Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Loving Leftovers - Part 1: Tortilla Rollups

Memorial Day was a gorgeous sunny day here in Colorado, so Jamie and I spent the afternoon at Castlewood Canyon.  After a few hours of hiking, we stopped for a snack of grapes, red pears, apricots and tortilla rolls.  On a recent episode of Extra Virgin, Debi and Gabriele had a romantic little picnic in the park with homemade biscotti, among other things they'd made.  I was envisioning our picnic spread out on a blanket, a little relaxing in the sun, some fun pictures...  but there really were no nice grassy areas at Castlewood Canyon, so we had to sit at one of the picnic benches on the trail instead.  One of these weekends, hopefully I'll get my romantic picnic, though!

Tortilla Rollups are one of those items that show up at just about every picnic or potluck, and it may be that they're just so easy to make, or that they're a good way to use up bits of ingredients that aren't much use in anything else.  They're also incredibly versatile, and you can use ingredients in just about any flavor combination you like!

leftover ingredients:
  • whole milk
  • heavy cream
  • fresh dill
  • salmon
  • tuna
  • lunchmeat turkey

To use up the milk and cream (leftover from a failed caramel-making attempt), I made a fresh batch of ricotta cheese, then mixed it with the fresh dill and some chopped shallots.  I then used my creamy ricotta spread in place of the traditional cream cheese usually used in tortilla rollups.

After spreading the ricotta on three tortillas, I made a few different combinations:  a spicy tuna and cucumber roll, a salmon and cucumber roll (tuna and salmon leftover from sushi night), and the third with turkey, maple-smoked cheddar and a dash of pesto.

A quick and tasty snack that doesn't waste leftover ingredients leaves more time for other things like a fun day in the sun!

Braising with Le Creuset: Braised Beef Short Ribs and Veal Shanks, with Stuffed Portobello Mushrooms

Jamie is now the happy owner of a Le Creuset dutch oven, which bumps our collection of Le Creuset cookware from one item up to two, our first being a beautiful green enameled stockpot he gave me our first Christmas together.  (I've seen differing opinions on whether or not Le Creuset actually makes dutch ovens--some say they only make "french" ovens--but there seems to be little difference, and the one that Williams Sonoma sells is called a dutch oven.)

At any rate, Jamie enjoys the process of braising, cooking tough cuts of meat low and slow, until they're fall-off-the-bone tender.  

The first step is to sear the meat in a little olive oil.  

Then vegetables, broth and seasoning are added, all of which slowly cooks for hours on low heat, in order to tenderize the meat.  

Finally, the cooking liquid and some of the vegetables are pureed to create a rich broth which is served on top of the meat and vegetables.  (Note that although we used a dutch oven for this dish, a delicious result could also easily be achieved using a crock pot.)

Braised Beef Short Ribs and Veal Shanks
  • 4 beef short ribs
  • 2 veal shanks
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil 
  • 3 carrots, bite-sized pieces
  • 3 celery stalks, diced
  • leeks (1 stalk), diced
  • 1 sweet yellow onion, diced
  • 1 bottle red wine (the better the wine, the better the broth...)
  • 2 cups beef broth
  • salt and pepper, to taste
  • 1 tablespoon Italian seasoning
  • 1 tablespoon tarragon
  • 1 32-ounce can of crushed tomatoes

Heat one tablespoon olive oil in the dutch oven on medium heat.  Sear the meat for 2 minutes each side.  Remove meat from dutch oven and set aside.  Add another tablespoon of olive oil to dutch oven, and cook carrots, celery, leeks and onion until softened, about 7-10 minutes.

Nestle the meat down in the vegetables, so that the meat is resting on the bottom of the dutch oven.  Pour 1/2 of the bottle of red wine and all of the beef broth into the dutch oven.

Cover and cook for one hour, on medium low heat.  After an hour, add the salt, pepper, Italian seasoning, tarragon, tomatoes, and the remainder of the wine.  Simmer on low for 4-5 hours, until meat is very tender.

Remove meat and bones and half of the vegetables from the dutch oven and set aside.  Using an immersion blender, blend the remainder of the vegetables and cooking liquid in the dutch oven; turn the heat up to medium high and reduce liquid until thick, about 5-10 minutes.

