“Many Grandmas'” Asian Pickles

Left to right: Popo, my mum on her 16th birthday, and my mum’s cousin

One of the most common questions I get asked about my cookbook is: “Which one’s your grandma?”

My sad reply: “She’s not in there.”

I didn’t really know either of my grandmothers. My paternal grandmother, whom I called Oma, (I wrote about her in this post) lived in Indonesia while we were growing up in Singapore.

When I was little, Oma would stay with us for extended visits once in awhile and we would make the one-hour flight over to Jakarta once or twice a year. But the language barrier and her ailing health prevented us from developing a deeper relationship.

When I was 24, Oma passed away after being bedridden for many years. I only learned her name then: Sicilianti.

Popo was the maternal grandmother I never knew. As a matter of fact, I just found out that her name was Helli. Popo died of breast cancer when I was very young, before I could make any memories of her.

What I do know is that Popo was a fabulous cook and thankfully her culinary legacy lives on in my mother. However, when I asked my mother for a specific recipe for this post, she told me Popo cooked traditional Indonesian dishes but everything was kira kira, estimated, without ukuran, or measurements.

Over the years, I’ve envied my friends who had grandmothers who cooked for them, regaled them with stories, and gave them presents (ding ding!).

By the powers that be, “The Asian Grandmothers Cookbook” project serendipitously fell into my lap. What became a labor of love also somehow completed me, filling this childhood void.

Today, I am thankful for all the surrogate grandmothers I met during this amazing journey. These women shared their incredible stories with me, many gave me sage advice in and out of the kitchen, and a few still check up on me once in a while.

Above all, they have given me the most meaningful gifts—their treasured recipes that I will continue to cook for my family and pass on to my children.

~~~

“Many Grandmas'” Asian Pickles

This month, my kind #LetsLunch buddies are posting about grandma recipes in honor of my paperback book launch last month. Unfortunately, I don’t have one of my grandmother’s recipes to share but I decided to come up with a “many grandmas'” quick pickle recipe.

I learned some great pickle tips while working on the book. Grandma Nellie taught me to randomly strip the cucumber of peel for a pretty finish, and to salt the vegetables to draw out moisture and make them crunchier (although I never found much difference). She also showed me how to feather the edges of the cucumber so the pieces can absorb the brine chop-chop. (Slicing the cucumber paper-thin as I’ve done below has the same effect). And Grandma Ling used maple syrup (instead of the prepared ginger syrup she was used to back home) to sweeten her brine. Yet another grandma massaged her carrot and daikon sticks before pouring the brine over.

So here is my quick pickle recipe lassoing tips, tricks and ideas learned from all the grandmas (including my mum who is grandma to my son) in my life together with my own adaptations.

Time: 15 minutes plus standing and brining
Makes: 1 pint

2 large seedless cucumbers (European or Persian cucumbers would be lovely too)
1 medium carrot
Salt
1/2 cup rice vinegar
1/2 cup water
1/4 cup sugar
2 tablespoons maple-flavored agave syrup (I used *Wholesome Sweeteners brand. You can also use maple syrup, regular agave syrup or honey, but start with less and adjust the amounts to taste)
1 clove garlic, smashed
Pinch crushed chipotle chilies

Halve each cucumber lengthwise. Place one half flat-side down on your cutting board, and using a vegetable peeler (a ‘Y’-peeler works great), slice the cucumber lengthwise into paper-thin strips. Repeat with the rest of the cucumbers.

Peel the carrot. Using a lemon zester, make nicks at equal intervals down the length of the carrot. Slice the carrot crosswise into thin slices. The slices will look like flowers.

Place the vegetables in a colander and toss with 1/2 teaspoon salt. Let them sit over the sink while you prepare the brine. (Skip this step if you’re in a hurry. I don’t find much different if you don’t salt the veggies first).

In a small bowl, mix together the vinegar, water, maple syrup, sugar, ¼ teaspoon salt, garlic, and chilies. Microwave on medium-high for 30 seconds. Stir the brine, making sure all the sugar has dissolved. Taste and adjust the seasonings if desired. Go read a chapter in a book while you let the brine cool.

Rinse the vegetables and shake dry. Toss them into the bowl with the brine, mix well and chill for at least one hour. Serve with fried rice, noodles, or munch on it throughout the day. This is a great snack if you’re pregnant too!

*I didn’t purchase the Wholesome Sweeteners maple-flavored agave syrup but I use it because I like it, not because it was free.

