Iced Avocado and Coffee Drink (Es Alpukat)

201/365 - Avocado
Avocado (Photo credit: djwtwo)

In the U.S., avocados are most often eaten in savory dishes, sliced to adorn salads or made into guacamole.

As a little girl, my mum would make us a very simple snack–she’d halve an avocado, drizzle some palm sugar syrup (made by melting gula jawa a.k.a.  arenga palm sugar) over each half and hand us a spoon. I’d scoop out the flesh bit by little bit, making sure I got a good dose of caramelly syrup with each spoonful of creamy avocado.

I still eat avocados this way once in awhile but I’m more likely to make es alpukat, a light and refreshing that satisfies my craving for something sweet on a hot summer day.  Es alpukat (literally iced avocado) is ubiquitous in Indonesia, available at just about any restaurant or at a street-side stall, but it’s easy enough to make at home.

The name makes no mention of it but coffee is usually added to the drink. You can always leave it out or substitute with chocolate milk.

What’s your favorite way with avocados?

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Iced Avocado and Coffee Drink (Es Alpukat)

avocado drink3

Es Alpukat is the perfect dessert if you are following a heart-healthy diet. The rich, creamy flesh of avocado gives this drink richness and body but it contains “good” mono and polyunsaturated fats, is naturally cholesterol-free as well as being chock full of nutrients like Vitamin E and folate. So you can drink up guilt-free. The Indonesian way is to serve it over ice and scoop out the avocado chunks with a spoon, but you can blend it like a milkshake–and add ice cream!– if you prefer.

Makes: 4 (1-cup) servings

1 large ripe Hass avocado
1/3 cup espresso plus 2/3 cup water, or 1 cup strong brewed coffee, cooled
2 cups whole or 2 percent milk
1/4 cup Pandan Syrup (see below)
Chocolate syrup (optional)
Ice cubes

Using a tablespoon, scoop avocado flesh in bite-sized chunks  into a medium bowl. Add the remaining ingredients and mix well. Refrigerate until ready to serve.

To serve, squirt the chocolate syrup to coat the insides of 4 tall, clear glasses. Divide the mixture equally. Add ice cubes and sprinkle with ground coffee  just before serving.

Pandan Syrup

All this is is a rich simple syrup steeped with pandan leaves with a 2:1 sugar-to-water ratio so you can adjust amounts according to your needs. Use one pandan leaf for every cup of sugar. The cooled syrup can be bottled and keeps in the refrigerator for up to two months. You can use the syrup to sweeten teas and other mixed drinks too.

Time: 15 minutes
Makes: 2-1/2 cups

2 cups sugar
1 cup water
2 pandan leaves, trimmed and tied into separate knots

In a medium (2-quart) saucepan, combine all ingredients and bring to a boil. Lower the heat and stir continuously until the sugar dissolves, about 8 to 10 minutes.

Remove the leaves and pour the syrup into a jar or bottle. Refrigerate for up to two months.

Mango-Banana Bread–A Perfect Post-Nap Treat

mango chunks
Mango chunks add tropical delight to a simple banana bread recipe

My parents aren’t natural storytellers (perhaps I should ask more often?) but every once in awhile a gem from their childhood pops up. Like this one story my mum recently told me: Ma remembers always waking up from her afternoon naps to the intoxicating aroma of freshly-baked-or-cooked something wafting in from the kitchen. To get her and her siblings to fall asleep with the least amount of fuss, Popo, her mother and my grandmother, would promise her and her siblings a treat when they woke up. The post-nap delights ranged from roti bakso (savory meat-filled buns) to kue mangkok (“cup”cakes), and all were delectable.

While Ma and my uncle and aunts wriggled restlessly in their beds anticipating what lay in wait for them when they woke up, I envision Popo (whom I only know from photos) hard at work in her tropical kitchen. As she rolled and flattened soft balls of dough, she’d occasionally wipe sweat from her brow with a hanky she stuffed into her bra strap. Taking a teaspoon in hand, she’d scoop a mixture of pork, candied winter melon, and green onions into the middle of each dough disc. Gently, she’d bring the dough edges together and wrap it up into a neat oval package as she listened for rogue sounds coming from the children’s bedroom.

When Ma and her siblings woke up in a couple of hours, the buns would be out of the oven and ready to be grabbed by little hands and devoured with squeals of delight.

All this I see in the sepia tones of my mind’s eye, imagining what my mom’s childhood was like and what Popo was like.

Inspired by this perfect anecdote, I decided to recreate this experience for my son with my own post-nap treat.

One Tuesday afternoon after Isaac goes down for his nap, I busy myself in the kitchen. I want to bake banana bread but I only had two bananas (three at first but one was so ripe it fell splat on the floor when I accidentally dropped it). Desperation incites innovation and digging around my kitchen, I discover two bright yellow mangoes, ripe and ready to eat, in my fridge.

