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Archive for February, 2007

My lab got together for a late celebration of the Year of the Pig (or Boar, however you like to call it) last week. It was a potluck dinner, and I was eager to attempt a few recipes, as my knowledge of Chinese cooking is severely limited. Case in point: a few months ago, I went to Ranch99 in search of star anise, a spice commonly used in Chinese cooking. After ten minutes of weaving my way in and out of the aisles in frustration, I spotted an employee wheeling boxes on a dolly. I desperately grasped for the Chinese name for star anise. In Chinese, the literal translation of its name is “eight-legged,” like an eight-legged star. I couldn’t remember how many legs it had, so I settled for the number five. In Mandarin, I asked, “Could you tell me where the five-legged are?” The guy looked at me quizzically, and repeated, “Five-legged?” I proceeded to explain that I was making beef noodle soup, and umm…you know, you put this thing in red-braised dishes. “Oh! You mean eight-legged!” He broke out into peals of laughter as I admitted that the name sounded right. He took me to the star anise, and I thanked him as he walked away, still chuckling. Putting the lack of chinese cooking know-how behind me, I was determined to produce a few good dishes to ring in the new year.

The first, whole sea bass (recipe from Epicurious), steamed with ginger and scallions, and lightly seasoned with soy sauce. Very simple to make, considering that I used to only cook filleted fish. A huge step for me, too, since I strongly dislike touching or even looking at dead fish. Reminds me too much of my pet fish that committed suicide by jumping out of a cup of water while I was cleaning his tank. Anyway, I think that handling the whole fish helped me overcome my disgust for dead fish. I actually enjoyed taking a picture of the uncooked sea bass.

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The next, ketchup shrimp with scallions, ginger, and garlic, surrounded by baby bok choy. okay, so maybe “ketchup shrimp” doesn’t sound very appealing. but it is GOOD. My mom has been making this dish every time I go back home for a visit, and it is a favorite with my sister. The key to this dish is plenty of chopped scallions, minced ginger and garlic, and PLENTY of sauce that seeps into the shells of the shrimp (you can use prawns, too). My mom usually uses head-on prawns, but I thought the heads would scare my vegetarian friends, so I opted for headless shrimp instead.

Mom’s ketchup shrimp
– De-vein 1 lb medium-sized shell-on shrimp/prawns, using a pair of scissors and a toothpick to fish the veins out. Towel dry
– Coat shrimp in salt, corn starch, and cooking wine (I used Shaoxing). Let sit in fridge for 30 min – 1 hr)
– chop 3-4 stalks of scallions.
– mince 7-8 cloves of garlic
– mince ginger (similar amount as the garlic)
First cook the shrimp through in a bit of oil, but be careful not to overcook. Remove the shrimp from the pan. Adding more oil to the pan, sautee the onion, garlic, and ginger. Add several squirt-swirls of ketchup and a couple teaspoons of sugar, and allow ketchup to cook and caramelize (you can add more ketchup if you want more sauce). Add the shrimp and toss to coat.
Baby Bok Choy: Wash and blanch in boiling water. Remove from water. In a pan, heat a bit of oil. Add five slices of ginger. When you start smelling the ginger, add the bok choy. Very briefly cook by tossing the bok choy around in the pan, and season it with salt. When the bok choy starts to glisten nicely and appears slightly translucent, it’s ready.

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Braised pork shoulder. I found the recipe online, but I can’t remember the source. I think Erin sent me something similar awhile back. Patience is key here, but the good thing is the dish pretty much cooks itself. Leave the pork simmering long enough so that the meat and fatty rind become soft and tender. The pork will have drawn in all the flavors and the color of the sauce.

This dish was one of my grandpa’s favorites. He loved eating the fatty rind more than anything else. I miss my grandpa…I wish he were still here so that I could make this for him.