~~~

This post is  part of #LetsLunch, our monthly Twitter-inspired food bloggers potluck. This month it’s a tribute to grandmas and their recipes.

Don’t forget to check out the Let’s Lunchers’ creations below (the list will be constantly updated). And if you’d like to join Let’s Lunch, go to Twitter and post a message with the hashtag #LetsLunch.

Charissa‘s Apple, Pecan & Raisin Gluten-Free Depression Cake at Zest Bakery

Cheryl’s My Tanglin Ah-Ma’s Gambling Rice at A Tiger in the Kitchen

Emma‘s Irish, Polish & Korean Grandmothers’ Recipes at Dreaming of Pots & Pans

Jill‘s Stuffed Cabbage at Eating My Words

Karen‘s Semifreddo at GeoFooding

Linda‘s Taiwanese Oyster Omelet at Spicebox Travels

Lisa‘s Polish Potato Cake at Monday Morning Cooking Club

Lucy‘s Grandma Kitty’s Biscuits at A Cook and Her Books

Renee‘s Chinese Grandmother’s Tofu at My Kitchen And I

Indonesian Folk Songs and Spicy Eggplant (Terong Belado)

Like French ratatouille, the summery trio of eggplant, tomatoes, and red pepper make up the main ingredients in terong belado

Two weeks ago, I attended an event to celebrate Singapore’s 47th birthday that fell on August 9th.

By some strange turn of events, I was roped in to lead a few songs in the requisite sing-a-long sessions. We sang popular folk songs like “Burung Kakak Tua,” “Di Tanjung Katong,” and “Bengawan Solo,” all of which are popular across Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia.

While obvious to Indonesians (the Solo River runs through Central and Eastern Java), ownership of “Bengawan Solo” has always been disputed. To dispel all doubts, I did a quick Wikipidea search to reveal that the song was written in 1940 by Indonesian Gesang Martohartono. So there!

I grew up listening to this song in the traditional kroncong style, a popular folk style with Portuguese influences, that my parents played over and over and over again. To me, it sounds like a wailing cat in heat. However, when I looked it up on YouTube recently I found some more contemporary renditions.

Sung by Dutch-Indonesian Anneke Gronloh, this one has the distinctive uptempo beat of 1960’s tunes.

And I am in love with this jazzy version by Japanese songstress Lisa Ono.


Regrettably, I don’t focus on my Indonesian heritage often enough but it so happens Indonesia’s National Day (Hari Merdeka) is coming up on August 17. This year, Indonesia celebrates 67 years of independence from the Dutch who colonized them for 350 years.

So for this week’s post, I decided to spotlight a simple Indonesian dish that slips into the summer lineup effortlessly, its main ingredients comprising eggplant, tomatoes, and red bell pepper. Terong belado, or spicy eggplant, is usually eaten hot with rice. But for those who abhor eating hot foods in hot weather, I don’t see why you can’t eat it cold or at room temperature as a side (like antipasti!) for grilled meat or as a sandwich filling.

Terong, Indonesian for eggplant, cut into strips

In fact, the basic tomato-red pepper sauce is oh-so versatile. To make this dish with egg, called telor belado, fry whole hard-cooked eggs and toss them in the same sauce. Other ideas: drape the sauce over grilled meats, or stir it into potato salad.

