May 21, 2012

Snow peas with Swai

Snow peas fish 5-18-12

One of my early childhood kitchen memories involves helping my mom sanpping the ends of snow peas to remove the strings. To this date, I still don't know why the strings need to be removed. (Perhaps for a smoother mouthfeel?) I have literally internalized this practice as a ritual. With the imminent roaring summer, I crave for snow peas. Saying "snow peas" out loud has a magical cooling effect on me, let alone seeing the bright green color and eating the crisp and snappy pods that sing of springs and summers.

Swai, or Pangasius hypophthalmus, is a sweet tasting, fleshy, and flaky fish from the catfish family for cost-conscious home cooks like me. The mild flavor complements vegetables that bear distinct tastes perfectly.

Snow peas fish b 5-18-12
Snow peas with Swai

Time: 20 minutes
Yield: 2-3 servings

1 Swai fillet, about 9 oz, sliced diagonally into nuggets
1 tablespoon soy sauce
a pinch of sugar
a pinch of white pepper
1 teaspoon rice wine
1 tablespoon cornstarch
1 teaspoon oil
2 tablespoons oil
2 slices ginger
3 cloves garlic, chopped
2 oz snow peas, about 1 cup or 20 pieces, strings removed
¼ cup wood ears, soaked and cut into strips

Marinate Swai nuggets with soy sauce, sugar, white pepper, rice wine, cornstarch, and oil.

Heat 2 tablespoons oil over medium high heat. (When pan-frying fish, I like using nonstick skillet.) Add ginger and stir-fry until fragrant. One by one, put Swai nuggets into the skillet. Pan-fry each side until slightly browned, about 3 minutes on each. Remove from skillet and set aside.

With the remaining oil, add garlic into the skillet and stir-fry until fragrant. Add snow peas and wood ears and stir-fry until soft, about 1 minute. Return Swai nuggets into the skillet and stir-fry, about 30 seconds. Cover and let steam, about 1 minute. (If there is excess water and the dish looks loose, mix 1 teaspoon cornstarch and 1 teaspoon water as slurry to thicken the dish.) Remove from heat and serve.

May 17, 2012

Steamed eggs with shiitake mushrooms

Steamed egg e 5-13-12

A healthful Asian home-cooking blog isn't proper if such a simple yet nourishing dish as steamed eggs isn't covered. Everytime when I return home, I would behave like a spoiled kid and have my parents and my grandma cooked steamed eggs for me, as breakfast, lunch and dinner. Theirs are always the best.

Steam two eggs mixed with water that doubles the amount. Seems easy enough? But it can be the most puzzling dish to a home cook. The Chinese call it steamed "watery" egg, stressing the fludity that melts in your mouth, as opposed to the unyielding flavor and texture of an overcooked egg. So how to achieve an impeccable "watery" sensation?

It came to me as a big revelation one day when I prepared lunch with my grandma. I always knew her as a meticulous person. As one of the few women to receive education in a rural Chinese town back in the 30s, she went on to become the first female teachers in her village. But never did I know that a dish as seemingly easy as steamed eggs would trigger her "teacher" spirit in front of her granddaughter.

"You must use boiled water," she said seriously and as an 80-year-old, ran as swiftly as she could to stop me from using tap water.

"Don't you see there are still air bubbles on the surface?" which implied more work from my end when I was about to put the dish into the wok for steaming.

Deep down I thought those were merely gestures used by cookbook authors or food show hosts to establish their authority. But now these instructions came from my grandma, which meant I had to listen. The end result? It's steamed eggs in its best form I've ever achieved.

It was such a liberating moment to finally find out the keys (laid out below) to making this classic dish and that, these tips came not from cookbooks but from my very own family.

Steamed egg d 5-13-12

Steamed egg

Here, I'm sharing with you three steps to impeccably silky steamed eggs: (1) use previously boiled water at room temperature; (2) scoop away air bubbles after eggs are beaten with water; and (3) leave a 1/4 to 1/2 inch gap between the lid and the wok or whatever pots you're using when steaming to let out steam, thus preventing bubbles formed on the surface of the finished dish.