Braised Pork Shoulder (Serves 10-15)

5 to 7 lb pork shoulder, with bone and rind (I bought two pieces of meat, one with the bone in, one without – the total weight came to be just under 5 lb.)
water
3/4 cup Shaoxing wine
1/3 cup dark soy sauce
6 crystals Chinese yellow rock sugar (each crystal about 1 inch sq).
1-1/2 tsp salt (I added more salt towards the end of the simmering time, because I found the sauce a little too sweet)
6 star anise cloves
1 cinnamon stick
6 garlic cloves (crushed)
4 thick slices ginger
1 whole scallion, trimmed
2 bunches spinach, washed
rehydrated dried shiitake mushrooms, tossed into the reduced sauce and served with the pork
1. Put the pork in a large pot with water to cover. Bring to a boil, simmer for 2 minutes, then drain and rinse.
2. Again add the pork to the pot with fresh water to cover, add the wine, and bring to a boil. Turn the heat to medium, partially cover, and cook for 30 minutes.
3. Add the rest of the ingredients (except the spinach), and simmer the pork for another 2 1/2 to 3 hours. The rind and the fat should be very soft when it’s done.
4. Remove the pork from the liquid and keep it warm. Strain the sauce into a large skillet and reduce it over high heat. This may take a while, depending on how much liquid you end up with.
5. Meanwhile, steam the spinach until just wilted, salt it lightly, and keep it warm. When the sauce is reduced (it should be the consistency of a thick syrup), put the pork shoulder in the center of a large platter, arrange the spinach around it, and pour the sauce over.

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And lastly, dumplings. Chinese New Year’s is incomplete without dumplings. Dumplings represent wealth, because they look a lot like the little gold bullion of ancient Chinese history. Potstickers are just pan-fried versions of dumplings. The pleated design characteristic of potstickers not only make the potstickers pretty, but it serves a function as well. The process of pleating the wrapper creates a flatter bottom to the dumpling, which allows for the dumpling to stand on its own and a better surface for pan-frying. As a note, though, nothing beats home-made wrappers, in both texture and wrapping ease. If only I had the time…

Vegetarian Potstickers
4 cups mung bean threads (also called cellophane noodles), softened in water and chopped roughly
10 oz. baked bean curd (available at Asian markets in the refrigerated section), diced into tiny cubes
16 shiitake mushrooms, rehydrated and chopped
2 large clove garlic, minced
2 cups Chinese chives, chopped
6 tsp soy sauce
3 tsp sesame oil
about 100 wrappers, packaged or home-made (round wrappers)

1. Heat 2 tsp of oil in a large pan/pot or wok. Cook garlic, then add remaining ingredients and stir well to combine. Cook for 3 minutes. Adjust seasonings as needed.
2. Using a teaspoon, drop a small portion of filling into the center of a wrapper. Fold and pleat to encase. For ready-made wrappers, you must wet the edges by dabbing with water (I keep a bowl of water nearby and use my fingers to dab). Continue until you’ve used up all the filling.
3. Heat 1 tbsp of oil in a skillet on medium heat. Arrange the dumplings in the pan and cook until the bottoms are nicely browned.
4. Add 1/3 cup of water to the pan. Cover and cook on medium-low heat for five minutes.
5. Remove cover. If there’s still liquid in the pan, continue cooking uncovered until the liquid evaporates.
6. Using a spatula, loosen potstickers from the pan. Transfer to a plate by inverting plate on top of pan, and then flipping the pan/plate over.

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Who doesn’t like Cherry Garcia? Not that I’ve taken a formal survey or anything, but it seems like everyone I know champions Cherry Garcia as their favorite Ben & Jerry’s flavor. There’s just something about cherry ice cream; for my mom, black cherry was second only to vanilla. Her penchant for black cherry ice cream rubbed off on me early on, and i also came to appreciate the flavor which was unlike any other, the purplish-pink hue, and the “black” cherries pebbled throughout. ” This eventually led to my fondness for Cherry Garcia, though it is cherry ice cream made more sophisticated with the addition of chocolate chunks, and is not as artificially flavored as the ice cream of my childhood.