Bananas and mangoes are both tropical, I convince myself, they’ll couple very well in a quick bread recipe!

mango
The easiest way to peel and chop a mango is to first slice off the flesh, skin and all, on either side of and as close as possible to the seed. Holding the skin-side down in one hand, cut a grid into the flesh without slicing through the skin. Then turn the skin inside out and pop the cubes off the skin.

As I prepare all the ingredients, I hear a squawk. My heart sinks, it’s been barely 30 minutes since Isaac went down! Sure enough, the little guy emerges from his room, his disheveled hair in a post-nap Mohawk. I panick for two seconds before realizing, wait, he can help me bake! All kids love to measure ingredients and mix batter don’t they?

Isaac has never really shown much interest in helping me in the kitchen and I’ve never forced him. But this time, I drag his stool into the kitchen and try and talk up the mother-and-son baking experience.

“This is going to be so much fun! You can measure the sugar, flour and butter, and mix everything together. Come help mommy in the kitchen.”

“I don’t want to. I want to watch TV!”

“But baking is so much fun! Don’t’ you want to help mommy?”

“I don’t want to! I want to watch TV!”

A few volleys back and forth ending with a promise of “Thomas the Tank Engine” later, Isaac steps up onto his stool. He starts by scooping sugar into the mixing bowl. Then he helps me add the butter and proceeds to “cream” the mixture with a wooden spoon. After two or three turns around the bowl, he declares, “I’m done!” He hops off the stool and goes off to play with his airplanes.

Isaac mixing
Isaac took some time out from the laborious task of creaming butter and sugar to smile, or rather grin, for the camera

Nothing I can say henceforth can cajole him back into the kitchen.

Feeling dejected, I finish mixing the batter and shove the loaf pan into the oven.

As I sit down to wait for the bread to bake, I realize how silly I was for getting frustrated. Did I really expect everything to go according plan? Hah, it was definitely wishful thinking on my part.

If there’s one important lesson to take away from raising a toddler, it’s that you should always expect the unexpected. It builds character and encourages a flexible outlook on life. And sometimes results in a new favorite recipe!

~~~

Mango-Banana Bread

mango banana bread vertical

Simple and straightforward, the original banana bread recipe came to me on the back of a bag of flour many years ago when I was in college. It’s been my go-to recipe ever since. Over the years, I’ve mixed it up a little: varying the ratio of white to brown sugar, using a combo of all-purpose and whole wheat flour (I add some applesauce or yogurt to moisten it up), substituting butter for shortening, etc., etc. And the sweet smelling loaf—crusted in a shiny mahogany veneer–comes out lovely every time!

Time: 10 minutes prep, 50 minutes baking
Makes: 1 loaf

3/4 cup granulated raw sugar or brown sugar (I really like Wholesome Sweeteners brand)
1/3 cup butter, softened
2 eggs at room temperature
1-3/4 cup all purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 very ripe honey (Altaufo) mango, peeled, seeded, chopped and mashed (about 1 cup)
2 large bananas, mashed

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Grease a 9 x 5 x 3-inch loaf pan.

In a medium mixing bowl, cream the sugar and butter with a wooden spoon. Add the eggs and beat well.

Sift flour, baking powder and soda and salt and add to the creamed mixture. Stir in the mango and banana and mix until just blended. It will be lumpy but don’t fret.

Pour the batter into the greased pan and bake for 50 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into the middle comes out clean. Cool in the tin for about 10 minutes before turning the loaf onto a wire rack to cool completely before slicing (if you can wait!).

~~~

Too Hot To Cook: An Almost No-Cook Rice Recipe

Help! I’ve turned into my mother!

As much as I love my mum, I’ve lived in fear that our bloodlines run so deep I was bound to inherit some of her “quirky” (yes, that’s a diplomatic term) traits sooner or later.

While I’ve managed to dodge Ma’s penchant for sucking in her breath every time the car brakes (an unfortunate habit learned over decades of being in the passenger seat while my dad is driving), or haggling with poverty-stricken market vendors in developing countries over 10 cents or some such paltry sum (seriously, my heart breaks every time I witness this injustice), like her, I am now a perpetual rice-eater.

No matter how much protein or how many potatoes I consume, if I don’t eat rice, I’m just not satisfied. Not to mention, my belly starts rumbling barely an hour later.

Growing up, hot and fluffy rice took pride of place in the center of the dinner table, forming the blank canvas of my childhood palate. Plain white rice, usually jasmine, would be embellished by a stir-fry of bok choy and garlic, and turmeric fried chicken or spicy beef curry. The next day, any leftover rice was transformed into fried rice or thick rice porridge for breakfast.

Granted this rice-eating habit has followed me into adulthood, but when days are pushing 80 or 90 degrees, the last place I want to be is in a smoldering hot kitchen.

And so began my quest for no-cook — or as close to it as one can possibly get — rice recipes.

