Friday, October 14, 2011

Moo Shuing the Pork

The October Daring Cooks' Challenge was hosted by Shelley of C Mom Cook and her sister, Ruth, of The Crafts of Mommyhood. They challenged us to bring
a taste of the East into our home kitchens by making our own Moo Shu, including thin pancakes, stir fry and sauce.

I make moo shu pork regularly because I really like the flavors in the stir fry along with the hoisin sauce. I usually buy wontons rather than make them myself, but decided to get with the spirit of the challenge and roll out my own pancakes.

The dough is pretty straightforward: flour and boiling water plus a little oil. After the dough rests for a while, it is rolled out into pancakes about 6-8" which are cooked in a frying pan until brown spots appear.

Dough while it rests.

After 30 minutes of resting, the dough is kneaded until smooth and then divided and rolled into sausage shapes. The "sausage" is cut into equal pieces, which are rolled into a ball and then flattened and rolled into 6-8" thin circles.

The pancakes are fried until brown spots appear and then set aside and kept covered until needed.

Kneaded dough, ready for shaping.    
Cut and ready to roll!

The stir fry is pork (I used tenderloin), shredded Napa cabbage, scallions, mushrooms (I used fresh because I found some lovely chanterelles in the market to mix with the other fresh mushrooms), egg and bamboo shoots, mixed with soy, a little sesame oil and rice wine. I left the bamboo shoots out - not a fan - but used the other ingredients. The stir fry takes only minutes, which is why it is important to do the more labor-intensive pancakes first.
Stirring the fry
Pancakes, sauce and stir-fry pork and veggies

The one part of this challenge I was not able to complete was the hoisin sauce. Bob cannot eat peanuts, so the peanut butter base was out. I had no black bean paste, so I used the hoisin I had in the pantry. It looks as if, with the proper ingredients, the sauce would be pretty easy to pull together. Maybe next time.

We finished nearly everything and, of course, the stir fry can be eaten alone or thrown into an omelet or on top of rice, so leftovers are welcome. This was a pretty tasty challenge!

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Stock Tales and a Cheesy Ending

Peta, of the blog Peta Eats, was our lovely hostess for the Daring Cook's September 2011 challenge, "Stock to Soup to Consomme'." We were taught the meaning among the three dishes, how make a crystal clear consomme' if we so chose to do so, and encouraged to share our own delicious soup recipes!

I was challenged - by time, by decisions about what to make, by not understanding what was required by the challenge (despite repeated readings), and by ending up missing a requirement. Other than that, everything went really well.

Making chicken stock is something I do regularly, although not often enough. I love the rich chicken flavor from homemade stock, something that simply is not available from commercial products. I do use boxed chicken stock sometimes because I don't always have homemade - I make a lot of soup! I find the brands which limit the ingredients to real food rather than a myriad of chemicals taste okay. Not as good as homemade, but still usable, especially if the soup has lots of other flavors.

I have used a variety of techniques in making stock: buying wings, backs, necks and using those; using the bones from roasted chicken if I have enough; using a whole chicken, removing the meat when it is done and returning the bones to the pot. They take varying amounts of time, but they all work. It can be a long process if you really want to reduce the stock to intensify the flavor. The stock I used for this challenge was one made from a whole bird.

Chicken stock made from whole chicken. 

The soup I chose was a cheese soup. Many cheese soups are very thick and I sometimes feel as if I'm eating fondue with a spoon - not that there is anything wrong with that! Normally, however, I want a soup that has texture but is not so thick it is almost hard to get out of the bowl. This soup is perfect in that respect. It is rich, but has a thinner soup texture.
The basic ingredients
All the veggies diced. The potatoes were cut in larger pieces.

The ingredients are pretty straightforward: mirepoix, russet potato, cheese, chicken stock, milk, Tabasco, and Worcestershire. The carrots, onion and celery are sauteed in unsalted butter. Flour is added and cooked for a couple minutes before adding the stock one cup at a time. The potato is added - I keep the pieces a bit big so the potato doesn't dissolve in the soup - and then the soup is simmered until the potato has softened. At this stage, you can puree the soup for a smooth texture; however, I never do because I prefer having the veggies identifiable and a little crunchy. At the end, when the potatoes are done, the milk, grated white cheddar, and seasonings are added and stirred until the cheese is melted - it doesn't take long. If I had been organized, I would have supplemented the soup with some kind of crusty bread or rolls, but life sometimes gets in the way.

The finished product!
And then there was this little distraction, as if my wandering mind wasn't enough.