Arrange meat and vegetables on a serving dish, and top with the reduced broth.

 Stuffed Portobella Mushrooms
  • 2 portobello mushrooms
  • 1/4 pound ground sweet Italian sausage
  • 1/2 cup diced shallot
  • 1 celery stalk, diced
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil, plus extra for drizzling
  • 1 egg, beaten
  • 1/4 cup bread crumbs
  • 3-4 tablespoons grated cheese (I used maple smoked cheddar)
  • salt and pepper, to taste
  • Parmesan cheese for garnish
Preheat oven to 350.  Arrange a piece of foil on a baking sheet.  Place portobello mushrooms upside down on the baking sheet.

Heat olive oil in a medium-sized skillet.  On medium heat, cook sausage, shallot and celery, until sausage is fully cooked, 7-10 minutes.  

Transfer cooked mixture to a bowl; add beaten egg, bread crumbs, grated cheese, and salt and pepper.  Combine thoroughly; pile on top of the portobello mushrooms.  Top with parmesan cheese.  Drizzle each with a teaspoon of olive oil.  

Bake for 30 minutes, until hot through, and cheese is melted and browned.

 And for one of our favorite appetizers, season and steam a fresh artichoke, and serve with a little aioli.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Turkey and Avocado Wrap with Balsamic Vinaigrette

This recipe makes enough for two people...
Turkey and Avocado Wrap with Balsamic Vinaigrette

For the wrap...
  • 2 tortilla wraps (I like the green spinach Mission wraps)
  • 2 tablespoons stone-ground mustard
  • whole lettuce leaves, such as Bibb or Romaine
  • 1/3 pound thinly sliced peppered turkey
  • 1/2 avocado, sliced
  • 1/2 cucumber, julienned
  • 1/2 tomato, sliced into half-moons
  • 4 thin slices cheese (today I used a maple smoked cheddar)

For the vinaigrette...
  • 2 tablespoons olive or grape seed oil
  • 2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon honey
  • 1 teaspoon lime juice
  • freshly ground pepper and salt, to taste

Spread the mustard on the wraps, then place lettuce leaves on the mustard.  Arrange turkey, avocado, cucumber, tomato and cheese on the lettuce, down the center of the wrap.  Roll up the wraps, cut each in half, and secure each half with a toothpick.

Whisk together the vinaigrette in a bowl, and divide evenly between two small bowls or ramekins.  Serve the wraps with the vinaigrette on the side for dipping.

Chocolate Caramel Croissant Bread Pudding

Today, Jamie turned 37, and this was the birthday dessert he requested, which I served last night during our poker game with friends.  This dessert is very rich and decadent, but also incredibly quick, if you take the shortcut I took.  I will admit, I really struggle with making caramel.  It burns, it separates, it crystallizes...  Two Christmases ago, I managed to make a couple of perfect batches of toffee, which was the first time I ever tried making caramel.  The process of cooking the sugar and butter is tricky, especially with an electric stove, where the heat is not constant the way it would be with a gas stove.  But for every batch that succeeded, I had a batch that failed (I used a lot of butter and sugar that winter experimenting with the process.)  I've even tried placing a cast iron pan underneath my pot of sugar, to more evenly distribute the heat, but even that did not work for me.

So for this recipe, I did use a jar of storebought caramel, but the result was still delicious.  (If you're interested in making your own caramel for this dish, you can reference the original recipe.)  But for you beginners at caramel making, read on!

Chocolate Caramel Croissant Bread Pudding
  • 6 croissants
  • 2/3 jar caramel topping (about 1 cup)
  • 6 eggs, beaten
  • 6 tablespoons bourbon (substitute 1 tablespoon of vanilla extract for an alcohol-free version)
  • 1/2 cup semi-sweet chocolate chunks
  • ice cream or whipped cream

Preheat the oven to 350.  Tear the croissants into pieces, and place in a medium-sized baking dish.  Layer the pieces of croissants with the chocolate chunks so that you have chocolate all throughout the pudding, until all the croissants and chocolate are evenly dispersed in the dish.

