Sweet and Savory Stuffed Lychees

I found a lonely can of lychees at the back of my pantry and it begged to be turned into something

My friend Yuki recoils at the mere mention of meat and fruit in tandem. I can still remember the times her face scrunched up into an origami of disgust at everything from sweet and sour pork to Hawaiian pizza.

As for me, give me pork stewed with prunes or mango chicken any day.

So it’s not surprising that I fell in love with an appetizer of sweet lychees stuffed with savory ground pork when I went to Duangrat’s Thai Restaurant in Falls Church, VA. Lychee, also commonly called litchi or lichi, is the fruit of a tropical and subtropical tree native to southern China and Southeast Asia, and now cultivated in many parts of the world. When eaten fresh, the translucent white pulp surrounding the seed is delicate and springy and it has a faint floral perfume and flavor.  Unfortunately, I mostly make do with eating it out of a can.

Anyway, I’ve been fantasizing about this dish for weeks and as I was rummaging through my pantry during Operation CDMK, I found a can of lychees. My next post literally wrote itself.

To recreate the dish, I relied on my taste memory to deconstruct the flavors of the ground pork stuffing. For sweetness, the natural choice was the syrup the lychees came in, but I made a note to moderate the amount I used. Duangrat’s version was a little too sugary for even my major sweet tooth. I figured I could rely on either soy sauce or fish sauce for the savory layer. Instead of ground pork, I used turkey for a less greasy finish.

When it came time to cook, I started with a basic foundation of onions and garlic. I cooked the turkey until it was no longer pink then added the lychee syrup and simmered until the syrup was absorbed, rendering the meat subtly sweet. I added some chopped green onions for color and flourish.

Next, I had to figure out an efficient way to stuff the lychees. After breaking apart one too many lychees, I eventually learned how to gently pry open each fruit with my thumb and stuff it with a 1/2 teaspoon of filling at a time while leaving the fruit intact. A chopstick acted as a poking device when necessary.

At Duangrat’s, the stuffed lychees were served cold and almost gave my tongue the impression that I was eating a salty dessert. So I stuck mine under the broiler until they were burnished. I think this extra step not only integrated but also intensified the flavors and gave the little appetizers a peachier, prettier appearance. And personally, I prefer warm appetizers.

What about you? “Yay” or “Nay” to meat and fruit?

~~~

Sweet and Savory Stuffed Lychees

These appetizers are absolutely scrumptious and will make a delightful introduction at your next dinner party. I would make enough for at least 5 or 6 per person. Trust me, you simply can’t stop at just one or two. Stuffing the lychees does involve some fiddly work but you can make the filling up to 2 days ahead and refrigerate it. Then fill the lychees on the day you plan to serve them.

2 (20 oz) cans lychees (about 45 lychees)
8 ounces/250 g ground turkey, pork, or chicken
1/4 cup minced onion
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
2 teaspoons fish or soy sauce
White pepper
2 green onions, chopped
Salt

Time: 40 minutes
Makes: about 45 stuffed lychees

Drain the lychees, reserving 1/4 cup/60 ml of syrup. (The rest of the syrup makes a refreshing drink over ice or add it to a cocktail.)

In a large skillet, heat the oil over medium heat until it shimmers. Add the onion and garlic and fry until fragrant, about 1 to 2 minutes.

Raise the heat to medium-high and tumble in the turkey. Stir to break up the meat, frying until it is no longer pink. Sprinkle in the fish sauce and a dash of white pepper.

Pour in the reserved lychee syrup and simmer over low heat until the liquid is absorbed, 5 to 6 minutes. Add the green onions and stir until wilted, about 30 to 45 seconds. Taste and add salt and more pepper if desired.

Set the filling aside to cool.

Move an oven rack to the topmost rung, 4 to 5 inches from the heat source. Start your broiler, on HIGH if you have the option. Line 2 baking trays with aluminum foil and brush with oil or spray with nonstick spray.

Stick your thumb gently into a lychee to expand the opening. Stuff the fruit with about 1 teaspoon of the turkey filling using a 1/2 (measuring) teaspoon. Use a chopstick to push the filling into the lychee if necessary. Lay the stuffed lychee on the baking tray on its side. Repeat until all the lychees and filling are used up.

Broil the stuffed lychees for 2 to 3 minutes, until the meat is lightly caramelized but not charred, and the lychees take on a slight blush.

Serve immediately.

~~~

Coronation Chicken–A Sandwich Fixing Fit for a Queen

Depending on the quality and amount of curry used, the color of coronation chicken can range from acid yellow to subtle ochre. I like to think mine is the latter

Coronation chicken isn’t so well known in these parts (i.e. the U.S.) but in the U.K., this dish has a fabled history.

A humble dish with a regal name, coronation chicken was invented by Rosemary Hume, the founder of Le Cordon Bleu, joining the ranks of its Anglo-Indian brethren, chicken tikka masala and mulligatawny soup. It’s basically chicken salad’s gussied up little sister–shredded chicken dressed with a curry- and chutney-spiked mayo and studded with raisins–served over basmati rice or between bread.

