeezing out all the air, and freeze for several months until you want to make it again.

Now for the recipe:

Kabocha Pumpkin Bread

15 oz (approximately 1 3/4 c.) roasted & cooled kabocha
4 eggs
1 c. canola oil
2/3 c. water
3 c. sugar
3 1/2 c. flour
2 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. sea salt (use regular salt if you must)
1 tsp. cinnamon
1 tsp. ground nutmeg
3/4 tsp. ground cloves
1/4 tsp. ground ginger
3/4 c. walnuts, chopped
decorative sugar crystals, or raw pepitas (hulled pumpkin seeds)

1.  Preheat your oven to 350 degrees F (175 degrees C, or 448 K).

2.  Grease 5 mini-loaf pans (or 2 regular sized loaf pans) with butter (or non stick spray), then dust with flour.  (The flour will help keep the pumpkin bread from sticking to the pan after baking.)  To do this just dump a few tablespoons of flour into a greased pan, tap it all around until the sides, corners, and bottoms of the pan are covered with a thin layer of flour.  Shake the excess flour into the next pan and continue.  As a final step, I liked to hold each pan upside-down over the sink and tap the bottom a few times to remove any extra flour.

3.   Measure all your dry ingredients (flour, baking soda, salt, and spices) into a large bowl.  Make sure you stir your flour first to "lighten" it, and when measuring, use a straight spatula (or the blunt end of a knife) to level it off.  Sift all the dry ingredients together, using a whisk.  Please don't skip the sifting step!  If you leave little clumps of baking soda, someone will end up with a nasty-tasting surprise in their slice of pumpkin bread.  Yuck.  Baking soda does not taste good!

4.  Mix together the kabocha, eggs, oil, water, and sugar until you have a uniform orange mixture.

5.  Dump the kabocha mixture on top of the dry ingredients.  Use a rubber spatula to gently fold it all together.  Be careful not to over mix, or the texture of your pumpkin bread will be tough and chewy instead of tender and delicate.

6.  Gently stir in the chopped walnuts.  You can skip the walnuts if you like, and substitute with golden raisins.  Or you could probably even use chocolate chips - go wild, it's your pumpkin bread - so put what you like in it!  (Or just leave it plain.)

7.  If you are using 5 mini-loaf pans, pour approximately 1 1/2 c. of batter into each prepared pan.  If using 2 regular loaf pans, pour a little more than 3 1/2 c. batter into each pan.  You can also make muffins with this recipe - just make sure to fill each muffin tin only 2/3 full (no more).

8.  Sprinkle the tops of the batter with large crystal decorating sugar.  If you don't have decorating sugar, you can just sprinkle plain old granulated sugar on top. I prefer the larger crystals of the decorating sugar - it makes the final product look a little nicer, but regular sugar will taste just as good.
Or you can decorate the tops with raw pepitas.  Pepitas are shelled pumpkin seeds, and you can find them in the bulk grain/spice section of a health food store.
I have also found pepitas in the "international" aisle of the regular supermarket, with all the Mexican spices (packaged in little plastic bags, hanging from hooks) and dried chili peppers.
You can skip the decorating step and leave the tops of the batter plain, if you like.

9.  Bake the mini-loaves at 350 degrees for approximately 45 minutes.  If baking 2 larger loaves, then bake for 50-60 minutes.  Muffins will take about 20-22 minutes.  Don't forget to do the touch test to make sure the loaves are done: gently press the top of the bread with your clean finger, and if it gently springs back (without feeling too soft or mushy), then it is done.

10.  When done, cool in the pan on a wire rack for 5 minutes.  Run a rubber or silicone spatula around the edges and flip out the loaves onto the cooling rack.

When the loaves are completely cool to the touch, wrap with waxed paper and an outer layer of plastic wrap.  This will keep for a little over a week in the refrigerator.  Or you can wrap each loaf in several more layers of plastic, and freeze for up to 3 months.  You can leave it out on the counter if you finish the pumpkin bread within a few days - just make sure it stays tightly wrapped in plastic to keep it from drying out.

I discovered the benefits of the kabocha-for-pumpkin substitution one day by accident...  I was craving Pumpkin Bread, but to my dismay, didn't have any pumpkin!  (Plus, I'm lazy, and didn't feel like driving to the market.)  However, I did have a Kabocha sitting on the counter, staring at me.  "Why not?" I thought, "It's not that different."  I mean, I've heard of people making "pumpkin pies" with cooked carrots instead... and kabocha and sugar pumpkin are both squashes...   The end result was pure serendipity.  Since then, there has also been Kabocha pie, Kabocha cookies, Kabocha soup... you get the idea. 

Well, I guess that means my dark green secret is out of the bag.  I hope my confession inspires you to try kabocha next time you make pumpkin bread!