Saturday, February 19, 2011

Less Can Be A Lot More (The best roast chicken!)

My very first cookbook was Madhur Jaffrey's "An Invitation to Indian Cooking", which, in retrospect, was a great starting point for learning to cook.

Indian food tastes pretty good even when made at the hands of someone who doesn't really know how to cook. The abundant spices easily cover up any mis-steps and less-than-pristine ingredients. We were poor starving graduate students at the time and couldn't afford fancy groceries, and, more to the point, were car-less and trapped in a place and in a time that in sum was not particularly known for the variety, availability and quality of produce. In those days, I would choose a recipe to make based on the list of the ingredients. I figured that the longer the list, especially in the form of spices, the better it would come out. I was correct on that point! We had many marvelous meals from that cookbook, which I still own and is tattered and splattered with food residues now. One of my favorite dishes was the lamb korma. Take at look at how long the list of ingredients is!

It was pretty crazy, but because I learnt to cook exclusively from cookbooks, I thought nothing of working 12 hours in the lab, coming home and then making a meal from scratch from one of these recipes. I thought that was how people cooked every day! I suppose, in consequence, we have always eaten very well and deliciously. There was no fast, throw-everything-together sort of cooking at my place. I was making slow food long before it became fashionable!

However, as I have expanded my horizons to other cuisines, moved to Northern California - the birthplace of cooking by doing as little as possible to pristine produce- and, finally, gotten tired of cooking elaborate meals every night, I have come to appreciate the genius of simple recipes that work. The genius in these recipes have their proof in dishes that, because of particular cooking techniques, great ingredients and just the right balance of flavors, taste like something you'd have sworn was a lot more complicated to put together than a brief perusal of the recipe might suggest.

Last night, I discovered just such a gem of a recipe that I plan to make many, many times again. It is from the latest cookbook by my favorite experts on Moorish food:

This recipe had just 4 ingredients, not counting cooking oil and water, which would have dis-qualified it from consideration 15 years ago.

But I chose it because I wanted to cook out of this cookbook, which was a recent acquisition that I had not previously made use of, and because I thought it would be a good way to use the sumac that my mother-in-law had brought home all the way from Turkey and was kind enough to share with me.

What a treasure I found! It really had all the elements working for it. Great cooking techniques to draw out and build the flavors: chicken was first seared in a pan to crisp the skin and then roasted in the oven; great ingredients: the best, freshest sumac ever straight from a Turkish market and the best pine-nuts ever (Dave called them "grey-market pinenuts" because he'd acquired them from a chef who had personal connections for the most pristine produce); great flavors in the crisp, brown chicken skin and dark meat combined with a great sauce that formed from roasting the chicken drippings with spring onions, sumac and pine nuts.

I made a side dish of green beans with garlicky tomato sauce, fenugreek seeds, fresh red chillis and coriander to go with it. It was from the same cookbook and was quite unusual and delicious.

The whole dinner took less than an hour to make - 10 minutes to sear the chicken and another 20 minutes to roast it, during which I made the beans. Not really fast food, but it was so good you might have thought that it took me much longer to make.

We had a Cline Mourvedre to go with it, which was a little heavy but I thought went well with the sumac in the chicken and the fenugreek in the beans.

Dessert was some of that marvelous Madeira from our stash that we smuggled back from Portugal.

Here's to discovering more recipe treasures in the future!

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Knit Top/ Burdastyle 09-5-103A

I am way overdue for a sewing post. I have been sewing lots but if I don't get a picture immediately and end up wearing the outfit a few times, I lose interest in documenting my creation.

I recently re-made this top and managed to get a picture of it upon the first wearing!

This is the top that made me realize that I'd been sewing one size too big in Burdastyle knits! I first made this top in a black cotton jersey about a year ago and it was far too large in the chest and had major gap-osis problems. So I remade it one size smaller at the shoulders and bust, this time in a navy blue cotton/lycra knit. Much better!

I have to remember that I am a 38 in Burdastyle wovens but a 36 in knits. Somehow this makes me happy, as though I have magically gone down a whole size!