The sunset while I was preparing the soup.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Time for a Rant

No pictures, no challenge - just me berating myself for making a mistake I should know not to make.

There are blogs galore with original recipes or at least, recipes that have been tweaked in some way so the blogger can claim they are original. Some of these are tremendous and I have had a lot of success with many. Usually, if the author is someone with some credibility - a lot of experience, some time in the public eye, maybe restaurant experience or a cookbook under her/his belt - you can assume that the recipes have been checked, double-checked and tested thoroughly. Sites like Food52 are an excellent example of this.

HOWEVER, there are also some sites where people contribute their "original" recipes and fail to read what they have written or modified to see if it makes sense. I once reviewed a cookbook written by a small restaurant owner which was really a lesson in how not to write a cookbook. Instructions which made no sense, ingredients listed in apparently random order, rather than in the order in which they are used, references to optional steps which don't show up until well past the "optional" time... . It goes on and on.

Tonight I made a version of General Tso's chicken. Now, I have lots of Asian cookbooks, so why I relied on an amateur recipe, I don't know. The picture looked good and the ingredients looked appropriate. It was only as I really started preparing it that I realized all the things that were missing.

For example: "Prep your chicken" - That's it. Prep it how? Cut it in a specific way or to a specific size? Not mentioned. So I assumed (which you should never have to do) that it meant cutting the boneless, skinless pieces into even bite-sized portions.

"Stir together until a thick slurry forms. It will look gummy but smooth." I do not think trying to make a thick slurry with over 1/4 cup corn starch and 1 tablespoon soy and 1 tsp sesame oil and an egg white would ever work. I ended up with something more like a ball of clay than a slurry (maybe our definition of slurry isn't the same?). I added about another tablespoon of liquid and then I had a slurry with which I could coat my chicken.

"Heat oil until it shimmers." I hate this! What is the optimal temp? Why not use a thermometer to monitor when the correct heat is reached? Oh, and don't use canola oil for high temp cooking - it tastes funky. Peanut oil is excellent and corn oil works.

"Cook chicken for 4 minutes." Well, if we knew what size the chicken pieces were supposed to be and what temp the oil was supposed to be, perhaps this would be helpful.

"Transfer chicken to paper towel lined plate." One plate? So we are putting just cooked chicken on top of earlier batches once the plate is full? Really?

"Stir into sauce." I forgot to mention the sauce. This is General Tso's chicken, right? Hot and spicy? So why would you add only 1 teaspoon of chili-garlic sauce, the only source of heat, to a mixture of over a cup of liquid? That will not register with anyone's taste buds. I know not everyone wants tons of heat (I do), but why not write a range - 1 tsp for mildly spicy and upwards for more? I added probably at least a tablespoon.

Now - having said all this, Bob still liked the chicken but he pretty much likes anything with lots of heat. And the chicken was fine, although it was totally flavorless until the sauce was added. I think it should have been salted and peppered before "slurried" to be sure there was some flavor.

Will I make this again? Maybe some variation of it. It made a mess, of course, with the frying (even using a spatter guard) and the cornstarch (which always ends up all over the place. Lots of bowls and utensils which could have probably been streamlined.

So once again, I promise myself to do the recipe analysis BEFORE I start cooking and figure out if correcting the errors is worth the effort.

Stay tuned for this month's Daring Cook, to be posted on September 14, assuming I get it done!

Sunday, August 14, 2011

A Return to Daring Cooks with Appam and Prawn Curry

I'm finally cooking again after a several month hiatus. We put our house on the market the end of February and I had to limit what I did in the kitchen so when the prospective buyers wanted to see the house with 15 minutes notice (it happened!), I wasn't in the middle of a project. So I suspended my Daring Cook efforts and, of course, missed out on lots of yummy projects.

Fortunately, the house sold in a couple months (yea!) and we found a new house right away. Still couldn't cook because we had to pack and organize closing dates and loans and all the rest. And then we moved in and I had to unpack and organize and bring some order to chaos (movers have very unusual ideas about what to pack together). That took much longer than expected, but now, just over 2 months after we walked through the door, I'm ready to cook again.

Mary, who write the delicious bog, Mary Mary Culinary, was our August Daring Cooks' host. Mary chose to show us how delicious South Indian cuisine is! She challenged us to make Appam and another South Indian/Sri Lankan dish to go with the warm flat bread.

