Thursday, December 13, 2012

Green Beans with Bacon and Leeks

For Thanksgiving at my house, we were always kind of rebels. Turkey was never there because my mother didn't like it, and my father had a rare case of recipe ADHD when I was a kid, meaning we tried out something new almost every time. Not that this is bad, it made me the adventurous and adaptable eater and cook that I am today, but I lacked shared food experiences like leftover turkey sandwiches, canned cranberry sauce, and all casseroles in general.

On the few occasians I've atteneded other families' post-Thanksgiving leftover feasts, I've always been impressed with green bean casserole. Now, I really enjoy most other casserole dishes, but the traditional crunchy weird onions on top really make this something I hope to see on others' tables. So this Thanksgiving, while I was considering me and the Man's two person feast, I wanted to make a riff on the classic dish. This dish is an amalgamation of a few recipes I saw, and came about when I threw it together the day before Thanksgiving based on things I had on hand and very little planning. 

Beer-battered leek rings bring the delicious, oniony crunch to the top and instead of a soupy, creamy base, I lightened it (HA! Flavor-wise, at least) with mustard and garlic. Bacon makes it a man's man side dish and keeps tastebuds wanting more.

To whomever believes that holiday food must be overly complicated, I present this recipe for your review.

In total, it has 9 ingredients, it takes at most 20 minutes if prepared from scratch completely and will get you rave reviews. Tuesday, I had Chinese class until 7 o'clock and a potluck to attend at 7:30. I decided to make this because it's easy and has relatively universal appeal. I had to go to the store for a leek and green beans, so I got home at 7:20, and made it to dinner (downstairs mind you) with steaming pan in hand by 7:45. It was gobbled. People had thirds, every morsel was picked from the pan and any remaining sauce was mopped up with bread. This dishes humble presence has been requested at our Christmas potluck dinner and I hope it makes it to your table too. 

Green Beans with Bacon and Leeks
makes about 6 side dish size servings

1-2 appropriately sized bag of cut, frozen green beans **
2-3 slices of thick cut bacon (no maple or pepper bacon here please)
1-2 tablespoons dijon mustard, to taste
5 cloves of garlic, sliced
1 medium-large leek
1 can of extremely cheap beer
1 cup of all purpose flour
3/4 cup oil (something like corn oil with a higher smoke point)
1 tablespoon olive oil
salt & pepper

**quick note: I used fresh beans that I trimmed the ends of and then cut into approx. inch length pieces. I'd say I used...perhaps a pound of beans? I buy vegetables here from a small, more or less roadside vendor, so I have no way of really measuring quauntity when I buy other than guessing how much I need for how many people I have. Estimate about a 3/4 of a cup for each person, I used slightly less than 6 cups (once trimmed and cut) for the 6 people I was serving it to.


1. If using fresh beans, trim ends and then snap into roughly 1 inch long pieces. Fill a pot with enough water to completely cover (and then some) the beans, bring to a boil and add 1 tablespoon salt. Boil until beans turn bright green, and when fished out, are tender to the teeth.

If using frozen beans, steam or boil according to directions on the bag. You want beans tender and bright, not mushy and sad. Keep this in mind. 

2. Slice the white and very light green parts of your leek into thin slices, no need to separate each little ring. Pour half the can of beer into a bowl, and the flour into a separate bowl. Add the oil to a frying pan and heat until water flicked at the oil spits. 

In batches, first put leek slices into the beer, then dip in flour, then fry until golden in the pan. I usually just put all the leeks into the beer, then dip into flour as I switch the batch. 

Remove fried leeks to a paper towel lined plate and lightly sprinkle with salt. When finished, dump (...or drink) the last of the beer in the CAN (don't drink the stuff in the bowl, gross), then pour your frying oil into the can for easy disposal later.  Feel free to leave a little oil in the pan, no harm done. 

3.  In the same pan, fry the bacon until it is nicely firm but not crunchy. Take out, dice and set aside. Either remove bacon fat ( could you?!) and add 1 tablespoon olive oil, or leave the bacon fat for added flavor.

4. Heat oil or fat over medium-low heat. Add sliced garlic to the pan and saute until fragrant. Throw in your drained beans and bacon. Stir around to coat beans in garlicky goodness. Add 1 tablespoon of dijon mustard to the pan and stir to coat. Cook for 1 minute, then taste. If you really like mustard, and I do, add another tablespoon of mustard, or as much or as little as tastes right to you. Make sure to cook another minute after adding to take the bite out of the mustard. 

5. Add cracked pepper, stir and plate. Top with fried leeks and you're done! Enjoy and Happy late Thanksgiving!

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Tuna Noodle Casserole

When I was growing up, I was the kid in the lunchroom pulling out liverwurst and cream cheese sandwiches. Leftover pate and crackers from a picnic dinner. Large sandwiches with munster cheese. Yoplait yogurts (the height of yogurt fashion then) and little Babybell cheeses. I loved it, and I wasn't sure what the big deal was when friends would make gagging noises and react with melodramatic squeals of 'Eww!'. It was just what we ate at home, didn't everybody eat this stuff? Didn't they all eat olives and capers and anchovies? Caesar salad with 1 minute eggs?

Apparently not. As I'm getting older, I'm appreciating more and more the rich food culture my parents passed on to me. Really, it made for a very balanced diet as a child. I didn't like cake. I didn't like PB & Js, fish sticks or corn dogs. I hated Kraft macaroni and cheese. But, I loved brussel sprouts, sauerkraut, hot salsas, mustard, cheeses, pickles, tomatoes with pepper and blue cheese. I like garden fresh peas and blackberries. I liked eating chives from the garden. 

One day, though, I was staying late at the babysitter's. My parents had some meetings to go to, so my brother and I had dinner with Miss Karen. She made tuna noodle casserole. And let me tell you, it was a revelation. I have no idea why this comfort food won out over the others, but it did, in a big way. I already loved tuna salad, but what was this. Hot tuna? With...bread crumbs and.... noodles! Mmm!

Her version was likely made with Campbell's Cream of Mushroom soup, which was my go to recipe throughout college. I loved the Stouffer's microwavable tuna noodle casserole, too. But, now that I live in China, there is no Campbell's soup or Stouffer's. All I have are the raw ingredients. I've tried many recipes, but they never had the right umami level that the likely MSG laden pre-made versions had. Finally, in desperation I made this improv version one night. It is rich in umami, and captures the pre-made versions' balance of flavors, but goes beyond it. Now it's the only version I'll make. It is not as fast to put together as the Stouffer's or Campbell's versions, but if you are limiting your intake of preservatives and artificial ingredients, this will give you the taste you crave, without the extra unknowns.

Tuna Noodle Casserole
Serves 2-4

For the casserole:
3 thin stalks of Chinese celery, or 1 ½ large stalks, diced
½ a medium red onion, diced
3 large cloves of garlic, minced
1 ½ cups rough chopped mushrooms
2 cans of oil packed tuna
 1 ¾ cups green peas, cooked
1 ½  tablespoons of cooking wine/sherry

½ tsp dark soy sauce
1/3 lb or 160 grams of egg noodles, cooked
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon butter
Seasoning or Celery Salt (this is important, I mean it)
Salt and pepper

For the white sauce:
1 clove garlic minced
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 tablespoons butter
3 tablespoons flour
1 ½ cups milk
Seasoning salt

For the topping:
2 pieces of bread toasted until dry and made into crumbs
1 tsp dried thyme
   3 tablespoons finely grated parmesan
2 tablespoons butter

Celery leaves chiffonaded

        Prep all ingredients into their appropriate forms, meaning do some rinsing, dicing, chopping and mincing. Cook your peas by either boiling them until bright green and juicy or microwaving as per instructions on the bag. Put your cooked peas into a large bowl.