Steamed eggs can also be a great canvas for your imagination, such as Japanese chawanmushi, Korean gyeran jjim, with filling like minced pork, or toppings like cavier. Or you can mix the eggs with clear noodles (pre-soak it with hot water before mixing with the egg) and dried shrimps, which puntuate the egg dish in a pungent flavor and chewy texture. It's the Hong Kong classic style: 蝦米粉絲蒸蛋。

Time: 20 minutes (cooking time depends on the type of steaming set-up and the size of the serving dish)
Yield: 2 servings

2 eggs, egg shells reserved for measuring water
8 half-egg-shells boiled water at room temperature. If you don't have boiled water, boil some real quick and freeze it immediately for roughly 15 minutes or until chilled.

pinch of salt
water for steaming
1 mushroom, soaked (or microwave with water for 1 minute to reconsitute quickly) and sliced to as thin as possible
2 tbsp oil

2 tbsp green onions, julienned
2 tbsp soy sauce
  1. Bring a pot/wok of water to a roaring boil on high. (See my steaming set-up).
  2. In a shallow and wide bowl/serving dish (mine was a 2.5" x 7"), beat two eggs. Reserve the egg shells for measuring water. 
  3. Choose a half-egg-shell as your measuring cup. Measure previously boiled water up to twice the amount of eggs. For every one egg used, add four half-egg-shells of water. In this case, eight half-egg-shells. Add a pinch of salt. Beat well. Scoop away air bubbles on the surface.
  4. Turn the heat down to medium. Place the egg dish on a steaming rack. Cover with a lid but leave a ¼- to ½-inch gap. Steam for about 10 minutes.
  5. Open the lid and check for doneness with a fork. The eggs should have achieved a stable consistency. Add mushroom slices on top and steam for 3 more minutes.
  6. In another pan, heat 2 tablespoon oil to the point of just before getting smoked.
  7. Open the lid and check for doneness again. If the egg is not set, steam for another minute. Otherwise, pour away the water settled on top of the dish and garnish the dish with julienned green onions.
  8. Pour the heated oil over the dish and dress with soy sauce. Serve with plain rice.

May 14, 2012

Braised pork feet with tofu and seaweed

Pork feet 5-6-12

Let me show you what I'd be eating these few months at the end of my pregnancy and during my postpartum period: Lots and lots of pork feet.

The beauty of pork feet for home cooks is their modesty. No frills. No fanfare. Pork feet are plentiful. They are a magic blend of mouth-boggling textures that only leave you wanting for more: silky tendon, chewy cartilage, gelatinous skin, and fall-off-the-bone tender meat. When braised with star anise, fennel seeds, coriander seeds, cloves, soy sauces, and rock cane sugar, the color of spices and the shades of flavors turn this nondescript cut of meat into a sublime taste, perfect with plain rice or noodles.

Described as a new superfood with its abundance in collagen and protein, braised pork feet is a nutritious and hearty dish for less budget and with little effort. For moms-to-be, as if making you look younger is not enticing enough to make this dish, believe it or not, pork feet promotes lactation. It's a natural galactagogue that is tasty and inviting.

Braised feet with tofu and seaweed

I call this my family recipe, developed as I picked up new skills and tastes during my past 10 years as a home cook. Hope you'd enjoy this! In case you may wonder, rock sugar is a type of unrefined cane sugar popular in making Chinese dessert soups or savory braises and stews. Unlike regular soy sauce, dark soy sauce is viscous and is prized for its color. Dried orange peel lends a unique citrus flavor to the broth but the pith needs to be remove for its bitterness. Last but not least, this dish makes a great left-over! (Some left-over pork feet are made into fixings for noodles in the picture below.) Store it overnight and you'll find the gelatin on the surface; don't throw them away! Reheat the dish and they'll be melted. Reserve the liquid as a sauce for your next stir-fried noodles or dishes.