I’ve been inspired by visits to farmers’ markets, my favorite cookbook authors, and by experimenting with creative riffs on Asian favorites. The results were spectacular: a mound of rice studded with assorted seasonal vegetables, like gems, and seasoned with my favorite vinaigrette du jour; no-cook “fried” rice using the same ingredients but in different guises — grated carrots, shredded Chinese cabbage and crumbled hard-cooked eggs tossed with rice; rice cakes dipped in wasabi dressing, and the list goes on.

In the end, I’ve discovered several “out-of-the-wok” rice recipes to add to my repertoire, often saving the day when the pool, rather than the stove, beckoned.

Thank you, Ma, I owe you for this one!

~~~

Harvest Red Rice Salad

ricesalad-s4

I’ve grown to love the reddish-brown hue of Thai red rice, some grains with the bran rubbed off to reveal the white beneath. The needle-thin grains are pretty to look at and have a pleasing chewy, nutty flavor. Thai red rice is unmilled (like brown rice) and takes longer to cook than polished rice like jasmine. However, because the grains are slender, they cook more quickly than other unmilled rices and use less water. Use a heavy-bottomed pot with a tight-fitting lid to ensure the steam is retained in the pot during cooking. One cup raw rice yields about 3 cups cooked rice. Measurements and times vary according to rice type, so follow the package directions. Jasmine rice takes 15 to 18 minutes. Find red rice at Asian markets or specialty markets, or substitute brown rice.

Makes: 4 salad servings, or 2 light lunch servings

1 cup Thai red rice
1 1/2 cups chicken stock or water
1/3 cup canola oil
1/4 cup fresh lime or lemon juice (about 2 large limes or 1 lemon)
2 tablespoons soy sauce
1 heaping tablespoon honey
1 cucumber, peeled and chopped
2 green onions, using green parts only, chopped
1/2 green or red bell pepper, chopped (1/2 cup)
1/4 small red onion, finely chopped (1/4 cup)
1 cup cherry tomatoes, halved
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Wash the rice well and drain. In a heavy-bottomed pot, combine the rice and stock. Bring to a boil over high heat and let boil for 1 minute. Stir the rice to prevent sticking. Cover the pot and reduce the heat to the lowest possible setting and simmer until all the liquid has been absorbed and the rice is tender, about 30 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat and let stand covered for 10 to 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, whirl the canola oil, lime juice, soy sauce and honey in a blender until smooth to make the vinaigrette.

When done, fluff the rice with a fork and combine the rice and vegetables in a large bowl. Add the vinaigrette and stir to combine. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Let the salad sit at room temperature for at least 30 minutes before serving, or refrigerate for later.

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This post is part of the monthly #Let’s Lunch blogger potluck. For more Let’s Lunch “Too Hot to Cook” posts, follow #LetsLunch on Twitter or visit my fellow bloggers below:

Lucy’s “The Girl in a Hat Goes on a Picnic” at A Cook and Her Books.

Monica’s Peanut Salad at A Life of Spice

Lisa’s Aperol Spritz Granita at Monday Morning Cooking Club

Cheryl’s Mango-Key Lime Pie at A Tiger in the Kitchen

Linda’s Escape from San Francisco Picnic at Spicebox Travels

Egg Rolls and Gold Bars

The Lunar New Year celebration lasts 15 days so there’s still plenty of time to eat your fill of lucky and auspicious foods for a prosperous year ahead.

egg rolls uncooked
Freshly wrapped egg rolls waiting to be fried

Egg rolls (also called fried spring rolls) are a favorite all year round but they’re considered an auspicious food during the new year because they resemble gold bars and thus symbolize wealth and prosperity!

If you’d like to see a demo of me rolling egg rolls as well as learn more about lucky new year foods, here’s a video of my segment on King5 TV’s New Day Northwest (click on the still below and you’ll be taken to the video):

King5

Here’s my recipe, enjoy!

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Fried Egg Rolls (蛋卷)

fried egg rolls

I’ve adapted this lumpia (Filipino egg rolls) recipe from The Asian Grandmothers Cookbook. I used carrots because in Mandarin, orange carrots are called hong luo bo (红萝卜), i.e. “red carrots,” and red symbolizes good fortune, while the yellow carrots are close enough to a golden hue and gold symbolizes wealth. Chinese chives are known as jiu cai (韭菜) which sounds like “forever vegetable,” and who doesn’t want a long life? Feel free to add or subtract whatever ingredients you’d like. Ground pork, glass noodles, cabbage, bamboo shoots, mushrooms, etc., are all great ingredients to add to the mix. The filling can be made ahead and stored in the refrigerator for up to 3 days.

Makes: about 25 egg rolls
Time: 1-1/2 hours

2 teaspoons salt, divided
1 pound skinless, boneless chicken thighs
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 medium onion, finely chopped (1 cup)
3 cloves garlic, minced (1 tablespoon)
3 medium orange and yellow carrots, shredded (1-1/2 cups)
1 cup (4 ounces) finely chopped green beans
1 stalk Chinese chives, finely chopped
2 teaspoons soy sauce
Freshly ground black pepper
1 package egg roll wrappers (usually 25 wrappers, click here for my favorite brand)
1 egg white, beaten, or water for sealing
3 cups (or as needed) vegetable oil for deep-frying
Sweet and Sour Sauce (recipe follows)

To make the filling, place the chicken in a medium saucepan and fill with water until the chicken is submerged by about an inch. Add 1 teaspoon of the salt and bring to a boil over high heat. When the water starts to boil, turn off the heat and cover. Let the chicken stand for 15 minutes. Test by cutting into a piece: it should not be pink. Let cool and shred the meat along the grain into tiny shards with your fingers, or chop into a confetti-sized dice. Reserve the stock for another use or discard.

In a small skillet, heat the 1 tablespoon oil over medium-high heat until it becomes runny and starts to shimmer. Add the onion and garlic and cook until the onion is soft and light golden, 4 to 5 minutes. Add the chicken, carrots, and green beans, and stir to mix. Add the soy sauce, remaining salt, and 1 teaspoon pepper (or to taste) and mix thoroughly. Add the Chinese chives and stir and cook until the mixture is heated through.

Allow the filling to cool completely.