      COOK THE VEGETABLES. In a medium sized pan, melt a ½ tbsp of the butter and add a little splash of olive oil so it doesn’t burn. Heat over medium until the butter is melted, then add your onion and celery. You want to sweat them, not fry, so keep the heat lowish and wait until just before they become translucent to add 2 of your minced garlic cloves. Stir until things are translucent and fragrant (these are aromatics, after all). Salt and pepper them, mix, then add to the bowl with the peas.

In the same pan, melt the other ½ tablespoon of butter and your olive oil. Mushrooms are notoriously moisture hungry, so once the butter is melted and you add the mushrooms, stir vigorously to coat. Continue cooking over medium heat until they start to release some of their water. Now add 1 minced garlic clove, cook for another minute or two, then add your soy sauce and cooking wine. Turn the heat up a little and wait for some of that moisture to cook off. Continue to watch and stir. You don’t want your mushrooms to be dry, you just don’t want all the liquid loose either. You want it in the mushrooms. Once mushrooms are cooked tender and some of the excess moisture has cooked off, transfer mushrooms and any left over juices to the bowl of the other vegetables. 

      Open and drain your cans of tuna, break up any large chunks and add to the vegetable mixture. Lightly seasoning or celery salt the whole shebang…. LIGHTLY!

      Cook your noodles in salted water until al dente. Drain, and add to the vegetable bowl. 

      MAKE THE SAUCE. In the same pan and over medium-low heat, add the olive oil and butter for the sauce. Allow butter to melt and lightly foam, don’t let it get too hot though, or it’ll burn your garlic...which is gross. Add your 1 clove of minced garlic and stir. Turn the heat down if it looks too hot, let it become fragrant. Now, add the flour SLOWLY, mixing all the while. We’re making a classic roux here, and you don’t want lumps, nor do you want it to brown at all, so make sure you watch the heat. Continuously stir as you add the flour. If it looks too dry add a tiny amount of olive oil. Once fully incorporated, stir for another minute to make sure it’s all warm. 

Slowly pour in the milk, stirring continuously and attempting to fully incorporate the liquid. The roux will …seize a little, it’ll look like a failure for the first few minutes. Keep stirring and keep slowly adding the milk and eventually the sauce will set up. If it still looks too dry after you’ve add all the milk, go ahead and add a little more. Once it’s a liquid, cook it for 2-3 minutes over medium-low to thicken it up. Don’t burn it though, be calm. Add seasoning or celery salt to taste and some pepper. Turn off the heat and add about 1 ½ cups of the sauce to the vegetables/noodle/ tuna bowl you have already. 

      PREHEAT your oven to 375F~150C.

      MAKE THE TOPPING. Toast two pieces of whatever kind of bread you have around until they are lightly browned and very dry. Take them out and let them cool down. Transfer to a small ziplock bag, and crush them into crumbs. Now add your parmesan, thyme and pepper, shake to combine. Melt the butter. Chiffonade the celery leaves, but do not add them to the bread crumbs.

      CONSTRUCT THE CASSEROLE.  Put the veggie/tuna/noodle/sauce mixture into an ungreased, oven-proof dish. Glass is nice for this. Top with an even layer of the breadcrumb  mixture, drizzle the butter over the top. I apologize for not having a legitimately sized oven/baking dish size to tell you. I cooked this in two small pie pans. The recipe makes enough to feed 2 pretty hungry people dinner and have a small portion left for lunch the next day. It would probably feed 4 normal people for dinner with sides and no leftovers. I will hazard a guess and say that an 8x8 baking dish would probably suffice as long as it’s a little deep… but I’m not one to say you can’t use cake pans, loaf pans or whatever floats your boat to cook this. Use whatever you have that’s at least about 1 1/2  inches deep and will fit the amount of casserole. I trust you.

      BAKE the casserole for about 10 minutes, you really just want to heat it through, all your ingredients are already fully cooked. When you think it’s warmed through, turn the oven to broil and broil the top until lightly golden brown.

      Take it out, sprinkle with celery chiffonade, and serve piping hot. I like this topped with a good amount of pepper flakes with a mixed green salad that includes more celery leaves, cherry tomatoes, some blue cheese and balsamic dressing on the side. But that’s just me. Enjoy!

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Sardine Pasta Puttanesca

The boyfriend is away this weekend, which means everything is my pace all the time. We've had a fair amount of long distance in our time together, so it's only strange for the first few hours he's gone. And though I do miss him, even if it's just for 3 days, I do like to luxuriate in my time while he's off traipsing through the mountains. I like that the Man is active, but sometimes I just need a low key day... or 3.

Last night, I went out with some friends for sangria. Came home to my empty apartment, where I'd left a small light on for myself, and played some music while I got ready for bed. I did an olive oil, honey, sugar scrub on my face and let it soak in while I did the dishes. I'd cleaned the kitchen spotless earlier, and I much prefer doing  dishes in an otherwise clean kitchen.

I woke up early today, made a pot of tea, and then read for a while in bed with the window and curtains open. I could see 4 mountains deep today, which is unheard of. The rained washed away the mists last night.When I got up, I made the bed. It rained hard last night, so I checked on my flowers and plants on the balcony. Hung some clothes out to dry. Put more clothes in the laundry, and then made a very small, meatless version of Eggs Florence for brunch.

Then, for a while I planned my evening baking plan on King Arthur Flour's website, as a friend has a birthday tomorrow and I'll be making her a surprise something. But at some point, 5 o'clock rolled around. And then 5:30. And then it was 6 and I was faintly hungry. I didn't want to go to the store just for me, so I scanned the pantry and threw together a Pasta Puttanesca-esque dish. This was insanely delicious, and a rare treat for me, as the Man is an avid olive/caper/canned fish hater. It's really quick to put together, and it's light but also very satisfying. I'd say make it for a date, because it tastes special (at least to me) but... the ingredient list will give you a good idea about your breath situation post consumption.

Whenever you serve it, know that it's not only tasty, but healthy, as sardines are rich in protein and nutrients like vitamins A and D, and are one of the most concentrated sources of omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA, which are very heart healthy! They are low in calories, but keep you feeling full, so are very diet friendly. Plus, because they're on the bottom of the seafood chain, they don't concentrate heavy metals, and they're one of the cheapest, most eco-friendly seafood purchases you make since sardines are plentiful and sustainable! Enjoy!

Sardine Pasta Puttanesca
serves 2 for a light dinner

300 grams of pasta, any shape, spaghetti or fettuccine are traditional, but I made mine with spirals
2-3 slices of thick sliced, raw bacon, chopped
1/2 a medium red onion, diced
2 cloves of garlic, minced
1 can of sardines packed in oil
1/2 cup or about 20 green olives, pitted and smashed
2 tbsp tomato paste

1. Put some salted water on to boil. Turn on some music you like, I prefer something Spanish. Once al dente, drain, reserving 1/2 cup of the water.

2. In a medium sized pan, saute your chopped bacon over medium high heat. Once some fat has rendered, add your onions and cook until almost translucent.

3.Add the garlic, olives and 2-3 sardines with their oil, and cook for about 3 minutes to heat through and meld flavors, breaking up the fish as you go. Add the tomato paste and enough water to make a light sauce, not too wet, just not dry. Thrown your cooked pasta into the pan and stir to coat. Serve!