Pork feet rice vermicelli c 5-10-12

Time: 2 hour
Yield: 3 - 4 servings

1 ½ - 2 pound pork feet, cut and split (good news: they're usually sold pre-cut/split!)
2 tablespoons oil
2 pieces 1" ginger
1 dried orange peel, soaked and pith removed
4 cloves garlic, coarsely chopped
1 tablespoons chopped green onion or shallot
¼ cup star anise
½ cup soy sauce
1/4 cup dark soy sauce
1 teaspoon of combined spices (best to be wrapped in a tea bag/coffee filter): fennel, coriander seeds, cloves 
2 tablespoons rice wine
1 ½ cup water (or broth)
¼ cup rock sugar
1 used teabag (optional)
1 piece seaweed, soaked, cut lengthwise into 2" x 5" and tied into knots
½ pack tofu, chopped into wedges
2 eggs
  1. Soak pork feet in cold water for one minutes. Use knife to scrap away hair.
  2. Pork feet b 5-6-12
  3. Bring to a boil a pot of water. Blanch pork feet for two minutes. Drain and run against cold running water. {Update: Cut tendons slightly away from bones for better texture.}
  4. Heat a medium saucepan or a wide pan over medium high heat. Add two tablespoons oil. Add the soaked orange peel, garlic, and green onions and stir-fry until aromatic. 
  5. Add star anise and pork feet and stir-fry for about 30 seconds. Pour in ½ cup soy sauce and  ¼ cup dark soy sauce and stir-fry until sauce is slightly boiled and pork feet is evenly coated, about 1 minute. Add spices and 2 tablespoons rice wine and keep stirring, about 30 seconds.
  6. Add 1 ½ cups water (best to be hot water) into the mixture. Add 1/4 cup rock sugar and keep stirring, about 30 seconds. Bring to a boil.
  7. If you use a saucepan, you can close the lid now and turn the heat to medium low. If you use a wide pan, you can transfer the mixture into a medium saucepan now. (Make sure all pork feet are covered in the liquid, if not, replenish  with some water, but not too much.) Simmer for about 1 ½ hours, until pork feet arrive at a texture to your liking. (I love them to be just done, not too tender to retain the chewing mouthfeel.)
  8. About one hour into the the simmer, add a used teabag (optional), tofu wedges (be careful, they're soft!), two eggs (cracked slightly for juice absorption), and seaweed knots. 

May 13, 2012

{Garden} My mom-in-law's rooftop vegetable garden

My mom grew up farming—even when she was pregnant with me—before she moved to Hong Kong from China. The idea of keeping a vegetable garden at home didn't interest her very much. On the other hand, my mom-in-law grew up in an urban city in China where farming wasn't necessarily her daily chore. Now, she keeps a wonderful rooftop garden with lots of vegetables. Last summer, I was in Hong Kong for three months and was excited by the fact that most of our food on the dining table came from "upstairs."

The ultimate definition of upcycle: used washing machine part as a planter.

Dragon fruit

Beautiful peppers

Growing corn in the city. What a sight!

Planting starts!

My favorite vegetable, water spinach, from farm to table.

May 08, 2012

Mango tapioca

Mango Tapioca 5-4-12

This is better than frozen yogurt. Biting into these chewy pearl-like darlings, which are nicely immersed in fresh ripe mango juices, gives you a fulfilling sensation of cooling off on a hot and humid summer day. Last year, I wrote about my love for mangoes with a recipe of mango pudding. Here is an even easier treat with lots of room for your improvisation. (Hint: adding ice-cream, yum!)

Mango Tapioca 5-4-12 tapioca

Cooking tapioca requires the same patience and care as cooking risotto. Keep stirring and in about 30 minutes, you should witness the magical moment of every single white speck disappearing into translucent pearls. Tapioca is a starch extracted from cassava. Little did I know that the word tapioca comes from not any Asian languages, but Portuguese or originally, the Tupi language from Brazil as typióca, with ty = juice + pyá = heart + oca = to remove. What a distance tapioca has traveled!

Mango Tapioca 5-4-12 pearls

Mango Tapioca

Choose ripe kidney-shaped yellow mangoes, such as Ataulfo, for this recipe instead of their green/red counterparts, which are more fibrous and tart.

Time: 40 minutes
Yield: 4 servings

Mango puree: (makes about 3 cups puree)
2 mangoes, about 1.5 pounds, peeled, chopped
1 - 1 ½ cup water

½ cup tapioca
2 cups water, replenish with more water if necessary

Sugar Syrup: (Optional)
¼ cup sugar
½ cup water

Evaporated milk, to serve
  1. In a medium saucepan, BRING to a boil 2 cups water.
  2. Meanwhile, in a small saucepan, BRING to a boil ¼ cup sugar and ½ cup water. Let chill in the fridge.
  3. CHOP mangoes into small pieces.
  4. COMBINE chopped mangoes and 1 - 1 ½ cup water in a blender; process until smooth.
  5. STIR in tapioca into the boiling water. Simmer in medium low heat and keep stirring until all white specks have disappeared, about 30-40 minutes.
  6. REMOVE from heat. Pour the tapioca through a colander or a fine sieve. RINSE translucent tapioca against cold running water until chilled and less sticky. Set aside.
  7. POUR mango puree into serving cups (I used ramekin cups). If the mango puree doesn't taste sweet enough, add in some sugar syrup. Stir in rinsed tapioca (adjust the amounts to your liking). Dress with evaporated milk.