If you’re still unsure about this beautiful dish redolent with the floral notes of kaffir lime leaves and the sassy sweetness of sun-ripened tomatoes, think of it as a ratatouille with a touch of the tropics.

~~~

Indonesian Spicy Eggplant (Terong Belado)

What luck! A glossy purple eggplant and a rainbow pint of cherry tomatoes miraculously appeared in my vegetable box this week. My mum prefers the long, slender Chinese eggplants as she thinks the western eggplant has skin that’s tough as leather. But I know better, she’s just used to them. Ah … we’re all creatures of habit.

Time: 30 minutes
Makes: 4 to 6 servings

1 large Western eggplant, or 3 Chinese eggplants
2 cloves garlic
2 Asian shallots, roughly chopped (1/3 cup)
1 large red bell pepper, roughly chopped
1 cup cherry tomatoes, halved, or 1 large tomato, chopped
3 tablespoons canola oil, divided
1 teaspoon sambal oelek, or to taste
2 kaffir lime leaves
1 small white or yellow onion, chopped (3/4 cup)
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon sugar

Cut the eggplant into 3- by-3/4-inch strips. Cut the eggplant lengthwise in half. Cut each half into 3 horizontal layers. Keep them stacked and slice down the vertical into 4 strips. Cut the strips into half crosswise.

Swirl 2 tablespoons of oil into a large skillet or wok. When the oil shimmers, add the eggplant and sauté until the skin wrinkles and the flesh turns translucent and browns, about 5 to 6 minutes. Or do as my mum does and steam it. (You can cover the eggplant with damp paper towels and microwave on high for 2 to 3 minutes.) Remove to a plate and set aside.

In a small food processor, pulse the garlic, shallots, bell pepper, and tomatoes briefly until they form a paste that looks like oatmeal. It will be a little watery but you want confetti sized bits to remain. We’re not making gazpacho here!

In the same skillet or wok, swirl in the last tablespoon of oil, and heat over high heat. When it shimmers, add the paste, sambal, and lime leaves. Fry until you can smell the red pepper and lime leaves, 4 to 5 minutes, and most of the juices have evaporated. Reduce the heat to medium, mix in the chopped onion, and simmer briefly. Add the salt and sugar and taste. The balance of flavors depends on how sweet your pepper and tomatoes are. Adjust if necessary.

Simmer for another 2 minutes until the onion is cooked but still crunchy. Add the eggplant strips and let them roll around in the sauce until well coated.

Serve hot with rice as part of a multi-course meal, or let cool to room temperature.

~~~

Egg Candy Omelet–A Father’s Day Tribute

Omelet + rice + sambal terasi = divine!

Like many traditional Asian husbands and fathers, my dad was the sole breadwinner in the family and worked long hours. While Dad was also a strong authority figure, I have fond memories of him running beside me gasping and grasping onto my bicycle frame as I wobbled my way along the bike path sans training wheels. And to this day, I can still recall how secure I felt when he wrapped his burly arms around me ever so tightly lest the crashing waves swept me off to sea.

One thing’s for sure, Dad hardly set foot in the kitchen; nope, he didn’t wash the dishes let alone cook! But he did break with routine, just once.

When I was six, my mom spent several days at the hospital after delivering my baby sister in a complicated C-section. In addition to moping around the house, we—Dad, my brother and I—ate dinner out everyday. Until one evening, Dad decided to attempt the one dish he had any inkling of putting together—Mom’s omelet.

I remember peering over the kitchen counter as Dad cracked eggs into a bowl, my eyes following the gelatinous streaks of egg white running down the sides. Then, he hacked through a bunch of green onions and stirred them into the eggs together with a handful of fried shallots. Lastly, he sprinkled in pepper and salt (or so I thought!)… a lot of it.

With this omelet, the whole is definitely greater–or in this case, tastier–than the sum of its parts.

The final outcome was hardly attractive. I shoved my nose into the yellow mound as close as I dared. I shrugged at the familiar eggy smell. At least it didn’t smell bad. With my fork, I prodded it gingerly as if tackling an anthill. While the squishy texture was a little off-putting, my rumbling tummy took precedence. I ate one bite and then another. The omelet was sweet. Not just subtly sweet, but candy sweet. I squealed and proceeded to wipe my plate so clean I could have stacked it with the clean plates and no one would’ve known any better! What six-year-old wouldn’t love what amounts to a plate full of sugary sweetness?

The little girl I was then probably didn’t realize that Dad’s attempt at replicating Mom’s omelet was a loving gesture to help us ease the pain of her absence. And it worked. I was so riled up after I didn’t remember to sulk.