Malaysian Fresh Spring Rolls (Popiah)

Things always cluster in threes, they say, so I feel compelled to complete what appears to be a series about my favorite childhood Nonya foods with the third entry: Fresh Spring Rolls, or "popiah". We frequently had popiah as an appetizer to be followed by either Sarawak Laksa or Hainanese Chicken Rice. At a kopi tiam (casual food court), the popiahs would arrive assembled and ready to eat. My third aunt often had popiah parties, where one would assemble one's own popiah out of prepared ingredients; this is how I serve popiah at home. So, without further ado, this is how we eat popiah at Chez Huxley Wuxley.

First, you need to get together these ingredients:

Wrapper skins, preferably Menlo wrappers (these are made in Menlo Park, CA and are available in most Asian groceries/supermarkets; in Kuching, you would just buy a bunch of freshly-made skins from your favorite popiah lady):

Condiments, including Hoisin sauce & Sriracha hot sauce, lettuce leaves, and freshly ground roasted peanuts:

Thinly-sliced, steamed chinese sausage:

Blanched bean sprouts, thinly-sliced plain omelette, and thinly-sliced fried tofu cubes (the last is optional because I decided I don't really like them):

And, most important of all, popiah fillling, consisting primarily of jicama (recipe follows):

To make popiah filling, saute 4 finely chopped peeled garlic cloves and 3 tablespoons finely chopped dried shrimp (previously softened in hot water) in 2 tablespoons oil until fragrant. Mix in 2 medium peeled and julienned jicamas and about 6 finely julienned black dried chinese mushrooms (previously soaked in hot water to soften), turn heat to low and cover and cook gently for about 10 minutes. The jicama will release moisture and steam in its own juices. When it is cooked to your liking, make a sauce with 2 tablespoons soy sauce, 2 teaspoons oyster sauce, 1 tablespoon sesame oil and 1 tablespoon cornstarch. Make a well in the vegetables, pour in the sauce and let cook a little before stirring to mix. Cook over low heat and reduce until mixture is somewhat dry. Add about a cup of peeled, coarsely chopped fresh shrimp and mix until shrimp is cooked through. Turn off the heat and mix in some chopped scallions.

OK, now you are ready to assemble your popiah. First layer your plate with a Menlo wrapper, place a lettuce leaf on it and drizzle hoisin sauce and sriracha hot sauce over the leaf.

Then place a little of the popiah filling, the blanched bean sprouts, the sliced omelette and fried tofu on top of the lettuce leaf. Sprinkle with the sliced cooked chinese sausage and ground roasted peanuts.

Then roll everything up like a burrito. This is what Dave's looks like:

You are ready to take a bite!

Yum! There is the crunch of the lettuce leaf, the crisp-cooked jicama and the bean sprouts; the savory-sweet-spicy flavor of the condiments, the chinese sausage and the cooked sauce; the umami-ness of the fresh & dried shrimps and the mushrooms; and the nuttiness of the ground roasted peanuts. Somehow everything comes together magically to make - you've guessed it - the most delicious spring roll ever!

Friday, February 4, 2011

Very English Meat Pie

Dave brought my attention to this hilarious interview of his favorite chef in San Francisco:

Offal Chef Chris Cosentino Is Happy to Make a Meat Dress for Lady Gaga

The title says it all. The funny thing is, I can totally envision a tripe dress looking like an ethereal white tulle gown. You absolutely have to read the article; it is too funny for words but this guy can totally make fish sperm taste good (I would know: I've had it at his restaurant).

Anyway, all the talk about offal reminded me of a meat pie recipe from an article in the New York Times magazine that I had once made because the recipe was associated with Fergus Henderson, another chef proponent of offal and author of the cookbook "The Whole Beast: Nose to Tail Eating", whom we had actually sat behind once during a memorable dinner at Chris Cosentino's restaurant.

I always thought of it as "Fergus Henderson's Meat Pie" but when I dug up the recipe, it was only associated with the guy insofar as the use of the optional "Trotter Gear" in the meat pie. Now, it was a Sunday when I thought to make the pie, and my butcher shop where I might have gotten some pig's trotters was closed, so I opted to use the suggested cheddar cheese substitute instead. So my version of the pie didn't have much to do with offal, but oh well. Maybe next time...