May 04, 2012

Tomato and egg stir-fry

Tomato egg 2
Home-cooking is about being authentic. Not the kind that dictates what sauce goes with what dish or what cheese goes with what wine; it's about creating a taste that's true to yourself and a scene where formality meets freedom in the comfort of food, be it soy sauce spaghetti or chow mein.

Tomato and egg stir-fry is my ultimate comfort food. Velvety scrambled eggs drenched in the plump and luscious red of tomatoes. What a fiesta! It's ridiculously simple and rustic; from my parents farm in rural China to the fast-paced restless Hong Kong, this duo provides the same comfort one gets from their grandmother cooking for them in childhood.

This effortless tomato and egg stir-fry also appears on Mark Bittman's list of"101 simple meals ready in 10 minutes or less." Although my recipe differs from his (quoted below), it truly takes less than 10 minutes:
"Chinese tomato and eggs: Cook minced garlic in peanut oil until blond; add chopped tomatoes then, a minute later, beaten eggs, along with salt and pepper. Scramble with a little soy sauce."
If I were to dress it up with more formality, I would skin the tomatoes, julienne some gingers and woodears or jazz it up with some pickled flavors—back home in my family's Hakka kitchen, a dish of tomato and egg would not be complete without pickled mustard greens. Or if I'm feeling lazy, I'll add more water, turn the dish into a broth, add in spam (yes, spam!) and serve with rice vermicelli. That makes me happy.

Tomato egg mise en place  

Tomato and egg Stir-fry
I have two tricks for making this dish shine: to achieve fluffy eggs, beat egg whites and egg yolks separately; for reducing tomato mess on your chopping board, cut tomatoes using roll cutting technique, so that seeds stay intact instead of flowing out and the tomato pieces stay uniform in size.

Time: 15 minutes 
Yield: 2 servings 
3 roma tomatoes, about ½ pound, cut to 1" cubes or chunks
2 stalks of green onions, chopped, about 2 tablespoons

2 eggs
1 teaspoon oil
a pinch of salt 
2 tablespoons oil (for cooking)
2 tablespoons water, or broth

Slurry (optional):
½ teaspoon cornstarch 
1 teaspoon water  
  1. Cut tomatoes into 1" chunks and chop up green onions.
  2. Beat egg whites first, then add 1 teaspoon oil and a pinch of salt. Beat in egg yolks. Set aside.
    Tomato egg step 1
  3. Heat 2 tablespoons oil in a pan over medium heat. When oil is hot, pour in eggs. Keep scrambling the eggs, pushing cooked parts towards one end of the pan, leaving uncooked parts flowing along the edges. When it's about 80% done, remove from pan and set it on the serving plate.

    Tomato egg step 2
  4. Add 1 tablespoon green onions to the remaining oil (if there's not enough oil, feel free to add a little bit). Add tomato chunks and stir-fry for 1 minute.
  5. Stir in some water, or better yet, flavored broth like chicken broth or veggie broth, about 2 tablespoons. Keep stir-frying. Add a pinch of salt and the remaining green onions.
  6. Cover to steam until tomatoes are tender and the mixture turns thick, about 30 seconds. POUR the slurry into the stir-fry and quickly stir to thicken. (If the slurry is not thick enough, feel free to add some more; otherwise, add more water if it's too thick.) Cover again.

    Tomato egg step 3
  7. Remove from heat and pour the tomatoes onto the eggs. Stir the mixture (so as to heat the eggs to complete doneness.) Serve with rice!

May 02, 2012

{Dining Out} Dim Sum at Red Ginger, Shoreview, Minnesota

I have a soft spot for dim sum. Even though dim sum served here in Minnesota cannot compare to those served in Hong Kong, I'd still go for dim sum once in a while to cure my habitual weekend craving. Flavors are often lost in translation; once food is served out of their regular locales with integrity, good enough becomes good.

At Red Ginger, there are dozens of selections served on carts. I was delighted when I could simply use my mother tongue, Cantonese, to order. But you don't need to; simply watch the carts come and go and then point and pick. To help you get started, order Po Lei tea (just because it’s brewed with tea leaves, not tea bags). Among the must-haves: congee with pork and thousand-year-old egg, chicken feet steamed in black bean suace; shrimp dumplings, chicken sticky rice wrapped in lotus leaves, barbecued pork buns, pineapple buns or lau sha bao, steamed bun with a glorious runny duck egg yolk, which both my friends and I agree that it's done better than a lot of restaurants in Hong Kong!

Last but not least, dim sum is a communal dining experience. Have a craving? Call you friends.