To assemble the egg rolls, carefully peel one wrapper from the stack (cover the remaining wrappers with a damp cloth to keep them moist). Lay the wrapper on a dry work surface with one corner pointing toward you.) Place 2 tablespoons of filling just below the center line of the wrapper parallel to your body. Shape it into a mound 1 by 3 inches, leaving about 2½ inches on either side. Fold the corner closest to you over the filling and tuck it under snugly. Roll once, then fold the left and right sides in to form an envelope. Continue to roll the filling tightly into a fat tube until you reach the end of the wrapper. Before you reach the end, dab some egg white or water along the top edge to seal the egg roll. The egg roll should measure 4 to 5 inches in length and 1 to 1½ inches in diameter. Place on a plate or tray and cover with a damp towel or plastic wrap. Repeat with the remaining filling and wrappers.

Preheat the oven to 250 degrees F. Line a plate with paper towels. In a large wok, heavy skillet, or Dutch oven, heat the 3 cups oil over high heat until it reaches 350 degrees F on a deep-fry thermometer.

Reduce the heat to medium-high. Using tongs, gently lower the egg rolls into the oil one by one; fry in a batch of 5 or 6 until both sides are evenly golden brown, 1 to 2 minutes. Remove the egg rolls with a slotted spoon, shaking off excess oil, and drain on paper towels. Keep warm in the oven.

Bring the oil temperature back to 350 degrees F before frying the next batch. Repeat with the remaining egg rolls. Serve immediately with sweet and sour sauce.

Sweet and Sour Sauce
3 tablespoons rice or distilled white vinegar
2 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon ketchup
1 teaspoon soy sauce
2 teaspoons cornstarch dissolved in 1/4 cup water to form a slurry

In a small saucepan, bring the vinegar, sugar, ketchup, and soy sauce to a boil over medium heat. Stir the cornstarch slurry and add to the pan, stirring constantly until the sauce thickens, about 1 minute. Pour into a small bowl and serve with the egg rolls.

Some egg roll making tips (don’t heed at your own risk!):

  1. Keep your egg roll wrappers frozen and defrost in the refrigerator for an hour or two, or on the counter for 3o minutes.
  2. If your wrappers dry out, cover with a damp towel and microwave on medium for 10 seconds. They should soften up but work quickly before they dry out again and keep covered with a damp towel!
  3. Allow your filling to cool completely before wrapping your egg rolls. A warm filling may cause your wrapper to soften and tear, and your egg roll to fall apart.
  4. Don’t overfill your wrapper or #3 will happen.
  5. Make sure your oil is at the optimum temp before you start frying. Otherwise your egg rolls will come out soggy instead of crisp.
  6. When frying, don’t overcrowd your pan, otherwise #5 will happen.
  7. You can freeze unfried or fried egg rolls. Lay them out in a single layer on a cookie sheet and freeze them for about an hour. Then transfer them to a ziptop bag and freeze for up to three months.
  8. When ready to eat, deep-fry the frozen egg rolls (don’t defrost) for 2 to 3 minutes (pre-fried) or 5 to 7 minutes (unfried).
  9. To warm up fried egg rolls (that have been refrigerated or kept at room temp), preheat your oven to 325 degrees F and heat for 8 to 10 minutes, or until crisp.

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Here are some other dishes to help usher in a happy and prosperous new year:

Indonesian-Style Pineapple Tarts for Chinese New Year!

The snake may not be my favorite animal but I just learned a very interesting factoid about the Year of the Snake which starts this Sunday, February 10, 2013. Just as a snake sheds its skin, this is a good year for making dramatic transformations, whether it’s changing jobs, pursuing a lifelong dream, or discarding destructive relationships and negative influences in our lives.

Now, I actually have a new appreciation for this slithery reptile.

I don’t have any earth shattering changes in my life to share (although I did promise myself that this is the year I find direction for my writing), however, I will tell you about my favorite new year treat—pineapple tarts!

Pineapple tarts!!
Singapore-style pineapple tarts (Photo credit: chernwei)

Pineapple tarts and cookies are popular in Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia. And even Taiwan lays claim to a similar pineapple cake. They come in different shapes and sizes, flower shapes being favored in Singapore and Malaysia, whereas simple golf ball-shaped cookies are preferred in Indonesia.Taiwanese cakes, on the other hand, are square or rectangular. Unfortunately, these Asian-style pineapple tarts are not quite de rigueur in the U.S. but that might change!

pineapple cakes . 01
Taiwanese pineapple cakes (Photo credit: 7_70)

Like all other popular new year foods, there’s a reason why pineapple tarts are served in most Chinese households (in the above regions) during the “visiting” season, the first 15 days of the new year when it’s customary to visit family and friends.

The Mandarin word for pineapple is feng li (鳳梨) which means “phoenix pear,” or more commonly, huang li (黃梨), wong lai in Cantonese and ong lai in Hokkien (also Fukien). This means “yellow pear” and phonetically sounds like “good luck comes.” So eating this sweet cookie will bring good luck as well as sweetness in the upcoming year.

Pineapple
There’s a reason (or two) why pineapples are considered auspicious (Photo credit: Wolfharu)

Since moving to the U.S., I haven’t  indulged in pineapple tarts too often. But a few weeks ago, my mum offered me some kue nastar (the Indonesian name for them) her friend Linda had made. Oh … my!  Tante (Indonesian for auntie) Linda’s kue nastar are seriously the best I’ve tasted in a really long time—each cookie is a ball of soft, crumbly pastry encasing a golden orb of pineapple jam that achieves its mellow sweetness from good quality pineapples slow-cooked with just enough sugar.

I asked  my mum if Tante Linda would teach me how to make them. Mum made a quick phone call to her and I had an appointment in her kitchen the next week!

Tante Linda is from Jambi (it’s both the name of the province and town) on the Indonesian island of Sumatra. She’s proud to say that Jambi pineapples are the sweetest and most flavorful she’s ever tasted. Tante Linda loves her hometown pineapples so much that every time she goes home, she asks her sister to make and pack containers-full of pineapple filling for her to bring back to the U.S.. Making these pineapple cookies with the Jambi pineapple filling gives her a nostalgic taste of family and home.

ingredients
Dutch butter (brought back from Indonesia) in the red can which Tante Linda calls colloquially”Wijsman” (see ingredient list in the recipe below), is one of the ingredients she had laid out on the counter when I arrived at her home.

I must warn you that Tante Linda didn’t do much measuring when I baked with her, instead relying on her many years of experience and her sense of touch and feel. The recipe below comes from her sister who Tante Linda claims is the better baker.

I’ll be darned if her sister can bake pineapple cookies any lovelier than these!

