When my husband was deployed for one year last year, he was entitled to a two-week R&R (rest and relaxation) trip which meant the military would fly him anywhere in the world. Many choose to go home but we decided to entrust Isaac to the grandparents and rendezvous in Vietnam.
My trip from Seattle took about 17 hours. His, two days. But that’s beside the point.
Because this is meant to be a brief post–we are moving yet again, but at least it’s only across town this time!—I’ll get to the point. One of my favorite experiences on that trip was a cooking class at the Morning Glory Cooking School in the picturesque town of Hoi An along the central Vietnam coast. I wrote about it here.
And this gorgeous mango salad is testimony to it. Every time, I make it–and it’s quite often–I think of the blissful (and childless) two weeks my husband and I spent in Vietnam, lovers without a care in the world, taking comfort in each other and in the moment that was now.
The key to this vibrant salad is selecting a mango in the right stage of under-ripeness—you want mango slices that are slightly tart and still have some crunch (I don’t like them too sour though). Don’t focus on color as it’s not the best indicator of ripeness. Squeeze the mango gently and it should give ever so slightly but not too much. If it’s too squishy, the mango will be too sweet and mushy, and is better eaten out of hand. The breed of mango doesn’t matter as much–Ataulfo, Tommy Atkins, Kent, any of these will do.
Time: 20 minutes
Makes: 4 to 6 appetizer servings
1 medium (about 13 ounces) underripe mango
1 teaspoon chili paste
1 small clove garlic
2 teaspoons sugar (palm or white are fine)
2 teaspoons roasted sesame seeds
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 tablespoon lime juice (1 key lime)
1 teaspoon fish sauce
1 small onion, sliced and soaked in water to remove its bite (about 1 cup)
1 ½ cups Vietnamese mint (rau ram or laksa leaf) and mint leaves
2 tablespoons fried shallots
Peel the mango with a vegetable peeler or sharp paring knife. Hold the mango firmly down on the chopping board (or in one hand if you are comfortable) and use a paring knife to make vertical incisions down the mango from stem-end to tip, about half-an-inch apart. Do this on both sides of the seed.
With the vegetable peeler (or the nifty knife below), “peel” strips of mango away from you.
In a mortar and pestle, grind the chili paste and garlic together. Place the chili-garlic paste in a large bowl and add the sugar, 1 teaspoon roasted sesame seeds, vegetable oil, lime juice, and fish sauce. Mix well.
Add the shredded mango, onion, half the mint leaves and toss until the ingredients are well coated with dressing.
Turn onto a serving tray and garnish with remaining mint leaves, sesame seeds and fried shallots.
When I bake banana bread, I’m so eager to slice the end off and chomp down that barely five minutes passes from oven to mouth. And I have my red, sore fingers to prove it. Sweet and chewy on one side, and thick and crusty on the other, the ends are definitely prime real estate on a freshly-baked loaf of banana bread. Plus, with only two of them, they are all the more alluring!
But somehow the same doesn’t hold true for store-bought bread. I can never bring myself to eat spongy Oroweat ends or even the heel of a freshly-baked baguette (they scrape the roof of my mouth). And it’s not that I’m averse to crusts either. I eat them, especially since I don’t condone my toddler not eating them. I usually end up throwing the ends out which makes my conscience prickle with guilt. (Darn those starving African children.)
Well, my husband came up with one solution: strategically face the brown ends inward when making grilled cheese sandwiches. Brilliant no? I’ll happily eat it because I can’t t tell where the ends are! But grilled cheese sandwiches are my husband’s forte and he–ahem–doesn’t cook all that much.
Recently, I was struck by a memory. I recalled trays of stale bread, including the ends, left out in the sun to dry. No, they weren’t meant for the birds. They were destined to become breadcrumbs. At that time and place, you couldn’t buy breadcrumbs at the store and my mum made her own to coat her risoles and kroket. Once the bread slices were sufficiently dry, she would break them up and pound them in her giant stone mortar until they turned to a fine, crumbly dust.