When Mom came home, we crowded around her, cooing over baby Mo and raving about Dad’s “egg candy” omelet all in the same breath. Mom was quite bemused by our enthusiasm for Dad’s cooking but perhaps it was for the best that she didn’t ask him to make it again.

Dad was recently diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment and complains his memory is failing. When he came to visit the other day, I asked in jest, hoping to jog his memory, “Do you remember the time you made us omelets with lots and lots of sugar?” His eyes twinkled and his lips crinkled into a smile. “Of course, that’s the best way to make it! Heh…heh…heh…”

I guess some memories never fade.

Happy Fathers’ Day, Dad! I love you!

~~~

(Not My Dad’s) Omelet with Green Onions and Shallots

In my family, omelets have never been just a breakfast thing. My mum would tuck a ham omelet between slices of white bread for my school lunches, and oftentimes an omelet strewn with slices of Bombay onion was served as a side dish with meat and vegetables at dinner. My favorite way is to eat this simple omelet with green onions and fried shallots with rice. Dabbed with a little of my mom’s sambal terasi (shrimp chili paste), it’s a satisfying lunch for a lazy day!

3 eggs
1 tablespoon chopped green onions
1 tablespoon fried shallots
1 tablespoon water
Salt and pepper to taste
2 tablespoons vegetable oil for frying

Serves: 1 hungry person
Time: 10 minutes

Crack the eggs into a medium bowl and add the remaining ingredients except for the oil. Stir with a pair of chopsticks or a fork until barely frothy.

Heat a 14″ wok or 8” nonstick frying pan over medium-high heat and swirl in the oil. When the oil starts to shimmer, pour in the egg mixture. Cook for about 1 to 2 minutes, until the edges start to set, then break up the runny middle with a spatula (it will look like scrambled eggs but that’s ok) and allow the runny egg to seep underneath and cook.

Continue cooking until the top is almost completely set and the bottom is golden brown, another 1 to 2 minutes. Carefully lift one edge up and flip the omelet over.

Cook for another 1 to 2 minutes until the other side is golden brown and gently slide the omelet onto a plate. Serve immediately with jasmine rice and sambal of your choice.

~~~

This post is  part of #LetsLunch, our monthly Twitter-inspired food bloggers potluck. This month we pay tribute to fathers everywhere. 

Don’t forget to check out the Let’s Lunchers’ creations below. And if you’d like to join Let’s Lunch, go to Twitter and post a message with the hashtag #LetsLunch.

Charissa‘s Grilled Rib-Eye Steaks & Uncle Andy’s Chimichurri Sauce at Zest Bakery

Eleanor‘s Salmon Smoked Bok Choy Soup at Wok Star

Emma‘s Ham and Rice at Dreaming of Pots & Pans

Jill‘s Root Beer-Glazed Onion Dip at Eating My Words

Grace‘s Taste of Diversity at HapaMama

Linda‘s Sesame-Ginger Chicken Wings at Spice Box Travels

Lisa‘s Hot Sugary Lip-Smacking Jam Donuts at Monday Morning Cooking Club

Rashda‘s Beth Howard’s Apple Pie at Hot Curries & Cold Beer

Sonja‘s Spicy Smoked Paprika Lamb Shank Goulash at Foodnutzz

Vietnamese Sour Soup Flavored With Spring’s Secret Ingredient–Rhubarb

Vietnamese sour soup
A big bowl of canh ca plus rice makes for a satisfying spring supper. Do you notice the delicate blush of the broth from the rhubarb?

Rhubarb ranks way up there, together with ramps and fava beans, as a local vegetable I have absolutely no clue how to tackle.

In Singapore, where I didn’t eat my first fresh, fuzz-covered peach until I was 14 and imported smoked salmon cost $50 an ounce (okay so maybe not that much, but you get the point), there was nary a stalk of rhubarb in sight.