~~~

Indonesian Pineapple Cookies (Kue Nastar)

kue nastar ready

Tante Linda takes quite a few liberties with this recipe but it’s the recipe she learned from, adding her own flourishes along the way. If you’d like to dress up these little beauties, you can push in a whole clove for a hat (they’ll look like tangerines!), or shower them with shredded cheese.

Makes: about 100 cookies
Time: 1-1/2 hours

500 grams margarine (2 cups, Tante Linda uses Imperial brand)
150 grams salted butter (2/3 cup, Tante Linda swears by H. J. Wijsman & Zonen Preserved Dutch Butter which she says makes the cookies fragrant and tasty, “wangi dan enak” )
4 egg yolks, plus 1 for glazing
100 grams sugar
600 to 700 grams (5 to 6 cups) all-purpose flour (Tante Linda uses Gold Medal brand)
4 to 5 tablepoons powdered milk (Tante Linda uses Dancow, a brand from Indonesia. I’ve also seen recipes with custard powder too)
Pineapple Filling (recipe below)

In a large mixing bowl, combine the butter, sugar and egg yolks. Using a hand mixer, mix on low speed for 5 to 7 minutes, until the mixture turns fluffy and pale yellow.

butter_sugar_eggs

Add the powdered milk and mix by hand for another minute or two until well incorporated.

powdered milk

Add the flour gradually into the mixture and mix with your hands until it forms a sticky pastry dough that’s a little drier than cookie dough but not as dry as bread dough. Tante Linda didn’t weigh the flour but kept adding more until the dough felt “right.” She likes hers soft, “empuk” so she used closer to 600 grams, but if you’d like a crispier pastry, feel free to use more flour (closer to 700 grams).

pouring in the flour

Pinch a piece of dough and roll it into a ball between your palms about the size of a marble (about ½-inch in diameter). Hold the ball in the palm of one hand and use your finger to flatten it into a circular disc 1-1/2 to 2 inches in diameter.