My solution? Dry them out in the oven. I used Franz’s “Milk & Honey” bread which has a light, delicate crumb. I was hoping it would turn out like panko but no such luck. However, as far as bread crumbs go, they were great! And you get none of the unpronouceables, high fructose corn syrup, soy, dairy, goodness-knows what else that shouldn’t be in bread, that they put in in a can of store-bought breadcrumbs.
Start collecting those ends! I store them in the fridge or freezer until I have a good number of slices. Use any type of leftover or stale bread–baguettes, ciabatta, homemade. Different types of bread will give a different crumb so go ahead and experiment. I haven’t tried whole wheat yet so I”m not sure what the texture would be like. Perhaps you could report back? If you’d like, add some dried herbs–oregano, basil, tarragon. Store the breadcrumbs in an airtight container for up to 2 weeks in the refrigerator.
Time: 45 minutes (5 minutes active)
Arrange a rack in the middle of your oven. Preheat it to 250 degrees F.
Arrange your bread slices on a cookie sheet and place it on the middle rack.
Bake for 30 to 35 minutes, or until they are dry and brittle, flipping them halfway.
When they are done, pound them in a mortar or whizz them in a food processor until no big crumbs are left and/or they are the texture you want. I prefer using a mortar and pestle because I have better control of how fine the breadcrumbs turn out.
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 (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):
Here’s my recipe, enjoy!
Fried Egg Rolls (蛋卷)
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!):
Keep your egg roll wrappers frozen and defrost in the refrigerator for an hour or two, or on the counter for 3o minutes.
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!
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.
Don’t overfill your wrapper or #3 will happen.
Make sure your oil is at the optimum temp before you start frying. Otherwise your egg rolls will come out soggy instead of crisp.
When frying, don’t overcrowd your pan, otherwise #5 will happen.
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.
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).
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.
Here are some other dishes to help usher in a happy and prosperous new year:
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!
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!
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!).
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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?
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.
* 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.
In today’s uncertain economy, we’re all looking for ways to cut down on the monthly grocery bill.
One way I try is to reduce the dollar amount spent on meats, by far the most expensive ingredient in my bill. I do this in one of two ways: First off, I try to cook creative dishes that use less meat. Asian cuisine lends itself naturally to this style of cooking, as meat tends to play a supporting, not starring, role in many dishes. (For some global ideas, Almost Meatless:Recipes that are Better for You and the Planet is a great resource).
Or, I buy cheaper cuts of meat. We Asians have been practicing nose-to-tail, inside-out, eating for eons. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been enjoying (once) unpopular cuts such as pork belly or chicken thighs. However, formerly cheap cuts of meat are becoming more expensive, as evidenced by the pork belly which was going for $4.29/pound versus $3.59 for pork loin at my local Asian market!
Expensive cuts of meat tend to be leaner and more tender but you can still cook a great meal with a cut that costs less. I did a little snooping at Grand Mart, an Asian market chain in Alexandria, VA and came up with a list of prices for various cuts of meat. I also linked to some recipes you can try.
A few caveats, East Coast prices may be higher (please chime in here) and prices at an Asian market may not be on par with your neighborhood Safeway. Plus, the beef does not carry the USDA Choice or Prime labels.
Note that chuck steak is almost $1 more than chuck roast, and the only difference is that a blade has gone through a roast to make slices. That’s all that “steak” means, it still comes from the same part of the cow.
Another economical dish is Beef, Tomato and Green Pepper Stir-fry. This recipe uses only a pound of round steak and can feed 4 to 6 people at a meal with rice. You can also substitute sirloin steak or flap meat, a little pricier but again, you only need a pound.
In the West, white meat is favored for its leanness. Thus chicken breast and breast tenderloin are usually the priciest chicks in the cold case. Asian palates, however, prefer dark meat from the thigh or drumstick.
Overall, buying a whole chicken gives you best value for your money, especially if you learn how to cut it up into parts yourself (click here for a video tutorial). The whole chicken is usually one of the cheapest chicken “parts” by the pound. Substitute whole chicken for the duck in Teochew Braised Duck or try Chinese White Cut Chicken.