Every spring since I moved stateside, when a friend waxes lyrical about grandma’s strawberry-rhubarb pie, or my inbox overflows with emails linking to the latest and greatest rhubarb recipes, I’d be as elated as a ladybug chewing on a leaf. I simply didn’t get all the hoo-hah that swirled around spring’s first fruit (right, it’s a vegetable but many American cooks think of it as a fruit because it’s a common ingredient in dessert).

After all these years of being reticent about rhubarb, I wondered if I just might be missing out. I also wanted to truly enjoy the Pacific Northwest’s bounty, so I decided to reexamine my feelings toward the pie plant, so named because it’s most commonly used in pie. Of course I had to find a way to use it in an Asianesque preparation. No easy task, mind you.

Inspiration eventually came in the form of a Vietnamese sour soup (canh chua).

We were celebrating my mom’s birthday with about 20 (!) of her friends at a Vietnamese restaurant in Seattle’s Central District when a big, steaming bowl of soup was placed in front of me. I scooped up some of the crystal clear soup brimming with bright red tomatoes, brilliantly-green baby bok choy, bean sprouts as white and unblemished as a bride’s wedding dress, and of course, the requisite bac ha (aka taro stem) into a bowl. To be honest, I wasn’t expecting the broth to have that much flavor. I didn’t think a clear vegetable soup could! But the tamarind-soured soup was tempered by the right amount of sweetness, and the vegetables tasted as fresh as morning’s first dew. I shamelessly ate four bowls!

When I next saw rhubarb at the market, it all came together. Rhubarb is sour. Canh chua is sour. Why not bring them together?

I contemplated the best way to bring out rhubarb’s pucker power in my soup and decided to stirfry it with the aromatics before adding the rest of the ingredients. I liked the subtle tang of the soup as well as the resulting texture of the rhubarb. In a cool coincidence, Marvin at BurntLumpia devised a different method to extract rhubarb’s sourly delights for the Filipino sour soup, sinigang. Have a look. (We didn’t plan this, I swear!)

Perhaps next year when spring rolls around, I’ll have another stroke of genius, this time on the sweet side. At the very least, I’ll be joining the masses in cheering the joys of rhubarb.

If you have an idea for an Asian preparation using rhubarb (especially a sweet one), do leave a comment!

~~~

Vietnamese Sour Vegetable Soup with Rhubarb (Canh Chua Chay)

If you are unfamiliar with rhubarb (like I was!), do read this tutorial about handling and preparation. Be sure to remove all traces of the leaves as they contain toxins. The rhubarb imparts a tang that’s a little more coy than tamarind but you end up with a pretty soup tinged a delicate pink. Plus, the rhubarb develops a soft, spongy texture akin to bac ha (taro stem), the vegetable traditionally added to canh chua.

1 tablespoon vegetable oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 small onion, chopped (3/4 cup)
2 small stalks rhubarb, halved lengthwise and chopped into ¼-inch pieces (1 cup)
6 cups vegetable stock (I made mine using Harvest brand MSG-free vegetable bouillon)
2 large firm, ripe tomatoes, cut into eighths
1/2 small Chinese (napa) cabbage, sliced, green leaves and white stalks separated
1-1/2 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon fish sauce
8 ounces bean sprouts, tails snapped off
Chopped cilantro and green onions for garnish
Lemon wedges to serve (optional)

Time: 20 minutes
Makes: 4 to 6 servings as part of a multicourse family meal

Swirl the oil into a large pot and heat over medium heat until it shimmers. Add the garlic and onion and stir and cook until the onion turns translucent, 2 to 3 minutes.

Add the chopped rhubarb and stir and cook for 1 to 2 minutes, until the rhubarb pieces soften and turn a shade paler. Pour in the vegetable stock and bring to a boil.

Add the white cabbage stalks and cook for 1 to 2 minutes. Add the cabbage leaves and the tomatoes, and cook for another 1 to 2 minutes until the tomatoes soften a little and the cabbage is cooked but still crisp (or for however long you may like).

Stir in the sugar and the fish sauce. Taste and adjust the flavors as needed. Turn off the heat and add the bean sprouts, they will cook in the residual heat but still be crunchy. Sprinkle with cilantro and green onions with or without abandon.

Serve immediately on the table family style, or in individual bowls with steamed rice and another dish or two. Or just have a huge bowl of it with rice. You can also have lemon wedges on the table if you’d like to spritz some juice on your soup

~~~

If you have an idea for an Asian preparation using rhubarb (especially a sweet one), do leave a comment!