According to this Guardian Newspaper article (where you can also read more about its provenance and permutations), coronation chicken was originally called poulet reine Elizabeth (Queen Elizabeth chicken). And since Queen Elizabeth II celebrates her Diamond Jubilee this year (she ascended the throne 60 years ago on February 6th, and her coronation took place June 2, 1953), why not pay tribute to my colonial heritage?

And besides, I had leftover chicken, curry powder, and preserves just waiting to be used up. Operation “Cook Down My Kitchen” cracks on!

Do you have a favorite way with coronation chicken?

~~~

Coronation Chicken

I first discovered Coronation Chicken when I was living in England. A friend ordered a coronation chicken sandwich for lunch one day. (This was one dish that didn’t quite catch on in the colonies, at least not Singapore). I wasn’t enticed by the turmeric yellow-tinged chicken but she coaxed me into having a bite and I’m glad she did! That first bite was an intriguing mélange of tender chicken, spicy curry, and sweet raisins. I’ve had many versions since then, not always tasty and often not pretty. I came up with a dressing that wasn’t too sweet, doing away with the requisite raisins/dried apricots of many recipes, and cut the greasy mayo with the lighter texture of yogurt. Plus, I added some celery (another refrigerator legacy!) for a nice crunch. The result–a light and bright filling I enjoyed sandwiched between hearty slices of herb bread.

Time: 15 minutes

Makes: 4 appetizer servings, or enough filling for 2 to 3 sandwiches

2 cups shredded cooked chicken (about 4 drumsticks or 3 breasts worth)
2 stalks celery hearts, finely chopped (about 2 tablespoons)
1 teaspoon curry powder
1 1/2 teaspoon preserves (I used a tropical mix but try apricot) or mango chutney
2 tablespoons yogurt (whole milk or lowfat is fine)
2 tablespoons mayonnaise
A few squirts of lemon juice
Salt and pepper

Place the chicken and celery in a medium bowl.

In a small cast iron skillet, toast the curry powder until fragrant, about 4 to 5 minutes.

Combine the curry powder, chutney, yogurt, mayo, and lemon juice in a small bowl and mix thoroughly.

Fold the curry dressing into the chicken until the chicken is well coated. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Let sit for at least an hour in the fridge to allow the flavors to meld. Serve the chicken on a bed of lettuce leaves or between slices of freshly baked bread.

Great Cookbooks for Holiday Gifts

Seven fabulous books to cater to everyone on your gift list!

We’ve all heard it before: It’s the thought that counts.

Yeah right.

I, for one, prefer not to give gifts just for the sake of giving. I actually do want to the person at the receiving end to like my gift. And during the holidays, this desire amps up the pressure to buy something special for each and everyone on my list.

Even as I’m slowly checking people off my list, I thought I’d make your life just a little bit easier. A group of writer friends and I decided to organize a virtual potluck featuring great cookbooks perfect for holiday gift-giving.

Whether you’re buying a Christmas gift for your sister-in-law or a hostess gift for your next holiday party, you’re sure to find a book beckoning to you in this lovely mix.  Be sure to scroll right to the bottom where you’ll find blurbs about each book; click on the blog links for a full post plus a recipe.

My contribution to the potluck is Chickpea Curry with Tomato and Mango from Roz Cummin’s blog. Roz is a food writer who focuses on sustainability, agriculture, fishing, and aquaculture, and has written for notable publications such as edibleBoston, Grist.org, and Culinate.com. She’s funny and articulate, and her stories (like her wonderful self) never fail to make me ponder, or laugh out loud. Her latest project promises to do both. Roz is working on a book charmingly titled: Golden Afternoons: The Official Handbook of the Society for the Preservation of Ladies’ Afternoon Tea. The book will include a contribution from me, so look out for it!

Apparently, Roz came up with this recipe while tearing down the aisles at her local Whole Foods trying to figure out what to cook for her vegan co-op and a new, I’m-allergic-to-everything member (I’ll let you read her entertaining tale for yourself). The dish is easy to make and a fabulous mélange of sweet, tart, and spicy. Even though I’m still working through my Christmas list, at least I know what I’m making the next time friends come over for dinner on a cold, wintry day.

~~~

Chickpea Curry with Tomato and Mango
Recipe adapted from Roz Cummins

The combination of sweet-tart Meyer lemon juice and sweet, fresh mangoes makes for a delicious modern take on an Indian curry. (Psst, you can also use dried mangoes snipped into strips as Roz does in her original recipe.) The Meyer lemon is thought to be a cross between a true lemon and either a mandarin or the common orange, and is not as sour as a regular lemon. Its floral fragrance and sweetish juice make all the difference in this curry.