Scoop about ½ teaspoon of pineapple filling (or more!) into the middle of the disc and fold the dough up and around so that the ends meet. Pinch the dough to seal, trying to encase all the filling within. Don’t worry if some filling peeps out. Roll between your palms into an even ball slightly smaller than a golf ball and lay on an ungreased cookie sheet. Repeat until all the dough and filling are finished. You will need two cookie sheets.

waiting to be glazed

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees F.

Beat the remaining egg yolk in a small bowl and brush the tops of the cookies with a thick layer of yolk. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes or until shiny and golden, rotating the cookie sheets halfway for even browning.

glazing2

Scrape the cookies loose from the cookie sheet while they’re still warm. Cool on a cooling rack or on the sheets.

scraping cookies

Pineapple Filling

nastar filling

Tante Linda says that Jambi pineapples are very sweet and don’t require much sugar hence this recipe only calls for 3/4 cup sugar. Taste the mixture halfway and add more sugar if you’d like. Making the filling is quite a tedious process but you can make it up to a week ahead and refrigerate it. Or try using a slow cooker. A friend tried this method out with great success. You can confidently leave it alone to simmer (she said it took about 4 hours), checking on it only occasionally. You can also add cinnamon sticks or cloves to spice up the filling.

Time: 4 hours

3 ripe pineapples
150 grams (3/4 cup) sugar

Peel the pineapples and dig out the eyes. Cut into chunks or slices, discarding the core, and grate by hand (better) or use a food processor (you won’t get as much texture but it’s a whole lot easier!).

Combine the pineapple and sugar in a large, wide-mouthed pot and cook over a very low flame, stirring occasionally so it doesn’t stick to the bottom of the pot, for about 2 to 3 hours. Halfway through cooking, taste the pineapple filling and add more sugar if desired.

The filling is ready when all the liquid has evaporated, the color has transformed from bright yellow to dark ochre-almost brown, and has achieved the consistency of a very dense jam.