This would be equally delicious with:
-spinach added near the end to just wilt it
-a tsp to a tbsp of capers
-kalamata olives instead of green
-parsley added at the end.

Mix it up and try some combinations!

I had mine with a side salad dressed with peppered tomatoes, red onions, feta cheese and drizzled with olive oil and lemon juice, plus some slices of baguette with some extra sardine I had leftover.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Power Breakfast Smoothie

I am not a morning person. Nor am I a breakfast person. Most days, I tumble out of bed, brush my hair and teeth, pull on some clothes and head out the door with a big to-go container full of a riff on this smoothie. It keeps me full until lunch, is super fast to set up, and also makes me feel like a responsible, non-Lucky-Charms-eating, adult. Woot.

Power Breakfast Smoothie
makes enough for two smoothies (give the other portion to someone you like, they'll appreciate it)

Ingredients & Directions:
This is mostly just a basic idea of how to go about making a normal tasting smoothie that doesn't have a lot of sugar going on. I never add any sugar to mine because all the yogurt in China is already sweetened, I counteract this sweetness with a squeeze of half a lemon in there because I like some zing, but your welcome to put some honey or agave in there if it needs sweetening to you, both of those sweeteners are healthy and yummy!

Hardest part: Get a blender and assemble it in the right order for it to work. Plug it in. (MAKE SURE IT'S SWITCHED OFF FIRST THOUGH!)

In every smoothie I make, there is:

1-2 bananas, depending on how many people I am making it for. 1 banana is fine for 2 people
1/2 cup of plain, dried oatmeal, preferably rolled, but quick will work in a pinch.
a large handful of washed spinach, trust me you can't taste it at all (it's a miracle!)
1 cup of whole milk yogurt with live cultures. Plain would be best, but all yogurt in China is sweetened...
a splash of whole milk
a splash of 100% juice

Here's where you can get funky:
Add whatever other fruit you have on hand. I like my smoothie to be interesting and light tasting, so I go for puckery fruits like pineapple, oranges, mangoes, and peaches. Berry's get lost in smoothies to me, unless you put a ton in, so I just save the berries for more berry-centric things.... like tarts. If all else fails and I don't even have a measly orange to throw in, I always have lemons in the house, and I just squeeze the juice of half or a whole one in there.

Alternately, instead of extra fruit, you could add a tbsp of nut butter for a rich, thick smoothie, if you're into that sorta thing.

I like to add some 100% juice to up my fruit intake, but if you don't have 100% juice, I'd just leave it out. Avoiding corn syrup laden cereal is the goal here for me, so I wouldn't add juice that has it in it either.

If you're feeling bored, throw in some spices. If I've got bananas and peaches in there, I add some cinnamon and trick myself into thinking I'm eating a peach cobbler. If it's bananas and pineapple, cardamom would be fine. In a nut butter and banana smoothie, a tsp on cocoa powder could amp it up a bit.

If you've got a strong juicer/blender, throw in some cut up carrots instead of spinach and add a small piece of ginger, add some cinnamon and a little honey and you'll have a carrot cake like smoothie! Mm!

You could add some flax seeds or a green machine type powder to make it extra good.

And lastly, if you are on a diet, I highly recommend a tbsp of virgin coconut oil. It'll keep you full and satisfied for longer and coconut oil (of the organic, virgin variety, like Dr. Bronner's) is extremely good for you!

Basically, add things that are good for you to get the most out of this breakfast. White sugars, corn syrup-y granola, and diluted juice won't do anything for you, so just stick to whole things as much as possible for this. It'll jump start your day with a serving of fruits and vegetables and get your metabolism working without having to spend 20 minutes cooking something. Enjoy!

Thursday, April 19, 2012

French Toast with Fresh Blackberry Syrup

I am not a sweet foods in the morning kind of person (not including my coffee). I love eggs with cheese and hot sauce and savory, salty things, like bacon, toast, omelets and home fries. One of the few sweet breakfast foods I enjoy is French toast.

When I was a kid, we only ever had wheat and whole grain breads in the house, which drove me crazy. I liked white bread, darnit, and I was embarrassed when my friends made fun of my darker sandwich slices. But on weekends when I had friends sleepover, we would have heaping breakfasts of scrambled eggs, bacon, and custardy french toast dusted with powdered sugar. My favorite topping was a dark, rich purple boysenberry syrup. The toast would be soft and delicious, with oats in the crust and nuts in the interior. I don't care if the origin of French toast, pain perdu, in meant to be made with stale baguettes. French toast is just plain better when made with oatnut breads.

When I stumbled upon a precious, small basket of fresh berries in the market last week, I knew right away that I had to make some jam or syrup so that we could enjoy this rare treat longer. I love making jam in summer with fresh fruits, but this spring treat sure hit the spot.

 This syrup would be superb with sage, some cinnamon or chili powder, but that's your call. It takes maybe 15 minutes to make, and can be on its way while you prepare things for the French toast.

The incarnation of French toast below is not low fat. It is a delicious, special occasion treat that would be perfect to make for guests or someone you love on a Saturday morning.

French Toast with Fresh Blackberry Syrup
serves 2

For the French Toast:
4-5 slices of oatnut bread, or your favorite bread, slightly stale
2 eggs
1/4 cup of cream
1/2 cup of milk
1 tbsp sugar
1 tsp cinnamon
butter for cooking

For the Blackberry Syrup: (makes about 3 cups)
2 1/2 cup of fresh, rinsed blackberries, stems removed
1/4 cup lemon juice
2 cups sugar
a pinch of salt
2 cups water

1. Make the Syrup: In a small (you don't want too much surface area), non-reactive pot, put all of the ingredients for the syrup and turn the heat on to medium. Allow the sugar to melt and give it a good stir.

2. Bring to a steady bubble and allow to cook, making sure to stir the bottom, for 10 minutes. Feel free to go whip of the French toast dip, but keep ears and eyes alert. Jammy concoctions can occasionally foam up, and if you aren't watching, create an enormous mess of your once clean stove. You also don't want the bottom of your syrup to burn, as it'll stick to your pot for eons. You just want to evaporate some of the water, while also fully cooking and dissolving/softening the fruit. When it has thickened, turn off the heat and let it hang out while you cook some of the French toast.

3. Make the French Toast: In a small bowl (again, you don't want too much surface area) beat your eggs with the sugar , cinnamon, milk and cream. Really get it all in there. Cut your bread slices in half diagonally (in this case creating more surface area). Dip each slice into the egg-milk dip and allow it to become saturated.

4. Heat a nonstick pan of medium and add a small pat of butter to melt. I usually just swirl the stick around the pan quickly to ensure it's lightly coated. When the butter is slightly foamy, add two half (or one whole slice) of the bread to the pan. Cook for about 2 minutes on each side (adjusting for your particular stove top) until the bottom is cooked and has some lightly browned spots. Flip and repeat.

5. If you're my dad, you'll have a small baking sheet in a low oven ready to accept the cooked slices of French toast to keep warm. If you're me, you'll have two plate at the ready by the stove, and you'll divide each batch between the two until you're done cooking them.

6. Strain the Syrup: Warm your intended syrup dispenser on the outside with some hot water from the tap. Set a fine mesh strainer (I use a tea strainer) over the top of it and slowly pour your syrup through, using a spoon to squish out excess juice from the pulp. I personally enjoy the pulp, so I really squish the pulp in the strainer trying to only retain the seeds from the final syrup.