We had it with peas on the side, not mushy peas like they would have had in London, but nice barely-cooked peas. And a pint each of Anchor Christmas Ale! There was enough left over for several lunches and dinners. That stuff is really filling. Maybe I'll make it again in a few years, perhaps with the Trotter Gear this time.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Hainanese chicken rice

In my last post, I said that Sarawak laksa is the best dish ever, but another dish that comes a close second when it comes to childhood comfort food that I crave, is Hainanese Chicken Rice. Luckily, this dish is easy to put together with widely available ingredients and requires no covert smuggling of secret spice mixes from halfway around the world. In fact, I made it once for a dinner party many years ago at my friend Amanda's and it was the hit of the party. Amanda kept asking me for the recipe but I never got it to her, in large part because my version of Hainanese Chicken Rice is an amalgam of two different recipes, from these two cookbooks:

so it wasn't an easy matter of just sending her photocopies of the recipes; I'd have to stipulate which parts I used from which recipe and when. In a way this post is for Amanda: after more than 5 years (!), here is the Hainanese Chicken Rice recipe you asked for. Sorry for the delay, but better late than never, right?

First, what is Hainanese Chicken Rice? Again, it is one of those wonderful Sarawak Nonya dishes that is somehow more than the sum of its parts. There is rice cooked with shallots and garlic and rendered chicken fat in a good chicken broth, served with poached chicken marinated with a dark sauce and a dipping sauce of fresh red chillies, ginger, garlic, chicken broth and lime to pull it all together. But what a dish! I cannot really describe the unctuous mouth-feel of the rice, the delicious tang, heat and gingeriness of the dipping sauce, and the silkiest, tenderest chicken you have ever tasted.

Here is a picture of my most recent attempt:

The cucumber salad on the side is not authentic, but I think it goes beautifully with the traditional chicken, rice and dipping sauce. The recipe for the cucumber salad is from the New York Times, originally intended to accompany bluefish and rice. I have also served it with Vietnamese grilled meat patties; in fact, it pairs wonderfully with any South East Asian rice-and-meat dish, and especially Hainanese Chicken Rice, which is traditionally served with cucumber slices.

Alright, this is how I make Hainanese Chicken Rice:

Take a small chicken (about 3 pounds), trim it of excess fat and rub all over with salt. Reserve the trimmed fat - you will use it for the rice later on. In a large pot big enough to hold the chicken, boil 8 cups water with 8 cloves garlic (in their skins, smashed) and 5 slices fresh ginger (smashed). Lower the chicken into the pot, immersing it in the boiling water, weighing it down if necessary. Cover and boil for 10 minutes. Turn off the heat and let the chicken sit in the hot water without removing the lid, for 2 hours. At the end of the 2 hours, remove the chicken and plunge into ice-cold water for 10 minutes.

In the meantime, prepare the rice. Render the chicken fat (there should be about 1/3 cup), throw out the unrendered brown bits and then sautee 3 chopped shallots and 3 chopped garlic cloves until light brown. Add two cups jasmine rice (or a long-grained rice) and sautee briefly to coat the grains. Add 4 cups chicken broth (it can be from the water used to boil the chicken, which is now a stock) and salt to taste, bring to a boil, give everything a good stir and then lower the heat to low and cover tightly. The rice is done when the liquid has been absorbed and there are steam holes on the surface of the rice, about 20 minutes.

When the chicken is done, tear the meat from the carcass. Make a marinade by mixing 1/4 cup soy sauce, 1/4 cup chicken broth, 1 tablespoon sesame oil, 1 tablespoon oyster sauce, and 1/2 teaspoon sugar. Mix the chicken meat in this marinade.

Make the dipping sauce. Now, this is the most important part of the dish. It is absolutely essential and brings everything together. Do not even think of attempting this dish without the dipping sauce! Mix together: 5 fresh red chilies (stemmed, seeded and chopped) or 1 1/2 tablespoons or more (or less) of sambal oelek if you are too lazy to stem and chop fresh chillies (which is what I do), 4 cloves chopped garlic, 1 tablespoon finely grated fresh ginger, 1 teaspoons sugar, 1/2 teaspoon salt, the juice from one lime and 1/4 cup chicken broth. I usually taste and may add more ginger, lime juice, salt or sambal oelek. It should be tangy and gingery, with a nice fresh red chilli flavor. The chilli has to be red chilli, no green chilli substitutions!

To serve, place a portion of rice with some chicken and dribble dipping sauce over all. (I like to dribble a lot of dipping sauce; in fact, back home we use it like a dressing). Place a portion of the non-authentic cucumber salad on the side. This may not be traditional, but I promise you, it makes the dish even better! Sit back and enjoy!

Amanda, I hope you like the post and will let me know how the dish turns out when you get David to make it!