Let the filling cool completely before making the pineapple cookies or storing in an airtight container in the refrigerator for later.

~~~

Happy Year of the Snake and Gong Xi Fa Cai!

Ann Mah’s “Kitchen Chinese,” a Q+A, and Salt and Pepper Shrimp

Kitchen Chinese Ann Mah

Ann Mah’s debut novel, Kitchen Chinese: A Novel About Food, Family and Finding Yourself, has all the ingredients for a successful chick lit novel. It’s an easy, breezy read. It has a lovable heroine–Isabelle Lee–who has her flaws yet  emerges victorious. And it offers so much more, especially for Asian Americans who hardly see themselves reflected in mainstream literature. Plus, the book is chock full of mouthwatering descriptions of the regional cuisines Isabelle samples in Beijing, Shanghai, and beyond.

Isabelle leaves behind debris of an ex-boyfriend and a dead-end editorial job in New York for the bright lights of big city Beijing. She moves in with her high-powered attorney sister, Claire, who helps her land a job as dining editor for an expat magazine. True to formula (and just the way I like it!), Isabelle bounces between two irresistible men, all the while struggling with her identity as American yet Chinese.

With her knowledge of the culture and language limited only to what Ann terms “kitchen Chinese” (hence the title of the book), Isabelle finds her way in Beijing’s fast-paced society and reconnects with her roots with a touch of self-deprecating humor, warmth, and somewhat wide-eyed innocence.

I couldn’t put the book down for many reasons. It was smart, funny and overall, a very engaging read. Three things really struck me:

1. Isabelle, with all her insecurities and self-doubts (about her identity, talents, allure, etc.) was very much like me. I could really identify with her character and I deemed her my soul sister!

2. The smattering of Mandarin words (written in Romanized hanyu pinyin) used throughout the book encouraged me to pick up Mandarin again.

3. All the luscious descriptions of regional specialties like jianbing, mabo tofu and Peking duck made me so hungry I was enticed to either seek out recipes or call for takeout.

To give you a taste, I asked Ann to share a little bit about herself (do check out her blog) and her book and I hope you treat yourself or a friend to it. You can still order it in time for Christmas here!

Q+A with  Author Ann Mah

Ann-in-Paris KGL

 1. What inspired you to write this novel?

In 2003, my husband and I got married and a month later we moved from New York to Beijing. I gave up a job I loved in New York book publishing to become a diplomat’s wife. Initially, I was a little stunned — and I missed my job so much it felt like I’d amputated a limb — but slowly the local Chinese food ignited a spark to explore. This book grew out of those experiences.

2. You’ve admitted that Isabelle’s story is inspired by your own life. But how much is true to (your) life and how much is fiction? Did you embellish Isabelle’s character/life with elements you wish were present in your life?

Oh, of course! Isabelle is based loosely on my own experiences but ultimately I decided to write a novel because it allowed me to explore ideas of ethnicity and self-discovery more metaphorically. Isabelle is much braver than I am, especially when it comes to eating everything and traveling in the primitive Chinese countryside. And, unlike me, she’s lucky enough to have a sister.

3. You spent a year in Bologna, Italy on a James Beard Foundation scholarship, and after living in Paris for several years you are now working on a book about regional French cuisine. But you are ethnically Chinese and grew up eating Chinese food. How important was it for you to write this book and to spotlight China and Chinese cuisine?

I love Chinese food but in my Chinese-American home, I grew up eating it every day so I thought I knew everything about it. But when I got to China, I was shocked to discover an enormous landscape of regional cuisines — everything from numbing peppercorns to Chinese cheese — stuff wildly different from the food in my parents’ house. Food became the bridge that drew me into China. But the tale that burned inside of me was of a young American woman — who happens to be Chinese — living in Beijing. Food is the metaphor that allows the main character to make peace with her circumstances.

4. Growing up in Southern California, were you raised with strict Chinese traditions? Did living in China and/or the process of writing this book connect you to your culture? What are your reflections on both?

My father is ethnically Chinese but he was born in the States and as a result I had a very American childhood and grew up with a very American perspective. Living in China actually made me feel more American than Chinese because I felt more accepted by my compatriots, who understood that the conflict of outer appearance and inner identity. It also made me appreciate the struggles faced by my grandparents, who must have experienced the same fish-out-of-water challenges in 1920s California that I faced in 21st century Beijing. And, after leaving China, I have to say I missed Chinese food for the first time in my entire life. I still do.

5. You used to work in book publishing and made the transition to writing when you moved abroad. How did this decision come about and why focus on food?

I always secretly dreamed of being a writer but never had the gumption to go for it. Living overseas changed that — especially living in a place like Beijing, which pulsed with opportunity for someone young, energetic and educated in the West. I’ll always feel grateful to China for giving me a chance to realize a dream. As a young, semi-illiterate woman in Beijing, food was the bridge that drew me into China, the thing that made me eager to learn more about the culture and history. In fact, I’ve learned, it’s a pretty great way to explore the whole world.

6. Unlike many households, your dad did most of the cooking. Did you find this odd? Can you share a favorite recipe your dad taught you?

My dad grew up in central California, the son of Chinese immigrants who owned a Chinese restaurant. When he moved to North Carolina for his first job, he missed his mom’s food so much he taught himself how to cook it. I love to imagine him growing bitter melons and gailan (Chinese broccoli) — he even made his own tofu (once). Some of my earliest memories are of sitting on the counter while he chopped garlic; he remains one of my favorite cooking partners. For his legendary dinner parties, he always makes a dish of salt and pepper shrimp — they’re so delicious, they can make even the most squeamish of eaters start to suck shrimp shells.

**Question #7 has a spoiler so it’s after the recipe.

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Salt and Pepper Shrimp (Salad)

salt and pepper shrimp_blog

Ann learned to make this dish from her dad. She usually serves the shrimp as a salad with arugula or mixed greens tossed in balsamic vinegar, olive oil and sesame oil. I adapted the recipe a little, tweaking amounts as well substituting pine nuts for red bell pepper. I also chose to serve the shrimp as a main course on an undressed bed of shredded red lettuce.

Time: 30 minutes
Makes: 2 to 3 servings as part of a multi-course family meal

1/2 pound shrimp (about 20 31/40 shrimp), peeled, cleaned, and patted dry (*preferably fresh because frozen shrimp contains salt, and you may have to alter the amount of salt you use)