Drizzle your French toast with the Blackberry syrup and maybe some of the fresh fruits, dust with a little powdered sugar and enjoy alongside some softly scrambled eggs and crsip bacon!

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

How To: Make Bacon

Picture courtesy of Dylan
Bacon. I don't need to tell you what it is. I don't need to tell you why it's delicious. If you don't like it, you're lying. And if you like it, you owe it to yourself to try making your own.

When I told my dad that I make my own bacon, his first reaction was 'be careful not to poison yourself!!'. Um, yes. That is a concern, I suppose. This bacon, though, is what's known as 'green' bacon, meaning it is unsmoked. Because it's not smoked, it has a shorter shelf life. Fortunately, it's so delicious it barely lasts 2 days once it's done curing.

This bacon is fantastic for breakfast or cut into small pieces and sauteed with spinach. My favorite way to eat it, though, is on a BLT. Because it's not pumped with salt water like the store bought kind, this bacon won't shrivel up and shrink when fried. It stays in its glorious meaty, thick sliced state which makes for really excellent sandwiches when topped with tomatoes, and lettuce, a little mayo and some fresh cracked pepper.

Please do not be intimidated by this. The hardest part of this process is probably finding the right cut of meat. However, if you have a friendly disposition and don't live in a tree stump in the middle of the woods, it's almost guaranteed you can get your hands on some easily. Heck, even if you do live in a stump and are mean as all get out, if you can find a pig, you can make bacon. 

What is curing? Well, in nontechnical terms, it's the process of preserving foods using either salt or sugar. I generally think of dry curing, which involves just dry ingredients. But there is also brining, which involves liquid and it can cure as well.

Is curing bacon hard? No. More primitive peoples cured meat, so if you can use your iPod, you can make bacon.

Don't I need special materials and equipment? No. Seriously. A gallon sized zip lock, a knife and your hands work fine. Oh, and a bowl and a plate. If you eat, it can be made. Some people use nitrates to ensure that they don't get botulism. As long as you use a clean cutting board, clean hands and clean tools, this bacon will be fine. And as long as you eat it within a week or so, you will be fine. 

Doesn't it take a lot of work? No. Literally 6 minutes at the beginning, 2 seconds every day for around 5 days, and then the time it takes to slice, cook and eat every last morsel once it's done.

Here are the steps.

How to Make Bacon
adapted from Saveur Magazine's recipe, here
2 1/2 lb pork belly, skin on.
1 1/2 tbsp dark brown sugar
1 1/2 tbsp salt (I use regular table salt. If using kosher, go up to 2 tbsp)
1 tbsp crushed dried rosemary leaves
1/2 tsp ground sage
1 tbsp fennel seeds, whole
3 bay leaves
a pinch of red pepper flakes
fresh ground pepper

1) Get your hands on 2 1/2 pounds of pork belly, skin on or skin off. Skin on ensures that you'll be the judge of how much fat you keep on there, and it is generally sold this way. Skin off, however, will do.

2) Trim you pork belly into a rectangular piece. Cut off the skin (or rind as it's sometimes called), leaving at least a 1/4 inch of fat.

3) Mix together your dry rub, minus bay leaves.

4) Place the pork in  a gallon zip lock bag. Pour in all of the dry mix, and shake it all around to coat. Use your hands to pat it on there through the bag. Get as much air out of the bag as possible to ensure good surface contact with bacon and dry rub, and zip closed.

5) Put it in your refrigerator, on the bottom shelf, on a plate. Every day for 4-5 days, turn it over to ensure even curing. While you're doing that, poke it to see how firm it is. On the 4th day, take it out, cut a small piece out of the middle and fry it up to try. If you like it, cut it up and eat it! If it's not as firm or salty/sweet as you want, put it back in to cure a day or two more. If it's too salty, put it in a bowl of cool water for an hour or so to dry out some salt, then pat dry with paper towel and eat!

6) Once you have it at the flavor and texture you want, rinse off excess spices, and pat dry with a paper towel. Put it on a clean plate, and put it in the refrigerator for a few hours to 1 day with just a paper towel or plastic wrap loosely covering it. You want to dry it up a bit. After that, pre-slice or leave whole and store in a new, fresh ziplock in the fridge for up to 2 weeks or in the freezer for 3 months.

7) There is also the option of putting it in a very low oven at about 200F~85C wrapped in aluminum foil for an hour or two to firm it up and render some of the extra bacon fat. This is optional, however, as it will only affect the slice-ability of your bacon, and not the tastiness.

Your bacon will last approximately 1- 2 weeks in the refrigerator. Be smart. Your bacon should have almost no scent at all. If it begins to have an odd smell, toss it. If it has a faintly green color, toss it. Neither of these things have ever happened to me, but use your head. Don't be gross and don't risk your stomach!

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Spinach Ravioli with Garlic Herb Olive Oil

Tuesday is my long day. I start work at 8 and finish at 5:30.  I know, that's a normal 8 hour job. I know that 8 hours should not be a big deal. I used to regularly have a couple of jobs at a time, but now I am a working wussy. China has 2 hour lunch breaks, early closing times, week and month long national vacations.... it's kinda of awesome.

But seriously, teaching can be a tiring job!

Often times, I love it. I'm especially enjoying teaching art this year and having that creativity back in my life. Sometimes, though, trying to get teenagers to understand the basics of oil painting 5 times in one day is enough to make you want to eat the fake still life fruit, just so it can end! Enough is enough! To top it off, Tuesdays, I have a meeting at 4 o'clock that could last anywhere between 1 and 2 hours. The meetings are often fruitless and circular and by the time I get out of there I need to go do something I want to do.

Last Tuesday, I wanted flowers, so I bought some.  I wanted to eat spinach for dinner, so I bought some. I wanted rose tea when I got home, so I had some. When I got home, I rummaged in my fridge to figure out what to make. You see, for some reason, it's rare for me to actually have a totally thought out plan for dinner. This often results in my boyfriend worriedly asking me if we're ever going to eat dinner, or what exactly it is that I'm making. So last Tuesday, I had spinach and then I saw mushrooms and  jiaozi wrappers and immediately thought, ravioli. I made mushroom ravioli with thyme and breadcrumbs, and I made spinach ravioli and egg. I was a little worried that the egg would be weird or the the combo too boring. It was anything but.

These ravioli are delicious.  They are garlicky, earthy and truly rich tasting despite having zero cheese or dairy  whatsoever. I think they'd be great with Pasta Pomodoro, but I just ate them with a drizzle of some herb garlic olive oil and a sprinkle of parmesan.

Spinach Ravioli with Herb Garlic Olive Oil

For the Ravioli:
A pack of potsticker wrappers, the thickest you can find, or fresh sheets of pasta dough (I used about 40)
A ton of spinach
3-4 cloves of garlic, minced
1/2 a medium red onion, finely diced
salt and pepper
1 egg, beaten

For the Oil:
1/2 cup olive oil, fruity is okay
a large pinch of rosemary
a large pinch of oregano (or italian herb mix)
a medium pinch of red pepper flakes
a medium pinch of kosher salt
a tiny pinch of cinnamon
3 black peppercorns
1 clove of garlic, minced

1. Grab all your ingredients. Trim off some of the spinach stems and rinse thoroughly. Chop finely. (Finer than I did, please!)

2. Prepare the Herb Oil: In a mortar and pestle, add all of the dry ingredients (meaning, not the olive oil or the garlic). Crush until very fine. Mince the garlic. Combine the ingredients in a small bowl to allow the flavors to meld.