With that, I present to you the not so gratefully dead Cherry Garcia cupcake. But not as originally planned (chocolate cake with cherry buttercream). It was chocolates-in-heart-shaped-boxes day, for goodness’ sake. I had to make it extra special — to express my love for everyone, if you will. :P So I made the chocolate cake more dense by adding melted chocolate (although in the end I learned that this compromised the cake’s moistness) and planted a cherry truffle inside.

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Dense Chocolate Cupcake
24 cupcakes / 350 degree oven

2 cups flour
1-1/2 cups sugar
1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
4 oz bittersweet chocolate, melted
1-1/2 tsp baking soda
1 cup buttermilk
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter
2 tsp vanilla
2 eggs

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

1. Measure out everything but the eggs and melted chocolate directly into your mixer bowl.
2. Mix on low speed just until incorporated.
3. Beat on high speed for 2 minutes.
4. Add eggs, beat on high speed again for 2 minutes.
5. Add melted chocolate and beat to mix.

Fill lined cupcake tins 3/4 full. Bake for about 20-22 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean. Let cool slightly in the pan then transfer to a rack to cool.

Chocolate Cherry Truffles
(adapted from a truffle recipe by Ina Garten, with some changes)

1/4 pound bittersweet chocolate (I used Trader Joe’s 72% cacao)
1/4 pound semi-sweet chocolate (Ghirardelli semi-sweet chocolate chips)
1/2 cup heavy cream
1 tbsp brewed coffee
1/4 tsp cayenne pepper (the flavor didn’t come out as much as I had hoped for)
1/4 tsp vanilla extract
24 dark sweet cherries (canned, in heavy syrup)

First, drain the cherries and allow them to dry on a couple sheets of paper towel on top of a shallow tray. Replace the sheets if necessary.

Chop the chocolate into small pieces and place in a heat-proof mixing bowl. Heat the cream in a small saucepan until it just boils. Turn off the heat and allow the cream to sit for 20 seconds. Pour the cream through a fine-meshed sieve into the bowl with chocolate. With a wire whisk, slowly stir the cream and chocolates together until the chocolate is completely melted. Let the chocolate partially set at room temperature for about 20 minutes. When the chocolate is somewhere in-between liquid and solid phases, use your fingers to dip the cherries into the chocolate one by one. Coat cherries by rolling them in the ganache a few times. Allow chocolate cherry truffles to set at room temperature for at least one hour, or if you want to speed things up, stick them in the freezer for about 20 minutes. If you want a thicker chocolate coating, make more ganache and repeat the dipping process with already solidified truffles.

Dark Cherry Buttercream

1 stick butter
3-1/2 cups confectioner’s sugar
~2 tsp milk
cherry reduction (8 dark sweet frozen cherries, thawed and each torn to several pieces, plus 1/4 cup of the excess cherry juice. Cook on high heat, with the addition of juice from half of a lemon, until the liquid has evaporated significantly and you’re left with a thick cherry syrup with cherry bits.)

1. Beat butter on high for about 30 seconds until soft.
2. Add 3 cups sugar and beat until incorporated
3. Add the milk and the remainder of sugar and beat until incorporated.
4. Add cherry reduction and mix.

Assembly

Hollow out the tops of the cupcakes with a knife; make each hole wide and deep enough to fit one chocolate cherry truffle (you can always press down on the insides of the cupcake, too, to help with the size adjustments). Keep the tops for snacking purposes only. Insert truffles into cupcakes, pipe on cherry buttercream, and sprinkle each cupcake with bits of chopped bittersweet chocolate.