Hello? Seattle?

Seattle Center as night falls. Français : Le c...
The Space Needle and Seattle Center as night falls. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve been in a pseudo state of déjà-vu since we returned to Seattle two months ago.

Considering how long I’ve lived here (albeit off and on), I expected to ease into Seattle life as effortlessly as shimmying into a favorite pair of well-worn jeans.

Everything I love about this city still exists. The crisp, cool air that makes believe I’m living and breathing spearmint and wildflowers. Delectable dim sum at Jade Garden, including their pillowy-soft har gao (shrimp dumplings) and sweet and savory char siu sou (bbq pork pastry), for less than $15 per person. A spectacular view of snowcapped mountains in triplicate.

Then, there are the things I don’t love as much. A freeway that is a perpetual parking lot whether or not it’s rush hour. The slate-grey concrete slab that passes for sky and the 50-something temperatures … it’s April for goodness sake! (Although last weekend was fabulously sunshiney!)

Yet somehow, I don’t feel like I’m in my Seattle. My Seattle doesn’t have a toll bridge (paying to cross beautiful Lake Washington is just wrong!). My Seattle doesn’t have a dozen hip restaurants I’ve never been to. Add to that the friends who have moved, or drifted, away.

More likely, I’m feeling the pang of my husband’s absence. He was a huge part of what made Seattle my Seattle.

No sense pining. I figured the only way to remedy the situation was to be like a tourist and reacquaint myself with the city of my past.

A couple of Wednesdays ago, my friend Ivy and I paid a visit to new-to-me Melrose Market. Stepping into the series of conjoined buildings, I was transported to another time and place. What used to be a series of repair and rebuild shops for foreign autos is now a covered shopping arcade housing, among other (mostly food) retailers, Homegrown sustainable sandwiches, Taylor Shellfish Farms, The Calf and the Kid cheese shop, and Rain Shadow Meats.

At the back corner of the market sat a sweet little flower shop called Marigold and Mint. While the blooms were attractive enough, I ended buying a clutch of flowering kale rapini from Oxbow Farms for the one reason that they ping-ponged between being familiar and not. It was my first encounter with these greens but their thick purple stalks and serrated leaves reminded me of purple kale, and the yellow flower clusters, gai lan (Chinese broccoli). I already knew exactly what I was going to do with them. I was going to prepare them the same way I would gai lan.

kale rapini
These gorgeous greens belong as much in a floral bouquet as on your plate!

At home, I gently unraveled the bundle–careful to keep the fragile flowerheads from falling off–to find the inner stalks still glistening. Droplets of morning dew perhaps? I’d like to think so!

I steamed the vegetables in the microwave and plated them. A few lashings of oyster sauce, a drizzle of sesame oil, plus a flurry of fried shallots later, lunch was ready.