Time: 45 minutes
Serves: 4 to 6

1 tablespoon curry powder
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 cup canola oil
2 cups chopped yellow onion (approximately 2 medium onions)
1 tablespoon minced ginger
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 (28 oz) cans fire roasted organic tomatoes (crushed or whole)
1 small ripe mango, chopped (I used an ataulfo mango but any kind will do)
2 (15 oz) can chickpeas, rinsed and strained
2 to 3 chili peppers (I used fresh Thai bird chilies and Roz use piri piri peppers from a jar, optional)
Salt to taste
Juice from 1 Meyer lemon or 1 tablespoon regular lemon juice
1 cup cilantro leaves, loosely packed

Warm the spices in a large pot over low heat until they become aromatic, about 1 to 2 minutes. They do not need to change color. Dump the spices onto a plate and wipe the pot clean with a damp paper towel.

Add the oil and heat over medium-high heat until it shimmers. Add the chopped onions, followed by the ginger and garlic. Cook until the onions are translucent and the ginger and garlic are fragrant. They do not need to brown.

Reduce the heat to medium and add the tomatoes. If you are using whole tomatoes, use a spoon to break them down. Toss in the mango. Cook for five minutes then add the spices.

Add the chickpeas followed by the chili peppers, if using.

Simmer the curry for about 30 minutes or until the chickpeas are slightly softened and completely warmed through.

Take the curry off the burner. Throw in the lemon juice and stir. Taste the curry. Now add a pinch of salt and taste again. Correct the seasoning with more salt if necessary.

When you serve the curry, throw some cilantro (see Pat’s note below) on top of each portion. Ask your guests to stir it into the curry. Serve with naan, paratha, or basmati rice.