3. Prepare the Filling: Dice the onion and mince the garlic. Add 1 tbsp of olive oil to a pan and heat over medium. Add onions and cook for 1-2 minutes to soften. Add garlic. Be careful to adjust according to your particular stove's heating, you don't want to burn the garlic! Season with salt and fresh ground pepper, maybe even a little nutmeg if you want to be interesting.

4. Set the spinach aside to cool just a bit, about 8 minutes. In a bowl, beat the egg. Add a small amount of the spinach mixture and stir to make sure the egg won't curdle when you add it all. Then, gradually add more and more of the spinach to the egg until all combined.

5. Fill the Ravioli: Set yourself with a little ravioli assembly line. You'll need your wrappers, a spoon, a fork, a little bowl of water and a little bowl of flour. Here are the steps:

Form a small bowl shape with the wrapper in your fingers. Brush just a tiny bit of water on the edge of the wrapper.

With a spoon add just a small amount, about a teaspoon, of the filling to the middle of the wrapper.

Fold the wrapper in half and squeeze at the top middle. Make sure the two sides actually meld, the water should help. Then, move along the edge squeezing until the entire edge has been sealed shut.

Lay the ravioli onto a dry place on a cutting board or plate. Dip the fork tines into the small bowl of flour, then gently press the tines into the sealed edge of the ravioli to give it that happy little ruffled edge. This is optional, but I think makes it look so nice.

Repeat until you either run out of filling or wrappers.***

6. Cook the Ravioli: Fill a large pot with water and salt it. Bring to a boil. Once boiling, you may add up to about 10 ravioli to your pot. The ravioli are cooked when they float to the top of the water and stay there.

7.Scoop cooked ravioli out with a slotted spoon as they finish. Split into bowls or onto plates. Drizzle the garlic herb oil  on top. Sprinkle some Parmesan if desired (you do) and eat! Excellent with a side salad and some white wine, or by themselves for a light lunch. You could even serve these ON TOP of salad and use the herb oil and a little red wine vinegar as the dressing. Enjoy!

*** These ravioli freeze really well. Dust a baking sheet with some flour and arrange the ravioli on it as you fill them. Make sure they aren't touching! Put the ravioli on the sheet into the freezer overnight. The next day, pop the ravioli off the sheet and into freezer bags, and enjoy in the next few weeks!

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Orange Hoisin Pork Ribs

Let me tell you about a dark time in my life. A time when I didn't eat pork. Why? For no other reason than because I didn't like the texture. What texture, meat texture? No. Dry meat texture. I assumed that pork was always dry. It's not because my father wasn't good at cooking pork. I have no idea, actually, where or when my dislike of it started, but I do know that it ended once and for all when I moved to China.

China, you see, is rife with pork. This is because 1) Beef didn't arrive for a long time. And once it did, it was a liiiiittle late to become the dominant and preferred meat 2) Pigs are much cheaper to raise (chickens are even cheaper) than cows and need less space and 3) China, though large, doesn't have the same amount of available farming space that the US does, thus making what space it has prioritized for vegetable crops. These are the same reasons that pork, chicken and seafood are more popular in places like South America and other Southeast Asian countries. Beef isn't very common. Even now, it is very unusual for me to see any beef in stores here in China. Lamb and mutton are far more common, in fact. 

I never bought pork when I lived in the US because I didn't know how to cook it, but necessity is the mother of invention, and scarcity is the mother of adaptation. This recipe is a favorite around here. Since I first stumbled upon the original recipe a few weeks ago at my holy grail of food blogs, Smitten Kitchen, it's been eaten almost once a week. I have made it each time with a tweak here or there, and have used both  full sized ribs and riblets. The recipe below delivers ribs with crispy bits, lots of saucy flavor and tender, flavorful meat. The two step process sounds involved, but really is one of those 'set it and forget it' sort of things. You can prep everything else during the wait, and have everything on the table at the same time easily in just over an hour and a half.

I always serve this with buttered corn on the cob, which I really enjoy. Other sides I've paired it with are pasta salad, coleslaw, green salads, baked potatoes, roasted carrots and onions, and mashed potatoes. To take this meal further East, I like to pair this with ganbian si ji dou, a classic Sichuanese dish that translates to 'dry fried green beans'. A good recipe is here

Orange Hoisin Pork Ribs
originally adapted from Smitten Kitchen's Hoisin-Honey Riblets
serves 2 for dinner

4 lbs of your choice of ribs or riblets, (aim for good marbling) cut into individual ribs
2 large oranges or tangerines
1 medium, red onion
2-3 green onions
salt & pepper

Sauce: (make 2 batches if using full sized ribs)
1/2 tsp sesame oil
2 tbsp hoisin sauce
1/2 tsp dark soy sauce
1/2 tsp spicy fermented chili bean paste (辣豆瓣酱 la doubanjjiang) (optional)
1 tbsp + 1/4tsp dijon mustard
1 tbsp white rice vinegar
2 tsp garlic, minced or made into a paste
1/2 tsp ginger, minced or made into a paste
1 tbsp orange juice

1. Preheat your oven to 375F~190C. Line a roasting pan with foil for easy clean up later. Slice your onion into rings. place the rings on the bottom of the roasting pan in an even layer. Lay your ribs on top of the onions ring. Lightly salt and pepper the ribs. Cut your oranges, skin on, into slices about 1/4 thick. Lay these slices on top of  the ribs spaced approximately evenly apart. 

2. Add 1-2 cups of water to the pan. You really just want the water to to go about 1/4 of the way up the side of the ribs. We're not boiling them, but we don't really want to crisp them right now either. Tightly cover the pan with aluminum foil. Put into the oven and bake for about 45 minutes.

3. Make the sauce in the largest bowl you have. Use a spoon to peel the ginger. Also, I usually use the grater with the smallest holes (not the parmesan one, I hate that one!) to turn my garlic and ginger into an easy mince. You could use a special ginger grater if you've got one, but graters are easier to clean. You're welcome to taste the sauce to adjust flavors. If you're looking for a sweeter sauce, try about 1 tsp of brown sugar and a little more orange juice. If you want a spicier rib, add 1/2 tsp of dried ground chili flakes or powder. Be warned, this will taste kind of spicy and sharp due to the raw garlic and ginger. This will definitely mellow in the cooking process, so keep that in mind as you're adjusting flavors.

4. Once the ribs are done, pull them out of the oven (keep the oven on!) and remove the aluminum foil cover. Be careful! Steam is hot! Using tongs, discard the orange slices. Your meat should be slightly browned and cooked through. You should also see some fat and other juices in with the water. Move the ribs to your big bowl with the sauce and use your tongs to toss and coat. 

5. Lightly grease a roasting rack that fits in the roasting pan you used. I use the 'oven rack' that came with my toaster oven and it works just fine. You just want to elevate the meat out of any possible moisture. Dump out most of the water from the roasting pan and discard the onions. Arrange the ribs on the rack above the roasting pan or cookie sheet. Pour 1 cup of water into the roasting pan. This will help the ribs retain some moisture, and also help with clean up later!

6. Bake the ribs again at 375F~190C for about 15-20 minutes. You're looking for the sauce to be absorbed and lightly caramelized. Once this happens, pull the ribs out and, with a brush, baste the ribs one last time with your left over sauce (..or another batch of the sauce). I like to really lay it on thick! Pop those suckers under the broiler for another 10 minutes, just to cook the sauce through and zap some moisture out. 