Heat the caramel in the microwave until warm and pours easily.  Whisk the bourbon into the caramel.  Quickly, whisk the warm caramel into the beaten eggs until well incorporated.  Immediately pour mixture over the croissants and chocolate.  

Bake at 350 for 30 minutes.  Croissants will be slightly browned and crispy on top, and very soft and saturated with the caramel mixture underneath, with the chocolate slightly melted.  Spoon into serving dishes and serve warm, topped with ice cream or whipped cream.  We ate ours with butter pecan ice cream--so good!

Sushi and Poker Night

For Jamie's and my 5th or 6th date, he made sushi for me at his place.  I was, of course, very impressed (and let me add, that in our two years together, he's never stopped finding ways to do special things for me).  Since then, making sushi together at home has become one of our favorite meals to prepare on Friday nights.  Last night, we invited a few friends over to share in the fun, followed by a game of poker later that night, and it was a great evening!

Every time we make sushi, we try something a little different, but we have our favorite combinations also.  We'll make some traditional rolls with salmon, tuna, cucumber and avocado;  a spicy jalopeno yellowtail dish with Japanese radish, with a sauce of rice wine vinegar, soy sauce and lime juice (last night, this dish also got an unexpected flavor from my Mike's hard lemonade which I spilled on the plate, but I actually think that made it even better); sometimes we'll get more creative with ingredients like soft-shell crab, battered and deep fried, or tube squid turned into succulent calamari, dipped in cocktail sauce (we never buy cocktail sauce--simply mix together ketchup and horseradish, and make it as hot as you like!)

Jamie came up with a new creation last night which we called spicy cucumber rolls.  This was a simple and fresh-tasting roll which we made by peeling long wide strips of cucumber using a y-shaped peeler (when you reach the seeds, turn the cucumber over to peel strips from the other side as well).  We then wrapped the transparent strips around salmon, tuna, avocado, radish and cucumbers, with a few surprises here and there of jalapenos and siracha sauce.  Secure the roll with a toothpick and pop the whole thing in your mouth.  Delicious!  (And if you're concerned about carbs, this is a great option, since there is no rice in this roll.)

My all-time favorite dish, though, is tuna tartare.  A few simple ingredients make a spectacularly flavorful dish; it was sure a hit with last night's group.
Tuna Tartar
  • 6 ounces sashimi-quality tuna
  • 1/2 avocado
  • lime juice (1/2 lime)
  • 1 teaspoon drops sesame oil
  • 1 tablespoon grapeseed oil (or olive oil)
  • 1 tablespoon soy sauce
  • 1 teaspoon black sesame seeds
  • sea salt, to taste
  • sesame crackers

Carefully dice the tuna and avocado into 1/4 inch cubes.  Add the remaining ingredients and gently mix to combine so as to not smash the tuna and avocado.  Lightly press into a small bowl and chill for several minutes while you prepare the sesame crackers.  

The sesame crackers are large round crackers about 8 inches in diameter that can be found at any Asian market; they come in a few different flavors, and some even have tiny dried shrimp baked into them.  Straight from the package they are thin and translucent.  But when microwaved, they become very light and fluffy, and are the perfect way to serve your tuna tartar.  On a microwaveable plate, microwave one cracker at a time for two minutes on high, or until cracker begins to puff up.  Break into large pieces.  Repeat with remaining crackers.

Take your bowl of tartar from the fridge, turn the bowl over onto a plate, and remove the bowl.  Now take your pieces of sesame crackers and around around the tartar on the plate.  Serve immediately.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Date Swirl Cookies with the essence of Almonds...

These soft and sweet cookies make me think of the holidays because of the fragrant spices, but they are delicious any time of year.  My mom gave me her recipe (and she got it from my grandma), although I'm not sure where the recipe actually originated from.  My favorite memory of these cookies is of opening a "care package" from my mom my first year away from home at college, and finding these cookies, carefully wrapped to preserve their freshness.  