The required recipe was for appam, a rice-based flat bread. Appam is quite a process - not difficult (although I did not have perfect results) but quite time-consuming. First the rice soaks for 3 hours. Then the rice is drained and put in a blender with proofed yeast and a small amount of cooked rice. This is blended until it is a batter and placed in a bowl, covered, and left to rise and ferment for 8-12 hours. Finally, coconut milk is added to the batter and it is fried in a crepe-like manner. Other than the coconut milk, there is not a lot of flavor in these flat breads, which makes them ideal for sopping up the curry sauce from the main course.

The appam batter
There were problems. The time involved in allowing everything to soak and proof for the allotted time meant the project had to be spread over a few days. I'm not sure if the refrigerator time affected the outcome, but it could have. I also think I didn't adequately blend the rice - it looked as if it had been thoroughly pulverized but when I actually made the flat bread, it seemed kind of crunchy and textured. The batter should probably have been thinned periodically as I used it, because the batter at the bottom of the bowl was way too thick and I had to add some water to thin it out.

Mise en place for prawn curry

Making the curry
The prawn curry, on the other hand, was really good. I couldn't use the recipe provided because I couldn't find curry leaves in any form - fresh, frozen or dried. Curry leaves are not the same flavor as curry powders and I could have used an alternative such as kaffir lime leaves, but I ended up creating my own curry base using onions, garlic, ginger, madras curry powder, black pepper and red pepper flakes, plus coconut milk. It turned out really tasty - probably in no way authentic, but quite good to eat.
Prawns cooking in curry sauce

The appam served their purpose in scooping up the sauce and the prawns were succulent and not overcooked. The recipe which was provided suggested cooking the prawns until they were done and then adding more coconut milk and bringing it to a boil. It makes no sense to me to cook a protein to "doneness" and then boil it 5 more minutes, so I added the final coconut milk before the prawns were done. That worked splendidly.

A plate full of goodness!
 It was great to stretch myself a bit. Everything was supposed to be served "immediately" but no way that could happen, so I made the curry, kept it warm and then served it along with a couple appam to Bob while I went back and made more for myself. It wasn't immediate, but it was still a good temperature and Bob lets everything cool to room temperature anyway. (Note: This is a pet peeve of mine - I want hot food hot and cold food cold. Watching someone let good, hot food cool off makes me NUTS!!)

Now I can't wait to see what September brings!

Thursday, April 14, 2011

One Bite Munchies, Container and All

Renata of Testado, Provado & Aprovado! was our Daring Cooks' April 2011 hostes. Renata challenged us to think "outside the plate" and create our own edible containers! Prizes are being awarded to the most creative edible container and filling, so vote on your favorite from April 17th to May 16th at!

It is so wonderful to be posting something after all this time! Our house is for sale, so I have to limit my cooking to quick and easy. If I get a call saying someone wants to see the house in 30 minutes, I cannot be in the middle of prepping an elaborate meal or baking some complicated bread or dessert. Meals have been old standbys that I can pull together quickly and without a lot of mess.

This challenge was very quick, so fit into my "don't make a big mess" criterion very well. I decided to use kataifi, which is shredded phyllo dough, to make little appetizer nests. The kataifi is prepped in a way similar to phyllo sheets: use some melted butter or oil to lightly coat, keep unused portions covered so they don't dry out, and cook until golden. I formed the shreds into little nests which I placed in mini-muffin tins. I baked them for about 10 minutes and when they were cool, I filled them with a variety of toppings.

Right out of the oven
The forming and baking took no more than 15-20 minutes. I had lots of phyllo left over but it can be refrigerated or refrozen, so I can try other fillings another time.

One bite treats!

I filled the little nests with salmon mousse, hummus with a Kalamata olive garnish and mini-caprese salads - mozzarella, tomato and basil. They were so good, all of them, but I liked the salad and mousse the best. They truly were one bite - we just popped the crispy (and somewhat fragile) bites in and savored them.

I loved this challenge because it is something I might not have thought of or tried on my own and it is also something I will use again. Twenty minutes is not much time to invest in creating a dozen appetizers and since the phyllo can be held for a while, you could easily make larger quantities and just fill them at the last minute. I thought of many other bites that might be good: mini-bastillas, mini-eggs benedict (quail eggs would work for that, if I could get them!), guacamole, even chicken or shrimp salad. What fun to try them all!