7. Cut up your green onion. Arrange your finished ribs on a large plate or bowl and add the green onions on top. Enjoy!

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Kathleen's Irish Soda Bread

I have a friend named Katheleen. We met in Beijing in February 2011. It was both of our first times in China, neither of us had done any teaching and, as it turned out, we had a lot in common. We both love 80's movies, Muppets, Jim Henson and Mystery Science Theater 3000. We're both big nerds, and have a deep, abiding love for David Bowie. We're both occasionally, psychopathically indecisive, and we're both extremely laid back. After the first year was over, my boyfriend and I moved away across the country to Chengdu, and Kathleen stayed in Beijing. It was sad. I hadn't expected to find someone so great in a random suburb at a random private school in China I'd randomly decided to work in.

We've kept in touch and I miss getting to dork out daily with her. During the Chinese New Year festival break, which is about a month long, I went back to Beijing to visit for a week. We drank tea non stop during the day and night, and ate food I've been deprived of in the suburbs of Chengdu. The first day there, we went to her Chinese friend's house and made dumplings/potstickers, called jiaozi. It's a tradition to eat jiaozi during the festival because it promises good luck and prosperity in the new year. The jiaozi look like little purses, symbolizing wealth and good fortune. Well, that day, Kathleen made Irish soda bread and brought it to share with our Chinese friends. It was a big hit. The Chinese don't love overly sweet things, and this bread was only just verging on sweet. A month later, my boyfriend and I befriended an elderly Chinese couple living in our apartment complex. They invited us over for dinner, and I made some of this bread and some orange curd and brought it over to share. They loved it.

I'd only tried rosemary soda bread, and had never had sweet soda bread until Kathleen made it for us in January. I love it. It's not too sweet, it's extremely fast to put together, it stays entirely edible and not rock hard for at least 5 days, and it is not fussy at all. I've tinkered with it a little bit, but to me, it's still Kathleen's recipe. She got it from her mother, and I have no idea where she got it. 

Thank you Kathleen and thank you Kathleen's mom! I've made this so often since you first made it for me, I'm sure it will be a classic in my recipe book for years to come. I will always think of you when I make it and the unlikely friendship we formed in Beijing!

Kathleen's Irish Soda Bread
makes 1 small loaf, enough for 2 people over a few days, or 4-6 people as a light dessert/snack

As with many baking recipes here, I replace the butter with oil. I would highly recommend bringing this to an afternoon hang out session or a casual lunch or dinner with friends, old or new. Or just make it for yourself and enjoy it first thing in the in the morning or very late at night.

The Cast of Characters (...minus eggs)
1 cup buttermilk OR sub. 1 cup milk + 1 tbsp white vinegar
2 cups flour
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1 stick of butter= 8 tbsp butter
 (OR sub. 6 tbsp neutral tasting vegetable oil)
1/2 tsp salt
2 tbsp sugar
1 egg
raisins and other add ins (not shown)

1.Preheat your oven to 350 F or about 175 C. Mix together dry ingredients. I always do this when I bake because it makes sure to evenly incorporate things into the finished product and will make sure there are no big lumps of salt or baking soda. It also makes sure you don't overwork more delicate doughs, since overworking can lead to underdeveloped rises in anything from quick breads to pancakes.

Mix together the wet ingredients first
2. Now add the wet ingredients. It helps to mix all of the wet things, like oil, the egg and buttermilk together beforehand. If using melted butter, start with this first before adding the other wet ingredients. Stir until just combined and all the dry is incorporated. This will be a wet, sticky, shaggy dough. Don't be afraid.

Add your wet to the dry.
3. Gently mix in your add-ins. I usually use some type of raisin and snipped, dried apricots. I've also used some orange zest and marzipan. This is all of the above with small chunks of lightly sweetened marzipan infusing the bread with a light almond flavor, setting off the fruity, bright notes of the raisins and apricots. I especially like when the apricots poke out of the top because the sugars caramelize into a deep, tart, citrus flavor.
Almond paste, dried apricots and golden raisins.
4. Now, roughly shape this into a ball. It won't really hold its shape, but don't worry too much about it. I score an X on the top as is traditional. Put your dough blob onto a greased baking sheet, or into a greased cake pan.
Don't worry about it being gloopy
5. Bake for about 45 minutes or until lightly golden on the center rack. You're welcome to check its doneness with a thin, sharp knife inserted into the middle. It will continue to cook just a little when you take it out, and unless you want a crumble fest, don't bake it longer or you'll dry it out. Take out, cool on a wire rack, then dust with powdered sugar.

Serve warm or cold. Because it's only lightly sweetened (very lightly) it is really scrumptious with lemon or blood orange curd, or with homemade blackberry jam. I strongly recommend it paired alongside a large cup of black tea with a splash of milk. 

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Eggs Florence

When I wake up on Saturdays, life feels so free. Rain or shine, my day is mine. I get to slowly acclimate to the day, without waking up to adrenaline and blaring alarms. Without lightning fast showers and running out the door with wet hair. I don't have to give a lecture to anyone today, or sternly remind students of timeliness and their work. I don't have to clock in. I do what I want, darn it!

First, I start with a cup of tea or coffee and a book. These days, it's Black tea brewed strong as I've slowly been weaning myself off of my coffee addiction. Then, I take a shower, long and hot. I lather my hair like I have all the time in the world, and I let my conditioner really have time to sink in. I get to brush my hair and let it dry into something not styled by the wind whipping through it on the motorbike (read: crazy art teacher hair). I put on my clothes that have been heating over the heater, and I slip my sock clad feet into slippers instead of real shoes. Then, I think about food. What do I want to eat today? Eggs Florence.

Eggs Florence is the homely, less subtle cousin of Eggs Florentine. They're definitely in the same family, but where Florentine might wear tea rose printed skirts, Florence wears comfy old jeans with paint stains. Florentine likes cashmere, Florence likes flannel. The differences are subtle. They both consist of a bread substance, a salty sweet breakfast meat, spinach, eggs and a citrusy-butter sauce. But Florence is more casual and slightly less fussy. Eggs Florentine is of course delicious, but Eggs Florence is friendly and approachable. The riff on hollandaise sauce here is virtually unbreakable due to the addition of Dijon, which seems to aid in the emulsification of the sauce. Not only is it easy, but I usually have everything on hand here in China, and my boyfriend loves it. So here you go.

Eggs Florence
makes 2 servings

For the base:
4 eggs
2 slices Canadian bacon OR 4 slices of maple bacon OR homemade green bacon
2 slices whole wheat or sourdough bread, toasted OR 6 finger width slices of day old baguette, toasted
1 large clove of garlic, minced
1/2 a large red onion, diced
A large bunch of fresh spinach, chopped OR an appropriate amount of thawed frozen spinach
1 tsp olive oil (optional)
salt and pepper

For the sauce:
2 room temperature egg yolks (save the whites!)
3 tbsp salted butter
1 tsp olive oil
2 tsp Dijon mustard
1/4 cup fresh squeeze lemon juice
salt and pepper to taste

1. Lightly toast your bread base. Split up the slices equally between two plates. Dice your onion, mince your garlic. Chop up your spinach. Now, I love spinach. LOVE it. I use .... a lot. I couldn't say exactly how much, but I use as much as possible each time. Decide how much to make using your own discretion, but keep in mind that wilted spinach takes up a lot less room than fresh, so use slightly more than you want to end up with.

2. Heat a large pan over medium heat, once it's hot, add your chosen meat and lightly brown it. Remove cooked meat to a plate and stick it somewhere to keep warm, like a very low oven, or a microwave.