This recipe does require planning ahead, since the dough must be chilled overnight before slicing the cookies to bake, but it's worth the wait.  Of course, I could not resist adding my own variation to it tonight with salted almonds, nutmeg and cloves in the filling, and almond paste in the batter, but their swirly pinwheel pattern from rolling the filling inside the dough doesn't need any additional decoration.

Printable Recipe

Date Swirl Cookies

  • 2 cups chopped dates
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • 1 cup chopped salted almonds
  • 2 teaspoons lemon juice
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cloves

  • 1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature (not melted)
  • 1 cup packed brown sugar
  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • 1 can (6 ounces) almond paste
  • 3 eggs
  • 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • 3 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking powder

1.  In a saucepan, combine all the filling ingredients.  Cook over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally, until mixture is thick, about 15-20 minutes.  Pour into a bowl and chill in the refrigerator while preparing the dough.

2.  To prepare the dough, cream the butter, brown sugar and granulated sugar.  When butter and sugars are creamy and fluffy, add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition.  Gradually add the almond paste, beating well until smooth.  Add vanilla extract.

3.  In a separate bowl, whisk together flour, salt, baking soda and baking powder.  Gradually add to creamed mixture and mix well.  Divide into 2 balls, wrap each in plastic wrap, and chill for at least one hour.

4.  On a lightly floured surface, roll out one of the balls of dough to a 12-in x 9-in rectangle, about 1/4 inch thick.  Spread with half of the filling.  Roll up, starting with the long end.  Repeat with remaining dough and filling.  Wrap the rolls of dough tightly in plastic wrap and chill overnight.  (Note, dough is very soft, so handle carefully.)

5.  Preheat the oven to 375.  Slice the dough into 1/2 inch thick slices; place 2 inches apart on greased baking sheets.  Bake for 8 minutes, or until lightly browned.  Cool for one minute on the baking sheets, then carefully transfer to waxed paper to cool completely.

Asian Chicken Lettuce Wraps

Jamie made these for dinner tonight while I made cookies...

Monday, May 23, 2011

Linguine with Sweet and Savory Marinara (with lean ground turkey, baby spinach and raisins)

I know, you're thinking raisins?  In marinara sauce?  It sounds weird, but last month, some friends came to visit from England, and the discussion of food combinations came up; one of them mentioned that they liked raisins in their spaghetti.  It's certainly different, but after all, I'm someone who will put ketchup on scrambled eggs, which Jamie thinks is incredibly strange.  I didn't really think about that particular combination of raisins and spaghetti after that conversation, until tonight, when I was scrounging for ingredients to make pasta.

Jamie made the grocery list this week, and tonight was going to be spaghetti night.  So after our gym workout tonight, I looked in the fridge to find 2 pounds of ground turkey and just half an onion.  (Have I mentioned yet how much he likes meat?  Seems we got more meat this week than veggies.)  Tomato sauce, minced garlic and seasoning would have made a good marinara sauce, but somewhat generic; so I found a forgotten package of baby spinach, and when I noticed the box of raisins in the cupboard, I thought I'd try what seemed like an unlikely combination and dedicate this recipe to Jessica and Leland, friends who have been through it all with me in China.  Miss you guys!
Linguine with Sweet and Savory Marinara (with lean ground turkey, baby spinach and raisins)
2 Tbs olive oil
1/2 sweet yellow onion, chopped
2 pounds lean ground turkey
2 tomatoes, diced
1 Tbs minced garlic
2 Tbs tomato paste
2 1/2 cups tomato sauce
1 package baby spinach
1/2 cup raisins
3 Tbs apple cider vinegar
1 Tbs Italian seasoning
1/4 tsp cayenne pepper
Salt and Pepper, to taste
1 pound linguine

Heat olive oil in a large saucepan over medium heat;  add onion and season with salt; cook until onion is softened, about 2 minutes.

Add ground turkey to pot, and break up with a spoon.  Cook turkey and onion until turkey is completely cooked and no pink is showing, about 10 minutes.

Stir in garlic, tomatoes, tomato sauce, tomato paste, and apple cider vinegar, and cook for another minute. Stir in raisins, Italian seasoning and cayenne pepper, then season with salt and pepper.  Pile all the baby spinach on top of the sauce, and place a tightly fitting lid on the pot to steam the spinach, for about five minutes.