Pat’s notes: A grandmother I cooked with once told me not to chop cilantro leaves as the leaves would turn brown. Pluck them or tear them instead.

~~~

Presenting all the cookbooks in our potluck:

100 Perfect Pairings: Main Dishes to Enjoy with Wines You Love
By Jill Silverman Hough

Chock-full of delicious, creative, and easy-to-make recipes for everyday cooks, 100 Perfect Pairings makes food and wine pairing easy and approachable. With recipes organized into twelve chapters by wine variety, simply turn to the chapter for the wine you want to serve, make any of the entrees you find there, and enjoy it with your wine. It’s that easy. Be it Pinot Grigio or Pinot Noir, a big dinner party or a simple meal with friends, “100 Perfect Pairings” promises wonderful recipes that make every pairing, well, perfect!

Jill Silverman Hough is a cookbook author, food and wine writer, recipe developer, and culinary instructor whose forte is making food and cooking simple yet special.
On Jill’s blog:  Tortilla Soup from Almost Meatless

Almost Meatless: Recipes That Are Better for Your Health and the Planet
By Joy Manning & Tara Mataraza Desmond

Ideal for today’s conscientious carnivores, Almost Meatless is a timely new book featuring 60+ tasty recipes that go light on the meat.  Without compromising flavor or protein, these dishes maximize health benefits while minimizing the grocery bill and impact on the planet.

Tara Mataraza Desmond is a writer, cookbook author and recipe developer focused on food for health and wellness, pregnancy and parenthood.
On Tara’s blog: Yogurt Chicken with Yogurt Chutney Sauce from 100 Perfect Pairings

Brewed Awakening

By Joshua M. Bernstein

Brewed Awakening is Joshua M. Bernstein’s definitive take on the craft beer revolution. The book is the deeply reported story of the wild innovations and passions driving craft beer, focusing on the tales of the risk-taking brewers, bar owners and the dedicated beer drinkers across the globe. There’s a story in every pint glass, and Brewed Awakening gives voice to each one.

Josh Bernstein is a Brooklyn-based beer, spirits, food, travel and bicycling (phew!) journalist, as well as an occasional tour guide.
On Josh’s blog: The Jucy Lucy Burger from The Encyclopedia of Sandwiches

The Encyclopedia of Sandwiches
By Susan Russo

How do you keep a Dagwood from toppling over? How did the Hero get its name? And who invented the French Dip? Discover these answers and more in The Encyclopedia of Sandwiches—a chunky little cookbook dedicated to everything between sliced bread. You’ll find recipes for every sandwich imaginable along with fascinating regional and historical trivia. From the humble Sloppy Joe to the chic Nutella sandwich, from the iconic Po ‘Boy to the fresh-faced donut sandwich, The Encyclopedia of Sandwiches will satiate sandwich connoisseurs everywhere.

Susan Russo is a San Diego-based cookbook author, blogger (Food Blogga), and freelance writer specializing in food and lifestyle.
On Susan’s blog: Highlights from Brewed Awakening

The I Love Trader Joe’s College Cookbook
By Andrea Lynn

The ultimate one-stop shopping guide, The I Love Trader Joe’s College Cookbook finally offers starving college students a welcome relief from fast food fiascos. Designed to help shoppers recognize the best finds and reap the fruits of Trader Joe’s smart buyers, many recipes utilize TJ’s signature products to create unique meals like olive focaccia, frito pie, pulled-pork sliders, and fish tacos, among other things.

Andrea Lynn is a NYC-based food writer and recipe developer who has tasted almost every product Trader Joe’s has to offer.
On Andrea’s blog: Ravioli Lasagna and Baked Macaroni with Ricotta, Spinach and Mint from Parents Need to Eat Too

Parents Need to Eat Too: Nap-Friendly Recipes, One-Handed Meals & Time-Saving Kitchen Tricks for New Parents
By Debbie Koenig

Give a new parent the gift of sanity! Parents Need to Eat Too makes it easy for new moms and dads to take care of themselves as well as they’re caring for baby. Every recipe has been tested by a group of more than 100 moms, and every recipe also includes instructions for turning that dish into baby food. The book goes on sale in February, but author Debbie Koenig has created a special holiday offer, available now: She’ll send a free signed, custom-made bookplate and holiday card to anyone who pre-orders the book as a gift.

Debbie Koenig is a Brooklyn-based food and parenting writer and blogs at Words to Eat By.
On Debbie’s blog: Olive Focaccia from The I Love Trader Joe’s College Cookbook

Golden Afternoons: The Official Handbook of the Society for the Preservation of Ladies’ Afternoon Tea
By Roz Cummins

Roz Cummins is a Boston-based food writer who specializes in sustainability. She also loves tea and baking. She has worked as an editor, a teacher, and an arts administrator. She is currently working on a book called Golden Afternoons: The Official Handbook of the Society for the Preservation of Ladies’ Afternoon Tea.

On Roz’s blog: Steamed Meatballs with Tangerine Peel from The Asian Grandmothers Cookbook

Homemade: Peanut Sauce

I’m a peanut sauce convert. There I said it.

It’s true, I never liked peanut sauce.

It probably has to do with the fact that my mom always served peanut sauce with boiled vegetables, i.e. the popular Indonesian dish gado- gado. C’mon, do boiled vegetables sound appetizing to you? I didn’t think so. To my 8-year-old self, gado gado’s only saving grace was the crispy shrimp crackers (krupuk) crushed and scattered atop this mound of rubbery greens.

Peanut sauce plus boiled vegetables=Gado-gado
In the U.S., however, it seems people don’t have such prejudices and just about everyone is enamored with peanut sauce. This fact is, of course, reflected on the menus of Southeast Asian restaurants all across the country. Without fail, you’ll find Swimming Rama (the Thai version of gado gado) on page 1 or 2, and if you look a little further down you’ll find the ubiquitous satay (grilled skewered meat) accompanied by its faithful companion–peanut dipping sauce.

Heck, even my husband adores peanut sauce!

Thankfully, I have seen the light in recent years. My peanut sauce awakening came in the form of a soba noodle salad tossed with a peanut dressing singing of ginger and rice vinegar. This was when I decided I could like peanut sauce after all. A quick call to my mom and a few days later I was making peanut sauce from scratch.

Many peanut sauce recipes start with peanut butter as a shortcut. Not for me. In fact, I’m so dead serious about making it from scratch I pass on the food processor and grind the peanuts using pure muscle power instead. (Ok, ok, so our food processor is in storage).

Indonesian cuisine has a dizzying array of peanut sauces, each with subtle nuances. Each region has its own version and a different dish to go with it.

By tweaking the basic recipe below, you can make a sweet and sour sauce for a dish called asinan comprising salad leaves, eggs, tofu, cucumbers, and cabbage tossed with the sauce. Just add dried shrimp (dry-fried in a wok) and enough sugar and vinegar for the right balance of sweet and sour.

Or mix in sweet cloves of garlic, pounded to a paste, vinegar and petis udang (black shrimp sauce), for tahu telor, a tofu omelet of sorts. I asked my mom how much garlic to add and she told me, “Supaya wangi bau bawang putih,” until it is fragrant with the smell of garlic. I love how poetic that sounds!

You could add any of the above ingredients to flavor your peanut sauce regardless of what you want to eat it with.

IMG_1587[1]
Toss the vegetables with the peanut sauce and top with shrimp crackers and fried shallots, and your gado-gado is ready to be eaten

As a healthy veggie-eating adult, I usually toss the basic peanut sauce with a medley of vegetables like green beans, cabbage, and beansprouts (yes, they’re all boiled), and top it with fried tofu, potatoes, and/or hard-boiled eggs. Sometimes, I’ll rebel and use fresh vegetables like Romaine lettuce and cucumbers. Or I’ll mix it in with vermicelli rice noodles and tofu.

A light drizzle of kecap manis, plus the mandatory shrimp crackers, and lunch is ready.