3. If you've cooked Canadian bacon and it hasn't given off much grease, add the 1 tsp of olive oil to the same pan you cooked the meat in to heat up. Once the oil or grease is warm, add your diced onion. When it starts to become translucent, add the garlic and saute for 1 or 2 minutes just to soften it and get garlic flavor in the oil. Don't brown it! Add your chopped spinach and cook until just wilted (no longer fresh and crispy). Give it a sprinkle of salt and pepper. Remove the pan from heat and set aside.

3. In a small, heavy pan, or a double boiler, or a heat proof bowl that fits on top of a small pot of boiling water (seriously, I've used all of these methods with no problems, fear not!), add 1 tbsp of the butter and melt it over low heat. Low is the key. You don't want to scald or curdle any of these ingredients, so go with low heat. From here on out, use a whisk or a fork to stir pretty constantly, keep the sauce moving. It goes pretty fast, so don't let the instructions scare you. I've just found this method works best.

When the first tbsp of butter has melted, add 1/2 tsp of olive oil and one ROOM TEMPERATURE (I can't stress this enough) egg yolk and whisk in. Add another tbsp of butter plus the mustard and keep stirring until melted. Add the last (2nd) egg yolk, stir. Now, the last (3rd) tbsp of butter and HALF of the 1/4 cup of lemon juice, stir. I am a crazy lemon freak. I always wish that the hollandaise sauces at restaurants had more pucker and zing so I add a lot of lemon juice. But for you, taste it now and adjust accordingly. The Dijon will already give it a little bit of zing. If it's too zingy, add the other 1/2 tsp olive oil to mellow it. Add pepper and just a little salt, the Dijon is a little salty already. When you've got the flavor you want, take it off the heat, stir for one more minute to make sure it doesn't curdle, and then leave it alone while you finish up the construction of your breakfast. It will thicken a bit as it cools.

4. Heat up your spinach on the stove and while you do that, fry or poach 2 eggs per person. On the two plates, construct your Eggs Florence like so: bread base, lay down the meat on top (room temperature does not bother me here), pile your just reheated spinach into a flat-topped mountain, then lay your freshly cooked eggs gently on top. Stir up your sauce and spoon it over with wild abandon. I love me some sauce.

I usually serve this with home fry potatoes and fruit salad when I'm feeding my boyfriend and myself. When it's just me though, I eat just the Eggs Florence with an extra helping of spinach, tea and orange juice. Enjoy!

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Pasta Pomodoro

One time, I was a freshman in college and it was only the 1st month. College was new and exciting and different, but oh man was the food situation dismal. So, I went to the closest supermarket, bought the ingredients for this sauce, started it up in the tiny little, communal kitchen in our dorm hall and sat down with a book in the adjacent common room. I knew few people at this point, but I met a lot of people that day. Because the sauce takes abut 30-45 minutes to reduce, the smell of homey, sweet, buttery tomatoes started to waft through the room and slowly down the hall. Boys I'd never seen before showed up, drawn by the smell and their stomachs, and girls who I'd only awkwardly made friendly hallway conversation with came in to see who was cooking and what it was. Later on down the road, this sauce was the first one my boyfriend learned to cook. And in my senior year, I made this same cheap and easy sauce for a huge group for less than 25 dollars.

I learned this sauce from my father, who got it from a book at some point but he's never used a recipe. We would eat it when I was a kid and it was one of the first things I remember cooking, as it's so easy. Pasta Pomodoro is the easiest pasta sauce I've heard of. It has just 3 ingredients, none of them hard to find. It's an excellent base to create more complex sauces, but the sauce that results from this is so delicious and warming and homey. Why mess with it?  The pickiest eaters eat it, it's vegetarian and it will be great on seriously any shape pasta you pair it with. Serve it with ravioli for a truly lovely meal, but with regular spaghetti, garlic bread and salad, no one would complain.

Pasta Pomodoro
makes 3-4 servings for light saucers, 2 servings for heavy saucer                                                                                         
**4 tomatoes or 2 15oz cans of plainm peeled tomatoes with their juice. I like Hunt's brand, and I like whole.
1/2 stick (4 tbsp) salted butter
1 large yellow or red tomato (yellow is best)

Empty both cans of tomatoes into an appropriately sized sauce pan. Use a wooden spoon to sort of punch the whole tomatoes if you're using them. Turn on the burner to medium high heat. Add the butter, cut into 4 or so pieces and the peeled onion, cut into 4 pieces also.
Simmer these ingredients, stirring occasionally, squishing tomato and onion occasionally too. When the sauce has reduced by half, add salt and pepper to taste. Though the reduction takes a little time, you'll be rewarded with a silky rich sauce that's condensed all of the sweet tomato essence and imbued it with the friendly flavors of butter and sweet onion. It tastes rich, but is cheap. You can blend it if you like, but my favorite part is eating the chunks of tomato and the translucent soft onion layers. If serving with ravioli, I beg you to try a cheese one. This does not sound gourmet, but one of my earliest 'omgfood' moments was this same meal. Simple is good.

** If, like me, you don't have access to canned tomatoes...or are simply too tired to go get some, check out my Blanched Tomatoes how-to and use about 4-6 ripe tomatoes instead. Super easy and fast as well, and if you have homegrown tomatoes, you will never regret it. Just add a cup of water in with the ingredients at the beginning so that things have a little more juice to work with in cooking the veggies.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Super Secret Garlic Bread

Ssh. Is anyone looking over your shoulder? No? Good. Because this is my secret garlic bread.  This is not your everyday garlic bread, nor will it garner an everyday garlic bread response. I would suggest making this with 2 baguettes if you live with or plan to serve this to any carb or garlic lovers. It's a secret for many reasons. I never tell people at get-togethers what's in it because I don't want them to poo poo it before they try it. None of my friends know its secret, and even though it's obvious to me, they've never guessed it. Its also a secret because it is a weapon I use against others occasionally. 'Fine, but I won't make the garlic bread ever again!' 'Wait, wait, wait...okay fine, we can go to the yarn store...again'.

Do you know someone who's a little...picky? Do you know a mayonnaise phobic? Well, don't tell them what's in this. Because....there is mayonnaise involved. Not a lot, but just enough to make the topping more than just a toasted butter deal, and enough to give it just a little tangy that is unexpected and delicious. Alleged mayonnaise haters have gobbled this bread down like no tomorrow, trust me, they can't tell. But if you tell them, you will get an undesired reaction. So do yourself, and them a favor. What they don't know will make them so happy and will make you a garlic bread star.

If for some ungodly reason you have extra topping leftover, save it in the fridge and find a reason to eat corn on the cob because it is dead delicious on a bright yellow, piping hot, grilled, boiled or steamed cob.

Super Secret Garlic Bread
covers 1 baguette

1 baguette, cut lengthwise in half
**1 tbsp mayonnaise
2 tbsp butter
1 tbsp grated parmesan cheese
1 1/2 tbsp olive oil
1 1/2 tbsp minced garlic
1/2 tsp oregano
1/2 tsp thyme
salt to taste

** if you are seriously, morally opposed to mayonnaise. Or, like me, can't find it very easily, you may beat 1 egg, then use 1 tablespoon of the beaten egg in the mix. It will be delicious, but not quite the same delicious as with the mayo. HOWEVER, do not add it until after Step 1 or spreadable it will not be.