As I took a bittersweet, herbaceous bite of my first kale rapini, I decided that even though Seattle this time round feels different, that’s OK. If I can use tried and true techniques to tame novel ingredients, why not approach life in the same way, by weaving the comfort of the familiar into the foreignness of what’s new.

~~~

Steamed Kale Rapini with Oyster Sauce and Sesame Oil

This is more a method than a recipe as I don’t usually bother measuring and eyeball everything, as can you! If you prefer, use an asparagus steamer or simply a pot of boiling water to blanch the vegetables. Just don’t overcook them. Try this with broccolini, kale, or asparagus; the medley of bitter greens, salty-sweet oyster sauce, and nutty sesame oil cannot be beat.

Makes: 1 to 2 servings as part of a multicourse meal
Time: 10 minutes

2 tablespoons oyster sauce
8 ounces flowering kale rapini, trimmed
Sesame oil
Fried shallots

Take your oyster sauce out of the fridge (that’s where I keep mine) and let it stand at room temperature. It will warm up a little, making it easier to drizzle.

Wash the kale rapini and spread the stalks in a shallow dish. Sprinkle with about 2 tablespoons of water and cover with a damp paper towel or microwave food cover (I love these!).

Microwave on high for 2 to 3 minutes until the vegetables turn bright green and are tender to the bite. I like the stems crisp, not soft and floppy. Microwaves vary in power so keep microwaving in 30 second increments until the vegetables are cooked the way you like.

Arrange the vegetables on a large plate. Drizzle with oyster sauce, sesame oil and sprinkle with fried shallots. Serve with freshly steamed rice.

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: Tofu–No Fancy Equipment Necessary!

For the last three years, I had a pack of nigari and a wooden tofu press sitting in my kitchen cupboard. Unfortunately, the duo never saw any action as I didn’t get round to making tofu.

Now that we’ve moved across the country and most of our belongings—and 95 percent of my kitchen equipment!—are in storage, I found myself aching to make tofu. So on a cool, fallish Thursday morning with “Putting on the Ritz” blasting away (I just rediscovered my 80’s collection on the computer!), I set about making tofu for the first time, no nigari, no tofu press.

First things first, I surveyed my ingredients and my equipment.

I decided I didn’t want to make soymilk from scratch (read: my food processor is in storage). I ended up buying a half-gallon bottle of fresh soymilk from the Asian store. This was my choice because it was made by a local company and it contained only three ingredients: water, non-GMO soybeans and soy lecithin (now if only I could find a brand that uses organic soybeans). Compare this to the widely available brand, Silk, which has calcium carbonate, natural flavors, carageenan, etc., etc. I wanted as few additives as possible.

Part of my tofu-making arsenal

Nigari (a natural coagulant of magnesium chloride made by evaporating seawater) is the coagulant of choice in Japan, while the Chinese prefer gypsum (calcium sulfate). Both are sold specifically for making tofu and are available at specialty stores (here are some online sources). I went with what was more readily available. In the spirit of experimentation, I used three different coagulants: lemon juice, lime juice and Epsom salt.

As for equipment, I took out my stainless steel pot, a couple of wooden spoons, my recently-purchased cheesecloth (you can use a thin cotton non-terry dish towel or handkerchief), and I was ready to start tofu-making.

True to “no fancy equipment” form, I decided to convert an old plastic tofu container into a makeshift tofu press.I turned it upside down and started cutting into the nicks that were already molded into the plastic, making sure the slits were big enough to allow liquid to drain through. Clever, eh?

I made similar holes in all 4 corners of the tofu container for my makeshift tofu press

Just so you know, we food writers and recipe developers are not perfect, and we do make mistakes. The first time round, I used 4 cups of soymilk and 2 tablespoons of fresh lemon juice diluted in ½ cup water as a coagulant. The first sign that something was amiss was that with every wring of the cheesecloth, still milky-white liquid oozed from the tiny holes. The liquid is supposed to be translucent. But I went ahead and pressed the curds into my “tofu press” anyway.

After my myriad tries to press out as much liquid as possible, my tofu was still soft and spongy.

I took a bite. It tasted like tofu, the texture wasn’t bad, plush and soft, kinda like marshmallow. But it refused to bind despite my best efforts so I had to raise the white flag. I decided I could use it in mabo tofu or to make tofu and minced pork balls.

Maybe I needed more lemon juice? Or maybe I should have continued stirring the mixture over the heat until it started separating more noticeably. Or … Whatever it was, I was determined to try again.

Then I recalled my paneer-making efforts. Perhaps I could follow the same method–the process is basically the same, separating the curds from the whey with a coagulant.

I followed the method almost to a “t,” using juice from 3 1/2 limes (about the equivalent in tablespoons), and lo and behold, I had firm, freshly-pressed tofu! I was overcome with so much jubilation—my first successful batch of tofu—I almost started tearing.

This time I pressed my tofu in a colander which formed an oddly-shaped disc of tofu. Nonetheless, I was excited to try a piece. Perhaps I should have waited and relished the tofu high a little longer. Once I popped a piece in my mouth, my elation crumbled like the disintegrating tofu in my mouth. I didn’t care for the powdery texture and the tartness that clung to the background like a wallflower, barely noticeable but still there.

Using a colander as a “press” results in an odd-shaped piece of tofu.

Not satisfied with my tofu-making efforts, I tried yet again, this time with Epsom salt as my coagulant. And as they say, the third time’s a charm!

The curds that formed were still smaller than I was expecting and I was skeptical. Somehow or another, the itty bitty curds bound into a perfect block of momen tofu (“momen” means “cotton” and describes a medium firm tofu). Unlike store-bought tofu which can sometimes taste bland, this tofu tasted mildly sweet, and not too beany. The texture was dense and looked crumbly but once in my mouth, it was cottony soft, just like its moniker.

Woot, my tofu was finally a total success!

I’m not sure if I’ll be making tofu regularly but I did come away from the experience with a few tofu tidbits. Overall, I wouldn’t recommend lemon or lime juice because they impart a tangy flavor that was a little odd in the resulting tofu. I think I’m going to try using nigari next to see if bigger tofu curds form, hopefully producing a smoother, less crumbly tofu.

And finally, for first-timers, buy Epsom salt. If you decide you don’t ever want to make tofu again, you can use the remainder for a relaxing soak in the bath after a busy day of standing in the kitchen!