Pork shoulder, generally divided between the picnic roast and the Boston butt, are among the least expensive cuts of pork because they are tougher cuts of meat. The secret to getting them tender and flavorful is to braise them, a moist cooking method which breaks down the tough connective tissue. My favorite recipes for using pork shoulder include: Thit Kho (Vietnamese Caramelized Pork Belly), Lo Bak (Pork Braised in Soy Sauce), and Burmese Pork Curry.
Look out for sales and be sure to stock up when prices dip. Meat can be frozen for months.
Buy roast over steak (beef)
Utilize cheaper, tougher cuts (beef and pork) in dishes that use moist heat (braises) and slow cookers
Avoid precut pieces (chicken), especially boneless, skinless breasts. Instead, buy a whole chicken and learn how to cut it up (and use the bones for stock)
Buy ribs (beef and pork) that have a greater ratio of meat to fat. The fat will keep the meat moist while it cooks, but you don’t want to pay for excessive amounts of fat. To maximize the amount of meat you’re getting, look for fewer bones for the price because half the weight is bone
How do you save money on meat? If you have shopping tips or great recipes to share, do comment below!
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.
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.
The durian is one of my favorite fruits, although at 357 calories and 13g of fat per 1 cup serving, it isn’t exactly as nutritious or as good for you as say, an apple. Hence, I don’t have it very often.
Plus, I can’t finish an entire durian by myself, at least not anymore. When I was younger, I could never have enough. I always wished my dad would buy me an entire fruit to enjoy all by myself. How things have changed. Now, I need company and that company isn’t my husband, although he claims that he really isn’t a durian wuss (that’s his opinion , of course). I have to give him credit though, he has actually eaten two seeds worth of durian at one go, and without scrunching his face up into a still-life-in-origami.
So when my folks were visiting last week, we took a trip to an Asian market and bought me some durian.
In Southeast Asia, durian stalls are ubiquitous. And if you eat on-site, the durian seller will usually select his best specimens for you. Some places explicitly offer a money-back guarantee but most of the time you can try the fruit first and have the option to deny it.
Here in the U.S., you can only find durians at Asian markets where the durians come frozen whole or already popped from their shells and prepackaged in plastic containers. They are usually of the Thai Mornthong variety. My mom prefers durian-in-the-box (as I call the prepacked ones) because for one, there’s no need to open the durian up and risk poking yourself, and two, she says they are fresher and have a more full-bodied fragrance.
While we were at the market, I asked my dad how to choose a tasty durian at its peak. If the fruit is too ripe, the flesh may be overly bitter or have a taste that is too “alcohol-y.” Unripe, and the seeds will be covered in leathery, chewy flesh that is often tasteless. Here are some tips:
Look for slight irregularities in the shape of the fruit
Seek out thick thorns
Take a whiff. Assuming the odor doesn’t already put you off, learn to distinguish the smells. A docile “raw fruit” smell that is so mild you have to sniff several times means the fruit isn’t ripe; if the smell is overpowering even to a durian lover, then it is probably too ripe. With practice, you’ll be able to identify the just-right, sweet but not sickly sweet, fragrance of a perfect durian. Note: The previously-frozen whole fruits available in the U.S. have lost most of their pungency so this pointer may be moot.
I’m skeptical but it seems you can shake the durian to see if it’s ripe too. Read about it here.
Backing up a little to point #3 about smell, I don’t find the frozen durians available here in the U.S. very satisfying because of their lack of fragrance. To me, the fragrance and the flavor go hand-in-hand and without the latter, durian tastes bland and flat. That being said, if you want to give it a go, tasting a frozen durian may not be as much of a shock to your system as a fresh one.
In this video below, my mom demonstrates the technique for opening a durian. If you are not as brave as she is, do wear a thick glove on the hand that is not holding the knife.
P/s we later discovered a fifth pocket! So be sure to explore the entire fruit to find all the seeds.