Reduce heat to medium low, and simmer for 10-15 minutes, while you cook the linguine.

Cook the linguine according to the directions, drain, then serve with the sauce.  Serve with freshly grated Parmesan cheese.

This made a lot of extra sauce, but it will freeze very well for future dinners.

Birthday Week Menu Lineup

Apparently, since I surprised Jamie this past weekend with a day at Bandimere Speedway to watch drag racing and jet engines, followed by a night at Arrowwood Manor Bed and Breakfast, I've started what he calls his "birthday week", since his birthday is not actually until next weekend.  Which is really his cute way of saying that I should cook dinner every night this week and give him back rubs.  :)

We take turns every week planning the menu and making the grocery list, and this was his week to do the planning.  I also have a little chalkboard in the kitchen where I write the menu for the week--he likes to tease me about the chalkboard, but I think he secretly finds my organization endearing.

Monday:  Spaghetti with Ground Turkey Marinara sauce (which has now evolved into Linguine with a Sweet and Savory Sauce (with lean ground turkey, baby spinach and raisins--stay tuned for more on this...)
Tuesday: Fish and Sauteed Veggies
Wednesday: Asian Chicken Lettuce Wraps
Thursday: Shrimp Tacos
Friday:  Movie and Dinner Out
Saturday:  Sushi Night at home with some friends

I also need to make something for a potluck at work on Thursday, as well as a birthday dessert for Jamie, which we'll have on Saturday night.  So I've got a lot to plan this week, but I'm looking forward to it!

So, while I make pasta tonight, Jamie's supposed to be deciding on a dessert for this weekend--I'm looking forward to seeing what he picks...

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Ricotta Herb Spread with Grilled Bread, Asparagus Salad, and Spicy Shrimp

I'm so happy to see the sun shining today!  After days of rain, we Coloradans miss our sunny blue skies.  I'm especially glad it's sunny today, because Jamie and I are going to be celebrating his birthday today (a week early), and rain just would not work for the day's activities (but more about that later, because he doesn't know yet where we're going...).

For dinner last night, we made homemade ricotta, then mixed it with fresh herbs to make a creamy spread for thick slices of grilled bread, ribbony asparagus salad with lemon and parmesan (which I can't take credit for--this pretty salad was inspired by Smitten Kitchen), and spicy skewered shrimp.

To make the ricotta, you simply need whole milk, heavy cream, salt and an acid; either lemon juice or white wine vinegar will work (scroll to the bottom of this post for a recipe).  In a saucepan over medium heat, slowly bring the milk, cream and salt to a boil.  Reduce the heat to a simmer, then add your lemon juice or white wine vinegar; simmer for two minutes, stirring constantly, as the mixture curdles.  Now at this point, I thought that mine hadn't curdled, because I was expecting to see a more dramatic separation of curds and whey (more like the appearance of cottage cheese);  the curdling appeared to be so subtle, that I wasn't sure anything would be left behind after pouring it through the cheesecloth.  But after pouring it through two layers of damp cheesecloth, through a sieve and into a bowl beneath, to my surprise and delight, what was left in the cheesecloth was exactly what ricotta should be.  I only let mine drain for about 12 minutes, since I wanted a creamier spread for the bread, but it can be drained for up to 25 minutes for a dryer texture.
After the ricotta had drained, I transferred it to a bowl to chill in the refrigerator for about an hour, then added chopped dill, scallions, pepper and fresh lemon zest (there's no need to add additional salt, since the cheese has already been salted during the boiling/curdling process).  We sliced fresh bread from the grocery store bakery and toasted it on a cast iron grill pan;  the fresh ricotta spread over the warm toasty bread was a perfect combination!  And with our lemony asparagus salad and spicy shrimp, it was a wonderfully light and flavorful dinner for a relaxing Friday night at home.

A tip for your leftovers...  make an omelette for breakfast the next morning with mushrooms and onions, leftover shrimp and ricotta cheese, or make some scrambled eggs, then make breakfast wraps with shrimp, ricotta cheese, scrambled eggs, and any veggies you have on hand, in a tortilla.  Jamie added some leftover marinara sauce to our wraps this morning for a southwestern style breakfast wrap, and it was yummy!