Monday, February 14, 2011

Feeling a Little Noodle-y and Crunchy

The February 2011 Daring Cooks' challenge was hosted by Lisa of Blueberry Girl. She challenged Daring Cooks to make Hiyashi soba and tempura. She has various sources for her challenge including,, and

Two dishes! Both new to me, although I've certainly made noodles and fried things before. To say I was challenged is an understatement. I did do the noodles early, since they are served cold, but the tempura had to wait for Bob's arrival so it would be fresh and hot. And in a lot of ways, this challenge was just what Daring Cooks expect - lots of room for variations and some technique changes.

The directions for cooking the soba seemed a little odd to me, so after reading other posts on the Daring Cook site, I decided to ignore them and just follow the directions on the noodle package. Unlike many people who found their noodles congealing into a gooey mass, my noodles were just the right texture and stayed totally separate. One for me.

Soba noodles with veggies and sauce

There are many options for sauces and condiments for this cold noodle salad. I chose the spicy sauce (although perhaps "spicy" is a relative term, since this sauce did not seem all that spicy). If I were to do a spicy sauce of my own creation, I would add ginger, red pepper flakes and other flavors to heighten the heat. The little bit of dry mustard didn't really reach the level of spicy I like. For condiments, I used bok choy, daikon, and red radishes. I could have added chicken or ham or strips of omelet, but with the tempura on the menu, it didn't seem necessary. The cold noodle salad was fine, but not as flavorful as I would have chosen.

The tempura was another case of changing the process. I made the tempura batter as described, I prepared the veggies as described (including parboiling the sweet potatoes using Kenji's (Serious Eats Food Lab writer) method of adding a little vinegar to the water), and I kept all cold until the oil was ready. The time involved in heating oil is always more lengthy that I expect and requires a lot of attention to be sure the right temp is reached but not exceeded by too much (remembering that adding the food will bring the temp down).

The recipe said to use 320 degree oil for the veggies and 340 for the prawns. I thought that sounded way too low for the veggies, so again, drawing on the expertise of Kenji, I used his recommended temp for making potato chips and heated the oil to 350. The recipe had little information on how long various veggies would take to cook, so it was a bit of a guessing game. I think everything turned out pretty well - the sweet potatoes were awesome - but a little more guidance would have helped. And the prawns were supposed to cook at 340, but 360 worked better, so that's what I did. Again, a little shortage of instruction on how to determine doneness, but I tried to estimate and it seemed to work - all the prawns were devoured.

Prawn, sweet potato, carrot and mushroom tempura
I love tempura, but I think I would do a little more exploring of other recipes before tackling this again. It was messy (as is virtually any deep-frying on the stove), time-consuming, and the result, while largely good, was not spectacular. I think the batter for the tempura would be one thing to explore. I know some batters use seltzer or club soda - this one used baking powder. Be interesting to see the difference.

And honestly, by the time I was done cooking for the pictures and my husband, I was not too interested in going on. Maybe sort of like Thanksgiving: Spend a week getting ready and the actual meal seems far less appealing.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Cooking from the Pantry

I read a challenge somewhere - can't remember - to cook from your pantry for a week.  Since I was going through post-holiday doldrums and cooking overload, this sounded pretty appealing to me.  No grocery shopping, just use what you have.

Usually about once a week - often on Mondays - I make lentil soup or some other dish that can be constructed from ingredients I always have on hand.  The lentil soup recipe is basic - lentils, canned tomatoes, carrots, onions, couple dried herbs and stock.  If there is a melty cheese in the house, that is the garnish.  Simple, tasty, and especially appealing in the winter.  But a whole week of pantry cooking?  Could I do that?

Well, yes I could when motivated by a distinct aversion to going grocery shopping or doing anything labor-intensive.  It would mean a largely meatless week because I rarely have frozen meat in the house, but nothing wrong with that! 

We had ham and beans and dumplings one night, made with the ham bone I had saved from the holiday ham (see for Winter Solstice Ham).  I soaked the white beans overnight and cooked them with the ham bone, some scraps of ham, onion, and carrot.  The dumplings were the shortcut version - I just used Bisquick (I know, I know, but it's fast and easy).

Other nights we had black beans, brown rice, salsa and cheddar casserole; veggie omelets; black bean enchiladas.  I have lots of Rancho Gordo beans, which are incredible - fresh and interesting varieties - so beans are always an option.  And I read that cooking beans with salt makes them much more tender.  I tried it and I agree, although there are two camps in this debate - some are completely opposed to salting the water.  Passions run high in cooking!

Now I'm back to my regular "plan the week's menus, make the grocery list and shop" routine, which works well most of the time.  But every once in a while, a meat-light week using what you have on hand is a great way to make room for even more good stuff in the pantry!