~~~

Peanut Sauce
peanut sauce

The raw shelled peanuts I buy at the Asian market usually come with their skins on, but don’t worry, the skins aren’t noticeable once they’re all ground up. The 12 oz bag makes 2 cups of ground peanuts but since I like to make my peanut sauce in small batches, I only use 1 cup of ground peanuts at a time (half the total amount). I’ll fry the entire bag of peanuts at one go, grind them up and refrigerate the remaining cup. If you prefer to make the sauce all at once, just double the amount of water and increase the seasonings judiciously.

Makes: about 1 cup sauce
Time: 30 minutes

1/4 cup oil (or just enough to coat the peanuts)
1 (12oz) package raw peanuts (about 2 ¼ cups)
2 to 3 kaffir lime leaves
Sliver of shrimp paste (terasi), toasted (optional)
1 tablespoon seedless wet tamarind, or lime juice
3 tablespoons Indonesian palm sugar or packed brown sugar
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon chili paste like sambal oelek(or to taste)

Pour the oil into a wok or large skillet. Heat the oil over medium heat until it shimmers. Add the peanuts and stir-fry them until the skins turn a darker shade of reddish brown and the insides turn golden brown, about 4 to 5 minutes. Toss them continuously so they cook evenly and don’t burn.

When the peanuts are done, scoop them up with a slotted spoon and leave to cool on a plate lined with paper towels. Remove any burnt peanuts, they will taste bitter.

When the peanuts are cool enough to handle, grind them until fine like sand, in a food processor or pulverize them with a mortar and pestle like I did, in which case, grinding them till the texture of coarse sand will do. Otherwise your arm might fall off!

In a small pot, combine 1-1/2 cups water, the lime leaves, shrimp paste, tamarind, sugar, and salt. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat and then reduce the heat and simmer for about 5 minutes, breaking up the shrimp paste and tamarind pulp. Inhale the intense fragrance of the lime leaves!

Using a strainer or slotted spoon, remove the leaves and any remaining tamarind pulp. Add 1 cup ground peanuts and bring to a boil. Save the remaining 1 cup for later. Simmer until thick and creamy like gravy, stirring often so that the sauce doesn’t stick to the bottom of the pot. This will take about 8 to 10 minutes.

Stir in the sambal oelek. Taste and adjust the seasonings.

Serve the peanut sauce with vegetables, over soba noodles, or as a dipping sauce with grilled meats like satay. Garnish with fried shallots, fried shrimp crackers, and kecap manis.

Pat’s note: The sauce will keep for up to a week in the fridge. To reheat, add a little water if it’s too thick, and warm on the stove or in the microwave.

~~~

A New Take On A Dim Sum Favorite: Chinese-Style Savory Pumpkin Cake

Pumpkin savory cake
Chinese-style savory cake--think turnip cake (aka luo bo gao)--updated with canned pumpkin

When I was gathering recipes for The Asian Grandmothers Cookbook, I spent a day with Cathy Chun and her sister, Carol, cooking, chatting and sharing.

Shrimp with black bean sauce and taro cake were on the menu. While both were delicious, only the shrimp dish made it into the cookbook. However, I’ve been waiting for the perfect opportunity to highlight the taro cake recipe.

So the other day, as I was thinking about all the wonderful things I could make with the season’s bounty of pumpkin, I decided, why not make a Chinese-style savory cake with pumpkin instead of taro or turnip?

Pumpkin savory cake
The stirfried ingredients in a Chinese savory cake (from top right): Chinese sausage, shrimp, Tianjin preserved vegetables, chopped cilantro, chopped green onions

Taro or turnip cake is a staple at dim sum restaurants and surprisingly easy to make at home. Cathy learned to make this recipe from her dad but it is based on a recipe from Rhoda Yee’s seminal cookbook Dim Sum: The Delicious Secrets of Home-Cooked Chinese Tea Lunch (1977).

The recipe calls for some ingredients you can’t find at your local Safeway or Giant so let’s talk about them for a little bit and discuss substitutions.

Chinese Sausage (lap cheong, lop cheung)

Pumpkin savory cake
Sweet, salty, and slightly smoky, Chinese sausage adds so much flavor to just about any dish from fried rice to an omelet. It is is smoked, preserved, dried and sold in packages of 10 to 12 links. Unopened, it will last 3 months refrigerated. After opening, wrap it in a sealed bag or container and refrigerate for a month.

The brand I buy is Kam Yen Jan.

If you cut the sausage crosswise and look closely, you’ll see bits of white. This is pure fat! Cathy showed me how to steam the sausages on the stove for about 8 to 10 minutes to render the fat so that it becomes a little healthier. For simplicity’s sake, I microwave them. You can also sauté slices in a dry wok or skillet for about 7 to 8 minutes. Use the rendered fat to fry the rest of the ingredients but this defeats the purpose of rendering the fat :).

In this recipe, you can substitute ham, pork loin or Chinese barbecued pork (char siu).  To make a meat-free version, use Chinese dried mushrooms or fresh portabellos or shitakes. Or mix and match.

Shrimp
Pumpkin savory cake
The original recipe uses dried shrimp but I prefer my shrimp sans coloring and preservatives so I bought cooked pink shrimp instead.

Preserved vegetables
Pumpkin savory cake
Rhoda Yee’s recipe calls for chung choy, pickled turnip. I haven’t been able to find it at the Asian market but according to Cathy it comes rolled up like a ball of twine. I used Tianjin preserved vegetables (also called tong cai or winter vegetables) instead, which is pickled cabbage. A preserved vegetable is a preserved vegetable right?

Sometimes Tianjin preserved vegetables are sold in a cute little clay crock.

If you are wary of preserved vegetables, leave them out but add a little salt or soy sauce to the batter because the vegetables add saltiness.

Pumpkin
Pumpkin savory cake
To make taro cake, you’d have to buy fresh or frozen taro and cook it with broth to soften. While I’m a from-scratch cook at heart, ever since Isaac was born, all my good intentions have gone out the window. Thus, I am thankful for the convenience of canned pumpkin puree. I used Trader Joe’s organic pumpkin puree. For some inexplicable reason, the word “organic” always reassures me.

Flour
Pumpkin savory cake
Traditionally, taro cake is made from rice flour and wheat starch. However, rice flour has only become more available in recent years. So when Rhoda Yee was developing her recipe for taro cake in the mid-1970’s, she probably discovered that cake flour (Swans Down brand, she says, has no substitute!) produced a cake with a texture closest to traditional taro cake. Made from soft wheat flour, cake flour gives a delicate, velvety texture, which is what taro cake is all about.

I used King Arthur cake flour which has fewer additives than Swans Down. To make your own, put 2 tablespoons of cornstarch in the bottom of a 1-cup measuring cup, then fill the cup with sifted, bleached, all-purpose flour (3/4 cup).

I hope you’ve gained an understanding of the ingredients that go into a Chinese savory cake. Now, let’s get cooking!