 Ricotta Herb Spread Recipe:
  • 1 quart whole milk
  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • 1 tsp Kosher salt
  • 1 lemon (for juice and zest, or 3 Tbs White Wine Vinegar)
  • 2 Tbs freshly chopped dill
  • 3 scallions, chopped
  • Pepper, freshly ground

1.  Dampen two layers of cheesecloth and place over a fine sieve.  Set sieve over a large bowl.

2.  In a saucepan over medium heat, bring the milk, cream and salt to a rolling boil.  Reduce heat to a simmer, and add the juice of 1 lemon (or white wine vinegar).  Stirring constantly, simmer for 2 minutes, as mixture curdles.  (Curdling may appear subtle, but if you touch the mixture, it should feel like soft clumps between your fingers.)
3.  Slowly pour mixture through the cheesecloth.  Allow to drain for 12-25 minutes, depending on whether you like your ricotta more creamy or more dry.  Once it has reached your desired consistency, transfer ricotta to a bowl, cover tightly with plastic wrap, and chill for about an hour in the refrigerator.

4.  Chop the dill and scallions.  Add to the chilled ricotta, and season with freshly ground pepper.  Zest about half of the lemon over the mixture, and stir until blended and creamy.  Serve generously over freshly grilled bread.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Chile-Lime Salmon Tacos

Summer's on its way, and it's taunting me!  Lately the weather drops within a day from 80 degrees and sunny down to 40 degrees with rain and sleet, and the chilly weather just makes me want to curl up in a ball on the couch, read books, and take naps.  I want the warmth to come and hang out for a while so I can get outside, feel the sun on my arms, and get a little color on my winter-white skin.

And with summer comes summery food, like fish tacos.  Jamie loves fish tacos, and I love salmon.  Well, we both do.  We have salmon pretty much every week, and we make fish tacos for dinner a couple times a month, usually with some type of white fish like cod or catfish and fresh cabbage slaw.  (My man is so creative that when we ran out of mayo to add to the slaw, what did he do?  Well, he made some of course!)

So, this week, I thought why not combine the two?  Tonight I wanted something a little different from the typical fish/slaw combo, something fresh and healthy with lots of flavor.  For all of you out there who try to eat healthy, you know it's a lot more expensive to buy lots of lean protein and veggies than subsisting on a diet of Totinos Party Pizzas is.  And salmon is particularly expensive, but I just can't make myself cross it off the grocery list.  (I'll admit, though, that I actually like how those party pizzas taste--plus they only cost a dollar, so how can you beat that?)

For our variation of fish tacos tonight, Jamie seasoned a piece of salmon with chili powder, lime juice, salt and pepper, and seared it in a skillet, for just a few minutes on each side, to the perfect medium-rare doneness that salmon should always be served at.  A fresh ear of corn got rubbed with a little olive oil, charred on a cast-iron grill pan, and then sliced off the cob.  Mango, avocado, tomato, and green onion made a lovely and fresh salsa, seasoned only with salt, pepper, lime zest and a squeeze of lime juice.

Wrapped up in a whole-wheat tortilla it was delicious!  I did wish it had a little more crunch, though, so next time I'll add a little red cabbage, or some fried strips or tortillas to give it a finishing touch.

Recipe for Chile-Lime Salmon Tacos

 1 1/2 pounds salmon
1 package of small whole-wheat tortillas
1 ear of fresh corn on the cob
1 cup shredded red cabbage
1 avocado
2 tomatoes
1 mango
2 scallions
2 limes
salt and pepper
1/2 tsp chile powder
2 Tbs olive oil

Heat a cast-iron grill pan on medium-high heat.  Remove the husk and silk from the corn, rub with 1 Tbs olive oil, and char on the grill pan until corn is cooked.  When corn is nicely charred, allow to cool for several minutes before slicing off the cob.

Meanwhile, make the salsa.  Dice the avocado, mango, tomato and scallions.  Add the zest and juice of one lime, and season mixture with salt and pepper, and set salsa aside.