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Call me deprived. Up until only a few weeks ago, I had never TRULY experienced THE Banana Cream Pie. Leena’s Banana Cream Pie. Sure, I knew that Leena’s cafe, a quaint mom-and-pop diner located in Shoreline (a city north of Seattle), was the perfect place to go for a hearty egg and pancake breakfast, but I never sought to validate the rumor that Leena’s also served the best banana cream pie. The story is that Leena’s prepares only one of these pies a day, so actually getting your hands on a slice would be like stumbling upon a goldmine. Fortunately, I have friends who struck it rich and allowed me to partake in their bounty. (a whole pie!) And believe me, I savored each and every bite…of my slice, that is. A crisp shortening-based crust topped with a layer of fresh bananas, and a firm but silky vanilla pudding accented with a hint of banana. And all of this goodness tucked underneath a pillow of sweet, whipped cream — light and airy, yet stiff enough to be adorned with decorative peaks.

I wasn’t looking to recreate this pie in cupcake form, but I thought it would be fun to make a cupcake that contained all the components of a banana cream pie. Given the number of steps involved in the recipe, these have to be the most “complex” cupcakes that I’ve made thus far. Given the end results, however, (insert mental images of people cramming cupcakes into their mouths, discovering their surprise banana and pudding-filled centers, and licking off their meringue moustaches) I would not hesitate to make them again…and again…and again.

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Banana Cupcakes
24 regular cupcakes / 350 degree oven

1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
1-1/2 cups sugar
NO eggs (I forgot to include them!)*
2-1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup buttermilk
3/4 cup mashed bananas
1. Beat butter on high until soft, about 30 seconds.
2. Add sugar. Beat on medium-high until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes.
3. Whisk together flour, baking powder, and baking soda in a bowl.
4. Add about a fourth of the flour to the butter/sugar mixture and beat to combine.
5. Add about one third of the buttermilk and beat to combine.
6. Repeat above, alternating flour and buttermilk and ending with the flour mixture.
7. Add mashed bananas and beat until well combined.
8. Scoop into cupcake papers about two-thirds full.
9. Bake for 22-25 minutes or until a cake tester comes out clean.

*I was wondering why the batter turned out so thick, because it’s usually light and fluffy. It was only after the cupcakes came out of the oven (they didn’t rise as much and their tops looked crunchy) that I realized that I didn’t add any eggs to the batter. Fearing the worst, hockey puck-banana bread, I dug into one of them to taste the cake, only to find that it was perfectly moist and cake-like. I imagine that having the bananas in the batter, in addition to the buttermilk, contributed to the moistness and the “binding” of the cake. Who knew that you don’t need any eggs at all to make a good cake? Or that I’m actually half-vegan?

Vanilla pudding

2 cups milk
1/3 cup sugar
2 egg yolks
2 tbsp cornstarch
1/8 tsp salt
1 tbsp butter
1 tsp vanilla

In a mixing bowl, briefly beat the egg yolks. Add milk and beat to combine. Bring mixture to a simmer over medium/low heat, stirring all the while. Add sugar, cornstarch, and salt, and continue to stir (to prevent pudding from curdling). Turn heat to low and mix in the butter and vanilla. Remove pudding from heat when desired thickness is achieved. Allow pudding to cool with a piece of saran wrap secured directly on its surface.

Meringue

8 egg whites
1/2 tsp cream of tartar
1/2 cup sugar
1 tsp vanilla

Beat egg whites on high speed until soft peaks form. Add sugar, cream of tartar, and vanilla, and beat on high speed until meringue is stiff enough to hold its own structure.

Assembly

Hollow out each cupcake by taking a serrated knife to it: angling the knife toward the center of the cupcake, cut out the tops of each cupcake. (If you find it difficult to gauge the depth of the holes, you can always shave the insides afterwards). Fill each hollowed cupcake with vanilla pudding, and top with a slice of fresh banana. (I was going to give the cupcakes their tops back, but thought it would be so much nicer to be able to bite into the banana slice and vanilla pudding with ease.) Spoon on the meringue and create peaks using quick “jab” and “pull” motions with the tip of the spoon.

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