~~~

Savory Pumpkin Cake
Pumpkin savory cake

I’ve updated Cathy’s recipe using canned pumpkin and baked the cake in a water bath in the oven instead of steaming on the stovetop. The cake will turn out softer than the traditional rice recipe but it tastes pretty authentic with a touch of sweetness from the pumpkin. The only difference is the pieces won’t hold up to pan-frying. Savory pumpkin cake is delicious for breakfast or as a snack, or serve it as an unusual seasonal appetizer for your holiday party!

Time: 1-1/2 hours
Makes: 1 9-inch round cake

2/3 cup sliced Chinese sausage (2, 7-inch sausages) or a combination of ham, char siu or mushrooms
2 teaspoons
1/4 cup cooked pink shrimp
2 tablespoons Tianjin preserved vegetables or chung choy (pickled turnip)
1/3 cup green onions, chopped (save 1 tablespoon for garnish)
1/3 cup cilantro, chopped (save 1 tablespoon for garnish)
1/2 teaspoon five-spice powder
1/4 teaspoon white pepper
1 cup cake flour
1/3 cup chicken stock (homemade or low-sodium store-bought)
1 (15 oz) can pumpkin puree (1 3/4 cup)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

Place the sausage in a wide bowl and pour in 1/3 cup water. Cover to avoid splattering and microwave on medium-high for 2 minutes to render the fat. Drain the fat and mince the sausage into confetti-sized pieces.

In a large wok or skillet, heat the oil and stir-fry the sausage, shrimp, and preserved vegetables. Add the green onions and fry for 2 minutes before adding the cilantro. Sprinkle the five-spice powder and white pepper and mix well. Transfer to a plate and set aside.

In a medium bowl, mix the cake flour with the stock and pumpkin until smooth. The mixture will be a little lumpy. Add the meat mixture and stir to mix well. The batter’s consistency will resemble thick oatmeal.

Pour the batter into a lightly greased 9-inch metal cake pan (disposable is fine). Cover with foil and set the pan in a roasting pan. Pour water into the roasting pan until it reaches to about an inch up the cake pan to create a water bath.

Place the batter in the oven and bake for 45 minutes to 1 hour, or until the center is firm to the touch and a toothpick inserted comes out clean. The cake will still be soft.

Cover and refrigerate at least 4 hours, or preferably overnight, so that the cake will firm up. Or make ahead and freeze. Defrost in the fridge or microwave on low to defrost.