Remove the skin from the salmon.  Season with additional lime juice, salt, pepper and chili powder.

Heat 1 Tbs olive oil in a non-stick skillet over medium heat.  Cook the salmon for 3-4 minutes on each side, until the outside is seared, and the center is a pink medium-rare doneness.

Finally, assemble your tacos with some flaked salmon, a spoonful of salsa, freshly charred corn kernels, and shredded cabbage.  If desired, you can also add a sprinkling of shredded jack cheese.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Jiaozi and Cold Noodles

When people find out I lived in China for three years, among their questions is, What's the weirdest thing you've ever eaten?  (They should have a category for weird food on Food Network's "Best Thing I Ever Ate", because I'd have all kinds of stories.)  The strangest food I had overseas were things like chicken feet, silkworms, spicy squid on a stick, and a few other things I won't mention, because I don't want to gross anyone out.

But for the most part, I really enjoyed the food, although I did miss essential American favorites like peanut butter, tortilla chips, cheese, and many other items that were either extremely expensive, or unavailable unless shopping in special markets in Beijing that featured imported grocery items.

One of my favorite dishes they served at a restaurant down the street from the college I taught at was a dish called Di San Xian, which was eggplant, potatoes, and green peppers, in a spicy sauce.  I'm not much of a fan of the spongy texture of eggplant, but I ordered this dish over and over for the wonderful flavors.  Last year, I tried making it (without realizing how hot the peppers I bought were), and ended up with something drowning in a sauce that was so overwhelmed with heat from the seeds of the peppers, it was completely inedible! 

Jiaozi preparation with friends at Byron's home
Another favorite, and an absolute staple in Chinese culture, is Jiaozi, typically known by Americans as "dumplings".  Jiaozi looks simple to make, but it takes a lot of skill.  They start with a simple dough of flour, water and salt, kneaded and sectioned off, then pressed into perfectly thin small circles about 5-6 inches in diameter.  The filling can be whatever you like--my favorites were beef with green peppers and pork with celery. After putting just the right amount of filling into the center of the circles of dough, they press and crimp the edges together, sealed with a little water.  They can be boiled, steamed or fried, and when you get one fresh from a pot of boiling water, the result is an explosion of flavors in your mouth from the broth building up inside the dough as it cooks the meat filling.

More Jiaozi making
In the winter of 2003, some friends and I were invited to visit the family home of one of our students, Byron, in his hometown of Jilin.  Byron's mom whipped up batch after batch of Jiaozi as skillfully as any of the Chinese ladies in the best-known Jiaozi restaurants.  Of course, we were recruited to help, although a few of mine tended to break open once they hit the water.

Byron's grandfather also showed us how to make cold noodles.  This is a very simple, authentic Chinese dish, that you can tailor to everyone's individual tastes; I like to make it in the summer when I don't feel like having something too hot for dinner.
Cold Noodles, with Potstickers (left) and Lettuce Wraps (Right)
Cold Noodles:
1 pound pasta, such as spaghetti noodles
Salt and Pepper, to taste
2-3 Tbs olive oil
1 cucumber, julienned
1 cup bean sprouts
1 carrot, julienned
2 chicken breasts, cooked and shredded
On the side:
Vinegar (white or rice vinegar)
Soy Sauce
Granulated Sugar
Any other vegetables you like!

1.  Cook the pasta according to the directions on the box.  Drain and rinse under cold water; drizzle with a little oil so noodles don't stick together, and season to taste with salt and pepper (I like to make mine spicy, so I use a combination of black and red pepper).  Refrigerate noodles until ready to eat.

2.  Prepare the rest of the ingredients, and place everything in separate bowls so that people can choose whatever they like to mix with their noodles.

3.  In individual serving bowls, add about a half cup of the chilled noodles.  Now everyone can take their bowl of noodles and add chicken, vegetables and a dash of vinegar and/or soy sauce.  Finish with a sprinkle of sugar (sounds strange, but it really makes the dish!).  Using chopsticks, toss ingredients together, eat, and go back for more!
Heather, Megan, Byran, Robin and Jessica (top), and Byron's mom, grandma, grandpa, and dad (bottom)