1-1/2 teaspoons salt-pepper-sugar mixture (recipe follows)
1 tablespoon cornstarch
2 tablespoons canola oil
1 plump garlic clove, minced
1 green onion, chopped
1/2 small red bell pepper, diced (about 1-1/2 tablespoons)
2 tablespoons dry sherry or white wine

Bed of shredded lettuce or mixed greens for serving

In a small bowl, toss the shrimp with the salt-pepper-sugar mixture and cornstarch until well coated.

Preheat a wok or large skillet. Swirl in the oil and heat over high heat until it starts to smoke. Add the shrimp and cook until they just turn pink (1 to 2 minutes on either side). Add the garlic, green onions, and red pepper and stir and cook until the garlic is fragrant, about 30 seconds.

Drizzle in just enough sherry to create a sauce that barely coats the prawns. Remove from the heat.

Place the shrimp on the bed of greens and serve with rice.

Salt-Pepper-Sugar Mixture

This is a master batch for your spice cabinet (about 6 batches). You can increase the quantities to make more and store it in a bottle. I used white pepper from the Asian store which in my opinion is spicier than black pepper. Feel free to adjust the ratio according to taste.

2 tablespoons ground black pepper or white pepper
1 tablespoon sea salt
1 tablespoon sugar

Combine all the seasonings in a small bottle or jar. Shake well and store for up to a month.

 

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**SPOILER ALERT—If you don’t want to know what happens in the end, stop reading now!**

7. This question is to satisfy my personal curiosity. I like that you left Charlie and Isabelle’s relationship open-ended. I get annoyed when authors feel they have to give their characters a happy-ever-after ending. Was this intentional?

Ha ha — well, yes, I wanted Charlie and Isabelle to have a chance to be together, but who knows what happens to them in the end? I like to think Isabelle stays in China for a good long while, unlike me. Maybe she is my döppelganger in that sense.

Recording Family Recipes

My mum recently showed me how to make ayam buah keluak (chicken cooked with black nuts), one of my favorite childhood dishes–it was much easier than I expected especially since the nuts are available already peeled and processed here in the U.S.

Since the launch of the paperback version of “The Asian Grandmothers Cookbook,” I’ve been doing book events and signings around town.

Rather than just talking about the book and the process of putting it together, I’d like to encourage everyone to emulate it and start recording their own family recipes for posterity. It’s no secret that I’m all for that!

To get you started, I came up with a list of tips. (Thanks to Emily Ho for some great ideas in her article on thekitchn.com).

  1. Don’t procrastinate! I can’t tell you how many people I’ve talked to have told me that their grandmother used to make this absolutely fabulous dish for them but they didn’t learn how to make it, their mom didn’t learn how to make it, and now that their grandma’s gone so’s the recipe. So don’t wait, do it today!
  2. Get organized. Before you start cooking, lay out all the ingredients on the kitchen table or counter and run through them together. Note them all down, together with the amounts (weight, cups, bundles). If possible, go shopping with grandma so you know what to look for and where it’s available. You’ll also pick up tips on selecting vegetables and meat. (Just don’t poke those peaches too hard!).
  3. Be prepared. When I cooked with a grandma, I brought my arsenal with me–measuring cups, measuring spoons, tape measure, timer, camera, notebook, and pen. I was always ready to pounce and intercept with cups and teaspoons before the cook could pour salt or soy sauce into the pot. You don’t have to be as anal, especially if you’re good at estimating. Just ask grandma to slow down so you can absorb what’s going on, and also so she can show you how many peppercorns are in her hand before she throws them in the pot. Jot down rough estimates like “sugar–about 1 tablespoon,” or “soy sauce–1 Chinese rice bowl.” You can translate everything into standard measurements later. In the end, the finite amounts don’t really matter because no matter how hard you try, no two cooks make the same dish exactly alike. Plus, you and your family will have your own preferences for how salty or sweet you like a dish.
  4. Video or audio record the cooking session. You won’t be distracted by trying to write everything down, and you can pay attention and enjoy the experience with grandma. Videos can also be useful for documenting steps or techniques, and they also serve as wonderful mementoes when loved ones are gone. And if you can get grandma to narrate the steps as she cooks, you can listen to the audio recording when recreating the dish on your own.
  5. Tag team. Have someone else record the video (this is a great sibling project), and ask them to zoom in when grandma is demonstrating a technique like caramelizing sugar or chopping lemongrass. This way, you can also be in the video cooking with your grandma. Or, your partner can take photos and you can take notes. It always helps to have two sets of eyes and ears!
  6. Taste as you go. Seasoned home cooks rely on their senses rather than standard measurements, having honed their taste buds, eyes, ears, and fingers to know what a dish is supposed to be like at different stages. When I cook(ed) with my mum, she would taste the dish at several different stages of cooking, and I’d taste right along with her. In addition to taste, try and learn other sensory cues. Don’t be afraid to ask how things are supposed to look, sound, smell, and feel at different stages of the recipe. Pay close attention and watch to see if grandma adjusted heat levels and cooking times based on these factors.
  7. Find out the story. The story behind a family recipe is just as important as the ingredients and technique. Ask grandma when she learned how to make the dish, and who taught her. Is it a special dish served during a holiday or a particular season of the year? What other dishes or beverages would she serve it with? Depending on the situation and the complexity of the dish, you can always sit down and do a separate interview instead of talking while cooking.
  8. Ask for feedback. Afterwards, make the dish on your own and ask for feedback. Does the texture feel right? Did you add so much cardamom that it overpowers the rest of the flavors in the dish? What suggestions does grandma have to improve it?
  9. Compile a family cookbook once you have enough recipes. It can be as simple as photocopied sheets in a binder, or you could go all out and produce a cookbook on a photo site like Shutterfly and blurb.com.

I can’t emphasize #1 enough so I hope you’ll start recording family recipes now. To encourage you further, I have 2 promo codes to give away for a blurb.com photo book (worth $40.95) so that you can create your very own family cookbook! All you have to do is leave a comment telling me what’s your favorite family recipe and why. **This contest ends October 1.

Or, you could come to one of my events in the Seattle area. I’ll be giving them out there as well.

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* I requested blurb.com promo codes for free photobooks to distribute at my events, as well as family cookbooks from Shutterfly and blurb.com to share with my audience as examples of what they can create. I am not compensated in any way for promoting their Web sites.