Let the cake sit out until it reaches room temperature. When ready to serve, run a knife along the edge of the cake to loosen sides. Cut the cake into 2-inch-wide strips and then on the diagonal into diamond-shaped pieces. Garnish with fried shallots, green onions and cilantro, and serve with hoisin sauce and chili sauce.

~~~

For those who would like a more traditional turnip or taro cake recipe:
Rhoda Yee’s original Taro Pudding Cake recipe

Grace Young’s Turnip Cake Recipe 

Daikon Radish Cake (Luo Bo Gao) recipe from Foodmayhem.com

Ingredient Spotlight: Shanghai Bok Choy

The many faces (and phases) of Shanghai bok choy

Doesn’t this vegetable look familiar? You can find it at just about every corner grocery store and you probably know it by another name: baby bok choy. In fact, its proper name is Shanghai bok choy or green stem bok choy.

True bok choy has snow-white stems and dark green leaves with ruffled edges. Bok choy sum (“sum” means “heart” in Cantonese signifying a younger plant) is almost identical in appearance except for its smaller size, lighter green leaves, and most distinctly, yellow flowers. Miniature bok choy sum is also available and, confusingly, is sometimes called baby bok choy too.

Shanghai bok choy has flatter stems than regular bok choy and its spoonlike leaves and stems are the same shade of light green. While it grows to about a foot or more, it is usually harvested young (6 inches or less) and sold in the “baby” stage, hence the popular label baby bok choy.

In a perfect world (and to avoid confusion), I would label the vegetables more accurately—baby bok choy sum and baby Shanghai bok choy. But, here we are …

How to buy and store: Buy tightly closed buds without yellowing leaves and store in the crisper for up to 5 days.

How to prepare: To cook Shanghai bok choy whole, strip the outer layers to reveal the tender heart. Stir fry or steam them whole (or halved) and serve them as an accompaniment to a braised dish such as pork braised in soy sauce (lo bak)Teochew braised duck, or thit kho.

Season: Shanghai bok choy is available year-round

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Stir-fried Shanghai Baby Bok Choy

Here’s how I like to cook Shanghai bok choy. It’s not a recipe per se but more of a technique which you can use to stir fry any vegetable of your choice, from pea shoots to choy sum to Chinese cabbage.

Time: 10 minutes
Serves: 2-4 depending on whether it’s a side dish or main

1 bunch Shanghai baby bok choy (about a pound or 4 to 5 plants)
1 tablespoon canola oil
3 garlic cloves, minced
A few sprinkles of salt to taste (or soy sauce/ fish sauce)
Drizzle of sesame oil (optional)

Cut about 1/4-inch off the bottom of each plant. Rinse thoroughly to get rid of the dirt in between the stems.

Cut them crosswise into 1-inch pieces, keeping the stems and leaves separate.

Preheat a 14-inch wok or 12-inch skillet over medium heat. Swirl in the oil and wait until it starts to shimmer. Add the garlic and stir for 15 to 30 seconds until fragrant.

Raise the heat to medium-high, throw in the stems and toss to coat with oil and garlic for about 1 minute. Add the leaves and keep tossing until the leaves are just wilted.

Add the salt and stir until some liquid has been released and the vegetables are tender and bright green, another 1 to 2 minutes. If you’d like a little more “sauce,” add a tablespoon, or two, of water.

Drizzle with sesame oil, if desired, and serve immediately.

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If you’d like more information on bok choy or other Asian vegetables on the go, please consider purchasing the Asian Ingredients 101 iPhone app.

Sardines wrapped in a sustainable (and baby-friendly) package

My (baby’s) heart beats for sardines

Pregnancy does strange things to you. Let me count the ways:

1. Baby brain (If you thought morning-after hangovers were bad … and you have it ALL the time).
2. Multiple aches and pains (Everywhere! Even in places you didn’t know existed).
3. Food cravings (Yes, pregnant women really do love pickles, but not always with ice cream)
4. Heartburn (Horrible, horrible, and especially if you’ve never had it before).
5. Frequent visits to the potty (Self explanatory).

One of the biggest changes I’ve experienced, especially as a food writer, is a diet that has gone topsy-turvy. On some days, even post-morning sickness, I don’t feel like cooking or eating.

Then, there are all the food no-no’s. No rare steak. No sashimi. No foie gras. No alcohol. No soft cheeses. No deep sea fish. Granted most of these items are not a huge part of my diet, I am an avid fish eater. I’ve long been aware of sustainable choices but since getting pregnant I have been more careful about what fish I consume especially since one of the biggest concerns is seafood contaminants.

Large predatory fish—like swordfish and shark—end up with the most toxins (such as mercury, which affects brain function and development), industrial chemicals (PCBs and dioxins) and pesticides (DDT). These toxins usually originate on land and find their way into the smallest plants and animals at the bottom of the ocean food chain. As smaller species are eaten by larger ones, contaminants are concentrated and accumulated.

I really wanted to participate in this year’s Teach a Man to Fish event (sorry Jacqueline!) but I was a bad, bad girl and missed the deadline.

However, I figured it’s never too late to expound on the pros of sustainable seafood.