~~~

Homemade Momen Tofu

I’ve tried making tofu several times now and the process never goes exactly the same. I’m always surprised–the resulting tofu may turn out a little firmer or a wee bit spongier. I really can’t tell you why but that’s ok since it always tastes good. I just mix it up, using the tofu in different recipes. Keep in mind, the quality of your soymilk plays a huge part in how your tofu will turn out. In other words, keep experimenting until you’re satisfied!

Time: 45 minutes to 1 hour
Makes: about 14 oz tofu

2 teaspoons Epsom salt
4 cups soymilk (storebought or homemade)

Stir the Epsom salt into ½ cup hot water until it completely dissolves.

In a large pot, bring the soymilk to a gentle boil over medium-high heat. When steam starts to appear and bubbles form around the edge of the pot, reduce the heat to medium. Simmer for about 3 minutes, stirring often to ensure the soymilk doesn’t burn. Remove any film that forms on the surface.

Reduce the heat to low. Pour the Epsom salt mixture into the hot soymilk a little at a time, stirring after each pour. The curds will soon start separating from the whey. As soon as obvious curds have formed and the whey turns from a milky white to a yellowish, translucent liquid, stop pouring. You want to use as little coagulant as possible because it might impart a bitter taste to the tofu. I usually use up about ¼ to 1/3 cup of the Epsom salts mixture.

Take the pot off the heat and cover with a lid. Let it sit for about 15 minutes to allow the curds to separate even further. After 15 minutes, if the whey is still opaque, add more of the Epsom salts mixture, stirring after each pour. Don’t worry if the curds are no bigger than coarse breadcrumbs.

Set your “tofu press” over a colander in the sink. Line the press with the cheesecloth.

Pour the curds and whey into the “tofu press” in stages, waiting for the whey to drain into the sink. Wring as much liquid from the cheesecloth as possible.

Press the curds into the “tofu press,” filling out the corners. Or press into the bottom of a colander or sieve. Fold the cheesecloth neatly and place a folded towel on top to soak up excess liquid. Weigh down the tofu with two cans of food.

Allow the tofu to set for 15 to 20 minutes. Unwrap the cheesecloth and turn the tofu block out into a large bowl or plastic container. Fill with water, being careful not to hit the tofu directly with the stream of water, and rinse the tofu gently. Drain and the tofu is ready to be made into dinner.

To store, submerge the tofu in water in the refrigerator for 2 to 3 days, changing the water every day. Remember, this is fresh tofu and has no preservatives!

~~~

Resources I used to come up with my own tofu-making process:

Just Hungry: The blogosphere’s definitive site for Japanese food and cuisine

Brenda J Wiley: A detailed description of how to make tofu using a soymilk machine

LaFujiMama: Check out her easy-to-follow processes for making soymilk from scratch and quick one-hour tofu