1. Melt the butter with the mayonnaise in the microwave. The mayo curdles a little, but it helps, trust me.

2. Mix in the rest of the ingredients.

3. With a spoon or brush, coat the cut sides of the baguette with the topping. Really get it all on there good.

4. Put your bread in the oven to bake at 350F until the top is toasted and a little bubbly. Maybe 10 minutes, but keep an eye on it.

5. When it's all bubble, take it out and let it sit for a minute or two. Cut into pieces and serve with pasta, chicken, soup, salad or anything!

Friday, February 24, 2012

How To: Blanch Fresh Tomatoes

Why, you ask, would you ever need to know how to blanch and peel a tomato? Well, if you're like me, you might live in a place where you can't buy canned tomatoes, or they are very expensive. Many posts on this site will deal specifically with my solutions to lacking ingredients or ready made products here in the land of China. Maybe you can get canned tomatoes, but have started reading about the problems with canned tomatoes and leeching chemicals. Maybe you have a garden full of fresh tomatoes that you'd like to use for a sauce (summer is coming..someday). If you're going organic, it's less expensive and easier to control what substances you eat by just buying organic tomatoes and making fresh sauce. Maybe you hate the weird little curls of cooked tomato skin you get when you just cut up a tomato for sauce. Here is your answer

What is blanching? It's the process of putting something, usually fruits or vegetables, in boiling water for just a short time, usually to peel the skin off it. It's as easy as it sounds. Despite this, people would rather spend those 5-7 minutes opening a can of questionable tomatoes. I tell you, this is easy and delicious.

Here are the steps (pictures are on the way):

How To Blanch Fresh Tomatoes
1) Gather all the tomatoes you want to take the skins off of. Get a pot, like a pasta water pot, and fill it with enough warmish water from the tap to just cover the tomatoes. Also scrounge up a slotted spoon or ladle, just something to eventually scoop the tomatoes out of the water. Turn your burner on to boil the water.

2) Take any leaves and stems off the tomatoes. Put them stem side down on a cutting board. With a sharp knife, score an X on the bottom of the tomato. By score, I mean to cut, but only just through the skin, you're just helping it to split later in the water. Do not cut into the actual meat of the tomato or you'll lose some precious tomatoey flavor to the boiling water.

3) Once the water is at a rolling boil, add the tomatoes, careful not to splash yourself! Now, you wait. Probably around 5-7 minutes. You don't want to mushify the tomatoes. The goal here is to get the very outside of the meat to cook, the part attached to the skin. The X you put on the bottom will help water to slightly flow in there. You know they're ready when the skin has split from your X up to other parts of the tomato. At this point, turn your water off and retrieve your tomatoes with the slotted spoon or ladle.

4) Wait about 2 minutes, maybe more, for the tomatoes to cool enough for you to handle them. Once cool, use the handy little flaps you made earlier and peel the skin off!

5) Ta da! You are finished and have peeled tomatoes that you can use in sauces, soups, salsas, pasta, Bloody Mary's or whatever! I'd highly recommend doing this with garden fresh tomatoes and making Pasta Pomodoro with them!

Thursday, February 23, 2012

The Banana Bread

Meet The Banana Bread
Yes, I do mean to imply that there is only one. That’s because there is only one banana bread recipe that will ever have my heart. The Banana Bread is the only banana bread I have eyes for. I have no recollection of where I originally found the base recipe for this. Likely on a large cooking database like allrecipes, which has its moments. It was my freshman year of college, and because I’m sometimes a kitchen klutz (this you will find out about me), I was not successful in putting in the required ingredients in their correct amounts. This is the first recipe I ever fiddled with, though accidentally.  I wrote it down immediately after the entire bread was gobbled up by deprived and hungry students at 11pm in under 10 minutes, while it was still hot even! So as my first post here, I think it’s appropriate to honor my first great success with culinary creative license.

I’m not sure what your banana bread standards are, but if you like a moist, dense, but not too dense, sweet, but not too sweet, super bananay, spicy, fiddle-able bread, this is it. I think it only gets more delicious with time, as the moisture from the bananas really saturates it. I’ve tried it with a cup of pineapple, which was a dead ringer for pineapple upside down cake. I’ve mixed in blackberries for a structurally sound loaf of what tasted like berry cobbler. It doesn't care if it's baked in a full fledged oven or my dinky toaster oven here in China. In my more desperate times, I’ve even healthed it up with flax seed and by replacing part of the butter with yogurt. When I’m feeling wild, I replace the vanilla with brandy, mix half a bar of melted dark chocolate with some cream cheese, spread it on while it’s hot and later have something that I have to hide from others. My boyfriend ate an entire loaf of that last incarnation by himself just yesterday. Now that I live in China, and butter is a magical unknown substance here, I use vegetable oil. 
Good to the last crumb!

The Banana Bread
Makes 1 lovely loaf

1/2 cups softened, room temperature butter salted or unsalted, I use salted
(china-fied: or, you may substitute 6 tbsp vegetable oil)
1/3 cups sugar (white or brown is fine, or a combination, experiment!)
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
2 eggs
1 tsp salt (or slightly less if using salted)
1/4 cup milk 
1 tbsp vanilla extract (or, you know, booze of some sort, like brandy)
3 or 4 mashed, old, spotted, left-for-dead bananas
1 cup of add-ins like chocolate chips, fruit, craisins, or nuts (optional)
Your choice of spices, to taste

Preheat your oven to 350 F (175 C), making sure your rack is in the middle position. Assemble your ingredients on the counter. Prepare your normal sized loaf pan, 12 muffin muffin pan, or 3-4 mini loaf pans by greasing, paper lining or greasing respectively.

Blend together the butter (or oil) and sugar. Once the butter is fluffy and creamy looking, add the banana, stir. Add the eggs, stir. Add the milk and vanilla (or booze), stir. 

In a separate bowl, (and I'm serious, there is nothing worse than getting a lump of baking soda in a bite of your delicious bread) mix the dry ingredients with a fork to combine and smooth out any little lumps. 

Add the dry ingredients to the wet. Stir until just combined, don't overwork it or you'll tire it out too much to rise in the oven. Here is where you will add your spices or orange zest, and can add your 1 cup fruit, nuts, chocolate chips, or anything else you want. Don't exceed one cup of extra material though, or it will cook funny. I regularly use about 3/4 tbsp of pumpkin pie spice, but nutmeg and cinnamon do the trick too, or just cinnamon, or nothing at all. It's a choose your own adventure sort of bread. 

Scrape all that goodness into your desired bread form, smooth it out a little. In a loaf pan, don't fill it up more than 3/4 of the way full. It rises, and you don't want sad burning banana goo on your oven floor. Likewise, don't fill up your muffin cups more than half way or so, or you'll have sad spilly outy muffins and sad crusty muffin pan.

Now, pop that bread into your preheated oven. Bake for around 35-45 minutes for a loaf, or 25-30 for mini loaves and cup cakes. It will turn a golden brown, and a thin, sharp knife will come out clean after being inserted in the middle of the loaf (or muffin). 

Take it out, and let it cool for 5 minutes in the pan (wait for it...). If you get too antsy, it'll stick to your pan and be sad. Just wait. Now, run a butter knife gently around the edges to release it from the pan, pushing very gently towards the center of the pan to really release the bottom. Put a plate on top, flip the whole thing over and gently shake your bread out of the pan (this step always makes me think of getting condensed soup or refried beans out of a can). Flip your bread right side up on its new plate home, and bask in the glory. Now, eat it. Toasted, frosted, buttered, warm, cold or as is, it's delicious. Enjoy! 

I'd love to hear what sort of combinations you come up with! Post them in the comments!