We all know about the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch List right? In October, they released a “Super Green” list of seafood that’s good for human health and doesn’t harm the oceans. The Super Green list highlights products that are currently on the Seafood Watch “Best Choices” (green) list, are low in environmental contaminants and are good sources of long-chain omega-3 fatty acids. A triple whammy!

An unusual find–canned sardines packed not in tomato sauce but in olive oil with an assortment of other goodies

On this list is a childhood favorite of mine—sardines. Fresh sardines are not the easiest to come by (especially in Asia) so the next best thing is canned sardines. Now don’t scoff at me please, but I loved canned sardines as a child. My mom would simply sauté them in the tomato sauce they were nestled in and serve it over rice.

As a matter of fact, one of my first “cooking” lessons during home economics class in secondary school was how to make sardine sandwiches. I can still remember my teacher, Ms. Judy Loh, eagerly opening a distinctive red oval can to reveal the headless specimens packed tightly within. (A little about Ms. Loh: she had super-short hair shaved close to her head but she still managed to look somewhat feminine with a fringe that fell over her forehead in wispy curls. Did I mention she also taught physical education? Go figure!)

Next, she lifted the sardines out of the can, into a bowl and mashed them with a fork, mixing in the tomato sauce from the can. “Don’t worry about removing the bones,” she said. “They’re soft enough to chew and full of calcium!”As a 14-year-old, you’re skeptical about everything so I wasn’t quite convinced. Then again, you also never argued with your teacher when you’re in Catholic school.

Ms. Loh threw in some chopped bird chillies and shallots and mixed everything together into a paste. She scooped the mixture onto white bread, spread it out evenly and cut the sandwiches into dainty fingers for us to try. Honestly, it wasn’t bad!

Well, Ms. Loh was right about the goodness of sardines. A 3 ounce serving of the canned variety (with bones) has 38% of the daily value of calcium, PLUS as a rare natural food source of Vitamin D, that same 3 ounce serving has well over 100% of the recommended daily intake. Did I mention that it also contains omega-3 fatty acids good for heart/eye/brain function and health?

In addition, sardines are low on the food chain and reproduce rapidly, making them a very sustainable option. Being low on the food chain also means being low in mercury and PCBs, which makes sardines an especially smart choice for pregnant women like me. I can meet my recommended fish intake goals to support brain development in my little bundle of gestating joy.

Sardine puffs–a childhood favorite

One fine day a few weeks ago, being a pregnant woman, I was struck by a craving for sardines. As luck would have it, I had just received a copy of Andrea Nguyen’s new cookbook Asian Dumplings: Mastering Gyoza, Spring Rolls, Samosas, and More Mastering Gyoza, Spring Rolls, Samosas, and More. And guess what I spied flipping through it? A recipe for sardine puffs, a favorite in Singapore and Malaysia where it is known tenderly as “karipap.”

I was up for a challenge so I also made Andrea’s Chinese flaky pastry dough to go with the sardine filling. The pastry came out with delightful concentric swirly patterns (hence the name “karipap pusing”) that just fell apart into delicate shards in your mouth (and elsewhere).

Can you see the concentric circles in the cross-section of the dough?

For the exact recipe for the Chinese flaky pastry, do pick up a copy of Asian Dumplings. And for additional tips on making all manner of dumplings, everything from pot stickers, to soup dumplings, to wontons, visit Andrea’s helpful website AsianDumplingTips.com.

Karipap sardine all bundled up and ready to go into the fryer

Sardine Puffs (Karipap Sardine)

Instead of the usual sardines in tomato sauce, I found a Portuguese brand that came packed in pure olive oil with bits of chili pepper, carrot, cucumber and even a laurel leaf. This recipe, adapted from Andrea’s, uses store-bought puff pastry. Yes, I give you full permission to be lazy and head to the supermarket. For the Chinese flaky pastry recipe, please pick up a copy of Asian Dumplings. This filling tastes great on toast too!

Filling:
2 (3 oz) cans sardines in pure olive oil
1/4 teaspoon sugar
1 pinch of salt
1 tablespoon of ketchup
1 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon olive oil (from the can)
1/4 cup chopped shallot or red onion
1 hardboiled egg, chopped
1 pound store-bought puff pastry, thawed

Remove the sardines from the can and reserve the oil. Use a fork to split open each sardine and lift off the spine bones. Set the flesh aside and discard the bones (or not, just like Ms. Loh advises).

In a small bowl, mix the sugar, salt, ketchup and lemon juice together. Set aside.

Heat the oil in a medium skillet and add the shallot and cook for about 3 minutes or until translucent and fragrant. Add the sauce and cook stirring for about 2 minutes. Add the sardines, stirring to break up the flesh. Transfer to a bowl and stir in the egg. Cool completely.

Preheat the oven according to package directions.

Roll out a pastry sheet to about 10 inches square and cut into four 5-inch squares.

Fill each square with 1 to 1½ tablespoons sardine filling. Moisten adjoining edges with water and fold over to form a triangle and press closed. Use the tines of a fork to press on the edges to seal well and place on a prepared baking sheet.

Repeat until all the pastry or filling is used up. Brush with beaten egg and bake for about 15 minutes, until golden brown.

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